Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Expecting the unexpected

Exponential change is  fundamental to many processes in nature and in human society. See this youtube video to understand what it really means.

Here are some examples of exponential growth which you may find interesting. (They are approximate but easily checked on the web. Also, the ‘time to double’ does of course assume that the growth rates will continue. GDP stands for gross domestic product, which is normally applied to a particular country, and is a measure of economic output).

World population growth = 1.1 %  p.a. 
Time to double = 64 years
World GDP growth = 4.2 % p.a. 
Time to double = 17 years

World GDP per capita growth = 2.6 % p.a.
 Time to double = 27 years
World scientific, technical and medical knowledge growth = approx. 5% p.a.
 Time to double = 14 years
The most steeply rising parameter is knowledge, measured by the number of peer-reviewed academic papers published in journals and on the web. In a sense you can't measure knowledge but this is the best guide we have.

Increasing literacy, female emancipation, breaking down of cultural barriers, adoption of English as a world language, internet communication between labs, independent of distance, and possibly new ways of thinking encouraged by electronic media, are probably largely responsible. The rate of knowledge growth could even increase. So in the next decade or so humanity’s knowledge of nature and how to use it could have increased by as much as in all previous history. This continues a growth that started in northern Europe 400 years ago and since it does not depend much on economic growth or environmental exploitation or large amounts of energy, there is no obvious reason for it to stop short of a failure of faith in the underlying order of nature.

As mentioned in a previous post there could be game-changing advances in our understanding of nature; and the GDP and population trends could be radically altered by the type of knowledge which is unveiled. Here are just a few possibilities to make the point:

  • A new type of pollution-free energy could allow us to spread to, terraform and colonise other planets; and this would allow, possibly encourage, faster population growth as well as huge increases in GDP.  
  • Breakthroughs in biotechnology and medicine could extend and enhance human life as well as wipe out all diseases and boost eco-friendly food production, thereby causing population to grow within the confines of our biosphere.
  • New production technology could emerge which would vastly increase the rate of GDP growth per person without using more natural resources or which allow a greatly increased cottage industry worldwide, thereby allowing local production of goods as efficiently as is possible today only by using mass production and cheap labour.

At the same time that knowledge is racing ahead the debt burden is fast catching up with a capitalist world operating in a spiritual desert. When it does so it could force western society and its financial system to reform itself completely and this again would affect GDP, population and knowledge growth.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that such radical discoveries or reformations will be made but given what previous doublings of knowledge have yielded, such as the unleashing of the power of the atom and the discovery that germs come from germs, rather than spontaneously create themselves from nothing, it does not seem an unreasonable assumption.

What is certain is that no mathematical model can possibly predict what lies ahead. Expect the unexpected.

Author, 2077 AD

Monday, 21 November 2011

Body and brain: one system

Neurological research is uncovering new mysteries about our thinking and consciousness.

A sense of self, emotions, language , mathematical thinking, mental tendencies, willpower, rational thought and intuition all are associated not just with the brain but with the body. The associations and information transfer mechanisms are extraordinarily complex and many time-synchronised neural impulses in different parts of the brain-body system seem totally unconnected by neural pathways.

It is not, in my view, possible to understand the overall reality of what is happening when a person interacts with the surrounding world, in a reductionist way, considering various subsystems in isolation. Each subsystem interacts with innumerable other subsystems in a miraculously complex way to result in one system  - a human being - which itself is related to other systems, including other people, the myriad living systems of nature and perhaps the whole universe.  (I hold the belief that our ultimate self is the soul: transcendental and beyond science and beyond mind.)

Nevertheless, some of these subsystems within us are fascinating. Here are some examples from a recent article in the New Scientist (Your Clever Body by David Robson, p.35-38, Oct 15, 2011).  

  • A basic map of the body appears to be located in one part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction). Sensory data from the body enters two different centres in the brain – the parietal cortex and the premotor cortex.  Each centre also receives data from the body map and compares the two types of data. The processed data from these two centres then stream into a 4th area called the insular cortex and it here that a feeling of embodiment is somehow generated.

  • The insular cortex is also responsible for interoception, which is the ability to become aware of bodily processes such as the heart pulse and intestinal activity. Emotional processing also occurs here.

  • Creativity and lateral thinking are affected by certain bodily movements, e.g. extending your left arm in front of you or bending your right arm at the elbow, or moving your eyes from left to right across the field of vision.

