Monday, 19 February 2018

Fermi's Paradox . . . But What If?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Seven decades ago, the physicist-of-atomic-bomb-fame, Enrico Fermi, pondered with his lunchtime companions at Los Alamos whether other intelligent life forms populate planets around the Milky Way, and if so, why we have no evidence of them? He purportedly asked, “Where are they?”, meaning, of course, the alien beings. Because if other complex, intelligent, technology-clever life forms have even a fraction of humankind’s proclivity toward curiosity and, let’s say, colonization, then why is there no evidence of them having acted on these instincts throughout our galaxy? From that conundrum, Fermi’s Paradox emerged.

The American astrophysicist, Frank Drake, later thought about which factors might be necessary to address Fermi’s question and, in particular, how many technological civilizations, emitting electromagnetic signals, might exist among the stars of just our galaxy alone. These became known as Drake’s Equation, and offer a way to calculate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way based on seven variables.* Although scientists can’t yet insert firm numbers for the variables, I think Drake’s effort remains a worthy first attempt at eventually quantifying an answer to Fermi’s question. Especially given that the physical laws of evolution could well differ among far-flung, unfamiliarly diverse chemical, biological, and physical conditions and constraints, yielding singularly different intelligent species.

Many ‘what if’ hypotheses exist by way of possible answers to Fermi’s deceptively simple question. For example, perhaps technology-based civilizations and species with sophisticated intelligence are too far separated by space and time, measured even in thousands of light-years to reveal any presence. Or perhaps, because of the finely grained conditions necessary for life with high intelligence to evolve (the ‘anthropic principle’), civilizations are so rare and scattered that it’s difficult to find each other. Certainly it seems that our own sending-receiving (and space-faring) technologies are too primitive to matter much yet in the sophisticated game of cosmic outreach. Or just perhaps other civilizations have spotted us, but regard humankind as too biologically and intellectually primitive a species to bother with whom to show their hand. Or perhaps they regard humankind as a prototypically warring species, never-endingly engaged in small-minded, lethal belligerence over territory, resources, and power. Perhaps all intelligent species tend toward self-isolating wariness that outweighs curiosity about ‘the other’. Perhaps Thucydides’ thesis that established and rising powers are compelled to go to war applies even on the interplanetary scale.

All that said, should there eventually be confirmation of alien intelligent species that are endowed with far higher levels of consciousness and intelligence than humankind — qualities having evolved over histories hundreds of thousands or millions of years older than ours — then the consequence would be culturally tectonic shifting. As a species, perhaps lulled by so easily triumphing over so many of our Earthly competitors, we’re prone to indulging in flights of ‘exceptionalism’. We’re predisposed to looking at our reflection in life’s mirror and — more often looking down, not up — seeing only reasons to preen over our capacity for rationality, creativity, and imagination. To be unseated, with a thud, by an alien species’ cognitive prowess — and the benefits to its civilization — could prove unsettling for humankind’s indulgences in unchallenged exceptionalism.

At the very least, discovery of our sudden non-uniqueness might compel reexamination of basic principles. It might lead to fundamentally questioning religious texts, customs, tenets, rituals, codes of morality, ‘spirituality’, and dicta. If so, the result may be to rethink and rewrite the underlying explanations and descriptions, widening out the aperture of religious philosophy and theology to take into account the new realities of not being alone in the galaxy and in larger cosmos. At the heart of such teleological investigation and reinvention might be questions, which never go away, about humankind’s purpose: about why we are here.

The stunning space-time topography of this universe isn’t hubristically ours alone. I venture it’s a matter of when, not whether, the ‘code’ to Fermi’s Paradox will be cracked.

*Drake’s equation, as in our image, is typically shown as follows:

N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L,

Here N is the number of civilizations in the Milky Way whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable; R* is the rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life; fp is the fraction of those stars with planetary systems; ne is the number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life (the habitable, ‘Goldilocks’ zones around their suns); fl is the fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears; fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges; fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space; and L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Monday, 12 February 2018


By Tioti Timon *

In January 2018, in Kiribati, nearly 100 people, of whom 22 school children, tragically went missing on the high seas between Nonouti and Tarawa when a ferry sank. A comparable tragedy in the United States would have seen ¼-million people lost at sea. After four days, a New Zealand Defence Force Orion aircraft found seven survivors.

The Australian Broadcasting Network (ABC) reported on the tragedy—setting it in context by describing Kiribati as “a remote, impoverished nation of thirty-three atolls that is home to about 108,000 people”. Pi approached Tioti Timon of Kiribati for comment on the word “impoverished”.  He replied with free verse:

the word as presented globally
is a discriminatory term
rooted in colonial language
that has treated our people

Australia is a rich country
but there are poor people
begging in the street.
They are rich
but they are poor
in their culture.

