Psychic Phenomena

I am going to make some statements in this post that are going to shock most of my readership, but I expect that you’ll consider me sensible if you read it the rest of the way through. I believe that psychic phenomena are real. However, I do not believe that they are physical manifestations of any sort- they are purely in the minds of the people who “experience” them. It is important to note, however, that no other criterion is required to determine if these phenomena are real or not. Let’s say that someone believes they communicate with ghosts- they have what might be called visions and might be called visceral hallucinations. My question is, is there really a difference between these two phenomena or is it simply a matter of connotation of the words used to describe them? True, there is no “ghost” existing in objective reality, this much is obvious. However does it necessarily follow that hallucinations of this type indicate insanity?

Consider the emotions felt by normal, healthy people. An emotional reaction is a complex sequence of chemicals and neural firings to produce a sensation or a reaction, and the mechanisms used are significantly different from other systems in the brain such as those used for memory, spatial or linguistic manipulation, reasoning, and others. They are of course intimately linked because they’re all in the same brain. Consider the fact that there exist drugs that can be administered to produce a “religious experience” which is essentially a complex of emotions, sensations and thoughts that is more complicated but not fundamentally different from more primitive emotions like contentedness. Does this mean that religious experiences don’t exist? Of course not. Indeed I would say this is conclusive proof that religious experiences are a fact. Whether a religious experience means what most users of the idea think it does is a separate question entirely. The hardcore religious who passionately believe their religion because of a personal religious experience, perhaps of connecting with their god or something along those lines, are justified in their sensation, but fatally in error about what that sensation means. Their religion has told them that if certain protocols are followed, a certain religious euphoria will follow, and provided a very intricate framework of religious scripture and ideology which backs this up. When someone experiments in the religion, they might truly surrender to the experience or do whatever else is required and then when they get exactly the reaction promised to them, they take it as visceral emotional proof that everything else that they were told must be true as well. This is, when phrased this way in words, fairly obvious, but it’s actually a very easy mistake to make, even for the highly rational. There is a specific emotion that most people don’t name expressly which I call the “convincement” feeling. It’s that feeling you get when you read or hear something and become convinced by it. This can powerfully bias your view on the matter that convinced you, the author or speaker, and also your future thought on the subject. Indeed, I am actually in quite serious doubt over whether a significant body of my reasoning has been tainted by this “convincedness” on the subject of anarcho-capitalism, among other areas. It happens to me all the time reading articles on the internet but I’m well accustomed to dealing with such things- it just requires fact checking and appropriate degree of due process. The reason the “I’m convinced” feeling is so tricky is because it is the tool you use to gauge whether or not you actually are convinced. In the vast majority of situations, it’s an incredibly useful tool. However, when squared off against an act which is carefully designed to fire off that convinced feeling and thereby sway your reasoning, extra care must be taken. There should be a fancy Latin name for this fallacy, like “argumentum ad convincem” or something. Latin being a dead language, though, coining new Latin phrases is something of a pointless exercise. The point I want to communicate is that just because a reaction only exists in one person’s perceptions, that doesn’t make it non-real, only non-objective. What types of dreams someone has, what ghosts or voices they hear might be very useful for psychoanalyzing that person.

Instead of turning this on religious phenomena only, I want to discuss a broad range of paranormal issues. Those that are obviously nonexistent in reality, and are products of mere superstition, are relatively easy to pick on and done by many other thinkers to great effect. I propose a new category of paranormal phenomena that are real, but only because people experience them, and the fact that they are experienced is the totality of their existence. Psychokinesis is obviously impossible, but is telepathy possible by building on intuition and body language? Mind-to-mind communication is also obviously impossible, but consider the fact that you can look at someone’s face and identify their emotional state. To what degree is that communication, and to what degree is that divination of information that lies in the other person’s mind? A polygraph is a technological attempt to “mind read” using subtle cues. Is it feasible that one person might understand enough of someone else’s thoughts and mannerisms to deduce what they are thinking? To one degree this is a trivial question, people have been guessing what others have been thinking since time immemorial. My question is how much information is actually available, being broadcast continuously by each of us, and available for sufficiently observant people to effectively read our minds. Consider that poker players, especially very good ones, can often deduce exactly what hand the other player is holding. They aren’t using some sort of pineal gland to probe the other person’s brain- they’re studying the other person’s face and behavior, as well as the strategies that they choose to play, and have played in the past. Is this obvious, or is this telepathy? My argument is that the distinction between “duh” and telepathy is meaningless. The fact that it is easy for us to figure out what other people are thinking to some degree proves that “telepathic” phenomena are real, it’s just that it’s, well, normal. The reason why the idea of “super-telepathy” which allows complete observance of another person’s mind persists so strongly in culture is because it’s easy for us to extrapolate the abilities we have to their logical extremes. We can easily conceive of super-strong, super-intelligent, or super-anything people, and indeed all of these caricatures persist in culture as well. These characteristics are treated differently because less subtle human abilities are much easier to verify. If there was a super-strong human, we could just say “lift that bus.” A super-intelligent human should be able to perform similar feats, but of a mental nature. A flying (extrapolation of walking- additional freedom of motion into the 3rd terran dimension) human could just lift off. Abilities like telepathy are difficult to prove or disprove, and so someone could posit “hey, I can mind-read” and get some attention out of it. People like Uri Geller who claim to bend spoons have a carefully constructed magic trick to accompany their act, which in a way acts like the religious experience. Because he claims to bend spoons, and does so on film, therefore everything else he says about telepathy and such must be true as well. Fallacious on exactly the same grounds, but convincing to many.

Clairvoyance and precognition fall into exactly the same mold as telepathy. They can be treated in more or less exactly the same way. These are faculties that all humans have- the ability to deduce what is happening at a different location in space or time, respectively. When someone tells you that twenty minutes ago the lights were out, you can picture in your mind the room in exactly the same state, or with whatever other alterations are supplied to you or fabricated to order by your mind, with the lights off. This isn’t some superhuman power, although the ability to do it with impeccable accuracy is certainly superhuman. The fact that you can conceive of what winter in Russia might be like, even if you’ve never been there, is proof of the power of so-called “clairvoyance” although its accuracy is highly questionable, and you naturally treat it with the appropriate level of confidence (virtually zero). Truth be told, there are actually very few “new” superpowers being coined in a cultural sense, and all superpowers as we know them stem from some natural faculty, trait, or principle carried to a logical, or illogical, extreme. Even very weird powers such as being half-man half-something are formed in the same way by combining concepts of man and something else, usually an animal. The adventures of man-onion don’t sound particularly entertaining because the suite of powers available to an onion are hilarious but boring, and those available to a man, while tremendous, are common to everyone and are dismissed as merely normal.

Now on to UFO encounters. First off, I am quite possibly the most convinced human being on the planet about the existence of extraterrestrials. The Drake Equation is a tough argument to beat. However, the reason why the Drake Equation is so powerful is because space is BIG. As a result, the odds that the aliens are anywhere within a million light years of earth is… extremely small, let’s just leave it at that. Also, the odds are dramatically in favor of alien sea sponges as opposed to interstellar civilizations (and finding sea sponges, or even xenophilic bacteria would be badass). Even in the event that they developed some form of faster-than-light or warp travel, why would aliens have any interest in a society as primitive as ours, relative to their own? Human civilization is at a sub Class-I state. We haven’t even gained control over the energy of our home planet yet, much less our home system. A civilization with both the capability and the need to build an interstellar drive would dramatically outstrip our own in terms of size, population, resources available, culture, etc. etc. Plus, such a society would necessarily have evolved a very intricate social form as well, in a similar way that human societies have evolved modern governments and social conventions to better preserve human life, well-being, property, industry, self-esteem, etc. Iain Banks’ Culture novels present an amazingly accurate view of the type of interactions interstellar civilizations might have (I’ve only read The Player of Games, but it was awesome on so many levels). Such a society “studying” us would be somewhat like humans studying an ant colony. There are plenty of methods by which they would never need interfere in any detectable way, and there are a plethora of methods by which they just step in full-force and there’s not a bloody thing the ants can do about it. Anyway, enough of my geek-out analysis of why the picture painted by UFO fanatics is absurd. The ultimate proof is that there has been no objective verification of claims made on objective reality- namely, the detection of UFO’s. This isn’t strictly true because UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object, and there have been many, many incidences of objects detected on radar which could not be identified, perhaps by refusal to transmit or lack of IFF or digital uplink technologies. Enemy planes aren’t going to identify themselves, perhaps buying a few seconds before the interceptors are scrambled to engage them. Proposing the existence of aliens in flying saucers is completely apart from the UFO case, even though for some reason they have become synonymous. Show me a crashed UFO, wreckage of a self-destructed one, conclusive photos, or a depth of proof sufficient to confirm the existence of a new species of monkey, and I’ll believe you.

