Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The relationship between science and philosophy

I’ve written on this before, but recent reading has made me revisit it, because I think it’s a lot closer and interrelated than people think, especially among scientists. I’m referring to the fact that more than one ‘famous’ scientist has been dismissive of philosophy and its contribution to our knowledge. I’m thinking Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Peter Atkins and, of course, Richard Feynman, whom I particularly admire.

In the Western epistemic canon, if I can use that term, philosophy and science have a common origin, as we all know, with the Ancient Greeks. There was a time when they were inseparable, and certainly up to Newton’s time, science was considered, if not actually called, ‘natural philosophy’. In some circles, it still is. This is to distinguish it from metaphysics, and I think that division is still relevant, though some may argue that metaphysics has no relevance in the modern world.

Plato argued that ‘Metaphysics… holds that what exists lies beyond experience’ (my on-board computer dictionary definition) which in the Platonic tradition would include mathematics, oddly enough. But in the Kantian and Hume tradition: ‘…objects of experience constitute the only reality’ (from the same source).  I would suggest that this difference still exists in practice if not in theory. In other words, science is based on empirical evidence, though mathematics increasingly plays a role. Mathematics, by the way, does not constitute empirical evidence, but mathematics constitutes a source of ‘truth’ that can’t be ignored in any assessment of a scientific theory.

I find I’m already heading down a path I didn’t intend to follow, but maybe I can join it to the one I intended to follow further down the track. So let me backtrack and start again.

Most scientific theories start off in the realm of philosophy, though they may be informed by limited physical evidence. Think, for example, of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Both he and Alfred Wallace (independently) came to the same conclusion, when they traveled to little-known parts of the world and saw creatures that were not only exotic but strange and unexpected. Most significantly, they realised how geography and relative isolation drove species’ diversity. This led them both to develop an unpopular and unproven philosophy called evolution. Evidence came much later in the form of fossils, genetics and, eventually, DNA, which is the clincher. Evidence can turn philosophy into science and theories into facts.

As anyone, who has any exposure to American culture, knows, the philosophical side of this debate still rages. And, to some extent, this is the very reason that some scientists would argue that philosophy is irrelevant or, at the very least, subordinate to science. This point alone is worth elaborating on. There is a dialectic between science and philosophy and the dominant discipline, for want of a better term, is simply dependent on our level of knowledge, or, more importantly perhaps, our level of ignorance. By dialectic I mean a to-ing and fro-ing, so that one informs the other in a continual and constructive dialogue, which leads to an evolvement which we call a theory.

Going back to the example of the theory of evolution, which, after 150 years, is both more fraught with difficulties and more cemented in evidence than either Darwin or Wallace could have imagined. In other words, and this is true in every branch of science, the more we learn about something the more mysteries we uncover. For example, DNA reveals in extraordinary relief how every species is related and how all life on Earth had a common origin, yet the origin and evolution of DNA itself, whilst not doubted, poses mysteries of its own. And while mysteries will always exist, anti-science proponents will find a foothold to sow scepticism and disbelief.

But my point is that the philosophy of evolutionary biology is strengthened by science to the extent that it is considered a fact by everyone except those who argue that the Bible has more credibility than science. Again, I’m getting off-track, but it illustrates why scientists have a tendency to demote philosophy, when it is used to promote ignorance over what is already known and accepted in mainstream science.

On a completely different tack, it’s well known that Einstein held a deep scepticism about the validity and long-term scientific legacy of quantum mechanics. What is lesser known is his philosophical belief in determinism that led him to be so intractable in his dissent. Einstein’s special theory of relativity led to some counter-intuitive ideas about time. Specifically, that simultaneity is subjective, not objective, if events are spatially separated (refer my post on Now). Einstein came to the philosophical conclusion that the Universe is determinant, where space and time are no longer separate but intrinsically combined in space-time. Mathematically, this is resolved by treating time as a fourth dimension, and, in Einstein’s universe, the future is just as fixed as the past, in the same way that a spatial dimension is fixed. This is a philosophical viewpoint that arose from his special theory of relativity and thus informed his worldview to the point that it contradicted the inherent philosophy of quantum mechanics that tells us, at a fundamental level, everything is random.

