Author Archives: aturner

Recent Readings

This is more of a “status” post than a topical one.  My time for “thinking” has become spread out over a broad space of activities, with a particular focus on my astronomy hobby and the course I’m running for children, as well as a significant increase in the level of thought devoted to my occupation.  This has reduced the intensity with which I’ve been pursuing big-picture thinking; I’ve fallen into a sort-of autopilot mode.  This phase will end, but for now my stimulus remains the material I’m reading.

My current “large” reading project is the fourth volume of Durant’s History of Civilization – “The Age of Faith”.  I’m finding this particular volume to be really slow going, in part because my reading time has shrunk a bit, but that in turn is in part because this reading is, well, boring.  What is of some interest (and may become a more complete topic later on) is the history and core philosophy of Islam.  This isn’t new information for me, but in the current world context it is more relevant now than the last time I exposed myself to this history (in some other work).  My interest this time around centers on these themes:

  1. Islam in its original form nominally supported a laissez-faire economy – what caused this to change?
  2. What caused the fall of the “golden age” of Islam, when most of what we know of the classical world was retained only through the translation of works by the Islamic society?  Just when the Islamic world was beginning to make an impact on scientific thought, the progress ceased.

In parallel with this reading, I’ve started reading e-books once again.  The recent acquisition (Christmas) of an ITouch ensures that I’ll be doing quite a bit more with e-books in the short term, as the Kindle reader is SO much more useable than Microsoft Reader on the Dell Axim (which is still a fine PDA, just becoming dated and starting to fail).  In the past month, I’ve read Billy Budd (Melville), All Around the Moon (Verne), Journey to Other Worlds (Astor), and currently Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar (Verne).

Each of these contained surprises.  Billy Budd remains a great timeless story of the balance between ethics and military discipline.  An exceptional English merchant sailor is impressed into naval service, runs afoul of an evil officer of the Navy who dislikes him because of his exceptional character, and ends up killing the officer with a single blow when the officer accuses him of assisting in plotting a non-existant mutiny.  At a time following a recent mutiny elsewhere in the Navy, the military law is strictly enforced, which makes striking an officer (no less killing him) a capital offense, regardless of cause or circumstance.  The required sentence is carried out.  Is this an ethical outcome? I believe the answer to be unclear.

Jules Verne has always been a fascinatingly confusing author, and these two works just add to that confusion.  “All Around the Moon” was published some 5 years after the more famous work “From the Earth to the Moon”.  In the earlier work, preparations for a launch of a spacecraft, using a ballistic cannon, are completed after a lengthy development of technology and inter-personal politics (note that I have NOT read this earlier book).  Apparently, at the very end of “From the Earth to the Moon”, the launch occurs successfully, but nothing is said about the fate of the voyage.  “All Around the Moon” recounts the voyage itself.  This is a fascinatingly boring book – Verne takes the story as a stage on which to narrate at exhausting length on the physics of spaceflight.  He is amazingly accurate on many of the topics that he covers, especially because he is completely mistaken about some of the fundamental physics involved.  He uses a ballistic approach to achieving escape velocity, even makes approximately the correct calculation, but has the occupants of the spacecraft continually experiencing the force of gravity, holding their feet to the floor toward the Earth until they reach a “neutral point”, then flipping over to have the base of the craft, and the gravitational force, pointed toward the Moon.  Very surprising that he did not understand that during ballistic flight one always experiences “free fall” (weightlessness).  To make the story even less appealing, the spacecraft misses the Moon due to the gravitational influence of a “comet”, and winds up in the Pacific Ocean after circumnavigating the Moon.

In Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar, we get the “other” Verne.  This is an adventure story, along the lines of “20000 Leagues Under the Sea”, while “All Around the Moon” is in line with “Around the World in 80 Days”, which I recall to be another fascinatingly boring book.  But Verne’s adventure stories are truly excellent, and Strogoff is a wonderful book to read.  A combination of a predictable plot outline – Strogoff needs to travel from Moscow to Irkust as quickly and quietly as possible, and we know this within the first 5 pages – and a good dose of mystery and suspense – there is a Tartar rebellion that threatens the Czar’s brother in Irkust, and the rebel leader is traveling in disguise – add together intricately to keep the reader glued to the story (or in my case, the screen).

