Marching for Science with John Wilkins – a perspective from Philosophy of Science

Recent video interview with John Wilkins!

  • What should marchers for science advocate for (if anything)? Which way would you try to bias the economy of attention to science?
  • Should scientists (as individuals) be advocates for particular causes – and should the scientific enterprise advocate for particular causes?
  • The popular hashtag #AlternativeFacts and Epistemic Relativism – How about an #AlternativeHypotheses hashtag (#AltHype for short 😀 ?)
  • Some scientists have concerns for being involved directly – other scientists say they should have a voice and be heard on issues that matter and stand up and complain when public policy is based on erroneous logic and/or faulty assumptions, bad science. What’s your view? What are the risks?

John Wilkins is a historian and philosopher of science, especially biology. Apple tragic. Pratchett fan. Curmudgeon.

We will cover scientific realism vs structuralism in another video in the near future!
Topics will include:

  • Scientific Realism vs Scientific Structuralism (or Structuralism for short)
  • Ontic (OSR) vs Epistemic (ESR)
  • Does the claim that one can know only the abstract structure of the world trivialize scientific knowledge? (Epistemic Structural Realism and Ontic Structural Realism)
  • If we are in principle happy to accept scientific models (especially those that have graduated form hypothesis to theory) as structurally real – then does this give us reasons never to be overconfident about our assumptions?

Come to the Science March in Melbourne on April 22nd 2017 – bring your friends too 😀

The Simulation Argument – How likely is it that we are living in a simulation?

The simulation hypothesis doesn’t seem to be a terse parsimonious explanation for the universe we live in. If what is most important is to simulate ancestors, what’s the motivation for all the hugely detailed rendering of space? Why not just simulate earth or our solar system or our galaxy?

People often jump to the conclusions and assume* that the great simulators have infinite computing power. Infinity – another thing we have never been able to measure 🙂 Max Tegmark wrote an interesting piece about why infinity is probably not real. Until we do have evidence of infinities in the real world, I believe we should treat all thought experiments that rely on infinities as mere intuition pumps.

Without the assumption that potential simulators have infinite computing power, but assume instead they have a finite amount – it seems logical that there would be a cost/benefit trade-off between computation and simulation, detail/number of sims that would need to be taken into account. Limits to available computation would decrease the motivation for building huge amounts of simulations and/or highly detailed simulations.

People think their way around the astronomical computational waste and add yet another extra assumption* that the simulation may grow to fill all the spaces we probe and interact with – though this would still increase the computational requirements to run the simulation. With this assumption, we should believe that if we are in a simulation, compared to just 500 years ago, it is costing the simulators a whole lot more to run now that we can stare into the depths of physics and peer about the universe. It has been argued that we should avoid building big computers or perform certain experiments because the simulators may decide to turn off our simulation because it begins costing them to much to run.

If we are in a simulation – many argue for the most part, it probably doesn’t matter. Based on Newcomb’s problem – even if we are in an elegant simulation, then the simulated laws of physics will behave just as they would if they were actual laws
If we feel compelled to put an estimate on it – the more we develop empirically informed naturalistic explanations for the universe, the lower our estimates should be that we are in a simulation.

If there are considerable costs to creating simulations with the detail of our universe – why simulate ancestors if it costs so much?
What is so important about ancestor simulations to justify the expense?

* the more assumptions we add to a hypothesis, the less certain we should be about it

The Seminal Nick Bostrom Interview

Here is the interview I did with Bostrom in 2012:

Why so much confidence that we are in a simulation?

I hear reports that Bostrom’s confidence that we are in a simulation have decreased over the years (less than 10% I heard recently – can’t find a direct reference right now) – while others, after he wrote the seminal paper, have increased their confidence quite dramatically. Based on various article headlines I am fairly certain that many latch onto a surface level understanding of the arguments that support their existing biases. So its probably best to read the paper and understand the Simulation Hypothesis and the Simulation Argument before hand waving about what Bostrom thinks.

How much credence should we give sound arguments that are empirically unfalsifiable?

I’d say some – not everything can be falsified – generally I rank arguments with empirical evidence higher than those that don’t.

I Wonder what do the Intelligent Design movement think of this?

Some atheists may be worried that such a philosophical implications – but most seem to think the Simulation Argument is cool.

reisch-matrix-2

Resources

Various links on the simulation argument and hypothesis curated by Bostrom – including the original paper: http://www.simulation-argument.com/

Why don’t we see more larger brained species in our ecosystem?

