Holographic Universe and Extra Dimensions: Two Faces of the Same Coin?

Within cosmology there are strong suggestions that the universe has more than the four dimensions we observe (3x space + 1x time). When theoretical physicists extended the formulae from Quantum Mechanics with those of General Relativity (to try to understand what gravity is at a quantum level), it lead them to multiple possible “string theories”. All of these theories need additional dimensions in order to be mathematically consistent. We are a long way from being able to test which of these versions of string theory is the closest depiction of reality. We are so far from understanding the possible permutations that its almost meaningless to us. At one point superstring theory suggested 10 dimensions, but when you add an 11th dimension, you get M-Theory. M-Theory appears to be our best bet so far of what things are like beyond the already poorly understood quantum world (although there are more useful theories such as Loop Quantum Theory) . The one dimensional strings that it describes as the cause of all phenomena in the universe are beyond anything we can really test or even really conceive at this point, but we’d be sloppy to ignore the non trivial existence of some form of additional dimensions.

There are other good reasons to believe that there are extra dimensions. Gravity is a fundamental force, but unlike the other forces its extremely weak. When you lift something off the ground you’re overcoming the weight of the earth, something you could never do with the other forces. Try to imagine pulling a spanner off an earth sized magnet. One explanation for this extreme difference in the order of magnitude is that gravity applies across extra dimensions. In this case gravity would be normalised to expected levels (in Bayesian terms) within formulas, rather than standing out as oddly weak.

There are other hints of extra dimensions. Quasicrystals exist in nature, but the only way to describe them mathematically is as projections of higher dimensional latices. This is not in any way evidence of extra dimensions, but it does point to unexpected dimensional aspects of the nature of matter.

Complex numbers contain impossible “imaginary numbers” based around the square root of -1. Normal numbers go up and down the Y axis with 1,2,3… upwards, and -1,-2,-3… downwards. On the X axis are the imaginary numbers that can’t exist according to fundamental maths. However complex numbers are needed all the time by physicists and engineers to describe the world. The symmetry of maths seems fundamental to nature, so what does this X axis describe? Again, not evidence of any correlation, but a hint that nature is more than what seems obvious on the surface.

According to the WMAP probe results on the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the big bang, the stuff we know about in the universe is less than 5% of the totality. There are theories for what the rest of it may be, but they are pure speculation at this point. Definitely not evidence of extra dimensions, but a fairly blank slate in our knowledge.

Holographic

On the other side of the coin, there are also hints that aspects of the universe are holographic. The holographic principle comes from the physics of black holes, and looks at the universe in terms of information rather than matter and energy. When you do this, the information contained in any given part of the universe is described by its surface area, rather than its volume. The conclusion from this is that volume is an illusion, that three dimensional space of the universe is in fact a projection of a two dimension hologram. The universe itself is a hologram, a bit like some gigantic film being projected from ‘outside’.

When you look at quantum physics, its clear that at the smallest level, things are not here or there. Particles don’t exist at any point in space until they ‘collide’ with something. Entangled particles somehow can be separated by miles, yet when you measure one, not only does it change in measurement, its partner immediately changes to match this measurement (as its opposite). This suggests that despite separation in space, these particles are still somehow connected. How can this be possible unless there is some kind of direct connection that transcends space, as if the spacial dimensions are at some level illusory.

There is also good reason within physics to believe that time itself is illusory. I won’t go into the detail here, but if you’re interested in this The End of Time by Julian Barbour is worth reading (although the first few chapters are enough to get the idea!).

So…..

…. we have two apparently conflicting views of the nature of the universe. In one, the universe has hidden dimensions. We don’t know whether they are like our spacial dimensions, or more like temporal dimensions, or something else we just can’t imagine, but it does seem that there is more than we can detect with our senses or instruments. In the other, the dimensions that we do observe seem to be – in some fundamental way – illusory and intangible.

From a string theory perspective this is not really a problem, as all the dimensions are phenomena that emerge from fundamental one dimensional strings. Despite the fact that we have no conceptual understanding of this, its probably the only way we can make sense of these apparently opposing views. We are very used to thinking about space and time as fundamental realities, and the only instances of their species. Our evolved reptilian and mammal parts of our brain, combined with our senses, have resulted in this being deeply ingrained. In reality, its a bit more like we’re in a cinema watching a film, one that’s become our reality due to our absorption in it. When the film is over, our experiences during the film are still real, and carry over inside us, but we re-realise something far bigger. Plato’s analogy is that our experience of reality is like we’re watching shadows on the back of a cave. Its very difficult to get a good idea of the world outside, when all you’ve ever seen are black and white shadows.

The one consistent fundamental in these analogies is the living, conscious observer, with a mind and a will. Life and consciousness are arguably even bigger mysteries than time, space and their cousins, the only things we really know about these are the signs of their presence.

Anyway … that’s enough speculation for tonight!

Categories: Science

Duality and Perspective

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We are born like blank slates, but we are also born as evolved creatures with a vast history written into our genes.  This history can be summed up in one word, “survival”.  As the blank slate associates itself with our baby bodies, this history is powerfully brought to bear.  “Hungry”, “cold”, “hot”, “sore” become our whole focus, and soon enough we learn that the source of these things are the body – our body.

This history in our genes lives in our bodies, acts on our bodies, and becomes our bodies.  For single celled organisms, the genes appear to determine everything at a physical or instinctual level — programmed for survival.  At the other end of the scale, humans are heavily influenced by this instictual survival programming, but at a level of sophistication that includes conscious decision making.  We have a “fight or flight” instinct, we have a desire to reproduce, we have all all kinds of very basic instincts not too different from very simple creatures.  However the history in our genes is also intimately linked with the initially blank slate that perceives and associates with the body.  Our ability to construct plans and communicate them would not be possible without the self awareness we have as the ‘animators’ of these bodies.

To many, this self awareness is simply an emergent property of the level of complexity we have evolved over time.  Just as no one designs a snowflake, and yet simple processes produce an amazing unique form that has perfect symmetry, without the molecules on one side knowing what the other side is doing.  Along with many other compelling theories (e.g. see my earlier post on the “Mechanism of Learning”), there are some convincing reasons to believe that this blank slate that becomes our consciousness is just a convincing illusion created by the amazing computer that is our brain – the illusion is the thing.  However there are also many reasons to believe that there is something more than this.  Ignoring the whole question of where everything came from, why there is such order in the laws of the universe etc, perfectly sane people talk about a spiritual reality – billions of them.

Those looking for a ‘natural’ explanation for this understandably tie this back to the history in our genes.  We survived through a long history filled with far more dangerous and powerful creatures because of our ability to interpret patterns, to make meaning out of them, and to react in a more effective way as a result.  This ability is great when finding ways of defending the tribe from threats, or finding food, but when turned to the tricky existential questions that are beyond our normal pattern finding abilities, we create patterns that are not there.  Of course these patterns we create reflect the ones we know.  So to explain who provides the animals and the plants, the sun and the moon, we create an archetypal ‘father’ like the one that provided our meals as children, lit the fire at night.

I could extend this idea much further, but my aim is to describe the way we explain things when only looking at the physical, at the body.  After all, we have associated ourselves with our bodies, and we only have tools to test and investigate the physical, so anything else is mere speculation.  We can therefore build a wall of truth with the things that are solid and physcial as the foundation, and we can put some small speculative bricks at the top that describe the debates around unproven ideas.  Something like “spirituality” can have a whole course of bricks, but the only other bricks they can be laid on are things like “culture”, “history” or “philosophy”.   As a result, when modern science or philosophy investigates spiritual questions, there is a real problem with the nature of spiritual things.  If the spirit or soul is real but we just can’t detect the substance of it with physical instruments, then how is it connected to the body ?  Why do people with some types of brain damage loose specific abilities that would seem so core to us as self aware creatures ?

