Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Thoughts on a power outage: what worked, what didn't

We lost our electrical power for 45 hours as a result of the wildfires and high winds in Northern California.  This is by far the longest power outage we have ever had to endure, and we learned a lot about how to deal with them.  I thought I'd share some of the lessons.

What Worked

This outage was a lot easier to deal with than it might have been because we had a lot of warning.  PG&E started sounding the alarm about two days before the power was actually cut on Saturday night.  Because of that we were able to stock up on ice, stage flashlights, and so on.  The ice in particular proved to be very useful because that was the difference between saving some perishables and having them, well, perish.  It turns out that our freezer can last 24 hours without electricity (provided you don't open it) but 48 is pushing it.

LED lighting is just awesome.  I grew up on old-school incandescent flashlights that lasted an hour or two on a set of batteries.  LED flashlights will easily last 10-15 hours, and produce a lot more light in the process.  Battery-powered LED candles provide really nice mood lighting late at night. We also had some wall-mounted emergency lights that worked quite well, though we found that the first thing we wanted to do once PG&E pulled the plug was to turn them all off because the bluish light coming up from the wall was really harsh.  We also had no idea how long they would last because their internal batteries are quite small.  They are intended mainly for the use case where the power cuts off at night with no notice so you can find the real flashlights without having to go groping around in the dark, and for that purpose they worked quite well.

What Didn't

We have two phone lines, one of which is an old-school POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) line that is supposed to keep working even when the power goes out.  It didn't work.  As soon as the power died, so did the phone.  We even kept an old hard-wired phone to use with that line specifically so we would have comms without power.  That experiment was a dismal failure.  This corresponds to a data point collected from an acquaintance who did a similar experiment with similar results.  The days of reliable hard-wired communications in the face of power outages are apparently over.  And unfortunately, our house sits in a cell dead zone so that doesn't work as a backup for us either.

We had uninterruptible power supplies that kept some of our electronics running for a while, but that was mostly a failure too.  Some of the batteries had apparently aged out and quit after only a minute or two.

For those that kept working, we learned the hard way that having a UPS with a power-out alarm that can't be muted is an incredibly bad idea.  I guess the designers thought that the UPS should be as obnoxious as possible in order to make sure that in the event it was being used to power a computer, the user would know to save their work and shut down.  But there are two serious problems with this theory.  First, when the power goes out, it's pretty obvious.  Even during the day, there's almost always something nearby that's powered by electricity that gives you an indication when it's no longer working.  And second, you might be using your UPS to power something other than a computer, something low-power that you want to keep running for a long time, like a DSL modem.  Also, even if you are using the UPS to power a computer, and even if it's the middle of the day so somehow you miss the fact that the power has gone out, there is no excuse for the thing to go on beeping for more than a few minutes, and absolutely no excuse not to provide some way to silence the damn thing short of chucking it out the window.

(BTW, anyone want to buy a slightly used UPS?)

But the worst problem we faced was that our water heater stopped working despite being powered mainly by natural gas.  It turns out that it also has an electrical element (some kind of blower) and when that's not working, the whole heater just shuts down.  We had residual hot water for about twelve hours, which got us through the first night and the following morning.  But after that we decided to check into a hotel.

This turns out to be the hardest problem to solve for future outages.  But for not having hot water, we could probably survive just about any likely outage.  But cold showers are a show-stopper for us.  To fix this, we'd either need to replace the water heater, or get a generator or a Tesla powerwall.  A generator is kind of loud and obnoxious, and a powerwall is some pretty major coin.  Both would need to be wired into the house in order to power the water heater.

Good thing climate change is a hoax or all this could start to get really annoying.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Joe Rogan interviews Ed Snowden

Joe Rogan has conducted a three-hour-long interview with Edward Snowden.  It is well worth investing the time to listen to all of it.

(If you don't have the time or the patience for that, you can also read his book.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

No, Mr. Graham, this is not a lynching in any sense

In a time where brazen dishonesty has become the norm it is sometimes necessary to belabor the painfully obvious, to wit, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump are not even remotely within spitting distance of the same ballpark as a lynching.  I feel it necessary to point this out, particularly to Lyndsey Graham, who actually said, in no uncertain terms, "this is a lynching in every sense."

Mr. Graham, let me explain this at you in terms that I hope you will be able to understand: you see, a lynching is when some fine upstanding southern gentlemen go out and kill themselves a nigger.  Now our Mr. Trump here, last I checked, was still alive and kickin' and physically, if not mentally, intact.  Furthermore, Mr. Schiff ain't no fine upstanding southern gentleman.  He's from (brace yourself) California, the same state that Nancy Pelosi hails from.  So there might be something fishy goin' on here, but it ain't no lynching cuz we ain't got ourselves no nigger hanging from a tree.

If we somehow manage to get through this witch hunt and return to the recognition that Mr. Trump has been anointed by God Himself to free us from the scourge of liberalism and Mexican rapists, then maybe, just maybe, we can get ourselves some good old-fashioned legitimate lynchings.  But for the moment, those halcyon days are behind us.  This country hasn't seen a real lynching since 1981.

This is the point at which I would normally come up with a snappy line to close this post, but I'm coming up empty today.  Sorry.  I am just so fucking tired of all this shit.  Life is too short.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

William Barr echoes Adolf Hitler, with "militant secularists" playing the role of the Jews

Attorney General William Barr gave a speech at Notre Dame university where he resurrected some of Adolf Hitler's most odious rhetoric, with "militant secularists" (i.e. people who believe in reason and science rather than medieval superstitions) playing the role previously occupied by the Jews:
He [Barr] insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” who were responsible for every sort of “social pathology”, including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy.
(Here is the transcript in case you want to read what he actually said.)

I wonder if Mr. Barr considers the sexual abuse of minors to be a "social pathology", because there's a lot more of that going on in the Catholic church than at any secular organization that I know of.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Whatever happened to "no collusion"?

Funny how fast the "no collusion" slogan evaporated after the recent revelations about Trump trying to shake down the president of Ukraine to fabricate a smear campaign about Joe Biden.  Two years of hand-wringing about the Mueller report are suddenly moot.  Instead of "no collusion" it's now, "Sure I colluded, but it was for a good cause.  Collusion with a foreign government is perfectly acceptable if it is done in the name of rooting our corruption.  Oh, and it's just a coincidence that the most egregious corruption in the entire U.S. -- indeed the only such example that merits the enlistment of a foreign power to help ferret it out -- just happens to be my leading political opponent.

Somehow, if the polls are to be believed, over a third of the country actually buys that narrative.

When Trump was first elected there were some who hoped that he would "grow into the office" and become less Trumpy, that with some "adults in the room" to reign him in, disaster might be averted.  I wonder how much worse things have to get before the last holdouts realize that this is not going to happen.  Whenever Trump gets away with something his response is not, "Whew, that was close, I'd better be more careful next time."  Instead it's, "Well, that was cool, I wonder how much more I can get away with?"  In a scant two years we've gone from, "I never talked to the Russians" to "Sure, I use the power of the presidency to coerce a foreign government to interfere in our domestic politics.  So what?"  We've gone from pussy grabbing to concentration camps where children are forcibly separated from their families.  Do we really need to march all the way to the gas chambers before the Republican party wakes up and realizes that Donald Trump will lead them through the gates of hell if they give him even half a chance?  And for what, to overturn Roe v. Wade?  To wreak righteous vengeance against the spotted owl?

Seriously, if you're still a Trump supporter at this point (I'm looking at you, Publius) I really want you to explain this to me.  What is it that Trump is offering at this point that is worth the price of the nation's soul?

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Fedex: three months and counting

It has now been three months since we shipped a package via Fedex that turned out to be undeliverable (we sent it signature-required, and the recipient, unbeknownst to us, had moved).  We expected that in a situation like that, the package would simply be returned to us, but it wasn't because we paid cash for the original shipment and (again, unbeknownst to us) the shipping cost doesn't include return shipping.

Once we discovered all this, we opened a Fedex account (because for some unfathomable reason they won't simply accept a credit card to pay for the return shipping).  In fact, we opened two of them because it turns out that there is more than one kind of Fedex account and the first time around we opened the wrong kind.  But once we did all that we were assured that we'd get our package back.

Today marks the three-month anniversary of the original shipment and we still haven't gotten it back.  I called Fedex today to find out what was going on and was told that our package is in the "overgoods department" and was last scanned a month ago, on July 22.

So what has happened since then?  No one seems to know.  Not only that, but in order to locate the package again we have to tell them what was inside!  Not just a general description (it was a document) but they wanted the title of the document!  There is no other way to identify the package at this point because the package has been labelled a "problem package" and the tracking number has been changed.  Our package has been lumped together with a bunch of other "problem packages" under the same tracking number.

That means that they opened the package and discarded the original packaging.  And they did this without making any attempt to contact us despite the fact that our contact information was on the original order, and we even opened an account with them for the express purpose of getting this package returned to us.  Which, we were told, would be no problem.

