Category: biology

The Obsessive Dreyfus-Hawking Conundrum

I’ve been obsessed lately. I was up at 5 A.M. yesterday and drove to Ruidoso to do some hiking (trails T93 to T92, if interested). The San Augustin Pass was desolate as the sun began breaking over, so I inched up into triple digit speeds in the M6. Because that is what the machine is made for. Booming across White Sands Missile Range, I recalled watching base police work with National Park Rangers to chase oryx down the highway while early F117s practiced touch-and-gos at Holloman in the background, and then driving my carpool truck out to the high energy laser site or desert ship to deliver documents.

I settled into Starbucks an hour and a half later and started writing on ¡Reconquista!, cranking out thousands of words before trying to track down the trailhead and starting on my hike. (I would have run the thing but wanted to go to lunch later and didn’t have access to a shower. Neither restaurant nor diners deserve an après-run moi.) And then I was on the trail and I kept stopping and taking plot and dialogue notes, revisiting little vignettes and annotating enhancements that I would later salt in to the main text over lunch. And I kept rummaging through the development of characters, refining and sifting the facts of their lives through different sets of sieves until they took on both a greater valence within the story arc and, often, more comedic value.

I was obsessed and remain so. It is a joyous thing to be in this state, comparable only to working on large-scale software systems when the hours melt away and meals slip as one cranks through problem after problem, building and modulating the subsystems until the units begin to sing together like a chorus. In English, the syntax and semantics are less constrained and the pragmatics more pronounced, but the emotional high is much the same.

With the recent death of Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley it seems an opportune time to consider the uniquely human capabilities that are involved in each of these creative ventures. Uniquely, I suggest, because we can’t yet imagine what it would be like for a machine to do the same kinds of intelligent tasks. Yet, from Stephen Hawking through to Elon Musk, influential minds are worried about what might happen if we develop machines that rise to the level of human consciousness. This might be considered a science fiction-like speculation since we have little basis for conjecture beyond the works of pure imagination. We know that mechanization displaces workers, for instance, and think it will continue, but what about conscious machines?

For Dreyfus, the human mind is too embodied and situational to be considered an encodable thing representable by rules and algorithms. Much like the trajectory of a species through an evolutionary landscape, the mind is, in some sense, an encoded reflection of the world in which it lives. Taken further, the evolutionary parallel becomes even more relevant in that it is embodied in a sensory and physical identity, a product of a social universe, and an outgrowth of some evolutionary ping pong through contingencies that led to greater intelligence and self-awareness.

Obsession with whatever cultivars, whatever traits and tendencies, lead to this riot of wordplay and software refinement is a fine example of how this moves away from the fears of Hawking and towards the impossibilities of Dreyfus. We might imagine that we can simulate our way to the kernel of instinct and emotion that makes such things possible. We might also claim that we can disconnect the product of the effort from these internal states and the qualia that defy easy description. The books and the new technologies have only desultory correspondence to the process by which they are created. But I doubt it. It’s more likely that getting from great automatic speech recognition or image classification to the general AI that makes us fearful is a longer hike than we currently imagine.

Tweak, Memory

Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) were, from early on in their formulation as Threshold Logic Units (TLUs) or Perceptrons, mostly focused on non-sequential decision-making tasks. With the invention of back-propagation training methods, the application to static presentations of data became somewhat fixed as a methodology. During the 90s Support Vector Machines became the rage and then Random Forests and other ensemble approaches held significant mindshare. ANNs receded into the distance as a quaint, historical approach that was fairly computationally expensive and opaque when compared to the other methods.

But Deep Learning has brought the ANN back through a combination of improvements, both minor and major. The most important enhancements include pre-training of the networks as auto-encoders prior to pursuing error-based training using back-propagation or  Contrastive Divergence with Gibbs Sampling. The critical other enhancement derives from Schmidhuber and others work in the 90s on managing temporal presentations to ANNs so the can effectively process sequences of signals. This latter development is critical for processing speech, written language, grammar, changes in video state, etc. Back-propagation without some form of recurrent network structure or memory management washes out the error signal that is needed for adjusting the weights of the networks. And it should be noted that increased compute fire-power using GPUs and custom chips has accelerated training performance enough that experimental cycles are within the range of doable.

