Saturday, October 03, 2015

Fundies and Nihilists

There have been a couple of interesting posts on PZ Myers' blog

1.  The first one here is a take down of a brash Christian fundamentalist named Wilson who claims to have a one-liner disproof of evolution Viz:

EVOLUTION THEORY'S BIGGEST BLOW: Wilson's Law of Evolution. Where Are All The Fossils of Failed Mutations?

Myers walks through the huge loop-hole here and savages Wilson's superficial sales-talk patter and then throws the scraps into his Parana pool of commenters for further savaging. The fundamentalist clearly has no idea about statistics and the nature of mutations; whatever you think of evolution this is not the way to refute it. But I'm less interested here in yet another embarrassing argument from a Christian fundie than I am his very frequent disparaging references to the "mainstream science community". This is a sign of fundamentalism's intellectual marginalization and  alienation from the scientific establishment. It is this anti-establishment drift which is helping to drive some fundamentalists into the ultimate conspiracy theory, a theory which is also based on superficial sales-talk. 

2. The second post here is about the lastest mass shooting in America by someone claiming to be anti-religion. Myers objects to Sam Harris' consequent reactive defense of atheism, a defense which has a suspiciously nihilist feel about it:

Atheism has no doctrines. It does not demand that a person do anything, or refrain from doing anything, on the basis of his unbelief. Consequently, to know that someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about him—apart from the fact that he does not accept the unwarranted claims of any religion.

Myers response is a plea against a Nihilist interpretation of atheism:

Religion is primitive and lacking in any tools to address deep injustices and correct errors in its formulation. I am all in favor of tearing it down and replacing it with…what? According to Harris, nothing. Atheism has nothing constructive or productive to replace the bad system most people are limping along under — rip it all out and apparently, brute reason can then be trusted to evolve something better.

Never mind that the same atheists who adore the irresponsibility of the idea that their beliefs impose no demands on them are also the same atheists who so detest equality that they spit on feminism;

Reason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too. We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

That’s not my atheism, though. I argue that the absence of gods gives greater prominence to the interdependence of the human community, and adds greater weight and urgency to the importance of empathy and equality and all those human values — but if atheism is now a label that allows us to nonchalantly disavow responsibility for the actions of those within our own group, perhaps it’s time to disband the whole idea of an atheist community.

But then it’s also clear that my vision of what atheism ought to be is a minority view. The majority are doing their damnedest to confirm the poor opinion the believers have of us.

It would be wrong to say that atheism always leads to nihilism - after all Myers is probably humanist in sentiment and is looking for meaning and morality - but atheism does, as I have said before, teeter dangerously on the brink of nihilism and anti-foundationalism. Calibrating the moral compass and charting a purposeful course through life is ever the challenge of atheism.  The above is evidence of this challenge.

Monday, September 28, 2015


(Click to enlarge)

Some brief off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on this image of Pluto.

After all the talk about Pluto's surface having a surprising dearth of cratering I realized on looking at the above image that scientists were talking in relative terms; the picture actually shows Pluto to be quite pock marked with craters - however, a lot less so than that of the Moon and other planets, but probably much more so than the Earth. Ergo, Pluto's surface is older than that of the Earth which, of course, is subject to high levels of largely atmospheric based erosion and change. In fact the crater density of Pluto may be comparable to that of the Lunar Mare.  (See the hi-res picture of Pluto on the web site below)

 Pluto has a thin atmosphere as this picture shows:

Pluto's size, along with its inclined and eccentric orbit may be evidence that it is a captured Kuiper belt object; perhaps an outcome of the long term gravitational chaos of the Solar System. If the once very frozen Pluto was relatively recently captured into its current orbit then its solar constant would change. Such orbital change could conceivably result in the low boiling point of some of Pluto's surface compounds just being passed, consequently creating an atmosphere and in turn starting off a slow erosion cycle. This may explain Pluto's relatively "young" surface. But remember; in Solar System terms half a billion years is "young"!

Anyway, be all that as it may, we had better wait and see what the experts say. One thing is clear: Given the number of unknowns there is plenty of theoretical scope to explain the appearance of Pluto!

For more pictures of Pluto see:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Thinknet Project Part 2: Theoretical Underpinnings

The second paper on my Thinknet project is now available here. Below I reproduce the introduction.

1.      Introduction
In part 1 of this series I described the general idea of an association network as based on some of the ideas of Edward de Bono’s book The Mechanism of Mind. In this part I develop the theme a little further by giving it some mathematical backbone.

