Monday, 22 April 2019

On Connotation

Connotation or denotaton? by Zach Weiner, of SMBC Comics.

By Lina Scarborough

A while ago, a friend waltzed up to me and asked: ‘What is a connotation?’ . Knowing he likes to pull my leg once in a while, I decided to humour him. ‘It is the description attached to a word’, I answered as we started walking.

After a pause for thought, he replied: ‘Ah, but when I have an object... ’ he stooped down to pick up some pebbles, ‘the words that come to mind describe the colour, the shape...’ he turned the stones between his fingers, ‘the weight’, he dropped them suddenly, ‘but not all of those are connotations’.

I paused and added, ‘Then, it’s a description that does not pertain to some thing’s physical properties’.

He looked amused and told me he had come across several definitions that were besides the point - or entirely flawed. Whether or not my definition satisfied him, he did not say.

Of course, not only objects with physical properties can have connotations. In fact, it is mostly adjectives that contain nuances. For example, the word stingy holds a negative undertone, whereas thrifty implies something akin to a virtue – someone who likes to be smart with their money. But what is this desire to find an exact label for something? What is, and why is there joy in finding the precise term for an object, a situation, an abstract feeling?

Let us define a label, or better - a term, as a chiefly one-word noun. Then a definition is a phrase which explains exactly what that label encompasses. The definition: waking up from a pleasant dream feeling contented. There is a term for that feeling – euneirophrenia.

We can define a great number of things in different manners. The only limit is our personal experience or imagination. The latter of course, poses the question whether one can imagine a feeling into existence (but that’s a whole other topic - and possibly borders on schizophrenia).

A private world

Connotations create private microcosms in romantic couples. Your partner might replace the word ‘walk ‘with ‘locomotion’ to avoid unnecessarily exciting the dog that recognizes the term ‘walkies!’ or ‘walk!’. Or, you might lightheartedly call a USB a hockey-stick, and no-one but your significant other and close family would understand what on earth you meant. The shared private language creates a sense of insiders versus outsiders and, consequently, facilitates intimacy and brings a lightheartedness to the relationship. Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, says: ‘When couples have their own language rituals…they feel like they know one another in a way that others don’t, and that they have a strong connection or bond to each other.’

Connotations can also be cultural. Don’t offend a Chinese by gifting him a watch – the Chinese symbol for watch (送钟, sòng zhōng) has the same pronunciation as [attending] a funeral! Giving somebody a watch implies that you are patiently waiting for their death - not a message you want to convey...

Some cultural connotations are oddly specific. Let us again consult the Chinese for inspiration: Do not give somebody in China a green hat - it is a metaphor for man’s wife having been unfaithful (帶綠帽, dài lǜ mào, with green hat). But why specifically green? A turtle is green, and turtles hide their heads in their shells, so calling someone a ‘turtle’ is deemed offensive since it's also equivalent to calling someone a coward!

Using a certain connotation can also help one identify with a community, fulfilling the need to belong. In African-American communities one doesn’t call a friend ‘mate’ like the British or Australians do, one calls a friend ‘brother’, or simply bro. Such cultural connotations are one reason it is so hard to learn a foreign language. Or rather, why it is so hard not to make embarrassing faux pas when speaking as a beginner.

Even in your own native language and communities, people fight to have certain words de-stigmatized or entirely made redundant. This is particularly applicable to the historically more vulnerable members of society. No one would dream of calling a disabled person a retard nowadays unless they were deliberately seeking to insult.

In parts of the world women have started pointing out double-standards that occur when labelling the same behaviour. Perhaps a boy is praised for taking initiative and being a leader, whereas a girl might be scolded for the same and labeled as ‘bossy’. Where does one draw the line between being steadfast, tenacious, or stubborn? How does one distinguish between meticulous or picky? Is it not usually somewhat subjective as opposed to universal?

The neuroscientist Terence Deacon has said: ‘The way that language represents objects, events, and relationships provides a uniquely powerful economy of reference…It entirely shapes our thinking and the ways we know the physical world.’ Building on this, I could say that the reason it is satisfying to find the exact word to convey what I mean, as opposed to using a phrase or long-winded definition (this in itself needs a term!), is because it creates a sense of power. What I can define, I can examine, influence, control. Hence associations around words are the building blocks around spiritual or emotional depth and intellectual growth.

If I understand that what I feel is called leucocholy - a state of feeling that accompanies preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions – I know how to find a more productive pursuit to ease my feelings of anxiousness instead of faffing around (as the British say). The origin of leucocholy dates back to the 18th century, and literally means ‘white bile’ and is opposed to melancholy, which is ‘black bile’.  In this way, connotation therefore reveals something about our psyche. Freud may have realized this when he started using so-called ‘free association’ as a method for diagnosing and alleviating what was going on in his patient’s unconscious processes.

My friend later informed me that he had found a definition of connotation that he liked: ‘Connotation is the illusion of denotation’, he said.

And yet - this same illusion is the reason that poetry can exist, and is what gives depth and flavour to our language and our lives.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Soap Operas in Africa

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Posters for Kenyan and South African Soap Operas

Who are the influencers in Africa? The politicians? Preachers? Educators? Revolutionaries?

There are some we may seldom think of: the producers of Africa’s soap operas. According to Discovery Networks, the average TV viewer in South Africa watches a massive 4.5 hours a day – a large part of which is taken up with soap operas. Statistics show that South Africa’s top five soap operas have about five billion views a year.  It is, according to journalist Tiema Muindi, ‘habitual viewing’.

Now before any person or group can influence another, there need to be certain conditions in place. It is generally agreed that people are motivated – not only motivated, but induced to act – when they hold up a picture of the world to the world itself, and there find a difference or disjoint. Psychologist Richard Gregory describes it as finding the ‘unexpected’, and the philosopher Willard Quine adds: the expected which fails to happen.

I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. This is not what I expected to see – and I spring into action. Or I did not expect to see a woman assaulted on the street, or a child malnourished. Again, I spring into action. To put it simply, psychologists say that our behaviour is controlled by mental models – and this, said the philosopher Plato, spells danger. Show people things which change their expectations, and you distract and destabilise all of society. Or so he thought.

It would be important to know, therefore, whether Africa’s soap operas give Africa a picture of the world which is different to the world itself. We are all aware of the shock-factor of soap operas in general: conflicts, intrigue, and the breaking of cultural taboos. Yet in Africa, there is something that would seem to loom larger than any of this. We see it in virtually all of the soap opera posters – which are the 'door', so to speak, to the soap operas themselves. It is affluence. Designer dresses, tailored suits, expensive smartphones, sumptuous settings, and more.

We may open this door and enter in. Here we find, again, affluence. Meals in fine restaurants, fitted kitchens, fast cars, expensive whisky, and so on – not to speak of the expensive pursuits of the characters themselves.

Yet in the real world which is Africa, a vast number of people live in poverty.  By some statistics, 33% in Nigeria, 42% in Kenya, and 55% in South Africa. In reality, one sees shacks made with wood and iron and empty agricultural sacks – overcrowded trains, dusty streets, and children playing with wire toys. Given this context, how might the soap operas influence Africa? There are various possibilities:
They do not significantly shape a continent’s views and expectations – they are merely soap operas, after all. This seems unlikely.
They may lead people to believe that Africa really looks the way that it is presented in the soap operas. May we then blame the wealthier classes, for failing to recognise or understand the desperate struggles of the poor?

