Meditation – sort of

English: By kac's meditation
English: By kac’s meditation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meditation brings a lot of contentment to a lot of people, but it is not for me. Oh, I’ve tried it, but I can’t get around a feeling that I’d rather be doing things than sitting there musing on things. Introspection yields practically nothing for me.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t ponder on life, the Universe and all that as anyone who has ever read any of my pondering in this blog and elsewhere will know. In particular I have a fascination for numbers and mathematics. I’ve also wondered about most of the things that occur as topics in philosophy at one time or another.

English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of m...
English: Square root of x formula. Symbol of mathematics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These musings occur mostly when something triggers them, like a comment in a blog that I’m reading, or the title of the latest book on philosophy. Or even something as mundane as a lotto draw. Or washing up. Any of those can trigger a period of thought about some topic.

In case anyone is wondering, washing up can trigger thoughts about bubbles, or caustic curves, or music when two items of crockery produce a note when they touch during the process. Why, for example does an octave resonate in our minds.

Embed from Getty Images

A note sounds remarkably like a note one octave above it, while sounding different to it. Two notes clash or alternatively resonate, and we call them consonant or dissonant. OK, part of the answer to that one is that if the ratio of the frequencies notes is simple, then the notes are consonant, whereas if the ratio of the frequencies is not simple, the notes are dissonant. However, it is not as simple as that.

Three notes for a chord and things get even more complex, and yet composers seem to intuitively know the rules and complexities and use and even bend them for their own purposes. One composer’s consonance is another composer’s assonance.

Embed from Getty Images

Meditation seems to have benefits for many people, and some organisations have reported benefits from introducing meditation into the workplace. Presumably these benefits outweigh the cost of the time lost in meditation, otherwise it would be of little benefit to the organisation.

That’s the crux of the matter, really. Is the time spent in meditation worth the cost in time taken to meditate? Is it better to spend your time out in the open walking and observing the views, the plants and animals around you, or to stay in one spot and meditating on a flower or whatever? Of course, you can tramp the trails and meditate as some level as you go.

Embed from Getty Images

A form of meditation is introspection, where the person who is meditating tries to examine his or her conscious thoughts or feelings. I’ve tried to do this many times and I find it frustrating. It is easy enough to gauge one’s mood and how one is feeling at a particular time, but I have never ever had a glimpse of any conscious thoughts.

Never have I observed my thoughts when I am thinking about something. For instance, I can imagine that I am staring at something green. I can gain no insight into what it means to be looking at something green. Try it yourself. Close your eyes and imagine a uniform greenness. I would say that you can think of greenness, and you can think of yourself thinking of greenness but you can’t think of yourself thinking of greenness at the same time that you are thinking of greenness.

Embed from Getty Images

Similarly, we can think of ourselves winning the lotto and what we would do with the money, but we can’t, at the same time, think of ourselves thinking of winning the lotto. We can think about our thoughts, but only after we have thought them. We can’t think of the while they are happening.

Out thoughts don’t have to be about real things. There are people, usually mathematicians who try to visualise objects in four dimensions rather than the usual three. Actually, visualising three dimensional objects is hard enough. Try this. Imagine a flexible torus (doughnut shape). Imagine that you make a small puncture in it and pull the edges of the puncture over the torus.

In other words, try to turn it inside out. What shape do you get? The answer turns out to be another torus, but it is not easily visualised. In addition while you can imagine yourself visualising it, you can’t think about yourself visualising it while you are actually doing it. In other words, our consciousnesses seem to be single threaded.

Actually, if you could observe yourself thinking about something, you could presumably observe yourself observing yourself thinking about something, and so on. This would, in theory lead to an infinite layers of you observing yourself.

Embed from Getty Images

Meditation on thoughts or deeds, as I understand it as a non-practitioner, then comes down to a focused concentration on thoughts that have already been thought, as it were, and I guess that meditation could bring one awareness of why one thought those thought or did that deed. This is no doubt beneficial as such meditation could identify things about thoughts and deeds that one could change, perhaps simply by making one aware of why one had those thoughts or did that deed.

For example, if you meditate about what you have done on a particular occasion you might form the conclusion that you should have done something different. When the situation arises next, you will have a considered analysis of what you did before and it may influence you to do something different.

Or you may conclude, during your meditation, that certain events led you into that situation, and you could then avoid those events, thereby avoiding the situation. For instance, you may conclude that rashness is an issue for you and that you should avoid rashness. Tying this to a mantra or key phrase could enable you to avoid rashness, by reminding you of your conclusion and enabling you through the mantra to avoid it. This of course depends on you being able to determine when you are about to do something rash and therefore trigger the mantra and the avoidance.