And this brings me full circle, because it was reading about the current, increasingly popular, many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that led me to contemplate the metaphorically and unavoidably incestuous relationship between philosophy and science. In particular, adherents to this ‘theory’ have to contend with their belief that every action they do in this universe affects their counterparts in parallel universes. I’ve expressed my dissent for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. However, I would like to address this specific consequence of this specific philosophy. You have a stream of consciousness that is really the only thing you have that gives you a reality. So, even if there are an infinite and continual branching of your current universe into parallel universes, your stream of consciousness only follows one and axiomatically that’s the only reality you know.

And now, to rejoin the path that led me astray, let's talk about mathematics. Mathematics has followed its own historical path in Western thought alongside science and philosophy with its own origins in Plato’s Academy. In fact, Plato adopted the curriculum or quadrivium from Pythagoras’s best student, Archytas (after specifically seeking him out), which was arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Mathematics is obviously the common denominator of all these.

Mathematics also has philosophical ‘schools’ which I’ve written about elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on that here. Personally, I think mathematics contains truths that transcend humanity and the universe itself, but it’s the pervasive and seemingly ineluctable intrusion into science that has given it its special epistemological status. String Theory or M Theory is the latest, most popular contender for a so-called Theory of Everything (TOE) yet it’s more philosophy than scientific theory. It’s only mathematics that gives it epistemic status, and it’s arguably the best example of the dialect I was talking about. I’ve written in another post (based on Noson Yanofsky’s excellent book) that we will never know everything there is to know in both science and mathematics. This means that our endeavours in attempting to understand the Universe (or multiverse) will be never-ending, and thus the dialectic between science and philosophy will also be never-ending.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

How xenophobia is undermining our democracy

Today, in Australia, we are having a Federal election and there is a very large elephant in the room.  Tony Abbott (former conservative Prime Minister, who was ousted by his own party) made the point, a couple of days out from polling day (today) that there were 2 issues that were never discussed or debated in the election campaign. One was so-called ‘border protection’ and the other was something I’ve since forgotten, so obviously not as important to me as it was to Tony. In a perverse sort of way, he is right: border protection is all about how we treat asylum seekers. It’s a euphemism for offshore detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The reason that it was never raised is because both of the major parties are too ashamed to mention it and, besides, everyone knows that refugees can’t vote. As a consequence, for the first time in my life I refuse to vote for either of the major parties.

It’s a pity we can’t time travel - Dr Who style into the future - so we can see how future generations judge Australia in this page of our history. I’m pretty sure it won’t be flattering.  Pauline Hanson’s political skills are rudimentary at best and her political party has floundered, imploded and all but self-destructed, yet her influence on Australian refugee policy will go down in history as an example of how democracy can bring out the worst characteristics of humanity and conquer compassion, tolerance and charitable instincts. Her ego must be currently inflated beyond the bounds of all reason when she looks to America and sees that one of the contenders for the most powerful position in the free world holds the same contempt for outsiders as she does.

Not that Australia is in any position to admonish Trump when we have the most draconian, morally bankrupt, human rights-defying, democracy-eroding policy towards asylum seekers in the Western world. Why democracy-eroding, you may ask. Journalistic freedom is the measure of any democracy anywhere in the world. When we hide activities, involving human rights, from the media under the guise of national security, democracy is weakened. The Government does not want us to know what’s happening on Manus Island or Nauru and have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the Australian public in the dark. It’s a human rights catastrophe, and if I’m wrong then let the media report on it. Where else in the so-called free world can health professionals be threatened with jail for reporting on human rights abuses by agents of their own government. This is not democracy. What makes this law so perverse is that health professionals have a legal obligation to do the exact opposite when it comes to abuses on mainland Australia.