Note that these are what might be called “computer science” issues rather than “brain science” issues. Researchers are drawing rough analogies between some observed properties of real neuronal systems (neurons fire and connect together) but then are pursuing a more abstract question as to how a very simple computational model of such neural networks can learn. And there are further analogies that start building up: learning is due to changes in the strength of neural connections, for instance, and neurons fire after suitable activation. Then there are cognitive properties of human minds that might be modeled, as well, which leads us to a consideration of working memory in building these models.

It is this latter consideration of working memory that is critical to holding stimuli presentations long enough that neural connections can process them and learn from them. Schmidhuber et. al.’s methodology (LSTM) is as ad hoc as most CS approaches in that it observes a limitation with a computational architecture and the algorithms that operate within that architecture and then tries to remedy the limitation by architectural variations. There tends to be a tinkering and tweaking that goes on in the gradual evolution of these kinds of systems until something starts working. Theory walks hand-in-hand with practice in applied science.

Given that, however, it should be noted that there are researchers who are attempting to create a more biologically-plausible architecture that solves some of the issues with working memory and training neural networks. For instance, Frank, Loughry, and O’Reilly at University of Colorado have been developing a computational model that emulates the circuits that connect the frontal cortex and the basal ganglia. The model uses an elaborate series of activating and inhibiting connections to provide maintenance of perceptual stimuli in working memory. The model shows excellent performance on specific temporal presentation tasks. In its attempt to preserve a degree of fidelity to known brain science, it does lose some of the simplicity that purely CS-driven architectures provide, but I think it has a better chance of helping overcome another vexing problem for ANNs. Specifically, the slow learning properties of ANNs have only scant resemblance to much human learning. We don’t require many, many presentations of a given stimulus in order to learn it; often, one presentation is sufficient. Reconciling the slow tuning of ANN models, even recurrent ones, with this property of human-like intelligence remains an open issue, and more biology may be the key.

Traitorous Reason, Facts, and Analysis

dinoObama’s post-election press conference was notable for its continued demonstration of adult discourse and values. Especially notable:

This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.

But ideology in American politics (and elsewhere) has the traitorous habit of undermining every one of those norms. It always begins with undermining the facts in pursuit of manipulation. Just before the election, the wizardly Aron Ra took to YouTube to review VP-elect Mike Pence’s bizarre grandstanding in Congress in 2002:

And just today, Trump lashed out at the cast of Hamilton for lecturing Mike Pence on his anti-LGBTQ stands, also related to ideology and belief, at the end of a show.

Astonishing as this seems, we live in an imperfect world being drawn very slowly away from tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and in fits and starts. My wife received a copy of letter from now-deceased family that contained an editorial from the Shreveport Journal in the 1960s that (with its embedded The Worker editorial review) simultaneously attacked segregationist violence, the rhetoric of Alabama governor George Wallace, claimed that communists were influencing John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement, demanded the jailing of communists, and suggested the federal government should take over Alabama:

editorial-shreveport-60s-m

The accompanying letter was also concerned over the fate of children raised as Unitarians, amazingly enough, and how they could possibly be moral people. It then concluded with a recommendation to vote for Goldwater.

Is it any wonder that the accompanying cultural revolutions might lead to the tearing down of the institutions that were used to justify the deviation away from “reason and facts and analysis?”

But I must veer to the positive here, that this brief blip is a passing retrenchment of these old tendencies that the Millennials and their children will look back to with fond amusement, the way I remember Ronald Reagan.