[I’m not too happy with this post. But let it stand for now. I’ll maybe revisit this later.]

Embed from Getty Images

 

The process of Philosophy

Philosophy & Poetry
Philosophy & Poetry (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

Philosophy is a strange pastime. Scientists measure and weigh. Mathematicians wrangle axioms and logical steps. All other disciplines draw on these two fields, which are probably linked at deep level, but philosophy draws from nothing except thoughts and the philosopher’s view of the Universe.

 

Mathematics
Mathematics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that’s not completely accurate because philosophy has to be about something and the only something we have is the universe. But philosophy does not have to be about the universe as we know it. What if there was no such thing as electrical charge, or, the prudent philosopher thinks, what if there was no such thing as the thing we call electrical charge. At a more basic level, what is electrical charge.

Lichtenberg
Lichtenberg (Photo credit: caddymob)

 

Philosophers are always getting pushed back by scientists as scientists figure what they think is the case. If there is a scientific consensus on what comprises an electric charge then that question no longer interest philosophers to any great extent. Philosophers mentally travel through the lands marked “Here be dragons”.

 

Dragon from PSF D-270006.png
Dragon from PSF D-270006.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophy is also interested in less “physical” things like ethics and morals, what comprises identity, predestination or free will, what can we know and what knowing is all about. How did the Universe come to exist, or more basically, why is there something rather than nothing?

 

If you look at this list it comprises extensions to or extrapolations from physics, psychology, physiology, medicine, biology, and other fields of science. Philosophy doesn’t use mathematics (usually), but it uses logical argument or should. It not (usually) built on axioms, so doesn’t have the rigid formality of mathematics.

Illustration of Plato's Allegory of the cave.
Illustration of Plato’s Allegory of the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philosophers are big users of metaphor, such as Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. A metaphor of the expansion of a balloon was used as a philosophical explanation of the expansion of the Universe discovered by Edwin Hubble. Philosophers also imagine physical machines which do not yet exist and which may never exist, such as the ‘teleporter’ which makes a material object at point A disappear and reappear at point B.

Star Trek - Enterprise D Transporter
Star Trek – Enterprise D Transporter (Photo credit: tkksummers)

Quantum physicists have teleported quantum information from one point to another, but this is not the same as teleporting atoms. So far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, what is teleported is information about the state of an atom, so the same atoms must already be at point B before the teleportation event, and the event is a sort of imprinting on the target atoms. It sounds like the atoms at point A remain in situ, so it is more of a tele-duplication process really. However I don’t really understand the Wikipedia article so I may be wrong.

Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon
Diagram for quantum teleportation of a photon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The philosopher is not interested in the quantum nuts and bolts though. He or she would be interested in the process – is a person walks in to the teleporter at point A the same person as the person who walks out of the transporter at point B? Unless his actual atoms are transported by the process, which seems an unlikely implementation, the person at point A shares nothing with the person at point B except a configuration of a second set of atoms. Is the person at point A destroyed by the machine and recreated at point B? What if something goes wrong and the person at point A does not disappear when the button is pressed? Then we have two instances of the person. Which is the real instance?

Unknown Person
Unknown Person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notice that the philosopher takes a physical situation of travel from point A to point B and considers a special case, that of travelling between the two point without travelling the old slow way of travelling between all the intervening points and doing it quickly. There is no physics which can currently perform this task, but as usual, scientists are working to, one might say, fill in the gaps.

The Sci-Fi Fly!
The Sci-Fi Fly! (Photo credit: Carolyn Lehrke)

Many times the scientist is also a philosopher – he may have at the back of his mind the concept of teleportation when he creates his hypotheses and does his experiments, but he probably doesn’t concern himself with identity. That is still the realm of the philosopher at present, but if a teleportation device were ever created, it would stop being a philosophical matter, and become a matter of law and psychology and maybe some field that does not exist yet, just as the field of psychology did not exist at one time.

General Psychology
General Psychology (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

I’m trying to paint a picture of the area that a philosopher is interested in. If the whole of human knowledge is a planet, then physics and maths are part of the outer most layers of the atmosphere, the exosphere, and this merges with the depths of space are the domain of philosophy. At lower levels are things like chemistry, biology, psychology and other more applied sciences. Don’t look too closely at this analogy because I can see two or three things wrong with it, and I’m not even trying.

