Posts Tagged ‘Einstein’

Inside Knowledge: Why We Like to Know Useless Stuff

April 5, 2017

This blog post has the same title as a Feature article by Daniel Cossins in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist. The author notes that knowledge is more than just information.  “Even the nematode worm caenorhabditis elegant, the owner of one of the smallest brains we now, forages to maximize information about its environment, and so its chances of staying alive and reproducing.”  This is the typical analysis offered by scientists.  It seems like the entire point is for species to evolve and to reproduce.  However, evolution offers the hope that we can evolve into something better.  Homo sapiens as a whole is quite depressing.  We seem to be preoccupied with warfare and have developed weapons that can lead to our own extinction.  However, there are some members of our species who espouse transcendental values, which leads to the hope that we might become something better.

Cousins writes, “The precise details of how we first came to love knowledge may always elude us.  But it is easy to see how it would have spurred our success as individuals and as a species furnishing us with the tools—often literally, if you think of  cutting blades or fire—to survive and prosper.”

So the argument is that we are addicted to knowledge because it has served us so well in the past.  It still does today, in everyday life as well as the frontiers of technological progress.  The term infovores has be used to describe this propensity (enter “infovores” into the search block of the healthy memory blog).

Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton pointed out in a 1939 essay “The usefulness of useless knowledge,” radio communications and all that came with it wasn’t ultimately the inventions of Guglielmo Marconi.  It was down to James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, scientist who worked out the basics of electromagnetic waves with no practical objectives.”

The current director of IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf has written a companion essay to a reissue of Flexner’s original.  He wrote, “The theory of general relativity is used every day in our GPS systems, but it was not the reason Einstein solved it.

The problem is that too many people reject science.  Some reject science on the basis of religious texts.  Others are fundamentally ignorant.  What is most depressing is the leader of the United States rejecting scientific research.  For this HM apologizes.  Although he did not win the popular vote; he was chosen by the electoral college, an anachronism that denies the sacred principle of one citizen, one vote.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Evolution Evolves: Beyond the Selfish Gene

October 23, 2016

The title of this post is identical to title of a short piece written by Kevin LeLand and and published in the 24 September 2016 issue of the “New Scientist.”   The cover of the issue notes that the theory of life needs an update.  The changes in the theory of evolution have been monumental.  In HM’s humble opinion, they are comparable to the changes between Newton and Einstein in physics.  Kevin Leland has provided a precise summary.

Gone is the radical notion of the selfish gene, which argues the goal of genes is to propagate themselves, and we are merely vehicles for that propagation.  Gone also is the nature vs. nurture issue.  Genes interact with the world.  They provide inputs, but perhaps for some exceptionally rare occasions, they are not deterministic.

Natural selection is not solely in charge as the way that an organism develops can influence the direction and rate of its own evolution and its fit to the environment.

Inheritance goes beyond genes and includes epigenetic, ecological, behavioral, and cultural inheritance.  Similar to, but different from, Lamarkian transmission, acquired characteristics can be passed to offspring and play diverse roles in evolution.

Phenotypic variation is not random.  Individuals develop in response to local conditions such that novel features they possess are typically well suited to their environment.

Evolution is much more rapid than previously viewed.  Developmental processes allow individuals to respond to environmental changes and mutations with coordinate changes in suites of traits.  The new view is organism-centered, with broader conceptions of evolutionary processes.  Individuals adjust to their environment as they develop and modify selection processes.  Additional phenomena explain macroevolutionary changes by increasing evolvability,  the ability to generate adaptive diversity.  They include plasticity and niche construction.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Physics Killed Free Will and Time’s Flow. We Need them Back

June 19, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of an important article by physicist Nicolas Gisin the May 20, 2016 edition of the “New Scientist.”  Descartes stated, “I THINK, therefore I am.  Most humans would agree with this statement.  After all, are we active agents free to influence our thoughts and decisions, or are we just passive laundry machines through which thoughts happen to pass?.

