Tuesday, 8 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Surfing with Sartre (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 1 Spring/ Summer  2017

Review article* 
By Martin Cohen

Now I’m all in favour with popularising philosophy - but surfing? It doesn’t auger well. Surfing and philosophy seems to go together like... chalk and cheese. Of course, there is a very broad kind of philosophy of life that well, surfers could be said to symbolise - but against this small justification is the uncomfortable fact that surfing is a physical sport which has very little to do with philosophy. Indeed, Sartre was writing in the years before surfing became a mainstream leisure pursuit. It really doesn’t help, as here, to suppose that ‘had’ he known surfing he would have liked it.

In fact, it turns out that there is very little in Sartre that does fit with Aaron James’s surfing philosophy, so it is clearly more a marriage of convenience than of substance. Nonetheless, James does manage to use surfing to provide a framework to explore big Sartrean (better, ‘existentialist’) issues such as freewill, determinism, and of course, the meaning of life. James even goes so far to say:
‘It would be an exaggeration to say that the whole meaning of human existence could be continued in one moment, in a single act of riding a wave, yet is it as though the whole meaning of human existence can be contained in one moment, in a single act of riding a wave. ‘
And, philosophically speaking, Surfing with Sartre is a clear and well-informed guide, whose choices of examples are often illuminating.
‘This is a book of philosophy. It asks whether the surfer might happen to know something about questions for the ages, about knowledge, freedom, control, flow, happiness society, nature and the meaning of life. It’s a book about surfing, but also not, or not just, because the surfer knows, or at least sense, without necessarily caring, turns out to be of world-historical moment, for nothing less than the future of work, the planet, and human civilization.’
Paddling his board out further, James even suggests that the surfer is ‘a model of civic virtue’. This is partly because, if we all worked a lot less, say a 24-hour week, ‘the climate crisis would be less terrible’. James notes that, of course, not working could include other activities than surfing such as gardening or ‘spending time with the kids ‘. (That might offend some moms – and he doesn’t include being a philosophy professor in the ‘not really working’ category)

‘The question is one of ethics’, he continues firmly. Surfers are revolutionaries. Leisure revolutionaries. Speaking of revolutions reminds him of Sartre, who was of course a Marxist. Marxists used to link work with identity, but James argues that this is old thinking and that instead, surfers are ‘on the side of history’ by creating their identity though their leisure pursuit.

He explains a bit more about this by saying that surfing is not about imposing your will, but transcending it. To surf a wave is described thus:
1. To be attuned to a changing natural phenomenon,
2. so as to be carried along by its propulsive forces by way of bodily adaptation,
3. where this is done purposefully and for its own sake.
In this is a ‘kind of freedom, self-transcendence, and happiness’.

‘I realize this might sound like some mash-up of surf camp musings and philosophical blathering’, says James apologetically, in a rare moment of doubt - and for me, he’s not far wrong!

Indeed, rather vainglorious accounts of how to surf dominate the book. Learn how to fade, snap, cutback, anticipate and tube ride. This last maneouvere, it turns out, is surfer nirvana. If you want to know more about it - buy the book. If you want to know more about Sartre, the same advice does not apply.

James briefly reports that both W. V. Quine and Peter Strawson - ‘the two towering figures who later did the most to undo logical empiricism’ - ‘dabbled’ in surfing. However, more space is given to John Rawls who James crowns ‘the 20th century’s most influential philosopher’. What, not Sartre? Or any others from a whole range of non-surfing thinkers including Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein? Nonetheless, both of these get regular nods here.

James examines the different kinds of freedom possible.
‘Freedom for the surfer isn’t radical self-determination but a kind of achievement, in adaptive attunement. It’s a way of being efficacious without control, precisely by giving up any need for it.’
Think of the kind of freedom described by John Locke with his example of the man in a locked room. The man is not truly free, even if he has no with to leave the room - even if he does not know the door is locked. But no, it is not this kind of freedom. Surfers exhibit freedom, but it is more than ‘freedom from’ - it is freedom to do something. Is it then more like that offered by Sartre’s compatriot and fellow existentialist, Albert Camus? He reinvented the tale of Sisyphus in order to have the hero pushing the rock up the hill - for eternity- in an act of defiance.

Indeed, James says radical freedom, Sartre’s kind of freedom, isn’t necessary. A person can ‘be carried along by necessity, going along with the flow of the universe and yet be free’. Noting that the ‘concept of control sweeps away the workings of fate and fortune’, the surfer’s answer is that we have less control that we usually imagine.