English: View of the crescent moon through the...
English: View of the crescent moon through the top of the earth’s atmosphere. Photographed above 21.5°N, 113.3°E. by International Space Station crew Expedition 13 over the South China Sea, just south of Macau (NASA image ID: ISS013-E-54329). Français : Photo des couches hautes de l’atmosphère terrestre. Polski: Zdjęcie górnych warstw atmosfery ziemskiej z widocznym przejściem w przestrzeń kosmiczną. Ελληνικά: Η Γήινη ατμόσφαιρα, η φωτογραφία ελήφθη από το διάστημα κι ύψος 335 χιλιόμετρα (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the main point I am making is that philosophy purposefully pokes and prods the areas beyond the domain of current mathematics and physics. Of course the line is not a definite line and there is a grey area. Some physical hypotheses verge into philosophy and some philosophical ideas are one step from becoming physical hypotheses. The suggestion that there be many universe like and unlike ours is one such suggestion that physicists are taking seriously these days.

2-step branching in many-worlds theory
2-step branching in many-worlds theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of these ideas are not new and many have been used in what has been called “science fiction” for many years, especially the parallel universe theory. Time travel is another common science fiction theme. Although these ideas are used and developed by authors of fiction, physicists have adopted such ideas to advance science, though I don’t mean to suggest that scientists have directly borrowed the ideas of science fiction authors. It is probable that many ideas actually travelled in the opposite direction, from science to fiction.

English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox.
English: Minkowski diagram of the twin paradox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since philosophy is at heart discursive and not rigidly analytical (in most cases), there is more freedom to expand on ideas that are not what is called “mainstream”. Because of this freedom it is likely that (like economists) no two philosophers will agree on anything, but they will have fun arguing about it.

 

The Argument Sketch
The Argument Sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Related articles

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Consciousness, in mice and men and flatworms

Deutsch: Phrenologie
Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all emergent phenomena consciousness is the most mysterious, probably because we don’t seem to have a handle on the concept. We don’t understand how it arises and probably not much about what it comprises and how it works. We know that it, apparently, can be switched on and off, as when we go to sleep or are sedated or knocked out by some accident or other.

It is only marginally under our control. In general terms we can be conscious or awake, but not conscious of anything specific. We can be in a reverie or day dream, or we can be doing something semi-automatically, like driving. But we can “snap to” and be conscious of something specific, as when some event happens while driving that needs our full attention. Or the door bell snaps us out of our reverie, or we notice a cloud that looks like a dog, or cat, or, more likely, a sheep!

English: We're following the leader! What caus...
English: We’re following the leader! What caused the car in front to brake? Was it a horse and rider? Was it someone coming off the public footpath on the brow of the hill? That’s the pleasure of nose-to-tail driving on the A158. It just keeps your brain alert all the time! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even when we are fully awake and concentrating on the idiot who just pulled out in front of us, we perform actions of which we are not fully aware, such as change down a gear or put on the brakes. We are aware of these actions to some extent as they are not fully automatic, like the movement of our legs when we walk, but we don’t have to think about which pedal to press or how to move the gear lever to change gear, as we did when we were learning to drive.

Washoe
Washoe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I might have said before, in a previous post, that I don’t think that it is feasible that consciousness is only found in mankind. Chimpanzees share 98.8% of our genes, so it reasonable that they share many of our abilities and they can certainly use tools and reason. It is unlikely that consciousness is an expression of something in the 1.2% of the genes that are unique to humans. Chimpanzees show fear and happiness , they sulk, they get angry and show other emotions. While the expression of emotions doesn’t prove that they are conscious, I find it hard to imagine a conscious entity would not express its consciousness through emotions, and that a non-conscious entity would show any emotions.

Computer mouse
Computer mouse (Photo credit: Pockafwye)

If chimpanzees are conscious animals as we are, then it follows that other animals are conscious entities to some extent or other. Some people believe that it has been demonstrated that most animals have consciousness, but I consider to be very likely, but not yet proved. Even a mouse, a “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” as Robert Burns put it, demonstrates its fear, and with its own species, anger. It is unlikely that a mouse is *as* aware as a human or even a chimpanzee, and it would be very difficult to find self consciousness in a flatworm though.

English: The planarian Schmidtea mediterranea
English: The planarian Schmidtea mediterranea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then again, consciousness is related to mind and to the brain, and the brain is the major part of the “Central Nervous System” in mammals. It is possible that the more complicated a brain the more consciousness a animal possesses. Even a flatworm possesses a very simple brain-like structure called a ganglion. So, maybe, a flatworm posses a spark of consciousness, an atom of awareness of the most rudimentary sort.

