Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Science of Self-Determination

Given that forces are at work in the world—and not of any one scientist’s, economist’s, or political party’s devising—to change the nature of modern society, we need to change the way we prepare people to live in the future we are creating.

Consider the following factors:

Technology is advancing. This is happening not because someone has decreed it, but because it is simply possible. Anyone who gains a solid education in how things work is going to see the benefits of building better machines, with more computerized controls, greater distribution of energy and information, and more complex systems that regulate and administer themselves. From the first nut designed to fit on the first bolt, and so hold together two things that would not stay fixed with animal glue, the advance and refinement of technology was assured.

This means that automation is coming. The Computer Revolution affects not only the smartphone in your pocket—making it more than just a telephone but also a camera, music box, library, and television—but every aspect of our science and technology. Factories are becoming more automated, and so are the systems to supply them with raw materials, distribute their products, handle their finances and accounting, and dispose of their wastes. For a good long while, these advances will require educated people to design the new control systems, supply the ideation and creative effort that makes new products possible, and troubleshoot and maintain the operation itself.

Those jobs will require deep education and an inquiring and creative spirit. At the same time, the kind of jobs that can be learned in twenty minutes, practiced for eight hours a day, and sustain a person for twenty or forty years—routine, assembly-line, repetitive-motion jobs that require no thinking or creative human involvement—those jobs are going away. Most of them have already gone to China and India, places which have a lot more hands and people willing to take a lot less money to do these simple, boring tasks. But as the technology tidal wave hits in force, even striving Chinese and Indian workers will find themselves locked out of that kind of job.

You can probably try to legislate against the machines—as people are trying to legislate and place tariffs on imports made with cheaper overseas labor—but that strategy won’t work for long. The benefits of automation mean more consistent, less expensive, more reliable products. The work that goes into automating the factory and modularizing the product’s components will have the side benefit of streamlining the design itself; so new products will generally have more functionality, simpler operation, fewer moving parts, less to break or wear out, and less to repair and replace. The newest products these days are usually an order of magnitude better and an order of magnitude less expensive than the older models. How many iPhones are traded in each year because they no longer work, as compared to no longer offering the features and benefits of the newer model?

The new technology turns Marxist economics on its head. The “labor theory of value” disappears when labor is no longer directly involved in production. Human inputs at two or three removes—the artist designing the product’s look and feel, the computer programmer modifying the assembly procedures, the marketer thinking of ways to extol the new features—are the closest that “labor” comes into the picture. With automation, the capital cost of investing in plant and production resources is the entire value chain. That might lead current thinkers to imagine that the means of production will be ever more concentrated in a few rich families, modern-day robber barons, who will then restrict the supply of goods and services to keep everyone else poor. But that thinking is so 20th century.

The new technology is about distribution of information and energy. Look at what individual inventors, designers, artists, and craftspeople are doing today with 3D printing. Manufacturing in the future will no longer require huge factories pouring hot metal from blast furnaces, driving long lines of drop-forge hammers and drill presses powered by steam or hydraulics, or moving pallets of same-design product from one staging area to the next. Metal and glass will become carbon fiber, polymer, and epoxy; hammer and drill will become computer imaging and shaping, and products will be individually designed to fit personal size and taste, while you wait. Where does the Monopoly® man with his silk top hat and money bags fit into that scenario?

Medicine is evolving. For about two millennia, doctors worked by memory, observation, and instinct. They treated patients with simple, mechanical technologies like splints and bandages, potions and prayers. And they based their treatments on fanciful notions about “humors” and “elixirs.” It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that doctors even understood the role of germs—bacteria, viruses, and other things too small to see—in the most common diseases. And even a basic understanding of the role of genetics didn’t come until late in the 20th century. For hundreds of years, doctors were only for the rich and royalty, while the rest of humanity depended on the midwife for obstetrics and the local wise woman for her herbs to put in poultices and teas.

All of that is changing now. Medicine has gone from observation and prayers to computerized imaging of different bodily systems at different scales of focus and analysis; to genetic sequencing, manipulation, and applied gene therapy; and to greater understanding of the chemical makeup and interactions which drive this curious reversal of entropy that we call life and supply the stuff of the fabulous network that we call mind. Through linking the action of genes with the stresses of the environment—the true combination of nature and nurture—first, through the study of disease processes and, then, with the definition and categorization of all life processes, we will finally become the masters of our fate.

When we eventually understand this vast picture in all its detail, which will probably happen sometime in the next half-century or so, there won’t be a disease we cannot cure, an accident of birth or happenstance we cannot repair, or a life condition we cannot improve—right up until the final dissolution that ends in death. And even then, who knows?

The sure bet is that we will continue the trend of people living longer, stronger, healthier lives. This will be due partly to medical advances, partly to people themselves learning how to take better care of themselves, eat healthier foods, exercise properly, and maintain a positive outlook. The rise of automation has already helped here, as work for most people in modern society has transitioned from long hours of dangerous, backbreaking labor to more relaxed, more creative, more mentally stimulating means of adding value and earning a living. Indeed, the next big personal goal for most people is getting more exercise, because they’re sitting in a chair at a desk all day.

At one time, people spent the first twenty years of life as a child and student, learning about what they might become as an adult. Then they spent the next forty years or so working at a job that involved their bodies and their stamina more than their minds in order to afford food, shelter, and clothing. And finally, in their sixties, when people became too exhausted and worn out to compete with the next generation, they retired to a life of relative leisure that might continue for another ten years or so.1 Now we are seeing young people extend their educations into their twenties and thirties—and many more are reading and engaging in continuous learning either about their profession or for more general interest during their whole lives. Many people are retiring earlier, but only because the current preference among employers is for younger, lower-paid employees. And many of those who leave one industry are transitioning to other fields, taking on new education programs, new challenges, and starting new careers in their “retirement years.”

With all the advances in medicine, and with people living far beyond the traditional “three score and ten,” the notion of studying for twenty years, working for forty years, and then expecting to have earned enough excess wealth in that period to retire and loaf carefree for another ten, twenty, thirty … fifty … seventy years—is just insane.

Educated societies are falling below their demographic replacement. As medical technology and education levels advance, and as people live longer and in better conditions, they don’t need to raise eight or ten children in a family to ensure a stable population. Moreover, many people are falling below that, where mother and father on average reproduce fewer than the two children-point-something needed to replace themselves. We are already seeing the populations of Europe and Japan falling and the average age rising, with fewer young people coming along to work and provide the societal wealth needed to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps educated people tend to focus more on their own concerns—their careers, their place in society, their entertainments and expectations—than on raising children for the generations to come. Perhaps they lack the faith that the modern world and the life they know will survive into those future generations. Perhaps, with more information in their heads and more involvement with immediate results in their lives, these people think more about the present and the near future than about preparing for a future that will extend beyond their deaths. For whatever reason, as societies modernize and come to rely on improving technology and advancing medicine, their focus changes. They have fewer children, but those children will themselves live much longer. The parents and society then invest more in educating and preparing those few children for a longer, better life.2

So while we are all living longer in the modern, Western societies, there are also fewer of us to enjoy this benefit. Without making an actual, reasoned choice, people are moving toward quality of human beings over quantity. This tells me that, as technology and medicine solve problems in what we used to call the Third World, the planet’s population will tend to stabilize. I would imagine that, absent another world war or a virulent epidemic—that is, absent Armageddon—the world population will stabilize at about three billion by the end of the century and proceed from there.

And even with a stabilizing population, the wave of automation and the advances of medicine will proceed even faster. We are looking forward to a rich future of available medical remedies, plentiful manufactured goods, and elaborate automated services being offered to people who will have no jobs to earn the money to pay for these wonderful things. This is a problem that will keep you awake at night.3

This leads me to the following inexorable conclusions. In the very near future, we will be forced to:

Redefine work. For all of human history, and for much of our pre-history as hunter-gatherer tribes, the value of a human being has been set by the amount of physical or mental effort he could contribute to the family, clan, or other social structure.4 We defined people predominantly by their jobs and job titles. We pegged a person’s well-being and prospects for a comfortable or a miserable life on the kind of work he prepared for, the work role he took on, and the success with which he filled it. The mantra became, “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.”

This must change drastically in a world where machines create value and wealth, and that wealth is available at relatively no cost to society except for the simple decision to go and make an investment in another machine.5 Much as I dislike the idea of socialism—and indeed, most forms of it are geared to the regimentation and conformity of the 20th century, rather than to the distribution of freely flowing information and energy in the 21st—something like a societal approach to the maintenance of individual lives will have to come about if these nearly free, machine-provided goods and services are to flow to the people who need them.

