Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’
This book is an epistemological nightmare. Rizzi asks the reader to take on radical and unfounded views, sometimes without even a loose explanation or logical construction beyond “That makes sense, right?”
Even though I disagree with nearly every tenet of Rizzi’s philosophy, I still would give it a respectable two or three star rating if it weren’t for:
- His obvious lack of a copyeditor;
- His entire disregard for even addressing other points of view;
- His attempt to tackle complex issues with a poorly developed philosophical toolbox; and, most importantly,
- His total lack of logical flow or structure beyond asking the reader to accept things on his authority.
Though no doubt a great physicist, Rizzi seems to have lost his notion of rigor in trying to invent a new realist approach to the philosophy of science. His biggest flaw, in my opinion, is in his confusion of the nature of words; he oftentimes seems to think that he can pull universal truth out of the English language.
Unfortunately for him, the English language is neither an authority on nature nor a system he’s totally mastered himself.
All in all, avoid this book — especially if you don’t have the scientific grounding to understand why it’s wrong on your own.
Praying for Japan
As the situation continued to worsen in Japan a little over a week ago, many of witnessed Wall posts and tweets and blogs and so forth where people sent their thoughts and prayers to the Japanese. We listened to our friends and our parents and grandparents — and perhaps, for some, ourselves — pray for the victims and ask God to look on them with mercy and compassion and healing.
And many of us laughed at those who thought it would do any good to pray.
Neurological Benefits of Prayer and Meditation
But prayer is a complex phenomenon, and I had a lengthy discussion with my friend, physicist, and Christian Kemper Talley about what prayer is and how it affects us as humans.
Prayer has likely been around as long as religion has been… perhaps longer, even. We have written records of prayer rituals that are at least 5,000 years old. 1 But, rationally, what does prayer do to us? Why do we feel the way we do after prayer? Intense prayer, usually by those who are serious practitioners (like nuns and monks), activates the frontal lobes and shuts off the parietal lobes, which are traditionally thought to process sensory input and create subjective reality for the owner of that particular brain. 2 It turns out meditation — even secular meditation — has the same neurological effect.
So prayer does affect the pray-er, in a way that most would consider positive and clarifying. But does prayer have an immediate external effect? Does it help enact magical action at a distance? If enough people pray together, can the power of that prayer somehow be channeled for good?
I must resoundingly say “no”, and many rational Christians I know would agree with me. Even if prayer affected the “will of God”, God could only affect the world by urging people to do good things (impossible by Judeo-Christian doctrine, as that denies someone’s free will) or by enacting a physical miracle. Even those who believe that miracles exist typically agree that they’re rare. So what’s the point in praying?
My friend argues — validly, I think — that the internal clarification provided by prayer or meditation mediates positive work by the believer. Sure, one might argue, the prayer itself may not work magic: but the now-motivated servant of God now has impetus and will power to get up and go affect real physical change. This could be done my any means, from donating money to the Red Cross to helping coordinate relief efforts online to flying straight to Japan and picking up a shovel. I won’t deny that this is a valid argument in favor of prayer — or, at least, meditation (which I’ll consider a superset of prayer).
But I know of many people who don’t pray — and even many people who are atheists — who do the same things. They go out and help. They donate. They contribute. So prayer isn’t the exclusive course to motivating oneself to enact change. In a perfect world, a secular rationalist who loves humanity first might even help more than a faithful believer who loves God first.
But all of this is pretty obvious, so here’s what I really want to talk about: what are the negative effects of prayer, and are they outweighed by the positive effects?
Here’s a problem that I perceive with prayer (in this context): those who believe that prayer truly does work, that prayer has a material, action-at-a-distance, miracle like capacity to affect change may feel that prayer is a substitute for real service. I know people, especially adults in their 30s – 50s, who pray every night for Japan’s recovery but have never donated a cent (let alone flown to Japan to do service, but that’s more understandable). Whether prayer here is a facade of caring these people hide behind or a genuine impression that they’re doing good things by praying, it remains that they’re relieved either the social pressure or the divine edict to contribute to the community by replacing it with prayer. (I’d be interested to find a study on this, but don’t feel like doing too much research: someone send me an article if you can find work investigating this question! In the meantime, read this article from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion for a somewhat related and interesting study.)
Is there a balance?
I’ve occasionally been accused, upon revealing myself as an atheist, to necessarily be a self-centered nihilist. But this certainly doesn’t follow. I love humanity; in fact, I think I love it more than many religious believers do. More than anything I want to see us keep maturing as a species. I want to reach for the stars, to disassemble the quantum, to live in a state where resources aren’t a problem and menial tasks are provided for us by our artificial intelligences, by our critical thinking and our advances in science. I feel that devoting ourselves to various sky-wizards (as my friend Mark calls God and kin) holds us back, and takes up the precious time we do have in our lives to enjoy the people we love, work on fulfilling projects for the pursuit of truth and happiness, and enjoy the spectrum of experience available to our sensory apparatuses.
There are many who think likewise.
So is prayer worth it? My fundamental question is one of an inequality; does it hold that:
good[prayer] > bad[prayer] ?
More precisely, does
good[prayer] – bad[prayer] ≥ good[non-prayer] – bad[non-prayer] ?
I’m not sure that it does. In fact, I’m personally pretty sure that it doesn’t. This is a question for anyone to think about, but I ask that, if you do, you do it objectively: take an unbiased look at those around you, note who prays, note who volunteers, note who donates. Note who the atheists are, who the lazy Christians are, who the serious religious believers are.
And ask yourself if it’s worth it.
 – Stephens, Ferris J. (1950). Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Princeton. pp. 391–2. (via https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Prayer#Forms_of_prayer)
 – Prayer may reshape your brain… and your reality. NPR News, 2009. This is a layman’s overview of a particular journalist’s experience, but there are many studies using functional MRI’s to map brain activity during prayer or meditation that are easy to find on the web.
 – By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory), via Wikimedia Commons [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/wiki/File:2011_Earthquake_and_Tsunami_near_Sendai,_Japan.jpg]. This image is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.
This book was a captivating read… but not exactly what I was looking for when I read it. Though flavorful — and I can appreciate that this is book is written for a specific audience that I might not be a part of — I felt that Aczel could have dared to present a little more mathematics in a few places. There were about two or three pages devoted to silhouetting Cantor’s diagonal proofs for the countability of the integers and reals, but besides occasionally inserting a statement of the continuum hypothesis he shied away from presenting anything much deeper than a layman’s explanation of some very important mathematics.
I’m glad I read this book, and I still would have if I’d known more about the content ahead of time. It was well-composed and gave me lots of interesting trivia and historical context. Just know that if you’re looking for something that tells you much more about infinity in the mathematical sense than the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page, you’ll want to find a different book.
I know it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, but I’ve been in a fit of arguing with some of my religiously inclined friends lately and there’s something I have to get off of my chest (and onto the Internet). I’m calling it the “obvious design” argument for a God. It goes like this: the Universe is so beautiful, so rationally explainable, and so crafted to sustain life that it is surely crafted by a single God. The argument is akin to opening a cigar box of 50 toothpicks and, upon seeing that they are perfectly aligned, parallel, and evenly spaced, claiming that they were put that way by a person (because the probability of any other explanation is absurdly improbable).
It kind of makes sense when you think of it in terms of toothpicks, but there’s a fundamental flaw in using this argument to sustain a God: you can only observe one Universe, but you’re free to observe as many boxes of toothpicks as you want. We know exactly what a cigar box of assorted toothpicks should look like; it should be chaos, and almost certainly not lined up in parallel. But we don’t know what a Universe should look like free of design, because we only have one to look at, and furthermore we are removed from even conceiving of such an alternate universe because we aren’t built to envision it.
The common example given in favor of obvious design is something along the lines of: “what are the chances that gravity is inverse-square? It could just as easily be cubic or worse, but someone — some God — has set it to be inverse square, which allows our world to exist.” But again, the fundamental flaw: we only have one Universe to work from here. Sure, our Universe is inverse square. If it wasn’t, you’re right — we probably couldn’t exist. But that means we wouldn’t even be here to observe it.
I’ve devised what I think is a cute exercise to present to the next person who argues this with me, and I hope I can illustrate it to the present reader (you) well enough with words, because I think it’s a good example.
“Suppose just for the moment that there are 20 possible configurations of the Universe, and only one of them can sustain life. [At this point, I pull a 20-sided die from my pocket.] Suppose that single life-configuration is represented by the number 20 on this die. [I drop the die theatrically.] What does the die say?”
Now there’s a chance that the d20 will read 20, and the arguer will read it to me and I will say “Good. Now roll it again.” Eventually it won’t be a 20, and then they’ll read it to me and I’ll say:
“No it doesn’t.”
“What? Yes it does, look.”
“We aren’t allowed to look, Arguer, because it’s not a 20, and it follows that you don’t exist in this Universe. So you can’t read it.”
If I wanted to draw it out, we could roll it again and again until we get a 20. I’ll then coyly point out that it seems to have been a 20 every time we rolled (if I wanted to pull out this last point at the risk of rolling a success in the beginning, I’ll use a smaller die or more success conditions).
The point, see, is that chance has nothing to do with it. The Universe is here. We’re in it. And that’s just how it is. If I draw a card from a standard deck and get the Queen of Hearts, I don’t say: “ah! The chances of me drawing this card are less than 2%! That should rarely ever happen!”
Anyway, if you’re reading my blog, you probably didn’t need to hear this, and it’s probably not coherent anyway. Good night.
WordPress Drafts: Lessons Learned (or, Reality, Quantum Mechanics, and the Romanticism of Modern Physics)
I had the pleasure a few weeks ago to attend an in-department lecture/debate on opposing interpretations of quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanics was interesting, but one of the philosophical tangents was what stuck in my head for the rest of the night. We’ll talk about it all in the next few paragraphs.
Before we attacked quantum mechanics, Dr. Hartmann opened with some thoughts on how different interpretations can lead to the same experimental results. To paraphrase: consider the basic Newtonian physics we learn in high school (or earlier). This sort of physics is on the whole inferred from a priori observation of our environment, and on childhood assumptions about the nature of reality. Things like F=ma and Newton’s famous laws of motion are essentially common-sense.
But mechanics does not stop with Newton’s formalization of a priori perception. An important abstraction that we learn in high school is to energy. The familiar quantities of kinetic and potential energy make solving certain problems child’s play compared to the Newtonian physics that would be required to do the same thing.
In more advanced physics, we can abstract mechanics ever further to Lagrange and Hamiltonian mechanics. Here, in the land of manifolds with tangent spaces, we can solve problems well beyond the scope of our other methods. At the same time, though, these methods could be overkill for a simple pendulum.
The idea is that different representations of reality can lend themselves to solving different problems. When Dr. Daw spoke, he reinforced these ideas. He also proposed that the a priori observations at the base of Newtonian physics are “reality”. In his interpretation, all the further abstractions take us away from reality. Furthermore, these other methods lose validity and meaning if they can no longer be traced back to “reality”.
I disagree with this on a fundamental level, and I’m happy to know that some of the other professors agree with me here (although others don’t). While I appreciate the role of Newtonian physics, I’m not of the opinion that human sensory perception can scientifically define universal reality. Perhaps it would be useful to check that our more advanced interpretations of physics agree with our older ones, but if they don’t, that doesn’t necessitate fault. I can imagine a universe which doesn’t agree with my childhood assumptions of reality – and even though I don’t see this everyday with my eyes, that shouldn’t mean that I can discount this theoretical reality. The optical perception of a coffee-filled glob of carbon should not be counted on to reveal fundamental truths of reality.
Intepretations of QM
The mainstream, popular interpretation of quantum mechanics – and the one the general public is familiar with – will, for simplicity’s sake, be called the Copenhagen interpretation in this blog. I hear that this term is misleading – that there are, in fact, several Copenhagen interpretations – but I don’t really care.
But according apparently, physics is a bit like Perl – there’s more than one way to do it. Interestingly, there’s a way to do quantum mechanics not with the use of probability and apparent chance but with completely deterministic wave physics. It’s called pilot wave theory, and it was thought up by de Broglie and refined by a few other physicists in the past century. A primer on the theory and its history can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_wave).
Dr. Daw gave the impression while he was talking that he feels like the Copenhagen interpretation is the result of romanticism kicking into physics. I’ll admit that there is something romantic about the Copenhagen interpretation. It’s mysterious and beautiful, and quite different. I happen to appreciate Capra’s views on the separation of physics from classical western philosophy and the parallels between eastern mysticism (taoism, zen, hinduism, et cetera) which he explains in The Tao of Physics, a book I’ve blogged about before.
Because I have a particular affinity for the orient, I very much like the Copenhagen intepretation. I acknowledge, though, that this is human bias. But I hope that both interpretations are correct. This is a totally valid outcome – just like Newtonian, Lagrangian, and Hamiltonian physics are all valid representations, I think it would be acceptable for both the Copenhagen and Broglie-Bohm…
That’s the end of this post.
I guess that’s what happens when you save something as a draft and forget about it. You have no idea what you were writing.
Disclaimer: I attempt in this post to comment simply on what I find to be a curious observation of social behavior. I am not attempting to comment on the nature of Christianity whatsoever, although I do enjoy talking talking about theology, and would be happy to entertain private conversation on the topic via email or IRC.
Hypothesis: Modern culture affects worship paradigms
Living in upstate South Carolina, I reside within one of the more religiously passionate regions1 of the US. I can’t speak about how similar our campus’s behavior compares to other public universities in the states, but I find the amount of religious fellowship at Clemson to be astounding. Coming from a highly intellectual (in the Enlightenment sense) high school full of non-Christianity, I may just not be used to the norm. If that’s the case, then perhaps this introduction will only surprise others like me.
The density of interdenominational Christian groups on campus is higher than any other type of organization I can think of. Names include things like the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Christian Campus Fellowship, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, among others. And this is all well and good – I have no problem with it at all. I occasionally make snide remarks in my head when there’s a loud organizational meeting in the amphitheater and my studying/reading/Seinfeld-viewing is impeded. But on the whole I respect and support their right to do what they do, and I think they do a lot of good things for kids who need or desire networking and social organizations that emphasize inclusion for all students.
So this blog post isn’t about those organizations in specific, but rather about an observation I’ve made about how these organizations – or rather, those people who mold and shape the way they work – affect the way in which young people worship their God.
Before I talk about that, I think we need to stand on common grounds about what worship really means. For that, I shall turn to the Book of Exodus.
Axiom: Defining Anti-Worship
Worship can be hard to define, since worship can take many forms. I think that it’s easy enough to define what I’ll call Anti-Worship. In the Exodus 32, God plagues his people for worshipping a false idol – Anti-Worship. Moses, the spiritual leader of the Israelites, had scaled Mount Sinai to receive the the commandments from the Lord, and returned to find a golden calf, fashioned out of gold by his brother Aaron. The people worshipped the golden calf by Aaron’s word, speaking that “These be they gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Upon Aaron building an altar to the molten calf and the Israelites bringing to it sacrifices and peace offerings, God turns his wrath upon his people.
Solving for Anti-Worship in 2009
Do some young Christians today worship a false idol? That – in a sense – they do is the point of my investigation. God is divine – man is mortal. So if man tries to fashion an idea of God in the image of man, he has created something very unlike the nature of God – just like Aaron did with the molten calf. Recently, for example, there was an on-campus event called Why Jesus? (I’ll be honest – I’m not sure if that was the name of the event or the name of the organization that sponsored the event. I think it was the event itself. The website can be found at http://whyjesusclemson.com/index.html). The event was a high-powered, AV-heavy, student-packed show with band performances and such. I think that this can be called worship. My question concerns who they were actually worshipping.
It is my opinion that some Christians have become caught up in the modernization of Christ in order to make his image more accessible to the public. I suppose that making a divinity fit into the image of modern man makes easier the mission of recruitment, but at the same time I think the potency of divinity is lost. Gods are supposed to be difficult to understand and interpret. They aren’t on our level. That’s the point. If we could understand gods, they wouldn’t be divine (or we wouldn’t be mortal). So if we’re all telling each other who Jesus “really is” – which, these days, seems to be little more than a great guy who loved other people a whole lot – then we’ve projected divinity into the realm of mortal comprehension.
The objection that I expect from someone reading this is that my connection to the golden calf is faulty, because at least today’s Christians are trying to worship the right God instead of creating a new one (the golden calf). But I don’t think that objection holds up at all – it may even justify what I’m trying to point out. Aaron wasn’t trying to maliciously denounce the “real God” and setup a “new one”. All he did was fashion an image from gold and say that “these be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”2 It’s not like he’d met God before and was trying to slap him around by crafting a false idol. He was making an effort to rally the Israelites behind an tangible image in a time of great struggle. If you find a counterproof to that interpretation, let me know.
So just because Christians today are trying to worship the right God doesn’t mean that synthesizing a more tangible image of him for the younger generation to more easily cope with isn’t creating a false idol. The situation is nearly isomorphic to Exodus.
Perhaps the penalty for false idol creation is worth the benefit in the long run? Hopefully St. Peter accepts cost-benefit analysis at the gates.
 Based the conventional assumptions that (1.) Baptist churches (prevalent in the region in and around SC1.a) have many outspoken followers, and (2.) the Southeastern part of the United States in general is more fundamentalist and outwardly religious than other regions.
[1.a] http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2008/01/27/237-regionalism-and-religiosity/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_United_States
 From Exodus 32, KJV.
Review of Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, focusing on the analogs between Jakob and his era.
Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist picks a unique subject and setting through which revolutions of thought permeated every facet of the West. The beginning of the twentieth century marked a global transformation in many facets of humanity, and science was not exempt from cultural upheaval. Changes both political and social ensued in parallel with revolutions in scientific thought, and McCormmach tells the story of a man left behind – a Classical Physicist permanently intertwined with the past. The story of Professor Viktor Jakob represents the struggle of the world to keep up with the sweeping changes of a new, faster globe and the intellectual modifications that accompanied it.
The physics presented in the novel – although nonetheless historically accurate – served a purpose beyond simply representing a branch of natural science. The paradigm shift in physics of the day was an analog of the worldwide metamorphosis of civilization. Jakob embodied these parallel transfigurations in his thoughts on both art and science. To him, theatre and physics as well as music and mathematics were entangled in a single human experience. In this sense, his scholarly lineage could nearly be traced to the Enlightenment era. The ideas of unity, closure, determinism, and the importance of the individual that accompanied Enlightenment philosophy manifested themselves in his interpretation of science. Jakob’s pursuit of a solution for the world-ether typified his mindset towards the world. Even deterred by the likes of Planck (pg. 139), Jakob continued to dream of a grand scientific unification.
Physics and the world stage were in two not unalike states at the turn of the century. The rise of Germany in central Europe and the end of the beginnings of industrialization introduced paradigm shifts in life and politics as radical as the new interpretations in physics. It may have been ironic to Jakob that the very same forces in Germany catalyzed both scientific knowledge and military prowess. He prided his and his fellow scientists’ peaceful natures, especially within their profession – but even he could not entirely resist the call of nationalism. His work on acoustics in the field was an example of his contribution to the war.
But nationalism was a phenomenon with which the professor did not always peacefully mesh. Jakob considered himself a worshipper of science, in accord with Einstein’s scheme (108). Jakob has chosen for himself “the life of the discoverer” (109), and accordingly placed physics higher than the state. But interestingly, many of the scientists to whom he would pay reverence – such as Planck – were at least able to support the war with their public attitudes. Jakob’s refusal to sign a single document supporting the war is evidence of his strict, scientific moral code and fear of change. It fits with his description of a classical physics; in his view, the role of virtue and scientific rigidity within oneself is the key characteristic of physics. He admired many of his more esteemed colleagues for their incredible internal strength of character.
Jakob was, indeed, a self-proclaimed Classical Physicist. Unlike the era of his youth, the German students of the twentieth century had (allegedly) not been “drilled in the classics, in the careful thought of the languages and literatures of antiquity” (133). Jakob believed in a strong connection between physics and the classics. With this in mind, one might propose that what bothered Jakob in part about the new age of atomic physics was uncertainty and a disconnect between a priori assumptions and the implications of modern physics. Jakob thought of classical physics as not so much a world-view, but an attitude: a description more of the scientist than the science.
His knowledge of the classical age made it easy for Jakob to recognize the mutation of Greek thought and culture into a tool for nationalism when he and his wife attend a reading of Antigone. European affinity for Greek science and culture is exploited as the company alters details of the tragedy to create sympathy for the German cause. This sort of alteration for the sake of political allusion would begin to permeate many cultures in future decades. Later in the century, this same type of subliminal propaganda would manifest itself in American and Soviet media to generate sympathy for democracy and communism.
It was Jakob’s belief that the loss of the world-ether implied the loss of intelligibility in the physics community (134). Jakob appreciated mechanisms representative of our perception more than he did abstractions into mathematics. Accordingly, he felt that the lack of an absolute reference frame turned physics into a “cold gray cave of abstraction” (ibid). Once more, Jakob reveals his ties to the previous century. Like the romantics of art and literature calling for a return to nature after industrialization, Jakob feels that the loss of sensible physics is a loss of a part of human culture.
The magnitude of destruction experienced in the First World War is certainly akin to a cold gray cave of abstraction. The introduction of twentieth century weaponry and technology made the Great War a monster of a sort not before witnessed in the world. Lengthy, monotonous trench warfare and the introduction of war to the sea and sky made war less personal than ever. In the eyes of many – including Jakob – soldiers started their transformation from people to numbers in that era. In that light, modern warfare may be somewhat similar to modern physics in Jakob’s view.
But more than simply the loss of the world-ether concept, Jakob felt that the branching away from classical physics meant the loss of the individual. Jakob recalls a shift during his career from individuals pursuing physics of their own accord – with their own ideas – to an age where money translates a wealthy student into a fledgling scientist to pursue the goals advancing the reputation of the university director. The idea that money fuels a man’s career is certainly not a new concept, but Jakob seems to feel that this sort of construct contaminates the purity of the physics community.
Jakob’s view of his evolving science and evolving world resonated with the ideas of a finished age. Victor Jakob might have been one of the last of his breed. Perhaps, though, his concern for the individual may have been warranted as we entered a less personal age. Perhaps, even today, there is still a place for the Classical Physicist.
You can find a more traditional book review at the Harvard Press site, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/MCCNIG.html.
You can also preview the book on Google Books. Search for “Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist”.
Disclaimer #1: This is not a political blog post. If you try to interpret it as one, then you’re interpreting it improperly.
Disclaimer #2: I’m not about to try and bash business majors or investment bankers. I’m just making a generic point.
Many Americans probably saw President Obama on Jay Leno last night. It was fun enough to watch, and I think was actually a good move by the president to bolster public support by dropping back down to the friendly, laughing American citizen status he had on the campaign trail instead of the all-powerful presidential aura he’s had to take on lately.
I agreed and disagreed with some things that he said, but one thing that I agree enough with to blog about is his take on the role of education and, perhaps more importantly, the tone given to the importance of certain career choices following from education.
I’m going to quote a large part of what he said last night, just so there’s some context. You can find a full transcript at the Huffington Post website (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/20/obama-on-tonight-show-wit_n_177206.html).
Well, and part of what happened over the last 15, 20 years is that so much money was made in finance that about 40 percent, I think, of our overall growth, our overall economic growth was in the financial sector. Well, now what we’re finding out is a lot of that growth wasn’t real. It was paper money, paper profits on the books, but it could be easily wiped out.
And what we need is steady growth; we need young people, instead of — a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher. And if we’re rewarding those kinds of things that actually contribute to making things and making people’s lives better, that’s going to put our economy on solid footing. We won’t have this kind of bubble-and-bust economy that we’ve gotten so caught up in for the last several years.
I can’t ignore that, as a physics major, I probably have some unavoidable bias here, but I think his argument also makes good sense. We need to reward jobs that contribute to society and make everyone better off rather than jobs which are focused on monetary and personal gain. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need bankers and business men; they’re obviously quite important to the business model that’s been in place for a long time. But we do need people to want to contribute to humanity in more real ways. At the same time, I think we would have a more enlightened culture as a whole if we focus on these types of fields. But that’s quite possibly my bias sneaking out.
And since this blog is syndicated on Fedora Planet, where everyone’s an open source contributer, I’m curious to see what everyone else thinks. Could this sort of mentality work for the country the same way our open source communities do? (As a side note, I’ve read some stuff recently about the government looking into adopting open source software, but that’s a blog for another day.)
By the way, this line of thought reminded me about the XO developer program that David Nalley talked about way-back-when. You can find the project page at http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/go/Math4Team.
I’ve just started reading Beyond Geometry, a collection of “classic papers from Riemann to Einstein”, which outlines the progression of the interpretation of geometry from Riemann’s time in the 1800s through the early 20th century. The introduction opens with a quote from Albert Einstein:
Only the genius of Riemann, solitary and uncomprehended, by the middle of the last century already broke through to a new conception of space, in which space was deprived of its rigidity and in which its power to take part in physical events was recognized as possible.
The beautiful thing about this book is the metaphysical nature of the papers. There are often technical details included, but on the whole the reader is presented with the philosophical divergence of some of the greatest thinkers since the Enlightenment. I have only had the chance to read the introduction and two of the eleven or so papers in the compilation, but some of what I’ve read so far is fascinating. Overly dramatic as I may sound, I think there’s something even romantic about debates over the nature of space.
The truths of geometry were synthetic a priori, meaning that their validity did not stem from experience, but from a synthesis conditioned by the nature of the mind itself.
Kant argued that we naturally intuit space to be Euclidean because it is “hard-wired” into our brain to so based on the information we receive from our eyes. This powerful argument, which is undeniably both reasonable and sensible, would undergo more than a century of critique (many geometers still debate the nature of space today). Science and mathematics would force the immediately logical Kantian view to be replaced with the bizarre (but interesting) ideas of modern physics and geometry. These arguments would start with Riemann, presenting his lecture “On the Hypotheses That Lie at the Foundations of Geometry” to Gauss and other German thinkers of his time, followed by Helmholtz, Klein, and eventually Einstein’s realizations of General Relativity with experimental proof to show that space is, indeed, not Euclidean.
This compendium describes what I find to be an astonishing timeline, outlining the triumph of human intuition over instinct, and a demonstration of how the groundwork of physics and mathematics is often moved by words and philosophy more than by equations and numbers. Definitely a suggested read for the interested academic.