English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain,...
English: Main regions of the vertebrate brain, shown for a shark and a human brain (the human brain is sliced along the midline). The two brains are not on the same scale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or there may be some threshold below which consciousness is impossible. A simple eyespot, such as flatworms possess cannot form an image. To form an image a much more complicated eye structure is required, so there must some limit of animal complexity at which vision can be said to be possible. A fuzzy limit, maybe, but a limit nevertheless.

If consciousness is truly an emergent phenomenon of the brain, the what properties of the brain could enable consciousness? Just as the chemical and electrical properties of water molecules are what enable the emergent property of wetness, some features of the brain and its shadow partner, the mind, must lead in some way to the phenomenon of consciousness.

English: Two water molecules
English: Two water molecules (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most obvious characteristic of the brain that really differentiates the brain from other organs is the concentration of neurons, billions of them, each connected to thousands of others by synapses. The number of connections is immense, but sheer complexity in itself does not imply consciousness.

In the case of emergent phenomena in general, it seems to me that it is easier to work from the top down as it were, the macro and consider what micro properties could feasibly cause the phenomenon. If we look at the wetness of water and consider that water is made up of molecules with physical, chemical and electrical characteristics we can at least speculate that the wetness of water is at least partly caused by the way that the molecules stick to and move across other molecules in a surface such as the skin. The water molecules are able to stick and let go and move over other molecules in a way that wets a surface, and forms a concave meniscus in a tube in a characteristic way.

English: Pendle Water, Nelson, Lancashire At t...
English: Pendle Water, Nelson, Lancashire At the South end of Victoria Park, Pendle Water flows out of the park, for a couple of miles to join the Lancashire Calder, which after a few miles westward, itself will flow into the River Ribble and hence to Preston and the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Who knows where the water molecules that we see here passing in December 2008 will have got to by now? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In  comparison mercury atoms have different electrical chemical and physical characteristics. They don’t form molecules in the same way, and while they slide over one another, they don’t stick to other molecules and let go in the way that water molecules do. Consequently mercury atoms don’t wet surfaces like water molecules do and a mercury meniscus is convex not concave.

Close-up of a mercury-filled maximum thermomet...
Close-up of a mercury-filled maximum thermometer. The break in the column of mercury is visible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, we can work out, in rough terms, why water is wet, by comparing water and mercury, and noting their micro-properties. Can we achieve the same with the phenomenon of consciousness? Well, the brain is a computation engine of sorts, and so maybe we can compare it to a computer. Computers are not (yet) conscious and brains contain minds which are conscious. Can we make any guesses based on that?

Babbage difference engine
Babbage difference engine (Photo credit: tolomea)

You can probably tell from the questioning way that I am discussing this topic that I don’t have any firm opinions on the matter. There are a couple of differences that I will point out though.

Computers are highly organised and computational functions and memory functions are completely separate, physically and computationally. A computer is also clock driven, with each operation taking up exactly the same number of “clock ticks” each time it is performed. In contrast, while a brain does have areas in which functions seem to reside, and a particular area may “light up” every time one raises a finger for example, memory seems to be more diffuse in its location, as compared to a computer.

English: Thalamus. Part of the brain. MRI image.
English: Thalamus. Part of the brain. MRI image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Secondly, a brain’s “architecture” changes over time, whereas a computer’s does not. A brain may make new connections (which may have something to do with memory), while a computer stays as it was when built.

Thirdly, a brain is enormously more complex than any computer yet built, at least in terms of the number of interconnections in it and its ability to re-wire itself with new connections.

Synaptical transmission (chemical). A: Neuron ...
Synaptical transmission (chemical). A: Neuron (Presynaptic) B: Neuron (Postsynaptic) Mitochondria Synaptic vesicle full of neurotransmitter Autoreceptor Synaptic cleft Neurotransmitter receptor Calcium Channel Fused vesicle releasing neurotransmitter Neurotransmitter re-uptake pump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know if these differences are significant in terms of explaining the problem of consciousness. I suspect that they are at the root of the problem, but I could be totally wrong. It may be the “programs” that run in the brain and computer that make the difference, but that just moves the issue to another arena.

And I’ve run out of space. I could touch on the “android” question, but I’ll leave that for now.

