Category Archives: Philosophical

The Camera

Capturing a moment and freezing time has always been fascinating for mankind. It always required a skill to turn a moment into a lasting image. Cave drawings are the first known attempts to do just that. Over the millennia many great, and not so great, artist practiced this skill.

With the invention of the camera and film the game changed. It was suddenly much easier to trap the moment and make it last. The first photographers still had to be very skilled because you could not go to a store and buy a role of film – the first photographers made their own plates for their box cameras.

But by the 50s and 60s photography had become so easy that every American tourist traveling the world took his or her camera along. And in the recent years the prevalence of digital cameras has brought picture-taking everywhere.

The main areas in which photography is used today are snapping memory shots, documenting events and facts, and artistic expression.

Probably the most pictures take are from the first category – capturing memories. Here is the camera, especially the latest very small models, which can go everywhere and that fit into your shirt pocket. As there is, beside the initial cost for the camera, no cost involved in photo-taking, many, many photos are taken, many of which might only be looked at once before they are forgotten on a hard drive or deleted.

The second use of the camera for the documentation of events, facts and objects requires a much bigger skill level of the photographer if he really wants to create an image that tells a story or shows a situation. Point and click does not work any more. The photographer has to have the ability to isolate something specific from a sea of distraction. A wide-angle shot where, way in the background, you see the dog biting the kid while there are more prevalent objects in the foreground will not document the dog attack.

Artistic use of the camera requires a total synergy of camera and photographer. Just like the painter knows exactly how the brush will apply the paint to the canvas, so does the artistic photographer know every nuance of his tool of the trade – the camera. But just as a great painter will paint a great picture with an expensive brush or a cheap pencil, so is the great photographer able to even use a cheap camera to take great pictures.

The camera, in all three fields of application, has opened up the entry into the respective area to nearly everybody. But it still remains true that to create great pictures, great skills are required. Today’s advertisement tries to make it appear that if you spend bundles of money to purchase the latest and greatest camera, you will automatically take perfect pictures. This is certainly not the case as the photographer and not the camera takes the pictures. Lowering the bar to enter the field allows many more people to get started but only the person who sticks with it and trains himself in the art will obtain stunning results.

Comprehending Engineers

TAKE ONE
Two engineering students were walking across campus when one said: “Where did you get such a great bike?” The second engineer replied: “Well, I was walking along yesterday minding my own business when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike. She threw the bike to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, ‘Take what you want.'” The second engineer nodded approvingly: “Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn’t have fit.”

TAKE TWO
To the optimist, the glass is half full. To the pessimist, the glass is half empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

TAKE THREE
A pastor, a doctor and an engineer were waiting one morning for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumed: “What’s with these guys? We must have been waiting for
15 minutes!” The doctor chimed in: “I don’t know, but I’ve never seen such ineptitude!” The pastor said: “Hey, here comes the greens keeper. Let’s have a word with him.” “Hi, George what’s with that group ahead of us? They’re rather slow, aren’t they?” The greens keeper replied: “Oh, yes, that’s a group of blind fire fighters. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free anytime.” The group was silent for a moment. The pastor said,: “That’s so sad. I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight.” The doctor said, “Good idea. And I’m going to contact my ophthalmologist buddy and see if there’s anything he can do for them.” The engineer said, “Why can’t these guys play at night?”

TAKE FOUR
There was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multimillion-dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work but to no avail. In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge. He spent a day studying the huge machine. At the end of the day, he marked a small “x” in chalk on a particular component of the machine and stated: “This is where your problem is”. The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again. The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges. The engineer responded briefly: “One chalk mark: $1.00. Knowing where to put it: $49,999.00.” It was paid in full and the engineer retired again in peace.

TAKE FIVE
What is the difference between Mechanical Engineers and Civil Engineers? Mechanical Engineers build weapons, Civil Engineers build targets.

TAKE SIX
The graduate with a Science degree asks, “Why does it work?” The graduate with an Engineering degree asks, “How does it work?” The graduate with an Accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?” The graduate with a Liberal Arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

TAKE SEVEN
Normal people … believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough Features yet.”

TAKE EIGHT
An architect, an artist and an engineer were discussing whether it was better to spend time with the wife or a mistress. The architect said he enjoyed time with his wife, building a solid foundation for an enduring relationship. The artist said he enjoyed time with his mistress, because of the passion and mystery he found there. The engineer said: “I like both.” “Both?” Engineer: “Yeah. If you have a wife and a mistress, they will each assume you are spending time with the other woman, and you can go to the lab and get some work done.”

