I am fundamentally weak, in both physical strength and emotional resolve, so it's quite odd that I ended up as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Just goes to show what a series of ill-considered decisions by an individual, coupled with low-quality screening on the part of large public bodies, can accomplish. It didn't take long for me to realise that I was more likely to follow in the footsteps of Gomer Pyle (okay, he was a Marine) than those of Patton and Bradley.
I showed up at my first unit - one of the few light infantry units in Germany, where tanks dominate the terrain - when my company was on a field exercise. The lieutenant whose platoon I was taking over (as he moved to another role in the company) let me borrow his equipment so I could get straight out to lead the next mock operation. I literally didn't even drop off my bags back at the garrison.
My platoon had three squads of about ten men each, plus a communications specialist, a medic and an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) specialist. They had been 'in the field' for a number of days before I arrived and were already pretty tired. They were, though, understandably excited to see their new platoon leader. I had the tough-man's short haircut and the badges to show that I was parachute and Ranger qualified. Surely this let them know I was a leader worthy of their respect???
We were to conduct what is called a 'movement to contact' in the wee hours between midnight and sunrise. A force embarks on this type of mission when they have a rough idea but no specific intelligence of where the enemy is. Essentially, it involves moving in a formation that lends itself to rapid deployment from traveling to fighting posture, so that when you encounter the enemy you can quickly transition to the attack.
My platoon sergeant, the oldest and most experienced member of the unit, was injured, so one of the squad leaders was acting in his place. Our plan was based on a standard template of such operations. I would travel behind the lead squad, with him just ahead of the trail one. The radio man was with me, the medic and most of the heavier weapons (machine guns) with him. When we met the enemy, his contingent would quickly pull up beside mine to gain and maintain a superior base of fire on the enemy forces. Then I would peel off with an assault force to swing around the flank while the platoon sergeant and half of the platoon continued to lay down covering fire.
I carefully mapped out our route and distributed the relevant compass azimuths and distances of each leg of the mission to the squads. After a thorough briefing, careful equipment preparation and detailed rehearsals of the scenario described above, we set out on the mission.
The movement was going well, but in the relatively featureless terrain I had a hard time (which I never admitted, of course) verifying our position on the ground relative to the map used in the planning and in guiding our movements. By the time that we had covered more than the planned distance to the enemy without any sight of them, and as the scheduled hour of the confrontation came and went, I had to stop the formation and convene a leaders' meeting to double-check our position relative to the map.
We (myself and these over-tired squad leaders and stand-in platoon sergeant) decided that we were actually very near where the enemy must be. I took an executive decision to quietly move the platoon sergeant and his contingent into a perfect position to lay down fire on the identified terrain. Then I set out with my assault team to sneak up on the enemy from the flank. When I gave the signal, we would spring a perfect surprise attack on the opposing force, none of whom had yet realised we were on their doorstep.
It was all coming together. In addition to demonstrating textbook planning and preparation and executing a good (if somewhat uncertain) tactical movement, I was exhibiting the sort of flexibility that came with real tactical genius. I was on a buzz; my men had shrugged off their sleepiness and looked sharp and poised. We stealthily swept around in an arc, knowing we were moments from dealing death to the baddies.
A shot rang out just ahead. One of the enemy must have spotted us. I ordered my assault team to return fire and launched a green flare - the signal to the platoon sergeant and his fire support team to start shooting as well - into the air. All hell broke lose. The rattle and cough of automatic weapons echoed in the pre-dawn darkness. The smell of cordite filled the air.
I moved my assault team forward in bounding rushes. First one half, then the other. Everyone moving in short bursts - three steps then hit the ground, three steps then hit the ground. We closed in for the final assault. Time to signal to the platoon sergeant to lift his fire, as we were about to sweep across the enemy position and didn't want to get shot by our own men - the ultimate tragedy.
Before I had time to launch the appropriate flare for that signal, I caught sight of several faces of the enemy, only to realise that they were not the enemy at all! My sweeping arc had had a rather grander swing to it than I thought. I had circled round completely. Both my assault team and the platoon sergeant's support team had inflicted heavy casualties, but unfortunately we had inflicted them on one another! In a spectacular display of tactical ineptitude, I had completely destroyed my own unit.
The actual opposing force was sitting a half mile away, it's men getting bored, waiting eagerly for sunrise and breakfast and wondering what all the fighting was off to the southeast.
My company commander, who always had a soft spot for me and luckily subscribed to the school of learning through mistakes, assured me that my unit and I had done many things well. My men were also strangely forgiving of the fact that I'd led them to slaughter themselves. Over not too great a time I was able to (re?) gain their respect and enjoy a great year, including many more field exercises.
My commander was right - we learn from our mistakes. Despite having bucket loads of fun with a quality bunch of guys, I left the infantry when I got the chance and left the military once I had completed my obligatory service. I'll leave the fighting to those better suited to it.
