Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

– Albert Einstein

Perhaps Albert Einstein said this.   It seems like a worthy ideal.  Except it really doesn’t work out.  At all.

Here are just a few straightforward, well known concepts that don’t give up to simple explanations even though we all assume they do.

e = mc^2



1+1 = 2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica (300+ pages of proof required)

this is the color red


Simple explanations are usually very broad strokes and at a minimum only indicative of what might be going on.  Any serious and remotely accurate explanation about anything is nuanced, open ended and will inevitably be amended in the future.

There’s pressure in this culture, in the US, to make everything simple.  This devotion to simplicity is a trap and often a very dangerous one.  It rears its head in politics, business, social situations, religion and pretty much every other facet of our culture.

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A variety of thinkers and resources seem to converge on some fundamental ideas around existence, knowledge, perception, learning and computation.   (Perhaps I have a confirmation bias and have only found what I was primed to find).


Kurt Godel articulated and proved what I believe to be the most fundamental idea of all, the Incompleteness Theorem.   This theorem along with analog variants in the Halting Problem and other aspects of complexity theory provides us the notion that there is a formal limit to what we can know.   And by “to know” I mean it in the Leibnizen sense of perfect knowledge (scientific fact with logical proof, total knowledge).   Incompleteness tells us even with highly abstract, specialized formal systems there will always be some statement WITHIN that system that is true but cannot be proved. This is fundamental.


It means that no matter how much mathematical or computational or systematic logic we work out in the world there are just some statements/facts/ideas that are true but cannot be proven to be true.   As the name of the theorem suggests, though it’s mathematical meaning isn’t quite this, our effort in formalizing knowledge will remain incomplete.   There’s always something just out of reach.


It is also a strange fact that one can prove incompleteness of a system and yet not prove trivial statements within these incomplete formal systems.


Godel’s proof and approach to figuring this out is based on very clever re-encoding of formal systems laid out by Betrand Russell and A Whitehead.   This re-encoding of the symbols of math and language has been another fundamental thread we find through out human history.   One of the more modern thinkers that goes very deep into this symbolic aspect of thinking is Douglas Hofstadter, a great writer and gifted computer and cognitive scientist.   It should come as no surprise that Hofstadter found inspiration in Godel, as so many have. Hofstadter has spent a great many words on the idea of strange loops/self-reference and re-encodings of self-referential systems/ideas.


But before the 20th century Leibniz and many other philosophical, artistic, and mathematical thinkers had already started laying the groundwork around the idea that thinking (and computation) is a building up of symbols and associations between symbols.   Of course, probably most famously was Descartes in coining “I think, therefore I am.”   This is a deliciously self-referential, symbolic expression that you could spend centuries on. (and we have!)


Art’s “progression” has shown that we do indeed tend to express ourselves symbolically. It was only in more modern times when “abstract art” became popular that artist began to specifically avoid overt representation via more or less realistic symbols.   Though this obsession with abstraction turns out to be damn near impossible to pull off, as Robert Irwin from 1960 on demonstrated with his conditional art.   In his more prominent works he did almost the minimal gesture to an environment (a wall, room, canvas) and found that almost no matter what, human perception still sought and found symbols within the slightest gesture.   He continues to this day to produce conditional art that seeks to have pure perception without symbolic overtones at the core of what he does. Finding that it’s impossible seems, to me, to be line with Godel and Leibniz and so many other thinkers.


Wittgenstein is probably the most extreme example of finding that we simply can’t make sense of many things, really, in a philosophical or logical sense by saying or writing ideas.   Literally “one must be silent.”   This is a very crude reading and interpretation of Wittgenstein and not necessarily a thread he carries throughout his works but again it strikes me as being in line with the idea of incompleteness and certainly in line with Robert Irwin. Irwin, again no surprise, spent a good deal time studying Wittgenstein and even composed many thoughts about where he agreed or disagreed with Wittgenstein.   My personal interpretation is that Irwin has done a very good empirical job of demonstrating a lot of Wittgensteinien ideas. Whether that certifies any of it as the truth is an open question. Though I would argue that saying/writing things is also symbolic and picture-driven so I don’t think there’s as clear a line as Wittgenstein drew.   As an example, Tupper’s Formula is an insanely loopy mathematical function that draws a graph of itself.


