Sunday, December 20, 2009

Science Fiction Physics, and Biology

The January 2010 Scientific American article "Looking for Life in the Multiverse" analyzes how much the laws of physics might differ while some form of life is still possible. It specifically shows that carbon-based life is still possible when the weak nuclear force is eliminated. The authors are less supportive of non-carbon-based life popular in science fiction, and still find support for the anthropic principle ("conditions that are observed in the universe must allow the observer to exist") in the precise value required for the cosmological constant.

Also, in an earlier post I claimed that all life on earth is dependent on the sun for energy. This is incorrect. The black smoker sea vents on the ocean floor support complete ecosystems including archaea, clams, and tubeworms. Here the energy comes from the interior of the earth instead of the sun.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Science Fiction Morality

In an earlier post I questioned the existence of atheist essentialist philosophers. I had been looking in the area of Philosophy of Science. Turns out a better place to look is Moral Philosophy. Moral Philosophy presents a moral spectrum, from Moral Nihilism (nothing is moral or immoral), to Moral Relativism (morals are relative to individual, social, cultural, or historic circumstances), to Moral Universalism (applies to "all similarly situated individuals") to Moral Realism (moral statements can be objectively true, and subject to rules of logic). In Moral Realism moral rules are similar to Platonic Forms or Ideals. Moral Realism is often grounded in religion, but is also supported by some atheist philosophers (example: Quentin Smith).

The boundaries between the positions are often fuzzy, with various proponents subtly repositioning other prominent philosophers. A historical stumbling block has been determining how a Universal Morality can be possible without recourse to a deity (and this is the basis of the "argument from morality", a proof of God's existence). More recently, based on research in Evolutionary Psychology, Steven Pinker wrote a great essay on how a human moral sense or instinct may have evolved. He presents many rules which are specific to the evolved nature of humans, and some which may be more universal. He says:

"Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself... One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly... The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner..."

It is interesting to consider how many rules the Moral Realist propose are universal, versus specific to the evolved nature of humans. I wonder how much science fiction Moral Realists read. A common theme in science fiction is the presentation of different alien races, and the different moral imperatives which naturally arise from their different evolutionary heritage. Examples are the K'kree (herbivores) and Hivers (one sex) from Traveller. And aside from other planets, we can similarly consider how morals would differ if radically different earth species (sharks? praying mantis? naked mole rats?) had evolved sentience. The Moral Realists imply that all creatures, regardless of evolutionary heritage, will always converge on the same universal morality (or that creatures which are unable to meet the standard can't achieve sentience). This may be a realistic assumption for a few of the meta-universals proposed by Pinker, but I don't think it applies to the much larger set of rules proposed by the Moral Realists. And without this universality the attempt to use rules of logic falls apart.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Fish Balance of Hobbiton

Like everyone else I've been trying to make sense of the arguments between the Keynesians, Austrians, etc. over the financial crisis. Lately I've been trying to puzzle out the National Financial Balance Accounting Identity:

Household FB + Business FB + Government FB + Foreign FB = 0

Described here. The importance of this equation is its use in justifying government deficits:

"We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. As a matter of national accounting, the domestic private sector cannot increase savings unless and until foreign or government sectors increase deficits. Call this the tyranny of double entry bookkeeping: the government’s deficit equals by identity the non-government’s surplus." Marshall Auerback

From the first linked article, some definitions:

Financial Balance FB = income - expenditures, or saving - investment
income = profits + wages = P + W
spending = investment + consumption = I + C
normally (when FB=0) total income = total spending, so P +W = I + C

In discussing households we simplify by assuming no profits, so P=0

savings = W - C
FB = (W - C) - I

The author of the first linked article criticized an earlier author who claimed it was possible for all sectors Financial Balance to be simultaneously positive, so the Accounting Identity would not have to sum to zero. He claimed this would only be true in a primitive barter-based "Hobbit Shire".

Let's build one. Assume our world economy only consists of Hobbit households. No businesses, no government, no foreigners, no money, no outside investment. One primary resource: deep sea fish. Household "Wages" are the daily catch of fish. "Consumption" is eating fish. "Savings" is storing fish in the snow (Eskimo Hobbits :-) for later. So in good times (summer?) the net FB "Fish Balance" of all the Hobbit households is positive, while in bad times (winter?) the FB can be negative. This doesn't match the original Accounting Identity, but we can make it sum to zero by adding a new often-negative "Natural Resources" term to the equation.

Hobbit Household FB + Natural Resource FB = 0

This forms an interesting analogy to arguments against evolution based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Life on earth is not a closed system. It depends on a constant supply of energy from an outside source -- the sun. Life on earth is also dependent on heavier elements produced in prior supernovas. Similarly human economics is dependent on many raw material inputs which are not initially generated by (or often even owned by) humans. For the above Hobbit example I chose deep sea fish as a renewable resource owned by no-one. Other renewable resources include timber, food crops, textile crops, livestock, etc. Non-renewable resources include oil and minerals. Think AH Civilization or Settlers of Catan. And note these raw materials also ultimately come from the sun or supernovas.

This introduces the question of why the real Accounting Identity doesn't include a Natural Resources term. Obviously the real one is about money, not about resources. But if gathering natural resources creates value within the system, shouldn't it be represented? It is also not clear how many other aspects of value creation (such as a household purchasing an income-generating asset, rather than investing in the business sector) are represented.

This also brings up how new money is injected into the system. If the currency were gold-backed, money would be a resource. But a fiat currency is created by central banks. I assume the government deficit spending advocated in the quote above is fiscal spending, and the Government FB is budgetary spending. Alternately could they be advocating monetary stimulus, and the Government FB is that of the Federal Reserve? Does inflation matter in the equation, or is it irrelevant?

I think some of these questions are at the heart of the debates between the Keynesians and the Austrians. The Austrians focus on productive versus wasteful uses of resources, like my Hobbiton Fish Balance (to the extent they recognize the Financial Balance version they see it as an argument for returning to the resource-based gold standard). The Austrians claim recessons are caused by misallocation of resources. Keynesians are more focused on the flow (especially velocity) of money inside the Financial Balance Accounting Identity. Some claim our current problems are due to government not carrying out its proper role: running deficits.