Saturday, April 18, 2009

Randomness, Chance, and Two Darwins

We have the usual missionary cult groups in rural Mendocino County, California, near Point Arena: Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah's Witnesses. In general they seem to be pretty nice people. I don't mind them visiting their neighbors. They'll talk if you want to talk, and go away politely if you don't want to talk. It is interesting to see their opening talk lines.

A few month's ago Paul (not his real name), an earnest young man (younger than me, anyway, no big feat these days) from one of these groups, asked me, "You don't believe all of this is due to chance, do you?" His sweeping arms indicated my bishop pines, eucalyptus, the people present, the sky and the universe.

"Yes, I do," I said. That threw him. He acted as if they forgot to put that in the recruitment play book. We talked a bit more, and they left (they always seem to come in pairs, which is good, because you can offer them a beer and they'll say No).

Yesterday I read about the difference between the randomness of classical physics and the randomness of quantum physics in Inward Bound by Abraham Pais. It reminded me of how much trouble I have had accepting the nature of reality at the quantum level, of how most people are even more confused by randomness than I am, and the conversation with the earnest Christian.

I knew Paul was referring to the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. No, for things to be as snafu as they are in this world, you need a Central Planning Intelligence, a sort of cosmic CIA, God's designer intervention team.

Because even trained scientists have difficulty with issues of causation and randomness, you can bet (or lay odds) that religious recruiters are going to use people's confusion to lay out their own highly improbably, but very simple, causal story: God created things (and he speaks directly to the leaders of my religion, the only true religion).

Natural liberation involves understanding nature's randomness and causality. That means understanding their respective roles in the world. You need to remind yourself some times that words like chance, randomness, planning, and causality are used by humans to lump together a wide variety of natural phenomena.

It is said that some Roman soldiers worshipped Chance (Fortuna) as a god. Plato, on the other hand, did not like randomness, and preferred unseen causes to explain the otherwise inexplicable world. There are also the related ancient ideas of Fate and Free Will. Some people don't like causality because it seems to take away free will, but most people accept some causality in the "outside" world while reserving free will for people's decision making process.

A lot of this is illuminated by understanding the difference between the randomness of genetics and evolution, the randomness of classical physics, and the randomness of quantum physics.

Classical physical randomness is the best starting point. Think about dice or better still, a card game. The cards in poker are supposed to be dealt randomly, and for practical purposes we don't think about that when playing poker unless we think the dealer is cheating. But we know that each physical card maintains its physical identity from hand to hand; shuffling cards is a causal process that gives the card order a sort of practical randomness.

The classical physics problem that is solved with this sort of randomness is calculating the energy, specific heat or temperature of some matter. It is easiest with certain "ideal" gasses (ideal because the theory works out!). In classical physics everything is causal. The gas molecules all have locations, masses, and velocities. They bounce off each other in a causal manner similar to colliding marbles. But there are two many of them to use ordinary calculus to keep track of, much less calculate the temperature. By treating the molecules as having random velocities and directions, scientists could group them. The properties of the groups, fit into the right equations, give good answers. Even then this is complicated enough that scientists (notably Ludwig Boltzmann) did not get this essentially right until the late 1800's.

The point to be noticed is that in classical physics, there is no inherent randomness in matter or energy. Randomness is at the macro level, or the level of human perception. It arises out of microscopic events that are too difficult for us to keep track of. When we roll dice, they obey all of Newton's laws of physics, we just can't keep track. Nature, presumably, does keep track.

Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection is covered under this classical randomness theory. Darwin did not know about chromosomes or DNA. We now know that the DNA of two parents is randomly mixed and selected for each child. This is an example of classical physical randomness: causal laws are at work on the cell level, but we can't follow them, we can only see the results. Survival until reproduction of the next generation involves both events that we classify as causal (quicker, and so escaped a predator) and random (standing in wrong place, wiped out by a flood).

I knew I was technically wrong to say, to Paul that I believe "all this" was a result of chance. There is chance involved, but evolution is really best described as causal. Its randomness is classical, a matter of humans using statistics to describe complex large scale events that are causal at a microscopic letter.