The soap operas may dull the senses and desires of the masses – leading them to feel that they are absorbed by the fantasy world they see, to become one with it, as it were.
They may lead viewers to expect the life that they see on TV. And what happens then? Do viewers make these values their own highest good – old colonial values, one might add? Or do they grieve within, to see that they fall so far short of the dream? Or are they motivated to strive for more?
One may ask, too: what would it do to people’s expectations, if they were to view more realistic soap operas? Would these conscientise societies more effectively as to their real plight? Would they lead people to be more realistic in their plans and strategies – with their feet now firmly planted on the ground? Or would they lower their expectations, or degrade them?

Few seem to have given it much thought. Both academic research and popular articles are very thin on the ground. A rare paper on How Do Soap Operas Affect the Poor? Experiences of Turkish Women, by Turkish academics Aras Ozgun et al, concludes that ‘we need to understand the issue from the perspectives of the vulnerable’. There are troubling signs. In particular, in most cases in their study, soap operas led to ‘self-imposed alienation’ amongst the poor, including feelings of shame, anger, dissatisfaction, and powerlessness.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Myths That Shape Us

The Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy
Posted by Tessa Den Uyl
The shadow of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa’s head is cast triumphantly on the wall. And was it not also for the shield that the goddess Athena gave to Perseus, that he could sever Medusa’s head? Is such reflection a kind of indirect contact, that tells us something about our own eyes?
The myth tells that everything which came into direct contact with Medusa’s sight petrified, even after her beheading. As miraculously, from her bleeding neck she gave birth to two other creatures, Pegasus and Chrysaor. For the idea of myth is to continue, indeed the force of Greek tragedy reflects on those who have grown up in its shadow, until this present day.   

Such stories have shaped generations, and we ourselves are shaped by stories we may not even have read or heard of. Romanticism, for instance, didn’t take place in Africa, which partly explains how love is perceived within a completely different coding in the West. Similarly, Indian philosophy stimulates a distinct view on life and the Taoist another.

Humankind has searched for meaning, and meaning stems from what happened before us, whether completely invented or not. Through our eyes, we see a past which we are very often unable to recognise, and without recognition, how can we deal with it? Often we see as in a mirror, although we do not see the origin of the image.

When Athena later depicts the decapitated head of Medusa on her chest (the same image is portrayed on the shields of heroic warriors), this image served to frighten the enemy, and surely eyes have become symbolically charged with expressions for us. ‘She looked at me as if I should drop dead.’

You might mistrust someone for the look of one’s eyes more than their words or actions. And friendly eyes make you feel comfortable? Such impressions are generally not much our own creation. They were passed on from generation to generation. Terror is similarly conveyed, and the Ancient Greeks have been masters in paving the path.

We have woven our lives in oblivion. When we seek to find meaning, the effort is to understand what is there. And what is there is filled with symbols that seemingly hand us meaning. We become immensely stimulated by a specific agglomeration of symbols that we make meaningful while their randomness is overlooked.

We give deep attention to a particular combination of images and thoughts whose impressions are immediately accessible to us. Certain gestures, phrases, ideas, and emotions are highlighted which we do remember indeed. Everything we do remember detaches from all other experiences, yet all together they weave the tapestry of our lives. This is the complexity of memory.

Everybody builds up memory in different combinations. What we keep consciously present in our mind tells us how to react, how to pick up a concept, how we feel. We react on what our mind and body have memorised, though not all that is memorised is recalled.

Then, to see our memory as a minor part of a vaster landscape which is not remembered does not sound that illogical. Nor does the notion that oblivion includes everything from which we do not draw conclusions, although the tragedy might just be that this is not that true.

Turning back to the picture above, Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture exposes a rather violent historic representation. Likewise the other exhibited sculptures by various artists. Today their elevated greatness in the history of art confuses famous names with underlying stories which are represented within the sculptures. The symbolism which reaches out to offer us insight into our current being, ‘a touch into oblivion’, is generally overlooked.

Today, a fair amount of literature and film marches on the key element of tragedy to entertain us. Creating tragedy seems to come naturally to us. Yet indirectly we give meaning to something that was created long before we were there.

The shadow in the picture reminds us how reflection indirectly connects us to oblivion, how oblivion can make us act, and is triumphantly present, silently exhibiting its influence. As this statue by Cellini moves far beyond its time, backward as forward, it is properly charged with oblivion. And this is the art of seeing, the force of myth, that we all carry along.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Picture Post #45: Undesired and Eliminated



'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

Paris - France 2018

The more imagination you put into the display of products for a shop window, the more people will remember it. Here the dead rats are eye catching indeed, aside from the large golden letters announcing: Disinfestation of Harmful Animals.

We remove the unwanted, to justify our own characteristics? 

No animal knows about our bounds, nor do we know about theirs. Living along together, this very often human being simply cannot. Though all those unwanted creatures need an earth to live on. 

Perhaps when these undesired beings are there, we might have something they need? And we need them, whether we like to see them or not. It’s a fair contract, made by nature.

The problem does not originate in nature, but it is a problem how nature will survive with us, and this is one of the most outstanding contradictions in the nature of humankind.

Monday, 25 March 2019

The Scales of Justice

Lady Justice, by Mimi
Posted by Jeremy Dyer

The beauty of the rose
Is balanced by the thorn
That's the way the story goes,
Right from the day you're born.

No fields of joy without an end
No Christmas cracking time
No party day around the bend
To look back on your prime.

On the other schizo hand
My childhood wasn't bad
Or so the therapist said
When he held my hand.

Eons ago the lords of glory
Ruled the righteous earth.
Now a twisted murder story
Tells us what we're worth.



They say a cynic's never wrong
He can't be disappointed.
But is his view a correct sum
Of what life has anointed?

Shatter me in your eyes
Consume me with your lips
Find me love that never dies
That's not from movie clips.

Am I happy? What a question!
Please don't query life's direction.
Is it fate or circumstance,
Or am I my own providence?

Am I trapped or am I free?
Am I the me I want to be?
The urgent answer that we seek
Won't be on tv this week.

Monday, 18 March 2019

The Idea of Freedom in the Modern World

By Simon Thomas


Soul Freedom Chained, by Khalil Gibran

Freedom is a magnificent idea, yet it is much misunderstood. Some claim freedom in the idea that you should be able to express yourself as you wish, without restraint (which is positive freedom).  It is the idea of mind over matter, reality over unreality, which has its roots in René Descartes.

Descartes takes it further, noting that there is a materialistic type of freedom where you have the means to meet all your material needs (which is negative freedom). Maslow’s hierarchy gives us an idea of the needs concerned. If a person feels that their need for security, food, shelter, and some creature comforts are met, then they can live a satisfactory and contented life. It is true, therefore, that the fulfillment of such needs is a type of freedom.

However, that is only half the story. Jean Jacques Rousseau put it aptly when he said, ‘Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ Rousseau‘s starting point is that man is inherently good, and therefore freedom is possible – provided he is not unduly restrained by unjust laws to protect the wealthy. Yet common sense, and experience of the modern world, seem to indicate the opposite of Rousseau's Utopian idea. It seems a fallacy that people are inherently good. If they were inherently good, they would not enforce their will on others, and thereby enslave them – in Rousseau’s terms, put them in chains.

