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19 Jul 11:27

Richard Feynman on Good, Evil, and the Zen of Science, Plus His Prose Poem for the Glory of Evolution

by Maria Popova

“I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.”

“Everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted,” psychology researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote in their fascinating exploration of the good and evil in all of us, and hardly is this variability more critical than in matters that profoundly affect not merely the fate of the individual but also the future of society at large. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same indispensable anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the universal responsibility of scientists and the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman explores the capacity of science to be a catalyst for both good and evil, and the moral choices steering the direction of the dial:

The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value — even though the power may be negated by what one does.

I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

What, then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use, but it obviously has value. How can we enter heaven without it?

The instructions, also, would be of no value without the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that science could produce enormous horror in the world, it is of value because it can produce something.

But, for Feynman, science has another value, an entirely personal one, captured in the famous Feynmanism after which this very book is titled. This glorious intellectual enjoyment, he argues, is far too frequently dismissed by those who stress scientists’ moral obligations to society, but it is of equal importance:

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.

But I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck-half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

He concludes by illustrating his point with what could be best described as a prose poem about the magnificence of evolution, what Richard Dawkins termed “the magic of reality”, Einstein extolled as the ineffable spirit of the universe, and Carl Sagan celebrated as the reverence of nature. The poetic eloquence for which Feynman remains known, which hardly anyone has mastered since, except perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, makes for a beautiful read on par with Diane Ackerman’s Cosmic Pastoral. Feynman writes:

I have thought about these things so many times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of some thoughts that I am sure you have all had — or this type of thought — which no one could ever have had in the past, because people then didn’t have the information we have about the world today.

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves . . . mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business . . . trillions apart . . . yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages . . . before any eyes could see . . . year after year . . . thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? . . . on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest . . . tortured by energy . . . wasted prodigiously by the sun . . . poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves . . . and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity . . . living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein . . . dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land . . . here it is standing . . . atoms with consciousness . . . matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea . . . wonders at wondering . . . I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with Feynman’s little-known sketches and drawings and his graphic-novel biography.

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19 Jul 02:49

Cubans' DIY inventions of the past 30 years


technological disobedience -- great concept

Ernesto Oroza from Cuba has spent the past 19 years exploring and collecting DIY inventions from right across the island.

Due to a lack of experts and resources during the 1980s-90s financial crisis, Cubans were left to make use of their own creativity and technical ability to improvise, invent, repurpose and repair objects. We love this proof of people's natural instinct for hacking and fixing things.

With no new materials, people have had to figure out how to repurpose old items and give them new life - a philosophy Ernesto calls technological disobedience.

If you have time, check out this video, you won't regret it.

17 Jul 13:14

Cheerleaders for anarchism

by thuudung

Anarchism, in practice and theory. The movement has long been strong on activism, weak on ideas. That’s starting to change… more»

28 Jun 01:30

Welfare reform; Crime in the Armed Forces

Crime in the Armed Forces - Laurie Taylor talks to Emeritus Professor of History, Clive Emsley, about his pioneering, historical study into criminal offending by members of British armed forces both during and immediately after the two world wars of the 20th century, and concluding in the present day. For a quarter of the 20th century, the UK had large conscripted armed forces and it is these services, and in particular the Army, that are the principal focus of this study. Emsley argues that the forces "reflect the society from which they come, both the good and the bad", pointing out that it's predominantly made up of younger men, the social group that commits the most crime. He also examines two popular assumptions about crime and war; namely, that crime decreases when wars begin as young men - those likeliest to commit crimes - are swept up into the forces; and that crime goes up at the end of war as men brutalised by combat returned to the civilian world but, unable to cope with 'peacetime', engage in crime and violence. Dr Deirdre MacManus, from King's College, joins the discussion, having recently completed a study into the relationship between combat experience and violent crime amongst British soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, Ruth Patrick's research into the lived experiences of welfare reform. She's interviewed a range of out of work benefits claimants between 2011 and 2013. Talking to single parents being moved from Income Support onto Jobseeker's Allowance, disabled people waiting to be migrated off Incapacity Benefit and onto Employment and Support Allowance, and young jobseekers experiencing the new Jobcentre/Work Programme and sanctions regime, her study gives a unique insight into the impact of a revolution in 'welfare' provision on 'real' people. Producer: Jayne Egerton.
24 Jun 23:53

Before 1950 the Word ‘Stress’ Didn’t Exist

by Katja Keuchenius, United Academics
The discovery of ’stress’, by a man who meant to say ‘strain’. Hans Seyle woke up everyday at 5.00, dove into his little pool in the basement and then biked six miles to his work. There he spent 10 to 14 hours, day in day out....

21 Jun 03:07


by Adam Curtis

two favourites of mine, unexpectedly colliding!



The show is a collaboration between myself and the brilliant Robert del Naja of Massive Attack.

What links us is not just cutting stuff up - but an interest in trying to change the way people see power and politics in the modern world. To say to them - have you thought of looking at it like this?

We've used film, music, stories and ideas to try and do this - to build a new kind of experience. The best way we can describe it is "a Gilm" - a new way of integrating a gig with a film that has a powerful overall narrative and emotional individual stories.

The show will be a bit of a total experience. You will be surrounded by all kinds of images and sounds. But it is also about ideas. It tells a story about how a new system of power has risen up in the modern world to manage and control us. A rigid and static system that has found in those images and sounds a way of enveloping us in a thin two-dimensional version of the past.

A fake, but enchanting world which we all live in today - but which has also become a new kind of prison that prevents us moving forward into the future.

Along with Massive Attack the show will star two great singers.

The amazing Liz Fraser.

And the wonderful Horace Andy.

And some of the music will be surprising - from early Barbra Streisand to Siberian punk from the 1980s.