I don’t know all the answers to these last questions, but its worth reflecting on what the spirit is and what it is not.  From a perspective of “matter is the primary reality”, the spirit is indeed something other, something different.  From the perspective of spirit, there is no separation or distinction.  The overwhelming commonality of the mystic experience is one of the unity of all things.  Those who experience these moments of insight don’t see a unified spiritual world that sits separate to the physical world; from the perspective of the insight, the physical is just an extension of the spiritual, albeit temporary and constantly changing.  What is said and done by a physical body has just as much spiritual reality as it does physical reality.   It could be said that its the perspective of a distinction between the two that is the fall from the primal innocence that wild animals still have intact.  By having the degree of awareness that allows us to become self aware, we do something significantly more than animals do when we associate ourselves with our bodies.  We create a separation in our mind between the observer and the observed, between our thoughts and ourselves from which they emanate.  The mind becomes an isolated loop.  In the spiritual world numbers have an innate reality (hence things like symmetry which allow our equations to work), from the perspective of the looping mind they are creations of the mind.

So from the perspective of the science of matter (the only science we have), there is indeed duality.  From the perspective of spirit, this is just an illusion, and spirit is the foundation on which matter rests.  God is spirit, and he was spirit ‘before’ he created time and space and matter.  We are created in his image, so we are primarily spirit, but that doesn’t mean that our bodies are separate from this spirit.  The suggestion of those who have experienced this spiritual unity directly is that we can align ourselves to the innate unity of the spirit by an internal silence and detachment from the things of the world, and an attachment instead to the qualities of the spirit – such as kindness and truthfulness.  If you are a christian like me, then you accept that we are unable to do this 100% by ourselves, and you embrace the offer god has made to take the splintered and disintegrated parts and make it whole again through him.

The process I mentioned before of creating our wall of bricks of ‘information’ or ‘conclusions’ is surely something that came from our evolutionary past.  When seeing a new animal for the first time, our ancestors would surely have needed a degree of caution.  Once it had attacked them, it would be thereafter labelled as dangerous.  The individual who wanted to re-evalute this each time a similar animal appeared in future would soon end up dead.  Likewise, a plant that poisoned someone would be labelled as “not food’, and similar plants in future avoided.  Of course in times of extreme hunger, it may be necessary to re-evaluate that, and reconsider whether there may be a way to make food from such things.  This way of boxing up conclusions (aka “opinions”) is deeply ingrained in our psyche.  You rarely see an atheist become a believer in god through rational arguments.  The ingrained process of relying on the wall of boxed conclusions is so strong that only when the person experiences some kind of desperation, such as a loss or feeling that they are at the end of their tether for some reason, do they re-evaluate the contents of the bricks, and where they sit in the big picture.  This is often an experience a bit like scales falling from the eyes, and then starting again as a child to build a new wall of truth.  However this time its an admittedly faltering process of uncovering a pre-existing wall.  A bit like the way great stone sculptors say they are simply removing the parts of the stone that are hiding the finished work.

 

Categories: Religion, Science

SciFi Novels

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I came to SciFi fairly late.  I enjoyed George Lucas and Steven Spielberg films along with everyone else as a kid in the 70s and 80s.  I was introduced to Star Trek “The Next Generation” by a girlfriend, and later enjoyed the slightly crazy mashup of sci fi and pseudo history that was Stargate.  For novels my tastes were closer to thriller or historical, spies and detectives; the likes of Leon Uris, James Clavell, Robert Harris, CJ Sansom, or even trashier adventures such as Desmond Bagley, Daniel Silva and Wilbur Smith (before he started hiring ghost writers).

 

Sci Fi seemed something best served in the cinema or on TV.  I tried some of the classics such as Arthur C Clarke but was never taken by them.  However I have more recently discovered that there are some great sci fi novels – well worth the effort even if they’ll never win any literary awards.   So I’m sharing a few lesser known authors for anyone looking for something different.

 

Alistair Reynolds

Reynolds is a Welshman with a background in science.  He is also an underrated writer in my view;  sometimes quirky but always entertaining (with the exception of his Poseidens Children series, and the co-written Medusa Chronicles, which was terrible).  Some of his standout books include;

Revelation Space series:  A series of six books that are well worth a read.  The background story which explains why we have not encountered any aliens is surprisingly plausible, even if unlikely)

Century Rain, Pushing Ice and House of Suns are my favourite of his stand alone novels.   Century Rain is essentially a detective story in a typical Reynold context.  Pushing Ice is a simple idea that is executed brilliantly, and could make a great film.  House of Suns is one of my favourites, although you may need to be slightly nuts to enjoy it!

Ann Leckie

Her first three novels are original and may not be to everyones taste.  They are not fast paced but they are well written, and there is a certain charm about them – especially the main character.  They fully deserve the awards they have won.  Her more recent novel Provenance is set in the same ‘universe’, but never quite gelled the way the first three did.

Dan Simmons

Hyperion is a series of four novels, or two series of two.  These were well ahead of their time – a “new space opera” before there were “new space operas” in many ways.  Simmons clearly has a love of literature – and the likes of John Keats’ poems are woven through the storyline.

Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow and its follow up are at times harrowing.  But they are also very good, and will stay with you long after you close the last page.

Robert Charles Wilson

Spin, Axis and Vortex are a trilogy that I really enjoyed.  Original but also an engaging and authenitc adventure that left me wanting more.  Some of his stand alone books are not great, but The Chronoliths and Burning Paradise are among those that are as good as the trilogy.

John Scalzi

The Old Mans War series are perhaps Scalzi’s best known books, and I enjoyed them all.  There’s nothing wildly original, but the idea of earth feeding the colonial space army with OAPs in new bodies provides an often amusing backdrop for the books.  Out of his stand alones, Fuzzy nation had me laughing aloud at times.  The Consuming Fire – the first of his new series – is perhaps his best book so far, and I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

Becky Chambers

The plots in Chambers books are a bit weak, but there is nonetheless enough in the characters and their adventures for them to deserve a mention.

Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you can live with spiders at the centre of your story, Children of Time is worth a read.

_____

There are of course other good sci fi writers, Ian M Banks being notable and brilliant in his own realm of SciFi.  Ursula Le Guin “The Lathe of Heaven” still stands its ground through time, and certainly hasn’t aged as badly as some earlier SciFi seems destined to do. However the authors above are all less well known than they should be, and I don’t believe you need to be a fan of SciFi to enjoy them.  Several could make excellent films.

I’m sure there are more out there that I’ve not yet come across.  Recently I tried the well regarded Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, but could not finish it.  I’m currently struggling through Peter F Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star”,  and unless something changes soon, that too will be the last of Hamilton’s books I try (it seems to have promise but just doesn’t get anywhere…).   Maybe its time to find a good spy novel, or the latest CJ Samson Shardlake novel, while I wait for Reynolds and Scalzi next release….

Update: Peter Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star” two book series is better than I expected after the first few chapters. His style is loose and at times a tad verbose, but like a meandering river it has enough bredth to carry you along and make the journey worthwhile. Of course, its necessary to suspend disbelief in the common false assumptions of sci-fi, such that restoring memories to a clone body could result in a continuation of the same being. Its a step even further into the implausible than the Star Trek transporter, but this is of course just fiction.

Categories: Science

Evolution, a good theory

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There is an aweful lot of energy wasted discussing the theory of evolution by natural selection.   Most of this is generated by fundamentalist protestants based in the USA (e.g. baptists), or on the other side by atheist followerers of scientism as a belief system (again often based in the USA).

Its difficult to tell whether the US is in the driving seat because it’s leading a discussion that is spreading across the world, or if its because the US is a fundamentally polarised society.  Some may say that the rest of the world drew a line under this discussion a century ago, and that US politics is evidence of extreme polarisation.  However I think its a mixture of the two.  Part of the discussion spreading around the world is a new wave of popularism against ‘experts’.  In fact I think this debate on evolution is to some extent helping to drive the whole anti-expert phenomena.   If someone has good reason to consider their religious experience to be fundamentally real, and self styled “experts” tell them its not, then all other experts are presumably full of crap too.  Admitedly there are several related factors, one being the global drive by the consultants to the corporate world to ‘offshore’ jobs and skills to wherever it cheapest (making the rich richer, but impacting domestic industries ), the other being the oil industries attempts to discredit global warming in various ways.

For the evolution driven side of this populist phenomenon, the extremists on both sides have managed to crush out the middle ground.  This middle ground is not the truth (truth is not wishy washy), but the truth contains elements from both sides of the argument in this case.  So all we are left with are lies on one side (shaming christianity) and a series epistemologically unsound assumptions on the other.

