Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

We, they and the roots of violence

December 4, 2022

The application of physical force is the motive force for all material events in our universe. The use of physical force as a tool – whether for survival or anything else – is enabled by the genes of every living thing. The ability of any living thing to exert physical force is enabled and constrained by its physiology.

violence: (n) the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy; extreme physical force; vehemence, intense, turbulent, destructive

Any use of physical force by any living creature is not always considered a violent act. If the physical force applied is insufficient to cause damage it does not qualify as violence. Usually the intention to injure, damage or destroy is needed to convert the mere act of using damaging, physical force to being a violent act. In language the word is often used even if no such intention exists. For example hammering a nail can be described as violent. An incoherent idiot may be excused his behaviour because of his violent thoughts. When a volcano erupts or when the growing roots of a tree destroy a house – say – they are often referred to as violent though it would be difficult to ascribe any destructive intentions.

Violence (like any force) is a vector. It has an object acted upon, a magnitude and a direction. Without the concepts of we and they there would be no human violence.

We and They (Rudyard Kipling)

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? –They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

It seems to me that the use of physical force between humans is converted to violence only when

  1. we and they exist,
  2. the magnitude of the force applied is sufficient to injure, damage or destroy, and
  3. the intention to do harm exists.

Human violence thus needs an object, magnitude and intention. A pat on the back is not violence. The same magnitude of force used to murderously swat a fly is violence. Intention requires a mind. For things with minds a we and a they exist. In fact, it is the concept of a we and a they which is necessary for intention to emerge. Predators are we and prey are them. Weeds are them. I am, of course, a part of we. When a lion kills the offspring of its predecessor, the we obliterate the them. We are invariably good. They are not always bad but we are never bad.

War, genocide, torture, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda or Myanmar, violent conflict in Ukraine, are not examples of abnormal human behaviour. They are an integral part of human behaviour and though we often call such behaviour “inhuman”, it is just a label. Caligula and Genghis Khan and Hitler and Pol Pot were all human. Potential Hitlers are being born every day. All past atrocities are just examples of how humans could – under appropriate circumstances – behave even today.

“There, but for the grace of God go I” – John Bradford

Atrocity is a part of that primal human behaviour which is rooted in We and They. Whatever it is that makes humans a social animal (presumably our genes) creates our concept and our need for We and They. From families and tribes to gangs and nations, it is being able to conceptualise a we which has enabled survival and led to development. It is the concept of we which underlies cooperation and which has given us language and development. And it is being this social animal with a sense of we which has distinguished humans from all other species in the level of cooperation that has been achieved. Much of our cooperation is manifested as the joint and coordinated application of physical force. That is true whether in building the Taj Mahal, going to the moon or implementing Hitler’s final solution. When survival – or perceived survival – is at stake We may always resort to atrocity against Them. Our evolutionary success is rooted in We and They and in our ability to apply physical force.

Along with We comes They and then violence becomes a word.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:

Simplicity helps parsimony, but can complexity exist without purpose?

November 8, 2022

Why complexity?

We admire simplicity but are awed by complexity which achieves some particular purpose. In our universe we are surrounded by complexity. However, for any required level of complexity, we give great value to being as simple as possible. When two hydrogen atoms refuse to remain simply single, but pair to give a hydrogen molecule we have complexity. The apparent purpose is stability – a balance. Helium atoms, of course, are confirmed, stable bachelors. Complexity – it seems – always has purpose. Without a purpose complexity is pointless. Could it be that purpose is necessary for complexity? Can there be purpose without consciousness? Do the laws of nature have purpose? Whose purpose then?

Does the universe even care?

It is not a law of nature but the principle of parsimony (also called Ockham’s or Occam’s Razor) holds that of many possible explanations, the simplest, least energy-intensive explanation having the fewest assumptions, is most likely the correct one. William of Ockham (c.  1287–1347) advocated that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions. The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses by successively “shaving away” unnecessary assumptions. Isaac Newton wrote, “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”. But the parsimony principle had been expressed even in antiquity. Long before Newton, Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. 168) stated, “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible.” In short, parsimony is about only what is necessary and no more than is sufficient.

Parsimony and simplicity and an absence of superfluity is given much value in many fields. Parsimony lies at the heart of minimalism in all fields. I associate parsimony with simplicity and simplicity with elegance. In language, I perceive elegance to lie in using as few words as are necessary and sufficient to convey a precise meaning. In philosophy and science, elegance lies in having as few assumptions as possible. Elegance in engineering constructs lies in using as few components as possible, consuming as little energy as possible, and in expending as little effort as feasible, to achieve a given function. As an engineering student, I learned to appreciate simplicity in complexity. My maths professor instilled in me the elegance associated with simplicity. With the study of machines and constructions I was fascinated by how creativity and purpose converted simple things to complex things. Elegance in engineering arose from having the greatest simplicity for any required complexity. It is not surprising therefore that I tend to see simplicity not only as a ground state of existence but also as the source of elegance.

(A word about entropy. From my thermodynamics professor I was introduced to entropy as the measure of that enthalpy that could not usefully produce work – the 2nd Law – and came to understand it as a quantification of the distance from equilibrium of an isolated system. The closer to equilibrium the less the work that can be extracted and the greater the entropy. Higher temperatures are thus further removed from equilibrium than lower temperatures. The heat death of the universe as an isolated system then represents that final equilibrium when nothing more can change and entropy will be at the highest level possible for our universe. I always felt it would have been easier to teach entropy from the end-state of final equilibrium as having the lowest negentropy. Any increase in complexity moves any system further away from the final equilibrium and is generally an indicator of lower, local entropy. However, my logic seems to become circular when attempting to relate simplicity and complexity in terms of entropy and I leave that for some later post).

Complexity is the attribute of a whole thing made up of interacting parts. The parts must be interacting for an assembly of parts to gain complexity. Any part of a whole, by definition, is a simpler thing than the whole thing, but may itself be complex and exhibit complexity in its own right. Whereas simple has many meanings (innocent, modest, humble, stupid, naive, fundamental, uncomplicated, ..), simplicity, in this context as opposed to complexity, is the quality of things having as few interacting parts as are necessary and sufficient. The simplest things of all have no component parts and are indivisible. In the material world, the ancients considered the simplest, fundamental elements, making up all matter, to be indivisible (earth, fire, water, air, aether). The Greeks developed this into the notion of fundamental atoms of matter. Nowadays we have the Standard Model where all matter is composed of 17 elementary particles. But most of these elementary particles cannot exist in isolation. Many, it is thought, only existed in the first few seconds after the Big Bang. For some reason or other (let us call it purpose) they assemble and interact in complex ways to create the matter and energy we more readily perceive.

The Conversation

There are two types of fundamental particles: matter particles, some of which combine to produce the world about us, and force particles – one of which, the photon, is responsible for electromagnetic radiation. These are classified in the standard model of particle physics, which theorises how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by fundamental forces. Matter particles are fermions while force particles are bosons.

