Category: Philosophy

Recently, I’ve finished the book The Magician King1, by Lev Grossman. It’s an interesting book, although, in my opinion, not as interesting as his first book in the series, The Magicians. The series is like a combination of Harry Potter and Narnia, except significantly darker, with some mature content. One of the things I always liked about the Narnia series is that it brings up interesting philosophical points of view. In this respect, both The Magicians and The Magician King don’t disappoint.

One of the most interesting areas of philosophy in The Magician King is a conversation between the main character, Quentin, and his rival/friend, Penny, regarding a super-being they are witnessing performing a task that will remove magic from their world:

“Maybe we should talk to him,” Quentin said. “Maybe we can change his mind. We could, I don’t know, prove ourselves worthy of magic or something. Maybe they have a test.”

Penny shook his head.

“I don’t think they can change their minds. When you get to that level of power and knowledge and perfection, the question of what you should do next gets increasingly obvious. Everything is very rule-governed. All you can ever do in any given situation is the most gloriously perfect thing, and there’s only one of them. Finally, there aren’t any choices left to make at all.”

“You’re saying the gods don’t have free will.”

“The power to make mistakes,” Penny said. “Only we have that. Mortals.” 2

This brings in a new and interesting idea that I hadn’t considered before: What if the very nature of how a deity exists prevents such an intelligent, all-powerful being from having free will?

Let’s consider this for a moment based on the faith of Protestant Christianity. (I’m not trying to be offensive here, this is merely for the sake of argument, and is based entirely on my own knowledge faith, which happens to come in the form of Lutheran Christianity). There are a few assumptions that are made by most Christians regarding God:

  1. God is Omnipotent (all-powerful).
  2. God is Omniscient (all-knowing).
  3. God is absolutely good.

Note that #3 doesn’t actually mean “all-good” for an individual. That is to say, what could be good for the universe as a whole, might not be good for me individually. This is usually phrased along the lines of “God has a plan” or “God works in mysterious ways” – indicating that we can neither expect that His plan is individually good for us, or that we can even understand His plan.

Now, if we take the logic that Penny was talking about in the snippet, and apply it, along with these axioms, we come up with the following train of thought (note that ‘virtuous’ and ‘good’ would have to have some definitions in this context. I save the definition of ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ as an exercise for the reader): If God is all-knowing and absolutely good, it means that He will always take the most virtuous course of action, given a set of actions. Given a set of actions, there is always one action which is more good than the other actions. However, some actions are outside of the abilities of the one making the choice to act. Since God is all-powerful, no actions are outside of his abilities. Thus, there will always be a single choice, given a set of choices, which is absolutely good and virtuous, and which is within God’s power to act upon. It is therefore inherent in these axioms that God has a single choice which He will make at any juncture. Thus, it is impossible that He can choose to do anything aside from these choices. This is pretty much the definition of lack of free will. Thought of another way, since God is perfect, there is, at every juncture, only one perfect choice, given all possible sets of all possible actions. This leads us to the same conclusion as before, only with ‘absolutely good’ replaced by ‘perfect’ in this context.

So, I found this incredibly interesting. More so, because we, as Christian Protestants believe, are created from God. But, we (seemingly) have free will. So, how can an entity that lacks free will create an entity that has free will? Talk about a mind bender. (Of course, there is the possibility that we don’t have free will, and that everything is, at least for us, pre-destined. Perhaps this is a slightly different way of looking at Shakespeare’s famous quote, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”).

There are a couple of flaws (that I see) in this philosophical argument. One is that we can’t know for certain that there is only one perfect choice. What if there are an infinite number of perfect choices? I suppose, when you’re operating on a plane where you are a supreme being, given a set of infinitely perfect choices, one must ultimately pick at least one of them, and thus, at some level, the deity would require free will.

Another flaw is if there isn’t a single entity – but rather, multiple deities operating in concert (or competition) with one another. In this case, if a deity is going to act, it must perform the most perfect choice available, unless another deity has already made this choice irrelevant (either by performing it itself, or by making a move which would make the previous ‘perfect’ move obsolete). In this case, we get more into a game-theory based philosophical argument. Really, it isn’t a lot different, though, because if the deities are all-knowing, then they will know the moves of one another in advance. It simply eliminates that as a possible choice, and they are back to choosing the most perfect of a set of reduced choices.

Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, has written a lot about gods3 – stories about how gods are really products of human worship, rather than human worship being the product of their actions. I don’t remember seeing an argument to the effect of lack of free will in any of his stories (alebit it may have been treated in passing as part of the existence of The Endless in his Sandman novels – they each have a very specific role, although they don’t seem to lack free will). It would be interesting if he wrote a story or book on this concept.

At any rate, I realize this argument is a bit like the Omnipotence paradox4, but it definitely struck a chord in my mind while reading it. I would, for certain, recommend reading the novel. Although, I really hope Lev Grossman makes the series at least a trilogy, as the ending of The Magician King leaves quite a bit to be desired (in the way The Empire Strikes Back leaves you thinking, “What? That’s the end of the movie!?!?”).

I’m always interesting in a good thought-provoking novel, and in that respect, The Magician King definitely doesn’t disappoint.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] There are some spoilers in this post, and I have tried hard to minimize them, but if you have an intention of reading The Magician King, I would recommend doing so now, then coming back to this post at a later date.

[2] Grossman, Lev. (2011). The Magician King (pp. 303). New York, NY: Viking.

[3] If you’re interested in reading more on the existential question of deities, I highly recommend The Sandman graphic novels, as well as American Gods and Anansi Boys.

[4] Omnipotence Paradox (Wikipedia Entry)


Mysterious February

Today just happens to be my one year anniversary working for my current employer. (I won’t mention the name of the company, but I will say it bears a striking resemblance to the flagship company of Eureka, OR). Now, like most folks, I started on a Monday. Today, (for those of you who may be temporally impaired) is Tuesday. I have often thought how the days of the week for a given date change from year to year. If you’re interested in this (and aren’t afraid of a bit of math), read on.

I now digress into some mathematics.  Pay attention – there will be a quiz later.  There are 365 days in the year. If you divide 365 by 7, you’ll get a remainder of 1. In Mathematics, we say this more concisely by saying 365 is 1 mod 7. Thus, over the course of the year, each week will advance by 1 day. This means that since October 5 (again, for those temporally impaired, this is today) is a Tuesday, next year it will be a Wednesday.

So, time for the quiz.  (You thought I was joking, didn’t you?)  Question 1: If November 22nd is a Monday this year (which, it just so happens to be), what day will it be next year?  If you answered Tuesday, you would be correct.  Question 2: We already discussed that October 5th next year will be a Wednesday, but what will it be in 2012?  Thursday?  WRONG.  It’s actually a Friday.  Yep, yep… I know I told you that 365 was 1 mod 7, and that this meant there was an extra day each year than was accounted for in a week, resulting in the weekday advancing by 1, but what you failed to realize if you answered Thursday is that 2012 is a leap year.  This, of course, means that February has 29 days.  (Seriously.  Look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.  Every fourth year has 366 days).  So, we have the following formula:

day of week next year = day of week this year + 1, if next year is not a leap year and this year was not a leap year or this year was a leap year and date is before February 28
day of week next year = day of week this year + 2, if next year is a leap year and date is after February 28
day of week next year = day of week this year + 2, if next year is not a leap year, but this year was a leap year and date was before February 28

A little more complicated now, eh?  Basically, what all of this nonsense is saying is that February 28 is the ‘pivot point’ for a year, in terms of the day of the week.  Anything before February 28 on a leap year will stay consistent with the formula we discussed in the very beginning, but this means that it catches up the following year.

Still, this isn’t magic.  Anyone who’s ever taken an introductory Computer Science course, or a course in Number Theory (possibly Discrete Mathematics) has probably seen this before.  But now I diverge from my mathematical analysis and ask the question that has been plaguing me lately:

Who the hell chose February to have the ‘leap day’, and why?

It seems more logical that the calendar would have a December 32nd as a leap day.  That way, everything would stay consistent from year to year (I’m actually glossing over a few things.  Determining whether a year is a leap year is easy, but not as easy as simply determining if the year is evenly divisible by 4.  This is partially because an actual solar year is a bit less than 365.25 days exactly.  For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on leap years). But, it offsets the entire rest of the calendar by one day!  So, why not minimize this chaos and simply choose it to be at the end of the year?

Well, if you read the long story about how the Roman calendar was developed that is given (in excruciating detail, I might add) on the aforementioned Wikipedia page, and are actually able to get through it without losing consciousness and slipping into a deep slumber likely to last until the next ice age, you’ll probably get something along the lines that an ‘intercalary month’ was inserted between February and March each year, prior to 45 BCE.  At that time, Julius Caesar took it upon himself to invent what we now know as the leap year.

So, this still doesn’t really answer my question… Why February?  It seems clear that Caesar chose to make February have 29 days instead of 28 due to the fact that the intercalary month was between two parts of February, but why was this the case?  According to the Wikipedia entry on the Roman Calendar, the Roman Calendar was originally a lunar calendar.  57 days were added to an original 10-month calendar to create January and February.  February was given 28 days, whereas January was given 29 days.  Romans apparently considered even numbers unlucky, and since February was the month of purification, it seemed appropriate.  February was actually split into two parts, with each part having an odd number of days.  The intercalary month was inserted “from time to time”  to keep the seasons equivalent to the man-made calendar.  The first part of February was the end of the religious year.

So, it seems the holy-holies (as my father would say) were the instigators of adding a day to the end of the ‘year’.  It’s a practice that still is held to this day (although in a bit different form).  But, why retain this tradition for such archaic reasons?  I propose that we abolish this Roman nonsense and simplify things by moving to the Scott Calendar, which is identical to the current Gregorian Calendar, except that December has 32 days on a leap year, instead of February having 29.  While we’re at it, perhaps we should even out the days of the months a little more, also.  364 is evenly divisible by 28, so let’s make 14 months of 28 days each, along with one month (the last) having 29 days.  Also, the last month then would have 30 days on a leap year.

Ok, so perhaps this idea is a little half-baked.  But still, could we actually utilize some sense before mindlessly accepting traditions?  You, come to think of it, this reminds me of the time a friend of mine and I created an extra day to the week, ‘Nepday’.  But, that is a tale for another day…

Decisive Moments

Dennis Hopper died Saturday, May 29, 2010.  As part of a tribute to his work, National Public Radios’ Fresh Air replayed a series of interviews Terry Gross did with him.  During the course of the conversation, Hopper talks about a period of his early career in photography where he went through what he termed a “decisive moment period.”  He explains that a “decisive moment” is that moment just before something is going to happen.  These elusive moments are frozen frames in time, such as an image of two guys throwing a ball, and the second before one of them catches the ball.  Another example would be a drop of dew, captured just before it falls from the tip of a leaf.    Capturing decisive moments is difficult.  I’m not a photographer, but I would think it requires immense patience, as well as a sort of intuition that comes only from experience.  Almost a prescience, in fact.  Or a message from the universe that only those specifically tuned to a particular extrasensory frequency can receive.

After contemplating this for a while, I began to ask questions.  What if the dew drop that appeared to be falling from the leaf in the picture didn’t actually fall?  Would our world be any different?  Would we know it if it was?  A photograph is a single, frozen moment in time.  The person or people who view that photograph do so out of context – there is no possibility of viewing that time either before or after that single moment.  Just that single millisecond.

In a way, it’s somewhat like a Zen koan:  “If a tree falls in the forest with noone around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”  Does a single moment in time, captured at a crucial juncture, depend on the moment before or after itself?  Physicists might argue no.  By somehow miraculously jumping back up onto the leaf, the dew drop would be defying gravity.  Even if it were able to do this, possibly as a result of a strange local gravity well, this would have no impact on other aspects of our world.  But – is this really true?  Chaos theory states that even minute changes in things surrounding us will have impacts much greater that what can be measured or anticipated.  And, to argue in the vein of Schrödinger himself, do we not change the outcome simply by observing it?

In addition to the philosophical question, there’s a human question.  I am reminded by the famous scene at  the Appomattox Court House, where, after surrendering to the Union forces, the general Robert E. Lee calmly takes off his gloves on the porch of the court house, looking out over the horizon.  I’ve heard that scholars have often wondered what he was thinking at that moment.  But if we consider a human thought – taken at any moment, we are essentially considering a single frame of a very long string of frames – a photograph.

Does a single moment in time make a difference to the outcome of life, the universe, and everything?  Probably most people would probably say yes.  But, how does one determine which moments are important or crucial and which are mundane?  The photographer skilled in capturing “decisive moments” knows how to accomplish this.  Dennis Hopper describes the search for decisive moments is essentially the search for the beauty in the mundane.  But, does simply recognizing something and singling it out make it more than mundane?  Does it make it crucial and important?  Does this make all other moments less crucial or important?

I believe the skill in seeing these decisive moments is in understanding that every moment is decisive; you just need to tune your mind to the frequency of different levels of decisiveness.

A Bit of Philosophy

I figured I’d start this blog with a bit of philosophy.  Why did I call it ‘The Nothingness of Software’?  Well, there are two reasons.  The first is that software development, from my perspective (and probably from the perspective of management) is like a void: money and tasks/requirements are input, and a small amount of an intangible, unmeasurable resource known as code is output.  It’s kind of like juicing an orange – you go through a lot of effort to produce a very small amount of end product.

But there’s more to it than that, right?  In most industries, a large amount of effort producing a small amount of end result would quickly be analyzed for “efficiency”, and projects would probably be scrapped or “enhanced” to maximize output and profit.  This does happen in software development, but not in the same way as it might in, say, cooking or manufacturing.  If efficiency in manufacturing were down, this situation would be corrected by either decreasing workload, or increasing the number of potential workers (either human or automated).  In software, however, the workload is tied into the end product – can you really ship a software product that doesn’t have feature X when that was a feature that was required by the end customer?  Worse yet, the problem is compounded if we add additional workers – it’s widely known in the software industry that adding new engineers to a late project will only make it later.

But why is this different than, say, building a bridge?  The civil engineers  in charge of creating a bridge over a river have a goal which they can’t skimp on.  My rationale is that 1) a bridge is a tangible object, meaning that you can touch it, feel it, and visibly gauge how much work is getting done on it, and 2) civil engineering is a rigorously developed field – the current standards for civil engineering are the result of evolution over thousands of years (essentially since humankind began).  Software engineering, on the other hand, is the product of evolution of just over 60 years.  Comparatively speaking, software engineers are babies compared to civil, mechanical, or even electrical engineers.

But I said there were two reasons I chose this name for the blog, right?  The other one comes from my martial arts studies.  In Kung Fu, we strive to strike in such a way as to move from absolute stillness to motion in no time.  The concept stems from the idea of the “Wu Chi”, or the void, from which all energy is thought to flow.  We strive to attune ourselves to the void, so as to listen to the messages of the universe.  Sound like gibberish?  Perhaps… it takes some getting used to, and sometimes philosophies such as this don’t lend themselves well to those who haven’t been through years of training to really understand what it means.

What does that have to do with software?  Well, in a sense, software development is a creative process – an art – much like Kung Fu.  In that sense, software development should stem from the void (“Wu Chi”) as well.  So, the “nothingness” in software is actually the creative process.   If you’re a Lost fan, there’s an episode of Lost where John Locke and Boone are sitting on a log staring at the newly uncovered hatch.  Boone comments that they have been coming to the hatch for the last three days and doing nothing more than staring at it.  Locke tells Boone a story about how Michaelangelo, due to his father’s insistence that he wouldn’t use his hands to do his work, was commissioned to carve a statue.  Michaelangelo would come every day and stare at a block of marble for eight hours.  One day, his sponsor asked him, “What are you doing?”  Michaelangelo, surprised, turned around and replied, “I’m working.”  Years later, the block of marble was the statue of David.

Creative inspiration comes from the mind.  Thus, to simply be “doing” something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working.  Similarly, just because you aren’t outwardly doing any activity that’s visible to the human eye doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t working.  I chose the name for the blog because what I do is software.  Sometimes I feel like, as Jimmy Buffett so eloquently puts it, “I’m stranded on a sandbar.”  So what differentiates a good software developer from a bad software developer, or a good software developer from a great software developer?  These are some questions I ponder sometimes.  Additionally, the software development world is really not what they teach you in a Computer Science department – it’s much more intricate than that.  In a Computer Science degree program, you learn (or should learn) programming skills, software engineering concepts, teamwork, communication skills, problem solving, creativity, and similar technical aspects about your career.  What they don’t teach you is the politics – how people will interact with you and treat you, or ignore you, in the workplace.  Now, I’m not saying all of this is bad.  It’s just sort of a nebulous area.  A void, so to speak, which I call the “Nothingness of Software.”

Welcome to my nothingness.  Please be aware that this is an uncharted void and you may get lost.  Or, you may have found a better path through it or around it.  You can opt not to take this journey with me, or leave anywhere along the way.  I don’t know where we’ll end up, but I hope you and I both learn something along the way.

Helm, set a course for two two seven mark eight six.  Engage.