WHY ?

When else does christianity ever get into the technical details of the mechanism by which god acts, whether on a macro or micro scale ?  Have you ever seen a paper on Jesus walking on water, trying to discern whether he created an anti gravitation field from his feet, versus local suppression of the Higgs field, versus warping spacetime etc ?  It may be an interesting excercise for people now and then, but it generates no tears of fury.

Of course the reason why evolution causes such controversy is that its fairly close to a complete theory of why we have the creatures that we do, in particular the creature called man.  One of the most hoary mysteries through time, apparently answered by a simple concept spread over huge amounts of time.  When you put this up against over-simplistic and arogant interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis, it can appear as if there is a conflict.   As with the argument that religion causes war, this is another case of humans trying to blame anything but ourselves.   Wars are caused by tribal, greedy humans quick to blame others for their problems, not by religions.  The confusion on evolution is caused by arrogance on both sides.

Evolution by natural selection works better than any other theory to explain the development of species. From a scientific perspective its a damn good theory.  There are some areas where the theory makes assumptions where there is no other NATURAL explanation.  So for example, the process is seen as completely blind. It doesn’t have any aspect working towards a goal in terms of form or function. If any combination of genes results in survival of the wider group carrying the genes, its selected for plain and simple.  The built-in perfect balance of the whole such that one organism doesn’t dominate everything else, and the sheer beauty of the forms and creatures produced by it, may seem unlikely to be chance, but the science finds no place for that type of gut instinct.

Behind evolution, there is clearly some kind of map that gets followed by this process – like a template formed by the underlying physics and chemistry.  The eye developed many times and often completely independently.  Re-run evolution from scratch on earth, you will no doubt end up with creatures with eyes.   Where that ‘map’ (the Fitness Landscape) came from is a discussion that goes down rabbit holes, and thats just one example, one where the science will no doubt develop more and more plausible explanations that avoid God.  But the point is that science is deliberately supposed to avoid coming to the conclusion “God did it”.  The process is supposed to analyse the evidence to find possible mechanisms that are intelligible.  Likewise when the early universe is freakily tuned to allow life to exist in it, the answer from science should not be “God did it”, and so you have theories like the multiverse where they invent billions of other universes, making ours seem less freaky!   In that case its likely the theory is wrong, as the evidence for other universes is non existent.  However the evidence for evolution by natural selection is good.

The key thing for people who believe in god is not to be afraid.  Truth cannot contradict truth.  We know that god set the foundations of the universe, and we know that we are made in his image.  As he is spirit, its not our bodies that are made in his image (accepting the incarnation).   There is no need to see evolution theory as a threat to christianity, its part of the process of science starting to uncover god’s creation from the outside.

If you are comfortable in your relationship with god, but are worried about the indoctrination effect of the arrogant “we understand everything” version of evolution from scientism, then the answer is not to create nonsense facts, or to invent nonsense scientific theories.  All that does is make the militant atheists think that they must be right, and makes the rest of the believing world embarrassed about the words you are putting in gods mouth, in our name as christians.  In fact you reduce god to a mechanic or engineer, spreading your small view of him.

It worth repeating the often quoted words of St. Augustine from nearly 2000 years ago;

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

Categories: Religion, Science

Spiritual Reality

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There is a clear distinction in mindsets between a materialist and someone who accepts spiritual realities.  Having changed from one to the other, I still see the huge importance of empirical evidence within scientific enquiry.  Where I see the materialist going wrong, is in the assumption that everything that is real is equivalent to matter.   Its not just that I believe in the existence of stuff that doesn’t interact with the atoms that comprise our scientific instruments.   In many ways its closer to a belief in the reality that underpins symmetry , laws and abstract formulations of these.   A strict empiricist sees scientific laws and principles, trigonometry and equations –  even the numbers such things need to breathe – as human formulations to describe the way nature works.  Whilst I agree that specific scientific theories are indeed human creations, I believe such theories are only possible because the foundation of nature is closer to the platonic essence of numbers and abstract concepts than it is to the likes of matter itself.

So what about this other world where you could say that the stuff of empirical evidence  is limited to the leaves of the tree of everything that exists ?    There is one big concept that forms a fault line between the materialist and the believer in the spiritual.  Whilst every object automatically ‘obeys’ the laws of physics which act upon it, reality seems to in some way require life to access the immaterial aspects of it.  To the empiricist this is clearly nonsense.  Life can only be defined by its characteristics – it has no independent form or substance.  To those on the other side of the chasm, life itself is fundamental to the universe.  Entangled more deeply than DNA is to the human body.

On the ontological side, this is where the whole discussion of duality comes into play for empiricists.  They see the fact that some parts of the brain demonstrably relate to specific functions – functions which we associate with self – to be evidence that we are “nothing more” than the body.  Of course from a materialist perspective where matter is the primal level of reality, this is correct.  They have assumed certain principles of how the physical body would interact with some kind of non-local spiritual side, and then rejected the whole concept based on these principles being wrong.   Yes, some things we associate with spiritual experiences have a localised location in the brain, maybe even the likes of ‘out of body’ experiences.  To me this fact of localised connections is not much different to me having a Skype chat with someone, and something in the network connection causes the picture to stop whilst the audio carries on.  It doesn’t mean my face is no longer real, nor the face of the person I’m talking to.  There is just a specific way the different elements are connected.  Ironically, the reason this analogy breaks down is that at a fundamental level, its the body which is the illusory side, along with an imaginary loop of self that gets twisted into the body as the ego.  This illusory nature of time and even space is not as strange to theoretical physics as it may seem to some.

There is also another key divide between these world views, which is  about consistency under interrogation.  To the empiricist, the non locality of quantum physics is close to absurd.  To the rest of us, we would be surprised if all parts of the universe where not implicitly and directly connected at some level.  We see a deliberateness in the veil that seems to seperate this other world, whilst leaving it deeply and visibly entangled with the physical world.   An entanglement that at some points requires consciousness, but seems more deply connected to life itself.

God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made (Romans 1:20)

This quote and many similar from the bible, are not saying that God is not detectable to the technological abilities of the time.  It is claiming that god has very deliberately made himself invisible to us.  If you consider the universe, its scale and majesty, it would be very strange for the creator of all that to have done such a poor job at this as to suddenly be detectable just because we have telescopes and scanning electron microscopes.

“Subtle Energy”

Most people who persue something like TaiChi for long enough will have been aware of a layer of stuff thats not the body but is of the body.  It seems natural to call it “energy” for several reasons, and whether imaginary or real, its commonly experienced as something that flows and fizzes.  When practicing you can at times sense it very clearly when you have your hands past each other.   I myself stopped delving into this world when I started practicing Reiki, as unlike something like TaiChi where you are clearly developing your own enegy, I felt uncomfortable about the source of this ‘energy’.  It felt a bit like a trick where you get something for free, and get surprised by a bill that pops out of the small print later.  I may well be completely wrong on that, but one way or another, my experience in these areas is very superficial.

One thing you can test quite easily, is that it has no effect at all on matter.   Its equally clear from the world of science that there are no detectable  particles that correspond to this energy.   In fact solid evidence of the existence of this energy at all is close to non existent, apart from in the minds of practicioners.   Chinese medicine diagnoses people with low levels of this energy as suffering from “Qi Vacuity”, and there does seem to be a correlation between this diagnosis and skin conductivity.  But presumably this could be explained by something  simple like sickly people being more nervous during testing.  So does this mean that subtle energy is purely an imagination in the mind?  Its perfectly feasible that its some leftover from our evolutionary past, when, say, the need to focus on healing a specific part of the organism required a conscious focus.  If this energy does only exist in the imagination, is it real ?   I guess that would be debatable, but on the other hand, is the placebo effect real ?  The placebo effect is a good example of something existing purely in the mind, but unequivocally affecting the physical body.

Psychadelic

There are many who say that there are drugs that allow you to experience the spiritual directly.   This goes back to the dawn of history and beyond, and its clear that there are at least similes between accounts of mystical experiences and some psychadelic experiences.  My own view is that humans are spiritual creatures, and so something that distorts a persons experience of reality is by definition a type of spiritual experience.  However, the more important question is whether the experience puts a person more in touch with actual spiritual reality.   It seems to me that the only way this is in any way true is that it disrupts a persons assumptions of what is real, the assumptions a baby starts developing  from when it first associated itself with its body, and therefore may encourage them to be more open to their own spiritual nature.