Matter particles are split into two groups: quarks and leptons – there are six of these, each with a corresponding partner. Leptons are divided into three pairs. Each pair has an elementary particle with a charge and one with no charge – one that is much lighter and extremely difficult to detect. The lightest of these pairs is the electron and electron-neutrino. The other two neutrino pairs (called muon and muon neutrino, tau and tau neutrino) appear to be just heavier versions of the electron. The six quarks are also split into three pairs with whimsical names: “up” with “down”, “charm” with “strange”, and “top” with “bottom” (previously called “truth” and “beauty” though regrettably changed). The up and down quarks stick together to form the protons and neutrons which lie at the heart of every atom. Again only the lightest pair of quarks are found in normal matter, the charm/strange and top/bottom pairs seem to play no role in the universe as it now exists, but, like the heavier leptons, played a role in the early moments of the universe and helped to create one that is amenable to our existence. .. There are six force particles in the standard model, which create the interactions between matter particles. …. The Higgs boson is the final particle which completes the roll call of particles in what is referred as the standard model of particle physics so far described.

We look for the simplest possible explanations even though the physical universe around us is far from simple. But why does the universe create complexity from simple things? Physics tells us that we cannot find smaller, more elementary particles than those in the Standard Model. (I have some reservations about how elementary particles which have no independent existence can be taken as being elementary – but that is another story). But physics also tells us that most of these elementary particles only exist together with other particles, where the coming together always resolves some apparent imbalance in force or energy or charge. If the fundamental particles were truly fundamental, it should surely be simpler for them to remain as fundamental particles rather than combine in complex ways to create matter. Why do atoms combine to produce elemental molecules if not forced to? Why would simple molecules choose to create complex molecules? If nothing else, seeking a balance of some kind appears to be the purpose. But why should the universe abhor imbalance and have the achieving of balance as a purpose? What were the imbalances which led to the complexity exhibited by organic molecules? And why would complex, inanimate molecules get together in just the right, but highly unlikely, configurations to create life? And what was the purpose for simple life to increase in complexity when it would have been so much easier to remain simple?

We observe complexity not only in the world of matter and energy, but also in the immaterial, abstract world. Simple thoughts become complex thoughts and simple emotions become complex ones. Simple ideas accumulate and interact with others creating vastly complex ideas. But here, we have no practical, quantitative way of distinguishing the complex from the simple and resort to language to express qualitative differences. (We cannot say, for example, that an atom of anger and two of jealousy give a molecule of rage). Our reason tells us that complex things are built up from simple things. Always. Our reason does not allow us to consider that complexity is created first and is then followed by the breakdown into simpler parts.

I observe that in all things, complexity is always more effort-intensive than simplicity. Complexity always requires more energy, or more thought, or more planning, or more coordination, or more creativity, or more skill. Take any collection of simple things and complexity does not, in my experience, spontaneously emerge. It requires the input of some external driver such as energy or thought or planning or whatever. It takes further effort to maintain a state of complexity. Complex things often break down into simpler things because some motive agent which sustains the complexity disappears. I cannot conclude for certain that purpose is always resident in the external impulse which drives from the simple to the complex, but wherever humans create complex things from simple things, purpose is always evident. For us, complexity takes effort and to expend effort needs purpose.

The universe around us is not parsimonious. In fact, that the universe exists at all is not the simplest state that can be imagined for all that the universe contains.

  • Simplicity gives elegance
  • Simplicity is more parsimonious than complexity.
  • Biochemistry is more complex than chemistry.
  • Nothing is always more parsimonious than something.
  • Complexity needs purpose
  • But whose purpose?

The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is, of course, …

October 11, 2022

I remember listening to the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in 1978 and buying the book a year later. “Forty two” (42, binary 101010) was the label invented by Douglas Adams as the answer to life, the universe and everything. The Hitchhiker’s Guide achieved cult status and since 1978 a large body of writing has tried to interpret the “42” joke in a multitude of ways. Mathematicians linked it to the 3 cubes problem and  wondered if 42 satisfied the Diophantine Equation x3+y3+z3=k. There was at that time no known solution for k = 42. After much effort a team led by Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol University found a solution:

42 = (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3

Others searched and found occurrences of 42 in religious authorities (the Bible, the Koran, the Rig Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita among many others). Numerologists and astrologers found mysterious references to 42 everywhere, some quite sinister. I like best the many connections to 42 which have been found in the works of Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland for example, the King of Hearts’ Rule Forty-two is that “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”. In his Hunting of the Snark, Carroll writes “he had 42 boxes, already packed,”

The Question which leads to the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything has been simmering in my subconscious ever since I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Over the last few years I find that many of my posts keep returning to these questions. Probably a consequence of an idle mind in an ageing person. Not a futile exercise in my judgement, but not always consistently reasoned and often with my thoughts wandering down cul-de-sacs, making many U-turns and moving in many unexpected directions. But that is not too surprising since these are the great, unanswered, philosophical questions known since antiquity and which still remain:

  • why time must be?
  • why existence must be?
  • why causality must be?
  • why life must be?
  • why thought and consciousness are?

Thought and thinking are ubiquitous concepts among humans but not easily defined. They are labels referring to cognitive activity and are the prerogative of brains. Where we cannot recognise a brain, we do not allow thought or thinking. The “laws of physics”, as we have discerned them to be, do not explain life or thought. I suspect that all the physical and material “laws of nature” that we discover will never be able to. Clearly there is a distinction between living and thinking. Whether the two are inseparable is an open question. We can imagine a brain that is not living and even construct artificial brains. All our computers can surely compute, but mere computation does not rise to the level of what we label as thinking. While we cannot yet imagine how an artificial brain could become sapient, it well may be that such a thing is not impossible.

Thinking alone, with just emotions but without any language, is mind-bogglingly stupendous enough. Many animals do think, even if the boundary of where thinking starts is not clear. Cats and dogs and elephants certainly do. I am pretty sure that pesky flies do. I am inclined to think that, in their own fashion, bees and spiders and ants also do. I am less inclined to grant grass and trees that ability, and we would need to have a very broad definition of thinking indeed to say that a single cell thinks. Language is not as prevalent among living things as thinking is. The language club is quite exclusive. Only humans have well developed language and the range of species which could be said to have some rudimentary language is very limited. Language cannot then be a necessary requirement for thinking or thought. It seems obvious to me that thought must precede language.

But bring thinking and language together and an explosive feedback loop is established which allows us to spiral upwards to ever higher planes. It is not that language makes thinking possible but it must certainly be that thought is required to create language, which then, in turn, enhances thought, which in turn, again, enriches language. Whether language began with the imitation of sounds, or as emotional exclamations expressed as grunts and interjections, all languages quickly came to be centred around the naming of things. The naming of physical things to begin with, led to the naming of abstract things, and that, in due course, reached the dizzy heights of inventing names for unreal and imaginary things.  There is an enormous advantage in naming visible, nearby, physical things (me, you, a rock or a tree), to allow referring to them later even when they are distant, unseen things. There must, however be a step change in cognition to be able to name an abstract, but real, thing (hunger or anger or fear). To go on to invent names to communicate non-existent things (yesterday, tomorrow, fairies, heaven or multiverses) takes an even greater cognitive leap.