English: This is a photograph of EveR-2, a fem...
English: This is a photograph of EveR-2, a female android developed by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology and demonstrated to the public in October 2006. It is 165cm tall and weighs 60kg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Enhanced by Zemanta

Blogging – how is it going?

blogging
blogging (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

When I started this blog, 60-odd posts ago, I had no idea where it was going. Of course I had some ideas on what I wanted. Philosophy, cooking and photography. As it turns out, there’s been a bit of philosophy going on, but it’s not been centre stage, as it were. There’s been a decline in the cooking posts, which I intend to remedy sooner or later, and the photography has been non-existent. That’s because most of my photography has gone into my Facebook page.

So what have I been blogging about? I looked back and, well, I’m surprised to note that my posts, were philosophical in tone, but not necessarily what I’d call “philosophically motivated”, but often triggered by events that have come to my attention either in my personal life or in the media. Some serious and some not serious. As an example this post has turned into a philosophical review of earlier posts.

P philosophy
P philosophy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what can I reflect on over 60-odd posts, apart from my apparent tendency to seek deeper meaning in the relatively trivial? Because I don’t consider my posts to be “deeply meanignful”.

Well one aspect of this one-a-week blogging thing strikes me immediately. I am a procrastinator and my previous attempts at blogging or similar have failed miserably. Currently I am up to 60-odd posts and still going. (Pats self on back). What is different this time?

English: Old gatepost Field openings used to b...
English: Old gatepost Field openings used to be closed by putting posts in the holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, one of the factors I think is WordPress. As a confirmed technophile, I have tried many other solutions, and even tried the DIY approach. I can speak several computer languages like a native, and I can achieve passable programs in several others. I don’t care what language it is, if I want to learn it for anything, it doesn’t take me long. (Note to self: write an article about programming “in the zone” and “thinking in a programming language”!)

WordPress
WordPress (Photo credit: Adriano Gasparri)

WordPress is different in that I don’t have to program anything. I just write my thoughts in a fairly forgiving editor, add a few images and click the “Publish” button. No doubt there are other similar systems out there, but I came across WordPress and it works for me. I can bash out 1000-ish words per week and cast them into the ether, or at least the Internet, and I have achieved my self-imposed goal.

cassini science targets
cassini science targets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happens when it gets out there depends on whether my thinking resonates with others out there on the Internet. I get emails saying that so-and-so “liked” a post, which is nice, or that so-and-so is now “following” my posts, which is nicer, but comments on my posts are rare. Insert not-smiley emoticon. I’m not sure why. Maybe I should solicit and respond to comments? Insert smiley emoticon.

Smiley Rocks
Smiley Rocks (Photo credit: w3i_yu)

Anyhow, I like WordPress and it works for me, but there are probably, almost certainly, other blogging systems that would do as well, each with their own quirks and wrinkles. I wouldn’t presume to say that WordPress is the best or that WordPress is for everyone. But it works for me.

I aim to do approximately 1000 words per post (the editor tells me I’m just over half way there – helpful). I base this on the concept that if the post is too long, it won’t get read to the end, unless it is *really* interesting. I don’t aspire to be more than 1000 words interesting! I think that’s reasonable and I hope it *is* reasonable, otherwise I’m wasting my time.

English: This is a modification of File:200902...
English: This is a modification of File:20090211 thousand words-01.jpg, which I digitally cropped, to remove the title and the copyright notice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I started this blog, I decided that I would post on Friday or Saturday each week. That has slid out to Tuesday occasionally, but I’m pleased to say that I have maintained the once a week target since I decided to attempt it. Yay! There are personal reasons why Friday and Saturday are not conducive to blog writing, and Sunday is the day that I am (effectively) targetting these days. I’m writing this on a Sunday.

Who am I blogging to? I putting these posts out there, on the Internet, and presumably I hope that someone will read them. Actually, that not as clear cut as all that. While I love the idea that some people might find my posts (ruminations? ramblings?) interesting, I don’t think that I’d be disappointed if nobody read them. If anyone does, please comment with “Hey, Cliff, I read the post.” Extra comments optional!

Duty Calls
Duty calls.

Blogging is a narcissistic occupation. The blogger puts his thoughts out there, on the Internet, because he thinks his thoughts are of some value. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. It doesn’t matter to the blogger, or at least to this blogger.  If you figure out the millions of bloggers world-wide and the number of postings that they make per day, it is unlikely that any one blogger is likely to attract a lot of attention. Unless they happen to be President of the United States or something.

I’m always grateful when someone comments on my posts though. I don’t think that the blogging medium is particularly good for having a conversation or discussion though, as I don’t spend a lot of time on it, and I don’t get a huge number of comments. I do know that some people do end up with 1000s of comments on their posts, but those blogs tend to be specialised – political blogs for example. I don’t have such a detailed target, so I’m happy with the few comments and likes that I get.

