Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.


Fact is…

Years ago, when I was at Purdue University studying Anthropology, I was in one of those combined departments you get in a relatively unremunerative major. In this case, it was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Sociology vastly outnumbered, outspent, and generally outdid us. We were like poor relations who were allowed to live with our betters because otherwise we would have been homeless, and that would not have reflected well on the family, would it?

I had a pet peeve, of course, and it was against the sociologists, of course. It seemed to me that they spent all their time studying either trivialities (e.g., why Freshman girls pledging sororities chose the ones they did) or the obvious (e.g., whether people generally prefer to socialize with others like themselves). God knows what conclusions were gleaned from the former, but the latter almost universally confirmed what was expected. Every once in a while, they would turn up something counterintuitive, but that was seldom, and when it did happen, more studies followed up, to see if the results could be replicated.

Of course, my perceptions of the kinds of research conducted by Purdue sociologists were severely biased, and almost certainly grossly exaggerated the percentage of pointless studies. All the same, there was one significant factor about the second variety, the studies of the obvious. When such studies confirmed expectations, they were almost never revisited. In the wisdom of my youth, I thought, good, they never should have been done in the first place.

Nowadays, it seems clear to me that there is good value in investigating “common sense,” since, as the old saw goes, it is often neither common nor sense. But here’s the rub: when such studies confirm general expectations, they’re still only rarely revisited for replication. In fact lack of attempts to replicate research has become an issue across the board; just google “replication in research,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Not revisiting studies of what seems obvious probably stems from a combination of confirmation bias and reluctance to waste time and money in short supply. But the extension to studies of any kind undoubtedly relates to mundane career decisions. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s study. If you’re a junior scientist, or even a senior one, it is far better for your career to come up with something unique. Even then, you’d better get positive results, or your chances of publication are slim, and no publication means time wasted, career-wise.

And why, you’re asking yourself, does this matter? Two reasons: First, there are potentially many common-sensical hypotheses that are unsound, but are propped up by poorly designed studies, and thus become part of the scientific canon. Second, the pursuit of the trivial in an effort to avoid replication opens up science for ridicule by people with political agendas.

The remedy seems clear enough. Replication studies and negative results need to have the same status as original studies with positive results. Try convincing a journal editor or department chair of that, and good luck.

Don’t beam me up, please

It’s an old dream, the ability to move instantly from one place to another, far off.  Only shamans were ever able to do it, though.  But now, there’s a chance it might actually happen for all of us, in the not too ridiculously distant future.

Technically, there is no reason why we can’t eventually have teleporters – little booths you can walk into and walk out of thousands of miles away at the speed of light, providing there’s one at each end.  Sort of.

You knew there was a catch, didn’t you?  Using existing technology, the process involves reading all the information of which you are composed at one end, and reassembling you at the other end by dumping it.  This does involve your complete destruction at the transmitting end, of course.

That’s the interesting part.  The reassembled you at the destination would have all your cells, synapses, and nerve endings reproduced exactly as they were at the moment of your dismantling.  This includes your brain, where everything you know is stored in the precise configuration of its parts.  The original you may be destroyed, but the new you will remember going into the transmission booth, and coming out unscathed at the end.  So, is that you, or isn’t it?  What exactly do we mean by “you” anyway?

To an outside observer (scientist, friend, mother) it would be indistinguishable from you.  Come to that, to an inside observer (the reassembled you), the same would be true, since it would contain all that defined the earlier you.  But the original you was destroyed in the process.  What we always knew as you is dead, my friend.  It has been reduced to its constituent components, little electrons whizzing around little protons and neutrons, completely devoid of the patterning we came to love all those years before the experiment.

Here’s the weird part: because the teleportation involved reading all the information that constituted you, then transmitting it to a new location, it could presumably be saved.  You could be stored on a disc and not reassembled until later.  Much later.  Multiple copies of you could be made, all of which would insist it was the real you.  Each of them would be the real you, by any existing standards of evidence.