Now there is another type of freedom, which is more a matter of the mind. Philosopher Richard Rorty said that what you put in your mind – which is, the way you interpret the world – that’s what there is. Therefore if you have a subservient mind-set, you cannot be free – regardless of the kind of liberty your accumulated wealth brings you. He continues by saying that the only true freedom we can enjoy is metaphysical in nature, because humanity cannot find lasting meaning purely in material needs being met.

This is exactly the mind-set we are contending with in society today – and does not to resound with previous generations. I have recently been talking to people who were children during World War 2. The mind-set out of that era was by and large, work hard, fight for liberty and justice, and accumulate wealth, no matter the personal cost to home and family. We have seen the effects of this unfold since the 1960s till the present time: rebellion against authority by younger generations, and ever increasing hostility against law and order.

Breaking free from law and order in society has never been a workable idea. Anarchy has never produced freedom. Instead, it has produced tyrants and addicts. Neil Postman, in his novel 'Entertaining ourselves to death', makes the point that our society has produced people with a mind-set which needs to be entertained all the time. Yet this produces addiction to visual media, harmful cravings for the next high, or more recently, cyber addiction.  Again, there is no freedom in that.

Related to this, the notion has become epidemic that having what you cannot normally afford will bring lasting satisfaction. Thus people get themselves into inordinate amounts of debt – and often, instead of freedom, it brings financial ruin. Having said this, however, it is not just a problem of the individual, but of nations. There is a huge debt bubble – which, while it caused the demise of some leading banks in 2008, was just cosmetically treated.

On point with these examples is that freedom in the Western world is a fallacy, because it is built on an idea that we are entitled to have whatever we want, regardless of how we get it – and regardless of those who are injured along the way.

Freedom, as Rorty said, is metaphysical in nature. A person can be in dire circumstances, yet still be free. The martyr Polycarp, of distant memory, said this to his persecutors when they demanded his freedom of religion: ‘You can take my life if you wish, my property if you want, but you cannot make me deny the faith that saved me.’

That is freedom. It is the grand idea that freedom is only attainable when you let go of the idea of materialistic happiness, and learn to be content in whatever circumstance you find yourself. As the sages of old often said, ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ In this is freedom: to be at peace with yourself.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Are ‘Designer Offspring’ Our Destiny?

The promise of gene editing and designer offspring may prove irresistible

Posted by Keith Tidman

It’s an axiom that parents aspire to the best for their children — from good health to the best of admired traits. Yet our primary recourse is to roll the dice in picking a spouse or partner, hoping that the resulting blend of chromosomes will lead to offspring who are healthy, smart, happy, attractive, fit, and a lot else. Gene editing, now concentrated on medical applications, will offer ways to significantly raise the probability of human offspring manifesting the traits parents seek: ‘designer offspring’. What, then, are the philosophical and sociological implications of using gene editing to influence the health-related wellbeing of offspring, as well as to intervene into the complex traits that define those offspring under the broader rubric of human enhancement and what we can and ought to do?
‘All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?
— Immanuel Kant
The idea is to alter genes for particular outcomes, guided by previous mapping of every gene in the human body. To date, these selected outcomes have targeted averting or curing disorders, like cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle-cell disease, stemming from gene mutations. As such, one of the central bioethical issues is for parents to freely decide which disorders are ‘unacceptable’ and thus to prevent or fix through gene editing. The public, and the medical field, already make similar medical decisions all the time in the course of treatments: stem cells to grow transplantable organs, AI-controlled robotic surgery, and vaccinations, among innumerable others. The aim is to avoid or cure health disorders, or minimally to mitigate symptoms.

As a matter of societal norms, these decisions reflect people’s basic notions about the purpose of health science. Yet, if informed parents knowingly choose to give birth to, say, an infant with Down syndrome, believing philosophically and sociologically that such children can live happy, productive lives and are a ‘blessing’, then as a matter of ethics, humanitarianism, and sovereign agency they retain that right. A potential wrinkle in the reasoning is that such a child itself has no say in the decision. Which might deny the child her ‘natural right’ not to go through a lifetime with the quality-of-life conditions the disorder hands her. The child is denied freely choosing her own destiny: the absence of consent traditionally associated with medical intervention. As a corollary, the aim is not to deprive society of heterogeneity; sameness is not an ideal. That is not equivalent, however, to contending that a particular disorder must remain a forever variation of the human species.
‘We are going from being able to read our genetic code to the ability to write it. This gives us the … ability to do things never contemplated before’
— Craig Venter, writing in ‘Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature’.
Longer term, people won’t be satisfied limited to health-related measures. They will turn increasingly to more-complex traits: cognition (intelligence, memory, comprehension, talent, etc.), body type (eye and hair colour, height, weight, mesomorphism, etc.), athleticism (fast, strong, agile, endurance, etc.), attractiveness, gender, lifespan, and personality. The ‘designer offspring’, that is, mentioned above. Nontrivially, some changes may be inheritable, passed from one generation to the next. This will add to the burden of getting each intervention right, in a science that’s briskly evolving. Thus, gene editing will not only give parents offspring that conform to their ideals; also, it may alter the foundational features of our very species. These transhumanist choices will give rise to philosophical and sociological issues with which society will grapple. Claims that society is skating close to eugenics —a practice rightly discredited as immoral — as well as specious charges of ‘playing God’ and assertions of dominion may lead to select public backlash, but not incurably so to human-enhancing programs.

Debates will confront thorny issues: risk–reward balance in using gene editing to design offspring; comparative value among alternative human traits; potential inequality in access to procedures, exacerbating classism; tipping point between experimentation and informed implementation; which embryos to carry to term and childhood; cultural norms and values that emerge from designer offspring; individual versus societal rights; society’s intent in adopting what one might call genetic engineering, and the basis of family choice; acceleration and possible redirection of the otherwise-natural evolution of the human species; consequences of genetic changes for humanity’s future; the need for ongoing programmes to monitor children born as a result of gene editing; and possible irreversibility of some adverse effects. It won't be easy.
‘It is an important point to realize that the genetic programming of our lives is not fully deterministic. It is statistical … not deterministic’ 
— Richard Dawkins
The promise of gene editing and designer offspring (and by extension, human enhancement writ large) may prove irresistible and irreversible — our destiny. To light the way, nations and supranational institutions should arrange ongoing collaboration among philosophers, scientists, the humanities, medical professionals, theologians, policymakers, and the public. Self-regulation is not enough. Oversight is key, where malleable guidelines take account of improved knowledge and procedures. What society accepts (or rejects) today in human gene editing and human enhancements may well change dramatically from decade to decade. Importantly, introducing gene editing into selecting the complex traits of offspring must be informed and unrushed. Overarching moral imperatives must be clear. Yet, as parents have always felt a compelling urge and responsibility to advantage their children in any manner possible, eventually they may muse whether genetic enhancements are a ‘moral obligation’, not just a ‘moral right’.


Monday, 4 March 2019

Picture Post 44: The Lifeboats



'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 Martin Cohen

      
‘Life Is a Shipwreck, But We Must Not Forget To Sing in the Lifeboats’.