Kiribati is a poor country
but we don’t have people
begging in the street.
We are poor
but we are rich
in reciprocity and family support.

What is the meaning
of impoverished,
when we have
the vast ocean around us
and our lives are not dependent
on money.

What is the meaning
of impoverished,
when we have
a material culture
of delightful sophistication
of thousands of years.

All Kiribati people
have their lands
and live subsistently
on their islands
enjoying life,
feasting, dancing, and singing.

We are living in a paradise
that we cannot experience
in an individualistic Australia.

I don't understand this word
applied to our country
in this sad situation
where the lives of our people are lost.

* Tioti Timon has been at the forefront of raising awareness of the effects of globalisation on his people, and their precarious position in view of climate change.  He extends his sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who were lost. The ABC news report is here.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Picture Post #33: Bourgeois Reminiscence

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio . Florence . Italy
 Picture credit: Antonio Borrani, 2017
Fragments of appearance are offered in the form of leftovers, sold at a market stall by the ounce. Not by the weight per square metre, as used by some manufactures, or by the linear yard. In any case, most likely these surplus fabrics, extras left over after use, could not reach those required measurements.

So instead here we find the evidence of what is left. Fragments not big enough to decorate an entire sofa, but maybe for a cushion it will do. Limited quantities for limited decoration.

The leftover fabric is a measured out merchandise until complete exhaustion. An excess to be sold anew. But this is not the defence of the poor, but rather of a poverty that, solely by its unoffending presence (when permitted) constitutes a critique of possession -- respects the form of private property.

Making such sense of self through this projection into an external referent is a form of psychosis, or to use a Lacanian term, foreclosure. The relation of the subject to the Other is one of dialectic exclusion. Is aspiring to images that offer a make-believe form of prestige a way to enhance an illusion, or to add to alienation?

For sure, we do not find cushions cut from this cloth in the iconic depiction of The Potato Eaters by Van Gogh…

Monday, 29 January 2018

Poetry: On Name-dropping

Posted by Chengde Chen *

On Name-dropping

Don’t keep dropping those great names
Showing off is self-abasing
Being tall may look remarkable, but
Not by lengthening your shadow in the setting sun

If you happen to be associated with a great name
You only 'happen to be' associated with it
Beethoven’s siblings didn’t necessarily compose
Nor must Einstein’s descendants understand physics

To drink liquor you can’t rely on others’ capacity
To sign a cheque you have to use your own name
The more borrowed jewellery you wear
The more should you feel like a beggar!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Deceptions of Mathematics

by Thomas Scarborough

Galileo Galilei, a man of formidable scientific ability, once wrote that ‘the universe cannot be read until we have learned the (mathematical) language.’  Mathematics, he suggested, would reveal the secrets of the entire cosmos.  It is a common view – yet it is deceptive.  In fact, it may reveal little more than hubris.
On the surface of it, mathematics – even more than science – would seem to be thoroughly objective.  Here there are no failed experiments, no false interpretations, no paradigm shifts.  In mathematics – so it is frequently assumed – there is perfect certainty.
1 + 1 = 2
the logarithm of 1 = 0
the square root of 1 = 1
and so on.
Yet we overlook something, which would seem as simple as one-two-three.  We apply mathematics, by and large, to things in the real world (pure mathematics being the exception to the rule) – and in order so to apply it, we identify units of quantity.  This identification of units of quantity begins with ‘quantification’ – we map our human sense observations into units of quantity, or simply, quantity. 

On first impressions, it might seem to us then that units of quantity come ready made.  Apples come in ones, oranges come in ones – so do people, animals, days, nights, doors, windows, and a great deal more.  And if they do not come in ones, then we may make them into ones: one kilogram, one litre, one block, and so on.  On this basis, we quantify things and perform various mathematical operations on them. 

However, it is not this simple – and even a child might know it.  Our ‘ones’ may really be anything at all – say, clouds with noses (‘I saw three of them today’), ants which fall off the wall (dozens), or dogs which wag their tails, and so on to infinity.  In each case we are dealing with the mathematical unit ‘one’.

The theoretical physicist Albert Einstein would surely have agreed.  He considered that a unit ‘singles out a complex from nature’.  This surely seems a contradiction in terms.  A complex consists of many different and connected parts – parts (plural) which get ‘singled’, out.  That is, one takes a bundle of things or properties, and one defines them as one.  Therefore, various things and various properties may all at once hide inside one and the same single mathematical unit. 

Now this opens up an obvious question.  Who then is to say that our mathematical units – those complexes which we have ‘singled’, out – are precisely the complexes we need for the purpose of our calculations?  Supposing that we really ought to have added something to a complex which we call ‘one’ – or that we really should have taken something out – before we began to make use of it? 

