Saturday, September 16, 2017
Recently I had the opportunity to watch southern African White-necked crows while they were watching me. I was taking afternoon tea (and eating rusks) on the patio overlooking a beautiful valley in the hills near Mbabane. Crows are smart and these are among the smartest. One sat on the roof of the next house staring at me convinced that at some point, I would grow careless and give him or her a chance to steal something, perhaps something to eat. As I was ever-vigilant, eventually they flew off over the valley, soaring and dipping in very real time. As I watched, I thought about the complex calculations that a bird must make moment-to-moment to move so quickly through three-dimensional space. They must keep track of where they are, where to go, how to get there. Knowing each requires entire subsets of information – such as (for where to go), where they saw food or last saw food or might find food while watching for anything that might require evasive action. These calculations must be solved each fraction of a second. I then thought this must be true for any animal with a brain (or nervous system). Neural systems allow the organism to move through, and react to, the environment rather than obey simple tropisms or merely be buffeted about by the external environment. The more complicated the neural system – reaching a peak of networks of networks to the 4th or 5th power (or beyond) running in our human brains – the more complex the information that can be stored and manipulated. A classical view of the human brain would start with the 500 trillion synapses of the adult brain’s hundred billion neurons. Now that is a lot of synapses. But think about how much information is stored there in language, knowledge, experience, memories and everything else that makes each individual unique and utterly complex.
I’ve speculated in this space about quantum consciousness, the production of mind from brain through “collapsing the wave functions apprehended from the perceptual flow. While watching the crows, I realized that the brain must function as a quantum computer and not as a classical system. The notion that quantum processes mix with (or form) consciousness is called “orchestrated objective reduction.” It rests on the possibility that the microtubules in nerve cells are small enough to contain quantum states. The brain accounts for just two percent of the human body’s mass but utilizes around 20% of its energy. It basically is like having a 20 watt bulb in our head shining all the time. This energy could be powering the creation and persistence of entangled states inside the microtubules of every cell. In this way, the neural organization of the brain would be the maintenance of a complex, constantly refreshed, while constantly changing, global entangled state. The collapse of the highest level of this entangled state-of-states coincides with consciousness. Inside our heads, this quantum computer has storage and calculating power well beyond what would be true if our brains functioned simply along classical physics lines. It may produce what we experience as consciousness. Or, collapse may come through the decisions that we – the “ghost” in the machine, acting as the internal observer – make in each moment as the crow flies.
Thursday, August 3, 2017
Been in Swaziland for the last month. A beautiful country and quite complex for such a small one. A traditional King and some of the oldest terrain on the planet. Sibebe Rock is a grand granite mountain some three billion years ago, the second largest pluton in the world. It dates to the first formation of continental crust.
From hiking through the hills here, some basic ancient history put together from various sources including my ancient geology studies: About 3.5 billion years ago oceanic basalt broke the surface in what is now southern Africa. Soon after, erosion, sedimentation, burial, heating and erupting began producing granite. By 3 billion years ago, enough granite had been extruded – and added with metamorphic gneiss also so produced – to form the root of a continental pluton. The Swaziland Supergroup of the Barberton Greenstone belt contains some of the oldest-known, least-metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rocks on Earth. Chert is the most abundant sedimentary rock type within the volcanic part of this mix. The oceans then were about 100oF degrees warmer than present. During this time – 3.5 to 3.3 bya – bacteria, including cyanobacteria, formed stromatolites “commonly low-relief, nearly stratiform, laterally linked domes … [and some] pseudocolumns and crinkly stratiform stromatolites … on a substrate of altered komatiitic lava [lava with high iron-nickel-copper-platinum-group content from an erupting komatiite volcano] and sediments deposited on the lava surface, and in most places … covered by later komatiitic flows. Abundant fine-grained tourmaline included within the stromatolite laminae suggests that stromatolites formed in an environment dominated by boron-rich hot-spring emissions and evaporitic brines.” Picture the hot springs of Yosemite on a larger scale and perhaps on the shore of an ocean.
Much later, apes turned into humans in the same area and the humans made some of their first tools with that chert.
Southern Africa Fossil Stromatolite
Thursday, June 15, 2017
Our two failing political parties have led America into a dead-end. The Republican Party – in control of the US federal government and many states and in the hands of ideological and religious extremists – has been captured by an immoral egotist with no capacity for governing. In pursuit of elite interests and “conservative values,” Republicans have launched an assault on everything good in how our government has come to serve the common welfare since the days of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Democrats have not been on the playing field. They threw away the 2016 election by passing the presidential nomination through a politically correct form of primogeniture. She threw it away through own goals and writing off voters in certain groups and states. Lacking any coherent vision to address the economic and social effects of globalization, the Democratic Party instead played to niche politics and now has no program beyond waiting for Trump to crash and the Republicans to burn.