Originally posted 15 Mar 2005 - Phew, I can't believe I got that much to grips with the technical discussion back when I was more 'into it'. As I've mentioned in previous posts (I recommend you read If You Think You Understand This, Then You Don't and Bell's Inequality and Bell Revisited before reading this post), I'm not so exercised now about whether the world is deterministic and local. It seems quite likely that it is at least non-local, which fits with my best intuition at this point anyway.
Beginning with his 1995 paper, Tim Palmer, from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, questioned the binding force of Bell's Inequality and demonstrated that wholly deterministic (although non-computably chaotic) non-linear dynamical systems could produce the apparent randomness of quantum state measurement while keeping our understanding of the universe on a local and real footing. He has refined his thinking and presented it in further papers in 2004 and 2005. I think that he is onto something real and big.
Through the happy chance of working with someone whose partner works with Tim at ECMWF, I got the opportunity to meet him and talk a bit about his thinking. Keep in mind that Tim's day job is in meteorological research, so his physics work is in his spare time. Although I clearly lack schooling in the range of mathematical tools necessary to follow all of the technical details, through reading his papers and talking for that hour or so, I've got a pretty good idea what he's up to.
The core points
There are two common and related themes to his physics work:
Although the evolution of the state vector through time is a deterministic one, the reduction of the system to an observable state appears to be random. Conventional QM takes this indeterminacy as given. Palmer thinks that the apparent randomness hides a chaotic dynamic that is simply too messy to untangle, which makes his approach what is known as a 'hidden variables' one.
Chaos theory uses the concepts of attractors and basins when speaking of how different initial conditions migrate via iterations of some non-linear operation toward some resting place. A resting place is called an attractor, and the collection of initial states that migrates to that attractor is called its basin.
What I have just said is, of course, a gross over-simplification. Not all non-linear systems converge to an attractor at all. Some just explode towards infinity.
Nor does an attractor necessarily constitute a single number at which the system settles forever. An attractor may be a cyclical one, whose cycle may involve simply flipping regularly between two numbers or may involve cycling through a sequence of numbers so long that it would not repeat in the history of the universe to date.
Also, not all basins are defined by smooth outlines. An attractor's basin may be very messy indeed, with any point within the basin having other points arbitrarily close to it that DO NOT belong to the basin. Such basins are said to be riddled.
Now imagine a system with two attractors: whose basins collectively cover the entire possible set of initial conditions; whose basins are of equal area (or volume, if the space is three dimensional) to one another; and whose basins are jointly riddled (that is to say, intertwined) as above.
It is possible to construct such a system that is so riddled that (given truncation errors) it is impossible to compute algorithmically which basin a given set of initial conditions belongs to. Given the equal size of the basins, there is a 50% chance that any set of initial conditions belongs to either basin. It is also possible to construct this system in such a way that it is consistent with other aspects of the formalism of QM for the measurement of bivalent properties like spin, and Palmer shows this.
There may be more work to do, but the point is that Palmer has shown that a deterministic system may exist that is consistent with QM.
What about locality?
But isn't such a system bounded by Bell's inequality, which is known to be violated by both QM prediction and experimental evidence? No, says Palmer, because Bell's proof makes an implicit assumption about certain counterfactual propositions having definite (yes or no) truth values.
Where does this notion of counterfactual reasoning enter Bell's proof? Let's remember the experiment that tests it. Zero angular momentum electron pairs (Right and Left) are emitted from a special source. One device measures the spin of each Right electron along some axis in the plane that is orthogonal (perpendicular) to the electrons' path. Another device measures the spin of each Left electron along one of two axes, each of which constitutes a different rotation (say x for one and z for the other) from the axis of the Right device. Bell's inequality is then a relationship among the measurements taken at these three (R, Lx, Ly) orientations.
The important thing to remember, though, is that for any given pair of electrons, only TWO of these measurements can be taken (R & Lx, or R & Ly). The theorem makes the assumption that the measurements among many pairs of electrons can be lumped together and then relates correlations within the large set. So, in fact, the relationship observed for any GIVEN pair of electrons is one of two:
The elements in italics are the counterfactual ones. In reality, ONLY x OR z can be chosen as the orientation for the Left member of any given pair. The assumed measure of what it would have been were the other angle chosen is taken from the statistical behaviour of the pairs whose Left element was measured at the other angle.
Determinism, Free Will, and the observer as part of the system
What is the upshot of all of this? I want to (try to) go into a bit more of the technical detail in a minute, but it is possible to think about this initially at a philosophical level. IF the universe is deterministic in the philosophical sense, then everything that happens (everything that has ever happened and will ever happen) happens NECESSARILY. It COULD NOT have happened any other way. Palmer shows with his demonstration of a particular chaotic system that determinism is consistent with QM observations.
