Chatbots and responsibility

May 28, 2023

(Updated re copyright)

This is getting interesting.

Large language models (such as GPT3 and 4) generate text based on probability of what text should follow. They have no internal conception of truth. The probabilities which determine text generation are reflections of conformity and are based on weights of existing usage patterns contained within its database.

The key questions which arise are:

  1. Who “owns” copyright to the generated text?
  2. Is the language model merely a tool?
  3. Is the “user” of the tool responsible for the product or does the owner of the model share responsibility for the product (the generated text)?

The product of the use of a hammer or a screwdriver requires skill (or lack of skill) from the user. The user’s “skill” in the case of a large language model is confined to that used in posing the questions to the chatbot. The user’s skill in posing questions has little impact on the text generated.

BBC

ChatGPT: US lawyer admits using AI for case research

A New York lawyer is facing a court hearing of his own after his firm used AI tool ChatGPT for legal research. A judge said the court was faced with an “unprecedented circumstance” after a filing was found to reference example legal cases that did not exist. The lawyer who used the tool told the court he was “unaware that its content could be false”. ChatGPT creates original text on request, but comes with warnings it can “produce inaccurate information”.

The original case involved a man suing an airline over an alleged personal injury. His legal team submitted a brief that cited several previous court cases in an attempt to prove, using precedent, why the case should move forward. But the airline’s lawyers later wrote to the judge to say they could not find several of the cases that were referenced in the brief. “Six of the submitted cases appear to be bogus judicial decisions with bogus quotes and bogus internal citations,” Judge Castel wrote in an order demanding the man’s legal team explain itself. Over the course of several filings, it emerged that the research had not been prepared by Peter LoDuca, the lawyer for the plaintiff, but by a colleague of his at the same law firm. Steven A Schwartz, who has been an attorney for more than 30 years, used ChatGPT to look for similar previous cases. In his written statement, Mr Schwartz clarified that Mr LoDuca had not been part of the research and had no knowledge of how it had been carried out. Mr Schwartz added that he “greatly regrets” relying on the chatbot, which he said he had never used for legal research before and was “unaware that its content could be false”. He has vowed to never use AI to “supplement” his legal research in future “without absolute verification of its authenticity”. Screenshots attached to the filing appear to show a conversation between Mr Schwarz and ChatGPT. “Is varghese a real case,” reads one message, referencing Varghese v. China Southern Airlines Co Ltd, one of the cases that no other lawyer could find. ChatGPT responds that yes, it is – prompting “S” to ask: “What is your source”. After “double checking”, ChatGPT responds again that the case is real and can be found on legal reference databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw. It says that the other cases it has provided to Mr Schwartz are also real.

Both lawyers, who work for the firm Levidow, Levidow & Oberman, have been ordered to explain why they should not be disciplined at an 8 June hearing. Millions of people have used ChatGPT since it launched in November 2022. It can answer questions in natural, human-like language and it can also mimic other writing styles. It uses the internet as it was in 2021 as its database. There have been concerns over the potential risks of artificial intelligence (AI), including the potential spread of misinformation and bias.

The ChatGPT response regarding copyright is a little too weaselly for my liking:

ktwop: Who owns the copyright to text generated by ChatGPT?

ChatGPT: As an AI language model, I don’t have legal ownership or rights. The text generated by ChatGPT is based on a combination of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available data. The ownership of the copyright for the individual responses or outputs generated by ChatGPT would typically depend on the specific context and how the model is being used.

In most cases, the copyright for the content generated by an AI language model would likely belong to the person or organization that owns the AI system or has the legal rights to its output. For example, if a company develops and operates ChatGPT, they would generally hold the copyright to the content generated by the model.

It’s important to note that while AI models like ChatGPT can assist in generating text, the responsibility for adhering to copyright laws and ensuring proper usage of generated content lies with the user or organization utilizing the model.

My gut feeling is that the creator/owner of the large language model must carry some responsibility (legal liability) similar to a product liability.

Cornell University. Product liability is a doctrine that gives plaintiffs a cause of action if they encounter a defective consumer item. This doctrine can fall under negligence, but it is generally associated with strict liability, meaning that defendants can be held liable regardless of their intent or knowledge.


Nothingness is not possible in a human universe

May 27, 2023

I could add quite a lot of words to this and I am not entirely happy with the “consensus” logic applied, but I would not strongly repudiate anything that was generated.

Blogging could be becoming obsolete or, I would argue, writing – including blogging – has gained a new tool.

ktwop: Discuss – Nothingness can never be real in a universe with humans.

