Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Essential Thinkers #22 Albert Einstein, Genius of 'Special' and General Relativity

I posts this article today, 18th April 2017. It is exactly (plus minus leap year) 62 years since the death of Albert Einstein on 18th April 1955. I can’t wait to watch National Geographic Series entitled Genius about the life of Einstein! (premier 25th April 2017)

German-born physicist of Swiss parentage, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) became a naturalised American in 1935, after leaving Hitler’s Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. After an unpromising start to his academic career, at one time declaring, “I have given up the ambition ever to get to a university,” he accepted a job in Bern patent office, where he conceived the theories of general and special relativity which were to found modern physics. Einstein was also politically active, both in the cause of world peace and Zionism. In 1952 he was offered the presidency of Israel but declined, claiming he was too na├»ve in politics. On the relation between his scientific and political interests he once said, “Equations are more important to me, because politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.”

The philosophical import of Einstein’s work is enormous. His theory of relativity assigns an unprecedented importance to the role of the observer in his description of the physical world, threatening the received notions of space and time, as found in Isaac Newton, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and others. The central aspect of Einstein’s works is that the speed of light is constant. It gives rise to the two most famous ideas of relativity physics: the equivalence of mass and energy expressed in the equation E = mc2 (where E = energy, m = mass and c = the constant speed of light), and the law that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

These have at least two philosophically important consequences. First, it follows from relativity that one cannot speak of an event occurring at precisely the same time for different observers. Each observer’s time frame is relative to himself. Imagine an observatory in Jupiter looking at an observatory on Earth. In each an astronomer looks through his eyeglass at the other at, we might suppose, exactly the same time. Since light takes 35 minutes to travel from Jupiter to Earth, the event on Jupiter in which the astronomer looks through his telescope must have taken place 35 minutes before the astronomer on Earth observes the event. Equally, the same applies to the astronomer on Jupiter: as he observes the astronomer on Earth he is observing an event that took place 35 minutes prior to his own time frame. It is tempting to think there is some absolute position in which the two events could be observed as simultaneous, but this is exactly the possibility ruled out by relativity theory. Space and time are not independent dimensions, but form a four-dimensional unity, space-time, in which every event can only be recorded relative to a local time-frame.

The second philosophically interesting consequence of relativity is that although the speed of light is constant, its frequency (the number of waves of light per second) varies closer to massive objects like planets. This means time appears to run slower near a massive body than farther away. In 1962 physicists confirmed this prediction by using two very accurate clocks, one at the base and one at the top of a water tower. The clock at the base was found to run slower than the other.

This gives rise to the famous ‘twin paradox.’ Suppose one twin goes for a lengthy journey into space while the other stays on Earth. When he returns he would appear to be much younger than his twin. The paradox arises from the assumption of an absolute time frame. The relativity thesis means that each body carries around its own personal time scale which does not, in general, agree with the time scale of other entities. Relative to each other, 50 years near a massive gravitational body is a shorter duration than 50 years far away from massive body. Thus while 50 years might have passed on Earth the space travelling twin might find he has only been away in space for 35 years. The exact difference depends on the gravitational influences on the two twins throughout their lives.

The philosophical consequences of Einstein’s relativity theory, like the empirical consequences, are yet to be fully known. Issues about time-travel, the passage or ‘flow’ of time, the asymmetry between past and future and between cause and effect, are all issues that require an understanding of Einstein’s momentous work.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.]

Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Essential Thinkers #21 Benedict de Spinoza: Mystical, Rational and Theistic

Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) remain one of the most compelling if not the difficult philosophers of the Rationalist school. Greatly influenced by Rene Descartes and Euclid, he takes rationalism to its logical extremes, determining to set out the principles of an ethical system in axiomatic format, mush as Euclid proved his theorems of geometry. Spinoza’s ambitious project is perhaps one of the greatest ever undertaken in philosophy and it is a mark of his greatness that, to a considerable extent, he was remarkably successful in this undertaking.

In the posthumously published Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrate (Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order), Spinoza sets out the axioms which he takes to be self-evident and then proceeds, step by step, to deduce ethical conclusions. Like Descartes, he is concerned to set knowledge on logical foundations: his ethical conclusions must therefore first be founded on a number of ontological, metaphysical and epistemic beliefs. Each of these is, in turn, demonstrated in geometric fashion.

