Tag Archives: god

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My grandpa only ever gave me one piece of advice (well, besides “keep your eyes on the damn road!”). He said, “They can take your land, they can take your property, they can even take your family, but,” pointing to his head, “they can’t take what is in here. They can’t take what you know. So, learn as much as you can.”

Well, what if they sort of could? Or at least, take away your ability to think for yourself?

That is sort of the premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The Mechanical is set in a world where, sometime after Europeans stumbled across the Americas, the Dutch find a way to make sentient machines, through some alchemical process discovered by famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (what?!? You’ve never heard of him? He discovered a moon of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and was a major authority on optics). This gives the Dutch a leg up in the world, and allows them to conquer pretty much all of Europe. Seemingly only the French remain to resist, and they must do this from a small enclave in exile on the North American continent. This is the backdrop for an amazing story of court intrigue, international politics, and a different approach to the discussion of slavery.

This is, because, we quickly come to learn that the machines the Dutch build their empire on not only think, but have some sort of free will, a free will that is subdued by whatever process creates them. Whenever they try to do anything that is not in direct fulfillment of their masters’ wishes, they experience extreme pain, a pain that grows until it is completely intolerable and the machine is forced to act to subdue the pain. “The head faded as he [one of the machines] abandoned his own wishes in favor of his masters’ whims.” Thus, the machines are slaves, forced to subvert their own will to that of their human masters’. Tregillis does a great job of describing the torment the machines feel whenever they try to do something on their own.

With this backdrop, Tregillis discusses free will, slavery, and equality, in a way that advances the plot of his story. One of the main characters, Jax, is one of these machines. But, there are several human characters that represent various views of the treatment of these machines. Not all humans are blind to the suffering of these machines, but even some that are against the Dutch would rather use the machines for their own purposes. “The prosperity achieved through slavery had a way of blinding men’s hearts to the evil of their own hands.”

Thus, along the way, Tregillis, while telling an immensely satisfying story, does get into some pretty deep thoughts about the nature of free will itself. Do the machines have free will? Maybe they don’t, by some definition, but then, maybe humans don’t either. For the machines, “Free Will was a vacuum, a negative space. It was the absence of coercion, the absence of compulsion, the absence of agony.” But, what does that mean for humans? “How did they order their daily existence without somebody to tell them what to do? Or was that the purpose of God?” Or are humans “Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional belief in its capability to determine its own course, but which all along follows a path predetermined by its own nature or maker?”

It is always nice to find a book that both provides a very interesting plot as well as thought-provoking material. The discussions about free will flow naturally through the course of the book, they are not force fed or heavy handed. Rather, they are integral to the relationship between the machines and the humans. They drive the plot forward. Tregillis does a great job of pulling these themes forward but in service of his story. I think my ony quibble is that, at the end of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters seem less than reasonable. One can chalk this up to the trauma some of them have endured up to that point, but it still seemed a little forced, like Tregillis needed a way to get to a certain point in the plot and this was the best he could come up with.

However, in spite of this, I am greatly looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

These are questions as old as humanity itself: why are we here?  where did everything come from? what does it all mean?

Humanity has tried to answer these questions in a multitude of ways.  It is, in my opinion, the reason religion started, as one way to answer these questions.  One way, with a nearly never-ending variety of answers.  Philosophers had been the standard bearers of more systematic approaches to understanding and answering these questions, but also with a vast variety of results.  Relatively recently, science has also weighed in.  As science evolves, the insights into these fundamental questions also change, from the clock-work determinism of Newtonian mechanics to the relativistic view of Einstein’s universe to the inherent randomness associated with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, is the latest attempt to use modern physics to try to answer some of these questions.  Regardless of what you might think about the authors or their basic premise, the book is both very easy reading and gives some interesting perspective into what modern physics “means”.  I put means in quotes because there are two very different camps about finding meaning in modern physics and, in particular, quantum mechanics and its brethren quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics.  One view is that the math that underlies these theories is just that, math, and should not be interpreted any more deeply than that.  The words we give different constructs in that math, such as “path” or “particle”, are the consequence of our trying to impose familiar concepts onto physics that are entirely outside our ability to make direct connections to.  The other view is that one can take a more literal interpretation and see where it takes us.  That is the view of Hawking and Mlodinow.

