Earthrise

“The other thing. . . was that this little spot, the Bahamas lowland, was a turquoise jewel that you could see all the way to the moon. . . . It was like it was illuminated, like a piece of opal.  And you could see that all the way to the moon.  And I kept being amazed about that”.   Bill Anders,  Apollo 8

Imagine being behind a rock, on The Sea of Tranquility, on the moon, for these past 3.5 billion years. Off in your horizon would be this blue-white planet with patches of brown.  Over these years, you would notice these patches of brown coalesce and then separate, you would see white patches come and go, even for awhile covering the entire planet – “snow ball earth”.  You wouldn’t be able to see the proteinaceous sea congeal into life, in the blue, and then come ashore and then proliferate, but you would notice increasing green.  You might happen to notice, some 65 million years ago, a meteor strike the planet, clouding up the blue and white, and green, but you wouldn’t be able to know that this collision would set the stage for small mammals to evolve into primates, and eventually into self-conscious, self-cultivating beings, humans.  You wouldn’t know that Kublai Khan, after conquering all of China, failed to conquer Japan.  You would, however, eventually note a faint suggestion of lighted areas, particularly along blue margins, due to the intentional harnessing of energy into light by humankind, although you wouldn’t realize the profound human global proliferation.

Then, on July 20, 1969, suddenly, out of the black sky you would notice a shiny, flaming object descending towards you, with blinking lights, and gold and silver lining.   It would land with a slight bounce and puff of dust, and then would extinguish its flame.  A bit later, two objects would emerge, slowly descend, and move around, digging and gesturing.  They would plant a flag, go back inside, and then later, with a new burst of flame, ascend and disappear.

You would have witnessed a singular event, and would then know that somehow, in the silent black of the immense universe of stars, and in this triangular neighborhood of the sun, the moon, and the earth, self-organizing systems of organic complexity managed to create non-organic systems of complexity that could carry them across empty space and bring them to see for themselves the silent, vast heavens they had for so long imagined, and allow them to look back on their planet and see, in one small view, where everyone has ever lived and died, and where all of any known history has happened.

You would know that they will still live with the mystery of it all, but they will have at last come to know, for sure, that this mystery is. . . . real.

when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the surface of the moon, I cried.  And if everybody had ever told me I was going to do that, I’d have said, “no, you’re out of your mind.” Alan Shepard, Apollo 14

Contradiction Hitchens

If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”  [Yvonne Hitchens]   Hitch 22, A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was a middle class Brit, but received an upper class education.  Perhaps this explains his ‘contradictions’.  A part of him would be unable to forget that everyday people want what his upper class Oxford friends take for granted: security, freedom, prosperity, and leisure.  He would know the merits of the bourgeoise.

He is a life-long Leftist, a champion of international socialism, a former Trotskyite, now a ‘conservative’ Marxist (his words), a professed agnostic.  He holds Henry Kissinger guilty of war crimes, wants the Pope brought before a grand jury, considers Bill Clinton a fraud, and supports a purge of Religion from society. He is a celebrated ‘public intellectual’.

But, . . . but, contradictions:  he has supported the forceful overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Iraq War of George W. Bush, a near unpardonable sin amongst his brethren.

I can identify the moment when I decided to come off the fence and to admit that I felt that I had been cheating on my dues

I thank whatever powers there may be for the power of the United states of America.  Without that reserve strength, the sheer mass of its arsenal in combination with the innovative maneuvers of its special forces, the tyrants and riffraff of the world would possess an undeserved sense of impunity.”

An engaging, entertaining wit, an erudite and humorous conversationalist with a John Lennon voice, Hitchens is an honest intellectual, following integrity. . . even when it leads to self-refutation. Christopher Lasch comes to mind.  One is just never sure how much the self-refutation is realized.

Contradictions, well stated, but held, side by side, by an incisive mind are puzzling, but also informative.  One is pushed to think deeper. Hitchens seems to have an awareness of the imperative of having convictions, of believing in something, and of being steadfast.  He has come to admire the American soldier.  He seems to realize, rare perhaps among his compatriots, how principled Leftism is utterly dependent on strongly defended civil freedoms, and that those liberties require not just legal and domestic protection, but also, in the larger world, military protection.

His friends are obsessed with the errors of colonialism, and imperialism, and inequality, but Hitchens seems able to say:  compared to what?

He owns up that his leftist friends haven’t much admired his hero George Orwell, didn’t much rally (and still do not) to the defense of his friend Salman Rushdie, that even Susan Sontag had to emphasize that communism was ‘itself a variant‘ of fascism, and that the Reader’s Digest has been a more useful guide to communist reality than the Nation. . !

