Category Archives: Philosophy

Life, Struggles and Shoelaces

That’s the thing with life: it never really allows time to celebrate the successes, as the next challenge is always round the corner. No sooner have you triumphantly tied one shoelace without inadvertently triggering an international incident that there’s another waiting for the same treatment.

–Rob Smith, Guardian

A new year’s wish (Thoughts on happiness, success and satisfaction)

As the year 2010 dawns, here is a simple new year’s wish for you: May you be happy! But of course, that “simple wish” brings us to a central notion of what is happiness. There are quite a few related terms, and we can try to establish some general relationships among them:

  • happiness
  • success
  • satisfaction

Do these concepts always go together? Perhaps not.

Let us begin with the obvious. Can we measure someone’s success? If so, then how? Two different individuals may have different conditions and different goals, in that case, how might we be able to compare them on their end result in any sense? Even if two individuals had similar conditions and similar goals, might it be possible that the individuals had different priorities for those goals? Pushing this argument further, we can reach the conclusion that the success is just as subjective a phenomenon as satisfaction, and only an individual can judge or measure their own success. Success is usually not independent of money, social power, family structure and other such measures, but it is also not any of those things by itself (or even in a combination) consistently for every single individual.

Can success be a measure of satisfaction? Is it possible that a highly self satisfied individual may recognize that they are not the most successful they can be? If so, does that contradict their self satisfaction? Do we then reach the conclusion that:
Being satisfied implies being successful.
In formal propositional logic, this would be written as:
satisfied(x) -> successful(x)
Another way to phrase this is to say that “Success is a component of Satisfaction”.

Similarly, can happiness be a measure of satisfaction? Is it possible that a highly self satisfied individual may recognize that they are not the happiest they can be? If so, does that contradict their self satisfaction? Do we then reach the conclusion that:
Being satisfied implies being happy. Similarly as before, we can write this as:
satisfied(x) -> happy(x)
“Happiness is a component of Satisfaction.”

So, we arrive at the notion that the satisfaction is really the super concept here, and happiness and success are (at least) two components of satisfaction. We further need to evaluate the relationship between happiness and success, and explore what else we missed. Here is a cheesy graphic of the simple conclusions we drew.

Perhaps, the new year’s wish should really be: “May you be satisfied.”

Buridan’s ass (donkey, not the posterior)

Buridan’s ass is a paradox in philosophy which refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an actor (ass in this case), placed exactly at the center of two equal choices (stacks of hay of equal size and quality), will starve to death since it cannot make any rational decision to start eating one over the other. Named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, it is mentioned in Chapter 35 (Occam’s Razor) of Ben Dupre’s book “50 philosophy ideas you really need to know“. Occam’s Razor itself suggests that in case of rival theories that explain the observed phenomenon, one should go with the simpler theory. In many facets of life, we call it the KISS principle.

In essence, Buridan’s Ass highlights the lack of tie-breaking rule in Occam’s Razor.

Of course the fallacy of the ass is to believe that it is irrational to make a choice in absence of a rational reason to favor a choice.

Rebuttal to Maxwell’s Demon based on the Physical Properties of the Trapdoor

Maxwell’s demon is an interesting thought experiment on the 2nd law of thermodynamics. I have thought about this experiment for some time, and I think I have found a rebuttal.

In simple terms, this thought experiment suggests a way (using a tiny trapdoor between the A side and the B side of a gas container) to separate hot and cold gases without doing any work. The idea is that Maxwell’s demon opens the trapdoor when a fast moving molecule from A side approaches the trapdoor, thus allowing it to “leak” to B’s side, and similarly allowing for slow moving molecules from B side to leak to A side. If this way was theoretically possible, then we would be able to create more order, thus, in principle violating 2nd law of thermodynamics. Various criticisms have been given in an attempt to uphold our believe that 2nd law of thermodynamics is true (so, it is in fact a law).

Firstly, I must say that I do not agree with the rebuttals by Szilard, Brillouin and Charles Bennett, because their criticism is mostly on the energy that would be required to measure the speed of molecules and to operate the trapdoor. However, this is an assumption, not a fact. This assumption can be considered a fact, if we do choose to believe in many existing laws of physics, of which, second law of thermodynamis is one. Thus, this entire logic is circular.

My logic is different, and does not depend upon the assumption that energy is required to measure the speed of molecules. We consider two cases.
Case I: Trapdoor has a certain mass. If the trapdoor has mass, then to open or close it, we must expend some energy. thus the entire setup is not isolated. In that case, second law of thermodynamics is not violated at all.
Case II: Trapdoor is massless. If the trapdoor is massless, then we are not spending any energy in opening or closing it. However, if it is massless, then when a fast moving molecule hits it from the B side, some energy must be expended to keep the trapdoor from opening to A side. So, in this case second law of TD is not violated.