Motivation, Boredom, and Problem Solving

shatteredIn the New York Times Stone column, James Blachowicz of Loyola challenges the assumption that the scientific method is uniquely distinguishable from other ways of thinking and problem solving we regularly employ. In his example, he lays out how writing poetry involves some kind of alignment of words that conform to the requirements of the poem. Whether actively aware of the process or not, the poet is solving constraint satisfaction problems concerning formal requirements like meter and structure, linguistic problems like parts-of-speech and grammar, semantic problems concerning meaning, and pragmatic problems like referential extension and symbolism. Scientists do the same kinds of things in fitting a theory to data. And, in Blachowicz’s analysis, there is no special distinction between scientific method and other creative methods like the composition of poetry.

We can easily see how this extends to ideas like musical composition and, indeed, extends with even more constraints that range from formal through to possibly the neuropsychology of sound. I say “possibly” because there remains uncertainty on how much nurture versus nature is involved in the brain’s reaction to sounds and music.

In terms of a computational model of this creative process, if we presume that there is an objective function that governs possible fits to the given problem constraints, then we can clearly optimize towards a maximum fit. For many of the constraints there are, however, discrete parameterizations (which part of speech? which word?) that are not like curve fitting to scientific data. In fairness, discrete parameters occur there, too, especially in meta-analyses of broad theoretical possibilities (Quantum loop gravity vs. string theory? What will we tell the children?) The discrete parameterizations blow up the search space with their combinatorics, demonstrating on the one hand why we are so damned amazing, and on the other hand why a controlled randomization method like evolutionary epistemology’s blind search and selective retention gives us potential traction in the face of this curse of dimensionality. The blind search is likely weakened for active human engagement, though. Certainly the poet or the scientist would agree; they are using learned skills, maybe some intellectual talent of unknown origin, and experience on how to traverse the wells of improbability in finding the best fit for the problem. This certainly resembles pre-training in deep learning, though on a much more pervasive scale, including feedback from categorical model optimization into the generative basis model.

But does this extend outwards to other ways in which we form ideas? We certainly know that motivated reasoning is involved in key aspects of our belief formation, which plays strongly into how we solve these constraint problems. We tend to actively look for confirmations and avoid disconfirmations of fit. We positively bias recency of information, or repeated exposures, and tend to only reconsider in much slower cycles.

Also, as the constraints of certain problem domains become, in turn, extensions that can result in change—where there is a dynamic interplay between belief and success—the fixity of the search space itself is no longer guaranteed. Broad human goals like the search for meaning are an example of that. In come complex human factors, like how boredom correlates with motivation and ideological extremism (overview, here, journal article, here).

This latter data point concerning boredom crosses from mere bias that might preclude certain parts of a search space into motivation that focuses it, and that optimizes for novelty seeking and other behaviors.

Quantum Field Is-Oughts

teleologySean Carroll’s Oxford lecture on Poetic Naturalism is worth watching (below). In many ways it just reiterates several common themes. First, it reinforces the is-ought barrier between values and observations about the natural world. It does so with particular depth, though, by identifying how coarse-grained theories at different levels of explanation can be equally compatible with quantum field theory. Second, and related, he shows how entropy is an emergent property of atomic theory and the interactions of quantum fields (that we think of as particles much of the time) and, importantly, that we can project the same notion of boundary conditions that result in entropy into the future resulting in a kind of effective teleology. That is, there can be some boundary conditions for the evolution of large-scale particle systems that form into configurations that we can label purposeful or purposeful-like. I still like the term “teleonomy” to describe this alternative notion, but the language largely doesn’t matter except as an educational and distinguishing tool against the semantic embeddings of old scholastic monks.

Finally, the poetry aspect resolves in value theories of the world. Many are compatible with descriptive theories, and our resolution of them is through opinion, reason, communications, and, yes, violence and war. There is no monopoly of policy theories, religious claims, or idealizations that hold sway. Instead we have interests and collective movements, and the above, all working together to define our moral frontiers.

 

The Goldilocks Complexity Zone

FractalSince my time in the early 90s at Santa Fe Institute, I’ve been fascinated by the informational physics of complex systems. What are the requirements of an abstract system that is capable of complex behavior? How do our intuitions about complex behavior or form match up with mathematical approaches to describing complexity? For instance, we might consider a snowflake complex, but it is also regular in it’s structure, driven by an interaction between crystal growth and the surrounding air. The classic examples of coastlines and fractal self-symmetry also seem complex but are not capable of complex behavior.

