John Walker's Electronic House

Rum Doings Episode 61

by on Feb.17, 2011, under Rum Doings, The Rest

This episode almost died. Audacity, for the second time in Rum Doing’s history, crashed at the end of the recording before it could be saved. Last time it meant we lost the episode forever. This time the remaining fragments could be recompiled by our super-computer, and the entire thing is saved!

As you know we can no longer post round-numbered podcasts, so this episode 61 follows on directly from 59. There is a reason for this – an episode 40, 50, 60 is going to happen next month, for definite-sure.

This week we don’t discuss whether we have any use for the British library. And in order not to have to talk about the Big Society, John mentions that we’re drinking Italian beer. Which is like rum, in so much as it’s a liquid. There then comes some analysis of how Nick and John constantly fight online, which is clearly always Nick’s fault.

Stephen Green gets a belated discussion, Behold The Man gets an ever belatedier discussion, and then Stephen Green gets even more chat. And then: death, robots, and quantum physics. Which is one of our favourite chats we’ve had. Is it irrational to fear not existing? Can arrows hit targets? And what are photons up to?

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35 Comments for this entry

  • Nick Mailer

    This was recorded before my voice was banned. As such, there may not be one next week, so enjoy!

  • MrTwitchy

    Considering time as a measurable dimension and that all things extant must have “volume” to exist.

    If we think of time as a cylinder we are travelling along, with all simultaneous events occuring on a plane across this cylinder (this plane actually representative of the entire universe), the past behind us, the future ahead of us.

    The past no longer exists to be measured.
    The future does not yet exist to be measured.
    Only the present moment can be measured and thus said to exist.
    However as we look deeper into this present moment we see that the moment is divisible into smaller and smaller moments.
    We assume that time is infinitely divisible.
    Thus the measurable (and so extant) moment is reduced.
    When we apply this to the “cylinder” idea, does this mean that the plane representing a simultaneous moment has zero depth in the cylinder, or merely an infitesimal depth?
    In which case does time have zero depth and so zero volume and by my definition cease to exist as a measurable dimension or does it have an infinitesimal volume and hover right on the immeasurable edge of existance?

  • Geetoo

    The nihilistic concept of an eternity of nothingness is so horrific that I actually got a panic attack listening to the podcast and had to stop. So you’re wrong John, and you are incorrectly wired. I’d almost prefer there to be a hell.

  • Simon

    But don’t forget Planck time!

  • Alex B

    “Revoke certain privileges”

    Ricky Gervais and the other two, or the RPS crew. You heard it here first.

  • scotchmi_st

    The whole notion of dimensions in physics is fun to think about at first, but can quickly become dull when you realise that you can have as many or as few dimensions as you like. Current mainstream theorists suggest that we have around 11 dimensions. A a few experimental physicists will say there are only 3 (or grudgingly 4 if you include time). If you read New Scientist regularly enough, you’ll hear about fringe scientists who think there are hundreds. Ultimately you can invent as many (or as few) as you like to explain away various physical processes.

    A idea which is very familiar to cosmologists is that we are 3 dimensional beings existing on a 4 dimensional universe, like soap patterns on the surface of an expanding bubble. This would mean that what we see as observers might be thought of as essentially a ‘cross-section’ through spacetime as if we were viewing it as an MRI scanner views a person’s body. (This also means that if we had a telescope big enough, we could see the back of our own heads. Or if we travelled for long enough in one direction, we’d end up where we started.)

    There’s an ever-raging debate in physics as to why time appears to be flowing in the direction it does. There was an interesting article on the arXiv a while back which suggested that time flows in the direction it does as entropy needs to increase in order for us to observe the universe. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing especially ontological about quantum mechanics, and it’s all still fairly physics-y. If Nick or anyone can point me to an article or paper which suggest otherwise, then I’d love to see it.

    I should also point out that maxima and minima will also form in the single-slit experiment.

    And # on a mac keyboard is option-3 . :)

  • Nick Mailer

    Scotch mist: Wheeler’s Delayed Choice experiment.

