A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Chapter 6, Wherein Aristotle Gets Hooked on Real Housewives of New Jersey

This is the only civil caption I could think of.
A mind needs concepts like a body needs enzymes.

As mentioned earlier, without the right enzymes we can not digest food.  Similarly, without the right mental enzymes (concepts) we can not digest information.

Take the example of an ancient greek watching an episode of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" on a TV screen you have brought back in time.  (Assume the TV is hooked up to a DVR and that power is being provided by a generator – in other words, you loaded down your time machine with all the technology it takes to make a self contained video machine).  The greek can not comprehend what is happening, not because he is stupid, but because his mind lacks the enzymes needed to digest the information.

Some of the information will be clear to him.  He will see that the images on the screen are moving.   He will see the little images of people and will recognize them as such.  He might find the fashion confusing (or given the picture above, maybe not as confusing as we might think).  He wouldn't understand anything that was being said, of course, unless it was in Greek.  Maybe The Real Housewives of Athens would be a better program to introduce him to.  Of course, even then the modern Greek would be substantially different from ancient Greek.

In any case it is not clear what he would make of the moving people images.  Would he think they are very tiny people in some sort of window or would he think it was some kind of moving mosaic?  Perhaps he would think it was a vision, a prophecy, or a collection of spirits.   Whatever sense he did make out of what he saw would be determined by the concepts he was used to or was working from.   The information would be digested, even if imperfectly, but it would only be broken into whatever pieces those concepts could process.

There is a well known quote which is actually Arthur C. Clarke's "3rd Law":
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C Clarke 1917-2008
There are several implications of this assertion, but one of them is surely that our minds can not comprehend what we are not conditioned to accept.  To the ancient Greek, watching a television show -- even a mind-rottingly bad television show like Real Housewives -- would be a transcendental experience.

Could we ever hope to explain to the ancient citizen what was "really happening"?  For that matter, how many of us actually have a firm grasp on exactly what it is that is happening with our little machine.  From the endothermic reaction of burning hydrocarbon in the generator and the digital storage of video and sound on the hard drive of the DVR, to the use of lighting and lenses and editing to convey the dramatic storyline, there are a lot of details many of us modern folk may be a bit fuzzy on.  Would we be able to adequately explain our video machine even if the Greek listener was willing and able to learn?  It is an interesting feature of concepts that they can function on a high level without needing to understand every single detail which constructs the lower levels of a process.  We can use a microwave without knowing how to build one, or even how it works.  And we can watch TV without needing to understand all that goes into making, transmitting, and storing a television show.

But if this is true it is because we were taught to accept these concepts.  In all the discussion so far on thinking and context forming, we haven't yet touched on TEACHING.  But that will have to wait for now.

What is Smarts?

Intelligence takes many forms -- another topic of discussion that is long overdue -- but I'd like to focus on learning and analytical intelligence for the time being.  I will call it "intelligence" even though we know that word is slippery.  We'll get more precise later.

One mark of intelligence is mental flexibility.  This is in large part the ability to adapt existing concepts or create new ones on the fly in order to process new information.  A "smart" person learns easily because she can move around the legos of her mind to build sensible shelves for storing new data and ideas.  As context means "woven with", an intelligent learner joins strands from existing mental fabric into the threads of new information quickly and securely.

But if the blocks of new learning fall easily into place, it is largely because existing mental enzymes catalyze this process.  Concepts can hold new ideas in place like vice grips while the work to join them with other information is being performed.  Picture a person trying to nail two boards together without any surface to place them on or any tool to hold anything in place.  A great deal of effort would be expended before even the most tenuous connection is made.  This is because every hammer blow meant to drive the nail into the boards simply pushes the boards away from each other.  And this is a little like trying to absorb information with no context to set upon and no concepts to hold them in position.

Another look at mental enzymes we call concepts

If I gave you three pencils, how would you know how many pencils you had just received?  You could count them.  But now what if I gave you three more pencils.  How many would you have now?  You know the answer is six.  And you could derive this by the same method as before (counting them all) or you could simply add 3+3 and come up with 6.  In this case the concept of “addition” is the mental enzyme that simplifies the work (or lowers the reaction energy) of counting and gives you a result very quickly.  You could still use the "manual method" of counting.  You will certainly not get the wrong answer, but counting is a slower (if more natural) reaction pathway and takes more time and effort.

To drive the point home, what if I gave you 94 pencils and then 93 more?  We already know you have to count them all to begin with.  I give you 94 pencils and you count them.  I give you 93 pencils and you count them.  But now how many pencils do you have.  If you count them you will reliably come up with 187.  Or you could simply do the math.

3+2 = 5
Once we have formed the concept of addition in our minds, we have catalyzed all future number problems of the same type.  Instead of counting one number on top of another, we simply “add them together”.  This saves us time and effort.  Of course the concepts of subtraction, multiplication and division function much the same way.  And each concept builds on the others that precede it.   It is almost as if the enzyme we call multiplication is made up of addition enzymes joined with some new material.  The fact that we know that multiplying something by four is the same as adding it to together four times  (2*4 = 2+2+2+2 and 19*4 = 19+19+19+19) helps us build the mental enzyme we call multiplication.   But each new concept which builds on the previous ones contains its own new powers.  So for example we learn (to our initial surprise) that 19*4 is not only 19+19+19+19 but also equal to 4*19 which is also 4 added together 19 times (4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4+4).  We could confirm this by counting, but once we have mastered the concept, we do not need to. We are sure the catalyzed reaction gives us same product as the more basic one, only much faster.

Basic math is a great example to use in explaining the principle of concepts as mental enzymes, partly because we all share that knowledge and can verify its outcome.  And the beauty of numbers is that they are discreet.  The number 2 always means the same thing whether it is in a recipe for chocolate cake or a formula for determining the escape velocity on the moon.

