Monday, 20 April 2015

Particles dreaming

 By Pierre-Alain Gouanvic

What do particles know?

The original intution of Thomas Young (1802) was to reproduce the cancellation of water waves, but with light; the double slit was simply used to yield two exactly identical light sources (the same, divided in two). Notice the straight lines that seem to radiate from the source of the water waves: they are made of the cancellation of each other, and are analogous to the dark regions on the five-step picture on the right, a true depiction of the impact of electrons in an experiment made by Tanamura.

The double-slit experiment is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles. It is also said that it displays the 'fundamentally probabilistic nature' of the universe at the quantum scale.
In the Bohm interpretation of quantum physics, the reason why single particles seem to interfere "with themselves", in other words, the reason why, in the double-slit experiment, even single particles ultimately form a figure of interference despite of the fact that they are not emitted as beams but one after the other (see the 5-step process, right), is because each of these particles have a kind of pilot wave which does interfere with itself in some circumstances like the double slit apparatus. The analogy of the sonar helps to explain the phenomenon : picture a dolphin who would have to echolocate through two holes and you get the picture!

Bohm had many analogies for the quantum potential, his revised version of the pilot wave. The sonar is one of them. The information given by the surroundings guides the dolphin, it is called 'active information'

However, what this analogy leaves unattended is the fact that particles do not "send" signals to the surrounding and do not "wait" for this signal to bounce back. Another analogy far remote from the sonar one, was given by Bohm : each particle is like a piece of an hologram, each contains information about the whole, but each is concretised in a specific context.

The 'echolocation' process would be more like a pulsation between the particle as a located entity and the particle as one concretion of the whole. Pulsating infinitely rapidly between being-discrete and being-the-whole, the particle would be more like a process taking the form of an object.
What kind of "thing" can be everything half of the time and something the rest of the time?

Humans, for starters. We, as particles, tend to forget that we also are the whole, each night. We dream.

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Philosophy of Gestures

By Thomas Scarborough


A weighty philosophical tome it may not have been, nor a seminal paper, nor a famous meeting which made the greatest contribution to modern philosophy, but a single gesture. Unusually, for a gesture – since gestures are so quickly lost in the tumult of our daily life – it was one of the best recorded gestures of time. 

Piero Sraffa – otherwise known for his lectures on economics at Cambridge – impulsively brushed his chin with his fingers. So important was Sraffa to Ludwig Wittgenstein – above all, it would seem, through that single gesture – that Wittgenstein acknowledged Sraffa in his Philosophical Investigations. The same Wittgenstein, that is, who wrote to his professor G.E. Moore: “Dear Moore,... the whole business [of acknowledgement] is too stupid and too beastly.” For such sentiments, Wittgenstein was denied his BA degree. Citations, at Cambridge, were required by the regulations.

Wittgenstein finally wrote acknowledgements in his Philosophical Investigations, but not to his mentors Gottlob Frege, or Bertrand Russell, nor to any of the luminaries he there refers to merely as “other people” – only to Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa. The acknowledgement to Ramsey seems somewhat cursory: through him, he “was helped”. But his acknowledgement to Sraffa is profound: "I am indebted to this stimulus for the most consequential ideas in this book". And “this book”, in turn, arguably had the most consequential effects of the century, in philosophy. While it is not known which stimulus it was that Wittgenstein refers to in his book, it is generally assumed that the gesture encapsulates it all – followed by Sraffa's interrogation of Wittgenstein: 
“What is the logical form of that?”  
Sraffa need not have brushed his chin with his fingers. It might as easily have been a punch. “What is the logical form of that?” Or a hug. Even a jig. Or, for that matter, a legacy, or a rampage. President Kennedy's visit to West Berlin, we may suppose, was a gesture. The Bomb under Mururoa. The independence of East Timor. The destruction of the Twin Towers. In their broadest sense, these are gestures all. They are actions, that is, performed to convey a feeling or intention.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Monday, 30 March 2015

Plato, Democritus and Alternative Medicine

Could the history of philosophy, and in particular the unresolved debate between Plato and Democritus, explain the present debate between alternative and conventional approaches to nature and health?

