Author John Horgan
The End of War 2012 Hillsboro Library 303.66
The End of Science 1996 Tualatin Library 501
Rational Mysticism 2003 Hillsboro Library 291.175
These are not book reviews. These are the ideas I think about when I read books.
I stumbled across one of Horgan's essays "online somehwere", and borrowed these books from the Washington County Library system, hoping to learn more. Horgan pursues Big Ideas - peace, physics, God - and seems impatient with "filling in the blanks", as well as those who see the world differently than he does ... which seems to include me.
I was most interested in "The End of War", since I hope to incorporate the nuts-and-bolts technologies of "waging peace" in the systems I design. Lawrence Lessig's insight Code is Law suggests that the software we design, and the hardware that contains it, constrain and direct what humans do. Better design leads to better outcomes. "Design for peace" will not instantly create a perfectly peaceful world, but every design can bring us closer.
Peace is a technological problem, like clean drinking water or space travel. Organizations like Christian Peacemaker Teams (working with Muslim Peacemaker Teams and others) train fieldworkers to teach peaceful conflict resolution, and develop and test new techniques to minimize conflict and maximize peacemaking effectiveness. As such technologies develop, war can be made less frequent and smaller. Reducing war to zero occurence may be like reducing mechanical error to zero - perfect precision can be abstractly defined but is impossible to realistically achieve. Is one war death per year "perfect peace"? No, but it would be an excellent result, just as the picometer-accurate mirrors of LIGO yield excellent results. As long as the pursuit of excellence in peacemaking or instrument building never stops, people can find fulfillment learning how to do better.
"The End of War" asks questions like "is war inherent in human nature" (no) and "is war a cultural contagion" (yes). This is labeling, not understanding, not technique, not effective for ending war. Indeed, if labeling was an end in itself, all we need to do is to re-label military action as "peacekeeping" or even "education" and we've ended war, because we've ended the label. Classification of war can be the first step towards "if this, then that" algorithmic peacemaking, or it can be a justification for inaction: "peacemaking tool A only eliminates type A wars, without a tool for type B, C, D, ... wars, why bother?".
Horgan's instrument for ending war is a United Nations controlled military force, stronger than any other remaining military forces. My concern is accountability - the news today ( 2016/06/09 ) was about the resignation of Anders Kompass, director of field operations for the UN human rights office (OHCHR), over the sexual abuse of young girls by UN peacekeepers.
Horgan ends his book with "In Defense of Free Will". The claim that "we are no more than biological machines" is simply a vague recognition that we are not God, not infinite. Fully aware, free human beings are "merely" unpredictable, even in principle, due to the vast complexity of the human brain, permitting novel (never before seen) responses to novel situations. Our "consciousness" - the part of our brain that invents and sometimes expresses explanations for our behavior - can and will confabulate excuses. But that is merely invention performed to earn social acceptance. If we focus on successful accomplishment of tasks with measurable standards of success, we can modify our behavior to maximize accomplishment, not excuses.
Freedom of choice requires freedom, and multiple choices. Horgan writes "Our Paleolithic ancestors had little or no choice when it came to where, how, or with whom they lived" (pg. 180). That is a pretty good summary of the situation of the prepubescent girls raped by UN soldiers in 2016 central Africa, or of some of the chemically-addled teenage hookers working for drug money on American street corners. Feeding and schooling African children, creating biochemical weapons that free drug-enslaved minds, and providing multiple choices for everyone on the planet is a necessary (though probably not sufficient) requirement for the maximization of peace and the minimization of war. I do not see an "end" to war - I see a rechanneling of human effort into a more humane universe for people, then for all of life.
As Earth life emerges into the universe, we are unlikely to find extraterrestrial intelligence to contend and conflict with. However, our paths into the universe will be arduous struggles, changing us year by year. When our descendants meet up again, thousands of parsecs away, after millions of years of separate evolution and change, they will be very different, and will not have a United Nations to define a set of common rules to avoid conflict.
To travel between the stars, even at decaparsec/megayear speeds, we will need to harness vast energies and vast technologies. Spacecraft are incredibly vulnerable, while containing incredible energies that can be repurposed for destruction. Over millions of years, communication standards will evolve, different groups will use different tools, standards, media, meanings. We will need an expanding set of "cooperation tools", developed during our journeys, so that when any two descendant cultures meet (after millions of years of separate evolution), they can intentionally and effectively develop the common ground to avoid conflict and learn to cooperate. We may even need to maintain a controlled simulacrum of war, so we have a realistic environment for practice peacemaking during our journeys.
Warmaking continues until you lose. Peacemaking can continue forever.
I grew impatient with "The End of Science", and sampled but did not read it from cover to cover. Some physicists have been sidetracked with the pursuit of "the ultimate theory" - hectares of math and word salad expended attempting to find the precise mathematical axis of the universe, from which all else can be derived.
Horgan quotes Feynman (p90) "... in the future there will be other interests ..." but misses Feynman's point about fundamental laws. The quest of fundamental physics is to build a fundament, a foundation, which can support all of the rest of physics, and the sciences built on physics. Without telescopes and particle accelerators, we observe nothing that cannot be accurately explained with 1950s standard model physics. In that sense, physics ended generations ago. But our telescopes and accelerators suggest phenomena that may be coupled and mutually explanatory: Dark matter and neutrinos? Quark mass, quark stars, and standard candles that aren't? Or merely the inability to produce clever explanations entirely bounded by the same 1950's physics, but with over-simplifying symmetries discarded.
Who cares if we have journalist-palatable buzzwords for quantum mechanics?" Beyond either "shut up and calculate" or pseudo-religious metaphors may be practical computation-friendly descriptions of the ultrasmall, and non-verbal descriptions/simulations/presentations far more compatible with human neural capabilities. Arguing about word salad is a waste of time, unless you believe in universes that parse and obey sentences uttered by deities.
Much of this book is Horgan interviewing scientists, often asking them about statements by other scientists, and adapting them to his prior assumptions.
We have plenty of loose threads to tie together, and more observation will create more loose threads. Bigger furballs have more fur. If the end of science is "no loose threads", we will run out of time and space before we run out of mysteries to explore. Not "stamp collecting" mysteries, but honest-go-goodness Aha mysteries. Paradise would be a universe full of excited scientists discovering new mysteries as fast as they explain old ones. Mysteries grow faster than answers.
Since 1996, every year has brought us new mysteries. In 1996, in astronomy alone, we found:
- The first observation of "habitable zone" exoplanets
- lifelike nanostructures in the Martian ALH84001 meteorite
- unexpected gas volatiles in comet Hayutake, improving our solar system model
- Asteroid 1996 PW, a stony body in a long period comet orbit
in 2016, 1996 PW teaches us that there are earth-masses of such objects in the Oort cloud, and we are learning why
- Vast amounts of data returning from the Galileo orbiting Jupiter probe, new discoveries about Ganymede, Europa, Io
- The Hubble "deep field" image
In 1996, other sciences made amazing discoveries, refined old answers, generated new questions. The same is true for every year since. In 2016, millions of scientists explore old and new mysteries - even if 99.9% of them were working on "boring stamp collecting" (they aren't) that is still thousands of scientists pushing into the unknown. Perhaps such a formidable collection of talent will learn everything interesting in the near future, but the "surprise-density" of the universe seems boundless.
I read only 60 pages into "Rational Mysticism", and found no inspiration to read further. Lots of quotes about interpretations of alternate realities, based on the seeming assumption that brains do not spontaneously emit exotic thoughts. My computers emit far more exotic (and quite annoying) behaviors; I do not attribute those to alternate realities, just errors and sloppy programming. So why invent unseen realities to explain what emerges from our imperfect brains?
I have no trouble with the idea that the universe contains more than we can measure with instruments, or that there might be some process that "decides" that the universe should be life-friendly. If there are multiple universes with different laws in each, then universes with a tendency to "choose" compatability with intelligence cannot be ruled out. Even if such universes are a small subset, the probability is enhanced that we live in one (by pseudo-Baysein inference). However, that does not require that our brains evolved to perceive the "chooser". That presumes way too much about why the "chooser" "chooses". Our probability of existence is not enhanced by that, only our egos are flattered ("God has an ego and a penis like me, and his happiness is influenced by my opinion of him") and our tribalism justified. Such ego-boosting tribalism is a threat to planetary survival - too many contending tribes.
The human brain is social, and structured to solve the problems of social survival. Even my socially-crippled Asperger's spectrum brain is better at thinking about deities with personalities than about mathematics. Thinking about deities encourages many people to help others (good!), while encouraging different people to harm different others (terrible!). Observed objectively, encouraging helpfulness (regardless of the rituals and word salad it is wrapped in) should be encouraged.
One way to be helpful in a social environment is to pay lip service to popular ritual. If others pray and bow their heads, I bow my head. It is over soon enough; there is no reason to prolong the experience with argument, whereas I can still think during the respite from interaction; perhaps think of some nice ways to change the subject if deities emerge in conversation. Militant atheism is just another time-wasting distraction.
If others have paranormal mental experiences in groups, that makes sense, because our mental experiences help us adapt socially to whatever the group is doing. Noticably deviant behavior engenders opposition, not cooperation. Evolution developed my brain for social survival and propagation, so if my family hears ghosts, then as a child so do I. Otherwise, a more pliant sibling gets more resources than I do. After all, pliant siblings grow up to have more social success and produce more grandchildren.
Though all human brains are imperfectly adapted to non-human physical reality, solving engineering problems for others (using math and knowledge in the context of physical law) is the most important thing I am able to do with my socially-weak brain. I lack neurotypical social calculation skills (no grandchildren for me), so I might as well develop and focus my remaining capabilities, and devote those developed capabilities to helping others (that is, those with human genes resembling mine). I may not be good at solving social problems, but I am also not compelled to use my remaining skills to enhance my status at the expense of others. Many gurus (and reporters) seem to use their skills to enhance their relative social status - a negative sum game that consumes resources. I am "blessed" to suffer less from such distractions.
So, although I could waste even more time with Dawkins/Hitchens/Sagan/Minsky hostility towards "spirituality", I prefer to accept the beneficial results, ignore the vastly larger neutral results, and divert resources away from destructive results. Angry zealots without resources or attention are a manageable threat. Disease, poverty, and helpless ignorance are a higher priority threat because they hurt far more people. Perhaps as the priority threats are eliminated, zealotry will run out of fuel.