If we want to be technical (and the jury is out on whether we actually do want to be technical or not) we would have to admit that we glossed over some other concepts in our rush to extol the virtues of the mathematical concepts above.  For even the notion of counting or heck even numbers themselves are concepts.  It is easy to say “Here’s three pencils.  You can count them and see.”  But the reality is that “numbers” and “counting” are both concepts.   And they are pretty abstract concepts at that.

George Gamow, in his book One Two Three... Infinity, says that many Hottentot tribes in Africa have no specific words for numbers larger than three.  Anything requiring an answer larger than three is simply "many".  So we may take counting for granted, but we would do well to remember that it is a mental concept to assess the number of objects in a group in an unambiguous way.

This will not end well.
So even for our addition example, we needed to rely on the concept of counting to set the stage.  It becomes clear that as we try to explain even very basic concepts we are stuck using still other more basic concepts in the process.  This paradox is both common and problematic.  It is a bit like trying to use language to describe language or indeed using our minds to think about how our minds think.  “Thinking about thinking” is a nice playful phrase, but it is also a kind of paradox.  "I think therefore I am" could really be described as "I think I think, therefore I think I am."  For we can't know what thinking is without thinking about it.  As such it is a mental Uroboros, a thought snake eating its own tail.

Douglas Hofstadter examines some of the mental paradox of thinking about thinking and using our sense of identity to discover our own identity in his book I am a Strange Loop.   We will leave recursive systems and strange loops for another day so as to stick with the concept of concepts for the time being (pun unintended but unavoidable -- as so many recursive systems are).

For now it is sufficient to say that although there is something oddly delightful about seeing something perform its function on itself (a child will marvel at the site of a tow truck being towed by another tow truck and I still enjoy pointing a mirror at another mirror) there is nothing intrinsically illegitimate about a recursive process.  We may think about thinking all we want. The result may simply not be what we expect.

Another feature of enzymes and concepts

If you'll recall, when we touched upon the definition of an enzyme, or any catalyst really, we mentioned that it was not consumed in the reaction that took place.  It can be ALTERED, but not CONSUMED.  So too it is with concepts.

No matter how many times we add numbers together, we do not destroy or consume the concept of addition.  Addition is not the fuel that powers this energy saving device.  Rather it is the mental mold that we fit numbers into in order to produce the sum.   The mold is re-usable.  No matter how many numbers we add, we can "dump them out" and add new ones as many times as we want to.

Birthdays were once exciting and delightful
A catalyst can be affected by the reaction it catalyses, however.  In the chemical world there are many catalysts which become less efficient over time due to minor changes in the catalyst (such as coking referred to earlier).  Concepts can similarly be affected by the information they help process.  So while the concept is never "used up", we can form additional insight or flexibility (find more cases where a concept applies for instance), or we can even find that certain concepts we rely upon don't age well and become less useful.  What was once a concept that produced a perfectly acceptable result may over time yield information which is less useful or accurate for our evolving purposes.  To cite a crudely complex example, our notion of "happiness" changes over time as we grow from early childhood into adulthood.  The kinds of mental states we craved as children become less meaningful or fulfilling as we age.  Our knowledge of this change can even lead to melancholy as we long for a time when "life was simpler".  But what has happened is that the concepts we used to measure, evaluate -- and even seek out -- happiness changed over the years we used them.  And interestingly they were changed by the very experiences brought about in our quest for happiness.  So in other words, the information process that was catalyzed by the concept in turn altered the concept.

As we proceed in the coming months to examine what kinds of concepts we build and how they relate to the contexts we form, we will investigate these points further.  Specifically we will look at how concepts help us build new concepts, how concepts evolve through use, and what happens when people are confronted with information when they lack the conceptual basis for breaking down the data and forming any kind of understanding.

Before we do that, though, we'll take some detours into self-similarity, recursive systems, strange loops, and that troubling news Godel forced us to confront with his Incompleteness Theorem.  As we'll see, these will all illuminate something about how we form conceptual understanding.  Ultimately we will need all of these tools to properly think about thinking.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How is a Mini-Van like a Vitamin?

The Soccer Game

Suppose there were a soccer game among 5th graders from rival schools.  The game is being held at a field near one of the schools, but the visiting team is from another part of town.  Neither school has any buses. The students all walk to school or get rides from their parents.  So the question is how you get the students from school A to the game at school B.

An obvious solution is to just have all the kids walk.  After their school gets out for the day, they could all just walk across town to the soccer field at the other school.  This could work, but these are fifth graders we are talking about.  Some of them are probably not good candidates for this plan.  You could ask all the players to walk but (for whatever reason), some of them may not make it.  One way to mitigate this would be to send enough players so that even if you lost a few enough would make it across town that you could still have a game.  Not surprisingly, this plan does not go over well with the parents.  And it's worth noting that even under the best of circumstances, the game would have to be scheduled to account for the time it took to walk across town.

So a second solution to the problem would be to have each child's parents drive him to the game.  This would solve both the time issue and the safety/distraction issue.  You would not lose any of your soccer players in transit if each one was chauffeured to the game.   But the logistics of this aren't very good either.  Not every single parent has the time to pick up his or her child and bring them to the game.  For one very important game it might be workable but it would be hard to imagine a season of games being played where each child gets his own ride to and from the game.  The cost in parents' time and the resources involved in each child being driven separately are just too high.

So enter the "soccer moms".  This is a small group of mothers who have volunteered to use their mini-vans to take the kids to each game.  Using one volunteer driver to transport 4-6 kids in each vehicle solves all of the problems while minimizing the total time and expense.  With enough volunteers, the system can work even if a soccer mom or two can not make every single event.  As long as their are three moms available for each game, all of the players can be dropped off at the field in time for the game.  (And yes, I realize that sometimes a soccer mom is really a soccer dad, but in this example, they are all moms, so that's just the way it is.)

The point is that this system allows the game to take place when at first it seemed complicated to get so many players to the right place at the right time in order to hold the event.

Enzyme: Soccer Mom Solution

The reason I have chosen this example is to show how the soccer mom is acting as an enzyme if we look at the game of soccer as an event analogous to a chemical reaction.

Let's talk about what an enzyme is and how it works.  An enzyme is a catalyst.  This means that it accelerates a chemical reaction by lowering the activation energy required for the reaction to take place.  Importantly the catalyst is NOT consumed as part of the reaction.  It can be AFFECTED by the reaction (as takes place with "coking" which is basically a coating that forms on a chemical catalyst).  An enzyme is a "bio-"catalyst.   It is an organic structure that by its design makes certain chemical processes more likely to occur.

Life would be impossible without enzymes.  As a basic and common example, the process that converts sugar into energy would take place so slowly that we would starve if not for the help of enzymes.

So an enzyme is a special kind of organic structure which aids in the chemical processes in our bodies.

Now we can talk about how the "soccer mom solution" to our problem is like an enzyme.

To begin with, there is a game you would like to have played (the reaction you want to take place) but there are inputs to that reaction, including a dozen or so fifth graders comprising the visiting team.  You need to get these molecules (er, kids) to the reaction site.  But getting the reaction to unfold in the way you want it to with all the right components for a successful conclusion (in this case enough players to have an official game), requires a lot of energy and maybe even some excess molecules to account for those who stray or otherwise become unavailable for your reaction.

An enzyme provides leverage to make it easier for a reaction to take place.  It makes it more likely that enough molecules will be where they need to be and it lowers the energy cost of the reaction.  This is very much like how the soccer moms leveraged their mini-vans and spare afternoons to ensure that the right number of kids were delivered to the game on time.

In this example, the mom with the mini-van is the enzyme.  The mom alone is not the complete enzyme because although her services as a driver are essential, the other critical ingredient is that she has a vehicle with the carrying capacity required to bring several kids at once -- which creates the efficiency we need for this reaction to take place.

The mom can be seen as the Apoenzyme -- the polypeptide or protein part of the enzyme.  The mini-van, on the other hand, is the Cofactor or non protein portion of the enzyme.  In biochemistry, these are typically derived from vitamins.  So the mini-van is essentially the vitamin part of the enzyme in our little example.

Enzymes on a Social Scale

The takeaway here is that we can use the concept of an enzyme as something that by its very structure enables something that might otherwise be complicated to take place more smoothly.  It catalyzes the process.  There is a savings in either time or energy or both because the enzyme coordinates or organizes the components in the proper way.

The Legal Enzyme

The analogy of enzymes works on a conceptual level as well.  Which is to say that concepts themselves can function as informational or intellectual enzymes.  Take the example of a law.  A law is a conceptual enzyme in the sense that it simplifies how to cope with a particular circumstance.  A law may say that a certain behavior is illegal and may even proscribe specific punishment for those who commit such an act.  So for example we have laws about speeding which suggest that you will receive a ticket and a fine for driving too fast.  The concept of "too fast" is defined by the speed limit.

Without the conceptual framework (legal enzyme) of "speeding", we would have to deal with drivers who drove too fast on a case by case basis.  There would have to be judgement calls by police officers for each and every instance of "driving too fast" and a potentially complicated process for determining how to punish violators.  The likelihood that the results would be rather arbitrary are high.  But even more importantly from our perspective, the time and energy spent on addressing the problem of "driving too fast" would be enormous.

By creating a conceptual enzyme called the legal speed limit complete with its cofactors like the "speed limit sign" and all of its proteins like the laws regarding speeding, we are able to metabolize highway safety in a timely and energy efficient way.

The efficacy of conceptual enzymes varies, of course.  We can imagine an old west town with a very crude system of justice.  Its lack of sophisticated conceptual enzymes (laws) for parsing daily life makes justice both capricious and porous.  On the other hand, complexity can have its own inefficiencies.  The US tax code is nothing if not full of concepts and definitions.  But the lack of cohesion makes for a different kind of capriciousness and porousness.  Still the analogy of how a concept can "hold information in place" and allow actions to be performed on it similar to the way that chemical processes are assisted by enzymes can be rather useful.

What is a Concept?

When I used the term "conceptual enzyme" earlier, I could have simply used the word "concept".  Because that is really what a concept is.   It is an information structure that simplifies information by organizing it so that certain associations, reactions or events are more likely.

Take for example an exotic food I have never tasted.  I may be leery of the new experience.  I don't know what to expect.

"Is it safe?"  I ask someone who has eaten the food many times.

"Yes," she assures me.

"Well, what's it taste like?"

"It is delicious," she says.  "It is sweet and tangy."

Now all of these words "safe" and "delicious" and "sweet" and "tangy" are actually concepts.  They provide me with a way to anticipate what I am about to experience.  The knowledge that the food is safe is critical, of course, because I don't want to eat something poisonous.  But beyond that I am told to expect that the food will be "delicious".  This is simply another concept.  It is a mental enzyme that gives me a ready made context for the information I am about to receive as I experience eating the food.

Context, as we have touched upon, is that complicated mental story we have written for each experience we encounter.  Well concepts -- intellectual enzymes -- are merely a special kind of information that help us build more complete context in much the same way that digestive enzymes assist us in breaking down food in order to build healthy teeth and bones.

And just as our body actually uses some of the nutrition we absorb to build its own enzymes, we can sometimes use the information we receive to build new concepts.  The enzymes our body makes go on to do their enzyme magic -- lowering the cost of chemical reactions in our body.  Similarly, the concepts we build go on to do their intellectual enzyme magic -- improving the efficiency with which we place new information into context.

The Idea of a Concept and the Concept of an Idea... Thingy

The problem with the word "concept" is that it is so over-used as to basically be a stand in for "thought thingy".  It is a very general term, as vague as the word "idea".  In its literal sense its meaning is profound, but in its usage it is rather bland.  We use the words, "thing" and "concept" and "idea" as such generic stand ins for more specific notions ("notion" is just another generic word too) that it can be hard to really appreciate the power of these words.  But in its pure sense, a "concept" is a collected set of associations with its own internal logic and set of rules.  It is an informational superstructure -- a chain of idea proteins with some thought vitamins thrown in for good measure.  Despite the generic sound of the word, when we hear the word "concept" we should try and remember that is suggests a powerful organizational structure that impacts the speed with which we can break down and absorb information.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Edward Snowden, Courageous White Blood Cell or Cancer?

Much more has been learned in the past day or so about where the leaks about the NSA came from.  Edward Snowden, a systems analyst for a private contractor working for the NSA leaked the PRISM information.  The Guardian has posted a fascinating 12 minute interview with him.

Again, as with all of the news around this topic, this is a lot to take in.   There are those who accuse him of wanting to defect to China -- which would make my earlier hypothesis seem fairly sound.  But he himself denies this, saying he picked Hong Kong as a location because it is a "fairly independent westernized government".   His choices may have been limited.  He desires a place that respects free speech (as he claims Hong Kong does) and is willing to exercise some independence from the US -- i.e. not just arrest him and hand him over immediately.

There are some important aspects of what Mr. Snowden has done and of the things he has exposed.  They are even important from the point of view of information theory and personal identity.  There are a number of ways we could approach this topic and still remain well within the bounds of "thinking about thinking".

But I am most interested in looking at his actions as an example of the tiny little "single celled human" and how he behaves in the big beast that is "human society".

As usual I am behind on my concepts, but I touched upon the "hive mind" a few times in earlier posts.  This is an analogy only --  not the literal state of affairs -- that suggests that each human participates in the global thought process a little like the way each neuron may contribute to thinking in the brain.  Well there is another extension of this thinking (which is also simply an analogy and not intended in any literal way) that treats "concepts" as enzymes.  Enzymes promote chemical processes in the body in somewhat the same way that concepts can promote social developments in a community.

Context defines our molds.
Information will bind to our context
only if it has been molded to fit.
We then transform it and pass it along.
This analogy treats humans as little cells running around full of their own enzymes and secretions (thoughts and expressions of those thoughts) in a larger body that translates these chemical reactions into macro-activity.  That is, the same way that a body might digest food or crave alcohol and turn this process into action (whether exercise or going to the store to buy beer), a community uses its collection of individual processes to both enable and motivate it to take action.

The concept of National Security in this model is a powerful enzyme that leverages a bunch of other activity.  Specialized cells give up their entire productive lives to the management of the enzyme called "National Security" -- doing what it takes to make as much of it as possible and even destroy those cells who try to absorb or destroy that enzyme.

Epinephrine!! You guys!  Seriously!
So now take the case of Edward Snowden.  He has sniffed out something he has found to be poisonous.  He has sent out a hormonal signal to the rest of the body.  The body has picked this up and individual cells are deciding how this chemical signal relates to their own enzymes.  Snowden's intention was to alert other cells to danger -- akin to how white blood cells might seek out and destroy a virus.

Meanwhile the cells responsible for production of National Security enzyme have sent out some hormone signatures of their own.  They are intent on treating this rogue cell like it is a mutant cancer cell which needs to be destroyed to protect the health of the body.

Much more on how this analogy fits with our "Information, Context, Action" model later.  But while a perfect example was playing out in international affairs, I wanted to comment on it.

And as far as the particulars of this event -- it will be interesting to see if he does land in China, or even if Xi Jinping allows him to stay or hands him over to the US.  So this is interesting to me on two levels. It is fascinating as an example of how individual cells in the global community can decide on a call to action and how the system responds to rogue signals from misbehaving cells.   But it is also compelling for the real world issues involved -- the balance of security versus the expectation of privacy.

I'll be chiming in about both these angles in the days to come.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

China, NSA, PRISM, and Cyber Attacks

That must be a skeleton key
he's got in his claws.
I don't want to get too far off base from the central theme of this blog, but what has been happening in the news is relevant in some important ways to the notion of what the internet means and how we communicate.  So like the sock-puppet concern, the current news fits into our wider context.

In a nutshell what has happened over the last few days, of course, is that separate leaks have revealed some interesting things about the extent to which data has been collected by the NSA and how much the Obama administration has been focused on intelligence gathering and cyber warfare.

We now know that phone records for Verizon for the last 90 days have been vacuumed up and (let's face it) the only credible interpretation of the one piece of evidence we can see points to the idea that this data collection has been going on well past the last 90 days and not just at Verizon.  Alongside of that was the separate revelation that all server data at Google, Apple, AOL, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. has been vacuumed up by the NSA as well.

Maybe someone really is reading my blog!

(Or not.)

A really bad movie.
Now today comes yet another leak.  This time it is in connection with Obama's cybersecurity executive order.  Basically, and unsurprisingly, it contains the revelation that not only did the President authorize cybersecurity measures but also directed agencies to identify possible targets for cyber attack should the need arise.  These attacks would be designed to be executed "with little or no warning" and to result in "potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging."

There is a lot to take in about the surveillance and collection of data regarding legal activity of US citizens and this explicit interest the President has in offensive cyber warfare capacity.  But one thing I have been focused on is the timing of all this news.

Today (June 7) Obama began his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Of course the recent attacks on US targets by Chinese military hackers (which China has unconvincingly tried to deny) was bound to be on the agenda.  This conversation is a little more ticklish in light of recent news.

It is a lot harder to blast China for its hacking when we have been secretly soaking up the data of all our citizens for the last several years, all in the name of "National Security".  And it is even harder to shame China for its foreign adventures in hacking when we have drawn up a target list for attack if the need arises.   Now I am not saying that any of these things are necessarily unwarranted.  The needs of our national security policy are driven by realities I will never know, so I can't really second guess whether these actions which have come to light are overkill or not.  And cyber warfare is a modern reality.  It would be foolish to think that we were not at least preparing for cyber attacks in case the need arose.

