Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Is underperformance in the presence of superiors a deceit strategy?

Humans often perform worse on tasks under pressure when in the presence of superiors. This is interesting because evolutionary psychology arguments can be made for the opposite effect (performing better in the presence of superiors). This effect is apparently not a voluntarily controllable one.

A study at John Moores University shows that other primates underperform on problem solving tasks in the presence of superiors - but interestingly, this experiment was designed to evince deception.

This study aimed to correlate monkey species' ability to deceive with the strictness of their social structures, and they did so (positively). One of the researchers argues that the less deceptive primates are more like humans, because their social groups are fluid - but that's only been true for a few millennia. Hunter-gatherers fifty thousand years ago would have found it much more difficult to decide to join a new foraging band because they didn't like the scene they were in. So, social group plasticity have been much lower for most of the history of our species, making the ability to deceive more important than these researchers might otherwise argue.

Furthermore, the smarter a species - that is, the better a problem-solver it is - the more important are its interactions with conspecifics, and the less important are its interactions directly with the environment. Who cares if you can forage for tubers - you're an entertainment lawyer! So not only the potential to, but the usefulness of, deception becomes greater in proportion to the intelligence of the animal.

This is not proof that underperformance in presence of superiors in humans is definitely an unconscious deceit strategy, but the existence of the behavior in other primates, along with its probable greater importance in humans, is reason for further investigation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Your Day Is Over

Get the divergence time for any two animals or groups of animals. Awesome. It's like Google Maps to the natural history of Earth. Hat tip to ERV.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Numbers That Have No Meaning

The Planck-time - the smallest slice of elapsed time that we can currently conceive of as physically meaningful - is about 5 x 10^-44 seconds. A year is 31,557,600 seconds long, and the universe is about 1.4 x 10^10 years old. This means that since the Big Bang, there have been about 8.8 x 10^60 Planck-times so far - 8.8 x 10^60 instants, to put it crudely and with apologies to Einstein.

Now let's count things. Defining only fundamental particles as things, in the standard model some have thrown a dart and come up 10^100 particles, one googol. That'll work for now. The vast number of permutations with this set of individual things is 10^100!. A scary big number, but still finite. Of course, if you count photons as things, photons vastly outnumber quarks and leptons by a factor of at least a billion. Fine; let's make it 10^209!. Then the number of instants in which things can have happened (8.8 x 10^60) multiplied by the possible combination of things in each instant (10^209!) is the number of things that can have happened so far in the universe. Let's call this huge but still finite term Ω.

You may argue with the figures I've used or even the rather ham-handed back-of-the-envelope calculation here, but my point is that the number of things that can have happened so far is finite, and so is the number of things that can ever happen, whether you expect a Big Rip or a proton decay at some point 10^10^70 years from now. In fact the real number of things that can have happened up until this point must be much smaller than what I've proposed; every arrangement of those 10^209 elements is constrained by the previous arrangement as a result of things like the speed of light and the conservation of energy.

So now we have Ω - so what? What's interesting is that there must also be a number Ω + 1; a number which exceeds possible events x things to describe - a number that cannot refer to anything real. Yes, Ω will get larger as time goes on, but it will still be finite, and arithmetic will always allow Ω + 1. That's nothing new; examples abound of theoretical computations that could not be completed before the expected decay of protons, even with the resources of the entire universe's fundamental particles marshalled for the task. Many of them involve board games.

So this means that mathematics - even arithmetic - is richer than it needs to be to describe our impoverished universe, and that there exist numbers which are simultaneously logically valid but which can in principle never have meaning in physical reality. My intuition is that this has less to say about reality than it does about mathematics, which is a particularly effective form of language we are just in the early process of developing to understand the world.