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Posted by Richard D. Stafford, Ph.D. on November 27, 2002 19:49:00 UTC

Hi Mike,

I am very happy to see that you did not take my post as an insult. It was meant only as an expression of my opinion; I have been around for a long time and have never met anyone who took thinking things out very seriously (at least from my perspective). You should not feel singled out at all as I have a very low opinion of the intellectual capabilities of the human race in general.

When I was a graduate student, I had the habit, every time I went to the library to look up a significant reference in a journal, of reading the entire journal volume (I have always been a rather voracious reader). As a consequence, I read a rather broad cross section of physics publications through out the history of physics; more than read by most I suspect. The single most significant lesson I learned from that experience was that 90% of those publications were completely worthless from a historic perspective. Yeh, I know, hindsight is 20/20; but that isn't the essence of my observation. The essence was that most of the publications were nothing more than regurgitation of the current status quo without the least serious thought; clearly doing little more than satisfying the academic demand for publication and having little or nothing to do with the advancement of science. I felt embarrassed for these people. Their only saving grace was that no one reads their work. It left me with a very strong distaste for publishing; particularly publishing for the sake of publishing.

I had a very similar opinion of the intellectual abilities of the faculty at Vanderbilt (though of course I kept it to myself). The most respected "intellect" at Vanderbilt was their resident expert in Relativity. One of my class mates did his Ph.D. in an aspect of General Relativity. I read his thesis at the time and found it quite simple minded; oh, some very complex algebraic procedures but, in essence, what he proved could be proved very easily by another quite succinct observation. I showed him the alternate approach but he chose to ignore it (I didn't blame him as my attack was to simple to deserve a Ph.D. which, of course, was the sole purpose of his thesis). Ph.D.'s are awarded for proved facility with the mechanical procedures of physics, not for understanding physics.

When I was just beginning on my research in preparation for my thesis, I brought up a thought to my thesis advisor. I said, "what if all interactions are contact interactions: i.e., if action at a distance were impossible?" (In my mind, the realization that such a circumstance would make the phenomena observed in the E&M interactions universal to all interactions was quite obvious: i.e., the space contraction and time distortion required by Maxwell's equations would likewise be required by all interactions.) His reaction was, "Physics isn't concerned with 'what if', Physics is concerned with 'what is' and you better get that straight in your head". He also made it clear that action at a distance was a well established fact of physics. So I didn't bring it up again.

Years later, I was quite surprised while reading one of Newton's publications on his Theory of Gravity. He made the comment (and I am paraphrasing here), that, although action at a distance is clearly impossible, the use of the idea of action at a distance allowed a "gravitational field" to explain most of the phenomena attributed to the cycles and epicycles hypothesized at the time. Since that time I have always wondered why he said "action at a distance is clearly impossible". I would have loved to have been able to talk to him as I suspect he would have been able to follow my thoughts.

By the way, for those who seem to hold the erroneous idea that my "Foundations of Physical Reality" has anything to do with my thesis research, the title of my thesis (the opus for which my Ph.D. was awarded) was:

"Nucleon-Nucleus Inelastic Scattering with Realistic Nucleon-Nucleon Interactions",

an extensive demonstration of my abilities to perform complex physics busy work.

Mike: I am not very sensitive to conversational banter about my alleged incapacity to comprehend.
If I were, I would probably just concede the points, for life is full and everyone has several places they could be.

That is a very rational statement and I agree with the expressed attitude completely; however, your continued response also seems to me to be somewhat simple minded. When I say "simple minded", all I mean that the response is essentially based on an emotional reaction and displays no real serious thought about the comments I made. To begin with, you comment that my statement, "the issues you want to think you understand are far more complex than any advanced mathematics and your simple minded explanations of those issues are clearly not worth the effort of rational thought", is extremely simple to refute.

Please excuse me while I examine your refutation in detail with the hope that you will begin to comprehend my position and what I have said.

Mike: Advanced math is like bus driving in that it requires significant training.

This statement betrays a very common misunderstanding of mathematics. Most everyone takes mathematics as a recipe book for solving problems (think about some Aurino's comments on E&M). As such, the deductions of mathematics are very powerful tools; however, the real issue of mathematics is the logic which yields those deductions. One of the great problems in education is that many people (and this includes a lot of the professional teachers of the subject) only know it as a recipe book and have no real facility at all with the logic behind those deductions. What I am saying is that mathematics is, in fact, a language within which logic can be extended far beyond the capability of your conscious mind. Without a clear facility in the language of mathematics, any decent logical deduction is limited to, at most, a few dozen steps. In the absence of mathematics, the human mind cannot comprehend anything which requires more than a few steps of logic.

Mike: I can do algebra. I do not know how to drive a bus. However, I do know how to do some things that are more complex.

First, advanced mathematics is not complex at all. It is, in its entirety, nothing more than one step built upon another. It is the view that mathematics is a complex field that stops most people from understanding it. Their approach is often not to understand it but rather to know the subject. They are trained from childhood to "learn" to do things with practically no effort devoted to understanding what they are doing. When one attempts to "learn" mathematics in such a manner, the task is beyond any human being's capabilities; however, to learn it as a language, is well within their capabilities. Fluent understanding of the concepts represented by the symbols is actually quite rare even among professional mathematicians.

