Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cutting Through the Jargon

This post is inspired by a comment left on my previous post by blogger and thinker Al Fin. I decided to make it a post instead of just a comment because it opens up some interesting conversation about different methodologies of scientific investigation and other fun stuff.

As Al points out I am a philosopher by training and so I will try to elucidate a bit on the mission of the organization I linked to in the last post and hopefully cut through some of the jargon.

Before I directly attempt a translation of the quotes below I will explain a bit about things you should know when trying to read philosophy. First, just as in any discipline, there are a plethora of philosophical traditions and branches of study, etc. It would be very helpful to have some knowledge of the history of philosophy – more so than in other disciples. About two hundred years ago there arose somewhat of a bifurcation in the western tradition of philosophy. This split was between continental Europe and the English speaking world. These somewhat separated traditions are usually referred to as continental and analytic philosophy (though this separation is not really that tidy). In General continental philosophy has tended to be more concerned with questions of ethics, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy, and ontology; while the Anglo-phonic analytic philosophers were/are concerned almost exclusively with epistemology which includes mathematical logic, scientific methodology, and philosophy of language. Though both of these traditions share a lot of thinking and both draw on the same historical cannon of philosophers they are really quite different in many ways. So whenever one is going to be reading some philosophy one should first try to ascertain from what tradition the philosopher is writing. In the case of the organization I linked to these philosophers are from continental Europe and so one should understand that their manner of speaking and the jargon they use will almost certainly be unfamiliar (sometimes in an intentionally obscurantist manner unfortunately).

The second thing that anyone reading philosophy should understand is the principle of charity. The principle of charity is a way of reading a philosopher. The basic idea is simply that whenever one is reading another thinker one should assume that the thinker is intelligent and has something meaningful to say (even if this isn't quite always the case).

So with both those things in mind I will elaborate on the following first stated objective:

"To contribute to a single and comprehensive transdisciplinary scientific research programme forinvestigating self-organization by elaborating selected epistemological, ontological and axiological implications, thus attempting at unifying the scattered approaches in the so-called non-linear science of complexity"

First the organization is stating that they are attempting to unify the science of non-linear complexity. Presumably they say “so called” science because it has not yet been unified and so cannot really be called a science yet. Now the manner in which they are attempting this unification is through investigating the phenomenon of self-organization (such as the process of biological evolution) through a method of examining certain implications of self-organization for the historical subjects of western philosophy (epistemology, ontology, axiology).

Briefly I will explain what this might entail as a research program. First it is an attempt to bring together the traditional studies of the humanities and the sciences into a unified whole by applying the scientific and experimental conclusions of what we know about self-organizing systems to traditional questions of philosophy. The traditional questions of philosophy fall under thee categories that each have many sub categories. The first category is epistemology. Epistemology asks what knowledge is and how it is possible. Some of the sub categories include philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of logics, mathematical logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, etc. Now there are at least two very important examples of self-organization that have the power to really illuminate epistemology in a way that has never before been possible. These two examples are the self organization of the human brain and the self organization and evolution of planet earth's biosphere (human evolution in particular). For instance both evolutionary psychology and cognitive science are disciplines that inform us about the traditional problems of epistemology and this could be advanced even further by really understanding how both the human brain and mankind as a whole are self-organizing systems. Next is ontology. Ontology asks what exists, or what is being, or what is real. The science of cosmology studies one big self-organizing system – the cosmos. When studying the cosmos scientists must understand how everything in the cosmos interrelates, from the smallest things to the largest things, in order too understand how the cosmos is developing and what “it” is. Is the universe ultimately indivisible particles and space as Newton thought? Is it quanta of energy, or two dimensional strings existing in a many-dimensional space, or is it merely the interrelation of ultimate forces? Or perhaps information is the most real “substance”. At any rate it seems very likely that applying what we know about self-organizing systems to ontology is likely to yield some answers.

Finally we come to axiology. Axiology asks what value or quality is. This is closely related to the question of what consciousness is and is related to ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy. Understanding what consciousness or mentality is has alluded both philosophers and scientists for centuries and is considered to be a holy grail by many in both camps (and many have made pretensions of having answers). Some examples of how an understanding of self-organizing systems could be applied to axiology are (1) how the brain is organized to create consciousness, (2) how society is a self-organizing system and (3) how the self-organizing system of biological evolution has effected what we consider to be of value, and (4) how the organization and evolution of the cosmos may shed light on what is actually of value.

