Sunday, April 15, 2012

Science at the Edge, edited by John Brockman

Source of book: I own this – a gift from my brother-in-law Josiah

This is the second book I have read this year that is a collection of writings by multiple authors. In this case, the book grew out of a series of articles and conversations on a website, It is a bit difficult to explain this book without getting into the discussions within the book. In general, it is a collection of essays on three areas of cutting edge science. More to the point, perhaps, they are discussion and speculation on the future of certain areas of scientific and technological inquiry.

The book is divided into three sections. The first discusses the study of humans, and the understandings of human behaviors and traits. The second discusses, more or less, computers, artificial intelligence, and the idea of “the singularity” – where computers become sentient to some unknown degree. The final section discusses cosmology, and the origin of the universe.

In a number of ways, I think this book exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of modern science; both the instances in which science should be utilized more, and the areas in which science shows its hubris.

Brockman introduces the book, and his introduction and opening chapter are both worth reading. He does an excellent takedown on the current state of the “soft” sciences: history, sociology, psychology, etc. As he states at the beginning, these disciplines have become ossified and disconnected from any spirit of dissent or even new thought. They are uninterested in actual experimentation. The scientific method is uninteresting – they prefer to operate from an ingrown insular frame of reference. Anything that does not fit the “Freud, Marx, and Modernism” default is rejected. Brockman also correctly notes that the Renaissance ideal has been lost: the person who has a broad range of knowledge, and seeks to incorporate everything into a coherent whole. Instead, each area of knowledge has become its own closed club, and never shares ideas with other disciplines. Finally, he notes the spirit of pessimism that has become the zeitgeist. He blames, among other errors, the persistent myth of the “noble savage”, and advocates a return to the belief that we can and should increase knowledge.

So far as this goes, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the authors tended to miss the corollary: the “hard” sciences too have become ossified and cling to the Darwinist and Naturalist default and reject all that does not fit this framework. This is particularly annoying when the authors venture to explain everything from the Darwinist point of view. Just as Marx cannot explain life, the universe, and everything; neither can Darwin.

An early example of this is the essay entitled A Biological Understanding of Human Nature. Many of the author’s points are sensible, and well supported. And then, the author suddenly uses the words that any lawyer knows are placed in the sentence to disguise a lack of proof: “clearly” “most decisively”, etc. These are used to support the bald assertion that our thoughts, feelings, urges, and consciousness are nothing more than biological processes. End of discussion. The door is closed, and everyone else is wrong. Really?

This becomes even more puzzling and inconsistent with the rest of the essay because the author then goes on to argue against utilitarian and postmodern conception of the arts. He makes the (radical in these times) argument that art should have an element of pleasure. That it should have beauty, narrative, melody. If there is nothing more than a biological process, with the aim of reproduction going on, shouldn’t I prefer whatever aids the perpetuation of my genes? If a desirable woman prefers Duchamp to Durer, why should I stubbornly stick with what my (imaginary) soul finds inspiring? My wife is not much of a fan of Brahms or Mahler, but loves Beethoven. So why do I experience the chills up my spine when I play certain pieces? The argument points not to a biological explanation, but to there being something that is beyond and beside that which can be scientifically explained.

This problem is addressed in what I found to be the best essay in the book. One Half of a Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier, which occurs in the second section, is a counterpoint to the main theme of that section. The articles on artificial intelligence focus on an event believed to be an inevitable occurrence within the next fifty years: a point where computers attain a state in which they can evolve, in the Darwinian sense, and therefore become “life”. This is an article of faith with the authors, and is combined with Moore’s Law to suggest that this grand evolutionary process will take place at an ever-accelerating pace, leading to some version of either utopia or Armageddon, depending on one’s perspective. Lanier breaks this vision down into its component parts:
  1. That cybernetic patterns of information provide the ultimate and best way to understand reality.
  2. That people are no more than cybernetic patterns.
  3. That subjective experience either doesn’t exist or is unimportant because it is some sort of ambient or peripheral effect.
  4. That what Darwin described in biology, or something like it, is in fact the singular, superior description of creativity and culture.
  5. That qualitative as well as quantitative effects of information systems will be accelerated by Moore’s Law.
  6. The “singularity” described above will take place, and soon.

Lanier does a thoughtful job of addressing each of these in turn. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the issue of subjective experience. He surmises that “some of [his] opponents simply lacked internal experience.” He further states that “I once suggested that among all humanity, one could definitively prove a lack of experience only in certain professional philosophers.” One suspects, of course, that the end result of a belief that the self does not exist is the decision to treat those who disagree with one’s own position to be, not other selves to be convinced, but obsolete programs to be eliminated. A few dictators of the last century seem to have chosen this route.

The best part of this essay, however, was the section on Darwinist absolutism. I quote at length:

And yet I think cybernetic totalist Darwinians…come up with takes on Darwin that are calculated not only to antagonize but to alienate those who don’t share their views…One example is the recent book by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer called The Natural History of Rape, which declares that rape is a “natural” way to spread genes around. We have seen all sorts of propositions tied to Darwin with a veneer of rationality. In fact, you can argue almost any position using a Darwinian strategy. For instance, [the authors] suggest that those who disagree with them are victims of evolutionary programming for the needs to believe in a fictitious altruism in human nature. The authors say it is seemingly altruistic to disbelieve in evolutionary psychology, because such skepticism makes a public display of one’s belief in brotherly love. Displays of altruism are said to be attractive and therefore to improve one’s ability to lure mates. By this logic, evolutionary psychologists should soon breed themselves out of the population. Unless they resort to rape.