Gisin  notes that the ability to ask the question seems to require the first interpretation, yet modern science—in particular—modern physics—almost unanimously plumps for the second.  According to modern physics in a deterministic universe, where one thing leads inevitably  to the next, any conception we have of free will is an illusion.

Gist does not buy this.  He thinks that we are missing something fundamental to our formulation of science.   “And the solution of the problem of free will is linked to another glaring deficiency  of today’s physics—its insistence that time as we know it does not exist.”

Jules Lequyer, a French philosopher of the 19th century wrote, “Without free will, the certainty  of scientific truths would become illusory.”  We need free will to decide which arguments we find convincing, and which we dismiss, which is the essence of doing science.

Gisin  wrote, “What irony, then, that the search for scientific truth seemed to kill free will.  That started with Newton and his universal law of gravitation.  Derived from observations of the solar system bodies, it speaks of a cosmos that operates like clockwork and can be described by deterministic theories. Everything that happens today was set in motion yesterday, and indeed was determined in the initial conditions of the big bang; nothing truly new ever happens.

Gisin further writes, “Things became even more inscrutable with Einstein’s relativity, which showed that there was no unique definition of simultaneous events.  To square that with a deterministic universe, a picture known as the “block universe” emerged.  Here we dispense not just with free will, but also with a flowing time.  Past, present, and future are al frozen in one big icy block.  The present in which we are free to think and be—in which exercise free will—is just as illusory as free will itself.”

And, believe it or not, philosophers of science bend over backwards to explain why we think we have free will.  They argue that we are programmed to always make choices that correspond to a predetermined necessary future.  So the feeling that our choices are free is illusory.

This presumed reasoning is obviously nonsense and it is depressing to realize that so many intelligent people buy it.

Gisin is a quantum physicist and he argues that real numbers are not real at all.  He notes that most real numbers are never ending strings of digits that can contain an infinite amount of information.  He notes that they could encode the answers to all possible questions that can be formulated in any human language, but that a finite volume of space-time can only hold a finite amount of information.  So the position of a particle, or the value of any filed or quantum state in a fine volume, cannot be a real number.  Real numbers are non-physical monsters..

Gisin notes that free will chimes with the dominant “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum theory, made popular by Werner Heisenberg.  Making a measurement “collapses” the wave function describing a quantum system into one of a number of pre-ordained states.  Quantum theory is a random, non-deterministic theory, but it creates a determined world—and seems in no way incompatible with a common sense conception of free will.  So, God can play dice with the universe and win.  Quantum theory is frequently used in practical scientific and engineering problems.

Gisin also frees up the flow of time.  He notes that there is a time before a non-necessary event happens and there is a time after it happens, and these times are different.  This happening of a non-necessary event, like the result of a quantum measurement, is a true creation that can’t be captured by a mere evolution parameter.  He calls the sort of time this requires “creative time.”

Gisin concludes by stating that “creative time’ is extraordinarily poorly understood by today’s science, but that could change with future physics, such as quantum theories of gravity that might replace Einstein’s theories that spawned the block universe.  Time passes, and free will exists—any other way, science makes no sense.

Gisin is not the only physicist who advocates free will Roger Penrose (who healtymemory (HM) believes was on the dissertation committee of Stephen Hawking)  is a distinguished physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, who extols consciousness and the role of quantum effects in consciousness and free will.  Penrose’s book, “The Emperor’s New Mind goes into considerable detail on these topics.  He formulates the notion of Correct Quantum Gravity (CQG).  Although this book was written for the general public parts involve heavy sledding.  Nevertheless it is good to know that an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable scholar is on the same or similar train of thought.  Unfortunately, Roger is much further down these tracks than HM is.  Should healthy memory ever manage to make it further down these tracks, he will get back to you.