Species with larger brains seem to have a higher general intelligence. So why haven’t all species evolved larger brains? Possibly because general intelligence relies on a capability for social learning, so larger brains are only useful for species that rely more on social learning. – Kaj Sotala

Larger brains cost require more fuel, larger brains require larger heads, larger heads are harder to scaffold, scaffolding costs nutrients, there are so many trade-offs… scaffolding+big brains are often a the expense of other important morphologies … locomotion abilities, large craniums at the expense of stronger and bigger mouths, and in many species larger heads correlate with more complications during birth.

Perhaps I should add – (and this seems similar to some AI singleton scenarios) – larger brains (as mentioned, correlates with greater intelligence), could give distinct first mover advantages when coupled with other morphologies that enable the organism to generally & efficiently manipulate its environment (opposable thumbs etc). The first mover advantage may be so powerful as to diminish dependencies on environmental factors – or the rest of the ecological web. We, as arguably the most intelligent species on the planet, seem to be moving through an era where we as a species decreasingly depend on aspects of the ecosystem or aspects of our evolutionary endowed morphology – we synthesize better alternatives – and its happening so fast that evolution by natural selection can’t keep up – it’s production of ‘new better models’ of organisms is crowded out by the rapid progress of civilization. So perhaps one reason we don’t see more larger brained species, is for anthropic reasons – ruffly that the higher the occurrence of large brained morphologies, the higher the likelihood of one single species taking the first mover advantages related to high intelligence – and as a result quickly becoming technologically advanced enough for either subduing and manipulating the ecosystem – which may crowd out (and essentially retard) the power of evolution by natural selection to evolve larger brains in other species. The species may go on to inadvertently destroy the ecosystem, intentionally phase out the current ecosystem (involving blind natural selection) perhaps for ethical or instrumental reasons, or leave the ecosystem and natural selection to its own devices and go interstellar – in which case there would be at least one less large brained species in the ecosystem, and perhaps re-opening a niche for another species to fill.

This was inspired by Kaj Sotala’s query about why we don’t see more larger brained species than we currently do.

Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Steve Fuller

Sapiens, a breif history of humankind - Yuval Noah HarariMy sociology of knowledge students read Yuval Harari’s bestselling first book, Sapiens, to think about the right frame of reference for understanding the overall trajectory of the human condition. Homo Deus follows the example of Sapiens, using contemporary events to launch into what nowadays is called ‘big history’ but has been also called ‘deep history’ and ‘long history’. Whatever you call it, the orientation sees the human condition as subject to multiple overlapping rhythms of change which generate the sorts of ‘events’ that are the stuff of history lessons. But Harari’s history is nothing like the version you half remember from school.

In school historical events were explained in terms more or less recognizable to the agents involved. In contrast, Harari reaches for accounts that scientifically update the idea of ‘perennial philosophy’. Aldous Huxley popularized this phrase in his quest to seek common patterns of thought in the great world religions which could be leveraged as a global ethic in the aftermath of the Second World War. Harari similarly leverages bits of genetics, ecology, neuroscience and cognitive science to advance a broadly evolutionary narrative. But unlike Darwin’s version, Harari’s points towards the incipient apotheosis of our species; hence, the book’s title.

This invariably means that events are treated as symptoms if not omens of the shape of things to come. Harari’s central thesis is that whereas in the past we cowered in the face of impersonal natural forces beyond our control, nowadays our biggest enemy is the one that faces us in the mirror, which may or may not be able within our control. Thus, the sort of deity into which we are evolving is one whose superhuman powers may well result in self-destruction. Harari’s attitude towards this prospect is one of slightly awestruck bemusement.

Here Harari equivocates where his predecessors dared to distinguish. Writing with the bracing clarity afforded by the Existentialist horizons of the Cold War, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener declared that humanity’s survival depends on knowing whether what we don’t know is actually trying to hurt us. If so, then any apparent advance in knowledge will always be illusory. As for Harari, he does not seem to see humanity in some never-ending diabolical chess match against an implacable foe, as in The Seventh Seal. Instead he takes refuge in the so-called law of unintended consequences. So while the shape of our ignorance does indeed shift as our knowledge advances, it does so in ways that keep Harari at a comfortable distance from passing judgement on our long term prognosis.

