Friday, April 28, 2017

Is Life Just a Simulation? Musings on Free Will and Determinism

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a 'spark of life.' It is information, words, instructions... If you want to understand life, don't think about vibrant throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”
Richard Dawkins. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.

“Seconds after fertilization, a quickening begins in the embryo. Proteins reach into the nucleus of the cell and start flicking genetic switches on and off. A dormant spaceship comes to life. Genes are activated and repressed, and these genes, in turn, encode yet other proteins that activate and repress other genes. A single cell divides to form two, then four, and eight cells. An entire layer of cells forms, then hollows out into the outer skin of a ball. Genes that coordinate metabolism, motility, cell fate, and identity fire ‘on.’ The boiler room warms up. The lights flicker on in the corridors. The intercom crackles alive.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Gene: An Intimate History.

To you, I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition.”
Woody Allen. Stardust Memories.

There are two main schools of thought out there when it comes to our understanding of human nature and its capacity for free will. The question, if I may oversimplify, is this: Do we, humans, make decisions based purely and mechanically on pre-programmed inputs or do we have the ability and the freedom to make our own choices?

Philosophers and theologians have grappled with this question for millennia, verily twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify the existence of free will, believing that life as we know it would be too bleak without it. A religious person might argue that God has already written our destiny and knows what we are going to do; everything is predestined. Scientists are relative newcomers to this ongoing debate. A scientist would say we are just bags of chemicals interacting with each other and the environment, that our actions are the result of our genes and purely physical external criteria. There is no “soul”, no “I” other than a collection of algorithms pre-programmed into our brain through thousands of generations of evolution.

I'm an Atheist and, I'd like to think, a scientist. As such, I don't believe in the concept of God and all its related mythologies. I have five senses and everything I ever perceive in life is learned through those five senses. Of course, I understand that the universe contains “data” that I cannot perceive through my five senses. I understand that there are other senses as well; the bat’s sonar is a great example. But the fact that I can't sense everything is no reason to believe in a God that watches over us and pre-programs our every step. That's a giant leap I'm not ready to make. As Christopher Hitchens famously said (I'm paraphrasing): As an atheist, I'm not saying God doesn't exist. I'm just saying I haven't seen a single piece of evidence to prove his existence. I am perfectly willing to change my mind. Show me the data. The burden of proof is on the believers to show the data supposedly at their disposal to prove the existence of such an entity. I'm listening. I haven't seen anything yet. And - yes - I am limiting myself again to what I can ascertain with those five senses, not on some fictional belief or dogma. So, as you can guess, I don't subscribe to the religious view on this topic.

Much recent research has shown massive evidence for the scientific point of view. Scientists have shown, definitively, that the seconds or minutes spent contemplating our choices are simply an attempt by our brains to rationalize a decision that our primitive brains have already made almost instantaneously. You decide whether you love or hate Trump instantly, then you spend all your time convincing yourself that he really is a jerk or our savior. The next few months - or years, as the case may be - are really just mental masturbation, time spent confirming our pre-existing biases - again, based entirely on chemical and neural impulses in the brain that our conscious minds do not control. This post hoc rationalization, along with our confirmation bias, is what we really think of as free will. The concept is just an illusion, a lie our brains tell us to make us feel better. It's a story we tell ourselves to make our selves feel better. We have no choice but to behave the way we do, to make the decisions we make.

I agree with everything science has shown. Every decision I ever make is heavily influenced by my genetic makeup. This has been shown again and again through scientific studies of fraternal and identical twins. But every situation I find myself in is also unique and has never been experienced by anyone else before. Even the other people experiencing that same moment with me have entirely different backgrounds which, by necessity, means they have a very different experience of the moment than I do. If we think of this moment in time and space as the culmination of everything that has happened to the participants in the moments leading up to it (the scientific view: A caused B which then caused C, all the way back to the Big Bang), then each moment is unique not just in itself but also in its interpretation by each of the participants. There is no single “now” but instead, there is “now as experienced by Jack” and “now as experienced by Jane” and everyone else.

The choice I make at any given moment is, of course, massively influenced by everything that has come before it, every experience I have lived through, and every gene I've inherited. But the moment itself is unique and has never happened to anyone else before - in history. My actions may be automatic but the combination of all our actions together is not. You don’t know what I’m going to do next and I don’t know what you’re going to do either. That, in itself, introduces probability into the mix, making our combined future together nondeterministic. I may just be executing the next inevitable step in a program but that program has never been executed before nor will it ever be executed in exactly the same manner again.

