Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“For our children’s children” is a nonsense cliche

December 13, 2017

There is nothing in my life or in my genetics or in my behaviour for which I blame my grandparents. Three of the four had passed away before I was born. But I had some interaction with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I am thankful for a few pleasant memories I have of them. When my great-grandmother passed away, it was just a blip on my consciousness. When my grandmother passed away I remember a feeling of some relief that the suffering of her last few years had ended. But I have never felt any need to attribute any blame or credit to them – or their generation – for the state of the world or for my state in it. Should I blame my father or his generation for World War II? Or his father’s generation for World War I?

So I am mildly irritated when I hear arguments for this political policy or that, “for the sake of our children’s children”. Any generation has only a very vague idea – if any – of the challenges to be faced by the next. My grandfathers had no conception of the world even my father faced let alone the world that I live in. For any of my grandparents to have made decisions about their own lives for the “sake of their children’s children” would have been both arrogant and stupid. To predict the challenges to be faced by the next generation is imperfect enough that, trying to predict the challenges two generations hence, is both futile and arrogant. Every succeeding generation is inevitably better equipped with technology and knowledge (but not necessarily with brain power), to handle its own challenges than the previous one. Solutions available tomorrow, with the knowledge and technology of the day, are not available now.

Would the world be a better place if the dodo was not extinct? Or if World War II had not taken place? Or if aircraft had never been invented? The questions are meaningless. Decisions at the individual or the collective level must be made at the time, for that time, by that time. To anticipate the questions to be faced by future generations and make decisions now – to save future generations from some problem we predict for them – is just as meaningless. The majority of political predictions from just half a generation ago (10 years) were wrong. There is no doubt a causal link between what we do now and the challenges which will be faced by our descendants, but we can neither anticipate those problems nor are we better equipped to solve their problems than they will be. There is also no doubt that decisions taken now choose not only the path for the future but also those who will walk that path. But we cannot – now – walk that path for them. World War II terminated the path for many millions but also enabled the existence of all the survivors and their descendants. But whichever path it is, and whoever the travellers are, they will be better able to define and solve their problems than their grandparents.

Suppose that some decision made today leads to some catastrophic decline in human population. As happened before WW II. Suppose further that the survivors eventually thrive again. As the population is thriving today. Many possible children’s children will not – and did not – even see the light of day. But some thousands of years hence, the population of the day would have no blame to attach to the generation of today. It would have been the catastrophe which enabled their very existence. Just as the occurrence of WW II enabled the population and the world of today. And there is no blame to be attached to those who took the fateful decisions which led to WW II.

So when somebody tells me that he is doing something “for the sake of his children’s children”,

  1. I don’t believe him, and
  2. I think he’s finding a spurious argument for a position he cannot otherwise justify.

A politician who is stupid enough to propose some action for the sake “of our children’s children” should be ignored.



A second now must be longer than a second was then

December 12, 2017

We cannot measure time. We have no idea why time is unidirectional.

We claim to measure time periods and the passage of time, though we have no idea what it is that is passing.

We impute time periods to the observation of changes. We assume that the changes being observed are stable and regular. We used to assume that the earth orbited the sun in a stable and regular manner with every completed orbit taking what we called a year. We now know that the orbit is neither stable nor regular and is no longer accurate enough for use as the standard measure of a time period. We used to assume that the earth’s rotation around its own axis was stable and regular but now know that this rotation is slowing and days are getting longer by about 2.3 milliseconds per century. Of course, to be able to say that, we need a “second” defined independently of a “day” defined by the rotation of the earth. The modern definition of a “second” is now based on the vibration of a caesium atom.

The second is the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom in its ground state at a temperature of 0 K.

This assumes that this radiation is stable and regular. We assume that the 9,192,631,770 periods taken to constitute a second are each identical to the other. (Why it should be so is of course magic). For all practical purposes and relative to the duration of the lifespan of the human species it may well be so. But over the long, long term it cannot be so.

The earth-moon-sun system, the solar system and even our galaxy are all losing energy. Even all vibrating atoms must be losing energy for any radiation to occur or for any vibration to take place. For the “radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom in its ground state at a temperature of 0 K” to remain stable for ever requires an energy input which does not exist. Why any radiation should be regular is still a matter of magic.

What a “second” was at the Big Bang and before is unknown. But since then, it follows that “seconds” then were shorter than “seconds” are now. Every “second” now must be shorter than every “second” to come.