By August 91 I had written up an association network program on an Amiga 500. I had some vague notion about the tokens of the network being linked by some kind of probability weighting. Up until that time the Thinknet project was very software driven: I wanted to get out a system that did something regardless of whether or not I really understood what it was doing; much of it was an accumulation of several seat-of-the-pants decisions.  I had guessed that the tokens of the network were linked by some probability but I didn’t really have any clear idea as to the theoretical underpinning of this probability. Initially all I did was to code in a universal linking probability factor that represented the fact that although token A would lead to or imply token B it wouldn’t do so with absolute certainty. But it was obvious that using a one size fits all probability was far from satisfactory. During one of our many family beach chalet holidays (10 August to 17 August 1991. Hemsby, Norfolk) I sat on the sand looking out to sea pondering what the underlying theoretical model should be and by early September I had the model up and running.

The model was based on a very simple idea;  in fact the idea was essentially that of a literal interpretation of the Venn diagram. In this model the points on the Venn diagram are thought of as concrete items which can be collected together in various classes according to the properties those items have:  In the Venn notation we draw a circle round a set of points on the diagram to represent a class of items, each of which have some selected property. If we draw two circles based on two classes each defined by their particular property then we can then represent the relationship between these two classes by the extent of the overlap, if any,  between the two classes; an idea familiar to anyone who has seen a Venn diagram

This very literal interpretation of the Venn diagram using items and their respective properties to form classes of items gives us a very concrete model of set theory which immediately circumvents Russell’s paradox. It does this by distinguishing sharply between classes and the items of which they are composed in a similar way that Von Neumann’s version of axiomatic set theory makes a distinction between classes which are not elements and classes which are elements (where my items = elements). 


Relevant Links.
The Thinknet project is really part of my Melencolia I series. The links relating to this series are below:
Also relevant are these links:

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

How to Build a Seaworthy Wooden Vessel

The Gotherborg at  Gt. Yarmouth quay

The Gotheborg, the world's largest operational wooden ship, was berthed Great Yarmouth quay at the weekend for the maritime festival and I went to see her. The Gotheborg is in fact a Swedish built replica of a ship of the same name which sailed in the mid eighteenth century. Visitors were charged a reasonable fee to look round her.... and fascinating it was too. Because the vessel is a working boat it conveys that authentic, grimy and untidy ambiance of a going concern; in contrast to the prim scrubbed clean museum piece that HMS Victory has become. The Gotheborg has very much the touch and feel of the real thing and brings the visitor a bit closer to just what it was like to live and work on one of these wooden sailing ships. So, congratulations to the Swedes on their excellent work.

I took some photos of the interior and two of them can be seen below. The first picture is a general view of the gun deck.

This second picture shows us one of the gun portals. with wooden walls around 18 inch thick:

.....So that's how you make an authentic sea going wooden ship! But you don't make it like this:

I doubt this would last five minutes on the high sea, let alone a year

OK, OK, I know that Answers in Genesis's Ark mock up is all about facade, because the real deal would be far too expensive. But for AiG "facade" is very much the name of their game: From their tame academics who produce no young earthist papers for mainstream academia, through the liberal use of the omphalus hypothesis in their cosmology,  to the thin walls of this so-called “Ark”; if it's a choice of style over content, style wins out every-time. The whole AiG outfit revolves round the maintenance of a PR charade; Verdict? Must try harder to bring greater authenticity to the ministry!

Relevant Links:

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Kent Hovind Defends Science Against Flat Earther Infestation (Yes, really!)

"The Cultural Logic of Late Fundamentalism"
i.e Fundamentalism is sick, sick, sick!

And now for some light relief.

Disclaimer: Caution, you are now entering Poe's Law zone.

Here's an ostensibly pro-flat earth video by an ostensibly Christian fundamentalist attacking Kent Hovind's defense of established science's heliocentric/spherical Earth solar system. Knock me over with a feather; I found myself rooting for poor old Kent even though he himself is a quite extreme fundie!  But don't ask me whether or not Kent was being spoofed or whether the video is a parody! To  be frank I can't be absolutely sure! However, if people are to be believed there seems to be a fairly recent resurgence of Flat Earth beliefs among Christian Fundamentalists; hence my above recycling of a phrase by Jameson!

