Category Archives: Philosophy

The Law of Identity

How much faith do we place in the laws of logic when parsing through our perceptions of the world?  One of the foundational laws of logic is “The Law of Identity.”  This states, quite simply, that A = A.  In other words, a thing is what it is.  But is it?

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Is the box on the left the same as the box on the right?  In a sense, yes, they are exact duplicates. But what is the role of cognition in determining equivalency? Is an appearance understood one way different than an appearance understood another way?

Let me look at the same question in a different context. Is it true that a keyboard in my office is the same as an identical keyboard beside it? As observed at a human spatial scale, the answer seems to be very clearly ‘yes.’  But what about sub-atomically? With the perpetual motion, interaction and indeterminacy of sub-atomic particles, it would seem the answer is quite clearly ‘no.’ The same paradox applies to a single keyboard when compared to itself from one moment to the next. Are they the same? Conditionally, yes. Are the different? Conditionally, yes.

Now back to the boxes.

Is this visual representation something “objective”? Do these boxes “exist” independent of an observer’s understanding? The transparent line boxes above are exact copies of each other, but if I think of them in the manner below (using grey to represent the “front” face of the box), a single image can be understood in different ways. The boxes below illustrate how the same box can be seen in different ways (using the 3-D representation below with the clear boxes above). Are the boxes the same if I understand them as different?

identity-2sidedWhat do you think? Are the boxes equivalent? Does A = A regardless of what “A” means to me?


Soundless Falling Trees

It is a riddle we all know well: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

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I admire the beauty of nature, but must remind myself, it is not nature’s inherent beauty that I am admiring any more than a deaf man can admire sound.  It is sensory perception.  It is cognitive processing.  It is human consciousness.

There is no sound without an ear and brain to receive and process the vibrations.  I see light, not because the form I observe is inherent to nature, but because the human eye and brain process certain frequencies of electromagnetic waves to “look” like what I see.  A deaf man doesn’t hear.  A blind man doesn’t see.  Electromagnetic waves outside of the frequencies we hear and see cannot be observed manually.  As Max Planck said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.  I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.  We cannot get behind consciousness.  Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

All of that is just to say: The “wonder of nature” is the wonder of consciousness.


The Illusion of Causality

What makes me “come back down” when I jump?  Answer: gravity.  Every elementary school student knows this.  But what if the earth was not rotating?  What if I was lighter than air?  What if the earth was the size of my back yard?  I would not come back down.  An obvious and perhaps pointless digression, all for the purpose of reminding me that there is never a single “cause” of anything.  Every single interaction in spacetime is effected by a causal chain that runs from the quantum scale to the cosmological scale.  Every time you ever hear an action (or reaction) attributed to single cause, you can rest assured that an infinite regression of causality and contingency has been left out of the explanation.  If the universe we observe is this seeming-infinite interconnected network “causal” interactions regressing back in time, why do we assume (or expect) we’ll find a single cause for time-space, or the existence of our universe at the beginning of it all?
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Reality, As Painted By A Five Sense Palette

Are you familiar with NASA’s various Hubble Deep Field observations?  It seems to me an appropriate metaphor for human understanding.  The very short version is that over an extended period of time, NASA pointed the Hubble telescope at an apparently empty and infinitesimal portion of the night sky (below is the amount of sky observed by the eXtreme Deep Field observation):

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Repeated exposures to the same area over many years allowed the trickle of photons to accumulate this stunning image:

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Most of those glowing objects are distant galaxies.  I have read there are an estimated 5000+ galaxies of various ages in that image.  Some date back as far as we have ever observed, approximately 13+ billion years ago.  This is what was observed upon careful and extended observation of an area of space that appeared to be empty to the naked eye.

The naked eye provides a great deal of the information by which we construct our impression of three dimensional space.  As humans, we have little intuitive insight regarding what information we are not perceiving.  Sight – combined with the four other senses of touch, taste, hearing and smell – provide my human perception of reality.  They provide the data on which derivative tools like inductive and deductive reasoning can be employed.  The data provided by my senses is woefully incomplete, limited on two fronts: scope and scale.  The scope of my sensory sensitivity involves just a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum as sight and sound.  We know of animals that perceive various facets of reality that human senses cannot.  Walls and chairs and beds and grass and trees look like what I see, sound like what I hear, feel like what I touch.  But we know from the study of subatomic particles that an atom is well over 99% empty space.  Even time may be an illusion.  Our best cosmological theories require that 96% of the universe be made up of mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that have never been directly observed.

