What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

By Sean Carroll | January 1, 2008 3:22 pm

This year, the Edge World Question Center asks people what they have changed their minds about. Here are excerpts from some of the most interesting answers. (Not that I necessarily agree with them.)

Joseph LeDoux changed his mind about how memories are accessed in the brain.

Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it. This is why people who witness crimes testify about what they read in the paper rather than what they witnessed. Research on this topic, called reconsolidation, has become the basis of a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and any other disorder that is based on learning.

Tor Nørretranders now thinks that it’s more appropriate to think of your body as software, rather than hardware.

What is constant in you is not material. An average person takes in 1.5 ton of matter every year as food, drinks and oxygen. All this matter has to learn to be you. Every year. New atoms will have to learn to remember your childhood.

Helen Fischer now believes that human beings are serial monogamists.

Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.

Paul Steinhardt is now skeptical about inflation.

Most cosmologists would say the answer is “inflation,” and, until recently, I would have been among them. But “facts have changed my mind” — and I now feel compelled to seek a new explanation that may or may not incorporate inflation.

John Baez is no longer enthusiastic about working on quantum gravity.

Jaron Lanier put it this way: “One gets the impression that some physicists have gone for so long without any experimental data that might resolve the quantum-gravity debates that they are going a little crazy.” But even more depressing was that as this debate raged on, cosmologists were making wonderful discoveries left and right, getting precise data about dark energy, dark matter and inflation. None of this data could resolve the string-loop war! Why? Because neither of the contending theories could make predictions about the numbers the cosmologists were measuring! Both theories were too flexible.

Xeni Jardin is depressed by the lack of spontaneous self-moderation in online communities…

But then, the audience grew. Fast. And with that, grew the number of antisocial actors, “drive-by trolls,” people for whom dialogue wasn’t the point. It doesn’t take many of them to ruin the experience for much larger numbers of participants acting in good faith.

…but Kevin Kelly is impressed by the success of Wikipedia.

How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

Oliver Morton has changed his mind about human spaceflight.

I have, falteringly and with various intermediary about-faces and caveats, changed my mind about human spaceflight. I am of the generation to have had its childhood imagination stoked by the sight of Apollo missions on the television — I can’t put hand on heart and say I remember the Eagle landing, but I remember the sights of the moon relayed to our homes. I was fascinated by space and only through that, by way of the science fiction that a fascination with space inexorably led to, by science. And astronauts were what space was about.

Jonathan Haidt no longer believes that sports and fraternities are entirely bad. (This is my favorite.)

I was born without the neural cluster that makes boys find pleasure in moving balls and pucks around through space, and in talking endlessly about men who get paid to do such things. I always knew I could never join a fraternity or the military because I wouldn’t be able to fake the sports talk. By the time I became a professor I had developed the contempt that I think is widespread in academe for any institution that brings young men together to do groupish things. Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I’d have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university.

I came to realize that being a successful scientific heretic is harder than it looks.

Growing up as a young proto-scientist, I was always strongly anti-establishmentarian, looking forward to overthrowing the System as our generation’s new Galileo. Now I spend a substantial fraction of my time explaining and defending the status quo to outsiders. It’s very depressing.

Stanislas Deheane now thinks there may be a unified theory of how the brain works.

Although a large extent of my work is dedicated to modelling the brain, I always thought that this enterprise would remain rather limited in scope. Unlike physics, neuroscience would never create a single, major, simple yet encompassing theory of how the brain works. There would be never be a single “Schrödinger’s equation for the brain”…

Well, I wouldn’t claim that anyone has achieved that yet… but I have changed my mind about the very possibility that such a law might exist.

Brian Eno’s disillusionment with Maoism changed his views on how politics can be transformative.

And then, bit by bit, I started to find out what had actually happened, what Maoism meant. I resisted for a while, but I had to admit it: I’d been willingly propagandised, just like Shaw and Mitford and d’Annunzio and countless others. I’d allowed my prejudices to dominate my reason. Those professors working in the countryside were being bludgeoned and humiliated. Those designers were put in the steel-foundries as ‘class enemies’ — for the workers to vent their frustrations upon. I started to realise what a monstrosity Maoism had been, and that it had failed in every sense.

Anton Zeilinger now believes that you should never describe your own research as “useless.” (Hmmm…)

When journalists asked me about 20 years ago what the use of my research is, I proudly told them that it has no use whatsoever. I saw an analog to the usefulness of astronomy or of a Beethoven symphony. We don’t do these things, I said, for their use, we do them because they are part of what it means to be human. In the same way, I said, we do basic science, in my case experiments on the foundations of quantum physics. it is part of being human to be curious, to want to know more about the world. There are always some of us who are just curious and they follow their nose and investigate with no idea in mind what it might be useful for.

