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The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

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Captain’s Log

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Captain’s Log, Mission Day 30476.32

At 0.30 today we deactivated the star drive and approached the planet.

As our astronomers had already discovered, it is a rocky world orbiting a yellow dwarf sun. Compared to our own world it is just slightly smaller and hotter, and its sun is remarkably similar to ours, so it might almost seem like home to us.

The mysterious presence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere has been confirmed by our observations but we are still too far away to discover what it source is. Whether it turns out to be some complex inorganic chemical reaction or the side effect of life we cannot yet tell.

I don’t need to tell you what a discovery it would be if this planet does have life, because in all the thousands of planets we have visited, all have been barren. Maybe we are the only ones, or maybe we have just been unlucky in our search so far. After all, there are hundreds of billions of planets in this galaxy alone and the few thousand we have visited is just a tiny start in exploring them. But I will end my speculation here because tomorrow we might know.

Day 30477.27

The detail visible on the planet’s surface is increasing rapidly as we approach. This final stage of space travel is frustrating, of course, because inside a solar system we cannot use the star drive and must revert to conventional propulsion systems.

The feature which dominates the planet’s surface is a huge impact crater which we calculate was formed relatively recently. If there was life on this planet it would likely have been virtually wiped out by this disaster.

A spectrographic analysis will be complete later today, and that should reveal the presence of the molecules of life if they exist here. We should soon know the answer to the question we came here for.

Day 30477.34

The spectrography is complete and we are almost 100% certain there is life on the planet. A molecule which is very similar to one used by plant life on our own planet has been detected in great quantities. It seems that all of the oceans (which cover over 60% of the planet’s surface) and a lot of the land contain some sort of organism which can convert sunlight to energy and release oxygen in the process. This explains the excess oxygen in the atmosphere.

Day 30478.72

We have put the ship into orbit around the mysterious planet and our detailed observations are now revealing something which has produced a lot of disagreement among our scientists. There are apparently symmetric structures over many parts of the planet which seem artificial. They are covered with many years of dust and debris from the impact but some of our more radical researchers think they are the remains of great structures built by an intelligent species which one lived here.

We are almost ready to send a party down to investigate these in more detail. This is potentially the greatest discovery of all time. Initially we coud barely hope to find any life here but now we are serious about the possibility of finding intelligent life.

Day 30479.37

The unthinkable has happened. Our landing party has confirmed that the structures are artificial. There seems to be no other explanation except they were built by an intelligence with technology approaching our own in sophistication. We now need to establish whether they survived the asteroid impact.

Day 30479.82

Most of the land surface of the planet has been devastated, but some life in the oceans has survived. We have discovered a massive variety of different species there, a few of which have some level of intelligence, but there is no sign of technology.

Day 30480.21

The exploration of the alien structures (it seems obvious they were cities where large numbers – perhaps millions – of the aliens lived) continues, and we have made a very significant discovery which might allow us to explore the history of the planet. We have found various objects which seem to be storage devices. Our best technicians will work on these and if we can read them we might be able to translate whatever information they contain.

Day 30480.69

The storage devices appear to contain electronic circuits based on silicon technology. We should be able to adapt some of our own computers to read them because they are similar to a technology we have used recently before moving to photonic storage.

Day 30481.11

We have cracked the storage devices! They contain data stored in an 8 bit code which maps to an alphabet. It seems that the symbols in this alphabet form groups which correspond to words in a language. The language is very obscure and is likely something which has changed and become more complex over a long time period. We will continue to work on decoding it.

Day 30482.48

The language decoding is progressing rapidly and we now know a lot about the society that existed there. A lot of what I am going to say here will seem shocking, but our best language experts and anthropologists agree it is what they material we have discovered reveals, and fits in with the physical evidence we see on almost the entire surface of the planet.

The intelligent inhabitants of the planet were called “humans” and the planet was called “Earth”. There were millions of different species on the planet before the impact but 90% of them, including all of the land species, were wiped out.

We cannot find any signs that any of the humans survived, but they did have the technology available to live almost indefinitely in the oceans so some might survive there. They also had space technology sufficient to travel around the solar system, but did not have the capability for interstellar travel.

The humans had a society which had many admirable characteristics. The planet was divided into hundreds of areas called “countries” which had slightly different types of inhabitants, different leadership, economic systems, etc. Most of the countries had a system to choose a leader where the population voted and the most successful person became leader for a period of time. Unfortunately this system became corrupted and the leaders were rarely very competent.

Most shockingly there was constant competition between these countries and this often extended to organised combat between different factions, often resulting in numerous deaths. Reasons for these “wars” included competition over resources, land ownership, and even differences in opinion over philosophy, including (most bizarrely) an amazingly common system known as “religion” where the humans became believers in various supernatural entities. Why they maintained these bizarre beliefs and how one myth was chosen over another requires further study.