Democrats do have some heart. That most clearly beats with Bernie Sanders. But there is no cohesive progressive agenda to go with that heart. Presenting voters with one could begin the process of putting the country on the right path again. A progressive agenda must begin with embracing the progressive income tax. Government needs money to serve the common good. Our tax system must be made more fair and taxes sufficient to meet needs. (The Republicans have sought to subordinate needs to cutting spending and a regressive taxing system favoring the owners of capital.) It need not be confiscatory but should treat the fruits of labor and capital equally with progressively higher tax rates on individual and corporate income no matter where it comes from and with very limited exemptions.
With adequate funding, the federal government can attend to the chief challenges facing American society in the 21st Century: healthcare, jobs, inequality and education.
Healthcare should be treated as a basic right as it is in other advanced Western societies. It need not be done through a government entity but perhaps with needs-based expansion of Medicare, a non-profit public option and/or payments to purchase insurance on open markets.
In the 21st Century, technology and globalization have conspired to reduce the need for human labor. There simply may not be enough good paying jobs for everyone. A reduction in the work week from 40 to 32 hours plus an increase in the minimum wage may help in opening job opportunities to a greater number. Federal funding to pay for some of the increase in the minimum wage could help reduce the burden on small businesses. Insofar as training will help prepare workers for new roles, government needs to fund that as well.
Inequality undercuts democratic community through making life for many nasty, brutish and short. The federal government should ensure some minimum income for those unable to work and those for whom jobs do not pay enough to rise decently above poverty.
Federal funds should support quality, free public education by focusing on providing modern facilities and adequately paid teachers and staff for all local public school systems. Federal oversight of local schools should be kept to the minimum required to ensure equal access.
Some elements of a progressive agenda need not require additional funding:
Money’s role in politics needs to be removed through campaign financing reform. A national commission on redistricting should oversee the drawing of congressional districts. Each vote should count equally.
A pathway to citizenship should be created for those now in the US “illegally.” A cross border agreement should be made with Mexico (and possibly with the Central American countries) so seasonal workers may go back and forth legally.
The role of contractors and lobbyists in the budgeting process – especially as concerns the military – should be subject to tight limitations.
Progressives need to develop such an agenda and present it to the American public over the next 18 months focusing on the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections. Waiting for the Republicans to march lemming-like over their cliff may not be enough and would still leave the country without a clear direction forward.
Friday, June 2, 2017
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology
We citizens of the United States may be divided into two groups: the elite and the non-elite. (Peggy Noonan has labeled these the “protected” and the “unprotected.”) The elite own capital and use it to earn further capital and reap profit. They do this through the control and utilization of the means of production, labor and – to an ever increasing degree – advanced technology. (The non-elite own little outright beyond their own bodies.) From the very foundation of our republic, the elite has also sought to control and use government to serve and protect its interests. The “Founding Fathers” gutted the Articles of Confederation, which were built upon the popular control of state governments. They put the federal government as far from the people as possible through an elite body to choose the president – an “electoral college” – and a “representative” congress that almost from the start tended to over-represent empty, rural areas – easily controlled by the local “gentry” and car dealers – over populous urban ones. But the most effective method of control was the ability of the political agents of the elite to convince many of the non-elite to follow them against even their own best interests. Since the early part of the 20th Century, the party of the elite has been called Republican.
The Republican Party has been the political front of the elite minority in its class war against the non-elite majority. Make no mistake, it is a class war even though there is only one side fighting it. This was clearer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when the big owners of capital set their goons and strike-breakers on early attempts to unionize workers. But the efforts to deny worker rights, limit wages, reduce or deny basic social services and health care and send other people’s children to police the cities and fight the wars are cut from the same cloth. Republican ideology – no matter how gussied up in the rhetoric of patriotism, religion, “lower taxes” and trickle down economics or hidden behind barely veiled expressions of white privilege – demands no government “interference” in the profitable deployment of capital while selling government every bill of goods it can. Fox News has become the “ministry of truth” for this ideology. Riding victories in empty “red” states and gerrymandered congressional districts, the Republicans have been able to win majorities in the Senate and House as well as elect two recent presidents despite having lost the overall popular vote. Seems you can fool enough of the people all of the time.
