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A Recovering Physicist's Apology

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A Response to Neil deGrasse Tyson May. 15th, 2014 @ 08:20 pm
The philosopher Rudolf Carnap admiringly asserted that "In science there are no 'depths'; there is surface everywhere." Carnap was a critic of traditional philosophy, calling much of "meaningless." In contrast to philosophy, it is science, Carnap argued, that truly advanced knowledge and unlocked the secrets of the world. Eighty-five years later, Neil deGrasse Tyson raises a similar critique, calling philosophy useless, dangerous, and dead. For like Carnap, Tyson asserts that much of philosophy asks questions that cannot be answered, sees "depth" and "deeper meanings" where there are none, and, like Carnap, Tyson believes that much of philosophy must be abandoned. Although I am largely sympathetic to many of Carnap's claims, I remain unmoved by Tyson's assertions. Given my admiration for the philosophy of Carnap, I may then seem an odd defender of my beloved philosophy, but I wish to defend the proud tradition nevertheless. For, like Carnap, I do not view philosophy as dead—indeed I see it as playing a crucial role in our pursuits of knowledge—a notion that, to his error, Tyson clearly does not share.

In my critical thinking classes I caution my students from jumping too quickly truth. The reason for this is that philosophers have long known that discovering what is true and false in the world is exceptionally difficult. What Tyson, particularly in Cosmos, so often beautifully and movingly articulates is that very long and painful struggle of bringing to light truth wrestled from a dim and dogmatic universe—sparking to flame Sagan's candle in the dark. There is incontrovertible nobility in discovering truth, and the great power of science is that it is undeniably a boundless engine of discovery. Yet even the most casual observer of science must admit, the road to truth is a very long journey—one that is hardly complete, and may not even be completable. To avoid being stuck, unable to discuss anything until it is proven true or false, philosophy has another set of tools at its disposal. For, prior to asking my students to consider truth, I ask them to consider if an argument even makes sense: if the pieces fit together, if there are strange gaps, if it takes certain assumptions for granted, if it assumes what it is trying to prove, etc. Perhaps one of the most important tools when thinking about an argument is this: if a given line of reasoning—when applied to similar situations—has a desirable result or leads to conclusions that are unacceptable. The contribution of logic and analysis is, in my belief, the great role of philosophy. So it has been with some surprise that I have watched so many of my philosophical colleagues jump directly to attempting to prove Tyson wrong rather than ask the more primary question: does Tyson's argument work?

It seems that Tyson's major complaint with philosophy is that it is an exercise in drawing conclusions from the a priori armchair. The complaint being that philosophy does not seem to directly measure or acquire information from the world, but instead draws conclusions from deductive, rationalistic, non-empirical means. The message Tyson conveys, again and again, is that dreaming up and pondering these sorts of questions from the armchair is a futile or perhaps even dangerous endeavor. The scientist, Tyson so often asserts, dreams up worldly questions and sets about to answer them.

The obvious problem with Tyson's position that the armchair is useless is that it not only makes philosophy obsolete, but it fundamentally eliminates wide swaths of mathematics and science as well. For mathematics—what Galileo called "the language in which science is spoken"—is deductive reasoning at its most pure. If such reasoning is, as Tyson asserts, navel-gazing, then none stare more intently than does the mathematician. Yet, what begins its life as armchair questioning often becomes highly useful to the scientist: binary numbers, number theory, Lie groups, complex numbers, quaternions, (and on the list could go). Each was once the byproduct of deductive work of mathematicians sitting quite comfortably in armchairs. While the synergy of mathematician and scientist is complex and many mathematicians make direct contributions to physics (and vice versa) surely at least some "pure" mathematicians have, perhaps long after their deaths, contributed to science, and they did so from a priori questions of the sort Tyson seems to dismiss. The great defender of pure mathematics, G. H. Hardy claims that James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein, often taken as giants of science, are best understood as pure mathematicians—in other words, card-carrying navel gazers. Indeed, even G. H. Hardy's own mathematical efforts, believed utterly useless to "real world" problems, became a backbone of Niels Bohr's early formations of quantum mechanics. Often mathematics only becomes useful several years after its formulation, so the charge of "what has philosophy done for us lately?" seems uncomfortably applicable to pure mathematics as well. Physicists so often rely on the rationalistic fruits of mathematicians' armchair labors. If rationalistic, non-empirical, deductive inquiry is categorically useless, then it seems most of mathematics must be judged as such. This result strikes me, and I imagine most, as odd.