How have both major parties found themselves stranded in this moral wasteland called offshore detention? Some believe it started with Tampa (see links below) some 15 years ago under Prime Minister John Howard. Tim Costello, a Baptist minister and head of World Vision, made the point on a television panel a few months ago that the last 15 years politicisation of asylum seekers in Australia has been ‘toxic’. Tim’s brother, Peter, of course was Treasurer of that same government. Tim quipped that dinner table conversations could be awkward.

But detention of asylum seekers started under a Labor government before Howards’ time, under Prime Minister Hawke (if memory serves me right) with refugees from Cambodia when it was trying to recover from the Khmer Rouge.

Former conservative Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was so disgusted with Howard’s policies on this matter that he took the unprecedented step of resigning from the party. This is what happens when the masses lead the government instead of the government showing leadership. In my lifetime I’ve seen 3 waves of refugee immigration and it always creates insecurity and lends itself to some degree of intolerance, but in the past, governments appreciated the economic benefit that immigration can bring. We have an immigration policy that goes largely unnoticed, but the demonisation of ‘boat people’ allows the government to practice policies that are unconscionable, unconstitutional and that would be rejected in a heartbeat if they were practiced on anyone we cared for.

A more detailed analysis of this policy, within its historical and political context can be found here and here.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Homage to my Old Man; a generation gone

I read an interesting article by Christos Tsiolkas (an Australian celebrated author) in Saturday’s Spectrum (The Age, 21 May 2016) discussing the films and characters of Martin Scorcese and their influence on Tsiolkas. He remarked that they shared something in common. Both are sons of immigrants: Scorsese’s Italian to America and Tsiolkas’ Greek to Australia; both post-war, I expect.

I was born in the aftermath of WW2, so I’ve seen over half a century of change. The relevance to Tsiolkas’ commentary is that the characters in Scorcese’s early films, represent for Tsiolkas, an inability to deal with a changing world, where issues of angst are resolved violently, though not necessarily satisfactorily. He gives special mention to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, both collaborations of filmmaker Scorcese, writer Paul Schrader and actor Robert de Niro. In my own way, I started to think how the world had changed in my time from my father’s time.

I also read an interview with Lang Lang in The Weekend Australian Review (21-22 May 2016) who talked candidly about the tumultuous relationship he had with his father, who even suggested once that his son commit suicide because he was unhappy with his pianistic progress.

Well, my father never told me to commit suicide but our relationship was volatile to say the least and never really gained a satisfactory denouement until after his death. He often appears in my dreams, but it’s as if I’m time travelling into our past, because I’m never surprised that he’s alive and everything is pretty well normal.

My father grew up in the depression, left school at 14, despite having a good brain for both literature and numeracy. He ran away from one school, run by Catholic brothers, to avoid getting a caning. From what I can understand he used to resolve arguments with his fists, even against bigger boys, and he became a boxer, probably after the war but before I knew him. In the war he was captured by the Germans on Crete after he volunteered to stay and look after the wounded, and spent 2.5 years as a prisoner of war, escaping 3 times before they sent him home as an exchange prisoner. He told me it was only Red Cross parcels that kept him alive, and strangely he held no animosity towards the Germans in all the years I knew him.

My father was a non-combatant; he was in the Field Ambulance Corp as the assistant, not the driver. He was not a hero, but he made sacrifices. He once dragged a wounded man behind a tree while they were being strafed, and then dragged him around the other side while the plane turned to make another run. I once had a dream of being strafed by a plane and I was terrified. He voluntarily put himself in danger to save another; I’m not sure I could do that.

On Crete, after the occupation, it’s well known there was a resistance movement who paid dearly. My father was once involved in an escape attempt with another. He said it was always the women who organised these things. They were sprung by an armed German, but he didn’t know how many there were. My father gave himself up so the others could escape. The escapee managed to get word to my grandmother that he was alive. Up to then she only knew that he was ‘missing in action’.