Language cannot be blamed for politics. Many social animals having little language (lion prides, baboon troops, … ) indulge in politics. With language though, humans have achieved unprecedented levels of cooperation within their societies. Language brought us questioning and learning. On the one hand, that gave us religion and lies and bigotry. Fortunately, that was more than offset by the development of learning, and art, and the process of science, and eventually, even philosophy. Philosophy is about asking unanswerable questions. No thinking, no language. No language, no questions. No questions, no philosophy. Once a question has been answered though, the subject exits the field of philosophy. Thinking about thinking is a popular philosophical pastime – even if it seems somewhat incestuous. Incestuous philosophy consists of circular arguments with the most infamous one being René Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum”. His “I think, therefore I am” is actually meaningless since the thinking “I” must first “be”, for the being “I” to think that it “is”. Other infamous cases of incestuous philosophy are that “truth consists of facts where facts are known truths” or that “knowledge is justified true belief where a belief is a proposition which may be true or may be false”. These still count as philosophy, of course, since the originating questions remain unanswered.

I am utterly convinced that the driving force for anything, and for everything, is always an imbalance in something else.

The imbalance at the core of time, the universe and everything

Without imbalance there is no change.

When all forces and energies are in equilibrium, nothing happens. Nothing can happen. At equilibrium there can be no motion, no waves no vibrations, no change. If the origin of our universe (or The Universe) was in the Big Bang, then that must have been in response to some great, prevailing non-equilibrium, the Great Imbalance which caused the Big Bang. (It always seems to me a little unsatisfactory that a Big Bang can be postulated without also having to postulate why a Big Bang would need to occur). All change is always in the direction of eliminating the imbalance which caused the change. If the universe is expanding then it must be in response to an imbalance and the expansion must work towards eliminating that imbalance. The physical world is driven by imbalances. Fluid flows and heat flows and electricity flows are achieved by creating imbalances which force the flow. Human and animal behaviour is driven by imbalances. In fact all life is driven by imbalance.

“Forty two” is just a label for the Great Imbalance which started it all and came long before the Big Bang and the bangism that followed. But we have not invented the term infinite regression for nothing. The Great Imbalance that led to the Big Bang must have started with something else.

When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

Not the Big Bang and bangism, not even the preceding Great Imbalance, but the Great Bong and bongism provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but the Great Bong (of course) created itself. Viewed from an oblique angle, through the correctly coloured spectacles, certain types of minds could well see the Great Bong as a 42.

On the nature and purpose of law ..

October 6, 2022

In Sweden there is a tendency to accord Authority and Institutions unwarranted respect. I was listening to a Member of Parliament trying to explain (defend?) the importance of what he did. His glorified and rather narcissistic view of his own importance in the universe as a “lawmaker” was not unexpected.  But I find the idea that current parliamentarians are involved in holy work goes too far. I thought his overly reverential treatment of law as something sacrosanct was especially facile and unsupportable. I find deferential references to the majesty or sanctity or divinity or piety or morality of law artificial and unconvincing.

So, in this note to myself I try to think my way through the nature and purpose of law from “first principles”. 

  1. The freedom of behaviour
  2. The laws of nature
  3. The nature of laws
  4. The purpose of law
  5. What law is not
  6. Conclusions

The freedom of behaviour

Behaviour (noun): the range, or the manner, in which, things (animate or inanimate) act

  1. Even inanimate things exhibit behaviour. They do not initiate actions but are acted upon and, in turn, may react, all according to the “laws of nature”. The behaviour of an inanimate thing is the only behaviour possible and is not a choice among possible behaviours.
  2. Living things exhibit the freedom to act of their own volition. (This freedom is exhibited and a feature of empirical reality. It needs no proclamations).
  3. What any creature actually does, lies within the envelope of what its physiology allows, subject to its own individual capabilities and as constrained by any external forces being applied.
  4. What is physiologically possible is of necessity compliant with the “laws of nature”.
  5. Living things having some brain (humans among others) can imagine or desire carrying out actions prior to action. They may desire to perform actions which they cannot actually accomplish. They may act, when compelled by external forces, even against their own desired action or inaction.
  6. For a living creature to have desires, some level of cognition and a sense of self is necessary. The greater the cognitive level the greater the range of what can be imagined. The greater the level of cognition, the greater the gap between imagined behaviour and what can actually be done. Desires can encompass both actions not physiologically possible and even those contravening the laws of nature.
  7. Without being diverted by the philosophical meaning of freedom, I take it that all creatures having volition are free to choose how to act (or not). What any living creature actually does is usually only one of several available actions it is free to perform.

This freedom to act as may be physiologically possible is a brute fact of reality and, like the laws of nature, does not need any articulation or declaration or proclamation. In fact, the freedom to act followed by the choice of action, always within the envelope of possible actions, is a distinguishing feature of cognitive, living things. (The conversion of a thought into action lies at the heart of the mind-body problem which is relevant but outside the scope of this note to myself). With increasing cognition, observations create a world view and a view of self in that world. Repetition of actions gives skill and observing consequences of actions gives rise to learning. Not all that is desired leads to actual behaviour but all behaviour has consequences. A living, cognitive creature may choose to restrict itself and moderate its own actions as it learns and according to its skill. The behaviour of the creature may also be constrained, or may be induced, by externally applied forces. The fundamental, behavioural freedom that all cognitive creatures have is to select and implement what they actually do, from all that they could do. Human behaviour is a choice constrained by capability and external forces.

All humans have the freedom to choose what they actually do, or not do, from all that they could do.

The laws of nature

The laws of nature, I have no doubt, exist. They both describe and determine how all things (material or energetic) have behaved and how they will behave. They all require/assume time to be passing and become undefined/meaningless otherwise. They apply over the entire universe (as far as we can tell). There is no Authority (known) which formulates and proclaims these laws, but they still command complete, unconditional compliance. They apply even if they are not discerned. The process of science is our attempt to discern what these laws of nature actually are. Even a solitary case of non-compliance is sufficient proof that any purported law of nature is not, in fact, a law. To be a law of nature requires that full compliance is inherent. The question of coercion does not even arise, firstly because non-compliance is just not possible, and secondly because there is no authority available which can either proclaim the law or could levy sanctions for non-compliance. The laws of nature are by definition “natural” and a brute reality of our existence. No sense of morality attaches, or can be attached, to them. “Goodness” or “justice” or “justness” are not attributes that are applicable. The laws of nature are discovered in the world around us. For all practical purposes they exist everywhere and in perpetuity (and what happens within black holes need not be considered here).

The laws of nature are a condition of our existence and there is nothing in known existence which can contravene these laws.

The nature of laws

Rule (noun): a description of a principle governing conduct; a sequential specification of events within a particular area of activity; control or dominion over a territory or living things (usually people) 

Only the first meaning of rule as a description of a principle governing conduct is relevant here. We generally apply the word conduct to the behaviour of living things (individually or as a collective). To be a rule, it must be general and it must lie within the realm of possible behaviour. It must be either a description of an empirically observed pattern of real behaviour (e.g. as a rule dogs bark, lions roar) or of desired, but not impossible, behaviour (dogs shall fly is meaningless as a rule). A rule of behaviour describes – by inclusion or exclusion – the behaviour desired or not-desired.