A second scientist Darwin (or fourth, if you want to include Erasmus Darwin and George Howard Darwin), Charles Galton Darwin, a grandson of Charles, was one of the many scientists who contributed to the creation of quantum physics. Coincidence, or caused by his high level of intelligence, education, and a family tradition of breaking new ground?

In quantum physics, very early on, it appeared there were truly random processes in nature. Radioactivity was the first example. Atoms of radioactive elements appear to decay randomly. So of course all the bright guys of the era set out to show that there were underlying causes for the decays. That would have set their classical physics world to right. But they could not find any underlying, classical mechanism for the randomness. In the 1920's some younger physicists started accepting this quantum randomness as just inherent in the universe. Today there is still no causal theory that explains quantum randomness. It is an simply a human observation about nature at the quantum level.

The philosophic and religious interpretations of this facet of natural reality tend to simply be used to reinforce prior prejudices. Some say quantum randomness proves there is free will. Some say it means there must be a multiverse. Many project the randomness into scales well beyond quantum physics. In fact, randomness averages out very quickly, even quantum randomness. Put a few atoms together in a molecule, and quantum randomness tones way down. By the time you have anything worth worrying about, say a few hundred molecules of gold in a lump, quantum randomness has no effect on causality. Classical physics works better.

Scientists and technicians have produce clever ways to bring quantum randomness into the world of objects that humans can see, but this is an engineering trick. Electronics parts may use quantum randomness (as in quantum tunneling), but they are themselves very predictable.

It takes a lot of study to gain even a basic understanding of quantum physics. Even the Bible is an easier read than an introduction to quantum physics text book, not to mention the mathematical prerequisites required to comprehend the equations in it. Pop quantum physics is about as useful as Bible quotes taken out of context.

Nevertheless, here's a recipe:

Two Darwins Quantum Piety

"Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots [for it]." The Bible, Luke 23:34 [See also similar Matthew 27:35]

Thus is was that lots were cast at the most sacred event of the Christian religion, the Crucifixion [if it is not just a myth]. It was recorded because Fortuna wanted people to know that She does roll dice, both in the classical and quantum sense.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Learned Helplessness

I recently read about learned helplessness in Driving Excellence
by Michael J. Jones and Steve Sanghi [pages 55-56]. Sadly, this starts as one of those sadistic behavior psychologist, electrocuting rats stories. Bear with me, it is worth thinking about.

The rats are taught, or tortured, by being placed in a cage with two floor plates that can be charged. Initially, they are taught that when they get shocked, then can get relief by jumping to the other plate. In stage two, both plates are charged at once. At first the rats will jump back and forth, but eventually they give up jumping and just stay on one plate and suffer.

Turn off the plate the rat is not on, and it will not know it, because it has learned helplessness.

Of course people can learn helplessness in all sorts of contexts. People are complex, so they can learn helplessness in one context, but be active and helpful in other contexts. Overall pattens of learned helplessness are probably learned in childhood, but some are unlearned during the years of teen rebellion. Even in specific situations an individual human could show shades of gray regarding helplessness.

You could learn helplessness from your family, from parents who are always critical, or inflict punishments, or even just apathetic, no matter what you do. You could learn it in school, or from social interactions with dysfunctional children. You can easily help create it in others.

One place most people have learned this is the American two-party system. Every few years the Democratic plate tortures people, then for a few years they are tortured by the Republican plate. In the large population, the helplessness response is statistical. A percentage of people join the party of their parents and never leave. A percentage flip back and forth from election to election, hoping for relief. Over time, as a generation ages, people just give up and either stay Republicans, stay Democrats, or just stop voting.

Take this excerpt from an Associated Press article from yesterday: "President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday for $83.4 billion for U.S. military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressing for special troop funding that he opposed two years ago when he was senator and George W. Bush was president." [Full article: Obama Seeks $83.4 Billion]

Many people voted for Barack Obama, and even contributed money to his campaign, because they hated George W. Bush and his war policies. They may miss this particular news item, or they may conclude that they just hated Bush, and whatever Barack does is okay with them.

This is just one example; add an ongoing stream of political electroshocks over years of life, and the chances of not getting learned political helplessness are quite low.

