Author Archives: paultorek

An ancient Greek dialogue

I recently stumbled across the following fragment of ancient Greek dialogue. Or maybe I made it up.

Herodotos: The youth today have no respect for tradition. Why just today I visited the shrine to Eros, and mine was the only offering. Where is the gratitude for the boons the gods give us?

Eudokia: That’s because Eros isn’t real, and some people are beginning to notice! We need to cast aside myths like Erotic love and focus on real things, like friendship, or sex.

Alexander: Now hang on a minute. I don’t believe in Eros either, but that doesn’t mean erotic love isn’t a real phenomenon. A little casual observation will show you that some people have a special bond – whether a winged god shot them with an invisible arrow or not, that’s beside the point.

Herodotus and Eudokia, in unison: Verbal gymnastics! Semantic trickery!

Herodotus: Real Erotic love requires Eros! It’s in the name.

Eudokia: Surveys show that the vast majority of people believe in Eros. Therefore, the concept of a distinctive kind of love is inextricably tied to the myth, and must die without it.

Alexander: Doesn’t follow. As for Eros being in the name, that’s why when I write “erotic love” I start with a small e rather than capital E. And I predict that centuries from now, people will still do the same, though no one will believe in the winged god with the arrows. And everyone will know what they are talking about.

Herodotus (morosely): Nonsense! Without Eros, there is only sex.

Eudokia (triumphantly): Without Eros, there is only sex!

And there the fragment ends.


The cherry pion fallacy

“There can be no cherry pie without cherry pions.”

That’s the fallacy. A cherry pion, in case it isn’t obvious, would be an indivisible particle which had an irreducibly cherry quality to it. I wish I could find the internet comment that inspired me here, but I can’t find it. Let me just admit that I didn’t invent the metaphor all on my own (but I did coin the horribly punny title! so there!)

The alternative to the Cherry Pion fallacy is called Emergence. Yes, that’s a word with many uses, not all of them so innocent. But give “emergentists” an innocent-until-proven-guilty verdict, I plead. Many of them are just observing that some concepts aren’t applicable at the finest level of detail, but find targets at higher levels of organization.

Another inspiration for my coinage is Ronald Dworkin’s “morons” in Justice for Hedgehogs. Dworkin wrote:

If there are morons, and morons make moral claims true or false, then we might imagine that morons, like quarks, have colors. An act is forbidden only if there are red morons in the neighborhood, required only if there are green ones, and permitted only if there are yellow ones.

Dworkin’s “morons” are a caricature of a straw man, i.e. an intentionally ridiculous version of some philosophical arguments about ethics. Not that I endorse Dworkin’s solution to the no-“morons” “problem”, mind you. But the caricature of the argument was good for a laugh.

Arrow Dynamics of time

A deep look at science shows that time and causality don’t work the way most of us intuitively think they do.  For example, some models of cosmology such as the one advocated by Sean Carroll in From Eternity to Here, claim that at some time in our past the (ancestor of our) universe was at minimum entropy.  At still further times from ours, its entropy was larger than that, and in its daughter universes on that other side of the minimum, entropy may grow as one goes further into (what we consider) the past.  So far, no big deal.  However, as Sean Carroll also argues, it appears that everything we experience as making time “flow” in one direction can be explained by the gradient of entropy.  As far as we know, it is physically possible that at some time intelligent beings exist(ed) in those daughter universes and perceive time to flow in the opposite direction. And their viewpoint is just as valid as ours.

Which direction the arrow of time points, depends on where and when you sit.  Arrow dynamics.  I will go a long way for a pun.

This – and other strange and wonderful discoveries of science – obviously have serious potential to change some philosophical thinking.  The area of philosophy I am most interested in, in this connection, is “the problem of free will and determinism”.  Most of the classic statements of this problem assume things about causality that find no place in modern science.  So here I list some resources that shed light on these issues.

Carl Hoefer points out that well known scientific deterministic theories are bidirectional in time: that is, they allow us to infer from the present or future to the past, just as easily as from past to future.

Huw Price and Ken Wharton explain how “retrocausal” QM theory can account for known violations of Bell’s Theorem.

Yakir Aharonov and Lev Vaidman discuss the Two State Vector Formalism (TSVF), an empirically equivalent formulation of standard QM that wears its time symmetry on its sleeve; and Aharonov et al apply TSVF to explain weak measurement experiments.  Guido Bacciagaluppi uses an alternative formalism to argue that a time-directed interpretation of probabilities, if adopted, should be both contingent and perspectival.

E. T. Jaynes partially explains the relationship between entropy and information.

Eric Lutz and Sergio Ciliberto discuss experiments on information storage and entropy changes.

Steven Savitt explores Being and Becoming in Modern Physics.

Larry Sklar says that “The great problem remains in trying to show that the entropic asymmetry is explanatorily adequate to account for all the other [time] asymmetries in the way that the gravitational asymmetry can account for the distinction of up and down.”

Craig Callender discusses the relationships between the thermodynamic (entropic) arrow of time, and other intuitively appealing arrows like epistemic (memory), mutability (our actions affect the future), and explanatory.

Mlodinow and Brun show that given plausible physical assumptions, recording and then reading a robust memory always proceeds in the direction of increasing entropy.  H. M. Doss places their work in a larger context.

In a tour de force, Jenann Ismael explains (0:55:00 – 1:38:00) why we see the past as fixed and the future as something we can bring about.  This one requires Microsoft Silverlight to view, which is a pain, but worth it.


The Moon Illusion

The moon looks larger when it’s near the horizon than it does when it is high in the sky.  Sometimes, for example at this NASA website, this is phrased so as to imply that the view on the horizon is the one that’s illusory.

I once had the privilege of seeing this “illusion” in full force.  I was walking down a tree lined city street, with the moon on the horizon surrounded in my visual field by trees and houses.  The moon looked positively enormous – far larger than anything I’ve ever seen up-close and personal.  Since I’ve walked around it a lot, let’s say the biggest thing I’ve seen up close is my city.

Guess what?  The moon is far larger than an entire city.  With proper cues available to clue the visual system in, this becomes more apparent.

It’s not always the grand view of an object that is illusory.  Sometimes it’s when we see something as small that we are misperceiving it.