Category Archives: Science

Are You Afraid of the Singularity?

I was amazed to read this week that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Tesla inventor Elon Musk are all afraid that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to the human race. Musk’s warning was the most colorful:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Bill Gates chimes in:

I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

They are worried that artificial intelligence (AI) will advance until AI machines are able to improve their own designs, and build even smarter, more-capable machines, which will be smart enough to build even better ones, and so on. Although biological evolution has taken billions of years to produce humans, the AI stage of evolution will happen very, very quickly.

When AI has transformed our culture so much that present-day people would not recognize it, we will have passed the Singularity.

Pessimists think the Singularity will be as portrayed in the movie I, Robot or even The Matrix, in which humans are nothing more than power sources for their machine overlords.

Hollywood, Hawking, Gates and Musk notwithstanding, I am not afraid of the Singularity. I look forward to it.

Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book on the subject, The Singularity Is Near, is subtitled When Humans Transcend Biology. In his analysis, humans will not be replaced by AI so much as merge with it. At first, the non-biological portion of our intelligence might consist of a specialized module or two. Think of what you could do right now if you only had Wikipedia and a few other reference sources wired directly into your brain. At a minimum, you could win Jeopardy! and make a lot of money to fund your next project.

With our augmented intelligence, we will be able to design even more improvements. Progress will be exponential. Before the midpoint of this century, according to Kurzweil, the biological portion of our intelligence will be insignificant compared to our augmentations.

What we now call artificial life will not exterminate us. It will become a major part of us.

Now I ask, “Why is that so bad?” Why should we cling to the form of existence that has given us global warming along, the science-deniers to make sure it continues, the Islamic State, violence against LGBT people, lynching of African Americans, World Wars II and I, the subjugation of women, a Civil War fought in part to defend the institution of slavery, the burning of heretics in the name of the Prince of Peace, and other instances of insanity stretching as far back as history can see?

Even if a super-smart AI were to have no goal beyond its own survival, could it possibly do any worse?

Beyond that, isn’t there something aesthetically satisfying in letting intelligence bloom? We think we are the bloom, but maybe we’re just the seed.

Ray Kurzweil projects that intelligence will ultimately permeate the universe. Which would be smarter: to embrace that destiny, or to obstruct it? Which would bring more beauty to the cosmos?

The Comforts of the Multiverse

I’ve  been reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. What a wonderful book! This is my third or fourth time through it and I find something new to appreciate each time.

In all likelihood, there are not only multiple universes, but an infinite number of them. This is what most versions of eternal inflation entail. The evidence for inflation grows stronger every year, and eternal inflation is the most likely variety of it.

Greene’s book explores half a dozen versions of the multiverse (multiple, or parallel, universes), and most of them are not mutually exclusive. There could be several flavors of parallelism at work simultaneously.

One likely aspect of the multiverse is what Greene calls the Swiss cheese model, in which our universe is like one of the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. The block has always existed, and has always been infinite in extent. (To those who ask, “Where did it come from?” I would reply, “Why should nothing be the default state? If there were nothing, we would be asking, ‘Who took everything away?’ …except we would not be here to ask that.”) The block expands due to processes that I only started to understand on this reading of the book and which I won’t attempt to explain here. In fact, it has always been expanding (but has always been infinite — infinity is a strange thing). Once in a while, a quantum fluctuation causes a “bubble” to form, one of which is our universe. These bubbles are carried away from each other in the expanding block, keeping them as isolated and distinct universes.

Because this has been happening forever, the number of bubble universes is already infinite. An infinite number are yet to come.

This post is not about how all that might work. For now, I only want to dwell on why I find this idea of infinite universes so comforting.

To appreciate it, you first must grasp just what infinity entails. Think of repeating an experiment an infinite number of times. If your experiment is to roll a pair of dice, then every possible outcome would happen at least once. In fact, it would happen an infinite number of times. Double-sixes? An infinite number of them. That’s amazing, but we’re just getting started.

