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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Reality and Religion (a follow-up to earlier posts on Objective/Subjective Reality)

This post is a response to Bob McCue's comments to my earlier blog entry on "Objective and Subjective Reality". Scroll down after going to

to read his comments.

Bob is a former Mormon and has written extensively and elegantly about his reasons for leaving the faith:

He read my blog on objective/subjective reality and my essay on "social/computational/probabilist" philosophy of science

and then posed some questions regarding the probabilistic justification of religious beliefs.

Bob: The questions you raise are deep and fascinating ones and unfortunately I don't have time right now to write a reply that does them justice.

However, I can't resist saying a few things ;-)

I was never religious but my ex-wife was and, although this led to numerous unpleasant arguments between us, it also led me to gain some degree of appreciation (OK, not all that much!) for the religious perspective. For her (as a Zen Buddhist) it was never about objective truth at all, it was always about subjective experience -- her own and that of the others in her sangha (religious group). If probability theory was relevant, it was in the context of evaluations like

Probability ( my own spiritual/emotional state is good GIVEN THAT I carry out these religious practices)


Probability ( my own spiritual/emotional state is good GIVEN THAT I don't carry out these religious practices)

The evaluation criterion was internal/subjective not external/objective. The actual beliefs of the religion were only evaluated in regard to their subjective effects on the believer's internal well-being. This fits in with a Nietzschean perspective in which "An organism believes what it needs to believe in order to survive", if you replace "survive" with "maximize internal satisfaction" (which ultimately approximately reduces to Nietzsche's "survival" if one takes an evolutionary view in which we have evolved to, on average, be satisfied by things correlated with our genomes' survival).

I am not sure what this has to do with religions like Mormonism though. I think my ex got interested in Zen (in her mid-20's) partly because I had talked to her about it years before that, when as a teenager I had found Huang Po's Zen writings (on exiting the world of thought and ideas and entering the world of pure truth/nothingness) really radical and fascinating. Zen is not very typical of religions and it's questionable whether it really belongs in the "religion" category -- it's a borderline case. It specifically teaches that the external, "objective" world is illusory and urges you to fully, viscerally and spiritually understand this world's construction via the mind. Thus in a Zen perspective the empirical validation or refutation of hypotheses (so critical to science) is not central, because it takes place within a sphere that is a priori considered illusory and deceptive. Because of this Zen tends not to make statements that contradict scientific law; rather it brushes the whole domain of science aside as being descriptive of an illusory reality.

I guess that Mormonism is different in that it makes hypotheses that directly contradict scientific observation (e.g. do Mormons hold the Earth was created 6000 years ago?). But still, I suspect the basic psychological dynamics is not that different. People believe in a religion because this belief helps them fulfill their own goals of personal, social or spiritual satisfaction. Religious people may also (to varying extents) have a goal of recognizing valid patterns in the observed world; but people can have multiple goals, and apparently for religious people the goal of achieving personal/social/spiritual satisfaction thru religion overwhelms the goal of recognizing valid patterns in the observed world. I find nothing very mysterious in this.

Bob: You ask about belief in Kundalini Yoga (another obsession of my ex-wife, as it happens.) I guess that the KY system helps people to improve their own internal states and in that case people may be wise to adopt it, in some cases... even though from a scientific view the beliefs it contains are a tricky mix of sense and nonsense.

However, it seems pretty clear to me that religious beliefs, though they may sometimes optimally serve the individual organism (via leading to various forms of satisfaction), are counterproductive on the species level.

As a scientific optimist and transhumanist I believe that the path to maximum satisfaction for humans as a whole DOES involve science -- both for things like medical care, air conditioning and books and music, and for things like creating AI's to help us and creating nanotech and gene therapy solutions for extending our lives indefinitely.

There's a reason that Buddhism teaches "all existence involves suffering." It's true, of course -- but it was even more true in ancient India than now. There was a lot more starvation and disease and general discomfort in life back then, which is why a suffering-focused religion like Buddhism was able to spread so widely. The "suffering is everywhere" line wouldn't sell so well in modern America or Western Europe, because although suffering still IS everywhere, it's not as extreme and not as major a component of most people's lives. Which is due, essentially, to science. (I am acutely aware that in many parts of the world suffering is a larger part of peoples' lives, but, this does not detract from the point I am making.)

Since religious belief systems detract from accurate observation of patterns in reality, they detract from science and thus from the path with the apparently maximal capacity to lead humanity toward overall satisfaction, even though they may in fact deliver maximal personal satisfaction to some people (depending on their personal psychology).

