(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive”*…

 

panpsychism

 

One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward…

Goff answers questions from Scientific American editor Gareth Cook: “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?

* D.H. Lawrence, “New Mexico,” Phoenix: the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence

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As we think about thinking, we might neon-pink birthday greetings to Don Featherstone; he was born on this date in 1936.  An artist, is is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo in 1957 while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now ornaments lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.

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A Featherstone flock

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Written by LW

January 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”*…

 

nihilism

 

Nihilism, not unlike time (according to Augustine) or porn (according to the U.S. Supreme Court), is one of those concepts that we are all pretty sure we know the meaning of unless someone asks us to define it. Nihil means “nothing.” -ism means “ideology.” Yet when we try to combine these terms, the combination seems to immediately refute itself, as the idea that nihilism is the “ideology of nothing” appears to be nonsensical. To say that this means that someone “believes in nothing” is not really much more helpful, as believing in something suggests there is something to be believed in, but if that something is nothing, then there is not something to be believed in, in which case believing in nothing is again a self-refuting idea.

It is easy therefore to fall into the trap of thinking “Everything is nihilism!” which of course leads to thinking “Nothing is nihilism!” Thus in order to preserve nihilism as a meaningful concept, it is necessary to distinguish it from concepts that are often associated with it but are nevertheless different, concepts such as pessimism, cynicism, and apathy…

The varieties of negativity: “What Nihilism Is Not.”

* Shakespeare, Macbeth

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As we dabble in the dark, we might send existentially-thrilling birthday greetings to Patricia Highsmith; she was born on this date in 1921.   Dubbed “the poet of apprehension” by novelist Graham Greene, she wrote 22 novels and numerous short stories (over two dozen of which have been adapted to film) in a career that spanned five decades.

For example, her first novel, Strangers on a Train, has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times, notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951; her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley has been adapted several times for film, theatre, and radio.  Writing under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”, Highsmith published the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, The Price of Salt, in 1952, republished 38 years later as Carol under her own name and later adapted into a 2015 film.

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“Oh how wrong we were to think immortality meant never dying”*…

 

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Quantum simulation (Verresen et al., Nature Physics, 2019)

 

Further (in a fashion) to yesterday’s post…

Nothing lasts forever. Humans, planets, stars, galaxies, maybe even the Universe itself, everything has an expiration date. But things in the quantum realm don’t always follow the rules. Scientists have found that quasiparticles in quantum systems could be effectively immortal.

That doesn’t mean they don’t decay, which is reassuring. But once these quasiparticles have decayed, they are able to reorganise themselves back into existence, possibly ad infinitum.

This seemingly flies right in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that entropy in an isolated system can only move in an increasing direction: things can only break down, not build back up again.

Of course, quantum physics can get weird with the rules; but even quantum scientists didn’t know quasiparticles were weird in this particular manner…

Maybe some things are forever.  More at “Scientists Find Evidence a Strange Group of Quantum Particles Are Basically Immortal.”

Read the underlying Nature Physics article, by physicist Ruben Verresen and his team at the Technical University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, here.

* Gerard Way

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As we ponder perpetuity, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he was born on this date in 1900.  A Cambridge don who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s College. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)

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“What was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows away.”*…

 

Process philosophy

 

One of the most ubiquitous assumptions in Western thinking is a metaphysics of substance. This way of seeing the world is so deeply embedded in the unthought wilderness at the back of our minds that it rarely occurs to us to even consider it. Whatever else we may come to blows about, we almost all feel justified in leaning on the idea that our world fundamentally consists of “things”, objects that exist, solid entities that have an identity, possess properties, fill space and so on. All of us, apart from one small minority that thinks differently: the valiant tradition of process philosophers.

Process philosophy holds that the world consists not of objects but of processes, that the fundamental mode of things is not being but doing, that the nature of a thing consists not in what it is but in what is does. Traditionally, we see events as being done by things; there are objects, and acts are predicated of them (the bird flies, the fish swims, the sun shines). Process philosophers see the doing as primary: not that the bird flies, but that there is one might say a “birding” which throughout a certain duration “is birding flying-ly”.

At this point many readers will begin reeling back with discomfort. Here we see that the very way our language structures our thinking makes it difficult to even comprehend a processual point of view. And the next step in this repulsion is to ask “why bother?”. After all, ostensibly there are such things as birds, and they do appear to fly, so why bother with such eccentric semi-nonsense as “birding flying-ly” when saying “the bird flies” perfectly communicates a perception of reality that nearly everyone can acknowledge without dispute?

Because if it is true, as process philosophers claim, that the way we habitually think and talk about our world merely biases us towards a certain way of conceptualising it, then this bias will spread outward beyond metaphysics to every other discipline that concerns the world (i.e. all of them). Process ontology is not merely a more eccentric way of describing the world, but a tool that helps us uncover truths and practice effective strategies we otherwise would never have envisaged…

Thinking differently: “A Cosmos of Flux: The Case for Process Philosophy.”

* Heraclitus

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As we go with the flow, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell; he was born on this date in 1925.  A British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter, most of his work was rooted in his life as an animal collector and enthusiast… though he is probably most widely known for his autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods... which have been made into television and radio mini-series many times, most recently as ITV’s/PBS’s The Durrells.

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Written by LW

January 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”*…

 

Time

 

How does now unstick itself and become the past, and when does the future morph into the present? How do these states transition, one into another, so seamlessly?

How long is right now ?…

[Fascinating explorations of different explanations…]

Each theory of right now has one thing in common: It challenges the notion that the present is reliable and objective, or that it stretches out infinitely in front of us, even if we sometimes perceive it that way. This is an important reminder because the way we think about time affects the kinds of decisions we make.

