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Are you following the rules of life?
Life is governed by unspoken rules. How do you know you're following them correctly?
- Most parts of everyday life involve accepting and applying various rules, from the words we speak to the cultural norms we insist on.
- These rules are learned largely by observation of others and are very rarely taught explicitly.
- Saul Kripke asks us how it is that we can ever be sure that we're following the rules correctly? And does it matter?
Imagine you're out with some friends and you have to, for whatever reason, add up two numbers: 432 and 222. It's easy, you think! You were great at calculus in school, and you won't even need to get out your phone. In a confident voice, you say, "Oh, that's 654."
There's a pause as everyone looks at you oddly. "You serious?" someone says. Of course you are. That's how addition works, right?
Or is it? According to Saul Kripke, how do you know that you're doing addition correctly?
The games people play
In everyday life, we all follow a series of rules, whether we know it or not. These can be the rules of etiquette, like "don't burp in public" or "don't cook fish in the office microwave," but there are also unspoken rules that apply to our use of words and concepts. For instance, consider the words "anxious" and "scared." The two are similar but there are also very specific rules for when we cannot use them interchangeably.
Sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists have varying names for these rules, but Austro-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, called them our "form of life." Although the term is a bit ambiguous, it's taken to mean those rules that we accept to go about our public interactions. They're a bit like the rules of a game before everyone plays — "don't pick up the ball" or "start running when you hear the gun."
We all belong to various forms of life, which give us the values we have and the language we use (which in turn influences how we think). It might be, for instance, that your family has a very particular word for the remote control that other families find odd. Or a certain country might have cultural norms that others do not. It's curious how Scandinavians tend to eat their evening meal around 4 or 5pm, while Spaniards eat nearer 9 pm.
Let's return to the opening example. Mathematics is no different. There are certain rules we have to learn and understand, and then we apply them to new situations. We have axioms, parameters, operators, coefficients, and so on, all of which constitute the "form of life" of mathematics.
Do any of us know what we're doing?
Kripke was a card-carrying Wittgensteinian. He argued that while we go about applying these rules all the time, he raised the question of whether we can ever be entirely sure that we're applying them correctly.
For example, if a child or a non-native speaker is learning a language, they will often be corrected by competent speakers. In fact, it's important that they are corrected so that they can, themselves, become the ones who will enforce those rules later. As a speaker learns the proper rules of a language, they will recalibrate what Kripke calls their "rule following consideration." And yet, it's quite conceivable that someone could misunderstand a word, but use it correctly all the time, by luck, perhaps.
In my own case, I remember using the word "reprehensible" quite correctly for a long time, thinking it meant one (slightly off) thing. I was simply lucky enough to use the word only in the contexts that fit my understanding. I was never "caught out." Most adults have a vocabulary of around 30,000 words, and most haven't taken the time to look up even a fraction of those. And, even if you did, what would that prove? Lexicographers are always playing catch up — words morph and evolve as well as die, and new ones are born every day.
But, this skepticism is not limited to words. It applies, too, to things like mathematics. No one is ever shown "addition." What happens is that we're given a list of discrete examples of addition at work and are expected to just understand. We say, "2+2=4, 4+3=7, 9+7=16. You got it yet? Good, now go and do that on your own."
A teacher or a group of people competent at math might correct us as we're finding our feet, but it's a wonder how we latch on to the principle of addition. And then we assume that we're doing it right all along.
But what if addition isn't what you think it is? In the opening example, what if addition works differently if the second addend is three repeated numbers? What if addition works differently after you reach a certain number? It might be that you've just never encountered this before.
I don't care — it just works
There are some Wittgensteinians who think Kripke misses the point. They argue that when you are part of a form of life, or when you wholesale accept a system of rules, part of doing that means that you don't question it. When you play chess you don't spend all your time asking, "But why do the knights move this way? It makes no sense!" You just play the game.
Likewise, when we speak to each other, we're not crippled by doubt that we might be choosing the wrong word. We just assume that we're right and get on with it. So, too, with Kripke's "rule following considerations." To understand a rule is to accept it, not to doubt it. Addition is no different.
But, that being true, it's still an interesting thought: How do you know that you're doing anything properly? We all think that we're competent and intelligent, but what if we're just monumentally lucky? What if one day, we're exposed as poseurs?Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas
- How to be happy, according to Aristotle's 11 virtues - Big Think ›
- Benjamin Franklin's 13 Guidelines for Living a Good Life - Big Think ›
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.