Some people have even suggested that life is just a simulation - a proverbial Sims game writ large. These types of explanations are interesting but don’t really get to the heart of the problem. It only looks like a simulation because that is the metaphor we are familiar with as children of a certain age. To say that life is a simulation is no more meaningful than saying that it is created by an invisible yet omnipotent omniscient being. It avoids answering the real question by assuming the existence of a creator, in this case the programmer, conveniently placed outside our “world”.

Now, here comes the pretzel: The more satisfying explanation, the one I choose to believe, is that we are truly creating every moment on the fly - one moment at a time. We are, in that sense, the creators of our own destiny. We are writing this story. We are truly making it up as we go along. Because this particular moment has never ever happened in the past. And there are at least seven billion versions of “this particular moment”, seven billion “stories”. Each of us may just be playing out preprogrammed actions at each step, but the combination is unique and new. And the more people, the more relationships, the more ideas, the more variables, the richer and the more unique each moment. Isn't that enough?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Screw Transcendental Meditation; Here's a Better Idea!

“Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sittin’ here thinking
With my mind a million miles away”
Bob Dylan. Lonesome day blues. Love and Theft.
“The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses
Falling all around...all around
Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines?
Or when you think you're gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?”
Alanis Morissette. All I Really Want. Jagged Little Pill.

"Don't look for happiness. Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much, it goes away."
Tim Minchin.

I have a confession to make. I just don't get transcendental meditation. I don't understand how you're supposed to put everything out of your mind and stop thinking altogether. I’ve tried and tried but my brain just refuses to shut down for even a minute to allow that to ever happen. I’m sure it’s as blissful as they claim but the reality is that such a nirvana is not accessible to the rank and file given our hectic daily lives and personal as well as professional entanglements. So, I’ve come to a convenient conclusion: Screw Transcendental Meditation! It's great if you are smart enough and strong enough mentally to pull off that trick but, for most of us, it just ain't gonna happen. My version of the exercise is much simpler, more natural, and, I find, more therapeutic. I call it “Consequential Meditation”.

The first step is to just put on your headphones and listen to some music. I don't mean listening to music while you read the news on your iPhone or flip through your social media feed. I don’t mean listening to music while driving. That’s just multitasking and we all know about the evils of multitasking. I mean actually putting down whatever you're doing and just listening to your favorite music for a while. For me, the location almost doesn't matter. I can be sitting at a bar with the big screen TVs blasting sports and news. I can be sitting uncomfortably in the middle seat at 30,000 feet. I can be at the local coffee shop with a cup of joe in front of me. I can be on the train going to work in the morning. The headphones are the game changer for me. The ability to tune out the outside world makes it possible to let my thoughts run free. Good luck trying transcendental meditation in any of those environments.

Here's the second and even more critical distinction between my approach and transcendental meditation. I don't try to clear my mind. Instead, this is where I do my “debrief” of the day's events: Why did he say that in the meeting? What did she mean by that sentence in her email? What if we ask John to help with Project A instead of the lower priority Project B? What if we do an image based backup instead of a file based one? What if we change the code to avoid grabbing a multiprocessor lock? I don’t mean to imply that I sit there and methodically work through technical or personal problems. Instead, thoughts naturally pop into my head based on recent events and I just follow them to their logical conclusions.

To be clear, most of my ideas are bad ones. I spend a few minutes on a given topic before realizing that my solution will never work, that he couldn't have possibly meant that with his remark in the meeting, etc. The point is that allowing this process to take place helps clear my mind of its clutter. It gives me a chance to test various hypotheses and discard them - be they about projects at work or business plans or personal relationships. In other words, my version of transcendental meditation boils down to slowing down long enough to give my brain a few minutes every day to work through its issues.

That’s awesome, Ben! What you’ve just described is called “thinking”… Don’t we do that all the time? As a matter of fact, no. We don’t. Most of us, myself included, are so harried and so hurried in our daily lives that we never give ourselves a chance to do so. Non-stop auditory and visual stimuli pretty much assault our senses on a non-stop basis. Any wonder our poor brains are so tired trying to make sense of it all? If only we would give ourselves the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes a day and think! Transcendental meditation be damned. I'd settle for just plain old meditation any day of the week.

