Friday, May 21, 2010

Ex nihilo

There's nothing that ever came from something in its entirety. Everything is ultimately creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Every state is unique since if it weren't unique it wouldn't, properly speaking, be a state at all (a distinctly recognizable configuration of things). Some states may resemble one another so closely that they appear to in fact be the same. But the temporality of existence implies that even such semblance is but that, semblance. So if every state is unique, then newness comes out of nothing. That which was not, that which was nothing, now in fact is something (it has come into being).

However, when we say "nothing comes from nothing" (ex hihilo nihil fit), we are probably implying that everything has an efficient cause. Every distinct state is proceeded by some other state, without which the distinct state would not have come into being. But if everything has a cause, then what caused the very process of causation itself? We could say "God", but what does saying "it is God" mean? Does it not have any meaning? Or does it simply mean "I don't know"? If the latter, then why not simply say it? Saying it is God seems to imply we understand what in fact caused causation itself (which we don't).

Or we could say that causation is eternal. But then the very axiom that everything has a cause must be put into question! We must instead separate everything into two categories, that which comes from something and that which does not (the eternal, the universal, the uncaused). As we have deepened our investigation into the microcosm, what once seemed firm, unbreakable, possibly even eternal, has proven to be of only fleeting existence. What we once perceived as the very substance of matter can decay. And matter and energy are aspects of the same thing. We could say that one comes of the other. But what does come of mean? Emerge out of? Does one, then, exist in the other?

In software engineering I'm confronted with emergent behavior on a daily basis. Such behaviors are ways that the system as a whole acts because of the way the components interact. The behavior is not apparent in the behavior of any one single part of the system. For example, imagine a procedure that moves an element across the screen horizontally (it increases or decreases the value of X in a pair of X,Y coordinates). And another that moves it vertically (it affects the Y value). If I apply one or the other procedure, the element will behave as predicted within the procedures themselves (it will move vertically OR horizontally). But if I apply both simultaneously, the element will move diagonally.

Diagonality can bee seen a composite of the two (the element moves horizontally AND vertically). But we can only predict in exactly what direction the element will move by looking at BOTH procedures. The point I'm trying to make is that looking at any single procedure will tell us nothing about the actual movement of the element. The direction in which the element moves can only be understood when we analyze the interplay of the two procedures. It's important to note that a separate procedure is not required for each cardinality of the screen (which would require a very large number of procedures to move a an element around the 0,0 to 1024,764 coordinate space of the screen).

In physical space we have the same phenomenon of emergence. In physics we talk about the forces acting on an object. And to predict how an object will act, we have to analyze the interplay of all forces affecting the object. The behavior of the object does not emerge out of some singular process. Its behavior exist only in the space between the components and not in the components themselves. Analyzing gravity alone tells us nothing about the course of a football. The motion of the ball does not exist in gravity. Nor in the forward motion of the athlete's foot. Nor in the wind that blows across the field and the elasticity of its substance. The motion exists only in the interplay of them all. Although a result of each individual force, the motion is unique, distinct and something entirely new. The football's motion does not come from them but from between them. From the negative space, the nothing, that we can only see when we look at them as a whole. And ultimately, ex nihilo.

Inside the procedure MOVE X (which moves the screen element left or right), Y exists only as a constant. The existence of Y might be a hint that it's possible to move the element up and down. But it presumes that someone analyzing MOVE X knows what the tuple X,Y (which is being passed in and out of the procedure) represents. Any assumption of the nature of Y is pure conjecture. The quantity X, by the very nature of MOVE X, is known to be at least a variable. The name of the procedure hints to us that it's a positional variable. The quantity Y, on the other hand, might not represent positionality at all. Perhaps it's intensity (how dark the dot is). It's irrelevant how unlikely it is that it's not a definition of position in a Cartesian space. As we move away from the function of the procedure, we venture further and further into conjecture. The whole system cannot be unfolded from MOVE X.

Clearly, one state does not exist in the other like some infinite fractal. If it did, we would be able to extrapolate the motion of the screen object from the application of a single procedure. In terms of efficient cause, the best we can do is to say that this preceded that which came before such. One class of states seems to invariably be followed by another class of states. And after extended observations, distinct patterns emerge. And causality seems established. And laws are postulated. But how firm are they? Can they, like the atom, be broken asunder, or are the eternal, absolute and infallible? Is it just our understanding of them that is incomplete? Are they perfect and of divine nature?

It would seem more consistent to assume that nothing is impervious to decay and creation. That nothing is eternal, universal and perfect. And that even causation, the laws of nature, are subject to this fundamentally destructive and life giving principle. Where did it come from? From nowhere, ex nihilo, from the simple truth that something came into being, proven by our very own awareness of our existence, the act of writing and reading this here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Fable Agreed Upon

There's been a lot of talk about the Texas board of education lately. The board has revised the state's social studies curriculum due to what members of the board perceive to be a "liberal bias" in current texts. However much I may disagree with the proposed changes, I can't but be lightly amused by some of the claims that these conservatives are messing with historical reality. It's not that they aren't constructing a coherent conservative artifice. They are. But all curricula are in fact an artifice assembled to create a coherent foundation for our current mindset. The historical reality people like Noah Baron believe to exist, and which the Texas Board of Education is messing with, is but a hazy collection of imperfect records. This haziness is why the past is so difficult to reconstruct (and why convicting someone in a court of law can be very tricky). Historical truth is rather elusive and very unlike scientific experiments that can be replicated in near exactness.

