First posted 17 Feb 2004. To be honest, I'm not really sure that I HAVE a moral code now, in a standard sense. I think that we all have moral (as opposed to practical - like let's all drive on the right hand side of the road so that we crash into one another) rules for the same reason that some of us have glasses and contact lens, because we don't see things clearly enough to operate without them.
I guess the way I think about it remains broadly consequentialist, but I probably lean more now to 'act' rather than 'rule' utilitarianism (see below). But I don't really think of it in terms of adding up the goods and the bads of every action. Just considering the impact as broadly as possible and acting with love in your heart, as if everyone/everything impacted were yourself.
Taking a fresh look in every moment and acting appropriately with current information is what is most important, so the 'Pragmatic' element is central to me now.
I believe that man writes his own moral code. No one else out there has written it for us. Having rejected God as a moral source, I also reject pure reason - in the sense that Kant meant it - because its realm is too narrow. Pure reason can help us reach desired ends, but it cannot define those ends. Emotion is central to defining objectives, including moral ones.
My approach is broadly consequentialist. If you can accept, as I do, that pain and death are generally bad and that life and well-being are generally good, then we can travel at least part of the road together. We may disagree eventually on matters of finer detail - does the well-being of non-humans count?, future generations?, prudes?, sadists? should we handle acts and omissions differently? - but let's not get wrapped up in that for now.
I have several problems with simple (or what might be called 'act') utilitarianism. First, it requires the accurate assessment of the effects that two or more alternative actions will have. Many effects will be unpredictable. Second, it requires that we be able to assess the mental state of others - will Mary be more happy in case A or case B? How do I know what Mary will feel, let alone the many others who will feel second- and third-order effects of my actions? The third point is not wholly distinct from the first two but bears highlighting, and that is the sheer volume, the enormity of the calculation required for every morally relevant decision. Life would grind to a halt.
My final issue with act utilitarianism is quite different. Irrespective of the difficulty of predicting objective effects, assessing subjective ones and somehow calculating it all with the appropriate weights, I fear that we can't really TRUST ourselves in the heat of the moment to do the sums honestly. In the midst of life's whirl, aren't we all too likely to 'queer the pitch', to 'fudge the sums', to 'bake the numbers' to make the calculation come out in favour of whatever course we want to follow? Even if this weren't likely to happen consciously, surely our tricky subconscious would jump in to 'guide' the process…
This collection of concerns leads me to see R.M. Hare's two-level utilitarian model as the best guide to practical ethics. I won't attempt to lay out Hare's argument but rather lay out my own explanation. Because of the problems I mentioned above, strict act utilitarianism is wholly impractical and potentially biased. In truth we all act according to intuitive, general rules most of the time. These rules could come from any source - tradition, self interest, religious belief - but I believe they should be based on accumulated experience and 'off-line' critical assessment of 'what-if' scenarios using an act-utilitarian framework. Because these calculations are not done in the heat of the moment and are smoothed over an 'average' of different situations, they are less susceptible to the problems I've outlined. This critical reasoning creates a system of rules, which guide the vast majority of our day-to-day decision making.
The rules are formed on consequentialist grounds, so this is often called rule utilitarianism. A system of rules or principles formed in this way guides my practical ethical thinking. There are, however, times when we should or need to revert to the critical (strict, act utilitarian) level. If two or more of my principles conflict, I need to resort to a more critical analysis (again, on consequentialist grounds) of which should take precedence. When I encounter a highly unusual situation that lies outside the realm of my experience and previous contemplation, for which my existing principles cannot be extrapolated, then I must return to the critical level. When there is a clear case of utility maximisation in which I am highly likely to be able to trust my own calculations and in which application of my intuitive rule would lead to a sub-optimal outcome, then I must revert to the critical level. Now, I am quite a conservative person, so I believe we should be VERY careful about that third point. We must not use it as a way to override our own rules for our own advantage. I personally think that application of this third exception should be very rare indeed.
Now, this whole method for practical ethics has a strong parallel with the process by which William James explains that we gain knowledge of any kind, the empirical and psychological process by which he says we access truth. I won't go into it further here, but it is worth pointing out that my ethical system is just a special application of a general method for attaining knowledge / identifying truth in a world in which (as far as we know) no objective and absolute truth exists. James's school of philosophy is called Pragmatism, and although (for all I know) my approach to practical ethics may be quite different from what he put forward, I think of my system as Pragmatic Ethics.
Pragmatic not in the cynical sense of conveniently justifying our selfish wants with ethical rationalisation, but rather in the sense that it allows for learning, for incorporating greater experience - not just 'real world' experience but also reflective experience via the thought experiments that test our ethical principles in a range of situations. Pragmatic Ethics allows for the ongoing incorporation of new information, for adjustment of the rules to encompass a growing range of situations, for continued honing to find as simple and elegant articulation as possible (but no simpler!).
This is the way that science advances. But in an important way, science is simpler than ethics. Science can advance for humanity on aggregate. Discoveries made by one person are tested by others, accepted as the best working model, and used by the entire field until disproven or supplanted by a more encompassing explanation. This is because science, at its purest, involves falsifiable hypotheses that can be repeatedly tested by different observers who carefully replicate the relevant conditions for the test.
Ethics is much more complex, if for no other reason than that it does not refer to an objective 'it' in the universe. So, although I am suggesting an approach that parallels the scientific approach in its openness to continuous 'improvement', I am certainly not suggesting that ethics can be reduced to science. Despite exactly that assertion from generations of great thinkers, I think the fact that no synthesis has coalesced over these millennia speaks for itself.
First posted 24 Nov 2003. To check on any updates to our knowledge, you can visit Nasa.
We know our universe pretty well, right? Galaxies contain stars, around which orbit planets. The odd comet or asteroid zips around. And there is dust, like what gives Saturn those cool rings. We can see these things all around us, reaching to the edge of the visible universe.
All of this stuff is made of matter, which most of know is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Some of us know that protons and neutrons are actually constructed of more fundamental particles called quarks and that there is a small host of other fundamental particles out there. We have a pretty good idea of the mass, electric charge and spin of each of these particles.
Sounds good. Well imagine my surprise when I learned that all the particles we know of make up only about 5% of the estimated mass-energy content of the universe, and that its very existence is a fluke!
What's the matter?
Cosmologists are able to measure the orbital motion of galaxies within clusters, and of stars within galaxies. The velocities they have measured are greater than can be attributed to the gravitational field generated by the mass of visible matter. When we calculate the mass that must be 'out there' to account for the observed velocities, we learn that visible matter makes up only 15% of total matter in the universe.
The rest is called Dark Matter, and we know precious little about it. We reckon that it is made up of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs!), that it formed into structures as the universe cooled after the Big Bang, and that the visible galaxies we see formed around/within these structures.
The Dark Side, continued
But wait, there's more. It turns out that matter (including Dark Matter), makes up only about a third of the Cosmological balance sheet. The remainder, about which we know next to nothing, is called Dark Energy. How do we know it's there? Well, we've wondered for some time whether the universe is destined to go on expanding or to collapse upon itself in a Big Crunch. Scientists have measured very closely and learned that the rate at which the universe is expanding is actually accelerating. Well, first, this means there's no Big Crunch in our future. But second, it leads us to ask what force is counteracting gravity to cause this acceleration. Dark Energy is the place holder for this variable.
That bursts our bubble a bit, huh? Well, we should consider ourselves lucky - really. It's a fluke that there is any visible matter at all. As Einstein's famous equation shows, mass and energy can be converted between one another. This was happening at a fantastic rate in the earliest moments after the Big Bang. Particles burst into existence, accompanied by their mirror-cousins, anti-particles. Usually, particles and anti-particles ended up slamming into one another and annihilating to form energy again. But one time in a billion a particle was created without an anti-particle. This slight asymmetry led to the existence of the visible matter that we observe (and are made of) today. We are but an asymmetric excess!
Here's lookin' at you kid. You're one in a billion. But you've got a way to go before you really understand your universe.
First posted 20 Nov 2003. It's interesting that my view has shifted significantly at the foundational level but that much at the 'so what' level remains consistent with what is discussed here. The differences?
We persons are special, at least on Earth, in that we have subjective experiences and are also able to step 'outside' those experiences to consider the world, including ourselves and the subjective experiences we have, more objectively. My assumption is that while many other animals are sentient they cannot take this external, objective step.
This ability has contributed greatly to our success, but it has also saddled us (or those of us with nothing better to do than consider it from time to time) with a seemingly insoluble problem: how do we reconcile our subjective feeling of an 'I' inside each of our bodies that serves as the agent of our actions, with our objective understanding of ourselves as parts of the natural world - parts made of 'standard' materials, parts operating subject to well-understood physical forces, parts constructed of reasonably well-identified sub-components with specific functions, parts whose actions are ultimately explained in natural terms without need of or room for this agent 'I'?
As I've said before in Destiny, I think that the answer to the riddle is that our subjective perspective is real but is not based in any agent of free will. Instead, subjective mental states correspond to (and I believe are caused by) specific but complex brain states, which influence and are influenced by body states. There is no free will. Yet our day-to-day, minute-to-minute belief in it cannot and should not be eradicated. I actually encourage a naturalistic expansion rather than an elimination of our concept of the 'I' behind our actions, but I won't repeat my thinking on that point now.
For now, I wanted to look at what I think is an interesting relationship between the objective and subjective, a relationship that, as far as we know, only exists through us as persons. As viewed from the furthest objective reaches, our brains and bodies (not to mention our minds) virtually disappear from the explanation of anything that is going on. The ultimate objective explanation of the dynamics around us would likely appeal to much smaller - and perhaps occasionally much larger - physical structures. Cells, genes, proteins, molecules, atoms, quarks collide, interact. Supernovae explode, singularities evolve. It seems 'we' matter not at all.
Yet without us and our fellow sentient creatures, there would be no screen for this great film to play on. The universe has created its own sets of eyes, ears and fingers to check itself out. I don't mean this in a teleological way. I don't think this was an end toward which the universe evolved - it's just one of the outcomes of the evolution. Light is seen; crashing waves are heard; slippery ice and warming sun are felt. Our animal cousins join us in this feast.
But our feast (we presume) has an additional course, for we have stumbled upon the ability to reason about the contents of our own minds. This self-consciousness opens the door to objectifying our view, not just about our own mental states, but about their place within the world around us. If I tie this back to the big picture, it means that the universe has created not just a set of video recorders but also a set of computers (who in turn have created computers, but I won't get into the role of technological evolution), capable of examining the rest of the world, describing (if not explaining) its past and predicting its future. Within very limited bounds, we recorder/computers also alter its future, but once again, from the ultimate objective standpoint, this is not so special.
The thing that is special is the existence of recursive subjective states, even if you believe, as I do, that they are epiphenomena of physical states. Their existence is uniquely confined to sentient beings, and a subset of them exist only in persons. They are only ever effects, never causes, yet they are remarkable. Although the history and future of the universe can be explained without reference to them, although they are in one sense redundant, although they never outlive the physical body that causes them, the universe would not be the same without them.
And let's unbundle them to individual minds. Consciousness, coupled with memory and intention, constitutes an individual window on the world in each of us. Once again, this is not teleological. We don't exist to provide this window. Yet each of us provides one none the less. Although the 'self' derives from wholly physical causes, it takes flight in the emergent magic of sentience and self-consciousness. Your subjective experience of the world is what makes you special among the rocks and trees.
Only you enjoy that unique show. There is no objective observer, but if there were, he would be able to explain your every action in physical terms. He could trace every atom of your existence backward to the Big Bang and forward indefinitely. He could pinpoint the arrival, manipulation and transfer of every idea by neurochemical, mechanical and electromagnetic means. But he would not be able to comment at all on what it was like to be you. That is what makes our living moments special among all the moments in which our constituent particles and their interactions have existed and will exist.
We are objects, with pasts much greater than our age and futures more enduring than our life expectancy. But we are special objects, each with a unique subjective window on the world. And within your window is yourself, both as subject and as object. A frame in a frame in a temporary frame.
First posted 13 Nov 2003. Over the course of the 4-5 years when I wrote my previous blog - called slumberfogey - I was an avowed (and sometimes verbally militant) atheist. In an effort to poke some fun at myself and keep myself honest, I posted this entry, in which God made some good points...
I couldn't help but notice that your blog takes a certain atheistic slant. No big deal. You're right about a few things. I don't care much about who you have sex with or what you eat. But I do get a bit pissed off when you all start killing one another in my name. As you say, life is in general a good thing. People shouldn't take it lightly.
You seem to be a big fan of science. As I've not much else to do at the moment, I thought I would remind you about a little something. Science's answer to The Big Question - where did the universe come from? - isn't exactly scientific.
Science - "The universe was born in the Big Bang."
God - "What existed before the universe?"
Science - "'Before' isn't really an applicable term, because time as well as space was born with the Big Bang."
God - "So, the universe popped into existence inexplicably 14 billion years ago? There was no time or space before that? Hmm."
How, may I ask, is that more satisfactory than saying that I created the universe? Sure, you might ask where I lived and how I earned my living before I created it, but those questions are no more awkward than the ones science lays itself open to. God, the soul and free will are no more difficult to grasp than infinity and eternity - terms you seem comfortable enough to bandy about despite being unable to really fathom them. Mightn't you simply be in denial about me?
You like the scientific method. Does any observation ever made by man disprove my existence? Is the atheistic hypothesis falsifiable? Once you admit it is not, then how do you justify taking an atheistic stance? Why not be agnostic like so many fashionable liberal intellectuals down there?
You assert that there's no ethical dimension to the universe. Is that a falsifiable hypothesis? Not so scientific after all, are you? Anyway, you're playing with fire. You need to have some basis for morality, else you'll all just start behaving like a bunch of animals.
Oh, that's right - you say you are animals, albeit special ones. And actually, according to your naturalistic determinism, you and the other animals are not really different from rocks and stones anyhow. Your actions are just as surely explained by previous events (although they are too complex for your finite intellects to unravel) as the rock's tumble from the cliff into the sea. How does that make you feel?
I detect nihilism sneaking in. How can anything matter if it is all just a consequence of the universe's initial conditions and the laws of motion? Come on, you can temporarily adopt a philosophical stance to put forward such a notion, but you simply can't really believe it, as you live and breathe!
Don't be so uptight! Okay, so I'm not a grey-bearded man sitting on a throne. Throw away the anthropomorphism - you'd be right to do so. But for God's sake, don't throw away God! Whether you believe it or not, you need me. You are part of me. Don't deny your identity with me. Don't let your formulae come between you and the inexplicable whole, in which you yearn (so secretly) to find your place.
I'm all around you. I'm in you. I am you and everything else - but in a 'whole is greater than the sum of its parts' sort of way. I like your pluck. I admire your curiosity. Just don't miss what's right under your nose.
See you around,
First posted 13 Nov 2003. This distinction still resonates strongly with me.
Was the world created in seven days? Does God care if we eat meat and cheese together? Was a man named Jesus also the earthly embodiment of God himself, and did he rise from the dead after three days?
Not to be too flippant about it, but I don't really care. This is because I think of these more in terms of mythos than of logos.
Although I'm being inexact here, please let me define logos as the application of intellectual reason to the search for truth.
I trust fundamentally in reason and in our ability to apply it to observations of the world around us. Through careful perception and clear thinking, we can gain a practical understanding of how 'things' (including ourselves) work.
I happen to believe that we cannot gain knowledge, in the sense of certainty that our belief corresponds with objective truth, about the external world. Our belief either does or does not correspond to the truth, but we can never know whether it does or not - we can just believe more or less strongly that it does. Therefore, I see a sort of 'working' version of knowledge as the best that we can aspire to. Luckily, we have invented and refined a method for gaining and honing this working knowledge, and that is the scientific method - based on formulating hypotheses about the world that can be tested and disproven. These hypotheses cannot be proven true, but we are entitled to believe them true until such time as we are able to disprove them based on empirical observation.
Now, I certainly recognise that the scientific method, and the working knowledge we gain through it, have their limitations. First, as we see clearly with quantum mechanics, any number of metaphysical interpretations may be consistent with what we observe. Just because a theory very accurately predicts experimental observations through a successful model of reality does not mean that it explains that reality. Second, there are some spheres that simply do not lend themselves to examination via the scientific method - aesthetics and ethics are two examples.
Let's not take logos for more than it is. It is a mighty chariot, but it cannot take us to all our desired destinations.
I have heard it said that the most profound truths cannot be spoken. I have taken this to mean not that words can't help us reach those truths, but rather that words can't take us directly to them via rational argument. Even in cases where rational lines of thought and argument can take us there, they may not be the most effective route.
This is where mythos comes in. I define a myth as a story whose value has nothing to do with its factual accuracy (which is different from defining it as an untrue story). Metaphor, couched in poem, fable or parable, can provide access to riches otherwise out of reach. Myths, in their grandest incarnations, can call forth the numinous, the mystery of Being and Life that inspires awe and reverence, that connect us with all that is. They help us to deal with the inescapable - with tragedy and death. They help us impart meaning to life.