Fundamentalist Kent Hovind gets a pasting from fundamentalists even more extreme than himself! But for a change Kent comes up  smelling of roses! (Just! *2)

Here are some other videos on the Flat Earth Conspiracy:

Clearly, we are in Poe's law territory here! However, it is true that genuine flat earthers and geocentrics have existed and still exist today. See for example the following two comments below as they appear in the comment thread of the video and which as far as I can tell don't look like spoofs.... although don't quote me!

A Geocentric Commenter:
Some may argue that it not important for salvation if the earth is round or flat and that may be so. for me personally i feel as king David did who says at
  Psalm 8:3-5 New International Version (NIV)
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? 5 You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.

That the creation of the sun and moon and stars reveals gods love for humans in that they were created for us and this gives us dignity and honor as gods children. we have been robbed of our dignity and honor and birthright as children of our God by the false teaching that the sun is the center and everything exists by chance. we have a conscience that draws us to our heavenly father they take this away and they gave us CONscience. the heavens is our crown of dignity and honor from our creator and father Jehovah.

A Flat Earth Commenter:
Kent I must say, until you do the research and you do the science, You have no more claim to it being a sphere than those same scientist have for claiming the earth is millions of years old. No Kent you have not been in space to see for yourself. All you have is NASA (*But see footnote), and your Ship Sail explanation has been "proven wrong" long ago. But the science being brought today by a preponderance of Science Evidences prove the Earth is Exactly as God said. It's Flat, It's fixed within outer-space "not moving" and all the other stuff moves around earth. Kent You have to use the same "dogmatic" stance that you throw at Dinosaurs and the Planet being Billions of years old. If you want to "Believe it's a Sphere that's your own Religion" Just like you tell all those who say they want to believe in Billions of years and Dinosaurs... I wish to believe as God said it was. FLAT... But It seems strange to me that today you seem to be so worried what others will think. Kent you said you believe God, but it seems more clear you only believe in some of the things God says... hmm strange

The implications for Christian fundamentalism in general are grave: As the above suggests Christian fundamentalists, whether they are flat earthers, geocentricists, young earthers, blood mooners, failed prognosticators or promulgators of conspiracy theorism, all have a distinctive and recognisable commonality in as much as they use a Biblical literalist epistemic. As the video shows the fundamentalist epistemic can be turned against itself in an ironic twist; the video exposes not only the inconsistencies between different fundamentalist groups but also within a ministry like that of Kent Hovind. One thing is clear; there are many shades of fundies out there who are firmly and (over) confidently asserting all sorts of mutually contradictory things and yet they all claim their opinions have divine authority based either on the Bible or the gnostic touch of God; quite often both!

One's first impressions may be that flat earthism and young earthism are scientific questions, but such bizarre claims have more to do with group psychology and sociology than they do science: One can study flat earth theory and young earthism from the point of view of science gone astray, but that is less than half the story; the other and probably more important half is to do with the sociology of belief and group identification. There does, however, seem to be a logical progression here: In fundamentalism's alienation and marginalization from the academic mainstream and from culture in general, it is an easy emotional step to reject modern cosmological science in its entirety; from its inception with Copernicus, through Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and so on to the enlightenment etc, to the fundamentalist it all feels like a conspiracy to defraud them of the faith. Since modern science also owes much to prototypical Greek thinking a further logical step for fundamentalists is the rejection of the (pagan) Ptolemaic cosmos.

Biblical texts written prior to the sixth century BC are likely to have come out of a culture that had no conception of a spherical Earth and this is evidenced by the Bible in as much as there is no mention of a spherical Earth in pre-sixth century Biblical texts; if anything, as the Christian flat earthers point out, the Biblical metaphors hint at a belief in a flat earth. As fundamentalist marginalization and subsequent detachment from social identification continues apace, social fetters suppressing fundamentalist contrariness against the marginalizers are loosed. It is no surprise, then, as disaffected fundies immerse themselves in what they wrongly think to be the self-contained and self-interpreting universe of the Bible they regress to a pre-sixth century BC cosmology in an act of protest and cultural vandalism.

That flat earthism is able get a social purchase even today is not only evidence of certain kinds of social trend but also a sign that the perverse assumptions and special pleading of dogmatic  "presuppositionalism" will always find an intellectual loop hole: This is because in the final analysis very little is directly observable. Our "direct observations" are embedded in a huge mountain of theoretical narrative by which they are synthesized into a comprehensible whole; a perverse and contrary person is always able to eventually find some other bizarre narrative which joins at least some of the dots of observation. A fine example of this is young earthism's omphalos hypothesis whereby any observed state of affairs can simply be explained as the way God made it. Fundamentalism's omphalos tradition has been given new impetus by Jason Lisle's ASC cosmological model. See also John Byl.

