gretandlin's blog

Rights and Freedoms

We all like to be able to do all sorts of things, some of which are not always permitted. For many things, we need, and expect, to have rights and freedoms. According to the various national anthems, Australians are "one and free" and the USA is "the land of the free and the home of the brave". According to the anthem Rule Britannia, which is not heard often in recent years, "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves". Political and social commentators have promoted a concept referred to as "the open society", which is characterised by humanitarianism, equality, and political freedom. Many people have spoken about "inalienable rights", that is, rights that can never be denied. Others speak of "God-given" rights. There is a European Convention on Human Rights, and much legislation in most countries explicitly or implicitly includes rights.

Many years ago, the United Nations issued a Universal Declaration of a bill of rights. But it would be virtually impossible to get world-wide agreement on a set of rights. Several countries disagree with some of the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration. Most rejections relate to religion.

Some Concepts of Progress

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of progress for many years, and the topic is still controversial.

There are lists of the benefits from the progress we have made over the past few centuries, and there is a lot of dissent about them.

The idea of progress might seem to be straightforward, but it has its subtleties and its contradictions.

What is Progress?

Mysteries of Fundamental Physics

While the science of physics is able to explain an enormous amount of things about the world, there are still enough mysteries to keep physicists busy for a long, long time. I will talk about mysteries relating to fundamental physics. Fundamental physics explains the rest of physics and provides the basis of chemistry.

Fundamental physics is just one small part of science, but discovering solutions to its mysteries can reveal new kinds of scientific knowledge.

Creationists say that the existence of scientific mysteries demonstrates that all science is unsound. This is their argument against the theory of evolution.

Some aspects of science may be hard to understand or believe. But, at a time when there are so many global problems that cannot be addressed without scientific guidance, the many groundless alternative beliefs and fake news are a threat to humanity.
It would help humanity if more people had some idea about scientific mysteries and the large body of science that surrounds them.

Making Machines Conscious

Some people expect that we will soon be able to make computers that will be conscious.

Their argument is that since brains are intelligent physical structures that can make us consciousness, it should also be possible for other intelligent physical structures, such as computers, to be made conscious.
The concept of manufacturing machines that are conscious raises a few issues.

Being Dead and Being Alive

"Being Dead" could seem like a gruesome topic, but there are lots of human activities relating to people who are dead. There is the annual celebration of ANZAC day, which is an established part of Australian life. For tens of thousands of years there have been traditional procedures relating to dead people.

Many people don't like talking about or hearing about dying or becoming dead. I wonder whether anyone who usually comes to the Philosophy Forum was put off by this topic.

There are euphemisms about being dead. The "dear departed" have "passed away" or "gone to their Maker" or are "no longer with us". There are also less delicate expressions whereby the person "bit the dust", has "carked it" or "kicked the bucket".

Most of us have justifiable concerns about death – what our own death might be like, and that of our family and friends. Most people take some kind of care to avoid doing anything that could have some risk of death. Some people carelessly or knowingly do things that risk premature death, such as smoking, or texting while driving a motor vehicle. Some people, sometimes called "daredevils", get a thrill from doing things that have a risk of death. They enjoy "cheating death". These various kinds of action display something of what people think about being dead, and about being alive.

There are many things that concern us about being alive, such as sickness and comfort and money and social status and boredom. Sometimes we look forward to being dead as a welcome relief from the pain and suffering of being alive.

There is also a fascination with death. Reports of death are eagerly discussed, irrespective of whether the dead are known or unknown. Murder mysteries are the topic of many novels, television series and films.

Curiosity, Innovation, Society - and Electrical Telecommunication

Human curiosity, and innovation, and society, or, if you like, science, and technology, and culture, each has its own independent ethos. But they continually affect each other. This interaction can be seen in the emergence and development of many kinds of technologies, each of which has followed its own particular course and has had its own particular outcomes.

I will now discuss one particular case, electrical telecommunication, which transformed societies, by delivering information more quickly and more copiously.

Before the existence of electrical telecommunication, information was sent by a range of technologies, such as shouting or other sounds, beacons, and the transport of written information by human runners, carrier pigeons, etc.

Electrical telecommunication could not even have been thought about, until there was an awareness of the concept of electricity. It took a lot of human curiosity and innovation to bring this into being, and a lot more to make it really effective.

