Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Issue / Proof of the Existence of God?

The "proof of the existence of God" problem has been around since at keast the Middle Ages, and I won't claim that this is the last word, but it is interesting to consider the following line of reasoning.

First consider the idea that the universe might be infinite in size, as proposed by cosmologist Max Tegmark. Nodding to the "many worlds" approach of Everett, he gets to a similar place by postulating that we are inside a "Hubble Volume" of what we can see from here, which gets 1 light-year bigger every year, and then imagining there could be zillions of these strewn everywhere, out to 10 to the 10^110 light-years and beyond. A veritable infinity of universes, many just slightly different from this one, but all extremely far away.

Next add the fact that many physical constants of our Universe are very finely tuned. According to mainstream estimates, if these constants had been randomly set, the chance of our universe supporting life was less than 1 in 10^200. This is sometimes cited in support of the theological hypothesis of intelligent design (I-D), i.e., that some "designer" must have done this, since it's too unlikely otherwise.

But being human in a life-supporting universe, while certainly a great privilege, can't be the end of the line, because we have not yet peaked as a species and there's no obvious limit on how high we can go (assuming we steer clear of early extinction). Many things that we previously thought were barriers have been surmounted, and we are rapidly advancing on the others.

Hence (as various other writers have postulated) human evolution might advance far enough that we could affect the initial conditions of creation, of this or another universe. We're still a good ways from that now, but far closer than we were even 50 years ago, and showing no signs of slowing down.

Continuing with our "proof," we believe there must be competition at all levels for available resources. Despite the existence of an infinite extent of space (of whatever dimensionality), only some portion of it is available (or accessible) and in the proper condition to form into a particular universe, and once it goes into that universe, it can't be used to create a different one at the same time.

Only a tiny fraction of randomly created universes would contain life, including highly intelligent life that could eventually evolve far enough to adjust its own initial conditions, or do it for others. However, if we assume the cycle repeats, then universes that can recreate themselves should be overwhelmingly more likely to exist than lifeless ones that create no ongoing supply of highly intelligent beings to carry on the future work of adjusting the parameters!

As we advance toward a heaven-like state, we'll progressively overcome our material limitations, and many of us may retire or disengage, but some will no doubt choose to carry on the work of refueling the fires of creation. At least to assure that enough life-bearing universes get created. And over the expanse of infinite time, such designed universes should thus become overwhelmingly predominant. (Like a superior species that claims the good resources.)

Hence there is almost certainly a residue of advanced intelligence that influences the initial conditions of the universe(s) in order to foster Life, BECAUSE such a configuration is far more likely to be sustainable across an infinite expanse of time, rather than fizzling out after one or at most a few cycles. THUS if you assume we're at T = infinity NOW, with respect to the start of all possibility, then it's virtually certain (i.e., overwhelmingly likely) that this is how we got here.

The foregoing does not depend on the accuracy of Tegmark's theory (whether the background space is flat or higher dimensional), or on whether it is truly infinite in size although that seems like a reasonable assumption.

A more formal statement is as follows. We assume that a) TIME is infinite and that an infinite or "nearly infinite" amount of time has already elapsed, b) the creation of universes is a cyclical process, c) universes that sustain life are vanishingly rare under random conditions, d) there can be some communication of advanced knowledge from one universe to another, e) universes eventually run down and need to be recreated, if organic life and awareness are to continue, f) even if universes could still be created at random, it is more likely that advanced intelligence would seek to impose itself. Hence g) over an INFINITE period of time, this imposing influence (even if initially small) would eventually come to dominate virtually 100% of the time, with vanishingly few old style "random" universes remaining.

Originally posted 4-27-03, extensively rewritten 3-28-06.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Movie / V for Vendetta

Written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers (creators of the Matrix trilogy), starring Natalie Portman (as "Evey") in her heaviest acting role to date, based on a DC Comic whose author has publicly disavowed the film (after signing away his moral rights), distributed by Warner Brothers.

An excellent piece of 5-star filmed entertainment, rated R, no sex but ample violence, murders, torture, and disturbing images, to say nothing of highly controversial political themes.

