Monday, April 30, 2007

Aristophanes

Karyn Huntting headshot by Karyn Huntting

Plato and the others
listened as Aristophanes spoke
of the original form of man
and told of how he had angered the gods

Spake wise Aristophanes,
this is the reason
man was split asunder into his halves

forever in search of the rest of himself
longing eternal to find his completion
and entwine himself with it
in a sacred joining of parts

wandering the earth in search of
what we once found together
so many lifetimes ago.

from "Crumbs of the Mind"

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Vampire Wore Dentures

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

I ride the elevator to my 34th floor office more than a thousand times each year. My breath smells as clean as Listerine; no wisps of meat poke out between my teeth like weeds. I cut my fingernails each morning; long nails accumulate grime and my fingers must be nimble and sterile. When the elevator's crowded, I look at the floor or stare at the number panel, as though the force of my gaze can will the contraption to rise faster. When the elevator's less crowded, I sneak peeks at shoelaces dangling from sneakers and at the scuffed sides of old rawhide boots. Sometimes, a passenger knows me; if the elevator isn't crowded, he sometimes even addresses me.

There's the bulimic girl who's lost half her teeth; the acid eats away at her enamel just as obsessions eat away at her concentration. "Doctor," she moans whenever she first sees me, "I just have bad genes. My mother's teeth all fell out while she was pregnant with me - the teeth littered her pillow, slid right out of her mouth as though they were greased. Doc, I'm cursed by heredity." There's the excessively handsome man intent on suing the toothpaste companies because he's gotten a cavity at age 26; now his perfection's flawed, the product didn't fulfill the advertisers' promise to keep his teeth as flawless as plastic ones. There's Jeff, the 30-year-old construction worker with an amalgam mouth, who needs another six fillings.

"Those high school teachers should have told us what drugs can do to your mouth. They should have shown us pictures of chipped and decaying teeth,' he said during his ride up, only two days ago, "Dirty yellow teeth ruin a guy's looks. A few graphic posters, and we would have been smashing our bongs and giving away our last grains of coke."

Today, Jeff and the thin man enter the elevator together. The door thuds closed and the motor rumbles, a churning bass prelude.

"Doctor," the thin man asks, "My teeth are in, aren't they?"

Mr. Gaunt wears his habitual, perfectly pressed dark suit and his habitual frown on a whitewashed face. His lips part slightly, too red and full for his chiseled, stern face. This is his second visit to Doting Dentistry; he found me by flipping through the yellow pages, was attracted by the large ad with its promises of flexible hours, treatment for unscheduled emergencies and guaranteed patient confidentiality.

I nod solemnly, remembering who the thin man is. "Yes, your teeth are in," I drone robotically; my work has taught me to hide my emotions, sometimes even to live cocooned in numbness.

On the way to my office, he glances several times around the corridor, as though someone might be lurking in the walls or in the space where wires and pipes travel between the ceiling and the floor above.

"I've been miserable all week without my dentures," he declares as he enters the procedure room, with its sanitized tile walls and sinks as white as perfect teeth. "I'm not your garden variety old fogy who can sip pureed chicken and breakfast on baby food for a week. I can't survive on a diet of Ensure, fortified soy milk, and vitamin enhanced super orange juice, even if they provide me with every nutrient known to man and a hundred herbal extracts from the rain forest. As I told you last week - everything is confidential, isn't it? - I have to suck up my most important food, what you might call 'the blood of life'. I have to dig my teeth in deep to suck the substance fresh; my special food expires fast. Fifteen minutes of exposure to air spoils it; one clot in the fluid renders it inedible."

Mr. Gaunt can only come at night. He told me his story when he came as an emergency walk-in on an evening in early November; a fall had knocked out the tooth. Panic, distrust of dentists, and mandatory appearance at a celebration kept him from getting help immediately.


When the skeletons dance on the Day of the Dead, Mr. Gaunt stands among them as referee and choreographer, distinguishable only by his black suit, dark goatee and the strips of pale flesh stretched over his bones. Even the king and queen of the dead wear no clothes or skin at this dance. The dead dance naked as a symphony of bats whines and a chorus of resurrected gargoyles howls; leaves, stained ochre by the scarred Jack-o'lantern moon, fall like embers dying into the char of night. The throngs clatter and clink as their arms jerk, their skulls swivel on rickety necks, their bony toes flop against the concrete, and their hipbones pirouette in wobbly circles above knocking, unsteady knees. Some of the dead have murdered after betrayal in love and been hung for the felony; after their executions, they return above only on this night, dancing with fevered rage of killers never purged entirely of anger. Others, who died of cancer or old age, limp as the music shrieks.

Usually, Mr. Gaunt glides confidently around the dancers, knowing that he can move more gracefully than any of them, due to the red muscles that still control his bones precisely, the ears that still respond to every nuance of pitch and rhythm. "How their jaws chatter, their bones clatter", he's often thought, "Let the bat songs shatter every window and crystal palace around". Mr. Gaunt usually enjoys watching this ceremony; it reminds him of his own immortality. He's been healthy for over two centuries, not likely to die until the sun went supernova.

This year, Mr. Gaunt pressed his tongue into the socket where his right fang should have jutted down, sturdy and incisive as a steel knife; his left fang wiggled. He imagined it dropping out when he took his next meal, a brown and pulpy stub attached by only a thin lifeline of connective tissue to his maxilla. As the waltzing skeletons clanked past, he shuddered and silently repeated the children's chant:


How their teeth chatter,
Their battered bones clatter,
Their shrieks scatter
Like the leaves and winds of fall.
Please, my beau,
Don't make me go,
Don't take me to the skeleton ball.

Mr. Gaunt had to go; for his kind, attendance is a duty. But tonight, he couldn't go to laugh in private. The children's rhyme, once comic, beat through his mind like an obsessive taunt. The proper time line, the one that ends near infinity, had been yanked from under his feet. The wrong timeline, one meant for some kid's great-grandfather, had replaced it. How long could he live without that tooth?

"The mortal timeline is a short, fragile thread," he'd muttered, then opened his mouth with reluctant hope to my probing fingers.


Mr. Gaunt's dentures had to be made with a special mold, which I obtained from the zoo; I told the zookeeper and the curious lab techs that an eccentric customer wanted dentures for his German shepherd. The vet wouldn't make dentures for a dog, but I was the compliant sort, eager to please. Why disappoint a customer unnecessarily, why turn away business? That's what I told the lab folk when they muttered about the latest impression I'd sent them, about how I was making teeth fit for a wolf.

"If I don't have my dentures soon, I'll waste away. Even I can waste away, never mind all those myths about immortality," Mr. Gaunt added. "I'm already thinner than I was last week."

Last week, Mr. gaunt was a skeleton loosely draped in dry, parchment ski. All week, he's been a shrinking skeleton; his bones creak as they contract and shed dust while he sleeps.

"Yes, your teeth are in," I intone in my flattest voice as Mr. Gaunt slides into the dental chair.

Jeff's appointment follows Mr. Gaunt's; the hygienist must stay until the last patient is serviced. I hope that several late patients with dental emergencies crowd the waiting room tonight. Mr. Gaunt's famished; will he want to test how well his implants work, will he want to drink blood? Maybe he can sample Jeff's blood or the hygienist's. I've kept no records of Mr. Gaunt's visits; I don't want auditors to question why I custom-made fangs or why I believed a patient's tales of supernatural origin. With nothing about Mr. Gaunt in the files, their deaths would seem due to the brutality of a madman; no one would suspect that I had any foreknowledge.

"Thinner and thinner," he complains. "You try sleeping in a hard coffin, with only a tatter of skin between you and the casket. I'm turning into a skeleton with a back ache and throbbing joints."

Under my turtleneck sweater, I wear a high stiff cloth collar that scrapes the underside of my chin. Under this, I wear a metal neck clasp, which I bought specifically for this appointment at a sex shop; the clerk leered at me over my purchase.

Mr. Gaunt has been a vampire for 232 years. Fangs break, chip, go weak from cavities. Some vampires wear dentures; the dentists either die, or don't talk about an encounter with a creature in whom few believe.

I lean close to Mr. Gaunt's mouth, ready to implant the fangs.

