What is philosophy for?

English: A cropped version of Antonio Ciseri's...

English: A cropped version of Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people. See: Eccehomo1.jpg for full version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is truth?” Pilate asked of Jesus. Jesus had just asserted that he had come into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate used this to close off the conversation, as he knew that truth is exceedingly difficult to define, and that one man’s truth is another man’s falsehood.

We live in a world where politicians cite “alternative facts” to defend themselves when their statements are questioned. Hmm. This seems like a step on the road to fluid “truth” of the authorities in the book “1984”, but is more likely to be a scrambling attempt of the establishment to defend itself.

English: Donald Trump at a press conference an...

English: Donald Trump at a press conference announcing David Blaine’s latest feat in New York City at the Trump Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy is a means of addressing Pilate’s question and many many others that do not fall into the realm of science or of mathematics. What is real and can we know it? Can we know anything? Is there a God, and if so, why does he permit evil into His universe?

These are questions which fall into the realm of philosophy, as do others about the meaning of science and mathematics, and questions of ethics and morals.

Raphael's "School of Athens"

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost by definition, philosophical questions cannot be answered. The “What is truth?” one is a prime example. Will the sun rise tomorrow morning? Did the sun rise this morning? Is the sun risen at the moment? All of these questions can be pragmatically answered “Yes!” but probe a little deeper and the answer can appear less definite.

After all, we might remember the sun coming up this morning, but what if these are false memories. Or maybe what we see is a mere “virtual reality” fed directly to our brains. And just because the sun rose this morning, and the morning before, and so on, doesn’t mean that it will rise tomorrow. Maybe there is some as yet unknown physical event that will cause it not to rise. Maybe cause and effect are illusions and anything can happen.

Dark clouds below light ones at sun rise

Dark clouds below light ones at sun rise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We nowadays separate science and philosophy, but this was not always so, and science was once termed “natural philosophy“. The ancient Greeks would have been termed philosophers, but they dealt with such questions as what everything is made of. Some of their suggestions would seem quaint today, but they did suggest the concept of atoms.

At the time there was no way that any of their hypotheses, such as the atomic hypothesis, could be tested and some of them even thought that testing them was a bad idea. They meta-hypothesised that everything could be deduced simply by thought. They needed no experiments!

English: Engraving depicting the Greek philoso...

English: Engraving depicting the Greek philosophers Hipparchia of Maroneia and Crates of Thebes. From the book Proefsteen van de Trou-ringh (Touchstone of the Wedding Ring) written by Jacob Cats. Hipparchia and Crates are depicted wearing 17th-century clothing. In the scene depicted, Crates is trying to dissuade Hipparchia from her affections for him by pointing to his head to show how ugly he is. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atomic theory is now definitely in the realm of science. Biology too, and mathematics, though maths now has its own realm, apart from science. Anything that is in the realms of philosophy may find its way to the realm of science or maths.

What about things like ethics and morality? Surely these won’t ever move to the field of science? Well, maybe. I wouldn’t bet on it, though it may be a long time before there is an ethical Newton, a morality Einstein.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science has made great grabs in recent times for the fields of behaviourism and in studies of human consciousness. These have been until recently the domain of philosophers alone. In a way, it might be better if we did not understand the way that people and societies and human consciousness work, because understanding things is the first step to control things. Let’s hope that the ethical Newton and the morality Einstein arrive before we know how to scientifically control people and societies.

Philosophic pondering on the way things are tend to be wild and diverse. We tend to think of such hypotheses as the multiple worlds theories as new and cutting edge, but Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s 1759 book “Candide” proclaims that “all is for the best” in this “best of all possible worlds”, which implies that there are, or could be, other worlds where things might be different.

This engraving is from Voltaire's Candide: it ...

This engraving is from Voltaire’s Candide: it depicts the scene where Candide and Cacambo see two monkeys apparently attacking two nude women. Candide kills the monkeys, then comes to believe the monkeys and women were actually lovers. The image may have been accompanied by the caption, “The two wanderers heard a few little cries”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, since there was no real divide between philosophy and science and maths in the early days, we can’t really say that science has taken over these philosophical topics, more that they have been hived off as science split from philosophy. Nevertheless, science is probing topics, such as the nature of reality, which definitely have a philosophical flavour to them. For instance, is the cat alive or dead, or maybe both?

The philosopher Zeno of Elea introduced some paradoxes which even today exercise the minds of philosophers and mathematicians. Basically, Zeno poses the question : How does one (or an arrow for that matter) move from point A to point B? There’s plenty on the Internet about these paradoxes, so I’m not going into them in detail, but essential the core of the problem is how to sum an infinite number of increasingly small intervals of space or time without the result becoming infinite.

English: The Zeno Paradox in portuguese. Deriv...

English: The Zeno Paradox in portuguese. Derivate work from Zeno Paradox de.PNG Português do Brasil: O Paradoxo de Zenão em português. Trabalho derivado de Zeno Paradox de.PNG. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously Achilles does overtake the tortoise, the arrow does reach its target and it is possible to travel from A to B, but some people still think that science and maths have not yet solved these paradoxes, and there’s still a sliver of a problem for the philosophers. Arguments these days resolve more around whether the paradoxes have been resolved and therefore we can move from A to B, or are still in the realm of philosophers and therefore we cannot move from A to B!

