Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Futility II

I am going to demonstrate a small calculation, which I think will hopefully be useful for something more important than the subject of it. The example is for no doubt so extremely simplified that there is no direct quantifiable analogy to what I am going to connect it to. Nevertheless there is a qualitative analogy and I think that would suffice. Simply because I do not want to prove a point here, I just want to make the reader understand what large numbers can do which is beyond the scope of our imagination and intuition.

And when something is beyond our intuition or imagination for example the distance from earth to the sun, or the age of man kind, mass of a black hole etc, a feeble mind does take support in an easy to understand yet most probably wrong explanation! As usual, it connects to my favourite creature :-) There are a lot of logical and physical arguments for it, and the believer shall refute them because they don't trust the safety in logical arguments or/and it's very difficult to imagine a smoothly running universe without constant intervention. IMO, it's difficult to imagine because it's counter intuitive (for example it's very intuitive to conclude that a machine requires a mechanic, and thus the world requires a think tank), but as we find it, and we have good reason to believe that most of the world around us is indeed counter intuitive! And that's okay, because there's nothing sacred about intuition anyways.

One needs to understand that science suggest that there is nothing sacred about human imagination and intuition or human existence for that matter when it comes to the time and length scales much bigger than the biggest we can really imagine. Science has had a pretty nice track record in explaining things. If one doubts the success of science, all I can say is that they need to read a bit more than they have! So in a sense, it might be actually true that in a cosmic balance, humans offer nothing and nothing at all. I must make it clear that this doesn't take away all the values and ethics and beauty we believe in. That is related to human experience and consistent with the earlier statement, has no contribution in the cosmic balance! Though it matters the most for us.

I would like to use the shock treatment method of explanation, I'll work out the calculation first and then dwell into its implications.

Consider a coin tossing machine. After every 2 , 4 , 6 (every even number) tosses, it counts the number of heads and the number of tails. We know that for large n, we expect half of the things will be heads and half of them will be tails. Suppose in a trial, we get 2 head more than tails, we call it event A. The relative probability for event A with respect to the even of having half and half heads and tails is what we want to look at. It is intuitively clear that this relative probability will be small for low n and large for big n. For example, if I am just doing 6 coin tosses it is a bit unlikely to have 4 heads and 2 tails compared to 3 heads 3 tails. It's a trivial calculation and I am plotting the relative probabilities for some values of n. Surely and stressing again, this is not a simplification but a way to imagine how things happen at large scales.

Now we can consider the following analogy. It is clear that the event of having 2 more heads than tails is an unusual event. But we also find that in vague terms, the degree of unusualness decreases . The X axis can be regarded as either time or space and we want to study the Y axis which we will define shortly when the time or space under consideration increases beyond our imaginations to several billion years and several billion galaxies.

Now suppose when the unusual event happens, it triggers a very special mechanism. Suppose the earth was populated by molecules which replicated themselves using other stuff from other replicator molecules. There are indeed examples of such molecules which can be considered the first steps of abiogenesis. Let the unusual event be that this replicator molecules gets enclosed in a semi permeable membrane. The probability of that happening is similar to having the unusual dice statistics and thus the Y axis.

Now certainly this molecule has a better chance to survive and thermodynamics tells us that such molecules will have a longer life time than the rest. Boom! That's life created right there. Now suppose we decide to stick to our own brain's imagination of distance and time, we will stick to 6000 years and size of the earth. By our brain's imagination, I mean the following:

When someone tells us that Baltimore is 200 miles away from Newyork, we can imagine the route, perhaps traverse it in our mind. Maybe we can do it for Newyork to Bombay. But in the middle world we have evolved, we certainly cannot grasp the vastness of a light year. (If you can, you are lying or you are awesome!) Similarly, we can imagine time intervals of 100s of years, but when the numbers say that Hamlet was written 1600 years after water was turned into wine, it's very difficult to imagine the time gap such large. And yet again! 1600 years is surely a nothing in the cosmic balance. So I think 6000 years and size of earth are very generous estimates of our imagination.

So if we stick to our own intuition and try to build a theory for life, we are very close to 0 on the X axis, and consequently we are very close to 0 on the Y axis as well. What I want to stress is that for our naively thinking brains, the probability of creation of life is so low that we have to seek naiver explanation. And what I want the reader to appreciate is that the imagination limits of our brains are nothing compared to the cosmic scales (even the age of earth is big enough!). When our close friend Kent Hovind asks the audience if they think that their great great great great ... (he'd say this 20 times) grandfather was a monkey, the audience is ought to say no! For essentially the reason that we cannot imagine the time scale of evolution because our life spans are so tiny with respect to that. We can perhaps write the age of the earth, sun and the universe, I can say the age is 4 billion years, but it is very unlikely that I grasp the grandeur of that in the mere number. But if I were to look at the probability of that event happening in the vastness of the universe, it doesn't seem like the really rare event we thought it was! Obviously the numbers are qualitative. I hope it helps the reader understand the parallel I am trying to draw.

What science has to offer is the promise that though the universe is counter intuitive, there is a systematic way to explain it. This method teaches us to think above my imagination, and against my intuition. This whole exercise was a support for the previous post, the gist of which was, If you believe in crap do it for yourself, don't say it's logical. That's the harsh way to put it, but what I eagerly want to show is that there is a way to circumvent the theistic belief by realizing our position in the universe. I do strongly think that this belief arises because of the physical limitations our brain imposes on us and surely there is a way to get rid of the ego-centric nature of the brain child of theism which personally is far more peaceful and satisfying.

Fuck that shit, Jesus Christ died for your sins. Muhammad will show you the path to eternal pleasure.


Anonymous said...

incomplete hai!

Roger Waters said...

