Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Schopenhauer was right: Part 3 – The Pentecostal Buffalo

Thursday, August 14th, 2008 by William Reynolds

“Schopenhauer was right.” Right about what? The statement seemed simple and declarative, but to what end? As I pored over the newly acquired books from the Wilson library, the first thing to occur to me was the futility of my attempt to see for myself the rightness or wrongness of Schopenhauer. Having never explored philosophy prior to this occasion, I found myself hopelessly mired in its heavy, slushy esotericism. Noumenon? A priori? Thing – In – Itself? Even the term “phenomenon” didn’t seem to correspond with the Webster definition of which I was familiar. I couldn’t imagine what this Schopenhauer could possibly be right about, and worse yet, now I was acutely aware of the inadequacy of my secondary education as a preparatory step toward higher learning. My vocabulary was poor; my thoughts rudimentary; my spirits low. No sooner had I checked out the World As Will And Representation than it joined the clumping of books on the floor of my bedroom; books I had similarly fancied briefly and now disregarded and all certainly well overdue.

A month after my cursory dalliance with Schopenhauer, I was invited to a “lecture” given by a pentecostal speaker named Charles D___. Being a college freshman and exceedingly impressionable – and out there seeking many, many impressions – I attended without hesitation. This was a trippy experience! Mr. D___ was a man of Indian descent, short and wide as his stature. He had bulbous, brown eyes and large, bovine nostrils that flared wildly as he fomented a holy furor in the room that evening. People all around me convulsed spasmodically with each and every rhetorical cue delivered by Mr. D___. Occasionally, he’d reach back for that little extra and come out rushing the crowd hurling scriptural heat and spuming spittle. It was riotous (no, I didn’t misspell righteous)! What I remember most from that evening was a moment he looked in my direction. He marked me because I didn’t shake violently nor twaddle as some exorcised cantonese seraph. And as he stared me down, he buffaloed his body toward me, and exclaimed “Philosophy was wrong!” Initially, I was startled, and then bewildered. I knew nothing about philosophy, yet somehow he saw in me that damnable curiosity which had prompted the visit to the library in the prior month. Well roared, lion!

So Schopenhauer was right, but philosophy was wrong? Yes, you guessed it. It was time for me to grab that book off my bedroom floor and dig into it earnestly….with a dictionary, and a copy of the spring semester class schedule. Hmmm….Modern Philosophy 101 sounded intriguing.

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Schopenhauer Was Right: Part 1

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 by William Reynolds

The other evening, I listened to Zen Arcade (Husker Du for those lacking cognizance and/or familiarity with the state of punk circa 1984), and was quickly transported back to my freshman year in college. Zen Arcade came out in July of 84 as did Double Nickels On The Dime (Minuteman for those lacking….oh nevermind). Looking back, July was a remarkable month considering how seminal both of these efforts proved to be.

My freshman year of college saw many transitions in my personal development. I began college as a pre-dental major, but in short time came to a sad realization that molars, incisors and bicuspids were not nearly as compelling as Freud, Sarte and rock and roll. Fast forwarding a bit to 1986, after brief dalliances with history, theology and pastoral studies (I’ll discuss this another time), I finally settled upon philosophy as the major most likely to guarantee my future unemployment.

In 1984, I attended the University of Minnesota. The U of M is split into east and west banks separated by the Mississippi river and connected by a bi-level bridge allowing for car traffic below and pedestrian traffic above. In December of 1984, while crossing this bridge to attend a class on the west bank, I noticed a new piece of graffiti sprayed on a small, square piece of wall lining the enclosure through which students cross back and forth. It was a short message written with white paint that read, “Schopenhauer was right!” I stopped in my tracks, and began staring as if at a newly found form of tropical insect or bird. Just prior to stopping, I had put a cassette of Zen Arcade into my walkman, and so there I was, staring curiously at this unintelligible declaration in front of me while the opening chords of “Something I Learned Today” ripped through my headphones. I’d never heard of Schopenhauer, so I couldn’t attest to the rightness or wrongness of his utterances. I thought to myself, “Who is Schopenhauer, and what does he have to be right about?” I needed to find out.

I remember the air that day was bitterly cold, and my breath rolled from my nostrils like an avalanche of hoarfrost as I stood there transfixed. This was the first of many touchstone moments to come during my collegiate years. I removed a pen and notebook from my backpack, wrote down the inscription, and continued on to class. That night, I went to the Wilson Library on campus, and checked out The World As Will and Representation. A bit overmatched was I given my youth and unfamiliarity with philosophical nomenclature. Nevertheless, I never looked at the world through the same eyes again.

To be continued….

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The Quantum Monastery

Sunday, July 27th, 2008 by Terence Witt

As I was walking by a pet store the other day, I spotted a rodent running in one of those exercise wheels, and quantum reality suddenly came to mind. The parallel seemed fitting, except for the fact that the rodent a) probably knows it’s not going anywhere and b) is getting a useful workout. For the past 80 years or so, the confusion wrought by some of matter’s curious properties has crystallized into a latter-day mysticism called quantum reality. Quantum mechanics is a useful, powerful tool. Quantum reality however is about as credible as the study of paranormal activity, but has somehow wormed its way into the physics department. Indeed, one of its claims is that reality has a spooky nonlocality. The only difference between quantum reality and clairvoyance is the funding. Clairvoyance tends to be privately funded.