Homo Deus YuvalThis semi-detachment makes Homo Deus a suave but perhaps not deep read of the human condition. Consider his choice of religious precedents to illustrate that we may be approaching divinity, a thesis with which I am broadly sympathetic. Instead of the Abrahamic God, Harari tends towards the ancient Greek and Hindu deities, who enjoy both superhuman powers and all too human foibles. The implication is that to enhance the one is by no means to diminish the other. If anything, it may simply make the overall result worse than had both our intellects and our passions been weaker. Such an observation, a familiar pretext for comedy, wears well with those who are inclined to read a book like this only once.

One figure who is conspicuous by his absence from Harari’s theology is Faust, the legendary rogue Christian scholar who epitomized the version of Homo Deus at play a hundred years ago in Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. What distinguishes Faustian failings from those of the Greek and Hindu deities is that Faust’s result from his being neither as clever nor as loving as he thought. The theology at work is transcendental, perhaps even Platonic.

In such a world, Harari’s ironic thesis that future humans might possess virtually perfect intellects yet also retain quite undisciplined appetites is a non-starter. If anything, Faust’s undisciplined appetites point to a fundamental intellectual deficiency that prevents him from exercising a ‘rational will’, which is the mark of a truly supreme being. Faust’s sense of his own superiority simply leads him down a path of ever more frustrated and destructive desire. Only the one true God can put him out of his misery in the end.

In contrast, if there is ‘one true God’ in Harari’s theology, it goes by the name of ‘Efficiency’ and its religion is called ‘Dataism’. Efficiency is familiar as the dimension along which technological progress is made. It amounts to discovering how to do more with less. To recall Marshall McLuhan, the ‘less’ is the ‘medium’ and the ‘more’ is the ‘message’. However, the metaphysics of efficiency matters. Are we talking about spending less money, less time and/or less energy?

It is telling that the sort of efficiency which most animates Harari’s account is the conversion of brain power to computer power. To be sure, computers can outperform humans on an increasing range of specialised tasks. Moreover, computers are getting better at integrating the operations of other technologies, each of which also typically replaces one or more human functions. The result is the so-called Internet of Things. But does this mean that the brain is on the verge of becoming redundant?

Those who say yes, most notably the ‘Singularitarians’ whose spiritual home is Silicon Valley, want to translate the brain’s software into a silicon base that will enable it to survive and expand indefinitely in a cosmic Internet of Things. Let’s suppose that such a translation becomes feasible. The energy requirements of such scaled up silicon platforms might still be prohibitive. For all its liabilities and mysteries, the brain remains the most energy efficient medium for encoding and executing intelligence. Indeed, forward facing ecologists might consider investing in a high-tech agronomy dedicated to cultivating neurons to function as organic computers – ‘Stem Cell 2.0’, if you will.

However, Harari does not see this possible future because he remains captive to Silicon Valley’s version of determinism, which prescribes a migration from carbon to silicon for anything worth preserving indefinitely. It is against this backdrop that he flirts with the idea that a computer-based ‘superintelligence’ might eventually find humans surplus to requirements in a rationally organized world. Like other Singularitarians, Harari approaches the matter in the style of a 1950s B-movie fan who sees the normative universe divided between ‘us’ (the humans) and ‘them’ (the non-humans).

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

The bravest face to put on this intuition is that computers will transition to superintelligence so soon – ‘exponentially’ as the faithful say — that ‘us vs. them’ becomes an operative organizing principle. More likely and messier for Harari is that this process will be dragged out. And during that time Homo sapiens will divide between those who identify with their emerging machine overlords, who are entitled to human-like rights, and those who cling to the new acceptable face of racism, a ‘carbonist’ ideology which would privilege organic life above any silicon-based translations or hybridizations. Maybe Harari will live long enough to write a sequel to Homo Deus to explain how this battle might pan out.

NOTE ON PUBLICATION: Homo Deus is published in September 2016 by Harvil Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Fuller would like to thank The Literary Review for originally commissioning this review. It will appear in a subsequent edition of the magazine and is published here with permission.

Video Interview with Steve Fuller covering the Homo Deus book

Steve fuller discusses the new book Homo Deus, how it relates to the general transhumanist philosophy and movementfactors around the success of these ideas going mainstream, Yuval Noah Harari’s writing style, why there has been a bias within academia (esp sociology) to steer away from ideas which are less well established in history (and this is important because our successfully navigating the future will require a lot of new ideas), existential risk, and we contrast a posthuman future with a future dominated by an AI superintelligence.

