Monday, December 22, 2008

Gregory Chaitin

Anyone who is interested in "The meaning of life the universe and everything" type stuff needs to keep tabs on Gregory Chaitin's work, such as this:


and this

Is God a computer programmer?

I have a feeling this guy lacks enough inhibition to not worry about being a bit of kook. He may frighten the life out of some people! A bit of eccentricity can go a long way in science. Have a look at his splashy web site! It would be wrong to say that Greg is going places, because he is probably already there.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Quantum Decoherence

Quantum Decoherence looks to be an idea that has a lot going for it. In fact it seems to tie up so many lose ends that I find the notion extremely attractive myself. As an explanation of the apparent sudden and random discontinuous changes of the quantum mechanical state vector decoherence is just so neat. This web site sums up the theoretical attractions of decoherence theory. I have reproduced some of these attractions below (with my additional comments in brackets):

No additional classical concepts are required for a consistent quantum description. (A sharp distinction between macroscopic classical systems and microscopic quantum mechanical systems does not exist)

There are no particles (The universal ontology is a uniform one of waves only. The cosmos doesn't contain any dirty gritty bits, only smooth voluptous waves)

There are no quantum jumps (No probabilistic discontinuous jumps of the state vector)

There is but ONE basic framework for all physical theories: quantum theory (No extra physics is needed to account for quantum jumps; we have the physics already in the form of various wave equations - we just need to apply these equations to the measurement of quantum systems with macroscopic systems)

There is no time at a fundamental level (That is, because all quantum equations are reversible, the cosmos is in principle reversible and time is an artifact of boundary conditions, end of story; in fact end of story telling as well)

Finally the Decoherence web site adds:

It is a direct consequence of the Schrödinger equation, but has nonetheless been essentially overlooked during the first 50 years of quantum theory.

What a deal. It’s hard to resist. No new theory; just the correct and insightful application of quantum equations, an application that’s been overlooked for the last 50 years. The whole thing leads to a seamless, ‘in principle’ smooth and deterministic physics with no need to lash on any ad hoc random jumps of the state vector. On this view the randomness of quantum theory is not absolute but only apparent. It is a product of the entanglement of quantum systems with the chaos of macroscopic objects used to measure quantum phenomena thus leading to the apparent, repeat apparent, random changes in state of microscopic systems.

One question I need to look into is this: What does decoherence theory say about the case of not detecting a particle in a designated state? The failure to detect a particle in a state means that it must be in the orthogonal complementary state, which is in fact a superposition of many states. Can entanglement account for the apparent jump in state associated with not detecting a particle?

Decoherence theory has the touch and feel of a winner, especially as its reduction of explanatory entities is very much in the spirit of Occam’s razor.

However, I have my doubts. I have long noted the analogues between quantum theory and the probability envelopes of random walk and I am now fixated on the idea that probability envelopes of a special quantum kind are incarnated as a “real” world ontology. These analogues suggest that we go the whole hog and expect these envelopes to behave like other probability envelopes when a change in information occurs: that is the envelope “collapses” or at least suddenly changes its form under certain circumstances. I may well be backing the wrong horse, but the reason why I take the application of these analogues seriously is indicated below. In the following I note the parallels between quantum envelopes and conventional probability envelopes. In the following I use ‘real’ probability envelopes and not complex envelopes. So for a state represented by |p) we have |p) = (p| .

If we have two probability envelopes or ‘states’ |p) and |q) each of which pertains to one of two separate (= ‘orthogonal’) coordinates then the state of the composite system is a two dimensional probability envelope that effectively can be represented by the ‘outer product’ |p)|q), as in quantum mechanics proper.

Imagine that we have a particle in a probability state represented by the envelope |p) and we have another probability envelop on the same coordinate which is some kind of detecting ‘field’ or state, |q), that is capable of capturing the particle in state |p). Under these conditions the probability of the particle being captured by the detecting state is equal to the inner product, or ‘intersection’, (p|q) as in quantum mechanics proper.

The algebra of quantum envelopes looks suspiciously like a kind of probability calculus but with real probabilities being replaced by “complex probabilities”.

The foregoing “state algebra” doesn’t produce any dynamics: that can be added with Schrödinger’s equation; as I have suggested in my book this equation has a close relation to the random walk diffusion equation.