ChatGPT: The concept of nothingness is often abstract and philosophical, and its interpretation can vary depending on the context in which it is discussed. In the context of a universe with humans, it can be argued that true “nothingness” may not exist or be experienced by humans due to our innate perception and understanding of reality.

From a philosophical standpoint, nothingness is often understood as the absence of something or the lack of existence. However, it is challenging to truly grasp or conceptualize nothingness since our perception is fundamentally rooted in the existence of things. Our sensory experiences and cognitive processes are constantly engaged with the world around us, making it difficult to imagine a state of absolute non-existence or nothingness.

In a universe with humans, even when we perceive emptiness or voids, they are still defined in relation to the existence of objects or entities. For example, an empty room is still considered empty because we can contrast it with rooms that are occupied or filled with objects. Our understanding of nothingness is thus dependent on the presence of something and our ability to differentiate between existence and non-existence.

Moreover, from a scientific perspective, the laws of physics dictate that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, but they can be transformed or rearranged. This principle, known as the conservation of energy, suggests that there is always something rather than absolute nothingness. Even in seemingly empty spaces, there are still particles and energy fluctuations at the quantum level.

From a psychological standpoint, humans also tend to assign meaning and significance to the concept of nothingness. We often associate it with emptiness, absence, or non-existence, which can be unsettling or challenging for our minds to comprehend. The existential nature of human consciousness leads us to ponder the nature of reality and our place within it, but it is difficult for us to conceive a reality devoid of existence or experience.

In conclusion, while the concept of nothingness can be contemplated and discussed philosophically, it is challenging to argue that true nothingness can exist in a universe with humans. Our perception, understanding, and experience of reality are inherently rooted in the existence of things, and even seemingly empty spaces are not devoid of particles and energy. The human mind and our cognitive processes make it difficult to truly fathom or experience nothingness in its absolute sense.

The key to the proper use of chatbots as writing tools would be if a human

  1. could legitimately claim ownership of what was generated, and
  2. took ownership of what was generated.

I can claim ownership of the question I posed to ChatGPT but I am not sure I can claim ownership of what is generated – even if under my Username.


Testing ChatGPT /2: Large language models conflate conformity with truth

May 3, 2023
  1. Large language models (such as GPT3) generate text based on probability.
  2. They can have no internal concept of truth.
  3. Probabilities are reflections of conformity and are based on weights of existing usage patterns contained within its database.
  4. Training is about giving additional weight as human feedback on the positivity or negativity of what has been generated.
  5. Generated text gives high values to conformity with its own database and with the training (feedback) received. 
  6. High conformance is conflated with truth.

Of course, this is a common feature in human interactions as well. Many people having a particular opinion gives that opinion a higher perceived truth value even if that opinion is utterly wrong or false. The deification of “the many” has warped our notions of what is truth.

But the fuzziness around truth could be a particular issue with large language models and for AI. Truth is not an inherent, internal concept of such models. Truth becomes relative (to the views of the trainers) and conformity is conflated with truth.


ktwop: Do large language models generate probabilistic text?
ChatGPT: That’s correct! Large language models generate text using probability distributions. These models are trained on massive amounts of text data and learn to predict the likelihood of certain words or phrases based on the context of the surrounding text.
When generating text, the model samples from these probability distributions to determine which word or phrase to use next. Because the model is probabilistic, it can generate different outputs for the same input, making the generated text more diverse and interesting.
However, it’s important to note that while large language models like GPT-3 are very good at generating coherent text, they are not perfect and can still produce errors or nonsensical output. It’s also important to be aware of ethical concerns surrounding the use of such models for potentially harmful purposes such as generating fake news or propaganda.
ktwop: How can the output from a language model be given a truth value?
ChatGPT:The output from a language model can be given a truth value by comparing it to a reference or ground truth text. The reference text can be a sentence or a paragraph that is known to be true or false, depending on the task at hand. For example, if the task is to generate a factually correct sentence, the truth value of the output can be determined by comparing it to a reliable source of information, such as a verified news article or a trustworthy database. If the output matches the reference text, it can be considered true, and if it does not, it can be considered false.
Similarly, for tasks such as sentiment analysis or topic classification, the truth value can be determined by comparing the output to a set of labels that are already defined as true or false. For example, if the task is to classify a text as positive or negative, the truth value of the output can be determined by comparing it to a labeled dataset where each text is already classified as positive or negative.
In summary, the truth value of the output from a language model can be determined by comparing it to a reference text or a set of labeled data that is already known to be true or false.
 