Suppose your experiment is to thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards. Any outcome you can think of will be represented, including the outcome of the deck sorted just as it was when the box was opened: all the spades, followed by all the diamonds, clubs and hearts, and sorted by rank within suit. In fact, that will happen an infinite number of times. It’s harder to believe than getting an infinite number of double-sixes, but it’s true for exactly the same reason. Infinity is really big!

It’s so big that if instead of dice or cards, you were to play with a finite number of atoms arranged in a finite space, then every physically possible arrangement would be among the outcomes of the experiment. What is our universe, but a finite number of atoms in a finite space? Yes, if there are infinitely many universes, then others exactly identical to ours appear an infinite number of times (assuming, Greene hastens to add, that there’s nothing special about ours, and there is no reason to think there is).

Not only that, but there are others identical to ours except for that one detail of ours that bothers you the most.

That is the first comfort: If things have gone badly here, there’s a universe where they went well. An infinite number of them, in fact.

Of course, there’s also a place where they went much, much worse, so in case you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person let’s turn to the second comfort.

The nice thing about eternal inflation is that it will go on without us. Not only that, but when our universe has finally turned cold and dark, other universes will just be getting started, while in others the first life-forms will be starting to stir, just beginning their billion-year climb up the evolutionary ladder first to sentience, then to full awareness of their world, and finally to awestruck wonder at the universe they inhabit.

Why is this a comfort? Sometimes I feel responsible for so much. I have a family that is undergoing a lot of stress at the moment, a job in which I’m behind schedule, a book I’m writing, and even a musical instrument I have neglected for several months. I take my responsibilities seriously, but it’s nice to know that regardless of how well or poorly I do, the multiverse will go on without me.

It does not all depend on me or on you, even though sometimes it feels that way.

Look to the sky on the darkest, starriest night. Think about everything you see repeated in every possible variation, an infinite number of times. Think about the entire history of this universe, again repeated with infinite variations, more beautiful than the simultaneous play of a million kaleidoscopes. To think that all that beauty will continue to multiply with or without you … doesn’t that lighten the load?

Lessons in Humility

Our forebears thought the sky was a solid dome above the Earth, in which the stars were embedded.

By the second century AD, we had realized that the planets were out in space, but we still thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

In 1543, Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, arguing that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. This offended our self-image so much that when Galileo supported the idea, we imprisoned him.

The Copernican view was finally accepted, but we still thought we were exceptional because the laws of physics were different on Earth than in the heavens. Isaac Newton changed all that. In 1687, he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, proving that a single Law of Gravity could explain movements in both heaven and Earth.

A century after Netwon, thanks to the tireless work of William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, it became known that our solar system is embedded in a gigantic galaxy, the Milky Way. When Friedrich Bessel measured the distance to a nearby star as 11.4 light-years, people were agog.

In 1920, we learned that, not only were we not at the center of the solar system, but our solar system was not at the center of our galaxy. Later in that decade, we would learn that our galaxy was but one among many.

Close on the heels of that discovery, Edwin Hubble proved that the universe is expanding. We were becoming a smaller part of the whole all the time. And at an accelerating rate: at the close of the century, we realized that the universe is flying apart faster and faster.

Working the expansion backward, Alexander Friedmann had suggested, in 1922, that the universe could have been born in what we now call the Big Bang. Even Einstein initially called the idea “suspicious” but by mid-century, it had begun to take hold. Apparently we are even less than the dust of the Earth: we are detritus from a random quantum fluctuation.

In 1600, Giodano Bruno got himself burned at the stake for, among other heresies, suggesting that the stars were suns much like ours, with inhabited planets. It was not until the time of America’s Civil War that conclusive proof was found that he was right about the suns, and not until after the first Gulf War that he was right about the planets.

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that our world was almost certainly the only inhabited one in the universe. The scientific consensus now seems to be that life on other worlds is inevitable.

I was also taught humans were the only animals who could reason or use tools. I just finished a book about an African Grey parrot who could hold an intelligent conversation, in English, infused with a mischievous sense of humor. Many species have been observed not only to use but to make tools.

