Monday, May 14, 2012

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Thus passes the glory of the world.

There is no such thing as maintenance.  Humans, I think, do not have the ability to maintain, only to replace; or to ignore the loss of ability.

There are, so far as I can tell, only two possibilities for change in the world.  The first, the default in the universe, is entropy.  It is atrophy, ruin, a slow decline; in terms of physics it is the movement from order to disorder, in chemistry it is the natural transition from high energy to low energy states.  In colloquial terms it is said that things "wear out", but that undermines the fundamental nature of decay.  The notion, as widely popular as it is false, is that the use of a thing makes the thing decay, but the truth about matter and energy (and they're the same thing, after all), is that the existence of a thing makes the thing decay.  Things fall apart; quite literally.

The second possibility for change is intentional iterative improvement.  By this, I mean several things.  First, any improvement is intentional, no one lucks into positive and lasting change.  Second, improvements in knowledge, technology, society, culture, etcetera, never occur in leaps in bounds.  The stories that we tell each other and our children about watershed  or revolutionary moments of progress are all vast and dangerous oversimplifications.  It's easy, in hindsight, to point to a moment in time, a decision, a spark of an idea, an invention, or some other event, that we can treat as an analogy for the change being highlighting.  But to understand the change, you must understand the iterative nature of the development that led to the change itself.  There is simply no short-cut from insight to insight, from improvement to improvement; the real story is how things have changed in infinitesimally small and intentional improvements over time.

I'm not sure that both of these forces are real. 

By way of background, I am a Christian.  I believe in the gospel of Christ, I am a follower of the teachings of Christ and his disciples.  I understand the Universe to have had a creator.  I am steeped in the Judeo-Christian culture, society, philosophy and theology.  It informs, inexorably, my understanding of the Universe and humanity.  However, I believe that my knowledge of how the Universe works (and thus, the nature of God and his creation) is incomplete.  There are things I believe and that are fixed and unmoveable; Jesus as deity and sole path to salvation for humanity among them.

Nevertheless, God is big enough in my mind that I cannot rule out, out of hand, many a theory about the way the Universe works.  I believe God has gifted us with insatiable curiosity and the intellects to pursue rational, internally consistent theories (rigorously tested for accuracy) for a reason.  My personal relationship with God informs me that God is not merely tempting us with our ability to rationally pursue knowledge. 

Many people believe that the rational pursuit of knowledge must lead to a supplanting of God; a realisation that God must not exist, or, at the very least, that we cannot know about God.  I respectfully disagree.

So, for many years scientists, led chiefly by Hilbert, sought out a unifying theory for the Universe.  It was long believed that it should be possible to build a mathematical theory that would explain, with predictive power, how the Universe functions.  We now believe, due to Kurt Godel, that that dream is an impossibility (great scientists and mathematicians like Einstein and Turing and many others have strengthened this result over the last century).

So, where is God? Entropy means things fall apart.  The gospels tell us to be disciples, to practice iterative improvement.  Certainly, you don't have to be religious to adhere to the notion that man can become better.  I know many fellow progressives that are also atheists and agnostics.  I suppose what this comes down to is, where is hope?  Are all things going to fall apart, or aren't they?  Can we even stay ahead of natural decay, or are we just kidding ourselves?  Can we make lasting improvements, can we save our species, our souls, ourselves?

These are the questions we must all decide how to answer.

Owning a house, especially an old house, as I now do, it turns out, makes you contemplate on what it means to repair, to fix up, to hold together.

I've also been reading more from Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson.  I'd like to reproduce a part of that book here:

"Data centers and server farms are proliferating in rural areas; "Android" phones with Bluetooth headsets are only one step away from neural implants; unemployment is pandemic among those not working on behalf of the machines. Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think.  ... "How much human life can we absorb?" answers one of Facebook's founders, when asked what the goal of the company really is.  "We want Google to be the third half of your brain," says Google co-founder Sergey Brin."
"Google sought to gauge what people were thinking, and became what people were thinking.  Facebook sought to map the social graph, and became the social graph.  Algorithms developed to model fluctuations in financial markets gained control of those markets, leaving human traders behind.  "Toto," said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.""

I think, all things considered, I believe in both entropy AND iterative improvement, but I wonder if they aren't somehow the same thing.

Anyway, I hope you didn't come here looking for answers, I've only got questions.

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