There are of course two flip sides to this.  The first is that an opened mind can become so open that it no longer questions, it no longer cares for truth but accepts anything that sounds appealing.  The second is that these substances can cause ling term damage.   A few experiments with cannabis and magic mushrooms is usually harmless enough, but everything from LSD to opiates and stimulants will eventually, and definitely, cause more harm than good in a spiritual journey.   Added to this – for over half a century – the spiritual damage done by over use prescription drugs like amphetamines (e.g. Adderall) and benzodiazepines is immense, and mostly hidden.

I find it interesting that when some people turn away from addictions to drink or drugs, they do so by following a spiritual path of one sort or another, to help them integrate themselves and heal that which leads them to seek oblivion.  There is a word used often in the gospels which is “repentance”.  The Greek word used for this is metanoia – literally a “change of mind”.  When some of these people slip and go back to their substance of choice, they report  bad reactions, as if they have become allergic to the substance.  I have no idea what the science about this is, but I would be interested to know if this is more common when the process is spiritual, as if theses drugs affects some aspect of the connection with the spiritual that is newly healed in these cases.  I’m not sure how you would measure this as anything which leads to a person being more mindful could be considered spiritual, which covers most treatments for addiction (other than temporary substitution of one substance for another, which can in itself be  a way of finding the space to be more mindful).

Mystical

The Eastern mystical experiences tend to be focussed on experiences of ‘no self”.  Some budhists would disagree with this, but Budha specifically told people there was no self in order to undo a knot in our consciousness that we think is ourselves.  Because we think the knot is the self, anything he says about the self just reinforces the knot.  So instead, he talks about the experience of “no self”, so that consciousness can percieve itself directly.  Sri Ramana Maharsi lived in the last century and had a similar experience to the Budha, but taught a more direct method of self enquiry,  The core of this method is simply to focus quietly and persistently on this sense of “I”.   The idea is for the false ego self to gradually break down under examination.  Both methods are essentially trying to do the same thing – to overcome the persistent illusions we develop about reality as we change from babies who see themselves as part of everything.   The analogy used by Sri Ramana Maharsi is of our lives like being at the cinema.  During the film we are tied up in the film itself, we feel we are part of the film.  The realisation is to see that we are the screen onto which the film is projected.

This spiritual journey is one I only have limited experience of.  However I am sure that the experience – the whole journey – is both more simple and more profound than we can imagine without experiencing it ourselves.  It is both something we experience all day, every day, yet it is also something drastically unique in its transcendence of all experience.  All that said, my view now is that this is just a destination, a state that can be experienced;  however profound, and however inductive of clear and wise thought.  Some of those who become “fully realised”  talk about an awareness of god, but very few claim that enlightenment is itself a direct experience of the creator.  Buddha very deliberately avoided the question.

Christian mystical experiences share some elements with Eastern mystical experiences.  They are sometimes described as “the peace which passes understanding”, and like the eastern experiences there is always a type of frustration at the inadequacy of words to describe it.   However the experiences are also very different in some ways.  The christian experience contains both ecstatic joy and sharing in the suffering in the world .  The experience is uplifting but devastatingly humbling.   There is both huge pride at the privilege of the experience, but the smallest remaining flaws in character become like impossibly heavy cankers under the light and goodness of god.

The gospels themselves recount several stories that are mystical in nature, from the strange story of “The transfiguration of Christ” through the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the blinding of Paul on the road to Damascus.   Monastic life is understandably rich in examples of such experiences, with the Desert fathers, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi being some of the best known.   The commonality of all of these is how unsuitable words are to explain the experience.  Even Thomas Aquinas who was the was a pinnacle of written thought going right back through the ancient greek philosophers, decided he could not describe the experience in his later life.  So in some ways a more useful example to quote is a recent one, from someone who was at the time closer to atheism and communism that spirituality.  This is from Joy Davidman, who later became the wife  of CS. Lewis – the author of Narnia fame.  Whilst in the middle of relationship problems with her first husband, she had an experience which she described like this;

All my defenses – all the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily – and God came in. [….]

It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. . . Those who have known God will understand me…There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness – a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.

Ritual & Symbolism

For various reasons, we have developed ways to represent spiritual realities in physical, visual or verbal ways.  This can range from music and chanting to abstinance and ceremonies.  I won’t go into any details here, but for a catholic the most important of these are the sacrements (baptism, Eucharist, confession, marriage etc) – each of which is said to be an “outward sign of an inward grace”.   In other words a ritual is performed that activates the spiritual reality it represents.

Prayer, Meditation and Mindfullness

These are the foundations of spiritual practice, sometimes called the esoteric side (or ‘internal’), as opposed to the ritual side.  Without at least one of these, a person cannot move spiritually, its as if they have no legs to move, no ears to hear, no eyes to see.

Some of us christians can be naturally suspicious of practices like meditation when not explicitly done in a christian context.  I personally understand their cautiion, although I do think there is much that we can learn from mindfulness in particular. I will hopefully return to this subject in future .

Ordinary Life

The realm where nearly all spiritual activity happens is in day to day life.   Its where many of us who search for existential truths often tend to fail.   As spiritual beings we have a powerful capability called a conscience, and its how we react to that sense of guilt that signals how strong we are spiritually.   Those who listen to and embrace their guilt, who take firm steps to resolve the cause of it immediately, to be the best they can be, are often the most in touch with their spiritual nature.  There is a caveat here as guilt can be crippling if not balanced with at least a semblance of genuine self esteem (the highest form of which seems to come mostly from being kind).  However for the rest of us, we waste most of our lives hiding from – or making up narratives to cover – one form or another of guilt.  It often seems that the thing people cover their guilt with, the thing they strive after, is the thing that causes the guilt.  People who are guilty about sex, become often obsessed with sex.  Those guilty about their use of money, obsessed with getting more.  Those who are not kind to others, always hunting for positive attention and affirmation.     Over time the guilt hardens solid, resulting in spiritual blindness.  This is of course all a generalisation, an over simplification of what drives such complex creatures.  However there is also truth in it.

There is a story about a monk who is raking the leaves in a big courtyard.  A visitor sees him contentedly going about his business and stops to ask him what he would do if he was told that the world would end in an hours time.  He replied that he would continue raking leaves.  There was a time in my late twenties when the saying “Live every minute as if its your last” was a hedonistic statement.  It was about scraping as much pleasure from life as possible.  In reality, the monk raking the courtyard of course had a very different understanding of that saying long before this encounter.  From a purely objective perspective, its not difficult to see how the monks version is more likely to lead to contentment.  He is ready, he is free.

Ordinary life is of course not  just the isolation of doing chores such as raking leaves in the courtyard, or washing the dishes.  Its about a great web of people and creatures of all types, and how we interact with them.  Unless we confine this to non human creatures, its an area I’m particularly useless at, so will stop there for now.

Conclusion

Recently I was thinking of joining a New Scientist conference of consciousness in London, but realised that I already knew most of what they would be saying.  The bits I am interested in I have heard it all before.  It is indeed fascinating and many of the investigators in this area are diligent and honest.  However I have decided that its time for me to stop expexting to find where the spiritual sits within our theories of science.  The scientific process will always be valuable in its use of empirical evidence and falsification to reveal amazing wonders of the universe, as well as a lot more less exciting facts.   However it will never reveal deep truths about the spiritual world.

Its a bit like all the effort creationists waste fighting against evolution.  Its clear that natural selection drives the evolution of species.  There is no evidence that the process is entirely blind.  However, by assuming as much, the scientific process is uncovering a pre-existing fitness landscape that shapes evolution, let alone the likes of epigentic evolution which was heresy only a few years ago.   The struggle against an atheistic view of evolution is well intentioned maybe, but its best to just smile at those who think our current understanding of pretty much anything is even close to complete.  I know there are buddhist and hindu monks who are interested in pursuing the scientific investigation of the likes of meditation, and I understand their reasons for pursuing this.  However we must be clear that empiricism has a remit and competence that is limited to the portion of reality that is the same stuff as our instruments – namely matter (including radiation etc).  It can apply reasoning to some other areas as they impact people who can answer questions and respond to surveys, who can get damaged in various ways that can give clues to some elements of how we function.  It can also predict back to the start of time and space, and wonder at where it all came from, and how.  But it can never answer the why.  It can never detect or even infer a creator whose purpose in creation requires him to be invisible, as christianity has always believed.  Those who search for the truth honestly will find it, and then it will start to become something living – both active and yet unchanging in the paradox of that which transcends the temporal.  The logos,  who is.

