This is an attempt to respond to the 10 Millennium Questions posed by Piero Scaruffi on his last blog post. Be advised, I shall not succeed. But I shall have fun trying.
I took the liberty of creating a title for each question, to better organise them visually. I apologise in advance if by doing so I simplified the concepts to the point of inaccurately depicting them. Please refer to the full text of the question, and use the title merely as a reference.
1. What medium can we use to perceive other universes?
A particle that has no mass, the photon (i.e. light), is the medium that allows us (objects with mass) to perceive the other objects with mass that populate this universe. What kind of medium can help us perceive other universes that are based on different physical laws? A thing that obeys no physical law?
λν = c
E = hν
I suppose the reason we used light, as of now, is due to the fact that:
- our eyes have evolved to perceive objects through this medium, which in turn made us create mental frameworks to make sense of such perceptions
- thanks to Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect and subsequently Niels Bohr's research on quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman's efforts on quantum electrodynamics and many others, we have a set of theories that allowed to overlook other potential candidates for perceiving objects
We know so little about other forces that seem to interact with us in strange and mysterious ways that any attempt to explain further with our current understanding would be mere speculation.
And so I shall.
Dark Matter and Dark Energy are just placeholder names for seemingly unexplained forms of matter and energy that (apparently) poorly interact with ordinary matter, but they could really be a family of energies or media, which could follow laws that we don't know yet, or laws that don't fit with our universe. It could be that "dark energy" exists in another bubble universe next to our own, and that all we see is the shadow effect of dark energy from that universe being close to us. It could be that such energy transfers through a currently unknown medium from universe to universe, and by moving from one bubble to another it changes its properties.
Or, I could be completely wrong (most likely).
2. Consciousness and copies: who are you really?
If i build an exact copy of your body, molecule by molecule, atom by atom, is it “you”? Are there two “you“‘s at this point? If yes, what happens when i kill the original? Are “you” still alive? If yes, why does it have to be an exact copy? Your body changes more than 90% of its cells every year and, in particular, millions of neurons and billions of neural connections. How close does the copy need to be in order to still be “you”?
Our bodies change constantly, so if consciousness is located somewhere, it can't be in those parts. If consciousness is a process that emerges from the interactions of our neurons, then the question of building a replica of yourself would be more of replicating those connections. Given that our mind seems to be operating through quantum effects (like quantum tunneling) the idea itself of an exact copy would be impractical, if not impossible with the laws of the universe. If a copy of myself, close enough to 10 decimal points, was ever to be made, I suppose it would have its own existence and branch off as a separate entity from myself.
This brings up an interesting discussion about the meaning of teleportation and mind upload, and their consequences.
3. Happiness with drugs
Life is a search for happiness. We strive to find a way to feel good. Some do so with family and children, some find it in work, some find it in study, some volunteer to help others. Increasingly, we also depend on artificial pleasure: entertainment and drugs. Entertainment now accounts for 5% of GDP in both the USA and Japan. Opiate use worldwide from 1998-2008 increased 35%, cocaine 27%, cannabis 8.5%. More and more people need to get high more and more often. Would it be ok to just plug you into a device and inject substances in your body that make you feel good all the time without any need to actually live your life and with the guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong? You will never experience sorrow nor pain.
The recent outburst of drug use could be seen as a form of escapism, because of a loss of values and purpose in our modern consumerist, profit-based culture. The question "would it be ok" seems to be one of moral concern, for which I know very little, because of my limited capabilities of processing 7 billion people's moralities.
From a purely physical perspective, the mind seems to be receiving pleasure in the act of striving for something, rather than the instantaneous reward. As much as I enjoy reading novels such as Huxley's Brave New World, I think the answer lies in the study of the brain, not our apparent moral compass on this matter.
Can the mind perceive continuous pleasure, without going through the opposite process? If so, is it possible that it eventually gets accustomed to that level, and it needs more and more, until the excess of dopamine or other chemicals cause the death of the subject?
