Sunday, October 21, 2018

Mind Games

Subatomic particle

I am just finishing up Adam Becker’s book What Is Real? about the relationship between quantum physics and the real world it is supposed to represent. Becker tells a good story, especially as an introduction to the world of quantum physics, the players over the years, and the intellectual principles involved. His basic premise is that, while the equations that physicists use to predict the outcome of their experiments—and so test the value of those equations as representations of the underlying world of the very small—have consistently proven their worth, the physicists themselves remain in doubt as to whether the world that they are describing actually exists.

Without going into the entire book chapter by chapter, the issue seems to be one of describing a world so small that we cannot detect it without changing it. Atoms and their component protons, neutrons, and electrons—plus all the other subatomic particles in the Standard Model—are not fixed in space like pins on a board. As with everything else, they move, as do galaxies, stars, and planets. However, instead of occupying observable orbits and tracks across the night sky, atoms mostly vibrate with the energy of what’s called “Brownian motion,” and electrons buzz frantically and randomly around their nuclei like flies in a cathedral.

We can detect the larger celestial bodies—and even masses as small as freight trains and automobiles—with visible light without the danger moving or deflecting them much. Bounce a few hundred thousand photons off a teacup, and you will not move it one millimeter. But the subatomic particles are so small that the wavelength of light we can see is so long that it misses the particle entirely, passing over and under it with no impact. Imagine that the wavelength is a long piece of rope that two girls are spinning in a game of Double Dutch. If a human-sized person enters the game and performs unskillfully, the rope has every chance of hitting—that is detecting—his or her body. But if a flea jumps through the game area, the chances of that long, curved rope ever touching its body become vanishingly small.

To detect subatomic particles, physicists must use other particles, as if in a game of subatomic billiards, or photons with much shorter wavelengths and thus having much higher energies. A high-energy photon impacting a moving electron or proton will change its direction of motion. So the issue in quantum physics is that when you locate the particle you are observing here, it’s now no longer there but going somewhere else. In quantum physics terms, no particle has an exact position until it’s observed, and then it has some other position or direction of movement in response to the observation. Mathematically, the particle’s supposed position can only be defined by probability—actually, a continuous wave function that defines various probable positions—and this wave “collapses” into a single definite position at the place and time of your observation.

Well and good. This is what we can know—all that we can know for sure—in the world of the very small.

The first issue that Becker’s book takes up is that most of the original proponents of quantum physics, including Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, adopted this lack certain knowledge to an extreme. Called the “Copenhagen interpretation,” after Bohr’s institute in Denmark, their view insists that the entire point of quantum physics is the manipulation of the results of observation. The measurements themselves, and the mathematics that makes predictions about future measurements, are the only things that have meaning in the real world. The measurements are not proof that subatomic particles even exist, and the mathematics are not proof that the particles are doing what we think they’re doing. To me, this is like calculating the odds on seeing a particular hand come up in a poker game, or counting the run of cards in a blackjack game, and then insisting that the cards, the games, and the players themselves don’t necessarily exist. It’s just that the math always works.

Other physicists—including Albert Einstein—have been challenging this interpretation for years. Mostly, they pose thought experiments and new mathematical formulas to prove them. But the Copenhagen interpretation persists among quantum physicists.

A second issue in the quantum world is the nature of “entanglement.” Here two particles—two atoms, two electrons, two photons, or two other bits of matter that is sometimes energy, or matter that oscillates with wave-like energy, or waves that at the instant of detection appear as singular objects—become joined so that what one of them does, the other will do. This joining and the parallel actions persist through random occurrences—such as passing through a polarized screen—and are communicated instantly across distances that would violate the limit of light-speed travel for any object or piece of information. Here is the sort of “spooky action at a distance” that Einstein derided as a violation of general relativity.

A third issue in quantum physics is the nature of Schrödinger’s cat. To illustrate the limitations of measurement, Erwin Schrödinger proposed the thought experiment of putting a cat in a sealed box with an apparatus that releases a poison when triggered by the decay of an atomic isotope. Since the atomic decay is unpredictable, the cat in the box might be alive or already dead. It was Schrödinger’s point that until an observer opens the box, the cat exists in two “superposed” states—both alive and dead at the same time, expressed by a wave function of probability—and that the wave function does not collapse and reveal the cat’s final nature until the box is opened. As a thought experiment, this is a metaphor for measurement and observation. But some physicists insist that the superposition is real. The actual cat is physically both alive and dead until discovered.

This superposition has led some physicists to describe a splitting of the universe at the point of the box’s opening: one universe proceeds with a physicist holding a live cat; the other with a physicist mourning a dead cat. This is the “many worlds” interpretation. Both universes are equally valid, and both continue forward in time until the next quantum change that forces each universe to split again in some other way.1

Now, I freely confess that I do not have the mathematical skills to understand the equations of quantum physics. And mercifully, Adam Becker’s book does not focus on or discuss the math in detail, just the thought experiments and their supposed meaning. I also confess that I do not understand what condition enables two particles or two waves to become “entangled,” or how they interact at a distance in this state, or what might be required to untangle them. Becker does not explain any of this, either. Further, I confess that I can sometimes be simpleminded, rather literal and obvious about what I see, hear, and know, and oblivious to distinctions and nuances that other people perceive easily.