When the Greek philosophers were thinking about atoms and what things are made of, there was no way to test the various theories out. When they were developing theories about the stars and other astronomical objects they had no way to test the theories out. However, eventually the “natural philosophers” like Newton, laid the basis for astronomical theories, and early chemists like Lavoisier laid the basis for the science of chemistry, which made use of the theory of atoms.

A scan of the first page of John Dalton's &quo...

A scan of the first page of John Dalton’s “A New System of Chemical Philosophy”, published in 1808. Please do not “update” the list with modern spellings. This is a historic list and the old spellings are intentional. Yes, it’s “carbone”, not “carbon”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy exists because people like to ask questions like “What is beyond the end of the Universe?” or “If God made everything, who or what made God?” Or “How long is the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle with sides on one cm or one inch?” Or “Why is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle a fixed number and what is it?”

Philosophy exists to postulate parallel Universes, massive balls of fusing gas, and terrestrial planets complete with humans or maybe little green men. Its job is to wonder what lies beyond the bounds of science and what makes humans behave the way that they do, and whether or not God is dead. It is to ask the impossible questions. It is science’s job to prize these issues from the hands of the philosophers and answer them.

 

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Getting the Wind Up

A plant disease called “myrtle rust” has appeared in New Zealand, apparently after the spores have been blown across the Tasman sea from Australia. That’s over four thousand miles. The prevailing winds are from Australia to New Zealand and the cyclones and storms that hit New Zealand are formed in or off the coast of Australia, or further north in the Tropics, or further south in the Southern ocean.

In these areas low pressure areas form and consequently winds blow from the surrounding areas of slightly higher pressure into the lower pressure area and start to swirl clockwise. The clockwise movement is the result of the Coriolis effect, which is difficult to explain, but relates to the fact that when an object moves north or south on the rotating Earth, it moves closer to or further from the Earth’s axis of rotation.

Combination of Image:Hurricane isabel2 2003.jp...

Combination of Image:Hurricane isabel2 2003.jpg and Image:Coriolis effect10.png to illustrate the Coriolis force better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A low pressure area sucks in air and it is forced up in the centre where it cools and forms clouds and rain. As this process continues, the pressure at the centre of the low drops and the spiral of winds gets tighter and, if the low is very deep, more destructive. I’m not sure why a low deepens, when one would think that all the in-rushing air would fill the low, and the few explanations that I have read have not convinced me.

On a larger scale, bands of winds circle the Earth, with winds coming from the west in the south and the north of the two hemispheres, with prevailing easterly winds nearer the Equator in both hemispheres. The sometimes destructive cyclones and anticyclones are mere ripples in this larger flow.

English: Map of the North Pacific Subtropical ...

English: Map of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ) within the North Pacific Gyre. Also the location of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even in quiet wind conditions there is usually a breeze, often stimulated by local conditions, such a large lake or sea. All that is required for a breeze is a small differential in temperature, with local heating expanding the air or local cooling causing it to contract.

The sea will absorb heat from the sun more slowly than the land, and the air over the land is therefore warmer and becomes less dense. Consequently a breeze develops flowing from the sea to the land. The reverse occurs at night, when the land cools more quickly than the sea. Such conditions are however very local and are often unnoticeable and overridden by cyclonic and anticyclonic wind conditions.

The formation of breezes. Diagram A) Sea breez...

The formation of breezes. Diagram A) Sea breeze B) Land breeze Français : Formation des brises. Diagramme A) Brise de mer B) Brise de terre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Within a large weather system, such as a cyclonic system, local conditions may affect the wind directions and strength. Often the wind direction and strength varies widely locally, giving rise to conditions that are described as “blustery”. While such conditions may be good for drying laundry, they making sailing a difficult pastime. Sailing races can be won or lost depending on whether or not the sailors catch the good air or fall into a pocket of stale air.

The strength of the wind obviously varies tremendously. At the one end of the scale a breeze may cause a flag to limply stir, while at the other end of the scale, a really large storm may uproot trees and destroy houses. In some parts of the world tornadoes may form when weather conditions are right and may sweep destructively over the land, ripping apart anything that stands in their way.

Large, violent tornadoes can cause catastrophi...

Large, violent tornadoes can cause catastrophic damage when striking populated areas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is energy in the wind, and efforts are being made to economically harvest this energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Such fuels are not infinite, and we will sometime or other run out of them. It may be that we have enough fossil fuels to last centuries, but getting at them involves the disruption of mining, and as they are used up, mining will become even more disruptive than it is now. Mining even small amounts will become very expensive.

It makes sense to develop machines to harvest wind power, and the signs are that this is becoming economically more competitive. At one time, before petrol engines became common, the only ways to power transport were wind and steam, and it may be that petrol and other fossil fuelled engines may only have a relatively short time span of usefulness, maybe only a century or so.