But the explicit reminder of this state of affairs takes a great deal of moral steam away from the US as it prepares to lecture China on its "evil ways".  These leaks could not have come at a worse time for President Obama nor at a better time for China's President.

So I have started to wonder if these leaks may have been made by the Chinese or with the help of the Chinese.

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, the Chinese government had access to secret data from both the Obama Campaign and the McCain Campaign.  The breach was so large, a Chinese diplomat made the mistake of protesting a letter John McCain had written to the new President of Taiwan while it was still in draft form on McCain's computer.   The Chinese clearly had the inside scoop in 2008.  There is no reason to think that this kind of penetration and surveillance is not part of their national security strategy.

So if you connect the dots
  -- that the Chinese have had access to very privileged information in the past
  -- that the Chinese continue to conduct hundreds of cyber attacks (mostly hacking) from military posts in China
  -- that the US government has expressed its concern about shoring up our cybersecurity

it makes me wonder if China does not in fact already pwn us.

(Pwn, pronounced "pown" is geek speak [technically "leet-speak"] implying humiliation or domination of a rival, probably based on the hasty typo "pwned" when trying to type "owned" at the end of a crushing win in a video game.)

Wrong thinking will
be punished.

All we know is China is very aggressive with its covert cyber activities and that they have had some well publicized successes.  What if they have really been so successful that they could leak our own government's secrets at a time most opportune for them?  And wouldn't it be quite a show of force for them to release information about Obama's cybersecurity program on the day the two are meeting about these matters?  It would prove to be both a subtle and unmistakable message at the same time.  It would really hit home with those in the know, while leaving the general public blissfully unaware of the muscle flexing they had just done.

This would be very consistent with Chinese philosophy about the importance of demonstrating your strength.  It would be a very clear message to those who mattered most.  And it would sail by largely unnoticed by the masses, which would mean it wouldn't stir up resentment or agitate public opinion.

If this is true (and I'm just speculating), it would mean lots of things.

First of all it would mean that US cybersecurity is a mess.  It would also mean that drastic measures on the part of the NSA would be called for (and even approved of if citizens knew the score).  If the only way we could identify the degree to which China owned our networks was to vacuum them up and analyze them in detail, most Americans would be very happy to permit the government to do this.   But of course no President would go to the American people and admit this state of affairs.  They would, however, take extreme action knowing it was essential to reclaiming our security.

It would also mean that we are in a world of hurt in our power relationship with the Chinese.  We already know that they have amassed a great deal of economic power very quickly.  Up until the financial crisis, China was the biggest holder of US debt (now it's our own Treasury).  They have used their rapid industrialization to amass a great deal of money.  But so far the US is still the largest economy on the planet and we have been protected from any truly ugly monetary arm twisting from China by dint of the fact that they need us as much as we need them (at least right now).  But if they achieve global dominance in cyberspace it would be yet another way for them to leverage their growing power.

And if the Obama administration is aware of the level of dominance that China has achieved, they have to be very concerned about the likelihood of being backed into a strategic corner by this suddenly very powerful player on the world stage.  A little show of strength from China, like the leak of some top secret info, would be very unnerving to the US and yet most of us would never hear about it.  It's not like Obama is going to run and tattle on China for what they have done -- it would only prove how much they have us pinned to the mat.

There are other possibilities, too.  The leaks could be unrelated to the Chinese and the timing with the visit of the Chinese President could be either coincidental or chosen specifically but not by the Chinese.  But even the possibility that these events are related to the growing power of China is a thought I find very unnerving.

If we have been upset to find that the NSA has been collecting our emails and cat videos, imagine how we would feel living in China where they can not even successfully Google "Tianamen Square" or "Tank Man Photo".

The democratizing power of one-to-many communication (and its technology multiplying effect) is one of the themes of this blog, so the idea that China may be growing into a world information system superpower is relevant to the subject matter considered here besides just being wet-your-pants scary.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Interview with a Special Flower

For this thought experiment we're going to take a special packet of seeds up in a balloon.  These seeds are for a flower -- a special flower -- but we will get back to that later.  We are going to go up in the balloon high over whatever town or city you like to imagine when taking thought piece balloon rides.

When we get to a place over the parking lots and parks, near the river (if your imaginary town has no river, we'll substitute any body of water), we are going to dump out our packet of seeds.  We will plant flowers from the air, casting them to the wind and letting them all fall where they may.  Some will land in the water where they will become soggy and sink.   Some will land on barren rooftops or scorching hot asphalt and dry out and turn to dust.  Some will fall into unfortunate corners of shade with limited sunlight -- too little to support our seeds.  One will fall into a sandbox, so close to nearby soil but alas in an environment too hostile to support the tender seedling as it breaks through it's husk.  But one, one very lucky seed, will fall into a pile of very moist and fertile soil next to a fencepost that happens to give the perfect exposure of sun with some protective shade during the hottest part of the day.  There are actually a few seeds that happen to fall in pretty good locations, but this spot in particular seems very likely to work out for our young seedling.  We're pretty sure its going to do just fine.  So we'll come back when it blossoms.

Now I said this was a special flower, and I meant it, because when this flower blossoms, it develops consciousness and the ability to communicate with us.  So now we are going to visit our flower and ask it a few questions.

Interviewer:  Who are you?
Flower:  I am a flower.  Who are you?

I:  This is not about me.  I am trying to learn about you and how you see your world.  Are there others like you?
F:  You mean other flowers?  Yes, of course.

I:  No I mean flowers who are conscious and can communicate.
F:  Oh, no.  I am the only one.

I:  Are you sure about that?
F:  Yes, I am sure.  I have seen no other flowers like me, so I believe I am the only conscious flower in existence.

I:  But how can you say that if you haven't been everywhere?
F:  I get your point.  But think about it.  I happen to be in the perfect place.  The space around me is very hostile.  I just can't imagine any other flowers like me surviving even in the unlikely event that I was not the only one in the world.