The non-elite has few champions, no organized party and no coherent expression of its own self-interest. The Democratic Party sometimes appears to be onside with the unprojected majority but it also serves the interests of the elite because that is where the money is and when money talks, nobody walks. Some Democrats do seek to present more egalitarian and balanced approaches to governing and they have done some good over the years, especially when there were moderate Republicans to work with. But today’s Republicans and their media allies have been successful in demonizing anyone who offers alternatives to their “conservative” ideology as injecting socialism or class-warfare into traditional, “pure” American politics. This while continuing to wage their own one-sided war to protect their privileged position.
America needs a new beginning. Not sure when that might happen. Meanwhile, we are in the hands of our still free press seeking to provide facts and truth even to those who refuse, for now, to hear. The Republican majorities in Congress have made their deal with “their” president and will use him to front their efforts to roll back even more of the government protections built up so painfully since FDR. It is still too early to know whether, in whatever time they have left, they will be able to inflict irreparable harm to our social fabric and international relationships and to the environment. The key question is whether enough of the non-elite will come to resist this class warfare through more understanding of how its own interests differ from those of the elite.
Monday, March 27, 2017
Somewhere in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas is the suggestion that when one follows reason as far as it can go, that is a finger pointing to God. Over the past several years, I have been considering what the existence of consciousness, modern cosmology, quantum physics and relativity can say about the origin of consciousness, life and the universe. This has led me to some conclusions, including that consciousness may be primordial, that there may indeed be a “ghost in the machine,” and that the creation of the universe seems to have happened according to laws written into the act. My way of summing all this up has been to accept the notion that the universe is a product of conscious intent and that we all share in that same consciousness. I have come to think of the “creator” as a kind of Shakespeare who wrote a cosmic script setting the stage full of interesting processes, happenings and beings and dumped itself into it in order to experience its creation first hand. (Each “I” is part of that consciousness.) Another way to think about this might be to imagine an all-powerful being who designed the most amazing multi-level, multi-player computer game to play – to alleviate a really cosmic case of boredom? – by downloading itself into it to play every role.
As a former Catholic, however, I had trouble with the concept and notion of “God.” Cleary the God of all three religions of the Book – the Hebrew, Christian and Muslem – was too anthropomorphized. The concept of God comes with baggage I could not accept. A transcendent being like some sort of super human that loves us as a parent and deserves worship is simply a reflection of our own collective lack of psychic maturity. There is also no evidence for such a being that judges us and will hold us accountable for our actions, right and wrong. Given the fantastic and unlikely beauty of a universe that seems just right for us, there is no reason to suppose that there must be a heaven beyond it. Given our experience of the various forms of evil, historical and current, there is also no reason to suppose the need for some other hell. It seems clear to me that the universe as it exists is ungoverned by any morality beyond what we humans bring into it.
But recently, sitting in the Bishops Garden at Washington’s National Cathedral on a sunny, early spring morn, I made my peace with the word God. Listening to the gentle sound of a burbling spring and basking in the warmth of the sun, I considered the process by which the millions of photons showering down reached me. The sun’s energy comes from a myriad of fusions of two hydrogen atoms into one helium in the sun’s core. It takes thousands of years for the energy produced by each single fusion event to reach the surface of the sun. Then it takes just eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles to earth. The physical laws governing our universe are just right to allow this font of endless free energy sitting in the middle of an expanse of nothingness to bring to life our planet and all the creatures on it.
Some might say that that conditions may seem just right because else wise we wouldn’t be here. Just a happy accident out of an infinity of possible combinations that don’t work for conscious life forms. But that seems to violate Occam's Razor. Why suppose an infinite number of random fluctuations just to come up with one that has us? Much more direct to suppose that the one that contains us was meant to do so. And besides, the fundamental questions remain why is there anything at all rather than nothing and how could something arise out of nothing. Much more logical to recognize the likelihood of a First Cause. And one might as well call that God. Not one to worship, follow or depend upon for any kind of salvation but one to wonder about. Accepting the existence of St. Thomas’ God opens, at the most basic level, the door of wonder.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Globalization and Its Discontents
Just about a year ago, I wrote in this space about premature globalization, suggesting that it may have come too early in humanity's history and gone too far. Whatever the putative benefits of globalization, they appear to not be shared equally but have left many – the unprotected – behind. Well before the November election, it was already clear that Donald Trump was riding the wave of discontent with globalization and would be seen as the transformation candidate.
