Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summoned by bells

Schools run by, or under the auspices of, mainstream churches were once the mainstay of conservative values in many Western countries. The schoolmasters and schoolmistresses of times past were natural conservatives, valuing hierarchies of authority, almost military (or monastic?) routine, and a relatively stable body of cultural lore to be passed on - Christian texts, Greek and Roman texts, and various literary works in English and European languages.

In many ways this traditional amalgam of Greek, Roman and Christian ideas became a liability for the West because of the high prestige accorded to classical learning and literature, and the low status attached to science and technology. Nietzsche, steeped in the classical tradition, saw science as democratic and levelling. At the school I attended from the age of nine to the age of seventeen - an institution which carried the Middle Ages well into the second half of the 20th century - Latin and French were high-prestige subjects and, before some long-overdue renovations, our chemistry laboratory would have made any time-travelling alchemists feel right at home.

But there is no doubt that the West's shared cultural traditions helped to create a sense of social harmony at home and the sense of belonging to a wider world; that the widespread teaching and learning of Latin and Greek helped to create self-discipline and a sense of history; and that the tedium of regular services in the school chapel taught the invaluable but dying art of sitting still.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back to the apes

Richard Dawkins has been having a little trouble lately with feminists. He may think back with nostalgia to earlier decades when the world was marginally saner and marginally more intelligent and he was an evolutionary biologist who wrote popular books on evolutionary biology.

I was browsing through one of these older books recently, an elegant little tract entitled River out of Eden: a Darwinian view of life. The book is full of fascinating material, but let me focus here on a section showing that we are all more closely related than most people think.

"You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. With every generation, the number of ancestors doubles. Go back g generations and the number of ancestors is 2 multiplied by itself g times: 2 to the power g. Except that, without leaving our armchair, we can quickly see that it cannot be so. To convince ourselves of this, we have only to go back a little way - say, to the time of Jesus, almost exactly two thousand years ago. If we assume, conservatively, four generations per century ... two thousand years amounts to a mere eighty generations... Two multiplied by itself 80 times is a formidable number, a 1 followed by 24 noughts, a trillion American trillion. You had a million million million million ancestors who were contemporaries of Jesus, and so did I! But the total population of the world at that time was a fraction of a negligible fraction of the number of ancestors we have just calculated.

Obviously we have gone wrong somewhere, but where? We did the calculation right. The only thing we got wrong was our assumption about doubling up in every generation. In effect, we forgot that cousins marry. I assumed that we each have eight great-grandparents. But any child of a first-cousin marriage has only six great-grandparents, because the cousins' shared grandparents are in two separate ways great-grandparents to the children. 'So what?' you may ask. People occasionally marry their cousins ... but it surely doesn't happen often enough to make a difference? Yes it does, because 'cousin' for our purposes includes second cousins, fifth cousins, sixteenth cousins and so forth. When you count cousins as distant as that, every marriage is a marriage between cousins. You sometimes hear people boasting about being a distant cousin of the Queen, but it is rather pompous of them, because we are all distant cousins of the Queen, and of everybody else, in more ways than can ever be traced."

Seeking to get one of his students to reason along these lines, Dawkins asked her "to make an educated guess as to how long ago her most recent common ancestor with me might have lived. Looking hard at my face, she unhesitatingly replied, in a slow, rural accent, 'Back to the apes.' An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong. It would suggest a separation measured in millions of years. The truth is that the most recent ancestor she and I shared would possibly have lived no more than a couple of centuries ago, probably well after William the Conqueror. Moreover, we were certainly cousins in many different ways simultaneously."

Classic Dawkins.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The ground of being

For almost the whole of human history - until, say, the 19th century - the intellectually curious could expect their culture's deepest and most universal explanatory systems to be not only intellectually but also emotionally satisfying. Mythic, religious or metaphysical systems provided explanations (albeit inadequate as we now see) of both the natural and the social/moral world.

Our best theories of physics, by contrast, omit - as they must - all the things our complex brains seem primarily designed to deal with. And the men (and very few women) at the forefront of research in physics and related sciences often come across as lacking in social awareness.

Writing style (in non-technical contexts) gives a lot away about a person, and so often, when reading autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books by leading scientists, I find myself making allowances for what seems to be a certain childish quality, a lack of critical or social or psychological awareness or sophistication - even sometimes a certain moral immaturity and recklessness. It seems almost as though - as with autistic savants - these people's brains are not 'wasting' any time or energy on the immensely complex processing involved in being socially (and morally?) aware.

There are exceptions, of course. Seth Lloyd's book Programming the universe (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) is not only beautifully written in a spare and restrained style, but it is also saying something of profound importance. Lloyd takes the tradition of digital physics associated with such names as Edward Fredkin and John Wheeler and updates it to encompass the concept - and the reality - of quantum computing.

Wheeler suggested that the bit (i.e. information) was the fundamental building block of reality rather than the physical particle; Lloyd and his colleagues deal not in bits but in qubits (quantum bits). The cosmos is not a classical computer but rather a quantum computer - computing itself. A more recent work by Vlatko Vedral, Decoding reality (OUP, 2010), makes similar claims.

According to this way of thinking, in order to understand any complex system the most important thing is to understand how information is represented and processed within that system. But underlying all systems are just a handful of simple logical operations. There is something very beautiful about this, and I am sometimes tempted to devote myself in a serious way to learning more about these fundamental processes - and even writing about them. But I'm not sure the payoff would be worth it. Fascinating as these ideas are in general terms, I fear that the deeper one goes, the less interesting they become - except in a technical sense. The puzzles of quantum computing are fascinating - but no more so than any other complex joint problem-solving exercise. The fascination is not the emotionally satisfying fascination associated with a global understanding of one's place in nature.

My provisional conclusion is that ultimately our ordinary lives are more complex and interesting than these fundamental processes. To imagine otherwise is to exhibit traces of theological thinking, the old sense that there is something very wonderful at the heart of reality - God, the Ground of Being. But it's looking increasingly likely that there's just a whole lot of computing going on, willy-nilly, and without a master programmer.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I walked past a disabled man the other day who was rattling along in his motorized wheelchair with the brand name emblazoned on the back in big letters: KARMA.

Since karma is the supposed moral law of cause and effect whereby the sum of a person's actions is carried forward from one life to the next, I wondered what the makers of the wheelchair had in mind. A little joke?

Or do they really believe that their clients - at least those of them who were born disabled - are paying for evil deeds committed in previous lives?