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A Whack for Kevin Kelly

A staple of the science-propaganda racket is the prophesy of marvels science will bequeath us over the next 10, 20, 50 or whatever years. TIME, Newsweek and all the science mags do this, often at the end or beginning of the year. It’s science journalism at its cheesiest—high-fat, zero-protein, fast food for geeks. (I should know; money-grubbing freelancer that I am, I've churned out my share of this crap.) I like scanning these features for smug swipes at The End of Science and for the kind of hype that provoked me into writing my rant.

I found both in “What We Don’t Know” in the February issue of WIRED. WIRED smartly puts an ironic spin on the package. John Hodgman of Comedy Central, who plays the nerdy PC foil to the hip Mac guy in the once-cute-now-cloying ad campaign, wrote the wise-ass intro, and the Big Questions include not only “Where did life come from?” but also “What is bellybutton lint?”

But WIRED also includes a typically portentous contribution by Kevin Kelly on “Why do we still have big questions?” A WIRED founder who worships at the shrine of scientific progress, Kelly writes as though it’s still 1999; biotech and stocks are skyrocketing, and the out-of-control visionaries at WIRED are gonna get filthy rich when it goes public!

Kelly writes: “A decade ago, author John Horgan interviewed prestigious scientists in many fields and concluded in his book The End of Science that all the big questions had been answered. The world of science has been roughly mapped out - structure of atoms, nature of light, theories of relativity and evolution, and so on - and all that remains now is to color in the details. So why do we still have so many unanswered questions?... The paradox of science is that every answer breeds at least two new questions. More answers mean even more questions, expanding not only what we know but also what we don’t know.”

Kelly insists that “knowledge is growing exponentially. Indeed, the current pace of discovery is accelerating so rapidly that it seems as if we’re headed for that rapture of enlightenment known as the Singularity.”

Kelly has drunk the Kurzweil Kool-Aid. I once found the techno-cult of cyber-evangelism amusing; now it disturbs me. Kevin, science should help us counter irrational apocalyptic ideologies, not become one in its own right!



Richard Feynman wrote “There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death………….This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable” Stephan Hawking has suggested that humanity will spread into space and even to other stars. And of course Turing suggested the possibility that computers would one day be at least as smart as humans.

These are three of the most brilliant minds of the past 100 years. Their writings seem to support the basic thesis of Kurzweil. It seems to me that any merely bright person should be very cautious in casually dismissing his ideas.

nick herbert

Did science solve the problem of consciousness while I was out feeding my cat? I must have missed the resolution of this Giant Mystery.

mike cook

Some of this echoes physicist Frank Tipler's extravagant imagining of A.I. as not only inevitable, but of seamlessly merging with human intelligence in a kind of triumphal epiphany of scientific knowledge so irresistable that it will eventually by and by re-arrange galaxies and even change inconvenient physical laws to suit itself.

But that grandiose vision is not entirely what I want to talk about. Rather, it seems to me (many others have raised this point before) that it is completely under-appreciated how miraculous it is not only that the Big Bang banged, but that it took place according to mathematical-physical rules that seem to must have pre-existed the initial unexpected event itself.

I say this is the most under-appreciated question in all philosophy, for why should a random, accidental, unintended universe be under-girded and under-laid by stealthy maths (I like Andrei Kirilyuk's language here)
that are so elegantly intertwined and consistent?
Why shouldn't a truly accidental universe be totally inconsistent, in everything? Nothing but gibberish should issue from gibberish--even the self-organizing nature of Kirilyuk's machine consciousness starts under the compulsion of mathmatical rule.

Why should there be consistent rules governing things like matrixes and the conventions of addition and multiplication? When I was very young it troubled me that there were two ways to get a positive product by the process of multiplication (a + times a + , or a - times a -, but only one way to get a negative product. I was quite relieved to learn that nature
uses another means to get a negative product, which we describe in clumsy fashion as a complex number. It's not that complex when you realize that the operation of multiplication has a beautiful symmetry. There are two ways to get a positive product and two ways to get a negative one. Only our way of writing what the components of a "number" truly must encompass in natural mathematics is a bit awkward.

In the previous post I mentioned the Nag Hamadi scrolls, which were found in Gaza, as being a quite significant historical coincidence in my mind because of the very close proximity in time between the discovery of these documents and the Qumram Dead Sea scrolls, and also the creation of the state of Israel. It all basically happened together after the ancient papyrus writings had laid around remarkably undisturbed for 1500 years in the first instance and 2200 years in the latter.

But another thing about the gnostic gospels (as the Nag Hamadi scrolls are also known) is the exotic and quite complicated, very ancient Persian theology they contained. There is a lot of talk in them about demi-urges and mysterious universes that arise from slight imperfections in previous universes.

The thing about that kind of talk is that it reflects a lot of modern physics speculation about how only a slight anomaly between matter and anti-matter made so much difference, or a similar slight imbalance (imperfection?) makes the K meson decay. The Council of Nicea excluded gnostic gospels from the eventual Christian Bible because the editors at Nicea thought that this theology was much too complicated for ordinary people: unnecessarily complicated, in fact. The intellectual elites might like to think that deeply, but all the common people needed to know is that God created the universe, we are born into it to a frustrating life of sin and imperfection, but that we are saved from the surrounding messiness and will enjoy eternal life.

I have also previously mentioned that one can make Aristotle's four basic elements of earth, water, air, and fire sound a lot more comprehensible in the terms of modern science by translating these four words as solid, liquid, gas, and energy.

In Ecclesiastes it is proclaimed: "There is nothing new under the sun." I believe in evolution, but I also believe that those stealthy underlying rules and principles which popped into this universe on Big Bang day were so exquisitely finely tuned in every particular that the machine, set in motion at time T = ten to the minus 28th power or so, had no choice but to produce us and this world.

Stephen Jay Gould believed that if it were all done over there might be no intelligent life (acknowledging there are all kinds of intelligence), or the ants might have developed our level of intelligence, or some such, but then Gould believed that African-descended people are not innately more gifted in certain athletic ways or that intelligence variations (in quantity or specific type) conferred no real survival advantage among human civilizations.

Why did Gould believe all that? Because he wanted to make a living selling books to post-modern secular liberal readers. The truth is that a re-run of evolution (take two in movie lingo) would produce us bipedal primate-related geniuses all over again and we are all inherently equal in a moral sense before the universe because we were apparently all intended to complement each other towards a grand, pre-destined final purpose that may well be quite Tiplerian.

Hal K


"The truth is that a re-run of evolution (take two in movie lingo) would produce us bipedal primate-related geniuses all over again and we are all inherently equal in a moral sense before the universe because we were apparently all intended to complement each other towards a grand, pre-destined final purpose that may well be quite Tiplerian"

I had similar thoughts until the discussion on free will. Now I am wondering if this mathematical structure of the laws of physics only exists because we are here. There are many references for the anthropic principle, but this one is as good as any:

When one ponders the possible purpose for everything, sometimes one only wants to look at the end result and see where we are heading as a species or even as a universe. It is the same with our own lives, where we sometimes put goals ahead of enjoying life in the moment.

Will there ever be any resolution to the quest for a theory of everything and for an understanding of consciousness? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is our destiny to keep searching for these things, not so much to fulfill some grand purpose as because the quest and the lack of resolution are necessary ingredients of consciousness.

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