Past and Future

We like to see ourselves as marching off into the future, heroic in our stance, “going were no one has gone before.”  But the fact is that we go into the future backwards, with at best a dirty, cracked hand mirror to guide us.  We do not directly look into the future, we can only look into the past and get a dirty, clouded reflection of the future.  We know where we have been, but we have an imperfect grasp of where we are going.  We can plan or predict based on the past performance.  That is our rear view mirror.  But we don’t know what is relevant to the future in the present or the past, and our awareness of life, the world and things in general is usually sorely lacking.

Usually, when you look at something chronologically, you look at in the past, present, and then future.  But, the way we really look at things is first in the present with a dim awareness of where we “are,” then the past which is where we have been, and only then into the future, which is where we are going, and which is seen but dimly through the filter of the past.

This cloudy mirror works through reason and rationality, there may be other levels of interaction with the world, such as instinct, intuition, artistry, etc.  With the mirror, we are re-acting to the world, in an imperfect way.  With instinct etc, we may have something more immediate, and at times glimpses of something divine, where true immediacy occurs, the event and the “reaction” are simultaneous.  My point here is, is that this cloudy, dirty mirror is not the only way we participate in the world.  It is though, the way that is important for calculating and guesstimating the future.

Plato believed that a navigator has a particular kind of knowledge, he could get you across a river, what he could not tell you is whether it was a good idea for you to go across the river, or stay on this side. The navigator’s knowledge does not extend that far.  A carpenter uses artistry (techne) to build a house, what he cannot tell you knowledgeably is whether or not buying a house is a good idea.  The government can give us all kinds of incentives for house ownership, but the fact is that we still cannot know it as a good idea.  For some people it worked out, for others it did not, but even for the people for whom it worked out, what they had when they made that decision was not knowledge, but opinion which turned out to be true.  They got it right, but they could not have known all the variables that went into the equation of whether or not it was a good idea. 

It should be understood that for Plato there is false opinion, true opinion and then knowledge.  In Plato, the bar for (true) knowledge as opposed to right opinion is quite high.  Knowledge is something that is rock solid, that will not let you down.  The impressions we get from the dirty, shaking hand mirror giving us the image of the future are not deserving of the certainty that Plato advocates with his term “knowledge.”

In my own rearview mirror, I don’t know if cold fusion will be a good thing.  I also don’t know if it will be a bad thing.  However, while I don’t know whether cold fusion will be good or bad,I do believe that it will happen, it will be a force in our future.  How close that future is, or how far away, I am not sure but it does sound like we are coming to a historical watershed.  It sounds like technologically cold fusion is just around the corner, but societally and culturally there are still obstacles which are obscure but nonetheless there.  

Caution, objects in the mirror may be closer than they seem (or they may farther away).  We have a problem with getting a perspective on cold fusion.  Ultimately, we cannot estimate how big its effect will become.  And when it gets that big, we will have difficulties in imagining how things were ever otherwise. 

We may wish and think of only good things for cold fusion, but the law of unintended consequences will probably in some fashion or another nip us on the backside as it does on all new technologies.  We should expect the unexpected, and not cry when the check comes due.  We will learn how to live with the new costs, as we do with the new benefits.  We have done it before, we have always done it with the introductions of new technologies, and we can do it again.  There are changes that happen in human life, but there are also constants like how we adapt to change, and that is good too.

Regarding belief

Since there is a new movie coming out soon on the cold fusion scene called ‘the Believers,’ I thought I would talk a little about belief.  This exposition does not necessarily have much to do with the movie, since I have neither seen nor heard anything about it.  It does, however, have something to do with how one might look at the movie, giving tools for how one might look at belief.

I see there as being two different ways of looking at belief. “Belief that,” and “belief in“. These two different ways are not actually quite separate from each other, but we will start off with this distinction.

