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the Zeno gap

ugh... I'm already sick of arguing this. For those who asked me "what do you mean when you say there is a gap between philosophers and physicists?" this is exactly the kind of thing I'm referring to:

me trying to fend off hordes of philosophers who think Zeno's paradox is still "unsolved"

In trying to argue with these people, I feel like I'm defending all mathematicians and physicists. Even though, as with any issue, you're always going to find some representatives in any group who have contrary opinions... there are very few physicists or mathematicians who would look at this debate and side with the philosophers. Physicists understand motion. We don't know exactly what our world looks like on the smallest scale, but we do understand enough to know that Zeno presents no paradox. This is, in my opinion, a perfect example of philosophers "not getting the memo" when their problems get solved. In this case, it's taken about 300 years (since Newton invented calculus, resolving the only paradox that was ever there) and they still won't admit that it's finished and done with and understood. In this case, the reason is probably that not enough philosophers are familiar enough with calculus to have a real feel for what it does or what it says... but still, you would expect that somebody could explain it to them so they could stop wasting their time on problems that don't exist! The whole free-will/determinism issue is one that I also feel was solved long ago, but to me that's more of an opinion as opposed to the solution to Zeno's paradox which is (or should be) regarded more as a universal fact. I showed this thread to another physicist here and we both got a good laugh at some of the things these philosophers were trying to say. If only they understood motion the way we do!

This whole thing, though, perhaps illustrates a more general principle... that physicists tend to regard more problems as solved and understood before philosophers do. Part of this, I suppose, is that a lot of questions that philosophers regard as important questions physicists hand-wave away as meaningless or unimportant. And some of that difference is subjective since each person needs to hear different things to feel like a problem is solved, and each person has a different idea of what the "important" key thing is that needs to be understood in a given realm of inquiry. But perhaps each group is somewhat blind to the others' problems, again possibly because of a different use of language. No matter how many times I read what people claim is Zeno's "paradox", I cannot see anything remotely paradoxical about it aside from the minor issue which was cleared up in the early 1700's by Newton. The same is true for the free-will/determinism debate (I am a compatiblist and have never been able to see what people find incompatible about these two things, which is again a much more typical view among scientists than philosophers) except that in that case it's a bit of a broader topic with more related issues to be discussed... so I can more easily imagine why people might write papers on it even though it seems obvious and settled and non-paradoxical to me.

At any rate, for those who were wondering, these are two examples of why I think there could be more communication between scientists and philosophers. They tend to think in different ways, and they could both benefit from talking more with one another and sharing their knowledge. These examples probably illustrate better what I was getting at than my abstract discussion of the issue.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
pbrane
Oct. 7th, 2005 05:53 am (UTC)
I'm with you on nearly all of this, except for the whole "free-will/determinism" part. I'm sure that there are plenty of "arm-chair" philosophers who don't understand even the issue, but serious philosophers understand that there is still interesting stuff to understand about how we can live in a world with the *appearance* of free-will while being fully deterministic (modulo quantum effects amplified by chaos).

The fact that first person observers *experience* the feeling of free will is still an odd fact about consciousness that needs to be understood better.
lars_larsen
Oct. 7th, 2005 06:13 am (UTC)
Exactly.
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 06:48 am (UTC)
yeah... that's why I said I can more easily imagine people writing papers about it. There are some interesting issues relating to it. But I see them as somewhat separate. And also... I probably should not have included this as an example of a scientist/philosopher gap because with this one it's much more of a personal opinion on my part... the main reason I mentioned it is because I have the same feeling of "wait a sec guys, this is easy!... there's no paradox!"

The fact that first person observers *experience* the feeling of free will is still an odd fact about consciousness that needs to be understood better.

I think the fact that needs better understanding is why we *experience* anything at all. This is something science is far from having offered a full answer to... yet I have confidence that we will some day, perhaps with a lot of help from the philosophers... (or maybe it's the other way around!).