Redefine needs. Ideas of “products” and “services” will naturally diverge in such a society. The machine-made goods and automated, computerized services will be freely available and will establish a lower limit of survival. They will also establish a lower level of personal interest in the consumer’s lifestyle, surroundings, accoutrements, and possessions.

Take, for example, bread. The basic loaf, made in an automated factory in two or three generic grains and styles—think of Wonder® Bread—will be available to people who want just plain “bread.” It will make a sandwich or toast and nourish anyone who doesn’t care too much about flavor. But for people who want a better experience—for people who value texture, flavor, and esoteric concerns like ethnic fidelity, and for people who enjoy good pastry and appreciate the art of fine food—for these people, small, local, artisan bakeries will exist to sell a superior, handmade, human-inspired form of “baked goods.” And in that niche market, people who want the nicer product will be prepared to give up more of their income—whether it’s earned salary or state allotment—to satisfy their personal desires. In that market, also, the people who love to cook and bake will find stimulating, creative work and an addition to their government stipend.

In the same way, imagine a split in demand for goods like furniture, cars, clothing, and technological accessories like cameras and computers. People who really cared about unique styling, handmade quality, or some other niche characteristic in their products would pay for someone to design, build, and invest the extra creativity in the object. People who valued only utility or durability would take the readily available, machine-made product.

And some products will always—or for a good long time to come, anyway—require the human touch. Literature, painting, sculpture, music, and other arts will always need human practitioners. And people will always pay for the relief, consolation, and diversion that these “goods” and “services” bring.

Educate people for life purpose and self-determination. In this environment, where anyone can have the basics of survival—food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and entertainment—as a member of society but not everyone will achieve the satisfaction and sense of purpose built into a job, we will need to rethink the meaning of life and the uses of education. The biggest question facing each individual—the question with which the mass of humanity has never actually had to deal in all of our history—will be: “Why are you here?” And the corollaries will be: “What are you doing with your life?” “How will you get through the day?” “And what keeps you from suicidal despair?”

For people with less ambition or self-regard, mere hedonism will be enough: abandoning themselves to alcohol and drugs, sex and pornography, or binge viewing and reading. But in a future society with fewer births and longer lives for the average population, where the focus is on human quality rather than quantity, hedonism will never be enough. For the people who demand more, we need to create a science of self-determination.

Such a science would take each individual by the ears and force him or her to answer personal questions about where his or her interests, talents, ambitions, and other personal characteristics lie, and how these qualities can lead that person to find purpose in life. It will be about discovering the individual’s passion and setting him or her up to pursue it. And from this pool of talent and training will come the writers and painters, the fine woodworkers, the pastry chefs, the clothing designers and dressmakers, the technology innovators, and the rest of the motivated population that will contribute to that higher end of the economic spectrum.

The science of self-determination will be about finding the value in each person and cultivating it so that he or she can return value to society. And the teachers who take up this task, to develop this science and deliver it for their students, will be returning the greatest value of all.

And for the rest? Well, we survived the Fall of Rome and the Black Death. I think we can survive letting Wall-E Waldo bake bread and make sandwiches for us.

1. When I worked at the electric and gas utility, where a most of our employees had tough, physical jobs like climbing poles or digging in trenches, the “Tributes” second of our employee communications—announcements of employee retirements and deaths—showed a clear pattern. A lot of people, especially in the field jobs, especially people from the generation that had attended to World War II, would retired in year X, say, and then passed on about three years later. Retirement was a short respite from the working world.

2. Think of the importance that the middle class in America and Japan today place on their children getting into the right kindergarten or grade school, pursuing the right activities, learning the right social values. Protective, “helicopter”—because they are constantly hovering—parents have replaced the cheerful laissez-faire parenting that my generation enjoyed.

3. It also drove me to write my most recent novel, the two-volume Coming of Age.

4. I say “he” in this context deliberately, because women have always had supplemental value as the bearers and nurturers of children and the maintainers of hearth and home.