Categories: Religion, Science

The Mechanics of Learning

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In the 1990s there was a lot of excitement in areas such as neurology and psychology with the discovery of mirror neurons.  Essentially this was where research showed that the same groups of neurons fired when someone was observing a particular activity, as when that person was doing the same activity themselves.  The initial research was done with monkeys and I’ll skip the details, but this was a compelling idea to explain how we learn things.  Whether its a young animal or a child, we’ve all seen  curious observation and mimicry being used in the learning process.

 

As with anything relating to consciousness, our understanding of how such a process would actually work as a mechanism is extremely primitive.  It did nonetheless provide a narrative of a framework for the development of consciousness.   In the most primitive creatures it could be some kind of happy combination of genes that enabled a selective attention.  The organism is doing this and not that.  This provides natural benefits that would be heavily selected for by natural selection.  At some point along the way, mirror neurons develop.  When combined with the sensory inputs developing at the same time, they would exponentially increase the value of that original selective attention.   Not only can the creature choose where to focus its efforts to surive, it can now learn ways of doing so from others.

 

Since then, the excitement around mirror neurons has been tempered by research showing that there are limits to the types of scenarios where they play any part.  Its become clear that they are a small part of a much bigger picture.   In their place, the excitement of the last few years has been in the area of “predictive errors”.  There have been theories in neurology around “predictive coding” going back a long way.  These were based on the way the brain quite obviously has a built in modelling process that unconsciously fills in bits of information that are missing.  Based on past experiences it predicts or infers things onto what comes in from the senses.  There are many classic experiments which demostrate this process, but we all experience this every day (whether consciously or not).

 

More recent research has shown that our dopamine system is deeply embeded into this predictive modelling, and it has been shown that we are heavily influenced by this process going on in the background.   We model what we expect to happen, and dopamine reinforces the feedback loop from that prediction.  We get a sense of well being with a positive result versus prediction, and a sense of dissatisfaction when our prediction was more positive than the reality.   This whole system has become more complex through evolution, being intricately linked with sex for example.  Differences in the dopamine system as we age can be correlated with the level of risk we take, which I guess could be seen as a kind of fine tuning of this reward system as we age.

 

The fundamental link between predictive errors and dopamine can be powerful at explaining how we learn – from successes as well as mistakes.  The fact its such a key system in our mental development goes some way to explain all kinds of disfunctional behaviour.  From people who are shopaholics to gamblers, or indeed to drug addiction where the dopamine reward system is directly hijacked.

 

I’m absolutely convinced that we are nowhere near understanding the fundamental nature of consciousness, the screen of self awareness from which thought itself rises and onto which its projected (leaving thought itself a bit like the ancient symbol of the snake eating its tail).   The only way to understand consciousness itself is surely to percieve it directly.  You cannot really understand what it means to be “wet” without having ever experienced a liquid.  However I’m also convinced that a better understanding of this functional side of the brain around predictive coding and the dopamine connection can help us to understand ourselves better.

 

The physical body is programmed for us to feel good about certain results, and disapointed about others – and it pushes us to keep trying again even if we failed last time.  This is at its heart a very powerful process.  Its generally harmless when its captured into a loop of following, say, a football team.  But it can also lead to us seeking happiness in all kinds of ways, from shopping and sex to drugs (including nicotine and alcohol) which mimic the built in reward part of the learning process.   Its a bit like the blue pill and the red pill in the matrix.  We can either close our eyes and continue on the journeys our reward systems take us on.  Or we can try to be more mindful day to day and minute to minute, to watch ourselves being drawn to things, and be more conscious about what really does brings us happiness and peace.  The latter requires more effort and needs a level of discipline I certainly find difficult, but its surely much closer to the ancient advise to “know thyself”.

If you write down the things you are drawn to or hope for during the average day, how many of those are ultimately ways of affecting the level of dopamine in your brain ?

Categories: Science

Literal versus Literalist

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Do I believe that the texts of the bible are the literal truth ? Yes I do – and I’m very relaxed about saying that, and in the same breath agreeing that evolution is an accurate description of the mechanism through which our bodies developed. I’m completely happy with a 4 billion year old earth and 13 billion year old universe.

There seem to be two very strange viewpoints that cause a huge amount of heat and confusion in this area. The first is the one held by many atheists. In this view, there is no such thing as revealed truths – at least not beyond Rutherford’s (misleading) dream of an atom or Einsteins journey alongside a beam of light. In this view the words of scripture must be taken as nothing more than primitive fairy tales. So god fashioning man from clay is just a primitive explanation for how humans came to be. They imagine a Gandalf-like old man fashioning a Morph like creature, then casting a spell worthy of Harry Potter to animate it with the spark of life.

Of course I’m not suggesting that some people who believe in these texts do not have similar understandings of them. What I am stating is that this is not the intended meaning of the text. There is a natural consequence of a belief that the texts are deliberately inspired by the same spirit that was responsible for (and present ‘before’) the start of time. That which inspired the texts understands the reality more fully than big bang or evolution theory. It may well be the case that a technically accurate description of these things would still be meaningless to us even with all our modern understanding. The true description of the process of evolution right from proto RNA in the ‘primordial soup’, or even further back to the source of the fitness landscape, may be such that “shaped from clay” is still just as appropriate to us in our age as it was several millennia back.  The honest search for the truth is not just about the technical detail.  You cannot see a van Gogh painting if your only window onto it is through a scanning electron microscope.

There are also nuanced layers between the understanding of the people being described and quoted, the understanding of the author, and the underlying truth being revealed. For example, in the gospels there are stories of people “possessed by demons” who are healed by Jesus. Its not always clear whether these are simply diseases that they did not understand at the time, or genuine cases of demonic possession. Either way, what is being described is what the people at the time thought it was, and the fact that they were healed. There is no suggestion that the authors of the gospels had detailed knowledge of, say, epilepsy.

The second strange viewpoint on this is from people who believe scripture is true, but take no notice of how our understanding of these things has developed through solid evidence. For example, the idea that the universe was created in seven days. To start with, why would these be 24 hour earth days ? The story is told from the perspective of someone who at the start speaks the universe into existence! There is no reason to assume the terms are directly equivalent to a literalist translation of them. In other words, I’m not saying that the translators should have used the word, say, “age” instead of “day” – even if the original word had that possible meaning. The word used is perfectly suitable for the purpose intended, which does not involve a technical account of the mechanics. There is plenty of evidence that can now help us to get a better idea of what the biblical account is describing, but there is simply no reason to accept the warped literalist interpretation.

I have no idea why people make such a chaotic and heated fuss over these things. It clearly has something to do with the fact peoples identities are to some extent defined for or against these texts. You don’t see people getting their knickers in such a twist when they read that it was “raining cats and dogs”.

The strange thing is that the Catholic Church, the authority which discerned the texts of the bible(*), has been closely following alongside the changing understanding of these things. There seems to be a meme out there that has the church at complete odds with rational people, holding fast to a flat, young earth full of instant-brewed-humans, when all thoughtful people had moved on. In fact the famous contentious issues were contentious because they were so revolutionary at the time. Yes there was the Inquisition, and yes members of the church did some terrible things over 2000 years, and yes real historians have a good idea of the actual context of these things. But the average science commentator, let alone the interested ‘person on the street’, seems to imagine Copernicus being laughed at by the pope and cardinals, whilst the scholars of the time accepted the heliocentric model as self evident.  This is no more true than the idea that the church was responsible for or supported the idea of a flat earth.