Now for the second objective:

“To contribute to a scientific understanding of the "feedback-loop" of human action and reflection in a historical moment in which the destiny of the world system is at stake”

This objective appears to be rooted in the philosophical traditions of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Phenomenology is concerned with interpreting the world as it is presented to the consciousness and is a descendent's of both the philosophies of Descartes and Kant. Hermeneutics is concerned with the interpretation of the phenomena as akind of text(I realize that this just seems like more confusing jargon but if you are interested you can always turn to Google).

Now what this objective is stating is an understanding that at every moment the future is determined by present action and that present action arises from how we understand the present and the past (this is known as a heurmenutical circle and is also a problem in the philosophy of science). So this is just a fancy hermeneutical way of saying that they are interested in contributing to a more accurate understanding how mankind understands himself so as to greater empower man to direct his own future.

If anyone still has any questions or would like to further discuss these ideas feel free to comment.

37 Comments:

Thanks, Micah. Your explanation helps me to organise my thoughts in order to better approach the topic.

Although in my opinion philosophers and social scientists tend to pad their papers with obscure jargon, seemingly on purpose, I have decided not to allow that to keep me from monitoring their activities, as part of a comprehensive search for novel ideas.

I appreciate your thoughtful clarification.

By Blogger al fin, at 24/6/06 20:22  

Unfortunately what you say is true. There is a lot of garbage going around passing itself off as social science and philosophy that is really either confused irrationalism (multicultural relativism, much postmodernism), or just recycled marxism. For every serious thinker there are usually a plethera of "scribblers" calling themselves scientists or philosophers. As you are aware this is a result of the stagnation of the modern university. For my part I applaud the interdisciplinary approach that yourself and (hopefully) myself embody. Godspeed on your mission to understand everything :)

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By Blogger Javier Marti, at 3/5/07 20:18  

I enjoyed your post, because this line of thought got me excited when I was an idealistic undergraduate. What you're describing is the latest incarnation of a movement that's been around since the "systems theorists" of the 1970s, and more recently chaos theory, non-linear dynamics, and self-organizing systems (particularly neural systems).
However, I think a large part of its appeal is that it appears to be a strike against overly simplistic empirical "linear" science. It certainly was its appeal for me back then: it seemed radical, dangerous, against the grain.
But the problem is that this project brings with it certain ideas about how the world should be, or at least, what kinds of models are the best one.
That's a danger. Science needs to be ruthlessly opportunistic, and simply take the best explanations from wherever it can find them.
For example, let's consider self-organizing neural systems. It has become increasingly clear that neural systems come at least partly pre-wired. For insects they are 100% wired, but even in humans, self-organisation has limits as an explanatory device.
My other concern is that if taken to an extreme, we will end up explaining everything, and therefore explaining nothing. If the cosmos is a self-organising system, then what is left?

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Philosophical Foundations For A Theory of Evolutionary Systems

This is a European research organization that I discovered while doing a bit of web surfing. There are some very interesting research papers published on the site that are concerned with self-organizing systems and socio-technological evolution. Here are a few quotes from the site.

Research papers
FAQ

"Since the sixties a paradigm shift in the disciplines of science, in system thinking and evolutionary thinking, and in philosophy and "weltanschauung" has been underway towards a Theory of Evolutionary Systems. Still there are gaps in theoretical knowledge to which philosophical theorizing may put forward heuristic offers."

Objectives

- To contribute to a single and comprehensive transdisciplinary scientific research programme for investigating self-organization by elaborating selected epistemological, ontological and axiological implications, thus attempting at unifying the scattered approaches in the so-called non-linear science of complexity

- To contribute to a scientific understanding of the "feedback-loop" of human action and reflection in a historical moment in which the destiny of the world system is at stake

36 Comments:

Micah, I am counting on you as the resident philosopher on this blog to translate some of the jargon into conventional language. It is possible that a lot more people would be enthusiastic about the goals of this organisation if they only understood what they were.

All of us have our specialties that utilise specialised jargon. No one can master the jargon of every specialty.

If you would translate "investigating self-organization by elaborating selected epistemological, ontological and axiological implications, thus attempting at unifying the scattered approaches in the so-called non-linear science of complexity" and "a scientific understanding of the "feedback-loop" of human action and reflection in a historical moment".

I know what I think it is supposed to mean. But I am a multidisciplinary generalist, not conversant in philosophical language. I would like to know what you, as a philosopher, think and how you interpret it.

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The Information Age and the Fascist Threat

All information is expressed through media. Those who control media on a mass scale control what information is accessed and whom may access it.

Throughout human history those in power have had control of the media. Until recently only the elite could read and that elite were usually the priest class whether Brahmans, Jesuits ancient Egyptian priest -scribes, etc. However, at the start of the modern era came the steam powered printing press and this has led to mass literacy and the rise of democracy. The bed-rock of the modern democratic state has been the freedom of press. This freedom guarantees that the agency of government is kept separate from the agency of media with the intended consequence that the literate masses will be able to govern themselves by having unrestricted access to information.