At this point, I'll give you long odds against our ever seeing it again.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Fedex: when it absolutely, positively has to get stuck in the system for over two months

I have seen some pretty serious corporate bureaucratic dysfunction over the years, but I think this one takes the cake: on May 23, we shipped a package via Fedex from California to Colorado.  The package required a signature.  It turned out that the person we sent it to had moved, and so was not able to sign for the package, and so it was not delivered.

Now, the package has our return address on it, so you would think that in a situation like that Fedex would simply return the package to us.  But you would be wrong.  Very, very wrong.

Fedex has an on-line tracking system, so we knew that the package had not been delivered (though at the time we didn't know why).  We kept an eye on it for about a week waiting for it to be either delivered or returned.  After a week, we called Fedex to ask what was going on.  We were told that they had been unable to obtain the required signature.  We asked why the package had not been returned.  It turns out that return shipping is not included in the original price.  We had paid cash for the original shipment, they could not return it because they didn't have a credit card on file.

OK, we said, that's kind of annoying to find out at this stage in the game, but no problem, we'll give you a credit card.  Oh no, they said, that won't work.  We can't accept a credit card payment at this point, you need a Fedex account number.  Why can't they accept a credit card now?  No one knew.

So we opened a Fedex account.  Problem solved, no?


It turns out that there is more than one kind of Fedex account, and we had opened the wrong kind.  So we opened another Fedex account.

By this point a month had gone by, and the package had been shipped from Colorado to Mississippi!  Why they didn't just send it back to California I have no idea, and neither did they.

By now we have spoken to no fewer than ten different people at Fedex over a period of two months.  No one can tell us why the package has not been returned to us.  At one point we were told it was going through some kind of security screening (there is nothing in the package but paper).  As if the situation were not already ironic enough, the latest delay (we are told) has something to do with Fedex wanting to give us a refund for the original shipping charge in order to make up for the inconvenience, though, of course, they are still going to charge us for the return shipment.

If by some bizarre chance anyone at Fedex upper management is seeing this, you have a very serious problem in your processes.  This is beyond unacceptable.  For an organization whose entire business model is based on getting things to their destinations on time, you should be hanging your head in shame that it has taken you over two months to return a package from Colorado To California with no end in sight.  I really don't like to engage in public shaming, but if ever there was a situation that warranted it, this is it.

Monday, July 08, 2019

The Trouble with Many Worlds

Ten years ago I wrote an essay entitled "The Trouble with Shadow Photons" describing a problem with the dramatic narrative of what is commonly called the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics (but which was originally and IMHO more appropriately called the "relative state" interpretation) as presented by David Deutsch in his (otherwise excellent) book, "The Fabric of Reality."  At the end of that essay I noted in an update:
Deutsch just referred me to this paper which is the more formal formulation of his multiple-worlds theory. I must confess that on a cursory read it seems to be a compelling argument. So I may have to rethink this whole thing.
That paper is entitled "The Structure of the Multiverse" and its abstract is delightfully succinct.  I quote it here in its entirety:
The structure of the multiverse is determined by information flow.
Those of you who have been following my quantum adventures know that I am a big fan of information theory, so I was well primed to resonate with Deutsch's theory.  And I did resonate with it (and still do).  Deutsch's argument was compelling (and still is).  Nonetheless, I never wrote a followup for two reasons.  First, something was still bothering me about the argument, though I couldn't really put my finger on it.  Yes, Deutsch's argument was compelling, but on the other hand, so was my argument (at least to me).  The difference seemed to me (as many things in QM interpretations do) a matter of taste, so it seemed pointless to elaborate.  And second, I didn't think anyone reading this blog would really care.  So I tabled it.

But last May the comment thread in the original post was awakened from its slumber by a fellow named Elliot Temple.  The subsequent exchange led me to this paper, of which I was previously unaware.  Here's the abstract, again, in its entirety:
The probabilistic predictions of quantum theory are conventionally obtained from a special probabilistic axiom.  But that is unnecessary because all the practical consequences of such predictions follow from the remaining, non-probabilistic, axioms of quantum theory, together with the non-probabilistic part of classical decision theory.
The "special probabilistic axiom" to which Deutsch refers is called the Born rule (named after Max Born).  The "remaining, non-probabilistic axioms of quantum theory" comprises mainly the Schrödinger equation.  (To condense things a bit I'll occsaionally refer to these as the BR and the SE.)

The process of applying quantum mechanics to real-world situations consists of two steps: first you solve the SE.  The result is something called a "wave function".  Then you apply the BR to the wave function and what pops out is a set of probabilities for various possible results of the experiment you're doing.  Following this procedure yields astonishingly accurate results: no experiment has ever been done whose outcome is at odds with its predictions.  The details don't matter.  What matters is: there's this procedure.  It yields incredibly accurate predictions.  It consists of two parts.  One part is deterministic, the other part isn't.

This naturally raises the question of why this procedure works as well as it does.  In particular, why does the procedure have two parts?  And why does it only yield probabilities?  Answering these questions is the business of "interpretations" of quantum mechanics.  Wikipedia lists almost twenty of these.  The fact that after nearly 100 years no consensus has emerged as to which one is correct gives you some idea of the thorniness of this problem.

So the paper that Elliot referred me to was potentially a Big Deal.  It is hard to overstate the magnitude of the breakthrough this would be.  It would show that there are not in fact two disparate parts to the theory, there is only one: the SE.  Such a unification would be of the same order of magnitude as the discovery of relativity.  It would be headline news.  David Deutsch would be a Nobel Laureate, on a par with Newton and Einstein.  But the fact that there is still an active debate over the issue shows that Deutsch's claim has not been universally accepted.  So there would seem to be only two possibilities: either Deutsch is wrong, or he's right and the rest of the physics community has failed to recognize it.

Normally when a claim of a major result like this fails to be recognized by the community it's because the claim is wrong.  In fact, more than 99% of the time it's because the claimant is a crackpot.  But Deutsch is no crackpot.  He's a foundational figure in quantum computing.  He discovered the first quantum algorithm.  Even if he got something wrong he very likely got it wrong in a very interesting way.

So I decided to do a deep dive into this.  It led me down quite the little rabbit hole.  There are a number of published critiques of Deutsch's work, and counter-critiques critiquing the critiques, and counter-counter-critiques.  They're all quite technical.  It took me a couple of months of steady effort to sort it all out, and that only with the kind of help of a couple of people who understand all this stuff much better than I do.  (Many thanks to Tim Maudlin, David Wallace, and especially the patient, knowledgeable, and splendidly-pseudonymed /u/ididnoteatyourcat on Reddit.)

In the rest of this post I'm going to try to describe the result of going down that rabbit hole in a way that is accessible to what I think is the majority of the audience of this blog.  The TL;DR is that Deutsch's argument depends on at least one assumption that is open to legitimate doubt.  Figuring out what that assumption is isn't easy, and whether or not the assumption is actually untrue is arguable.  That's the reason that Deutsch hasn't won his Nobel yet.

I have to start with a review of the rhetoric of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI).  The rhetoric says that when you do a quantum measurement it is simply not the case that it has a single outcome.  Instead, what happens is that the universe "splits" into multiple parts when a measurement is performed, and so all of the possible outcomes of an experiment actually happen as a matter of physical fact.  The reason you only perceive a single outcome is that you yourself split into multiple copies.  Each copy of you perceives a single outcome, but the sum total of all the "you's" that have been created collectively perceive all the possible outcomes.

I used the word "rhetoric" above because, as we shall see, there is a disconnect between what I have just written and the math.  To be fair to Deutsch, his rhetoric is different from what I have written above, and it more closely matches the math.  Instead of "splitting", on Deutsch's view the universe "peels apart" (that's my terminology) in "waves of differentiation" (that is Deutsch's terminology) rather than "splitting" (that is everyone else's terminology) but this is a detail.  The point is that at the end of a process that involves you doing a quantum measurement with N possible outcomes, there are, again in point of actual physical fact, N "copies" of you (Deutsch uses the word "doppelgänger").

Again, to be fair to Deutsch, he acknowledges that this is not quite correct:
Universes, histories, particles and their instances are not referred to by quantum theory at all – any more than are planets, and human beings and their lives and loves. Those are all approximate, emergent phenomena in the multiverse.  [The Beginning of Infinity, p292, emphasis added.]
All of the difficulty, it will turn out, hinges on the fidelity of the approximation.  But let us ignore this for now and look at Deutsch's argument.

Deutsch attempts to capture the idea of probability in a deterministic theory using game theory, that is, by looking at how a rational agent should act, applying a few reasonable-looking assumptions about the utility function, and showing that a rational agent operating under the MWI would act exactly as if they were using the Born rule.  The argument is long and technical, but it can be summarized very simply.

[Note to nit-pickers: this simplified argument is in fact a straw man because it is based on the assumption that branch counting is a legitimate rational strategy, which is actually false on the Deutsch-Wallace view.  But since the conclusion I am going to reach is the same as Deutsch's I consider this legitimate rhetorical and literary license because the target audience here is mainly non-technical.]

For simplicity, let's consider only the case of doing an experiment with two possible outcomes (let's call them A and B).  The game-theoretical setup is this: you are going to place a bet on either A or B and then do the experiment.  If the outcome matches your choice, you win $1, otherwise you lose $1.