We now think of electricity being either static, that is, not moving, or current, which is continuously moving.

Static electricity is the condition when something has an electric charge, that is, when it contains either an excess of electrons or a shortage of electrons. This imbalance creates a force, measured in volts, that tries to restore the balance.

Static electricity had been observed for thousands of years, in the form of lightning, and fish that could give electric shocks when touched, and amber (the same amber sometimes used in jewellery) which, when rubbed by some other materials would attract small objects, similar to the attraction of a magnet. These occurrences were not thought to be connected in any way.

The Concept of Beauty


As a concept, beauty has been extolled, revered, dismissed and argued about throughout history. It has been regarded as some fundamental property with connotations of perfection, or equated with truth. It has been declared, in an adage, to be merely “skin deep” and to be “in the eye of the beholder”. Today’s discussion is an attempt to develop a concept of beauty that will be coherent and defensible. I will start with definitions, and then discuss beauty from a range of viewpoints.

A Tentative Definition

Dictionaries refer to beauty as giving aesthetic pleasure or pleasure of the senses. But since aesthetic pleasure is defined as pleasure derived from the appreciation of beauty, this doesn’t help. “Pleasure of the senses” might imply something like the pleasure of being stroked or massaged, but this seems inadequate as an example of beauty. Dictionaries also refer to beauty as being perfection of form. But what are the criteria for perfect on? Something like a balanced combination of dissimilar elements, perhaps? But many things we regard as beautiful are neither perfect nor complex. The French novelist Stendhal described beauty as “the promise of happiness”, commenting that “there are as many styles of beauty as there are types of happiness”. But beauty seems to be a presence not just a promise, and happiness is not entirely the same as pleasure.

Here are two tentative definitions that I have concocted:

Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone for reasons other than mental stimulation, personal gain or the satisfaction of innate drives. The pleasure may be aroused by a thing or an artistic representation or an action or an idea.
Beauty is the quality by which something gives pleasure to someone directly through the intellect and independent of any ulterior considerations.

What is Life? What is A Life?

Life is the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and other inanimate matter. But this simple description omits to say how to make the distinction. Some life forms seem inanimate at first sight, for example spores or slime. And continued argument about how to decide exactly when human death occurs, with such concepts as brain death replacing earlier concepts such as cessation of heartbeat or breathing, shows that the criteria for being alive are uncertain.

A common biological definition is that living organisms possess four properties:
* metabolism – using material and energy within the body to support continued functioning;
* reproduction – producing, from within the bodies of living parents, new separate organisms that become similar to their parents;
* growth – increasing in size from infant to adult;
* response or adaptation to the environment – taking action needed for metabolism, growth, reproduction and safety.

The Nature and Existence of Time

The present time “does not exist.”
It isn’t even fleeting.
The past is gone and often missed,
And just keeps on retreating.
They say tomorrow never comes –
You can’t give it your greeting.

The message of this simple rhyme
Seems very, very strange,
For if there’s no such thing as time,
Then what could ever change?
(GL 2013)

We all are aware of something called time, but it is hard to define what it is. It seems to have something to do with change, or with sequences of events, but we are still aware of it when nothing seems to be happening. And we have concepts of now, and before and after, which seem to be essential aspects of time.

But what is time? Is there such a thing as the present time? Does time exist? What do philosophers and scientists think about it?

There are more philosophical opinions on this topic than there are on most other parts of the physical sciences. And scientists also disagree about some aspects of time. So this essay will be just a simple overview. And there is much more to say about time than is covered here.

Data, Information, Meaning, Intelligence and Consciousness

We feel that our consciousness is the very essence of our existence. The quality of life of each of us is just a matter of the particular content of that consciousness.

But what is consciousness, what is its content, and how did its content arise? The first of these questions, what is consciousness, seems to be inscrutable. Some of the content seems to be hard to describe and some straightforward. And there is a lot of complex argument about all of this.
I will try to untangle the matter by assuming that there are basic elements called data, and that the content of consciousness can, after a series of steps, be ultimately described in terms of data. You might say that the concept of data is just part of the content of our consciousness, so this might be a circular argument. I will come back to that later.

Some of what I say will sound like common knowledge. And some of what I say may challenge your concepts or definitions relating to data, information, meaning, intelligence and consciousness.


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