Wolfram brings us a more modern slant in the Principle of Computational Irreducibility.   Basically it’s the idea that any system with more than very simple behavior is not reducible to some theory, formula or program that can predict it. The best we could do in trying to fully know a complex system is to watch it evolve in all its aspects.   This is sort of a reformulation of the halting problem in such a way that we might more easily imagine other systems beholden to this reality.   The odd facet of such a principle is that one cannot really prove with any reliability which systems are computational irreducible.   (P vs NP, etc problems in computer science are akin to this).


Chaitin, C. Shannon, Aaronson, Philip Glass, Max Richter, Brian Eno and many others also link into this train of thought….


Why do I think these threads of thought above (and many others I omit right now) matter at all?


Nothing less than everything.   The incompleteness or irreducibility or undecidability of complex systems (and even seemingly very simple things are often far more complex than we imagine!) is the fundamental feature of existence that suggests why, when there is something, there’s something rather than nothing. For there to be ANYTHING there must be something outside of full description. This is the struggle.   If existence were reducible to a full description there would be no end to that reduction until there literally was nothing.


Weirder, perhaps still, is the idea is the Principal of Computational Equivalence and Computational Universality.   Basically any system that can compute universally can emulate any other universal computer.   There are metaphysical implications here that if I’m being incredibly brash suggest that anything complex enough can and/is effectively anything else that is complex.   Again tied to the previous paragraph of thought I suggest that if there’s anything at all, everything is everything else.   This is NOT an original thought nor is it as easily dismissed as whacky weirdo thinking.   (Here’s a biological account of this thinking from someone that isn’t an old dead philosopher…)


On a more pragmatic level I believe the consequences of irreducibility suggest why computers and animals (any complex systems) learn the way they learn.   Because there is no possible way to have perfect knowledge complex systems can only learn based on versions of Probably Approximately Correct (Operant Conditioning, Neural Networks, Supervised Learning, etc are all analytic and/or empirical models of learning that suggest complex systems learn through associations rather than executing systematic, formalized, complete knowledge)   Our use of symbolics to think is a result of irreducibility.   Lacking infinite energy to chase the irreducible, symbolics (probably approximately correct representations) must be used by complex systems to learn anything at all.   (this essay is NOT a proof of this, this is just some thoughts, unoriginal ones, that I’m putting out to prime myself to actually draw out empirical or theoretical evidence that this is right…)


A final implication to draw out is that of languages and specifically of computer languages.   To solve ever more interesting and useful problems and acquire more knowledge (of an endless growing reservoir of knowledge) our computer languages (languages of thought) must become more and more rich symbolically.   Our computers, while we already make them emulate our more rich symbolic thinking, need to have symbolics more deeply embedded in their basic operations.   This is already the trend in all these large clusters powering the internet and the most popular software.


As a delightful concluding, yet open unoriginal thought from this book by Flusser comes to mind…   Does Writing Have a Future suggests that ever more rich symbolics than the centuries old mode of writing and reading will not only be desired but inevitable as we attempt to communicate in more vast networks. (which, won’t surprising, is very self-referential if you extend the thought to an idea of “computing with pictures” which really isn’t different than computing with words or other representations of bits that represent other representation of bits…)   I suppose all of this comes down to seeing which symbolic prove to be more efficient in the total scope of computation.   And whatever interpretation we assign to efficient is, by the very theme of this essay, at best, an approximation.

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There is truth.   Truth exists.  There is a truth to this existence, this universe.   We might lack the language or the pictorial tools or the right theory and models, but there is truth.

What is this truth?  what is truth?

Things exist, we exist, there is a speed of light, the square root of two is irrational, the halting problem is undecidable, there are abstract and real relations between abstract and real things.

The truth is a something that, yes, has a correspondence to the facts.  That is not the end of it though (despite the pragmatic claims of some!).   The truth has a correspondence to the facts because it is true!   The facts HAVE to line up against a truth.   The truth exists outside of specific events or objects.   A number has an existence, if even only as an idea, and it has relations to other things.  And the description of that number and those relations ARE truth.  A computer program has its truth whether you run the program or not.  If you were to run it it would halt or not halt, that potential is in the computer program from the beginning, it doesn’t arise from it’s execution.

On Proof and not Proof but Use

We can prove these truths and many more.  We can prove through English words or through mathematical symbolism or computer programs.   Our proofs, put into these formats, can and are often wrong and set to be revised over and over until there are no holes.   No matter how fragile a proof and the act of providing proof the truth is still not diminished.  It is still there, whether we know it or not and whether we can account for it or not.  And the truth begs proof.  It begs to be known in its fullness and to be trusted as truth to build up to other truths.


Proof isn’t always possible – in fact we’ve learned from issues in computability and incompleteness – that complete provability of all truth is impossible.   This beautiful truth itself further ensures that the truth will always beckon us and will never be extinguished through an endless assault.  There is always more to learn.

The unprovable truths we can still know and use.  We can use them without knowing they are true.  We do this all the time, all day long.   How many of us know the truth of how physics works? or how are computers do what they do?   and does that prevent their use – the implementation of that truth towards more truth?


Why defend truth?  Why publish an essay exalting truth and championing the search for truth? Does the truth need such a defense?

Being creatures with intelligence – that is, senses and a nervous system capable of advanced pattern recognition – our ultimate survival depends on figuring out what’s true and what isn’t.   If too many vessels (people!) for the gene code chase falsehoods the gene code isn’t likely to survive too many generations.   Life, and existence itself, depends on the conflict between entropy and shape, chaos and order, stillness and motion, signal and noise.  The truth is the abstract idea that arises from this conflict and life is the real, tangible thing born from that truth.  We learn truths – which processing of this thing into that thing that keep us alive, we live to learn these things. In a completely entropic existence there is nothing.   Without motion there is nothing.   In total chaos there is nothing.   It is the slightest change towards shape, order and signal that we find the seeds of truth and the whole truth itself.  The shaping of entropy is the truth.   Life is embodiment of truth forming.

So I can’t avoid defending the truth.  I’m defending life.  My life.  In defending it, I’m living it.  And you, in whatever ways you live, are defending the truth and your relation to other things.  If I’m alive I must seek and promote truth.   While death isn’t false, chasing falsehood leads to death or rather non existence.   Could there ever be truth to a statement like “I live falsely” or “I sought the false.”   There’s nothing to seek.  Falsehood is easy, it’s everywhere.  It’s everything that isn’t the truth.  To seek it is to exert no effort (to never grow) and to never gain – falsity has no value.  Living means growing, growing requires effort, only the truth, learning of the truth demands effort.

How do we best express and ask about truth?

There’s a great deal of literature on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics to describe the world.  There’s also a great deal of literature, and growing by the day, suggesting that mathematics isn’t the language of the way the universe works.   Both views I find to be rather limited.   Mathematics and doing math is about certain rigor in describing things and their relations.   It’s about forming and reforming ways to observe and question ideas, objectives, motion, features…. It’s about drawing a complete picture and all the reasons it should and shouldn’t be so.   Being this way, this wonderful thing we call mathematics, there is no way mathematics couldn’t be effective at truth expression.   Ok, for those that want to nit pick, I put “computation” in with mathematics.  Describing (writing) computer programs and talking about their features and functions and observing their behavior is doing math, it is mathematics.

Art has very similar qualities.   Art doesn’t reduce beyond what should be reduced.   It is the thing itself.  It asks questions by shifting perspectives and patterns.  It produces struggle.  Math and art are extremely hard to separate when done to their fullest.  Both completely ask the question and refuse to leave it at that.   Both have aspects of immediate impression but also have a very subtle slow reveal.  Both require both the artist and the audience, the mathematician and the student – there is a tangible, necessary part of the truth that comes directly from the interaction between the parties, not simply the artifacts or results themselves.

Other ways of expressing and thinking are valuable and interesting.  That is, biology and sociology and political science, and so on….. these are all extremely practical implementations or executions of sub aspects of the truth and truth expression.  They are NOT the most fundamental nor the most fruitful overall.   Practiced poorly and they lead to falsehoods or at best mild distractions from the truth.  Practiced well and they very much improve the mathematics and art we do.

What does any of this get us?  What value is there in this essay?

This I cannot claim anything more about than what I have above.   For example, I don’t know how to specifically tell someone that the truth of square root of 2 is irrational has x,y,z value to them.  It certainly led to a fruitful exploration and exposition of a great deal of logic and mathematical thinking that led to computation and and and.   But that doesn’t even come close to explaining value or what talking about its value today, in this essay, matters.

My only claim would be that truth matters and if there is any truth in this essay then this essay matters.  How that matter comes to fruition I don’t know.   That it comes to any more fruition than my pounding out this essay after synthesizing many a conversation and many books on the subject and writing some computer programs and doing math is probably just a very nice consequence.

The truth’s purpose is itself, that it is true.

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Apparently a lot of people want to live forever.

Last week I read an article about cryonics company, Alcor, and their founder.  Apparently he passed away. A couple of years ago I read the book “Frozen”.   (Alcor has been fighting that book for some time.)   I’ve also read / watched stuff from Aubrey De Grey and all the stuff from Ray Kurzweil.   I’ve had conversations face to face with “singularists”.   And, of course, the efforts to get humans to mars I watch with extreme curiosity.

All of these are modern equivalents of the search for the fountain of youth, religious salvation and belief in the afterlife.

Do you, dear reader, want to live forever?  Do you want to preserve some specific way of life, your way of life, humanity?   It’s maddening to me that a large number of humans want to make some basic version of this existence go on forever.   It seems insane to me to want to promote this specific way of life considering how little we actually know and how frequently we kill each other and the planet.

Personally I’d find it miserable to live forever or to be reanimated in the future with my current form.   One lifetime, as a human, is enough.   A couple of years ago I read this book, Forever, by Pete Hamill.  It depressed me a great deal.   The main character lives forever.  He watches many generations and friends live, suffer and die.   All the joy and up moments were dwarfed by knowing it was an endless cycle – living forever wasn’t all there was!  It was a similar lesson I pulled from Man from Earth and Moon.  Maybe I need to read and watch more hopeful views of living forever.

Chasing immortality strikes me more as fear than some aspirational ideal.  If not the fear of death or regret over something not done in the life time, it must be some ridiculous belief that one or humanity SHOULD live forever and promote this particular formation of life.   Whether it’s fear or some anthropocentric imperative the pursuit of immortality seems like a big fat cop out.

People die.  Species go extinct.  We have limited time and resources at our disposal.  We should stop looking for infinite sources of energy and life and start learning to live better (in whatever way you take that) with less.   Stop damaging other things in pursuit of a cop out.  It’s a waste.  In fact, it appears to me to be a HORRIBLE strategy for ultimate survival of whatever it is we’re trying to protect.

But is the pull of survival of genes, the body, the species so great we can’t help ourselves but to spread the human and our own gospel?  I don’t think so.  Thousands of other species of life execute a variety of other strategies that don’t seem so damn selfish and fated.   Insects, fish and the dinosaurs have about 100x+ the longevity as humanity and as far as history suggests, none of the creatures in those phylums chased immortality.

Could “intelligence” be at the root of this?  Hard to give a truthful argument for this idea.   I conjecture that it’s actually a horrible side effect of “intelligence” in the same vein as the illusion of free will.   Intelligence conjures these things up by accident and they seem to fit conveniently into a world view that keeps the intelligent being going – being fruitful and multiplying.   It might also be the case that this is an evolutionary mutation where a strategy extinguishes itself.

We’ll never know… or maybe some will find a path to immortality and they will come to know.  or maybe we’re actually creating these immortal versions of ourselves in all these Web based things we keep inventing.  If any of that comes to pass I hope whatever carries on has a far better grasp of reality and what’s worth carrying on.

And please oh please don’t let immortality be born out of freezing our heads and reanimating them in some weird duct taped, half baked future.  It’s just creepy.

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If you believed you knew the future your behavior would…?

At first blush you might think Flashforward, the book or the tv show, is scifi fluff. Actually though it presents an interesting question about beliefs and behavior. If one believes in a destiny does one do things to make it come about? (Its not about whether there really is destiny…) do we really behave, or justify our behaviors, in a self fulfilling kind of way?

I think we do to a certain extent and its often very subtle and very powerful. Infact, there are many experiments that deal with this. The famous milgrim experiments come to mind.

This effect permeats American culture. From manifest destiny to “yes we can”….

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Happy 2010.  After several lengthy discussions over the holidays with my Mom I thought it might be interesting to generate an online Mother/Son debate to discuss the Big Issues in life.  Note: This post is the first time my mom will have heard of this idea but I suspect she’ll embrace this and start producing her viewpoints within 24 hours 😉

The Mother Son Debates will illuminate the differences in values, ideas, hopes and approaches to life between my mom and I.  Perhaps in putting these thoughts out there we might learn more about our respective generations, our social networks and the contexts of our own value formations.  We might also change some of our own view points in the process.  Oh, and yes, we’ll have a lot of fun!

Topics We’ll Debate:

  • Health Care Reform – why reform? who should pay? what’s the end result we want?
  • Free Will – do we have free will?
  • God – current concept of God? is there a God?
  • Education – what works? what doesn’t?
  • Designer Genetics – should we design our children?  redesign ourselves?
  • Technology Enhanced Human Biology – cyborgs? intelligence enhancers?
  • Determinism – is it all determined?
  • Global Warming – is it real? does it matter?
  • Human Rights – what are human rights?
  • Universal Truth – are there any universal truths?
  • Personal Responsibility – who’s responsible for everything?
  • War and Peace – is there a positive to war? is war necessary? is there an acceptable cost of war?
  • Generational Shifts – does every generation think the incoming generation has great challenges? eroding values? is not ready to take on the challenges? is the older generation a has been? old ideas? outdated? technophobic?

First topic will be Health Care Reform, as I know that will get my mom into the debate! 😉

The format is simple.  We’ll start with a one paragraph statement of our positions in one blog post.  The debate will happen via comments and follow on blog posts.  Everyone is free to join in the discussion.

Quoting old dead white guys is allowed but is greatly frowned upon.

About Donna Smith, My Mom:

Photo by Robin HollandDonna Smith is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Colorado College with a degree in history. Her journalism career includes work as a stringer for NEWSWEEK magazine. She has been honored by the Associated Press Managing Editors with 15 regional awards from 2004-2006 and by the Inland Press Association’s top honor in 2006 for community-based journalism. Since 2007, she has co-chaired the Progressive Democrats of America’s national “Healthcare Not Warfare” campaign, and she has so far spoken in 41 states and the District of Columbia about single-payer healthcare reform.

Donna continues an active writing and speaking career, and now blogs and writes op-ed pieces about the health care crisis. She also is the founder of American Patients United, a non-profit group educating citizens about health care reform on the national level. She also works as a national single-payer health care advocate and community organizer for the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee. Donna and Larry now live in Washington, DC, and they have six children and 14 grandchildren.

About Me

You can ready the far-less-impressive-for-the purposes-of-intellectual-debate background in the About Russell tab of this blog.

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This article on estate taxes came across my email inbox today, from WSJ:

Under current laws in effect until the end of this year, the size of the exemption is $3.5 million per individual or up to $7 million per couple. The tax is slated to disappear entirely on Jan 1.

But estate planning in 2010 will be complicated by a new twist: a complex tax on capital gains, levied at death, that will affect a broader swath of taxpayers. The estate tax is scheduled to return in 2011 at a 55% rate with an exemption of slightly more than $1 million.

The looming lapse of the estate tax is presenting some families with unprecedented ethical quandaries.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”

Let’s change the question a bit.  Can we calculate the price of another day of life now?  How much estate cash is at risk by expiring before Jan 1?   Probably could come up with a dollar figure for the estate holder and the medical team keeping folks alive.

Where does all this fit in some bigger sense of human nature?

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