Monthly Archives: August 2006

Ursa Minor

A few days ago I wrote a post about Robert Wright’s book Nonzero, in response to Kevin Kim’s thoughts about the idea of telelology in evolution. Earlier this evening a new commenter, a blogger who goes by the nickname ‘gordsellar’ stopped by to offer some worthwhile remarks in that post’s discussion thread. I moseyed over to peek at his site, eclexys – which, being obviously the work of a curious and intelligent person, has since been added to the waka waka waka sidebar – and found an interesting item about a marvelous animal you might very well never have heard of: the tardigrade. How I can have written hundreds of posts over the last year and a half without mentioning this cuddly little creature, I can’t imagine.

Pop Star

Our Sun is about five billion years old, which is about halfway through its expected lifespan. A star begins as a collapsing cloud of gas, mostly hydrogen, and when the ball has grown dense enough under the pressure of its own gravitation, the hydrogen atoms begin to fuse into helium, liberating a tremendous amount of energy. This outward force acts as a counterbalance to the crushing inward pull of gravity, and the star settles into a comfortable equilibrium. Over time, fusion reactions occur between helium atoms as well, and begin working their way up through a series of elements, and the star takes on a layered structure, with the more massive elements toward the core. You might think that the more hydrogen a star starts off with – in other words, the more massive the star is – the longer it would last, but in fact it goes the other way, because the increased gravitional pressure due to the extra mass causes the fusion reactions to proceed more rapidly, more than making up for the extra “fuel”. The really big stars burn very brightly, very violently, and very briefly indeed compared to a modest specimen like ours: in contrast to the ten-billion-year lifespan of our Sun, giant stars may burn for less than a million years.

Body of Ideas

In an ongoing discussion over at Maverick Philosopher, one of the interlocutors has made the assertion, in defense of dualism, that the human mind must be more than the physical activity of the brain, because the brain is a finite physical system, and the mind of Man, allegedly, is infinite. To quote from the thread over at Dr. Vallicella’s place:

Because the human mind is not bounded, it cannot be physical.

Sounds good. We all have the feeling that we can accommodate any new concept that comes before us (though, on reflection, a peek at contemporary political discourse might be sufficient rebuttal), and adjust our behavior with limitless flexibility. But why do we think so? What makes us so sure?

Shell Game

Today, having returned to Wellfleet from Brooklyn late last evening, I arose early and made my way to Indian Neck Beach, which forms the eastern shore of Wellfleet Harbor. My arrival coincided, not accidentally, with the lowest extremity of the tide, and as I expected I found the legendary oyster beds fully exposed, beckoning as winsomely as Goya’s Maja.

Duel-ism

Well, I’ve gone and got myself into another tussle over at Maverick Philosopher, which is one reason I’ve been confecting such weightless froth over here.

These arguments never get anywhere – if it were possible, at our current stage of development, to answer such questions as the mind-body problem, we’d have done so already – but I just can’t help myself. If you’d like to drop by over there and razz the opposition, here’s the link.

Tête – à – Tête

I’m not much of a “morning person”. I’ve often felt that my brain is rather like those big lights that are used in school gyms; the ones that do almost nothing when they are first switched on, and then gradually fade up to dazzling brightness over an interval of ten minutes or so. The analogy is far from perfect: my brain takes a good deal longer than ten minutes to warm up, and I wouldn’t say that I ever get anywhere near “dazzling brightness”. But you get the idea.

Well, as it turns out, the brain does indeed boot itself up in stages, in a fashion similar to the way a computer gets going: first the operating system itself must be loaded, and only after that can applications be run. This sequence of operations in the brain is managed by the thalamus, which acts as a sort of concierge for sensory impressions, and which is itself activated by, and subsequently distributes, the chemical known as nitric oxide.

Now as it happens, nitric oxide is an important molecule for the body’s regulation of blood flow, and it is by controlling the delivery of this magic molecule to another essential organ that the sought-after medicament Viagra is able to get such, um, outstanding results.

Learn more here.

Re-animator

Here is further proof that some people simply don’t get out enough: a Flash-based simulation of that ancient (and I’m ancient enough myself to have two of them gathering dust in a closet) proto-PC, the Commodore 64.

From Pat to Verse

My old friend, the painter and art collector Patrick Goldsmith – whose peregrinations have taken him often to the remotest East – took up, a few years back, the art of the sonnet, and a collection of his work is available online. Called The Wayfarer Sonnets, they are intended as companions to the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, and I do hope you will take a look. You can find them, in print or downloadable form, here. Just the thing for those of you with a Tao jones.

