Metaphysics Feed

October 05, 2008

Daniel C. Dennett and The Awesome Power of Memes

Daniel C. Dennett is a philosopher who co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter. In this video from a TED conference, he expands on Richard Dawkins' concept of memes - ideas that survive by their ability to replicate in a manner analogous to genes.

His secret to happiness: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.


September 28, 2008

Quantum Suicide and The Large Hadron Collider

Stern-Gerlach Experiment
Stern-Gerlach experiment. Source: Wikipedia Commons. Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2.

Quantum mechanics is a theory that describes the behavior of objects at the atomic scale. The effects of quantum mechanics are typically observable only at this small scale, and not at larger ones, except in unusual or contrived situations.

Electron Spin

Electrons have a property called spin that may be measured in relation to an arbitrary axis. The name is somewhat misleading. It's not quite the same concept as a ball rotating around an axis but there are some useful similarities. Since an electron has an electric charge, its spin causes it to interact with a magnetic field, deflecting the electron's path in a manner similar to the way a charged sphere's course would be altered. An electron can have its spin measured by passing it through a magnetic field. If electrons were truly spinning spheres, a beam of electrons would spread out smoothly when passed through a shaped magnetic field since each rotating sphere would take on an arbitrary spin alignment.

However, what is actually observed is amazing and counter-intuitive. The 1922 Stern-Gerlach experiment showed that spin is quantized and only two values are observed - denoted up and down.

Standard Interpretation

In the standard Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, the electron does not have a definite spin until a measurement is made, and the quantum wave function collapses to a definite value. Schrödinger's Cat is a famous thought experiment which was originally conceived by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger as a critique of the Copenhagen interpretation. In a variation of this thought experiment, one imagines that a cat is placed in a box with a flask of poison and a device that can measure electron spin.

If a single electron that is passed through the device is measured with spin up, the flask of poison is released and the cat expires. If the spin is down, the cat survives. There is a 50 percent chance of either outcome. If the box is sealed so that it is impossible to determine the state of the experiment from outside, the cat will exist in a superposition of states to the outside world with equal probability of it being alive and dead. It's not that the cat actually exists in one state or another according to the Copenhagen interpretation. The cat has become entangled in the quantum wave function describing the contents of the box and truly exists in a superposition of both states.

Quantum Suicide; Many Worlds
iStockphoto / Sirin Buse.

Quantum Suicide

However, in the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, two different worlds exist - one in which the cat remains alive, and another in which the cat has perished.

A thought experiment called Quantum Suicide has been crafted as a hypothetical test of the Many-Worlds interpretation. In this experiment, an observer takes the place of the cat and the experiment is performed many times. In some worlds, the observer perishes, but his conscious experience continues in the worlds in which he survives. He will never observe his own death. The observer perishes in half of the worlds, but it does not appear that way from his point of view. After repeating the experiment as many times as necessary to satisfy his curiosity, the observer concludes that the Many-Worlds interpretation is correct.

With the Large Hadron Collider shut down for two months due to a malfunction, some have suggested with tongue-in-cheek that the Quantum Suicide experiment is being conducted in real time with our own world. In some parallel universes, the LHC creates stable black holes which destroy the Earth. We only remain conscious to observe this in universes where that doesn't happen. In those universes, events happen that prevent the LHC from creating those kinds of black holes.

While the LHC's troubles are more likely explained by mundane problems, the idea behind the Quantum Suicide thought experiment is still an intriguing one.


July 22, 2008

Speculations on Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems, the Halting Problem, and The Simulation Argument

Fermi Paradox
© / David Marchal

Kurt Gödel

Kurt Gödel was a mathematician whose 1931 seminal work was the proof that all formal mathematical systems of sufficient complexity are necessarily incomplete. In other words, there are mathematical statements within these systems that are true, but which can never be proven within the system itself. Gödel proved this by showing that statements can be created which state that they can never be proven within the formal system. While these statements are in fact true, they can't be proven so - if they could, by definition they would not be true!

An analogy is the sentence "This sentence is false". This sentence cannot be a true statement, because if it were, we would have to believe what it states - that it is false. Similarly, it cannot be a false statement, because if it were, it would be true.

Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford who has authored a Simulation Argument. Essentially, it states that:

Unless one of the following statements is true,

  • The human species goes extinct before reaching a posthuman stage.
  • Humans never become capable of running (or desire to run) computer simulations of their history.

then we are most likely living in a simulation now.