I knew him, of course, in the decades after he returned and he was not someone you crossed. My father was very scary at times; we all walked around on eggshells for most of my upbringing. He and my mother had terrible fights but he never hit her. He hit us kids, which was the norm in his day, and I grew a psychological skin so I stopped feeling the pain, but stopped feeling in other ways as well. I don’t blame him or hate him nor do I really forgive him, but I don’t judge him either. I’ve never lived what he lived through and I can’t imagine that if I did I would have survived. He and I fought almost up to his dying days such was our strange relationship.

And what of my mother? Well, she’s still alive and at 95 she can beat me at scrabble. Seriously. I think she’s a saint to be honest and that’s all I’ll say; at least while she’s alive.

As for me, I couldn’t fight to save myself and I was bullied at school when fighting between boys was still considered a healthy activity. I’ve never resolved a fight with my fists and can’t imagine even being tempted to.

In my one and only novel, I wrote a dedication to my father: To Blue. Because he would have enjoyed it. My father loved a good story of any genre and he would have genuinely enjoyed it. Sadly, he never saw it.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Is morality objective?

This is another 'Question of the Month' from Philosophy Now (Issue 113, April/May 2016).

There is a constraint on length (400 words) otherwise I'd elaborate more. I have addressed this issue before regarding a specific case, which I cite in my essay below.

There are two types of morality that co-exist virtually everywhere and at all times, yet they are, for the most part, poles apart. They are morality in theory and morality in practice and they align with objective morality and subjective morality respectively. I will demonstrate what I mean by example, but first I will elaborate on morality as it is practiced. For most people morality stems from cultural norms.

Many people rely on their conscience to determine their moral compass but one’s conscience is a social construct largely determined by one’s upbringing in whatever society one was born into. For example, in some societies, one can be made to feel guilty about the most natural impulses, like masturbation. Guilt and sex have been associated over generations but it is usually one-sided. Women are often forced to carry the greater burden of guilt and homosexuals can be forced to feel criminal. Both these examples illustrate how cultural norms determine the morality one was inculcated with from childhood.

In some societies there are cultural clashes, usually generational, where the same moral issue can inflame antithetical attitudes. For example, in India in December 2012, a young woman, Jyoti Singh, a recently graduated medical student, was raped and murdered on a bus after she went and saw a movie with her boyfriend. A documentary by British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, revealed the cultural schism that exists in India over this issue. Some believed (including the lawyers representing the gang who committed the crime) that the girl was responsible for her own fate, whereas others campaigned to have rape laws strengthened. This demonstrates most starkly how culture determines moral values that become normative and then intransigent.

In many cultures it is taught that God determines moral values, and these are often the most prescriptive, oppressive, misogynistic and sometimes brutal examples of enforced cultural mores. People who practice this often claim that theirs is the only true objective morality, but, in truth, when one invokes God to rationalise one’s morality, anything, including the most savage actions, can be justified.

On the other hand, morality in theory is very simple: it is to treat everyone the same and give everyone the same rights, be they men, women, homosexuals, people of different faith or different skin colour. One only has to look at the treatment of refugees to realise how even the most liberal societies struggle with this precept.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

Two movie reviews in a row – but quite different – one arguably the latest incarnation of my generation’s best known comic book icons, and the other a serious intellectual debate on the moral dimension of  modern warfare.

This is a really good movie: one where you can’t leave the cinema without internally debating the pros and cons of a military operation, where you know the consequences are real for those who take part in this very new ‘theatre of war’ involving drone strikes, electronic intelligence surveillance and high tech Western military powers versus third world terrorist enclaves. This is one of those movies where you ask yourself: What would I do? Only many times over.

You insert yourself in so many points of view; a credit to the filmmakers and the actors who create them for you. Only 2 of the actors are known to me: Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman; but they all acquit themselves well, with events taking place simultaneously in 3 geographically separate parts of the world. Such is the nature of modern warfare and communications availability that one can imagine the co-operation of 3 different countries’ governments and military personnel performing one tactically precise operation.

