Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Thomassian Jihad (Redux)1

Robot juggling

In the Dune novels, the civilization of the far future is shaped by a war in the distant past, the Butlerian Jihad, that freed humanity from the lassitude and enfeeblement of being helped—to the point of near extinction—by robots and artificially intelligent machines. The defining call of that jihad was: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

In the aftermath of this war and its upheavals, the “Great Schools” arose to develop human beings who would take over some of the necessary functions that had been handled by the now-outlawed machines. They trained the Mentats, human computers, the Bene Gesserit, female protectors of the bloodlines, and the Bene Tleilax, genetic scientists who created special-purpose humans and body parts, often with destructive intent.

As the novels thoroughly explored, the Butlerian Jihad exchanged machines for human beings, who became valued, traded, and objectified solely for their special functions: Mentats for their calculating ability, Bene Gesserit-trained concubines for their seductive skills, and Bene Tleilax-created deformities for whatever the buyer desired. In the original novel, the distinction between House Atreides (the “Good Duke”) and House Harkonnen (the “Evil Baron”) lay in their treatment of these oddities. For the Atreides, Mentats like Thufir Hawat and Swordmasters like Duncan Idaho were trusted friends and companions. For the Harkonnens, everyone other than immediate family was just a commodity.

But the underlying reality from the Butlerian Jihad remains: people who have been trained or designed to perform a specific function are acquired and valued for that function and less as beings capable of personal development, surprises, and a sense of their own destiny, and so they are valued as less than fully human.2

This background inspires me to consider what I would do to ignite a jihad that shapes the entire human universe for thousands of years, the Thomassian Jihad. And I believe my central tenet would be: “Thou shalt not treat a sentient being as an object.” That would take care of a number of our current sins, as well as the underlying fault in the Dune books.

Most immediately, the call would do away with slavery of every kind: outright ownership of human beings as productive objects and the sort of wage-slavery and contrived indebtedness that traps the poor and the immigrant and fuels sweat shops and company towns around the world. It would also outlaw the treatment of women as chattels and sex slaves to their husbands. More than that, it would forbid—or at least make the practitioner feel a measure of guilt and shame—the objectification of women and children for the configuration of their faces and bodies and as receptacles for sexual appetites.

Politically, my jihad would put an end—or try—to the treatment of individuals as no more than members of a group based on a single, obvious common distinction, such as race, gender, religion, regional origin, or other useful and objective features. This kind of pigeonholing (the objectification of birds) is useful to those who would build political strength from individuals who are thereby deprived of their individuality and the sense of their own unique purpose and destiny. Group objectification turns human beings into political widgets.

I refer to “sentient beings” rather than just “human beings” because I tend to think more broadly than our current, limited understanding. One day, we will meet aliens from worlds elsewhere in the galaxy, and when we no longer have the prejudices of physical form and DNA analysis to rely on, we will have to judge them by what we can see of their minds and our measure of their conscious awareness. And this leads back to our treatment of putatively intelligent animals here on Earth: the whales we have hunted for their oil, the elephants we have slaughtered for their tusks, and the octopi we cut up for sushi. A creature that approaches humanity in its understanding and awareness—different in scale but not necessarily in kind—should get a measure of the respect in which we hold other human beings.

Does my jihad require that we approach all such beings subjectively, evaluating them for their potential to think and respond, to care and to love, to have hopes and fears, to dream and have a personal destiny? Oh, yes! That is the essence of the Golden Rule: if you would be treated as a real human being, an individual, whole and entire unto yourself, then you must treat others of your kind—and that includes those with awareness and self-actuation equivalent to your own—with the same appreciation and respect.

Of course, the Thomassian Jihad would be nothing new. Humanity has been waging it with varying success since ancient times. That Golden Rule is essential to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and most other world religions.3 As soon as people gain a full realization of themselves as thinking, feeling, self-aware, and self-actuating individuals, it becomes inescapable to any intelligent and well-balanced mind that others of like mind must think, feel, and actually be the same. This perception was augmented and rationalized during the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that drives the scientific and technological advances that benefit us today.

To deny the common humanity of like-minded beings is to put on personal blinders, either willfully or through ignorant error.

