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We are all computers May 27, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Evolution.
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A computer can be defined as a machine that receives input, manipulates data based on a set of instructions (the computer program), and produces useful output. The defining feature of modern computers – which distinguishes them from all other machines – is their programmable nature. A calculator is a machine for doing arithmetic; an alarm clock is a machine for keeping time; a television is a machine for displaying moving images. A computer can do all of these things (depending on the program it is running), and yet it is not a machine for any of those things specifically. What, then, is a computer for? A computer is a machine for following instructions. It does whatever it is asked to do, provided the request is presented in an appropriate language. This provides enormous flexibility and versatility: a computer can be used to solve problems that had not even been thought of at the time the computer was built. All computers, from cell phones to supercomputers, are equivalent in the sense that in principle they are all capable of computing anything that can be computed.

We are used to thinking of computers as electronic devices, made of transistors, cables, batteries, etc., but they don’t have to be. There are other ways of storing and manipulating information. Optical computing, for instance, seeks to perform digital calculations using light rather than electric currents. Computers could be built from organic components as well. Can we recognize any computers in nature?

An obvious example is the brain. Brains are equivalent to the on-board computers in guided missiles or airplanes. An organism’s brain processes input from the world (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and triggers appropriate action to facilitate finding food, mating, evading predators, and so on. Simpler brains may be limited to following explicit, hard-wired instructions, such as “if it’s smaller than you, eat it; if it’s bigger than you, run away.” More complex brains can benefit from the flexibility of being able to think ahead and consider the consequences of various courses of action, like a chess-playing program.

If the purpose of a brain is to serve as the on-board computer guiding an organism’s behavior, what is the purpose of the organism itself? What is an elephant for? What is a flower for? Some people might intuitively answer that the purpose of flowers is to make the world pretty to our eyes, or that wild animals are here for us to hunt, but we know now that this human-centered view of the world is wrong. By the way, we should note that the question “what is X for” is not always appropriate, since some things are not for anything. What are rocks for? What is Mount Everest for? Some things simply arise automatically as a consequence of natural forces and don’t have a specific purpose. Living organisms, however, seem to be different from rocks and mountains in that they are complex assemblies of many intricate parts which appear to be designed to be good at specific tasks, just like machines. There is indeed a sense in which it is true to say that birds were designed to be good at flying and fish were designed to be good at swimming, but not in the sense that there was ever a conscious entity who did the designing. Amazingly, all the design work behind living creatures was done by the mindless, automatic process of evolution by natural selection. We’ll get back to that.

Both birds and airplanes are good at flying, but there is a crucial difference. Flying is the whole point of an airplane: an airplane is a machine for flying. But for a bird, flying is just the means to an end. What is the ultimate purpose that all living things were “designed” to fulfill? The answer is: making copies of themselves. A flower is a machine for making more flowers. An elephant is a machine for making more elephants. To be more precise, an elephant is a machine for making copies of elephant genes, that is, copies of the instructions for making more elephants. The elephant (redwood, human) itself is simply the means to this end.

So how does a machine-for-making-more-elephants actually function? Who is carrying out the instructions and doing the physical work? We are now in a position to recognize another biological computer. The instructions for building an elephant (spider, eagle) are encoded in the digital language of DNA, and each of our cells is a machine which knows how to read and execute those instructions.

Richard Dawkins, whose book Climbing Mount Improbable inspired this post, often points out the illuminating analogy between biological viruses and computer viruses. A computer virus is a program that does nothing useful – it merely instructs the computer to duplicate it. Likewise, a biological virus is a strand of DNA encoding the instruction: “Duplicate me.” A computer processor cannot tell whether it is executing a useful program or a virus, and cells cannot tell whether they are copying their own DNA or virus DNA. Viruses take advantage of existing instruction-following and copying machinery, whether in electronic computers or biological cells. They spread because they can.