What I can’t understand is how one author can have created both of these streams of work – and honestly, how monstrousities like Around the World in 80 Days can be considered great works.  I understand that Verne’s publisher (Hetzel) had a great influence on his writing, but both All Around the Moon (as well as the earlier part of that story) and Strogoff were published by Hetzel, so this is not the explanation.

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William Gilbert: On the Lodestone

I recently read William Gilbert’s renaissance masterpiece “On the Lodestone”, and found his work to be extremely intriguing.  Gilbert lived at the dawn of the scientific era, from 1544-1603, predating Francis Bacon – originator of the modern scientific method – by about 20 years.  He is considered by some to be the father of electromagnetism, and indeed is the first to use the term “electricity” in describing what we now know as static electricity (the primary source of static electricity in Gilbert’s experience was amber; the Greek word for amber is elektron). 

Gilbert is a staunch defender of the experimental basis for Truth – at least most of the time.  He attacks earlier writings concerning magnetism as simple repetitions of prior writings which generally are based in nonsensical assertions, which could be easily discounted if anyone bothered to acquire a magnet and observe its behavior.  In the sixteenth century, the primary source of magnetism was the naturally occuring mineral magnetite (ferrous-ferric oxide), or lodestone.  It should be understood that the best (purest) lodestones are barely capable of lifting iron objects of their own weight – very unlike modern “magnets” which generally can lift objects much heavier than themselves, particularly in the case of rare earth magnets which can lift several thousand times their own weight.

Gilbert attacks many myths about the magnet – that coating a lodestone with garlic oil removes the magnetism; that a diamond placed near a lodestone similarly destroys its power; that electrical attraction and magnetism are the same force.  In each case he makes strong derogatory statements about earlier authors who never even saw, let alone tested, a lodestone.  Gilbert proceeds to build a set of facts and observations of his own, each supported by experiment.  Many of his observations I had never considered before (as a trained physicist).  For example:

  • To determine the north and south poles of a magnet, allow the magnet to rotate freely in Earth’s magnetic field.  Mark the end that points to geologic north as the south pole, and the end that points south the north pole.  Which of course makes perfect sense, since opposing poles attract.
  • Apply a magnet’s pole to the center an iron bar, thereby magnetizing the bar.  If you use the north pole of the magnet, this will create north poles at both ends of the bar.   If the bar is curved into a C shape, there will be a repelling force between the cusps of the C.
  • Cut a magnet in half, holding one piece firmly. The cut ends will immediately repel each other, causing the free magnet to rotate rapidly to bring the opposite end to face the cut end.  This implies a continual stress present in  the material near the poles of any magnet.

Gilbert uses spherical lodestones, which he calls “terrellas” for “little Earths” for many of his demonstrations.  Using a device of his invention, the “versorium” – basically a compass needle mounted on a very free-turning point – he maps out the magnetic field lines of the terrella, and demonstrates their equivalence to the directions in which a compass points as it travels over the Earth.  Furthermore, he demonstrates the equivalence of the “dip” of the versorium at high “latitudes” on the terrella with the corresponding subtle dip of an accurate three-dimensional compass observed by navigators as they sail in higher latitudes.  The dip is caused again by the attraction of the pole, which is both north and “under” the compass increasingly as we reach higher latitudes.

There is a wealth of additional experimental and empirical information Gilbert conveys in this work, about not only magnetism, but static electricity as well – I am only remembering the highlights as I write this, some 3 months after finishing it.  And so Gilbert would appear to be a solid hero of scientific reasoning, living at the very end of the middle ages, and opening the door to the coming scientific revolution.  And, as far as the material above, this is certainly the case.

