Sunday, July 15, 2012

Resolving the Paradox of the Enlightenment: Are we machines or are we free thinkers?

Part 1: Order, Disorder & Attempts to Re-impose order on our Society
During the Enlightenment, there was a general trend of attempting to impose order onto the fractured world of the Middle Ages. Throughout the 18th century, there was increasing attempts to place mathematical structure onto nature. Examples of this increasing structure and order are the following: Newtonian physics, the optimization principles of classical dynamics, absolute space-time, symmetry principles/conservation laws, musical structure (i.e. the 4-part structure of symphonies, the ABABA or similar structure of various musical forms: theme&variation, rondo, sonata allegro, etc…), the non-contradiction within logical structure (i.e. inability to reach contradictions with the propositional calculus), and the growth of a middle class with a Protestant work ethic and an international focus. I think that we can all agree (even though there were some under-currents of chaos within the 18th century) that the thinkers of the Enlightenment tried just a little too hard to impose order onto a world that is both ordered and chaotic. 
However, this structure and order did not last long. In the 19th and 20th century, the French Revolution failed to replace the previous structure of the Church&Aristocracy with a secular, egalitarian democracy. On the musical front, by the end of Beethoven’s life in 1827, he effectively destroyed the structure of musical forms that the Enlightenment had built up. The first two movements of his 3rd symphony announced that the world of purely rational, logical order had died, and that we all needed to enter a new world of heroic struggle for creativity. And while the imposition of order over chaos returned throughout Beethoven’s works, his final symphony ended not with rational order of the classical form, but with the hope of a social utopia of brotherly love (echoing the love from God). This musical turn to creativity over logic, of disorder over order, and utopia over reality was continued by Berlioz, Mahler, Stravinsky and many others. (In fact, most of us today can’t even tell the difference between dissonance and consonance, and many of us today would rather die than be forced to say that reality is better than fantasy.) In addition, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection effectively destroyed the idea of absolute morality, cultural truth, justification for political power, and a personal God. And I’m not exaggerating here. If you take Darwin’s theory of natural selection to its full conclusions, you are lead to the belief that there is no good or evil (only survival), that God did not play an active role in creating humans (i.e. we are accidents), that there is no real claim to power (just the strong using force over the weak), and that there is no cultural truth because every strand of DNA or every meme is still evolving and ever changing (i.e. there is no constancy and no political/cultural structure that can justify itself because we might be able to evolve a better structure in the future.)

Oh, and I’ve only just begun describing the disorder of the pre-WWI society. We have the beginnings of chaos theory with the proof by Henri Poincaré that there is no solution to the 3-body problem of classical physics. We’ve got subversive relativity of Einstein’s Special and then General Theories of Relativity, i.e. space-time is no longer absolute. Though, it should be noted that we traded one absolute for another. We lost absolute space-time and we gained the absolute of light. But this is only a small consolation because we still like to think of the world (space-time) as absolute. We’ve also now have the uncertainty principle, i.e. the inability to determine if an electron is a wave or a particle, and we also had the Twin paradox (though, it should be noted that this is not a real paradox…but at the time, people thought that one twin could age faster than another if one were traveling faster than the other. It turns out that there is no paradox because the original description of the Twin Paradox fails to account for the accelerating reference frames of the two Twins as the one Twin goes from zero velocity to speeds near the speed of light, and back again. If you’re interested in the resolution of the Twin paradox, check out this link.) Still, in the early 20th century (even before WWI), faith in structure and order were falling apart. People couldn’t trust science; they even started questioning the meaning of language; and attempts to impose order failed miserably. For example, Kurt Gödel attempted to re-impose the Platonic order of mathematics, but his Incompleteness Theorems only ended up causing people to see more disorder and more contradiction in the world. The contradictory philosophy and world of Zen Buddhism seemed, but a hop, a skip and a jump away from the world of the early 20th century.

Many people tried impose political order in this world of uncertainty and paradox, but all attempts failed miserably. Imperialism, Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Arab Nationalism, and Islamic Brotherhood only seemed good at getting a lot of people killed. Further, attempts by Edward Lorenz to study the weather, led to the breakthroughs in chaos theory that have eroded our hopes at predicting the future of anything by the simplest of 2-body systems. Further, attempts to remove Puritan morality (either through Freud’s psychotherapy or the individualism of existentialism) have created a ‘fantasy world’ that can satisfy biological instincts for reproduction and does so while claiming to be more ‘real’ than the real world. (After all, some modern philosophers would claim that there is no reality, so there’s reason that fantasy isn’t better than reality.)

We are left today in a world of cultural relativism. While there have been attempts to re-impose order (Christian and Islamic Fundamentalism) and political conservatism (think Ayn Rand, Leo Strauss, Allan David Bloom, and Ronald Reagan, i.e. a return to what made us great. A return to our traditional core, such as Plato, Aristotle, Jesus Christ, and Aquinas while ignoring all of those quirky physics ideas such as special relativity, quantum uncertainty, chaos theory, and the Big Bang.) The problem is that we can’t go back in time. Instead, we are left with a weird mix of pluralism, religious fundamentalism (i.e. faith above reason), neo-Keynesian social utopia (utilitarianism mixed with liberal democracy), radical individualism, and a lack of real growth except in a few countries like China and India. One problem with the idea of pluralism (i.e. that no culture is better than another culture) is that it’s an absurd idea. If there’s no reason for me to think that my culture is better than another culture, how do I make decisions on what I should consume intellectually? Are all philosophies of life equally valid? Clearly, this is a silly philosophy to hold. Clearly, some philosophies of life are better than others. Those who chose to accept the philosophy of pluralism are basically forced into believing that their own genes and memes are merely accidental, and there’s no logical reason to suppose that their genes or memes are any better than anybody else’s. So for them, there’s no real point in passing on their genes or memes. There’s no real meaning other than personal happiness (and even the value of personal happiness is thrown away in some extreme forms of Zen Buddhism and Existentialism.) But you can believe that your culture is better than another culture without having to believe that you should force your culture on other people.

So as stated earlier, most prior attempts to impose order about this chaotic world have failed.  But I think that all along, certain threads of truths have remained, even though these truths were mostly hidden underneath the barrage of news about uncertainty and disorder. First, and foremost, the theories of physics have gotten better and better at describing the real world. We can now often develop theories that anticipate the experimental discovery of new particles. The Higgs Boson is just one of the many anticipated particles that theorists had predicted. Examples include: Dirac’s prediction of anti-particles, Gellman’s prediction of the spin 3/2 strange particle, Glashow-Weinberg-Salam’s prediction of the Z particle, Kobayashi-Maskawa’s prediction of the top&bottom quarks, and finally Higgs’s prediction of the boson that allows the W±&Z particles to acquire mass.

If the world were so chaotic, so indeterminate, and so contradictory, how have so many physicists been able to predict the existence of particles that they had never seen before? How was Einstein able to develop a theory of General Relativity and use it to predict the bending of photons around the Sun’s gravitational field?  Before Einstein, photons had no mass in theory, so the idea that the Sun could exert a force on photons was absurd. But nevertheless, Einstein developed a mathematical framework and predicted (within error) the correct amount of bending of the photons emitted by stars directly behind the Sun.
We can’t go backwards. We can’t go back to Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, and Aquinas. We can only go forward. We can’t ignore the theories of Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Poincaré, Gödel, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Dirac, Feynman, and those of more recent physicists. We need to see the real world for what it is.

The real world is a world of a limited number of types of elemental particles and forces. It is a world of space-time-charge reflection symmetry in three of the four known forces of nature. It is a world in which one of the forces (i.e. the weak nuclear force) is a little weird, but also is the reason for the asymmetry of space-time-charge. The future is chaotic and unpredictable, but yet it may be possible to predict the end state of the universe: either the occurrence of a Big Crunch or the spread out symmetric heat death of a world at maximum entropy.