How many of you get, say, one or two hours a day with no screen in front of you, not surrounded by a dozen people in a meeting room or a hundred people in an open seating arrangement at work? When is the last time you sat down for an hour and did nothing? Didn't reach for the smartphone, didn't check Facebook or Twitter, didn't check your email, didn't check your watch to see how much time had elapsed, didn't fidget and squirm? Rewind the clock fifty or sixty years and compare for yourself. If the difference is not obvious to you, then I propose you rewind the clock a hundred years - to a time when televisions, radios, and computers didn’t exist. Yes, they worked hard but they also spent long stretches of time alone or with family - and with no distractions. Time to think, time to reflect, time to introspect, and yes - even time to generate ideas... as opposed to constantly consuming them.

All the time that we used to spend daydreaming and thinking, I claim, has been replaced by time on the computer. The only problem with this new world is that we have turned on the hose and are drinking directly from it. We are constantly bombarding our brains with information, never giving it time to parse all that data or, heavens, maybe even come up with a few ideas of its own. Within a couple of generations, we have gone from a species that had lots of free time on its hands to daydream and think for hours on end to a species that is not only busy every waking moment but is busy doing multiple things, context switching between them every minute of the day, and gets bored the minute we take away the stimuli.

This is not mere nostalgia for a slower pace of life. I love the new world in which we have instant access to information. I just happen to think we’ve gone too far and become digitally addicted. If you don’t think we have a major problem on our hands, just wait until Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become commonplace. Not only have we lost all semblance of control over our own thought processes, we are also busy teaching the same bad habits to our children, many of whom, I'm sad to report, are fluent on their iPhones and iPads long before they even begin to speak!

“Next time your kid's watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there, and just turn it off without any warning. Just go--pfft. Watch what happens. They go-- [Screams] Do you think that's a good sign? You think it's a sign that it's healthy for them? That when it's taken away they go-- [Mutters] because you've created such a high bar of stimulus that nothing competes. A beautiful day is shit to a child now. A gorgeous, panoramic day with hawks catching fucking mice and flying away and bears with fucking fish in their teeth. And the kid's like, [screaming] ‘I want to watch the television! This is nothing!’"
Louis C.K. Hilarious.

What our children don’t know, what we seem to have forgotten, is that this bombardment of information every second of every day robs us of the ability to think. Every minute spent staring at a screen is a minute spent not thinking, or at best, being told what to think.

Update: This just in from our intrepid reporter, Dinesh Nambisan, on Twitter... According to a study published in Science, "Guys prefer electric shocks to boredom." That's it. We're doomed. We're biologically wired to want more stimuli. We'll never learn to sit down and think again. We're doomed. Oh well, so much for that theory. I guess it's back to square one. See what I mean about following my thoughts to their "logical" conclusion?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Losing My Religion: A Tale of Grumpy Old Men

“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”
         Charles Darwin. 1809-1882.

“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
         Carl Sagan. 1934-1996.

"A faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."
         Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.

“A Catholic… which I was until I reached the age of reason.”
         George Carlin. 1937-2008.

I spent a couple of days recently with two cousins of mine in Southern California. These two are brothers, both slightly older than me, and both successful professionals in their chosen careers. One manages a large engineering organization that designs jet engines, the other is responsible for public water services in Orange County.

Most people are blessed with four or five cousins. I happen to have over a hundred! I kid you not nor am I exaggerating. My parents are members of broods, respectively, of eleven and nine siblings. The combined twenty uncles and aunts have, you guessed it, been “busy”, offering up over a hundred cousins for yours truly.

Over the years, I've fallen out of touch with most of my cousins. Everything from a revolution to emigration to career to family to lifestyle to plain old exhaustion have, over the past four decades or so, in one way or another, conspired to reduce cousins to Facebook friends at best or faded memories in black and white photos at worst. Through the years, though, I've managed to stay in close contact with half a dozen or so of my cousins, these two among them. Both went to the same high school I did, although they were a few years ahead of me. We spent quite a bit of time together as teenagers and still reminisce about “the good old days”. I still enjoy spending time with them, even if it happens, on average, only once every few years.

Inevitably, as men of fifty-something years are known to be, we are all infernal “Grumpy Old Men” - hard and crusty on the outside but soft and mushy on the inside. I call them, affectionately, “Eminem”, as both their names start with the letter “M”.

So, there I was, with the two of them going for long hikes, playing tennis, cooking dinners (I “observed” and "critiqued"), and drinking wine. More than once, the topic of god and religion came up. I am, you might say, a devout atheist and have, to the consternation of friends and family, even blogged on the topic multiple times. It doesn't matter whether they agree with me or not. Mostly, they all ask me to stop “preaching”. I won't bore you with the details. I don't think I can improve upon The Oatmeal on brevity and clarity but feel free to read some of my arguments here. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others have done a much more comprehensive and scholarly presentation of the very same arguments.

