Friday, May 28, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Pierre Simon-Laplace published a paper in 1814 that took the idea of Newton’s ordered universe to its logical conclusion. He wrote:
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
The idea is that if someone or something could know the location and momentum of every single particle in the universe at a given time, then that entity, nicknamed “Laplace’s demon”, would know the future. The reasoning is that all particles obey the same laws of physics. If I throw a baseball up, then I know it’s going to come down (barring any interference). That fact is determined by gravity, a fundamental physical law. If I had that kind of knowledge about every single aspect of the universe, then what could I predict?
There are different, nuanced views concerning whether a wholly determined future is truly the consequence of physical laws, and I hope to have a good discussion about that in a subsequent post. But right now, let’s look at the idea that if we knew everything about the current state of the physical universe, and we could process that information, then we could know the future.
Does this work?
Imagine an entity with all this knowledge, the knowledge of everything. It would then know the future....but if it knows the future, what is there to prevent the entity from changing the future? If the entity is an embodied being, and it knows that it will turn to the left, why couldn’t it then decide to turn to the right?
We arrive at similar paradoxes to those associated with time travel. If a person travels back in time, and she changes something, then she has changed the causal chain that created her. The time traveler would not only no longer exist, but the person (and the past she experienced which would lie in the future and which led her to make this change!) would not have ever existed! If Laplace’s demon knows the future, then any changes it could make will change the causal chain that brings about this future. So then LD (Laplace’s Demon) would not know the future.
Some people think that we should think of LD as a computer, not a being. Fair enough. But surely a computer could print out the results - then people would read it.....and would that knowledge lock them in to certain actions? Surely not. Imagine reading that you are about to sit down in 10 seconds. Why not keep standing for 15 seconds? Then the computer’s printout would be falsified.
So knowing all available information, and therefore the future, would have to make you into a “prisoner”, following a pre-set script. But surely this is impossible when considering all the mundane details of our lives.
So perhaps nothing can predict the future if it lies within the world it is attempting to predict. Perhaps to be a player in that world, whether conscious on the level of human being or not, is to be made up of elements that the player cannot ultimately apprehend. (One of these days I am going to try to understand Godel’s Theorem which is related to this stuff).
So what about God? And I mean God in the classical theistic sense - an observer existing outside of our universe. If God knew all information, then He could know the future. But this would preclude God from interacting in the universe at all, for that would break the natural, causal chain and determinism would be out the window. We would be left with a divine indeterminism. Of course if God is the creator or programmer of the universe, and He intervened, we might ask why He did not put any changes He made into the original program. Why would an omniscient, omnipotent entity need to change the program when he knew from the beginning how it would go? But that is another subject, getting at some of the trouble with determinism and classical theism.
But what if determinism is simply not true? And I mean determinism in its classical definition - that there is only one possible future for our universe. What if the arrow of time has many possibilities?
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The Edmond Memorial High School Orchestra Presents a World Premiere.
“Oklahoma Trails” is the name of a brand new string piece set to premiere at the Edmond Memorial Orchestra’s Spring concert. The work was commissioned by OPUS, the orchestra’s parents association, with a grant from the Edmond Arts Council.
David Koehn, the orchestra director at Edmond Memorial, had the idea back in the fall. “I wanted to give the orchestra students the chance to work on something different for their final concert this year. Premiering a piece by a local composer just seemed to fit this ensemble.”
Koehn approached his friend, Oklahoma City musician Steven Stark, with the idea. Stark jumped at the chance to write a new piece for a local group. “My first thought was - I have to write something that highlights something about Oklahoma. My wife and son and I are frequent visitors to the Oklahoma City Zoo, so the Oklahoma Trails exhibit quickly came to mind.”
The piece is meant to evoke feelings reminiscent of the landscape and wildlife of Oklahoma. Stark decided not to be too specific in his musical representation. “I did not want to associate specific animals or areas with certain parts of the piece. I wanted to suggest a topic, create a mood, and then allow listeners and players the freedom to interpret as they see fit. Within that context, I set out to write themes the players could really sink their bows in to. I also tried to give important parts to every section - to keep all the players engaged.”
