October 19th, 2012


What Philosophers Cant(or) Refute

I was on the train today and it was empty enough I could take a seat and get out a book. The only book I happened to have on me was Robinson's "God" anthology (http://bit.ly/RJn53M), and so I was skimming William Lane Craig's article "Philosophical and Scientific Pointers to Creation ex Nihilo."

Basically he's trying to make the case that the best scientific and philosophical evidence suggests the universe came into being at some point. And that means that either it had to come into existence spontaneously (which Craig thinks is implausible) or it had to be created by something. It's kind of a version of the cosmological argument, but updated to take modern math + physics into account. I've never found the cosmological argument particularly convincing, since even if the argument worked it would only show that something exists that kicks off the whole chain of cause-and-effect not that this something is just + merciful or a kind of loving father or whatever you want to believe about God's nature.

Anyway, the first step of the argument was to show that the universe couldn't have existed forever - that it had to have a beginning. And to do this, Craig talks about infinites (yes, there's more than one). He tries to argue that something called an actual infinity - an infinite group of objects in reality and not just our minds is impossible, so you couldn't have an infinite world without a beginning. To do this he proposes a thought experiment:

Imagine a library with an infinite number of books, all with red spines. Then imagine a second library that also has an infinite number of books, but where half have red spines and the other half have black spines. Are there as many red books in the second library as ther are in the first one? Most of us would say there's twice as many - I mean, the libraries are the same size and in the second one only half the books are red. But Dr. Craig argues that, according to higher mathematics, there are the same number of red books in each group. But this is obviously rubbish (quoth Craig), so the whole idea of having actually infinite sets of stuff --not just the idea of infinity, but actual infinities-- is also rubbish.

This is a problem mathematicians have struggled with. We say that the set of even numbers ({2, 4, 6, 8, .... }) is infinite - there's no limit to the number of its members. The set of whole positive numbers ({1, 2, 3, 4, ....}) also has an infinite number of members. But our intuition tells us that the second group should be twice as big as the first one; after all, every other member in that second list isn't in the first list. But the way I learned about infinities (yes, there's more than one infinity) it's wrong to say either is bigger than the other. Technically they're the same size. But the second list is more dense.

As odd as it might seem, there's an infinite number of numbers between every two numbers. Take one and two. Between those two numbers we would have:

1.01, 1.001, 1.0001, etc.
1.01, 1.011, 1.0101, etc.
1.02, 1.002, 1.0002, etc.

... and on down the list. Now, with even numbers, there's that odd, whole number exactly halfway between each member: 1.000, 3.000, etc. There's also room for half-numbers, quarter-numbers, numbers with the remainder .017, whatever you like. There's a lot of space between each number of the {2, 4, 6, 8, ....} set. There's also a lot of space between the different members of the {1, 2, 3, 4, ....} set. So in Dr. Craig's example, the library full of red books has the same number of books as the library with alternating red and black books. The first group is just more dense than the second.

Why? Because infinite numbers are just screwy like that. They simnply don't behave like you've come to expect using normal numbers.

So, three takeaway lessons from this adventure in number theory, at least for me:

#1. Number theory rocks. Cantor numbers rock. I really wish I remembered more of this because I'd like to nail down more precisely just why what Dr. Craig is saying jumps out at me as mathmatical nonsense.

#2. Scientists really don't make good philosophers. That I knew. But apparently, philosophers don't make good scientists either.

#3. Blogging about math + the late-night hour = maybe something to avoid in the future. Hope this isn't too dense!

LJ + syndication

Can someone with a paid LJ account do me a quick favor?

1. Visit http://www.livejournal.com/syn/
2. At the bottom of the screen, there's a box to "Add feed by URL." Type in http://fidesquaerensdotnet.wordpress.com/feed/
3. Comment here with whatever name LJ gives this feed.

I've not decided to move blogs or anything; I want to make sure I won't leave people behind. To do that I want to show them how this would actually work - how they could keep track of posts, comment, etc. So it helps to have things actually set up, just so I can "show, don't tell" as we writers are supposed to do.


SED #8: Apparently there *is* disputing about tastes

Hume, in his essay on appreciating art, quotes a famous Latin proverb: De gustibus non est disputandum. Translated loosely it means that when it comes to matters of taste, there can't be any disputing - saying "Mona Lisa is beautiful" or "Dogs Playing Poker isn't beautiful, that's not really the kind of thing you can be right or wrong about. It's all just preference.