5. I’ve written about this before, but consider what even our current level of technology has done to the concept of good times and bad. Where once a society’s wealth was counted in bulging granaries and a plentiful store of goods, now a recession or depression is defined as having too many products in the pipeline, stacking up on store shelves, and too much excess capacity to make goods that not enough people want or need. The result is rising inventories, a slowing pace of growth and economic activity, closing plants, idled trucks and railroads, and lost jobs. In the agriculture and energy sectors—consider the price of oil today—the story is even worse, where a bountiful year and high production rates equal falling prices, lost investment, and bankruptcy.
       Try explaining all this to an ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian—or to the average Soviet citizen. You can’t. They never had enough productive capacity in the first place to ever think about having too much of it.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Folk Wisdom

I was thinking recently about the dual nature of the word “wise.” Certainly, having wisdom and being wise are considered to be valuable traits. No one would doubt that Jesus, Buddha, Socrates,1 and many other great thinkers are wise. But the word also shows up in less serious garb with reference to impudent youngsters who make “wisecracks” and can be considered “wisenheimers”—that is, irritatingly smug and clever. Average human beings, the progenitors and inheritors of our folk wisdom, have always been leery of anyone who comes off as too learned, too intellectual, too focused on ideals and on things that, for the rest of us, are one step away from intellectual fantasies.

Folk wisdom is usually concise and to the point. It is carried in sayings that—even the clever ones, which involve a metaphor or a play on words—anyone with a brain can interpret. Consider some favorites: “A clean conscience makes a soft pillow.” “A fool and his money are soon parted.” “A false friend and a shadow last only while the sun shines.” “An empty barrel rattles the loudest.” “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Folk wisdom doesn’t always run one way. For example, compare the popular saying “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” originally attributed to Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution, with the saying above about live dogs and dead lions. But almost all of these sayings, and thousands of others belonging to folk wisdom, hark back to some situation with which the listener can identify and—for the moment, anyway—agree.

Folk wisdom carries the sort of common sense that you heard at your grandmother’s—or grandfather’s—knee, if you were lucky enough to have grandparents. In my case, their observations and admonitions were generous, measured, and sunny but also slightly acerbic. That is because they had lived through enough changes of fortune to know that nothing is promised, the best intentions can go awry, and sometimes all you can do is laugh—at yourself and with the situation.

Folk wisdom also goes beyond clever sayings. Many of the do’s and don’ts of old-time religion hark back to practices that were just common sense when the scribes were writing in the name of religious authority. Eating pork is a bad gamble if you have no way of telling which animal is infected with trichinosis and which is not. Eating shellfish is also risky where refrigeration is unknown and the climate is hot. Having sex within your family unit is always a bad idea because the potential offspring tend to fare poorly. Offering charity to the poor and compassion to the less fortunate invites good feelings and reciprocal actions. Abusing the deaf, the blind, and beggars is usually a sign of personal weakness. Bearing false witness and swearing false oaths will make you unpopular in your neighborhood.

Some of the restrictions in the Bible, however, may be more obscure. For example, the Old Testament has many rules about how to dress your hair and what kind of cloth you can wear. But then, rather than safety issues, they might simply have been reflections of local tastes and passing styles. In the same way, the choice between wearing beards and clean shaving goes back and forth with the generations in Western society.

Interestingly, I once heard of an attempt by a modern group in India to establish a new practice in the villages that would have the force of folk wisdom. A PhD chemist I worked with at the biotech company told me they were teaching peasant women to pour water through five folds of the silk in their saris before giving it to their children. That was the extent: just fold the silk into five layers and pour the water through it. The reasoning—based on advanced scientific principles—was that the five layers of closely woven silk would trap most if not all of the dirt particles and bacteria, and so make the water from whatever source safer to drink. It wasn’t a perfect solution, like filtering the water with a technical apparatus or boiling it. It wouldn’t make water from any source perfectly safe to drink. And it wouldn’t guard against contaminants like heavy metals and other dissolved chemicals. But in the case of local health initiatives, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You can avoid a lot of germs and infections by straining your water through layers of silk, and that was the point of the initiative. It had the beauty of simplicity and did not rely on the practitioner understanding the germ theory of disease or passing this medical knowledge and its implications along to her daughters. The teaching was just to pour water through five layers folded from your sari.

