Sunday, September 30, 2007

Are pennies round?

Well, let's see. Take that coin out of your pocket and put it on the table in front of you. Sure looks round...or does it? Unless you're looking straight down at it at a 90° angle, what you're actually seeing is an oval-shaped piece of metal. What's that you say? You know it's round because you can pick it up and *feel* the roundness of its perimeter? Okay, so now you're saying the proof of an object's roundness is bound up with the sense of touch, but not always with the sense of sight. But why should this be? Why is one sense privileged over another when it comes to judging an object's true shape? Or maybe you're saying that, by definition, the penny's true shape can only be measured by tracing it onto a piece of paper. Okay, go ahead--trace it with a pencil. Now let's look at that tracing--just set it down on the table. Unless you're looking straight down at the tracing, it seems to be shaped like...oh dear...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Is science complete?

No way. A case can be made that high-energy physics won't progress too much beyond whatever is discovered by the Large Hadron Collider--now scheduled to go online sometime in late 2008, I think--but that's due to the practical and financial challenges of building ever-larger facilities in that particular discipline. (And a lack of experiments hasn't stopped string theory.) In the life sciences, and in genomics and related fields in particular, the revelations keep coming. I see no reason to believe that we've even begun to wring the most profound secrets hiding within the DNA molecule. While I immensely enjoyed John Horgan's book THE END OF SCIENCE when it was released 11 years ago, I think he may have overstated the case. Now, if only *funding* for scientific research were available at the levels it ought to be...[sigh]...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Can dolphins cogitate?

Tough call. One wishes not to fall into the trap of anthropocentrism, in which Homo sapiens is the only creature capable of sophisticated thought; yet at the same time, one should be wary of being too liberal when it comes to attributing this ability to other species. I'm not well-versed in the lore of animal studies, but it seems at the very least plausible that dolphins (and chimpanzees and a few others) are capable of multi-step trains of thought, albeit in nonverbal form. We all know that dogs and cats can be very smart, but I'm not sure that that's the same thing as dolphins' reputed "intelligence"...[scratches head in confusion]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Does time flow?

I doubt that our subjective sensation that time "flows" from the future, to the present moment ("now"), to the past is much more than a perceptual illusion. The sticking-point for me has always been, how do we define the "now"? I am much more comfortable with the block-universe idea, in which our existences are plotted as worldlines (you can google either "block-universe" or "worldlines" for more insight). Although anti-intuitive at first, this seems to me to be a much more natural way of thinking of time's true nature. (Side note: I own the most celebrated work on the philosophy of time, THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE by J.M.E. McTaggart, but have never gotten around to reading it. Maybe one of these years...hey, wait a minute...)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Is reality stringlike?

Full disclosure: I am a long-time fan of Peter Woit's blog Not Even Wrong. Along with that prominent critic of string theory, I believe that any theory that makes no concrete testable predictions should not be considered scientific--not, at least, until that theory evolves into a form in which it *can* make such predictions. Currently, from what I understand, string theory is incapable of making any testable predictions, although its proponents point to a number of specific areas in physics in which it has clarified our understanding, from black holes to the cosmological constant. Most if not all string theorists--I'm thinking of a few with blogs--would regard me as ludicrously unqualified to have an opinion on this matter due to my lack of technical knowledge. That is their right. I shall maintain, however, that the burden of proof is still on the stringers to make their case unequivocally. Beautiful mathematics is still mathematics; a solid framework for a theory is still a framework; honest-to-God science is something else.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Are colors colorful?

Well, of course they are, by definition...but wait a minute. What does it really mean to have a color? "Reflecting a specific wavelength of electromagnetic radiation" may be the the technical answer, but I (and I suspect most people) find that response somewhat lacking. What it lacks, of course, is any mention of the qualitative experience of seeing a color. (Google "qualia" for more on this particular topic.) The redness of red, the greenness of green--are these in the objects or in ourselves? If the latter, where inside of us does the perception of color reside? In the optic nerve? Somewhere deeper in the brain? I don't know if science yet has a definitive answer.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Are we alone?

What are the chances that Homo sapiens is the only life form in the entire cosmos to have evolved self-consciousness and at least a bit of modern technology? Rather good, I think. When one considers the circuitous evolutionary route we took, and the numerous near-extinction events in the fossil record, and the fact that out of the millions of species on this planet only one--namely, us--ever managed to develop sophisticated symbolic language, it's difficult (or at least relatively more difficult) to be as gung-ho about E.T.'s existence. "But wait!" I hear some of you cry. "That's anthropocentrism at its most blatant--you have no right to elevate humanity over other possible intelligent species!" Actually, this is the very opposite of anthropocentrism. It is our very improbability that leads me to believe that intelligent species are rare--perhaps vanishingly so--in the Universe. I'll happily await the SETI signal that proves me wrong...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Is nature mathematical?

It's unlikely that physicist Eugene Wigner was the very first to muse about the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in describing the natural world; yet his famous article on this subject has ensured this question's enduring prominence. Personally I find it hard to account for the predictive successes of various sciences--i.e., mathematical physics--without believing that there is *some* correspondence between physical phenomena and the math we use to describe it. Does this mean I believe that God is a mathematician? No. (And who said I believed in the existence of a deity?) Do I think that all intelligent extraterrestrials interested in the cosmos eventually cobble together a type of mathematics resembling ours? It's an interesting question to think about, but I guess the jury will have to stay out unless and until we make contact. All this is related to the equally thought-provoking question of whether math is created (from scratch, by randomly evolved carbon-based life forms) or discovered. I lean toward the latter view.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What is this?

Welcome to Three-Word Questions, a blog on which I intend--in case you couldn't guess it--to pose and answer questions of precisely three words. I'll offer my best insights, and I invite you to do the same. The questions will be dominated by philosophy and science, since these are my main interests. There will be no politics discussed, so don't count on "Does Bush Suck?"--there's enough discussion of questions like that elsewhere on the Web. If you happen to have a Ph.D. in the subject under discussion, don't bother telling me I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I'm very likely to agree with you about that. Instead, show me where I'm wrong--I want to learn from you! I'll post whenever I have time. Enjoy...