Think about this:
Science—empirical study of the world—only exists because thought experiments aren’t good enough. Yet.
Philosophers used to figure out how stuff worked just by thinking about it. They would take stuff they knew about how the world worked, and purely by applying intuition, logic and math to it, figure out new stuff. No new observations were needed; with thought alone, new discoveries could be created out of the raw material of old discoveries. Einstein developed a lot of his theories using thought experiments. He imagined gliding clocks to derive special relativity and accelerating elevators to derive general relativity. With thought alone, he figured out many of the fundamental rules of the universe, which were only later verified with observation.
That last step is always needed, because even the greatest human intelligence can’t account for all variables. Einstein’s intuition could not extend to tiny things, so his thought experiments alone could not predict the quantum weirdness that arose from careful observation of the small. Furthermore, human mental capacity is limited. Short-term memory can’t combine all relevant information at once, and even with Google, no human is capable of accessing all relevant pieces of information in long-term memory at the right times.
But what happens when we go beyond human intelligence?
New York as painted by an artificial intelligence
If we can figure out true artificial intelligence, the limitations above could disappear. There is no reason that we can’t give rise to machines with greater-than-human memory and processing power, and we already have the Internet as a repository of most current knowledge. Like the old philosophers on NZT, AI could take the raw material of stuff we currently know and turn it into new discoveries without any empirical observation.
Taken to a distant but plausible extreme, an advanced AI could perfectly simulate a portion of the world and perform a million thought experiments within it, without ever touching or observing the physical world.
We would never need science as we know it again if there were perfect thought experiments. We wouldn’t need to take the time and money required to mess with reality if new discoveries about reality could be derived just by asking Siri.
It solves ethical issues. There are a lot of potentially world-saving scientific discoveries held back by the fact that science requires messing with people’s real lives. AI could just whip up a virtual life to thought-experiment on. Problem solved.
Of course, AI brings up new ethical problems. Is a fully functioning simulated life any less real than a physical one? Should such a simulation be as fleeting as a thought?
As technology advances, there will be a lot to think about.
Tolerance, Conflict, and Nonflict
A lot of conflict can be explained in terms of differing tolerance levels. A disagreement may simply be a matter of one person hitting their limit before another.
An example will help: let’s say a couple is fighting because he feels like he always has to clean up her mess around the house. It would be easy to label her as a slob and/or him as a clean freak, but maybe they just have different levels of tolerance for messes.
Let’s say he can tolerate four dirty dishes before cleaning up, while she can tolerate five. They agree on most things: too many dirty dishes are bad, cleaning up after one dish is a waste of time, etc. They have no fundamental disagreement. Yet, that one-dish difference will result in him cleaning up every time, simply because his four-dish limit gets hit first. That can lead to other conflicts, such as unequal division of labour, questioning compatibility, failure to communicate, etc. All because of one very small difference in tolerance.
How does this help us resolve conflict? On one hand, it can help foster understanding of different points of view. Many conflicts are not between people on different sides of a line, but rather different distances from the same side of the line. It’s worth noting that most people don’t choose their limits; they are born with them, or they had them instilled early on, or they believe they are rational. Sometimes the resolution to a conflict can be as easy as “ok, your limit is here, my limit is here, and that’s okay.”
On the other hand, living with other humans often necessitates adjusting our tolerance levels. Things run smoother if our limits are close. In the example above, if she dropped her tolerance to four dishes 50% of the time, each of them clean up half the time, and they live happily ever after. Sometimes it’ll have to go the other way too: if he’s not too ragey with disgust after four dishes, he could wait until five, then she hits her limit and naturally cleans up. Either way, hooray for compromise.
This may be a subtle point, but I think it’s a good one: many disagreements are not disagreements at all. It’s not that one person is wrong and the other is right. They’re just feeling different things based on how close they are to their limit. That is much easier to deal with than genuine conflict, especially if it’s recognized as the non-conflict (nonflict) it is.
Light and Dark in Daily Deals
Dealfind.com, one of those daily deal Groupon clones that everyone got sick of, often posts questionable deals. Some are only useless or frivilous (oh hi Justin Bieber tooth brush), but others are actively deceptive.
