The rating process for the 2015 FQXi Essay Contest: Trick or Truth? – on the puzzling relationship between math and physics – is well underway. Over 200 essays were submitted this year, and the quality has vastly improved over last year. As a result the community rating process (the essayists evaluating each other) is highly competitive. My essay “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is currently rated in the top quartile, and the posted comments have been very favorable, but it is facing headwinds as I discuss below.
After having at least scanned all of the essays, my informal assessment is that more than half, including all the highly rated ones, reflect a strongly “physicalist” perspective. They grapple with specific issues in mathematics and physics, many at a quite deeply technical level, while avoiding or even disavowing concepts that fall into what they categorize as “metaphysics” or “mysticism.” However, many discuss, and are committed to, the “many worlds” or similar hypotheses that intend to resolve the measurement paradox in quantum physics by postulating that anything that could happen at the quantum level, does happen — in an alternate universe. One extension of many worlds that is getting a lot of attention extends the realm of existence to include the range of all possible mathematical configurations — any math that can be imagined is displayed in a world somewhere. Arguably, these hypotheses are all metaphysical – but they are a-theistic and, therefore, comfortable to this audience. The corresponding dichotomy between randomness and purpose runs through the contest as a whole – those eschewing God also reject purposeful fine-tuning or selection and seek explanations that preserve the perfect neutrality of a random world that only follows mathematical laws and not intentional ones.
In this context, “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is an uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcome reminder of the emptiness of existence without intention and purpose. It’s call for a mythology that encompasses the physicality of the world, the abstraction of mathematics and the teleological basis of creation and life is quite unique. While many essays touch on the same technical issues of mathematical and quantum paradox, they do not reach the same conclusions.
The community rating procedure closes on April 22, and the final selection of essays ends on June 6. Public ratings are also welcomed at any time – and could have a result on the final outcome.
On March 13, 2015, the AAAS held a national conference in Washington D.D. on “Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities”. The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) is one of the largest member organizations in the world (some 10 million scientists) with a weekly readership for Science Magazine of more than 1 million.
Investigating perceptions to build understanding between scientific and religious communities.
The 2015 FQXi contest is titled: Trick or Truth: the Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics, and the 150+ essays submitted provide a deep and rich sampling of the key arguments for and against physicalism (the physical world is all there is), idealism (the world is what our minds create) and Platonism (the world is dualist and mathematical order is the highest reality). These are three key threads in western philosophy since the Greeks. It is an eye-opening and mind-numbing collection of essays, some dealing with highly technical issues in quantum physics and cosmology, others delving into the heady frontiers of esoteric mathematics.
My essay is titled “The Hole at the Center of Creation” and is hopefully a readable discussion of key issues in both physics and math. As I noted: “The Truth is that there is a hole at the center of creation, afflicting both mathematics and physics – an infinite void made visible to us in the form of ineluctable paradoxes…. The Trick is that in pursuing fundamental questions on the nature of creation, of logical order, and of consciousness, we are led inexorably to the infinite void, a barrier to our ability to know, one that we cannot cross without reaching for a transcendent metaphysical explanation.” You are welcome to read the essay to find out my conclusion!
As a reminder, last year’s essay The Tip of the Spear garnered a fourth place.
Last year we reported the interesting finding that ethics professors seemed to behave somewhat less ethically than other academics, likely as a result of their greater practice at rationalization. (see link) A new study at the Harvard Business School has been reported (see link) that finds another example of the amazing human power of rationalization. (more…)
This week (January 3, 2015) the Economist magazine posted a review of a new book by Nyr Eyal called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2014) that documents the way online companies seek to manipulate our minds in the effort to build users and ad revenues. Remarkably, it is estimated that 4/5ths of smartphone users check their device within 15 minutes of waking up – and check it as much as 150 times a day. (more…)
In the eight weeks since I gave the presentation on The Human Race and The Technology Race at the Wayland Great Presenter Series, the issues of artificial intelligence and computers vs. humans have been prominently featured in a variety of public media. (more…)
This is the final Chapter in the series on The Human Race and The Technology Race. The previous Chapters include:
The last three Chapters have taken us on a journey from our use of digital technology in the present moment, to the deep question of human qualities and aspirations, to the far frontiers of digital technology and potential super-intelligence. This journey has left the question – how should we, as humans, respond to the digital transformation? (more…)
This is the third installment of a four-part series on the Human Race and The Technology Race. Chapter I and Chapter II have been published. Chapter IV will follow. This link – Chapter III The Technology Race – provides a PDF copy of Chapter III.
