Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reflections on life and death

Later today I’m getting on a plane to travel to Utah to attend a family funeral. It’s a difficult time for the whole family, as there have been two horribly tragic deaths in the family in the last few days. Not only have I been grieving for these losses, but it also brings back a lot of other feelings for me, especially about the deaths of my dad in 1976 and my mom in 2003.

My dad’s death was incredibly painful to me. We had always been very close, but only a few weeks before he died he and I had spent almost an entire month on a road trip together. When he died suddenly (and way too young) from a massive heart attack that February afternoon I was devastated. It was a long time before I felt okay again. I still miss him.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life was to give a tribute to my mom at her funeral. Mom’s death was not totally unexpected, as she had been fighting cancer for some time, but still it was sudden and something I was mentally unprepared for. I knew she was sick, but I expected her to pull through and live another twenty years, so when I heard the news I was again devastated. I had not planned to speak at Mom’s funeral service, but my sisters somehow managed to convince me that I ought to be the one to give a tribute from the children. How I was able to keep it together enough to give any kind of decent tribute I still don't know.

A real difficulty I faced was how to be true to my own “materialistic” views yet honor the religious feelings of Mom and the rest of the family, especially at a time when so much comfort comes from the hope and faith that religion can give. Everyone in the family of course knows we don’t share the same ideas about religion, but that has not (maybe surprisingly) been a real source of conflict. As my mom told me more than once, “I don’t know how it’s going to work, but you have a good heart and I know you are going to be all right in the end.” I hope you’re right, Monz, I hope you're right.

At her funeral service I told a few remembrances and stories about her, and talked about some recent experiences she and I had shared. I concluded by saying that I hoped we would do what it takes for us to all be together again, and I quoted from the end of C.S. Lewis’ story The Last Battle, challenging us all to go “higher up and further in.” We both loved that part at the end which speaks of “beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

I’m sure more than one person who heard my talk that day was intrigued by my call to do what it takes to be together again, because on the face of it, this sounds like something a religious believer would say. The explanation for this, as well as the scare quotes on “materialistic” in the paragraph above, may take a bit to explain, and some effort to understand, but I’ll give it a try.

One underlying fact is just the theme of this blog: we know we don’t know everything. Setting aside for a moment the implications that fact may have for belief in existing traditional religions, and staying strictly within a rationalistic, materialistic framework, given the uncertainty that the humble inquirer must acknowledge, who can say confidently what limits exist regarding what can be known or accomplished? For example, we know that everything that happens leaves its ripples on the universe, so is information ever truly lost? The general consensus among physicists is no, it is not. Then is it really possible to rule out, in principle, the prospect of bringing people back to life, keeping in mind we might have googolplexes of years, and conceivably googolplexes of universes to work with? As a matter of fact, under the Multiverse view that many mainstream physicists hold, not only is this possible, it is definitely true with a probability of one. This and many related ideas are explored in my friend Michael Perry’s book Forever For All.

If/when this is accomplished, it will be by the actions of beings with Enlightened Self Interest who lovingly want to bring about the maximum goodness that can be attained. Whatever your theory of value, if anything has value human life does, so that will certainly be something that must be considered in any plan for maximum happiness. It seems to me that living an orderly, compassionate life right now is a remarkably helpful thing in advancing to a time where we can fix up everything that is currently broken. So that’s the explanation for my “doing what it takes to be together again” remark. Reflecting on it right now, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to fit that belief into (an appropriately expanded) religious framework. Which is why I put “materialistic” in quotes.

There is a lot of uncertainty about these ideas, but as I strongly believe and have mentioned earlier in this blog, that's okay, uncertainty is good. I like this quote, from Ursula K. Le Guin: “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” And I like these lines from one of Paul Simon’s recent songs:

My children are laughing, not a whisper of care
My love is brushing her long chestnut hair
I don't believe a heart can be filled to the brim
Then vanish like mist as though life were a whim

Maybe and maybe and maybe some more
Maybe’s the exit that I’m looking for

Acts of kindness
Like rain in a drought
Release the spirit with a whoop and a shout

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Convergence 08 conference

I just got back from the Convergence 08 conference. I was conflicted about whether to go because I have been trying to minimize distractions while writing, but the topics and people at that conference were just so close a match to the themes of my book that I really had to go, and I'm glad I did.

The format was an unconference, which allows a lot of flexibility in what attendees get out of the event. In my case, I was able to spend several hours talking to really smart people about nanotech, consciousness, AI, cognitive enhancement, and of course, writing. I ran a discussion group on the topic of "Convergence and Near-term Speculative Fiction" which was very useful and interesting, not least because in that group I met a professor of English literature specializing in speculative fiction who also teaches composition. He agreed to give me some feedback on my writing, which I'm (somewhat nervously) excited to get.

There was a session called something like "Limits of Knowledge" which conflicted with something else I wanted to attend, but sounded interesting, particularly since I have recently spent some time trying to understand a paper by David Wolpert on just this topic. Wolpert, a researcher in physics and computer science at NASA, purports to show that (a) it is impossible to have an "inference machine" (basically any physical device, with or without human input) which is capable of predicting everything that can happen in its universe, and (b) at most one inference machine can fully predict the behavior of all other inference machines in its universe. These results hold independent of the laws of physics of a given universe, so they are presumably valid across the (capital "M") Multiverse of all possible universes.

