Saturday, January 19, 2008

Personal philosophy, part 1

Other than my post on conflict, I realize that my personal thoughts are largely scattered throughout my posts and that it takes a lot of reading to find them, so I’ve decided to condense them in a series of no-events, personal-thoughts-only posts. This is the first of several such posts (I haven’t decided how many I’ll write yet).

On Science:

My philosophy on science has largely come together since I started taking classes at UT. I find it extremely interesting that I have found more specialties in physics that I am not interested in practicing than that I am interested in. This is because I feel very strongly that any work I do must have a strong potential to cause a tangible benefit for other people in the near future.

It is important to note that this works only because I firmly believe that we already have all the theoretical understanding we need to solve nearly all of the major technology-related problems we currently face; we're just not using that knowledge to its full potential due to bureaucracy, regulation, lack of funding, lack of interest, or other non-scientific reasons.

I have heard many times since my arrival at UT the argument of the theorists and the experimentalists working on areas that won’t yield any tangible results for a long time: we can’t know now how those things will be beneficial in the future. Entirely true. I’m not arguing that we should have no theorists and particle physicists and such. This is, first and foremost, the rationale for my own career plans. I’ve had people tell me that wanting to work on applying the physics I will learn to making new technologies that make life better makes me an engineer, not a physicist. Fine. I think it’s kind of pointless to worry much about the distinction. I do, however, believe that we have a responsibility, as scientists, engineers, and people of technical ability in general, to apply our knowledge and skills toward solving problems that exist here and now before worrying about ideas that might or might not someday be useful. Working on current issues first is desirable for a lot of reasons. Obviously, making life better has to be the ultimate purpose of all science and technology. This has the secondary effect that, when quality of life increases, the productivity of the population in question increases. There are currently billions of people living in terrible conditions, who can’t do much to further science or help others because they have enough to worry about just to survive. Finding ways to bring resources, infrastructure, medicine, and education to these people will have the long term result that they will be more productive and will contribute to developing faster as a species later on. Helping people isn’t good just for abstract, feel-good reasons, it yields real benefits for all of us in the long run. In short, we need to put people before ideas.

On Politics:

Similarly to the way that I can’t simply be called a ‘physicist’ or ‘engineer’, I can’t simply be called a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’. I defy labels in a lot of ways, really. My politics, specifically, don’t tend to line up with the opinions of either party. One of my most basic political thoughts is that the two party system is highly inefficient. It’s basically a ‘moderation through conflict’ method; we send a roughly even number of Democrats and Republicans to Congress and to most other national and state offices (really, it comes fairly close on average), and they fight it out to find moderate solutions to our nation’s and states’ problems. Fighting to reach moderation is inefficient, and the details of the ‘solutions’ reached are often seriously flawed. I have to admit that I don’t really know how to fix this in general. One would hope that our politicians are at least expressing their real, thought-out beliefs, and not just their party’s policies. We can (and I do) keep encouraging logical, moderate policies and solutions on an individual level; such an effort, if maintained, must have an impact at some point. There are, however, some specific things we can do to reach moderation more quickly in politics right now:

First, we need to change the rules of Congress. Currently, the Constitution says that each “House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings” (Art. I, Sec. V, Clause II). Members of the House of Representatives may, then, introduce bills that say basically whatever that representative wants. They often include provisions for the government to spend money in the districts of other representatives whose support the bill’s author(s) need to pass the bill. This is reason for what people call “pork barrel spending”, which all politicians claim to oppose, but they all go on using this technique to pass their legislation, anyway. I find this to be a fascinating example of a political ‘check’ that was somehow left out of the Constitution. We need new rules in Congress that require that it only votes on individual provisions, not the packages of unrelated stuff that most bills become. This would very likely lead to an immediate end of nearly all of the “pork barrel spending” I mentioned earlier, since these spending provisions, by themselves, would not be supported by anyone other than the representative whose district would benefit.

Second, we need to eliminate the Electoral College and have standardized, nationalized presidential elections. The Electoral College made sense at the time the constitution was written, but we are a more united nation with more knowledge and awareness of the candidates and political process now than we were 200 years ago. Each individual vote will be more meaningful, and irregularities like the winner in the Electoral College not really winning the most votes (which has happened 4 times, in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000) would just not happen because the Electoral College would simply not exist. The candidate that received the most votes would win, plain and simple. There would also not be complications like candidates from smaller parties not being able to get their name on the ballot in some states (this happens fairly regularly; you just don’t hear about it because no one cares about the minor candidates for whom this is a problem).


Mathangelist said...
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Mathangelist said...

A question-- what if you need a new theoretical system in order to make those changes? Without the development of linear algebra and partial differential equations at the beginning of the century/ end of the last, relativity and quantum mechanics respectively wouldn't have gotten off the ground (which have given us nuclear power and helped bring about many of the electronic devices used today). Also, I would argue that until one has a theoretical framework for something, it is unreliable, since it is almost impossible to make predictions about future behavior. For example, (I believe my physics here is right... and yes, I know it is a dumb example but it makes the point) if you load a nuclear bomb with less than critical mass and set it off, you don't get an explosion (or at least it is very unlikely.. at least according to my 7th grade text book). Without a theoretical background, the next logical step might be to put in a bigger amount.... Still, I must admit there is a lot of work in the theoretical sciences that is completely useless, and might always be (though I can think of no such examples). Anyways, I think that it is all a matter of preference. It is possible, as a theoretician (though defiantly not mandatory, like I said above)to make as much of a difference as someone who goes out and designs new technologies, even in the short term, but the effects are not as tangible, and many of them are simply ways to make sure what we already think we know is true (for example, most secure networks rely on the assumption NP does not equal P, but as of yet this is not proven, so if P=NP it is possible that our current system of online exchange is completely unsound).

Feel free to discredit experimentalist, though-- I don't care about them to much (though I guess there are a couple arguments to make in there favor...).

So, though I agree that the electoral system sucks and needs to be thrown away, it still can not possibly result in a fair, democratic voting system (at least is you include the primaries as part of the vote, though you could give a fair choice between two canidates). I do't know if you are familiar with Arrows Theorem: if not, here is a link's_impossibility_theorem . Basically, what the theorem says is there is no way to guarantee a fair, democratic vote if more than two choices are involved. In case you are wondering, I have seen a proof of this and can vouch for it being quite a airtight proof. Kinda crazy.. so apparently the fact that Congress can't pass many of the most obvious bills isn't necessarily there own fault.... yeah, I know, I don't believe that for a second either, but who knows, it is possible...

One For Logic said...

You're determined to fight me on this, aren't you? Maybe this helps (I'll probably go out of my way to make this clear in future versions of these ideas): This philosophy only makes sense because we have so much theory already figured out. I firmly believe that we have all the theoretical background we need to solve most of the major technology-related issues on earth right now; we're just not using that knowledge to its full potential due to bureaucracy, regulation, lack of funding, lack of interest, or other non-scientific reasons.

Also, the logical conclusion of this argument will encompass basically all of academia; I just haven't worked out how exactly to talk about better things the lawyers, business-studying people and liberal-arts-types should be doing without either offending them or missing the point of the argument. If you read the second half of the second paragraph in this section, about bringing resources and infrastructure to the poorest parts of the world, you'll notice that I'm already heading toward that expanded argument, as these are very business-oriented kinds of things to do.

One For Logic said...

That did indeed inspire some editing.

A thought on your P = NP question: can N be equal to nothing? If that's allowed, than of course P can equal NP, this just might not always be true.

I had never heard of Arrow's Theorem before, that's interesting...