Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Phenomenon Called Time: My Initial Reactions

Time is so all-permeating in this universe that we take it for granted.  The very laws of physics seem to have at least an element of time to it¸ going all the way back to the Big Bang.  Everything is moving relative to some object in the universe, from the tiniest subatomic particles and photons to whole superclusters of galaxies. That movement requires time. After all,  if no time existed, how can things move (look at how we measure movement in terms of speed: speed equals distance divided by time).

Does time have a beginning or end?  Does it only exist as a product of the human thought process, as some physicists hold?  Or does the “presence” of nothingness simply render time irrelevant but no less existent.  The answer depends on what the definition of time is. The best definition of time I can come up with is as follows: A non-spatial phenomenon that allows for the potential for change, change in position or condition.  Let's break this one down to make it more comprehensible.

A non-spatial (i.e. not bound to or measurable in terms of the three spatial dimensions: up-down, right-left, or forward-backward)

phenomenon: basically a phenomenon is a thing, place, event, or any other kind of occurance.

So another way of defining time is a "thing" that has no height, width, length (in the measuring stick sense) that allows something to change another thing's place or condition/nature. Debatable this definition may be, but that’s the definition I base this post on.

Change in position:  You can move an ice cube across any of the three spatial dimensions: up-down, right-left, or forward-backward.  However, what can not happen is the ice cube being in two different places at the same time a macroscopic object cannot occupy two different places at the same time.  For it to occupy a different position, it needed something that enabled a change in that position. Although at the subatomic level, quantum physics does allow a subatomic particle two different spatial positions simutaneously, subatomic particles themselves do change positions, which still requires something to enable the change in the particle's position - which again requires the phenomenon called time.

Change in condition: For example, the ice cube can stay solid, turn to water, or turn to gas. Also, iron bars rust, living things die, and so forth. Before the iron bar and the living things existed, they were – ultimately – hydrogen nuclei in the cores of stars that eventually fused together.  This was the first event in a long chain of events that lead to the creation of life and that iron bar. This is a change in the condition of the proton and neutron(s), if any, in that hydrogen nucleus – changing from “free floating” single nucleus to being part an iron atom’s nucleus; or in the case of a living thing, being part of the atom of a molecule of a living thing. 

Another example of a change in condition is illuminating an object with a frequency of light it absorbs. If you use the “right” frequency of light, you can change the color of the object (in a manner of speaking). For if a green object happens to absorb all red light, then shining a red light onto that object makes that object appear black.  In both cases, the atoms of those objects experienced changes in condition: the single hydrogen nuclei later incorporated into living matter and the iron bar, the green object reflecting green light, and later reflecting no visible light because the object absorbs red light.  For the nuclei and that green object to change from red to green requires a change in the light spectrum hitting that object. That can happen only if time existed (i.e. enabled the change in condition/characteristic of the light reflected off the object).

I think something similar applies to the nature of time, particularly concerning the beginning of the universe. This directly concerns the question “Has time always existed or did it only begin with the birth of the universe).  Some very respect-worthy physicists say that time itself did not exist before the Big Bang, but I disagree. After all, even if the pre-Big Bang singularity (more accurately, “the pre-Inflation” one) changed into the proverbial “hot primordial soup” of the universe, then that was a change in condition.  Therefore, there had to be something to enable that change in condition, even if there happen to be some intermediary steps within the singularity itself that had to occur that we presently are ignorant of.  The bottom line is that there was a singularity that went from having the original characteristic of the proto-universe (if it be called that) to the post-Bang universe with the “old” characteristics, and finally to the intermediate steps that lead to the universe as we know it today. No matter how or what caused the change in the singularity’s condition, it had to have some phenomenon that allowed for the potential for that change before the actual change in the singularity’s condition –into the universe as we know it.  The changes in the position of all the matter and energy in the universe are self-evident, so I won’t go into it.

