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.
Nestled between a couple of the tightly-folded Appalachian foothills, about 50 miles downstream from where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, PA, lies Irondale, Ohio, where I grew up. Irondale is a village of about 300 people, having shrunk from a mighty 600 when I was there in the 70s and early 80s.
It was founded in the late 18th century when salt deposits were discovered at the confluence of what are now called Salt Run and Little Yellow Creek. Salt mining became its first industry, but was supplanted over the years by tin milling, clay mining and brick making. Today, the only real industry is a small recycling company where the main brickyard used to be.
That company is actually located in one of the suburbs of Irondale, called Salisbury. Now it might seem odd to speak of suburbs of a village, but that's sort of how we thought of it. Anyway, in older days, when my father was growing up there, Salisbury was the home of the clay mine, brick yard, and (clay) sewage pipe production that fueled the local economy. In still older days, the tin mill (America's first, the sign at Irondale's frontier states) was down in Irondale proper, although still on the 'other side of the tracks'.
Rail was the preferred mode of transport for moving the raw materials and finished products around in those days, and the tracks connected Salisbury, Irondale and Cream City (the other suburb, where I spent the first 9 years of my life) with the rest of the world. My teenage home in Irondale proper was very near those tracks, with just a small road and Little Yellow Creek separating us. There was a level crossing a quarter mile away, where 'Main Street' (now called East Avenue) crossed the tracks, so we would get a loud whistle anytime a train came through.
Now I'm told that in its heyday, Irondale had a cinema, several bars, a general store, a barber shop, a post office and several traffic lights. Much of that had atrophied by the time I hit the scene, and today only the hair salon survives.
My Dad graduated from Irondale High School, but my Mom, seven years younger, graduated from the new Stanton High School. Stanton drew from several communities, not just Irondale. The Irondale school was relegated to grade school status. I spent a couple of years there and a couple of years at Hammondsville grade school (because that was closest to my grandmother's house, where I was dropped off in the mornings when both of my parents worked at Ohio Brass making electricity pole insulators). In time, I duly went to and graduated from Stanton too. Now it has been relegated to the world of middle schools, and local high school students are bused even farther away to attend Edison High, where my old rival Jefferson Union High School used to be.
Back to Irondale... Downstream from our house, past the bridge that led to 'Main Street', a large flood wall was built (during the Great Depression, I think, as part of a job creation scheme). This was one of the two best places to fish, although you usually only got bottom feeders who hung around where a sewer emptied into the creek. The other main fishing hole was the reservoir, in the other direction, up Salt Run about a mile from the village centre. The water level in the reservoir seems to be tied to the population of the village. It gets lower every time I see it, and I think that the village now gets water from the county system rather than the reservoir.
Next to the creek down at the flood wall was the large park that had a playground, baseball diamond and basketball court. It was also the site of the annual Irondale carnival, where dodgy rides were constructed and, thankfully, never disintegrated with people on board. I remember being told that reserves of some sort of hydrocarbon, probably coal, caught fire underground there in 'the old days'. How I don't know. Anyway, the park also had a small war memorial with WWII vintage small cannon for us kids to sit on or smoke cigarettes behind.
There are several roads into Irondale. The main one runs along Little Yellow Creek two miles down to Hammondsville (home of Stanton High School), where it hits a state road that roughly follows (Big) Yellow Creek down to the Ohio River and a four-lane highway. All others head upwards, as Irondale lies in a cup-shaped valley (or dale!). Irondale and Hammondsville sit at about 700 feet above sea level. About 500 feet above them lie the long ridges including Pine Grove and Chestnut Grove.
In this part of the States, you can see the hand-off from the landscape and economy of the east to those of the midwest. In the valleys, you see the rusting remnants of industry - coal, steel, clay, brick. On the ridges, you find open farmland, primarily dedicated to feed corn and dairy cattle (I think). Head east, and you get more of the valley-type feel. Head west, and the hills flatten out into the wheat and corn fields of the plains.
Ruling the local landscape is the Ohio River itself. Big, wide and slow, it separates my home state from the West Virginia panhandle and Pennsylvania, each less than ten miles away. The river always had huge coal barges moving up and down it, through the locks at the New Cumberland dam - built for flood control, not electricity generation. Coincidentally, right next to the dam is a huge generation plant - powered by coal rather than water. I believe it has the distinction of being the fourth largest polluter in the entire US!