Martin Rees thinks we need to take the “Posthuman Era” seriously.

Public discourse on very long-term planning is riddled with inconsistencies. Mostly we discount the future very heavily — investment decisions are expected to pay off within a decade or two. But when we do look further ahead — in discussions of energy policy, global warming and so forth — we underestimate the possible pace of transformational change. In particular, we need to keep our minds open — or at least ajar — to the possibility that humans themselves could change drastically within a few centuries.

It might sound a little crazy, but betting against Sir Martin is a bad idea.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany
  • Garth Barber

    We can add:

    Stephen Hawking changed his mind about whether there could be a final ‘theory of everything’ or not. In his 2004 lecture Stephen Hawking
    “Gödel and the end of physics”
    he concludes that limitations of the sort which Kurt Gödel identified for mathematics apply also to physics: “a physical theory is self referencing, like in Gödel’s theorem. One might therefore expect it to be either inconsistent, or incomplete. The theories we have so far, are both inconsistent and incomplete.”

    Antony Flew changed his mind about atheism changed his mind about atheism”, he now says that he believes in “an intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world.”

    Garth

  • Eugene

    Well am I surprised to hear that Sean wanted to be a heretic. If I have known earlier, I would have not hidden my secret desire to be one, and hide from him the talks I gave when I was his student about being a Cosmological Heretic…

    Nowadays, being heretical is simply my night job. My day job consists of computing stuff that people may actually observe. Needless to say, my night job is more fun but my day job keeps me honest (and employed).

  • Eugene

    Hmm, that link to wopat.uchicago.edu seems to be broken. I must have forgotten a bracket somewhere (the website is fine.)

  • http://deleted H-I-G-G-S

    I couldn’t resist the idea of a unified theory of the brain. But after reading
    Stanislas Deheane saying

    “Another reason why I am excited about Friston’s law is, paradoxically, that it isn’t simple. It seems to have just the right level of distance from the raw facts. Much like Schrödinger’s equation cannot easily be turned into specific predictions, even for an object as simple as a single hydrogen atom, Friston’s theory require heavy mathematical derivations before it ultimately provides useful outcomes.”

    I find myself just a wee bit skeptical. What in the world can he mean by this? Has he never heard of the Balmer series?

    And then a bit later we have Helena Cronin expounding on a theory of
    of male superiority in the sciences that we last heard from Lubos Motl and
    and a certain past Harvard president: it’s all in the tails of the distribution.

    Oh well. It is worth keeping in mind that the Edge website is primarily a PR
    machine for John Brockman and his clients.

  • Garth Barber

    Similarly with my link to Stephen Hawking’s
    “Gödel and the end of physics”.

    Does that work?

    N.B. I only have a ‘submit’ and not a ‘review’ button on this page, so it is impossible to check and repair mistakes, which I tend to do rather too often!
    Could that be changed?

    Garth

  • Moshe

    I was looking forward to see arguments in support of fraternities, and mostly college sports. That could be interesting, since I cannot imagine too many good arguments to support the latter, at least the way things are done now. The strange thing is, unless I am missing it, Jonathan Haidt’s piece did not specifically refer to either one of those…

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  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Sean:

    “Growing up as a young proto-scientist, I was always strongly anti-establishmentarian, looking forward to overthrowing the System as our generation’s new Galileo. Now I spend a substantial fraction of my time explaining and defending the status quo to outsiders. It’s very depressing.”

    Well, that you consider it “depressing” is a good sign! That heretic is still inside, give him more incentive and opportunity to get out.

    As for Wikipedia: I too am real impressed with that product. It simply amazes me how just about every article has that professional look about it, following the standard format very well, few signs of marring by smart alecks or meanies or cranks etc. and mostly correct AFAICT. (I made my first edit several weeks ago, adjusting the biography of Katherine Lee Bates.) Somehow people instinctively respect the process, and that affects them if they decide to edit – the wow, this is real and people look up to this, etc. But look out, there are fiddles with political biographies and etc.

  • Ahmed

    I find it slightly disheartening that Hawking is actually enjoying the incompleteness Godel has cast us in, for the sake of keeping everybody “employed”. It’s actually a very frightening sort of thought, probably because it leads to situations where the only way to proceed is to let go of causality (hence predicate logic in some key situations) for example. It sucks when physical reality has to bypass mathematical limitations to explain itself. I just can’t believe he’s happy about it.