“Belief that” is propositional knowledge.  One has (1) a believer, (2) a belief stated in the form of a proposition, and implied is (3) a warrant (or reason) for that belief. It is necessary that the belief is in the form of a proposition so that it might be expressed in the form of a claim or statement of fact.  That proposition is either true or false, and hence the belief in its content is true or false.  If that belief is false then the reason behind it must not be valid or, in other words, applicable.  The belief is true in this limited sense of being a true proposition if it is an adequate idea, in other words, an idea that is “equal to” the thing that it is meant to match.

For example, I believe that 2+2=4, I have a reason for believing this because of the rules of mathematics.  Any ordinary elementary school student could tell us that 2+2=4.  It seems like a “no brainer.”

However, I could be wrong and 2+2 could equal 11, if we are dealing with a base 3 number system.  Implicit in my initial judgement is the fact that we usually only deal with base 10 arithmetic.  It is not wrong that 2+2=11 and it is not wrong that in a base 10 system, 2+2=4, it is just that model of a base 10 system which is implicit in our everyday calculations is not valid or applicable for the base 3 calculation of 2+2=11.  Normally, however, most of our reasons for believing a propositional belief go unexplored, and normally that matches up quite well to the way the world works.  If it looks like a duck, chances are, it is a duck.

“Belief in” is not about the truth or falsity of a propositional claim.  The biggie of this kind of belief is the belief in God.  Belief in God is not a propositional belief that God exists.  One believes in God not because of the sum of the evidence, but because one reads the evidence in a certain particular way, from a certain perspective.  It is a way of structuring everything else, or rather, everything else in a certain ‘realm.’  That particular perspective reinforces itself, whether it is belief in religion or in science, or belief in little Joey.  A lot of “belief in” claims are vaguely defined and for good reason too.  ‘So you believe in science?’  Which type of science?  The basis for looking at the world from a perspective of Physics is quite different than the basis for looking at the world from a perspective of Chemistry or Biology.  How much or how little does your belief in science rely on mathematics?  The answer that one ‘believes in’ God or science, or little Joey is not the end of the questions, but rather often the beginning.

Philip K. Dick said that, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  I am not a scientist, but to me there is enough evidence and testimony from various scientists to convince me that there is something persistent about cold fusion, something that “doesn’t go away” regardless of sceptics.  This not due to societal delusion, the inquiry into cold fusion has been a sincere interest of too many scientists from different parts of the world, for too long of a time.  It is not that there is cold fusion because people believe, but rather that we believe (or disbelief, it matters not the phenomenon) because there is a nascent phenomenon that, in our search to understand it, we call cold fusion.

I have suggested earlier that maybe cold fusion is a gift and maybe it is so.  Maybe there is no “downside” to cold fusion once it is developed.  A golden age is an attractive option, but I am more of the opinion that regardless of how good of a thing cold fusion will be, it cannot cure human nature.  We cannot see the problems, but that doesn’t mean that they are not there (careful: double negative).  Human nature will be that we will push things as far as they can go, and then a little further until they break.  No matter how great cold fusion will be, I have quite a bit of confidence that mankind will find a way to muck it all up.  That is not a reason to reject cold fusion (or anything else for that matter), mankind has that capacity with everything else as well.

btw ‘the gift’ is a topic of postmodernists like Derrida and Marion.

Related Posts

cold fusion as a gift by John Francisco April 14, 2011

Persecution of (Early) Philosophers
by John Francisco March 27, 2011

A few Comments on Language and Early Inquiries into Matter

Cold fusion deals with elements, isotopes and energy.  In other words, it deals with matter and energy, which after all is also a form of matter by E=MC^2.  Before thinking of the matter of things, we humans thought just about things.  Looking at things, particularly how they are used differently or have different cultural meanings, it is not clear that there is a commonality between, say a rock, a knife, a banner, a pen and a table.

Ancient Greek philosophy allowed that to change and started us talking abstractly about the commonality of all things, which is what we would call matter.  That has gone so far that what was once considered certain in antiquity (the human realm) and what was once uncertain (nature), has switched places.  People find solace from the certainty of modern science, whereas particularly the spiritual realm (but also ethics and politics), is increasingly thought by many today as being without firm foundations.  The demise of the spirit has been much exaggerated, but that is a different story.