  • MrTwitchy

    I got called dull and poorly read and had several ideas I am entirely familiar with explained all in one reply that didnt even bother to really reply, just to discount the question….

    Still, one mustn’t get sniffy. I shall assume it was all for the benefit of others and be on my way, whistling merrily.

  • DXN

    John is right: from the perspective of a dead person, death is a non-issue; in death, there are no issues.

    Nick is right: from the perspective of an alive person, death is inherently terrifying. In death we will not feel fear or misery, but we will cease to feel the experiences of life, which are the only things that have value. Death is a negative state change. Therefore we, from our perspective as living people, fear it.

    Of course, it’s possible to train ourselves out of that fear, or to adopt beliefs that mask it, and that is surely a fine thing to do that makes it easier to enjoy life. But death is not some kind of valueless nonentity just because a dead person would perceive it that way.

  • Nick Mailer


    > Considering time as a measurable dimension
    > and that all things extant must have “volume”
    > to exist.

    Incorrect. Black holes have no volume. And a photon is volumeless and dimensionless.

    > If we think of time as a cylinder we are
    > travelling along

    To travel implies movement. Movement implies time. So you are trying to provide a metaphor/model of time that itself entails time. You are begging the question.

  • laddy_gaga

    As a Crabbies drinker myself, I found this podcast balanced and relevant to my interests. You should also perhaps give Kopparberg pear cider a little try, its pleasing in small to moderate quantities although a little too sugar-laced for extensive testing.

  • Colthor

    I don’t find the notion of being dead to be scary. Once I get there it/I won’t be anything. Or even particularly negative from my current point of view of being alive – being alive involves a lot of tedious or miserable slogging purely for the sake of being alive, and you’ll never have to bother with any of it ever again! Maybe you’ll miss out on some stuff, but you’ll be dead and so entirely unable to know or care.

    However, the notion of dying, whilst you’re still aware of what’s happening but powerless to do anything to either hurry or prevent it, seems like it could be quite unpleasant.

    But get the dying over with quickly enough and problem solved.

  • George

    Regarding John’s talk about showing the results of the double-slit experiment to a ladybird, here’s a short sci-fi story about testing that sort of thing.

    The chap who wrote it writes for Valve Software, incidentally.

  • non

    You’ve got your quantums a little wrong, it’s the act of observing, not the knowing of the observations by a conscious entity.. i.e. leaving your detector on but not looking at the results is akin to observing

  • Daniel Rivas

    Nick: A black hole does have a volume, defined by its Schwarzchild radius – Gm/c^2 for an object of mass m – or the radius of the photon sphere (1.5 times the Schwarzchild), but the singularity within it obviously does not.

    If you’re interested in that sort of thing, by the way, I’d recommend finding a copy of The Nature of Matter; it’s a collection of eight lectures by physics-ey people, including some stuff on the quantisation of space and time that Nick spoke about briefly. It’s mostly about, well, the nature of matter.

  • Nick Mailer

    Hi Daniel,

    I was using black hole as a synecdoche for the singularity; MrTwitchy suggested that anything that exists must have volume. These were counter-examples.

  • John Walker

    non – Are you saying that leaving the detector on, and not observing the results, will result in the photon choosing only one slit? As in, you can look at the wall and see the different result, simply by switching the other machine on?

    Daniel – I’m afraid I need all my science information packaged by RadioLab for me to be able to absorb it.

  • Nick Mailer

    Non is incorrect, as Wheeler’s Delayed Choice indicates. Whether a conscious observer is required is moot. Of course, talking about leaving the detector on and throwing away the data is over simplistic, but Quantum Delayed Erasure is nevertheless interesting.

  • mister k

    John, just because an object is moving continuosly doesn’t mean it can’t be at any particular point at any time point. Just because we don’t know where something is doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Its been a while since I studied quantum mechanics in any amount of depth (Feynmann’s QED is excellent), but its often easier to understand if one understands the mathematics. Of course, quantum mechanics isn’t weird, we’re weird for thinking quantum mechanics is weird. Note that when we look at someone we perceive a continous object despite most of it being empty space with a nucleus perched in the middle.