One such deal was for a “Crystal Bala Bracelet With Magnetic Hematite Beads.” While careful to avoid specific health claims, they do claim that “in Buddhism, the pañca bala, or Five Strengths are critical to the achievement of enlightenment. Now you can keep them close to you every day with the Bala Bracelet.”
How does a mere bracelet help you achieve enlightenment? Well:
“Crystals catch and refract the light every time you move [and] six beads of magnetic hematite polarize the effect of light and dark”
Sciencey yet spiritual! It must work. It’s not quite the magnetic bracelets you see at summer festivals that claim to cure cancer, but still, manipulative and deceptive.
Luckily Dealifind has a forum to clear up any misconceptions about the products, so I dug a little deeper. Here’s my conversation:
Can you provide a link to the peer reviewed scientific articles supporting the claim “six beads of magnetic hematite polarize the effect of light and dark”? I’m sure they just got left off by accident. Thanks!
Amy (Dealfind Admin)
Thanks for your inquiry.
Our deal page states:
“In Buddhism, the pañca bala, or Five Strengths are critical to the achievement of enlightenment. Now you can keep them close to you every day with the Bala Bracelet. Each of the crystal-encrusted balls represents one of the bala: Faith, Energy, Mindfulness, Concentration and Wisdom. Six beads of smooth magnetic hematite provide the perfectly polarized color choice to offset the crystals.”
For more of a scientific background, please contact Widget Love at 1.800.990.6771.
I have to call them just to have any idea about whether or not the bracelet does what it says it does? 😦
Can you at least explain what “polarize the effect of light and dark” and “polarized color” even mean?
I want to know more about what I’m getting into before buying into this sca–…er…product. I’m afraid polarizing my dark could have serious medical effects.
The above post was deleted shortly after posting it. Later:
Oh fiddlesticks, I think my follow-up post failed to go through so I’ll post my question again:
Can you at least explain what “polarize the effect of light and dark” and “polarized color” mean?
Mesha (Dealfind Admin)
Thank you for your post.
In this sense polarized means that although the colours range from one extreme to another (both dark and light) they compliment each other and the crystals.
For more of a scientific background, please contact Widget Love at 1.800.990.6771.
I hope this helps! 🙂
Ah, so it’s saying “there are black rocks and white rocks but they are both rocks.”
Thanks! That clears up everything! I’ll take 50!
That post was deleted too.
Yeah, I’m kind of just being a dick. But trying to sell people bullshit (bullshit capitalizing on the perfectly respectable religion of Buddhism) is also pretty dickish. So screw Dealfind and the dickshit company they promote. It’s just a cheap bracelet, but every penny milked from gullible people through lies is a penny too much.
I recently finished reading Sam Harris’s short essay on the topic of lying, which is called, no lie, Lying. In it, he explores the rationality of communicating things that are not true, and comes to the conclusion that it is wrong to lie.
Yeah. Obviously. But Harris goes further than what many people mean when they say “it’s wrong to lie,” arguing that even seemingly justified forms of lying, like little white lies, lying to protect someone, and false encouragement, are all wrong in their own way.
He’s convincing, for the most part. Take false encouragement; the lies we tell without a second thought, like “yeah, I love your blog, you are such a good writer.” It seems harmless, and it would be awkward to say otherwise to someone, but Harris makes a good point: “False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose.”
I’ve always been a big believer that the truth is the fastest route to success, both on a societal level (hence my interest in science) and on a personal level. It would be easy to get carried away with this, becoming one of those people who spouts his opinion whether asked for it or not, and is rarely invited to the next party. However, I think it is possible to tactfully express the truth whenever asked to.
I appreciate blunt people. Others may not, but even they can be served well by the right kind of bluntness. If I tell you that yes, you actually do look like a giant turd in that brown dress (like really, brown dress? What were you thinking?), it might hurt at first, but when you show up to the party in a different dress and get genuine compliments rather than awkward false encouragement, you’re better off in the long run.
Harris also makes the point that lying is not only harmful to the people being lied to, but taxing for the liar. Keeping up a lie takes a lot of mental effort, since the lie was fabricated in the liar’s mind. Every time the lie comes up, the liar has to check against his memory of previous lies, who knows what, how the lie affects everything else; he essentially has to store a new version of reality entirely in his head, often fabricated in real-time. When the truth comes up, though, it’s easy to keep track of; the truth-teller only has to keep track of one version of reality. The real one.