Even if Tyson is willing to concede that much of mathematics is mere navel gazing, and it is the scientist that, though empirical modeling, makes real the mathematicians ethereal musings, it nevertheless seems that doubling down on the uselessness of the a priori remains problematic. I fear that this position leads to the kind of science denial that Tyson spends so much of his career combatting. Within the sciences, particularly physics, a long tradition of theory exists. Even if one were to reject Hardy's categorization and move Maxwell and Einstein back to the physicist camp, one would be hard pressed to explain these scientists thinking as empirical—at least in their time. So often, particularly given the expense of doing science, science begins as a thought experiment—an armchair endeavor. The story of the neutrino, elegantly told in a recent episode of Cosmos, is an example of this. A great truth of the world seems to be that energy is conserved, that is, energy cannot be created or destroyed. Yet, upon doing very precise measurements of beta decay, Wolfgang Pauli noted that there seemed to be energy missing—seemingly violating the conservation of energy. Pauli concluded there must be an immensely small hitherto undetected particle to account for the missing energy. This particle was named 'neutrino' by Enrico Fermi meaning "little one." What is astonishing is that Pauli's assertion of the particle is seemingly contrary to his actual observations. All his instruments told him that there was energy missing. Quantum mechanics is filled with examples of classical physics being upended, it was not unreasonable to assume conservation may be another aspect of the Newtonian world but not the quantum one. Despite the facts on the ground and for purely rationalistic and deductive reasons, Pauli drew the conclusion that the there must be a very small undetected particle there. This result comes from the armchair—an armchair in a laboratory, but an armchair nevertheless. The astounding and unfathomable beauty and power of science is the interplay of real world testing and abstract postulating: the roles of the experimentalist and the theorist. To see this tension play out, one need only look to Tyson and Brian Greene's disagreements over string theory.

What is, to me, so troubling is that if Tyson's attacks are accurate then they not just hobble philosophy, but effectively strike a fatal blow to mathematics and even Tyson's beloved physics. It is as if in order to eliminate a cluttered desk, he has burnt his house to its foundation. The desk is assuredly less cluttered, but a great deal too much has been destroyed in the process. Strong critiques of philosophy (along the lines of those purposed by Tyson) exist and are frequently put forward by philosophers and others, but Tyson's argument is not one such critique.

The Error of "sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you've elected" Jan. 27th, 2012 @ 04:11 pm

This image has been making the rounds on many of my friends' facebook pages as of late: http://a3.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/384813_2864055324189_1343911384_3123831_1381864166_n.jpg

I wanted to take a moment and address why I think this sentiment is so misguided. 

The text reads: "I'm disillusioned by the people who are disillusioned by Obama, quite honestly, I am.  Democrats eat their own.  Democrats find singular issues and go, 'Well, I didn't get everything I wanted.'  I'm a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you've elected.  If (Obama) was a Republican running, because Republicans are better at this, they'd be selling him as the guy who stopped 400,000 jobs a month from leaving the country.  They'd be selling him as the guy who saved the auto-industry.  If they had the beliefs, they'd be selling him as the guy who got rid of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' who got Osama bin Laden.  You could be selling this as a very successful three years."  George Clooney

I am a liberal.  I am one of those liberals that is, apparently, eating my own, but let me explain why that is.  If Obama was a Republican then individuals—individuals like George Clooney—would be attacking him on his social liberties policies.  The worst abuses of the Bush administration continue into this administration and have been embraced by Obama: you can still have your phone tapped without a warrant, you can still be snatched off the street and be outsourced to another country for detention (extraordinary rendition), Guantanamo Bay still stands, these are just some of the problems that he continues, not to mention the additional rights that have been suspended for the duration of the permanent war.  Liberals—liberals like George Clooney—have rightly and historically been highly critical of these very issues when Bush implemented them, but now that Obama does the exact same things I am supposed to "support who I voted for".  There is no other way to put this: that is bullshit.

I am not here to argue Obama's record.  He has done some wonderful things that I strongly agree with: he has done some bad things that I strongly oppose: he has done some things which I am utterly indifferent to.  He has been consistently a center left politician—exactly as those that actually looked at his record knew he would be.  Certainly Clooney has a point, liberals will always find something to complain about ("Oh no, he didn't mention organic free range sustainable potato farming, I hate him now!").  I get it, we are annoying.  I contend that part of the reason Obama has been disappointing to liberals is because they did not take the time to do their homework and realize that he is not a liberal—unless you watch Fox News in which case Obama is somewhere to the left of Stalin.  So I understand where Clooney is coming from and can respect it to a certain degree, but I find the notion behind the statement distasteful. His statement rests upon this air of duty that is antithetical to the nature of a democracy.

