Dec 072004

Although alpha itself is simple enough at the molecular level, the derivation is complicated, its exposition has been spaced out over several posts and, alas, several months, and a summary is in order. Besides, the girlfriend wants one. Now 100% formula-free!

In Part 1: Starting From Zero
The history of philosophy, ethics in particular, was reviewed and found wanting. It continues to stink of vitalism and anthropocentrism, despite the fact that the idea of a “vital force” was thoroughly discredited by the 1850s. No ethics to date has managed to improve on moral intuition, or explain it either.

What fun is a game with no rules? There must be some common structure to all living systems, not just human beings, and based on its track record, it is science that will likely discover it.

In Part 2: Rules — The Laws of Thermodynamics
We sought rules that are precise and objective without indulging dogmatism. The laws of thermodynamics are the most general we know. They are independent of any hypothesis concerning the microscopic nature of matter, and they appear to hold everywhere, even in black holes. (Stephen Hawking lost a bet on this.) Thus they seemed a good place to start. We postulated a cube floating through space and called it Eustace, in an ill-advised fit of whimsy. A little algebraic manipulation of the Gibbs-Boltzmann formulation of the Second Law produced a strange number we called alpha, which turns out to be the measure of sustainability for any Eustace, living or dead, on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away.

In Part 3: Scoring — The Alpha Casino
We laid out a scoring system for Eustace built entirely on mathematics using alpha, a dimensionless, measurable quantity. Alpha measures the consequences of energy flux. All is number. Along the way we explained, via Bernoulli trials, how complexity emerges from the ooze. The dramatic effects of probability biases of a percent or less are dwarfed by the even more dramatic biases afforded by catalysts and enzymes that often operate in the 10E8 to 10E20 range.

In Part 4: Challenges — Gaussian and Poisson Randomness
We introduced two general (but not exhaustive) classes of random processes. Gaussian (continuous) randomness can be dealt with by a non-anticipating strategy of continuous adjustment. Relatively primitive devices like thermostats manage this quite nicely. Poisson (discontinuous) randomness is a fiercer beast. It can, at best, only be estimated via thresholds. Every Eustace, to sustain itself, must constantly reconfigure in light of the available information, or filtration. We introduced the term alpha model to describe this process.

In Part 5: Strategy — Strong and Weak Solutions
Increasingly complex organisms have evolved autonomous systems that mediate blood pressure and pH while developing threshold-based systems that effectively adapt filtrations to mediate punctuated processes like, say, predators. We introduced strong and weak solutions and explained the role of each. Weak solutions do not offer specific actionable paths but they do cull our possible choices. Strong solutions are actionable paths but a strong solution that is not adapted to the available filtration will likely be sub-optimal. Successful strong solutions can cut both ways. Paths that served us well in the past, if not continuously adapted, can grow confining. An extreme example, in human terms, is dogmatism. Alpha models must adapt to changing filtrations. Each generation must question the beliefs, traditions, and fashions of the generations that preceded it.

In Part 6: The Meaning of Life
We finally arrived at the universal maximization function. We introduced the concept of alpha*, or estimated alpha, and epsilon, the difference between estimated and actual alpha. Behavior and ethics are defined by alpha* and alpha, respectively. All living things maximize alpha*, and all living things succeed insofar as alpha* approximates alpha. From here we abstract the three characteristics of all living things. They can generate alpha (alphatropic). They can recognize and respond to alpha (alphaphilic). And they can calibrate responses to alpha to minimize epsilon (alphametric).

That’s it. An ethics, built up from thermodynamics and mathematics, in 700 words. The entire derivation from premise to conclusion was presented. Can anyone find fault with the sums?

(Update: Jesus von Einstein comments.)

  202 Responses to “Alpha Primer”

  1. Aaron,

    You need to change the format of the blog. Each comment should be associated with a number. That way people will be able to identify the precise comment to which they are responding.

  2. I agree with Bill. That would help. :o

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