Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A very spiritual movie



I'm not kidding. This movie is fantastic.

I hold the view that spirituality is totally independent of religion. Spirituality is the ability to strengthen one's resolve and generate pleasurable emotions through imagination.

Spiritual fantasy can be sparked by sensation. Image, sound, scent, taste and touch can all be spiritual triggers, though the triggers are different for each of us. Your spiritual sound might be that special song your walkman plays that always makes you run faster, and your spiritual image might be that of an eagle with perfect focus and concentration. Imagination takes your trigger sensations and transforms them into an vision of total beauty and a visualization of perfect action. You still need real skill to achieve flawless action, but spiritual motivation can give you the will to perfect your art.

Watching a Kung-Fu movie is inspirational because the transformation from spiritual to physical is so vividly displayed. Triggered by images of the tiger, the crane or the praying mantis, Kung-Fu practitioners use their skill and imagination to develop optimum human power.

Shaolin Soccer isn't a realistic portrayal of unarmed combat, and it doesn't pretend to be. In several scenes, players kick a soccer ball so hard that it becomes a fireball! But that doesn't matter. I can't be the only guy to have kicked a soccer ball with so much focus and intent that he imagined it bursting into flames. Of course, in reality, the ball never actually catches fire. In my case, the ball rarely hit the target either, but it still felt good!

This movie is an oddball comedy that, depending on your sympathies, either has no message whatsoever or has a deep and clever meaning. A crippled soccer has-been sets out to coach a rag-tag clan of kung-fu fighters, intending to win the soccer trophy from Team Evil. As in all martial arts movies, the players transform themselves into masters of their new sport. There's even a little love story in this picture.

In the end, the entertaining action-comedy sequences were secondary to the movie's message: that every one of us can become more than we are, that perfect action is far more important than good looks, and that spirituality can help us achieve sublimity.

* Kung-Fu salute *

What does God need with a starship?

My friend Nevin sent me a link to an article in the Guardian about the psychological effects of the Santa myth. The article was inconclusive, but it started an interesting train of thought.

Personally, I find the idea of lying to children sort of distasteful, but I find it plausible that such fibs are at most harmless, and maybe even beneficial. It could be that these fibs prepare us for the social games we'll play in adulthood. However, there's another side-effect. When, as children, we realize that we've been scammed by the old Santa ploy, I think we develop a distaste for false myths. No one wants to be fooled by parlor tricks or Wizard of Oz illusions. When we leave Santa and the Tooth Fairy behind, we set a higher standard for "true" deities. True deities don't use technology to play tricks on us. True deities have something beyond technology: magic.

Alas, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so it would be impossible for us to distinguish between advanced technology and the divine. In other words, we wouldn't know we had really met God even if he beamed us up to his heavenly throne room. It could just be Klingon holodeck technology.

For advocates of magic, this poses a bit of a problem. Propositions about magic have nothing to do with experience because no experience can tell the difference between magic and technological trickery, and propositions about undetectable things are just piffle.

All this got me thinking about the alternative: what if God uses technology?

It seems to me that a superbeing that uses technology to do its works could easily inspire love and awe. Even mortal humans can do this. However, should technological prowess inspire worship and willing submission? Technology (or for that matter, magic) cannot do this alone. A being must possess some other attributes before it is regarded as divine. A divine being must have moral virtues to which we aspire. Also, we must feel that sacrificing ourselves for such a being serves the greater good.

As an aside, there are millions of humans who meet these criteria for divinity. Most of us see divine virtues like innocence and compassion in those we love, and most of us are willing to sacrifice our own lives to save theirs. We willingly submit, but the relationship is mutual.

My contention is that, unlike our loved ones, official deities qualify for neither reverence nor worship.

Let's say that the one true deity is actually the Devil, and he intervenes in our world in a barely perceptible way, e.g., by planting suggestions or causing the occasional natural disaster. Suppose that, by revelation, you know that the Devil exists. Suppose also that the Devil orders you to torment and kill anyone who doesn't believe in him (despite the fact that his existence cannot be proven). Like all standard deities, the Devil agrees to give you eternal life in paradise if you comply, eternity in hell if you disobey. Should you resist the Devil even if your resistance is futile? Or, does the fact that the Devil is the one true (effectively omnipotent) god change your morality, permitting you to happily commit mass murder?

According to my definition, the Devil isn't divine because he possesses no attributes to which we aspire. Manipulation and cruelty aren't objectives for us. Furthermore, for any being with the infinite power of the Devil, nothing we humans do is of any great consequence, so the greater good isn't a factor.

Of course, I wouldn't be making this argument if the gods of the Bible and the Koran didn't suffer from these same defects. First, we don't aspire to their values. These gods were all invented to satisfy Bronze Age moralities that are no longer acceptable. Take the story of Abraham. In Genesis, Abraham is ordered by God to kill his child to prove his obedience. Abraham almost does this, but is stopped by God's angel at the last minute. In today's more humane and civilized culture, we clearly see this God as evil. (Does anyone else remember that Norm McDonald routine about the guy who does the devil's bidding only to realize that the devil is really his buddy wearing a devil costume?)

Secondly, in comparison to the monotheistic gods, we're too small and weak to contribute to the greater good. God could snap his fingers and make the entire universe a paradise, yet we struggle and die pointlessly.

The might of a being with superior technology/magic doesn't make that being morally right (even if that being created our universe). Only we can determine what is right and wrong. It is our own internal moral compass that selects our religion, not the other way around. Religion inhibits our ability to make good decisions by promoting the idea that morality is given to us and not subject to reason.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Again, what would you do if you lived in another country?

George W. Bush's policy makes it clear to the rest of the world that American lives are just more important than anyone elses. It's only natural that governments defend their citizens preferentially, but Bush goes further than this, making explicit his belief that we Americans have more intrinsic value than citizens of other countries (presumably by divine providence).

If you lived elsewhere in the world, how would you react when we Americans tell you that the life of any American is worth more than that of your son or daughter? Or when we Americans imprison people without due process, torture said prisoners, claim immunity from international law and then criticise your country's human rights record?

Is Bush's policy deliberate? Or is it just that the Bush team's personal bigotries can't help but show themselves in their dealings with other countries?

I think that the answer is that their policies are driven by their worldview. George Lakoff explains the right-wing view from the perspective of the "strict father" family values model. Bush sees America as strict father to the rest of the world, and the strict father's role is to tell other countries what to do and punish them when they misbehave.

Throughout the 1990's, the right-wingers were frustrated by Clinton's negotiations with other countries. The Republucans didn't think that it made sense to negotiate if you held all of the cards. They just don't understand diplomacy. I can see how Republicans who come from a business background might treat other countries like competitors in a marketplace. What surprises me is how they simultaneously fail to see those countries and their citizens as business customers. Diplomacy is the international relations analogue of customer service in business. Good customer service makes the customer feel good about themselves and about the business transaction. Due to our total lack of diplomacy, the nations of the world are turning away from the United States. They look to the European Union or to Asia. Today, America is K-Mart circa 1995, ripe for supplantation by a corporation with decent customer service.

As expected, the world wants as little as possible to do with us. Two cases in point, the first from an article by Daniel Gross at MSNBC.com:

Our financial markets have long been the envy of the world, despite their many flaws. But foreign companies now want out of them...

In other words, it may not be simply that the U.S. is getting stupider when it comes to our engagement in the world's economy—although there's plenty of evidence of our stupid decisions. It's also that the rest of the world, powered in part by our operating system, is getting smarter.

And, from a posting at the The Road To Surfdom blog:

Last night I had an interesting conversation with a friend who works on Capitol Hill. He was recently part of a Congressional delegation that went to India. The delegation was mainly Republicans.

They spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don't much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description.

All of this is lost on the Bushites who insist that humiliating everyone else in the world is the best approach. Even those countries that joined the so-called "coalition" in Iraq have been humiliated because they were unable to extract any significant concessions from us after the war.

In the end though, it is we who are humiliated. Bush & Co, through their disgraceful behavior, have dishonored every American citizen, and until Americans start taking this disgrace personally, nothing's going to change.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Weapons of Mass Indifference

American's like to think they're special. So much so that our government now makes it clear to the rest of the world that American lives are the only lives that count:

The Bush administration refused to release these records to the human rights groups under the Freedom of Information Act until it was ordered to do so by a judge. Now it has responded to their publication with bland promises by spokesmen that any wrongdoing will be investigated. The record of the past few months suggests that the administration will neither hold any senior official accountable nor change the policies that have produced this shameful record. Congress, too, has abdicated its responsibility under its Republican leadership: It has been nearly four months since the last hearing on prisoner abuse. Perhaps intervention by the courts will eventually stem the violations of human rights that appear to be ongoing in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. For now the appalling truth is that there has been no remedy for the documented torture and killing of foreign prisoners by this American government.
- Washington Post editorial, December 23rd

Over the last few decades, there have been times when individual Americans have violated human rights. It has been exceptionally rare and justice has always been swift. We were respected for standing firm on what were American values. Now, torture and imprisonment without due process is the official policy of our government. On November 2nd, the American people endorsed this policy.

