Sunday, April 19, 2015

Albert Einstein, Objective Reality, and Randomness

"No one knows anything. The whole affair would have been a delight to Jesuit fathers."
—Albert Einstein on the first international meeting on quantum physics, Solvay, 1911

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is famous for many things. Mostly, now, he is remembered as the genius who changed scientists' (and other educated peoples') view of the nature of space and time through his theories of Special Relativity and General Relativity.

The second most famous thing about Einstein is that he showed this genius later in life. It is common knowledge that he did poorly in school as a child. This story is beloved by parents who feel their child's self-esteem is more important than actually hitting the books and proving they have done it with good grades. Unfortunately the story is not true. Little Albert's grades were quite good from elementary school to graduate school. [The best Einstein biography for advanced readers, including Philosophy students, is Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein]

The third most famous thing about him was his support for the U.S.A. developing an atomic weapon, followed by his regret that an atomic weapon was developed and used to destroy two cities filled with people in Japan. Albert was a peace activist well before World War I began, and remained so until the end of his life.

Albert Einstein was interested in philosophy from at least as early as his college days. Possibly the fourth most famous thing he was famous for was not being able to reconcile with the science of quantum physics, even though he was one of the inventors and major contributors to that branch of science.

Quantum physics developed slowly. Its origin is usually marked by Max Plank's paper on radiation in 1901, which to jump to a later interpretation said that electromagnetic radiation (including light) comes in energy packages, or quanta. This went along with the ongoing development of the atomic theory, which had shown that electric charge also came in packages, which came to be called electrons. There were many weird things about the new theory, most notably that these light quanta, or photons, and electrons sometimes acted like waves and sometimes acted like particles.

The parts of quantum theory that Einstein could never except had to do with randomness. Einstein wanted to see reality as objective. That does not mean that it is just made up of objects. Rather, he wanted the objects (which could include wave-like objects) to be subject to the laws of causality, as he saw them. A number of results of quantum physics collided with Einstein's view of causality, including the Uncertainty Principle [Heisenberg's] and such random events as the decays of nuclear physics (resulting in radioactivity) and in particular the random timing of transitions of electrons when near an atom that result in electromagnetic radiation.

Younger physicists had no problem accepting quantum physics. They seldom saw it as posing a philosophical problem, much less a science one. Einstein's assumption that to have science you need causality, and specifically causality as defined by Isaac Newton, does not hold much weight today among people with PhD's in physics.

Einstein worked until he was on his death bed to find the underlying causes of quantum randomness and probabilities. Long after his death it was postulated, and is now generally believed, that the proton and neutron consist of smaller entities called quarks (more particle like) and gluons (more wave or force-like). If there were some way to measure the positions and velocities of the particles making up the neutrons and protons of an atom, then perhaps it would be possible to predict when a specific atom of a radioactive element would decay. But it is not likely that these decays are the result of the quarks reaching some particular configuration.

Consider dice and solar flares.

Ordinary fair dice, the kind used in casinos and board games, are governed by classical physics. [If you could make them small enough, say a few atoms across, they might start to display true quantum randomness.] They produces random results as long as they are thrown fairly. In theory (and to a surprising degree in practice) you can predict the results if you can sufficiently control how they are thrown and know enough about the surfaces they bounce against before coming up snake eyes, or boxcars, or whatever.

Einstein wanted atomic physics to work like ordinary dice. That would preserve his classical physics version of causality.

Consider solar flares. Scientist know there are patterns to them, but within the envelopes of those patterns they are random. They are mainly classical physics phenomena. They would be predictable if you knew enough about the matter and energy of the sun that gives rise to them. But how would you know that, in advance? You would need some sort of probe that can survive within the sun and send you detailed information about the pre-flare setup.

In fact there are a lot of things we can't know with certainty, for a wide variety of reasons. That does not mean that reality isn't objective. It is because objective reality is complicated. Very to the power of 30 complicated.

For much of my life I tended to favor Einstein's objections to quantum randomness. At some point, however, I realized the problem was more semantic than scientific. In other words, the problem was with how Einstein defined the words objective and causality.

Randomness in quantum physics doe not mean that anything can happen. The randomness in quantum physics is in envelopes. Just as when you roll a pair of dice you may bet any result from 2 to 12, but get 7's more often than other results, in quantum physics you mostly individual get results around a central number, and statistical results from a large set of data are also typically very close to that number.

That is causal enough for me. I accept probability and the statistical nature of results as part of the objective reality of the universe. In fact I have found that seeing the relationship of randomness to cause and effect has been very helpful to me.

I could tell you a story about a preacher who always introduced himself to potential victims with the words "Look around you. Do you believe that this all could be random?" But I have covered enough for one essay.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Economic Systems: Mixed Beats Pure

Economics pretends to be a science, but more than most sciences it tends to be driven by ideology.