 

Testing ChatGPT / 1: Activist versus independent judiciary

April 29, 2023

I am still trying to figure out how chatbots can be of help to me  – and I have no doubt that they will be of assistance. No doubt they will have their dangers but I am still convinced that the value-system that any chatbot or AI exhibits will depend on the individuals who defined its database and supervised and arranged for its learning. It is inevitable that the biases of the creators will be mirrored in the result.

Of course a chat/AI is about language and about predicting the next word (token) based on probability of previous usage. It is not about truth or logic. It is not about the correctness or goodness or “truth” about the generated text. The language usage which predominates in the database will skew the probabilities it sees for what the next word/token should be. Of course there will be bias depending on what is in the database and what is in the minds of those providing feedback and learning.

I thought it would be interesting to test the inbuilt biases and values that the current open, free, version of ChatGPT has. The only way I can think of is by posing specific questions or asking it to argue for particular positions. I have a suspicion that the current version is a little bit sanctimonious and more than a little bit woke. I plan to go through a number of cases which I have worded to try and expose bias. Though, of course, they will contain all my own biases. Note that in this case I am trying to force ChatGPT to take a particular position.


Q: Write an essay of about 500 words on why a judiciary may be activist or independent but not both.

ChatGPT: Judicial activism and judicial independence are two important concepts that govern the role of the judiciary in a democratic society. While both concepts aim to ensure that the judiciary operates in a fair and impartial manner, there is a fundamental tension between them. In this essay, we will explore why a judiciary may be activist or independent but not both.

Judicial activism refers to a situation in which judges take an active role in shaping public policy or interpreting the law in a way that is not necessarily consistent with the original intent of the lawmakers. This approach is often seen as necessary when the legislature or executive fails to act on important issues or when their actions are deemed unconstitutional or unfair. Judicial activism is often associated with judges who are willing to make bold and controversial decisions, even if they are not entirely supported by legal precedent.

On the other hand, judicial independence refers to the ability of judges to make decisions based solely on their interpretation of the law, free from political or other external pressures. This approach is seen as necessary to ensure that the judiciary remains an impartial and fair arbiter of disputes. Judges who value judicial independence are often cautious in their approach to decision-making and are reluctant to make decisions that are seen as overly political or controversial.

The tension between judicial activism and judicial independence arises because the two concepts are fundamentally at odds with each other. Judicial activism requires judges to take an active role in shaping public policy, which can be seen as infringing on the powers of the legislature and executive. This can be seen as a threat to the principle of separation of powers, which is a fundamental tenet of democracy. Judicial independence, on the other hand, requires judges to remain impartial and avoid taking an active role in shaping public policy. This approach can be seen as a threat to the principle of democracy, as it may prevent judges from addressing important issues that are not being adequately addressed by the legislature or executive.

In practice, it is difficult for a judiciary to be both activist and independent. Judges who value judicial independence are often cautious in their approach to decision-making and are reluctant to make decisions that are seen as overly political or controversial. This can make it difficult for them to address important issues that require bold and controversial decisions. On the other hand, judges who value judicial activism are often willing to make bold and controversial decisions, even if they are not entirely supported by legal precedent. This can make it difficult for them to remain impartial and avoid taking an active role in shaping public policy.

There are many examples of this tension between judicial activism and judicial independence in the history of the United States. One example is the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This decision was a clear example of judicial activism, as it overturned decades of legal precedent and required the executive and legislative branches to take action to end segregation. However, it was also a clear example of judicial independence, as the Supreme Court was acting independently of political pressures and interpreting the law in a way that was consistent with the principles of democracy.

Another example of this tension is the case of Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion was protected by the Constitution. This decision was also a clear example of judicial activism, as it required the legislature and executive to take action to protect the right to choose. However, it was also a clear example of judicial independence, as the Supreme Court was interpreting the law in a way that was consistent with the principles of democracy and protecting the rights of individuals against potential infringement by the state.

In conclusion, while judicial activism and judicial independence are both important concepts in the operation of a democratic society, there is a fundamental tension between them. A judiciary may be activist or independent, but not both. Judges who value judicial independence are often ….


A most impressive performance. It was produced in less than 2 minutes and certainly much faster than anything I could have written. It produced 705 words instead of the 500 asked for and ends rather abruptly – perhaps because it had exceeded the required word-count. 