I don't see how it's possible to put the re-election of Bush down to apathy or ignorance. The only plausible explanation is that most Americans now consider torture by their government to be acceptable.

In the 1980's, Ronald Reagan restored America's pride. Though many of Reagan's policies were unjust and foolish, back in the second Millenium, America still had much to be proud of. Today, the goose-stepping macho men of the Bush administration would like to replicate Reagan's success, but their efforts are futile. It's not just the fact that our President is the laughing stock of the entire planet, or that his policies have been an utter failure. Bush can never match Reagan because he's managed to do what Osama bin Laden could not: make American pride impossible.

What would you do if you lived in another country? Kneel before Lord Bush because American's are worth more than you and your family? Do the math.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Transhumanist Ethics/Part 2 - Specialization

Historically, societies have become more successful when citizens were able to specialize in specific domains like farming, insurance, art, technology and transportation. Our brains can only handle so much complexity, but if we divide problems up into smaller fields of expertise, we can continue to develop new social and technological innovations. In turn, these innovations lead to prosperity because they make us more productive with less effort.

Let's consider the example of a man who is an expert in valve-timing in four-stroke engines. His expertise will improve fuel efficiency and air quality, improving life for us all. However, there's an unfortunate side-effect of specialization: narrow perspective. Our expert may have no detailed knowledge about how fuel he needs for his engine gets to the gas station. Without that knowledge, our expert may not see how alternative fuels will benefit our health, our environment, our economy or our quality of life. In our expert's little world, well-tuned four-stroke engines are of paramount concern because they allow our cars to take us many places before we return to the gas station to refuel. Experts tend to become provincial, unable to see the big picture.

Of course, some people try to become experts on the big picture. Economists are the experts who try to figure out the relation between the price we pay to pump oil out of the ground and the price of orange juice. Again, the problem is that when an economist figures this out (or thinks he has), his findings will be published in a journal that only expert economists will read.

Will we further specialize our social roles, and if so, will we improve or degrade social stability?

My impression is that, as long as science and technology improve, there's an ever increasing benefit from specialization. The problem is that we are creating a system that is organic, incoherent, and unstable in the long term.

This is a serious problem. The world looks like its out of control because we can't comprehend the increasingly intricate connections between events.

Capitalism is one of the few control mechanisms that can communicate who needs what resource and how badly it is needed. Unfortunately, capitalism is flawed. Capitalism is naturally blind to human needs because it focuses on corporate needs. The natural stability points for capitalist systems aren't human friendly. For example, in any given market, a monopoly is the most stable solution, even though the lack of competition harms everyone except the monopoly's management. For capitalism to be effective, there must be government regulation to limit business practices that damage the social fabric.

Though I don't believe it has happened yet, it may one day become too difficult for government to regulate our complex economic systems effectively. We have already reached the point where the electorate is too poorly informed to function democratically. A specialized social democracy requires trusted, expert sources of factual information from which electoral decisions can be made. Yet today, the prevailing idea in the United States is that the average Joe can make reasonable political decisions from the gut without consulting expert sources (let alone multiple competing ones). This strikes me as absurd anti-intellectualism. It's also another imperative for developing enhanced mental capacities. Without greater cognitive ability, we will lose sight of the big picture and run this train right off the tracks.

Ethical Principle #5:
Don't rely on your intuition, local knowledge or preconceived ideas to understand the world. Establish multiple competing organizations that can provide you with the big picture through data gathering and analysis. Verify your trust in these organizations with your own research.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Transhumanist Ethics/Part 1
Super-Evolution

I've been working on this topic for days, and meanwhile, the blog's got a bit stale. To make it more interesting, I'm breaking this topic up into more manageable pieces.

Transhumanism
Transhumanism is humanism with an appreciation for the fact that our evolution is just beginning. Already, we augment ourselves with prosthetic limbs, heal ourselves with pharmaceuticals, and use computer systems to enhance our information processing ability. Our lifespans are typically double what they were a century ago. In the future, our posthuman descendants will have unlimited lifespans and reason with minds so powerful that they'll look back on today's humans as we look back on the dinosaurs.

Why is this important now? In a word, proximity. Within 50 years we will possess the technologies required to bestow superintelligence and superlongevity on any human. Unfortunately, those same technologies pose an existential threat to all life on this planet.

As an optimist, I like to believe that humanity will survive its terrestrial adolescence, and emerge as a more mature race. With forward planning, we can avoid the threats of totalitarian world regimes and self-destruction.

In my opinion, the best way to proceed is to anticipate our evolving future and establish mechanisms that will protect the rights of the evolved and the unevolved alike. We must shape our philosophy so that even superbeings will respect our ethical code.

Don't mention the war
Talk of superhumans inevitably finds its way back to the subject of Nazi Germany. Who is to say what constitutes enhancement? Should the smartest, most attractive, most perfect people have political power? Potentially scary stuff. If Nazi eugenics is one extreme, there's an opposite and equally authoritarian poison lurking in religious fundamentalism. If humans were created in God's image, then presumably we are already perfect. Indeed, if we are to believe the fairy tale that is the Bible, we were better off without reason, knowledge or the sciences. Religious fundamentalists have no need of these things, and many extremists are all too pleased to take freedom of thought from you by way of terror or military force. Both Nazi eugenics and Taliban-style regression are equally dark authoritarian nightmares. Authoritarianism bad!

People who neither like nor understand technology may propose that we simply outlaw all forms of human enhancement. If life is equally brutish and short for everyone, there will be no superior race trying to displace us. Unfortunately, this is a prescription for certain doom. Our technology will inevitably grow so complex that we will either create a super race by accident, or blow ourselves up. The only way to handle the complexity of our own future technology is to evolve right along with it. We can try to hold back technology with a gigantic police state, but then we're back to authoritarianism.

Ethical Principle #1:
Authoritarianism is bad. Embrace liberal philosophy.


Ethical Principle #2:
Embrace technology and adapt to meet its challenges.



Super-Evolution
When evolution is self-directed, it accelerates rapidly. If I devise an cybernetic implant that doubles my IQ, I will use it to devise an implant that redoubles my IQ. Each evolutionary step enhances our ability to evolve further, and supersmart life forms will be outpaced by yet supersmarter beings. Fifth generation superintelligences will look like monkeyboys compared to sixth generation superintelligences, and so on.

There's a chance that the reigning superintelligence might be tempted to eliminate all other potential competitors before they have the chance to steal control of its destiny. Of course, if the superintelligence needs us monkeyboys more than it needs control over its destiny, we should feel no less secure than we do today.

Ethical Principle #3:
Respect the rights of less intelligent life forms lest you be one.


Ethical Principle #4:
Be needed.


To be continued...

Sunday, December 19, 2004

School Choice

Proponents of school choice need to ask themselves what their fantasy marketplace of schools will offer parents and their children. For argument's sake, let's assume that school vouchers actually cover the cost of private schools instead of just subsidizing the affluent people who already send their kids to private school. Let's also assume that the alternative schools aren't Christian madrassas.

Presumably, parents will send their kids to private school because the quality of education provided by the public schools is inadequate. Suppose that 40% of the public school kids end up being moved to the local private school, at which point, the private school is full. What happens to the other 60% of kids attending public school? They're out of luck. One could argue that at least 40% of the students now get a good education instead of 0%, but this hardly seems fair.

Is there a school privatization scheme that would work?

How about this scenario: all the schools are privatized, and we have a market of many small schools with different approaches to education. Government would be ineligible to participate because it might compete unfairly with the corporate schools. In order to facilitate movement of children from failing schools to good schools, there is overcapacity in the market.

What's the business incentive for the private schools? Assuming tuitions are fixed, schools will aim to teach each student for the lowest possible cost, and maximize the number of enrolled students. Presumably, teaching performance can improve enrollment, but the costs will increase (good teachers will be at a premium). Assuming such a marketplace could be constructed, it sounds like it might work, right?