You can’t really blame the atheists for having a literalist interpretation of the bible. Its literally a closed book to them – the foundation of their worldview prevents them from being able to comprehend any possible basis for truth behind the narrative. At a very simplistic level, their view is logical and internally consistent. But you can blame the people who believe in the texts for making the texts look stupid, by insisting forcefully on their own ignorant interpretation of them. For the earth to be merely thousands of years old, god would have had to deceptively create it all so that it appeared as if processes happening today had carried on for billions of years into the past. Why would anyone be so firm in their ignorant, literalist interpretation that they are prepared to make god out to be like a deceptive child playing Mindcraft ?   What is the agenda for all these US southern baptists and other creationists spending so much time talking about junk science rather than the message of Jesus ?   It sometimes seems as if they should follow their true heart – and set up the church of junk science!

This is perhaps unfair of me, especially as someone who oversteps his own competence in science from time to time.  For those who experience truth in their relationship with god that corresponds with what they read in the bible, having a constant critical evaluation of the bible sentence by sentence is the opposite of using the bible for spiritual growth and guidance, as it is intended.

Here is the rub.   Just as there are scientists who like to stick to the solid of what they ‘know’, and avoid walking along the edges of more watery mysteries, so too there are the same types in many areas including christianity.  For these people, Adam and Eve have to be the first human beings – specific indivuals surrounded only by animals.  The questions of who their children marry and where the cities come from as they travel is best avoided.  In many cases the barriers are up against an increasingly unbelieving world, so they hold tightly to what is most important from their personal experience.  If this works for them then who am I to question it, so long as they don’t spend too much effort and resources  arguing that the bible denies evolution.  Then its maybe more helpful to point out some of the layers of truth in the story of Adam and Eve.  Of the primal innocence of nature and life itself, of the consequences of free will and self awareness, and of the universal need for redemption that comes with human self awareness.

To me, the more I soak into the story of Adam and Eve, I get small insights into the depth of the goodness of god.   With humans, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With god, all power, unimaginable power,  cannot deflect him one dot.  That he chose to make himself weak like us, and remained so entirely uncorrupted that he can also pull us all back up.  As people in the east may put it, there is no negative karma to hold him down.   Its incredible and difficult to grasp when you compare the scale of the universe with us worms crawling over a speck of rock in a small backwater of one galaxy.  Nonetheless, the question of whether or not Adam and Eve were specific individual people is of no importance next to this kind of glimpse of the truth that the text contains.

* Note that when I refer to scripture, I mean the bible, old and new. I respect many Hindu and Buddhist texts, and believe they contain some profound truths, but do not consider them to be the active revelation of the creator of the universe. I personally don’t accept the veracity of the texts of Islam (for reasons of historicity and theology – such as those raised by CS Lewis), but equally I don’t claim to know everything and certainly don’t doubt the relationship individual Muslims can have with god.

Categories: Religion, Science

Assumptions

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I caught the Radio 4 program “The Infinite Monkey Cage” on my way back from work today, discussing the various theories that we are living in a simulation created by an advanced civilisation. This is something famously supported by Elon Musk, among others.

During the discussion, the common sense objection to this was well put by one of the guests. We have no reason to believe that consciousness can be simulated by a computer of any type. An example used was that we can simulate a storm in a computer, but the computer never gets wet. In other words we can believe that a computer could simulate consciousness that could pass the Turing test, but why should we believe that a computer could ever create something that was actually self aware ?

Then the argument was put forward that we know the brain is a physical object, so it must be possible to create something that functions as the brain does. The proposal being that if you replaced each neuron with a chip that had the same function, one by one, eventually you could replace the whole brain without the person changing. This is a common assumption that is made by reductionist materialists. Because we have shown that specific areas of the brain play a key role in basic functions that are seen as aspects of our self awareness (through types of brain damage for example), it therefore follows that self awareness is nothing other than a product of the physical brain.

I won’t deny that this is a logical assumption. Its one I made when I became an atheist. However it must be clear that this is an assumption. Its no less of an assumption than that lightning and thunder are signs that the gods are displeased. There is still a logic to it – humans aren’t able to create such awesome signs, so it must be the gods. If humans made that kind of a racket it would be because they were not happy about something. Its perfectly logical – it just has some mistaken assumptions because of ignorance about the nature of lightning and thunder,

I would argue the same about consciousness. In fact I would probably go further and say that we don’t even know what life itself is. The scientific definition of life is based on things that living organisms do, although even that gets a bit mixed up when you look at the likes of viruses (with undeniably good reason).

So how should this be addressed ? Its not reasonable to expect science to invent all kinds of ghosts and goblins to fill every possible gap where they could be hidden. That would be stupid – and contrary to the very valuable scientific process.  But there are some fundamental issues where we must admit that our scientific knowledge and understanding is at best a rough pencil sketch of a guess. For all these areas, science can only be agnostic. To state that consciousness is purely a product of matter is to state a materialist belief, not a scientific fact,

The same cannot be said about Evolution theory, or a several billion year old earth. These are scientific facts.

Categories: Science

Deception – walking the line

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In some of my previous posts, I have suggested that we need to be more open and honest about what we do not know, to leave space for possibilities that have not been ruled out.   However there is a very good reason why we have developed the habit of ruling out things that aren’t supported by evidence – called skepticism.

There is a long history of humans believing all kinds of wrong things for very bad reasons.   It was the arrival of critical thinking with Greek philosophy that was the birth of various forms of skepticism, from those who argued that nothing is meaningfully true, to those who simply argued that some things are more correct that others.  I won’t delve too far into the nature of skepticism in its different forms now as its a vast subject that is written about extensively by people far more learned than me.  However there is an important point about the nature of knowledge – aka epistemology – which is worth spending some time on.

Being skeptical about things is an important part of reason.  I recently told someone that a full super tanker has so much momentum at full speed that it would keep going right across the Isle of Wight.  As I was saying this I had a queezy feeling in stomach, and by the time I’d finished the sentance I seriously doubted what I’d just said.  At some point when I was younger someone I trusted – a teacher I think – told this to me, and I seem to have accepted it and it lodged away in my head for 40 years or so until it happened to come up in a conversation.   To be fair I probably missed some detail or caveat, but why I didn’t question this more at the time is a mystery to me.  Either way, I think we all agree that education should encourage everyone to have a level of critical thinking that (gently and respectfully) questions everything.

However there is also another side to this.  Not all types of knowledge are the same.  For example, if someone says that they see blue where you see green, its very difficult to confirm that empirically.   So we have some things that we see as solid facts, and others that we term “subjective” to suggest that they are unreliable.

I would like to question this way of thinking about what is true and what is not.  But first I need to reject one alternative philosophy that treats all these subjective ideas as just as valid as any other idea or fact – what you could broadly call post modernism, or relativism.  I believe there are things that are true, and things that are not true.  As the late Pope John Paul II said when supporting Evolution Theory, “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.

To some extent, the philosophical debate around the validity of subjective views has hidden what is to me the more important point – namely that there are different types of knowledge.  There is no reason not to try to build the wall of truth in each of these realms, as long as you have a way to realiably identify the range of competencies against which each wall can be applied.

The wall of empirically verified facts is to some scientists, and indeed to the average educated person (if at least subconsciously), the closest we have to a wall of truth.  For these groups, the empirical approach is not just a scientific method, its a philosophy, a worldview.  They would deny it, but it could be said to be like a religion itself, a belief in science so encompassing that it becomes scientism.

Despite the incredible power and sophistication of this empirical way of building a picture of the truth, the foundation of this wall is composed of temporary objects that change, decay, and are gone.  The idea that physical objects – which are mostly empty space described by weird force fields – should be the bedrock of our picture of everything, is okay to question.   What if we consider a wall of truth where the foundations were the likes of symmetry (which makes things like physics possible), the platonic concept of numbers and shape (which make maths possible), of self awareness, even concepts such as love, hate, forgiveness.  We tend to think of these things as in some ways not being as real as bricks and hammers, as scales and rulers.  Maybe because they involve the world interacting in some way with consciousness, they are understandably seen as part of the world of human emotion and imagination.

The interesting thing is that the empirical wall of truth we have built has almost disolved its own foundation.  It points to the fact that the idea of a local reality, of something physical existing in space and time, is more illusion than reality.  There are philosophers and scientists that take extreme interpretations of these things, and say that the universe is nothing but maths or information, or even those who say that the universe is all mind at some level.