Maybe, the metal collar, the hygienist and Jeff will keep me from dying. Maybe, guardian angels are as real as vampires.

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The Summer of Green Pears

Carle P. Graffunder headshot by Carle P. Graffunder

It was the summer of green pears. Pears didn’t ripen. Rain did not fall. Streams dried up. Green pears, small, tough-skinned, and split open, fell like rain. But there was no rain.

Summer sun and summer heat, long pent, burst confinement. Week after week, day upon day, sun poured forth hour and hour and hour of eye-blurring heat.

Green pears fell like rain to the ground. But there was no rain. No low-lying cloud slaked thirst of twig or tree. Occasional devil dogs languidly rattled dead leaves trying desperately to cling to branches.

So it was that pears remained green and skimpy. From drooping branches unripe fruit with open wounds pelted the parched earth beneath. Dry leaves, desiccated and crinkled by sun, crunched under foot like soda crackers.

Pears were green and fell like rain. But there was no rain. Green pears fell. They were dried-up and small and hard with long, deep gashes because there was no rain and summer had been very hot for a very long time.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Strategic Decision Making Program

Carole Fotino headshot by Carole Fotino

Carole Fotino is director of the Institute for Decision Making & The Peace Institute of the Rockies. She met with the US State Department in Washington DC in April, and as a result they are planning to include the Secretary's Policy Planning in the organization's forward movement in a way that is yet to be determined. Secretary's Policy Planning is the group working with US Secretary of State The Honorable Condoleezza Rice to create the foreign policy decisions of her office.

The Strategic Decision Making Program - a.k.a. "Costing Latent Conflict" - is a simple idea really. Events that appear unrelated through time or space (partitioning and future genocides are an example) are actually organically connected, that connection we label as Latent Conflict and the costs of the second event need to be included in the decision making process (through the cost/benefit analysis) prior to the first event. It's not unlike the beginning of the environmental movement in which the costs of later environmental status need to be included in the processes that created it. Though it is a simple idea, two simple and connected ideas really, it is often not perceived as so by those with whom I speak! To me it seems almost commonsensical and like something that should have occurred to us many decades ago but, is really rather cutting edge in the world instead.

By the way, Organizationally, I represent the Inst. for Strategic Decision Making when I'm in DC and with corporations (the two target audiences for this program) because that's more akin to the lingo they understand. It is however a Doing-Business-As name for the Peace Institute and it and the program that goes with it are only one of 8 programs with innovative approaches to the establishment of peace. What we say is that the Peace Institute develops and strengthens the social institutions that will allow for the non-violent resolution of conflicts internal to and between nations. Terrorism, IIGPs (Institutionalized, Inclusive, Grievance Pathways at all levels,) and S.A.W. (Soldiers Against War) are three of the other programs we have as well. Descriptions of the other related programs will be described in separate postings to this blog; they may help to clarify the situation further.

The ideas (Costing Latent Conflict) have been nominated for a Breakthrough award and, I'm told, a possible fellowship.

(Anyone interested in assisting with this effort should contact the web administrator who will inform Carole so that she may contact them.)

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Virtual Reality

Martin Hunt headshot by Martin Hunt

A virtual reality is like a virtual image in a convex mirror - you really see it, but it isn't what it seems. Virtual reality has existed for decades as thought experiments and fiction. Lately, virtual reality has become real enough that you can actually walk around and explore a 3d space and interact with objects. In fact they have been common for some time now in computer games.

Let us leave the content of computer games aside for a moment and consider instead the experience of the game. What you experience is sights and sounds that can be responded to as if they were coming from objects and entities in an environment. The experience can be very engaging, to the point that for some it can be called an addiction.

I am familiar with several computer games, by no means the most advanced. "Titanic" is an interactive fiction piece. There is a clear story line: you are a British spy whose mission is to thwart some German spies. Your point of view is that a person walking around the ship. The events transpire on the night of the sinking. To win the game you have to solve a series of puzzles. The puzzles involve things like finding a crucial ring someplace on the ship. The ship itself is vividly represented and it is a pleasure to just explore, from the huge boilers at the bottom to the bridge at the top. The visuals and sounds combine with the narrative to create a vivid experience of reality.

Quake is similar in that you have a point of view that you manipulate through a 3d space. The difference is that the puzzles involve gaining skill as well as figuring things out. In Quake the environment that you explore is very vivid and often quite beautiful.

Age of Mythology is another game that I am familiar with, and it is different in type. Your point of view is that of a strategist high above a landscape. You get to move things around and build things. The idea is to build societies that can support armies that can beat enemies. It's a multilayered game involving economics and military strategy. As in other computer games, the visual experience is quite vivid.

These games are quite different from each other in many respects, but they are quite similar in the way that they engage a person's mind. You lose the sense of being a person looking at a computer screen with fingers on a keyboard. You really do come to feel that your are in a real space and are interacting with real objects there.

Computer games are designed to engage our minds to the extent that they create environments that we actually experience. It actually works very well. When I am on the Titanic, in the middle of the game, I am not experiencing a computer screen - I am experiencing a ship. This is very interesting - way more interesting than the games themselves. These games provide a way for us to probe our own minds so that we can understand how our minds give an experience of reality from sense datum.

The games I have mentioned are all interesting and engaging, but they are also fictions and constructions. They involve narratives that are shallow, and sometimes objectionable - they are games. I have recently started participating in a different sort of virtual reality. Its called Second Life, and it exists on the internet. It's not a game in the sense that the others are because there is no narrative, and there is no goal whereby one can win. Its a space that looks much like a computer game, but what one does there is build things (houses, sculptures, landscapes, etc) and talk to people. There is a real economy there. There are things to buy and sell. Second Life is way more interesting than a computer game. Watch this space.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Anthropocentrism vs. Cosmocentrism

Groping toward a Paradigm Shift

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger 1

Abstract

Anthropocentrism views reality relative to Man, and maintains, directly or indirectly, that Man is the measure of all things. Based on immediacy and experience, as validated by sense-perception, this natural perspective was proposed by Aristotle quite in harmony with the then prevailing world-view somewhere between the ancient Babylonian flat-Earth model and the Ptolemaic system in the 2nd century, A.D. Despite several paradigm changes, from geocentrism to heliocentrism, from Newtonian Mechanics to Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics, anthropocentrism is still around, at least indirectly; by instinct, inertia, and emotionally satisfying features. That is, due to natural psychodynamics, most of our thinking, knowledge, as well as epistemic tools are still permeated by sophisticated anthropocentrism. However, current Science in general and modern Physics in particular have increasingly cast doubt on the adequacy and tenability of the anthropocentric paradigm. The expanding Universe from Big Bangs to Big Crunches, cosmic evolutions from the blurred mode of existence in modern microphysics to the blurred mode of existence in macrophysics, together with such recent evidence as for example the 2.7° Kelvin microwave background radiation, nonluminous cold and hot 'dark' matter, intergalactic plasma, etc. all seem to indicate that reality is independent of Man; and that Man is but a small clog in the cosmic scheme of things, regardless of cognitive abilities, now or ever. Therefore, the new world-view of cosmocentrism, based on cosmodynamics rather than psychodynamics, as introduced herein, proposes a radical cosmic paradigm with nothing less than a fundamental reversal of anthropocentrism. In short: cosmocentrism views reality relative to the Cosmos; and maintains, that Cosmos, rather than Man, is the true measure of all things.

Overview

ANTHROPOCENTRISM (Man is the measure of all things, reality viewed relative to Man)

  1. Direct anthropocentrism: naïve realism
    1. Primitive: No model of the Universe, from prehistoric times to approximately 4000 B.C. (?)
    2. Crude: Flat-Earth model of the Universe (Mesopotamia), from about 4000 — 400 B.C., approximately.
    3. Simple: Round-Earth model of the Universe (Aristotle), about 400 B.C. — 150 A.D., approximately.
    4. Smooth: Geocentric model of the Universe ( Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe ), about 150 — 1600 A.D.
  2. Indirect anthropocentrism: classical realism
    1. Fine: Heliocentric model of the Universe (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc.), 1600 — 1800 A.D.
    2. Sophisticated: No-center model of the Universe, infinity ( Kant, Laplace, etc.), 1800 — 1900 A.D.
    3. Implied anthropocentrism: scientific realism, quantum realism
    4. Subtle: Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics, the expanding, steady-state, inflationary models of the Universe, Big Bang-Big Crunch (Planck, Einstein, Bohr, de Broglie, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Dirac, Hubble, Hawking, Guth, etc.), 1900 — 2000 A.D.- ?

COSMOCENTRISM: cosmic realism (Cosmos is the measure of all things, reality viewed relative to the Cosmos, Luger's Genie), 2000 A.D. - ?

Introduction

About 400 years ago, two competing world-view paradigms, based on the geocentric model of Tycho Brahe and the heliocentric model of Nicolaus Copernicus were equally compatible with all known observations. It was impossible to decide in favor of one or the other in terms of available evidence. Thus, concerned natural philosophers may have sympathized with the absurd predicament of Buridan's ass which starved to death between equally attractive feeding possibilities.

In time, heliocentrism superseded geocentrism; and thus a paradigm shift had taken place. One reason was that such new discoveries as those of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc. had slowly tilted the balance in favor of Copernicus. The other, perhaps even more important, reason was that supporters of Tycho Brahe had gradually died out.

Why was this important? Because the geocentric model was more compatible with emotional factors than the heliocentric one. These factors had to do with simple, common-sense, intuitive notions, as well as with philosophical-religious teachings about Man's privileged status in Nature, Man's closest kinship to God, and the like. Of course, these self-flattering notions were extremely resistant to rational arguments; therefore, the most vociferous partisans simply had to die out to make room for the new view. The emerging mechanistic world-view allowed far less arrogance and complacence and sharply accentuated the need for rationalism and empiricism. Nevertheless, human conceit and cosmic vanity have survived to the present day; and in spite of overwhelming contrary evidence, still find ample expression in the common-sense view of the Universe, which may be summed up as anthropocentrism.

Whether in crude or subtle ways, anthropocentrism regards Man as the central fact or final aim of the Universe, or of any system; and its evaluations are always relative to Man, always based on comparisons with Man. Direct anthropocentrism is the natural world-view of naïve realism. Based on instinctive and intuitive sense-perception, this simple and linear perspective maintains that reality is as it looks; things are what they seem. After Copernicus, indirect anthropocentrism gradually superseded the earlier view along the lines of classical realism. Finally, despite the rational objectivity of scientific realism and the counterintuitive or irrational features of quantum realism, implied anthropocentrism is still with us, as seen for example in the various sophisticated 'anthropic' principles. Today, all world-views are still intuitively anthropocentric, modern Science notwithstanding.

Against all this, in diametric opposition, cosmocentrism proposes the Cosmos as the central fact or final aim of the Universe, or of any system; and suggests that evaluations might approximate independent reality much closer when they are made relative to the Cosmos, based on comparisons with the Cosmos. This is the (un)natural world-view of cosmic realism. Based on scientific research data and sometimes even counterintuitive synthesis, this complex and nonlinear cosmocentric perspective maintains that reality is not as it looks, things are not what they seem. Of course, this view assumes that scientific realism is correct; i.e. that there is a world 'out there' that really exists and that is independent of our attempts to observe it and in fact independent of our very being. Its corollary assumption is that scientific investigations can make this world comprehensible to us. Neither of these assumptions is arbitrary or ad hoc; they are based on plenty of evidence from modern Science as well as the lessons of History.

Perhaps the lessons of History have taught us to avoid the fate of Buridan's ass. Perhaps we no longer have to fritter precious time away, just waiting for partisans of the rival view to die out. Perhaps we have learned to recognize irrational clingings to self-flattering views, and we already know how to deal with ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps Mankind no longer needs cosmic vanity to be reconciled with 'fate' and natural reality. Perhaps a paradigm shift in favor of cosmocentrism will herald the dawn of a new era, when emotional maturity and tolerance begin to supersede fratricidal-suicidal adolescence. Let's hope so- and, therefore, let's start groping toward it!

Discussion

Perhaps the most concise definition of anthropocentrism was given by Aristotle, when, some 2,300 years ago, he quoted the great sophist Protagoras (cca. 481-411 B.C.E.), who said that "Man is the measure of all things". This was in perfect agreement with common-sense views of Man, Nature, God or gods, and the Universe; based on the knowledge of those times and projections or extrapolations thencefrom. In order to fully understand what anthropocentrism is and what its inadequacies are, it may be worth while to take a somewhat closer look.

For some 7,000 years, until the early XXth century, we had thought that we live in a static Universe, characterized by eternity, permanence, stability, predictability, and reversibility. Although the importance of change and time-bound, irreversible processes have always been recognized, the permanence-features of the Universe had been given greater emphasis. Why? Because of the adaptive preoccupation with God or gods, which in this context also represented the vast unknown segment of reality; and of course, God or gods had to be immutable in order to maintain divine status and absolute rights. What evidence was there to support such view?

Not much. Our remote ancestors did not think so much in terms of evidence as in terms of plausibility. However, they were no fools. Keen observations formed the basis of their intuitive views and sharp analogies helped them to make sense of the bewildering world in which they lived. It was quite natural to observe human causation, from which simple intuition or projection led to superhuman causation. So, gods had always been thought to be giant humanoids with supernatural powers. Remember, Science did not exist as such; and authority was based on power, rather than knowledge. Thus, the Sun-god Shamash had divine authority by means of which laws could be conferred upon Sumerian society and enforced through the good offices of King Hammurabi about 4,000 years ago, throughout Babylonia.

This is how the first consistent world-view arose in ancient Mesopotamia, based on astronomical observations and practical considerations. It was the natural or instinctively intuitive flat-Earth view, according to which we live on a flat disk covered by a hemisphere. The ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, among others, furnished gods and angels for Heaven above the hemisphere, and devils and demons for Hell beneath the disk. Stars and their constellations resembling something that humans could relate to, gave rise to astrology and associated myths. The most important feature of this natural world-view was consistency with all known facts as well as explanation in terms that were familiar and satisfying to the ancients.

Of course, partial explanations also flourished, as this was the age of fabulous myths and great legends. However, the most general view, being the most consistent with facts and features of reality thought to be important, was this anthropocentric flat-Earth model, which was also the most satisfying in terms of cognitive-emotional needs.

The only addition to this view was its extension by Aristotle. He simply took the flat Earth and spinned it around, so that the hemisphere became a full sphere. By that time, more and more evidence seemed to suggest that the Earth was round, not flat; and this was more consistent with his philosophical reasoning, which emphasized natural beauty and harmony.

It was thus quite natural for Aristotle to propose his famous hierarchy, called "Scala Naturae", which put Man near the top of a ladder or apex of a pyramid, if you will. Beneath Man was the animal kingdom, and beneath that, the non-living world. Above Man was God or gods; by means of which the unknown could be rationalized, albeit in naïve anthropocentric terms. Man thus acquired dominion over Nature, Man was Nature's finest, destined to rule all the world, being subject but to God or gods.

Our truth-needs were satisfied by the simple anthropocentric world-view, while our love-needs were satisfied by the human-privilege notion of our closest kinship to God or gods. Together, they had taken care of our cognitive-emotional needs, with minor variations, all along the line. Thus, natural psychodynamics was the essence of anthropocentrism, quite understandable in prescientific times and unscientific terms. Things were what they seemed, and reality was as perceived by Man.

Based on careful astronomical observations, the Alexandrian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus formalized the Aristotelian world-view during the 2nd century, A.D. The Ptolemaic system simply postulated that the Earth was the spherical center of the Universe; and the Sun, the stars, and the other planets revolved in orbits and spheres around it. Heaven was still above it all, and Hell was still below the surface of the Earth.

A dozen centuries or so later, this was still the prevailing view, further extended and complicated by astronomical observations and postulates, such as stellar patterns and various epicycles. This perspective formed the basis of the geocentric paradigm as championed for example by the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe at the end of the Renaissance period in the XVIth century. It was still a directly anthropocentric perspective, well in line with Church dogma. The Universe still revolved around Man; and thus, no matter how pompous it sounds, Man was still the crowning glory of Creation and God's gift on Earth.

