Technology and Science

Is free will a mirage?

What are the 3 most important ideas anyone’s ever had? Obviously, there is no right answer to the question, and it’s arguably subjective enough so that the answers say more about the answerer than the question. Nevertheless, here are my choices:

3) Darwinism. As Richard Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, never before was their a credible answer to the children’s question of “Why are we?” until Charles Darwin published his theory. Darwinism is, I believe, the best single idea anyone ever had, and is also a fascinating illustration of the scientific method, in that it’s been verified across a whole range of disciplines, from taxonomy to molecular biology to epidemiology.

2) The scientific method. Aristotle was a smart guy, with a lot of ideas. What he didn’t have was a sieve to filter the ideas that work from the rest. The scientific method can best be summarized as falsifiability, the concept that if you’re interest in truth, you have to test your ideas. So, if you read Aristotle, it’s amazing how wrong he is about so many things, and without the technology of the scientific method, he has no way of figuring out when he’s wrong or right. Of course, innovations as varied as modern medicine, modern agriculture, and most engineering would be impossible without the scientific method. On a more down note, I’ll mention Richard Feynman’s contention of how many aspects of modern life don’t take advantage of the scientific method, including most educational strategies, criminology, and management studies.

1) Free will. My vote for the most important idea is free will, the concept that we are responsible for our own decisions and actions. There’s a fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence where in the course of painting murals during the Renaissance, Masaccio gave expression to the idea of free will by adding perspective. Perspective requires a viewpoint centered on the individual, not an abstract god. No longer were we creatures ordered or controlled by god, but individuals, with choices and control over ourself.

From this idea of free will (which the Greeks had, but was then lost until the Renaissance), directly flows the concepts of liberal democracy and market capitalism. It is central to both how our civilization is organized and how we view ourselves.

Which I why I was so concerned to read this article from the NYT, which describes some intriguing (though hardly conclusive) evidence is accumulating that free will is an allusion, an artifice covering up “computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld”. The author continues:


To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.

Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a “God of the gaps,” who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

Of course, we don’t have to give up liberal democracy and market capitalism if turns out that free will doesn’t exist, but it would make it harder to give them a philosophical foundation.

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Voluptuous robots

What religious sect has a genesis myth involving being “entertained by voluptuous female robots”? The Ralians, of course. A silly opening to a disparaging blog post, right?

Well, are their founding myths really any more unlikely than converting water into wine, or wine and bread into blood and flesh, a miracle (transubstantiation) that occurs everyday, according to millions (Catholics)?

Further, while it’s irresponsible to clone humans for a few more years until animal studies can show how to avoid congenital defects and other potential hazards, human cloning will and should become just as common a part of modern life as invitro fertilization (IVF), which is a responsible for something like 10% of all children born in the US today. If a couple can’t conceive sexually (perhaps because one parent has a high risk of passing a genetic defect like Huntington’s or ALD to their children), why shouldn’t they be able to raise a clone of the other parent?

My step-father is a clone (identical twin), and he and his brother are not even that much alike.

Evidence for waiting, though: ‘Also, Dr. Seidel said, cloned animals have a high rate of unexplained defects, including malformed kidneys, hearts and lungs, and often die within days of birth. “Ten percent abnormalities might be acceptable for cloning cows,” he said. “But it’s completely unacceptable for human children.”‘

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Leap Seconds and Disaster

Looking for a screenplay topic where a lot of small, seemingly meaningless science events suddenly cascade into a doomsday scenario (along the lines of Deep Impact or Independence Day)?

How about “The Leap Second” talking about this little known international body, the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), whose job it is to monitor the miniscule slowdown in the Earth’s rotation due to tidal breaking (and other forces) and to announce leap seconds, which correct for time between the imprecise rotation of the Earth and far more precise atomic clocks.

You see, an amateur would notice that there was no leap second in June and that there will not be one in 6 days (they normally come at the end of June or December). In fact, the last leap second was at the end of December 1998. These 4 years (and counting), then, are the longest period without the introduction of a leap second since the first one was introduced in 1972.

So, it would turn out that the IERS was either a government conspiracy to slow down the Earth in order to cause huge changes (like when Lex Luther wanted to sink California to make Nevada ocean-front property in Superman) or (my preference) an elite groups of scientist/special forces who are Earth’s only hope to prevent massive tidal waves et al caused by natural (but unpredicted) slowing. Since the prediction service of the IERS is run by the Navy, you could do a Peacemaker-style pairing (Mimi Leder again) of a George Clooney-ish Navy Seal and a Nicole Kidman/Denise Richards character (both played physicists, Richards in the role of a Bond chick) as the smart ass scientist who’s also his boss.

To keep current (and environmentally-friendly), maybe they would need to stop the Three Gorges Dam project in China, since dams are thought to affect the Earth’s orientation. Add in the effect of earthquakes (think Superman again), and there’s plenty of opportunity for death, disaster, and redemption.

What launched me on this is that some great background on time keeping and notation (did you know that a tiny C program based on Zeller’s congruence can tell you the date from the day of the week without using a calendar?) is RFC 3339: Date and Time on the Internet: Timestamps.

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Very few subjects make me

Very few subjects make me apoplectic like parents refusing to vaccinate their children because of absurd myths and fears. I’m going to Ghana next week to observe the American Red Cross’ Measles Initiative, to eliminate measles worldwide. More, much more, on this subject soon.

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Taps and buglers are being

Taps and buglers are being replaced with a $50 K electronic versuion, according to an NYT op-ed: “With faux buglers playing faux taps on faux bugles, the only real thing left at military funerals will be the honor of the dead.”

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There are more web clocks

There are more web clocks than you could ever count. (Here’s the official US time.) But this is a one of the more clever clocks I’ve seen.

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“Things are looking bleaker than

“Things are looking bleaker than ever for Pluto, the most disrespected of the nine planets that we learned about in elementary school.”

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Excellent Slate piece on the

Excellent Slate piece on the awful existential significance of cellular suicide.

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Ever notice a bunch of

Ever notice a bunch of Latin-looking text starting with `lorem ipsum dolor’ serving as a placeholder to show off a page design or font and wonder what the text means?

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I like to comment on

I like to comment on things I quote, but what could one possibly add to this paragraph from the NYT? “Toilet jet sprays, which sometimes confuse foreign visitors with disastrous results, are now in nearly half of Japanese homes, a rate higher than that of personal computers.”

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