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.

“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”
Jean-Paul Sartre. The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom, Volume 4.

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...