Happy π Day!

Because, of course, you can’t spell πράγματος without π.


Pi Day is also Einstein’s birthday, so we’ll take as our text for today, “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” I’ve been saving up a couple of links, so pay attention.

First, via Brad DeLong, Boltzmann’s Universe at Cosmic Variance.

Here’s how it goes. Forget that we are “typical” or any such thing. Take for granted that we are exactly who we are — in other words, that the macrostate of the universe is exactly what it appears to be, with all the stars and galaxies etc. By the “macrostate of the universe,” we mean everything we can observe about it, but not the precise position and momentum of every atom and photon. Now, you might be tempted to think that you reliably know something about the past history of our local universe — your first kiss, the French Revolution, the formation of the cosmic microwave background, etc. But you don’t really know those things — you reconstruct them from your records and memories right here and now, using some basic rules of thumb and your belief in certain laws of physics.

The point is that, within this hypothetical thermal equilibrium universe from which we are purportedly a fluctuation, there are many fluctuations that reach exactly this macrostate — one with a hundred billion galaxies, a Solar System just like ours, and a person just like you with exactly the memories you have. And in the hugely overwhelming majority of them, all of your memories and reconstructions of the past are false. In almost every fluctuation that creates universes like the ones we see, both the past and the future have a higher entropy than the present — downward fluctuations in entropy are unlikely, and the larger the fluctuation the more unlikely it is, so the vast majority of fluctuations to any particular low-entropy configuration never go lower than that.

Therefore, this hypothesis — that our universe, complete with all of our records and memories, is a thermal fluctuation around a thermal equilibrium state — makes a very strong prediction: that our past is nothing like what we reconstruct it to be, but rather that all of our memories and records are simply statistical flukes created by an unlikely conspiracy of random motions. In this view, the photograph you see before you used to be yellow and wrinkled, and before that was just a dispersed collection of dust, before miraculously forming itself out of the chaos.

Note that this scenario makes no assumptions about our typicality — it assumes, to the contrary, that we are exactly who we (presently) perceive ourselves to be, no more and no less. But in this scenario, we have absolutely no right to trust any of our memories or reconstructions of the past; they are all just a mirage. And the assumptions that we make to derive that conclusion are exactly the assumptions we really do make to do conventional statistical mechanics! Boltzmann taught us long ago that it’s possible for heat to flow from cold objects to hot ones, or for cream to spontaneously segregate itself away from a surrounding cup of coffee — it’s just very unlikely. But when we say “unlikely” we have in mind some measure on the space of possibilities. And it’s exactly that assumed measure that would lead us to conclude, in this crazy fluctuation-world, that all of our notions of the past are chimeric.

Our spoilsport author goes on, “Now, just like Boltzmann’s Brain, nobody believes this is true,” but, just for Pi Day, let’s suspend our disbelief until tomorrow.

Speaking of Sean Carroll, we also have Michael Bérubé’s review of his forthcoming From Eternity to Here: The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time.

Time just isn’t what it used to be. And space has gotten to be a bit of a problem, as well. When I was a lad, physicists told me that they had these things pretty well figured out: they had discovered material evidence of the Big Bang, they had adjusted their conception of the age and evolution of the universe accordingly, and, having recalculated the universe’s rate of expansion (after Hubble’s disastrous miscalculations threw the field into disarray), they were working on the problem of trying to figure out whether the whole thing would keep expanding forever or would eventually slow down and snap back in a Big Crunch. The key, they said, lay in finding all the “missing mass” that would enable a Big Crunch to occur, because at the time it looked as if we only had two or three percent of the stuff it would take to bring it all back home. When I asked them why a Big Crunch, and a cyclical universe, should be preferable to a universe that just keeps going and going, they told me that the idea of a cyclical eternity was more pleasing and comfortable than the idea of a one-off event; and when I asked them what came before the Big Bang, they patted my head and told me that because the Big Bang initiated all space and time, there was no such thing as “before the Big Bang.”