The first inkling we have that Gilbert may not be consistent in his scientific thinking is when he begins describing the relationship between the lodestone and the Earth.  He accurately shows that iron ore and lodestone are related – the one is attracted to the other; the iron can take on weak magnetic properties after exposure to lodestone.  But then he makes a large leap – which just happens to be true – in asserting that the Earth is mostly made from magnetic materials (iron and lodestone), and that what we experience on the surface – bodies of water, various soils, mountains and canyons – are but aberrations of the Earth that exist only on the relatively small surface in comparison to the bulk of the planet.  He, of course, has no experimental evidence for this claim (our experimental evidence came hundreds of years later in mapping how earthquake tremors penetrate the planet).

However, his entire thesis for the work is to explain magnetism, not merely describe its effects and laws.  And this is where he turns shockingly away from reason.  The magnet is aligning itself to the Soul of the Earth – so he asserts without demonstration.  Further, the Earth is a living Being, and this Soul is not a literary euphemism – it is asserted to be real.   After building up a large assortment of truly impressive scientifically-verified facts, and teasing the reader along the way, indicating that his studies have lead to a determination of the true Nature of the lodestone, he quite suddenly moves from demonstration to dogmatic assertion.  In addition to the Earth as a living entity, he goes on to assert that all celestial bodies are alive, each with its own Soul, and that each will exert a force on the material from which it is made, just as the Earth exerts a force on lodestone and iron.  He winds up this strange path through the irrational with an appeal to astrology – that these same forces affect the development of humans born under the various stars and constellations.  If it weren’t so tragic, it would almost be comical.

Gilbert is a fascinating example of an intellectual genius caught between two radically different philosophical worlds, with one foot planted in each.

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Objective and Collective Theories of Evolution

In reading modern discussions of evolution, and in various discussions, it has become clear to me that there is a difference between what I view as evolution theory, and what that label has come to mean in popular usage.  Reducing evolution to its fundamental and necessary principles, it requires the following conditions:

(1) Organisms that are capable of reproduction, and of passing traits to their offspring
(2) Organisms that may cease to exist (“die”) prior to their reproduction
(3) Competition among organisms for resources or conditions required for survival (at least until reproduction)
(4) Variability in traits between individual organisms, due both to inheritance and random occurence (“mutation”)

Evolution is loosely defined as “survival of the fittest”.  More carefully defined, it is the progression of the probability distribution of traits among a reproducing population of organisms which meet the four conditions described above.  The key to the qualitative progression of the distribution is the adversity to survival implied in condition (3), though each of the other conditions is necessary.  Using this definition, there can be no debate about whether evolution occurs – it is a mathematical consequence of this combination of conditions. 

Note that in this definition of evolution, the concept of “genes” does not occur directly, only the transmission of traits from generation to generation.  This is not to say that the modern theory of DNA genetics is invalid – it is a scientifically established fact that this is the mechanism for trait transmission in known life forms – but it is not an essential characteristic of evolution.  Also, note the absence of the concept of species.  The identification of species as a class of organisms that can mutually reproduce remains a useful definition, but it is not a dominant factor in evolution.

Any discussion of evolution as defined above is going to center on the progression of the probability distribution of traits in the population of individual organisms.  However, it is very easy to lose sight of the fact that this probability distribution is not a primary entity – it is derived only from a group of individual organisms, and has no existance or behavior apart from that of the individuals.  Nonetheless, efficiency in discussion is going to lead to the use of words such as species and genes to represent the aspects of the distribution of traits, and attributes will come to be assigned to these collective concepts.   This can, and almost always will, lead to a confusion of language in which the genes and species will be understood as primary actors in the evolutionary progression.

Current discussions of evolution often start at this point of confusion.  Species are said to evolve, genes are said to be acting in their best interest, to ensure the survival of the “gene pool”.  No attempt is (usually) made to tie these abstractions back to the actions of individual organisms.  The collective concepts become the entities to which the theory is applied, not only as a efficiency in discussion, but in the meaning to be projected in the discussion.  It is my assertion that this results – intentionally results – in a very different set of logical consequences than is implied by the original theory of evolution. 

The modern discussion of evolution is a discussion of the behavior of collectives, in which the value to be preserved is the perpetuation of the existance of the collective (gene pool or species).  Anthropomorphic terms are applied to both the genes and species – the genes have a “goal” they are “moving toward”.  When discussing symbiotic relationships between animals (for example, aphids and ants), the participants are said to be co-operating, or (even) acting altruistically(!).  It even seems to be recognized that the individual organisms cannot cooperate, because they lack intelligence, but somehow the species can

The advantage that this kind of misuse of evolution brings to environmentalism is only a minor example of the damage that is done philosophically by casting evolution in this form.  Species survival becomes over-valued.  Loss of “diversity” in the gene pool is a fundamental concern if the genes are the value that is to be preserved in evolution.  And certainly, any human action is at odds with the “natural” progression of evolution.

The larger issue with the collectivist form of evolution theory is that it creates an opportunity for critical attack.  Looking at the progression of traits in a historical population, any apparent sudden change can be questioned – “what caused the genes to ‘do’ this?”, or “what happened to this species – where did it come from; where did it go?”.  In the proper consideration of the theory, these are seen to be questions focussed on invalid concepts; however, in the modern discussion, these are weak points to defend.

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Heinz Pagels Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics is viewed by Objectivism with disdain and discredit for lacking an objective philosophical basis.  The standard “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum mechanics states that the uncertainty principle is an absolute feature of reality.  The uncertainty principle states that one cannot simultaneously determine the momentum and position of an existant (usually referencing a particle, but it need not be a particle).  The Copenhagen Interpretation goes further to state that an existant does not have a specific position or momentum  – or in general a specific “state” – until the existant is observed.  Rather, what the existant has is a probability (amplitude) wavefunction that extends throughout space whose intensity describes a probability distribution for the properties of the existant.

Somehow, that just doesn’t sit well with Objectivists.  (Other interpretations are much worse, however – we can discuss those later).  Among the consequences of the Copenhagen Interpretation is a choice between a failure of local causality, or instantaneous action over indefinite distances (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”).  That would be another nauseating choice for Objectivists to accept.  And so, they don’t accept the validity of the theory.

Recently, I fell upon the book “The Cosmic Code” by Heinz Pagels.  Pagels was a physicist, and this book was an attempt to bring modern physics issues to a public audience.  Such attempts are generally extraordinarily difficult, and all too frequently result in pushing misconceptions into the minds of the unprepared reader.  Pagels’ book is no exception, and a good part of it is not safe reading for someone who truly wants to understand modern physics.  (It is my opinion, as a partially-educated physicist, that someone who truly wants this understanding had better start by educating themselves in the appropriate math to handle the actual theories directly.  I believe that I have about 70% of what it may take to gain this understanding, which means I’m tortured by recognizing bad discussions of the theories in popularizations, but am not able to understand the actual theories in their full form).

Pagel’s book is separately into two significant parts.  In the first, he builds up the history and basic structure of the theory of quantum mechanics.  In this discussion, he does a fairly decent job with reducing the subject to terms for the layman without leading him too far off into the possibilities for misconception.  The second half is devoted to an understanding of particle physics and cosmology – and here I believe he moves beyond what he is able to describe carefully to an untrained mind.  Nonetheless, my interest is in the first part of the book. 

The crux of Pagels’ work lies in his development of a new position between the standard Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum mechanics, and the macroscopic world.  Pagels believes that the lack of objectivity in the microscopic world need not mean that there is a corresponding lack of objectivity in the macroscopic world.  His argument for this is based on thermodynamics, and in particular, in the second law of thermodynamics.  Pagels states that quantum mechanics is insensitive to the direction of time.  Specifically, that the governing equations and associated laws of the theory work equally well whether time moves forward or backward.  In fact, the renowned physicist Richard Feynman caused quite a stir among particle physicists when he proved that the behavior antimatter (existing as positrons and antiprotons, as well as many more exotic particles) can be alternatively described as normal matter moving backward in time. 