1. This is actually a rethinking, or restatement, of a meditation I posted on December 8, 2013. The wheel turns …

2. The Dune series—and I suspect Frank Herbert’s worldview itself—radiates a sense of ultimate failure. Or rather, a rejection of easy promises and bright futures through a regression to the human mean. Republics give way to imperial monarchies. Free people succumb to ever more refined tyrannies. And the novels’ central character—Paul in the first three books, and his son Leto II the God Emperor in the fourth book—ultimately fail despite having superb physical and mental training, immeasurable self-control, the power of prescience, an empire at his command, and in the case of Leto, physical invulnerability in a pre-sandworm body and access to the details of all human history through genetic memory. No matter how good things get or how well developed a person might be, return to some ingrained human “normal” is always coming.

3. See the American painter Norman Rockwell’s notes on the commonality of the Golden Rule.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse

Consider those who keep our civilization functioning. In this instance, I’m thinking of lighthouse keepers.

The job these days can mostly be handled by automated systems—and ones that don’t even require all that much computerization. But for centuries, dangerous coastlines and peninsulas that reach out into the sea were guarded by lighthouses that required continuous tending and maintenance. Someone had to polish the lenses when salt spray and haze clouded them. Someone had to be sure the fire had a supply of oil that would last the night, and after the lamp was electrified, this person had to make sure the wiring was good—that salt air again—and the bulb hadn’t burned out. More than that, someone had to make sure the light came on at dusk and lasted till dawn. And now, with all the modern technology involved with shipping, monitor the radio for distress calls, maybe monitor a radar station, and prepare to lend a hand in emergencies.

But consider, also, the basic function of a lighthouse. It shines a light so that ships and sailors without all the modern tools of radar, depth sounders, and global positioning can identify a solid point on land and compare it with their charts. A lighthouse is a signpost, a way station, a fixed star at the edge of the ocean.

The lighthouse keeper is the guardian of that star. This is a person who commits to a function and has no room in his or her soul for doubt, equivocation, or easy excuses. “Well, I don’t see any ship’s running lights on the horizon, so no one’s out there to see my beacon. It doesn’t matter if my light goes out.” Or, “with that storm offshore, the beam won’t penetrate more than a few miles. I might as well not light up tonight.” The lighthouse keeper does not know, and must not care, whether the light will serve its function on this or any other night. The whole point is to be there, to keep up his or her end of the contract.

This is persistence in the absence of hope or expectation. This is faith in mere function. This is the essence of duty. And it’s what keeps communities together and civilization functioning.

Consider other examples: the police who patrol the streets of quiet neighborhoods after midnight, knowing that they won’t likely get a call; the firefighters who come to their station and polish their equipment, waiting out the night in a city of concrete and steel that won’t likely burn; the emergency medical technicians who keep their ambulances stocked and ready to roll in a college town full of healthy young working folks and students who won’t likely need their services; and the librarians who stand at their desks, ready to hand out books, in a population where reading is on the decline and every book, movie, and recording is now available online.

More than that, the soldiers who stand watch and continue their training in foreign outposts where the presumed enemy may never attack; the samurai who work in a garden and yet practice with their weapons every day; and the writers, painters, and musicians who practice their art and keep the faith even when their work does not sell—or not in any great quantity—and they must keep plugging away at their “day jobs.”

I believe it was Woody Allen who said that ninety percent of life is just showing up. I would amend that to ninety percent being just doing what you committed and perhaps were paid to do, even when you can’t see an effect, know your contribution may not be making a difference, and sometimes think your work is wasted effort. This is faith. This is perseverance. This is what keeps the world going round.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The View from 2300 AD

Graffiti

I have been offline with these musings for the past three months. That is partly the result of having nothing much new to say after more than ten solid years of weekly blogging—and finding myself having returned to and reinvented several sets of ideas more than once. It is also partly because one theme in my blogs deals with “politics and economics,” which I consider different aspects of the same human endeavor. And the politics and economics of the past year or so have defied description. As a writer, I could not conceive of a scenario to rival all that has happened: it would be too unbelievable.1

I mean … well, I won’t go into details. Anyone who has been watching the news for the last four years, and then the accelerating conundrums and catastrophes of the past three to nine months, will understand what I mean. If you believe that the current state of our politics and economics is normal, then we don’t have much to talk about. I doubt we even live on the same planet.

The only way I have managed to stay sane is, first, by staying away from the keyboard. I knew that if I wrote about what I was really thinking, I would probably alienate half my friends and family, and I would draw the attention of the national authorities as a probable domestic terrorist. Second, by reminding myself that, as a science fiction writer, I have always tried to take the long view, the consideration of centuries if not millennia, while the human circus rides through my town. In times of stress, I think of this as the view from 2300 AD.

