Science and philosophy – 2

I just finished reading “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. The book is somewhat less technical than I had expected. Despite having a chapter titled “Against Philosophy”, Weinberg deals with several issues that have more to do with the methodology of science than with its content, such as reductionism, “aesthetics” in science, positivism, belief in God etc. Overall, the book is quite enjoyable. I am interested in developing a better understanding of several of the issues Weinberg discusses, so this book has given me a lot of starting material.

To me, the most interesting arguement that Weinberg makes is that “aesthetics” has played a significant role in the formulation as well as the acceptance of several of the theories that have been developed in the last century. I had encountered similar claims before but had not taken them very seriously. But Weinberg makes his case quite convincingly. He argues that validating a theory by means of experiment is not as simple as it may seem. There can be any number of reasons for an anomaly in experimenal results. In judging whether a theory may be valid, whether it is worth trying to validate, physicists necessarily rely on “aesthetic” judgements. As an example, he argues that physicists were more or less certain of Einstein’s theory of general relativity before it was conclusively validated by experiment. As another example, he argues that physicists were sceptical of the theory of quantum electro-dynamics although it was in agreement with experimental results because some calculations based on it involved “ugly” infinities in intermediate steps. He writes that part of this “beauty” lies in simplicity – not the simplicity of the equations but of ideas. Another part of this beauty lies in what he calls logical isolation or rigidity. For example, he writes that no one has yet found a way to make a small modification in the principles of quantum mechanics without destroying the theory altogether. It would make little difference in Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational force if the exponent were changed to 2.01 instead of 2, but even the introduction of a small non-linear term in the linear equations of quantum mechanics produces nonsensical results. Such a theory does not explains why it should be correct but it explains why it cannot be just a little wrong. Concluding a chapter titled “Beautiful Theories” Weinberg writes

We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty… the beauty of present theories is an anticipation, a premonition, of the beauty of the final theory. And in any case, we would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful. (emphasis mine)

The last sentence in that excerpt sums up most of what Weinberg is saying about beauty. If one keeps asking why as Weinberg does, there will come a point where one will have to stop. How does one decide what that point is? For Weinberg that point will have been reached when we have a simple and logically isolated theory that “explains” everything including the values of what we call universal constants.

In my next post in this series, I will try to present my own thoughts on what it means for a theory to explain something and on beauty.

Is TARP criminal?

Donald Luskin asks “Is TARP a criminal enterprise?” and goes on to describe a number of dubious details such as:

…it was disclosed that “nearly 20 preliminary and full criminal investigations” are underway, including “large corporate and securities fraud matters affecting TARP investments, tax matters, insider trading, public corruption, and mortgage-modification fraud.”

…Perhaps this refers to the controversy that surfaced last January when it was said that Barney Frank (D., Mass.), the powerful head of the House Financial Services Committee, intervened to get TARP funding for a favored constituent, Boston’s OneUnited Bank.

…It’s easy to guess that Barofsky is looking into the possibility that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson coerced the CEOs of the nine largest banks to accept capital investments from TARP, even though several of them didn’t want the government as a stakeholder.

…Cuomo writes that according to a deposition by CEO Lewis, “Bank of America did not disclose Merrill Lynch’s devastating losses . . . and would have done so but for the intervention of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve.”

But the important question to ask is not “Is TARP (or any other particular program) a criminal enterprise?”. The important question is “Could it have been otherwise?” The government is nothing more than an organization of people. A private organization does not have the authority to confiscate people’s property and use it for its own purposes, whatever those purposes may be. Neither does a government. The proper term for such confiscated property is loot. Is there a non-criminal way to acquire or distribute loot? I think not.

Ayn Rand’s novels

For some time, I have been thinking of writing a series of posts on “Atlas Shrugged”. What I took away from it, why I was so influenced by it, why I enjoyed it. So I was delighted to discover the comment thread on Aristotle The Geek’s post Dry Humor that featured an excerpt from “The Fountainhead”. I think Aristotle The Geek nails quite a few of the things I would have written myself. I still intend to do the series, but meanwhile, go read the thread.