Now here it is!

Karthik Shekhar said...

It is true that human imagination is truly limited. Even when steven spielberg makes a movie on aliens, he imagines them to be conveniently anthropomorphic. So I agree with that point of yours.

The genesis of life is something that is understandably more difficult. Even if we are able to reconcile the popping up of a replicator as a plausible probabilistic event at some point on the immensely large time co-ordinate there are definitely more complicated questions that creep up.

Why was natural selection favoured as a mechanism? How the hell did consciousness arise from nowhere? I believe we are not even close to answering these questions convincingly right now? It might probably require a bigger leap of imagination to explain consciousness than relativity or quantum mechanics.

But more importantly, I believe that it is possible for great leaps of imagination to be built on wrong premises. Newton's is one example that we're familiar with but no one in her right mind would say that he was deluded to think of a universe where time is absolute. Similarly, I find it reasonable to acknowledge personalities like Christ and Buddha; they were clearly mavericks who thought in a radically different manner considering the time that they lived. It must have been a truly original mind to conceive then, something as rudimentary as collective ethics and principles based on universal aspects of human nature. Nonetheless, like the case of Newton, these were done on incorrect premises (holy spirit, Abraham etc).

While Newton has been superseded by Einstein (who will in good time be superseded by someone else), Jesus and Muhammad refuse to give up their positions of vantage. This is clearly disappointing and I can understand your concern. But I have some reservations on the manner in which you put forth your arguments; they tend to get really polemical sometimes.

The situation that we live in is funny. I think every person (theist or atheist, scientist or not) would acknowledge your premise, that human imagination is terribly limited. The atheists and theists are separated by a big chasm that needs to be explored. What is contained in that chasm is still open to speculation While the theist clutches her holy book and looks up at the sky, the vanguards of science have, for the past four hundred years burrowed to great depths in this chasm and disinterred wonderful things - Fraunhofer lines, probability theory, quantum mechanics, high speed computation etc.

Our repertoire is indeed much more impressive than theirs but the chasm is still so big that it is difficult to get points across. With the natural human instinct to choose a world that bestows a sense of security and not bother about a sense of consistency, the choice for the mode of security becomes highly subjective-and religion is chosen by many over science.

I cannot comprehend why someone would outrightly reject the billion year old universe that we are a part of, where recorded human history is like a few grains of sand in a vast desert; a universe so vast that the light we intercept from different stars carries the sweat of events that happened a million years ago; a universe where a small planet has seen life evolve and consciousness thrive. It is more beautiful than can be found in any holy book!

The question as to what to do while we are confronted with this chasm, I guess it is a choice much like what Alice had to make :-).

Mandar Gadre said...

Nice post.

Very similar to the temporal events in the universe, a lesson in quantum mechanics does teach us that our intuition fails in extremely tiny length domains. Similarly, relativity mocks at our intuition about things moving extremely fast. Somehow we have to digest counter-intuitive things. The reason we do it is that it explains things. In this regard, I think it becomes a matter of choice - does one choose intuition over consistency or not?

Once we comprehend that our intuition is weak, we seek the support of our imagination. And as we have seen, imagination frequently helps us fill in the gaps. Again, here is a choice available - adhering to the scientific axioms while imagining things or creating a whole new world where fairies roam around in the clouds.

For our imagination, we see a challenge at numerous places, and E F Schumacher has pointed out three of such 'ontological discontinuities':

m = all physical mass
x = life
y = consciousness
z = self-awareness

Then we see that
m = everything non-living
m+x = plants, for example
m+x+y = animals
m+x+y+z= human beings

Going from Level 1 to 2, 2 to 3, and 3 to 4 - we have serious discontinuities, about which we don't 'know' anything for sure as yet.
How does matter come together - a little or a lot of it, and create 'life' ? This doesn't seem to be a jump in degree, it's a jump in kind.
This difficulty, as you have pointed out, arises from our limited intuition. We will have to keep it aside and try to imagine - so that we can come up with new testable hypotheses, remembering what Einstein said - 'Imagination is more important than knowledge.'

Roger Waters said...

@Karthik: Bitch, I posted a reply

@Mandar: We seem to agree on this! Though you are kokanastha brahmin. As Karthik put it, nobody doubts the limits of our imagination. I guess I didn't make it very clear.

The topic of interest is the phenomena which is responsible for a vast majority of people opting for a suparnatural over a physical universe. I am tempted to use Dawkin's term memes of god. I do not know if certain work has been done on it, we will figure that out as we read more. I do want to know the reasons for the spread of the supernatural amongst humans. One reason I thought was our limited intuition, as I have tried to describe more clearly in the next post. The other reason which Karthik pointed out was of a secure universe rather than a consistent universe. Maybe these two are connected, and maybe there are more of such phenomena, I just want to learn all of them and put them in a simple form.

And I have to say this! I do believe that it can be done

Sudeep said...

The scientific method is unfortunately, hardly ever taught in schools. Science is associated with space shuttles, test-tubes and water being boiled in a paper cup, but not with things in daily life.

Natural selection made those genes flourish which, loosely speaking, spread themselves fastest. A mental simulation of the world around him may help a caveman escape an encroaching tiger, but it is hard to see what purpose does the ability to objectively and scientifically understand the world serve towards survival in the wild. It is perhaps for this reason that human imagination is limited, and most of the science we have understood and enjoyed and held very high has come to us not by thinking about them, but through the work of great scientists. That the scientific approach leads to the simplest explanation of the world around us, certainly needs to be learnt; it is not inherent.

Mandar Gadre said...

@ Purushottam:
LOL. We seem to agree on this and (and not 'although') I am a kokanastha brahmin by birth. :P
Not that it matters anymore.