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

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 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.

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!