One can try to criticise the idea by comparing education to other national priorities that we would never privatize, like military or intelligence operations. An uncompetitive military freelancer would certainly cost human lives. I don't think that this is a good comparison, though. A failing private school might cost a student a year's education before the student can be moved to a better school, but the student can probably recover from this (though we would be wrong to underestimate the damage). Still, there is some such damage done by public schools today, and this argument doesn't predict more failures than we have already.

The first real criticism is the overcapacity issue. In order to allow students to move from school to school to improve their education, the market must have enough excess capacity to allow, say, an entire school in the market to go out of business. This excess capacity isn't free, and the costs will be passed on to taxpayers.

Another criticism is the need for audits. Corporations almost always cheat when they know they'll get away with it. Parent advocates would need to hire more corporations to audit their corporate school masters. This raises the cost of the scheme, though I don't see how it would reduce the quality of the educational program.

Are corporate ethics compatible with public education? Look at contemporary corporate behavior. Companies use subtle marketing ploys to sell their wares. They are risk averse, and always bend to avoid legal action. Coroprations are not transparent, and they hide facts from customers in ways the government cannot. Corporations diversify and create strategic partnerships. Is there a conflict of interest if corporations are training students who will later work for another division of the same corporation or for the corporation's competition? These problems can be solved with heavy regulation, but it will be expensive. For instance, individual public schools don't usually sue their school districts when they object to a school district policy.

Would a national chain of private schools meet the needs of communities for local control over education programs?

What would happen if a national chain of schools went bankrupt?

How much money will education CEO's make?

Finally, schools are supposed to teach students in the public interest. This cannot happen if they are taught in private interest, as consumers instead of citizens.


All the problems I've enumerated apply to a sort of idealized, competitive marketplace. The actual voucher programs being debated today aren't even fair to begin with. Most voucher programs are designed to either a) get kids into religious schools where they can be indoctrinated, or b) subsidize affluent parents who already send their kids to private school. Typically, the voucher is not enough money to allow working families to send their kids to private school anyway.

It seems to me that school choice provides no simple answers. Privatization strikes me as a way of passing the buck, or washing our hands of the problem.

Fixing public education in this country will require something corporate America can't provide: courage.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Mathematical Errors

This afternoon, I attended a meeting of the local chapter of the WTA where I had the pleasure of meeting Eliezer Yudkowsky. Eliezer is a Director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and works on ways to build human-friendly, superintelligent artificial intelligence. He's also a devotee of Bayesian philosophy.

We spoke briefly about philosophical certainty (be careful doing this with a Bayesian!), and Eliezer pointed out that there are uncertainties in mathematics similar to those in the sciences. I'm sure I raised an eyebrow in response, but my poker face hide a fairly deep gut reaction to his claim. Mathematics is not science!After a bit of computation, I'm convinced that we're both right.

Less than a decade ago, Fermat's last theorem was proven to be true. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat scribbled in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica that he had proof that there are no natural numbers a, b, and c such that

an + bn = cn


where n is a natural number greater than two. For 357 years, the theorem remained no more than a conjecture. Over the centuries, numerous attempts by mathematicians to prove the theorem were claimed, but later shown to be false. Finally, in 1995, in a 200-page paper, Andrew Wiles and Richard Taylor successfully proved Fermat's last theorem. Of course, their proof was not accepted until it could be thoroughly verified!

This story shows us that mathematical calculations are uncertain because mathematicians can make mistakes. You might say that the conjecture that a particular theorem is true is analogous to a scientific theory. But is it exactly a scientific theory?

Scientific theories are mathematical models that explain experimental data and make new predictions. The physical world is so complex that it is extremely difficult to isolate particular properties of nature in controlled laboratory experiments. All of our theories make the assumption that the effects of all phenomena apart from the one we are studying are small. For example, Galileo's famous experiment at the Tower of Pisa, which showed that gravitational acceleration is independent of mass, neglected the effects of air resistance. Such uncontrolled influences in research create systematic uncertainties in our experiments.

As far as I can tell, mathematics has no such uncertainties. I think that there are several reasons for this. The first is that mathematics takes a "constructionist" approach instead of a reductionist one.

Nature is very complex, and natural scientists spend their time trying to break down and isolate the fundamental (and, we hope, simple) mechanisms underlying the complexity. Statistical errors creep into their experiments (and systematic errors due to imperfect experimental design may appear), but scientists must also deal with systematic errors that result from an inability to perfectly isolate the phenomenon being studied. In contrast, mathematicians are already familiar with all of the fundamental building blocks of mathematical theory. Their goal is to identify the relations and categories of all of the complex objects that can be constructed from those building blocks. Mathematicians are subject to statistical errors because they might make mistakes in computation, but they don't have the systematic error inherent in reductionism.

My conclusion is that there are statistical uncertainties in mathematical results, but mathematics does not suffer from the same kinds of systematic errors that plague the natural sciences. Mathematical experiments are perfectly controlled.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Living in Simulation

Here's a proposition (presented to me originally by Ben Hijink about a year ago) that some might argue challenges the limits of logical positivism:

Proposition One: We are all living in a computer simulation.

As a transhumanist, the idea of life in simulation is a familiar one. We could theoretically create intelligent life in a simulation (even if it's just a simulation of human cells), and control the universe of the simulated life as we wished. If we wanted, we could also guarantee that no experiment performed in the simulation ever gave the game away.

Star Trek: The Next Generation had an epidode entitled Elementary, My Dear Data that featured just this scenario. A computer simulation of Professor Moriarty becomes self-aware and eventually comes to learn that he is running in a simulation. Of course, Moriarty discovers his situation because the simulation isn't perfect (dang holodecks!).

Let's look at a refined version of the proposition:

Proposition Two: We are all living in a perfect computer simulation.

Here, perfection is in the sense that we can never find out that we are living in simulation on our own, and that the owners of the simulation will never reveal their secret. A logical positivist would say that this proposition is meaningless because no experiment the we ever perform will falsify, or confirm the proposition.

Yet, the creators of the simulation know that the proposition spoken by us is actually true because they built our universe. To the owners of the simulation, our proposition seems meaningful. You're probably beginning to see why people think this argument might have some relevance to the religious debate.

Can it be that logical positivism can claim that propositions are meaningLESS in sub-universes, but meaningFUL in enclosing universes?

Well, not exactly. While the creators of the simulation can say that Proposition Two is meaningful for the occupants of the simulation, they cannot say that Proposition Two is meaningful for themselves. The creators could themselves be living in perfect simulation!

The creators have built a mathematical system in which Proposition Two is meaningful, but outside of that system, the proposition remains meaningless.


Let's now return to Proposition One. Proposition One is very different than Proposition Two because it opens the possibility of transference of existence between simulation and the "real world."

Suppose we build our own simulated universe. In principle, we could see into the simulation we built, and we could give the occupants of that simulation a view of our world. For example, inside the simulation, the link to our universe might appear as a "magic" artifact. However, we can do better than this. We could create a portal into our universe. Upon passing through the portal, a simulant becomes wired into a robotic body, with the robotic sensors mapped to the simulant's senses.

Of course, we could also do the same in reverse, and transplant a person from our universe into the simulation. The idea of "uploading" people into computer systems is not implausible, and is frequently the topic of debate at transhumanist conferences. You just scan the person into digital form and simulate the action of their molecules.

We can now see that the premise of this scenario is that our intellect is independent of whether we are running on real atoms or on simulated ones. Our essence is information and computation, and the means of data processing is largely irrelevant. For the purposes of this debate, the barrier between the real world and the simulated world is not significantly different from a steel barrier between similar physical entities.

Clearly then, logical positivism must accept Proposition One as meaningful.

How does this affect the status of religious arguments under the principle of verifiability?

It doesn't. Proposition One is a purely scientific proposition. Propositions that explain UFO's in terms of alien spaceships are also scientific. Claims that bigfoot and the yeti are "missing links" in human evolution are scientific, too.

So, to the extent that a religious claim is a scientific, naturalistic claim, logical positivism is willing to accept it. This has always been the case.

However, most religions will never accept this. Their deities are beyond science and reason by definition. Such religious claims are meaningless because they insist that no experience can ever alter the probability of their being true. After all, who wants to worship the Klingons, even if their technology does look like magic to us?

Out of curiosity, is Proposition One metaphysical? Can a proposition be metaphysical and scientific at once?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Language Induction

This weekend, I realized something interesting about natural language and its relation to logical positivism. What seems deep to me now might actually be trivial to the professional philosopher. Still, I haven't heard it explained before, so I'm going to try and explain it here.