Besides, does one really find such a thing as a complex which is self-contained and closed?  Is not every singled out complex-cum-unit criss-crossed by associations and influences without number?

When we think on it, this is true even of the simplest things in this world.  For instance, we might temporarily assume that the complex ‘hamster’ does not include food or water – it merely refers to a rodent, of which there are so and so many millions in the world.  Yet this complex breaks down at a certain point, as some children can tragically relate, who forgot the food or water.

Consider a thought experiment – as if it had never been conducted before.  Supposing it is true that our complexes might leave things out – or squeeze things in that really ought to be left out.  What then would the logical consequences be?  Of course, high on the list would be that our mathematics may not fit reality, because our mathematical units are ‘not quite right’.  Not only that, but we should easily find examples of this in the world. 

And so it is.  The mathematics of circular orbits and epicycles had to be replaced with the mathematics of elliptical orbits – the mathematics of scalars, then vectors, had to be replaced by the mathematics of tensors.  The mathematics of classical thermodynamics had to be replaced by the mathematics of generalised thermodynamics – and so on.  In fact our complexes may contain an entire world-view which needs to be overhauled – for example, Newtonian physics.  Yet even with the new, we would do well to remember that we have now carved up our world into four mathematical models.

The nineteenth century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce saw that ‘every new concept first comes to the mind in a judgment.’  He was saying, apparently, that our ‘ones’ are simply creations of the mind.

On this basis, we may assume that even the simplest of mathematics is not as straightforward as it seems.  In fact mathematics, writes the pioneering statistician William Briggs, requires ‘slow, maturing thought’.  It is not just about numbers, but about wisdom and expansive thinking.

The deceptions are, therefore, that mathematics is objective – and that being objective, it makes an excellent fit with our world – perhaps a perfect fit with the cosmos, as Galileo suggested.   No.  On the contrary, we should see mathematics as a very flawed and very subjective tool – always too simplistic, always in some way violating the totality of the reality in which we live. Mathematics, at the least, should be handled with great humility.

Monday, 15 January 2018

What Are ‘Facts’?

On the trail of the Higgs Boson
Posted by Keith Tidman

What are 'facts'? The ages-long history of deception and sleights of hand and mind — including propaganda and political and psychological legerdemain — demonstrates just one of the many applications of false facts. But similar presentations of falsities meant to deceive, sow discord, or distract have been even more rife today, via the handiness and global ubiquity of the Internet. An enabler is the too-frequent lack of judicious curation and vetting of facts. And, in the process of democratizing access to facts, self-serving individuals may take advantage of those consumers of information who are ill-equipped or disinclined (unmotivated) to discern whether or not content is true. Spurious facts dot the Internet landscape, steering beliefs, driving confirmation bias, and conjuring tangible outcomes such as voting decisions. Interpretations of facts become all the more confounding in political arenas, where interpretations (the understanding) of facts among differently minded politicians becomes muddled, and ‘what’s actually the case’ remains opaque.

And yet surely it is the total anthology of facts — meaning things (their properties), concepts, and their interrelationships — that composes reality. Facts have multiple dimensions, including what one knows (epistemological aspects), how one semantically describes what’s known (linguistic aspects), and what meaning and purpose one attributes to what’s known (metaphysical aspects).

Facts are known on a sliding scale of certainty. An example that seems compelling to me comes from just a few years ago, when scientists announced that they had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, whose field generates mass through its interaction with other particles. The Higgs’s existence had been postulated earlier in mathematical terms, but empirical evidence was tantalizingly sought over a few decades. The ultimate confirmation was given a certainty of ‘five sigma’: that there was less than 1 chance in 3.5 million that what was detected was instead a random fluctuation. Impressive enough from an empirical standpoint to conclude discovery (a fact), yet still short of absolute certainty. With resort to empiricism, there is no case where some measure of doubt (of a counterfactual), no matter how infinitesimally small, is excluded.

Mathematics, meantime, provides an even higher level of certainty (rigor of method and of results) in applying facts to describe reality: Newtonian, Einsteinian, quantum theoretical, and other models of scientific realism. Indeed, mathematics, in its precise syntax, universal vocabulary, and singular purpose, is sometimes referred to as the language of reality. Indeed, as opposed to the world’s many natural languages (whose known shortcomings limit understanding), mathematics is the best, and sometimes the only, language for describing select facts of science (mathematical Platonism) — whereby mathematics is less invented than it is discovered as a special case of realism.