So what is a good way of thinking about complexity? There is actually a good range of ideas about how to characterize complexity. Seth Lloyd rounds up many of them, here. The intuition that drives many of them is that complexity seems to be associated with distributions of relationships and objects that are somehow juxtapositioned between a single state and a uniformly random set of states. Complex things, be they living organisms or computers running algorithms, should exist in a Goldilocks zone when each part is examined and those parts are somehow summed up to a single measure.

We can easily construct a complexity measure that captures some of these intuitions. Let’s look at three strings of characters:

x = aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

y = menlqphsfyjubaoitwzrvcgxdkbwohqyxplerz

z = the fox met the hare and the fox saw the hare

Now we would likely all agree that y and z are more complex than x, and I suspect most would agree that y looks like gibberish compared with z. Of course, y could be a sequence of weirdly coded measurements or something, or encrypted such that the message appears random. Let’s ignore those possibilities for our initial attempt at defining a complexity measure. We can see right away that an approach using basic information theory doesn’t help much. Algorithmic informational complexity will be highest for y, as will entropy:

for each sequence composed out of an alphabet with counts, s. So we get: H(x) = 0, H(y) = 3.199809, and H(z) = 2.3281. Here’s some sample R code using the “entropy” package if you want to calculate yourself:

> z = "the fox met the hare and the fox saw the hare"
> zt = table(strsplit(z, '')[[1]])
> entropy(zt, method="ML")

Note that the alphabet of each string is slightly different, but the missing characters between them don’t matter since their probabilities are 0.

We can just arbitrarily scale entropy by the maximum entropy possible for the same length string like this:

This is somewhat like channel efficiency in communications theory, I think. And then just turn this into a parabolically-scaled measure that centers at 0.5:

where is an arbitrary non-zero scaling parameter.

But this calculation is only considering the individual character frequencies, not the composition of the characters into groupings. So we can consider pairs of characters in this same calculation, or triples, etc. And also, just looking at these n-gram sequences doesn’t capture potentially longer range repetitious structures. So we can gradually ladle on grammars as the counting mechanism. Now, if our measure of complexity is really going to capture what we intuitively consider to be complex, all of these different levels of connections within the string or other organized piece of information must be present.

This general program is present in every one of Seth Lloyd’s complexity metrics in various ways and even comes into play in discussions of consciousness, though many use mutual information rather than entropy per se. Here’s Max Tegmark using a variation on Giulio Tinoni’s Phi concept from Integrated Information Theory to demonstrate that integration is a key component of consciousness and how that might be calculated for general physical systems.

Bayesianism and Properly Basic Belief

Kircher-Diagram_of_the_names_of_GodXu and Tenebaum, in Word Learning as Bayesian Inference (Psychological Review, 2007), develop a very simple Bayesian model of how children (and even adults) build semantic associations based on accumulated evidence. In short, they find contrastive elimination approaches as well as connectionist methods unable to explain the patterns that are observed. Specifically, the most salient problem with these other methods is that they lack the rapid transition that is seen when three exemplars are presented for a class of objects associated with a word versus one exemplar. Adults and kids (the former even more so) just get word meanings faster than those other models can easily show. Moreover, a space of contending hypotheses that are weighted according to their Bayesian statistics, provides an escape from the all-or-nothing of hypothesis elimination and some of the “soft” commitment properties that connectionist models provide.

The mathematical trick for the rapid transition is rather interesting. They formulate a “size principle” that weights the likelihood of a given hypothesis (this object is most similar to a “feb,” for instance, rather than the many other object sets that are available) according to a scaling that is exponential in the number of exposures. Hence the rapid transition:

Hypotheses with smaller extensions assign greater probability than do larger hypotheses to the same data, and they assign exponentially greater probability as the number of consistent examples increases.

