About Problems and Nobel Prizes

I had the opportunity to attend three lecture-presentations by Frank Wilczek recently, and if ever you are near such an opportunity, go for it. He has enough of a website and media presence that it is sort of besides the point to hyperlink to any of it; and yes, of course, he is on Wikipedia. However besides his discussion of Majorana fermions and supersymmetry (SUSY), what struck me were the side remarks about problems, and our ability to solve them. Certainly our understanding of matter at a fundamental level has come a long ways and all the easy problems have been solved. What remains are problems that are rather complex, and that may or may not be amiable to solutions or scrutiny. The art in our continued exploration of the fundamental nature of matter is then in finding questions or problems for which we can reasonably hope to find solutions with the available tools. Indeed, in my view there is no scarcity of complex problems that challenge us with questions for which we can provide no answers.

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Abundance in time

On a personal note, life is as boring as ever. You all know that I can not lie. Some have seen me lose it on stage, however a few directors here and there have admired my acting capabilities and the amount of control that I bring to my mimic. That said, let me get back to Theoretical Man. What is reality?

For the past year I have been busy learning and writing. I have gone back to one interest that like a stone on my path, I picked up many years ago and have kept in my pocket: the interface and interaction between science and law. First I put in my toe, that was about a year ago, then I wrote a couple of papers on my own, co-authored others, and been looking at this whole affair between technology and humans from the normative side. Those curious about what I write will be disappointed to find out that from the papers of the past year only one is publicly available.

Abundance and redundancy is a chapter that I am working on now. I have been looking and taking a bird’s eye view of the thinking that some economist bring to the table, and sometimes I want to throw up when I hear or read some of the nonsense. As a side remark, besides lawyers, some of my best friends are economists, so this is not a personal thing. I tend to always return to familiar ground, that is, quantum mechanics. What I am discovering is that when I first began to study quantum theory I was indoctrinated by a direct student of Niels Bohr and that has coloured my view of the field, or say, given my thinking a certain danish accent. That is, the approach was to calculate and shut up. I gave the philosophy behind the whole of the theory absolutely no thought, I did number crunching, and the answer was the answer. If theory predicted something that could be measured, we were all happy, if it did not, go back and play with the language of mathematics, and fix the freaking theory, and then recrunch the numbers, make it work. You had no idea that quantum mechanics was so brainless, did you? I still think that it is the most fun approach to trying to understand our universe, play with the theory, validate the prediction, reiterate. I am looking at quantum mechanics this time around, and I am feeling like Alice going down the rabbit hole. It is a fantastic world out there, it is all in my mind.

For those briefly familiar with physics, you must remember that Einstein and Bohr were good friends and they argued passionately, above all they disagreed about the nature of physics, and reality itself. This is the short version of what is a rather involved analysis in the philosophy of science. I am much more at home with Bohr’s view that physics is what can be said, and that what is, will for ever elude me. I am quite open to the possibility that indeed we do live in a world that is non-deterministic, at least contains some elements that are non-deterministic. But you know, these are heavy words that are more than pregnant with meaning. Now, given that with the experimental demonstration of entanglement, Einstein’s idea of objective local theories could be thrown out the door as not valid, Bohr’s views have been validated and continue to gain more and more currency.

I will publish a more developed argument that bridges this kind of thinking to legal theory on the website of the World Trade Institute and in the MILE alumni network that are due to be rolled out soon, and possibly cross-post it here.


If you are an action philosopher, research happens. If you are human, shit happens. If you are me, it all happens. I just spent a few days pondering the deeper meaning of what may be called discovery and what may be called invention. It is strange because I was not thinking along these lines until somebody pointed me in that direction. I am much more interested in the issue of ownership, in particular knowledge ownership. Nothing new here, I am hard-core when it comes to my favourite ideas, and knowledge ownership is one of those concepts that I just can not shake loose: I want to get to the bottom of this issue. Period.

In a paper by Nick Bostrom – “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of Evolution and Technology (2005) I found the following citation attributed to Stanislaw Ulam and dating from 1958, that is from about half-century ago:

One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Ulam, S. (1958), “John von Neumann 1903-1957”, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (May).

If you are interested in transhumanism and its discourse, Bostrom’s article (or any of his writings) does (do) make for a good read. I for my part, at least today, I am interested in that idea so charmingly named as singularity. In my view, we are already in the middle of it, and somehow most of us have failed to register the event.