But, that said, it would seem to me that what we have here is a misinterpretation of a metaphor. The limitations of observation and measurement, as expressed in colliding particles and probabilistically dead cats, are simply reminders that we do not have direct perception of the quantum world in the same way that we can see, hear, touch, and taste, if necessary, a steam locomotive or a billiard ball. That’s a good thing to keep in mind: we don’t have all knowledge about all things. However, to insist that this metaphorical reminder means that quantum physicists are simply doing math, and that their calculations—no matter how enticingly predictive—have no meaning in the real world, that quantum physics is just a mind game … that’s taking things too literally.

I have criticized the use of mathematics to prove the improbable before.2 And I insist again that, if all you’ve got is a series of equations to prove your point, you may just be playing mind games with yourself and your fellow physicists. But the reverse is also true: the real world must exist at the quantum level. If the math works out, if the vision behind it holds together, then it must be describing something that has actual substance and energy. The details may not be exactly as we understand them. The description may be missing some elements, forces, or bits of math that we haven’t worked out yet. But the world must exist in the smallness of subatomic particles as much as it does in the vastness of stars and galaxies.

The math doesn’t exist in a quiet vacuum. The cards, the game, and the players must also exist to give the calculations meaning.

1. I have cheerfully used the many-worlds interpretation in my novel The Children of Possibility, about time travelers from the far future, and in its prequel The House at the Crossroads. But I know I’m having fun and don’t take this stuff too seriously. So much fun, in fact, that I’m now working on the sequel that picks up where Children left off.

2. See Fun with Numbers (I) and (II) from September 19 and 26, 2010.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Courage in Authority

King Lear’s Fool

King Lear’s Fool

We have a young man on the board of directors of our condominium homeowners association who is consistently negative. He routinely predicts disaster in every situation. If someone proposes a solution, he calls for more consultants, more bids, more analysis, more legal review. He always criticizes proposals and decisions by other board members for their lack of “doing their homework” and “due diligence,” or their failure of “fiduciary responsibility.” If he offers a solution of his own, it is numbingly complex—if not self-contradictory—and hedged with so many technical and legal caveats that it becomes simply unworkable.

He has been responsible at times for bringing the entire organization into a state of paralysis. And if other board members vote for a motion that seeks to override his objections, he always votes against it or abstains, in order to preserve his right to later criticize the decision. Yet he never considers—or offers to take responsibility for—the negative consequences of action postponed or prevented by his criticisms and time and money spent on considering his objections.

If this young man, his attitude, and his effect on the organization were unique to our homeowners association, this might make a good story but would hardly rise above a curious local anecdote. The truth is, we see this kind of negativity too often in our current politics on both a local and a national level—and too often in the corporate and other spheres. Problems are insurmountable. Solutions are insufficient, infeasible, unprincipled, illegal, or unconstitutional. Nothing can be done but, at the same time, the situation cannot be allowed to continue.

The position of the naysayer, the delayer, and the critic is an easy one to assume. It involves no great courage to demand that the organization take more time to consider, seek another opinion, gather more data, investigate all possibilities.1 The organization usually places no blame if we don’t perform an action, approve a decision, praise or support a member, or confirm a vendor. For if the action or decision is not made, or the person or situation is left in a state of uncertainty, there is no discernible result that might later be examined and criticized. It’s a no-lose position for any member of a group to take.

What requires courage is to take action, make a decision, or give your approval and blessing to another person or group. Of course, the action might fail, the decision lead to disaster, and the person in question turn out to be a liar, a thief, or a scoundrel. Those possibilities always exist. The best that anyone can do is make a judgment based on available data, personal experience, imaginative projection, good founding principles, and common sense. After that, the outcome is in the realm of probability or—in an older view—the lap of the gods.

Any position of authority requires such courage. Even when an organization has a second in command, a board of directors or council of advisors, a legal and technical staff, and an on-site actuary, most decisions come down to one person willing to act—or to formulate and spread a vision upon which others can take action. Any deliberative body, like a senate, assembly, parliament, or a condo board will, on any one issue, look to the person who will take the lead to find or imagine a solution, provide arguments for it, defend it against its critics and naysayers, and call for action or a vote.

That person must inspire confidence among those who will vote for the solution or be required to act on its implementation. They must believe he or she is a person of integrity, sound judgment, and experience. Moreover, they must believe he or she is acting in the organization’s best interest and not for personal advantage.

But still, the person in authority is taking a risk. If the action or solution fails, the proposer or promoter will be labeled a failure along with it. Even if the proposal had a unanimous vote behind it, the leader who complains, “But we all agreed …” is taking a weak position. The rest of the organization will simply respond, “Yes, but we agreed with you!

This is why we ask of people in authority that they possess and demonstrate courage along with their other qualities of experience, judgment, integrity, and sobriety. The CEO of a corporation, the captain of a vessel, the pilot of an airplane are all required to take responsibility for their actions. They must make judgments, recommend and follow courses of action—sometimes in an instant and without recourse to advice, consultation, and second opinions—and trust that the people around them—subordinates, employees, crew, vendors, suppliers—will perform appropriately. And if the performance of the people undertaking the action, or the mechanism of the ship or plane itself, were to fail, then the CEO, captain, or pilot stands ready to take the blame. If the person in authority did not have this courage, then the company would never do anything, the ship never leave the dock, and the plane never leave the ground.

It’s a simple lesson: Action takes courage. Delay is not always wise or safe. And the path forward leads upward and requires strength.

