Friday, May 8, 2020

Into the Lion's Den

Two years ago, I sold my businesses and “retired” so that I could focus full-time on learning about, addressing, and attempting to solve some of the fundamental questions in physics and philosophy of mind... things like the physical nature of consciousness, whether we have free will, the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, etc.  What gave me the audacity to think I might be able to tackle these problems where so many have failed before?  Well, first, tackling a problem only requires desire.  I find these big-picture questions fascinating and looked forward to learning, analyzing, and at least trying.  But I did think I had a reasonable shot at actually solving some of these mysteries.  Why?

While I don’t (yet) have a degree in physics or philosophy, I do have an undergraduate and master’s degree in nuclear engineering as well as a law degree (which is certainly applicable to philosophical reasoning), and have taken lots of physics and philosophy classes along the way.  As an example, I’ve taken graduate-level quantum mechanics, or a course closely related or heavily dependent on QM, at UF, MIT, Princeton, and ECU, and even a fascinating course called Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics.  In other words, I’m no expert – and I plan to continue graduate studies in physics – but I certainly have more than a superficial understanding of physics.

It takes more than education to solve problems; it also takes creativity and a willingness to say or try things that others won’t.  As the sole inventor of 17 U.S. patents on a wide variety of inventions, from rocket engines to software to pumps to consumer products, I’ve always felt confident in my ability to solve problems creatively.  As for independence – let’s just say I’ve always been a maverick.  As an example, while in law school I realized that a loophole in American patent law allowed for the patenting of fictional storylines, so I published an article to that effect.  Over the next couple years, at least six law review articles were published specifically to argue that I was full of shit: great evidence that I was actually on to something!  (Since then the courts closed the loophole.)  I’m not trying to list my CV – just to explain my state of mind when I started this process.  I had plenty of free time, an independent spirit, a history of creativity in solving problems, and a strong and relevant educational foundation.  This gave me confidence that I was in a better position than most to actually solve an important riddle.  I also figured, perhaps naively, that the field of physics was one place where novel approaches, critical thinking, and objective analysis would be rewarded.

I jumped right in.  After extraordinary amounts of research and independent thought, I soon realized that special relativity would cause problems for copying or repeating conscious states.  I wrote my first paper on the topic; the most recent iteration is here.  Not long after that, I realized that QM would also, independently of relativity, cause problems for copying or repeating conscious states, and wrote my second paper; the most recent iteration is here.  In July, 2018, I sent my first paper to the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science; it was summarily rejected without comments or review.  Fuck them.  Over the next year and a half, I submitted it to four more journals, and despite getting close to publication with one, the paper was ultimately rejected by all.  Over the same period, I submitted my second paper to three journals and, again, despite getting close to publication with one, the paper was ultimately rejected.  What had gone wrong?  Was I in over my head? 

Regarding the first paper, the same objection kept coming up over and over: that copying the physical state of a person does not necessarily copy that person’s identity.  Without getting too technical, my argument was that whether or not a person’s identity depends on their underlying physical state, special relativity implied the same conclusion.  But no matter how I replied, the conversation always felt like this:
Them: “How do you know that copying a person’s physical state would copy their identity?” 
Me: “I don’t.  But if it does, then copying that state violates special relativity.  If it doesn’t, then there is nothing to copy.  Either way, we can’t copy a person’s identity.”
Them: “But wait.  First you need to show that copying a person’s physical state would copy their identity.”
Me: “No, I don’t.  Consider statements A and B.  If AàB, and also ¬AàB, then B is true, and we don’t need to figure out if A is true.”
Them: “Hold on.  How can you be so sure that statement A is true?...”
Me: [Banging head against wall]

It’s literally crazymaking.  No one seemed to have a problem with the physics or the implications of special relativity.  Instead, their problem almost always boiled down to the concept of identity and its relationship to physical reality.  I suspect that what’s happening is that people find a conclusion they’re uncomfortable with – such as “mind uploading is impossible” or “consciousness is not algorithmic” – and then work backward to find something they can argue with... and that something always happens to be some variation on “How do you know that statement A is true?”  I don’t know if it’s a case of intentional gaslighting or unintentional cognitive dissonance, but either way it took me a long time to finally rebuild my confidence, realize I’m not crazy, completely rewrite the paper to address the identity issue head-on, and submit it to a new journal.

