Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is There Anyone at Home?

"Of course, this stuff isn't really Grace, as you claim, is it?". So said a skeptical fellow sitting with a glass half full the other day. I like it when someone gets well into thought in the Tavern. It's the place for it. Every Hero and Saint has asked deep questions at one time or another and started off with some doubt. Eric gave me the nod to top his glass up. "This one's on me", he said.

The talk had been a '42er '. What's the answer to Life, The Universe and, well Everything. Some just do not see the Grace we have been given. Some do not - and some will not - drink.

Do we even see what is infront of us? How did it get here? Is anyone else sharing the same elsewhere?  How come its just us in the Tavern? There were plenty of folk putting their oars in the deep waters.

Eric Metaxis opened up but it wasn't long before others joined in.
Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God
The odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer. Intelligent design, anyone?
In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life. [I hope those zeros are correct].
With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random.

But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely.. 
bubkis—0 followed by nothing.
What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
Bill chimed in. 

He's had a dog in the fight too, and for quite a while it seems.
Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”
As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. 
Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.
Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.
The Moon too, as Bill pointed out. 
Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?
There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.
Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?
Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
One can sympathise with those who say we have 'begged the question' in the first place. With all our intelligence and technology, are we really seeing what we think we are seeing? 

You do not have to be very intelligent to be a Tavern Keeper (although I do in fact have a brain the size of a small planet) and many who are intelligent are too clever by half. But the more we 'discover', the more questions arise, the more certain some people are and the more discombobulated others become. It is often impossible to differentiate between them. Which is where Grace comes in handy. 

When a chap looks at another and sees that there is a 'vacant' look in his eyes and he wonders if there is anyone at home, it is best to be generous and compassionate. And that is where the Grace does its work.

I filled the glasses and mugs while Amanda Gafter had a chat with a Professor of Exceptionally Clever Stuff. I am not at all sure he thinks Grace is Real. Or anything is for that matter. But what is 'real' and where does 'it' all come from?

Being a Catholic chap, I take it that God created Heaven and Earth and all things visible and invisible. And by the Lord Harry there is much we just do not see. He made Grace too.  Just how He went about it and whether He has a work in progress is yet more to ponder.

The Prof had many really interesting points and many side tracks to explore.
The Case Against Reality

A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. 
Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
The Confined Solution
Not so, says Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: 
The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. 
What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.
Ahha, good old 'evolution'. The 'Theory' that explains some 'facts' and increasingly has to shovel other facts under the carpet. Is the carpet real?
Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience. 
This is the aptly named “hard problem.”

On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that quantum systems don’t seem to be definite objects localized in space until we come along to observe them. Experiment after experiment has shown—defying common sense—that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. 
The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space. As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

So while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality. In short, all roads lead back to the observer. And that’s where you can find Hoffman—straddling the boundaries, attempting a mathematical model of the observer, trying to get at the reality behind the illusion. Quanta Magazine caught up with him to find out more.
Let us listen in and I guess expect that the Theologians are not seen either. 
Gefter: People often use Darwinian evolution as an argument that our perceptions accurately reflect reality. They say, “Obviously we must be latching onto reality in some way because otherwise we would have been wiped out a long time ago. If I think I’m seeing a palm tree but it’s really a tiger, I’m in trouble.”

Hoffman: Right. The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. 
It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

Gefter: You’ve done computer simulations to show this. Can you give an example?

Hoffman: Suppose in reality there’s a resource, like water, and you can quantify how much of it there is in an objective order—very little water, medium amount of water, a lot of water. Now suppose your fitness function is linear, so a little water gives you a little fitness, medium water gives you medium fitness, and lots of water gives you lots of fitness—in that case, the organism that sees the truth about the water in the world can win, but only because the fitness function happens to align with the true structure in reality. Generically, in the real world, that will never be the case. Something much more natural is a bell curve—say, too little water you die of thirst, but too much water you drown, and only somewhere in between is good for survival. 
Now the fitness function doesn’t match the structure in the real world. And that’s enough to send truth to extinction. 
For example, an organism tuned to fitness might see small and large quantities of some resource as, say, red, to indicate low fitness, whereas they might see intermediate quantities as green, to indicate high fitness. Its perceptions will be tuned to fitness, but not to truth. It won’t see any distinction between small and large—it only sees red—even though such a distinction exists in reality.
See what I mean by too clever by half? 
Gefter: But how can seeing a false reality be beneficial to an organism’s survival?