When I was growing up, it lay within Stanton's tax domain, so the local tax revenues (and the children from Stratton and Empire, where it sits) flowed to my school. This gave us a great swimming pool, athletics track, tennis courts, auditorium and all other amenities that schools these days so rarely have. A fair trade-off for the toxins I grew up breathing?
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.
In his 2004 essay, Goedel and the End of Physics, Stephen Hawking conducted a U-turn. A past believer that the hunt for the Theory of Everything (or Grand Unified Theory - GUT) would be successful, perhaps even in the near future, Hawking decided that the same reasoning as Goedel applies to mathematics also suggests that such an all-encompassing theory is not possible.
Goedel's theorem states that no finite system of axioms can prove every result in arithmetic. Goedel draws on self-referring and self-contradictory statements to make his point. An example of such a statement is "This statement is false." Think about it. The statement he used was a mathematical one, and the proof involved other important points, but Hawking draws on this one specifically when he extrapolates from maths to physics.
If the system we seek to describe is the universe, then we have a problem - we can't step outside of the system to view it from on high. We, our apparatii and our equations are all part of it. So any physical theory seeking to describe and predict the universe is self-referencing in the way that Goedel's statement was. Perhaps, then, it shouldn't be surprising that the Standard Model of particle physics and the General Theory of Relativity (which explains gravity, the one thing NOT explained by the Standard Model) are incompatible.
Hawking's argument is not a proof, but rather an analogy. Even if Hawking is wrong in saying that the theory of everything is unreachable, his essay is useful reading for someone interested in the biggest questions about the universe.
I've got loads of respect for leading-edge scientists. This is not so much because of any specific content they are dealing with, although I do have a great lay interest in several fields of science. I most respect their ability to devise tests for their hypotheses. It seems to me that the greatest knack the scientist must have is the ability to ask, 'How would I test that?' and then come up with an answer.
How do we leverage things we know to test for answers to things we don't know? How do we swing on the vine that dangles from a tree in the realm of the known so as to reach a new tree and thereby extend the realm itself?
Scientific pioneers have to do just that. I guess I'm most impressed by the ingenuity of those who operate at the largest and the smallest scales of physics. In cosmology and in particle and quantum physics, one has to be able to draw conclusions based on observation of things other than (but related to) the ones the hypothesis concerns. I'm sure this applies to many other realms as well, it just jumps out to me most in these fields.
How does one go about weighing a planet, a star, a galaxy? Or measuring the temperature of the sun or other distant stars? How does one determine the mass of the electron or the strength of the weak force? It's obviously possible, since it's been done.
Advances are usually made via a succession of small steps. The trees we've swung to have generally been close to those we swung from. I would love to know which were the biggest steps. Who REALLY made a leap beyond the (already very impressive) hops science generally advances by?
And will the empirical mind continue to push the limits of the scientifically knowable? Will the largely philosophical debates about interpretations of quantum mechanics or consciousness or free will be reeled in by the inexorable force of those who ask, 'How would I test that?'? At the greatest reaches, the biggest challenge to testing may be getting yourself out of the way of the test or, alternatively, designing yourself into in a way that lends itself to replication.
I think that some questions and the tests of them will remain subjective - only lending themselves to execution by one individual for herself. Their results are not necessarily reproducible because of the impossibility of replicating ‘similar conditions’. Here, I’m thinking of the careful inquiries each of us can do into our own experience of the world. ‘Does my story of the world and myself bear scrutiny? How would I test that?’
First posted 24 Oct 2005. I used to be a 'the mind reduces to the brain' guy, whereas now, I'm more of a 'the brain (and everything else) reduces to the mind' guy. The book that this post refers to was my introduction to phenomenology - the study of experience. Thinking of the world in terms of experience has ended up being the biggest shift in how I see things. That shift has taken more than 10 years, from the time of the post below, though.
The Internal World
All we ever have direct access to is our mental states. Those states could be the result of our interaction, via our sense, with the external world; they could be part of a dream; they could come from wires and electrodes stimulating our brains, which sit in vats of syrupy liquid in a world run by computers. Both philosophy and science fiction have wrestled with questions of whether those mental states correspond to or represent an external world. The question is no less interesting (and no closer to being answered) than it has ever been.
