Category Archives: physics

On the defense of ‘Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces’

Dr. Ellen Clark, a.k.a. Philosomama, has written a good review of Velasco & Hitchcock’s Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces [no paywall], one of the first papers to appear in the new open access journal Ergo. She points out that although V&H are trying to show how evolutionary forces are well described by analogy to classical causal Newtonian forces, they very nearly prove their opponent’s — the statisticalist — position. However, she comes to their defense.

Briefly, the causalist position is that evolutionary forces are causal like the force of Newtonian gravity. Natural Selection is a causal force that acts on biological organisms. The statisticalist position claims evolutionary phenomena are just the statistical result of the underlying causal physical processes. Hence, for the statisticalist, evolutionary phenomena have no force of their own.

V&H want to argue that evolutionary forces are like friction or elasticity. Dr. Clark points out that these forces can be problematic for their view, as they too note:

As Velasco & Hitchcock acknowledge, friction and elasticity are usually thought of by physicists as emerging “from the aggregate statistical behaviour of more elementary forces in certain kinds of system.” … But this is grist to the statistical view’s mill, we might say. They argue that natural selection supervenes on more basic causal events, without adding any extra causal power of its own. So these critics might happily accept that evolutionary forces are analagous to non-fundamental Newtonian forces, whilst holding their ground on the claim that natural selection is not causal.

However, causalist vs. statistical isn’t what I would like to discuss here; see her review for more discussion. Instead I’d like to focus on her appeal to the unknown as a defense of V&H’s causalist position. She claims that it is OK to consider evolutionary forces causal, like Newtonian forces, because Newtonian forces are mysterious. Since Newtonian forces are mysterious, we shouldn’t privilege their causality and should grant that right to not well understood biological forces as well. She says:

If there is anything magical about thinking of natural selection as an overall force producing all the multifarious births and deaths that we actually observe, then it is in very good company lumped in with physical forces.

This is an example of my favorite fallacy, Ignotum Per Ignotius: explaining something unknown by appealing to something even less understood. Let me explain why this is really problematic for her defense and ultimately for V&H.

Imagine a statisticalist pointing to their analogies and explanations of evolutionary phenomena and saying, “Evolution isn’t mysterious at all, and we have a perfectly good statistical explanation right here. The only causality is in the underlying fundamental physics.” The evolutionary causalist is then in the uncomfortable luddite position of insisting, without reason, that we don’t understand evolution. Appealing to an analogy with physics that supports the causal position is question begging, if there is no deeper reason why this analogy holds other than it supports the claim that evolutionary phenomena are mysterious and hence causal. Therefore without some other reason to support the causal view of evolutionary phenomena, appealing to mysteriousness does not justify the causalist position.

Moreover, without a supporting causalist argument, V&H have done the statisticalist’s work for them. As noted above, they have gone and shown exactly how evolutionary phenomena are like statistical results of underlying forces.

Posted in biology, evolution, philosophy, physics. Tagged with , , , , .

On Matthen’s Intelligibility Argument

Mohan Matthen’s post Teleology in Big Systems brought up two options explaining how someone — Tom Nagel in Mind and Cosmos — would choose a teleological explanation over a naturalistic one. The first, below, got me thinking:

First, he might be saying that though it is physically possible (by a fluke series of mutations, for example) for mentality to have come about, it would be better explained by teleology. (Let’s call this the “intelligibility” argument.)

Though Matthen was referring to doubts about Darwinism being sufficient to lead to consciousness, there is another way to understand this intelligibility argument. If we grant that consciousness is something very special, though not unphysical, someone might consider the laws of physics to be constructed, teleologically, to permit consciousness. This is to say that our physics is teleogically directed to account for consciousness. The claim is not that consciousness was necessitated by our physics, but that our physics must conform to allow the possibility of consciousness. What is one philosopher’s Nature is another’s Teleology.

Now, I can’t see any philosophical motivation for this outside of a very deep belief that consciousness is exceptionally special. But if we grant exceptional status to consciousness, then it wouldn’t be ridiculous to consider that our physics must somehow be subject to the requirements of consciousness instead of the other way around. Whereas there may be infinite other possible physics that do not allow for the possibility of consciousness, we live under a physics that does.

My immediate, knee jerk response to this sort of move is that it is just a semantic shift about the meanings of teleology and nature, nothing deeper. If what the teleologist means by teleology is what others mean by nature, then there is no difference of opinion, only word use.