Here's a two-dimensional trailer that will give you an idea of what the show is about - and the stories it tells.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

21 Jun 00:12

The Physiocrats

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Physiocrats, an important group of economic thinkers in eighteenth-century France. The Physiocrats believed that the land was the ultimate source of all wealth, and crucially that markets should not be constrained by governments. Their ideas were important not just to economists but to the course of politics in France. Later they influenced the work of Adam Smith, who called Physiocracy "perhaps the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy." With: Richard Whatmore Professor of Intellectual History & the History of Political Thought at the University of Sussex Joel Felix Professor of History at the University of Reading Helen Paul Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton. Producer: Thomas Morris.
20 Jun 01:08

The Chosen, Part 2

The idea of the chosen has its roots in ancient Judaism, but it is a belief that continues to shape us today, consciously or unconsciously. Frank Faulk examines how this Biblical concept is central to Western thought and culture.
18 Jun 07:00

The Hazards of Debating Race and Inequality

by Eric Horowitz, peer-reviewed by my neurons
Imagine there is a certain advantaged group of people that supports a policy that harms a disadvantaged group, and you believe there are hints of racial or ethnic bias underlying their position. Even if the advantaged group doesn’t literally believe that the disadvantaged group is less deserving, it’s impossible to view their insensitivity to the [...]...

18 Jun 06:51

The Shape of State and Soul

by Massimo Pigliucci
by Steve Neumann

I believe that this educational process has two sides — one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

— John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed

Bloggers Libby Anne and Dan Fincke have been doing a very interesting weekly roundup over at Patheos called Forward Thinking: A Values Development Project, and this week’s topic is: What is the purpose of public education?

In writing my RS post for last week, I came across an article by John Tierney critiquing the reigning “corporate education reform” paradigm in American public education. His essay was geared more towards the merits and demerits of specific educational policies; but I’d like to explore a more meta-view of the nature and role of education in general.

I. Socrates on the Shape of State and Soul

Plato presents us with an extensive, contentious and, at times, perplexing treatment of the ideal city-state in his Republic. Plato has Socrates engage in a general discussion of justice, and whether or not it’s always conducive to one’s happiness (i.e., eudaimonia) to live justly rather than unjustly; and he also explores whether or not a just city is always happier than an unjust one. But what interests me most is his taxonomy of the human soul, in which he distinguishes the parts of reason, spirit, and appetite. He further distinguishes between people ruled by reason, spirit, or appetite. The idea of justice within the soul (i.e., the personality) translates into the just ordering of these various parts, with the rational, wisdom-loving part directing the aims of all the other potentially unruly parts.

So if I were to distill Plato’s rambling tome into a single concept (which is impossible, really; but humor me) for our purposes, it would be this: the goal of public education is to achieve a unity across society by creating a unity within the individual. A good person, a “virtuous” person, makes herself into a unity; and a city is also made good or virtuous by being made into a unity. At the societal level, achieving a unity would include having each citizen achieve optimum performance in their assigned function (while at the same time accepting this assigned role); at the individual level, each citizen would achieve maximal contentment in their assigned role: for example, those charged with animal husbandry would find their maximal fulfilment in that work, the cobbler in his, the farmer in his, and so forth. I say “assigned” roles because Plato had some very definite ideas about who should do what and why.

Plato also introduces his famous allegory of the cave in the Republic. In the interest of concision, let’s say that the most salient point of this allegory is that the goal of education is to turn the citizens of the city-state toward the best desires. What are the best desires? Well, you have to ask the philosophers for that. But let’s agree with Plato, for the sake of argument, that the philosophers do know what the best desires are, and how to acquire them. In fairness to Plato, he does show that the philosopher-class would undergo a rigorous intellectual and physical education themselves, presumably making them uniquely adept at identifying and communicating the nature of the best desires.

But I don’t intend to discuss the pros and cons of the means to these ends. That would involve voluminous footnotes to the “footnotes to Plato.” And clearly, in our modern society, there isn’t widespread agreement on what the best desires are. In this post, I'd like to focus instead on what seems to me to be the biggest issue: the fact that public education embodies the difficulty of balancing Public Value and Private Value.

II. Public Value vs. Private Value

There seems to me to be two (potentially conflicting) goals of modern education: one whose end is some repertoire of skills or body of knowledge designed to make the individual a productive member of society (for economic and/or cultural value); another one whose end is the cultivation of some innate talent or talents for the benefit of the flourishing (eudaimonia) of the individual herself. In other words, Public Value versus Private Value. I think the Public Value aspect of education is unambiguous and uncontroversial, and is the dominant paradigm: society has a vested interest in producing economically and culturally productive individuals who are also moral. But I think the more interesting question is what constitutes Private Value.

One of the major things we moderns share with Plato is the claim that human beings are not blank slates. Of course, Plato’s idea of human nature is much different than our current naturalistic take on it. But the reasons for our nature being the way it is are really irrelevant to our discussion here. It suffices to point out that there is a repository of shared behaviors that most human beings display to varying degrees. It’s this range of behaviors that enables us to live together in relative harmony under our current social system; that is, our formal criminal justice system as well as our informal system of reward and punishment that’s played out in innumerable interpersonal interactions every day. We rely on the relatively consistent predictability of our shared human nature. It’s arguably the linchpin of civil society.

However, even though we all share a common human nature, there is still a lot of room for individuality, and it’s this uniqueness that presents the biggest problem for those who focus on the Private Value of education. While the American Declaration of Independence states that all human beings are created equal, and that this is a self-evident truth, I think it’s painfully obvious that this is false. Whether or not human beings are deserving of equal rights is a different matter, and not one I want to discuss here. I’m more concerned with the Private Value aspect of public education, so I want to discuss the nature of talent in light of this.

III. On Reaching the T.O.P.

I said above that one goal of education is to effect the flourishing (eudaimonia) of the individual. In connection with this, we can cite John Rawls’ Aristotelian principle, which says that, other things being equal, individuals enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate and trained abilities); and this enjoyment increases the more this capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. Though Rawls combines both innate and trained abilities in his description of realized capacities, I think they actually deserve to be separated, owing to their distinct attributes, and because I think there is a pervasive and significant confusion in our society about the differences between skills, knowledge and talent.