Hiking and drinking seem to bring out the theological - or at least the philosophical - in all of us. The end result was several hours of strenuous hiking interrupted by declarations of incredulity as one or the other of us made a salient point. It may have been just wishful thinking but I walked away believing that we saw eye to eye on most topics. If anything, Eminem's nuanced approach to the topic helped me better recognize my own shortcomings. No one wants to listen to a bore who preaches atheism any more than they want to listen to a man of God proclaim his faith. It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong because, as Stephen J. Gould once famously said, religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. People “believe” because it brings them comfort, it helps them bond with others of the same faith. Logic has very little, if anything, to do with it.

As we sat around in the evenings complaining about sore muscles, injured knees and ankles, and various other ailments, one of “The Brothers Eminem” said something that resonated with me. People like the stories that they learn as part of their religious upbringing. They take comfort in them. You can't take away all those stories and replace them with cold hard science and logic. I thought about this later and realized he was right. As Atheists, we will never win unless we weave a story around the science that we teach our children.

It hardly matters, for example, if the story of Noah’s Ark is a re-telling of the prehistoric Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh. It packs a moral lesson that is sugar coated for delivery to children, regardless of the book we ascribe it to. It doesn’t really matter that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is lifted, almost verbatim, from Zoroastrianism. As Voltaire said, if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create him. And stories are the only way we have known for thousands of years to pass the associated ethical lessons to our children. I can talk (or write) until I’m blue in the face but I won’t change people’s minds. Either they already agree with me or they’ve made up their minds about what they want to believe and their decision was not based on logic or science.

No wonder that recent religions like Mormonism and Scientology have their own stories, including improbable and obviously fabricated tales of space aliens! You can't discard the story of Adam and Eve unless you replace it with a similar story, perhaps one about a pair of chimps named Chip and Charla. Unless and until we come up with alternative stories, we are stuck with the ones we tell our children today.

Time to write some children’s books, I guess...

Friday, March 24, 2017

Science as Religion: Is It Time Yet?

“It from bit. Otherwise put, every 'it'—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. 'It from bit' symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.
           John Archibald Wheeler. Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links.
"Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination."
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“That's me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion”
REM. Losing My Religion. Out of Time.

“Judge a man by his questions, not his answers.”
Voltaire. 1694-1778.

A friend of the family, a senior Silicon Valley executive, was in our back yard recently for a party. Long after dinner, when only a few guests were left, the discussion turned to theology. I’d recently published a couple of blogs on the topic (On Dogma: Belief without Proof and Nation of Reason: Coming out of the Religious Closet Together) and he wanted to tell me why I was wrong. For the record, I’m an avowed atheist and he is fairly religious. You can imagine the back and forth arguments so I won't bore you with the details.

As can be expected, we spent a good hour or so talking past each other. He argued that belief in a higher power is the only thing that sustains us spiritually and that the promise of an afterlife and a judgment day are the main reasons why we have become civilized over the past two millennia. I pointed out fallacies in his logic using historical data points and questioned the magical nature of his belief in the supernatural.

What surprised me was the fact that he eventually threw up his hands, giving up in exasperation, and exclaiming loudly: “What do you mean ‘Why do I believe?’ I just do. There is no why.” He didn't seem to think that was an odd statement to make. He had managed to distill all my problems with God and religion into a few words: “I don't care what you say, I just believe and there is nothing you can do or say that will change my mind.” Logic had nothing to do with it. I wondered if he could think of one other situation in which he could have used that line of reasoning or whether he would have accepted that response from one of his employees.

A few minutes later, one of the other guests spoke up in an attempt to bridge the gap between us: “I don’t believe in God or organized religion but I do believe in a spiritual world. I believe there is a force in the universe above and beyond all the things we see, a force for good that compels us to care for one another and for the animals around us.” As poetic and romantic as this vision seems, I had to argue against it. I pointed out that if such a force does indeed exist, it would be just as likely that an equivalent and opposing malevolent force also exists in the universe - otherwise, how do you explain Hitler and Ebola? And, again, we’re back to belief in magic and the supernatural. How can we reconcile the scientific world around us with our ability to completely ignore scientific and logical arguments when it comes to God and religion? Why do we have two sets of rules for how we live?

