Friday, June 26, 2009

Closing shop

This blog is officially dead, no new material will be posted here. My thanks to those who stopped by.

Me ke aloha, a hui hou!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Mechanics of Freedom

After being prompted by some philosophy-oriented discussions, I realized that my older writeup on the problem of free will (A Quantum of Freedom) was not a very satisfactory work. Whether this new one is any better I dare not speculate, but in any event, here it is.

Because of its length (15 pages) I will not copy the whole thing into this blog post. Here is a link to the PDF document called "The Mechanics of Freedom" (freemech.pdf):

on my iDisk (freemech.pdf)
download page at MediaFire


Friday, May 8, 2009


Got rhythm? Got algorithms? Then if you're like me you've got a corny new name for your latest piece of fractal beat-syncing script. Algorhythm is the latest (and probably last) incarnation of a Lua script for Oxidizer, for designing animation sequences of IFS fractal genomes, that I have been developing for the past year or so (released as seq7/seq9 previously). This version comes with a couple of built-in beat-syncing algorithms to make the job even easier.

Not much to show for it yet though, only a brief experimental clip up on the web site for now. I'll have to compose something new in order to showcase the abilities of the script. That may be a while though..

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Questionable Ethics of The Pirate Bay

As a Swede-in-exile in the US, I suppose I should have an opinion on the Swedish court verdict (guilty) in the trial against The Pirate Pay (TPB) for facilitating copyright infringement.

I'll grant that The Pirate Bay are right about one thing: the solution to the copyright infringement problem isn't to outlaw file sharing, but to find a new business model adapted to the new technology. On everything else, however, I think they are dead wrong, and for all their cries of revolution, The Pirate Bay are not the ones pioneering any new solutions.

(click to continue reading)

Let me declare my own criminal record first, so that there is no mistake where I am coming from. I have file-shared a great deal in the past, chiefly music initially, and more recently mostly in the form of unlicensed anime shows from Japan. When I first discovered the peer-to-peer file sharing technology around 2001 (after the Napster shutdown, but before TPB existed), I downloaded a lot of music, and I even tried to get my mom to appreciate the wonders of file sharing, as she could now get that classical music that she had always wanted.

Today, I can offer no justification for this, except to recognize that I had not considered the ethical implications of what I was doing. It took me about 3-4 years to gradually realize that there were ethical implications, and still today many, including TPB, have either not yet made this discovery, or else have chosen to ignore it out of convenience.

Ethics isn't just for philosophers; it is deeply embedded into every culture and every society on Earth. In the modern industrialized world, normative ethics exists on every level, from the individual to the national (but still lacking a global ethic). We have developed specialized ethical codes for many sectors of society, including medicine, education, science, business, social and economic policy etc. But when more than 80% of the people, in a country that prohibits theft and protects intellectual property by copyright laws, considers theft to be permissible when it is done by a particular method (known as file sharing) - then I see a problem with the ethical system adopted by 80% of the people in that country.

For the community that uses file sharing networks to illegally obtain copyright protected material, the ethical problem, whether they acknowledge it or not, exists on two levels:
  1. The copyright holders' rights are being violated
  2. Illegal downloaders are sponging off the good will of paying customers
The first point is really not debatable, this is simply how it is, and it is up to each and every one to decide for themselves how they feel about this. The comparison is often made with earlier precedents, like audio tape technology and CD-burning. These were also technologies that made it possible to share copyrighted material between peers, and the argument is now made that file sharing via the Internet is no different. In reality, of course, there is a whole world of difference.

While some record labels were initially worried about this same problem many years ago, when audio cassettes were being used to copy vinyl LPs in the 70s and 80s, later replaced by CD-burning in the 90s, it was gradually discovered that the bandwidth of this method of sharing was low enough that it posed no real threat to the music industry, or to the community of artists. Blank media tax or other types of government levies were also introduced in many countries, partially in order to compensate authors for some loss of revenue due to copying.

With the Internet, however, file sharing of digital media simply isn't a comparable phenomenon - it's a complete game changer. It only takes one purchased album to be uploaded to a torrent site like The Pirate Bay, and within minutes thousands of copies may have been distributed worldwide to anyone with Internet access, and within hours, millions. The bandwidth of this sharing technology is several orders of magnitude beyond what was previously possible. There really is no precedent for this phenomenon, and the potential risk for an individual author or composer to be completely stripped of revenue is multiplied indefinitely.

The second ethical issue is that the artistic community that provides us with this digital entertainment is currently able to do so because, alongside the illegal downloaders, there is still a community of paying customers, financing the industry. One common argument that defenders of TPB often invoke is that illegal downloading evidently doesn't hurt the industry all that much because it still thrives. Hence, they conclude, it is perfectly all right for most people to file share as much as they like, because some people are still paying for the goods, thanks to which the artists and the producers are not getting ripped off.

But even the staunchest Pirate Bay supporter must realize that if everybody were to download the digital goods without paying, then, under the current economic system, the industry would collapse and cease to exist. We would be left with only pro bono artistic productions and voluntary creations, driven by personal zest, good-will and voluntary public donations.