However, this semantic response does not engage the motivation for the teleological argument. The motivation is that consciousness is exceptional. So, if the naturalist believes that consciousness is exceptional and entirely natural, then the naturalist is left with no natural explanation for why it is so exceptional. However the teleologist may say that consciousness is exceptional, subject to the laws of physics, but unsurprising, since the laws of physics itself are directed to allow for consciousness. Since the teleological account does a better job at explaining something as special as consciousness, it is preferable.

This conclusion about preferring the teleological explanation to the naturalistic one is based on the absolute assumption that consciousness is exceptional. But how exceptional must it be? Since we are making physics, and presumably the rest of science, subject to our assumption, then the reasons for our assumptions must then be ontologically more basic and more certain than our entire scientific understanding of the world.

Personally I do not have any basis for thinking consciousness is so special that all of science must be made to account for it. From my perspective, claiming that science must conform to consciousness is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, since I’d have to arbitrarily assume consciousness to be a fundamental substance and science to be constructed to allow for it.

However, there could be people who do have beliefs that strong. For them, they would not be arbitrarily assuming consciousness to be the more fundamental substance in the universe and hence it would follow that science should conform to it. Instead it would be a direct causal link: consciousness, therefore science that teleologically allows for consciousness. This kind of teleological naturalism is special in that it does not appeal to the unlikelihood or complexity of consciousness evolving, as is wont to happen nowadays, but is based on an ontological claim about consciousness. I don’t know if this is more defensible than the Intelligibility Argument based on likelihood, but, as it is different, perhaps it has a chance to fair better.

Posted in biology, design, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

Aether Discontinuity

Assume space-time is quantized.  This would mean that space-time is broken up into discrete bits.  It then follows that time is broken up into discrete bits.

This disagrees with basic experience: we can start counting time at any arbitrary point.  “Now” could be any time whatsoever.  Moreover, we run our physical experiments at any given point; we don’t have to wait to start our clocks.

But what if our ability to run experiments at any given point is just an illusion of our universe being broken up into such tiny bits that we just don’t notice the breaks?

Could we design an experiment to test when we can run experiments?

If time is continuous, we would never find any point at which we could not run an experiment.  If time is not continuous, though, we would likewise never find any point at which we could not run an experiment, since all experiments would use clocks that start within that lockstep quantized time.

Hence we are unable to tell the difference between quantized and continuous time such that it always appears continuous.

However, even if time is continuous in this fashion, measurement of time is not.  Since there is a lower limit to what we can distinguish between two different times, even if we are free to start measuring whenever we want, all subsequent measurements are physically dependent upon that initial fixed point.  The second measurement must be outside the uncertainty associated with the initial measurement (the clock start) and the third must be outside the second, etc.  Therefore all physically useful measurements of time (counting past zero, that is) are inherently physically quantized by their dependence upon the instantiation of measurement and limits of uncertainty.

If time is both continuous and discontinuous in this fashion, then so is all space-time.

This leads to the question of which is ontologically prior: if you hold that our reality is defined by what we can measure, then the universe is quantized and our experience pigeonholed; if you hold that our reality is defined by our phenomenal experience, then the universe is continuous and measurement is pigeonholing.

Either way it is a question of the metaphysics — not physics —  of space-time.  And without a way to distinguish between these options, no physical experiment will be able to settle the debate either, since we could always be chasing our metaphysical tails.

I’ve mulled over this issue concerning the logical limits of what can be measured by physics for years, but I never developed any conclusions.  However, there has recently been discussion of the feasibility of a tabletop search for Planck scale signals.  This nifty experiment seems deviously simple with the potential for novel results, so go check it out if you haven’t heard of it yet, for example in this discussion.  One issue that the experiment bears upon is the continuity of space-time at the Planck Scale.  My worry is that the above metaphysical distinction between counting zero and counting past zero may trip up the physicists’ search for the continuity or discontinuity at the fundamental levels of matter.

Posted in measurement, metaphysics, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, time.

The Rationality Cone

There are different sorts of constraints on thought.  We forget things, we fail to infer consequences of our beliefs and we have features of perception, like blind spots, that affect our understanding of our surroundings.  We also can be greatly affected by our emotions: when we are angry — when we see red — we are unable to see the anything but the things that are making us mad; when we are infatuated we are, conversely, unable to see anything wrong with our object of desire.

This account of emotional states — moods — is interesting because moods affect our overall reasoning ability.  Given one mood, we will be able to make certain inferences; given another, we will make different inferences.  Moreover, what seems to be a rational inference in one mood may be irrational in another mood.

