American history consists of long periods of relative stability punctuated by troubled times of rapid transition. Slavery was the serpent sleeping under the table in the country’s early years, eventually springing to life in the American Civil War. Unbridled capitalism ran rampant for decades, until the Great Depression brought it to its knees, ushering in the New Deal. After decades of rising inequality in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, America is now facing another great transition.
Just recently, an article was posted by political scientist Lee Drutman on the web site FiveThirtyEight entitled “Why the Two-Party System is Wrecking American Democracy.” Pretty strong words, and of course hyperbole is no stranger to our media system. Still, on the same day, Thomas Edsall authored an editorial in the NY Times entitled “Trumpism Without Borders.” Both of these articles paint a rather grim picture of political trends, and not just in America. Edsall quotes a number of sociologists, economists, and political scientists, who share a view of democracy slipping away. Are things really that bad?
Every year, the non-profit organization Freedom House publishes a report on the state of democracy worldwide, called Freedom in the World. During the late 20th century, democracy gained considerable ground. In 1975, Freedom House rated 41% of the countries of the world as “not free.” By 2000 that number had dropped to only 25%. But since then it has not dropped further. In fact it has risen slowly since 2013 and now stands at 28%.
The Freedom in the World 2016 report was entitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure.” The 2017 report was called “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.” The 2018 report was entitled “Democracy in Crisis.” 2019? “Democracy in Retreat.” 2020? “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” 2021? “Democracy Under Siege.” Not encouraging.
The Economist Intelligence Unit also issues an annual report on the state of democracy worldwide, and produces a Democracy Index. Since 2005 this index has dropped rather steadily. A number of countries, including America, have lost their status as “full democracies,” and are now considered “flawed democracies.” America now ranks 25th in the world on the Democracy Index. Every region of the world except Asia/Australasia has seen its Democracy Index drop.
These trends are alarming, but a 3% rise in the number of “not free” countries over 20 years, compared to a 15% drop over the previous 25, is not the end of democracy. The real question is why democracy is in retreat after such dramatic gains in the 20th century. Edsall points to a pervasive sense of loss within a certain segment of the population, which has been exploited by populists eager to point to other segments of the population as gaining from this loss. While big tech companies have become increasingly globalized, resource extraction and manufacturing have become increasingly automated. In Europe and America, white grievance has become a major political force. This is particularly strong in America, and has produced a Republican party that is quite sympathetic to white minority rule. America’s electoral system is quite conducive to this, and Republicans are now attempting to go full force with Democratic voter suppression.
How close did America come to losing its democracy last year? Well, there were challenges to the outcome of elections all over the place. But the courts rejected them and election officials, most of them Republican, refused to bend to political pressure. The U.S. Senate refused to overturn the results of the election, and when an insurrection was attempted, the police and the National Guard supported the Constitution. Large social media companies finally stepped in to cut off the bullhorns of those spreading lies about the election. All of this would seem to point to the resilience of American democracy. But the problem is that large numbers of grassroots Republicans still refuse to accept the results of the election, and Republican legislators are working to subvert election officials the next time around.
Are we heading toward another civil war? Edsall quotes George Mason University professor Jack Goldstone: “If Biden fails, God help us, we are headed back to the world of the 1930s, with steep political polarization, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, powerful anti-immigration sentiments and spreading fascism.” I don’t think we’re going to slide into civil war, but I do think things will get worse before they get better. Republican voter suppression laws are going to be challenged in the courts. They will almost certainly stimulate a grass roots backlash which will result in greater voter participation. When the situation gets bad enough, some Republicans will very likely switch parties. And every year, the number of white, rural, conservative Americans declines. The state of Georgia is already turning blue. When Texas turns blue, it will be the end of the road for the national Republican party.
There is a world of difference between a shrewd politician and a conspiracy theorist. Those who seek to discredit election results have consistently been marginalized and ridiculed. The absurd Arizona “audit” is a case in point. America will not fall back into a Jim Crow-style minority rule scenario. What will happen is that partisan polarization will continue and the Republican party will try to challenge election results that don’t go its way. If it actually succeeds in overturning a national election there will be a fierce backlash from the media and establishment politicians. There will be likely be a peeling away of moderate Republicans from the party. We have already seen this on a very modest scale. The Republican party as an antidemocratic force will lose power one way or the other – either because it accepts the results of elections that will have increasingly blue results, or because it becomes a marginalized party of fringe conspiracy theorists and white nationalists.
In my opinion, a course in philosophy should be required in high school, and in college, regardless of major. Philosophy has been criticized as a lot of unfalsifiable, impractical self-indulgence. I couldn’t disagree more. Philosophy is very practical. Human beings require meaning in their lives. Without it we fall into self-destructive nihilism. Philosophy provides meaning without resorting to appeals to authority. Philosophy takes a lot of vague ideas about profound mysteries and provides us with tremendous clarity. It sharpens our focus and challenges our preconceptions. For example, most people have seen at least one of The Matrix series of movies, which introduced many to the philosophical concept of a brain in a vat. The basic idea is that if your brain were disembodied, sitting in a vat somewhere, with its inputs and outputs connected to the proper electrical signals, you would experience exactly what you are experiencing right now. There is absolutely no way to tell the difference.
