Greatest problem

What is the greatest scientific problem that mankind must solve?

[ 19/Mar/21 ]

How to get humans to cooperate at scale in ways that put in sufficient limits to ensure survival and empowers creativity and freedom to support individuals to do whatever they responsibly choose.

Solve this, and climate change is trivial to solve.

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Response to Sam Harris on the illusion of free will

Final Thoughts on Free Will (Episode #241)

[ 18/Mar/21 Comment on Youtube]

It seems to me that Sam has such faith in determinism, that he really cannot conceive of what free will might be.

And I grant the truth of many of the arguments he makes, but not all.

I certainly agree that all levels of structure require stability of constraints, and we are the most complex entities we know of, with more levels of structure than anything else we know of. And when dealing with such complex stacks of complex systems, the nature of the connections does not need to be hard, but can be probabilistic.

Influence is essential for structure.
Hard determinism is not.

So while I can align with much that Sam says, the idea that he seems to have that there can be no meaningful sense in which free will can exist because all things are the result of hard determinism, does not seem to me to be how things actually work; and it is 50 years since I started to take a serious interest in the levels of structure present in reality, from the quantum level through the biochemistry of neurons, to the process of creating abstraction, to the abstract notions of classes of truth values (not simply the simplest binary one of True/False, but Trinaries like True/False/Undecided, and higher orders through to the fully probabilistic), and the different sorts of logics and systems that can reside in different classes of system constraints (including constraints on truth values and influence).

The degree to which systems can emerge with degrees of freedom (and of course there must also be degrees of influence), seems clearly (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to be significant.

And there is a sense in which I agree with Sam, that the notion of a system free of all constraints is a nonsense, as such a system would be, by definition, completely random, and devoid of pattern at any level. That is not what people mean or talk about when they speak of free will, so Sam invoking such a notion is a Straw Man argument in this sense.

When I look closely at the notion of free will, then I see that I have some degrees of influence in some sets of contexts; and that is all that anyone could ever expect free will to be. There is far too much going on for us to even be conscious of it all, let alone be author of it all in any meaningful sense. Thus there is a sense in which free will can only exist (to the degree that it does) within the context of the attention of the individual claiming to exercise it (and there is a sense in which all such experience is within a subconsciously generated model of reality that is our personal experiential reality – and that model is predictive in nature, and we tend to have our attention directed by subconscious processes to any divergence between prediction and sensation).

I do not have Sam’s faith in hard causality.

To me, the evidence is clear that if one looks closely enough then there are fuzzy boundaries to all things, and that large collections of stuff tend to behave in ways that very closely approximate classical causality. But that is a very different understanding from that of classical causality (with very different sets of systemic consequences). In such an understanding, there is room for systems to develop degrees of independence, and degrees of influence. It is in this context only that the notion of free will has real meaning and significance – to me, and I suspect to many others.

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Is ethics without religion possible

[ 14/Mar/21 Walter Kant – The Foundations of Logic – Is Ethics without religion possible?]


When one understands the strategic systemic underpinnings of the process of evolution, and one has a reasonable self interest in living a very long time, then the strategic reality that the greatest probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom comes from having systems that ensure a reasonable sufficiency to everyone, and demand responsibility from all.

One does not have to delve far into the nature of freedom to see that freedom without responsibility must eventually destroy the sets of constraints that allow for the existence of that level of freedom. For longevity, responsibility is essential.

[followed by 17 Mar 21]

Hi Conrad,

This gets really complex, as there are many possible permutations.

Some may not be aware that constraints are necessary for long term survival, and may very simply be rejecting any limits as unwarranted.

Some may have noticed that such constraints as are present seem to be largely unwarranted, or to be explicitly the effects of cheating strategies at some level, and to have rejected all constraints as “cheating”.

Some may simply have an FU attitude to all forms of external authority.

All of those can be simply accounted for by simple first order strategies.