A British production, Colin Firth is one of the producers, which is how it came to Helen Mirren (according to an interview with her) and you wonder why he’s not in it. One can imagine him playing any one of the British roles, such is his versatility. Apparently, the Mirren character was written for a man, so it’s a master stroke giving it to her. Sadly, it’s Alan Rickman’s last film, so it seems fitting to me that he has arguably the best line in the movie: “Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know the cost of war.” Seeing ‘In Loving Memory of Alan Rickman’ in the credits was as emotional for me as any moment in the movie itself. And the movie certainly has its moments.

I’m not giving anything away by telling you the premise: a drone strike on a house in Nairobi is compromised by the presence of a young innocent girl (just watch the trailer). And it was the trailer that compelled me to go and see this film.  In some respects this is a perfectly realistic and believable recasting of Mills’ famous trolley thought experiment: would you sacrifice the life of 1 innocent man to save the lives of 4 others? In this case, do you sacrifice the life of 1 innocent girl to save the potential 80+ lives from a suicide bomber? Really, that’s it in a nutshell. You empathise with everyone in the so-called chain of command, but, in particular, with the young drone pilots, who must perform the actual kill, one of whom is a woman on her very first operation.

Like the military personnel (played by Rickman and Mirren) you get frustrated by the Public Service mentality of avoiding a decision for fear of yet-to-be realised consequences. But what struck me was that the entire decision-making process was driven purely by legal and political considerations, not moral ones. I’ve never been in a war so I really can’t judge. The truth is that in a war, one’s moral compass is changed, not least because you are trained to kill; something you’ve been taught never to do for your entire life. The other truth is that the more one side escalates atrocities so does the opposing side. Concepts of right and wrong that seem so solid and dependable in civilian life can suddenly become slippery and even obsolete. I’ve never been there but I can imagine.

A few years back I wrote a post on drone warfare after reading an article that cited David Kilcullen (in the Weekend Australian) who opposed it, arguing that it would recruit terrorists. One of the many arguments that takes place in the movie is about winning the propaganda war. At the time, watching the scene, I thought: who cares? But at the end of the movie, I realised that collateral damage is always a propaganda win for the opponent. This is the biggest risk of drone warfare. There is another side to this as well. Someone once pointed out (no, I don’t remember who) that when one side of a conflict is technically superior to the other, the other side invariably uses tactics that are considered unethical by the superior side, but the inferior side know that such tactics are their only advantage. This is the case in the so-called ‘War on Terror’, where the technological might of Western military power is thwarted by suicide bomber attacks in public places.

In movies, it’s not difficult to create a character whom the audience roots for, and in this case, it’s the young girl. Alongside that is the imperative to stop terrorist attacks by ideologues whose stated aim is to eradicate Western political and educational norms in whichever way they can. The film makes it clear that the young girl represents the future that these ideologues oppose.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Superheroes for adults – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This is not the first movie review I’ve written on this blog; not even the first about superheroes. I wrote a review of Watchmen in Oct., 2009, which is an exceptional movie in my view, based on an exceptional graphic novel by Alan Moore, which I have to confess I read some years after I saw the movie.

One really shouldn’t reference other reviewers when writing a review (an unwritten rule of reviewing) but Stephen Romei, writing in the Weekend Australian Review (26-27 Mar., 2016) makes the pertinent point of how our superheroes have evolved over the best part of a century (the ones in this movie were all created pre-WW2). As someone who was born immediately post-WW2, I grew up with these heroes in the form that they were born in, comic books. Like many of my generation (including Romie, I suspect) they are imbedded in my psyche, especially Superman.