I take a society to be any association of interacting humans. It could be a family or a club or a religious order or the members of a social media group or a country. It could even be a temporary association of the people on, say, a trek or present in a restaurant at a particular time. If all the members of a society behaved only as that society collectively desired, then that society would have no need for any rules of behaviour. The need for such rules of behaviour arise in every society because the individual members of that society are capable of behaviour, or non-behaviour, which lies within their capability, but which may not be desired by the “collective mind” for the functioning of that society.

Human laws are not like the laws of nature. They do not flow naturally from the laws of nature. They are all rules of behaviour invented by humans but full compliance is never inherent. They are always made within some societal context and their existence is subordinated to the collective mind of the societies they exist within. Laws are societal rules of behaviour which need to be proclaimed and formally enacted by that society. They are not fleeting but they do not exist in perpetuity either. They can be created, removed or changed as and when a society desires. Even the most important laws in a society (its constitution or other founding laws) are subject to change, albeit with some considerable barriers to change. If a society ceases or breaks down, its laws cease to exist. Laws, in any society, are rules of behaviour for that society and the enacting of laws is the prerogative of the prevailing power in that society. They are formulated and proclaimed within societies by a designated, competent Authority representing the “collective mind”.  Competence in this context means not only the legitimacy of the Authority, but also the skill and ability of the Authority to formulate and proclaim rules of behaviour. The establishment and the legitimacy of that “collective mind” in a society can be highly contentious but, generally, the “collective mind” represents the view of the power centre of that society (which is not always, or necessarily, the majority view). Enactment of laws may be accompanied by much ritual and pomp but this is about giving legitimacy to the Authority and does not contribute to the substance of the rule. Without a legitimate Authority, or lacking the competence for proper formulation and proclamation, and unlike the laws of nature, there can be no law. Human laws (rules of desired behaviour), apply over the region or the people (jurisdiction) subject to that Authority, and are always intended either to curtail some freedom of behaviour or to coerce some desired behaviour. Even where penalties or other coercive sanctions are not identified, the intention of any law remains coercive. Rules made by “Authorities” not having control over the jurisdiction or not having the competence to enforce the rule, lack substance and cannot be considered rules or accorded the dignity of the label “law”.

While there is some discussion in jurisprudence and even philosophy about whether “coercion is a conceptually necessary feature of law” there is no doubt that the intention of any human law is always to curtail a behavioural freedom or to coerce some desired behaviour.

The level of compliance or non-compliance with a law speaks to the “goodness” or effectiveness of that law. Human laws are societal constructs, tools for the effective functioning of society. The bottom line is that they are needed because the behaviour of some individuals or sub-groups within the society can come into conflict with the desires of those in power (which may be the many). The detection of non-compliance is a major part of legal systems. The non-compliance actually detected is nearly always only a fraction of all the non-compliance that has occurred. Some of the detections are unsound. Penalties can be imposed only on the fraction convicted. Note that application of laws to only some law-breakers and not to all law-breakers, is inevitably “unfair” to those caught. Penalties and punishment for non-compliance with a law can never undo the non-compliance but may be able to influence the future compliance by others. Legal penalties always involve doing harm. It may be the lesser harm but it nevertheless is about doing harm to those who are non-compliant and are detected. Paradoxically, a law that is never complied with is a useless law and one that is always complied with is an unnecessary law.

All human laws seek to either curtail some existing but unwanted freedom of behaviour, or to coerce some desired behaviour. A law is a tool, a social construct, for the exercise of behavioural control. 

Penalties for non-compliance with law are always about doing harm to some for the greater good. 

The purpose of law

All human laws are thus tools which are used to try and control human behaviour. As with any other tool, the “goodness” of the tool speaks only to its fitness for purpose. The purpose is not inherent within the tool. Purpose then can only lie with those who use the tool; those who seek to control human behaviour. Controlling human behaviour is a necessary part of all successful human societies. That control is exercised is, in itself, neither moral nor immoral. Rules of behaviour are as necessary in a troop of baboons, a bridge club or a cloister as in a nation state. In any functional system composed of many components, each component needs to subordinate its own capabilities and actions to the function and goals of the system. Assuming, of course, that the system (society) has a proper function and a proper purpose. It is the intention of the lawmakers and of those who enforce laws which imbues purpose into the equation. Morality is often implied and attached to laws but the morality of law is not inherent and only derives from the intentions of the makers and the enforcers. It is to be expected that the prevailing power in any society, having the ability to make and enforce laws, ascribes the high moral ground to itself. Immorality is then attached to people according to the level of their non-compliance with the desired behaviour. Whether a law is “good” (effective) is a function of the level of compliance achieved. A badly formulated law may achieve high levels of compliance and be considered “good”. A most beautifully written law may be completely ineffective and would be “bad” law. Whether a law is “just” or promotes “justice” is unconnected to whether a law exists or not. That judgement rests with the observer. Laws, like guns, are merely tools. They may be well made or poorly made and – quite separately – may be skillfully used or incompetently misused. They may be effective or they may not. Purpose, however, lies, not within the law, but with the user.

Laws may be seen as humanitarian or draconian, as fair or unfair, as oppressive or protective, as just or unjust and even as clever or stupid. Law may be an ass. They usually have the successful functioning of the society as a purpose but may also have the preservation of the Authority as an objective. It is almost trivial, but those in power inevitably have a more benign view of the laws they make or enforce than those whose behaviour is being coerced.

A law is a tool for behavioural control. The dignity or majesty or sanctity or divinity sometimes claimed for laws are not inherent in laws or legal systems. They are always imaginary, invented and provide the packaging, the sugar-coating, judged necessary by a society to infuse legitimacy to – or sometimes to just camouflage – the control of human behaviour. The robes and ritual and elaborate ceremony often adopted for the making and application of laws have little to do with the content of laws but have everything to do with legitimising either the makers or the enforcers. A judge’s robes give no weight to the law but attempt to give weight to the judge.

Laws are often categorised according to the societies in which they are used. Divine Laws or the Laws of God are all human-made formulations and proclamations made by religious societies and purporting to be laws. Similarly, Natural Law (not be confused with the Laws of Nature) is claimed by some humanist philosophers to override all other law. It is based on an invented theory of overriding standards of universal morality which apply because they derive from the Nature of the World and the Nature of Human Beings. As with Divine Laws, the claim is that Natural Law should take precedence over any other human-made law. “Nature” is then an invented concept which is accorded divinity. God, the Divine and Nature are all taken to be Supreme Authorities. But they are invented by humans, and the purported laws are all authored by humans who effectively claim to be representatives of the Supreme Authority. They all seek, for good or ill, to control human behaviour. International Law tries to regulate the behaviour of participating nation states who in turn sign on to controlling the behaviour of their citizens. The laws are merely tools for behaviour control. The purpose lies elsewhere.

Human laws can never contravene the laws of nature (though some incompetent Authorities do try, from time to time, to make laws which contravene the laws of nature). They always remain rules of desired behaviour. It is usually the members of a society who grant some societal body (the Authority) the authority to formulate and declare rules of behaviour. However, establishing an Authority is an exercise of power and the members of the society may merely acquiesce. Laws as behavioural rules are organic and dynamic and their purpose is the functioning of the society they are embedded in. They are different from one society to the next. Within a society they can be created, discarded, modified, or replaced from one time to another. The grant of authority to a body to create laws is no guarantee of that body’s competence to create laws. Also the authority and the competence of a body to create laws is no guarantee of the body’s capability to enforce (usually by coercion but sometimes by incentive) such laws. That is a separate competence which may require additional bodies to come into play.