A fierce critic of globalization now sits in the White House right behind the new President, Steve Bannon. As David Ignatius notes, however, it would be incomplete, maybe even inaccurate, to see Bannon as simply an extreme nationalist. Rather, fusing criticisms from the left and right, Bannon sees globalization as benefiting “crony capitalists” and as a threat to working Americans. Under his guidance, Trump now seems to be undoing the global order of interconnectedness that has seemed increasingly unstoppable over the past few decades. Leaving the politics of this aside, this raises two questions: Whether globalization is indeed an evolutionary inevitability or something still subject to conscious intervention by we human beings? And, if it turns out to be an inevitability, what happens if Trump and Bannon succeed in taking the United States out of contention to continue to occupy the central role in the evolving global reality?
It may well be that the dynamics behind globalization are unstoppable. Human society has moved forward over the last 100 thousand years from small isolated groups to ever larger units that now exist as interconnected nations and organized states. Since the Industrial Revolution, the economic drivers have become mass production for consumption requiring ever-broadening networks of trade for resources and customers. Efficiencies have been gained not only through advances in technology but also through the ever more comprehensive and inclusive concentrations of wealth, organization, production, distribution and trade made possible by those advances. Even when networks extended into new areas far away, they utilized the technological and “free-trade” aspects of globalization to make distributed production more efficient than previous nationally based activities. Left to itself, globalization does not produce greater equality but it does seem to create greater wealth. Since Marx at least, it has been possible to see this ever increasing accumulation of wealth as an objectification of our existence as a species. Who can stop this? Is any effort simply doomed to fighting the logos of human history?
If globalization is inevitable, would Trump and Bannon’s effort to resist it simply take the US out of the center and leave it to some others to occupy? As it now stands, the US has in the last several decades invested mightily – in money and blood – in shaping the world as much as possible in its own image. If we close our borders, emphasize national productions over free trade, reduce our role in international affairs, do we leave it to China or Russia or even a compelled reinvigorated Europe? And if globalization is inevitable, what kind of future would that make for whatever the US becomes behind its walls?
These are questions and not answers. But it seems to me too early to simply surrender to globalization as inevitable. Logically, at least, it would seem possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. We could seek to address inequality. Perhaps some limits and standards for free trade have a role in this. It makes sense to seek to protect ourselves from sources of instability and insecurity around the world but through working multilaterally within the international system rather than unilateral armed interventions. Walls and fences may have a role too, but with careful attention more on how we let people in rather than keep them out. This may be were politics becomes most relevant.
Friday, January 20, 2017
The HBO remake of Westworld is superior TV in a number of ways. But its most intriguing aspect may be its foundational riff on what makes up consciousness. The basic premise is that recursive experience plus an emotional occurrence that anchors memory – especially an episode of painful loss – ignites (self) consciousness. Intriguing, yet not finally convincing. The ability to experience emotion itself requires consciousness – one must be aware of feeling such-and-such. Westworld’s premise begs the question of where that awareness comes from.
There seems to be no a priori reason to suppose that machines cannot be intelligent. It may be useful to think about intelligence as existing in more or less distinct forms. Generically, intelligence might be defined as the ability to acquire, process and apply knowledge. (Animals have varying degrees of this kind of intelligence and so may plants.) Machines have the ability to store and process information. Machine intelligence is the orderly processing of information according to governing rules (software). Both the information and the rules are externally derived and stored within the machine. The machine itself may be contained in discrete units or widely distributed (the cloud). Machines can learn – by adding and elaborating rules based on previous cycles of processing – but they can’t process information without instructions stored in memory. Cloud intelligence is machine intelligence taken to a higher level by accessing massive information from many data sources using more and many powerful processors and sophisticated software with built in “learning routines.”
Human intelligence is what we human beings have. It is what we know as manifested in thought and action. Our knowledge is stored in two places, our heads and in our culture. Culture is contained in language, traditions, techniques, art and artifacts, beliefs and whatever else carries collective knowledge across time and generations. The basic unit of human intelligence, however, remains the individual mind, which itself can be thought of as an organically based “machine.” But there seems to be a ghost in the human machine that we experience as consciousness. Mere machines cannot feel emotion – or pleasure and pain – no matter how massive the memory and computing power. And the movies Matrix and Terminator aside, machines do not inherently strive for self-preservation. Machines are not alive nor do they have “souls.” Whether because humans are organic life forms evolved over hundreds of millions of years after having crossed-over somehow from an inorganic strata or from deeper principle of the universe, we feel and experience pleasure and pain. Why is the unknown. Westworld, for all its brave speculation, sidesteps this question.