Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Worries

At first sight, physicists seem like normal people. But ask what keeps them up at night and you realize the magnitude of their outworldliness. Fellow blogger Steinn for example is kept up by the question whether there is any system of globular clusters which actually traces the underlying stellar light across the underlying galaxy. Richard Easther from Yale, in his FQXi essay, can't sleep because he wonders whether our visible universe is just one pocket in the multiverse. Lee Smolin lists in his book "The Trouble with Physics" the five questions "that keep theoretical physicists up at night," and Perimeter Institute's recent Quantum to Cosmos Festival dedicated a whole discussion session to physicists' insomnia, informing us that, for example David Tong, from Cambridge University, loses sleep over the question how will we ever know if string theory is correct.

What keeps me up at night is the question whether mankind will be able to solve all the problems it is causing, and do so in a timely manner. The question whether, from here on, the suffering on Earth will increase and progress will turn into regress, or whether we will manage to find a sustainable balance. I am wondering how to stabilize our economies, and how to complement them with desperately needed global political institutions.

What keeps me up at night is the question whether the gap between the rich and the poor will ever close, how to ameliorate hunger and disease, war and corruption. Whether climate change will increase the pressure on our political, social, and economic systems so much we'll be tumbling back into the middle ages and our children will speak with awe of the times when everybody had an iPod.

What keeps me up are stories about families losing savings for their children's college education as a consequence of our lacking understanding of the financial systems, stories about people fixing their teeth with glue because they're not able to afford health insurance, and food crisis caused by our inability or unwillingness to comprehend the responsibility a global economy brings. What keeps me up are articles claiming that "a truly free market would enable us to find superior substitutes long before we run out [of oil]," as if anybody could reliably predict successes of creativity and innovation. What keeps me up are people still believing and trusting in the wisdom of some invisible hand, unwilling to realize that there's nobody watching over us and past success is no predictor of future success, unable to learn and to adapt to change they're causing themselves, a species believing itself superior to natural selection, blind to its own stupidity.

When I follow these thoughts, I always end up at the same point, at the question whether humans will ever be able to organize their collective actions smartly enough to manage the effects their presence has on this planet, if we are able to make intelligent enough decisions in a world in which events are getting closer connected every day, or if some brainless slime mould will remain ahead of us. I worry if we will ever be able to make this step or if progress will stop here and now, forever being limited by our inability to grasp the dynamics of global social systems.

What keeps me up at night is the question what I can do to help alleviate unnecessary suffering. Not much ever comes to mind - What is a PhD in physics really good for? - except possibly write about it, talk about it. If you open a newspaper, look beyond the stories. Everybody has an opinion on everything and you'll disagree with many of them, but that's not the relevant layer to look at. What's relevant is that it doesn't matter what all these opinions are, as long as there's no way to intelligently use them. It's all talk and no action. It's all well-meant, but no outcome. It's all rhetorics, but no conclusion. It's all, still, trial and error till one day we'll make an error we won't be able to fix.

That's what keeps me up at night. And then there's Stefan's snoring.

What I do in these sleepless moments is to focus on the problems that I understand well. Why is the cosmological constant so small, yet nonzero? Does the universe have the same laws of nature everywhere? What is space and time? Questions to which I'm sure there is an answer, and though I'm unlikely to find one, nobody will die and nobody will suffer if I wake up in the morning and still don't know why the neutrino masses are so small.

And next time we'll talk about these questions that let me sleep at night.

48 comments:

XiXiDu said...

You are a physicist. So I maybe you can ponder what keeps someone like me up at night.

I imagine humanity to succeed. To spread out into the galaxy and beyond. Trillions of entities...

Then I wonder, what in the end? If all our dreams come true. Will we face unimaginable war over resources and torture as all this beauty will face its inevitable annihilation as the universe approaches absolute zero temperature?

What does this mean? Imagine how many more entities of so much greater consciousness and intellect will be alive in 10^20 years. If they are doomed to face that end or commit suicide, how much better would it be to face extinction now? Wouldn't an abortion in this infant state be ethical given this outlook?

