Free Will has Nothing to do with Quantum Mechanics

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli.

I wrote about this guy last year: https://clantilyscad.com/2012/05/25/science-is-not-about-certainty/

He’s back with an Edge Conversation about Free Will and Physics.

Via Rovelli on a new Edge.org article:

Any attempt to link this discussion to moral, ethical or legal issues, as is often been done, is pure nonsense… There is no contradiction between saying that a stone flew into the sky because a force pushed it, or because a volcano exploded. In the same manner, there is no contradiction in saying we do not commit murder because something is encoded in the decision-making structure of our brain or because we are bound by a moral belief.

Free will has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. We are deeply unpredictable beings, like most macroscopic systems. There is no incompatibility between free will and microscopic determinism. The significance of free will is that behavior is not determined by external constraints, not by the psychological description of our neural states to which we access. The idea that free will may have to do with the ability to make different choices on equal internal states is an absurdity, as the ideal experiment I have described above shows. The issue has no bearing on questions of a moral or legal nature. Our idea of being free is correct, but it is just a way to say that we are ignorant on why we make choices.”

I haven’t studied philosophy formally at all, but I like what this guy has to say about it so far. I’ll tab Rovelli on my list of favorite scientists who also know how to write.

From what I understand from my superficial philosophical dialogue-watching, I agree with Sam Harris that free will is an “incoherent concept.”

But free will is a mindfuck of a thing to get your head around. Even without any discussion of quantum mechanics.

Advertisements

Cross-applying Poetry Fundamentals to Prose

I’ve been super busy this week with socializing and job searching, but I have been trying to maintain this blog on a semi-regular basis. When I’m lazy or there’s no interesting news about to comment on, I’ve decided to default to a good autobiographical life advice post.


For those of you that don’t know, I used to write poetry. I never thought it was that good–more like broken prose with clever enjambment. (I never did write a sonnet that I was fully happy with.) There were some cheap PoMo tricks, like line breaking on a word with multiple meanings, that I used very often back then and still do, to some extent, in my prose. But I haven’t written anything that was more poetry than than prose in recent years since non-fiction has consumed my soul.

I will testify that studying classic and modern poetry when I was a teenager has greatly improved my general writing skills as an adult. English profs know it well: When you start analyzing poetry on a functional level below interpretation and meaning, you start paying attention to literary elements like syntax, punctuation, and rhythm. And all writing starts to “flow” better.

Alliteration and assonance all over everything. < See what I did there with “alliteration” and “all?” There are also “v” sounds in “over” and “everything” that create a cohesive sound pattern. (Repetition of consonant sounds is called “consonance.”) These techniques and literary devices work, whether you’re consciously aware of them or not, and this is generally how people judge a work as “good”–based on these literary devices embedded in historical standards.

If you’re a writer, it’s good to be consciously aware of these literary devices (not to be confused with the larger concept of literary techniques), so you can use them to your advantage.

Check out those links that I hyperlinked above if you don’t know anything about poetic devices. If you’re a writer that wants to get better, and you haven’t already, start paying attention to the poetic devices that you already use.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments.


[Edit: Sorry, I had to manually fix the HTML since it formatted weird after I prematurely submitted.]

Riddle Me Pinks…

Baby takes another hit,
she’s passed
the point where peripheral vision
blurs into her inverted gut
and she cries about the virus of society
she’s afraid
she’s catching tonight

Baby is an oxymoron,
murphy’s law on mute–

the way she’ll waste
bootlaces in urinals
to see what shape they make
when they float
leave
bumblebee pinstripes
and chalk scrawled
half past noon,

I GOT HER PREGNANT
on the changing station

(an ephemeral epithet,
a graffiti-fied gaffe)

Oh baby,
“this is the art
of perfecting denial,”
she’ll exhale
before passing to the right
because she’s just that much
of an insidious
fuck

(her palms drip
like the festering manifestoes
of bad hair dye jobs
and thrift store sweaters)

Doctor, Doctor, don’t bother
it’s Sunday now; she’s alone in a crowd.
the children will be coming home
for Christmas and she’s
let the cat out again.
Visual piece also from my angsty teen days:
(There were large callouses on my feet in high school, so the pins didn’t hurt.)

Free Science Summer Courses Online: Mental Health, Gene Expression, Virology

Hat-tip to Paul Gilmartin via The Mental Illness Happy Hour for the mental health class tip.

I thought this would be good follow-up to the Cara Santa Maria post.

Coursera is offering a bunch of free summer courses that you can enroll in today and start a bit later.

The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness starts June 24th and lasts 6 weeks. I was looking at it, but then, while browsing other courses, I found Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression from the University of Melbourne. And then I found Virology I from Columbia University. Score! Free learning!

The Gene class starts July 1 and lasts 6 weeks. Virology starts August 1 and lasts 11 weeks.

I couldn’t decide which one of two I wanted to do more, so I signed up for both. It’s only a two week overlap. I’ve never taken a Cousera class before, but I’ve heard good things.

I’ll post reviews for the classes on here in a couple months.

#nerdlife

The Higgs Boson Explained Simply!

Don’t understand the Higgs boson? Watch the best animated explanation video I’ve seen so far on the Higgs:

The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

Basically:

  • The Higgs Boson is important because it is the (until recently) undiscoverd particle that under the Standard Model of Particle Physics is expected to give mass to other particles. Mass is just a property of matter, like a charge. Mass is a gravitational “charge.”
  • The theory is that everything, everywhere is filled with something called the Higgs field.  The reason why particles have mass is because while they propagate, they are swimming in this “cosmic molasses,” and this interaction gives them inertia. (Not all particles interact with the field. Photons and neutrinos, for example, don’t and have no mass.)
  • In order to actually verify this model, we need to produce an excitation of the field. This quantum excitation is what we call the Higgs boson.
  • So that’s why we built the Large Hadron Collider, to create lots and lots of particle collisions and analyze the data. That little bump on the graph, which lasted only a fraction of a second, is what they think is the elusive particle, hopefully to be confirmed as the Higgs Boson.

There’s a great Reddit discussion going on about the discovery for the more technically-inclined:

If it’s really a Higgs, then we need to solve the Hierarchy problem or abandon the idea of naturalness. The problem is that the Higgs is “unaturally light”, since quantum corrections would “naturally” make the Higgs mass as big as the Planck scale (1019 GeV compared to the 126) and to make it light we need a an arbitrary cancellation that is heavily fine-tuned. The best candidates were supersymmetry and large extra dimensions, but it seems that both are very unlikely now.

If it’s not a Higgs, then we probably will see more signals in the future, and the greatest theoretical challenge will be to figure out what exactly it is!

I Write About Drugs – Tianeptine

My freelance writing gig–Suite101–which was formerly raped by Google search algorithms, is trying to refashion itself into a sustainable business model. I dunno if it will work and I’ll actually start seeing more money, but I decided to start writing for them again. If anything, it’s a good hub for my more serious writing.

I also decided to concentrate on writing about drugs and Health & Wellness, since I’m technically a health care professional and all that jazz.

I’m normally not big on asking people to promote my stuff, but I do get a portion of ad revenue over there. So please, if you think an article is interesting, retweet and shit (there’s a button on the actual article):

Tianeptine: The Antidepressant that Reduces Serotonin

Everyone has seen that Zoloft commercial—the one with the bouncing, white bubble, a cartoon parable about escaping depression to reclaim a formerly emotionally disrupted life. With its multiple parodies and wide-recognition, the Zoloft cartoon permeated the cultural zeitgeist and brought a mainstream awareness to antidepressant drugs. It famously referred to depression as a “chemical imbalance.”

Introduced by Pfizer in 1991, Zoloft (sertraline) became the next major Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) after Prozac (fluoxetine) and heralded a new age of pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. With these new drugs came a revamped model for depression treatment, which revolved around the neurotransmitter that has almost become synonymous with happiness: serotonin.

Serotonin is a complicated chemical with a variety of somatic functions. It has receptors in several different bodily systems and the exact mechanism for creating happiness is unknown. What is known about SSRIs is that by inhibiting reuptake or reabsorption of serotonin in the brain, they increase the levels of serotonin.

But there is a class of drugs, also considered antidepressants, which have the opposite mechanism as SSRIs. They are a class titled “selective serotonin reuptake enhancers” or SSREs. Of these drugs that reduce serotonin rather than increase it, there is exactly one that has been manufactured and marketed. It’s available in Europe and it’s called tianeptine…

Read more at Suite101: Tianeptine: The Antidepressant that Reduces Serotonin | Suite101.com http://suite101.com/article/tianeptine–the-antidepressant-that-reduces-serotonin-a409726#ixzz205sp2NNV

 

Being Aware of Cognitive Bias

The New Yorker, “Why Smart People Are Stupid”:

Self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” This finding wouldn’t surprise Kahneman, who admits in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy”—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—“as it was before I made a study of these issues,” he writes.

Ahh, that’s unnerving. I would like to think that being aware of my own cognitive bias makes me able to recognize it in different but similar situations.

The classic example:  A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Apparently, most people say 10 cents automatically.

I would like to think that because I have practiced conceptualizing it as 2x+ 1.00 = 1.10, x=0.05, it will make me more self-aware when encountering different but similar math word problems. Does this study suggest that would not be the case?

I dunno. I’m not sure what they mean by more “cognitively sophisticated” or how exactly they determine bias. I want to continue my “reading and criticizing primary sources” kick today, but I am very poor and the study .pdf costs $12.

The fine denizens of the Internet who have read the study, however, are criticizing The New Yorker article for overstating things. They’re saying that the smarter people only overestimated their own ability to overcome bias. This is a different kind of bias than performing poorly on the tests, and the association was weak anyway. With such a grandiose title like “Why Smart People are Stupid,” this accusation of blowing things out of proportion isn’t surprising.

A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder

Oh hey, a PubMed article with the full text available.

Abstract:

It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains–that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.

This was published in a 1992 Journal of Medical Ethics.  It was obviously never taken up on by the overlords of the DSM-IV, published in 2000.  The guy who wrote it is a Professor of Clinical Psychology in the UK with a specialization in the psychotic aspects of mental illness.

——

So the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is scheduled for a republication (fifth edition) in May 2013, and there’s been a fair amount of media controversy about some of the changes, mostly around lower standards for addiction disorders.

I skimmed over the Proposed Changes part of the website that the APA set up for the new edition and didn’t find anything egregious. Etiology of a disorder doesn’t matter much beyond understanding how to fix it.  But how behaviors are treated by society do matter. (In my relativist opinion, psychologists know nothing about feelings, except for their own.  They only know behavior.*)

By changing a medical text of authority, I have a feeling it will lower stigma and help erase the false emotional/physical dichotomy model of symptoms that people, including mental health professionals, seem to acknowledge as a gauge for importance during treatment.  And these results would, uncontroversially, be a good thing.

*I’m using “know” here in a sort of vague, philosophical context.  I mean, we’re never going to have a better scale for pain, emotional or physical, beyond a subjective “Pick a number 1-10.”

Quebec’s Crack Down on Student Protestors’ Civil Liberties

Arcade Fire on SNL last week wearing red student solidarity patches.

Here’s some Orwellian bullshit from our northern neighbors.

 The NYT reports:

On May 18, Quebec’s legislative assembly, under the authority of the provincial premier, Jean Charest, passed a draconian law in a move to break the 15-week-long student strike.Bill 78, adopted last week, is an attack on Quebecers’ freedom of speech, association and assembly. Mr. Charest has refused to use the traditional means of mediation in a representative democracy, leading to even more polarization. His administration, one of the most right-wing governments Quebec has had in 40 years, now wants to shut down opposition.

The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian dollars against student associations and unions — which derive their financing from tuition fees — in a direct move to break the movement. For example, student associations will be found guilty if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.

The bill is deliberately vaguely-worded and the article reports that use of force among the police has increased since its passage.  The recent protests in Canada fall in line with the trend of indicators of a global problem in education and tuition inflation.

Hat-tip for the link goes to a Canadian Clantily Scad reader.

Science Is Not About Certainty

All physicists have to look nerdy. It’s part of the job description.
Edge.org has a conversation with theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli:

Science is not about the data. The empirical content of scientific theory is not what is relevant. The data serves to suggest the theory, to confirm the theory, to disconfirm the theory, to prove the theory wrong. But these are the tools that we use. What interests us is the content of the theory. What interests us is what the theory says about the world. General relativity says space-time is curved. The data of general relativity are that Mercury perihelion moves 43 degrees per century, with respect to that computed with Newtonian mechanics.

Who cares? Who cares about these details? If that was the content of general relativity, general relativity would be boring. General relativity is interesting not because of its data, but because it tells us that as far as we know today, the best way of conceptualizing space-time is as a curved object. It gives us a better way of grasping reality than Newtonian mechanics, because it tells us that there can be black holes, because it tells us there’s a Big Bang. This is the content of the scientific theory.

I just discovered Edge.  They have some good shit melding philosophical questions with scientific inquiry.  The kind of stuff I want to write if I ever make it through my formal education.  Totes subscribing.

[edit]

I have to add commentary on this particular post. I can see what Rovelli is getting at, but I don’t like the rhetoric. It’s too dismissive of the importance of data, of the relationship between reason and theory. The arrogance in the rhetorical question, “Who cares about these details?” is particularly grating.

Physicists often try to play with “deep” writing and often fail. (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is the other example that immediately comes to mind.) The nature of their occupation involves describing reality, and reality is undoubtably complex. But if you’re a scientist that wants to do metaphysics, you had better choose your language very carefully or risk sounding like a tool.

TIL Baby Deer Have a Crappy Defense Mechanism

I found this little guy/girl?  just lying on my lawn today, right out in the open next to a fallen branch.

I walked right up to it and it didn’t stir an inch, not even blink.

Probably less than 2 weeks old, its presence confused me:  Should I try to cover it from the rain? Shoo it back into the woods? Call animal control? Funny, how human babies are such hideous creatures, but fluffy critters (It had spots! On its nose!) can elicit something of a maternal instinct. Where did evolution go wrong there.

Google revealed that mother deer just do that–leave their babies alone to curl up all comatose-like while they forage for food. Considering its placement, deer obviously still do not understand suburbia.

[EDIT:  A reader writes me, “You shouldn’t ever go up to a deer like that. Or else the mom will show up and KICK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU.”]

It disappeared, presumably with its mom, an hour later.

Maybe we’ll meet again one day, baby deer. But if we do, it’ll probably be a meeting of your lack of understanding about civilization and my car.  Rats with hooves.