Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What’s really happening

A story about stories

There is a fundamental paradox that we are all vaguely aware of, even if we haven’t quite articulated it to ourselves.  Unlike the paradoxes of physics and philosophy, which we may never personally encounter, this paradox resides right under our noses.  More specifically, it resides right at the tip of our tongue.  It also buzzes incessantly right between our ears, being the fabric out of which even our internal monologue is woven.    It is the paradox of storytelling—the holy trinity of the story, its teller, and its audience. 

When I say storytelling you probably think of the sorts of storytelling done by professionals such as Twain or Poe, or the kind that is performed to a group sitting around a campfire or a dinner table.  And I do mean those; but I don’t mean only those.  I mean storytelling as grand as telling the story of our cosmic origins, or as minute as silently but persistently telling ourselves what it is we are thinking about at the moment…and everything in between.

We are all storytellers.

Historians compose stories about civilization, the ideologies and innovations that compete and collaborate to form periods of stability, progress, and revolution.

The press and its journalists compose stories that amount to the history of “now”—events at the intersection of people, their roles, and the motivations that drive them to act according to their roles.

Biologists tell same sorts of stories as historians and journalists; the differences amount to ones of scope, with roles played by very different sorts of characters, the innovations of a much less teleological nature, and the motivations largely being those of survival.  But really these are not such dramatic differences after all.

Physicists tell causal stories about particles and their interactions.

Your mind tells stories about you, what you’re doing, what you have done, and what you plan to do.

How many stories are there?

We like to think of history as a continuous stream of goings-on.  So much so that we each tend to decide on one story and stick with it, quickly forgetting, ignoring or even deleting versions that don’t jive with it.  We all know it’s the winners that write the history books; this is true of the shared history written down in books as well as our personal histories written down in our stream of consciousness.  But if you’re really observant, you can sometimes spot multiple drafts of the same story before one get chosen and the other swept under the carpet. 

Case in point: the recent protests in Iran (video).  There are two major versions of the same events.  I’d like you to suspend judgment, if just for a moment, which version you believe.  (btw I’m going off this NY Times article)

Version #1: The Iranian government says that western countries helped orchestrated the protests, and that shots from the crowd struck and killed several people, including Ali Mousavi, the nephew of the opposition leader.

Version #2: The people in the street says that the protests were peaceful, but that revolutionary guard soldiers violated the rules of the holy day by shooting into the crowd, possibly even assassinating the nephew of the opposition leader.

These two versions of the story seem completely incompatible.  How can one person ever believe both at the same time?  How can it be decided which version is a “factual” account of the events?  Most likely what will happen is that one group of people will believe one version, and another will believe the other.  Whichever story gets believed by more people in the end will survive and become the “official” account, the other will pretty much die away.

What’s the real story, and who gets to tell it?

And now for the paradox. 

We all know that there are many sides to a story.  And so it makes sense to say that there is no one real story of what really happened.  There are only versions of stories, which are unavoidably colored by who is telling them and who they are being told to. 

But on the other hand, to say that there is no privileged version of what really happened—there is no plain and simple truth, no bare fact of the matter—seems totally crazy. 

I think this paradox, just like any paradox worth its mettle, is inherently unresolvable.  But that does not make it a dead end.  Keeping this paradox in mind helps us remember that we may always be wrong about even the things we’re most certain of.  I think this is a crucial step—perhaps THE crucial step—towards the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

viewing the world through googl-y eyes

Google Scholar search results for "since september 11"
before 9/11/01: 85
since 9/11/01: 9,910

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Voting ≠ Democracy (part I)

What is democracy? I was brought up to think it meant that people got to elect their leaders. But we don't live in that kind of dreamworld. There are so many assumptions that get broken down in the real world.


First of all, who votes? Not everyone. Therefore there is a selection effect. The poorest, which coincides at all times with the racial minority, get left out of the decision making. Furthermore, it is not our vote that determines the most important political position (the president). We vote for members of the electoral college, who then verbally promise that they will vote for who we told them to. And the primaries really mess with the idea of a pure democracy as well.


Second of all, what does your vote DO? The idea is to vote for a leader who will make decisions representative of the people's best interest. But WHICH people--not all the population has the same best interests. And who gets to decide what actions will serve our best interests? The leader determines how to act, and therefore determines WHICH peoples' interests to serve, and HOW to serve them. But these things can seriously diverge from the public's view of their own best interest. George Bush's 27% approval rating is indicative of this. "History will vindicate me" he says. What if it doesn't?? Mugabe in Zimbabwe only legitimizes the votes of the people that are in line with his own best interests--whatever doesn't do that is due to the "influence of the west." How do we draw the line?


