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.