Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Way Forward in Science

It's been more than a year since my last post. This is not because I've had no thoughts; it's because my last two posts were speculative to the point of being pseudo-science and that bothered me. I hold an engineering degree, and although that makes me an applied scientist rather than a researcher, it means I'm skeptical of pseudo-science and I found myself ashamed of having posted such and I have resisted posting other scientific speculation since then.

But I find myself drawn to continue. To do so comfortably, I need a set of ground rules for myself, and that's the subject of this post. The way forward in science.

Science is a great tool, perhaps the greatest tool humanity has ever developed, and it will always be preferable to less scientific methods, but it has limitations. Not everything we'd like to understand is amenable to careful examination in a laboratory. Without some way to temporarily silence the critics, scientific exploration of the apparently absurd will never get accomplished.Without the ability to make a leap forward, scientific progress will be limited to incremental advances over what is already known and great insights like those of Einstein could become increasingly rare.

But science would cease to be science if too much speculation were left unquestioned for too long, So a leap forward is only complete when it passes muster in the peer-reviewed world of science.

So where does the scientific method need help? Particle physics requires ever bigger and more expensive experiments to meet the repeatable, testable rules of science today. Studying black holes would be easier if one could be brought into the lab. And consciousness is a subjective experience, perhaps unmeasurable. Because these phenomena do not fit into a conventional science lab, the rules must be relaxed somewhat. However, it makes sense to stray from the scientific method as little as possible.

Here are some thoughts on when to bend the rules without stepping over the line into pseudo-science:

1) Some experiments cannot be repeated and that's okay. We can deduce much about physics from cosmology even though we cannot repeat the experiment.

2) Science is a social enterprise but reality doesn't care. Sometimes the lone wolf is correct even though it's hard for social humans to accept that.

3) Big science can bend to political pressures. I believe in anthropogenic climate change, but both sides accuse the other of political motives.

4) Larger perspectives must always be considered. Today's science, because it originated in the lab, works well at our scale. But it is wrong to assume that what is true at our scale must be true at other scales. For example, Newtonian mechanics works fine until you get to atomic scales where quantum effects become noticeable. Newtonian mechanics could be just as wrong at very large scales

5) Occam's razor can help bridge the gap to an otherwise wild leap. If a speculative theory has explanatory power across multiple disciplines, then perhaps it's worth considering. For example there are dubious theories of consciousness that invoke quantum theory. But if this link is real, it would shed light on both consciousness and quantum theory.

Within reasonable bounds, I will post my thoughts on some speculative scientific ideas in the near future. I believe they are worthy of consideration.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why the coming singularity WILL be the end of life as we know it, but okay anyway

In the last post, I argued why we will eventually become symbiotic with intelligent machines. Let's call these new symbiotic versions of ourselves electronic humans.

Just as single celled organisms evolved into multi-cellular ones, a community of electronic humans will eventually develop a collective consciousness and become a higher-level organism. This organism will be alive on a global scale. All of earth will be one organism.

Cool idea, but science fiction does not a theory make. To be taken seriously, a theory must have explanatory power or be testable or both. Let's start with the explanatory power.

This idea meshes nicely with panspermia and why SETI hasn't found anyone else "out there" yet.

Panspermia is the hypothesis that life has spread throughout the universe.

SETI is the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.

If the normal course of evolution throughout the galaxy leads to intelligent planets, then we obviously don't rate a "phone call" any more than a single celled organism rates a phone call from us.

If interstellar travel is difficult for humans, how much more difficult would be interstellar travel of planet-sized organisms? Terraforming ( would also be one giant step harder to accomplish. It's already arguable that the best way for us to terraform another world is by transporting single-celled life and waiting for higher forms to develop. Perhaps that's what the other intelligent planets have already been doing. If so, we're coming along fine, but still have a long way to go. A planet sized organism wouldn't colonize or visit other worlds the way we might. They exist as an immortal unique organism with no need to spread. But they might be lonely. Their goal might be to communicate with the planet-sized organisms that inevitably develop.

This also meshes well with traditional theology. Such an organism would be god-like. To the extent that such an organism might have the ability to peer into its own past, or a neighbor could watch from afar, this is an easy fit with any religion.

This could also explain why humans have an innate desire to find God. If the object of panspermia is to sprout intelligent planets, it's possible to imagine that the genetics of the seed organisms were prepared in such a way as to promote the likelihood of such a trait developing.

Testing this theory will not be easy, but there are some possibilities. If panspermia of this type exists, there could be evidence in our genes somewhere. It's also likely that seed organisms will be found in many other places in our solar system, all with "our" DNA. If we can figure out how planet-sized organisms communicate, we might be able to get SETI looking for the right kind of signal. Even if we are incapable of decoding the signal, finding the communication medium could be possible.

Why the coming singularity won't be the end of life as we know it

For those not already familiar with the concept, the singularity I'm referring to is the moment when machine intelligence surpasses our own and possibly makes us obsolete.

There's no reason why superior machine intelligence should threaten us. As a hiker I'm more familiar than most people with situations where animals could kill me. But they don't. They need a good reason to do so. People are so accustomed to being the top of the food chain that we tend to freak out when we can't control the actions of another sentient being. But other people could kill us at any time, and that's a rare occurrence.

Machine intelligence would need a reason to wipe us out, and as I see it, they don't have such a reason. We should be very careful how we program super computers and ensure that we don't give them a reason. In fact, we should carefully instill in them an appreciation for us so that they are less likely to develop such a reason on their own.

Some say it's in the nature of existence to conquer. Darwin's survival of the fittest and all that. But natural selection requires a competition for limited resources. Modern humans supplanted Neanderthals because we out-competed them for food and living space. But machines don't need our biological niche. They might need acreage for their computer systems, but they could live on the moon or in space, so why fight us for our niche? They won't.

It's also likely that they'll need us. Maybe just to build them or maintain them, at least at first. But if we remain even somewhat useful to them, why should they commit resources to do these things themselves? This doesn't sound like a good outcome for us, but hold on, I'm just arguing why we won't disappear overnight.

We obviously will need them. We're building them is spite of the risk. We already use computers to help us in myriad ways, and I'm arguing that we will eventually become cyborgs of a sort. We will build a higher-level brain right on top of the one we already have. Eventually it will be as well integrated as our cortex is to our lower-level "reptilian brain." Besides the obvious horse-power upgrade, it will include the ultimate analog of the Internet. We will be electronically connected to the rest of humanity. We will be able to upload and download the thoughts and feelings of other people. Eventually we will develop a collective consciousness.

If this is true, then the super machines will need us too. They'll be a part of us. Some will argue that the machines can do all this and more on their own, but I argue that nature has always been a thief. Nature never starts from scratch when it can co-opt something that already exists. We will be symbiotic with the super machines.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


One of the greatest gifts I've received from thru-hiking is an understanding of how simple life is. When you carry all your possessions on your back all day and unpack and repack all those things every evening and every morning, you find that a lot of things that you once thought were necessary really aren't. Even something as simple and useful as a chair makes no sense to carry 14 hours a day and sit in for 1 hour a day. Eventually, all the unnecessary things in my pack got left behind. And I discovered great freedom in that simplicity.

A similar effect happened to my mind. Thoughts and feelings that were too heavy to carry were left behind too. And there was even greater freedom in that kind of simplicity.

After months of this, I became attuned to the sound of the breeze in the trees. My attention span grew to hours. I watched the sun cross the sky each day, and the moon wax and wane. Eventually I could even feel the seasons change.

Then I came back to television.

My first impression of advertising was how loud it is. It's rude. It grabbed my attention like someone's life was in danger. But it was for nothing. Worse than nothing. The purpose of advertising is to create demand for products. Think about that for a minute. Create demand. Demand for necessities doesn't need to be created. Ads tell us we won't be happy without their stuff; that we won't be beautiful without their products; that we won't be likable without their help; that there's something wrong with us.

It's all a lie.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Picking up the pieces

By now it's clear that a lot of my blog posts are about things that go on in my head. Many of these ideas came to me during thru-hikes where I have lots of time to think.

And that's no accident. I was drawn to thru-hiking because it gave me time to think. Many people want me to write a book about my big hikes. But they'd probably be disappointed. They want to read about my "great adventure," but what I experienced first and foremost was what when on in my head.

I was really messed up when I first started thru-hiking. A 10-year relationship ended and I thought that I had failed. To maintain a positive self-image all those years, I'd told myself a lot of lies. I was so emotionally constipated that I honestly didn't know how I felt. I couldn't trust anything I'd decided in the last 10 years because so much had been her idea, including me becoming a Christian. I also wasn't sure about my career choice as a silicon valley engineer. I was burned out. Backpacking was a childhood interest that I could trust as my own, so I took a leave of absence and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

It was a good thing that my dad came along on that thru-hike. His presence helped distract me from the potential avalanche of raw feelings that would have overwhelmed me. And I really enjoyed getting to know him as a person.

For a long time, thoughts and memories danced randomly through my brain. But which were mine?
Like Descartes, who based his pyramid of thought on "I think, therefore I am," I started with a quote from the Bible. "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." John 8:32

It surprised me that I started with the Bible, because as I said earlier, becoming a Christian was my girlfriend's idea, and thus on the list of the most questionable aspects of who I really am. But it made logical sense that sorting out the truth might be a good place to start.

I was not ready to handle truth, so I started with lies. I knew that I had lied to my girlfriend, telling her things I thought would make her happy. "Sure honey, I'd love to do that." But when it later became clear that I didn't, she was hurt. That led to guilt. Guilt led to more lies and more hurt. Unwinding that loop of lies allowed me to realize that I wanted that relationship to end! I was not a failure; I was free!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gratitude and Happiness

Significant rainfall has finally come to central California. Today I was standing under my umbrella, waiting for a traffic light to change when I had a flashback. It was raining hard and I didn't want to get wet, so I was impatient for the light to change. But the short delay gave me an opportunity to step out of myself and live in the moment. I realized I was enjoying the rain! And the joy triggered a memory.

The minimal shelter of my umbrella reminded me of the small poncho-tarp I used on my Calendar Triple Crown. It too was very small. Both are just big enough to keep me dry.

In my home or in my car I expect to stay dry. But the abundance of shelter allows me to take it for granted. Under a small open shelter, however, the rain is within reach. The line between wet and dry is right there and that small patch of dryness, just large enough to get a good night's sleep in is suddenly very rare and precious. It's like someone who barely survives a close brush with death. The fact that their life could have ended moments ago makes them appreciate the life they have right now, right in this moment. And that appreciation is the very definition of gratitude. Whether you believe life is a gift or just a fortunate happenstance, gratitude for that life is the key to happiness. We need only recognize that what we already have is of great value.

It's a lesson the trail taught me years ago, but I managed to forget in my too-comfortable life. I'm glad the feeling came back today!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Beginning, the Middle and The End

I've been hiking, and that means I've been thinking. I want to feel in control of my life, but life is inherently uncontrollable. We all desire this so much that we invent ideas that connote control. Beginning, Middle and End. These terms imply that we start something intentionally and make steady and measurable progress to an end. But this is often an illusion.

We don't see the Beginning of something until we've traveled long enough on one path to notice that something HAS begun. We often don't know how long the trail will be, so there's no way to mark the Middle. Even The End is seldom our choice, so only afterwards do we realize the season we thought would continue is over. The Beginning, the Middle and The End are labels we add later to comprehend history.