Many of these examples assume the people involved are regular, sane people, who ultimately just want to get along. Where Harris starts to lose me is when discussing situations where this arrangement breaks down. He discusses a hypothetical situation of a murderer showing up at your door looking for a little boy who you are sheltering. Should you tell the murderer the truth? Harris argues that lying could have unintended harmful consequences; the murderer might go to the next house and murder someone else, or at best, it just shifts the burden of dealing with the murderer to someone else. Instead, a truth like “I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew,” coupled with a threat, could mollify the situation without a lie.
I’d argue that, when facing someone for whom cooperation and rationality have obviously broken down (e.g., a kid murderer), sometimes there are known consequences of lying (e.g., saving a kid’s life) that are almost certainly less harmful than far-fetched unknown consequences. Harris later makes this same point on a larger scale, when justifying lying in the context of war and espionage, saying the usual rules of cooperation no longer apply. I think blowing up a city with a bomb and stabbing a kid with a knife are both situations where cooperation has broken down, and both situations where lying can be a tool used in good conscience.
There are no absolute moral principles that work in all situations. Life is too complicated for that. Trying to summarize it in simple prescriptive rules (as many religions have) doesn’t work. So, the rule “lying is always wrong” can’t work. There are extreme situations where the rule breaks down.
Luckily, most people will never encounter such an extreme situation in their daily lives. This is where Harris’s main point is spot on: we should lie a lot less than we do. If everyone told the truth in every normal situation, relationships would be stronger, and people would be happier and more productive. I’ve certainly been more aware of my honesty since reading the book, so it’s fair to say it literally changed my life. That’s certainly worth the $2.00 it costs (buy it here). No word of a lie.
I think it’s hilarious to imagine evolution’s failures.
Think of how our digestive systems are able to function no matter which way we’re sitting or lying, carrying food to the right place in a peristaltic wave, even if it’s going against gravity. Think of the pre-human who didn’t get that gene. He’s all like, “check out this handstand!”, then as soon as he’s upside-down, all the wooly mammoth he ate earlier is pouring out of his face. He suffocates, dying before he ever had a chance to procreate, and his shitty genes never get passed on. Hilarious.
Thing is, one day that guy will be us.
Evolution is not only biological, but technological. We already pity the people of the past—most of human history—who didn’t expect to live past the age of thirty. Technology has doubled our lifespan just by tuning up our default biological hardware from the outside. Think of what we can do once technology moves inside.
It’s a near certainty that we will merge with technology. We already rely on it, and there’s gotta be a better way of interacting with it than through our fingers. When our brains and bodies are made more of bits and bytes than nerves and leukocytes, the people of today will be the pre-humans.
Looking back, we’ll think that our squishy biological way of doing things was hilarious. “That’s right son,” we’ll say, to our sons. “We had computers we plugged into walls, but our own method of recharging was—hah, it’s so gross, but get this—we mashed up other living things with our teeth then let them slide down our throat. There were actually people who couldn’t find things to eat, and they died. Forever! They didn’t even have a backup.”
And our sons, they probably won’t even understand how (or why) we managed to get through the day.
Evolution makes failures of us all.
The Myth of the Evil Genius
The evil genius only exists in fiction.
An evil genius cannot exist in reality, because in reality, intelligence and evil are incompatible. A genius acts rationally, and history constantly proves that it is rational to be good.
Genius and evil are two terms that are nearly impossible to define, but most people know it when they see it. Adolf Hitler was evil. Osama Bin Laden was probably evil. Albert Einstein was a genius. Bill Gates is probably one too.
It’s not that evil doesn’t pay; genius and evil both pay, in some sense. Bill and Osama both have mansions, and could probably afford the most expensive bacon at the grocery store (though I guess Osama would pass). The difference is that Bill is living a comfortable life that leaves a trail of advancements and improved lives. Osama is at the bottom of the ocean riddled with bullets, and has left a trail of destruction and ruined lives.
Osama and Adolf did gain power, but was it through genius? I doubt it. They excelled in some areas—charisma, mostly, and probably a good helping of being in the right place at the right time—but I doubt they were geniuses. Not in the sense meant here: extreme mental ability for coming to correct conclusions.
