A spaceship called Imminency II

Granted. One day, if humanity needs to take a spaceship to another planet to survive, the knowledge of how that spaceship needs to be maintained would be a technology that humanity depends on for its survival. But what about today? Although there are a large variety of existing technologies, none of it involves the survival of humanity as a whole, right? That depends on how you define technology.

Technology

What is technology? It is the knowledge of how to use the resources at our disposal to make devices that serve specific purposes. Well, it does not have to involved physical devices. Technology can also be represented by methodology – techniques of how to do things. Often the use of specific tools requires some sophisticated knowledge.

If we see it broadly enough, almost all the knowledge that we have can to some extent be seen as some form of technology. Perhaps it would be a stretch to think of the waltz as a form of technology, but that may be the exception.

So what technology, seen in this broader sense, is vital for the survival of humanity today? Well, in this broad sense, the technology of acquiring and maintaining knowledge is in itself also a technology. In fact, the mechanism for the way humanity learns and uses knowledge can be seen as a technology. When viewed in this way, it is clear that such a technology would be something that humanity needs for its survival.

This technology has a name. It is called culture. One may think of culture as things like theater, cuisine, fashion, etc., but culture is much more than that. These things are high culture, which is just a tiny part of culture. One may think that culture is a fixed rigid thing, but that is not the case. It evolves and changes as time goes by. One may think of culture as just a collection of traditions and activities, but in fact, it is a mechanism.

Culture is the most important mechanism by which humanity maintains its survival in an ever changing world. If we lose it, we are in a serious situation. I’m not taking about “losing our cultures,” instead I’m referring to losing the mechanism of culture.

Culture is a feedback system that filters new ideas and maintains the best among them. For this to work, it is important that new ideas are tested before they are propagated through the population. This mechanism is under threat today. The rate at which ideas are propagated far outpaces the rate at which these ideas are tried and tested. The result is that false information is spread far and wide. People are responding to it with detrimental consequences. This process erodes the very mechanism of culture and thus threatens the survival of humanity.

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A spaceship called Imminency

What would happen if there is a technology that humanity depends on for its survival and then they forget how to maintain that technology? Yes, it is a rhetorical question. But why would there be such a technology? Humanity evolved as a species that survives without the need for any special technology. Don’t they?

To illustrate a scenario where such a thing can happen, I’ll tell a story. It is a story about a situation that can happen at some point in our future.

Far into the future, the people of earth realized that life on earth is doomed. To save humanity, they built a vast spaceship and called it Imminency. Then they loaded it with all the knowledge of mankind. A large number of people entered the spaceship, taking with them all the resources they would need for a long journey through space to a different planet where they hope to establish a new home for humanity. If this mission would fail, humanity would cease to exist.

The journey would take several generations to complete. Therefore, each new generation needs to be taught how to maintain the life support systems of the spaceship.

So, here we have that scenario that I talked about at the beginning.

For a while it worked, but humans are humans. Their ideas drift. The human mind is capable of much diversity. It is inventive and resourceful. So at some point some very clever people came up with reasons why children should not be taught all this knowledge of the technology. And so it happened that, after a few more generations, the knowledge of how to maintain the technology that keeps humanity alive got lost.

Slowly, the life support systems started to fail, but nobody knew how to solve the problem. They did not understand the technology and did not know how to fix the failing systems.

I don’t like stories with bad endings so I won’t leave this one in such a condition. Fortunately, in the vast libraries that was loaded onto the spaceship at the beginning the knowledge of how these systems work and how they are to be maintained still existed. Some young people then got hold of this knowledge and they started to fix the systems.

Obviously I have some other reason for telling your this story, but I’ll leave that for another day. In the meantime, you may think about this story and what it means.

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Diversity of ideas

The prevailing “crisis in physics” has lead some people to suggest that physicists should only follow a specific path in their research. It creates the impression that one person is trying to tell the entire physics community what they are allowed to do and what not. Speculative ideas are not to be encouraged. The entire physics research methodology need to be reviewed.