However, says Pagels, as one “zooms out” from a microscopic viewpoint, there comes a scale at which larger structures are seen to behave very differently dependent on the direction of time.  He gives the example of viewing the smoke from a pipe.  At a microscopic level, we see a random-looking motion of individual molecules.  At the critical scale, we begin to see the smoke leaving the pipe and dispersing irreversibly through the surrounding air.  Time has now taken on a permanent direction – the smoke is going to continue to disperse with time, not suddenly reverse and travel back into the pipe.  Pagels invokes the second law of thermodynamics – that entropy of a closed system will increase over long time averages – to explain his observation. 

To tie this observation to a statement about macroscopic objectivity, he then states that the flow of entropy is inherently related to the flow of information.  Humans acquire information only through massive averages of microscopic phenomena – we acquire only macroscopic information.  Since at the macroscopic scale the direction of time is fixed, information, once acquired, cannot be lost in principle.  Because of this fact, objective truth and causality are inherent in the macroscopic world.

Unfortunately, the presentation of this huge conclusion is all done within a page or two in The Cosmic Code, and I find it very difficult to fill in some of the gaps that have been left – both because of the brevity, and because the presentation is targeting a non-scientific audience.  Having thought over this interpretation for several weeks now, there are some significant problems that need to be investigated further for this to satisfy my own disillusionment with the quantum theory.  A key area of concern is the intersection between Pagels’ view of information, human epistemology, and the second law of thermodynamics.  A second concern is over the statement that humans only acquire information through massively averaged phenomena.  Beyond this, there are a few splinter questions that he has raised within the book, each deserving a separate discussion.

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Notes on Some Science Fiction

I recently decided to go back in time and re-read some science fiction that I enjoyed as a teenager.   The author of interest is Jerry Pournelle.  In my teens, I read a couple of the books he co-authored with Larry Niven: The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer (comet hits Earth, setting off a nuclear war), and then some of his own work in the collection of short stories High Justice.  I also did some time with Niven’s Ringworld series.  The general genre of these authors is “hard science fiction”, meaning that they make more than a passing attempt to build realism into their science fiction, relying on a reasonable knowledge of physics.  

Pournelle has degrees in statistics, systems engineering, and PhDs in political science and psychology.  He also served in the US Army during the Korean War, worked for major defense contractors including Boeing, the Aerospace Corporation, and Rockwell.  In his spare time he was the campaign manager for Barry Goldwater in his run for Congressman.  He also wrote a long-running column for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor”.

Pournelle’s politics are roughly Libertarian, though to be honest, I am only getting this from the recent re-reading of High Justice and The Mote in God’s Eye, and some familiarity with what he has written in Chaos Manor.   I chose to read these two books because I had “heard somewhere” that they were related.  In actual fact, the two works are created within the same fictional “universe”, but occur over 1000 years apart, and there is almost no real connection between them which is obvious (or at all useful) in reading the books.

High Justice is a very interesting collection of short stories set in the near future.  Published in 1974, the target time period for these stories is near 2000.  The setting is grim on Earth.  The United States has all but collapsed into a socialist hell.  Large corporations have fled the US and operate virtually independently from any government.  In effect, they are becoming alternate governments.  Some of the environmental catastrophes that are widely “expected” have occurred – oil is unavailable, solar power is the solution, water in the SouthWest has become a dominant problem (solved by a combination of desalination technology, and the more brute-force technology of carving off huge icebergs from the polar regions and transporting them to arid regions), the ocean floor is being mined for precious materials, and we’re communicating with dolphins. 

Ok, not all of this is particularly rational, but some of the political philosophy involved is entertaining.  The culmination of the short stories (all moderately inter-related) is the departure of the principals of the largest corporations to colonize the solar system, specifically to escape from the political disaster which has occured all over the Earth.