When it comes to discovery and invention, the plot thickens, and it thickens very fast because in the very technical language of jurists, policy-makers and lawyers there is a distinction between discovery and invention. it is a distinction that leads to the difference between what is private property, and what are public goods. I think that I missed my call along the way, should have been a farmer. All that I can think of now is the archaeological work from long ago in Jordan that had me in involved debates about what constituted Bedouin tribal land and what did not, or why to the dismay of modern technocrats, the Bedouins still have some say in local politics. Now, land is real, it is physical, and although you can not consume land, if it is not properly husbanded then it loses its value as a resource for renewable agricultural goods. (You did wonder where I got my connection to agriculture, did you?)

Again, returning to the matter of knowledge, information and intelligence, add a bit of salt and pepper, and you have the singularity. It is here. What does this mean?

It means that in the two hundred years since Darwin went for a five year spin around the globe on board the Beagle, a whole lot has happened in discovery and invention. I may be wrong on this, but we can not comprehend the extent of our knowledge and information without machine help. Even with machine help, there is much that we do not comprehend, much less understand. We know a few facts, but do we really understand what is going on?

There are facts in what I have observed in the physical world that I certainly can not comprehend or understand, although I am in a position to write down a few lines of theory and a few equations that account for the causality of the phenomenon. That kind of scientific hand-waving still does not mean that I have understood it. It just means that I can invent a plausible narrative to account for the observed. I associate understanding with cognitive processes that involve some form of causality. I understand pain, and that you may or may not enjoy being punched in the face, or have your hair pulled or a knife cut your skin. In this kind of understanding, observation, experience and causality are involved. But do I understand the Pauli exclusion principle? Not really. It is a fact that I have catalogued in my biologically supported information database. The theory behind the Pauli exclusion principle, that is just another set of information, and it is one that is of a different category from the information pertaining to the observed phenomenon.

Only recently did I realize that it has been a mere 200 years since Darwin, and that during his time we had not invented electronic devices, nor had we discovered DNA. We? We – the humans – have discovered these things. When I first sat in genetics and comparative anatomy lectures, to me the idea of evolution was bought wholesale and without putting up a fight, it made perfect sense to me from day one. Mendelian genetics also did not afford me much controversy, and finally I had figured out why my sister had blue eyes and I didn’t. Between peas and Drosophila, there is a whole lot of genetics that we have learned since. We have even sequenced the human genome and then realized that that in itself was but the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the code than inheritance, there is also a whole lot of regulation encoded in the code, and that one we have not yet understood. The transhumanist discourse has now been going on for a few years, and in my view, most transhumanists are a bit short sighted. I get their motivation, that is, their thinking seems transparent enough to me, but it is riddled with belief systems that I suspect to be full of flaws.

Today in another book – John Johnston “The Allure of Machinic Life” – I came across a piece that I found quite appropriate within the context of the relationship between humans and technology.

… Maturana and Varela advance their central claim that “autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organisation of living systems”. … they make two points. First, they argue that since living systems are machines, once their organisation is understood, there is no a priori reason why they can not be reproduced and even designed (by humans). To think otherwise would be to succumb to the “intimate fear” that the awe with which we view life would disappear if we recreated it or to the prejudiced belief that life will always remain inacessible to our understanding.

It could be that Maturana and Varela do not quite do it for you on the scale of intellectual visionaries, but it happens that many of their arguments make some sense to me. The disciplines of biomimetics are exactly all about discovering the organization of living systems, and then reproducing it, even designing variations on nature’s original invention. I happen to think that we do not even need to understand such processes, we just need to be able to reproduce them. Of course understanding the whole, even if with the blind aid of theories, would facilitate the task of designing new living systems. However in my view, this is past the singularity point and it is point right to it. Human affairs have changed immensely in the past two hundred years, and that change has certainly accelerated in the past fifty years since I am around. Our modernity includes life lived with machines at all levels. The unspectacular conscient worms that we are can still survive in the wild, but that too is a dying species, and we may be losing our ability to survive naked on the prairie. Would that be so bad after all?

My only trouble is that invention and discovery are so blurred these days and their definitions so out of date, that I may have more work to do than I had imagined. There is a new kind of literacy that is desperately needed if we are to rise to the challenges of our ever evolving relationship to technology. Any ideas?

(xposted on http://www.unconditon.blogspot.com)