These People

To wake up in the morning is to be confronted again by reality, brute or otherwise. Waking up today, I was struck once more by the fact that 147 Republicans (8 senators and 139 representatives) voted to ignore the 2020 election results in Arizona and/or Pennsylvania. They chose to side with the violent mob that had just invaded the Capitol instead of the election officials who submitted the results from those two key states.

How many of them would have voted to install the loser as president, given the chance?

Considering how they responded to a worldwide pandemic, we know many would have.

This is from Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog. He quotes some of an article from The Atlantic:

This is really stark evidence of the pathological dysfunction of this benighted country, in which one of the two major political parties is openly hostile to de minimis public health measures (recall that Americans died of Covid at a rate two to three times that [or more] of other normal countries):

[B]y far the single group of adults most likely to be unvaccinated is Republicans: 37 percent of Republicans are still unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, compared with 9 percent of Democrats. Fourteen of the 15 states with the lowest vaccination rates voted for D___ T___ in 2020. (The other is Georgia.)

We know that unvaccinated Americans are more likely to be Republican, that Republicans in positions of power led the movement against COVID vaccination, and that hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated Americans have died preventable deaths from the disease. The Republican Party is unquestionably complicit in the premature deaths of many of its own supporters, a phenomenon that may be without precedent in the history of both American democracy and virology….

We know that as of April 2022, about 318,000 people had died from COVID because they were unvaccinated, according to research from Brown University. And the close association between Republican vaccine hesitancy and higher death rates has been documented. One study estimated that by the fall of 2021, vaccine uptake accounted for 10 percent of the total difference between Republican and Democratic deaths. But that estimate has changed—and even likely grown—over time….

Partisanship affected outcomes in the pandemic even before we had vaccines. A recent study found that from October 2020 to February 2021, the death rate in Republican-leaning counties was up to three times higher than that of Democratic-leaning counties, likely because of differences in masking and social distancing. Even when vaccines came around, these differences continued… Follow-up research published in Lancet Regional Health Americas in October looked at deaths from April 2021 to March 2022 and found a 26 percent higher death rate in areas where voters leaned Republican…

The subtitle of the Atlantic article sums it up:

Party leaders are unquestionably complicit in the premature deaths of their own supporters.

Problems and Solutions: A Brief Recitation

As 2022 fades away, David Rothkopf, an author and political analyst, presents a few facts to keep hold of in 2023:

Decades of research have conclusively shown that:

–The solution for homelessness is building homes for those who need them

–The solution for poverty is giving money to those who don’t have it

–The solution to our lack of mental health care is providing mental health care for those who need it

–The solution is to the climate crisis to stop using fossil fuels and stop carbon emissions.

I could go on. The point is that very often the solutions are obvious and politics is the art of obscuring them, distracting from them, making those common sense solutions impossible to achieve.

Three Weeks of Time and an Unknown Amount of Space

It’s been more than three weeks since I graced the internet with a post on this blog. That could be the longest time I’ve ever stayed away. The relatively encouraging results of last month’s election may have left me with the feeling that I should leave well enough alone. Plus, the urge to share thoughts — mine or somebody else’s — can come and go.

But to get going: There’s something that bothers me about time travel. When a fictional character travels through time, they always land standing up or sitting down in a relatively comfortable location. Arnold, for example, landed in an alley, naked, the first time we saw him. Time travelers never end up a mile deep in the earth’s crust or a million miles out in space.

One problem here is that the surface of the earth in the distant past or future is nowhere near wherever the time machine is. The earth, not a perfect sphere, is revolving on its axis and revolving around the sun; the sun and the rest of the solar system is going around the galaxy; the galaxy is moving quickly away from other galaxies as the universe expands. That means calculating the location of the traveler’s destination in space, not just in time, must be quite a challenge. A tiny mistake and Arnold lands six feet under or in the wrong solar system. Naked.

This detail concerning time travel came to mind because I’ve been skimming a TV series that makes use of time travel (in a surprising way) and because I read something that actually seems worth sharing.

Sean Carroll, famous physicist and now the Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins, has a new book out called The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time and Motion. It’s the first volume in a planned trilogy that is supposed to make the fundamental equations of physics understandable to those of us who got through high school math (which may be a problem for me, since trigonometry convinced me to avoid calculus).

Quanta magazine an article adapted from Prof. Carroll’s book that helped me think about space and time differently. Maybe it will have the same effect on you. The article isn’t very long, so you might want to visit Quanta (it’s free). If not, here are selections that mainly leave out some historical background and may (or may not) clarify a few of Carroll’s remarks:

… In relativity, it’s no longer true that space and time have separate, objective meanings. What really exists is space-time, and slicing it up into space and time is merely a useful human convention.

One of the major reasons why relativity has a reputation for being difficult to understand is that our intuitions train us to think of space and time as separate things. We experience objects as having extent in “space,” and that seems like a pretty objective fact. Ultimately it suffices for us because we generally travel through space at velocities far lower than the speed of light, so pre-relativistic physics works.

But this mismatch between intuition and theory makes the leap to a space-time perspective somewhat intimidating. What’s worse, presentations of relativity often take a bottom-up approach — they start with our everyday conceptions of space and time and alter them in the new context of relativity.

We’re going to be a little different. Our route into special relativity might be thought of as top-down, taking the idea of a unified space-time seriously from the get-go and seeing what that implies. We’ll have to stretch our brains a bit, but the result will be a much deeper understanding of the relativistic perspective on our universe….

Einstein’s contribution in 1905 was to point out that [to] better understand the laws of physics … all we had to do was accept a completely new conception of space and time. (OK, that’s a lot, but it turned out to be totally worth it.)

Einstein’s theory came to be known as the special theory of relativity, or simply special relativity. [Einstein] argued for new ways of thinking about length and duration. He explained the special role of the speed of light by positing that there is an absolute speed limit in the universe — a speed at which light just happens to travel when moving through empty space — and that everyone would measure that speed to be the same, no matter how they were moving. To make that work out, he had to alter our conventional notions of time and space.

But he didn’t go quite so far as to advocate joining space and time into a single unified space-time. That step was left to his former university professor, Hermann Minkowski…. Once you have the idea of thinking of space-time as a unified four-dimensional continuum, you can start asking questions about its shape. Is space-time flat or curved, static or dynamic, finite or infinite? Minkowski space-time is flat, static and infinite.

Einstein worked for a decade to understand how the force of gravity could be incorporated into his theory. His eventual breakthrough was to realize that space-time could be dynamic and curved, and that the effects of that curvature are what you and I experience as “gravity”. The fruits of this inspiration are what we now call general relativity.

So special relativity is the theory of a fixed, flat space-time, without gravity; general relativity is the theory of dynamic, curved space-time, in which curvature gives rise to gravity….

We should be willing to let go of our pre-relativity fondness for the separateness of space and time, and allow them to dissolve into the unified arena of space-time. The best way to get there is to think even more carefully about what we mean by “time”. And the best way to do that is to hark back, once again, to how we think about space.

Consider two locations in space, such as your home and your favorite restaurant. What is the distance between them?

Well, that depends… There is the distance “as the crow flies”, if we could imagine taking a perfectly straight-line path between the two points. But there is also the distance you would travel on a real-world journey … avoiding buildings and other obstacles along the way. The route you take is always going to be longer than the distance as the crow flies, since a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

Now consider two events in space-time. In the technical jargon of relativity theory, an “event” is just a single point in the universe, specified by locations in both space and time. One event, call it A, might be “at home at 6 p.m.” and event B might be “at the restaurant at 7 p.m.” 

… We can ask ourselves, just as we did for the spatial distance between home and restaurant, how much time elapses between these two events…. If one event is at 6 p.m. and the other is at 7 p.m., there is one hour between them, right?

Not so fast, says Einstein. In an antiquated, Newtonian conception of the world, sure. Time is absolute and universal, and if the time between two events is one hour, that’s all there is to be said.

Relativity tells a different story. Now there are two distinct notions of what is meant by “time”. One notion of time is as a coordinate on space-time. Space-time is a four-dimensional continuum, and if we want to specify locations within it, it’s convenient to attach a number called “the time” to every point within it. That’s generally what we have in mind when we think of “6 p.m.” and “7 p.m.” Those are … labels that help us locate events….