So our cells follow DNA instructions just like computers executing programs, but wait a minute: modern computers and the software they run were designed and produced by humans. How do our cells know how to perform such complex tasks? And where did the detailed instructions for building elephants and wasps and humans come from? There is another level of computation here, a massively parallel computation distributed in space and time, with information stored in the DNA of generations of living organisms. A spider’s web, an eagle’s wing, a human eye – these impressive feats of engineering are the result of innumerable cost/benefit calculations performed unconsciously over millennia by the computer of natural selection.

All this time we thought that we invented computers, when actually computers invented us. We are all made of trillions of computers, each dutifully following the instructions that keep us going. We are also part of the grand computational process that shaped those very instructions, one tiny step at a time, to be better and better at doing what they do. We are lucky to be able to appreciate what is going on inside us and around us, and to recognize our place in the unbroken chain of information and computation that links us with all life on Earth.

I can believe whatever I want! May 22, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Freedom.
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It has been suggested to me that this blog’s title is too extreme, and could seem to oppose freedom of thought. Let me explain why I think it is appropriate.

The only sense in which there might reasonably be a right to “believe whatever you choose” is the legal sense, and it should be clear that I’m not advocating locking anybody up just for disagreeing with me. Logically, though, I don’t think you can really choose what to believe – either you are convinced of something, or you are not. (Could I suddenly choose to believe in unicorns?) Of course, you can make a special effort not to examine certain beliefs too closely, or you can lie to yourself and others about what you really believe. I think we have a moral obligation to examine our beliefs rigorously and to do our best to make sure they match reality. That is the point of Clifford’s story: we have no right to believe things for which there is no good evidence.

Beliefs are not really as private as most people think, because beliefs have behavioral implications that affect us all. For example, there are significant consequences to the fact that many of my neighbors believe that the creator of the universe promised them the land of Israel, and that a far better world awaits after death. I think unjustified belief is the source of much evil in this world. It is essential that we demand of each other to provide reasonable justification for our beliefs — and that we publicly and incessantly criticize those who cannot.

As an afterthought, I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’s Electric Monk, a labor-saving device intended to believe things for you. The Monk encountered some trouble when it was accidentally connected to a TV.

So after a hectic week of believing that war was peace, that good was bad, that the moon was made of blue cheese, and that God needed a lot of money sent to a certain box number, the Monk started to believe that thirty-five percent of all tables were hermaphrodites, and then broke down. The man from the Monk shop said that it needed a whole new motherboard, but then pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multi-tasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.

Defending the indefensible May 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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When asked why they think they have the right to circumcise their infant sons, religious moderates will invariably mention various health benefits of circumcision, like increased protection against HIV. I find this defense to be both unsatisfactory and disingenuous. First of all, the fact that a procedure provides some health benefit, e.g. reduces the chances of HIV transmission by 50%, is not sufficient to justify forcing that procedure on a child. There are many other factors which must be taken into account: how painful is the procedure and how dangerous, is it reversible, does it have negative side effects, to what extent is the child at risk without the procedure, are there less invasive alternative means of protection, can the procedure be safely deferred until the child is old enough to provide informed consent, etc. Circumcision is both painful and not without risks, has negative side effects, and is practically irreversible. For most of us, the chances of contracting HIV sexually can be virtually nullified by practicing safe sex (and I would think that STDs are hardly a pressing concern for newborns). Therefore, the ethical course of action is to wait until the child is old enough to make an informed decision for himself. If the health benefits of infant circumcision generally outweighed its disadvantages, we would expect medical organizations like the AMA and the AAP to recommend routine circumcision for all male infants. They don’t.

To see why I accuse religious moderates who use this defense of being disingenuous, you must ask them this: If it turned out that circumcision provides no health benefits at all, would you stop performing it? If they admit they would not, then they must concede that they are not promoting circumcision for health reasons, and it is dishonest of them to suggest otherwise. The plain truth is that this painful and invasive procedure is forced upon infants because of their parents’ religious beliefs (for example, see what Maimonides had to say about circumcision). I think this is indefensible.


Count to ten May 19, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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The Shavuot issue of the Jerusalem Post contains an article by Raymond Apple about the Ten Commandments, and the subtitle declares them to be “Judaism’s greatest contribution to mankind.” This is ludicrous. First of all, those of the commandments that actually deal with moral issues – like the proscriptions against murder and theft – clearly predate Judaism, as acknowledged in the article itself: “There is no human group or society that did not formulate laws of this kind.” Okay, so at least he’s not claiming that we wouldn’t have come up with those on our own; is there some added value in having them carved in stone by God? Get this:

Not murdering […] has a higher motive, based on the principle that there is a God who has made man in His own image (a concept to be understood not in a literal but an ethical and intellectual sense).  Man is part of God, and to murder a human being is to diminish God.  Whatever the provocation, when a person is provoked and sorely tempted, the thought of God should hold them back from transgressing.

The problem is that based on the image of him portrayed in the Bible, the thought of God is more likely to lead to acts of violence and cruelty than away from them. Apparently, God himself doesn’t take commandment #6 too seriously. God commands the genocide of entire nations, including women, children and livestock. God sanctions the public murder of “fornicators” by Pinhas. How does God want us to treat homosexuals? Kill them! Women who have sex outside of marriage? Kill! And if anyone even talks about worshiping some other God (commandment #1)… you got it. Needless to say, there is no shortage of God-fearing people eager to follow his example in these matters. I don’t think we need to worry about diminishing God any further – it’s scarcely possible.

While we’re at it, let’s look a little more closely at the “contributions” of some of the other commandments, those not mentioned in the article. Commandment #3 forbids blasphemy – there’s a victimless crime if ever there was one. And yet, blasphemy remains a capital offense in many countries (just as the Bible demands), where my life would be in danger for writing a post like this. How about the commandment forbidding the making of idols? Perhaps you can recall the burning of embassies and the general eruption of murder and mayhem over cartoons. What were all those pious people so mad about? This is it: commandment #2. Truly, mankind owes a great debt to Judaism for contributing such pearls of moral wisdom.

Now that we have some free slots in our list of commandments, is it possible that we could come up with some better ones? I know it sounds hopeless, but let’s give it a try… How about, “Thou shalt not claim to know things for which thou hast no evidence?” Or what about, “Thou shalt not abuse children?” Or, “Thou shalt treat all human beings equally under law, regardless of gender, race and religion?” The plain truth is that the morality we have made for ourselves has far surpassed God’s commandments. Needless to say, there is much progress yet to be made – but it will not come from people who take their morality wholesale from Iron Age scripture. Oops, I think I just broke commandment #3 again. God damn it.


The way to deal with superstition May 13, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Superstition.
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The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame. . . .

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. . . .

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. . . .

These are the words of H. L. Mencken, writing in the aftermath of the Scopes (“Monkey”) Trial in 1925. I wonder if there will come a day when they cease to be so relevant.

How to treat a bully May 12, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Religion.
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There is no such thing as a right not to be offended; there is no such thing as a right not to have your feelings hurt. On the other hand, there is hardly anything more important than the freedom to criticize the beliefs of others, and there are some ideas to which ridicule is the appropriate response. If you don’t insist upon your rights, however, you will surely lose them, and there is no room for dialogue or negotiation when one side lays a gun on the table. If fear causes us to practice self-censorship, then the bullies win – and you can be sure they will be even bolder when they come back next time. As a small token of support for those who have been threatened with violence over cartoons, I am proud to present the following drawing of the Prophet Mohammad as a dog (which got the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks punched in the head while lecturing at a university):

Don’t like it? Draw your own cartoon.

Education vs. indoctrination: a parable May 11, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education.
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Suppose that I am an enthusiastic Marxist. My family has a long tradition of Marxism: my parents are Marxists, as were my grandparents before them. I believe strongly that Marxism holds the key to solving most of the world’s problems – indeed, I’m convinced that without Marxism the human race may not survive this century. I therefore consider it my duty to actively support, defend and spread Marxism to the best of my ability.