There is a quote from Stephen Hawkins “A Brief History of Time”, which I think describes these diferent types of truth well;

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

So going back to skepticism, my view is that like the scientific method, its a powerful tool that should be used often.  However its also important to limit that skepticism to its rightful place in building a wall that will never be the complete picture.  Just as you would never use a hammer to read a book, you need to use the right tool for the job it was made for.
Truth is surely one of the most valuable things to everyone; if that were not true then why do people spend so much of their lives debating things.  My decision that I was an atheist was made through a kind of skepticism which drove a narrative in my mind.  But when I look back, none of the arguments I’d created in my mind supported atheism –  at best they supported agnosticism.  The human mind likes certainty, and this is one reason the scientific method is so important in controlling this tendancy.  However there is another side to this where the same type of comfortable certainty in rejecting unproven things can be just as incorrect.

Categories: History, Religion, Science

The Problem of Free Will

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In our day to day lives there is a ‘common sense’ view of free will.  I decide to lift my left hand, and my left hand goes up.  The natural assumption is that there was a conscious decision to do something, which resulted in an action. The problem with this view is that classical science maintains that everything that happens is caused by fixed laws of chemistry and physics.  From this perspective, when I lifted my hand it was simply an inevitable result of chemical and electrical reactions taking place in my brain.  This is called determinism, and is one of the foundations of science.

You may not know it yet, but you are either a compatiblist or an incompatiblist, depending on whether you view free will as being compatible with determinism or not.  Before taking a position, you will need to decide whether free will is real, and whether determinism is real, and depending on your answers there will be several more ‘ist’s you can be labelled with.

The reason there are so many labels that come into this discussion is that there is a fundamental conflict between the common sense view of the world that affects every aspect of our lives – right from our legal system to the sentances we speak day to day – and the scientific view of the world which has so powerfully changed our lives and the world we live in.

Over the centuries that this has been discussed and debated, many explanations have been proposed that will allow free will to survive in any significant way.  In the last century the advent of Quantum Mechanics (QM) seemed to offer a more robust way out of the paradox.  In QM a local cause of events is apparently replaced by randomness and probability.  However the various branches of ‘ism’ associated with this viewpoint (eg physicalism and naturalism), do something that plagues discussions in these areas – they try to answer one strange anomaly by creating another one thats just as unhelpful.  In this view, free will is based purely on chance, and so its quantum randomness that makes our decisions for us.  This may be a little closer to common sense (it was not completely inevitable that I would choose to lift my hand), but you still can’t lock someone up for committing murder.  After all, it was the formulas of quantum mechanics that made ’em do it, guv….

Most modern scientists have come to the conclusion that free will is not real in any meaningful sense, and they can be broadly divided into two groups.  The first type are straightforward in many ways as they claim that free will is entirely an illusion (these are called hard determinists).  The second type say that determinism and free will are perfectly compatible, but to do so they reduce free will to the ability to do what you are motivated to do (with your motive itself being determined). So this latter group are very much like those who believe quantum mechanics can save free will, but instead of the driver of free will being randomness, they change free will into something completely determined by external factors still.  In other words, not free will at all.  Both of these groups point to an experiment which shows that you make decisions before you are consciously aware of it, from work by Libet and recently demonstrated more convincingly here.  However its clear that these studies only give a clue to the decision making process (i.e. its partly unconscious), and do not rule out free will.  In fact, the interpretation that they do would mean that we have evolved an ability to constantly trick ourselves into believing at a fundamental level that we have some level of control of decisions (and that others do too).  To me this is neither logically nor intuitively rational, quite apart from the fact it would be a skill even more complex and sophisticated than the ones we need to survive!  We have such complex minds and use them to develop such detailed explanations for why we choose one thing over another.   The idea that all this time and energy spent on rationalisation of the decisions we and others make, is purely some mental sub process of the brain designed to convince us that we are involved our decisions seems crazy.  Its also not like nature to be so inefficient without a good reason – something even the extravagance of flowers and coloured feathers have.

The concept of free will was not one I pondered much when I was an atheist, and so this big conflict between the very foundations of, say, the legal system and science, passed me by.   When I first became interested in the subject, I decided I had a lot of sympathy with the views of Immanuel Kant.  He argued that the mind had the ability to distinguish between how the world is, and how it should be.  He believed that this allowed us to overcome the chains of determinism – to see what would be and intervene to change the result to what could be.

However this rational sounding view from Kant still avoids the fundamental problem – what is the mechanism for this ?   We know that you get emergent properties – a collection of things which form something more than the sum of their parts when joined together.  For example, you cannot describe a tornado or a whirlpool simply as a group of individual particles of air or water – there are various dynamics you needs to take into account, which make the particles move in particular ways (irrelevant – but I sometimes wonder if this could provide a solution for Dark Matter).  However there is nothing in any of our ideas or concepts that would allow us to control how our neurons fire.  If our mind is an emergent property of our physical brain (as materialists argue), how can that emergent property directly cause a physical effect on the brain that generates it ?  If such a feedback loop were possible between an emergent property and the matter which produced it, it would be some new kind of stuff which doesn’t follow the laws of science.  You could say that it would be so outside of the normal laws of science that it would be an assumption to say that this property emerged from the physical body in the first place.

We are so used to computers that are programmed to calculate ‘decisions’ that its easy to miss the fundamental problem here – computers do not have free will.  A computer is fully deterministic – it takes inputs, and based on what they are instructed to do with these inputs, it does a calculation which has a fixed result.  You could of course program a computer to respond as if it had consciously made a decision, but the lack of a ‘conscious decider’ makes these emulations easy to spot even when they are incredibly sophisticated.  There is often an assumption that we will eventually be able to create computers so sophisticated that they will become sentient – able to make conscious decisions, and be self aware in doing so.  However that is very much an assumption.  We have no reason to believe that will ever happen (other than by using another assumption about how the brain produces consciousness).

I am more than willing to accept that much of what we experience is an illusion in many ways.   The proven reality of non locality in quantum mechanics is just one of many ways in which we know reality is not at all as we observe it to be.  But I cannot accept that our ability to chose to do something is an illusion.  This sense of self that chooses to lift my hand in the air has substance.  Of course the “I” that makes this decision is admitedly a complex mixture of things which include my past (memories and learnt skills) meshed together in conscious and subconscious ways, affected by emotions, by hormones and other chemicals, by nerve impulses from other parts of my body etc etc.  These all no doubt filter and affect the decisions I make, but underneath them all is a conscious being that can make a decision – even sometimes a decision contrary to all these factors.

There is another answer – a more simple one in many many ways – called dualism.  Here we are both matter and spirit, deeply entwined together to form a person, and both of a different nature altogether.   I don’t exactly know what this spirit is, but from what I can tell its not bound by time and space, other than through some kind of coupling with the physical body at birth.  As such its not bound by determinism, but is instead a rare thing – a genuine input into the otherwise closed system of the universe.  Taken to its full and logical extension, its the part of us that is in some way a reflection of god.  The god who is outside of space and time, uncaused and yet the cause of all things temporal, setting the primal example of the day to day action of our will acting into the universe

It is of course against the materialist version of science – scientism – to resort to an explanation that cannot be tested.  However its clear that forcing an explanation from materialism results in a paradox so completely against common sense that we have left our legal system and most social interaction in complete ignorance of it.  Deliberately.

Karl Popper defined a commonly accepted basis for the scientific process.  However whilst this represents a very effective way of investigating the physical universe, the totality of truth will surely contain elements that cannot be proven via falsification.  How much further down the path in theoretical physics do we need to travel before we will realise that the existence of physical objects cannot be the foundation stone of the wall of truth we are trying to uncover ?  It seems to make sense to me that any honest epistemology will leave room for placeholder terms until we understand things better – and “spirit” seems appropriate when we talk of free will or consciousness .  After all, creating placeholder labels is exactly what we do in cosmology to describe the makeup of most of the universe.

