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

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.

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