I once read that one way to undertake life is to act so as to minimize the regret you will feel on your death bed.
Is this a legitimate mechanism for sifting the important from the unimportant? I don’t mean the theoretically important, the universally important or any sort of externally important. I mean what really matters to you, what makes you deeply happy. Might this Death Bed Test provide a useful perspective onto what constitutes a good life?
Why should it matter what you would think on your death bed? The vast majority of your life is not spent on your death bed. What makes that perspective especially legitimate? Might it be an intuitive test for what our unmet human needs are?
Indulge me for a moment on a little stroll through a ‘what if’ scenario. I think that it could be enlightening. What if we were really made in a certain way – whether by evolution, by design or by design executed through evolution? What if our make-up was such that certain activities or states of affairs were inherently rewarding, fulfilling – made us happy, while others did not? What if some activities and states did quite the opposite?
What if the happiness-producing activities included the ones that satisfied one of the 'Four Fs' when they were called for? Eating when hungry, successfully escaping a predator and retiring to a safe location, successfully fighting off a predator or competitor for your hunting territory, mating.
What if they also included those activities that defined a purpose or meaning for us in the face of our own mortality, the ones through which we experienced agency, the ones by which we authentically presented ourselves to the world, the ones through which we found belonging?
What if our minds were more adept at pursuing the basic activities than those that met the younger, higher-order needs? What if we were lucky enough to live in an environment in which those most basic needs were routinely and reliably met?
What if the mind detected a shortfall in the higher-order needs but misattributed the longing to a non-existent shortfall in one of the basic ones? What if, despite continued pursuit and over-fulfillment of basic needs , the mind continued to sense some longing that was obviously not being met?
Would the mind go into overdrive? Would it obsessively and counterproductively adopt a competitive posture, flushing the body with hormones to prepare it for a Four F-type encounter? Would it keep reminding itself of its own inescapable dissatisfaction? Would it ‘pull up’ the drawbridge, focusing relentlessly on its apparently urgent, basic needs?
In short, would it, in the face of unmet needs of the younger, higher-order kind, still accidentally neglect those needs while counterproductively pursuing activities to meet basic needs that in truth are already met? I think you see the point I’m making.
Now, fast forward. What if the patient is on his death bed. Despite all attempts to deny it, he now faces the inescapable truth that his time on Earth is ending. He knows that no food, no money, no sexual partners, no Stuff will pass with him from this world.
What if, in this extraordinary state, the mind finally calls a halt to the churning pursuit of those ancient, animal needs? What if, in those moments of clarity, the smoke of spinning mental activity cleared, the veils of primordial obsession dissolved, he is able to see, with a simplicity that surprises him, what the unmet needs were all along? What if he sees what his unique human needs were? What if he sees with shining clarity the happy, fulfilled life he might have led?
Would this constitute a privileged perspective? Would being able to fast-forward to that perspective sooner rather than later be of value to the (hopefully) long life yet to be lived before the death bed? I think so.
So what do most people, on their death bed, say they would change? What are the things they now realise were the unmet needs? The needs that sprang from their being a human but were clouded, hidden and confused by their being an animal. Writer and pastor John Ortberg has most often heard, ‘I would have loved more deeply.’ ‘ I would have laughed more often.’ ‘I would have given more generously.’ ‘I would have lived more boldly.’ Palliative care worker, Bronnie Ware, whose patients were home for the final weeks of their lives, identifies five themes:
Really though, my point is less about what people do actually say when asked such questions than about what your own calm contemplation suggests you might say. As I’ve discussed this with a number of friends and colleagues, themes emerge around self-understanding, being true to one’s self, pursuing one’s real ambitions and nurturing and appreciating one’s most treasured relationships.
I suggest that you reflect on this hypothetical look back on life. Rather than simply doing from this negative perspective of life regrets, flip things around to pen your ideal eulogy. What is the short passage by which you would like to be remembered? What elements of your life does it draw on?
While I think it is important to work out what matters, I suggest pursuing your answers in the form of pragmatic wisdom rather than certain knowledge. I would warn against subscribing to ‘systems of thought’ that claim to deduce logical certainties and irrefutable truths. Instead, I suggest carefully considering and testing the assumptions at the foundation of your beliefs, the ultimately unprovable axioms from which we all must start.
I think that some useful rules of thumb for this reflection are to: keep an open mind, judge pragmatically, favour (among pragmatically successful alternatives) simplicity and beauty.