Now, faith healing is an issue I have a very hard time with because the weird thing is that it works. Of course, placebos also work, and it is quite obviously the same principle at work in both faith healing and placebos. Considering that sugar pills are cheaper than real drugs I can imagine a great value to being able to identify where a placebo is sufficient, and where real medication is required. Now, sugar pills are dirt cheap so whether faith healing is cheaper is doubtful. However faith healing does obviate the medical issue with giving out dud medicine. In order for the placebo to work, it is necessary that the patient not be aware that it is a placebo, and this type of treatment is totally unworkable for a reasonably managed medical establishment. One case of prescribing a placebo and having it fail will draw malpractice flak like a giant kite carrying a metal box and trailing a NUKE sign in enemy airspace. A doctor could refer a patient to a faith healer and avoid this type of legal insanity because the faith healer is a separate agent who a pissed off patient could sue independent of the original doctor. Using faith healers as a litigation scarecrow is actually quite an elegant solution to both the overly litiginous medical establishment and also puts people’s ridiculous beliefs to good use, quite neatly killing two birds with one stone. Interesting saying because I would be quite content to kill one bird with one stone- it’s just a rock after all, and reusable at that, but I digress. Faith healing is sticky because while it is totally bogus, it actually does work, and verifiably so. I am amazed at the amount of garbage they can churn out, take a look at homeopathy- it’s just water. Nevertheless people swear by it, citing some assumption about a new property of water which is totally unsupported by chemistry. Damn good thing too, because the water that’s in your body has probably been in contact with all kinds of stuff, and I find it rather comforting that water is just water, no complications- it’s just H2O regardless of history.

There are a lot of gullible people out there. They’re gullible because they want to believe in something, or there’s an engine of social acceptance or consistency behind the choice to “believe” which drives them into accepting irrational precepts without looking at them too closely. This is the secret of getting anyone to believe anything- provide an incentive for them to agree with you that is irrespective of the argument at hand. Then, get them to publicly confirm their belief to someone else, or even just say it aloud, and then a commitment to consistency or self-simplification will push them to actually fully accept and integrate it, a process which when divorced from its rationale is known as cognitive dissonance. Cults use very extreme persuasion and conditioning tactics, and it’s part of the structure of cults to hit each member as hard as their “belief” can handle. To acquire new members, use subtle tricks which appear reasonable. If they accept those, move on to more intensive material. The more extreme and unreasonable the material that they can make that individual confirm to themselves and others, the more deeply ingrained the ideology of the cult becomes, allowing even more extreme material to be put to them. Scientology is remarkable because it has such a rigorous methodology for maximum conversion effectiveness, even going so far as to explicitly call them “levels.” They need to keep their higher-level material secret because if it leaks (as it has) it exposes them as ridiculous frauds spouting utter insanity. If we only knew their outermost material, designed to pull in the unwary using relatively reasonable methods, we might suppose them an acceptable religion. I have a lot to talk about on this subject and I intend to go over it some other time, particularly as it relates to social conditioning by degrees. I bring it up here because psychic phenomena function in the same way. Small topics like palmistry or graphology lead up to more intensive phenomena like full-blown astral phenomena and UFO sightings. Because there is no centralized purveyor of material, there is no controlling agent to make sure that each person receives only material they are ready for, but the sheer volume of information acts like a smokescreen instead. As a result, only people actively searching for a certain subset of information are going to discover a full set of details. The rest of us are left with a stereotypical picture which we recognize as clearly simplified and inaccurate. This means that if at some point we become activated to seek out such phenomena, we can uncover additional information and naturally “refine” our perceptions with the new information, resulting in a new convert to paranormal phenomena. Effectively, you persuade yourself when you are ready to find out. Once again, there is no authority that causes this, there is no conspiracy theory, this just happens. Fiction writers make extensive use of this faculty, particularly science fiction and fantasy writers. They can easily concoct an alternate explanation which is equally fictitious but fulfills the same criteria for “why I used to think that” as the explanation that the true believers of the real-world phenomena ascribe to. For example, a writer about a common myth such as vampires or dragons has a well-known set of properties to address such as blood-drinking or fire-breathing, and these act as an interface that any science fiction or fantasy writer can implement with whatever explanation they like. Myths like this are so powerful because the explanation can be easily adapted with new information or discoveries. Note that the explanation can actually short-circuit the properties of the myth as long as it produces a “common misconception” situation. For example, maybe vampires can go out in the sunlight if the writer desires, but there has to be a reason why everyone thinks they shrivel up in the sun. Writers like Terry Pratchett are so good because they can create a compelling and internally consistent world, and this same principle applies to the real world. People will believe models of the real world that are compelling and internally consistent relative to their own framework. Note that a model can be internally consistent and be fraught with contradiction. A contradiction in such a case is a result of an external inconsistency and can be resolved by placing the model above the actual world, as is commonly done with the Bible. If the real world and the Bible disagree, people so conditioned will side with the Bible because otherwise their world won’t make any sense, which can be why such evangelicals are impossible to convince with reason. They have bitten off so much of the religious conditioning and publicly acknowledged it that they base their identity on it so much they cannot stop. A religion is simply taking the most potent aspects of a collection of stories, myths, phenomena, etc. etc., often based on what phenomena people believed a long time ago, and crafting it into one grand model which can be passed out in pieces the way Scientology does to maximize communicability. The Ten Commandments are an excellent example. Due to the decentralized nature of paranormal beliefs, they aren’t a “real religion,” they’re piecemeal. People who use it as their only belief system are “pagans.” There are no Ten Commandments of UFO sightings because such a centralized and widely agreed-upon document cannot be agreed upon, or even created in the first place.

Creationism and Logic

Watch this creationist if you can handle the stupid.

Quite simply the most disgusting display of the stupid virus I’ve seen in a long, long time.  I’m not going to even attempt to address her because it will degenerate into a litany of how incredibly stupid this woman is, such as how Charles Darwin didn’t use no scientific method, or how the entire world appeared fully formed billions of years ago, and how (irony!) unlikely it is for the world to just pop into existence complete with plants, animals, and people.  I will instead try to present a more rational discussion of the argument between atheism and creationism so that both sides can understand why A) 99.9% of creationists have got the stupid virus.  Some of them have it BAD, like this young lady.  B)  Atheism and evolution are not synonymous, but I would venture to bet that all atheists credit evolution with the status as by far the most probable explanation for the origin of life on earth.  C)  Evolution is not a theory of metaphysics, and D) It is possible to have an argument for God that is not dripping with the stupid virus, but it doesn’t look even remotely like the arguments fielded by creationists and religious people today because, as I said earlier, the vast majority of them are outrightly stupid and proud of it.

Firstly, the video link above doesn’t even make a reasonable attempt to represent any of the arguments it claims to attack.  If there was such a person who created an argument along the lines of the one she is outlining, atheists would line up to take a whack at them.  Perhaps because the argument she outlines looks EXACTLY like the creationist argument, only it occurs much earlier chronologically, and there’s no god.  In order to have a reasonable debate, you first have to understand the argument you are taking a stance against.  The only thing worse than a straw man argument is a straw man argument by someone who honestly doesn’t understand that they’re knocking down a straw man.  Then they proudly look to their authority figures like a child who just built a sandcastle.  That wasn’t an argument, that was you creating an argument that has even fewer legs to stand on than your own, and then proceeding to bash it to bits with crummy logic, however the starting proposition was so ridiculous that the audience doesn’t even need the explanation.  The explanation becomes little more than theatre, as priests and missionaries will understand thoroughly if they’re any good at their jobs.  This is not how scientists think, though.  For scientists, there exists some truth which they can find, and which other scientists can similarly find independently.  As a result, as the number of scientists increases, the reliability of their findings as a community will (hopefully) improve as well.  This of course falls flat if there is not an assumption of universality and of equality of function between humans.  By contrast, if the Pope has a direct line to God and everybody else has to talk up the chain of command, the Pope could theoretically run very different experiments than anyone else could to determine the structure of the universe.