This does not mean I try to calculate, foresee, or envision the world of 2300 AD. I have done that—and beyond—in several of my novels, but it has always been with a “tweak” to create a certain imagined effect. I don’t know what the accelerating advance of technology2 will bring in the next three hundred years, but it will be fantastic.

When I was growing up, everyone thought that by now we would have flying cars—and those, like sustained nuclear fusion, are always ten years away, for good reasons having to do with basic physics, energy transfer and storage, and average human reaction time. But no one considered that we would have a device no bigger than a pack of cards that was also a camera; a stereo system, television, and movie theater; a link to every library, news source, and technologically connected person in the world; with access to every book, movie, and record ever made; immediate access to our banking, retail stores, and personal services; and a modern form of telegraphy—as well as a telephone. (Not to see that coming out of digital versus analog recordkeeping was just a failure of imagination.) Add to that information advancement the current advances in biology and medicine, driven largely by our new understanding of genetics, and you will see a complete redefinition of disease, disability, human health and capability, and perhaps even death itself.

But we also have before us various chimeric visions that simply are not going to occur without a whole lot of either scientific naïeté or scientific advancement beyond imagination.

As to the latter, consider the Star Trek vision for the 23rd century, which is a utopia of dedicated and happy people fulfilling their personal lives in communal cooperation without an economic care in the world. This vision is only made possible, of course, by turning economics on its head and eliminating the laws of supply and demand and the effects of scarcity on necessary and desirable commodities. The Star Trek universe achieves this through unlimited energy supply, made possible by matter-antimatter reactions, and unlimited material abundance through molecular replication of foodstuffs and other goods, driven by that inexhaustible energy supply. In the real world, pattern replication by energy-to-matter conversion would involve a physics far beyond what we understand today, as would a “warp drive” that somehow bends the “fabric” of space. And matter-antimatter conversion will never be practical.3 Personally, I’m not holding out for utopia.

As to the former, consider the current concern4 about anthropogenic global warming or, more recently, “climate change.” The climate is always changing and has been changing throughout recorded history, although previous civilizations lacked the technological tools to record local and global temperatures with much precision or to project the weather a hundred years into the future based on a few key variables. Sea levels have been rising steadily if slowly since the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, and temperatures have been rising steadily in the 22-year cycles of sunspot activity since the last Maunder Minimum, 400 years ago. The valuable coastal property that is now so in jeopardy—at least here in the San Francisco Bay Area—was mostly marshland a hundred years ago and may be marshland a hundred years from now. But whether the global temperature rises by two to five degrees centigrade or falls by that amount, the change will be so gradual that people will adapt. And a robust technological civilization—one which will certainly spread its knowhow to the far corners of the “developing world” by the time these effects take place—will be able to counter most of the changes. And anyway, the whole fraught scenario is based on computer modeling, projections made by selecting various parameters out of an astounding mix of variables and making certain assumptions about feedback loops and “forcings.” Personally, I’m not worried about global catastrophe.5

I don’t know what the future will bring, not in the next hundred years, let alone three hundred. There will be dislocations, local and personal catastrophes, as well as opportunities for immense civilizational and personal growth. I won’t be there to see it, but I know it’s all coming. That’s the perspective of the long view.

In the 19th century, the majority of Americans worked in agriculture, just trying to feed the nation. The steam engine was only then coming into common use, and applications of electric current—the generator and electric motor, the telegraph and telephone—were still in their infancy. In the 20th century, those technologies, along with the internal combustion engine and the vacuum and cathode-ray tubes, started the mechanical age that led to the urbanization of the American worker and the dissemination of a national culture. The latter half of that century also brought into being the transistor and the computer, which changed the face of knowledge—its storage, manipulation, and control. The mechanically oriented factory workers of the 20th century became the intellectually oriented “symbol manipulators” of the 21st century. And now, the extension of computer technology into artificial intelligence; factory, supply chain, and financial automation; and what I call Gutenberg manufacturing6 is threatening the jobs of both factory and knowledge workers. But I do know that a hundred years, three hundred years, from now there will still be a society, with both politics and economics, and it will serve the interests of human beings and not robots or progressive policy wonks or philosopher kings.

