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, 17 June 2018

In defence of (Australia’s) ABC

I have just finished reading a book by the IPA titled Against Public Broadcasting; Why We Should Privatise the ABC and How to Do It (authors: Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson).  The IPA is the Institute of Public Affairs, and according to Wikipedia ‘…is a conservative public policy think tank based in Melbourne Australia. It advocates free market economic policies such as privatisation and deregulation of state-owned enterprises, trade liberalisation and deregulated workplaces, climate change scepticism, the abolition of the minimum wage, and the repeal of parts of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.’ From that description alone, one can see that the ABC represents everything IPA opposes.

There has long been a fractured relationship between the ABC and consecutive Liberal governments, but the situation has deteriorated recently, and I see it as a symptom of the polarisation of politics occurring everywhere in the Western world.

It should be obvious where I stand on this issue, so I am biased in the same way that the IPA is biased, though we are on opposing sides. A friend of mine and work colleague for nearly 3 decades, recently told me that I had lost ‘objectivity’ on political issues, and he was specifically referring to my stance on the ABC and offshore detention of refugees. I told him that ‘mathematics is the only intellectual endeavour that is truly objective’. Philosophy is not objective; ever since Socrates, it’s all about argument and argument axiomatically assumes alternative points of view.

The IPA’s book is generally well argued in as much as they provide economic rationales and counter arguments to the most common reasons given for keeping the ABC. I won’t go into these in depth, as I don’t have time; instead I will focus more on the ideological divide that I believe has led to this becoming a political issue.

One of the authors’ themes is that the ABC is anachronistic, which implies it no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally intended. But they go further in that they effectively argue that the policy of having a public broadcaster in the English BBC mould was flawed from the beginning and that Australia should have adopted the American model of a free market, so no public broadcaster in the first place.

The authors refer to a survey done by the Dix inquiry in 1981 as ‘the most comprehensive investigation into the ABC in the public broadcaster’s history.’ Dix gave emphasis to a number of population surveys, but tellingly the authors say that ‘audience surveys are a thin foundation on which to mount an argument for public broadcasting.’ I’m not sure they’d mount that argument if the audience survey had come out negative.

The fact is that throughout the entire history of Australian broadcasting, we have adopted a combined A and B (public and commercial) approach that seems to be complementary rather than conflicting. The IPA would argue that this view is erroneous. Given Australia’s small population base over an enormous territory (Australia is roughly the area of the US without Alaska, but with 60% of California’s population) this mix has proven effective. Arguably, with the Internet and on-line entertainment services, the world has changed. The point is that the ABC has adapted, but commercial entities claim that the ABC has an unfair advantage because it’s government subsidised. Be that the case, the ABC provides quality services that the other networks don’t provide (elaborated on below).

According to figures provided in their book, the ABC captures between 19% and 25% market share for both television and radio (the 19% is for prime time viewing, but they get 24-28% overall). Given that there are 3 other TV networks plus subscription services like Netflix and Stan, this seems a reasonable share. It would have been interesting to see what market share the other networks capture for a valid comparison. But if one of the commercial networks dominates with 30% or more, than the other 2 networks would have less share than the ABC. Despite this, the authors claim, in other parts of the book, that the ABC has a ‘fraction’ of the market. Well, ¼ is a sizeable fraction, all things considered.

One of the points the authors make is that there seems to be conflicting objectives in practice as well as theory. Basically, it is argued that the ABC provide media services that are not provided by the private sector, yet they compete with the private sector in areas like news, current affairs, dramas and child education programmes. Many people who oppose the ABC (not just the IPA) argue that the ABC should not compete with commercial entities. But they have the same market from which to draw consumers, so how can they not? Many of these same people will tell you that they never watch the ABC, which effectively negates their argument.

But the argument disguises an unexpressed desire for the ABC to become irrelevant by choice of content. What they are saying, in effect, is that the ABC should only produce programmes that nobody wants to watch or listen to. There is an inference that they don’t mind if the ABC exists as long as they don’t compete with other networks; in other words, as long as they just produce crap.

In some respects they don’t compete with other networks, because, as the authors say themselves, they produce ‘quality’ programmes. In fact, the authors, in an extraordinary piece of legerdemain say: “If private media outlets are producing only ‘commercial trash’, then that could very well be because the ABC has cornered the market for quality.” I thought this argument so hilarious, I call it an ‘own goal’.

It’s such a specious argument. The authors strongly believe that the market sorts everything out, so it’s just a matter of supply and demand. But here’s the thing: if the commercial networks don’t produce ‘quality’ programmes (to use the authors’ own nomenclature) when they have competition from the ABC, why would they bother when the ABC no longer exists?

For the authors this was a throwaway comment, but for me, it’s the raison d’etre of the ABC. The reason I oppose the abandonment of the ABC is because I don’t want mediocrity to rule unopposed.

Paul Barry, who has worked in both public and commercial television, recalls an occasion when he was covering a Federal election for a commercial network. He wanted to produce some analytical data, and his producer quickly squashed it, saying ‘no one wants to watch that crap’ or words to that effect. Barry said he quickly realised that he was dealing with a completely different audience. Many people call this elitist, and I agree. But if elitist means I want intellectual content in my viewing, then I plead guilty.

If the ABC was an abject failure, if it didn’t have reasonable market share, if it wasn’t held in such high regard by the general public, (including people who don’t use it; as pointed out by the authors themselves) there would appear to be no need to write a book proposing a rationale and finely tuned argument for its planned obsolescence. In other words, the book has been written principally to explain why a successful enterprise should be abandoned or changed at its roots. Since the ABC has been a continuing, evolving success story in the face of technological changes to media distribution, the argument to radically alter its operations, even abandon it, appears specious and suggests ulterior motives.

In fact, I would argue that it’s only because the ABC is so successful that its most virulent critics want to dismantle it and erase it from the Australian collective consciousness. For some people, including the IPA (I suspect), the reasons are ideological. They simply don’t want such a successful media enterprise that doesn’t follow their particular political and ideological goals to have the coverage and popularity that the ABC benefits from.

This brings us to the core of the issue: the ABC’s perceived political bias. Unlike most supporters of the ABC, I think this bias is real, but the authors themselves make the point that the ABC should not be privatised for ‘retribution’. The authors give specific examples where they believe political bias has been demonstrated but it’s hard to argue that it’s endemic. The ABC goes to lengths that most other services don’t, to acquire an opposing point of view. To give a contemporary example: 4 Corners, which is a leading investigative journalism programme, is currently running a 3 part series on Donald Trump and his Russian connections. The journalist, Sarah Ferguson, has lengthy interviews with the people under scrutiny (who have been implicated) and effectively gives them the right of reply to accusations made against them by media and those critical of their conduct. She seeks the counsel of experts, not all of whom agree, and lets the viewer make their own judgements. It’s a very professional dissection (by an outsider) of a major political controversy.

So-called political bias is subjective, completely dependent on the bias of the person making the judgment. I’m an exception in that I share the ABC’s bias yet acknowledge it. Most people who share the ABC’s bias (or any entity’s bias) will claim it’s not biased, but any entity (media or otherwise) with a different view to theirs will be biased according to them. From this perspective, I expect the IPA to consider the ABC biased, because they have a specific political agenda (as spelt out in the opening paragraph of this post) that is the opposite of the ABC’s own political inclinations. The authors acknowledge that intellectuals are statistically left leaning and journalists are predominantly intellectual.

To illustrate my point, the authors give 2 specific examples that they claim demonstrates the ABC’s lack of impartiality. One is that the ABC doesn’t give air time to climate change sceptics. But from my point of view, it’s an example of the ABC’s integrity in that they won’t give credibility to bogus science. In fact, they had a zealous climate change sceptic on a panel with Brian Cox, who annihilated him with facts from NASA. Not surprisingly, the sceptic argued the data was contaminated. Apparently, this embarrassment on national television of a climate change denier is an example of unacceptable political bias on the part of the ABC. The IPA, as mentioned earlier, is a peddler of climate change scepticism.

The other example mentioned by the authors is that the ABC doesn’t give enough support to the government’s policy of offshore detention. In fact, the ABC (and SBS) are the only mainstream media outlets in Australia that are openly critical of this policy, which is a platform of both major political parties, so political bias for one party over the other is not an issue in this case.

A few years ago, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, laws were introduced to threaten health workers at Nauru and Manus Island (where asylum seekers are kept in detention) if they reported abuse. This was hypocritical in the extreme when health workers on mainland Australia are obliged by law to report suspected abuse. The ABC interviewed whistleblowers who risked jail, which the government of the day would have seen as a form of betrayal: giving a voice to people they wanted to silence.

As recently as last week there has been another death (of a 26 year old Iranian) but it never made it into any mainstream media report.

One only has to visit the web page of the publishers of the book, Connor Court Publishing, to see that they specialise in disseminating conservative political agendas like climate change scepticism and offshore detention.

To give a flavour of the IPA, there was recently a Royal Commission into the banking and finance sector which uncovered widespread corruption and rorting. On IPA’s website, I saw a comment about the hearings that compared them to a Soviet-style show trial. The ABC, it should be noted, reported the facts without emotive rhetoric but fielded comments from politicians on both sides of politics.

At the end of the book, the authors discuss how the ABC could be privatised. Basically, there are 2 alternatives: tender it to a private conglomerate (which could be overseas based) or put it to public shareholders, similar to what was done with Tesltra (a telecommunication company).  The IPA’s proposal is that they make the employees the shareholders so that they have full financial responsibility for their own performance. Their argument is that because they would be forced to appeal to a wider audience they would have to change their political stripes. In other words, they would need to appeal to populist movements that are gaining political momentum in all Western democracies, though they don’t specifically say this. This seems like an exercise in cynicism, as I’m unaware of any large complex media enterprise that is 'owned' by its employees. It seems to my inexpert eye like a recipe for failure, which I believe is their unstated objective.

Their best argument is that it costs roughly $1B a year that could be better spent elsewhere and that it’s an unnecessary burden on our national debt. This comes to 14c a day per capita, apparently. I see it as part of the government’s investment in arts and culture.

There is a larger context that the book glosses over, which is the role of media in keeping a democracy honest. The ABC is possibly unique in that it’s a taxpayer funded media that holds the government of the day to account (for both sides of politics). I think the authors’ arguments are ideologically motivated. In short, the book is a rational economic argument to undermine, if not destroy, an effective media enterprise that doesn’t reflect the IPA’s own political ambitions.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Quantum mechanics and the arrow of time

Before I get started I need to make an important point. Every now and then I hear or read about someone who puts my life into perspective. Recently, I read an article on Lisa Harvey-Smith, a 39 year old, educated in England who is ‘Group Leader’ of astronomy at Australia’s CSIRO. She appeared on an ABC programme called Stargazing Live (last year) with Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro. She won the 2016 Eureka Science Prize for ‘promoting science research in Australia’. She also runs ultra-marathons (up to 24hs) and is an activist for LGBTI people. The point I’m making is that she’s a real scientist, and by comparison, I’m a pretender.

And I make this point because many people who know more about this subject than me will tell you that much of what I have to say is wrong. So why should you even listen to me? Because I have a philosophical point of view on a subject with many philosophical points of view, some of which border on science fiction. For example: interacting parallel universes; and physical reality only becoming manifest when perceived by a conscious observer. I’ve written about both of these philosophical perspectives on other posts, but they indicate how much we don’t know and how difficult it is to reconcile quantum mechanics (QM) with what we actually perceive in our everyday interaction with the world.

I recently read a very good book on this subject by Philip Ball titled Beyond Weird. He gives a history lesson whilst simultaneously discussing the philosophical nuances inherent in QM in the context of experimental evidence. Ball, more than any other author I’ve read in recent times, challenges my perspective, which makes him all the worth while to read. But in so doing, I’m able to delineate with more confidence between the lesser and greater contentious aspects of my viewpoint. In fact, there is one point which I now realise is the most contentious of all, and it is related to time.

Regarding the title of this post, they seem like separate topics, but I’m aware others have made this connection; in particular Richard A Muller in NOW; The Physics of Time, though he didn’t really elaborate. He did, however, elaborate on why entropy does not provide the arrow of time, which is an oft made misconception. And it is one I’ve made myself in the past, but I now fully realise that the cause and effect is the other way round. Entropy increases with time due to probabilities. There is a much higher probability for disorder than order providing the system is in equilibrium. If there is an energy source (like the sun) that keeps a system out of equilibrium then you can have self-organising complexity occurring (such as life).

I’m unsure if QM provides an ‘arrow of time’, as people like to express it, but I do believe it provides an asymmetry, which is best expounded by Roger Penrose’s 3 phases of U, R and C. U is the evolution of the wave function as expressed by Schrodinger’s equation, R is the measurement or observation process (also called decoherence of the wave function) and C is the classical physics world which we generally call reality. These always occur in that sequence, hence the logical temporal connection.

I say ‘always’ yet Ball gives an example whereby physicists in Canada in 2015 ‘reversed the entanglement of photons’ in a crystal, which Ball calls 'recoherence'. But he also describes it as ‘.. the kind of exception that, in the proper sense, proves the rule.’ The ‘rule’, according to Ball, is that decoherence is the loss of quantum information to the environment. This is a specific interpretation by Ball, which has merit and is analogous to entropy (though he doesn’t make that connection) therefore time-directional in the same way that entropy is.

Towards the end of his book, Ball effectively argues that an ‘information’ approach to QM is the most logical approach to take and talks about a ‘reconstruction’ of QM based on principles like the ‘no cloning’ rule (quantum particles can’t be copied so teleportation destroys the original), the 'no-signalling' rule (you can’t transmit information faster than light) and there is ‘no unconditional secure bit commitment’ (which limits quantum encryption). These 3 were called ‘no-go principles’ by Rob Clifton, Jeffrey Bub and Hans Halvorson. To quote Bub from the University of Maryland: ‘[QM] is fundamentally about the representation and manipulation of information, not a theory about the mechanics of nonclassical waves or particles’. In other words, we scrap wave functions and start again with information. Basically, Ball is arguing that QM should be based on a set of principles and not mathematical formulations, especially ones that describe things we can't perceive directly (we only see interference patterns, not waves per se).

Of course, we’ve known right from its original formulation, that we don’t need Schrodinger’s equation or his wave function to perform calculations in QM (I’ll talk about QED later). Heisenberg’s matrices preceded Schrodinger’s equation and gave the same results without a wave function in sight. So how can they be reconciled philosophically, if they are mathematically equivalent but conceptually at odds?

From my limited perspective, it seems to me that Heisenberg’s and Schrodinger’s respective mathematical approaches reflect their philosophical approaches. In fact, I would argue that they approached the subject from 2 different sides, even opposite sides, and came up with the same answer, which, if I’m correct, says a lot.

Basically, Schrodinger approached it from the quantum side or U phase (to use Penrose’s nomenclature) and Heisenberg approached it from the measurement side or R phase. I’m reading another book on the same subject, What is Real? by Adam Becker, which I acquired at the same time as Ball’s book, and they are complementary, in that Becker’s approach is more historical yet also examines the philosophical aspects. Heisenberg was disappointed (pissed off may be more accurate) at Schrodinger’s success, even though Heisenberg’s matrix approach preceded Schrodinger’s wave function.

But it was Heisenberg’s specific interest in the ‘measurement problem' that led him to his famous Uncertainty Principle and a Nobel Prize. Schrodinger’s wave function, using a Fourier transform, also gives the Uncertainty Principle, so mathematically they are still equivalent in their outcomes. But the point is that Schrodinger’s wave function effectively disappears as soon as a measurement is made, and Heisenberg’s matrices with their eigenvalues don’t tell us anything about the evolution of any wave function because they don’t express it mathematically.

Ball makes the point that Schrodinger’s and Heisenberg’s approaches reflect an ontological and epistemological consideration respectively, which he delineates using the shorthand, ‘ontic’ and ‘epistemic’. In this sense, the wave function is an ontic theory (this is what exists) and Heisenberg and Bohr’s interpretation is purely epistemic (this is what we know).

I’m getting off the track but it’s all relevant. About a month ago, I wrote a letter to New Scientist on 'time'. This is an extract:

There is an obvious difference between time in physics - be it governed by relativity, entropy or quantum mechanics - and time experienced psychologically by us. Erwin Schrodinger in his seminal tome, What is Life? made the observation that consciousness exists in a constant present, and I would contend that it's the only thing that does; everything else we perceive has already happened, except quantum mechanics, which prior to a 'measurement' or 'observation', exists in the future as probabilities. An idea alluded to by Sir William Lawrence Bragg, albeit using different imagery: the future are waves and the past are particles – "The advancing sieve of time coagulates waves into particles at the moment ‘now’". So it's not surprising that the concepts of past, present and future are only meaningful to something with consciousness, because only the continuous ‘now’ of consciousness provides a reference.

Those of you who regularly read my blog will notice that this is consistent with a post I wrote earlier.

The letter was never published and New Scientist inform you in advance that they refer letters to ‘experts’ and that they don’t provide explanations if they don’t publish, which is all very fair and reasonable. I expect in this case the expert (possibly Philip Ball, as I referenced his review of Carlo Rovelli’s book) probably said that this is so wrong-headed that it shouldn’t be published. On the other hand, their expert (whoever it was) may have said this insight is so obvious it’s not worth mentioning (but I doubt it).

I expect that both my citing of Erwin Schrodinger and of Sir William Lawrence Bragg would have been considered, if not contentious, then out of date, and that my views are far too simplistic.

So let me address these issues individually. One reads a lot of words (both in science and philosophical essays) on the so-called ‘flow of time’, and whether it’s an illusion or whether it’s only in the mind or whether it’s the wrong metaphor altogether; as if time is a river and we stand in it and watch it go by.

But staying with that metaphor, the place where we are standing remains ‘now’ for ever and always, whilst we watch the future become the past in a series of endless instants. In fact, we never see the future at all, which is why I say that ‘everything we perceive has already happened’. But the idea that this constant now that we all experience is a consequence of consciousness is contentious in itself. We don’t see ourselves as privileged in that sense; we assume that it only seems a privileged position because we witness it. We assume that everything in the Universe rides this wave of now. But, for everything else, the now becomes frozen, especially if ‘now’ represents the decoherence of a quantum wave function into a classical particle. Without consciousness, ‘now’ becomes relative, an objective point in time between a future event and a past event that quickly only becomes perceived as a past event.

Let’s look at light, because it’s the most ubiquitous quantum phenomena that we all witness all the time (when we are awake). The other thing about light is that we can examine it on a cosmic scale. The Magellanic Clouds (galaxies) are approximately 200,000 light years from here and we can see them with the naked eye in Australia, if you can get away from townships on a clear night. So we can literally look 200,000 years into the past. (That is roughly when homo sapiens evolved in Africa, according to one reference I looked up.)

Now, in my previous post I argued that light is effectively in the future until it interacts with matter, so how is that possible if it took the entire history of humanity to arrive at my retina? Well, from the star’s perspective (in the Magellanic Cloud) it’s in the future because it’s going away from it into the future, quite literally. And no one can perceive the light ray until it interacts with something, so it’s always in the future of whatever it interacts with. For the photon itself, it travels in zero time. Light turns time into distance, which is why there is really only spacetime, and if light didn’t do that (because it has a constant velocity) then everything would happen at once. So, as soon as it hits my retina and not before, I can see 200,000 years into the past. That's a quantum event.

Early in his book, Adam Becker (What is Real?) provides a very good metaphor. A traveller arrives at a fork in a path and we don’t know which one he takes until he arrives at his destination. According to QM he took both at once until someone actually meets him and then we learn he only took one. The 2 paths he can take are in the future and the one he actually took is in the past. But wait, you say, in QM a photon or particle can literally take 2 paths at once and create an interference pattern. Actually, the interference pattern is created by the probabilistic outcomes of individual photons or particles, so there is still only one path for each one.

Superposition is a much misunderstood concept. As Ball explains in a foonote: “…superposition is not really ‘two states at once’, but a circumstance in which either state is a possible measurement outcome.”

He gives a very good description of the Schrodinger wave function and its role in QM:

The Schrodinger equation defines and embraces all possible observable states of a quantum system. Before the wave function collapses (whatever that means) there is no reason to attribute any greater degree of reality to any of these possible states than to any other. For remember that quantum mechanics does not imply that the quantum system is actually in one or other of these states but we don’t know which. We can confidently say that it is not in any one of these states, but is properly described by the wavefunction itself, which in some sense ‘permits’ them all as observational outcomes. Where then do they all go, bar one, when the wavefunction collapses? (emphasis in the original)

He was making this point in the context of explaining why the parallel universe or ‘Many World Interpretation’ (which he calls MWI) is so popular and seductive, because in the MWI they do all exist. Ball, by the way, is not a fan of MWI and gives extensive and persuasive arguments against it.

This leads logically to Feynman’s integral path method or his version of QED (quantum electrodynamics) where all paths are allowed, but the phase interaction of the superposed wave functions cancel most of them out. Only a wave function version of QM with its time dependent phases can provide this interaction. Brian Cox gives a very good, succinct exposition of Feynman’s version of QM on Youtube and Freeman Dyson, who worked with Feynman and who originally showed that the independent work of Schwinger, Feynman and Tomonaga were equivalent, which got them all the Nobel Prize (except Dyson), explains that Feynman’s integral method predicts 'future probabilities from a sum over histories'. The point is, as Ball says himself, none of these histories actually happen. I argue that they never happen because they’re all in the future. Certainly, we never see them or measure them, but one of the probability outcomes will be realised when it becomes the past.

Because a specific path is only known once an observation is made, it appears that we are determining the path backwards-in-time, which has been demonstrated experimentally. I feel this is the key to the whole enigma, like the photon coming from the Magellanic Clouds – the path is revealed in retrospect. Until it’s revealed, it’s effectively in our future. Also this is consistent with the asymmetry in time we all experience. The future is many paths (as per QED) but the past is only one.

Ball argues consistently that there is a transition from ‘quantumness’ to classical physics (as per Penrose, though he doesn’t reference Penrose) but he argues that classical physics is a special case of QM (which is the orthodoxy).

His best argument is that decoherence is the loss of quantum information to the environment, which can happen over time, so not necessarily in an instance. He uses the same idea to explain why large objects decohere virtually instantaneously, because they are exposed to such a massive expanse of the environment.

There is much about QM I don’t discuss, like spin states that distinguish bosons from fermions and the role of symmetry and Emmy Noether’s famous theorem that relates symmetry to conservation laws (not only in QM but relativity theory).

I’m trying to understand QM and how it relates to time. Why is it, as Ball himself asks, are there many possibilities that become one? My contention is that this is exactly what distinguishes the future from the past as we experience it. The enigma with QM, as when we look backwards in time through the entire cosmos, is that those many paths only become one when the quantum object (photon or particle) interacts with something, forcing a wave function collapse or decoherence. Is there a backwards-in-time cosmic scale loop as proposed by John Wheeler? Maybe there is. Maybe the arrow of time goes both ways.


Footnote: This video gives a good summary of QM as discussed above; in particular, the presenter discusses the fundamental enigma of the many possibilities becoming one, and the many paths becoming one, only when an observation or measurement is made. He specifically discusses the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, but in effect describes QED.

Addendum 1: Sometimes I can't stop thinking about what I've written. I'm aware that there is a paradox with a light ray from the past intersecting with our future, so I've shown it in a very crude spacetime diagram, with time on the vertical axis and space on the horizontal axis. The Magellanic Clouds and Earth are 200,000 light years apart (closer to 190,000, so some artistic licence) and there is a light cone which goes at 45 degrees from the source to the Earth 200,000 years into the future.

It's assuming that the distance between the Magellanic Clouds and Earth doesn't change (for simplicity) which is almost certainly not true. It allows the Earth to be a vertical line on the spacetime diagram with light being at 45 degrees, so they intersect 200,000 light years in the future.

It also suggests that the photon exists in a constant 'now' (until it interacts with something). As I said before, light is unique in that it has zero time, which explains that particular effect. Consciousness is unique in that it provides a reference for ‘now’ all the time. Light is always in the future of whatever it interacts with, when it becomes ‘now’, then becomes frozen in the past, possibly as an image or a dot on a screen. Consciousness never becomes frozen, but it does become blank sometimes.

Addendum 2: This is a Youtube lecture by Carlo Rovelli, who would tell you that everything I've said above is wrong.


Thursday, 10 May 2018

An explanation of my tattoos

I have 2 tattoos, one on each arm, which I admit represent the height of pretentiousness. On my left arm I have Euler’s famous identity, which links e, π, i, 0 and 1 in a very simple yet unexpected relationship: e + 1 = 0

This has no meaning in the physical world, even though we know it’s true (I’ve demonstrated this in another post). For a start, i is not really a number (even though it’s defined by i = √-1) because you can’t have an i number of things. I prefer to think of it as a dimension that’s perpendicular to all other dimensions, because that’s how it’s represented graphically. In fact, mathematically, it’s not Real by definition. You have Real numbers and imaginary numbers and they are described in complex algebra as z = a + ib, where z has a Real component and an imaginary component. Notice that they don’t get mixed up, yet they do in Euler’s identity. Euler’s identity is so weird, for want of a better word, that it has a special status.

My point is that Euler’s identity only has meaning in an abstract realm or transcendental realm, which is apt, considering that π and e are called transcendental numbers, which means they can never be calculated in full. They can only exist in a transcendental realm – the Universe can’t contain them. Even God doesn’t know the last digit of π (or e, for that matter).

On my right arm I have Schrodinger’s equally famous equation, which I’ve also expounded upon in depth in another post. It’s been called the most important equation in physics: ihϑ/ϑ= HΨ

This is a poor representation but it’s close enough for my purposes. The tattoo on my arm is a much better rendition. Notice that it also includes the number i because complex algebra is essential to quantum mechanics and this is a seminal equation in QM. It is the complement or opposite of the equation on my left arm, in as much as it only has meaning in the physical world (the same as E =  mc2, for example). Outside the Universe it has no meaning at all; whereas Euler’s identity would still be true even if the Universe didn’t exist and there was no one to derive it.

Schrodinger derived this equation from a hunch; it’s not derived from anything we know (as Richard Feynman once pointed out). It describes the wave function of a particle that’s yet to exist, which makes it truly remarkable, and therefore it can only give us probabilities of finding it. Nevertheless, it’s been found to be very accurate in those probabilities. Schrodinger’s wave function is now incorporated into QED (quantum electrodynamics) which effectively describes everything we can see and touch and it’s arguably the most successful mathematical theory in physics, comparable only to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In principle, you could have a Schrodinger equation for the entire universe, but you’d probably need a computer the size of the Universe to calculate it.

So on my left arm I have a mathematical connection to a transcendental (or Platonic) realm, and on my right arm I have a mathematical connection to the physical Universe.

But there is more, because Euler’s identity is the solution of an equation called Euler’s equation:  eiθ = cosθ + isinθ; which becomes Euler’s identity when θ = π. The point is that this equation provides the key ingredient to Schrodinger’s wave function, ψ(psi), so these equations are linked. The transcendental world is linked to the physical world, arguably without the need of human consciousness to make that link.


Footnote: A friend of mine wrote a poem about my tattoos.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Some notes on religion and God

I’ve written quite a lot about religion on this blog, so I’m not sure I have anything new to say. My main reason for writing is that there is a dichotomy which is rarely explored or even acknowledged. I’m currently reading The Paradox of God And the Science of Omniscience by Clifford A Pickover. He’s written a number of books, but the handful I’ve read relate to mathematics and physics. He’s very good at collecting vignettes on a subject that covers its entire breadth, then putting them into an accessible volume with high quality allusive graphics. This book is completely different, both in content and presentation.

I mention him because his latest book has many references, including biblical quotes I never heard in Sunday School; partly because they don’t show God in a good light, and partly because they’re not fit for children’s ears. For example, in Exodus (4:24-26) God was going to kill Moses, but his wife, Zipporah, quickly circumcised her son and put the blood on Moses’ feet, then said: “Surely, you are a bridegroom of blood to me”; which satisfied God, for reasons that perhaps only God and Zipporah know. Pickover provides 4 different versions to demonstrate that the gist of the story is consistent across translations.

That’s a digression. Pickover also references Karen Armstrong’s A History of God in a completely different context: how God has evolved over the centuries. Armstrong, I note, has effectively disappeared from the parapet after being attacked from both sides of the religious divide. It’s obvious from my reading of her that she was trying to bridge the divide and had the opposite effect. A History of God covers the 3 monotheistic religions chronologically, so it does read like a history, plus she makes references to Hinduism and Buddhism where she thinks it’s apposite, without giving them the same attention and overall coverage. Personally, I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read on the subject, written well before she became a pariah to atheists and fundamentalists alike.

One of the themes, for want of a better word, that ran through Armstrong’s account was that there was almost always a conflict in philosophy, which alludes to the dichotomy I mentioned in my introduction. Basically, there were scholars who argued that God should be explained and revealed by intellectual reasoning, whilst others argued that God could only be understood through a personal mystical revelation. I think this dichotomised approach still applies today. It also highlights a fundamental difference between institutionalised religion and personal religious experience.

I spent a large part of my childhood exposed to institutionalised religion so I have that perspective from which to draw. Reading Pickover’s discussion of Genesis, where he talks about the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, he points out an obvious paradox that Eve couldn’t have known it was evil when she was seduced by the snake as she had no knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the fruit (others have also pointed out this apparent contradiction). I remember as a young teenager asking how could eating fruit give one knowledge of evil (I was very literal), and I was told that it was a metaphor and I was given to understand that it was really about knowledge of sex. So sex was evil, and I was neurotic enough to believe that.

I digress again. Many years ago I had friends who were Jehovah Witnesses and I enjoyed arguing with them, and I think they enjoyed arguing with me. Now I do it with my Baptist neighbours. Basically, when it comes to arguing intellectually for the existence of God I find I’m an atheist. I was in my teens and still going to Sunday School when it first occurred to me that God could simply be a state of mind and not an existential entity that existed externally. I’ve long argued that God is subjective and, like Don Cupitt, believe that the only religion that matters is the one you’ve worked out for yourself.

Paul Davies is a well known physicist, author, philosopher and astro-biologist, as well as a self-confessed Deist (even Dawkins treats him with respect). Agnosticism and theism, I’ve noticed, is more common among physicists than biologists. I expect there’s 2 reasons for that: biologists have felt under siege by the Church for over a century; and physicists marvel at the mathematical concordance and unexplained serendipity of Nature’s laws. I wrote a post on Davies’ The Mind of God a couple of years ago, which is more about physics than God, but I concluded that the idea of God, as something that evolves, was the only one that made sense to me. If humanity is the only link between the Universe and God, then we are the only reason for God to exist. I’ve made this point before. I think God is a projection, because it is part of our cognitive capacity to imagine a future in a way that no other animal can. This means that we can imagine a future beyond death, which is the real genesis of religion and religious belief. If God is a consequence of us, rather than the other way round, then the problem of evil is automatically resolved - we get the God we deserve.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

48hr Flash Fiction Challenge - 2018

 I entered this last year. It's actually called the Sci-Fi London Challenge, and the rules are pretty simple. They give you a title and a piece of dialogue plus an optional clue and you have to write a story in 2,000 words or less (I did it in 1,947). It opens 11am Sat and closes 1pm Mon (hence 48hr flash fiction). That's London time, so in reality it's from 8pm Sat to 10pm Mon Australian Eastern time, but it can easily be written in a day if you've got the bit between your teeth, otherwise you'll probably never do it. What I mean is either something comes to you or it doesn't, and if it doesn't then you're probably wasting your time.

Title: Where the grass still grows
Mandatory dialogue: Did you deliberately set out to make as much mess as possible?
Optional cue: New psychotropic drug creates telepathy/telekinesis

Getting the dialogue in was not a problem, but the title is a bit obscure. I allude to it in a very obtuse sort of way. Don't let a bad title get in the way of a good story, is what I told myself. The optional cue gave me some ideas but I went off in a completely different direction, as I tend to do.

Like last year's entry, this is not true sci-fi, more like Twilight Zone, which is appropriate given when and where I set the story. Personally, I think it's better than my last year's entry, but it's for others to judge.

Now some may think this a bit autobiographical because I grew up in a country town in this era and I was a science nerd in high school. Also we did have an eccentric science teacher who was really good with all kids, the bright ones and the ones who struggled. There was never any after school lab experiments but he did run extra classes for the lower level kids, not the high achievers. I still think that was rather remarkable. He failed me in chemistry in my final year to get my head out of my arse and it worked. But my fictional characters are all pure fiction. In my mind, they don't resemble anyone I know in real life. Characters come into my head like melodies and lyrics come into the heads of songwriters. That's my secret. Now you know.

Short stories need a twist in the tale, and this is no exception, except I didn't know what it was until I got there. In other words, I didn't know how it was going to end, and then it surprised me.

The formatting gets messed up, especially for dialogue, but I make the best of a bad situation. The submission manuscript is double-line spaced and it has proper formatting, with paragraph indentation, like you'd find in a novel. Below is my entry.



Davey lived alone with his mum, Irene to her friends; he had no memory of his father and he had no siblings. His mother never remarried. The favourite topic amongst his school friends was who was best: Elvis or the Beatles?

His best friend at school was Kevin; they were in Form 10. He secretly liked Penny, a girl in the year behind him, and on the rare occasions he had spoken to her, she was nice, but deliberately ignored him when her friends were around, so he avoided her.

 His favourite class was science. The teacher, Mr Robotham, always wore a white lab coat that was stained by experiments gone awry or possibly not; no one asked. He was thin and hawk nosed but was friendly and helpful, both to kids who were bright and kids who struggled.

Mr Robotham liked Davey, who was always asking extra-curricula questions, and he even lent him books, providing he told no one else. Mr Robotham sometimes allowed Davey to stay back after school and perform experiments, which he did most weeks, usually Wednesdays when everyone else was playing sport, and occasionally Kevin would join him.

On this occasion, Davey had assembled a massive apparatus, of tubes, beakers, flasks with stoppers and spaghetti-like hoses joining everything together. When he believed he had everything in order, he put one of the flasks, full of a yellowy liquid, on top of a Bunsen burner and started heating it up.
 Kevin looked a bit worried, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘So what are you making?’
He looked at Kevin with a wicked grin, ‘Let’s find out.’

Kevin watched the liquid boil and stepped back, while Davey put on a pair of safety glasses and watched to see if the liquid went up the tube as he hoped. Mr Robotham always made them wear safety glasses, no matter what they were doing in the lab, so it became second-nature.
Bang! The stopper in the flask went straight up and hit the ceiling and Davey found himself covered in the liquid.
‘Shit’, Kevin said.
Davey looked at his friend, whose eyes seemed to want to depart their sockets, and then down at his clothes covered in yellow goo. ‘Mum’s not going to be happy.’
Kevin couldn’t believe him. ‘Your Mum? Shit, what about Mr Robotham.’
‘I reckon he won’t be too happy either.’
As if to confirm his second-worst fears, Robotham came running into the lab. He must have heard the noise, Davey thought.
Robotham looked at Davey and put his hands on his shoulders, half-kneeling, ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. Sorry,’ he said in a small voice; he really wasn’t sure how Mr Robotham was going to react.
Robotham looked around at the aftermath, ‘Did you deliberately set out to make as much mess as possible?’
Davey looked up to him, ‘I’ll clean it up, Sir.’
But Mr Robotham surprised him, ‘No, you go home. Your mother is going to be so angry with me.’
Davey didn’t understand, ‘Why?’
‘Just go home,’ he looked at Kevin, who had been trying his best invisibility impersonation, ‘Both of you, before I change my mind.’

When he got home, his mother was so angry she didn’t say anything at first. But when she found her voice he surprised her, ‘My God, wait till I see Mr Robotham.’
‘It wasn’t his fault.’
‘Wasn’t it now? You go and run a bath. These clothes may be ruined for good.’
They ate their tea in silence and he wasn’t allowed to watch TV, so he went to bed in his room at the back of the house, next to hers. He found it hard to go to sleep.

At some point he woke up and found himself hovering above his bed; his sleeping form, on its back, below him. He could actually see himself breathing, yet he didn’t find it disconcerting; he found he was perfectly calm and he wondered if he had died.

Stranger still, he found he could move simply by will and he could travel through the wall into his mother’s room. He thought, I must be dreaming, so he wondered, in his scientifically minded way, if there was some way he could test that. He lowered himself towards the floor and looked at his mother’s alarm clock; the illuminated hands showed it was 20 past midnight. He thought of trying to wake his mother, but realised it would only scare her, so he went back through the wall to his own body and got very close to his face. He could see everything, all his pimples and the downy moustache that he hadn’t shaved when he’d had his bath. He could see his shoes on the floor, his cupboard; it didn’t feel like a dream, but he didn’t know what to do. Would he be able to return to his body? The idea of entering it by conscious will somehow seemed the wrong thing to do. He felt like he had a ghostly astral body, though he couldn’t see it, so he touched his own hand with the sense of his astral hand. His body shivered and his breathing stuttered and he realised that it was completely the wrong thing to do.

For the first time, he actually felt scared. What if I can’t return? He went back to his mother’s room and noticed that the clock now said 27 past so it seemed to confirm for him that it wasn’t a dream.
He wondered how far he could travel, so he literally went through the roof of his house and looked up to the stars above and down to the tree near their back fence. His mother had a vegetable garden and even some chooks in a yard, and he could see the back veranda and the backyard where the grass still grew. He entered the chook yard and some of them on their roosts seemed to wake as if they knew he was there but otherwise remained inert.

 The stars were especially bright and he noticed that he could see everything in shades but more delineated than he would normally. He noticed that he didn’t feel the cold or the air on his astral body and it occurred to him, that since he could go through walls he must be existing in another dimension. He would normally be able to smell the dew on the grass but he couldn’t. He realised that his only sense was sight for some reason. He couldn’t even hear anything. Again, his scientific mind came to his aid. He thought, I can interact with radiation but not with matter. He knew from his science classes that matter and light interacted but were quite different. One was made of atoms and the other was made of waves. Perhaps that’s what he was now: some astral waveform.
He travelled around above the town like he was some sort of night bird or a superhero. Some superhero, he thought, I can’t even touch anything.

He couldn’t resist the urge to visit the house of his friend, Kevin. He wondered if this ghostly manifestation was a consequence of his botched experiment and if so, did it affect Kevin? He entered Kevin’s house and observed all the appurtenances that he was familiar with: the kitchen table and chairs, the canisters on the shelf, the old white stove, matching fridge and stainless steel sink under the window with floral themed curtains.
It felt wrong to enter Kevin’s parents’ bedroom, but he had little compunction about visiting his friend’s. And there he was fast asleep, with his mouth open and Davey thought he was probably snoring only he couldn’t hear it.

He felt confident that Kevin wasn’t suffering the same disembodied state that he was, and rose back through the roof to survey the town. He now felt the urge to visit Penny’s house, even though it seemed wrong. On the other hand, he wanted her to be his friend and he told himself that she wouldn’t mind. He asked himself, Would I be able to tell her about it later? And he decided he could.
When he entered her bedroom she was sleeping on her side and he felt she looked so peaceful; he was glad he couldn’t wake her even if he wanted to. But it still felt awkward so he didn’t stay. Because it was a country town there was little movement and virtually no traffic until he saw the baker and the milkman getting ready to work. He knew then that dawn wouldn’t be that far off and he decided he needed to go home.

In the morning he had to watch with increasing anxiety as his mother tried to wake him and then become distraught. She called an ambulance and he followed his body to the hospital where he was attached to various machines and doctors and nurses came and examined him. All the while his mother went through moods of stoic patience, angry berating of medical staff and occasionally going to a toilet cubicle where she could cry without anyone seeing her.

Davey, in his extra-dimensional state, didn’t know what to do but wished he could just return to his body and bring everything back to normal. Later in the day his friend Kevin turned up and so did Mr Robotham, but his mother gave him a verbal barrage that Davey could only imagine the content, although he did lip-read some choice words that she usually only reserved for newsreaders on the TV. Robotham thought it best to leave, though he was obviously very upset. Davey wished he could tell them both that it wasn’t their fault. He felt unbelievably guilty for all the anguish he had caused, even though he had no idea how he had done it and wished, beyond everything else, he could restore the balance.

Very late in the day, probably after school, he was surprised to see Penny arrive and he was even more surprised to see her cry. She said something to him which he couldn’t make out, but he was deeply moved. She left some flowers behind, with a card. On it, he read: Dear Davey, Please get well. You are a special friend. All my love, Penny.

Davey followed her out of the hospital and wished above everything else he could communicate with her. When he came up behind her, she seemed to turn her head as if she knew he was there, but kept walking, and he didn’t follow.

His mother stayed and refused to go home. The nurses brought her food in the evening, and when she laid down on seats in the waiting area, one of them put a blanket over her. Davey felt so sad and he went into the room where his body was, all hooked up to the machines, and decided it best to stay with it.

In the morning, Davey woke up to find himself in a hospital bed. Nurses and doctors came running when the machines told them he was awake and his mother came in, her face covered in tears.
He looked at his mother, ‘What’s wrong?’
She came up to the bed and hugged him and sobbed like there was no tomorrow. When she released him she said, ‘Oh Davey, you had us all so worried. We didn’t know what happened to you.’
Davey couldn’t remember anything from when he went to bed in his own house, which was, unbeknownst to him, two nights ago.
Back at school everyone treated him differently. He never did extra-curricular lab experiments again. And Penny suddenly became his newest best friend.

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 violent 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 this 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.