Monday, March 27, 2017

Saint Thomas’ God

Somewhere in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas is the suggestion that when one follows reason as far as it can go, that is a finger pointing to God. Over the past several years, I have been considering what the existence of consciousness, modern cosmology, quantum physics and relativity can say about the origin of consciousness, life and the universe. This has led me to some conclusions, including that consciousness may be primordial, that there may indeed be a “ghost in the machine,” and that the creation of the universe seems to have happened according to laws written into the act. My way of summing all this up has been to accept the notion that the universe is a product of conscious intent and that we all share in that same consciousness. I have come to think of the “creator” as a kind of Shakespeare who wrote a cosmic script setting the stage full of interesting processes, happenings and beings and dumped itself into it in order to experience its creation first hand. (Each “I” is part of that consciousness.) Another way to think about this might be to imagine an all-powerful being who designed the most amazing multi-level, multi-player computer game to play – to alleviate a really cosmic case of boredom? – by downloading itself into it to play every role.

As a former Catholic, however, I had trouble with the concept and notion of “God.” Cleary the God of all three religions of the Book – the Hebrew, Christian and Muslem – was too anthropomorphized. The concept of God comes with baggage I could not accept. A transcendent being like some sort of super human that loves us as a parent and deserves worship is simply a reflection of our own collective lack of psychic maturity. There is also no evidence for such a being that judges us and will hold us accountable for our actions, right and wrong. Given the fantastic and unlikely beauty of a universe that seems just right for us, there is no reason to suppose that there must be a heaven beyond it. Given our experience of the various forms of evil, historical and current, there is also no reason to suppose the need for some other hell. It seems clear to me that the universe as it exists is ungoverned by any morality beyond what we humans bring into it.

But recently, sitting in the Bishops Garden at Washington’s National Cathedral on a sunny, early spring morn, I made my peace with the word God. Listening to the gentle sound of a burbling spring and basking in the warmth of the sun, I considered the process by which the millions of photons showering down reached me. The sun’s energy comes from a myriad of fusions of two hydrogen atoms into one helium in the sun’s core. It takes thousands of years for the energy produced by each single fusion event to reach the surface of the sun. Then it takes just eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles to earth. The physical laws governing our universe are just right to allow this font of endless free energy sitting in the middle of an expanse of nothingness to bring to life our planet and all the creatures on it.

Some might say that that conditions may seem just right because else wise we wouldn’t be here. Just a happy accident out of an infinity of possible combinations that don’t work for conscious life forms. But that seems to violate Occam's Razor. Why suppose an infinite number of random fluctuations just to come up with one that has us? Much more direct to suppose that the one that contains us was meant to do so. And besides, the fundamental questions remain why is there anything at all rather than nothing and how could something arise out of nothing. Much more logical to recognize the likelihood of a First Cause. And one might as well call that God. Not one to worship, follow or depend upon for any kind of salvation but one to wonder about. Accepting the existence of St. Thomas’ God opens, at the most basic level, the door of wonder.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Globalization and Its Discontents

Globalization and Its Discontents

Just about a year ago, I wrote in this space about premature globalization, suggesting that it may have come too early in humanity's history and gone too far. Whatever the putative benefits of globalization, they appear to not be shared equally but have left many – the unprotected – behind. Well before the November election, it was already clear that Donald Trump was riding the wave of discontent with globalization and would be seen as the transformation candidate.

A fierce critic of globalization now sits in the White House right behind the new President, Steve Bannon. As David Ignatius notes, however, it would be incomplete, maybe even inaccurate, to see Bannon as simply an extreme nationalist. Rather, fusing criticisms from the left and right, Bannon sees globalization as benefiting “crony capitalists” and as a threat to working Americans. Under his guidance, Trump now seems to be undoing the global order of interconnectedness that has seemed increasingly unstoppable over the past few decades. Leaving the politics of this aside, this raises two questions: Whether globalization is indeed an evolutionary inevitability or something still subject to conscious intervention by we human beings? And, if it turns out to be an inevitability, what happens if Trump and Bannon succeed in taking the United States out of contention to continue to occupy the central role in the evolving global reality?

It may well be that the dynamics behind globalization are unstoppable. Human society has moved forward over the last 100 thousand years from small isolated groups to ever larger units that now exist as interconnected nations and organized states. Since the Industrial Revolution, the economic drivers have become mass production for consumption requiring ever-broadening networks of trade for resources and customers. Efficiencies have been gained not only through advances in technology but also through the ever more comprehensive and inclusive concentrations of wealth, organization, production, distribution and trade made possible by those advances. Even when networks extended into new areas far away, they utilized the technological and “free-trade” aspects of globalization to make distributed production more efficient than previous nationally based activities. Left to itself, globalization does not produce greater equality but it does seem to create greater wealth. Since Marx at least, it has been possible to see this ever increasing accumulation of wealth as an objectification of our existence as a species. Who can stop this? Is any effort simply doomed to fighting the logos of human history?