In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Western world was dominated by the Roman Empire, and it was a calculatedly brutal place, although life in other “civilized” regions like India and China was not much better. In the two thousand years since then, the benign teachings of Christianity and the rationality of the Enlightenment have made the average person more refined, gentler, and more amenable to learning about both other cultures and the physical world. And in just the sixty years since the passage of Civil Right legislation, America has become a more inclusive and mindful place, with a better life for all its citizens and residents. I don’t believe human nature changes much, but I do believe that civilizations can deflect some of the savagery of life and adapt the baser instincts with which people meet it. I do know that in a hundred or three hundred years, life will still have its stresses, injustices will still regularly occur, and that people will meet them with attitudes that embody the latest philosophies with a measure of kindness and hope.

So the last three months, the last four years, while still bizarre, inane, and distressing, will eventually pass into history. I believe I will go on for another two decades or so—with any luck—in a state of hope and expectation. And my car still won’t fly.

1. Or, as I have said in other contexts, “truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction must be realer than truth.”

2. See, for example, Two Different Worlds from September 24, 2017.

3. Matter we have in abundance. It’s the antimatter that’s hard to come by. It doesn’t exist naturally in this universe, so you can’t mine it or refine it from existing materials. It can be made in particle accelerator at a huge cost in energy. The output of antimatter at the CERN accelerator in Europe—which is powered by conventional means like coal, nuclear, or now partially wind and solar energy—is 1x1015 antiprotons per year, or about 1.67 nanograms. At the operating cost of this facility, that would make a gram of antiprotons worth about $62.5 trillion—not something you’re going to burn in a “warp core” to get a cup of Earl Grey from your food replicator.

4. I would write “hysteria,” but that would only make half my friends mad and attract the attention of those national authorities.

5. Remember, I am part of the generation that grew up with tales that the world would end in nuclear holocaust, so we learned to duck and cover, followed by nuclear winter. Then it was Malthusian predictions of overpopulation and eventual starvation. Then we had global cooling, quickly followed by global warming. And finally, we had the Y2K bug, which was going to crash all the world’s computers back to Stone Age. Every millennium, the end of the world strikes fear into the heart of the populace. And yet, here we are.

6. See, for example, Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

 
The Fool The Magician

Time, it seems, goes in only one direction. Or that is our current understanding of the laws of physics. Of all the dimensions of this place we call the universe, the only one that is unidirectional is time. Of course, we may not understand everything yet. And perhaps our sense of “time’s arrow” is based on our perceptions of cause and effect: if one thing follows another, they appear to be ordered in time. But time is malleable, stretching and collapsing according to the theory of general relativity, although still just going in the one direction we call forward, toward the future.

I am not here for a meditation on physics, however. The human brain is capable of working time both forward and backward. We encode short- and long-term memories that capture images, words, feelings, sounds, smells, and other artifacts of experience. Some people’s brains record everything they experience, every day, every minute, going back to first awareness. For most of us, the capture is more selective, usually affixed to experiences that left us with a strong emotional response. But some memories just get stored, almost randomly, and repeat themselves at the oddest of times or in scrambled contexts.1

We also use the mechanisms of the prefrontal cortex for planning and decision making, which are both projections of today’s activities into the future. We not only try to predict the future with our plans and decision, but we mentally inhabit a fictitious future with our hopes and daydreams—a false future that exists in our emotional lives as an alternative to the choices and possibilities that exist in the front part of our brain.

Human beings—and to some lesser extent other mammals—are the animals that can move forward and backward in time, using our brains. Our bodies, however, only travel the forward route, seeing planning and decision points pass by us like signposts along a highway.

A balanced human in an integrated life uses both functions. We look forward in expectation for the protection of ourselves and our families. We look backward in remembrance to give meaning to that expectation.

Some people live too much in the past. Those who have bleak or unknowable futures, or the very old with almost no future at all, tend to dwell on the past and their memories of a former life and loved ones as a means of sustaining their individuality. Some who have trauma or misdeeds in the past tend to dwell on them in a fretful attempt to change what has already occurred and, in their dreams, create a new current reality.

Some people live too much in the future. The very young look forward because everything that has gone before—especially if their life has been the mundane daily round of play and school, and interactions with parents and friends—is merely preparation for the life to come, creating a set of skills and responses that will carry the person into adulthood and beyond. Others more adult live for the future because their lives so far have been wasted—especially if drugs and alcohol, bad relationships, or bad choices and actions have been involved—and they can only look to the future to make amends, make a better life, or create new meaning for that life.