Folk wisdom has been the world’s education system since our days as hunter-gatherers. Back then, we had to teach the young ones which plants to avoid as poisonous and which animals were best left alone. In a primitive society, the teachings of the elders and the sayings of grandmothers can be a serviceable and portable manual of daily survival skills. But such wisdom is not a perfect transmitter of accurate knowledge. Consider, for example, the story about the mother who taught her daughter always to cut both ends off a ham before cooking it, as if the rounded end and its glazing were somehow less beneficial in the processes of cooking and eating. That was just the way the right way to cook ham, she said, and she’d learned that from her own mother. When the child later asked the grandmother about cutting off the ends, the old lady laughed, because she only did that because she didn’t have a pan large enough for a whole ham.

Folk wisdom can also be an unreliable filter for truth and falsehood. Like the Biblical injunctions about hair and clothing, the sayings of elders and the teachings of grandmothers can carry a lot of prejudice and local preference. A distrust of strangers—including anyone who speaks, looks, or acts differently from local norms—might generally be a safe rule at the village level, where people have grown up together and learned to think and act alike, and where strangers can be hostile or possess evil intent. But that teaching becomes dangerously limiting for anyone who plans to travel far afield and mix with people of different customs and sensibilities. It can be lethal in a mixed urban environment where the pressures of population density can make a survival trait of enlightened tolerance for minor differences.

And folk wisdom is no substitute for scientific analysis, broad education, and a lifelong accumulation of knowledge through reading and study. In my view, it is always better to know and understand the reasons behind an observation or a teaching, than simply to accept it on the basis of authority or “that’s just the way we do things.” But not everyone can be a scientist, a scholar, or a deep and reasoned thinker over every aspect of life. For the parts of a question you have not studied yourself and made up your own mind on the basis of inquiry, relying on the wisdom of grandmothers is not a bad bet.

1. Although it is useful to remember that Socrates was condemned to death in Athens for advocating the sort of oligarchic, elitist society practiced in the enemy homeland of Sparta. And his student was Plato, whose masterwork, The Republic, is actually a recipe for creating a police state that would crush the human spirit as thoroughly as any Soviet or Communist society. How much wisdom is there in that?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Real Prime Mover

I read an interesting article in the journal Nature1 recently. The subject was a new field of study that I frankly have not heard about before, called “active matter.” It arose in physics during the mid-1990s and is heavily mathematical, but it has more to do with biology and phenomena like the movement of chemicals inside cells, birds in flocks, and fish in schools, than with anything we associate with math and physics.

You might think that cells are so small that chemicals inside them could move from one place to another by simple diffusion, the way salt or sugar dissolved in water finds its way to equilibrium—that is, to distribute the molecules equally throughout the dissolving medium. So, release a few molecules of protein or enzyme at one place in the cell, and they will eventually migrate all through the watery substance of the cytoplasm until they are evenly distributed. But this process is really too slow for a healthy cellular response.

What the physicists discovered is that relatively simple molecular structures—various kinds of microtubules that are found inside cells, certain proteins that can move along those tubules, and the cell’s energy molecule, adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—can combine to create a coordinated kind of movement: the proteins travel up and down the tubes, propelled by the energy in the ATP molecules. It makes no difference whether these substances are naturally derived or synthesized in a lab. They are certainly not living matter. And yet they move.

In earlier times, when natural scientists were just beginning to notice such things, to talk about living beings as compared to inanimate objects like rocks and dead bodies, people would discuss and ponder the “life force.” When scientists started experimenting with electricity in the 18th century, it became notional that this animating principle was somehow associated with electric discharges or current. Certainly, the Frankenstein story played up to this, when the macabre doctor brought the dead tissue of his monster alive with bolts of lighting. But now we talk about life more as an “organizing principle”—my favorite term is “temporary reversal of entropy”2—rather than any innate force in itself.

But it turns out that the idea of discarding the idea of a motivating force was wrong, or at least premature. There is a force to life, a power behind the animation, and that is the molecule adenosine triphosphate. Adenosine is a molecular structure called a purine—the amino acid known as adenine attached to a ribose sugar ring—and it also serves as one of the four nucleotide bases, A, in the DNA coding system. Phosphate is a phosphorus atom bound to four oxygen atoms by the sharing or trading of electrons. It is chemically reactive and forms the structure that connects the ribose rings in the DNA molecule. When you link three phosphate groups in a tail headed by a stable structure like adenosine, interesting things can happen.

Those three phosphates in adenosine triphosphate are somewhat unstable, and the last one in the string of three can easily become detached. When the bonds holding that third phosphate group are hydrolyzed—that is, when they react with water molecules, which are plentiful in the cell’s cytoplasm, to neutralize the bonding force—the break releases a bit of kinetic energy. This is the boost that pushes the proteins up or down in the microtubules—a simple chemical reaction.