Rawls does, however, distinguish between “innate” and “trained” abilities. For my purposes, I define these terms in a manner similar to the way in which they’re outlined in the management development book First, Break All the Rules, where skills are trained (i.e., acquired) conceptual and physical abilities; knowledge is the accumulated information and experience that gets stored in memory; and talent is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.” Here’s a little more from author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham:

Your talents, they say, are the behaviors you find yourself doing often. You have a mental filter that sifts through your world, forcing you to pay attention to some stimuli, while others slip past you, unnoticed. Your instinctive ability to remember names, rather than just faces, is a talent. Your need to alphabetize your spice rack and color code your wardrobe is a talent. So is your love of crossword puzzles, or your fascination with risk, or your impatience. Any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied are talents.

In other words, talents can’t be taught; they are the result of the confluence of genetic and experiential factors. However, they can be amplified; and this amplification involves the proper combination and arrangement of one’s skills and knowledge. Or, in Plato-speak, the just or judicious ordering of these aspects — and that’s where education comes in. But more on that in a bit. I would just clarify that the productive application of one’s recurring patterns of thought and behavior extends to one’s eudaimonistic project as well, and not just to one’s deposit into the account of Public Value.

Talents are the raw materials one uses to build one’s eudaimonistic project. They can be amplified by supplementing them with complementary acquired skills and accumulated knowledge, and their harmonious arrangement is the essence of this project. This is what I think of as, following Plato, achieving a “unity” within the individual soul: the rational harnessing of as many talents, properly construed, as possible, which should lead to the achievement of happiness (eudaimonia) for the individual. But how is such a project possible? Without getting into the details of specific educational theories or curricula — since I said I want to explore a meta-view of the topic of public education — we can employ a handy little acronym: T.O.P., which stands for Talent, Opportunity and Practice: one needs to identify one’s raw Talents; have the Opportunity to Practice or refine them; and then also have a chance to put them into Practice.

Though an unusually introspective but objective person may be able to identify her innate talents through a process of rational reflection, or discover them haphazardly in the process of living her life, I think for most people the identification or discovery of one’s talents, and their potential applications, requires direct education. I say “direct” education because I want to imply the need for a “teacher” of some sort, as opposed to the education one gets from the School of Hard Knocks, as they say.

The notion of Opportunity is really more of a political issue than an educational one, because it involves more of the specific laws (or lack of laws) prevalent in one’s society. And even though I’m concerned in this post with education, it’s Opportunity that is probably the most important one: what good is cultivating one’s talents if one never gets the opportunity to practice or exercise them?

The notion of Practice, while it involves the notion of Opportunity, is more properly an educational issue: not only does a teacher educate one about one’s talents, she also directs the practice of those talents, determining which practices are the most valuable. Additionally, a good teacher can also expand one’s horizons to include applications for one’s talents that one might not have imagined were possible. It’s this stretching of one’s abilities that I think speaks to Rawls’ claim that an increased complexity contributes to the enjoyment of one’s eudaimonistic project.

One of the goals, and possibly the main goal, of an individual’s eudaimonistic project is to find meaningful work. One’s work is both the satisfaction of one’s basic needs (i.e., food, clothing, shelter, etc.) and the potential realization of one’s innate and trained capacities. And if one can find meaningful work, then one can also simultaneously satisfy the twin demands of Public Value and Private Value.

In contrast to the still relatively primitive economy of Plato’s time, our modern economy possesses a breadth and depth that is capable of accommodating a diverse array of amplified talents. And, also in contrast to Plato’s time, the route to maximal happiness for the individual needn’t involve resigning oneself to one’s assigned role. But the realization of this state of being would most likely fall to our educators, whomever they may be.

IV. Who Are Our Educators?

Plato felt that the philosophers, being properly educated themselves, would be the best educators, because they know what is good for humanity, knowing what Goodness itself is. Consequently, they would turn the citizens toward the best desires, which, for Plato, means a love of ultimate truth and a life ruled by pure knowledge. And, therefore, everyone would live happily ever after, living a good human life because they would then possess unified souls dedicated to the aforementioned values.

Plato’s utopian vision has been roundly criticized, with some critics warning that his ideal would lead to a totalitarian state. It’s true that he presents us with a derogatory view of democracy, primarily because it is under that kind of government that all endeavors are esteemed or at least recognized as equally valuable or worthy of pursuit; and this, it is believed, would lead to chaos and vice. I can’t say Plato is completely wrong on this count; but I also can’t say he’s necessarily right, either. Modern democracy certainly has its problems and periodic all-out crises, but it certainly seems to me to be the best system we humans have been able to devise thus far in our history. I say this because it is precisely the fact that a democracy does allow for the deepest and widest possible array of projects that it is valuable.

But, as I alluded to before, our educators can be either direct or indirect. Indirect educators can be family members, sports figures, cultural icons, peers, or anyone else we esteem and desire to emulate. Direct educators are the teachers we encounter throughout secondary and postsecondary school: they instruct us in the particulars of the various subjects we’re interested in, but may also, at the same time, challenge us and guide us toward the discovery of our most durable talents and their realization in our unified, eudaimonistic undertakings — and, hopefully, to the realization that contributing to the happiness of society is essential to realizing our own happiness.
17 Jun 10:41

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

by Maria Popova

“All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

There is hardly a greater cosmic sage of our age than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this sublime, characteristically eloquent short clip from BigThink, he echoes Ptolemy’s awe as he teases apart the misguided tension between our human ego and the immensity of the universe:

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Curiously, the same can be said of life in New York — that tired complaint about being a tiny fish in an immense pond, a nobody in a crowd of somebodies, speaks to that same ego and its stubborn unwillingness to bask in the greater glory of it all rather than wallow in its own smallness. What Anaïs Nin memorably perceived of the self in New York — “Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” — is, in turn, equally and immutably true of the self in the universe.