Models of Blogs: Blog as Participant in Conver...
Models of Blogs: Blog as Participant in Conversation (3 of 3) (Photo credit: robinhamman)
Enhanced by Zemanta

Why do things make sense?

Make it make sense
Make it make sense (Photo credit: edmittance)

Things pretty much make sense. If they don’t we feel that there is a reason that they don’t. We laughingly make up goblins and poltergeist to explain how the keys came to be in the location in which they are finally found, but we, mostly, have an underlying belief that there are good, physical reasons why they ended up there.

Things appear to get a little murkier at the level of the quantum, the incredibly small, but even there, I believe that scientists are looking for an explanation of the behaviour of things, no matter how bizarre. One of the concepts that appears to have to be abandoned is that of every day causality, although scientists appear to be replacing that concept with a more probabilistic version of  the concept of causality. But I’m not going to go there, as quantum physics has to be spelled out in mathematics or explained inaccurately using analogies. I note that there is still discussion about what quantum physics means.

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...
English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We strive for meaning when we consider why things happen. When a stone is dropped it accelerates towards the earth. This is observation. We also observe the way in which it accelerates and Sir Isaac Newton, who would have known from his mathematics the equation which governed this acceleration, had the genius to realise that the mutual attraction of the earth and the stone followed an inverse square law and, even more importantly, that this applied to any two objects which have mass in the entire universe.

English: Mural, Balfour Avenue, Belfast Mural ...
English: Mural, Balfour Avenue, Belfast Mural on a gable wall on Balfour Avenue in Belfast (see also 978903). The mural “How can quantum gravity help explain the origin of the universe?” was created by artist Liam Gillick and is part of a series of contemporary art projects designed to alert people to the ‘10 remaining unanswered questions in science’ at public sites across Belfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, that’s done. We know why stones fall and why the earth unmeasurably and unnoticeably jumps to meet it. It is all explained, or is it? Why should any two massy objects experience this attraction? Let’s call it ‘gravity’, shall we? How can we explain gravity?

Well, we could say that it is a consequence of the object having mass, or in other words, it is an intrinsic property of massy objects, which if you think about it, explains nothing, or we can talk about curvature of space, which is interesting, but again explains nothing.

Curved Spaces
Curved Spaces (Photo credit: Digitalnative)

Can you see where I am going with this? Every concept that we consider is either ‘just the way things are’ or requires explanation. Every explanation that we can think up either has to be taken as axiomatic or has to be explained further. Nevertheless most people act as if they believe that there is a logical explanation for things and  that things ultimately make sense.

It is possible that there is no logical explanation of things, and that the apparent relationships between things is an illusion. I once read a science fiction story where someone invented a time machine. Everywhere the machine stopped there was chaos, because there were no laws of nature and our little sliver of time was a mere statistical fluke. When they tried to return to the present they could not find it. This little story demonstrates that although we appear to live in a universe that is logical and there appears to be a structure to it, this may just be an illusion.

English: Illustration of the difference betwee...
English: Illustration of the difference between high statistical significance and statistical meaningfulness of time trends. See Wikipedia article “Statistical meaningfulness test” for more info (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we do live in a logical universe we not be able to access and understand the basis and structure of it. We may see things “through a glass darkly”. We may be like the inhabitants of Plato’s Cave. Everything we experience we experience through our senses, so our experience of the world is already second-hand and for many purposes we use tools and instruments to view the world around us. Also, our sense impressions are filtered, modified and processed by our brains in the process of experiencing something. We can take prescribed or non-prescribed drugs which alter our view of the world. So how can we know anything about the universe.

Alternatively there may be order to the universe. There may be ‘laws of nature’ and we may be slowly discovering them. I like the analogy of the blanket – a blanket is held between us and the universe but we are able to poke holes in it. Each hole reveals a metaphoric pixel of information about what lies behind the blanket. Over the years, decades, centuries and millennia we have poked an astronomical number of holes in the blanket, so we have a good idea of the shape of what lies behind it.

Cámara estenopéica / Pinhole camera
Cámara estenopéica / Pinhole camera (Photo credit: RubioBuitrago)

So why do things make sense? Is it because there is a structure to the universe that we are either discovering or fooling ourselves into believing that we are discovering, or is there no structure whatsoever and any beliefs that there are illusions. Maybe there’s another possibility. Maybe the universe does have the structure but it is an ‘ad hoc’ structure with no inherent logic to it all!