If the experiment is set up in such a way that the quantum-mechanical odds of each outcome are the same (i.e. 50-50) then there is no conflict between the orthodox Born-rule-based approach and the MWI: in both cases, the agent has no reason to prefer betting on one outcome over the other.  The only difference is the rationale that each agent would offer: one would say, "The Born rule says the odds are even so I don't care which I choose" and the other would say, "I am going to split into two and one of me is going to experience one outcome (and win $1) and the other of me is going to experience the other outcome (and lose $1), and that will be situation no matter whether I choose A or B, so I don't care which I choose."

[Aside: Deutsch goes through a great deal more complicated argument to prove this result because it is based on an assumption that Deutsch rejects.  In fact, he goes on from there to put in a great deal more effort to extend this result to an experiment with N possible outcomes, all of which have equal probabilities under the Born rule.  He has to do this because my argument is based on a tacit assumption that Deutsch rejects.  We'll get to that.  My goal at this point is not to reproduce Deutsch's reasoning, only to convince you that this intermediate result is plausibly true.]

Now consider a case where the odds are not even.  Let's arrange for the probabilities to be 2:1 in favor of A (i.e. A happens 2/3 of the time, B happens 1/3 of the time, according to the Born rule).  Now we have a disconnect between the two world-views.  The Bornian would obviously choose A.  But what possible reason could the many-worlder have for doing the same?  After all, the situation is unchanged from before: again the many-worlder is going to split into two (because there are still only two possible outcomes).  What possible basis could they have for preferring one outcome over the other that doesn't assume the Born rule and hence beg the question?

Deutsch's argument is based on an assumption called branching indifference.  Deutsch himself did not make this explicit in his original paper, it was clarified by David Wallace in a follow-up paper.  Branching indifference says that a rational agent doesn't care about branching per se.  In other words, if an agent does a quantum experiment that doesn't have a wager associated with it, then the agent has no reason to care whether or not the experiment is performed or not.

The reasoning then proceeds as follows: suppose that the many-worlder who ends up on the A branch does a follow-up experiment with two outcomes and even odds, but without placing a bet.  Now there are three copies of him, two of which have won $1 and one of which has lost $1.  But (and this is the crucial point) all of these copies are now on branches that have equal probabilities.  Because of branch indifference, this situation is effectively equivalent to one where there was a single experiment with three outcomes, each with equal probability, but two of which result in winning $1, and where the agent had the opportunity to place the bet on both winning branches.

So that sounds like a reasonable argument.  In fact, it is a correct argument, i.e. the conclusions really do follow from the premises.

But are the premises reasonable?  Well, many many-worlders think so.  But I don't.  In particular, I cast a very jaundiced eye on branching indifference.  There are two reasons for this.  But first, let's look at Wallace's argument for why branching indifference is reasonable:
Solution continuity and branching indifference — and indeed problem continuity — can be understood in the same way, in terms of the limitations of any physically realisable agent. Any discontinuous preference order would require an agent to make arbitrarily precise distinctions between different acts, something which is not physically possible. Any preference order which could not be extended to allow for arbitrarily small changes in the acts being considered would have the same requirement. And a preference order which is not indifferent to branching per se would in practice be impossible to act on: branching is uncontrollable and ever-present in an Everettian universe.
If that didn't make sense to you, don't worry, I'll explain it.  But first I want to take a brief diversion.  Trust me, I'll come back to this.

Remember how I said earlier that my simplified argument for Deutsch's conclusion was based on a premise that Deutsch would reject?  That premise is called branch counting.  It is the idea that the number of copies of me that exist matters.  This seems like an odd premise to dispute.  How could it possibly not matter if there is one of me winning $1 or a million of me each winning $1?  The latter situation might not have a utility that is a million times higher than the former, but if I'm supposed to care about "copies of me" at all, how can it not matter how many there are?

Here is Wallace's answer:
Why it is irrational: The first thing to note about branch counting is that it can’t actually be motivated or even defined given the structure of quantum mechanics. There is no such thing as “branch count”: as I noted earlier, the branching structure emergent from unitary quantum mechanics does not provide us with a well-defined notion of how many branches there are.
Wait, what???  There is no "well defined notion of how many branches there are?"

No, there isn't.  Wallace reiterates this over and over:
...the precise fineness of the grain of the decomposition is underspecified 
There is no “real” branching structure beyond a certain fineness of grain... 
...agents branch all the time (trillions of times per second at least, though really any count is arbitrary) 
...in the actual physics there is no such thing as a well-defined branch number
Remember how earlier I told you that there was a disconnect between the rhetoric and the math?  That the idea of "splitting" or "peeling apart" or whatever you want to call it was an approximation?  Well, this is where the rubber meets the road on that approximation.  Branching indifference is necessary because branching is not a well-defined concept.

So what about the rhetoric of MWI, that when you do an experiment with N possible outcomes that you split/peel-apart/whatever-you-want-to-call-it into N copies of yourself?  That is an approximation to the truth, but like classical reality itself, it is not the truth.  The actual truth is much more complex and subtle, and it hinges on what the word "you" means.

If by "you" you mean your body, which is to say, all the atoms that make up your arms and legs and eyes and brain etc. then it's true that there is no such thing as a well-defined branch count.  This is because every atom — indeed, every electron and every other sub-atomic particle — in your body is constantly "splitting" by virtue of its interactions with other nearby particles, including photons that are emitted by the sun and your smart phone and all the other objects that surround you.  These "splits" propagate out at the speed of light and create what Deutsch calls "waves of differentiation", what I call the "peeling apart" of different "worlds".  (If you are a regular reader you will have heard me refer to this phenomenon as creating "large systems of mutually entangled particles".  Same thing.)  This process is a continuous one.  There is never a well-defined "point in time" where the entire universe splits into two, and no point in time where you (meaning your body) splits into two.  There is a constant and continuous process of "peeling apart".  Actually many, many (many!) peelings-apart, all of which are happening continuously.  To call it mind-boggling would be quite the understatement.

On the other hand, if by "you" you mean "the entity that has subjective experiences and makes decisions based on those experiences" then things are much less clear.  I don't know about you, but my subjective experience is that there is exactly one of me at all times.  I consider this aspect of my subjective experience to be an essential component of what it means to be me.  I might even go so far as to say that my subjective experience of being a single unified whole defines what it is to be "me".  So the only way that there could be a "copy of me" is if there is another entity that has a subjective experience that is bound to the same past as my own, but whose present subjective experience is somehow different from my own e.g. my experiment came out A and theirs came out B.  An entity whose subjective experience is indistinguishable from my own isn't a copy of me, it's me.

The mathematical account of universes "peeling apart" has nothing to say about when the peeling process has progressed far enough to be considered a fully-fledged universe in its own right and so it has nothing to say about when I have "peeled apart" sufficiently to be considered a copy.  That is why branch count is not a coherent concept.

And yet, if I am going to apply the notion of branching to myself (which is to say, to the entity having the subjective experience of being a coherent and unified whole) then branch count must be a coherent concept.  It might not be possible to know the branch count, but at any point in time whatever underlying physical processes are really going on,  it has to either qualify as me branching or not.  There is no middle ground.

So we are faced with this stark choice: we can either believe the math, or we can believe our subjective experiences, but we can't do both, at least not at the same time.  We can take a "God's eye view" and look at the universal wave function, or we can take a "mortal's-eye view" and see our unified subjective experience as real.  But we can't do both simultaneously.  It's like a Necker cube.  You can see it one way or the other, but not both at the same time.

Interestingly, this is all predicted by the math!  In fact, the math tells us why there is this dichotomy.  Subjective experience is necessarily classical because it requires copying information.  In order to be conscious, you have to be conscious of something.  In order to make decisions, you have to obtain information about your environment and take actions that affect your environment.  All of these things require copying information into and out of your brain.  But quantum information cannot be copied.  Only classical information can be copied.  And the only way to create copyable classical information out of a quantum system is to ignore part of the quantum system.  Classical behavior emerges from quantum systems (mathematically) when you trace over parts of the system.  Specifically, it emerges when you consider a subset of an entangled system in isolation from the rest of the system.  When you do that, the mathematical description of the system switches from being a pure state to being a mixed state.  Nothing physical has changed.  It's purely a question of the point of view you choose to take.  You can either look at the whole system (in which case you see quantum behavior) or you can look at part of the system (in which case you see classical behavior) but you can't do both at the same time.

As a practical matter, in our day-to-day lives we have no choice but to "look" only at "part" of the system, because "the system" is the entire universe.  (In fact, it's an interesting puzzle how we can observe quantum behavior at all.  Every photon has to be emitted by, and hence be entangled with, something.  So why does the two-slit experiment work?)  We can take a "God's-eye view" only in the abstract.  We can never actually know the true state of the universe.  And, in fact, neither can God.

