The Examined Year: 2011

07 January 2012

This week, we do something special.  We take a look back at the past year, though the lens of Philosophy.  We call the episode --   The Examined Year: 2011.  But this is not your typical year in review show -- not by a long shot.  We take our inspiration, from Socrates who  said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  For us,  that implies that that the unexamined year is not worth living through.   Fortunately for us all, though, 2011 was a year well  worth living through and well worth examining.  It was  best of times and the worst of times -- a year in equal parts inspiring and troubling. 

Let's begin with some of the ways in which the year was troubling.  There was continued stagnation of  the American economy; the ever-increasing concentration of the wealth in the hands of the few; the near collapse of the Euro and of  the dream of a united and harmonious Europe.  If you’re the pessimistic sort, 2011 was enough to make you despair for the future of the combination of capitalism and democracy, that emerged so triumphant out of the chaos of the 20th century.  Paul Krugman, whom I happen to respect as much as I do any man alive, thinks the current situation has all the hallmarks of a world-wide depression. Unemployment in both America and Europe is disastrously high.  Our leaders and institutions are increasingly discredited.  And democratic values are under siege throughout the industrialized world.   That’s scary stuff.

 But the year wasn’t all darkness, fortunately.  There were developments that inspired hope -- like the demise of  dictators and the first stirrings of democracy in Africa and  the Middle East.  And don’t forget the world of science.  It offered up a breath-taking range of potential discoveries:  earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of distant stars; neutrinos apparently capable of traveling faster than the speed of light; and -- toward the end of the year -- tantalizing glimpses of the Higgs boson. 

Speaking of the Higgs stuff,  I have to admit that on first encounter,  it  kind of floored me and puzzled my philosophical imagination.  The Higgs boson is supposed to help explain why fundamental particles have mass at all.  But it first struck me that it  wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder whether that’s something that really need explaining.  Isn't it sort of like explaining why circles are round?  They are round by definition.  And things that are true by definition, don't need explaining.   Similarly, one might think that mass is an intrinsic property of matter so that  matter has mass by definition and from the very beginning of its existence.  And just as it's no mystery why circles are round, so it's no mystery why matter has mass. 

But not so fast.  We're missing a crucial point here.    I’m no particle physicist, but I think you can look at it this way. Physics tells us that some particles lack mass -- photons, for example.  And it used to be thought, I gather, that neutrinos also lack mass.  It turns out,  though,  that do have mass -- just a very, very, teeny tiny little bit of it.    Anyway,  because massless particles are, well, massless, they zip around at maximum speed, barely interacting with anything.  (maximum speed assuming, that is, that faster than light neutrinos aren't real but a measurement error).    But now we've set up a real question.    Why aren’t the only sorts of particles in the universe the massless ones?   Why does the universe contain massive particles at all.  That's a real question, not a psuedo question or a confused question.  

The answer, very roughly,  has to do with the so-called Higgs mechanism of which the Higgs  Boson is a product.  Without the Higgs mechanism to endow some fundamental particles with mass (through interaction with the all pervasive Higgs Field)  the universe would  contain nothing but a  swarm of mass-less energy waves.  In such a universe,   atoms and atomic nuclei could never form.  And so nothing like human beings, or the earth we live on, could possibly exist.   (Of course, that raises the question of why there is a Higgs Field. And that's a bit longer story than I can tell here.  But it has to do with symmetry breaking sometime shortly after the big bang, as the universe cooled down.)  

Anyway, the role of the Higgs Boson in endowing fundamental particles with mass is, I think, where the amusing name ‘god particle’ may have come from.  But I can't vouch for that.   Personally, I find it pretty mind-blowing stuff.  And I think it’s really, really cool that physicists are on the verge of  explaining, in effect,  where mass comes from.    I see the question as something like  Heidegger’s question – why is there something rather than nothing – which positivists once rejected as a nonsensical psuedo question.   Don’t know about that.  But I know  that the question why does the universe contain matter at all rather than just massless particles is a really cool and deep one.   That the human mind could actually put to itself such a question and then actually answer it  is a testament to how cool a thing a human mind really is.  

Something else I find absolutely mind-blowing was very much on the philosophical radar this year.   And that’s idea that there could be objective moral truths.  Frankly,  I have to admit that I’ve never personally been able to make much philosophical  sense of how there could be such things.  Indeed, I’m writing a book, one aim of which is to consign that idea to a dustbin reserved for highly and permanently tempting, but deeply mistaken philosophical errors.  Of course, not everybody agrees with me on that score.  Indeed, one of the great divides in philosophy is that which separates those who believe in objective morality and those who doubt the possibility of such a thing.

But the past year witnessed the publication of a much anticipated book  by a very influential philosopher that purports to establish that there really could be such a thing as objective morality after all.  The philosopher is Derek Parfit and the book is On What Matters.  One reviewer called it the best book on the topic of ethics in the last 100 years.  That’s pretty high praise. 

Though philosophers appear to be all over the map when it comes to morality  -- just witness my own view that there is no such thing as objective morality --   Parfit argues that there are far fewer  differences among the leading moral theories than meets the eye.  He thinks that when we understand the best alternative moral theories correctly,  they turn out to agree much more than they disagree.  And if that’s right,  there’s at least the beginnings of an argument that there are, after all, objective moral truths.  Because one of the marks of objective existence is that even if you approach a thing from different starting points, you’ll ultimately converge to the same destination. 

I hope you agree that from politics, to science, to philosophy itself, it’s certainly been a rich and interesting year.  There are all sorts of things for us to talk about.   Listen in and join in the fun by continuing the conversation on this blog.   This episode is sort of an experiment.  So we’d love to have your feedback on how it went. 

Comments (7)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 7, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

What happened in 2011? Not

What happened in 2011? Not much worth discussing, except maybe for science.... our saving grace--thanks to Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, and so many others. Politics and philosophy, not so much I'm sorry to opine. War continues to be a way of life in our contentious world...scratch religion and politics as any sort of unifying forces. Didn't happen in 2011. Won't happen for all the reasons why such unification cannot happen: Cultural intractability; theocratic inconsistency and the ever-presence of US vs THEM mentality that has characterized our world, from time immemorial (whenever that began) YAWN. Or, as the Camel has often said: Hmmmmph.
Sure.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Ken,

Dear Ken,
I hope this year you find truth and goodness the highlight, and that you leave the theoretical physics nonsense and the unlawful spread of democracy to the children that fight and play.
=
Nature is truly immeasurable

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

What can we say about any

What can we say about any year? Neuman chewed on and spat out a microcosmic piece of it. Everything is so inextricable that we lose any notion of continuity. Michael is right in theory, yet losing credibility in application. Nature IS measurable, and mankind's science measures nature everyday. I don't mind idealists or idealism. I was there once---uh, 40 years ago. I have subscribed to an old adage that I heard at AT LEAST 30 years ago, and have composed a manuscript, based, in part, upon that adage; to wit: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Isn't this elementary, Watson? Quite so, Mr. Holmes.
We all live within the possible, plausible and believable, tempered by what I have called cultural intractibility---the latter trumping any sort of middle ground. It might also be labelled as pride (pretty useless); arrogance (equally useless---and destructive); and vanity. Nothing must be sacred. Because we worship---nothing.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Actually, 2011 was not such a

Actually, 2011 was not such a bad year - much better than, say, anything within 1914-18 or 1941-45 or (if you were a Roman at least) any year between about 405 and 476 - to name a few examples. Depression? I don't think so - in the Depression we had unemployment of 25% (compared to 8.5% now), massive bank failures, food lines and starvation in the streets. When we started drafting for WW II you would be a medically qualified male if you weighed at least 110 pounds and had at least 12 of your own teeth.
I heard one radio commentary not long ago - we sit in air-conditioned vehicles, listening to state-of-the-art sound systems, drinking bottled water or gourmet coffees, and then call our friends on hyper-functional digital devices to complain about how hard life is.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Paul,