Now on to some more substantive concepts.  Atheism is not the same thing as evolution, not by a long chalk.  Atheism is the belief that there is no god.  I suppose atheism could qualify as a theory considering any tests you run for the existence of god return negative, which count as positive proof for the reciprocal argument, but its label is irrelevant.  Atheism is a theological statement.  Evolution is the theory of biology, not theology or metaphysics.  It is the logical result of three factors: 1) a population with differing properties between its constituents, 2) a method for increasing the quantity of that population which draws upon its current members (in most biologies, sex- sometimes asexual), and 3) a method for altering the properties of the population between generations.  This role is also filled by sex, but mutations also have a marginal effect.  If you accept that those three things exist, then evolution as a theory is already a given.  The Bible itself contains enough evidence for evolution in the bloodlines it describes where one family member inherits properties of another.  That’s it, the chicken’s done.  We have evolution.  Evolution as a broader theory explains the immense diversity of life based on small changes in individual species over large timescales which eventually stack up to create significantly different species.  All this bullshit about how “my granddaddy wasn’t no monkey” is A) wrong because whatever ancestor we both inherit from probably looked very different from modern monkeys, B) wrong because such a creature would be a different species entirely from humans, most likely, meaning in the context of the human species identity we are no longer related, and C) wrong because this basically constitutes a failure to accept obvious proof on the grounds that it might discredit you or your family or be otherwise uncomfortable.  This woman is attacking her straw doppelgangers of evolution and atheism like they are synonymous, which is itself an absurd proposition.  Now, atheists being atheists and failing to accept the assertion that God exists because there’s no evidence for it, are shall we say rather likely to also support the theory of evolution considering the immense amount of evidence backing it.  Moreover, religion will oppose evolution because it is a viable and self-sufficient alternative to religion.  Evolution requires no help from God or some other agent to explain the nature of the world, in a similar way that the Big Bang theory requires no God in order to explain the nature of the cosmos.  In similar fashion, the idea that the earth isn’t the center of the universe is, well, was jarring to the religious because it detracts from the earth’s special status as God’s chosen planet.  Even the most stupid-virus afflicted creationist has gotten the picture on that score, however.  Although perhaps I shouldn’t speak so soon because you can find someone prepared to believe anything these days.  Well, if you don’t believe the earth is round and orbits the sun, you are beyond fucking help pal.  The fact that you can’t actually be packed off to an asylum on “religious” grounds I find highly amusing, though.  But if you try anything really psycho with me or mine, expect to get hurt, badly, because I am far smarter than you.

Evolution’s lack of metaphysical explanation is something most creationists cannot understand.  By creationist ideology, ANY assertion about the world must be metaphysical.  Metaphysics has its place, but in day-to-day affairs, metaphysics really doesn’t do much, usually.  This is one of the reasons why creationism can grab people so powerfully, because any assertion about the world at all will require challenging that person’s most basic presuppositions about the world.  By “going to root” immediately, the amount of work required to even consider the thought of a slightly different world is much greater than for a scientifically-minded individual.  A scientist can easily conceive of one specific piece of errata being wrong, while the entire model as a whole being functional. It is entirely possible for us to be wrong about, or flatly not know exactly how every animal evolved from every ancient creature in all of history, but still accept the theory of evolution. For religion, however, any given single aspect of errata must be correct.  Therefore, challenging that single piece of errata will resolve to a challenge of that person’s metaphysics and most basic ideology.  People have died over whether the bread and water taken at communion is the body of christ, or whether it is, metaphorically, the body of christ.  Because challenging any assertion in a religion constitutes a challenge of the fundamental truth of the religion.  In the case of the people who accept the fundamental truth unconditionally, this means only shaking their most deeply-held roots will convince them of even the smallest thing, and such a shaking will likely be effective at completely changing their entire ideology.  This also serves to help a religion by preserving homogeneity among its believers, which is a powerful tool for social pressure based conversions.  The religions that people practiced because they were pleasant and easygoing have all gone the way of the Quakers.  I bring up the Quakers frequently because I think that they are memetically very interesting because they didn’t use the most effective and widely used today methods to acquire converts, and they’re all but extinct now. However, I’m not going into that for now.

Lastly, and this is the topic I intend to focus the most on, is it possible to have an argument for the existence of God that is actually intelligent and reasonable?  Right off, I’m going to say that most of the people who want to prove the Bible and common creationism or most religions that I know of, no.  It is impossible to make a case for a particular religion which includes a text of stories such as the Bible.  Invariably, they are filled to a comic level with contradiction, which by definition cannot exist in reality, among other reasons.  However it is possible to have an intelligent philosophical argument about whether or not there is a God, or even many Gods.  What is a god, and what properties must such a being necessarily have to constitute a god?  If there was a god, how would that change the metaphysics of the world as we know it?  What broad categories of metaphysics require, make possible, or render impossible the existence of a God or gods?

My favorite argument for the existence of God is called the ontological argument, because it’s just fun.  Basically, it goes like this: can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  Yes.  Ergo, there exists a God.

Smiling now.  It’s an amazing argument isn’t it?  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Now, it happens to be sound but in a very interesting way.  Basically, on a deeper level the argument is that a perfect being would be more perfect if it exists.  Therefore, an all-perfect being must exist because you can conceive of a being that is all-perfect.  I think this argument is philosophically interesting, but of zero metaphysical consequence, and doesn’t actually prove that there is a god.  It’s pretty easy to poke fun at this argument by parodying it with a pair of children, “Can you think of a big-huge candy bar?”  “Yeah?!?”  “Well, wouldn’t it be even better if it existed?”  “Yeah!”  “Therefore, there exists a big-huge candy bar.”  A fun argument because even atheists who are experienced at arguing against the existence of God will be completely stumped.  Well-read atheists will of course have heard of it and probably be able to call you on using the ontological argument by name.  Now, there are as many writings on why the argument is valid or absurd as there are philosophers, but I think that it’s wrong because it uses a premise-truth paradox.  This is an extremely rare form of paradox whereby the premise creates a paradox whereby if it is true then it must necessarily be true, and if it is false then it must necessarily be false, and there is no other criteria by which you can judge the truth or falsehood of the premise.  So, can you conceive of a being that is all-perfect?  I would say the answer is probably not.  You can create a generic entity and slap the label “all-perfect” on it, but that doesn’t count.

An argument similar to the ontological argument whose name I can’t remember for the moment stems from an interesting application of modal logic, using possible worlds.  Basically, any logician would give you as axiomatic that there exists at least one possible world where some form of something that could be called a God exists.  Jumping from there to conclude that God must therefore exist in all possible worlds because God is omnipresent and all-powerful is one tactic you might use to throw an atheist.  With a little logical discipline they will quickly understand how you’ve cheated them.  Basically, they gave you that there exists some possible world on the grounds that, and this is of course exactly how modal logic is created, that these worlds are global-strength containers that nothing within them can possibly escape from or otherwise influence other possible worlds.  Taking advantage of their generosity in giving you “some form of something that is God” in one possible world to say that because it is omnipresent, it therefore exists in all possible worlds is to cheat on the application of modal logic by putting God in some world that contains all possible worlds, axiomatically, and without the consent of the person you’re arguing with.  Don’t use this, please.  An atheist who doesn’t figure that one out might want to take a class on logic to make their thinking a bit more rigorous.

These are canonical examples of arguments for God.  They aren’t perfect, but I am an atheist exactly because I can’t think of a good argument for why God exists.  That’s where you come in.  If you are religious, come up with a well-reasoned, solid argument for why God exists.  If you can’t do it, hen you should be an atheist too because you don’t believe God exists either.  If you can, however, tell it to atheists.  If it really is a good argument, and they’re really atheists for the right reasons, they will actually believe you.  If I were presented with such an argument that was sufficiently good that it outperformed the default position of atheism, and also explained all the observable phenomena of the world without contradiction, I might even believe you.  Do not, however, even attempt to push Christianity or other religions as-is on me because it’s frankly not worth my time anymore.  If you’re interested in atheism there are resources all over the internet.  They don’t really exist offline, which is fascinating if you ask me.  Atheists correlate with the tech-savvy young?  Cool.  We’re going to win.  Even if we can’t convince you, we’re young.  You’re going to go first.

Not considering the idea of immortality in digital form, which of course is out of the question for the religious.  So atheists still win.  The atheists shall outnumber the hordes of the faceless dead, such shall be the glory of their technology.

