Atomic Balm

It is extremely easy muddle together the scientific concepts of atoms and elementary particles, and the philosophical idea of atomism, and speak wrongly as a result. The worst example I've ever seen of this, which appears frequently in science textbooks (and which I have mentioned here before), runs something like:

"The ancient Greeks incorrectly thought that the atom was an indivisible entity. But modern science has shown that the atom can be further sub-divided."

This is such a crass error that it is almost unbelievable that it appears in so many textbooks. To understand what has gone wrong, consider the following analogy:

Joe moves to Brooklyn. He has heard reports of "the best bar in Brooklyn," one that has the best drinks at the best prices, served by the best bartenders. He spends a few weeks exploring, after which he dubs Bar X "the best bar in Brooklyn."

But couple of months later, he stumbles upon another bar, Bar Y, which has even better drinks at even better prices, served by even better bartenders. He therefore declares, "The best bar in Brooklyn does NOT have the best drinks at the best prices, served by the best bartenders."

Obviously, he is making a mistake: what happened is that he is awarded the title "the best bar in Brooklyn" too early. He should have awaited further pub crawling results before naming Bar X the best.

And this is just what happened in modern science: when chemists discovered elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, they thought that they had found the indivisible particles that Greek philosophers had discussed.

The chemists were wrong. A century or so later it turned out the things they had named "atoms" were not really atomic at all. So what actually happened was the 18th and 19th century chemists had jumped the gun, and awarded the title "the indivisible particles" too soon. They certainly had not "proved" the ancient Greek atomists incorrect!

But there are more subtle ways to go wrong on this topic. For instance, physicist Alex Small mingles the philosophical and scientific issues involved, and thus makes a couple of mistakes that, while less egregious than the above textbook gaffe, are errors nonetheless.

First, he says of Averroes' defense of Aristotle's idea that the universe must be a plenum, "Ironically, his defense of incorrect science was used to carve out a space in which science could eventually thrive."

However, modern science has certainly not proved Aristotle's idea here "incorrect." Yes, modern science relies on the idea of "particles." But, when examined closely, these "particles" appear as probability densities smeared out across space, hardly the atoms the ancient Greek atomists were talking about! But even more apropos here, consider the quantum vacuum:

"According to present-day understanding of what is called the vacuum state or the quantum vacuum, it is 'by no means a simple empty space', and again: 'it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void.' According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence."

So, according to this interpretation of quantum physics, Aristotle apparently turns out to be correct: Space is full through and through, with no absolutely empty void. Now, is it really correct to say is that the quantum vacuum confirms Aristotle's idea that space is a plenum? And what's more, does it show that space must be a plenum, which Aristotle argued? Well, to answer those questions, we are going to have to do philosophy: physics can't possibly tell us how to interpret what Aristotle was saying!

Small then adds:

"However, given the paucity of evidence for atoms during the time in question (my recollection is that evidence for them didn't really come into play until the 18th century) it is hard for me to treat older ideas for or against atoms as no [sic] more than wildass speculation."

But, as we have seen the evidence for "atoms" that came into play in the 18th century was not actually evidence for "atoms" in the Greek sense at all: the things that were identified as atoms then turned out to be not atomic! And perhaps we can call all philosophy "wildass speculation," but genuinely philosophical issues can't be resolved by physics, any more than they can be resolved by plumbing or free throw shooting. The ancient Greeks were engaged in sophisticated philosophical speculation about the nature of space itself, and whether it could possibly be a continuum. How the findings of modern physics relate to that speculation, if they do at all, is a philosophical question, one which no field theory or bubble chamber experiment can answer.


I was just using Apple's speech recognition software, and spoke the word "chemists." What the software put it in my document was "Qemists."

Apparently, that is the name of some electronic rock band. But is it really more common that people are talking about a band with a couple of albums and zero hits than about a profession that includes millions of people across the world? Weird choice!

Does Evolution Tell the Truth or Not?

Attempts to formulate a naturalistic epistemology are often anchored by the notion that undirected evolution would lead us naturally to have accurate beliefs. Some people have doubted this approach works, but let's say it does. It basically says that we perceive, say, tigers and lions as a threat to us because, well, they are a threat to us, and heights make us cautious because falling from a great height will kill us, we think sex is good because sex propagates the species, we seek out food because we really do need food, and so on.

Isn't it odd, then, that went evidence turns up for an evolutionary basis for religion, this approach is thrown right out the window, and the ubiquity of religion in human societies is explained by everything other than evolution leading us to accurately perceive a spiritual dimension to life? It is almost as though these researchers had had their minds made up about religion in advance!


The supposed endorsements for Trump I previously listed apparently don't check out: one was simply telling people NOT to vote for Clinton; in the other case (Ice Cube) he made a video that certainly APPEARED to endorse Trump, but now has taken it all back.

If we can just change the words…

One of Pierre Manent's themes in his recent work is that governments have become too weak to actually take decisive action to change some situation, so what they do instead is try to control the way the situation is discussed, and therefore perceived.

To offer an example of my own of what he is talking about: in the early 1800s, the British Empire set out to end the slave trade, and did so by energetic naval action over a period of several decades.

Today, faced with a similar situation, it seems more likely that modern Western governments would hector everyone to please stop referring to these people as "slaves," as it is mean-spirited and hurts their feelings.