And Stay Out!

Well, I suppose everyone is commenting on this today, but I won’t let that stop me. Property values on Pluto plummeted today as the icy worldlet, long considered a bit of an arriviste by solar system Brahmins like Jupiter and Venus, had its status demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet”.

Good Questions

One of the greatest benefits of blogging is the opportunity one has to converse with, and learn from, people that one might otherwise never have met. Scott Carson, professor of philosophy at Ohio University and author of the blog An Examined Life, has taken the trouble to respond to my comments on his post about the defensibility of torture. He makes some excellent criticisms of my post, and I am very grateful to him for taking the time to do so.

Land of A Thousand Dunces

On the heels of yesterday’s depressing link from Eugene, from Duncan Werner comes an item from the Washington Post about the sad state – verging on downright illiteracy – of many of today’s college students. The author, one Michael Skube, a professor of journalism at Elon College, describes a recent experience:

We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.

No other names were offered. The author of “The DaVinci Code” was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.

Read it and weep, friends.

MAD-Men

From Eugene Jen comes a link to a dispiriting item by Bernard Lewis, who is perhaps the West’s preeminent scholar of the Islamic world. In this brief article Lewis gives us another good reason to be concerned about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, namely that the idea of “mutual assured destruction” that has acted so far to prevent nations from engaging in nuclear war might be not a deterrent to the apocalyptically minded rulers of Iran, but an inducement. He even suggests that August 22nd might be a worrisome date, for historical reasons.

For someone as erudite and level-headed as Lewis to be making this point is unnerving, to say the least. Read the article here.

The Long March

There is more I’d like to say about Robert Wright’s Nonzero, and I’ll be getting to it tomorrow, most likely, but meanwhile I’ve just begun reading The Ancestor’s Tale, by Richard Dawkins.

Is Wright Wrong?

The multidimensional Kevin Kim, over at his one-of-a-kind weblog Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms has posted a response to my mention of Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. In his post Kevin calls into question the idea of any directionality or purpose to biological evolution, making common cause in this regard with the late Stephen Jay Gould. Kevin writes:

[...I] wonder whether Wright isn’t making a mistake similar to that made by certain process theologians– people who (1) look at events happening in the “cream of the crop” of the evolutionary tumult and (2) mistakenly conclude that evolution at this top layer somehow represents a universal telos. I think human arrogance tends to suggest the “ladder” paradigm to us when we assess natural phenomena: we can’t help seeing ourselves as some sort of culmination of natural (or supernatural) processes. My own view is that life and mind are not representative of any telos at all: they are simply stochastic occurrences. Most of this cosmos, pretty though it be, is not alive.

Closed systems tend toward greater entropy over time. Within those closed systems, regions of anti-entropic activity may arise, but the overarching history of those systems is foreordained to follow the path of the “thermodynamic arrow,” as Stephen Hawking calls it. That is why, in a (theoretically) closed system like our universe, tiny pockets of life can form while most of the universe remains (as far as we know) abiotic. Billions or trillions of years hence, all that life will disintegrate as entropy settles more comfortably into its ancient throne. Those tiny pockets of life, then– those little bits of animated telos– are no evidence of a larger cosmic end or purpose. They– we– are a brief spark in the Nabokovian blackness: here and gone. The pessimist views this state of affairs with rue; the man of religion, by contrast, knows this means that each moment is absolutely precious. Life’s finitude and frailty are what give it its value.

Kevin, writing with customary eloquence, makes some very good points, and most of all I agree with his remarks about what gives life its value. But I think that he is missing the point made by Wright in his book, and is wrongly conflating the idea of telos with the possibility of there being a directionality, an “arrow”, to Darwinian evolution.

Torture Test

An item in the English newspaper The Guardian has touched off a heated controversy. The piece refers to the airline-bombing plot that British authorites nipped in the bud last week, and says that the key witness in the case, one Rashid Rauf, a British citizen, revealed what he knew only after he was “broken” under interrogation by Pakistani questioners, which suggests rather strongly that he was tortured. The information obtained, however, most likely prevented the murder of thousands in simultaneous midair bombings. The question, of course, is whether the benefit thus achieved justifies the use of methods from which compassionate people and humane societies recoil in horror.

Big Game

I had put it aside for a while (I tend to have too many books going at once), but have just finished reading Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. It is quite brilliant, and I highly recommend it.

