Category Archives: Philosophy

God Does not Play Dice

This quote is credited to Albert Einstein. It describes his belief in determinism. In a less famous quote, he says more explicitly

“If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.”

So, Al is on my side. When I say that the same initial  settings of the universe would always be guaranteed to produce the same outcome (the fundamental tenet of determinism), sometimes people like to bring up Heisenberg, who supposedly proved the universe is fundamentally random. However, we can never really prove that anything is not based on underlying deterministic phenomena. All we can show is that at this time we have not managed to determine the phenomena it’s based on. Heisenberg’s principle is based on what is observable, not what is existent. God may very well know exactly where a quantum particle is and its exact speed. It’s outrageous to claim that just because we can’t know something its inherently unknowable.

Isn’t it also outrageous to claim that we can know that God does not play dice? If we can’t measure the determinism behind a phenomenon, we can only speculate about whether it is deterministic or fully random. My argument is that the more we learn the more we see the universe following principles and rules. When taken to the extreme, I can admit this is only a philosophical argument without much basis in measurable science, but I do believe that there is no randomness, only order we haven’t yet discovered or can’t measure.

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Modern Soothsayers

We think of predicting the future as an inherently supernatural task. In fact, it’s hard for me to even say it without emphasizing the last word (FYOOOOOCHURE) to highlight the silliness. Predicting the future is supposedly the realm of shamans and mystics, with no place in the modern world.

As I was thinking this recently, though, (and saying “fyoooochure” a few times in my head)  it occurred to me that predicting the future does have a place in the modern world. More than that, it could be argued that predicting the future is the basis of the modern world.

The difference is that modern soothsayers operate on a much more limited scale. No scientist with any self respect would tell the president that his first born son would grow up to kill him and take his mantle, but there are scientists whose job it is to predict the arrival of rain (meteorologists) and satellites are now being used to predict poor crop harvest. International studies experts predict war with other nations, and even engineers predict that under a given set of conditions their software will successfully perform a given task. Lawyers write contracts to ensure a common and enforceable understanding of the future. Just about every knowledge profession uses the past to predict the future, but it’s not just the highly educated that benefit from seeing what is to come.

Consider the famous Stanford marshmallow experiments. Children were given one marshmallow and asked not to eat it for some amount of time. For their success they were promised two marshmallows. Many results came from this well-cited experiment, but one result suggests that the children who come from unstable homes are less likely to resist the marshmallow. One way to think of this is that these children don’t trust adults. They have learned that what adults tell them is not a good predictor of the future, so they should eat the marshmallow in front of them while it’s still there. This lack of trust in systems to assure the future leads to struggles for these children in later life as they attempt to function in the modern world.

The next time you scoff at predicting the future, remember that it’s what everyone has to do all the time. When you spend a long day at work, you predict that you’ll be rewarded with the pay you’ve been promised. When you stop eating a large meal and save the rest for tomorrow, you are predicting that your refrigerator will keep dangerous bacteria from growing in it, that your roommates, your neighbors, or roving bandits won’t eat it before you get hungry again, that your house won’t burn down tomorrow. When you cross a crosswalk in front of a car, you are predicting a future in which that car stays put instead of running you over.

It’s impossible to function without predicting the future to some degree. Now that I’ve written this blog entry, I predict that some number of people will read and enjoy it. Maybe you did. I hope so.

West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

No Organized Party

On the way to the county Democratic convention, my Lyft driver told me about how Obamacare had hurt her and her family. For one reason or another, after the law passed her insurance through her husband’s employer saw an increase in deductible from $1,500 to $10,000 per year. Medicare told her she was not eligible when she tried to get support for her autistic children’s physical therapy. I had little reason to believe that the Koch brothers were now planting fake Lyft drivers to lie about Obamacare, so I had to take her story at face value.