What about third parties, like the Green Party? The Green Party grew rapidly during the 1990's Clinton Era [See President Bill Clinton]. Then the Democratic Party devoted a great deal of energy to destroying the Green Party after the 2000 election. The pain inflicted on Greens was obvious, and most of them folded themselves into the Democratic Party or dropped out of politics.

To build a third party capable of real hope and real change, there needs to be a culture and structure created that can help people learn to help themselves faster than the two-party government can convince them that bad government is as inevitable as war and taxes.

Learned Helplessness Wikipedia article

Papers on learned helplessness, links to

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Science, Nature, and Human Error

This Natural Liberation blog is all too often about political events of the day. Needing a topic to write on, I can look at the day's news. I can also illuminate the topic with some examples from history. The importance of politics is clear: not only are people living or dying because of political decisions, but species are surviving or not, and the entire vast web of life built up on earth these past billions of years is also in peril. Yet I did not want this blog mainly to be about politics.

I want to return to the theme of natural liberation. By going back and forth between how we participate in events and our ethics, we can refine both our knowledge of the world and of our ethics. By looking at mistakes in human reasoning in philosophy, we might liberate ourselves and find a Natural Liberation philosophy that is both good and based on a clear view of the material world.

Science is supposed to be about truth, but it is a troublesome issue for me and many of my friends. I turned away from science when I learned about its misuse by militarists. At the time the Vietnam War was waging and I was worried I would be drafted. That war ended, but the misuse of science has not changed in my lifetime. But all too many people throw out the baby (accurate understanding of nature) with the bath water (bad things done by science and technology).

Science is all about understanding nature. In itself, it is an honest pursuit. When religion, pseudo-science, or new-age claptrap is substituted for science, that is for understanding nature, the problems created by human beings can be as catastrophic as using scientific knowledge for unethical ends.

The history of science is often more instructive than just learning about the current state of scientific knowledge. Usually science histories seem to illuminate a clear path from the Dark Ages to the Nuclear Age. The real history of science includes mistaken ideas in a proportion of over 10 to 1 compared to the ones that eventually stood up to testing. Reading about scientists, including great scientists, making mistakes is a humbling and illuminating experience.

Inward Bound by Abraham Pais shows the many mistakes it sometimes takes to get an accurate view when fallible humans are seeking to understand nature. His story of the discovery of what we call x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen. He was working with a cathode ray tube, a device that had been around for decades and was still just a decade ago commonly used for TV and computer monitor screens. He wanted to repeat and elaborate on Philipp Lenard's experiment, which was designed to study the rays when outside the actual cathode tube. His experimental device was almost the same as Lenard's, but he saved himself some time and money. Instead of encasing the tube in metal to prevent the rays from escaping randomly, he found that black cardboard would do the job adequately.

Then he noticed something everyone had missed until then: a phosphorescent screen glowed a good distance from the tube, where there was a hole in the cardboard. We now call this phenomena x-rays. The rays inside the tube we call electrons. When an electron of sufficiently high energy hits the glass lining the tube, it may cause an x-ray to be emitted. Lenard missed seeing x-rays because his metal enclosure stopped them.

People loved x-rays. We still use them the same way, to make the invisible visible. For instance taking pictures of bones inside the human body.

Roentgen became pretty good at manipulating x-rays, but strangely his theory about them was quite wrong. He thought they were the long-suspected but never found longitudinal vibrations of electro-magnetism. In fact they were later proven to be just like light and other electro-magnetic waves, only at a very high energy and very short wavelength.

Roentgen was not alone. Many scientists agreed with him about the likely nature of x-rays. Even stranger, despite cathode ray tubes having been in existence for decades by the time of Roentgen's 1895 discovery, no one had "discovered" the electron.

And despite the fact that the periodic table of elements had been worked out in the mid-1800's, no one had put together an even moderately accurate theory of atoms that would explain those chemical facts.

Even more astonishing, when Albert Einstein published his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, generally still considered to be the most mind-blowing science paper ever, there was still no accurate understanding of atomic particles. The proton would not be "discovered" until 1918. Einstein did not need one: his theory was about time, space, and light (electromagnetism), not about atomic particles.

