A week has just raced past and it’s time to write a blog post – the 479th. The first twenty or so posts were published randomly when I thought of something to write. Only the last 457 have been published regularly on Wednesdays. However, given the average life expectancy of a male in Britain is 4225 weeks, that implies I have been writing a weekly post for slightly more than a tenth of my life expectancy. More depressing, considering the speed at which weeks are racing past me, is that I probably only have about 1000 weeks left. A thousand is a big number if you are trying to count sheep to get to sleep but quite a small number when thinking about the life of the universe [see ‘Will it all be over soon?‘ on February 2nd, 2016]. I have mixed feelings about my perception of a thousand weeks of life remaining. It seems short enough to make me pause, think about slowing down so that the weeks do not fly past so quickly and to write about it. But it is probably not short enough to induce me to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. Perhaps the most likely effect will be to increase my awareness of the need to make time for the important things in work and life. At work that probably means being more focussed on the big picture while in life it suggests focussing on the atelic activities, i.e. those pursued for their own sake, such as our weekly walk up Moel Famau.
I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018. Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996. ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’ These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes. In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity. This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder. Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder. Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature. The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.
Paul Virilio, and Petit Philippe. Politics of the Very Worst, New York: Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89 (available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-very-worst).
The philosophy of science has oscillated between believing that everything is knowable and that somethings will always be unknowable. In 1872, the German physiologist, Emil du Bois-Reymond declared ‘we do not know and will not know’ implying that there would always be limits to our scientific knowledge. Thirty years later, David Hilbert, a German mathematician stated that nothing is unknowable in the natural sciences. He believed that by considering some things to be unknowable we limited our ability to know. However, Kurt Godel, a Viennese mathematician who moved to Princeton in 1940, demonstrated in his incompleteness theorems that for any finite mathematical system there will always be statements which are true but unprovable and that a finite mathematical system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. I think that this implies some things will remain unknowable or at least uncertain. Godel believed that his theorems implied that the power of the human mind is infinitely more powerful than any finite machine and Roger Penrose has deployed these incompleteness theorems to argue that consciousness transcends the formal logic of computers, which perhaps implies that artificial intelligence will never replace human intelligence [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. At a more mundane level, Godel’s theorems imply that engineers will always have to deal with the unknowable when using mathematical models to predict the behaviour of complex systems and, of course, to avoid meta-ignorance, we have to assume that there are always unknown unknowns [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta-ignorance‘ on July 21st, 2021].
Source: Book review by Nick Stephen, ‘Journey to the Edge of Reason by Stephen Budiansky – ruthless logic‘ FT Weekend, 1st June 2021.
I am on vacation and off-grid so just a picture this week. It is a night time view from the cottage we stayed at in 2017 on the Lizard in Cornwall. If you have withdrawal symptoms from this blog then follow the links to find out why you need a vacation too!
Gone walking posted on April 19th, 2017.
Digital detox with a deep vacation posted on August 10th, 2016.
Deep vacation posted on July 29th, 2015.