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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thinking and Information

Social observers say we live in the age of information. Physicists suggest that information theory may be the unifying theory of everything.

Identifying historical ages is a way to get a handle on changing knowledge and behavior in human development. We use distinctive categories to understand what really cannot be confined to categories because history flows between and beyond the categories we use. With that caution on the limits of "age analysis," let us try to see what it might mean to be inhabiting the "information age" and how that might call for different understandings and actions.

But I remind you that I am not trying to make a case for a certain theory, narrative, belief, politics, or position. My objective, again, is to promote thinking. It is built on my conviction that evil in me and in you and others and in our world is thoughtlessness--a product of our capacity or choice to avoid thinking. I do not say evil is ignorance. I say it is accepted and willful ignorance--the kind that turns categories into stereotypes, doctrines into dogmas, gods into idols, forms into absolutes.

To achieve this objective I explore with you what it means to think and the various modes, styles, and conditions of thinking. And here in this information age, I explore the relation of thinking to information and to information theory.

With social observers, we might identify the ages before our present age to set forth the peculiarities of our own. We start with the Age of Reason stemming from the Enlightenment of the mid 17th and early 18th centuries that transcended the Age of Myth and the Age of Faith and on to the scientific revolution. The human is considered a "rational animal" with reason being the highest of properties. Doubting, questioning, and rebelling in this age led to the Age of (Classical) Science.

The roots of the scientific revolution can be seen much earlier, but the Age of Science is usually reserved for the 18th and 19th when observation and experimentation, used by Newton in discovering the laws of motion, led to the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of electromagnetism that were formulated in the 19th century and on to the Industrial Age of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Industrial Age is that of coal, steel, and manufacturing in factories building machines to aid human work, productivity, and consumption. The universe and humankind are considered as machines with parts that move deterministically according to scientific laws. It is also the age of invention where humanity, personally and collectively, has consciousness or mind or soul in that machine. And so countering mindless factories were new religious revival, spiritualism, psychiatry, and rational inquiry into bodies constituted by atoms, molecules, and evolving organisms towards the Atomic Age.

The early 20th century saw the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics culminating in the Space and Nuclear Age. The smallest particles of matter were measured and the characteristics of light were defined. But in the transcendence of classical physics, a paradox was discovered in the laws governing the micro and the macro elements of the universe. And there seems to be an irresolvable tension in nature, in culture, and our lives between determinism and randomness, order and chaos, justice and freedom.

The Information Age is characterized by a movement away from mass by adding information to all our machines, transportation vehicles, health care instruments, military equipment, and many other devices. The computer is the machine of machines and is reproducing itself and its product exponentially. Information becomes the new currency and even currency is becomes information as you realize when you pay your bills and receive your income online.

Information theory is attributed to an engineer, Claude Shannon, who was trying to solve the problem of how many messages could fit on a telephone cable. He worked out a formula that many saw was  linked to the laws of thermodynamics and especially the second law of entropy. Atoms and molecules  are explained in terms of information transfers that can be communicated in bits, positive or negative charges, 1s or 0s. And now they are explained in quantum mechanics as qubits, which are positive and negative charges, 1s and 0s.

Information is ubiquitous. It travels on light from distant stars to the Hubble telescope. It travels our DNA to give the instructions that make up our genotypes and direct the evolution of life. It travels our nervous systems in negative and positive electric charges in and out of our brains which are organic processors of information. And so the whole Universe and its singularities can be understood as quantum information processors where all the bits and qubits are connected and the processors are part of the information itself.

I repeat that my purpose is not to proffer an understanding of a theory that explains reality, but rather to understand thinking in order to promote it. Information, like any concept, is a category and analogy. In-form implies the transfer of forms from mind to matter and matter to mind. It is sometimes defined as the answer to a question or as a message from a sender to a receiver. We indeed can conceive of thinking as processing information through a set of symbols or forms. We can conceive of knowledge as the information we receive when we decode those symbols. Knowledge is modeling reality and is true when we verify the models thus decoding the universe.