Classical reality is what you get when you slice-and-dice the wave function in a particular way.  It turns out that there is more than one way to do the slicing-and-dicing, and so if you take a God's-eye view you get more than one classical universe.  An arbitrary number, in fact, because the slicing-and-dicing is somewhat arbitrary.  (It is only "somewhat" arbitrary because there are only certain ways to do the slicing-and-dicing that yield coherent classical universes.  But even with that constraint there are an infinite number of possibilities, hence "no well-defined branch count".)  But the only way you can be you, the only way to become aware of your own existence, indeed the only way to become aware of anything, is to descend from Olympus, ignore parts of the wave function, and become classical.  That leaves open the question of which parts to ignore.  To me, the answer is obvious: I ignore all of it except the parts that measurably effect the "branch" that "I" am on.  To me, that is the only possible rational choice.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

How do we know that quantum randomness is really random?

Since the dawn of quantum physics, the Born rule has been the cause of much consternation and gnashing of dentition, with Einstein famously complaining that God doesn't play dice.    Was Einstein right?  Is the apparent randomness of quantum measurements an illusion?  Are the results of quantum measurements actually deterministic but dependent on some hidden state that we simply don't have access to?  In other words, is the apparent randomness a reflection of a fundamental truth about objective reality, or simply a reflection of our ignorance?  And how can we possibly know for sure?  After all, ignorance, by its very nature, does not yield readily to introspection.

For the purposes of this discussion let's consider an idealized quantum experiment that has only two outcomes.  You can think of this as measuring the spin of an electron or the polarization of a photon.  Again, the details don't matter.  All that matters is that there are two possible outcomes (let's call them A and B).  Let's further suppose just for the sake of simplicity that both outcomes are equally likely.

So we do a bunch of experiments and collect a bunch of data.  This data is in the form of a sequence of A's and B's, each corresponding to the outcome of one instance of the experiment.  We analyze this sequence and it looks random.  We apply a bunch of statistical tests and they call come back and say, yep, this is a random sequence.  We wrack our brains to try to come up with a way to predict the outcome of the next experiment with odds better than chance and we fail.  Does that prove that this sequence is in fact random?

No, of course not.  We can trivially reproduce the exact same sequence in a purely deterministic way simply by playing back the record of the previous outcomes!  So how can we know that the sequence wasn't generated this way the first time around?  How do we know that there isn't a deterministic process out there in the universe somewhere that has pre-ordained the outcome of every quantum measurement we ever make?

It would seem that the fact that any sequence of experimental outcomes could be generated by playing back a record of them shows that we can never be sure that it wasn't actually done that way.  But this is wrong, and in fact it is easy to see exactly how and why it is wrong.  You might want to stop here and see if you can figure it out on your own.

Here's a clue: if the sequence of experimental outcomes was the result of simply replaying a record, or indeed of any kind of deterministic computational process (of which replaying a record is just one trivial example), we should be able to find evidence of that somewhere.  In order to make a record we have to store information somewhere.  In order to make a computational process we have to make a computer.  If that information was stored in any kind of straightforward way, and in particular (no pun intended) if that information is stored in any kind of physical artifact made of atoms then we should be able to find it.  Or at least we should be able to find some evidence that it exists.

But we can't.  And if you think about it, it is absolutely impossible for such an artifact to exist.  Why? Because it would have to store the outcome not just for the experiments that we actually do, but for any experiment that we could possibly do, and it would have to store those outcomes for every particle in the universe on which we might choose to perform an experiment including the particles that make up the artifact that is supposedly storing all this information!

Now, this is not yet an ironclad proof because there is one remaining possibility.  We don't actually have to store a separate record of the results of our experiments in order to be able to reproduce the same sequence of results.  It is enough simply to hang on to the particles themselves.  Once we have made a measurement on a particle, if we make the same measurement again we will get the same result.  So it's possible that the information that determines the results of experiments performed on particles is stored in the particles themselves.

The usual way to dispense with this possibility is to invoke Bell's theorem and to point out that it rules out local hidden variables.  But there's a more elementary (and, I think, more compelling) argument.

It is true that if we do the same experiment on a single particle twice in a row we will get the same result.  But nothing constrains us from doing different experiments on a single particle.  We could, for example, measure the position of a particle, and then its momentum, and then its position again, and then its momentum again.  If we do this, every result will be (apparently) random, completely disconnected from anything that has gone before.  And (and this is key) we can do this forever.  We can perform an infinite (well, OK, unbounded) number of measurements on one particle.  For the results to be deterministic, the state of the particle would have to store an infinite (and this time I really do mean infinite) amount of information.

Well, how do we know that this is not in fact the case?  Bohmian mechanics, for example, is a theory of exactly this sort.  In Bohmian mechanics, particles have positions, and (it turns out) all of the potentially infinite information that can be read out (eventually) via quantum measurements is encoded in the initial position of the particle.  This is possible because the position of the particle is metaphysically exact, represented by an actual real number with an infinite number of digits in its expansion and hence can contain an infinite amount of information.

How do we know that this is not what is actually happening?

Well, we don't.  Bohmian mechanics reproduces the predictions of quantum mechanics exactly so there is no way to settle the question experimentally.  There are nonetheless three good reasons to reject Bohm as an adequate explanation of physical reality.

First, the way that Bohm handles spin is really weird, bordering on the perverse.  Again for those who don't know, spin is a property of certain particles (mainly electrons) that can be measured and always produces one of two results (usually called "up" and "down" even though these don't actually have any physical significance).  In Bohmian mechanics, the only metaphysically real property that a particle has is position (and hence also velocity, which is just the time derivative of the position as in classical mechanics).  Spin is not part of the metaphysically real state of a particle.  When you think you're measuring spin, you're actually measuring the particle's position (because that's all there is) but the wave function (the "pilot wave", the thing that's pushing the particle around) conspires to move the particle through spin-measurement apparatus in just such a way that it looks as if the particle has spin, even though it really doesn't.  Bohmian mechanics is quite literally a cosmic conspiracy theory.

Second, Bohmian mechanics is causally non-local.  When you do an EPR-type experiment Bohm says that the underlying metaphysical reality is different depending on the order in which you perform the two measurements.  But according to relativity, the order of space-like separated events is not well defined.  So in order to extract an unambiguous description of physical reality from Bohm you have to arbitrarily assign an order to space-like separated events (the technical term for this is choosing a foliation).  There is no way to tell which foliation is correct (if there were then you could experimentally falsify relativity) so the choice is arbitrary.  But (and this is the crucial point) the fact that it is arbitrary completely undermines the whole point of adopting Bohmian mechanics to begin with, which was to provide a complete description of physical reality that was compatible with classical intuition.  Instead of one description of reality you have an arbitrary number of them, one for each possible foliation, and there's no way to tell which one is actually correct.

Third, although Bohm hangs his hat entirely on the physical reality of particle positions, it is fundamentally impossible to know what the position of a particle actually is.  Remember, when you measure the spin of a particle, on Bohmian mechanics you are not really measuring spin, you are really measuring position (because that's all there is).  Well, it turns out that when you measure position you aren't really measuring position either.  The only kind of measurement you can make is one that tells you whether or not the particle was inside or outside a particular (no pun intended) finite region of space.  The actual position of a particle cannot be measured.  So the one thing that Bohm advances as a description of physical reality turns out to be the operational equivalent of an invisible pink unicorn (IPU) — a thing that is posited to exist but which, by its very nature, can never be measured.

There is an even simpler argument to demonstrate the non-measurability of Bohmian positions: a measurement can only ever produce a finite amount of information, but the information encoded in the particle's actual metaphysical position is necessarily infinite (because it has to encode the results of all possible future measurements).  So the results of position measurements must contain errors.

And this is the crux of the matter: it just turns out as a matter of physical fact that a single particle can produce what appears to be an unbounded amount of information.  There are only two possibilities: either that information is generated on the fly ex nihilo, (that is, it's "really random") or it is stored somewhere.  But no one has been able to identify any possible repository in the physical world where that information could be stored.  In fact, QM fundamentally depends on this not being possible!  Interference effects only manifest themselves if there is no possible way to distinguish two different states of a system.  But to contain information, a system must have distinguishable states -- that's what information means!  To be compatible with the data, a hypothetical repository of that information must necessarily be an IPU.  Any theory where the existence of such a repository was experimentally demonstrable would not be compatible with QM.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Quantum transitions take time. This is not news.

A number of people have asked me to weigh in on this story in Quanta Magazine (based on this paper [PDF version] and also reported in this press release from Yale, and several other popular outlets.)

Here's how Quanta breathlessly reported the result:
When quantum mechanics was first developed a century ago as a theory for understanding the atomic-scale world, one of its key concepts was so radical, bold and counter-intuitive that it passed into popular language: the “quantum leap.” Purists might object that the common habit of applying this term to a big change misses the point that jumps between two quantum states are typically tiny, which is precisely why they weren’t noticed sooner. But the real point is that they’re sudden. So sudden, in fact, that many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics assumed they were instantaneous. 
A new experiment shows that they aren’t.
This is mostly hype.  While it is true that in the very early days of quantum mechanics some researchers (notably Niels Bohr) thought that quantum transitions were instantaneous, the fact that they aren't has been known for decades.  What is new here is that this is the first time that this fact has been demonstrated experimentally.  I don't want to detract from the technical accomplishment here in any way, it's a truly impressive experiment.  But it's not the kind of conceptual breakthrough that the Quanta story implies.  It's a totally expected result.