When you start to get into higher order strategies, particularly with higher order “cheating” strategies using others as “pawns” in their “game space”, then the permutations increase rapidly.

In the 46 years that I have been consciously looking for evidence of higher order strategy systems and their permutations, I am reasonably confident that I have reliably detected 4th order strategies at play. I am less confident about higher order strategies. I have attempted 12th order considerations myself, but the possible permutations make any such attempt little different from random.

The impacts of any level or type of strategy is very context dependent.

I am very clear to all levels of “players” that my objective is to ensure the lives of all, and then to empower as much liberty as any level of agent can responsibly exercise, acknowledging all the necessary levels of uncertainty present in making such assessments. Every such determination necessarily requires levels of reasonableness appropriate to context (with plenty of room for discussion about what is reasonable in any particular context).

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Technology and the global family

Is it possible that technology may change the world into a global family in which everyone helps the members that are devoid of human rights?

[ 14/Mar/21 ]

In and of itself, No.

As something that creates a new context in which new ways of thinking and acting become more obviously true, then Yes.

As fully automated systems start to make it obvious to even the most conservative among us that the old distinctions between capital and labour no longer work as once they did, then it should start to become obvious that the only real security for any lies in delivering reasonable degrees of security and freedom to all.

And doing that does not imply any sort of equality.

Equality is a nonsense idea.

We are not equal.

We are not exact clones of each other.

We are all uniquely different.

We need to honor those differences, accept and respect the diversity that necessarily accompanies all real biological systems, and any real expression of individual freedom.

The idea we need instead is “reasonable sufficiency”.

Do we all have what we reasonably need to do what we reasonably and responsibly choose?

When one looks deeply at the sorts of systems that give potentially very long lived individuals a good chance of actually living a very long time, then they all involve high levels of cooperation.

When one looks deeply at the sorts of strategic contexts in which the emergence of such cooperation is likely and can be stabilised, then it becomes clear that automated production technology is a necessary part of any new level of universal cooperation.

And everyone needs to accept that freedom without responsibility necessarily self terminates, as it does eventually destroy the sets of constraints that made its emergence possible. It is only when freedom accepts the responsibility of maintaining all the necessary sets and levels of constraints that make its existence possible, that it can survive over the long term.

If freedom is to survive, then it must be linked to responsibility, in an eternal enquiry that contains multiple levels of fundamental uncertainty and more than a few unknowables. So part of responsibility is cleaning up messes that result from errors that must be an eternal part of existence (any and all levels). The mathematics and logic of that is now beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

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Nature and culture interact

Do you agree with the fact that culture and nature interact with each other and affect one another in complex ways in a sort of co-evolutionary process? Give examples.

[ 12/Mar/21 ]

Certainly, there are many levels of strategic parallels in the systems of biology and culture.

Certainly there are many ways in which cultural and technological systems have unintended (and in many cases unknown) impacts on biological systems.

And the example you give of burning fossil fuels necessarily leading to the extinction of large mammals by 2100 is not accurate.

In the early 70s I studied biochemistry and physiology, and I was also a keen diver. So it did many practices to improve my ability to hold my breath. The first thing one must do is develop an ability to override the CO2 triggered breathing reflex. That is not particularly difficult.
I used a square breathing technique to extend my ability to handle low oxygen for long periods. I could maintain 56 second a side square breathing for two hours, but when I went to 57 seconds I went unconscious after about an hour.

So we can handle quite low O2 partial pressures, and still maintain some form of consciousness.

Many times our distant ancestors have been subject to low O2 partial pressures for extended periods, for a variety of reasons we really need to avoid in our future. If we are serious about indefinite life extension (and I am) and about retaining reasonable degrees of freedom (and I am), then we need to accept individual responsibility, and part of that is accepting that international cooperation is a pre-requisite for both long term survival and reasonable degrees of individual freedom.

And that means understanding that global cooperation between multiple levels of classes of self aware agents is a very different thing from the global domination of any particular individual or class or set of agents.

If you are interested in putting some of your billions towards enhancing strategies to achieve such cooperation and security then please contact me.

[followed by]

To a degree, I agree with you, and there are relatively simple technological solutions, but they require international cooperation to implement.

Awareness is the big thing.

Getting people to understand the fundamental role of cooperation in the emergence and survival of all levels of complexity, and the necessary implications of that on politics.

[followed by]


It’s not too late.

Solutions are entirely possible.

And population management is a key part.

One child maximum need to be the rule very soon.

It is difficult to get groups acting responsibly, but not impossible.

We have so many levels of biases within our neural networks that very few have much awareness of. Many of them necessary in some contexts, and dangerous in others. Awareness is step one on an infinite journey.

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Technology and humanity

If technological growth allows no room for nature to recuperate, what are the effects to the human race?

[ 12/Mar/21 ]

Mohammad Gani {in his answer} displays clearly why economics and finance are now the single greatest threat to human survival; and that is from a failure to understand the complexity and inter-relatedness of living systems.

If one is looking at having a very small impact on systems, then it makes sense to ignore and devalue to zero those things that are abundant, which is what markets do in practice. Using market measures of value tend to put focus on the things that are scarce, and incentivise increasing their relative abundance (to a point).

There are two very different and existential risks involved in that.

1/ The fact that markets value anything that is abundant at zero tends to ignore effects on abundant things. Just because something is abundant does not make it unimportant. Oxygen in the air being the prime example (but there are actually many others). Oxygen is arguably the most important thing for any human being. Deprive us of it for just a few minutes and our systems degrade beyond the ability to reboot – we die!. Because of the very long lag times between the systems that produce oxygen and those that consume them, it is entirely possible to move the oxygen producing systems into a decay state which will lead to our extinction before we can engineer recovery. A pure focus on market values as indicators is insufficient to guard against this form of failure modality, a deeper and more integrated systems understanding is required. Everyone needs to become conscious that just throwing unwanted stuff into water bodies might have been ok when there were few of us throwing very little, but now there are a lot of us throwing a lot of stuff, and we have overwhelmed the ability of the natural systems to deal with it. We have time to fix that, there is a reserve of oxygen in the atmosphere, and we do need to fix our systems long before there is any noticeable lack of oxygen. If we wait for a lack to show up, then it will be too late.

We do actually need to start consciously designing all systems to be fully recycling all substances. That means some fundamental changes to how we do some things (like stopping using antifoul paints on boats that work by releasing toxins into the local environment).

2/ The fact that markets require scarcity to deliver value was not a major problem when most things were in fact genuinely scarce, and most things required human labour for production. The context has now fundamentally changed.

We now have the ability to fully automate systems, and to fully meet all reasonable demand. Under such conditions, as Prof Gani correctly identifies, economic value drops to zero. This is the major social issue of our time.

We now have the technological ability to meet the reasonable demands of all people on the planet for all of the essentials of life, and most of the optional things that they want, by using fully automated systems, but doing so necessarily drives the value of such outputs to zero. This generates an economic meta-incentive to retain poverty for the masses. While this may seem sensible to many in the economics profession, to most of the rest of us it appears clearly to be immoral and unacceptable (to use a games theoretic set of terms, it is a cheating strategy on the high level cooperative that is humanity). And to get a feel for that “games theoretic” understanding, one needs to appreciate a fact about the evolution of complexity that is not well understood by most, but needs to be; and that is that all new levels of complexity in evolved systems are based upon new levels of cooperation; and all levels of cooperation require sets of attendant strategies to detect and remove cheating strategies on the cooperative if they are to survive long term. The details of the sorts of environments in which such things can evolve are deeply complex, but in essence come down to some sort of context where the threats from sources outside the population are greater than the competitive threats from within the population.