Why do we experience free-will? Because we have free-will. Regardless of whether the universe is deterministic, which I think is an empirical matter utterly unrelated to free-will, it's pretty obvious to me that we do have free-will because we are able to choose every action we take and we are the sole controllers of our body, our motion, and our intention. Sure, there are many factors that influence our decisions... but that doesn't mean the decision isn't ultimately up to us to make. It's just that "us" is completely describable by physical laws like anything else... no big surprise, and not at all incompatible with believing we are in control of our own actions.
pbrane
Oct. 7th, 2005 05:25 pm (UTC)
it's pretty obvious to me that we do have free-will because we are able to choose every action we take and we are the sole controllers of our body, our motion, and our intention.

Really? I don't find this obvious at all. There have been psych experiments done where they had people make quick split-second decisions of a fairly unimportant nature (e.g. point to one of these two pictures, as fast as you can), and then asked the subject "Why did you pick that one?". The subject *usually* would say something along the lines, "Well this one had [blah], so I chose that one...". Then the researchers looked at the readout of *when* the signal was sent to from the brain to the arm to point, and compared it to when the part of the brain which lit up with signals relating to more complex thought (like processing recognition of [blah]), and found that in many cases, the latter happened signifigantly *after* the "decision" to point at the picture.

Net result of the research: people often *think* they "made a decision (for such and such reason)", but in reality it was a fairly randomly chosen (not necessarily unbiased random, but with signifigant random elements) action which the person made up an explanation for *after the fact*. Thus the "illusion of free=will". But this is even ignoring the basic statement about determinism that makes it seem paradoxical: if each "decision" you make is determined by various conditioning factors (natural and nurtural), then what exactly about the "decision" is "freely made"?
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:39 pm (UTC)

There have been psych experiments done where they had people make quick split-second decisions of a fairly unimportant nature (e.g. point to one of these two pictures, as fast as you can), and then asked the subject "Why did you pick that one?".

I think this is an issue of the fuzziness of the line between self and other. What we call the self is a matter of convention. Ideally it is supposed to be the part of the mind which is conscious, yet there is no crisp line between the conscious, the subconscious, and the autmoatic unconscious functions of the body. They are all smeared together in a continuum, and they all depend on each other and interact in complicated ways. For the purposes of talking about the self, it should be assumed that you're drawing the line somewhere, even though where you draw it is arbitrary (similar to the arbitrariness of drawing the line between a fetus and a baby in discussing abortion ethics).

The experiments you describe are evidence for some of our behavior coming from the subconscious. Obviously thinking takes time, and if you have to make a decision quick enough then you're going to have to rely on more on your body's auto-pilot functions... you're going to rely more on instinct. So let me reword my somewhat too strong statement that we are the "sole" controllers of our bodies: Given any decision our conscious mind becomes aware of, it is capable of making its own choice on the matter without having to do what our subconscious or unconscious suggests. The problem with the experiments you describe is that it happens before the conscious mind even becomes aware of it. What I'm saying here is that under normal circumstances, you always have the ability to "override" your unconscious instincts and make your own choices. This isn't possible if things are happening too fast, because you never get a chance to even be faced with the decision. So yes, that's a loophole. But I don't think it make free-will something that should be called an illusion. I believe that to the extent that the term free-will has any meaning, it is real. (There are, of course, some "meanings" people have in mind for free-will which are not real.. . I feel that those definitions of free-will are not just physically untrue, but logically impossible and represent a failed attempt at saying or asking anything meaningful.)

Does that clear up where I stand on the issue? Or should I explain further.
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:59 pm (UTC)

But this is even ignoring the basic statement about determinism that makes it seem paradoxical: if each "decision" you make is determined by various conditioning factors (natural and nurtural), then what exactly about the "decision" is "freely made"?

oops, I meant to respond to this part too.

I don't think it's a paradox because to me there are two links in the chain to discuss and you can discuss them each independantly:

A.) conditioning factors (natural and nurtural) determine -> you
and
B.) you determine -> what you do and how you act

The first link in the causal chain is what I call "determinism" and the second link is what I call "free-will". They are both correct, but they refer to two different stages of cause and effect.
onhava
Oct. 7th, 2005 10:41 pm (UTC)
Net result of the research: people often *think* they "made a decision (for such and such reason)", but in reality it was a fairly randomly chosen (not necessarily unbiased random, but with signifigant random elements) action which the person made up an explanation for *after the fact*.