The purpose of law is not inherent. It lies first with the intentions of the Authority enacting the law and then with those tasked by the Authority with enforcing the law.

What law is not

  1. Morality and justice and ethics are not inherent in laws. These are attributes of purpose and lie in the use of law.
  2. Being merely tools, laws do not, in themselves, contain any dignity or majesty or divinity or sanctity.
  3. The existence or application of a law can never undo behaviour. It may be able to prevent future, unwanted behaviour or induce desired behaviour.
  4. The application of law requires discrimination between the compliant and the non-compliant.
  5. The purpose of any legal penalty is to do harm.
  6. Whether the application of law is just or not depends upon the eye of the observer.
  7. The rule of law is a tautology (the rule of rules).


All humans have the freedom to choose what they actually do, or not do, from all that they could do.

The laws of nature are a condition of our existence and there is nothing in known existence which can contravene these laws. 

All human laws seek to either curtail some existing but unwanted freedom of behaviour, or to coerce some desired behaviour. A law is a tool, a social construct, for the exercise of behavioural control.  

Penalties for non-compliance with law are always about doing harm to some for the greater good. 

The purpose of law is not inherent. It lies first with the intentions of the Authority enacting the law and then with those tasked by the Authority with enforcing the law.

There are no non-believers

August 26, 2022

Every belief is assumed knowledge and all knowledge assumed is a belief. Why do we find it necessary to have beliefs at all?

Our behaviour and our actions are all about the future. Consciously or unconsciously we project our actions into the future. Knowledge provides a basis for such extrapolations. But where we do not know, we need to find some basis for behaviour. And so we turn to “assumed knowledge”, to beliefs. I don’t actually know that the sun will rise today. I wake up because I believe it will. Every human action is based on the belief that life will continue. It is not possible for any human mind to know everything and so it is impossible for any human mind to be devoid of belief. This is an inevitable consequence of our finite minds having a very limited capacity for “knowing”. Human minds, singly or collectively, are also finite and incapable of encompassing the incomprehensibly large amount of what is knowable. (Observe that knowledge is whatever a brain can comprehend and that incomprehensibly large is usually given the label infinite but inventing a label does not increase comprehension).

All beliefs are necessarily subjective but any belief may be shared by many minds. A Belief (B) can apply to any proposition (P) which is taken to be true but which cannot be proved. All the fundamental assumptions in science and philosophy and logic are propositions taken to be true and are beliefs. Of course, contrary to popular delusion, there are no objective truths. What is True is always subjective. Every definition of Truth is circular (truth = in accordance with fact, where fact = what is true). Circularity in definitions is a sure indicator of having reached a cognitive boundary – a limit to comprehension. Any human brain contains only a tiny fraction of what can be called accumulated human knowledge and an even tinier part of what is knowable. For that brain, all external knowledge assumed to be true is just belief. Not believing (denying or negating) a Belief about a Proposition, is a subjective negation of the Belief but not of the Proposition. A denial of a belief in a proposition is silent about the truth of the proposition itself. There is no case where the statement “I don’t believe in Belief P” is not itself a Belief Y where Y is now just the proposition that P is not true.

~B(P) is about the B and not about the (P)

~B(P) = B(Y) where Y = ~P

“I don’t believe in X” is just another belief statement saying ” I believe that X is not”.

The human mind creates (invents) and makes up plausible assumptions so that it does not get stuck and can move on. Beliefs allow us to avoid the paralysis of thought that not knowing can lead to. Science assumes causal determinism and the Laws of Nature so that all phenomena can then be deemed explainable. Of course, this assumption means that science is restricted to the knowable and cannot address the unknowable or the incomprehensible (since what is incomprehensible is not permitted to be knowledge). A label – random – is invented for that which incomprehensibly has no cause but random is just a label. The determinism assumed by science is merely a belief. Philosophy, logic – and even metaphysics – all need their assumptions. There is some debate as to what these fundamental assumptions are but only to the extent as to which assumptions are fundamental and which emerge from others. It is just an assumption of human cognition that something cannot be both true and false. Or so we believe. It is an assumption (a belief) that logic and reason must prevail. It is an assumption (a belief) that for logic and reason to prevail, contradictions in arguments are absurd and not permitted. All our fundamental assumptions are also boundary conditions.

Physics and religion both make fundamental assumptions which are always beliefs. Physics assumes causality according to assumed discoverable laws of nature in all of the universe (even though our brains and senses are finite and limited). Religions assume various versions of gods and deities with a variety of attributes regarding existence, creation and omniscience.

Physics theories are remarkably similar to God theories

The human brain is finite. Human cognition has increased as we have evolved but is limited by the size of our brains and of the senses (including extended senses) that the brain has access to. Human comprehension is circumscribed and cognition resorts to circularity when the boundaries of comprehension are reached. Reality is whatever the brain can perceive as reality. Knowledge is whatever the brain can comprehend as knowledge. Curiosity about the surrounding world is an innate part of the human cognitive state and drives the process of inquiry we call the scientific process.

We invented gods long before religions came along and hijacked the beliefs to exercise political power.

God or no-God? That is the wrong question

The fundamental reason for inventing any god was to be able to answer or explain the inexplicable. Every God ever invented was, at its core, a Theory of Explanation.

The most common form of atheism lies in denying – often with much logic and reason as justification – the beliefs of others in gods or deities, but what is usually forgotten is that this denial is merely a criticism of the beliefs of those others, but is actually silent about the propositions themselves. Famous atheists (Russell, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, among many others) revel in ridiculing, with reason and logic and a heavy dose of sanctimony, the beliefs of others in gods and deities. But it is worth noting that when anyone denounces a belief in a God, the God must first be defined to be able to claim the non-belief. Which claim is itself a belief.

I tried to clarify my thinking a few years ago

The proposition that “God Exists” is logically meaningless until “God” is defined. This is the wrong proposition to be addressing. Most religions do not logically come to the conclusion that “God Exists”. They start with that as an assumption which – as with all such assumptions – is taken as self-evident but which cannot be proved. To ridicule this assumption is not difficult. Religions avoid the more fundamental questions by invoking their gods. But this is a method used also by physics and cosmology. The universe is assumed to be homogeneous. The four laws of nature operating in this homogeneous universe are invoked by physicists to avoid the question of why the laws exist in the first place. The Big Bang and Dark Matter and Dark Energy are invoked by cosmologists to avoid the question of why time exists and what time is and what the universe is.

Every atheist can assert a non-belief in any version of any god  – which is itself a belief.

But no atheist is a non-believer.

