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Post-Brunch Intelligencer

Midmorning ramblings on the state of the species

The Last Question

Posted by Nath at 10:03 PM
Like most people, I sometimes wonder about the so-called Big Questions. Why are we here? Why do some people eat marmite? Those are reasonable questions to ask, but I think it's more interesting to think about how we're here, rather than why. The concept of 'why' doesn't really mean anything when applied to natural phenomena.

Of course, we do not completely understand the mechanisms that caused us to exist. For instance, we don't know what species lie on the evolutionary chain between human beings and the early hominids. However, we've found several possibilities consistent with what we know about evolution. Like in maths, knowing that a solution exists is often more interesting than knowing precisely what the solution is. The existence of a solution does not prove that our understanding of the universe is correct, but at least tells us that our understanding is consistent with reality.

In this limited sense, at least, I know the answers to the Big Questions. My understanding of the universe is consistent with what I know of reality; in other words, a solution exists. The specifics of the solution will change as I find out more about the universe, but the fundamentals are pretty stable. I haven't had to change them much, because they've been consistent with reality in every way.


There's one thing I simply don't understand, and haven't been able to fit into what I understand about reality. It's kind of a vague problem, so I'm not sure that I can communicate it clearly, but here goes.

Let's think of the human nervous system as a computing machine, for a moment. It takes input, processes it, and gives output. These machines emerged through millions of years of natural selection. Our consciousness is encoded in the state of these computers. All our thoughts are bits in memory. This is all well and good, and I can imagine a universe where this would happen.

The problem is that I can observe this happening. Right now, I can observe part of the state of my brain. I can observe the recent input of my senses, and some previous experiences recorded in my memory. I can observe part of the state of the computer called 'Nath' at a particular point in time. Why can I observe this particular computer, at this particular time? Who am I, the observer? I can understand that the computer called 'Nath' might incorrectly believe that there is an observer; the observer might be a useful abstraction created by this computer. 'Nath' might behave identically whether or not there really is such an observer. But I, the observer, know that I exist; I cannot a figment of the computer's imagination, because I observe myself observing the computer. (Though I suppose the computer would be thinking these thoughts and typing these words whether or not this was the case.)

This is what I cannot account for within my current model of how the universe works; I do not know how there is an observer.
(8) comments

A Case for Intuition

Posted by Nath at 6:07 AM
If human beings can reason objectively about mathematics and natural science, why can't we apply the same sort of logic to questions about ethics and morality? It's a question I've heard from time to time, most recently (though not in those words) in Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

It is strange that we treat something as important as morality as little more than aesthetic preference. Why can't moral scientists come up with hypotheses, experiments and so on, the way physicists do? Imagine how easy it would be to work together on the world's problems if we could only agree that (say) genocide is bad, the way we agree that F = ma.

The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious way to determine what really is objectively moral. This is not a problem for most theists, of course – they can just do whatever their deities say (and, when their gods contradict themselves, they can do whatever seems most convenient). Atheists, such as Harris, have to come up with their own criteria for morality. For instance, one might decide (more or less as Harris did) that any action that increases the net happiness of human beings is objectively moral.

This sort of approach brings its own problems. Why is human happiness moral? How do you measure happiness? Is everybody's happiness equally valuable? I'm not aware of any universal answer to these questions. It seems to me that moral objectivism is really the same thing as moral subjectivism, except that objectivists' subjective opinions are one level further removed from their moral beliefs.

I think that morality comes from within us. It is partly genetic – behaviour that made humans more likely to survive probably appeals to you as 'good'. It is partly environmental – the more resilient of your ancestors' beliefs are passed on to you by parents, teachers, sitcoms and Christmas specials. (A different sort of evolution is going on here – natural selection of beliefs instead of organisms.)

We may not be consciously aware of our moral beliefs; they are mostly instinctive. For instance, when you see someone committing murder, or eating marmite, you simply feel that something is wrong. This feeling sets in before you start trying to justify it. Consider the following (hypothetical) headline:


If you are not psychopathic, you probably found this headline at least slightly distressing. Is that because you believe that these actions (murder, marmite consumption) reduce the net human level of happiness? No; it is because DEAR GOD THAT GUY COMMITTED MURDER AND/OR ATE MARMITE AUGH.

When people try to formalize their ethical beliefs, perhaps they are simply trying to rationalize their existing intuitive beliefs about right and wrong. Perhaps making people happy feels right. If so, you might claim that increasing human happiness is the ultimate moral imperative. You might then make all your moral decisions based on this assumption.

What you've really done here, assuming you are a moral objectivist, is base your actions on a statement which in turn is based on your opinion. You differ from a subjectivist only in that a subjectivist skips the middle step; in other words, subjectivists base their actions directly on their moral opinions, rather than pausing to create a so-called objective justification.

Disclaimer: I'm not claiming that reason has no part to play in moral decision-making. Consider the following thought experiment, borrowed from Terminator 2. A scientist invents something that is used (against his intentions) to kill a large number of innocent people. You are given the opportunity to go back in time and kill the scientist (who has really done nothing wrong). Killing an innocent scientist would undoubtedly feel wrong – more wrong, perhaps, than leaving countless equally blameless people to die. However, most people would agree that in this specific case, the needs of the many...
(10) comments

Ki, and the Scientific Method

Posted by Nath at 9:08 AM
I recently attended a jujutsu seminar led by a senior instructor ("Shihan"); let's call him 'T'. I had a good time, and learned a lot; Shihan T is an excellent martial artist, and a very good teacher. However, on several occasions, I found my mind wandering over to the subject of science – how it's done, and what purpose it serves.

You see, Shihan T is one of those people who likes to explain things in terms of ki (also known as The Force) and meridians. As a geek (the science/maths kind, not the chicken-guillotine kind), I am neither willing nor able to accept explanations of that sort. And yet, there's no doubt that Shihan T knows his stuff. He was throwing us around the room like a giant bear throwing rag dolls (it's OK – it's a friendly sort of bear, and the rag dolls know how to breakfall). He could break down any of his techniques and explain them in his own terms. Even if his explanations had little or no scientific basis, you could test many of his statements on a human guinea pig; by and large, their reactions were consistent with his claims.

The way I see it, the purpose of science is to build models that let you make predictions about phenomena in a system (typically, the universe). Science never asks the question 'why', and only asks 'how' relative to the model you're working in. Newton observed that things falling towards the ground tend to accelerate at 9.8ish m/s2. Shihan T observed that if you point such-and-such joint towards such-and-such meridian, your guinea pig will begin to wriggle about on the mat and scream strange insults at your ancestors.

There's no straightforward method to decide how best to model a system. (This is analogous to the feature selection problem in machine learning.) Even if some characteristic of the system seems to be relevant, it might just be a random pattern that emerges in your observations ("training data"), or have some correlative (rather than causative) link with the phenomenon you are trying to predict. Thus, with a bad model, you could thus come up with a hypothesis that matches your training data perfectly, but does an awful job predicting new observations ("test data") that you make after you formulate your hypothesis.

It is possible (and, I think, very likely) that this is how Shihan T's explanations work: over the course of several hundred years, people observed many of the ways human beings can move (or be physically manipulated), and came up with a model that quite accurately matches their training data. People rarely discovered new ways to manipulate the human body, so there was no real test data to validate the hypothesis with. On the rare occasions that test data was found ("Hey, I didn't know the wrist bends that way!"), the models were simply revised – a meridian moved a couple of inches this way, a pressure point added over there. A scientist or machine learning expert might call this cheating, since a model derived in this manner will not perform well on new test data – but for the martial arts, there really isn't much more test data. People in the foreseeable future will have the same joints they have today.

This could also be why certain non-traditional medicine systems (or, rather, super-traditional medicine systems) work better than they might be expected to. Any system that's slightly more effective than random chance has a small chance of catching on.

I do think that the models currently in use in the scientific community are far more effective than ones used in the past. We've had far more training data to learn from, and far more test data to validate with. Most verifiable, falsifiable predictions that can be explained in terms of ki can also be explained in terms of anatomy and physics. "To project your energy," Shihan T told us while demonstrating a throw, "the first thing you have to do is look at your partner." And then he turned to do so. In doing so, he turned his head in the direction his torso was facing, and his spine straightened out; this gave him the structural alignment he needed to perform the technique. (Every try lifting dumbbells with a bent spine? Don't. It'll be hard, and you'll hurt yourself.)

My point isn't that 'ki' is legitimate science, or can explain things that legitimate science can't. My point is that even unscientific investigation can sometimes (through years of Darwinian trial and error) provide usable models. Of course – not all models are equal. Many are blatantly self contradictory, and many others simply don't make falsifiable statements. Ki escapes both these traps to some extent by being an extremely nebulous concept – it's hard to even make a clear assertion about it, let alone find two assertions that contradict each other. It means entirely different things to different people. Obi-Wan Kenobi described it as "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together." I've heard other people simply define it as 'structure'.
(12) comments

On Gandhigiri

Posted by Nath at 9:22 PM
I recently got around to watching the movie Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Minor spoilers herein.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: a gangster (the titular Munna Bhai) poses as an expert on Gandhism to win the attention of a radio host. Basically, Shrek-meets-Mrs.-Doubtfire.