Philosophers have spent a lot of time pondering the mystery of consciousness, and to a great extent it remains a mystery. Even defining it is tricky. On the one hand there is panpsychism, the notion that every piece of matter has some degree of consciousness. At the other extreme are philosophers like John Searle, who assert that only an organic brain is capable of generating consciousness. And then there is the zombie issue.
A philosophical zombie is an entity that behaves exactly the way a conscious being behaves. But it lacks consciousness. The argument has been made that since we can conceive of such an entity, this in itself means that it is possible in principle. But of course many philosophers suggest that this is a flawed argument. The brilliant philosopher David Chalmers agrees that zombies are logically possible. But he rejects the idea that they are possible in our universe. Because something doesn’t raise any contradictions does not mean it can actually exist in our reality. The concept of infinite speed doesn’t raise any logical contradictions. (And in fact, in a sense there IS no cosmic speed limit – see here). But this does not change the fact that no human being (or any object) can travel faster than light.
The zombie thought experiment really revolves around the debate over physicalism. Physicalism asserts that nothing non-physical exists. Therefore consciousness, which clearly exists, must be physical. But Chalmers, among others, argues that when we remove the functional aspects of consciousness, we are still left with something – experience. Explaining consciousness in terms of function is what he calls the easy problem. Function can indeed be accounted for in physical terms. The hard problem is accounting for personal experience. A zombie is an entity that does everything a conscious being does, but does not have experiences. The subjective character of experience, in this view, cannot be accounted for by physicalism, which requires that everything be objectively real.
It might seem obvious that there is a difference between the subjective and the objective. Objective reality, by definition, is something independent of the observer. But it is not at all obvious that thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not part of physical reality. The argument is made that these are merely higher-level ways of describing processes that are clearly physical. For example, take a chess-playing computer program. Hardly any thinking person believes that what it does cannot be described in physical terms. At one level, it is a matter of electrons moving through circuits. But it can also be described at a much higher level, in term of chess strategy – openings, sacrifices, and so on. Perhaps what we call subjective experience is just another way of describing physical processes – electrical impulses passing through the nervous system, neurotransmitters jumping across synapses, and so on.
Many philosophers reject the whole zombie idea. If you behave as if you can think, you are thinking. If you behave as if you are having experiences, you’re having them. There’s no such thing as simulated thinking. There’s no such thing as simulating having experiences. And all of it can be described in physical terms at some level. Keep in mind that a philosophical zombie version of Chalmers would behave EXACTLY as he does. It would laugh, cry, describe its dreams, and insist that it has experiences. It would carry on debates about philosophical zombies and the hard problem of consciousness. But it would be lying, to itself at least. It would just be simulating having experiences.
The issue arises all of the time in the field of artificial intelligence. Can a machine think? Can a machine have genuine emotions? Can a machine have experiences? There are those who insist that there is something about human consciousness that machines can never match. That the best they can do is give the APPEARANCE that they are matching it.
More than 70 years ago, computer scientist Alan Turing suggested a simple test to determine whether a machine is thinking. Have it answer questions. If a human being cannot distinguish between the machine and thinking human being, based solely on the answers, the machine is thinking. Obviously, the Turing Test is built on the belief that thinking cannot be simulated. That you can judge whether something, or someone, is thinking by their behavior. You don’t have to cut them open and see what they’re made of. It doesn’t matter what they’re made of. You can’t fake thinking.
There are other philosophers who insist that philosophical zombies are possible in our universe. That it is possible for a machine to give the appearance of thinking and having experiences, without actually thinking or having experiences. As a biologist, I’m surprised that a consideration of the characteristics and abilities of animals does not appear more often in these discussions. Is personal experience such a special thing? Can something have experiences without the ability to abstract?
Experiences, it seems to me, are, are intimately connected to the phenomenon of attention. Every moment we are awake, our senses are bombarded with lots of stimuli. Most of it does not get our attention. We are not CONSCIOUS of it. A lot of the reasoning performed by human beings is subconscious. In the process of solving a problem, many things just “come to us.” Often our brains are hard at work analyzing problems around us while our attention is elsewhere. There is the phenomenon of procedural memory; most of us have entered password or passcode while our attention was elsewhere. Our fingers “know” what buttons to push. Right now I am using procedural memory to type these words. Of course it isn’t our fingers that know, it’s our brains, but the information is being retrieved and utilized subconsciously.
