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Physics as a Way of Thinking (1936) [pdf] (osu.edu)
126 points by nz 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments



Vaguely reminds me of Hegel as Hegel describes in his Phenomenology of Spirit the history of the human kind as a progress of collective consciousness (and as I see it, in parallel the progress of individual consciousness). What Hegel describes, in my perspective, is science as a way of thinking, or rather, science as a way of being, where you find yourself and people find you as you immerse yourself into the journey of the progressive world.

Recommend to try the preface of the Phenomenology of the Spirit to get some kind of idea of Hegel's thinking / speculative logic, which I find fascinating.


If you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


> Primitive man must have noticed that events did not occur simultaneously...

Could not make sense of this statement. Isn't just the opposite true? Whatever happens, happens simultaneously because for us only the present exists.


It seems to me this article uses Physics to justify the view that courts should "abstract new laws" as they deem necessary.

This is wholly undemocratic and while it claims to solve one problem (that of legal frameworks growing obsolete) it swaps democracy for 'laws by committee' or 'expert rule'. As a computer scientist I'd call this unscientific or at least a sloppy proposal.


No formulas, only speculations IMHO. Physics is fundamental, not abstract...


Astrophysics as a way of thinking ... we are Type 0


I guess science has always been this contemptuous of both its ancestors and the religious.

> The Buddhist finds his answer in a toleration for what he may neither understand nor alter.

Huh? There is a rich spectrum of buddhist philosophy (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan) and all profess to demonstrate the ways of perceiving and understanding truth and pre-conceptual reality of this world. Straw man here?

> When we try to conceive of the state of mind of primitive man, the first thing that occurs to us is the bewilderment and terror he must have felt in the presence of the powers of nature.

Have a physicist and a "primitive man" face the powers of nature and see who's more comfortable with their surroundings.


> I guess science has always been this contemptuous of both its ancestors and the religious.

> > The Buddhist finds his answer in a toleration for what he may neither understand nor alter.

Let's be charitable; this is not contempt, it is merely shallow knowledge. In 1936, educated westerners had heard the praises of Buddhism but had little access to sophisticated teaching.

Buddhism really does teach us to accept the world as it is, and that the world as it is goes beyond the reach of propositional knowledge. So it is understandable that someone with a hazy (but not wrong) impression of that call it "toleration for what he may neither understand nor alter".


I find Buddhism too complex to grok. Whatever arrives as popular Buddhism in the west seems to be distorted info that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Scientists who talk about Buddhism will only get credibility in my eyes if they apply the same investigativeness towards Buddhism as they love science. Two places they would need to look at is its diversity and their willingness to engage in scientific conversation. The Dalai Lama seems to engage in it, not sure to what extent that counts as Buddhism but it is something.

—- not an expert on Buddhism or physics


It's a misconception to view Buddhism like some sort of mental puzzle. There is plenty of free material online. Just start.

http://www.vipassana.com/meditation/mindfulness_in_plain_eng...


I have never heard any of those Buddhist philosophies speaking of truth like you seem to imply. They don't mean truth in the way Aristotle thinks about it.


How do you mean?


I mean Buddhist do not believe in truth as some narrative.


What do Buddhists believe?


Philosophically they aren't concerned with truth. They are concerned with the ultimate truth which can't be reached through theorizing. They have no problem with conventional western based truth it's just not the bedrock.

Or put another way. Buddhist would say you can't know the truth but you can be it.


> Have a physicist and a "primitive man" face the powers of nature and see who's more comfortable with their surroundings.

What’s the old joke? How many physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?


none: they consider the light negligible against the sun's.


To see the following in the first page of the article already turns me off reading any more

"To get an impression of primitive man's approach to the physical universe ..."

The underlying assumption that cultures from 2000 years or more ago are primitive belies the facts that we are unable to do things that they did on a regular basis in various engineering capacities.

Just consider that they built structures that still exist today when we have difficulty building structures that last beyond 50 years before they have to be torn down due to failures in the materials.


> Just consider that they built structures that still exist today when we have difficulty building structures that last beyond 50 years before they have to be torn down due to failures in the materials.

That might have quite a bit to do with the economic incentives people base their decisions around when building.

Also, survivorship bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias)


I'll grant that "survivorship bias" may be in the argument. As I have said elsewhere, the thing I am highlighting in the attitude towards previous societies as being "primitive." This is, itself, a highly detrimental bias to the argument being presented in the original document.