You are the physicist. You can ponder such scenarios. How likely is this fate of the universe compared to other possible fates? And what could we do about it? Can we escape this universe?

The question is, is it worth it? Is it ethical? Should we worry about the possibility that we'll never make it to the stars? Or should we rather worry about the prospect that trillions of our distant descendants may face, namely unimaginable misery?

"It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery." -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

XiXiDu said...

And I urge anyone to watch the following video (I think you'll like it Bee):

Reaching The Stars Is Easy...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIT3TYnQJQc&hd=1

P.S.
Sorry for flooding, forgot to add it in the previous comment. I sure won't ruin this thread like the last one. I'll shut up now.

Bee said...

Hi XiXiDu,

"You are the physicist. You can ponder such scenarios. How likely is this fate of the universe compared to other possible fates?"

I'm afraid the only answer I can give to this question is I know that I know nothing. I'm not able to make any prediction about the evolution of mankind in 10^20 years, not even an unreliable one. But it's an interesting question you're raising, so let me just tell you what I think.

I believe that in the long run the only way we'll be able to continue to prosper is significant changes to the human nature and the race itself as a collective, up to the point where it's probably useless to speak of it as humans any longer. It's a theme you find frequently in science fiction, that of higher intelligence and, as you say, greater consciousness etc. I don't know if we're capable of such a step in evolution or if what we're seeing today happening on this planet are just the signs that no, that's the endpoint of our evolution.

But if not, I have no clue what this might mean, what science will look like, what we'll have learned about the universe in billions of years. Maybe pretty much everything we believe we know today will become irrelevant. Looking for resources will always remain an issue, but I doubt war will remain a central theme in that. The necessity to lead war comes about only if you have two groups on a very similar level of evolution who are not able to come to a solution in any other way than threatening and executing physical harm. That's never a good way as both sides will lose in the procedure. It's just a way that's used sometimes still today in lack of better alternatives.

In any case, yes, maybe it would be better if mankind goes extinct sooner than later, but you have to ask what means "better." I'd argue that it is better to fully use ones opportunities for happiness, instead of not daring at all because there's a risk of suffering. I don't think we're presently using our opportunities well. Best,

B.

tspin said...

You worry to much.

The social problems you mention are best left alone, they cannot be solved, their origins lie deep in our instincts and beyond the reach of reason.

We are individuals, every one pulls in his own direction. It's actually quite impressive how much control we manage to exert over our primal nature. But it's still there and fighting back. It's actually the same old fight between the good and evil, stuff or much legends ;), you are lamenting that the good cannot completely defeat the evil, only you phrased it in more modern terms.

One of the reasons why the fight cannot be won is the fact that life is short and fleeting, if we humans had more to lose we would be more civilized and acting smarter as a whole (this is why life after death was invented BTW but it doesn't seem to cut it anymore).

Perhaps life extension will change things for the better, but it will likely first change things for the worse as the population numbers will have to be significantly lower to make it practical.

All in all it's important to remember that we are animals evolved from animal kingdom, lamenting that our condition compares unfavorably to some intellectual ideal is pointless, we should instead compare it to how other animals live and that shows pretty clearly that we managed to do a great deal to make lives better for our kind on this planet. Or to put it another way, we improved our condition as much as was humanly possible.

Bee said...

Hi Tspin,

Systems going out of balance and potentially evolving towards a parameter range in which life of many species is no longer possible, or at least no longer possible in the same pleasant circumstances they've gotten used to, is not something that will be "solved" if left alone. Sure, I have little doubt that Nature will survive, and evolution will go on somehow, with our without us. Neither do think it very plausible that mankind goes entirely extinct. But I think it is very really possible that we are presently living above our means, a peak of our civilizations that we won't be able to stay at, and that we'll never be able to exceed. Species have come and gone since the beginning of life on earth, sometimes they've prospered, sometimes they've had to retreat to niches. I find it dangerous, the believe that we're too intelligent to suffer a hard blow, and I find it scientifically entirely unjustified to argue that self-organization (leave it alone!) is a good solution to our problems. Look where it got us. How much more evidence do you need? Whether or not self-organization is a way to find a solution depends on how the system is set up. And that's a decision we have to consciously make. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Time to have children! Then you will have tangible, real things to worry about -- that is, if you do want to learn what worry *really* means.