Numbers and mathematics are possible only because time flows

August 13, 2022

It is probably just a consequence of ageing that I am increasingly captivated (obsessed?) by the origin of things. And of these things, I find the origins of counting, numbers and mathematics (in that order) particularly fascinating. In that order because I am convinced that these developed within human cognition – and could only develop – in that order.  First counting, then numbers and then mathematics. The entire field of what is called number theory, which studies the patterns and relationships between numbers, exists because numbers are what they are. All the patterns and relationships discovered in the last c. 10,000 years all existed – were already there – as soon as the concept of numbers crystallised. Whereas counting and numbers were invented, all the wonders of the patterns and relationships that make up number theory were – and are still being – discovered. And what I find even more astonishing is that the entire edifice of numbers is built upon just one little foundation stone- the concept of identity which gives the concept of oneness.

Croutons in the soup of existence

The essence of identity lies in oneness. There can only be one of any thing once that thing has identity. Once a thing is a thing there is only one of it. Half that thing is no longer that thing. There can be many of such things but every other such thing is still something else.

Numbers are abstract and do not exist in the physical world. They are objects (“words”) within the invented language of mathematics to help us describe the physical world. They enable counting and measuring. The logical one or the philosophical one or the mathematical one all emerge from existence and identity. Neither logic nor philosophy nor mathematics can explain what one is, except that it is. Every explanation or definition attempted ends up being circular. It is what it is.

Given one (1), all other numbers follow.

Where numbers come from

Numbers start with one (1), and without a one (1) there can be no numbers. …… . Given the abstract concepts of identity (oneness, 1) and arithmetical addition (+), all natural numbers inevitably follow. With a 1 and with a +, and the concept of a set and a sum, all the natural numbers can be generated.

1 + 1 + 1 + 1 ……

…. Numbers, ultimately, rest on the concept of identity (oneness).

Equally fascinating are the questions that existence, time and causality are answers to. I am coming to the conclusion that the flow of time (whatever time is) does not emerge from existence but, in fact, enables existence.

Revising Genesis

…. What time is remains a mystery but the first act of creation is to set it flowing. Note that the flow of time does not need existence. To be, however, requires that time be flowing. Time itself, whatever it is, is a prerequisite for the flow of time and the flow of time is prerequisite for existence. ………. For even the concept of existence to be imaginable, it needs that the flow of time be ongoing. It needs to be present as a permanent moving backdrop. The potential for some particular kind of existence then appears, or is created, only when some particular rules of existence are defined and implemented. These rules of existence must therefore also be in place before the concept of things, whether abstract or material or otherwise, can be conjured up.

It is inevitable that my views have evolved and they may well evolve further but my current conclusion is that for mathematics to exist time needs to be flowing.

The bottom line:

  1. All branches of mathematics, though abstract, are existentially dependent upon the concept of numbers.
  2. Numbers depend on the concept of counting.
  3. Counting derives from the concept of oneness (1).
  4. Oneness depends upon the concept of a unique identity.
  5. The existence of a unique identity requires a begin-time.
  6. Beginnings require time to be flowing.
  7. Existence is enabled by the flow of time


Numbers and mathematics are possible only because time flows

Revising Genesis

July 28, 2022

Either our universe is infinite or it is finite in an infinite void. Or there are an infinite number of infinite universes, each within an infinite void. Human cognition is unable to contemplate the universe without taking recourse to the infinite. Infinite is just a label. Invoking the infinite is merely acknowledging that human comprehension is finite and that some things are incomprehensible. So, all creation stories, whether based on physics or on theology, are stories by finite minds pretending to comprehend what is incomprehensible. They are all intrinsically self-contradictory in that they are all reduced to first acknowledging incomprehensibility and then explaining the incomprehensible. A scientific “infinite” is identical in incomprehensibility to a theological “divine”.

Either there was a purposeful creation event or there was purposeless happenstance. The truly random is not just without any discernible cause, it is without any possibility of there being any cause. The brute reality of our finite minds is that while our minds can rationalise and accept things without discernible cause, we cannot conceive of anything without any cause whatsoever. Invoking such an incomprehensible random, just as invoking the infinite, is an attempt to squeeze incomprehensibility into the finite box of the comprehensible. I observe that even hard determinism or quantum wave theory have their rules. Even purposeless happenstance apparently needs some rules to follow. And where there are rules there is purpose. Random, of course, is without cause or purpose and incomprehensible. Random lies in the laps of the Gods. A cosmologist relying on random events to explain the origins of the universe is no different to a priest invoking God the creator.

One might think it all begins with existence. There is a view that time and causality emerge from a randomly appearing existence. And that the capability of existing, in itself, is either the collapsing of the Great Quantum Wave Function that rules them all, or a creation of an already existing God. A self-creating God or a self-generating Quantum Wave Function are just labels for incomprehensibilities. I find both alternatives self-contradictory and unconvincing. They both assert incomprehensibilities which they then try to confine within the box of comprehensibility. I note that human comprehension, whether in attempting a scientific explanation or in describing a Divine creation, always resorts to a sequence of events. To have a sequence requires time, whatever time may be, to be flowing.

And so I make a stab at revising the Genesis sequence.

First comes the Flow of Time.

What time is remains a mystery but the first act of creation is to set it flowing. Note that the flow of time does not need existence. To be, however, requires that time be flowing. Time itself, whatever it is, is a prerequisite for the flow of time and the flow of time is prerequisite for existence.  The velocity of time flow clearly is variable, goes from zero to something, and can not be a constant. An event, of any kind, needs time to be flowing. (There is a level of unavoidable circularity here. Setting time to flow is itself an event). Things, of any kind, need the flow of time as a backdrop against which to exist.

Second comes the Capability for Existence.

For even the concept of existence to be imaginable, it needs that the flow of time be ongoing. It needs to be present as a permanent moving backdrop. The potential for some particular kind of existence then appears, or is created, only when some particular rules of existence are defined and implemented. These rules of existence must therefore also be in place before the concept of things, whether abstract or material or otherwise, can be conjured up.

Third comes the Implementation of the Rules of Existence.

It is easiest to conceive of rules governing existence in our universe as requiring a Guiding Intelligence, but it is not at all inconceivable that they emerge as a consequence of time having been set flowing. It is in these rules that causality manifests to link – and constrain – all events and things against the backdrop of flowing time. Whereas an event is defined by the flowing of time, it is the rules of existence which define the type of things (space, energy, matter, dark things, thoughts and concepts) that can exist. Invoking a Creator God or the Great Quantum Wave Function come as labels for this third step where the Rules of Existence are implemented. They are both merely labels for the incomprehensible.

Once time is flowing, rules of existence have been defined and these rules have been implemented, existence emerges. Causality rules. Things (matter, energy, fields, universes) emerge. But all these emergent characteristics do not lead inevitably to the emergence of Life. Mere Existence does not explain how Life comes to be.

Fourth comes Life.

From Life emerges finite brains and bodies and consciousness and thoughts and cognition and comprehension. And then come the self-contradictory stories about the comprehensible beginnings of the incomprehensible. 

And the rest is history.


What “right to life”?

July 12, 2022

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”

That all humans aspire to a long life, in liberty, to pursue their own happiness is true but obvious and rather trivial. Our individual aspirations are our hopes about an unknown, uncertain future. Achieving aspirations does not come easily. How close we come depends mainly on our own behaviour. Thus, they often guide, and sometimes dominate, our behaviour. With 7.5 billion individual aspirations it is hardly surprising that aspirations clash and come into conflict with those of others. And it is even less surprising that human behaviour, which is largely dominated by perceived self-interest, comes into conflict with, and even opposes, the behaviour of others.