The Mote in God’s Eye is a very different story.  This chronicles Man’s first contact (after 1000s of years, the rise and fall of a massive human interstellar Empire, followed by a lengthy Dark Age when colonies were basically surviving on their own with limited or no interstellar trade, and then a slow Renaissance, during which the story is set) with an alien species.  The “Moties” are very bizarrely evolved creatures.  Bodies are asymmetrical, all species look very, very similar, and are separated by level of intelligence, and then by skill within the sentient species.  There are worker Moties, Mediator Moties, Master Moties, Farmer Moties, little semi-intelligent monkey-like Moties, and Warrior Moties.  Each class is super-specialized to its skill, and co-dependent on the other species.  This is the result of a very old civilization (10’s of thousands of years of civilization) surviving within a single solar system, with one very big biological problem – they must breed to live.  Failing to reproduce results in early death.  And infanticide is culturally forbidden.  Population pressure repeatedly leads to massive warfare, followed by a complete technological collapse, and the “cycle” repeats.  With this cycle well-known by the Moties, they have created safeguards to slow down the frequency of the cycles, but they generally recognize the inevitability of war followed by collapse.

In their interaction with Man, they hide the existance of their Warrior class, along with any other indication that they have had large scale warfare in their past.  They also hide their big biological secret – that they must breed to survive, and that they will not kill their children.  At the very end of the story, Man discovers this hidden fact, and proceeds to blockade them within their system, to prevent them from spreading throughout the Empire, and ultimately overwhelming Man through population growth.

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Before discussing what I define as “truth”, lets go back and fill in a missing piece in the last discussion of knowledge. I was struggling with what to call unverified impressions one has about an item, or the invalid content of a framework of ideas where the proper validation has not been done. (In reality, these are both the same, though stated “nicely” and then “harshly”). In conversation with our “discussion group” (in this case, one person) last week, I was immediately given an answer – these are opinions. After some consideration, I think I can agree with using that term to mean these un-validated ideas. As an aside, I often find myself unable to find the right word for a thought – even when the right word is obvious in retrospect.

Alright, on to truth. This whole train of thought about knowledge and truth revolves around the problem of intrinsicism vs. subjectivism – usually asked in the form – “where is Truth, in the external world around us, or in our understanding of that external world?”. This seems to be an ageless battle throughout the history of philosophy, and was only answered satisfactorily by Ayn Rand (and perhaps stated most clearly by Leonard Peikoff). Without trying to present the full importance of Rand’s solution to the problem here, Objectivism answers that the content of a concept of a particular item is neither in the thing itself (intrinsicism) or in one’s own mind (subjectivism), but is in the relationship between the thing and one’s mind. This is not easily understood, and it is not my intention to try to describe this central tenet of Rand’s epistemology here. What I want to focus on for the moment is the common use of the word truth, and how I prefer to use that term.

Truth seems to be commonly used to indicate an absolute statement about of the nature of a thing in itself, completely separated from our understanding of that thing. As such, I think the very use of this term implies an intrinsicist viewpoint. The Truth in this sense can never be completely known, so the argument would go, and hence we can never be certain of what we know. In the full implication of this viewpoint, the Truth exists in a separate Reality from the world that we can know – this is the Platonic world of Ideals, and leads to the Kantian (and ultimately Existential) view that we cannot know anything about Reality. As you can see, I reject all of these implications, and hence refuse to use the term Truth in this sense.

Now, it is the case that things exist in an absolute state of being – a thing is what it is, regardless of what any consciousness may know about it. (This is axiomatic – “Existence Exists”). However, it is also axiomatic that our knowledge of a thing (using my definition of knowledge) is certain. If we have completely integrated our understanding of a thing with the rest of our knowledge, then what we know of a thing is absolutely correct, though it is also incomplete. New observations of a thing may bring evidence that we need to expand our concepts regarding this thing, but it will not contradict our existing knowledge, it will only require an expansion of our concepts.

So, we have the nature of a thing as it exists – what I’ll call its absolute state of being – and we have our valid conceptual understanding of that thing. I use the word “truth” to indicate a measure of the completeness of our understanding against the absolute state of being of a thing.  In principle, this is a quantitative measurement; in practice, it can only be evaluated in contrived examples.  A conceptual framework can be completely untrue if it is malformed (if the entire framework is actually an opinion), and if none of it matches the absolute state of being.  Assuming knowledge instead of opinion, then all parts of the framework are true, yet the measure of truth will generally not be perfection (say 100%), because there will be additional aspects of the absolute state of being which have not been perceived, or have been perceived but not yet integrated into the conceptual framework.

