Epistemology

Universal Constants

To get the theory of relativity Einstein held the speed of light constant and let time and space vary.

These days cosmologists are holding the infinity of the universe as constant and letting its density and expansion/contraction rate vary.

In some sense quantum mechanics is about holding the observer constant and letting the physical interpretation vary (particle or wave; position or momentum; exist or not).

What would we get if we held consciousness constant and let the universe vary?…

Scientific Singularity?

A couple of weeks ago Kevin and I went around on the topic of whether or not science is “broken”.  We came to the point of agreeing that we have different basic assumptions of what constitutes “utility”.  And because of this, while we could agree that each of our arguments made sense logically, we ultimately end up with opposite conclusions.  After all, for something to be broken it means that it once served a purpose that it no longer is able to serve due to mechanical/structural failure.  And to have a purpose means that it has value (i.e. utility) to someone.

So whether science is broken or still works depends your definition of utility.  Kevin and I agreed on a measurement for scientific utility, based on (a) how well it explains observed phenomena, (b) how well it predicts new phenomena, and (c) how directly it leads to creation of technologies that improve human lives.  We can call it “explanatory power” or EP for short.  …

Is Science Broken?

By this I mean just what you think I mean.

Is science dysfunctional (i.e. functioning against its stated purpose) and could it be fixed?  I will leave it to you to determine what science’s stated purpose is, though by any standardly accepted definition, I claim that science is broken.  I’d like to run an experiment here to try to either change my belief or solidify it.

In the comments below, I invite you use the Like buttons to vote on what you believe.  You have only three boxes to choose from: Broken, Not Broken, and Undecided.  I respectfully ask you to first use the appropriate Like button and only then add your arguments/comments/questions if you have them.  Also, please categorize your arguments/comments/questions by making them replies to of one of the three top-level boxes (if you “think outside the boxes” I will delete your comment; sorry it’s my experiment :-)

In order to begin the debate, I will refer you to two blog entries which …

The New Scientific Enlightenment

There is a massive paradigm shift occurring: beliefs about the nature of scientific inquiry that have held for hundreds of years are being questioned.

As laypeople, we see the symptoms all around us: climatology, economics, medicine, even fundamental physics; these domains (and more) have all become battlegrounds with mounting armies of Ph.D.s and Nobel Prize winners entrenching in opposing camps.  Here’s what’s at stake:

. . .

Scientific Objectivity

In 1972 Kahneman and Tversky launched the study into human cognitive bias, which later won Kahneman the Nobel.  Even a cursory reading of this now vast literature should make each and every logically-minded scientist very skeptical of their own work.

A few scientists do take bias seriously (c.f. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong).  Yet, nearly 40 years later, it might be fair to say that its impact on science as a whole has been limited to improving clinical trials and spawning behavioral economics.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo poignantly illustrates …

Epidemiology vs. Etiology

Over the last several years I’ve been digging into the science of cancer and systems biology, while at the same time looking at the epidemiology of disease and nutrition.  And the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that there’s a gap that our scientific tools and methodologies cannot account for.  While I’ve discussed this generally under the heading of Science 2.0 (also here), I’ve had a hard time putting into language the exact nature of the gap.

I’ve begun a series of posts that I hope will illustrate the gap, which I believe has to do with the fundamental difference between epidemiology (which is based on statistical observation) and etiology (which seeks to find causal mechanisms for observed phenomena):

Once I’ve completed these posts, I’ll attempt to explain the nature of the gap and what it means for the future of scientific inquiry.…

The Pattern

The wind was flapping a temple flag. Two monks were arguing about it. One said the flag was moving; the other said the wind was moving. Arguing back and forth they could come to no agreement.  The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is neither the wind nor the flag that is moving. It is your mind that is moving.” — Zen Koan

“The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” — Albert Einstein

Does a whirlpool exist in the same way that a rock exists or that energy from the sun exists?  For something to exist it either has to have always existed, or there must have been a time prior to its existence.  Leaving for a moment the possibility that everything which exists today has always existed, let’s consider that it came into being at some point.

If something came into being, then not only must there have been a point in time prior to …

Metaphysics

What fundamental truths exist in the universe?

This question, perhaps above all, is the basis for scientific inquiry.  Yet we rarely ask it in this way and we rarely step back to the very basic assumptions we hold about the possible form of answer we might expect.  For instance, is matter fundamental?  Meaning, if we could not talk about particles and mass, could we understand the universe as well (or better) than we currently do?