Most certainly, any truth value set aside, what portion of the past and our current body of knowledge that we choose to highlight is crucial to where we are headed tomorrow. Therefore, the curriculum for social studies is inherently political in nature. Ask yourself, why is it that we spend so much time studying American history? Why do we not immerse our children with the same vigor in studying the Caliphates?

We should not treat with scorn and ridicule conservative attempts to alter curricula of public schools. It would be better to honestly and openly speak about how politics affect our curricular choices. There may indeed be a "liberal bias" in current text books. We may have chosen to shine our flashlights at things that justify our modern secularism. But perhaps that's not such a bad thing after all.

As Bonaparte's jaded adage goes: What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history ? A fable agreed upon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Service not to the Nation, but to the Constitution

It should be imparted on us all, that when we serve, it's not the nation that we honor but the Constitution. It's the Constitution and the ideals for which it stands that we serve. It should be for the Constitution that we should be willing to give our lives. And it should be imparted on us that this is indeed a noble cause, nobler than any nation. Not to defend our tribe, but to defend our fundamental rights. And our right to choose our living within the constraints of our Rule of Law. And that the ideals embodied in our Constitution are neither unique nor constrained to our insignificant nation which is a mere wrinkle in time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Risk of Progress, a Hypothetical Problem

Imagine you had a solution you believed could indefinitely supply energy to all of humanity at 1/1000 of today's cost for alternative energy sources. The only problem was that you believed there was a fifty/fifty chance that when initiating the solution, it might instantly destroy a vast swath of life on earth, potentially setting us back thousands of years. Once initiated, the energy source would be just as safe as wind power. Would you flip the switch? If not, at what odds would you?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Defence of the Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus or apatosaurus? The great question that mystifies us all. Have you ever been corrected and told "brontosaurus is the old name, now its called apatosaurus!". 20 or so years ago this happened to me and I thought, fine ok, so it's apatosaurus. Just the other day, my 5 year old son and one of his friends were engaged in the same conversation. My, oh, my, I thought, the brontosaurus still lives on!

My curiosity was peeked. Why was brontosaurus the "incorrect" name? The brontosaurus, probably lacking any sophisticated system of symbolism and extinct since...oh...150 million years, couldn't care less. So what popular misconception were paleontologist fighting in their insistence it should be named apatosaurus? It must be some great misconception since apatosaurus falls off the tongue like an old piece of jello and brontosaurus thunders from the guts. At least in most Germanic and Romance languages, brontosaurus seems just the right name for a herbivore the size of this ancient beast.

Wikipedia...tack, tack, tack...ah...bronotosaurus an obsolete synonym of apatosaurus. Obsolete? Well, it can't be that obsolete given the discussion between two 5 years old kids anno 2010. After a little further reading, I find out that the controversy surrounds an issue of incorrect differentiation. Apparently a specimen named Apatosaurus ajax was hypothesized in 1877. 2 years later, another species is described under the name of Brontosaurus. But in 1903, it was deemed that the two were so similar that they aught to be considered the same genus. Therefore the Bronotsaurus was renamed Apatosaurus excelsus. The Apatosaurus might even have simply been a juvile Brontosaurus.

The Principle of Priority, article 23 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature dictates that the name first used for a taxon (a group of organisms judged to be a unit) in a published piece is to be considered the senior synonym. Other names are deemed junior synonyms and should not be used. The case of the Brontosaur versus the Apotasaur seems to clearly fall under this rule. Case closed! I mean, If I go along and name something Jabberwocky and the next day someone else decides to name it the Cheshire Cat, just to grab the glory. That's just not proper! And we need some kind of rule after all to remain taxonomically sound. Right?

Hold on. Further reading reveals that both specimens were assembled and named by the great but sometimes careless paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh. So the fairness argument goes out the window. And honestly, the fairness argument is weak anyway. If someone manages to find a word which sound qualities better captures the thingness of a thing, that's the word to go for. We don't call a thump a pling after all. Thingness may we ambiguous, but clearly that massive heap of bones, that lumbering quadropede is best described as a thunder lizard (Brontosaurus), not a deceptive lizard (Apatosaurus).

I'm a software engineer and I don't take taxonomy lightly. Accuracy and clarity in class structures are important. We need guidelines for how to name things. But sometimes an ornery beaurocratic stick-to-the-rules attitude can cause more damage than good. Brontosaurus was on the level of T-rexity in capturing our imagination. For kids all around the world the Brontosaur was the emblem of the plant-eating giants. The name packed it all in and and expanded like a Lost World when whispered over yet-to-be-written essays and stories. I'm sure that in some the Brontosaurus even brought out the potential paleontologist. Give us back our Brontosaurs!

So what can we do? How can we, without espousing scientific confusion, get our daughters and sons to not stumble confusedly around the neighborhood with their aplaplapoposaurus toys, but to rumble and thunder to the beat of their mighty Brontosaurian friends? The answer, in my view, is simple: rename the entire genus from Apatosaurus to Brontosaurus. Let the mighty Bontosaurus excelsus be the measure of the taxon. If a fossil is deemed sufficiently deviated, let it be known under some other less spectacular name.

I believe the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature has the authority to overrule the Principle of Priority. How about it ladies and gentlemen?