    On topic: in 2007 I changed my mind about science blogs being useless. Having top physics professors compile the news for you is a Good Thing, it turns out. So here’s a big thank you for all the effort, and wishing you all a Happy (and scientifically revolutionary, we hope) 2008.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Ahmed, as I’ve explained here before, even basic quantum indeterminacy means that the universe is not nor cannot be modeled by a “mathematical structure” pace modal realist type thinkers like Max Tegmark. Mathematics, being a logically mandated system, is deterministic. Supposed examples or producers of randomness like “random variables” are just stipulated generators of such output, not the actual structure being specified that could do it. Someone has to arrange for the output “by hand” by for example specifying that digits of some root be used – that is not true, unpredictable in principle quantum randomness. Physical reality has to bypass mathematical limitations to explain itself, but I’m the sort who thinks that’s cool, not sucks.

    I sure hope your last plea turns out that way.

  • Ahmed

    Neil: you are right of course, but I wasn’t talking about “randomness”, though that is probably a large part of the discussion. I am talking about situations where the relationships are problematic simply because of the way logic works. Godel showed examples with GR, and Einstein was stumped. No randomness there, just a logical barrier due to the self-referential issue. Breaking out of that will require some very interesting physics.

    Randomness and simulated randomness is a separate, and less problematic problem (IMHO). I recommend Feynman’s “simulating physics with computers” if you haven’t read it already.

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    I have to admit I find the editing of this post absolutely bizarre. Is it just sloppiness or is there a deliberate attempt at misrepresentation?

    The most obvious example is the Oliver Morton case, where what is quoted implies the complete opposite of his point; but the Helen Fisher case likewise misses the point (not that humans are serial monogamists, which she’s been on about for years, but that the divorce peak does not happen at around seven years like she thought).

  • Chemicalscum

    Ahmed, as I’ve explained here before, even basic quantum indeterminacy means that the universe is not nor cannot be modeled by a “mathematical structure” pace modal realist type thinkers like Max Tegmark. Mathematics, being a logically mandated system, is deterministic.

    Neil, I think Max would say you are taking a “frog’s eye” view.

  • Diocletian

    Godel’s theorems about consistency and completeness apply to specific simple Peano-like systems that have nothing to do with the universe or any physical theory. Hilbert aspired at one mad point to axiomatize physics but could not succeed even for classical mechanics. Hawking’s remarks seem ethereal and useless. The question of whether or not physics can ever be complete remains a profound and unanswerable one, but as far as I can see Godel’s work is unrelated to it. Please correct me if I’m mistaken here, as the question is of course very interesting.

  • andy.s

    I was a bit shocked about the quantum inflation article.

    Is that really true?

  • Mike

    Tor Nørretranders says “New atoms will have to learn to remember your childhood.” What does this mean? Surely our memories are not storied in atoms, but in larger structures (I presume nerve cell connections). How does this support the notion of ourselves as software and not hardware?

    I would suggest the following definitions. We’re interested in machines that manipulate certain types of inputs. Software is those aspects of the machine that can be changed by these inputs, hardware cannot. The order of structures on a hard disk can be changed by inputs, this is software, the mechanism by which these structures are read cannot be changed, it’s hardware. Our memories and thoughts are changed by what we experience, these are software, but the mechanisms by which we sense and learn cannot be changed, these are hardware.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Mike, I tend to agree. I think the purportedly surprising realization is that it’s only the structure of our body that persists long-term, not the set of specific atoms; but as long as that structure doesn’t really change, I’m not sure how useful it is to think of it as “software.”

    andy.s, Paul’s view is a minority, but I think there is a lot of truth there. Inflation is much less firmly established than many presentations would have you believe.

  • http://deleted H-I-G-G-S

    According to the Guardian, as quoted on the Edge web site, the people answering this question “are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. ”

    I couldn’t help but note that Dr. A. Garrett Lisi is one of the respondents on the Edge web site. Mr. Lisi may be a wonderful person, but in the world of science he
    is famous only for being famous. Who next, Paris Hilton? I fear for us all if
    this is the intellectual elite.

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  • Dr Who

    Steinhardt’s argument, that inflation doesn’t operate in the way many cosmologists would like to imagine, is very interesting. In recent talks he has been doing an excellent job of pointing out the problems with inflation [including the fact that it requires low-entropy initial conditions]. In fact he does a much better job of this than of explaining his alternative theory….inflation is probably a big part of the true story, but only a part. Anyway, Steinhardt is one of those people with a lot of interesting ideas, and anybody who has the guts to face down Andrei Linde has to be admired.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    Did anyone see one talking about doubly special relativity? That’s the thing I’ve changed my mind about recently!

  • Mark

    Regarding the need to “refresh” a memory after it is accessed – when I first wake up in the morning, I can (hazily) remember what I was dreaming about. But as soon as I access it, it’s gone! What is it about memories of dreams that prevents us from refreshing them, as compared to memories of other things, which we can refresh?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2007/11/self-evident-dimensional-perspective.html Plato

    Mark:I can (hazily) remember what I was dreaming about.