However, to declaim that these aspirations are what all humans are entitled to, or that all humans are owed these things by all other humans and the universe at large is, at best, sentimental drivel. At worst, these declarations are religious dogma; imaginary and misleading.

entitlement: the state or condition of being entitled; a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract; belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

entitled: having a right to certain benefits or privileges

right: something that one may claim as due

The imaginary “right” to life is not actually about living but about an expectation, a hope, of not being killed, whether by accident or by design, by someone else. In reality, around 160,000 humans will die today in spite of their purported “right” to life. Around 2,000 will kill themselves. Of the total, around 1,000 -1,100 will be murdered today by another human. Which means, of course that the world will gain another 1,000 murderers today. Less than half of all homicides will lead to anyone being charged with murder, and less than half of those charges will lead to a conviction. Less than 2 murderers (or drug-lords or corrupt officials) are executed every day and we probably have more murderers alive today than ever before. Another 4,000 – 5,000 of the 160,000 will die due to accidents or misadventure. Less than 200 on average die per day due to natural disasters. The vast majority of deaths will be due to “natural causes”. Nature, natural causes, and natural disasters pay no deference to the purported “right” to life. The “right to life” does not flow from the laws of the universe. No murderer ever refrained from murder because of the victim’s “right” to life. The “right to life” is of no value to those 1,100 who will be murdered today. The entitlement has no value for anybody else either.

In spite of the supposed “right” to life (or more accurately the “right” to not be killed), some people are granted the “right” (the licence) to kill. Suicide is no longer considered a sin and is an assumed human “right”. Everybody has the “right” to kill another in self-defence (subject only to proportionality). In armed conflict (whether declared a war or not), military personnel may kill opposing military persons in pursuit of “legitimate” military targets. They may even kill civilians as “collateral damage” to “legitimate” military objectives as long as the “collateral damage” is not excessive. Civilians, of either side, may kill members of opposing armed forces in righteous rebellion (with consequences depending upon who is victorious). “Freedom fighters” are permitted to kill members of the “oppressors”. Executioners always kill justly. Police may kill when faced by threat from armed miscreants. Doctors may kill by incompetence or error with few consequences. In some places doctors and medical staff are granted the “right” to euthanise those elderly or infirm who wish to die. Drunken and incompetent drivers may kill others by “accident”. Faceless mobs may lynch and kill with impunity. Children and the insane (including the temporarily insane) may kill with limited consequences. The imaginary entitlement to not be killed ceases once someone is killed. Legal systems cannot enforce the entitlement and can only deal with punishments to be exacted on the perpetrator, if caught.

(“Human rights” dogma has it that only living humans can have “rights”. Living murderers have rights, their dead victims have none. On the theory that a fetus is as insignificant as a toe-nail, some 130,000 fetuses are aborted every day. There are almost as many abortions per day as there are deaths by all causes. Of course, a fetus, like any toe-nail, has no “rights”).

Do these empty declarations about the “right to life” have any value at all? Of the 160,000 who die every day, such declarations do not apply to the 2,000 daily suicides. Clearly the “right to die” trumps the “right to life”. They are applicable (as violations of the “right”) only to the 1,100 murders. The pious declarations neither deter murderers nor do they apply to those who have a licence to kill. Having an imaginary “right to not be killed” prevents no one from being killed. Whereas the fear of being caught, or the fear of a heavy punishment, such as a death sentence, may prevent some murderous behaviour, the “right” of another not to be killed has little influence, if any, on such behaviour. These pompous declarations of imaginary entitlements have no influence on, and are irrelevant to, human behaviour. The bottom line is that the imaginary “right to life” has no relevance to life.

“Human rights” are an imaginary notion. They do not flow from the natural laws of the universe and, in that sense, are unnatural. All religions are based on imaginary, artificial notions. Declarations of “rights” are also the empty dogma of a false religion. The concept of a “human right to life” is not anything which can, or does, influence human behaviour, and to pretend otherwise is misleading.

As humans we must make the most – as we see it – of living, but no human has any claim of a “right to life” on others. Or on the universe.

A square is rounder than a rectangle

July 2, 2022

Sometimes (for example after imbibing my third whiskey) I am both intrigued and frustrated by the nature of shapes. Do shapes exist at all? Except, perhaps, as a property of a thing?

Without dimensions there can be no shapes. A point has no shape. In one dimension, shape is almost, but not quite, trivial. A one-dimensional shape is just a line. Both a point and a line are abstract things and do not exist physically. We perceive three physical dimensions but we are also constrained to experience nothing but 3 dimensions. We can imagine them, but there are no 1-D or 2-D things. Even a surface, which is always two-dimensional, is abstract. We talk about circular things but the concept of a circle is also an abstraction in an abstract two dimensions. Look as much as you like in the physical world but you can never find any 2-D circles in this 3-D world. Most shapes are two-dimensional. So how, I wonder, can some 3-D thing be described in terms of a 2-D circularity. If you rotate the abstract two-dimensional object called a circle in 3 dimensions, you can generate an abstract 3-D object called a sphere. It pre-supposes, of course that 3-D space exists within which rotation can occur. But what is a sphere? How do you rotate an abstract object? A square rotated gives a cylinder – not a cuboid. A point stretched into two dimensions, or twirled in three, remains a point and still imaginary. A line rotated gives just a line.

I find the word shape is diffusely defined in dictionaries – possibly because it is itself philosophically diffuse.

shape (n):

  • the external form, contours, or outline of someone or something;
  • a geometric figure such as a square, triangle, or rectangle;
  • the graphical representation of an object or its external boundary, outline, or external surface.

Shape, it seems to me, has a connection with identity. Things without identity have no shape. All countable, physical things have shape as an attribute. But uncountable things – rain, mist, water, … – are devoid of shape. But any shape is also an abstraction which can be taken separate from the physical things. Abstract things and uncountable things can also be invested with shape as a descriptor, but this is both figurative and subjective. We can refer to the shape of an idea, or the shape of a history, or of a culture, but the meaning conveyed depends upon the physical things normally connected with such shapes. Even when we use the word shapeless we usually do not mean that it is devoid of shape but that the shape is not a standard recognised form. Shape emerges from existence though not necessarily from the existence of things. It is here that the distinction between form and substance originates. Shape needs existence but it is not difficult to imagine the concept of shapes existing in even a formless universe without substance.