It's worrying that a nation such as the USA, on whose prosperity, strength and wisdom the West as a whole very much depends, should be the epicenter of these daft goings on; perhaps it's something to do with that great American independent-can-do spirit which, it seems, has a downside as well as an upside, just as the great German aptitude for collective discipline once showed us its downside. As for the British they tend to lazily maintain the status quo until there's either a threat to their business interests or a threat of an alien evasion. All very stereotypical no doubt, but when you're writing a paragraph of one-liners that attempt to sum up the situation what else can you say?

See also these links:

* ....and the Russian, Chinese, European and Japanese space agencies....and you'd better add numerous private aerospace companies who must be in on the conspiracy as well!
*2  ..although Kent does get himself into a twist over whether the Earth is at the centre of the Universe.

Appendix I : High Structure Tilt
In the Kent Hovind video an argument for a flat earth was offered which I haven't seen before: The argument is that structures over the horizon and yet whose height means they nevertheless stand above the horizon should appear to tilt away from the observer if the Earth is round. But no quantification of this effect was advanced and no proof of whether it would actually be apparent was offered. Take the example they showed of sky scrapers viewed across what they said was 20 miles of sea. The angle these objects would tilt away from the local zenith is given by the equation:

360 x 20/24901 = 0.289 degrees.

Where 24901 = circumference of the Earth.

Now try looking at a tall object in front of you tilted at about 1/3 of a  degree away from you and see if you can see the tilt.

The flat earth clown (I'm not at all sure this man is serious!) who advanced this fallacious argument can be seen in the video below. Many criticisms can be made of his "science", a "science" which involves no quantification and measurement. But to spend too much time on this rubbish is time ill spent as far as I'm concerned. However, this video is evidence of the (recent) link between Christian fundamentalism and flat earth conspiracy theorism.

Flat earthers: Making a mockery of Christianity

Appendix II : Depressed Horizon
Some fundamentalists maintain that the horizon isn't depressed as it should be if the earth was round. In contrast I maintain that it is quite easy to see this depression.

In 2004 whilst holidaying on the Isle of Wight in the UK I stood about 500 feet up on Tennyson Down with my son Stuart looking across to St Catherine's Point  which stands at nearly 800 feet. One would expect, then, that a flat earth horizon at infinity would intersect St Catherine;s Point at well over half it's height, i.e. at the 500 foot mark. We remarked at the time that this was very noticeably not the case - the horizon, as demarcated by the sea, was much lower than this, and I took this to be evidence of the Earth's curvature. What we actually saw was this (A sketch I made shortly afterwards):

View from Tennyson Down looking across to St Catherine's point. In this view the nautical horizon is visibly depressed below the horizontal

Later on I scribbled down some pencil calculations on file paper and these can be seen here. It was these calculations that enabled me to arrive at the figure of 150 feet for the actual height the nautical horizon intersected the land of St Catherine's Point. Although I didn't have any equipment to take measurements, the visual impression was consistent with the theory.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Thinknet Project: Footnote 2: Incomputability and the Biological Mind

 (Click to enlarge)

The above is a scan taken from Roger Penrose’s book “Shadows of the Mind”.  In this book he claims to have found a mathematical example based on The Halting Theorem proving human beings are capable of grasping otherwise incomputable truths. The pages above contain the core of his argument.

Penrose starts by defining Cq(n) – this notation represents the qth computation acting on a single number n. Penrose then considers an algorithm A(q,n) which takes two parameters q and n, where, as I’ve already said, q designates the qth computation and n is the input parameter for this computation. The algorithm A(q,n) is stipulated to be soundly devised in such a way as to halt if Cq(n) does not stop.  However, as Penrose goes on to show this sweeping stipulation entails a contradiction that not only demonstrates the limits of algorithmics (as per the well-established Turing halting theorem) but also the ability of the human mind to transcend algorithmic limitations (a conclusion that is highly controversial).

In order to show this Penrose considers A(n,n): If A works correctly (which we assume it does) then A(n.n) will halt if the nth computation, when seeded with number n, does not halt.  Penrose then argues that A(n,n) is a computation that depends on just one number, and therefore it must be one of the Cq.  So let’s suppose that A(n,n) is the computation Ck.  That is:

A(n,n) = Ck(n).

Now n is a variable so let us put n = k.   Hence:

A(k,k) = Ck(k).