It should be noted that they don’t claim that the psychological or brain machinery implements exactly this algorithm. As is usual in these matters, it is instead likely that whatever machinery is involved, it simply has at least these properties. It may very well be that connectionist architectures can do the same but that existing approaches to connectionism simply don’t do it quite the right way. So other methods may need to be tweaked to get closer to the observed learning of people in these word tasks.

So what can this tell us about epistemology and belief? Classical foundationalism might be formulated as something is a “basic” or “justified” belief if it is self-evident or evident to our senses. Other beliefs may therefore be grounded by those basic beliefs. And a more modern reformulation might substitute “incorrigible” for “justified” with the layered meaning of incorrigibility built on the necessity that given the proposition it is in fact true.

Here’s Alvin Plantinga laying out a case for why justified and incorrigibility have a range of problems, problems serious enough for Plantinga that he suspects that god belief could just as easily be a basic belief, allowing for the kinds of presuppositional Natural Theology (think: I look around me and the hand of God is obvious) that is at the heart of some of the loftier claims concerning the viability or non-irrationality of god belief. It even provides a kind of coherent interpretative framework for historical interpretation.

Plantinga positions the problem of properly basic belief then as an inductive problem:

And hence the proper way to arrive at such a criterion is, broadly speaking, inductive. We must assemble examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypothesis by reference to those examples. Under the right conditions, for example, it is clearly rational to believe that you see a human person before you: a being who has thoughts and feelings, who knows and believes things, who makes decisions and acts. It is clear, furthermore, that you are under no obligation to reason to this belief from others you hold; under those conditions that belief is properly basic for you.

He goes on to conclude that this opens up the god hypothesis as providing this kind of coherence mechanism:

By way of conclusion then: being self-evident, or incorrigible, or evident to the senses is not a necessary condition of proper basicality. Furthermore, one who holds that belief in God is properly basic is not thereby committed to the idea that belief in God is groundless or gratuitous or without justifying circumstances. And even if he lacks a general criterion of proper basicality, he is not obliged to suppose that just any or nearly any belief—belief in the Great Pumpkin, for example—is properly basic. Like everyone should, he begins with examples; and he may take belief in the Great Pumpkin as a paradigm of irrational basic belief.

So let’s assume that the word learning mechanism based on this Bayesian scaling is representative of our human inductive capacities. Now this may or may not be broadly true. It is possible that it is true of words but not other domains of perceptual phenomena. Nevertheless, given this scaling property, the relative inductive truth of a given proposition (a meaning hypothesis) is strictly Bayesian. Moreover, this doesn’t succumb to problems of verificationalism because it only claims relative truth. Properly basic or basic is then the scaled contending explanatory hypotheses and the god hypothesis has to compete with other explanations like evolutionary theory (for human origins), empirical evidence of materialism (for explanations contra supernatural ones), perceptual mistakes (ditto), myth scholarship, textual analysis, influence of parental belief exposure, the psychology of wish fulfillment, the pragmatic triumph of science, etc. etc.

And so we can stick to a relative scaling of hypotheses as to what constitutes basicality or justified true belief. That’s fine. We can continue to argue the previous points as to whether they support or override one hypothesis or another. But the question Plantinga raises as to what ethics to apply in making those decisions is important. He distinguishes different reasons why one might want to believe more true things than others (broadly) or maybe some things as properly basic rather than others, or, more correctly, why philosophers feel the need to pin god-belief as irrational. But we succumb to a kind of unsatisfying relativism insofar as the space of these hypotheses is not, in fact, weighted in a manner that most reflects the known facts. The relativism gets deeper when the weighting is washed out by wish fulfillment, pragmatism, aspirations, and personal insights that lack falsifiability. That is at least distasteful, maybe aretetically so (in Plantinga’s framework) but probably more teleologically so in that it influences other decision-making and the conflicts and real harms societies may cause.

Lucifer on the Beach

glowwormsI picked up a whitebait pizza while stopped along the West Coast of New Zealand tonight. Whitebait are tiny little swarming immature fish that can be scooped out of estuarial river flows using big-mouthed nets. They run, they dart, and it is illegal to change river exit points to try to channel them for capture. Hence, whitebait is semi-precious, commanding NZD70-130/kg, which explains why there was a size limit on my pizza: only the small one was available.

By the time I was finished the sky had aged from cinereal to iron in a satire of the vivid, watch-me colors of CNN International flashing Donald Trump’s linguistic indirection across the television. I crept out, setting my headlamp to red LEDs designed to minimally interfere with night vision. Just up away from the coast, hidden in the impossible tangle of cold rainforest, there was a glow worm dell. A few tourists conjured with flashlights facing the ground to avoid upsetting the tiny arachnocampa luminosa that clung to the walls inside the dark garden. They were like faint stars composed into irrelevant constellations, with only the human mind to blame for any observed patterns.

And the light, what light, like white-light LEDs recently invented, but a light that doesn’t flicker or change, and is steady under the calmest observation. Driven by luciferin and luciferase, these tiny creatures lure a few scant light-seeking creatures to their doom and as food for absorption until they emerge to mate, briefly, lay eggs, and then die.

Lucifer again, named properly from the Latin as the light bringer, the chemical basis for bioluminescence was largely isolated in the middle of the 20th Century. Yet there is this biblical stigma hanging over the term—one that really makes no sense at all. The translation of morning star or some other such nonsense into Latin got corrupted into a proper name by a process of word conversion (this isn’t metonymy or something like that; I’m not sure there is a word for it other than “mistake”). So much for some kind of divine literalism tracking mechanism that preserves perfection. Even Jesus got rendered as lucifer in some passages.

But nothing new, here. Demon comes from the Greek daemon and Christianity tried to, well, demonize all the ancient spirits during the monolatry to monotheism transition. The spirits of the air that were in a constant flux for the Hellenists, then the Romans, needed to be suppressed and given an oppositional position to the Christian soteriology. Even “Satan” may have been borrowed from Persian court drama as a kind of spy or informant after the exile.

Oddly, we are left with a kind of naming magic for the truly devout who might look at those indifferent little glow worms with some kind of castigating eye, corrupted by a semantic chain that is as kinked as the popular culture epithets of Lucifer himself.

Non-Cognitivist Trajectories in Moral Subjectivism

imageWhen I say that “greed is not good” the everyday mind creates a series of images and references, from Gordon Gekko’s inverse proposition to general feelings about inequality and our complex motivations as people. There is a network of feelings and, perhaps, some facts that might be recalled or searched for to justify the position. As a moral claim, though, it might most easily be considered connotative rather than cognitive in that it suggests a collection of secondary emotional expressions and networks of ideas that support or deny it.

I mention this (and the theories that are consonant with this kind of reasoning are called non-cognitivist and, variously, emotive and expressive), because there is a very real tendency to reduce moral ideas to objective versus subjective, especially in atheist-theist debates. I recently watched one such debate between Matt Dillahunty and an orthodox priest where the standard litany revolved around claims about objectivity versus subjectivity of truth. Objectivity of truth is often portrayed as something like, “without God there is no basis for morality. God provides moral absolutes. Therefore atheists are immoral.” The atheists inevitably reply that the scriptural God is a horrific demon who slaughters His creation and condones slavery and other ideas that are morally repugnant to the modern mind. And then the religious descend into what might be called “advanced apologetics” that try to diminish, contextualize, or dismiss such objections.