It’s a great thought, and can be found on the internet attributed to Voltaire, but it doesn’t sound quite like the great French philosopher, and indeed Garson O’Toole is probably right to point at a later book editor commenting on the world view behind Voltaire’s bitterly witty story, Candide.

Here in these images surely, the passengers do not sing, but seem instead curiously withdrawn, as if trying to shut their eyes to an awful sight. And indeed that might be just what they were doing, as these plucky little lifeboats were chugging away from a Titanic, sinking and still packed with thousands of desperate passengers. Second and Third Class ones, that is. For the real scandal of the Titanic was not that it sank, not even that its Captain was so dilatory in asking for assistance (or the boats around in offering any) but that the social conventions of the era implied that most of the lifeboats were for First Class passengers only, with no mixing. Though to be sure, the small number of officers and  richer passengers left on the boat did mix with the other passangers later... in the cold grey waters of the Atlantic.

Facts-wise, then, the fact is that the first six lifeboats were at less than one third loaded capacity, and the passengers were only First Class passengers or… Ship’s Officers. Six underloaded boats like the ones in the picture, which had a capacity for 40 persons meant 150 passangers drowned to defend the niceties  of wealth.

That said, Captain Edward Smith was on the bridge at 2.13am, seven minutes before the Titanic disappeared beneath the waves, and went down with the ship.



Read more…

http://www.icyousee.org/titanic.html#life

Monday, 25 February 2019

Doublethink 27 - Eugenics


Pi is pleased to present another bonus episode of
 Youngjin Kang's Doublethink

Monday, 18 February 2019

What Truly Exists?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Magritte’s iconic painting of a man looking in a mirror,
reminds us that the world we perceive is not real,
but rather constructed

A core question of ontology, or theories about the nature of being and existence—and perhaps its most pressing question from a practical point of view—is which individuals or 'things' are really real. What truly exists? It seems that there are three broad possibilities:
  • material entities alone (which is materialism),
  • mental entities alone (which is idealism),
  • or both (which is dualism).
However it is very difficult, as the cognitive scientist Aaron Sloman has put it, to distinguish between ‘real existents’ and ‘useful fictions’—or for that matter, useless ones. As philosophy professor Simon Blackburn notes:
‘Everything you can think of has at some time or another been declared to be a fiction by philosophers bent on keeping a firm check on reality—among them matter, force, energy, causes, physical laws, space, time, possibilities, numbers, infinity, selves, freedom of the will, the will itself, desires, beliefs, identity, things, properties, society, language, and money.’
Intuitively, we feel that what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—or perceive in any way with our senses—is real. Yet what are we to make of things we do not perceive—either because, momentarily, we find that they lie beyond our senses, or because they are what we call ‘constructs'—compound ideas which may lack empirical evidence?

The problem strikes close to home. Take the one hundred most commonly used nouns in English. The first on the list is ‘time’. You cannot see it or touch it or anything like that. The second is ‘year’. The same applies. The third on the list is ‘people’. Now here is something we can see and touch—at least when those people happen to be around. The fourth term, though, ‘way’, is both real and unreal. And so, depending on how we categorise these nouns, fully half of them may not be ‘real’ at all.

It would be helpful to start with the simplest distinction—namely that which we make between real things we experience directly, and real things we do not.

Imagine that I am cycling down a narrow cycle track under some coconut palms. I see the world in front of me as I go—but do not see the world behind me. I saw it a moment ago—a thicket of breadfruit trees, and children playing. But I know that they are there. I saw them, heard them, smelled them. Besides, I could easily stop my bicycle now and look back to confirm it.


In what sense, then, are those things there, which are now behind me? After all, I do not directly perceive them.

We may conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that, as I ride my bicycle under the coconut trees, we switch off my senses and freeze this moment in time. Without my senses, the perceived and the unperceived look largely the same in my brain—namely, arrangements of synapses in a vast network of neurons.

In my brain, then, there is little difference between the seen and the unseen (or the heard and the unheard, and so on). Both exist in the vast neural network which is or contains the mind. Everything, whether real or imaginary, ends up there. The question now is not so much whether my mind contains things perceived or unperceived. In the first case, my senses are activated; in the second, they are not—but in both cases, they are as real to me as anything possibly can be.

This becomes important now for the more vexing question as to how we are to understand constructs. There is more to riding my bicycle than what I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. If there were not, I would be wobbling on my bicycle without anything left to orientate me:

Does this outing fit my purpose? Did I steal this bicycle? Do I need a passport here? Should I turn around now? And so on. None of these ‘surplus’ things—purpose, ownership, citizenship, and so on—is immediately real to me, yet all of them are vital. My mind is filled, not only with the things that I see, or saw a moment ago—but with many things which are in a sense unreal. One could say, things which are lacking empirical evidence, although in every case, they can be tested in some way.

Are these constructs real? In fact they are real—at least, as real as the coconut trees before me, and the breadfruit trees and the children behind me, given the fact that I arrange them, too, in my mind—each as a distinct concept with a unique label. As such, they do not fundamentally differ from those things which ‘exist’.

It would be wise for us to pause for a moment. We know well that we are capable, as human beings, of thinking of fictions which are not so. On the one hand, fictitious concepts—say magic spells, or the quintessence—on the other hand, fictitious entities—say the planet Vulcan, or fairies and gnomes. Sometimes, too, we believe that our fictions exist—or that they will exist at some time in the future.

Yet the separation of the real and the fictitious would seem to be fairly straightforward. ‘Real’ things correspond with the reality we perceive, while pure fictions do not. Does time therefore exist—or identity or society or any one of hundreds of thousands of constructs there are? Given that they correspond with the reality we perceive, we can only say yes.

The ultimate question is, does God exist? Given the right conditions, the answer to this, too, could be yes. The ‘right conditions’ for God’s existence would be threefold:
  • that he is not purely ideational
  • that the concept ‘God’ corresponds with the reality we perceive
  • and that this concept is not invoked arbitrarily.
Or put it this way—for God to exist, there needs to be something permanent in our experience which necessitates him.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Lessons of the “Prisoner's Dilemma” for Real Life


Posted by Keith Tidman

The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a classic example of game theory and a tool for decision-making, where two rational, independent players must choose between cooperation and conflict to arrive at what’s perceived as the best outcome. Central to the interactive nature of the game is that the payoff (optimal or otherwise) for any single player deliberating his or her decisions and the consequences of those decisions hinges on the strategies that the other player chooses to implement according to assumptions and rules.

The prisoner’s dilemma was the product of modeling work performed in 1950; however, it was the mathematician Albert Tucker who ultimately structured and named the thought experiment as we know it today. The standard description of the prisoner’s dilemma runs along these lines:
Two prisoners are being interrogated apart from one another for crimes they are believed to have committed jointly. Although officials have enough evidence to convict both suspects on the lesser of the two charges, they have insufficient evidence for a conviction on the more severe crime they’re suspected of. The prosecutor, therefore, simultaneously but separately offers each prisoner a plea deal. The deal offered is either to provide information adequate to convict the other suspect in an act of betrayal, or to remain silent and refuse to testify, this being in effect a form of continued cooperation with their fellow prisoner.
There are three ways the preceding situation may play out:
• If both prisoners refuse to talk about their involvement in the main crime — that is, they cooperate with each other — they will both serve only one year (for the lesser crime). 
• If one prisoner refuses to talk, but his partner chooses to betray (implicate) the other regarding the main crime, the silent prisoner will be sentenced to three years while the testifying prisoner will be set free. 
• If, instead, both suspects implicate each other, both will fetch a sentence of two years.
The thought experiment is supposed to illustrate that neither prisoner has faith that his accomplice will stay tight-lipped, so both prisoners cannot resist testifying, with the tantalising hope of going free. These supposedly rational prisoners therefore pursue their self-interest, implicating each other. But the result is that both prisoners end up serving two years instead of one year if both had remained mum.

