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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness


As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.


“Culture is the name for what people are interested in”*…

Henry Nelson O’Neil; “The Last Hours of Mozart”

… but “culture” (that’s to say, “high culture”) has also been a form of authority, a kind of superego for society. These days, Adam Kirsh argues, not so much…

From the 1920s to the 1950s, from jazz and blues to rock and roll, tweaking the canon was part of the appeal of pop music—and a favorite device of lyricists. Ella Fitzgerald had a signature hit with Sam Coslow’s “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to “It’s a Simple Little System,” from the musical Bells Are Ringing, in which a bookie uses composers’ names as code to refer to racetracks: “Beethoven is Belmont Park/ Tchaikovsky is Churchill Downs.” Chuck Berry hit the same targets in “Roll Over Beethoven”: “My heart’s beating rhythm/ And my soul keeps singing the blues/ Roll over Beethoven/ Tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

In recent decades, however, this type of indirect homage to the authority of classical music has completely disappeared from popular music. The last example may be “Rock Me, Amadeus,” a German pop hit from 1985 that was inspired less by Mozart himself than by the 1984 movie Amadeus, in which the composer is portrayed as, in the song’s words, “ein Punker” and “ein Rockidol.” Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience.

Like the disappearance of a certain species of frog or insect, this is a small change that signals a profound transformation of the climate—in this case, the cultural climate…

And while that change has its costs, Kirsch explains, it also has its benefits : “Culture as counterculture.”

Walter Lippmann


As we contemplate canons, we might recall that on this date in 2008 the #1 song in the U.S. was “Whatever You Like” by T.I. Jared W. Dillon of Sputnikmusic called the song a “more sophisticated take” on Lil Wayne‘s “Lollipop.”


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 6, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Supersymmetry was (and is) a beautiful mathematical idea. The problem with applying supersymmetry is that it is too good for this world.”*…

Physicists reconsider their options…

A wise proverb suggests not putting all your eggs in one basket. Over recent decades, however, physicists have failed to follow that wisdom. The 20th century—and, indeed, the 19th before it—were periods of triumph for them. They transformed understanding of the material universe and thus people’s ability to manipulate the world around them. Modernity could not exist without the knowledge won by physicists over those two centuries.

In exchange, the world has given them expensive toys to play with. The most recent of these, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which occupies a 27km-circumference tunnel near Geneva and cost $6bn, opened for business in 2008. It quickly found a long-predicted elementary particle, the Higgs boson, that was a hangover from calculations done in the 1960s. It then embarked on its real purpose, to search for a phenomenon called Supersymmetry.

This theory, devised in the 1970s and known as Susy for short, is the all-containing basket into which particle physics’s eggs have until recently been placed. Of itself, it would eliminate many arbitrary mathematical assumptions needed for the proper working of what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. But it is also the vanguard of a deeper hypothesis, string theory, which is intended to synthesise the Standard Model with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s theory explains gravity. The Standard Model explains the other three fundamental forces—electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces—and their associated particles. Both describe their particular provinces of reality well. But they do not connect together. String theory would connect them, and thus provide a so-called “theory of everything”.

String theory proposes that the universe is composed of minuscule objects which vibrate in the manner of the strings of a musical instrument. Like such strings, they have resonant frequencies and harmonics. These various vibrational modes, string theorists contend, correspond to various fundamental particles. Such particles include all of those already observed as part of the Standard Model, the further particles predicted by Susy, which posits that the Standard Model’s mathematical fragility will go away if each of that model’s particles has a heavier “supersymmetric” partner particle, or “sparticle”, and also particles called gravitons, which are needed to tie the force of gravity into any unified theory, but are not predicted by relativity.

But, no Susy, no string theory. And, 13 years after the LHC opened, no sparticles have shown up. Even two as-yet-unexplained results announced earlier this year (one from the LHC and one from a smaller machine) offer no evidence directly supporting Susy. Many physicists thus worry they have been on a wild-goose chase…

Bye, bye little Susy? Supersymmetry isn’t (so far, anyway) proving out; and prospects look dim. But a similar fallow period in physics led to quantum theory and relativity: “Physics seeks the future.”

Frank Wilczek


As we ponder paradigms, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald; he was born on this date in 1853. A chemist and philosopher, he made many specific contributions to his field (including advances on atomic theory), and was one of the founders of the of the field of physical chemistry. He won the Nobel Prize in 1909.

Following his retirement in 1906 from academic life, Ostwald became involved in philosophy, art, and politics– to each of which he made significant contributions.


“One cannot walk down an avenue, converse with a friend, enter a building, browse beneath the sandstone arches of an old arcade without meeting an instrument of time.”*…

Frieze on the Tower of the Winds in Athens, an early public clock

Time has ordered human life for millennia….