TAKE NINE
An engineer was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said: “If you kiss me I’ll turn into a beautiful princess”. He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I’ll Stay with you.” The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out: “If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want.” Again the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket. Finally the frog asked: “What is the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess, that I’ll stay with you and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?” The engineer said: “Look I’m an engineer. I don’t have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog, now that’s cool.”

Thoughts on Reality

I ran into the following article today and just have to share it:

As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like…

Continue reading at The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality

It doesn’t seem like many people in neuroscience or philosophy of mind are thinking about fundamental physics. Do you think that’s been a stumbling block for those trying to understand consciousness?

Synchronicity

Let us look at synchronicity, and do so without using the faith that there is something outside of me (or you, as it is you, reading this.)
 
In order to try to break the faith-based thinking, that there must be something outside of us, I will, from now on, speak with your (dear reader’s) voice: If I don’t make any faith-based assumptions, then the only fact I can be sure about is I, the reader of these lines. The writer might or might not exist as a separate entity. But the only thing I do know is that I perceive these lines and thoughts. I can not discard the possibility that these are my own creations just as images in dreams look external to me but are in fact created by me.
 
Now back to synchronicities – if they are my creations, then I created the two events, that are connected by meaning, myself in this fashion and any surprise about the connection of these events is very illogical – how could I be surprised by something that I designed and created in exactly this fashion and with these characteristics?
The cast of LOST
I contemplated this today when watching an episode of the old TV show ‘Lost.’ This is a show that just lives on synchronicities. One character, Hurley, is fighting to distinguish what is real and what is his imagination. No solution is offered to the viewer and when, in the last scene of the episode, his friend, a psychiatrist who tries to show him what is real, is shown as an inmate of a psychiatric ward, I had to admit I admired the writers for their skill to mess with my mind.
 
Running into  these shows of Lost, and this messing with my mind right after just writing my last post, I first considered this to be a “wow-synchronicity.” But on deeper contemplation there was no synchronicity, just causality – if I just wrote an article questioning the so-called reality and calling it faith-based, then – obviously – I would create incidents occurring thereafter being in alignment with these thoughts.
 
If I create my world all by myself, I can at least construct it in a fashion that entertains me and gives me a few surprises. I have to admit, though, that it is a neat trick to surprise oneself – it requires a good deal of forgetting.
 
Now I just have to figure out how I create coming events in a fashion so that it contains some challenges, but none too difficult ones that would give me suffering.

Exploring the Senses with Your Senses

In one form or another, we all have heard the old philosophical wisdom “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), proposed by René Descartes.
 
Meditating over this statement, we eventually realize that this is pretty much all we actually will ever know with certainty.
 
To illustrate this, let’s look at a very lucid dream we might have experienced once. I, for example, remember one where I had gained many riches in the form of money or gold. Not sure what exactly it was, but I remember that I could really feel this valuable possession in my hand. If you right now take your mouse into your hand and feel its surface, its weight, its temperature – this is very similar to how I experienced these riches.
 
Then, to my great dismay, the thought crept into my mind that I will be waking up. It became more and more certain that these riches would be gone when I woke up, so I fought waking up. If you ever tried to not wake up, you know how hopeless this undertaking is. As I slid more into my waking state, the thought became more real that there was nothing in my hand, yet I could still feel it.
 
I ended up having to consciously open my hand to convince myself that nothing would fall out of it – and, obviously, nothing fell.
 
Looking back at that incident I could not help comparing it with my immediate certainty that I sit here in front of the computer screen, typing along on my keyboard and definitely feel the keys moving under my fingers. I feel my feet touching the carpet, I sense its structure and temperature – all very comparable to my sensations of the riches in my hand while I was dreaming (as I know now.)
 
Why am I so sure that my perceptions of the environment I experience now are different than my perceptions while dreaming? Looking at it philosophically, I have to admit that this certainty is completely unfounded.
 
We perceive our environment through our senses and that dream-experience showed me clearly that I can not trust my senses. There is no proof possible that this table I am sitting at is something that exists outside of me. Any means to prove its existence depends on my senses:
 
  • I can touch it – my sense of touch
  • I can see it – my sense of vision
  • Somebody describes it to me – my sense of hearing

et cetera.

There are perceptions, we would all agree, that are not quite as solid as these perceptions of elements of the physical world. Let’s take a religious perception for example, where somebody is certain that she experienced god. For this person it might be as real as the pain I feel when the hammer hits my finger instead of the nail. But most people will agree that this is a more subjective reality.
 
In principle, though, there is no difference between these perceptions.
 
Therefore you will have to accept as you read this, that the existence of a person who wrote these lines is purely a matter of faith – you believe, that there is, or was, a person who sat at his computer at one time and wrote these words – but you certainly have no proof.

Oh, You Scientists!