Central to Spinoza’s philosophy is the idea, similar to that of Parmenides of Elea, that everything in the universe is One. There is only one substance and that substance we can conceive as of either Nature or God. This substance has infinitely many attributes but human beings, being finite, can only perceive two of them, extension and thought. Unlike Descartes, who thought mind and body were two separate kinds of thing, Spinoza argues that mind and body are just different ways of conceiving the same reality.

This reality, Nature of God, is wholly self-contained, self-causing and self-sufficient. Everything in the universe is part of God, and everything that happens is a necessary part of expression of the divine nature. The upshot of this pantheistic view is to remove free will from the realm of human actions. After all, if human beings are part of the divine reality there is no room for independent causal actions. Spinoza is more than happy with this conclusion, he is a thorough-going determinist: “Experience tells us clearly that men believe themselves to be free simply because they are conscious of their actions and unconscious of the causes whereby these actions are determined; further, it is plain that the dictates of the mind are simply another name for the appetites that vary according to the varying state of the body.”

Nevertheless, Spinoza does find a way of making room for a kind of freedom, though it is not of the sort that philosophers are used to. Each individual, says Spinoza, is a localised concentration of the attributes of reality, really a quasi-individual, since the only true individual is the universe in totality. Insofar as the quasi-individual is ruled by his emotions, he is unfree and at the mercy of finite understanding. To become free, the individual must, by means of rational reflection, understand the extended causal chain that links everything as one. To become aware of the totality of the universe is to be freed, not from causal determinism, but from an ignorance of one’s true nature.

What then, of wickedness, sin and evil?

Since everything is part of one reality there is no such thing as evil from the viewpoint of the whole – “sub specie aeternitis” (from the aspect of eternity). That which appears evil does so only because we lack the understanding to see the bigger picture, the chain of causes that make all events a necessary part of divine reality. Though many were shocked by this in Spinoza’s day, it reflects the same sentiment expressed by some Christians who persevere in the face of adversity by claiming that “God moves in mysterious ways” and “ours is not to reason why.” Of course, for Spinoza, to reason why is exactly what we must do to attain freedom.

Interestingly, Spinoza’s philosophy is both mystical, rational and theistic. Yet he was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his views, denounced as an atheist by Christians and declared so wicked that at one time his books were publicly burnt. Despite the rigour and integrity of his work, Spinoza remains one of the lesser studied and least regarded of all the rationalist philosophers.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.]

Lord, Give Us Today Our Daily Idea(s)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

As A Man Thinketh #5: No Victimized Mindset, Take Responsibility

A person is buffeted by circumstances so long as he believes himself to be the creature of outside conditions
(James Allen, As A Man Thinketh)

One of the great weaknesses of our society today is the growing attitude of victimization. Many people claim themselves to be victims of some outside force. “I don’t know the story of Bible because my pastor doesn’t teach me…”; “If that driver hadn’t pulled out in front of me…”; “I am like this because of my parents…”

When we are victims of circumstances, or as James Allen says, a “creature of outside conditions,” we have no power. We have given over the power in our life to the circumstances. The longer we give power to our circumstances the worst our circumstances become. In his other book, Above Life’s Turmoil, Allen writes, “You imagine your circumstances as being separate from yourself, but they are intimately related to your thought world. Nothing appears without an adequate cause.”

To get control of our circumstances we must first acknowledge personal responsibility for being where we are. That was the hardest part for me because the ‘victim’ in all of us doesn’t want to take that responsibility.

When we take responsibility we must then take control of our thoughts. And, yes, in the beginning that can be hard. It seems sometimes that it’s our nature to first think negatively. But that’s just because it’s the habit we’ve developed. And like any habit, it can changed by replacing it with the habit of thinking the right way.

Emmet Fox once writes: “You are not happy because you are well. You are well because you are happy. You are not depressed because the trouble has come to you, but trouble has come because you are depressed. You can change your thoughts and feelings, and then the outer things will change to correspond, and indeed there is no other way of working.

Think about it!

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