This latter expression clearly entails a contradiction: For if we insist that A(k, k) will halt if  Ck(k) does not halt, then because Ck(k) is actually the same as A(k,k),  A(k,k) must halt if A(k, k) doesn’t halt!  One way of resolving this contradiction is to relax the original stipulation that A(q,n)  is an algorithm which successfully determines in all cases that Cq(n) will not halt; thus we conclude that Ck(k) is one of those algorithms on which A(q,n) is unable to deliver a result: In other words A(k, k) will not halt when it is applied to Ck(k). The obvious corollary is that because A(k, k) is actually the same as Ck(k) then this means that Ck(k) does not halt either.

The foregoing is a version of Turing’s famous halting theorem; namely, that there exists no general algorithm that can solve the halting problem. However, just over on the next page from the above scan (i.e page 76) Penrose takes things a little further. He concludes that because we, as humans, can see that Ck(k) doesn’t stop whereas A(k, k) is unable to ascertain this then:

…. since from the knowledge of A and of its soundness, we can actually construct the computation Ck(k) that we can see does not ever stop, we deduce that A cannot be a formalisation of the procedures available to mathematicians for ascertaining that computations do not stop, no matter what A is. Hence: Human mathematicians are not using a knowably sound algorithm in order to ascertain mathematical truth

Penrose goes on to propose that the human mind isn't using a computable function at all.

Firstly, before considering whether Penrose is right or wrong let me ask this question: Is this good news or bad news? I think it depends on your interests. If you have a belief in the mystical superiority of the human mind over computers it will suit you down to the ground. If you don’t have a stake in algorithmic AI then you’re probably not too bothered. But if you do have a large stake in algorithmic AI it’s probably all a bit upsetting because it means there is little point in attempting to understand human levels of intelligence in algorithmic terms, even if those terms involve new (computable) physics: For according to Penrose the biological mind reaches into the algorithmically unreachable realm of incomputability. In passing let me just say that for myself I’ve always been rather drawn to a position similar to that of John Searle: That is, the human mind (and probably other minds with a similar biological ontology like cats and dogs etc.) possesses the irreducible first person perspective we call consciousness; but this view in and of itself doesn’t necessarily deny that a passable algorithmic simulation of the mind (i.e., as seen by the third person) could be created if we had sufficient understanding of the algorithmic formal structure of the brain. I have to confess that through my Thinknet Project I do have a bit of stake in algorithmic AI.

But vested interests apart is Penrose right or wrong in his conclusion?

One way of thinking about this contradiction that Penrose uses to derive his version of the halting theorem is to imagine that algorithm A is a system reified on some kind of mechanical ontology, like a computer.  The system puts up a flag when it finds an algorithm with a particular property P; in this case P = doesn’t halt. But there is an obvious problem when A tries to do this for itself: When this happens, in the very act of trying to flag property P algorithm A then violates property P! In effect when A attempts to flag P it's just like one of those sentences that tries to talk about itself in a contradictory way e.g. “This sentence is false”. This kind of conceptual feedback loop opens up the liability of contradiction; that is, in talking about itself A invalidates the very self-properties it is trying to describe.  The way round this internal contradiction is to assume that A cannot have certain items of knowledge about itself; therefore we conclude that A is unable to flag the kind of self-properties that lead to contradiction. This in as an example of the general Gödellian conclusion that for a system like A there exists a class of conclusions about itself that it cannot formally ascertain without contradiction.

But seemingly, as Penrose has shown, this result doesn’t prevent us knowing, for instance, things about A that A can’t know about itself; like, for example, whether or not it stops on certain inputs. Does this mean then that human thinking is non-algorithmic as Penrose concludes?  I suggest no; and I say this because before we start proposing that humans have access to incomputable mathematical truths there is potentially a less esoteric solution to Penrose’s conundrum as I shall now try to explain:

Penrose’s conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow because, I submit, it simply means that the human algorithmic system, let’s call it H, is reified on an ontology beyond and outside of A. That H can flag properties in A without getting itself into the kind of contradictory loop which is raised when A starts talking about itself is, I propose, a result of H running on a different ontology and is not necessarily down to some incomputable power of H. The flags that H raises about the properties of A are not reified on the medium of A’s ontology and therefore conflicts cannot arise whereby A, in the very act of flagging knowledge about itself, has the effect of negating that knowledge. Because H is ontologically other than A flags raised in H can in no way effect the properties of A.

In fact in discussing his conclusion Penrose actually shows some awareness of the out-sidedness of H and considers the case where us human outsiders can think of ways of creating an algorithm that is able to determine that Ck(k) doesn’t stop.