Let's remember that ever since Man knows that he knows, reality has always been perceived in two categories; known and unknown. At first, knowledge was limited to Man's immediate experience; and everything else was unknown. But the unknown is unpredictable, hence anxiety-provoking; and unrationalized anxiety reduces Man to helplessness. By rationalizing thunder and lightning as the wrath of God or gods, for example, such phenomena could be given explanations that people could relate to; and, very importantly, no other explanations were available. Today, we have adequate explanations of natural phenomena without recourse to supernatural notions. We might still experience some anxiety when facing thunderstorms for example, but we no longer have to invoke and try to placate gods or demons in order to survive such episodes. In other words, as knowledge has increased over the millenia, the unknown has decreased proportionately. Knowledge thus enables us to relate to various features of reality without superstitious beliefs and practices or incapacitating fears and anxieties. However, in this context, it is important to distinguish between subjective and objective kinds of knowledge. Perhaps a word of explanation is in order.

Subjective knowledge, while intuitively appealing and perhaps even emotionally satisfying, may also be unreliable and invalid. From perceptual selectivity to idiosyncratic preferences, subjective knowledge can easily lead to false beliefs and distortions of reality. For example, belief in witchcraft had led to tragic persecutions and absurd injustices for many centuries. It is thus a moral duty to always strive for more and more adequate knowledge and to remain open to criticism, even self-critique; otherwise, arrogance and self-righteousness can lead to but repetitions of the horrors of History.

Objective knowledge may be counterintuitive and even emotionally unsatisfactory, but being reliable and valid, it really helps to avoid self-righteousness and falsehoods. Fortunately, we have epistemological methods and safeguards to ensure the adequacy of objective knowledge. The built-in self-correction of the scientific method is our principal guarantee of reliability and validity, in spite of the inherent limitations of Science.

Science is not perfect. Nor is it complete. It may or may not be emotionally comforting, but it's still the best we have; and it works. Of course, it is also our moral duty to avoid the fallacies and pitfalls of scientism; and never to mistake Science for a religious substitute or make substitute religion of it. Science, in the modern sense of a dynamic epistemological activity characterized by its hypothetico-deductive-inductive method, is still very young- barely 400 years old. What's that compared to 4,000 years of anthropocentrism, 40,000 years of cultural evolution, and 400,000 years of anthropological evolution?

Yes, it was perhaps 400 years ago that modern Science had begun to take shape. Francis Bacon of Verulam, among others, was instrumental in formulating its methodology. By that time, Copernicus had already proposed the heliocentric paradigm; and thanks to Gutenberg, printed knowledge had begun to spread. However, only elegance and Occam's razor argued in favor of Copernicus; and his vindication had to await the works of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, etc. Scientific measurement and systematic experimentation throughout the XVIIth century gave rise to the scientific revolution. To be sure, Science was still part and parcel, a 'handmaiden' of Natural Philosophy; but by the turn of the century, its emancipation was well under way, and direct anthropocentrism was in trouble!

The XVIIIth, XIXth, and especially XXth, centuries have seen indirect anthropocentrism gradually superseding the earlier direct view as the thriving handmaiden of Natural Philosophy had rapidly blossomed into a very attractive and effective young 'goddess'. Her emancipation became complete about a hundred years ago, and her superior beauty and efficiency have been amply confirmed by such spectacular technological marvels that would have been called 'miraculous' not too long ago. When my Grandfather was a child, there was no such thing as an airplane; but in the year he died, Man walked on the Moon. And that's within a single lifetime! Since then, progress has even accelerated and keeps increasing at an ever-dizzying rate. Today's knowledge, its immensity notwithstanding, may be very rudimentary compared to tomorrow's knowledge. Where it's all going to lead is anybody's guess right now.

During its early evolution, Science generally proposed a mechanistic, deterministic, and mathematically predictable Universe, not unlike a great clockwork of great precision. The XVIIIth century had extended this static, hydraulic, machine-like view to Man, as shown for example, by Julien de la Mettrie's "L'Homme Machine". Pierre Simon de Laplace's monumental work, "Mécanique Céleste" had taken determinism as far as doing away with God by doing without God. When questioned about it by the Emperor Napoleon, Laplace rather arrogantly replied that he had no need of such hypothesis.

Indeed, the rapid and spectacular progress of Science had demystified the Universe to the point that Friedrich Nietzsche announced that "God is dead". Nihilism, existentialism, and materialism had no room for anything supernatural. Positivism and Darwinism appeared to rob Man of his semi-divine privileges and cast serious doubt on divine creationism. Thus, about a hundred years ago, as Science had gradually begun to reveal that things are not what they seem, even indirect anthropocentrism started to be in trouble!

However, the Universe itself was still thought to be static. That is, the heliocentric model, ruled by blindly mechanical forces, was at first simply extended to infinity, both 'up' toward the macrocosm of stars and galaxies and 'down' toward the microcosm of atoms and molecules. Later, the Sun was deprived of its central position; and there was no further need for an astronomical center, as such. Stellar and galactic systems could make up the static Universe, without a preferred center; but being its prime observer, Man could still maintain dominion. This is a very subtle psychological point, well worth careful consideration. The static Universe remained indirectly anthropocentric, by virtue of potentially infinite observability and predictability, hence controllability. It was even thought that all essentials were already known, and the completion of Science would soon be forthcoming. Instead, what came forth was a series of knockout blows.

During the XXth century, it became clear that the Universe is not static, but dynamic and expanding. Worse, Relativity Theory in the macrocosm and Quantum Mechanics in the microcosm had completely overthrown common-sense, intuitive notions; and thus deprived us of conceptual comfort and security. As such, there could be no further doubt that things are definitely not what they seem. Increasing doubt had been cast on predictability and controllability. Worst of all, limits to knowability had begun to appear, such as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in Physics and Gödel's Undecidability Theorem in Mathematics, for examples. Schrödinger's wave mechanics cast doubt on exact determinism and substituted probabilistic interpretations. It was shown that the act of investigation itself may distort reality. The sheer proliferation of data, the information explosion has blown all objective knowledge way out of proportion, in utter disregard of Man's perennial cognitive-emotional needs and the lessons of History. The result has been increasing confusion and frustration throughout the weary XXth century.

Nowadays, people don't know what to believe or whom to trust any more; and cognitive dissonance as well as emotional voids characterize modern Man's conflicts, which may be indicative of progressive neurosis, maybe even psychosis of some schizophrenic variety. By instinct, Man still directly perceives things relative to himself; but scientific knowledge forces him to think less and less as though the Universe revolved around him and more and more in very sophisticated, albeit still indirectly anthropocentric terms- but even that is rather objectionable. For example, we have to consciously remind ourselves that the galaxies are 'out there' and electromagnetism permeates everything and bacteria are 'all around', whether we see them or not. Together with the Big Bang cosmology and plenty of other evidence, the emerging picture seems to suggest that human sense perception, however extended by telescopes and microscopes, keeps Man locked into a 'bubble' of virtual reality, as it were, in dynamic interaction with the expansion of the Universe. But virtual reality is definitely not independent, real reality. This is tantamount to pronouncing the death sentence on all anthropocentrism, whether direct or indirect or both.

Let's put it differently. If we proceed from Man 'outward', we pass through the increasing magnitudes of the solar system, then the stellar system, then the Galaxy, then the Local Group of galaxies, then the supercluster of local groups, all the way to the outer limits of the Universe. As we reach these limits at the level of cosmology itself, things become increasingly blurred. The geometry is no longer Euclidean, visual information becomes less and less reliable, and more and more indirect methods have to be used, from radio astronomy and x-rays to mathematical modelling. There's a uniform microwave background radiation at 2.7 degrees Kelvin, which may be evidence of the Big Bang itself. Recently discovered hot and cold dark (nonluminous) matter seems to comprise 90% of the Universe, which is inaccessible to direct observation. Perhaps such dark matter could effectively close the Universe by providing a positive cosmological constant, whereby a pulsating or oscillating Big Bang - Big Crunch cosmology would perforce emerge, ad infinitum.