If globalization is inevitable, would Trump and Bannon’s effort to resist it simply take the US out of the center and leave it to some others to occupy? As it now stands, the US has in the last several decades invested mightily – in money and blood – in shaping the world as much as possible in its own image. If we close our borders, emphasize national productions over free trade, reduce our role in international affairs, do we leave it to China or Russia or even a compelled reinvigorated Europe? And if globalization is inevitable, what kind of future would that make for whatever the US becomes behind its walls?

These are questions and not answers. But it seems to me too early to simply surrender to globalization as inevitable. Logically, at least, it would seem possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. We could seek to address inequality. Perhaps some limits and standards for free trade have a role in this. It makes sense to seek to protect ourselves from sources of instability and insecurity around the world but through working multilaterally within the international system rather than unilateral armed interventions. Walls and fences may have a role too, but with careful attention more on how we let people in rather than keep them out. This may be were politics becomes most relevant.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Westworld’s Consciousness Riff

The HBO remake of Westworld is superior TV in a number of ways. But its most intriguing aspect may be its foundational riff on what makes up consciousness. The basic premise is that recursive experience plus an emotional occurrence that anchors memory – especially an episode of painful loss – ignites (self) consciousness. Intriguing, yet not finally convincing. The ability to experience emotion itself requires consciousness – one must be aware of feeling such-and-such. Westworld’s premise begs the question of where that awareness comes from.

There seems to be no a priori reason to suppose that machines cannot be intelligent. It may be useful to think about intelligence as existing in more or less distinct forms. Generically, intelligence might be defined as the ability to acquire, process and apply knowledge. (Animals have varying degrees of this kind of intelligence and so may plants.) Machines have the ability to store and process information. Machine intelligence is the orderly processing of information according to governing rules (software). Both the information and the rules are externally derived and stored within the machine. The machine itself may be contained in discrete units or widely distributed (the cloud). Machines can learn – by adding and elaborating rules based on previous cycles of processing – but they can’t process information without instructions stored in memory. Cloud intelligence is machine intelligence taken to a higher level by accessing massive information from many data sources using more and many powerful processors and sophisticated software with built in “learning routines.”

Human intelligence is what we human beings have. It is what we know as manifested in thought and action. Our knowledge is stored in two places, our heads and in our culture. Culture is contained in language, traditions, techniques, art and artifacts, beliefs and whatever else carries collective knowledge across time and generations. The basic unit of human intelligence, however, remains the individual mind, which itself can be thought of as an organically based “machine.” But there seems to be a ghost in the human machine that we experience as consciousness. Mere machines cannot feel emotion – or pleasure and pain – no matter how massive the memory and computing power. And the movies Matrix and Terminator aside, machines do not inherently strive for self-preservation. Machines are not alive nor do they have “souls.” Whether because humans are organic life forms evolved over hundreds of millions of years after having crossed-over somehow from an inorganic strata or from deeper principle of the universe, we feel and experience pleasure and pain. Why is the unknown. Westworld, for all its brave speculation, sidesteps this question.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The 2016 Election

It's over and that is good.  The choice was not the best and either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders might have done better than Hillary.  She carried self-inflicted wounds and the weight of being the first serious woman candidate in a country where lots of white men are still challenged by that.  (Now watch for Elizabeth.)

However, it is also clear that yesterday the global reaction against globalization – which has benefited the rich more than the bottom – came to the US with the election of Trump as President.  Not just white men felt left behind by what seems an elite project to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest.  But if the Republican conservative fundamentalists fill Trump's Administration and have their way, our country and the world will continue coming apart and there will be many losers.  Watch for encouragement of foreign extremists (and Putin) as well as chaos in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan if the US hand is removed or rejected.  Watch for Republicans ruining the economy again with more trickle-down.  Watch for those people feeling empowered now to do nasty things to others not like them (including some who may get cabinet jobs.)  Things all around could get dangerous. 
But being an optimist, one can hope that Trump will surprise in some good ways.  Perhaps centrist Congressional Republicans, Democrats in the Senate and the former Democrat version of Trump (he was one a few years back) will save us from the excesses of the campaign Trump.  Trump's victory comments were at least more presidential.  

Boy, do we ever need Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ethnic Conflict Helps Bacteria Cooperate

A recent Science News piece reports research indicating that “bacteria assassinating each other when crowded together ironically can favor the evolution of cooperation.” This happens when different strains of bacteria are initially mixed randomly. Using their own brand of natural antibiotic, each bacterium launches an attack on its neighbors from different strains. This eventually leads – through a kind of bacterial ethnic conflict – to clumps of same strain bacteria that can then shift from expending energy on warfare with opposing clumps to cooperating with each other in its same-strain clump. As the researcher summed up: “This resulting clumpy distribution, despite its murderous origin, favors the rise of cooperation, such as secreting substances useful to a whole community.”

