Monday, March 24, 2008

Arthur C Clarke (1917 - 2008)

Arthur C Clarke passed away last week. One of the most famous "hard" science fiction writers of all time, he predicted the use of geostationary satellites for communication, and is one of the men behind one of the greatest - if also one of the strangest - films ever. As far as obituaries go, I won't be able to do any better than the countless ones you can find on the web. I suppose I could write about the film, but the greatness of "2001: A Space Odyssey" lies in its imagery and enigmatic storytelling. Stanley Kubrick might quibble if I gave more credit to Clarke than him for it.

My idea of a homage, then, will be posting an essay written a few years ago, that was the result of Mr Clarke sending me into this huge philosophical spin. There's these lines in "Wings of Desire":-

"When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions. Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn't before I was, and that sometime I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?"

I'm no longer a child, and I'm afraid I no longer ask questions like these anymore - the essay that follows documents probably its last ever occurrence. My ChildHood's End, probably. The deepest questions I ask myself now are about whether to give the office lunch a miss and treat myself to chicken biryani at Blue Nile, or which gear the car was likely to be in when Tom Hagen's driver tackles the steep slope up to the movie producer's house in "The Godfather". (I'm a new driver.) Not that it's necessarily a bad thing. Far better to ask yourself questions whose answers don't depend on assorted mathematical weirdness, is my current philosophy.

When I read "The Hammer of God", I had not yet discovered the full extent to which the web could be used for research, as opposed to just being a repository for pictures of naked girls, or as a medium for checking mail. That knowledge would come later - when I started working. (What better way to while away the tedious hours spent at the office, than by searching for obscure information?) I was not aware then that there is nothing original in the essay I ended up writing - something which Google painfully points out any time I type in "free will" or "determinism" in the search box. On the contrary, I thought I was thinking thoughts that no man (ok, or woman) had ever thought before. I may not quite have had visions of the Nobel Committee at my doorstep, but I was pretty damn proud of the whole thing. I emailed it to whoever was in my address book at the time, got into a couple of arguments (with people pretty much as clueless as I was, I might add), and even tried mailing it to a couple of magazines (no response).

And now the news of Clarke's death has prompted me to dig up the essay from the depths of a long forgotten folder. It verged on the nauseating, and reopened, in my mind, that chapter on reasons not to blog. Maybe part of the reason was that I wrote it at a time when the religious persecution - what else would you call being dragged out of bed at 6 on a Sunday morning to stand in a confined space for 2 hours, with 200 other people, offering thanks to a deity I had absolutely no belief in? - of my childhood was still fresh in my memory. But here is a slightly cleaned up version, nevertheless. It still makes me cringe, but I have nothing else to commemorate the man who was at one point my favourite writer. By the way, I have no idea how accurate some of the physics stuff I mention is. Here's a link I found. It is long, has graphs, nice coloured diagrams and includes words like "wavefunctions", "thermodynamic asymmetry", and "diffeomorphism". Be my guest.

Free will - an illusion?

"Given for one instant an intelligence that could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated ... an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis ... it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes." - Pierre-Simon De Laplace, 1814.

I read the above statement in one of Arthur C. Clarke's books. The character who reads it feels "something close to horror" on this view that everything that takes place - from the most predictable, to the ones that are dismissed as the greatest of flukes - could've been foretold a million years ago with absolute precision.

Robert Singh (the horror-stricken chap) later finds relief when he learns about Chaos Theory. Apparently, even minor changes in the initial conditions of some systems bring about major changes in their behaviour. To predict their future, one would have to know their initial conditions with infinite precision. However, the Uncertainty Principle states that it's not possible to determine the velocity and the position of an atom simultaneously - the more accurate the measurement of its velocity, the less accurate is the measurement of its position, and vice versa. And so, the argument goes that if the future of even an atom cannot be predicted, then neither can the future of the universe.

I'm no great physicist, having failed most of my physics and maths exams. But I can't help feel that Robert Singh is missing the point here. The fact that it's impossible to count the dots on a piece of paper doesn't mean that there is no exact number. Every atom should have a position and a velocity - whether they're measurable or not is another matter. So the universe must follow a predetermined course - a course set by the initial conditions of all that forms the universe, and the laws that govern their behaviour. That no intelligence can ever "see" this course is irrelevant.

Ok, so you can argue that all this applies only to "dead matter," not to conscious beings, who can take actions unpredictable by science. Well, from a programming point of view, if you know every line of code, plus every last detail of the environment it runs in, plus its inputs, you would be able to predict with absolute certainty everything that it would ever do. Granted, we're far more complex than any program. Plus, we can change. We might react differently to the exact same situation even a few minutes later. But programs can change too, as anyone who's spent time bent at a desk, cursing while coding an 8085 microprocessor knows. It doesn't make them any less predictable. Is there any reason why this shouldn't apply to us? If you were to know everything there is to know about a human (down to his last atom, as it were), then, given any situation, you should be able to predict his every thought and action (and his every "change"). That no intelligence, however advanced, may be capable of this is, again, irrelevant. What consciousness gives us may not be free will, but merely the illusion of it.

All the world may very well be a stage - a stage to a play whose script and ending have already been determined. (Not by any "higher power" or "fate", but merely by the positions and velocities of all those atoms at the start of time.) Everything - from stubbing your toe on a chair, to Tendulkar's majestic back-foot drive off Akram - might have been determined 13 billion years ago. Every word of this essay, to every frame of "The Untouchables" - they were all "meant to be." Your life, your future, your death - they're there, set down. There is no choice, just as there is no chance. No wonder Robert Singh was depressed. Redefines fate, though, doesn't it?

This brings us to the question of God. As a kid, I worshipped him not out of any real sense of gratitude, or respect, for this supposedly superior being. I did so because of fear. All those scary tales of hell. SUPPOSE there is a God, and SUPPOSE we have souls... I find it tough enough enduring one hour of a boring class, far less eternity in the cauldrons of hell. As Pascal summed it up (Arthur C. Clarke, again, brought it to my attention), "There may or may not be a God; I may or may not believe in him. The only way I can lose is if there is a God and I do not believe in him. Therefore I shall believe in him to reduce my downside risk." Without free will, what meaning does "Judgement Day" have? When there is a bug in a program, do you blame the program or the programmer? Why would we go to hell for our creator's (in case one does exist) inadequacies?

There's this interesting thought here. Assume that an intelligence does exist that is so sharp that "for it, nothing is uncertain and the future, as the past, is present to its eyes." Now, if this were to be the case, then there is no reason why it, being a conscious creature that sees the future, cannot change the same. If, for instance, you were to know that in exactly 7 minutes, 4 seconds, a falling bag of cement would reduce you to pulp, wouldn't you do something about it? Of course, it needn't be anything quite so dramatic. A conscious being knowing the future would alter the latter; if only by something as minor as a different thought from the one that was "meant to be." So, the universe following a predetermined course and a conscious being determining the same, are they like those "mutually exclusive" theorems we used to learn? Anyway, sooth-saying does not seem an attractive career prospect.

Finally, consider the alternative - that the universe does not follow a predetermined course. Events defying, or bending, reason should occur. Any decision where you "exert your will" has to be, by definition, predictable. That is, it has to be the sum of all that you are (the last atom, neuron, or whatever - we've been through all this before), and the situation you're confronted with. Now, in an "unpredictable" universe, some of these decisions (at least) have to be totally random. In other words, they should have nothing to do with what you are, or the situation you're in - random is the word. Is this really any better than living in a predetermined universe? Predictable choice, or random chance?

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