The first three quarters of the convention was voting for people I’d never heard of.  The most important decision involved a choice between a man and a woman. “He’s going to do what’s right and not what’s wrong,” said the proponents of the man, to which the woman’s supporters replied, “She’s a woman!” To be fair, the actual candidates said a little more. The man said he was going to re-establish the Democrats as the big-tent party,  which impressed me at first. When I said I would vote for him, a woman next to me snapped “no glass ceiling for you.” As his speech went on, he failed to expound on what he meant by big-tent, though. I worried he meant going more conservative instead of reaching out to help and listen to the poor of all colors Bernie Sanders style. The woman described a laundry list of strategies to get better organized and reach out to voters, which I appreciated for its clarity, so I voted for her. She won.

Next was a series of elections with only one candidate. After that was an election where we were to select seventy-eight people. There was a sheet of instructions telling us how to vote. We were to carefully maximize the diversity in each district. The couple beside me diligently filled it out like a logic problem, using the provided list of what proportions of people were in each district and carefully meeting the criteria of the attached sheet. I wanted more progressives, so I voted for the two people who explicitly listed themselves as progressive and didn’t bother with the rest.

At lunchtime I learned that the Young Democrats never received my order and believed I had just given them $15 just for whatever they felt like ordering themselves. Frustrating, but the generic sandwiches were fine.

The last segment of the convention was by far the best. We had a collection of resolutions to vote for. At each resolution, anyone could vote to pull it for corrections or to remove entirely, or a silent room would leave it as part of our official list to be sent to the district level. One man said to pull the statement against the death penalty, but when he saw the arguments that accompanied it he said they were convincing and backed down. One man pulled a number of different resolutions just to fix their grammar. At one point he called for the removal of text claiming that North Carolina had always stood against oppression of all kinds, as it simply wasn’t true. All of his amendments passed without opposition.

Even though it was trying at first, overall I was happy to have attended the convention. I didn’t affect much change this time, but next year I will be better prepared to draft and submit my own resolutions and stand on the floor to make statements. It does feel like this is a level at which an individual can make a difference.

Playing fast and loose with D&D

As a new dungeon master, one who has already complained about the tabletop role playing game’s restrictive mythology and overwhelmingly combat-oriented gameplay, I like to take an open-ended approach. Here are some examples of what I have already done and how my players have reacted.

Giant spiders in a dungeon are not part of the dungeon’s evil plan, but mere inhabitants.  In fact, in my dungeon they were serving a useful purpose – eating the massive supply of zombies that the dungeon was producing.  They were so pleased with the preponderance of food that they set up their egg sack in the dungeon, which fortunately they were able to move out before the adventurers caused the dungeon to sink back into the earth from which it came.

What made this especially fun with my party was that we had a druid. Being sometimes a spider herself, she is able to understand the clicks and hisses of the giant spiders.  At first I whispered in her player’s ear what the spiders were saying to her and to each other, but then I switched to text messages. Colleen, for reasons of her own, decided not to communicate the spiders’ messages to her party.  I may get all of my players’ phone numbers so that I can give player-specific information when necessary.

Also, rather than being helpless victims of monsters and passive spectators of heroic glory, townsfolk will often take action against the dungeons that plague them.  Thus far, the townsfolk have noted the predictable pattern in which the zombie invasion occurred and set up a bonfire to burn them up before they can get into town.

Not to say I didn’t have any challenges.

One thing that surprised me when I was trying to make my own scenario was how well-versed some of the players were in D&D mythology. They gave me a lot of trouble for having a non-metallic dragon be the supposedly benevolent ruler of a small country, as it is well known that dragons of solid colors are evil and hate humanoids.  I was not surprised that they were curious, but even so they were good at getting information out of me. One of my non-player characters ended up being much more knowledgeable than he probably should’ve been, given his apparent disinterest in anything to do with the main quest.  One of the players was intent on laying bare the nonsense at the heart of what I was asking them to do, pointing out that if they were helping a pair of colossal dragons it was difficult to imagine what task they could solve that the dragons could not. At first my retired, cynical wizard character, who had actually been encouraging the party not to get involved just shrugged. Unfortunately, I then lost my cool and he suddenly launched into a pep talk about how overwhelming the odds seemed when he and his party saved the multiverse from the great necromancer thirty years ago. Not in character. Bad dungeon mastering.