My own life, I realize now, toward the end of it, has always been frontally focused. I have always been considering, planning, and dreaming about the next day’s work, the next job, the next book to read or write, the next experience. I do recall the past and have pleasant memories of most of it, but I do not live there. I live in tomorrow, next month, next year. My head is always somewhere six months out.

When I was at the university and was already focused on studying English literature and a future as a writer—novels were always my first choice, although not the most lucrative part of my eventual writing career—I took a course on Predicting the Future. This was part of that academically silly season in the late 1960s, when campus radicals were demanding courses with more “relevance”—by which they meant to steer away from the traditions of Western Civilization. But my mentor, the science fiction author who wrote under the pen name William Tenn, took advantage of the opportunity to inject a bit of his favorite subject into the teaching. We read the current crop of futurist authors and a bit of predictive science fiction, and we studied the ways people have tried to know what’s coming next. For example, I wrote term paper on Tarot cards as a method of fortunetelling.2

But now, in my seventy-third year, I find that looking forward has disturbing possibilities. There aren’t that many new experiences, possibilities, or choices out there ahead of me. Sometimes the future seems like a narrow, gray space, like the last few pages under your thumb in a book that you are reading and enjoying, whose plot you are following, and whose climactic moment has not yet come, and you’re not sure there are pages enough, time enough, to make a suitable ending. Six months out used to be a long time for me. Now, on some days, it seems to be all the time that is left—even though I am still healthy, strong, eating right, exercising, healing well, and hopeful. But just … how much more can I expect from life?

It’s not a terrifying thought … yet. But when you can sense the Great Darkness somewhere beyond that gray space, it makes you pause and consider your past life choices.

1. And, as research into “false” or altered memories has suggested, every time we recall a memory, our brain does a little editing—maybe a bit of improvement, sometimes a bit of damage—that changes the memory for future recall. Nothing is fixed in our brains, like an engraving on a steel plate. Instead, everything is more malleable, like the silver nitrate in a film emulsion, which can be affected by later exposure to light, or the digital bits in a computer memory, which get translated out of storage and then translated back into storage, with changes and degradations going both ways. Our brains are more a fluid “chemical pot” than a hard-wired “electric box.”

2. Actually, the Tarot—particularly in the 22 cards of the Major Arcana—is a story of human struggle and conflicting values that stands in opposition to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It relates the life transition of every aware soul from the insouciant and careless Fool of Card 0 to the powerful and careful Magician of Card 1. It’s a story of personal development.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

On Personal Boundaries

Teasing with apple

We all have them, boundaries—or frontiers, if you prefer—the edges of our souls, the demarcations of our “comfort zone,” the limits to which we will go, where beyond lie trespass and possibly danger.

We build these boundaries over a lifetime. Sometimes it’s by choice: we have a bad experience and say, “Not going there, never again.” Sometimes the boundary is set by habit: “I’ve never been there, but it looks dangerous, or demeaning, or ‘just not my style.’ ” And sometimes the territory beyond the boundary, the frontier, is someplace that simply lies outside our imagination, it’s not part of the image of ourselves and the world that we have built up as “the right and proper me.” Or we view it from the vantage point of imagination and decide, “That doesn’t look right.”

We build these boundaries—establish these frontiers—like an engineer building a fortress wall. Or, if you prefer a softer metaphor, like a gardener defining the region of conscious cultivation as separate from the wild lands outside, and maybe there’s a wall, too. As I say, everyone does this, because it’s part of living and deciding who we are, what we will be, which conditions of living we will accept and which, based on that personal image and experience, we reject.

And everything goes well until life rises up and smacks us in the face. It may be a new job, where we are required to expand our skills or handle crises we’ve never encountered before. Or it could be a change in life direction, like going off to college or joining the army, suddenly becoming rich or just as suddenly becoming poor. But for each of us who have the capacity, that smack in the face is sure to come when we fall in love. Then we must, simultaneously, cross our own boundaries and enter into another person’s frontiers.

It’s all well and good to imagine your “perfect woman” or “ideal man,” or your “soul mate.” But those are creations of your own imagination. They want the same things you want, share your interests and dislikes, conform to your vision of yourself, and never question or make demands about the things—thoughts, activities, sacred beliefs—you hold dear. Your soul mate is a fiction: a boundless, smooth orb that is congruent with your idea of self, with appropriate gender alterations. You don’t have to deal with your perfect woman or ideal man. You don’t have to cross any boundaries.

