Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day 2010 = Gaia Optimizing Deity?

[Updated 27 April - Go to bottom of this Topic and click for neat, well-produced video spoof.]

On this 40th Earth Day, it seems Natural to reflect on Biologist and self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins' words:

"...It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times
if we wait another ten million years, a whole new set of species will be as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species are to theirs. This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight." [Emphasis added, The GOD Delusion, p 139]

GOD = "General Optimizing Device" would seem to follow Naturally from the above statement.

The process of neo-Darwinian Evolution and Natural Selection is: OMNIPRESENT (“all continents and islands … all times”), OMNIPOTENT (“whole new set of species”) and OMNISCIENT (“as well adapted to their ways of life as today’s species”).

Lets kick it up a notch to:

GOD = "Gaia Optimizing Deity". Only something superior to and above individual biological life forms, including human life, could have the super-human powers described by Dawkins.

"Gaia" is the term used by James Lovelock (PhD scientist and inventor) to personify such a super-human force, the Greek "Goddess of the Earth" featured in a Nova PBS TV presentation reviewed by the NY Times. "Nova concerns itself with science rather than fiction, of course, and this segment skillfully reviews the subtle chemical and biological interactions that control the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane and other key gases in the earth's atmosphere. Dr. Lovelace [sic] presents his well-reasoned view that the existing proportions of gases in our atmosphere could only be maintained by the existence of life, and that in seeking life elsewhere in the universe, it is necessary only to look for similarly unstable mixtures of atmospheric gases."

Biological Organisms May Control Cloud Formation and Moderate Climate Change

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography> sampled clouds in real time using aircraft. "By determining the chemical composition of the very cores of individual ice particles, they discovered that both mineral dust and, surprisingly, biological particles play a major role in the formation of clouds."

This opens the possibility that the biosphere could have evolved, over eons of climate change, the capability to moderate intense swings of climate by releasing biological chemicals that promote cloud formation during hot periods and releasing lower quantities during ice ages to reduce formation of clouds.

Possible Mechanism for Evolution of Biological Climate Moderation

The Sun was some
30% dimmer 3-4 billion years ago when biological life originated on Earth. Given a faint Sun, the Earth's surface temperatures must have been much colder than the coldest ice ages. Yet, for life to be viable, the surface temperatures had to be quite a bit warmer, within tens of degrees of current temperatures.

One explanation is that the Earth's atmosphere was far richer in CO2 and other carbon gasses when life originated. (~1% vs 0.04% now.) According to that theory, the carbon gasses would have promoted an intense "greenhouse" effect that kept the surface warm. Unfortunately for that explanation (but fortunately for us) it turns out that CO2 levels billions of years ago were much closer to current levels, so it was not the greenhouse effect!

The best explanation is that there were far fewer clouds billions of years ago. Since clouds are responsible for a net reduction in surface temperatures, their absence would have the opposite effect. But why would there be more clouds now, and why would they increase to moderate the effect of a brightening Sun?

Biological life originated and evolved starting about 3.5 billion years ago. As the Sun became progressively brighter, some life forms emitted chemicals that promoted cloud formation and thereby moderated the temperatures that otherwise would have risen in their area. Biological life that had a moderating influence on cloud formation is more "fit to the environment" (or , more properly, makes the environment more fit to life). Over the eons of evolution, biological life that had the power to moderate climate would spread at the expense of life that did not.

Quoting Dawkins again on the generalized optimizing process: "This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight."

But, Is the Gaia Sentient?

Well, how can you tell if an agent is
sentient without being that agent?

[Added 10:30PM] The Gaia has given us an Earth Day present! Today, Arctic Sea Ice Extent has hit a high for the past eight years. Good news that may indicate that Global Warming is at bay, at least for a decade, and perhaps for more. See more details at Watts Up With That. Click image below for a larger version. I expect the ash clouds from the Iceland volcano to cause some additional cooling in the affected areas of North America and Europe for at least a month, perhaps more.

[Added 27 April] Turn up the sound and enjoy this well-produced video!

Ira Glickstein

Thursday, April 15, 2010

War and Peace in Educational Philosophy

As can be seen from the last post, we degenerated into partisanship. It has always been amazing to me how cleanly a supposedly non-partisan subject divides into liberal and conservative views. I was involved in public education policy and curriculum in Hawaii for almost all of the thirty years I lived there. Views divide along many lines. The parents wanted what I'll call a classical education, while the educational authority favored progressive education. The republicans wanted what was best for their children as individuals, while the democrats wanted what they thought was best for society as a whole. Most of the voters sent their kids to public schools, while the politicians that set policy sent their kids to private schools. The conservatives favored a bottom-up, reading-writing-'rithmetic approach, while the liberals favored a top-down, whole language-set theory approach. The parents favored a local "get 'er done" approach, while the educational authorities denied responsibility and shifted the blame to Washington.

Considering the profound divide that exists in education, it may be time to negotiate a peace settlement rather than debate the issues to death. Neither side can have a definitive victory and impose its will permanently. The war has see-sawed back and forth many times and the wheel has been reinvented many times. Arbitrarily assigning territory is an approach that has been used in world disputes, why not in educational policy? Whether the assignment is by grade level or subject area or by time of day, anything is better than the constant war that has existed for at least 50 years.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Are we losing our minds?

Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel, the world's largest chip maker, recently explained, "As a global employer, I have the luxury of hiring the best engineers anywhere on earth. If I can't get them from MIT, I'll get them from Tsing Hua."

In fact, MIT is also getting some good students from Tsing Hua. Americans are not facing the fact that our economic recovery and our military superiority depend on maintaining our scientific and intellectual leadership. Presently, our average students in math and science rank very low compared to most of the developed nations. For years we have tried to cure this problem by imposing standards, testing, eliminating unions, and spending money. So far these attempts have been ineffective. Why is this?

