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?
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!