'Alternative Medicine' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "any of a range of medical therapies not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession", citing chiropractic, faith healing, herbalism, homeopathy and reflexology as examples. 1 Yet a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over one third of people preferred alternative medicine to conventional methods, citing the medical establishment's emphasis on diagnostic testing and drug treatments that did not consider the patient's well-being and health as a whole.2 Edzard Ernst, a Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter in the U.K puts usage even higher, saying that "about half the general population in developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine".3 And in some countries, notably China and India, what are considered 'alternative' treatments are central to government health strategies. 4 In fact, there are social and cultural dimensions to health policy as well as scientific and historical ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the response and acceptance of so-called 'alternative' health treatments.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Aspects of Mind

by Thomas Scarborough

Part I. Mind and Matter

I tap my finger on a table-top. I drink a glass of milk. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Such experiences seem perfectly real to me. So does the passion I have for my diesel pick-up, my grief over my grandmother's passing, or the fact that I am a Yorkshireman. Which means that, on the surface of it, my life seems real to me, through and through.

Now consider what this means to me philosophically. It seems to me, therefore, that I am living in a real world. It is not imagined, or illusory. Further, it would seem to me that I am an observer of this world, not merely a “robotic” presence there. And on this basis, it would seem to me that I have a mind which observes reality: mind here, reality there, which separates my mind from the matter which it observes.

If it were so simple. As to what reality really is, is another question. It is a problem which has become acute in recent generations. Three things in particular have changed. Firstly, the natural sciences have enabled us to get behind our surface impressions, to understand that the physical world is no more than it seems to be to me. Secondly, psychologists have discovered that our senses can all of them without exception be wrong: sight, smell, touch, and all. And thirdly, an increasingly materialistic outlook has led us to wonder whether there is any mind at all: the mind, said D.M. Armstrong, is nothing but the brain.

What should we do, then, with the old intuitive view, which leads us to set our mind apart from matter?

Since the 1950's, linguistics has been integral to the study of the mind, and it is linguistics we shall call upon here for help. Francis Bacon, four-hundred years ago, in his Novum Organum (Book 1:59), may have given us an unwitting clue as to what may be so different about the mind. There is an evil, he wrote, in dealing with natural and material things: the definitions of these things consist of words, and these words beget words. 

To paraphrase Bacon, definitions consist of words, which have definitions which consist of words. This is much like having money in a bank, which has its money in another bank, which has its money in another bank, and so on. It is easy to see that one will never access one's money – which is the whole point of it after all. Similarly, our language, when we examine it closely, deals in nothings – yet nothing is the antithesis of the something that our reality is – or seems to be.

There are other ways of proving this “disjunctionbetween our language and reality. I describe one of these in my Metaphysical Notes (Part III).

We therefore have a real reality, so to speak – which is however partnered with an unreal language which can never really get a grip on this reality we seem to know. The very nature of our language curiously distances our words – in fact our mental processes – from the reality which they describe. There is no real correspondence between the two. The mind, in a sense, hovers over the surface of reality. The mind  is wholly other.

The mind, one might say, functions in a completely different mode to the reality which we seem to know. This may well explain why we perceive our mind to be so different. It may explain, too, the many situations and states of mind which give us a sense of unreality or detachment: déjà vu, for instance, or the imposter syndrome, or a sense of alienation. As to why the mind is wholly other, and what this means, are different questions, which we may examine in time.

Part II. Consciousness and Attention

Pointing to my arm, you ask me, “How did you cut yourself there?” “Oh!” I exclaim. “I really don't know. It completely escaped my attention!” Then, with a philosophical turn of mind, you ask me, “Were you conscious at the time that you cut yourself?” “Well of course!” I reply. “At least, presumably I was! But, not about the cut.”

This imaginary conversation contrasts the concepts “attention” and “consciousness”. Consciousness is of course the more familiar of the two, although nobody really seems to know what it is, let alone how to explain it. Simon Blackburn tentatively suggests: the theatre where my thoughts and feelings have their existence. Attention, on the other hand, while not as well known, is well established in psychology. Daniel Dennett defines it as the conscious awareness of information.