Do not get me wrong: there already is a wealth of free music, books, videos and other artistic material already out there, and I think this is a great thing, and I help myself to much of it. And voluntary donations could certainly be sufficient to enable some lucky organizations or individuals to make ends meet. But do I think that every artist and producer could follow this model? No. While some might be able to, many are critically dependent on revenue for creating their products in the first place, as well as for livelihood. Without an assured revenue, professional studios would be too costly to operate, and the quality of artistic productions would plummet to amateurish levels.

So if the artistic industry is to survive under the current economic system and retain the quality of professional productions, then logic dictates that some customer base must be obliged to pay for the goods and rendered services.

Which brings us back to the second ethical dilemma: how is it decided who is obliged to pay and who is not? And what happens when you put these two communities face to face? How does the file-sharing freeloader justify his claim that the other person is obliged to pay, while he himself is not? This is the ethical question that TPB can not answer, and actively seeks to avoid addressing altogether.

Finally, for The Pirate Pay itself, there is also a third charge of moral bankruptcy to lay against them, and that is that they are not even trying to provide a solution to these first two ethical problems, and instead persist in defending the current file sharing paradigm as the way the system should remain.

Resuming the story of my own history with file sharing, shortly after discovering this convenient albeit illegal technology, a few of the first legal alternatives started appearing on the scene. As a Mac user, I was quick to explore and later adopt the iTunes Music Store (iTMS - opened in April 2003) for my music needs. Initially the content was weak, and the service troubled by teething problems associated with the establishment of a new infrastructure for digital delivery.

Over the space of a couple of years, however, the iTMS steadily improved on all fronts: expanded catalogs and categories, faster and more reliable downloads, higher quality digital formats, a friendly and powerful interface, fast and professional support service. Over those few years I completely abandoned file sharing for music, and have since 2006 bought nearly all my music from iTunes. Today I find their service so good that I don't even need to invoke the moral argument for why I use them: they simply offer a vastly better service than file sharing or The Pirate Bay. Plus I get to feel good about myself in a world of freeloaders. While I chose the iTunes Store for my example, they were of course far from the only ones going down this path: Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, CDbaby and many more developed legal download services along similar lines.

The moral of this story? Establishing a new infrastructure is hard, costly and takes time. It requires investment, a business model and expertise, something which The Pirate Bay completely lacks. The Pirate Bay also claim that they are providing infrastructure, although I do not see where they are providing anything novel or particularly sophisticated: a server and an indexing and search engine. This is not very impressive by today's standards in digital delivery infrastructure, and falls far short of what is provided by the above named venues.

My other vice, that of file sharing Japanese anime, lasted for somewhat longer, since the availability in the West of unlicensed anime is limited, and the legal online services here have been slower to develop (for licensed anime available on DVD I stopped file sharing completely and bought the DVDs instead). But now there exist some really good venues for this as well, where my personal choice is Crunchyroll. These guys started out as a semi-illegal fansub outlet, but took the brave step in 2009 to go completely legal by negotiating contracts directly with anime studios for offering their shows online. There is now a large and steadily growing catalog of movies and TV shows for online streaming and download, and Crunchyroll are also pioneering simulcasts for currently running shows. This service, at a measly $15 per quarter, already outperforms any similar service offered by illegal online streaming or file sharing.

The moral of this story? By talking to the production houses and negotiating contracts, you can accomplish a lot more than fighting them tooth and nail, as The Pirate Bay have chosen to do. Not to mention sending out mocking letters, littered with insults and obscenities, in reply to the studios' cease and desist demands. If the TPB guys end up spending some time in jail, I somehow think they have themselves to blame for that, for picking a fight rather than seeking a dialogue.

To conclude, it seems to me that the artistic and entertainment industry together with their online digital delivery partners are moving in the right direction, by expanding their online services and adapting to the new Internet-based culture that has sprung into existence so quickly. While calling for new business models and a rewrite of copyright laws, The Pirate Bay in contrast appears to be doing nothing constructive toward those goals. Instead they are digging in their heels and fighting for a "business" model that dates back to the Napster of the previous century; an ethically unjustifiable model of unilateral theft. There is much irony and falsehood in TPB's claims that, between the two, the music industry are the Luddite ones. That might have been true five years ago, but in the last five years the music industry has changed; The Pirate Bay has not.

The steadily growing success of legal download services undeniably demonstrates that people want to use legal methods if they can, and if the services are good enough to be worth paying for. In my opinion the online music services are now so good that the rationale for file sharing music has completely disappeared. Books, movies and games companies have been lagging behind, but are quickly catching up and increasingly adopting new digital delivery services. These are the genuine innovators and pioneers, opening up new markets and bringing you new services that do not require you to compromise your moral principles, and they deserve your support.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Road to Reality

I finally got around to reading The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (2004; 2007 rev. ed.) by Roger Penrose, and decided to write a little summary of my reading experience. It's a mixed bag, with many fascinating topics in mathematics and fundamental physics expounded expertly, complicated somewhat by a number of rather difficult mathematical concepts that I think are hopelessly inaccessible to most layman readers.

