There Are No Bad Choices

Your choices are as good as what you make of them

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

The non-choices

First, let me set things straight with the title: some choices are obviously wrong. You can tell right away. You would be ashamed to even consider them. In this sense, they are not exactly choices.

Some others are a bit less obvious to figure out. For those, God, or the cosmic dice, or evolution, whatever you believe in, has provided us with an infallible compass. It is the inner voice telling you not to buy the Porsche. The one compelling you to study for the mid-terms instead of going out for drinks.

You can choose to ignore it, but you know you should not. Still you do sometimes and you hide behind rubbish like “You Only Live Once”. I know I have, many times over.

I’d like to argue these are not choices either. With a bit of inner listening, you can figure out what to do, and you end up realizing there was only one path to walk, and it did not involve a Porsche. Early enough or too late, that is the real question.

A sea of hesitation

Apart from the non-choices above, remains an ocean of hesitations. These are the real choices, the ones which have no true or false answer in general. Which job offer should I take? Who should I vote for? Do we go for a third child or do we stop at two? Medium or Vocal?

Standing on the crossroad, who’s to tell if left is better than right, especially not knowing where the roads lead? In many if not most situations, the road itself does not know where it leads. So, which is better?

Left or right?

Black or white?

Leave or stay?

In my opinion, adjectives like goodbadright or wrong and their superlatives do not apply to such choices. Good and bad are outcomes in this instance. They depend not on the choice itself, but on the course of actions one takes after the choice is made.

One has also to keep in mind that there are many dependencies to the choice which are out of one’s control. You take left. It is raining. Your car skids and ends up in a tree. Had you taken right, you could have avoided the accident. Or could you have? Whose to say? The road was slippery in both cases, and you might have ended up in an even worse situation. The fact is, you just do not know.

Warning, geek stuff ahead!

You see, the universe is governed by laws which simply prevent us from figuring out precisely what the future holds.

Here comes the geek part, brace yourselves!

Classical physics teach us that we can model the behavior of a system with a set of differential equations, which, given the right initial conditions, should allow us to predict the state of a system at any point in time. However, the devil is in the details. You need to figure out precise enough initial conditions, if you want your predictions to be accurate, for instance, the exact position and initial speed of the system you are trying to model.

Practically speaking, you could predict the exact position of an oscillating pendulum at future times for long enough. You would not be able to predict the path of a ball in a flowing river beyond a few seconds, and that is assuming tremendous calculation power to solve the differential equations behind the prediction.

It gets even more complicated when we move to less classical physics. Quantum mechanics teach us that it is not possible to know with arbitrary high certainty the position and speed of a particle at the same time. If you figure out its exact speed, you lose its position. This is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Even weirder, the double-slit experiment, if you care to read about it, which shows the “fundamental limitation of the ability of the observer to predict experimental results”.

The choice

In a nutshell, no one can predict the precise outcome of a choice. The laws of the known universe will stand against such a prediction.

So how to make a choice? Well, if your inner voice is silent and you do not feel inclined towards one of the alternatives, heads or tails should be a good enough method. You cannot be wrong. Not when making a choice.

Not yet.

Your choice is as good as what you make of it.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Philosophy, computers and geeky brain teasers

You ought to be careful when combining absolutes with words like true, false and not. The mixture is trickier than you might think.

Here’s a brain teaser to illustrate my point.

“There is no absolute truth”

You might have heard this statement before, and you might even hold it to be true at face value. I personally think it is very carelessly phrased: if we hold it to be true, then we must draw the logical conclusion to which it leads us: the statement that there is no absolute truth cannot be an absolute truth either. Postulating that absolute truth does not exist implies the possibility of its existence.

An answer to this paradox might be found in the first principle of René Descartes, a 17th century French philosopher:

Cogito, ergo sum

I think, therefore I am

It implies that there is at least one absolute truth out there, that of one’s existence, since doubting your own existence implies the existence of a medium where the thought of doubt is occurring, which is yourself. It gets geekier dear reader, keep reading.

If we go further down the road, we might lead ourselves out of philosophy land and into computer science territory: TRUE, FALSE, and logical operators like AND, OR and NOT are in fact the cornerstone of modern technology in the broad sense: phones, cars, SpaceX rockets, particle accelerators and anything in between rely on some kind of computing capacity, which is built on top of FALSE and TRUE values and logic operators, through a specific algebra, the Boolean algebra, into microprocessors. Wait wait wait wait! Don’t rush through the door. I know I just said algebra, but I also mentioned Boolean which is the fun part.

Photo by Markus Spiske

Boolean algebra is a binary or base 2 algebra. This means that you can only use two figures, 0 and 1, to represent all numbers from 0 to infinity. The numbers 0 and 1 are still written as 0 and 1 in binary but 2 can only be represented as 10, 3 thus becomes 11 and 4 is written as…100. Any decimal number becomes a sequence of zeros and ones in binary mode, and all that computers do is storing these zeros and ones in their memory registers as representations of the TRUE and FALSE values of the Boolean algebra, and perform operations on them: AND which is equivalent to a multiplication, OR, which is equivalent to a sum and NOT, which is equivalent to an opposite, among other operators.

For example, NOT(1) is always 0 and never 1, or in other words, NOT (TRUE) always yields FALSE, never TRUE.

Which could be a way of saying that the statement “There is no absolute truth” is always false, never true, at least as far as computers are concerned. Wouldn’t you agree?

To Wassim

Let the board sound

Rabih

On a time twisting speed limit

“Let there be light”

Photo by Tsuyoshi Kozu

“Let there be light.” According to Genesis 1:3, this is how it all started. If we keep pulling on the metaphorical thread though, we might realize there is more to it.

It is by these words that the universe was stamped with a seal over which no trespassing is possible. This seal is the speed of light. It bears a name, c, and its value is known, 299 792 458 meters per second. A universal speed limit imposed on everything, or more precisely on anything which has mass, energy or which can hold information, so pretty much everything of interest. Nothing can go faster, not even light itself.

We only came to know about this seal in the beginning of the 20th century, when Einstein uncovered it in his theory of relativity. He discovered that it is an absolute limit, true everywhere, anywhere, regardless of the frame of reference you are in. A perfect boundary. A mind twisting one too, or rather a time twisting one. You see the higher the speed at which you travel, the slower time passes for you. Relativity again. The effect is tiny and beyond measurable for ordinary everyday speeds. It becomes dramatic however for speeds approaching c. Even time is not absolute in the vicinity of the ultimate speed limit.

We know today that there are hard limits in our universe, like the speed of light, the absolute zero or the uncertainty principle. Unlike previous epochs where so called science was rooted in the Scriptures, which lead the sun to revolve around the earth and Galilei’s life to jeopardy, these relatively modern limits are the fruits of scientific theories which have been experimentally verified over and again. They are as real as it gets. Bottom-line: Impossible is something, impossible is certain. Impossible is universal, by design may I say.

And maybe it is a good thing. It puts us back in perspective: our lives are too short to tame the impossible, but they are long enough to chase it: that’s called fundamental research for some, endeavor for others, adventure if you will, and that is what keeps dreams alive and humanity going forward.

To Maroun and Liliane

Let the board sound

Rabih