To my mind quantum theory is too closely related to random walk and probability calculus to dismiss the notion of real collapses (and discontinuous changes of state). This need not be the Copenhagen type collapse which posits the presence of an observer. In my interpretation of quantum theory, the presence of a “detecting” or “capturing” state is sufficient for a possible collapse or a sudden change of state according to probability. I’ll be frank and admit that I’m expecting the collapses to be real because otherwise I’m confounded by the similarities with probability calculus. I’ll candidly admit that I’m applying an anthropomorphism in expecting the similarities of quantum theory with probability calculus and random walk not to be wasted. For me decoherence is an anticlimax, a solution by those who have either lost the plot or couldn’t see it in the first place; it cuts across my expectation of uncovering a meaningful, coherent story. (Although, of course, decoherence has its own cluster of alluring points as I have indicated above)

These ideas are, of course, highly speculative, kooky and frankly look to be rather dangerous conjectures to back. But then I’ve no reputation to lose. In contrast decoherence is the safe solution, the tidy deterministic solution; it’s the solution that we know in our hearts to be the likely one if we believe the universe to be a relatively prosaic closed system and not open-ended. In my opinion it’s the solution for the boys and not the men. However, if experimental work does skew the evidence toward the decoherence picture then count me out; I’ll have to concede and admit that the world is more boring than I expected!

Which theories we tend to support, need I say, is not merely a function of experimental data, (which in any case is often not a sufficient sample to settle the matter), but also a function of idiosyncrasies in our background, our sense of analogy, our feel for elegance, what we are expecting to see, and even what we are hoping for. Vested interests and group identification also have a role here.These motivational factors have, needless to say, connections with background agendas, world views, hopes and aspirations. I don’t think it is wrong to have these background hopes and views, it’s only human; but it is well to be aware of them and how they are subtly influencing one’s hopes and expectations and how one interprets the data. Do not let these background influences hide in the subconscious. Be prepared to face them, challenge them, change them, and above all never, never, never, be the slave of them and allow them to string you along. If a world view betrays you and fails as an interpretive structure in the face of contra indicators, throw it away as you would a broken tool. Never fall for the fidiest trap.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Protecting The Innocent

Prompted by the response I got to my last rather provocative post I thought I would press on and think a little more about the atheist poster campaign. A quick look revealed few details about the thinking behind the campaign other than someone suggesting that it was a light hearted campaign avoiding the unforgivable sin of a preachy didactism. Therein is the rub: how does one promulgate atheism when some of its conclusions suggest that no one should tell anyone else what to believe? The implementation of militant atheism has a consistency problem.

Dividing the population roughly into the three categories of: 1. True believers, 2. True atheists and 3. The rest who have a spectrum of views, then with which of these constituencies does the atheist campaign cut the mustard? Without some feedback it’s a difficult question to answer, but let me hazard that campaigns by either atheists or believers to garner support do best with their neighborhood constituencies; that is, with those who are closest to them in sentiment and thought. From this ‘local’ constituency ‘converts’ to the cause are reeled in and the broad mass of stay at home agnostics are at least encouraged to make sympathetic noises.

Publicity campaigns put out by embattled subcultures maybe less a rallying call to a target constituency than to the subculture itself. By giving that subculture a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of control, a sense of having the situation in hand, and a sense of destiny fulfillment, a vigorous foray into the world beyond can be a morale booster for a marginalized community and a way of avoiding brooding thoughts. The campaign may also serve as a gesture to disconcert diametrically opposed subcultures with a message of strength, confidence and vitality. Although I am not sure how the atheist campaign went down in its natural constituency, it is in this latter sense, if no other, that the atheist poster campaign has failed. This poster campaign is perceived by many Christians as extremely weak, weak to the point of being a laughing stock. Much of that is down to very deep differences between the world view logic of atheism and Christianity.

As I suggested in my last post strong conviction, vehemence, and above all community vibrancy and purpose are very high up on many Christian’s perception of what constitutes evidence of veracity: that is, for many Christians the existence of a faith community that knows what it believes further encourages faith and thus faith is self reinforcing. (I am critical of using faith to justify faith but that is by the by). What is important to note here is that it reveals why the atheist campaign, with its use of the word ‘probably’, looks so weak to many Christians. In the eyes of many Christians no group with a vibrant community ethos could advertise itself so weakly. If the idea of the campaign is to convey that one shouldn’t be preachy why even bother to preach that? How can such an incoherent message be put out by a vibrant purpose driven community? Ergo, the message Christians are getting is that the community dimension of atheism is bankrupt.