So, in effect, we're saying that the observer only measured, say, R and Lx for a particular electron pair. And we're saying that the universe has evolved in such a way that - however free the observer felt himself to be in his choice of the L measurement orientation - he COULD NOT have chosen it to be y. So introducing a counterfactual proposition about what MIGHT have happened HAD he chosen y is meaningless. Even though it feels like a small hypothetical change in the context of a large universe, it is simply not within the set of possible states of the world.
As uncomfortable as many feel with determinism, because of its implications for our pure notion of free will, this is hard to get around. Neither the electron pair nor the observer can be taken outside the universe itself. And if the evolution of that universe is deterministic (as it is if it can be modeled by a non-linear dynamical system) then not only the spin measurements but also the orientations at which they are made follow necessarily from the initial conditions of the universe and the laws that govern is evolution.
Over our heads
Now, Tim Palmer expresses all of this in a much more disciplined way. He gives an example of a universe defined by a famous attractor, known as the Lorenz Attractor (named after the father of non-linear dynamics, who discovered it). This attractor is defined by three differential equations on three variables. If the initial conditions of the universe sit on the attractor, and if these differential equations govern the universe's evolution, then the smallest of perturbations to one of the variables will move the system off of the attractor (given the attractor's fractal nature), thereby violating the laws of the universe.
But Palmer needs to bridge a gap here. The wave function of quantum mechanics (defined by Schrodinger's equation) uses complex (i.e., using 'i', the square root of -1) linear dynamics. Palmer is talking about real (i.e. no square root of -1) NON-linear dynamics. How can his system do the work of Schrodinger's?
At this point, it gets pretty hairy for us non-mathematicians. Palmer introduces a new definition of i as an operator on a sequence of real numbers. Quantum states can be defined by sets of these sequences, and Palmer shows how his i operator performs in a way analogous to the maths of the upward cascade of fluctuations in a turbulent flow (something from his meteorological world).
The effect of these steps is to present a way of describing the state function in granular (like the quantum world itself) terms rather than in the continuous terms of the Hilbert space that is used in conventional QM. Applying this to the test of Bell's inequality, this means that we can't pick any angle in a continuum but are instead confined to a finite (but as large as we wish) set of angles. Palmer proves that there is no way that measurements for both the Lx and Ly angular differences from the R orientation can be simultaneously defined. All of this amounts to the more rigorous and mathematical proof of the point I made philosophically and sloppily in the section above. The bottom line is that any real physical state must be associated with a computable real number (even if the only way to compute it is to let nature 'integrate' it through a physical experiment!).
Where does this take us? If we re-interpret the wave function as a set of binary sequences as described above, we can think of the elements of those sequences as 'real' bits of quantum reality, which means that even in the absence of a measurement, we take the quantum state to have definite values rather than a superposition of possible values.
Also, a sequence itself encodes information not just about the system it describes but also about that system's relationship to the whole. Palmer uses an analogy with the DNA in our bodies' cells. This hearkens back to the explicate and implicate order in David Bohm's interpretation of quantum theory. Look for more on Bohm in an upcoming post.
First posted 5 May 2005. These days... actions, words, beliefs are all equally 'parts' of what happens. What a person says and does is what the person is. The speaking of the words is just a subset of the actions. The actions owe no consistency to one another, but rather each renders consistency with the moment in which it happens, of which it is a part.
Are a person's actions the true expression of their beliefs? Part of me thinks so. I think the existentialists have a point when they say the real votes are the ones that we make with our feet. If you say you value integrity but routinely tell white lies, then you really don't value integrity (at least as it applies to you). Our actions define us.
Yet I have a couple of doubts. The first one, you might call Catholic. The Catholics (among others) recognise our fundamental human frailty and might say that the white lies in the example above do not speak against the person's values themselves, but rather against the person's discipline and strength in attempting to live by those values. I have a little time for this angle, but not much.
The more significant doubt is based on the unconscious activities of our brains, and it really comes down to the definition of belief. If we define a belief as a wholly conscious mental product, and if we admit that many of the drivers of our actions are sub- or unconscious ones, then we would have to disagree with the existentialists. We believe one thing as conscious beings, but we are not ONLY conscious beings. It is unsurprising that our actions, which have sources outside the conscious realm, do not speak with the same voice as the conscious mind.
On the other hand, if a belief is a mental entity that includes not just conscious components but unconscious ones as well, then I guess we would say that the conscious mental formulation or utterance that we imprecisely call a belief is actually something thinner and less complete than the real belief - just a shadow of a belief. This, I guess, paves the way back to the existentialist conclusion that only the 'whole package' (both conscious and unconscious) as demonstrated through action constitutes the real belief.