On both an individual and a societal level, it is rational to be good. More often than not, the correct choice between a good option and an evil option is the good option, all things considered. Murdering a person you can’t stand may be easier than altering your own life to get away from him (say, packing up and moving away), but on an individual level, murder will probably put you in jail or dead yourself, and on a societal level, allowing people to murder willy-nilly wouldn’t be conducive to happiness and productivity.
That’s why the evil genius doesn’t exist. Even if the impulse to do evil was there, a true genius would take a moment, and think “hmm, considering all the consequences, maybe genocide isn’t such a spiffy idea.” If The Joker was really so smart, he’d figure out a way to resolve his Batman problem without blowing up innocent people and getting thrown in Arkham again and again.
Evil cannot result from the cool calculated machinations of a genius. In real life, evil is in the hot passion of an argument when a knife is nearby. It’s in the subtle biases of a politician whose values are misguided. And in that sense, evil is in all of us; luckily we also have an inner genius to play superhero.
On Ann Coulter, Tolerance, and the Subjectivity of Morality
Ann Coulter, the conservative political commentator from the U.S., recently made a visit to Canada. First she visited my fine school, UWO, to talk then avoid questions and make a few racial slurs. Then she tried to talk at Ottawa, but backed down when she discovered a shocking truth: people here don’t really like her.
Everyone is talking about this. A lot of the discussion goes like this:
- I support free speech.
- I support free speech but I do not want you to speak.
- I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak.
- I support free speech but I do not want you to speak about me not wanting to speak about you not wanting to speak.
Etc., forever. But such discussion isn’t really productive. I think we need to get more meta, and look at some higher-level questions that Coulter’s visit brings up:
1. Is indiscriminate tolerance a good thing?
2. If not, what should be tolerated, and what shouldn’t be?
3. Once we figure that out, what should we do with people we don’t tolerate?
These may seem like matters of opinion, or moral questions without any objective answers. For example, while most people, when pressed, would agree that the answer to #1 is “no,” they can agree to disagree on #2. Some think homosexuality is wrong, others think worshiping a false god is wrong, and that’s just their opinion. Same with #3; acting on those opinions, is it better to stage a peaceful protest, or “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”1? Some argue that’s a moral question with no precise answer.
I don’t buy that.
Some actions are objectively right and other things are objectively wrong, and it doesn’t take an omnipotent being writing rules on stone tablets for that to be true. When we disagree on which of two actions is best for humanity, one or both of us is wrong. An individual person is extremely unlikely to have all the answers, whether she is a priest or a physicist, but we should never deny that there are answers. And I believe that with enough time, science, and careful critical thought, many of these answers will be revealed to us.
In a recent TED talk, Sam Harris expresses a similar viewpoint (it’s well worth clicking and spending 20 minutes to watch this talk if you’re at all interesting in this stuff).
From the talk:
Now, it’s often said that science can not give us a foundation for morality and human values because science deals with facts. And facts and values seem to belong to different spheres. It’s often thought that there is no description of the way the world is that can tell us how the world ought to be. But I think this is quite clearly untrue. Values are a certain kind of fact. They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.
The only wrinkle is defining morality to begin with, but I think the one Harris provides—maximizing the well being of conscious creatures—is one that most people (and if they could be asked, animals) would agree on. And the point is that for any definition of morality, there is an objective answer to moral questions.
So what about Ann Coulter? Well, I believe that free speech is objectively good. History has proven that the open flow of information from all sources maximizes human well being. I fully support her right to speak, and while you won’t find me out there protesting, I fully support their right to protest as well. But much of the content of her speech is objectively false. For example, should we invade countries and convert them to Christianity? No. The objective truth value of her Christian beliefs is questionable, plus the very act of violently converting people to any belief system is repugnant.
I am open to being proven wrong about my moral stance. However, while it’s nice to see people using Coulter as a staring point for discussing moral questions (even writing blog posts about it), part of me thinks her ideas are so comically evil that it would be better to just ignore her. After all, what’s worse: being scared off a campus by a group of peaceful protesters, or arriving without fanfare to an empty room, then leaving without selling a single book?