We can say that they were different technologically, but based on the frailty of our technological systems now, we really can't say that we are superior to those so-called "primitive" societies.


> they were different technologically

We can do everything they could. They can do little we can. They came before us and progressed into us. To refute ancient cultures’ primitiveness is to deny the word any meaning.


Some of these primitive people walked across continents and sailed across oceans using only very simple tools.

Knowledge is contextual. Our ancestors couldn’t manage a web server, but not many HN readers would survive for long with the tools our ancestors used if dumped into the environments they lived in.


What do you actually think "primitive" means?


Not many people today want to build a 50 million ton tomb for one guy. That is arguably a very good thing.


True, those same people spend billions on building the tallest buildings, the biggest man-made island systems, CERN, atomic weapon stock-piles, advanced military systems, ahhmmm, what else - when there are fundamental human problems that need solving - health and welfare, slavery, poverty, etc.

In all the essentials, we are no different to those who have become before us.


Why aren't tall buildings economically useful?


Try the sea docks from ancient Rome around the Mediterranean. The concrete got stronger in sea water whereas we have major problems with modern concrete in sea water. Roadways being another example.

Plus all the other construction efforts around the world, including ancient cities that have survived even being overtaken by jungles, etc.

Let us also consider the various modern nanotechnology research areas being undertaken today to find out how "primitive" people did tasks that we cannot duplicate today.

If people actually understood even the history of the last 200 years, they would understand how much knowledge we have lost during that time and how incapable of repeating many of those things we are today.

Sure, we have some advanced technologies today. However, the facts are that we have lost large areas of technology and chemistry over the last lot centuries. In some cases, what we call modern facilities are a rediscovery of what was available to the ancient peoples.


> concrete got stronger in sea water whereas we have major problems with modern concrete in sea water

Pure concrete is excellent in water. It also crumbles under light loads. Rebar is excellent under heavy loads. It also oxidises. We can choose either material based on the circumstances. The ancients could not.


We aren't incapable of building things that would last 2000 years, we're choosing not to. Modern people could go and build another pyramid out of solid stone blocks, and probably much faster with modern machinery, but why would we?


I can imagine that many of the things we throw into landfills will be quite well preserved 2000 years from now.


I imagine artifacts on the surface of the Moon may somewhat outlive the pyramids of Egypt.


Your point isn't coherent - your very same reasoning also shows that societies today regularly do things - orders of magnitude more things - that societies from antiquity could not.

You claim that we are unable to build structures that can survive the elements long term, only in a later post to point out and categorically dismiss tons of structures modern societies build that are likely to survive long term because those don't align with your value system.

We are communicating on the internet. Let that sink in.


What structures today are likely to survive long term?

My point is that there is an attitude today that societies from antiquity are "primitive". This is the salient point. They were different and took a different technological path.

Yes we can do many things they didn't and they did many things we can't. The point is the attitude of today towards the societies of the past. All we can really say is that they were different technologically.

So what if we can communicate on the internet? That is a blip on the time scale. How long will that actually last? Is it a sign of "high technology" or is it just a different technological path?

If one looks at the technology available in the 1930's to the 1950's, we use a completely different technology today and all one can say is that it is different.

After looking at the subject for many years (decades in fact), all I can say is that we have travelled down a different technological path. Is it better or more advanced than another? I can't say since I can't see what could have been.

Technological systems can be robust or frail. How would you classify the technological systems of today?


> What structures today are likely to survive long term?

The structures today will not survive long term because we choose not to make them so they survive long term. Its not that we can't. Using modern construction equipment, we can replicate pyramids with a fraction of the labor and effort that the Egyptians expended IF we so choose. But we don't. Building pyramids or houses or even roads that survive greater than a few decades is not useful because we keep improving our construction know-how and can make more and more comfortable habitats every few years. Comfort and price is what we choose to optimize for, not suitability.

> Yes we can do many things they didn't and they did many things we can't.

This is categorically untrue. We can do pretty much anything and everything the ancients do, but rarely choose to do so, because we can do better than them. You can nitpick about how we forgot specific ratios of ingredients in some cement or something, but thats nitpicking because we can always find the best comfort/price cement ourselves.


As for choosing to not make structure to last, I know of various buildings that were intended to be available for a period of at least 50 years. These structures began to fail after only 25 years. If we design for a period of "x" and we have failures at half of "x", we have some serious problems to overcome. One of them is that as a society we are so short-sighted that we cannot think past today, let alone 50 to 100 years.

If we are continually improving our construction techniques then explain why there are various research groups trying to work out what and how the ancients did things? Why do these research groups (in both private and public organisations) want to know this information? Is it because the techniques and materials used by those ancients are not known today? Is it because those techniques are superior to those we use today?

As far as cement is concerned, there are a number of different research groups that are looking at why we cannot make long lasting cements. On interesting facet about cement is that steel reinforcing actual decreases the life of any structure that uses this kind of technology.

You make a comment that we could replicate ancient structures "if" we chose to do so. You use the example of a pyramid as your example. Yet how they were constructed is an active research area because we don't know how it was done. There are lots of ideas, but no actual certainty on how they were constructed. Without knowing how they did and why they did what they did, it becomes very difficult to duplicate.

As I said before, we use different technologies to them. I suggest that you read various histories of technological development, including the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see what was done and how we lost the ability to do today. Sometimes we have been able to recover specific technological pathways because we have been able to get access to those individuals who were involved in previous generations.

I'll go back to my original comment that we, today, have an attitude problem when we consider earlier or ancient societies as being "primitive". It is an unfortunate fact of life that we do not care to preserve knowledge from the past. This is often done because we believe that we are more technologically advanced than we were even 10 years ago. Yet there are consequences to that attitude that will come back and bite us as a society and has already bitten us at various times in the last set of decades.

When you say that the statement "Yes we can do many things they didn't and they did many things we can't." is categorically untrue, then I can only assume that you are not familiar with various projects that are trying to discover how the previous societies were able to achieve particular outcomes (in a technological sense) that we can't do yet, even with all of our vaunted technological skills.


I agree with some of what you say about what people do, but entirely disagree with you with why people do those things.

> As for choosing to not make structure to last...

I agree with you that we are often short-sighted and have non-sustainable practices. But the reason for making bad products is not that we can't - we absolutely can - its just that we are greedy. Its like saying that because we haven't gone to the Moon in 40 years, we have forgotten and can't do it anymore. No, if someone wanted to do it and was willing to spend a few billion, they could absolutely start from scratch, with no help from NASA or old designs and still figure out how to go to the Moon in a few years. Its not hard, just something nobody wants to do.

> If we are continually improving our construction techniques then explain why there are various research groups trying to work out...

I understand that compared to other ancient civilizations the Pyramids are surprising and its not completely known what sort of system allowed for their construction. But why historians are interested to learn this is not because they want to use it to become rich or construct pyramids ourselves. Historians are interested just because historians are interested in what people from long ago used to do. Historians also try to learn how many hours people worked a day, what the nature of marriage was, what sort of food people ate etc. Figuring out the pyramids is just one question out of many.

> Is it because those techniques are superior to those we use today?

No, they weren't. They just used tens of thousands of slaves to move big rocks. A big modern crane can do the same without killing off thousands of people.

> ... we don't know how it was done... it becomes very difficult to duplicate.

Us not knowing how they did it means nothing about how we can do it. We can just do it differently and much more easily. Pyramids are one of the most stable structures you can build. We literally just need a big kiln to make huge bricks and a big crane to place those bricks in the right spots. Of course, if we were limited to 50,000 slaves and no modern equipment, we might fail because we have indeed forgotten "techniques" of moving stones at the cost of many lives, but superior?


>What structures today are likely to survive long term?

The Georgia Guidestones come to mind. I've been quite interested in the pre-ice age golden age theory lately but I think the part missing from your analysis is that we're farther ahead on a chemical/particle tech branch than on a social engineering tech branch. We've essentially scaled up competing warbands to a planetary scale - a class 1 civilization we are not, and seem more likely to develop one on Mars than Earth.

Building the Georgia Guidestones probably cost much less in human terms than a comparably complex henge, but we lack the mindset to collectively see the value in it. To make a gaming analogy of your point, I would say we're objectively ahead on one branch of the tech tree but we overlook simpler technologies on branches we haven't explored yet, to the point of not realizing other civilizations were farther ahead in some regards while being behind in others.


> What structures today are likely to survive long term?

Most modern, underground vault structure will last far longer than the Pyramids. They won’t look as pretty as they do now. But the Pyramids were once adorned with marble.


Do not be intellectually lazy; if say two technologies differ, actually examine the specifics of those technologies so you can have something quantity to compare to.

Otherwise, are you actually equivocating technologies that were developed via trial and error with technologies that can only be developed by first having accurate, reliable, and detailed understandings of several aspects of nature? Or are you claiming that ancient societies understood statistical dynamics and quantum physics? Or are you claiming that understanding nature does not, in fact, allow one to more easily and more capably predicate and manipulate nature?

edit: One example: you say that technologies from the 30s and 50s (quite telling that you lump these two decades together) can only be said to be different from technology now, not that today's is comparatively high technology. As far as I am aware, fission weapons and energy were the most technology sophisticated tech developed in the 50s, requiring what was, at the time, the latest discoveries in what would later become quantum chromodynamics. Nuclear technology today is categorically more advanced: cheaper to build, higher energy yields, and smaller, all while no longer requiring the absolute top tier physicists to build.

edit2: "Technological systems can be robust or frail. How would you classify the technological systems of today?"

Again, we are communicating on a world wide information network that is both theoretically and empirically robust to physical and digital attacks and misconfigurations of critical nodes. The device you are typing your replies on contains a CPU with billions of transistors that are sensitive to the slightest electromagnetic phenomenon, yet it doesn't break. The electrical grid you're a part of might not be robust to local failures, but again, that is demonstrably a cost savings decision. Localities that have spent the money building power grids with the predicted appropriate level of redundancy do not have long term power outages.


Your comments in this thread have broken the HN guidelines. "Your point isn't coherent" is already name-calling in the sense they ask you not to do; but "Do not be intellectually lazy" is worse; it's both uncivil and patronizing. If you'd please edit that kind of thing out of your posts to Hacker News, we'd appreciate it.


Thank you for your comment, but as the recipient of the two comments, I did not take them as name-calling but as an indication that my comments may have been less than succinct or logical and needed clarification, which I hope I have achieved in my response.


>develop technologies by trial and error >develop physics by trial and error

Hmm.


Many of the technologies that we have today are no less developed by trial and error than were done in previous generations and societies. Certainly, we have various mathematical theories that give pointers and direction for development and it is very unlikely that those theories and mathematical techniques were used or available in the past.

But as to our modern theories allowing us to actually understand the nature of the universe around and how to manipulate it according to our theories, they don't really do all that well. They can certainly give direction but when the rubber hits the road, reality generally requires modifications because reality is far more complex than our theories lead one to believe.

It was three decades thirties to the fifties. As far as nuclear fission is concerned, that would have developed without quantum mechanics and its ilk. That kind of technology arose out of the experimental work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. if you look at the trial and error processes that were undertaken, researchers died because they did not understand what they were playing with. Just a pointer, energy-mass equivalence arises out of both classical electromagnetics as well the work done by Einstein and others in the quantum mechanics field.

I agree we are communicating on a world wide information network. It is so fragile that entire nations have lost external communication pathways in recent times. The technological basis for this network is entirely dependent on many choke points around the world. If some of those are attacked in any way or are destroyed by natural or even human caused events then that network will go down. For some of those events, a rerouting of communications may be possible. For others, it may required a large reconstruction process to occur and for others it may not be salvageable at all.

Our telecommunications networks require many things to work for it to stay up and operational. This is true for many of the technological pathways we use today. Our technological systems are very fragile today and it won't take much to strip our society of its technological edge. There are so many points of failure that most of the population is unaware of.

Get a single forest fire and the power transmission system can be decimated. A single earthquake can do the same. Start a war and see how long the technological infrastructure is maintained.

But back to the main point, just because we have a particular technological stand doesn't mean that other societies that have come before us were "primitive" because they had a different technological stand.


Survivorship bias.


sure, but. what things built in the last 20 years do think most likely to last for 2000? I'm not sure I can think of any. Parts of a big highway maybe?


https://www.nist.gov/el/materials-and-structural-systems-div...

This should provide some information about the durability of stone. I am not aware of similar experiments for other materials.


I imagine the Brooklyn Bridge will be standing for at least a few hundred more years unless it goes underwater. Plenty of buildings in the mountains should survive.


It seems to me this article uses Physics to justify the view that courts should "abstract new laws" as they deem necessary.

This is wholly undemocratic and while it claims to solve one problem (that of legal frameworks growing obsolete) it creates the problem of 'laws by committee' or 'expert rule'.




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