I have some opinions about this that agree with the conservative David Brooks, but before pursuing this topic I would like to know if you conservatives think this is a serious topic. Many conservatives consider this issue as liberal hand-wringing, and blame the problem on these "self-proclaimed intellectuals" (Palin) themselves.

Nuclear Power and the Environment

The photo shows the nuclear power plant at Crystal River, Florida, coexisting with a dolphin and recreational paddlers on April 11, 2010.

But the key point of this posting is how technology has fundamentally changed our view of the world.

I took the main photo. My friend Bernie Stopper took the closeup inset of the dolphin. The inset photo of me and other paddlers was taken by Barry Schwartz who posted our trip to Spot Adventures. I find it amazing that a group of ordinary people can see and share their adventure with anyone with Internet access in the world on the very evening of the day it happened.

If you click the Spot Adventures link, you see a map and you can zoom in and view our route plotted using GPS coordinates linked to a slide show. If you click on the icon at the lower right, you get a plot of our speed vs distance. As you move your cursor along the speed plot, you see details of location, elapsed time and speed. The most difficult part of the trip for me was the crossing of open, choppy water into the wind along the lower middle of the plot.

For more about nuclear power see: Nuclear Power for the People of France.

Ira Glickstein

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fox's Method

While looking up various references in order to understand what biosemiotics is about, a thought occurred to me. I've read various attempts to explain what the consciousness problem is about (esp. Daniel Dennett) and wonder whether a technique that I used in my own work might help. Fox's Method consists of inventing an explanation for a phenomenon which may have no basis in fact. The issue is not whether or not the solution contains any truth, but rather whether or not the solution is psychologically satisfying. This tells us something of the properties that the real solution must have in order to be accepted.

For example, an AM radio is highly complex, consisting of various interacting circuits. We know that an explanation of how they function together is complex (in Howard's sense), but it is possible to make people understand the component functions of various elements of the circuit and how they come together to produce sound from radio waves. At the end of an explanation of this complex system a person is likely to say "I understand." This is our goal. If the radio fell from the sky in the laps of a primitive people with no conception of diodes, waves, modulation, etc., how could their shaman explain the voices? As my high school physics teacher did when confronted with a question beyond his ken, he might simply say, "God made it that way." Some might be satisfied with that.

"Consciousness" is difficult to define and difficult to explain. Daniel Dennett for one, has written an entire book on the subject, "Consciousness Explained." His book has been dismissed by unsatisfied critics as simply begging the question. Suppose we try to put together a fictionalized explanation of consciousness and see if it can be satisfying. According to Fox's Method, it doesn't matter how erroneous the explanation is, as long as it's satisfying. Let's make what I'll call a "false start." With some help from Descartes, we'll say that each of us has an ethereal "soul" that can communicate with the brain via a radio transmitter situated on the moon. The receivers are in special cells located in the brain while other cells can simultaneously sense the condition of the body and its environment and transmit the data to the moon. The soul's claim to fame is it's ability to integrate data, apply logical rules and use stored information about previous experience concerning survival to make and transmit decisions cues for "phantom" images, audio and other reprocessed sensations to the host on earth. (In the world of undersea robotics this is nearly the case using a system called telepresence in which there is a very realistic feedback loop between the operator and the remote operational device.) The trouble with this solution is that the story has simply displaced the consciousness problem to a remote location without telling us much about it. On the other hand, this dualist kind of mind-body separation is helpful at a psychological level. People who would be upset at the notion that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is just a complex computer might be quite comfortable with the soul or a neural net computer being located on the moon sending directions to the body on earth. I don't know why this is so.

In our story, we might escape the use of a mysterious ethereal material or the use of a remote computer by postulating a human on the moon remotely operating the human on Earth. This human is operated by a human located on Mars who is operated by a human on Venus, ad infinitum or however many planets there are in the universe. (Sounds like the homunculus problem to me.) In the end a guy called God operates the whole thing. But, we only have one consciousness and free will to deal with.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Psychology of Green Hypocrisy

Psychological studies sometimes come up with strange results.

The UK Guardian reports: "Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, argue that people who wear what they call the 'halo of green consumerism' are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. 'Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours,' they write."

Say what?

Here is a link to the full research report.

Here is a link to a refutation of the study methodology.

The University of Toronto researchers recruited 156 undergrad students and randomly split them into two groups. Each member of the first group had to "buy" up to $25 worth of items at an online store that had mostly green products. Each member of the second group had to "buy" $25 worth of items at a similar online store that had mostly conventional products. Both stores had the same number of products in the same categories and at the same prices.

Would "purchase" of green products make members of group #1 more ethical and altruistic than group #2?

Well, in the next phase, when given an opportunity to share $6 with an anonymous participant, those who had "purchased" in the green store kept more of the money than those who had "purchased" in the conventional store. Thus, conditioning by having done a "good deed" by choosing green products, made participants less altruistic than others who had not been given an opportunity to do that "good deed".

In a later experiment, 90 students were similarly conditioned by having half in group #1, making "purchases" at the green store and half in group #2, at the conventional store.

Then, they were asked to play a computer game for monitary reward where it was easy to lie to increase their rewards. They were also allowed to privately make their own change out of an envelope with money in it, offering an opportunity to steal.

Would "purchase" of green products make members of group #1 more truthful and honest than group #2?

Guess what. The green store participants lied and stole more than the conventional participants. Again, having done a "good deed" licensed the participants to lie and steal! (Even though the participants knew the green and conventional stores were not real.)

The refutation of the study methodology maintains it was flawed because the participants were randomly assigned to the green and conventional groups. Had the experimenters determined which participants were really green consumers and which were not, the results, they say, would have been the reverse.

What do you think?

Ira Glickstein