Miners digging coal

Miners digging coal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We also use fossil fuels for our plastics. Almost everything in our modern world has a large proportion of plastics in it, sourced almost entirely from oil. It remains to be seen if we could replace our need for fossil resources from renewable resources.

Hay fever suffers may curse the wind as it blows pollen up their noses and into their respiratory systems, but many plants rely on the wind to propagate themselves. A case in point is the myrtle rust I mentioned at the start of this post. Plant pollen can travel thousands of kilometres and fall all I know can circle the Earth. It’s an efficient way of spreading the reproductive material, but its a really inefficient way of getting the reproductive material to a member of the species of the opposite gender.

Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflo...

Pollen from a variety of common plants: sunflower (Helianthus annuus), morning glory Ipomoea purpurea, hollyhock (Sildalcea malviflora), lily (Lilium auratum), primrose (Oenothera fruticosa) and castor bean (Ricinus communis). The image is magnified some x500, so the bean shaped grain in the bottom left corner is about 50 μm long. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously it works best where the plants are grouped together, and it works even better if the plants are hermaphrodites, but it does work (occasionally) when the plants are far apart. This mechanism for reproduction probably arose a long time ago before plants invaded the land. plants growing in the sea, and many animals too, just broadcast their gametes into the sea and trust in at least some of them finding other gametes so that they can grow into mature individuals. (Caution: It’s complicated!)

We often hear the sound of wind. It can be caused by wind blowing through trees or other plants. It can be caused by wind blowing through gaps in our houses, mainly doors and windows. We build our houses to protect us from the wind and other aspects of the weather, as a sort of synthetic cave, I guess.

Wind chimes. {| align="center" style...

Wind chimes. {| align=”center” style=”width:80%; background-color:#f7f8ff; border:2px solid #8888aa; padding:5px;” |- | Camera and Exposure Details: Camera: Canon PowerShot S3 IS Lens: Canon 1:2.7-3.5 USM 12x Zoom Lens Exposure: mm (mm in 35mm equivalent) f/4 @ 1/125 s. |}Category:Taken with Canon PowerShot S3 IS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can even make music (well, musical sounds) using the wind. Many people have “wind chimes” which are metallic objects strung on wires arranged so that the wind can bash them together, making a chiming noise. Some people like them, and others dislike them (I fall into the second camp).

Strings can be placed on a sounding board and used to produce musical sounds, and such “Aeolian Harps” were once as common as wind chimes. An accidental Aeolian harp can be heard in the sound that power and telephone lines make when a strong wind blows.

English: Aeolian harp at Tre-Ysgawen Hall This...

English: Aeolian harp at Tre-Ysgawen Hall This aeolian harp is in the grounds of Tre-Ysgawen Hall. When the wind comes from a particular direction it ‘plays’ the harp and ethereal musical sounds are produced. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Time for this post about wind to wind down now, if you will excuse the pun.

This picture from a NASA study on wingtip vort...

This picture from a NASA study on wingtip vortices qualitatively illustrates the wake turbulence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Waiting on God

Older woman with straw hat relaxing, seen in E...

Older woman with straw hat relaxing, seen in England 1976 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hate getting older. I hate the sensation of slowly losing my faculties. For example, I’m proud of my vocabulary, but these days I sometimes cannot bring a particular word. Or another word slips in in its place.

For example, above I wrote “facilities” first, and then realised that I meant “faculties”. Words which I would have written without even thinking suddenly are suddenly tricky to spell. “Thought”! Is that “ght” or “gth”? I used to be able to write whole paragraph without seeing the wiggly red line even once.

Spelling

Spelling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even worse, when I’m talking to someone and I pause to collect my thoughts and work out what I am going to say next, they try to finish my sentence! That is incredibly annoying, but people seem to think that it is funny. The only time that someone finishing someone else’s sentences was in a sketch by Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett (“You Can Say That Again“).

One’s mental faculties reach a peak at sometime between 20 and 40. Babies are born with immature brains and our early life consists of us learning how to get on in life and at the same time allowing our brains to mature. From then on our brains start to slowly fade over time.

Our memories and our ability to access them slowly decline. I’ve always been quite good at quizzes and I hope and believe that I am still good at them. However I do know that I can’t access answers to quiz questions as fast as I used to be able to do, and quite often I find that I can’t recall an answer at all, only to realise, once the answer has been given, that I knew it all the time. I couldn’t recall it at all, but it was there, in my brain, but inaccessible to me.

The abilities that we have built up over the years after we became physically and mentally mature by offsetting the start of the loss of brain cells with experience start to fade as more and more brain cells die and lesser used abilities start to be lost. If you haven’t played golf in a while or ice skated since your twenties, if you try to take up the sport again, you will have to relearn it.

English: ice skating at bondi beach

English: ice skating at bondi beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the circuits have not faded totally away you may achieve some level of competence fairly quickly, but you will never reach the height of ability that you had in your twenties. Even if you don’t give up a sport your abilities will fade, just not so quickly as if you had taken a break from the sport.