Homage or debts to prior films include Batman, Beauty and the Beast, Brazil, Broadcast News, Count of Monte Cristo, Farenheit 911, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Network, Phantom of the Opera, Sin City, and probably others I missed, plus the Osama bin Laden videos.

The story is set in a future England under right-wing relgious rule. "Strength through Unity. Unity through Faith." The dictator, name of Adam Sutler (almost rhymes with Hitler) played by John Hurt, came to power a few decades earlier during a period of social chaos induced by bio-terror. One early survivor apparently acquired super-human abilities, and has vowed to take revenge on the real perpetrators of this villany. He calls himself "V," and due to being disfigured in a fire, he is never seen without a mask (of Guy Fawkes). Somewhere along the way V must have inherited or stolen a fortune, since he can carry off complex covert operations unaided. Your classic overfunded superhero living in a lavishly furnished underground complex.

On one level it's a stock comic book revenge story, well done, but at the same time, the political oppression he's attacking is a searing commentary on current events! A government that always lies, a news media that repeats the lies, bloviating TV personalities, high level corruption, torture, pedophile priests, brutal persecution of gays. The film makes the case that these folks deserve to die at the hands of a romantic, Batman-like hero / terrorist.

The writing is solid throughout, and there is an exceptional scene in which a "Jay Leno" like character tosses his censor-approved script and broadcasts a skit lampooning the dictator, a comedic masterwork. I had some quibbles about V's bizarre treatment of Evey (in the "Spider Woman" segment) but on balance it didn't matter, so I'll leave you to figure out that one.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Book / The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, by Roger Penrose

This monumental overview of mathematical physics could more adequately be handled by 4-6 separate book reviews. For anyone who has ever read popular physics and had a deep desire to grasp the real math, here it is! Boiled down to a convenient 1,085 pages. It took Penrose 6 years to write, and sales have been so brisk (four printings so far) that he's had to focus solely on finding and fixing errors, leaving no time to publish answers to the exercises.

The first 16 chapters (378 pages) are solely mathematics, giving a quick brush up on number theory, complex numbers, Riemann surfaces, Fourier series, hypercomplex numbers, Cantor's infinities, manifolds, fiber bundles, guage connections, exterior calculus, and so on. Then we head into spacetime, analyzed in the Aristotelian, Galelian, Newtonian, Minkowski, and Einstein pictures. Then relativity, basic quantum mechanics, entanglement, the "Standard Model," quantum field theory, etc., etc. -- explained in detail using the math from the first part.

There are two ways to approach this book. As Penrose suggests, and many of us noticed long ago, (a) you can learn a lot by reading the easy parts and skimming the rest. Or else (b) there is enough material for at least 4 semesters of class work. In the latter scenario, budget (say) 10-15 hours a week over a 2 year period, download the 47 page errata sheet from Penrose's website, and work through the 1,000+ exercises and problems in the text. (Also consider purchasing a copy of 'Mathematica' which was designed to perform physics calculations, and perhaps take a class to get proficient with it.)

I'm about 2/3 of the way through, and have learned many things. For example, the infinite dimensional "Hilbert space" is not a physical spacetime, but a state space of all the variables in some system. An "operator" is a differential function, such as d/dx + (d/dx)^2. Einstein owed a huge debt to Riemann, Minkowski, Poincare, and others. Tensors are mandatory, central to general relativity, and grasping their cryptic notation would be an achievement. However, when Maxwell's Equations are presented, and this seemed rather gratuitous to me, they are given solely in the form of hieroglyphic tensor diagrams!

On a more humorous level, it seems Penrose (a British citizen at Oxford Univ.) is not above national rivalries. For example, his account of quantum entanglement covers the work of John S. Bell, a "Northern Irish" physicist, and several British-sounding scientists, but does not mention the famed "Aspect Experiment" nor any Continental scientists, and his bibliography lists no papers by Alain Aspect, a Frenchman!