So it should not be surprising when ordinary people, and even people with scientific training, fall for pseudo-science. The only way to avoid that in general is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, a balanced personality, and a grounding in the natural world.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

James Madison, Slavery, and the Constitution

James Madison was born in the British colony of Virginia on March 16, 1751. Today we tend to think of 1751 as a primitive time in U.S. history, when leather-clad pioneers were constantly at war with Native American Indians. In fact coastal Virginia had been settled for over a century and was about as civilized as much of rural England.

His father, also James Madison, owned a tobacco plantation. That is a polite way of saying that he made his living by overseeing slaves of African extraction. He was a reasonably important guy. During the American Revolution he was a colonel in the Virginia militia. He had a total of twelve children, with James being the eldest.

In 1769 the younger James Madison enrolled at Princeton University (then still called the College of New Jersey). After returning to Virginia he practiced law, then started working his way up the policital machine. He was too young to be among the Virginia slave-owners and lawyers who decided to engineer a rebellion against Britain rather than risk that their slaves would be freed by litigation, using the Somersett ruling of 1772 as a precedent. In 1776 he was elected to the Virginia legislature. Madison, with Thomas Jefferson and others, shook up the world by successfully separating Church from State in Virginia [See Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom].

But James Madison was the beneficiary of a political and economic system based on slavery for African Americans and the denial of the right to vote to most European Americans (who at that time were largely descendents of white slaves, aka indentured servants). He and his friends were not happy that the under classes were demanding the vote and other human rights. He was worried that the system of using government to tax the poor for the benefit of the rich might be turned on its head as poorer groups of men gained the vote, as was happening after the American Revolution in Pennsylvania and other states.

Studying the era between the end of the Revolutionary War and the creation of the Federal Government under the Constitution is considered so risky that even today our modern vocabulary is designed to erase the tape on that period. There were several Congresses under the articles of Confederation. The last approved that a committee would meet at the Annapolis Convention to draft amendments to the Articles to promote commerce between the states. Madison and other conservative slave owners and businessmen at Annapolis, not having a quorum present, decided to call a meeting in Philadelphia and broaden the agenda for amendments.

At Philadelphia some of the nations' richest and most powerful men decided to write a Constitution to their own liking. While it shaped a Republican form of government with Democratic elements [See also America: Republic or Democracy?], it was mainly designed to create a strong central government to protect the institution of slavery and the concentration of private property and political power in the hands of a few men. The Senate would not be chosen by the voters (that changed with the Seventeenth Amendment) and the Supreme Court would be the ultimate bastion agains the rabble.

Madison flip-flopped on the strong central government point, favoring it when it helped his friends and opposing it when it helped their rivals.

In the end, things did not all work out the way James Madison planned. Slavery was abolished after the Civil War, but only by giving almost all power to the national government at the expense of the states and people. Later the people were given the right to directly elect their Senator.

Madison's career marched from election to the House of Representatives right on up to President in 1809. His "War of 1812" is always blamed on the British in the U.S., but they gave the United States no real cause for war. Instead, Madison and others wanted to add Canada to the union. They thought that since Britain was busy fighting France, grabbing Canada would be a piece of cake.

Possibly more important, slavery was an issue in the War of 1812, a fact not mentioned in most U.S. history books. After Somersett and the resulting American Revolution, the British courts had backed off the idea of outlawing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement in England kept pushing. In 1806 the Foreign Slave Trade Act "banned British subjects, shipyards, outfitters and insureres from participating in the slave trade... A well-concealed secret was that many, possibly the majority, of supposedly neutral "American" slave ships were in fact owned by Britons, manned by British crews, and outfitted in Liverpool." [Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains page 302-303]. Then in 1807 the British slave trade was abolished in its entirety.

The harrassing of American shipping by the British, and impressing of former British seamen, is usually stated as the cause of the War of 1812. But that harassment was mainly about stopping the slave trade.

The War of 1812 was a war of aggression by the United States. Its underlying purpose was to continue committing crimes against humanity, which slavery is. James Madison, by my standards, is a War Criminal and Crimes Against Humanity criminal.

Yet I appreciate his working to separate Church and State, and his work on the Bill of Rights. Probably if he had not been raised with slaves and surrounded himself with other slavers, he would have realised how criminal that practice was.

