Sunday, November 8, 2015

The identity of God, and why I believe in your God, if not mine

Sometimes I think of my Roman Catholic mother attending Easter week services, during her all-too-brief years with her children. For one who has moved away from her faith, in my case toward something like pantheism, I wonder how awkward that topic would be if I could talk to her again now…

I recently read James Michener's The Source, a story of the Hebrew/Jewish people and their ancestral land that is now Israel. This is an impressive and gripping work of historical fiction, deeply researched, published in 1965. In one vignette, a Hebrew tribe marches out of the desert into Canaan, carrying the invisible yet omnipresent Yahweh in their hearts and minds. Yahweh commands and prescribes customs, laws, and rituals. Although a fiction, the portrayed Hebrew beliefs resonate with something I've suspected for a long time, that the myth of Yahweh was of highest importance, even more so than the truth of Yahweh. For Yahweh was the deified manifestation of the Hebrew people. Yahweh was their identity, the face of the collective tribe.

I suspect that this is so throughout most of history, that God is less about theology and more about identity. An ouroboros of God creating man, and man creating God.

And this is the source of the discomfort when you say you don’t believe in someone’s God. You are saying you don’t believe in them. Many who stand in their faith feel this identification, and this is why denying or challenging their religion is tantamount to denying their existence.
I do not know if supernatural beings exist, but I do believe in religion as a cultural identity myth. And there’s that poor bastardized word: myth. If ever there is a great enemy, as some Christians say, what has happened to that word, becoming synonymous with a falsehood, would be the greatest of his works. For it robs us of mystery, story, and meaning. Nothing is more real than that, transcending even veracity.

If humans are indeed hyperprosocial creatures (see Whip it good), a Being projected into the sky out of the brains and hearts of a group can have stupendous polarization power. We don’t eat that or we do wear that or we whatever because the face in the mirror in the sky says so when we look up moving our lips in unison as we pray. Behavior guided not by rationality but by identity preservation. Myths are the scripts that each must play out.

The Jews are a remarkable example of this. Anticipating and adapting to diaspora, the dense hedge of the Talmud and the rabbinical caste preserved and protected the Jewish identity through centuries of wandering.

This lack of borders may be a reason why pantheism is not as appealing as some other beliefs. Everything is on the inside of God, so where can you point to that which is not self? And without these lines, what is my identity?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whip it good

I’m seeing hyperprosocial everywhere now, after reading this in Scientific American:

How Homo sapiens Became the Ultimate Invasive Species, by Curtis Marean.

“Many human species have inhabited Earth. But ours is the only one that colonized the entire planet. A new hypothesis explains why.”

The hypothesis is that an relatively recent evolutionary funnel shaped us to be hyperprosocial creatures, an indomitable force marching out of Africa:

“Everywhere H. sapiens went, massive ecological changes followed. The archaic humans they encountered went extinct, as did vast numbers of animal species. It was, without a doubt, the most consequential migration event in the history of our planet.”

Some threads drawn from and around this:

Our huge energy-hungry brains, and radically differing facial features serve a purpose of forming and managing alliances and identifying insiders and outsiders.

Humans excel at altruism. Also at spite and schadenfreude.

The open hand gesture is a universal sign of peace, yet human hands uniquely and instantly can be weaponized as fists, against which male facial physiognomy is armored.

Hypersociability is Shiva and Brahma, tearing down and building ever higher.

World War I, precipitated by Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, was an astounding and furious alignment of us and them forces. Many historians still do not know how this came about.

“We have met the enemy and they is us.” --Pogo.

It is wise to think before plunging in. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” --Yeats.

Technology fertilizes the growth of institutional golems:

“Feral edifices are awakening on the planet
mosaics made of fragments of frightened people
tribes once profiting by mimicing machines
now caught inside."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A religion that might have been but will never be again

It seems that the days of humanity living in a dream world with myths and stories serving as spiritual guides have passed away. For weal or woe truth is king. Combined with the queasiness of uncertain existence, this can mean latching on to belief for dear life. So if unsubstantiated truth is a requisite of religion, I propose three things to keep the butchery and the bizarre at bay:
  1. Ask science if your truth is healthy. We have bodies and minds that allow science to do this. If believers are pumped full of stress hormones or found in piles at the bottom of ravines then someone should bring this up for discussion.
  2. Rituals and customs are fine for binding the tribe, but at one point in time such things did not exist and there may come a time when they need to go (see #1). Example: animal sacrifice.
  3. If God wants you to do something, let God tell you in person. If there is no message then assume God wants you to figure things out on your own. Never ask someone or something what God wants you to do. We have seen how that plays out time after time. If your holy book has some good advice that stands on its own merits (see #1), then by all means proceed, but that is very different from God telling you personally to do something.
One of the stimuli for writing this:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Arificial Intelligence holism

Artificial intelligence doesn't begin with just the brain. Pull back and see an entire creature as a functioning entity. It senses, moves, needs, and interacts with the environment. Animals possess plastic yet durable behaviors that are also modular. Modularity is successful in the hierarchically organized world that we live in. It means re-usability. If a dog learns about eating cake on Tuesday under the porch, another piece of cake on Wednesday behind the house will truly be "a piece of cake"! Hierarchy outside means it must be represented inside. Survival is about using these representations to predict and manipulate the environment. Now look inside the brain and see cells signaling each other, turning each other on and off. Input from sensors and output to motors. Motive to drive the system toward goals that satisfy needs. Memories formed and retained that serve survival. Observe the hierarchical structure of the cortex. The lesson to be taken is that a connectionistic, hierarchical architecture seems to be required. The clay that the system is built out of, and the means by which it comes about, whether by evolution or artifice, will allow for variability of the details.

See also this related argument for embodiment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Peanut Butter Intelligence Test

This accompanying note says something about how old this is:
While waiting around for to get created, I thought
I would make a proposal for an alternative to the Turing Test
for intelligence. 

It is called the Peanut Butter Test. 

The Peanut Butter Test, like the Turing Test, has the drawback/
strength of relying on one entity which is assumed to be
intelligent to determine whether another entity is intelligent.

However, the Peanut Butter Test, unlike the Turing Test, does
not rely on a definition of intelligence as being the ability
to successfully mimic an assumed intelligence.  Instead,
intelligence is defined as the ability to manipulate the
environment in such a way that a continued desirable interface
with the environment is assured.  In other words, forces
contained in the environment which might disrupt the desirable
interface are anticipated and countered.  An entity which can
do this successfully in a complex and threatening environment
would be classified as intelligent.  A desirable interface
could mean anything, but for the Peanut Butter Test, I propose
that it be peanut butter. 

As you may begin to guess, a major ingredient to the Peanut
Butter Test is goals.  Goals are the desirable interface.
I think peanut butter is a good choice because it is fairly
simple, instead of something like money or happiness, which
no one understands (read, knows how to describe).  I personally
believe that to be intelligent, a thing must be able to learn,
and to effectively learn, it must have goals or needs to direct the

Now, suppose a machine is built, and we want to know if it
is intelligent.  We give the machine a taste for peanut butter,
perhaps by attaching a chemical sensor to it which stimulates
a reinforcement circuit or program whenever peanut butter is
detected by the sensor.  It would also make things more interesting
if the peanut butter were "consumed" after being sensed, perhaps
by arranging the machine to be powered by burning peanut butter,
but this is not strictly necessary.  Then, we take the machine out
into some fairly interesting and complex environment like the
wilds of North Dakota or the wilds of downtown Boston, Mass. and
bid it goodbye. 

After a period of time, maybe a couple of years, we go and look
up our machine and see how it is doing.  If it is still sitting
in the same place, with rancid peanut butter stuck on its
sensor, then there is not much to conclude.  However, if it turned
out that the rain had washed away its initial supply of peanut
butter, and it had gone out in search of more, and in the
process of doing that had learned how to speak French, and had
acquired controlling stock in a peanut butter company, and had
acquired several parcels of prime peanut growing land, and was
simply rolling in peanut butter, then we can conclude that our
machine has gone out and assured itself of a continuous supply
of peanut butter regardless of the vagaries of the environment,
and is therefore intelligent. 

                            Tom Portegys, BTL IH, ...ihuxv!portegys

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Free Will

As a dilettante philosopher, the subject of free will poses a consternating yet delicious slice of thought-food. My personal take is that the world doesn’t have much of an interest in this, although studies show that those who believe they have free will behave differently from those who think they don’t, regardless of whether free will can be proven to be so. So society really does have a stake in the matter.

So recently I started taking some notes on things that I’ve studied and thought about related to free will, which is an ancient, universal, and well-trodden topic. What follows are some of those notes presented in better prose (I hope) than the originals.

We awaken to experience. We presume that babies are almost nothing but self-centered vortices of experience. Experiences lead us to what goes up must come down, 2 + 2 = 4, and to countless cause and effect relationships that just always seem to hold. There are also universal perceptions of logical laws that ring true in the mind, like a thing cannot be in two places at once. Early in life, there is also an inherent acquisition of the concept of self and volition; that we are actors freely writing our own scripts to play out in the world. These are deeply embedded in identity.

There is also the knowledge, pressed home by science, that simple animals with brains made out of the same substance as ours (but less of it), function like clockworks. Put a certain stimulus in and here comes a predictable response. These are the sorts of things that lead one to entertain the strange and disconcerting idea that outside forces that stamp shapes on the mind are really utterly in control of the mind, meaning that volition, or free will, is an illusion. So in a way experience has come around to bite us.

If you are inclined to hang on to free will, you could adhere to the somewhat solipsistic philosophy that experience is the primary reality. And you wouldn’t be alone (humor aside). The physicist Erwin Schrödinger, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, said this about dualism, which is the concept that self and other are distinct:

"These shortcomings can hardly be avoided except by abandoning dualism. This has been proposed often enough, and it is odd that it has usually been done on a materialistic basis.   ....But it strikes me that ...surrender of the notion of the real external world, alien as it seems to everyday thinking, is absolutely essential.”

Speaking of quantum mechanics, which is physics at a very small scale, the theory says two things that might be optimistic for free will proponents: 
  1. Things are not deterministic on a small scale. In a sense, outcomes are the result of throws of unknowable dice.
  2. An “observer”, often synonymous with an experiencer, can force the dice to be thrown, meaning that you have some “say” in what happens and that the world may not be such an inexorable engine after all.
But sadly, if you exist in the world that deflates things somewhat, since whatever you do as an observer might be the result of some previous dice throwing.

Can determinism, i.e. no free will, be proven? If you try to show this by experiment, you need to separate yourself from the subject in order to control the input and output variables. The second point above indicates that this might be problematic. But what is more, there is one experiment that cannot be done, which is proving that the universe as a whole is deterministic, for two reasons: 
  1. Observers by definition contained within the universe, and thus are part of the experiment.
  2. The results of an experiment also part of the universe, thus changing the state of it. This means that experiments on a universal scale are never repeatable.
Pantheists who are believers that they are part of god-as-universe might find this lack of provability to be favorable news, whether free will fans or not.

Consider if determinism were to be proven, it would be an interesting but academic point, as exploiting that knowledge would of course be coerced by destiny. Predicting some events might turn out to be less than hoped for as well. For example, suppose the stock market becomes predictable with a new algorithm. The algorithm will quickly become part of the stock market, leading down a tail-chasing path that might be essentially unpredictable.

There is also the cat version of free will: whatever happens, that's what I meant to happen (from George Carlin joke about a cat running into a glass door).

August 18, 2014

How the Internet of Things will make money as we know it obsolete

Money almost rivals language as an amazing and ubiquitous invention, or maybe better put, convention. We have trusted each other with exchanges of shells, salt, coins, paper, and now ephemeral computer bits. What money you give to me for what I have or do, I may later give to another in like manner. Liquid value. It is believed that a currency arises naturally, as a durable, portable, and universally desired commodity. Gold and silver fit that bill nicely. Chairs and apples don’t (at least for now). For a long time, however, nations have issued fiat money, which is backed by trust in the government to honor its value. This allows government the power to rev and throttle the economy more efficiently as need arises or, more cynically, as political machinations dictate. In the light of coming technology, maybe it is time to revisit some old ideas about money.

Money has become an abstract entity, untethered from material associations. Fortunately, our brains are fully capable of dealing with abstractions. Or are they? Abstractions are distillations that have a tendency to lack impact. For example, numerous studies reveal the limitations of email and texting, forms of communication that fail to carry visual and audible cues that are present in the face-to-face encounters that people are so well adapted for. Likewise purely factual information can fail to convey the emotional and motivational impact of a topic, which might be hazardous if the topic is wealth.

If we go back in history, wealth takes on more of a visible, tangible form. For example, it has taken on the form of crafted artifacts, livestock, or the dimensions of a dwelling. These are physical commodities. If a rich person has fifty sheep, there are fifty bleating reminders of that wealth. In societies that use commodities for money, the wealth of the society is grounded to actual resources, goods, and services; more so than an abstract currency printed by governments and doled out by banks. The manifestation of wealth and money in forms that people can see, touch, and sense, even if indirectly, fits into a conceptual framework that generally resonates more deeply with people.

Wealth satiation

At this point, you may think this is an argument for returning to the gold standard or some commodity currency like it. It is indeed along those lines, but to an even greater extent only achievable with technology that is arising to implement it. However, even if it were possible to do this, why dump the fabulously effective and fluid money that we use today? One reason is to institute a satiation mechanism for wealth that will curb an appetite which poses a serious threat to society and the environment.

People come with satiation mechanisms that tell us when enough is enough. They are crucial to keeping us healthy and safe. Food is an obvious one. Your stomach tells you when to start and stop eating in a very convincing fashion. We also know when to wake up, when to sleep, how many tasks we can manage, how long sporting events should be, etc. But what about numbers? What number is too big or too little? It doesn’t make any sense unless you associate something with the number. When money is only a number, you don’t say to yourself, that is enough, I’m full now. Numbers do not satiate. So what do people associate with money numbers? Things like sunny vacations, expensive food and clothes, gleaming cars, and lavish houses. If you actually had all of these commodities in front of you or in your portfolio, you might have a better notion of what is enough and when to slow down. But with pure numbers this is left to flights of imagination. Adding extra zeros on the end of a number aren’t as easy to connect to reality as we might think.