1. For the role of the leader in making a decision, see the story of “five heartbeats” in The Immediacy of Life from April 29, 2018.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The New Conservatism

Lenin on a Tribune

A. Gerasimov, Lenin on a Tribune

I believe there’s a common feeling among those who follow politics and economics, based mostly on the labels assigned, that “conservatives” want things to stay the way they are, while “progressives” want things to move forward.

Conservatives are supposed to yearn for the political, economic, and social conditions of their youth. In my case that would be rock-n-roll, ducktail haircuts, the postwar boom, Eisenhower political blandness, and stable nuclear families living in suburban housing with good schools. There were some downsides to be sure: duck-and-cover drills, Jim Crow segregation, Formica in loud colors, and Melmac dinnerware. But all in all, for the white middle-class majority, it was a good time to be alive in America. We didn’t see the social and economic problems or, if we did, we minimized them.

Progressives are supposed to look ahead to better times, which means focusing on the things that need to change right now. For most progressives these days that would be income inequality, industrial and automotive pollution, environmental damage and anthropogenic climate change, racial inequality, binary gender inequality, capitalist winners and losers, housing shortages, healthcare governed by insurance companies, and cultural hostility for “the other” leading to rampant hate speech. Sure, there are some good things: advances in renewable energy, administrative regulations on industry and finance, progressive income taxes, union protections, feminism, and the #metoo movement. But these things are not enough—may never be enough—when what is needed is a true social, cultural, and economic revolution to make people equal in both their expectations and outcomes, happier with their lives, and kinder to each other.

But are these labels correct?

I believe many conservatives have a forward-looking approach in many areas, including politics and technology. They believe the social and economic climate is improving all the time, compared to the situation fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago. They believe in continued evolution in this regard, but not abrupt revolution. Much of their expectation is based on humankind’s increasing knowledge and technological capability, derived from the application of scientific and humanitarian principles originating in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In contrast, many progressives seem to be in the position of tacit conservatives. They don’t trust evolutionary change in social, political, or technological conditions, largely because such change is not predictable or guided by the principles to which they subscribe. In other cases, they actually want to preserve a static world which is safe and predictable until they choose to change it through a directed revolution.

Let me suggest three areas in which this is so.

First, union protections. The history of unionism has been one of fighting changes in technology and working conditions that might affect the number and skill levels of jobs, or require workers with seniority in a craft to learn new skills or enter new positions. The classic example of this tendency was “featherbedding” in the railroads during the 1930s and ’40s, preserving the jobs of firemen who stoked the boilers on steam engines when the railroad companies converted to diesel-electric locomotives. An earlier example was hand weavers who tried to destroy and ban mechanical textile mills because the machines put them out of work. Unions consistently choose older ways of working over new efficiencies if it means that certain jobs and skills will become outmoded. This is a bid for stasis over advancement and is, at least in spirit, non-progressive. What they will make of artificial intelligence and increasing automation in the workplace is totally predictable.

Second, capitalism itself. The basis of market-driven economics and capital investment is “creative destruction.” Every product and service, every company that provides products and services, competes in the marketplace for consumer attention and dollars. Consumer favoritism and brand loyalty only go so far—and not far at all if a product line or service deteriorates in terms of quality, usefulness, price, or some other dimension that customers value. Sometimes, however, frivolous products or variations are introduced and sold; the classic example is Bernie Sanders’s complaint about “twenty-three kinds of deodorant.”1 But by and large, new and useful products are coming all the time: consider the personal computer and the internet revolution.

Capitalism in a free market means giving people what they want, even if it means giving them what they only think they want—or what you can convince them to want, or deceive them into wanting. Capitalism is not predictable and directed, but decidedly uncontrolled. Sixty years ago, when I was a child, everyone confidently predicted that my car would fly by the time I was middle aged. But no one, looking at the basement full of vacuum tubes or single transistors that was the current state of the art in computing predicted the development of the integrated circuit, the microchip, and telephones that would eventually replace cameras, stereo systems, movies and television, telegrams, libraries, and retail stores. Creative destruction is a wild and woolly territory—just ask a taxi driver whose radio-dispatched cab is being replace by a cellularly summoned Uber or Lyft driver.

We’ve seen enough of the command-and-control economies that were spawned from social and economic revolutions in the 20th century to know how they operate. They were all focused on preserving the status quo in terms of products, processes, and services. None of them developed the advances in computing, personal communications, or consumer goods—let alone medical technology and energy infrastructure, to name a few more areas—that we have steadily enjoyed in the capitalist West.2

Third, the environment. Is the climate changing? Oh yes! It was changing before modern industrialization and transportation fueled by coal, oil, and gas began increasing the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide load. We live on a planet with a precession in its orbit, under a variable star, with an active geology based on plate tectonics. We have gone through periodic ice ages, glaciations, warming and cooling periods, and occasional long winters due to volcanic eruptions ever since humans started recording their history—even before, if you count all the cultures with a flood story in their mythology.

Sea level rises and falls, deserts grow and shrink, forests advance and retreat, rivers change their course, all without the influence of human activity. Life has evolved on this planet to adapt to these changes. Every extant individual and species was shaped to take advantage of a particular environmental niche—except humans, of course, who use their big brains and clever hands to build shelters and machines that let us exploit areas where we otherwise could not live. Since those environmental niches—particularly the ones with marginal populations—are changing all the time, some species must either adapt, move, or die out. It matters not how picturesque or precious a species might be, if it lives too close to extinction in terms of diet or tolerance for environmental stress, it will eventually disappear. In the long run, no one can save the panda.