This idea of the freedom of the press has led to thriving democratic nations with people who have been empowered to keep their respective governments in check. However this system is flawed and over the course of the twentyth-century organizations have been quite successful at destroying the foundation of democracy by destroying the competition of a market of ideas through the monopolization of media.

Since the dawn of the Internet the monopoly of media that has been ruling the world for the most part has been severely weakened by the advent of the web-log and other media services such as digg.com and Wikipedia.

The more ubiquitous information and media become the more powerful become those who control the distribution and facilitation of media.

At the present time the birth of global democracy and global dialog leading to a prosperous future for humankind is being threatened by the most powerful organizations on this planet. These organizations are not governments but telecom corporations.

This threat arises because the infrastructure that facilitates the world wide web is owned by these corporations and these corporations understand the kind of power that they could wield if they could convince governments to allow them to wield that power uncontested. Because of these corporation's enormous amount of wealth and influence they are succeeding at doing this.

Whether or not the world wide web can, even in theory, be brought under control is uncertain. However what is certain is that this possibility must be safeguarded against at all cost.

In some countries the government controls the media and in some other countries the media controls the government. What we must seek is a society that nurtures a free market-place of ideas where power is decentralized because neither money nor violence can secure anyone a privileged outlet of media.



28 Comments:

Landlines and satellites can be controlled more easily than wireless terrestrial. Look at pirate radio stations and other quasi-illegal radio activity. With more advanced use of the EM spectrum wireless internet can do a lot. HAM radio internet is workable for some regions. Don't rule out pirate satellites either, with space launch capability coming within reach of non-governments. There's a lot of excess capacity in radio and television broadcasts as well. Internet over power lines is messy but doable. I can see muslim autocrats or Chinese/N.Korean dictators trying to control the internet. Worrying about telecoms etc. seems a bit paranoid.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 17/6/06 10:51  

Any concentration of power is a threat to freedom. The reason China can control their Internet (to some extent) is because the Chinese government has a monopoly over their telecommunications infrastructure. My argument is that if any entity can controls the mass media then that entity will have tyrannical power.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 17/6/06 12:23  

I think once long range wifi (wimax) becomes popular even China will find it hard to contain the tide of information.

The spice must flow!

I also agree that the big media corporations are gradially losing some of their power - especially the ability to spread blatant propaganda. When a big news story breaks often the more interesting reports and commentaries are in the blogosphere.

By Blogger Bob Mottram, at 17/6/06 18:49  

For what reason would Comcast or AT&T want to kill the golden goose? It is OUR freedom that has made them wealthy corporations. Unless and until the US government takes control of the telecoms (like the government of China does) then what is all the worry. Without freedom there is no wealth.

Cuba is dirt poor, North Korea is poorer than that, and Chavez is working on bringing Venezuela into the gutter by stripping freedoms from the corporations and from the people. These places have little to no real freedom.

It is in the best interests of corporations big and small to support freedom and democracy. Am I wrong?

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles Around the Corner

Although it seems as if everyday I hear a report that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are still decades away the facts don't appear to support this. Currently every major automotive company is highly invested in researching fuel-cell technology and most have at least one working prototype already. For sometime now GM has been promising that they will begin mass producing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2010 and now just recently Honda has joined in saying that they too will be offering fuel-cell vehicles by 2010. Also both Daimler-Chrysler and Ford Motors have done an extensive amount of research and real world tests (though neither have committed to any date). Here is a run down of whats going on.

GM


That is a video of GM's most recent version of the Hy-Wire Fuel-cell vehicle. Source

Honda


"Hydrogen fuel cell cars could be on the road much earlier than the decade or more so far predicted. Honda has confirmed it plans a production model “in three to four years”."

Source


Ford Motors

"An ongoing successful road-test of a small fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles has Ford engineers optimistic about their reliability and ultimate roadworthiness.

Ford is testing 30 Focus Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) in seven U.S. cities and in Canada and Germany. They are driven daily by local governmental employees and have racked up more than 180,000

miles." Source


Daimler-Chrysler

"Largest real-life test of fuel cell vehicles wordwide running strong"

"Customers in Japan, Singapore, USA, Europe, China and Australia try out fuel cell vehicles in everyday use"

Source


15 Comments:

I have always been sceptical of President Bush's hydrogen initiative. Hydrogen is not cheaply available, and does not travel well in a small vehicle as fuel. It is much better for automotive fuel cells to use liquid fuels such as an alcohol (butanol is best if you can get it) and extract the hydrogen for use at the cell.

