Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sagan, Haldane, eternal life, and Data

An intriguing passage from an excellent chapter from an excellent book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan:

A very different prospect for something like eternal life was once proposed by the versatile British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, who was, among many other things, one of the founders of population genetics. Haldane imagined a far future when the stars have darkened and space is mainly filled with a cold, thin gas. Nevertheless, if we wait long enough statistical fluctuations in the density of this gas will occur. Over immense periods of time the fluctuations will be sufficient to reconstitute a Universe something like our own. If the Universe is infinitely old, there will be an infinite number of such reconstitutions, Haldane pointed out.

So in an infinitely old universe with an infinite number of appearances of galaxies, stars, planets, and life, an identical Earth must reappear on which you and all your loved ones will be reunited. I'll be able to see my parents again and introduce them to the grandchildren they never knew. And all this will happen not once, but an infinite number of times.

Somehow, though, this does not quite offer the consolations of religion. If none of us is to have any recollection of what happened this time around, the time the reader and I are sharing, the satisfactions of bodily resurrection, in my ears at least, ring hollow.

But in this reflection I have underestimated what infinity means. In Haldane's picture, there will he universes, indeed an infinite number of them, in which our brains will have full recollection of many previous rounds. Satisfaction is at hand -- tempered, though, by the thought of all those other universes which will also come into existence (again, not once but an infinite number of times) with tragedies and horrors vastly outstripping anything I've experienced this turn.

The Consolation of Haldane depends, though, on what kind of universe we live in, and maybe on such arcana as whether there's enough matter to eventually reverse the expansion of the universe, and the character of vacuum fluctuations. Those with a deep longing for life after death might, it seems, devote themselves to cosmology, quantum gravity, elementary particle physics, and transfinite arithmetic.

Growing up, I was taught – not very forcefully – that Heaven was real (not so much for Hell). Ever the inquisitive child, I often wondered what Heaven would be like, and that would always result in an unsolvable loop of trying to imagine an existence wonderful enough that it wouldn’t become a perfect Hell when the constraint of “forever” was added. I would ponder and think and ponder and think: "But...forever”. I was always able to push it to the back of my mind via “my earthly brain is not equipped to comprehend forever”; but it was there, in the back of my mind: I didn’t really want to live forever.

Sagan makes two important points regarding the “Consolation of Haldane”: first, that it requires that the universe not continue expanding unto its own heat death; second, and less interesting from a scientific perspective but more interesting from a philosophical perspective, that as a hope for life after death and the reincarnation of our consciousness, it also precipitates the conclusion that our full-memoried selves will both prosper and suffer immensely in an infinite number of future universes. Definitely food for thought.

But what about looking at the continuation of consciousness question from a different angle – that of future technology?

In the TV series Dollhouse, a large bio-tech corporation has a super secret wing that recruits minor criminals and offers them a contract to be “dolls” for five years in return for having their legal slate wiped clean at the end of their service. The dolls’ memories and – well, their entire psychological make-ups – are mapped and transposed into digital “imprints” that can be stored on hard drives, and then erased. They exist as child-like “dolls” with no memories or behavioral traits until they are needed for missions, whereupon appropriate imprints are mapped into their brains, transforming them into the desired person.

Neglecting the possible extinction of the human species, and given enough time, I see something like this as entirely plausible. 100 years? 500? 1000? 5,000? I almost don’t see how it could not happen.

If such a capability came to exist before we had medically solved the “problem” of aging, how would we view ourselves? How would we view our deaths? If it was relatively cheap to incubate doll clones of our bodies and store imprints of our brains every night before (or during) sleep, then dying would become quite a different phenomenon. In some ways, it would be very similar to going to sleep.

Consider: If you were on your deathbed, but you knew the moment you died, someone would press a button and imprint a perfect mapping of your brain into a healthy biological clone of yourself, would you be able to think of it as just going to sleep, or would you still think of it as dying? I think I, and most people, would struggle to feel like it was the former. But if our brain is truly “us”, then isn’t that a particularly religious perspective? From a pure thought experiment viewpoint, ignoring technological feasibility and assuming the possibility of perfect transference, shouldn’t I, as a person who doesn’t believe in a soul of any kind and who grants sentience and consciousness to a character like Data in Star Trek (giving no special pedestal to human consciousness), have no problem with transferring my consciousness into another body? Or, say, into an android’s body?