Macroscopic Decoherence

Macroscopic decoherence is a fancy name for the theory in physics of “many worlds,” a resolution to the dilemma presented by quantum physics that, to some, makes a lot of sense.  Before I discuss what it is and what it means if it is true, first I’ll go over the more commonly accepted modern viewpoint more specifically its aspect labelled the Copenhagen interpretation.  OK, here’s the dilemma.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a verifiable precondition of any theory of quantum physics, states that you cannot determine both the position and the velocity of a particle.  The practical reason for this is that, for objects as small as particles, the act of measuring their properties has a significant effect in changing those properties.  For macroscopic objects such as a table, the photons bouncing off the table into our eyes don’t change the position or velocity of the table and therefore we can ascertain both.  However, there is no yet discovered tool which can be used to probe a particle without changing it in any respect, thus preserving its condition for a second measurement.  Hypothetically, I guess you could measure both properties simultaneously- within the exact same Planck time- but this is utterly impossible with current technology, totally incapable of operating on anything close to that time scale with simultaneity, and there may be other limitations I am not aware of.  Now, strictly speaking, this isn’t an accurate model of quantum decoherence.  Actually, particles behaving like waves exhibit a linear relationship of definition between variables such as, say, position and velocity.  This means that the more certain an agent is about one property, the correspondingly linked property can only be known with a correspondingly limited precision.  So it’s possible to have a continuum of accuracy about both properties.  This seems like a mad system, but this is due to the nature of waves.  I think I should stop and leave it at that before I get sidetracked from the main point- I haven’t even gotten to the standard model yet.
This gives modern physicists a dilemma- it would appear that our universe is a fickle beast.  Let’s say that we ascertain a given particle’s position with perfect accuracy- doesn’t that mean that it is categorically impossible for us to make any statements at all about its momentum, due to total uncertainty?  With the caveat that perfect accuracy is impossible, yes.  So what happens to the velocity?  Or, more importantly, what happens to all the other places it could have been if we hadn’t measured it?
The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics claims that the other possibilities do not exist in any case.  This more closely parallels the way we think about the macroscopic world in practical terms because even if we don’t know where a table is, we know the table has a given location that is not subject to change unless someone or something moved it.  The act of measuring the position of the table only puts the information about the table’s position into our heads, and does not change any fundamental properties about the table.  So, the Copenhagen model concludes that the act of measuring where the particle is collapses its waveform into one possible state.  It actually changes the waveform by nailing down one of the variables to a certain degree, leaving the other one free to flap around in a similar degree.  This collapse model causes particles to behave similarly to macroscopic objects in one sense.  However, in order to reach this conclusion, the Copenhagen interpretation has to violate numerous major precepts of modern science- I won’t go into all of them, although it is a laundry list if you want to look it up, universality and objectivity of the universe for one.  The fact that there are observers begins to matter because it appears that we can change the fundamental nature of reality by observing it.  This raises the question of what exactly constitutes an observation, perhaps one particle bumping into another counts as an “observation”?  But relative to us, the uncertainty principle still stands relative to both particles, so there really is something intrinsically different about being an observer.  This is the most serious flaw in an otherwise excellent model, and it is to address this flaw that I add my thoughts to the camp of macroscopic decoherence- the other one being that this causes particles on a small scale to behave in a fundamentally different way than larger objects.

Macroscopic decoherence does not require a theoretically sticky collapse, hence its appeal.  Instead, the theory goes that the other possibilities exist too, in parallel universes.  Each possible position, momentum, etc. exists in an independent parallel universe.  Of course, due to the number of permutations for each particle, and the number of particles in the universe, this causes us to postulate the existence of an indescribably large number of infinities of universes.  Now, if you accept that postulate, it allows a theory that explains particles in the same terms as macroscopic objects, you only have to accept that this same permutation mechanism applies to any and all groupings of particles as well as individual particles.  So there exists a parallel universe for every possible version of you, every choice you have made, and so on into infinity.  This is something of a whopper to accept in common-sense terms, but it does create a more manageable theory, in theory.  The linchpin of the theory is that, rather than the act of observing causing the mystical destruction of the other probabilistic components of a particle’s waveform, it only pins down what those properties are relative to the observer in question.
In other words, the act of observing only tells the observer in which parallel world they happen to be.  Each parallel world has only one possible interpretation in physical terms- one position and velocity for every particle.  Unfortunately, there are an endless infinity of future parallel worlds, so you can’t pin down all properties of the universe, or a distinct set of physical laws would necessitate the existence of a single universe derived from that one.  The flaw in this theory is that this same approach can be taken to a variety of other phenomena, with silly results.  Basically, there is no reason to postulate the existence of parallel worlds beyond the beauty of the theory.  The same data explains both the Copenhagen interpretation and macroscopic decoherence, which is why the theories exist.  Both produce the same experimental predictions because they’re explaining the same phenomena in the first place.  We can’t go backwards into a parallel universe, and similarly we can’t go back in time and find information that has been destroyed by the act of observing the information we observed then.  It appears to me that, given current understanding, both theories are unfalsifiable relative to each other.  Overcoming Bias makes a fascinating case as to why decoherence should be testable using the general waveform equations, but the problem I see is that theoretically the Copenhagen model could follow the same rules.  True, it lends serious weight to macroscopic decoherence because it systemically requires those equations apply whereas it could incidentally apply to the Copenhagen model.  Or some souped-up version of the Copenhagen model could take this into account without serious revisions, it’s difficult to say.  I do disagree with the idea that macroscopic decoherence must be false because postulating the existence of multiple universes violates Occam’s Razor.  This is a misapplication of the razor.  Occam’s Razor doesn’t refer to the number of entities in question, but to the overall improbability by complexity of the concept or argument being considered.  It just so happens that you have two options- either there is some mechanism by which observers collapse a wave into only one possible result, or there exist many possibilities of which we are observing one.  It is not a question of “well, he’s postulating one function of collapse, versus the existence of an endless infinity of universes.  1 vs infinite infinities infinitely…  Occam’s razor says smaller is better so collapse is right.”  This is not correct by any stretch.  True, currently there is no way to verify which theory is correct, but a rational scientist should consider them equally probable and work towards whichever theory seems more testable.

Well, let’s consider the ramifications if this theory of macroscopic decoherence happens to be correct.  It means that every possible universe, ever, exists.  Every possible motion of every single particle.  According to quantum physics as we know it now, there exists some possibility that the statue of liberty will get up and take a stroll through New York.  It is a…  shall we say… exceedingly small… probability.  I won’t even attempt to calculate it, but I bet it would be a 10 to the 10 to the 10 to the 10…. so many times you couldn’t fit all the exponents into a book.  It could easily be improbable enough that you couldn’t write that many exponents on all the paper ever produced on Earth, but I won’t presume I have any goddamn clue.  However, according to macroscopic decoherence, there actually exist a very large number of infinities of universes where this occurs- one for each possible stroll, one for each particle’s individual motion inside the statue of liberty for each possible stroll, etc. etc. etc.  And this is for events that are truly so unlikely as to be totally impossible, let alone for events as likely as intelligent choices between reasonable alternatives, such as what to order at a restaurant, or what to say every time you open your mouth, and then every minor permutation of each…. gah!  Any attempt to describe how many possible universes there are is doomed to fail.  Trying to diagram the possible life courses on the grand scale that each person might make, I will leave to your imagination.