I:  Let's move on.  Why do you think you are in the perfect place?
F:  Well think about it.  A flower like me can not just grow anywhere.  I need the right mix of sun and rain.  This spot is just wonderful.

I:   I mean, why do you think you exist?
F: I am pretty sure I was planted right here in this very spot because someone wanted me to grow.   I could have been planted anywhere, but I was planted right here.  It is obvious that someone cared about me a great deal and took great pains to make sure that I lived long enough to blossom.

I:  Do you think maybe you could have just been planted by accident?
F:  Not a chance.  You don't get it.   I have consciousness.  I can tell this is something very special.  Something as special as this can't happen by accident.  And anyway, if I was planted by accident, why is the world around me so perfect to support my life?  No, I am sure that this is part of a plan.  I would not have survived if it were not.

I:  Do you think about whoever planted you?
F:   Oh yes, every day.  I thank the Gardener for his infinite wisdom in picking this very perfect spot for me and watching over me making certain that I would grow and blossom.

I:  You think the Gardener watched over you during your early life?
F:  Of course.  Early life, mid-life, the whole thing.  Are you daft?  I have already said that the odds that I would be here at all seem very tiny.  So it certainly must be the Gardener's Plan.  And he wouldn't bother having a Plan if He didn't make sure He saw it through.  I am living proof that the Gardener wanted me here and He watches over me protecting me from harm.

The Gardener doing His thing.
I:  You seem pretty convinced.  Is there any way you could imagine that you were simply a random seed that fell from the sky and you happened to fall in the right place?  Is it possible that other seeds in worse places did not live or maybe that there are even other seeds in other places that managed to live long enough to blossom and that maybe you will communicate with them someday?
F:  Yes, if I think about it hard enough, I can imagine this possibility, but it doesn't feel true.  I have no reason to believe that I am not the only flower of my kind.  I feel like I am special somehow.  And why would the Gardener do that?  What use would he have for other flowers like me anyway?  I can see how you could make some sort of fantasy where this is all happening just by chance, but I wouldn't want to live in a world like that.  It would mean I am not special.  It would mean, in fact, that I am meaningless.  I am not meaningless.  I am special.  Therefore I know I am right.

I:  Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
F:  You're very welcome.  I am always glad to have an opportunity to praise the Gardener and share my thanks for His precious gift of life.

Are We Just Making Fun of the Flower?

In "speaking" with this flower, it becomes obvious the message this thought experiment was created to deliver.  But is this just an artificial construct designed to make an argument easy to refute?  Are we just poking fun at a straw man flower?

Quite the contrary, I think the story is instructive and useful.  Yes, we start with the knowledge that this particular flower is the result of a random, haphazard, and disinterested act.  We have no such proof that human beings arose through the same process.  But that's not the point.  The point is that the flower has every reason to believe what he is saying.   From its perspective, every conclusion about its life seems, if not strictly logical, at least reasonable.  Why would he have any reason to believe that the rare event that is his existence was not a very controlled and intentional act of a powerful being looking over and watching out for him?

So all this is meant to suggest is that if you start with the assumption that humanity arose from the random distribution of elements that could under the right circumstances give rise to conscious life, what would our own conclusions and thoughts about this process be?   We should be forgiven for assuming we are special -- all evidence around us through our development supports that idea.  And we should be forgiven for rejecting the idea that our existence has no meaning.  Our minds are predisposed to seek meaning.  This may be another developmental accident or it may be an essential part of consciousness.  Regardless, human minds view the world with a need to order and derive meaning.  That is how we learn.  And if we assign meaning to events around us (which gives us the revelation of causality and allows us to develop science) then why wouldn't we turn that lens inward and seek to interpret the meaning of our own existence.  It would be surprising and out of character if we could make causal and meaningful connections in the world around us but assumed that we ourselves had no role to play in the universe.  Quite the opposite, we have every right to approach our own lives as something meaningful.  And assuming that we are the random result of a scattering of cosmic seeds does not do that, at least not without a great deal of further intellectual development.

So the point in the rather obvious play was to show that the flower is not just some stupid plant, but rather it has drawn perfectly reasonable conclusions about the world around it based on what it knows and can infer.  We have the benefit of knowing how far off base the flower is in this example, but we should still be able to trace the logic involved.

The reason I like this thought piece is that I have sometimes heard that the universal existence of God as a concept lends some sort of support for why God "must" exist.  But here we can see that there is another way we can support the idea of God absent God's existence.

Let's examine this from a different angle.

There Either is a God or There isn't.

Let's start with the notion that God exists.  We would still have a number of determinations to make.  For example is this God anything like what we think of when we think of God.  Is there just one God?  Is the God that exists closer to the Christian God, the Jewish God, the Islamic God, or any other type of God, etc.  But let's set that aside for now.  Let's assume that God exists and He possesses most of the qualities common to all the most popular religions.  That is to say, he created man, he is involved in the daily life of human beings, etc.  (similar to what the flower thought of when it said "Gardener".)

If this is the case, then the things we (as humans) have written about God and the way he is described can be easily explained as coming from our experiences living in the world God has designed.  If God is real and involved in our daily lives, it stands to reason that we would collectively over time have enough "brushes with God" that we felt there was some evidence for His existence.  The differences in our perception of God could be explained by our having slightly different interpretations of the evidence.  They could also be explained (and have been) as the result of Satan (or the force of evil and ignorance) who has led others astray so that they don't worship the "true" God.  I'm going to put aside these loaded questions right now and simply accept that one reason for believing in God may be that He exists.

But let's look at the other side of this, as demonstrated by our little thought piece.  Could we believe in God if He did not exist?  That is to say, without God, would there be any inclination on our part to create him to explain the world the way we experienced it?  And I think the answer is clearly yes.