The lessons of the prisoner’s dilemma have been applied to many real-life, non-zero-sum situations. In such situations, cooperation results in better outcomes for all parties than if each party single-mindedly chases his or her own interests (rather than mutual interest) in order misguidedly to gain advantage over the other. So, for example, individually self-interested decisions can lead to injurious consequences for all. There are many everyday instances of the dilemma playing out, cutting across diverse behavioural arenas, such as economics, politics, biology, psychology, sports, academia, business, commerce, the workplace, and more. I'll briefly describe one particular instance.

In international strategic positioning, one theory assumes that all states ultimately compete rather than cooperate, their decisions reflecting rational self-interest to acquire advantage. For example, during the seventy-year Cold War, the phalanxes of NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced three options:
• Both sides endlessly scramble to deploy ever-more-advanced nuclear and conventional weapons to protect themselves and menace others, this being a policy with enormous, hard-to-sustain economic cost;
• One side greatly expands and enhances its forces while the other side doesn’t, the latter fearing betrayal and placing itself in peril while, on the upside, conserving its economic resources;

• Or both sides agree to disarm, thus reducing the probability of war while both avoid the massive expense of highly robust militaries.
It seems that the last of these choices, cooperation, would have led to the most desirable shared outcome; however, the delusion of ‘rational self-interest’ — doggedly pursuing individual reward — led both alliances to arm to the teeth, escalating the chance of conflict while hugely taxing both economies. Eventual arms-control agreements, though shaky and often tested, attempted to showcase cooperation, albeit fed by acute wariness: to keep a first-strike advantage out of the opposition’s hands.

The fragility of such agreements has been evident recently, in the fraught pursuit of arms control between the West and North Korea (with an already-existing nuclear arsenal) and the West and Iran (with an incipient capability, along with a presumably quick breakout to deployed nuclear weapons). In prisoner’s dilemma fashion, the resultant policies have reflected rational self-interest more so than cooperation, goaded by various motivators: 
• Distrust over intent and betrayal, such as ‘regime change’; 
• Anxiety over cheating and existential threats;
• Incendiary rhetoric threatening obliteration; 
• The honest-to-goodness objectives that skulk below the public pronouncements;
• Risk of later repudiation of agreements; 
• Bristling at the opposition’s negotiation tactics, where cultural differences intrude. 
Thus far, outcomes, such as they are, have mirrored these dynamics of distrust and antagonism, stemming from what is sometimes referred to as the Hobbesian trap, where parties default to tit-for-tat parrying over non-cooperative prisoner’s dilemma strategies.

Few circumstances, however, quite rise to the level of conforming to the idealism captured by John Rawls’s assertion that:
‘The hazards of the generalized prisoner’s dilemma are removed by the match between the right and the good.’
Yet, the prisoner’s dilemma thought experiment does bear upon many real-life situations that decision-makers around the world tackle daily. Scenarios that reflect how the push–pull between cooperation and conflict, as well as outcomes and payoffs, become complex — the more so with multiple parties in play, as in the example of strategic defence just described.

Another case involves the environment and global measures to mitigate serious threats emanating from climate change, as well as from the dilated timeline for halting or slowing the trajectory of that change. The key goal being to yield benefits shared across national borders. The self-serving interests so often associated with prisoner’s dilemma thinking — and the assumption that other countries will shoulder the burden of changing policies that harm the environment — might result in even developed nations keeping performance targets easy. 

The purpose would be to protect themselves from social and economic disruption, as well as not to be taken advantage of in, say, lowering pollutants. Meanwhile, yet other countries may silently breach the Paris climate accord and the agreements reached recently in Katowice, Poland — neither of which arguably provides adequate confidence in the ‘fair play’ of others, provides sufficient metrics and accountability, proves demonstrably enforceable, or meaningfully disincentivises cheating.

Despite, therefore, the apparent win–win payoff that can stem from cooperation, from focus on mutual interests, and from trust-building, the strategic application of the prisoner’s dilemma in seeking maximum payoffs may still lead to parties succumbing to the myopic illusion of advantaged self-interest, and the delusion of being able to avoid incurring costs as a consequence.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Picture Post #43: The Signpost



'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 Thomas Scarborough

    


A  signpost on a public road in South Africa’s remote Suurveld. What stood out for me immediately was the letter ‘O’. The signmaker, a long time ago, clearly made a better job of the ‘O’s than the other letters. Some day, I thought, one may make out little more than the ‘O’s.

Great men and women of the past left our civilisation with vital signposts: the rule of law, universal suffrage, equal rights, and more. Some of their signposts are no longer clearly seen, nor are the reasons why they put them there. How well are our signposts made today, for tomorrow?



Monday, 28 January 2019

Is Mathematics Invented or Discovered?



Posted by Keith Tidman

I’m a Platonist. Well, at least insofar as how mathematics is presumed ‘discovered’ and, in its being so, serves as the basis of reality. Mathematics, as the mother tongue of the sciences, is about how, on one important epistemological level, humankind seeks to understand the universe. To put this into context, the American physicist Eugene Wigner published a paper in 1960 whose title even referred to the ‘unreasonable effectiveness’ of mathematics, before trying to explain why it might be so. His English contemporary, Paul Dirac, dared to go a step farther, declaring, in a phrase with a theological and celestial ring, that ‘God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world’. All of which leads us to this consequential question: Is mathematics invented or discovered, and does mathematics underpin universal reality?
‘In every department of physical science, there is only so much science … as there is mathematics’ — Immanuel Kant
If mathematics is simply a tool of humanity that happens to align with and helps to describe the natural laws and organisation of the universe, then one might say that mathematics is invented. As such, math is an abstraction that reduces to mental constructs, expressed through globally agreed-upon symbols. In this capacity, these constructs serve — in the complex realm of human cognition and imagination — as a convenient expression of our reasoning and logic, to better grasp the natural world. According to this ‘anti-realist’ school of thought, it is through our probing that we observe the universe and that we then build mathematical formulae in order to describe what we see. Isaac Newton, for example, developed calculus to explain such things as the acceleration of objects and planetary orbits. Mathematicians sometimes refine their formulae later, to increasingly conform to what scientists learn about the universe over time. Another way to put it is that anti-realist theory is saying that without humankind around, mathematics would not exist, either. Yet, the flaw in this paradigm is that it leaves the foundation of reality unstated. It doesn’t meet Galileo’s incisive and ponderable observation that:
‘The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.’
If, however, mathematics is regarded as the unshakably fundamental basis of the universe — whereby it acts as the native language of everything (embodying universal truths) — then humanity’s role becomes to discover the underlying numbers, equations, and axioms. According to this view, mathematics is intrinsic to nature and provides the building blocks — both proximate and ultimate — of the entire universe. An example consists of that part of the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicting the existence of ‘gravitational waves’; the presence of these waves would not be proven empirically until this century, through advanced technology and techniques. Per this ‘Platonic’ school of thought, the numbers and relationships associated with mathematics would nonetheless still exist, describing phenomena and governing how they interrelate, bringing a semblance of order to the universe — a math-based universe that would exist even absent humankind. After all, this underlying mathematics existed before humans arrived upon the scene — awaiting our discovery — and this mathematics will persist long after us.

