Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Philosophy Bites: What is philosophy?

A 25 minute program in which several famous philosophers answer this fundamental question. From the excellent podcast "Philosophy Bites"

My take:

1. Philosophy is a systematic rational attempt at answering the questions that are left over once you have collected all possible factual information relevant to questions of science or practice.

2. Thinking really hard (using the aforementioned rationality) about the most basic conceptual features or the 'skeleton' of our experienced world.

3. Exploring the basic presuppositions and assumptions with which we interpret the world.

4. Studied and self-consciously reflective ignorance.

Now, this is all fine and dandy, but the best definition was clearly given by Bea Arthur:

In a Wink of an Eye: Is it possible for time to be slowed?

That is the question behind this brief "Daily Galaxy" article

We're all familiar with the subjective experience of time seeming to slow down. This is reported to happen to otherwise sober people when they are in situations of extreme danger. I'm sure you've heard tales of people involved in automobile accidents, according to which as the car swerved out of control, and executed its pirouette across the divide, the event was experienced as if it were an NFL films slo-mo.

Other people report this sort of thing under the influence of drugs, or during mystical or religious experiences. Now, most of us would take this as evidence that the subjective experience of time is malleable, while objectively speaking, time itself does not change its rate of 'flow'.

What is intriguing about the experiment described in the article is that Eagleman has designed it in such a way as to be able to tell whether or not time itself can vary its speed. Otherwise put; if it is possible under these conditions, that we perceive time to have slowed because it actually did.

Crappy analogy time: Consider time to be a railroad, and yourself to be in a car on that railroad. If you were given the task to read a series of Burma Shave signs at some short distance from the car, and the car was moving at a high speed, you would not be able to do so. But, if the car was slowed, you would be able to read those signs.

Now, imagine the car is indeed not itself moving down the track, but the that track and surroundings are moving under the car. That's a bit more like the flow of time. Can the track and surroundings vary in speed as they move under the rail car. That's the question.

The experimental set up?

Put people in a situation that will trigger the psychological effect, and have them report on what they see on an LED display they are given.

Doc Eagleman takes people, throws them off a ledge (net below, wouldn't want to get the prize for unethical research). For normal non-SEAL human beings, this experience is frightening. Even if you know you will not die, it triggers autonomic fear reactions.

So, after good Doc Eagleman has hurled these folks off the precipice, they report the slowing of apparent or subjective time. Next, in some way not detailed in the Galaxy write-up, Eagleman compared the reported time lapse to the actual time lapse, and the reported was always longer than the actual.

Now don't forget, Doc stuck that LED device in the hands of the plunging victims..er..subjects. They were rigged to flash a series of 3's and E's too rapidly for the normal human being to discriminate. All the normal person would see is a vaguely flickering 8. The idea is, if time REALLY slowed, these folks would be able to see the series more clearly, kind of like NEO and the Matrix gang could see bullets flying and easily dodge them (or fabulous Queen Deela and the Scalosians could sit and stare at immobile captain Kirk and crew).

When people reported on what they saw.. drum roll please..

8's, nothing but vaguely flickering 8's.

Now, this seems to corroborate our common sense notion that time itself cannot change its rate. The rail track and surroundings always move under the rail car at the same rate. Too bad for the Burma Shave folks, Neo and Deela.

What then accounts for the appearance of time slowing? In times of perceived mortal danger, the brain becomes very sensitive to sensory input, more processing goes on, more data is handled consciously than normal. Somehow, this gives rise to the appearance.

How conclusive is this experiment, and what repercussions does it have for the realm of the physically possible vice the logically possible?