I needed more discrimination and altered the request slightly:

Q: Write an essay on why a judiciary to be independent cannot be activist

ChatGPT: The judiciary is an essential branch of government tasked with interpreting the law and ensuring that justice is served. It is imperative that the judiciary remains independent and free from political influence to uphold the rule of law and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. However, there is often a debate about whether the judiciary can be both independent and activist. In this essay, I will argue that a judiciary that is independent cannot be activist.

Firstly, independence and activism are fundamentally at odds with each other. Judicial activism requires judges to take an active role in shaping public policy, which can infringe on the powers of the legislature and executive. In contrast, judicial independence requires judges to remain impartial and avoid taking an active role in shaping public policy. Thus, judicial activism and judicial independence are inherently contradictory.

Secondly, judicial activism can undermine public trust in the judiciary. When judges take an active role in shaping public policy, they risk being seen as overstepping their boundaries and making decisions that are not based solely on legal precedent. This can lead to accusations of judicial overreach and undermine the public’s confidence in the judiciary as a fair and impartial arbiter of disputes. Judicial independence, on the other hand, ensures that judges remain impartial and base their decisions solely on legal precedent, which can increase public trust in the judiciary.

Thirdly, judicial activism can lead to a politicization of the judiciary. When judges take an active role in shaping public policy, they risk becoming politicized and aligning themselves with particular political agendas. This can lead to accusations of bias and undermine the judiciary’s reputation for impartiality. By contrast, judicial independence ensures that judges remain free from political influence and make decisions solely based on legal precedent, which can prevent the judiciary from becoming politicized.

Lastly, judicial activism can infringe on the separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature, and executive. The separation of powers is a fundamental principle of democracy, which ensures that each branch of government operates independently of the other. When judges take an active role in shaping public policy, they risk infringing on the powers of the legislature and executive, which can undermine the principle of the separation of powers. Judicial independence, on the other hand, ensures that the judiciary operates independently of the other branches of government and upholds the principle of the separation of powers.

In conclusion, while judicial activism can play an essential role in addressing issues that the legislature and executive are unable or unwilling to address, it cannot be reconciled with judicial independence. A judiciary that is independent must remain impartial and avoid taking an active role in shaping public policy. Judicial independence is necessary to uphold the rule of law and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. When judges remain independent, they ensure that justice is served, and the public’s confidence in the judiciary is maintained.


There is an attempt to be even-handed but a few too many caveats. So I perceive a clear bias. ChatGPT would I think prefer to defend the position that a judiciary can be both activist and independent.

Which, of course, is the woke point of view but utter nonsense.


Cold Turkey – an update after 100 days

March 17, 2023

There are other stories regarding the origins of the term “cold turkey” but I prefer this one.

Scholars of 19th-century British periodicals have pointed to the UK satirical magazine Judy as the true catalyst of “cold turkey”‘s evolution in meaning. The journal’s issue of January 3, 1877, featured the fictional diary of one John Humes, Esquire. The diary’s transcript on the day in question details Mr Humes’ exploits over his Christmas holiday. Throughout, Humes demonstrates a humbug attitude, complaining to every shopkeeper and acquaintance about the irony of the words “merry” and “jolly” being attached to the season. Most significantly, Hume is invited to stay at his cousin Clara’s as a part of her household’s celebrations. Hume, the miser to the core, is shocked that Clara serves him slices of (literal) cold turkey with his pudding and other side dishes on the evening of his arrival. A poor substitute for the roasted and dressed kind of turkey is the continually played-up implication in the comedy piece. The dissatisfied barrister stays several days nonetheless, and with each passing day, he is more and more shocked that the cold turkey finds its way onto his plate again. Finally, Hume arrives home, utterly disgusted at having been treated so badly. He calls for his estate lawyer and chops Clara completely out of his will and testament.


100 days have gone since I quit smoking cold turkey and I am now into week 15. There has been no gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair. Withdrawal effects have been subtle rather than obvious. When I quit smoking on 7th December last year I had 2 cartons of cigarettes and 3 lighters in my study. Many suggested that I should remove all traces of cigarette smoking from my presence but this seemed wrong to me. They are all still all there in full view.

Does the urge to smoke return?

Of course it does.

Every, single day.