Naturally, it is of the utmost personal importance to me that my children be Marxists as well. I would consider myself a failure if they were not! (As would all my Marxist friends.) As soon as the opportunity arises, therefore, I teach my children all about Marxism: its philosophy, its principles, its history. I explain in detail all of the reasons I have for supporting Marxism, and why I think its critics are wrong. I encourage my children to study Marxism both in school and on their own. So far, so good.

Suppose, however, that I do not stop there. Suppose that, from the earliest age, I tell my children that they are Marxists. I refrain from teaching them about any other political or economic systems. When they eventually discover that not all people are Marxists, I simply tell them that different people have different traditions, but we are Marxists and this is what we believe.

Naturally, I send them to a Marxist school, where all students and teachers are Marxists, and Marxism classes are taught daily. (It goes without saying that alternatives to Marxism are not taught and are strongly discouraged.) Outside of school, the children belong to the local Marxist youth movement and go to Marxist summer camp. Once a week, year round, we join all the neighboring families at the nearby Marxist community center, where we listen to charismatic lectures on the virtues of Marxism and the dangers of a non-Marxist society. We conclude our gatherings with uplifting Marxist songs.

My children are now grown, and I am proud to report that they all remain committed Marxists. They appreciate the importance of marrying a fellow Marxist and building a Marxist household. For my part, I feel that I have fulfilled my obligations as a parent and a Marxist, and have contributed towards building a better world. I look forward to the birth of my first Marxist grandchild.

Stealing, slavery, and stop signs May 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Day-after comebacks, Ethics.

After starting this blog and ceremoniously writing the first entry, I thought that I would probably not have anything more to say before studies begin in October. However, I just realized an ideal use for a blog: day-after comebacks! You know how you always think of the perfect reply that you should have used in an argument once there’s no one listening any more? Well, the Web is always listening!

It all started with the Amish.

At dinner last night, we were talking about whether parents have the right to deny their children an education. Somehow, the Amish were mentioned, and one of the diners, let’s call her Snowdrop, called them “cute” and claimed that at age sixteen all Amish children are sent out “into the world” for a year, after which they must choose whether they wish to return to the Amish way of life. It turns out that this is not actually true, but even if it were, I claimed that this would be insufficient to assure us that no indoctrination or mistreatment of children was going on. A child who has spent his first sixteen years in an isolated community, denied anything more than a primary education, and taught to believe that the biblical God is waiting for him in the afterlife (and dislikes electricity), is hardly “free” to make his own informed choices. We must also consider the consequences facing those who make the “wrong” choice – and the Amish are known to practice excommunication (or “shunning”) of those who break church rules.

Another of those present, let’s call him Vandelay, then pointed out that everyone is taught something by their parents. Is it all indoctrination? No, said I, there is a clear distinction between explaining to a child the reasons behind your beliefs and encouraging him to think about it on his own and eventually make up his own mind, on the one hand, and authoritatively telling a child what he should believe while discouraging criticism and independent thought, on the other hand. Those who are in positions of authority over children, like parents and teachers, should make a special effort not to unduly influence those children into automatically accepting what they believe.

That may be true in some areas, said Vandelay, like politics, but surely when it comes to really important moral issues there is no room for making up one’s own mind. Children must be told that stealing is wrong, for instance, and not encouraged to think about it and come to their own conclusions. Well, said I, why is stealing wrong? Why do you refrain from stealing? His first answer was: because it is so commanded. When pressed, he went on to speak of the existence of a Rulebook, containing a set of Instructions for building a just society. He implied that it is necessary for us to commit to accepting the Rulebook in its entirety, and that the Rules are not open for modification based on our own judgment. While he admitted that there are actual reasons behind some of the Rules, he claimed that those reasons are insufficient to cause people to behave morally and not go after “their own self-interest” (which apparently includes stealing).

