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Gosh a mickle:
Thursday, July 15, 2004  permanent URL for this entry
Note: given all that's going on for the next week or more, I'd be Really Surprised if I managed to post anything here. So don't expect anything until, oh, say the 27th or so.

While I'm gone, you can all read In Dark, my second novel. It's short, really a novelette or maybe novella. I read it for the first time myself last night, and it's actually not bad. (Hey, I spent a whole month writing it!)

(Hm, you know, this story's sort of asking for a sequel, isn't it?)

Interesting Reg article about someone who fell for a 419 scam, including much of the correspondance in both directions. File under "How Not To".

From Medley yet again, a funny story.

A ponytailed man standing next to us confirmed the event, saying, "I do believe the President of the U.S. just gave you boys the finger."

Or perhaps a scary story. But I'd rather think of it as funny.

That little meme we launched the other year seems to have done well for itself. Even made the Guardian!

Subject: all i want is.. seedling herself
Subject: all i want is.. fallible carry

Subject: the simple plan worked comprise dumpy

Let's see. In the next installment of our philosophical ramblings from yesterday and the day before, someone who used to have a weblog pointed out another defensible position: that physically impossible things (like making gold melt at room temperature) have the same status as logically impossible things (like making a five-sided rectangle, or expressing the square root of two as the ratio of two integers).

It's not a position I currently subscribe to myself, but it's I think an interesting one: that just as "to express the square root of two as the ratio of two integers" turns out to be impossible essentially by definition, but in way that's not evident without a lot of work, so "to make gold melt at room temperature" might turn out also to be impossible by definition.

The laws of physics, that is, might be just as necessary, or just as "by definition", as the laws of logic. (Indeed it might turn out that there's no place to draw a line between them.)

Heh, I'm not expressing this very well.

But that's okay!

Wednesday, July 14, 2004  permanent URL for this entry

Ha, well! (Anti-)Gay Marriage Amendment Defeated in US Senate, which is a good thing, although 48 votes for cloture is 47 too many (even the Senate needs one crackpot).

We can thank our enlightened leadership for this outcome, including our president himself, who in a recent Q&A session came out squarely in favor of both marriage equality:

We reduced the marriage penalty. If one of the things you're trying to do in America is encourage families and marriage, it doesn't make any sense to tax marriage, does it? I just don't understand -- marriage "penalty." Why would you want to penalize marriage? We want to be encouraging marriage in America...

... and the absolute right of Americans to kinky sex, adult incest, recreational drugs, adultery, and so on:

And I repeat to you -- my own view is, is that if a state -- if people decide to -- what they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do. This is America. It's a free society.

Good stuff! I wonder if John Ashcroft knows about this.

We got all that juicy stuff from here, which we got to from the also interesting Bush, Lay hire same attorney, which we got to from Medley (ooh, I'm footnoting so well today!).

From Metababy, of all places, one o' them amazing modern optical illusions (I'm still not entirely convinced it's not an animated GIF or something; I should print it out just to be sure).

And I thought I should mention that I've added "summary" elements to the Atom feed, and y'all should tell me if I've broken it for you (or improved it, for that matter).

There's other stuff to link to and write about and stuff, but this reader:

Is it a logical impossibility? What sort of system of logic are you using, and why must a god (a God) conform with it?

gives us an excuse to launch off into our favorite sort of sophomoric philosophizing, so we'll do that instead.

What, indeed, can an onmipotent being do? Can it do things that are logically impossible? Is it outside logic, as well as being outside (say) physical law? Let's have some Fun!

Can an omnipotent being get 800's on its SATs? Yes. That is, e can do things that people can do, even if they're Really Hard.

Can an omnipotent being, incarnated as a human, run a ten-second mile? Yes. That is, e can also do things that aren't just hard for people, but impossible, in the "biologically impossible" sense. Also in this sense, e can cause a flatworm to bud an African Lion, cause grass to grow out of Paul Simon's ears, and so on.

Can an omnipotent being create energy from nothing? Sure. Violating physical law should be no problem. E can cause a softball to lose all its mass and float gracefully in the air; e can make any amount of matter have any mass at all, instantly supress the charge on the proton, violate the mass-energy conservation laws, make water flow uphill, gold melt at room temperature, and so on.