    If it was a consistent effort on your part how would it be any different then remembering what happened yesterday? Depends on “what you want to remember?”

    I still find “the change” intriguing and how it would change “current thinking?”

  • Tumbledried

    Dear Sean,

    If I might follow Neil B. and also quote from your piece on Edge:

    “As an undergraduate astronomy I was involved in a novel and exciting test of Einstein’s general relativity — measuring the precession of orbits, just like Mercury in the Solar System, but using massive eclipsing binary stars. What made it truly exciting was that the data disagreed with the theory! (Which they still do, by the way.)”

    I am inclined to believe that you may have been onto something there. Bear in mind that our solar system is a place where electromagnetic, ie torsion effects, are relatively negligible, and in the general scheme of things, our sun is a mere pebble compared to some stars. So torsion and curvature are small in our system. However, in the case you studied, deformation would have been considerably larger. What would be even more interesting would be if one could find a binary neutron star system, and compare the data, since then not only the curvature would be significant but also the magnetic field strength.

    What I am essentially trying to say is that to successfully predict the precession of Mercury in a low curvature, low torsion system you could use any number of theories, with any number of fudge factors; however, one of these in particular would not necessarily also work for when various physical factors become more significant, in more extreme astronomical examples.

    Apologies on being a bit wordy and imprecise. But I hope you can see that your youthful aspirations may still be vindicated with this data.

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  • Chemicalscum

    Paul Steinhardt said in his argument:

    Due to random quantum fluctuations, pockets with all kinds of properties are produced — some flat, but some curved; some with variations in temperature and density like what we observe, but some not; some with forces and physical laws like those we experience, but some with different laws. The alarming result is that there are an infinite number of pockets of each type and, despite over a decade of attempts to avoid the situation, no mathematical way of deciding which is more probable has been shown to exist.

    To a modal realist this is not “alarming” but deeply satisfying.

  • NoJoy

    #1, did you actually read the article on Flew? How incredibly sad that they are manipulating him like that.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Chemicalscum on Jan 2nd, 2008 at 8:59 am

    quoting Neil B.: Ahmed, as I’ve explained here before, even basic quantum indeterminacy means that the universe is not nor cannot be modeled by a “mathematical structure” pace modal realist type thinkers like Max Tegmark. Mathematics, being a logically mandated system, is deterministic.

    Chemicalscum: Neil, I think Max would say you are taking a “frog’s eye” view.

    ~~~~

    Well, maybe, but could you explain that, and most importantly give me a case to think I was wrong?

    As for the bit about pockets with different laws, etc: I am doubtful that there is any appreciable handle on what makes laws of physics what they are and how they would vary. There are some ideas that some parameters would vary in certain ways (but is that really an example of “different laws” or just the same or deeper laws working out in different environments or contexts?) And what are the meta-laws determining that, and their justification in turn, etc.

    Note well that a true modal realist believes that every possible universe, thing, whatever that is a “logically possible world” really exists, and I mean everything. That means whatever world can even be described, classical, like ours but without gravity, or even unlawful, or even the road runner cartoons in various manifestations (i.e., as the motions of denote points in coordinates etc.) The whole idea is, there is no purely *logical* way to define “existing” in the material sense we think is so intuitively or perceptually obvious. Therefore, all of the platonic “mindscape” equally exists. If you don’t get it that way, you don’t get it.

    PS: Is it ever OK to use “.:” when a colon should come after a period, or too weird despite being technically correct?

  • Garth Barber

    #1, did you actually read the article on Flew? How incredibly sad that they are manipulating him like that.

    NoJoy I did read that article, in what way do you think the NYT Magazine is manipulating his change of mind?

    Garth

  • Garth Barber

    We could also mention from that Edge article Paul Davies .

    or most of my career, I believed that the bedrock of physical reality lay with the laws of physics — magnificent, immutable, transcendent, universal, infinitely-precise mathematical relationships that rule the universe with as sure a hand as that of any god. And I had orthdoxy on my side, for most of my physicist colleagues also believe that these perfect laws are the levitating superturtle that holds up the mighty edifice we call nature, as disclosed through science. About three years ago, however, it dawned on me that such laws are an extraordinary and unjustified idealization..

    I am not content to merely accept the laws of physics as a brute fact. Rather, I want to explain the laws, or at least explain the form they have, as part of the scientific enterprise.

    What I cannot understand is the concept that one would be able to explain, as part of the scientific enterprise, the present laws of physics without invoking some higher set of ‘meta-laws’ which would determine how ‘our’ laws came to have the form we now find them in.

    In which case would the set of ‘meta-laws’ itself exist in some ‘Platonic reality’?