The strangeness of quantum mechanics can be summarized in one simple experiment, the double slit experiment.  As the name implies, the experiment involves a board or paper or some obstacle in which two slits have been cut.  If you imagine throwing particles at it, each particle goes through one or the other slit and the pattern that appears on the detector on the other side consists of two groups where the particles hit the detector.  Imagine throwing tomatoes at the slits.  On the other side, you’d get two stains corresponding to the two slits.  However, when you throw quantum particles at the slits, you get a much more complex pattern, an interference pattern, a pattern that is associated not with particles but with waves.  If a wave passes through the two slits, such as a wave in water, it will go through both at the same time, interfere with itself, and create an interference pattern that consists not of two groups of “stains” on the detector, but many at a given interval.  The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that you get this interference pattern even if you throw one particle at a time.  What is the particle interfering with?  Itself.

One way to formulate quantum mechanics, developed by Richard Feynman, is that the particle, an electron perhaps, takes all paths from where it starts to where it ends.  That is, you have to integrate over all possible paths.  This is the mathematical construction and is where Hawking and Mlodinow take the next step.  They interpret Feynman’s “path integral” formulation of quantum mechanics as saying that the electron did take all possible paths.  However, in any given universe, clearly it only took one, so there are other universes where the electron took a different path.  This is the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.  In the Copenhagen interpretation, the electron only did one thing, but that thing was random.  In the Many Worlds interpretation, the electron did all things, but in different universes.  Further, Hawking and Mlodinow take the additional step in saying that Feynman’s path integral formulation says that the electron we see could have had one of many histories, so that history is also an indefinite thing.

I have to say that I don’t understand everything they are claiming.  I’ve had a few courses in quantum mechanics, but they were certainly more focused on calculating things than interpretation.  So, here, as in a few other spots, I don’t follow everything they say.

But, if you then apply this interpretation to the universe as a whole, you end up with the conclusion that there are an infinite number of universes and each has its own physics in the sense that the basic physical constants of each universe are a bit different.  We happen to be in one that has the right constants for life to exist.  This is a variant of the weak anthropic principle, which says that the world we live on is one of billions that just happened to have the right conditions.  That there are such planets is not surprising, given the shear number of them.  Applied to the whole universe, this is harder to suggest.  If there is only one universe, it had to be just right, but there were no other random choices, so its a much tighter constraint, called the strong anthropic principle.  However, if you have an infinite number of universes, each with its own constants, then we again are just in the one that of course supports life.  The others don’t.  The strong anthropic principle again becomes weak.

They make further claims, such that at the beginning of the universe, time as a concept breaks down (in the four-dimensional space-time of relativity, time becomes more space like in those first few moments) and there is no beginning.  They suggest it is the same as asking what is south of the South Pole.  Well, nothing, the question is meaningless.  To them, what occurred before the universe was created is the same meaningless question.  This line of reasoning also suggests to them that there is no need to invoke a God as creator of the universe.  The universe comes about naturally as a consequence of the laws of physics.

I don’t feel like I’m giving the book nor Hawking and Mlodinow’s ideas justice.  The book is certainly very interesting with a lot of deep concepts that will take a few readings to absorb more fully.  However, the ideas are presented in a rather logical and straightforward way that I found compelling.  I thought they did a good job of presenting their reasoning.  Along the way, I also learned quite a bit about modern physics that I hadn’t appreciated.

The only complaint I have is that the book is sprinkled with “jokes”, phrases that are meant to be amusing or to connect with the lay reader, but to me they were just jarring and out of place.  I think the book would read much better without those phrases.

Overall, while the book has generated its share of controversy, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these big questions.  You may not agree with them (some reactions, positive and negative, are here), but it will give you a different perspective on what these questions mean and one view towards understanding the universe around us.