It is natural to conclude from the fact that energy states are quantized that the transition between them must happen instantaneously.  Consider a system that transitions from energy state 0 to an adjacent energy state 1 (in some suitable units). It can't do it via a smooth transition between intermediate energy levels because these are physically impossible (that the whole point of quantum mechanics).  So if a system is going to transition from 0 to 1 without occupying any energy state in between, the transition must be instantaneous, right?

Wrong.  There is a different kind of "smooth" transition that a system can make between the 0 and 1 states, and that is via a superposition of the two states.  Just as a particle can be in two different locations at the same time, it can be in two different energy states at the same time.  To go smoothly from 0 to 1, the system transitions through a series of superpositions of both states, i.e. it starts out entirely in state 0, and then transitions smoothly to being mostly in state 0 and a little bit in state 1, to being half in each state, to being mostly in 1 and a little bit in 0, to being entirely in 1.  This has been known for decades, and is predicted by the math.  You can even predict how fast the transition happens.  For most common physical processes, like an atom absorbing or emitting a photon, the transition is really fast.  But it's not instantaneous.

The tricky part is not figuring out that quantum transitions take time (well, OK, figuring it out is tricky too, but it's easy once you know how) but designing an experiment that demonstrates that the theory is correct.  This is because any straightforward measurement of the energy of the system will always produce a result that shows the system is in one state or the other.  The existence of superpositions can only be demonstrated indirectly, usually through interference effects.  So to demonstrate the non-instantaneous nature of a quantum transition you have to do two things: first, you need to actually catch a system during a (typically very fast) transition and second, you need to come up with a way of getting the system to interfere with itself (or producing some other indirect effect that would not occur but for the existence of a superposition).  That's what Minev et al. did.

The way they did it is really cool, but the advance here is an experimental one, not a theoretical one.  They used a superconductor to produce a macroscopic quantum system that behaved like an atom in that it had a small number of discrete energy levels that it could transition between.  Then they "tickled" this "atom" with microwaves and observed that the resulting response exhibited the kind of interference effects that would be expected if if were transitioning through superposition states.  It's very cool, and a very impressive technical achievement, but it is in no way unexpected or surprising.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

An open letter to Christian supporters of Donald Trump

Dear Christian supporters of Donald Trump:

I occasionally hear some of you complain that we west-coast liberals don't take you seriously.  Well, if you want me to take you seriously, then one of you is going to have to explain to me how this is not bearing false witness against your neighbor:
U.S. President Donald Trump, engaged in personal attacks on House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, retweeted a heavily edited video that falsely claimed the Democratic leader had difficulty speaking to reporters.
And, while I'm at it, maybe one of you would be good enough to explain to me how you square your support for Trump with Matthew 19:24?  Are there some really tiny camels out there (or some really big needles) that I don't know about?

Seriously, I want to understand you and reach a place of mutual respect.  But you sure aren't making it easy for me.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

If a fetus is a person...

Carliss Chatman raises some very interesting questions about the logical consequences of fetal personhood. To which I would like to add: if life begins at conception, and hence an embryo is a person, can I adopt a frozen embryo and write them off as a dependent on my taxes?  No, seriously, I want to know.  This could be very lucrative.

The mother of all buyer's remorse

[Part of an ongoing series of exchanges with Jimmy Weiss.]

Jimmy Weiss responded to my post on teleology and why I reject Jimmy's wager (not to be confused with Pascal's wager) nearly a month ago.  I apologize to Jimmy and anyone who has been waiting with bated breath for my response (yeah, right) for the long delay.  Somehow, life keeps happening while I'm not paying attention.

So, finally, to the task at hand.  Jimmy writes:
Ron presents the right kind of argument here.  He argues that an infinite reward is impossible, because, in his words, “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Ron “can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.” 
There is an important sense in which I quite agree with Ron’s statement here.  I absolutely agree that “an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.”  Human beings are, in the core of our nature: ignorant, proud, lazy, fearful, and restless.
I'm happy to hear that I'm presenting "the right kind of argument" and that we've found a bit of common ground.  That is my overarching goal in this effort, and for an atheist to find any common ground with a YEC is something I would have given you long odds against not so long ago.  (For those of you following this exchange, I think it's worth noting the fact that the age of the earth has not entered into the discussion at all.  I think that's salient.)

I have only a minor quibble with Jimmy's characterization of the situation: yes, humans are ignorant, proud, lazy (at least I am) fearful, and restless.  But I would not say that these things are in the core of our nature.  What is at the core of our nature is that we are living things.  Like all living things, we were born, and we will die, and yes that kind of sucks, but that's the way it is.  Would I like to live longer that I likely will?  Yeah, probably.  Would I like to live forever?  No.  Absolutely not.
Ron’s argument for the impossibility of the infinitude of God’s reward depends on the fixity of our nature.  But as far as I can see, there is no reason to assume fixity concerning those aspects of our nature that impede our ability to perceive, pursue, and enjoy goodness.
My argument against the desirability of immortality doesn't demand that our nature remain fixed.  I'm a very different person today than I was 10, 20, 30... years ago.  But I do think it's important that heaven not require us to change so much that we cease to be human, and the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that that is exactly what it does require.  I don't see any way that we could be immortal and still be human.  Mortality is an essential part of being human, indeed an essential part of being alive at all.

More than that, I want to argue here that being imperfect is an essential part of being human.  Consider the first adjective that Jimmy chose to characterize us: ignorant.  I imagine he intended it to be pejorative, and of course he's right.  Ignorance is not generally a good thing.  We should not seek to be ignorant, nor should we seek to remain ignorant.  The quest for knowledge is a noble one, one might even say that this quest is a core aspect of our nature.

But imagine what it would be like if we were to actually succeed in our quest not to be ignorant.  Ignorance means to lack knowledge, so by definition, to be not ignorant is to not lack any knowledge.  It is to be omniscient, to know everything.  In that respect we would become like God.

Would that be a good thing?  I don't know, but I do know this: if it were to happen, we would lose an essential aspect of our humanity because there would no longer be any point in engaging in our quest for knowledge.  If we succeed in totally eradicating ignorance, there would no longer be any point in reading a book; everyone would already know the contents of all possible books.  The value of reading a book is entirely dependent on ignorance of its contents.  If you are not ignorant of the contents of a book that means that you already know its contents.  You have memorized it word-for-word.  If you haven't, if there is any lack of knowledge about the contents of the book for which you have to actually go back and refer to the book itself, then you are still ignorant, at least of that aspect of the book's contents.

So a non-ignorant being cannot read a book.  A non-ignorant being cannot engage in a conversation with another non-ignorant being because both of them would already know what the other was going to say.  The whole point of reading books and engaging in conversations is to communicate information and that presupposes that the information is lacking somewhere.  Ignorance is necessary if communication is to have any point at all.

Let's consider Jimmy's next two adjective: "proud" and "lazy".  Again, I'm pretty sure he intended these to be pejorative.  But I am lazy, and I am proud of being lazy.  My laziness has been a powerful motivator for me to find more effective ways of accomplishing goals so that I don't have to work so hard to accomplish them.  I've built a highly successful career on that laziness, and I'm proud of that.  Is that bad?  I don't know.  What I do know is that both my laziness and my pride are essential components of who I am.  If you took those away, I wouldn't be me any more.

What about "fearful" and "restless"?  Well, I'm fearful on occasion.  For example, I'm fearful that climate change will destroy civilization.  This fear motivates me to overcome my laziness and moves me to act.  Restless?  That also motivates me.  If I give in to my laziness and sit on my duff for too long then I become restless and feel the need to do something like write blog posts.

All of these things are essential parts of me.  If you took them away, I wouldn't be me any more.

But I like being me.  Becoming the person I am has taken 54 years of work, sometimes very hard and painful work, and I'm generally pretty happy with the result so far.  This is not to say that there isn't room for improvement.  I'm still a work-in-progress, but even that on-going project is an essential part of being the person I have become.  I would be very reluctant to give that up.

Even my mortality is an essential part of who I am.  Railing against death like Lear against the storm is part of being human.  If you think about it, taking the prospect of heaven seriously means that saving someone's life is not a noble act.  You aren't saving their life, you are delaying their entry into heaven!  (Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists actually take this seriously!)

Accepting that death is the end removes the moral ambiguity from saving someone's life (which, if you think about it, is actually an oxymoron.  You can't save someone's life, you can only extend it.)  And this, too, is an essential part of being human.

Being human is fundamentally about struggling because being alive is fundamentally about struggling.  The key to living a good life is not to seek and end the struggle, but to find the right balance so that the struggle doesn't break you but sustains you instead.

So... maybe heaven is an eternity of having just the right amount of struggling, just the right amount of ignorance, just the right amount of laziness and pride and restlessness?  Well, yeah, maybe.  But this doesn't sound to me like what's on offer in Christian heaven.  In Christian heaven, ignorance and pride and laziness and fear and restlessness are unalloyed evils and so are banished forever.  So it's not just that I would get bored after a few trillion years of bliss and then be screwed for all eternity.  I would have to give up some essential parts of my identity on day one.