Now, if we proceed from Man 'inward', we pass through decreasing magnitudes, through the 'worlds' of physiology and biochemistry, all the way to quarks and other subatomic particles. Finally, we reach the inner limits of the Universe, as it were. Here, again, a blurred mode of existence seems to prevail, as virtual particles spontaneously jump in and out of existence all the time, as shown by Quantum Field Theory. Again, the geometry is no longer Euclidean, visual information becomes less and less reliable, and more and more indirect methods have to be used from electron tunneling and x-ray scattering to mathematical modelling. The same dark matter as in cosmology seems to provide sufficient energy densities for the fundamental field so that virtual particle fluctuation may continuously take place, again ad infinitum.

So, proceeding from Man outward, we reach the blurred mode of existence, which is cosmodynamics. Proceeding from Man inward, we also reach the blurred mode of existence, which is also cosmodynamics. Either way, the same Cosmos is at the end, as per current knowledge. The Cosmos seems to be the infinite baseline of all existence, from which all material events arise and to which they periodically return. If we were to post an unbiased, ideal observer at the level of the bare Cosmos, the Universe would look very different from there than from here. Let's be a bit whimsical and call this nonhuman cosmic observer 'Genie', somewhat similarly to Maxwell's 'Demon', if you will. Relative to Genie, all material events would be on a scale of positively increasing magnitudes, if we allow the observations to be at the origin of Cartesian coordinates. Genie would observe all material as well as nonmaterial events as various motion phenomena as though the vantage point were at the center of a sphere, assuming our habitual Euclidean geometry for present heuristics. Therefore, relative to Genie, it seems reasonable to conclude, that the Cosmos is the central fact or the final aim of the Universe; and this is nothing less than the definition of cosmocentrism itself.

Let's imagine a straight line or spectrum with Man at the center, and Cosmos at both ends. If we rotate either half of this line around Man, we get the anthropocentric paradigm. If we bend it in half and double it up so that Man is at one end while Cosmos at the other, and then rotate it around the Cosmos, we get the cosmocentric paradigm. Since the doubling up resembles a loop, by rotation we get a doughnut or torus-shaped Universe, which is compatible with all present-day objective knowledge, including Cosmology. Man is way out, somewhere at the periphery of the torus, nowhere near the center. However, things are not this cheap; and while anthropocentrism is a simple, static, and linear world-view, cosmocentrism is a complex, dynamic, and nonlinear perspective, nay, a complete paradigm per se.

Cosmocentrism shifts focus from Man to the Cosmos. It considers Man as nothing special, but a perfectly normal and necessary phase of cyclic evolutionary cosmodynamics. Cosmic evolution seems to proceed by both positive and negative feedback loops, between Big Bangs and Big Crunches, following the irreversible thermodynamic Arrow of Time. The Cosmos itself seems to consist of an overall closed system and several open subsystems, in dynamic interaction, somewhat like multidimensional subsets within a universal master set. The overall cosmic matrix with its pulsating submatrices appears to be what existence is all about. That one of the submatrices may be called human need no longer distort the overall matrix or the proportions and relations of the submatrices. Relative to the bare Cosmos, which alone may be timeless, all material events are observably time-bound and transient. Cosmocentrism thus provides a perspective consistent with all objective knowledge, and a world-view more harmonious with independent reality than the severely flawed, directly or indirectly anthropocentric paradigm. As such, it may be instrumental in the eventual resolution of our conflicts.

No need to fear humiliation. Our cosmic dignity is assured by our cosmic citizenship status without having to imagine that the Universe revolves around us. Although our cosmic roles may appear to be rather insignificant, we are just as indispensable and integral parts of the Cosmos as any other living or nonliving entity.

Nor does cosmocentrism do away with God or religion. Although, as Professor Stephen Hawking noted, in the Big Bang cosmology there's not much for a Creator to do; God and religion may still be invoked, albeit for emotional rather than cognitive needs. The challenge of cosmocentrism is that Man, not God, must be dethroned. Of course, God in the cosmocentric paradigm cannot very well resemble the Heavenly Father image of naïve realism; but, perhaps, it's just as well. Anyway, that's another story.

Summary & Conclusions

In summary, it may be said that this paper has endeavored to show that a fundamental paradigm shift from anthropocentrism to cosmocentrism is possible and perhaps even overdue. That's because common-sense perception of everyday reality is ab ovo anthropocentric, which is increasingly proven unreliable and invalid by factual knowledge of objective reality. It's high time for our intuitive world-view to become fully consistent with Nature as Nature is, rather than trying to squeeze Nature into our self-flattering pigeonholes. In short, it's time for a fundamental adjustment in our cognitive-emotional perspectives; it's time to transcend our bubble of virtual reality.

To be sure, direct anthropocentrism arose quite naturally along the lines of cultural evolution. From the ancient flat-Earth myth through the Ptolemaic system all the way to the geocentric model of Tycho Brahe, it was just a linear extension of a simple paradigm: that of Man on top of his world. Then, the Copernican heliocentric model gave rise to a mechanistic and increasingly materialistic world-view; which, together with modern Science in general and modern Physics in particular, has gradually shown in recent times that even the indirect anthropocentric paradigm may be inadequate and seriously misleading. The anthropocentric evolution of world-views from primitive to sophisticated can be seen as growing conflicts between subjective and objective perceptions of factual truth, all the way to the cognitive dissonances and emotional voids of today, always relative to Man.

Against this, the new cosmocentric paradigm may be proposed as adequate and truthful representation of cosmic reality; through the careful observations of an independent and factual and unbiased, perhaps even ideally optimal observer at the level of the Cosmos itself, as it were. This objective, nonhuman Genie has only one problem: available knowledge is still permeated by indirect or implied anthropocentrism, in however increasing sophistication and subtlety; as seen for example, in the various 'anthropic' principles. As even the existing tools, such as logic, mathematics, physics, philosophy etc. are still 'contaminated' by anthropocentrism, new tools may be needed; thanks to which many discoveries may be made beyond our wildest dreams. Much remains to be discovered. Genie is going to be very busy, but Genie needs a lot of help for complete substantiation of the cosmocentric paradigm. Although many of its features are counterintuitive, perhaps even irrational; there is already enough evidence in favor of adopting factual and objective cosmocentrism, and without repeating historical mistakes at that. Until now, every world-view has been anthropocentric, whether in crude or subtle ways. The radically new world-view of cosmic realism, called cosmocentrism, introduced here for the first time, is explicitly based on scientific realism, which believes that theoretical constructs (with some exceptions) refer to actually existing things which are described differently on different levels of theory. Gravitation is really there, whether it be described by forces or space-time curvatures. Classical realism has been superseded by quantum realism, which in turn may be superseded by cosmic realism. What it all means for us, is simply that we have to give up dominion. Cosmocentrism does not exalt Man. Rather, relative to the Cosmos, it shows the soberingly modest place of Man in Nature and Nature's proper place in Man. As such, cosmocentrism may be less emotionally satisfying than anthropocentrism- well, tough luck.

Presently, both paradigms are compatible with existing knowledge; and choice may be again made on grounds of elegance and Occam's razor, at least for the time being, until Genie tilts the balance definitely and irreversibly forward. The choice is ours, but with an important caveat. Factual truth is a moral duty and we really ought to keep in mind that things are not what they seem. The shift in favor of cosmocentrism is tantamount to a fundamental revolution at the conceptual level. The essence of this revolution is that Cosmos, rather than Man, is the true measure of all things.


Paper written for and presented at the joint British Mensa P.D.G. — I.S.P.E.Conference, Braziers College, Oxford, U.K., May 5-7, 2000.

Published:

Telicom, Vol. XIII, No. 5, July 2000, pp. 30-40,

Commensal, No. 102, August 2000, pp. 24-33,

Gift of Fire, Issue 120, Nov. 2000; pp. 24-35.

PhiSIGma, No. 22, August 2001, pp. 26-36.

1 Chairman and Founder, Mensa Israel; Diplomate, International Society for Philosophical Enquiry;

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Iraq War Views

An Email Interaction

by Richard May in response to Fred Vaughan

Fred wrote, "If one pokes an active hornets nest something will happen."


