Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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.


The edge of the universe is to humans as the surface of the water is to fish

July 18, 2017

Things become weird and wonderful when physicists or cosmologists or astronomers talk about the “edge of the universe” or the “finitely bounded but infinite universe” or the “expanding universe” which does not expand into anything but creates space as it expands (the balloon analogy). I read that the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago but the size of the universe is said to be a diameter of (around) 93 billion light-years. Some photons, they say, have traveled 46-47 billion light-years since the Big Bang. Now how did they do that in just 13.8 billion years? The answer, say the physicist-philosophers, is that things aren’t moving away from each other so much as that the space between them is expanding. Really!

How can the universe be 93 billion light-years across if it is only 13.8 billion years old? Light hasn’t had enough time to travel that far…? Ultimately, understanding this facet of physics is the key to understanding what lies beyond the edge of the observable universe and whether we could ever get there. 

To break this down, according to special relativity, objects that are close together cannot move faster than the speed of light with respect to one another; however, there is no such law for objects that are extremely distant from one another when the space between them is, itself, expanding. In short, it’s not that objects are traveling faster than the speed of light, but that the space between objects is expanding, causing them to fly away from each other at amazing speeds.

Ultimately, this means that we could only reach the edge of the observable universe if we develop a method of transport that allows us to either 1) Travel faster than the speed of light (something which most physicists think is impossible) 2) Transcend spacetime (by using wormholes or warp drive, which most physicists also think is impossible).

The reality, I think, is that human cognition is limited. I reject the converse, that human cognition is unlimited, because, if it was, we would not have imponderable questions. Stephen Hawking has often said that “outside the universe” makes no sense, because if the universe came from nothing and brought everything into existence, then asking what lies beyond the universe is an invalid question. When physicists invoke dark energy and dark matter and, in the same breath, point out that they are unknown and undetectable, then it follows that human understanding is incomplete because of the limits to human cognition.

If human cognition is limited, whether at the level we have reached or ten times that level, our understanding of the universe around us is, and will be – and must be – also limited. We will always have a “conceptual edge” to the universe around us corresponding to our cognitive limits. Beyod this edge lies what is “unknowable”. The edge of the real universe lies at at the furthest reaches of our cognitive abilities.

As most fish (with exceptions for flying fish and lung fish) cannot conceive of the world beyond the surface of the water, so can humans not conceive a universe beyond the “conceptual edge” defined by their cognitive ability.

We can never observe what is beyond the “observable universe” because light will never get there. But it isn’t just light that doesn’t get there. Our minds don’t reach there either. There may be a multiverse out there – or maybe not. There may be just the ultimate void being converted into space-time as our universe eats into it. Or maybe there is The Restaurant at the End of the Universe awaiting the intrepid few who get there. Or maybe there is a Thing with a long white beard observing us to see if any human-fish manage to leap through the “edge of the universe”.


The Ship of Theseus paradox is no paradox

July 12, 2017

A dictionary definition would define identity as the characteristics uniquely determining what makes a thing, whether living or inanimate. Consider what is necessary and sufficient to define an identity.

Inanimate things can have identity. The Great Pyramid, or the Empire State building or even that particular, nondescript boulder just there, has an identity. That particular boulder, with that volume and that physical composition and which now is located in my garden in Sweden, may have been formed when it was ejected after a volcanic eruption on Gondwanaland some 500 million years ago. Or it may have been formed 100 years ago when rocks in this region were blasted to build a road. The key point here is that this particular thing had a beginning on the time line of the universe. This beginning, this begin-time, is inextricably tied to the identity of this boulder. This identifiable boulder may have lost some mass by erosion over the years or it may have (though much less likely) grown in mass by accretion. Its mass may have changed over time and its shape and volume may have changed. Even its composition may have changed somewhat as chemical reactions with the surrounding atmosphere slowly occurred. At any given time however, the thing having identity uniquely occupies a physical space.

The Ship of Theseus (see Theseus paradox) had an identity.

The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late first century. Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

I now borrow the concept of a control surface from fluid dynamics

In an inertial frame of reference, a control volume is a volume fixed in space or moving with constant velocity, through which the fluid (gas, or liquid) flows. The surface enclosing the control volume is referred to as the control surface.

