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June 1, 2002

June 2002

2002.06.27
Theory of History
Is human history just “one damned fact another another?” Is it just an unpredictable and chaotic narrative? Or, do ‘great men’ set the course of events? What would happen if we could rewind history back about 2500 years, jumble the people around, and press play again? Would history unfold radically differently or somewhat differently? Obviously, it would not replay identically, but I am quite certain that it would not be too different than what we have witnessed. Social change is most profoundly affected by our interpretation of the environment and how well we can control and draw resources and information from it. So, assuming our 'human history simulation' has the same environment and the same species (but different individuals), why should we expect things to unfold drastically differently?

What are the commonalities? We’ve observed that some things change over time without the intervention of ‘great’ individuals. For example, human society has evolved from band to tribe to chiefdom to state. (see Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel). Additionally, since the late 18th century, societies have increasingly rejected monarchist, authoritarian, and totalitarian rulerships in favour of capitalist democracies (this may be what happens when an 'enlightened,' educated and affluent society faces population pressures, or it may be due to the efficacy of the capitalist system which seems to demand a democratic politic). Liberal democracies and capitalism are the ‘accepted’ modes of political and economic conduct today (see Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man). The (inevitable?) totalitarian experiments of the 20th century were all failures. The Soviet Union and her allies experienced economic and social collapses, while China appears to have no choice but to reform. African nations are also experiencing the democratic urge, albeit slowly. In addition, I would argue that globalization has been a high-level tendency from the very start of human civilizations. Societies are in constant cycles of expansion and consolidation (Europe is finally on this path).

Even certain technological innovations and scientific discoveries are inevitable after certain developmental stages have been attained (e.g. the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution). The Industrial Revolution was a product of many different innovations and inventions, independent of key historical figures. Does anyone really believe that the existence of cars, planes, computers, and electric toothbrushes are dependent on key inventors? I find it hard to believe that without Edison we wouldn't have the light bulb. And in the sciences, it was only a matter of time before such discoveries as the laws of physics, relativity, and genetics (nature abhors a vacuum). Had Darwin not posited his theory of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace (or someone else) would have certainly done so eventually.

I could go on and on about this, but I believe I’ve made my point. Human history is complicated and intricate. Incredible historical figures and societies do influence events. History's micro-events are truly unpredictable. Yet, at a macro level, the great forces and trends of history cannot be attributed to ‘great men’ alone. As Otto von Bismarck said, “The statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to his coattails as He marches past."

2002.06.27
Observation/Theory
Taylorism (i.e. the 'assembly line' approach to production) was an early attempt at turning the human being into an automated machine, or in other words, a virtual robot. Workers on an assembly line have their actions constrained and scripted, and this is very 'robotic' when you think about it. In a sense, their directives during work are not unlike a set of instructions in a software program. It's no wonder that robotics are playing such a huge role in modern factories. Similarly, people who work in phone support must stick to their scripts. [Note: soldiers are also scripted, but they still retain some autonomy in that individual actions and decision making is allowed and necessary. And furthermore, it can be argued that many of our instinctual behaviours (of which we are mostly unconscious of) are scripts of a sort as well.

2002.06.27
Note: I am currently reading Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines. Ya, I know: what took me so long!? This will inevitably lead to some streams on the topics of AI, the Singularity, consciousness, and the future of intelligence.

2002.06.27
Observation
History is not written by the victors, it is written by the survivors.

2002.06.25
Culture
Added my review of Spielberg's Minority Report to the Articles section.

2002.06.25
Futurology
Added a prediction to the Prescience section.

2002.06.25
Cool Scientist
David Deutsch, quantum theorist
http://www.qubit.org/people/david/David.html

2002.06.25
Cool Philosopher
Nick Bostrom, Yale University, Department of Philosophy
http://www.nickbostrom.com

2002.06.20
Metaphysics For Your Consideration
Okay, so there you are, sitting in front of the computer reading the content of this Website. Please pause for a moment to acknowledge the fact that you are alive at this point in time and observing the universe. Obviously, you are not preborn or dead, otherwise you wouldn't be observing anything. Does it surprise you that you are alive right now and not preborn/dead? Obviously not. Of course you're alive right now. This just happens to be your time. Alright then, let's put this into perspective.

The universe has been around for 15 billion years (that's 15,000,000,000 years). That's a long time. A REALLY long time. And depending on whether the universe eventually contracts or keeps on expanding, it could continue to exist for an equally long time. Let's assume that you live to be 100 years old, and the universe goes on for another 20 billion years. When all is said and done, you only got to observe 0.00003% of the universe's duration (but if the universe goes on to expand forever this figure becomes completely meaningless in its insignificance). Therefore, the fact that you are observing the universe right now at this exact point in time seems highly improbable (at least it seems that way to me). And this says nothing to the events that had to transpire for you to be alive in the first place (e.g. your parents meeting, your grandparents meeting, and so on). So yes, your existence at this point in time is so improbable, it's practically at the point of near infinite improbability. But there you are! observing the universe and reading this meandering article!

Can we take this improbability anywhere, or do we just have to accept it? It's most likely the latter, but let's work with it. Hans Moravec believes that the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics may suggest that we live in an infinite universe (see his essay, ). Thus, it is conceivable that each one of us experiences an infinite number of lives. When we're preborn/dead, we don't observe (when we're dead we're absolutely senseless and time cannot be perceived). Moreover, we know from experience that we have no memories of prior lives (deja vu not withstanding). Thus, you are never not observing as far as you are concerned. Or, as Moravec states, "we will always find ourselves in worlds where we exist and never in ones where we don't." (from "Simulation, Consciousness, Existence") The time gaps between lives is irrelevant as you have no sense of time elapsement. So, the moment you die, you are born again, ready to observe your new universe.

So, for all you know, you’ve already read this article an infinite number of times, and you will read it again an infinite number of times. Remind me to do a spell check…

2002.06.20
Metaphysics For Your Consideration
There are times when I think that existence isn't improbable at all. In fact, it may be quite the opposite. In an infinite cosmos, where all observations are made, existence is necessary and completely inevitable.

2002.06.20
Environmentalist Commentary
Will the 21st century be our make-or-break century? I don't see how it can't. In E. O. Wilson's essay, "The Bottleneck: The Future of Life", he states "for every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more planet earths." I was devastated when I first read that, and my initial instinct was to concede the hopelessness of our situation; it was Thomas Malthus all over again (see his 1798 essay, "The Principles of Population"). Thankfully, however, Malthus's assertion that population numbers increase geometrically while foodstuffs grow at an arithmetic rate was incorrect (or was it?). So, is E. O. Wilson also mistaken? Well, his math is most assuredly right given current growth and consumption rates. Thus, the real issue is: can and will we resolve this real dilemma? In my never ending and futile quest to solve all the world's problems, here are some suggestions:
· the adoption of smarter eating habits in the modern world - we've got to start eating less fast-food and meat (especially beef)
· a pragmatic distribution of resources and technologies is necessary (e.g. renting, leasing, sharing, borrowing, reusing, recycling, restoring, etc.)
· smarter, leaner packaging and bundling of products
· a greater emphasis on efficient and clean energy sources that aren't resource pigs, and alternative materials to replace wood and other natural resources that are hard to replace
I'm sure there are many other tips I'm forgetting, but it's clear that modernized countries cannot go on consuming and producing at the current rate. Perhaps the lifestyle changes that I'm advocating can be summed up in the following credo: live simply. But alas, I remain somewhat pessimistic. Once businesses and people have established a viable standard of operating and living, they almost never voluntarily scale back. The changes that are required will only come about when the environment becomes visibly and obviously stressed, and consequently, when businesses and people will be compelled to change their habits by law.

2002.06.18
Observations in Cosmology
John Archibald Wheeler's mantra is "How come the quantum? How come existence?" Wheeler's recent insight into information physics and the notion that the universe can be understood as a computer (remember, he's not suggesting that the universe is a computer, he's saying it can be understood as a computer) has some serious metaphysical ramifications. By using the analogy to cellular automata, Wheeler noted that the universe and its apparent order could have emerged from chaos [I can't believe how biblical that sounds]. Wheeler believes that quantum theory is the key to understanding this issue. For more on this debate, go
here.

2002.06.18
Question
Will futurology ever be able transcend its station as a philosophical endeavor and become a true scientific discipline? Meteorology is a credible (but frustrating) form of futurology, as are the futures markets. I suppose it all depends on how far into the future your prognostications run. I predict that simulations technology will have a lot to say about this over the next 25 years. [Er, did I just make a philosophical prediction, or a scientific one?]

2002.06.18
Observations in Science
Are we currently in another scientific golden age? It seems that every week there's a new study or paper that's extremely thought provoking. For example, we've recently had contributions from John Archibald Wheeler on information physics, Seth Lloyd's article in Physical Review Letters on universal computation capacity, and Stephen Wolfram's book, A New Kind of Science. Actually, cosmology in general has had a collective burst of insight recently. Other examples include advances in quantum computation, string theory (although string theorists seem a little tied up in knots these days -- but check out this quote from Edward Witten: "String theory is 21st century physics that fell accidently in the 20th century."), neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, genomics, AI, information theory, neo-Darwinism, and sociobiology (including consilience and (arguably) memetic socioanalysis). New and exciting scientific disciplines include information physics, the study of extra-solar planets, and planetary geology. Even philosophers have gotten into the act -- some cosmologists have conceded the efficacy of the anthropic principle in their methodologies. As Paul Davies stated, "We can't avoid some anthropic component in our science, which is interesting, because after three hundred years we finally realize that we do matter."

2002.06.18
Books
Here are some books that I've read recently:
- Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
- James Gleick's Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything
- Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable
- Sian Griffiths's (editor) Predictions: 30 Great Minds on the Future

2002.06.17
Changes
I made a number of grammatical corrections to this section and added some content to existing streams.

2002.06.17
Observation/Commentary/Social Theory
Both secular and non-secular conceptions of the Teilhardian Omega Point are modern manifestations of religion. As Teilhard said, "There is less difference than people think between research and adoration." Similarly, singularitarianism is a modern version of the salvation/apocalypse dilemma. It's fascinating when historical social patterns repeat themselves; it's even more fascinating when people fail to see it. Yes, we have to acknowledge that we've made some pretty spectacular scientific discoveries over the past 250 years. But I would argue that until we have the Final Theory to Everything, we don't know how far to the finish line we really are! As a result, our Singularity futurology may be as off-the-mark as the Apocalyptic futurology from hundreds of years ago. Remember: our ancestors believed they were being as rational as we believe we are now. We just happen to have more data than they did.

2002.06.17
For Your Consideration:
Is the 'fine tuning' argument absurd? Take this statement, for example: "The universe is finely tuned so that observers can discuss the fine tuning argument." Consequently, does the 'fine tuning' argument mean that the universe is determined? If so, is it an absolute determinism; in other words, if you were to hit the universal rewind button, would everything unfold exactly the way it is unfolding now? I guess my point is this: at what point do we stop saying the universe is finely tuned? At the point where an observer can exist? Why stop there? Thus, virtually everything in the universe could make the claim that the universe is finely tuned for its existence (e.g. my left shoe and this piece of spinach stuck between my front teeth).

2002.06.17
Commentary
Memetic socioanalysis is valuable insofar as it is revealing, provocative, and oftentimes profound. Only time will tell if it's a valid methodology. My main concern with memetics is the suggestion that people are docile hosts to the meme -- the insinuation that people are as unconscious about the reproductive process as the meme. The problem with this is we are conscious of our memes. As a result, we can engineer our memes much like we engineer our livestock or crops. Sure, some memes will survive this weeding process (i.e. a good 'adaptation'), but ultimately, we are in control of which ones get plucked. So, I caution memeticians: do not fixate on the meme itself, but instead, study why the meme was allowed to exist and survive in the first place. In this sense, memetic analyses change nothing.

2002.06.17
For Your Consideration:
Revolutionaries and nihilists understand how data works in society. They are both paradigm destroyers: by 'deleting' old data, they hope to make room for new versions. It's the deliberate and subjective sorting of memes and meme-sets. Similarly, radical fundamentalists try to prevent the dissemination of new contrarian ideas, while groups like the Amish and Mennonites just calmly ignore them altogether. [new memes don't like the Amish, and the Amish don't like them ;-) ]

2002.06.16
Correction
I caught a calculation error in the Fermi Paradox article (I never was good at math). The corrected sentence now reads: "This length of time represents only 0.1% of the total age of the Galaxy, which is 10,000,000,000 (ten billion) years old." My apologies for the error.

2002.06.13
New Article
The Drive to be Posthuman: An Inexorable and Necessary Human Imperative

2002.06.13
Commentary
Karl Marx should go down in history as the most dangerous and irresponsible scientist of all time. It’s one thing to posit a theory of history, or to develop a method of sociological analysis. It’s quite another to promote one’s theories -- which he claimed were scientifically irrefutable and beyond reproach -- in a recipe book that demands violent and merciless social action. Many advocates of Marx believe that the Soviet experience was a perversion of his teachings. These people need to revisit his Communist Manifesto and read it very carefully; there is very little that Lenin and Stalin did that was not prescribed in that book. The end result: a failed social experiment conducted on actual people that resulted in possibly 60 to 80 million deaths.

2002.06.12
Theory
Is it possible that we will eventually know too much about the universe and ourselves, and thus shatter the illusion that is our reality? Or similarly, what if we come predict the fate of our species? I would argue that we're indirectly trying to doing this (e.g. Fermi Paradox, Great Filter, foresight activities). Imagine a scenario where we predict the fate of the human race and discover that nothing can be done to prevent it, and that it will happen in relative short order. [Yikes.]

2002.06.12
Theory
The universe can be understood as a computer that runs algorithms allowing for physical laws (see John Archibald Wheeler and Seth Lloyd). In our universe, the physical laws are such that they allow for the presence of life. What is life? Any discreet system that exists continuously (i.e. uninterruptedly) or replicates over time. In this context, even idea propagation can be considered life-like (i.e. memetics). If this is the case, since the physical laws exist over time, and because they exhibit systemic qualities, can the laws of the universe be regarded as life forms unto themselves (e.g. the law of gravity as life form)? Does that mean the universe is a life form? [By my broad definition, I suppose it has to.]

2002.06.12
Observation
Yesterday's micros are tomorrow's singular macro.

2002.06.12
Observation & Theory
At any given developmental stage, the benefits of technology are equally proportional to their detriments. If you can create heaven, you can create hell.

2002.06.08
Theory
Are hedonistic tendencies a result of our biological heritage? Would the desire for such things as pleasure and happiness disappear with the removal of our biological components? If so, what does this say about artificial intelligence? What about uploading?

2002.06.08
Observation continues to impress me. It is truly becoming the front-end of the Web. You can actually conduct a search through Google by asking it a question (essentially, a more successful take on the Ask Jeeves concept -- and furthermore, a step in the Noosphere direction). But not only that, if the search results fail to yield a desired answer, you can have an associate of Google do the research for you (but at a price). Other cool things that Google can do include a new glossary (definitions for words, phrases and acronyms) and sets (automatically create sets of items from a few examples). And of course, this is in addition to the already standard sections: images, groups, and directories.

2002.06.07
Observation
Edward O. Wilson's Consilience is the Baconianism of our time.

2002.06.07
For Your Consideration
Simulationist Solipsist Realism (or the Truman Show meets Tron; also see Vanilla Sky): The belief that the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences and that nothing exists or is real but the self, while all objects, persons, ideas, and concepts are constructs of a computer simulation. [In this day in age, where philosophers muse about the possibility of reality as a computer simulation, one has to wonder if he's the hero in someone's video game...I wonder how I'm doing ;-) A man should never want to prove such as thing, lest he go mad.]

2002.06.07
Commentary
In order to treat something, like a disease for example, one must first seek to understand it. Being cynical about it won't help.

2002.06.07
Theory
Humans don't have 5 senses, they have 6; sentience is not so much a mental state as it's a sense (i.e. the sense you have that there is a self).

2002.06.05
Theory
Consciousness -- that is, the sense or feeling that we are a sentient entity -- can be broken up into discreet parts which: 1) short and long term memory, 2) rational/logical processing and intelligence, and 3) biological components such as instinct, emotions, cravings, etc. [I may be off the mark (I'm sure S. Pinker and D. Dennett have something to say on this matter), but it's something I've been considering recently. I wonder -- if someone were to upload themselves, would they cast off the biological vestiges of their personality? Would you feel like the same person? How would this affect your value system (e.g. would you become a pure logician? Would you continue to function in a 'desirable' way?) Note: do not underestimate how much of your personality is affected by your biology. Your brain is constantly being influenced by hormones, pheromones, genetic predispositions, gender, age, and so on.]

2002.06.05
Commentary
Ethnobiologists are on the right track: to understand a society we must understand what they knew about their environment and how they interpreted that knowledge. In turn, ethnobiologists need to examine how this information translated into culture, institutions, motives, metaphysical beliefs, and so on. Additionally, this approach applies to ancient cultures as it does to our own.

2002.06.03
Theory
Culture is a society's outward expression of information that has been gathered, processed, interpreted, and passed on. Put another way, culture is how societies express the accumulation of data.

2002.06.03
Theory:
Humans demand order. Where there is order, there is life; where there is disorder, there can only be death. As a result, rational agents in an ordered world gather, process, and refine information as a survival strategy. For prehistoric man, this behaviour resulted in a positive feedback loop, where the more data that was accumulated, the more control he had over his physical environment. And control of the environment, like order, allows for life. [Note: in the bible it was written that God created the world from chaos.]

2002.06.03
Observation
I've recently noticed a conceptual paradigm shift in the scientific and medical community's approach to ageing; it is coming to be regarded as a disease that can be greatly controlled and restrained -- if not defeated altogether. Traditionally, ageing has been treated as an inexorable consequence of living. Like conceptions of gravity prior to Newton, most people failed to properly grasp the phenomenon. Recent advances in the medical sciences have shown that longevity may be possible to an unprecedented degree. Moreover, extropists and those who speculate about uploads (the uploading of the human consciousness into a machine) bring an entirely new and radical dimension to the issue. The war against ageing will not be simple, though. There are many different facets to human senescence, and it will be a very lengthy and piecemeal process to weed out all contributing factors. Moreover, justifying research time and money to this field may be interpreted by the general public as a gross misappropriation of resources in consideration of issues with much higher priorities, namely global overpopulation, poverty, and ecological problems. Furthermore, the philosophical and psychological issues that extreme longevity and immortality bring to the table are as sweeping as they are profound. As Ray Kurzweil notes: "Take death for example. A great deal of our effort goes into avoiding it. We make extraordinary efforts to delay it and often consider its intrusion a tragic event. Yet we’d find it hard to live without it. Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it. If death were indefinitely put off the human psyche would end up, well, like the gambler of the Twilight Zone episode." Time stops for the immortal...

2002.06.03
For Your Consideration
The Demi-God Hypothesis: The traditional definition of God comes from St. Anselm: 'that which nothing greater can be conceived.' However, I believe a new definition of God is in order -- one that accommodates the notion that God can be less than perfect -- and one that can be applied to teleological arguments. Metaphysical propositions referring to an 'intelligent designer' (as opposed to St. Anselm's definition) are not cognitively meaningless; a 'cosmological programmer' falls within the realm of scientific conceivability. The supposed death knell offered by logical positivists to all arguments that refer to God offered is thus thwarted as the universe becomes increasingly understood as a finely tuned entity. Moreover, as mathematical/Platonic realism makes a comeback (probably inspired by such things as information theory and quantum computational theory), it becomes increasingly plausible that all we observe may be contrived by a higher-order being. Now don't get me wrong -- I do not subscribe to intelligent design theories. The burden of proof still lies with them; just because something looks 'finely tuned' doesn't mean that it was consciously designed to be finely tuned. The universe appears that way because if it were any other way, we would not be here to observe it. But essentially, my argument is this: the design argument remains a valid argument so long as it attempts to prove the existence of just that: a designer.

2002.06.03
Observation
To date, human society has proven malleable enough to survive and adapt to all scientific paradigm shifts (e.g. Heliocentrism, Darwinianism, and quantum physics (although we don't really understand this yet)). It is conceivable that a future scientific paradigm shift may disrupt the social order of things irrevocably. For example, what if we discover that we are in fact living in a simulation (see Nick Bostrom's Simulation Argument), or something inconceivably radical and ludicrous as far as our current sensibilities are concerned?

2002.06.02
For Your Consideration
Cartesian Pantheism: "I think, therefore I am God."

2002.06.01:
Observation/Commentary
Every ideologue aspires to achieve what that he believes is right, and by consequence, believes there are some things to be hated, feared, or fought. Where ideologues differ is in how they contend with these dichotomies.

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