Facts are also contingent. Consider another example from science: Immediately following the singularity of the Big Bang, an inflationary period occurred (lasting a tiny fraction of a second). During that inflationary period, the universe — that is, the edges of space-time (not the things within space-time) — expanded faster than the speed of light, resulting in the first step toward the cosmos’s eventual lumpiness, in the form of galaxies, stars, planets. The laws — that is, the facts — of physics were different during the inflation than what scientists are familiar with today — today’s laws of physics breaking down as one looks back closer and closer to the singularity. In this cosmological paradigm, facts are contingent on the peculiar circumstances of the inflationary epoch. This realization points broadly to something capable of being a fact even if we don’t fully understand it.

The sliding scale of certainty and facts’ contingency apply all the more acutely when venturing into other fields. Specifically, the recording of historical events, personages, and ideas, no matter the scholarly intent, often contain biases — judgments, symbols, interpretations — brought to the page by those historians whose contemporaneous accounts may be tailored to self-serving purposes, tilting facts and analyses. In natural course, follow-on historians inadvertently adopt those original biases while not uncommonly folding in their own. Add to this mix the dynamic, complex, and unpredictable (chaotic) nature of human affairs, and the result is all the more shambolic. The accretion of biases over the decades, centuries, and millennia doesn’t of course change reality as such— what happened historically has an underlying matter-of-factness, even if it lingers between hard and impossible to tease out. But the accretion does distort (and on occasion even falsify) what’s understood.

This latter point suggests that what’s a fact and what’s true might either intersect or diverge; nothing excludes either possibility. That is, facts may be true (describe reality) or false (don’t describe reality), depending on their content. (Fairies don’t exist in physical form — in that sense, are false — but do exist nonetheless, legendarily woven into elaborate cultural lore — and in that sense, are true.) What’s true or false will always necessitate the presence of facts, to aid determinations about truth-values. Whereas facts simply stand out there: entirely indifferent to what’s true or false, or what’s believed or known, or what’s formally proven, or what’s wanted and sought after, or what’s observable. That is, absent litmus tests of verifiability. In this sense, given that facts don’t necessarily have to be about something that exists, ‘facts’ and ‘statements’ serve interchangeably.

Facts’ contingency also hinges in some measured, relativistic way on culture. Not as a universally  normative standard for all facts or for all that’s true, of course, but in ways that matter and give shared purpose to citizens of a particular society. Acknowledged facts as to core values — good versus evil, spirituality, integrity, humanitarianism, honesty, trustworthiness, love, environmental stewardship, fairness, justice, and so forth — often become rooted in society. Accordingly, not everyone’s facts are everyone else’s: facts are shaped and shaded both by society and by the individual. The result is the culture-specific normalising of values — what one ‘ought’ to do, ideally. As such, there is no fact-value dilemma. In this vein, values don’t have to be objective to be factual — foundational beliefs, for example, suffice. Facts related to moral realism, unlike scientific and mathematical realism, have to be invented; they’re not discoverable as already-existing phenomena.

Facts are indispensable to describing reality, in both its idealistic (abstract) and realistic (physical) forms. There is no single, exclusive way to define facts; rationalism, empiricism, and idealism all pertain. Yet subsets of facts, and their multifaceted relationships that intricately bear on each other’s truth or falsity, enable knowledge and meaning (purpose) to emerge — an understanding, however imperfect, of slices of abstract and physical reality that our minds piece together as a mosaic. 

In short, the complete anthology of facts relates to all possible forms of reality, ranging the breadth of possibilities, from figments to suppositions to the verifiable phenomenal world.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Q&A On the Status of the Speed of Light

Pi’s New Year Q&A: Is the One-way Speed of Light a Convention?

Martin Cohen and former Pi contributor, Muneeb Faiq explore one of the claimed certainties of physics.

To introduce the issue, here's blogger Burt Jordaan wondering, way back in January 2010, about why the 'speed of light' suddenly became the one true measure of all things scientific.

Burt writes:
'In order to measure any one-way velocity, we essentially need two clocks: one at the start and one at the end. Obviously, the two clocks need to be synchronized and run at the same rate (and to be sure, they must not be moving relative to each other and also be at the same gravitational potential). Let we reasonably assume that the two clocks run at the same rate, at least close enough for all practical purposes. Now we need to synchronize the two clocks to read the same at the same moment. How is this done?'
Recall that Einstein himself clearly admits, in his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, that: "We have not defined a common 'time' for A and B, for the latter cannot be defined at all unless we establish by definition that the 'time' required by light to travel from A to B equals the 'time' it requires to travel from B to A."

Burt says from this that what Einstein terms as being 'by definition' is equally 'by convention'*. Consider: Is the radius of space's curvature related to the speed of light?

The Q&A

Martin: That's a four-guinea question, innit? I believe conventional accounts make space into 'space-time' and the speed of light is allowed to determine things like that, yes.
Muneeb: I don't understand why Einstein established a religion of special abilities and qualities of light. Though there are ways to measure the speed of light but there is no reason to believe that nothing can travel faster. I think a few thought experiments should be propounded to at least break the myth that light owns special physics and light makes nature asymmetric.

There is a lot of confusion about the harmony between the classical and quantum definitions of speed, for example. If both quantum speed and classical speed mean the same then a very interesting difficulty comes to the front. Suppose there exists only one body in the universe. Just a single 'point-mass' and space. Is it at rest or in motion? If, however, there come out two photons of light moving parallel to each other. Now what speed are they moving at? If an observer is stationed on the point-mass, then both the photons are moving with the velocity of light. Yet, suppose, all of a sudden, the point-mass ceases to exist. Now there are only two photons moving with same speed parallel to each other. After all, nothing else exists except space. Before, when the point-mass existed, the two photons were moving with the velocity of light. After, when it has ceased to exist, they seem to not be moving at all! And yet nothing has changed regarding the photons. I hope I have made my point!
Martin: Yes, I get your point... I've wondered about this sort of thing too!

Isn't the usual idea that the universe started with a single point, 'the singularity', and at this time indeed none of the usual laws applied. Then there seems to be a suggestion that the speed of light may not have become 'defined' in the key moments of the first 'explosions'.

Now what this caused me to puzzle a little about, is that if, in fact, the singularity was one particle - as you say, a photon - and if it travels, by definition, at the speed of light, then surely it can be everywhere at the same instant, because of those peculiar Einsteinian laws. In other words, could it be that the universe consists of just one photon, which is everywhere, creating both space and time?

Bear with me! Suppose this is the universe, then why would it matter what speed the photon travelled at, any more than where it was or when? Nothing would be meant by these comparative terms.
What do you think? Can we put our ramblings into a form that would make a suitable webpage? I'd like to try, PI is a good way to organise and explore ideas.
Muneeb: There is an interesting point to note: what are usual laws? Why are they usual? Are the laws of physics really laws in the first place - because if they would really be laws; then they should never fail to explain behaviour of everything that exists. This difficulty hovered around the intellect of many great physicists - including Einstein - and that is why he spent so many years in search of a unified theory that he hoped would explain everything.

Mathematics, theory and philosophy should go hand-in-hand in order to get a further insight into reality. Otherwise we all have to be convinced (like Stephen Hawkings) that there can never be a grand unified theory. But I am afraid in that case, then we have to be convinced that there are no governing laws at all. All physics will melt away.

Instead, let physicists, philosophers and mathematicians come together and work in harmony in an open-hearted, interdisciplinary manner to understand what none of these disciplines will ever be able to get grasp of independently.
Martin:   Well, y'know, this is certainly a good question, but I'm not sure it is quite as clear a distinction as you imply. For example, we might say it is a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, no? Without being obliged to throw that principle away just because (eg) some neutrinos evidently don't want to be part of the present theory about cosmic speed limits?
Muneeb:   Yes. You are right. We, of course, can say it is a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed without being obliged to throw that principle away just because some neutrinos evidently don't want to be part of the present theory about cosmic speed limits. But what is the applicability percentage of these well established laws? If energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed, then from where did it blast into existence? Shall we then opt for the principle of first cause where these laws fail altogether? No Newtonian law holds good when we discuss atoms and sub-atomic particles. Einstein himself said that quantum mechanics (which is again a set of laws)is not absolute. Furthermore- quantum and classical worlds are composed of same material and, therefore, some basic underlying principles must be obeyed which we have not yet been able to discover. It is not the question of neutrinos only because most of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy which was concealed from over imagination for hundreds of years because of the over emphasis paid by physicists on the laws that are collectively described as quantum and classical mechanics.

The portion of the universes that the currently available laws explain is negligible as compared to the great splendour of dark matter and dark energy that fill the universes (previously we concieved only one universe but now we say universes). There may be some "extra-bright matter" and "extra-bright energy" awaiting our discovery. For that, we again have to wait for the failure of currently known laws of physics and those great mathematical equations that terrify all those who are not physicists and mathematicians. Once we fortunately fail, we will be obliged to look for an explanation for the failure and may consequently theorize existence of very weird materials and phenomena faintly conceivable as of now within the delineated perimeters of quantum and classical conditioning. That is why I emphasize on first understanding what makes the universe (what material and quality of materials and types thereof constitute everything), then we need to classify all that material and non material on some sound basis.

We also have to classify on the basis of discovered and not-discovered. Then we have to understand their behaviour. On the basis of the theory generated; we then can develope mathematics which explains things and helps us to imagine what we cant with the help of mere theory. I hope I don't sound insane!
Martin:   Mmmm, absolutely, I do agree that physics is full of 'black holes' to pun little! But I just want us to avoid addressing ill-founded assertions in conventional science with our own ill-founded assertions. For example, the 'dark matter' mystery - is this not a theoretical construct itself, intended to plug an experimental hole in current theory? You speak of it as a discovered reality, but isn't that to fall into the same way of thinking as the people you are critiquing?

Thinking about the 'problem' of where the energy in the universe came from, isn't it perfectly logical to simply say that there is no 'before' to be dealt with or explained?

Over to you, or anyone reading?
Muneeb: Haha! I am caught in a loop.I am not smart enough for arguments. However, though my writing apparently reveals that dark matter is a reality but I don't mean that. That is why I have guessed the existence of extra-bright matter and energy. What I am doing is to use the discoveries of physics to prove the inconsistencies in physics itself.

I should put a caveat here that I am not anti-science or anti physics. Dark matter was discovered by science to plug the black holes (as you say)and may be some other matter and energy will sooner or later be discovered which disproves everything. Does it mean that we should try to adjust our current theories without revising our basic understanding of the universes. Science has made aeroplanes fly etc. but that does not mean science is correct everywhere. Regarding your question of Un-important "before", please allow me to disagree with you because "before" is of great importance.

First question is; what time-point in the evolution of universes is the beginning? Why is a particular scale of past not a "before" and why all of a sudden we think of something as "before"? Cant it be that this "before" may give us inkling into the evolution of the behaviour of everything that apparently exists. What happened before big bang seems to me as important as what happened afterwards. This is because if we come to know the state, status and behaviour of matter, energy, space, time, void etc.before big bang, we will surely get some idea about how matter, space and time evolves to a better extent than if we stop at big bang. Thanks!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Picture Post #32 The Family Snapshot

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Archive image: Stalin with his children

Ah, what could be more innocent than a fond family portrait of a parent seated, relaxing with their children.

Indeed, we all have such snaps and maybe there is a little bit of a story lurking untold behind the smiles. But here, with Josef Stalin, ‘Uncle Joe’ to a nation, there is rather too much of a story. Should Stalin be denied the right to be considered a fond parent? And his children: what role do they play in this picture? Are they participating in a fraud, or are they wholly innocent particpants caught up in a story they never asked for nor could influence?

According to the author, Jay Nordinger, conservative commentator and author of a book on the sons and daughters of dictators, Stalin had one daughter and two sons, Yakov and Vasily, one from each of his wives. The young woman in the image is Svetlana, who died compratively recently, in 2011, aged 85. And she died not in Russia, but in the United States.

The story of Svanidze’s mother is rather tragic. She was, or so Mr. Nordinger tells us, Stalin’s great love. They wed in 1906 and had been married only 16 months when she died of typhus – while her son was still only nine months old. Her death greatly affected the future dictator. Revolutionary comrades, worried for his sanity, took away his revolver for fear he might put the gun to his temple. At her funeral, a grief-stricken Stalin told a friend, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity’.

Colley notes that, deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov once tried to shoot himself, and that even as he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.

Dzhugashvili, by the way, was Stalin’s real name. ‘Stalin’ was his revolutionary non de plume, meaning ‘Man of Steel’.

Yakov fought in the Red Army in the Second Wolrd War, but was captured by the Germans, which Stalin considered (like the Japanese) to be a disgrace. Indeed, under Stalin the families of captured prisoners where shamed. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’. When Stalin was offered his son’s release in return for a senior German officer, he refused the swap saying ‘I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant’.

Yakov had married a Jewish woman, called Julia, and she was arrested, and sent to the gulag. She was perhaps allowed the small privilege of release two years later.

But it is Vasily who is in the picture. He was the son of Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda, who bore  his daughter five years later.  In November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself.

Vasily seems to have been shallow and vain. He continually used his father’sname to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women - much to Stalin’s anger. He had no sense of responsibility and Stalin once had to intervene by sacking his colonel son for ‘debauchery and corrupting the regiment’. Despite all this, Vasily rose to the lofty heights of Major-General in 1946, a rank far beyond his ability but his drinking and temper made him both unpopular.

Rarely have facts so coloured an image...  and yet there is a certain family intimacy there, or should we say, a shared complicity.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Land Rover Problem

By Thomas Scarborough

Imagine that I hold in my hand a single part of a 1958 Land Rover – say, a rear stub axle. Being an open-minded sort of person, I try to fit this part to any which motor parts I may find in the whole world. I continue to fit such parts together until I reach the complete termination of my plan. Not surprisingly, I end up with a 1958 Land Rover, complete in itself. Of course, I say to myself – being an enlightened man – that the appearence of a 1958 Land Rover might well have been pure chance. I therefore start all over again – only to end up with a 1958 Land Rover, again.

I shall call it The Land Rover Problem. It is, in my view, the biggest problem that the 21st century philosopher needs to overcome, before we may create a new metaphysic or total philosophy – a philosophy which describes not merely aspects of reality, but the whole of it. No matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, the end result is as pre-determined as the 1958 Land Rover. The problem lies in the method of starting with a single part – or in some cases, ending up with it. We might, after all, disassemble a 1958 Land Rover, to see which of its many parts remains in our hands in the end.

The philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard might have been the first to understand this, when he wrote in Either/Or that ‘people of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle.' Say, boredom. Thus he demonstrated how one (arbitrary) principle will explain the whole world. Just over a century later, the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote that we are 'thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics'. Even before we set out on a metaphysic, they wrote, we already have one. It is in the nature of the parts to deliver the result. More recently, the philosopher Jacques Derrida famously defined the problem as ‘a process of giving [reality] a centre or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin’.

How then shall we overcome this problem?

Basically, the trouble lies in the way that we attach the parts one to another – in philosophy, our concepts. We are stuck with a Land Rover model of philosophy. This applies both to moderns and to postmoderns, with the difference that postmoderns, while they do not have a way out, are more acutely aware of the problem: ultimately, no matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, our thoughts deliver relatively useless constructions – complete in themselves, yet like the 1958 Land Rover, giving us little indication as to their real scope or merit.

Logically, there is only one way of escape, and no other. Instead of constructing philosophies by attaching concept to concept, we may stand back, as it were, to view all the concepts in the world from a distance. Imagine that we scatter every conceivable motor part of every make and model – the 1958 Land Rover, the 1961 Beetle, the 2005 Mustang, the 2008 Roadster, and of many thousands of assemblages more, over a practically infinite expanse. If then we could recognise any patterns or insights here, in this expanse – call them meta-features – we may discover another way of seeing things.

What might we then see?

Of course, we would see that no assemblage is ultimate. The 1958 Land Rover, as an example, would merely be one possible construction among many. We would recognise, too, that if we were to build only a 1958 Land Rover, we would exclude every other assemblage – or to apply this to philosophy, every competing metaphysic. These are core insights of postmodernism. Yet we would see far more than this. Once we have grasped that we are dealing with an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – we shall no longer be satisfied with a self-centred or parochial view of the world, but shall think expansively and holistically. Nor shall we interpret our world from a narrow point of view: ethnic, religious, ideological, economic, or scientific, among many more. We shall reject the narrow view.

Further, instead of standing self-importantly beside a 1958 Land Rover, we shall see that our construction, in the context of an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – is very limited. A practical infinity of concepts lies beyond our power to explain, and beyond our control. This has obvious consequences. There will always be things without number which lie beyond our own arrangement of concepts, which set a limit to our powers. Therefore any ideas of progress, advancement, development, even utopia, open the door to hubris, and failure. Similarly, we shall recognise that, to overcome our finitude, we shall (impossibly) need infinite control. This drives totalising urges: totalitarianism, fundamentalism, and over-legislation, to give but a few examples – which have led to damaged lives and disasters without number.

Much more may be said, but the point is this: on the basis of the meta-features of the totality of parts, it is possible to reach definite conclusions about the most important things in life. There is a way forward for philosophy, if we will only abandon the Land Rover model, step back, view our world as an infinite expanse of concepts, and see what we may discern through this.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Representing Reality: Magritte on Words and Images

Representing reality*

By Martin Cohen

What is the relationship of words and paintings to mental representations - and 'reality' itself? The surrealist artist, René Magritte, is a philosophical favorite (along with Escher whose line drawings depict impossible staircases and infinite spirals) because so many of his pictures play with philosophical themes. Yet, less well appreciated, is his painting rests on a substantial theoretical base and a consistent personal effort to address the key philosophical question - through art - of the relationship of language, thought and reality.

In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, René Magritte offers 18 sketches, each illustrating a supposed 3-way relationship with words and 'reality. This page explores each image in turn. 

Unlike other artists of the Surrealist school, Magritte's style is highly realistic - but this is only a meant to later undermine the authority and certainty of 'appearance' - of our knowledge of the external world. As Magritte puts it:
"We see the world as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves." [1]
Les Mots et Les Images

An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable [2] The handwritten words 'le canon' is usually just translated as 'the gun' -but could this in itself be a play on the sense of 'the canon', the 'thing setting the standard', especially of beauty?

There are objects which can do without a name.
The French word for the rowing boat is 'canot' - but the play on words...?

A word sometimes serves only to designate itself.
'Ciel' is sky... but?

An object encounters its image, and objects encounters its name. It happens that the image and the name of this object encounter each other.
As opposed to the later cases,

Sometimes the name of an object occupies the place of an image.
A hand, a box and a rock?

A word can take the place of an object in reality.
The dame is saying 'sunshine'. Or 'the sun' if you like. Does it link to the next image?

An image can take the place of a word in a sentence. [3]
Well, yes, but logically the sun should be hidden, no?

An object can suggest that there are other objects behind it.
The wall does not make me think there is anything behind it. The sun? The dame?

Everything tends to make us think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it.  [4] Confusingly, the 'real' and the 'image' are of course the same here...

The words which serve to indicate two different objects do not show what may divide these objects from one another. The 'surreal' labelling in French translates as 'person with memory loss' and 'woman's body'.

In a painting the words are of the same substance as the images.
But are they?

You can perceive words and images differently in a painting.
Is Magritte saying a new meaning can be created by juxtapositions like this?

A shape can replace the image of an object for any reson.
A very confusing play on shapes here...

An object never serves the same purpose as either its name or its image does.
The man is calling his horse - or is he calling his horse 'horse'?

Sometimes the visible shapes of objects, in real life, form a mosaic
René seems to have drifted somewhat from his original theme here...

Vague or unclear shapes have a precise significance every bit as necessary as that of perfect shapes.
Again, the example has left language slightly out of the debate. But the point could be extended...

Sometimes, the names written in a picture designate precise things, while the images are vague.
Well... yes...

Or equally, the opposite:
But is the word 'fog' (brouillard) itself imprecise?

Decoding Magritte

The images above all appeared in an article by Magritte entitled, rather literally, 'Les mots et les images' (Words and Images), in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1927. The series is intended to introduce the theme of all Magritte's painting, namely that of the ambiguity of the connections between real objects, their image and their name. The fifth statement here: "sometimes the name of an object stands for an image" he went on to illustrate with this image:

This is one of a series of 'alphabet paintings' or 'word paintings' produced by Magritte during his time in Paris from 1927 to 1930. Here, the words 'foliage', 'horse', 'mirror', 'convoy', written on the canvas, replace the image they designate. 'Placed at the tip of the points of a mysterious star and each inscribed on a brown stain, "any form whatsoever that can replace the image of an object", these words play a full part in the spatial composition of a new fantasy image. This painting undoes the connection that we spontaneously establish between objects, images and words.' [5]

Another clue as to Magritte's philosophy is provided by a series of paintings dealing with the concept of 'categories'. In The Palace of Curtains (1929) two frames contain respectively the word ciel ('sky') and a pictorial representation of a blue 'sky'. Magritte's point is that both the word and image 'represent' the 'real thing' - one works by resemblance while the other is only by an intellectual - arbitary - association.

Les Mots et Les Images

In two pictures called Empty Mask (a 'mask' being a 'frame', here) Magritte again makes a point about what 'represents' what. In the first picture the frame is empty by virtue of nothing being painted in the spaces, but equally in the second frame, full of characteristic Magritte images, the frame is still empty because these fragments do not represent anything. Or so at least art historians theorise. [6]
'The dividedness, the fragmented quality and the separateness of their components deprive them of anything that resembles reality, destroys all narrative content' (says one, Bart Ottinger).

Another image, The Threshold of Liberty (1929), adds a gun, threatening in surrealist fashion to destroy the conventional representations.

In the Key to Dreams series, which this page starts with an image of, Magritte uses images in the style of a schoolroom reading text, probably based on the Petit Larousse, texts in which an obvious and exact correspondence is implied. Thus his simple images pack a subversive message.

It is, as one art critic says, a school reading primer gone wrong - yet sometimes, not completely wrong, for example in the image opposite (Key to Dreams,1930) the lower right-hand cell is correct.

In the six panel image above, none of the nouns (the acacia, moon, snow, ceiling, storm, desert) match up.

The title, 'Key to Dreams' (La clef des songes) however implies that there may be deeper, hidden connections.

So are we any nearer to decoding that meaning? Not really. However, Michel Foucault knew Magritte and discussed these ideas in an essay 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' (This is not a Pipe). Foucault has some definite suggestions on the matter.

*This essay originally appeared on the now disappeared Pi Alpha. It has been slightly updated here.


• 1 This much quoted line comes from a lecture Magritte gave, entitled, 'La Ligne de vie' - how should we translate that though?
• 2 The first 12 translations are based on that at
• 3 This is NOT the translation at - which uses 'propositon' - ridiculous!
• 4 This is slightly better than the translation at
• 5 As explained here:
• 6 For example, this interestingand informative essay here: