3QD: Living in Bubbles

A crisis, by definition, has dramatic effects. It changes how we behave, where wealth goes, what policies we enact, and what we hope. But it also can bring into higher relief features of our lives that have not changed, but turn out to be more important than we realized.

Soap bubbles, by Jean Siméon Chardin (1733-4)

Like the fact that human life takes place in bubbles. This just means that humans like to form groups: somewhat closed networks of interactive relationships among a small number of relatives or friends whose principal job it is to care for one another. “Semi-permeable palliative social matrices” one could call them, but “bubbles” will work just fine. A bubble is an enclosed space, protected from the outside by a fragile boundary; all its points are equidistant from a center; it is almost invisible, but offers a hopeful shine when the light hits it right. All the same can be said of a circle of good friends. And all of human history has been built upon such bubbles.

More here…

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The Ring of Gyges (a story)

So, I’m no fiction writer (at least, not on purpose). I give it a shot now and then, for fun. A while back I had a plan to write a series of stories featuring the “wonder cabinet” of Dr Tenebris, which would be a stockpile of amazing and magical artifacts of the past. I wrote a story about the ring of Gyges (made famous in Plato’s Republic), and got partway through a story about the Antikythera mechanism before giving up. (This was the real Antikythera mechanism, the one that could change the motions of the planets, not the duplicate in that museum in Athens.) Like I said, I’m no fiction writer. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t embarrass yourself before a broader audience? So here is my effort at telling a story of the ring of Gyges.

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Richard Marshall interview at 3:16

Richard Marshall is a creative and interesting guy who has passions for making vivid paintings and interviewing philosophers. Somehow he decided to interview me, with the result to be found here. I had loads of fun answering his questions.

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3QD: Freedom and determinism – what we can learn from the failures of two pretty good arguments

The “Consequence Argument” is a powerful argument for the conclusion that, if determinism is true, then we have no control over what we do or will do. The argument is straightforward and simple (as given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Premise 1: No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
Premise 2: No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).
Conclusion: Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

Premise 1 seems awfully secure. Authors of history books might change people’s beliefs about the past, but try as they might, they won’t actually change the past. Similarly, scientists may write about the laws of nature however they please, but nothing they write will change those laws. No one can control the facts of the past, or the laws of nature.

Premise 2 looks pretty good too. For at least great big patches of nature, events happen because of the way things are or have been, and because of the continuous governance of the laws of nature. True, there are subatomic phenomena that seem to be indeterministic (Einstein was wrong, and God or nature does seem to roll teensy-weensy dice). But for whatever reason, it also seems that as these subatomic bits are assembled into larger parts of nature, the dice rolling seems to no longer have any effect, and at that point we enter upon a deterministic universe. Certainly by the time we get to big globs of neurons within the skulls of homo sapiens, wired up to eyeballs and limbs, we are in a domain where the fact is that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future.

And the conclusion follows: we have no power to affect the future. So that’s it. We’re done.

More here…

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Structure, Energy, and Reality

This past term I’ve been teaching a capstone class in which students are supposed to write a longer paper on some topic that means a lot to them. It’s meant to be a culminating event for their undergraduate work in philosophy. The class is always a fun exchange of ideas in which I can just participate rather than lead. It’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 virus came along – for many more serious reasons, of course, but also because it meant our seminar meetings were cut short, and we didn’t get to continue having the fun we were having.

I decided this term to write my own “undergraduate thesis on a topic that means a lot to me”, and came up with the following treatise on the nature of reality. I may as well post it here!


Structure, energy, reality


(from the ICERM website at Brown University)

In this brief essay I will advocate the view that reality is a collection of possible mathematical structures infused with energy. There are many important questions I will not answer, such as what determines the range of mathematical possibility, what energy is, how a possible structure comes to be infused with energy, or whether there are any mathematical structures not infused with energy, in some universe or other. These are vital questions, but I do not know the answers to them. Still, one has to start somewhere. To provide a clear account of my view, I will divide this essay into three sections: (1) math as form; (2) energy as matter; and (3) the differences levels of interpretation make.

1. Math as form
Aristotle was right to think of substances as form united with matter, and right again to think of form as the more important of the two. When we seek to explain natural things or events, we always must turn to the form or structure of the things or events. When some atoms combine to form a molecule, what really matters are the structures of those atoms and their valences; the brute matter composing the atoms does not enter into the explanation, except as that matter is represented through structural and electrical properties. In this sense, materialism, understood literally as the view that everything is composed of matter, is false. If it were true, one would never be able to explain anything. There must be form as well as matter, and in any explanation, form matters more.

It might seem like form is not as real as matter, because form is usually not available to our senses except by being present in matter. We never see sphericality, but we see billiard balls and planets, and we might think of sphericality as a property that depends for its existence on some material substrate that has greater ontological weight. But this is an illusion that comes from the ways we are taught to talk about our sensory experience. When we become more serious about reality, we learn to talk about objects in the world independently of how they appear to us, and we try to talk about the world as it is in itself. As we do so, we begin to speak exclusively of the formal properties of objects: their structures, how they move, what other powers or properties they have, the range of ways they can affect other objects, and so on. The language of science is a language ranging over nature’s formal properties, and learning to speak it means leaving behind the ordinary supposition that material substrates are more important than the forms or structures they have.

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3QD: Our very own annus mirabilis

This isn’t the first time universities have shut down from fear of pestilence. In 1665, “it pleased the Almighty God in his just severity to visit this towne of Cambridge with the plague of pestilence”, and Cambridge University was closed. Students were sent home, and all public gatherings were canceled. Some students arranged to meet with tutors over that time, but we can suspect that a good number of students simply went home, forgot about their studies entirely, prayed fervently, and followed whatever strategies they could to lessen the chance of death.

More here….

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3QD: Thoughts on Killing a Dog

Last week we had our dog put down. It was time. She was getting old and facing some serious neurological difficulties. The tipping point was a pair of severe seizures in the middle of the night, spaced about a minute apart. I know that seizures can trigger more seizures, and as I was trying to help ease her through the second one, I was thinking “What if this is it? What if she keeps seizing until she dies?” and I wondered whether I would have the nerve to strangle her myself rather than let her die in that horrible way. Thankfully, I was not put to that test. She came out of the second seizure, and stumbled around blind for the rest of the night, trying to escape from the dark hole she thought she was in.

The rest of the essay is here.

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