James segues to consider toilets, which he rightly sees as marvellous things and wrongly insists we only have thanks to the emergence of probability theory and statistical analysis. (I still haven’t worked that one out yet… )
‘In sum, then the surfer wisdom for success as a person is this. Take it easier. Accept. Persist. Focus, Leave time. Don’t compare. And mix things up.’
Mix things up? But yes. Freedom means that the ‘average Joe ‘can strike up a conversation with a pretty girl lying on the beach’, muses James. On the other hand, it does seem to mix things up to say that by ‘the light of surfer reason’, it is not permissible ‘to lie in bed when the waves are pumping.’ Not here the transcendence of surfers. Nor indeed is there much evidence of transcendence in an imagined surfer dispute: ‘You snaked me, bro! No way, you go fuck yourself, bro. Let’s take it to the beach, bro!’

But, okay, let’s do that, let’s take it to the beach. Because, in fact, I’ve done quite a lot of swimming with surfers, and while I’m sure they’re generally very nice chaps (they are nearly all men) frankly, I don’t share James’s glorification of the project. The surfers I see are sitting on the their boards for hours on end just chatting and waiting for a middling swell to come in, at which point they may or may not balance precariously on their boards.

Secondly, and more substantially, in my observation, surfing is all about the gaze of the other. This is indeed a great existentialist theme, first discussed, not only by Sartre, but by his partner of many years, Simone de Beauvoir, who being a woman barely rates in surfer philosophy.

Surfing is indeed distinctive in the importance attached to the image of the ride on the wave: it is not enough for the one surfer to have the pleasure and the thrill all alone. Often surfers are accompanied by their own cameraman/ woman who sites placidly on the beach waiting, maybe for hours, to immortalise their glorious moment. But even if there is not camera, is it not significant that surfers do prefer to operate in company, and if they cannot do that, to be within the gaze of humble beach dwellers?

In all these ways surfing may indeed tell us something about the relationship of the individual and their milieu. But I ‘m not sure it is anything very much. It is thus for Aaron James to convince us that Surfing with Sartre is more than a personal conceit, more than an ornate folly constructed by an academic philosopher who happens to be a keen surfer.

Surfing and philosophy do seem to me, despite his protestations, to be completely different kinds of activities. That’s not to discount the value of surfing though. James disagrees with Mill’s division of higher and lower pleasures without appreciating that his specific target was ‘pushpin’, a kind of gambling, and there’s no reason to think that Mill would not have appreciated the aesthetics of life on the ocean wave – just as he appreciated the noble landscapes of the English Lake District. I think Mill might have appreciated body surfing, but been suspicious  of hours spent waiting for a tube roll. And I suspect Mill would, unlike James, have thought that the poet Baudelaire was on to something when he wrote that: ‘to reduce everything to a single truth, work is less boring than pleasure’.

Sartre tells us that we are condemned to absurdity. That view would perhaps seem absurd to a surfer. Indeed, James favours the ‘surfer-friendly’ conclusion ‘that we face *too much* meaning. There are too many things worth doing!

On the contrary, generically, as Sartre wrote in a digression in his novel Nausea (1938), life doesn’t make sense. This ‘bad faith’ is its ‘secret power’. What else do we have in life other than the ‘spurious meanings’ that we invent?
‘Descartes shut himself in an egocentric cage, and like Sartre he struggled to escape. But the door was always open, if one puts the body first. To perceive is to know how to engage what lies beyond one’s head. Perception is not simply located in the brain.’ 
 True knowledge comes, for James, anyway, from the existential feel of those tube rides.

*Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning
By Aaron James
Doubleday, 2017
ISBN-10: 0385540736

The Philosopher’s verdict: Intriguing, but still not really suitable for the beach.

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Law of the Conservation of Being (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV, Spring 2017

In this medieval woodcut, the human need for order is challenged by these witches and devils dancing in a circle

By Sayed Abolfazl Arjmand

Things change their forms. When we talk of new things we are really only talking about new forms of old things. It is an ontological mistake, a mistake about conceptual categories, to say that new things have come into existence, because previously they already existed in their old forms. The creation of new things did not start with their new forms any more than we should say that the old things have gone out of existence, because they continue to exist, although they may now look different from how they used to in the past. 

In changing their forms, things may appear or disappear. They appear if we can sense them and they disappear when we cannot sense them anymore. For example, if we put a glass of water in a room, the water will disappear in a few days. Shapeshifting creatures like werewolves and vampires will know that the water has not gone out of existence, but has only changed its form: in this case from a visible liquid to an invisible gas. The being or existence of water continues - it is conserved in another form, although we cannot observe it anymore. Again, in reverse order, the invisible water vapour suspended in the air may take on visible form as water droplets on a cold surface.

In everyday language, we define lifetime as the period of time that something exists, but a more precise definition is the period of time that something has a particular form or state. The lifetime of the Earth is estimated to be about five billion years, but this period refers to the planet in its present spherical shape. Before this period the Earth existed in a shapeless gas state. After solidification, our planet has continued to undergo minor changes up to now, and these changes will continue forever. At each moment a new form is born, but we neglect these changes as trivial and only consider as the Earth’s birth time the transformation from gaseous state into a solid sphere those five billion years ago.

Because things change continuously, we can say that they are created and destroyed at every moment. Each death is followed by a birth and each birth is followed by a death. After something dies, it loses its previous form and takes on a new form. Seen from this perspective, death is not the end of existence, but only the end of a particular form of existence. Similarly, birth is not the beginning of existence, but only the beginning of a new form.

Different things are different forms of the same thing. For example, sodium, chlorine, and salt are different forms of something that we call matter. Despite their different forms, these substances are essentially the same and they can transform into each other. Sodium is a silvery metal and chlorine is a yellowish-green gas - both of them are poisonous to humans. Yet, when they combine, table salt is produced. In reverse order, by decomposing the salt, we can obtain sodium and chlorine again.

We give different names to different forms of the same thing. In other words, all different forms with different names can be categorised under a single name. Sodium, chlorine, and salt can be categorised under the single name chemicals or indeed as matter. This brings me to another important category in science - which is energy. Light and heat are forms of energy and they can transform into each other. Light from the Sun, when absorbed by objects on the Earth, is transformed into heat. Mutatis mutandis, (taken in the sense of ‘the same thing the other way around’) a hot object loses energy by radiation; that is, its thermal energy is transformed into light or electromagnetic energy.

During the 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier proposed a law for the conservation of matter. According to this, in a chemical reaction, the total amount of consumed materials is equal to the total amount of the products. Famously, the law implies that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but only change form. This principle was later proved to be approximate, not exact because of the conversion of tiny amounts of matter into energy. The typical values for matter converted to energy in a chemical experiment are so tiny that it is only very recently that it has become possible to detect and measure them.

It is important to restate that we cannot eliminate all experimental imprecisions.Given that  it is only very recently that we can measure the tiny amount of matter converted into energy, it is probable that an even tinier amount of matter converts into something other than energy and we are not able to detect or measure it now. In future we may discover this unknown thing and take it into account. If there was something that we neglected in the past, there still may be something that we neglect now.

As an example to explain the law, consider again the case of water. Water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. When hydrogen burns, it combines with oxygen, and water is produced. The law of the conservation of matter claims that the total amount of the consumed gasses is equal to the total amount of the produced water. This can nowadays be shown experimentally, using precision devices to weigh the starting components and the final compound.

However, in burning hydrogen, some heat is also produced in addition to water. If the total amount of water produced were really exactly equal to the total amount of the consumed gasses; that is, if no matter is lost, from what source then is the heat produced? Did the heat come out of nothing?

Scientists explain that an infinitesimal amount of matter disappears in burning hydrogen and transforms into heat, albeit the amount is so small that it cannot be easily detected or measured. If, for example, we produce three million kilograms of water through the chemical reaction of burning hydrogen, only one gram of matter transforms into energy; that is, one part in three billion parts. It is extremely difficult to notice this extremely small loss of matter.

Early scientists were not aware of transformation of tiny amounts of matter into energy during chemical reactions, and the law of the conservation of matter that they deduced was based on a small error. Even eliminating this error does not guarantee that the law will be exact, because it is possible that another tiny amount of matter transforms into something other than energy; something unknown to us at the present time. we can not prove that the only things existing in the universe are matter and energy. Other forms of existence and other types of transformations can occur, and as a result, scientific conservation laws can be violated.

Many scientific laws are only approximately correct and while they are useful in daily life, they cannot describe the universe exactly. In fact, the equals sign (=) in formulas describing physical transformations and chemical reactions might be changed to ‘approximately equal’. Yes, we describe the universe by the scientific laws we ‘discover’, but on the scale beyond the scope of human abilities and imaginations, these laws fail to be correct and exact.