But, says relativity, just as the distance as the crow flies is generally different from the distance you actually travel between two points in space, the duration of time you experience [on the journey between A and B] generally won’t be the same as the [one-hour difference between the universal coordinate times, A and B]. You experience an amount of time that can be measured by a clock that you carry with you on the journey. This is the proper time along the path. And the duration measured by a clock, just like the distance traveled as measured by the odometer on your car, will depend on the path you take.

That’s one aspect of what it means to say that “time is relative”. We can think both about a common time in terms of a [space-time coordinate] and about a personal time that we individually experience [or measure] along our path. And time is like space — those two notions need not coincide.

By a “straight path” in space-time, we mean both a straight line in space and a constant velocity of travel … with no acceleration. Fix two events in space-time — two locations in space and corresponding moments in time. A traveler could make the journey between them in a straight line at constant velocity … or they could zip back and forth. The back-and-forth route will always involve more spatial distance, but less proper time elapsed, than the straight version [i.e. a clock along for the ride will run more slowly on the back-and-forth route — really?].

Why is it like that? Because physics says so. Or, if you prefer, because that’s the way the universe is. Maybe we will eventually uncover some deeper reason why it had to be this way, but in our current state of knowledge it’s one of the bedrock assumptions upon which we build physics, not a conclusion we derive from deeper principles. Straight lines in space are the shortest possible distance; straight paths in space-time are the longest possible time. It might seem counterintuitive that paths of greater distance take less proper time. That’s OK. If it were intuitive, you wouldn’t have needed to be Einstein to come up with the idea.

Philosophizing Naturally

Science used to be called “philosophy”. More specifically, it was called “natural philosophy”:

From the ancient world (at least since Aristotle) until the 19th century, natural philosophy was the common term for the study of physics (nature), a broad term that included botany, zoology, anthropology, and chemistry as well as what we now call physics. It was in the 19th century that the concept of science received its modern shape, with different scientific subjects emerging, such as astronomy, biology, and physics…. Isaac Newton’s book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) reflects the use of the term natural philosophy in the 17th century [Wikipedia].

It makes some sense, therefore, that well-known physicist Sean Carroll decided to promote “natural philosophy”. This is from the transcript of one of Prof. Carroll’s podcasts:

… One of the bonuses of my new job here at Johns Hopkins is that I got to choose my own title. My title is Homewood professor, but then Homewood professor of what? … Knowing that I would both be involved in the physics department and the philosophy department, I thought it would be fun to call myself a professor of natural philosophy….

Back in the day, before we had separated out something called science and something called physics from philosophy, people like Isaac Newton or Galileo would have been considered to be philosophers. [He then mentions the full title of Newton’s Principia] …There’s a certain kind of philosophy and a certain kind of physics that really, really overlap, that are almost indistinguishable from each other, asking the biggest questions about, what is the world? What is it made of? Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Those kinds of things that really intersect with more down-to-earth physics questions like, “How does quantum mechanics work? What is fine-tuning in cosmology?” Things like that.

After reading that, I came upon an article from Quanta Magazine: “Inside the Proton, the ‘Most Complicated Thing You Could Possibly Imagine’”. Here’s how it starts:

The positively charged particle at the heart of the atom is an object of unspeakable complexity, one that changes its appearance depending on how it is probed….

High school physics teachers describe them as featureless balls with one unit each of positive electric charge — the perfect foils for the negatively charged electrons that buzz around them. College students learn that the ball is actually a bundle of three elementary particles called quarks. But decades of research have revealed a deeper truth, one that’s too bizarre to fully capture with words or images.

“This is the most complicated thing that you could possibly imagine,” said Mike Williams, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In fact, you can’t even imagine how complicated it is.”

Reading further made me want to do some philosophy:

The proton is a quantum mechanical object that exists as a haze of probabilities until an experiment forces it to take a concrete form. And its forms differ drastically depending on how researchers set up their experiment. Connecting the particle’s many faces has been the work of generations. “We’re kind of just starting to understand this system in a complete way,” said Richard Milner, a nuclear physicist at MIT.