Quantum reality, like ‘jumbo shrimp’ and other oxymorons, has nothing to do with reality. What it has everything to do with is human ego. Unbridled, run-amok ego. The atomic realm doesn’t follow the classical rules we have so carefully laid out over the last hundred years, so the universe is irrational! When the confusion really started to percolate in the early 1900’s, de Broglie and Bohr, at least in the beginning, had no intention of starting a religion. Louis de Broglie wrote an excellent book, called Matter and Light: The New Physics (1939) that did a good job of expressing his deep desire to understand what the quantized world was trying to tell him. Heisenberg didn’t have the introspection of de Broglie and Einstein, and through force of will and his opponent’s inability to explicate a series of bizarre results, Werner started his own religion, and it is called the Copenhagen Interpretation (Quantum Reality).

Like any good religion, quantum reality rests atop deep, inexplicable mystery, and there are many things that, by the Uncertainty Principle, are taken to be forever beyond the reach of our instruments. Quantum reality works in mysterious ways. Do not question it. Do not ask us why it is the way it is; to do so is to consort in philosophy. Learn the magic rules of quantum reality, for that is science. These rules defy common sense, but nowhere is it written that the universe must adhere to common sense. Here is that megalomaniacal human ego again. We don’t understand it, physicists much smarter than us didn’t understand it, therefore it is beyond understanding. I pick up mixed signals on this assessment, but let’s see which one is the more likely interpretation. Are physicists a) freely admitting that they are not smart enough to understand the universe; or b) convinced that it can’t be understood because they are really smart and even they can’t understand it. One wonders. On what side does the burgeoning human ego fall?

Quantum realists walk silently along the halls of their quantum monastery, with shaven heads and wearing brown robes, and when they speak they all agree that physics’ job is to describe the universe, not understand it. To attempt to do so is at the best hopelessly naïve, or in the worse case heresy. Heretics are not tolerated in the quantum monastery. But one day, as the quantum monks are filing into their undecorated dining room, carrying their plates of lukewarm rice, they are startled to discover an intruder, sitting at a table, eating a hamburger, wearing shorts, a baseball cap, and a tee shirt with a colorful, offensive logo. “Yo” I said, “Want to see some cool geometry?”

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On Philosophy

Thursday, June 26th, 2008 by Terence Witt

Nothing like limiting a subject to a managable scope…

When comparing null physics to contemporary physics, the subject of philosophy invariably comes up because many things that are important to null physics are labeled, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘philosophy’ by physicists. Philosophy, we are told, is not science, and according to many of the physicists I have talked to, it is not particularly important in and of itself. Philosophical tidbits of note in null physics include such trivia as ‘why the universe exists’, ‘why is energy quantized?’, and ‘why does the universe have universal constants?’

Modern physics’ stance on philosophy is incongruous on a number of levels, but let’s just hit the highlight reel today. Here are the main categories.

Judgement call

To begin with, as has become clear during the course of many conversations, I doubt that the majority of physicists really know enough about philosophy to be able to recognize it when they see it. Reading the great book ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ might be a good way to ease into the subject, but then they would be left with the false impression that philosophy has little to tell us about the natural world. So I don’t think people who are familiar with physics, but rarely delve into philosophy, are best suited to judge the line that separates the two. Not that philosophers are too eager to venture into physics either. Daniel Dennett forages through the life sciences to support many of his assertions, but he would seem to be the exception.


What physicists don’t seem to realize is that philosophy is, by its nature, an intrinsic part of every human activity, and there’s far more to it than arguing over the meaning of beauty or good. It rests at the very essence of physics, such as the ‘scientific method’. The thing that defines physics cannot, in and of itself, be a part of physics, because it separates physics from ‘everything else’. So it is philosophy that tells us where physics begins and ends, not physics.

lnconsistency or merely hypocrisy?

As noted, many physicists woud claim that a question such as ‘why does the universe exist?’ lies outside of physics, yet cosmologists are always telling us that they search for the hidden ‘secrets of the universe’. When I talk about null principles or null geometry, I’m often told something to the effect that “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Since we don’t have access to what came before the universe, it’s a philosophical issue.” As this is being written, cosmologists are looking for patterns in the cosmic microwaves that might tell them something about the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang. Yet to look at the contemporary universe for signs that it is the internal structure of nothingness is…philosophy.

Call me silly, but I think that there’s a fundamental difference between a debate over the meaning of beauty and a debate over the reason the universe exists. The universe is, ultimately, the reason why we have ‘physics’. No universe, no physics. The way the universe is, such as ‘really big’ and ‘filled with stuff’ is related (and the connection between the dots is very close here) to why it exists or where it ‘came from’. A chicken, for instance, makes a lot of sense if you’re in a barnyard and there’s chickens, eggs, and chicks coming out of eggs. A chicken would make so sense at all if you’re in a volcano or on the surface of the sun, because its properties would be entirely inconsistent with the environment.

So I guess the question is what is more ‘philosophical’. Using the known properties of our contemporary universe to deduce its geometry and most essential nature, or talking about things that are thought to have happened 13.7 billion years ago that we, by definition, have no way of accessing today?

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