So, in all cases, we can see that Maxwell’s demon can be theoretically refuted.

Homeopathy

Came across an interesting narrow-minded rebuttal of homeopathy here. (Actually, I was debating whether I should give that article any internet importance by linking to it, and then decided, it is worth it.)

I strongly oppose and condemn such rebuttals – they are mostly the works of pre-decided closed minds, not scientific discussions. What surprises me is some people make it the mission of their life to negate a theory (let us call homeopathy a theory for now, since it should work for both the proponents and the opponents). The most interesting aspect is that there are thousands of ailments that the allopathic medicine has no answer to, and it recognizes as such. There are thousands of good MDs who routinely refer their patients to alternative therapies if they have nothing better to offer. That really underlines a key principle of medicine (and perhaps to entire life): if you have a suggestion on how to make things better for a patient, by all means, go ahead. If you are simply trying to disrupt other people who are trying to make things better for a patient, and you admit that you have nothing to offer, then please let the other practitioners proceed.

If you think something is impossible, do not discourage the person trying to do it!
— Author Unknown

There are many alternative therapies that are regulated by the board of medicine, are evidence based, and have very strong regulations on how they should be administered. Any preconceived notion against these therapies is really baseless and out of context at this point. The alternative therapies are here to stay, and constructive criticism can make them better.

One fundamental line of reasoning that is frequently used against homeopathy is that we do not really understand (and that homeopaths have been unable to show) how it works. This is really a false line of reasoning. For a patient, it is not really important how a treatment works, as long as it works! So, from a patient’s perspective, the focus is on “evidence based” therapies, and the lack or presence of side effects. Consider that millions of patients who take pain medication have no idea on how it works, but they know that it works, and they take the medication and benefit from it. Even though the doctors may know how the drug works does not necessarily impact the patient’s perspective. That all being said, the reality is that for many homeopathic treatments, it is actually known to some extent how the treatment works. But more importantly, human studies exist for many conditions and homeopathic treatments that show that the treatments work.

That is it from me on homeopathy.

Of geniuses and profound mistakes

Today, listening to the Frank Wilczek on the Kojo show, there was a one very interesting thing that Dr. Wilczek said, “Anyone can make an ordinary mistake, but a profound mistake requires a genius”.

That is an awesome quote!

By a profound mistake, he gives the example of Newton’s theory of gravitation, and how it proposed an idea of “instantaneous” force that is applied between two bodies. As we know very well now, Einstein’s general theory of relativity replaced Newton’s theory of gravity (read here if you want to learn more on that). I also agree with Dr. Wilczek when he says that Newton’s theory was basically “right for the time”; after all we still use it as it is much easier to calculate than general theory of relativity.

This idea of “profound” mistake is generalizable to other fields too – anything that solves a lot of problems but has its caveats is basically a “profound” mistake, and requires a genius. Such profound mistakes are sometimes the best things that happen to a field, since waiting for a “perfect” solution can take a very long wait. Examples of “profound” mistakes exist in other fields also. For example in the case of computer networks, TCP/IP may be a “profound” mistake. Of course, the protocols are not perfect, but they work so so well in so many of practical scenarios that they were truly one of the best things that happened to the field of networking.

The earth is slipping away

One of the basic questions about the origins of the universe is about the formation of Earth and other planets. Though scientists have a reasonable explanation to this question, a question remains as to what a precise location must earth have been in so that when the clouds formed into sun and earth, the earth was moving at the right speed so that it became a satellite of sun. If it had been moving too fast, it would have slipped away, and if it was moving too slow, it would have been swallowed into the sun.

From a human perspective, this seems to be so perfect. And philosophically speaking, it sure is. Quantitatively though, we can do a bit more inspection.

As of latest data, the earth is going away from the sun, at the rate of 1.5 cm/year. Based on this changing orbit, the earth has a life as well, as eventually it will get away from the sun completely and cease to be a satellite. That will likely happen over 3 billion years.

While a deviation of 1.5 cm/year may seem to be a small change, we need to calibrate the human and earth systems so that they use the same scale. Here are some calculations:

Diameter of earth: 12700 Km
Diameter (?) of a human: 0.6 meter (Try to visualize a human rolled up as a ball)
That is, earth is about 20,000,000 times larger than human.

The earth lasts about 7 billion years (barring accidents)
A human lasts about 100 years (barring accidents)
That is, earth lasts about 70,000,000 times more than human.

As we observe, once put into similar perspective, the orbit of the earth is about as perfect as us humans.