The Tower of the Winds, in the Greek city of Athens… is one of the best-​preserved buildings from the ancient world. This octagonal marble tower, sited close to a busy marketplace at the foot of the hill of the famous Acropolis, rises forty-​two feet into the air and measures twenty-​six feet across, and it was an astonishing sight for the people of this crowded and vibrant city. The external walls were covered in brightly colored reliefs and moldings representing the eight winds, with each of the eight walls, and a semi-​circular annex, carrying a sundial. Inside the ceiling was painted a stunning blue color covered with golden stars. At the center of the imposing interior was a water clock, which was fed from a sacred source high up on the hill of the Acropolis called the Clepsydra, a name which became synonymous with all water clocks. The clock is believed once to have driven a complex mechanical model of the heavens themselves, like a planetarium, orrery, or armillary sphere.

Nobody is quite sure when the Tower of the Winds was built, but it was probably about 140 bc. As with the sundial at the Roman Forum, we can think of it as an early public clock tower, giving Athenians the time of day as they went about their daily business at the market and elsewhere, and giving order to their lives. It was also symbolic of a wider order. The gods of the winds, depicted on its decorative panels, were allegories of world order; the stars inside, together with the water clock and its mechanical replica of the heavens, were symbolic of a cosmic order. Certainly, it was an astonishing spectacle.

But, also like the sundial proudly installed by Valerius in Rome, the Tower of the Winds may have carried a further message. If, as some historians believe, the structure was built by Attalos II, king of the Greek city of Pergamon, to commemorate the Athenian defeat of the Persian Navy in 480 bc, then it could serve as a vivid peacetime reminder of the military strength of the state—​and the discipline needed to maintain it…

In empires around the world, the sight and sound of time from high towers had begun to organize the lives of the people, and project a message of power and order.

It is tempting, in the twenty-​first century, to feel that we are the first generation to resent being governed by the clock as we go about our daily lives; that we are no longer in control of what we do and when we do it because we must follow the clock’s orders. During our long warehouse shifts, sitting at our factory workstations, or enduring seemingly never-​ending meetings at the office, we might grumble that the morning is dragging on, but we cannot eat because the clock has not yet got around to lunchtime. But these feelings are nothing new. In fact, while the public sundial was new to Romans in 263 bc, it had been in widespread use long before that in other cities around the world; the first water clocks date back even further than sundials, more than 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.

It is easy to think that public clocks are an inevitable feature of our lives. But by looking more closely at their history, we can understand better what they used to mean—​and why they were built in the first place. Because wherever we are, as far back as we care to look, we can find that monumental timekeepers mounted high up on towers or public buildings have been put there to keep us in order, in a world of violent disorder.

Public time has been on the march for thousands of years: “Monumental Timekeepers,” an except from David Rooney‘s (@rooneyvision) About Time- A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks. Via @longnow.

* Alan Lightman


As we watch the clock, we might send timely birthday greetings to George Alfred Leon Sarton; he died on this date in 1956. A chemist by training, his primary interest lay in the past practices and precepts of his field…an interest that led him to found the discipline of the history of science as an independent field of study. His most influential work was the Introduction to the History of Science (three volumes totaling 4,296 pages), which effectively founded that discipline. Sarton ultimately aimed to achieve an integrated philosophy of science that connected the sciences and the humanities– what he called “the new humanism.” His name is honored with the prestigious George Sarton Medal, awarded by the History of Science Society.


“In the long run, we are all dead”*…

I’ve spent several decades thinking (and helping others think) abut the future: e.g., doing scenario planning via GBN and Heminge & Condell, working with The Institute for the Future, thinking with the folks at the Long Now Foundation; I deeply believe in the importance of long-term thinking. It’s a critical orientation– both a perspective and a set of tools/techniques– that can help us off-set our natural tendency to act in and for the short-run and help us be better, more responsible ancestors.

But two recent articles warn that “the long term” can be turned into a justification for all sorts of grief. The first, from Phil Torres (@xriskology), argues that “so-called rationalists” have created a disturbing secular religion– longtermism– that looks like it addresses humanity’s deepest problems, but actually justifies pursuing the social preferences of elites…

Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by [Oxford philosopher Nick] Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.

This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)

The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.

[For more on posthumanism, see here and here]

The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’

The second, from Paul Graham Raven (@PaulGrahamRaven) builds on Torres’ case…

Phil Torres… does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.

I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire…

[For more on transhumanism, see here and here]

Longtermism is merely a more acceptable mask for transhumanism

Both pieces are worth reading in full…

And for more on a posthuman (if not in every case posthumanist) future: “The best books about the post-human Earth.”

* John Maynard Keynes


As we take the long view, we might send far-sighted birthday greetings to John Flamsteed; he was born on this date in 1646. An astronomer, he compiled a 3,000-star catalogue, Catalogus Britannicus, and a star atlas called Atlas Coelestis, and made the first recorded observations of Uranus (though he mistakenly catalogued it as a star). Flamsteed led the group of scientists who convinced King Charles II to build the Greenwich Observatory, and personally laid its foundation stone. And he served as the first Astronomer Royal.


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