Of course what is even more magical is our fundamental assumption that the passage of time itself is stable and regular. We have no clue as to what laws of the universe require such stability or regularity and the why of any such laws is still in the realm of magic.

The magical speed of an inconstant time


The magic which makes the speed of light what it is

December 8, 2017

Through the process of science we have discovered a great many “natural” constants that apply to our reality. These include  the speed of light in vacuum c, the gravitational constant G, Planck’s constant h, the electric constant ε0, and the elementary charge e. But why these constants are what they are – and not greater or smaller – still escapes us.

Physicists do not like to be contaminated by magic, but they do in fact invoke magic every time they use any of these so-called natural constants. That they are constant over time is itself an assumption without rhyme or reason as to why they should be so. That the passage of time is regular is itself a magical assumption. That a second now is of the same duration as a second 9 billion years ago or of the same duration as a second 10 billion years from now or at the other end of our universe are all just magical assumptions.

And so it is with the speed of light.

We have now fixed the speed of light in a vacuum at exactly 299,792.458 kilometres per second. Why this particular speed and not something else? Or, to put it another way, where does the speed of light come from?

……. Whether it was the ‘hand of God’ or some truly fundamental physical process that formed the constants, it is their apparent arbitrariness that drives physicists mad. Why these numbers? Couldn’t they have been different?  ……. leads us to the anthropic principle, the philosophical idea that what we observe in the Universe must be compatible with the fact that we humans are here to observe it. 

…… Why should the multiverse work like this, and not that? Perhaps it isn’t possible for the intellect to overcome a sense of the arbitrariness of things. We are close here to the old philosophical riddle, of why there is something rather than nothing. That’s a mystery into which perhaps no light can penetrate.

We don’t know why the speed of light is what it is. We don’t know what would have to be different in our universe for this speed to be different. We do not know if this value was always what it is now and will always be so. We don’t know if there are regions in our universe where it does not apply. It is what it is by magic.

I take the view that to the finite human mind some things are unknowable.

And as long as the unknowable exists in physics, physics must take recourse to magic. Giving magic a name or a label does not reduce its magicality.


Laws are made to be broken

December 7, 2017

This is from a before-dinner talk I gave recently.

image – open parachute

Today I return to a little paradox which leads to quite subversive thoughts. 

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a lawyer. Have you noticed that even small talk with a lawyer takes on the character of an inquisition? If only laws were simpler we would not need lawyers, I thought. In any event, it made me think of the nature of the quality of laws. How should we define a good law? And what would be a bad law? 

Now, after a long evening you all need to wake up and follow my reasoning. 

There are only two types of laws. We have either the natural laws of the universe or we have the myriad laws invented by humans. Even the so-called laws of the various gods have all been invented by humans. Note that the universe does not bother with proclaiming its laws. They just are. The universe does not even care if humans get the formulation wrong. No threat or punishment is required because it is impossible to violate these laws. Without any compulsion, it is guaranteed that everyone will comply with these perfect laws. 

So we can say that if everybody complies with a law it is an indication of a law of the highest quality. Perfect laws are those which – without any compulsion – are followed by everyone. As are the natural laws. Worthless laws are those not followed by anybody. Like the speed ​​limits on some motorways in Norrland, for example. But, a law that is followed by everybody, without compulsion, is not needed – is unnecessary, is redundant. 

All laws written by humans always fall between these limits of being useless on the one hand or unnecessary on the other. It may seem logical that a society makes a law so that everyone will comply. But that thinking is in error. If everyone does follow the law, it becomes a redundant law. Without laws there are no law breakers. It is not only that law breakers are created by human laws, human laws need law breakers. Laws are established in the first place to prevent some human behaviors which society judges to be undesirable. But if everyone follows a law then that law is unnecessary, and if no one follows that law it is worthless. One could well say that law breakers perform a fundamental and necessary service for society. They keep laws alive. Without law breakers, there would be no need for laws or legislators or lawyers. In a heaven without law breakers, and therefore, without any law makers or lawyers, there is no room for a legal system to exist. Without a system of justice, society collapses. 

The paradox for today is that if everyone followed all laws, the legal justice system would vanish and society would implode.

A society and its legal justice system depend – existentially – upon its law breakers.

I am forced to the inevitable but very subversive conclusion that human laws are all made – not to be followed – but to be broken.

Now it’s time for dinner.