And then there are dreams. Most of us dream, most of the time, without realizing we are dreaming. We are having “experiences,” but a big part of us is “not really there.” I am often struck by the fact that VERY unusual things happen in my dreams, yet it rarely seems to occur to me that I’m dreaming. It’s as if some part of my awareness has been turned off, and things that would never happen in my waking life are accepted as somehow normal. I’m not understanding the context. Yet the fact that I can usually remember at least some of my dreams demonstrates that I had some degree of awareness of what was happening. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon of lucid dreaming – dreaming with full awareness that one is dreaming. This has happened to me numerous times, and it’s as if a switch in my head suddenly turns on. Even in our waking lives, we sometimes daydream. If someone is talking to us and we are not paying attention, they might say, “You’re not really here.” It’s an interesting phrase, which acknowledges that a big part of who we are, or at least who we think we are, is our awareness, our attention.
If so much of what we do can be done at a subconscious level, doesn’t this argue that philosophical zombies are possible? Aren’t all of us “partial” zombies, limiting our conscious attention to specific things, while our subconscious minds are constantly taking in much more, analyzing problems, and even guiding some of our actions?
Many animals clearly show evidence of attention. Just watch the behavior of a mantid when a cricket walks nearby. It’s hard to believe that the insect isn’t having experiences. But is it conscious? My answer is yes and no. First of all, consciousness is not an all or nothing. It’s a matter of degree. Second, what we think of a consciousness really should be broken down into separate mental abilities – behavioral flexibility, personal experience, the ability to abstract. Perhaps the mantid is having an experience something like that we have in our dreams – giving its attention to stimuli, and responding to them, but not really understanding the context. The mantid doesn’t abstract. It doesn’t understand things like, “I am a predatory insect. The animal before me is also an insect. Insects include beetles, flies, and butterflies, among others. A caterpillar is an immature moth or butterfly. A spider is not an insect.” It doesn’t understand things like, “I am on the leaf of a tree, on the North American continent, on the planet earth, in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy.” All of these things are about context, categories, relationships.
A human infant is probably much the same. It has experiences. It responds to stimuli. It can focus its attention on particular things. But its ability to abstract is quite limited. It doesn’t understand the big picture. It doesn’t understand very many categories or relationships. All of this comes about gradually, over time. The basic building blocks of consciousness are there, even in an earthworm. It responds to stimuli. It has rudimentary experiences. But its has very limited flexibility. It cannot abstract. A crocodile is more flexible. A gorilla more still. A gorilla has the ability to abstract in a limited way, much as a newborn human. The necessary basic elements are the ability to store and process information, and some kind of sensory system to acquire information about the environment. As these become more sophisticated, experiences become richer, and flexibility increases. Eventually a point is reached where the organism is able to abstract. The organism creates a mental model of itself. All of these are different abilities – mental flexibility, experiences, the ability to abstract. But they arise from the basic structure – the ability to acquire, store, and process information.
There is one realm of human activity that does seem to give considerable credence to the idea of philosophical zombies. Acting. Actors can give responses and display emotions that do not reflect their internal thoughts and emotions. It is a simulation. Related to this is the phenomenon of the psychopath. Psychopaths do not seem to feel certain emotions that most of us feel, most notably empathy. But they are able to give the appearance of feeling these emotions, at least sufficiently to cope. They seem to do this by observing the behavior of others in specific contexts and imitating it. Does this demonstrate that philosophical zombies can exist in our reality? Well, yes and no. It does appear that human beings can behave in such a way as to simulate specific emotions and experiences. Presumably an intelligent being can learn to mimic human behaviors by studying humans carefully. But there remains a problem.
In one of the episodes from the old Star Trek series, 4 of the officers get flung into a mirror universe, while their counterparts in that universe get thrown into ours. In the mirror universe, there is no United Federation of Planets. There is an empire filled with barbarians who routinely stab each other in the back and employ terror to keep individual planetary systems in line. The 4 officers are able to blend in, at least for a while. But their counterparts in our universe are discovered immediately. When the captain returns to his own universe, he asks Mr. Spock how he was able to identify his counterpart so quickly. “It was far easier for you, as civilized men, to behave as barbarians, than for them, as barbarians, to behave as civilized men,” Mr. Spock explains.
The same principle applies to thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract. A human being can behave in a robotic fashion, as some very talented mimes can demonstrate. For a robot to behave like a human, and do it without actually thinking, having experiences, or abstracting – well, that’s a good trick. Many of the cues we use to identify a thinking human being involve flexibility, the hallmark of intelligence. Human beings use what is called commonsense reasoning. This is the ability to make assumptions about how the real world operates and apply those assumptions to specific problems. Human minds are packed full of general knowledge and assumptions about the world, most of which turn out to be correct, and this enables us to navigate our surroundings with great ease. It gives us tremendous flexibility and the ability to quickly interpret novelties in the environment. Human beings use what are called heuristics – shortcuts that enable us to quickly generate solutions that are approximate, rather than trying to do a time-consuming analysis driving toward a “perfect” solution. Human beings are able to see the big picture – every time we examine a specific object or do a specific task, we have an idea of how it fits into a much broader context.
Most animals are slaves to their behavioral programming. This is why a moth flies into a flame. It is why billions of animals are killed every year on roadways. Human beings are much better at avoiding cars than dogs are, even though dogs are faster. They often panic when a car approaches, darting out at the last moment. Panic is an ancient flight response, built into many species, including ours. But a human being understands that the car will very likely stay along a very specific path. A psychopath may not feel a particular emotion. But the argument could be made that only because the psychopath has tremendous mental flexibility AND experiences AND the ability to abstract is he able to convincingly simulate those emotions that he doesn’t feel.
When we create systems of sufficient complexity, programmed with goals and the ability to learn, I think we will find that thinking, conscious experience, and the ability to abstract are inevitable results of what these systems do. That conscious experience and the “self” are merely virtual realities created by such systems, just as virtual realities can be created by computer systems today. I often think of a flight simulator. When a flight simulator is running, and we turn off the monitor, where is the plane? It is exactly where it was, in a virtual landscape. The simulator creates virtual space, virtual time, and virtual objects. If the plane were equipped with a sufficiently sophisticated brain and sense organs, it would have experiences within this virtual reality – a secondary virtual reality within the larger one. It would create a mental model of itself within this virtual reality in relation to its environment. It would have thoughts, experiences, and a sense of self regardless of whether we turned on the monitor. To the plane, its virtual reality and its sense of self would be as real as ours are to us.
The mere fact that we can create virtual realities should tell us that the basic elements are there. The next step is to create virtual “organisms” which respond to stimuli and use information processing to reach specific goals. This will lead to virtual beings that have experiences, and eventually, consciousness. None of this will require the construction of these objects in our physical reality, only the information processing systems to produce them in virtual reality.
Suppose you and I are playing Monopoly. There’s an element of skill, but also a big element of luck. Inevitably, one of us is going to gain an advantage. One of us will end up being an “owner,” while the other is a “renter.” This will create a positive feedback. The owner will get progressively wealthier and the renter will get progressively poorer.
Let’s say that I gain the advantage. And after I do, we pass the game on to our children. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict what will happen. My child will get progressively wealthier while your child gets progressively poorer. This happens because of the nature of the game, not because your child is being discriminated against. The game neither knows nor cares about the personal attributes of my child or your child. The game doesn’t have an agenda. It is simply the nature of the game that one child will get richer while the other gets poorer.
I grew up in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood. Crime was low and I had plenty of social support from family and neighbors. My family was what I would call lower middle class. Our cars were forever on the verge of breaking down and there were times that our electricity was cut off for a while because my father couldn’t pay the bill on time. I was a poor student until the fifth grade, when I was fortunate to have a very good teacher who motivated me. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time in the woods, and had more than one encounter with police officers who treated me disrespectfully. Although he could barely afford it, taking us on trips was important to my father and he tried to give us those experiences as often as possible. As an adult I have lived in 30-foot travel trailers and eaten baloney sandwiches for a week to get to the next check. I have had all kinds of jobs, from roofer to zoo keeper to research technician. But thanks to federal grants in the 1970’s I was able to go to college, eventually obtaining a Master’s Degree. I inherited a house and lands worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from my father and grandfather. Today I have a good job with health and retirement benefits, and my wife and I own some stock. We still worry about finances but we live in a 3-bedroom house and are doing pretty well.
It is not hard for me to imagine what my life would be like if I had grown up in a different neighborhood, with gangs trying to recruit me, police harassing me and my father, and an underfunded school with teachers who were more concerned with order than education. There’s a pretty good chance I would have ended up in jail. Even if I hadn’t, there would have been plenty of other young people eager to lead me onto self-destructive paths. Would I have been able to go to college? I doubt it. I probably would have run away from home at some point, and ended up dead or on the street.
Similarly, it’s not hard for me to imagine growing up in a very safe, wealthy neighborhood, going to very good schools with very good teachers, and having my interests in nature very much catered to from a young age. Since my father liked to travel, we probably would have gone on lots of adventures all over the country and the world, which I would have eaten up, and which would have stimulated me to pursue a scientific career. I would have had no difficulty going to college and might have done volunteer work at a zoo. Finances of course would have never been a concern.
A lot of people like to argue that they have worked hard for what they have. I have certainly worked hard over the years, using my muscles as well as my brain, to navigate the ups and downs of life. But I also understand that I am in a position of privilege compared to many others. That I have taken a lot of risks in my life, made some bad decisions, and that there is a large element of luck in whatever “success” I have achieved. In a previous post (here), I discussed intergenerational earnings elasticity, a measure of economic mobility. America has low mobility compared to many European countries. The Scandinavian countries particularly have high economic mobility. The United Kingdom and some southern European countries have lower mobility. Low economic mobility is directly related to the college earnings premium. The Scandinavian countries have low college earnings premiums. The United Kingdom and America have much higher college earnings premiums.
Economic mobility in America started to decline around 1980. Labor unions began to be gutted and good-paying manufacturing jobs were slowly disappearing. Not surprisingly, it was around this time that the college earnings premium began to increase.
In many European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries, labor unions are very strong. Even if you don’t have a college degree, you can have considerable financial security and your opportunity for economic mobility is there. In America, a worker without college is pretty much screwed. You will likely struggle from one paycheck to another and have to go into debt just to keep your head above water. There is a good chance you will have poor credit and have to go to predatory loan companies to survive, which will create a vicious cycle of destitution. You are the one who will have to be shelling out money for late payments on this and that, fees for having a low balance on your checking account (assuming you have a checking account), and of course astronomical interest rates on your predatory loans. You are the one who will have to pay a high percentage of your income in taxes, particularly sales taxes. Those who have money do not have to pay all of these things. They never pay late payments or fees for low balances. They are the ones who are collecting interest on bank accounts, as well as dividends and capital gains on equities. Since there are lots of tax loopholes for them, they pay a much lower percentage of their income in taxes. When you already have the money, you don’t pay. You collect more money. That’s how the system works.
The system, of course, depends on a well-oiled propaganda machine to maintain itself. This is provided by the constant lionization of the “hard-working” American who supposedly drives the engine of economic prosperity. America is a young country, with a recent frontier. This has an enormous impact on the way we view ourselves. The frontier is largely seen as a place where white American families struggled mightily against nature and hostile Indians to build a civilization. This narrative has never seriously considered the role that slavery, low-wage factory jobs, and mechanization played. Steam power. Cotton gins. Plantations. Railroads.
In my view, the Protestant work ethic is more fundamental to white Protestant culture than xenophobia, homophobia, an attachment to guns, a desire for prayer in schools, opposition to abortion, or any particular religious doctrine. I believe that those who defend it would be willing to peel away all of these things, if it came to it. But not the work ethic. It is key to their identity and their self-worth, and the one element that all of the others can be traced back to.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic. The problem is that it quite generally gets folded into a whole mythos about the relationship between hard work and financial success, and who is deserving of such success. Such beliefs run very deep and are often unspoken, because they don’t need to be expressed. Everyone in the culture takes them as givens. Hard work has always been, and still is, rewarded in this mythos. It is the foundation of America’s economic might and political power. Freedom largely consists of making sure that nothing stands in the way of these rewards. Those who push themselves to work hard are the backbone of the country. To the extent that their work is parasitized by others, the country suffers.
In an international social survey conducted between 1998 and 2001, 69% of Americans agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage among 27 countries in which people were polled. The median for the 27 countries was only 40%. Only 19% of Americans agreed with the statement “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead.” The median among 27 countries was 28%. Only 33% of Americans believed that the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality. The median for the 27 countries was about 70%.
In a Pew survey published in 2009, 55% of Americans disagreed with the following simple statement: “In the United States, a child’s chances of achieving financial success is tied to the income of his or her parent.” Notice that this isn’t soliciting an opinion. It is testing one’s knowledge. It isn’t just that Americans tend to reject a government role in reducing inequality. It’s that they really believe that America has high economic mobility, which simply isn’t true. When you don’t even have your facts straight, when you don’t even realize that there is a problem, it isn’t surprising that you reject solutions. The propaganda machine has done its job well.
An interesting consequence of the cult of meritocracy was revealed by a study published in 2010. In the study, 445 managers were given employee profiles and asked to make recommendations on bonuses, promotions, and terminations. Some managers were from companies that emphasized meritocracy in evaluations and compensation. The researchers found that managers from those companies tended to give men greater rewards than equally qualified women. Managers from companies that did not emphasize meritocracy did not favor men over women. The authors called this “the paradox of meritocracy.” And emphasis on meritocracy did not, in the end, reward employees based on merit alone. Instead it maintained gender inequality. The authors suggested that this occurs because an emphasis on supposed impartiality tends to blind us to our own inherent biases.
The belief that America is a land of social mobility is undoubtedly tied to people’s personal belief that, whatever they have, they earned by their own efforts. None of it is luck. It all ties together in a nice neat package. Hard work is rewarded. The wealth of parents has no bearing on the financial well-being of their children. Whatever I have, I earned every bit of it with my own hard work. Only those who are unwilling to make the effort are left behind in America. The American dream is within the reach of everyone.