None of those issues you mention keep me awake at night. These are grand themes which I have no way to solve. All I do is to try to live a honest, happy life and from that positively influence the local situation.

I used to think hours and hours about those issues when I was younger, but I confess I no longer do so. Sometimes, I do worry about how will be my son's life, what problems he will face in his future on earth. But then, I do my best to prepare him, so that he can also contribute positively to life. But that is all.

Perhaps it's a question of (old) age...

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi XiXiDu,

Thanks for the video, that's really nice. I fully agree, the big problem that we're facing is not that, at our present level of technology, interstellar travel is pretty much infeasible. The big problem we're facing is if we'll be able to significantly improve our understanding of the universe, space, time, matter and our technology. That takes time, and it necessitates that we overcome the ecological, social, political and economical problems we currently have. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

I worry that having children will just make me worry more ;-) Best,

B.

Christine said...

Don't worry! Be happy!

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

It’s nice to know that you are concerned with so many things, each of which on the surface seem to be reliant on the individual and collective decisions we all make. Yet being a physicist you more than most are aware that determinism itself is one of the most fundamental questions in respect to it existing at all as to whether we can choose things to be as we’d like or rather are all prisoners of destiny. So if I were I physicist I would spend more sleepless nights wondering whether worrying even has utility as to what the future holds.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

I sleep very well thanks, but possibly not tonight, because I'll be fretting over Stefan's snoring. :-)

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

sometimes I cannot sleep at night thinking of what tornados, hurrikans, and whatever catastrophes will spread damage on earth, humans, and animals through the climate change. And the climate change will not stop til alternative energy systems have been established. So governments have to do something, or better we must put pressure on the governments to do something.

Best, Kay

Plato said...

Maybe one is not being able to sing their heart song?:)

So the restless soul quests to seek what is inhibiting it's expression "as a question" to the path taken?

So it digs deep to allay all the things of the world for want of some order, while the restless soul is able to search for the truth and song of oneself?

A span of a life? To be given only so much time. What then shall one accomplish that is worth the heart song?

So too then in measure, to resound toward all things that it attracts to itself, can thence forward see that the world is according to what we had to come for a planting? Was it's one's ideal, had been the idea all along?

Best,

Plato said...

http://www.phys.cwru.edu/projects/mpvectors/images/Tegmark_2-8.gif

"A geometry" that lies closer to the source of our universe?

The temperature fluctuations of the Cosmic Background Radiation may be decomposed into a sum of spherical harmonics , much like the sound produced by a music instrument may be decomposed into ordinary harmonics. The "fundamental" fixes the height of the note (as for instance a 440 hertz acouctic frequency fixes the "A" of the pitch), whereas the relative amplitudes of each harmonics determine the tone quality (such as the A played by a piano differs from the A played by a harpsichord). Concerning the relic radiation, the relative amplitudes of each spherical harmonics determine the power spectrum, which is a signature of the geometry of space and of the physical conditions which prevailed at the time of CMB emission.(sorry link expired)

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Whether or not the world is deterministic, it doesn't change anything about the questions I've raised. Are we able to overcome the problems we have caused or will we fall their victim? If time-evolution is deterministic, it means we have no way to change what is going to happen, but that's an academic problem in the sense that we don't know what is going to happen anyways. Determinism is usually thought to mean that the past entirely determines the future, but you could equally say that it means the present entirely determines the future (or the past for that matter). In any case, it remains the question where is mankind in their evolution? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Kay,

Yes, that's some of the most pressing problems you're mentioning. My worries go somewhat beyond that in that I have no clue how to "put pressure on the government" (which government to begin with) and even then, I have doubts it would amount to much. The problem lies much deeper than that. It's the complete inappropriateness of all our present means of action for the problems we're facing that worries me. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

At first sight, physicists seem like normal people. No. High autists at best, and nowhere near 80 IQ normal (in Los Angeles, given the California Academic Performance Index). Smolin got it right, right on his book's cover: Opposite shoes! Pity he did not pursue the bench top-testable paradigm. String theory, like economics, is mathematically elegant though possessing no real world presence.