If this Platonic theory is the correct way to look at reality, as I believe it is, then it’s worth taking the issue to the next level: the unique role of mathematics in formulating truth and serving as the underlying reality of the universe — both quantitative and qualitative. As Aristotle summed it up, the ‘principles of mathematics are the principles of all things’. Aristotle’s broad stroke foreshadowed the possibility of what millennia later became known in the mathematical and science world as a ‘theory of everything’, unifying all forces, including the still-defiant unification of quantum mechanics and relativity. 

As the Swedish-American cosmologist Max Tegmark provocatively put it, ‘There is only mathematics; that is all that exists’ — an unmistakably monist perspective. He colorfully goes on:
‘We all live in a gigantic mathematical object — one that’s more elaborate than a dodecahedron, and probably also more complex than objects with intimidating names such as Calabi-Yau manifolds, tensor bundles and Hilbert spaces, which appear in today’s most advanced physics theories. Everything in our world is purely mathematical— including you.’
The point is that mathematics doesn’t just provide ‘models’ of physical, qualitative, and relational reality; as Descartes suspected centuries ago, mathematics is reality.

Mathematics thus doesn’t care, if you will, what one might ‘believe’; it dispassionately performs its substratum role, regardless. The more we discover the universe’s mathematical basis, the more we build on an increasingly robust, accurate understanding of universal truths, and get ever nearer to an uncannily precise, clear window onto all reality — foundational to the universe. 

In this role, mathematics has enormous predictive capabilities that pave the way to its inexhaustibly revealing reality. An example is the mathematical hypothesis stating that a particular fundamental particle exists whose field is responsible for the existence of mass. The particle was theoretically predicted, in mathematical form, in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs. Existence of the particle — named the Higgs boson — was confirmed by tests some fifty-plus years later. Likewise, Fermat’s famous last theorem, conjectured in 1637, was not proven mathematically until some 360 years later, in 1994 — yet the ‘truth value’ of the theorem nonetheless existed all along.

Underlying this discussion is the unsurprising observation by the early-20th-century philosopher Edmund Husserl, who noted, in understated fashion, that ‘Experience by itself is not science’ — while elsewhere his referring to ‘the profusion of insights’ that could be obtained from mathematical research. That process is one of discovery. Discovery, that is, of things that are true, even if we had not hitherto known them to be so. The ‘profusion of insights’ obtained in that mathematical manner renders a method that is complete and consistent enough to direct us to a category of understanding whereby all reality is mathematical reality.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Poetry: The Thought-Reader Revolution

Posted by Chengde Chen *


The Way to Root out Evil?
Thought reading: curing human nature with instinct

Why have the thousands of years of moral efforts,
– Religion, education, and the rule of law –
Not cured the human evil of harming others for gain?
Because faith, reason and justice, powerful as they are,
Cannot outdo the ultimate selfishness of human nature.
Kant said, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity,
No straight thing was ever made.’

But, what is more fundamental is human instinct –
The self-preservation based only on physiology.
As thoughts are invisible, one can deceive –
One’s evil intentions may not do harm to oneself,
Hence permitted by instinct, hence possible for evil.
If, by a ‘thought-reader’, thoughts become visible,
Any intention to harm others would harm oneself,
Hence prevented by instinct, hence impossible for evil.

Whether thoughts are visible is, in fact, a moral valve,
Controlling whether there is the possibility of evil.
The invisibility of thought = the possibility of evil;
The visibility of thought = the impossibility of evil.

To make thoughts visible makes morality an instinct,
And men “good men” who can’t be bad.

As the invisibility of thought is the cause of evil,
The truly effective way to root-out evil
Is not the moral classics from Plato to Marx,
But seeing thoughts, to cure human nature with instinct.
Instinct is water, to serve or flood depending on the river.
Only in the canal of truthfulness dredged by the machine,
Can the boat of coexistence sail freely with human dynamics.


* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London. chengde.chen@hotmail.com

Monday, 14 January 2019

Taking the ‘Mono’ Out of Monogamy

Posted by Emile Sorensen

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500
Monogamy has failed -- by all reasonable metrics -– and we have been unwilling to ask monogamy the hard questions. The divorce rate amongst Baby Boomers is pushing upward of 50% and if one includes the more than 30% of married men and women who will succumb to secret dalliance at some point, the rate is way worse than that.

If 50% of an investment fund turned belly up or half the airplanes that took off each day crashed and burned, we would consider them intrinsically flawed and publicly unsafe. According to Psychology Today, ‘... in the U.S. 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. It is now becoming unusual to find two people who remain married to each other for their entire lives.

The word monogamy itself has changed. Just a few decades ago it described the practice of marrying only once during a lifetime. Now it is also used to describes the practice of having only one sexual partner at any given time (as per the definition in the Oxford Dictionary). Anyway, the title ‘monogamous’ is often simply a veneer hiding a complex compromise of temptation, emotional affairs, suppressed regret and hidden unfaithfulness.

Young people are often misled into thinking that marriage can provide them with a lifetime of sexual fulfillment and emotional security – and invariably hit a wall of rude awakening when reality falls short of their expectations and temptation redefines their truth. Even when we verbally advocate monogamy, in reality we tend to deviate from it. And so traditional family structures are being challenged on many fronts. Where relationships were historically based on a sense of religious or social obligation, they are now more apt to be an expression of self-authentication. And the ‘thou shalt not’ from the pulpit has failed to stem this social shift from a ‘theocentric’ or family-centric worldview to one that is egocentric.

As the deception and pain in cheating are still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity -- and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling. It is not uncommon to meet people who have been married two or three times, or more.

As the deception and pain in cheating is still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity – and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling.

Homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexual, polyamory, polyfidelity, polysensual, open relationships, monogamish (mostly monogamous) relationships, swinging, kinky, the lifestyle, serial monogamy and consensual non-monogamy and many others have all become terms we must navigate as we talk intelligently about healthy consensual adult relationships. While most of these relational constructs are still invisible legally, they are undeniably here to stay socially. For example, one Canadian based ‘kink’ websites boasts over seven million members.

Should we abandon monogamy as a great idea whose season has come and gone? What is the new normal? Is there even such a thing as normal any more? We must individually explore where we fit into (or do not fit into) these new social constructs. Ought polyamory, serial monogamy or consensual non-monogamy be recognised as an ‘orientation’ in the same way that homosexuality or lesbianism are?

Ann Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law recently explained why we may speak of orientation. ‘Sexual orientation,’ she says, ‘is defined as attraction to either the same sex, the opposite sex or both sexes – but it could be broadened to include other sexual preferences that are entwined with identity.’ These alternatives must be addressed as we forge the social pathway forwards. And possible even deeper, we must understand why traditional monogamy is unravelling, what to do with this antiquated system that was the ‘gold standard’ of society, and how to engage the new norms as we live in the real world.