...[T]hrough habituation and social comparison, we find ourselves in a no-win situation in which no level of income or consumption remains satisfying for long — the hedonic treadmill. The more people seek to boost consumption, the more income they require and the harder and longer they must work, undermining those activities that are actually fulfilling and satisfying…
On our hedonic treadmill, like the Red Queen in Alice’s adventures, we seemingly have to run at full steam just to stay still. Might our real mistake be that we’re chasing the wrong things? Is there a mass misdiagnosis of our needs?
Technological and other cultural evolution have supplanted biological evolution as the prime drivers of change for humans and for Earth. The culturally-dominated modern environment is profoundly different from the evolutionary environment that shaped us, and life for most in developed western countries (despite a growing class of the left-behind) is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity of material resources. Why can’t we just relax in comfort? Might our evolutionary programming now be leading us astray?
Because our antennae sense relative rather than absolute need, unquenchable human longing follows a seemingly endless trail of desires and aversions. Constant comparison and competition drive an undercurrent of discontent – the wish for more, different, better things. The hyper-capitalist economies of English-speaking countries feed and amplify this discontent to a fever pitch while enticing the individual to invest ever more exclusively in an all-consuming work life to finance material acquisition and social status.
Work life crowds out the relationships and diverse activities that would otherwise enrich life. The individual’s overreliance on his work for so much of his sense of well-being and self-worth leaves him in a precarious position, in thrall to others who are under intense pressure to optimize his contribution as a resource rather than his well-being as a complex person.
Our human longing is telling us something, but we are misunderstanding the ache we feel. Beyond a quite basic level of material need, our satisfaction, happiness and well-being aren’t to be found in an increasing reliance on material wealth, a narrowing focus on extrinsic success and a shrinking sphere of concern limited to our most basic drives. As with all addictions, satisfying one desire brings a brief sense of bliss followed by the rapid arousal of yet more subjective ‘needs’. Desires, like cancerous cells, multiply and refuse to die.
Our true satisfaction is best served by freeing ourselves from the shackles of our multiplying desires. Our lives become richer when we place proper value on our own time and energy, when we nurture the most durable and important external ‘assets’ we have, our relationships with others.
All the harder, I know, when our ‘communication’ technologies (like where you are reading this) are in truth finely-tuned mechanisms for stoking exactly the covetousness that keeps the hedonic treadmill turning.
I read an unfortunate story in the news some years ago. An elderly man, suffering from dementia and obviously not fit to be behind the wheel of a car, accidentally turned into Third Street Promenade, a pedestrianised street in Santa Monica, California. Realising that something was wrong, he pressed down his foot to brake, but his foot was on the accelerator. The car sped forward. The man could tell something was wrong, as people leapt out of his way or bounced off his bumper. He just didn’t realize he needed to shift his foot to stomp on a different pedal. He pressed harder and harder on the accelerator in his efforts to stop, and the car sped down the crowded plaza, killing a number of people before crashing to a stop.
The man didn’t understand what was going on. First of all, these people shouldn’t be in the middle of a road. He was in a car, and cars travel where people are not. He found himself in an environment that didn’t fit with his (deteriorating) understanding of driving. Second, he failed in his corrective actions. He knew he should slow down. He knew that he needed to press down his foot to brake. But his automatic muscle memory that should have shifted his foot to the brake pedal from the accelerator wasn’t functioning properly. From his perspective, he was braking, but inexplicably, the car was rocketing forward. All he could do in his confused state was continue pushing his foot down, because that was supposed to work.
While this is not a perfect analogy for our mind in the modern environment, I think that there may be some illuminating parallels. We’re not seeing the world clearly. Our evolutionary and historically-programmed short-cuts are unreliable in a much-changed world. We’re pushing on the wrong pedals in our efforts to improve our situations.
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 6 Aug 2005. I have edited this old post before including it here - not to bring it up to date with my current thinking but rather to change the tone from one that was quite aggressive and disrespectful of fundamentalist theistic views. Over the past 12 years, I've learned that no good is served by being rude to people who think differently than you. I hope that the post manages to raise questions and points without being offensive.
I have much more love for the bible than I did at the time of original posting, but I have no greater agreement with those who interpret it literally rather than mythically. I believe that the Christian bible and other great religious books each provide a window onto a beautiful, ultimately indescribable, Truth. Each window looking at the same mountain summit, but one may be viewing it from the tropical forests of a village at the great mountain's southern base, while others take it in and describe it from quite different locations and therefore perspectives.