(click to continue reading)

Sir Roger Penrose (knighted in 1994) is without doubt one of our time's most original mathematicians, with a flair for the unconventional. His many contributions to mathematics and physics include Penrose tiles, spin networks (later incorporated into loop quantum gravity), the Penrose interpretation of quantum mechanics (gravitational objective reduction), and twistor theory. Having spent eight years composing his magnum opus, Penrose was in his seventies by the time The Road to Reality was released in 2004, yet he writes with a keenness of mind, alacrity and wit that belies his age.

It is beyond my abilities to give a blow-by-blow dissection of the chapters of this 1000-page tome. For the technical soundness of the material I will happily submit to Penrose's expertise, and will here merely offer some general comments on the scope and philosophy of the book.

Accessibility (or: Who might read this book?)
This book takes a deep look into the mathematical foundations of the physical universe. This means that it is, by and large, about mathematics. This alone probably places the book out of reach for a substantial portion of the layman audience, although Penrose optimistically would beg to differ. This is not really a failing of the author; it is simply the inescapable nature of the subject that no other language exists other than mathematics to communicate the beauty and power of modern physics properly. But in any case, I must consider his optimism about the book's accessibility somewhat naive, when he writes in the Preface:
"...I am an optimist and I believe that there are many out there, even among those who could never master the manipulation of fractions, who have the capacity to catch some glimpse of a wonderful world that I believe must be, to a significant degree, accessible even to them." (p. xvi)

After which he goes on to write a thousand pages of mathematical physics, most of it of a fairly advanced scope. A closer look, however, reveals that the text might be accessible at different levels, depending on whether the subject is mathematics, physics or philosophy. Although the book starts out deeply entrenched in pure mathematics, what emerges as you read on is an increasingly prosaic discussion around the relevant physics, interleaved with philosophical questions about the relationship between the mathematics and physics. The latter is undoubtedly much more accessible to a broader audience than the mathematics tutorial of the first half, so if the maths is giving you headaches initially, take heart and read on.

Nevertheless, my old physics degree notwithstanding, The Road to Reality was not an entirely easy read for me, despite my having a general understanding of differential geometry, classical and quantum mechanics, general relativity etc. going in. On the other hand, if it had been a very easy read, that would have been an insult to the eight years that Penrose spent writing this incredibly ambitious text on such a profound topic.

In the final analysis, I will have come down on the side of Penrose (although for different reasons) and suggest that this book could be recommended for anybody with a curiosity about the efforts of modern science to uncover the underlying nature of the universe. There is no doubt that many readers will be left behind by the complexity of the mathematics at some point in the book, but even so you may still be able to catch a glimpse of the wonderful and fascinating world of modern mathematical physics.

Related to the issue of accessibility is the matter of the scope of the book, in the sense, what's it really about? The clue is in the title, but it can potentially be misunderstood and invoke false expectations in the reader, so let's clarify this a bit.

First one must note that The Road to Reality is not so much a road as a roadmap, in the sense that it provides only a set of instructions for how to (potentially) get to the destination without actually going there. To actually travel down any given road that might tickle your fancy, you will have to pick up a more comprehensive textbook on the subject.

Secondly, we need to be clear about what flavor of "Reality" and "Laws" Penrose is thinking about here. We find that, in keeping with the "roadmap" philosophy, almost all of applied physics have been left out, in favor of the strictly foundational branches (e.g. Maxwell's electromagnetism, Lagrangian mechanics, etc.), from which all the other disciplines can be derived. It becomes clear that the author's goal and main interest is the underlying, ultimate reality that is the key to everything else that we observe—as opposed to the proximate realities of our current, incomplete theories and the whole of applied physics based on these, which most of us mortals would probably perceive as quite real already.

We can now say both what The Road to Reality is and what it is not: it is not a complete guide to the trove of physics that we all perceive as real; rather it is a guide to the quest for the underlying laws that we suppose form the basis for an ultimate reality, but which we do not actually perceive. If we combine these two observations and, with some poetic license, rewrite the title of the book as "A Roadmap toward Ultimate Reality" - then all of a sudden the entire book makes perfect sense, as its true scope is made clear.

Just one example: Although there's a wealth of modern classical mechanics and electrodynamics that could be expounded on at length, for the purpose of leapfrogging towards the ultimate reality, all we really need to see are the foundational Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations that will eventually lead us into quantum mechanics and field theory - and this is essentially what we get.