Einstein showed that there is an equivalence between matter and energy (E=mc^2), but what does that really mean?  Personally, I’m kinda stumped when it comes to understanding energy, and I suspect that many other people are too if they think about it.  Then there’s that pesky c^2 part of the equation, which seems even more nebulous.  Physics 101 tells us that c is the velocity at which light (a form of energy) travels, and that any velocity squared is acceleration.  Also we learn that velocity is distance over time

Entanglement

Daniel asks, Does the Mind Influence Physical Processes?

Proof: our mind sets out to modify our environment in particular ways (i.e. set goals); then we act in ways consistent with that intention; more often than chance, our environment changes in those intended ways (i.e. goals are achieved).

This is a form of entanglement — spooky action at a distance — between our minds and the environment (which includes other minds), but we usually dismiss this as trivial, not very spooky. On the other hand, we know that quantum entanglement exists and it seems spooky to us because we have no mechanism to explain it.

We also observe that there are quantum effects in the basic architecture of the brain (nanotubules) and wonder if these are somehow the “ghost in the machine” of consciousness. But this could be just a red herring. Perhaps quantum effects matter to consciousness, perhaps they don’t. Still quantum effects are part of the human experience in some sense — and so …

Science 2.0

I liken cognition to a hill-climbing search on the landscape of theories/models/maps that explain/predict reality.  It’s easy to get stuck on peaks of local maximality.  Injecting randomness creates a sort of Boltzmann machine of the mind and increases my chances of finding higher peaks.

But I have to be prepared to be more confused — and question more assumptions than I intended to — because chances are my new random placement on the landscape is initially lower than the local maximum I was on prior.  This part is scary.  People around me don’t understand what I’m saying initially because I necessarily need new words, new language, to describe the new landscape.

And rather than start totally afresh with a new lexicon, I notice it’s more productive (personally and in communication) to overload old terms and let them slowly blend into their new meanings.  We all resist the strain, especially those who did not sign up for the jump through hyperspace.  They use the …

Why Falsifiability is Insufficient for Scientific Reasoning

In my post about The Process it turns out that I stepped on a pedagogical minefield when using describing the Anthropic Principle (AP).  Two preeminent physicists had a very public argument a while ago in which one called the AP unscientific because it’s unfalsifiable.  I will return to that in a moment since it’s the crux of what’s wrong with Science right now, but I need to get the terminology issue out of the way first.

Lee Smolin claims that AP is bad and favors a Cosmological Natural Selection view instead (on grounds of falsifiability).  I believe this is a false dichotomy and that they are really one and the same.  Here’s why:

  1. Normally natural selection requires some form of “replication” or it’s not actually natural selection.   But replication is not needed if you start with an infinity of heterogeneous universes.  In other words replication is simulated via the anthropic lens over the life-supporting subset of all possible universes.
  2. Replication is a red herring anyway

The Process

Imagine a multiverse, infinitely infinite.  There’s just infinity.  Or if you prefer, nothing.   There’s no space, no time, no matter, no energy.  There’s no structure whatsoever, and nothing “in” any of the universes that make up the multiverse.  it’s not even clear whether these individual universes are separate from one another or the same.  But since our minds seem finite and we have to start somewhere, let’s imagine them as separate: an infinite collection of universes with nothing in them, no dimension, and no relationship between them.

Now lets assume there is some process for picking out universes from the multiverse.  Since there’s no time in the multiverse, the process has no beginning and no end.  It’s like a computer program, but it’s infinitely complex.  Let’s call it The Process.

If The Process is infinitely complex and has no beginning and no end, what can we know about it?  We know that it picks some universes but not others, which effectively creates an “in …

Non-Dualism

How do we know what we know?

If you grew up like me you were brought up in a culture based on a dualist metaphysics, one that asserts that there is an objective reality outside of ourselves (whatever “we” are) and that we know about it indirectly through our senses and conscious reasoning.  This is the basis of the Western traditions of science, liberal arts and symbolic systems (such as mathematics and human language).  Essentially anything that can be studied is part of this metaphysics.  Gödel showed us that this metaphysics will never lead to complete knowing, though everyone agrees we can continually refine our knowledge and thereby at least asymptotically approach enlightenment.

Descartes proved to us that each of us individually do indeed exist, and he tried to argue further that the universe as we perceive it — however imperfectly — does indeed exist too.  But before you drink too deeply from the Cartesian well, keep in mind that his argument for an external

Newcomb's Meta-Paradox

Tweeter, Claus Metzner (@cmetzner) alerted me to this cool area of study with this paper.

Suppose you meet a Wise being (W) who tells you it has put $1,000 in box A, and either $1 million or nothing in box B. This being tells you to either take the contents of box B only, or to take the contents of both A and B. Suppose further that the being had put the $1 million in box B only if a prediction algorithm designed by the being had said that you would take only B. If the algorithm had predicted you would take both boxes, then the being put nothing in box B.  Presume that due to determinism, there exists a perfectly accurate prediction algorithm. Assuming W uses that algorithm, what choice should you make?…

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

A few articles on the economy that were sent my way recently.

The Good: After Capitalism (Geoff Mulgan)

The era of transition that we are entering will be disruptive—but it may bring a world where markets are servants, not masters.”  I urge you to read this entire article, and leave your ideological biases at the door.  Despite the title, this is no polemic.  Here’s the punchline:

Contemporary biology and social science has confirmed just how much we are social animals—dependent on others for our happiness, our self-respect, our worth and even our life. There is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.

The Nature of Innovation

One of my favorite talks of all time is Ken Robinson’s on how children are born naturally innovative and the process of schooling and growing up in our society beats it out of them by the time they are adults.  More recently, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) opened some eyes with this talk on how we think of individual creativity and where it comes from.…

Why It's Important to be an Optimist

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.…

Superfoo

Response to Superorganism as Terminology.

I was actually about to post something about terminology, so I’m glad this came up. It’s just so difficult to choose words to describe concepts that have little precedent, without going to the extreme of overloading on the one end (e.g. “organism”) or the other extreme of being totally meaningless (e.g. “foo”). I have tried to use terms that are the closest in meaning to what I’m after but there’s no avoiding the misinterpretation. I can only hope by defining and redefining to an audience that is not quick to make snap judgments but rather considers the word usage in context, we can converge to at least a common understanding of what I am claiming. From there at least we have a shot at real communication of ideas and hopefully even agreement.…

The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.


JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. …

Go Forth and Reify, part II

In this video talk by Richard Darkins he gives some good food for thought on reification when he talks about Steve Grand’s views on things like whirlpools, electromagnetic fluctuations and walking sand dunes.  The most powerful example is this one (quoting Grand):

Think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that took place…Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make your hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.

Go Forth and Reify

reify |ˈrēəˌfī|
verb ( –fies, –fied) [ trans. ] formal
make (something abstract) more concrete or real

Imagine if an alien landed on Earth to study modern society and you were assigned the task of being its local guide.  You get to the subject of money and the alien is perplexed.  What is money?  Is it paper currency?  Clearly not, since you can exchange that paper for other forms of currency, such as coins, foreign bank notes, electronic funds, treasury bills, and all sorts of derivatives, assets (both tangible and intangible, liquid and illiquid), services, promises, and so on.  After hearing all of the various aspects of money, the alien tells you that money doesn’t really exist.…

Complex Systems Concept Summary

I figured it was time for a reset and so the following is a summary of much of the foundational posting that I’ve done on this blog so far.  As always, a work in progress, subject to refinement and learning……

Hive Mindstein

David Basanta’s blog has an interesting thread (quite a few of them actually).  Here’s the setup but you should read the original post, including the Wired article:

Apparently, some people are seeing some potential in cloud computing not just as an aid to science but as a completely new approach to do it. An article in Wired magazine argues precisely that. With the provocative title of The end of theory, the article concludes that, with plenty of data and clever algorithms (like those developed by Google), it is possible to obtain patterns that could be used to predict outcomes…and all that without the need of scientific models.

Beyond the Gene

In an earlier post, I argued that the gene concept is in bad need of a makeover.  It turns out that Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel feel the same way and have made an actual start of it in a paper titled Beyond the Gene.  In the paper they propose a new lexicon:

Sigmoids vs Exponentials

In a previous post, I argued that we humans suffer from a destructive oversimplifying habit of linear extrapolation.  This professor argues the same point, but he falls into the next logical trap, thinking that exponential extrapolation solves the problem.…

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.