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.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Aretha Franklin - undisputed Queen of Soul

25 March 1942 (Memphis, Tennessee) to 16 August 2018 (Detroit, Michigan)

Quote: Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that.

I can't watch this video without tears. She lived through the civil rights years, won 18 Grammy Awards and was the first woman to be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A gospel singer by origin, she was one of the Truly Greats.

There have been many tributes but Barack Obama probably sums it up best:

Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. 

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Jordan Peterson revisited: feminism, #metoo and leadership

I wrote a post on Jordan Peterson after I read his book, 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos. I wrote this prior to that but after I’d read the first chapter (Rule 1), which was about lobsters amongst other things (discussed below). But this essay discusses issues not covered in that post and therefore is still worth publishing, somewhat belatedly.

I came across Jordan Peterson via Stephen Law’s blog who had a link to a somewhat famous (or infamous) interview by Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4. The interview gained some notoriety because he effectively turned the tables on her. Basically, he was better prepared than she was. She underestimated him and she thought his arguments or positions were facile and would be easy to knock over, when, in fact, he argued very articulately and precisely and maintained his composure and backed his arguments with statistics and evidence that she couldn’t counter. I’ll come back to some of these positions and arguments later.

This led me to watch a number of his YouTube videos and even buy his aforementioned book. I also read an article he wrote, which I read in The Weekend Australian, about his concern for the future of boys growing up into a world dominated by women, specifically in the humanities in universities. Unfortunately, I no longer have the article, so I can’t reference its original publication. I will come back to this issue later as well.

He’s a practicing clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, and you can watch some of his lectures on YouTube as well. He makes provocative statements and then backs them up with sound arguments, which is why I wanted to read his book.

He’s been called a ‘public intellectual’ but I would call him a ‘celebrity intellectual’. In that respect I would compare him to well known science celebrities like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox, along with equally talented, if not so famous figures, like Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, John Barrow and Richard Feynman. If I mentally put him in the same room with these people I don’t find him so intellectually intimidating and daunting to challenge.

I’ve said in a recent post that no one completely agrees philosophically with someone else, and the corollary to that is that no one completely disagrees with someone else either. Okay, there may be exceptions but I’ve never come across anyone that I completely disagree with on every single topic and I’m pretty argumentative.

Peterson is lauded by the ‘Right’ apparently (a ‘poster boy’, I think is the unfortunate phrase) but he rails against what he calls the ‘neo-Marxist post-modernists’. I’m honestly unsure what those terms mean but, given that I consistently argue against the universally accepted paradigm of infinite economic growth, I suspect it includes me.

I don’t know what Peterson would make of my blog if he read it, but one of his pet peeves is the trait of agreeableness. Peterson knows, as a psychologist, that there are personality traits that we are born with which tend to be associated with the left or the right of politics and agreeableness is associated with the left. This seems to be an issue with Peterson, because he raises it in the Cathy Newman interview and elsewhere. I expect, therefore, he would find me far too agreeable for my own good. Agreeableness, according to Peterson, is not a trait that is associated with leadership. I’ll come back to this point later as well.

I’m quite confident that Peterson would never read my blog because I’m way below him on every measure, whether it be celebrity status, academic status, professional status or social status. Having said that, we do similar things, albeit he does it far more successfully and effectively than me. Like him, I have strong opinions that I try to share with as wide an audience as possible. It’s just that we do it on completely different scales, and we have different special interests; but we both practice philosophy in our own ways and our ideas clash and sometimes concur, as I’ll try to delineate.

I’ll start with the Cathy Newman interview because one of the things he talks about is ‘men who don’t grow up’ and I seriously wondered if that included me. When I revisited the interview I decided that it didn’t, but even the fact that I would consider it gives one pause. I think I am and always have been (from a very early age) more conscious of my flaws and faults than I believe most people are. For me, self-examination and self-honesty are important traits, and I suspect Peterson might agree, because they are the first steps to being responsible, and being responsible is something that he talks about a lot. I’ve previously referenced Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) who argued the importance of adversity in shaping one’s life. Peterson makes similar references when he talks about the Buddha, who, the story goes, discovered suffering and mortality after being brought up isolated from these life-challenging experiences. The lesson, as Peterson points out, is that no one escapes suffering in their life, and, in fact, it’s essential in creating a personality worthy of the name.