But now they tell me that most of that account of the world is wrong. For one thing, the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, which puts a crimp in the plans of everyone who’d been counting on its eventual collapse; worse still, no one can explain why it is that the universe is different now than it was, say, 14 billion years ago, or why it will be different 14 billion years from now. For the simple and stupefying fact remains that the laws of physics are reversible; nothing in those laws prevents time from running backwards, and it’s entirely possible to have universes in which conscious entities remember the future and remark offhandedly to each other that you can’t get some eggs without breaking an omelet. And yet, our universe obeys those reversible laws of physics even though effects follow causes, old age follows youth, and systems move from states of low entropy to states of high entropy. How can this be? How might it be otherwise?

It’s above my pay grade, this much I know. But thanks in part to local fluctuations in my corner of the universe that allow me to read books before they are written (these are known technically as Borges-Boltzmann Waveforms, or more colloquially, “wrinkles in time”), I can reveal that Caltech physicist Sean Carroll will have addressed—if not quite “answered”—these questions in his new book, From Eternity to Here: The Origin of the Universe and the Arrow of Time. (Not to be confused with this superficially similar book, which has been published in parallel universe XGH0046, where Frank Viola gave up a promising baseball career in order to become a Christian writer.)

Good stuff. Go get your pie (you’ll need two slices), follow the link (not neglecting the comments thread), settle back, and enjoy the day.

Timeless universe

I note without really understanding an interesting new model where time is an emergent property rather than a fundamental feature of physics.

It is not reality that has a time flow, but our very approximate knowledge of reality. Time is the effect of our ignorance.

Time is so deeply fundamental to human experience that conceiving of reality otherwise seems beyond our capability to directly grapple with such a concept. We can consider anything with sufficient degrees of abstraction, increasingly distancing our thinking from that actual reality it attempts to represent.

Whether or not this new model will prove to have merit, it’s wonderful to see after so much research in fundamental physics for so many years that human imagination still concocts new ideas.

Ludwig and Bertie

Bertie and JeevesLudwig WittgensteinBackground: In a NY Times review of Alexander Waugh’s The House of Wittgenstein, Jim Holt refers to Ludwig as “was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.” This inspired Brian Leiter to run a poll to “settle this once and for all” (answer: Wittgenstein by a narrow plurality). Harry Brighouse, at Crooked Timber, linked to the poll, and a long list of comments ensued.

All well and good, but not the point of this post. Tom Hurka, in comments, gives us this:

At the Edinburgh Festival in 1977 I saw a wonderful play called ‘Ludwig and Bertie.’ It was about Wittenstein and Russell … and Bertie Wooster. You see, Russell and Wittgenstein have agreed to meet, for the first time, in the Trinity College, Cambridge library, which happens to be where Bertie Wooster is going to meet this new man he’s hired, called Jeeves. (He’s going to the library to find an ethics book and read about this ‘categorical aperitif.’) Well, various misidentifications follow, with Russell thinking Bertie is Wittgenstein (and utterly unsuited to philosophy) while Wittgensein thinks Bertie is Russell (and the stupidest man he’s ever met). It all reaches its climax when Russell encounters Jeeves, who’s of course been the Wittgenstein family butler in Vienna and taught Ludwig everything he knows. How, Russell asks him, can the sentence ‘The present king of France is bald’ be meaningful if there’s no present king of France? ‘May I venture to suggest, sir,’ Jeeves replies, ‘that we can analyze this sentence as saying that there is one and only one x such that x is the present king of France and x is bald?’ Fantastic!

Google doesn’t yield much, but I did find this from “the cover blurb on a published version of the play” in a lit-ideas post by David Ritchie

Bertie Wooster has become betrothed to Honoria Russell, daughter of the famous philosopher and Hefeweizen expert, Bertrand Russell. Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia finding herself once again short of funds for her magazine, “Milady’s Untenaable Propositions,” asks Bertie to break into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s bedroom in dead of night and steal his priceless, gold-plated poker, a souvenir of the famous encounter with Professor Popper. Bertie bungles the burglary, escapes with the aid of Jeeves and goes to ground in underneath a ladder in the library. The action begins with Honoria discovering what Bertie has not yet understood: that the ladder, underneath which he pretends to busy himself with the works of Spinoza, is not only not unoccupied, it is festooned with yards of Hildegard Wittgenstein, daughter of Ludwig and a Brownie leader of ferocious aspect. Honoria announces that the engagement is at an end. Hildegard announces that she has been compromized and must therefore marry Bertie. The fathers square off to debate the proposition. Jeeves saves the day and puts both of them right on minor but important points.

Please, God, I would dearly love to have a copy of the play.

Sunday godblogging: Andrew Brown and William James

I first came across Andrew Brown through his fine 1999 book The Darwin Wars (jacket blurb from Daniel Dennett: ‘I wouldn’t admit it if Andrew Brown were my friend. What a sleazy bit of trash journalism’).

Much of Brown’s beat has been coverage of religion (in the UK), and he approaches the subject with considerable sympathy. The “wars” in the Darwin book are not centrally religious (well, not in the God sense), since the subject is primarily internecine intellectual battles, not evolution vs creationism. But buried in a footnote was a signal to me that Brown and I shared a particular point of view: “The clearest and most delightful example of how to think about religious belief is still William James’s The Varieties of Religion Experience” (p171 in the 1999 UK edition). Indeed.

Like Brown, I came to recognize the virtues of Varieties rather late. My undergraduate focus was on the later Wittgenstein, and while of course I encountered James, he didn’t really click with me until I reread Varieties (and subsequently a great deal more of James) decades later.

[A digression: there seems to me to be an affinity between the later James and the later Wittgenstein, though I’d be hard-pressed to define exactly what I mean by that. Russell Goodman’s little book Wittgenstein and William James is interesting, but to my mind too much focused on the less interesting early work of both philosophers.]

But I should let Brown speak for himself; you’ll find more of his on his personal blog, Helmintholog (he wrote a book on nematode research a while back).

(I do beg Andrew Brown and the Guardian to forgive me for my rather extensive, nay, wholesale, quoting of this piece.)

How I lost my unfaith

When I started to write about religion I had no doubt that the future would be more secular and no less rational than the past I had grown up in. I was astonished to discover that there were still educated people who believed that St Paul had anything of interest to say about anything. It seemed obvious that they would fade away even within the church as they had faded outside. I thought that people who had learned about science could not take seriously the possibility of a world which was, as Carl Sagan put it, “demon-haunted”. I made my 13-year-old son read The Selfish Gene, and asked Richard Dawkins to sign his copy.

I suppose it’s 15 years since any of those hopes seemed plausible to me. Today, there are more people calling themselves atheists in the US than ever before, but superstition – as distinct from organised religion – is also a huge and growing business. Astrologers are the highest paid writers on Fleet Street. Creationism is just as absurd as it ever was, but much better funded. Globally, there have never been more believers alive than there are today, just as there have never been more slaves than in today’s world.

So it’s obvious that my earlier faith in the progress of reason was misplaced. The future may very well be more secular, but it won’t be any more rational without a tremendous moral effort — and any collective moral effort will have much of the characteristics of a religion, including a tendency to objectify and later to personify the abstractions by which we orient ourselves in world.

I still don’t for a moment believe in petitionary prayer or an intervening God; as I have said earlier; I don’t even think that the existence of God is a very interesting question. What has changed is what I believe about belief.

The trigger was two-fold. One was reading William James with real attention, but what had provoked that was rereading The Selfish Gene after a prolonged absence while I had been writing about religion. What that book said about biology seemed to me luminous and profound. What it said (in passing) about Christianity was palpable nonsense. I don’t mean here the opinion of God. I mean the description of faith, and of the psychology of belief.

No matter how often is it repeated that religious faith is uniquely and by definition a matter of assent to propositions for which there is no evidence, this simply won’t do as a description. Quite probably some or all forms of religion do involve assent to untrue propositions but so does any programme to change the world. So, for that matter, does belief in memes, or supposing that we, uniquely as a species, can overcome the tyranny of our selfish genes.

The subtle melancholy of Williams James, drifting like a fog into the bright certainties of his Victorian audience and quietly rusting them with doubt, was – and remains – much more realistic. James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience addressed head-on the paradox apparent even 120 years ago, that some people need to have faith to live at all even while everything they know about science suggests it is misplaced or wrong.

This isn’t the only form of religious belief, or even the most important one. The temperament that finds James attractive is not all that widespread. But he does — like Marx — locate the wellsprings of belief in the human heart. Nor does he suppose, as Marx did, that we could transcend the present limitations of our hearts in a revolutionary spasm of enlightenment.

We are all such helpless failures in the last resort.

He wrote:

The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.

Now I submit that the only kind of atheist who does not feel like this sometimes is one who does not feel at all that they are one clay with the lunatics who believe; or else someone who, like Conrad in a letter of about the same period, feels confident enough in his own work not to care:

What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victim of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well – but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife — the tragedy begins. We can’t return to nature since we can’t change our place in it. Our refuge is in stupidity, in drunkenness of all kinds, in lies, in beliefs, in murder, thieving, reforming — in negation, in contempt — each man according to the promptings of his particular devil. There is no morality, no knowledge, and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror, is always but a vain and fleeing appearance.

Both these grim visions are better and more cheerful than the religious prospect of eternal damnation. (I really do not think that anyone sane can contemplate steadily the Calvinist doctrine of eternal conscious torment.) But they are hardly cheerful ones, and they certainly don’t make one optimistic about a future of sunlit rationality.

Oddly enough, I think that James the psychologist was here more realistic about human nature than Conrad the novelist. Perhaps novelists can only make their points sidelong, by incarnation. But either way, when you carry the atheist programme to its conclusion, and naturalise religious belief, you are left with something which grows from the ineradicable desires of the human heart. Of course, a Buddhist might say it is our only hope to eradicate desire – but what is Buddhism but a religion itself?

I don’t doubt that it is possible to extinguish any particular theology and almost any religious community. But when they are gone, what stands in their place are different mythologies. William James was probably the father of the naturalistic study of religion: the psychology of religious experience is studiedly neutral as to the reality of whatever provoked these psychological experiences. But when the study of religion has been entirely naturalised, one of the things we can no longer do is to demonise believers. It may be that psychology tells us that we will continue to demonise our enemies whether or not we decently can: the trick has just proved too useful in the past. But in that case we will hardly have moved into a bright new world of rationality.

Hesperus is Phosphorus

The line is from Gottlob Frege, I gather, though I just now came across it while reading David Chalmers. It’s new to me, though my brief career in academic philosophy centered on Wittgenstein, an admirer of Herr Frege.

Hesperus and Phosphorus are the latinized forms of the Greek personifications of the Evening and Morning Stars, respectively. (Frege’s point was roughly that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” might convey information—the Morning and Evening Stars are in fact the same planet—or might be tautological—Venus is Venus.)

Hesperus is the Roman Vesper, evening (and so vespers). Phosphorus is “bearer of light” (a form of the chemical element phosphorus glows as it reacts with oxygen). The Roman Phosphorus is Lucifer. (And -fer, “bearer” or “bringer”, also shows up in aquifer, conifer, Christopher (St Christopher carried a disguised Christ across a river), and so on.)

And here’s Isaiah 14:12:

When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has ceased! How his insolence has ceased! … How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit. Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who would not let his prisoners go home?”

Isaiah is talking about a Babylonian king, but the passage was later applied to Satan. I like the image of Lucifer, the Day Star, appearing as the brightest object in the pre-dawn sky, only to be eclipsed by the overwhelming brilliance of the Sun God.

Welcome to Pragmatos!

I’ve moved my blog to pragmatos.net; the previous address (http://lobitos.net/wordpress) will be redirected for the foreseeable future. The old RSS feed should still work (NetNewsWire will update the link automatically), but it’s probably advisable to update to the new one.

I’ve also updated WordPress to 2.0; painless, and so far so good.

Why pragmatos? In part, an homage to William James, and in part, the meaning (cf Strong’s 4229) seems appropriate for my blogging.

Word: Mill

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies…

Lord, enlighten thou our enemies… sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.

John Stuart Mill