Yuval Harari’s books

– ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’: https://www.amazon.com/Homo-Deus-Brief-History-Tomorrow-ebook/dp/B019CGXTP0/

– ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’: https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/dp/0062316095/

Discussion on the Coursera course ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ (which I took a few years ago): https://www.coursetalk.com/providers/coursera/courses/a-brief-history-of-humankind

Is Infinity Real?

There is an interesting discussion at Quanta “Solution: ‘Is Infinity Real?’” – Is infinity a real physical phenomenon outside our models? Max Tegmark doesn’t think so – while admitting it is indisputably useful for mathematical models of physics, he believes that nothing is truly continuous – including space and time.
infinity_500Would an infinitely X* phenomenon be amenable to observational evidence? Perhaps not – and if so, we can never count one infinity, making it difficult to assign a likelihood that infinity exists in the territory and not as just convenient approximations in our maps.
Max believes also there are good philosophical reasons to ditch infinity and pitfalls in assuming infinity in mathematical models. Four points that should be understood (which are detailed in the linked Quanta article):
1. The map is not the territory.
2. Infinity is valid in mathematical models and can be very useful.
3. In the physical world, there are compelling practical and philosophical reasons to reject infinity as a default assumption.
4. There will be limiting cases where the mathematical infinity assumption and the physical absence of infinity result in different answers.
 
Finite models are proposed as solutions to replace infinite solutions for a few mathematical problems: Hilbert’s hotel, the 100, 200, 300 Triangle, and the Elliptical Pool Table.
“So the bottom line is: Infinity is permissible in mathematics applied to physics because it makes things convenient and tractable in most cases. However, we must be alert for limiting cases where our models are bound to fail, and we will then need to apply different methods.”
 
*X could represent huge, small, powerful etc..
 
 
I had a discussion about this with a friend Adam Karlovsky – and I was surprised when this just came up on my radar – it’s an interesting read.  We discussed the possibility that infinite randomness would produce an infinite amount of copies of Adam Karlovsky – doing an infinite amount of things.  He said that at one stage this thought kept him up at night.  I have had my doubts about the realism of infinity.

So what do you think?

Is Infinity Real?

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Application Driven Science vs Curiosity Inspired Science

Given that it’s hard to know what will be found through scientific discovery should commercial application be the only reason to do scientific research?
In this video Sheila Patek* said “Discovery-based research is most useful when new knowledge is sought for its own sake” – yes I agree with this [1], but fundamental scientific discovery-basted research± is one aspect of the scientific enterprise.
If you, as I do, buy into well researched notions that we are facing environmental, social, economic and technological risks – facing problems that directed science and engineering could provide answers to, it seems that at least in principle there should be a _balance_ between application-directed research for the sake of solving immediate known problems and novelty-oriented discovery research for the sake of new-knowledge (that once understood could actually help solve ‘real-world’ problems)[2].

Why knowledge for the pure sake of knowing is good enough to justify scientific research

[1] I’ve argued elsewhere that fundamental scientific discovery-based research is culturally useful µ (as a source of awe & wonder etc), as well as being very useful in that historically it has enabled putting to purpose ‘unknown unknowns’, transforming them into very useful real world applications – applications which seem difficult or impossible to anticipate until we get up close.

[2] The question then becomes understanding and refining this balance. Science is underfunded everywhere – it shouldn’t be the case that huge funding trade-offs should have to be made between goal oriented and novelty-based scientific research while we live in a world where there are huge piles of resources being spent on other wasteful enterprises.

*1 Duke University biologist Sheila Patek has faced criticism from lawmakers over her research into mantis shrimp and trap-jaw ants, with some calling her government-funded studies a waste of taxpayer money. But according to Patek, not only do her findings have important practical applications, but scientific inquiry is most fruitful when knowledge is sought for its own sake, not to justify budgets.

± Here I have treated ‘Discovery Science‘ in a similar sense to ‘fundamental scientific research‘.

µ Science focused on curiosity may – in the far future, be an imperative – we may never want an end to novelty, we may wish to mine for ever more effective axiologies, search for new & interesting models of value as opposed to being satisfied with current conceptions of what counts as valuable.