Why, you may ask, am I trying to use science and logic to answer metaphysical and moral questions? Richard Dawkins, one of my heroes, was recently asked this same question. His response was so simple an disarming that I can’t improve upon it: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It works.”

Science is just a tool in our tool belt that we use to interrogate the universe around us. It’s nothing more and nothing less than that. After all, what's the alternative for accomplishing that task if we don’t rely on science? Poetry? Philosophy? Dogma? Fiction? What other tool do we have at our disposal as human beings that has delivered one billionth the results that science has returned?

We listened to shamans for millennia and ended up with polytheism, the spirit world, the creation myth, and a belief in the supernatural. Then we listened to prophets for a few centuries and we ended up with God, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Moses. Not a whole lot changed in the intervening years. We just replaced many gods with one god but the moral lessons were pretty much the same. For the next two thousand years, we listened to prophets, to men of God, men who had seen a vision and wanted to save us from ourselves. And what did our investment, our two thousand year investment, get us? Guilt, shame, belief in the supernatural, suspension of disbelief, and blind obedience to dogma. It was only a few hundred years ago that we started using a new tool - science - to understand the world around us. And the answers we found were often diametrically opposed to the ones we’d been given by prior messengers.

I'd argue that men of science are our prophets today. How else do you explain Sir Isaac Newton discovering such amazing truths about the universe around us? Be it the law of gravity or that of optics, he just “saw” the answer and then spent years explaining it to us. He even invented a whole new language - calculus - in the process: a language now spoken by more humans than any other! A language that he used to deliver his other-worldly message to us.

Darwin did the same with the theory of evolution. Einstein did the same with relativity. I'm sure you can name a few others as well: the ones who revolutionized our understanding of the universe around us. Their insights were revolutionary, not incremental, in nature. Much more so than the ones who came before them - and relied only on scripture and hearsay as their tools. Their theories were so dramatically opposed to orthodoxy that everyone immediately rejected them. Each of these latter day prophets were followed by armies of disciples (we call them scientists) who built on the initial vision, added to it, and applied it to our daily lives. Collectively, they have shaped and changed our lives in ways much more fundamental than all the prophets who came before them.

We rarely, if ever, think about science as a religion. But the parallels are startling. The biggest advantage that science has on its side is its willingness to abandon prior dogma based on new evidence - something earlier religions have been reluctant to do.

Our infantile belief in the supernatural persists despite all evidence to the contrary. It is only if we view science as a religion, as a stepping stone in the evolution of man’s quest to understand the universe around him, that we start reconciling science and religion, that we start seeing science as a reasonable attempt to answer the same questions as religion - but from the bottom up and with rigorous proofs at every step in the journey. It's only when you look at the history of monotheistic religions as an extension of the earlier polytheistic and shamanic religions of our ancestors that you are able to extend that same line forwards to its logical conclusion: science. We didn’t know any better back then. Now we do. Now we have science.

Science is the only religion that admits it doesn't know the final truth. It's also simultaneously the only one that won't give up until it figures out the answer: through experimentation, through analysis, through logic. We don’t have all the answers but we won’t give up until we find them. It’s the best tool we have at our disposal. By comparison, everything else is fiction that we created when we got tired of thinking.

Science, if you'll forgive the over-generalization, has been busy answering “what, who, how, and when” questions for the past five hundred years. We are, just now, beginning to ask the only remaining question of any significance: “Why?” And, with every answer to those “why” questions, we find nothing that points to a man behind the curtain.

I'm sure I'll hear back from those who will point out that we learn our morality - our humanity - from religion, from a belief in God and an afterlife, from belonging to a community. These are all excellent reasons to bind together. But why does that union have to rest on a fiction? On a story that we know is not true? Why can't we all just admit that our earlier attempts at explaining the world around us were good ones and got us so far. But that now is the time to abandon those beliefs for millennia ahead of us.

Richard Dawkins did say one more word at the end of his statement about science which I neglected to include but shall now divulge: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It worksBitches!”

It was said half in jest. But he also meant it. It works… bitches! Deal with it. Can you do better? If yes, please show me your magical powers. If not, please step aside and let us lead. I can fly you to the moon, I can swim under water, I can fly in the sky like birds, I can predict disasters accurately, I can cure diseases, I can talk to my cousin on the other side of the planet. And I'm just getting started. My miracles are endless and occur daily. My name is science. What are your magic tricks? What are your miracles?