The other thing perceived by vehement Christians is that atheism has nothing to celebrate, no object of celebratory focus. OK so there is no God. Fine. But we need something else to celebrate and to be the focus of our community. What will that something be? Atheist attempts to find a focus for celebration have sometimes gone horribly awry. They have created quasi-religious objects that have been used to oppress such as the Maoist and Stalinist personality cults or fantasies about a social utopia to be ushered in by the triumph of a highly idealised notion of the working class. It is perhaps no surprise that Theravada Buddhism has become popular amongst westerners who reject the notion of God but still hanker to reconnect with something spiritual. But unless one is to become a Buddhist monk this is far too individualistic for the community ethos.

The evangelical Christian cannot think about his/her joys and worries apart from his/her object of celebration and the community in which that celebration takes place. (S)He may not be able to articulate it but instinctively the simplist Christian will see the pathological logic in a slogan that first suggests the object of his/her community celebration doesn't exist, and then tells him/her to stop worrying and enjoy life! What will seem even more perverse is that the whole slogan is conditioned by a mere probably. Not only does that appear inconsistent with the rancor and militancy of some forms of atheism, but to the Christain who finds it difficult to think in terms other than a 100% conviction the message is farcical :"So these atheists are telling us to give up a celebrating community that brings joy and addresses worries merely because they think God probably doesn't exist? Why don't they come and join us? We know there is God, We know He brings joy. We know He shoulders our burden of worry". Isaiah 53:4: "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows". The PR people at atheism central have really got their work cut out if they want to compete with this. They're going need all the "probably" they can get.

Finding a rationale for community celebration and its concomitants of purpose and vibrancy is, it seems, the biggest problem for atheism. It’s no good just telling everyone there is probably no God, because when everybody believes there is probably no God what next? This is atheism's major ‘theological question’ a question that parallels the theist’s problem of pain in that both tend to generate subtle and convoluted answers. Nietzsche’s death of God theology lead him to posit his concept of infinite recurrence which enabled him, in spite of the death of God, to escape nihilism by the skin of his teeth and say ‘yes’ to life and could once again celebrate it. But for the man in the street this is unlikely to cut much ice and so atheism continues to teeter on the brink of nihilism’s abyss. A candidly frank atheism has to admit that in the final analysis there is tragedy at the heart of the human condition. Courageously acknowledging this tragedy and having the strength and imagination to face up to it and make the best of it is about as spiritual and hopeful as it gets in atheism. Either that or one adopts a self mocking jocularity that tries not to take the whole thing seriously – such as we see in the atheist poster campaign. As Morpheus said to Neo in the Matrix, atheism only claims to offer the truth. But is it even doing that? Atheism’s difficulties and obscurities over purpose, meaning, epistemology, ontology and above all community ethos provide little grip on the anti-foundationalist slippery slope down into individualism and postmodernism. Little wonder that the poster campaign was so muted.

Atheists like my fellow blogger Larry Moran often liken theism to a belief in Father Christmas. Although I have never admitted it to the good Professor there is in fact a compelling point here. Father Christmas, commercialism apart, is for children a very life affirming character. For many children he contributes to the warm glow and magic of Christmas and therefore provides a focus of celebration and a reason to say ‘yes’ to life. With this parallel in mind it could be plausibly maintained that belief in a kind of a Divine Cosmic Patriarch is one way the human mind copes with and bypasses the social and conceptual difficulties introduced by atheism, difficulties to do with how the mind gets its purchase on reality and conundrums about community purpose. Religion, the opium of the masses, is a way of protecting the innocent from thoughts of a cold dispassionate world out there, knowledge of which threatens to blow the mind. But this theory actually cuts both ways and is also a danger to atheism: it really does suggest that should the God shaped hole be filled, if only with a myth, it can contribute beneficially to a community’s peace of mind. Even when there is no peace between communities driven by different mythological stop gaps, a sense of purpose, hope, social cohesion and destiny is present in opposing communities; that’s why religious wars can be so polarized, fanatical and vicious.

As for myself I was never brought up believing in Santa: my parents always made it clear to me there was no such figure and that it was only a fun game. My mother is a believer and my father would liked to have been a believer but he could never raise the faith. Hence on count one I never faced the disappointment of discovering Santa to be a comfortable lie that readily served as an analogous model that could be ported to religion. On count two I never had to face the social pressures of a community with a self supporting belief. So for me the choice of atheism or theism was always a choice, always a matter of investigation, exploration, seeking, pilgrimage and a quest to find the primary explanatory object that sources the cosmos.

