Wave in the Ocean

Projects and Perambulations

Open Book, Open Mind: The Dalai Lama on Science

Trust those who seek the truth, but doubt those who claim to have found it.

I know I’m not the first to express a thought like this, but it is an adage I have intuitively followed even before hearing it put into words. Thus I find myself very impressed with the Dalai Lama’s 2005 book exploring ‘the convergence of science and spirituality,’ particularly when I encountered this quote:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

This particular passage piques my interest not only because of the Dalai Lama’s open-mindedness, but the apparent compatibility of Buddhism and science. From my limited exposure to religions thus far, I had been under the impression that they all impose a static set of beliefs — a sort of compendium of ‘facts’ that may not be questioned, usually involving a creation myth and explanation of death. If one was to be religious and scientific, I thought that either religion must be dominant, not allowing science to question its beliefs (which would potentially cripple you as a scientist) or science must be dominant, with no assertions taken unquestioned (which might cripple your religious faith). The way I understood them, religion and science mixed like oil and water.

Buddhism, the Dalai Lama explains, actually shares with science a basis on empiricism. Both encourage the acceptance of new ideas given sufficient evidence, though they take different approaches to the matter.

Buddhism :  Experience  >  Reason  >  Scriptural Authority
Science  :     Data     >  Reason  >          n/a?

Science focuses exclusively on understanding objective reality through the use of repeatable public experiments; gather experimental data, infer a hypothesis, test with more experiments, rinse and repeat.

Furthermore, science’s powers of reason are substantially bolstered by the use of modern mathematics, which allow a great deal of powerful abstraction. Inference is relatively intuitive, but by the power of math we are also able to deduce facts using complicated equations.

Buddhism, on the other hand, advocates empirical understanding not only of objective reality, but also one’s subjective, internal experience. The methods of reasoning outlined in Buddhist scripture descend from classical Indian logic and have not advanced as far as the modern math/science juggernaut. That does not mean they are less correct; just that less abstraction and generalization can be performed. While science may trump Buddhist methods at understanding external reality, I suspect Buddhism is conversely more attuned to internal observation. Perhaps our internal matters are not so amenable to calculus and discrete math.

Today’s last point of comparison between these two disciplines of thought is the presence/lack of a scriptural authority. Science of course would never advocate the supremacy of Newton’s or Einstein’s theories simply because it was Newton or Einstein who said them. Yet as the Dalai Lama points out, as humans we can and do appeal to “reliable authority” for facts such as our birthdate. Newborns are not able to read calendars, so we need to rely on our family’s testimony (as well as birth certificates) as reliable sources for this information.

I do not take issue with Buddhism’s appeal to scriptural authority, as the Buddha specifically told his followers to “not accept the validity of his teachings simply on the basis of reverence to him.” As empirical evidence is an officially sanctioned way of overruling traditional scripture, perhaps these scriptures are comparable to the prominent scientific theories of our time — taught as the best currently available truth, but willing to be replaced by a better truth at some later date.

A fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different.

—The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

From Ancient Philosophy to Martin Fowler

So… ‘objects’. Dominant paradigm of the past two decades, golden hammer of the masses, and the subject of many a blog post. But why exactly is this programming paradigm so popular? I believe it’s quite simple — they express things in a way we intuitively think.

Since the days of antiquity we have sought to understand the world by dividing it into smaller and smaller parts. The ancient Hindu school of Vaisheshika, for example, postulates that all physical objects can ultimately be reduced to an assemblage of paramāṇus (atoms), and the English word ‘atom’ stems from the the Greek word for the same concept: ἄτομος (atomos), which means ‘indivisible’. Furthermore, both Indian and Greek philosophers propounded an object theory with which to understand reality.

In Ancient Greece, it was Plato who pioneered the concept of objects. He distinguished the perfect, idealistic concepts of things from their myriad imperfect physical manifestations. Plato’s immaculate concepts, what he called ‘forms’, are not unlike OOP’s class definitions — a sort of blueprint for the object. In turn, the physical manifestations correspond to what object-oriented programming would call ‘instantiations’.

Building on Plato’s work, Aristotle provided a key advancement to object theory: categorization through hierarchy. Through the use of hierarchy and classification, Aristotle founded over a dozen branches of science (then considered branches of philosophy) including physics, linguistics, biology, and zoology. Although the ancient Greeks did not have the advantage of DNA classification, they made significant headway by classifying beings directly by their visible traits, such as color, shape, and size. Siberian and Bengal tigers can be inferred to be more closely related to each other than with a penguin, since nearly all of their traits are the same. In an object-oriented program design, Bengal Tiger and Siberian Tiger might both inherit from Tiger, which is a type of Cat, which is an Animal, which is a Being (though most hierarchies would descend from Object).

The history of object-oriented programming is a long and fascinating study, but I think the ultimate cause of the paradigm’s success is rooted in a fundamental principle of software engineering. As M. Fowler put it, “Any fool can write code that a computer can understand. Good programmers write code that humans can understand.” Although introductory courses seem to be trying their best to make OOP feel like a complicated and confusing subject, the fact remains that decomposition — understanding things by understanding their parts — is a way of understanding the world that has been around for over a millennium. It’s debatable whether this way of understanding the world is innately intuitive, but at the very least it has been engrained in Western culture for a very long time.

The jury is still out on whether reductionism is a suitable end-all be-all approach to understanding the cosmos, but in the meantime that doesn’t much matter to the craft of programming. Code is an invented art which, like math and logic, can abide by its own rules. 1 + 1 = 2 by definition; from select axioms, the rest follows logically. All that really matters is that the system you are implementing is internally consistent. (In fact, I would rather deal with a simple system that does not reflect reality than a complex one which attempts to.)

When you’re building castles in your mind, you need not obey the rules of earth.

Harry Potter and the Art of Go

One of the more interesting intellectual games I have played, far more strategic than chess, is the game of Go. Unlike chess, the best computer programs are unable to beat even mediocre players. (Though they are still able to beat me handily; I have a lot of practice to do.)

While programs such as GNU Go are great for practicing tactics, the trouble with them is how difficult it is to glean strategic insights about the game. Computers never seem to explain their tactics after the fact, unlike rival players who enjoy helping each other grow stronger. I have found games played with real people to be far more rewarding — filled with the nuance of banter and the subtlety of trying to distract your opponent (computers are notoriously hard to trick). It is satisfying to be able to exploit your opponent’s stupid mistakes, as well to get away with a few mistakes of your own that a computer would have noticed immediately.

One of my personal weaknesses while playing Go is the inability to let go of past mistakes. I concoct elaborate plans and rely far too much on my opponent not noticing my (quite obvious) attempts at reclaiming half the board. While I am aware of this flaw in my strategy, it is still very difficult to let go of the temptation while playing. Therefore this particular passage from HPMOR struck a chord with me:

Again the rapid flickering of the snake’s tongue; the snakish laughter was stronger, dryer, this time. “Amateur foolisshnesss.”

“Pardon?” hissed Harry.

“You ssee misstake, think of undoing, ssetting time back to sstart. Yet not even with [magic] can time be undone. Musst move forward insstead. You think of convincing otherss they are misstaken. Far eassier to convince them they are right. Sso conssider, boy: what new happensstance would make [opponent] decide you [gave up that area of the board], ssimultaneoussly advance your other agendass?”

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

One of the earliest proverbs I learned about this game is that Go is about sharing. To win you need not control the entire board, you only need more territory than your opponent. Moving forward, I must be able to sacrifice the past to move towards future victory.

Hello World

Well, it’s about time I created a place to ramble about my activities. Not much to say about my latest project (you’re looking at it), but we’ll see what comes along down the road.