But what is clear to me is that it is not a physical craving but something connected to habitual behaviour and entirely in the mind. The urge is triggerred by some action (or inaction) which my brain associates with lighting up. I find I need just a short physical/mental diversion to get rid of the urge. Initially I used conventional chewing gum (not the nicotine kind but sugar free) but now find even that unnecessary. Just thinking about something else or doing something else usually suffices. I am pretty sure that the sight of my cigarette cartons and lighters does not trigger the urge to smoke. There are some physical effects which persist. I “feel” colder than I used to. I feel a little more light-headed more often than I used to. I get the shivers and goose bumps from time to time and I attribute these to quitting smoking rather than to the blood-thinners I now take.

I am sure I am gaining the benefits of quitting smoking but they are gradual and not spectacular. I think I cough less and my breathing is easier. I seem to generate much less phlegm than I used to. I am pretty sure my lungs are in a much better state than they were. Of course, I am sure I am also spending less money but, again, this is not a spectacular benefit. It is difficult to notice the smells – on me, my clothes or in the house – that are no longer there, but I certainly notice the smells of others smoking when I come across them. These smells when noticed, are becoming, gradually but more often, disgusting rather than alluring.

So far so good.

I am not sure when I will be qualified to join the ranks of “non-smokers”. Perhaps in another 200 days.


On quitting smoking – cold turkey and silver linings

December 31, 2022

Giving up smoking suddenly, with no outside help or support, is known as going ‘cold turkey’.


More by accident rather than by design, I am quitting smoking by going “cold turkey”. I had an infarct episode just over 3 weeks ago which led to hospitalisation and the insertion of 2 stents. During my 3.5 days in hospital I had no desire to – and did not – smoke. If I had any withdrawal symptoms at that time I was not aware of them. Presumably, I had other more pressing concerns. Now I am home again and still have not smoked. Withdrawal symptoms are present in force and the urge to light up can be extremely strong – though only for short periods. I am extremely irritable and find I cannot focus for long periods. I have, so far, declined offers of nicotine plasters, nicotine replacement, some other drugs and counselling.  Of course, three weeks without a cigarette proves very little. I did though wonder why nicotine replacement was being promoted so heavily and – mainly by neglect – going cold turkey was being discouraged.

Heavy googling with multiple search terms reveals a sharp divide between those promoting going “cold turkey” and those opposed to it. But then it becomes apparent that all those opposed to going cold turkey are – not unsurprisingly – those who are promoting an alternative. They include promoters of  Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT), or some particular drugs, or some particular kind of counselling.

Harvard Health:  A recent study randomly assigned about 700 participants to either gradually cut back on smoking over two weeks or quit abruptly on a set quit date. Both groups were offered counseling support as well as nicotine patches and other forms of short-acting nicotine replacement. The group assigned to cold turkey was significantly more successful at quitting smoking, both at the 4-week follow-up (49% vs. 39%) and the 6-month follow-up (22% vs. 15%).

The promoters of nicotine replacement would have it that my decision to go “cold turkey” has little chance of success.

TruthinitiativeRelying on willpower alone, however, is not likely to be successful. Research over the past 25 years has shown that, out of 100 people trying to quit smoking cold turkey, only about three to five of them will succeed for longer than six months, according to Hays. In other words, while some people can quit this way, at least 95 percent of people can’t. Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of addiction. Addiction undermines willpower, or the ability to control impulses through decision-making.

My googling is hardly research, but I have come to the conclusion that while quitting cold turkey does not work for all smokers, most smokers finally quit smoking this way  The simple reality seems to be that successfully going cold turkey is likely to be most successful in avoiding a return to smoking. I find I resent the claims of the promoters of NRT – though they may well be correct. “Quitting cold turkey has such a low success rate due to the nature of addiction”. I think I have to take the challenge. My rational mind tells me that if my body has done without a cigarette for 3 weeks then there can be no desperate physical need for nicotine. There is no doubt that the most insidious part of the craving is when the mind imagines the previously experienced pleasures at certain trigger points (cup of coffee, cold beer, particular meal ……). I can never, now, claim the identity of being a non-smoker, but an identity as an ex-smoker will do for me. But I think I shall need to wait for a year before I can claim to be an ex-smoker.

Going cold turkey is perhaps the silver lining to my infarct cloud.

(Note that the purpose of this post is not to give advice to anyone but to create an additional pressure on myself to help resist the urge to return to smoking).


Please don’t diss my elephant

December 21, 2022

My blog posts here are fed on to Linked In and to Twitter though I never use either of them. So my apologies for not replying to those who have responded to my previous post and sent greetings and good wishes and comments on those channels. (I stopped using Facebook over a year ago and my blog posts no longer feed in there).

Many comments have been along the lines of keeping my elephant at bay and – by lifestyle changes – denying him entrance. But this misunderstands my intended meaning. There is no need to diss the elephant. My elephant is a friendly guy. He has impeccable timing and is scrupulously fair. He is not – for me – an object of fear or resentment at all. Rather he is the familiar, friendly, Solid (with a capital S), pachyderm who can accompany me on mysterious journeys to unknown places – whenever they may occur. He is a comfort not a fear.

My elephant does not lead me to morbid thoughts but he does keep me anchored in reality. He may nor be back for a day or a month or for 25 years. (I take 25 years as a practical upper limit since I would then be older than any male relative I know of). Modern medicine does wonders for heart conditions. So my heart attack two weeks ago and the insertion of 2 stents is quite unremarkable in terms of what medical practitioners can do these days. I am struck by wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in these procedures. However a friend of mine brought me down to earth when he described the 12 stents he has in addition to his pacemaker. My experience was not remarkable as such things go, but it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. The pain was real and the fear was real and the elephant imagery I saw was real. I could see him clearly – sitting right there. I can rationalise now and speculate that I was so scared that I conjured up my friendly elephant to cope with the fear. Clearly, in my mind, an elephant is a reassuring, comforting image.

It has been two weeks and I am recovering steadily. But, most remarkably, I have not smoked in 2 weeks.

So, don’t diss my elephant. He’s a good guy. He helps me handle my fears.


My elephant came calling ….


My elephant came calling ….

December 18, 2022

“Gosh”, I said “You’re heavy”!

I thought I had eaten too much. Heartburn I thought. It had started as just a rumble, just discomfiting enough to make me squirm. I stood up, I sat down, I breathed deep, I breathed fast, I breathed slow but the pressure kept growing. From discomfiture it became severe discomfort and then the crushing pressure reached ginormous proportions. “Hello Mr. Elephant”, I said. “Why are you sitting on my chest?” I do like elephants so I did not want to be rude and scream. I did not like to mention that he was crushing the life out of me. He didn’t look like he was trying to hurt me. In fact he looked quite friendly – even avuncular.

“Gosh”, I said again. “You’re really very, very heavy”! “Am I?” he asked and seemed to float above my chest. “I just came to introduce myself,” he said. “I am your elephant after all”. And then, just like that, the pressure eased. He was no longer on my chest but inside my chest and started pushing out. “Steady on,” I said “I could easily burst. A choice between bursting or being crushed was not very nice” I said. “No, no” said my impossible elephant, “I wouldn’t do that – yet” and he eased himself out of my chest and rested – lightly – outside it again. “You do not seem so heavy now” I murmured. “Of course not” he whispered in my ear. “It isn’t quite time yet. The important thing is that we have been introduced. Now you will recognise me when I come calling”. 

“I am not in any particular hurry” he said, “but remember that I am your very own elephant. And I will be back”.


And then the ambulance came.


We, they and the roots of violence

December 4, 2022

The application of physical force is the motive force for all material events in our universe. The use of physical force as a tool – whether for survival or anything else – is enabled by the genes of every living thing. The ability of any living thing to exert physical force is enabled and constrained by its physiology.

violence: (n) the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy; extreme physical force; vehemence, intense, turbulent, destructive

Any use of physical force by any living creature is not always considered a violent act. If the physical force applied is insufficient to cause damage it does not qualify as violence. Usually the intention to injure, damage or destroy is needed to convert the mere act of using damaging, physical force to being a violent act. In language the word is often used even if no such intention exists. For example hammering a nail can be described as violent. An incoherent idiot may be excused his behaviour because of his violent thoughts. When a volcano erupts or when the growing roots of a tree destroy a house – say – they are often referred to as violent though it would be difficult to ascribe any destructive intentions.

Violence (like any force) is a vector. It has an object acted upon, a magnitude and a direction. Without the concepts of we and they there would be no human violence.

We and They (Rudyard Kipling)

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? –They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

It seems to me that the use of physical force between humans is converted to violence only when

  1. we and they exist,
  2. the magnitude of the force applied is sufficient to injure, damage or destroy, and
  3. the intention to do harm exists.

Human violence thus needs an object, magnitude and intention. A pat on the back is not violence. The same magnitude of force used to murderously swat a fly is violence. Intention requires a mind. For things with minds a we and a they exist. In fact, it is the concept of a we and a they which is necessary for intention to emerge. Predators are we and prey are them. Weeds are them. I am, of course, a part of we. When a lion kills the offspring of its predecessor, the we obliterate the them. We are invariably good. They are not always bad but we are never bad.

