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Posts Tagged ‘empiricism

“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died

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As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…

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Happy Juneteenth!

“One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical”*…

 

Argo

The Building of the Argo, by Antoon Derkinderen, c. 1901. Rijksmuseum.

 

The thought problem known as the ship of Theseus first appears in Plutarch’s Lives, a series of biographies written in the first century. In one vignette, Theseus, founder-hero of Athens, returns victorious from Crete on a ship that the Athenians went on to preserve.

They took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Of course, the conundrum of how things change and stay the same has been with us a lot longer than Plutarch. Plato, and even pre-Socratics like Heraclitus, dealt in similar questions. “You can’t step in the same river twice,” a sentiment found on inspirational Instagram accounts, is often attributed to Heraclitus. His actual words—“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow”—might not be the best Instagram fodder but, figuratively at least, provided the waters that the ship of Theseus later sailed.

Two thousand years later the ship is still bobbing along, though some of its parts have been replaced. Now known colloquially as Theseus’ paradox, in the U.S. the idea sometimes appears as “Washington’s ax.” While not as ancient as the six-thousand-year-old stone ax discovered last year at George Washington’s estate, the age-old question remains: If Washington’s ax were to have its handle and blade replaced, would it still be the same ax? The same has been asked of a motley assortment of items around the world. In Hungary, for example, there is a similar fable involving the statesman Kossuth Lajos’ knife, while in France it’s called Jeannot’s knife.

This knife, that knife, Washington’s ax—there’s even a “Lincoln’s ax.” We don’t know where these stories originated. They likely arose spontaneously and had nothing to do with the ancient Greeks and their philosophical conundrums. The only thing uniting these bits of folklore is that the same question was asked: Does a thing remain the same after all its parts are replaced? In the millennia since the ship of Theseus set sail, some notions that bear its name have less in common with the original than do the fables of random axes and knives, while other frames for this same question threaten to replace the original entirely.

One such version of this idea is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, proffering his sock as an example. An exhibit called Locke’s Socks at Pace University’s now-defunct Museum of Philosophy serves to demonstrate. On one wall, six socks were hung: the first a cotton sports sock, the last made only of patches. A museum guide, according to a New York Times write-up, asked a room full of schoolchildren, “Assume the six socks represent a person’s sock over time. Can we say that a sock which is finally all patches, with none of the original material, is the same sock?”

The question could be asked of Theseus’ paradox itself. Can it be said that a paradox about a ship remains the same if the ship is replaced with a knife or a sock? Have we lost anything from Theseus’ paradox if instead we start calling it “the Locke’s Sock paradox”?…

Is a paradox still the same after its parts have been replaced?  A consideration: “Restoring the Ship of Theseus.”

* Soren Kierkegaard

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As we contemplate change, we might spare a reasoned thought for the Enlightenment giant (and sock darner) John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704.  An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge.  Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract.  Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

220px-John_Locke source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Every technology, every science that tells us more about ourselves, is scary at the time”*…

 

Further to last weekend’s visit with Silicon Valley’s security robots...

Researchers led by the University of Cambridge have built a mother robot that can independently build its own children and test which one does best; and then use the results to inform the design of the next generation, so that preferential traits are passed down from one generation to the next.

Without any human intervention or computer simulation beyond the initial command to build a robot capable of movement, the mother created children constructed of between one and five plastic cubes with a small motor inside.

In each of five separate experiments, the mother designed, built and tested generations of ten children, using the information gathered from one generation to inform the design of the next. The results, reported in the open access journal PLOS One, found that preferential traits were passed down through generations, so that the ‘fittest’ individuals in the last generation performed a set task twice as quickly as the fittest individuals in the first generation…

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“Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on,” said lead researcher Dr Fumiya Iida of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who worked in collaboration with researchers at ETH Zurich. “That’s essentially what this robot is doing – we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species… We want to see robots that are capable of innovation and creativity…”

See and read more here (and here).

* Rodney Brooks

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As we select naturally, we might spare a thought for Blaise Pascal; he died on this date in 1662.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes…

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

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