Romei makes the point that he’s glad he didn’t take his 10 year old son (so maybe not my generation) because the movie is long and the characters' relationships complex. But the truth is that when you see Lois in a bath you know this isn’t a movie for kids. And no, it’s not a gratuitous nude scene – it’s a very clever way of demonstrating her relationship with Clark without showing them in bed. Our superheroes have become grown up – they have sex. It’s a bit like the point in your life when you realise your parents have been at it for at least as long as you’ve been alive. Bruce Wayne has someone in his bed as well, but we never meet her. In fact, she’s so unobtrusive that I now wonder if I imagined her.

This is a very noirish film, and not only in subtext. The first thing that struck me about this movie was the cinematography: it’s darkly lit, even the outdoor shots. But what makes this film worthy of a blog post is that it has a moral dimension that reflects the current world we live in. It’s about fear and trust and how we are manipulated by politicians and media. Our heroes are flawed, suffer doubt and have to deal with real moral dilemmas. All of these factors are dealt with a level of authenticity that we would not expect from a superhero movie. It’s also about being judged by association; very relevant in the current global environment.

One of the themes of this movie, which is spelt out in some of the dialogue, as well as in gestures, is that these heroes are effectively gods. Bryan Singer brought this home to us as well in Superman Returns (a movie that you either loved or hated; it’s one my favourites, I confess). This is a point I’ve raised myself (when I discussed Watchmen): the superheroes are our ‘Greek Gods’. And like the Greek Gods of literature, they exhibit human traits, dabble in human affairs and even have human lovers. I am a storyteller by nature, and the whole point of storytelling is to be able to stretch our imaginations to worlds and beings that only exist in that realm. But that storytelling only resonates with us when it deals with human affairs, not only of the heart, but of politics and moral crises.

Chris Nolan’s second Dark Knight movie is a case in point, where Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Christian Bale’s Batman become, albeit fleetingly, as morally compromised as he is. This is the lesson: do we have to become as bad as our enemies in order to defeat them. Consider the Republicans’ current leading contender for the White House saying on national television that in order to defeat ISIS we need to attack their families. Cringeworthy doesn’t cover it.

And this movie, in its own way, challenges our prejudices, our inherent distrust in anyone who is ‘not one of us’, especially when we can associate them with atrocities occurring in remote locations and on our doorstep. We are tribal – it’s our strength and our downfall. And this fear and mistrust is manipulated blatantly (in the movie) which is why it is relevant and meaningful to the present day. Science fiction stories, always set in the future, always have something relevant to say about the time in which they are written.

And this brings me to the introduction of Wonder Woman, who has very little screen time, yet promises much for the future. I have a particular interest in her character, because she influenced one of my own creations, albeit subconsciously (I wasn’t aware of the obvious references until after I’d written it). I have to confess I was worried that she would come across as a lightweight, but Gal Gadot gives the role the gravitas it deserves. Gadot is a former Miss Israeli and the fact that she’s served in the military is maybe why she convinces us that she is a genuine warrior and not just someone who looks good in tight-fitting clothes.

Remember that Sean Connery was a Mr Universe contender before he became the first and (50 years later) still the most iconic James Bond. But the reason for her relevance is that female superheroes have been historically in short supply, but there is a sense that their time has come. Looking on the Internet, the biggest concern seemed to be if her boobs were big enough. And, in fact, a radio interviewer asked her that very question. She pointed out that the real Amazonians only had one breast, which may have made the role ‘problematic if one really wanted authenticity’. (I remember being told that as a kid: that they cut off their left breast so they could draw and release a bow string. It seemed plausible to me then and it sounds plausible to me now.) That slightly irrelevant point aside, the original Wonder Woman was based on Greek mythology; she is Hellenic, so possibly more in common with the Greek Gods than any other 20th Century fictional creation. Anyway, I think Gadot perfect for the role, and I only hope the scriptwriters have done her justice in her own story.

Just one bit of trivia: there is a piece of dialogue by Alfred (played pitch-perfect by Jeremy Irons) that has been lifted straight out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) of which I still have a copy. A subtle but respectful salute.