Life exists as a succession of identities

November 18, 2017

Life is an abstract concept manifested as living things. The thread of life has no discernible beginning.

Life – to be life – must be manifested in an entity capable of reproduction. The elements displaying life either continue or come to an end. The thread is carried as a possibility by every sperm and every egg but the sperm and egg cannot themselves reproduce. Most of these possibilities come to an end before the two combine. If – and only if – a sperm and egg do combine, then life continues as, and within, a unique identity created by that combination. It is the creation of the identity – at conception – which continues life. About one in 300 billion sperm survives to combine with about one in 200 eggs to create an identity. It is a unique genetic identity. That identity, first as a fetus may end before birth. Or it may continue after birth as a child. It may grow to be an adult human and give rise to further sperm or eggs before itself coming to an end. When that identity qualifies to be considered a human entity and protected by society is a choice for the societies and the individuals concerned. Most societies start assigning the identity some rights and protections before birth but only after about 20 weeks of life as a fetus.

There is little doubt, however, that a unique genetic identity is created at conception, whether in a test tube or in a womb. At what stage of development that identity achieves consciousness and then self-awareness is not certain but almost certainly only after a rudimentary brain has formed. That would be some weeks after conception but probably some little time before birth. At what point that identity is to be afforded legal “rights” is then a matter for the surrounding society to determine.

Until the identity reaches birth – whether by natural or by artificial means – it has no options and no choices to exercise. Whether self-aware or not, its existence is in the gift and the power of others. It starts acquiring choices and freedoms of action only after birth, as allowed or constrained by its own development and the rules of the society it finds itself in.

Life then only exists as a succession of identities.

To trace the beginning of life would require going back from identity to identity to the specific cells some 3.7 billion years ago. A collection of sperm and eggs may contain the elements for life to continue but do not in themselves constitute life. The beginning of an identity is not the beginning of life. But the act of conception brings a unique identity into being and it is surely the beginning of a specific new life.

Life may be continuous as a concept but can only be realised and manifested as a succession of unique, discrete identities.


The chains of freedom

November 8, 2017

We speak glibly about free will, about the four human freedoms of speech, of religion, from want and from fear. For any entity, living or otherwise, we can define “freedom” as being the “unconstrained power to do”. With that definition, there are no freedoms anywhere because nothing is unconstrained. Nothing, in this universe, has freedom. An electron is not free to be wherever it wishes to be. Even a “free” electron,  untethered to any atom, can only move in compliance with the gravitational and magnetic fields it is subject to, and never faster than the speed of light. The universe itself is inextricably chained to the arrow of time.

At the most fundamental level, the chains of the “natural laws” thus imprison all matter and energy. All living things are then held by the further chains of their genes. Their physical form and attributes and behaviour must lie within the envelopes of possibility fixed by their genes. These chains ensure that a birch tree can never be an oak or a zebra a lion. From the time a seed is planted, it merely reacts to its environment and the changes to that environment. It chooses nothing. In fact, there are no choices to be made.

But humans have free will, it is said. Humans have choices available, it is said. They can choose how they will behave. But I am no longer sure if this is true. Certainly each one of the seven+ billion humans can imagine violating what we understand to be the “natural laws” but not a single one can actually do so. I can imagine myself running faster than Usain Bolt, but it never does, and never will, come to pass. All the chains connecting me to my past are unbreakable. All my possible future states of being are anchored to my current state by another unbreakable chain. All human actions are constrained by

  1. the starting conditions,
  2. what a mind can envisage,
  3. what is physically possible, and
  4. the forces driving the action

Free will, if it exists, is involved in imagining the action and in providing the driving forces for action. Causal Determinism of course allows of no free will. All future events are determined by past events and so on ad infinitum. Some forms of philosophical determinism allow some freedom of choice within a narrow envelope of possible behaviours, though others suggest that the choice of actual behaviour made is, in fact, also predetermined.

I think we need to distinguish between thought and action even if thinking itself is an action. The exercise of free will requires an action. But thinking itself is constrained. Thinking about violating the laws of nature is clearly an act which does not, itself, violate the laws of nature. Thinking about travelling backwards in time itself moves forward in time. Moreover, thinking has its own unbreakable chains. I cannot think, for example, in a language I do not know. What I cannot imagine I cannot even think about. What I cannot imagine is what, to my mind, is unknowable. What is knowable for any mind is a consequence of its capacity, its speed of learning and its knowledge base (experience). Even our possible thoughts then are limited and thus a constraint on our subsequent actions (if any).

image STAR

Every single human is in fact condemned to a life sentence on a prison planet called Earth from which there is no escape. We are in fact prisoners of

  1. what we understand to be the natural laws,
  2. our genes,
  3. the surrounding environment,
  4. our experience, and
  5. our current state

These chains are not susceptible to being broken. Each one of us is so enmeshed in constraining chains that we have few, if any, real freedoms of action.