And the reverse is true. You don’t have to let that ideal person cross your frontiers and invade your home territory, the center of yourself, because that fictitious person already lives there, in your imagination. And just as it’s scary to go and try new things you’ve never wanted to or even imagined experiencing, because the object of your growing affection loves them or demands them, so it’s scary to let a real person cross your frontiers and learn about—and try to deal with—the real you, your likes, fears, foibles, habits, and sacred beliefs.

This is when life comes up and smacks you in the face. If you can, you then lower your defenses, cross the frontier, and try to deal with a real person with real wants and needs. Maybe the differences are too great, the new territory too unknown, or too dangerous, or just too bizarre for you to enter and be comfortable. And then maybe the object of your affection, in her or his real self, becomes less desirable to you, less possible for you to be with. Not that they simply fail in being your ideal, or that they become something opposite, all sharp corners and bad angles, nothing like congruent at all. But just some of the ground you have to cover—the experiences you have to embrace and pursue in order to be with that person—are simply impossible for you. And then you learn from that encounter, adjust your definition of boundaries, and move on.

And perhaps your boundaries or frontiers are so wide, your walls so high, that no one but the ideal soul mate can get through, because they are already inside. Then, I am sorry to say, you will never have what you want. You will be alone in your garden, safe in your castle, and never know the terrors of opening up to someone unknown and the joys of finding that you can expand.

But if you can venture outside your comfort zone, take risks, cross boundaries, and in some cases redefine yourself, you will find the happiness of discovering that you are not alone in the universe, that someone else can share your joys and burdens, and you can walk the road of life together.

That’s the cold, sober reality, and you must make the best of it.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Nothing on My Mind, Again

Black square

It appears that the concept of zero, and the negative numbers that precede it—follow from it?—came originally from India and were brought into the Western world by Arab traders. All of this happened in the 7th century AD, long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the earlier eclipse of the ancient Greek scientific culture. The Greeks, who apparently based their mathematics on geometry, never considered negative numbers or zero, as all their measurements in space were positive. The Romans, who were practical engineers and not theorists, drew straight lines and simple arches with positive numbers, which they identified with alphabetic notation. So, once again, I’m wondering where all this nothingness, this absence, came from.1

Modern life is permeated by numbers. This is part of the 17th-century scientific revolution—think of the countdown to zero in a rocket launch—and also part of the social revolution in personal literacy, which began with Gutenberg-style printing in the 14th century, and the economic revolution in finance and banking, which was started by the Italians and their letters of credit at about the same time. Today, almost everyone has a bank account, a checkbook, a credit or debit card, and a line of credit. We are adding and subtracting numbers all the time, and we all—or most of us—watch as that dreaded lower limit, zero balance, or even a potential overdraft, a negative number, approaches. We also watch clocks made of numbers and count the hours negatively until quitting time.

We think easily in terms of null and negative arithmetic. “How many supermodels did you date last year?” Zero. “How are you doing at the blackjack table?” Down by five hundred bucks.

Did the ancient Greeks or Romans not have these and similar, context-sensitive conversations? Well, probably. But not in a mathematical framework. “How many sheep do you have?” None—I don’t keep sheep. “What did you win betting on the chariot race?” Oh, nothing—I lost.

In a world where we are not so conscious of modern mathematical concepts. A person focused on what was there, in existence, in front of their face. Yes they could do subtraction: I had five apples and gave you two; now I have three apples. But the concept of zero was the simply concept of not having, not being, not knowing. It didn’t have a number. The idea of having fewer than zero apples, because you gave away more than had, didn’t arise very often. And if you owed a debt, you didn’t think of it as a negative number in your bank balance but instead as a positive number that you eventually had to pay to someone else.

Are we better off for being more sophisticated about all this? Certainly, our kind of mathematics has enabled us to calculate with both positive and negative forces, compare tradeoffs, and create simulations of complex systems. It was modern mathematics that took us to the Moon and Mars, and some variant will take us to the stars. Zero is a real number, and negative numbers have real meaning, when you’re making these calculations.

For the ancients, the world was made up of substances. Their elements were earth, water, air, and fire. Even though the last two are gases, and air itself is invisible, anyone who has taken a deep breath and blown it out—or blown into a trumpet or a flute—would notice air’s liquid nature. Anyone who has watched fire curl around a candle wick or tremble in the wind could see that it is also semi-liquid.