    Garth

  • John Merryman

    It’s still Plato vs. Aristotle; Is the absolute an ideal from which we have fallen, or is it the essence out of which we rise?
    I would go with Aristotle. Laws are as cumulative as the reality they describe. They are a reductionist model, not immutable foundation.

    There is only the frog’s eye view and the bird is just a flying frog, because an objective perspective is an oxymoron.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2007/11/self-evident-dimensional-perspective.html Plato

    Can “aha” moments be self evident? Can something that is self evident become an ideal? It is always a paradigmatic shift. And to think it was just waiting, always there, for someone to tap into it.

    And some say, just look around you at what is.

  • Garth Barber

    In other words the identity 2 + 2 = 4 just evolves from an essence out of which it rises?…..

  • John Merryman

    I think the most basic law is that similar cause yields similar effect…

  • John Merryman

    That would be the ordered side of the equation. The chaotic side is that intersecting causes yield random effects. As experiments with cellular automata show, even feedback from within the same initial conditions can result in randomness…

  • Garth Barber

    But automata need an ordered background, computer simulation, biological life or whatever, to operate.

    Whence that order?

    Garth

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nigel

    “It might sound a little crazy, but betting against Sir Martin is a bad idea.”

    Sean, it’s Lord Rees now, not Sir Martin. The man’s CV http://www.ast.cam.ac.uk/IoA/staff/mjr/cv.html shows he is currently (since 2001) a trustee of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a Labour Party political think-tank. So maybe his prediction that “humans themselves could change drastically within a few centuries” is based on some political plan he has, like adding chemicals to the drinking water. The man recently sent out an unsolicited email from Lord Rees asking to be removed from a group physics discussion (someone else had sent him an email) because he claimed he had no time for physics, so I guess maybe he’s more busy now with politics.

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    The problem with arguing it is that logic is ordering. It is inherently top down reductionism. The structure from which you, as an aware being, argue for order, isn’t modeled on some ideal form, but evolved from the bottom up, out of less complex organisms. Consciousness is a bottom up emergent phenomena, while the intellect is top down ordering of perspective.

    Think of it in terms of growing up and the tendency of being young to think we know it all, because our perspective is limited and the more we learn, the broader our perspective, so the smaller the perception of our reality.

    Another example; In terms of economics, capitalism is the eco-system in which corporations are the organisms. There is no one model of corporate structure, yet they all need some general area of focus in order to function effectively. There is no top down ideal or order, it is simply a bottom up evolutionary process and when they get too big for the conditions, they tend to break back down into smaller pieces.

    It is our nature to try to make sense of reality and search for order in it and the most effective way is to find and study repeating patterns. That these patterns exist isn’t proof of some Platonic Ideal of which they are all copies, but that they are an effective answer to underlaying conditions and will change, should those conditions change, either by adapting or being replaced by more effective patterns.

    Does this apply to laws? Is there some set of principles out there that govern physical reality, or are they effective patterns that develop to answer underlaying conditions? Are all hydrogen atoms the same because there is some elementary set of principles governing their shape, or do they respond to the same fundamental conditions similarly? Think in terms of more complex interactions; Are they a consequence of some ideal pattern, or are they simply a response to ever more primary conditions? Do laws even exist, if they are not physically expressed?

    As I said, I think the basic law is that similar causes yield similar results. This explains repeatability. That changing causes changes effects, is a consequence of bottom up evolutionary processes. It is when we try to squeeze variability into previous patterns that do not account for these changes that our understanding gets sidetracked. So it is better to think in terms of bottom up processes, rather then top down patterns, if we want to understand, even though we, as individual beings, are a top down pattern, just as corporations exist as top down entities, even though they survive by climbing up.

    The past is top down order. The future is bottom up process.

  • Garth Barber

    similar causes yield similar results

    In a chaotic system similar causes yield very different results.

    Hydrogen atoms are the same because there is an elementary set of principles, the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics, which determines their structure.

    Your argument assumes precedents – the wholesale reproduction of order that gradually evolves to allow the survival of the fittest that they might “climb up”. In biological evolution this is provided by the RNA/DNA ‘strange loop’, but in hoping that physical order should likewise evolve, be it through Smolin’s CNS hypothesis or whatever, a whole system of ‘meta-law’ or ‘meta-order’ is required to ensure that process can happen and continue to happen.

    You may wish to believe that is how it actually happened, I just say such a belief requires a whole lot of faith.