I am about to make myself a cup of coffee. That was probably determined long before I was born. But I have the illusion that it is a choice I am making freely.



The Liar Paradox can be resolved by the unknowable

October 17, 2017

A paradox appears when reasonable assumptions together with apparently valid logic lead to a seeming contradiction. When that happens, then applying the same rules of logic lead to the further conclusion that either

  1. the assumptions were wrong or
  2. that the logic applied was not valid or
  3. that the seeming contradiction was not a contradiction.

Where a paradox lies in wrongly identifying a contradiction, it is just an error. If the paradox is due to an error of applying the rules of logic it is also just a mistake. However sometimes the paradox shows that the logic itself is flawed or inconsistent. That can lead to a fundamental revision of the assumptions or rules of the logic itself. Paradoxes have contributed to whole realm of the philosophy of knowledge (and of the unknowable). Many paradoxes can only be resolved if perfectly reasonable assumptions can be shown to be wrong. Many scientific advances can be traced back to the confrontation of the starting assumptions.

Confronting paradoxes has led to many advances in knowledge. Niels Bohr once wrote, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” A paradox is just an invitation to think again. 

Classical Logic is digital. It allows no grey zone between true and false. What is not true is false and what is not false must be true. This requirement of logic is built into the fabric of language itself. Classical Logic does not allow a statement to be, true and false simultaneously, or neither false nor true. Yet this logic gives rise to the Liar Paradox in its many formulations. The paradox dates back to antiquity and in its simplest forms are the statements

“I am lying”, or

“This statement is false”

There are many proposed ways out of this paradox but they all require some change to the rules of Classical Logic. Some require a term “meaningless” being introduced which requires that a proposition may be neither true nor false. Others merely evade the paradox by claiming that the statement is not a proposition. Bertrand Russel took the radical step of excluding all self reference from the playing field.

Experts in the field of philosophical logic have never agreed on the way out of the trouble despite 2,300 years of attention. Here is the trouble—a sketch of the paradox, the argument that reveals the contradiction:

Let L be the Classical Liar Sentence. If L is true, then L is false. But we can also establish the converse, as follows. Assume L is false. Because the Liar Sentence is just the sentence “L is false,” the Liar Sentence is therefore true, so L is true. We have now shown that L is true if, and only if, it is false. Since L must be one or the other, it is both.

That contradictory result apparently throws us into the lion’s den of semantic incoherence. The incoherence is due to the fact that, according to the rules of classical logic, anything follows from a contradiction, even “1 + 1 = 3.” 

It seems to me that the paradox vanishes if we allow that what is not true is not necessarily false, and what is not false is not necessarily true. The fault lies in our self-determined assumption of the absence of a continuum between true and false. We can as well create a grey zone – some undefined state between and outside the realms of true and false – which would be an unknown state. Perhaps even an unknowable state. It is a strong indication – even if not a proof – that the unknowable exists and that logic needs to be fuzzy rather than digital.

The Liar Paradox is connected to the Fitch Paradox of Knowability

The paradox of knowability is a logical result suggesting that, necessarily, if all truths are knowable in principle then all truths are in fact known. The contrapositive of the result says, necessarily, if in fact there is an unknown truth, then there is a truth that couldn’t possibly be known.

More specifically, if p is a truth that is never known then it is unknowable that p is a truth that is never known. The proof has been used to argue against versions of anti-realism committed to the thesis that all truths are knowable. For clearly there are unknown truths; individually and collectively we are non-omniscient. So, by the main result, it is false that all truths are knowable. The result has also been used to draw more general lessons about the limits of human knowledge. 

Language is invented. Both words and the rules of grammar are invented – not discovered. We are forced to define words such as “infinite” and “endless” and “timeless” attempting to describe concepts which we cannot encompass with our finite brains and our limited physical senses. It is not possible to measure an endless line with a finite ruler.

The unknowable exists and it is therefore that we need the word “unknowable” .