I have come across Christians who were once true atheists and who have become as convinced of their Christianity as they once were of their atheism. These are the sort of people who don’t do things by halves and champion their latest cause with almost sanguinary zeal. It is surely significant that the ex-atheists I have met interpret positive affirmation and strong conviction as a sign of integrity and may criticize anything less as lacking in authenticity. Conversely I suspect you will find true believers who have swapped to true atheism who are as all-out for their atheism as they were for their Christianity (Jonathan Edwards?). Some Christian zealots admire the sheer conviction of the true atheists, perhaps sensing a deep kinship. As one true believer said in a comment probably directed at myself: “Our atheist friends … show more conviction than most believers, what has happened?”

It is one of my many pet theories that at the opposite ends of the belief spectrum many atheists and believers have telling commonalities in their mindsets: the ontology of some versions of atheism looks suspiciously like an inverted version of Gnosticism; the Gnostic believes salvation comes when sublime particles of spirit are freed from the corruptions of profane matter. For the atheist it’s the other way round: secular salvation comes when reactionary and residual superstitions about the supernatural haunting the interstices of matter are exorcised with profane reason. Both parties see the cosmos through an implicit dualism that divides the cosmos into configurations of insentient gritty matter pervaded by a mystical ‘supernatural’ spiritual world. Whilst the atheist by definition declares the epistemological intractability of the latter to be tantamount to nonexistence, he may yet retain the dualist’s notion of a gritty insentient matter.

Dualism’s sharp distinction between the two categories of materialism and spiritualism cries out for the latter’s immaterial existence to be challenged. But although the single category of a one-substance ontology is elegant it too provides no guarantee against epistemological intractability. Conventional science currently creates its explanatory structures from two classes of object: 1. Mathematical laws of relative algorithmic simplicity (This covers chaos as well as the non-chaotic) or 2. Configurations of high disorder that admit statistical description. Both of these objects are mathematically tractable from a human point of view*. However, in the infinite region between the high order of elementary algorithms and the monotonous complexity of maximum disorder there are undoubtedly mathematical objects of unspeakable complexity and size that are well beyond the capability of the human mind to handle. It’s no surprise then that we are not using them as explanatory structures. If such exotic objects should be the deeper explanation for the cosmos their mathematical intractability would also imply an epistemological intractability. However, some people might advise us that as there are probably no such objects, we should stop worrying about it and have a happy Christmas. Disbelief, as well as belief, is also a way of protecting the innocent.

* Footnote.
At one level high disorder actually betrays the existence of epistemic intractability: hence the use of probability.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Probably the Worst Poster Campaign in the World

As I have already suggested the atheist Bus ad campaign has somewhat played into the hands of the Christian community. The December edition of Christianity magazine reports on the clash between a committed life and self affirming philosophy and the inevitable non-committal nihilism of atheism as follows:

Christian Thinktank Theos made a £50 donation to the campaign. Paul Wooley, director of Theos said “We donated the money because the campaign is a brilliant way to get people thinking about God. The poster is very weak – where does ‘probably’ come from? (Editor: I told you they would probably laugh at ‘probably’!). Richard Dawkins doesn’t ‘probably’ believe there is no God. And telling people to stop worrying is hardly going to comfort those who are concerned about losing jobs or homes in the recession, but the posters will still prompt people to think about life’s big questions. Campaigns like this demonstrate how active atheists are often great adverts for Christianity.

Rev Jenny Ellis, spirituality and discipleship officer said “We are grateful to Richard for his continued interest in God and for encouraging people to think about these issues. This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life”.

Like the probabilistic agitations of quantum mechanics which abhor utter emptiness, the restless human psyche probably cannot unthink the God concept and therefore God, if he probably doesn’t exist, is conspicuous by His apparent probable absence. The true atheists are those who are utterly unconscious of the putatively probable absence of God, as perhaps animals are. Likewise we aren’t aware of the blind spots in our eyes because there are simply no neurons in those spots to complain about the absence of input and therefore there is no consciousness of the retinal hole. Christians will therefore welcome a group of people who are so conscious of the cosmic sized “God shaped hole” that they shout loudly about its probableness from the sides of buses traveling around London! No wonder Christians are not merely probably financing the project but have actually put some money in! Hahahahahaha!

My advice to all good atheists is: get religion and then you can really get in there and start exposing the irrationalities of religion from the inside. Christianity and religion in general, is a self-affirming crowd phenomenon where belief, commitment and vibrancy are their own evidences. Atheism by definition cannot attempt to emulate this. As the Christians of old said “We can out think you, we can out live you and we can out die you!” The atheists probably can't do that!