A computer could be programmed to follow through precisely the argument that I have given here. Could it not itself, therefore, arrive at any conclusion that I have myself reached?  It is certainly true that it is a computational process to find the particular calculation Ck(k), given algorithm A. In fact this can be exhibited quite explicitly…… Although the procedure for obtaining Ck(k) from A can be put into the form of a computation, this computation is not part of the procedures contained in A. It cannot be, because A is not capable of ascertaining the truth of Ck(k)….

This is an admission that there are algorithmic ontologies beyond A that can talk about A without facing the contradictions that circumscribe A when it tries to talk about itself. So before resorting to exotic ideas about the incomputable it may be that the more prosaic reason of a distinction of ontology explains why humans apparently know more than A; in fact this is what I am going to propose. This proposal, of course, doesn’t do away with the ultimate applicability of Godel’s and Turing’s conclusions because we simply find that these conclusions bite us humans too when we start to think about ourselves. For although it seems possible to create an algorithm that could embody our own understanding about A Penrose goes on to use what I refer to as the “superset trick” to show that contradictions ultimately must arise when any self-knowledge is sort for, human or otherwise. To this end Penrose envisages a robot that has been given information about the procedure for obtaining Ck(k) (My underlining):

Of course we could tell our robot that Ck(k) indeed does not stop, but if the robot were to accept this fact, it would have to modify its own rules by adjoining this truth to the ones it already ‘knows’. We could imagine going further than this and telling our robot, in some appropriate way, that the general computational procedure  for obtaining Ck(k) from A is also something it should ‘know’ as a way of obtaining new truths from old. Anything that is well defined and computational could be added to the robot’s store of ‘knowledge’. But we now have a new ‘A’, and the Gödel argument would apply to this, instead of the old ‘A’.  That is to say, we should have been using this new ‘A’ all along instead of the old ‘A’, since it is cheating  to change  our ‘A’ in the middle of the argument…..It is cheating to introduce another truth judging computational procedure not contained in A after  we have settled  on A as representing  this totality.

What I think Penrose is trying to say here is that any attempt to change A in order to circumvent the limits on the way A can talk about itself simply creates a new A which when applied to itself is either liable to the same old contradictions or must forever be forbidden certain kinds of self-knowledge. The “superset trick” that I referred to entails subsuming all such possible changes into a “super A” and Penrose rightly tells us that ultimately Turing’s halting theorem will bite this superset A.

But cheating is exactly what we can do if we are something other than the algorithmic system that is A and it is this ontological otherness which, I submit, is giving an apparent, albeit spurious, impression that our minds somehow transcend Godellian and Turing restrictions. We are ontologically distinct from Penrose’s robot and therefore we appear to be able to violate Godel and Turing; but this is true only when we are talking about an object that is other than ourselves. This distinction of ontology won’t rescue us when we start talking about ourselves; for ultimately Turing’s and Godel’s superset based conclusions will also bite when it comes to human self-knowledge: Ergo, when we talk about our own ontology there are certain things we cannot know without raising a contradiction. If these contradictions are not to arise with human self-knowing Turing and Godel incomputability must also apply to human ontology. In summary, then, the scenario considered by Penrose is not proof that human mental life has available to it incomputable knowledge; a better explanation in my view, is that Godel and Turing only apply when distinct ontologies attempt to self-know.


However, having said all that I must repeat and extend what I said in the the first part of this footnote: Human mental life is likely to be a non-linear process, thereby giving it a chaotic potential which could make it sensitive to what may be the incomputable patterns of quantum fluctuations. As I said in the first part, this non-linearity arises because thinking updates the memories on the thinking surface which in turn affects thinking, thereby effectively giving us a feedback loop with non-linear potential. But in his book “The Mechanism of Mind” Edward De Bono also identifies another way in which the mind may be non-linear in operation: He considers a model where one thinking surface has its activity projected as input onto another thinking surface which in turn has its thinking activity fed-back to the first surface. This scenario resembles the case where a video camera sends its output to a screen, a screen which is being videoed by the self-same camera. The feedback in both cases is likely to result in a chaotic pattern of evolution, an evolution sensitive to very minor fluctuations. This fairly prosaic way of postulating an incomputable cognitive process doesn’t even ask for new physics; although it does assume that quantum leaping is a literal process and a process that has incomputability at its heart.