At this point we have thought, which is comprised of our knowledge, perception and deductions we make, and mood, which modifies and constrains thought.  If we consider the situation over time, then at any point a person has a history of thoughts and moods, which has led up to the current state, and a potential future of moods and thoughts based on where that person is now.   Going from one mood to another, or one thought to another, can only be done within a limited range, i.e. no thoughts or moods can be completely detached from prior thoughts or moods.  This gives us a perspective on the relation between rationality, consciousness and thought:

Considering a person’s consciousness at some point, we can map what we consider rational and irrational based upon the potential mood and thought changes.  Any possible future belief (a combination of thought and mood) will be a combination of changes in prior moods and thoughts.  Beliefs that require too great a change in both thought or mood may be outside the realm of rationality for a person, while beliefs that require little effort will fall within the realm of rationality.  Hence, the rationality cone

Rationality Cone Diagram

The Future Rationality Cone illustrates how, given changes in thought or mood, a person’s beliefs can become different from their current beliefs.  The edge of the cone is the limit of what that person could possibly rationally believe:  anything outside the edge requires too great a jump in thought or mood from where they currently are.  Any point inside the cone represents a set of beliefs that the person could rationally have, given different circumstances.  The bottom half of diagram shows the past rational states that could have led up to the current state, as represented by the Past Rationality Cone.


If the above scheme is familiar, it is because it is modeled on the Light Cone from physics; the diagram is from the linked Wikipedia page.  I always found it fascinating that the light cone implies that there is part of the universe immediately surrounding each of us that we can never physically access.  Likewise, there are thoughts and moods that are just like our own that appear irrational to us—even if they are not—because they fall outside our capabilities.  Other people could, however, have these thoughts because their rationality cones are not exactly aligned with our own, or they started from another location, which enabled them to access that part of the mental universe.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy, physics.

Working Hard on Special Biological Relativity

I’ve been working hard on Special Biological Relativity and it is taking up most of my blogging energy.  However, I do have some fun results:

Define Biological Energy as the ability to do work, the ability to change the environment.  Then Fitness can be related to Energy because the higher the fitness the greater the ability to change the environment.

E ∝ f

If we consider an organism that lives in a place with infinite resources – a Garden of Eden – and also replicates at the speed of the chemical reaction of replication – there is no maturation process, it immediately starts to replicated as soon as it is created – then it’s life is identical to it’s replication process.  Define d to be the speed of the chemical process of replication.  Then the ability of this organism to change the environment is given by it’s fitness, the rate it replicates at and it’s life:

E = fd2

Or something.

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, science, Special Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , .

Occam’s Razor and Entropy

I was trying to understand Occam’s Razor, specifically I wanted to know its justification.  There are posts over at Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy worth looking at, but neither left me satisfied.

Instead, I came up with “Death Implies Economy”.  What this means is that we are fundamentally limited in time and resources, and hence we cannot afford to waste what little we have on unnecessary complication.  DIE is a metaphysical justification of ontological parsimony:  regardless of how we come to the knowledge of death, the principle only requires that we are fundamentally limited and is agnostic as to how we come to understand this of ourselves.  [One may revise the principle to ‘Demise Implies Economy’ without problem or changing acronym.]

Now, the reason I wanted to figure out Occam’s Razor was because I thought it might help me understand entropy better.  Entropy seems to be this force or cause that basically is always at work and does whatever we don’t want it to.  Jerk.  Of course the universe has no reason to conform to our way of doing things, or worse, my way of viewing the world, but entropy just seems to be excessive:  why should our physical science be subject to a form of energy loss?  This makes me think it is our fault.  No, not ‘fault’, but intrinsic part of how we go about our science.  My apologies to the universe for calling it a jerk.

So, back to Occam’s Razor and DIE.  If DIE underpins Occam’s Razor, then we are metaphysically bound to proceed in a piecemeal manner.  Even our most radical theories are not developed by immortals with no care for time.  So, in some sense, our theories are also fundamentally limited and hence will always admit some unknown factors as a metaphysical consequence.

It is fair to ask if this is all just a fancy way of stating pessimistic induction, “Since we haven’t gotten theories perfect in the past, we shouldn’t expect to in the future”?  How can I make the claim that we will never succeed in this scientific endeavor?

My answer is that these questions raise legitimate issues, but the specific question at hand is not to speculate on what will happen with future theory but how we are to understand entropy and simplicity now.  And to question whether our adherence to ontological parsimony has the theoretical consequence of an unresolvable force.   Since we must believe the theories we have, at least to some extent, whatever these theories do not describe must be left in an accordingly deep mystery– as the result of an unexplained force at least as powerful as the forces we do explain. Therefore I have to conclude that, given a metaphysical understanding of Occam’s Razor such as DIE, there is a legitimate concern of inevitable unresolvable causal consequences which could manifest as various forms of entropy.