However, one may argue that some people will never be able to contribute to science anyway (due to low intelligence or other factors), so that if they hold religious beliefs and don't use them to influence the minds of science-and-technology-useful people, their beliefs are doing no harm to others but may be increasing their own satisfaction. Thus, for some people to be religious may be a good thing in terms of maximizing the average current and long term satisfaction of humanity.

There is also a risk issue here. Since religion detracts from science and technology, it maintains humans in a state where they are unlikely to annihilate the whole species, though they may kill each other in more modest numbers. Science gives us more power for positive transformation and also more power for terrible destruction. The maximum satisfaction achievable thru science is higher than thru religion (due to the potential of science to lead to various forms of massively positive transhumanism), but the odds of destruction are higher too. And we really have no way of knowing what the EXPECTED outcome of the sci-tech path is -- the probabilities of transcension versus destruction.

[As I wrote the prior paragraph I realized that no Zen practitioner would agree with me that science has the power to lead to greater satisfaction than religion. Semantics of "satisfaction" aside they would argue that "enlightenment" is the greatest quest and requires no technology anyway. But even if you buy this (which I don't, fully: I think Zen enlightenment is an interesting state of mind but with plusses and minuses compared to other ones, and I suspect that the transhuman future will contain other states of mind that are even more deep and fascinating), it seems to be the case that only a tiny fraction of humans have achieved or ever will achieve this exalted state. Transhumanist technology would seem to hold the possibility of letting any sentient being choose their own state of mind freely, subject only to constraints regarding minimizing harm to others. We can all be enlightened after the Singularity -- if we want to be! -- but we may well find more appealing ways to spend our eternity of time!! -- ]

OK, I drifted a fair way from Mormonism there, back to my usual obsessions these days. But hopefully it was a moderately interesting trajectory.

For a more interesting discussion of Mormonism, check out the South Park episode "All About Mormons." It was actually quite educational for me.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Quantum Erasers, Psychokinesis and Time Travel

This post is inspired by a study of the “delayed choice quantum eraser” experiment described e.g. at

Even though the quantum eraser experiments don’t allow true “backwards causation,” this doesn’t prove that such a thing is impossible. It just proves that there is no way to do it within the commonly accepted constraints of physical law. There is at least once concrete possibility for how currently known physical law may be breakable, in a way that would allow backward causation (and, as an effective consequence, time travel – since being able to cause events in the past would mean being able to create an exact replica of oneself in the past, including a brain-state possessing the feeling of having just been quantum-magically transported into the past).

This possibility is “quantum psychokinesis” – a notion which sounds bizarre, but is apparently supported by a variety of experiments done by respected scientists at various institutions including Princeton University; see

The simplest of these experiments involve people trying to influence, by the power of concentration, random events such as the direction of an electron’s spin. A long list of experiments show that, after some training, people have a weak but real ability to do this. Over tens of thousands of trials people can make electrons spin in the direction they want to 51% of the time or so, whereas chance would dictate merely 50%. This is a small difference but over so many trials is highly statistically significant.

Hooking this kind of PK experiment up to a quantum eraser apparatus, one would obtain a practical example of reverse causation. If this kind of PK actually works, then in the context of the above “paradox” situation, for example, it really would be possible for someone on Alpha Centauri to send messages faster than light to someone back home, via biasing the direction of spin of the coupled twin particle observed on Alpha Centauri. The rate of information transmission would be extremely low, since all that PK has ever been observed to do is give a slight statistical bias to events otherwise thought random. But with an appropriate code even a very slow rate of information transmission can be made to do a lot. And hypothetically, if this sort of PK phenomenon is actually real, one has to imagine that AI’s in the future will find ways to amplify it far beyond what the human brain can do.

Quantum Theory and Consciousness

Another highly nerdy and technical blog entry…

I've been working on the last couple chapters of my long-due philosophy-of-mind book "The Hidden Pattern", and one of the chapters is on quantum reality, so I've been re-studying some of the trickier aspects of quantum theory and its interpretation.

In the course of this, I've come to what I think is a clearer understanding of the relation between quantum theory and consciousness, based on the "decoherence" approach to quantum measurement -- see

for a refresher on this topic.

This blog entry will make the most sense to readers who are at least a little familiar with quantum theory, at least at the popular-science level.

Unlike what Eugene Wigner suggested back in the 1960’s, we can’t quite say consciousness is the collapse of the wave function” because in the decoherence approach the wave function does not collapse – there are merely some systems that are almost-classical in the sense that there is minimal interference between the different parts of their wave function.