Although the book is not divided into any major "Parts," there is a natural division of the contents to this effect. Here follows my very brief synopsis of the book, wherein I have grouped chapters into what I perceive as the principal topics:
  • Mathematics (ch. 1-16, 376 pages). Extensive introduction to the mathematical tools that are to be employed, covering the basics of calculus, differential geometry (calculus on manifolds), set and group theory. Probably the most difficult part for non-experts, but the geometrical concepts introduced are foundational for the formulation of quantum gravity theories later on.
  • Classical physics (ch. 17-20, 110 pages). Crash course in classical theory, covering Newton's laws, spacetime concepts and special relativity, Maxwell's electrodynamics, Einstein's general relativity, and the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations of Newtonian mechanics. Although formally physics, the focus is still on its underlying mathematical principles.
  • Quantum physics (ch. 21-26, 193 pages). Midpoint of the book moves into non-classical territory with the standard formulations of quantum mechanics, the "standard model" of particle physics, and basic quantum field theory. From here on, the physics aspect grows in importance, and the discussion becomes more concerned with empirical support and reality-checking than in previous parts.
  • Cosmology (ch. 27-28, 96 pages). The Big Bang chapter kicks off with a primer on the Second Law of thermodynamics and black holes, followed by an introduction to various cosmological models. The inflation hypothesis and the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary proposal are given special attention, and found to be wanting.
  • Quantum ontology (ch. 29-30, 87 pages). The discussion on quantum ontology picks up where the previous section on quantum physics left off, and leads into the quantum gravity section. The various standard interpretations of quantum mechanics are analyzed (e.g. Copenhagen, many worlds, decoherence, etc.) and found to be wanting. The "Penrose interpretation" of gravitational objective reduction is introduced. The problem of state reduction is identified as the major problem of current quantum theory, and the source of much trouble in QFTs.
  • Quantum gravity (ch. 31-34, 179 pages). The final part is a mix-and-match of various approaches to a new theory of quantum gravity, starting with supersymmetry, string theory and M-theory, followed by loop quantum gravity and twistor theory. The final chapter closes with a comparative assessment of the current state of affairs, both theoretically and experimentally, and a bit of philosophical afterthought.
Some comments on all this is in order. In starting the book with 400 pages of pure mathematics, Penrose sets the bar. The following 100 pages is supposedly about classical physics, but you can barely tell the difference, so mathematical is the presentation still. Penrose's presentation of classical physics does not much resemble any standard physics syllabus, but perhaps that of a mathematics course. This has some interesting consequences, for instance: Aristotelian "spacetime" is described as a 4-manifold, and Newtonian spacetime as a fiber bundle, although Aristotle had of course never heard of either spacetime nor manifolds, and Newton had never heard of fiber bundles.

As another example of this minimalism and modernization, the chapter on spacetime and metrics comes before classical electromagnetic theory, although most physics students will most likely have been taught about Maxwell's equations long before learning about metrics, geodesics or manifolds in math class. Given this ordering of things, Penrose now gives Maxwell's equations directly on tensor form, omitting entirely the traditional vector calculus formulation that most students will have become acquainted with in physics class. While this is a very compact and unified notation, this formula completely obscures the relationship between the electric and magnetic fields that are made explicit in the standard differential equation formulation. What do you "understand" about the reality of electric and magnetic fields by looking at an equation that merely says: dF=0 ? For a road to reality, the scenery is sometimes pretty barren.

Fortunately, after being subjected to 500 pages of mostly disembodied mathematics, something remarkable happens, which we may well call a quantum leap. The real onset of physics and reality-checking happens in chapter 21 on quantum particles, where all of a sudden we get a generous dose of it all at once. Here we also get the first hints of what Penrose sees as the fundamental roadblock in quantum mechanics, the state reduction problem and the lack of a realistic ontology, to be developed in detail in chapters 29-30. I was unfamiliar with Penrose's work in this area, and found this chapter (30) and his "gravitational Objective Reduction" to be one of the most interesting parts of the book.

Related to this, one very good thing about the presentation is that Penrose is very diligent with prefacing statements with "My own position on this is that..." or "This notation may be somewhat unconventional..." whenever he is expressing a personal opinion or using a non-standard formulation. This is fairly important, since Penrose does indeed hold some non-traditional views, especially on inflation and string theory. But he has taken great care throughout the book to make sure that there can be no confusion on the part of the reader in this regard.

When it comes to theories of quantum gravity, Penrose is not interested in just giving an overview of the current work in various directions, like a dictionary or a Wikipedia entry might. Instead he takes an active, critical look at the competing theories, evaluates their strengths and weaknesses, and estimates their prospect of success. In his assessment of string theory (ch. 31, 34), Penrose somewhat foreshadows Lee Smolin's 2006 book The Trouble with Physics, which delivered a scathing criticism of string theory and the dangers of fashion-driven research in science. Sypersymmetry and M-theory does not fare much better (these things are all amalgamated now anyway...), while loop quantum gravity is given a tentative pass to further development, although it too has its problems.

For his own brainchild, twistor theory, Penrose expresses some optimism for future development, but admits that at the moment it is no more a physical theory than string theory is. I had not understood twistor theory, nor appreciated its beauty and finesse, before reading this book, so it came as a bit of a disappointment to learn that very little research goes into this topic. If no one researches it, for sure it will never progress!

It is hard to classify Penrose philosophically. He's clearly a Platonic realist with regards to mathematics, but claims to be a realist with regards to the mapping from mathematics to physics. Despite talking about the subject at length (chapter 1, 34), it is not clear to me whether he really believes that the universe is ultimately governed by precise mathematical laws from this Platonic realm, or what he thinks the relation otherwise is between nature's laws and our mathematics. I'll declare my own view here: I do not think it impossible that mathematics might be so general and flexible as to be able to describe the laws of nature perfectly, without for that matter having any deeper relation to those laws.

The Road to Reality is replete with examples of Penrose criticizing others (e.g. inflation cosmologists and string theorists) for being led by mathematical "miracles" and aesthetics rather than physical considerations. Yet at the same time, he exudes a distinctly Platonic mysticism when it comes to certain mathematical topics that are close to his heart, where he perceives that there is really something "going on behind the scenes" (e.g. the "magic" of complex numbers), that there is some deep physics residing in the mathematics that we plucked from some Platonic tree. Here is just one example of many:
"It should also be remarked that just the existence of such a mathematically elegant unifying picture appears to be telling us something deep about the mathematical underpinnings of our physical universe, even at the level of the laws that were revealed in 17th century Newtonian mechanics." (p. 471)

At the end of the day, I can't reconcile all of his contradictory statements on this subject, so either I haven't understood what he's really proposing, or he's not sure himself. Leaving that aside, I'll close this review with a couple of random quotes from the book.

Regarding electroweak symmetry breaking:
"I am in no way suggesting that we should abandon the essential beautiful insights of electroweak theory, but I prefer a slightly different attitude to the breaking of its U(2) symmetry from that which is usually put forward. As I see it, Nature's true scheme for particle physics has not yet come to light. Such a scheme should be mathematically consistent and will not have the nasty habit that our present-day QFTs have, of spitting out the answer '∞' to so many reasonably-phrased physical questions." (p. 745)

Regarding cosmic inflation:
"I believe that particular caution is to be recommended in matters of cosmology, as opposed to most other sciences, especially in relation to the origin of the universe. People often have strong emotional responses to questions of the origin of the universe—and sometimes these are either implicitly or explicitly related to religious preferences." (p. 753)

Regarding quantum ontology:
"My own position, on the other hand, is that the issue of ontology is crucial to quantum mechanics, though it raises some matters that are far from being resolved at the present time." (p. 785)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Quantum of Freedom

Well here is my end-of-the-year rant for 2008, on the non-problem of free will. Raise your glass with me, and let's drink to the confusion of philosophers :-)

Cheers! (skål! sante! kanpai! prost! nazdorovia! kippis! yiamas!)

(PDF version of this article, minus the hyperlinks)

Much as I laud and espouse philosopher Daniel Dennett's compatibilism theory of free will (Freedom Evolves, Dennett, 2003), I often feel that something basic is missing from the picture, and what's missing are the basics. By this I mean physics: events involving atoms and quanta, obeying the laws of quantum mechanics, which are so radically different from the laws that we experience on the level of people and human decisions. In particular, compatibilism theories leave quantum indeterminacy entirely out of the picture. In Dennett-speak, his theory explains free will on the "design level" and on the "intentional level," skipping the "physical level." To a physicist, this feels like a story starting in the middle, claiming that the details of the beginning were unimportant anyway. Well, as with Doctor Who and Gilligan's Island, this actually turns out to be perfectly true, and of course biologists, engineers, psychologists, sociologists etc. have known this for a long time (or perhaps more likely never given it a thought). But to philosophers and physicists it may not be immediately obvious why it is true, and it might leave some people (like myself) wondering, whatever happened in the chapters that we skipped?

In the following, I will try to formulate some ideas around how to philosophically bridge the explanatory gap between the quantum and the phylum, by first connecting the two, then severing the connection, and finally suggesting inverting the connection.

(click to continue reading)

Free Will and the Quantum
To start off lightly with the concept of determinism, this is the philosophical and scientific idea that all events that take place are causally connected to earlier events in an absolute and objective way. Historically, this idea has made some philosophers nervous, culminating in the so-called problem of free will: if all physical events are causally connected and determined by objective laws, how can there be any freedom to choose our actions? Wouldn't our actions then be determined by the mindless motions of atoms? The moralistic religions have capitalized on the apparent conundrum, asking: "If no free will, whence morality?" (and answering: God).

It is curious how few in the past have asked themselves the opposite question, admittedly bold, in light of the success of reductionism, whether it might not be we who are determining the motions of our atoms instead of the other way around. Not, as must be assumed, by directly channeling the wave-functions of these particles and somehow controlling them this way; but by possessing causal influence over the boundary conditions that constrain and in many cases all but determine the evolution of quantum microstates. This notion may require some Necker-cube-like inversions for some, in order to be even contemplated as a sane possibility. There is an idea that holds that all the informational content in the universe is encoded in its boundary conditions. I forget who said this (possibly Lloyd 2006; I'm too lazy to reread the book to check - my apologies if I'm mistaken). At any rate, boundary conditions are not to be sneezed at.