Our self-concept has come a long way from being the apex of creation, in a domed terrarium made especially for us to inhabit, only a few thousand years ago. We now know we are specs on a pale blue dot that orbits a larger, white dot that occupies a not-so-special place two thirds of the way down one of the spiral arms of a galaxy that has, at its center, a supermassive black hole.


rsz_black-hole-milky-way

Coming toward us at 110 kilometers per second is the Andromeda galaxy — three times as large at the Milky Way and with its own supermassive black hole. Fortunately, space is so vast that it will be 4 billion years before the galaxies collide. Our best guess is that when they do, the Earth will first be pulled toward the dual black holes and then ejected to intergalactic space.

But nobody will be here to witness Earth’s ignominious end. Three billion years earlier (only a billion from now) the radiation from the Sun will have grown so intense that it will have extinguished the last spark of life on our planet.

Life was born here 3.5 billion years ago, and has less than 1 billion to go. Now that we are well past middle age, perhaps it is time to reflect on our accomplishments.

If we can be proud of anything, it is this: that we have discovered the vastness of space and time in the universe, and our correspondingly humble position in it. After centuries of fighting against our change in circumstance, we may also be proud of having exchanged our offense for awe.

Why the Big Bang Does Not Imply a Creator

If nobody is around and there’s a Big Bang, does that mean Someone clapped?

Where I come from most people would say yes. As Robert Jastrow famously put it:

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe? And science cannot answer these questions…

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

I’ve been reading Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Law of the Cosmos. What a talent that man has for explaining things!

He points out that even in light of the Big Bang, it’s quite possible that the universe is both infinite and eternal. “But wait!” you say. “The Big Bang means there was a beginning, doesn’t it? And how can the universe start from a point and become infinite after only 13.7 billion years?”

While the Big Bang may have been the beginning of our universe, it could have been just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs in an eternal multiverse. The multiverse may be infinitely large and infinitely old.

There was a time when I thought the multiverse was just a wishful invention of scientists who were looking for any scenario that did not require a Creator God. However, as both Brian Greene’s book and Lawrence Kraus’s book, A Universe from Nothing, explain, multiverse scenarios are a natural consequence of the known laws of quantum physics.

Nor are these untestable speculations. You may have heard in the news recently that one key component of most multiverse models, known as cosmic inflation, has received stunning empirical support.

I like this continuation to Jastrow’s story from the Skeptic’s Play blog:

After staying a while to share some stories with the theologians, the scientist begins to explore the surrounding area. Soon he realizes that the mountain goes much higher, but the path is poorly marked and obscured in fog. He points it out to the theologians, but they cannot see the markings.

“How did you get this far?”

“God guided us here.”

“Can God guide you further?”

They cannot agree amongst themselves. Some declare they are already at the peak. Others speculate that there is no peak, and thus no reason to continue. Still others say, “Yes, God will guide us,” and begin to wander in the direction pointed out by the scientist, to become forever obscured in the mist.

The scientist prepares to leave, bringing only a few theologians with him. He slowly continues to scale the mountain, meticulously checking every rock, and occasionally backtracking for days at a time.

Those would not be the last theologians he would pass by.

Have We Flown Evolution’s Perch?

The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.

As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.

Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”

The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?

Yes and no.

Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.

Are we utterly stuck, then?

If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.

Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.

A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)

Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!

Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.

I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.

 

The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip to the American Southwest to attend a Quaker retreat. (These were the same long-suffering grandparents who took me to the eclipse that I missed while standing right under it.) I remember them asking what I thought of medical missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to relieving the suffering of the poor.  A particularly obnoxious evangelical at the time, I answered that any missionary who merely did “good works” but did not concern himself with the saving of souls was wasting his time.

To me, good works did not even count unless performed in the context of glorifying God or leading people to him.

And then there’s the matter of motive. I recall learning at the summer camp where I became a Christian that even our good works are actually selfish, for our motive is to make ourselves feel good.

As the Bible says, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

My earlier views embarrass me now, but at least I got one thing right: moral truths really do exist. I remain convinced of this even though I have cut the line to the Christian faith that was once my anchor. Why do I still believe in right and wrong? If morality is not grounded in glorifying God, how can it objectively exist?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine two lives: a Bad one endured by a refugee of guerrilla war in Africa whose husband and children have been hacked to death by machetes; and a Good one enjoyed in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and excellent health.