When my characters were following the road to the main city, they found the bridge was out.  I had some spiders follow the river north to another crossing, and even had one of the friendly NPCs suggest north was the way to go, but my party is delightfully stubborn.  They felled a tree and we role played all the skill checks that each of them would need to make their way across.  Almost all of them fell in the water, but they had concocted a clever rope system that would prevent them from being washed away.  This is the kind of thing that I love to do in any game – find easy solutions to ostensibly tough problems. They are skipping a significant chunk of the content in that forest, but not the plot-important stuff, so it’s fine.

Cover image from: http://sandara.deviantart.com/art/White-Dragon-391820143

Universalism in the Land of Good and Evil

I don’t know how many of you have seen “Grand Theft Auto Pacifist.” Probably very few. It is a short video series about a man who attempts to play grand theft auto five online while adhering to the law and moral values in general. Needless to say, the structure of the game itself makes it very difficult to live nonviolently and within the law, and the narrator spends a lot of time hilariously musing over the philosophical implications of this world.

I would like to start by saying that when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, I never expected to create a pacifist character. For one thing, even if I want to take that challenge myself it would be too much to ask of my fellow players. When one player said that he was going to be a conservative Pelorite, though, Pelor being a deity within the game, I thought I would be a liberal Pelorite. Particularly, I would be a universalist who believes that everyone gets to go to Pelor’s heaven.

Of course, since violence is built into the game, I had to have some modifications to typical universalism. Particularly, my character Zacchariah Holbrech developed a sense that murder and violence were simply sending people to the heaven where everyone eventually goes.

My father played with us, too, and inspired by the Pelorite devotion brewing in the party, he developed another Pelorite, one who actually was disinterested in violence. I think if given his way, he might have happily stayed at the Abbey and simply stopped playing with us once we went off on our adventure. Sometimes his character “Tom the Monk” will complain that really he just wants to bind books and that’s what he’s good at, not fighting. He fights anyway.

Zach is very comfortable with fighting, but for a while he tried to maintain a level of decorum. As a lawful good character, when he promised a captured bugbear that he would not have him executed in return for information, he was horrified to learn that overnight one of his non-Pelorite party-members smashed the tied up bugbear’s head in.

After some increasingly game-interrupting attempts at getting the party to agree not to kill captives that they had promised not to kill, Zach received a message from “Pelor himself” (AKA  the gamemaster – the guy that creates the whole scenario and tries to make sure everyone’s having a good time) that really keeping your word to evil monsters is not very important. As long as evil is slain, Pelor is happy, said Pelor. Zach took this message to heart, but when it came to a poor, mistreated goblin locked in a dungeon not in any position to hurt anyone, he couldn’t do it. Instead, he shouted and shouted about how he was going to kill this goblin until another party member mercifully relieved him of his Peloric duty. Eventually somebody who knew Goblin language talked to the goblin until the goblin said he believed in them (the party members). Then another party member made the theological argument that the goblin was therefore a Pelorite by extension.

It’s difficult to play any kind of character with whom I could remotely identify in this world constantly at war between two irreconcilable forces of “good” and “evil.” For example, continuing the fantasy tradition of writing that sounds like war propaganda, The description of the bugbear includes this passage, “when a bugbear holds its blade, it kills only when it can be assured that the murder will cause maximum pain and suffering to those its weapon does not touch; to a bugbear, the true goal of murder is to strike not at the victim, but at those who held the victim dear.”

This is, after all appropriate for a creature whose alignment, as defined by the game, is not to a particular faction or cause so much as just to evil. This notion of absolute evil makes the idea of everyone going to heaven a little confusing.