What we need to do at this point time in history is not to be led backwards in time by the imposition of artificial forms of order and structure. But this doesn’t mean that we have to fall back to into cultural relativism. We have means of quantifying the wealth of nations that don’t force us to into racism, eugenics or imperialism. I can state quantitatively that the US economy is larger than the economy of any other country’s economy right now, and there is no need to assume that this justifies imposing American ideals on other countries. The U.S. and China have the economies that generate the most physical useful work. Generating useful physical world and obtaining a positive rate of return on investment on that work is the goal of life, but because the world is unpredictable, one can never know whether the culture that makes the U.S. and China strong today will keep them strong in the future.

What I’m trying to do in my blog posts is to not to re-impose artificial order back into our disordered, pluralistic society. The order of the Enlightenment was clearly not natural because the real world is not as orderly as people like Newton or Hamilton assumed. What I’m trying to do is to point out that there have always been some elements of order and some elements of chaos in reality. There are known forces and particles, but for the weak nuclear force, there are broken symmetries, and for most of the forces there are known uncertainty principles. Sure, there’s chaos theory, but that doesn’t mean that we have to remove the concept of a rational agent and free-will. We can use Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem to argue for the concept of rational agent and free-will (as done by Douglas Hofstadter.) Or as argued by Stuart Kauffman in “Reinventing The Sacred,” rational agents like humans being are irreducible complex and therefore there is nothing incompatible with modern science and free-will. We don’t need to revert back to Greek or Christian virtues in order to create stable, dynamic, creative, growing societies. We don’t need to revert to extreme individualism, existentialism, and fake pluralism disguised as egoism; and we don’t need to revert to the fantasy worlds of brotherly social utopia.

We can’t go backwards; we can only go forward. To create a quantifiably growing society, we need balance between the competing demands of egoism and collectivism. The goal is not balance, but balance appears to be one of the best ways of achieving growth. We need to grow all life forms, not just human life forms. We need to study physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, economics, social sciences, philosophy and literature. There is a purpose to life, and that is to grow life. As circular as that logic sounds, it’s the only way out of the paradox raised by David Hume (how to go from ‘ought’ from ‘is’.)

Sure, we can never predict the future with absolute certainty, but we (just like all other life forms) have the innate capability to spend useful physical world. The question is: are we going to waste that useful physical work or are we going to spend that useful physical work to generate even more useful physical work in the future? (i.e. are we going to grow life? Or are we going to let life wither away?)

In the end, we aren’t left with a choice between order or disorder, and reality or fantasy. It’s all reality, and that reality is a mix of order/disorder. We are left with questions for individuals to answer: how to grow life? And what types of society seem the most conducive to growing life?
With those questions in mind, I’d like transition to Part 2 of this post, which discusses the inherent paradox raised by the Enlightenment, and how we have largely solved the paradox today.

Part 2: The Paradox of the Enlightenment and its Resolution
On the one hand, the scientific revolution was making life forms seem more and more like  machines (i.e. no free will), but on the political front, the growing middle class and eventually the working&agricultural classes were demanding more liberty, just as philosophers such as Locke, Montesquieu, and Smith were arguing for more personal liberty. If according to Newtonian physics people were just machines, then why do machines deserve personal liberty? And perhaps, who better than the machine we call the State to determine how best to use these human machines?