Scale also plays a role.  Maybe an even bigger one (I will write much more on this at some later time).  The diameter of the physical universe is estimated to be over 90 billion light years.  Strikes me as akin to guessing how many marbles are in a bowl, but whatever.  Regardless, the human mind really cannot comprehend the size of the cosmos, nor the infinitesimalness of the quantum scale.  The orders of magnitude are cleverly demonstrated here.  They defy our comprehension.  So we tend to settle for causal coherence, even if it leads to faulty conclusions.  The human brain seems addicted to pattern and predictability, where complexity and chaos may more accurately describe the universe that we inhabit.  Many researchers have shown that the human mind tends to create order, coherence, causality, even where none exists.  It appears to be how we are wired.  And it seems we can’t help but think the “mind” exhibited at our own scale is unique, without properly accounting for evidence of intelligent behavior in clustered matter at orders of magnitude both smaller and larger than us.  There are almost as many bacteria in our body as there are cells with our own DNA.  Yet we seldom recognize these microscopic organisms as individuals, rather we recognize only the collective “me”?   A city exhibits the ordered pattern of an organism, but we view recognize only the individual “me”‘s not the city itself as a “mind.”  Might our particular scale be restricting our appreciation for “mind” at different dimensional scales?

It seems to me that the primary limitation, and one that cannot be avoided within human perception, is the particular nature of human perception.  We cannot know what we do not know.  As Erwin Schrodinger said, “The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as a part of it.”  What I perceive is just one way of experiencing the universe.  It is just one version of the universe, painted using my five sense perceptual palette.  I try to remind myself of that whenever I think I know more.


Beginning the World

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New Year’s celebrations remind me of a song by a band named the Innocence Mission titled, “Beginning the World.”  She sings about the nervousness of starting school, the uncertainty of what she’s doing with her life, and recites in the chorus: “I am always beginning the world.”  Those words always struck a chord with me, serving as a reminder that (as the cliche goes) every new day is the beginning of the rest of the your life.

So are we really free to begin anew?

The phrase “Same Shit Different Day” (SSDD), while often innocuous, communicates the anti-thesis of this.  It suggest a rut of unfulfilling habit.  No change is occurring.  Nothing memorable is being experienced.  No new pages are being added to your life story.

In this TED talk, Psychologist Daniel Kahneman discusses what he describes as concurrent but separate versions of Self: an experiential self, and a self of memory.  The former is the part of us that experiences each moment, forever existing in the “now”.  The self of memory (our memory-story, I will call it) is the meta view of ourselves; it compiles our story, creates connections in memory, anticipates futures memories, so forth.  Our memory-story, he points out, is not linear.  A ten second sequence can feel like forever, and whole weeks (years, even) can go utterly unrecorded.  Our memory-story does not care about time as measured by clocks, but rather is focused on change.  Noteworthy change.  According to Kahneman, it is change that is recorded and remembered.  Twenty straight days of lying blissfully on a beach is roughly the same as one day of lying blissfully on a beach to our memory-story.  Though our experiential memory likely loves each day the same, our memory-story does not appear to sum the total pleasure.  There is nothing new being added to the memory-story of our lives by the additional 19 days of repetition.

If life is what we remember it to be, is SSDD functionally equivalent to not living at all?

In “The Information“, James Gleick describes Claude Shannon as equating information with complexity (or perhaps more accurately, entropy).  He says, “According to this measure, a million zeroes and a million coin tosses lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. The empty string is as simple as can be; the random string is maximally complex. The zeroes convey no information; coin tosses produce the most information possible.”  In other words, the more repetitive a pattern is, the less information it conveys.  In this sense, a life of SSDD is void of information.

Does that make a life of SSDD void of meaning?  Is a life filled with sudden and surprising changes maximally informative?  Maximally meaningful?

Then again, there are many for whom routine appears to be a necessary anchor.  One of my children has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and one can see how important routine and repetition are to his ability to navigate his world.  He is not alone.  I find myself savoring tedium at times, perhaps for different reasons than my son.  Raking leaves, shoveling snow, driving to work, etc, are all tasks that engage my body while allowing my mind to wander off to some separate task.  In that sense, a small portion of SSDD would seem healthy and perhaps even necessary.  In “The Information”, James Gleick expands on the contrast between maximum complexity/information (a random series of digits) and minimum complexity/information (unvaried repetition) by asserting, “…these extremes have something in common.  They are dull.  They have no value. If either one were a message from another galaxy, we would attribute no intelligence to the sender. If they were music, they would be equally worthless. Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace.”

Perhaps a little Same Shit Different Day serves as a baseline that helps make a truly Different day memorable and Beginning the World momentous?


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