In the summer of 1987, I reported back to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where I'd spent a semester on exchange from West Point the previous year. This time, it was for a three week training programme in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape - a course designed for current and future pilots, in case they get shot down behind enemy lines.
If I remember correctly, the first couple of weeks were very soft, unlike Army courses, where there tended to be hazing for hazing's sake, this one was very civilised until the time came to impose a hostile scenario to consolidate the learning. The survival phase was mainly classroom work, other than a 'survival meal' in which we (in small groups) had to kill and eat a rabbit and a chicken. I'd had to do that in previous courses I'd done anyway. Things got interesting when we launched into the evasion phase. Three man teams were designated to navigate from a place where they were notionally shot down, via partisan camps and avoiding enemy patrols, to a point of safe passage to friendly territory.
Another Army guy was in my small team. Our Air Force counterpart badly sprained his ankle relatively early on the first day, when we had three days walking and many wooded miles to cover. I have to say, he was incredibly stoic and brave, but still he had to lean on one or both of us. Of course, we had only minimal equipment and next to no food. We purified water from mountain streams or lakes with iodine tablets so as not to fall prey to dehydration.
We managed to avoid the enemy patrols, who concentrated disproportionately on obvious points like open space and road crossings, where lazy teams would wander to minimise the distance they had to travel. The smart money was on putting in the extra distance in order to avoid those traps, but that meant that the pressure was always on to ensure we didn't miss the time windows for presenting ourselves at the partisan camps, where we could get stew or other sustenance.
The resistance phase was 24 hours in a simulated POW camp. We were blindfolded and placed in solitary confinement - including little cramped boxes one could barely fit into by sitting and hunching over in a ball. This didn't bother me particularly, as I quite like spending time on my own and don't mind close spaces. I do remember, though, as I do from most of my military training courses, just being terribly impatient with the fact that my freedom was so restricted.
I was a bad student in that I never immersed myself in the scenario to get the most from it. I always satisficed AS A STUDENT rather than stepping fully into the role AS A PRISONER or whatever other role I was cast in. This is not to say that I never played the game. During interrogation, I gave no useful information and even managed to stick to a consistent story of misinformation. But how hard was that? They couldn't exactly chop my fingers off, kick me in the nuts or threaten to kill my family. They could only put me into some temporarily uncomfortable 'stress' positions that I knew caused no lasting damage.
As with most of my military training, I learned at least as much about myself as I did about the specific content of the course.
'A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.'
Thus spake the Honor Code at West Point. Anyone deemed to be in violation of it had to appear before an 'Honor Board' in which the alleged facts of the case and any defense were presented to a 'jury' of peers, who would decide whether the charged cadet was 'found' (guilty) or 'not found.' A cadet found on an honor violation was punished severely, most often by expulsion from the academy.
The rationale for the weight placed on the honor code lay in the absolute trust that one officer must have in another in the profession of arms. As an officer of the state's armed forces, one's character and actions had to be beyond reproach. We all took it very seriously.
The first three elements of the code were relatively simple:
Don't lie - period. Not about your age when trying to buy alcohol, not about where you were when a surprise inspection the night before had detected you were not in your own room.
Don't cheat - period. Not on your homework. Not in an exam. Not when doing your push-ups for the physical fitness test.
Don't steal - period. This one, unlike the two above, hardly ever tripped anyone up.
The fourth element of the code - called the non-toleration clause - was more personally demanding, as it required that you report any known cadet infringements of the code. It didn't matter whether the culprit was someone you didn't know or your best friend, a rival or someone you owed a favour to. If you were found to have known of a violation and to have failed to report it, then you were in violation yourself.
My sense was always that cadets accepted the first three elements without question, but that some harbored doubt about the non-toleration clause. The trouble lay in the clause's perceived undermining of the value of camaraderie - another essential glue among military professionals. You had to know that your buddy would be there for you, no matter what. You were a team, in it together. Yet the non-toleration clause could be seen as flying in the face of that tightness.
In the end, I subordinated camaraderie as a stand-alone value to the principle of non-toleration. This was, of course, in keeping with what the academy wanted us to do, and I bought the official reasoning: camaraderie, team spirit, is not commendable when it serves an ignoble end (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing). Were we to elevate camaraderie above our ethical principles, we might find ourselves supporting cover-ups of looting, massacres, rapes or genocide during war, in the interest of 'protecting buddies'. I certainly didn't think that would be right. I do think that most at the academy bought into the non-toleration clause as I did, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that a (quiet) minority prioritised camaraderie instead.
I graduated from West Point in 1988. In 2002, I received a message from another academy grad, asking me to get in touch. I must have copied the phone number incorrectly, because I was unable to reach him. He left a further message and expressed a certain urgency to speak with me. Although we knew one another pretty well as cadets, we had never been especially close friends. Without other clear ideas for why he might be phoning, I suspected he might be looking for a job with my current employer and hoping for some help.