Nevertheless, despite his intelligence of only 10 (no better than average!), Zacchariah is pretty good at making theology work for him; he now takes a Rawlsian perspective. The bugbear did not choose to be a bugbear and therefore naturally inclined to hurt people. Taking a theological interpretation of John Rawls, although the bugbear’s actions are evil, when it loses its body the brain chemistry that gave it such pleasure at others’ pain is lost with it, and the soul that goes to Almighty Lord Pelor is pure. Thus, it is a kindness to kill evil creatures. I think  I’m just going to have to accept that Zacchariah is a straight up religious extremist like most of my party. Thank goodness this is just a game.

What Bernie Sanders Can Do

Anybody paying close attention to democratic politics lately has probably noticed that Bernie Sanders is making a lot of ambitious statements about how he thinks the United States can be in the future. The claims are so ambitious, in fact, that some people think that he’s just making things up. They wonder how he could possibly accomplish all the things he’s described, like universal healthcare and higher education for all, in just eight years with a solidly obstructionist Republican Congress. It has gotten so bad, that for a while my girlfriend would fly into a rage whenever I brought Bernie Sanders up because she was worried that it would break my poor little heart when all of the things he supposedly was claiming would happen shortly after he was elected to office failed to materialize.

Now, maybe I missed the part where he promised he was going to make all these things happen himself and in short order. Assuming, though, that what I have seen of his stump speeches is representative of his claims in general, what he’s saying is this is where our country should be, not that he’s going to take us there in four years on a magical socialism train. Bernie Sanders is in fact one of few politicians vying for the office of president who freely admits that the president himself has much less power than people ascribe to him. He’s more than happy to tell people what they want to hear because it turns out people want to hear the way that America should be. This radical notion of thinking about how things could be better rather than assuming that things will never be better and starting from there is, to say the least, inspiring.

This is not to say that Bernie Sanders would unequivocally be the better president. Bernie Sanders hasn’t been on the national political stage as long as Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, at least based on her voting records in the Senate, is comparable to Bernie Sanders in her policy preferences. Hillary would be a good president. Anyone voting for Bernie Sanders should vote for Hillary in the election if she wins the nomination. Hillary has more experience in foreign policy than Bernie Sanders, yes, and she may be better at fending off the bizarre assaults that come at her from the right, if only because she has had to deal with more than Bernie Sanders has had to. Hillary’s previous experience in the White House could very well help to get policy through that otherwise would not. According to conventional thinking, Hillary Clinton is more electable than Bernie Sanders. However, according to conventional thinking Bernie Sanders would never have gotten as far as he has, either.

In a nation living in the smog of corruption for so long that it doesn’t even know what it’s like to live without it, Bernie Sanders a breath of air so fresh it is literally hard for people to believe it could be real. Hillary Clinton described politics as poetry and policy as prose, with her being better at the latter than the former. Perhaps counterintuitively, I argue that we need poetry right now. If Bernie Sanders can’t make any of the things he talks about in his stump speeches happen during his tenure as president, our nation will only be better for him trying. Because when the president tries, when the president steps up in front of America and says that he agrees with the American people that this should be a country where influence is voted on rather than bought, when the president speaks at his inaugural address or his State of the Union and says that access to healthcare is a right, not a privilege, when the president cites the science and says that global climate change causes more terrorism, when the president makes an address and says that the top 1/10 of 1% should not own as much as the bottom 90%, when the president speaks to what is best for Americans rather than what is in an arbitrary center between the right and left wings of US politics, people listen, and people talk, and people act. We need people listening, talking, and acting on what’s best for this country. We need to change the dialogue, and amid all the things that he could not do, that is something that president Bernie Sanders could do, and should do, and will.

Or if he loses the nomination, it’s what we should keep pressure on Hillary to do. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to win to help change this country.