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A Definition of the Term “Knowledge”

The following stems from a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with our weekly discussion group, after a question about the meaning of Truth was raised.

When dealing with philosophical matters, I find that one of the most difficult, yet essential, problems we face is in carefully defining what various terms mean.  More often than not in serious conversation, I will find that what I mean by a particular word is at odds with what others interpret that word to mean.  Perhaps this is an issue only of my idiosyncratic use of some words, but I am convinced such problems are very widespread.

The word “knowledge”, as applied to a particular item or field of items, I understand to mean the accumulated content of a concept or a hierarchy of concepts an individual holds regarding those items.  By “content of a concept”, I mean the common attributes or variables that have been abstracted from the observation (physical or mental observation) of concrete examples.  Per Ayn Rand’s framework, these common attributes, with their measurements omitted, define the concept.  I further limit the application of the term knowledge to those conceptual frameworks which have been created with appropriate use of reason – insisting in each step of construction that the framework is integrated with the rest of the individual’s knowledge. 

I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate word to describe the content of invalid frameworks of concepts in which proper validation has not been performed, and haven’t yet resolved this problem.  My limitation allows the use of the term knowledge to imply certainty – we are certain of the accuracy of our knowledge.

It should further be noted that I limit the term “knowledge” to apply exclusively to the content of an individual’s conceptual framework.  There is no social knowledge under this definition, though there certainly is shared knowledge.  The attempt to communicate knowledge between individuals – through conversation, writing, public speech – I recognize as at best partially successful.  Separate individuals can develop similar conceptual frameworks through communication, but these knowledges will never be exactly matching.  This issue merits its own phrase, and I call it “the problem of communication”.

Next up – defining truth.

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Appearance of the Blog

If you’ve looked at this blog recently, you’ve noticed that there have been some changes in appearance (and maybe you’ve noticed changes in performance).  The sponsor of the ThinkerToThinker blog system, Prodos [that’s a guy’s name, for those outside the Objectivist world, and a powerful force of benevolence] decided some time ago to update the blog engine used on this site.  His efforts have now come to fruition, though not without some growing pains.  One of the more noticeable, though really minor, effects has been the loss of the appearance that Thought Laboratory was previously using.  This appearance, or “theme” is currently the default for the Prodos system.  In time, Prodos has promised that several dozen new themes will be available from which we authors can choose, and when I see something I like better than this default, I’ll change this appearance.

Many of the other changes, like moving to a new – faster – server have been well worth the frustrations.  He has also added the ability to put media within the blog entries.  However, given the nature of the content on Thought Laboratory, I doubt I will be making much use of that ability.

In case you are browsing this, Prodos, the first set of themes you’ve added are somewhat faulty.  If you have a full page of posts, about two or three screens down you will see that the border on the left edge of the posts moves inside the post text.  Looks rather awful.  This default theme doesn’t suffer from this problem.

I will take this opportunity to thank Prodos for all of the effort (and rampant enthusiasm) that he has put into the ThinkerToThinker network.  Although there are many places I could have chosen to host my blog, there is no other place where I can be in the company of so many other like-minded individuals.

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Jefferson’s Declaration

Having completed the reading on the origins of World War I for the moment, I’ve turned next to a rather comprehensive collection of Jefferson’s writings. These start with his autobiography, within which is published his original version of the Declaration of Independence, with indications as to what was removed, and what added, by committee prior to its release to the world.