If you haven’t yet read Tyson’s fantastic Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier — one of the best science books of 2012 — do yourself an existential favor.

Swiss Miss

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16 Jun 14:01

Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality

by Maria Popova

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

In 1996, mere months before his death, the great Carl Sagancosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Nearly two decades after The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan’s son, Dorion, made a similar and similarly eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other. Complement it with this meditation on science vs. scripture and the difference between curiosity and wonder.

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14 Jun 03:04

TED: Daniel Suarez: The kill decision shouldn't belong to a robot - Daniel Suarez (2013)

by TEDTalks
As a novelist, Daniel Suarez spins dystopian tales of the future. But on the TEDGlobal stage, he talks us through a real-life scenario we all need to know more about: the rise of autonomous robotic weapons of war. Advanced drones, automated weapons and AI-powered intelligence-gathering tools, he suggests, could take the decision to make war out of the hands of humans.
13 Jun 06:44

Q: Why don’t “cheats” ever work on the uncertainty principle? What’s uncertain in the uncertainty principle?

by The Physicist

Physicist: The Uncertainty Principle is often stated as “the position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously and perfectly measured”.  Mathematically, it’s written as \Delta x \Delta p \ge \frac{\hbar}{2}, which means that the product of the uncertainties in the position, x, and momentum, p, is greater than some (tiny) constant.  But the Uncertainty Principle, rather than being a statement about the techniques we use to make measurements, is about the nature of the particles themselves (this actually applies to everything, not just particles).

The way the uncertainty principle is generally stated it sounds as though our inability to measure the position and momentum simultaneously is a failing of imagination on our parts.  So “cheats” are often conceived to get around the Uncertainty Principle.  The cheat that gave rise to this post is:

An attempt to out-smart the uncertainty principle.

An attempt to out-smart the uncertainty principle.

Say you have two instruments that can very accurately measure the location of a particle and the time when that particle was at that location, and a particle passes by each of them.  Both of them are strictly measuring the position and not momentum, so there shouldn’t be an “uncertainty issue”.  If you take the two (very exact) positions and times, then you can construct the speed of the particle, V=\frac{X_2-X_1}{T_2-T_1}, and thus the momentum, P = MV = M\frac{X_2-X_1}{T_2-T_1}.  Now, even if the first measurement screws up the momentum by accidentally giving the particle a kick during measurement, we still have a mechanism that can tell us the position and momentum immediately after the first measurement with arbitrary precision (which is no good according to the Uncertainty Principle).

However, in quantum mechanics, having something in a definite state does not mean that the results of your measurements will be certain, and this is where the real uncertainty shows up.  In this case you’ll find that if you prepare a string of in-every-way-identical particles and send them past the two detectors one at a time, then the measurements will not measure the same time difference.  Instead they’ll measure a range of different values (each individual measurement will fall within this range), and the size of this range is the uncertainty of the momentum (technically, the standard deviation of this range).

So, the power to do a single accurate measurement doesn’t have much to do with the Uncertainty Principle and doesn’t cause any problems.  But being able to repeat that set of perfect position and momentum measurements, secure in the knowledge (“certain” even) that each trial will have the same result, does violate the Uncertainty Principle.

Answering “why?” there’s no way to perfectly measure momentum and position is a bit more subtle.  Basically, the state of being in a particular position is composed of lots of momentum states, so when the momentum of a given “position state” is measured, you’ll catch any of the large number of momentum states, each of which gives you a different (uncertain) result.  More on that in the answer gravy below.

Answer gravy: This is the same essential point, but with more technical jargon.

The problem with position and momentum is that they are “conjugate variables” which means that their “measurement bases” are related in an obnoxious, Uncertainty making, kind of way.  Conjugate variables are hard to describe, so this sentence is the last time they’ll be mentioned.

This example is to demonstrate that there exists pairs of measurements that must always have uncertainties.

Light can be polarized at any angle.  A “polarizing beam splitter” is a piece of material that causes photons that are polarized in the one way to take one path, and perpendicularly polarized photons to take another path.  Some crystals are surprisingly good at this.

A calcite crystal sorts light based on its polarization.

A calcite crystal sorts light based on its polarization.  Photons polarized “with the grain” go one way, and photons polarized “against the grain” (90° different) go another.  Photons that are polarized somewhere in between have a probability of going either way.

These crystals have molecules that tend to line up in a particular direction, and that gives them weird, direction-dependent, electrical properties which causes different polarizations to interact with them differently.  If a photon is polarized in the same direction that the crystal’s molecules are aligned (“with the grain”), then it will definitely take the first path.  If the photon is polarized perpendicular to the grain, then it will definitely take the second path.  In general, if it’s polarized at some angle θ to the grain, then the probability of it taking the first path is cos2(θ) and the probability of it taking the second path is 1-cos2(θ).  In particular, if it’s polarized at 45° then it has an even chance of going down either path.

Let’s say we’ve got a polarizing beam splitter arranged with the grain pointing straight up (0°).  This beam splitter can perfectly sort photons that are polarized at 0° or 90°.  We’ll call using this beam splitter an “A type” measurement.

Another polarizing beam splitter rotated so that the grain is tilted by 45° can perfectly sort photons polarized at 45° and 135° (or “45° and -45°” if you prefer).  We’ll call using this beam splitter a “B type” measurement.  The difference between the A and B type measurements is they have different “measurement bases”.

An "A type" measurement sends vertical and horizontal photons down different paths, but randomly assigns a path to diagonally polarized photons.  The B type measurement does the opposite.

An “A type” measurement sends vertical and horizontal photons down different paths, but randomly assigns a path to diagonally polarized photons. The B type measurement does the opposite.

Now, lets say you create a set up to do an A type measurement, followed by a B type measurement.

This set up should do both types of measurements on a photon coming from the left.

This set up should do both types of measurements on a photon coming from the left by looking at what path it exits through.