The solution to all social advocacy problems is singular: DO NOTHING. Anything done to make a social activist problem better makes it worse. If Pakistan cared about massive flooding and millions of Pakis put in peril, Pakistan would do something about it other than whine for huge external inputs that superluminally vanish into corruption at the docks. Ditto New Orleans, twice. whether the gap between the rich and the poor will ever close. Don't breed your culls while castrating your able.

And then there's Stefan's snoring. Rig a sound-activated microphone and recorder. If you hear two pussycats purring, apologize. There is a dental appliance that moves the jaw slightly forward at night, opening the air passage.

To seize the blue rose you must reach for it where it is not. Stop looking under the streetlight - it was put there by a civil engineer. Go to the dark middle of the block where there is still money laying in the street unnoticed.

Philip Skell in the 1970s struck carbon arcs in evacuated flasks and trapped fleeting carbon species with organics cryogenically frozen to the inner wall. If he had done the (obviously unnecessary) control, a clean flask, he'd like as not have a Nobel for discoverying buckyballs (skelletenes?). Pookie pookie.

Bee said...

Uncle,

These are not problems of social advocacy. These are systemic problems of organization. Doing NOTHING is exactly what got us into this mess. I believe that thinking about the consequences of ones action generally leads to better results than just doing something and believing that the outcome must be of advantage, then looking stupid when it doesn't. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brains that allows us to plan our behavior ahead and decide what's the best to do, rather than to just follow the first instinct. It's what sets us apart from all other species, it's what enabled us to build the pyramids and fly to the moon. What's the institution in our societies that performs this function? Best,

B.

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

you may be right. All our efforts to influence the governments are inappropriate or may be come to late. Solar energy or other regenerate energies are f.e. by the German government not very well supported. And the Green Party talks about this for about thirty years now. It's a pity. It's a disaster.

Best, Kay

Christine said...

Smolin got it right, right on his book's cover: Opposite shoes!

Uncle,

You are always so amusing, but that one made me laugh out loud in my office.

Best,
Christine

Michael F. Martin said...

Improving the institutions used for allocation of scarce resources -- that's a problem that will be impactful, and could be solved (at least marginally) within a lifetime by a physicist.

On a not entirely unrelated note, I recommend reading Robert U. Ayres -- and he is now in your neck of the woods, bee.

Sean said...

Bee:
I know how you feel. I remember leaving grad school in physics because I could't imagine what benefit the world would receive if I mastered field theory. So, against much resistance from everyone, I became a public interest attorney. I don't know if I do any good, but I try. So what do I worry about now? Lorentz invariance violations, breakdown of quantum mechanics, a return to the Newtonaian world of the past. So keep doing your part, because we need the inspiration.

Stratoz said...

What helps me to sleep at night is hope. I know all this is happening to the planet, so I try to tread lightly but know I fail. But as I tread all I can do is be present with those I encounter and try to bring joy, hope, peace into their lives.

people have been predicting the world to end for eons for many a reason, and maybe one day they will be correct, but my hope is that I can comfort those I love if times turn chaotic where I live.

and though I at times believe in some unknown guiding hand, I don't have hope that it will save us from ourselves.

peace, and may you have a good night's sleep

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

” Determinism is usually thought to mean that the past entirely determines the future, but you could equally say that it means the present entirely determines the future (or the past for that matter). In any case, it remains the question where is mankind in their evolution?”