Closely tied to the cult of meritocracy and the recent frontier is the tolerance American society exhibits for charlatans and hucksters of every stripe. We accept that those who want to sell us something will use deception and distraction and fudging the facts to get what they want. We sympathize with cheaters on some level, because we value winning more than fairness. It is very American to do this, and again, it is closely tied to our recent frontier. We think cheating is bad but fudging, which is the worst kind of cheating, is acceptable. Why? Because cheating is an act of desperation when you’re almost bound to lose. Most of the time it won’t work. Fudging is what you do when the contest is close. That’s when cheating really matters, when it’s likely to work. And nothing is as important as winning. This kind of pathological competitiveness defines much of our economic system and our approach to human relationships. Large numbers of our fellows can be written off as “losers,” just one of many varieties of “them,” not “us.” And around we go, allowing hucksters to keep us atomized while they laugh all the way to the bank.
This in turn is closely tied to a belief in the primacy of personal responsibility. Of course, if we put a label on someone, suddenly this attitude changes. If they have a syndrome or a disability or some vulnerability that we can slap a label on, suddenly responsibility shifts to the fraudsters. Its much harder for us to believe that we all have some degree of vulnerability.
In the political realm, “hard-working American” has become code for white, rural American. Never mind that obesity rates are higher in small town and rural America than in cities. The stereotype of a rural American is a rugged farmer or rancher, or perhaps a coal miner or logger, who works tirelessly from sunrise to sunset. Definitely white. But then the vast majority of farmers, ranchers, coal miners, and loggers are white. And male. White rural and small town America is often referred to as the “real” America, even though the country is 80% urban.
So what’s the alternative? If not merit, then what? Should we just have employers hire and promote people randomly? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition based on merit. But there’s something very wrong with a system that perpetuates and even magnifies inequalities that come about for reasons having nothing to do with merit. There’s something wrong with a system that puts a child at a huge disadvantage educationally and economically, because he happened to grow up in an impoverished, high-crime neighborhood. There’s something wrong with a system that keeps squeezing the middle class so that people who already have too much can have even more.
The demographics of professional baseball players in America are not all that different from those of the general population. 59% of players are white. 62% of America is white. There is a high percentage of Hispanic players, but then 27% of the players are not American, generally from countries like Venezuela and Cuba that emphasize baseball. If you can perform, you’re in. If you’re really, really good, you will make big bucks. Some people seem to be appalled that professional baseball players make so much money. But the money is already there, provided by fans. Who do you want it to go to, the owners? The average career of a player in MLB is less than 6 years. Even the poorest players do not get thrown under the bus, because the players have a powerful union that maintains salaries and benefits. The minimum wage for MLB players is more than half a million dollars.
America’s GDP per adult is about $99,000/year. Even the combined incomes of myself and my wife do not come close to that. Most of my life I have made less than $30,000/year. And, as I said, I consider myself to be in a privileged position. The vast majority of people employed in my town are grocery stockers, cashiers, waiters, hamburger flippers, hotel maids, and so on, who make considerably less than I do. The median HOUSEHOLD income in the parish where I live is about $40,000/year. About a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. My home state of Louisiana ranks 29th in educational expenditure per student. Almost a third of the population of my town is African American.
Compare this to New Haven County, Connecticut. The median household income is about $61,000/year. Only 11% of the population is below the poverty line. Only 13% of the population is African American. In the town of Woodbridge in this county, which is about the same size as the city in which I live, the median household income is about $137,000/year, and less than 3% of the population is below the poverty line. The school district is rated as the 6th best in the state, in a state that ranks 2nd in educational expenditure per student. This town is less than 2% African American.
The issue is not friendly competition based on merit. It is whether people are assured the basics. If they don’t have a safe environment, access to a decent education, and decent health care, how are they supposed to compete for the privileges? This was Roosevelt’s point with his Second Bill of Rights, which has been all but forgotten in post-Reagan America. I have known people who have worked their entire adult lives as grocery stockers or zoo keepers, always making close to minimum wage. Are they supposed to be able to afford a decent home and go to a hospital if they need to? The solutions are not really that complicated. Strengthen organized labor so that it can effectively negotiate with owners for decent pay and benefits. Make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes and use the revenue to ensure that every child has access to decent education. Invest in impoverished communities that are the result of decades of discrimination. Abandon trickle-down economics.
With its seemingly baked-in cult of meritocracy, one might conclude that America will never budge from its trend of ever-increasing economic inequality and declining economic mobility. Yet if the propagandists were so invincible, how did progress ever come about? How did the 40-hour work week ever come about? How did compulsory education and social security ever come about? America seems to go through these periods of stagnation, even reversal in some cases, punctuated by progress. One way or another, the squeezing of the American middle class is unsustainable. The cult of meritocracy and the mythos of the American dream will be tough nuts to crack. There will be a lot of political maneuvering and a lot of culture war battles. But automation will not disappear, the browning of America will continue, and many Americans will be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
In previous posts (here and here, for example) I have discussed the strangeness of quantum mechanics, one of the 3 great revolutions in physics in the previous century. From its very beginning, quantum mechanics has stimulated debates about the nature of physical reality. Einstein didn’t care for a lot of its implications, like “spooky action at a distance.” Schrodinger very much disliked the instantaneous “jumping” favored by Bohr. And many physicists have, over the years, recommended that we “shut up and calculate” – in other words, stop worrying about the nature of physical reality as revealed by quantum mechanics.