This is the first installment of a four-part series on the Human Race and The Technology Race. Most of the material was covered in the November 4th, 2014, presentation in the Wayland Great Presenters Series at the Wayland, MA Town Library. I am grateful to all those who were able to attend the presentation. The written presentation benefitted from the participation and comments from that very polite and attentive audience.
The full series will include four Chapters:
Chapter I: The Human Technology Interface
Chapter II: What is the Human Race?
Chapter III: Will Digital Technology Produce Super-intelligence?
Chapter IV: Practical Advice for Responding to Technological Change
For a full PDF copy of Chapter I (which in my opinion is much easier to read), please click here: Chapter I PDF.
The exploration of rationality (see: Journal) has led us into a number of difficulties. Our logic is flawed, our biases inescapable, and the foundations for our evidence have crumbled. Even the world we live in is not rational. So, it’s time to extract ourselves from the quagmire by elevating our focus to a few “meta” principles. Rationality is an ideal that can never be fully realized. Yet the goal of being rational is integral to who we are as human beings and to the notion of consciousness itself. Rather than drifting in the sea of experience, it is rationality that provides both anchor and sail. (more…)
Our simple exploration of the concept of rationality has so far dealt primarily with the last two parts of the three part model for rationality: choosing the optimal outcome and reasoning logically. In neither case have we found clarity. Choice requires valuation, which engages our emotional faculties – and emotions are notoriously difficult to integrate with conscious thought, as so much remains hidden. And while reasoning logically and consistently may be feasible, the complete truth will never be accessible – and the universe itself does not appear to be consistent. (more…)
In our discussion of rationality, we began (September 15) by reviewing the three elements of rational decision making: reliance on evidence, focus on desired outcomes and logical reasoning. The following week (September 22) we questioned whether the universe was rational (it does not seem to be). Last week (October 1) we looked at emotions and concluded that they are integral to rationality, both as evidence and more importantly as the guide by which we weigh and choose among desired outcomes. Our consideration of emotions was, however, incomplete. (more…)
In the first post on rationality (September 15, 2014), I mentioned the controversy over whether emotions, among other things, could be part of being rational. This statement deserves further explanation. We can start with a discussion of the role of emotions in each of the three parts of our model for rational decision-making: evidence – outcomes – reasoning.
Thomas Pynchon, in his sprawling novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), exhibited a fascination for the peculiar mathematics of the Poisson Distribution, a pattern exhibited in certain random sequences (including the location of German rocket strikes in London during WWII). Sometimes referred to as a “law of rare events”, the Poisson distribution has proven to apply to such disparate phenomena as: the volume of Internet traffic; deaths per year in a given age group; DNA mutations resulting from radiation; goals scored in sports with two competing teams; etc. (more…)
Last week (September 15, 2014) we established a framework for being “rational”, and talked about the importance of consistency. To be rational, we need to avoid inconsistences and contradictions. At the same time, we expect that being rational provides the confidence that we can reach the complete truth. But at the frontiers of knowledge in mathematics and physics, things do not appear to meet the criteria of consistency and completeness. The universe may not be rational.
This would seem to be an easy question. We all agree human beings can be, and should be, rational. But language and discourse about human thought is notoriously slippery. What being rational means has confounded philosophers for thousands of years. 
A Personal Journal – towards a Philosophy Integrating Science and Spirituality
It is 2014 and we are well into the fifth year of the 21st century of the modern era, approximately 2 million years after humans first appeared on the earth. Today, the world is changing in ways we cannot imagine, at a speed we cannot perceive and with an intensity we cannot withstand. We are precipitating these changes through our choices and their interaction with the choices of all 8 billion humans and the natural world as a whole, in a complex web of complex systems defying prediction or control.
All the same, the fundamental questions of who we are, why we are here and how we should live have not changed. The earliest known philosophers struggled with these questions, just as philosophers do today, while most of the human species continues striving to live the best life they can envision. (more…)
This summer two curious scientific findings were reported, both dealing with the effects of gender, but in very different circumstances. The odd juxtaposition raises interesting questions about gender bias and suggests that in some cases it is deeply subliminal, rather than cultural – and inscribed in the actual biochemistry of the body. This also suggests that there is a kind of subliminal reasoning built into our bodies and in life as a whole that deserves careful consideration.
On February 4, 2014, there was a televised debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, President of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. While some interesting information was provided by the presenters, the quality of the debate was disappointing due to its focus on one of the weakest of tenets of Christian religious beliefs – that the world was literally created in seven days some few thousand years ago. (more…)
There is a remarkable similarity in the cosmological arguments about the nature of time that have arisen in both the theological and scientific community. The religious concept of Divine Omniscience is structurally identical to the physics of causal determinism in space-time – and both have raised debates about the nature of human free will. (more…)