Archive for July, 2012

How many worlds are THE REAL world?

There is an interesting and very informative conversation going on here about the implications of quantum mechanics and the plausibility of the multiple worlds interpretation. The discussion was seeded by a brief, informative, and mercifully clear article by physicist Stephen Barr. Barr is also participating in the discussion for the next couple of days, so check it out.

This particular bit of the exchange caught my attention, making me wonder about its implications for the project of Speculative Realism (particularly Quentin Meillassoux‘s complaints about “correlationism”):

Steve Barr to Josh Weiner:

I think I know what is bothering you, Josh.  As I said in reply to Wallace Forman (in the third paragraph), it all comes down to what the wavefunction of a system is.  One would like to be able to say that it is just a straightforward description of what is happening in the world, of the world as it really is, apart from what you or I know about it.  That leads straight to the Many Worlds picture, because the wavefunction typically contains descriptions of many alternative branches.  In the traditional or Copenhagen interpretation, one has a more modest view of what the wavefunction is: It is not simply “the world as it is”, but rather it encodes what some observers know or are in a position to assert about the world.  that is why heisenberg himself said that the mathematics of quantum mechanics “represents no longer the behavior of elementary particles, but rather our knowledge of this behavior”. And it is why Rudolf Peierls said, “the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge.”

That raises a very important question — which, I think, is your question: What DOES describe “the world as it really is”?  Even if the wavefunction does not describe it, there must be some comprehensiove and complete and accurate description of physical reality — call it the “God’s eye view of things” (even though I don’t want to drag God back into the discussion).

In other words, what IS really going on when no one is looking? What if beings such as ourselves had never evolved?  What about regions of the universe that no human or other sentient organism is ever going to observe or make measurements of? What about what will be happening in the universe after all life has died out?  Good questions! The wimpy answer is that science cannot speak about things that cannot be observed, and what is going on in places that will never be observed is, by definition, something that cannot be observed! But that seems a pretty unsatisfactory answer.  The traditional Copehagen interpretation doesn’t give an answer.  I have an answer that satisfies me, and I give a very brief sketch of it in my reply to jrd261.  Here I will only say that I think that even in the context of the traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics there does exist an answer to the question “what is really going on in the world even when no observers are looking”. In other words, the traditional interpretation does NOT commit one to some form of subjectivism or Berkeleyan idealism, but can be consistent with a robust philosophical “realism”. But this is a tricky business, and probably beyond what can be discussed in such a forum.

FYI, this is, I think, the relevant part of Barr’s answer to jrd261, mentioned above:

In particular one could take the view that whenever there is a branching of the wavefunction (which happens when different parts of the wavefunction “decohere” from each other, in the technical jargon) all consciousness in the universe proceeds down just one branch. The wavefunction would continually branch, exactly as MWI says, but there would never be a situation where the same observer existed in several conscious versions in distinct branches.  In this picture, the wavefunction itself is constantly branching, like train tracks; and what happens at the “collapse of the wavefunction” is not really any change in the wavefunction — all the tracks are still there — but rather all consciousness proceeds down a single track, so to speak.   (What I have just described is my own speculative view of quantum mechanics, for what it’s worth.)

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Doing the Impossible

CHAPTER LXVIII of the Rule of St. Benedict

If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things

If, perchance, any difficult or impossible tasks be enjoined on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insisteth on his command, let the younger be convinced that so it is good for him; and let him obey from love, relying on the help of God.


Today is July 11, the Feast of St. Benedict.

(originally posted July 11, 2011)

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Back to Birding

The weather has been HOT lately, but now that it has broken a little…and a bunch of grading has been completed and some writing has been accomplished…it’s time to get back to a little bit of birding. And some photos.

We (ahem) spotted this Spotted Sandpiper at Okehocking Nature Preserve, just the second sandpiper of any kind we’ve seen there (the other was a Solitary Sandpiper back in April). Unfortunately, this bird was clearly injured, favoring its right leg. It was nevertheless active, both walking and flying. It’s hurt, but managing, I think.

Spotted Sandpiper

This was an interesting scene: A flycatcher of some kind appeared to be either feeding or stealing food from a juvenile cowbird (unless you have a better guess at what we’re looking at).

juvenile Cowbird and unidentified flycatcher (and butterfly-snack)

We were involved in a friendly competition during the month of June (well, we worked hard at it during the beginning of the month) to see how many birds we could see (not just hear) in Delaware County during the month. We got up to 79 species. Not bad, but I’m sure not the winning total. We tried very hard to add the Marsh Wren to our total, but we only managed to hear them (lots of them!) at the John Heinz Wildlife Preserve in Delaware County. Of course, just over the line in Philadelphia, where it doesn’t count in the competition, no problem:

Marsh Wren

And here’s a Great Egret in flight (Philadelphia – John Heinz “Impoundment”):

Great Egret in flight

And just for fun, can you count how many Great Blue Herons are in this picture?

Great Blue Herons galore!



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It’s really Revolution Day

[This post first appeared on June 30, 2011.]

Why do we call this U.S. holiday (holy day?) simply “the 4th of July”? Why don’t we call it “Revolution Day”?

Because God forbid we remember that it is supposed to be a revolution that we’re honoring. Okay, it was a certain kind of a revolution, one that favored the best interests of a certain group of people at the expense of others (one should always ask, cui bono…who benefits?). Still, it was a revolution of sorts, and a world-historical one at that.

What would happen if we really thought about revolution? It is probably too much to ask, to dangerous to consider. I get that, I suppose. I’m comfy…aren’t you?

But here is Tom Paine (from “The American Crisis“), with some updates underlined to ponder:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain [or America], with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us [and any other country it chooses] in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Ponder that…. I know I got my comfiness pretty cheaply, if truth be told.

William Godwin, in hisEnquiry Concerning the Principles of Justice (1793), patiently and at length explains the dangers of government, whose power (as Lord Acton rightly noted) inevitably corrupts. And then Godwin asks what is to be hoped. He answers, speaking here of the juridical power of the state:

The reader has probably anticipated me in the ultimate conclusion, from these remarks. If juries might at length cease to decide and be contented to invite, if force might gradually be withdrawn and reason trusted alone, shall we not one day find that juries themselves and every other species of public institution, may be laid aside as unnecessary? Will not the reasonings of one wise man be as effectual as those of twelve? Will not the competence of one individual to instruct his neighbours be a matter of sufficient notoriety, without the formality of an election? Will there be many vices to correct and much obstinacy to conquer? This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!

[vol. II, ch. 24]

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in a letter to William S. Smith, Nov. 13, 1787, this famous line (with its subsequent, not-so-famous line attached):

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

In other words, revolution can be good sh#t!

But Jefferson’s metaphor is apt: revolution is not mere destruction. It’s more like horticulture, gardening, growing beautiful & nourishing things. And sometimes in life, for the sake of something better, you’ve got to prune.

Our Founders pruned. But pruning is not a once-and-done deal. Not in gardening, not in political life.

In the lead-up to “Revolution Day,” why need read a little more of Jefferson’s letter to Smith:

I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: & very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: & what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent & persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order. I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.

TJ wasn’t always right, wasn’t always on the side of the angels, was he? Be he has a point here….



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