Good example! There were some nice split-brain studies along these lines too. This site decribes them:

"For instance, one man had a picture of a chicken claw flashed to his left hemisphere and a picture of a snow scene presented to his right hemisphere. From the ensuing selection of pictures, he correctly chose a shovel with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) and a chicken with his right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere). When asked to explain his choices, he responded: 'Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.'"

The idea that we do a lot of things automatically and rationalize them to ourselves afterwards used to bother me, but now I'm pretty much completely convinced. I even catch myself making things up when people ask me why I did something and I have no real reason.
lucent
Oct. 7th, 2005 07:58 am (UTC)
I share your extreme annoyance with philosophy. Sat through a few classes, even. This is what I came away with. Scientists are proud of knowing as much as possible. Philosophers are proud of knowing as little as possible. It seems a lot like rebellion to me; a way of being smart/better without having to go through all these classes and learn all these equations. "You think you know all that? Well, you don't and only I know that know one can know it!"
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 08:49 am (UTC)

I share your extreme annoyance with philosophy.

Let's not start generalizing. I get annoyed when I argue about certain subjects, but I wouldn't say I'm annoyed with philosophy in general. I have a great love for philosophy, I just think the people who study it don't always use all the information available to them to address the issues they think about. But it's the same way with scientists, we're just as guilty at ignoring the philosophical underpinning of things when we don't care to think abou them.

And it's also worth mentioning that philosophy on livejournal is often not the same as philosophy in real life. I have the distinct feeling that it's a lot better in real life... in fact I should probably not even be calling the people who hang out on real_philosophy "philosophers" since most of them are not.

Scientists are proud of knowing as much as possible. Philosophers are proud of knowing as little as possible.

I think this is because science usually addresses questions that are very clear-cut and have well-defined answers (even if they are hard to get at), whereas philosophy usually addresses questions that are not so well cut... so they spend a lot of time thinking about it and speculating and figuring out what they're really asking. I think it makes sense for both groups to have the attitudes they do. The conflict comes when they both try to think about an issue that is borderline to both fields, such as Zeno's paradox. I see the problem as clear-cut, well-defined, and already answered... whereas they think it is more open ended and there might be more to say about it. Maybe there is more to say about related issues, but the people on lj at least seem to think that the original points Zeno raised are still open to debate which is just not true!
mauitian
Oct. 7th, 2005 08:13 am (UTC)
There aren't any paradoxes in nature.

And ya, compatablism -- it can even be physically predetermined that we have free will.

But you realize that right now the philosophers are sitting around laughing at the physicists for thinking these discussions are about solving problems, rather that just spawning more discussions.
tinkerbell_mk
Oct. 7th, 2005 08:21 am (UTC)
wow, that was even frusterating to read.
(Deleted comment)
spoonless
Oct. 9th, 2005 10:27 pm (UTC)

No amount of 0s ever added up will give us anything but 0.

This is what Zeno believed, but this is not true. No finite amount of zeros can add up to anything but zero, but an infinite amount of zeros can add up to something finite, which is exactly what happens in this case... and what Newton cleared up. Calculus provides a way for points to exist in a continuum. Each interval contains an infinite number of points, but they have no width by themselves... only an infinite collection of them can have a width. To use Zeno's backwards way of thinking about this in this day and age is just a failure to understand the progress which has been made.

I'm not sure I'd buy Lynds' solution, either, but things would be a lot better if everyone just settled down and said, "wait, what are we fighting about here? Don't we all agree that Zeno was wrong?"