Analogous to a control surface, I define an identity control surface. It is abstract (no mass, no thickness, no volume, no energy) but it is definable in 3-dimensional physical space at any instant of time. Unlike in fluid dynamics, this control surface does not enclose a fixed control volume, but physically encloses that which has identity. Whenever that boulder was formed, it was physically enclosed within an elastic identity control surface. The identity control surface is dynamic, elastic and permeable. It is not however fixed in space along the time axis. Its permeability allows the flow of material in both directions, but the integrity of the identity within is not compromised as long as the flow is small relative to the material enclosed. The elastic identity control surface maintains the identity enclosed as it accommodates gradual growth or a shrinkage of the enclosed physical material. The dynamic ability of the identity control surface maintains the continuity over time of the identity enclosed. An identity control surface may be embedded within another identity control surface as would happen if our boulder was used in a building which had its own identity.

This now gives me the two characteristics necessary to define identity. A thing has an identity if it has:

  1. an identity control surface which is physically definable at any instant of time, and
  2. a discrete beginning for that identity control surface on the time line of the universe (a history)

Both are necessary and are together sufficient to define the identity of an inanimate thing. The Great Pyramid and the Empire State Building comply. Their identities will end when the identity control surface is breached sufficiently to create a death on the time line of the universe.

With an identifiable identity control surface and an identified begin-time, Theseus’s ship no longer presents a paradox. As long as the replacements to the ship are small relative to the whole, its identity continues. Even if 100% of the original ship’s timbers are eventually replaced it retains its identity. However another ship gradually built up from the original (discarded) timbers would have a new beginning and a new identity surface and a new identity. Note that each timber as it was discarded would no longer be a part of identity that was Theseus’s Ship. The rebuilt ship would be a reconstruction, albeit with the original materials, of Theseus’s ship but it could never have the identity of Theseus’s ship. There is no ambiguity about identity.

It seems to me that these two characteristics would also be necessary and sufficient to define the identity not only of inanimate things but also of all living things including humans.

For all living things the identity control surface would come into being when the unique genetic make up of that entity was established. For a tree it would enclose the seed or enclose the fertilised egg for a chicken or for a human. For humans, conception or the point at which a fertilised egg embeds itself in the uterus, would seem to be appropriate as the begin-time of that identity. Initially the newly created fetus identity would be enclosed within the identity control surface of the mother and would separate at birth. As humans grow, the elastic identity control surface expands to accommodate that growth. At any time this control surface can be physically defined. The identity within remains continuous, from its begin-time till that identity control surface ceases to exist (and of course that could be some little time after death). Suppose bodies could be put into cryo-storage. Mr. X’s frozen corpse would retains its identity (as Mr. X’s body), even if Mr. X was long since dead, until decomposition destroyed the identity control surface. There is no contradiction here. The fact of being alive or not is then merely a characteristic of the identity.

The brain is not then necessary for an identity to exist. After a brain transplant – if such was possible – the identity continuing would that of the person receiving the brain. Neither is a soul a necessary condition for an identity though that does not say anything about whether a soul exists or not. The identity of each living thing, and that includes the 7 billion humans on the planet, is each uniquely characterised by its identity control surface and its begin-time. This does not address what makes a living thing human, and that would surely involve the brain and whatever one may define as being soul.

There have been suggestions that identity is virtual and based on information (Budimir Zdravkovic in The Oxford Philosopher):

….. when an entire individual is cloned; not just their DNA but their memories and experiences, too. If we assume that a person’s memory and experience is just information stored in the human brain (and the rest of the human nervous system) then in theory it should be possible to completely clone an individual with all his or her experiences, habits and memories included, providing we can reconstruct their body and nervous system.

The concept of complete human cloning is very much in line with the idea that biological identity consists in virtual information as opposed to material constitution. Since information is virtual, a person can be reconstructed eons after his death and still continue to live his life. The person’s identity becomes a function of all the information stored in his DNA, brain, and the rest of the body. After we have sufficient knowledge of the entire human brain and nervous system, in principle we ought to be able to achieve immortality via this complete human cloning.

But this is about creating replicas and not really about identity. You may be able to create an identical, cloned human, but the clone would have a different begin-time and a different identity control surface. A clone might be identical to an original but would have a completely different identity. The clone and the original would have both different begin-times and different identity control surfaces. As identical twins also have completely different identities. Even if their begin-times are identical, they occupy separated physical spaces and different identity control surfaces.

So, the reconstruction of Theseus’s ship would give rise to a new identity with a different identity control surface and a different begin-time.



Logic is discovered, language is invented

July 9, 2017

Logic is inherent in the universe. It is not a creation of man and is not dependent on observation or what kind of brain perceives the universe.