The ancient Greeks and Romans never had mountains high enough that they could notice the air getting thinner the higher you went. They would not have come to the obvious conclusion, then, that at some point such thinness might lead to nothing at all, a vacuum. For them, the space above the Earth was a series of concentric spheres that held and propelled the orbits of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars—and there might as well be air between those spheres than nothing at all. Only with modern aircraft and rocketry do we know that the air runs out about twenty miles above the Earth’s surface and all the rest is empty space.2

For the ancients, these substances were solids, not divided into tiny bits, and then even tinier bits, until you arrive at subatomic fragments too small to see or weigh. Democritus of Athens did theorize about atoms and empty space, but he probably thought of those atoms as jostling around each other like marbles in a bag. The idea that atoms themselves are mostly empty space occupied by subatomic particles, and that everything we can see and touch is a lot more nothing than something, is a concept out of modern physics. On both the quantum and cosmological levels, we have to get our heads around the idea of nothing, non-being, emptiness on a mind-boggling scale.3

The poor human brain evolved in a world full of—and was adapted to deal with—real things. We survived by knowing about the tangible environment and manipulating objects and forces that could hurl a spear to bring down a deer or gather and carry roots and berries to a place of familial consumption. Our peripheral vision is cued to a trembling in the bushes—even if it’s only the wind, because it just might be a predator stalking us or a human enemy trying to ambush us. We are primed to experience and work with what’s there, and not what’s not.

But nothing is on our minds now. And its reach is growing, especially since the 20th century, when existentialist philosophers began to question why humans, the world, and everything in it even exist. Apparently, for them, nothing is the default state of the universe and the only thing that doesn’t have to be explained. So, at least for the French avant garde, our thinking on being and nothingness has come full circle.

Forgive me for occasionally having nothing on my mind. It’s been a slow week, and I’ve run out of ideas.

1. See About Nothing from June 25, 2017.

2. Except that modern physics insists on filling space with somethings. For example, Stephen Hawking solved the problem of the apparent evaporation of primordial black holes by positing the instantaneous creation and mutual destruction of particles and anti-particles in a vacuum, going on all the time, invisibly, everywhere. When one of those pairs happened to spontaneously erupt along the event horizon of a black hole, one of the paired particles fell into the hole and the other drew out a quantum of energy in response. And so micro black holes disappeared over time. … Oh, hell! Hawking might as well have said that pixies ate them.

3. How big is an atom? I’ve read somewhere that if the nucleus of a small atom like hydrogen or helium were the size of a fly inside Notre Dame cathedral, then the electron shells and their potential orbits would occupy the entire enclosed space. And all the rest would simply be empty.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Living with Ambiguity

Girl with magic box

The quantum mechanics conundrum of Schrödinger’s Cat1 is not an actual physics experiment but a famous thought experiment about the state of human knowledge and observation. Basically, it says that the universe goes on about its business and doesn’t reveal itself unless human beings, our active intelligence at work, actually stop and look. And sometimes, at least in the subatomic realm, the mere act of observing interferes with the outcome—as when the detection of a subatomic particle in flight by an instrument using a beam of photons interferes with either that particle’s position or its direction.2 So some things, at the most remote scales, are truly unknowable.

I would posit that the ambiguity of quantum mechanics has a lot more to do with everyday life than we normally admit. We are always faced with situations where what’s going on and what we know about it are separated. For example, did I get the promotion? Somewhere on one of the upper floors someone, or a group of someones, knows who got the nod for the job, but there’s no way—at least, no ethical way—of finding out until they announce it. And if you find out before it’s announced, that will likely change the decision. Does she love me? She knows, or maybe she doesn’t know yet, but there no way for you to know until she declares herself by word or action. And your pestering her for an answer would change the relationship. Will the jury find me guilty or not? Again, the twelve members of the jury know, or soon will know, but you won’t find out until the verdict is read in court. And if you learned the verdict ahead of time, it would cause a mistrial.

In each of these instances, from the time the question arises until you open the lid and observe the cat, the question remains both “yes” and “no” at the same time. Both choices are in a state of superposition—at least as far as you are concerned—until you learn the answer and the two states are resolved into one. This is not a question of probability, although you can take odds or make bets with yourself about how you think the question will be resolved. But all of your weighing of factors and listing of pros and cons will not make a bit of difference when the question itself lies in the hands of others, of the management team, the girl, the jury … or the Geiger counter attached to the vial of poison.