But here’s the problem: the vertical polarization state, |\uparrow\rangle, is an equal combination of the diagonal states, |\nearrow\rangle and |\nwarrow\rangle, and each of those diagonal states are an equal combination of the vertical and horizontal states, |\uparrow\rangle and |\rightarrow\rangle.  This means that a vertically polarized photon will have a definite result from the A type measurement, but a completely random measurement from the B type measurement (either path with a 50/50 chance).  Similarly, a photon that has a definite result from the B type measurement will have a completely random result from the A type measurement.

So, if you repeat this experiment with a huge number of identically prepared photons, you’ll never be certain which of the four paths it will exit through.  They’ll always exit through at least two of the paths.  This is literally an uncertainty principle (though not one of the big ones, like position/momentum).

However, the source of this “path uncertainty principle” and the position/momentum Uncertainty Principle stem from the same source.  Here you can’t be sure of the measurement, because the states that give you a definite result for one measurement is made of a combination of states that give uncertain results for the other measurement.  E.g., the vertical state is exactly the same as a combination of the diagonal states, so it’ll give a definite result for the A type measurement, but since it’s some of both of the diagonal states it will yield either of the possible results from the B type measurement.

Position measurements and momentum measurements are similar.  The state of being at a particular position, a “position state”, is the same as a huge combination of momentum states that have different momenta (momentums?).  In exactly the same way, a particular momentum state is exactly the same as a particular combination of position states (this is not obvious, so don’t stress).  So, if you’ve set things up so that you have a definite, “certain”, result for one, then you’ve set things up so that you don’t have a definite result for the other, just like with the whole “A type / B type photon thingy”.  Unfortunately, there’s just no way around that.


The pencil picture is from here.

13 Jun 05:49

The Chosen, Part 1

The idea of the chosen has its roots in ancient Judaism, but it is a belief that continues to shape us today, consciously or unconsciously. Frank Faulk examines how this Biblical concept is central to Western thought and culture.
13 Jun 01:13

How dystopian secrecy contributes to clueless wars

by Chase Madar
The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks' source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden. The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden's laptop. That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion (...) - Open page
12 Jun 23:39

Applying Ostrom's Guidelines to the Design of Software Platforms

by David Bollier

Our knowledge about what makes digital commons work is terribly under-theorized.  Yes, there are famous works by Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, and there are lots of projects and websites that are based on commoning such as like Wikipedia, free software, Arduino, open access journals, among countless others.  But can we identify core principles for organizing digital commons?  Can we use that knowledge to engineer the evolution of new commons?  Identifying such principles just might let us move beyond “openness” as the ultimate goal of online life, to a more sustainable goal, the self-governed commons.

It has been a pleasure to discover that some computer scientists are actively exploring how Elinor Ostrom’s principles for successful commons might be applied to the design of software.  Consider this intriguing essay title: "Axiomatization of Socio-Economic Principles for Self-Organizing Institutions: Concepts, Experiments and Challenges,“ which appeared in the ACM Transactions on Autonomous and Adaptive Systems, in December 2012.  

The piece is by British electrical and electronic engineer Jeremy Pitt and two co-authors, Julia Schaumeier and Alexander Artikis. The abstract is here.  Unfortunately, the full article is behind a paywall, consigning it to a narrow readership.  I shall quote from the abstract here because it hints at the general thinking of tech experts who realize that the social and the technical must be artfully blended:

We address the problem of engineering self-organising electronic institutions for resource allocation in open, embedded and resource-constrained systems.  In such systems, there is decentralised control, competition for resources and an expectation of both intentional and unintentional errors.  The ‘optimal’ distribution of resources is then less important than the sustainability of the distribution mechanism, in terms of endurance and fairness, based on collective decision-making and tolerance of unintentional errors.  In these circumstances, we propose to model resource allocation as a common-pool resource management problem, and develop a formal characterization of Elinor Ostrom’s socio-economic principles for enduring institutions. 

read more

11 Jun 09:47

Limits of physics

by thuudung

Theoretical physicists, enamored of mathematical elegance, impose patterns on muddled reality. Is this a science or a genre of storytelling?… more»

11 Jun 08:55

Virtual Insanity: Social Media with Jacques Lacan

by Peter Hardy

Jacques Lacan draws[A post from Peter Hardy, longtime fan and contributor]

For a couple of years I have been lurking on PEL’s Facebook group, biding my time for the perfect moment to pounce on this blog.  Recently I got to thinking about the philosophical ramifications of social media. Especially as we’ve just been looking at Jacques Lacan, for whom a central concern was to highlight negative aspects of language and by extension, social interaction.

I’ve been aware of Lacan through semiotics and literary criticism for several years – ‘the Lacan of the second podcast‘ – I would have said, but over the past weeks I’ve found it impossible to develop my understanding of this aspect of his thought without also studying Lacan the psychoanalyst and philosopher of the self.i  I simply want to relate some of my own views on these digital phenomena of our age to some of Lacan’s ideas, as I (mis)understand them. I do not intend to make moral judgments.

Circuits of Disconnection

The most inescapable fact about social media today is its very inescapability. The internet was already ubiquitous before Facebook’s ascendancy,ii but the integration of the two with mobile devices has precipitated a dramatic increase in the accessibility and usage of both. This process may be similarly accelerated by the coming developments in augmented reality technologies which will layer electronic media directly into our field of vision.iii What all this means is that social media content and facilities permeate our everyday lives and work such that our physical existence is shot through with a virtual one.

These developments are typically analyzed in terms of greater ‘connectivity’- instantaneous communication at any time and place. So the speed of connection is every much important as its breadth and diversity. Presently many people experience social media within a state of hyper-connectivity which produces a virtual closeness to others. This is the first way in which I’d like to use Lacan, with his concept of ‘reality’.

‘Reality’, like everything else in Lacan, is unnecessarily complicated, in this case because it comprises our experience of the world insofar as it is illusory, and is therefore opposed to his register of the Real.iv  ‘Reality’ is a field constituted from Lacan’s other two registers of the human psyche, “the Imaginary and the Symbolic… taken together as mutually integrated”.v  ‘Reality’ is therefore a fictional construction of images and signifiers- as good a description of life on Facebook as any. Our experience of social media is one of a collective fantasy produced by the mutual production and exchange of selective idealisations of our lives.