On the glass slide where active matter researchers mix these molecules and watch what happens under the microscope, the adenosine triphosphate is quickly converted to adenosine diphosphate (ADP), all the available energy is eventually used up, and the reactions stop. On the other hand, in a living cell, which uses ATP as both a transport mechanism and as fuel for other chemical reactions, organelles called mitochondria work to convert the energy value in whatever food the organism has consumed into reassembling depleted ADP into the more potent ATP. Mitochondria are like small, single-purpose cells that have been adopted by and adapted to the host cell as an energy source. This adoption and differentiation was part of the great revolution that turned bacteria and other single-celled life forms into the more complex and more potent multi-celled animals and plants upon which evolution has continued to build to the present day.3

Aside from pushing proteins along microtubules, experiments with active matter at high densities can make bunched filaments of the protein actin dance and swirl. They can also make polymer spheres containing a particle of the mineral hematite clump and unclump spontaneously when placed in a hydrogen peroxide solution and exposed to blue light. All of these are bits of inanimate matter being pushed by chemical reactions in their environment.

The article in Nature goes on to link the study of active matter to the movements of living organisms: the swirling patterns of flocks of birds or schools of fish in motion. I’m not sure that I see the connection. According the the article, density is the secret. When a group of birds or fish is scattered and their density is low, they can move randomly. When they gather more closely and density increases, their movement becomes coordinated. Sure, I can understand that. Living organisms which have various sensing apparatus, a central nervous system, and the ability to move in a controlled fashion will make conscious decisions about their own direction rather than randomly bump into one another. This is why people crossing the main concourse of Grand Central Station at non-rush hours may move in all directions, but when the hall is packed with commuters, they tend to move in ribbons and streams and still they almost never bump into one another.

In the same way, densely packed fish in schools or birds flying in tightly grouped flocks must sense those other individuals around them—the fish feeling increased water pressure and microcurrents from those swimming ahead and on either side, the birds feeing air pressure and currents—and move accordingly. In the flocks and schools, motion and direction are a group choice, a collective decision, in the same way that waltz partners swirling around a dance floor, theater patrons heading toward the exits, hunting packs pursuing a prey animal, or people running from a fire do not need a leader or any outside direction to guide their motion. They move as a single mass because they have a common purpose.

I would imagine that the filaments and spheres packed on a slide are also moving under some contact—or contact avoidance—pressure related to water or solution density, reactive energy, or some other inanimate force. But here the analogy of active particles with conscious, living beings would seem to break down. Proteins driven up a tubule by ATP do not actually achieve consensus: they are still inanimate. A group of hounds chasing a fox, with a group of Englishmen and -women on horseback jostling along behind them have chosen their sport. They can agree to follow the dogs when they chase a fox but call them off if the dogs start chasing a rabbit or a deer. Sensation, awareness, and control really do matter at the sophisticated level of human beings.

I’m not sure how far the study of active matter will go, aside from chemical parlor tricks on microscope slides. One might extend the clumping, grouping, and swirling effects to larger-scale phenomena like lava streams, mud flows, and river formation. But in the end, physics is still one area of study and biology another—except perhaps at the most basic, chemical level of what happens inside a cell.

But there, in the murky distinction between the diffusions of salts and sugars in water and the reactions of proteins and fibers driven by the breaking of phosphate bonds, we come upon the first prime mover, the first stirrings of that old “life force,” and the start of the mystery of temporarily reversing entropy.

1. Gabriel Popkin, The Physics of Life, Nature, volume 259, January 7, 2016.

2. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the amount of order in a closed system is always decreasing. You might temporarily gather energy together to create an ordered state, but in the release of that energy, some of it will always be lost—not destroyed, mind you, simply rendered unavailable—to the system. For example, the fuel you burn in a car’s engine creates turning force on the crankshaft, but it also creates heat, radiant energy, which does not go into the work of the car and is inevitably lost into the atmosphere. The original energy in that fuel was released millions of years ago by fusion reactions in the sun, a fraction of which was captured through photosynthesis by the algae in sea water, a fraction of which were consumed as food by plankton and converted into lipids, a fraction of which were trapped in the seabed when the plankton died and slowly turned into crude oil by pressure and geothermal heat. That might look like a gathering and concentrating of the sun’s nuclear energy, but the algae, the plankton, and the seabed are capturing and conserving only a tiny fraction of the 130 watts per square meter that fall on the Earth’s surface every minute. The rest is lost to the system, and that loss of energy, that state of increasing disorder, is called “entropy.”