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

A spiritual experience

Today, I went to a meeting in a certain company to promote a product. And I was treated to about 40 minutes of a talk on “spirituality” by the representative of the company. This person has been visiting some camp for about a month every year for the past five years. The goal of the camp (as stated by him) is to help people like him understand that they are not limited human beings but infinite unlimited manifestations of the oneness of the cosmos. The way to understand this is to listen to talks on some scriptures (the same sciptures every year) by some “masters” who already have this understanding. What is required to reach this understanding is not any active analysis or committed efforts to understand the scriptures but repeated “exposure” to the scriptures. This ultimate knowledge will “happen” automatically, just as one sees a book when one opens one eyes automatically, that is without the exercise of free will. The fact that he has not reached this ultimate knowledge yet (although his clarity on the subject has improved with time) is proof of the fact that his mind is limited. He will have to abandon his ways of thinking and all the “notions” (a very large number of them) that he has developed to free himself. He cannot but give the benefit of doubt (stated with a lot of emphasis) to someone who tells him that his true nature is infinite. What has he got to lose? If he makes a mistake, he will be reduced to the finite. If he comes to the understanding he seeks, however, he will have achieved all that he has been seeking – not security, but the knowledge that he is not insecure in the first place, that there is nothing to be insecure about. He will transcend dharma (righteousness), kama (work), artha (wealth) and reach moksha (liberation) – the understanding that liberation consists of transcending the desires for kama and artha. Moreover, he will reach this without any hard work, he just needs patient exposure to the scriptures. Isn’t this what all of us have been yearning for all our lives and perhaps for many lives? How does he know that the “masters” have this understanding? Are they different in some way? He can sense it. It is difficult to explain but their confidence and the way they carry themselves indicates it. They have compassion for everyone in the cosmos, not just humans but also animals, birds, trees etc. After all, these are all just different forms of the same oneness. Just as one sees a lot of different kinds of images when one visits a house of mirrors in some entertainment park, these are all manifestations of the single infinite. People who have not reached this understanding are like a child who has just dropped his ice-cream or burst a balloon and is wailing thinking that the world is coming to an end. But the masters are like adults who know that nothing has been lost, that one can always get other ice-creams or balloons. And their attitude towards the unenlightened is similar. They have a lot of patience. They want the unenlightened to realize that what they are suffering from is unimportant. Also the masters do not have any ill-will towards anybody. How can they? They realize the oneness of the infinite. Does one get angry with ones teeth when one accidentally bites one’s tongue? No. Similarly the masters only have compassion for everybody. Reaching this understanding is as simple and as effortless as dropping a heavy load that one has been carrying. What can be easier than that? But one should know that the load can be dropped.

That is about as much as I can remember. After 40 minutes of this, he was back to work and was discussing mundane things about business. Amazing how people can compartmentalize and lead a double existence.

I can’t say that his talk had no effect on me however. I did felt very sleepy by the end of it. And I had a good nap after I got home.

Government and education

A while back I came across this infuriating story (via A Little Lower than The Angels) of a man who did not send his children to a public school against the law of his state and so was shot dead by the agents of the state. Since I have written a bit lately on the moral and political implications of public education, this is a good time to relate this story to that debate. The legal murder of John Singer is the logical conclusion to any arguement that advocates public education. Here’s how.

a) The state has the power to tax me to provide public education.

b) Therefore I have a legal responsibility to the state for the welfare of others.

c) Therefore the state may decide that my children’s education is essential to the welfare of others (free and compulsory education)

d) Therefore  the state may decide what this education must consist of.

e) Therefore the state may punish me (ultimately by death if I resist) if I refuse to accept the state’s requirements.

Do you agree with (a) but not with (e)? Examine your premises. Logic has a way of catching up with people even if they do not choose to be logical.

Charity

Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

If you make x private…

T.R. asks a question that begins with “If you make education private”

The question should be the other way round, “if you make education <i>public</i>…”
Education is just a service rendered by some people (teachers, school administrators) for others (students). Like any other service, it has to be paid for in some form. The default is (should be) for the service beneficiaries to pay the service providers. The default is <i>not</i> to have a service public. My point is that you are starting from a socialist framework (where everything is public). But that is not a natural framework to start with. A framework (when it is explicitly created by interactions of men) needs justification. Your question already assumes that there is some justification to have education be public.
You should start from the natural state of affairs, where education like other services is a private service. Now ask “Should this service be made public?” Immediately several questions arise: How is this service (education) different in principle from other services? What sort of differences require a service to be public? Who decides what these differences are? What happens in the case of a disagreement? Note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. Individuals make all the decisions themselves, with no physical force being used.