Hoffman: There’s a metaphor that’s only been available to us in the past 30 or 40 years, and that’s the desktop interface.
Oh dear. Its a good job we moved from the 'radio' era into the computer era or he's be using analogies of glass tubes and resistors. 
Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position, and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. 
You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. 
And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. 
But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. 
I am reminded that we 'look through the glass-darkly. I am reminded of how we have had matters slowly 'Revealed' to us as we have progressed. 
And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.

Gefter: So everything we see is one big illusion?
Hoffman: We’ve been shaped to have perceptions that keep us alive, so we have to take them seriously. If I see something that I think of as a snake, I don’t pick it up. If I see a train, I don’t step in front of it. I’ve evolved these symbols to keep me alive, so I have to take them seriously. But it’s a logical flaw to think that if we have to take it seriously, we also have to take it literally.

Gefter: If snakes aren’t snakes and trains aren’t trains, what are they?

Hoffman: Snakes and trains, like the particles of physics, have no objective, observer-independent features. The snake I see is a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions. Evolution shapes acceptable solutions, not optimal ones. A snake is an acceptable solution to the problem of telling me how to act in a situation. My snakes and trains are my mental representations; your snakes and trains are your mental representations.

Gefter: How did you first become interested in these ideas?

Hoffman: As a teenager, I was very interested in the question “Are we machines?” My reading of the science suggested that we are. But my dad was a minister, and at church they were saying we’re not. So I decided I needed to figure it out for myself. It’s sort of an important personal question—if I’m a machine, I would like to find that out! And if I’m not, I’d like to know, what is that special magic beyond the machine? 
So eventually in the 1980s I went to the artificial-intelligence lab at MIT and worked on machine perception. The field of vision research was enjoying a newfound success in developing mathematical models for specific visual abilities. I noticed that they seemed to share a common mathematical structure, so I thought it might be possible to write down a formal structure for observation that encompassed all of them, perhaps all possible modes of observation.
I was inspired in part by Alan Turing. When he invented the Turing machine, he was trying to come up with a notion of computation, and instead of putting bells and whistles on it, he said, Let’s get the simplest, most pared down mathematical description that could possibly work. And that simple formalism is the foundation for the science of computation. So I wondered, could I provide a similarly simple formal foundation for the science of observation?

Gefter: A mathematical model of consciousness.

Hoffman: That’s right. My intuition was, there are conscious experiences. I have pains, tastes, smells, all my sensory experiences, moods, emotions and so forth. So I’m just going to say: One part of this consciousness structure is a set of all possible experiences. When I’m having an experience, based on that experience I may want to change what I’m doing. So I need to have a collection of possible actions I can take and a decision strategy that, given my experiences, allows me to change how I’m acting. That’s the basic idea of the whole thing. I have a space Xof experiences, a space G of actions, and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posited a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experiences, and when I act, I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world. That’s the entire structure. Six elements. The claim is: This is the structure of consciousness. I put that out there so people have something to shoot at.

Gefter: But if there’s a W, are you saying there is an external world?

Hoffman: Here’s the striking thing about that. I can pull the W out of the model and stick a conscious agent in its place and get a circuit of conscious agents. In fact, you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity. And that’s the world.
Gefter: The world is just other conscious agents?
OK, I didn't interrupt but was thinking that if there were no other conscious agents - ourselves, people, -  for a very long time during evolution, then WHO was the One Conscious Agent that was keeping it all spinning before we got here? 
Hoffman: I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view.
The mind boggles at the fence he builds around us.  He really does need the Grace I serve here.
Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind.
Almost Theological, innit ? He stops short of positing an Original Mind, an Originating Mind that creates all the new little minds to generate a unified, single mind for Himself.  But the Prof ain't theological.
Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.