Consider the case of the previously unanticipated ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Dark Energy’, that cosmologists now routinely use to make sense of the universe. Astronomical observations have led scientists to the idea that the visible matter in universe is much less than the invisible matter.

For example, our solar system has most of its mass concentrated in the Sun. Within such an orbital system with most of the mass at the center, the orbital speed of the planets decline with distance from the center. For example, the Earth rotates around the Sun each year, while Neptune rotation takes 165 years! This is not the case observed in galaxies, where the rotational speed of visible stars is the same from center towards the edge. If the whole galaxy rotates with the same velocity, its mass is not concentrated at the center, contrary to what we observe from visible stars which are concentrated at the center of the galaxy. So there must be invisible matter in the dark space between visible stars. This unknown theoretical substance is called dark matter.

Nowadays, dark matter is hypothesised to permeate all of the universe, but its density is extremely low. Imagine a spherical volume as big as the Earth. The quantity of dark matter distributed uniformly in such a big volume is less than one gram! Such a thin substance is extremely difficult to be detected or measured. Now suppose that in a physical change or chemical reaction, some dark matter or other unknown substance is lost or produced. It is practically impossible to detect its existence or measure its amount. Things that we can detect or measure are not the only things that exist.

Many scientists also believe in the existence of an unknown form of energy which they call dark energy. Again, they hypothesise it because with ordinary matter and energy they cannot explain some astronomical observations. Ordinary matter and ordinary energy are two forms of being. Dark matter and dark energy are two other forms which do seem to exist. There may be still other forms of existence, completely unknown to us. All these forms can transform into each other. So it is possible that some amount of a known thing completely disappears and transforms into some other unknown and undetectable thing.

To conclude, then. In modern science, a series of conservation laws has been proposed by scientists and these laws are claimed by them to govern physical quantities such as matter, energy, electrical charge, and so on. The first law was Lavoisier’s idea of conservation of matter. Although this approximate law has proved invaluable in our daily life, it was later discovered that matter can transform into energy and that, therefore, the total amount of matter in the universe is not conserved.

Trying to formulate a more accurate law, scientists used the fact that matter and energy are of the same essence and asserted the law of conservation of the two quantities under a single name mass. According to this law, if a certain amount of matter is lost, an equivalent amount of energy is gained, and vice versa, so that the total amount of mass in the universe is constant. But we can argue that this law is still erroneous, because we cannot prove that the only existing things in the universe are matter and energy. There may be other unknown forms of being that matter and energy can be transformed into.

If all things were made, for example, of matter, then in changing from one state to another, we could claim that the total amount of matter would conserve. But given that there is something other than matter; for example, energy, then matter can transform into energy, and conservation of matter will be violated. Even if we combine matter and energy into a single concept as mass, the conservation of mass can be violated for the same reason.

Scientific conservation laws are philosophically problematic, because each of these laws apply to a certain form of being like matter, energy, mass, and so on, which can be transformed to other known or unknown forms. True conservation can only be applied to being itself. By being, I mean the common essence of all things that does not change in transformations. Being cannot be created or destroyed, but it can appear in different forms. It can disappear, but even in its hidden form, it has always been and will always be.

The cycle of existence means that new things existed previously in old forms. Old forms disappear and new forms appear, but their existence or being never starts or ends. Being cannot change into something other than being, because there is nothing other than being. Although being cannot be clearly defined, we can say that everything is a presentation or sign of being. Being is present wherever there is something.

Let us return to where we started. From a viewpoint of conservation of being, we can have a better imagination of the birth of the universe. While being has no beginning or end, the universe as a form of being can have a beginning or end. The universe came into view from a hidden state. Before the Creation or the Big Bang, we can imagine that there was no matter and no energy at all, but that being was there - in a hidden form.

Such ideas can also be applied to states of human being. If we exist now, then we have always existed and will always exist, although in different forms or states. When we are asleep, we exist, even if we are usually unaware of our existence. Similarly, a newborn child exists, even if at first it is not aware of its existence. During our life we experience many periods of time during which we continue to exist but are not consciously aware of it. We may be in the same state before our birth and after our death.

The law of the conservation of being can build bridges between science, philosophy, and religion. It rationalizes believing in an eternal thing that all different forms come out of it and return back to it. This eternal thing can be neither matter nor energy which are derivable and transformable quantities. Scientific laws of conservation of such quantities as matter and energy are approximations of the philosophical law of the conservation of being.