But they don't do it by virtue of corresponding to any intellectually-recognisable, let alone logically deducible truth. The people in these myths need not have ever existed, although they may have existed. The reported actions need never have occurred, although they may have occurred. The written words need never have been spoken, although perhaps they were.
Getting wrapped up in the question of whether mythical stories are factual is like arguing whether Picasso's model's really looked like his paintings - it misses the point. Picasso was striving to depict an essence that realism misses, dilutes or obscures. Myth does the same.
Religious myths have at their heart shadows of answers to the greatest mysteries. We too easily focus instead on the ornamentation of the words themselves. We too often miss the message for the words that deliver it, not seeing the forest for the trees.
When in the mythic realm, don't read for facts - names, places, actions, speeches are steeped in the context of the author's era and area. Don't read for arguments - what seemed factually indisputable as an example at the time of writing may be recognised today as forgivable ignorance. Read with the innocence of a child and feel what comes from the story. Build your own myths with truths more durable than the material from which they are constructed, but don't mistake your myths' words for truth.
Let mythos and logos play their own parts without trying to make one into the other. Let's not confuse mythos and logos. Each has its place in making our lives rich and full, in helping us find our way in the world.
First posted 21 January 2005. Questions of consciousness. Questions of the role of subjectivity. Questions of time. Questions of a Platonic reality. All still central to what keeps my curious mind busy... Penrose was the adviser of another of my scientific heroes: Julian Barbour.
Roger Penrose, the Oxford Physicist, is not convinced: quantum theory, he believes, is incomplete. In The Road to Reality he argues that a further revolution is required in quantum mechanics, as indicated by its inability to address the reduction process for the wave function (and thereby its inability to 'join up' with classical physics) as well as troubling incompatibilities with general relativity.
The time asymmetry associated with the wave function reduction (or collapse) upon measurement of a quantum system contrasts sharply with the symmetry associated with the propagation of the wave function itself. The latter can be made sense of moving either backwards or forwards in time; the former works only moving forward.
A more familiar time asymmetry, the one we experience every minute of every day, is grounded in the extraordinary nature of the Big Bang itself - its strikingly low entropy. The Big Bang was so ordered that the ever-decreasing order of the universe is a probabilistic near-certainty. This is what lies behind the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the 'arrow of time'. It points to the peculiar behaviour of gravity at cosmological singularities - not only the Big Bang but (less spectacularly) black holes.
The presence of this time asymmetry in both the reduction of the wave function and in the Big Bang suggests that gravity might play an important role in wave function reduction. Discovering this role would amount to a revolution that could well resolve the 'measurement paradox' and render quantum mechanics consistent with general relativity and contiguous with classical physics.
According to this idea, it is the gravitational effects of the classical measuring apparatus (and other macroscopic entities in our everyday world) rather than the perceptions of any observer that bring about the collapse of the wave function. As such, the reduction is an objective rather than a subjective one. This takes the conscious observer from the limelight of quantum theory. How does this happen? As the wave function propagates through time, non-uniformities develop in the distribution of energy and matter among its superposed states, and at some point become gravitationally significant. The gravitational interaction with the measuring apparatus (or other macroscopic entity) then brings a collapse into a measurable single state.
Although Penrose takes the consciousness out of quantum reduction, in The Emperor's New Mind he puts quantum reduction centre stage in consciousness, thereby turning the world (as seen by conventional quantum theory) on its head. These same quantum gravitational effects account for the difference between consciousness and artificial (computer) 'intelligence', and Penrose calls upon them in his rejection of the computational theory of mind. There are things - including non-algorithmic, non-computable ones - that the human mind can comprehend while no computer (Turing machine) possibly could. This is in keeping with Godel's theorem, which states that no formal mathematical system (or at least none of the richness required to handle even common arithmetic) can be complete. There must always be truths that cannot be expressed without recourse to 'meta-mathematical' language that is not part of the formal system.
Penrose suggests that our access to such truths is due to quantum fluctuations, gravitationally induced, within the brain (he suggests maybe in the microtubules of the neurons' cytoskeletans). Multiple states may exist in superposition in our brains until gravity triggers a collapse to a specific state, with resulting (possibly non-local) effects on our neural states. This is something that is not possible (at least for now) with computers.
There is a deep connection among the time-asymmetry of the wave function reduction, the behaviour of gravity at singularities and the presence of non-algorithmic (non-computable) elements - including consciousness - in the world. This helps to explain the relationship among Penrose's "Three Mysteries":
There is also an "Escher element" to the relationships among the three mysteries. Escher was an artist (and obviously a mathematician) whose works included paradoxical staircases and streams that seemed to always lead in one direction (up or down) yet returned to their own source.
In Penrose's three world / three mystery model, a small portion of the mental world is all that is needed to capture the mathematical one (since we obviously spend lots of time considering other things). Similarly, a small portion of the mathematical world is applied to the collected (total) formalism of physics, with much else being dedicated to other questions. And finally, only a small portion of the physical world (that part that makes up our cells) is drawn on to explain the mental one. Each part is able to 'swallow' its neighbour in an illogical, unending cycle.
Penrose believes that the secret to this mystery of the mysteries is that all these worlds are in fact one. Perhaps in a holographic, holistic, non-local sense like that evoked by David Bohm, another of my creative scientific heroes?
First posted 15 April 2006. These days, I tend to think of the brain a lot less when I'm thinking of the mind, but my sense of wonder for whatever it is that is behind our mental experience is undiminished.
Michael O'Shea's The Brain: A Very Short Introduction has shown me that my longstanding wonder with the brain has been understated. You see, I have marvelled at the complexity inherent in a collection of 100 billion neurons - each with a thousand synapses, connections with other neurons - and the effectively uncountable number of possible brain states implied by the permutations of these on-off switches.