A test of my analogy is the insights it generates. In the most crude example, social media facilitates non-veridical realities by providing those who are typically shy or unpopular in face-to-face society with a means to a fantasyvi life in contradistinction to this. Unfortunately, the same prerequisites for this, particularly the ease of maintaining anonymity, also enable the phenomenon of ‘trolling’.

The seemingly all-inclusive effectiveness of our online presence and connections also disincentivise us from keeping in touch with others in a fully human way. Just one illustration of this that I experience myself is that because of the quantity of information about our activities, interests and feelings we make publicly available to our social network when we do meet our good friends in person, even if for the first time in a week or two, we have nothing to say to each other. There is nothing new to relate. It’s especially telling of the alienation behind such circumstances that they often become discussions of what the other has missed on Facebook and Twitter recently. A second, more general consequence is that the social media presence of members of our network constantly reassures us that they are alive and well, and hence do not require our personal attention (if it wasn’t easy enough to become complacent about relationships naturally). 

Such alienating effects call to mind Lacan’s notion ‘the wall of language’.vii As a system abstracted from any subject, the social network, like language, presents an inhuman obstruction between us and our interlocutors.viii Indeed, it is more insightful to think of social media as an extension of language -as a symbolic order- than as analogous with reality. Not that this is much of a jump, because as Lacan matured (if a guy who draws diagrams about phalluses can be said to mature) he increased his emphasis on the symbolic register rather than the imaginary, and moreover, it is the symbolic which plays the essential regulating function for reality.ix

Before discussing some other issues I should point out that the division (or ‘cleavage’ as  psychoanalysts would no doubt prefer) caused by social media qua language is not limited to our imagination and communication within personal networks. As you may have noted, my model of social media engagement applies only to particularly active users, often of a younger generation. And it is from here that these divisions begat ramifications on a societal level. Namely, the all-pervasive dominance of new electronic media in society excludes non-users as if they don’t speak the local language,x  which, in a significant sense, they do not. When he lived without the internet for a year, the tech journalist Paul Miller discovered in strongest possible sense that “The internet is where people are.”xi And while this means that “the internet isn’t an individual pursuit”, this very fantasy of social integration allows its isolating and divisive effects to go unnoticed.

Let us shift focus from the ubiquity of social media its other chief characteristic: speed. I imagine that most of the people who will read this are in North America, but those elsewhere will nevertheless be able to engage in instant conversation with those of you who in the comments will obliterate my position. Contrast this with the communicative technologies available a little over a century ago: “A letter” Nietzsche says, “is an unannounced visit, the mailman the mediator of impolite excursions.” Not only are they slow and received just once daily, but in a culture unaccustomed to our high volume of (mostly text based) distance communications, letters can be viewed as awkward intrusions. Moreover, Nietzsche continues: “One ought to have one hour in every eight days for receiving letters, and then take a bath.”xii Admittedly, Friedrich was not the most amiable fellow (as few of us who bathe less than weekly are)xiii but the contrast in attitudes could not be starker.

If we are sending more messages to a greater number of people and doing so more quickly, what effect does this have on our communication? The time we spend on long and/or slow-paced discussions is in general reduced. Perhaps we are also moving towards a norm of fewer closer relationships and more causal ones. But most clearly we are simplifying our messages.

Now, I am not referring to ‘textspeak’ because after all that arose in telegrams as well as in the SMS medium. Indeed, preeminent linguists such as David Crystal have quite responsibly weighed in against popular hysteria that it is corroding language skills, particularly among the young. Abbreviation is not in itself particularly significant. But things are often much more complex than people would like to accept,xiv and that the creeping simplification of our communication may well exacerbate the effects of such denial. 

What is the complexity that is blocked by the symbolic? It is the Real. Lacan insists that it is because the Real is “extremely complex” that it is “incomprehensible”.xv Let us place this in the context of the register theory. The imaginary is prior to the symbolic: first the Real is ‘carved up’ into images, and then in a second movement, the images are carved up into linguistic symbols. This second ‘carving’ nails down the images, giving them a ‘value’ in Saussure’s sense.xvi Darian Leader elaborates: “A word does not reveal its meaning so simply. Rather it leads on to other words in a linguistic chain, just like one meaning itself to others. The group of meanings is organized by the links between the words.”xvii Lacan’s semiotics, therefore, emphasises resistance between signifier and signified rather than transparency. 

Not only is there a resistance inherent in the structure because meaning is organized in groups of words (a ‘semantic field’) rather than in an ideal correspondence of one signifier to one signified. More importantly, there is a resistance in practice between what we experience, what we feel we should say, and the meaning that is attributed to what we have said. There are many reasons why this can be, but the increased frequency and simplification of our messages factors especially in today’s social media culture of expedience. The consequence of this is that is the the complex, the Real, is suppressed (ignored and/or blocked), perpetuating an illusory ‘reality’. 

Peter Hardy is a philosophical education specialist. You can follow him on Twitter @VibrantBliss


i Despite this, I decided to begin with Slavoj Zizek’s book How To Read Lacan (which was mentioned at the beginning of the first podcast), rather than the readings for the podcast themselves. I won’t, however, be looking into Zizek’s own views on social media (which I’m sure he has plenty of out there), nor for that matter, what Lacanian psychoanalysts have written about it. If you’d like to do this, it would be great to comment about it below.

ii I didn’t plan on digressing this early on, but I couldn’t fail to mention that no sooner had I written those words than, in one of my reality’s more poetic moments, a large pink truck with the Facebook logo on each side drove past me!

iii Currently the most prevalent augmented reality technology is the QR code, which is arguably an instantiation of the same principle behind the ‘annotated vision’ of the Google Glass, albeit presented in reverse. That is, rather than the subject imposing relevant electronic media upon the objects of experience, objects of experience present the subject with relevant electronic media.

iv A further complication is that ‘the Real’ does not itself denote real reality either, since it is a psychoanalytic category referring to phenomenological reality in the form of senses, urges and feelings. As Wikipedia puts it, it is “something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.” The primary way in which the Real makes us anxious is that it is the home of jouissance, violent intrusions of unbearable visceral emotion. Since the Real is unmediated it is truly real, and is indeed our only contact with real reality for Lacan. For this reason it is appropriate to use it in Lacanian analyses as a correlate for (real) reality more generally.

vi I must stress that Lacan does not equate ‘reality’ and fantasy. He conceives of fantasy as function of desire in broadly Freudian terms that I do not have space to elaborate here. Related to this is his distinct notion of the ‘Phantasy’, which is itself related to the ‘phallus’ which is a signifier associated with the objet a (though not a symbol for it- since the objet a belongs to the register of the Real it is unsymbolizable).

vii That interpersonal communication on Facebook takes place through ‘walls’ is purely incidental here, however apt that name may turn out to be.

viii Leader, Darian, (2005), Introducing Lacan, Icon, Cambridge (UK), p. 78

ix Kul-Want, Christopher, (2011), Introducing Zizek, Icon, London, p. 122

xii Nietzsche, Friedrich, (1880), The Wanderer and His Shadow, §261

xiii Although I’m joking, the fact that we cannot smell each other in electronic communication (even on Skype!) is rarely remarked upon, and is salient from a physiological point of view. For example, bodily pheromones play an important role in sexual attraction. Perhaps if Nietzsche had been able to impress girls with aphoristic tweets he wouldn’t have got that crush on that horse.

xiv Along with such protestations for simplicity it is not unusual to encounter statements to the effect that ‘anything that cannot be expressed clearly cannot be true’. A large claim to make, and one which anyone who has benefited from studying obtusely technical philosophy knows to be false.

xv Quoted in: Zizek, Slavoj, (2006), How To Read Lacan, Granta, London,p. 65. The Real is not simply the residuum of that true reality which could not be symbolized, “It is not a substantial thing that resists being caught in the symbolic network, but the fissure between the symbolic network itself.” Zizek explains that Lacan had a similar shift in thought to Einstein. Just as the Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity stated that matter caused the curvature in space but the General Theory reversed the causality to hold that matter is an effect of space’s curvature, Lacan shifted from the view that the Real caused the fragmentation of the symbolic (its “gaps and inconsistencies”) to the view that the Real was itself an effect of this fragmentation. It doesn’t exist in its own right, rather, he says that it ex/ists. (pp. 72-3) Elsewhere this is put that the Real is a disruption in the unconcious caused by the inadequacy of the signifier attached to a signified.

xvi For Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, languages are formal systems of signs, structures in which the value of an element is derived from its relationships to other elements- it’s place in the structure. This value is a structural construct separate from meaning. Meaning, by contrast, arises from the process of signification. Here Saussure calls the sign that refers but is itself meaningless, ‘the signifier’, and the meaning to which a signifier corresponds, ‘the signified’. (Both meaning and value are dependent on the differences between signs, but a specific meaning is not dependent on a specific value since the same word can have the same meaning in two different languages without having the same value.)

xvii Leader, Darian, (2005), Introducing Lacan, Icon, Cambridge (UK), p. 39


11 Jun 01:01

Flowing Auroras Over Norway

Have you ever seen an aurora?  Have you ever seen an aurora?

07 Jun 01:57

Q: Do the past and future exist? If they do, is the future determined and what does that mean for quantum randomness?

by The Physicist

Physicist: This is a difficult question to even ask, because the word “exist” carries with it some “time-based assumptions”.  For example, if you ask “does the Colossus of Rhodes exist?” the correct answer should be “it did, but it doesn’t now.

The problem with the way the word “exists” is used is that it implies “now”.  So, in that sense: no, the past and future don’t exist (by definition).  But big issues start coming into play when you consider that in relativity (which has given us a much more solid and nuanced understanding of time and space) what “now” is depends on how you’re physically moving.  There’s a post here that goes into exactly why.

Time points up and space points left/right.

“Here and now” is the center of this picture.  Everything in the bottom blue triangle is definitely in the past, and everything in the top red triangle is definitely in the future.  But things in the purple triangles can be either in the past or future or present, depending on how fast you’re moving.  The dashed lines are examples of different “nows”.  In this diagram time points up and space points left/right.

Here’s what’s interesting with that: if we can say that the present and all those things that are happening now exist (regardless of who’s “now” we’re using), then we can show that the past and future exist in the exact same sense.

By moving fast, and in different directions, Alice and Bob have different "nows".

By moving fast, and in different directions, Alice and Bob have different “nows”.  In this diagram Bob’s now includes Alice at some particular moment, but for Alice that moment happens at the same time (same “now”) as a time in Bob’s future.  Like in the last diagram, time is up and space is left/right.

Again, if we define things that are can be found “right now” as existing, and we don’t care whose notion of “right now”we use, then the future and past exist in exactly the same way that the present exists.

It seems as though what’s going on in the present is somehow important and “more real” than what happened in the past.  But consider this; we never interact with other things in the present.  Because no effect can travel faster than light the best we can hope for is to interact with the recent past of other things.  For example, since light travels about 1 foot per nanosecond, the screen you’re seeing now is really the screen as it was a nanosecond or two ago.  Hard to notice.  In relativity everything (all the laws, cause and effect, that sort of thing) is “local”, which means that the only thing that matters to what’s happening here and now is everything in the “past light cone” of here and now.  That’s the blue bottom triangle of the top picture.

What’s happening now in other places is totally disconnected.  For example, Alpha Centauri is about 4 light years away, and while things are certainly happening there “right now”, it won’t matter to us at all for another four years.  Even though those events are happening now, they’re exactly as indeterminate and hard to guess as the things that will happen in the future.  The point is that “now” does extend throughout the universe, but that doesn’t physically mean anything, or have an actual effect on anything.

So if things in the past and future exist in the exact same way that things in the present exist, then doesn’t that mean that they’re fixed?  If my future is the past for someone else who’s around right now (and necessarily moving very fast like in the last diagram), then does that somehow determine the future?  The answer to that question is: it doesn’t matter, but for two interesting reasons.

First, if you consider someone else who’s around “now”, then they’re not in your past light cone and they’re not in your’s (in the top diagram the “nows” are always in the purple regions).  That means that, for example, some of Bob’s future will be in Alice’s past, but neither of them can know what that future holds until they wait a while.  Bob has to wait until he’s “in the future”, and Alice has to wait for the signal delay before she can know anything.  Either way, the events of Bob’s future are unknowable regardless of who (in Bob’s present) is asking.  The future is a lock and the only key is patience.

Answer gravy: The second reason it doesn’t matter if the future exists involves a quick jump into quantum mechanics (and arguably should have involved a jump into a new, separate post).  There could be an issue with the future existing (and thus being predetermined) because that flies in the face of quantum randomness which basically says (and this is glossing over a lot) that the result of an experiment doesn’t exist until after that experiment is done.  This is embodied by Bell’s theorem, which is a little difficult to grasp.  So Schrödinger’s Cat is both alive and dead until its box is opened.  But if, in the future, the box has already been opened and the Cat is found to be alive, then the Cat was always alive.  Things like superposition and all of the usual awesomeness of quantum mechanics go away.

But, before you stress out and start researching to try to really understand the problem in that last paragraph: don’t.  Turns out there isn’t an issue.  Even if the future does exist, it doesn’t mean that events are set in stone in any useful or important way.  In the (poorly named) Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, every thing that can happen does, and those many ways for things to happen are described by a (fantastically complicated) quantum wave function.  That wave function is set in stone by an extant future, but that doesn’t tell you exactly what will happen.  In the case of Schrödinger’s Cat, the Cat is in a super-position of both alive and dead before the box is opened, and afterward it’s still alive and dead but the observer is “caught up” in the super-position.

The super-position of states after the box is opened: Schrdoinger sad about his dead cat

The super-position of states after the box is opened: Schrödinger sad about his dead cat and Schrödinger happy about his still living cat.

Before the box is opened we can say that, in the future, we will definitely be in a particular super-position of both happy (because of the cute living cat) and horrified (because of the gross dead cat).  However, that doesn’t actually predict which result you’ll experience.  Technically you’ll experience both.

07 Jun 01:49

Big Data: Farewell to Cartesian Thinking?

07 Jun 00:35


Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Einstein's theories of relativity. Between 1905 and 1917 Albert Einstein formulated a theoretical framework which transformed our understanding of the Universe. The twin theories of Special and General Relativity offered insights into the nature of space, time and gravitation which changed the face of modern science. Relativity resolved apparent contradictions in physics and also predicted several new phenomena, including black holes. It's regarded today as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the twentieth century, and had an impact far beyond the world of science. With: Ruth Gregory Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Durham University Martin Rees Astronomer Royal and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge Roger Penrose Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Producer: Thomas Morris.
06 Jun 00:02

'Long Hours' work culture; Empty labour

Empty labour - international statistics suggest that the average time an employee spends engaged in private activities is 1 and a half to 2 hours a day. Laurie Taylor talks to Roland Paulsen, a Swedish sociologist, who interviewed 43 workers who spent around half their working hours on 'empty labour'. Are such employees merely 'slacking' or are such little' subversions' acts of resistance to the way work appropriates so much of our time? They're joined by the writer, Michael Bywater. By contrast, Jane Sturges, discusses her research into professionals caught up, both reluctantly as well as willingly, in a 'long hours' work culture. Producer: Jayne Egerton.
03 Jun 13:23

A Defense of the Humanities

by thuudung

Our glittering age of technologism and scientism. Leon Wieseltier has heard the news – Jane Austen was a game theorist, Proust a neuroscientist – and he’s not impressed… more»

03 Jun 13:17

Ascendency of street art

by thuudung

Once transgressive, revolutionary, anti-authority, street art now is the establishment. Did the artists grow up or sell out?… more»

02 Jun 12:08

Assange: “THE New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century.

31 May 02:07

Multicultural Prison; Jellied Eels

The multicultural prison - a unique analysis of the daily lives and interactions of both white and ethnic minority inmates in the closed world of the modern, male prison. Diverse British nationals, foreign. and migrant populations, have been brought into close proximity within prison walls. How do they negotiate their tensions and differences? The criminologist, Coretta Phillips, talks to Laurie Taylor about her empirical research in Rochester Young Offenders' Institution and Maidstone Prison. Also, reactions to jellied eels. Drawing on a series of ethnographic encounters collected while hanging around at a seafood stand in east London, Alex Rhys Taylor explores the relationship between individual expressions of distaste and the production of class, ethnic and generational forms of distinction. Producer: Jayne Egerton.
28 May 05:21

On Marquis de Sade

by thuudung

Modern misinterpretation has garbled the obscene but unpornographic thoughts of the Marquis de Sade. Still, echoes of his boudoir philosophy abound… more»

24 May 02:55


Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the work of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. One of twentieth-century France's most celebrated intellectuals, Lévi-Strauss attempted to show in his work that thought processes were a feature universal to humans, whether they lived in tribal rainforest societies or in the rich intellectual life of Paris. During the 1930s he studied native Brazilian tribes in the Amazonian jungle, but for most of his long career he preferred the study to the field. He was the leading exponent of structuralism, a school of thought which was influential for decades, and was involved in a famous debate with his friend Jean-Paul Sartre, who resisted many of his ideas. His books about the nature of myth, human thought and kinship are now seen as some of the most important anthropological texts written in the twentieth century. With: Adam Kuper Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Boston University Christina Howells Professor of French at Oxford University Vincent Debaene Associate Professor of French Literature at Columbia University Producer: Thomas Morris.