The law can be viewed as a modern restatement of the ancient philosophical thesis nihil fit ex nihilo. That is: nothing comes from nothing. It implies that if there is something now, it has always been and will always be, although in different forms.

Address for correspondence:

Sayed Abolfazl Arjmand is an Iranian electrical engineer whose scientific interests extend through philosophy and theology. Email: abarjm@yahoo.com 

BOOK REVIEW: Uncertainty

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 1 Spring  2017

Review article 
By Thomas Scarborough

It would be helpful to begin at the beginning. Probability, while it was known by the ancients, found its first serious application in the 16th Century, through game probability. In the case of game probability, it may be a fairly simple matter to predict an outcome. A coin toss, for instance, will yield either heads or tails with a probability of 0.5, which is an equal chance of either – if the situation is theoretically perfect. Another example is throwing a dice. The chance that it will turn up any given number is one in six.

Now consider, rather, two dice. Things become more complex now – such that one could do with the help of a simple mathematical formula. For instance, to calculate the probability that the sum of two dice will be 5, one divides the number of favourable outcomes by the total number of possible outcomes. This might lead us to believe that probability is much like game probabilty – but this is deceptive. The real world is seldom as simple as a game – even the most complex of games. Chess and bridge, for instance, may be simplicity itself in comparison with grasping the spread of an epidemic, or predicting the outcome of a vote – as we so well know. To deal with more complex uncertainties, one begins to depend heavily on analysis.

But how then does one establish just what it is that is uncertain in a given analysis? and how does one factor this into one’s thinking? This, writes the author, is not answered by grasping for equations, let alone models. It requires ‘slow, maturing thought’. It is more a matter of philosophy than of mathematics. Yet people shun the effort. Instead, they grasp at pre-packaged probability theory, which is far too easily applied without further thought. In fact, the author sketches a situation of crisis proportions. There is altogether too much that we get wrong.

How, then, does one establish what it is that is uncertain in a given analysis? and how does one factor this into one’s thinking? It requires ‘slow, maturing thought’.

In principle, the science of uncertainty would seem to be simple. In science one has, on the face of it, certainty. This is encapsulated by scientific laws, for example a = F/m. Apply a certain force F to mass m, and the acceleration of m is a. To recast this in terms of probability, the results of such laws have a probability of 1. On the other hand, there may be complete uncertainty, which too represents a kind of certainty. This has a probability of 0, because it is certain that it will never happen. The chances are nil. In both cases, one knows perfectly – or imagines that one does – what one is dealing with, and what one should anticipate.

However, any figure between 0 and 1 introduces an interesting situation – not merely in practice, but often enough in principle. Assume that the probability of something happening is 0.7. In such a situation, one neither has complete certainty nor complete uncertainty, and the reason for this is that we have uncertain influences on our analysis of a situation, beyond our knowledge or control – alternartively, too complex to contemplate. More importantly, one cannot pin these factors down precisely, or one would be dealing with certainty, not uncertainty. This pinning down of uncertain factors, contends the author, is where far more mistakes are made than is generally understood.

The publisher describes this work as a textbook. It begins with what one might call a componential analysis of probability. It carefully examines such concepts as truth, induction, chance – and many besides. Then it applies these observations to the field of modelling. While the mathematics are complicated, this is compensated for by the authors’s gift of explanation.

The book really brightens up when one reaches worked examples of what can and does go wrong, and how probability calculations for the self same situations may easily turn out to be quite different. The examples are generalised, too, so as to be meaningful beyond specific contexts. Some particularly illuminating sections of the book include a series of graphs and equations in which the quantification of GPAs, the probabilities of developing cancer, or how one might validate homophobia, are discussed.

I have one demurral ato make. In places, the style seems unnecessarily to get in the way of the content. In particular, outbursts such as ‘Die, p-value, die, die, die!’ or ‘p-values, God rot them!’, while they are certainly memorable, do not seem to serve the book well as the serious academic work that it is.

All in all, if the author is right, then our world has strayed down a path which is dangerously simplistic – and this tendency towards simplistic thinking has much to do with how we think about uncertainty. One might go so far as to say: that we have misapplied, and continue to misapply, theory which has to do with things of critical importance, including the very future of humanity.

The Philosopher’s verdict: Useful warnings about the complexities of simplistic thinking.

Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics
By William Briggs Springer International Publishing
ISBN: 978-3-319-39755-9 
(Hardcover £42.00 ) 978-3-319-39756-6
 (eBook £27.94), 258pp 2016.