Politicians should not be running this kind of thing. They are too prone to poor advice. The same thing applies to Gore and global warming. The surest way to create a catastrophe is to centralise (governmentalise) efforts to deal with a relatively minor problem.

By Blogger al fin, at 20/6/06 17:10  

Hi Al. Nice to hear from you. I certainly agree with you about "governmentalizing" science and economics and I also agree to some extent that hydrogen is not a suitable vehicle fuel. However one should understand that a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is also a battery elctric vehicle that happens to get some of its energy from hydrogen. That being the case it is exciting to hear that major auto manufacturers are planning mass production in a mere few years.
I don't know how much you know about this but, for instance, GM's vehicle uses all-wheel-drive in-wheel electric motors, uses drive-by-wire technology, and is powered by a combination of hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and ultra-super capacitors. Such a vehicle could be charged anywhere there is an electric outlet or/and it can be fueled with hydrogen if/where it is available. So you see this technology is market and science driven and does not depend on any kind of politicians vision or some pie in the sky "hydrogen hyway". I'm quite convinced that some kind of electric vehicle will be the vehicle of choice in five years.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 21/6/06 02:56  

Mr. Glasser,
I agree with you and am also very excited that we are on the verge of this "Great Leap Forward" the only question is how to make it an economy of scale? The current infrastructure can not readily adapt to Hydrogen production and distribution without heavy investment. Two factors will determine the speed of evolution of our vehicles:
1. The market. When consumers start to look at the FCV as a viable alternative the money will follow. Although I am against the violence in the Middle East, it may just drive oil prices up high enough to get people thinking about FCV. Neccesity is the mother....
2. Goverment intervention, be it subsidization capital or RD investments.

The US should see Hydrogen Energy as a matter of national security. All efforts should be focused on affecting this change. Not only for the enviorment but to maintain our ever eroding competitive edge.
Matt

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 24/7/06 16:05  

But why would we want hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?

I entirely agree with Al. Hydrogen is not readily available, it must be 'manufactured' in an inefficient process. It isn't appropriate to transport as a fuel cell in a small vehicle due to its chemical properties and weight characteristics.

Electric (read: battery charged) vehicles show more promise. The technology to make electric cars affordable, effective, and even performance oriented is available today. Future improvements in battery technology and available motors would only make them better.

I suspect automotive companies are only interested in hydrogen fuel cells as a PR tool. The amount of money they 'invest' in R&D is negligable when compared to their advertising campaigns. Historically they've shown the public that they are resistant to change and innovation (does anybody remember having to pass laws requiring seatbelts before automotive companies would install them stock?).

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/8/06 03:50  

The next 24 months should be telling. Since a hydrogen fuel cell based automobile is essentially an electric car, the various battery advances hinted at in the news recently will be in direct competition. If we really see a significant breakthrough in battery and/or ultra capacitor power and energy storage, and charge rate, then fuel cells for mainstream transportation applications will be stillborn. There may still be an application for remote areas of the world or for stationary power generation but likely nothing else of significance.

If companies like EESTOR, A123 Systems, and others, on the other hand, are vastly over hyping their new or soon to be new electrical storage products then fuel cells have a slim chance. In this case it will depend on the success or failure of producing carbon-neutral biofuels in significant volume and much (much) more efficient internal combustion engines being developed.

I would say the number one potential development that could make hydrogen an economical energy carrier would be efficient and cost effective on-site hydrogen generation from water via solar or grid electricity. Any other generation or transportation method for hydrogen seems doomed to failure because of the lack of existing infrastructure (and the cost of building the same) or the continued dependency on fossil fuels for hydrogen production.

Still, big money (i.e. the oil and chemical companies) has a significant stake in making hydrogen successful so we may yet see fuel cell based cars on the road, at least for a few years. And, as Micah Glasser points out, developing a successful fuel cell car also helps a battery based car because of the drive train (assuming the auto manufactures don't decide sticking with mechanical transmissions and differentials is more cost effective).

One thing is for sure: After three decades of relative stagnation, there is a LOT of new development going on for automobiles.

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Now here's some interesting research: Richard Bourgeois and colleagues at a General Electric research facility in Niskayuna, N.Y. claim to have used a moldable, high-tech GE plastic called Noryl to cut the equipment cost of using electricity to product hydrogen from water in half. They claim to have brought the cost down to about $3 per KG of hydrogen (about the equivalent energy of a gallon of gas). One step closer to a hydrogen economy? This was reported in Popular Mechanics November 2006 issue.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

New Evidence For Hyperbolic Growth?