We don’t just think about the past, present, or future, we think about ourselves in those places. (That’s the impetus behind something called Time Perspective Theory, which argues that there are six different ways people regard time, and it greatly influences your perspective on life.)

Studies have found that many people think about themselves in the future not as themselves, but as other people. When asked to imagine a birthday in the far off future, people are more likely to envision it from a third-person viewpoint. When we think about ourselves in 10 years, compared to right now, it activates similar parts of our brain that think about others, not ourselves.

Our instinct to place a lot of emphasis on the present, said Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied how perceptions of time relate to the choices people make. But if we could better relate to our future selves, we could be better off later on. Hershfield and his collaborators did a study that found that those who felt more similar to their future selves made more future-oriented decisions and had higher levels of well-being across a decade…

How long is right now?  As long as it took you to read that question?  Or shorter?  Or it might not exist at all…

* Anthony G. Oettinger

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As we remember Ram Dass, we might recall that it was on this date in 1914 that Henry Ford announced that his company would cut its workday from nine hours to eight, and double workers’ wages to $5 per day.

Cited as the beginning of the “living wage” revolution, it is often suggested that Ford made the move so that his employees could afford the product that they were making.  But many historians argue that the real motivations were likelier an attempt to reduce employee turnover and to put economic pressure on competitors.  In any event, that’s what happened:  while Ford’s move was hugely unpopular among other automakers, they saw the increase in Ford’s productivity– and a significant increase in profit margin (from $30 million to $60 million in two years)– and (mostly) followed suit.

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Assembly line at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant, ca. 1913

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Written by LW

January 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…

 

Trolley Problem

 

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:

 

Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:

 

For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”

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As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

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“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal”*…

 

Tesseract

Colored cubes — known as “Tesseracts” — as depicted in the frontispiece to Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (1904)

 

During the period we now call the fin de siècle, worlds collided. Ideas were being killed off as much as being born. And in a sort of Hegelian logic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the most interesting ones arose as the offspring of wildly different parents. In particular, the last gasp of Victorian spirituality infused cutting-edge science with a certain sense of old-school mysticism. Theosophy was all the rage; Huysmans dragged Satan into modern Paris; and eccentric poets and scholars met in the British Museum Reading Room under the aegis of the Golden Dawn for a cup of tea and a spot of demonology. As a result of all this, certain commonly-accepted scientific terms we use today came out of quite weird and wonderful ideas being developed at the turn of the century. Such is the case with space, which fascinated mathematicians, philosophers, and artists with its unfathomable possibilities…

In April 1904, C. H. Hinton published The Fourth Dimension, a popular maths book based on concepts he had been developing since 1880 that sought to establish an additional spatial dimension to the three we know and love. This was not understood to be time as we’re so used to thinking of the fourth dimension nowadays; that idea came a bit later. Hinton was talking about an actual spatial dimension, a new geometry, physically existing, and even possible to see and experience; something that linked us all together and would result in a “New Era of Thought.”…

Hinton’s ideas gradually pervaded the cultural milieu over the next thirty years or so — prominently filtering down to the Cubists and Duchamp. The arts were affected by two distinct interpretations of higher dimensionality: on the one hand, the idea as a spatial, geometric concept is readily apparent in early Cubism’s attempts to visualise all sides of an object at once, while on the other hand, it becomes a kind of all-encompassing mystical codeword used to justify avant-garde experimentation. “This painting doesn’t make sense? Ah, well, it does in the fourth dimension…” It becomes part of a language for artists exploring new ideas and new spaces…

By the late 1920s, Einsteinian Space-Time had more or less replaced the spatial fourth dimension in the minds of the public. It was a cold yet elegant concept that ruthlessly killed off the more romantic idea of strange dimensions and impossible directions. What had once been the playground of spiritualists and artists was all too convincingly explained. As hard science continued to rise in the early decades of the twentieth century, the fin-de-siècle’s more outré ideas continued to decline. Only the Surrealists continued to make reference to it, as an act of rebellion and vindication of the absurd. The idea of a real higher dimension linking us together as One sounded all a bit too dreamy, a bit too old-fashioned for a new century that was picking up speed, especially when such vague and multifarious explanations were trumped by the special theory of relativity. Hinton was as much hyperspace philosopher as scientist and hoped humanity would create a more peaceful and selfless society if only we recognised the unifying implications of the fourth dimension. Instead, the idea was banished to the realms of New Age con-artists, reappearing these days updated and repackaged as the fifth dimension. Its shadow side, however, proved hopelessly alluring to fantasy writers who have seen beyond the veil, and bring back visions of horror from an eldritch land outside of time and space that will haunt our nightmares with its terrible geometry, where tentacles and abominations truly horrible sleep beneath the Pacific Ocean waiting to bring darkness to our world… But still we muddle on through.

Hyperspace, tesseracts, ghosts, and colorful cubesJon Crabb, Editor, British Library Publishing, on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions: “Notes on the Fourth Dimension.”

[TotH to MK]

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Tomb

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As we get high(er), we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that Al Gross went public with his invention of the walkie talkie.  Gross had developed it as a top secret project during World War II; he went on to develop the circuitry that opened the way to personal pocket paging systems, CB radio, and patented precursors of the cell phone and the cordless phone.  Sadly for him, his patents expired before they became commercially viable.  ”Otherwise,” Gross said, after winning the M.I.T. lifetime achievement award, ”I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.”

While Gross himself is almost unknown to the general public, he did achieve one-step-removed notoriety in 1948 when he “gifted” his friend Chester Gould the concept of miniaturized radio transceivers, which Gross had just patented.  Gould put it to use as the two-way wrist radio in his comic strip Dick Tracy.

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Written by LW

November 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

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