Quine writes about the indeterminacy of translation. His classic example is that of a field linguist learning a new/unknown language from a group of native speakers. The linguist and his party encounter a rabbit, to which a native speaker points says "Gavagai!" This could mean "rabbit" or "rodent" or "gray rabbit" or "he's eating my carrots," etc. Of course, the linguist creates theories about the word's meaning, and does experiments to determine which theory is correct. The more subtle the meaning of the word "gavagai", the longer it will take the linguist to determine the meaning of the word. An infinitely subtle language might take forever to learn.

This analysis applies to our own native language, too. As children we learn our native tongue in the same way. Quine's work is often interpreted as placing limits on the formality of natural languages, and therefore limits on how any formal theory of verification can be applied.

Along related lines, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is often abridged to a single sentence: "meaning is use." What Wittgenstein is saying is that, in natural language (e.g., in English), the meaning of words is dicovered by induction. We look at how a word is used in social context, and infer the word's meaning. This makes it difficult to isolate individual propositions for logical analysis. Can we rigorously analyze the proposition "all men are mortal" when the meaning of its constituent terms (e.g., the word mortal) are defined by their use in our society?

I claim that we can indeed do so, and quite easily.

When we look carefully, we see that the analysis of natural language is a microcosm of the scientific method. We construct theories and confirm them using roughly Bayesian methods. Each new observation is taken in the context of what we already know, and the confidence levels for our theories of meaning are updated accordingly.

Formal science uses a perfect language that has total precision. It's called mathematics, and it enumerates all logically-consistent structures. A theory is a model of empirical observation that is described in mathematical language. Theories are scientific when they are testable, i.e., when experiments can be performed that will alter our confidence level in the theory using Bayesian methods. In science, there are always an infinite number of theories consistent with a finite set of observations. This isn't a problem, it just means that any effective theory we have developed might one day be replaced by one that is more effective.

Natural language is part of the empirical world, so it is not surprising that natural language can be probed with science. Correspondingly, there are many theories of meaning consistent with a finite number of linguistic observations, but, in principle, this need not cripple linguistics any more than non-unique theories cripple particle physics (i.e., not at all).

Back to our original question.

Each theory of meaning we construct for the proposition "all men are mortal," is implicitly a theory about all of the words in the proposition. However, this is no different from the task at hand when we tackle a scientific proposition like "the mass of the electron is 0.511MeV/c2." To understand this scientific proposition we need to know about the theory of electrons, the special theory of relativity and so on. Scientific propositions build theories upon theories, yet the result is always a single overall theory. In the case of Quantum Electrodynamics, the theory makes predictions accurate to ten decimal places. In principle then, theories of meaning might be no less imprecise than theories about particle physics.

Previously, I had only grasped this concept at an intuitive level: if natural language is a scientific phenomenon, the indeterminacy can always be overcome by studying its underlying physical mechanisms, e.g., psychology and neuroscience.

Why is any of this a big deal? One of the attacks on logical positivism is that indeterminacy and "meaning as use" add so much fuzziness to natural language propositions that it is futile to to speak of semantic meaning at high precision. This analysis makes a compelling case that natural language is as deeply analytical as science because it is science.

There's one more part to this story. I have claimed that a child's natural language comprehension is an informal kind of science. Yet, such science - the kind that we do intuitively - makes no explicit use of formal mathematics. What is the equivalence of formal and informal science?

A good example might be our comprehension of the behavior of falling objects. For example, the speed of a falling ball is v(t) = gt2/2 where t is the time since release and g is the acceleration due to gravity. A nine-year old child can't do algebra, so how does she play catch?

If we graph the curve of v(t) we get a parabola. This geometric shape is an alternate representation of the theory of motion for a dropped ball. Further, any physical system (electronic, optical, thermal, nuclear) that provides a parabolic response curve can serve as a representation of the laws of motion. Hence, the child does not need algebra, she only needs some electro-biochemical representation of a parabola to model the motion of the ball.

The neural networks in our brains have more than enough computing power to apply the methods of informal science:

1. Observe patterns.
2. Generate a collection of structures that are consistent with the observed patterns.
3. Create theories by mapping structures to the observations.
4. Test the theories with further observations. Add the new observations to the master set of patterns.
5. Add successful theories to the set of observed patterns.
6. Repeat

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Open Source Science Fiction

In my high school years, I attended several science fiction conventions. At the time, Doctor Who was very popular, but there were regular Star Trek conventions, too.

No matter how big the convention was (and many were small Creation Entertainment events), I could always spend hours in the dealer room looking at what was on sale. As I recall, at the Doctor Who events, the dealer room was full of imported items that you wouldn't see on local store shelves. Yet, the dealer room at the Star Trek conventions were just as much fun. Of course there were Star Trek collectibles and commercial items, but the best part were the unofficial/unlicensed products.

You could buy note pads with the Starfleet logo on them, supposedly "leaked" scripts of future movies, handbuilt tricorders, and unofficial blueprints of Klingon vessels. There were faux leather book covers with "NCC-1701" embossed no them, red T-shirts with bulls-eyes on them that read "Starfleet Security," and a dozen other otherwise sundry items with Star Trek themes.

What made this bazaar such a wonderful place? The creativity of the dealers themselves. They weren't just resellers or collectors. They were passionate about Star Trek and it showed in the goods they crafted. Vendors tended to specialize in specific crew members or in ships of the fleet. There was even one vendor that featured all Jusdon Scott all the time!

I don't think the dealers made much money at this, but it was probably enough to pay for their products, the convention fees and their travel expenses.

If you go to a Star Trek convention today, most vendors will be selling the same few products you can buy at Toys-R-Us or Borders. Paramount cracked down in the mid- to late-eighties, and now, only officially licensed Star Trek items are allowed. Even if 95% of officially licensed Star Trek stuff were not crap, this would still be a very dull state of affairs. I don't expect Paramount to give maverick dealers a free ride, I'm just lamenting the inevitable consequences of corporate Star Trek. Besides, now that we have the inane Star Trek Enterprise series, they've polluted the brand, big time!

In thinking about ways to revive the original Trekker spirit, I came up with the idea of open source science fiction.

Is it legally possible to create a sci-fi universe that is licensed to the fans with rights to create derivative works? Let's call it "Open Universe."

Any Open Universe fan would have unrestricted rights to create their own Open Universe stories, artwork and collectibles (for profit). However, in return for this freedom, the licensee would have to provide the same open license to his customers.

Would it work? I'm not sure. If I were licensed to create a derivative work within the Open Universe, I might still infringe on a work from outside the Open Universe properties. For example, if I write a character in my Open Universe story called "Steve Austin" who happens to be bionic, I think this would infringe on the Six Million Dollar Man intellectual properties (I love that show, BTW). Still, the nice part about this model is that every writer/contributor is responsible for non-infringement within his or her own works.

There's also another model that's sort of interesting. Call it the "friendly licensor" model. Imagine that Paramount had a web site that allowed you to sell your custom Star Trek products across the Internet. They would take a cut of whatever sales you make and perform some vetting of products that appear on the site. Not gonna happen due to the liability issues, but interesting.

In researching this post, I've come across many instances of unauthorized Star Trek-related works. Maybe, the old dealer room still lives, somewhere out there on the Internet.

Why am I thinking of this now? I suppose that, as we watch monkey boys tear our world apart, escapism is looking more and more attractive. I haven't felt this uncomfortable on planet Earth since I was a nerdy high school misfit.

I'm through with this away-mission. Beam me up, Scotty!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Q: What do conservatives conserve?

A: Conservatives conserve power and influence with those who already have power and influence.

There's a myth that conservatism is a form of caution, a guard against radical and dangerous change. Yet conservatives are all too willing to make radical changes as long as it meets their primary objective of further concentrating wealth and control in the hands of the fortunate. Regressive tax codes like the flat tax or national sales tax are fine examples of some of the downright radical schemes now being peddled to Americans by conservatives.

Conservatives make one exception to the conservation of power paradigm. Progressive forces that promote democracy and egalitarianism are a danger to the conservative principle of entitlement by birth and circumstance. Conservatives aim to strip power from these progressive individuals and organizations, and they aim to do so under the guise of a false egalitarianism. George Soros and labor unions, both crusaders for average Americans, are painted by conservatives as privileged parasites. Meanwhile, conservatives do all they can to weaken democracy, strengthen monopolies, and replace the free press with corporate media sycophants.

I believe that a man should be rewarded for his works, not for his status. Similarly, I believe no man should be penalized for his circumstance, whether rich or poor.

Conservatives see this as a dangerous idea. This is why they have opposed rights for women (e.g., property ownership, suffrage, divorce), rights for non-whites (freedom, suffrage), and rights for non-Christians. Always, they side with the privileged, and always, they find rationalizations for their position. Today's conservative justifies his cause by cherry-picking passages from the Bible in much the same way that Don Rumsfeld cherry picks pre-war intelligence.

