Monday, February 24, 2014

Is winning a gold medal an action?

Time trial: Intending to win

If a person does something with an intention, we call it an action. That’s the view of most philosophers. For instance, when the director stumbles over a stick on the stage that he hadn’t seen, it is an accident. However, when a player stumbles over the same stick, because his part prescribes it, it is an action. The director stumbled unintentionally, while the player stumbled with an intention since he was acting. Actions do not need to be simple. They can be very complex, like taking the train to a nearby town, which involves looking up when the train departs, planning when to leave home, walking to the station etc. Such complex doings can be called actions if they are done intentionally.
Suppose that a top runner is invited for a regional race. He knows that his opponents are not very good and that he can beat them without much effort. Normally he would not take part, but the prize money is good, so the runner accepts. It’s easily earned and he needs to strain himself hardly more than in an endurance run in a workout. And indeed, the runner wins the race without much effort. Then I think, we can call his winning the race an action: The runner intended to win, and if no unusual events would happen, he would certainly win and he did win.
Take now this case of a speed skater participating in the 5000 m race of the Winter Olympics. Everybody expects that he’ll win. Moreover, he hasn’t been beaten in any 5000 m race since many years, with the exception of one, when he had been ill the week before. Nevertheless, you never know what will happen, so he prepares himself as well as he can, physically and mentally. He even knows what time he probably has to skate in order to win and how fast he must skate every lap. The day before the real race, he skates the whole distance in his mind. And so it happens what everybody had already expected: He wins and the lead on number two in the overall standings is rather big. Also in this case we can say, I think, that this race was an action for our skater: He intended to win and since he had prepared himself as best as he could, nothing could prevent that he would win in normal circumstances. Nevertheless this case is not as clear as case one.
Take now what happened a few days later in the 1500 m race of the Winter Olympics (I have changed the facts a bit for simplifying the story). Let’s look at the winner. Of course, he is a very good skater. He has won already several races with strong opponents, also during this season, but it has also often happened that he didn’t win. It was all but sure that he could win a medal, let alone a gold medal. Anyway, as all participants, he prepares himself as well as a skater can for such a race. Then he goes to the start. His race is the last one of the 1500 m and he skates a very, very good race. When he passes the finish, his time is exactly the same as the time of the leader of the list before he started. There is not one hundredth of a second difference. Does this mean that two skaters have finished joint first? Then happens what happens only in such cases: the thousandths of seconds count, too. Our skater springs in the air: He has won with a difference of only 0.003 sec. My question is then: Has also the winner of this race performed an action by winning his race? I think he hasn’t. For although we can say that our skater tried to win the gold medal and that this try was an action, too many incidents could happen that could prevent that he would win the race, like a little bumpiness in the ice; or that the winner of the silver medal winner had started a fraction of a second faster; or maybe a cry by a spectator that distracted him. All these things might have made that he would have finished second. So, in normal circumstances it would have been all but sure that our gold medallist would win, despite his preparations.
But to what extent are case three and case two different? Maybe there are also good arguments sustaining that the skater in case two did not perform an action by winning. Then his only action would have been trying to win. If so, we should have to ask what the difference is between both cases. Anyway, while we can accept case one as a clear case in which winning is an action, and case two as a dubious case, in case three winning is an event that happens to our skater.
I think that it is difficult to explain what makes these cases different because the distinctions are gradual. Nevertheless, I think the upshot is: The difference between what someone intentionally does and what happens to him or her is not as clear as it might seem at first sight.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Time and the Olympic Games

Time difference: 0.01 sec. (17.3 cm)

Time is an abstract idea. Nevertheless it plays an important part in daily life, maybe more than any other concept. It is not only interesting for physicists but everybody has an idea of time and every culture, too. This is not surprising for time structures life, not only on a personal level but also on a social level. The structuring power of time can be explained, I think, by a feature that I mentioned already in my last blog: Time develops continuously in one direction and never stands still. This makes that every decision involving time must be a good decision for it cannot be reversed. Actually, it is true for each decision, anyhow, for each decision takes place on the time dimension, but when time is an essential aspect, it is more true than when time is only of secondary importance. In case I turn left on a corner where I had to turn right, I simply return and continue on the right way. Usually this mistake has no important consequences. However, when time is a primary factor in a decision it is different. Just such decisions are often crucial in life. A farmer must decide when to sow; too early or too late can end in a poor harvest. A driver must brake at the right moment; too late can cause an accident, too early sometimes, too.
These examples show the relevance of time in momentary cases, but there is also a long run significance of time. The recurrence of seasons does not only affect when a farmer has to sow but also what to do next in the course of the year after the setting. It is the same when a youngster is thinking about her career. A decision on her future profession determines not only the contents of her study but also the time path to her goal. Moreover, she must realize that once the decision has been taken and the education has begun, it is difficult to reconsider it. Often schools accept only students of a certain age, grants are not given above a certain age, and when she ends her study too late, it will be difficult to get a job. Also a government that prepares an estimate does not only divide the money among the departments; it has to present the budget at the right date as prescribed by law; take care that the money can be spent; and that the money really will be paid, for instance. In short, on every level of life − both on an individual level and on a social level − time planning plays an important role; short-term and long-term.
As we have seen, we can decide on our time, for instance when we make a time planning, but time can also decide on us. Time is always developing, and when we do not take the right decision at the right moment but too late, whatever the reason may be, time works against us. This can also be so when what happens is beyond our power. To take a Dutch example, a dike subsides because it has been undermined by muskrats. The tide is coming in and we have only two hours to prevent the polder behind the dike being flooded. But we need at least five hours for closing the hole: Time works against us.
This makes me think of an incident after the 500 m race in speed skating for men on the present Winter Olympics. All participants have already long careers behind them. Once it had become clear that they had the talent of becoming top skaters, they started to plan the training through the years hoping to become finalists in the Games: How to train when and where and in which races to participate in order to have a chance to be there. It involved a global time planning for the years to come, later to be filled in with a more detailed time planning. Long run time planning and short run planning were made to fit. And then they are really there: thirty skaters who are the best of the world on the 500 m. Most of them skate the best races of their lives. They couldn’t skate the two heats faster in those conditions. They skate in pairs and the winner of the first heat starts in the last pair. He finishes, sees his time and shouts with joy: The gold medal is for me! For my overall time of both heats is better than the overall time of the winner of the second heat. But a few moments later ...  disappointment, for during his race the time of the latter had been corrected, which makes that not he but the winner of the second heat has the best overall time. The difference is just a tiny one hundredth of a second over two races, so over 1,000 metres in total. A mere one hundredth of a second in time decides on a gold medal, on the career of a speed skater and maybe also on the course of the rest of a life.

P.S. A few days after I had written this blog, the time-difference on the 1500 m speed skating for men between winning a gold medal or winning a silver medal was even smaller: 0.003 sec. (or only 4.3 cm; about the length of the tip of the blades of the skates on the photos above). Note that normally thousands of seconds are not used in speed skating, unless the skaters have exactly the same time measured in hundreds of seconds.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Some thoughts on time

Way out, way back

Time is sometimes considered as the fourth dimension of nature, alongside length, width and height. Yet, if we see it that way, there is something strange with it. We can go up and we can go down. We can make a step forward and we can make a step backward. We can go right and we can go left. And we can stay at the same place. But how about time? Time develops continuously and never stands still. Moreover, time develops always in one direction. It goes always forward. We can’t go back in time and we can’t stop the time for a moment. Always forward? There is also a recurrent vision on time possible in the sense that things come back after some time. That time develops in a circle, or maybe in a spiral. In some cultures people have a recurrent vision on time based on the yearly return of the seasons. One can call it a circular vision of time, but I think it is better to call it spiral, for things come never back in exactly the same way as before. In this sense time is a kind of ongoing development, also in the recurrent vision.
Time does not develop with a constant speed. It is even perspectival. In physics − so from a third person’s point of view in philosophical terms − the theory of relativity says that the speed with which time develops is dependent on the speed and position of the observer. So when you make a trip to the moon and come back to the earth, your watch has lost a few seconds (or maybe minutes; I don’t know) by comparison with the watches of the terrestrials who welcome you after your return. You have spent a bit less clock time on the trip than the terrestrials on earth “during the same time”, so to speak, when you were absent. From a first person’s point of view − the way you experience and feel what is happening − the phenomenon of unequal development of time is well known. The subjective length of time seems to depend on the number of new experiences you happen upon. Therefore you have the feeling that the way out lasts longer than the way back, for on your way back you know already what is behind the next corner. It explains also why during your life time seems gradually to go faster. When you are old, time flies by comparison with time in your youth. It is because when you are young lots of things happen that are new to you, while when you have get on in years the number of new experiences becomes increasingly smaller. You have become an old stager who cannot be surprised any longer. And when nothing happens at all, time seems to last an eternity, as my instance of the prisoner lonely in his cell shows (see my last blog).
My example of the way out and the way back seems to suggest that time is independent of distance, for, of course, both are equal when measured in metres. I think that it shows that we must discriminate between subjective time (duration as it is experienced) and objective time (duration as it is measured with a clock). From the subjective (first person’s) point of view time is nothing but a certain experience. It’s merely phenomenological and it can pass quickly or slowly, depending on the occasion. However, the difference between subjective time and objective time (time seen from the third person’s point of view) is not as big as it might seem at first sight. That time passes quickly or slowly as it happens is also a bit true for objective time, where duration depends on position in a world of moving objects (including the position itself). Maybe it is not that the speed of an object depends on how this object is experienced, but it does depend on how it is perceived. One step further would be to say that time depends on the presence of consciousness. It would imply that time did not exist before the appearance of creatures with consciousness like man and some (higher) animals in this universe, and that it only exists there in the cosmos where consciousness exists. The ancient Greek would have called having such an idea “hubris”.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is time fundamental?

Actually it is not completely new what I am going to write now, for I have written about it before: the relation between time and distance (see my blog dated August 18, 2008). However, it is already more than five years ago that I did, and I think that I have something new to add. At least, it is new to me.
Time has always been an intriguing phenomenon for many people, and so it has be for me, too. What is time? Does it really exist as such? Henri Bergson discovered that all words referring to time are borrowed from spatial language. Hannah Arendt went one step further and said: “[W]e can measure time only by measuring spatial distances.” (The life of the mind, Two p. 13) This is also my experience. When I am running in the wood behind my house or when I am making a bike tour, I estimate the time elapsed not by an independent kind of judgement or feeling, but I look where I am and I estimate the distance I have run or cycled and by doing so I guess the time that has gone by since I left home. It’s impossible to tell how much time have passed without using distance as a measure. All other ways to measure time work basically in the same way, for instance when I look at the sun and guess how much its position has changed since I left. (I can use my watch, too, of course, but more about this at the end.)
When I am training on my bike trainer at home I have the same kind of experience. Already after a few minutes of cycling I have lost any feeling for time. There are several solutions for this problem. I can put a clock in front of me, but then I have the problem that soon my workout becomes boring. This doesn’t happen when I am cycling outdoors on the road or when I am running outdoors. Then I become tired in the end but never bored. So, I watch TV and I make workout schedules. This getting bored on a bike trainer is an instance of a general phenomenon: Your feeling for time becomes lost when you have no other points of reference. An extreme case in point is a prisoner in a cell: If he lacks a daily rhythm and cannot make one for himself, he loses any sense of time.
It is often said that space and time are basic points of reference in nature. Also in physics, time is considered as one of the fundamental quantities, next to, for instance, length (distance), mass and charge. But is it correct? Experiences and phenomena of the kind just discussed have made that I have doubts about the fundamentalness of time in nature and so also in physics. For how do we formally measure time? Since time immemorial two ways have been used. One is the return of the seasons, which is nothing else but the rotation of the earth around the sun. Therefore later the succession of seasons has actually been replaced by using the length of one turn of the earth around the sun as a way to measure the length of a year. The other way of measuring time is taking one turn of the earth around its own axe as a reference. So we get the length of a day (and derivatively the length of an hour, minute and second). But in each case in fact the measure of time is nothing else but the distance covered by a certain piece of mass, and a basic unit of time is nothing else but the period a certain piece of mass uses to return to the same place. This doesn’t look very fundamental. Also the way time is measured in physics today is actually nothing but the relocation of something else (see note). It is not taken as it is, like distance, which is, as said, generally used for determining a unity of time. The upshot is, there is no such a thing as the fundamentality of time. Time can only be conceived in a derived way. If that is true, the idea of time is practical but not necessary.
And a watch? It is merely a handy device that translates distance into time.

Note. For the insiders: A second is the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.