Over the course of the film, Munna Bhai evolves from a psychopathic gangster into a hallucinating psychopathic gangster who uses Gandhigiri (as he calls it) to solve various characters' sitcommey problems. The film apparently made quite an impression on the public's mind when it was released, and brought the teachings of Gandhi back into the limelight. This is a good thing, of course. I give the filmmakers credit for trying to get people to ask themselves the sorts of questions they should have been asking all along. However, as the credits rolled, I couldn't help but think that the movie had missed the whole dang point.

The characters were all for Satyagraha -- as long as it got the job done. The instant it stopped working, Munna Bhai appeared to have no qualms about siccing his revolver-wielding maniac of a sidekick on whoever stood in the way of a happy ending. If you're going to preach about truth and non-violence and such, you have to stick with them even when they fail.

Many people agree that non-violence is basically a good thing. So why are most issues resolved through violence, or the threat thereof? It's because (outside Munna Bhai's fairly-tale world) truth and non-violence generally don't work. Morality has a cost. If you choose to stick to your morals, be prepared to lose. Perhaps a loss with a clear conscience is worth more than a victory; perhaps not.

What about Gandhi, then? Was even Gandhi a true Gandhian? Maybe. Honest, objective information about him is not easy to find. My personal gut feeling, however, is that he was too smart to completely believe all his teachings. Gandhi succeeded (to the extend that he did) because he was a keen strategist. For example, I don't think he starved himself to shame the British into capitulation. His hunger strikes were probably bargaining tools; if the British refused to yield before his death, the British would have a lot of bloodthirsty, rioting Satyagrahis to pacify.

Perhaps, at some point in human history, a true Gandhian lived and died. If he did, however, his name and his cause have long been forgotten. History books don't talk about Satyagrahis who've failed.
(5) comments

Doublethink and Telescreens

Posted by Nath at 6:19 AM
WARNING: This post contains minor spoilers of George Orwell's 1984. If you or anyone in your family has a history of spoiler allergy, please do not eat this post.

I'll kick this off with a quote from the book itself:
It was the middle of the morning, and Winston had left his cubicle to go to the lavatory.

Sorry, wrong quote. Here we go:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

Orwell writes of a country that, halfway through a war, suddenly announces that its enemy was not Eurasia (as was widely thought), but was and always had been Eastasia (which till then was believed to be an ally). The public accepts this new truth within minutes of the announcement, and works itself up into a patriotic fervour against its new old enemy. That makes for a good dystopia novel, perhaps, but I didn't buy it. It's true that I don't think much of the sheeple's reasoning abilities, but nobody could be that gullible, right?

I started thinking of prominent examples of doublethink from the recent past. Saddam Hussein's perceived link to 9/11, for instance. (This one is particularly interesting, because it persists even though the Bush administration has explicitly rejected it.) It is not only feasible but almost inevitable for the people to ignore any inconvenient facts at odds with the desired conclusion.

Orwell is also mentioned occasionally in conjunction with news of the death of privacy. I am always surprised when I am told that privacy has just died, as I was under the impression that it had long since been buried, decomposed and reincarnated as Jack Thompson for its sins in a previous life. I, for one, have always assumed that my IM conversations are logged, my emails monitored, my phone calls run through text-to-speech programs and scanned for occurrences of 'plutonium', 'laser-bears' and so on.

Alas, the right to privacy is one that everybody thinks is generally a good idea, but not enough people think about why exactly. If the powers that be want to listen to my conversations about the relative merits of Colgate and Close-Up, it's their time they're wasting. After all, I'm told, only people with something to hide have something to worry about. But what happens in the unlikely event that I'm talking about something less inane than toothpaste? Would you feel comfortable discussing the death of habeas corpus, say, with the knowledge that the Men in Black are listening in and taking notes?

Free speech is not free speech if it comes with the implied understanding that you will not say controversial things. A right with an exception is not really a right, even though it might look like one. For a right to be meaningful, it must be absolute. Anything else is just a red herring.

So, what am I saying? Should peoples' right to discuss toothpaste in private really take precedence over their safety? I don't have an easy answer to that. The truth is, any right comes with a cost. It is a logically defensible position to claim that the right to free speech is simply too expensive, and should be done away with entirely. It is also logically defensible to say that free speech is worth it, at any cost. The intermediate position, however – to give yourself the illusion of free speech, and then take it away from yourself the instant it starts to matter – that's doublethink.
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