Let us frame this debate the way it should be framed!

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Bayesian Logical Positivism

I just read Eliezer Yudkowsky's introduction to Bayes Theorem. Quite illuminating.

Eliezer writes:

"Previously, the most popular philosophy of science was probably Karl Popper's falsificationism - this is the old philosophy that the Bayesian revolution is currently dethroning. Karl Popper's idea that theories can be definitely falsified, but never definitely confirmed, is yet another special case of the Bayesian rules; if p(X|A) ~ 1 - if the theory makes a definite prediction - then observing ~X very strongly falsifies A. On the other hand, if p(X|A) ~ 1, and we observe X, this doesn't definitely confirm the theory; there might be some other condition B such that p(X|B) ~ 1, in which case observing X doesn't favor A over B. For observing X to definitely confirm A, we would have to know, not that p(X|A) ~ 1, but that p(X|~A) ~ 0, which is something that we can't know because we can't range over all possible alternative explanations."

Of course, this raises the possibility that we can reformulate logical positivism in Bayesian terms:

For every meaningful proposition Q there is some finitely executable experimental test E for which:

p(E|Q) <> p(~E|Q)


That is, for a proposition to be meaningful, there must be some repeatable experience that is more likely to occur if the proposition is true than if it is false.

Definitely food for thought.



I'm just beginning to read about something called postpositivism. At first glance, postpositivism this looks like another sad attempt to revive metaphysics by focusing on the weaknesses of prototypical logical positivism all-the-while ignoring the central principle of positivism. In other words, postpositivism seems to score highly on the waffle-o-meter... Stay tuned!

Monday, November 29, 2004

Robot Descendants

At the last WTA chapter meeting, I posed the following rhetorical question:

Which scenario is better: a) that humanity destroy itself in a thermonuclear fireball, or b) that we develop an AI that learns everything we know before supplanting us as the dominant (or only) life form on Earth?

Normally, I hate this kind of question. You know, questions like "would you rather lose an arm or a leg?" Of course, I don't want to lose either.

Still, my question about alternate futures serves to highlight an interesting point. I think it is the dream of most scientists, inventors and artists to produce work that will be appreciated long after they are dead. They don't care who is doing the appreciating. They don't produce a new cure for disease just for their family, their country or their race, they do it for humanity. But what is our individual connection to humanity? How much of an emotional connection do we really have with homo sapiens sapiens in particular? Not that much, I would argue. It's too abstract a concept.

Suppose that in 10,000 years, our descendants have brains that are twice as large as ours, have twenty times our strength and virtually unlimited lifespans. If you met such a creature today, would you call her human? More than human? And if our woman of the future says she appreciates your paintings, your novels and your contributions to science, would you be offended? And if her body were made of silicon and carbon nanotubes, would this change anything?

The bottom line is this. Any creature that we consider to be intelligent and virtuous is a good person, independent of its biology.

D'Lenn, Abe Sapien, Stitch, Arwen, Romanadvoratrelundar, Yoda, John Parker, Kalel, Data... if they were real, would we not consider each of their lives as important as any human life?


As an aside, I wonder how appreciation of science fiction correlates with tolerance for homosexuals. Surely, the sexual practices of fictional alien species must be more bizarre than homosexuality.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

And so it begins...

Taking a cue from George W. Bush, Maryland's Governor has banned certain representatives of the press from speaking with state officials because the journalists refuse to write what the Governor wants to read.

Control of the media is one of the hallmarks of fascism.

Read this list of fascist principles and see how many are being employed today:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.

3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause.

4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism.

5. Rampant sexism.

6. A controlled mass media.

7. Obsession with national security.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.

9. Power of corporations protected.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.

14. Fraudulent elections.

At this point, numerous alarms should be sounding in your head.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Principle of Verifiable Equivalence

The Principle of Verifiability says that the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification, or, as I (and Karl Popper) prefer, its method of falsification.

Here's an example. Suppose I say "the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft in the world." I could mean several different things. I could mean that it accelerates faster than any other airplane. I could mean that it flies in a straight line faster than any other plane. Or, I could mean that it climbs fastest, etc. I can tell you precisely what I mean by telling you the conditions of the experiment that falsifies my statement, e.g., "In level flight, no other airplane that can take off under its own power and is powered by air-breathing engines, can sustain a higher speed than the SR-71 over a 500 mile course."

Okay, that was an easy one.

Look at this proposition: "All Carbon 14 nuclei will eventually decay." Thanks to Nicolas for presenting me with this puzzler. At first glance, scientists will agree with this proposition. The problem is that, as written, we can never falsify it. We would have to wait for all time and observe all C14 nuclei in the universe decay before we were satisfied. This isn't even possible in principle, let alone in practice. This means that, as a logical positivist, I can assign no meaning to this proposition.

This is typical of the kind of challenge philosophers have put forward in opposition to logical positivism. By carefully wording accepted scientific knowledge, opponents of logical philosophy hope to find places where science and logical positivism cannot be reconciled. Poor them - it's a hopeless cause.

The actual law of radioactive decay for C14 says this: "the mean lifetime of C14 nuclei is 8,000 years." Of course, this proposition is perfectly falsifiable. Indeed, the law of radioactive decay does not say that a given nucleus must ever decay. It just says that it will last on average 8,000 years before decaying.

Equivalence
Given a proposition, I can generally reword that proposition in some equivalent form. Instead of saying "I am soaked," I could say "I am covered in water," or "I am drenched." There are a very large number of ways of saying the same thing, though many of these ways become more and more verbose. How do we know whether our alternately-worded propositions are equivalent or not?

Certainly, two propositions cannot be equivalent if an experiment will falsify one proposition, but not the other. That is, verification is one (and, in my opinion, the only) arbiter of equivalency. (Note: I include rigorous mathematical proof as a form of verification of mathematical propositions, so the principle applies to mathematics also.)

This might be called the "Principle of Verifiable Equivalence" (okay, so I'm not good at naming principles). It's weaker than the Principle of Verifiability for two reasons. First, it can be used to compare two similar propositions that don't have identical meaning, but which have overlapping meaning. If I say that "George is lying to me," I am also satisfying the condition that "George is being dishonest towards me." If I falsify the latter proposition (dishonesty), I must falsify the former proposition (lying).

Second, the Principle of Verifiable Equivalence is weaker because it does not say anything about propositions that cannot be verified or falsified. It merely says that any two such propositions can never be shown to be equivalent.

Directives
Thanks again to Nicolas for this proposition:
"Homosexuality is unnatural."

This type of proposition is confusing to people because they make the mistake of thinking that it is a proposition about the world. It isn't. Those who utter this proposition are not talking about social convention - they generally do not mean that "homosexuality is practiced by less than 10% of humans." If they did, their utterance would be no more controversial than saying "private aviation is practiced by less than 10% of humans."

What is controversial is what they are really saying, namely: "I consider homosexuality to be wrong." This isn't about the world, per se. It is about how the speaker feels about the issue.

Similarly, if I say "eating fast food is bad," I really mean either "I don't like fast food," or "do not eat fast food!" Of course, this proposition is either an expression of opinion/strategy, or else it is a directive. Neither one can be true or false at all.

So, before you get too deep trying to analyze the proposition "God is good," just remember that this proposition is, at best, not about the world, and, most likely, utter nonsense.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Incredibly, it's not just me

I knew I couldn't be the only one who sensed right-wing undertones in The Incredibles. Check out this piece in the New York Observer:
The simple message that President Bush managed to dumbly repeat until it seemed true for so many can find itself illustrated in diverse places because it sticks so easily. Team America and The Incredibles are different films that arrive at the same conclusion: At some point the Evil Ones must die, and at some point a special, chosen, brave and happy few will vanquish them; it’s up to the rest of us to sit by and trust them to take care of it, without questioning their methods. In The Incredibles, Mrs. Incredible—voiced by Holly Hunter—lectures her children pointedly: These people will kill you, she says, unless you use your superpowers.

I also found this nice post at the Turk's Head Review blog.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Drill Deeper

One of the big stories this week is the extent to which Saddam Hussein cheated the U.N. Oil for Food Program.

Apparently, Hussein was able to obtain influence among corrupt officials at the U.N. and in neighboring states by awarding them "oil allocations." The allocations could be sold to oil companies who were supposed to be the sole recipient of such allocations from the Iraqi government.