Gefter: If it’s conscious agents all the way down, all first-person points of view, what happens to science? Science has always been a third-person description of the world.
How about that old pre-science idea of 'Turtles all the way down', hehehe.
Hoffman: The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects. So what’s going on? 
Here’s how I think about it. I can talk to you about my headache and believe that I am communicating effectively with you, because you’ve had your own headaches. The same thing is true as apples and the moon and the sun and the universe. Just like you have your own headache, you have your own moon. But I assume it’s relevantly similar to mine. That’s an assumption that could be false, but that’s the source of my communication, and that’s the best we can do in terms of public physical objects and objective science.

Gefter: It doesn’t seem like many people in neuroscience or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics. Do you think that’s been a stumbling block for those trying to understand consciousness?
Heck, lady, I was thinking as I listened and filled the pots of the other's hanging on their every round about word, what about David Bohm?  He was a quantum physicist. He tackled that very question and came up with the Implicate and Explicate Orders. That was fifty years ago !!  Perhaps it was because he caught sight of God's coat tails just as St Thomas did, that he was relegated to the science footnotes.
Hoffman: I think it has been. Not only are they ignoring the progress in fundamental physics, they are often explicit about it. They’ll say openly that quantum physics is not relevant to the aspects of brain function that are causally involved in consciousness. They are certain that it’s got to be classical properties of neural activity, which exist independent of any observers—spiking rates, connection strengths at synapses, perhaps dynamical properties as well. These are all very classical notions under Newtonian physics, where time is absolute and objects exist absolutely. 
And then [neuroscientists] are mystified as to why they don’t make progress. 
They don’t avail themselves of the incredible insights and breakthroughs that physics has made. Those insights are out there for us to use, and yet my field says, “We’ll stick with Newton, thank you. We’ll stay 300 years behind in our physics.”

Gefter: I suspect they’re reacting to things like Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s model, where you still have a physical brain, it’s still sitting in space, but supposedly it’s performing some quantum feat. In contrast, you’re saying, “Look, quantum mechanics is telling us that we have to question the very notions of ‘physical things’ sitting in ‘space.’”

Hoffman: I think that’s absolutely true. The neuroscientists are saying, “We don’t need to invoke those kind of quantum processes, we don’t need quantum wave functions collapsing inside neurons, we can just use classical physics to describe processes in the brain.” 
I’m emphasizing the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they’re not real
It’s not that there’s a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It’s that there’s no brain! 
Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don’t exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the brain pulling off some tricky quantum computation. So even Penrose hasn’t taken it far enough. But most of us, you know, we’re born realists. We’re born physicalists. This is a really, really hard one to let go of.
Hmmmm. I hesitate to say that he has a cheek saying that others 'haven't taken it far enough'. But, we are a work in progress ! 
Gefter: To return to the question you started with as a teenager, are we machines?

Hoffman: The formal theory of conscious agents I’ve been developing is computationally universal—in that sense, it’s a machine theory. And it’s because the theory is computationally universal that I can get all of cognitive science and neural networks back out of it. Nevertheless, for now I don’t think we are machines—in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. 
As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. 
I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.
Hmmmm. I think the good Prof has a long way to go to reach the destination, and is insisting on taking the pretty route. He is in dire need of sustenance to help him on his way.

I filled his glass, but I don't think he saw it. He clearly isn't experiencing it.



  1. Science is known elsewhere as "The path without form". It is a long and hard path. Please do not deride those who take it just because you think you have found a short cut.

    1. Deride? Hmmmm. I suppose there was some derision in there, along with the honouring of putting him on a bar stool in the Tavern and saying that he had some interesting points to make. But one cannot help but noticing that his meanderings off that 'path without form' - which he claimed was actually quite closely defined by mathematics - took him all over the place and ended up barely one step further along.

      As for the 'short cut' I would hesitate to say that to a surgeon who decided to excise a tumour rather than drive someone's hair gray and out with drug therapies. I know about hard paths. I have science degrees and a bit of practice to boot. I know a little about 'mind' and 'artificial intelligence' too. The latter has been leading intelligent fellows down cul de sacs for at least five decades.


Ne meias in stragulo aut pueros circummittam.

Our Bouncer is a gentleman of muscle and guile. His patience has limits. He will check you at the door.

The Tavern gets rowdy visitors from time to time. Some are brain dead and some soul dead. They attack customers and the bar staff and piss on the carpets. Those people will not be allowed in anymore. So... Be Nice..