A spider could never understand the theory of gravity or the existence of other lands, oceans and planets. Yet gravity's law, along with those lands, oceans and planets, exists and applies to spiders. Our celebrated mental and scientific capacities are of no greater use than the spider's when it comes to rationally understanding God's wonder. So how can we deny, based solely on our inability to comprehend it, God's power? This is one argument of the believer against those who set science or philosophy against religion.
It is an argument for which I have a lot of time. Human reason does not reach the breadth and depth of existence. There is a large gap between what we know and what we can know, and there is a much larger one between what we can know (intellectually, versus experientially) and what is actually the case. My failure to make rational sense of God does not preclude His existence. In that sense, I am agnostic with respect to the existence of God. Count me as 'on the fence' up to that point.
But when the question before me shifts from 'Does God exist?' to 'Does God play an active part in the world, in the very specific way that is described by the canon of the major western religions, when interpreted literally?' I come down from the fence very firmly into the negative camp.
Why is this so? First, I guess I’d have to say that I find it hard to believe that - on God’s scale - humans are that special. Doesn't it seem like a very convenient coincidence that the universe's one all-powerful being created a world for the benefit of beings who just happen to be.... us? Isn't it striking how anthropocentric the biblical creation story and all that follows from it is? Isn't it... well... perhaps arrogant ... to assume that amongst all of creation, and within that among all of life, God should take a personal interest in Man and only Man?
I mean, if elephants had written the bible, don't you suspect that it would say elephants were created in God's image and that only elephants have a soul because, of course, only they, like God, have trunks? Birds would write that God can fly; fish that He was a swimmer. Each would claim their own unique characteristic as the one that qualifies them as God's chosen species. The unique characteristic we seek to base it on is the size and complexity of our brains and our concomitant ability to reflect upon our own thoughts.
Isn't it equally possible that He just watches the universe evolve as we watch a top spin or a pin-wheel twirl, with no moral stance at all? Or if He does make moral judgements, mightn't His rights and wrongs be quite different from, even diametrically opposed to, what the Bible says? Or if he takes particular interest in Life, mightn't he be equally interested in all life? Or mightn't he care about some others more than or rather than Man?
Yet, we find ourselves with a God who happens to care only about us. He tells us very specific things we must or must not do, and these all line up quite well with the needs of the ethnic group from which the authors of the bible come. He puts us centre stage. Quite convenient. We get to hold the pen, so we get to write the story, so the story says that God cares most about us!
And how do we account for all of the differences among the world’s religions? I guess followers of any one simply say the others got it wrong, huh? Do you think that maybe each religion puts its main constituency(with its particular history, traditions, economy and geographic peculiarities) at centre stage within humanity, just as humanity places itself centre state within existence as a whole? This again just strikes me as... just, possibly, arrogant.
I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility of God's existence. But I'm not arrogant enough to think that God must place Man at the centre of the universe or my friends and me at the centre of the human race.
A second line to my reasoning is that - as implied in my question of biblical imperfection above - I am too much of a cynic to trust the powerful men of history (men whose names are not necessarily the ones that get official 'billing' on the books) to have faithfully transcribed God’s word. And I can’t think of the bible as something other than an amazing, powerful book of great depth that was written across centuries by different men, each of whom was a cultural captive or a cultural rebel in his particular time and place. The earliest writers have - I can’t help suspecting - had their original words edited many times over by the later powerful men, as they felt necessary.
I’m not saying that these men were bad or self-serving (although some, being human, probably were). It’s just that they were trying to make sense of the infinite using their meagre words, writing from within their own narrow setting. I see them as vaguely equivalent to the spider trying to write a book about thermodynamics.
I’m also not even saying that they got things all wrong. I’m just saying that the things that are ‘right’ are ‘right’ in a poetic, mythical, metaphorical way rather than in a rational, literal, factual way.
Finally, I’m not setting out to, and I don’t thank that I accidentally manage to, ‘prove’ that fundamentalist theists are wrong. I can’t. I do think that, on items of detail, they are wrong. I do think that there are better, worldly ways to address some of the questions that they look to resolve by biblical reference. But I know that I, like them, have no special licence on Truth with a capital ‘T’.
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.
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?
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.