Thursday, December 22, 2011

My thoughts on Ayn Rand, Consciousness, Capitalism & Universal Rights

A subtitle for this post is: "How Consciousness & Capitalism fit into the Philosophy of Growing Life."

I previously wrote a tribute to Benjamin Franklin, and I'm in process of writing a tribute to Andrew Carnegie. (There are plenty of other people who deserve a tribute in my blog, such as James Watt, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, & the Wright Brothers, but I decided to start with Benjamin Franklin because I sincerely believe that no one person better exemplifies the philosophy of life that I'm trying to communicate in this blog than Benjamin Franklin.)

But before I focus on all of these other people, I wanted to write about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of rational individualism because she raises some interesting points about the nature of consciousness and what actions are moral in a world with conscious observers. And the reason that I'm taking the time to look at Ayn Rand's philosophy (before paying tribute to Andrew Carnegie) is that she would have some criticisms of some of my statements, such as "The goal of life is to expand life" or "The purpose of a power plant is to generate more power plants, and as quickly as possible."

The reason that I'm bringing Ayn Rand into the discussion here is that my philosophy of life (that the goal of life is to expand) would appear to her, as well as to other people, to be dehumanizing and lacking in moral agents. For example, if the goal of life is simply to grow life, then it shouldn't matter if that life is human, bacterial, fungal or vegetable. It might appear to some people that my philosophy of life is dehumanizing because it makes no differentiation between conscious forms of life and non-conscious forms of life. [In part, this lack of differentiation is due to the fact that I don't see things as black and white. I believe that consciousness comes in a continuous spectrum, with bacteria at the non-conscious side of the spectrum and humans at the conscious side of the spectrum.]

For Ayn Rand, consciousness is an axiom, a starting point, for all of the rest of her philosophy. And while I think that it's an important assumption to make in any philosophy of life, the question is:  are we forced into a philosophy of rational individualism just because we start with the assumption that humans are conscious?
   I don't think that we are forced into such a philosophy because, while consciousness is wonderful, fascinating, and still quite enigmatic, it is nevertheless a physical/chemical/biological phenomena. For example, consciousness goes away when you drink too much or when you are given certain anesthetics. While we know a lot of about consciousness, such as how to turn it on or off, we have no physical model of consciousness (even though Douglas Hofstadter has done a lot to equate consciousness with self-reference.) Because the nature of consciousness is still quite unexplainable, it is crucial to err on the side of caution whenever we make laws or take actions that involve the killing of conscious beings. (This includes non-human conscious species, such as dolphins and many of the great apes.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Strangest Argument I've ever seen for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

While meandering through websites discussing global warming, I ran into one site that gives the silliest reason to stop emitting greenhouse gases...the reason is that the efficiency of our greenhouse gas emitting vehicles will decrease as the atmospheric temperature increases. (Follow this link: Global Warming-Lessons from the Second Law of Thermodynamics.) Don't try to get your head around this argument, it goes in a circle. This argument came from a physics professor.
I don't know what it is about physicists (including myself), but some of us initially seem to back some really strange and silly ideas when we move from pure physics to energy policy or energy engineering.
One of the goals of this blog is to reduce the time from "naive physicist" to "seasoned energy engineer" for those people who decide to transition careers.
I am still naive in some areas of the electricity grid, but I've learned a lot over the years with regards to how to build power plants with high rates of return on investment, even in a greenhouse gas constrained world.

So, this leads me to the article I ran across earlier today. The author, a physics professor at LaTrobe University, makes some bold statements in a new book titled "Energy: A Subtle Concept." 

1) "In tropical regions, the ambient temperature is already so high, the air already so humid, that plant-cooling and hence photosynthesis is at the limit of efficiency. Any increase in temperature and plant growth will decrease or stop."

2) "With greenhouse warming, the efficiency of every process on Earth will be compromised."  [including life]

I want to address these claims because they are completely off the mark. (It'll help if you read the review of her book in the link I posted at the beginning of this post...or again here.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Going Forward, Not Standing Still: On the Arrow of Time, Entropy and Growth

I happened to be flipping through the TV channels and I saw a documentary by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe  (if you're interested you can watch it for free online...though be careful because of the many errors he makes by trying to reach a large, public audience.) In particular, he states that the laws of physics are the same forward as backwards, i.e. that the laws of physics are time reversal symmetric. While three of the forces of nature are time reversal symmetric, the weak nuclear force is not time symmetric. And this force is most likely the cause of the arrow of time that we see in the real world.

But this is not a new fact. The lack of time reversal symmetry has been known since the 1960s, and Brian Greene would have studied this multiple times in life. But it's not only Brian Greene who repeatably makes this mistake; in a previous post, I discussed how Sean Carroll of CalTech makes the same mistake. Another physicist in the same boat is Julian Barbour, who wrote a book in 1999 called "The End of Time." This book, which I've only skimmed, suggests incorrectly that there is no such things as time and hence, no such thing as history, because the equations of motion of time reversible (which they are not, and as already stated above, this has been known since the 1960s.)

Why do so many smart people ignore the time asymmetry of the weak nuclear force and continue believing that there is no such thing as time or history?

It really makes me think that there must just be some people out there who prefer thinking that the world is time reversal symmetric because it falls inline with their philosophical's almost a statement that if there is no arrow of time, then there is no such thing as progress. That growth is an illusion. It appears that there are some people, like Brian Greene, Julian Barbour or Sean Carroll, who prefer thinking that there is no difference between the past and the future. This is basically a philosophy of nihilism, i.e. that there is no meaning to life.