I am not aware of such research being conducted (maybe in Nazi Germany, but they had no access to fMRI machines at that time), and I don't think anybody has plans to pursue them now. We may be able to answer such question when we complete the reverse engineering of the human brain and can run such simulations without causing harm to people.
Or, will it? If we reverse engineer the human brain, and run a simulation, would that be "alive"? Does it have consciousness? Should we give (it/him/her) rights?
4. What is the strenght of cultural uniformity?
For millennia human cultures have been diverging and diversifying. Languages, customs, musical styles, arts and all sorts of behaviors multiplied all over the planet. Recently, the globalization process has dramatically reversed that process. In just two decades the process of increasing cultural diversity has been turned into a process of increasing cultural uniformity. Cultural differences from the Western standard are increasingly viewed as unwelcome (primitive, anachronistic, savage, detrimental to the individual and to society as a whole). Hence the trend is likely to continue and accelerate, eventually yielding just one pervasive uniform culture. Will this make the only surviving gobal culture very strong or very weak?
Cultural uniformity, an almost complimentary name for "globalisation", is the great plague of this century. Diversity is the strength that allows organisms to adapt and fight against that which might threaten their survival, and I would argue that it's the same for societies. However, there is a reason for which the reverse process is currently happening, and it has to do with what is evolutionary selected for in the short term to allow certain traits to develop, which might not be beneficial for the long term survival of the species as a whole.
5. What would we sacrifice for wisdom?
Odin sacrificed an eye to acquire wisdom. What are 21st century people willing to sacrifice in order to acquire wisdom?
To acquire wisdom is to realise that sacrifices are not needed, for true wisdom comes from the act of striving for it, and enjoying doing so.
6. Would it be better to measure time using non-regular oscillators in the age of multi-tasking?
We have three dimensions of space, but only one of time. Is that the way it is, or just the way we made it to be? Could humans perceive two or three dimensions of time some day if we changed the way time is used?
Our current concept of time comes from medieval times, when clocks became the rulers of human life. This created a gap between the time measured by the clocks and the time measured by our body and mind. Our body is a collection of dozens of highly imperfect clocks whose oscillations vary with health, age and even the weather. “The” clock (as experienced by our watches and phones and cars) that runs our life is universal (the same for everybody) and constant (absolutely the same every minute of every day of every year).
There is a fundamental difference in the way we measure space and time. To measure the distance between two points we simply use an object of a standard length and count how many times it fits in the distance. To measure the distance between two instants we use the synchronized repetition of some mechanism or material and count how many times its cycle repeats between those two instants. Any object is good for measuring a distance. Only regular (very regular) oscillators are good for measuring a duration. Would it be better to use non-regular oscillators in the age of multi-tasking?
I think it would be impractical for the current socio-economic paradigm, but not for another. We view time measured through regular oscillator as an act of utmost importance for our economic activities to work, but we continuously fail to adjust our bodies to it.
I could see a different system, where we indeed use non-regular oscillators for some activities, than don't require synchronicity on a global scale, such as leisure moments with your friends and family. If those were the most of our lives, such system could be used predominantly.
For those events that do require global synchronicity (e.g. scientific experiments), one could utilise regular oscillators, confined to the boundaries of the required task.
We would be, in effect, creating many "bubbles of time" around such many events.
7. Can our senses perceive a universe without the interference of us being in it?
We view space but we are in space. We view time but we are in time. The subject and the object of the “I” cannot be separated. However, we now entered a new universe, the dataverse, that we can view without being in it. We are in it most of the time but we can also decide not to be in it (although it is getting more and more difficult to do so). Can our senses perceive a universe without the interference of us being in it?
I suppose not. The existence of an agent (ourselves) inside a system inevitably disturbs it.
8. How do you know that the past really happened?
There is no way to prove that the past really happened. When we look at a photograph, watch a video or read an entry in our diary, all we are seeing is the present. These are objects that exist here and now. There are people who can corroborate those stories, but their brains too exist in the present: here and now. It could well be that the photograph was created by a chemical accident, and the video was assembled by the secret services for obscure purposes, and our diary was written in a delirious moment, and every brain including ours was altered by a cosmic radiation; and by accident all of these events hinted at a consistent story of what happened in the past, when in fact nothing of that sort happened. What we do know is that our memory, and everybody else’s memory, is sometimes (often?) wrong and even forgets. Is there any way to prove that the past really existed other than trusting today’s objects and an unreliable brain?
Julian Barbour argues that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it. "Change merely creates an illusion of time, with each individual moment existing in its own right, complete and whole." He calls these moments "Nows". It is all an illusion: there is no motion and no change. He argues that the illusion of time is what we interpret through what he calls "time capsules," which are "any fixed pattern that creates or encodes the appearance of motion, change or history."
Barbour's theory goes further in scepticism than the block universe theory, since it denies not only the passage of time, but the existence of an external dimension of time. Physics orders "Nows" by their inherent similarity to each other. That ordering is what we conventionally call a time ordering, but does not come about from "Nows" occurring at specific times, since they do not occur, nor does it come about from their existing unchangingly along the time-axis of a block universe, but it is rather derived from their actual content. (In fact, the emergent ordering is probably not the single line of conventional time, but a branching structure like that of many worlds theory).
The difference between Zeno and Barbour is that the British physicist has written some actual mathematics to back his hypothesis. However, Barbour's view is far from mainstream, or accepted by the scientific community for that matter.
Regardless of that, from a purely logical analysis, I don't think we can ever be sure that the past really happened, or how it happened. One must accept certain assumptions about what we think is reality, to a certain degree of probability. For practical purposes, we tend to neglect those events that seem highly improbable, but as rigorous scientists we cannot discard them altogether.
9. When do you acquire free will?
If free will exists, does a newborn already have it or does it develop later in life? If so, are you sure that you already have it?
So, you don't have it. Not not at conception, not in your puberty, not even now.
We do, however, develop a theory of mind from about 3-4 years of age, which I think is more meaningful and significant.
10. Is there just one possible consciousness?
We assume that each body has a different person inside. However, it is possible that we are all the same person, that all those bodies contain the same conscious being: you. Imagine that there has always been only one person: you. They are all you. We are different because our lives are different. We speak different languages. We remember different episodes. We are surrounded by different people. Therefore our memories and our attitudes are different. But “we” are just one person. The question “how does it feel to be me?” has a simple answer: it feels exactly like being you. You are the only person who ever existed. You have been born and died millions of times. You are being born and dying every day thousands of times. Is it possible that inside each and every body there is the same “I” and that “I” is you? that the only person who ever existed and who will ever exist is you, for the simple reason that no other person could possibly exist, for the simple reason that there is only one possible consciousness?
Is it possible? Yes. Do I think it is an accurate description of reality? I don't know. I think it all boils down to whether you think it's more likely that the universe has a "purpose", or if it's the inevitable result of laws of nature and evolutionary processes from which certain properties, agents and relationships emerge. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the very experience of the universe is the consequence of an all encompassing, interconnected mind, which has subjective multiple experiences. But this is an extraordinary claim, and as such, requires extraordinary evidence, not a hunch. Where is the evidence?
Studies on quantum mind such as Orchestrated Objective Reduction and Quantum brain dynamics are still very incomplete and I would be very cautious in taking any definitive postion on this matter.
A few months ago I stumbled across a rare and pleasant event.
YouTuber potholer54 created a series of videos explaining the history of our universe, the origin of life, the Earth, the scientific method and much more, all with a clarity and intelligence that is as appreciated as rare in these days. A truly remarkable piece of work that I think everybody should see.
