Sunday, April 27, 2008

Motion Mountain

Motion Mountain - The Free Physics Textbook (by Christopher Schiller) is positively amazing. It is a freely available online physics textbook aimed at attracting a wide variety of personality and thinking types (image/verbally oriented; male/female; composer/competitor; experimentally/theoretically inclined; scientific/humanity minded). I am not very far into it yet, but it has succeeded very well with me. I am really enjoying that it approaches physics from a very philosophically-minded standpoint--for example, Schiller describes time as that which allows contradictions to inhere within the same entity--provided that said contradictions occur at different times, of course. He talks about the notions of measurement, observation, and distinguishing objects from their environment (and how this relates to permanence versus variability).

Furthermore, it contains challenges at the end of each chapter to get you thinking more in-depth about the subject, and many of them are very conceptual rather than mathematical. Not that it's a bad thing at all to develop mathematical facility, but the mathematical detail happens to be (unfortunately) the area of physics I enjoy least. Throughout the chapters, Schiller asks us to ponder such questions as, do events exist? Do clocks even exist, really? What are the necessary conditions for velocity to be a part of the world? He also includes pleasant little historical details and social contexts. And he quotes from Wittgenstein's Tractatus often at the beginnings of sections, which is kinda fun =P.

I think he's done an admirable job making the book appealing to those from the humanities (such as myself--although I do have a bit of a computer science background in my distant past, and I'm very fond of logic). I can tell that I am going to enjoy the rest of this book immensely. It is astounding to me that someone took the effort to put this incredible resource together for free. Thank you so much, Christopher Schiller: I deeply appreciate your work.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Conflicting Sensations

In my last post, I wondered what a world which allowed simultaneous contradictions would look like.

Earlier this morning I had a very fascinating experience – shortly before I woke up, I became aware that I was simultaneously dreaming and yet in my bed at the same time. That is to say, I received two mutually exclusive sets of sensations, one informing me that I was lying on my back underneath sheets and covers with my eyes closed, the other that I was walking through some dreamscape with my eyes open.

I can hardly remember the details of the dream now, but still, the memory of that dual experience is striking. It makes me wonder – perhaps the brain is better equipped to deal with simultaneous contradictions than I'd thought, since I was apparently making sense of feeling that I was in two places at once. Both sensations felt as though they were centered on me, my brain, my consciousness/awareness/etc. It was as though I temporarily had two perspectives on "life" (even though, of course, only one of these was a veridical perspective), and I was able to feel both simultaneously.

So perhaps experiencing a contradiction would be a little like that, somehow.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Making Sense

Why should the world "make sense?"
Why should we expect that logic ought to apply to the real world?
It does not seem possible for it to be otherwise—but I wonder.

Perhaps logic is not applicable to the world. If that were so, we would abandon it, right? But, if we have to investigate the world to determine whether logic is useful or not, surely that revokes its a priori status.

Or, perhaps, the internal consistency of logic may retain apriority, while the applicability-to-the-real-world is what requires a posteriori verification. That is, suppose it is a necessary truth that is true within a given system, but perhaps we need to then go out and examine the world to tell whether the world agrees with that statement. Here is another way to think of it is: necessarily, logic is consistent within itself; contingently, the universe is such that logic may be fruitfully applied to it.

Could there be a world where the Law of Excluded Middle (LEM) does not hold? What would that be like? I cannot even imagine how something can be at once true and false.

(1) It is true that at this moment, at that location, there is an apple.
(2) It is false that at this moment, at that location, there is an apple.

Presumably these statements mean something like, "There is (is not) a spatiotemporal region constituted in such a way that it accords with an instantiation of our concept 'apple'." Could there be a world where a spatial region could be arranged in two substantially different ways simultaneously? If we try to imagine such a region, do we automatically start thinking of two separate spatial regions, and thus defeat ourselves by splitting into two an entity that ought to have stayed as one?

(3) The square is exhaustively red.
(4) The square is exhaustively blue.

If we accept (3), have we not already denied any possibility of it being otherwise? How could there be a world in which a square is both red all over and blue all over?

There is the occasional speculation that perhaps quantum mechanics has shown that contradictions inhere in reality—that particles really can occupy two places at once, or whatever. But this needs to be looked in to more before I say more on the subject.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Unique Movie: Rocket Science

As I started watching Rocket Science, I began to feel irritated—it appeared exactly as though it was going to be one of those formulaic, feel-good, competitive, "the unlikely underdog triumphs over adversary" films that are so popular for sports and dance movies. This style can and often is adapted for intellectual pursuits too, as was the case with Rocket Science, which takes high school debate as its premise.

However, as the movie wore on, and the unlikely hero tries increasingly more and more desperate schemes to overcome his disability (he has a speech impediment which makes debate basically impossible for him) without any progress, I began to wonder: could it be that he won't finally have one of those euphoric epiphanies/breakthroughs that will eventually lead to his success? That maybe, just maybe, justice won't be served, and he won't get the girl in the end? (WARNING: If you haven't seen the movie yet and you're concerned about spoilers, now might be a good time to stop reading.)

I wasn't disappointed. Enlisting the help of a more experienced debater (who dropped out from high school earlier on in the movie), together they sign on as a "homeschooled" team. Our hero does manage some modicum of success through half-singing a debate presentation—but a minute into his speech, he and his partner are interrupted by school officials, who promptly and pitilessly disqualify them from competing (since neither of them really does homeschool). No special pleas accepted, no special exception granted, no brilliant plans or loopholes to get around the system. They're just simply kicked out. The hero has one more dramatic tiff with his love interest (who betrayed him) before leaving.

In the final scene, he's talking with his dad in a car, and he asks, "When does it all [life] start to make sense?" And his dad answers something to the effect of, "It doesn't. After a while, you just stop trying to make sense of it, and live your life."
Protagonist: "So, what, everyone just grows out of it? Is there ever anyone who that never happens to?"
Dad: "Tell you what, if you turn out to be one of those people, you let me know."
The car backs out from where it's parked and starts driving away. Music plays, credits.

No success, no girl. No final resolution, no heroic overcoming, no deus ex machina, no convenient wrapping up of loose ends. This makes it possibly one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen, in some ways. The protagonist tried, he suffered, he failed, he had to move on. Things don't just suddenly "snap into place." It did have a somewhat positive message, I guess—don't keep struggling to speak with someone else's voice, learn to speak with your own voice. And it presumably offers us the consolation that everyone has to deal with these questions at some point in their life (usually around college age, I believe, which is what makes this such a perfect movie for that demographic).

I can't quite help thinking that I may be doomed to be one of those people that never gets over the fact that life doesn't make sense, even if they're not supposed to exist.