Well put, which actually addresses my point about worry as to whether it is something that has utility or not in terms of it capable to meaningfully invoke change. The thing for me is that physics has suggested in the last hundred years or so that we might be able to determine as to know which way it is. That being if it’s found we are simply prisoners of destiny then worry is the mirage of self determination and if not it simply represents the admission of our not knowing enough to effectively have things change the way we would always like.

In either case worry turns out not to be an instrument of change, yet rather either something that has us believe we have effect on our future or an admission that as of yet this is greatly limited by our ignorance. Then there is of course the consideration that it may be necessary in order to have an ability to affect our future that we are required to have a level of ignorance that can’t be avoided, as to be able to draw a distinction between a destiny born of self directed potential and one of uncontrollable inevitability. So being self convinced it be the former, rather than the latter, I celebrate our ignorance as being nothing to worry about, yet rather grateful it’s recognition is what drives us to know and therein have us capable to evoke meaningful change; even if it is not ever possible to have it be entirely certain.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

Sean, you ARE aware are you not that many of the finest Mathematicians and Scientists were pushed into Law by their fathers, only to rebel and follow those paths that led to our knowing of them today?

You just took the opposite path. Which is fine. Keep worrying. Worry, or to use its technical name: "anxiety", is the impetus for getting things done.

Anxiety is also a low-level form of that most powerful of human emotions: Fear.

What do you fear most, folks, other than the obvious one: early Death (either real death or professional)?

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

The question whether worry has "utility" or not is not the same as whether we can change the future or not. Maybe think about worry as a phase of a system that precedes change. It doesn't matter whether these phases are deterministic or not. The question whether we "really" have a free will or not is complicated. It's something I've been chewing on a lot. As you know, I believe in determinism. Consequently, the future is entirely determined. I am wondering sometimes if a purely deterministic theory that would replace quantum mechanics would have disastrous effects on our social systems. Worse, if anticipation of such effect is a reason why we're discarding such theories. In any case, the notion of "free will" is more involved than just determinism as it is a property of an open system (the human brain) that acts on input to generate output. Such a system can surely have a notion of free will in that it has a procedure of searching for information to make decisions. That process is deterministic only if you know all the input you will be obtaining. The important thing to notice here is that YOU don't know what input you will be obtaining. (Besides that you don't know how you'll process it.) What I'm trying to say is basically that whether our fundamental theories are deterministic or not doesn't change anything about the way the human brain works. In any case, maybe that's topic for another post. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Sean,

Yes, there is of course the question whether I would be any good would I be doing something else than physics. I don't know. But it is somewhat more complicated than this in that I think the sort of research that I am doing is a luxury of advanced societies. It is a very long term investment. It is not that I don't think it is not good for anything, just that the societal benefit is very remote in fundamental research.

When I started studying physics I was thinking our societies can afford that remoteness. I've grown up in Germany in a time when there were a lot of environmental problems. I've seen trees dying and dead fish swimming in rivers that we weren't allowed to swim in, a situation that I find extremely painful. (I believe humans have a hardwired connection to nature. You see your environment dying, you want to help or, if you can't, you want to flee. It's hard to live with it.) Within a decade, this situation drastically improved and by the time I was studying I was thinking it's a problem that was recognized and dealt with. Little was I aware that the vast majority of the world population wouldn't care about the lesson learned and insist on repeating mistakes, and that this of course would in return put pressure on greener economies. And now it seems that instead of solving our problems, more keep coming up, and sometimes I think there's more pressing questions that need an answer than what's the last phase of black hole evaporation. Best,

B.

Steven Colyer said...

I think there's more pressing questions that need an answer than what's the last phase of black hole evaporation.

There's always the possibility then of joining John Baez in Singapore, or at least reading his new blog, Azimuth, hm?

Bee, are you old enough to remember when there were 2 Germanys, and they re-united? Did that have an effect on the improvement? The thing I most remember was, great as the knocking down of the Berlin Wall was, that West Germany feared East Germans, given their massively lower standard of living (that being a Communist country can uniquely provide), would drag the whole German economy down.

joel rice said...