Outside of physics there have been many HM blog posts on consciousness and free will.  Even though we all have intimate experience with our own consciousness, there are still many who contend that this is epiphenomenal.  HM argues that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon with adaptive value.  It is essential  to effective interactions with the environment and for choosing courses of action.  Neuroscientists have stated that all mammals, some invertebrates such as the octopus, and many birds are conscious and there consciousness has adaptive value.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Dead

May 16, 2016

The seventh cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is The Dead.  The stated purpose of this chapter is “”Why—and how—humans perceive the minds of the deceased so vividly is the subject of this chapter.”  There is no need for this explanation.  One would expect that the explanation of the living mind would be extended to individuals after they died.  Even people who do not believe in life after death would likely use expressions based on knowledge of the living individuals mind.  The real purpose of this chapter is to lay the groundwork for the final two seriously flawed chapters.

Much of the chapter discusses philosophy and the differences between monist and dualist philosophers.  This discussion is irrelevant as psychology and cognitive science are empirical enterprises.  The authors note, “Modern psychology generally refutes dualism as the mind can be measured though electoral and magnetic activity and relies heavily on physical brain structures.”  Unfortunately this statement ignores the research on how the mind influences the brain.  When I was a graduate student I was frustrated by the question of whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled.  Experimental psychologists would run experiments in which psychology students participated in experiments in which attempts were made to control some part of the autonomous nervous system, such as the heart.  As these experiments only lasted several hours, it is not surprising that students were unable to do this.  These psychologists ignored the Buddhists monks who were able to slow their heart rates to frightingly low rates.  Psychologists said ignored this saying that it was done with some trick.  True science consisted of using college students in limited experimental studies.  Psychologist found that  the “trick” involved many hours of meditation.  Recent brain imaging studies have illustrated striking effects of meditation on the brain.  The title of Sharon Begley’s new book, “Train Your Mind Change Your Brain” reflects the real truth (this book will eventually be reviewed in the healthy memory blog).

It should also be realized that for about half o the twentieth century American experimental psychologists could not speak of thinking.  This was not rigorous enough.  Finally, in the second half of the century the necessity of using cognitive activity was realized and the cognitive revolution began.  Psychologists seem to be self conscious about not being regarded as true scientists and feel a need to stress the rigor of their thinking.  Rigor is good, but not when it ignores relevant empirical evidence.  And there is more than ample evidence that the mind does act upon the brain.  Indeed that is where the future of cognitive psychology lies.

There its another problem that I shall term intellectual arrogance.  This was exhibited on the eve of the twentieth century when some physicists had concluded that just about all of physics had been developed, and that all that was need was some work to refine decimal points.  In just a few years Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which revolutionized physics.  Ten years later the general theory of relativity further revolutionizing the discipline.  Then came quantum mechanics that operated under different rules than Einstein’s physics.  The advances in physics both astronomical and sub-atomical have been, to repeat the term, astronomical.  Modern Physics is producing theories that would new-ager Shirley Maclaine to shame.

Compared to physics, psychology has taken just a few baby steps.  Moreover, I think psychology will prove to be more complicated than physics, so the relative distance that psychology as to go is likely more than astronomical.

So psychologists need to be guarded in their statements.  The Healthymemory Blog will try to disabuse some of the ideas advanced in the final two chapters of “The Mind Game.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Curiosity and a Healthy Memory

May 5, 2016

This post is based on and inspired by a piece by the excellent science writer Sharon Begley in the June 2016 issue of Mindful titled “Why So Curious?”  Albert Einstein wrote, “curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Samuel Johnson called curiosity “the first passion and the last.”  Thomas Hobbes called curiosity the lust of the mind.”  The founder of American Psychology, William James proposed in1899 that curiosity is “the impulse towards better cognition.  And better cognition implies a better mind and a healthy memory.

Cognitive scientists believe that the best way to understand curiosity is that it is the mental analogue of physical hunger.  The feeling that there is a growling hole in our store of knowledge drives the search for information.  This urge  to sate cognitive hunger  is associated with persistence and solving problems German and American researchers reported in a 2013 study in the Journal of Individual Differences.

A 2011 review of 200 individual studies concluded that “although intelligence is the strongest predictor of academic success, curiosity plus effort rival the influence of intelligence” scientists wrote  in Perspectives on Psychology Science.  They concluded that “a hungry mind is a core determinant of individual differences in academic achievement.”  There is much similarity here between curiosity and Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset.