When we finally caught up with one another by phone, we engaged in the usual talk-once-a-decade chit chat about where our lives had got to, etc. He then adopted a very sober tone and said that something had been digging at his conscience for years and that he needed to make a confession to me.
He went on to remind me (I had no recollection) that he had been charged with an honor violation during my final year at the Academy and that he had called me as a character witness. I 'testified' as to my views of his character at the time, and in the end - on the basis of all the assembled evidence - he was not found. His confession to me in this phone call, you will have guessed, was that he had committed the offence, the details of which I can't remember.
It had obviously taken some real courage for him to come out with that, and I told him that I appreciated his call and admired him for undertaking to set the record straight with me. He did the same with every person who was involved in the case, and indeed with the Academy itself. For me, that is sufficient to expunge the stains from that period of weakness at West Point, but I'm not sure what the Academy's official view is.
Can honor, once lost, be recovered? I would like to think so.
First posted 4 Aug 2004. Reading now, I know how influenced German philosophy, including Nietzsche's, was by eastern thinking. Now familiar with those influences, I can see them wrapped in Nietzsche's strained metaphors. Nietzsche ended up losing himself in his metaphorical labyrinth, not keeping enough contact with society and the real world to anchor him between his metaphysical flights. He saw and articulated the dangers of modernity, but his alternative was insufficiently stable for either Nazi Germany (whose leaders hijacked his words) or himself.
Nietzsche calls on us to be the poets of our own lives. Given his love of music and his belief that music brings us closer than anything else can to the raw experience of Being, perhaps the better metaphor is that we should be the composers as well as players of our own lives. Regardless - creativity is at the centre of Nietzsche's programme. He applied this to himself as well, seeing philosophy not as a field for discovering truths but for creating them.
Nietzsche didn't need to argue that objective truths don't exist, although at least sometimes he did make just such statements. He could just as well point out that, irrespective of their existence, these truths are ultimately inaccessible to us. The epistemological argument could still allow him to reduce practical truth to a battle of forces. A person defines his moral truths (albeit while being acted upon by social, cultural and individual forces around him) and then sets out to live by them. In so living, he brings his 'truths' into contact with those of others around him. Either by demonstration, persuasion, trickery or force, some truths emerge as dominant in the rich mix of human interaction.
Nietzsche has no time for democracy per se in this process, holding no great respect for the mass of humanity. The great souls will emerge from the fray and set the light by which others live. The greatest of these souls are the artists, who through music and metaphor exert the most powerful influence on the game. They set (or more often tear down) the boundaries in which the contest of life takes place. For the most part, Nietzsche believes they are - and should be - completely unconstrained in this creative act. Nietzsche held what might be called an aesthetic worldview, believing that mankind's existence was justified only by the accomplishments of its most gifted members and that nothing should limit their creative powers.
This all sounds a bit scary for the great collection of us humble enough to recognise that we are not among the earth's true shakers and movers, but Nietzsche assumed that the great men would act nobly. This mustn't be confused with any sense that the supermen would respect the common men. Nor did it guarantee that a few people didn't get squashed along the way. Nietzsche saw war as a great tool of Dionysian creative destruction that shook mankind from its slumber and re-stirred the creative forces. In his more balanced moments, he did admit that these Dionysian forces did need to be balanced somewhat by the more structured, ordered Apollonian ones - a sort of hot and cold bicameral system that could be applied to the individual psychologically but also to the world in cultural and social terms.
This all sounds a bit extreme, but we do have to keep in mind what Nietzsche saw it as an inoculation against. Nietzsche believed two things, and he believed that these things were becoming increasingly clear to people in general. First, there was no God. God had not created man but vice versa. The fact that science and scepticism were undermining faith in the numinous made him worry that mankind would be left adrift, anchor-less. Second, he subscribed to determinism in its strongest sense. At heart, none of us could choose to do other than we do. Our actions were driven not by a cause-free agent but rather by the currents and eddies of a continuous flux of forces - the Will to Power. As science increasingly demonstrated our place as part of the natural world and its causal flow, the common man would descend into nihilism - a submission to the view that nothing mattered.
Only humanity's strongest (who, in Nietzsche's view, transcended humanity to become a new type of being) could overcome this undertow and provide a new framework in which others could operate healthily. Doing so required not only casting off the shores of Christian false comfort and braving the tumultuous waters, but also choosing a new shore - legislating a new code, creating a new order. One had to embrace the knowledge of Being's flux and destiny's necessity. One had to walk mockingly on the edge of the abyss.
And of course, Nietzsche realised that he too operated within the flow of determinism. What he wrote, he wrote by necessity. Whether others were influenced by him, followed him rather than descending into nihilism, was also a matter of necessity. He, like the rest of us, was a vehicle for (or a current in) the ever flowing Heraclitean flux of existence. He embraced this as what he was and charged onto the field of battle with passion and steel.
The challenge Nietzsche saw and sought to meet posed a difficult dilemma. How do we simultaneously accept that our actions are fully determined and yet plunge into and through life with vigour and relish? We adopt the perspective of the creative front of a wave of action (for Nietzsche, more strictly, Will to Power), that defines itself, and then imposes that definition on the world. We 'become who we are.' One need accept no boundaries in the application of this creative force, save one.
This boundary is an internal one only, one imposed by the perpetual realisation that what one does this once will be relived over and over again forever. Nietzsche believed, not just metaphorically but metaphysically (in keeping with some scientific hypotheses of the day) that time recycled without end. His doctrine of the Eternal Return served notice to all that one must act such that one wills that act to repeat in perpetuity. When considered deeply, this brings very great weight indeed to moral decision making. Yet the weight does not lean toward any particular desired corner.
We can call Nietzsche to account for a certain lack of clarity in his writing, certainly when that writing is held to the standards of modern analytical philosophy. Nietzsche's answer would be a simple one - that the greatest truths are not discovered through reasoned clarity but rather brought into being by creative genius. Metaphor (our closest verbal approximation to music) is the tool of true philosophers. We can also disagree with his metaphysical commitments to a Will to Power and the Eternal Return. In my view, though, these were only one step too far. While rejecting the idea of the Will to Power, I subscribe to the view that reality is a continuous flux. As for the doctrine of the Eternal return, I prefer to view it instead that what happens now echoes in eternity - it is 'captured' in the great eternal camera reel that plays through one frame at a time. Anyway, these are also just metaphysical speculations themselves!
What I appreciate about Nietzsche's message is that while we are part of the deterministic flow of nature, we cannot possibly know what our destiny is, so we must think and act such as to create that destiny for ourselves but also for all that surrounds us, bringing ourselves to bear on the world. My choices and actions define me, yet I (not as a cause-free agent but as the sum of all that has come together in me at this moment) compose the song that is my life - this short special time during which all that is me assumes a living, sentient, conscious form.
Sitting down to a meal was not exactly a relaxing experience as a first year student at West Point. Plebes, as the academy referred to its freshmen, could not talk to one another and had to request permission to speak with anyone else. With this gag order in effect, they needed to perform a number of duties for the table.
Each table sat 10 people. These places were assigned, with the same colleagues sitting together for 3-4 weeks before new table assignments were made. There were four year groups at West Point, and each was represented roughly equally at each rectangular table. So, the top 2-3 seats were for the Firsties (seniors), the next ones for the Cows (juniors), then the Yearlings (sophomores) and finally, at the foot of the table, the Plebes.
The mess hall had waiting staff to bring food and drink to the table, where it was always served 'family style' in serving dishes to be doled out to each person's plate by the table occupants. The plebes' duties were separate from and complementary to the waiters' tasks.
Whenever new table assignments came out, each table's Plebes would have to confer in one of their rooms to divvy up information gathering tasks. They would then each go off to their assigned upper-classmen's rooms to request and record information about each person's beverage and dessert preferences for meals:
- The beverage preference could be as simple as, ' I always want water with ice.' But it could take on considerably greater complexity, as in, 'I'll always have the drink for the meal if it is a fruit drink, and in those cases I will have it with 2 whole ice-cubes - not bits. If the drink is iced tea, I'll have water, with no ice, unless it's at dinner, in which case I'll have the iced tea with 3 whole ice cubes. Never give me a chipped glass, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.'
-Similarly, the dessert preference could range from, 'I'll always have it,' to 'I'll always have cake, unless it has coconut in it. I'll never have pie unless it's apple. If the dessert is a tart, ask me at the table. If you forget, I'll kill you.' You get the picture.
So, among the things a waiter drops off at the table are a pitcher of drink, a bucket of ice and an uncut dessert. The plebes at the table had to serve all of the drinks and cut the dessert before turning to their own meals. Doesn't sound too tough, but there were a couple of complicating factors.
First, the plebes had to have all of the preferences memorised. No notes were allowed at the table. Given all of the other information plebes had to have committed to memory - the three menus for the day, a paraphrasing of every article from the front page and lead sports page of the the day's New York Times, the number of days until various important events in the year's schedule (the Navy football game, Christmas break, Spring break, graduation, etc.) and a small catalog of West Point and Army trivia - the brain became a bit cluttered. And let's not forget that the poor fella might have a calculus or electrical engineering mid-term test immediately after lunch!
Second, the dessert needed to be cut into the correct number of exactly equal pieces and needed to be presented to the 'table commandant' for inspection. Most desserts were circular. The centre of the cuts needed to be at the geometric centre of the dessert, or there was trouble. The cuts needed to be clean, so the plebe doing the cutting would literally wipe off the knife and dip it in water before each new cut. And as I said, the pieces needed to be exactly equal. If all of this was done correctly, but the dessert had the wrong number of pieces (based on incorrect memory of the dessert preferences for the upperclassmen) there was still hell to pay.
Now, a slight cheat was allowed for cutting equal sized pieces. Each plebe was allowed (read required) to bring a template to the meal. This template could not touch the dessert, but could be balanced on crumbs of bread that the Plebe set on the dessert. The template usually had a hole in the centre, to help place it correctly on the dessert. It also had (according to the rigour and comprehensiveness of the plebe's approach) colour-coded notches for a six-piece cut vs. a seven-, eight-, nine- or ten-piece cut. Beads of sweat would form on the forehead as the operation was performed and the plebe awaited the table commandant's judgement after inspecting it.
Let's say it all went fine. Whewww! Now the plebes can eat. They have some catching up to do, as everyone else has been eating happily while these duties were being performed. But they can't catch up very quickly. A plebe can only take so big a mouthful. If asked a question by an upperclassman during the meal, he must be able to respond after no more than three chews and one swallow. We did become adept at handling bigger and bigger loads within the required parameters, and it makes me wonder whether my throat actually expanded at university.
The bite-size limit was superimposed with an effective bite frequency limit as well. The plebe had to cut a bite European style, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand, put the bite in his mouth with the fork and place the fork back onto his plate before he was allowed to start chewing. He could not pick up his knife and fork again until he had swallowed the previous bite.
Given all of this, you can guess why 'boodle boxes,' the parcels of food mailed from home for consumption in one's room at night while studying, were so crucial to our lives. Having gone in as a skinny lad, I somehow managed to put on 15 pounds during the first year, even operating in this regime. You can believe I was very happy when my plebe year ended and I could hand over the table duties and other baggage of plebe life to the next class of unfortunates.
The eight summer weeks before my first academic year at West Point were pretty tough. They were designed to be. This cadet basic training, called Beast Barracks, existed (as far as I can tell) to do two things. First it steeped incoming freshmen, called Plebes, in the history, culture and mentality of the West Point and, to a lesser extent, of the Army. Second, it weeded out those whose applications to join were based on an incorrect perception of what West Point was like or whose acceptance was based on an overestimation of their ability to meet the Academy's demands - particularly its psychological (as opposed to intellectual) ones. This second objective called for Beast to be an exaggeration or even caricature of the balance of the West Point experience.
Much was made of the need to be physically fit, and I quite enjoyed the group runs in formation. This was mainly because we all had to sing out 'cadence calls' and run in step with them. This appealed to my love of music and rhythm, helped regulate my breathing and generally took my mind off the fact that most of my body hurt quite badly! Push-ups and sit-ups were also staples of the daily regime, as were assault courses, bayonet drills and team sports.
I was a very skinny lad, and it was easy for people to underestimate my ability to 'hang' with the physical demands. I remember my squad leader - an upperclassman who was our equivalent to a drill sergeant - preparing us for a volleyball match against another squad: 'Smith, you play up front and look for opportunities to spike. Jones, play back center to dig out the tough serves. Johnson......' You get the picture. When he got to me, he just said, 'Fraley, uh, don't hurt yourself.' Luckily, my skin was thicker then than it is now, so I took no great offense. I did, however, redouble my efforts (waking up with muscle cramp most nights from my exertions) to ensure I held my own in the physical fitness tests.
We also had to bring ourselves to much higher standards of personal appearance than the standard college freshman. Our shirts always needed to be tucked in so tightly that they fit snugly to our bodies, with no loose fabric. This was called a 'dress-off', and being caught with a poor one meant getting into trouble. Our shoes and boots needed to be stereotypically shiny as well. Beyond that, the instructions for exactly what to wear for a given activity were complex and subtle. Should I wear my utility belt with suspenders or without? Do I carry a canteen on the belt? One or two? Normal brown t-shirt under camouflage jacket, or a white 'PT' one? Soft cap or helmet?
We were drilled on the importance of properly securing and maintaining our weapons - in this case old M-14 rifles with the firing pins removed. Leave it out of reach, get into big trouble. Get caught with a dusty one, get into big trouble. Lose it (and believe it or not, some did), get into BIG trouble.
You may have picked up by now that there were lots of ways to get into trouble. The fundamental characteristic of the entire 8 weeks was to learn that you could never get everything right. There was always something you could be caught short on. We were all yelled at constantly, made to feel we were on the verge of expulsion, lower than dog dirt. We were only permitted 4 responses when asked a question: 1) Yes Sir (or Ma'am), 2) No Sir, 3) No excuse, Sir, and 4) Sir, I do not understand. Not much wiggle room for getting out of trouble. The summer taught us how to handle overload. It taught us life was not fair. It made us question what the hell we were thinking when we signed up for this!