Unfortunately, it does not work like that. One of the key underlying principles of the scientific method is the freedom that all people involved in it have to do whatever they like. It is the agreement between these ideas and what nature says that determines which ideas work and which do not. How one comes up with the ideas should not be restricted in any way.

This freedom is important, because nature is resourceful. From the history of science we learn that the ways people got those ideas that turned out to be right differ in all sorts of ways. If one starts to restrict the way these ideas are generated, one may end up empty handed.

Due to this diversity in the ways nature works, we need a diversity in perspectives to find the solutions. It is like a search algorithm in a vast energy landscape. One needs numerous diverse starting points to have any hope to find the global minimum.

Having said that, one does find that there are some guiding principles that have proven useful in selecting among various ideas. One is Occam’s razor. It suggests that one starts with the simplest explanation first. Nature seems to be minimalist. If we are trying to find an underlying system to explain a certain phenomenology, then the underlying system needs to be rich enough to be able to produce the level of complexity that one observes in the phenomenology. However, it should not be too rich, leading to too much complexity. As an example, conjuring up extra dimensions to explain what we see, we produce too much complexity. Therefore, chances are that we don’t need this.

Another principle, which is perhaps less well-known is the minimum disturbance principle. It suggests that when we find that something is wrong with our current understanding, it does not make sense to through everything away and build up the whole understanding from scratch. Just fix that which is wrong.

Now, there are examples in the history of science where the entire edifice of existing theory in a particular field is changed to solve a problem. However, this only happens when the observations that contradict the current theory start to accumulate. In other words, when there is a crisis.

Do we have such a kind of crisis at the moment? I don’t think so. The problem is not that the existing standard model of particle physics have all these predictions that contradict observations. The problem is precisely the opposite. It is very good at making predictions that agree with what we can observe. We don’t seem to see anything that can tell us what to do next. So, the effort to see what we can improve may well be beyond our capability.

The current crisis in physics may be because we are nearing the end of observable advances in our fundamental understanding. We may come up with new ideas, but we may be unable to get any more hints from experimental observation. In the end we not even be able to test these new ideas. This problem starts to enter the domain of what we see as the scientific method. Can we compromise it?

That is a topic for another day.

The thing about philosophy

As a physicist, one tends to have encounters from time to time with the world of philosophy. While some physicists would embrace it and acquaint themselves as much as possible with the various topics, I tend to regard it with a good measure of suspicion. The reason is that philosophy is not a science. It cannot (and should not) test the ideas to see if they are true. In those cases where these ideas (political philosophy) were tested, the results ended up being severely disastrous.

As a result of my suspicion, I deliberately kept myself ignorant of philosophy. But ignorance is never anything to brag about.  So, I decided to read up a little about it. I bought a book that summarizes the different philosophical ideas that was developed over the history of humanity. Although it does not give any detail understanding of any particular idea. It gives one a broad perspective of all the ideas and some idea of who said what.

One thing that becomes clear from such a broad perspective is how diverse these ideas are; how drastically these ideas can differ from each other. Despite the fact that none of these ideas can in any way be confirmed, their proponents are very strongly convinced of their veracity even in cases where they are completely ludicrous .

One of the sad things is the notion of a “proof” where someone tries to show that their ideas are irrefutable. Such proofs consist of supposedly logical arguments. But the steps in these arguments often incorporate hidden assumptions that have not and cannot be shown to be true. As a result these so-called proofs never survive for long. So much for being a proof.

There are situations where people’s ideas have been implemented, especially in the field of political philosophy. In those cases, these ideas had a huge impact on the history. Unfortunately, this impact is usually of a severely negative nature. The French revolution, Nazism and Communism, were all practical implementations of philosophical ideas and the associated atrocities provide clear evidence of just how dangerous it is to follow such ideas.

What is the conclusion then? If philosophy cannot provide the wisdom that it is supposed to provide, does it have any value? I do think it has some value, but one that is far humbler than its proponents would like to believe. Although it cannot provide any wisdom directly, it can provide us with a clearer understanding of the path to wisdom. In this case, I’m specifically thinking of its role in describing and maintaining the scientific method. Perhaps I’ll write more about that some other day.