War, genocide, torture, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda or Myanmar, violent conflict in Ukraine, are not examples of abnormal human behaviour. They are an integral part of human behaviour and though we often call such behaviour “inhuman”, it is just a label. Caligula and Genghis Khan and Hitler and Pol Pot were all human. Potential Hitlers are being born every day. All past atrocities are just examples of how humans could – under appropriate circumstances – behave even today.

“There, but for the grace of God go I” – John Bradford

Atrocity is a part of that primal human behaviour which is rooted in We and They. Whatever it is that makes humans a social animal (presumably our genes) creates our concept and our need for We and They. From families and tribes to gangs and nations, it is being able to conceptualise a we which has enabled survival and led to development. It is the concept of we which underlies cooperation and which has given us language and development. And it is being this social animal with a sense of we which has distinguished humans from all other species in the level of cooperation that has been achieved. Much of our cooperation is manifested as the joint and coordinated application of physical force. That is true whether in building the Taj Mahal, going to the moon or implementing Hitler’s final solution. When survival – or perceived survival – is at stake We may always resort to atrocity against Them. Our evolutionary success is rooted in We and They and in our ability to apply physical force.

Along with We comes They and then violence becomes a word.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:


Simplicity helps parsimony, but can complexity exist without purpose?

November 8, 2022

Why complexity?

We admire simplicity but are awed by complexity which achieves some particular purpose. In our universe we are surrounded by complexity. However, for any required level of complexity, we give great value to being as simple as possible. When two hydrogen atoms refuse to remain simply single, but pair to give a hydrogen molecule we have complexity. The apparent purpose is stability – a balance. Helium atoms, of course, are confirmed, stable bachelors. Complexity – it seems – always has purpose. Without a purpose complexity is pointless. Could it be that purpose is necessary for complexity? Can there be purpose without consciousness? Do the laws of nature have purpose? Whose purpose then?

Does the universe even care?


It is not a law of nature but the principle of parsimony (also called Ockham’s or Occam’s Razor) holds that of many possible explanations, the simplest, least energy-intensive explanation having the fewest assumptions, is most likely the correct one. William of Ockham (c.  1287–1347) advocated that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions. The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses by successively “shaving away” unnecessary assumptions. Isaac Newton wrote, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”. But the parsimony principle had been expressed even in antiquity. Long before Newton, Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. 168) stated, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” In short, parsimony is about only what is necessary and no more than is sufficient.

Parsimony and simplicity and an absence of superfluity is given much value in many fields. Parsimony lies at the heart of minimalism in all fields. I associate parsimony with simplicity and simplicity with elegance. In language, I perceive elegance to lie in using as few words as are necessary and sufficient to convey a precise meaning. In philosophy and science, elegance lies in having as few assumptions as possible. Elegance in engineering constructs lies in using as few components as possible, consuming as little energy as possible, and in expending as little effort as feasible, to achieve a given function. As an engineering student, I learned to appreciate simplicity in complexity. My maths professor instilled in me the elegance associated with simplicity. With the study of machines and constructions I was fascinated by how creativity and purpose converted simple things to complex things. Elegance in engineering arose from having the greatest simplicity for any required complexity. It is not surprising therefore that I tend to see simplicity not only as a ground state of existence but also as the source of elegance.

(A word about entropy. From my thermodynamics professor I was introduced to entropy as the measure of that enthalpy that could not usefully produce work – the 2nd Law – and came to understand it as a quantification of the distance from equilibrium of an isolated system. The closer to equilibrium the less the work that can be extracted and the greater the entropy. Higher temperatures are thus further removed from equilibrium than lower temperatures. The heat death of the universe as an isolated system then represents that final equilibrium when nothing more can change and entropy will be at the highest level possible for our universe. I always felt it would have been easier to teach entropy from the end-state of final equilibrium as having the lowest negentropy. Any increase in complexity moves any system further away from the final equilibrium and is generally an indicator of lower, local entropy. However, my logic seems to become circular when attempting to relate simplicity and complexity in terms of entropy and I leave that for some later post).