    Xeno’s paradox is actually solvable in both cts and discrete space- the mathematics of limits will handily cut through his paradoxes if we assume a cts universe ((I secretly hope that the universe is cts, as limits are more interesting).

    Nick, I don’t see why the discreteness of the universe implies simulation? After all, if we are truly in a simulator the physics of the simulating universe are potentially limitless- they would have made up the rules for us. But I don’t see why discreteness is more ‘real’ than contiousness.

    For some interesting thoughts on this manner and a singularity, Less Wrong is fun. It can get a bit cooky in places, but the main guy who runs that, Eliezer Yudowsky, knows a LOT about rationality and cognitive bias.

  • Gassalasca

    If Nick’s voice is banned… we could have the next episode where John would speak, and Nick would use a Stephen Hawking kind of device to make himself audible. ^_^

  • James Campbell

    Or John could finally do his solo-cast…

    I don’t understand science and like all sensible people dislike things I don’t understand so less of this type of thing please.

  • mister k

    “I don’t understand science and like all sensible people dislike things I don’t understand so less of this type of thing please.”

    I assume this is a joke, but nonetheless the concept of not understanding science makes me sad. Surely science is interesting to think about, even from a position of ignorance. How the world works is surely interesting, and it makes me a little sad that people wouldn’t be interested in that?

  • Daniel Rivas

    Oh, also, everyone should watch some of the Walter Lewin classical mechanics lectures. Lots of fun.

  • laddy_gaga

    You should embrace Nick’s lack of voice with an episode of Dumb Rueings.

    Sorry. I’d fetch my coat, but I lost it, so I’ll borrow someone else’s.

  • Pace

    Ah physics. For people interested in this stuff there’s a really great paper about the EPR paradox that I think really captures the spirit of this ‘quantum weirdness’ business a bit more clearly than the double slit experiment, or at least it’s another way to look at it:
    “Is the moon there when nobody looks? Reality and the quantum theory.”
    It’s from a technical physics journal but nearly all of it should be understandable to anyone willing to put in a bit of effort to understand it. It’s a very well known paper, it gets referenced all the time.

  • Jambe

    The notion of nonexistence isn’t terrifying. I shared John’s frustration during that exchange. Nonexistence isn’t necessarily desirable, of course, despite the fact that one can imagine situations in which nonexistence would be preferable to existence (torture, unyielding solitude, etc).

    Take for instance a night of dreamless sleep. Some time elapsed (or did it?!) but you nonetheless are currently alive. Suppose that finite (?) blank space stretched to infinity. Nothing scary about it. The robustness and variety of life is certainly preferable to that… but it’s not a frightening thought.

    That said, if many extra years of life were on offer, I’d likely accept them. I’m not sure I’d accept immortality, though. Eventually the sun (and all stars) will burn out. Things will become awfully dark and boring, and I’m not sure thousands, millions, or even billions of years of life would be worth it in the face of never-ending blackness.

    I suppose I’d take immortality if an off switch were provided.

  • Gassalasca

    The thing some people can’t seem to grasp is that nonexistence isn’t awareness/consciousness of an eternity of nothingness; it’s a complete lack of consciousness. There is no one there to be horrified by nothingness, because there is no one there to be aware of it, or anything else. It really is profoundly a non issue.

  • Daniel Rivas

    The terror is that the activity of the brain will end at some point, and the complex, patterned dancing of your mind will just stop. Consciousness is so beautiful; and the horror of something that is conscious – that it’ll soon be missing out – has to be there, surely? Fine, you won’t notice it when it happens, but that’s the point. You’re asking the currently extant person who has noticed it, and is horrified at the impending loss.

  • Jambe

    I can somewhat understand your perspective. Your argument seems to be that your appreciation of life is so great that the mere thought of no longer being able to appreciate it is terrible. This just strikes me as a slight to my own view. The implication is that I don’t appreciate life as much as you do, right? I’m not saying you deliberately make that implication, but it’s nonetheless very easy to draw.