Third of all, who do we vote FOR? It's not the president, as I said, it's the electoral college. But for whom do they vote? Not the president, because its not the president who makes all the decisions and policies. It's the presidential cabinet--his advisors such--that really make the policies. The further away from the vote these people are, the more they can diverge from the people's best interests.


Fourth of all, WHY do we vote for them? It's not really their policies and beliefs. It's their name. It's their appearance. It's their soundbites. It's their verbal miscues. There is data to back this all up. Are these really indicators of the best interests of the people?


No, voting does not mean democracy. Voting is one way of getting at the greater principle at stake here, which is the coupling between the voiced needs of the people and the actions of their leaders. Voting is supposed to do this in two ways. (1) it selects leaders that are pre-aligned with the perspectives of the majority of the people, and (2) it puts pressure on the leaders to keep listening and acting for the interests of the people. This latter point is an often-overlooked component these days. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. only paid attention to (1).


We have to ask if voting is the only way of implementing (1) and (2). The answer is no. (1) can be fulfilled by a revolution, for example (see U.S., France, Cuba). Therefore, the U.S. should not consider a country to be a part of the "axis of evil" just because their leader was not elected. China, for example, has elections and they have no regard for the interests of the people. The reason is largely the lack of free press. A free press can carry out (2) more effectively than even voting can in certain circumstances. The lack of free press undermines the principle of democracy in very serious ways. For one, it convinces the people of what their best interests are. One way it does that is it selects and therefore distorts the facts by only presenting one point-of-view; that of the government who are trying to preserve their own best interests. This prevents the public from having the proper grounding in the present to determine for themselves what their best interests are.


Voting and free press I'm sure are not the only aspects of democracy, I'm thinking justice system, educational system, and army and such, but I'll have to come back to those because I am hungry and late for school.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Norton AntiVirus is a Virus

There is a program that has gained access to my computer without me knowing or wanting it, regularly disrupts my computer's normal functioning, eats up tons of memory, and resists being erased. It could happen to you, too, so I want to warn you to watch out for this horrible, senseless malware. Its name? Norton AntiVirus.

Ironically, Norton AntiVirus was designed to find and destroy programs with just these qualities. I believe the cliché applies here, that you become what you hate.

If Norton AntiVirus now wants to save its own credibility, it must remove itself from my computer.

I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bass Jam #1

I was simultaneously testing my microphone and my bass, and I can up with this little does it sound to you?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thou Shalt Not Take the Bible Literally…

…not if you want to avoid some severe epistemological conundrums, that is.

Some things can't be true

Many people claim to take the Bible "literally," but besides the problem of defining just what "literally" means, there are many reasons to believe that this is not possible—let alone desirable—even for the deeply religious. Here I will lay out a few of the problems you have to grapple with if you claim to take the Bible literally.
Epimenides was a Cretan philosopher whose claim to fame was his declaration that "Cretans are always liars." For centuries, scholars have wondered whether Epimenides, himself a Cretan, was telling the truth when he said that. Paul, in his epistle to Titus, did not seem affected by the paradox since he simply stated that Epimenides' statement is true:
10For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. 11They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 12Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." 13This testimony is true. (Titus 1:10-1:12)
This is a problem. For if it is true that Cretans are always liars, then Epimenides is always a liar, and so he must have been lying. In sum, if Epimenides' statement is true, then he must have been lying and so it must be false...which makes it true again because he said they always lie, which makes it a lie, etc. etc. etc.

So, is it true or not? Philosophers tend to say it is neither, preferring instead to call such paradoxical statements "undecidable."

Paul's statement adds another layer to this problem. Is everything in the Bible literally true? Well, if so, then Paul's statements also have to be true. If Paul's statements are true, then his statement "This testimony is true" is true. If this testimony (i.e. that Cretans are always liars) is true, then Epimenides was always a liar. If Epimenides was always a liar, then he lied when he said Cretans are always liars. 
So then Paul is wrong. So then the Bible contains things that are not literally true.  Even if you concede that "Cretans are always liars" is not false—it's just undecidable—then Paul is still wrong to say it is true.