And so each of us might think: how was I raised, and how might that prevent me from seeing what is good and just?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

China, Satellites, and Puppets

Congress and the Obama administration are considering loosening restrictions on the sale of satellite technology to foreign nations. The United States once led the world in building and launching satellites, but decided that selling them or their technologies to certain nations, particularly China, constituted a security risk. So most satellite technology was declared to be defense related, requiring difficult to obtain export licenses. The conservatives (mostly Republicans) who pushed this policy should have read their free market Bible. The result was that nations like China, India, and Brazil had to develop their own satellite industries. They did such a good job that even American corporations now use their services. The satellite industry in the United States went into free fall, with only military and NASA satellites being built here anymore, for the most part.

Back during the Cold War the allies of the USSR were called satellites. American allies were not called ruthless fascist dictators (at least not by the mainstream U.S. press); they were not U.S. satellites; they were free and independent allies. Until our puppet dictators decided they were strong enough to maybe do what they liked, instead of what the U.S. liked. Then the CIA would have to engineer a coup to install a new puppet. This sometimes back-fired, resulting in the rise to power of certain communist or socialist regimes in nations like Cuba and Vietnam. More lately, Iran has refused to kowtow to the U.S. for a couple of decades. Saddam Hussein briefly survived as a former U.S. puppet of Iraq, despite the CIA's best efforts. The Marines had to be sent in to put a pro-U.S. regime there and in Afghanistan.

One reason I have been thinking a lot about puppets lately is my ongoing research for my history, The U.S. War Against Asia. I recently read a tome, China, Japan, and the Powers published in 1952, making notes of events where the U.S. used its military, or the threat of it, against China and Japan (See my China and U.S. history notes). I am sure that you will recall that from roughly the end of World War I until the final consolidation of power by Communist Party of China around 1948, there were three main spheres of influence in China. Plus a bunch of war lords running around, grabbing what they could, in constantly shifting alliance.

Both the Communists and the Kuomintang (usually called the Nationalists) agreed that the leaders of the Manchurian and Chinese governments allied with the Japanese (Pu-Yi and Wang Ching-wei) were Japanese puppets. The Communists and the Chinese nationalists allied with Japan both agreed that Chiang Kai-shek was a puppet of the United States. On the other hand both Chiang and his former number-two, Wang Ching-wei, if they could agree on nothing else, could agree that Mao Zedong (or Mao Tse-tung) was a puppet of Joseph Stalin.

Suppose you wanted to pretend that there is such a thing as political science, a methodology for being objective about politics. A scale could be constructed, say with 0 being the score of a completely independent national government, and 10 being the score for a completely puppet government. Where might Chiang, Wang, and Mao fall on that scale?

I think all three men were nationalists who had, as an ultimate goal, the complete freedom and independence of China. Each chose a strategy to reach that goal that involved some dependence on foreign allies. There are things to be said in favor of, and against, the United States, Japan, and Soviet Russia as allies for Chinese nationalists during this period.

In the end it was the Communist Party's armies that liberated Japan from 200 years of foreign dominance. But it was the Japanese military that kicked the Europeans and Americans out of Asia for long enough to enable this phenomena. If Japan had backed down when President Franklin Roosevelt, through Secretary of State Cordell Hull, declared war (unofficially) on Japan, it is easy to imagine what would have happened. Chiang's troops would have reoccupied most of China. America's Open Door policy - we want to rape and pillage, so don't even think of closing your door, much less locking it - would have kept the Chinese in economic slavery as long as the U.S. could control key members of the government. Chiang would have become, for all practical purposes, the new Emperor.

You can argue that such a scenario would have been better than the actual Communist triumph in China. You could argue that capitalism in China would have meant a strong China at an earlier date than we saw in reality. But is that not what chauvinistic Democratic Party and Republican Party politicians hate, a strong China?

I do not think the U.S. war against Asia is over. But I think the tide has turned, for the moment, against the U.S. Perhaps the day will come when the Chinese have to ban exports of their high technology to the U.S., for fear that the U.S. military will use those weapons against the peace-loving nations of the world.