    I’m enthusiastically in favor of my own life. I associate with several people who I love and who reciprocate it, I’m aerobically active again and feel up in spirits like never before (thanks Nick), I’m constantly learning and am often immersed in the wilderness which I adore. I’m secure and mildly successful and happy. I don’t want to not exist… but the thought of nonexistence still doesn’t frighten me.

    The thought of drowning frightens me. The thought of being attacked by a shark is horrific. Nonexistence, if it were to scare me, would be at or near the bottom of my list of scary things. Indeed, if given the choice between, say, being bitten by a shark and bleeding out on the beach or instantly being nonexistent, I would opt for the latter. I’m no fan of trauma.

    I’ve had dreamless sleep – periods of time of which I have absolutely no recollection – and I’m fine with that. The idea of that blankness being infinite does not horrify me. I understand the argument you’re making but it doesn’t move me at all.

    This difference in our views is really interesting to me.

  • Daniel Rivas

    You’ll notice I never referred to myself; I’m not so arrogant as to think I’m special in this regard, or that you’re not. The implication I’d draw instead from my post is rather that you should feel that horror, but you’re in denial or otherwise haven’t thought about it enough. Which is an entirely different slight, but a slight nonetheless, so I apologise.

    It is interesting that I really don’t understand your position on this, or you mine— I think you’re being silly, and you clearly think the same of me.

    Always fun!

  • Jambe

    Nothing to apologize for. It seems an unresolvable difference of opinion, this – chocolate vs vanilla.

    I don’t think your desired implication is entirely unrelated, since the suggestion underpinning nonexistence-horror is that life (or simple possession of “mind”) is so interesting and beautiful that pondering its cessation is discomforting. Suggesting that I haven’t thought about it enough or am in denial over it does thus imply a certain lack of appreciation for life/mind, doesn’t it? That I’m not grasping some nuance of self or of thought or of *insert vague philosophical notion*?

    You could present me a thousand novels full of lovely, passionate descriptions of the complexity and beauty of life, consciousness, society, the universe, etc… and it wouldn’t make the notion of nonexistence scary. It certainly strikes me as sad that I’m not immortal or much more long-lived. It’s not as if I welcome nonexistence. It’s just that I’ve already experienced blank, timeless unconsciousness and it didn’t scare me, and the thought of such experiences in future doesn’t, either (be they overnight or eternal).

  • Nick Mailer

    Jambe – then you are lucky. As lucky as someone with a comforting faith.

    I don’t have that “faith”.

  • Jambe

    I’m actually less faithy than you about the notion of nonexistence since I’m essentially agnostic about it whereas you assign it a definite quality despite a lack of convincing evidence. From my perspective, you put consciousness on a pedestal as a sort of solipsist deity.

    If you have discrete reasons for fearing nonexistence I’m genuinely interested to learn of them. Perhaps there’s some philosophy which would light up a bulb in my mind.

    My view is not comforting. My default state is one of not fearing nonexistence. The notion carries no hint of terror or unease for me, thus comfort is precluded.

    Fear of nonexistence (and death ftm) strikes me as otiose. The wondrousness of existence is reason enough to desire longer life and consciousness. Fear needn’t factor in (and for me, it doesn’t).

  • Andytizer

    John’s argument is that
    a) fear requires existence
    b) therefore nonexistence precludes fear

    Although once we are in the state of nonexistence emotions like fear are impossible, it does not stop us validly making assertions about what we can fear whilst we are conscious. I can still be afraid of dying or of getting a brain injury – even though my consciousness (and possibility of fearing anything) would end at that point.

    If we accept that fear of nonexistence is invalid, then reductio ad absurdum, we can’t talk about fear of anything that might cause our nonexistence. For example, fear of injury, fear of dying, fear of anything that might end our existence (because fear is contingent on existence). It’s basically absurd to reduce our language like this, when we are really just trying to describe emotions rather than make ontological claims.

  • Jambe

    There’s a difference between fear of untimely or painful death and fear of death itself.