I suppose a Christian would say: yes, you're exactly right, in order to enter heaven you do have to give up some parts of your identity, specifically, you have to let go of sin.  But to me, the things that I would have to let go of don't feel like sins, they just feel like imperfections.  I don't want to let those go because my ongoing struggle against my imperfections and those of my fellow man is what gets me up in the morning.  If those went away, I honestly don't know what I would do with myself.

So while I can understand the appeal of a promise of eternal bliss, especially for someone who has not been as incredibly fortunate as I have to find the right balance of struggle in their lives, it still feels to me like a bad deal even on its own terms.  And if I'm right and it is a bad deal, then it's worth figuring this out before you get to heaven because once you get there it's too late.  You're screwed.  There is no way out.  It's not like buying into a time-share where you can just write off the loss, learn the lesson, and get on with your life.  Once you get to heaven, that is your life.  Forever.

Be very careful what you wish for.  Especially if the offer is non-refundable.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Impossible Burger is going to change the world

I had heard about the soy-based Impossible Burger a long time ago but they are not yet widely available.  Burger King is launching a pilot program offering Impossible Whoppers (the original of which just happens to be my favorite fast-food burger) but they are only available in the midwest at the moment.  Happily, it turns out that a number of smaller restaurants are offering them where I live, and today I got to try one.

It's not as good as a regular burger.  It's better.  It really does taste like beef, but that description doesn't really do it justice.  Because it's made of soy, which is bland, they have to spice it up (literally) to make it have any flavor at all, and their secret recipe of eleventy-two herbs and spices (I'm guessing) is just incredibly tasty.  It's subtle.  The beefy flavor is the definitely center stage (courtesy of added heme), but it doesn't taste like beef that is straight out of the package.  It tastes like beef that has been lovingly seasoned by Thomas Keller to just the point where none of the additions stands out, but the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  A bit of thyme, a touch of sage, a hint of smokiness.

But the flavor is not the best part, it's the texture.  It not only tastes like beef, it looks and feels like beef, but without any gristle or stray bits of bone and tendon that you sometimes find in some less-than-highest-quality cuts.  Every bite is uniformly perfect, what you'd get if you hand trimmed the absolute finest prime sirloin you could find.

I think this product is going to change the world, not necessarily because it's healthier than beef (the jury is still out on that) but because it's so much more environmentally friendly to produce.  Beef production wreaks holy hell on the environment.  Offering people a greener alternative that doesn't require any compromise in flavor or texture, indeed improves on the original, is going to be huge.  The Impossible Burger is the Tesla Model S of meat.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

We interrupt this blog to bring you a little eureka moment

One of the reasons that my posting has been more sporadic that usual is that I have a few other balls in air at the moment.  One of these is an on-going lecture series about the history of science.  The next installment is on relativity, and in preparation for that I am reading a book called "Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time" by Tim Maudlin.  It has the single most lucid explanation of relativity that I have ever encountered, which can be boiled down to a pithy slogan:
Clocks don't measure time!
What clocks actually measure is the space-time interval between events on the clock's world-line.  That turns out to reduce to what we call "time" if you and the clock are not moving relative to each other.  But if you and the clock are moving relative to each other, then things get weird because, well, clocks don't measure time.  In fact, time is not even a well-defined concept when things are moving relative to each other!

Two surprising consequences of this: first, the speed of light is not constant.  In fact, "the speed of light" is not even a well-defined concept because time is not a well-defined concept, and speed is defined in terms of time.  (In fact, "the speed of X" is not a well-defined concept for any X, because, well, you know.)

(What is true is that the measuring the "speed" of light will give you the same result no matter what reference frame you're in.  But that turns out to be a consequence of the fact that clocks measure space-time intervals rather than time.  It is not, as is often taught, the foundational principle of relativity.  Einstein himself got this wrong.)

The second surprising consequence is that the most common resolution of the "twin paradox" is mistaken.  Maudlin quotes Feynman as the prototypical example:
This is called a “paradox” only by people who believe that the principle of relativity means that that all motion is relative; they say “Heh, heh, heh, from the point of view of Paul can’t we say that Peter was moving and should therefore appear to age more slowly? By symmetry, the only possible result is that both should be the same age when they meet.” But in order for them to come back together and make the comparison Paul must either stop at the end of the trip and make a comparison of clocks, or, more simply, he has to come back, and the one who comes back must be the man who was moving, and he knows this, because he had to turn around. When he turned around, all kinds of things happened in his space-ship—the rockets went off, things jammed up against one wall, and so on—while Peter felt nothing. 
So the way to state the rule is that the man who has felt the accelerations, who has seen things fall against the walls. and so on, is the one who would be the younger; that is the difference between them in an absolute sense, and it is certainly correct.
Maudlin then minces no words:
Everything in this "explanation" is wrong.
That sort of clarity is rare.

(It's actually easy to see that any explanation in terms of acceleration must be wrong because it is easy to set up a "twin paradox" that involves no accelerations: use three clocks all moving in inertial trajectories along the same line.  Clock A starts to the left of clock B and is moving to the right (relative to B).  Clock C starts to the right of clock B and is moving to the left (relative to B).  The initial positions are such that A will be co-located with B before it is co-located with C.  When A meets B, A is set to the time shown on B.  Then, when A meets C, C is set to the time shown on A.  When C meets B, the reading on C will be less than the reading on B despite the fact that none of the clocks have undergone any acceleration.)

Anyway, I thought this was cool and so I thought I'd take a moment to share it.

Secularity and teleology

1.  Introduction

In a previous post I advanced the hypothesis that the seemingly irreconcilable divide between religious and secular outlooks on life can be traced back to whether one chooses to begin one's philosophical inquiries with purpose or mechanism, i.e. whether one accepts teleology, the idea that our conscious experiences are indicative of some kind of purpose, as an axiom.  Jimmy Weiss responded to that (and also to some other points I raised) and here I want to respond to Jimmy.
I wonder if the reason Ron perceives an inordinate preoccupation with teleology among the faithful, is because he is accustomed to making so little of it?
I want to clarify that my hypothesis is emphatically not that the faithful have an "inordinate preoccupation" with teleology, only that they ask the question, "What is the purpose of subjective experience" before they ask the question "what is the mechanism behind subjective experience", whereas secular people reverse the order.  That's all.  The hypothesis is that both sides actually find answers to the respective question they started with, so that by the time they return to the other question they have already built up an intellectual framework into which the answer to the second question must fit.  So by the time a religious person returns to the question of mechanism they already know why they are here (or at least they think they do): God created them.  And any theory of mechanism that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

Likewise, by the time a secular person returns to the question of purpose, they already know how their subjective experience works (or at least they think they do): subjective experience is an "emergent property" of brains, which were built by evolution.  Any theory of purpose that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

And so the two sides are at loggerheads, and each side thinks the other side is populated by either morally rudderless heathens (in the case of the first group) or knuckle-dragging morons (in the case of the second).

It's just a hypothesis.  But it seems to fit the observed data.

If you're a secularist reading this, and you think this is a plausible hypothesis, then one of the practical consequences of this is that we could dramatically improve the effectiveness of our marketing if we had a better story to tell about teleology.  A lot of people yearn for purpose, and "life's a bitch and then you die, and that's just the way it is" is not a very attractive message.

2.  Why I reject Jimmy's wager

One of the interesting (to me) things about Jimmy Weiss's theology is that he is explicitly willing to admit that he could be wrong.  In our previous discussion on Reddit he put the odds at 5%, which is pretty substantial.  His argument for believing in God is not that God is a slam-dunk, but that it makes sense to believe in Him from a game-theoretical point of view: God promises an infinite reward in exchange for belief, and so if you crunch the "numbers" (I put numbers in scare quotes because infinity is not actually a number) it turns out that expected value of belief is infinite even if the odds of God actually existing are finite.

I think this argument is wrong on technical grounds, but one of the things I've learned is that geeking out about these things is very rarely effective.  Instead, the reason that Jimmy's wager doesn't work for me is that I believe that an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.  We are living creatures.  Being mortal is woven deep into the fabric of our being.  We're born, we mature, we have children, we raise them, and then we get out of the way and let them have their turn in the great circle of life.

The appeal of an infinite afterlife depends a lot, I think, on a failure to grasp just how big infinity is.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, infinity is big.  Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  I mean, you may think it's a long time waiting for Christmas morning to arrive, but that's just peanuts compared to infinity.  With infinite time you can read every book in the Library of Babel.  If you put an upper bound -- any upper bound -- on how long a book you're willing to read (100 million pages, say) you can read every one of those books an infinite number of times.  And if you spend even a little time browsing the Library of Babel you will see that reading most of those books is not going to be a lot of fun.

You can read every book, watch every movie, have every conversation that it is possible to have, see every sight, taste every taste, smell every smell, and do all of those things 100 millions times and still not put a dent in infinity.

I think I would be bored out of my mind after a mere trillion years.  I would yearn for oblivion.

So God's reward doesn't sound like a reward to me at all.  In fact, I can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.  This is not to say that I wouldn't like to live longer than I will.  Threescore and ten is a little shorter than I'd like.  But I'll take it over infinity.