This interesting piece from the BBC came across my desktop the other day…

and I feel compelled to comment.

One interesting science-historical fact is from the days before the discovery of atomic forces, before we ‘knew’ that the energy produced by the sun is based on nuclear fusion where two heavy hydrogen atoms are fused into one helium atom. The energy contained in the one helium is less than that of the two hydrogen and the energy difference makes our days bright and life possible on earth.

But it is not, that before the discovery of these processes, scientists just sat there and agreed to wait for the discovery of nuclear fusion – no – they used what they knew then to explain the sun. Lacking nuclear fusion to generate heat they turned to coal, which they knew well to generate heat. So they came up with the idea that the sun is a big ball of pure coal – and it burned. They already had a good idea how big the sun was so, commandeering all the scientific methods at their disposal, they calculated how long we could depend on the sun to give is light and life. I don’t recall what the number was they came up with, but it was considerably lower that the now estimated ten billion. It did  not matter too much, as other branches of science also did  not know too much about the time it took for the current state to develop to what they could observe. And the creation of the world in five days was still a well accepted possibility.

We might smile just how cute – and wrong – science was then. But I can not help imagine scientists in a century or two who unearth this BBC video and have a good laugh.

I wonder where the humility of science has been lost so that it can now tell us with utter conviction “How the Solar System Formed.”

Contemplating Patriotism

(I wrote this a while back, so the political references might not be correct any more.)

political-power

I grew up in Germany after a time in history when the German people had lived through a very bad experience with patriotism.

The love for the Fatherland (not Homeland as it’s called in the US today) had been used to rally most of the German people to commit mass-murder and be mass-murdered. I was born when that experience was still very fresh and that means that I did not soak up any patriotism with my mother’s milk – just the opposite, patriotism was something to be despised. Especially when I was little, this was more a feeling than an intellectual understanding.

I never lost that gut-understanding and coming to America, one of the most patriotic countries on this planet, did not change that a bit. This must be the reason that at this time of the year, with the independence day looming, my toenails start to curl up a bit in anticipation of all the flag waving and land-of-the-free singing.

Though it appears that I am not alone with this uneasy feeling when confronted with the love for the fatherland.

Leo Tolstoy defines patriotism as the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers.

That actually, I have to admit, is a bit stronger than just the feeling of toenails curling up.

Gustave Herve, another anti-patriot, calls patriotism a superstition – one far more injurious, brutal, and inhumane than religion.

So, what is the problem here? A bigger part of the world’s population is patriotic, and what is wrong with loving one’s country? Don’t we all have fond memories of the house we grew up in, the neighborhood, the city? And should that not extend to the country? But why stop at the country border, should we not expand that out to the whole world, or, in a short time, after somebody finally invents the warp drive, the whole galaxy, the universe?

Maybe we will have to look a bit closer what this ‘country’ that many are so patriotic about, really is.

What happens at the border between two different countries?

One of the most guarded borders I know of is the one that, for so many years, existed between East and West Germany. I have crossed it several times and it was indeed the feeling of entering a different world. But the difference was not the language – German of one kind or the other on both sided. The land itself? No, because now, that this border is gone, you can cross that line without even noticing it any more. And it’s not culture either because these two Germanies  had been one culture before they became two countries.

The only thing I can see, that was really different, was the group of rulers. On the Western side it was Konrad Adenauer and on the Eastern side it was Walter Ulbricht, each with his gang.

It now appears to me that the only difference between somebody named Franz in East Germany and somebody named Hans in West Germany was the ruler they considered themselves to be a subject of.

Very similar to Jack in Oklahoma who claims to be a subject of Mr. Obama and Jim in Calgary who thinks he has to answer to M. Harper.

The display of patriotism here in the US of A, once the 4th of July roles in, if we really go down to the very basics, just means the pride to which dude that patriot is willing to give his money, life and children.

Let us look briefly at the ‘land of the free.’ That turns out to be a dud very quickly. If it were the land of the free, and I had decided that it is good and fair to give half of my money to somebody to do with, whatever he pleases, and on top of that allow this person to take my children and train them into potential soldier for his cause, then I should be able to choose who that person would be, right? Could you just send your 50% taxes over to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (that’s the dude over in Iran, in case you don’t have the current political scene at your direct disposal)? Or, to be a little bit less radical, send if over to Steven Harper?

See, the idea of the ‘land of the free’ is right out the window – we are subjects! – Just so well trained and indoctrinated that the very idea of being able to select the ruler to receive one’s contribution appears idiotic.

Now the question comes to bear if there is anything we can do to change this situation. First we have to investigate the idea of ‘being proud of’ something.