I can't say I fully understand the arguments in detail, but Wolpert is using a variation on Cantor's diagonalization method, similar to Turing's proof that it is impossible to come up with a guaranteed way of determining whether an arbitrary program+input will halt. If Wolpert's results hold, it means that not only do we not know everything, it is impossible in principle to know everything. Of course, the proof does not say precisely what we can know; it just constructs an example of something that no inference machine can know. (Along the way Wolpert also gives a formal definition of what it means to "know" something, which is also interesting, but one topic at a time!)

I've been wondering what the implications of this might be for simulated universes in which the entity running the simulation introduces knowledge into the simulation. Would this possibility get around Wolpert's results? I suspect not, given that even with the addition of an oracle, Turing's halting paradox still exists: no oracle machine is capable of solving its own halting problem. The parallel to Wolpert is that even though one might think that any question about the simulated universe could be answered by those running the simulation, the true "universe" (which includes the simulator itself) cannot know everything about itself, which raises the question of whether it is possible to know everything about the simulation.

In any case, this all just reinforces my agreement with J.B.S. Haldane: "I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I am a bad blogger

I've been so distracted with the financial meltdown, the presidential election, and working on my book that I have neglected to do any updates here. But just in case anyone was worried that I had accidentally eaten yellow snow or fallen prey to some other peril of the North, I thought I'd better post something here.

I've been making slow but steady progress on my book. I enjoy working on it a lot, once I get going, but as I said, it's been hard to keep my focus. I still hope to finish most of it by next spring, especially since due to the financial crisis I'll almost certainly have to go back to work then. Sigh.

Just to mention something in line with my "theme" of humble inquiry, I recently learned a new word: agnotology. It refers to the study of ignorance and doubt that are deliberately manufactured in order to obscure an issue or justify a course of action. A prime example can be seen in the actions of the tobacco companies, which for years attempted to create doubts about what was, in fact, a scientific consensus on the dangers of smoking. Other examples include dangers of pollution, climate change, radiometric dating, and ... the possibility of a black hole headed for the solar system! Ha ha!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Arctic Circle. Where exactly is it?

Yesterday I took a tour by bus from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle. It's about 200 miles away by road, most of it on gravel on the Dalton Highway, a 414 mile long road that goes up to Deadhorse, Alaska, paralleling the Alaska Pipeline. Originally I was planning to drive myself, but after reading up on it a bit it looked like I would avoid a lot of risk by going up with a tour group. I'm glad I did. The weather was nasty, there were a zillion trucks, and I got piles of local lore from the tour guide, Mike. We lucked out getting him. He's a local graduate student getting his PhD in Comparative Philosophy who works part time as a guide. He is a heck of a nice guy, as well as being extremely well-spoken and knowledgeable. We got to hear a lot of stories, given that we left around 6:30 AM and didn't get back to Fairbanks until after 11:00 PM.

To make the trip memorable, Mike made a big fuss about denoting exactly where the Arctic Circle was. After we arrived he rolled out a red carpet in front of the sign so that the second "A" in "ALASKA" was centered on a dashed line on the carpet. He said that was the exact location of the "average" Arctic Circle, given that the North Pole wanders about a bit, which affects where the Arctic Circle passes. We all had pictures taken of us crossing into the arctic.

I chuckled to myself at the unrealistic accuracy of the little ceremony, but then on the way home I wondered just how precisely you could know where the Arctic Circle is. Well, the exact position turns out to depend on a number of factors:
  • The position of the North Pole. It wanders around a few meters on the timescale of a year. Its future motions cannot be precisely predicted, since they are mostly due to variations in ocean temperature, salinity, and currents.
  • Changes in the obliquity of the ecliptic, the tilt of the earth with respect to the Earth-Sun plane. That changes in a 41,000 year cycle in a complex manner. Currently it is changing in such a way that the Arctic Circle is moving about 15 meters per year north. So the sign is very unlikely to be in the right spot now!
  • The tilt is also affected by nutation, which is the combined effect of the planets and Sun (mostly the Moon and Sun) on the bulge of the Earth. It can affect the position of the Arctic Circle up to 300 meters or so, depending where we are in another complex cycle of around 19 years.
These factors can be predicted to a precision of a few meters, and measured to a precision of a few centimeters. After looking into this, I'd be surprised if the second "A" of ALASKA in that sign is within even 50 meters of the "true" circle. I guess Mike suspected something along those lines. because on the way out we drove north about a km or so before heading back south to Fairbanks. Good thing we did.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

So this is a blog. Huh.

It seems a few people have been interested in my little Alaskan Writing Adventure, so rather than send email updates I decided to create a blog. I suspect I'll mostly be talking about my travels and writing, but along the way I may have a few other musings to throw in.

The title "Humble Inquirer" reflects one of the themes I think is important, namely, that we should be curious about the world, but at the same time recognize that every time we learn something new, even more new questions arise. We're making progress, but that just allows us to stand on higher ground, where we can see more clearly how much we don't know.  Sometimes people, (often really smart, knowledgeable people) forget this.

Imagine two people from a primitive tribe watching a river flow into the sea. One turns to the other and says "Notice that water only ever goes into the sea. It's only a matter of time until we all drown." I've forgotten where I first read this analogy, but it's very apt. Without the whole picture it's easy to arrive at a very plausible — but very wrong — conclusion. We know we don't have the whole picture; not even close. The good news, of course, is that the curious among us are not likely to get bored any time soon. Learning always results in an ever expanding horizon of ignorance. That's a good thing.