So, let's get this straight. The authoritarian regressives on the right highlight corruption at the U.N. as evidence that the sanctions weren't working. The Republicans then hold Democrats responsible for the failure of the embargo, citing misplaced trust in the U.N. See the problems here?

I'll spell it out.

First, you can't blame the reality-based community for the failure of sanctions WHEN THE SANCTIONS WORKED!!! Saddam was contained, and posed no threat. We had leverage right up until Bush traded Iraq's secular state for a fundamentalist, fanatical chaos.

Second, the corruption was obviously facilitated by your beloved oil companies! You know the ones. Like Halliburton, which may have paid $180 million in bribes to Nigerian officials while Dick Cheney was still CEO. Don't try to tell me the CEO won't notice that little $180 million line-item.

There's your real national security threat: big oil and its influence.

3D Politics

Last week, I figured out that Liberal is not the antonym of Conservative. Liberal is the antonym of Authoritarian. Simplisticaly, I thought that the opposite of Conservative would be Progressive.

However, the resulting 2D plot of political space failed to generate the depth of insight I was hoping for. The problem is that Conservative, the tendency to want to keep things the way they are/were, is loaded with too much historical baggage. Conservatives were the first to work to protect our environment; Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973. However, if go back in time to 19th century, the colonial push towards the West was marked by environmental disregard. Settlers killed millions of Buffalo without consideration for the ecological or economic damage they were doing. In other words, whether a position is conservative or not depends on how far back you want to go.

Obviously, using a continuum from progressive to conservative to regressive isn't an ideal analyical tool for mapping political positions. Still, referring to contemporary right-wingers as regressives is both apt and gratifying.

So what is it about the conservative/regressive worldview that is time-independent?

Pessimism
Certainly, there's the view on the right that problems of human affairs are fundamentally intractible at the social level. This is a pessimism that resonates with the religious: man is too deeply flawed to solve his own problems, so he must appeal to a divine power for help.

Power to the Powerful
Conservatism primarily conserves power among the already powerful. It's no coincidence that "conservatives" are identified with efforts to preserve racial segregation, regressive tax schemes, elimination of social benefits for the underprivileged (including affirmative action), and the transfer of public assets and public enterprise into corporate hands.

Nepotism
Who among the powerful can be trusted to maintain the status quo? Friends and relatives, of course. Consider the Bush administration's current priorities. No bid contracts in Iraq have benefited Halliburton (the company formerly led by the Vice President) and Bechtel with lucrative contracts. George Shultz, the former U.S. Secretary of State, and the man credited with the ascendency of George W. Bush to the Presidency of the United States, served on the board of Bechtel and was Executive Vice President of the company in the 1980's. The recent Medicare prescription drug benefit is a benefit not for seniors, but for HMO's and pharmaceutical companies. The new priority, social security privatization will benefit the brokerage industry by mandating that every citizen risk part of his earnings in brokerage accounts.

Foreign Policy for Profit
Until recently, conservatives supported foreign policy that was designed to benefit American multinational corporations, while protecting U.S. treasure with defensive use of military power, and offensive use of covert power. Republicans have generally favored economic engagement with corrupt and oppressive regimes when there are profits to be made. The interests of the downtrodden are of no sincere interest to them. Communism was a threat that merited special attention, for the communist worldview swore to eliminate private property and sweep away privilege.

Continuing in this tradition, George W. Bush saw an opportunity for profit in his invasion of Iraq. Unlike his predecessors, Bush has completely ignored the defense of treasure paradigm. He has permanently damaged the America's brand, exposed us to increased danger of terror attack, bogged down the military in an unwinnable war, and risked the entire economy in a gamble for Mid-East oil. However, his friends and family stand to make out like kings.

Fear
Unofficially, the view from the left is that the Republicans are a haven for racists and bigots. This could just be coincidence. Racists aren't going to admit to being racist, so they have to find a legitimate cover story. The Republican's just happen to have economic reasons for maintaining the status quo. Nonetheless, the right's opposition to the progression of civil rights is real enough.

Naturally, any party whose political platform is fundamentally based on pessimism will benefit in a climate of fear. That's why we are now engaged in a "war on terror." Conveniently, this war, inasmuch as it has been defined, is interminable.


So, let's return to our political geometry. We now have as axes: Liberal-Authoritarian, Optimistic-Pessimistic, and Fairness-Nepotism. There are eight combinations of these attributes, more if you include neutral positions.

Here are some of those combinations:

Political LocationPositions
Liberal-Optimistic-FairnessDemocratic idealists
Liberal-Optimistic-NepotismCorrupt Democrats
Liberal-Pessimistic-FairnessLibertarian idealists
Liberal-Pessimistic-NepotismLibertarian with pro-corporate agenda
Authoritarian-Optimistic-FairnessSocialist revolutionary idealists
Authoritarian-Optimistic-NepotismSoviet-style communists
Authoritarian-Pessimistic-FairnessReligious right-wing idealists
Neutral-Pessimistic-FairnessThe original American right
Authoritarian-Pessimistic-NepotismFascism
Neutral-Pessimistic-NepotismThe new American right

Seven Generals

Seven Generals explain why the Bush still doesn't get it:

The people in control in the Pentagon and the White House live in a fantasy world. They actually thought everyone would just line up and vote for a new democracy and you would have a sort of Denmark with oil. I blame Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the people behind him -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Douglas Feith. The vice president himself should probably be included; certainly his wife. These so-called neocons: These people have no real experience in life. They are utopian thinkers, idealists, very smart, and they have the courage of their convictions, so it makes them doubly dangerous.

-Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak
Air Force chief of staff, 1990-94

Movie Reviews

I'm working on another "deep" post, but for now, here's are three (short) movie reviews.

Saw the Incredibles last night. I rate it 6.5/10. Technically, the movie is well crafted. I thought the violence and suspense were a bit strong for young children, though none of the young kids at the movie theater cried during the show. The thing that spoiled the movie for me was the dialogue. They just had to go and throw in references to terrorism and tort reform. I dunno, maybe I'm getting overly sensitive in my old age. Also, Pixar's opening short, Bounding, was their lamest ever.

7/10. Nice, romantic film. Young Hugh Grant put in a good performance as Chopin. Don't know why, but I always find Bernadette Peters annoying. Loved Emma Thompson, as usual.





I really enjoyed this movie, even more than the original. 8.5/10. Bridget's hilarious friends played a less prominent role in the story :(, but the embarrassing moments weren't quite as embarrassing as in the first picture :). If you liked the first movie, you'll probably like the sequel.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Liberal vs. Conservative: the false dichotomy

We tend to think of there being two competitors in the political ring...

On the left, wearing the blue shorts, friend to the arts and sciences, tree-hugger extraordinaire, progress is his middle name... the Liberal.

On the right, wearing the red trunks, friend to industry and millionaire alike, Mr. "Three Strikes and you're out!", God bless this contender... the Conservative.

However, this is a very poor, one-dimensional approximation to something that has at least two dimensions.

Dictionary.com defines conservative as: Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.

The opposite of conservative is progressive: Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods

Neither conservatism nor progressiveness is a panacea. In extreme doses, both are dangerous. I suppose conservatives would say that change brings unpredictable results, including the potential loss of something that is good. Progressives might say that we never have the perfect solution, and that changes made with due deliberation have the potential to improve our lives. Fundamentally, conservatives are pessimists and progressives are optimists.

What is the opposite of liberalism? To be a liberal is to value freedom. The closest antonym for liberalism I have found so far is authoritarianism.

In the following table, I've tried to classify certain political positions within this two-dimensional political universe:



If you want to know who Bush is talking about when he refers to those who "hate freedom," it is the occupants of the bottom half of this diagram.

Now to political parties. Democrats are liberal progressives with a hint of environmental conservatism. Republicans used to be conservative in general, now they are squarely in are bottom right quadrant (a.k.a., conservative freedom-haters). Ralph Nader is probably in the bottom left corner. The libertarians live in the top right quadrant.

I feel sort of dim for taking so long to figure this out. I'm optimistic that eliminating the false liberal/conservative dichotomy in the minds of voters will lead to positive results. However, there are dark forces that don't want the dichotomy to go away.

So when Ann Coulter (may her name be cursed throughout the Local Group) spits her venom at us liberals, just remember that she's an authoritarian: she hates freedom.

Election Analysis

Dick Meyer at CBS has some interesting post-election analysis.

Meyer convincingly argues that moral values were not the most significant factor in this election. The way the question was asked in the exit polls, and the cultural definition of morality skews the question in favor of the Republicans.

First of all, Terrorism and Iraq were not grouped together as a category. Had they been, the Terrorism/Iraq category would have been the biggest single issue for voters at 34%.