This is the sort of ambiguity we have to live with all the time. In most cases, the superposition will resolve itself eventually. But sometimes the company’s fortunes change and the job is never awarded or announced. Sometimes the girl moves away or dies before she can accept or reject you. (And sometimes she says “yes” when what she means is “maybe” or “wait and see.”) Sometimes you get a hung jury, no verdict, or a mistrial. Some issues may never be resolved in your lifetime.

For example, I’ve always wondered about the true story of the Kennedy assassination. Did Oswald act alone out of disaffection, or was he a plant by the KGB after the embarrassments of the Cuban missile crisis and Bay of Pigs invasion? Did Jack Ruby kill Oswald out of patriotic sentiment, or was he sent in by the CIA to keep the lid on a foreign decapitation action that might have led to Congress declaring World War III? The entire Warren Commission report has been unsealed by now, years ahead of the actual date, due largely to the Freedom of Information Act. The commission’s findings suggest that Oswald and Ruby both acted alone, and supposedly there was no evidence of a coverup or international involvement. Still, I wonder. Since that’s as far as the investigation went, despite 552 witness depositions, 888 pages of documentation, and 3,100 exhibits, we will never know who outside of persons in the immediate U.S. might have been involved. So, in my mind, “Russian plot” and “angry gunman” remain in superposition, as do “CIA coverup” and “angry patriot.” At this point we will probably never know.

Another example of ambiguity is the mystery of the universe’s origin. When you rewind the expansion of the galaxies that we observe back over the 13 billion years of the universe’s calculated existence, you end up with a putative point, a tiny dense particle that exploded in the Big Bang. That is supposedly our cosmological creation story. But if you expand the observable universe from a single point to its current size, even allowing for everything to move at light speed, the calculated radius is smaller than the universe in which we find actually ourselves. This problem was supposedly corrected by the “inflationary period,” proposed by cosmologist Alan Guth in 1980, in which the whole shebang accelerated instantly a few microseconds after the Big Bang, so that it went from something with a radius of less than a subatomic particle to—and here various calculations give different answers—a cloud of matter somewhere between the size of a grain of sand to something on the order of nine meters in diameter. And then it all continued to expand normally from there.

A third example of the currently unknowable—although not for lack of trying to detect it—is the relationship of matter and energy in the observable universe. From the way that the stars in spiral galaxies spin around their center—as if they were painted on a disk, rather than freely orbiting in the void—it would seem that these galaxies have more gravitationally bound material in them than the matter that shines brightly as stars. A lot more, as in several times as much. This is the “dark matter” that plagues cosmology. Either galaxies contain much more dust, gas, and both central and primordial black holes than our observations account for, or the universe is permeated by particles that affect gravity but are otherwise invisible and undetectable in every other way. And then, the universe itself is not only expanding, as if still impelled by that initial Big Bang explosion, but also its speed of expansion is accelerating at an alarming rate. So either the vacuum of space contains a mysterious force that increases with space and distance—a “dark energy” that is otherwise undetectable in our immediate neighborhood—or we don’t understand the basic structure of the universe and the real nature of the effects we observe as “space,” “time,” and “gravity.”

We can theorize about these things, but until we create better instruments and take better measurements, I think we have to live with the ambiguity of not actually understanding the universe. Many possibilities are in superposition, and not all of them can be true.

And finally, on the human scale, is the matter of human life, spirit, and what may lie on the other side of death. Is there a God or not? Do we vanish at death, like a candle flame when it’s blown out, or does some part of us—soul? ghost? brain wave? personality? memory?—exist for a time or perhaps for eternity? And there you can theorize, rationalize, believe, or doubt all you want, but only the actual experience of death will reveal the answer. And by then it may be too late to do anything about it.

Given all of this, and the example of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat to begin with, I must remain comfortable with ambiguity. I must accept that some things cannot be known until they are revealed, that others may not be revealed in my lifetime, and that some may never be revealed to any of us, no matter how long we live.

1. For those who do not know it, you imagine putting a cat into a box with a vial of cyanide and a striking mechanism that will break the vial and kill the cat when triggered by a random event, such as the decay of a radioactive element. Then you close the lid. You have no way of knowing whether the particle has decayed and the cat was killed until you actually open the lid again. So, from your perspective, the cat is simultaneously in two different states—called a “superposition”—of being both alive and dead. This composite state is not resolved until you open the lid, and then the cat is either alive or dead. But all of this pertains only to you, as the observer; for the cat, the effects are more immediate.

2. However, this question of observational interference is not part of the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment.