Posted in Science & Nature

Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword

If an irresistible force was to act on an immovable object, what would happen?

A mathematician named Mike Alder decided to approach this philosophical paradox from a scientific perspective. He proposed a simple answer to the paradox – it is not worth discussing.

Alder argued that for an object to be immovable, all known forces must be acted upon it with no effect. Similarly, an irresistible force can only be called that if literally no object could ignore its effects. Therefore, the two cannot possibly exist in the same universe, meaning that the paradox is pointless. As Alder would put it – “Language is bigger than the universe”, as it allows us to formulate impossible scenarios that ignore the rules of science.

The implication of this line of thought is that if you cannot tangibly test an idea, then there is no point in arguing it as it would not add to scientific knowledge. This is a purist view of the fundamental principle of science that is falsifiability.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the earliest pioneers of this philosophy. He wrote: “hypotheses non fingo”, or “I do not engage in untestable speculation”. Newton challenged the classical school of philosophy, where one would challenge and develop an idea through thought, discussion and argument. When faced with philosophical questions such as whether animals had rights, he would ask: “What set of observations do you consider would establish the truth of your claim?”.

Alder named his principle – that one should only discuss matters that can be tested and verified – Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (as he believed all good principles should have sexy names). This is a play on Occam’s razor, the philosophical principle that once you shave away the complexities, the simplest truth remains. Alder believed that Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword was a much sharper and more dangerous tool than Occam’s Razor, meaning that as useful as it is, it should be used with care.

Of course, this is an extreme school of philosophy that is only upheld by a group of philosophers who we now call “scientists”. There are still many intangible issues that could only be solved through thinking, such as ethics. Thus, the battle between scientists and philosophers continue.

Posted in Science & Nature

Silence Of The Trees

A timeless philosophical question goes like this:

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

This may sound absurd, but the question hangs on the definition of sound. Is sound the physical phenomenon of vibrating particles forming a soundwave, or is sound the sensory information that we perceive by converting said soundwave using our hearing system? If you accept the first definition, then yes, the falling of the tree will generate energy that pushes on the air particles around it, causing a soundwave that if someone were to hear it, would sound as a “thud”. But if you accept the second definition, then that tree would not have made a “sound” per se because no one was around to perceive the soundwave. Following this logic, a sound cannot exist without a recipient to hear it.

As simple as this may seem at face value, the riddle explores some deep philosophical and scientific issues.

The most obvious one has been discussed: the definition of sound. But then one must question what would happen if a tape recorder was running when the tree fell. Can a machine hear, even though it cannot “sense”? Is the sound we hear being played from the recorder the same as the sound that was originally made by the tree?

Following on from this thought, how do we know that the sound you hear is an accurate interpretation of the actual soundwave? It is common knowledge that the brain frequently modifies the senses to change what it sees and hears, as seen in various illusions. Furthermore, the brain can generate sensory information without any input, known as hallucinations. You assume that your hearing is flawless and accurate, but in your mind, it is almost impossible to know for sure that the sound you heard is “real”. Taking this further leads in to the massive debate of “what is real?” and “is reality real or is it a product of our mind?”.

A more fundamental question is this: if no one was around to hear the tree fall, does it matter if it made a sound? A pragmatic philosopher might say “no”, as whether the tree made a sound or not makes no difference to your life. However, a scientist may say “yes” as the tree did fall and a soundwave was generated. Whether a person was around to observe it is irrelevant as it does not change the fact that something real occurred. Then what effect does observation have on reality? How do we know that trees make the same sound when we are not around to hear it?

This is a crude dissection of the vast number of questions the riddle offers, but it shows how such a simple thought experiment can be an effective tool to engage your critical thinking. If you do not fully understand the philosophy discussed, at least you can take away the fact that you can use the excuse of “sound is only a perception, I did not hear you, therefore what you said did not happen” when someone tells you to do something.