Turing Machines and the Halting Problem

The halting problem is a question in computability theory which asks if an algorithm can be found that decides whether a program (a Turning machine) will finish, or run forever, once given a description of such a program and a finite amount of input. Alan Turing proved in 1936 that a general algorithm to solve the halting problem for all possible program-input pairs cannot exist. The ideas within Gödel's incompleteness theorems are quite similar to those presented by the halting problem.


Suppose that the universe that we live in is in fact a simulation, and it is being simulated by the equivalent of a Turing Machine. What are the ramifications of the halting problem and Gödel's incompleteness theorems in this regard? The "Scientific and technological approaches" section of the Simulated Reality entry in Wikipedia has some interesting speculations on software glitches, Easter Eggs, limitations on processing power, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

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February 13, 2008

Boltzmann Brain Paradox

Digital Brain
© Sebastian Kaulitzk

Random Fluctuation Created Universe

Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann was an Austrian physicist who made important contributions to the area of statistical thermodynamics. He lived in the last half of the 19th century and proposed that the low-entropy (high order) universe that we live in is the result of a random fluctuation in a larger, higher entropy (lower order) metaverse.

Quantum Fluctuations

Although Boltzmann's proposal was made in advance of quantum mechanics, his idea is similar to modern day theories that the universe arose from a quantum vacuum fluctuation. Quantum mechanics predicts that particles can spontaneously arise from the vacuum if they are short-lived. Even in a perfect vacuum, pairs of particles and anti-particles are constantly being created and destroyed. This is possible because the total energy of the particle anti-particle pairs is zero.

In fact, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero [Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, chapter 8]. Particles have positive energy, and the negative energy represented by the gravitational field of the entire universe appears to be exactly enough to cancel out the positive energy of the particles.


This idea leads to the Boltzmann Brain Paradox. In a metaverse that is larger than ours, random fluctuations of the size to create a universe such as our own will happen. Due to the size and number of particles in such a universe, these fluctuations will be exceedingly rare. The anthropic principal - the fact universes will only be observed when they are hospitable to observers - makes the amount of time between such fluctuations meaningless. These fluctuations could be happening every quadrillion years, or once every googolplex number of years. Fluctuations of a much smaller magnitude that simply create one fully formed brain for a brief amount of time should be happening with enormously higher frequency than universe-creating fluctuations. Such brains would be the smallest possible creations that would give rise to a sentient observer and are called Boltzmann Brains. The fact that such brains do not appear to exist is called the Boltzmann Brain Paradox.

There are a number of ways out of this paradox. One of the base assumptions could be false. Perhaps there is no metaverse or such quantum fluctuations do not happen on large scales.

Or, it possible that the concept of the Boltzmann Brain is true and you are the only sentient observer in the universe right now, complete with false memories of a life which did not exist. False inputs to your brain only make it appear that there are other observers with you. If true, it's possible that you will cease to exist in just a ...

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December 18, 2007

Past, Present and Future

For the holidays, I thought that I would share with you three books that are the most meaningful books I have ever read in my life.

I believe that people from all walks of life are essentially seeking the same thing - truth. Truth comes to us in a way that makes sense to us individually. People are so very different because they have unique life experiences that have molded how they see the world and how they think about it. For me, science and logic has been the path that has brought me closer to the truth. Others take journeys that are just as valid for them, and that will lead them to the same destination. I connected with these books instantly the first time that I read them and have continued to read them at different stages in my life, each time gleaning a little something new.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

"Past". I first read this book 24 years ago in high school. It was recommended to me by an amazingly talented teacher and it single-handedly transformed the way I look at the world.  It won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in the General Nonfiction category after it was published in 1979. The author, Douglas Hoftstadter is quite simply a genius and is currently the College Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science Distinguished Professor with Indiana University's Cognitive Science Program. I have read it 5 times in my life, each time peeling back more layers of the onion and extracting more of its exquisite meaning. It is the best book I have ever read, hands down, but a challenging read - you may want to save it for last out of the three.

The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul

"Present". This is an amazing collection of stories and commentary that will really turn your head upside down and challenge what you think about consciousness, the possibility of other forms of consciousness, how you think, and why you think it. I recommend that you read this book first, to whet your appetite for Douglas Hofstadter's writing.

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

"Future". Ray Kurzweil's view of the near future is also my view, and he backs up his theories with facts.  Ray does a great job of laying his fantastic predictions out for the near future. What he is predicting will take place is simply mind blowing and earth shattering. I recommend that you read this book second out of the three. 