I was trying to make this post about me but I’ve drifted into generalisations. I’ve not retried a sport that I was good at, as I was never that good at a sport, but I have tried ice skating and roller skating after not having done it for a while, and I was able to manage it pretty well and pretty quickly too, so I think that I can vouch for my statement above.

Tre personer som åker långfärdsskridsko

Tre personer som åker långfärdsskridsko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One’s senses also decline with age. In particular, eyesight fades noticeably for most people. Things like cataracts and other conditions can only partially be mitigated. Spectacles tend to get stronger and the muscles that focus the eye deteriorate as other muscles do.

I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager, that is, for most of my life. I can vouch for the fact that my eyesight has got worse over the ensuing decades, though I can see most things fairly clearly. I can’t easily read the small typefaces that are usually used for the ubiquitous “Terms and Conditions” found with appliances and contracts, but I suspect that the type has also diminished over the years and that the firms that supply the product or commodity hope that no one read them anyway.

The other senses also fade as the sensors and nerves age. Things taste blander, smell less fragrant, touch becomes less sensitive, and hearing tends to fade too. I’m fortunate that my hearing has not, as yet, been severely impacted, but I do suffer from tinnitus intermittently.

Taste is an awkward one – as one’s sense of taste declines, so, potentially, does one’s ability to digest food. The complex mechanism that is our digestive system of develops problems as we age, meaning that we may need to switch to less spicy foods, and since the sense of taste is declining, everything may taste even blander!

Chilli pepper 1

Chilli pepper 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joints wear as we get older. So do the ligaments that connect to them. Muscles become less effective. Balance, which depends on certain nerves in the ear, may be affected by the general decline of the nervous system. As I said above, my hearing is still pretty good and maybe as a consequence my balance is still pretty good, fortunately.

My joints do give me trouble some of the time, especially my knees. That’s something of a family joke as my father has had knee problems. He has had both knee joints replaced. My sisters also have issues with the knee joints and so do my daughters. We’ve all inherited the family knees, apparently.

Capsule of right knee-joint (distended). Later...

Capsule of right knee-joint (distended). Lateral aspect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People are living longer than ever before, but this is for many a mixed blessing. My father and mother are both still alive at more than 90. Fortunately they are still both pretty well, and although they do have some problems, both mental and physical. Others are not so fortunate and may spend years or even decades crippled by arthritis or a stroke, or severely constrained by some condition or other.

My biggest nightmare, as I grow older, is that my mind will fade away, or I suffer from some long term debilitating illness. I had a heart attack many years ago and in many ways it would be preferable, at least to me, for me to die suddenly from another one. Of course it would be traumatic for my family, but I’d hope that they would know me well enough to realise that I would prefer it that way.

English: Intubation - placement of endotrachea...

English: Intubation – placement of endotracheal tube with a laryngoscope to a doll in an out-of-hospital -exercise. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Shift to the Right

All around the world, it seems, in the so-called democratic Western societies there is an ongoing shift to the right. What does “a shift to the right” mean? What does “the right” mean in the context of modern politics?

In the past the right stood for monarchy, the status quo and conservatism, while the left stood for republicanism, revolution and change, and socialism. The right is seen forward-looking and the left is seen as backwards looking.

The robes of HRH The Duke of Clarence, a Royal...

The robes of HRH The Duke of Clarence, a Royal Duke (later William IV), included a train borne by a page. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The right has come to espouse the capitalist view of economic matters, and the concept of free markets where there is no regulation of the market and the left has come to mean stiff market controls and social ownership of some of the more important resources, such as the roads and other infrastructure, the police, and bounds on firms and corporations.

While the right tends to individualism and capitalism, the left tends to collectivism and the rights of individuals as part of a group. In the public mind the businessman is the epitome of the right while the worker represents the left.

But why are right-wing parties gaining control everywhere? The answer is of course in the rise of Islam and of ISIS and the militant Islamic movements in many countries, coupled with the floods of refugees from countries where Islamic activists are waging war against the authorities.

The refugees came not only from states where the Islam factions were looking to take over, but also from other countries, such as Ukraine, where Russia is looking to extend its interests into the country, which it lost when the old Soviet Union was dissolved. There are also trouble spots such as Israel where minorities feel threatened and are abandoning homes and heading to other countries.

Islam in Europe 1%-2% (Belarus, Croatia, Italy...

Islam in Europe 1%-2% (Belarus, Croatia, Italy, Monaco, Ukraine) 2%-4% (Andorra, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain) 4%-5% (Germany, Greece, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, United Kingdom) 5%-10% (Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden) 10%-20% (Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Montenegro, Russia) 20%-50% (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia) 50%-90% (Albania) >90% (Kosovo, Turkey) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People in Western bloc countries have seen on television news and elsewhere how these floods of refugees are causing problems because of the inabilities of countries in the path of the refugee flood to cope. At the same time they have seen on the news of the atrocities caused by radical Islamists close to home, in London, Paris, and in the USA.

This has naturally led to a rise in xenophobic distrust of those people who might be Islamic extremists and to the influx of refugees in general irrespective of their religion or beliefs. The feeling is that Islamic extremists could enter a country in guise of refugees, with intent of setting up branches of terrorist organisations.