    Garth

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    35: John Merryman on Jan 4th, 2008 at 6:48 am

    I think the most basic law is that similar cause yields similar effect…

    No, not necessarily. Worse for a logical model of the world, identical causes can yield unequal results: two “identical” (AFAWK) mesons, and one decays one microsecond after its creation, the other decays three microseconds after its creation. That is logically absurd – we know of literally nothing we can find out about differences inside those meson, they are identical per all out ways of investigating them. And yet they don’t act the same (and don’t BS me that the probability was the same etc – sure, but the particles *didn’t act the same*) If this universe is a “simulation” and one particle was using one number’s square root as a random generator, and the other one used a different number, well that idea of clockwork inside the particles is a bit weird anyway, and we certainly can’t measure such a distinction – it is meaningless to claim. The universe is not a mathematical structure nor can even be represented by one (since math structures are deterministic from their logical nature.) Its being real partakes of “mystical” character, like it or not. (Why not just go ahead and like it, BTW?)

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    a whole system of ‘meta-law’ or ‘meta-order’ is required to ensure that process can happen and continue to happen.

    You may wish to believe that is how it actually happened, I just say such a belief requires a whole lot of faith.

    I am taking one side of what is in many ways a dualistic, yin/yang situation, where any form of existance requires form. But it does seem to be a bootstrap process, where the complexity of form compounds as this process is propelled along. I wouldn’t say it’s faith, just projecting from what has been observed that eventually we find complex axioms are based on simpler sets of principles.
    Yes, the further we go, the more difficult it gets to peel away each layer and find the one under it. Currently it’s string theory, but they certainly seem to be more a labyrinth of dimensions and vibrations then any physical reality of strings.
    Bottom up process and top down form. Verbs and nouns. I think we are chasing our tail to a certain extent.

    Neil,

    Mystical or not, it’s still a good idea to look both ways before you cross the street.

  • John Merryman

    The universe is not a mathematical structure nor can even be represented by one (since math structures are deterministic from their logical nature.)

    As Stephen Wolfram said, “It would take a computer the size of the universe to compute the universe.”

  • Garth Barber

    I am taking one side of what is in many ways a dualistic, yin/yang situation, where any form of existance requires form. But it does seem to be a bootstrap process, where the complexity of form compounds as this process is propelled along. I wouldn’t say it’s faith, just projecting from what has been observed that eventually we find complex axioms are based on simpler sets of principles.

    What has been observed is the evolution of complexity, given the biological form of replicating living entities, which is based upon a chemical and physical form, which themselves are based upon an underlying mathematical form.

    What has not been observed is the evolution of that mathematical form itself, it is a belief in this evolution from a state where such order was not preexistent that requires’ faith’.

    Garth

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    Does order exist if there is no expression of it? It is potential, but not actual. Sort of like potential for temperature at absolute zero. Once it moves/fluctuates, it starts simple. Such as opposites. Pretty much all of reality is a relationship of opposites. Presumably if you add all the matter and anti-matter, positives and negatives, etc., you are back to zero. Not that we ever actually get back to zero, but there is the messy tendency for complexity to evolve to the point it becomes unstable and it collapses back down until some point of equilibrium is re-established. So the absolute is zero. Empty space. That vacuum out of which we rise and to which we fall. Not an ideal form or other singular model of perfection, God, etc. from which we fell and seek to return.

    It is an illusion, but not one Disney would produce.

    Of course, it means life is a journey, not a destination. The end is just punctuation.

  • Garth Barber

    Does order exist if there is no expression of it?

    It is not the order of physical entities or biological life that I am disputing.

    What Paul Davies changed his mind about was:

    For most of my career, I believed that the bedrock of physical reality lay with the laws of physics — magnificent, immutable, transcendent, universal, infinitely-precise mathematical relationships that rule the universe with as sure a hand as that of any god. And I had orthdoxy on my side, for most of my physicist colleagues also believe that these perfect laws are the levitating superturtle that holds up the mighty edifice we call nature, as disclosed through science. About three years ago, however, it dawned on me that such laws are an extraordinary and unjustified idealization.

    How can we be sure that the laws are infinitely precise? How do we know they are immutable, and apply without the slightest change from the beginning to the end of time? Furthermore, the laws themselves remain unexplained. Where do they come from? Why do they have the form that they do? Indeed, why do they exist at all? And if there are many possible such laws, then, as Stephen Hawking has expressed it, what is it that “breathes fire” into a particular set of laws and makes a universe for them to govern?

    So I did a U turn and embraced the notion of laws as emergent with the universe rather than stamped on it from without like a maker’s mark.

    My point was, although I could see the physical laws changing as we now know them, say the value of G, I consider that they would have to change under the ‘control’ of some ‘higher’ law, otherwise the universe would be formless, “tohu-bohu- without form and void”.

    Secondly, you did not answer Neil’s, or my, counter argument that similar causes do not necessarily yield similar effects.