Dear Paul,
Truth is my only ideal.
Just Me
There is no need to argue nature's immeasurability, science or measure has proved it. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or the immeasurability of sub atomic particles was only a tip of the measure berg, All of our measurements are only probable or uncertain at best. This is how I found myself:
Oneday some time or space ago, whilst searching for the true measure of myself, I traveled to the great institutions of learning, Stanford and Berkley to ask and find the answer to this question: Is nature measurable?
I'd been measured wrong by others, but I had always thought I was good or right. So which was I, I had to know. Where they right or wrong or was I? I did some fine study along the Way; Michelangelo told me to study nature if I wanted to know the truth. Einstein taught me the difficulty of measuring speed on a moving train and best of all to simplify when solving a problem. Mr. Russell gave me a crash course on western philosophy or why we think the way we do, and I found friendship in Plato and Socrates and the reality or truth of a shadowy cave. Descartes reduced the problem to I but then went the other way again. What was wrong with just I? Of course this led to the East where the Masters lived, and there I found the truth could not be even spoken, No where East or West could I find my true self.
So down to the river I went, maybe Michelangelo had it right, looking for the measure of nature, my true self. Twain had found truth there, as surely as I could too. What is the measure of the river, mark twain? The river is nature and so am I and so are we. I tried to measure the rivers depth and found I could not. I tried to measure the rivers direction and found it infinite. I looked for the rivers source and found it full circle. I found on the river of nature immeasurably and infinitely just me. But surely nature's immeasurability had to be tested. But who would know, where would I find the proof?
Then I found Heisenberg and physics and found there uncertainty too.
So I decided to travel to Stanford and Berkley to ask the great minds that studied there. Is nature measureable, am I? I spent the night at a place called Mavricks, where the largest waves meet the particles of the beach, duality or Oneness? And the next day with great courage I walked into the physics department at Stanford and ask my question: is nature measurable. No One had an answer. I asked then, what are you doing here in the science of physics or measure of nature department, and could not get an answer there either. I headed over to the philosophy department and found philosophy to be not or nearly nonexistent. What would the Greeks think of our philosophy of our truth department today? Oh Dear!
So off to Berkley I went. I'd never been to college and I was so scared. But if I could handle Stanford then it was time to climb the hill. I found the physics department at the top of the hill and asked everyone I could find my question, and there they answered: nature's measurability is a philosophy question. They told me to go to the philosophy department and ask someone there. The philosophy department at Berkley really enjoyed my question, but said that I would have to ask someone in the physics department because they measure nature.
Dang it, there I was walking back and forth between physics and philosophy at Berkley, between a particle and a wave and found myself outside again, in nature stuck between the two. Nature, the truth between the two. A scholarly woman was sitting on a step having lunch on a beautiful sunny day and I asked her if she could help me understand myself. She was apprehensive for sure but agreed. There were leaves lying on the sidewalk in front of us and I asked her to count them and tell me how many there were. She said 5. I asked her if she was certain of it. She said yes. I said would you bet everything you know on it, and again although hesitantly and nervously she said yes. Just then the slightest of breeze came up and flipped one leaf over to reveal another. Well well well I said now there are 6. Would you agree? She was quite uncertain now, of not only me but everything she thought she knew. As she agreed with me that there were 6 a wind came up and blew them all away.
If we can?t count the leaves on a sidewalk, then what can we count? I had my proof, my truth, my nature, immeasurably just me. I could have screamed, as I could today!
Nature is immeasurable, but then, what is nature without it?
True my Dear Watson, just true.
Thanks,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Congratulations, Grasshopper!

Congratulations, Grasshopper! It appears you have traversed a True Path. I had been wondering, Michael, what you might say if you ever wrote more than twenty-five words. Your ruminations remind me of spiritual thinkers such as Alan Watts and Jack Kornfield. Me? I found some enlightenment living in a chicken shed, outside the bustling metropolis of Fergus, Ontario in the winter of 1975. Pretty close to true poverty. I was cold, hungry most of the time, and lonely. But---I'm still here: older, warmer and seldom hungry. Reversals of fortune are welcome.
Or as old Bob Dylan said: It takes a lot to laugh; it takes a train to cry.
But, I am sorry. Science is science and philosophy is philosophy---the twain do not meet, in any practical sense. Heisenberg and Einstein both knew this. And so did Bertrand Russell. And Samuel L. Clemens? Well, he spoke as a humorist first, and a philosopher second. He knew a lot, but he did not flaunt his knowledge. Probably because he also knew that philosophers generally remain poor, while scientists and humorists do measurably better. Mark that well, Grasshopper...

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Ah, yes, a belief in the

Ah, yes, a belief in the existence of objective moral truths; that was the error of Socrates, wasn't it? But then Sigmund Freud and Henry Sidgwick finally blew that notion to pieces. Who can deny an appeal to self-interest as a valid basis in moral decisions? That is the basis for freedom and human rights. But an appeal to the public interest is also valid, as is an appeal to universal principles. Win-win-win situations do occur, of course, but such a serendipitous outcome may be difficult, even impossible, to attain practically.

 

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