Some things aren't supposed to be true (literally)

Maybe you're worried at this point, but don't be. It's okay. The Bible literally says not to take the Bible literally. For example, Jesus admittedly taught much of his important messages metaphorically, in parables. He would explain the meanings of these parables more straightforwardly to his 12 apostles:
And His disciples asked Him, saying, "What might this parable mean?"   And He said, "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God; but to others in parables, that `seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.' " (Luke 8:9-10, 21st Century King James Version)
So, if you want to take the Bible literally, it seems you are going against what the Bible literally says to do.

Monday, April 27, 2009

So You Think You Can Philosophize: Episode 2

This week's contestants, Destro and Cobra Commander, consider whether there can be any critical experiments in science. That is, until their boss catches them.

There can be no critical experiments in science, if you believe in structural realism.

There can't be any critical experiment, no matter what your theory, if you ask me.

Well, that depends on what you mean by critical experiment.

So what do you mean then?

I mean an experiment that, if it comes out a certain way, proves your theory wrong. An example would be the 1919 test of Einstein's theory of relativity by observing how far the distant starlight was deflected by the curvature of spacetime around the Sun. If there was no deflection, Einstein would have been proven wrong. That's a critical experiment.

So it sounds like critical experiments in general have to be defined counterfactually.

Hmm, I never thought of it that way, but it would be an interesting thing to explore. What do you mean?

Well, if a theory is successful, it has passed all the experiments, or at least all the trusted experiments, that have been done to test it. If they were critical experiments, then they can only be described as such counterfactually, . I.e. had they come out differently, the theory would have had to be abandoned.

Okay, but that doesn't preclude critical tests of the theory in the future, does it?

How do you mean?

Well, the tests it has passed in the past may have to be counterfactually shown to be critical tests, but there is still the future to look forward to. The theory will be put to more tests. And if it makes predictions that differ from reality then it ruled out. In that case, it was a critical experiment, not counterfactually.

Okay, yes. But still any passed test can only be defined as a critical test artifactually, right? Can we agree on that?

Well, it seems so right now, so I'll go with it. But it may happen in the future that something comes to light that would rule it out. Moving on.

Point noted. So, what was that you were saying about structural realism? I'm afraaid I don't know quite what that is.

Oh, structural realism? It's a nifty way of looking at progress in science. You see, there is a strange tension in the progression of science. Our numerical predictions are getting more and more precisely verified by experiment. Therefore, some reasonable people say that science is getting us closer and closer to the truth. Or, rather, that science gives us the truth, in ever more fine grained detail.

Yeah, that seems right to me.

Ah, but then you have the problem of scientific revolutions. As Einstein put it, "no amount of experiments can prove me right, but a single one can prove me wrong". Now, what do you think he meant by that?

Well, it sounds to me like he's talking about critical experiments.

That's right, I think he was talking about crucial experiments in the last clause. But the first clause is curious, isn't it? "no amount of experiments can prove me right."

He was a very humble man.

Well, I don't know about that. He also was trying to figure out if God had any choice in creating the universe…not so humble if you ask me.

Alright, alright. But he's just saying in that quote that his theory will never gain 100% precision. There will always be some uncertainty, so if certainty is your criterion for his theory being "right", then you are out of luck. But that is a very stringent criterion for a theory to be considered "right". Clearly the theory is right, to the extent that your GPS unit has to use his theory to account for your correct coordinates.

Okay, I see you point. That is one way of interpreting his statement, and now I see why you think he is being humble by saying so. His theory is obviously right to some extent, but he is taking the high road but not claiming to be settled completely. Well, there's another way of interpreting his statement that you may want to hear.

Let's hear it.

Okay, so he's saying that no amount of experiments can prove him right, and that one can prove him wrong because he knows that someday his theory will be overturned. He has said as much elsewhere.


Right. But think about it: his theory was overturning Newton's in a sense, a system of laws that had been taken as gospel for hundreds of years. And yet a single experiment, the eclipse observation of 1919, was sufficient to overturn it. This has happened time and time again in the history of science. A theory is thought to be "right" but then at some point an experiment proves it wrong. So, if it can always be proven wrong at some point, then what does that say about it's chances of being right? Those chances are apparently zero.

Unless you have the correct theory of everything.

And that only makes sense if you are a unificationist, I think.