    Garth

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    We think of math as being ordered, because it is a study of patterns, but there is still a lot of essential randomness that is repeating, but not predictable, like pi, or certain cellular automation equations. It is, just like evolution, potentially infinite, in that you start out with various simple concepts and they interact in increasingly complex fashion. Presumably an equation can be written to explain anything that exists, within statistical parameters, as it gets increasingly complex.

    Notice I didn’t say ‘Identical cause yields identical effect, because there is a level of dynamic, quantum unpredicability, but for the simple stuff, by and large, the shortest distance between any two points tends to be a line. An equi-distant radius around a point is a circle. Any box with equal sides and equal angles is a square. Of course when you start factoring motion and have to add relativity, it starts getting exponentially complicated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it gets illogical, or even non intuitive. For an example, it would seem that the uncertainty principle is a statement of the old adage that ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it too.’ The more the process of motion/creation and consumption, the less determined the object in question. Noun vs. verb. I think the idea also applies to mathematics itself. The more we understand the process, the less real and more fleeting the presumed structure is.

  • Garth Barber

    John,

    I still believe that 2 + 2 = 4, even if there are no objects to count and even when there are no minds around to think so. The relationships between mathematical objects are true in an atemporal way and not fleeting.

    Garth

  • http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    I haven’t changed my mind about anything really huge in science in a long time. I change my mind about small things in science all the time… indeed, changing one’s mind about small things shouldn’t be remarkable in science, because data is always coming in.

    We haven’t really had a big conceptual revolution in at least the sciences that I’m familiar enough with recently, though.

    I guess you could say that 10 years ago I changed my mind about the existence of a cosmological constant…. But I hadn’t really been committed one way or the other before the data came in and showed that it was positive. Does that really count as a change of mind? I don’t think so.

    The answers I would give to this question are more political and personal than they are scientific, and are documented here: http://www.sonic.net/~rknop/blog/?p=24

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    That logic could be extended to infinity. I could say that chairs are a logical device for sitting on, even if there were no chairs, or even people to sit in them. As an equation for preventing two legged creatures from falling on the ground, should they decide to rest, chairs are the most efficient method of keeping one’s butt suspended and back rested.

    I think the question isn’t whether or not there are universal forms, but do they follow function, or does function follow form. Say your consciousness exists in a liquid, or fluid reality, where there is no set form and the very notion of individual objects is meaningless, since if you put any amount of such matter together, it would coalesce into one big blob. So if you added anything together, it would always equal one. In that world, if you separated out part of the blob, you’d have two separate blobs, so 1-1=2. Try explaining to this blob brain why 1-1=2 isn’t a universal truth.

  • Garth Barber

    John

    Try explaining to this blob brain why 1-1=2 isn’t a universal truth.

    It is – in Modulo 2 arithmetic.

    Garth

  • The Almighty Bob

    In that world, if you separated out part of the blob, you’d have two separate blobs, so 1-1=2

    As opposed to 1/(1/2) = 2, which is both a better representation of the system and actually true?

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    An interesting article in this week’s NewScientist;

    http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/mg19726373.300-is-there-a-language-problem-with-quantum-physics.html;jsessionid=HDLFPHEOAOKH

    The American quantum theorist David Bohm embraced Bohr’s views on language, believing that at the root of Green’s problem is the structure of the languages we speak. European languages, he noted, perfectly mirror the classical world of Newtonian physics. When we say “the cat chases the mouse” we are dealing with well-defined objects (nouns), which are connected via verbs. Likewise, classical physics deals with objects that are well located in space and time, which interact via forces and fields. But if the world doesn’t work the way our language does, advances are inevitably hindered.

    Bohm pointed out that quantum effects are much more process-based, so to describe them accurately requires a process-based language rich in verbs, and in which nouns play only a secondary role.

    There are fundamental differences between a top down, form/noun based view and a bottom up process/function/verb based view. While processes are repeatable, it doesn’t follow that this gives them a meta-form. Process is inherently dynamic, while form is inherently static, so when we are saying the results of dynamism are predictable and therefore ultimately static, it’s a flawed projection. They are repeatable because same causes yield similar results, not because there is some grand pattern or path they are hewing to. Since it starts simple, the basic patterns repeat, while ensuing complex patterns become less predictable and can only be computed by allowing the process to evolve.
    Suffice to say, it is an assumption that is pervasive in physics. I’ve been making a point about time that doesn’t draw much favorable attention, but it does go to the heart of the matter, so I’ll restate it;

    Is time a dimension, or process? Consider; If two atoms collide, it creates an event in time. While the atoms proceed through this event and on to others, the event goes the other way. First it is in the future, then in the past. To the hands of the clock, the face goes counterclockwise.
    So which is the real direction? If time is a fundamental dimension, then physical reality proceeds along it, from past events to future ones. On the other hand, if time is a consequence of motion, then physical reality is simply energy in space and the events created go from being in the future to being in the past. Just as the sun appears to go from east to west, when the reality is the earth rotates west to east.