An 1863 meeting between Māori and settlers in ...

An 1863 meeting between Māori and settlers in a pā whakairo (carved pā) in Hawke’s Bay Province. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That may be true in a very few cases but many cases the terrorist incidents have been perpetrated by people from the country that the incident occurs in, who have been “radicalised” via the Internet. While it is or may be true that the incidents are orchestrated by those outside of the country, few seem to be perpetrated by actual refugees.

Generally refugees are glad to be taken in by other countries and are also glad to fit into those countries and be accepted by the people who live in those countries. Most are appalled by the violence done in the name of their religion and don’t believe that their religion actually requires believers to do these things.

Old woman wearing hijab

Old woman wearing hijab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Refugees are usually happy to fit into a country which allows them to practise their religion quietly and privately. Most Christians would say the same, regardless of which denomination they belong to. If you espouse a religion aggressively, then this would cause issue with your neighbours and merely repeats the problems of your original country.

Since I do not believe in religion, but do not object to people who practise one, I see no problem, provided the believer doesn’t try to force his/her religion on me. I will happily take part in a marriage or naming ceremony in any religion, and not just in the Christianity which I was nominally raised in.

English: An Igbuzo child naming ceremony in Wa...

English: An Igbuzo child naming ceremony in Washington DC, USA. Parents of the child confer with the Diokpa (Head of he family) on the names of the child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The seeming daily “terrorist” acts have scared people. They now look askance at anyone who worships differently from them, and who dresses differently. This has led to many refugees who do not espouse the local religion or customs, adapting, so that they don’t stand out from the locals.

There is a constant dialectic between the religion and customs of their homelands and the new country to which they have moved. The refugees do not want to lose their culture, which they see as a rich heritage, which it is, yet they want to conform and fit in to their new country.

English: South Croydon bus garage on 1 April 1...

English: South Croydon bus garage on 1 April 1985. A newly-delivered ‘M’ class bus stands outside, awaiting the fitting of its destination blinds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people in countries to which refugees move see refugees as different. They don’t understand the customs, they don’t understand the religion and they don’t understand why the refugees are not exactly like them. They are worried that the refugees may be terrorists in disguise, but rationally, a terrorist is more likely to adopt local customs and dress, so that he/she doesn’t stand out as different.

This difference engenders fear, and I’ve seen this before. In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s many West Indians came to Britain, changing the face of the country. Many British people had not seen anyone with a dark skin before, and this shocked and in some cases horrified people. Uneasy jokes were made as how the West Indians were taking over the busses, as drivers and conductors. The tension led inevitably to the rise of the National Front party.

Thankfully the British people eventually accepted the West Indians into the country, and while there were a few incidents over the years, the British people have tolerated incomers pretty well overall.

Nevertheless, in many countries, especially those on the route of the fleeing refugees, there has been a resurgence in the nationalist movements, which laughably indirectly led to the right wing United Kingdom Independence Party congratulating itself for being annihilated by the Tories in the UK local elections. It also led to a right wing candidate reaching the run-off election for the post of the French president.

It also almost certainly led to Trump’s election as president of the United State. His promise to make America great again resonated with those who saw their jobs sliding into an abyss as a seeming flood of strangers entered the country. In the US case of course the unwanted immigrants came mostly from Mexico.

While the United States has its problems, I doubt that Trump can solve them by banning and deporting all the illegal immigrants in the country, which would remove many hard working and useful people, and declaring that the mining industry would be revived and that people would get their jobs back.

Graffiti-art in Venice, Italy. I think (basing...

Graffiti-art in Venice, Italy. I think (basing myself on the inscription “Stop deportation” and the rainbow chador) belongs to the wordlwide protests against the United Kingdom deporting an Iranian lesbian to her country, which punishes homosexuality by law. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, 16 August 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This goes against all economic common sense as the solid fuel mining industry is in decline in most parts of the world, and any gains will be short term and will rapidly fade away, leaving the miners in a worse position than before. It’s hard to see how any of Trump’s actions and reforms will turn the country around.

Miners work in a mine with a low roof

Miners work in a mine with a low roof (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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A Sum of All the Parts

Cover of the Book Conscious Robots

Cover of the Book Conscious Robots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consciousness is fascinating and I keep coming back to it. It is personally verifiable in that a person knows that he or she is conscious, but it is difficult if not impossible to tell if a person is conscious from the outside.

When you talk to someone, you and that person exchange words. You say something, and they respond. Their response is to what you say, and it appears to show that the person is a conscious being.

It’s not as easy as that, however, because it is conceivable that the person is a zombie (in the philosophical sense) and his or her responses are merely programmed reactions based on your words. In other words he or she is not a conscious being.

It seems to me that the best counter to this suggestion is that I am a conscious being and I am no different in all discernible ways from others. It is unreasonable to suggest I am the only conscious being anywhere and that all others are zombies.

Of course this leaves open the suggestion that some people may be philosophical zombies, but that then raises the question of what the difference is, and how can one detect it. William of Occam would probably wield his razor and conclude that, if one can’t tell, one might as well assume that there are no zombies, as assuming that there are zombies adds a (probably) unnecessary assumption to the simple theory that all humans are conscious beings.