The discussion degenerated rapidly after this point. I tried to talk about how there are, in fact, very good reasons to help others and treat them honestly, rather than cheating and swindling them. I tried to point out that teaching people to blindly follow a set of Rules is not a recipe for morality but for dogmatism and evil. I can’t say that it went very well. Here’s what I should have said:

Day-after comeback #1: Where did this Rulebook of yours come from, and what makes you think we ought to obey it? Even if we were to admit that we needed a Rulebook, the problem is that there are many different Rulebooks on offer, containing vastly different Rules. The Taliban, for instance, have just as much faith in their Rulebook (sample rule: women should not be taught to read) as Vandelay does in his. How are we supposed to decide which Rulebook to follow? Surely, it makes no sense to automatically adopt whatever Rulebook was used in the house we happened to have been born into. Surely, there are some criteria for evaluating Rulebooks that we should apply. But then, those same criteria can be used to evaluate each of the individual Rules in the Rulebook, to be accepted or rejected on its merits – and the whole concept of an eternal, static Rulebook breaks down.

Day-after comeback #2: How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do you know it? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by Vandelay’s Rulebook. Vandelay would have apparently supported the slave-owners of the South, and if we had listened to arguments like his we would still be owning slaves. Likewise, the Rulebook treats homosexuality as an abomination, and women as the property of their fathers or husbands. We can all be glad of the de facto changes undergone by the Rulebook in the past few centuries, but we should be honest about where that change came from, and it did not come from Vandelay’s way of thinking. Moral progress stems from reevaluating the norm and being free to discard old beliefs and practices that do not stand up to scrutiny – not by following tradition automatically.

Day-after comeback #3: Is there any evidence to support the claim that commitment to the Rulebook actually produces especially moral people and just societies? I’m not aware of any. We all know that there are plenty of people who profess commitment to the Rulebook, and still lie, cheat and steal. In fact, the evidence seems to go the other way. Countries like Norway, Australia, Iceland, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, and Finland have relatively low popular support for eternal, unquestionable Rulebooks (including Vandelay’s own book). Are these societies breaking down into moral chaos? Quite the opposite: these are among the healthiest societies on Earth, as measured by the UN Human Development Index (which measures things like life expectancy, adult literacy, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate and infant mortality).

One final comeback: Vandelay brought up the example of road traffic laws – we have laws forcing everybody to stop at stop signs, whether they want to or not. At the time I dismissed this example as irrelevant, but the truth is that it actually supports my side of the argument. Ask yourself: Where did stop signs come from? A century ago, there were no stop signs anywhere. At some point, smart people got together and thought that it would be a good idea to pass laws protecting the safety of our roads. They didn’t need to be commanded to do so, it wasn’t in any existing Rulebook. In the future, stop signs may again become unnecessary, say if all vehicles are connected to a network which keeps track of the location of all other vehicles. In such a case, smart people could reevaluate the issue and come to the conclusion that stop signs can be discontinued. Vandelay would probably oppose such a move, since stop signs are now in the Rulebook! We might end up seeing vehicles of the future stopping at street corners for no reason at all, other than because they had done so in the past.

I feel much better now, thanks for listening. If Snowdrop, Vandelay, or anyone else has day-after comebacks of their own, or thinks I have misunderstood or misrepresented their views, please leave a comment.

How about slavery? Is slavery wrong? If so, how do we know that? Slavery is condoned rather than condemned by the Rulebook. The Jabberwock would have been on the side

An introduction May 1, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Blogging, Personal.
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After completing my M.Sc. in computer science, and without quitting my day job as a firmware developer, I have spent the past year teaching computer science at a high school. Though I enjoy teaching and think it is important, I have come to the conclusion that there are more domains I would like to learn about, think about, and perhaps contribute to. And so… I have signed up for graduate studies in philosophy. This blog will chronicle my adventures as I face the uncharted waters of the humanities. Wish me safe passage through to the other side…

The title of this blog is taken from the 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief” by the English mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford (quoted in Carl Sagan’s “A Demon-Haunted World”):

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

Clifford sums up his main message with these words: “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” The aspiration of this blog, then, will be to earn belief through patient investigation, with a firm demand for sufficient evidence, and without stifling any doubts. The entire World Wide Web is out there to keep me honest.