In order to argue for liberty, there needs to be an underlying belief or rational understanding of free will. For the founders of the U.S. Constitution, there seemed to be a weird mix of “God given rights” for freedom, but also the idea that God was but a blind watchmaker who set the world going, but then didn’t interfere with the processes of life. The world was seen as a purely mechanical system, but it wasn’t clear how people fit into this purely mechanical system. Did God give them free-will, and hence the capability to chose how to live their lives and chose their politicians? What was the purpose of life according to this philosophy of the Enlightenment? Education? Wealth? Power? Salvation/Grace? The degree to which ordinary people recognized this paradox (machines vs. free-will) is hard to discern, and it’s tough to argue that this paradox was the cause of any particular real world event, such as the French Revolution. 
But I think that it’s clear (in retrospect) that the ensuing philosophical chaos of the 19th and 20th centuries was in part recognition that the paradox of the Enlightenment was not sustainable.
But today, we are no longer living in an age of purely mechanical thought. Today, as discussed above, there’s the second law of thermodynamics, Darwinism evolution, the quantum uncertainty principle, and chaos theory. Even though we are surrounded by computers, robots and other mechanical devices, our age does not seem to be one dominated by the mechanical, clock-ticking mindset of the Enlightenment. And the discovery of the Higgs Boson is one more arrow in the chain-mail of mechanical, clock-ticking mindset of the post-Newtonian world.

The Higgs Boson appears to be the reason that the force carriers of the weak nuclear force have mass. The force carriers of the weak nuclear force are the only force carriers that have mass. The graviton (not found yet), the photon, and the gluons do not have mass. These analogy goes farther than just mass because the weak nuclear force is the only force that is not symmetric with respect to reflections in space, time, and charge (or combinations of any two of these reflections.) The gravitational, electromagnetic and strong nuclear forces are completely symmetric with respect to reflections in space, time or charge. The Higgs Boson is therefore likely the cause (or the effect) of the inability to reflect in space, time or charge. This means that, without the Higgs Boson, there is no fundamental theory for why where is an arrow to time, for why the world is not left-right symmetric, and for why more particles exist than anti-particles. The discovery of the Higgs Boson is crucial for our developing a theory of why there is an arrow to time. The question remains: what does the discovery of the Higgs Boson have on our day-to-day lives? Does the discovery of the Higgs Boson have any philosophical underpinning that would help us make day-to-day decisions?

My argument is that the discovery of the Higgs Boson confirms the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. that the information about the exact microstate of a closed system can only decrease or remain the same. The reason for the loss of information is that the weak nuclear force is not symmetric with respect to reflections in time. The outcome of a collision involving the weak nuclear force can’t be known with certainty because then you could reflect with respect to time and go right back into the inputs.

So, what does this have to do with free will? I think that when you combine the fact (1) that time is asymmetric (i.e. that the entropy of the universe is increasing with time, even though the total energy and total momentum of the universe is constant), (2) that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem may lead to the concept of a rational agent (that is free to chose and free to calculate how to act), and (3) that the future is uncertain (due to chaos theory), then you are lead to the conclusion that rational agents (i.e. life forms) should be free to choose how best to pass on their genes and memes to future generation. This means that rational agents should be free to choose governments of their choosing that they think can best help them pass on their genes and memes. If you don’t like your current government, then you can vote to change governments or you can move someplace that is more similar in your beliefs. Those governments that allow people to grow the fastest will start attracting more people, and this is a good thing. We don’t want equality between governments and cultures. We should want those governments and cultures that grow the fastest to continue to grow the fastest.

We live in an unpredictable world. We live in a world in which entropy increases and stored energy(exergy) decreases. We live in a non-equilibrium world, one that is asymmetric in time. There is no single equation that we can write down and place into a super-computer in order to predict the future. Allowing rational, self-replicating agents to be free to choose how to spend the useful physical work that they generate appears to the best way to grow all life. Attempts to impose too much order and structure (such as Enlightenment structure or the bazaar philosophies of Fascism, Communism, and Christian/Islamic Fundamentalism) and attempts to remove all order and structure (such as Existentialism, Zen Buddhism, pluralism) have fail to respect the complex nature of reality, i.e. its chaos, its uncertainty, its seemingly simplicity,  its asymmetry, and its symmetry. I think that we finally are in a place today to resolve the paradox of the Enlightenment. Human beings (like all other life forms) are not machines, and they deserve personal liberty because they are rational agents living in a non-equilibrium, asymmetric world. 

1 comment:

  1. Very well explained.The topic of energy is very vast.And its still under research.

    ReplyDelete