I'm here to say: Nuh-uh. At least not with bodily taste.

There's a restaurant a few blocks from my school's Manhattan campus that just opened up after a remodel. They had a sign in the window saying they gave a discount to students so I stopped in. Right move, definitely. I had linguini carbonara (whole wheat linguini, cream sauce, Romano cheese, lots of bacon, chickpeas, and sauteed onions), some wonderfully light ciabatta bread, a salad and a proper soda for what would have been $14 off the menu. Between the discount and the tip it worked out to about that amount. You can't beat that meal price in Manhattan, certainly not for this quality of food and service. I couldn't eat most of the salad because I'm allergic to lettuce, but even so I enjoyed some yummy Roma tomatoes and cucumbers.

I love decent food when it feels like I'm not breaking the bank to get it, presented in a relaxing low-key environment. So yeah. It rocked.

Also, because the Lehrer reference cracked me up:

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more on LJ + WordPress

Last night I posted saying I was thinking about moving the blog to WordPress. I don't want to "lose" any of you guys - I enjoy your comments and just knowing my longtime friends are reading. You can read more about why I'm thinking about doing that here.

Linda + Engarian raised legitimate concerns, things I'd be worried about if a friend of mine made a comment like this. But I'm hoping a lot of the concern is just not knowing how it would affect you. It's always scary talking about a change because usually you can't show people what the change would look like. I'd like to at least try to do that. I hope everyone, particularly Linda + Engarian, will let me know how this would work with them.

Reading my blog posts

You can get a notice on LJ just like you would if I was blogging here, by adding the martasblogfeed</a>.


To comment you'd have to go over to WordPress. To do this, simply click the "Add Comment" line at the end of any post. Then click in the "Leave a reply" box at the bottom of the page.

If you have an account on WordPress, FaceBook or Twitter, you can use that account. Just click the appropriate icon and log in.

If you don't have any of those accounts (not everyone does!) you can still comment without needing a special account. If you click in that "Leave a reply" box, you will see a place to enter the name you want displayed + email address. The email address isn't available to to other site visitors; it may be shown to me, but I'm not 100% sure. I think WP just uses it to fight spammers (they can block a certain email address if it starts spamming under different names), and it's used if you ask to receive follow-up emails.

Knowing When I (or Someone Else) Replies

When you click in that "Leave a Reply" box, there's a tick-box you can select labeled "Notify me of follow-up comments via email." If you do that, WP will send you an email to the account you're using asking you to confirm the request. Basically you click a button so WP knows it was you making the request. Then whenever anyone (myself included) comments on that entry, you get an email with that comment.

If you're more technically driven, WordPress also provides an RSS feed for the comments on any article. Just look in the top-right corner and click on the "Comments" link. You can use Google Reader or any other RSS reader to follow comments for a certain thread. Feedmyinbox.com will take any feed and send you an email whenever something is added to it. If you have an LJ paid account you can even use that www.livejournal.com/syn/ website to see comment notifications on on your LJ friends page.

Bottom line:

1. To read my posts: add martasblogfeed to your friends list.
2. To comment:

--- Click the "Add a Comment" link.
--- Type your comment in the "Leave a Reply" box.
--- Log in, or type in your name/email.

3. To receive emails when somone else comments:

--- Tick the "Notify me" box when posting your comment.
--- Click the "confirm" button in the email sent to you.

Would this work for people? I'm particularly interested in hearing from Engarian + Linda Hoyland, but anyone with concerns, I do want to know!

Why don't you guys kick the tires a bit? I made a test post to the new blog here - basically just a repost of one of my SED posts from a few days ago. Try making a comment on it, try signing up to receive email notification of future comments, whatever you like. And let me know what you think.

SED #9: Kids Being Kids

On my climb up the stairs I looked out at the daycare next door, and I saw maybe a dozen preschool kids dancing to this song, most of them in Halloween costumes.

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"Dancing" is defined very loosely. Keep in mind, we're talking mostly 4-5 year olds here, so mostly they bounced up and down and ran around. But when the kid in the Harry Potter robes threw his hands out in time to the "ooh eee ooh ah ah" part, I couldn't help smiling.