So my conclusion is that whilst I don’t think Penrose has successfully shown that the mind is incomputable in his sense, mind nevertheless is potentially a means of delivering incomputable patterns to our world as a result of its sensitive feedback loops.

Penrose on Consciousness

Relevant links:

Thinknet series so far:

Melencolia I series

The Joe Felsenstein series

Friday, August 14, 2015

Deep Internal Contradiction

Dream on:  No red pills for us in our cosmos I'm afraid! We just have to try and work it out for ourselves!

I was interested to see a quote from Paul Davies in a post on the ID web site Uncommon Descent. The post was entitled Physicist Paul Davies’ killer argument against the multiverse (Date August 14th)

“If you take seriously the theory of all possible universes, including all possible variations,” Davies said, “at least some of them must have intelligent civilizations with enough computing power to simulate entire fake worlds. Simulated universes are much cheaper to make than the real thing, and so the number of fake universes would proliferate and vastly outnumber the real ones. And assuming we’re just typical observers, then we’re overwhelmingly likely to find ourselves in a fake universe, not a real one.”

So far it’s the normal argument.

Then Davies makes his move. He claims that because the theoretical existence of multiple universes is based on the laws of physics in our universe, if this universe is simulated, then its laws of physics are also simulated, which would mean that this universe’s physics is a fake. Therefore, Davies reasoned, “We cannot use the argument that the physics in our universe leads to multiple universes, because it also leads to a fake universe with fake physics.” That undermines the whole argument that fundamental physics generates multiple universes, because the reasoning collapses in circularity.

Davies concluded, “While multiple universes seem almost inevitable given our understanding of the Big Bang, using them to explain all existence is a dangerous, slippery slope, leading to apparently absurd conclusions.”

This line of argument has been noted before. The rest of this post is an extract I have taken from a blog post I wrote in February 2007. (See here). The context is the question of how the simulation argument impacts the possibility of time travel:


PAUL DAVIES: “The better the simulation gets the harder it would to be able to tell whether or not you were in a simulation or in the real thing, whether you live in a fake universe or a real universe and indeed the distinction between what is real and what is fake would simply evaporate away…..Our investigation of the nature of time has lead inevitably to question the nature of reality and it would be a true irony if the culmination of this great scientific story was to undermine the very existence of the whole enterprise and indeed the existence of the rational universe.”

Let me broach some of the cluster of philosophical conundrums raised by this embarrassing debacle that physics now faces.

Why should our concept of a simulated reality be applicable to the deep future? Doesn’t it rather presume that the hypothetical super beings have any need for computers? The existence of computers is partly motivated by our own mental limitations – would a super intelligence have such limitations? Or perhaps these simulating computers ARE the super intelligences of the future. But then why would they want to think of us primitives from the past? Another problem: Doesn’t chaos and the absolute randomness of Quantum Mechanics render anything other than a general knowledge of the past impossible? In that case this means that any simulated beings would in fact be arbitrary creations, just one evolutionary scenario, a mere possible history, but not necessarily the actual history. And overlying the whole of this simulation argument is the ever-unsettling question of consciousness: Namely, does consciousness consist entirely in the formal relationships between the informational tokens in a machine?

But even if we assume that the right formal mental structures are sufficient condition for conscious sentience, the problems just get deeper. If physics is a science whose remit is to describe the underlying patterns that successfully embed our observations of the universe into an integrated mathematical structure, then physics is unable to deliver on anything about the “deeper” nature of the matrix on which those experiences and mathematical relations are realized. Thus, whatever the nature of this matrix, our experiences and the associated mathematical theories that integrate them ARE physics. If we surmise that our experiences and theories are a product of a simulation, physics cannot reach beyond itself and reveal anything about its simulating context. The ostensible aspects of the surmised simulation (that is, what the simulations delivers to our perceptions) IS our reality: As Paul Davies observed, “… indeed the distinction between what is real and what is fake would simply evaporate away”. Moreover, if physics is merely the experiences and underlying mathematical patterns delivered to us by a simulation how can we then reliably extrapolate using that “fake” physics to draw any conclusions about the hypothetical “real physics” of the computational matrix on which we and our ‘fake’ physics are being realized? In fact is it even meaningful to talk about this completely unknown simulating world? As far as we are concerned the nature of that world could be beyond comprehension and the whole caboodle of our ‘fake’ physical law, with its ‘fake’ evolutionary history and what have you, may simply not apply to the outer context that hosts our ‘fake’ world. That outer realm may as well be the realm of the gods. Did I just say “gods”? Could I have meant … ssshh … God?