A lot of talk goes on about exponential technological growth as typified by Moore's Law. However if Ray Kurzweil is correct concerning his Law of Accelerating Returns we should see not just exponential growth but hyperbolic growth. Hyperbolic growth happens when the causes of exponential growth are themselves growing exponentially.

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“By 2010, the "More Than Moore's Law" movement—which focuses on system integration rather than transistor density—will lead to revolutionary megafunction electronics “

“SOP technology represents a radically different approach to systems. It shrinks bulky circuit boards with their many components and makes them nearly disappear. In effect, SOP sets up a new law for system integration. It holds that as the components shrink and the boards all but disappear, the component density will double every year or so, and the number of system functions in an SOP package will increase in the same proportion. Thus, SOP technology yields far more in system miniaturization than can be expected from Moore's Law, which deals only with transistors in ICs [see graph below, "Growing Faster"]. “

“This last application will see the convergence of biology, chemistry, and digital technology to produce capsules small enough to be introduced into the human body to monitor personal health daily. A capsule could be used, for example, to check vital signs and monitor parameters such as glucose levels, blood pressure, and even signs of cancer. The capsule would then wirelessly communicate the person's health status to a Web terminal outside the body or, via the Internet, to a physician (or to anyone, anywhere). Fitted with a reservoir, the capsule could also deliver drugs at programmed intervals to selected places within the body. “

Source


15 Comments:

I'm just enough of an electrician to be aware just how sensitive such devices have always been to external radiation sources (RF, magnetic, etc; not nuclear especially) and have wondered how robust something that small can be made. Having your in-body diagnostic and Rx dispenser go on the fritz every time one passes through a metal detector would not be a good thing, I suspect.

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Money Doesn't Grow On Trees (Or Does It)

The other day I was walking around in one of the beautiful hardwood forest of northern Ohio and it occurred to me that the trees were a perfect example of molecular manufacturing at its finest. Of course it is often pointed out that biological organisms are essentially molecularly constructed beings but the point really hit home for me while thinking about the trees. I think this is because of the large mass and simple efficiency of trees. The molecular mechanisms for constructing a tree are powered directly by sunlight (no need for exotic fuels like us humans), and the building blocks for constructing the trees come straight out of the atmosphere via carbon dioxide.

So this got me thinking: all that carbon dioxide we keep dumping into the atmosphere via combustion could be a global fortune rather than a disaster. Just imagine molecular manufacturing on a global scale that produced almost every economic good out of carbon directly from the atmosphere while using sunlight as the power.

Form this perspective economic efficiency and reducing carbon from the atmosphere would be the same project. It takes energy to separate carbon from oxygen. At this time we are accustomed to combing oxygen and carbon to get energy. But this is an archaic way of getting energy seeing as how it is throwing our ecosystem out of whack and seeing as how the earth already receives more energy from the sun than we could possibly put to use. We must imitate the trees. We must use the sun's energy to separate the carbon from the atmosphere and use that carbon for all of our production needs.

Just a thought.

17 Comments:

I thought this post:
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By Anonymous Will Brown, at 4/6/06 18:59  

Thanks for the link. Good stuff.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 5/6/06 03:32  

Nice points! There are so many sources of energy and matter that we've been unable to exploit for so long, people take it for granted that they will be unexploitable forever.

By Blogger Michael Anissimov, at 5/6/06 16:03  

A seemingly little appreciated concept that you touch on here Micah is that of how complex the ordinary truly is. Phil Bowermaster links to this post with one example of that complexity,

http://www.blog.speculist.com/archives/000835.html

but I suggest that the degree of technical mastery necessary for us to duplicate the process that trees use in a manner we can control is something that most people don't appreciate.

It's all very well to say, "Trees do it, so can we", but doing so in a way that doesn't emulate the chaotic process of nature adds a so-far insurrmountable degree of complexity to the effort.

One of the benchmarks of the pre-Singularity period in my opinion ought to be our ability to emulate functions that occur naturally as power law distributions in a bell curve measurable fashion, a concept my blog partner Gary and I discussed in a different context here:

http://artofwarplus.com/wordpress/?p=824

That, I submit, is the distinguishing characteristic of science and technology, most particularly as in the example you provide here. Whether or not we survive as a species to achieve the Sigularity will, I suggest, largely be a product of our successfully achieving that transition from chaotic natural process to controllable technologic process.

By Anonymous Will Brown, at 5/6/06 18:11  

Very interesting Will. Now I know what book I will be reading next. Thanks. This stuff about power curves in dynamic processes sounds like it could be a powerful tool for a systems thinker. I'm excited to find out more.

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