It follows that consciousness is probably an emergent phenomenon related to the complexity and functioning of the brain. It also follows that lower animals, such as dogs, cats and apes are also probably conscious entities, though maybe to a lesser extent that we are.

English: A liver-coloured Border Collie with h...

English: A liver-coloured Border Collie with heterochromatic eyes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only way we can directly study consciousness is by introspection, which is more than a bit dubious as it is consciousness studying itself. We can indirectly study consciousness by studying others who we assume to be conscious, maybe when they have been rendered unconscious by anaesthetics and are “coming round” from them.

In addition, consciousness can be indirectly studied using mind altering drugs or meditation. However we are mainly dependant on verbal reports from those studied this way, and such reports are, naturally, subjective.

Chemical Structure of LSD (Lysergic acid dieth...

Chemical Structure of LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we introspect, we are looking inwards, consciously studying our own consciousness. There are therefore limits on what we can find out, as the question arises “How much about itself can a system find out?”

A system that studies itself is limited. It can find out some things, but not all. It’s like a subroutine in a bigger program, in that it knows what to do with inputs and it creates appropriate output for those inputs. Its sphere of influence is limited to those processes written into it, and there is no way for it to know anything about the program that calls it.

English: Illustration of subroutine in Microso...

English: Illustration of subroutine in Microsoft Excel that reads the x-column, squares it, and writes the squares into the y-column. All proprietary Microsoft art work has been cropped to leave a generic spreadsheet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A subroutine of a larger program uses the lexical, syntactical and logical rules that apply to the program as a whole, though it may have its own rules too. It shares the concept of strings, number, and other objects with the whole program, but it can add its own rules too.

The Universe is like the subroutine in many ways. The subroutine has inputs and outputs and processes the one into the other. In this Universe we are born and we die. In between we spend our lives.

An aware or conscious subroutine would know that it processes input and creates outputs, but it would have no idea why. We know that we are born, we live and we die. Apart from that we have no idea why.

This sort of implies that while we may use introspection to investigate some aspects of consciousness we will always fall short of understanding it completely. We may be able to approach an understanding asymptotically however – we might get to understand consciousness to the 90% level, so it would not be a total waste of time to study it.

Česky: Asymptotická křivka.

Česky: Asymptotická křivka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consciousness seems to be more than a single state, and the states seem to merge and divert without any actions on our part. For instance, when I am driving there is a part of me that is driving the car and a part of me that is route planning, and maybe a part of me that is musing on the shopping that I intend to do.

The part of me that is driving is definitely aware of what is happening around me. I don’t consciously make the decision to slow down when other traffic gets in the way, but the part of me that is driving does so.

The Last Royal Show

The Last Royal Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly the part that is route finding is also semi-autonomous – I don’t have to have a map constantly in my mind, and don’t consciously make a decision to turn right, but the navigator part of my consciousness handle that by itself.

Those parts of my mind are definitely conscious of the areas in which they are functioning, because if they were not conscious, they would not be able to do their job alone and would frequently need to move to the front of my consciousness disrupting my musing about my shopping.

Window shopping at Eaton's department store. (...

Window shopping at Eaton’s department store. (Toronto, Canada) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like part of my consciousness are carved off and allowed to perform their functions autonomously. However if an emergency should arise, then these parts are quickly jolted back into one.

The parts of my mind are definitely conscious as, at a low level, I am aware of them. I’m aware of the fact that I’m following that blue car, and I’m aware that I have to turn left in 200m or so. I’m also aware of my shopping plans, while I’m aware of the music on the radio.

Deutsch: Servicemenü des Blaupunkt Bremen MP74...

Deutsch: Servicemenü des Blaupunkt Bremen MP74 (Aktivierung: Gerät mit gedrückter “Programm1”- und “Menü”-Taste einschalten). Aktuelle Frequenz: 89,70 MHz (France Musique, Sender Luttange (Metz), PI-Code F203); aktuelle Suchlauffrequenz: 96,80 MHz (bigFM Saarland, Sender Friedrichsthal/Hoferkopf, PI-Code 10B2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds scary that I’m not totally concentrated on my driving, I believe that this sort of has to happen. If I was totally concentrated on my driving, I would need to stop at every intersection so that I could decide which way to turn.

I would need have my shopping list completely sorted out, to the point of knowing which stores I am going to before even getting the car, and I would have to plan my route precisely. This would not allow for those occasions when passing by something or some shop reminds you that you need something that is not on your shopping list.

Planning options considered, the most northerl...

Planning options considered, the most northerly route was chosen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This splitting of consciousness allows us to perform efficiently. The only downside is that splitting things too much can result in us becoming distracted. And that is the reason we shouldn’t fiddle with the radio or use cellphones when driving.

English: A motor bike team arrive to the scene...

English: A motor bike team arrive to the scene of a car crash in Maracaibo, Venezuela. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The End of (Western) Civilisation

English: Is this really 'the end of civilisati...