Alas, with his book God is not Great he has aligned himself with prominent, avowed atheists. How can someone as thoughtful and well-read as he find that religion causes tribalism instead of vice versa? Hasn’t he read The Lord of the Flies?

For Profit

In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell provides a clear treatment of the economic principles that underlie capitalist economics.  First he explains the fundamental mechanisms of capitalism, then he shows how even educated people tend to misunderstand these basic concepts. This book is not just an introductory course in economics, it is an explanation of its counter-intuitive logic.

As Sowell defines it:

Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources that have alternative uses.

that have alternative uses” – that is the key. Most people understand that capitalism is driven by profits. Producers are motivated to create companies and sell products because they can retain the difference between production costs and the price the customer pays.  And customers will pay a higher price for products that are more valuable to them. That is simple enough. But Sowell explains further that producers compete with each other for inputs, the materials needed to make their products.  To maximize profit, producers seek the lowest possible input costs, and so they use inputs, whenever possible, with the least valuable alternative use.  They are less in demand and therefore lower in cost. This creates efficiency in the utilization of resources. The profit motive thus drives the match of  the value of resources with the value the customer seeks.  More valuable resources get used to produce what customers value most.

There is an all-to-common characterization of profit as a selfish cheating of the customer, motivated by ‘greed’.  With Dr. Sowell’s reasoning, profit is a moral pursuit. A business that does not earn profit is needlessly employing scarce resources that could be used more effectively in some other way.  The story of profit capitalism, then, is products being made the same or better, but with less resource inputsdoing more with less. A firm either produces a higher quality product using the same cost of inputs, or makes the same product using lower cost inputs.  Resources get utilized efficiently, desired products are produced, needs are satisfied, fortunes are made, and wealth is created.  And all with price and profit, not control and coercion.

Sowell is frustrated that the advantages that drive a capitalist economy are strangely dismissed, often, by the very people who enjoy its fruits.  The failures of controlled economies should drive us to embrace the benefits of capitalist economics and profit.

The trend of the last century is encouraging:

The twentieth century began with high hopes for replacing the competition of the marketplace by a more efficient and more humane economy, planned and controlled by government in the interests of the people…But the most decisive evidence for the efficiency of the marketplace was that even those who were philosophically opposed to capitalism turned back toward it after seeing what happens when industry and commerce operate without the guidance of prices, profits and losses.


Do not Teach

The more you can know, the more you can learn”   E. D Hirsch, Jr.

American public education have declined progressively, and undeniably, despite the massive funding of the academic education establishment. This decline is so broad and profound as to be near unbelievable.

For E. D. Hirsch, Jr. the chief cause of this, amazingly so, is the driving academic theory of education that has come to prevail: the theory known as ‘constructivism‘. Developed from the ideas of Rousseau, and John Dewey, and the philosophical school of Pragmatism, this theory, in essence, concludes that education should not teach. Rather, education should facilitate. A child’s natural development, self-esteem, and skills are to be nudged, but specific content, memory, practice, and factual learning are not to be emphasized. Independent exploration is preferable to directed learning. A teacher is to help students ‘learn how to learn’ rather than prescribe what to learn. There is to be no standard curriculum.  There is to be no instruction. Casual reading will teach reading just as well as serious reading. Skills will develop independent of content.

E.D. Hirsch explains how this isn’t so. “Literacy requires the early and continued transmission of specific information”. One learns the use and meaning of words and ideas by matching real thoughts and real ideas with real meanings and with real words. Learning is the actual incremental mastering of real and specific content.

“Factual knowledge that is found in books is key to reading comprehension”.

Thus, alas, youth today are going to school, but are not, in fact, being taught.  Knowledge testing documents this all too clearly. We are falling behind much of the rest of the world. Well-dressed thirty year olds think France won the Civil War

The very advantage of effective culture has been for teaching future generations the hard-earned knowledge they would otherwise have to learn at unnecessary repeat cost. Our constructivist education specifically and quite purposely refuses to provide this advantage.

There is disguised politics here, for there is the belief that directed learning and a prescribed curriculum perpetuate social and political inequality. Not for nothing did John Dewey and others see education as a way to bypass politics to effect change. Bill Ayers, the Weatherman radical, is a Professor of Education.

One can be forgiven for noticing that those whose job is to teach embrace a theory that says they shouldn’t teach.

How do we tell the working class and middle class that their taxes pay for a philosophy of teaching that says to . . . not teach?