So, we end in a situation in which you are dead, because we killed you to get at your information, but you are still walking around in multiple iterations, perhaps having violent confrontations with each other over their authenticity.

Here’s the real question, which is so bizarre I’m having difficulty putting it into words:  Would you, that entity which now lives in and looks out at the world from your body, which is the experiencer of your history, which debates with itself over the nature of the reality presented it by your senses, would you inhabit any or all of your new selves?


Report 12a: Other interesting species

The dominant species on Planet X is, like us, exoskeletal in structure, with a strong centralized information/analytic core operating over numerous individual foraging operative units, again like our own configuration.  This should not be surprising, as all of our projections have strongly suggested that this is optimal for species to progress intellectually.  This species, or more accurately, array of species, in the native taxonomy, is designated Blatta or Blatella, colloquially cockroach.

However, there are several other life structures more or less successful on the planet, most of them part of the Blattoid survival system, but still of interest in their own right.  The closely associated Homo genus is particularly fascinating, as it has developed a kind of neuronal autonomy, all while fulfilling its primary function as Blattoid food aggregator.  This neatly illustrates the principal of progress within dominance driving progress among subordinates as well.  The benefits trickle down, as it were.

This group is a part of a large subgroup of life that has internalized skeletal structures, strange as it may seem that such an adaptation could survive the rigors of planetary change.  No doubt it was successful only due to its usefulness to the more abundant exoskeletal populations.  The internalization process appears to have been more general as well, since most species live outside the protective and nourishing saline water environment; they have evolved a means of carrying these essentials within them.  Not terribly efficient, one might argue, but there they are.  Indeed, the Blattoids themselves largely live outside water, as well.

Homo is a very homogeneous genus, having survived a major killing episode some 2,000 generations earlier as a single breeding population, or at most 2-3 such populations in close contact.  The only extant species is the sapiens sapiens variety, others having died out.  As a result of the extremely short breeding history since geographic expansion, they are a remarkably uniform species genetically, differing only by tenths of a percent.  Nevertheless, much appears to be made of such trivial differences as can be identified, perhaps as a mechanism to evolve to accommodate diverse Blattoid species;  more study is required, since this tendency is dysfunctional.

Perhaps the most curious attribute of Homo is the complete decentralization of species intelligence.  Instead, each individual carries its own ideational complex built upon a central nervous system; so specific is this center, that if the head, where it is located, is removed, the individual immediately shuts down, and is therefor incapable of fulfilling its role in the species from that instant.

The explanation, of course, of such an unlikely array of evolutionary elements is in the role of Homo in service to Blattoids.  Such extreme self-containment suddenly makes sense when seen as a response to the diverse situations in which roach populations find themselves; with primary food aggregators able to act spontaneously and autonomously to procure proper Blattoid habitats, any unforeseen problems can be easily averted.

The committee hopes  this study will be helpful in making full contact with the dominant intelligent species on planet X; it may well be simplest to proceed through the intermediation of their Homo servants, as unpalatable as that may seem.  Actually, though, they may be quite palatable, once their usefulness to us is ended.

Open letter to the Director, Department of Intelligent Design

Dear Sir,

It is my belief that, the prototype having been in production for some 6,000 years, some issues might be addressed which have come to my attention.

First, although it may have seemed a good idea at the time, it is increasingly clear that it was a mistake to make the universe seem so much older than it really is.  I was not present at the meeting when this was discussed, so I cannot say what the purpose may have been.  There has been talk of some sort of test to be administered to a transient species near the end of the process, but it now seems rather a lot of trouble to have gone to, for what could only have been some sort of joke.

Second, I thought it had been agreed that the order and harmony principles behind the design would obviate any further tinkering down the line.  It now seems that suspension of the rules which govern things is so frequently required that there is even a name for it: “miracle.”  I don’t suppose it occurred to whomever authorized the first miracle that it would set off a chain of events requiring more and more of them as more time went by.  Can you say butterfly effect?  I understand it has even gotten to the point where sporting events can no longer be decided without intervention.