It makes me worry when physicists and mathematicians want to save the planet. They can't even figure out what is missing with the Standard Model. Without that we are surely doomed - even more doomed than usual.

Nidnus Rep said...

Life among physicist's? I'd lost hope.

Thanks for showing me wrong :)

Zephir said...

/*...if some brainless slime mould will remain ahead of us...*/

Just an evidence, one doesn't need to be very brilliant or even physicist for being able to find the correct solution reliably...

Jacob Woods said...

This seems like an appropriate place to ask what is sociophysics. Just out of curiosity I was wondering what It was.

Arun said...

Hi Bee,

You're looking for the prefrontal cortex of society?

It exists, but is still in the early stages of evolution :)

Also, consider the problem of a brain in which each neuron is conscious, too. There is a reason why our brains do not themselves feel pain - probably the neural circuitry would end up endless preoccupied with itself. Which is exactly the problem with a greater consciousness that is made up of people.

Best,
-Arun

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


” What I'm trying to say is basically that whether our fundamental theories are deterministic or not doesn't change anything about the way the human brain works. In any case, maybe that's topic for another post.”


I would say as all things are rooted at the quantum level (or sub quantum) that it would have to make a difference in one way or another. That is just as I think it ludicrous to have it meaningful a sharp divide between the macro and quantum levels Also as I think it’s becoming clearer that quantum computing may hold the key to developing artificial intelligence; which by the way the term itself I find to be incorrect in being a oxymoron, as either intelligence is real and present or it isn’t (including our own). However as you said perhaps your own take on this would be better explained in a dedicated post, one which I would certainly have interest in.


Never the less, I’m surprised that you think the world is totally deterministic, if that is to be taken in the normal sense of the word, as that would have worry as being totally superfluous. Now that’s not to say that from another perspective action cannot always be considered to assure outcome, as to have action the key, if different decided actions within a given range of potential can lead to a multitude of outcomes.


The key of course is what does it mean to decide, as to whether choice itself by conscious beings can remain as uncertain in respect to observers other then the decider themselves, as having one’s will being private rather than free. In this scenario uncertainty is not a consequence of the randomness of outcome yet rather having outcome as not completely knowable. This then has not every outcome to be possible, rather restricted by the limits of potential. This would have consciousness as something that is aware of such potential and intellect the means to have it explored, so that decisions can be made in such regard with respect to action.

I would say ultimately there is no such thing as a right or wrong decision as it relates rather to if outcome being consistent with what one desires. This then has worry simply to be our lack of trust in our decisions whose only relief is to know more as to have us able to decide confidently and purposely. In this respect I would find worry to more often have us not able to decide and if it does has us make decisions out of the fear founded in our ignorance, rather than based on what needs to be known prior to making them..

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

Yes, I'm old enough to remember that, though it didn't have any influence on my life. I have distant relatives in the Eastern part of Germany but actually didn't know of them till after the fall of the wall (difficult family tree). Yes, that has of course had an effect in that you can't spend money twice, and it's changed people's priorities at least temporarily. Justice, and with it equal opportunities, are a topic that will always make it top priority quickly. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

As I already said above, if the world is deterministic it doesn't render worry superfluous. Try to understand it as a phase that a system has to undergo before doing some action. It doesn't matter whether the time evolution is deterministic or is not for that phase to be necessary (or at least helpful) for the outcome.

If there is a fundamental theory that is deterministic, I don't think the difference to presently accepted theories has any influence on the functionality of the brain, and thus I think the question whether it truly is deterministic is irrelevant for the notion of an individual free will that subsystems, like us, arguably have. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

In some respect I think perhaps we are talking past one another, as I find that people can be motivated to decision without the need to worry, as it being formed out of one’s aspirations rather than concern. Perhaps concern may be a primal motivator, yet I would like to think expectation and desire also to be at least an emergent aspect of intellect aided consciousness, having trial and error not our only means to determine our path and the fear of the consequence of failure acting as the only reason to consider and arrive at decided action.


Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, of course. The point I was trying to make in reply to your comment is not that worry in particular is essential to make a decision, but that the mere fact that the world might be deterministic doesn't render it (or any other decision making process) useless. Best,

B.

tspin said...

Bee: "...I find it dangerous, the believe that we're too intelligent to suffer a hard blow."

We are certainly not too intelligent to suffer a hard blow, for example the right kind of a virus could wipe billions if we were unlucky but I don't see how it ties to anything I said and worrying about such possibilities won't help us anyway way.

Bee: "I find it scientifically entirely unjustified to argue that self-organization (leave it alone!) is a good solution to our problems. Look where it got us. How much more evidence do you need?"

Huh? And where it got us? As I said you need to compare our condition to other animals - this is where we come from and this is our baseline - and not to some faerie land where everyone lives happily ever after. We have medicine, technology, plenty of food, science and so on and yet you say "look where it got us" as if we ended up worse then we started?

Social problems where always present and will remain present as long as we remain individuals, they originate in our biology and psychology and cannot be rooted out without changing those. But even social problems are much less severe now then they were for the millions of years we spent on this planet.

Our condition as humans is much better now then ever.

There are some problems on the horizon as there always were and will be. Overpopulation may turn to be a real problem eventually dragging down average living conditions significantly, but even that is not guaranteed.
Western countries should expect a drop in living conditions anyway but that's a result of equalization around the globe so whether it's a good or bad thing depends on your geography. Changing climate is an inevitable feature of our planet, we will have to adapt to it as we always had, whatever the cause.

And finally don't forget that we are all going to die soon enough anyway, it's stupid to spend the time we have left worrying about things we have no control over.

Steven Colyer said...

Hi tspin,

You wrote:
And finally don't forget that we are all going to die soon enough anyway, it's stupid to spend the time we have left worrying about things we have no control over.

Well said, I was wondering when SOMEbody would invoke some version of The Serenity Prayer, which, for the young-uns, is:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For Carroll, Deutsch, Dawkins, Sam Morris et. al., feel free to drop the word: God, and replace it with "May my brain". It's not my intention to insult your Religion of Atheism.

At the end of the day (beddybye time!), Alfred E. Newman said it best:

"What, me worry?"

Hi joelrice,

You wrote:
It makes me worry when physicists and mathematicians want to save the planet. They can't even figure out what is missing with the Standard Model.

The Standard Model of particle physics is very young, a mere 4 decades old. Everyone who works on it knows it's incomplete and is a work in progress, but what we know of it so far has been fantastically verified with no falsification.

If you meant The Standard Model of Cosmology, OK then I can see your point.

But whatever, if not Mathematicians and Physicists, who then? Politicians? Big Oil? The PRC? That's who's running the world now, and they're mucking up the works plenty. The Yellow River evaporates before it reaches the sea. Crikey.

Tim van Beek said...

Steven said:

Bee, are you old enough to remember when there were 2 Germanys, and they re-united? Did that have an effect on the improvement? The thing I most remember was, great as the knocking down of the Berlin Wall was, that West Germany feared East Germans, given their massively lower standard of living (that being a Communist country can uniquely provide), would drag the whole German economy down.

Like Bee I was a teenager when that happened :-)
And while east Germany did not "drag the economy down" it was still an expensive experience for West Germany (there is an extra tax you have to pay in Germany to support East Germany, the "Solidarit├Ątszuschlag", which has been in place for 20 years now).

But the interesting fact is that environmental problems were much bigger in East Germany than in West Germany, due to lower wealth, of course, but also to an effect sometimes called the tragedy of the commons. If you ever stand behind a Trabbi while its engine is running you'll know what I mean :-)
Unfortunately East Germany has still economic problems, much of its former industry is gone and has not been replaced. Otherwise I would have said that this is an example that it is possible to increase the standard of living simultaneously economically and ecologically.