Suppose, for the moment, that you find the answers to these questions. Several other questions now arise. What constitutes a proper education? Should mathematics be a part of this education? Should astrology be a part of this education? Should religious teachings be a part of this education? What sort of clothing is acceptable for students (or teachers)? What costs are acceptable? What compensation is acceptable for the service providers? Should parents who do not accept the public answers to these questions be allowed to teach their own children? Should they then still be taxed? Note that I am not making up any of these questions. They are all actual issues that have come up at one time or the other. There have been petitions claiming that maths should be optional. There has been a court case regarding the inclusion of astrology. The issue of teaching creationism (or intelligent design) keeps coming up in the U.S. There are court cases in places like France, U.K and Turkey about scarves, turbans and burkhas. There are teachers unions in some places in India. I remember reading about a teachers association in the U.S. that does a lot of lobbying in the government. There is an active homeschooling movement in the U.S. I remember there was a proposition about tax credits for homeschooling parents (I don’t know if it was passed). Again, note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. If a parent does not like a particular school, he can choose another one or maybe not choose any school at all.

Once you think it through, it is obvious that any answers (no matter what political process is used to arrive at it) to these questions will involve the initiation of physical force against individuals. You might argue that I am mixing up examples from the U.S. (a developed country) and India (a developing country). That India needs public education (even if it involves some force) if it is to develop. Note that (in its somewhat credible form) this is a variant of the benevolent dictator arguement (For the democratic form, look at today’s frontpage of The Times of India). The problem with that arguement is it ignores man’s nature and the conditions required for progress. Why is India a developing country (despite decades of public education) while the U.S. achieved near universal literacy with mostly private schools (according to this article in Wikipedia – “The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. In fact, the first national census conducted in 1840 indicated that near-universal (about 97%) literacy among the white population had been achieved.”)? The benevolent dictator arguement mixes up causes and effects. Freedom is the cause, progress (of which education is an indicator) is the effect (look at the history of Europe for example). The two cannot be interchanged. India will remain a “developing” country until people realize the value of freedom. Just compare the results of 60 years of public education and 20 years of limited economic freedom. Which of the two have caused progress?

More on propaganda

Via this piece at True Sailing Is Dead, I came across this post:

 The curious case of 200 nearly identical MSM headlines

The following headlines have appeared in newspapers within the last 24 hours. This is not an inclusive list.

• Third of Illinoisans went without health insurance in last 2 years: Sun-Times
• Report: 2.5M in Michigan lacked health insurance: Chicago Tribune
• Study: 29% of Ohioans have gone without health insurance: BizJournals
• Report: More NJ residents lacking health insurance: Forbes
• Study: Many Kansans are uninsured: BizJournals
• Report tallies uninsured in Hawaii: KPUA AM 670
• Study: 1 in 3 Alabamians have no insurance: BizJournals
• 1 out of 4 NH residents lacked health insurance within last two years: WBZ
• 1 out of 3 Coloradans lacked insurance in past two years: Denver Post
• Nearly 1 in 3 Idahoans lack health insurance, study says: Idaho Statesman
• One in four nonelderly Minnesotans has been without health insurance, study shows: Twin Cities
• 1 in 3 are uninsured in Georgia, study says: Augusta Chronicle
• 1.3 million Louisiana residents uninsured: Independent
• Millions in N.C. lack health plan: Winston-Salem Journal
• Uninsured are mostly working: Sun-Herald
• Nearly one-third of Wyoming residents went without health insurance in past two years: Wyoming Tribune
• Report finds health insurance lacking in W.Va.: Charleston Gazette
• Nearly 1/3 Of Kentuckians Uninsured Says Report: WFPL Radio
• REPORT: 254K Rhode Islanders Uninsured at Some Point from 2007-2008: ABC 6
(links dropped)

The post goes on to claim

Data from the Census Bureau debunks the lie continually promoted by the mainstream media of the legendary 47 million uninsured Americans:
• 9.5 million people are illegal aliens
• 8.3 million uninsured people are those who make between $50,000 and $74,999 per year and choose not to purchase insurance
• 8.7 million uninsured people are those who make over $75,000 a year and choose not to purchase insurance

Clearly the 200 headlines are propaganda in the sense I wrote about a few days back. And probably also in the sense of being misinformation specially designed to push an agenda (I do not have the energy to try to verify the figures). Putting aside the truth of the figures and my disagreement with the goal – nationalization of healthcare – this propaganda is intended to achieve, how does one judge the propaganda? Al (of True Sailing is Dead) writes

These papers did not randomly all come to the same conclusion on the same day. This “news” was obviously released into the mainstream to coincide with (surprise!) President Obama’s push for Universal Healthcare. Not saying it’s good or bad, just that it’s going on, and as a news consumer you can either accept that the “news” you read is the result of good old fashioned journalistic integrity or you can say “wait a minute” and realize that you’re being played by a national propaganda machine.

It’s propaganda, and it’s not a suitable purpose for any news publication to pursue. Yet it’s done constantly. Incessantly. Pervasively. And you don’t even know it.
Or maybe you do know it. Maybe you do.
Do you?

The proper purpose of a news organization is to publish news and perhaps to provide commentary on it. But what constitutes news? A working definition could be: an event that is seen as significant. But that raises questions like significant to whom? By  what standard? (Also read Burgess Laughlin’s post on bias) It is clear that the world view of the person(s) determining whether or not to highlight a particular event will determine what constitutes news. And since a news organization can only publish so many items at a time, it will have to prioritize, i.e, it may not publish a news item as soon as it occurs but at a time of its choosing. Getting back to the specific concrete at hand, what Al seems bothered about is the fact that a number of media organizations decided to publish findings in a concerted manner in an attempt to influence people. This could be called strategy or it could be called propaganda (negative moral judgement in the common usage of the word). Calling it stategy acknowledges the fact that people can and should form worldviews, can and should look for moral significance in events, can and should try to act in a manner that they judge to be in their best interests. Calling it propaganda (in the usual negative sense) implies a desire that the people in media should never form moral judgements or atleast that they should not allow their moral judgements to influence their decisions about whether and when to publish certain items and whether to coordinate with others in doing so. But this is an impossibility. Men necessarily act in accordance with their moral judgements and just because someone is in the media, does not mean that he can (or should) act like a robot. This desire is analogous to wanting a physical body to behave without inertia. Here it is mental inertia.

It might seem that I am making too much of a minor semantic difference. But, behind the negative connotation associated with the word propaganda is a major flawed idea that manifests itself in other ways too. It is the idea that the pursuit of truth or knowledge, the forming of judgements, objectivity etc are ends in themselves. They are not. They are means to live ones’ life. If they are seen as ends, then the pursuit of one’s life is seen as an impediment, something that might make the pursuit of truth less pure by tainting it with a purpose. It is the idea that leads to other ideas like “Media should be free from commercial influences”, “Science should be free from the bounds of practicality of its applications”, “The mystic who spends his life waiting for a revelation is on a higher plane than a person who lives a normal life.” (There might be others that I have not identified).

A flawed system

In a conversation over snacks, a colleague commented that our current political system is flawed. He suggested some remedies. Among them were having a constitutional review every x years so that the constitution can keep up with the times, requiring that a winning candidate has a minimum percentage of the votes from his constituency by conducting a multi-stage polling process, having a performance review of every candidate once a year etc. I remained unimpressed. An analogy might help here. Consider a pipe that transports an extremely corrosive gas. Because of the corrosive nature of the gas, the pipe develops frequent leaks. One could try to repair the pipe constantly or one could ask why one is dealing with such a corrosive gas in the first place. The remedies my colleague suggests are analogous to the former approach. They can push and delay the inevitable, but cannot change its nature. Our political system is flawed – fundamentally. It tries to achieve that which cannot be achieved. The only techniques it understands are threats and coercion. But men cannot function when they are coerced. Every human activity from the formulation of a purpose to the production of values to achieve it requires the exercise of a free mind. A system designed to enable coercion (read my earlier posts on the constitution) is fundamentally flawed. It cannot be repaired by making the coercion more “efficient”.

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