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Posts Tagged ‘Plato

“In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before (see here and here) at sand as a critical ingredient in the stuff of modern life. Today’s post features Steven Connor on the metaphorical power of sand…

Sand belongs to the great, diffuse class, undeclared, rarely described, but insistent and insinuating, of what may be called quasi-choate matters — among them mist, smoke, dust, snow, sugar, cinders, sleet, soap, syrup, mud, toffee, grit. Such pseudo-substances hover, drift, and ooze between consistency and dissolution, holding together even as they come apart from themselves. And, of all of these dishesive matters, sand is surely the most untrustworthy, the most shifting and shifty.

Nobody would seriously consider taking a stand on a cloud, but sand has betrayed many an architect and edifice. Sand is at once architectural and archiclastic. An eighteenth-century continuation of Baron Munchausen’s adventures describes how the Baron and his party survive a whirlwind of sand by scooping an igloo-style sand-chamber in which to shelter from the storm, and then digging a tunnel from their bunker back out into the light. Sand has the capacity to engulf and inundate, blearing contours, eroding and erasing every edge and eminence. As such it is the ultimate mockery of the permanence of stone, for it is no more than one of stone’s own moods, the manner in which stone, atomised, consumes itself. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” imagines the monumental statue of Rameses the Great dismembered on the Egyptian sands. The shattered chunks of head, legs, and pedestal portend a further, finer comminution, after the membra disjecta themselves will have been milled away into flatness: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sand is reversible. Only utter desiccation can attain to this pouring, milk-smooth liquefaction. Sand-baths were used in the ancient world both to draw out the damp ague of rheumatism and as a kind of sauna, to promote perspiration. Sand is the product of abrasion, but is also itself abrasive, used in sand-blasting to etch and burnish. Pliny tells us of the use of sand under a saw edge to make a clean cut in marble, and to polish it after it has been carved.

Sand signifies neutrality, indifference, and uniformity; yet it also has hairtrigger sensitivity and responsiveness. A grain of sand (in actual fact often a tiny parasite) is the irritant that provokes in the oyster the nacreous secretions that build into a pearl. Sand has a favoured relation to sound, putting a hoarse rattle in the throat of the wind, and is itself all ears. In 1787, the German physicist Ernst Chladni showed how drawing a violin bow over a metal plate could induce in the fine sand sprinkled on it hierophantic figurings of the sound, in quivering mandalas and ripple-fingered arpeggios. Though sand can disfigure and obliterate, it can also disclose the ghost wrist of wind and the perturbations of the earth. It is a detection and reception mechanism, forming ridged isobars, shivering musculature, oscilloscape of the air’s sculpting shoves and gusts.

Sand participates in dream and vision. The Sandman brings sleep by throwing or blowing sand into the eyes of children. But the sand does more than merely seal the eyes, for in many versions of this nursery tale, it is the very stuff that dreams are made on, the numb matter of sleep, swirling, particulate, that the sandman carries in his sack. The somnolence of sand is redoubled when in Top Hat (1935) Fred Astaire soothes Ginger Rogers to sleep in the hotel room below him by spreading sand on the floor and hush-dancing a susurrous soft-shoe shuffle. The origins of moon-walking are to be found in the novelty slides and scrapes across a sanded stage by music-hall acts like Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Specious it may be, but sand is also the secret stuff of omen and auspice, in the practice of divination through tossing and scrying handfuls of sand, known in Arabic as ilm al-raml, the science of the sand, or what might have been its Greek equivalent, psammomancy.

Sand is not only temporary, it is also the most temporised form of matter. It is the image or allegory of time, shifting, yet unshiftable. It seems a compiling of the minced, mounded years that go into its making, and grains of sand imitate the elementary atoms of time, moment upon pattering moment. Sand is featureless, without joints or divisions, even though it is nothing but division all the way down. Yet it is this very feature that makes it useful in the measurement of time, for, unlike other materials, sand will flow easily and regularly, even as its volume diminishes. Sand-glasses came into use in part because of the need to measure time at sea, far from any landmark; speed would be measured by counting the number of knots in a rope paid out from the back of the ship in the time it took for the sand to run through a half-minute glass. A half-hour period of watch, known as a “glass”, was also measured in this way. Grains of sand, in the form of quartz crystals, with their precise oscillations, still micro-regulate our time. In fact, the sand of hourglasses was often not quartz sand at all, but powdered marble, or eggshell. But we find it hard to give up the idea of the affinity of sand and the glass through which it runs, since silicates of sand are still the most important source of glass. George Herbert imagines this interfusion when he writes that “flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust/That measures all our time; which also shall/Be crumbled into dust”, while for Gerard Manley Hopkins the soul itself is “soft sift/In an hourglass – at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall”…

From the mythical Sandman, through the grains in an hourglass, to an irritating mote lodged in the beachgoer’s eye, sand harbors unappreciated power: “The Dust That Measures All Our Time.”

Rachel Carson

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As we muse on metaphor, we might send ideal birthday greetings to Marsilio Ficino; he was born on this date in 1433.  An Italian scholar and Catholic priest, he was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance.  The first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin, he was important in the revival of Neoplatonism, and was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy, and influenced both the direction and the tenor of the Italian Renaissance and thus the development of European philosophy.

Ficino was also an astrologer, and is credited with having inspired the Tarot card deck– the Tarot of Marseilles– that was the pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.

Marsilio Ficino, from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”*…

Objective reality has properties outside the range of our senses (and for that matter, our instruments); and studies suggest that our brains warp sensory data as soon as we collect it. So we’d do well to remember that we don’t have– and likely won’t ever have– perfect information…

Many philosophers believe objective reality exists, if “objective” means “existing as it is independently of any perception of it.” However, ideas on what that reality actually is and how much of it we can interact with vary dramatically.

Aristotle argued, in contrast to his teacher Plato, that the world we interact with is as real as it gets and that we can have knowledge of it, but he thought that the knowledge we could have about it was not quite perfect. Bishop Berkeley thought everything existed as ideas in minds — he argued against the notion of physical matter — but that there was an objective reality since everything also existed in the mind of God. Immanuel Kant, a particularly influential Enlightenment philosopher, argued that while “the thing in itself” — an object as it exists independently of being subjectively observed — is real and exists, you cannot know anything about it directly.

Today, a number of metaphysical realists maintain that external reality exists, but they also suggest that our understanding of it is an approximation that we can improve upon. There are also direct realists who argue that we can interact with the world as it is, directly. They hold that many of the things we see when we interact with objects can be objectively known, though some things, like color, are subjective traits.

While it might be granted that our knowledge of the world is not perfect and is at least sometimes subjective, that doesn’t have to mean that the physical world doesn’t exist. The trouble is how we can go about knowing anything that isn’t subjective about it if we admit that our sensory information is not perfect.

As it turns out, that is a pretty big question.

Science both points toward a reality that exists independently of how any subjective observer interacts with it and shows us how much our viewpoints can get in the way of understanding the world as it is. The question of how objective science is in the first place is also a problem — what if all we are getting is a very refined list of how things work within our subjective view of the world?

Physical experiments like the Wigner’s Friend test show that our understanding of objective reality breaks down whenever quantum mechanics gets involved, even when it is possible to run a test. On the other hand, a lot of science seems to imply that there is an objective reality about which the scientific method is pretty good at capturing information.

Evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins argues:

“Science’s belief in objective truth works. Engineering technology based upon the science of objective truth, achieves results. It manages to build planes that get off the ground. It manages to send people to the moon and explore Mars with robotic vehicles on comets. Science works, science produces antibiotics, vaccines that work. So anybody who chooses to say, ‘Oh, there’s no such thing as objective truth. It’s all subjective, it’s all socially constructed.’ Tell that to a doctor, tell that to a space scientist, manifestly science works, and the view that there is no such thing as objective truth doesn’t.”

While this leans a bit into being an argument from the consequences, he has a point: Large complex systems which suppose the existence of an objective reality work very well. Any attempt to throw out the idea of objective reality still has to explain why these things work.

A middle route might be to view science as the systematic collection of subjective information in a way that allows for intersubjective agreement between people. Under this understanding, even if we cannot see the world as it is, we could get universal or near-universal intersubjective agreement about something like how fast light travels in a vacuum. This might be as good as it gets, or it could be a way to narrow down what we can know objectively. Or maybe it is something else entirely.

While objective reality likely exists, our senses might not be able to access it well at all. We are limited beings with limited viewpoints and brains that begin to process sensory data the moment we acquire it. We must always be aware of our perspective, how that impacts what data we have access to, and that other perspectives may have a grain of truth to them…

Objective reality exists, but what can you know about it that isn’t subjective? Maybe not much: “You don’t see objective reality objectively: neuroscience catches up to philosophy.”

* Albert Einstein

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As we ponder perspective, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Confucius; he was born on this date in 551 BCE. A a Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period, he has been traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages and is widely considered one of the most important and influential individuals in human history, as his teachings and philosophy formed the basis of East Asian culture and society, and continue to remain influential across China and East Asia today.