One thing that philosophy and the Greeks had going for them is that Ancient Greek is an Indo-European language.  Indo-European languages can treat existence as a thing (being), and therefore metaphysics comes naturally to them.  Metaphysics, far from being a new age phenomenon, is what allows one to make generalized claims about existence.

Another thing about the ancient Greek language and how it shaped thinking, Greek has a definite article but no indefinite article.  In English, the definite article is “the,” while the indefinite article is “a” or “an.”  Therefore, in ancient Greek one does not talk about “a rock,” but merely about “rock.”  This means that linguistically it was a natural transition for Greeks to talk about [a particular] rock, to talking about [the general nature of] rock.  It is not just the brilliance of early philosophers that lead them to start the investigation of what eventually became labeled as matter; the actual structure of the Greek language shaped their discourse.

The examples above sound progressive because they seem to lead to modern science and to us.  We like to think that we are the logical conclusion of what has happened in the past.  This last example (below) seems backward to us, but I include it because it relates to philosophy and by its strangeness, it shows us how little we understand.  Yes, when explained we can see the rationale behind it, but we probably never would have guessed it without being told.  It is foreign to how we think of mathematics.

Here is one more example concerning the Greek language and how the Greeks thought.  The Pythagoreans considered three to be the first number.  One is for the unity of the universe; two is for duality of a pair.  For a pair of things, one really does not need to count to acknowledge units in the pair.  Three, however, is where we begin to count and therefore, for the Pythagoreans, is the first number.

No, to be honest, it does not quite make sense to me either.  But such thinking has its roots in Greek language.  In English we have singular and plural, duck and ducks, goose and geese.  In Greek, however, there is singular, there is dual for pairs of things, and there is plural.  A person does not get to counting until they get into the plural.  Perhaps, for ancient Greeks, counting was what made a number a number.  We should remember that they did not have negative numbers nor zero.  For the Pythagoreans, one and two are not properly numbers, but are the “things” from which numbers are made.

It may have been necessary for the development of theories of matter that the ancient Greek language have certain characteristics, but the presence of such characteristics is not sufficient to explain the origin and direction of Greek philosophy.  Language shapes our thinking, but our thinking also shapes our language.  There is nothing inevitable about how things turn out.  However, understanding a little about how languages work (or don’t work), helps us in imagining a different world than how things seem superficially.  Imagining a different world helps us to change what needs to be changed, and to preserve what is already good.

Kuhn, Helium “molecule”

I think that people do not understand Science, I know that I don’t and so I have been trying to rectify that matter by reading, amongst other things, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Kuhn and his paradigms may not be hip anymore, but that is unfortunate for the hipsters, for he still deserves the attention of anyone wondering how science works, or in some cases, how it doesn’t work.

Kuhn gives an example of an investigator asking a physicist and a chemist whether helium was a molecule.  Both answer without hesitation, but with different answers.  The chemist says that it is a molecule “because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases.”  But, the physicist said that a helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum.”  Kuhn continues, saying:

 “Presumably both men were talking of the same particle, but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice.  Their experience in problem-solving told them what a molecule must be.  Undoubtedly their experiences had had much in common, but they did not, in this case, tell the specialists the same thing.” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., pp. 50-51; original investigator James K. Senior)  

So here we have, in appearances, the violation of the law of non-contradiction, that ‘X is both Y and not Y’ at the same time.  Of course, it only presents a problem if we do not recognize that each of these scientists has a specialization, and that their claims are due to their approach to the topic which stems from that same specialization.  There is no conflict because it is understood that they are approaching it from different ways of looking at the problem.  In their own realm of expertise, Helium is or is not a molecule.  Even though they both probably believe themselves ultimately right on the issue (because their way of looking at the phenomenon is for each of them more productive), there is no conflict because they would recognize that the other had also given a reasonable answer based on scientific theory. 