In ideologies the answers are given. Facts are fit into theoretical frameworks. Facts that don't fit in are denied or even falsified, and at best are explained away. Just as with religions.

In the United States and much of the globe there are two major economic ideologies to choose from: free market capitalism, and socialism. Both camps look back at the 20th century and pull facts (or pseudo facts) from the economic trajectories of various nations to justify their current policy prescriptions.

I believe they are both wrong, to the extent they demand pure systems. I believe the historical record shows that they are both wrong. I believe that in the United States and elsewhere we need to build up a popular culture, science of economics, and political system that understands that mixed systems (involving both free and regulated markets, and the control of capital at times by capitalists, and at times by government) can work better than pure systems.

Ideologists are people who insist on using the same tool set for every job, even when a better (often just bigger) tool set is available.

To keep this essay short, I will focus on one ideology, free-market capitalism. This ideology is being pushed heavily in the United States by capitalists, their media voices, their academic establishment, their religious establishment, and their politicians. However, let me make it clear that I am not in favor of a centrally-planned socialist system where the government owns everything (though its claim would be that it holds everything in common for the people). I am in favor of a mixed system. I am just coming at it from the free-market side.

If you think free markets are sacred, then of course whatever comes out of them is wonderful. The Great Depression was created by free markets, so it must have been wonderful.

I don't believe the Great Depression was wonderful.

So assuming I can demonstrate that mixed systems can be superior to pure free market capitalist systems, what would be the goal? I am willing to go with the classic: the greatest good for the greatest number. It should be clear that by choosing different goals you can skew the debate towards pure systems, or even within the range of mixed systems.

If you make either Socialism or Capitalism the goal, then you have self-proving economics. Some more reasonable goals might be: maximizing GDP (gross domestic product) over the long run; minimizing unemployment, crime and hunger; sustainability (environmental and human); profit maximization for business owners; stability; political consequences like democracy (or control of it by an elite); and so on. The ideal economic system would depend on the goals you choose.

I would say a knowledgeable human being would want a mixture of weighted goals, and the flexibility to change the goals themselves, if the experience of reality warrants that.

Some goals many Americans share are: minimizing bubble/bust cycles; maximizing GDP growth over time; distributing GDP adequately so that every American has a good chance of having a good economic life, or minimizing poverty. Minimizing poverty would include protection for children, seniors, and disabled persons.

Many free market ideologists would not like that list of goals, since it almost implies some elements of socialism need to be applied. Some free-marketers would argue that their system is so wonderful that it actually does maximize GDP growth without cycles of busts or creating masses of poor people and criminals.

I would argue that you can't achieve those goals without a Federal Reserve trying to keep a rein on the money supply; mandatory Social Security; mandatory unemployment insurance; and programs for children.

That said, economies are complicated, and they change. Our data-driven economy of today is as different from the factory-led U.S. economy of the late 1940s (when every other nation's factories were still in splinters from World War II bombing campaigns) was from the mainly agricultural economy of the U.S. in the first half of the 1800's.

Long ago the world learned that free markets don't work in certain situations; the ideologists want us to forget the lessons of history. Industrial monopolies (as during the 1800's after the Civil War) tend to concentrate wealth in a few hands, but stifle growth of the economy as a whole. They stifle competition, which is supposed to be the engine of free-market economies. The monopolies were created naturally through competition, but once created they had a word for competition: "Ruinous." In the process of enriching a few capitalists they drain the resources of smaller businesses and consumers, leading to economic stagnation and recessions.

But suppose that you want long-term GDP growth, and don't care if a few people starve or die young from lack of medical care. Would that not then favor a pure free enterprise system, with government relegated to military matter and punishing anyone who dared to steal a loaf of bread?

Yes, according the the free market ideologists. But they ignore history. In the U.S. we mainly had free-market capitalism until 1933. The results should be examined in detail. There was GDP progress, but it came mostly in booms and busts. By 1933 most of the centuries' earlier gains were gone, down the drain because because there was nothing in place to put breaks on the downward plunge that started in 1929.

The New Deal did not work out all that well at first, either. It was war (selling to nations already at war until Pearl Harbor, then vast levels of deficit spending on our own war machine until we emerged as the leading world superpower) that got us out of the Depression. After that, however, some of the New Deal, let's call them what they are, Socialist, programs did dampen the boom and bust cycle. There were cycles, but on the whole I would argue that having a mixed system worked better than either pure free-market capitalism or pure socialism would have.

The question should not be whether we should have a capitalist or a socialist economic system. The question should be: which elements of each, working together, create the overall strongest economy?

But for voters, judging politicians, that would demand something that has often proven beyond their ken. It requires understanding complexity. It requires something more than regurgitating campaign ads. It requires independent thinking.