3.  Towards a secular teleology

Here I'd like to address the second part of Jimmy's question, the "making so little of it" bit.  I don't make "so little" of it.  I want life to have a purpose.  But just because I'm not given a purpose by God doesn't mean I don't or can't have a purpose.  It's possible that I am given a purpose by nature, or it's possible that I can create my own purpose.  I think both of these are actually the case, and I think that idea-ism can serve as a basis not just for a secular morality but also for a secular teleology (for those who care about that sort of thing).  That could (and probably should) be its own post, but I'll just say this for now: I find it very fulfilling to learn about other people's ideas, and to come up with and promulgate ideas of my own (that's one of the reasons I write this blog).  But more than that, I think it's constructive.  I think it makes the world, at least in a small way, a better place.  If I write something that someone reads and enjoys, for whatever reason, then I've increased the net goodness in the world, and that makes me happy (that's why I like getting feedback).  There's also the chance that my words could outlive my body and give me a kind of immortality, one that won't actually turn into torture.

4.  Geeking out about the excluded middle

I don't quite understand why this is turning out to be such a big deal, but Jimmy keeps beating on the excluded middle so I feel the need to beat back, because I really do reject this:
Donald Trump either is, or he is not, a scoundrel.  One or the other must be true, if anything particular is meant by the word “scoundrel”.
The word "scoundrel" definitely has a meaning (it means "a dishonest or unscrupulous person") but that doesn't mean that the statement "X is a scoundrel" is either true or false.  Scoundrel-ness is a continuum, not a dichotomy (though Donald Trump seems to be to be a rather extreme outlier on the scoundrelly side of the scale, so perhaps that wasn't the best example).  But there are lots and lots of things like this where the truth or falseness of a statement doesn't turn on opinion or subjective experience, but rather on the lack of sharp dividing line (e.g. "A million dollars is a lot of money") or a counterfactual ("If the Russians had not meddled, Hillary would have won") or the lack of an objective referent ("Batman would beat Superman").

And, to give an example that I think falls afoul of more than one of these and is actually relevant to this discussion: "God is good."  Maybe I'll make that the topic of my next post.


It is worth noting that, despite the fact that all of the above is part of an on-going discussion with a young-earth creationist, absolutely none of it had anything to do with the age of the earth.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Why you should care about what a YEC thinks

I've had a number of people contact me off-line to tell me that they, like Don Geddis, are not at all interested in this whole YEC thing.  This response was typical:
I am [a] European, and I am sure you, at least from a general and abstract point of view, understand that the USA are not the World, and that some of the things  that seems so important to you, are just the construct of what the USA culture, politics, history etc ... but are just, to people from other backgrounds one of the many USA weirdness (as I am sure there are European weirdness, Swedish weirdness etc.). 
IMVHO, YEC and the need to argue with them, is one of those.
I actually didn't realize until I did some research prompted by the above correspondence that YEC is indeed a uniquely American phenomenon.  I was under the impression that it was world-wide, and in fact there are a lot of non-American non-Christian creationists in general (most Muslims are OECs).  But young earth creationism does appear to be uniquely American (and Christian).  I didn't know that.

But all this is not about YEC per se.  This is an exercise in trying to find common ground with someone with whom I vehemently disagree, and to see if I can learn some lessons from the experience that generalize to other domains.  I ended up partnering with a YEC in part because that just happened to be the kind of person I could find who was willing to engage with me.  I would have happily done this with a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness (I've actually had a few conversations with Witnesses and found them to be quite knowledgable and intellectually honest.  But it's a very small sample size.) but it turns out to be really hard to find people willing to engage in this sort of thing, and even fewer who are willing to be intellectually honest about it.  (If you want to volunteer, please let me know!)

I happen to think that it's a good thing that I'm doing this with a YEC in part because the scientific evidence against YEC is so overwhelming.  Figuring out how an intellectually honest person can sustain such a belief is, I think, interesting just in and of itself.  It is not a simple matter of "cognitive dissonance" as Don Geddis has glibly claimed.  Cognitive dissonance simply means "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes."  In other words, CD is just a label for the phenomenon, it's not an explanation.

Whoever you are, American or European, religious or not, the world is full of people with whom you will vehemently disagree about something.  Responding to that by retreating into enclaves of like-minded people is not going to produce good outcomes in the long run.  This planet is only so big, and at some point you are almost certainly going to have to interact in some way with someone with whom you vehemently disagree.  The world will be a better place if more people learn how to do it without resorting to violence.  Even if you don't have to deal with Islamic State in your back yard, there could be other religious fundamentalists closer to home.

If you happen to be religious, you might want to follow this exercise (or even engage in it yourself) because it turns out that atheism is on the rise in the U.S.  Atheists now outnumber evangelicals -- narrowly at the moment, but the trend is solidly  in our favor.  (If you're a social conservative, which is strongly correlated with being evangelical, things are looking particularly grim for you in the long run.)  You might want to get to know us better, and in particular, find out why we "choose to reject God's grace", and why we nevertheless do not in fact rape and pillage despite having no apparent moral compass.

Finally, if you're a Christian but not a YEC (I'm looking at you, Publius) then you have a theological difference that you might want to try to resolve.  At the very least, you differ in the interpretation of Genesis.  Are you sure you understand YEC hermeneutics (never mind the science) well enough to definitively rule it out as a possibility?  Because if you can't, then it's possible that you're making a mistake that will impact your prospects of salvation.

Just sayin'.

Friday, April 05, 2019

[Crickets chirping]

At the bottom of each Rondam Ramblings post is a set of four "reaction boxes".  Three of them are labelled "Right on", "Bogus", and "Thought-provoking".  These are there so that readers can weigh in with an opinion about the post with a minimum of fuss.  Of course, readers can leave comments too, but if anyone feels like they don't really have anything substantive enough to say in a comment, or if they just don't want to be bothered, they can express a point of view with a simple click.

There's a fourth reaction box labelled "Read it".  That's there for people who don't have an opinion one way or the other, but still want to let me know that they read the piece and appreciated the effort that went into writing it.  Comments, and the tallies on those reaction boxes, are the only compensation I get for writing this blog, and it's enough.  This blog is a hobby, and just knowing that someone is reading it and finds it worthwhile is enough to keep me going.  Not everything I post garners comments, but it has been a very long time since I've posted something that absolutely no one responded to, not even by clicking on "read it".

Well, the last two entries I posted, the ones about my adventures in YEC-land, have gotten zero reactions, and the only substantive comment they garnered was from Don Geddis, who went out of his way to tell me that he didn't really care.  Apparently, he wasn't the only one, and that's kind of depressing.  Writing those posts took a lot of effort, and I have a hard time believing that they are really the most uninteresting thing I've posted since I added reaction boxes to the site.

Anyway, that's one reason it is taking me a long time to post a response to Jimmy Weiss's latest posts.  The lack of encouragement on the first installment has been a little deflating.  (I'm also dealing with some personal matters and private correspondence.)  If you really don't care, well, so be it (though in that case I would appreciate some feedback on what you would like me to write about.  There are 122 of you who have subscribed to this blog, surely there's something you're interested in seeing here?)  But if you do, a simple click can provide a lot of encouragement.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Can a Scientist find common ground with a young-earth creationist?

This is a response to this post by Jimmy Weiss.  For more background, see this.

Let me start with the positive: I am grateful to Jimmy for taking the time to write his article.  I asked him to do it because we had been having a very cordial, constructive, and, at least for me, instructive discussion on Reddit and I wanted to be able to share that with a wider audience.

Second, one of the things that impressed me about Jimmy was his intellectual honesty.  In my experience, many Christians when confronted with some of the more odious parts of the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) become defensive, or even get offended.  Jimmy didn't.  He tackled all of my questions head-on without ever flinching.  Needless to say I was not much persuaded by his answers, but just the fact that he was willing and able to provide them at all impressed me.  I actually learned a lot.

Third, I think we really do have some common ground.  Jimmy is willing to take math and science pretty seriously, and I (I like to think) am willing to concede when my position is on less-than-rock-solid ground.  For example, I believe that life began through a process of abiogenesis despite the fact that science has not yet figured out how it happened, or even how it could have happened.  There's a lot of (plausible, at least to me) speculation about how it might have happened but no one has yet been able to convincingly fill in the details.  Nonetheless, I believe very strongly that science will eventually fill in the details, but at this point that is an article of faith.  Yes, science has a pretty good track record of filling in details (which is the basis of my faith) but as investment advisors perennially remind us: past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Unfortunately, that's kind of where my optimism ends with regards to Jimmy's article.  He starts out with his own speculation about our common ground:
I believe that Ron and I are agreed on all but one of these preconditions.  As I understand them, in order for us to be able to make any sense at all of the universe, we have to accept a few basic axioms.  The first is that the laws of logic are absolutely true.  These laws include: 
(A) The Law of Identity, which states that something is what it is, and whatever exists must have a specific nature. 
(B) The Law of Non-Contradiction, which states that something cannot be itself and not itself at the same time, in the same way, and in the same sense. 
(C) The Law of Excluded Middle, which states that a statement is either true or false, with no third option.
He doesn't say which of the three is the one I'm presumed not to agree with, but in fact I don't agree with any of those three.  I have a pretty nuanced view of ontology, so I don't accept the continuity of identity in general, and certainly not as an axiom.  (I have no idea how Jimmy got the idea that I would accept this.  I pointed him to the 31 Flavors article several times, and we never actually discussed this "law of identity".)