In a representative democracy, I owe those that represent me nothing.  They owe me everything.  I have given them the most precious thing I possess: a fraction of my autonomy to speak with my voice and forward my interests.  Should the representative that I have not actually represent me, I have every right—every duty—to not support that representative and work tirelessly to have them voted out.  We have every right to hold our representatives to promises, to remind them they speak for us.  One of the great problems our democracy faces is that it is viewed as a team based system.  Too many believe, like Clooney seems to here, that we owe our loyalty to individual politicians and political parties, and so when those individuals let us down or those institutions fail us –as they will inevitably—our misplaced loyalties compel us to bend over backwards to excuse those individuals while condemning the "other team" for the same infractions.  Which is why many republicans may feel that Clinton's infidelities are abominable, but Gingrich's infidelities are a part of his grand redemptive story (democrats feel the opposite).  Both sides likely agree that infidelity is wrong, but rather than be loyal to an ideal, they are loyal to parties and politicians they are, as Clooney says, "sticking by and sticking up for the people whom [they've] elected" to the point of cognitive disconnect.  That mantra of "stick by your man" that Clooney advocates reverses the very point of democracy: the president should speak for ME: I should never be asked to speak for the president.  So long as the president's voice is my voice, I can speak for myself and through my articulation of my principles hear them echoed by those in power, but it should not be the case that I am asked to echo the voices of power for that is a kind of intellectual and moral slavery.

Rather than "sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you've elected", stick by the ideals that drove you to cast the vote in the first place.  The ideals are the catalyst, the ideals are why the vote was cast, the promise of an accurate representation. Do not blindly support the one you voted for.  Ask if that individual has forwarded your morals, ideals, and values that you hold: ask yourself if the elected official has forwarded your voice.  If the answer is yes, then they have earned another term, if the answer is no then they have failed.  Our democracy has nothing to do with those whom hold the office, and everything to do with how well that individual represents the people.  If liberals feel Obama has failed to represent them, they should not stick by him no more than conservatives should have stuck by Bush if they feel he did not speak for them. 

Do not give your loyalty to people or institutions, for both are fallible and must be policed as such, put your loyalty only behind ideals.


The System is Down Sep. 24th, 2010 @ 08:08 pm
My poor Macbook Pro.  I bought it my second year of JET making it about 5-7 years old.  Those 7 years have seen it lugged back and forth over the Pacific a couple time, move around the US, and pretty much be on 24/7 in that time period.

About a year ago, the battery died.  That's okay; I run it off AC current 90% of the time anyway.
About half a year ago, I was putting batteries in my mouse and dropped it directly onto the track pad, messing it up so that there is really only one "sweet spot" where the click still works easily.  That's okay; I have a mouse anyways!
Today, I put a DVD in the drive, and it spit it out.  I put another in, and it spit it out.  It looks like the optical drive has failed.  That's... damn.

I'm kind of in a bind right now.  Doing a quick peek online, to fix the problems looks like it will run me $500 easy, and I'm not sure a 7 year old computer is worth that work.  I love this computer, it's a tank, but it's also an ailing tank that may need to be taken off the front lines.  But here's the problem:
1)  I'm a poor grad student
2)  I'm saving to visit my friends' wedding in England
1+2=crap

I don't know what I'll do.  I was thinking of getting a mac mini as a media center for my TV, so, this computer (if I get around to fixing the drive) could do that role quite well, so that could work.  I don't know... I've had a crappy week.

Hey, Life, boo!

On Deadliest Catch & Voyeurism Jul. 13th, 2010 @ 12:11 am
One of my favorite, and I believe most engaging, shows on TV right now is Deadliest Catch on the Discover Channel.  The show chronicles 4-6 crabbing vessels as they venture out into the Bering Sea and fish.  The job is one of the deadliest in America.  Every season people die doing this job.  Part of the original appeal of the show was that the job was so dangerous and every episode some horrible things nearly or actually happen.  People have been swept off of deck (and recovered), had fingers broken, but no one that the show directly follows has died.

As the seasons progressed, and you get over your initial shock of just how brutal and dangerous going out and fishing is; you begin to grow attached to the human beings that do the work.  They are not characters or the abstract "bad asses" that you originally thought.  You learn of Keith's battle to quit chewing tobacco with his daughter's frequent pep talk phone calls and hand made anti-chewing propaganda posters in his wheel house.  You see Edgar and Scotty's struggles to be good fathers despite being absent most of the year.  You see the interpersonal triumphs and fall outs.  You grow to love these people not as characters on a TV show, but as human beings.  I know reality TV is all the buzz, but somehow this feels more real.  It captures humanity at its most tired, desperate, and joyous.  Deadliest Catch is a picture into amazing people, and also what it means to be human.  And, although surrounded by death, no one has ever died on the show.  This season that changed. 

One of the captains, Phil Harris, passes due to complications of a stroke he suffered while offloading his boat.  Because he passed with the camera crew on the ship, the cameras followed him to the hospital, through his partial recover, and (tonight) his passing.  I have found watching this season--knowing as I do that he will die (the crabbing season actually takes place in January--difficult.  At times, I have found the show too painful to watch, at times it felt to voyeuristic.  Now that I can name all the men that work on the Cornelia Marie, I suddenly do not feel that I have the right to watch them in this their grimmest of times.  Somehow knowing them (as much as one can know another through the medium) I feel I owe them their privacy.  I feel I owe them the distance and separation that the show does not afford them.  Part of the reason is that the show follows them only when they are on the boat, we only hear from the crew what is happening back at dock, or when they are not fishing, so the show is about their life at work.  It is not, it seems, about their life as a whole.  So when the cameras left the Cornelia Marie and traveled to Anchorage to Phil's hospital room, somehow it felt wrong.  It felt like I--and I do mean "I" here, as lived vicariously through the lens--was following him; was breaking the covenant that I only watch him while he works.  I only know him through his work.  It felt like I was invading a world that I was not supposed to see, his private space and the life of his family.

I struggle with the difference between documenting events and engaging in voyeurism.  I have always felt Deadliest Catch (and the Discovery Channel in general) has balanced those roles.  When there was a death in Jake's family, the crew did not film the phone call the young deckhand received.  We heard him wailing through a wall, but he was given, to some degree, a moment of distance from the lenses--as much privacy as any ship can provide.  I don't know if I will watch tonight's episode, or watch it all the way through.  I liked Phil.  I can say that honestly.  Which seems odd to say about someone I've never actually met, but I liked him.  I am deeply saddened that he passed.  I am saddened whenever I hear that someone has died, of course, but that is kind of an abstract pain.  A kind of sadness that a fellow human is gone, this is different.  I am sad because someone I feel as if I knew is gone.  Perhaps I knew him, perhaps I didn't, but I feel as if I did, and, in this case, that is all that matters.  And it is because of that feeling of familiarity that I now am not sure if I can or even should watch Phil's final episode, because, in the end, it isn't Phil's final episode.  It is the final moments of his life.  He's not going to come back in the surprise twist at the end of the season.  The show remains about actual humanity and actual human beings, and, unlike being voted off the island or not getting a rose, Phil's last episode is about the last moments of his life rather than his last moments in front of the camera before returning to a world where the cameras do not follow.

So I return to my misgivings, do I have the right to see that?

Random Story Generator Jul. 3rd, 2010 @ 11:06 pm
I'm not big on the meme scene, but sheryden  had a fun meme, so I stole it from her.  Here are the rules:
   
1. Take five books off your bookshelf.
2. Book #1 -- first sentence
3. Book #2 -- last sentence on page fifty
4. Book #3 -- second sentence on page one hundred
5. Book #4 -- next to the last sentence on page one hundred fifty
6. Book #5 -- final sentence of the book


Story:
The bells of St. Mark's were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun.  But if one of these slowly rotating stars collapses down to a small size, the rate of rotation increases dramatically. True enough, one wall was all covered with silver screen, and direct opposite was a wall with square holes in for the projector to project through, and there were stereo speakers stuck all over the mestro.  This one promeses to be bigger and bertter than ever before, and I wouldn't be surprised if four hundred million people showed up. "About an hour ago he took a sudden turn for the worse."

Works Cited:
The Diamond Age -- Neal Stephenson
Black Holes and Warped Spacetime -- William J. Kaufmann
A Clockwork Orange --Anthony Burgess
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide -- Writes of MST3
Deep River -- Endo Shusak
Other entries
» Inhuman: Teaser
So David gave a nice little teaser on his blog about his story in the upcoming Inhuman: Flash Fiction Challenge #4 which is an anthology of stories all written from the perspective of a non-human character.  I liked the idea so much, I decided to steal it outright.

I have 2 stories to be published in the work:

"Duet" is the story of a futuristic knight and what he must give up for justice in an unjust universe.  He struggles to maintain the delicate balance between his personal morality and the absolutist morality of his code which is personified in his sword.

"A Mathematician's Galatea" is inspired by G.H. Hardy's "A Mathematician's Apology" and a retelling of the Pygmalion myth.  It is a character portrait of a mathematician struggling to come to grips with the realization that he is in the twilight of his career and his inability to meaningfully connect with anyone other than his "companion" robot.


So if these sound interesting, Inhuman: Flash Fiction Challenge #4, is due out at the end of July.  Expect further updates as I get them.


BONUS:  This is a teaser for the piece they would have accepted, but did not becasue I already had 2 pieces from me that they really liked.  I may just publish the story here, or try to get it into another publication (let me think about it)
"Everyone Against Everyone" is a retelling of the Hobbesian notion of the Absolute Sovereign.  The story takes place in the future where the inner terrestrial worlds are completely controlled by the omnipresent artificial intelligence, the Ω-L Sovereign, while the outer Jovial worlds are at best libertarian free states and at worst anarchist.  The Jovian main character speaks to the the Sovereign as part of the citizenship exchange program where, once of age, individuals can decide to be a citizen of either state.  The story is an examination of the application of Hobbes' argument and the character's final decision.


» I'm a Published Author! Part Duex
I finally got an email from Absolute XPress (it actually didn't take that long, it just FELT like forever).  I am very pleased to announce that they accepted two of my stories for publication in their next anthology.  Hurray!  I thought 3 were strong enough for publication, but I'm happy that they picked my two favorites, so I am very pleased.  

Expect tons of annoying "I'M AWESOME" updates :P

EDIT 6-14-10:
One of the great things about the publisher is that they will provide reasons why stories are rejected.  That is unbelievably rare and awesome in the publishing world.  Needless to say, I always ask for it.  Of the 6 stories I submitted they were going to accept 3 of them(!), but had so many entries this time that they had to implement a 2 story limit per author.  Of the 3 they selected their 2 favorite entries.  Which is cool because I don't live off of my writing so I'm happy getting less money and knowing that some new author got a spot that one of my stories would have been in.  Still, I'm officially claiming I batted .500 on this one, better than my original round of .333 :)
» The Continued Problem with Transparency
So the company that published my short story a while back, holds many similar contests.  Currently the publisher is informing the next round of winners if their submissions will be published in the upcoming anthology.  Because I had such a great experience with Absolute XPress last time, I naturally jumped at the chance to enter the latest contest as well.  Many of my friends (David, JR, Amie) also submitted stories to this latest flash fiction round.  Some of my friends have heard back from the publisher, but I have not... AND I AM GOING INSANE.  The lack of response doesn't mean anything as far as will I be published/will I not be, AXP informed everyone that the decisions would be made prior to the 15th, so my concern is purely becasue I want to know rather than I fear what is coming.  BUT I WANT TO KNOW!

Making matters worse, I'll be at work today without internet connection.  Okay, okay, that may not actually make matters worse because I won't spend my time at my email frantically clicking "Check for New Messages", but it will feel like it is making matter worse.

Boo to you transparency!
» Flickr Update
It's been a long time since I've updated my Flickr page!  So I've dumped a lot of photos on there from the snowstorm, to the great flowers we had this year, and also the recent thunderstorm.  See them all from my Flickr page.
» Just when you think you're out...
So the Mobile Mencken, my old IBM laptop, is coming out of retirement.  The Timken branch of the Writing Lab has no computers or internet connection, so the little black trooper that I lugged back and forth to Tanigawa Junior High School every day of the week is going to be getting stuffed into my backpack once again.  That way the Traveling-Tesla (aka my Mac) can remain safe and sound at home diligently doing whatever I tell it to do.  The IBM has superior battery life, is lighter, and has a better track pad, plus if something were to happen to it the loss would not be as great as loosing my more expensive Mac, so the Mobile Mencken is just the computer for the job!

Mobile Mencken, you just got stop-lossed!
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