But we are fairly certain regardless of the tradition that there are inevitable nuances to any kind of moral structure. Thou shalt not kill gets revised to thou shalt not murder. So we have to parse manslaughter in pursuit of a greater good against any rules-based approach to such a simplistic commandment. Not eating shellfish during a famine has less human expansiveness but nevertheless caries similar objective antipathy,

I want to avoid invoking the Euthyphro dilemma here and instead focus on the notion that there might be an inevitability to certain moral proscriptions and even virtues given an evolutionary milleu. This was somewhat the floorplan of Sam Harris, but I’ll try to project the broader implications of species-level fitness functions to a more local theory, specifically Gibbard’s fact-prac worlds where the trajectories of normative, non-cognitive statements like “greed is not good” align with sets of perceptions of the world and options for implementing activities that strengthen the engagement with the moral assertion. The assertion is purely subjective but it derives out of a correspondence with incidental phenomena and a coherence with other ideations and aspirations. It is mostly non-cognitive in this sense that it expresses emotional primitives rather than simple truth propositions. It has a number of interesting properties, however, most notably that the fact-prac set of constraints that surround these trajectories are movable, resulting in the kinds of plasticity and moral “evolution” that we see around us, like “slavery is bad” and “gay folks should not be discriminated against.” So as an investigative tool, we can see some value that gives such a theory important verificational value. As presented by Gibbard, however, these collections of constraints that guide the trajectories of moral approaches to simple moral commandments, admonishments, or statements, need further strengthening to meet the moral landscape “ethical naturalism” that asserts that certain moral attitudes result in improved species outcomes and are therefore axiomatically possible and sensibly rendered as objective.

And it does this without considering moral propositions at all.

A Critique of Pure Randomness

Random MemeThe notion of randomness brings about many interesting considerations. For statisticians, randomness is a series of events with chances that are governed by a distribution function. In everyday parlance, equally-likely means random, while an even more common semantics is based on both how unlikely and how unmotivated an event might be (“That was soooo random!”) In physics, there are only certain physical phenomena that can be said to be truly random, including the probability of a given nucleus decomposing into other nuclei via fission. The exact position of a quantum thingy is equally random when it’s momentum is nailed down, and vice-versa. Vacuums have a certain chance of spontaneously creating matter, too, and that chance appears to be perfectly random. In algorithmic information theory, a random sequence of bits is a sequence that can’t be represented by a smaller descriptive algorithm–it is incompressible. Strangely enough, we simulate random number generators using a compact algorithm that has a complicated series of steps that lead to an almost impossible to follow trajectory through a deterministic space of possibilities; it’s acceptible to be random enough that the algorithm parameters can’t be easily reverse engineered and the next “random” number guessed.

One area where we often speak of randomness is in biological evolution. Random mutations lead to change and to deleterious effects like dead-end evolutionary experiments. Or so we hypothesized. The exact mechanism of the transmission of inheritance and of mutations were unknown to Darwin, but soon in the evolutionary synthesis notions like random genetic drift and the role of ionizing radiation and other external factors became exciting candidates for the explanation of the variation required for evolution to function. Amusingly, arguing largely from a stance that might be called a fallacy of incredulity, creationists have often seized on a logical disconnect they perceive between the appearance of purpose both in our lives and in the mechanisms of biological existence, and the assumption of underlying randomness and non-directedness as evidence for the paucity of arguments from randomness.

I give you Stephen Talbott in The New Atlantis, Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness, wherein he unpacks the mounting evidence and the philosophical implications of jumping genes, self-modifying genetic regulatory frameworks, transposons, and the likelihood that randomness in the strong sense of cosmic ray trajectories bouncing around in cellular nuclei are simply wrong. Randomness is at best a minor contribution to evolutionary processes. We are not just purposeful at the social, personal, systemic, cellular, and sub-cellular levels, we are also purposeful through time around the transmission of genetic information and the modification thereof.

This opens a wildly new avenue for considering the certain normative claims that anti-evolutionists bring to the table, such as that a mechanistic universe devoid of central leadership is meaningless and allows for any behavior to be equally acceptable. This hoary chestnut is ripe to the point of rot, of course, but the response to it should be much more vibrant than the usual retorts. The evolution of social and moral outcomes can be every bit as inevitable as if they were designed because co-existence and greater group success (yes, I wrote it) is a potential well on the fitness landscape. And, equally, we need to stop being so reticent to claim that there is a purposefulness to life, a teleology, but simply make sure that we are according the proper mechanistic feel to that teleology. Fine, call it teleonomy, or even an urge to existence. A little poetry might actually help here.