The same for economists. When an American economist reveals himself (or herself) as a pure free-market exponent, know you are dealing with a priest, not a scientist.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Shabaab: Monsters Made by the U.S.A.

Most people don't pay much attention to political news, most of the time. So they just think whatever the news story they happen to see (or hear) tells them to think. So they see there are monsters in our world, but they are often mistaken about how monsters are made.

There was a massacre of civilians, most of them students, in Kenya this last week. A few members of the Somali organization, Shabaab, killed nearly 150 people at the Garissa University College in Kenya on April 2, 2015.

It was a crime, a war crime, and a crime against humanity. It was about as terrible of behavior as humans can conduct, at that scale.

To understand what happened, how some men born as innocent (and potentially deadly) as anyone else ended up assigned to kill these innocent students, and accepted the assignment, and carried it out, it helps to know a little history.

I started paying attention to Somalia around the time of the Black Hawk Down incident (aka Battle of Mogadishu) in 1993. So let me refresh your memory.

When the Cold War ended the leaders of the U.S. concluded that they might as well run the world. Somalia in 1993 was not run by anyone. It was a chaotic landscape of rival clans and their war lords. Largely devoid of resources that could be exploited by industrialists and the corporate security state, Somalia nevertheless was and is geographically important. The U.S. and allies tried to take over Somalia in 1993, but were defeated by the most powerful of the warlords, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Despite that victory, General Aidid was unable to unite Somalia under his command.

A tiny group of men eager to take money from the U.S. declared themselves the national government in Mogadishu, but war lords continued to rule in reality.

In response to the rather unpleasant situation, at the grass-roots level Somalis started setting up local courts to try to cut down on rampant levels of crime. These were based on traditional local courts, which in Somalia, a mainly Islamic area, were Sharia courts. They were popular, spread, grew in strength, and became known as the Union of Islamic Courts. By 2000 they were the closest thing to an effective government Somalia had. By 2006 they had defeated most of the war lords.

At least a couple of the warlords had been on the U.S. payroll. Recall that in 2006 the U.S. was still fighing both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Al Qaeda was Public Enemy Number One. Al Qaeda had sent emmisaries to the Islamic Courts. But they were not in positions of power. Their attitude was contrary to the Courts goal. The Courts were working for peace and unity in Somalia. As to Sharia law, they were quite moderate in their use of punishment. They varied locally, but mainly practiced a civilized, somewhat modern form of Islam.

Nevertheless, the U.S. security state (then with George W. Bush as a figurehead) reacted very negatively to the words "Islamic" and "Sharia." The Union of Islamic Courts was declared to be a terrorist organization, a bunch of rebels against the U.S.'s hand picked government in Mogadishu. The U.S. bombed them and paid Ethiopia to invade Somalia in 2007.

At first the Ethiopians, who were much better equiped than the Somali people, did quite well on the battlefield. But they were hated, and so was the U.S. puppet government they protected in Mogadishu.

Within the Islamic Courts movement, suddenly the main goal became kicking foreign troops out of Somalia. That requires a different type of leadership and operations than trying to bring peace and justice to a country. Who new how to fight Ethiopians? Why, the Al Qaeda operatives. Quickly training young, enthusiastic volunteers in their brand of Islam and mayhem, Shabaab was born (naturally, this description is a simplification of complex infighting).

The original Shabaab was also different than today's Shabaab. Despite its authoritatianism and religious orthodoxy, it was reasonably popular and became the de facto government of most of Somalia. Ethiopia was unable to control the countryside, and eventually could not even hang onto Mogadishu.

So eventually the U.S. paid a whole bunch of nations to invade Somalia. Troops poured in from all over: Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, the Ethiopeans again. Meanwhile U.S. battleships shelled coastal towns, drones assassinated whoever they could find, and U.S. Special Forces unleashed their own kind of mayhem on the countryside.

Shabaab no longer controls much territory. It is a guerilla group now. Only the most fanatical members remain. Only those who love to kill remain. It's like a whole organization of special forces guys.

It is sad that ordinary Kenyan students had to pay the price for the government of Kenya's decision to invade Somalia. It is also bad strategy on Shabaab's part. Had they assassinated Uhuru Kenyatta much of Kenya would have not minded. But indiscriminate killing is uniting Kenyans against Somalis, just as the invasion united Somalis against Kenya.

If the U.S. had not paid for the destruction of the Islamic Courts, there would have been no Garissa University College massacre. Maybe the Bush/Obama team had some sort of grand plan I am not seeing. But it looks like the plan never amounted to more than giving stupid people too much money, too much power, and too many weapons.

Note: Shabaab is also spelled out as Shabab and Al-Shabaab