Thursday, November 5, 2015

Avoiding the Invocation of Magic

‘Magic’ means making assumptions about some technology that have no basis in what we know. No basis includes that it violates something we think we know now, or an inconsistency, or a lack of a pathway to get to that technology, or a failure to include some important aspect such as inordinate size, cost, duration, or some other attribute. It is meant to denote wishful thinking that has no basis in any knowledge we have.
There are at least two ways in which some authors invoke magic in a repeatable way. One is the assumption that future technology will include some sort of faster-than-light (FTL) drive, which will be not too large for a space ship, not require too much power, and be usable anywhere. Sometimes there are words invoked to introduce the magic, like ‘worm-holes’ or ‘XYZ drive’ or something else, but nothing is done to show that these are any basis whatsoever for the magic, or that they have the properties that allow the magic to be used for whatever speculative purposes the author is involved with. This blog assume there is no magic FTL.

The other way that magic is assumed is to state that thinking machines will be able to think millions of times better that we can. This particular piece of magic confuses computational power, such as processing some stream of data, with the thinking that comprises intelligence, which is the ability to solve problems with creative or critical thinking or both. Build enough cores, and any level of computational power can be achieved, provided all the conditions such a construction needs are done. But the ability to be creative is limited. It is again a question of finiteness versus infinity. You cannot invoke appeals to infinity, or use large numbers like a million to mean virtual infinity, in finite situations. Aliens are not going to discover millions more elements for a gigantic periodic chart. Neither are they going to discover millions more isotopes, or carbon compounds, or coding schemes, or states of matter, or physical laws, or means of doing anything. Creativity is finite, because it depends on the re-combination of existing things. Virtual infinities come from replication and re-division of the continuum. You can have infinite numbers by adding more decimal places and you can have more grains of sand by finding more beaches. But you can’t have too much more thinking ability or technology. There are very finite limits, and that is one of the fundamental premises of this blog.

In some sense, a lot of the preparatory thinking that goes into this blog is to prevent the invocation of magic. Practical speculation requires inquiring into details. You can speculate about aliens living on Venus under the cloud cover, but the details of the temperatures there, combined with the ability of carbon bonds to survive such temperatures and the lack of other elements with the combinatory ability of carbon means this speculation is magical. You can write anything you want to, as language has not limits on veracity or even much indication of it, and say there are some carbon compounds that can endure at 400°C or whatever the current assessment is, and aliens evolved to use these. This would be false and magical.

Science can be looked upon as dispelling magic. It is so easy to speculate about anything under the sun, or under somebody else’s sun, or between all these suns, and make up possibilities, but only by digging into the details that must exist under the speculation, and asking if they contradict what we know so far can we reduce the amount of magic that exists in speculative writing. To do this digging, it is most useful to have a good grasp of science, not the literary distillation of it, but actual dirty hands science, in just about every field of science that exists. You can never know what limits are going to pop up in the midst of investigating some speculation.

It is also useful to be able to be creative and try and give the speculation a fair chance. Simply criticality will likely eliminate some possibilities that might exist, so the exorcism of magic means taking two steps: one is the creation of ways in which the speculative idea could actually be implemented and exist, and then the second is the analysis of those ways to see if all of them have a bar in front of them put up by either some physical law or scientific finding, or by some other attribute such as those listed above, size, cost and so on.

People who don’t have the background to do such an investigation, or who don’t have the time to do so, often just recite that they don’t believe in some speculation, perhaps adding in a phrase or two indicating why. What they are doing is drawing some preliminary associations out of their experience, and allowing this association to dictate their opinion on a particular speculation. For example, a response to the speculation that aliens would do recycling on a massive scale might include the statement that it is too hard to organize such a regimen, and, typically not included, this assertion comes from some experience with people complaining about how it doesn’t work or that behind the recycling façade the collectors are just throwing most of the material into the landfills or that it became frustrating to remember to separate things when it used to be easier to just combine everything in one trash container, or whatever their experience was that led to the possibly unconscious feeling that recycling at the 99.9% level cannot work.

Hidden associations, felt strongly but not recognized for what they are, are the bane of social change and thinking about how to improve some aspect of society. People are wont to just let their brains associate something unpleasant or unsuccessful in the past with some new idea, and declare they don’t like it or don’t think it will work. This is nothing more than an unconscious remembering of their experience or what they were told or witnessed. It says nothing about the validity of a speculation.

Speculation can be done simply and usually poorly, or it can be done in a detailed and complicated way, when it has a chance of striking gold. Much of the rambling in this blog is the real-time recital of attempts to dig into the details of speculations, often in an iterative and self-correcting fashion. That’s just the way thinking goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment