Stacks

Recently on Strange New Words: One of my recent practice tweets (because I’m not tweeting yet) pointed to CGP Grey’s take on the Transporter Paradox, which excited me since I had been poking at the question of consciousness from the AI and robotics end of things. Then there was a bit of a public media distress debacle thing when it turns out that VSaucer Jake Chudnow released a concurrent (and also excellent) video about paradoxes covering both the Transporter Paradox and the Ship of Theseus both of which were well covered in CGP Grey’s video.

Releasing similar media topics too close together is like wearing similar dresses to the same event.

But then Jake covers the Sorites Paradox which offers more grist for the mill that is SNW, also pushing into the realms of life, death and consciousness. The story continues…

How many grains of sand make a heap? Or how much sand can you remove from a heap of sand before it is no longer a heap? The easiest logic I can apply here is to regard a heap as a stack. It’s just a stack of things that don’t stack very well. A stack of one coin is not a stack, but a stack of two coins is a stack. (Contrast to two adjacent coins — not a stack.) So as soon as a single grain of sand is able to sit stably on other grains of sand you have a heap. If a fourth grain of sand rests on three others, it’s a heap. If the forth falls by the wayside so they’re all on the ground / table / supporting hypothetical surface. Well then it’s just some sand. Unheaped grains.

But this only solves a specific incident of the Sorites Paradox which is, in more general terms, about delineating status change. Whether or not sand is in a heap is a very neutral example, one that would vex only literalist literarians who also get stuck on mice dividing a crumb.

Let’s raise the anté here.

My favorite character from my still unpublished wagon train to the stars game* was a scientist based loosly off Steven Hawking. I gave him the parodical name Hawk Stevens.

Professor Stevens is a brilliant cosmologist with a degenerative disease. Only he has access to medicine of the future! Rather than getting confined to a wheelchair and a keypad, he gets cybernetics.

Anything that stops working on his body the Federation gladly replaces to make him better, faster, smarter than before. Professor Stephens remains bipedal and mobile and articulate, and in fact seems to be better for it with each upgrade, if a bit cold and distant.

Eventually, the degeneration takes a toll on Stevens’ cognitive capabilities. But we’re in the future of space travel and clever computers and neurologically activated human interfaces. When his arithmetic starts going, an internal calculator is installed. When his memory for names and numbers failed, an indexing system was added. This goes on until it starts to get dubious what his remaining biomass is actually doing (other than providing EEG activity).

At some point while Professor Stevens is writing his latest science-transformative thesis, he dies. That is, his monitors noticed that the last of his human biological parts had ceased activity. The professor is adding the closing notes to his first draft when he realizes: he no longer has the right to continue to exist, or to own property, or to do any of the countless other things that are reserved for persons.

The difference, he observes, is that he’s legally dead because the last of his vitals ceased. But at what point did he cease participating with external reality? At what point did he cease to be human? How long has he been dead to the world? Is he still conscious?

Oh and should he figure out a way to fake his vitals so his legal next-of-kin doesn’t get any ideas of unplugging him?

These are the challenges presented by the Sorites Paradox. It comes mostly because we human beings like to think in concrete, Boolean terms (hot, cold, yes, no, in, out, up, down). We tend to assign these binary statuses to things and govern them based on those statues. A computer is self-aware or it is not. A person is a threat or he isn’t. We are safe from terrorism, or we are not.

The universe doesn’t work that way. Possibly, not ever.

The atomic mass of Hydrogen varies from atom to atom which really isn’t surprising considering the weight of individual neutrons and protons can vary. (Electrons can too, but they’re consistently teeny-tiny) These bits do have a weight range, and when you’re meddling in moles of atoms it tends to even out. Tends to.

On the other end of the spectrum AB Doradus C is 0.22 M or 0.22 Solar Masses (93 M or 93 Jupiters) and is the smallest known star undergoing fusion reaction. Anything smaller than 0.764 M (80 M) is a brown dwarf, and doesn’t have enough mass to continue a hydrogen fusion reaction (but heavier brown dwarves frequently have partial reactions). Contrast R136a1 at 265 M (278000 M), the heaviest (brightest, hottest) star known.

Failure is part of the selective process of pregnancy. Only about twenty percent of human pregnancies complete the process from conception to birth. Most pregnancies fail due to either development abnormality or failure to implant. So yes, at conception you’re only a little pregnant in that it’s pretty unlikely at that point that pregnancy will result in childbirth. By the time you’re symptomatic, giving birth is significantly more statistically likely, but still a lot of chance — and risk — remains.

Even the sister kilogram standard prototypes held by the NIST have deviated from each other over time, despite being contained under two bell jars. At this time a new means of developing prototypes involves the construction of high-precision single-crystal silicon balls — indeed, the roundest man-made objects in the world, and the roundest objects of their size.

Nothing is absolute…More or less.

* Here’s the last batch of graphics I did for Fleet & Federation before I realized that the game would demand too much reading from a crew of beer-and-pretzels players. I still want to do something with it. But what to do? What to do?

** According to the Roman Catholic Church, a single cell with your genetic signature means you are alive and a person. And this creates some interesting situations regarding identical twins and clones. Then again Catholics, even in the Vatican are willing to receive living organ transplants from brain-dead cadavers, and the rights of the organs are no longer regarded as separate from the host body. So part of the problem with Sorites-Paradox delineations is staying consistent.

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