But those mental states, that internal world itself, is rich ground for investigation as well. Phenomenology is the study of experience, and a recent book I read was my introduction to it. The book, an atypical mix of novel, philosophical introduction and scientific primer, is called Radiant Cool, and here is what I have taken from it:
I've always taken objectivity to mean the view 'from outside' and subjectivity to be the view 'from inside' a person. But, using a specific visual perception example, even in our internal 'views' we are aware of the difference between some relatively stable mental object, say the image of a chair, and any number of particular angles (or points of view) from which that chair can be seen.
Think about it. As we walk around a chair, looking at it, our mental states do not feel like we're seeing a constantly changing stream of things, but rather that there is a single thing there, which we are viewing from a constantly changing angle. All of this is equally true if we simply imagine walking around a chair, which shows that the physical presence of a material chair isn't necessary. The point, which had never occurred to me before, is that even within our subjective experiences, there is a stability and assumed objectivity of entities rather than just a constant flux. This is despite the fact that the sensory input we receive is literally nothing but an ever-flowing flux. So... there are non-sensory elements to our experiences, even to those experiences that - on the face of it - seem to be purely sensory.
Affordance / superposition
When we think about it a bit more, it becomes obvious that the in-built assumption or experience of objectivity / permanence is not the only non-sensory element to our perceptual consciousness. Everything we see presents itself not just in its bare form but always with a collection of non-sensory baggage - inseparable emotions, associations, anticipations, etc. This property of immediate perceptual objects to 'carry' these other properties has been called affordance or superposition.
The possible bits of baggage that can accompany perception are virtually innumerable. We can model a theoretical mental-state-space of consciousness, with each possibility constituting a binary (either experienced or not) dimension in that space. If each conscious moment were represented by a time 'slice' of this space, then putting them all back to front temporally would create a squiggly line tracking through state-space moment by moment.
In fact, the most important of these non-sensory elements - perhaps even THE defining one for explaining consciousness - is temporality itself. Our mental worlds are built upon it. And I'm not speaking here of memory and anticipation - casting back or forward from the present moment. Temporality is embedded even WITHIN each moment. Each immediate experience can be thought of as having three components: retention, presence and protention. The middle one is the instantaneous snapshot of the flux of sensory input. Retention is the context in which that snapshot sits, grounded in what the previous instant contained. Protention is the immediate projection or extrapolation of what the retained and present elements imply for the next moment.
A simple but insightful example brought this home to me. Think of a musical melody. In any instant, the only SENSORY element of the experience is a single note, yet your experience of that note is inseparable from the pitch, volume, duration and other qualities of the notes immediately before and after it.
Lloyd used diagrams and explanations of simple, synchronous neural networks to show how temporality can be embedded within a cognitive system. If some of the nodes (neurons) in the system encode the previous values of the neurons that receive and 'process' the sensory inputs, and if those time-lagged neurons feed back into the sensory processing ones, the feedback loop ensures that each instant recursively captures all previous instants. Then the 'output' from the sensory-processing neurons constitutes the system's best guess for what the next moment (immediate future) will be. A number of examples showed that this model world works very well at keeping time and tracking the future. But do brains work this way?
Lloyd then moved from toy brains to real ones, using the tools currently at science's disposal to look at the evolution of brain states over time while subjects performed different mental tasks. The results suggested that we can track these states quite well, and Lloyd showed how further empirical testing can pull much of the discussion from the world of the philosopher to that of the scientist. But it was also obvious that further technological advance was necessary to make findings more exact and more robust.
Mental state = Brain state?
Where is this all going? Well, Lloyd and others think that the ideal objective is a deepening of our understanding of both brain states and mental states, an understanding that may well include a one-for-one matching between the two that reduces the mental to the physical, firmly placing the mental world within the natural world. I say 'ideal' objective because we may never be able to reach a neuron-by-neuron level mapping of brain states. If that degree of specificity is required for perfect mental state matching, then we may be stuck with some degree of averaging and clumping of brain and experience states. Still, this could provide the empirical basis for finally dumping Cartesian dualism, the Cartesian theatre, and all the misunderstanding they create.
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.