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Archive for June 2017

Reality

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There is a question that floats around out there, it goes something like this: “If everything in the universe can be described by physical laws and mathematical equations, how is the universe any different than a computer program or a simulation/computer game?”  The answer is that it is not. But there are subtleties and nuances in there and reactions are varied.

One reaction that I have heard from physicists is “why is that an interesting question?” The physicist is trying to understand the laws and equations, and those goals are independent of discovering whose computer our universe is running upon, a more philosophical and perhaps unanswerable question, for you would have to look outside of our universe for that answer. You immediately bump right up into religious notions. For instance, what would be the difference if we were a simulation, simply an advanced program (maybe not so advanced), running on some alien teenager’s bedroom computer and god? From our perspective, there would not be any, for that alien teenager would have all of the capabilities of a god. (Alt-Ctrl-Delete).

Another reaction is that what we are doing when we humans are programming is trying to mimic (not necessarily intentionally and of course in a very limited fashion so far), rules that govern our universe, or at least our corner of the universe. And in that we have no choice, since those are the laws. So, it is not that we are a simulation, but rather that we (and our math, our physical limitations and by extension our programs/simulations), are governed by the same laws that govern all things in the universe. 1+1 must always equal 2. The initial question then is in essence somewhat backwards. It is not that we are the same as a program, a simulation, it is that our programs need to abide by the laws and properties that govern all things.

There are a number of physical constants (e.g. the speed of light) with somewhat arbitrary values that define how our universe operates, and if some of them were different we would not be here to have this discussion, for it would have been impossible for stars to coalesce, for life to emerge. This state of affairs gives rise to what is called the Anthropic Principle, which says that the fact of our existence, beings that can measure these physical constants, requires those constants to be such that beings like us can exist. In other words, we perceive reality, because we are here to measure it. There could have been or there could be right now an infinite number of universes, with different physical constants, and life would emerge only in certain universes and only under certain conditions. We drew the lucky straw. So, a third reaction is to respond with a “why does this matter”? A variation on the first reaction above. We have to live in our world, our universe as defined, so let’s get on with it. It’s properties, rules and laws are what they are. We are not capable of looking outside the box, so live with it, and get on with it. Reality is reality.

Reality is reality. Simple phrase but our human perception of reality is subject to constant manipulation by others, to innate biases, driven by evolution and by learned response, to limited sensors, like our eyes, ears, our sense of touch, smell and proprioception and of course to our very limited and flawed processing center, our brain. Human perceptions of reality are very different than the measured physical realities that shape our universe. Maybe that is pointing out a flaw in the English language, with the word reality itself. Maybe it is too simplistic of a concept, given the challenges of determining the reality that humans have. Your perception of reality, my perception of reality is very often different from another’s perceptions of reality, and all three are very likely different from actual reality. And each of us, of course, assumes that our perception of reality is the correct one. The first step towards perceiving reality more accurately is to be aware of our shared human short-comings and foibles.

I assume that at least some of you have seen the monkey business illusion. If not, you can watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY. It nicely illustrates how easy it is for each of us to miss what is right there staring at us, to misinterpret reality.

In order to make good decisions and come to correct conclusions, humans must be able to overcome their inherent processing deficits, not giving into innate or shaped biases, and not being persuaded by the latest PT Barnum that comes onto the scene, simply saying what you want to hear rather than what is real. Decisions need to be based on data, on scientifically derived facts and on sound judgments.

When it comes to intuition’s role, or gut instinct on sound judgments, Herb Simon, the economist, studied and defined intuition as coming from the repetition associated with practice. Meaning that intuition is actually recognition of a situation that the decision-maker has experienced before. There is no such thing as simply having good instincts. Good instincts are borne out of training and experience.

Meanwhile, Phil Tetlock and his Good Judgement project have developed techniques that have been repeatedly shown to lead to more accurate predictions and better decision-making. Among the techniques is the ability and willingness to continuous take in new information and to use that new information to modify your predictions and decisions.

Other research has repeatedly shown what is all too obvious today. People tend to seek out and absorb only information that supports their existing points of view and to reject as “false” any information that does not support their preconceived notions. Simply put, this tendency flies in the face of everything we know about how to make good decisions and has people believing realities that are based on missing or skewed information.

Bottom-line? People can improve their ability to perceive what is real and what is false and by extension their decision-making. Among the techniques that can help are basing decisions on data and science, practicing decision-making techniques, being open to new concepts and ideas, and a willingness to recognize human’s inherent short-comings when it comes to perceiving reality.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 28, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Strategic Choice or Desperation

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If you are bewildered by how Trump’s cabinet can sing his praises while lurching from one scandal to another, this piece about the power and draw of the “inner ring” might help explain. From CS Lewis – Interestingly, CS Lewis challenged Sigmund Freud’s dogma that the sex drive is the strongest drive that humans have and suggested that the desire to be part of the “in” group the Inner Ring is stronger.

Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Why would a dictator gas his own people? The answer may not be what you think. In Syria’s brutal civil war it has been documented that there have been atrocities on both sides. One particular atrocity, the gassing of the civilian population with hundreds of children dying gruesomely stands out. The USA’s reaction to this has finally gotten Syria to admit that it has chemical weapons and though it denies being the source of the attack the evidence in the media is pretty persuasive that the Syrian government is gassing its own population. Syria’s denials take the form of logic rather than evidence. They pose the question, why would we gas people in locations where our own troops could be affected? That question presupposes that Syria cares enough about their own troops not to expose them to gas, which is a dubious assumption, but it is also misdirection from the…

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 13, 2017 at 7:42 am

The Air We Breathe

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I should be working on a proposal tonight (it is due soon), for that represents the future of my company. But I decided I needed to take a break and write about the future of the planet, for that is much more important. Today, the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which aligns us with the other 2 countries in the world which also don’t participate – Syria and Nicaragua. So now we are similar to two other outstanding pillars of the global community. Syria, which is really no longer functioning as a country, Nicaragua and the United States now share similar pedigrees. But the reason to do something, to behave in a certain way, should not be driven by simply what everyone else is doing, it should be driven by scientific evidence, by fact and by reasoned thinking, three areas which have recently taken a beating by the leadership of the USA.

But let’s take a step back and look at what we know about what people around the world want. These tend to be universal findings and there is no or little difference when you examine these results by region, culture or other demographics you care to. In literally thousands of studies commissioned by companies who wanted to know what their employees want, what motivates them, some common patterns emerge. These patterns are pretty easily transferred beyond the workplace to what people in general desire.

What do employees want?

I can go on and list some other things, but fundamentally this list covers the vast majority, the basics of what is important. You can substitute the word “employees” with “people”. Let’s look at the more fundamental things an employee or a citizen might want and not even consider to be debatable. Just what are the basics of what a citizen of a country should expect?

Should you be given air to breathe? Many people would consider that to be a ludicrous question. Should you be given air to breathe? Get real, air is all around us no one can limit it.  But, what if you lived on Mars and air had to be manufactured or shipped in? What if you were viewed as a drag on the colony, a non-optimal performer. Should you be given air to breathe? Most people would still argue that death through asphyxia is not an appropriate punishment for poor performance. Maybe the leadership on Mars would work with you in an attempt to improve your performance before cutting off your oxygen supply.

Should you have access to clean water to drink? Like air, without water we would all die within a few days. Access to clean, potable water is fundamental to life.

Should you be given food to eat? For one congressman from Nebraska that answer to that question is no. He refused to answer the question whether everyone in the USA has a right to food. And that is really no different than air or water, except that it takes longer to die from no food. Presumably he feels that certain people who are not contributing to society as much as he is (and his contribution is certainly debatable in my mind), that they are not worthy of receiving food.

Let me take another step back and introduce you to John Rawls. He is a noted philosopher who has done extensive work in the area of justice. He developed a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to help people figure out whether a rule or regulation was just or gave inappropriate advantages to certain groups. The concept with the veil is that you are ignorant to which group you belong as you consider the rule or regulation and its implications for justice. Since most people writing rules or regulations are part of a privileged class, the thought experiment is aimed at opening people’s minds to other points of view. Perhaps our Nebraska congressman, instead of getting paid by the government, was out of work, unable to find employment or was unable to work due to some other factor. Perhaps he had children that, due to his inability to work, often went to bed at night hungry. How would he feel about his position about whether everyone should have access to food? The veil suggests he might feel differently, if it was his children that were starving to death or growing up stunted physically or mentally.

The Paris Climate Accords is squarely aimed at the fundamentals of life. Should we not change the current path we are on, access to water, to food, the very quality of the air we breathe will be diminished. No one else, no other country, entity or being, is going to take care of this problem for us. If we don’t act, not only is our society threatened, but life itself on the entire planet. The United States, rather than making decisions based on its privileged state, needs to use the veil and look at the larger question of what is just for the entire planet. Participation in the Accords affords us the opportunity to resume the global leadership role we have abandoned, to become the example for others to once again follow, and economically, we will benefit from being a technological leader in an alternative energy future that is only going to become more dominant over time. We will also have a planet we can live on, for ourselves and our children.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 1, 2017 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Ethics

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