3. See The First Great Revolution from December 6, 2015.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Matters of Faith

The question came up recently about what people believe in, and a friend of mine quoted G. K. Chesterton: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing; he believes in anything.” My friend, who knows I am an atheist, was then quick to say he wasn’t talking about me in particular, but about nonbelievers in general.

I’ve stated repeatedly1 my non-belief in a supreme, all-intelligent, all knowing, all-powerful being. I am not hostile or contemptuous of those who so believe, but if some gene happens to code for a protein that attunes a person’s brain to religious experiences, I lack it. If some circuit in the brain receives messages from the infinite, I never developed it. I have a pretty big and active imagination, but I also have a sharp and hair-trigger squelch circuit that helps me distinguish the inner promptings of my own imagination from the external cues of reality.

Still, belief and faith shape as much of my world as they do everyone else’s. If you define faith or belief as the act of accepting as true a proposition which either you have not proven for yourself or you lack the skill or experience to prove as true, then we all take much of the world around us on faith. I have been to Paris, so I know from experience that Paris—at least the parts I’ve seen and experienced—exists. I have never been to Timbuktu, don’t even recall having seen pictures of the place, and couldn’t describe its heyday in history within a century, and yet I’m prepared to believe in the existence of Timbuktu because it is generally accepted to exist in the accounts of others. That is, I’m not prepared to claim Timbuktu is a mythical place or merely a figure of speech because I haven’t been there.

In the same way, we take much of what we know about science on faith. I daily experience the effects of gravity, but I have never measured its acceleration for myself. Yet when physicists write that its pull at Earth’s surface is 9.8 meter per second squared, or just over 32 feet per second squared, I take their findings on the faith that serious people have performed the proper experiments and reported their results accurately. For the last couple of centuries, Western civilization has been engaged in a vast enterprise of analysis and discovery, guided by the accepted principles of the Scientific Method,2 and supported by the practices of formal reporting, peer review, widespread publication, and experimental replication. In most cases, if a new finding is written up in a peer-reviewed publication, I am prepared to believe it and accept it based on my faith in the method.

In most cases … However, in certain areas of modern physics we are beginning to deal with propositions and discoveries derived more from elegant mathematics than from testable and falsifiable experiments. Some examples are the outer edges of quantum mechanics and its suggestion of particle symmetries that must exist, simply because the mathematics says so; conjectures about infinite multiverses beyond the visible universe we inhabit and where other laws of physics must apply, simply because it’s such a lovely and compelling idea; alternative descriptions of matter and energy, such as string theory, that rely on multiple spatial dimensions that cannot otherwise be detected, simply because the mathematics can thereby resolve gravity with the other physical forces; and conjectures about massive but invisible particles, such as “dark matter,” or unexplained forces, such as “dark energy,” simply because without them the oddities in our observations of the universe spoil the theories we have already accepted. If there are parts of the system we can’t explain, I find it better to say, “We don’t yet know,” rather than let our mathematical reasoning and our imaginations run away with us.3

I need hardly mention in the context of these “other cases” the current rush of climate scientists to project either rising or falling global temperatures and their dire consequences on the oscillating, cyclical, complex, and poorly understood processes that the rest of us call “weather” and “climate.”4

What then, do I believe? What do I take on faith because I cannot prove the proposition?

I believe that the universe is an orderly place. It responds to principles and rules, and we are able to understand large parts of it through our observations, hypotheses, and experiments. However, the universe at different scales presents different appearances and may respond to different rules and principles. I am not bothered that the principles which obtain at the quantum level of subatomic particles may not apply evenly to stars and galaxies. I can also accept that working alongside these principles and rules are the actions of chance and probability. When an atom splits or a star explodes, we cannot always predict in which direction the constituent parts will fly or where they will end up. This may be a failure of our observing power and the subtlety of our mathematics, and it may simply be the nature of the universe to remain unpredictable in certain cases. I believe we will eventually understand almost all of what’s going on when we have had time to gather more information, perform better experiments, and refine our concepts. But some fraction of the universe will forever be unpredictable.

