Monday, April 9, 2018

Decoherence, or What is Special About a Tree


Quantum physics makes some people – especially those that seem to understand it – uncomfortable. It suggests that at the base of reality, things can be both here and not here, both particle and wave, both one and zero. The double slit experiments, in which electrons are sent in groups or individually through screens with slits open or closed, show wave or particle features depending upon the experimental set-up. Anything, small or large, can be thought of as existing as a wave function with the probability that when measured the wave will collapse into a definite object in a specific place as determined by the probabilistic mathematics. (Large objects have the highest probability of being where we see them, when we see them, rather than anywhere else the wave may be spread out to, including perhaps in another galaxy.) The picture of reality that quantum physics paints is strange yet the mathematics of it – quantum mechanics– successfully predicts core elements confirmed by experimentation. Niels Bohr, who was at the forefront of inventing the mathematics, said that it requires a “radical revision of our attitude toward the problem of physical reality.” For Bohr, and others of the Copenhagen school, the relationship of quantum physics to classical physics – the micro world to the macro – is not straightforward. Quantum mechanics accurately predicts outcomes at the level of the very small where quantum affects lead to strangeness. Yet we seldom see quantum effects at the macro level that is well-described by classical physics, despite its failure at the micro level.

One of the stranger possibilities raised by quantum physics is the role of the conscious observer. This interpretation posits that a wave function is collapsed when measured and the measurement observed. (The role of the measuring instrument and whether it is part of quantum or classical reality is one of the many issues still debated.) Various efforts have been made to sweep aside the difficulty of reconciling quantum and classical physics and avoid the messiness of assuming a tree is not there unless someone sees it. (This problem is separate from attempts to reconcile quantum physics with relativity or to unify the fundamental forces and particles of nature.) One such the many worlds theory – suggests that every time a measurement is made, reality splits into separate universes. A more parsimonious approach looks to the concept of quantum decoherence. Essentially, wave functions spread out into each other and merge into the world of classical physics. Strictly speaking, this still leaves the question of the role of measurement and the observer open. But some believe we need not accept any quantum strangeness because decoherence itself leads to macro objects emerging from the micro reality. The quantum waves crash onto the shores of observability by themselves. A tree is there whether we see it or not.

The questions here are profound. One hundred million years ago, the earth was populated by dinosaurs. Some very large creatures roamed the earth and we have found their bones in our time. Surely they existed and moved through space and time as discrete objects. They stepped over stones and across rivers that also had a specific and real existence. Even before that, in deep time, before multi-cellular life, primitive bacteria and archaea lived and reproduced and we’ve found their traces as well. They existed without being measured or observed by any higher, conscious living being. So does this mean that quantum strangeness is fake physics?

The possibilities seem to be three:

quantum mechanics works well at the micro level but is unnecessary to explain the reality of the world we see because it emerges on it’s own whether we are there or not to see it.

nothing emerges from the universal wave function (the equation encompassing the totality of existence across time and space) as discrete objects until observed.

some things exist as collapsed wave functions on their own while other “things” exist only as the former interact with them.

The first possibility simply begs the question of how two fundamentally different pictures of reality can both be true. Rather, let me suggest that the second possibility may be a subset of the third. Life is the dividing line. Rocks, planets, stars and even galaxies exist as wave functions perhaps decohering as they spread out into each other but still not there until acted upon – observed, eaten, stepped on – by something acting as an individual agent, something alive and trying to stay alive and perhaps reproduce. Life seems inevitable given the fundamental constants of physics and chemistry. (Why the universe is made this way is a separate question.) But a rock is just a rock and is never trying to become anything else. It may be acted upon but doesn’t by itself act. A tree is always there because it is trying to be. It acts upon its surroundings with purpose thus collapsing its own wave function and those with which it interacts. It transforms earth and sunlight into living tissue, its own living tissue. This may imply or even require a certain kind of consciousness. Certainly, it does suggest awareness of environment sufficient to utilize it. How is a tree’s awareness different from our own? That is another matter. But a tree is there even if alone its forest.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Intelligence or Bust?

Jennifer Ackerman makes a convincing case for bird intelligence in her 2016 The Genius of Birds. Birds use tools, sing, live socially, navigate over long distances and have at least the rudiments of mind. The most intelligent have larger and more complexly organized brains. In her last chapter, Sparrowville: Adaptive Genius, she suggests that birds that have mastered living in human environments – house sparrows, members of the crow and pigeon families and others – have prospered because of their flexibility and intelligence. She speculates that “we humans, in creating novel and unstable environments, are changing the very nature of the bird family tree” by creating evolutionary pressures for species characterized by increased intelligence. Writ large, she wonders, is whether the changes being wrought by humans in all the areas we affect – from city environments, to deforestation, to climate change – favor the development of intelligence in species that manage to survive.

It is interesting to consider whether the new Anthropocene epoch that we seem to have entered will be one of those catastrophic periods of destruction that sweep away species that cannot adapt quickly enough to the pace and degree of change. Among those species that do adapt and even prosper, the key for many may be the development of greater intelligence. Some species may find other ways to survive, but many will go extinct. Intelligence (in the form of operational flexibility and adaptability) or bust may be the motif of the next centuries, including for human societies. And of course, it is not yet clear that intelligence itself is adaptive in the long term. We may be in the process of changing the world we live in faster than even we can accommodate.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

If There Was A Cosmological Design, What about the Designer?


I have been speculating about the origins of the universe and consciousness for some time now. Following St. Thomas’ finger, modern science points to an act of creation tightly constrained to produce the universe of matter and energy that we see around us (and in which conscious beings arose). If the fundamental constants of physics were not exactly what they are, if the Higgs boson did not manifest itself in a way to create the menagerie of particles that physics has discovered, the Big Bang would have produced some other kind of universe or perhaps none at all. We discover the laws of nature because they – the laws – appear to be there. They were there from the very first moment something “exploded” into spacetime. We exist in a universe that seems to have been designed according to these laws, or better, was created through using a particular set of fundamental constants and rules.

Of course, if there was a design, it suggests there was a designer. (I’m now reading Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. He suggests something like a design without a designer but more on that another time.) My question this time is why anything capable of designing a law governed creation on the order of the cosmos would have to use or obey law? The traditional notion of a Transcendental God is a being all-powerful and without constraints. As noted here before, I tend not to believe in such a god. And in fact, it seems that whatever set in motion the particular universe we find ourselves in was constrained to act through rules of the game we now discover as fundamental physics. Could an omnipotent god be constrained? Could not such a god simply call a universe that would look like ours into being by commanding or dreaming it? What kind of “god” would work with a rule book and where would that rule book have come from? Either that rule book precedes its use or for some unknowable reason the god created it in order to use it? What kind of god would do the later? And if the rules predate the god then we have not yet reached the First Cause.

I have no answers to these questions so let me have some fun. Let’s imagine a toolkit of cosmic software that allows the creation of universes. It contains menus of all sorts of starting conditions, rules and variables. A “player” – amateur or professional – plugs in, picks through the many choices available and runs the program. The “machine” cranks and out spews the result. Some might crash immediately, others just sit there shining or in the dark, others maybe moving forward in whatever way the rules encourage. A “successful” run might eventually contain things like stars, planets and people. If this program came on the market here, it would quickly outsell any of Sid Meier’s creations.

I said fun, but this is really a thought experiment for it raises the question of why any designer would create a universe and let it run without further ado. For it seems that the putative designer plays no further part in influencing outcomes. There is good and evil in our world and one must assume that it exists anywhere conscious beings exist. Lots of bad things have happened here on earth – to civilizations, societies, individuals – despite whatever prayers or entities were sent the gods’ way. One might argue that God showed its care for us by allowing us free will, by allowing us reason, by giving us the ability to tell right from wrong. There is scant evidence that that has worked out very well when one looks at the present state of the world, or as my historian friend would say, at any period of history. What possibly could be the intention of the possible designer who set our world in motion? Play, experiment or maybe child-rearing?

What if there was no designer but simply a design and the universe is an example of the eternal return?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Brain As Quantum Computer


Recently I had the opportunity to watch southern African White-necked crows while they were watching me. I was taking afternoon tea (and eating rusks) on the patio overlooking a beautiful valley in the hills near Mbabane. Crows are smart and these are among the smartest. One sat on the roof of the next house staring at me convinced that at some point, I would grow careless and give him or her a chance to steal something, perhaps something to eat. As I was ever-vigilant, eventually they flew off over the valley, soaring and dipping in very real time. As I watched, I thought about the complex calculations that a bird must make moment-to-moment to move so quickly through three-dimensional space. They must keep track of where they are, where to go, how to get there. Knowing each requires entire subsets of information – such as (for where to go), where they saw food or last saw food or might find food while watching for anything that might require evasive action. These calculations must be solved each fraction of a second. I then thought this must be true for any animal with a brain (or nervous system). Neural systems allow the organism to move through, and react to, the environment rather than obey simple tropisms or merely be buffeted about by the external environment. The more complicated the neural system – reaching a peak of networks of networks to the 4th or 5th power (or beyond) running in our human brains – the more complex the information that can be stored and manipulated. A classical view of the human brain would start with the 500 trillion synapses of the adult brain’s hundred billion neurons. Now that is a lot of synapses. But think about how much information is stored there in language, knowledge, experience, memories and everything else that makes each individual unique and utterly complex.

I’ve speculated in this space about quantum consciousness, the production of mind from brain through “collapsing the wave functions apprehended from the perceptual flow. While watching the crows, I realized that the brain must function as a quantum computer and not as a classical system. The notion that quantum processes mix with (or form) consciousness is called “orchestrated objective reduction.” It rests on the possibility that the microtubules in nerve cells are small enough to contain quantum states. The brain accounts for just two percent of the human body’s mass but utilizes around 20% of its energy. It basically is like having a 20 watt bulb in our head shining all the time. This energy could be powering the creation and persistence of entangled states inside the microtubules of every cell. In this way, the neural organization of the brain would be the maintenance of a complex, constantly refreshed, while constantly changing, global entangled state. The collapse of the highest level of this entangled state-of-states coincides with consciousness. Inside our heads, this quantum computer has storage and calculating power well beyond what would be true if our brains functioned simply along classical physics lines. It may produce what we experience as consciousness. Or, collapse may come through the decisions that we – the “ghost” in the machine, acting as the internal observer – make in each moment as the crow flies.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Pre-history Inspired by the Surroundings

Been in Swaziland for the last month.  A beautiful country and quite complex for such a small one.  A traditional King and some of the oldest terrain on the planet.  Sibebe Rock is a grand granite mountain some three billion years ago, the second largest pluton in the world.  It dates to the first formation of continental crust.

From hiking through the hills here, some basic ancient history put together from various sources including my ancient geology studies:  About 3.5 billion years ago oceanic basalt broke the surface in what is now southern Africa.  Soon after, erosion, sedimentation, burial, heating and erupting began producing granite.  By 3 billion years ago, enough granite had been extruded – and added with metamorphic gneiss also so produced – to form the root of a continental pluton.  The Swaziland Supergroup of the Barberton Greenstone belt contains some of the oldest-known, least-metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rocks on Earth.  Chert is the most abundant sedimentary rock type within the volcanic part of this mix. The oceans then were about 100oF degrees warmer than present. During this time – 3.5 to 3.3 bya – bacteria, including cyanobacteria, formed stromatolites “commonly low-relief, nearly stratiform, laterally linked domes … [and some] pseudocolumns and crinkly stratiform stromatolites …  on a substrate of altered komatiitic lava [lava with high iron-nickel-copper-platinum-group content from an erupting komatiite volcano] and sediments deposited on the lava surface, and in most places … covered by later komatiitic flows. Abundant fine-grained tourmaline included within the stromatolite laminae suggests that stromatolites formed in an environment dominated by boron-rich hot-spring emissions and evaporitic brines.”  Picture the hot springs of Yosemite on a larger scale and perhaps on the shore of an ocean.

Much later, apes turned into humans in the same area and the humans made some of their first tools with that chert.

                                                    Southern Africa Fossil Stromatolite

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Progressive Agenda


Our two failing political parties have led America into a dead-end. The Republican Party – in control of the US federal government and many states and in the hands of ideological and religious extremists – has been captured by an immoral egotist with no capacity for governing. In pursuit of elite interests and “conservative values,” Republicans have launched an assault on everything good in how our government has come to serve the common welfare since the days of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats have not been on the playing field. They threw away the 2016 election by passing the presidential nomination through a politically correct form of primogeniture. She threw it away through own goals and writing off voters in certain groups and states. Lacking any coherent vision to address the economic and social effects of globalization, the Democratic Party instead played to niche politics and now has no program beyond waiting for Trump to crash and the Republicans to burn.

Democrats do have some heart. That most clearly beats with Bernie Sanders. But there is no cohesive progressive agenda to go with that heart. Presenting voters with one could begin the process of putting the country on the right path again. A progressive agenda must begin with embracing the progressive income tax. Government needs money to serve the common good. Our tax system must be made more fair and taxes sufficient to meet needs. (The Republicans have sought to subordinate needs to cutting spending and a regressive taxing system favoring the owners of capital.) It need not be confiscatory but should treat the fruits of labor and capital equally with progressively higher tax rates on individual and corporate income no matter where it comes from and with very limited exemptions.

With adequate funding, the federal government can attend to the chief challenges facing American society in the 21st Century: healthcare, jobs, inequality and education.
  • Healthcare should be treated as a basic right as it is in other advanced Western societies. It need not be done through a government entity but perhaps with needs-based expansion of Medicare, a non-profit public option and/or payments to purchase insurance on open markets. 

  • In the 21st Century, technology and globalization have conspired to reduce the need for human labor. There simply may not be enough good paying jobs for everyone. A reduction in the work week from 40 to 32 hours plus an increase in the minimum wage may help in opening job opportunities to a greater number. Federal funding to pay for some of the increase in the minimum wage could help reduce the burden on small businesses. Insofar as training will help prepare workers for new roles, government needs to fund that as well.
  • Inequality undercuts democratic community through making life for many nasty, brutish and short. The federal government should ensure some minimum income for those unable to work and those for whom jobs do not pay enough to rise decently above poverty.
  • Federal funds should support quality, free public education by focusing on providing modern facilities and adequately paid teachers and staff for all local public school systems. Federal oversight of local schools should be kept to the minimum required to ensure equal access.
Some elements of a progressive agenda need not require additional funding:
  • Money’s role in politics needs to be removed through campaign financing reform. A national commission on redistricting should oversee the drawing of congressional districts. Each vote should count equally.
  • A pathway to citizenship should be created for those now in the US “illegally.” A cross border agreement should be made with Mexico (and possibly with the Central American countries) so seasonal workers may go back and forth legally.
  • The role of contractors and lobbyists in the budgeting process – especially as concerns the military – should be subject to tight limitations.
Progressives need to develop such an agenda and present it to the American public over the next 18 months focusing on the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections. Waiting for the Republicans to march lemming-like over their cliff may not be enough and would still leave the country without a clear direction forward.

Friday, June 2, 2017

It is Class Warfare, Just One-sided


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology

We citizens of the United States may be divided into two groups: the elite and the non-elite. (Peggy Noonan has labeled these the “protected” and the “unprotected.”) The elite own capital and use it to earn further capital and reap profit. They do this through the control and utilization of the means of production, labor and – to an ever increasing degree – advanced technology. (The non-elite own little outright beyond their own bodies.) From the very foundation of our republic, the elite has also sought to control and use government to serve and protect its interests. The “Founding Fathers” gutted the Articles of Confederation, which were built upon the popular control of state governments. They put the federal government as far from the people as possible through an elite body to choose the president – an “electoral college” – and a “representative” congress that almost from the start tended to over-represent empty, rural areas – easily controlled by the local “gentry” and car dealers – over populous urban ones. But the most effective method of control was the ability of the political agents of the elite to convince many of the non-elite to follow them against even their own best interests. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the party of the elite has been called Republican.

The Republican Party has been the political front of the elite minority in its class war against the non-elite majority. Make no mistake, it is a class war even though there is only one side fighting it. This was clearer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when the big owners of capital set their goons and strike-breakers on early attempts to unionize workers. But the efforts to deny worker rights, limit wages, reduce or deny basic social services and health care and send other people’s children to police the cities and fight the wars are cut from the same cloth. Republican ideology – no matter how gussied up in the rhetoric of patriotism, religion, “lower taxes” and trickle down economics or hidden behind barely veiled expressions of white privilege – demands no government “interference” in the profitable deployment of capital while selling government every bill of goods it can. Fox News has become the “ministry of truth” for this ideology. Riding victories in empty “red” states and gerrymandered congressional districts, the Republicans have been able to win majorities in the Senate and House as well as elect two recent presidents despite having lost the overall popular vote. Seems you can fool enough of the people all of the time.

The non-elite has few champions, no organized party and no coherent expression of its own self-interest. The Democratic Party sometimes appears to be onside with the unprojected majority but it also serves the interests of the elite because that is where the money is and when money talks, nobody walks. Some Democrats do seek to present more egalitarian and balanced approaches to governing and they have done some good over the years, especially when there were moderate Republicans to work with. But today’s Republicans and their media allies have been successful in demonizing anyone who offers alternatives to their “conservative” ideology as injecting socialism or class-warfare into traditional, “pure” American politics. This while continuing to wage their own one-sided war to protect their privileged position.

America needs a new beginning. Not sure when that might happen. Meanwhile, we are in the hands of our still free press seeking to provide facts and truth even to those who refuse, for now, to hear. The Republican majorities in Congress have made their deal with “their” president and will use him to front their efforts to roll back even more of the government protections built up so painfully since FDR. It is still too early to know whether, in whatever time they have left, they will be able to inflict irreparable harm to our social fabric and international relationships and to the environment. The key question is whether enough of the non-elite will come to resist this class warfare through more understanding of how its own interests differ from those of the elite.