Fred,

The hornets will greet you with cake and flowers and view you as their liberator!

The Creator made hornets as lovers of freedom. Hornets should have a Western style democracy. If a hornet tries to sting you, it's part of Al Qaeda.

Don't misunderestimate hornets! Lovers of freedom should invade hornets nests everywhere. A surge of nest pokers is vital to our national interest or the hornets will attack the Homeland!

If you see a mad dog, kick it!

You just don't make any sense, Fred!

"W"-Tzu

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Brushstrokes of Time

Karyn Huntting headshot by Karyn Huntting

echos still against caverns of memory
resonance of a voice yet unheard
filling skies aloft in their blackness
with shadows of fortnights now passed
over indigo hills in thought's moonlight
and shadows of dawns nearing in silence
to orange-hued canyons and blue mountains
and filling shadows with brushstrokes of time
that steal their existence as things separate

from "Crumbs of the Mind"

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Friday, April 20, 2007

What Should We Demand From Good Science?

Morten V. Christiansen headshot by Morten V. Christiansen

Morten Christiansen is a computer scientist whose interests lie primarily in conceptual modeling — how we express what we understand and model what we see. His father is a physicist so he grew up familiar with discussions of physics.

Most laymen see the scientist as a seeker of truth, and many scientists also see themselves that way. A scientist is a person seeking the true nature of the universe, and good science will tell us what the universe is really like.

This would be fine, if the scientist had some sort of divine answer-list he could check, so he could see if his notions of the universe were really true. The Bible and the writings of Aristotle have both been used as such answer-sheets historically.

But most scientists today have to reject or confirm their ideas about the world based on a limited number of crude observations of how the world appears.

This leads to a couple of problems for the noble idea of finding the veritable truth.

One problem is, that according to the laws of statistics (and inductive logic), it is never possible to conclude anything in general with complete certainty from a limited number of observations. No matter how many white swans we observe, we may not conclude that all swans are white. This problem should only bother a mathematician. Most of us are quite happy to conclude generalities from a limited number of observations, if we are sure that the probability of being wrong is sufficiently small.

A much worse problem is that we would like our knowledge of the world to go beyond the specific details we observe. Rather than theories about how specific objects fall down in specific locations, which is what we observe, we would like a notion like gravity and perhaps a notion of air resistance. Or something like that.

Here we move beyond what we can immediately observe and into the realm of speculation and theory. Most scientist are, whether they agree or not, builders of theories, rather than seekers of absolute truth. Some feel that good theories are also true in some sense of the word, while others feel that the merits of a theory have nothing to do with whether it is true or not in an ontological sense.

In my view this last perspective (epistomology) is the proper one. Science is about building good theories, not about discovering what is really there. If God chooses to clue you in on the true ontological nature of reality, that is a fine thing. But it is not science.

Our question now becomes: "What should we demand of a good Scientific theory?"

This is not a question with a single, obvious answer (like "truth"). It is rather a matter of trying to look at theories we feel are good and which have survived for a long time, and try to express what they have in common. And any rules should be rules of thumb, rather than absolute laws.

One philosopher, Karl Popper, has given rules that seem reasonable to a lot of us.

  1. A scientific theory should be as simple as possible

  2. A scientific theory should fit observed facts as well as possible

  3. A scientific theory should be as falsifiable as possible

Many other criteria might be imagined: A theory should be deterministic. A theory should not disagree with the bible. A theory should be aesthetically pleasing. A theory should describe things as they actually occur. And so on. But Popper's rules turn out to work pretty well.

Popper made it very clear that these rules should apply only to sciences that observe the world. Engineering, for instance, is not a science in Popper's perspective, because it is about creating rather than observing. Neither are such "synthetic" disciplines as logic, philosophy, mathematics and metaphysics. They have no element of observation. The social sciences and most of the humanities are about observing the world, so Poppers rules apply here as well as in the natural sciences.

But let us examine the three criteria which Popper felt were important.

Simplicity

Occam's razor tells us, that the simplest explanation of a fact is most often the truth. In model-building we are not concerned with truth, but we are concerned with eliminating useless complexity. So it seems obvious that simpler theories are more useful than more complex theories, if their contents are identical otherwise.

It is not always possible to make the determination about which of two competing theories are simpler. But often it is possible, and then we can disregard the more complex theory. The Copernican view of the solar system, where the sun is regarded as the center, gave a slightly simpler model of the solar system than the competing earth-centric model. So it was, from Popper's perspective, a better theory. From the perspective back then it was a worse theory, because it did not agree with the writings of Aristotle.

Fitting observed facts

This should be obvious. It is not. We observe that a leaf falls slower than a coin. Yet our preferred theory say that all objects fall with the same speed (Galileo), while the theory it replaced (Aristotle) correctly predicted that the leaf would fall slower. The theory of "air resistance" has to be included to explain what we actually observe. But in most cases things do fall with the same speed, and we can ignore air resistance. And so we consider Galileo's theory to be better that Aristotle's. Few competing theories explain exactly the same set of facts, and so we can sometimes use this as a criterium to prefer one theory for another. And of course some theories fly directly in the face of what we observe. Those we can either dissmiss, or accept in some "weakened" form (for instance by creating supplementing theories, like "air resistance").

Falsifiability

A theory should be as falsifiable as possible. What does this mean ?

It means that the theory should make as many and as specific predictions about the world as possible. The theory should tell us something about the world that we don't learn from other theories, and this "something" should have observable effects. If our theory makes no predictions, yet can "explain" every imaginable observation, does it really tell us anything ? Popper says no. It does not matter how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, if we cannot somehow observe them.

The more new predictions a theory can make, the better the theory. At least until some prediction turns out wrong. Most often this is the criteria a new "intuitively reasonable" theory will fail. Much pseudo-science fail at exactly this point.

Using the criteria

This article started as a discussion of a particular version of the many-worlds interpretation of physics on the fire-list. So let us use that as an example.

We like simple, understandable theories. This means that we don't particularly like quantum mechanics. It is a non-deterministic theory, it claims that particles behave in strange, ghostly ways, it says that there are things we cannot ever know. This is not nice. QM also conflicts with the theory of relativity, because quantum mechanics claim that a particularly phenomenon, the "wave-function collapse" is instant everywhere in the particle system. Relativity says that there is no such thing as instant. We cannot go beyond the speed of light.

Relativity is a much nicer theory than quantum mechanics. It is still counter-intuitive, at least for me, but it follows directly from reasoning I can accept. And it is deterministic, which is a nice property in a physical theory. So I don't like to be told that it is wrong and QM right.

The problem is, quantum mechanics actually describe what we observe, no more and no less. The conflict with relativity has been decided by experiment. QM is right, relativity is wrong. Or, as most prefer to see it, a quantum system is somehow just one place. Locality does not apply in quantum mechanics.

So, what we would like is a theory that would explain the same, or preferably more, behavior that QM does, but without the nasty rules about what we "may say" about particle properties, and also preferably a theory that is easier to grasp intuitively.

Here in Copenhagen such a notion is heresy, of course. The "Copenhagen-interpretation" regards the mathematics of QM as the final truth. Any attempt to understand QM outside the mathematics is meaningless.

But most people not from Copenhagen want a prettier theory, and dislike the "darkness" that QM seem to spread. And so new theories are attempted.

Some theories, like the "hidden variable" models, claim that "there is really something there", even while they accept the fact that we can never measure it. This goes directly against the principle of falsifiability as well as against the idea that our models should be as simple as possible, but it does provide a more intuitively acceptable model.

But it is a bit like claiming that God is really there, even if he never interferes.

Another attempt to explain some of the oddities of QM, such as the fact that particles interact with versions of themselves that only exist as probability (double split experiment) is to postulate that particles interacts with other universes. A particle in fact follows all possible paths in different universes, and these universes interact at the quantum level.

This makes a lot of sense at the intuitive level. Instead of weird and ghostly wave-functions that permeate our entire universe and only collapse at measurement time, we just have to accept multiple universes. We can rescue locality and the theory of relativity. We can even, if we wish, make it a deterministic model. As long as we don't expect anything beyond what QM predicts.

The problem, in Popper's perspective, is mainly falsifiability. We gain no simplicity, because we must construct our many-universe interpretation to carefully match the full predictive power of QM. And a theory that says "The world behaves precisely like QM, but the real truth is something else" is not a better theory, but just metaphysics.

So the real test of the many-worlds model become the predictions. If a many-worlds theory makes testable predictions that are not made outside that theory, and these predictions turn out to hold, then it may someday replace the QM view of the world. I would like that a lot.


Popper's rules do not tell us that we should not speculate. Many speculative and interesting ideas are not falsifiable. But they may still be very inspiring and worthwhile. An example is the notion of super-strings, which are so small that their existence will never be decided. But the mathematics is (or at least started out) nice. Many cosmological speculations about the early or very late universe are not science by Popper's definition. But they are certainly inspiring, and often help in the creation of better theories. But Popper's rules can be useful in helping us know what is speculation, and what is good science.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Little Bright Lies

Staffan A. Svensson headhshot by Staffan A. Svensson

An article I read recently claimed that "research on how junior high school students' beliefs about intelligence affect their math grades found that those who believed that intelligence can be developed performed better than those who believed intelligence is fixed"[1]. This result provides an example of a choice that many people face every day: do we teach what is beneficial or what is more true if these two contradict each other?

I'm not talking about taking it to extremes as in telling someone they are dying to teach them to value life, or the tyrannical ruler kind of "people don't know what's best for them"-attitude. I'm talking about examples like the one above, or telling a teacher that the students are above average in intelligence (which also tend to raise scores[2]), or exaggerate just how bad smoking and eating junk food really is. Or telling someone you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.

Sure, sometimes it just comes down to what is called little white lies, like telling someone they look good to make them happy. But I believe my opening example illustrates something more than that; it is choosing to deceive for that persons own good. And there's the rub, because somewhere in there hides a more or less personal, and more or less distinct, line between what is acceptable and what is not, between what is justifiable and what is not.

Personally, I would prefer to be fooled with regard to the world being fundamentally a nice place even if it actually is not, and I intend on making that happen.

References:

[1] online article "Students who believe intelligence can be developed perform better". http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-02/sfri-swb013107.php

[2] Rosenthal, R. (1998) Covert Communication in Classrooms, Clinics, and Courtrooms. Eye on Psi Chi. Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 18-22. http://www.psichi.org/pubs/articles/article_121.asp

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Still Happy to Be American: a Kurt Vonnegut Tribute

"Veritas Our president is a Christian? So was Adolf Hitler. What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without senses of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations, and made it all their own?"
&mdash Kurt Vonnegut

Fred Vaughan headshot by Fred Vaughan

I was born here, as were all of the previous five generations in my family. I believe that every one of my progenitors considered themselves most fortunate to be American. I do. Of course one must assume that they were indeed proud to be Americans as well, just as I had been until Election 2000. The illusion of democratic difference died then, and the corpse is beginning to stink. Like Kurt Vonnegut I have become quite a disillusioned old curmudgeon.

There is still much to be happy for. Our standard of living is still high - not the highest in the world anymore, but still high. We still have constitutional rights - although nowhere near as many as we had a very few years ago. We still have freedom of speech - more or less - as this will hopefully demonstrate, but nowhere near as much as we once had, and our "freedom of the press" has become freedom of the administration and its corporate backers to propagandize the populace.

But I am ashamed of the rape of democracy by organized voter fraud, manipulated propaganda, and the projection of lies such as, "Why vote, they're all equally bad!" Anyone who believes that has not really thought about it. Would Al Gore have lied to get us into a stupid and unconscionable war with 'collateral damage' running to a million lives? Would John Kerry? Would either of those candidates who by almost any valid accounting actually won the last two elections have condoned torture or systematic destruction of the constitution? Would they have unconscionably provided tax cuts to the top 1% which depleted the treasury at a time when hundreds of billions were being appropriated for a war initiated because of administration lies just to give the excuse of our not having enough resources to care for our sick, our poor, our aged? Would they have ignored the victims of Katrina? Would they have ignored global warming? Would they have sold our freedom of the press to our largest corporations for campaign donations who then goad us into the wars that maintain their "World Trade"?

Today we still mourn the deaths of those students and faculty massacred at Virginia Tech. Our president says we will get over it — without gun control legislation just as we do the other 30,000 fatalities from gun violence in the United States each year! Just as he thinks we will get over Katrina — even without there having been a conscionable FEMA response. In the last week 30 Americans died in Iraq, and I suppose we will get over them too just as we have gotten over the 3,000 before them. We will get over the 200 innocent lives lost to collateral damage by bombs in Baghdad today just as we have gotten over the million before them — collateral damage to Bush's "just cause".

Here is a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut who had the courage to say it how it is:

Cat's cradle figure
His book is "Cat's cradle", not "Ice Nine"!
Ice Nine sigh
The Way the World Ends!

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Einstein's Enigma

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger

Einstein had taught me, albeit quite inadvertently, a real lesson in humility, something I’ll never forget.

During the hot month of August, 1988, I was invited to visit the Research Labs of the giant Dupont Chemical Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware. Driving on my way back to Montreal, still having some free leisure time, on a moment’s caprice, I decided to pass through Princeton and visit the places where Einstein had lived and worked for the last 22 years of his life. Soon enough, I found his house at 112 Mercer Street; but, no trace, not even a tiny memorial plaque that he had ever lived there!

Same story at the Institute of Advanced Studies, except for a small bust-statue in the library. The janitor told me that Einstein’s office had been repartitioned, and half of it is a brooms’ closet by now. And a very old scholar, who must have known Einstein personally, told me rather scornfully, that all of Einstein’s works had been published, and there was no personal memorabilia left whatsoever. What he implied, of course, was that there remained nothing to worship. I was unable to locate Einstein’s tomb or even his burial site. There was no trace of him at the small local synagogue. True, there was a lane way named after him in the scholars’ cottages section near the Institute, but everyone I spoke to, academics and laymen alike, treated me and the subject with an almost contemptuous nonchalance.

drawing of Einstein
drawing by Fred Vaughan

Behind the Institute is a small lake. I remember sitting on an old bench, possibly the same one on which the great man sat, and feeling bitter and resentful. Countless people of far lesser caliber had been honored and exalted, and here… what a callous ingratitude! Something didn’t make sense in all this, I smelled an enigma. But, not having any other handy explanation, I imagined that maybe this had something to do with anti-Semitism. After all, Princeton appeared to be a very WASP-ish town, and I recalled the anti-Semitism before and during the McCarthy era, as for example in the 1947 Gregory Peck film Gentleman’s Agreement, etc. I was wrong, dead wrong. A few weeks later, while doing some research in the McGill University library in Montreal, I stumbled upon the solution to the Princeton enigma quite by fluke. While flipping through the thick biography of Einstein by the British author Clark (out of idle curiosity since I was working on an entirely unrelated topic), near the end there it was. In all simplicity, Einstein himself wanted it that way: on his deathbed he specifically told his secretary not to let the house be turned into a museum. Nor did he want any kind of memorial or plaque or anything. All his personal effects were to be gotten rid of. Although cremation is frowned upon in Judaism, he wanted to be cremated and the ashes disposed of at an undisclosed location. In short, let people remember him through his work and his work only.

Suddenly I felt very hot. Burning up with shame, I ran out of the library, gasping for a few breaths of the cool autumn weather. For here was true greatness, the same immortality as that of Mozart, for example; and it was my own conceit and insignificance which had just humiliated me into the dust. If I could, even today, more than a decade later, I would publicly beg the pardon of academia in general and Princeton in particular for my arrogant presumptions.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Chess Column: Ulvestad

Albert Frank Headshot by Albert Frank

In an earlier chess column, I have tried to show that chess is an art form. The surrealistic final position of the game Levitzky - Marshall was a good example. Some readers were enthusiastic about it. So, in this column, I'll show another example of a game with several surrealistic moves, that I won against American Master Olaf Ulvestad.

Olaf Ulvestad
Olaf Ulvestad

Olaf Ulvestad was born in Seattle the 27th of October 1912. But although American by birth, his ancestors originated from Norway. His remarkable entry to the chess scene was at the legendary match, the Soviet Union - USA in Moscow in 1946, where he won one of his two games against David Bronstein (USSR Champion in 1948), winner in 1950 of the Candidates tournament to challenge the World Champion, and in 1951 playing to a tie with Botvinnik in the match for the title of World chess champion - Botvinnik remained champion because a challenger must defeat the champion in order to become champion).

Ulvestad was champion of the State of Washington in 1934, 1952 and 1956.

In the sixties, he went to live in Andorra (a small country between Spain and France), and played first board in the 1970 chess Olympiad in Siegen. As a pedagogue he invented a new method for teaching chess, subdividing the chessboard into several imbricated "sub chessboards". He is also famous for the Ulvestad variation of the Two knights defense: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 b5

He died in 2000.

Here is the game. It is technically complicated and the comments will only concern the surrealistic moves. (The time control was 45 moves in two hours 15 minutes, thus, 20 moves per hour):

Olaf Ulvestad - Albert Frank, Berga 1971

Chess diagram 1
Diagram #1

Chess diagram 2
Diagram #2

Chess diagram 3
Diagram #3

Chess diagram 4
Diagram #4

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 ed 5.cd d6 6.Nc3 g6 7.Nd2 a6 8.a4 b6 9.e4 Bg7 10.Nc4 0-0 11.Bg5 h6?! 12.Bh4 Ra7 13.Bd3 Rb7 14.Ne3 Re8 15.0-0 Qd7!! (See diagram #1.)
An incredible move: The knight on b8 has only the square d7 to go, the Bishop on c8 can only move on the diagonal c8 - h3, and the queen move blocks both!
16.Qe2 Ng4 17.Nxg4 Qxg4 18.Qxg4 Bxg4 19.Bg3 Bf8 20.f4 Bd7! (See diagram #2.)
Once more, the only available square for the Knight on b8 is occupied. 21.e5 b5 22. ab? Bxb5 23. Bxb5 ab 24. Ra8 f5 25. Re1 b4 26. Nb1 c4 27. Rc1 Rc8 28. Nd2 c3 29. bc bc 30. Nf3 c2 31. Nd2 de 32. fe (See diagram #3.)
I have given two connected passed central pawns to white, and white's position is now very difficult.
Bb4 33. Nf3 Bc5+ 34. Kf1 Be3 35. Raa1 Bxc1 36. Rxc1 Rb1 37. Bf4 g5 38. Bd2 Rc5 39. d6 g4 40. Ne1 Rxc1 41. Bxc1 Rxe5 42. Bxh6 Rc5 43. Bc1 Rd5 44. Ke2 Rd1 45. Nd3 Kf7 46. Bf4 Nc6. (See diagram #4.)
The knight from b8 comes finally into play.

Here Ulvestad resigned, saying "You develop the knight, so it's over", and we became big friends.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gypsies

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

They live a loose life without bonds,
far from the cramped comfort
of clubs and cubicles,
putting on cap and bells for convenience
sometimes,
leaving cracks of meaning behind
to defy the crank of fate.

The sky is their limit.
All the rest is a breakaway world
framed in change,
a horizon-unhinged backdrop
in Heraclitus’ book of life.

They don’t raise their children
into a world of bruise-blue eyes
and Pickwickian characters.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Complete Fools

Richard May headshot by Richard May (Not an np-complete fool.)

Do there exist some complete fools who can not be proven within any given deductive system to be complete fools, as a consequence of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem?

Does Godel's Incompleteness Theorem apply to complete fools?

May-Tzu

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Swan in Love

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Someone sent me a short newspaper clipping and it was perhaps the most romantic thing I've ever read:

"The swan that fell in love with a peddle boat is back courting its plastic lover after spending the winter in a local zoo.Swans choose a partner for life but the rare Black Australian swan nicknamed Petra made the mistake of falling for a peddle boat designed to look like a swan. And when Petra's peddle boat lover refused to fly south for the winter Petra also remained, a move that could have killed her as the cold weather arrived. In the end though local zoo chiefs took pity on the swan and gave her and her boat boyfriend a place to spend the winter, and this week the pair were once again on the lake together."
And I decided to grab the essence of the thing and rewrite it and make it even better!

Once not so long ago, there was a swan who fell in love with a little boat. All through that glorious spring and summer, the sun poured down like molten honey, and all the swans danced and played and skimmed over the lagoons. But this swan didn't join them. Day and night he stayed by his beloved, reading love poems to his boat. How wise and majestic she is in her silence, he thought, how thoughtful and strong. Then came winter, and all the other swans flew south to the endless tropical marshes. But this swan stayed by his boat, and as the weather changed the swan was almost frozen. Now God looked down and had pity on the faithful swan, and he made the boat come alive. I always loved you, said the boat to the swan, and they sailed away into the tropic mists. And that is why, if you go to any small town or city with a lake or river, you might see swan boats sailing there. Every one of those swan boats is descended from that brave little swan and the boat he loved.

Swan boat

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dialogue Involving A Question of Statistics

Fred Vaughan headshot by Fred Vaughan

"I've got a question, Ray. Everyone knows your opinions about miracles and that it's all physics, so what I want to know is how your good fortune can be reconciled with statistical probabilities. What you have experienced seems impossible to me, Ray!"

"It's the wrong use of the telescope again, Tim."

Tim listened and laughed. "How can that be? Where's the telescope?"

"Well, you're asking about the probability of an event after it has already occurred, aren't you? So probability and statistics don't apply. Statistics has to be directed the other way. Let's say I flip a fair coin one hundred times and get one hundred heads in a row. How would one square that with statistics? Isn't that the essence of your question?"

"Yes! That is the question, Ray! How is it you could flip one hundred heads in a row?" Tim affirmed.

"Well, what if I had flipped a head and a tail alternating until I had fifty heads and fifty tails? Would that bother you as much?" Ray asked.

"No, of course not! That's fifty-fifty, right on the law of averages!" Tim said.

"Well, you're using your telescope incorrectly then, because both cases — a hundred heads in a row, and a sequence of head-then-tail fifty times in a row — have exactly the same likelihood. The only reason you think the one case more likely is because it's similar to a kazillion other cases that are also fifty-fifty. But whatever combination of heads and tails that you get after a hundred flips of that coin will be exactly the same likelihood as the hundred heads, Tim. You flip a coin a hundred times and whatever sequence of heads and tails that you get will have been exactly that unlikely. But a lot of them are disguised."

" Disguised? You've got to be kidding me, Ray!" Tim was not convinced.

"Nope. I'm not." Ray seemed to be done with that discussion.

Tim came back with, "Wait, Ray! That makes no sense! This kind of thing just doesn't happen!"

Ray seemed somewhat tired as he replied, "Your key phrase there was 'kind of thing', Tim. Classes of situations like flipping fifty heads in one hundred flips of a fair coin are the 'kind of thing' that are phenomenally more likely than flipping all heads or all tails. But what you're missing here is that each one of those situations like, head-tail-tail-tail-head-head-tail-head… etc., is no more likely than flipping all heads. There are just more situations that comprise the class involving fifty heads. There are kazillions of them like I said. Does ten-to-the-twenty-ninth have any meaning for you, Tim? Remember! Whenever something actually happens, it is a single situation not a class of them. Everything is unlikely, Tim. Everything! When you flip your coin a hundred times, whatever you come up with will have defied odds of ten-to-the-thirty-first-to-one! But don't doubt for a second whether what happened actually happened, or if it defied the laws of physics, just because of that or you'll be legally insane. Something happens! It has to."

Tim looked as baffled as an ostrich blinking at a bright sun.

Ray knew he had been a pompous asshole. He had indeed been phenomenally lucky. He had to admit that much. Wasn't 'fair' coin defined as one for which one hundred heads in a row does not happen? What about each subsequent flip of that coin along the way? Any one of those coming up tails would have terminated the phenomena of Ray Bonn. Ray Bonn was not some metaphysical being standing back behind a protective glass watching the coin flipping; he was the coin flipping. He was the outcome of all the contingent coin tosses; anything else was an instance of that most major of logical fallacies, looking down the wrong end of telescopes.

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