What is the comparison to cold fusion?  Well, there are two sets of scientists that deal with cold fusion.  There are those who are not specialists in the field of cold fusion because they deny that there is anything to specialize there.  In a field (physics) where all expertise is in the form of specialization, they are saying; ”trust me, I am a scientist.  I know about all things scientific.  I know what I am doing.”  Or what is just about as bad, “I am an expert in hot fusion and therefore an expert in cold fusion as well, which incidentally, does not exist.”  I mean, I am joking, but the same time there is something chilling;) about people who investigate something they believe does not exist.

And, there are those who specialize in cold fusion.  In a way I admire their bravery.  They do not seem to have a comprehensive theory of what is happening when the phenomenon commonly known as cold fusion is going on.  They have no laws to which they can appeal when conversing with other physicists, because they are on the cutting edge.  I understand that until recently, they could not even create the phenomenon at will.  They are just starting out in their specialization.  They are at the beginning of the exploration of the field of low energy physics.  They do, however, have a valid, if nascent area of specialization, even if it is unrecognized the naysayers. It would be nice if we let them play with their puzzles (as, indeed, all scientists do, nothing wrong with that) free from outside interference.  

In fact, it is not despite but rather because they admit that not everything is understood or under control, that I trust in the honesty of their reports and believe they should be supported in their endeavors.  From what understand, there is something going on there with the Deuterium/Palladium and the Hydrogen/Nickel set-ups and I hope that they can get to the point (sooner rather than later) where they can tell us what exactly is happening.  It’s great that cold fusion can produce energy, but I am just damn curious about what is going on at the subatomic level.

cold fusion as a gift

Ironically, I suspect that some people reject cold fusion because it does not seem to have a down side.  Fossil fuels have pollution problems, including greenhouse gases.  Nuclear power (fission) has the nightmare chance of a nuclear accident and the looming problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste.  Hydroelectric dams block salmon runs and affect river ecosystems.  Wind turbines kill off migrating birds and bats.  Everything seems to have an ecological cost, a down side, except cold fusion which promises cheap, clean energy.  I suspect that some people reject the possibility of cold fusion, not because technical difficulties nor because of the problems it presents, but because it does not seem to present any problems at all.

Cold fusion seems too good to be true.  Please note that I am not saying that cold fusion is too good to be true, I am just saying that people are emotionally wired to believe that our lives have a kind of balance or symmetry to them.  Something good is followed by something bad, every benefit has a cost.  This is the idea of fairness or justice and as a general view of the world, it serves humanity well.  

In this instance though, our imagination because of adherence to this idea is failing to see what cold fusion might become.  That does not present us with a failure of the idea of cold fusion; that shows us a failure of imagination and of the idea of fairness.  The idea of cold fusion does not seem to have that balance or zero sum game restricting it.  Of course, it probably does, but to dig it out requires much more imagination than we have now. Cold fusion seems to be only positive in its implications, and therefore, less real.  Because of that I suspect that people will sometimes dismiss cold fusion, not on scientific grounds, but because their emotional wiring and their lack of imagination makes it sound too good to be true.

This emotional wiring says, for example, that, “everyone will get their just desserts,” and because we know that evil bastards sometimes live long lives and die a peaceful death, we add, “in the next life if not in this one.”  It tells us, “do good things, good things happen, do bad things, bad things happen” as Earl says, following his karma.  We teach our kids that hard work is rewarded, that taking the easy way out will cost more in the end.  We teach that everything has a cost, and that you can’t get something for nothing.  These are good lessons to learn in that they keep us to consider others as well as ourselves, they moderate our behavior. 

These lessons, however, channel the imagination, restricting it to maintain the system already in place, not creating new options or a new system.  They limit progress to that within the current closed system, not allowing for new revolutions.  They lead to a belief that if I cannot “see” it, then there must be nothing there.  These various sayings express a great emotional truth that keeps society chugging along, but that emotional truth is not always factually correct.  Sometimes we need to get out of that pattern of business as usual; sometimes we need to change direction.  Cold fusion does not present an opportunity of business as usual, but is a game changer in so many different ways.  We cannot really imagine a world with cold fusion; it is too big for us, too many ramifications.  We are just going to have to make this world so that we can see it for ourselves.