This seems quite clear and while not really surprising – like prefers like – also suggests a possibly illuminating thought experiment. Imagine a beneficent bacterial power – lets call it the USA (Union for Safe Association) – that seeks to use carrots and sticks – super-antibacterial agents plus sugar – to push the different strains into coexisting rather than trying to kill each other. This would require maintaining an unnatural balance and might never succeed in making each bacterium focus its energies on anything but finding other ways to win living space. Perhaps it could work as long as the USA worked diligently, non-stop and forever. But should the effort lag, nature would probably just take its course.

Despite billions of years of evolution, identity-specific living organisms – strains – seem to follow the same imperative to clump. This is the state of nature. Past human experience suggests that there are only a few ways to establish a stable order out of mixture: strong, perhaps brutal central rule (whether from inside or outside, a Leviathan), sufficient nutrient (wealth) to allow all strains a piece of the pie (Western liberal democracy), or letting nature take its course (“ethnic” conflict finally ending in more or less homogeneous entities that at least have that to be proud of). Does the human species suggest better?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What if non-avian dinosaurs survived?

There seems to be a growing consensus that the number of dinosaur species was already in decline before the great asteroid impact that ended the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. As Science News reports, as of about 50 million years before the mass extinction the number of new dinosaur species was being eclipsed by the number going extinct and dinosaur diversity was decreasing. Duck-billed and Triceratops-type dinosaurs were doing well until the end of dinosaur days as was a group of small toothed raptors. But ultimately, only avian dinosaurs – the birds – survived.

Why did the number of dinosaur species decline over time and why did only avian dinosaurs survive? The dinosaur decline might have been due to climate change perhaps brought on by continental drift and the resulting land-form, rainfall and ocean current alterations from the late Jurassic onward. Perhaps only birds survived the long “nuclear-type” winter after the impact because they could eat carrion and seeds, of which there might have been much. Some small non-avian dinosaurs also could have been able to do the same but they might not have been able to travel long distances. Perhaps only a small number of birds – even just a few species – made it through on remote islands and as the earth recovered, they could spread. The land-bound non-avian dinosaur survivors – if any – might not have been able to reach places where their numbers could then rebound.

But what if there was no impact or somewhere creatures like the small raptors made it through? Carnivorous tyrannosaur- and velociraptor-type dinosaurs (theropods) were doing well at the end of the Cretaceous. Indeed, it may be that the hundred million year-plus competition between carnivores and herbivores had led to the evolution of a lesser number of species but ones ever more evenly matched. Some of the largest herbivores and carnivores ever were alive at the end. And it may have been that the carnivores were getting smarter, perhaps even hunting in packs. (The herbivores apparently had long been herd animals.) Seems the smaller theropods – like Troodon – were the (relatively) smarter ones. It is interesting to speculate how earth's evolutionary processes might have played out differently if at least some of these non-avian theropods had survived the great impact. With another 66 million years of evolutionary competition, might they have gotten even bigger brains, as primitive primates eventually did. Or perhaps I was just too impressed at an early age with the Gorn captain forced into combat with Captain Kirk.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Repeal the 2nd Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There are more guns than people in the United States today. Every time there is a mass killing, some will argue for gun control and others – led by the NRA – will push back by using the opportunity to loosen guns laws even further. Mass killings get the news but many more people are killed by guns in suicides and criminal homicides.

The victims of gun death from homicide tend to be young black men. Gun crime follows the social and economic inequality of America's inner cities where our police must protect their communities while facing the possibility of being out-gunned themselves. The police are in the front lines of a society still plagued by this race-based inequality and the fact that there are too many guns too easily had.

The advocates of unrestrained “gun rights” base their case on the 2nd amendment to the US constitution. That amendment might be read to suggest that given that a state has the right of self-defense, people must be allowed to have guns so that when they come together in that state's army (militia) they know how to use them. Or it could be read to mean that people have a right to have guns in order for them to be able to protect themselves from the state. This second reading is the implicit – if not always explicit – argument of the NRA-led gun lobby. They may also seize upon the word “militia” to suggest the right to come together in bands to resist government encroachment.

The pro-gun readings of the 2nd amendment highlight the fact that the amendment itself is outdated. In 21st Century America, the notion of a citizen uprising to defend us from a central government dictatorship is simply the realm of fantasy. Indeed it has been repeatedly enacted as such in movies about citizen uprisings against foreign or alien invaders. In reality, we have a government of and by the people. When it over-reaches, there are checks and balances. (Someday, a Supreme Court may correct the notion that money is speech.) It is difficult to credit the founding fathers with the belief that they were providing the right to bear arms in order to empower the citizens of the United States to overthrow the government they themselves had established. The language of the 2nd amendment seems to make clear that the right of self-protection belonged to the state and not to individuals.

But even the first reading of the amendment – indeed any reading – must confront the clear language that for whatever the reason, the right to have guns shall not be infringed. It does appear absolute. So that should lead to the obvious conclusion that the 2nd amendment is obsolescent and injurious to the nation's health. We all – people in their homes and on the streets, police and young black men – would be safer in a country where there were no guns beyond those modest ones used by hunters and sportsmen under reasonable regulation. The 2nd amendment should be repealed.