Consciousness is not All Seeing

In order to do any of the wonderful high level functions our minds accomplish, we need first to develop consciousness.  This is the knowledge that we exist.  By definition this requires an "in here" and an "out there".  It is the awareness that there is a "Universe" and "I" am a part of it.  We could not wonder who created the Universe or who created ourselves if we did not conceive of these things as entities to begin with.  So the great leap of mental development that is self-awareness or consciousness (which clearly warrants much more consideration in due time) is a pre-requisite for inquiring about the existence of God.  But we should not make the error of thinking that self-awareness comes with complete knowledge of the Universe or even ourselves.   It is one thing to be aware of something, it is another still to know everything there is to know.  This might seem obvious, but it is an important point in the development of our case for the belief in God.

Short of total knowledge about something, we seek to infer knowledge based on evidence.  This is a perfectly legitimate and useful logical tool.  And it has a survival value as well.  If we learn that a particular piece of fruit is poisonous, we infer that other fruits of the same kind are also poisonous.  It may seem obvious to the point of ridiculousness, but it is actually an amazing product of logical thought.  The true experiential way to knowledge is to accept things as fact only when they have been proven through contact and experience.  A mind without the power of logical inference would not accept that a particular piece fruit was poisonous unless it was tasted and found to be disagreeable.  This would apply whether we had tasted two fruits of the same kind already or two thousand.  No, it is a logical leap to conclude that IF this fruit is poisonous, THEN another fruit of this type is also poisonous.  In logical parlance that would translate to:

     A and B are both members of the set F.
     If A=B, then
     If  A implies P then B implies P.

Or, in English, if A and B are both certain types of fruit, then if A is poisonous, B is also poisonous.

This can seem very scholarly when broken into logical rules or very basic to the point of obviousness if treated with a real world example.  But the fact remains, concluding that a fruit you have never tasted is poisonous simply because it looks and smells like another fruit that you know is poisonous is a logical leap with huge implications for the advancement of all creatures who can handle the concept.

What Can You Infer from a Sample of One?

I snuck something into that example that made it seem more simple than it was.  I said that the second, untasted, fruit was "the same" as the poisonous one.  How would we know what made it the same?  In practice, unless you have an identical copy of your first experience (or piece of fruit) it takes more than one experiment to determine when two things share enough in common to belong to the same class.  Look at these three fruits:

If you just had the fruit and not the plant, could you tell them apart?  One of them is perfectly edible.  Which one can you imagine eating?

It turns out that the top one is a very edible Huckleberry.  The next one is the fruit of the Asparagus plant, which is moderately poisonous, and the last one is the Flax Leaved Daphne, which is poisonous and potentially fatal.  How many trials would it take to be able to tell the difference?

The point is that logical inference doesn't work very well unless we have enough examples (or data) to make comparisons.  So now let's think back to our special flower.

When it was trying to determine its place in the universe -- how rare it might be or whether it was indeed unique -- it didn't have a lot to go on.  It had its local space and that was it.  It observed no other special flowers besides itself.  Everything it could say about itself was based on a sample of one.

Additionally when it examined the environment around itself, it saw many places too hostile to support its life.  What conclusion could it draw from this?

The perfectly reasonable inference it made from the available data was that it was a unique and special flower.  It seemed unlikely that it would just happen to be planted in the perfect spot, so it assumed that its spot was chosen for it.  What it did not know, of course, was the spot it lived in was perfect precisely because all imperfect locations had not supported its brethren.  It happened to land where it did, and the reason it thrived was due to the conditions being perfect -- the perfect conditions were the reason it thrived, but it does not follow logically that the location was chosen with intent  (there's that word again).

So what is logical (and in fact true in our little scenario) is that the only special plants that live long enough to wonder about why they are planted in the perfect spot are those who happen to be planted in a place that supports them!  This is, you may know, a restatement of the Weak Anthropic Principle:

we must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.

In other words, we see the Universe is the way it is because if it were another way, we would not be around to see it.  Or stated from the point of view of the flower, "Had I been planted somewhere else less suitable to my life, I would not have lived long enough to wonder about why I am where I am."

Jurgen Schmidhuber restates this principle eloquently withe the idea that the odds of finding yourself in a universe compatible with your existence is always 100%.   So it follows, of course that we can't read anything into why the world is "so perfect for us".  We can never exist in a universe where we could ask the question, "Why is this universe so impossible for me to live in?"   (Unless you are an angst ridden teenager, of course...)

Pardise, Jan Brueghel, c. 1620
Why Me?

Weak Anthropic Principle or not, we can forgive the inference, "Because this place is perfect for me, it must have been made for me."  While not strictly logical, think of the relative sophistication of the mind that first conceived this notion.  An early human, still struggling with the vagaries of weather and harvests and the motion of the stars would scarcely have the capacity to reason his way to the Weak Anthropic Principle.  And those special minds who could manage the task would not be able to explain it to the less developed minds they were surrounded by.  Far more popular would be the seemingly obvious notion that we exist because of Divine Intent.  In any case it would be hard to infer much about humanity with only the one example to go on.

One More Trip Back to Conspiracy Land

It is worth reiterating what this early mind, this newly conscious being, is trying to do.  The conscious and logical mind can see order and causality.  The inference is made that if some things are causal, then all things must be causal.  These relationships are sought out in the world.   The season is cold because the Sun is leaving.  Everything is dying.  The Sun is coming back so everything is coming back to life.  Early causality is fraught with observational error even while the essence of the notion is often correct.  The weather affects crops.  This is true.  Early conclusions about what affected the weather (even what weather was), however, were false.  It is well known that the term for the study of weather -- meteorology -- comes from the early misconception that meteors affected the weather.

Finding order by applying reason to the world around us has had a huge survival benefit for our species.  And when the conclusions are essentially correct, the survival benefit remains EVEN IF the reasoning that leads to these conclusions is faulty.  If we think what makes the Asparagus Berry poisonous is that it is inhabited by an evil spirit, that does not diminish the survival value of avoiding the berry.