While we cannot really imagine a world with cold fusion, we do know that we need a game changer, and as much as we like believing in fairness, we do not want what we deserve.  “Fairness” is something that really we only want for the other guy; mercy is what we prefer for ourselves.  There would be a kind of poetic justice if we were trapped in a world of our own creation; a world of declining resources, increasing populations, desertification and increasingly extreme weather.  It takes no imagination to get what we deserve; it just takes business as usual. 

But maybe, with a little boldness we can get another world, a world that reflects mercy for us in addition to justice.  In this world of mercy, where we do not get what deserve, but also get a hand helping us up with what we need, maybe we get to have cold fusion.  But maybe cold fusion is a gift.  Not everything has to be a trade-off between goods and evils as fairness and balance suggest.  Instead of believing that cold fusion is too good to be true, perhaps we can imagine cold fusion as something special, which it is, for it is a gift that by nature is appropriate and needed for where we are today.  We shouldn’t worry too much about why it happens, just how it happens  Our attitude is that we should be thankful for it and look for the opportunity to put it to good use.

Persecution of (Early) Philosophers

If you have taken a philosophy course, you probably have heard the story of Socrates, who as an old man was convinced of impiety and corrupting the youth in Athens in 399 BC, and was sentenced to drink the poison hemlock.  Instead of fleeing Athens to points unknown, Socrates abided by the decision of his homeland and refused attempts to smuggle him out of the country. He argued that as a loyal citizen of Athens, he should abide by her judgment, just as he had obeyed her laws all his life. By doing so, he made himself into a martyr and eventually, the same courts that had persecuted him; persecuted his accusers.

Socrates, armed with his quest to find someone wiser than himself, may have been the gadfly, irritating his fellow citizens and sometimes making them look like fools. However, he also comes across in Plato as the only truly loyal son of Athens, who with the irritation he caused woke up his fellow citizens, allowed them to see the errors in their thinking and correct those errors if they so desired. Socrates, being portrayed as the loyal son of Athens on the one hand, and the quintessential philosopher on the other, is the patron “saint” of philosophy, for he secured the position of philosophy in Athens and thus ultimately, in the world.

But why did philosophy need to be saved? Truth is; that since its beginning, philosophy was not too popular. Think of it, you are the citizen of an average Greek city, happy with the way things are done, which is the same way they have been done for the past thousand years, and here comes some new upstart, criticizing Tradition and Custom, advocating phusis or Nature, talking about the arche (overarching principle) of things. You may not be the high man on the totem pole, but you understand your place in the cosmos and are anxious about whether everything that makes sense is being overturned. You do not understand much of what this new-fangled philosopher is saying, but you do understand that he is not talking about the traditional gods or rather, the gods as they are traditionally understood. The whole entire city; with its political and cultural system are based on that traditional understanding. “Impiety” is a crime against the city.

So while you do not know exactly what the philosopher is saying, you do know that it is bad news and should be nipped off at the bud. Instead of putting up with the impiety and having the whole political and cultural system undermined, it easier to kill or exile or just chase offending fools out of town. That is what they often did, in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world. Socrates’ treatment, far from being an exception to the normal treatment of philosophers, is merely the most prominent example of what often happened, the persecution of the philosopher.

On the death of Alexander, Aristotle fled Athens, “lest Athens sin against philosophy twice.” Of course, in saying “twice,” Aristotle was not counting the persecutions by Athens of Anaxagoras, Damon, Protagoras and Diagoras. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was a friend of the Athenian leader Pericles, and was imprisoned and later, expelled from Athens. Damon the sophist, a friend and associate of Pericles and Socrates, was ostracized. Protagoras of Abdera, the sophist, was expelled from Athens and his books were burned in the agora. Diagoras, an atheist, was condemned to death and fled Athens. A talent of silver (26 kg) was offered as a reward to whoever killed him.

