Philosophy Word of the Day – Entropy


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“Entropy is a thermodynamic quantity whose value depends on the physical state or condition of a system. It is useful in physics as a means of expressing the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is, while the law may be stated in terms of it being impossible to extract heat from a reservoir and convert it totally to usable work, in terms of entropy the law states that any changes occurring in a system that is thermally isolated from its surroundings are such that its entropy never decreases.

“This behavior corresponds to the fact that entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. On average all of nature proceeds to a greater state of disorder. Examples of irreversible progression to disorder are pervasive in the world and in everyday experience. Bread crumbs will never gather back into the loaf. Helium atoms that escape from a balloon never return. A drop of ink placed in a glass of water will uniformly color the entire glass and never assemble into its original shape.

“. . . This progressive tendency of nature toward disorder has been considered by many scholars as one of the primal natural processes that serve as a gauge for the irreversible nature of time. Accordingly, a considerable number have identified the relentless increase of entropy with what they term the thermodynamic arrow of time. In addition, the degradation associated with the increase of entropy has been discussed by some scholars of science and religion as a meaningful metaphor for evil.”

“Entropy” in Encyclopedia of Science and Religion

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Pierre Duhem

Public domain, created prior to 1916. Taken fr...

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“Pierre Duhem (1861–1916) was a French physicist and historian and philosopher of science. As a physicist, he championed “energetics,” holding generalized thermodynamics as foundational for physical theory, that is, thinking that all of chemistry and physics, including mechanics, electricity, and magnetism, should be derivable from thermodynamic first principles.

“In philosophy of science, he is best known for his work on the relation between theory and experiment, arguing that hypotheses are not straightforwardly refuted by experiment and that there are no crucial experiments in science. In history of science, he produced massive groundbreaking work in medieval science and defended a thesis of continuity between medieval and early modern science.” (continue article)

— Roger Ariew in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Wave-Particle Duality

Dual Wave/Particle Nature of Light

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“The quantum description of matter ascribes a wavelike aspect to particles of matter. In some circumstances, for example in the photoelectric effect, particles behave primarily as if they are mass points. In other circumstances, they display diffraction and interference as if they are waves. The quantum wavelength of a particle is inversely proportional to its mass, and an object’s wavelike aspects will be significant whenever its quantum wavelength is larger than its physical size. Therefore, large objects like cars have imperceptible wavelike attributes but subatomic particles, such as neutrons, have significant wavelike aspects. It is more accurate to view the quantum wave aspect as being a wave of information (like a crime wave) or probability than an undulatory quality.”

John D. Barrow, Encyclopedia of Science and Religion

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Philosophy Word of the Day — Time

The Passage of Time

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Time has been studied by philosophers and scientists for 2,500 years, and thanks to this attention it is much better understood today. Nevertheless, many issues remain to be resolved. Here is a short list of the most important ones: What time actually is; whether time exists when nothing is changing; what kinds of time travel are possible; why time has an arrow; whether the future and past are real; how to analyze the metaphor of time’s flow; whether future time will be infinite; whether there was time before the Big Bang; whether tensed or tenseless concepts are semantically basic; what is the proper formalism or logic for capturing the special role that time plays in reasoning; what are the neural mechanisms that account for our experience of time; whether there is a timeless nature “beyond” spacetime; and whether time should be understood only in terms of its role in the laws governing matter and force. Some of these issues will be resolved by scientific advances alone, but others require philosophical analysis.

Consider this one issue upon which philosophers of time are deeply divided: What sort of ontological differences are there among the present, past and future? There are three competing theories. Presentists argue that necessarily only present objects and present experiences are real, and we conscious beings recognize this in the special “vividness” of our present experience. The dinosaurs have slipped out of reality. However, according to the growing-universe or growing-block theory, the past and present are both real, but the future is not real because the future is indeterminate or merely potential. Dinosaurs are real, but our death is not. The third and more popular theory is that there are no significant ontological differences among present, past, and future because the differences are merely subjective. This view is called “the block universe theory” or “eternalism.” (Continue article)

– From The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Modern Physics: The Theoretical Minimum

Open Culture gives an update on the rollout of these courses, taught by Leonard Susskind.

For the past two years, Stanford has been rolling out a series of courses (collectively called Modern Physics: The Theoretical Minimum) that gives you a baseline knowledge for thinking intelligently about modern physics. The sequence, which moves from Isaac Newton, to Albert Einstein’s work on the general and special theories of relativity, to black holes and string theory, comes out of Stanford’s Continuing Studies program (my day job). And the courses are all taught by Leonard Susskind, an important physicist who has engaged in a long running “Black Hole War” with Stephen Hawking. The final course, Statistical Mechanics, has now been posted on YouTube, and you can also find it on iTunes in video. (Continue for links to all the courses.)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy

Aristotle had a lifelong interest in the study of nature. He investigated a variety of different topics, ranging from general issues like motion, causation, place and time, to systematic explorations and explanations of natural phenomena across different kinds of natural entities. These different inquiries are integrated into the framework of a single overarching enterprise describing the domain of natural entities. Aristotle provides the general theoretical framework for this enterprise in his Physics, a treatise which divides into two main parts, the first an inquiry into nature (books 1-4) and the second a treatment of motion (books 5-8).

In this work, Aristotle sets out the conceptual apparatus for his analysis, provides definitions of his fundamental concepts, and argues for specific theses about motion, causation, place and time, and establishes in bk. 8 the existence of the unmoved mover of the universe, a supra-physical entity, without which the physical domain could not remain in existence. He takes up problems of special interest to physics (such as the problem of generation and perishing) in a series of further physical treatises, some of which are devoted to particular physical domains: the De generatione et corruptione (On Generation and Perishing), the De caelo (On the Heavens), and the Meteorology, which lead up to the treatises on biology and psychology. (Continue article)

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Best Sellers in Physics

Large Hadron Collider dipole magnets.

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I am neither a physicist, nor the son of a physicist, but it’s undoubtedly a fascinating topic.  Here are the top 10 current best sellers:

1) The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom
Farmelo, Graham
Basic Books
2009. ISBN 0465018270 [9780465018277]. $29.95

2) Einstein’s Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution
Staley, Richard
University of Chicago Press
2008. ISBN 0226770567 [9780226770567]. $98

3) The Speed of Light: Constancy & Cosmos
Grandy, David
Indiana University Press
2009. ISBN 025335322X [9780253353221]. $50

4) What Color Is the Sacred?
Taussig, Michael T.
University of Chicago Press
2009. ISBN 0226790053 [9780226790053]. $65

5) Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
Reich, Eugenie Samuel
Palgrave Macmillan
2009. ISBN 0230224679 [9780230224674]. $26.95

6) Cracking the Einstein Code: Relativity and the Birth of Black Hole Physics
Melia, Fulvio
University of Chicago Press
2009. ISBN 0226519511 [9780226519517]. $25

7) Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers
Hermanowicz, Joseph C.
University of Chicago Press
2009. ISBN 0226327612 [9780226327617]. $55

8) Quantum Theory: A Philosopher’s Overview
Cannavo, Salvator
State University of New York Press
2009. ISBN 0791493474 [9780791493472]. $60

9) Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung
Miller, Arthur I.
W.W. Norton
2009. ISBN 0393065324 [9780393065329]. $27.95

10) Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles
Halpern, Paul
John Wiley
2009. ISBN 0470286202 [9780470286203]. $27.95

Via Library Journal.  Click here for the full list of the top 20.

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Unsolved Scientific Mysteries

Science is fascinating, beneficial (when used rightly), and helps us understand and appreciate God’s creation.  New Scientist lists 13 riddles that still remain a mystery to science.  For example,

Axis of evil

(Image: WMAP / NASA)

Radiation left from the big bang is still glowing in the sky – in a mysterious and controversial pattern

Dark flow

The galaxy cluster 1E 0657-56, 3.8 billion light-years away, is one of hundreds that appear to be carried along by a mysterious cosmic flow (Image: NASA / STScI / Magellan / U.Arizona / D.Clowe et al)

Something unseeable and far bigger than anything in the known universe is hauling a group of galaxies towards it at inexplicable speed (Continue)

(Via Freakonomics)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Physicalism

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales’s thesis that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are wholly physical.

Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism. Historically, materialists held that everything was matter — where matter was conceived as “an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist” (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). The reason for speaking of physicalism rather than materialism is to abstract away from this historical notion, which is usually thought of as too restrictive — for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983). It is also to emphasize a connection to physics and the physical sciences. Indeed, physicalism is unusual among metaphysical doctrines in being associated historically with a commitment both to the sciences and to a particular branch of science, namely physics.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Given that physicalism, and naturalism more generally, is the reigning orthodoxy today in higher education and in large pockets of our culture, it’s helpful to keep in mind that none of these worldviews are verifiable by science, or deducible from science.  Instead, these are philosophical approaches to science, which will have to gain their justification from philosophical arguments.  Many today mistakenly believe that physicalism (and naturalism, scientism, etc.) just somehow immediately follows from the scientific method or experiments in a laboratory.  But, that’s a misunderstanding, and quite false.

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Aristotle’s Four Causes

Aristotle‘s distinction in the Physics among four answers to the question of why something is:

  • the material cause is the stuff from which the thing is made;
  • the formal cause is the pattern or structure it has;
  • the efficient cause is the agent that imposed this form on that matter; and
  • the final cause is the purpose for the thing.

Thus, for example, the material cause of this chair is the wood out of which it is made, the formal cause is the shape into which it was fashioned, the efficient cause was the carpenter by whom the chair was made, and the final cause is the sitting for the sake of which it was designed. In the case of living beings, Aristotle supposed, the soul is the formal, efficient, and final cause; the body is only the material cause.

(Via Philosophical Dictionary)


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