  • We associate experiences of loneliness and friendliness with feelings of coldness and warmth.

  • The physical sensation of smiling can cause a feeling of happiness, as well as vice versa.

  • Walking backwards or tensing muscles can increase your will power; and folding your arms can make you more persistent at a task.

  • When people are asked to think of random numbers they think of smaller numbers when looking down to the left, and vice versa when looking up to the right.

  • People learn and remember better when they play-act or are encouraged to gesture while reading. It is thought that movements somehow activate an implicit understanding of the material.

There is also the  fact of mind over matter in healing or overcoming apparently impossible tasks in athletics. There is absolutely no doubt about this. The placebo effect is as much a fact in medicine as helping bones to heal by using plaster. Even more startling is the recent research which shows that neural impulses associated with, say, raising our arm, occur before we are conscious of the decision to do so.

The more we find out about the workings of the brain-body system the more mysterious it becomes and I thank the Lord for it.

Author, 2077 AD


Friday, 18 November 2011

The Google Translator: testament to a human miracle

When feats of artificial intelligence are reported in the media it is easy to be deluded into feeling that the machine in question has some intrinsic merit and forget that what is remarkable is the human input.  So when we learn of some new peak of computer engineering we need to keep in mind the creativity, ingenuity, intelligence and perseverance behind it.

For instance, the Google Translator.  One can enter a phrase, even a colloquial one, in, say,  Russian or English and the English or Russian equivalent comes out. The same applies to numerous other pairs of languages – even fundamentally different ones like Chinese(?) and English. Poetry, or long passages of prose, cannot of course be made sense of. Nevertheless, it is a major achievement.

Several decades ago machine translation was almost useless and only incremental improvements were made over the years.  According to an article in the New Scientist (Oct 15) the big breakthrough was in the early 2000s, when Pentagon researchers started to programme computers to search for language patterns rather than individual words. Vast digitised collections of documents, such as millions of UN conference transcripts in six different languages, have enabled powerful pattern recognising algorithms to be developed. Google took over the research after hiring Franz Josef Och who had won a machine translation competition in 2003.

It is difficult to know how far back to go to appreciate this achievement. One could start with the dawn of creative thought, perhaps ten thousand years ago. That would be beyond the scope of a post and take too much time, so let’s restrict ourselves to developments since the 19th century. All the following and probably more, had to occur before the software of machine translation could be written (no need to read the whole list – it’s just to give an idea of the scope of work which led to computer science ).

  • Mathematical developments, including imaginary numbers which are of particular value in the theory of electronic circuits.
  • Laws of electromagnetism discovered and expressed in mathematical form made electrical engineering possible.
  • Major advances in the science of chemistry, including the arrangement of elements into the Periodic Table.
  • Semantic analysis of languages around the world.
  • Invention of the electronic valve, capacitor and other electronic components.
  • Invention of the first punched card computers using valves.
  • Theoretical and experimental investigation of quantum theory and semiconductor band structure.
  • Invention of the transistor.
  • Painstaking characterisation of silicon and other semiconductors by research teams around the globe.
  • Collation of peer reviewed research findings into a coherent body of knowledge on semiconductors.
  • Invention of innumerable techniques in chemistry, crystal growth, purification, implanting of elements, cooling, heat processing etc.
  • Invention of the integrated circuit and the silicon chip using this knowledge.
  • Invention of the first computers based on chips.
  • Advances in information, circuit and computer processing theory.
  • Advances in pattern recognition.
  • Continual improvements in the performance computer chips (Moore’s Law etc.).
  • Continual improvements in programming languages.
  • Availability of large numbers of documents translated by people into a large number of languages.
When a new supercomputer is announced, or a robot, or new medical device, it's easy to forget that  it embodies in the present miraculous chains and networks of human inspiration and hard work over a long period. That is what is remarkable, not the technology per se. It all springs from the unique and precious qualities of the human being, which, I believe, reflects in turn the image of our Creator (Genesis 1:26).

Author, 2077 AD (being revised)


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Reweaving the rainbow

The joy of science is marred by the denial of the divine.

 There is a philosophy held by many scientists, and it seems most science journalists, that all human beings are walking bags of chemicals that have somehow fallen out of a meaningless universe like a crystal of copper sulphate precipitating from solution. 

This is the message of philosophical materialism...

Poetry is nothing but a social construct. Even consciousness is a mere evolutionary accident, as is the fact that we enjoy writing and reading poetry. Likewise stories, drama, art, music, science, philosophy, mathematics, architecture, technology, craftsmanship. We way enjoy them and find them useful; but they have no intrinsic significance. Even good and evil, right and wrong are mere inventions of human beings and as for the universe - it created itself or is eternal. And free will, too, is just an illusion.

So what is a rainbow? ‘Nothing but’ drops of water suspended in the air refracting light of different colours into our eyes. What are the colours? ‘Nothing but’ different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves interacting with our neurons to generate the sensation of colour.

And how did the phenomenon of the rainbow and its interaction with conscious beings ultimately come to be  at this stage of cosmic evolution? Blind chance and the laws of physics. And where did the laws of physics come from? Er....

Apart from the irrationality of believing so much order and  meaning can be generated by chance, coming from a chain of events starting ultimately from a point in space-time over thirteen billion years ago, such a worldview robs us of all wonder and awe by side stepping a host of largely unanswerable questions.

Why at this moment do I experience the beauty of the rainbow?
And the universe from which the rainbow emerges. Why was that created?
What does it all mean? Where are we heading?
Why did our Creator give us life and hold us in being with love?
Why has the Creator given us the power to invent machines, to simulate the world through software and hardware?
Why do we increasingly seek to help the poor, the sick and the hungry?
Why do we regard all humans as spiritually equal?
Why has the Creator given us the potential to improve ourselves biologically?
Why does the Creator permit evil?
Why does the Creator give us the freedom to choose between good and evil?
Why is life sacred?
What is love?
Why can the loss of one life be as important as the loss of a million lives?
Why do we search for truth? What is truth?
Why do some sacrifice their lives, even for strangers?  Why do we experience beauty? What is justice?  What is sin? What is redemption?
Why is there eternal life? What form does it take?
Why do all forms of life have the will to survive?

All these questions can be avoided simply by postulating that there is no God, or at least no transcendent source of being. In the process we become smug, proud, without hope, without direction, with no desire to explore or make progress, with no moral compass.

 And mind numbingly boring. The only remaining mystery is how the material world works. Beyond that there are no questions to ask, no elements of a greater reality to wonder at and no real reason to even explore the mysteries of the material world. All is pointless.

The rainbow is indeed drops of water and interactions of light with neurons. But to the believer in the divine it is much more than this, since it brings to mind questions. Questions like the ones above. 

So those who seek to unweave the rainbow may wish to reconsider their position.
Author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 12 November 2011

W.L.Craig's tour on the existence of God

In October 2011 William Lane Craig, an American professor of the philosophy of religion, toured England to debate, discuss and lecture on the existence of God with various scholars and philosophers in Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, London and St Andrews.

Click here for links to the podcasts.

Here are some highlights drawn from his account of the tour:

  • Central Hall Westminster, London, with Dr Stephen Law who had kindly and bravely stepped in when Polly Toynbee backed out of a debate entitled Does God exist? This was attended by 1700 people.
  •  A filmed interview with Peter Vardy from Heythrop College revealed that the fastest growing subject among older school children in the UK, equivalent to high school level in the USA, was the philosophy of religion.

  • Radio interviews revealed that some atheists were reluctant to take on Dr Craig because his logic was too difficult to refute in a debate format. Fortunately not all academics were so deterred.

  • At Imperial College his lecture to science and engineering students on the existence of God was live-streamed over the internet and will already have been seen by several thousand web users.

  • On the train on his way to St Andrews the Great Church he encountered Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, an agnostic. They discussed the subject that Dr Craig was billed to talk on, ‘Has Hawking eliminated God?’ and appeared to be in  agreement that the answer was ‘no’. Dr Craig was joined by Dr Rodney Holder.

  • ‘This house believes that God is not a delusion’ was the subject of the Cambridge Union Debate. Normally, around 200 people attend this traditional event but this time there were 750, with the audience spilling over into the gallery, two overflow rooms and the bar area. The vote was won despite a hostile reception from many unbelievers in the audience: yes 243, no 229, abstentions 129.  Craig said the applause after his closing speech was the greatest he had ever received.

  • The debate with Peter Millican, an Oxford philosopher, in the Great Hall of Birmingham University was organised by the Philosophy Society and attracted nearly 1000 people. This was a  good natured event, with much mutual respect and no animosity by speakers or audience.

  • At the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford University Craig gave the ‘empty chair’ address, ‘Is God a delusion?’, so called because Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, refused an invitation to defend his arguments in the book. (He has repeatedly declined such invitations and made a venomous attack on Craig in the Guardian newspaper a few days before.) In the absence of an opposing speaker there was a productive panel discussion.

Overall the tour was encouraging to those who believe the universe was created by a personal God and revealed a growing interest in this question by young thinkers.

(If you feel drawn towards God but feel reluctant to take a step in that direction because you are afraid of being irrational these discourses and dialogues, and ones like them at may give you food for thought.)

Author, 2077 AD

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Violence in decline?

Recently published is a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of our Nature in which he states that life has got steadily better over hundreds of thousands of years. He systematically examines data and quantifies violence in relation to the population size at the time it took place and concludes that over the millenia the chances of an individual being a victim of violent attack, enforced starvation or human sacrifice has fallen.

Looking at the world as a whole I agree. On top of the painfully slow move towards a more peaceful world we have developed increasingly powerful means of destruction to the point where we could wipe out the whole human race many times over by nuclear or possibly biological warfare. Yet today, with a population of 7 billion, only a tiny fraction of individuals are engaged in killing each other.

The most violent episodes by far originated in China and Mongolia. Around 15% of the world population were wiped out in each of two vicious conflicts. (See table.)
  • The Al Lishan rebellion, a civil war in 8th century China, in which 35 million died.
  • The Mongol and Tatar invasions over 1207-1472 AD, resulting in some 50 million dead.
15% of today’s world population would amount to 1 billion fatalities. Torture, enforced starvation, massacres, ethnic cleansing, large scale human sacrifice, cultivated cannibalism and random acts of robbery have all  greatly subsided.

Pinker points out in an interview in the New Scientist (Oct 15) that, according to Lawrence Keeley’s book War before civilisation (1996), modern states at their worst (France in the nineteenth century and Germany in the twentieth ) ‘had rates of death that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gather and hunter-horticultural societies.’ Evidence includes bashed-in skulls, arrowheads embedded in bones and fortifications. The romantic idea of the noble savage seems to be in retreat.

In Europe, despite the two mechanised world wars of the 20th century, life has become in the main prosperous and peaceful. Even in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Mexico, while parts seem like hell on earth to most westerners, the carnage and brutality do not compare with previous eras.

Pinker lists the reasons (the italics are mine):
  • Governments, with police and courts having a monopoly on the use of force and incarceration (but what made people start wanting to form governments?)
  • Expansion and consolidation of kingdoms (could this not have been a consequence of less violence, rather than a cause?)
  • Commerce, trade and exchange made people more valuable alive than dead through reciprocal altruism (but was this not the case for previous societies?)
  • Expansion of literacy, journalism, history and science (could not any of these have caused a rise in violence?)
Pinker says the changes in human behaviour were environmental rather than genetic (he believes genetic evolution has not occurred since homo sapiens appeared, in defiance of modern epigenetic findings). But is this valid? The social environment is surely the result of human behaviour. So what caused human behaviour to change? Here I believe Pinker and other materialist psychologists who think we are neurologically hard wired are stuck. The only way a materialist can attempt to explain the improving morality is by continuing genetic evolution. And why do our genetics change?

 It is my own belief that our nature, with its awareness of good and evil, is evolving spiritually over the ages and that Christian influence itself, where it is not forbidden or distorted for power purposes, has evolved and continues to evolve, with ups and downs, in dialogue with our Creator.

Whatever the reasons for the world being a better place I thank Steven Pinker for the good news.  But there are dangers to be aware of.

In the twentieth century there have been signs of a reverse. Wherever societies have been without a belief in a transcendental deity a human one has sprung up in its place in times of hardship: Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) in China, Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia. These three people were collectively responsible for around 100 million deaths and perhaps ten times that number of ruined lives. Russia even today is suffering a profound identity crisis after 70 years of enforced atheism, with Putin being turned into a god as faith in the real one continues to be undermined.

The socio-economic system in Europe and America is built on sand, a giant Tower of Babel. I leave to your imagination what might happen if it collapses and a significant proportion of people do not even pay lip service to human decency. Hopefully the financial system can be restructured before it is broken down by debt.

We also have to be aware that while most of us are more humane, the future of humanity could be at the mercy of violent, power-seeking minorities should the wrong technology get into their hands.  

This is a central theme of my book.

Author, 2077 AD