I believe that we humans are the best thing going within several light years in this part of the galaxy, maybe even tens of light years. Perhaps whales and dolphins are smarter creatures, individually or collectively, than human beings, and perhaps their ability to make a living as the hunter-gatherers of the sea is the highest expression of life’s purpose. Perhaps building cities and libraries to retain and share knowledge, inventing telescopes and microscopes to explore the world around us, sending information across continents using electromagnetic frequencies, and flying people through the air in jet-powered tubes … perhaps all of that activity is just human vanity and inferior to hunting and gathering. Perhaps, too, the sequoia trees which stand in one place for thousands of years and drink in sunshine, water, and minerals in order to grow quietly are our moral and ethical superiors. But I don’t think so. I believe we’re the best thing this planet has ever seen. We are—among a hundred other definitions—the creature that examines itself, and I am proud of that.

I believe that the universe teems with life, given all the complex reactions that are possible involving chemicals that we don’t normally consider “organic.” One day soon we will discover extraterrestrial life or its undeniable residue, most probably on Mars, and then we will know how unique—or how common—Earth’s particular kind of organic life really is. But much of what actually lives in the universe we might pass over completely and never think of as living. As a child in New England, I played on granite boulders that were splotched with crackly, grayish patches bearing green or yellow speckles that looked like flaking paint or the remains of leaves that had settled on and annealed to the rocks years ago. The patches certainly looked dead and inert. I was surprised to learn in biology class that these were lichens, a composite creature of algae or cyanobacteria caught in fungal filaments. They exist by symbiosis, which is a fairly advanced relationship. When we first step down on a new planet, we may pass right by some of these “paint splotches” without even noticing they are there, much less alive. But even the life forms that move, hunt among the other biota, raise families, and live in herds may not exhibit our kind of intelligence. It might be a greater or lesser form of intelligence, and we may not be able to recognize it. Right now, we can’t all agree on whether whales and dolphins are actually communicating or merely humming to themselves. And we also know this planet existed for half a billion years with complex life that could not speak in complete sentences, write down and read its own thoughts, do simple arithmetic, or push two stones together to make a fire pit—and we might land on such a planet in any stage of its development. I believe that life in the universe will be varied and wonderful, and that exploring it will be a treat.

I also believe that if we discover the DNA-RNA-protein domain in the life beyond Earth’s biosphere, then we will know that our kind of organic life possibly came from somewhere else, perhaps blown in with an extraterrestrial bacterial spore, or discarded inside an ancient astronaut’s lost glove, or seeded here on purpose.5 It will also open the possibility that this chemical system for information retention and transmission, so measured in its mutability and so adept at tailoring life’s processes to form a perfect match with their environment—whatever that environment might be within broad limits—is actually the work of an active intelligence far superior to ours which wants to see the universe filled with living, reproducing, entropy-confounding creatures. These fascinating molecules—DNA, RNA, proteins, and the chemicals that use them in all their complexity—is as close as I can come to the artifact of a divine intelligence.

This is not much of a belief system, I know. It is fragmentary and cursory and still a-building. But it’s the best I can do right now.

1. See particularly One True Religion from April 15, 2011; If You Can Believe … from February 17, 2013; and Knowing and Believing from July 20, 2014.

2. The method goes back to French philosopher René Descartes, who published it in 1637 as Discourse on the Method for Rightly Directing One’s Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences. The modern statement of the method is conducted with seven steps: (1) make an observation or ask a question; (2) do background research; (3) construct a hypothesis to answer the question or explain the observation; (4) design and perform an experiment to test the hypothesis; (5) record the findings and analyze the data; (6) draw a conclusion from the analysis; (7) communicate the results, along with details of your experiment, so that others may replicate it and independently verify your conclusion. The essence of the method is that your hypothesis must be falsifiable—that is, there must be some condition under which your hypothesis can be proven wrong—and your experiment must accurately and convincingly test it.

3. See, for example, my previous blogs Fun With Numbers (I) and (II) from 2010, as well as Fun with (Negative) Numbers from November 3, 2013.

4. See Getting Serious About Global Warming from December 16, 2012.

5. See Seeding the Stars with Dirty Snowballs from February 16, 2014 and As Immortal as It Gets from June 15, 2014.