Premiering a brand new piece is a unique experience for a high school orchestra, but the students have been receptive to the new piece, says Koehn. “They have expressed several times that they have enjoyed working with the composer in person, rather than only through me as the teacher. It allows them a chance to see the music with a different perspective.”
The concert is at Edmond Memorial High School on Tuesday, May 11 at 6:00PM, with the high school portion beginning at 7:00PM. In addition to the premiere, the orchestra will play a variety of classical and popular pieces, including works by Benjamin Britten and Stephen Sondheim.
What’s the difference between an embryo that may one day be conscious and an unconscious person who may one day be conscious? Some opponents of choice say there is none. They say that if it is OK to terminate an embryo, even a blastocyst or a fertilized egg, on the basis that it lack consciousness, then it must be OK to terminate a person who is anesthetized for surgery. After all, they both lack consciousness now, and they both may be conscious at a later time.
But surely there is a useful distinction to be made here. There is a difference between completely lacking an ability and having an ability which is currently suspended. A person who is unconscious, asleep or under anesthesia, still has the ability to be conscious - an embryo has no such ability at all.
I am a person because I have the ability to be conscious - to think, to feel, to experience life. Even if that consciousness is temporarily not in use, I still have the ability, just as I still have the ability to play the cello, even when I am not playing it. When I put down my bow and get a drink or walk around, I do not cease to be a cellist. Current ability is a very useful distinction when thinking about the ethics of abortion.
But what about potential?
I think the best argument against abortion is the idea that if an entity has the potential to become a conscious human, then it has the same rights as a conscious human. The argument states that potentiality itself is what grants a person rights. I will argue that this does not work, although potential is an important consideration.
Do we afford a four year old the right to drive because he currently has the potential to be 16 some day? No. And, if for some terrible reason, we knew a four old would never become old enough to drive, we would not take any rights away from the child because of this difference in potential.
That said, it is valuable to take potential into account when dealing with people. It is sometimes wise to give people the benefit of the doubt, to treat them as the good person they are capable of being, even if they are not acting that way. However this can only go so far. A prisoner may have the potential to become a reformed person, but we do not consider potential a good enough reason to release the prisoner into the public.
But I will not say that potential does not matter as a consideration. Even if a mouse has more consciousness than an embryo, I cannot say that I would necessarily treat them as equals. The embryo’s potential is the reason for this. So potential is an important consideration, but not a strict rule-maker.
And this is the reason why a reasonable pro-choice position makes the most sense. Potentiality is a factor to consider, but not a strict ruler-maker, because the term “potentiality” itself means that the valued abilities in question are not present yet.
The Sanctity of Life
Everyone believes in the sanctity of human life. But there is a difference between “technically alive” and “substantively alive.” Technically alive means the scientific description - which would apply to every living thing from humans to fungi. Substantively alive means life as human beings experience it and value it. We don’t value our lives because we have a metabolism. We value life because we are capable of consciousness. We value life because we can feel and think.
In fact, a good argument can be made that over-valuing “technical life” can come at the expense of “substantive life”. If a single woman, living in poverty with five children, is forced by the state to continue her pregnancy and have the baby, this could undermine the amount of care, both emotionally and materially, that she can offer her five children. If a family is required to pour their material and emotional resources into maintaing the "technical life" of a relative in a vegetable state with no reasonable hope for recovery, then this may result in a net loss of "substantive life" for that family.
So it comes down to this. Everyone believes in the sanctity of life - and the sanctity of human life. But many pro-choice advocates think that being technically alive is not the same as being substantively alive, and because of this there is still a window of time to terminate a technically alive entity before it becomes a substantively alive entity, without grave moral concern.
Because anti-choicers value “technical life” and pro-choicers value “substantive life” - both sides of the argument claim that their position ultimately values life more than the other side.