Nevermind. So, do you see the tension now? On the one hand it seems that are theories are getting us the truth, more and more precisely. Even when a theory is overthrown, its in a regime where the old theory wasn't designed to tread anyway, and the mathematics are continuous by design. Quantum mechanics mathematically reduces to classical physics in the limit of h bar being very, very small.

I see that.

But on the other hand, there are radical revolutions of theories, in which the old theory is not continuous with the new. Newton's law of gravitation explained the motions of the planets in terms of gravitational force, which emanated from the center of massive bodies and acted over a cosmic distance. In Einstein's theory of gravity, there is no gravitational force. There is only the local curvature of spacetime that massive bodies follow along in the straightest line that they can. Entities such as gravitational forces that were the main players in one theory are completely absent in another.

But their roles are still present. Something is still present that makes the planets move as they do.

In a sense, yes, I think I agree with that. Although a little nagging doubt thinks about Wheeler's book "Spacetime Physics" which says that the natural state of motion in GR is free-float, and it's deviations from the geodesic path that need to be explained. But I'll leave that issue aside for now and just say that I agree with you. For this is what I think structural realism is all about. Science gets at the truth in that we are discovering the true roles, the true structure of the universe. But we may, in individual scientific theories, be getting the players of those roles wrong.

So scientists are writing a play, and their first performance may have had a bad cast, but the screenplay is still great if we can only find the right actors to play the parts.

Something like that.

So back to your original point--how does this preclude critical experiments?

Well, to follow the play analogy, how can we ever really know if it's the actors that are bad, and not the script? If it's really hard to find an actor that does a role justice, is it a problem with the actors or with the role?

What do you think?

Well, I don't know. There may not even be any fact of the matter. But for now, I will assume that there is a fact of the matter and keep running with the metaphor. The director can decide to tweak the script to find a balance with the actor that he's got. Or, more radically, he may take that role out entirely.

But then you have to worry about whether its even the same play anymore.

That's true, depending on the role. If the play were Hamlet, and you took out the role of Hamlet, it seems clear that it's no longer the same play. But if the roles were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Then it's not so clear. Perhaps it's the centrality of the role removed that determines to what extent the play has changed. But you agree that it's not an on/off thing?

Well, I don't know. If you change the main character, for whom the play is named, that seems pretty on/off. What if you took King Lear out of King Lear? Godot out of Waiting for Godot? The silence out of "2:00 of silence"?

But on the other hand, if you change the other roles there seems to be varying amounts of grey area. What if you took Brutus out of Julius Ceasar? Or just the chorus?

Okay, so I'm having trouble seeing how this gets back to crucial experiments in structural realism. I got a little lost in the metaphor.

Fair enough. I can see how that might be the case. I am, after all addicted to metaphor, but that's a discussion for another day. If structural realism says that we have the roles correct, as expressed in the explanatory and mathematical structure, but we get the details wrong about ontological entity filling those roles, then I suppose a critical experiment would be one that puts to the test one of the roles in question. And if all we are ever changing in practice is the actors that fill the roles (gravitational force vs. curvature of spacetime) rather than the roles themselves, then we are never doing critical experiments.

Wow, that seems pretty weird.

So if we never put roles on the chopping block, then maybe that means we've had all the roles all along. Which makes me worry that we are just filling out theories constrained by the very structures of our brains.

Well, you are a worrier...I think that's a big leap.

How so?

Well, I'm not sure yet, but I'm trying to work that out. For one, we can't have had all the roles all along. There are new roles introduced by theories all the time.

How so?

Well, quarks, for instance. Higgs particles. Fields. We didn't even know atoms had a nucleus until the last 150 years, so how could the role of keeping the nucleus together been around before that?

That's a good point, but I'm not sure we're talking about the same level as being roles. We might be though. But maybe what I mean by roles is an explanans--quarks play the role of keeping together something that otherwise shouldn't be together. If we didn't think like charges repel then we might never have needed the role that quarks play.

What about astronomical observations? What role is played by black holes, quasars, things we can observationally detect that we wouldn't have dreamed of before?

Well, I'm not sure. Perhaps you make a good point. So maybe my worry was misplaced after all.

I'll give you something to worry about! What is this insubordinance?! Get back to work, you slimes…this, I command!

Serpentor! I should have smelled you coming.

Destro, the tricky details of your thesis have to be done by showing when roles were introduced and by showing to what extent they were really put on the line. But that is a task for another day, my friend.

Long live Cobra Commander!