“The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once ended a book on this note: ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ Far be it from me to argue with a great physicist about how depressing physics is. For all I know, Weinberg’s realm of expertise, the realm of inanimate matter, really does offer no evidence of higher purpose. But when we move into the realm of animate matter — bacteria, cellular slime molds, and, most notably, human beings — the situation strikes me as different. The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is ‘drift’ really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book.”

Groupthink

One of the topics in which there is keen interest around these parts is the infinitely perplexing question of consciousness – what it is, whence it arises, and just where it fits into the Big Picture.

The hallmark of consciousness is subjectivity; the existence of an awareness that experiences are happening to. Many belive that this subjectivity is ontologically irreducible; that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the objective phenomenological world we all share and our individual conscious experiences of it. The only consciousness we can know confidently to exist is our own; we assume that others are conscious as well (if nothing else, it seems unsociable not to), but we have no way to be sure. Is there, in fact, any objective way to detect consciousness? At Princeton University there is a group who are investigating this question from a new angle.

Fish Out of Water

I am downright chopfallen this evening upon hearing some sad news from across the pond: there will be no conger cuddling in Lyme Regis, England, this year.

I’m sure that most of you have been following this exciting sport for ages; perhaps some of you have even been lucky enough to attend in person. But for those few of you who haven’t – perhaps due to a decades-long coma or a lengthy stretch in solitary – here’s the story.

Revolutionary Treatment

I wrote yesterday about the irritating tendency of affluent left-leaning types here in Wellfleet and back home in Park Slope to speak in glowing terms of the many blessings that Fidel Castro (whose current status is reminiscent of Schroedinger’s famous Cat) has showered upon the fortunate citizens of Cuba. The fact that the island is an impoverished police state, where dissidents languish in dungeons, and whence people flee by the thousands in leaky boats whenever restrictions on leaving the country are lifted, is usually passed over unmentioned, so that the discussion may focus on Cuba’s fantastic health-care system, which of course puts ours to shame, and which is an enlightening example of the benign vision of the saintly Maximum Leader.

Startlingly, the vaunted Cuban health-care infrastructure actually falls somewhat short of its reputation. Have a look over here.

Liberal Arts

As readers of these pages will know, I spend a good deal of time in the lovely seaside village of Wellfleet, out on the far end of Cape Cod. Demographically Wellfleet is an interesting mixture; its flinty and hard-working year-round population of fewer than 3,000 swells to almost 20,000 in the summertime, as affluent vacationers flock to its sheltered inlets, freshwater ponds, art galleries, theater productions, excellent restaurants, and of course its spectacular Atlantic beaches, framed by towering dunes.

Monkey Bards

We’ve all heard the suggestion that a roomful of monkeys hammering randomly away at typewriters would, given billions of years, recreate the complete works of Shakespeare. (A “typewriter”, for those of you whose brows are wrinkled solely by bafflement, is an antique mechanical device that generated crumpled sheets of paper.) It’s an interesting idea, but if you’re like me, you’ve just been too busy to try it out.

Well, the wait is over. Take a look at this. It’s not exactly instant gratification; thus far the sedulous simian simulacra have only got as far as the first 24 letters from “Henry IV, Part II”. But, as someone once said, “how poor are they that have not patience.”

Designer Genes

The English clergyman and philosopher William Paley (1743-1805), who among his many other achievements was also the Christ’s College senior wrangler of 1763, is probably best known for his analogy of the “watchmaker”, which was an argument from nature for the existence of God.

Original Child

Today marks a sorrowful anniversary: it was on August 6th, 1945 that the city of Hiroshima was pulverized by the “Little Boy”, the first of two atomic weapons hurled in fury upon the Japanese at the close of World War II. More than two hundred thousand people died. A melted image of the Buddha I […]

Postage Due

correspondent has been shuttling back and forth between Wellfleet and sweltering Gotham, getting in in the wee hours, sleeping little, coping with a variety of unrestful obligations, and generally ignoring his bloggardly duties. I apologize to all, and do hope that by Tuesday or so life will once more be unruffled and serene, as there are a number of meaty posts in the queue.

Meanwhile, do browse our extensive archives, and rest assured that we’ll be back in harness shortly.

Tomfoolery

One of the little pleasures of growing older – and they are admittedly not numerous – is that you hold things in living memory that, as far as the hyperkinetic larvae who seem to be taking over the world these days are concerned, never even existed. One of these, for doddering old fossils such as your humble correspondent, is the musical satire of Tom Lehrer.