Saturday, October 29, 2005

Mr. Opportunity Cost

That's George W. Bush's legacy. All the opportunities that were missed because of this president.

We lost the opportunity to pay off the national debt because Bush insisted on giving tax breaks to America's millionaires.

We lost the opportunity to prevent some natural disasters by not taking aggressive action on CO2 emissions. Some global warming related disasters were inevitable because the world acted too late, but instead of starting to cut emissions now, Bush just ignored the problem. Maybe we'll get another decade of disasters thanks to Bush.

We got hit on September 11th 2001 largely because Bush ignored the terrorist threat. Outgoing Clinton officials warned him that Al Qaida was threat number one. He even got a memo from the intelligence services in August. What did he do? Nothing. He just wasted time, effort and goodwill on a useless missile defense system.

America's lead in technology is fading fast. Without public investment in nanotech or alternative energy, Americans will have no economic advantage over other nations. Jobs and money will flow elsewhere because who wants to pay Americans four times as much as, say, the Indians for comparable work? Sorry kids. America was once a great nation, like ancient Greece. Then Bush became president. He opened up free trade without securing American economic advantage. The very richest Americans got much richer because they had international portfolios. Everyone else got screwed.

After 9/11, the world stood with us in solidarity. We could have created a new world order, and solved old conflicts across the globe. Nope. Bush decided to go to war for personal reasons, and now America is seen by most people around the world as a threat as big as terrorism itself. Bastard.

The military. Bush lied and sent us to war without cause and without planning. He broke every rule of the Powell Doctrine. Now thousands of soldiers and civilians have died for less than nothing. We are now less safe than we were before, and the terrorists have benefited massively from our folly.

Okay, I have places to go to day, so I'll finish this very long list some other time.

Today's missed opportunity is in Kashmir earthquake relief. The U.N. says it needs $250 million for urgent relief needs like food and helicopters. This is needed to maintain supply lines for three million people living in the region. The U.N. says that this is our last chance to keep thousands of people alive in a region that recently saw 55,000 deaths.

Bush, you idiot! Help these people! You're all "culture of life" until people get born, then you don't give a damn! So, now millions more around the world will know that the United States could have saved the lives of thousands of Muslims in the region, could have taken a leadership role, but chose not to. $250 million is a pittance for what we would all be getting.

Another day, another lost opportunity.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why Singularities Don't Need a Cause

Causality, the idea that everything has a prior cause, serves an important function in physics. It makes predictions possible. If future conditions do not depend on past conditions, then the universe would be unpredictable. You can think of the laws of physics as being rules that constrain the future to depend on the past.

In physics, there's also the concept of locality. Let's say that events do depend on the past, but that signals from the past can travel faster than light. In that case, there would be frames of reference in which the future appears to affect the past. Naturally, this won't do because, again, we would be unable to make any predictions. Instead, each event is dependent on prior events in its "reverse light-cone."

Your reverse light-cone contains all the things in the past that might affect your current state. This cone is big. It is roughly 300,000 kilometers in radius for each second you go back into the past. Your current state is affected by the light and gravity of Apollo hardware sitting on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility as it was a bit more than a second ago (the Moon is roughly 400,000Km away). Anyway, physics requires that events be consistently related to prior events that are in their reverse light-cone.

What would happen if there were one, single, initial event in history? Causality would be meaningless for the initial event as there would be no prior events for the initial event to depend on. In the case of the Big Bang, the reverse light-cone gets squashed so that it contains no prior events. Therefore, science can be completely consistent without the need for something to cause the first event.

I think it's interesting to consider conservation laws for initial events, too. Conservation laws, like the conservation of energy and momentum, are due to symmetries. Noether's Theorem tells us that when a physical system has a symmetry, there is a corresponding conserved charge. In the case of energy and momentum, the symmetry is that of translation through space and time. Because the laws of physics don't change between yesterday and tomorrow, or between my house and yours, then energy and momentum are conserved over that time, too.

Yet, if there is one single event at the beginning of all space and time, there is no symmetry of translation in space and time. We cannot compare the laws of physics one second before the Big Bang to those one second after the Big Bang because there was no universe to compare against beforehand. Therefore, we should not expect energy or momentum to be conserved by the first event of the Big Bang.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What is real?

The following is based on my comments at the blog Tu Quoque.

I propose the following definition of the term "real":

A thing is real to the extent that one can settle propositions about that thing empirically (or computationally).