Nietzsche Madness

Acknowledgement of the death of God is a bomb that blows up many things, not just oppressive traditionalism, but also values like compassion and the equality of human dignity on which support for a tolerant liberal political order is based. This then is the Nietzschean dead end from which Western philosophy has still not emerged.”   Francis Fukayama, New York Times Review of Books, April 11, 2010.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a savant intellectual, a genius learner, a tenured Classics professor by age 24, a prodigy of learning what is already known.

One thinks of Joseph Knecht, the character who plays the Glass Bead Game in the Hermann Hesse sci-fi novel about academia: Magister Ludi. In this book, a game is played by special minds in which all forms of art and knowledge are codified into a form of a musical/logical/lexical informatic with which the players competitively uncover new syntheses of insight.  Hesse may have had Nietzsche in mind. Nietzsche was an academic philosopher, his entire life was reading, writing and thinking. He never married or had children. He came to believe that humans should be ruled by . . . . academic philosophers. For Nietzsche, an individual’s philosophical journey was to be his and everyone’s God. He wrote theatrically, with anger, condemnation, and provocation, if not hysteria.

Nietzsche scorned utilitarian and bourgeois morality. He saw human nature as Darwinian. He loved to describe the ‘will to power’ hidden in the actions of history, a motivation he found to be greater than survival. Thinking Men take us to something greater, he says, do not resist this. The strong should triumph. Exceptional people (like him) should flourish. Good versus evil is the rationalization of the weak. The notion of universal objective truth will be found wrong, and man will come to name his own truth. God is dead, and the Ubermensch, the Superman, will arise.

Nietzsche himself was continually sickly, and suffered increasing mental imbalance. His final breakdown is reported to have occurred after he witnessed the whipping of a horse.  He supposedly then ran to the horse to try to protect it, throwing his arms around its neck, and then collapsed into incoherence.

Mania with psychosis is strongly suggested. His writing and thought is megalomaniacal, racing, and grandiose. He came to see inorganic matter as having ‘motivation’. Thinking has magical power, intuition is supernatural.

In Nietzschean thought there are the inklings of Freudianism, fascism, communism, post modernism, and evolutionary psychology. He provides flamboyant cover for academic chauvinism and condescension, for intellectual elitism, for the cult of the Great Leader.

Academics love him to this day. For Cornel West, and many others, Neitzsche’s works are the most treasured. For those that gravitate to deconstruction, always parsing to uncover and reject what is wrong, Nietzsche invites them along, into tangles of creativity and corruption, idealism and nihilism. We have Francis Fukayama’s dead end.

The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

This biography of Paul Dirac, the Nobel winning British physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics, is foremost a mental biography. It is the story of an intuitive, mathematical mind that, using abstract thinking alone, correctly predicted the existence of anti-matter. He did no experiments.

The author chronicles Dirac’s social behavior, his impact on others, his emotional blindness, his insistence on mathematical and theoretic purity.  Farmelo makes the case that Paul Dirac had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.  He was mathematically brilliant, but lacked social intelligence –  the ability to ‘read’ other people as the complex emotional beings that they are, which is the hallmark of Asperger syndrome.  Weak social intelligence can seem like callousness.  Dirac’s lack of personal connection seemed to be on purpose, and people were offended and would think him mean. When someone like Dirac is also known to be very smart, what else can explain his manner? Dirac just did not give the personal regard that people seek. He did marry and have children, but his wife came to be very frustrated, and his children did not fare well. He loved watching Cher, but had no other interest in music.

People like Dirac can seem to be like sociopaths, but poor social intelligence is not sociopathy.  Sociopaths often have a very strong social intelligence, indeed a powerful ability to understand what others are feeling, what others want. This is what makes them often skillful manipulators. Their lack of empathy allows them to avoid guilt as they use others. They can convey warmth and concern, all the while acting viciously.

This was not Dirac.  He could eventually understand people, after using deliberate and careful perception, logic and analysis.  And when he did, he could be caring and loyal.

His contributions to physics were substantial.  He solved many of the important issues of early quantum mechanics, and won a Nobel Prize, but his later years were not very productive. He insisted on abstract mathematical beauty and was unable or unwilling to engage the rough promise of new experimental results.

Social intelligence uses a great amount of mental capacity, and may be the chief reason our brain’s evolved so large.  Weak social mentation can liberate other mental talents, free up ‘disc space’ for other types of mentation, such as visual or spatial thinking.  This is the story of the savant, of people like Dirac.

Dirac was lucky to arrive in Niels Bohr’s time. Bohr’s genius was leadership.  He had a great managerial intelligence, even though he was a clumsy speaker and writer. He and his loving and intelligent wife fostered an intensely supportive environment for gifted and varied personalities, some with social intelligence and empathy, and some without, Nobel minds like Schroedinger, Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, and Heisenberg. Even Bohr’s son would eventually win a Nobel Prize.

Under Bohr, these great minds unravelled, in a short few years, the mysteries of chemistry and nuclear forces and brought human knowledge to the very edge of what is knowable, a place we have yet to surpass.

What is Information?

“In the beginning was the Word”, The Gospel according to John  1.1

Energy has been our most powerful explanatory concept, explaining events in the physical world more comprehensively than any other entity . . . so far.  Leave aside what energy actually is, it is a derived concept, known only by its effects.  No one has actually ever seen energy.

There are other ‘fundamentals’. There is entropy, order, information, and intelligence.  They are all different and yet all related, to energy and to each other.   Somehow they create the cosmos, everything we see and know.  We feel a call for some kind of synthesis.   Information may be the key.

We learn from the early studies of heat energy by Ludwig E. Boltzmann, and his laws of thermodynamics, that not all energy is the same, there is useful energy and there is unuseful energy. Useful energy is creative energy, it can do something, it can perform work.  In the process of doing something, useful energy somehow becomes stagnant, unuseful energy.  This flow from creative to stagnant energy,  from useful energy to unuseful energy, creates our known world.  The difference between useful and unuseful energy is mysterious.  It seems to be information.  Useful energy has information.  Useful energy may be information.

Entropy is a measure of non-useful energy.  High entropy has disorder, low entropy has order. Order is pattern in space and time.  Order has non-randomness.  Non-randomness is information. Low entropy has order and information.  Order and information have useful energy.

There is a paradox about information.  It takes more information to describe something that is more random and has less order, something that contains less information. Something containing more information takes less information to describe.  In some mysterious way, information denotes an efficiency quality. Quality information has more power, more effectiveness, it has more meaning. Quality information has order and pattern, but other also attributes such as symmetry, balance, rhythm. It is aesthetic. Quality information has truth and beauty.  It is artistic.

Even more mysteriously, Quality information creates agency.  The robust interactions of information contained in useful energy is intelligence, which becomes life in evolutionary adaptation in the dimension of time, and becomes consciousness in the perception of time itself.

Rather than being just incidental, information may be integral to the Universe, creator even of matter, IT FROM BIT, in the famous words of the physicist John Wheeler, collaborator of Einstein and Bohr,  discoverer of the black hole.

” IT FROM BIT symbolizes the idea that every item of the phsyical world has at bottom – at a very deep bottom, in most instances – an immaterial source and explanation;  that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this in a participatory universe”. John Wheeler

The computer revolution may be more profound than we even think.

Hayek’s Information

The economy has number. The term “economy” is singular, but its properties emerge from a collection of things which are numerous and diverse.  And it is important that the definition is always tied to its disparate components. When we create statistical aggregates to describe the economy, we lose information, we change the concept into something that is not real.  The economy is not singular.  It is a group, a set, of people, transactions, and ideas.  And the individual distinctness of its components, though unseen by the analyzing scholar, is precisely the quality that matters.

This is Friedrich Hayek’s insight in his famous essay, The Use of Knowledge in Society.

There are two kinds of “knowledge”.  There is the scientist’s knowledge, which seeks to understand the economy comprehensively, and the knowledge of the individual agent, who is uniquely aware of his own circumstances.  The individual’s knowledge is the disparate element, and the scientist’s knowledge is the conjectural, theoretic attempt to understand a complex system as a singular object.

As Hayek explains:

The sort of knowledge with which I have been concerned is knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form.  The statistics which such a central authority would have to use would have to be arrived at precisely by abstracting from minor differences between the things, by lumping together, as resources of one kind, items which differ as regards location, quality, and other particulars, in a way which may never be very significant for the specific decision.

When Hayek uses the word “knowledge”, in today’s vernacular he means “information”.  We know that useful information is condensed, coded, and patterned.  The problem of economic coordination is the problem of transforming information for exchange.  And it is the system of price setting, by the natural mechanism of supply and demand, that achieves this end.

It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as…a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

Thus, the interactions of numerous, disparate, autonomous individuals create economies by responding to supply and demand, communicating with price.  Information is exchanged, but the diverse elements of the economic system are preserved.

Recall that Margaret Thatcher famously said:  “there is no such thing as society”.  Hayek tells us why.  She was concerned that being oriented to  “society” can lead to ignoring citizens.

Hayek’s reasoning shows how aggregated information (the knowledge of the societal planner) doesn’t have relevance to any individual citizen.  The prudent policy maker doesn’t work on “society”, but on the liberty, safety, and opportunity of the individual.

Modal Consciousness

Zen Mind is described as a state of egolessness, devoid of self consciousness.   One can utilize this state of mind, Zen shows us, in archery, martial arts, and calligraphy.  Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herrigel, is the short classic story of a westerner’s attempt to achieve Zen Mind and become a skilled archer. During the author’s eight years of training he is continuously redirected from trying to hit the target.  The arrow should release itself, you see, like a tree branch that bends to release a load of snow.  One doesn’t aim.  Without ego the arrow finds the target.  Zen Masters blow out candles with their arrows at 80 yards, blindfolded.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of LIfe, by Alison Gopnik, reviewed by Michael Greenbergin the New York Review of Books, March 10, 2010, describes what the author has discovered about human consciousness before age 6.  Children this age, she reports, have “lantern” consciousness as opposed to “spotlight” consciousness, which develops soon thereafter.  In “lantern” consciousness one does not have a sense of being a self observer as one is having experience, one is just “taking it all in”, with no intentionally focused attention.  This is likened to what an adult experiences watching a movie, immersed in the unfolding visual and auditory experience, with a suspended sense of self.

In “spotlight” consciousness, after age six, we develop the focused intention of the self-conscious observing self.  We direct our ‘show’.  We have a sense of me looking to see what I seek to see.  We have ego, filtering and directing our experience.

As adults we seem to be able to do both “lantern” and “spotlight” consciousness. This is empowering, and maddening.  Zen shows us that suspending “spotlight” for “lantern” consciousness can take some effort and training – it doesn’t seem natural – but it can be quite beneficial for perceptual and motor tasks.  Having unattached attention, any golf professional will tell you, refines skill and improves ability to perform body kinesthetic and hand-eye movements.

“Lantern” consciousness seems more like animal consciousness.  “Spotlight” consciousness may be uniquely human.  Why did it evolve?   Perhaps “spotlight” consciousness is for social living.  Having me at the center of my perception may be very important for negotiating the interpersonal landscape.  The social environment is every bit as perilous for humans as the predator environment is for animals.  Human survival depends on successful membership in groups.

“Lantern” consciousness may be more effective for acts in the natural world.  Animals hunt, move, and fight very well.

This duality can be maddening.  Our consciousness can shift.  This is not fully manageable.  We choke in sports, freeze on stage, lose our golf swing, suddenly forget what we were going to say.

Something or Something else

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Steven Weinberg.

Science seems to have the unspoken goal of finding explanations that have no arbitrary element.   Nothing can be a certain way, when it could as well be another way.  Why it isn’t always has to be explained.   The result is that scientific explanations require that purely random elements somehow build the non-random world we know.

This is proving difficult.  The great mathematician, Kurt Gødel, proved that all logical systems require a ‘given’, an assumption that is unprovable by the logical system itself.  Reality seems so far to be the same.

Sean Carroll, in “From eternity to here“, 2010, tells us that the most important and baffling ‘given’ in our Universe is the unidirectional nature of time.  He traces the irreversibility of time to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy can only stay the same or increase.  Entropy is the measure of disorder of a system.  All of the other fundamental laws of physics seem to be time reversible.  Somehow, time reversible processes create time that is irreversible.  Carroll ventures to explain this.

Changing low entropy into higher entropy is the dynamic that creates our knowable world, the evolution of life, the existence of stars and planets, and galaxies, the unidirection of time.   And so entropy must have started low, but this is very improbable and therefore it must be explained, why didn’t it start high?

From eternity to here” gives us a wonderful tour of the advanced science that is grappling with this question.  We are presented the concepts behind  mathematical equations that have been found to predict the behavior of the universe.  In something like a parlor trick, science theory tells that what exists is what is probable. Anything can exist, however, no matter how improbable, given the immense time and space of the universe.  Infinity solves equations, Infinity has happened, yet the universe is only 14 billion years old. Empty space can have virtual particles that improbably, but actually, pop in and out of existence, and nothing can escape a black hole, except, improbably, something does. Probability helps explain reality, except when it doesn’t.  Cause and effect exists, except when it doesn’t.

Mr. Carroll is left engagingly unable to explain how entropy started low, and time is irreversible.  We seem to be left with a given.

Most people can accept many if not most scientific explanations, but most people, unlike Steven Weinberg, can’t really feel that it is all pointless.  There just seems like there is something when there could have been something else.