Surely, he argues, someone who seeks to move as many people as possible from the Bad Life to the Good is on a better moral track than someone who seeks to immiserate all and sundry. And since what makes a life Good or Bad is nothing more nor less than the brain state of the person living it, and brain state is a physical fact about the world, we can see that morality is ultimately anchored in hard facts. Moral facts are exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.

There are many possible objections to this argument, and I’ll consider some in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll illustrate with what Dr. Harris would say to a hard-core evangelical like my former self.

A theist, he says, merely expands the notion of brain-state to include God’s brain. Thus, moral realism continues to be grounded on the brain-states of conscious beings.

One can do similar jiu jitsu to accommodate an afterlife: simply expand the time-span for measuring brain state.

Having subscribed to both secular and religious morality at different times in my life, I confess that I find Dr. Harris’s attempts to reconcile them to be slightly artificial. Although including God’s brain-state and an eternal time-frame in one’s considerations may reconcile the approaches in theory, the theist’s tools for learning about the unseen are so different from the ways we learn about each other here on Earth, that they feel like completely different systems in practice.

Maybe that will be a good place to begin the next post: contrasting faith-based morality with morality based on elevating the well-being of conscious, mortal creatures.

In the meantime, how about you? Do you believe that moral facts are just as real as physical ones? Do you buy Sam Harris’s argument that they are related?

The Moral Landscape

The Moral LandscapeI almost didn’t read Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, because I could not imagine it had anything worthwhile to say.

The book gets its title from the idea that various moral viewpoints are like different locations on a landscape. Moral systems that are associated with greater well-being are the higher elevations; those that bring misery are the valleys. For example, the moral system that characterizes a typical, first-world democracy, while not perfect, is certainly at a higher elevation than the brand of morality to which the Taliban would subjugate us all. Our job, says Harris, is to get to the highest ground possible.

I’ve always been skeptical of utilitarianism — the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” First of all, how do you establish what is “good”? And even if you can measure the good that someone experiences, how do you combine those measurements across several billion people to produce a meaningful statistic that lets you make a moral decision? And let’s not even talk about the conundrums exposed by trolley problems! Before reading his book, I thought Dr. Harris’s idea had to be just another cul-de-sac in the utilitarian suburb.

My own view, which I outlined last fall, is that humanity’s competing moral systems are nothing more than memes, but, happily, the memes that cause their adherents to flourish will eventually dominate.

It turns out that Dr. Harris’s ideas are compatible with that view, but he strengthens it with a dose of moral realism. I would summarize his argument thus:

  1. Moral values must ultimately be about the well-being of conscious organisms (including God, if you will). If there were a value that had absolutely no impact on anyone’s consciousness, we would by definition have no reason to value it.
  2. One’s well-being is embodied in one’s brain state.
  3. We have thus made a link between morality and physical fact.
  4. Physical facts are the domain of science.
  5. Science can therefore help us find moral truths.

As Dr. Harris puts it, “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (Just to be clear, Dr. Harris, a neuroscientist, is not saying that we should seek answers to all moral questions by attaching electrodes to people’s scalps.)

In the next several posts, I’ll relate some points that were most thought-provoking for me such as…

  • The Bad Life versus the Good Life.
  • The disastrous consequences of separating facts and values, as practiced by the Left.
  • Ditto, when done by the Right.
  • An analogy between moral health and physical health.
  • How much respect should we give other views?
  • Have we flown the perch built by evolution?
  • How does an afterlife figure in all this?
  • Can suffering be good?
  • What about religion?
  • Hume’s is/ought distinction.
  • How a barbarous act by one person  becomes respected if it is a cultural practice.
  • Might there be more than one answer?
  • The strange case of the Dobu Islanders.
  • If we were to concern ourselves with maximizing well-being rather than with right and wrong, what would we lose?
  • The most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

There’s actually a lot more, but that’s all I’ll promise for now. Stay tuned!