Well, the times they are a-changing. Today, scientists have discovered the indeterminacy that underlie quantum physics, leading some intellectuals to lazily take this as a basis for libertarianism, although nothing is really explained by this move. Some philosophers have instead pursued and constructed entirely viable compatibilism theories of free will (i.e., theories that make free will and determinism compatible realities). And yet other philosophers are exploring newfangled avenues in the intersection of mathematics and neuroscience, and are nosily asking meddlesome questions like "Who or what is really shoving what or whom around, here?" (Sperry, 1965; Hofstadter, 2007) We will touch on most of these issues, starting at the end of the quantum.

Modern quantum theory has found that nature on the level of fundamental physics is not deterministic, but probabilistic, and that this is not just an apparent feature or a practical limitation, but a fundamental property of nature (Conway & Kochen, 2008; see also hidden variable theories, Bell's theorem and experimental verifications). This has the consequence, which we need to explore in more detail, that events above the physical level are extremely unlikely to be influenced, let alone determined, by single-particle quantum events.

The disturbing notion that even a single particle could (and would) determine some (however subtle) aspect of our behavior, and deprive us of ultimate choice, is a logical consequence of Democritean atomism and Newtonian mechanics. These describe, respectively, matter as an aggregate of indivisible particles, and the motion of matter (including such particles) by a set of deterministic rules with, in principle, completely predictable outcomes. A simple thought experiment imagines that the mindless motions of atoms, via an unbroken chain of causal events connecting successively larger structures, eventually end up having causal power over people, who now appear to be completely determined by the goings-on at the atomic level. But if this were the case, why do we feel like we have free will? Either determinism must be false, or free will is an illusion, or something magic happens - or any combination of the three.

Now just for fun, let's turn things around as before and ask: since we seem to have free will, how can our atoms be free to bounce around however they please? The answer is, of course: they aren't. Keep this thought for future reference, when we shall discover that the atoms are chiefly passengers, not the drivers (then who's driving?).

"But hang on now," you should protest, "human beings consist of a huge number of particles, so even by the principles of determinism of course our actions would not determined by just any single particle, but billions and billions of them. Aren't you setting up a straw man here?"

You are partly correct in your objection, but if the upwards causality of determinism held true, then even the minute whims of a single particle might ultimately propagate into an effect on your behavior and decision-making. So we need to look at this elementary problem first, before expanding the investigation and adding more realism.

The preceding conundrum at the heart of the problem of free will is ancient history. But as we reexamine this thought experiment with quantum mechanics in place of Newtonian mechanics, something curious emerges. In quantum theory, what any given particle is doing is no longer completely determined by its internal state and the local environment (consisting of other particles and boundary conditions). To begin with, the particle is no longer localized, but spread out (or "blurred" out) according to some probability wave. Secondly, the evolution from one state to a future state is also probabilistic, rendering invalid the notion of being able to predict with absolute certainty, even in principle, a future state by having access to perfect information of the state and boundary conditions at one specific time. So what does all this mean?

Well for one thing it just means that no future state is completely determined by any prior state, and there goes the notion that quantum events of single particles could deterministically control the future of the people they populate. There are happenings going on at the physical level all right, but they do not have the direct causal power that determinism would allot them. Quantum events then, in most situations, are not by themselves able to causally affect macroscopic events. I shall state now, to be investigated in the following sections, that in everyday life, quantum events on the physical level are for all practical purposes (including causal effects) subsumed by the next higher level of description, which is that of statistical physics.

I must emphasize the qualifiers "everyday life" and "for all practical purposes" above, because modern technology allows us to build instruments that are in fact sensitive to and capable of generating single-particle events. One could imagine pathological scenarios where, say, the fate of a cat in a box was in fact at the mercy of a single quantum event on the physical level. Another example could be high-energy cosmic rays, where in an extremely unlikely scenario a single proton traveling at near the speed of light could collide with an atomic nucleus in an astronaut's brain and possibly cause some serious damage. For most of human existence and experience, however, such singular quantum events simply do not play any part in your everyday life. (Even when you take an MRI scan and billions of protons in the hydrogen nuclei of the water molecules of your body are pumped to excited spin states by radio frequency electromagnetic pulses, this has no effect on your bodily actions). And in any case, these are quantum events of origins external to your body, and not even in the same category that we were considering with regards to the issue of your atoms controlling your Self.

"All right," you might be thinking now, "so the particles of my body can not have any determined causal power over me, because their interactions are all subject to quantum indeterminacy, I get all that. But isn't there still an unbroken chain of causal events from the physical level to the intentional level, so that one could still trace a human action following a choice all the way back to a quantum event? Isn't this still just the same old determinism?"

Not at all - there are two things to note here. First of all, it only looks deterministic after the fact. We already established above that the exact evolution of a microstate is not strictly determined by any given prior microstate. This leads us to ask the more interesting question: what did in fact determine the evolution of states, and the final macrostate? Secondly, there are further and even stronger reasons for why the poor particles become causally disenfranchised as they become part of the macroscopic entity that our bodies are, and one reason is this: our bodies are not simply made of particles in a heap, but of highly specific structures of particles.

Structures and Patterns
Now let's try a different track. I have been painting a picture of the evolution of quantum microstates as a blurry and probabilistic process on the physical level, in order to hammer home the point that determinism breaks down there. This exercise might have left the mistaken impression that there is no telling (or controlling) what the particles of my body (and yours) might do; why don't our particles just take a random hike and go all their own ways? I now have to undo this intellectual damage by adding a few more layers of reality to the story, and I will broach it through a more mundane example.

What happens when, for instance, I put my hand on the steering wheel of my car to make it turn? (I had decided, out of my own free will, that I meant to do that.) At one level of description, one could say that a clump of particles (my hand) interacts with another clump of particles (the steering wheel), resulting in the turning of the wheel, and my will be done. The macroscopic phenomenon causing the wheel to turn in response to the intruding clump of particles is called friction. Friction on the physical level is a combination of electromagnetic forces between charged particles, in this case the electron clouds of atoms and molecules and the protons of atomic nuclei. The exact details of frictional force are nontrivial but also not important here; the interesting question here is, when external electric forces act on the molecules in my hand, why don't the molecules yield to the force? Even in Newtonian mechanics, the third law states that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When the molecules of my hand encounter the electron clouds of the steering wheel, why don't they just scatter; what holds them all in place? Whence friction, rather than particle soup?

Although friction is a complicated effect in quantum physics terms, for the purpose of this discussion it is enough to note here that "clumps of particles" is an inadequate description in order to continue this explanation. We can see that the structure of the particles within the clumps are going to matter critically for how this plays out, and that this structure is what "holds it together."

I am initially thinking of atomic structures of the type, in order of growing complexity, simple molecules, metallic, crystalline, complex molecules (e.g. polymers, proteins, amino acids, etc.). These compound structures enable a whole new ontology of entities and possibilities - along with new causal relationships between entities on different levels. If we take one more step upwards, the next structural level is that of simple autonomous agents and cellular building blocks (see e.g. Kauffman, 1993; Nowak, 2008), and now we have entered Dennett's design level where his compatibilism theory can do the rest of the explaining. But even so, let's carry this on just a little bit further.

The key point to take home here is that if the building blocks of matter on the fundamental level has certain causal properties, the particular arrangement of matter and aggregation into structures modifies how those properties can (or more interestingly to us, can not) propagate across increasing levels of complexity. As we progress upward in structural complexity, quantum indeterminacy becomes more and more irrelevant as the classical laws of physics gradually reemerge in the shape of statistical physics, where ensembles and compound entities enjoy macroscopic determinism once again.

In retrospect we may allow ourselves to be somewhat flabbergasted now, at the oft regurgitated religious canard against materialism that "if materialism is true, then we are nothing but the motions of atoms!" But why atoms? Why not quarks and gluons that the atomic nuclei are made of? Perhaps the materialism skeptics are dimly aware that the particulars of the strong nuclear force prevents quarks and gluons from having any significant effects outside of the nucleus, except in extremely-high-energy particle physics experiments. So maybe they are happy to consider quarks and gluons as passengers and not drivers. But they still want to believe that atoms would be the ones in the driver's seat if materialism was true? Well - we have to concede that the physics are different for atoms and for quarks, and that atomic elements do in fact play various roles in the human biochemistry, which could potentially provide the opening for total control of the human body and mind. But to suppose that possessing the mere capability of chemical affinity would automatically put atoms in the driver's seat of our bodies and rob us of free will - that is simply absurd. Most atoms of our bodies are part of larger structures that effectively prevent their constituents from even attempting such a coup; they just go where they're told.

Anyway. To reiterate: to the extent that the atoms that constitute our bodies are themselves part of larger structures, the causal effects of single atoms are formidably reduced and constrained by their parent structures. Because those atoms are constrained by their parent structure, they are for all practical purposes controlled by it, turning the tables on causality. There is also nothing stopping us from carrying on this successive structural expansion and causal inversion upward, finding more instances of sub-structures being controlled by their parent structures rather than the other way around. Now who is pushing whom around?

Naturally there are shades of gray here, not everything can be categorized as easily into "causes up" and "causes down." As we look to the details, we find a very mixed picture of causal arrows pointing both ways, sometimes from the microscopic to the macroscopic, and sometimes the other way around. I am not at all suggesting that microscopic events have no effect on our macroscopic state of affairs. The energy that power us and the chemicals that mediate the control signals around our body are only two examples of many, where happenings on the physical level are vital to our functioning properly. But the question we were trying to address with regards to the problem of free will was whether, in a naturalistic and materialistic explanatory framework such as the one picture presented here, these microscopic happenings have any direct causal power over the concrete and abstract decisions that we make in everyday life. If you agree with me, then the answer to this should now be a clear No.