We do now seem to be in such a context, where we face overwhelming long term threats from external factors that require cooperation to survive. That means real cooperation between international level agents, that respect the rights of such diverse sets of self-aware agents to survive, and to have such degrees of freedom as they can responsibly exercise. Responsibility at this level means demonstrating awareness of the many levels of necessary sets of boundaries required for the continued existence of the many levels of cooperative agency present. Competition without a cooperative base is always an existential level threat to agents.

So as Daniel Liberman noted, technology in and of itself, is not the issue.

It is what we do with technology that matters.

Any form of liberty without appropriate levels of responsibility poses existential level threat.

Liberty is an essential part of humanity and creativity.

Any real expression of liberty results in diversity.

All such diversity must be accepted and respected.

It is clear that evolution has (for very good evolutionary reasons) equipped us with brains that subconsciously simplify our perceptions in ways that were close enough to allow our ancestors to survive, and allow us to build our simplistic understandings of the complexity that we are and within which we exist. Simple models have the utility of allowing us to respond quickly in emergencies, and when under attack by predators being the last one to move is strongly selected against. So there has been a lot of pressure against the use of complex models and understandings. But simple models can fail in many different ways when contexts change in ways that are not immediately obvious.

When faced with a reality that has multiple levels of self aware agency, all with differing sets of limits required in their definitions of “responsibility” and faced with a reality that has multiple levels of uncertainty and unknowability, then we all need to accept that mistakes will happen, and that sometimes the uncertainty will be so great that we need multiple sets of “safe to fail” experiments proceeding simultaneously. And in thinking about such things it pays to consider one of the proofs from database theory, that for the fully loaded processor, the most efficient search possible is the fully random search – meaning that sometimes the implicit limits of “expert knowledge” can be more hinderance than help. Some fraction of all such searches needs to be allocated to those outside of the domain of experts, and random is as good a mechanism as any to do so.

And it depends very much how one interprets the question, as to how one answers it. The answer above includes the (perhaps) implied assumption of economic growth.

If we go beyond economics, and accept that all finite systems have necessary sets of boundaries, then we can continue to explore infinite spaces (such as the space of all possible ideas, and all possible technologies) even as we accept that there are finite limits to the expression of any particular technology in any particular context; then we can continue to grow our knowledge and our options and our creativity; provided that we are responsible for all such levels and instances of real limits as do actually exist.

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Environmental awareness

As a citizen, how do you promote environmental awareness?

[ 11/Mar/21 ]

Take someone out, and actually get them engaged with some aspect of nature.

Doesn’t matter what – whatever it is that interests them?

One conversation, one engagement, at a time.

It might be looking at the sky, the clouds, feeling the wind, looking at some plant, some insect, a tree, an animal, a babbling brook, a seaside rock pool.

It might be talking about how plants are necessary to make the air we breath, the air we need to burn our petrol and coal and wood. It might be that many of those plants are in the ocean and too small to be seen, but still vitally important to our lives. If we dump too much in the oceans, cut down too many trees, then eventually we die of suffocation.

It might be about how much of the rain we need for our crops comes from trees. Again, if we cut down too many then we start getting massive crop failure due to droughts.

It might just be looking at the intricacy of life, all life; complex beyond the capacity of any mind to deal with in detail, so we necessarily have to simplify it to make any sense at all of it, and most of that happens subconsciously, and that is a trap, because reality is almost always more complex and subtle and uncertain than any model we make of it.

It might be being clear that any freedom without responsibility necessarily destroys itself. Freedom and responsibility have to always be joined together if we are to survive. All systems have necessary sets of boundaries for their existence, and maintaining those boundary conditions is party of responsibility – at all levels. And freedom is an essential part of being human, and so is being responsible – to the best of our limited and fallible abilities.

It might be discussing how all complex life is the result of new levels of cooperation between systems.

Whatever it is, engaging with them in reality, is what will make the difference.

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Don’t bother with David Belinksi Devils delusion

Vance Armors link to David Belinksi Devils delusion

[ 10/Mar/21 In response to his own post “Science is glorified magic” Vance Armor linked to a video]

I watched that video for 47 minutes, then gave it up.