Can I really be proud of an accomplishment that is not mine? I had considered this question before when sitting in traffic. Unfailingly, once in a while you wait behind a ‘Proud Parent of Something or Another.’ Honor student, cheer-leader, etc. I had wondered on occasion what reason these parents have to be proud. I can understand that they are happy – but proud? Why? It’s something their children have accomplished. Then again, maybe not, perhaps there was a father sitting in the car in front of me who had always, dutifully, done the homework for his son. But I actually don’t think that was the case, I don’t believe they would have advertised that on the back of their car. Same for being a proud American – proud of what accomplishment? Making lots of money so that it can be collected by the tax man to build bombs with, which are then thrown on people the proud American has never met and who he has no quarrel with?

Would that really be something to be proud of – if it was actually true?

Can you be proud of making somebody so jealous, I mean so badly jealous, that he starts to fly airplanes into some bankers buildings? Wouldn’t it be something to be much prouder of, that, after you really created so much wealth, you would reach out and help those in need to get to where you are, as well? Wouldn’t that be something to be proud of, to do deeds that other will actually love you for?

Acting like that would require clear and logical thinking, something that cannot be expected in the presence of emotionally charged propaganda. One of the most emotionally charged areas in our lives are our children – we do anything to protect them and give them a better life.

Thus the easiest way to get somebody blindly lined up behind a cause is the statement "it’s for the children!" And how do we protect our children best? Sending them to war to fight for freedom – that is the true spirit of patriotism.

Yes, I am well aware that this does not make any sense. How about you?

Now we might make the mistake to blame those people who spread this propaganda and who manipulate in order to gain power. That would be the wrong target for our indignation. The correct target is the one looking back at you from the mirror when you brush your teeth.

There are always people around that want to cheat, who want to get something without actually creating a value that can be traded. They are easy to handle. You might fall for their schemes once or twice, but then you understand and you just don’t deal with them. If they don’t find new victims they will just wither away and the gene pool gets a little bit better. The problem is our conviction that there is any legitimacy to their action, even if their random rules are called ‘law’.

That these ‘laws’ are utterly random, without any basis in logic, becomes clear when you ask yourself why it is OK to smoke one kind of leaves, while you go to jail if you smoke another kind. I know, it is all there to ‘protect our children.’ But we already know where that comes from.

Breaking any of these so-called laws will expose you to a possible punishment, and following those laws to avoid the penalty makes sense.

But there is a different, much more sinister, element to our obedience to the ‘law’ beside the avoidance of punishment.

Imagine you are driving out in the countryside at three in the morning. Full moon, you can see far and wide and there really is not a soul around. Suddenly, totally out of place, there is a traffic light, and, as most, if not all, traffic lights do, it shows you a red light for you to stop.

Now, imagine further that you stop at that light and it is one of those lights that never seem to turn green. Finally, as there really is nobody within miles, neither a civilian, nor a cop, you decide to go and break the ‘law.’

How do you feel about that?

If you don’t have the slightest murmur of guilt, then there is hope for you. But, chances are, you feel that you have done something bad because you broke the ‘law.’ What you feel there is the conditioning of submitting to authorities. The mysterious quality that transforms mere mortals to god-like creatures.

I know, I exaggerate a bit here, but I want to make the point, that many of us carry the grain of belief, even faith, in authority itself. The conviction that something like authority does exist, that there is something that makes it OK for one person to tell another what to do.

But this belief is total and utter superstition.

Let us, for the moment, take that good old document, this country was based upon, even though we are not using it any more. One of the premises of that parchment is that ‘all men are created equal.’

Unlike many other cultures that evolved from monarchies, this country was built on the foundation that there are no different classes that would privilege some of the members. That was the theory, but unfortunately reality sometimes does not ‘get’ it. There were just too many immigrants that had such a deeply ingrained belief that there are people better than them, that this parchment did nothing in preventing those people to create their superiors again.

They were totally free not to do this, but they did it anyways. Fighting an authority is not the same as a complete conviction that it does not exist. The opposite actually – you can only fight something that you believe exist.

Once we succeed in a basic change of mind about this, there will be no need any more to fight city hall – city hall will just wither away. In the process there will be some collateral damage, but this will be so minor in comparison to the continued permission for city hall to do with us whatever it wants.

So, your homework for this glorious Forth-of-July weekend is to understand – and I mean a gut-understanding – that authority itself as a phenomenon, does not exist. Except in our mind!

If you give somebody the permission to tell you what you have to do and think, he will certainly take that offer. Many might not, but there are plenty of the politician/lawyer type of people around that will take your offer with a grateful nod of their head and then get out the whip and whip you into shape.

Just be aware that you can withdraw that permission at any time. It will be a bit harder than had you never given it in the first place, but it is definitely possible.