A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

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Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?

 

 

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Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

Plato’s Republic

I’m in the process of reading Plato’s Republic, and, incidentally, this 2500-year old text is also at the center of a recent Andrew Sullivan treatise about how a democracy can be susceptible to tyrannical forces.

Plato’s political sentiment might not play well in our modern-day uber-democratic approach to politics. He devotes chapter after chapter to building a case for a caste of Philosopher Kings – a group of people, selected through rigorous mental and physical training, to rule the Republic. They are required to forgo the pursuit of material accumulation and fame and only concern themselves with the wellbeing of the state. They would subsist on a modest public allowance. In popular culture this kind of selfless servants of the Republic can be found in Star Wars mythology – the Jedi Knights.

Plato is aware of the many pitfalls where during the training, or later, during the actual governing, one might veer off the intended path. There are just too many temptations along the way – fame, riches, vanity, military glory. He acknowledges this risk, and while his solution – more rigorous selection and cultivation of the needed qualities (which include wisdom, courage and moderation) – might seem weak and susceptible to various impostors, he believes it is still our duty to proceed on this path. Just because something is difficult and has not been done before it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. Or, as Tyrion Lannister would say: ‘It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be.’

Further, in a beautiful allegory about how we perceive the world, Plato employs a thought experiment that came to be known as Plato’s Cave. Imagine there’s an underground den, a cave, where people are chained to a wall from their birth. They can’t go outside and they can’t even move their heads, as the heads are too constrained by a vise-like device. During the day a sunlight comes through the hole and those cave dwellers can see images on the wall, shadows of objects that live and move outside the cave – people and animals. But the prisoners have no concept of life outside the cave, so for them the reality is represented by those shadows projected on the cave’s wall. That’s all their eyes can see. And, of course, they believe their eyes and thus think of the shadows as ultimate reality.

This is a metaphor for our own epistemology, a way of learning about the world. We believe our eyes and what we’re able to perceive with our senses, and describe the world around us according to those findings. This method involves, of course, more than just our vision; our sense of touch and smell and hearing are also a part of that big illusion.

Plato argues that in order to come closer to the truth – a universal truth – one has to abandon such method of inquiry and employ a purely dialectic method, that of reasoning alone.

The cave metaphor carries greater implications. Imagine someone from that cave somehow made it outside. It would take him a while for his eyes to adjust to the light. (Btw, I love it how Plato recognizes that enlightenment is both the sunlight illuminating objects so that we can see and learn about and describe them and also that light, in this case, is a facilitator of knowledge that is outside of our immediate surroundings, an allegory of pure knowledge.) As soon as the prisoner is able to see in the light he would be perplexed to see strange things that have no definition in his old underground world. Plato believes that there are a lot of perplexed people out there – whether by stepping from darkness into the light or vice-versa – and it is for us to determine the reason for a person’s confusion and to help him along the way. Plato takes it even further to posit that it is the duty of those residing in the light world above to descent into the cave and help those still chained to the wall, even at risk of being ridiculed and/or executed.

But modern-day elites forgot what their position of power should be all about. Such amnesia is thoroughly examined by Thomas Frank in his recent book about elite liberals who, in their pursuit of meritocracy, forgot the very people (the working class) they were supposed to represent. Instead of going into the cave and helping the prisoners out, the modern-day liberals ridicule those unfortunate for their ignorance, while sipping champagne at Davos and TED talks, wallowing in their superiority.

There’s someone who went into the cave though. Trump.