Regarding the second paper, the referee of the third journal brought up what I believed, at the time, was a correct and fatal objection.  But by then, I had experienced 18 continuous months of essentially nothing but rejection, criticism, or being ignored (which is sometimes worse).  Prior to that, I’d spent so much of my life feeling confident about my ability to think clearly and rationally, to solve problems creatively, to analyze arguments skeptically, and to eventually arrive at correct conclusions.  So by the time I received that final rejection, I threw the paper aside and basically forgot about it – until about two weeks ago.  Somehow the human spirit can reawaken.  I took a look at the paper with fresh eyes, fully expecting to confirm the fatal error, but found exactly the opposite.  I (and the journal referee) had been wrong about my being wrong.  In other words, the error that had been pointed out, as it turns out, was not an error.  That isn’t to say that my reasoning and conclusions in the paper are ultimately correct – there could still be other errors – but the referee had been wrong.  What I argued in my second paper is original and it just may be right.  If so, its implications are important and potentially groundbreaking.  The paper needs to be rewritten, the physics tightened, and the arguments cleaned up: a project for another day.

As for now, here’s the problem I face.  On one hand, answers to some of the deepest and most important questions plaguing humanity for millennia are finally starting to become accessible via science, particularly physics.  On the other hand, it has become, for whatever reason, out of vogue in the physics community to research or even discuss these issues, which is odd for many reasons.  First, many of the giants of physics, even in modern history, routinely debated them, including Einstein, Bohr, Wigner, and Feynman.  Second, physics has itself produced several of these hard questions (like the QM measurement problem and the inconsistency between QM and general relativity).  But because physicists rarely talk about these big-picture and foundational questions, and because there’s essentially no funding to research them, the conversations are typically left to: a) self-made or retired mavericks who don’t need funding (e.g., Roger Penrose); b) writers who profit on popular viewpoints (e.g., Sean Carroll and Deepak Chopra); c) academic philosophers who may or may not (but typically don’t) have any formal training in physics; and d) crackpots, nutjobs, and wackadoodles.  And there are a LOT of wackadoodles; category d) might dwarf the others by a factor of 100, and occasionally even includes members of the other categories.  The Internet is teeming with “amateur physicists” with their own solutions to quantum gravity, theories about “quantum consciousness” (whatever the hell that is), yada yada.

I am in category a), but I understand, if on statistics alone, why I’d be assumed to be in category d).  The thing is, maybe I am a little crazy.  But the solutions to the big problems in physics, cosmology, and philosophy of mind are not going to come from tweaking the same old shit we’ve been tweaking for the past century.  They are going to require truly revolutionary ideas, and those ideas, when first proposed, WILL seem crazy.  I want to be openminded, diligent, and creative enough to explore the crazy, revolutionary ideas that ultimately lead to the correct solutions.  Still, the hardest challenge of all will be maintaining my confidence throughout the process.  Not only will I be continually discouraged by incorrect solutions, but I suspect that my journey will be somewhat lonely.

Blogger and theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder points out that stagnation in physics is in large part due to a feedback mechanism in which those who pull the strings – journal editors, those who award grant funding, members of academic tenure committees, etc. – tend to reward what is most familiar to them and popular with their peers.  This has the effect of stifling innovation.  Her solution: “Stop rewarding scientists for working on what is popular with their colleagues.”  Lee Smolin made a similar point in his article, “Why No ‘New Einstein’?”  He says that the current system of academic promotion and publication has “the unintended side effect of putting people of unusual creativity and independence at a disadvantage.”   Despite the current publish-or-perish system that incentivizes scientists to do “superficial work that ignores hard problems,” the field of physics is actually “most often advanced by those who ignore established research programs to invent their own ideas and forge their own directions.”

In other words, even though I didn’t know it when I began this process two years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that my intention to independently and creatively attack some of the hard foundational problems in science would be met with contempt, condescension, and unresponsiveness.

I am planning to begin a master’s program in physics at NYU in the fall.  NYU has some of the world’s best (or at least most academically well regarded) faculty in the fields of cosmology, the foundations of physics, the philosophy of physics, and the philosophy of mind.  But I will be entering with eyes wide open: into the lion’s den.  I certainly hope some of the faculty will be legitimately interested in answering some of the big questions – and will be responsive to and encouraging of original approaches – but I won’t expect it.  Instead, I will enter with low expectations, understanding clearly that any progress I make in answering the big questions may be despite, not because of, the physics academy.  I will hope to remain guided by a burning curiosity, a passion to learn and understand, and a confidence in my abilities to think, analyze, and create.  Please wish me luck.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me your positive attitude, energy, inquiring mind and drive to experience and succeed will provide the "good luck" you need...however, here's to great luck sent your way from me!

    ReplyDelete