Third, biology.  I don’t know where to start.  Who was in charge of biology?  I mean, it started out fine, lots of diversity there, plenty of fun, but did somebody go on vacation, or what?  I get a column with four protrusions.  Nice symmetry, good locomotor possibilities, sound basic engineering.  But why stand it up?  Do that, and the load structure goes all wrong, you get joint issues, and the column goes all to hell.  ME 101.  Hell, might as well just have evolution if we’re going to be that sloppy.  And don’t even get me started on bacteria; they’ve got security issues you could push a planet through.  We need a change of leadership there, for sure.

Fourth, and in my opinion, most disturbing, we seem to have pushed all our error down into the nano level.  I completely see the reasoning behind this: sweep it under the great cosmic rug, and hope nobody trips over it.  But they will, you can count on it.  Already, people have found out that we’ve got stuff popping in and out of existence down there all the time to keep things in balance, and they’ve been poking around anti-this and dark-that for years.  It’s only a matter of time.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I hope there is still time to address these issues.  I know, we can always create more time if we run out, but is that really the right way to run things?

With all due respect,

God, Sr. (Retired)

Humility and the scientific method

In the Fall of 1990, on a whim of the gods, I was in Tunisia, touring the ruins of ancient Roman colonies with some Italian students.  Saddam Hussein had just decided to reclaim Kuwait (believe it or not, he had some historical precedent) and the long litany of dares and double-dares had begun.  Most of the Arab speaking world backed Saddam in this, albeit halfheartedly, because they thought of Kuwaitis as selfish and spoiled.  Poor people rarely like rich people.

In any event, Americans, such as myself, were viewed warily, especially unusual ones.  First of all, I stood literally head and shoulders above most of the population.  Secondly, I was traveling with Italians, and it was clear that I spoke Italian.  Everyone knows Americans don’t speak Italian unless they’re up to no good.  It was obvious to discerning Tunisians that I was a CIA operative, in Tunisia during the Gulf crisis to – what?  The fact that no one could imagine what such a person might be up to there only confirmed their suspicions.  Lucky for me, they are, for the most part, a gentle and amicable people, but it did take awhile to get accustomed to knowing smiles and the occasional glare.

All things considered, I was left a bit dubious of the critical thinking skills of the hoi polloi.  And so it happened that, on a break from run-down Roman baths and fora. we visited Douz, once the fabled trailhead for Timbuktu and points beyond, nowadays a hive of hucksters and tourists longing for a one or two hour Lawrence of Arabia experience.  Typically, one wanders out into the Sahara on a camel led by a guide on foot, has lunch, and returns for an extended photo op.  I thought the camel ride seemed pointless, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the friendly clash of cultures.

Suddenly, my pondering was interrupted by the loud and repeated braying of a camel.  Camels, of course, are among the rudest animals humans associate themselves with, but this outburst had an unusual urgency about it.  I looked over and saw that four or five men had wrestled a camel to the ground, and were holding it down.  Nearby, a wood fire burned, with a long iron rod reddening in the heat.  I walked over and asked one of the camel drivers standing nearby what on earth was going on.

“Ah,” he said, “this camel refuses to eat.  He will die soon, unless something is done.”

As he said this, a man pulled the iron, now white hot, out of the fire, walked over to the prostrate beast, and began searing three parallel lines on the animal’s throat.

“This will make him hungry, and he will eat, and all will be well,” my new friend cheerfully informed me.

Poor benighted bastards, I thought.  If only they had access to modern veterinary practice, instead of relying on this absurd medieval ritual!  I wondered what they would do when they realized this wasn’t working, maybe exorcise demons?  The men concluded their torture and let the camel stand on its own.

Whereupon it immediately walked over to a clump of grass, and began enthusiastically devouring it.