For these reasons, I think time is eternal, if defined as the nonspatial phenomenon that allows for changes in the position or condition of anything.  You may disagree with this definition, but that’s your prerogative. I’m happy to hear a better (i.e., more complete, more comprehensive, and more coherent) definition of time, but for now this is the definition I am sticking with.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Major Fail: Social Darwinism Can't Deliver the Goods It Promises

This post is about two articles that get my personal "Five Star Rating", both put to lie the myth of Social Darwinism - the notion that societies, economies, etc. become stronger if they ruthlessly weed out the weak. The articles I refer to are What Darwin Didn't Mean (from the UTNE Reader, basically a kind of Readers' Digest of the US Alternative Press) and Survival of the Nicest (from I tried to give a real summary of these articles, but found I couldn't do so without leaving out sailent points.  So I'll just do a grade school summary of the articles. First, from What Darwin Didn't Mean.

Contrary to popular opinion, rough and merciless competition does not bring out the best in people. In fact, it only makes society worse in the long run, regardless of whatever short or even medium term benefits come its way. In fact, rough and merciless competition usually hurts a society in the long run - namely by making it poorer, less intelligent, and overall weaker. This is because the "weak vs strong", "predator vs prey" paradigms commits the following serious errors against not only society as a whole, but against the "strong and smart" themselves:

1)Encourages unethical behavior

2)Ignores the fact that companies can rake in enormous profits without contributing real goods and service ("fees", excessive "cost cutting", indifference to non-numerically measurable aspect of society's, employees', and a company's well-being).

3) Incentivizes short-term profits at the cost of ignoring the non-monetary long term profitability of a company.

4) Creates disincentives to creative thinking and self-criticism, for it's easier (not to mention more pleasant feeling) to roll out the latest money-maker as quickly as possible than to question whether that money-maker has real sustainable benefit for the company (and hence a solid source of long-term profitability).

Survival of the Nicest is easier to summarize, and in fact is inspired by the above article.  The basic idea is that Social Darwinism is based on a 19th century understanding of how evolution works, and a distorted interpretation of that understanding besides.  Modern research shows that empathy and compassion are also well-founded in the animal world. For example, gorillas and chimpanzees caring for sick and injured members of their troup.  In fact, the modern understandings see cooperation and compassion as being at least as important for survival of a species as competition is.  Therefore, Social Darwinism's kill-or-be-eaten assumptions is based on an oversimple explanation of how evolution works, and therefore does not deserve to be taken seriously as a model on which to base human societies, including our economic systems. This should relegate Social Darwinism to the same ashbin of history in which Communism now inhabits, for both approaches utterly fail to account for the great complexities of human nature.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Benefits of Forgiving Stupidity

or, Why I Stopped Buying the Line that Stupid People and Ideas Deserve Scorn

Stupidity, though an undesirable trait, is not worthy of scorn for two classes of reasons, moral and practical

The moral reasons:

1)The basic simple Golden Rule: What you don’t want done to yourself, do not do to others.

2) The stupidity they did commit could not by any reasonable standard be regarded as a non-trivial threat to others’ lives, physical or mental health, physical or mental functionality, their human rights, civil liberties, their money, bank accounts, property or reasonable enjoyment thereof.

The practical reasons are as follows:

1) Scorn only tells people they did something to meet others disapproval. It says nothing about how to correct their error, assuming they committed an error in the first place.

2) Scorn causes resentment, anger, distress, or mental discomfort in the people scorned for their stupidity; often to the degree that they either close their minds to what you have to say. Even if the stupid person is open to what you have to say, the non-trivial emotional disquiet creates an additional barrier which they have to overcome in order to get to the point where they can listen to or figure out exactly why they are in error.

3) There is always the possibility that “stupid” person is not being stupid after all.  History is filled with occassions where people came up with a new idea that conventional society said was stupid, but proved to be correct when one looked deeper into the matter than mere popular “say-so”.

In fact, some scholars, most notably Richard Florida, say (essentially) that a community’s economic future often hinges on how they react to stupid, strange or weird ideas and cultural practices. Example: Florida claims it’s no accident the San Francisco Bay area is a major center for creating tomorrow’s technologies based on cutting edge science - namely that the SF Bay area is open not only to unconventional ideas, but also unconventional people.  Areas open to “unique” people and ideas are also more likely to be open to “unique” ideas about business, industry, and technology.  Result: the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose Bay metropolitan area has the highest per capita income of any large US metro area (yes, even higher than the New York metro area).