[Note: Dualism I have since identified as a hangover from when I was an atheist / materialist, and then changed 180 degrees and tried to make sense of things rationally.  I would now say that idealism is a far better description of reality.  Nonetheless, from the perspective of materialism, there must be dualism unless you accept the absurd notion that consciousness (and the illusion of free will) is generated by matter]

Categories: Religion, Science

The Mystery in Science vs We Know Everything (nearly)

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There is something I’ve observed from my (admittedly limited) experience of people in science.  There are people who are often leaders in their fields, who make progress and extend understanding, who tend to be mostly occupied with what we don’t understand.  Thats what drives them, and they are happy to admit that they find themselves humbled by the mysteries their subject still holds for them.

This is in great contrast to what the ‘man or woman on the street’ thinks about scientists, which tends to be that they know so much about everything that what they don’t know is hardly worth knowing.  There is also a large group within science, the type that want everything everywhere to be organised and tied down, who have a similar view that science has almost discovered everything thats important, and whats left is mainly refining accuracy and tidying some loose ends.

This latter view has been shared by men throughout the ages.  To quote an example often ascribed to Lord Kelvin in 1900 ;

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

In fact this may have been misattributed to him, but there were people who thought this at the time.  Of course, over the next couple of decades there were two great revolutions in science – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – both of which turned many assumptions completely upside down.  The same could be said of the discoveries of Newton, Copernicus and Darwin, of several of the Greek philosophers, and many others before and after.

Its understandable that this assumption has slipped into peoples worldview yet again.  We have sent people to the moon.  We have built computers that sit in our pockets, and can do things that would once have seemed like utter and undeniable magic.  We have eradicated diseases from the planet, and tamed the power of nature in countless ways.  We understand the process through which creatures developed from small cells into complex organisms than walk, and talk, and ponder on the meaning of their existence.

Yet in many ways we have less reason to think like this than we ever have.  We have good reason to believe -from the Cosmic Background Radiation observations by WMAP – that what we see and detect around us is less than 5% of what is actually there.  The rest of it appears to be a mixture of things we have called “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy”, both named because we just don’t know what they are.

We know something about light and radio waves and microwaves etc, but a simple experiment done with light – Young’s Slit Experiment – is still deeply mysterious.  We have developed a mathematical model – the quantum formalism – which is brilliantly accurate and drives much of the modern world from phones to GPS.  But we simply don’t understand what its describing in any meaningful way.  In fact Young’s Slit Experiment has been refined now to show that a single photon can pass through both slits (in that it interferes with itself at some level), and yet if you measure it, you will only ever ‘see’ it at one slit.  This is just the thin end of the wedge with Quantum Physics – its gets stranger the deeper you go.

Follow that photon into the extensively tested and proven theory of Relativity, and from the perspective of a photon time does not exist.  To us and our instruments however it moves – always at a fixed speed away from you no mater how fast you approach it!  Trying to imagine what the world must seem like from the perspective of a photon (or any weightless particle) is a mind boggling mystery if ever there was one, especially if you consider that relativity also states that space has collapsed to a single ‘point’ for all them.  There have even been a suggestion by a leading physicist that there is only a single electron, a single photon, moving backwards and forwards in time to create the universe.  From a materialist perspective this is crazy, but its not quite as crazy from the best theories we have to describe nature.   Things are certainly not as they seem.

The holographic principle suggests that the information in the universe is described by its surface area, as if the whole universe is some kind of projection ‘from the outside’.  Wherever you look in so many areas there are massive great mysteries hinting little clues towards understanding out great ignorance.

I won’t venture outside of physics right now, but in areas such as consciousness and free will, things are just as weird and poorly understood.  What I’m not suggesting here is that we have not come a long way, nor that science should in some way be distrusted.  Its a very necessary process when trying to understand the aspects of the world we can conduct experiments on.  It avoids the ingrained human habit of looking for patterns whether they are there or not.

I do think its very important, however, that we celebrate mystery.  Not to the extent that our brains fall out whilst we try to work out which group of aliens built the pyramids, but as an important part of why we are alive.  Like most people I was put off science at school.  It was simply a task to transfer text books into our brain, to learn about instruments and how to use them.  Far better surely to at least in part teach it to people (including children) as an adventure, one we’re just at the start of.  How much more interesting, how much more likely each one of us would be to actually want to learn something new.

Categories: Religion, Science

Mathematical Fantasy?

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The world of maths can be seen as a language.  Like any language it can be used to say things that are true, and things which are false.  However there is also a view that goes back to people such as Plato, where there is some pre-existing reality that numbers come from.

In this view, its not just that maths can be used – as a tool, invented by humans – to describe certain aspects of the universe, its more properly described as a fundamental part of the universe itself.  Looking at the likes of equations in physics, I find it easy to sympathise with this view.  There is a symmetry around the equals sign in the middle of the equation – move things around it and you can predict how things will be billions of miles away, or right in front of us at scales so small that all our normal logic and reason no longer work.  The maths carries on working just fine in places we can’t even dream of visiting, which can sometimes astound those using it, almost as if its a kind of magic.  Stephen Hawkins asked what it was that “breathes the fire into the equations”.

It is also clear that some types of maths can be as far from truth as you can get, something we learn early on in maths classes as a cross next to our answer.  Famously statistics is an area where maths can even be used to deliberately deceive, although as often they are simply meaningless because all factors and their effects are not known or understood.  This ‘maths as a language’ view can easily hide from us the other more fundamental type of maths, and we loose something if we cannot tell them apart.

One example is “imaginary numbers”.  Here you have the normal number line with zero in the middle, minus numbers to the left, plus numbers to the right.  You then have a question, “what is the square root of -1 ?”.  No normal numbers can be multiplied by itself to get a minus number, and so early mathemstitians invented a new type of numbers, which they called  “imaginary” (or “i”).  Gauss showed that this was in fact just a new number line, running up and down rather than left and right, but otherwise pluses one way, minuses the other.  When you use both numberlines together as a two dimensional plane, you get “complex numbers”, and just like an equations on the normal number line, there are simple rules for moving around this plane.

I suspect that most early mathematicians who used complex numbers considered them a purely intellectual excercise, a natural consequence of extending the numbers we use for the real world beyond the limits they were designed for.  However as time went on, it became more and nore apparent that these imaginary numbers were necessary in describing all kinds of real phenomena mathematically.  We would not have technologies such as mobile phones or GPS without them.

From what I can tell, most in physics (and even maths) would see complex numbers as a useful mathematical trick, which happens to produce valid results.  However I can’t help wondering whether they represent something more fundamental, an aspect of the universe that somehow doesn’t fit with our default epistemology.

Another area is Cantors infinities.  Cantor argued that not all infinities are equal, that if you compared a set of all ‘whole’ numbers, with one of all ‘real’ numbers (i.e. including all possible decimals), then the second set had an infinite number of members for each member in the first set.  In his view this made them different – although he said they were of a different order, not size.  I find it difficult to accept Cantor’s arguments, but the maths that comes from it is used regularly by physicists in the real world.  So does nature really have different types of infinity, and does this actually mean anything ?  For my money this is veering close to statistics, but I think its a useful example.

Dimensions are an area where maths can describe completely different realities that seem very alien.  We’re used to three spatial dimensions, Einstein added time as a fourth dimension.  Since then, physicists and mathematicians have put all our maths together and come up with string theory, which has more dimensions.  At one stage there were a few of these theories which seemed incomplete, but when reformulated as an 11 dimensional model, there were some compelling hints that this represented something real about how the universe really is (M theory).  However most of string theories biggest problems stem from how far away it is from anything we can measure.  You can tweak it so much and get so many different results that it becomes meaningless.   Nonetheless, it seems likely that there is something here that the ‘basic’ maths (in reality very complicated maths) is pointing to, with extra dimensions of some form being a real possibility, whether spatial, temporal, or something else we can’t even imagine.

Strangely, the sheer number of possible ways that string theory can be tweaked seems to have resulted in physicists being drawn towards the idea of a multiverse, where every possible configuration that can happen has happened.  This despite the fact that we have no evidence for any universe other than our own.

I may be stretching things here, but it seems to me that we have some strong clues in maths that the central areas of our default modern epistemology are actualy just a small corner of the big picture of reality.  I also think we benefit more from stepping back and imagining what the big picture may look like, than constantly narrowing areas of study into smaller areas of specialisation.

Categories: Science