I saw an instance of this tonight, in this unpleasant blog post. In order to show how nice and non-divisive Clinton supporters are, he calls everyone who supports Trump, or even has doubts about supporting Clinton, a "moron."

But what is more interesting for this post is the fact that he calls everyone who refers to "illegal immigrants" a "jackass." We have to say "undocumented immigrants" to be spared this person's ire.

Hmm, and why, exactly, have these people had trouble getting "documented"? Could it be because they are staying in the country… illegally?

Someone might think that all of these people should be given legal status as residents, under an amnesty, or something of the sort. But that requires recognizing that these people are currently here illegally. If you lack the guts to call for something like that, what you can do instead is… try to change the words. "Illegal" is a mean word, and hearing it might make these undocumented immigrants feel bad. Of course, changing what we call them does nothing to fix the real difficulty they are in. But it can make those lacking the will to act feel superior to others because they use "better" words to describe a situation they will not fix.

"You can't create more land!"

The above nonsense claim is made as a part of a number of reformist economic proposals... such as this one: "And unlike capital goods such as cars or computers, you can’t produce more land..."

It is distressing to see someone writing on political economy who thinks that this blatant falsehood is an obvious truth. First of all, in the most simpleminded sense, it certainly is possible to create more land, and people have done so: just ask the Dutch, or the people who live in Battery Park City.

But that is only the start of how one can "produce more land." Let's say we are living in a town along a river running through a desert. The town has been growing, and we are running out of room for housing. But stretching along the river there are many farms, relying on the water from the river for irrigation. If we extend our irrigation system further out into the desert, farms can move out there, and more housing can be built along the river. We have "produced more land" by making land that was formerly useless productive.

Or perhaps there is an isolated valley in the mountains above our expanding town. The valley itself is lovely, but no one will live there, since crossing the mountains to commute down to the town is too difficult. We can build a tunnel through the mountain and suddenly the valley becomes a desirable residential site.

But perhaps the number one way we can "produce more land" is to build it upwards: in A high-rise apartment building or an office skyscraper are nothing more or less than multiple pieces of land (the floors) erected upon the original piece.

In short, we certainly can produce more land, and we do it all the time. Any political economy built on the notion that the amount of land is fixed, is rubbish.

Why Trump Is a Major Party Candidate

I was watching True Detective. Matthew McConaughy and Woody Harrelson had pursued a lead to a tent preacher's service. As they enter the tent, McConaughy looks around at the crowd of working class, rural, white worshippers, and then sardonically asks Harrelson, "What do you think the average IQ of this crowd is?" A way of saying, "What a bunch of morons!"

The members of the "sophisticated," urban, professional-class audience for this show are all supposed to laugh knowingly at that remark. As did the person with whom I was watching.

So I asked him, "Would you think it was funny if they entered a black Baptist church, and McConaughey made that remark?"

"No, of course not!"

"What about if they had entered a mosque, and McConaughey said that?"

"Oh... I see what you are saying."

Tradition and the state

Amish communities have little need for noise ordinances. A town full of Orthodox Jews does not need to worry much about passing laws concerning public indecency.

It is when tradition ceases to handle such matters that the state is asked to step in and settle interpersonal conflicts.

Utopianism, Scientism and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

A. E. Van Vogt creates a future science of "nexialism," which rolled all of the sciences into one, threw in hypnotism and other persuasion techniques, and allowed practitioners great control of social situations.

Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, saw a field called psychohistory that could be used to predict and control social phenomena.

Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke also had utopian themes in their work, in which the ordinary trials and tribulations of social life are somehow overcome. And leading science fiction editor John W. Campbell had a great interest in "fringe psychologies."

But these men had a colleague who went further: L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and Scientology. (Campbell, Van Vogt and another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, were all involved in founding Dianetics.)

I note this just because I find it interesting that Hubbard was basically trying to put into practice what his fellow writers merely had speculated about.

Reality Redefined

Reality is not something pre-existing that we must learn to deal with as best as possible. That would be inconvenient, and might impede our desires.

No, reality is whatever we define it to be.

Login (or Software Design) Failed

I only use my bank's online access to my account from QuickBooks. But every once a while, my bank decides to force me to update my password. And that I cannot do through QuickBooks.

Now, this gives me a problem: I have to remember each password for months without ever using it. But last time I had to update, I emailed myself a password clue, one only I should be able to decipher. And so I was all set.

And yet my login attempts failed again and again, until I had to call the bank! They reset my password, and it was only when I went back in and THAT failed that I looked back one step and realized what was happening: for some reason, Safari spell check had turned on about a week ago, perhaps when I did an update. My bank login ID is 'blahblahblahX' where it happens that 'X' turns it from an English word into nonsense. The bank's system puts the login on a single-field screen, so that 'Enter' bring you to the password screen.

But... Safari was also offering a spelling suggestion, which I had been ignoring, of 'blahblahblah.' And, it decided that the default action should be to override my spelling with theirs, so that pressing 'Enter' not only moved to the next screen, but also changed 'blahblahblahX' to 'blahblahblah': which is not my login! And since 'Enter' was also moving me to the next screen, I would never even see the change!

Is it possible to create a more user-hostile interface?!