Can an omnipotent being construct the trisector of an arbitrary angle using only a ruler and a compass? That is, can e do the logically impossible? I'm going to defer that one, 'cause it's perhaps the most interesting.

Can an omnipotent being strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa? Now if "strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa" means something, the answer might be "yes". But let's stipulate that it doesn't mean anything. So can an omnipotent being do that? I think that's a good question.

(And note that causing "strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa" to mean "make a loud noise", and then making a loud noise, doesn't count; you don't get to be omnipotent just by redefining words.)

Here's a slightly more focused version. Let's define the word "squex", which is a transitive verb that means "to look at a squirrel". So you can say "Be sure to squex that enormous orange squirrel in the park next time you're there", or "I spent all afternoon squexing the black squirrel that lives under the porch." Okay, so.

Can an omnipotent being squex a badger?

I have a hard time imagining that the right answer to these questions is "yes". If an omnipotent being can strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa, or can squex a badger, all sorts of difficult questions pop up. What if you had a being that was omnipotent except that e could not strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa? How would that being differ from the omnipotent being? Seems bizarre. (I realize "seems bizarre" isn't a real strong argument; but it does seem bizarre.)

Now that doesn't mean the right answer is "no", either; the answer is probably something like "huh?", or "what are you talking about?", or a rude noise.

And what we're (probably obviously) leading up to is this: is the question "can an omnipotent being do [something logically impossible]?" more like "can an omnipotent being create energy from nothing?", or more like "can an omnipotent being strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa?"?

Just to prod your intuition a bit more, here are some other edge cases. Can an omnipotent being draw a rectangle with five sides? Can an omnipotent being create an empty box that isn't empty? Can an omnipotent being express the square root of two as the ratio of two integers? How about finding the smallest even prime number greater than twelve? Or (an especially tricky one) finding the even integer between three and seven?

There's an interesting continuum that goes from "strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa" (which clearly means nothing) through "a rectangle with five sides" (which arguably means nothing) and "the even integer between three and seven" (which sort of means something but fails to refer for basically grammatical reasons) and "the square root of two expressed as the ratio of two integers" (which perhaps has meaning but turns out to have no reference once you do enough math) and the philosophically famous "the present king of France" (which has meaning, but has no reference for mundane factual reasons). Can God shake the hand of the present king of France?

And, getting back to our original case from yesterday, if the very nature of evidence and justification and certainty are such that, more or less by definition, no evidence is ever sufficient to justify being certain of anything (I'm not arguing for or against this at the moment, but let's just stipulate it), is "can God ever be certain of anything?" more like "can God make water flow uphill?", or more like "can God squex a badger?"?

I'm definitely not insisting that God can't do one or more of these things; presumably e could just ("just") redefine the ontological and semantic basis of the universe, and then proceed to strofey nahpo cwaffa cwaffa. (But then what about "Can an omnipotent being squex a badger without redefining the ontological or semantic basis of the universe?")

But it's an interesting thing to wonder about. Good exercise, if nothing else.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004  permanent URL for this entry

Would a god (or a God) be any more justified in believing in the basic reliability of its (his, her, their) knowledge and perceptions than we are?

I mean, an omnipotent and omniscient God would know everything, and would know that e knew everything, and all, but I can't think of a mechanism whereby e'd be certain that e knew everything.

This is to say, it seems that even an omnipotent and omniscient God would be just as subject to the sorts of "what if I'm really a brain floating in a vat?" or "what if this is really all just a simulation?" or even (a divine version of) "what if my friends are really all being paid by a powerful secret organization to pretend to like me?" questions that we mere humans (or at least we mere humans with too much time on our hands) are subject to.

Which is sort of an odd thought.

Of course there could be something that I (not being a God) don't know about that handles this case (see for instance the little story aways down this entry). But it seems almost a logical impossibility: whatever other mechanism there is, it seems true almost by definition that God couldn't be justified in being certain that it wasn't deceiving him.

This reminds me, also, of a story from Straight on to the Exit. Here it is:

Once upon a time (this is another story that his Uncle told him, he thinks; or perhaps his father) there were in a far-off country two Gods. One God lived on the highest mountain in that country, and one lived on the coldest mountain. Each God knew all that there was to know about the country; the flow of every river, the name and fate of every man and woman, the hairs of every head, the sound of every sigh (and, Hunter thinks, the whereabouts of every pencil, the length of every rainstorm).

Both Gods knew everything there was to know about the country, but: neither God knew who he was. The God that lived on the highest mountain knew everything there was to know about the country, and knew that the country had two omniscient Gods, but he did not know "I am that God that lives on the highest mountain". The God that lived on the coldest mountain knew everything there was to know about the country, and he knew that the country had two omniscient Gods, but he did not know "I am that God that lives on the coldest mountain."

Every man knows who he is, and every woman knows who she is. So these Gods, high and omniscient as they were, grew jealous of the poor ignorant mortals, for their self-knowledge. The God on the highest mountain plotted to rain fire on the valleys, and kill the men and women (and he knew "the God on the highest mountain is plotting to kill the people", but he did not know that that was him). The God on the coldest mountain resolved to become a human himself, sacrificing knowledge of all things for knowledge of himself.

On the day that the God of the highest mountain was set to release the killing fire, the God of the coldest mountain perfected his magic, and entered the mind of the country's tiniest infant, just being born and crying the cry of his birth. Then the God of the highest mountain knew "there is only one omniscient God in the country", and knew it must be he, and withheld his fire. And the God of the coldest mountain, now only an infant bloody and wailing on his mother's stomach, sucked in air, and knew who he was, and knew nothing else.

Now these Gods are by design not omnipotent, of course, so it's a different story. My epiphany (ha ha a joke!) tonight is that even an omniscient and omnipotent God would (it seems) still lie awake at night wondering if maybe it's all just a dream or a delusion. Because even for a God, how could there be certainty?

I never saw a moor...

Well, I have. It's bleak and cold, and fun for flying kites from - and watching fun people throwing themsleves from (hilly moors) with only fabric and fibre glass to prevent them hitting the ground very hard.

I liked, said the Cid. Hey, the Cid, they said. Lighten up. It's not like they're all bad. Some of our best friends are moors. They make a mean pilaf. The Cid sulked. The more moors sighed their last, the happier he was. And so, children, think. Who has left their mark on history. On the one hand we have palaces, medical discovery, astromonical observation, Al Andalus. On the other, we have a movie that is at the very least a whole hour too long; and rather dull to boot.

and I never hope to see one (oh, wait, that's purple cows)

In the subject of questions with odd answers... I'm often asked questions like "Are you going to the Cinema tomorrow, or will you be staying at home ?", to which I will answer "Yes". Then the person asking has to ask which I mean - kinda defeats the point of asking a question if you don't understand the answer when it's given, doesn't it ? Usually I have to then explain that I'm answering their question, not the clarifier - the entire sentence being "[question being asked], [counter example for clarification] ?". Maybe I'm just awkward, but it seems odd that so many people use the form yet can't understand the response.



(Speaking of Emily Dickenson, does anyone know why the Web has two versions of this poem, one with "what a wave must be" and "As if the chart were given", and the other (strange to me) with "what a Billow be" and "As if the Checks were given"? "Checks"?)

I never saw a moor...

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Grab the nearest book
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So how's that meme doing these days?

While we're way off in the stratosphere thinking about the epistemic limitations of Gods, I'll mention that I also don't understand Time. In the simplest roughly Newtonian model of the universe, there's this big four-manifold, and at every point in it there are a bunch of values. There are lawlike relationships between the values, and many of those lawlike relationships give a special emphasis to one of the four co-ordinates in the system, and we call that one "time", and that's all fine.

But there's more to it than that, and even expressing the more-to-it-ness is confusing. There's a particular slice through the four-manifold, a slice parallel to the time axis, the set of points such that the value of the time coordinate is equal to a certain constant, that's special. That set of points is the Now, is the Present, and is different from all other slices.

And (and this is where it gets inexpressible) which slice is actually special changes. But what does "changes" mean? We could say "it's a different slice at different times", but then what's this "time" thing? It's not the time coordinate of the four-manifold; is it some other time?

Which is, I think, more or less the quandry that drove J. W. Dunne to accepting an infinite regress of stacked-up consciousnesses in An Experiment with Time. But that doesn't strike me as a particularly satisfactory solution.


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