Of course, we can always say “everything is conscious” but this doesn’t really solve anything – even if everything is conscious, some things are more conscious than others and the problem of consciousness then is pushed into defining what it means for one thing to have a higher degree of consciousness than another.

The analogue of “consciousness is the collapse of the wave function” in the decoherence approach would seem to be “consciousness is the process of decoherence.” I propose that this is actually correct in a fairly strong sense, although not for an entirely obvious reason.

Firstly, I suggest that we view consciousness as “the process of observing.” Now, “observation,” of course, is a psychological and subjective concept, but it also has a physical correlate. I suggest the following characterization of the physical substrate of observation: Subjective acts of observation physically correspond to events involving the registration of something in a memory from which that thing can later be retrieved.

It immediately follows from this that observation necessarily requires an effectively-classical system that involves decoherence.

But what is not so obvious is that all decoherence involves an act of observation, in the above sense. This is because, as soon as a process decoheres, the record of this process becomes immanent in the perturbations of various particles all around it – so that, in principle, one could deconstruct the process from all this data, even though this may be totally impractical to do. Therefore every event of decoherence counts as an observation, since it counts as a registration of a memory that can (in principle) be retrieved.

Most events of decoherence correspond to registration in the memory of some fairly wide and not easily delineated subset of the universe. On the other hand, some events of decoherence are probabilistically concentrated in one small subset of the universe – for example, in the memory of some intelligent system. When a human brain observes a picture, the exact record of the picture cannot be reconstructed solely from the information in that brain – but a decent approximation can be. We may say that an event of registration is approximately localized in some system if the information required to reconstruct the event in an approximate way is contained in that system. In this sense we may say that many events of consciousness are approximately localized in particular systems (e.g. brains), though in an exact sense they are all spread more widely throughout the universe.

So, just as the Copenhagen-interpretation notion of “wave function collapse” turns out to be a crude approximation of reality, so does the notion of “wave function collapse as
consciousness.” But just as decoherence conceptually approximates wave function collapse, so the notion of “decoherence as registration of events in memory as consciousness” conceptually approximates “wave function collapse as consciousness.”

How is this insight reflected in the language of patterns (the theme of my philosophy book – “everything is pattern”)? If a system registers a memory of some event, then in many cases the memory within this system is a pattern in that event, because the system provides data that allows one to reconstruct that event. But the extent to which a pattern is present depends on a number of factors: how simple is the representation within the system, how difficult is the retrieval process, and how approximate is the retrieved entity as compared to the original entity. What we can say is that, according to this definition, the recognition of a pattern is always an act of consciousness. From a physics point of view, though, not all acts of consciousness need to correspond to recognitions of patterns. On the other hand, if one takes a philosophical perspective in which pattern is primary (the universe consists of patterns) then it makes sense to define pattern-recognition is identical to consciousness (???)

Of course, none of this forms a solution to the "hard problem of consciousness," which may be phrased as something like "how does the feeling of conscious experience connect with physical structures and dynamics?" This is philosophically subtler issue and you'll have to wait for "The Hidden Pattern" to read my views on it these days (which are different from anything I've published before). But an understanding of the physical correlates of consciousness is a worthwhile thing in itself, as well as a prerequisite to an intelligent discussion of the “hard problem.”

What do you think?

Too many stupid professors and bureaucrats...

I posted a blog a while ago whining about the annoyingness of the style of writing and thinking most common in academia today.

This is another one, with a slightly different slant.

At the end of the whining, however, I'll include an actual constructive suggestion for how to make some aspects of the academic world better. (Not that I expect my suggestion to have any actual impact!)

As I mentioned before, I've been making a push to submit papers and books for publication recently; something I haven't done much of since leaving academia in the late 90's. It's been quite an experience!

At first I thought I was doing something badly wrong. I have had some publications accepted but my rejection rate has been higher than I thought -- and not because what I'm submitting is bad (really!), mostly just (egads! can you believe it!) because it's unorthodox.

Of course, I'm revising and resubmitting and everything will be published in time. But the process has been educational as well as frustrating. And I've become aware that others whose work is even less radical than mine have been having an even more annoying time with this sort of thing.

I recently got two emails from friends reporting similar experiences to my own.

One is a biologist who recently left a major university for industry and has worked out a truly radical technique for repairing some types of DNA damage. This technique has now been demonstrated in live cells as well as in the test tube. Amazing stuff, with potential to cure some degenerative diseases as well as to slow human aging.

His paper? Rejected without review six times so far. WITHOUT REVIEW each time !!!