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December 11, 2007

Emergent Human Intelligence

Emergent Intelligence
© / Sergey Shlyaev

The Sum of the Parts

A popular topic lately is the concept of the hive mind. Bees, for example, exhibit this behavior and through their group interaction show a degree of conscious. A similar concept is that of the collective consciousness. I prefer to use the term emergent human intelligence.

Organization Levels

To illustrate this concept, a thought experiment is in order. Imagine for a moment that you were able to shrink yourself down to the size of a human cell inside another human being whose arm is moving. If if were possible to "ask" a cell next to you why it was moving, it would have no concept of the idea that the collection of all cells in the body, including the neurons in the brain, was responsible for coordinating the movement of the body on a large scale. The cell that you were talking to would simply say that it moved because the cell next to it moved. In other words, the behavior of the body as a whole and of the mind that controls it is an emergent behavior which is at a level above what the individual cells in the body can understand. If you were to continue interrogating every cell in the body, none would be able to explain why the arm moved.

Similarly, other organization levels exhibit this behavior. Collections of quarks form subatomic particles such as neutrons and protons. Neutrons, protons and electrons bind tightly together to form atoms. Groups of atoms interact to form molecules, molecules interact to form cells, and collections of cells create animal life such as humans, and humans form societies.


What is important to note is that there are two levels of interaction going on here. For example, a cell is to a limited degree "aware" of its neighbors. It communicates with them through the exchange of various chemicals. However, the cell is not aware of the higher level of activity of the body that is formed by the collection of cells. In the example above, a cell can no more understand the reason that the arm moved any more than it could understand the concept of automobiles.

So what is the emergent behavior that forms from human minds that are interacting? At one level, we communicate with each other, share ideas, form political parties, etc. This behavior is similar to the thought experiment above where the cells communicate through the exchange of chemicals.

However, at a different level, what is the emergent behavior that is analogous to the arm moving in the example above? For the same reasons that the cells in a human body can't understand general relativity, we would most likely not be able to fully understand the collective behavior that "moves an arm". We wouldn't even have an understanding of what an arm is. Is it possible seemingly random events in our lives ("the cell next to me just moved") are the result of an emergent behavior at a level above us?

Accelerating Progress

As we continue to evolve and make technological progress at an accelerating rate, this emergent human intelligence will only continue to sharpen its intelligence and evolve as well. Tools such as cell phones, email, chat, and other means of communicating rapidly will be complemented or even supplanted by other means as a result of human augmentation. Years ago, the concept of anyone being able to communicate with anyone else on the planet within seconds was pure science fiction. Today, this is common place and we don't give it a second thought.

Imagine what will be possible when, through the implantation of computer chips directly into the human brain, or other means, human thought can be directly transmitted in an instant. What form of collective human intelligence will emerge from it?


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December 06, 2007

Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?

Living in a Computer Simulation
© / geopaul

The Matrix

Perhaps you have seen The Matrix trilogy and contemplated the idea that we ourselves may be living inside a computer simulation. In fact, given the current understanding of human consciousness and models of cognition, in theory, it's completely possible.

What is difficult to determine, however, is the actual probability that we are in fact being simulated, given that we have only one representative data point - our own existence.

Oxford University Research

Nick Bostrom, philosopher and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University has spent some time thinking about exactly this question. He gives a logical argument that comes to the conclusion that at least one of the three following statements is true:

  1. The human species will go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage.
  2. Any posthuman civilization is unlikely to run computer simulations of its history.
  3. There is a high probability that we ourselves are now living in a simulation.

Simulated Humans

Assume that we will not go extinct before acquiring the capability to run simulations. In other words, that item one above is false. Given the fact current predictions of computing technology put us on a course to eventually have the capability to run full computer simulations of humans, then item two is also false.

Since simulations can be run over and over, in multiple environments in parallel, and computing power keeps increasing, then in fact, the number of simulated humans that will ever exist is vastly greater than the number of real humans that have ever existed. Statistically speaking, if you lumped all of these conscious entities together - real and simulated - and picked one at random, your chances of picking a simulated human would be greater than those of picking a real human. Simulated humans can't tell that they are simulated, and this leads to the essential conclusion that there is a greater likelihood that you are actually living in a computer simulation right now than not.

You can read more about the idea, including the original article and popular synopses of it, at

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