Highly Illogical
Highly Illogical (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Predicting the future

Future car!
Future car! (Photo credit: Little Black Cherry)

The farmer fed the chicken every morning at the same. The chicken realised this and ran up to the farmer every morning to be fed. One morning the chicken ran up to the farmer who grabbed it and chopped off its head. This demonstrates the dangers of inductive reasoning. The old turkey was a little more sophisticated however. When asked by a younger turkey when Thanksgiving was, he replied that it was on the fourth Friday in November. The younger turkey was incensed to find out that it was the fourth Thursday in November. The older turkey said to him “Boy, the humans celebrate it on the Thursday, but if I wake up on Friday morning, then I give thanks”.

Induction is looking at the past in a particular way to predict the future. Specifically, induction looks at a series of events in the past to predict the future. The sun has risen like clockwork every day, whether or not you can see it, for as long as anyone can remember and for as long as we can determine from reports from the past. Will it rise tomorrow morning?  I would put money on it because either it will, and I win, or it won’t and it won’t matter because we will almost certainly be dead. The argument comes down to “It has always happened in the past, so it will (or it is extremely like to) happen in the future.

Zabriskie Point at sunrise in Death Valley
Zabriskie Point at sunrise in Death Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The alternative method of reasoning is deductive reasoning. The deductive argument is that the rising of the sun is a consequence of the rotation of the earth. As the earth rotates, the sun appears to us on the earth’s surface to appear from beneath the horizon and travel across the sky. Actually, it is us who move, a good demonstration of relativity (but maybe I’ll go there another day). The argument goes stepwise from fact to fact and leads inevitably or logically to a conclusion.

Horus, ancient Egyptian God, the Sun God, depi...
Horus, ancient Egyptian God, the Sun God, depicted on papyrus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trouble with this approach is that, for all its logical stepwise approach it is built on two things, a theory and a set of past observations. A scientist has a theory or decides to check a theory, so he does an experiment, and the results of his experiment support or do not support the experiment. The scientist assumes that the theory is true and bases his predictions on this. Unfortunately there is an inductive element to this – if the theory is true for the experiment, there is no guarantee that it will be true for subsequent experiments, even given that ‘ceteris paribus’ (all things remain the same). Some other unconsidered cause could affect the result. The argument is deductive, proceeding in logical steps from the theory, but the practise is inductive – the data has always supported the theory in the past, so it will continue to support the theory in the future.

New Scientist
New Scientist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be fair to the inductivists, todays’ inductivists tend to specify the results of their arguments in terms of probabilities: the probability of the sun rising tomorrow is close to 100%, given that it has always risen in the morning for as far back as we can see, but there is a minute but finite possibility that it won’t for known or unknown reasons.

Let’s consider the case of the sun rising each day and suppose that the fact that the earth rotates is not known. To make the argument more deductive we can postulate causes and so long as the cause fits the facts, we can tentatively label the cause as a hypothesis. Suppose we conjecture that some deity causes the sun to rise each morning. This hypothesis certainly fits the facts and predicts with accuracy that the sun will continue to rise each morning. Such a hypothesis would not be accepted today, of course, except by some individuals.

Mathematical induction can be informally illus...
Mathematical induction can be informally illustrated by reference to the sequential effect of falling dominoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is there any great difference between the theist and the scientist? The theist says “all things happen because of God”. The scientist says “all things happen because of the laws of nature”. They both explain things on the basis of their fundamental beliefs.

It is possible that people in the future may look at our theories of the sun rising and other things and consider them naive and consider our view of everything happening according to the laws of nature to be a quaint misunderstanding, in much the same way as many people would consider the “deity hypothesis” to be today.

cubed earth theory
cubed earth theory (Photo credit: Joelstuff V4)

In mathematics the situation is different. Induction is a much more formal process and is applied on top of an axiomatic system. Proved theorems are the results of the applying the axioms repeatedly to another proved theorem or the axioms themselves. Unproven assertions can be proved and turned into theorems or disproved and discarded (or possibly modified so that they can be proved). If something is proved in an axiomatic system, it is true for all time, and cannot be disproved in that system.

Specifically an inductive proof would go something like this: firstly the theorem would be proved for a generic case (eg if statement N is true, then statement N + 1 is true) and secondly it is proved for a specific case (eg statement 1 is true). Then all applicable statements are true because, if statement 1 is true, the generic case means that statement 2 is true, and so on for all cases. Because of the rigor of the argument and the undeniable conclusion of the argument, mathematical inductive proofs are of the same order of reliability as deductive proofs, that is, they are only wrong if there is an error in the logic.