You can see at this point that humans exhibited a strange combination of quite advanced science and technology and surprisingly primitive beliefs. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a believer in a supernatural entity who espoused pacifism to use an advanced combat machine of some sort to kill thousands of his opponents who believed in a slightly different deity. Clearly our anthropologists have a lot of work to do in this area.

But finally in this initial report on the history of humans I must discuss the most obvious question, and the one which is both hardest to understand and the most tragic to contemplate. That is, if the humans had the technology available, why did they not divert the asteroid, avoid the impact in some other way, or even move some of their people to another planet?

The initial evidence seems to indicate that they were too distracted with other things, especially their economic system. A lot of resource and effort was applied to things which make no sense, such as persuading people to buy unhealthy drinks which had no benefit at all, or paying participants in entertainment events which no intelligent person could take seriously. Yet all this time completely inadequate effort was put into protecting the planet from obvious threats.

When the asteroid was first seen it was already too late. A small investment in monitoring the sky for asteroids and in the technology required to divert them would have saved the planet. Yet they seemed to believe that other things were more important.

As captain, I shouldn’t really offer a value judgement on what happened here on Earth, but it is so disappointing to find a spark of intelligence, so rare in this universe, has now gone, completely unnecessarily. And I have to say that, given the way they acted, maybe it was for the best.

Luxury!

July 21, 2017 Leave a comment

There’s a classic British comedy sketch called the “Four Yorkshiremen sketch” originally created for the 1967 British television comedy series “At Last the 1948 Show”. The best way to describe the sketch is to use the description from Wikipedia, which calls it “…a parody of nostalgic conversations about humble beginnings or difficult childhoods, featuring four men from Yorkshire who reminisce about their upbringing. As the conversation progresses they try to outdo one another, and their accounts of deprived childhoods become increasingly absurd.”

It’s one of my favourite pieces of comedy ever, so I think I need to include it here, even though it really has very little to do with my actual subject in this blog post. So here it is (the scene includes four well-dressed men sitting together at a vacation resort drinking expensive wine and smoking cigars)…

Michael Palin: Ahh… Very passable, this, very passable.

Graham Chapman: Nothing like a good glass of Chateau de Chassilier wine, aye Gessiah?

Terry Gilliam: You’re right there Obediah.

Eric Idle: Who’d a thought thirty years ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Chateau de Chassilier wine?

MP: Aye. In them days, we’d a’ been glad to have the price of a cup o’ tea.

GC: A cup o’ COLD tea.

EI: Without milk or sugar.

TG: OR tea!

MP: In a filthy, cracked cup.

EI: We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.

GC: The best WE could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.

TG: But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.

MP: Aye. BECAUSE we were poor. My old Dad used to say to me, “Money doesn’t buy you happiness.”

EI: ‘E was right. I was happier then and I had NOTHIN’. We used to live in this tiny old house, with great big holes in the roof.

GC: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

TG: You were lucky to have a ROOM! WE used to have to live in a corridor!

MP: Oh, we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.

EI: Well when I say “house” it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.

GC: We were evicted from OUR hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!

TG: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.

MP: Cardboard box?

TG: Aye.

MP: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, out Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!

GC: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!

TG: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o’clock at night, and LICK the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

EI: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”

MP: But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe ya’.

ALL: Nope, nope.

Look for this on YouTube if you want to enjoy it as a video with the Yorkshire accents.

Anyway, the point is that some older people today like to exaggerate how bad things were back when they were young, and comment on how easy people have it today. To a certain extent they are right of course, because some things are easier today than for previous generations, but equally the memories of the past don’t tend to be particularly accurate.

Many things today are a lot harder than in the past. Jobs can be harder to get, pay rates aren’t as generous, security is much lower, the rate of change in required skills is much higher, and general stress and the pace of life are greater. Sure, we have a lot of modern technology which makes our lives easier, but the advantages that science and technology have given us seem to be balanced by the disadvantages brought about by politics and economics.

In general I think the overall direction is positive, and this is shown by global figures indicating lower rates of poverty, famine, violence, and other negative factors. Sure, things could still be a lot better, and as the outcomes for some groups have improved they have worsened for others, but overall things are better.

But that wasn’t really the subject for this blog post. In fact, the subject was how things have changed in the last 30 years for computer geeks. As a geek who started working with computers in the 1980s I wanted to talk about how much easier (and harder) things are today.

Something like: Luxury! Back when I was young we used to have to wind up computer with key, load system with paper tape, took 3 hours… if we were lucky. Then we would type in program from keyboard and when we wanted to send an email ‘ad to catch nearest pigeon and tape piece o’ paper to its leg… etc… well you get the idea.

But seriously, now that I have wasted this blog post talking about a comedy sketch I think I will leave the original subject to next time. So check back in the next few days for an actual discussion on how much better/worse computers are now than 30 years ago. And do go and watch that comedy sketch (there are several versions on YouTube, but my favourite is titled “Monty Python – Four Yorkshiremen”). It’s a classic!

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

Judgement Day

April 6, 2017 Leave a comment

I have made a few comments recently on the theme of the “next great change” in society, when we will transition from the industrial age to the information age. I’m sure a lot of people think my ideas are just crazy dreams, and I sometimes wonder whether that is the case myself, but I was interested to see that the famous science historian, James Burke, said very similar things in a recent podcast he was featured in.

Our current society is concerned with distributing resources in an environment of scarcity, controlling the means of production of those resources, and recruiting the labour necessary for production on the best possible terms for the people in control.

The inevitable result of this is a deeply divided society where a tiny fraction of the people get most of the wealth available, and we certainly see that today in the grossly uneven ownership of wealth by the top 1%.

But let’s look at the massive changes which are about to make everything we currently know obsolete. Some of this is my opinion of what will happen in the next 20 to 30 years, and some is from the Burke podcast where he takes a more extreme view than me, but one which might be placed a bit further in the future too.

The basic point is that there will be no shortages. Chemical synthesis and 3D printing will provide any materials needed. Efficient power generation (it’s unclear exactly what that will be, but it could be ultra-efficient solar, improved nuclear such as Thorium, or the ultimate power source: fusion) will provide all the power needed. Robotics will provide all the physical labour. And artificial intelligence will provide the creativity, invention, and overview.

Once a robot is made which can make more robots (of course with small improvements with each generation controlled by an AI) there is no need for a human to ever make anything again. And if the thinking machines (AIs) can design and improve themselves then everything changes because the rate of improvement would inevitably escalate exponentially.

Within a relatively short period of time there will be literally nothing left for humans to do.

And when that happens all out political structures, our economies, and even our value systems will become meaningless.

To many this sounds like a bleak prospect, and I agree to some extent. But what’s the point of resisting something which is inevitable? The Luddites resisted change which they saw as negative – and they were right in many ways – but they couldn’t stop the industrialisation process once it got started.

No doubt vested interests will try to stop these changes, or at least try to maintain control of them, but that just won’t be possible because there will be no point of leverage for them to base their power on. Who cares who has the most money when everything is free?

So getting back to that point about humans having nothing to do: what our role will be will very much depend on how the machines feel about us, because I’m sure that eventually we will no longer be able to control our ultra-intelligent creations.

If the machines decided that humans were pointless maybe they would just eliminate us, and maybe that would be the kindest thing. Or maybe they might find there is something about organic life which synthetic life couldn’t match so it still might have some value. Or maybe they might just want to keep humans around because we are self-aware and deserve a certain level of respect.

I do have to say that if I was an ultra-intelligent machine and looked around at how humans have behaved both in the past and present, I might be tempted to take the first option! Maybe it’s time for us to start behaving a little bit better so that when we are judged by our new synthetic masters we might be allowed to live.

It’s all rather Biblical, actually. Maybe there really will be a judgement day, just like Christianity tells us. But the type of god doing the judging won’t be the one imagined by the writers of any religious text. For a more accurate fictional appraisal of that future we should look at science fiction, not theology!

An Upcoming Apocalypse

March 31, 2017 2 comments

Recently I have been contemplating the possibility of an upcoming apocalypse. Why is that, you may ask. Well, there are several factors: first, there is the current political situation in the world, where regressive and extreme politics seem to be becoming popular; second, I have recently re-read a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel called “Earth Abides”; and third, I just listened to a podcast about the collapse of bronze age civilisation.

By apocalypse I don’t mean anything religious or Biblical, or course, and I don’t mean the world will be totally destroyed, or the Universe will end, or anything that extreme. I just mean a major collapse of the current civilisation and, hopefully, it’s replacement with something better. So maybe apocalypses can actually be good.

There have certainly been situations in the past where dominant civilisations have fallen after a period of stagnation and regressive thinking. We might look around the world today and see similar changes towards more inward thinking and conservative policies. Maybe these are early signs of an approaching apocalypse.

In Earth Abides (a novel written in 1949, but still quite relevant even though it does show a few anachronisms and other signs of being dated) most humans are wiped out by a virus. The few survivors band together into small groups and try to survive in various ways. The story is told in the third person and involves the events experienced by the main protagonist, Isherwood Williams (known as “Ish” – a rather symbolic name).

Initially Ish tries to maintain the old civilisation by teaching the children to read, and by planning to have his most intelligent son, Joey, learn about the old world and its technologies. But the lessons become increasingly pointless and when Joey dies in an epidemic he has to abandon that path. Eventually, as the old technologies, such as power and water, fail the tribe reverts to a more primitive lifestyle and the most useful skill he teaches them is how to make a bow for hunting.

But it seems that the new, simpler culture might not be such a bad thing, because the new members of the tribe (those born after the great disaster) are arguably happier than most of the people were before.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and not too much should be extrapolated from it, but it does provide a useful perspective on what the actual benefits of society really are.

Apocalypses have been common in the past, although they tended to be localised, simply because global interaction between regions wasn’t possible. So societal collapse has ranged from Rome to Maya to Angkor Wat. The Maya are an interesting parallel to the story in Earth Abides. They abandoned their great cities and returned to a village-based lifestyle after a huge population collapse. No one seems entirely sure why.

According to the podcast on the bronze age, the causes of that collapse were quite complex and probably included an excessively intricate and dependent trading network (especially for tin), major natural disasters (especially earthquakes and drought), and attacks by foreign invaders. It would probably have been possible to survive any one of these influences, but not them all.

So let’s put it all together. Clearly we have an excessively complex trading network today. If one part was interrupted (like oil from the Middle East) it would cause a major collapse in society as a whole. We have natural disasters becoming more devastating as a result of climate change. And attacks from “outside forces” could be from a number of sources, including terrorism, which is a more symbolic than real threat, but maybe even more influential because of that.

At the end of the Bronze Age the interruption of trading in tin caused alternatives to be considered. Tin was used to make bronze, so alternative materials, especially iron, had to be used instead. In fact iron was much better than bronze and the iron age resulted. So one collapse lead to something new and better. Unfortunately many societies suffered a dark age of several decades to centuries between the two.

Maybe it takes destruction and darkness before creation and light can result. We might hope that we are more aware of these factors today and that we can abandon our “bronze age” – which is paralleled by the carbon fuel (oil, coal, etc) age today – and move to an “iron age” – modern renewable energy sources. But there is increasing evidence that this might not actually happen.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. We could easily transform our society to a much better one any time we wanted to, but that probably won’t happen until the current one becomes totally unworkable. It’s just much easier to continue with the status quo. In Earth Abides the tribe just broke into an abandoned store and retrieved cans when they needed food. They didn’t need to do anything harder than that. But the cans couldn’t last forever. They never do.

What is Reality?

March 21, 2017 Leave a comment

You are probably reading this post on a computer, tablet, or phone with a graphical user interface. You click or tap an icon and something happens. You probably think of that icon as having some meaning, some functionality, some deeper purpose. But, of course, the icon is just a representation for the code that the device is running. Under the surface the nature of reality is vastly more complex and doesn’t bear the slightest relationship to the graphical elements you interact with.

There’s nothing too controversial in that statement, but what if the whole universe could be looked at in a similar way? In a recent podcast I heard an interview with Donald Hoffman, the professor of cognitive science at the University of California. He claims that our models of reality are just that: models. He also claims that mathematical modelling indicates tha the chance that our models are accurate is precisely zero.

There are all sorts of problems with this perspective, of course.

First, there is solipsism which tells us that the only thing we can know for sure is that we, as an individual, exist. If we didn’t then we couldn’t have the thought about existence, but the reality of anything else could be seen as a delusion. Ultimately I think this is totally undebatable. There is no way to prove that what I sense is real and not a delusion.

While I must accept this idea as being ultimately true I also have to reject on the basis that it is ultimately pointless. If solipsism is true then pursuing ideas or understanding of anything is futile. So our whole basis of reality relies on something which can’t be shown to be true, but has to be accepted anyway, just to make any sense of the world at all. That’s kind of awkward!

Then there is the fact that the same claims of zero accuracy of models of the world surely apply to his models of models of the world. So, if our models of reality are inaccurate does that not mean that the models we devise to study those models are also inaccurate?

And if the models of models are inaccurate does that mean there is a chance that the models themselves, aren’t? We really can’t know for sure.

I would also ask what does “zero accuracy” mean. If we get past solipsism and assume that there is a reality that we can access in some way, even if it isn’t perfect, how close to reality do we have to be to maintain some claim of accuracy?

And the idea of zero accuracy is surely absurd because our models of reality allow us to function predictably. I can tap keys on my computer and have words appear on the screen. That involves so much understanding of reality that it is deceptive to suggest that there is zero accuracy involved. There must be a degree of accuracy sufficient to allow a predictable outcome, at the level of my fingers making contact with the keys all the way down to the quantum effects working within the transistors in the computer’s processor.

So if my perception of reality does resemble the icon metaphor on a computer then it must be a really good metaphor that represents the underlying truth quite well.

There are areas where we have good reason to believe our models are quite inaccurate, though. Quantum physics seems to provide an example of where incredibly precise results can be gained but the underlying theory requires apparently weird and unlikely rationalisations, like the many worlds hypothesis.

So, maybe there are situations where the icons are no longer sufficient and maybe we never will see the underlying code.