I want to narrow in on two changes that were made, which I believe indicate – even more than the final document – the magnificence of this man. The first is a single word change in what may be the most important line in the document. The edited version reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

The original version from Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

I do not believe these statements are identical. While the published version indicates that the rights of Man may not be separated from Man, and that these rights are not changeable with time or circumstance (my interpretation of the use of the word “certain” to mean absolute, not relative), Jefferson’s use of the word “inherent” suggests something significantly different. In Jefferson’s phrasing, it is in the Nature of Man to have these rights.The veryessential being of Man includes the existence of these rights.It is because he is what he is – a being capable of rationality, a fact from which no man can (or should try to) escape – that he is endowed (not by a creator, but by the way of being) with these moral securities against denial of his fundamental requirements for life by other men. The removal of this word then places the burden on the term “unalienable” to subsume this meaning. I do not believe that this term has the same connotation. By unalienable is suggested that there should be no attempt made to separate Man from these rights, but not that it cannot be done by the very definition of what it means to be Man.

I also notice that the word creator is not capitalized in the text. This could be simply a fault of the printing of the collection of papers that I have, while it is certain that in the final published copy this word is capitalized. (It is also true that several other words are capitalized in the published copy, and only words that we now consider proper nouns and the start of sentences are capitalized in the text I have).

The other significant change I saw was in the final paragraph of the document. The published version reads:

And for the support of this declaration, witha firm reliance on the protection of divine providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Jefferson’s version:

And for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Elsewhere in the document, God is mentioned only once, and this in the opening paragraph – this is the same in Jefferson’s and the published version:

…and to assume among the powers of the Earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them…

Even here, note that the God described is “nature’s God”, not a God associated directly with Man. Of course I am aware of the fact that Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers were Deists – and this fits the description of a Deist quite well. What I had not realized was the fact that the plea for divine intervention (such as it is) is not from Jefferson, but from the committee.

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Causes of World War I – Part 2

Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the situation begins to change. Germany, now secure in its alliance with Austria-Hungary, begins a massive expansion of its navy. Britain cannot tolerate a second strong European navy, and the English and Germans start an arms race, each increasing its expenditure on naval forces in a spiraling crescendo. The British launch the first “dreadnought” battleship in 1906 – the first ship equipped with large caliber (12 inch) guns exclusively. Germany (and the US, and Japan) rapidlylaunch theirown dreadnought, and the race accelerates. A series of attempts at “arms control” over the dreadnought between Germany and Englandare repeatedly violated by the Germans in secret.

Meanwhile, Russia is showing signs of weakness. After her defeat against Japan in 1905, social revolution threatens to take down the Tsar, and the Russian army is ill-prepared to face external conflicts. In the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire faces repeated uprisings against a variety of Turkish atrocities, and shows itself to be increasingly unable to maintain control. Both Austria-Hungary and Russia look on with concern over the stability and ultimate fate of these neighbors.

All this forms the background for the final events – the immediate cause – of the war. On June 28, 1914, archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb. Austria demanded Serbia cease anti-Austrian propaganda andarrest the parties suspected in the assassination. Meanwhile, Austrian and German diplomats came to an understanding that no serious attempts to negotiate a settlement should be made, and preparations for a large scale war should begin. Serbia received assurances from Russia that Russia would intervene on Serbia’s behalf in the event of hostilities, and Serbia proceeded to mobilize. Within a month of Austria’s ultimatum, the delicate web of treaties and agreements that maintained the Balance of Power were all activated, and France, Russia, England, Germany and Austria-Hungary found themselves at war.

What surprised me most about reading through this history was the use of a relatively minor diplomatic crisis to trigger so massive a response. Clearly the combatants never envisioned a war lasting 4 years and claiming the lives of 8 million people. This war, on the face of it, had no rational immediate cause. Rather, it was the inevitable consequence of a large set of interlocking and growing tensions that were accepted by the European nations as the boundary conditions of diplomacyfor over 60 years. In seeking to identify a major theme in the decades leading to this disaster, two come to mind. First – and potentially the dominant theme – is the rise of German industrial power. A second theme – more apparent in the consequences of the war – is the incomplete social revolution of Europe. The primary political casualties of the war were the Empires – the Ottoman, the Austria-Hungarian, the German, and the Russian. Although not replaced entirely by democracies, the failure of these authoritarian states lead to the rise of more localized nations whose borders were based on nationality (common customs). Poland, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Latvia became independent nations based on nationality. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia became smaller agglomerations of nationalities.

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