Again, the whole essay is worth reading. It really punctures the bubble of cybernetic absolutism, as Lanier calls it.

This leads naturally into a discussion of the third and final section. I will confess that my math skills are limited by my lack of education beyond trigonometry. Don’t get me wrong, I did well in my math classes, but my training and interests led me elsewhere. The discussions of the first microseconds of the universe and the unification of classical physics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics were a bit above my level of knowledge. Still, they were interesting both for their content and for a few notable omissions.

We have learned an incredible amount about the way the universe is. We also have been able to make some fairly good reconstructions of the process that led the universe to be what it is. In many cases, we can use the laws of the universe as we understand them to get from the first to the second area of knowledge. However, at some point, the inquiry crosses into an area of questioning that science cannot, and realistically will never be able to provide answers. At some point, there is something that leads to everything else. As one author stated, for reasons we don’t quite understand, the universe sprang from nothingness to somethingness full of matter and energy. Similarly, while Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains extinction, there still, after 150 years, is no explanation for the rise of complexity, either in the universe or in biological life. There is some form of matter-energy. There are the physical laws themselves. There is life. We live in a universe of something rather than nothing. We live in a universe with mathematical laws rather than chaos or random rules. Why these laws, and not other laws? At some point, the inquiry switches from the discovery of the rules and building blocks of the universe to the ultimate question. “Why?”

This is my biggest beef with the scientific community in our postmodern age. No matter how far back in time we take things, no matter how much knowledge we attain of the universe, the “why?” will remain. At some point, the scientific method of testing fails. The arrogance of scientists to insist that all questions will be answered, and that they will have only a scientific, naturalist explanation, and only that, is breathtaking. At some point, all known explanations come to a point where the answer is, “it just is that way”. Something must be assumed, and believed in, and can never be subject to proof. I note at this point the currently trendy belief that there are an infinite number of universes. This believe is, to a degree, necessary to avoid the question of why our particular universe has laws that seem too perfect to be coincidental. However, by definition, these infinite alternate universes cannot be detected by us, cannot be tested and proven or disproven. They are the subject of belief. Lee Smolin, in his essay on the theory of “loop quantum gravity” inadvertently makes this point as he describes “postmodern physics”. (Paraphrasing various scientists working on string theory)

“From Galileo to 1984 was the period of modern physics, where we checked our theories experimentally. Since then, we work in the age of postmodern physics, in which the mathematical consistency suffices to demonstrate the correctness of our theories and experiment is neither possible nor necessary.”

At this point, we move from science, as understood for generations as the discovery of the universe through experiment to a search for mathematical consistency that loses its ability to be proven or disproven through observation of the natural world. At this point, science ceases to be science, and moves into the realm of philosophy, or even religion, seeking confirmation of its own ideas, rather than seeking discovery. Ironically, this book is at its best and most convincing when it reveals the limits of science.

A few other mentions of chapters and sections that I found particularly thought provoking:

Source of the term “Cybernet”: The source of the word was kybernotos, which meant the helmsman of a ship. I had no idea that this was the derivation. I, and the author of the essay in which this is found both found it interesting that the idea of control is in many ways counter to the actual experience of cybernets, which are more defined by their very uncontrollability.

Self Deception: Robert Trivers’ essay on self deception, and why lies are more effective when the liar believes them, was excellent, and well written. Quite thought provoking – particularly to a lawyer. The discussion on wars and those who start them was fun, and yielded this quote, “[I]t’s not necessarily true that those who start stupid wars end up with as great a decrease in surviving offspring (and other kin) as one would have wished.”

The universe as a computer: Douglas Adams was apparently not the only person who thought that the universe itself may be a computer. He was, apparently, the only one who thought that the universe was intended to figure out why the answer to the ultimate question was 42.

Simulating living systems: Several chapters discussed the difficulty in simulating life and intelligence. At one point, those attempting to create artificial intelligence decided that vision was easy, and assigned a graduate student to the problem – and gave him a week. It has since been determined that current computing power is insufficient to replicate the vision of a single human. On a related note, another essay touched on the way our brains visualize images, and why we seem to be able to recognize objects regardless of the context, something that computers continue to find difficult.

Cyborgs: With the exception of One Half of a Manifesto, I thought the best article was Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs. We tend to think of a cyborg as a human/machine hybrid existing only in science fiction. In reality, humans have always been cyborgs. One of the most unique things about humans is our ability to outsource our thinking. Many animals are capable of using tools in some way. Objects are used to enhance the physical ability. We call these tools. Humans, however, have used outside objects to augment our brains. The simplest example, perhaps, is the pencil and paper. I cannot multiply ten digit numbers in my head. I can do so on paper. The memory function of my brain has been outsourced to a tool. I am typing this review on my computer, which remembers what I write, and also reminds me of my court appearance later this week, and assists me in looking up the date that Beethoven wrote his 7th Symphony. Beethoven himself is dead, and I cannot possibly remember all the notes in the symphony. I could not even remember my own part without great effort of memorization. However, I can read my part on the sheet music. Our tools have increased what our brains can do, particularly in areas of memory and raw repetitive calculative power. We are all cyborgs, and so were we all from the dawn of time.

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