The laws of logic are taken to be unchanging over space and time. Logic now, is as logic was, and as logic will always be. Logic here, is as logic is there and everywhere.

Language, however, is invented. All languages (including mathematics or chemical notation or Boolean algebra or …..) must have a structure which is compliant with the logic of the universe it is used to describe. We perceive a logic in the universe and express it through the inbuilt logic of our language(s). We use the one to describe the other and they are both the same.

How not?


Science (and the gods) rely equally on magic

July 3, 2017

The fundamental assumptions of science can be written in various ways but, for me, seem to boil down to four:

  1. The Universe exists
  2. Laws of nature (science) exist
  3. All phenomena are constrained to obey the laws of nature (science)
  4. The laws of nature (science) apply everywhere in the universe

The laws of nature are such that compliance with these laws is inbuilt. If there is any non-compliance it is not a law of nature. If compliance is all that we observe then it is a law of nature. But why the laws are what they are are usually beyond explanation.

Assumptions are not amenable to further question. You could apply an “if” to them or question “why” the assumption is true, but that is futile for there are no answers. They are just taken as self-evident and the starting point of rational thought. They are never, in themselves, self-explanatory except in the trivial form. (Assume that 1+1=2. Therefore 2+2=4 and that proves that 1+1=2).

I apply the word “magic” to all that is inexplicable. And all the fundamental laws of nature (science) are built on a foundation of inexplicable magic. How many fundamental particles exist and why? It’s magic. If the laws of science only apply after the Big Bang but don’t apply at the Big Bang singularity itself, what laws did? It’s magic. If the laws apply to a supernova but not inside a black hole, it’s magic. (Never mind that a black hole seems to be a part of the universe where the laws of science do not apply which violates the assumption that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic (Assumption 4 above). Why are there 4 – and only 4 – fundamental forces in nature? It’s magic. How did time begin? It’s magic. Can empty space exist without even the property of dimensions? It’s magic. Can time be a dimension and not have negative values? It’s magic. Dark energy and dark matter are merely labels invoking magic. All science which relies on fundamental assumptions is ultimately built upon and dependent upon a set of inexplicable, fundamental statements. They are just magic.

A fundamental flaw with the claim of physics, that all of history up to just after the Big Bang is explainable by the laws of science, must also mean that all of the future is also fixed and determined by the laws of science applied to conditions now. What will happen was therefore fixed for all time by the Big Bang itself. And that, too, is indistinguishable from magic.

Religions do not just rely on magic, they claim the magic for their gods. Modern, “with-it” religions, which try to be “compatible” with the latest knowledge discovered by science, merely claim that their God(s) pushed the button which caused the Big Bang. That my God is greater than your God is magic. That there is a life after death, or reincarnation, or rebirth or an ultimate state of grace is also just magic.

Shiva, Kali, Jesus, Allah, nirvana, dark energy, dark matter and the Big Bang singularity are all labels for different facets of magic.

Magic, by any other name, is just as inexplicable.


Without first having religions, atheism and agnosticism cannot exist

June 27, 2017

I take science to be the process by which areas of ignorance are explored, illuminated and then shifted into our space of knowledge. One can believe that the scientific method is powerful enough to answer all questions – eventually – by the use of our cognitive abilities. But it is nonsense to believe that science is, in itself, the answer to all questions. As the perimeter surrounding human knowledge increases, what we know that we don’t know, also increases. There is what we know and at the perimeter of what we know, lies what we don’t know. Beyond that lies the boundless space of ignorance where we don’t know what we don’t know.

Religions generally use a belief in the concept of a god (or gods) as their central tenet. By definition this is within the space of ignorance (which is where all belief lives). For some individuals the belief may be so strong that they claim it to be “personal knowledge” rather than a belief. It remains a belief though, since it cannot be proven. Buddhism takes a belief in gods to be unnecessary but – also within the space of ignorance – believes in rebirth (not reincarnation) and the “infinite” (nirvana). Atheism is just as much in the space of ignorance since it is based on the beliefs that no gods or deities or the supernatural do exist. Such beliefs can only come into being as a reaction to others having a belief in gods or deities or the supernatural. But denial of a non-belief cannot rationally be meaningful. If religions and their belief in gods or the supernatural did not first exist, atheism would be meaningless. Atheism merely replaces a belief in a God to a belief in a Not-God.