The material is released under a Creative Commons License (CC-BY-NC-SA) and anyone is encouraged to use it under those conditions.
The original series was uploaded at a very poor video quality, so after a brief exchange of messages with Peter (AKA potholer54), he uploaded the whole series at 720p on a dedicated YouTube channel, and I offered this space to manage the subtitling process.
You are welcome to participate, we use the Free and Open Source platform Universal Subtitles. If you wish to download the episodes, use one of the many Chrome and Firefox extensions or one of the many sites that exists with that purpose.
Guidelines for transcribers
- Try to keep the subs under ~70 characters, so the the languages that use more characters for a sentence can keep their subs in two lines in the screen.
- Partition the subs in semantically sensible places in the sentences (i.e.: in final periods; in commas; before an 'and'
- Try to keep subs longer than 1.5 seconds (minimum comfortable level used in TV show's subs
Have fun! :D
1 - The History of Our Universe (Part 1)
Whenever there's something interesting happening, Slashdot is on the piece.
A recent article stated: In the wake of the CRU "climategate" leak, reader Geoffrey.landis sends along a New York Times blog profile of Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech. "Curry — unlike many climate scientists — does not simply dismiss the arguments of 'climate skeptics,' but attempts to engage them in dialogue. She can, as well, be rather pointed in criticizing her colleagues, as in a post on the skeptic site climateaudit where she argues for greater transparency for climate data and calculations (mirrored here). In this post she makes a point that tribalism in science is the main culprit here —- that when scientists 'circle the wagons' to defend against what they perceive to be unfair (and unscientific) attacks, the result can be damaging to the actual science being defended. Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?"
The discussion generated, as of December 1, 2009, 795 comments. Normally this would imply two things:
- People just repeat the same things over and over, with the typical comment being one or two-lines long (à la digg)
- Most of them are SPAM (à la... well, most of the communities out there.)
Luckily, Slashdot is unlike any other community. To prevent abusive comments, a highly sophisticated comment moderation system has been implemented whereby every comment posted (including those posted anonymously) has a starting score which can be incremented or decremented by semi-randomly chosen moderators. When moderating, the moderator chooses a given descriptor (such as "insightful", "funny", "troll") and each descriptor has a positive or negative value associated with it. As such, posts not only are scored, but characterized ("20% insightful, 80% interesting"). The book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" (Esquire Magazine – Best book of the year) by Steven Berlin Johnson cites Slashdot's comment moderation system as an example of emergence and describes its operation in detail.
As a result of this, almost no useless comments are ever posted, and it's fairly easy to navigate though the most relevant ones. One of the most enlightening I found so far in the entire web is the following answer to the question posed in the article (Is it still possible to conduct a dialogue, or is there no possible common ground?):
Being a scientist but not of the climate variety, I've got to say 'No'.
In a lot of cases, if not most, dialogue on the merits of your scientific work is simply impossible with a layperson.
I work with this stuff. Every day. 40 (well more like 50-60) hours a week. It took years of study for me (and everyone else)
just to get to the level where you can properly understand what it is, exactly, that I do. That's what being an expert at something entails.
Now when I get into a dispute with someone, they typically have the same level of expertise. They know more or less everything I do. I know what they're saying, and they usually know what I'm saying.
Now you bring into that situation some layperson with their religious reasons or ideological reasons or crank personality, who wants to dispute the results of my work. So they pore over it, and they simply don't understand it. (And ignorance breeds arrogance more often than humility, as Lincoln said) But they think they do. And then they formulate their criticism. Even if that criticism makes sense (often not), it's typically wrong at the most basic level. And that will practically always be the case - because there's virtually *nothing* in the way of criticism that a beginner would be able to think of that an expert hadn't thought about already. You're just not going to find a professor of physics having made a mistake of forgetting the first law of thermodynamics.