Bee said...

Steven, tspin,

I suspect you want to believe that we have no control over many things because then you don't have to think about it. Yes, mankind has without doubt made a lot of amazing achievements. But it's a treacherous fallacy to believe that for that reason progress must continue no matter what. All I'm saying is that we should use our brains and not sit around and say, we can't change things anyway, and we're such a great species progress will continue eternally, don't worry! This attitude, frankly, is what worries me most. Best,

B.

Christine said...

All I'm saying is that we should use our brains (...)

Hi Bee,

I think that the question above is the central point.

Throughout history, only a *small* fraction of mankind have really "used" their brains. The rest is either ignorant and/or do not care, they do not make "use of their brains" like you do in a daily basis. 99% or more of the general population do not reason at your level, and have no idea of what you are talking about.

Furthermore, within the tiny fraction that do "use their brains", you will find that most do so for their *own* sake, for their own agendas, for their own benefit. Unfortunately, those are who rule the world, in general, because these are naturally selected aggressive people raising their careers in politics, banks, industry, etc.

Partially for that same reason, I do not believe that one can, by "scientific" consideration or logic, "improve" the world, to solve the grand issues that you mention. If that happens at all, it will not come from a rational society using scientific methods. I am very skeptic when it comes to applying scientific rationale to drive society and economics, because it is simply not the way it works, nor it will ever be the way it works while the world is ruled by particular interests. (I know that you will mention democracy, but even that only works ideally in a highly educated society, willing to "use their brains", an idealization that I am also skeptical about).

Best,
Christine

Steven Colyer said...

But it's a treacherous fallacy to believe that for that reason progress must continue no matter what.

Ah, so THAT's your greatest fear. So I see, said the blind man.

Relax. Technically, you are correct, if you study European History too much. Al.-Q. wants to suicide bomb us back to the 13th Century. I was 4 miles away from WTC1 and WTC2 when they were destroyed, I have more reason to think that way than you do who only saw it on video, but I don't (took a while to get over it, but I have).

Here's why:

The scumbags of the world will do their best to hold us back, but they will be only PARTly successful. In the long run they will fail. Three steps forward and two steps backwards equals we still move forward.

The bad shit sucks, but the good stuff outweighs it. Nothing progresses as fast we like, there's always social inertia. Shrug, so what? The spirit of Ned Ludd will never die, but that doesn't mean it won't be fought, and defeated. So far, so good.

And if that doesn't convince you Bee, as recent history has shown, the U.S. Navy rules the seas, and the U.S. Air Force rules the skies. We WILL win.

So stop worrying, our friend.

Except for Stefan's snoring of course, but that's not HIS fault. We're only human.

Stay well.

Steven Colyer said...

From Wiki:

Desiderata (Latin: "desired things", plural of desideratum) is a prose poem by German-American writer Max Ehrmann. It exhorts the reader to "be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be", and to "keep peace with your soul". "With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams," wrote Ehrmann, "it is still a beautiful world."

Full Text

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

As far as closing the gulf between the rich poor goes, I think that was a very valid question ... pre Oct 2007 when the NYSE peaked at 13500.

Today? Today, I'd just like to know how to keep that gulf from widening, cuz it doesn't seem to me to be stopping. The gulf grows larger each day. A small percentage of the middle class has been added to the rich, a much larger majority has joined the ranks of the poor.

It used to be true in America (is it the same in Europe?) that people were worried about getting a better job, with better benefits.

Today? Today, the definition of "a good job" is "any job". So yeah, in that sense, keep worrying.

"Market forces" is supposed to achieve equilibrium, then correction. OK, where are those then, hm?

The upshot of the new poverty is: people are finally beginning the REALLY important things in life, e.g., the value of family and friends.

I get the impression that Europeans have known that for ages. Americans are starting to catch up.

So like the Aussies say: No worries, mates. There's always a bright side, even if it's always darkest before things go totally black. ;-p