English: Mathematical induction as domino effe...
English: Mathematical induction as domino effect, with text in Esperanto Esperanto: Matematika indukto kiel domen-efiko, kun teksto en Esperanto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why the difference between scientific induction and mathematical induction? Well, I think that it is related to the fact that mathematics is axiomatic and therefore certain, whereas scientific induction is based on the laws of nature which are not and never will be, in my opinion, completely defined. If the basis of your argument is not certain, how can your conclusion be certain?

The End Of Certainty?
The End Of Certainty? (Photo credit: minifig)

Morals and Ethics

Morality
Morality

Almost every philosophy book, or at least the ones that deal with the whole of philosophy, has a section on morals and ethics. I’ve always been suspicious of such chapters as the topic seems to me to be a little vague, even for philosophy.

I saw a news report about a group of people who, at some risk to themselves, formed a human chain to rescue a boy in trouble in the sea. I asked the question “Would you have risked your life, like these people did to save the boy’s life or would you merely stand and watch?” Some of rescuers, notably the policemen who initially formed the chain, had to be helped out of the sea themselves.

I realised that I’d asked an unanswerable question. It very much depends on the circumstances. If you sincerely thought that your “help” would merely hinder the rescue, or if you sufferred from a medical condition such as a heart problem, then you would merely watch the rescue, no doubt willing the rescuers on. If you were fit and healthy and no other issues prevented you, you would no doubt take part, almost instinctively.

English: Hungarian Medal for Bravery

It strikes me from the above that morals and ethics don’t have any absolutes. There is no situation where it is completely obvious what the right course is. Should you kill one person to save a million? There is a school of thought called “Utilitarianism”, {link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism} suggests that the best way to decide would be to consider the options and choose the that “maximizes utility, specifically defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering” (See the above link).

Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism

The trouble with this approach is that no two people would agree on the calculations involved. What if the person who is to be killed is your son or daughter? What is the situation were slightly less clear? Should a killer be put to death to protect his potential future victims?

Death Row

Some people introduce deities to provide an absolute basis for ethics and morals, but this merely shifts the question to deity – how does the deity provide moral and ethical direction? The question is no longer “What should I do?” but “What would God want me to do?” The believer has to make subjective moral judgements about the way that God would want morals to work. The believer is in fact no further on.

Moses receives the Tablets of the Law, and hea...

This seems to reduce morals and ethics to subjective opinions, a view known as “Relativism”. The religious view is that God (or whatever the deity is being called) sets the absolutes, so there can be no moral relativism. The difficulty with this view is that we are no further along in determining the absolutes if they are absolutes. It seems that different deities have different absolutes, and the same deity’s “absolutes” may change over time – the morals and ethics of earlier times is different to the morals and ethics of earlier times. For example slavery was OK at one time but is not OK today. In any a special class of people has evolved whose whole life is based on the need for the deities views to be defined and interpreted.

I’d suggest that most people treat moral and ethical matters more or less pragmatically, depending on their culture and upbringing. Those who are not on the breadline tend to consider that accepting an unemployment benefit or other benefit is somehow not morally correct while those without jobs are happy to claim them. If someone on a benefit were to suddenly become rich, and a rich person become desititute then they would get an idea of each other’s viewpoint. I’d suggest that the erstwhile rich person would accept the dole with reluctance, and their moral qualms would subside and the reverse would happen to the suddenly enriched beneficiary, who might come to feel that those on benefits are getting too much of his money. Hopefully the enriched beneficiary would have a more enlightened view than the erstwhile rich person had, though, having actually been a beneficiary at one time.

Huts and unemployed, West Houston and Mercer S...

While researching on the Internet on this topic, I came across this set of articles about morality and the brain {Link: http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/morality-located-in-brain1.htm} They are worth a look. One of the points is that the emotional side of the brain makes a decision, maybe about the killing of a child to save many, and the rational side tries to figure out why the emotional side made the decision. Maybe the discussion is pointless. Maybe most moral decisions made in the heat of the moment are made emotionally and all discussions on what the correct course should be are post-decision rationalizations. If that is so, then there is no real point in discussing what is right and moral as rational decisions do not come into it. But then again, maybe such decisions inform and incline the emotional side of the brain when it makes a decision. Maybe that’s what makes discsussion of moral and ethics topics in philosophy seem so fuzzy and unsatisfactory to me.

reason, conclusion - emotion, action
reason, conclusion – emotion, action (Photo credit: Will Lion)