27 January 2011

Galloping Gaian Gonads!

 Paraphrasing one of Greg Bear's characters in his novel "The Forge of God": "Humans are the gonads of Gaia (mother Earth)." That is, we are her reproductive strategy. This may not be a huge insight, but I am tickled by his mode of expressing it! It resonates and echoes the heroism of those species who have spread life to the corners of the Earth, including the tiniest island habitats, by dint of clever efforts to transport themselves across vast expanses of ocean and atmosphere. Still, when it comes to interplanetary or even interstellar travel, among all the species on Earth, only humans have displayed the potential to accomplish such a feat of transportation.

This being the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident, it is thought provoking to think back on that in this context. I was working then at Marshall Space Flight Center, which was responsible for shuttle propulsion systems, including the boosters that failed disastrously. So our management was involved in the decision to push ahead on that icy morning in Florida. We scientists were practicing talks for a conference when the word came in. It completely broke up our meeting, and later our management team.

As aspiring Gaian gonads, we have on a few occasions seemed to be vying for Darwin awards, instead, perhaps calling to older minds Woody Allen's satire "Everything you always wanted to know about sex...". Space exploration is indeed deadly dangerous, but so is war. Yet the former is certainly a more productive application of testosterone and youthful drive. Given that that we strive instinctively to test our mettle against mortal dangers, the challenge of space travel promises a form of "glory" for our species and planet that is far beyond the sometimes petty national and religious rivalries that have plagued us. Wouldn't we prefer to live up to our role in Gaia's reproductive strategy, than to become passive or active agents of its destruction? That's a very real and compelling definition of good and evil. It seems defensible that all ethical and political issues should be decided on the basis of the sanctity, advancement, and propagation of life in the universe.

But, and it's a big BUT, there may still be a compelling need for war, even in pursuit of a cosmic destiny to protect and propagate life in the universe. Just as a prudent young couple defers child rearing until they are prepared to take on its responsibilities, so must nations defer the pursuit of space travel analogously. And one of those responsibilities is the creation of a stable home in which the serious business of nurturing can be pursued successfully. In addition to requiring the establishment of a viable economic activity, adequate to support the effort, this may at times also require defense of the household against attacks.

Attacks might come from any quarter, even including other competing life forms in the universe, as Greg Bear points out. The local attacks may be motivated by entirely different issues from this ultimate cosmic objective. But there is a distinct trade to be made in expending some life on Earth in defense of a stable and productive civilization capable of advancing life in the universe. Still, on balance, we may suspect that that trade has for too long favored local national issues rather than the long term future of life on our planet and beyond. And, in view of that suspicion it seems well worth considering that the zero sum allocation of human wealth expended upon space exploration could be greatly increased without substantially compromising the safety and stability of civilization.

22 January 2011

Free Will

Any discussion of science, religion, and politics eventually comes around to the issue of "free will." According to religious traditions, free will was given by God to humans, as a test of their commitment to good and rejection of evil. From a scientific viewpoint, all behavior is a matter of the neurophysics of the brain, and c0nsciousness, and no behavior is free of that. Naturalists disparage free will as a concept, and see all human behavior as determined by inevitable responses to the environment. Political life demands that individuals take responsibility for their actions, unless they are declared "insane," meaning unable to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. Libertarians and rugged individualists or positivists often dismiss the naturalist doubts about free will and insist that everyone is fully responsible for their own condition in this world, in a free society. A recent discussion board debate in which I participated went on for hundreds of posts without much resolution, to the point where the following position questionnaire was suggested. I've entered my responses:

What do you understand by the expression "free will"?
Free will is the ability of a living agent to take actions that are not controlled by other agents who have studied that behavior and sought to influence it. Thus, will is free to the degree that it is subject only to the constraints imposed by Nature, which cannot in any case be escaped, and free of social constraints, that is, constraints imposed by other sentient agents.

Do humans have it or not?
To the degree that "others" are absent, or if present, refrain from taking controlling interest in our actions, humans exercise free will. Thus free will is a matter of degree, rather than an either-or proposition, and should perhaps be referred to as "freedom of will", a parameter that can range from unity (only natural influences exclusive of other sentient agents), to zero (behavior essentially prescribed by other sentient agents, for example in a prison). On such a scale, humans have progressed from near unity in pre-history, to very low values in feudal times, and more recently are making progress back toward unity.

What is your logic and your evidence for your position?
Behavioral science has shown that behavior can be predicted to the degree that it is influenced or controlled through the arrangement of "imposed" positive and negative reinforcement as consequences of behavior. When it is so controlled, it not fully free, and conversely when it is not so controlled. The most elemental form of Human Rights is the right to freedom of behavior, albeit within certain limits set by society, which can vary greatly, and of course the dictates of the natural world, which are immutable and apply to all.

What is the practical consequence of your position for welfare and social policy?
Democracy sets the goal that freedom of will is to be maximized through the minimal constraint by the state or government of the behavior of individuals. The list of discouraged or punished behaviors should then be minimized by restriction to those with important harmful effects on others, as judged by a majority of those whose behavior is to be affected.

On the other hand, government creation of positive incentives is widely accepted as an influence on behavior, so the method of influencing behavior seems important. Positive reinforcement is equivalent to a negative reinforcement of the inverse behavior, so that any form of behavior modification can be seen as reducing the freedom of will. Still, humans have come to a collective understanding, supported by behavior modification science, that reinforcement of desired behavior is far preferable to punishment of undesired behavior, as a foundation of civilization.

Controversy often stems from the reinforcement of undesired behaviors, for example welfare payments, or other benefits that are perceived as undeserved. The issue here is not freedom of will, but the wisdom of incentives that are divorced from desired behaviors.

A phenomenon or behavior may be fully deterministic, yet if sufficiently complex, there may be no way to fully control or direct it but to "run the universe" and let it unfold. To the degree that is true, only an entity which controls the entire universe can exercise total control of our behavior. Thus only God, or the universe itself (if different) can control our behavior in the absence of civilization and other humans. By the definition above, such behavior is free, or as free as it gets.

When we take individual or collective action to alter the structure of the universe, we exert controls on our own behavior, or that of others. So it seems that we share control of ourselves with the rest of the universe, and to some degree we thus enjoy a limited freedom of will. One could perhaps argue that the universe "makes" us take action to alter it, so when we think we are changing our behavior we are still doing what the universe directed us to do. That might be true of beavers, ants, bees, or other industrious social species that restructure their environments, but I think it is stretching things to claim that all of human behavior is programmed in advance by our genetic capabilities, interacting with the external environment.

On the other hand, it seems defensible to claim that our abilities to derive, store, manipulate, and reuse information, much more rapidly than genetic information is processed, constitute a new capability that is exclusively human. That "playground for creativity" is seemingly independent of nature's DNA playground, and pretty much under our control. So I think we humans get to take credit and blame for what we do with it, both as individuals and collectively, as appropriate.