Could the two be one and the same? And if not, then what is the relationship between the two?

Just one-hundred years ago, it first came to the public attention that we might not be as conscious as we think – and at the time, people were (and they still are) loath to accept it. Yet one should have guessed it. Our very language is replete with words which speak of our lack of conscious awareness: we are oblivious, inattentive, napping, and so on. Alternatively, we may lose ourselves in what we are doing: we are, for instance, absorbed, preoccupied, immersed.

If then I am oblivious to my surroundings – or more accurately, to aspects of my surroundings – am I always conscious? Similarly, if I am absorbed in my surroundings, am I always conscious? If I am absorbed in myself, or in the problems of the imaginary world of constructs, am I always conscious? Clearly, none of these states of mind would seem to be quite the same as being fully aware, awake, or alert.

There are, too, degrees of awareness. Norman Dixon famously ranked the conscious and non-conscious aspects of our sensory modalities (see the image). We easily become aware of pain, he noted. We are vaguely aware of smell. Yet we hardly become aware of what are called visceral interceptors, such as our heartbeat or breathing – even riding a bicycle, perhaps, while sending a text message. It is a hierarchy of that which, so to speak, grabs our attention.

Consciousness and attention might seem to be frightfully complex subjectsyet we find a common thread which runs through all our attentive moments, if not our conscious ones. We take notice of (and sometimes we especially ignore) novelty, discrepancy, and interruption – or perhaps rather, we take notice of that which represents novelty, discrepancy, and interruption, to me. The “unexpected”, writes Richard Gregory. 

Let us pause at this point, to notice that this speaks of my taking notice, in every case, of some kind of contradiction. Novelty is a contradiction of that which I have been accustomed to. Discrepancy is a contradiction of that which I know. Interruption is a contradiction of that which I expect. Therefore, it is contradiction that arrests my attention, more than anything else. It is in moments of contradiction that I am most aware. And one does not need to see far to see that this further relates to reason which we may explore, too, in time.

In short, consciousness has a lot to do with attention – and attention has a lot to do with those things which conflict. Now combine this with the fact that the pace of modern society today is such that we need to process far more contradictions of many kinds than people used to do – many of which were not even contemplated one-hundred years ago. David Gelernter writes, with this in mind, that the modern mind is characterised by an ever more acute self-consciousness.

Not only this, notes Gelernter, but previous generations were far more disposed to low-focus thought – a thought which had and has little concept of contradiction or logicality. Pre-historic societies, perhaps, were no less intelligent than we are. Rather they entertained less contradictions – and perhaps, thereby, they were happier.

Monday, 16 March 2015

BBC propaganda

BBC propaganda

An alarming insight into how the BBC operates?


  Who's Churning the BBC Machine?

 • 'How the BBC became a propaganda machine for climate change zealots 
 - as recounted by its former news frontman, Peter Sissons

Based on  the Daily Wail story which in turn drew on Peter Sissons's memoirs, with additional comments by Pi editors.

Sissons diagnoses it as 'political correctness'. Worrying about manmade climate change was an incontrovertible duty - a view also taken, for example, at the Guardian and the Times newspapers. But Sisson's writes:

'From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC's coverage of 
the issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than 
the over-simplified two-minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of 
the BBC's environment correspondents.

These, without exception, accepted the UN's assurance that 'the science 
is settled' and that human emissions of carbon dioxide threatened the 
world with catastrophic climate change. Environmental pressure groups 
could be guaranteed that their press releases, usually beginning with 
the words 'scientists say..'. would get on air unchallenged.

On one occasion, an MP used BBC airtime to link climate change doubters 
with perverts and holocaust deniers, and his famous interviewer didn't 
bat an eyelid.

On another occasion, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in 2009, the science correspondent of Newsnight actually informed viewers: 
'scientists calculate that he has just four years to save the world'. What she didn't tell viewers was that only one alarmist scientist, NASA's James Hansen, had said that.

My interest in climate change grew out of my concern for the failings of 
BBC journalism in reporting it. In my early and formative days at ITN, I 
learned that we have an obligation to report both sides of a story. It 
is not journalism if you don't. It is close to propaganda.

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