O'Shea is also impressed by this, but he adds several other elements of our current understanding that demonstrate that the metaphor of a network of binary electrical switches is far too simple:
All of this suggests that the challenges of 'porting' human intelligence to computer hardware ( a la Ray Kurtzweil) are vastly greater than I had thought. The challenges are similarly greater for efforts such as Dan Lloyd's to eventually map mental states to brain states: the state space, already mind-bogglingly large, is vastly larger still.
It even makes me slightly more sceptical about Julian Barbour's timeless theory of time, because the asynchronous nature of the brain's neuronal (and glial?) interactions doesn't seem to fit well with the notion that particular brain states are but tiny subsets of instantaneous universe states (or Nows) that happily happen to contain records that act as bridges to other Nows. How instantaneous is a Now? If mental states are tied not to instantaneous brain states but are affected by the frequency of repeated neuronal firing, then can a mental state reside within a single Now, given that such a Now, by definition, can contain no change (i.e. no repeated firing)?
But there is a way out. I guess if the brain encodes in each instant information about its state in previous instants (as in discussion of the specious now in Dan Lloyd), then there is no necessary inconsistency between the unquestionable existence of subjective experience and Barbour's theory of time.
First posted 28 June 2006. My view of time and consciousness is surprisingly close in this 11-year old post to what it is today, even though I had not been exposed at that time to the main elements that now underpin my reasoning.
Several pairs of unreconciled truths (as in best operating guesses) interest me deeply: Quantum mechanics & General relativity, Determinism & Free Will, Materialism & Consciousness. These pairs are not unrelated, could indeed be different manifestations of the same chasm. The paradox that may interest me most of all captures aspects of all three and is almost certainly inextricably entwined with each, and that is: Space-time & Temporal becoming.
The paradox has two elements. The first, in a nutshell, is that our best understanding of space-time tells us that it is a complete, unchanging, four-dimensional (perhaps with seven further dimensions wrapped tightly around themselves, unextended) whole, but our direct experience is of a temporal flow with each moment different from the last. All is constant, yet the only constant is change itself.
The second is that while space-time itself has no privileged set of parallel planes that can be called Nows (each inertial frame parses out space and time in a different way, with the Nows as planes at different angles to one another) , we each indisputably experience a clear distinction among past, present and future. The flow from the latter to the former hearkens back to the first element of the paradox.
In an interesting paper, entitled "The Physics of 'Now'", James Hartle takes us some of the way towards a reconciliation.
Space-time is a four-dimensional grid, with each point being an event. If we label one axis as the the speed of light multiplied by time and the others as the space dimensions, then one can imagine two cones, extending in opposite directions parallel to the 'time' axis and meeting at a designated point, or event. The one pointing back toward the Big Bang is the past light cone for that event, and the one opposite it is the event's future light cone.
There is a reason these are called light cones: given the chosen units of the time axis and the fact that nothing can travel at speeds exceeding the speed of light, all points (events) within the 'backward' light cone can be said to be in the given event's past, they could have played some part in the evolution that led to the given event's occurring. Similarly, all points in the future light cone can possibly be affected by this given event. Points outside these cones cannot be said to be in the given event's past or future. They are what is called 'space-like' separated from it.
If we imagine that event or point as being one of many that make up the history, or world line, for a person as that person travels through life (and space and time!), then, within that person's frame of reference, the plane that runs through that event and is perpendicular to the time axis might be defined as a Now or instant for that person.
But the thing is that that person's frame of reference is not privileged, is nothing special. So although it might be called a Now for him, it is not a Now for the universe. Other people could be travelling at very great speeds relative to him, and their Nows would be askew with respect to his.
As it happens, all we humans exist very close to one another (on a cosmological scale), and we move only at very low velocities relative to one another (as compared to the speed of light). So our Nows are for all intents and purposes not only parallel but even simultaneous. Still, this is just a local accident.
Why do we distill the time dimension from the space ones and experience it as a flow from future to past? Hartle believes it is a function of the way that we collect and process information. Placing humans within a broader set of entities he calls Information Gathering and Utilising Systems (IGUSes), he models a simple IGUS to demonstrate his thinking.
In essence, we have 'registers' for current input and for memories of past input. These registers contribute directly to conscious thought both directly and indirectly, the latter through subconscious updating of our 'schema' or underlying operational models for dealing with the world around us.
In any moment, or more to the point, at any event along our world-lines, the 'current input' register is populated by what we are experiencing, the remaining registers are populated by what we experienced in each of several immediately preceding moments. The direct 'feed' from the 'current input' register to conscious thought gives the sense of Now. The fact that any brain state enfolds information from previous brain states ( in the other registers), gives a sense of both a past and of a flow to time. The future is not represented in any register but is rather the object of calculation in both conscious and subconscious processing.
But why does this flow move in one direction rather than the other, or rather than in both? Hartle appeals to two old dears of physics, the 2nd law of thermodynamics (which states that entropy must always increase), and the nature of electromagnetic radiation. I've talked about the first elsewhere. The second is worth mentioning a bit more about. Anything we see has radiated from some source. Electromagnetic radiation only ever travels in that one 'direction' - from source outwards.
In a sense, then, the past can simply be defined as the direction in time from when radiation strikes our retina to when it is (was) emitted. Information only travels that way. Since gathering and processing information is what we do, we naturally take on or assign this direction a prominent place, simply through our interactions with the world.
As ever, I'm sure that I've been less than perfectly true to Hartle's original argument, so do read his paper.
I will say, though, that I think he leaves two questions unanswered. They may well fall outside the scope of his work, but they are related and interesting. First, Hartle mentions repeatedly that we EVOLVED into the IGUSes we are, to process information as we do, because that is what worked. He is doing nothing more than making one specific reference to the accepted truth of Darwin's thesis. But when one thinks of space-time as a four-dimensional, unchanging and complete totality (as I believe it is), one can't help but think differently about evolution.
We no longer say, things are this way because they evolved to be so, and they evolved to be so because being so conveyed survival and reproductive benefits. That is all true WITHIN the time dimension, but within the eternal space-time picture, that we are this way is just that we are this way. Both our present state of evolution and every other step in its past and future exist eternally. So one then asks, why is THAT so? Why is it that this relationship within four-dimensional space-time exists? I don't have an answer. It is just SO.
Second, it is simple enough to refer to a given event on my world-line, look into the 'current input' register and say, "That is my Now". But the interesting point is that EVERY ONE of the points on the 'conscious' segment of my world line is a conscious now, and every one exists eternally, side-by-side, as it were, in space-time. Why do I not experience them all at once. Why do I only experience THIS one and now THIS one?
I do have my own answer to this question, and it is that we ARE experiencing ALL of our Nows eternally, although somehow only ever in one channel at a time. Every instance from our first sentient experience through to our last is experienced by us eternally. Each exists at some event in space-time, but all are there in the eternal 4-D block that is existence. So we don't get life-after-death as such (because the 'after' shows that we are talking within the time dimension with that phrase), but we do get eternal life! And that eternal life is no better or worse than each instant that you live. Moments of suffering are eternal, as are moments of elation, despair and euphoria. Drink deep. Live it up!
First posted 17 Feb 2004 - This film covered a lot of ground. It may have lacked rigour. It may have made insinuations that outreached any fact base. But you can't deny it prompted questions and presented interesting material in relatively digestible form. My own views have shifted significantly from those I held at the time of this review. Some are now closer to the film's, some still not.
Having seen 'I Heart Huckabees' on Sunday, I saw a preview screening of 'What the Bleep Do We Know' this evening - quite a philosophical week. 'Bleep' will probably launch properly in London in March or April.
Well, Bleep certainly covers a lot of ground. I am on board with the need for a paradigm shift - from one dominated by the residue of our longstanding and recently ended infatuation with major western religions to something that retains the connection with the numinous while using what modern science has to offer.
I have to say that the paradigm I envisage differs in a fundamental way from that suggested by the film, but it also shares much ground. Irrespective of whether I or anyone else actually subscribes to the film's specific direction, it is a must see - simply because it is so thought-provoking.
Particular items that caught my attention or stirred a reaction were:
Quantum mechanics (QM)
The film starts with a strong version of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, which says that sub-atomic particles cannot be said to exist independent of observation. Unobserved, 'they' exist only as potentials, the probabilistic evolution of which is well defined by a mathematical construct called a wave function. In this wave form, the 'particle' exists as a weighted superposition of all its possible selves (with different positions and momentums for each potential self). Only upon measurement by an observer does the wave function 'collapse' to a unique particle with definite characteristics (not all of which can be known to arbitrary accuracy at the same time). This interpretation obviously gives a special role to the 'observer' in nature.
This is combined with a specific view of the self, one in which Mind stands outside the laws of material nature and in a position of primacy relative to the material world - literally Mind over Matter. I guess you could say the film was espousing an Idealist as opposed to a Realist (read materialist) view of the world: thoughts, ideas, intentions and emotions are the primary building blocks of the world, not atoms, molecules and cells.
The film intertwines these two propositions and draws the conclusion that we each create reality everyday. Further, by adopting more positive attitudes and engaging in more positive thought patterns, we can impact the material world around us to make our world a better place.
As you'll know if you've read my articles on QM (If you think you understand this, then you don't, Quantum Determinacy, Problems with Quantum Orthodoxy, and Revisiting the Quantum - information please) and the Self (Who Am I?, Destiny, Subjective Objects), I disagree fundamentally with each of the two propositions above. I am a causal realist at heart, believing that there is an objective material world that exists independent of us and that subsumes us. And although I think that the Mind is awe-inspiring, I think that it is wholly resident in and reliant on the body.
So without going into any refutations of the film's positions (because I've discussed that in the articles I've mentioned), I'll just say that the film's position on those dimensions does not resonate with me. I don't view either of them as absurd in their own right. However, I do think that the leap to the overall conclusion about our ability to literally impact matter and space with our minds is a bit far. QM's interpretation is still a mystery, with many holding views close to the interpretation cited in the film and some holding views closer to mine. Consciousness is also a puzzle, with clear-thinking people on each side of the Idealist - Realist debate. However, just because QM and consciousness are both unexplained doesn't mean that they are related to one another in any way, let alone a causal tie as blunt and direct as the film proposes.
The Arrow of Time
One of the contributors pointed out the peculiar asymmetry of time. Most (I don't know whether we call say 'all') of the mathematical formulae that so accurately describe the world around us are indifferent to the direction of time, working just as well backwards as forward. Yet we can only experience time in one direction. We can (if we can trust our memories) have knowledge of the past but not of the future. We are troubled by the thought of our not living into the unending future, but we have no problem with the fact that we were not alive for the many thousands of years before our birth.
Some (but not this contributor) have suggested that time's arrow is tied to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system, entropy increases over time. Entropy MUST increase as time moves forward, so perhaps this irreversibility drives the same irreversibility in time. But upon closer inspection, entropy's increase is not absolutely necessary: it is only probabilistic. It just so happens that the universe began in a relatively ordered state. Since there are many more (uncountably so) disordered states than there are ordered ones, entropy's march is staggeringly probable - NEARLY assured. Yet that is not the same as being necessary, absolute. So... if we are to tie time to entropy, we would also have to accept that time's direction is not irreversible in theory, but is only practically guaranteed by the high probabilities discussed above.
The Brain and learning, habituation and addiction
Several contributors discussed the role of neural pathways or networks in our behaviour. We reinforce the formation of certain sets of connections through our habits. The reinforced sets 'wire' themselves to respond to the frequent call for their combined performance. Other possible combinations, if not called upon, do not wire themselves up. We can, through conscious habituation, re-wire some of these networks (e.g. the ones associated with more positive outlooks, more pleasant moods, more confident postures and more successful behaviours).