“Greed has no satiation point, since its consummation does not fill the inner emptiness, boredom, loneliness, and depression it is meant to overcome.”
Erich Fromm

While the desire for wealth is the principal driver for capitalism and all of the bounty that it creates, we can see the excesses that it fosters. Although progress has been made, the environment continues to be viewed as a resource to be plundered with little forethought. Deforestation, species extinctions, and global climate change are a few major casualties. Economically, a strong and invested middle class, crucial to democracy, shrinks as wealth distribution skews ever more toward a few at the top. Plutocracy, rule by the rich, is a real danger.

Capitalism also suffers from never ending speculative bubbles that create false value, inevitably popping and deflating into recessions. And this happens despite the best efforts of governments and banks to manage the money supply. Although these bubbles may be inevitable, the degree and frequency with which they occur are often related to money that is backed by little but hope. On a darker side, government manipulation of the money supply allows it to surreptitiously tax citizens to fund pork projects and war efforts. Unfair trade imbalances have also been erected by artificially fixing the value of currency. In response to these forces, and aided by the internet, bartering networks are rising in popularity as a means of directly exchanging value.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to a state in which virtually everything is connected to the internet in some way. Things are tracked as uniquely identifiable and addressable entities, which in many instances can actively communicate and respond to stimuli. IoT seems to be coming fast: in the next few years, six billion objects in the world are predicted to be connected. The hypothesis presented here is that IoT can be used to overcome the obstacles and drawbacks for the use of commodity money. For example, gold is a durable, portable, and universally desired commodity and has served as currency in many societies. With IoT and the power of electronic commerce, other products and services that have few of the properties of traditional commodity money might conceivably be used as such.

As an example, consider bushels of apples harvested in a distant orchard. The apples have value relative to other products and services, and may be traded for them. The owner of the apples, wanting to purchase an item, let us say a chair, could consign them to a seller in exchange for the chair. In turn, before the apples spoil, they could be traded for another product or service of value. Since computing systems know about the apples, where they are, what it would cost to ship them, and how long they will remain unspoiled, automatic exchanges are made in the background to shift them into the most profitable position, for example a local food market. Without intervention, that which an individual owns will be constantly changing. In this sense, the arenas of commerce and finance would effectively be merged into a single massive bartering system.

The use of a just a few commodities as money can lead to unpredictable fluctuations as supply and demand waxes and wanes. Alternatively, a diversified array of products and services used as money will be less vulnerable to this type of destabilization. And unlike a representative substance that is locked up in vaults, working commodities are valued only for their inherent worth. The wealth of an individual no longer is an abstract number on a balance sheet; it is a changing portfolio of products and services. Computers can tell you what you own in terms of apples or whatever trade commodities you wish to see, but your wealth will always be grounded in real world entities.

Natural global currency

An interesting property of IoT money, to give it a name, is that it is by definition a natural global currency. The gross domestic product of a country is simply the trade value of its assets. Banks will continue to serve the role of investment houses, but much less that of money repositories. Governments will continue to raise taxes, but will have a much reduced role in managing the money supply, leaving this function to the market. Governments will no longer be able to artificially manipulate the money supply since that is simply the current value of goods and services.

If investment house assets are backed by commodities that can be precisely monitored by investors, this can serve to suppress risky investment impulses that in the past have triggered speculative bubbles. Many investors will not want their wealth loaned out in a risky fashion, or without assurances of getting a profitable return on investment.

When a commodity is used as a trade asset, there is a braking force on the overproduction of the commodity, so as not to excessively devalue it. OPEC oil quotas are an example. When many commodities are used as money, the braking will apply more extensively, conserving resources. For example, if fish were used as commodity money, overfishing will produce wealth and but also decrease the value of each fish. This is the opposite of the case with abstract money, since the overproduction of wealth increases the value of money. 

For better or worse, technology is crashing upon us with waves of change. The ways we communicate, collaborate, and organize ourselves are shifting. It is worth taking a look at even the most ingrained and cherished conventions to foresee opportunities that may benefit society. Some decry the greed ethic that propels capitalism, but there is no doubt that it has raised the standard of living of those adhering to it. However, like a fire that flares and rages uncontrolled at times, unbridled greed has left many victims, social and environmental, in its wake. The speculation here is a possible way to add a moderating governor to the engine of commerce and finance.

July 2013