I take the blind worship of “science” also to be a religion in the space of ignorance. All physicists and cosmologists who believe in the Big Bang singularity, effectively believe in an incomprehensible and unexplainable Creation Event. Physicists who believe in dark matter or dark energy, as mysterious things, vested with just the right properties to bring their theories into compliance with observations of an apparently expanding universe, are effectively invoking magic. When modern physics claims that there are 57 fundamental particles but has no explanation as to why there should be just 57 (for now) or 59 or 107 fundamental particles, they take recourse to magical events at the beginning of time. Why there should be four fundamental forces in our universe (magnetism, gravitation, strong force and weak force), and not two or three or seven is also unknown and magical.

Agnosticism is just a reaction to the belief in gods. Whereas atheists deny the belief, agnostics merely state that such beliefs can neither be proved or disproved; that the existence of gods or the supernatural is unknowable. But by recognising limits to what humans can know, agnosticism inherently accepts that understanding the universe lies on a “higher” dimension than what human intelligence and cognitive abilities can cope with. That is tantamount to a belief in “magic” where “magic” covers all things that happen or exist but which we cannot explain. Where atheism denies the answers of others, agnosticism declines to address the questions.

The Big Bang singularity, God(s), Nirvana and the names of all the various deities are all merely labels for things we don’t know in the space of what we don’t know, that we don’t know. They are all labels for different kinds of magic.

I am not sure where that leaves me. I follow no religion. I believe in the scientific method as a process but find the “religion of science” too self-righteous and too glib about its own beliefs in the space of ignorance. I find atheism is mentally lazy and too negative. It is just a denial of the beliefs of others. It does not itself address the unanswerable questions. It merely tears down the unsatisfactory answers of others. Agnosticism is a cop-out. It satisfies itself by saying the questions are too hard for us to ever answer and it is not worthwhile to try.

I suppose I just believe in Magic – but that too is just a label in the space of ignorance.


First nothingness was not, then came the Big Bang and the Gods came later

June 12, 2017

The Rig Veda was probably written between 1500 and 1200 BC and consists of 10 mandalas (books). The first and tenth books were probably written last. The 129th verse of the tenth mandala contains what is called The Hymn of Creation. Nasadiya sukta

It begins:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?

It is not difficult to equate this “then” to “before” the Big Bang and the “it” to all the compressed matter which participated in the Big Bang. (Accepting, of course, that “before” is meaningless when time does not flow).

Then there was neither death nor immortality
Nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

arose at last, born of the power of heat” sounds very like a modern description of the Big BangEven though the Rig Veda’s main 8 mandalas are in praise of various deities, the first and tenth books take a much more agnostic position – perhaps written to bring some balance. The plethora of gods are effectively made subservient to an unknowable, unfathomable creation event. “An atheist interpretation sees the Creation Hymn as one of the earliest accounts of skeptical inquiry and agnosticism”.

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came later, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?”

First even nothingness was not and existence was not. Then came the creation of the Universe whether by Big Bang or otherwise. And the Gods came later (made by man in the image of man).


The Big Bang singularity is indistinguishable from an Act of Creation

June 11, 2017

Most modern physicists and cosmologists who believe (note – believe) in the Big Bang theory of the Universe believe implicitly in an Act of Creation (the Big Bang Singularity) but then usually ignore the question of how and why the singularity occurred. They focus on the Act of Creation and after but do not address the cause of the singularity or a Creator. Religions of all kinds have their own Creation myths but focus on the presumed Creator much more than on the Act(s) of Creation.

(My own belief is that all religions live in the space of ignorance and physics – like all religions – is ultimately dependent upon Magic).

Stephen Hawking describes the Big Bang Singularity thus:

The situation was different, however, when it was realised that the universe is not static, but expanding. Galaxies are moving steadily apart from each other. This means that they were closer together in the past. One can plot the separation of two galaxies, as a function of time. If there were no acceleration due to gravity, the graph would be a straight line. It would go down to zero separation, about twenty billion years ago. One would expect gravity, to cause the galaxies to accelerate towards each other. This will mean that the graph of the separation of two galaxies will bend downwards, below the straight line. So the time of zero separation, would have been less than twenty billion years ago. 

At this time, the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe, would have been on top of itself. The density would have been infinite. It would have been what is called, a singularity. At a singularity, all the laws of physics would have broken down. This means that the state of the universe, after the Big Bang, will not depend on anything that may have happened before, because the deterministic laws that govern the universe will break down in the Big Bang. The universe will evolve from the Big Bang, completely independently of what it was like before. Even the amount of matter in the universe, can be different to what it was before the Big Bang, as the Law of Conservation of Matter, will break down at the Big Bang. 

Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them. This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency.

He goes on, however, to make an unsupportable conclusion.

There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system can not be extrapolated back in time, far beyond four thousand and four BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside. 

Genesis requires time to begin at 4004 BC and the Big Bang is no different in concept. It too defines the start of time and takes us back to 13.8 (give or take a few) billion years ago. Time is not defined before the Act of Creation – whether by the Big Bang or by the hand of God.

(Note that if the flow of time has a beginning then the concept of a before or an after has no meaning before the beginning of time.  The magical speed of an inconstant time).

Hawking concludes:

The conclusion of this lecture is that the universe has not existed forever. Rather, the universe, and time itself, had a beginning in the Big Bang, about 15 billion years ago. The beginning of real time, would have been a singularity, at which the laws of physics would have broken down. Nevertheless, the way the universe began would have been determined by the laws of physics, if the universe satisfied the no boundary condition. This says that in the imaginary time direction, space-time is finite in extent, but doesn’t have any boundary or edge. The predictions of the no boundary proposal seem to agree with observation. The no boundary hypothesis also predicts that the universe will eventually collapse again. However, the contracting phase, will not have the opposite arrow of time, to the expanding phase. So we will keep on getting older, and we won’t return to our youth. Because time is not going to go backwards, I think I better stop now. 

It seems to me that he contradicts himself when he says “The beginning of real time, would have been a singularity, at which the laws of physics would have broken down. Nevertheless, the way the universe began would have been determined by the laws of physics, …..” 

The Big Bang singularity where the laws of physics do not apply is just another Act of Creation. If the laws of physics do not apply at the singularity then, which laws or whose laws do? Or do the laws of physics change? Do they vary in different universes such as that which may have existed before the Big Bang?

Even a singularity must follow some laws. It is disingenuous of physicists and cosmologists to claim that the laws of physics break down at the Big Bang singularity and not address which or whose laws apply at the singularity. If, however, no laws apply at the singularity then the Singularity is Omnipotent (or Magic or God or whatever other label suits you).

I prefer to think it’s Magic.

The fundamentals of physics are just magic.


All objectivity is subjective

April 20, 2017

From a recent talk I gave:

When a tree falls in the forest, a pressure wave is borne by the air, but there is no sound if there is no ear to detect the vibration and no brain to perceive that vibration as sound. On the airless moon there is no medium to convey a pressure wave. “The Sound of Silence”. Silence is what you hear when a tree falls on the moon.

Our eyes do not see any object directly except by reflection. In a mirror, the eye sees a reflection of a reflection of light from an object where the light comes from someplace else. When you discover a car hurtling towards you, your eye only sees a reflection of light from the car approaching, but the light comes from elsewhere. It is fortunate that the light happens to travel faster than the car coming to mow you down. (I note, in passing, that it would have been a far more intelligent design if our eyes had their own inbuilt light sources – laser beams perhaps – but what we would see would still be reflections.)

Our reality is limited by our senses. We are blind to what our senses cannot detect. We cannot see the ultraviolet light all around and we can not detect infra-sounds surrounding us. There is infinitely more that we can not perceive or even detect. Even my thoughts are limited by my imagination. What I cannot imagine, I cannot think of. Without experience, I cannot understand what hunger means to a starving person. Information from the outside world is first filtered by what our senses can detect. Then, it is interpreted and perceived within the limits of our brains. I cannot convey the pressure wave my ears detect, but I can try to describe the sound I hear. But all that I can communicate is limited by my language. The structure and vocabulary of the languages I know cannot cope with all the nuances of emotion and sounds and sights and smells and tastes of what I perceive I experience. 

Where I hear cacophony my son hears music. What I perceive as the worst stench in the world can be perceived as the delicate fragrance of surstromming by a Norrlänning

There are no facts that are not perceptions and there are no truths that are not interpretations in a brain. To make a judgement is to be biased. Being unbiased is not always right. To discriminate is a consequence of thought. Discrimination is not always wrong. To be different is to be unequal. Inequality is not always undesirable. To reward is a consequence of deserving. Equality is not always wise. The question is whether one is just in ones actions. But what is just depends on where the observer is positioned.

My objectivity is not necessarily yours. I have no objection if others have different opinions to mine, even if theirs are invariably wrong. My point is that objectivity is inevitably, and always, subjective.


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