So from a logical perspective, communities who applied logic and reason -- sometimes even faulty reasoning -- were more prosperous than those who did not.  The rational mind survives because it provides an important tool to endure in a hostile world.  By the time human beings formed communities, the impulse to find order and causality in the world would be genetically entrenched.  Those who could not, or would not, view the world as a series of causal relationships would not endure long enough to pass on their customs.

Cause and Intent

The major problem we have had historically is in terms of understanding Causal relationships without ascribing Intent to them.   This is the old problem of How versus Why that we discussed earlier.  But understanding HOW something happens tells of nothing of WHY.  And here's another shocker.  If you examine the history of our scientific discoveries -- our catalog of causal relationships -- you come to the inescapable conclusion that our track record for explaining HOW things happen is not very good, either.

Plato and Aristotle,
arguing over where to have lunch
Aristotle explained that air rises in water and stones sink because all elements have a tendency toward their state in nature, and air is above water and Earth is below it.  So even though he was seemingly trying to describe WHY something happened, he was also talking about HOW it happened.  And except in the simplest terms, he got it wrong.  He thought he was observing an interplay of basic elements.  He was not.  Since he did not know who the actors on stage were, he could not understand the story that was taking place.

You may think I am merely cherry picking ancient science that could not possibly compete with our modern understanding of the world.  But any example I could choose would amount to the same thing. Before Sir Isaac Newton there was no coherent understanding of the force of gravity.  And despite Newton's considerable insights into the matter, even his laws were no match for reality.  Einstein's Relativity showed that Newton's explanation of how bodies moved (not WHY they moved, but HOW) was simply wrong.  It was mostly right.  Or right in some cases, most of which pertained to our Earth-bound existence, but he was not, strictly speaking accurate.  Using Newtonian mechanics to describe the motion of Mercury around the Sun resulted in a small error which could not be explained.  Some suggested the influence of an as-of-yet undiscovered planet.  Einstein put the issue to rest with a more accurate set of laws to describe HOW gravity works.  Or more precisely how it behaves (for whatever reason).  Einstein''s Theories are silent on WHY gravity exists, of course.

One could argue the point I am trying to make is not relevant in a modern context.  You could say that citing old science and talking about how it has been replaced by new more sophisticated scientific understanding is testimony to the success of science, not its failure.  We may have gotten things wrong in the past, but persistent application of the scientific method leads us to greater and greater accuracy about how things function in our universe.

You'd be right in a very limited way.  We certainly have a greater understanding than the ancient Greeks about how the stars and planets move.  And building on the science of those who have come before has lead us to greater and greater technology which in turn allows us to achieve even greater scientific progress.  Unfortunately, though, if the end point is complete understanding of the universe and the beginning is complete ignorance about our surroundings -- in other words if ignorance is the blank word puzzle and knowledge is one that is solved -- we have to accept that we are somewhere in the middle of the process.  Each new scientific breakthrough -- each new letter filled into the word -- reveals many more possibilities and questions even as it sheds a bit more light on the solution.

In essence, the word just keeps getting longer the more we try to solve it.  We no sooner get a grasp of basic chemistry than we find out about the structure of the atom.  Exploration into valence electrons and isotopes only leads us to the quarks and leptons which are the building blocks of the atoms themselves.

If you went to high school sometime in the middle portion of the 20th century, you may think of the atom as being composed of electrons and protons and neutrons.  While that basic concept hasn't changed, particle physicists are now describing the world of the very tiny in terms of 25 elementary particles!  [That is six quarks, six leptons of which the electron is one, and 13 bosons including the Higgs boson, accidentally named the "God particle" in the layman press.]

For every scientific success story we could tell -- about progress in neuroscience and psychology and medicine and physics and chemical engineering, etc. etc., we would have to face up to the fact that every 20 years shows us how little we actually understood about the subject 20 years earlier.  That level of progress is great.  It is certainly no argument for abandoning the pursuit of science.  But it is powerful evidence that whatever we think we know now about reality will be replaced in short order by a different level of understanding.  So to put it bluntly, we may think we are getting smarter, but we have to accept that some of our greatest concepts will be viewed as horribly naive and over simplified in the span of just a few generations.

So, again.  It's not that we do not make progress in science.  But we can't view that progress as being any sort of sign that our current concept of the universe is in any meaningful way "correct".

Ben Franklin, seemingly annoyed to
find himself on a
Soviet postage stamp in 1956
Imagine traveling back in time to talk science and politics with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson  (this is something I fantasize about quite often).  It would be delightfully challenging to explain the future to them in terms that they could understand.  Much of the basics, if properly presented, would pose only minor theoretical hurdles to their understanding.  But taken as a whole, they could scarcely grasp the speed and pervasiveness of energy and travel and communication.  Even if they believed you as you described life in the early 21st century, they would never truly appreciate how anything functioned.

So now imagine that you are deemed worthy of a visit from a similarly interested person 227 years from now -- in the year 2240.  Even if we make the very clearly incorrect assumption that change will not accelerate over these 230 years -- even if we simply mapped a degree of change onto the future that is approximately equal to the last 230 years -- we'd have a very hard time keeping up with a description of life in the middle of the 23rd century.  We would be prepared to accept that there were advances in medicine and nutrition.  It would be no surprise to find that people live longer.  Breakthroughs in energy transmission would almost go without saying.  But if our time traveling friend tried to explain the science behind the technology, we'd almost certainly be lost.

We could speculate wildly on what the next 230 years might bring, but the point is that what we view today as the success of our world view -- the application of logic and science in the quest for greater understanding -- would have to be seen as a mediocre accomplishment at best.  We'd be reduced to the role of high school gym stars talking about our basketball prowess with Michael Jordan.

At every point in our history we think we know the world around us.  And with each passing year, we see historically that our simplistic comprehension has been rather quaint.   So logic insists that we accept this:  Despite our feelings to the contrary, we do not understand the world around us at all.

Our causal view of reality yields some benefits of understanding HOW things happen which are quickly made obsolete.  In the meantime, we make little or no progress with the more interesting question of WHY.