I may extend this review after I complete the book, but there is so much material that it creates a definite level of fatigue -- concepts going in one ear and out the other! I am reading through in mode "A", trying to get a feel for what is there, but it remains to be seen whether I will go back through in mode "B" and spend two years working the exercises. As if this were a "Dummies" book, all exercises are graded into three levels of difficulty: easy, ponder this, and hard, signified by little icons showing the face of a pupil. But, trust me, this is NOT a "Dummies" book!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Movie / The Ister [aka The Danube]

Needless to say, when I heard there was a 3-hour movie (with an intermission) combining a travelogue of the Danube with an in-depth discussion of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party, including a tour of a Nazi death camp (Mauthausen), I dropped everything and drove 30 miles out to San Rafael to see it on opening night. There I joined 40+ other people in a theater that could have held 60, and ~25 of us were still there at the end.

How about this movie concept? Heidegger, author of "Being and Time" and protege of Husserl (a Jew), became head of Freiburg University under the Nazis, and later gave an infamous talk equating the Holocaust with mechanized farming. He had written an essay about Hoelderlin's poetry (also beloved by Wagner), and there is an extant recording of him reading Hoelderlin's poem "The Ister." The Danube (anciently known as the Ister) is ~2,400 km long, from its origin in the Black Forest to its mouth at the Black Sea, most of which is a commercial waterway, with dams and locks, suitable for tour boats. Book yourself on a friend's boat leaving the mouth, shoot a lot of footage all the way up, get out and tour various cities, including those recently bombed during the NATO campaign against Serbia, and intercut this with a long series of interviews with philosophers, archaeologists, architects, an ecologist, a film maker, and so on.

It somewhat resembles the journey in "Heart of Darkness" up the Congo into darkest Africa, except it is to the darkest moments of European history. Periodically, as if we are on a long plane flight, along with the extensive subtitling, long written quotes, section headers, place names, etc. we see our "mileage remaining" -- "1,975 km to Source." At the end we go up some alpine tributary (-60 km) above the source.

The bulk of the film is long talking-head interviews with philosophers (mostly in French) about Heidegger and his ideas. Here in America we have little or no memory of a time before the Industrial Revolution, and we were already in a state of dynamic change (New World-ization) when it hit, whereas in Europe they rightly saw it as a big inflection point, in which a world that seemingly never changed was transformed to one in perpetual change.

As with any credible philosophy there is a long series of seemingly deep, thought provoking observations, in which some pattern is alleged, often as part of a larger one, and the viewer (or reader, of text on a black screen) can acknowledge, "yes, that looks deep." Yet, after all these years (I ask), how much (positive) influence has it really had? Techne, the power of technology and economics, which the ancient Greeks dismissed as unrelated to truth or science, is in the saddle now and drives everything else, the Internet being only the most dramatic example so far.

The film, produced by two Australians, is a low-budget affair that misses many opportunities. The river footage has a few too many industrial sites (techne). The sound track quotes Bruckner here and there, but could have been far more powerful, with brooding symphonic passages and poignant folk melodies. And the points about techne and the Holocaust, while valid and deep, could have packed a lot more dramatic punch. A movie is supposed to "show rather than tell," but "The Ister" is a nice illustrated lecture.

Another attendee told me he was a poet. Of those remaining at the end, 90% also sat through the credits in their entirety! Perhaps that says something about the mindest needed for philosophy or poetry, namely the ability to hold one's attention upon something without effort.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Movie / The New World

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

The best time to write a film review is while you can still hear the theme music playing in your head -- in this case some rich but tuneless horn textures from Wagner's Das Rheingold, set against sky and water shots.

I wouldn't give this movie five stars, four is enough. And I don't see it as breaking new ground in film making. Much of it is a voice over documentary (based on diaries) of the life of Pocahontas, the landing of the English at Jamestown in 1607, her saving Capt. John Smith from execution by her father's men, the first colonists starving and going crazy, a number of pitched battles as the Indians seek to evict them, and so on.

The casting, acting, and directing are solid all the way through. All the actors and particularly the girl look authentic, as do the many Native American extras, the locations, etc. What makes this film great is the profound / deep sense of transformation in Pocahontas' life, from the chief's favorite daughter, to the wife of an Englishman (not Smith), to meeting the King and Queen and becoming a favorite at court, the "Princess of the New World." This is what really hits you and has you weeping at the end. What an amazing personal journey!