English: Is this really ‘the end of civilisation?’ The Worcestershire/Gloucestershire county boundary on the B4280. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of the world capitalism holds sway and there is no denying that, as an economic and social system) it has benefited humanity to a great extent. It has built the great global technological empires that give residents in “western” societies all the consumer goods that we enjoy.

It has provided well for its citizens in general with the standard of living in western societies being the envy of other people in other nations, to the extent that they strive to move to western societies even if their homelands are not embroiled in war and tyranny.

Monument to the fallen in the fight against fa...

Monument to the fallen in the fight against fascism and capitalism in the centre of village Skravena, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But capitalism has its faults, and to some extent it can be likened to a car without brakes. A car without brakes is still driveable, and it is still steerable and can stay on the road until it hits a downhill stretch. Then the driver cannot control the car as it gets faster and faster down the hill and the inevitable will eventually occur.

Capitalism tends to vest power in the businesses and organisations that benefit from it. It tends to concentrate the capital from which it gets its name, of course, in a few individuals and while it benefits most people, there are small but growing number who slide to the bottom of the heap for one reason or another.

Poor people in Tirana, Albania

Poor people in Tirana, Albania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The people at the bottom of the heap are not totally without the benefits of the capitalist system. They mostly have televisions for example, which would have been considered a luxury a few decades ago.

However, they often have difficulty with food, accommodation, schooling and medicine. Any jobs that they get will be generally low skilled and low paid. They may even have to work two or more jobs just to get by.

English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública

English: Health Care Português: Saúde Pública (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many western societies houses are becoming more expensive, as measured against family incomes. As houses of their own are out reach for them, they generally rent their accommodation, either from the state or private landlords. Even then they feel the effects of rising house prices in their rent, and often they are forced to rent houses which have serious defects, like damp and mould.

Landlords are of course subject to the capitalism system and are reluctant to spend much money on repairs and so on, as any such expenditure comes out of their pockets. Houses that they let out are often allowed to deteriorate badly.

Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2

Poor coastal housing at Hanuabada in Port Moresby2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those at the bottom of the heap, schooling may be an issue. While the state provides schools, not all schools are the same. A school in an upmarket suburb is almost always better resourced and has better teachers than a school in a poorer area. It’s no surprise, then, when the upmarket schools perform better in terms of qualifications achieved by the pupils.

Access to medical care is often a problem for those at the bottom of the heap. If a trip to the doctor costs $50, as it may well do, then that is a big chunk out of the family budget, and any prescribed medicines will at to the burden. As people get older, they may no longer be able to work and yet this is the time in their lives that they may need medical care more often. In contrast, a people higher up the scale will be more able to pay to have hip operations and so on performed privately.

People at the top of the scale often look down on those at the bottom as being lazy benefit bludgers who are unwilling to work. This is in most cases untrue. The barriers to rising from poverty to plenty are many, and are in the main insurmountable for many.

The poor are not stupid in the main, though many may not be the brightest of people, and the chances of making it off the bottom rung of the ladder are off putting to many. There are always stories of people making it against the odds, as the saying goes, but in most ways those who succeed in rising up the scale merely reflect the odds.

999 out of a thousand triers will fail, regardless of drive and ambition. Many will therefore not bother. Even if they did try, they might raise the odds to 2 in a thousand, scarcely any better. It truly is a trap at the very bottom of the heap.

The capitalist system is not able to provide for people in their old age when they are unable to work too. One can put aside a portion of one’s income to help provide for old age but many do not bother, and even they do, the portion that they can put aside depends on their position of the scale of wealth. A poor person, living from hand to mouth, may have no income that he or she can put away for old age.

English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing

English: Beggar man and beggar woman conversing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Traditionally, at least in the last century or so, the state has helped out by providing a guaranteed income for old age in the shape of a pension. However this still has to be paid for and taxes are the way that it is usually done, which means that the richer people will pay for the poorer peoples’ pensions.

It has reached the state in many western societies that welfare, that is schooling, medicine and provision for old age is no longer affordable for society. This is a coming crisis that the current capitalist system cannot avert. It is not exaggeration that it may be the end of civilisation as we know it.

If the poor can no longer be sustained by the system, then stratification will definitely occur. The “have nots” who outnumber the “haves” will become jealous of them, and that may lead to actual conflict between the classes.

It is not an issue that can be addressed by merely changing the distribution, by effectively taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as this is unfair to those who are considered rich, and will be ineffective anyway, as it provides no incentive for the poor to provide for themselves.

But if nothing changes, things will get worse and worse until conflict, pestilence, famine and death spread in waves across the Earth. That is, unless we find a better, and fairer societal system.

The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Pane...

The original Four Horsemen of Apocalypse. Panel from X-Factor #24. Art by Walt Simonson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Heaven and Hell

What if there is an afterlife? Personally I don’t believe in one, but still. What would it be like? The Christian version is that you get judged on your behaviour in this life then go to either heaven or hell. Some versions of Christianity require that you are at the very least baptised, or that you experience being “saved” or that you have taken part in certain rituals before your worldly behaviour is considered.