His philosophical teachings, called Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity. Confucianism was part of the Chinese social fabric and way of life; to Confucians, everyday life was the arena of religion. It was he who espoused the well-known principle “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” the Golden Rule.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 28, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”*…

No scripture is as old as mathematics is. All the other sciences are younger, most by thousands of years. More than history, mathematics is the record that humanity is keeping of itself. History can be revised or manipulated or erased or lost. Mathematics is permanent. A² + B² = C² was true before Pythagoras had his name attached to it, and will be true when the sun goes out and no one is left to think of it. It is true for any alien life that might think of it, and true whether they think of it or not. It cannot be changed. So long as there is a world with a horizontal and a vertical axis, a sky and a horizon, it is inviolable and as true as anything that can be thought.

As precise as mathematics is, it is also the most explicit language we have for the description of mysteries. Being the language of physics, it describes actual mysteries—things we can’t see clearly in the natural world but suspect are true and later confirm—and imaginary mysteries, things that exist only in the minds of mathematicians. A question is where these abstract mysteries exist, what their home range is. Some people would say that they reside in the human mind, that only the human mind has the capacity to conceive of what are called mathematical objects, meaning numbers and equations and formulas and so on—the whole glossary and apparatus of mathematics—and to bring these into being, and that such things arrive as they do because of the way our minds are structured. We are led to examine the world in a way that agrees with the tools that we have for examining it. (We see colors as we do, for example, because of how our brains are structured to receive the reflection of light from surfaces.) This is a minority view, held mainly by neuroscientists and a certain number of mathematicians disinclined toward speculation. The more widely held view is that no one knows where math resides. There is no mathematician/naturalist who can point somewhere and say, “That is where math comes from” or “Mathematics lives over there,” say, while maybe gesturing toward magnetic north and the Arctic, which I think would suit such a contrary and coldly specifying discipline.

The belief that mathematics exists somewhere else than within us, that it is discovered more than created, is called Platonism, after Plato’s belief in a non-spatiotemporal realm that is the region of the perfect forms of which the objects on earth are imperfect reproductions. By definition, the non-spatiotemporal realm is outside time and space. It is not the creation of any deity; it simply is. To say that it is eternal or that it has always existed is to make a temporal remark, which does not apply. It is the timeless nowhere that never has and never will exist anywhere but that nevertheless is. The physical world is temporal and declines; the non-spatiotemporal one is ideal and doesn’t.

A third point of view, historically and presently, for a small but not inconsequential number of mathematicians, is that the home of mathematics is in the mind of a higher being and that mathematicians are somehow engaged with Their thoughts. Georg Cantor, the creator of set theory—which in my childhood was taught as a part of the “new math”—said, “The highest perfection of God lies in the ability to create an infinite set, and its immense goodness leads Him to create it.” And the wildly inventive and self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, about whom the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” was made, in 2015, said, “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.”

In Book 7 of the Republic, Plato has Socrates say that mathematicians are people who dream that they are awake. I partly understand this, and I partly don’t.

Mathematics has been variously described as an ideal reality, a formal game, and the poetry of logical ideas… an excerpt from “What is Mathematics?” from Alec Wilkinson— eminently worthy of reading in full.

* Albert Einstein

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As we sum it up, we might send carefull-calcuated birthday greetings to Georgiy Antonovich Gamov; he was born on this date in 1904. Better known by the name he adopted on immigrating to the U.S., George Gamow, he was a physicist and cosmologist whose early work was instrumental in developing the Big Bang theory of the universe; he also developed the first mathematical model of the atomic nucleus.

But mid-career Gamow began to shift his energy to teaching and to writing popular books on science… one of which, One Two Three… Infinity, inspired legions of young scientists-to-be and kindled a life-long interest in science in an even larger number of other youngsters (like your correspondent).

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“Be a good ancestor”*…

The planned underground repository near the Olkiluoto nuclear-power plant in Finland could teach us the merits of long-term thinking

The Greek philosopher Plato once imagined a city that provides full justice to its citizens. Setting out his ideas in the Republic almost 2500 years ago, Plato did not, however, think that such a city could ever be realized. Radical (and surely unachievable) transformations in education, culture and government would be required to establish and sustain it. “Ridiculous,” Plato concluded.

In a similar vein, the US cultural anthropologist Vincent Ialenti envisions a fictional city whose citizens have been trained to think so that humans don’t need to flee the planet to survive. So utopian is the picture that Ialenti – writing in his new book Deep Time Reckoning – calls it “absurd”. Yet that notion is no less absurd, he continues, than the way humans are now acting, “careening toward an Anthropocene cliff”.

