Category Archives: Ah, Sophia!

Contemporary philosophical musings and their various relatives.

You Can Relax Concerning the Doomsday Argument

Well, you can relax a little.

The Doomsday Argument has a very dramatic name.  Even it’s sometimes alternate name, the Carter catastrophe (after its first proponent), is dramatically tragic.  However, this tragedy is falsely earned.

The short version is that, statistically speaking, there is a likely end to our species around 1.2 trillion humans born (you and I are about the 100 billionth humans born).  This is of course some distance off into the future, but it is an end nonetheless.

It is easy to see why this would seem like a tragedy to the namers and contemplaters of this argument:  The end of the human species!

There are some pessimistic, even cynical, folks who would cheer this tragic end.  Sad little monkeys.

But fear not intrepid reader, this is not necessarily the tragic end it at first glance appears.

Evolution.  Marvelous machinations.  If the end of homo sapiens falls somewhere in the next 1.1 trillion members, we can also imagine that homo exim will arise during that period.  Nothing lives forever, but so many things do create viable offspring.

If any of this turns out to be true, then the Argument is correct in predicting the end of our species, but it is laughably wrong in its assessment of that outcome.  Let’s just hope we evolve into something more interesting than Morlocks.


Trolley Dilemma Refined

I once had an on-line conversation concerning the Trolley Problem where my interlocutor made an attempt to leap through the horns of the dilemma.  His stance was simply that doing nothing, not getting involved, was the most moral position because he could wash his hands of any deaths which resulted.  Let us leave aside the moral problem of refusing to get involved (I’m looking at you, eye-witnesses who won’t talk to the police) and test a slightly different version of the problem.

I present for you a version of the Trolley Problem with narrowed horns.

You are walking along the sidewalk when a distinct ka-chunk sounds and you are stopped in your tracks as a monitor comes to life to reveal the following situation.

You have actuated a plate in the sidewalk which has aimed an approaching train at a group of, say, five persons, who will all be killed if the train reaches them.  If you step off of the plate on which you are now standing you divert the train back to the former track where it will in fact kill one person.

What is your decision?

This modified version of the problem can be further modified in all the usual ways the former Trolley Problem has been modified (number of persons, status of persons, &c) for testing further moral nuance.  I trust though that this version will eliminate at least one avenue of attempted escape for those who would rather not contemplate the epically tragic and thus flee between the horns of this dilemma.


Fair in Height the Cells See Us

Living in the US means, from time to time, rejecting things French.  This includes but is not limited to French fries, French dressing, and the decimal system of weights and measures.  Damn, those French are busy beavers.

Since we tend to remain obtuse in matters Celsius, it can be tricky to understand (without resulting to a Web tool for translation) what the current temperature as measured in the C entails.

Let this simple lesson provide a useful framework.

Famously, water freezes at zero Celsius and water boils at one hundred Celsius (at sea level at any rate but your elevation changes the numbers for both systems so let’s ignore that for this discussion).  These are not all that useful in a day-to-day sense.

Don’t get me wrong, if you remember zero is freezing it’s easy to understand the difference between 5 ° and -5 ° and what the roads are likely to be like.  Sure, that’s useful.  But it really ends there.  Ok, yeah, zero is thirty-two.  Yay!

But how many even remember that water boils at 212 °?  It doesn’t often come up in casual conversation and it’s never come up in the weather report.

So, to the lesson.

Remember these two numbers:  twenty and thirty.

That’s it.  If you can remember those two numbers Celsius (centigrade) will suddenly make enough sense in any context as to be useful in a day-to-day sense.

Let me explain.  You’ll see the simplicity.

Twenty is sixty-eight and thirty is eighty-five.  That is the full range of human comfort, that ten degree span.

20 ° C = 68 ° F

30 ° C = 85 ° F

Now you see the structure of what matters.  If it’s 20 ° and dropping (or lower) you know you’ll need to bundle yourself appropriately.  If it’s 30 ° and rising (or higher) you know you’ll need to keep to the shade and carry iced drinks from shaded spot to shaded spot.

That’s it.  That’s the entire lesson.  From twenty to thirty is where human comfort lives.  Now you know.


When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone.  Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned.  We classify a Pekinese and a Great Dane together as dogs without hesitating, even though the Pekinese might seem to have more in common with a cat and a Great Dane with a pony.  If we stopped to reflect on definitions of ‘dogness’ or on the other categories for sorting out life, we could never get on with the business of living.
Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power.  A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the ‘soft’ rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, may wither on the vine.  A misshelved book may disappear forever.  An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated.  All social action flows through boundaries determined by classification schemes, whether or not they are elaborated as explicitly as library catalogues, organization charts, and university departments.  All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology.  Monsters like the ‘elephant man’ and the ‘wolf boy’ horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between categories:  ‘slimy’ reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, ‘nasty’ rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication.  We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel.  ‘Squirrel’ can be a term of endearment, as in Helmer’s epithet for Nora in A Doll’s House.  Yet squirrels are rodents, as dangerous and disease-ridden as rats.  They seem less threatening because they belong unambiguously to the out-of-doors.  It is the in-between animals, the neither-fish-nor-fowl, that have special powers and therefore ritual value:  thus the cassowaries in the mystery cults of New Guinea and the tomcats in the witches’ brews of the West.  Hair, fingernail parings, and feces also go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world.  All borders are dangerous.  If left unguarded, they break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.
Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business.  A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo.  Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous.  Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another.  It has bite.  Thus Diderot and d’Alembert took enormous risks when they undid the order of knowledge and drew new lines between the known and unknown.

–– Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 192-193

(Diderot and d’Ambert edited the famous Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.  I would guess they would be very much impressed by the advent of the Internet.)  


Self v Other re: Ideas

There will come many times as you progress through life where the other will present opposition to the self.  This is not surprising in the main, but it will potentially be in the specific.  It can come at any time and it can work to pull out that proverbial rug.  Proceed with caution.

I was taking guitar lessons from a guy I knew.  Not much of teacher, really, but he had his certain skills as a guitar player.  At any rate I informed him when we were first starting out about how I was developing my finger-picking style.  It was a style that involved all five fingers of the picking hand.  He dismissed this as not being finger-picking but perhaps merely some gimmick and proceeded to inform me of a two-to-three finger-picking style (such as he used).

Subsequently I read about other finger-picking styles, some of which included five-finger styles.  Perhaps he wasn’t wrong but he wasn’t all that right.

When I was a young driver I received a negligent driving ticket.  This is a criminal as opposed to a moving violation, and as such is subject to trial by (short=8 person) jury.  I told my mom I would be defending myself in court and she proceeded to inform me that I would be up against professional attorneys and would surely lose.

This is the only time I swore at my mother.  I scolded her for not believing in my abilities.  Subsequently I won in court.  The assistant prosecutor said to the prosecutor “his jury instructions are better than yours” when I arrived at court prepared for court the first day.  The prosecution motioned to dismiss.  No one objected.  The case was dismissed.  Perhaps she wasn’t wrong but she wasn’t all that right.

During my time studying architecture at the University of Washington I remarked to a professor that I had surmised architectural perspectival drawing was a type of geometry.  He assured me that was not the case at all.  I could not imagine a way to reconcile these disparate notions; surely it must be a kind of geometry.  We even built each line according to a set of rules!  Alas, he said, it was not.  Even Euclid, primarily famous for his Geometry, wrote one other book to secure fame and his place in history:  Optiks.  No, not geometry.

Subsequently, I read this passage in “Math through the Ages (A Gentle History for Teachers and Others)” by William P Berlinghoff and Fernando Q Gouvêa (page 36):

Somewhat related to all this was the discovery of perspective by Italian artists.  Figuring out how to draw a picture that gave the impression of three-dimensionality was quite difficult.  The rules for how to do it have real mathematical content.  Though the artists of the Renaissance did not subject these rules to a complete mathematical analysis, they understood that what they were doing was a form of geometry.  Some of them, such as Albrecht Dürer, were quite sophisticated in their understanding o the geometry involved.  In fact, Dürer wrote the first printed work dealing with higher plane curves, and his investigation of perspective and proportion is reflected both in his paintings and in the artistic work of his contemporaries.

As you can see, many did not know that what they were doing was geometry but yet some did.  Perhaps my professor wasn’t wrong but he wasn’t all that right.

Also at the UW, I had a philosophy professor who let me know that what he was doing was philosophy but he was unclear as to what I was doing.  I suggested my philosophical leanings were more narrative to his more analytical leanings.  He also insisted this was incomprehensible, assuring me that he was doing philosophy and having no idea what I was doing.  I could hear Nietzsche cringe, I’m sure of it.

It’s hard not to believe people, especially those whom you respect for any reason, when they tell you that your brilliant idea is shit.  It’s always a challenge to disagree with the other and all the more challenging in this kind of situation.  Often these folks are trying to help!  They are not nefarious.  They want you to succeed!

Of course, just because this pattern exists doesn’t guarantee the self is justified or correctly imaging the world at large.  But it may well be worth your time to scour the literature or other evidence to see if there isn’t a modicum of vindication available.  And, as always, proceed with caution.

As a peripheral tale, when I was in grade school and bored with the math homework we had been assigned (four-digit multiplication) I sought to make it more interesting by doing the assignment in Roman numerals.  I don’t know if you have ever tried doing any sort of math with Roman numerals but they are not well-suited to long multiplication, let me tell you!

Also from Math through the Ages (but page 70):

Of course, it’s not impossible to compute with Roman numerals.  It’s just complicated.  Logician Martin Davies tells that

“In 1953, I had a summer job at Bell Labs in New Jersey (now Lucent), and my supervisor was Claude Shannon [a computer pioneer and the creator of the mathematical theory of communication].  On his desk was a mechanical calculator that worked with Roman numerals.  Shannon had designed it and had it built in the little shop Bell Labs had put at his disposal.  On a name plate, one could read that the machine was to be called “Throback I.”

Though we still use Roman numerals for ornamental purposes, there is no chance we’ll ever abandon the compact, convenient, and useful Hindu-Arabic system.  The power of the Hindu-Arabic system stems from its efficient positional structure, which is based on powers of ten.  That’s why we call it a decimal place value system.

I managed to complete only one of the problems assigned.  The teacher made no mention of these efforts.  I was disappointed.  I thought “look what I did!” and no one cared.  Story of my life, I guess.


Things to Do Today

  • Working toward any goal is merely a matter of selecting something I can do and then doing it.
  • Brush and floss my teeth.
  • Expend some energy while making my heart race and perhaps sweat a little.
  • Eat some vegetables and maybe some fruit.
  • Take some action which may by its doing make The World a better place.
  • Remind someone I love them, especially those who (maybe) think I am upset with them.
  • Honor reason as my guide and as the guide of others.
  • Respect the evidence.
  • Contemplate the good, the true, the kind, the wise, as these are our best guideposts.
  • Say what I mean and mean what I say.
  • Finish something I already started.
  • “Yes and…” (or at the very least “Yes but…”).
  • I’ll do my best to be my best me.