And yet the current crop of environmentalists would try to prevent this change wherever possible. They want a static world in which every river, swamp, and forest remains unchanged, where every butterfly and exotic plant can be preserved. They want to fix the world’s climate at some preferred set point—usually around the time and temperature of their childhood—and maintain it … forever.

Even the politics of the progressives is frozen in place and time. Their view of “the arc of history” is guided by a 19th-century view of social and economic order as prescribed by Marx and Lenin and then communicated by the anti-war radicals and anti-capitalist activists of the 1960s. It is a world view that values world peace at the expense of national sovereignty and the primacy of human-muscle labor at the expense of technological advancement. If they were alive today, Marx would not be a Marxist, and Lenin would be busily adapting and promoting some other social and economic creed.

I believe we are at a time of great confusion over labels and intentions. I also think we are at a time that demands a new teaching, a new world view, a new politics and economics that is neither “conservative” nor “progressive” but adopts a new social and philosophical stance entirely.

I just wish I knew what it was.

1. I’m sure all the ladies out there wouldn’t mind using my brand of deodorant, which has the image of a sailing ship on the package. Or that Bernie wouldn’t mind using the Secret brand—“Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” One of the comments about life in Russia in the 20th century was the prevalence of “Soviet scent,” as if one smell would fit all bodies.

2. To be fair, none of them made flying cars, either.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Retroactive Prime Directive

Alien landing

In the Star Trek universe—in case you don’t follow the series—there is a rule called the Prime Directive. It forbids the Federation’s interstellar explorers from interfering with the civilizations they discover, especially the more primitive societies. Visitors to new civilizations are forbidden from offering advanced technologies or, in some cases, even revealing that they come from beyond the stars. The intention is to preserve the unique nature of these developing civilizations and allow them to achieve whatever their native skills, cultural qualities, and particular history will enable them to become. Many of the various Star Trek series include stories where the Prime Directive is tested and ultimately found to be wise and appropriate.

Of course, in the Progressive future world depicted by the series, the Prime Directive is an antidote to and an apology for Western imperialism. This is the world, or the galaxy, done right the first time. This is the situation in which an advanced civilization—the enlightened, gracious, Western European–based explorers of Star Fleet—“boldly go[es] to seek out new worlds and new civilizations” and then carefully and studiously leave them alone. No educating the natives here. And certainly no enslaving them and making off with their trade goods and raw materials.

It’s a pretty picture. An ideal of self-restraint. But is it real?

In the Progressive doctrine, the New World as discovered by 15th- to 19th-century Europeans embodied many such primitive civilizations. The “Native Americans,” the people who were here first—but only after crossing the Bering Sea land bridge at the end of the last Ice Age—were still living a mostly Stone Age existence. The hunter-gatherers of the North American plains needed something on the order of twenty square miles of open land to feed one family throughout the year, several thousand square miles or more to feed a whole tribe. The city-based civilizations of Central and South America practiced slash-and-burn farming and so could feed more people on less land, but they still were primitives compared to European farmers and their tools, and these populations were more vulnerable to climate cycles.

In either case, the North American tribes and civilizations possessed no horses—until, that is, the Spanish came and a few of their herds went feral in the wilderness. The natives had no iron, certainly no gun powder, no simple machines, and not even the wheel. Their spears and arrows were tipped with bits of knapped flint, and the “swords” of Central American warriors were clubs edged with flaked obsidian. The Maya had an advanced form of ideographic writing and sophisticated mathematics, as well as pretty good skills with stone work. The Inca of South America had a flair for hydraulic engineering equal to that of the Romans. But still, these were largely Stone Age peoples.

They also weren’t particularly peaceful or gracious themselves. The Aztecs and the Maya both practiced human sacrifice. The tribes of the plains went to war against each other long before the Europeans showed up. Widows and the aged in the tribe who had no one left to support them would be exiled and exposed. Life was hard. People died.

The modern, Progressive view that the Europeans came into the New World, committed genocide against the peaceful natives, enslaved the survivors, and stole their lands and raw materials is a compelling narrative. But absent a Western culture imbued with some kind of 15th-century Prime Directive, it is not a realistic one.

With the exception of small groups—prospective traders like Christopher Columbus, who was only seeking a passage to the markets of Asia; explorers and cartographers like John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, who were commissioned by royalty and functioned not unlike the explorers of Star Trek; and Portuguese and Basque fishermen, who landed in what was to become New England in order to process their catch of the Grand Banks cod fish—most of the Europeans who came to the New World were people seeking a new life, new land, refuge from persecution, and freedom from the religious restrictions, economic repressions, and monarchical wars of Europe. Some also came as transported convicts, who had no choice but indentured servitude until they could escape into the wilderness. These Europeans did not come to observe, study, and make a map. They came to stay and hoped to prosper.

One can imagine such people—the Pilgrims or the Spanish conquistadors—arriving on the eastern shores of the New World and exercising some form of Renaissance Prime Directive. “Oh my! There are already people living here! And they have formed stable hunter-gatherer—or in some places slash-and-burn—cultures capable of their own eventual development. It is not our place to intrude. We must preserve their heritage on their own land. We will now withdraw and not disturb them.” Maybe the Pilgrims could have found an isolated and uninhabited island somewhere else to establish their spiritual sanctuary. Maybe the conquistadors could go and invade some established neighbor who was both culturally and technologically equivalent, like Morocco, and had the ability to fight back.