Mike: Additionally, the human brain does calculus every time someone chases a thrown football to catch it.

That is an assumption which simply cannot be supported. Calculus is a very specific well defined stepwise procedure, the exact logic of every step of which can be checked and understood. I am quite confident that the process the human brain goes through when the actions required to catch a thrown football are required are not at all related to the procedure called calculus. Certainly, the process used by the human brain is not well understood either; if knowing calculus helped in that problem at all, football coaches would require their quarterbacks to have an excellent grasp of calculus and I know of no coach who has any interest in such an approach. In particular, calculus is an "exact" science: the truth of the results is as dependable as the truth of the axioms. The human brains method of solving such problems can be very effective, but it is certainly not "exact" at all; ask any quarterback.

Mike: Formal mathematics is very important but you can work in the control room at NASA or without knowing some math operations which Dr. Dick Stafford knows. I admire your important ability to do math. You may have something more important than I comprehend at the moment but I am not wasting your time. Only you can do that.

You are certainly right: only I can waste my time. And, yes, I do believe I have discovered something very important; but important only to someone who wants to understanding reality. If one has no interest in understanding reality then what I have discovered is very unimportant. Survival (or even happiness for that matter) has very little to do with understanding anything (squirrels and birds appear to do just fine and I suspect they understand very little). For the most part, I am of the opinion that the only real difference between humans and the rest of the animals is little more than education (human beings being a lot easier to "train").

As for myself, when I was young, I held understanding in very high regard. Now that I am old (and do in fact understand the underlying nature of reality), even to me, it has become a rather unimportant issue. Particularly in view of the fact that there is absolutely no evidence at all for "causality". The single most probable explanation of all our experiences is that, what has happened or will happen, is no more than the outcome of chance on a scale unimaginable to the common human mind.

Mike: Most of the world's current logistic problems are well described in fairly simple arithmetic and algebra equations which I am able to do.

Again, you are speaking of the "recipes" not the logic behind the recipes. You have been "trained" to do some procedures. Such training requires only minimal ability to think! (I don't really believe you lack the ability to think, just that you don't have the practice you think you have had.) In my head, "thinking" is a careful analysis of the validity of your beliefs, not merely the simple review and expression of those beliefs.

Mike: I specialized in knowing other objective facts which I would guess I know better than you.

"Knowing" and "understanding" are two very different things. Once one truly "understands" reality, it becomes clear that they, in fact, know nothing. In exactly the same vein, if one were to "know" everything about reality, "understanding" becomes a meaningless term. (And I know you don't understand that so don't worry about it.)

Mike: The following passage seems related to your thesis. Would you be willing to comment although I have just posed this question to Ruquist too on the blackholes forum.

"Studying Einstein's equations, (Lemaitre) found, as other had before him, that the solution Einstein proposed was unstable. A slight expansion would cause the repulsive force to increase and gravity to weaken, leading to unlimited expansion, or a slight contraction would, vice versa, lead to collapse. Lemaitre, independently reaching conclusions achieved five years earlier by the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann, showed that Einstein's universe is only one special solution among infinite possible cosmologies -- some expanding, some contracting, depending on the value of the cosmological constant and the "initial conditions" of the universe."

from The Big Bang Never Happened by Eric J. Lerner

Again, the issues under discussion here (in the paragraph you quote above) are the deduced recipes for determining what will be observed. The exact character of the recipes are a strong function of the assumptions one makes in deducing those recipes. I have little interest in the actual calculations (deducing possible recipes) as there are many people much better "trained" than I am in accomplishing those kinds of results. My concerns lie entirely with the underlying principals on which those deductions are based.

What I have shown, in my paper, is that there exists a duality between "interactions" (the rules as to how things interact) and "fundamental characteristics" (the information necessary to describe those things). That, if you allow both parts of your explanation to vary (open it to all possible interactions and all possible characteristics: i.e., make up any story you want), you produce a problem far too complex to analyze completely (a truly infinite set of possible "stories", each of which have an infinite number of variations). I show explicitly that one specific "interaction" (a Dirac delta function interaction: i.e., contact interactions only) plus one "fundamental characteristic" (different possible rest mass) are all the variables required to generate a full 90% ( or maybe more) of the phenomena discussed in modern physics. At that point, the next question is to find something which cannot be explained via that very simple starting point. It may very well be necessary to hypothesize some other possible phenomena; however, if I have made no errors, I have proved that the set given can explain absolutely anything (you only need to add more events)!

Mike: You have not shown that generally, nonmathematicians are more inconsistent than mathematicians. Without being a math major, your "story cannot be followed," but your story is not the only story that matters. The universe is here; we are in it; nonmathematicians are in great supply.

Yeh, the world is full of squirrels, rats and roaches too and they seem to survive quite well. The issue here is that mathematics is consistent which has nothing to do with the characteristics of mathematicians in general (only a very few have shown any real ability to think).

Mike: "Culture" was the topic we are discussing.

I have not been discussing "Culture" at all. You would have to understand what I have to say about reality before you could even begin to comprehend my position on the issue of "Culture".

Mike: I am saying that persons in a culture are in a system of information which is measurably degraded yet serves them. Measurable against what? Against optimum survival information -- and the catch is that optimum can be several different things. I expect you might reject that initially After we get past your initial blast of rejection you wills see that from a God's Eye View, even culture -- heck, even delusions (being neuro-social phenomena with chemical causes and structural data contexts)-- are mathematically coherent -- even if the math is the math of chaos. Do you know Dr. Ilya Prigogene's work about how matter teeters between structural collapse and reorganization on a higher level of coherence?

All of the issues you bring up assume your picture of reality is valid! My position on these issues is quite clear: I will leave them to my intuition as I am quite confident that the problems are far too complex to be solved through conscious application of logic and anyone who believes someone out there is capable of such a feat is a sucker waiting to be plucked. My favorite comment on cultural issues is, "God save me from people who know what ought to be done!"

Just as a side comment here, today at the gym, some of the guys were talking about the decline in trustworthiness of the public. Fifty years ago very few people worried about locking up their homes; now, no one would think of leaving their home or apartment unlocked. (What brought the issue up was an event in a movie made back in the 40's, cast in the 40's period, involving a house in New York City which was clearly not locked: i.e., the main characters merely walked into the empty house and no attempt to portray unlocking the door was presented - the absence of the event had nothing to do with the plot and clearly represented no more than a difference in expectations between then and now).

The reasons given for this decline were all the standard run of the mill reasons (lack of belief in God, lack of discipline in the schools, lack of prayer in the schools, etc.). As you say, utter flat line thinking (just repetition of some authority). Now I personally have lived through the change and I am of the opinion that it is the obvious result of a very simple cultural position: punishment for any outlawed behavior should be the same for everyone. Now that sounds like a great position doesn't it? Apparently no one ever thinks about the long term consequences of such a rule.

The problem arises in a very simple way. No matter what behavior you are talking about, if you wait long enough a very specific conflict will arise: someone will do something very close to the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and not be punished. Following that event a similar event will occur. By the rule above, the second person cannot be punished. Now this still sounds reasonable; however, the difficulty is that an exact line (in human behavior) cannot be drawn (that is why I used the word "similar" above). If you attempt to define the line better, all you really do is increase the length of time you have to wait for the described event to occur.

When that event occurs (and it will occur) society has only one option: the line must be moved in the direction of unacceptable behavior. It follows that any society, which recognizes such a rule as necessary, will inevitable move towards a decline in trustworthiness (eventually the most unacceptable behavior becomes acceptable; it cannot be otherwise). Now, when I was a kid, the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior was vague as hell. Sometimes you got punished for turning in the direction of unacceptable behavior while the guy standing right next to you went twice as far as you did and got no punishment at all. (If you complained, you were told that they had made an "example" of you!) Today, "making an example" (punishing someone far beyond the norm) is held as completely unacceptable.

The great thing about being able to "make an example" is that it keeps the line vague and, likewise, keeps most behavior (the behavior of reasonably intelligent people) well out of that vague no man's land and, as a result, no requirement to move the line ever arises. Oh, that situation has problems too but I'll let you think those out (the practice won't hurt you). Which is better? As I say, "God save me from people who know what ought to be done!" I personally will do whatever society wants of me (as long as I can live with the situation.) My point is that none of our cultural rules are well thought out at all; nor do I think humanity has the capability to think these issues out to a rational resolution. Trust in evolution is your best bet! If you get caught in the dead end route it's just your tough luck!

Mike: Many capable folks make mathematical predictions which lead them to choose nonmathematical vocations because they calculated well the cost/benefit of studying math.

If you are concerned with the cost/benefit ratio of studying math then it is quite clear that you are concerned with the recipe issue and not with the logic issue. I am not aware of anyone who was ever paid a thing for making a breakthrough in human thought. All I am saying is that to trust the philosophic pronouncements of someone who cannot comprehend the subtle issues of higher math is just plain foolish. That is like a farmer leaving his agriculture decisions to someone who doesn't know what a hoe is for.

Mike: There are occupational hazards in math because it is not a hands-on trade and its wares are so easily transportable. For example, others can steal one's jokes.

Occupation is a totally different issue; it has nothing at all to do with thought and everything to do with the use of knowledge. Knowledge is power and a source of income; however, you must recognize that all power can be misused. The most common misuse of the power of knowledge is to use it to cover up stupidity. Most people who are knowledgeable use it for that purpose a lot of the time (it tends to keep their income up). In my opinion only complete idiots want power; I would much rather have luck! In the final analysis, you will need luck no matter what else you possess! On the other hand, good luck can provide anything.

Do you happen to know what Socrates' official occupation was (that is, what he was trained to do)? Check it out!

Sorry I have been so long.

Have fun -- Dick

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