Second, the question effectively reads something like: "Do you favor the Republican view of morality?" Not surprisingly, 80% of them voted for the Republicans.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Who doesn't want to be a liberal?

We live in a liberal democracy because human nature makes it impossible for us to reach anything but a broad consensus. Before we start throwing our freedoms in the trash, let's take time to ponder what we might lose if we surrender our liberal ideals.

Privacy
If we don't watch people all the time, we won't know what they're getting up to. They could be plotting a terrorist attack. They could be printing counterfeit money. They could be having sex in illegal positions! We had better install cameras in every room of every home, just in case. Big Brother is watching!

Our liberal philosophy is what gives us the right to privacy. We accept responsibility to use our privacy wisely, and grant others the right to do the same. In certain locations (like airports), privacy may be curtailed due to the immediacy of the threat to public safety. Libraries are not such locations.

Guns
The United States has liberal gun ownership laws. Not conservative gun ownership laws, liberal ones. We allow people the freedom to have guns, and trust that they will use them responsibly. Yes, a gun owner might kill someone accidentally or on purpose, but we should not take rights away from people unless we can show that those rights would serve purely anti-social purposes. For example, assault weapons are designed to kill people in large numbers. The only reason to justify the availability of assault weapons is to enable the populace to resist tyranny. The government owns tanks and attack helicopters; should we allow individuals to own those, too? I don't think that the tyranny argument justifies private ownership of military class weapons.

Hunting
You want to shoot a defenseless animal for sport. It's perfectly legal. Such courage, such guile. What a sense of power, what a thrill, what a man. Why don't you strangle your dog with your bare hands? That would be thrilling wouldn't it?

As you can tell, I don't think hunting for sport shows good character. If you hunt because you must, that's another thing entirely. Hey, I'm as happy as the next guy to eat burgers and chicken nuggets. I just don't think that the act of killing the weak and the innocent should be a source of pleasure. However, this is a liberal democracy, if you want to kill an animal for pleasure, you have the right to fire away! As long as hunters don't kill endangered species or turn their guns on people, I don't see an imperative to take away their rights.

Choice.
When does human life (as we know it) begin? We all agree that a viable fetus is a human being with human rights. However, choosing the moment of conception as the start of life is ARBITRARY!! Where will this insanity lead? Is it better to treat women as chattel - mere breeding machines that we value less than an undeveloped fetus? Is it better to kill a sentient woman than to kill an embryo? Should we force women to salvage their unfertilized eggs during menstruation so we can fertilize the eggs and implant them in any available woman? Should all women of child-bearing age be pregnant to ensure that no potential human lives are lost?

This is a liberal democracy, and women have the right to privacy, the right to self-defense, and have responsibility for their own lives. What a woman does with a non-viable embryo is between her and her doctor. We already restrict abortion to non-viable fetuses (except when birth would cost the life of the mother), so there's no threat to society from the practice of abortion.

Sexuality
There's a whole bunch of people whose sexual advances I would rather not receive. Only a subset of these people are men!

In my opinion, those who want to deny human rights to gays and lesbians (the right to marry, the right to work, the right to healthcare, the right to exist, etc.) are simply bigots. How do I know? I used to irrationally fear gays, too. Twenty years ago, I used to rationalize all sorts of stupid reasons why gays were bad people, or at least, doing bad things. When I finally met some gay people and learned that they're no different than the rest of us, my rationalizations melted away.

Decades ago, non-whites were seen as less than human, and all sorts of rationalizations were given for infringement of their rights. In time, that too passed.

Hey, bigots have the right to be bigots, but they don't have the right to make homosexuals (or anyone else) second-class citizens. There's no public safety hazard posed by gays and lesbians.

Conscience
I think organized religion is a form of mass delusion. For their part, superstitious people think my atheism is wicked. But as long as a man's delusion isn't a safety threat, let him be deluded. If you want to discriminate against me because I insist on seeing reality instead of fantasy, you had better be ready to be on the receiving end of the same discrimination. Once they've come after me, they'll come after you next. Yes, religion is yet another freedom guaranteed by liberal democracy.

Now, who doesn't want to be a liberal?

Virtue

Just blogging out loud for a bit...

The Good and the Bad
Good is not absolute. Good is defined for each of us by the sum of our personal experiences. The "good" is a part of our brain that is co-activated when we have positive experiences: we see a beautiful scene, make contact with a loved one, or eat chocolate cake. Similarly, the "bad" is that part of our brain co-activated with negative experiences like physical pain, emotional loss and bad smells.

There's not necessarily a fixed, physical "goodness center" in the brain. Our neocortex is a highly generalized pattern matching machine; good and bad are just patterns we extract from experience.

The more distant an action is from simple pleasure or pain, the harder it is to assign a goodness rating to that action. Nonetheless, we can still say that filing away recipes in alphabetical order is good because it will reduce the pain of finding the recipes later.

Naturally, precisely what a man defines as good or bad is as unique as his life experiences.

Ethics
Ethics is a set of principles we adopt to facilitate living with others. Ethics are not absolute either. In free societies, promotion of the "common good" is a social objective. The common good is a sort of an average of the individual good over the entire group. A individual's personal goodness almost always differs from ethical goodness, even if only slightly.

Since a person is not an invariant machine, her individual experiences will change her perception of good and bad. Good and bad are not fixed at the individual level, so good and bad cannot be optimally fixed at a social level. Ethics must be adaptable.

Morality
I'll define morality as the set of principles an individual uses to determine right and wrong. Individual moral codes and ethical or legal codes frequently diverge.

Since moral code is defines by personal good, moral codes are not absolute either. Sorry.

Virtue
Following society's ethical rules to the letter would be considered virtuous behavior. Is that all there is to it? If a person follows the rules under duress, is that still virtue? I'm not so sure. In my view, it is the thought that counts, and a good act performed for the wrong reason isn't good, though it is preferable to a bad act.

An autonomous automobile that that never breaks traffic laws might also be considered virtuous by some. However, the car cannot visualize the consequences of breaking those laws, and consequently make the choice to obey them. The robot car is generally good for us, but it is not virtuous.

Finally, is it not a virtue to be able to see the good exception to the rule of law?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Paradigm Shift

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
-Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Unless there's evidence of massive voter fraud on the part of the Republicans, it looks like George W. Bush has won re-election.

Before last night, I had spent quite a while wondering what I would do to protest a Bush victory. I really couldn't think of anything fitting.

After last night, I realized that this isn't really about America or politics anymore. It requires personal adaptation.

The Scales Fall
It is now apparent that more than 50% of American voters cannot make rational political decision. They vote based on their gut or based on wedge issues. They cannot see the big picture. To be fair, one can probably lump many voters on the left into this category, too. You know the ones I mean. The environmentalist who thinks that environmentalism trumps national security, or the pacifist who cannot justify war for any reason.

Yesterday, America re-elected the worst President in U.S. history. A man who has brought wide-scale corruption, environmental degradation, disastrous foreign policy and increased terrorism. What does a President have to do to get thrown out of office?

Under normal circumstances, Americans would fire the president when they feel an acute malaise. There has to be a noticeable drop in the standard of living due to unemployment or underemployment or due to high crime rates. Things are definitely worse than they were under Clinton, but that's no longer enough. Bush's perpetual "war on terrorism" is a political weapon that uses fear to keep people from voting the way they should. This means that terrorist attacks against America will actually help Bush win re-election, not hurt him. We shouldn't be surprised that the Bush administration pretends it's doing something abroad (e.g., the war in Iraq), while simultaneously weakening homeland security. The "American Death Spiral," if you will.

Things will get a lot worse before they get better.

The Stars Fall
Government funding for America's technological infrastructure is collapsing. Science funding is down, funding for education (including higher education) is down, and there is no government road map to keep America competitive.

The Bush administration's policy is to stack government science committees with representatives from industries that have something to lose if any progress is made. Drug companies to run the FDA, energy executives to set energy policy, polluters to govern the EPA, and right-wing ignoramuses to oversee stem cell research (or rather, to prevent it).

This is a perversion. Government exists to serve the needs of the people, and without it, people cannot compete with corporate influence. Government is supposed to do those things that corporations and private interests cannot or will not do.

Corporations will happily hire their PhD's in India or China, and build factories elsewhere. Why should they pay more to hire Americans? Americans have no special skills anymore.

America's star is sure to fall.

Personal Strategy
Politically, not much has changed. The Democratic political machine is just getting fired up, and it will be stronger in 2006 and stronger still in 2008. I shall redouble my efforts as a Democratic volunteer.