As the pursuit continues, the proton’s secrets keep tumbling out. Most recently, a monumental data analysis published in August found that the proton contains traces of particles called charm quarks that are heavier than the proton itself.

The proton “has been humbling to humans,” Williams said. “Every time you think you kind of have a handle on it, it throws you some curveballs.”

There are two things here that don’t sound right. First, what is a “haze of probabilities”? Physicists (and philosophers) disagree about what exists when we refer to a quantum entity. Is there something relatively substantial underlying it that we can’t (yet) identify? Or is there nothing there except “probabilities” that become real or substantial when we do a measurement (or when some other quantum entity interferes)? Speaking philosophically, it makes no sense that probabilities exist in some sort of “haze”. A probability is a possibility. How could a possibility exist without anything to separate it from other possibilities? Why would a possibility be in one place (say, Switzerland) as opposed to another (perhaps Johns Hopkins)? Most physicists would reply that I just don’t understand the quantum world. Unfortunately, according to physicist Richard Feynman’s well-known remark, neither do they:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take [this] lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.

But, Prof. Feynman, going down blind alleys from which nobody has escaped is something philosophers do! That’s what they do most of the time! In this case, however, instead of going down the alley, we might suggest that “exists as” be replaced by “appears to be” or perhaps “manifests itself as”: the proton manifests itself as a haze of probabilities.

This brings me to the second thing that doesn’t sound right. The Quanta article says “the proton contains traces of particles … heavier than the proton itself”. The author meant “more massive than” rather than “heavier than”, but putting that aside, how can something’s contents be more massive than the thing itself?

The original study published in Nature says it this way:

Both light and heavy quarks, whose mass is respectively smaller or bigger than the mass of the proton, are revealed inside the proton in high-energy collisions.

It would be clearer to say that when measured, the proton has a certain mass, but when heavy quarks are measured outside the proton, their mass is greater than the proton’s. That’s certainly puzzling, and obviously justifies further investigation, but it’s not as contradictory as saying the proton’s contents are more massive than the proton.

Commenting About What Exists

I’ve recommended the 3 Quarks Daily site before:

3 Quarks Daily is a good place to visit for online intellectual stimulation. They publish original content on Mondays; the rest of the week they link to articles on “science, arts, philosophy, politics, literature”. Even the (moderated) comments are often worth reading. 

I mention this because there were two somewhat-related posts in the past two days that especially interested me. Both concerned what exists or is real (philosophers call the study of existence or being “ontology”).

The first article was from the BBC: “Why Does Time Go Forwards, Not Backwards?” It’s a perennial question in physics and philosophy: the nature of time. Here’s the part that bothered me:

The difference between hot things and cold things is how agitated their molecules are – in a hot steam engine, water molecules are very excited, careening around and colliding into each other rapidly. The very same water molecules are less agitated when they coalesce as condensation on a windowpane.

Here’s the problem: when you zoom in to the level of, say, one water molecule colliding and bouncing off another, the arrow of time disappears. If you watched a microscopic video of that collision and then you rewound it, it wouldn’t be obvious which way was forwards and which backwards. At the very smallest scale, the phenomenon that produces heat – collisions of molecules – is time-symmetric.

This means that the arrow of time from past to future only emerges when you take a step back from the microscopic world to the macroscopic….

“So the direction of time comes from the fact that we look at big things, we don’t look at the details,” says [physicist Carlo Rovelli]. “From this step, from the fundamental microscopic vision of the world to the coarse-grained, the approximate description of the macroscopic world – this is where the direction of time comes in.

“It’s not that the world is fundamentally oriented in space and time,” Rovelli says. It’s that when we look around, we see a direction in which medium-sized, everyday things have more entropy – the ripened apple fallen from the tree, the shuffled pack of cards.

While entropy does seem to be inextricably bound up with the arrow of time, it feels a bit surprising – perhaps even disconcerting – that the one law of physics that has a strong directionality of time built into it loses this directionality when you look at very small things.

My response:

Compared to people like Carlo Rovelli …, I’m a scientific ignoramus. Nevertheless:

The fundamental physical laws humanity has discovered, except for the one concerning entropy (the second law of thermodynamics), don’t refer to time. From this, most physicists conclude that time isn’t fundamental, or that it’s illusory or somehow less than real, even though it’s an obvious feature of the universe. Consider the Big Bang, then consider the city of Philadelphia. Is that contrast simply a matter of our perception?

Why assume that if something is a fundamental feature of the universe, it must be a variable in more than one law? Why assume that it has to be a variable in other laws we’ve discovered?

In the other fundamental laws we know about, there’s no distinction between past and future. So what? There seems to be an assumption here that time should appear in these other laws if it’s real. It looks like many physicists have turned their belief in (or desire for) simplicity, or universality, or uniformity, into a conclusion about how the universe is.

The author [of the BBC article] writes:

“Here’s the problem. when you zoom in to the level of, say, one water molecule colliding and bouncing off another, the arrow of time disappears. If you watched a microscopic video of that collision and then you rewound it, it wouldn’t be obvious which way was forwards and which backwards.”

So pay attention to what happened and don’t rewind the video.

It may be hard to believe, but neither the BBC person nor Prof. Rovelli have responded so far.

The second article is oddly titled: “Do You Want To Die With Me?” It’s by a history professor at Towson University, Akim Reinhardt, although it’s not about history. His topic is what exists (matter? energy? something else?). I’ll give you my comment first and then his response, which is clearer and shorter than the original article:

Another way to categorize our existence is to distinguish between our experiences (what we sense, including the testimony of other people) and our thoughts. It’s the empiricism/rationalism distinction. We need both categories to construct a semblance of reality. That relates to your matter/energy/ideas threesome.

So you say: “Matter, energy, and ideas: everything you observe, everything you think you know, falls into one of these three categories. Matter has mass and weight. Energy moves something against a force. Everything else is an idea.”

But a few sentences later, ideas seem to disappear: “There is no meaning. Only matter and energy, … all the conservable energy transferring elsewhere, all the matter unhinging and recombining into other things, and all the ideas as they ever were, never really here except as we imagined them.”

It’s interesting, however, that further down the page, in today’s first post, “How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise To A Battle Between Good And Evil”, Andy Schmookler writes:

… Many in our contemporary secular culture hold the belief that Values are not really “real”…. That idea goes something like this: We cannot find Value “out there” in the cosmos, therefore Value isn’t part of reality…. But, when it comes to Value, there is a big logical flaw in that way of thinking….That’s because Value must mean that something matters, and there’s no way that anything could matter unless it matters to someone. (In a lifeless universe, there could be no Value…If there were no one who cared, there would be no way any such events would register on the dimension of “Value”. Which points to the logical non sequitur involved in dismissing Value as “not real” for not being “out there” in the “objective” world…. Value can only exist in terms of the subjective experience of creatures to whom things matter.

So [I asked], do ideas exist? Do values? Do numbers? Does Sherlock Holmes? Does meaning? Deciding how to answer such questions isn’t easy. Deciding not to try is easier.

Although I think it’s sensible to say meaning exists as long as somebody finds something meaningful.

Professor Reinhardt’s response:

I think all the stuff that’s not matter or energy (values, ideas, etc.) only exists if we believe they exist. I also believe we’re wired to believe they exist. And finally, I think we can intellectually overcome that and acknowledge that all the non-energy/non-matter stuff is make believe.

However, I don’t think we can fully overcome our wiring; in the vast majority of moments in which we exist, we are doomed to have ideas, values, etc. b/c that’s how our brains work. Once one accepts this, once one peers backstage at the proverbial puppet show, I think there are only two real options. One, think it through (ironic, I know) and come up with ideas, values, etc. that work for you (while forever knowing in the back of your mind that it’s a sham on some level), or two, choose ceasing to exist, which of course will inevitably happen at some point whether one chooses it or not, thereby freeing yourself of the conundrum as your matter and energy to disperse into non-sentient forms.

I got involved with another article today, this one by a physicist: “What Entanglement Doesn’t Imply”. I don’t know if I understood his position, but there’s no denying that the 3 Quarks Daily site exists.