What then has caused the ‘gold standard’ to topple? What has caused this shift, and how should we respond? What is bringing monogamy to its knees? An in depth look at the cause reaches beyond the limitations of this post -- but here are considerations to start the discussion.

Fundamental to understanding our change in behavior surely must be a dialogue about our shifting roles. The marketplace has now been enriched by equality – and with that, sexual temptations and opportunities proliferate for both sexes. Women have come of age and emerged as equal vyers for their share of the economic pie. We work more and travel more – and are connected to and are communicating with others more. On top of that the media bombard our sensual appetites consistently – stimulation overload. And exhaustion!

Online pornography and internet dating have not served traditional structures well. Ashley Maddison, a ‘married dating site’, boasts almost eight million members with about sixteen thousand sign-ups every day – half of whom are women.
It is said that modern technology has fostered an immediate gratification mindset – and if sexual appetite and opportunity is out there – why not? Social conservatism – as espoused by the religious front – is losing traction, even amongst the faithful, as society embraces a more open mindset. And it seems we are not having affairs as much because we are looking for someone else as much as we are looking to authenticate ourselves.

Yet interestingly, the one thing that has not changed -- that threads itself consistently through every style, type and description of relationship -- is the destructive power of deception and the fundamental need for trust. It seems no matter what your preference of relationship structure is – monogamy or otherwise – deception is still the killer and cheating is still cheating. Yes, the structure and context of relationships may be changing. How we understand our needs and the creative ways we give expression to our sexuality may be shifting, but fundamentally – we are still the same. We still look for relationships we can trust, and people we can enjoy the richness of mutual connection and exploration with. We still find satisfaction in the consistency of respect. Monogamy may have fallen on hard days – but faithfulness has not.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Picture Post #42: Space in a Nutshell



'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

Picture credit:  A Mundzuku Ka Hina, communication workshop, Maputo, Mozambique
   
Things might look a bit disorientating in this picture. Who’s going where? All move and get blocked. To unblock, one needs movement. 


But where does movement occur? When there is space. And is the suggestion of space not primarily evoked by the idea of chaos? 




Back to the picture above. All were moving to a point that ultimately leads into an impasse. ‘The road’ no longer exists, so to speak. 
Symbolically, this image reflects the Taoist notion that the essence of life consists in never stopping the flow, for no point will ever reward us.




Then perhaps chaos is chaotic only by a misconception about space?


Monday, 31 December 2018

Breaking the Universal Speed Limit?


Well, how do you measure the speed of light - and thus check that everything is observing this ‘universal speed limit’? Seven years ago, the closing months of 2011 saw much excitement in sciencey circles with the highly mediatized announcement that researchers at CERN, the world's most expensive physics laboratory, had detected sub-atomic particles apparently travelling faster than the speed of light. This, the papers assured us, was in defiance of Einstein and all the rules of relativity. Yet the plain ‘fact’ of the matter is that the speed of light is not magically ‘out there’ but merely a human convention. In a relativistic universe, how could it be otherwise?

Here the point is put nicely by Burt Jordaan in a blog posting of January 25, 2010. 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). Yet 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?


In his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, Einstein says: “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”.

One can reasonably read Einstein's ‘by definition’ as ‘by convention’. 
Using Einstein’s convention to set the distant clock at a known distance, call it ‘D’, in empty space, we send a light signal at (say) time zero and when the distant clock detects the signal, it sets its time to D/c sec (the light travel time), where c is the standard speed of light in vacuum.

Now we can measure the speed of any object moving between the two clocks. We can also use the two clocks to measure the one-way speed of light, but we are obviously guaranteed to always get c. In this sense, we get the speed of any object only relative to c and not absolutely. 
In this way, the one-way speed of light is a convention, depending on the convention for clock synchronization."
Burt concludes by observing that there is a general belief system prevailing in physics that ‘whatever is known exists and rest is non-existent’. It is because of this belief system that scientists tend to fill  these existence-nonexistence gaps by cofficients. Yet there can be much more existent and important entities quite apart from the usual quantitites of space and time which physicist are led to ignore. This attitude is the reason that the existence of Dark Matter was unimaginable for four hundred years. As to the spped of light itslef, Burt says explicitly that he cannot understand why Einstein established a ‘religion of special abilities and qualities’ for light. Specifcally, he objects tha even though there are ways to measure the speed of light, there is no reason to believe that nothing can travel faster.

Our own correspondent, Muneeb Faiq, took up the issue for Pi too. Here he offers a thought experiment which again shows the arbitariness of the ‘speed of light’.
‘In fact, there is a lot of confusion about the harmony between the classical and quantum definitions of speed.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. What speed are they moving at? If an observor is stationed on the point mass, then both the photons are moving with the velocity of light. Suppose, all of a sudden, the point mass ceases to exist. Now there are two photons moving with same speed parallel to each other. Nothing else exists except space. Are these two photons moving now because they are at same position in relation to each other which will be defined as the state of rest.

It is interesting to note that before the point mass existed, the two photons were moving with the velocity of light. Now since the point mass has ceased to exist but nothing changed about the photons, they are not supposed to be moving now even if they are moving with the same previous speed.’

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Homeopaths, Holocaust Deniers and 'Philosophers of Science'

On January 20, 2010, at 10:23 (Oxford time, we may suppose), thousands of brilliant minds tried to prove, by guzzling homeopathy pills, that homeopathic remedies could not kill people, and thus that homeopathy doesn't work (and that "there's nothing in it"). A magnificient demonstration of public adherence to the scientific method!
Reposted and updated from Pi Alpha. Edited by Martin Cohen with original research by Perig Gouanvic


“The misrepresentations of history presented by Holocaust deniers and other pseudo-historians are very similar in nature to the misrepresentations of natural science promoted by creationists and homeopaths. ... we find a wide variety of movements and doctrines, such as creationism, astrology, homeopathy, and Holocaust denialism that are in conflict with results and methods that are generally accepted in the community of knowledge disciplines. ”

- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


The Mass Suicide of Homeopathy Skeptics

Almost all of the systematic reviews in conventional journals start on a skeptical note. Indeed, nine out of ten of the articles begin with a statement that questions the scientific plausibility of homeopathy. Some of the articles use relatively strong language to make the point. For example, one by ‘Ernst and Pittler’ suggests that it is the use of ‘highly diluted material that overtly flies in the face of science and has caused homeopathy to be regarded as placebo therapy at best and quackery at worst’.

But to get a good sense of what the masses, including those who make up ‘the scientific consensus’, really think, Wikipedia is a passable indicator. Wikipedians, amongst them, in such articles, we find watchdogs of ‘reason’, including various hired professionals from the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ (and their trusted mercenaries) love to indulge in this dusty old strawman argument:
‘a 12C [homeopathic] solution is equivalent to a 'pinch of salt in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans'... One third of a drop of some original substance diluted into all the water on earth would produce a remedy with a concentration of about 13C.’
This is a stunning demonstration of the lack of intelligence not only of the ‘scientific consensus’, but of the democratic process of knowledge itself. And leading the process is Wikipedia, which turns donkeys into horses on a daily basis, as Socrates would say, while in the background is the poor state of debate between the Orthodoxy and the scientists and philosophers who are trying to make sense of homeopathy. Hahnemann spoke about a ‘forc’ that remained after dilutions and succussions, but pseudoskeptics have kept making the same strawman argument for the last 200 years.