Based at George Washington University, Ialenti developed this picture by drawing on three years of fieldwork in Finland, where he’d studied experts who were evaluating the risks of a permanent repository for nuclear waste…

The Finnish experts developed various strategies to envision “deep time”. For example, they implemented unusual computer modelling methods to integrate a variety of datasets, scenarios, maps and reports over an unprecedented range of issues, including climate change, geological events, shorelines, human demographics, vegetation growth and ecosystems. For clues on the long-term evolution of materials and planetary landscapes, they studied everything from ancient Roman nails and 2100-year-old Chinese cadavers to cannons from a sunken 17th-century Swedish warship and traces of a crater in Finland caused by a meteor 73 million years ago.

Ialenti is fully aware of the deficiencies and partialities of the Finnish project and of his own study…

Climate-change predictions, even for 2050, seem hopelessly far in the future, and tainted by politics, guesswork and subjectivity. Thinking about the present seems more do-able, while thinking about tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the future appears starry-eyed and abstract. But Ialenti believes the exact opposite is true. What’s abstract (in the sense of detached from reality) is what Ialenti calls “a manic fixation on the present”, and not being able to think about humanity thousands of years hence.

Ialenti is less interested in the conclusions reached by the Finnish experts than by their audacious aims, which are to develop methods to break free from what he calls our “shallow time discipline”. He then tries to devise ways to retrain our habits to encourage humans to think long-term; for him, Deep Time Reckoning is not a stale academic treatise but more of a “practical toolkit”.

 This toolkit includes high-school civics classes devoted to teaching long-term developments: of the universe since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago; of Earth since 4.5 billion years ago; of Earth’s life, dinosaurs and humans; and of the evolution of languages and technologies. It envisions school pupils reading about futuristic visions by Ray Kurzweil and Marxist descriptions of world utopias.

Ialenti even asks his university students to examine the tools that the insurance industry uses to protect companies against future calamities, and the methods that the Catholic Church uses to maintain institutional continuity. Practiced over generations, Ialenti thinks, such an education would eventually make deep time thinking “less wacky and aloof”, and more second-nature…

Plato meant the Republic to be a beacon for humans to think about justice in the present, not as the blueprint for an actual city to be realized in the future. After all, if you head straight towards a lighthouse, you usually end up on the rocks.

Somewhere in deep time looms a catastrophe that we don’t yet have the imagination to envision, nor the will to confront. Ialenti thinks he finds in the Finnish nuclear-risk experts glimmerings of what it might take to cultivate the human behaviour needed to do so. Humanity’s long-range hope, Ialenti suggests, hangs on what we might call the Finlandization of the planet.

Professor Robert P. Crease (@rcrease) explains how a nuclear-waste program in Finland can help us to envisage the world thousands of years from now: “Very Deep Thinking.”

See also Ingrid Burrington‘s interview with Yale architecture and design professor Keller Easterling, “How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity, ” and Jeremy Lent‘s “What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?

* Marian Wright Edelman

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As we play the long game, we might spare a thought for Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski; he died on this date in 1950. Trained as an engineer, he developed a field called general semantics, which he viewed as both distinct from, and more encompassing than, the field of semantics. He argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and the languages humans have developed, and thus no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain’s responses to reality.

Korzybski was influential in fields across the sciences and humanities through the 1940s and 50s (perhaps most notably, gestalt therapists), and inspired science fiction writers (like Robery Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt) and philosophers like Alan Watts.

His best known dictum is “The map is not the territory.”

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“PLATO was my Alexandria. It was my library, it was the place where I could attach myself to anything.”*…

 

Plato_ist2_terminal

 

One upon a time [in the 60s and 70s], there was a computer network with thousands of users across the world. It featured chat rooms, message boards, multiplayer games, a blog-like newspaper, and accredited distance learning, all piped to flat-panel plasma screens that were also touchscreens. And it wasn’t the internet.

It was PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), and its original purpose was to harness the power of the still-obscure world of computing as a teaching tool. Developing PLATO required simultaneous quantum leaps in technological sophistication, and it worked—college and high-school students quickly learned how to use it, and also pushed it to do new things.

Despite decades of use at major universities, it all but vanished in the 1980s and from popular memory in the years that followed, a victim of the microcomputer revolution. At its peak, PLATO was surprisingly similar to the modern internet, and it left its DNA in technology we still use today…

The story of the ur-internet: “PLATO.”

* novelist Richard Powers (who was a coder before he turned to literary fiction)

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As we log on, we might send super birthday greetings to Seymour Roger Cray; he was born on this date in 1925.  An electrical engineer and computer architect, he designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded Cray Research which built many of these machines– effectively creating the “supercomputer” industry and earning the honorific “father of supercomputing.”

Seymour_Cray

With a Cray-1

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

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