In a logical positivist sense, all meaningful propositions are real (e.g., "456 + 341 = 797" is empirically verifiable). Strings of meaningless symbols are also real to the extent that we can state empirically testable propositions about those strings. Likewise, people and atoms are real to the extent that propositions about them are testable.

By this standard, even fiction has some level of reality. The fictional world of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter is real, but only to the extent that we prefix our empirical propositions by "in the non-physical construction by J.K. Rowling..." We can create propositions about Hogwarts that can be empirically tested by verifying their consistency with Rowling's construction. However, outside of that specified literary context, Hogwarts is not real.

I think we can conclude that reality isn't a simple attribute like the truth value of a proposition. Instead, reality is a demarcation of context for meaningful propositions.
Two entities are part of the same reality when the very same empirical tests can be applied to both entities.
I anticipate an objection to my claim based on a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes the "same empirical tests". The critic may ask, under my criteria, whether thunder and lightning are part of the same reality? I would answer that they are. Correlations of between empirical tests are themselves empirical. Using photodetectors and microphones, we can easily correlate thunder and lightning, but neither sensor will register anything when Hermione Granger casts a spell.

So, this is based on my definition of what the symbol "real" means. The key aspect of this definition is that it contains within it a relatively unambiguous recipe for determining whether something is real or not.

Now, you can dispute my definition. You may prefer a different definition, but my claim is that your definition is meaningless unless you have a recipe for deciding what is and what isn't real.

You see, the term "real" doesn't have a meaning until we define the term in a more precise fashion. I think much of the reason why metaphysics is so confusing to us is that we have a vague, gut, intuitive feeling for what "real" means. We then try to reason about what things are real based purely on the gut. Intuitively, it sounds like a good idea, but it's really a confusion.

Instead, let's create a set of rigorous definitions for what real means (real[0], real[1],... we'll call mine real[0]), and then we can talk logically about what things are real.

Again, you may object to my definition on the grounds that there are things that you feel are real which do not conform to my definition. However, unless you have a rigorous alternative test procedure (real[1], say), your definition is just a gut feeling, and the definition of what is real gets reduced to how each of us personally feels about it.

As with the Principle of Verifiability, my statement about what is real is merely a definition. As such it is meaningful in the logical positivist sense as long as it specifies a procedure for determining reality.

Terror Postgrads

The Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says Iraq has become a "post-graduate faculty for terrorism":

"We all obviously hope the conflict in Iraq ends soon, but then worry about what all these people are going to do," he said. "They will re-migrate around the world and return home.

"At the end of the day a lot of the issues that motivate these people are so varied and different that they will carry on possibly beyond their service in Iraq and continue to be motivators, what are now well-trained, highly effective, dangerous people."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Verifying the Principle of Verifiability

At the core of logical positivism lies the Principle of Verifiability:

the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification or falsification.
A common criticism of logical positivism is that the Principle of Verifiability is not itself verifiable or falsifiable. As I shall show, the Principle meets its own criteria.

The Principle is not an empirical observation. The Principle defines meaning as being equivalent to "having logical consequences". Being a definition for a property, the Principle's own meaning merely requires that there be a recipe for determining the value of that property. Given a proposition, the recipe is straightforward: identify other propositions (physical or analytical) that are implied by or that refute the proposition under scrutiny.

The reader may object to the use of an arbitrary definition as the founding principle of a philosophy. Who is to say what the definition of meaning really is?

Well, the logical positivist definition of meaning sets the bar very low. It would be unreasonable to say that we would know the meaning of a proposition if we could not say what the implications of that proposition were. In other words, if you want to dispute the Principle of Verifiability, you would have to claim that a proposition has meaning or sense even when one cannot state what other propositions (again, empirical or analytic) would be implied or negated by its truth.

Thus, the Principle of Verifiability is a definition, much like the definition of any other mathematical concept like "prime number". It meets its own criteria of verifiability because it lays out a procedure for determining whether a proposition has meaning, just as the Sieve of Eratosthenes lays out a procedure for finding prime numbers.

To abandon the Principle of Verifiability is to admit that a proposition can have meaning even when it has no implications.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Sex and Blue Skies

MSNBC's Brian Alexander has an excellent piece about the Attorney General's new War on Porn. I don't think that the government should completely ignore minor law enforcement problems just because there are higher priorities like counter-terrorism. However, as Alexander points out, studies show that porn isn't a problem! A.G. A.G. should stop wasting taxpayer dollars scanning porn sites, and go after some actual criminals.

It is my opinion that Alberto Gonzales is engaged in political pandering to two constituencies: the religious wingnuts who see sex for pleasure as the root of all evil, and a vocal minority of parents who want the government to be responsible for raising their kids their way.

I'm not saying that a parent's job is an easy one. Quite the contrary. The ubiquity of online porn makes it difficult for children surf safely. However, there's no practical alternative to conscientious parental guidance (and good Web filtering) in this case. We can't effectively police the entire Internet without disconnecting huge chunks of it. That would hurt everything from trade to democracy to human rights.

In my opinion, parents should explain to children precisely what is and isn't acceptable activity, and parents should feel justified in setting reasonable limits on their childrens' behavior. Even if that means that their kids can't take part in every teenage social event, or can't surf the Internet without some form of supervision or surveillance.

Creating safety zones for teens is time-consuming, and comes with great responsibility. Simply erecting an information shield around the child to prevent access to all things sexual doesn't sound like a workable plan to me. Young people deserve information about safe sex and their sexual development, and they should get that information from appropriate sources (e.g., their parents).

Okay, so I'm not saying anything radical, here. I reckon most people would agree that, ideally, teens should be celibate. What about sex among consenting adults?

In my view, sex is like a blue sky or a starry night. Sex is something to be enjoyed and appreciated, something that enhances our quality of life. I think it's mean-spirited and malicious to make people feel guilty for enjoying the innocent gifts that Nature has provided to us. And the pleasure of sex is an especially good gift.

This is why authoritarian efforts to stifle consensual sexual behavior, or speech about such behavior, really bothers me. If anything, we should be making sex more wonderful, more safe, more socially acceptable and more available to adults. We should be fighting the social ills that are correlated with sexual activity, not fighting or stigmatizing the act itself.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pulp Religion

My last post was deliberately provocative, and a bit misleading.

The study shows that higher rates of Christian religiosity don't correlate with better societal health. This should probably put to rest the old assumption that if people were more religious, then society would be better off. The United States is the most Christian, most religious developed nation, and its levels of murder, suicide and STD's are much higher than in other developed nations. In other words, making America more Christian isn't necessarily going to make us better off. Not that I don't expect Christians to want more conversions, even if it does nothing to improve society.

These charts don't imply that all religion is the direct cause of social ills. Indeed, I think it's possible that some very liberal forms of Christianity may even have a net benefit.

So what are the primary causes of these problems? The first is that America has one of the highest poverty levels of any developed nation. This poverty (and there being more guns than people) probably contributes to the very high murder rate.
The U.S. also ranks something like 20th in public education. There's no national health system, and no proper support for the mentally ill.

So why is high religiosity (in this case, Christianity) correlated with these problems? My short answer is that poverty and low education standards breeds what I would call "pulp religion."

Before I describe pulp religion, let me describe "thoughtful religion." There are dedicated theologians who study at the world's great universities. Though they're not paid much, they care deeply about the truth. They trust logic and see the weaknesses of common religious arguments. They are rarely ever dogmatists of fundamentalists. Laypersons who subscribe to liberal faiths also think the same way. They know that it's absurd to believe that the Bible is literally true, but they have faith in a higher being anyway. They are essentially secular in behavior, and they use God to motivate their own good behavior.

In contrast, pulp religion is fundamentalist, dogmatic, authoritarian and commercial. Let's take these one by one.

Fundamentalist. The Bible cannot be literally true. Even if we agreed on what God wanted, the Bible still wouldn't be literally true. It is riddled inconsistencies and impossibilities, and it contradicts scientific fact.

Dogmatic. The pulp church teaches people to outsource their morality. It claims to have moral authority and to be able to set rules for behavior. Instead of sex education, they prefer useless moralizing. When the bad behavior inevitably occurs, they excuse the bad behavior by allowing its believers to assign blame to evil spirit(s).

Authoritarian. Pulp churches want to legislate their agenda. They are most distressed that they can only tell you what to do.

Commercial. Simple rule here. If your church is rich, it's a fake. It's a business like any other. Oh, except that it gets an unconstitutional tax break.

In short, America is big on pulp religion, and pulp religion is bad for society. Generally, the more educated and affluent people are, the harder it is for pulp religion to make a profit.

What America needs is national health care, a progressive tax system (where the wealthy are taxed more than the middle-class, today the wealthy pay a lower rate), and a solid investment in public education. It most certainly doesn't need public religion.