Yet the richness of West Point's traditions, the physical impressiveness of the place, and the quality of the people we saw around us made us stay. Many wrote home expressing a wish to drop out. I personally proposed an alternative career in the clergy! Seeing the statues of memorials to alumni - Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower among them - made one feel a part of something big, something worth striving for. The imposing granite buildings, seemingly carved into the hillside over the Hudson River, echoed the reputation that the Academy's alumni had for dependability in the most difficult of times. Even if we said the summer sucked day-to-day, we saw it as a right of passage into something worthy of our efforts.
At the end of Beast Barracks we celebrated during a long weekend for which many of our parents made the trip. We could see them during the day, show them around, brag to them of all we'd done. It was great to see my family, but when they left, I cried my eyes out. I knew that I had a long and tough few months as a Plebe (still sub-human) in the autumn academic term before seeing them again for Thanksgiving.
I've just finished reading The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. I won't undertake a general review of the book, but I can enthusiastically recommend it.
Instead, I want to concentrate on one specific point Capra discusses in the Afterward of his Second Edition. (The book was originally published in 1975, and the second edition was released seven years later.) Capra discusses the ramifications of the empirical results from tests of John Bell's inequality.
As a staunch proponent of a deterministic, local, realist interpretation of quantum mechanics in an earlier day, I had come across Bell's Inequality before. I even wrote about it, which you can verify at the link above. I'm not going to recap that whole post here, so you may want to visit it before continuing. Capra helped me realise that I hadn't really got it, though.
Bell set out a testable relationship that must hold if sub-atomic reality is both local and deterministic. Tests have been conducted, and the results are conclusive: quantum reality must be either non-local, non-deterministic or both.
Einstein believed to his core that reality must be both local and deterministic. I paraphrase his words on each point:
For reality to be local means that no force or action can act with a speed faster than the speed of light. My pushing a button while standing on the sun and immediately changing the channel on my TV would violate this, since it takes light seven minutes to traverse that distance.
For reality to be deterministic means that every effect has a cause. Taken to its logical conclusion, the notion is embodied in the clockwork universe. If one knew all the initial conditions at the 'start of time' and all of the 'laws' that the universe followed as it evolved from one moment to the next, then one could know all that would happen for all time.
We use probabilities in everyday life (for instance, at the roulette wheel) because either our understanding of all the (local) forces at work or the exactness with which we can measure initial conditions is insufficient to calculate outcomes exactly. Quantum mechanics raises the possibility that even with perfect understanding and measurement, we still could not accurately predict concrete sub-atomic events.
I was particularly exercised by the issue of determinism, so when I read about outcomes from tests of Bell's Inequality, I focused on that element of the interpretation. I admitted, sadly, that not every effect has a cause. I need not have done so, had I paused to think sufficiently about the second condition. It could be that tests failed the inequality because the causes were non-local. I could, in theory, have held on to determinism by accepting spooky action at a distance.
But in a way, admitting non-locality undermines predictability just as much as inherent non-determinism does, because an observer cannot know and therefore account for forces at great remoteness in the universe that are impacting what he sees. Even if he had appropriate sensors throughout the cosmos, they could not transmit their data to him any faster than the speed of light. Meanwhile, the spooky action at a distance will have had immediate effect.
As it happens, today, I believe that reality is not determined, local or objective. Most interpretations of quantum mechanics agree, but my angle is primarily from the philosophical viewpoint rather than the scientific. A worldview consistent with eastern wisdom traditions sees reality as an undivided whole, so the confirmation of non-locality is no surprise.
In a way, you can think of it as rotating causality 90 degrees in space-time. Instead of explaining a current event by appealing to causes that preceded it, you sometimes have to explain it in terms of state of everything else right now. Sometimes, the best that we can do is say that something is the way it is because everything is the way it is. Any one 'thing' is like a puzzle piece, which, in order to fit into the overall puzzle, can have one and only one shape - the shape of the 'hole' left when every other piece is in place. There are limits to reductionism, and we have touched them. At least some truths are irreducible.
Of course, this philosophical sleight of hand doesn't help with predicting the future. We just have to accept that, as we push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe, sometimes the best we can do is approximate or confine our answers to a range rather than a point. There are limits to our knowledge and the control we can exercise with it.
First posted 10 Nov 2003. Pretty much agree with these Doug-made proposals for ground-rules to a man-made ethics.
I sat down to hash out an ethical framework, arrogantly thinking I could generate a coherent set of thoughts on the subject. Having realised that I need to put a lot more thought into anything approaching what I might call my ethical system (and realising that I haven't posted anything in several days) I decided to share the sketchy notes I've come up with so far:
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.