Inevitably, some physicists have refused to take this advice, and continue to stretch the envelope of our understanding. A case in point are recent experiments concerning the nature of quantum jumps. When an electron moves from one energy level to another within an atom, emitting or absorbing a photon in the process, this “movement” occurs very rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that for decades it seemed to be instantaneous. But is it really instantaneous? The answer is no. In an experiment published in 2019, physicists at Yale used “artificial atoms” to monitor quantum jumps. They found that jumps in fact are not instantaneous. The transition takes a few microseconds and follows a very predictable trajectory. There is even a “prejump” signature just before the actual jump. A jump can be reversed before it completes, enabling the researchers to keep a system in a particular state indefinitely, even though they can see that it is “trying” to make jumps from time to time.
The details of these “jumps” were in fact predicted in the 1990’s by something called quantum trajectory theory. This theory held that the behavior of a single particle during a so-called “jump” consisted of a transition through a series of superposed states. It’s important to realize that this trajectory is NOT like that taken by a baseball moving through the air. It is a trajectory through an ABSTRACT SPACE. And since the “prejump” signature only gives the experimenter a tiny amount of lead time, there is still no way to precisely predict when a jump will occur over the long term.
All of this is well and good, but it certainly doesn’t erase the strangeness of quantum mechanics. And whether jumps are instantaneous or not, we are still faced with the bizarre world of superposition. Take an electron in an atom for example. An ordinary object, like a baseball, has a precise position in space at all times. An electron, however has a position probability density. An electron is superposed. An electron in an atom exists in an orbital, but it isn’t in orbit. If the electron were in a precise location at a particular time, moving from one precise location to another, we would see the electrical charge constantly shifting in position as it moved. We don’t. If the electron were actually moving in a curved path around the nucleus, it would be accelerating, causing photons to be emitted constantly. This doesn’t happen. An electron has a position probability density, which is another way of saying that it’s in multiple locations at once.
This seems to get us right back to the “jumping” problem. If an electron is in many places at once, isn’t this is like saying it is making instantaneous jumps? No, because a jump implies that it is in one location at time A and a different location at time B. An electron is smeared out in space. It isn’t jumping. It is superposed. The problem is that our intuitive understanding of the world is built on large objects like baseballs. A baseball is never at multiple locations simultaneously. If it were, we would immediately question our whole approach. We wouldn’t think in terms of particles. We would think in terms of position probability densities, which are dictated by wave functions. These wave functions are in turn built from complex numbers, which have imaginary components. Which brings me to another recent study.
The mathematics of quantum mechanics uses imaginary numbers. Schrodinger disliked this as well, and came up with a way to do the math without imaginary numbers. The 2 approaches seemed to be equivalent – until just a few months ago. A group of theoretical physicists published a paper in Jan apparently showing that the 2 approaches do NOT necessarily yield the same predictions. They even suggested an experiment that would clearly distinguish between the 2 mathematical systems. Most researchers feel confident that the math built on imaginary numbers is correct. If so, then the “hack” using only real numbers is wrong, and imaginary numbers are necessary to accurately describe the universe.
Does this mean that imaginary numbers are “real,” as some observers suggest? Well, is F = ma “real”? Is the gravitational constant “real”? These are mathematical “constructs” that we use to describe our measurements. Then there are the actual measurements. The objects we examine and their behavior. We tend to separate this “objective” reality from the abstractions we use to describe it. But are they really 2 separate things? Ultimately I believe they are all made of the same “stuff,” and I am certainly not the first person to think so. Physicist John Wheeler famously suggested that what we call objective reality is composed of information. This includes matter, energy, space, time, and all of the abstract principles governing their relationships. If we let go of our insistence that there are “objects” out there made of something very different from the abstractions that govern their behavior, I think we will find that what seems very strange about quantum mechanics will turn out to be not so strange.
Quantum mechanics is all about information. It is fundamentally a description of what happens when one system incorporates information about another system. It is only when we try to interpret the math as describing something more than information systems that we run into trouble. When everything that we think of as “objective” reality – matter, energy, space, time, and all of their interactions – is conceptualized as active information, the problems of interpretation fall away. Baseballs are made of molecules, molecules are made of atoms, atoms are made of quarks and electrons. What are quarks and electrons made of? I think we have our answer. They are made of the same “stuff” that the abstractions describing their behavior are made of – active information.
In a way, those who argue that we should “shut up and calculate” are right, but not because we shouldn’t try to interpret quantum mechanics. But if we ask, “What is the information about?” I think we are asking the wrong question. A superficial observer, looking at a running flight simulator program, might be led to believe that the plane and the rules that govern its behavior are fundamentally 2 different things. But in fact they are merely different elements of the same underlying reality – active information.
I’m a biologist. So I’m pretty familiar with many lines of evidence concerning the evolution of life on our planet. The genetic evidence. The morphological evidence. The embryonic evidence. The fossil record. Although the details are always subject to revision, broad evolutionary history is built on an absolute mountain of evidence. Mammals evolved from a particular group of reptiles called therapsids. Birds evolved from archosaurs, and now its clear that they evolved from a particular group of archosaurs, the dinosaurs. Crocodilians also evolved from archosaurs, but not dinosaurs. And so on. Our species evolved from apes closely related to chimpanzees, which in turn evolved from primitive monkeys, and so on. Because there’s such an overwhelming mountain of evidence, some young earth creationists make an interesting argument. It’s a test of faith, they say. It’s a trick. God placed all of this elaborate evidence before us as a deception. We’re supposed to ignore it. Others are quick to point out that this would be a very mischievous, even sociopathic, God, who would go to the trouble of giving us our remarkable God-given analytical abilities, throw a mountain of evidence before us, and condemn us in the strongest terms when we actually fell for his deception.
I am always struck by the story of the Apostle Thomas, in the Book of John. Thomas was not present when Christ first appeared to the apostles after his resurrection. When they told him what they saw, he refused to believe it. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe,” he tells them. Eight days later Christ appears before them. Thomas puts his finger into the print of the nails and thrusts his hand into Christ’s side. Of course, he then believes. Christ does not even rebuke Thomas, let alone condemn him. He merely tells him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Thomas insisted on evidence. He obtained the evidence, he believed. No big deal, apparently. Certainly nothing like the response Peter gets in the Book of Matthew, when he has the temerity to suggest that Christ will not be killed. “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me,” is the reply. Ouch.
The thing is, the universe does contain surprises, big surprises, that appear only when we look closely. Classical mechanics gives a very good approximation of reality in everyday life. But classical mechanics turns out to be wrong, when we look closely. The universe obeys the rules of quantum mechanics. A universe in which space and time form an inflexible “background” is a very good approximation of reality in everyday life. But it’s wrong. Relativity is the way things actually work. The orbits of the planets are very regular and stable. Many processes seem to be homeostatic or cyclic. But when we look closely, we find that these are special cases. If we merely change the system, or increase the stress parameter, we will see chaotic behavior. This is the more general phenomenon.
In the last chapter of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, his protagonist Ellie Arroway finds an unambiguous message buried deep within the transcendental number pi. Of course the number pi is not some arbitrary number. It’s built into the fabric of the universe. But to find the message, you have to dig deep. The creator(s) are not gonna make it easy for you. You have to be very curious and very determined. Why would Sagan, an agnostic, end his novel this way? My suspicion is that he had a suspicion.
Why is the universe so “deceptive”? Presumably the Newtonian view of the universe could have turned out to be correct. The way things look in everyday life could have turned out to apply to everything, including tiny particles. The universe could have turned out to be completely deterministic. Space and time could have turned out to be the same for every observer. After all, this is how things work, to a very close approximation, in everyday life. Why does the universe have these “hidden surprises”?
My guess is that what we call the physical universe is just one level of a deeper reality. That we call reality is like a running computer program. And just as in a simulation we can create virtual matter, virtual energy, virtual space, and virtual time, these things in our reality are merely manifestations of something deeper. Some of us get glimmers of that something deeper, but the universe is made so that we’re not able to “look behind the curtain” without a lot of curiosity, determination, and frankly, maturity.
Perhaps the universe is set up so as to ensure that beings only achieve certain levels of understanding when they have reached certain levels of maturity. What is consciousness? Most animals seem to have very little of it. They merely follow their genetic programming. They are slaves to it. Consciousness gives beings the ability to free themselves from this. It gives them access to a new world, which has been there all along, but out of reach. The world of the abstract. Would we even predict the appearance of something like consciousness, from the behavior of stars, planets, and bacteria? What if consciousness is just a first step?
We have begun to create virtual realities composed of active information. As these virtual realities become increasingly sophisticated, we will likely discover that it is quite possible to create virtual beings with consciousness. We will then be forced to wonder whether we ourselves are “virtual” beings being created by a deeper level of reality. Getting the answer may well be the next big step in our maturity as a species. Consciousness is access to the abstract. The next step, which we obviously don’t have a name for yet, may be a look behind the curtain.
We are obviously not ready for that yet. We are barbarians, still dealing with our infantile obsessions, prejudices, fears, and delusions. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the system is cleverly designed to require a certain level of maturity at each step. Of course, this may all be wishful thinking. Perhaps we will be stupid enough to destroy ourselves before we find out one way or the other. But I have hope. And I still find the universe suspicious.