The guy possibly believes what he is saying, but he is just so wrong on so many levels.

At 36:06 he claims “the progress of science has meant progressively a disenchantment with nature”. As someone who decided a long time ago that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the idea that humans were created as anything special – and has seen nothing in the sets of evidence viewed subsequently to require a change in that, and as someone who is profoundly appreciative of the complexity of nature and the value of ecological diversity, and as someone who chairs a wildlife charitable trust – I know his comments are just False.

His characterisation of evolutionary theory as “Darwin and the discovery that human beings are nothing but a continuation, squalid enough, of the animal kingdom, cousin and kin to every shambling and repulsive thing that lives; and hardly distinguished from the great apes except from the acquisition of a few adventitious characteristics of no particular significance” is just so wrong it is hard to know where to start.
The modern theory of evolution by natural selection is far from the simplistic straw man he creates. Getting a reasonable understanding of the complexities of how evolution actually works, and the multiple levels of abstraction and complexity and strategy present takes years of study, which clearly he has not done. So of necessity he is attacking a simplistic “Straw man” argument. His attachment to dogma over evidence is clear at this point – where as one could give him the “benefit of the doubt” at many of his questionable earlier claims.

At 38:28 he makes the further claim “The supposed demotion of human beings as being created in the image of God proceeds by means of the ascent of an inferential staircase that any thinking person can see is on the verge of collapse”. That certainly would appeal to those even more ignorant than himself, but is not factually correct. Way over 90% of people who do actually do enough study into evolutionary biology and do in fact do the work to be able to comprehend complexity, and strategy in uncertainty, do actually see that the “staircase” is extremely stable in all dimensions of complexity and understanding. And doing such work is not easy or common, so there is a sense in which people who are working with much simpler models will not find them as compelling; as it is beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that even the simplest of life is extremely complex; and no “simple model” will be able to do it justice.

At 41:03 he claims “Even the psychological, the social, the religious attributes of the human being were introduced into the inanimate world in precisely the same way as any other biological structure, that is incrementally by a process of random variation and natural selection”, which is again wrong because it oversimplifies complexity in multiple different dimensions. Thus while it is clear to me that all of the attributes above were evolved, the process is far more complex than that characterised above, and it does have some aspects that are random, and it also has many aspects that were selected and refined at previous levels by the process of evolution. And there is always present the reality that for a fully loaded processor, the most efficient search possible is random search. So there is likely to eternally be “places” where random is conserved and selected for, particularly in times of “stress” (when processors are fully loaded). So he can make the claim that he does only from a position of ignorance and simplicity, and he seems to have plenty of both in respect to his understanding of the subject of evolution.

At 43:30 – he claims “unused gifts have no part to play in the struggle for survival.”… “This has been Wallace’s problem in the literature, and of course biologists are happy to call it Wallace’s Problem because it sounds so much safer than saying human beings were created in the image of God. That cannot be said, even though it comes to the same conclusion.” A modern understanding of evolution demands understanding the role of duplication, change, and exaptation. Sometimes an “error” can lead to a duplication of DNA. Often the metabolic costs of such things are selected against, and sometimes there is sufficient “drift” in one of the copies to “find” some function that has a benefit that is greater than the metabolic cost. Such has happened many times in the evolutionary history of humanity. Similarly, the process of exaptation has also occurred at multiple levels many times. This is where something is evolved for one purpose, then gets used for some other purpose entirely (and it works well enough to survive better than the alternatives).
When one starts to understand the strategic depths at which evolution can and does recursively use such systems to create profound levels of complexity, then one is starting to begin to understand how evolution actually works.

As said above – I just ran out of patience with both his ignorance and his arrogance at that point.
He has to sort of arrogance that can only exist in profound ignorance.
When someone starts to seriously understand the complexities of evolution and the wider reality, then a sort of humility is a necessary accompaniment, as such complexity is clearly beyond computation by any computational entity, and thus all of our perceptions and understandings are necessarily simplification of whatever reality and us actually are.