In philosophy, shape is an ontological issue. There have been many attempts in philosophy to classify shapes. For example:

The shape of shapes

An important distinction to keep in mind is that between ideal, perfect and abstract geometric shapes on the one hand, and imperfect, physical or organic mind-external shapes on the other. Call the former “geometric shapes” and the latter “physical shapes” or “organic shapes”. This distinction can be understood as being parallel to types (classes, universals, general entities) and instances (individuals or particulars in the world). Geometric shapes typically have precise mathematical formalizations. Their exact physical manifestations are not, so far as I am aware, observed in mind-external reality, only approximated by entities exhibiting a similar shape. In this sense geometric shapes are idealizations or abstractions. This makes geometric shapes similar to types or universals. Their instances are inexact replicas of the shape type in question, but have similar attributes or properties in common, properties characterizing the type. By contrast, organic or physical shapes are irregular or uneven shapes of mind-external objects or things in the world. A planet is not perfectly spherical, and the branches of a tree are not perfectly cylindrical, for example. “Perfectly” is used here in the sense of coinciding with or physically manifesting the exact mathematical definitions, or precise symmetrical relations, of geometric shapes. Objects and physical phenomena in the world, rarely if ever, manifest or exhibit any concretization of geometric shapes, but this is not to say that it is not possible or that it does not obtain at times. Objects are not precisely symmetrical about a given axis, cube-shaped things do not have faces of exactly the same area, for example, and there is no concretization of a perfect sphere. ……………

With respect to the mind-external world, notice that if shapes are properties (of things), then we may have a situation in which properties have properties. At first glance this seems true because we predicate shape of objects in the world; we say that objects have a certain shape. We also describe types of shapes as having specific properties. If a shape is defined as having a particular number of sides (as with polygons), a particular curvature (as with curved shapes, such as the circle and the ellipse), specific relations between sides, or otherwise, then it should be apparent that we are describing properties of properties of things. We might be inclined to say that it is the shape that has a certain amount of angles and sides, rather than the object bearing the shape in question, but this is not entirely accurate. Shapes, conceived as objects in their own right (in geometric space), have sides, but in our spatiotemporal world, objects have sides, and surfaces, as well. When we divorce the shape from that which has the shape via abstraction, we use ‗side‘ for the former as much as we do for the latter. The distinction between geometric and physical space, between ideas and ideal or cognitive constructions and material mind-external particulars is significant.

My preferred definition of shape is:

shape is an abstract identity of form devoid of any substance

I take shapes to be forms both in two dimensions and in three. So, by this definition, I include spheres and cylinders and cuboids and pyramids to be shapes. Shape is about form – whether or not there is a thing it is attached to. We can have regular shapes where the regularity is abstract. We can have irregular shapes which cannot be described by any mathematical expression. And we can have shapeless shapes. We can compare shapes and discover the concept of similarity. We can even compare dissimilar shapes. I can conceive of the quality of form and talk about circularity or squareness or sphericality or even shapelessness.

I can have curvy shapes and I can have jagged shapes. My ping-pong ball is more spherical than my dimpled golf ball. They are both rounder than an orange but I have no doubt that an orange is rounder than a cucumber. Just as an apple is squarer than an orange. A fat person is rounder than a thin person. I know one cannot square a circle yet I have no difficulty – in my reason – to attributing and comparing levels of squareness and roundness of things. Some squashes are round and some are cylindrical. A circle squashed gives an ellipse and the shape of the earth is that of a squashed sphere. Circular logic is not a good thing. Logic is expected to be linear. A spherical logic is undefined.

And any square is rounder than a rectangle.

Gender is a classification and identity is not a choice

June 30, 2022

Identity is not a choice.

Our physical attributes are a consequence of our identity – not the determinants of identity. Being tall or short or fat or black or slant-eyed are descriptors which can be used to distinguish between humans, but they all follow, or are consequences of, identity. Our names are identifiers, but are not identity. Our professions – lawyer, teacher, murderer, thief – are descriptors of identity, not determinants. Some physical characteristics can change and be changed, but identity remains inviolate. You can eat more and become fat, or have surgery to thin your lips, but your identity remains unchanged. Physical attributes can be disguised. A white girl in California (where else) can pretend to be black to gain some perceived privileges, but identity does not change. Our behaviour – within the constraints of what is physiologically possible – is a choice. Behaviour does not, however, determine identity.

Gender is a classification. It can be used as a descriptor, but it is not identity. Among humans, gender is a binodal classification, with overlap, in a continuum. There are only two classes – male and female. But being a classification, and since the two classes overlap to some extent, there can be masculine females and feminine males. (There are only two classes with overlap. There is no 3rd class). Surgery or hormone treatment can help change a classification but identity remains untouchable. You can change your name from Kyle to Courtney or from Elliott to Ellen or from Maxine to Max, but that does nothing to identity.

I observe that some sports are now applying common sense and not allowing men, pretending to be women, to compete against women. (I also observe that there are never any women, pretending to be men, competing against men).

Identity – of anything – is not a choice in our universe. It is a consequence of existence.

Where numbers come from

To be discrete and unique give substance to identity. Existence (a Great Mystery) comes first, of course. To have identity is to have some distinguishing characteristic which enables the quality of “oneness”. Note that the quality of being identical (similar) does not disturb identity. Two, or many, things may be identical, but the identity of each remains inviolate. An atom of hydrogen here may be identical to an atom of hydrogen elsewhere, but the identity of each remains undisturbed. It is estimated that there are between 1078 to 1082 atoms existing in the observable universe. Each one distinct from all the others. Each one having identity.

We use the word identity in many contexts. In the philosophical sense, which includes the context of counting, my definition of identity is then:

identity – oneness; the distinguishing character of a thing that constitutes the objective reality of that thing

It is the discreteness and uniqueness contained in identity which gives rise to the concept of oneness as a quality of a thing which makes that thing countable. It is having the concept of oneness which allows us to define a concept of number, label it as “one” and give it a symbol (1). How the concept of identity (oneness) emerged in the species is another one of the Great Mysteries of life and consciousness.

With living things, uniqueness is conferred at the time of conception. The identity of any life-form is fixed when the existence of that life is conceived. It could be an egg or a seed or a zygote. Once fixed that identity persists till the death of that life. For humans that identity may be remembered long after its death. The identity of any living thing is never a choice.

Does life start when the egg is laid?

In the case of humans a fertilised egg is called a “zygote” until it has implanted itself (about 6 -10 days after conception) in the wall of the womb. It is then called an “embryo”. It is called a “fetus” only from 8 weeks after conception and remains a “fetus” till the birth of a “child”. Just as a “chick” only emerges after egg hatching, a human “child” only emerges after birth. But in both cases life, life has begun much earlier. By the time a hen lays an egg, the genetic identity of the embryo in the egg has already been fixed. The unique genetic identity whether for chicken or for human is actually fixed when conception occurs. ………

The time when a unique identity is established and life begins is quite simply defined and the Great Abortion Debate is actually about the ethics of terminating that life at different times during its existence. It is trying to make an ethical distinction between breaking an egg for a breakfast omelette or killing a chicken for a roast dinner. (But note also that many vegetarians eat eggs but a chicken eater is never considered a vegetarian). Abortion, infanticide, murder or euthanasia are just labels for different times at which life is to be terminated. Abortion always kills a fetus (not a child) and infanticide always kills a child (not a fetus). But whether it is a zygote which fails to implant itself, or a fetus which is aborted, or a child killed for being the wrong gender, or an aged person being assisted to die, it is the same life, the same identity, which is terminated. …..

A unique genetic identity and life are established with conception.

Related: Immortality of identity

A unique identity is recognisable first when an egg is fertilised. That identity cannot be foretold but it may be remembered long after the individual dies. It may in due course be forgotten. But whether or not it is forgotten, the fact of the creation of that identity remains. Forever. It is identity, once created, which remains unique and immortal.

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