Now I'm happy to defend my science against legitimate, good, criticism. But a scientific debate is *NOT* where anybody should be TEACHING anybody science. What kind of 'debate' is it if every answer amounts to "That's not what that word means, read a damn textbook." It's not the scientists who are being arrogant then. Hell, since when didn't scientists bend over backwards to educate the public? We write textbooks, and popular-scientific accounts. Research gets published in journals for everyone to see, etc. It's not like we're keeping it a big secret - The problem is that some people are simply unwilling to learn, yet arrogant enough to believe they should be entitled to 'debate' with me, and that I should be personally burdened with educating them in the name of 'open debate'!
(Just to pick one out of the climate bag. How often haven't you seen someone say "Yeah but climate change is cyclical!" - What? As if _climate scientists_ didn't know that?! Refuting someone's research with arguments from an introductory textbook)
The fact that these climate-skeptics were prepared to take these e-mails, pore over them for some choice quotes (which didn't even look incriminating to me out of context), blatantly misinterpret them without making any kind of good-faith effort to understand the context or the science behind it, and trumpet it all out as some kind of 'disproval' of global warming (which wouldn't have been the case even if they were right), just goes to show that they're simply not interested in either learning the science, or engaging in a real debate. And it's in itself pseudo-scientific behavior in action: Decide there's a big conspiracy of fraud behind climate change, and go look for evidence to support your theory, and ignore all other explanations.
There is only one more thing I can add: qui habet aures audiendi, audiat.
p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.
My latest post "When science calls: Climategate, a lesson to learn" fired up quite a discussion.
I hope you will forgive me: I was amused by the hilarious and highly improbable photoshopped pictures of Al Gore posted by some fellow bloggers, and I could not resist to make one cheap and kitsch image of my own.
The Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident raised a few questions about the validity of the research of some of the most prominent climate scientists. While it seems absurd that a few out-of-context personal messages can suddenly invalidate the long-life work scientists such as Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit, Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University's Earth System Science Center, and Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, let's assume for a moment that they cannot be trusted, nor can their research institues (I'm taking a long shot in favour of the sceptics' argument here, folks).
In the comments I posted a list of peer-review publications that support the IPCC conclusions and that are not coming from the National Academy of Sciences, the Earth System Science Center, or the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Here's a small excerpt of such publications, in alphabetical order:
- Åkerman, H. J. & M. Johansson, (2008) Thawing permafrost and thicker active layers in sub-arctic Sweden. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 19, 279-292.
- Alexander, L. V. & J. M. Arblaster, (2009) Assessing trends in observed and modelled climate extremes over Australia in relation to future projections. International Journal of Climatology 29, 417-435.
- Allan, R. P. & B. J. Soden, (2008) Atmospheric warming and the amplification of precipitation extremes. Science 321, 1481-1484.
- Allen, R. J. & S. C. Sherwood, (2008) Warming maximum in the tropical upper troposphere deduced from thermal winds. Nature Geoscience 1, 399-403.
- Allison, I. et al., (2009) Ice sheet mass balance and sea level. Antarctic Science, 21, 413-426.
- Andronova, N. & M. E. Schlesinger, (2001) Objective estimation of the probability distribution for climate sensitivity. Journal of Geophysical Research 106, 22605-22612.
Here's the challenge:
take every single peer review publication I posted in the comments and prove that they only used Mann's data to evaluate their results.
If you do, then I'll give you some more. And if you manage even those, I'll admit you have a point.
However, if you find any excuse not to accept the challenge, such as:
- I don't have time for this
- I don't know how to read scientific publications
- I don't know how to get the papers
- There is no space here in the comments
- I don't have to because it's obvious they ALL got their data from Mann
or anything as irrelevant as that, then you will have proven that all your arguments are based on superficial analysis which ride on emotion, faith, conspiracy and generally speaking nothing to do with serious science.
Bring it on, I'll be waiting.
p.s. This article was crossposted on the TH!NK ABOUT IT - Climate Change blogging competition.