    Time as a dimension says that all events are equally real and the dynamic passage of time is an illusion, while time as process says that only the physical is real and it is a constant process by which future potential coalesces into past circumstance. This physical form is a momentary snapshot of dynamic processes. This isn’t presentism because time isn’t the basis. Physical reality, however it’s measured, is. The only absolute time would be the same as the absolute temperature of zero. This complete absence of motion is the only static absolute. From this, reality rises through process, creating form.

  • John Merryman

    That didn’t quote right. The last three parts were my own.

  • John Merryman

    Bob,

    It depends on whether it’s sets or quantities. If you actually add two sets together, you’ve got one larger set, so 1+1=1. Now from the perspective of the blob brain, it might view itself as a set, like a cell, so there isn’t .5 of a set, just a smaller set and when it divides, 1 becomes two.

    It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but that different perspectives can view the same situation from different perspectives and we are oriented toward a particular frame of reference that becomes self re-enforcing. Sort of like people need to speak the same language, or drive on the same side of the road for society to function.

  • Garth Barber

    The point being that there is a logical structure in mathematics, which can take on many forms, but is ‘true’ in an abstract sense in that it is internally consistent.

    The structure reveals a hidden truth, such as when the same result proves true both by two different methods as for example algebra and geometry. This mental process often reflects structure in nature, so much so that some think it is the ultimate physical reality, (which I don’t), and allows theorists to explore a reality of ‘the world out there’ scribbling “on the backs of old envelopes”.

    It is this objective correlation with physical reality that gives me the deep impression that mathematical truth ‘exists’ in a Platonic way beyond the mental processes of the human mind.

    Garth

  • John Merryman

    Garth,

    I certainly agree that order exists independent of the human mind and have no problem with different approaches yielding the same patterns. The point is whether the patterns are a consequence of process, or the reason process yields repeatable results.

  • Elliot

    I used to believe the universe was closed. Now I am not so sure.

    I still believe in causality and that time only flows one way.

    e.

  • Celestial Toymaker

    “I still believe in causality and that time only flows one way.”

    yaw eno swolf ylno emit taht dna ytilasuac ni eveileb llist I

  • Celestial Toymaker

    “llist” being a quantum fluctuation

  • John Merryman

    Elliot,

    But which way?

    If two atoms collide, it creates an event in time. While the atoms proceed through this event and on to others, the event goes the other way. First it is in the future, then in the past. To the hands of the clock, the face goes counterclockwise, just as the sun appears to go from east to west, when the reality is the earth rotates west to east.

    So which is the real direction? If time is a fundamental dimension, then physical reality proceeds along it, from past events to future ones. On the other hand, if time is a consequence of motion, then physical reality is simply energy in space and the events created go from being future potential to past circumstance.

    This isn’t presentism, because the only absolute time would be the absence of any motion, just as the only absolute temperature is absolute zero and every clock is effectively its own dimension of time.

  • Elliot

    John,

    Your descriptions are clever but to my mind misleading. I believe time goes from the past to the future only and that the flow in this direction is fundamental. Are there relative measures of the flow to be taken into account? Yes but the direction cannot be reversed. Just because a train going west at 100 mph passes another train going west at 80 mph does not mean the slower train is going east although it might appear so to an observer on the faster train.

    Elliot

  • John Merryman

    Elliot,

    The arrow of time goes from what comes first, to what comes second. As observers, we witness past events(cause) prior to succeeding events(effect), so the arrow of time for the observer is past to future. On the other hand, these events are first in the future, such as the 9th of January, 2008 is currently tomorrow. Then they are in the past, as tomorrow will be in two days. So the arrow of time for events is future to past.

    To a certain extent, our understanding of time is a cultural artifact. There are native peoples in South America who view the past as in front of them and the future as behind them. The logic of this is that their point of reference, the hands of their mental clock, is the energy, not the observer. Since it records the observed event first, then transmits the information to the observer, their conceptual arrow of time is front to back, not forward.

  • Elliot

    John,

    Agreed regarding ordering of events. And I do think that the nature (and direction) of time is tightly bound to information flow. How this may be quantified is quite interesting.

    e.

  • John Merryman

    Elliot,

    Energy goes past to future. Information goes future to past. Think about the atoms vs. the event. Our brains, as material reality, are the energy going from past to future, while our minds, as the record of the events created, go from future potential to past circumstance. That’s why ‘We live life forward and see it backward.’

  • Pingback: Seed's Daily Zeitgeist: 1/2/2008 - General Science()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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