And this electrical component is accompanied by a chemical one, with parts of the brain creating (or causing to be created) different chemicals for different needs. Just like we can become addicted to external drugs, we can become addicted to some of these internal, home-made concoctions. We then engage in the behaviours and nurture the states of mind that give us our fix.
The important point is that a bit of us can stand outside the fray, perhaps up on the mental balcony, observing and intervening to break the vicious cycle. But we have to recognise and support that bit, exercise it and have confidence in it.
I don't know the science well enough to comment on the accuracy of this 'folk' version of it, but it doesn't seem outlandish; in fact, it jibes quite well with the rough understanding I have from some previous reading.
I'll see it when I believe it
One scene is built around the story that the natives in the Caribbean did not see Columbus's ships as they sailed in, because they had no visual or mental construct for a ship. The more general point is that we cannot see or accept things that do not already exist in our mental model or paradigm.
To be honest, I don't buy the foundational story at all. I can accept that the natives would not know that the ships WERE ships. I can understand that they would be confused as to what these dark patches on the horizon were, confused by the shapes they became as they grew closer. But I cannot believe that they literally did not SEE them.
Like everything else in the film, though, it is thought provoking. It recalls to mind a vague picture I have of how we deal with sensory input and with anomalies in particular. We are bombarded with sensory input, with much more than we can process, in every waking moment. Our brains are partially hard-wired through evolution (i.e. natural selection) to help discern the useful info from the 'white noise', and our particular experiences further shape the more plastic aspects of that filter.
From our earliest days, we begin to assemble our working model of the world. What matters? What does not? What framework allows us to maintain internal consistency across the broadest range of our experience - to make sense of the world? When new input arrives that is labeled as irrelevant, we do not attend to it (unless perhaps we pay the price for ignoring it and our brains pick up on that fact and adjust the framework). When new input fits the paradigm and is labeled as important, we attend to it.
But what happens if new information is so far outside our accumulated experience and reasonable extrapolation from it that we can make no sense of it at all? We tuck it away into a certain bit of the brain where it sits in a cache; at night, while we sleep and dream, among the routine brain maintenance that takes place is a re-assessment of the framework (or paradigm) in the light of any new anomalous information. What is the smallest adjustment that can be made to the overall model in order to accommodate, make sense of, this new input? Do we need to scrap the whole model and start anew (when rocks begin to talk or we find out that we are just carnival entertainment for some other, alien and invisible race!)? If the accommodation necessary is too large, we may well end up just disregarding the anomaly (the Red Sox didn't REALLY win the World Series) and just continue with the paradigm intact.
So you can see that I identify more than a grain of truth in the film's underlying point here.
Back to the addiction theme, another segment looked at it from the somatic cell perspective. Every cell has loads of receptors for receiving information from its environment, including the chemical drinks discussed above. If the receptors are incessantly bombarded by some protein 'hit' they shrink and become less responsive to it, meaning it takes more of it to give the same 'fix'. Cells can then become so engrossed in getting their next 'high' that they neglect other important functions like communication with neighbouring cells and even elimination of their own waste products. Keep in mind that I'm talking about 'internal', not 'external' drugs here (although I wouldn't be surprised if the story were much the same for external ones).
You can tell by my over-use of analogy that I'm not up to speed with the proper science here, so I can't judge the accuracy of the scientific claims. It does, though, appeal to common sense. (Yeah, yeah, I know, common sense often leads us astray when we venture away from the normal life scales and conditions in which it developed.)
One contributor spoke (a bit too loosely, I think) about cells being not only alive - an assertion with which I wholly agree - but also conscious. She said a cell was conscious because it interacted with its environment and processed chemical information. This doesn't, for me, suggest consciousness. Or, to put it another way, if it DID qualify as consciousness, then we would have to admit that computers and computer networks are conscious. Perhaps we should...
No good, no bad
Several contributors pointed out that there is no objective good or bad 'out there' in the world. A belief with which I am in agreement, as you can read in my articles: Right and Wrong, Sources of Morality, Ethical Notes, Disobedience, Pragmatic Ethics and Nietzsche's Call to Creativity.
No Personal God
All contributors who discussed religion found the creation of a person-like personal God harmful to mankind and in many instances antithetical to what they saw spirituality as.
I tend to agree that, however powerful, insightful and well-intended the original spiritual messages are, when organised religion accretes around them, the foibles of man dilute, pollute and hijack them.
This isn't at all to say that all clergy are guilty or that all followers are silly. I just think that the more organised a belief structure is, the more likely it is to lose sight of the wood for the trees.
As I said, there were a number of things with which I agreed and a number of things - including the major thesis - with which I didn't. Still I can heartily recommend 'What the Bleep Do We Know' as an interesting, challenging, thought-provoking film that may well make you want to sit down and put your thoughts to paper.
First posted 12 Apr 2004. Tying together Robert Pirsig, Eckhart Tolle and Nietzsche - early influencers of how I now see the world, this post also touches on music, one of the great loves of my life. Just a taster. Oh, and I got rid of my Vespa a few years ago, so now the maintenance analogies have to find their home in the bicycle world...
Ever find yourself in the middle of a confrontational daydream - hypothesising things that might go wrong in the future and then spinning through in your head how you might deal with them? Or have you caught yourself re-living an event (whether glorious or humiliating) from the past, perhaps second-guessing your actions? Or how about sitting in traffic, in a queue or in a boring meeting at work, waiting to be able to get on to something interesting or important that lies in the near future?
If you're like me, you probably spend a fair bit of time thinking about the past, the future or some alternative and preferable present. We do it so much that we think nothing of it. Yet when you really step back and consider it, as I do whenever I re-visit Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now like I have in the past week, you realise that all this mental hyper-activity is really a useless exercise.
Let's acknowledge up front that of course it is useful to reflect on past events in so far as that reflection generates learning that better prepares us for the future. Likewise, it is certainly useful to think about the future so as to identify things you can do today and along the way to make that future better. Our brains are wonderful tools for learning from the past and planning for the future, and we should stroke them lovingly for the outstanding work they do for us on those dimensions.
The problem is that, at least for me, most of the time spent dwelling on the past or fretting about the future involves little of this useful activity. If learning and planning were all we did, we'd spend a small fraction of the 'non-Now' time we do. No, what we do is mull over things again and again, causing our hearts to race and inducing other fight-or-flight reactions in our bodies. We put ourselves through unnecessary worry, regret or other pain.
Although it is almost too obvious to warrant mentioning, let's just remind ourselves that there is NOTHING we can do about the past. Aside from some science fiction writers and Hollywood producers, no one has found a way to reverse time's arrow. It naturally follows that obsessing on the past (beyond the aforementioned reflection for learning's sake) is useless.
Not quite so obvious, but equally true, is the point that worrying about the future does nothing to avoid or mitigate negative future events. Once again, some planning might help, but beyond that, much of the future-anxiety we experience is driven by phantoms, dreamed up proto-scenarios that may or may not ever materialise.
The whole 'so-what' of this is that all we can ever directly influence is NOW. Every action we ever take is taken in the present. We might as well pay attention to the present, since that is all we ever directly experience.
So at one level, a strictly practical one, I personally am trying much harder to minimise the time I spend with useless, unhelpful and uncomfortable past- and future-oriented activity. Don't get me wrong: I do not purport to be a guru or an expert on this. I just struggle along like everyone else, but I AM doing better at simply recognising when I begin to drift into unhealthy past-or-future zone. And just recognising it really does go a long way toward making it stop.
As for the future (because I tend to be much worse about drifting in that direction than drifting toward the past), I find lists to be very helpful, and here's why. If I think of something I need to do in the near future and don't write it down, it just swirls around in my head until I get it done. And it doesn't swirl around peacefully, it leaves a trail of anxiety. Whereas if I write it down, then I feel it is captured. Then I just cross it off when I do it, whenever that is.
Now some people have problems with lists, because they make these really comprehensive ones that try to encapsulate EVERYTHING they need to do to 'get themselves together.' Having filled page upon page with these details, they then look at the list and are instantly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project before them. All I can say to this is that we all need to prioritise and schedule among the demands on us. You work your way through that list the same way you eat an elephant - one bite at a time.
A Deeper Level
Now let me turn to a slightly different problem, that of following our minds into alternative, preferred presents rather than directly our minds towards the ACTUAL present in which we sit. This is the category of problem that includes the anxiety in traffic jams, long queues and other 'useless' periods.
At the risk of (once again) stating the obvious. Either we can do something about the situation in which we find ourselves or we can't. In the former case, we should just get on and DO it. In the latter, we can but make the most of it. In either case, the first step is to accept (which is not to say celebrate) the real present, recognise and acknowledge it. Only having done that can we figure out whether we can usefully act. All too often, I just skip this all-important step and move straight into emotional over-reaction, with the accompanying unhealthy physical manifestations of stress and frustration.
Now this is where I could really be a lot truer to my professed world-view. I believe that whatever happens is the best that CAN happen and the worst that CAN happen. In other words, whatever happens, happens NECESSARILY. By better keeping this in mind, I can more helpfully acknowledge what IS and then work WITH it to the limits of my ability.
There is another reason for paying more attention to and granting acknowledgment to the present moment. There is an entire world out there as well as within us. Our real contact with that world, is entirely in the present. If we restrict the attention we give to it by frittering away part of our capacity on past and future ghosts, then we degrade our connection with reality.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig speaks of quality - that characteristic that defines something that is good from something that is not. In essence, quality surfs right on the leading edge of the present moment. It imposes itself on us in its raw, undefined Romantic form in the instant between awareness and consciousness. Once our rational, Classical consciousness - a filter defined by our make-up and experiences - takes hold of it, we analyse it, dissect it and place it into the appropriate category or pigeon-hole. If our awareness is in itself inhibited because our minds are leading us away from the present to battle past or future demons, then we are twice poorer: first in gaining only an attenuated or partial experience and second in what we can extract from that experience.
The mechanics who screwed up Pirsig's bike weren't sufficiently engaged in their work to do a good job. This might have even been the case if they did care deeply about achieving a good final product. The point is that you have to care about what you are DOING, not what any future product of it is. Caring about what you're doing (which is always in the present moment) is the single most important thing in motorcycle maintenance - and of course by extension, the most important thing full stop.
For Nietzsche as well, reality was this pre-rational raw wave within an ever-evolving flux. The front edge of that wave is all we can ever access. In fact, this unmitigated experience is so powerful that we have evolved physically and socially so as to buffer ourselves against it. Given our self-imposed safety padding, designed to protect our sanity, the closest most of us can safely get to unadulterated Being is through music.
Music speaks to us without words, riding a standing wave at the edge of our awareness and the rest of existence, with which that awareness is inextricable entwined and essentially one. For Nietzsche, only a new being, born of man but incomparably braver and sturdier, can 'face the music' without being overwhelmed. It opens the window to not only the beauty but also the terror of existence.
Just to come back to the mortal world, I have to admit that my experience with music has never been this earth-shattering. Yet I do see something in what Nietzsche is saying. Music does help bring me into and hold me in the present moment. It brings my mind out of its self-generated battles and makes it still. Then, whatever I turn to do, I do with a clearer mind. I am able to immerse myself more deeply into that activity, in the DOING rather than the product.
I don't do my own maintenance on my 50cc Vespa, but if I did, I would want to have my MP3 player nearby.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.