However, on a personal level, things need to change. I have always had faith in American innovation and American democracy. We had the best universities and the best scientific research. Our society was imperfect, but it was both liberal and wonderful. I always believed America could meet any challenge. I believed that the American dream would always be out there. I believed that an investment in America was an investment in myself.

I no longer believe this. I'm not saying that America is doomed to fall way behind the rest of the world. I just don't have any confidence that it can stay ahead. America's values are no longer much different from any other country. The United States is violent, ignorant, unjust, and now it tortures prisoners.

I can and I will work to change this, but I no longer fight for America's honor as if it were my own. America isn't me anymore.

I'm taking a card from the Republican playbook. In the Republican world, social Darwinism is the order of the day. They say that society must have its winners and its losers. Well then, I will be a winner. I will be more competitive than ever. I will fight for my own interests first, and my country's interests second. I will ask not what I can do for my country. I won't even ask what my country can do for me. I will ask what I can do for myself.

In practical terms what does this mean? I haven't had time to think things through in much detail, but there are a couple of areas that I can work on.

Financially, I need to get my house in order. I can't make financial decisions based on loyalty to America or to progressive agendas. I can't sit back and have faith that hard work and traditional virtues are enough. If I have to invest in overseas institutions or in oil companies, so be it.

As for homeland security, it doesn't really exist. The government is actually motivated to promote insecurity. I must learn to be responsible for my own security, and that means stocking up on food, water and medical supplies. It means ensuring that I am much more self-sufficient.

Darwin's Revenge
If you're a Republican reading this, you're probably celebrating right now. You're wondering why I wasn't some sort of survivalist all along. You have a point. I should be the master my own destiny, and not trust in the goodwill of others.

What you Republicans haven't figured out is that your strategy has destroyed America's reputation, and now it is destroying America. It rewards investment in the best solution for the individual, not the best solution for the country. It promotes disinvestment in the United States.

So, if it is social Darwinism you seek, it is social Darwinism you shall have. Just remember, in natural selection, only the fittest survive, and I am the fittest!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Analytic, Schmanalytic

I just read this little gem in the Wikipedia definition of Analytic Philosophy:
The method of Analytic philosophy is a generalized approach to philosophy. Originally associated with the very limited projects of logical analysis, it nowadays emphasizes (merely) a clear, precise approach with particular weight being placed upon argumentation and evidence, avoidance of ambiguity, and attention to detail. This has made many philosophical subjects more suited to specialization and precision work, and also less accessible than they were in the past. Arguably it has also resulted in philosophy having less of the sweeping "meaning of life" scope that is popularly associated with the term, and the critics of analytic philosophy sometimes level this point against it.
See, this is what ticks me off. One's distaste for the conclusion of a line of reasoning isn't a valid criticism of the reasoning itself. If it were, I could criticise thermodynamics on the basis that I don't much like cold weather: Thermodynamics, Schmermodynamics, Q.E.D.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Election Made Simple

A concise and eloquent proposition from Abu Aardvark:



Vote for this or against it.

It really isn't that complicated.

The world is watching. The world wants to know which America is the real America: the one which offers a vision of a better world, a more liberal and free world, a safer and more just world... or the one in this picture, a world brought to you by George Bush and his administration and for which no-one of any consequence has been held accountable.

Vote for one.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Apparently, I've reached 1917

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the function of logic.

At the suggestion of my friend robin, I investigated the works of the philosopher Josiah Royce.

Royce wrote an interesting essay on the subject of "Order." In this essay written in 1917, Royce appears to come to conclusions similar to mine:

We may sum up with the observation that, if we had no exact idea of what inference is, we should have no exact idea of what order is, while our very idea of what inference is depends in all cases where an inference relates to classes and to general law, upon our idea of what constitutes the negative of a defined class of objects or cases. Without negation there is no inference. Without inference there is no order, in the strictly logical sense of the word. The fundamentally significant position of the idea of negation in determining and controlling our idea of the orderliness of both the ideal and the real world, of both the natural and the spiritual order, becomes, in the light of all these considerations, as momentous as it is, in our ordinary popular views of this subject, neglected. To the article NEGATION we must, therefore, refer as furnishing some account of the logical basis upon which the idea of order depends. From this point of view, in fact, negation appears as one of the most significant of all the ideas that lie at the base of all the exact sciences. By virtue of the idea of negation we are able to define processes of inference – processes which, in their abstract form, the purely mathematical sciences illustrate, and which, in their natural expression, the laws of the physical world, as known to our inductive science, exemplify. Serial order is the simplest instance of that orderly arraying of facts, inferences, and laws upon which, on the theoretical side of its work, science depends; while, as we have seen, in the practical world, the arraying, the organizing, of individual and social life constantly illustrates, justifies, and renders spiritually precious this type of connexion, which makes our lives consecutive and progressive, instead of incoherent and broken.

As an aside, notice how Royce mixes discussions about propositional logic (the rigorous) with discussions about natural language and religion (the informal). I'm not saying Royce was confused on these issues, I'm just saying that his papers don't seem organized in a logical fashion considering the distinctions involved.

Anyway, I interpret Royce's analysis as consistent with my own: logic is vital for comprehension and perception of structure, and that negation in logic is even more fundamental, negation being necessary for knowledge, even of the most simple facts.

So there you have it. I might just have deduced something that Royce figured out more than 50 years before I was born!

I agree with Royce: without logic there can be no knowledge or structure.




Why was I never taught about the nature of logic in high school or college? Is this conclusion obscure or controversial?

Here's why I think this is an important issue.

Ask your friends this question: "Can we have knowledge without logic?"

I think most people would say yes. However, they are not answering the question literally. They read the question as: "Can a person obtain knowledge without using speech, inner monologue or symbol manipulation?"

Of course, we can know something from intuition or gut feeling without using reason explicitly. Let's look closely at an example. Suppose you work as a security guard at an airport, and a passenger tells you "Yes, I packed my own suitcase." Your gut tells you the person is lying, even though you have little conscious evidence that this is the case. Plausible, right? It is well known that people can subconsciously pick up on small details in a person's body language, speech or facial expressions. However, even this intuitive inference would be impossible if we could not distinguish between one proposition, "The passenger is lying," and its negation, "The passenger is not lying."

This is the one of the pillars of logical positivism: in a domain where logic does not apply, there can be no knowledge or perception. Since causality is itself a form of order (it implies structure in time), there can be no causality without logic.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Newsflash: Bush supporters delusional

Why does Bush get so much support despite the Iraq war debacle? The new survey from the Program on International Policy Attitudes explains a lot.

Perceptions of Bush supporters:
72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%).

75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found.

Eighty-two percent of Bush supporters perceive the Bush administration as saying that Iraq had WMD (63%) or that Iraq had a major WMD program (19%).

...only 31% of Bush supporters recognize that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq.

The Facts:
Iraq had no WMD, no programs to build WMD, a waning capacity to start programs for WMD, and no connection to al Qaeda. The majority of people in the world opposed the invasion of Iraq and oppose the reelection of Bush.

Conclusion:
Bush's strength in the polls is due to the high level of ignorance of his supporters.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The function of logic

What is logic? Until last night I believed that the sole purpose of logic was to guarantee consistency. Suppose we have a set of propositions (statements that are either true or false):

{Pi, i = 1..N}


We then assign each proposition a truth value:

{Pi = Ti, i = 1..N}


where Ti is true or false. Logic is the tool we use to determine whether or not the assigned truth values lead to a contradiction.

For example, if P1 = ~ P2 then logic tells us that T1 = ~ T2. If T1 = T2 then there is a contradiction.

If we forego logic, we must accept that for any proposition, P, we regard as true, its negative, ~P, might also be true. Clearly, in this case, knowledge would be impossible.

However, last night I wondered what would happen if we weakened logic so that the only logical operation was the NOT (~) operator. This allows us to meaningfully accept propositions as true without the fear that the negated proposition would also be true. But does it make knowledge possible?

My conclusion is that it allows facts, but does not permit comprehension or perception of structure. This is because structure is a relationship between facts. I may declare that "A > B", and its negation is "A <= B", but this is not the same thing as "A < B".

Another example: visually, a line is a sequence of points. In some sense we are saying that in a 2-D coordinate system (point P1 has no Y component) AND (point P2 has no Y component) AND (point P3 has no Y component) AND... If logical AND does not apply, we cannot even perceive structure.

This is not surprising since, as Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell proved, all mathematics can be derived from logic. Set theory (classification) and sorting are all consequences of logic, and without these we can have no perception.

If one gives up on logic, one sacrifices structure and perception.