That is not, however, the way these things work. And it’s not because Europe had experienced its own invasions from the dawn of prehistory: the Dorians, the Ionians, and Sea Peoples coming into Greece; the Romans into the rest of the Mediterranean and Western Europe; the Celts, Huns, Goths, Vandals, and Visigoths into Rome; and the Saxons, Danes, and Normans into England. The history of the world has been that of roving bands moving in on and pressuring their neighbors, when they weren’t carrying out explicit wars of conquest like the Mongols and the Muslim Caliphate. The fact that the New World pitted Stone Age people with flint spears against Iron Age invaders with horses, the wheel, and gun powder is a tragic accident of history, but it was not unforeseen.

When we first meet an intelligent species out among the stars, let us pray that we are the explorers and that our interstellar drives, dense energy sources, potential weaponry, and coherent organization allow us to be at least culturally and technologically equivalent to whomever we find. Then perhaps we can afford to follow our own Prime Directive. But if we meet that extraterrestrial species as it comes here to Earth, where the advantages in energy, weapons, and sophistication lies with them, then we had better prepare to either make friends fast and learn their technology even faster—or, in the words of Homer, “fall on the ground and bite the dust.”

In my opinion, it has never been a good strategy, in the words of Blanche Dubois, to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.” People possessing advanced skills and their own intentions will not wait upon the less developed.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Mark of a Gentleman

A gentleman

I recently quipped on Facebook: “While a Christian might be within his rights to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, a gentleman never would.”1 To me, this raises an important distinction in our modern world between rights and responsibilities among the choices an individual may make.

Our society and our laws, as embodied in the First Amendment, guarantee the right of free speech. You may say, write, advocate, and publish almost anything you want. There are, of course, legal exceptions that have been raised and confirmed over time. The classic example is that you must not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And you can be held liable under law for defamation of another person, for inciting a riot, or in time of war for committing treason by offering aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies.2

Today, many people on the Left would like to add “hate speech” to the list of prohibited communications. Not unlike the definition of “pornography” or “sedition,” the actionable content of hate speech is vaguely defined. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the 1964 Supreme Court case about banning obscenity and pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description … But I know it when I see it.” Too many people would like to see actionable hate speech defined as any kind of speech they believe would be offensive to groups whom they would like to support. That’s a little too broad for me and, I think, for most reasonable people.

But while any individual or group has the right to say, print, and broadcast anything they want within the narrower definitions of the law, that does not mean they should. The law of the land is necessarily open and nonjudgmental. But people who would use that law as the only guide to their personal behavior make poor acquaintances and bad neighbors. In most of polite society, they would be viewed as bit of a crank or crackpot.

A well brought up individual is—or at least used to be—taught manners by strict and loving parents, kindly aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and attentive teachers. For those who did not have such an upbringing, I would refer you to Miss Manners, which is the nomme de politesse of Judith Martin. I have been a secret fan of hers for years, and I would boil down the essence of what she advocates—if she has not already done so herself—as refraining from causing others discomfort.

In this modern world, all too many people are willing to make others feel weak, foolish, and stupid by pointing out some personal failing and invoking some law addressing it in the name of good society, personal etiquette or hygiene, or simply “manners.” It is a game of multi-variable “gotcha!” that any number can play.

How does this apply to the Christian baker and the making of artisanal cakes? In my mind, very simply.

A person’s religion is and should remain a private matter. If I am a practicing Christian—or Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Seventh Day Adventist—I am required by my principles to act in certain ways. These might include refraining from taking vengeance by turning the other cheek, or from consuming alcohol or pork products in observance of religious prohibition. More positively, my beliefs may require that I render alms to the poor, defend the weak, pray at certain times of day, and fast at certain times of year. This is my business. If anyone should ask why I do these otherwise outlandish things, I may explain that they are part of my religious observance. Or I might simply say that it is my preference and my own damn business.

The First Amendment allows this. So long as I am not breaking any laws—which would include, say, child endangerment, human sacrifice, or the pursuit of ethnic cleansing—the Constitution permits me to believe and practice as I will. The First Amendment also allows me to preach, proselytize, and advocate for my religion. I can print handbills, advertise on billboards, and show up at your door to explain to you the Four Noble Truths of the Lord Buddha. And you have a right to drop my handbills in the gutter, look past my billboards to the scenery beyond, and slam the door in my face.

But Miss Manners—if she were here and engaging in this discussion—might suggest that I not so actively seek to convert others to my way of thinking. After all, I should grant that they are adult, thinking human beings who have already chosen their beliefs and made their peace with the everlasting. I should respect their choices as free and independent human beings. I might, if asked, give my opinion and advice to people who are themselves in doubt or distress and seeking a new meaning for their lives. That would be the gracious thing to do. But I would be intruding upon their privacy and failing to respect their agency as human beings to insist that they were in error with their current beliefs and that the only way out of error would be to adopt the truth that I have personally embraced and now endorse.

A Christian baker—not my great aunt who likes to bake for family occasions, but an entrepreneur who has established a public place of business and put out a shingle—may believe that homosexuality violates the precepts and traditions of his or her religion. That is an acceptable private opinion. The baker may even believe it would be inappropriate for two men or two women to marry in what, so the baker believes, would be an irreligious ceremony. That is again a private opinion and belief supported by the First Amendment. But to confront those customers in a public place of business and refuse to serve them because their request is offensive to the baker’s beliefs and represents some personal failing in them would, in my opinion, be ungracious. Those customers are doing that they believe to be right and proper. They are not seeking to give offense by asking for a cake decorated to their liking. And it would hurt their feelings—cause them discomfort—to be refused on the grounds of something that is simply part of their nature.

In my opinion, the baker is well within his rights to refuse service to anyone. If someone wants a cake celebrating a bar mitzvah, a gay union, or the coming of the demon Belial, the baker can refuse and the customer will have no recourse under the law but to take his business elsewhere. Not all bakers are gentlemen and ladies properly brought up to consider the feelings of the people around them.

But a gentleman would ask whether it was his place to criticize the personal and apparently heartfelt choices of his customers. He would then, in my opinion, decide that it was the appropriate practice of his art to create the best cake he could to celebrate their joyous occasion. This is not a matter of rights but rather of responsibility to a higher principle.

There are many things that a citizen may do under the law that a gentleman—or a lady—never would.

1. This is, of course, a paraphrase from the line in Susanna Clarke’s excellent fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Lord Wellington asks Strange if a man might be killed by magic, and Strange replies that while a magician might kill a man by magic, a gentleman never would.

2. Unfortunately, the distinction about “time of war,” and so the definitions of “treason” and “sedition,” become blurred when we are fighting wars and police actions in two or three areas around the globe at the same time, have emerged from decades of an undeclared Cold War with a number of as-yet unreconciled former enemies, and now exist in an Orwellian state of continuing undeclared war against pretty much anyone the adherents of law and order would like to name.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Situational Ethics

Ancient of Days

William Blake’s Ancient of Days

A young friend of the family recently started the first day of a freshman ethics class. The teacher’s first question, requesting a show of hands, asked how many of the students believed ethics are a social and cultural construct. All but one hand went up. And how many thought ethics are a universal given. My young friend’s hand went up. At that point, the teacher told him that he was wrong, and he later dropped the class.

This appears to be a doctrine of our times, at least in the academic world: that everything is a cultural construct, from morality to sexuality to the principles of science itself. Of course, if everything is a construct, then one might question if the construct might somehow, somewhere be constructed differently. The old values that you learned “at your mother’s knee,” or in your church or synagogue, or as the bedrock of your native civilization can then be characterized as local, parochial, and false. And new values—values more suited to the questioner’s purpose—might be substituted in their place. But I digress …

My first quarrel with this teacher—whom I never met, except in the abstract of the story—is that this definition of “ethics” is too broad. Yes, some questions of ethics and morality are culturally based, like not pointing the sole of your shoe at a person in some Eastern cultures. Even some principles that we in the West hold to be universal, like intentional killing, can be culturally and situationally approved. Every war is based on provisionally ignoring that commandment.

Early in my studies about Zen, I learned that the response to certain types of questions should properly be mu, or “no thing.” When a question is too broad, or poses an assumed but unproven dichotomy, or creates a logical fallacy, then the answer cannot be either “yes” or “no.” So the only right answer is “no thing,” meaning “the question does not apply.” And that would be my answer to this ethics teacher’s question.

Yes, certain ethical practices that shade between etiquette and morality—like pointing with your shoe—are purely cultural. Not all of them are minor and involve petty insults. In other Eastern cultures, for example, a father may kill his children if they dishonor the family, and religious persons are called upon to deceive, beset, and even sometimes kill idolaters and nonbelievers who remain steadfast and unrepentant in their error. In other cultures and contexts, however, these practices are simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

But I would argue that there is a universality to certain basic ethical questions. The transmission of the principle may be cultural, as told in religious stories, fables, children’s fairytales—or simply passed on from parent to child—but the principle remains solidly based in the dynamics of human interaction.

For example, I would challenge the ethics teacher to name one society that would condone, approve, or recommend coming up behind a stranger, bashing his head with a rock, and then picking through his pockets for his wallet and other valuables. The victim is not known to be a nonbeliever or idolater or belonging to any other class worthy of killing. The act is not motivated by mercy killing or implemented as part of wartime tactics. It is purely intended for personal gain.

Name a society that condones telling lies to someone who has reason to trust you—friend, family member, or other responsible person in your community—again for the purposes of personal gain. These are not the “white lies” of commission or omission on the order of answering the question “Do I look fat in these jeans?” This is lying in order to swindle someone out of land, money, or some valued possession that the liar wants to obtain for him- or herself.

Name a society that recommends or supports the genocide of a people who have previously been accepted and valued in the community, people who were once friends and neighbors but have suddenly become “the other” and outsiders for the political, economic, or religious purposes of some subset of the community.

The list could go on indefinitely. And it’s not that people don’t do these things, or that they sometimes get away with them during the upheavals of war, economic disintegration, or natural disaster. But find me a society or culture that would point to these ethical challenges and say that this is right and proper behavior.

I am not arguing that these actions are wrong because a god or a religious book somewhere said thou shalt not kill, lie, cheat, steal, or murder your enemies once you get the upper hand. Many religious traditions do transmit these and other cultural values and still prohibit such foul deeds. My argument is that these ethical principles are like the adaptations of biological evolution. They are so, not just because your tribe or culture says so, not because your god or your priest invokes them, but because these are the only ways in which human civilization can reliably function.

If a person cannot walk the streets without fear of becoming the victim of imminent and unrestrained murder for profit, then you don’t have a society but a jungle. If you cannot trust your friends, family, and respected members of your community to have your best interests at heart and seek to protect your life and rights to property and security, then you don’t have a family or a friend—or a community. And if your extension of good will and fair dealing to others in your society can sour to the point of murder over matters of race, religion, politics, or other noncritical and immaterial differences, then again you don’t have a society but a state of undeclared war.

Every species on Earth represents a hard-fought and -won adaptation to a particular environmental niche. The bodily configuration, reactions, capabilities, energy levels, and metabolism of any one species are not designed by an intelligence or selected according to some ideal pattern. Instead, they developed and became perfected over time because these features worked best in that place. And the fact that we see some of these species as precious and beautiful—think of songbirds and butterflies—is a fact of our own evolution. While the fact that we see others as creepy and scary—think spiders and alligators—is also evolutionary. We humans are evolved to find both beauty and terror in this world. We are adapted to this environment. If we had adapted to metabolizing sulfur compounds in the dark and boiling water of an undersea volcanic vent, we would find that kind of life beautiful, too.

In the same way, our nature—human nature—has evolved over time. While some of this evolution is adaptive to the physical environment—such as our peripheral vision, allowing us to perceive subtle movements in the bushes beside us, which might be a leopard waiting to pounce—much of our nature evolved in relation to our mental environment. Like many other mammals and some insects, we are social creatures. Our life exists in both the physical world and in the mental world of dealing with others of our kind, predicting their actions and reactions, and keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

In this sense, yes, much of our ethical teaching is a social construct. But it is not cultural in the sense of being limited to one cultural interpretation—say, Western Civilization—and either useless or irrelevant, and perhaps harmful, in terms of other cultures around the world, like being careless about where you point your shoe.

The core issues of ethics and morality are human issues, which means they bridge cultural affectations. They are so universal that they might as well have been pronounced by a god and preserved in a religious book. Because the image of that god is always created from some aspect of human nature and our species’ collective wisdom.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Tracing Evolution Backwards

Jupiter’s moon Europa

Jupiter’s moon Europa

This meditation is an extension of a series of Facebook posts around the question of what conditions are necessary for the development of life, which itself is an extension of the Drake equation for estimating the probability of finding other life and civilizations in the universe. The proposer, William Maness of my Facebook acquaintance, posted: “Let’s go the other way. Let’s say that Earth’s condition is astonishingly rare. How rare does it have to be to be the only one in the galaxy. How rare to be the only one in the universe?”

And then he proposed conditions for life on Earth as we know it: strong magnetic field, stable sun, Goldilocks zone (meaning both the right part of the galaxy, in terms of density of nearby stars and their radiation, as well the solar system’s “habitable zone,” with planetary temperatures that can support liquid water), a large companion body (to create tides, which set a pattern of inundation and exposure for sea life at the edge of the land, among other things), no gamma emitters nearby, debris-cleared orbit (to minimize life-killing asteroid impacts), abundant liquid water, no conditions that kill carbon life in said ocean, an active lithosphere (with plate tectonics to renew the surface, replenish the atmosphere, and relieve geothermal stresses1), an active water cycle, and a transparent atmosphere. “These are just a few that come to mind,” he wrote.

My first response was to say that some of these conditions overlap and work to the same purpose. For example, the conditions of having a strong magnetic field and a stable sun are related, as their result is to protect developing and existing life from the solar wind and radiation bursts. Having no nearby gamma emitters is part of that requirement, too. But note that if your definition of life includes—or is excluded to—cockroaches and tardigrades, which seem not to care much about hard radiation, these several requirements may not be absolute.

Having liquid water and an abundance of carbon are nice. But as I’ve noted elsewhere,2 you could construct a parallel DNA chemistry from silicon and arsenic. The silicon atom has the same chemical-bonding valence as carbon, while arsenic has the same valence as phosphorus. So silicon might replace the carbon atoms in the ribose rings and the purines and pyrimidines that are the main features of DNA and RNA molecules. And arsenic might replace the phosphorus atoms in the bonds that connect those ribose rings into a long-chain polymer. The resulting molecules would be heavier, of course, having a higher aggregate atomic weight. And they would be somewhat more fragile, because their traded electrons would occupy a higher electron orbit. But these replicant molecules would still function like carbon-based DNA.

And liquid water does have some unique properties. The water molecule is easily dissociated into its component oxygen and hydrogen atoms. The molecule has an asymmetrical arrangement, placing the two hydrogen atoms at sixty degrees apart on one side of the oxygen atom, creating a positive and negative side to each molecule. This arrangement allows other molecules to be either “hydrophilic” and attracted to water or “hydrophobic” and repel water. Water as a fluid is also relatively incompressible—you can’t squeeze it in its liquid phase—so that the water in a deep lake or ocean doesn’t get thicker and sludgier as you descend, becoming paste-like or semi-solid. Instead, the pressure just increases while the density remains the same. These features create an important condition for life forms like Earth’s sea creatures, who are composed of mostly water themselves, metabolize the dissociated oxygen in water, and range freely from the surface to the deeps.

That angular separation on the water molecule forces it to form a hexagonal crystal when frozen, so that the solid phase is actually less dense than the liquid phase, enabling it to float. If solid water sank to the bottom of a pond or ocean, where temperatures are generally cooler, then a temporary drop in ambient temperature might freeze any body of water solid. And there it would stay frozen for who knows how long—not until next summer but more likely until the next extreme in the climate cycle.

But other liquids with a low chemical reactivity and low compressibility could support life almost as well as water does—although it would be chemically and physically different from ours and might prefer different ambient conditions.

Other planetary features like a large companion (for tides) and active lithosphere (for plate tectonics and volcanoes) are only required for the kind of life we recognize. I’m betting that, when we find life out there among the stars, it will surprise us. But that wasn’t the premise of the question as originally posed, which acknowledged that it was working backward (i.e., “going the other way”): What kind of conditions will produce us, the life that we know and recognize? And that may be too limiting a definition.

We can begin as a given that the same laws of physics and chemistry exist elsewhere throughout the universe. Go to any other star with a planet, and you’ll find the same atoms from our Periodic Table—although not necessarily in the same abundance and distribution. They will tend to form similar molecules—although perhaps with different underlying chemical reactions having different, temperature-dependent endo- and exothermic requirements—and so the abundance and distribution of life-creating or life-destroying substances will depend on local conditions. The gravity curve will follow the equations we use to measure it here on Earth—although the resulting values will necessarily be different, based on solar and planetary density and distance. The physics of electromagnetism and radiation will apply—although the quality of the light and its effects on biochemistry and biodiversity will be different, based on the output of the local star.

The nature of life, however defined, is that is evolves in and adapts to the environment it finds. Otherwise, whatever you find on a new planet is just an artifact or an exception. This presumes, of course, that evolution is present on the planet and is based on either a system of replicating molecules, similar but not necessarily identical to Earth’s DNA-RNA-protein coding system.3 Once the principle of replication-with-modification becomes established and gives rise to “life,” it will already be adapted to the conditions that it finds and then change itself as they change.

This evolution will be able to give rise to organisms that are not like us either physically or chemically. Even on Earth, and working under the DNA-RNA-protein coding system, we can find life that is strange and different. Consider the organisms that our deep-ocean searches have discovered clinging to the sides of undersea volcanic vents: adapted to total darkness and huge surface pressures, tolerating the extreme temperatures of superheated water, and metabolizing sulfur compounds instead of carbohydrates. The life that we recognize from this planet’s surface was able to descend and adapt to that hell. Or rather, our kind of life didn’t adapt itself: any of its great-great-grandchildren who happened to survive because of compounding genetic mutations became able to thrive under those conditions. Remember that the original life on Earth evolved in a carbon dioxide–rich atmosphere. Then plants began metabolizing that carbon in a photosynthetic reaction driven by sunlight and released free oxygen into the atmosphere. Only then did later organisms—“our” kind of life which moves, wiggles, walks, and talks—adapt to breathe and metabolize that oxygen.

As for what conditions might be required to create life, consider the smallest of the Galilean moons, Europa. Jupiter is not in the Sun’s “habitable zone,” with temperatures that generally keep water a liquid. Still, Europa is suspected of having an ocean under its icy shell that is kept warm by tidal flexing in its orbit around the giant planet. The ocean under the ice might contain life, protected not by a thick atmosphere and planetary magnetic field, as on Earth, but by the layers of ice themselves, because water is a good shield against radiation.4 Whatever life develops in this ocean would be different from ours—not based on or even seeing the Sun’s light, with no possibility of moving out onto land and developing the things we humans cherish, like fire, metals, and radio and television. But it would still be life under conditions that do not entirely match those on Earth.

When we get out among the stars, we’re going to have to expand our definition of life exponentially. I suspect that will quickly turn our teaching of biology—and so much else—on its head.

1. If you think geothermal stress isn’t important, consider Earth’s sister planet, Venus. By studying the uniformly limited number and apparent recent age of the impact craters on the surface, astronomers have determined that Venus must lack a system of plate tectonics, with its corresponding subduction of surface layers and creation of volcanic hot spots that release core heat, as on Earth. Instead, the planet appears to go through periodic renewals, where the entire surface melts from within and then resolidifies. That would be bad for any life trying to gain a foothold on the rocks there.

2. See The God Molecule from May 28, 2017.

3. For example, a machine-based organism that was able to sample its environment and rewrite its underlying operating code to thrive under those conditions would be a similar but different analog of our biological kind of life. For that matter, you might consider our molecular form of life as simply a kind of nanotechnology.

4. When I was in college, I had a roommate who worked as shift operator at the university’s TRIGA reactor. This was one of those “swimming pool” reactors, used for research, training, and experiments with radiation. When he took me on a tour, we stood at the railing and looked directly down at the reactor core, which when operating glowed with the beautiful blue light of Cherenkov radiation. I pointed at the active core and asked my roommate, “Why am I not dead?” He replied that the twenty feet of water between us and the radiation flux with its fast neutrons was better protection than a foot of lead shielding. I then saw bubbles of gas rising from the reactor and bursting on the surface about eight feet away. I asked what it was, and he said it was a radioactive isotope of oxygen. “Why am I not dead?” Because that isotope possesses a half-life of eight seconds and had mostly decayed to regular oxygen by the time it reached the surface, where any residual isotope dissipated into the room’s atmosphere before decaying further.