I think this is why "The Measure of a Man" is one of my all-time favorite ST:TNG episodes.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


This is a slightly more inebriated post than usual... bear with me.

Tonight I attended a presentation called “An Inconvenient Truth About Immigration” where the presenter laid out a case for reform of immigration laws and a reconsideration of the narrative of America’s history as the melting pot. One of the first points she made was that African slaves were not the only involuntary immigrants to the United States; hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were annexed when the U.S. annexed half of Mexico as a result of the 1848 war, and Puerto Rico and its inhabitants became “immigrants” later when the U.S. acquired the territory from a war with Spain. Interesting to think about, for sure.

To the rest of her presentation: Her focus was on Mexican immigrants, but she framed the issue of “illegal” Mexican immigration through the historical background of immigration policy in the U.S.: Chinese immigrants were first welcomed when cheap labor was needed during the western expansion in the mid-19th century (and expanding slavery was not possible) and then barred from citizenship for forty years while white Europeans immigrated in record numbers during the same time period; Japanese immigrants were welcomed when Hawaii was a fledgling territory and (again) when labor was needed in the west, and then deemed “enemy aliens” during World War II; and so on. Import labor when needed; deport when not.

As I understand it, from the fifties through the early nineties, de facto U.S. policy on Mexican immigration was one of a “revolving door”. It was understood that most Mexican immigrants were temporary – particularly, seasonal – workers, who would work for a short time and return to Mexico with their earnings. The political climate shift in the mid-nineties brought a fear of Mexican immigration and forced former President Clinton into pushing restrictive measures against their entry into the country. The effect was to make immigration more dangerous and more expensive; of which, the effect was to cause Mexican immigrants to stay in the U.S. for fear of not being able to come back, and thus to bring their families with them, thus opening a huge can of worms for the ethics and economic issues relating to Mexican immigration.

So, in thinking about this, I kept coming back to the singular objection to unfettered immigration from Mexico: they’ll take our jobs/depress wages/ruin small business/etc. This objection comes politically from the left and the right (even though the right usually claims to believe in economic libertarianism). This may be the Delirium talking, but I feel like this objection boils down to a basic fear of the poor – that their poverty is contagious. A sort of: “There must be a reason the country they come from has a lower standard of living: they must not want a higher one.” I’m not sure I’m explaining this well… but, oh well. Hopefully you can read through the drunken lines.

It seems to me that there are three ways to get rich: 1) get lucky, 2) work very hard and with a lot of skill, and 3) have people work for you for less than their labor is worth (and any combination of the three). Applied to entire countries, I feel that 3) is the dominant factor, and certainly has been for much of the history of the U.S., including the present day. What is cheap is cheap because the labor is cheap; the labor is cheap because standards of living are different. Also, completely unrelated and completely related: the economics. Can anyone explain to me how we had near full employment when the economy was humming along in the late 90s, and yet illegal immigration from Mexico taking jobs away from U.S. citizens somehow suddenly caused the economy to crash after the September 11th attacks, and later, during the financial crisis and banking meltdowns of very recent history? What the hell did Mexican immigrants working for low wages have to do with any of that? Am I just drunk, or I am remembering correctly that nobody was complaining about “depressed wages” during an economic expansionary period?

One other weird thing I’ve seen in the immigration debate (I’m not sure which political windbag it came from, nor if it’s just some meme started anonymously on the internet): “I don’t want to deport them, I want to encourage self-deportation”. AKA, “Mexican immigrants only come here because we subsidize them and the schooling of their children”. Um, really? Say whaaa?

Harkening back to that huge can of worms, the DREAM Act is awesome and should be supported. Write your congresspersons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nuking Florida?

At a showing of the movie Kilowatt Ours (a pretty cool film, I might say) at the 8th Avenue Bike Shop and Coffee House here in Gainesville, it was brought to my attention that there is a proposed nuclear power plant to be built in Levy County, about 50 miles from Gainesville, and that there is a grassroots protest movement being formed against its construction. Admittedly, what struck me in the beginning about the information presented to me was a NIMBY focus on the unsafe nature of the routine release of radiation from nuclear power plants, which went against my understanding of nuclear energy safety, and so I googled. The first link I ran into was from the National Energy Institute:, which mostly settled the safety issue for me. The average radiation exposure composition for a person living near a plant being only 1 percent from the plant; radiation being detected easily and being one of the “most studied and best understood forms of energy”; a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer finding that the risk of health effects from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation is small; the National Academy of Sciences conducting a study which found a similar conclusion; all of these resonated with my memory of the subject and confirmed my belief that nuclear power is safe. (Also of note are the helpful links on the right side of that webpage – the Health Physics Society, in particular, has a lot of useful information regarding our interactions with radiation in the everyday, the medical field, and more.)

My firm belief is: Scientists, by and large, don’t like to be wrong. At the very least, I believe that a national organization of scientists could not possibly be made up almost entirely of shills who would collude to fudge studies to get the desired results.

When the National Institutes of Health say that childhood vaccines do not cause autism, I trust that they are not covering up data in a massive conspiracy – the studies are right there in the open, and it would be impossible to do so. When climate scientists at NASA and the world over agree that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, I believe them. The studies are open, and it would be impossible to fudge the data without even ten percent of those eyes catching it – and rushing to be the first to publish their counter analyses. When the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued its report explaining how the fires in the World Trade Center weakened the steel in the buildings to the point where they could no longer support the structure, I believe them, because they presented a large body of evidence, which was reviewed by a large body of materials scientists and engineers from diverse fields, and because they openly published their findings. When the scientists composing the National Academy of Sciences (and virtually every biologist on Earth) agree that evolution is an observed fact and the only scientific explanation for the diversity of life past and present on this planet, I believe them – because there’s mounds of published, peer-reviewed, documented evidence.

I believe in scientific consensus for that reason first: the open evidence. It’s there for anyone to see, and it’s been seen by many brilliant eyes. But I also believe in it for another reason – a negative reason: I don’t believe in a consensus of conspiracy or incompetence. For any of those things to be true – for vaccines to be causing autism, for global warming to be a hoax, for the World Trade Center buildings to have been brought down by explosives, or for evolution to be wrong – would require a vast conspiracy among scientists, mixed with vast incompetence.

The way I feel the field of science works with regard to revolutionary, paradigm-shifting ideas that challenge consensus is this: they are sought and revered and are the way to become famous. Scientists don’t reject them on the basis of conservative philosophy, because scientists, quite on the contrary, are seeking to discover something new – even if it upsets the status quo. Rather, they accept or reject them on their merits, because those merits are their reputations. Scientists don’t get rich selling out – they get discredited by selling out (where selling out is defined as falsifying data or demonstrating incompetence by drawing unsupported conclusions in order to support the aims of industry, not practicing good science which happens to support the aims of industry).

Scientists hate to be wrong. Whether they are wrong shilling for industry or wrong cooking up a crackpot conspiracy theory about industry, their reputations will be irreparably damaged, how much so depending on the level of malfeasance and/or incompetence and not which side they are on. Large bodies of scientists hate to be wrong even more, because they represent the reputation of an entire profession of people so dependent on being right, and at the very least, rigorously honest and careful.

The pamphlet from “Nuke Florida” that I received suggests that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is basically a “front for pro-nuclear forces”, receiving 90% of its funds from companies that operate nuclear reactors. But what about the NAS? Or the National Safety Council? (See, and all of their other educational information on ionizing, non-ionizing, natural, and man-made sources of radiations, their levels, and their effects on humans. Compare the average exposure to radon radiation to the average exposure to radiation for those living near a nuclear power plant.) Are they all shills, too? Is everything a giant conspiracy? Are scientists from diverse national academies and institutes of safety and of health unanimously colluding to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, without regard to human life, because they all feel like supporting the nuclear power industry? I highly doubt it.

The point of it all being: there is some serious misinformation, malignant or not, in the “nuclear power is inherently unsafe and kills” movement. The millirem exposure for one year from a nuclear power plant for those living within 50 miles is roughly one one-hundredth that of one dental x-ray ( Of all the ionizing radiation sources, by far the most dangerous are natural, and of those, by far the most dangerous is radon. The pamphlet also claims that the NAS “reviewed hundreds of scientific articles, and concluded that there is no risk-free dose of radiation.” This statement is completely lacking context. The NAS recommended the use of what is known as a “linear no-threshold hypothesis” with regard to low-level ionizing radiation, not because of any observed health effects in properly controlled studies, but rather to be consistent with other approaches to public health policy (from the link above). The linear assumption has no scientific basis, but in proposing a linear relationship, it assigns some risk to any exposure to ionizing radiation, no matter how minute. The proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County may not be economically ideal, but aside from terrorism, it would be safe, and far less harmful to humans than a fossil fuel plant.

So, am I wrong in not opposing the Levy nuclear power plant barring unforeseen economic reasons? The way I see it, the battle against global warming is an absolutely enormous problem, and will require every effort. Yes, we need to massively reduce consumption of energy. But we also need to retire as many coal plants as possible, and nuclear power is one part of that. I sincerely hope that we as taxpayers vote with our wallets to subsidize all viable green power generating technologies while they are more “expensive” than greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuel technologies. Solar, wind, and geothermal are all very important and must become economically viable on a mass scale for the sake of our health and to avoid ecological disaster. They all need to be used – i.e., we need to reforest and slow deforesting, too, among other things. The more green power technologies we can employ, the less stress on any one resource and the greater the likelihood of success.

And then, on the other issue (perhaps the larger issue): Is it wrong to trust consensuses reached among large bodies of scientists? (Sadly, this is my only slightly philosophical question among the "hard" politics.)

I don’t really see myself as a conservative or liberal on the energy or global warming issue, but as a fan of good science. I know I have a really strong opinion on this, but I appreciate all thoughts.


“A nice bar of Godiva 72% Dark Chocolate makes a cheap bottle of Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon taste mighty fancy”

Monday, September 28, 2009

Breaking the Ice: Childhood Education

As someone who is more likely to drink Cabernet Sauvignon on a Monday night than most people, I am pleased use the implications of this fact as an excuse to initiate the first discussion on Wining and Surmising.

My topic for discussion is childhood education.

I believe: The goal of teaching children should be to enable the students to learn...but learn what? Should it be the particular subject that is being taught (because it is the teacher's  "job"), or for the student to "learn" how to be better at learning?

It is my belief that learning is the responsibility of the student. This being said, I find it more important that a teacher assist a student in becoming a self-sufficient learner than it is to focus on teaching a subject.  A teacher may do everything within their power to assist in a student's gaining understanding of a subject, but this is not enough. A student must be capable of understanding the topic. A student must desire to learn the topic. A student must have the discipline to take the steps required to learn the topic.

-A student's capability for learning a topic has to do with how creative and insightful a student is, but also with how disciplined and desiring they are.
-Desiring to learn is one thing, but doing the work is another.
-Being a hard worker will only get a student so far. They have to think critically and creatively. They must also want to learn, or else they may not be inspired to work on understanding a topic.
(Note the interdependent relationships.)

Effectively: Are students willing to do the work that is associated with learning? Will they be open to new ideas and create their own? Do they care to learn?

A student's capability, desire, and discipline cannot be enforced by a teacher. They can be encouraged, however. I believe that it is imperative that a teacher encourages the student to have desire, to have discipline, to be creative, and most of all to become self reliant. The reality is this: no matter how well one teacher does their job, another might do an equally bad job. If a student is equipped with the will-power and the tool-sets required to educate themselves, then they will work towards becoming educated, regardless of how well or poorly they are taught.

Are all students equally capable of learning? Studies might suggest otherwise. How should this affect a teacher's actions?

How does a teacher "instruct" a student on how to be a creative and critical thinker?

How does a teacher instill desire?

What do you think?


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wining and Surmising

Awkwardly titled because "thinking and drinking" was taken. A place to think and share thoughts on the internet, where everyone is a brave philosopher. Also, at least in my case, a place to drink wine online. As you join the blog, you will be given "Author" status, and hopefully in this way I won't just end up talking to myself!

Rules and regulations (if any), soon to follow...


sur·mise  (sr-mz)
v. sur·misedsur·mis·ingsur·mis·es
To infer (something) without sufficiently conclusive evidence.
To make a guess or conjecture.
An idea or opinion based on insufficiently conclusive evidence; a conjecture.

Example: In regards to increasing our understanding of the universe, all we can do is surmise.