Known, unknown and unknowable

The unknowable is neither true nor false

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems


The unknowable is neither true nor false

September 22, 2017

Some things are unknowable (Known, unknown and unknowable).

In epistemology (study of knowledge and justified belief), unknowable is to be distinguished from not known.

Fitch’s Paradox of Knowability (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The paradox of knowability is a logical result suggesting that, necessarily, if all truths are knowable in principle then all truths are in fact known. The contrapositive of the result says, necessarily, if in fact there is an unknown truth, then there is a truth that couldn’t possibly be known. More specifically, if p is a truth that is never known then it is unknowable that p is a truth that is never known.

Some believe that everything in the universe can be known through the process of science. Everything that is not known today will be known eventually. I do not quite agree. Some things are, I think, unfathomable, unthinkable – which one can not know. My reasoning is quite simple. The capacity of our brains is limited. That seems undisputed. It is because of our cognitive limitations, we have found it necessary in our invented languages to invent the concept of infinity – for things that are beyond observable. If brain capacity was unlimited there would be no need for the concept of infinity or for words such as “incomprehensible”. Even in mathematics, which, after all, is another language for describing the universe, we also have the concept of infinity. Infinitely large and infinitely small. We can find finite limits for some convergent infinite series, but we can never get to infinity by making finite operations on finite numbers. We cannot fill an infinite volume with a finite bucket or measure an infinitely long line with a finite ruler.

To my layman’s understanding, Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis (which still cannot be proved), and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems (which prove that it cannot be proved in an axiom based mathematics), only confirms for me that:

  1. even our most fundamental axioms in philosophy and mathematics are assumed “true” but cannot be proven to be so, and
  2. there are areas of Kant’s “noumena” which are not capable of being known

It is not just that we do not know what we do not know. We cannot know anything of what is unknowable. In the universe of the knowable, the unknowable lies in the black holes of the current universe and in the time before time began.

I find Kant’s descriptions persuasive

Noumenon, (plural Noumena), in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) as opposed to what Kant called the phenomenon—the thing as it appears to an observer. Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant claimed that man’s speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon.

All human logic and all human reasoning are based on the assumption that what is not true is false, and what is not false must be true. But why is it that there cannot be a state where something is neither true nor false? Why not both false and true at the same time? In fact, it is the logic inherent in our own language that prohibits this state. It is a limitation of language which we cannot avoid. But language is not discovered, it is invented. That “what is not true must be false” is just an assumption – a very basic and deep assumption but still just an assumption.

Following Fitch

in fact there are unknown truths, therefore there must be truths that couldn’t possibly be known.


“Truth” and “that which is not true is false” are assumptions and are definitions inbuilt in our languages. Truth and Falsity are not necessarily mutually exclusive quantum states. They may instead form part of a continuum which is unknowable.  Maybe a truth-time continuum?

(image Forbes)


Time precedes existence

August 4, 2017
While Ilya Prigogine (Nobel prize in 1977 for nonequilibrium thermodynamics) claimed that time precedes existence, Einstein, Newton, and others held a symmetric view of time where time and existence occur simultaneously.
I am inclined to Prigogine’s view.
Causality, time, entropy, heat transfer, plastic deformation and spontaneous chemical reactions are all examples of irreversible processes.
I note that even in the statement “I think, therefore I am”, a “before” and an “after” is implied.
In fact, even the statement “I exist” implies that I exist “in time”.
Real time precedes the Big Bang.
Thereafter we have perceived time.
Time is causal.
It is not just past events which cause future events, past time causes future time.
Time precedes existence.

Known, unknown and unknowable

July 22, 2017

Donald Rumsfeld was often the butt of cheap jokes after this quote. In reality, Rumsfeld was absolutely spot on and close to philosophic.

Starting from where Rumsfeld left off we come to the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable

These are things we don’t know that we don’t know. There are knowable unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we could know but we don’t know which we don’t know. But there are also unknowable unknowns. There are things we cannot know that we don’t know that we can never know. 

a la Rumsfeld

I am coming to the conclusion that the sum of all human cognition lacks some of the dimensions of the universe. It may be increasing with time, but human cognition is limited. The expanding universe may be infinite or it may be boundless. For human cognition to grasp the universe is then like trying to measure an infinite length with a ruler of finite length, or of trying to measure some unknown parameter with a ruler marked in inches. Those measurements will never reach a conclusion.


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