Saturday, May 1, 2010

gigantic hand in space?

The "official" explanation for this:

As far as pulsars go, PSR B1509-58 appears young. Light from the supernova explosion that gave birth to it would have first reached Earth some 1,700 years ago. The magnetized, 20 kilometer-diameter neutron star spins 7 times per second, a cosmic dynamo that powers a wind of charged particles. The energetic wind creates the surrounding nebula's X-ray glow in this tantalizing image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Low energy X-rays are in red, medium energies in green, and high energies in blue. The pulsar itself is in the bright central region. Remarkably, the nebula's tantalizing, complicated structure resembles a hand. PSR B1509-58 is about 17,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Circinus. At that distance the Chandra image spans 100 light-years.

Yeah. Sure, we know what it really is..

Being and Becoming: stability and change

I got to thinking about this due to this post over at Dan’s Outlet (that blog title sounds like one of those obscure army surplus stores I like to hunt up.) When you are reading ancient Greek philosophers, and find them discussing “Being” and “becoming” you have to ask what exactly the distinction is supposed to be that is being drawn when using the two terms (or their Greek equivalents). It is something like this:

“Being” refers to something that does not change, but is stable, and because it does not change something that the human mind can cognize or grasp. “Becoming” on the other hand, refers to something that is always in process of changing, and is, for that reason, less amenable to cognitive ‘grasp’.

Some humdrum examples come from Plato. Notice that they exemplify a sort of continuum, the first thing being (no pun intended) more of a becoming kind of thing, than the last:

Consider your body. It is constantly taking in material from the outside, be it oxygen, carbon, water, micronutrients, proteins, minerals, trace metals, & etc... These materials are never static for long, but constantly being ferried about by cellular machines. The raw materials are used to construct intra and intercellular machinery of increasing levels of complexity.

Add to that your conscious experience, the result of the operations of some of that complex machinery. Even in the quietest of settings, your brain is busy taking in data, processing, and initiating actions. You think, sense, perceive and respond constantly. Little if anything remains constant and unchanging in all this, especially if you take pains to carefully observe it all.

Even that “you” the observer, does not simply appear as a bare spectator, but has a complex of values, goals, emotions, fears, hopes etc.., These change, often kaleidoscopically, and if not over the time scale of seconds, certainly over the years. That whole complex, collectively referred to as a person, a human being, is something that is very much a ‘becoming’ type thing. It is not mere becoming, with nothing at all stable about it, but is certainly a thing aspects of which are constantly changing. Indeed, the atomic building blocks that constitute our bodies are apparently completely cycled through in around seven years.

Now, consider something much simpler, but which is nevertheless still a denizen of the physical world; a geometric object printed on newsprint, a simple drawing of a triangle. While it fades over time, and the paper undergoes chemical transformations, the drawing itself endures for a good period. Eventually, the lines fade to a degree that they are barely perceptible, but all the while, that drawing consists of three black lines, it’s a closed figure of a fixed area, and is, relative to the hurly burly of the biological realm, quite stable and unchanging. Certainly more of a “Being” sort of thing than a “becoming” sort of thing.

The last example is even more static, unchanging, and invariant. But, unlike the first two things, is not a paradigmatic “thing” at all. It is what can be called an “abstract object”, a “form” or a “universal”:

Consider now, not a thought about a triangle that is going on in a human being’s mind, nor the printed triangular object on the newsprint, but consider that “thing” about which the human is thinking, and that thing that the printed object is in a very real way, supposed to stand for, or remind us of, or about which the drawing is an aid in constructing proofs. That thing is, (to use Plato’s way of writing, that is, capitalizing not only for emphasis, but to show that the word is in fact a proper name) not merely a drawing or a thought, but, (drum roll please) The Triangle (not to be confused with Teh Triangle).

The Triangle is what we are talking about, while doing geometric or analytic geometry. It is not identical to any one thought that focuses on it, nor any drawing or representation of it. For the thoughts and drawings themselves all have something in common, something they intend to refer to. They are all concerned with a thing that is perfect after its kind; a three-sided figure, perfectly two dimensional, and composed of perfectly straight lines. No drawing can approach that level of perfection. So, when we say The Triangle has perfectly straight lines, we are not referring to drawings.

It would also be odd to say that a thought has 3 sides, but more crucial to showing that The Triangle is not identical to thoughts we have about it, is the fact that my thought about The Triangle, and yours are both about the same thing, a third thing, as distinct from our cognitions of them as are apple trees from our separate visual experiences of apple trees. Otherwise we could not correct mistakes in proofs! There would be no objective matter of fact.

Now, what are the Greeks on about?

We see that cognitive reality has these aspects; stability amidst flux, and what is more, stable elements allow us to pick out describe, and otherwise deal with the changing world around us, because they are related in some way to the changing elements. The Triangle, for example, is related in some way to the newsprint drawing, allowing us to call it (however incorrectly) a triangle.

This sort of arrangement exists in the realm of the non-cognitive as well: Getting back to the biological, there is stable order amidst the change; DNA preserves and transmits specific form, provides rules for material construction of stable organisms of various species. It orchestrates the constant flow of materials, introducing stability into the Heraclitean flux.

Beyond the biological, the universe shows this dual nature even in the laws of physics and chemistry. There is great flux, sturm and drang, in the universe, but all of that action happens in accord with a finite set of natural laws, that is; regular patterns of behavior, patterns, I might add, that are at least partially intelligible to us. Natural science is a tale of our successfully discovering these laws, and describing them, in the language of mathematics.

What is more, the universe has an element of emergent novelty that is intimately connected to the existence of the regularities, novelties of a given level emerging from the regular patterns of behavior at lower levels; combinations of 'charmed' quarks yielding subatomic particles with charge, collections of these yielding atoms, with chemical properties, collectives of atoms yielding macroscopic properties such as hardness or liquidity, consciousness itself emerging only from biological structure, and finally, moral agency emerging only from something as complex as a human being. All of this governed by cognizable regularities, predictable patterns, we can discover, these patterns being “Being”, and the emergent being “Becoming”.

Very remarkable, very mysterious, and very awe inspiring.

Saturday Cosmic: Brian Eno, Deep Blue Day