Well, the irony is that I do agree with Lynds' conclusions... I just strongly disagee with all of his premises and arguments. He comes to the conclusion that moments in time are smeared out due to quantum effects. This is already how time is dealt with in quantum field theory, but for some reason he acts as if he's telling us something new that we didn't already know. And worse yet, he seems to think that it has something to do with Zeno's paradox which is another already solved, yet unrelated problem. Not only does he add nothing new to our standard understanding of time, but he justifies it with a completely fallacious argument. This tells me that the only reason someone published him is because they read the end of it and figured it lined up pretty well with how things work so he must know what he's talking about. But when I read what he wrote in that paper someone posted, it was pretty clear to me that he has no clue what he's talking about and no justification for what he's saying... it's nothing more than a coincidence that his conclusion comes out similar to the right answer. Which makes the paper almost worse than worthless...because it's misleading. There are surely many others with the same lack of understanding as he shows for physics, but they weren't so lucky just because their conclusions happen to be wrong. A broken clock is still right twice a day, but that doesn't make it useful at all.
spinemasher
Oct. 7th, 2005 08:52 am (UTC)
I think you have even heard me say it in person now...
Observation is king! Flat out; the end; full stop; memo or no memo! Because in physics there are countless examples of infinite steps which occur in finite time. That's because space-time trumps all philosophy. If the philosophers had any keen sense about them they would say that our space-time is merely an approximation and that our knowledge is merely approximately true and that the undecidability of the continuum hypothesis in mathematics especially as it applies to nature implies that Zeno's paradox is strictly "unsolved". But then we object! How does anything get anywhere?!? "Ah but therein lies the unresolved part", says the hard to find astute philosopher.

But then that's just it isn't it? Philosophers are looking for Truth and physicists are looking for truth. One is universal and the other is relative (respectively). Most physicists believe that truth can only be lower case (namely relatively defined) whereas philosophers insist that if the universe is a closed system then there is some notion of absolute. Perhaps invariant the physicist might answer but not absolute. Enter the endless rhetorical debate. What do you mean by truth? What do you mean by absolute? What do you mean by knowledge?

"Ah", but the physicist says, "we answered this in the beginning, observation is king!" And so the philosopher loses because he seeks something which is strictly inaccessible.

I agree with you, I believe that quantum mechanics resolved the issue of free will v. determinism. Namely, the general laws of nature make the answers to certain questions deterministic but the answers to highly specific questions uncertain within a spectrum of possible outcomes.

When engaging a philosopher I always make a point of hashing out what one means by certain terms. This is key in the communication link but it is something rarely done perhaps only by mathematicians needing to define terms for a proof. Nonetheless, it is necessary in your "run-of-the-mill" philosophical conversations.

Remember the story about Feynman and the French physicist who insisted that photons have mass? Feynman's point was, how accurate do you wish my statement to be? If you require an accuracy within a certain physically accessible value then I can argue with you, if your requirements are far more unreasonable then I must say good night and go talk to the pretty ladies.

In conclusion, when talking to a philosopher and you are feeling quite annoyed simply say, "The pretty girls want to talk to me now so I have to go" and simply leave.
onhava
Oct. 7th, 2005 01:24 pm (UTC)
You have a lot more patience than I do. There are a lot of philosophical issues like this where I think people have some bizarre unwillingness to use empirical information about the world. It's very strange that people accuse you of just talking about some mathematical abstraction. It is clear that motion happens in the real world. Thus Zeno's paradox merely says that Zeno's abstraction of the world is inconsistent with reality, not that there's some terrible conflict within the world itself. It's just amazing that people can take seriously Zeno's model of how motion must work and then claim that Newton's is just mathematics without relation to reality. Our modern physical abstraction of the world is consistent with reality. So what's to argue? Some of the people seem worried about what space and motion really are on the smallest scales. Well, great! We physicists care about that too. But surely no one can ever make progress on that question just by thinking about it: we need experimental input, and there will always be scales we can't probe. What's the point of philosophizing about it?
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:19 pm (UTC)
Excellent comment, you have put things even more plainly and eloquently than I (and I pride myself on being able to put things quite eloquently!)

The comments about math versus real-world were indeed one of the most frustrating things that they said. I think it's because math is the language of physicists and they want it said in their own language... but they won't accept that math is able to talk about the same world they're talking about (and in some cases do a much better job). This is why we need people willing to "translate".
majelix
Oct. 7th, 2005 09:39 pm (UTC)
"It is clear that motion happens in the real world."

Of course it is. That's what makes the paradox a paradox.
onhava
Oct. 7th, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC)
Of course it is. That's what makes the paradox a paradox.

No, it's what makes it *not* a paradox. If it's clear that motion happens in the real world, and Zeno has an understanding of motion that indicates it cannot happen, this just means that Zeno's understanding of motion is wrong. It might be enlightening to figure out in what way it's wrong -- and spoonless gives what I think is a perfectly good explanation of that -- but since we have a perfectly good understanding of motion these days (from physics), it doesn't seem terribly useful to waste a lot of intellectual energy on the question.
discopete1
Oct. 7th, 2005 02:10 pm (UTC)
But, but, but, why does my degree say "Doctor of Philosophy in recognition of scientific attainments and the ability to carry on original research as demonstrated by a thesis in the field of Chemical Engineering"?

The problem really seems to be people trying to do work in someone elses field. I work with too many chemists, and they vary between telling me that some problem is simple (because it has nothing to do with chemistry, and therefore cannot be difficult) or impossible (because they have been asked to address some issue of heat transfer or other standard engineering problem).

The whole debate reminds me of a physicist designing a milking machine, "First, assume the cow is a sphere..."
spoonless
Oct. 7th, 2005 07:59 pm (UTC)

But, but, but, why does my degree say "Doctor of Philosophy in recognition of scientific attainments and the ability to carry on original research as demonstrated by a thesis in the field of Chemical Engineering"?

Because science and math both grew out of philosophy, they were all the same originally but they have grown apart into different branches. This is why I often advocate mending them back together and sharing more information across fields.

Congratulations, you are the very first person I've seen come out as Fascist in the OK Cupid politics test! I got Anarchist... sounds like we would not get along very well.
discopete1
Oct. 8th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)
That all depends on what you were trying to achieve with your test.

That being said, I was disappointed that only the Anarchists got a cute little symbol. I was hoping for some fasces, but I got nothing!
spoonless
Oct. 8th, 2005 10:35 pm (UTC)

That all depends on what you were trying to achieve with your test.

Damn, I was really looking forward to hating you... ya had to take that away from me, didn't you!
romanarce
Oct. 9th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC)
Any time you spend talking with more intelligent people makes you more intelligent (or at least more capable of using your intelligence cos it's mostly genetic), any time you spend talking with stupid people (99% of the philosophers) makes you more stupid, and the 1% of philosophers who are intelligent are just not worth it, they are probably just like you wasting time arguing with the rest.
spoonless
Oct. 9th, 2005 10:01 pm (UTC)
Being around intelligent people can make you more intelligent, but I don't think being around stupid people necessarily makes you more stupid. Most of the time it probably does nothing, but sometimes it can actually help make one a better teacher... because you get to see what kinds of mistakes people make and why they're making them. If I never tried to explain my ideas to anyone, I think I'd lose the ability to be able to explain them. People making criticisms and complaints about things I believe, even if I find them idiotic, often help make my arguments more solid because it gives me a chance to think about how to address the issue they're complaining about... without their input, it might never had occured to me to consider it due to "obviousness". And the other issue is... you can't just separate people into camps of "stupid" and "not stupid" because different people have different insights and methods of comprehending. What might seem like an obvious mistake by someone who usually is way off base, can still lead to a better understanding or something I hadn't realized if I try to take it seriously.

the 1% of philosophers who are intelligent are just not worth it

your 99% / 1% split might not be too far off on livejournal (probably correct for philosophy and more like 85% / 15% for real_philosophy if you forced me to say), however I believe that the majority of people who do philosophy professionally are very bright. They don't think in the same way as people in the sciences, but that doesn't make them dumb. And precisely because they think so differently is why I find them so worthwhile to read and talk to.
gustavolacerda
Oct. 12th, 2005 06:07 pm (UTC)
I agree.
...and don't forget the philosophers who are still arguing over the Monty Hall problem, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that it's better to switch.
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