Regardless of whether it’s inspired by Coulter or not, we do need to keep questioning and requestioning our morals, because it is possible to find answers.
P.S. This is kinda off topic, but another thing I have a problem with is making fun of Coulter’s physical appearance. Yeah she’s a celebrity and thus opens herself up to it to some extent. However, pointing out her adam’s apple because you disagree with her political stance is coming from the same base, ugly, immature side of human nature that her crass racial quips come from. Don’t stoop to her level.
P.P.S. Try putting anncoulter.ca into your web browser.
Book Review: Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
I’ll keep this short, because Freakonomics is a pretty simple book. It takes a look at various topics—the effect of names on success, drug dealer salaries, cheating in sumo wrestling, etc.—through the eyes of an economist.
This book is a few years old (and has a sequel out now), and it took me a while to get through it, mostly because it’s been my “sit on the bedstand and read for a few minutes before bed” book for a long time. And that’s the ideal context for it. Read a few interesting facts, go “huh, that was interesting,” then put it aside and go to sleep.
There’s some weird deifying of Levitt that just feels out of place, but aside from that, the authors do a good job of merging interesting anecdotes with potentially dry number crunching. The accuracy of the conclusions is sometimes questionable, though. While there is a section about the difference between correlation and causation, causal claims based on correlational data are still presented with more certainty than is warranted.
Much has been made about some of the more controversial topics in here, such as racism, and abortion. For example, they claim that legalizing abortion can lead to a drop in crime rates years afterwards. This may be true (or may not)—and certainly this fact should inform moral judgments about abortion—but the fact itself has no morality attached to it. Presenting such a fact is not a moral stance. Information itself is neutral; it’s what we do with it that determines morality.
Anyway, I’d recommend Freakonomics as a nice little entertaining read for anyone interested in some offbeat conclusions that have been drawn from studying economics. I wouldn’t take it any further than that.
Play TV Canada Has No Legs
As a follow-up to my post Play TV Canada is a Scam, I watched it again last night. Once again, I couldn’t turn away; it’s like a train wreck. A train wreck with the conductor begging you for money while he wades through the victims.
One such victim was brave enough to speak up last night. What sounded like an older gentlemen said, through beeped out swearing, something like “you people sure are takin’ advantage of a lot of people, and I oughta-” before he got cut off. Good for you, angry old man. You’re fighting the good fight.
Here is one of last night’s “puzzles”:
I’ll write it out:
- 4 girls are travelling on a bus
- each of them have 3 baskets
- in each basket there are 4 cats
- each cat has 3 little kittens
HOW MANY LEGS ARE IN THE BUS?
Plastered on the bumper of the picture of the bus, for some reason, it says “1 cat 4 feet.”
The host constantly emphasized that this is a simple logic puzzle. And indeed, it does seem to be a straightforward math problem. Hey, let’s figure it out!
All we need to do is figure out how many cats there are, and how many humans there are, then count their legs. Let’s do cats first. There are 4 girls, with 3 baskets each, so there are 4*3 = 12 baskets. In each basket there are 4 cats, and each of them has 3 kittens, so each basket has 4*3 = 12 cats. With 12 baskets and 12 cats in each one, there are 12*12 = 144 cats.
[Edit: whoops… Heather on Facebook pointed out that I forgot to count the 4 cats in each basket. It should be 16 cats/kittens per basket.]
How about humans? Well, the question only said there are 4 girls travelling on the bus, so 4.
Each cat has 4 legs. 144 cats times 4 legs = 576 cat legs.
Each person has 2 legs. 4 people times 2 legs = 8 human legs.
Which brings us to a grand total of 584.
Someone called in with this answer. “No, I’m sorry, that’s not it,” said the host.
What? Well, we must have missed something. Hmm, ok they’re going by bus, maybe it’s reasonable to assume that there is a driver, even though the question doesn’t say that. He or she has two more legs, so that brings the total to 586.
Someone called this in. “Nooo, sorry.”
Maybe they’re counting the “legs” of each seat, and we’re supposed to use our psychic powers to determine how many seats this fictional bus has, then get some answer larger than 586. In any case, I couldn’t stand that crap any longer, so I shut it off.