So now we get to the interesting bit- the reason why I am writing this post.  So in all of these parallel universes there exists a version of you that is doing all of these different things.  So the question I have is, are they really you?  Seriously, there are versions of you out there that are exactly, exactly the same in every respect and living exactly the same lives in exactly the same universes, with a single particle moving in an infinitely small way elsewhere in the universe in a way that does not and could not possibly affect you.  However, because of this schism of universes, you are separate consciousnesses inhabiting different parallel universes.  Now there is a high probability that these universes are not totally discrete- rather they inhabit a concept-space that, while isotropic, could be conceived of as having contours that describe the similarity of the universes, with very similar universes being close together and very different universes very far apart, in a space with an infinite infinity of dimensions.  As a result, even with respect to these parallel universes, these versions of you will be infinitely close to you and could be said to inhabit the exact same space, with versions splitting off into space while remaining identical, and other versions experiencing physical changes on the same spot (some of them infinitesimal, and others rather drastic, such as turning into a snake, a werewolf, or anything else you can conceive of).
So which of them is the “real” you?  Or have you figured out that the concept doesn’t have any significant meaning in this context?  If we narrow down this infinite schisming into a single binary split, then both sides can be said to be equally “original” based on the preceding frame.  By the same token, an exact copy of someone in the same universe should be treated as synonymous with the “original.”  Please note, those who are unfamiliar with this territory- I get this a lot.  I am NOT referring to cloning.  A clone is genetically the same, but so utterly disparate from its progenitor that this level of identity is not even approached.  I am referring to two entities that are so identical that there is no test you could perform to tell them apart.  Obviously, with any time spent in different physical locations in the universe they will diverge after their initial point of creation, but it is that critical instant of creation where the distinction matters.  If the two are synonymous, there is no “original” and a “copy”- indeed, the original is merely existing in two places at once.  If they could somehow be artificially kept identical by factoring out particle randomness and their environment then they would continue to act in perfect synchrony until something caused a change, such as a minute aspect of their environment or a tiny change in their body’s physical makeup, such as a nerve firing or even a single particle moving differently (although that probably wouldn’t change much, somewhere down the line it might due to chaos theory).
So now we get to the difficult bit.  What about alternate encodings of the same information, but represented in a different format?  Are the two synonymous?  I argue that it is, but only under certain circumstances.  1) Using a rigorous and perfectly accurate transcoding method to encode one into the other, 2) the timespan of the encoding must be fast enough that significant changes in the source material are minimized, if not completely eliminated, and 3) the encoding can, theoretically, be converted back into the original form with zero loss or error.  The first requirement is the only ironclad one- if you make an error in the encoding then the result will not be representative of the original.  The second and third are more complicated, but easy to assume in an ideal case.  The reason for this is that there is a continuum of identity, and a certain degree of change is acceptable and will produce results that are “similar enough” to meet identity criteria.  If it’s the “you” from a year ago, it’s still the you from a year ago even if it isn’t identical to you now.  So if the encoding takes a year then it does preserve identity, it just doesn’t preserve identity with changes into the future, which is an utterly impossible task because even a perfect copy will diverge into the future due to uncontrollable factors.  Thirdly, if there is no method to convert the new encoding back then it cannot be verified that it is indeed synonymous with the original.  It is possible to produce an identical representation without this clause, but if for some reason it is impossible to convert it back then you can’t know that it is indeed a perfect process that preserves material identity absolutely.  This is the test of a given process.  Now, for digital conversion, reconversion back into physical media is impossible, but simulation in a perfect physics simulation and producing the same results is synonymous with re-creation in the physical world.  I am aware that this appears to be a figure-eight argument, depending upon the identity of a simulation to prove the identity of digital simulation as a medium.  However, this is false because I am referring to a test of a specific conversion method.  In order to create a proven physics simulation, other provable methods might be used to compare the simulation’s results with the physical world.  Once the simulation has been proven to produce the same results as the physical world, given the same input, then a given instance of simulation can be added and compared with the exact same situation in the physical world, using the simulation as the calibrated meter stick by which to judge the newly simulated person or other digitized entity’s accuracy.

Is There a True, True Self?

I have compared the “true self” to the “false self” before, and while I will still stand behind the claim that the distinction can be made usefully within a certain semantic realm, I’m going to go the other direction in this post because in a different, more general realm, there is no “true self.”  As a matter of fact, if you look at it in the most general, explicit sense, you have no self at all apart from the information that constitutes your decision-making and thinking matrix.  What I’m trying to say is that when someone says that they act a certain way and that’s their “true self” and all other ways of acting are them doing something other than being their true self, they are misleading themselves.  No matter what they do, they cannot escape the fact that the same decision-making matrix, no matter how intricate or complex, caused them to act that way in each of those situations.  Now, if they mean to say that they have a preferred mode of behavior, but are forced to use a different mode of behavior in varying circumstances, well of course.  I have preferred modes of behavior, too, like I prefer to sleep or go out or play video games to doing actual work.  That doesn’t mean that I’m my true self only when I’m in the process of a preferred mode of behavior.  But that’s exactly how a lot of people reason out their reactions to, most commonly, certain other people.

I’m getting into material identity again, but since it is I suppose my preferred philosophical specialty I may as well.  Because of the fact that there is no single piece of information you can subtract from a person to make them not-that-person, the person as a whole (considered as a contiguous entity) only has meaning as far as perception will take it.  Relative to someone else, it’s their perception.  Relative to the person themselves, it’s their own perception that matters.  Imagine that you woke up and you were a different person!  Now, because of the nature of logic, this sentence has no true parseable non-tautological meaning.  I have included in the sentence that “you” are a different person, meaning you are still you.  So the Engish way to handle this issue is to change the meaning to “you wake up with a different body, probably that once belonged to someone else.” or something similar.  No matter the way you parse it in English, it isn’t handled in a logically rigorous way in the same way that we don’t answer the question “Would you like tea or coffee?” with “Yes.”  While logical, it conveys little useful conversational meaning.  Bear in mind though, that if we spoke a truly logical language, you would answer in a way that did convey conversational meaning, the same way you don’t say “Yes” in English (Although framework of asking the questions would probably receive more semantic-structural changes than the affirmative/negative response structure).

But I digress, seriously this time.  We nearly had a terminal digression there into the land of logical languages.  Back to the issue of having one identity.  The truth is that we have an assumption here that we haven’t questioned: is it necessary to treat identities in the same way that we treat physical objects?  Once again this is a conceptual piece of English- we like to treat concepts like objects.  We can pick up drawing, have an idea, find an answer, and so on.  I’m not going too far into this as a topic- I would recommend Steve Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought for more on the subject.  Anyway, the assumption that identity is an object has numerous flawed bases.  Firstly, there is 1 “person” per body, and we can count bodies.  Ergo, there must be 1 and only 1 identity per person because that person has 1 and exactly 1 body.  The next flawed idea is that identity is immutable and does not change.  That there could ever be a “one true” identity.  This isn’t even true for the lowest-level aspect of identity at the level of the physical body, so how anyone can formalize the idea that identity must be fixed is beyond me, but it does happen.  It should be completely obvious that the body of a child is different from the body of an adult, and so assuming that there is any relation beyond material continuity is a flagrant violation of logic.  Now it is not an error to say that there may exist similarities between these two identities/bodies/people, especially considering how causally connected the latter stage is from the former.  But to say that there is a fixed identity from which changes may be noted as deviations is just plain wrong.  People change a lot- people change very quickly.  Through the course of a day each of us goes through periods of high and low energy, moods, thought patterns, and who knows what.  However there are people who are guilty of the next identity fallacy, which is that somehow those aspects aren’t significant pieces of your identity.  They are passing and trivial and should be ignored because in the grand scheme of the human identity they are categorically different.  Well this is wrong, but it’s less obvious to most people because it has some deep religious roots.  The idea that the body is distinct from the soul, and that the soul is much more important than the body can ever hope to be is an old religious idea with tendrils all over the place.  The idea that something like a state of hunger contributes to your identity in any significant way is perhaps odd.  But look at it this way.  If there was a teleportation machine that destroyed your body and created one exactly like it at a different location- I have used this example before.  If there was such a machine, and it re-created your body perfectly in every detail, except it omitted recording information needed to compute and recreate a state of hunger (somewhere between total satiety and death by starvation) then is it a valid teleportation machine?  I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t step through that bastard for a billion dollars, and not because I might be a starved corpse on the other side- it’s because I have no idea what information went into the complex computation of my own state of hunger/satiety.  Probably all kinds of things from the contents of my intestinal tract to levels of certain hormones and neurotransmitters.  If the machine omits all that information, I don’t come out the other side of that teleporter.  Someone else does.

So I am aware that I have a difficult position to defend here.  I’m saying, at the same time, that there is an immense degree of flexibility in what constitutes a person- that you can still be “you” in the sense that counts from the time that you’re a child until the day you die, but at the same time the standard for building a teleporter must be absolutely flawlessly perfect in order to preserve material identity.  The reason for this is that I’m making the two comparisons based on different criteria.  I’m a strict materialist- everything can be reduced to an arrangement of matter and energy if a sufficient level of detail and fidelity is used.  However, matter and energy in and of themselves are just rocks and colored lights- they have to be organized into information patterns to be interesting.  So in the case of a stardard human life, without being teleported, the information pattern persists in direct fashion through space and time and can be identified perfectly as being materially continuous.  However, once you introduce the ability to jump around in space and time, you have to get a little bit smarter than that in order to maintain material continuity.  To think about material continuity, I’ll call it the Where’s Waldo? Effect.  If it’s possible to look into the universe like a giant, four-dimensional Where’s Waldo book (including all periods of time) and find you, or any given person, then you have material continuity.  When you introduce the ability to jump around in space, then you need to have the end of one string and the beginning of another match to a sufficient level of detail that the four-dimensionally-conscious being looking into the Where’s Waldo Universe can put together the pieces.  The same thing is true if you’re jumping through time, of course, but most conceptualizations of time travel account for perfect material transport as a matter of course, so it’s not as interesting to talk about.  Still, if you have a time machine then you necessarily have created a teleportation device because you could teleport back in time exactly enough time to go wherever you’re going and then go there, arriving at exactly when you left.  Not a super elegant mode of teleportation, but quite effective in physical and relativistic terms.

In fact, to be even more technically precise, it’s impossible to build a teleporter without somehow cheating relativity.  The modern idea on how this might be done is taking advantage of quantum entanglement to transfer information instantaneously to anywhere in the universe- it might also be done with some form of tachyon particle but entanglement shows much more promise.  It’s something of an important idea that material identity is both time and space independent because even if you could transfer the totality of your information instantaneously anywhere, I find it unlikely that it’s possible to instantly create a new body for you on demand.  As long as a more or less perfect copy gets made (ideally before you get “re-activated”) it makes no difference if you lost some time in the middle.  The real question is- how perfect does this copy have to be?  That is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.  I have no idea how you would go about answering it in a mathematical sense.  As long as you have material continuity to fall back on then you have nearly endless flexibility, but the second that gets taken away it really becomes a question of what you believe the limit is.  And a strange sort of “are you feeling lucky, punk?” kind of attitude.  It’s the same operation, because material continuity is just using the super-perfect teleport trick over impossibly small distances and over the smallest possible time lengths (Planck time, approx 10^-44 seconds) using the same medium that the stability of the information pattern itself is composed of, so the accuracy is so absolute as to be perfect.  Sure, particles jitter and all sorts of other stuff is going on, but that’s the nature of the pattern that you’re made of anyway.  Even in periods of the most rapid change you can conceive of, relative to the length of a single Planck time- I mean, come on.

I don’t think that 10^-44 seconds will even fit into the human mind as a workable unit of time.  That means that you would need 1 followed by 44 zeroes of them in order to get one single second.  To put that into perspective, if you had that many nanoseconds the total length would be 3×10^27 years, or enough to contain the entire history of the universe (15 billion years) over 200,000,000,000,000,000 times.  A Planck time is small.  There is no practical way that sufficient change to break material identity could happen on a timescale so small.  So I just say that no matter what, material continuity equals material identity.  It’s not strictly true, but if you’re seriously in doubt then you must be talking about some thought-experiment edge case like “what if we had a particle accelerator that could destroy n brain cells in exactly 1 Planck time, how many would we have to destroy…”.  They’re awesome, and I do it all the time, so that’s great, but as a rule of thumb I think the idea of material continuity = material identity works quite well.

The St. Petersburg Paradox

I’m in more of a mathematical mood right now, so I’m going to cover a piece of abstract mathematics.  I want to talk about the St. Petersburg Paradox.  While a famous problem, you can wikipedia it for more information if you like, here’s a short summary.  Imagine we have a game of flipping a coin.  Starting at $1, every time the coin lands heads, you double that amount.  When it eventually lands tails you win however much you have earned so far.  How much should it cost to play?

Now I very much enjoy this problem in a pure mathematical sense, but Daniel Bernoulli, the man who invented it, apparently took the mathematics of this problem rather too far.  Bernoulli noticed, as the more astute among you probably either deduced, or probably already knew, that the game’s expected value is in fact infinite.  This means that no matter what the cost to play, you should always accept.  However most common people wouldn’t pay even $50 to play this game.  Bernoulli deduced from mathematical bases a utility function of the game which would explain this behavior using a logarithmic idea of value.  He supposed that people’s valuation of money decreases as the amount of money they possess increases, or to use another term, he proposed a diminishing marginal utility function for money.  While this approach, I guess, works, the even more astute among you will have noticed that this doesn’t actually solve the paradox.  You can just have a game’s payoff function that uses the inverse of whatever utility function and still end up with an infinite payoff that nobody will take.  Other mathematicians have wrestled with this problem, and so far the conclusion, as far as I am aware, is that utility must be bounded in order to resolve this type of paradox.

Now, I am not a professional mathematician, but I believe that I have solved this paradox.  SImply put, all these mathematicians have been assuming that people have the same conception of reality that they are working with; a mathematical one.  These mathematicians have assumed that people think of money as a number.  That seems obvious, right?  Money is measured numerically.  Well, yes, but the fact that different people have different ideas of what money or other commodities are valued at means that it isn’t a number.  Numbers are objective, inherently.  Two people must categorically agree that a 7 is a 7, it always was, is, and will be 7, and that 7 = 7, which also equals 6 + 1 and an infinitude of other identities.  However we all know that two people might have a differing opinion of various exchanges, such as $3 for a mango, for example.  Someone who loves mangoes might buy at that price, someone who doesn’t, won’t.  So we can’t say that $3 = 1 mango in the same way that we can say that 7 = 7, even if all mangoes in the world were always bought and sold for that price.

The issue here is that these mathematicians, while brilliant direct deductive thinkers, think of the universe in a flatly rational way.  While this is probably the best single perspective through which to view the universe, it fails when dealing with people that lack a similar rational strictness.  Have you ever been beaten by someone at a game you were clearly better at, simply because the other player just refused to play “properly”?  This happens all the time in poker and numerous gambling or card games.  In games like chess this rarely happens because in a game of perfect information, “proper” play can be categorically proven to be superior during the game itself.  If it would result in a bad situation, then it isn’t proper play.  Where information is limited, “proper” play might land you in situations you couldn’t predict or prevent.  Anyway, a more textured view of the perception of the universe would allow for nonlinear and unconventional conceptual modes for perceiving the universe.  For example, perhaps a certain subsection of people conceive of money like power.  The actual number isn’t as relevant as the power it holds to create exchanges.  The numbers are negotiable based on the situation and on the value sets of the parties involved  So the St. Petersburg Paradox could be equally resolved by saying that power doesn’t scale in the same way that money does.  If you offered someone a utility function of power, it would mean nothing.  Power is not infinitely reducible: the ability to do something doesn’t blend seamlessly into the ability to do something else.  The atomic unit of power is much larger than the infinitely fine divisions between any given numbers.  Having ten very small amounts of additional power is also not the same thing as one very large new executive power.

People can link together abstractions and concepts in many, many different ways.  For example, some successful investors say that instead of looking at your money like it’s your fruit, look at it like your bag of seed with which to grow more seeds.  True, you’re going to have to sell some of those seeds to get what you need, but its purpose is to grow.  As you accumulate more and more, the amount you can draw off increases while still maintaining useful volume.  This gives a completely different outlook on money, and will generate different decision behavior than looking at money as something to be spent as it is earned.  This same principle can apply anywhere at all, because in order for something to exist in your perceptual map, you have to think about it.  You might think of movies like books that have been converted, like picture books, like snatches of real-life experience, like a sequence of scenes strung together like string being tied together, or like a strip that runs through its full length in only one direction the same way every time.  There are other possibilities of course, but that’s as many as I could think of while I was in the process of typing this post.  This is only looking at a small slice of the possibilities of conceptual remapping (analogues and analogies, specifically) but other forms would require a great deal more explanation.  I think you get the point though.

Back to mathematicians and the St. Petersburg Paradox.  The paradox only exists if you look at utility in the mathematical sense.  There exist models, such as the one that “common sense” seems to indicate, that don’t see a paradox.  These models instead see a game that has a sliding scale of value and beyond a certain point the value is zero (or negligible).  This gradual fading of value is responsible for the probable effect of many people deciding to play the game at differing values.  I don’t think even the most hardcore mathematician would play the game for $1 million a round, even though it will eventually pay for itself.  The utility solution fails to take into account the common sense evaluation of time and effort as factors in any given activity.  You could factor in such an evaluation, but you would probably then be missing something else, and so on until you have built up a complete map of the common sense and shared perceptual map of the most common conceptual space.  But then you have duplicated the entire structure you’re attempting to model and created a simulation instead of a simplification.

On simulations and conventional models, we currently use both.  Our simulations, however, tend to be based in the real world, and we refer to them as experiments.  This is how we collect evidence.  The problem with the natural universe is that there is such an unimaginable profusion of activity and information that we can’t pick out any particular aspect to study.  An experiment is controlling all those other extraneous factors, or removing/minimizing them from a confusing universe so we can focus on a single test.  Once we have our results from that test we can move on to test another part of reality.  Eventually we will have built up a complete picture of what’s going on.  Simulations are data overkill from which we can draw inductive conclusions because we don’t understand all the underlying mechanics.  Models are streamlined flows, as simple and spare as possible, which we can use to draw deductive conclusions.  For example, the equation for displacement for a falling object [dp = v0*t + (1/2)a^2*t] is a simplified model, subtracting all other factors than the one being considered, allowing us to deductively conclude the displacement for any values of v0, t, and a.  Mathematical conclusions are a sequence of deductive operations, both to make mathematical proofs and to solve/apply any given instance of an equation/expression/situation/etc.

Our minds operate on the most basic level using models primarily, and simulations second.  This is because most of the time, a model is close enough.  You don’t need to include every factor in order to get an answer at sufficient precision.  You don’t have to factor in the time, the temperature, or the quantum wobble of each atom in a baseball to figure out where it’s going to land.  If you wanted a perfect answer you could simulate it, but you can get it to an extremely high level of precision by simply ignoring all those marginal factors.  They are not worth computing.  Now we are beginning to factor in the distinction I’ve brought up before between algorithms and heuristics.  Models are often heuristics, and simulations are often algorithms.  Models can include algorithms and simulations can include heuristics, but on the whole a simulation (given correct laws and good starting conditions) will algorithmically compute exactly what is going to happen.  A model, on the other hand, is a much more efficient process that throws away data in order to make calculation simpler.  Usually a lot simpler.

Now I am willing to bet that some readers will be confused.  I just said that simulations need the right laws and starting conditions- isn’t that the same thing as a deductive process needing the right logical framework and initial premises?  Well, yes.  That’s because a logical construct is a simulation.  However, it is a simulation constructed using information already stripped of extraneous information by creating a model of it.  The line between model and simulation is not black and white- they are simply approximate labels for the extremes of a spectrum, with conflicting ideals.  The perfect model is one law that determines everything.  The perfect simulation is a colossal, gigantically massive data stream that represents everything, down to the last spin on the last electron.  This is also where we get the fundamental distinction between philosophers: the conflict of rationalism versus empiricism.  The rationalists believe the model to be the “one true philosophical medium” and the empiricists believe it’s better to use simulations.  The tricky part is that in order to construct a simulation, you have to have models to run each of its laws and each of its elements.  In order to have a model, you have to have a simulation to draw patterns from.  So we have an infinite recursion where rationalists and empiricists are chasing one another’s coattails for all eternity.  Fortunately, most people who have thought about this much have come to more or less the same conclusion, and figured out that rationalism and empiricism go hand it hand quite nicely.  However there is still a preference for choosing to understand the world through one mode or the other.

How does all this apply to the original issue of the St. Petersburg Paradox?  So we have mathematicians who are definitely rationalists- I imagine there aren’t many professional mathematicians who are empiricists.  And these mathematicians construct a model that represents a certain behavioral set.  Their problem, however, is that reality doesn’t actually support the conclusion they are saying is the most rational.  So they change the model, as they should, to better reflect reality.  All well and good.  Their problem, though, is that they are actually doing their job backwards in one concealed respect.  Implicit in their model is the idea that it is the case in the simulation they are describing that the population they are describing has the same conceptual map that the people who created the model did.  I am aware that I could have simply said we have some ivory tower mathematicians who are out of touch with reality, but I wanted to cover in-depth what the disconnect with reality is.  They are correcting their model by making it better reflect empirical reality in one respect, but in so doing they are simultaneously doing the same in reverse by assuming things from their meta-models onto reality.  We have rationalism and empiricism, simulations and models, inductive and deductive thinking, all chasing their dance partner around.  But the most vital thought is that the process must only go one way.  You must always push forward by correcting both to better fit the other in reality, rather than working backwards and assuming things onto reality which are not the case.  If you do this, and then entrench your position with a rationale, you are screwing up your meta-model of reality.  And, like a monkey with its hand caught in a banana trap, the tighter you squeeze your fist the more surely you get stuck.  For every ratchet backwards on the progress ladder, you get more and more firmly stuck in place, and it even gets harder to continue to go backwards.  The wheel spins one way, it grinds to a halt in the other.

The Integration of Technology

Technology is a wonderful thing- but it has a serious problem. The only prerequisite to the access of technology’s power is knowledge. Or money with which to pay for the use of others’ knowledge. However in either case you can’t take advantage of knowledge that nobody has (yet) so it reduces to the same case either way. Knowledge is power in the most direct sense, in the same way that a lever is power- force times distance. For thinking, the equation is processing power times time. Knowledge applied over time produces results. While this is evidently true, few people notice it. When you get a job you are being paid to apply knowledge over time in the production of value. If you had less knowledge then you would be paid less because you would be less able to produce value. In the same sense as a lever with less force on the active end will not be able to lift as much mass. Hence the idea of property is inherently a part of being conscious; your thought and your time (freedom to use that time as you wish) belong to you exclusively. If you trade that time and thought, you can expect to receive something of equal value, at the very least, in return. However, it turns out that our minds are not just information floating in the void, and that they come prepackaged with some very sophisticated hardware we call a “body” including an advanced computer called a “brain”. So we can easily say you own your mind, therefore you own your body and therefore you own the products of time and the use of your mind and body.

So we arrive at efficiency. Two essentially identical people are told to move a hundred sacks of grain across the street. You give one a wheelbarrow. Who finishes first? They are identical, save one used a more efficient method to do their work. Technology is the exploitation of natural laws to maximum advantage relative to the human perspective. We need food, so we make agricultural technology to maximize the production of food per land area. If we ate rocks instead, we wouldn’t have agricultural technology. Rather, our mining technology would probably be significantly more advanced due to the agricultural time and thought being redirected into mining advances. Finding the tastiest rocks, if you would. Why I am saying all this? Now, we find my point. We usually consider such tricks as the physics behind a wheelbarrow as part of the natural sciences, but the design of the wheelbarrow itself is an act of engineering. Our bodies are very complex machines, but we consider their maintenance to be “medicine”, not mechanics or engineering. Philosophy is the answering of questions we can’t answer authoritatively, and science is the answering of those we can. Our minds are very powerful computers running a fascinating piece of software called Man V. 1.4 but psychology is distinct from computer science why, exactly? Where’s the boundary? These distinctions are imaginary. There is a small difference which I will get into in a bit, but right now I want to get the point across that the boundaries are like those between nations. Drawn on a map, but not actually there. Why do we split our knowledge into exclusive sections? Because that’s how we teach people, since job specialization is such a fundamental part of our economy and knowledge base. Why do we teach people that way? Because that’s how we define the different fields. “Can you say circular?” “I can say circular. Can you say circular?”… No, seriously, why is this the ideal model?

I did mention that there was a difference. If that corrupted your perception of my point as a whole, shame on you. Though there’s probably nothing you could do about it. Very few people put any serious effort into improving their thinking, despite the fact that they’re using it all the time. They’ll try to learn how to do things but use cobbled-together and terrifically random and useless methods to do so. Imagine that you are faced with a massive library full of great books to read, but you have only a rudimentary knowledge of reading. Which is the better course- to try to grind through them all at 10 words per minute, or first perfect your reading skills and then start reading? Sure it’s a down payment of time and energy, but the result is that from then on you’ll go many times faster. As another important point, it is always critical to include the method with the result because it is logically possible to have any conceivable process and get any result. I’m not saying it will always get a right result since they’ll probably be wrong under all other circumstances. For example, 16 x 4. You swap the 1 and the 6, and then swap the 1 and the 4. You get 64. Yeah? Well, you can’t prove that false without using another example because the conclusion is in fact true 16 x 4 = 64 is a true statement. So we actually just proved that the mind that thinks is inseparable from that which is thought. We are forced to conclude that an awareness of your own process is necessary irrespective of what you actually do with it. Engineer yourself a better mind. I need to do a post on just this topic. Some other time.

New paragraph for the difference. It’s called suspense. Not rambling. Certainly not. Medicine is different from engineering in the same way that constructive engineering is different from retroactive engineering. However since we haven’t been faced with a large need for retroactive engineering, that is not its own discipline. What do I mean by retroactive engineering? If we found a device buried in the earth that performed magical acts like making it rain when you pressed a button, that would be a perfect occasion for retroactive engineering. One field of it might be called “reverse engineering” or the decomposition of a complex machine or system into its functions and parts to figure out how it works. Under the conventional definition of engineering, we start from nothing and build a machine upwards from laws we understand. Reverse engineering is taking a machine we don’t understand and figuring it out.

To broaden this idea to knowledge in general, all fields reduce to one of two stances regarding a single contiguous mass called knowledge, or Truth; constructive or reductive. Natural sciences are reduction on the universe, the world around us. Conversely, if we start building virtual worlds by experimenting with fictitious natural laws, we start on the constructive side. The same principle applies to all knowledge. The intent of knowledge being, as stated above, to improve on our own power to get things done that we want done. As an important note, never is only one stance used. Whenever you construct something you then have to figure out if it works, how well it works, or why it doesn’t work and these are reductive in nature. Conversely, whenever you figure out how something works you have to construct something to prove it. The most common method is to construct an experiment which will produce specific results which can then be analyzed in reduction. Can you say circular?… But that’s the point! Knowledge is a constant circular feedback loop in the same way that consciousness is. Construction and reduction can even be reduced to the simple perspective of action and reaction, respectively. You do something, analyze the results, do something based on the results, etc. etc. And as you advance on the circular loop you are continuously increasing your knowledge, your power, your leverage. So we see the exponential increase of life proceeds clearly and continuously into technology. Where does biology end and technology begin? Biology is the study of already-evolved life and technology could be the creation of life from scratch such as self-replicating, evolving robots. Or genetically modified crops and animals.

The objective of learning should be to learn everything, not only to earn a living. This thought is a necessary corollary of my very Stoic ideal that Truth = virtue, the pair representing the only prerequisite to happiness. Of course, this also turns out to be a very profitable strategy because someone who knows… a LOT… is going to earn a large amount of money. I am not saying that I want to go to law school and medical school and get every degree known to man, though I must say that would be damned cool. No, I expect that in a short while we’ll crack the secret of encoding information in a human brain and be able to convert between our binary computer language and analog neural language. When that happens, omniscience is fair game. Any knowledge that anyone, anywhere, has is up for sale. This removes the time factor from learning and reduces the cost of transmission, shall we say, dramatically? When this happens, then I’ll just buy the knowledge I did not gain through schooling, using my vast fortune I used my limited schooling to obtain. Though that may not even be necessary because such a system would automatically drive the prices to zero. Whenever you sell it, by definition you just increased supply by one and decreased the demand by one. All you have to do is wait- before too long the knowledge will be “worthless” anyway since everyone will have it. As a matter of fact, I would be willing to bet that an engineering career in bringing this situation about would be about as lucrative as they get. “I can offer you immortality, omniscience, and omnipotence (over perfectly realistic virtual worlds anyway) for $100 million.” And the price drops as the rich phase out and the technology gets cheaper. By the very nature of industry, you will be making the most money exactly when you have the most capacity to capitalize on it, sufficiently soon before critical mass when nobody cares about money anymore because anything they want they can just make.

We began with an integrated field of knowledge, we specialized into ever-more-advanced subfields until eventually our technology becomes advanced enough that we can increase our own capacities to understand it. Can you say circular?…

“If It Bleeds, It Leads”

There is a saying among journalists, or whoever it is that decides what a story is- “if it bleeds, it leads.” Meaning, of course, that if the subject is in dire trouble then that’s the story they’ll run. Undoubtedly this is due to the fact that such stories were at one time sensational, but in a population of any significant size someone gets brutally murdered every day. However, should the press devote so much time and energy into covering all the crime, car accidents, and injury they can grab? Why do they try, and why does it work for them?

Here’s my point- and it’s going to seem callous. Why should we care? Seriously, think about it. Most of the time you don’t remember you watched the story about that three-car pileup with seven killed, less than twenty minutes later. You feel nothing for little Jimmy whose house had a tree fall on it, and you won’t ever meet or sympathize with any of the subjects. What you get is a premasticated mash of feel-good sympathy from a reporter who is basically specially trained to provide it. So why do you watch it? Consider carefully your own motivations. Without knowing you, I’d be willing to bet it’s because on some level you think you’re a nice, compassionate, empathetic person. Learning of others’ suffering gives you a secondary kick of feeling good about yourself for being so nice as to listen to their story, or perhaps to”connect with them” or maybe it’s to connect to your community- some form of connection. Or, if you’re of a different slant of mind, it gives you a secondary kick to revel in others’ suffering. This is more common than you’d think- the “thank goodness it’s not me” reaction is very common. Between these two mindsets, virtually all of the regular populace is captivated by blood and crime journalism. All the news media are interested in is obtaining and retaining viewers, by any means necessary. And due to the evolutionary nature of economic competition, companies tend to evolve to exploit any niche available. The news media that were more effective at getting and keeping viewers survived, and the others went out of business.

So we arrive at an industry bent to exploit your psychological weaknesses and the recesses of your id. You don’t overcome this because of the very issue I just raised- when I ask in public “why do we care?” everyone else goes “what’s wrong with you? Don’t you care for your fellow man?” Unfortunately, for far too many people being perceived as X indicates to them that they are an X which then causes them to act like an X. So they essentially don’t have the power to control their own behavior, and forces them onto a path inscribed by the architects of diffuse social structure- the media- and held in place by social pressures created by the selfsame groups. We end up with a self-reinforcing loop- the self-licking ice cream cone. Nobody likes it, but they think everyone else does, stopping them from trying to change it. The reason why the system doesn’t change is because nobody can bring themselves to break out of that path-of-least-resistance conformity loop. I think I just coined a great term: “conformity loop”. Conformist behavior is itself a powerful instigator of conformity in a third party. The more people who are conforming, the more pressure the group could exert should it be called upon. Ultimately this reduces to the coercive, direct threat of punishment. Which invariably reduces to violence somewhere along the road. Stripping the complex muddy subtleties from the situation, basically you’re being conformist because you’re scared that, somehow, physical harm will come to you if you don’t. Apparently an evolutionary artifact from the hunter-gatherer days when being ostracized was a death sentence. Or, where the rest of the group could easily turn on you and kill you- a threat for no other reason than that there’s one of you and lots of them.  If this paragraph was a little dense, this monkey experiment should make it a bit clearer.

Of course, the only way out is for sufficient numbers of their viewing audience to get over their baser drives and ensure that the most profitable strategy for their news media is to provide the news that they want to watch. Most viewers, however, tend to adopt the attitude of a bottom feeder, eating whatever happens to be thrown out for them. Such willful powerlessness can be seductive- but resist, dammit! The route of having others handle your affairs for you is indeed easier, but I guarantee you won’t like where it leads. Take your institutions by the horns- the government, the companies you buy from, the media, even your peer groups, and recognize that they are supposed to provide value to you. Groups will tend to exert pressure in predictable ways to further their own interests. If you can determine their motives and their choices you can predict their actions and their evolution. You can then take steps in your own way to make those entities’ choices end in a course more beneficial to you and everyone else. Note that I am using groups as “entities” as semantic shorthand, keeping in mind that there is no actual thing called a government or a media corporation. This is significant because when someone says “the government wants you to do X” they are saying something very different from “everyone in the government wants you to do X” or even “person A in the government wants you to do X”. This is just like the monkey experiment- would you be correct in saying that any one of the other monkeys didn’t want any of them to reach the banana (let’s say it’s a whole bunch of bananas- a pittance compared to the potential of humankind)? What about the sum of the monkeys? They could all just decide to get the bananas and nothing would happen. Why not? What’s stopping them?

I have mentioned the predictability of agents based on incentives before, but I haven’t covered it in any significant detail. It’s a vitally important idea because when used properly as a predictive tool, it’s never wrong. It should be wrong, but currently it’s not because modern homo sapiens is a rather herdish creature. Basically the idea is that a group of people is always bound to follow the basic incentives of the group despite conflicts within any one of the individuals. An individual’s actions are subject to a certain degree of chaotic subjectivity- their ethical code or religion or whatever may be against specific actions, maybe a certain person reminds them of someone they knew, whatever. However, when you have a group of significant size then each individual is faced with a Prisoner’s Dilemma multiplied by every person in the group. If they were to not confess, they are not just wagering that the one other prisoner will not confess, they are wagering that every person in the group will not confess. Worse, they have a history of observed behavior. So in the cage, each one of the monkeys could decide to go for the banana. However, in order to be successful, every one of the other monkeys would have to make the same decision at the same time. OK, at least one of the other monkeys would have to. Two out of five is a sufficiently significant minority. But it can’t happen. The answer is to keep on reaching for that damn banana bunch over and over again, until eventually the others figure out that that all they have to do if they want to feast on banana is chill the fuck out. The stupid monkeys.

Here’s an interesting thought for you. Whenever I say “most people” in a positive light, you include yourself in that group because you consider yourself fairly normal. But when I say “most people” in a negative light, you exclude yourself from that group because you consider yourself special.