She and Smith experienced true love in the forest, but he dumped her to seek his fortune elsewhere, and they told her he was dead. So she married another kind and reliable chap, and changed her name to Rebecca. Later the two meet again, on some English estate, she realizes he was not the right man after all, and goes back and hugs her husband and father of their child. Smith totally goofed, thinking she was "just a native," and now he sees her in a costly gown, but it is far too late.

The girl's unique personality is the driver all the way through -- saving Smith, getting food to the colonists to save them from starving, and, after her father disowns her, her successful adaptation to English life, culminating in her reception at Court. Then unfortunately on the return voyage she took sick and died, which folks had a habit of doing back then.

This film makes you sit through too many poetic, impressionistic, wilderness and sky shots, with endless voice overs, to experience episodic moments of greatness. However, the overall impact is powerful, so on that account highly recommended for those with a taste for slow-paced historical drama. There is a fair amount of hand to hand combat and gun violence, and the English are portrayed as much more uncivil, unhappy, and culturally screwed up than the Indians, but there is no sex and little psychological tension.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Gone But Not Forgotten: Existential Risk and the Corpus Humana: The Case for Offsite Backup

I recommend we all get behind the efforts to digitize the world's knowledge and literature, such as "Google Books" and similar projects, because humanity is facing major existential risks. Some human extinction scenarios that we could induce ourselves include --

  • Civilization set back to Middle Ages (99% lethal virus)
  • All life terminated (nanotech grey goo eats all carbon)
  • Entire planet destroyed (micro black holes trigger gravitational collapse), etc.

Plus there are the "conventional" astrophysical risks, including --

  • Comet or asteroid strike, triggering super volcano activity
  • Supernova of nearby star (2 years of gamma rays, must live underground)
  • Wandering dwarf star or mid-size black hole, pulling Earth out of temperate zone
  • We enter dense interstellar gas and dust cloud, poisoning our atmosphere, etc.

In view of these non-trivial risks that everything that we have ever created could be lost, we should digitize and beam or otherwise deliver all our enduringly valuable cultural data into outer space, to assure that someday, somewhere, someone might be able to appreciate our works, and allow them to live on, even if we do not survive. "Gone but not Forgotten!"

To achieve this we should micro engrave as much as possible of our civilization's "record" (the "corpus humana") onto glass or metal plates to be sent up with every future interplanetary space craft. Thus if Earth were lost, someone could find our data on Mars, Saturn, or out in space. Just a standard "offsite backup" process. We should back ourselves up on a regular basis! Sending copies on many craft affords redundancy, in case some (or many) are lost or destroyed.

As Richard Feynman pointed out in his famous 1959 paper, atoms are small enough that you could engrave a photographic copy of the (then) Encyclopedia Britannica onto the head of a pin with room to spare. Obviously the data could be far denser if it were encoded into digital bits rather than character images, so perhaps a few dozen 12 inch diameter plates would do it.

Also, personal genomes are costly now but getting cheaper all the time, and 6GB is not a lot of data. One day soon these too can be beamed up and/or engraved onto space objects, so that someday, somewhere, someone could recreate "you," like a Jurassic dinosaur, and give "you" a chance to live again.

As our technology advances, we can do even better, by also shipping into space along with your genetic code the necessary chemicals and friendly robots to actually make and raise you again on some faraway planet (discussed by Bostrom).

Although we have a long way to go to defend ourselves against existential threats, it would be simple enough to digitize the corpus humana and deposit it off-Earth, right now, using existing technologies, and initiate a program of regular backups, to cheaply and easily reduce our risk of existential catastrophe! If the engraved data-bearing components can double as structural members or shields, their weight factor could be near zero, adding little to launch costs.

Of course there may be copyright problems (!), as Google found when an authors' group sued them. However, in all likelihood no human will ever read the data, and omitted works risk historical oblivion, so wise authors will grant permission.

= = = = =

Jim Dator says that several years ago he and Jim Burke proposed a repository on the Moon (and perhaps another on Mars). To me this sounds like a permanent installation or at least fancy equipment requiring a special mission, plus maintenance missions. Whereas my proposal (static plates) is financially and technically feasible today. The only thing missing is a semi-complete database of human works.