The reality is that Hahnemann wrote a great deal and never shied away from philosophical questions. He argues:
‘A substance divided into ever so many parts must still contain in its smallest conceivable parts always some of this substance, and that the smallest conceivable part does not cease to be some of this substance and cannot possibly become nothing; - let them, if they are capable of being taught, hear from natural philosophers that there are enormously, powerful things (forces) which are perfectly destitute of weight.’
You may not agree, but it is not foolish stuff. Indeed, these days, the ‘homeopathic force’, for instance, could be described in a context of systems biology.

According to Ilya Prigogine, a Russian-born Belgian chemist best known for his definition of dissipative structures ‘and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium’(work that led him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977), in the domain of deterministic physics, all processes are time-reversible, meaning that they can proceed backward as well as forward through time. As Prigogine explains, determinism is fundamentally a denial of the arrow of time. With no arrow of time, there is no longer a privileged moment known as the ‘present’, which follows a determined ‘past’ and precedes an undetermined ‘future’. Instead, all of time is simply a given, with the future just as determined as the past. With irreversibility, the arrow of time is reintroduced to physics. Prigogine notes numerous examples of irreversibility, including diffusion, radioactive decay, solar radiation, weather and the emergence and evolution of life.

This applies especially well to homeopathy. Orthodox scientists evaluate homeopathy through the lens of the results (it’s only water/alcohol!) and tirelessly calculate oceanographic metaphors to deride what they believe is homeopathy, oblivious of the fact that dilution is conceived as a process leading to a change in the way the molecules of the solvent behave together — a change in the structure of water and a concurrent change in the forces likely to make these structures possible.


Brian Josephson, Nobel laureate of physics, has commented on a typical debunking exercise made by the New Scientist journal that:
‘criticisms [of homeopathy] centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water's structure. Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’
The particular homeopathic claim that water can ‘remember’ substances with which it has been in contact, and that such memory might be mediated by hydrogen bonds has also been criticised, typically on theoretical grounds. Many such arguments involve the short duration of individual hydrogen bonds in liquid water ( which is about a picosecond).

However, it is not to be assumed that the mesoscale structure of water must change on the same time scale. For example, in ice, hydrogen bonds are also very shortlived but an ice sculpture can ‘remember’ its shape over extended periods. (Here our essay assumes a suitbly seasonal feel - Editor.) On a smaller scale, cation hydrates are commonly described with particular structure (for example,  the octahedral Na+(H2O)6 ion) even though the individual water molecules making up such structures have very brief residence times (measured in microseconds).

Such arguments ignore the fact that the behaviour of a large population of water molecules may be retained even if that of individual molecules is constantly changing, just as a wave can cross an ocean, remaining a wave although its molecular content is continuously changing.

Evidence denying the long life of water clusters is mostly based on computer simulations but these cover only nanoseconds of simulated time. Such short periods are insufficient to show longer temporal relationships, for example those produced by oscillating reactions. They also involve relatively few water molecules and small (nanometre) dimensions, insufficient to show mesoscale (micron) effects. In short, they use models of the water molecule whose predictions correspond poorly to the real properties of water.

Certain 'memory' effects in water are well established and uncontroversial: for instance the formation of clathrate hydrates from aqueous solutions whereby previously frozen clathrates within the solution, when subsequently melted, predispose later to more rapid clathrate formation. This is explained by the presence of nanobubbles, extended chain silicates or induced clathrate initiators.

Can a homeopathic remedy work if it contains none of the original curative substance?

John Dalton (1776 - 1844) was able to estimate relative atomic masses of various molecules, the smallest unit that a chemical can exist in without losing its identity. His values were soon improved by Amadeo Avogadro (1776 - 1856), in 1811. Avogadro made the very important proposal that the volume of a gas (strictly, of an ideal gas ) is proportional to the number of atoms or molecules that are present. Hence, the relative molecular mass of a gas can be calculated from the mass of a sample of known volume. BUT neither Avogadro nor Dalton knew how many molecules there were in a given mass of a substance.  This is historically significant because it means that, although Hahnemann realised that there was a limit to the dilutions that could be used, he had no way of knowing what that limit was. An historical curiousity - or confirmation of the importance of the homeopathic principle? - is the fact that Darwin tested out ultrahigh dilutions on carnivorous plants. In Insectivorous Plants (1875) he writes:
‘The reader will best realize this degree of dilution by remembering that 5,000 ounces would more than fill a thirty-one gallon cask [barrel]; and that to this large body of water one grain of the salt was added; only half a drachm, or thirty minims, of the solution being poured over a leaf. Yet this amount sufficed to cause the inflection of almost every tentacle, and often the blade of the leaf. … My results were for a long time incredible, even to myself, and I anxiously sought for every source of error. … The observations were repeated during several years. Two of my sons, who were as incredulous as myself, compared several lots of leaves simultaneously immersed in the weaker solutions and in water, and declared that there could be no doubt about the difference in their appearance. … In fact every time that we perceive an odor, we have evidence that infinitely smaller particles act on our nerves.’
But we have to be careful; homeopathy was not the declared, explicit, subject of this text, although it may have been an underlying riddle for Darwin (we know that he visited an homeopath, out of despair about his condition, and felt better after).

In any case, in the Sixth edition of Hahnemann's Organon, which is the ‘Bible’ for practising homeopaths, Hahnmann explicitly moves beyond ‘physical’ cause and effect into the mystical world of mesmerism - or healing by the mystical agency of the so-called vital force (popular at the time and perhaps similar to the notion of chi in Chinese medicine.)
‘I find it necessary to allude here to animal magnetism, as it is termed, or rather mesmerism (as it should be called, out of gratitude to Mesmer, its first founder), which differs so much in its nature from all other therapeutic agents. 
 
This curative power, often so stupidly denied, which streams upon a patient by the contact of a well-intentioned person powerfully exerting his will, either acts homoeopathically, by the production of symptoms similar to those of the diseased state to be cured; and for this purpose a single pass made, without much exertion of the will, with the palms of the hands not too slowly from the top of the head downwards over the body to the tips of the toes, is serviceable in, for instance, uterine haemorrhages, even in the last stage when death seems approaching; or it is useful by distributing the vital force uniformly throughout the organism, when it is in abnormal excess in one part and deficient in other parts, for example, in rush of blood to the head and sleepless, anxious restlessness of weakly persons, etc., by means of a similar, single, but somewhat stronger pass; or for the immediate communication and restoration of the vital force to some one weakened part or to the whole organism, - an object that cannot be attained so certainly and with so little interference with the other medicinal treatment by any other agent besides mesmerism.’
According to the German newspaper Bild, a seventh edition of the Organon was recently unearthed in his native Germany, and this reveals that the doctor had continued his work on replacing dilutions with mesmerism and had completed experiments on the resuscitation of dead dogs. Alas, as the newspaper puts it, ‘He died shortly afterwards.’

The bottom line is that homeopathic dilution has not been shown o work, but nor yet has it been shown to be impossible. Some will say ‘well, you cannot prove a negative’ which may be true, but clearly the history of science is of things that people rejected as impossible becoming accepted in the light on new and more sophisticated understandings. The same could yet be said for the mystery of homeopathic dilution.

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