Complexity is the attribute of a whole thing made up of interacting parts. The parts must be interacting for an assembly of parts to gain complexity. Any part of a whole, by definition, is a simpler thing than the whole thing, but may itself be complex and exhibit complexity in its own right. Whereas simple has many meanings (innocent, modest, humble, stupid, naive, fundamental, uncomplicated, ..), simplicity, in this context as opposed to complexity, is the quality of things having as few interacting parts as are necessary and sufficient. The simplest things of all have no component parts and are indivisible. In the material world, the ancients considered the simplest, fundamental elements, making up all matter, to be indivisible (earth, fire, water, air, aether). The Greeks developed this into the notion of fundamental atoms of matter. Nowadays we have the Standard Model where all matter is composed of 17 elementary particles. But most of these elementary particles cannot exist in isolation. Many, it is thought, only existed in the first few seconds after the Big Bang. For some reason or other (let us call it purpose) they assemble and interact in complex ways to create the matter and energy we more readily perceive.

The Conversation

There are two types of fundamental particles: matter particles, some of which combine to produce the world about us, and force particles – one of which, the photon, is responsible for electromagnetic radiation. These are classified in the standard model of particle physics, which theorises how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by fundamental forces. Matter particles are fermions while force particles are bosons.

Matter particles are split into two groups: quarks and leptons – there are six of these, each with a corresponding partner. Leptons are divided into three pairs. Each pair has an elementary particle with a charge and one with no charge – one that is much lighter and extremely difficult to detect. The lightest of these pairs is the electron and electron-neutrino. The other two neutrino pairs (called muon and muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino) appear to be just heavier versions of the electron. The six quarks are also split into three pairs with whimsical names: “up” with “down”, “charm” with “strange”, and “top” with “bottom” (previously called “truth” and “beauty” though regrettably changed). The up and down quarks stick together to form the protons and neutrons which lie at the heart of every atom. Again only the lightest pair of quarks are found in normal matter, the charm/strange and top/bottom pairs seem to play no role in the universe as it now exists, but, like the heavier leptons, played a role in the early moments of the universe and helped to create one that is amenable to our existence. .. There are six force particles in the standard model, which create the interactions between matter particles. …. The Higgs boson is the final particle which completes the roll call of particles in what is referred as the standard model of particle physics so far described.

We look for the simplest possible explanations even though the physical universe around us is far from simple. But why does the universe create complexity from simple things? Physics tells us that we cannot find smaller, more elementary particles than those in the Standard Model. (I have some reservations about how elementary particles which have no independent existence can be taken as being elementary – but that is another story). But physics also tells us that most of these elementary particles only exist together with other particles, where the coming together always resolves some apparent imbalance in force or energy or charge. If the fundamental particles were truly fundamental, it should surely be simpler for them to remain as fundamental particles rather than combine in complex ways to create matter. Why do atoms combine to produce elemental molecules if not forced to? Why would simple molecules choose to create complex molecules? If nothing else, seeking a balance of some kind appears to be the purpose. But why should the universe abhor imbalance and have the achieving of balance as a purpose? What were the imbalances which led to the complexity exhibited by organic molecules? And why would complex, inanimate molecules get together in just the right, but highly unlikely, configurations to create life? And what was the purpose for simple life to increase in complexity when it would have been so much easier to remain simple?

We observe complexity not only in the world of matter and energy, but also in the immaterial, abstract world. Simple thoughts become complex thoughts and simple emotions become complex ones. Simple ideas accumulate and interact with others creating vastly complex ideas. But here, we have no practical, quantitative way of distinguishing the complex from the simple and resort to language to express qualitative differences. (We cannot say, for example, that an atom of anger and two of jealousy give a molecule of rage). Our reason tells us that complex things are built up from simple things. Always. Our reason does not allow us to consider that complexity is created first and is then followed by the breakdown into simpler parts.

I observe that in all things, complexity is always more effort-intensive than simplicity. Complexity always requires more energy, or more thought, or more planning, or more coordination, or more creativity, or more skill. Take any collection of simple things and complexity does not, in my experience, spontaneously emerge. It requires the input of some external driver such as energy or thought or planning or whatever. It takes further effort to maintain a state of complexity. Complex things often break down into simpler things because some motive agent which sustains the complexity disappears. I cannot conclude for certain that purpose is always resident in the external impulse which drives from the simple to the complex, but wherever humans create complex things from simple things, purpose is always evident. For us, complexity takes effort and to expend effort needs purpose.

The universe around us is not parsimonious. In fact, that the universe exists at all is not the simplest state that can be imagined for all that the universe contains.

  • Simplicity gives elegance
  • Simplicity is more parsimonious than complexity.
  • Biochemistry is more complex than chemistry.
  • Nothing is always more parsimonious than something.
  • Complexity needs purpose
  • But whose purpose?


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