Understanding some of the many classes of mechanisms that are present in our subconscious brains that assemble the model of reality that is available to us as conscious entities as our perceptual reality is a necessary step to beginning to understand what consciousness is and how it works. Clearly his models are not sufficiently complex, so quite understandably in a sense, he reverts to the simple understandings provided by cultural defaults.

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The homeless problem

Can’t I use the scientific method to investigate a homeless problem? If yes, then how?

[ 7/Mar/21 ]

How deep do you want to go?

If you study deeply the mathematics and logic of evolution in open and fundamentally uncertain systems; then you will find that all levels of complexity are based upon new levels of cooperation, both for their emergence and their long term survival.

The issue is that such a message is contrary to the simplistic economic and political dogma that tends to dominate discourse on such matters.

If we can actually start to get people generally to see that if they value life and liberty, then they need to act responsibly and cooperative to sustain both; and that any real expression of liberty has necessary sets of boundaries (responsibilities) if it is to survive, and also demands respect for the diversity that must be the necessary product of liberty in action.

In an age where we can automate any process we choose, then there is no real reason (outside of economic and political dogma) for any person anywhere to be short of any of the necessities of life – including housing, food, education, healthcare, transport, communication.

How to spread such an awareness?

By putting in the time to gain it yourself, then to have conversations with people that are able to convince them that you have some reasonable competency in the subject, and they can reasonably trust the simple message you are giving them; that our survival as a species is predicated on cooperation and responsibility and freedom and diversity – at all levels.

And we need to be clear that naïve cooperation is always vulnerable, and all levels of cooperation actually require attendant sets of systems to detect and remove cheating strategies. And when dealing with higher levels of agency, it is the cheating strategy that needs to be removed, while maintaining the health of the agent that had been exhibiting it – and that can be a complex suite of issues – at multiple levels.

The tricky part of that message is that it demands fundamental reform of our existing and very complex economic, political and legal systems.

So it is going to involve some “interesting” conversations.

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Responsibility for discoveries

Scientists accept no responsibility for what is done with their discoveries. Do scientists believe that science is more important than humanity?

[ 7/Mar/21 ]

Anil Mitra and Scott Currier both give reasonable answers, but the question is not accurate.

Many scientists think very deeply about the potential uses of their discoveries. Many things have not been developed because the discoverer was not prepared to unleash their potential destructive consequences into that particular context.

And it is always true that a tool is morally neutral, it is what we do with it that matters.

As 911 showed, an aircraft can be a great means of transport, or a terribly destructive weapon. Same is true of more things than most people imagine.

The greater the levels of technology we develop, the greater the need for a fundamentally cooperative approach to interacting with other intelligent agents.

Any system that is at base competitive must at some point self destruct. The math and logic of that is clear.

All levels of complexity require a cooperative base to emerge and survive. The mathematics and logic of that is proven beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, for anyone who is able to handle the abstract concepts of evolutionary strategies in fundamentally uncertain and open systems; and that is a deeply complex subject.

Many scientists have been saying clearly, since the 60s, that cooperation is fundamental to the survival of complexity, but such messages are contrary to economic and political dogma, and have been ignored or actively shut down by many different sets of interests.

As a species we are now at something of a crossroads.

We either accept the reality that the survival of all levels of complexity in evolved systems is predicated on cooperation and freedom, both of which demand responsibility and acceptance of diversity; or we self destruct.

Global cooperation between diverse classes of agents is a very different thing from global domination and the hegemony of any single class of agent or system or belief.

So I say there are many scientists who see great value in humanity, and in complexity generally, and who are making great efforts to ensure the survival of both; and they are up against a reality that has most people operating from such simple paradigms that the complexity present is not visible, as everything is simplified by subconscious processes to simple perceptions.

It is a deeply complex reality we find ourselves in; even if most of us necessarily have very simplistic understandings of it.

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