Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Winning the impossible lottery

Photo: Nick See
I wanted to call this post 'The Lottery Paradox', but it turns out that title is already taken by a very similar idea. The version I'm going to discuss is a bit more extreme and has a different focus.

It is inspired by some thoughts I've been having related to the validity of the Anthropic Principle (the subject of my last post), inspired by the comments left by Callum J Hackett on that post.

Suppose the nation of Foobar has a national lottery, but the way it works is that every single day, one of the citizens is chosen at random to win a big prize.

Now suppose that the nation of Foobar has an arbitarily huge number of citizens (say a Googolplex).

I'm going to try to persuade you to believe two completely opposing conclusions about the possibility of believing that you have won this lottery. One of these conclusions is true, and one of them is false. See if you can tell which is which.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The anthropic principle goes wild

The anthropic principle has been much discussed and it is likely that you have already come across it. It's a strange and counter-intuitive idea because it seems to place human beings in a privileged central place in our account of why our world is the way it is.

I want to raise the subject because the anthropic principle is exactly the kind of logical or philosophical argument that might have a bearing on the fundamental existential questions I mentioned in my last post.

The anthropic principle is a simple but profound idea that at first sounds like a useless tautology. It explains that we shouldn't be too surprised to find ourselves in an environment that is so well suited to us, because if our environment were not as it is then we would not be as we are.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: to marvel at the many wonderful and hospitable aspects of our world that enable our existence is like a sentient puddle being impressed with how well its pothole fits its shape.

The anthropic principle explains why the earth is positioned in the narrow band of space at just the right distance from the sun to allow liquid water to exist. It explains how life can have come into existence despite the long odds of its arising by chance. It explains how this life can have evolved into intelligent self-reflective creatures such as ourselves.

Thinking of life, the universe and everything

The great hope of physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss is that a deep understanding of physical law will ultimately lead to an answer to the ultimate questions. Why are we here? Why does any universe exist at all? Why are the physical laws the way they are? What is the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything?

This question has been bothering me for a long time, ever since I was a small child in fact. When I was taught that we fall because of the force of gravity, I was first confused and then dissatisfied.

I have already discussed why I was confused in an earlier blog post, but essentially it was because it seemed natural to me that anything without support should fall. After all, without support, there's nothing to keep it up! There seemed to be no need to invent some mysterious force called "gravity".

This confusion did not last long. On becoming accustomed to the concept, I could see that it made sense. There is no clear logical reason why something should fall down without support any more than it should fall into the sky if not tied down. Clearly the concept of gravity makes sense.

If only it were not so dissatisfying!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Super naturalism

Naturalism is a metaphysical proposition assumed by scientists (at least real scientists!) as they go about their work. Naturalism holds that every phenomenon we observe, and every phenomenon we will observe, is a result of natural processes. Even scientists of faith assume this position, limiting their belief in miracles to their private lives. This keeps us from taking supernatural shortcuts in our scientific investigations. We can never simply shrug and say "God did it!".

For most atheists, this proposition is more than an assumption, it is a belief. But what does this belief actually mean? What differentiates the natural from the supernatural?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Essential identity: Meet your future selves

While discussing my ideas about identity with a friend, it became apparent that I hadn't delved sufficiently deeply into the existential consequences of cloning yourself body and mind. This friend appeared to agree with me on most of what I had written, but when I proposed a new thought experiment to him, he came to very different conclusions to me.

The thought experiment is simple enough, and asks whether you have any interest in the welfare of your clone should you clone yourself.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Essential identity: Paradoxes resolved

This cartoon is an excellent illustration of the problems posed by our intuitive notions of identity. I saw it on television as a child and it has stayed with me, prompting much of my thoughts on the subject.

In this post, I will give my answers to the questions posed by thought experiments such as this.

Essential identity: The essence of essence

It seems that we cannot tie the identity of a person to their physical characteristics or to the atoms that make up their bodies. The former cannot be true because we regard physically identical individuals to be distinct people. The latter cannot be true because these atoms are recycled constantly.

It seems identity of people and things may be bound up in some sort of non-physical mystical "essence". If this were not so, Christopher Walken could have just bought another watch for Bruce Willis.