Another issue raised in the Cathy Newman interview was Peterson’s comparison of human status-seeking with that of lobsters, which, from an evolutionary perspective, go back before the dinosaurs. This is also the subject of the first chapter of his book (or Rule 1), which is effectively a defence of social Darwinism. The inequality we see in society is part of the natural order (he doesn’t use that term, but it’s implied) whereby the fact that 1% of the population controls 50% of the wealth is just a consequence of natural evolutionary process, which lobsters and virtually all social animals demonstrate. He picks lobsters as his example, because they are so ‘old’ on the evolutionary scale.

The specific point he made to Newman was that it proves that the patriarchal hierarchy as a cultural phenomenon is a myth. ‘It’s not a matter of opinion,’ he says, ‘it’s a fact [that it’s a biological mechanism going way back in evolutionary time]’. Well, sex is a biological mechanism with an even older evolutionary history, but its cultural evolution in human societies can’t be compared to the sexual activities of a dog in the street or a bull in a paddock, to give examples with a closer evolutionary connection than lobsters. In other words, comparing the hierarchy of human social structures with lobsters is not very nuanced. I will discuss leadership later, which is really what this is about. Having said that, Trump’s election ticks all of Peterson’s social Darwinian boxes, even to the extent that Trump believes he’s entitled to all the ‘pussy’ he can ‘grab’, which is completely in line with the lobster comparison.

In the same chapter, Peterson discusses bullying and its deleterious effects, and this is something that I have personal experience with. On this issue, I think he and I would agree in that standing up to bullies, be it in the workplace or wherever, is important for your own self-esteem. For better or worse, I grew up with a chip on my shoulder and I don’t take kindly to bullies, but, as I’ve previously revealed, I’ve never solved a problem with my fists.

Another point raised by Newman was Peterson’s refusal to use transgender pronouns legislated apparently by the Canadian government. I’m unsure about this as I don’t live in Canada but, from what I can gather, I completely support him on this stance. Legislating language is Orwellian at best and totalitarian at worse.

On another tack, Peterson’s concern with how boys are being raised and the effect on their self-esteem and their chances of success later in life, I believe is misplaced. I happened to see a documentary (the same week) filmed at a primary school in Britain (the Isle of Wight, from memory) whereby self-assessment in various activities and abilities was compared between the sexes, and the males comprehensively had it over the females when it came to self-esteem. In reality, the change tends to occur in high school where the girls tend to excel over the boys because scholastic achievement for girls is not as ‘uncool’ as it is for boys. At least I would suggest that’s the case in Australia.

I grew up in a country town and I have nieces with boys growing up in country towns, and how a boy performs at cricket and football counts for a lot more than how he scores at mathematics and literature. That apparently hasn’t changed since my time. What has changed is that education for girls is now taken far more seriously (than it was in my time) and they’re overtaking the boys. Peterson’s answer, if I read him correctly, is to bring boys up to be more masculine. Given that domestic violence and violence towards women in general is a major issue all over the world, I don’t think making boys more masculine is the answer.

And this brings me to the so-called ‘MeToo’ phenomenon and a panel discussion I saw on this issue (in Australia) at about the same time. All 3 female panelists had suffered from direct physical forms of sexual harassment (all job related) and the only male panelist was a lawyer with extensive experience in dealing with sexual assault cases. He related how, by the time the women came to him, they were in very distressed states. He said that doctors advise women who have been raped not to pursue the matter in court as it will destroy their health. This alone suggests that our justice system (in Australia) needs a complete overhaul in the area of female sexual assault.

But even more pertinent to this discussion was the last question from the audience (which included school children) asking each panelist what advice they would give to their 12 year old selves. I have to admit that I could not readily find an answer to this question but I couldn’t leave it alone over the next day or so. In the end, after a lot of soul-searching, I decided I would give advice on how to deal with rejection or unrequited love, as I believe it is a universal experience for both sexes. But it seems to me that, boys in particular, don’t deal with rejection well. The most important thing is not to blame the other – it is not their fault. And there is a logic to this, because if it really was their fault why would you want to go back to them?

Friendship can easily slide into creepiness if a man’s advances are not welcome. But it’s easily remedied by simply retreating. If there is a genuine friendship then it will recover, and, if not, then it won’t. But again, it’s not her fault. I wrote a post a number of years ago where I argued that women choose. I believe that women should determine the limits of a relationship and that includes friendship as well as sexual relationships. Persisting in the face of rejection only leads to resentment on both sides. I’ve long argued that no one gains happiness at the expense of another’s unhappiness.

This doesn’t fit very well with Peterson’s social Darwinist model where the top guys get the best girls and the top girls vie for the top men, like a reality TV show. I’ve never married so I’m not best to judge, but I value the friendships I’ve gained with women over a number of decades, so I don’t feel that I’ve necessarily missed out. To be fair to Peterson, he argues that women choose, so we agree on that point. I think if society recognised this and cultivated it as a social norm whereby women set the limits of a relationship, then society would function better. It is the woman who has most to lose in a relationship, and this should be recognised by society as a whole. Peterson makes a similar point in one of his YouTube lectures.

Finally, getting back to the Newman interview, Peterson makes the point that being agreeable doesn’t tally with the evidence when it comes to getting top jobs. This makes me wonder if that’s why it’s been claimed that the ideal psychological profile for corporate leaders is a sociopath. My observations are that leaders without very good people skills, but goal oriented, will promote people with similar personalities to themselves. In cases where I’ve seen people with good people skills (as well as goal oriented skills) achieve top management positions they’ve invariably changed the culture of the entire organisation for the better.

I’ve argued many times that good leadership brings out the best in others. I once read of a study that was done on the most successful sporting teams in a range of sports and countries where they looked at a number of factors. The conclusion from the study was that the success of the team ultimately came down to just one factor and that was leadership. In a team sport it’s not about individual performances per se, yet in a sense it is. The best teams are not dependent on a few key players but on every member performing at their best. The best captains have the ability to get each member of their team to do just that. I’ve experienced this myself when I took part in the 2010 Melbourne Corporate Games in dragon boat racing. There were only 2 members of the team with previous experience (both female) including our captain. Against all expectations in a field of 32 teams, we won bronze. The Australian Navy came first. I give full credit to our captain, whom I know would prefer anonymity.

Footnote: I originally wrote this around 6 mths ago (before my first post on Peterson). I've since watched the Newman interview again, and I think she handled herself reasonably well, and Peterson even seemed to enjoy the combative nature of it. In just the last week, I read an investigative journalist's (Lauren Collins) expose on the BBC gender paygap (The New Yorker, July 23, 2018, pp. 34-43) and, in light of this, I think Peterson's counter argument to this issue is largely smoke and mirrors. The BBC clearly has egg on its face and they outright lied to (at least some of) their prominent female employees over their pay entitlements. And we know it's happened elsewhere (including Australia).

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 believe 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 virtually everything I've said above is wrong, including what I said about entropy and time.

Addendum 3 (Conclusion): I've since read Carlo Rovelli's latest book, The Order of Time, where he completely dismantles our intuitive concept of time. For one, he says that Einstein has demonstrated that time doesn't flow at the same rate everywhere, but then effectively says that time doesn't flow at all. He points out that in QM, time can flow both ways mathematically, which is the U phase (using Penrose's nomenclature), and that the only time direction comes from entropy, which is contentious, in as much as most physicists believe that entropy is not the cause of time's apparent direction, but a consequence.

He says that there is no objective 'now', yet elsewhere I've read him being quoted as saying 'now' is the edge of the big bang. In his book, he doesn't discuss the age of the Universe at all, yet it has obvious ramifications to this topic.

There are 4 ways of looking at QM (5 if you include multiple worlds, which I'm not). There is the Copenhagen interpretation, which effectively says the only reality is what we measure or observe, and the wave function is simply a mathematical device for making probabilistic predictions prior to that.

There is Bohm's pilot wave theory, which says there was always a path, created by the pilot wave but not known until after our observation.

There is QED, in particular Feynman's sum over integral interpretation, that says there are an infinitude of paths, most of which cancel each other out, that give the most probabilistic outcome. When the outcome is known they all become irrelevant.

There is a so-called transactional interpretation that says the wave function goes both forwards and backwards in time, formulated by John Cramer in the mid 1980s, but foreshadowed by Schrodinger himself in 1941 (John Gribbin. Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, pp.161-4).

My interpretation effectively captures all of these (except multiple worlds). I don't think there is a pilot wave but I think there is 'one path' that is discovered after the observation. If you take the example I use in the main text; of observing the light from a star in the Magellanic Cloud: when you see it, you instantly look 200,000 light years into the past (or thereabouts). So there is a link between your current 'now' and a 'now' 200,000 years ago. My contention is that this is only possible because there is a backwards in time path from your eyeball to the star.

Addendum 4: Much of what I discuss above was foreshadowed in a post I wrote over 2 years ago; possibly more succinct and more accessible.

Addendum 5: This is a brief interview with Freeman Dyson, which has some relevance to this post. I have to say that Dyson probably comes closest to expressing my own views on QM and classical physics - that they are, in essence, incompatible. By his own admission, these views are not shared by most other physicists (if at all).

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 not yet 'observed', 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 is 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.