Friday, August 31, 2012


Occasionally I have a chance to listen to random strangers in some venue spin on about philosophy or religion to each other ... and it is always funny.   There is always some smattering of books they've read, or social flotsam they've gathered - Dawkins is a favorite - which they casually mix in with their own experiences in Christianity or Judaism.  'Personal experiences,' such as a two week trip they took to Lebanon or Jamaica mixes in with the media perspective on Islam ... coupled with marginal siftings of David Hume or Nietzche.  Usually, they do not quote philosophers, but rather they repeat some other source which has boiled down the philosophy to its simplest elementary school accessibility.

What such people rarely have is any proper framework within which to put the scattered pieces together.  As they leap in their conversations haphazardly between Hindu reincarnation and Aristotelian logic, semantics and cartesian conjecture, it becomes plain that the dialogue - or dialectic, as may be - is driven more by which of the two individuals is anxious to demonstrate their flexible argumentative skills than to arrive at any conclusion upon which either expects to apply to their lives.

Such was the debate I sat next to last evening, doing my best not to chuckle aloud, and failing entirely to keep my facial expression straight and proper.  I don't doubt that in my youth I was every bit as random and directionless in my shotgun approach to intellectualism (nor do I doubt that some would think I still am).  There's something fun and pleasant about shooting a few hours down with spontaneous demands for others to define 'facts' or the unvaried proposal that given the right opportunity, a person could walk through a brick wall - since atoms are made of "mostly space."  Silly, but fun and pleasant.

Here is where we apply the present subject heading ... for if there is anything which amateur philosophers and religious pundits do not comprehend, it is physics.

I am no physicist.  I did not enjoy it when I first took classes in the subject, and I find it difficult to concentrate on the math - particularly when the math requires three dimensional thinking, such as calculus and the like.  It is out of my purview.  In terms of Dungeons and Dragons, it is out of the purview of medieval fighters and thieves, too, and no doubt well past the comprehension of most Dungeon Masters ... so physics does not seem very important where it comes to the game.  Occasionally an argument might erupt about the effect of a lightning bolt upon a pool of water in which both caster and targets are standing, but usually such arguments are resolved with all the deciphering ability of Middle Age philosophers - mostly wrongly.  Meh, it is as it is.

When philosophy is applied, then, by the random individuals with little or no training in physics, the subject of "what is real" and "what is truth" always has an 18th century ring about it.  After all, most comprehension of physics by the masses ends at what was understood by the highest minds two hundred and fifty years ago.  A physicist is not concerned by what is real, only by what is predictable or - in the case of quantum physics, more correctly stated as what can be reasonable expected.  we cannot deduce with certainty the results of the Hadron Collider, but we can with skill produce the Collider itself so that it produces results evolved from our former understanding of molecular structure.  We may go to the theatre being uncertain what the movie will be about, but we are quite confident there will be a movie and it will be something we have not seen - having properly constructed the theatre, you see.

Philosophers are rarely in the business of application, even to the extent of constructing a venue in which to discuss philosophy (the last major leap was the invention of the European coffee house, in 1645; the Ottomans had enjoyed this technology since 962).   This is why it is so easy to deactivate amateur philosophers with Taoism.  When the question "Why?" is asked, the question "What purpose would the knowledge serve?" is begged.  The investigation into 'why,' apart from its utter failure to produce an answer these past 10 millenium, has never satisfactorily explained the benefits which would be offered by its comprehension.  How is it that knowing why you are here, or what you are meant to accomplish, or towards what general purpose you are meant to serve, would produce satisfaction in your soul?  If the answer were clear and conclusive, would you accept it?  My feeling is that you would not, but that you would resist its clarity with dissonnance and denial.  Your mother told you to eat your beans, and gave you a reason, and it seemed not to provide enough justification to eating such horrid things.  Of course, you may like beans ... but then you would only be plagued by the possible 'truth' that the final answer to your purpose on earth may be to never eat beans again.  This would certainly seem inappropriate to your habitual willingness to eat beans.

The conclusion one might leap to is that 'truth' is in large part unpleasant or undesirable.  Thus, so many philosophies in existence which deny truth, enabling greater freedom of mind - and choice - about your bean-eating preferences.  Truth, we are told, is a straightjacket, and straightjackets exist to restrain you.

Thus, as I have been told often on this blog, "rules" are anathema.  The game should not have HARD and FIXED rules.  Rules deny imagination.  Rules deny possibility.

Strange, then, that every particle in the universe adhering to a highly fixed existence, described by the rigorous and unforgiving technology of mathematics, has not eliminated the imaginations of those conglomerations of particles that we ourselves are.  The universe is utterly inflexible.  Perhaps not understood; perhaps beyond understanding; but nevertheless inflexible, as in that it operates to a codebook which we have been piecing together since the age of Anaxagoras.  Conveniently, it is an inordinately, unfathomably complex set of inflexible conditions - so complex as to seem, well, flexible.  Just as we begin to feel that something cannot be done, another element of the inflexible codebook is interpreted and we suddenly discover that the impossible is possible.  Moreover, it was always possible.  It is not as though Physics has changed since we began to be complex enough to live thoughtfully without understanding it.  The same physics that allows me to fly would have allowed me to fly 20 hundred million years ago ... even though nothing flew, anywhere, to our knowledge.  Actual flight is unimportant.  Actual application of any physical principle is a convenience and not a characteristic.  It may have been that until the development of insects, nothing flew anywhere, ever - this would have had no influence whatsoever upon the principles of flight.  The rule remains unchanged.  Application is immaterial.

It is not that a rule in D&D - or any other game - necessarily restricts the game, since the imagination is not to be found in the rule itself, but in its application.  The application is the 'choice' the player has.  What is expressly interesting about the game of D&D, and of course in any possible game conceived of in the present and the future, is the number of possible applications which can be devised from the existing rules of that game.  More rules, coordinated so that overall the rules inter-relate to one another towards the degree in which the rules of mathematics or the rules of physics relate to one another, allows for a greater logic and coordination of the applications your players may dream up.  If you set out to produce rules, be mindful of the coordinates within which your players may operate.  This, but not that; so far, but no further.  Even a straight-jacket makes for interesting games of skill and imagination, since the body within the straight-jacket is itself flexible.

I appreciate that certain physical conditions on my choices, being beyond my powers to change, lend themselves to my dissatisfaction.  I would rather not die.  I would rather not ache in the morning when I get up.  I would rather the distances between certain locations be shortened.  I am comforted, however, in the knowledge that for people dwelling in a time previous to this one, these inconveniences were much worse than they are for me.

The chances are that your world is a largely fragmented ball of goo, lacking in cohesion or structure.  It is, in fact, as this world we live in was perceived to be by everyone prior to the technological revolution that was our understanding of physics.  It is the world as it is still understood by people who are not educated about physics.  But reality is not a ball of goo.  It is not two random inconclusive, uneducated intellectuals bantering in a coffee shop.  It is logic and reason, even though it is a very complex logic and a very complex reason.

Allowing for a rich and complex world.

1 comment:

connor mckay said...

As a student of engineering, I very much appreciate this blog post.

The recent release of the movie Interstellar has many would be physicists trying to explain what was going on to each other and I am generally amazed at some of the interpretations of what was going on.

Also, thanks for recommending War and Peace, and Thucydides Peloponnesian War. Both are interesting, though I have just begun to read them.