Another is an MD who has found particular patterns of DNA mutations that correspond to a couple very well known diseases. But -- oops -- these patterns are more complex than the ones biologists are used to looking at, and they occur in parts of the genome that biologists don't normally like to look at. So, no matter how statistically significant the results, he's got an uphill battle to fight. He's fighting against convention and presupposition. The result: right after he gets some breakthrough results, his government grant funding is cut off.

As compared to in the late 80's and early 90's, it seems much more common now to have things rejected without review. At least, this seems to be happening to me moderately often lately (though not a majority of the time), whereas back then I don't remember it ever happening.

A draft of my book on the Novamente design for general intelligence (not fully polished -- that's still in progress) was rejected by a publisher recently -- the rejection didn't surprise me, but the nature of the rejection did. The book wasn't even sent to a reviewer -- instead the editor just sent back a letter saying that their book series was intended for "serious academic works."

I had a bit of an email conversation with the editor, which revealed that he had shown the book to a "very distinguished AI professor" who had commented that due to the broad scope of the book and its claims to address general intelligence, it couldn't be a very serious academic work. Heh. Well, my ideas might be WRONG, but they're definitely just as serious as a lot of other books published. And the book doesn't contain a lot of mathematical proofs and only a handful of experimental results, but, it has more of both than Minsky's Society of Mind -- which also addresses general intelligence (or tries to) -- but wait, Minsky is old and famous, he's allowed to address big topics.... What we want to avoid is young people addressing big and interesting topics, right? But wait, why?

Please understand the nature of my complaint: I'm not pissed because this publisher rejected my book, I'm pissed because it was rejected without being read or even seriously skimmed over. And note that I've had six academic books published before, so it should be obvious to the publisher (who had my resume') that I'm not a complete raving crackpot.

I had the same experience with a couple bioinformatics papers I recently submitted -- which were nowhere near as eccentric as my book on Novamente, but presented algorithms and approaches radically different from what's typical in the bioinformatics field. Not just rejected --rejected WITHOUT REVIEW.

Of course, I also had some bioinformatics papers rejected after being reviewed, but by reviewers who plainly understood nothing in the paper. Of course, I could have tried to explain my methods more didactically -- but then the papers would have been rejected for being too long! Tricky, tricky....

Yes, I have had some papers accepted this year, and I have couple books (a futurist manifesto of sorts, and an edited volume on AGI) coming out in an academic press later this year. So these are not the whinings of a complete academic failure ;-p

I've been through enough of this crap before to realize that, after enough resubmissions, eventually one's books or papers hit a publisher or journal who sends them to intelligent and open-minded reviewers who actually read the materials they're given and either understand them or admit they don't (so the editor can find someone else who does). Eventually. But it's a long and annoying search process.

The academic community does reward innovators -- sometimes, eventually,.... But more often than not it places huge obstacles in the way of innovation, via a publication process that makes it much easier to publish variations on orthodox ideas than unusual approaches. One might argue that this kind of extremely strong bias is necessary to filter out all the crap in the world. But I don't believe it. Major changes to the reviewing process are in order.

Collaborative filtering technology would seem to provide a fairly easy answer. Suppose one assumes, as a basis, that individuals with PhD's (or MD's or other similar degrees) are, on the whole, reasonably valid raters of academic content. Then one can give each PhD a certain number of rating points to allocate each year, and let them use them to rate each others' work. People can then post their work online in resources like, and ratings can then be used to guide individuals to the most important or interesting works.

Journals aren't needed since the Net and computer printers are so widespread, and book publishers may still exist, but will be able to assume that if a book manuscript has received a reasonable number of rating points in its online version, then it's probably worth publishing.

You can argue that citations play a similar role -- but citations only play a role after a work is published, they don't help with the irritation of getting innovative ideas past conservative referees in the first place.

Anyway I don't have time to work toward implementing an idea like this, so I'll just keep working within the existing, annoying system, unless I manage to gather enough money for my research from business profits or private investments or donations that I don't need to worry about the often-absurd publication game.

Urrrghh!! I can easily see how, facing this kind of crap, young scientists and philosophers give up on trying to think wild and novel thoughts and follow along with everyone else.

Following along certainly would create a lot less hassle.

Or else giving up on the game of seeking reputation and simply wandering around in the woods like Zarathustra (Nietzsche's, not my son; my son Zar only wanders around these days in the simulated woods inside World of Warcraft!) and keeping one's thoughts to oneself (and then foolishly emerging to preach them to the world after a couple decades, only to find that no one understands what the HELL you're talking about...)

Humanity -- gotta love it...

Or -- hmm -- do you ???

Ah well...