Then, in the comments to my last post about this, Kathy (who actually managed to win some money from these people, but still doesn’t recommend calling), managed to wait until the end: “Well, of course no-one got the ‘right’ answer of 222 legs.”
…what? Even if you add other ridiculous assumptions, the answer can’t be less than 586.
They don’t reveal how the answer was arrived at, so there is no way of verifying their solution. Even if there was (e.g., “lol, we meant kitten fetuses without fully developed legs”), it’s not the straightforward solution that they explicitly claim it is. PlayTV is a despicable scam. It’s not impossible to win, but the conditions of winning that they describe are completely different than the actual conditions of winning.
If you want to get involved in shutting Play TV (a.k.a. CallTV) down:
- Contact the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council with your complaints. Feel free to link back to this blog. A decision has actually already been made about an identical scam; they deemed it a violation of the Canadian broadcasting code of ethics. I am baffled as to why it is still on the air, then.
- Contact Canwest, who owns Global TV. Point out Canwest’s stated values (e.g., “Win, but win fairly, with integrity and honesty”).
- Raise awareness with your own blogging, tweeting, talking, or whatever.
P.S. Please, debate and dispute my math. I’d love to see how anyone can get 222 out of that.
UPDATE: Gavin on Facebook made the suggestion that maybe the kittens aren’t actually in the bus (i.e., the cats “have” kittens in the sense that a person can “have kids” even if they’re not present at the time).
So ignoring the kittens:
4*3*4 cats * 4 legs = 192 cat legs.
4 girls + 1 driver * 2 legs = 10 human legs.
5 seats to sit in * 4 legs = 20 chair legs.
= 222 legs.
Which is the “right” answer. I guess that almost makes sense, except none of the weird assumptions are actually in the question, and what kind of bus only has 5 seats?
That’s right, the short bus. Which is probably what whoever wrote this quiz was riding.
It’s Halloween time, so as one would expect, many ghostly happenings have been … happening.
A few nights ago I had a lovely date night with myself. I got some snacks and some wine, turned off all the lights except for a single candle, and sat down to watch a scary movie. I’d never seen The Changeling before, but it had a few rare moments of freaking the hell out of me with its simple but effective scares. It’s all the ghost story clichés done right.
Then today, at the Central Library, I went to see a talk by ghost researcher Cameron Bagg, who presented these same ghost clichés as fact. It was an interesting presentation; he told the story of how he first encountered ghosts (mysterious sounds, feeling a presence, teleporting objects, etc.), the tools he uses to hunt ghosts, some spooky anecdotes, all that. He showed some pictures of ghosts and spirit orbs. Ambiguous shadows and spheres of light.
At strange gatherings like this, I find the audience makeup and reactions as fascinating as the talk itself. This was a diverse group of people – old, young, crazy, not-crazy. Good old Roy McDonald was in attendance (he seems to be everywhere at once … like a ghost). And their reactions; well, I think this was the defining moment:
Bagg took out a television remote control. A regular remote, with an infrared transmitter on the end. He pointed it at the audience, clicked a button a few times, and said “does everyone see the flashing light?”
Many in the audience nodded. Murmurs of “ah, yes!” and “I see it!”
But there was no flashing light. His point was that cameras can see frequencies of light that are invisible to the naked eye (e.g., infrared; indeed, a flashing light could be seen when he pointed it through a camera). But there is a deeper point that inadvertently came out: when people are presented with a suggestion, they are likely to see things as consistent with that suggestion. When shown a static bulb and told it was flashing, many people in the audience, they literally thought they saw it flashing.
Similarly, when someone believes she is about to see ghost photographs, then you show her a shapeless shadow, she will see a human figure in it. Suggest that a dead woman lived in a house, and a picture of an empty room contains her face in a blob of reflected light. The noises at night aren’t the people in the next apartment bumping around, but ghostly rapping. An object appearing where it shouldn’t isn’t a lapse in memory, but a mischievous poltergeist.
I’m not saying ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts are an intense phenomenon genuinely experienced by a significant proportion of the population. These experiences can’t be explained by the speculations of armchair debunkers, and even though I wish he was more objective about it, I am glad that people like Cameron Bagg are out there actually trying to figure it out. But aside from any paranormal explanations, there is a lot of equally fascinating normal human psychology going on in the minds of those looking for ghosts.