These lead to awkward questions about, for instance, babies who die before they have a chance to be baptised or whatever. Will they be condemned for ever? I hardly seems fair and various versions of Christianity have ways of getting around this issue. Some suggest that such babies go to a third type of afterlife where they experience neither heaven nor hell – a sort of post life waiting room, which to me seems to be a particularly cruel version of hell!

Bebe

Bebe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is heaven like, though? It must be a pleasant place, as it is a given that it is a reward for a good life, and it has been suggested that it is a place where, the Deity, God, is glorified and worshipped, where all is light, and all the “souls” there experience the joy of being in the presence of the Deity.

Since no one who has died has reported back, the sources for these ideas come from speculation presented as fact, or, as some claim, divine inspiration, an actual message from the Deity. There’s a world of difference between these two options. In other words, it’s either a complete fiction, or absolute fact.

English: Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregor...

English: Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregorian chants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What could we logically deduce, given, for the sake of argument, the existence of an afterlife? It could be that we are reborn in this world, as either a new human or an animal. However, no human can remember any previous existence on this earth, or even on a planet circling a star somewhere across the Universe.

Of course some people claim to remember previous lives, but strangely, these remembered lives are frequently people who were famous when they were alive, like Anne Boleyn or Shakespeare, and the people who claim to be such reincarnated people often get well documented details of their lives wrong. Of course, history may be wrong, completely wrong, but it is more likely that people who claim to remember previous lives are mistaken or even purposefully deceitful.

If we dismiss the idea of reincarnation, what then? Certainly we can throw away all we know of physics. The only thing that we can be sure of is that things will be different. It may well be that there would be something analogous to our usual physics in play but we have no way of knowing what that would be.

English: Stylized light cone based on the logo...

English: Stylized light cone based on the logo for the World Year of Physics 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be that personality as such would not exist. No meeting with a previously expired spouse in the afterlife would occur, as the personality of the spouse would not exist, and nor would the personality of the recently expired person.

If personalities of the dead did exist in the afterlife, then this could cause issues. What if the recently expired person had remarried after a spouse had previously died. Which of the two spouses would be matched up with the recently expired person? Maybe the physics would be similar to our current physics, but different enough that one person could spend eternity with two or more people?

I get the impression that there are many more versions or varieties of hell postulated than there are heavens. Visions of hell are often detailed and gruesome. One only needs to look at the right most panel of “The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch”  to see some extreme examples.

Hell is punishment for transgressions in this world. Punishment extends “for all time” which would seem harsh as, surely any sin would be expiated eventually, just as any punishment with the exception of capital punishment in this world is time limited. However this assumes that time in this world is the same as time in the next world, and this may not be so.

A painting by Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόν...

A painting by Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόντζας), at the end of the 16th cent., of the Second Coming: a detail showing the punishment of the wicked ones at the Hell. The original whole painting at Digital Archive of the Greek Institute of Venice (Ψηφιοποιημένο Αρχείο του Ελληνικού Ινστιτούτου Βενετίας). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eternity may pass in a different way in the next world – maybe how eternity feels to the sufferer may depend on the seriousness of the transgressions. That may be fairer than for a minor transgressor to suffer through an endless time, judged by the standards of this world.

In accounts of heaven and hell both have inhabitants who have never (so far as I understand it) ever been mortal or human. Angels inhabit heaven and devils and demons live in hell. In both realms the job of the inhabitants appears to be to provide direction for the souls or entities from this world. Angels presumably assist in providing the dead souls with their appropriate rewards and devils and demons punish the transgressors.

Over the centuries people have imagined or vouchsafed a vision of heaven and hell. It seems that both heaven and hell have a hierarchy of inhabitants. The hierarchies are power hierarchies with the Deity at the top of the one, and the anti-Deity at the top of the other one. This is either a reflection of the prejudices of the person who is imagining these realms, or an interesting structural characteristic or heaven and hell.

Naturally hell is nasty and heaven is nice. I don’t know if it is some cultural bias as a result of my background and upbringing, but it seems to me that the stories and legends of hell are much more detailed than the stories and legends of heaven. My thought is that people are more interested in the gruesomeness of hell than the niceness of heaven.

English: 19th century Burmese temple painting....

English: 19th century Burmese temple painting. Tempura-like paint on cotton. 47” x 35” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly the Wikipedia articles on heaven and hell support this theory, as the section on the Christian hell is much longer than the corresponding article on the Christian heaven. The Christian heaven merely has “many mansions“, while the Christian hell is more complex. In fiction especially as exemplified by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in myth as in Egyptian beliefs hell can be envisaged as complex hierarchies.

But basically, we have no way of knowing for sure if heaven and hell are real and separate realms from our standard world. There can be no physical contact between such realms and our own, since physics describes only the behaviour of things within a single realm and it has no purview outside of that.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) ...

The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480-1505) by Hieronymus Bosch. Oil on wood triptych, 220 cm x 389 cm, now in the Museo del Prado. High-resolution version from The Prado in Google Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can’t know for sure, so while we may think that they exist and believe in heaven and hell, we should look for our ethics only in this world. Any other course is illogical.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Part II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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