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.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Jordan Peterson: clinical psychologist, provocateur, Jungian philosopher and biblical scholar

I wrote something earlier, based on YouTube videos, but never posted it. Instead I read his book, 12 Rules for Life, and decided to use that as my starting point. I want to say up front that, even if you disagree with him, he makes you think, and for that reason alone he’s worth listening to. Logically, I haven’t attempted to cover the entire book, but mostly the theme of religion and its closely related allies, mythology and psychology.

His discussions of the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, are refreshing in as much as he gives them a cultural context that one can relate to, especially if it was part of your education, which it was for me. In other words, he interprets the mythology of the Bible in a way that, not only makes historical sense, but also cultural sense, given that it’s influenced Western European thought for 2 millennia. I’ve talked before about the religion science divide, which has arguably become more unbridgeable, to extend a badly thought out metaphor.

Peterson blends a mixture of Jungian and Christian philosophies that are purely psychological, yet he includes evolutionary influences where he considers it relevant. In fact, in certain parts of his book (Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping) he talks about the Book of Genesis as if it’s part of our genetic heritage rather than our cultural heritage. I know he knows the difference, but his language and description of the narrative gives the impression that the humans we are today are direct consequences of the events that happened in the Garden of Eden.

Take, for example, this extract from a section titled, The Naked Ape.

Naked means unprotected and unarmed in the jungle of nature and man. This is why Adam and Eve became ashamed, immediately after their eyes were opened… Unlike other mammals, whose delicate abdomens are protected by the amour-like expanse of their backs, they were upright creatures, with the most vulnerable parts of their body presented to the world. And worse was to come. Adam and Eve made themselves loin cloths… Then they promptly skittered off and hid. In their vulnerability, now fully realized, they felt unworthy to stand before God.

You can see how he’s interwoven biological facts with mythology as if our genetic disposition (to be hairless and upright) is an integral part of our relationship with God, but was somehow irrelevant prior to ‘Adam and Eve having their eyes opened’. I’m not opposed to the idea of interpreting creation myths in a psychological context, but, whether intentional or not, he seems to conflate religious narrative heritage with genetic heritage.

In Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today (which is good advice, by the way); Peterson invokes the Old Testament God as a ‘being’ who ensures discipline and obedience through ‘very tough love’ (my term, not his). He’s saying, in effect, that the Old Testament God reflects reality because life is harsh and full of suffering, and requires a certain self-discipline to navigate and even survive. But my interpretation is less generous. I think the Old Testament God reflects the idea of a ruler who is uncompromising and needs to use severe disciplinary measures to get people to do what he considers is best for them. In the modern world, the idea of worshipping a narcissistic tyrant or respecting someone who rules by fear is anachronistic at best and totalitarian at worst. Some people, and I’ve met them, argue that they agree with me when it comes to a mortal leader but the rules are different for God. Well, God, be it Old Testament or otherwise, is a product of the human psyche, so ‘He’ reflects what people believed in their time to be their ideal ruler.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient); continues this theme in a lengthy discourse entitled Christianity and its Problems, where, to be fair, he gives a balanced view in a historical context, which, for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave alone. But when he discusses Nietzsche, which he has studied in much more depth than me, he talks about the consequences of the ‘death of God’ which effectively coincided with the turn of the 20th Century and the birth of modern physics (which he doesn’t mention, but I do because it’s relevant). Basically, modern physics has given us all the technological marvels we take for granted and allowed us a lifestyle unheard of in antiquity, so an appeal to God no longer has the psychological power it once had because we now (mostly) believe that cause and effect is not dependent on supernatural or divine forces.

Peterson doesn’t discuss the effects of science, or the products of science, on our collective consciousness at all, but it’s why we are generally much more pragmatic about the reason things go wrong, as opposed to a time (not that long ago) when we were much less dependent on technology for our day to day survival. In fact, we are so dependent that we are unaware of our dependence.

Getting back to Peterson’s discussion, I disagree that nihilism replaced God or that totalitarianism, in the forms of communism and fascism, were the logical consequence of the ‘death’ of the Christian God. I contend that these forms of government arose to replace feudalism, not Christianity, and the loss of feudalism was a consequence of the industrial revolution, which no one foresaw.

To be fair, I agree that the story of Genesis is really about how evil came into the world. It’s a mythological explanation of why every single one of us is susceptible to evil. On that point Peterson and I agree. He gives an account of evil which I hadn’t considered before, where he compares it to the story of Cain and Abel, and I admit that it makes sense. He’s talking about people who become so bitter and inwardly hateful that they seek vengeance against the entire world. One can see how this applies to teenage boys who become mass shooters; a far too frequent occurrence in the US. It reminds me of a commentary in the I Ching that ‘after evil destroys everything else it destroys itself’. And self-destruction is the idea that immediately comes to mind. I went through a period of self-hatred but maybe I was just lucky that it never manifested itself in violence. In fact, I’ve never resorted to violence in any situation. Peterson himself, in one of his videos, talks about his own ‘dark times’.

I wrote a post about evil about 10 years ago, where I looked at the atrocities that people do against others, and conjectured that anyone could be a perpetrator given the right circumstances; that we delude ourselves when we claim we are too morally pure. Again, I think it’s a point where Peterson and I would agree. If you look at historical events where entire groups of people have turned against another group, the person who refuses is the extreme exception; not the norm at all. It takes enormous, unbelievable courage to stand against a virulent mob of people who claim to be your brethren. Paradoxically, religion sometimes plays a role.

I rejected the biblical God, so does that make me like Cain? It was Cain’s rejection of God that was his ultimate downfall (according to Peterson). Obviously, I don’t think that at all. I think my rejection of the Old Testament God is simply my rejection of an ideal based on fear and punishment and an afterlife that’s dependent on me pleasing a jealous God. My earliest memories are ones of fear, which I believe I got from my father through some process of osmosis, as he was a psychological wreck as a consequence of his experiences in WW2 and a fearsome presence in anyone’s life. So a fearsome God was someone I could identify with in person and it didn’t endear me to a lifelong belief. I’m not judgemental of my father but I’m definitely judgemental of God.

God is something that exists inside your psyche, not out there. If the God inside you is fearsome, vengeful, jealous, absolutely judgemental; then what sort of person are you going to become? (I notice that I sometimes parrot the author I'm discussing, subconsciously.)

Peterson emphasises the importance of having values, and argues by inference that if you reject God you have to replace it with something else, which may be an ideology. I think we all search for meaning, which I’ve written about elsewhere, but he discusses his own path so to speak:

Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.

The cornerstone of my own belief came to me at the age of 16 when I read Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague). I realised that the only God I could believe in was a God who didn’t want me to believe in Them. More recently, I referred to it as a God with no ego, which is such a contradiction, but very Buddhist.

I need to say that everyone has to find their own path, their own belief system, and I’m not saying that mine is superior to Peterson’s.

Peterson makes a point that is almost trivial, yet possibly the most important in the book. He mentions, almost in passing, 3 traits: to be honest, generous and reliable. This struck a chord with me, because, despite all my faults, which Peterson would be quick to point out, these 3 personality attributes are what I’ve spent a lifetime trying to perfect and become known for.

It’s a credit to Peterson that he can make you examine your own psyche simply by discussing his own discoveries taken from his own life and his interaction with others, including his practice.

In his Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding; Peterson is at his most contentious. I have to say that I mostly agree with him when he takes on gender issues; I don’t think an anti-male culture is any more helpful that an anti-female culture, and I’ve always argued that. Gender imbalances can go both ways. He laments the fact that his 14 year old son (at the time) believed that it was a known fact that girls do better than boys at school, which is the reverse of the accepted wisdom when I was at school. I’ve heard Peterson say in an interview that there is virtually no statistical difference between girls and boys in intelligence.

On the other hand, we disagree on the issue of humanity’s impact on the planet, where I side with David Attenborough’s publicly expressed concerns regarding population growth. Peterson loves facts and data, and, by all accounts, we are seeing the highest extinction rate in the history of the planet, which is a direct consequence of humanity’s unprecedented success as a species (I’m not saying it’s a global extinction event; it’s the rate of extinction that is unprecedented). I think it’s disingenuous to compare those who are willing to face and voice this ‘truth’ with the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, because they are both ‘anti-human’ (his coinage).

It is in this chapter that he rails against post-modern Marxists, which I won’t go into, because I studied Marxism at university and I concluded that it’s flawed in theory as well as practice. In theory (from my reading of Marx and Engel’s Manifesto) it’s an evolutionary stage that follows on from capitalism by way of a ‘revolution’ (as contradictory as that sounds) by the workers. In other words, capitalism is a stepping stone to communism. In practice, all the capitalist enterprises are taken over by the State, and that’s been a catastrophic failure in every country that experimented with it because it becomes totalitarian by default.

I actually agree pretty much with his arguments against social engineering, even though it exists in some form in all democracies. Take, for example, the social attitudinal changes towards tobacco which have happened in my lifetime. But Peterson is specifically talking about social engineering gender equality, and (according to him) it’s premised on a belief that gender is purely a social construct. As he points out, the fact that some individuals crave a sex-change clearly shows that it’s not. A boy trapped in a girl’s body, or vice versa, does not equate with gender being socially determined (his example).

One of his many ‘scenarios’, based on personal experience, depicts a bloke working on a railway gang who doesn’t fit in and is eventually tormented deliberately. Many people would call this bullying but Peterson tells the story so that we axiomatically conclude it was the bloke’s own fault. Now, I know from my own experience that I’m the one person on the gang who would probably try and help the guy fit in rather than ostracise him. So what does that make me? Too ‘agreeable’ according to Peterson.

Agreeableness, along with ‘neuroticism’ are negative ‘left’ leaning traits. ‘Openness’ is the only positive left leaning trait, according to Peterson (more on that below). ‘Conscientiousness’ is the most positive ‘right’ leaning trait, which I admit I lack. I have all the negative traits in spades. I make up for my lack of conscientiousness with a strong sense of responsibility and the aforementioned self-ascribed reliability. I hate to let people down, which sometimes makes me stressful. Peterson claims that ‘agreeable’ people don’t make good leaders. Well, neither do narcissist psychopaths, yet they seem to be over-represented.

One of his videos that had particular resonance for me was about creativity. He makes the valid claim that our personality traits are genetically determined and they influence us in ways we are not aware of, including our political leanings. The trait of ‘openness’, which is explicitly about openness to new ideas is heavily correlated with creativity. I believe creativity is often misconstrued, because there’s a school of thought that any person can become anything they want to be. I’ve always believed that to be untrue – I only have to look at my own family, because one side was distinctly artistic and the other side was good at sports.

He makes the statement (in another video) that “People, who are high in openness, if they’re not doing something creative, are like dead sticks.” This is something I can certainly identify with - I became depressed when I couldn’t express my creative urges.

In the middle of his book, he compares Socrates to Christ in the way that he faced death. (I bring this up for reasons that will become apparent.) He relates information from a friend of Socrates, Hermogenes, whom I had never heard of. From this, Peterson conjectures that Socrates went to his death willingly, having summed up the alternatives and deciding to be honest and combative with his adversaries, knowing full well the consequences. This certainly fits with what I’ve already learned about Socrates, but it’s also remarkably close to how I portrayed a character whom I’d created in fiction, with no awareness of Socrates’ assumed approach nor Peterson’s interpretation of it.

His Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street; is a self-portrait of his unconditional love for his daughter, though he wouldn’t call it that.

There is a particular passage in Peterson’s book, which is worthy of special mention, because, it’s not only true, it’s inspiring (p.62):

You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as to yourself. You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny of the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Stephen Hawking – a true genius (8 Jan 1942 – 14 March 2018)

I would be very remiss if I didn’t write something about Stephen Hawking following his death yesterday, aged 76. He died on pi day, an Americanism because 14 March is 3.14 in American date nomenclature.

I posted something to commemorate his 70th birthday in 2012. Actually, it was given to me by a complete stranger, Peter Kim, after he’d seen my blog, but it’s a glorious tribute.

My local rag, The AGE, has given him a double spread, as well as front page, so did The Australian. They normally only do that for sporting heroes like Don Bradman. But Hawking is arguably the only household name in physics after Einstein. A man restricted to a wheelchair for most of his life, whom we all remember for his distinctive synthetic voice and witticisms that belied his condition as well as his stellar intellect.

I’ll only mention a few things as others will provide a lot more about his life and his achievements. It’s no small thing that he held the same academic position as Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He jointly won the Wolf Foundation Prize for Physics in 1988 with Roger Penrose. He and Penrose had philosophical differences but great mutual respect. Penrose even invited Hawking to provide a counter point of view in one of his books, The Large the Small and the Human Mind (a whole chapter, in fact, along with others).

Hawking radiation is the only thing that can escape from a black hole, and was given that eponymous title, after Hawking mathematically derived its existence by applying the laws of quantum mechanics (in 1974).

My favourite sound byte about Hawking is his postulation that in the beginning there was no time, which he can explain better than me in the video below. Along with James Hartle, he formulated that time was originally ‘imaginary’ and existed as a 4th spatial dimension. I like it because it infers that if the Universe was originally a quantum one (hence the ‘imaginary’ dimension) then time did not exist and it’s an emergent feature of the Universe rather than a prerequisite. Hawking called it the ‘no-boundary’ Universe. Cosmologist, John Barrow, called it ‘a radical theory… proposed by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking for aesthetic reasons’. Barrow quipped that ‘once upon a time there was no time’.

Postscript: I watched a documentary on Hawking, done in 2015, when the oscar-winning movie of his life came out, and they interviewed family members as well as people who worked with him. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist, who famously lost a bet with him, told of how Hawking manipulated complex equations in his head because he couldn’t write them on a board or on paper like the rest of us would. I remember hearing about that feat decades ago, and it occurred to me that in some respect he shared something with Beethoven. Beethoven composed some of the world’s most famous and uplifting music without ever actually hearing it played. And Stephen Hawking created some of the most significant equations in physics without ever writing them down.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

One person’s education is another person’s propaganda

This thought occurred to me after I watched a YouTube interview (below) of Brian Cox in New Zealand. He does a lot of stuff for the BBC (after all he’s British) but he’s also made a few programmes in Australia, including an excellent series on astronomy and an equally excellent one-off special on The Life of A Universe, still available on ABC iview if you live in Australia (highly recommended). He toured here last year, and in the previous year (Aug 2016) he had a famous altercation with former Australian senator, Malcolm Roberts, on a special ‘science’ episode of Q&A.

But getting back to the title and the interview that sparked it, Cox has been quoted as saying: "the greatest danger facing humanity is stupidity", though I would prefer the term ‘ignorance’ because, by definition, it infers the fundamental problem with ignorance is that people are unaware of how ignorant they are. Socrates apparently said that ‘the height of wisdom is to know how ignorant you are’. I came to this conclusion in high school, before I’d even heard of Socrates, whilst studying physics and became aware that real knowledge was paradoxically determinant upon knowing how much you don’t know.

In the aforementioned interview, Cox laments the ignorance and misinformation peddled on hot-button topics like climate change and child vaccinations, where real science is dismissed in favour of so-called populous movements. In other words, popular opinion can override scientific evidence in polls, including election polls.

He argues that ‘education’ is the key and is required to counter the ‘propaganda’ of anti-science proponents. It was at that point that I realised that one person’s education is another person’s propaganda, and, for most people, which is which is determined more by their political leanings than their comprehension of the subject at hand. I know from personal experience that you can’t educate someone about a subject if they don’t want to be educated.

The debate with Malcolm Roberts is very revealing. Even when Cox provided data produced by NASA, Roberts claimed it’s been ‘contaminated’. Roberts, along with virtually all climate-change deniers (in Australia) believes that all the data, produced by climate scientists from all over the world, is the product of a global conspiracy. The point is that, for them, any dissemination of said data is ‘propaganda’ and any dissemination of information that challenges human attributed climate change is ‘education’. The significant point in all this is, that no matter the authority, or the source, or the quality of the data, if it disagrees with their point of view, it’s wrong and can’t be countenanced under any circumstance. Roberts repeatedly ended all his assertions with the phrase: ‘and that’s a fact’.

That you have a populist politician challenging an internationally recognised scientist on a scientific topic on a televised science special is an indication of how puerile and imbecilic this debate has become. Roberts, by the way, was elected on just 70 personal votes, which is an indictment of our federal electoral system.

Roberts repeatedly referenced Richard Feynman, who was arguably the greatest and most popular physicist in the post-Einstein era, as if Feynman would support his contention. Cox never called him out on that but I would have. Roberts knew that he could get away with it only because Feynman is no longer with us. The idea that Feynman would support climate change deniers is laughable at best and perverse at worst.

This so-called debate happened just after Brexit and before Trump’s election, but it’s symptomatic of the current world we live in, where people with ‘alternative facts’ are listened to, given time on national television and treated with the same credibility as people who have spent their lives in the service of science.

Cox makes the point (as I have done) in the NZ interview that we (in the West) live in a world that is a product of the enlightenment and a consequence of the greatest scientific discoveries to date. No one who uses a smart phone or a computer or a TV knows the first thing about quantum mechanics (unless they’re a physicist like Cox) yet none of those ‘devices’ would exist without its discovery a hundred years ago. My point is that people (like Roberts) spruik their ignorance as if they have an authority over science whilst using the devices, technology and infrastructure that science has provided them.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Past, Future, Present are all in the mind

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 124, February / March 2018) I read a review of a book, Experiencing Time by Simon Prosser, ‘a lecturer in philosophy at St Andrews University,’ (Scotland, presumably). The reviewer was Heather Dyke, who ‘has taught philosophy at Otago, NZ and at the London School of  Economics’.

I haven’t read Prosser’s book, but I was particularly taken by this quote (albeit out of context): "…if no physical system can detect the passage of time, then neither can the human mind". Basically (according to Dyke), Prosser rejects what he calls ‘A-Theory’ that past, present and future is how time manifests itself and, what’s more, is dynamic in as much as past, present and future keep changing all the time (my italics). ‘B-Theory’ simply states that events are temporally related – some events precede other events but there is ‘no objective distinction between past, present and future, and that time is not dynamic’ (Prosser’s position). I can’t do Prosser justice, but I can use my own philosophical position to critique what Dyke presented.

Prosser came up with a thought experiment, which Dyke only partly expounds upon: “a physical device that could detect whether or not time was passing, and thus tell whether or not A-Theory was true”. According to Dyke, Prosser contends that his detector, which uses ‘light... [to] illuminate when it detects the passage of time’, can’t distinguish between A-Theory and B-Theory, because ‘it will illuminate’ in both cases. This apparently leads him to the conclusion that I quoted above: if time can’t be detected by his ‘device’ then ‘neither can the human mind’.

My own position is that both A-Theory and B-Theory are correct, because B-Theory is just A-Theory without consciousness. Consciousness is the 'time-passing detector' that Prosser claims can’t exist. Consciousness is the only phenomenon that exists in a continuous present, as Erwin Schrodinger pointed out in his prescient book, What is Life?. Schrodinger doesn’t claim that this is a unique attribute of consciousness, but I do. I contend that everything else in the Universe either exists in the past or the future. Only consciousness surfs a wave of time which we experience as a constant now. That is why the concepts of past, present and future have no reference without consciousness; and, on that point, Prosser and I might even agree.

I’ve written a few posts on time, and in one I quoted William Lawrence  Bragg:

Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves. The advancing sieve of time coagulates waves into particles at the moment ‘now’.

I’m the only person I know who believes that quantum mechanics and classical physics are complementary rather than different versions of the same reality. Schrodinger’s equation is fundamentally a description of a wave function that only exists in Hilbert space, which theoretically can have up to infinite dimensions. Schrodinger’s equation has been superseded by QED (quantum electrodynamics) but the wave function and its phase change with respect to time and the Born mechanism to convert it into probabilities in the ‘real world’ (not Hilbert space) still apply. Also there is no time in Hilbert space, so ‘time’ in the famous time dependent Schrodinger equation can only exist in the classical physics world.

It is for all these reasons that I argue that they are different worlds that happen to interface at what’s called the ‘decoherence’ of the wave function, when the Schrodinger equation no longer applies. That’s right: Schrodinger’s equation only applies in Hilbert space, not the real world, even though time in the real world determines the phase of the wave function.

But I believe Lawrence Bragg (as distinct from his father, William Henry Bragg) provided a clue. Basically, it all makes sense to me if quantum mechanics is the future and classical physics is the past. The Born rule, that gives us the probability of an ‘event’ occurring in the real world (in the future), is mathematically equivalent to running Schrodinger’s equation both forward and backward in time – a point made by Schrodinger himself. Superposition makes perfect sense in Hilbert space if time doesn’t exist. Feynman’s path integral method assumes all paths are possible but most of them cancel each other out and we are left with the most probable path. He demonstrates this most efficaciously when he explains mirror reflection using quantum mechanics (as expounded in his book, QED).

For a photon of light, time is zero, and light is arguably the most commonly known quantum phenomenon that we witness all the time. We know that light has a finite velocity, otherwise, as someone pointed out (Caspar Henderson in A New Map of Wonders), everything would happen at once. A photon of light could literally see the entire life of the universe in its lifetime, which is zero from its perspective. Light is effectively in the future until it interacts with matter, as Bragg inferred.

Einstein discovered, mathematically, as opposed to empirically, that time is fluid, which means it passes at different rates depending on the observer. It’s gravity that ultimately determines the rate of time, because a particle (any particle) in free fall follows maximum relativistic time (as expounded by Feynman in another book, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces). Any deviation from free fall means that time will slow down, and that’s Einstein’s theories of relativity (both of them) in a nutshell.

Now, you may think that if time ‘flows’ at different rates in different locations then they must all have different ‘nows’ but there is no logical reason for that. Quantum entanglement suggests that now can exist across the Universe, even though Einstein himself never accepted that possibility.

In fact, Einstein argued that the now that we all experience is totally subjective – there is no objective now. I think that the finite age of the Universe, along with quantum entanglement, suggests that he was wrong, but others will work that out in the future, one way or another.

But the now that everyone experiences is a consequence of consciousness, because only consciousness surfs on a constant now.

Addendum 1: Loop quantum gravity theorist, Carlo Rovelli, has defined ‘now’ as the 'edge of the big bang', and that is as good a definition of an 'objective now' as you will find. An objective now can be translated or frozen in time like when you take a photograph or the background cosmic radiation, which is 380,000 years after the big bang (or thereabouts). In other words, objective ‘nows’ are relational as opposed to the present which becomes the past as soon as it arrives, except to sentient creatures like us.

Addendum 2: Roger Penrose, whose comprehension and discussion of quantum mechanics makes my ruminations appear simplistic, uses a metaphor of a mermaid sitting between the sea and the land to represent the relationship between QM and classical physics. He consistently talks about QM in 3 phases: U, R and C. U is the evolution of the wave function (described by Schrodinger’s equation in Hilbert Space). R is the 'decoherence' of the wave function, usually in the form of a measurement or observation. And C is classical physics, or the real world, where the detection takes place. U, R and C represent a sequence, which is consistent with my thesis that, relationally, QM is the future and classical physics is the past.

Addendum 3: Carlo Rovelli (refer Addendum 1) has said that ‘at a fundamental level, time disappears’, which is a well known mathematical conundrum in quantum cosmology (refer Paul Davies in The Goldilocks Enigma). My point would be that if you were looking into the future, you’d expect time to disappear.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

My Heroes

Most people have heroes – usually sporting heroes, sometimes war heroes and sometimes political heroes. Well, I have heroes of science and philosophy.

Probably my earliest hero was Albert Einstein. To give a bit of backstory, in my preteens I had already taken an interest in science, but really it was zoology and animals of any description. People (relatives) used to give me books on animals all the time and I spent a lot of time drawing pictures of them as well as reading about them. But one day, and I can remember it vividly, as in where I was (not at home) and who gave it to me, I was given a book on The Atom. I was somewhere between 10 and 12, so it coincided roughly with when I started high school and it set the direction of my inquiring mind for ever.

So when I was 15 or 16, my mind was ripe when I saw a documentary on Albert Einstein on our black and white TV, probably produced by the BBC. I was smitten not only by the man’s genius but also his eccentricities and his obvious disregard for what people thought of his appearance. For example, he didn't wear socks. I also admired his courage for his pacifist stance, even though he famously wrote a letter to Roosevelt advocating the development of an atomic bomb before Germany did. His life was full of contradictions and paradoxes. He was a Jew yet agnostic, he was a pacifist yet came up with the famous equation that allows nuclear fission to occur, and his theories of relativity are paradoxes incarnate: time and space can shrink if you travel fast enough. I remember thinking all these things from watching that programme. And I can remember for the first time someone explaining that Einstein deduced that gravity wasn’t a force but a curve in spacetime. I found that so outlandish that it took many years (decades) before I properly understood it.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, an exposition of his general theory of relativity, which I took mostly from Richard Feynman’s excellent book, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. Einstein got some things wrong but that does not diminish the man’s stature. Having said that, I think he had a better understanding of quantum mechanics than people give him credit for, and one should remember that he coined the term ‘photon’ to explain the photo-electric effect, which is purely a quantum phenomenon. But I think he was wrong to believe that the world is totally deterministic with no room for free will.

Regarding his famous theories of relativity: the special theory and the general theory; I would argue that you can’t have one without the other. In fact, I’ve long contended (though others may differ) that the paradoxes inherent in the special theory of relativity can only be resolved with the general theory. From my perspective, I found it necessary to come to grips with the general theory before the special theory, even though Einstein published them in the reverse order with a 10 year gap in between.

Of course, heroes have heroes of their own, and Einstein’s heroes were Newton, Maxwell and Faraday; all of whom occupied my mind in my early years learning about physics.

In that golden age of physics, as it’s often called, there were many luminaries: Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Louis de Broglie, Wolfgang Pauli and Max Born. These are the best known involved in the emerging field of quantum mechanics, which also included Einstein. Out of these, I would give special mention to Erwin Schrodinger, not just because of his eponymous equation but because his mind ranged outside his field into biology and the Hindu text, the Vedas (of which I know nothing). In particular, he wrote a short tome called What is Life? which includes a chapter on the mind.

Schrodinger’s equation is all the more remarkable because it was suppositional. As Feynman once said: ‘It can’t be derived from anything we know.’ Yet it's been called 'the most important equation in all of mathematical physics' by John Barrow (amongst others) because it give us the energy levels of electrons in matter, which gives us all of chemistry. The wave function which lies at the heart of Schrodinger's equation and QED (Feynman’s own integral path method of QM) is an enigma in itself. It exists in Hilbert space, an abstract domain of possibly infinite dimensions and it’s disputable whether it has a physical significance or is just a convenient mathematical fiction. It effectively underpins everything we can see and touch, but not gravity apparently. Richard Elwes in his book, Maths 1001, says that ‘The Schrodinger equation is not limited to the wave functions of individual particles, but…  potentially the wave function of the entire universe.’

Alan Turing is a hero of mine, whose life was cut short because he was prosecuted (and persecuted) for being homosexual, yet he was one of the greatest minds, not only of the 20th Century, but in the history of science. He’s most famously known for his pivotal role in deciphering the German enigma code during WW2. The not-so-recent movie (2014), The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a travesty in my view, which is not a reflection on Cumberbatch but the producers and writers of the film.

Alan Turing was first a logician and he came up with the concept of the modern computer as a thought experiment to solve a mathematical conundrum, called the ‘halting problem’. Basically he proved that a machine (computer) could not solve algorithmically if a particular problem could be solved by the computer or not. To give an example: the Riemann hypothesis, which states that all complex roots (zeros) of the Zeta function are of the form ½ + ib. I’ve explained this in more detail elsewhere, but it is the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics since 1859, when Riemann proposed it as a method for determining the number of prime numbers up to any given Real number.

The point is that these zeros can be calculated on a computer, and have been in to the trillions, but of course they can’t be computed to infinity unless you have an infinite amount of time. What Turing proved generally (not just for Riemann’s hypothesis) is that you can’t determine in advance if the computer will stop or not. Obviously, if the computer stops the hypothesis is false.

So I would select these 3 as my 20th Century heroes. Now this is purely subjective and therefore I feel compelled to give reasons or criteria for my choices. A hero is someone who inspires you and to whom you may feel an affinity or someone you aspire to emulate. All these men had faults, though Turing, ironically, was possibly the least egotistical of them and the most respectful to the opposite sex. He was quite open about his homosexuality at a time when it was considered a psychiatric illness and a criminal activity. All 3 of them were geniuses beyond question, and they all impacted the 20th Century in ways that most of us are unaware of.

Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin are heroes because they challenged orthodoxy and are still under siege, one might say, by certain elements of the Christian church. It’s what’s been discovered in the 150 years since their time that both illuminates their theories and uncovers even greater mysteries, which is the nature of science that not only includes evolutionary biology but cosmology and quantum mechanics. Science is constantly creating new frontiers by overcoming existing ones. The difference with evolution is that it challenges long held religious tenets. Quantum mechanics is far more weird and counter-intuitive than evolution but no one denies it because it doesn’t challenge the premise that ‘man’ was made in God’s image.

Wallace and Darwin were very respectful of each other, but what I liked about Wallace, in particular, was that he was more of an amateur, an outsider, than Darwin was, but drew the same conclusions. Both men travelled to ‘exotic’ locations (including Australia, it has to be said) and discovered fauna and flora that led them to a theory of evolution by natural selection. We know that there is more to it than that, and it’s not totally resolved as many would have you believe, but I still call evolution a ‘fact’, based on the simple expediency that everything that’s been discovered since their time, that has proved them right, could just as readily have proved them wrong.

I would like to include this quote from Alfred Wallace, which I lifted from Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers (about climate change):

It is among those nations that claim to be the most civilised, those that profess to be guided by a knowledge of laws of nature, those that most glory in the advance of science, that we find the greatest apathy, the greatest recklessness, in continually rendering impure this all-important necessity of life…
(from Man’s Place in the Universe, 1903).

It makes me want to read his entire treatise.

As far as mathematicians go, I would include Euler as well as Riemann, whom I’ve already mentioned. Euler’s famous ‘identity’, which I’ve written about elsewhere, is arguably the most famous formula in mathematics and Feynman called it ‘the most remarkable formula in math’ when he discovered it for himself just a month before his 15th birthday. Yes, Feynman was a genius in his own right too. The number e, which is the base of the natural logarithm and gives the rate of compound interest if it’s done continuously, and is the most famous transcendental number after π, was named after Euler and is called Euler’s constant. Euler, by the way is pronounced ‘oiler’. Euler is acknowledged as the most prolific mathematician ever, but his eponymous equation which gives us his famous ‘identity’ is key to Schrodinger’s wave equation, so they are linked.

Riemann’s life was relatively short, but not only did he give us the Riemann Hypothesis, which seems to find its way into innumerable branches of mathematics, he also gave us non-Euclidean geometry which lies at the heart of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, so they are linked as well.

Special mentions need to go to Fermat and Gauss, who is called the greatest mathematician ever and was a mentor to Riemann. Fermat is best known for his famous ‘last theorem’ finally resolved by Andrew Wiles 357 years later. But he’s also known for his work on refraction (of light through glass and water) and his ‘least action’ principle which had a profound influence on the aforementioned Feynman. In fact, it’s Feynman’s employment of the least action principle to explain how gravity works that unlocked the secret to Einstein’s general theory of relativity (for me). Feynman also used this principle in his QED (quantum electrodynamics) and it’s called a Lagrangian, mathematically.

I could keep on going but I’m going to stop with the ancient Greeks, specifically Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These are all connected, because Socrates was a teacher to Plato and Plato was a teacher to Aristotle, whilst Plato’s famous ‘Academy’ was set up using Pythagoras’s quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Aristotle, famously, was teacher to Alexander the Great but also influenced science and philosophy up until the renaissance.

About 3 decades ago I saw a documentary on Pythagoras and Plato which was an epiphany for me and started me on the path to becoming a self-declared mathematical Platonist, which has only strengthened with time. And this leads me in a strange time warp way to Roger Penrose, who is arguably the only living person I might declare a hero, because this is something I believe we share. Penrose is a bit of an iconoclast and I seem to like that in my philosophers. I don’t agree with everything he believes but no one does, or should, when it comes to philosophy. I don’t believe in gurus in any school or forum. Penrose is just as prominent in mathematics as he is in physics and he is a true philosopher. I would put Paul Davies in this category as well, whom I admire and write about often. But Penrose’s 3 worlds philosophy is one that I’ve adopted as my own and I must therefore give him due recognition. And from that perspective, I think Penrose would acknowledge his debt to Pythagoras and Plato.

I wrote a recent post (just prior to Christmas) on Socrates, whom I called ‘the first philosopher’, which I admit is a bit of a stretch depending on many parameters, not least how one defines philosophy. But to put it in perspective, I described philosophy as ‘argument augmented by analysis’, because I like to believe that’s what I do. But if anything, I would aspire to be a modern ‘Socratic’ philosopher in that I would like to make people think outside their usual bounds, because I think that’s what Socrates did and it got him into serious trouble because he got young people, in particular, to challenge the status quo.

We live in a time when we are very divided politically and I think it’s more important than ever to learn about opposing views. As a philosopher, you can’t deconstruct your opponents’ arguments if you haven’t read them or heard them. Every weekend I buy 2 newspapers – one that ostensibly represents the political left and one that ostensibly represents the political right. Strange as it may seem, I find I read more of the right-leaning paper than its counterpart, because I want to know what people who have opposing views to mine are thinking and arguing.

At the head of my blog, right from its inception, I wrote a little aphorism which I believe sums up philosophy as it should be. I never expect to change people’s beliefs to mine but I do expect to make them think. I would like to think that’s what Socrates did.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Ursula K Le Guin - 21 October 1929 to 22 January 2018

I need to say something about Ursula Le Guin, as she was an inspiration to a generation of writers of fantasy and science fiction, including nonentities like yours truly and celebrated award-winning masters of their art like Neil Gaiman, who presented her with a Life Time Achievement Award at the 2014 American National Book Awards.

Ursula Le Guin was something of an oddity in that she was a famously successful author in the fantasy and sci-fi genre when it was dominated by male authors, well before J.K. Rowling came on the scene.

Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are possibly her best known works along with the Earthsea quartet, which is my personal favourite.

Below is the speech by Neil Gaiman, who describes her influence on his own writing, and Ursula's 'thank you' speech, where she laments the state of publishing and its corrosive effect on artistic freedom, as she sees it.

It is fair to say that she had an influence on my own writing, and perhaps I am lucky to have avoided the corporate publishing machine, if they have the influence over one's creative work as she infers.