Posted in economics, ontology, philosophy, physics, science.

Special Relativistic Fitness, Preliminary Thought Experiment

Imagine two different tribes of biologists.  The first tribe is comprised of very fast people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being faster than their competitors.  The second tribe is comprised of very strong people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being stronger than their competitors.  After all this time, the first tribe is filled with very fast biologists and the second tribe is filled with very strong biologists.

Now imagine that two biologists, one from each tribe, are evaluating the fitness of two organisms.  One of the organisms is fast, the other is of average speed.  Other than the difference in speed, they are identical.  The strong biologist recognizes that one is faster than the other, but does not find this to be significant and assigns the two organisms equal fitness.  The fast biologist recognizes that one is faster and assigns it a slightly higher fitness because of its speed advantage.

Is the difference in fitness evaluations a matter of scientific opinion?  If it were an opinion that the fast organism was fitter, this would be a scientific opinion based upon environmental and competitive factors.  Given different competition and environment, the evaluation would have come out differently.  However, the fast biologist and her entire tribe have survived by being faster than their competition.  Her evaluation is not only scientifically based but also partly based upon her evolutionary heritage and Weltanschung that is finely attuned to how speed is beneficial.  It is these factors, unique to people of this tribe, that give more weight to speed as evolutionarily significant and makes it more than just a case of scientific disagreement.

Is the fast biologist unfairly biased? If we consider the perspective of the strong biologist, we can see that the strong biologist has no greater claim to her appraisal of an organism’s fitness: strength is just as arbitrary a trait as speed and this thought experiment could have equally been set up with two organisms that only differed in strength.  Hence the fast biologist could equally claim the strong biologist is unfairly biased toward strength and away from speed.  Generalizing, we can say that no one perspective, be it speed, strength, sight, etc., or any combination of traits, is privileged.  Hence their is no unfair bias because every scientific perspective based upon evolutionary heritage and an associated Weltanschung is as legitimate as any other.

Lastly, consider that every biologist will recognize the same amount of phenotypic difference between two organisms;  difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation.  Therefore any difference in fitness evaluation is not due to a perceived physical difference by the biologists in the organisms studied.

Therefore this thought experiment implies that our determinations of fitness are not independent of the evolutionary history of the biologist(s) making those determinations.   Insofar as we cannot escape our own biology and how it shapes our views, it will determine the fitness value we assign to organisms, if only to a small extent.


In one sense everything on Earth has been evolving for the exact same amount of time, since the dawn of life, and hence no organism alive is any more evolved than any other.

However, from the perspective of the fast biologists, the fast organism is more evolved.  Insofar as the fast biologists believe that life is evolving towards moving faster, the organism that moves faster has adapted before the other organisms.  So, in the special circumstance of a population perceiving evolution to move regularly towards a trait, an organism with that trait can be considered more evolved.

—– the analogs —–
evolutionary significant events are specific adaptations :: physically significant events are light flashes
regular evolutionary change is a population with trait selection :: regular motion is a non-accelerating inertial frame
difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation, regardless of observer :: failure of addition of velocities of light, regardless of observer.
upper limit to adaptation- by definition, no jumps :: speed of light in vacuum defined as c

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, Special Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , .

Deriving Natural Selection = Fitness × Acceleration

As you can see from my previous post, I now have postulated a direct relation between Natural Selection and Fitness (N.S.=F.×A.).  This relation follows from the theory.

The short short short version of the theory is this general postulate: one organism’s traits are another’s environment and vice versa.  Hence all competition can be viewed as environmental phenomena.  This gives Natural Selection as a result of Fitness and an environmental factor, which I refer to as Acceleration.

If you want to see the paper as it stands now, you can access it here or below.[6in/120mm ebook formatted]

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , .

Rewrite of Evolution

New theory of evolution!  Hooray!

Patched a bunch of things together to make a nice story.  Fixed the little issue about fitness being circular.  Expanded natural selection to apply more generally.  Causal structure.  Epistemological foundations.  ooOoOO0Ooooooo.

And it’s good fun.  I swear.  Epistemology, history of physics, evolution… makes me happy.  You should really read it.

Download here. [pdf, 304kb]

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, measurement, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

… Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh

via BackRe(Action)

Posted in fun, General Relativity, measurement, physics, Relativity, science, Special Relativity. Tagged with .