His formulation of the "law of non-contradiction" gets into the same muddy waters as continuity of identity. I certainly accept something that could be called a "law of non-contradiction", but I wouldn't characterize it the way he does in terms of "things being themselves".  I would simply say that if you find yourself having concluded that P is true and NOT P is also true, then you've done something wrong.

With regards to the law of the excluded middle, there are clearly statements for which this is not true, e.g. "Donald Trump is a scoundrel" or "Polar bears are beautiful." Even seemingly straightforward statements like "Socrates is a man" can be problematic. That statement was (probably) true at one time, but it isn't true any more because Socrates is dead.

So I'm going to just ignore all that and take my own stab at a starting point that I think (hope?) Jimmy (and everyone else) will agree with.

I hereby propose the following hypothesis (or perhaps I should say "I hold this truth to be self-evident"):
The most reliable information you can possibly have about reality is your own subjective experiences.
It seems self-evident to me because your own subjective experience is the only information that you actually have direct access to.  I dub this Ron's Law of Reality or RLR just so we can refer to it.  Note that by "subjective experience" I include things like the subjective experience of reading a book or having a conversation with someone or seeing someone perform a scientific experiment, or even performing one yourself.

I don't know if the RLR is actually self-evident, but just in case it isn't let me advance an argument for it: think about what it would be like to receive reliable information about reality that was not part of your subjective experience.  Somehow you would find yourself knowing something, but you would have no idea how you came to know it.  Not only that, but you would not even be aware that you possessed this knowledge, because that awareness itself would be part of your subjective experience.  That knowledge and the means by which it was acquired would have to somehow be completely hidden from your conscious self.

Now, there are some things that are kinda sorta like that.  For example, your heart beats whether or not you are aware of it, and so you might say that you "have information" about how to make your heart beat even though you are completely unaware of what that information is or how you got it.  I would say in that case that this information is not resident in "you", it is resident in your body, and your body is not you.  The you to which the RLR refers is the thought processes inside your brain, or, if you prefer, your soul.  (In that regard you (pun intended) could consider the RLR to be a tautology because I've simply defined "you" as "that which has subjective experiences.")

Assuming you're still with me on that, I think we can go a little further before we really start to diverge.  There are some aspects of subjective experience that are common to the vast majority of human beings.  For example, our subjective experience divides up into two regimes, which we call "being awake" and "dreaming".  "Being awake" is more coherent than "dreaming".  In both regimes we perceive the existence of other agents with which we interact, but the cast of characters across episodes of "being awake" tends to change more slowly than it does between episodes of "dreaming".  Furthermore, "being awake" is subject to more uniform laws and constraints than "dreaming".  When we are awake there is a lot of regularity and limitations: we can't fly unassisted.  The sun and planets move in predictable patterns.  And, moreover, everyone agrees on a vast range of these experiences while "being awake" whereas everyone's subjective experience while "dreaming" seems to diverge.  Different people have different dreams, but, at least to a certain extent, we all seem to have very similar subjective experiences while "being awake" (though even here there are divergences, such as the question of whether or not something tastes good).

All this is, I hope, uncontroversial, perhaps even to the point of tiresomely belaboring the obvious.  But bear with me, there is a reason for this, because what I am going to say next is going to be far less obvious.  The divergence between science and religion occurs, I believe, in what happens next: having lived for a while and accumulated some subjective experiences, a human being naturally comes to ask some Deep Questions.  In particular, I think there are two different Deep Questions that people naturally ask.  They are both perfectly good questions, but which one you choose to ask first has a profound impact on your thought processes from that point on.

The first Deep Question is: What are the laws that govern my subjective experiences? (And in particular, what are the laws that govern the regularities of Being Awake)?

The second Deep Question is: What is the purpose of my having subjective experiences in the first place?

My thesis is that the first question leads to science, the second to religion.

(N.B. I am using the word "purpose" here to refer to what philosophers call teleology.  To restate my thesis in more technical terms, the difference between science and religion is that religion accepts teleology as an axiom (or at least as a possibility worth putting considerable effort into pursuing) and science doesn't.  I'm sure this is not an original idea, but it doesn't seem to be very widely appreciated either.)

I am a Scientist (which I capitalize to distinguish it from being a lower-case scientist, who is someone who does science for a living.  An upper-case Scientist is someone who accepts science as a reliable process for learning about reality) so I choose (or perhaps chose in the dim and distant past) to ask the first question.  But there's nothing wrong with asking the second question instead.  It's a perfectly respectable question.  And if you choose to ask that instead it leads down a very different road.

For starters, in order to ask what the purpose of having subjective experience is you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible for there to be such a purpose, otherwise the question makes no sense.  Likewise, if you are going to ask the first question then you have to accept as an axiom that it is at least possible that there are laws that govern the regularities of subjective experience (at least those parts that have regularities).

If you start with the first question, then you discover that there are laws that govern a lot of our subjective experiences, at least the wakeful ones.  Moreover, these laws are at root quite simple and elegant and have very wide-ranging applicability.  The heavens are not, as the ancients once believed, fundamentally different from the earth.  The stars are made from the same stuff that we are and operate according to the same laws.  It all hangs together quite nicely, and by the time you learn enough of it you get to the point where if someone proposes something to you that doesn't fit the laws of physics you reject it out of hand because it just doesn't make sense at this point that some random thing should violate the laws of physics.


If you start with the second question, and hence the presumption that it is at least possible for there to be a purpose to subjective experience, then Jimmy Weiss's arguments start to make a lot more sense.  That argument goes something like this (and Jimmy, please correct me if I get part of this badly wrong):

The subjective experiences we have while we are awake are very powerful evidence that there exists some kind of objective reality which we call the universe (on this religion and science mostly agree).  The natural next question to ask, if you're on the teleology track, is: what is the role of the universe in the purpose of our subjective experience (which is, keep in mind, what we are endeavoring to discover)?  And the natural answer is that the universe exists for the purpose of allowing us to exist so that we can have subjective experiences.  In other words, it was made for us.

(Or something like that.)

By the time both camps get around to asking Where did the universe come from? they have already diverged past the point of reconciliation.  Science gets you to the Big Bang, at which point it kind of throws up its hands (at least for now) and says, "We just don't know."  But more than that, science says, "It's OK that we don't know.  Not knowing is a perfectly normal state of affairs.  We'll figure it out some day.  In the meantime, don't worry about it."

But if you're on the teleology track, not knowing how the universe came about is not OK because it leaves a crucial question unanswered: if the universe was made for us, who (or what) made it?  A universe made for us but by nothing makes no sense.  Remember, we're assuming teleology (or at least the possibility) as an axiom here.  It might be possible that the universe was created by nothing, but that is (on the teleological view) the kind of extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence, and ignorance doesn't qualify.  We have to keep looking for the answer.  And, happily for us, there is an answer: the universe was made by an exceptionally powerful, potentially ineffable entity, i.e. a deity, who made it for us, and hence cares about us.

And it's all downhill from there.  (Note that I don't mean that to be pejorative, though I did mean it to be slightly humorous.  What I mean is that once you get this far, the remaining arguments are pretty straightforward by comparison.)

One of the things that atheists often ask about religious people, and particularly about YEC's is, "How can they possibly believe that crazy shit?"  Because some of the things that YECs believe make absolutely no sense whatsoever in light of modern scientific knowledge.  The difference in the age of the universe between the YEC view and the modern scientific view is six or seven orders of magnitude.  That's the equivalent of estimating the distance from Los Angeles to New York as a couple of millimeters.  It's simply ridiculous.

Well, the way they get to believe "this crazy shit" is (I claim) by starting with the teleological question and taking it very seriously.  For a scientist, an answer that is wildly at odds with the data makes no sense.  But for a YEC, an answer that denies the existence of purpose (or even merely throws in the towel) makes no sense.  So... the universe must have been created by a deity for us, and who therefore cares about us.  How do we make progress from there?  Well, it seems reasonable that if such a deity existed, it would have made arrangements (because it cares) for us to make further progress, and lo and behold there is this book that purports to be exactly that (that is, the means for making further progress).

On this view, the Bible is not mythology, it's the fulfillment of a prediction made by our theory!  And it provides a very satisfying answer to the teleological question: our purpose is to reconnect with  this deity that created us!  And, as a bonus, that reconnection will right all of the wrongs that have happened in this life, so not only do we get an answer to the Big Question, we also get an eternal and infinite reward!  What reasonable person could possibly argue with that?

And this is the reason I respect Jimmy Weiss.  He really takes this seriously.  If the Bible really is the Word of God, then it must be the case that the universe was created in six days, because that's what the Bible says.  I have a lot more respect for that than I do for self-identified Christians who cherry-pick the Bible.

It's no crazier on its face than accepting that we don't really exist, that objective reality is an illusion, because that's what Schroedinger's equation says.  It is in this regard, in our willingness to unflinchingly accept the logical consequences of our core beliefs even when they turn out to be deeply unintuitive, that I consider myself and Jimmy Weiss to be kindred spirits despite the fact that we end up in very different places at the end.