But as we have noticed in appreciating scientific method, there is a positive and negative in knowledge, a conjecture and a refutation, a positing and a criticizing towards a tentative final affirmation. And this knowledge is communicated and received through the negatives and positives of bits and qubits.

Reality including us is a combination of no and yes. There is no being without nonbeing. No-thing is where being emerges. The Universe (or God, to use the metaphor) creates being from nothingness. And indeed, created in the image of God, so do we. Our ability to say "no," our ability to critique, our ability to question and doubt all entities, all categories, is what makes it possible to say "yes." To being, to life, and to truth.

________

For further reading:

Charles Seife, Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes. Viking Penguin, 2006.

Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Knowing Evil

May I recommend a wonderful article on Hannah Arendt? Perhaps you saw the movie?

She has been my mentor since I went to U of Chicago in the 60s--a great political thinker. Her coverage of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker, made into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem is a classic in the study of the meaning of evil.

And she was condemned for it. For many Jews, she seemed to be downplaying Eichmann's anti-Semitism. She seemed to be saying that he was not such a unique monster, that like him others even Jews went along with the Nazis, that her charge of "banality" was simply not enough to get at his diabolic evil. She seemed to be letting him off the hook and minimizing his crime.

Not so! In my reading she was showing evil in all its depth and breadth much more so than those who  attack her.

When we worked on Chicago's West Side, we learned that the racism, which divided the city black against white, screwing both upwardly mobile hard working new immigrant blacks and also former immigrant hard working Poles, Italians, Irish, and Jews, was not caused by the fearful lower class whites running away or the black families moving in the same way that the former immigrants did. They were both victims of real estate and banking practices supported, even financed, by government policies. These institutions were run by liberal minded officials who just made money off those practices and policies without questioning them. These liberals did not disdain either black people or white and would have welcomed them into their families. But they went along.

No, the racism in Chicago was (still is?) not as bad as Apartheid in South Africa or Nazism in Germany and these officials certainly were not overseeing the Final Solution the way Eichmann was. But they were just as responsible. And so are we if we do not question and oppose practices that make victims of people and rob them of their dignity.

The thoughtlessness that goes along with these practices and polices is not just an unfortunate condition, it is a choice that has consequences. It is the actions, not the intent, that should be judged and which Arendt was judging in Eichmann--not his anti-Semitism, but his following orders to brilliantly organize the extermination of thousands of innocent Jews.

But judgment requires critical thinking, the thinking that raises questions about what we have been told and that contradicts the commands of authority to avoid the knowledge of good and evil. That is why Eve is my mythic heroine. She chose to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge despite the consequences to her. St Augustine preached that Eve brought evil into the world. But, no, she brought the knowledge of evil into the world so we might do something about it.

And Hannah is Eve today.

Simple Thought (2)

(I'm working on a book that is taking time. Cousin Vinnie said to keep my blog short. So...)



Ever notice that:

  • what we dislike in others, is usually what we are?
  • when we most boast about our party or principle or nation, we are expressing the least confidence in them?
  • when we condemn another culture or religion or viewpoint, we show the pettiness of our own?

Probably not.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Thoughts (1)

Cousin says I need to limit my blog to four sentences.

I explained to him that these are not ads or editorials, not bumper stickers or opinion pieces, and not recitations of facts or pronouncements. They are thoughts and, as laborious or perverted as they may be, I want to portray the workings of my thinking so I can keep criticizing and advancing it.

But, since I am taking the time to write an essay on thinking and information theory, I will try to be much more brief in these next few blogs.

_______________________________________________

Simple Thought One:

Why are those of us who are most secure with God in heaven, with clear fixed principles, with patriotism and politics, are so insecure that we promote walled borders and gated communities, armed forces and ownership of arms, tough policing and more jails? Why are we so afraid?

Philosophers Are Scientists Too

Nice piece (Physicists Are Philosophers, Too) in Scientific American in which the late physicist Victor Stenger defends philosophy from the attacks of those who say that Physics is enough to explain reality.

I submitted my comments:

Philosophers are scientists too. To defend philosophy, it is important to demystify it. Richard Rorty makes philosophy "literary criticism." And I think he is on to something. 
Philosophy is critical thinking in and of all the disciplines of knowing--including art, myth, religion, common sense, and physical science. When the scientist reflects on her trade or another critical thinker like Karl Popper reflects on the scientist's way of doing science and how that fits with others ways of modeling the world, they are doing philosophy. Some call it secondary reflection, the reflection on the first mode of modeling your world. 
To do this I think good philosophers stay up to date on the latest practices and theories of science, and especially now, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience which are casting more light on our ways of thinking and consciousness. Philosophers need to be scientists too in using evidence that can be accessible to all whether in the laboratory or phenomenologically. In second reflection, the thinker reflects back on his/her previous enterprise from within, as it appears while doing it, and tries to communicate what she is doing and why. 
Philosophy may no longer be queen of the sciences, but she is a worthy handmaiden.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

To My Theist Friends

I have been pretty clear that I don't need "God" in my life or language. (click here) Besides being an unscientific and irrational proposition, I have concluded that belief in God often squanders opportunity and responsibility and that religions, especially those of the monotheistic brand, bring with them a lot of evil into the world.

Radical Islam, Fundamentalist Christianity, Righteous Judaism attack each other as infidels while requiring strict adherence to their immovable principles. They are paternalistic and hierarchical. They fear novelty, justify violence, and sacrifice the others on the altar of the Absolute. They eschew critical thinking because they are in unique possession of God's revelation. They claim infallibility because of their special relationship with the Almighty. They practice exclusion of aliens and make aliens of those who disagree with them. In doing so they feed fear, ignorance, and hate. While condemning idolatry by affirming that there is no god but God, they make idols of their God, their Prophets, their Scriptures, their Laws, their dogmas, and their institutions. And they are willing to sacrifice their perceived enemies to their idols.

However, I work closely with Christian, Jewish, Muslim congregations committed to social justice. I understand that historically each of these three religions of the Book were founded by advocates from and for the lower classes in society with visions of social equality, freedom, and justice which I share. I also have many friends and colleagues for whom God is an important part of their life, their stories, and their commitment to peace through justice. With them I see that God brings a lot of good into the world.

So when I hear my friends and colleagues talk "God," this is what I choose to hear. I hear them affirming Transcendence, i.e. their willingness to pass beyond idols by continued questioning and criticism. I hear them affirming the Worth of persons over things. I hear them committed to the Future of the world by acknowledging but letting go of the past. I hear them desiring to act with optimism out of Abundance, rather than with gloom out of scarcity, focusing on the possibility in nature and humanity rather than on its limitations and evil.

So when they talk "God," let me think not of a powerful entity over nature. Let me think of the Power that is being engendered in human concerted action. Let me think of the way the mystics experienced the Void: God is the Nothingness from which all things come--ex nihilo.  Neither matter, nor energy, God as the Universal Void is Cosmic Consciousness. God does not exist, but is the condition or context for all that does. Or let me think God as the Universe in all vastness united as a Whole with interacting parts. Or let me think of God as Universal Consciousness Becoming through matter's complexification and through our interaction with it, a sort of Omega point in the human experiment.

None of these propositions are falsifiable and so not verifiable. However, the advance of science may lead to these propositions either by demonstrating that they are not incompatible with the laws of physics or through new testable theories. I especially mean quantum information theory that may surpass and unite both classical and quantum mechanics by understanding all of reality as information processed by a universal computing complex.

In this theory all information can be understood as made up of quantum bits--positive and negative matter/energy points all of which cannot be without being in relation to one another. God is that universal computing complex in which all information (including that of its processor) is contained and processed thus being the union of positive and negative energy/matter. But then, according to information theory, God as the sum total of information is Entropy. And God as the Whole of parts that exist only in relationship is Love or Empathy.

Entropy and Empathy, the Yin and the Yang, Negative and Positive.

Again, all that is pretty far out and seems fit more to science fiction than science. It is more suggestive poetry than true knowledge. We as yet have no way to test these speculations through experimentation and observation and so to give them usable meaning.

However what we can observe and test, at least phenomenologically and even neurologically, is human consciousness as transcending.

Human consciousness as observed in its varieties of religious experience, in its poetry and image making, and in its drive to know develops by passing beyond its products, its goods, its truths, its self. So while we can come up with no concept of God or Universal Consciousness or Great Void or Omega Point or Universal Information Processor, we can perhaps have a notion of God which is but the experience of our own transcending consciousness existence in the world.

Human consciousness is thus the stretching towards greater subjectivity through greater objectivity and so constituting space. Human consciousness is also temporality, a stretching to past and future and so constituting time. Human consciousness is the stretching between the individuality of the self
to the society of persons and so constituting community. Human consciousness is the "no-thing-ness," the void within, that is the ability to negate and so refute imagination's products: the idols to be transcended.

So can I affirm the existence of God? No. But I can understand the notion of God that my friends and colleagues use. I can affirm their openness and willingness to transcend, to put themselves with all other persons acting for a better world, for a future in which we all share, for a hope in universal love.

Can I affirm that such a love, future, transcendent truth does exist or is indeed coming? No. But here is where Pascal's wager makes sense for me. I choose to bet on it, not because of some game theory reward, but because the wager of faith itself makes such a transcendent future possible.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Even More on Critical Thinking

Karl Popper was the expert on scientific method. He observed and described the activity of scientists, the way that they achieved knowledge and the way that the world accumulated knowledge. "Science" is the Latin word for knowledge. So as one of my mentors, Bernard Lonergan SJ, pointed out, understanding the way of science is understanding the way of knowing even in art, history, philosophy, religion, and ordinary common sense.

Popper's insight is that negation is key to the scientific method. In fact a proposition or theory has no meaning unless it can be "falsified." The scientist uses imagination to first "conjecture" and then experiments for "refutation" and then revises the conjecture for continued refutation. When the probability of refuting the proposition dips towards zero, the more certainty there is for its verification.

This conforms to St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching that the way to truth is analogy and negation: the via negativa. Thomas, unlike Anselm, taught that humans use media, i.e. categories/analogies, what we now call models, to think and that we achieve the truth of those models through negation. John Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness) identified human consciousness as nothingness which applied to posited objects in the world achieves knowledge. No and yes and no and . . . . .

To know is to affirm and deny together. The affirmative is the symbol that is constructed to attend to and link many observations. It is the use of imagination to posit or conjecture. The negative is the refutation of the conjecture. It is also the limitation of the imagination. It is why knowing involves definition and distinction. Definition means putting limits or boundaries to a category or symbol. Distinction is clarifying what belongs in the category or model and what does not.

The "critical" in critical thinking is the use of doubt, question, skepticism, or negation in making or receiving propositions. When we affirm with certainty, when we hold absolutes, when we believe without question (or I say, without faith), we bask in and we show our ignorance. Likewise when we deny a position despite the evidence and despite the high probability of its verification by its inability to be refuted, we also bask in and show our ignorance.

The Cousin Vinnie's of the world demonstrate their ignorance, their lack of thinking or refusal to think, when they affirm and pass on positions without taking the time to question them or when they deny positions that have been carefully verified. Examples include the stereotyping of women, Muslims, African Americans, the idolization of a political or economic system, and the denial of climate change or evolution. I regret ignorance in myself and reject it in others especially when it is fueled by the fear of change. The ignorant are either blindly optimistic or fatalistically pessimistic or often both. They conjecture without refutation. They believe without faith.  They blame, name, and shame without taking responsibility.

The problem for humanity and our world is not conservatism or liberalism, right or left, religion or atheism, science or arts, government or corporations, the East or the West. The problem is the inability or refusal to think critically.