Brian Keaney

Tag: philosophy

All I know is that I know nothing

Before I begin, one of my favorite Monty Python skits ever.  It ranks up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the dead parrot.

My boss told me today that I need to watch more TV.  Basically he was calling me a geek, but I think I get enough pop culture in my diet to not get tagged with the term.  For example, I know enough about Jersey Shore to know that I never want to watch it.  Let’s also not forget that I can’t get through the day without checking Texts from Last Night a few times.

He’s also told me in the last week or so that he’s not sure if I get out too much, or not enough.  I think it’s the latter, but that’s really not the point.  His comments today came after I was telling him that I’m (still) reading a book on quantum physics.  While it hasn’t yet, it seems to be leading towards answering one of the questions I’ve long held about the structure of the atom.

I might be wrong, but so far I’ve surmised that a quantum leap isn’t a jump into an alternative universe, but is actually how an electron moves from one level of orbit to another without being anywhere in between.  I’ve been asking that question since high school and still don’t quite understand how, but I’m hoping I will by the time I finish the book.

OK, so maybe I am a geek, but I prefer to think of myself as a philosopher in the truest sense, as a lover of wisdom.  This afternoon I was brought back to a college philosophy course I took with one of my toughest and favorite professors, Fr. Brian Shanley.  I distinctly remember the class in which we discussed the problem of predestination.  If God is omniscient and eternal, the argument goes, then she must know what you are going to do in the future before you do it.

If that’s the case, then your entire life is set out before you from time immemorial, and thus there can be no such thing as free will.  According to that logic I’m writing this blog post because I was destined to do so, and I have no control over whether I act for good or for evil in anything I do.  Fr. Shanley got around the problem (as he certainly does believe in free will) by saying that the Almighty exists outside of time, in a sort of eternal present.  There is no future or past for God, only right now.

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!&...
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One of the 182 people I follow on Twitter, a handful are religious types.  Of this category two of my favorites are @DalaiLama and @TheFuckingPope.  (The former claims to be an official feed; the latter, not so much.)  Closer to home, the Archdiocese of Boston tweets fairly frequently, and every day puts forth the name of a priest and asks that their 500 followers pray for him.  I don’t think my prayers count for much, but I am aware of what an important role these men play in the lives of so many people, so I do usually try and take a moment to send a note upstairs on their behalf.

Today they asked that we pray for all the deceased priests of the archdiocese, and thus we get back to Fr. Shanley’s class.  If I can pray in what for me is the present, and God is forever in the present, then does she hear my prayer yesterday, or last week, or 100 years ago as well as today?  If I can pray for the repose of the soul of a priest who died before I was born, but when I pray makes no difference to God, could I instead pray that he lives a good and holy life, or that his first girlfriend doesn’t break his heart, or that he aces his math exam, even those these events took place, according to my concept of time, tens or hundreds of years ago?  Going in the other direction, wouldn’t it make as much sense to pray for a painless death for my great-grandchildren – children that are not now and may never be?

I don’t know the answer to that any more than I know how a quantum leap works.  What I do know is that in the first book I ever read in college, Socrates, my least favorite of the Greek philosophers, said something that has stuck with me more than anything else I learned in those four years: All I know is that I know nothing.

I’m painfully aware of how little I actually know, so I don’t plan on turning the TV on any time soon, even if that makes me a geek.

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Cogito ergo sum… a hologram?

As an undergrad at a school with a great philosophy program I heard lots of bad jokes.  Most philosophy majors were either on their way to becoming lawyers or priests, neither of which is known for their sense of humor.  Perhaps the most common was the standard Saturday night AIM away message of “Bibo ergo sum.”  I drink, therefore I am.

It was a play on Descartes‘ famous maxim that cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.  I still remember pondering the implications of this statement when I read it in my own philosophy class.  Could it be possible that everything I’ve ever known is a hoax? That the laptop in front of me doesn’t really exist?  Niether does my Jeep, or my bowl of Cheerios, or my mother?  That this is all just some big cosmic joke?

Turns out, it might just be.  New Scientist magazine is reporting that our entire universe might be a hologram (registration required).  No one is saying for certain, but it does explain some background noise researchers have been getting while trying to measure gravitational waves.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Of all the sciences, physics has always been my favorite.  I have a copy of Einstein’s book explaining the special and general theories of relativity to laymen like myself – and I even understood it.  I still have plenty of questions, and even a pecking order for them.  At the top of the list is about the structure of the atom (all the empty space shouldn’t work, and how electrons get from one orbit to another) and how the universe could possibly curve and thus provide a boundry (by definition it seems it should be infinite).

This, however, has to jump to near the top of the list.  I always assumed one day I would get the opportunity to ask a physicist about them.  Now I’m back to worrying that just because I can ask the question, that doesn’t mean she will be able to answer it.  After all, she might not really be standing in front of me.

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