Xenophanes of Colophon was exiled. Zeno of Elea died defying a tyrant. Pythagoras, in some accounts, was killed by a mob. He also had left his home city of Samos, moved to Kroton and then moved again to Metapontum. We do not know how urgent these moves were, but they probably were not entirely voluntary. His followers, the Pythagoreans, were persecuted in Sicily, and there were two general uprisings against the Pythagoreans in Magna Graecia. In fact, what happened to Socrates was very much like what had happened to Pythagoreans or Sophists elsewhere before.

There was a general pattern, a philosopher would make himself unwelcome in a town and would either be chased out or thrown out. In many ways, it was easier for the philosopher to leave and perhaps start up somewhere else, than it would be for him to stay and fight the charges. The problem though is that while running, for example, a Pythagorean cell out of town, took care of that particular cell, it did not solve the issue of the underlying conflict between tradition on the one hand, and philosophers and sophists on the other. This kind of scene was repeated over and over again, throughout Greece until the trial of Socrates basically embarrassed people for the conviction of an old man who always had been loyal to his city, even though that loyalty was expressed in rather idiosyncratic ways.

In philosophy’s early days (c. 585-399), philosophers were often persecuted, but also philosophers persecuted other philosophers. Xenophanes and Heraclitus were highly critical of Pythagoras and his followers, while the Pythagoreans expelled and persecuted renegade members such as Hippasus. Plato was told that he should not bother burning Democritus’ books because there were too many to get them all. Plato also avoids any allusions to Democritus and the atomists in his dialogues. While Plato defines and co-opts other philosophers and sophists who preceded him, he wants to annihilate the memory of Democritus. He is not much better for Parmenides of Elea. A character in Plato’s Sophist (241d-242a), the Eleatic Stranger, talks about (theoretically) having to murder his father, Parmenides, in order to make way for a new critique. To the Greeks, patricide was the worst crime.

Of course, for “golden” Plato, all his sins are still nullified today by the quality and character of his writing. But, it is not only a matter of us overlooking the crimes of a man who through his art delights us. Plato’s “crimes” were done in wartime when philosophy was besieged, and in the end Plato’s work legitimatizes philosophy, establishes it and saves it from persecution. Plato’s work saves philosophy, but it also transforms it and in the process it loses something. Philosophy after Plato is not the same kind of beast that it was before Plato came along. Just in the last 150 years have we really started to realize that, showing how complete Plato’s vision is for us, even today.

But what does this have to do with cold fusion? Maybe just this: No matter how frustrating it is, trying to get cold fusion taken seriously as far as funding and publicity is concerned, it could be worse and it has been worse and also, we have gotten through that. The lesson of the persecution of philosophers in ancient Archaic and Classical Greece is that a thing which is an anathema one moment can become accepted and embraced the next. In fact, not only can that thing become embraced, the very existence that there ever was a conflict can become glossed over. Because of that habit of humanity to gloss over past events, we have been here much more often than one might guess. Because of this habit, one should not confuse the “map” (or formal history) of a thing, with the “territory” of the actual phenomena. By “territory,” here I mean cold fusion as a phenomena which has social and eventually, historical significances in addition to its scientific/technological significances.

That is not to say that scientifically cold fusion is “right,” and that it needs to be (socially) accepted as such. That is an issue ultimately for physicists and engineers to settle, as physicists and engineers, not as gatekeepers who protect the scientific status quo because they are strongly invested in it. At the same time, anyone who is curious about cold fusion should use their God given intelligence, and judge the matter for themselves of whether there is potential there and whether it is worth us as a society pursuing. If they decide there is, then welcome. If not, then I thank them for looking and I will trust that they have considered it in good faith. To me there is enough there to amaze about what has been found so far, and to wonder about what more might be possible.

This article benefits from Peter J Ahrensdorf mentioning of persecuted philosophers in his The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy, (State U. of NY Press, Albany). His book is a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo in the light of the persecution.