If this has all been too confusing and florid, let me try to sum up the key points so far:
  • Determinism breaks down at the physical level where quantum mechanics renders reality probabilistic.
  • The atoms that make up your body are to a large degree formidably constrained in their possible states and evolutions, by the boundary conditions imposed on them by the parent structures of which the atoms are an integral part.
  • Atoms constrained by the boundary conditions of their parent structures can have very little upward causal effect; the structure itself becomes the unit and mediator of causality.
  • The same reasoning can be applied recursively to many (though not all) structures that make up the human body, finding at the structural level-crossings that the causal arrows point downward, and that in these cases, the large is pushing the small around.
  • Biochemical processes close to the physical level of course also play a vital role in many physiological functions, so the final state of affairs is a mixed picture with causal arrows pointing both ways across most structural gaps. Macroscopic actions thus involve level-crossing causal feed-back loops.
  • Who, or what, is ultimately in the driver's seat then?
In all that matters to the high-level control of your Self and you body, You are the highest level structure of yourself, and you are normally the one causally pushing all the constituent structures around (occasionally though, your body will seem to be doing things that are beyond your conscious control, like yawning and sneezing - such quirks are often reflexes and fixed action patterns). When you move your right hand from the stick to the steering wheel, you do not exert direct control over entities like atoms, molecules or cells in your arm. The level-crossing instructions that caused your arm to move originated in the abstract "You" that is in control. The abstraction became encoded into electrochemical signals and propagated around your body, regulating the biochemical processes in the muscles of your arm, causing it move according to the instructions of the symbolic pattern in your brain that had issued the command.

And now we have to take just a brief peek into Pandora's box and ask: what, then, is this "you" or "I", or our "Self" that is doing the ultimate pushing around, and whose freedom is the locus of our concern? The best answer that I know to this question is given by Douglas Hofstadter in his 2007 book I am A Strange Loop. I won't quote it in full (I have a meeting), but I'll urge you to read the book, and leave you with a teaser.

If what constitutes "me" or the "I" in me are not to be found in the substrates that we are made of but in their organization, their representational patterns - then we will discover that the patterns that are You are exactly what is pushing your Self around, along with your body. When you make an abstract choice, you are both the cause and the effect; the beginning and the end of the loop. I hope that no one will think that this is still not "real" free will, but some sort of illusion; I can't see how one could possibly be any freer than this!

To those of you wondering what would happen to this rosy picture of free will in the case that quantum indeterminacy was discovered to be false after all, I say: not to worry. Dennett's compatibilism theory covers this case already. Dropping quantum indeterminacy from the above description will not change the fact that ontological entities at lower levels will always be physically and therefore causally constrained by the larger structures that they are part of. Quite regardless of whether the squiggles on the atomic level are fundamentally deterministic or indeterministic, their squiggles remain controlled by the boundary conditions of the structures that they inhabit, and a revision of quantum physics will not change that in the least. The effective downward causation from large to small will still hold. So, you may ask then, why even bother dragging quantum indeterminacy into the picture in the first place?? Well, because I wanted to. It is the reality as we know it today, so simply for closure, and perhaps exactly because quantum theory is so counter-intuitive, I feel that it needs to be part of the overall picture even if, ultimately, it has no explanatory power within a theory of mind and free will.

As a final word, because of the breakdown of determinism at the bottom of this explanatory ladder that I have presented, I expect that this description of free will should qualify as "real" or "genuine" free will even by religious standards. Dennett's compatibilism theory will probably be forever regarded by theists as a "fake" kind of free will or an illusion; but, as I hope to have shown here, his theory has a natural extension all the way down to the quantum level, making it perfectly harmonious also with quantum indeterminacy, and rendering this flavor of free will just as real as anything else that is real.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Baraka (16 years later)

Remastered in high definition and given new lease of life, the new Baraka DVD release shines like never before. And if you don't know what Baraka is, now is the time to find out. Just compare the old (left) and the new (right) DVD version and you'll see right away what I'm talking about (you need to compare the full-resolution images by clicking on the thumbnails, in order to see the magnitude of the difference):
I have seen this film so many times since its release in 1992, at various venues, big screen and small, home theater system and HD projector, you name it. I own the standard DVD version since before, but as I popped this new version into the Oppo DV-981HD and sat back to watch the remastered Baraka on my 720p projector I was simply blown away (again).

I can only quote Andrew Oran at FotoKem, the company that did the restoration, when he says that they have created "...what is arguably the highest quality DVD that's ever been made." I do not doubt him for a second - the new Baraka is absolutely stunning (and no, I have not been paid to endorse this product). Imagine if all DVDs could be mastered with such a quality, who then needs Blue-ray..

(click for more pictures)

Here are some more old-new comparisons:

(I hope I'm not violating any copyrights by putting up these pictures in full resolution, someone please alert me if I am.)