The health memory blog post “Finally, Hope on the Prediction Front” provides a brief summary to Tetlock’s book “Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction.”   This was a very large study done for IARPA on research as to what makes for a good intelligence analyst.  Curiosity was a key factor.

This link between curiosity and learning might become even more important as we age.  In one recent study scientists had younger adults (average age 20) and older adults (average age 73)  read 60 trivia questions such was “what product is second, only to oil, in terms of the largest trade volumes in the world?” and “what was the first nation  go give women the right to vote?”  Everyone  rated how curious they were  about the answer.  Curiosity had a substantial effect on how likely the older (but not the younger) adults were to recall the answers a week later.  This was a 2015 study by Alan Castel and colleagues reported in “Psychology and Aging.”

A  1996 study of 2,153 70-ish men and women found that the more curious they were, in general, as well as when presented with questions, the more likely they were to be alive in five years.

So curiosity is central to a healthy memory and has a wide variety of benefits.

Einstein, Quantum Mechanics, and the Human Mind

May 17, 2014

This post was motivated by my reading of the Cover Story, State of Mind, by Matthew Chalmers in the 10 May 2014 issue of The New Scientist.  Einstein’s Theory of General  Relativity accounts for a large amount of the behavior of the physical world.  It is deterministic, predicting what follows what.  Quantum mechanics accounts for the physical behavior on a very small scale and accounts for subatomic behavior.  However, at this small scale, the behavior is not strictly determined.  It is probabilistic.  Moreover, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that the location and the velocity cannot be determined at the same time.  One or the other can be measured, but the measurement itself produces change.  Einstein could not accept quantum physics.  He said that God does not play dice with the universe.  Yet quantum physics works quite well, and a fair amount of modern technology results from quantum physics.

In the quantum world objects exist in a fuzzy combination of states, and the very act of measuring them forces them to adopt a specific state.  Einstein spent the latter part of his career trying to reconcile his theory with quantum physics.  Einstein, with all his genius, failed to do so.  Many prominent physicists have continued Einstein’s quest, but all have failed to do so.

Now there is a theory that reconciles the two different theories, but it does not do so in the physical world, but rather in our minds.  It is called quantum bayesianism (QBism).  Thomas Bayes formulated a theorem named after him that computes how probability changes after new information is added.  There is a Bayesian approach to statistics that incorporates the concept of subjective probability.  This approach is quite popular with cognitive psychologists.  QBism states that quantum states are all in our minds.  They are just a mental tool that we use to understand our variable experience in the world.

This reminds me of an experience I had earlier in my life.  This was with a bright young physicist who had difficulty coming to grips with the concept that light could be regarded as waves, or as discrete particles of photons.  As a psychologist, this had never been a problem for me as I did not, and still not, think that we have direct contact with the physical world.  We learn about the physical world through our senses from which we build mental models of external reality.   I have since learned that the 18th century philosopher Kant held the same or a similar notion.  He thought that there is no direct experience of things, and that we construct in our minds models from sensory inputs.  In the case of light, wave theories are the best way to think about some phenomena, and particle theories are the best way to think about other phenomena   In the case of physics, Einstein provides the best models for thinking about the larger physical world, whereas quantum mechanics provides the best models for thinking about the subatomic world.
A good example of this categorical perception can be found in the processing of language.
There is a phoneme in both Korean and Japanese that falls half way between an r sound and an l sound.  This sound is quite clear to Koreans and Japanese, but I always hear either an r or an l.  Difficulty arises on their side when they are speaking and “ I love you” comes out as “I rove you.”
Perhaps with enough training I can overcome this faulty perception.  Certainly Japanese and Koreans who become fluent in English certainly do.

Returning to the world of physics, it is possible that some theoretical physicist will develop a means of reconciling the two theories.  And that theory might provide deeper insight into the discipline of physics, although it is highly doubtful that I shall be able to understand it.  In any case, this is not something for the rest of us to be concerned with as our minds shall  continue to construct mental models as they are needed.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.