The root of the problem here is, I believe, a deep potential contradiction in contemporary thinking that has at last surfaced. If the impersonal elementa of physics (spaces, particles, strings, laws and what have you) are conceived to be the ultimate/primary reality, then this philosophy, (a philosophy I refer to as elemental materialism) conceals a contradiction. For it imposes primary and ultimate reality on physical elementa and these stripped down entities carry no logical guarantee as to the correctness and completeness of human perceptions. Consequently there is no reason, on this view, why physical scenarios should not exist where human perceptions as to the real state of affairs are wholly misleading, thus calling into question our access to real physics. Hence, a contradictory self-referential loop develops as follows: The philosophy of elemental materialism interprets physics to mean that material elementa are primary, but this in turn has lead us to the conclusion that our conception of physics could well be misleading. But if that is true how can we be so sure that our conception of physics, which has lead us to this very conclusion, is itself correct?

There is one way of breaking this unstable conceptual feedback cycle. In my youthful idealistic days I was very attracted to positivism. It seemed to me a pure and unadulterated form of thinking because it doesn’t allow one to go beyond one’s observations and any associated integrating mathematical structures; it was a pristine philosophy uncontaminated by the exotic and arbitrary elaborations of metaphysics. For example, a simulated reality conveying a wholly misleading picture of reality cannot be constructed because in positivism reality is the sum of our observations and the mental interpretive structures in which we embed them - there is nothing beyond these other than speculative metaphysics. However, strict positivism is counterintuitive in the encounter with other minds, history, and even one’s own historical experiences. In any case those “interpretative structures”, as do the principles of positivism, look themselves rather metaphysical. Hence, I reluctantly abandoned positivism in its raw form. Moreover the positivism of Hume subtly subverts itself as a consequence of the centrality of the sentient observer in its scheme; if there is one observer, (namely one’s self) then clearly there may be other unobserved observers and perhaps even that ultimate observer, God Himself. Whatever the deficiencies of positivism I was nevertheless left with a feeling that somehow sentient agents of observation and their ability to interpret those observations have a primary cosmic role; for without them I just couldn’t make sense of the elementa of physics as these are abstractions and as such can only be hosted in the minds of the sentient beings that use them to make sense of experience. This in turn lead me into a kind of idealism where the elementa of science are seen as meaningless if isolated from a-priori thinking cognitive agents in whose minds they are constructed. In consequence, a complex mind of some all embracing kind is the a-priori feature that must be assumed to give elementa a full-blown cosmic existence. Reality demands the primacy of an up and running complex sentience in order to make sense of and underwrite the existence of its most simple parts; particles, spaces, fields etc – these are the small fish that swim in the rarefied ocean of mind. This philosophy, for me, ultimately leads into a self-affirming theism rather than a self-contradictory elemental materialism.

The popular mind is beginning to perceive that physics has lost its way: University physics departments are closing in step with the public’s perception of physics as the playground for brainy offbeat eccentrics. My own feeling is that physics has little chance of finding its way whilst it is cut adrift from theism, and science in general has become a victim of nihilism. The negative attitude toward science, which underlies this nihilism, is not really new. As H. G. Wells once wrote:

"Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room - in moments of devotion, a temple - and that this light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated - darkness still."

Wells tragically lost his faith and with it his hope and expectation: He no longer believed the Universe to be a Temple on the grandest of scales, but rather a place like Hell, a Morlockian underworld with walls of impenetrable blackness. In that blackness Lovecraftian monsters may lurk. Nightmares and waking life became inextricably mixed. And in this cognitive debacle science could not be trusted to reveal secrets or to be on our side. The seeds of postmodern pessimism go a long way back.

But we now have the final irony. The concluding words of the Horizon narrator were:

"Now we’re told we may not even be real. Instead we may merely be part of a computer program, our free will as Newton suggested is probably an illusion. And just to rub it in, we are being controlled by a super intelligent superior being, who is after all the master of time."

The notions that we are being simulated in the mind of some super intelligence, that a naïve concept of free will is illusory, that we can know nothing of this simulating sentience unless that super intelligence should deign to break in and reveal itself are all somehow very familiar old themes:

….indeed He is not far from each of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:27-28)

My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth., Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be” (Ps 139:15&16)

“…no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” (Mat 11:27)

Have those harmless but brainy eccentric scientists brought us back to God? If they have, then in a weird religious sort of way they have sacrificed the absolute status of physics in the process.

Relevant Link: