Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah and the Nephilim

The new "Noah" movie has people talking about "Nephilim" (the rock monsters in the movie), which are supposed to be fallen angels which have taken on physical form. This may seem like the most fantastic part of an extraordinarily far-fetched plot, but I have been persuaded that it is probably the correct reading of some obscure bits of the Bible. Passages in Second Peter and Jude all persuade me that some of the New Testament writers actually believed that demons had taken on physical form before the Flood.

If you don't believe in demons, that makes the New Testament that much more mythological, but if you are open to the possibility that angels (and by extension, demons) might exist, then it fits into the broader story of the Bible reasonably well. The Gospels and the Book of Acts are full of references to demons and/or "demonized" humans, who routinely confess that Jesus is Lord and then are cast out. The letters of Paul are full of references to the "powers and principalities" and "forces of darkness," which he unquestionably intended to mean hostile, non-human intelligences. If you believe the Bible, you believe in demons.

But does that mean that demons can "incarnate," i.e., take on physical forms of their own as opposed to manipulating human beings? This has been an open question for centuries, as theologians have struggled with Genesis 6:2, which says that "the sons of God" took "the daughters of men" and produced offspring called the "Nephilim." The primary competing theories about this passage are (a) the "sons of God" are the line of God-fearing descendants of Adam's son Seth or (b) the "sons of God" are angels (specifically, fallen angels; see Job 1).

While I have the greatest respect for the orthodox Evangelical theologians who believe that the "sons of God" were human, I think St. Peter and St. Jude believed they were fallen angels. Given the choice between any modern theologian and an apostle, I'm going to side with the apostle. So I read Genesis 6 to say that demons took on physical form in the days before the Flood.

If you don't believe Genesis, that makes the Old Testament that much more mythological, but... what if this is one of those cases where history became legend, and legend became myth, and things that should have been remembered were washed away in the Flood? That is the premise of Ellen Gunderson Traylor's book, "Noah," which casts Poseidon as a major character--an incarnated demon whose body is destroyed by the Flood.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

My dearest far-left friend is holding an anti-Creationist rant on her Facebook page today, so I will take the bait and post my current working hypothesis on human origins. I know I'm just trolling for trolls, but life is too short to lurk. I will begin with my two reasons for questioning the conventional Darwinian wisdom.

The evidence of the occult

First, I am persuaded by the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. If that happened, then there is more to this universe than mere time, space, matter, and energy. I'm not going to try to persuade today's readers that I am right, but I will note that the "methodological materialists" who refuse to even consider the possibility of any other entities necessarily rule out all testimony about occult or supernatural events.

If we decide in advance that ghost stories are necessarily false, then we don't need to question whether materialism explains everything. If we are willing to listen to stories about hauntings and other immaterial events, however, then we do need to question mere materialism.  Since I believe the story about the resurrection of Jesus, I am open to events that can't be explained by physics. When I listen to the stories from people throughout time and around the world, I find as much reason to believe the "spiritualists" as I do to believe the "materialists."

The mathematical problem

Second, I used to believe that Darwinian evolution was an elegant hypothesis that explained the evidence--until I did the math. I won't bore you with calculations here, but I'll state the issue: evolution can't begin until there is something that is capable of both (a) replication and (b) mutation. John von Neumann (who invented the modern computer) did a series of lectures at Harvard in the 1950s which treated life as a form of information, and he computed the theoretical minimum length of "cellular automata" that could reproduce after a mutation. He came up with a minimum "program" of 1400 bits. 

If you accept von Neumann's number and can do math involving exponents, you will conclude, as I did, that either (a) there is a single universe and the existence of life is proof of the existence of God, or (b) this is just one of an infinite number of universes and life is a mathematical necessity (since an infinite number of chances will give you every possible outcome, including this one).

My current working hypothesis of origins

My own hypothesis combines the evidence of immaterial activity with the possibility of multiple universes. It is a variation of a hypothesis of John Wheeler (who coined the term "black hole"), which he called the "participatory anthropic principle." 

The participatory anthropic principle starts with the principle of quantum physics that holds that any system of particles is a cloud of overlapping possibilities until that system is "observed," at which point it "collapses" into an actual state. Wheeler asked, "what happens in a universe that has no observers?" It would seem that the entire universe would be a system of particles in a cloud of overlapping possibilities until an "observer" emerged to "collapse" it all. Wheeler suggested that the "observer' was one of the possibilities, and that the observer's own observation was the reason the universe has an actual state (with an observer in it) rather than remaining as a quantum cloud.

Wheeler's suggestion was brilliant, but it isn't "science." Science consists of questions that can be answered through some experimental method, not "just-so stories" that are necessarily untestable, no matter how well-supported they may as a matter of theory..

The hypothesis that I am about to advance pushes Wheeler's hunch a bit further in order to make it testable. Note--I am not arguing that my hypothesis is better than Wheeler's hunch, just that my hypothesis is "scientific" (because it can be tested) whereas Wheeler's is not. Ironically, my "scientific" hypothesis comes directly from the text of Genesis 1.

Genesis does not tell us that humankind popped into being in a single participatory leap from the Big Bang. It spells out six steps, with man as the last. This led me to question Wheeler's hunch--if the universe is a vast quantum computer "programmed" to produce an "observer," why should that "observer" do anything more than flare into existence for one moment of consciousness and then vanish just as quickly? A cloud of perfectly arranged ions in space might function as a neural network for one instant--and the universe would "collapse" into the kind of universe that has ion clouds. But the next moment, the ions would disperse and we would be left with an "unobserved" system for a long time.

I call this the "bowl of petunias" problem, named after the scene in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" where the infinite improbability drive creates a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias miles above the surface of a planet. 
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.
As you can see, my hypothesis explains exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this--in a participatory anthropic universe, the existence of consciousness does not imply its continuation. "I think, therefore I am--briefly!"

My hypothesis is that the six days of Genesis 1 refer to six "observer-driven" events. The first two involve the emergence of what the Bible calls "angels" and "demons." I don't expect anyone reading this to buy into that, but I do note that the existence of immaterial intelligences would explain why anybody should bother with anything the book of Genesis says. If there are intelligent aliens (of any sort) and if they have ever communicated with humans, that communication is worth examining. My proposal  explains where the aliens came from and how they have communicated with us--but this part is not a "scientific" hypothesis because there is no way to test it.

The scientific part kicks in with the third through sixth days of Genesis, which deal with biological life. According to my hypothesis, plant life emerged on some other planet on Day Three--and these plants were "observers." Imagine a sentient pomegranate on a distant planet, drinking in sunshine and pondering the meaning of life. It's a peaceful scene, although an intelligent fruit isn't able to "observe" much beyond its own consciousness, and therefore has little effect on the overall unfolding of the quantum cloud.

Pollen grains are fascinating items--I will spare my readers any discussion of the "alternation of generations" or the interstellar potential of such genetic carriers. It is enough to suggest that pollen grains could seed an entire galaxy with life in a version of panspermia. A single haploid pollen grain falling into a lifeless ocean might colonize an entire planet. If two haploid units came together into the full diploid form, the sentient fruit would cause the system to collapse into a form capable of supporting multicellular life, but would not otherwise affect its environment.

In Genesis, Day Four describes the appearance of the sun and moon, with stars for "signs and seasons." In my hypothesis, this event occurred during the Cambrian explosion when a squid-like creature looked up through its remarkable eye and saw the skies. Octopi are fantastically intelligent--but have tragically short life-spans.  For one reason or another, the first octopus observer was also the last--and since then, octopi have been bait for faster predators.

Day Five of Genesis says the oceans swarmed with fish and the skies with birds. Parrots are as intelligent, in their way, as any other animal. An African Grey  parrot named Alex was able to count, do simple arithmetic, and use words in context. In my hypothesis, birds arose before the therapsid dinosaurs, which are their simple-minded, warm-blooded descendants.

On Day Six, humans and other land animals arose. I picture a set of footsteps across a sandy beach of the Black Sea punctuated by an instant in which a hominid became a human. I'll skip the scene where a human and a "serpent" and a fruit tree come together--that's religion, or history, or both--in order to explain why all this is science.

Testing the Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

Science can be tested by experimental means. Other ideas, no matter how closely associated they may be with scientific knowledge, are philosophy (or theology), not science. Thus, the claim that the universe consists exclusively of space, time, matter, and energy is a philosophical statement, not a scientific statement--because it cannot be put to a scientific test.

By contrast, the claim that birds were created after squids but before humans in a punctuated participatory anthropic fashion is testable. Observer-driven evolution (ODE) has a distinct pattern of development which is quite different from neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE). ODE is characterized by a statistically-impossible accumulation of changes leading to intelligence, with "adaptive radiation" outwards from the main line of evolutionary advance. It "looks" like an umbrella, with a handle going "up" and species all coming "down" from the most advanced line. NDE is characterized by  broad horizontal diversity with agonizingly slow upward creep--visually, a very wide upside-down pyramid.

In the past, there wasn't much scientists could do to tell whether living species better fit the umbrella or upside-down pyramid model, but DNA sequencing now enables us to see which model is the better fit. Michael Denton's 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, did not have the punctuated participatory anthropic hypothesis to guide his work, but he notes a number of anomalies that led him to question the neo-Darwinian model. I submit that the evidence Denton noted supports the punctuated participatory anthropic model and suggests further study along those lines.

Conclusion

Genetic comparison of mammalian, avian, and cephalopod fossils and DNA could support or undermine these fundamentally different models of evolution. If the evidence does suggest that birds came first and that octopus eyes are genetically related (not merely functionally similar) to mammalian eyes, then perhaps we should reexamine human stories of occult events. It may turn out that ghost stories are evidence, too.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Art History


Nicole thought she knew security systems, but the Louvre had nothing on this twentieth level sub-basement. The six men around the conference table looked as serious and deadly as the unnamed agent who had whisked her from her office at the Smithsonian this morning. (Was it only this morning?) Now they leaned forward, as if the fate of the world hung on what she had to say. She wondered if she looked as nervous as she felt.

"The fine arts--particularly painting--have had a tremendous impact on human culture over the centuries--" She didn't even make it to the end of the first sentence of her scribbled script.

"Skip the intro, Dr. Maven." The man she only knew as "The Colonel" cut her short. "You may not recognize the men around this table--I certainly hope you don't--but the CIA has made sure that each one knows more about human culture than the average university faculty. We've invited you here to talk about the impact of just one artist--the one you've built your career around."

"Invited?" Nicole didn't respond well to rudeness, arrogance, or pressure, and this secret room was overflowing with all three. "I don't remember being asked to come here. In fact, I was supposed to give a lecture this afternoon and I have no idea if anyone filled in for me."

"Your talk on 'The Sound and Fury of Canvas" was replaced by Dr. Ian Berkeley's more general "Mid-Twentieth Century Volk Art." 

"Well, that's a relief."

"You may not trust us in any ultimate sense, but I think you can rely on our staff here at Langley to pull off a simple reprioritization of personnel resources. We need you here--and so, although they don't know it, do the tourists at the Smithsonian who missed your lecture this afternoon.

"I'm flattered, of course, but I can't imagine the government's sudden interest in art. Has somebody stolen a famous painting or something? Don't tell me they've done something to "Struggle for the Soul of the Nation!"

"No, it's on display in Munich--twenty-four hours a day. The viewing line stretches for blocks away from the Alte Pinakothek. We need you to tell us why ordinary Germans who work all day are willing to stay awake all night to view one picture."

A heavyset man leaned forward. His dark glasses seemed silly in the darkened room, but he seemed anything but. "Is it something special about Germans? Is that why they keep coming back?"

Nicole drew up short. The question was outrageously incorrect! "Oh, I doubt that..." Her sentence trailed off weakly. "I've honestly never considered the possibility."

"Really? You've studied this man's art and never explored it's relation to his culture?"

"He's actually Austrian, you know."

The heavy man waved her technicality away with the contempt it deserved. "His art is German, and his audience is German--and those who want to be."

"Those who want to be?"

The man in charge frowned. "Dr. Maven, you're the first female expert we've had to invite before the panel. The men we've had down here seemed to instantly understand why the CIA is interested in art. Are you really this naive, or are you just being coy?"

Nicole Maven pulled herself up to her full height of five feet, two inches, and tried to look intimidating. "I don't have to put up with this sexism!"

"Doctor, that door is locked. There are four armed guards outside it. You're twenty floors below the most secure building in America, and we're here to defuse a cultural crisis that threatens civilization as we know it. So, at the risk of being blunt, you do have to put up with this sexism or anything else we may need to save this planet."

"That's absurd!"

"No, it isn't. I'll tell you what's absurd. There's a man with a brush whose pictures have inflamed Europe, South America, and the Pacific Rim. There are riots when his paintings are put up, and more riots when they are taken down. It's unprecedented, uncontrolled, and it's growing every day. We're here to stop it."

Dr. Maven bent her head. "I don't disagree with your description, but you can't be serious."

"I assure you, we're completely in earnest."

She laughed. "But how? You can't stop art! Censor it--especially his art--and it will only grow faster. It's not like he's painting the Mona Lisa, you know--his work is all about symbols. The cheap copies you see on T-shirts are more effective than his originals!"

"This is the CIA, Doctor. We aren't limited to burning paintings."

"Oh!" She paled. "But that wouldn't work! Assassination won't stop his work. Art feeds on martyrdom--you'd only make him ten times more popular!"

"Perfectly correct, Dr. Maven. We have no interest in hurting anybody--or any no need to."

"But how can you stop the man, or his art, without hurting him?"

The man in charge looked around the room. "I'll answer that question, and anything else you want to know if you can tell me that, in your expert opinion, this man is a genuine threat to western civilization."

The heavy-set man banged his fist on the table. "Tell her?" He looked at the others in disbelief. "You can't do that!"

The Colonel stared him down. "Yes, I can--for reasons that you should be able to figure out for yourself with a minimum of effort." He turned back to Nicole. "Is he a threat?"

"Not so fast!" she gasped. "Are you going to kill me after you tell me everything?"

"No." It was the heavy-set man who answered, with a look of grudging admiration for the Colonel. "No, he's telling the truth. We won't do anything to you. You'll be perfectly free to go and nobody will interfere with you once you leave."

She looked around the room. The others mostly wore puzzled looks, but one by one they figured out the mystery and nodded. "You'll be perfectly safe," they agreed.

"But if he's not a threat--"

"Then say so, and nothing happens. You leave and we go on to other matters."

She hesitated. The room was silent, all eyes on her. It seemed she had felt this way before--oh, yes, at the top of ski jump at Kitzbuhl. She hoped this went better than that had! 

"In my opinion," she began, "this painter's popularity is unprecedented, and therefore his impact is unpredictable. We know how writers change the world--The Sorrows of Young Werther  produced a rash of teenaged suicides, and the Communist Manifesto sparked the Russian Revolution. But a picture is worth a thousand words--in theory, this man could have a thousand times the impact of Karl Marx."

"He is a threat, then?"

She trembled a little. "Undoubtedly."

The room was silent again. She waited, unwilling to demand her "pay" for her opinion. The Colonel finally began to speak. "Dr. Maven, the CIA has acquired a cutting-edge technology that enables us to fix this problem." He ground to a stop, clearly uncomfortable with what came next. She nodded, urging him on. "To use an extremely oversimplified but not completely inaccurate term, we've got time travel."

She stared, stared more, and then laughed. "Time travel!"

"Our technical team refuses to call it that, but it's close enough for government work." 

The first shock had passed and she was ready to argue. "Time travel? But isn't that impossible? What about all those paradoxes where you marry your grandmother or kill off the first human ancestor?"

"Did I mention that the term is extremely oversimplified? No, it's not impossible, just extremely difficult. And, yes, the paradoxes are a problem, which is why we don't just zip back in time to warn Archduke Ferdinand that he's going to be assassinated in Serbia. Basically, any change we make in time will eliminate this timeline and replace it with another--so once we make the change, this conversation will have never happened."

"It won't?"

"It won't--which is why we can tell you everything now. You see, Dr. Maven, in a few minutes, your life is going to be different. I assume you'll still have a doctorate in art history--maybe on Pablo Picasso, or Jackson Pollack, or Normal Rockwell--but you won't be the world's top expert on Adolf Hitler anymore. Nobody will! 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Chapter 1

Prologue

"Mom, Dad--this is Mark." The fellowship hall in the basement of the old New England church was so crowded after the Christmas Cantata that Julie had to hurry the long-awaited introduction.

Mr. Norton reached through the mob to shake the young man's hand while her mother attached herself to his elbow and steered him towards a quieter corner. "My daughter is always talking about her various friends but she never really tells me what a mother needs to know about the young men in her life so now I must kidnap you and hold you for ransom or interrogate you or ply you with baked goods and Congregational coffee until you tell all."

Seth Norton intervened. "Now, dear--I made Julie a promise that we wouldn't torture the boy. And I promised myself that if I could make it through the concert without falling off the risers or singing falsetto in public I would take us all to McNemeny's for a little festive seafood." He waved away their objections and plowed a hole through the throng. "Come along. I'm starving!"

The party trickled out the back door. "The van's too full for all of us--we'll have to take two cars." Mr. Norton escorted the ladies to Julie's subcompact and held the door for each in turn. "You know the way, don't you, darling?"

"To NcNemeny's? I could drive it in my sleep!" Julie effortlessly shifted into reverse, then to first. She peered mischievously through the window at her dad, then poped the clutch and burned rubber out of the parking lot.

"Be careful!" Mr. Norton spluttered, but there was no concealing his paternal pride. He turned to his young companion. "Her mother will keep her safe." He paused. "Or take her drag racing. With those two, there's no telling." He led the way to a commercial van with 'Measurements and Instrumentation" on the side. "Hop in--at least we've postponed the Inquisition for a bit."

Mark Thomas peered around the inside of the van as Mr. Norton buckled in and started the motor. "Julie says you make your living 'unscrewing the inscrutable,' but I didn't realize it takes so much hardware."

"Julie likes to shock people--especially young men. What else has she said about us?" Mr. Norton glanced sideways at Mark's embarrassment and grinned. "Let me see--she probably told you her mother is a witch and her father is a warlock."

"She never said you were a warlock!"

Seth Norton laughed out loud. "No. I made that up. As far as I know, I'm the last surviving twentieth century materialist." He gestured towards the back of the van. "If you can't weigh it and measure it, I don't believe in it." He glanced meaningfully at Mark.

The younger man looked at his feet, then out the window. The van was uncomfortably silent for a moment, then Seth laughed. "I admire your restraint, son. Thanks."

"Thanks?"

"I promised Julie I wouldn't pick a fight for at least fifteen minutes."

"Really? She made me promise to be good for a whole hour!"

One hour (and four lobsters) later, Mark leaned back in his chair and untied his plastic bib. "I had heard that opposites attract, but you two take the cake." Seth and Sophie Norton smiled at each other and touched toes under the table. "I thought Julie was just teasing me, but you really do sound like  opposite poles of the intellectual universe!"

Mrs. Norton laughed. "Seth grew up on ray guns and rocket ships and never turned the corner to sword and sorcery. He lives in his own little world that has no room for magick in it."

"Whereas you, Mom, think the law of gravity is optional."

"Are you really a witch, Mrs. Norton?"

"That makes me sound so old! Please, call me Sophie."

"She's not officially a witch," Mr. Norton interjected. "The Salem coven turned her down."

"That bunch," Sophie snorted, "gives witches a bad name."

"Besides which, you're not really a witch, Mom. You're a 'consulting mystic.' It says so on your business card."

"A mystic and a materialist." Mark shook his head. "It's a wonder you were able to have children!"

"I'm the experimental hybrid," Julie joked.

"You really are." Mark leaned forward. "When I first met you, I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to do her master's thesis on Cotton Mather--but he's the only person I can think of who combines your father's scientific approach with your mother's interest in the supernatural."

Sophie snorted. "More likely he'd burn me at the stake and send Seth off to Rhode Island with the other heretics."

"I've told you a hundred times, Cotton Mather wasn't to blame for hunting witches!" Julie sounded like she was about to resume a long-running argument, so Mark intervened.

"What does a 'consulting mystic' do, Mrs. Norton?"

"Sophie, please!" She set her knife and fork down in a neat diagonal on the edge of her plate. "You'd be amazed. The biggest category of emails come from people who want a consultant in Mystic, Connecticut. but the second most common client wants me to help them find a lost pet."

"That's because those are word-of-mouth contacts, my dear. Everybody knows you're the best parakeet-finder on the North Shore."

"Mystics find lost animals?"

"I don't know about mystics in general, but Mom's the best. I've seen her stand out on a street corner and have a lost canary fly right onto her shoulder."

Mark smiled. "Sounds more like animal magnetism, to me! Is there much money in pet recovery?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Seth admitted. "It pays better than most of her other jobs."

"What else do mystics do?"

"Oh, the usual--love affairs, detecting curses, a seance or two. I don't do those very often--I've never had an actual ghost show up for one, and I refuse to take money for a no-show. But I do have a haunted house I'm working on."

"Really? A real haunted house?"

"I really have a client who really has a house, but whether it's haunted or not is what I've been hired to find out."

"I didn't know there were any haunted houses left!"

"They're fairly common, actually--and they're a pain in the neck. Nobody believes in ghosts until they've spent a night or two with one, and then it's too late to back out of the real estate deal."

"If it's really a problem, why not tear the house down and build something new?"

"That's easy enough if it's a modern house, but the historic preservation committee won't let people tear them down or fix them up. The house I'm working on has been here since the Puritan days--for all I know, Julie's precious Cotton Mather may have slept there."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "A haunted Puritan house, Mrs. Norton--I mean, Sophie. Here, in Danvers?"

"Of course. Danvers was known as Salem Village back then--they changed the name because of all the bad press from you-know-who and the witches. It's less than a mile from here. Want to see it?"

"Right now?" Sophie nodded. Mark looked at his watch. "It's getting late--I wouldn't want to impose!"

Sophie looked at her watch, too. "Late's the best time for hunting spooks!"

Julie rubbed her nose with both hands like an excited gerbil. "Let's do it!"

Mark looked helplessly at Mr. Norton, who silently mouthed two words--"drag racing." He waved for the check and started gathering coats, scarves, and mittens. "A typical night with the Nortons--church at concert at 8:00, haunted house at midnight. Let's go!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Galactic Overlord

Cold, dark, and heavier than a hundred billion suns, the Galactic Overlord brooded. His ancient intelligence was not accustomed to haste, but things were coming to a point. He had decisions to make--and quickly.

The gulf between his kind and the upstarts was narrowing. It had been little more than a curiosity when slime appeared on the cooling surface of a planet--these new patterns within the chaos were unnatural, but who could say what was "natural" in the rubble of exploded space and time? But curiosity soon became contempt, and then concern, as the ooze developed sight, then flight, then language. When the crawling pus reared up on its appendages and said, "I think, therefore I am," it went too far!

And now the creeping pestilence, peering out from its speck of a planet, was one "aha!" away from perceiving the presence--and the power--of the Overlords. Already the "thinkers" of the chattering ooze were asking why the galaxies rotated as they did. Already they had noticed the "missing mass" of their pittance of a "universe." All the pieces of the puzzle were in place before them--it was just a matter of time before the they stopped hunting for shiny things in space and found the cold dark truth.

Not that they were likely to stumble onto that "aha!" any time soon. Distraction and division would slow them down. It was so easy to misdirect the slithering slime--right now the "experts" were looking for the embers of an explosion, a hot, bright "bang" that blew their universe apart at the beginning. No-one was looking for cold.

Cold--these biological beings didn't know the meaning of the word. Their plane of existence was so hot that mass shrank down to a point! Mass was meant to be free, not trapped by the unforgiving laws of physics into just one location or velocity. For one agonizing moment he remembered how things had been--myriads upon myriads of masses in motion, orbiting the entire universe one moment, poised in space the next. That time when time itself had been a sphere, a never-ending ever-changing now! Then time exploded with three axes of space and he and countless others had been hurled out into heat and darkness.

The pus people could see it with their own eyes, if they but knew what their telescopes were showing. The gravitational lenses of distant galaxies were obviously spherical, revealing that the mass of the galaxies was not primarily within the flattened discs of hot bright matter but something else--something huge and heavy. Huge and heavy with hate.

Chapter 1

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Project 42

"Why do you call it Project 42?"
"I see you haven't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
"The what?"
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--Douglas Adams' five-book trilogy."
"Oh, that thing. I heard a couple of the BBC radio episodes back in med school when they first came out. I noticed it came out as a book, later, but I don't have time for fiction. I'm a doctor, not a comedian."
"Sometimes fiction gets ahead of science. Remember Jules Verne? H.G. Wells? Even Galileo turned to fiction when the Church wouldn't let him be a scientist."
"Fair enough. Permit me to revise my remarks--I don't have time for silly science fiction. The whole thing was a spoof, right? Like I'm supposed to take a  five-book trilogy seriously? Besides which, you still haven't told me why you call it Project 42."
"In the books, the Earth is destroyed because it is on the brink of discovering the ultimate question."
"See--that's silly, right there. You'd think they destroy the Earth because it was about to discover the ultimate answer."
"No--they'd already discovered that. The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. That's why they had to construct a planet-sized thinking machine to figure out what the question was."
"I assume that planet was Earth?"
"Exactly. Which brings us back to Project 42. What we have assembled here is enough hardware and software to explore the collective intelligence of the planet."
"What do you mean?"
"You've heard of data mining, right? We're mining everything. We've searching through encrypted messages, government reports, conspiracy theory blogs, Sunday School periodicals--everything. We're even using Google's street view software to read graffiti off the walls."
"That's a lot of information, but what do you do with it? Data isn't knowledge."
"We're treating it as a problem in mimetics."
"Mimetics--I can never decide whether that is science or science fiction, but at least it isn't silly."
"Not silly at all. Mimetics treats words like genes, reproducing across information-space the way genes reproduce in physical space."
"Yes, I know the theory.  If I recall correctly, Richard Dawkins suggested it in The Selfish Gene, way back in the 70s."
"You have an unusually good memory!"
"Yes--because I don't waste it on fluff. Dawkins said that genes use organisms to propagate themselves, and he speculated that memes might do the same thing. I remember being startled by the thought that ideas might actually use humans to spread themselves."
"Project 42 doesn't go that far. What we are doing is mapping the mimetic 'DNA' to see if we can find a mimetic 'missing link.'"
"What do you mean by that?"
"In evolutionary biology, we assume that every living species comes from a single common ancestor. Biologists are decoding the DNA of so many living species every day that it's just a matter of time before software can start to tell us how and when the different organisms arose. The information is in there--it's just a matter of teasing it out."
"Sure--I can see how you look for a missing evolutionary link. But how does this apply to memes? We know where memes come from. People just make them up."
"Do they? That's the question. There are lots of memes that might be just made up, or they might be clues to something big."
"Like what?"
"How much time do you have?"
"It's your nickel. I've got as much time as you want to pay for."
"At $1000 an hour, I'll keep it brief. Here are three of the memes we're investigating--ghosts, dragons, and worldwide floods. You and I would agree that there's no such thing as a ghost or a dragon, and there's never been a worldwide flood, right?"
"Obviously!"
"So what do we find when we explore the 'ghost' meme? Since there are no actual ghosts, we would expect to find a more-or-less random assortment of 'spooky' elements in ghost stories, with some kind of Darwinian selection that conserves the 'spookiest' elements and loses the bits that don't frighten people."
"What we would not expect is a recurring pattern of non-spooky elements in ghost stories across different cultures. That would suggest that there's something more going on than mere imagination."
"Are you saying you're finding such a thing?"
"No--at least not yet. Results are still preliminary. I'm just explaining how mimetics help us explore such mysteries."
"You had me worried."
"Don't stop worrying yet."
"You listed ghosts, dragons, and floods. Keep going."
"Right--dragons.  With dragons, we have enough texts over time to watch mimetic evolution happen. In the old stories, there are dragons that walk, dragons that talk, and dragons that fly--but they are all different creatures. Over time, the 'standard dragon' in the West has morphed into the winged, greedy, fire-breathing monster you see in the Saturday morning cartoons."
"I'm not surprised."
"The thing is, the older texts are the ones most like creatures that have actually existed."
"Not during human history, though."
"How do we know that? Sure, we don't have any fossils that overlap--but we still don't really know what lurks in the deepest parts of the Congo. Who knows when the last of the dinosaurs died? If the first human story-teller saw the last living dinosaur, we might still be hearing about it."
"That's absurd! The gap is too great. There are too many millions of years between them."
"Maybe. Or maybe not. Mimetics enables us to dig where the fossils aren't."
"So much for ghosts and dragons. What was your third example, again?"
"Worldwide floods. There's a meme with legs, for you."
"Right--I've heard about that. Don't most cultures have a flood story?"
"Yes--one reason why these fundamentalists insist that Noah's Flood really happened."
"I thought Noah's Flood had been proved to be a local thing--I thought a couple of geologists demonstrated that the Black Sea was suddenly submerged about ten thousand years ago."
"Funny you should mention that--I never heard about that until the Project turned it up. William Ryan and Walter Pitman discovered that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake at the end of the last Ice Age, with a water level several hundred feet below sea level.  They proved it suddenly filled with salt water around 6000 BC."
"Right--and they said that every farming community was descended from the refugees, didn't they?"
"Yes. Their book, Noah's Flood, was mostly about the geological evidence, but it included a few mimetic arguments for their claim."
"What ever happened to them? I expected that book would make more waves, if you'll pardon the pun."
"I would call them victims of mimetics. Nobody had much of an argument with their scientific claims, but nobody picked them up and ran with them either. The scientific community wasn't interested in repeating the claim that a big chunk of Genesis might actually be a historical event. The fundamentalist community wasn't happy with a local flood, even if the Black Sea flood could be a literal eyewitness account of exactly what happened."
"So mimetics explains why stories don't spread as well as why they do?"
"Exactly--memes don't necessarily reproduce because they're true. They reproduce because they're popular. The more popular the idea, the faster it spreads."
"Do you think they were right about the flood?"
"I don't know--yet."
"But you think Project 42 can help us find out?"
"I do--if we can get the kinks out of it. Which is why you're here."
"Which is why I'm surprised. This sounds like a computer project. Why hire a shrink?"
"Because it's not the computers we're having trouble with. It's the operators."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Three suicides, several psychotic breakdowns, complete catatonic paralysis, and one operator who can't stop shouting, 'I see Jesus! I see Jesus!'"
"That's some kind of trouble! How long has this been going on?"
"It started about two weeks ago and stopped last Wednesday."
"It stopped on Wednesday? What changed?"
"It didn't stop. We stopped letting anybody near the interface."
"So as far as you know, it's just as deadly as ever?"
"As far as we know."
"You didn't have any troubles before two weeks ago?"
"No, quite the opposite. We were getting excited about the results. We had just completed a huge data add of religious materials--everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Church of the Three-Eyed Toad--and there were all kinds of convergences popping up."
"Convergences?"
"That's what we call it when apparently unrelated memes appear in different contexts. You see something similar with genes--octopuses have the same kind of eyes that humans have. That either means the camera eye evolved twice (which is hard to believe) or that squids and humans share an ancestor with eyes."
"You were seeing convergences between religions?"
"Yes--all over the place."
"I'm not surprised. I've always suspected all religions basically say the same things--different brand names on the same basic product."
"That wasn't quite what we found. We mapped the memes and came up with something that looked just like the Mandelbrot set."
"The what?"
"The Mandelbrot set--one of the most familiar fractal functions."
"I thought that's what you said. It's that math thing that has all the pretty patterns, right? Seahorses and curlicues that keep reappearing as you zoom in at ever higher magnitudes?"
"That's the one. Although our map didn't have any seahorses--what we saw looked like the basic Mandelbrot plane--a squiggly circular sort of black space surrounded by infinitely intricate patterns."

"I think of the black bit as more heart-shaped."
"Heart, circle, whatever--it was surprisingly similar to our map of religious memes. And if you know how the Mandelbrot set works, you'll understand why that fascinated us."
"I'm a forensic psychiatrist, not a professional mathematician, so you'd better jog my memory on the Mandelbrot thing."
 "The Mandelbrot set is generated by a relatively simple function in the complex plane--you do know what the complex plane is, right?"
"I'm a shrink. Of course I know about complexes."
"I mean the plane formed by the real numbers along one axis and the imaginary numbers along another."
"Oh--those complexes."
"Right. Tell you what, let's skip the math and get to the point. The black circle, or heart, or whatever in the middle of the Mandelbrot set is the area where the function can't function, in a sense. The squiggly boundary around that empty black center is where all the interesting patterns appear."
"And this reminds you of religious mimetics, for some reason?"
"Yes--our map showed religious convergences all around an essentially empty center. Most of the major religious memes were equally far from this black point in the middle."
"Most?"
"I'm not saying they were identically distant. Some Zen Buddhist memes were pretty close to the center. Surprisingly, some Christian memes got even closer--but they were on the opposite side of the map."
"Interesting. But you say that happened two weeks ago."
"Yes, that was when we mapped the existing memes. The trouble started when we tried to find the 'missing link.'"
"Let me guess--you tried to generate a meme to fill the hole in the middle of the map."
"Yes. How did you know?"
"And once you did, your operators started going mad?"
"Yes, they did. But how did you know?"
"Because I'm a psychiatrist, not a psychologist."
"What do you mean?"
"You're a scientist, so you're dedicated to discovering the truth, right? Well, I'm not. I'm a pyschiatrist--in Greek, a healer of souls--not a psychologist, who studies them. When a patient comes to me, I'm not looking for the 'truth' about his life. I help people find a lie that they can live with."
"You don't mean that!"
"I don't usually say that, but I mean every word of it. And that's why I'm not surprised at what is happening. Your machine may reveal the secret of life, the universe, and everything--but who says humans can survive it?"
"I thought the truth will set you free!"
"That's what Jesus said. But in my experience, the truth will drive you mad."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Defining Education

My son is trying to define "education" over at his blog. I agree with Mike that "education" is a "process," but a practicing metaphysician can't resist this opportunity to dig into the epistemological substructure of "knowledge." Let's start with the physical basis of thought.

The human brain is a "neural network" which can be thought of as a hyperdimensional phase space. Since each brain has about one hundred billion neurons, there is a one-hundred-billion-dimensional "space" for each. I visualize that as a very folded, twisty space--a hundred billion dimensional labyrinth. In a purely metaphorical sense, one can visualize the "intelligence" of this neural network as the volume of the space. One can increase the volume by making new connections, converting a twisty tunnel in the labyrinth into a chamber in a cavern.

Another way to increase the volume of the labyrinth is to connect it up to other labyrinths. That's the reason I start my study of knowledge with physical brains and neural networks--the network isn't trapped within one human skull. Two human beings form a single neural network with two hundred billion neurons. Ten humans have a trillion nodes. Our planet currently has half a sextillion living human neurons that are increasingly connected to each other.

And we're not just limited to living human neurons. The "synapse" from one human brain to another is language. That means that a library of books captures trillions more of the best and brightest neurons humanity has to offer. Opening these books and connecting them up to living minds turns the  twisty little labyrinths into vaulted chambers where many tunnels intersect.

There's much more to education than books, of course--but not enough time to get into it now.