Paul P. Mealing

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Science, humanities and politics

I was reading recently in New Scientist (20 Jan., 2018) about the divide between humanities and science, which most of us don’t even think about. In an unrelated article in The Weekend Australian Review (6-7 Jan., 2018) there was a review of a biography by Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci, whose subject is arguably the greatest polymath known to Western civilisation, and who clearly straddled that divide with consummate ease. One suspects that said divide didn’t really exist in Leonardo’s day and one wonders what changed.

Specialisation is one answer, but it’s not sufficient I would suggest. When trying to think of a more modern example, Isaac Asimov came to mind, though being a Sci-Fi writer myself, that’s not surprising. As well as being a very prolific writer (more than 500 books) he was professor of biochemistry at Boston University.

I’m no Asimov in either field, yet to some extent I believe I straddle this so-called divide without excelling in either science or arts. I can remember reading A Terrible Beauty by Peter Watson, which was an extraordinary compiled history of the 20th Century that focused on the ideas and the people who produced them rather than the politics or the many conflicts that we tend to associate with that century. The reason I mention this outstanding and well written tome is that I was struck by Watson’s ability to discuss art and science with equal erudition and acumen. Watson, from memory, was more of a journalist than a scholar, but this diverse scholasticism, for want of a better term, I thought a most unusual trait in the modern world.

As anyone who reads this blog has probably deduced, my primary ambition as a youth was to become a physicist. As someone who can look back over many decades of life, I’m not especially disappointed that I didn’t realise that ambition. My other youthful ambition was to become a writer of fiction and once again I’m not especially disappointed that I didn’t succeed. I can’t complain as I was able to make a decent living in the engineering and construction industry in a non-technical capacity. It allowed me to work on diverse projects and interact with very clever people on a professional level.

But this post is not about me, even though I’m trying to understand why I don’t perceive this divide (in quite the same way others do) that clearly delineates our society. We have technical people who make all the stuff we take for granted and then we have artistic people who make all the stuff that entertains us, which is so ubiquitous we tend to take that for granted as well. Of course, I haven’t mentioned the legions of sportspeople who become our heroes in whatever country we live in. They don’t fit into the categories of humanities and science yet they dominate our consciousness when they take to the field.

The other point that can’t be ignored is the politicisation of both humanities and science in the modern world. Artists are often, but not always, associated with left wing politics. People are often unaware that there is a genetic disposition to our political inclinations. I’m unusual in my family for leaning to the left, but I’m also unusual in having artistic proclivities that I inherited from my mother’s side. Artists have often in the past been associated with a bohemian lifestyle but also with being more open and tolerant of difference. One should remember that homosexuals have long been accepted in theatre in a way they weren’t in society at large, even when it was criminalised.

This is not to say that all artists are left wing, as they clearly aren’t, but it’s interesting that the left side of politics seems to be more generous towards the arts (at least in Australia) than their oppositional counterparts. But politics doesn’t explain the humanities science divide. Science has become politicised recently with the issue of climate change. According to the political right, climate change is a conspiracy and fraudulent propaganda by scientists to keep themselves in jobs. This came to a head in 2016 in Australia when, under a Turnbull Liberal government (still in office), a prominent, world-wide respected climatologist at CSIRO (John Church) was sacked and his department eviscerated on the excuse that the Paris Accord had found the answer to climate change and no more research was necessary – we needed solutions not more research. It should be pointed out that, subjected to international outrage, the sackings were reduced from over 100 to more like 30, but John Church still lost his job. This, in spite of the fact that “CSIRO has long led the world in modelling Southern Hemisphere climate.” (Peter Boyer, Independent Australia, 20 May 2016).

What I like to point out is that the politicisation of climate change is largely by non-scientists and not scientists. As far as most scientists are concerned science itself is largely politically neutral. Now I know many people will dispute this very viewpoint because science is generally seen as a tool to provide technological solutions which are to the benefit of society at large. And one might qualify that by specifying Western society, though Asia is also adopting technologies at an accelerated rate. In other words, science is politically driven to the extent that politicians decide what technologies would benefit us most. And I agree that, as far as most politicians are concerned, science is simply a tool in the service of economics.

But my point is that, contrary to the polemic of right wing politicians, all climatologists are not left wing political conspirators. Scientists studying climate change could be of any political persuasion. As far as they are concerned nature doesn’t have a political agenda, only humans do.

To take another couple of examples where the politics is on the opposite side yet equally anti-science. Genetically engineered crops are demonised by many people on the political left, who conflate science and technology with corporate greed. Likewise anti-vaccination activists are also associated with the political left. What all these anti-science proponents have in common is their collective ignorance of science. They all see science as a conspiratorial propaganda machine whilst never considering the role science has played in giving them the historically unprecedented lifestyle that they take for granted.

I’ve never talked about my job (what I do for a living) on this blog before, but I’m going to because it’s relevant in an oblique way. I’m a project planner on generally very high tech, complex manufacturing and infrastructure projects. There are 2 parts to my job: planning for the future (in the context of the project); and predicting the future. It should be obvious that you can’t do one without the other. I like to think I’m good at my job because over a period of decades I’ve become better at predicting the future in that particular context; it’s a combination of science and experience. Of course, my predictions are not always well received but I’ve found that integrity is more valuable in the long term than acquiescence.

The relevance of this professional vanity to the subject at hand is that science is very good at predicting natural events and this is the specific nature of the issue of climate change. The process of democracy, which we see as underpinning both our government and our society at large, effectively undermines scientific predictions when they are negative. Politicians know that it’s suicide at the polls to say anything negative which is why they only do so when it’s already happened.

To return to the New Scientist article that initiated this meditation, it’s actually a book review (Being Ecological by Timothy Morton) reviewed by Ben Collyer (which I haven’t read). According to Morton, as related by Collyer, it’s the divide between humanities and science that is part of the problem in that people are ignorant of the science that’s telling us the damage we are doing on a global scale. Collyer also reviews Our Oldest Task: Making Sense of Our Place in Nature by Eric T Freyfogle (not read by me either) and he intermingles them in his discussion. Basically, since the emergence of agriculture and the dominant religions we see ourselves as separate from nature. This is a point that Jeremy Lent also makes in The Patterning Instinct (which I have read).

We call this the Anthropocene era and we are increasingly insulating ourselves from the natural world though technology, which I find a paradox. Why a paradox? Because technology is born out of science, and science, by definition and in practice, is the study of the natural world in all its manifestations. We are on an economically driven treadmill that delegates science to technological inventions whose prime purpose is to feed consumerism by promising us lives of unprecedented affluence. This is explored in recent books, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (which I recently reviewed) and Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman (which I’ve read but not reviewed). I would argue that we are making the wrong types of sacrifices in order to secure our future. A future that ignores the rest of nature or is premised on the unacknowledged belief that we are independent of nature cannot be sustained indefinitely. The collapse of civilisations in the past are testament to this folly.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Why is there something rather than nothing (in 400 words)

This is another ‘Question of the Month’ from Philosophy Now (Issue 123, December 2017 / January 2018). My 8th submission, with 6 from 7 previously published. I think this is my best yet, so I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t get a guernsey. It depends on the other submissions – after all, it’s a competition and they only select 12 or less.

I’ve written on this topic before in a more lengthy post, but enforced brevity and succinctness sharpens one’s focus.



This is arguably the most fundamental question in philosophy. I once heard a respected philosopher (in a debate) say it was the ‘wrong question’, without proffering a ‘right question’. I thought this was a cop-out, not to mention a not-so-subtle evasion. But there are two aspects to this question, and most attempted answers only address one. We inhabit a universe we believe to be around 14 billion years old, and proto-human consciousness only existed about 6 million years ago, with homo sapiens arriving on the scene only very recently – roughly 200,000 years ago. But here’s the thing: without a conscious entity to perceive the Universe, there might as well be nothing.

Einstein famously said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it’s comprehensible.” Many scientists, if not most, believe that the Universe and our evolutionary status within it is just a freak accident – we are fortunate spectators to the most complex natural phenomenon in the whole of creation. Paul Davies in his eruditely written book, The Goldilocks Enigma, calls this interpretation, the ‘absurd universe’.

A number of scholars of physics and cosmology, both contemporary and historical, have pointed out that there are certain dimensionless numbers pertaining to fundamental physical laws that permit complex life forms to evolve in the Universe. Even small variances in these numbers, either up or down, could have made the Universe lifeless for one reason or another. And as cosmologist, John Barrow, has pointed out, the Universe needs to be of the mind-boggling scale we observe to allow time for complex life (meaning us) to evolve.

The standard answer to this enigma is that there are up to an infinite number of universes. If this is the case, then there are an infinite number of you and me. The multi-verse solves the problem by saying that all solutions are equally valid, which doesn’t explain anything, except to say that the freak accident of our existence can only be understood within an endless sea of all possible existences.

Brandon Carter coined and defined two anthropic principles. The weak anthropic principle says that only a universe that contains observers can be observed, which is a tautology. The strong anthropic principle says that only a universe that permits observers to emerge can exist. A universe requires consciousness to be self-realised, otherwise it’s effectively non-existent; in the same way that a lost manuscript by Shakespeare would be... non-existent.



I must say that I find it a touch ironic that the most popular 'scientific' answer to this question is that there is an infinite amount of everything. Which may be right, yet we may never know.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Who and what do you think you are?

I think it’s pretty normal when you start reading a book (talking non-fiction), you tend to take a stance, very early on, of general agreement or opposition. It’s not unlike the well known but often unconscious effect when you appraise someone in the first 10-30 seconds of meeting them.

And this is the case with Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, in which I found myself constantly arguing with him in the first 70+ pages of its 450+ page length. For a start, I disagree with his thesis (for want of a better term) that our universal pursuit of ‘happiness’ is purely a sensory-based experience, independent of the cause. From what I’ve observed, and experienced personally, the pursuit of sensory pleasure for its own sake leads to disillusionment at best and self-destruction at worst. A recent bio-pic I saw of Eric Clapton (Life in 12 Bars) illustrates this point rather dramatically. I won’t discuss his particular circumstances – just go and see the film; it’s a warts and all confessional.

If one goes as far back as Aristotle, he wrote an entire book on the subject of ‘eudaimonia’ – living a ‘good life’, effectively – under the title, Ethics. Eudaimonia is generally translated as ‘happiness’ but ‘fulfilment’ or ‘contentment’ may be a better translation, though even they can be contentious, if one reads various scholarly appraisals. I’ve argued in the past that the most frustrating endeavours can be the most rewarding – just ask anyone who has raised children. Generally, I find that the more effort one exerts during a process of endeavour, the better the emotional reward in the end. Reward without sacrifice is not much of a reward. Ask anyone who’s won a sporting grand final, or, for that matter, written a novel.

This is a book that will challenge most people’s beliefs somewhere within its pages, and for that reason alone, it’s worth reading. In fact, many people will find it depressing, because a recurring theme or subtext of the book is that in the future humans will become virtually redundant. Redundant may be too strong a word, but leaving aside the obvious possibility that future jobs currently performed by humans may be taken over by AI, Harari claims that our very notion of ‘free will’ and our almost ‘religious’ belief in the sanctity of individualism will become obsolete ideals. He addresses this towards the end of  the book, so I’ll do the same. It’s a thick tome with a lot of ideas well presented, so I will concentrate on those that I feel most compelled to address or challenge.

Like my recent review of Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct, there is a lot that I agree upon in Homo Deus, and I’m the first to admit that many of Harari’s arguments unnerved me because they challenge some of my deeply held beliefs. Given the self-ascribed aphorism that heads my blog, this makes his book a worthy opus for discussion.

Fundamentally, Harari argues that we are really nothing more than biochemical algorithms and he provides very compelling arguments to justify this. Plus he devotes an entire chapter deconstructing the widely held and cherished notion that we have free will. I’ve written more than a few posts on the subject of free will in the past, and this is probably the pick of them. Leaving that aside for the moment, I don’t believe one can divorce free will from consciousness. Harari also provides a lengthy discussion on consciousness, where I found myself largely agreeing with him because he predominantly uses arguments that I’ve used myself. Basically, he argues that consciousness is an experience so subjective that we cannot objectively determine if someone else is conscious or not – it’s a condition we take on trust. He also argues that AI does not have to become conscious to become more intelligent than humans; a point that many people seem to overlook or just misconstrue. Despite what many people like to believe or think, science really can’t explain consciousness. At best it provides correlations between neuron activity in our brains and certain behaviours and ‘thoughts’.

Harari argues very cogently that science has all but proved the non-existence of free will and gives various examples like the famous experiments demonstrating that scientists can determine someone’s unconscious decision before the subject consciously decides. Or split brain experiments demonstrating that people who have had their corpus callosum surgically severed (the neural connection between the left and right hemispheres) behave as if they have 2 brains and 2 ‘selves’. But possibly the most disturbing are those experiments where scientists have turned rats literally into robots by implanting electrodes in their brains and then running a maze by remotely controlling them as if they were, in fact, robots and not animals.

Harari also makes the relevant point, overlooked by many, that true randomness, which lies at the heart of quantum mechanics, and seems to underpin all of reality, does not axiomatically provide free will. He argues that neuron activity in our brains, which gives us thoughts and intentions (which we call decisions), is a combination of reactions to emotions and drives (all driven by biochemical algorithms) and pure randomness. According to Harari, science has shown, at all levels, that free will is an illusion. If it is an illusion then it’s a very important one. Studies have shown that people who have been disavowed of their free will suffer psychologically. We know this from the mental health issues that people suffer when hope is severely curtailed in circumstances beyond their control. The fact is I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t want to believe that they are responsible for their own destiny within the limitations of their abilities and the rules of the society in which they live.

Harari makes the point himself, in a completely different section of the book, that given all behaviours, emotions and desires are algorithmically determined by bio-chemicals, then consciousness appears redundant. I’ve made the point before that there are organic entities that do respond biochemically to their environment without consciousness and we call them plants or vegetation. I’ve argued consistently that free will is an attribute of consciousness. Given the overall theme of Harari’s book, I would contend that AI will never have consciousness and therefore will never have free will.

In a not-so-recent post, I argued how beliefs drive science. Many have made the point that most people basically determine a belief heuristically or intuitively and then do their best to rationalise it. Even genius mathematicians (like John Nash) start with a hunch and then employ their copious abilities in logic and deduction to prove themselves right.

My belief in free will is fundamental to my existentialist philosophy and is grounded more on my experience than on arguments based in science or philosophy. I like to believe that the person I am today is a creation of my own making. I base this claim on the fact that I am a different person to the one who grew up in a troubled childhood. I am far from perfect yet I am a better person and, most importantly, someone who is far more comfortable in their own skin than I was with my younger self. The notion that I did this without ‘free will’ is one I find hard to construe.

Having said that, I’ve also made the point in previous posts that memory is essential to consciousness and a sense of self. I’ve suffered from temporary memory loss (TGA or transient global amnesia) so I know what it’s like to effectively lose one’s mind. It’s disorientating, even scary, and it demonstrates how tenuous our grip on reality can be. So I’m aware, better than most, that memory is the key to continuity.

Harari’s book is far more than a discussion on consciousness and free will. Like Lent’s The Patterning Instinct (reviewed here), he discusses the historical evolvement of culture and its relevance to how we see ourselves. But his emphasis is different to Lent’s and he talks about 20th Century politics in secular societies as effectively replacing religion. In fact, he defines religion (using examples) as what gives us meaning. He differentiates between spirituality and religion, arguing that there is a huge ‘gap’ between them. According to Harari, spirituality is about ‘the journey’, which reminds me of my approach to writing fiction, but what he means is that people who undertake ‘spiritual’ journeys are iconoclasts. I actually agree that religion is all about giving meaning to our lives, and I think that in secular societies, humanist liberalism has replaced religion in that role for many people, which is what Harari effectively argues over many pages.

Politically, he argues that in the 20th Century we had a number of experiments, including the 2 extremes of communism and fascism, both of which led to totalitarian dictatorships; as well as socialist and free market capitalism, which are effectively the left and right of democracies in Western countries. He explains how capitalism and debt go hand in hand to provide all the infrastructure and technological marvels we take for granted and why economic growth is the mantra of all politicians. He argues that knowledge growth is replacing population growth as the engine of economic growth whilst acknowledging that the planet won’t cope. Unlike Jeremy Lent, he doesn’t discuss the unlearned lessons of civilization collapse in the past - most famously, the Roman Empire.

I think that is most likely a topic for another post, so I will return to the thesis that religion gives us meaning. I believe I’ve spent my entire life searching for meaning and that I’ve found at least part of the answer in mathematics. I say ‘part’ because mathematics provides meaning for the Universe but not for me. In another post (discussing Eugene Wigner’s famous essay) I talked about the 2 miracles: that the Universe is comprehensible and that same Universe gave rise to an intelligence that could access that comprehensibility. The medium that allows both these miracles to occur is, of course, mathematics.

So, in some respects, virtually irrelevant to Harari’s tome, mathematics is my religion. As for meaning for myself, I think we all look for purpose, and purpose can be found in relationships, in projects and in just living. Curiously, Harari, towards the very end of his book, argues that ‘dataism’ will be the new religion, because data drives algorithms and encompasses everything from biological life forms to art forms like music. All digital data can be distilled into zeros and ones, but the mathematics of the Universe is not algorithmic, though others might disagree. In other words, I don’t believe we live inside a universe-size computer simulation.

The subtitle of Harari’s book is A Brief History of Tomorrow, and basically he argues that our lives will be run by AI algorithms that will be more clever than our biochemical algorithms. He contends that, contrary to expectations, the more specialist a job is the more likely it will be taken over by an algorithm. This does not only include obvious candidates like medical prognoses and stockmarket decisions (already happening) but corporate takeover decisions, in-the-field military decisions, board appointments and project planning decisions. Harari argues that there will be a huge class of people he calls the ‘useless class’, which would be most of us.

And this is where he argues that our liberal individualistic freedom ideals will become obsolete, because algorithms will understand us better than we do. This is premised on the idea that our biochemical algorithms, that unbeknownst to us, already control everything we do, will be overrun by AI algorithms in ways that we won’t be conscious of.  He gives the example of Angelina Jolie opting to have a double mastectomy based, not on any symptoms she had, but on the 87% probability she would get breast cancer calculated by an algorithm that looked at her genetic data. Harari extrapolates this further by predicting that in the future we will all have biomedical monitoring to a Google-like database that will recommend all our medical decisions. What’s more the inequality gap will widen because wealthy people will be genetically enhanced ‘techno-humans’ and, whilst it will trickle down, the egalitarian liberalist ideal will vanish.

Most of us find this a scary scenario, yet Harari argues that it’s virtually inescapable based on the direction we are heading, whereby algorithms are already attempting to influence our decisions in voting, purchasing and lifestyle choices. He points out that Facebook has already demonstrated that it has enough information on its users to profile them better than their friends, and sometimes even their families and spouses. So this is Orwellian, only without the police state.

All in all, this is a brave new world, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. Reading his book, it’s all about agency. He argues that we will give up our autonomous agency to algorithms, only it will be a process by stealth, starting with the ‘smart’ agents we already have on our devices that are like personal assistants. I’ve actually explored this in my own fiction, whereby there is a symbiosis between humans and AI (refer below).

Life experiences are what inform us and, through a process of cumulative ordeals and achievements, create the persona we present to the world and ourselves. Future life experiences of future generations will no doubt include interactions with AI. As a Sci-Fi writer, I’ve attempted to imagine that at some level: portraying a super-intelligent-machine interface with a heroine space pioneer. In the same story I juxtaposed my heroine with an imaginary indigenous culture that was still very conscious of their place in the greater animal kingdom. My contention is that we are losing that perspective at our own peril. Harari alludes to this throughout his opus, but doesn’t really address it. I think our belief in our individualism with our own dreams and sense of purpose is essential to our psychological health, which is why I’m always horrified when I see oppression, whether it be political or marital or our treatment of refugees. I read Harari’s book as a warning, which aligns with his admission that it’s not prophecy.


Addendum:  I haven't really expressed my own views on consciousness explicitly, because I've done that elsewhere, when I reviewed Douglas Hofstadter's iconoclastic and award-winning book, Godel Escher Bach.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Socrates – the first philosopher

I’m aware that this is a moot point, as many claim that Thales was the first (Western) philosopher, and some (myself included) have argued that Pythagoras deserves special mention. In fact, both Socrates and Pythagoras were influential to Plato, and Plato has arguably been the most influential philosopher for the rest of us, though many would cite Aristotle, Plato’s most famous pupil.

The point is (as I’ve discussed elsewhere) the long and historically resilient discipline of Western Philosophy started in ancient Greece, and along the way, spawned science, mathematics, logic (think algorithms), epistemology, ethics and ontological ruminations.

I’ve just finished reading a very interesting (not to mention unusually structured) book called Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day by Philip Matyszak. I bought it in a book store in Bowral called The Good Reader (365 Bong Bong St.) – happy to give them a plug. Bowral is best known as the place where Don Bradman grew up (American readers will have no idea what I’m talking about, but all cricket-loving readers will). I also grew up not far from there, though my current home is a good 8hr drive further south (via a dual-carriage freeway).

The subtitle effectively gives the premise for this tome: Where to eat, drink and meet a philosopher – your guide to the cradle of Western culture. In other words, it’s a tour guide of Athens set a ‘generation’ after the Persian war against the Spartans (the famous 300) when Socrates was still alive and Plato was yet to be born. In fact, at one point the author gives a specific historical reference by referring to the ‘urban deme of Kollytos… where in two years’ time, a muscular little baby called Plato will be born.’ In an ‘Author’s Note’ (before the Index) Matyszak explains that he chose a time ‘just before the [Peloponnesian] war began… as it marks both the peak of Athenian splendour and the point just before a certain innocence was lost.’

Not so long ago I reviewed Homer’s Odyssey, and Matyszak cites Homer more than a few times, including specific references, even a quotation, from The Odyssey. Both The Odyssey and Matyszak’s ‘guide’ give a lot of attention to the Gods, and Athena in particular. The point is that the Athenians give a lot of attention to their Gods, with Athena, not surprisingly, having special significance. As Matyszak points out, she is the only Greek Goddess to have a city named after her, which stands to this day. A particular point I conjectured about in that post is confirmed by Matyszak, when he explains that the Athenians take their Gods very seriously, treating them as real entities that can and do interfere in the affairs of mankind. In other words, their beliefs were no less important to them than many people’s religious beliefs are today.

This is not a book I’d necessarily recommend to women readers, as it’s clear that ancient Athens was male chauvinistic in the extreme, which is arguably something else we have inherited from their culture.

Matyszak is very erudite as one would expect from someone who has a doctorate in Roman History from St. John’s College, Oxford, and has also written Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day (obviously a literary trend here). The book is littered with references to words taken from the ancient Greek without our awareness. For example, ‘sycophant’ means ‘fig tell-tale’ and refers to a time when the export of dried figs from Greece was illegal. Another example is ‘symposium’, which could be a philosophical or political discussion attended by someone like Socrates or an orgy of drunken debauchery, or both.

Socrates is referenced no less than 15 times, 3 times more than Plato, but not as often as Athena, who is cited 27 times (not quite double). The point is that I learnt quite a bit about Socrates that I didn’t know beforehand, and Matyszak presents him as someone to be admired: intellectually, morally and courageously.

For a start I didn’t know that Socrates had been a warrior, and even acquitted himself well in battle, fighting a rearguard action ‘like an offended cat’ whilst retreating and, on another occasion, ‘saved the life of the young Alkibiades in a heated battle.’ He was famously henpecked by his wife, Xanthippe, whose attacks extended to the physical, including throwing a chamber pot over his head and ripping off his cloak in the market. According to Matyszak, ‘When asked why he did not return her blows, Socrates replied that Xanthippe was a wife, not a boxing partner.’ One page contains a list of reputed sayings from Socrates, some of which are worth sharing.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that thing is that I know nothing.

If women were equal to men, they would be superior.

Every man should marry. A good wife will make him happy, a bad wife will make him a philosopher.

I was too honest to be a politician and live.


If everyone’s problems were put in one big pile for everyone to take equal shares, most people would be happy to take their own and run.

But, personally, I think the best saying is the one that seems to epitomise his own credo:

To live with honour in this world, actually be what you try to seem to be.

The Oracle at Delphi (who gets a section to herself) purportedly told a young Socrates to ‘know yourself’ and ‘nothing in excess’, both of which are just as relevant today. She also supposedly said that Socrates was the ‘wisest’ (though not to Socrates) – a claim I’ve heard before.

Socrates, by all accounts, was not charismatic or good-looking and was not materialistic. Yet he was wealthy enough to buy his own armour, which was expected in his day if one was conscripted; and all males between 17 and 59 were apparently. Those that couldn’t afford armour still served.

Matyszak gives a good account of Athen’s democracy, which has resonances with democratic governments of today, even though it’s not as democratic as some people think. Certainly, it would have been a revolutionary concept in its day – roughly 500BC. But the resonances with today is that it was divided between the masses and the aristocrats who mutually distrusted and disliked each other. In today’s world one could replace the aristocrats with corporate leaders and the masses with all the employees that the corporations depend upon.

Back in ancient Athens the masses comprised, not only everyone who produced everything, but also the army, upon which the aristocracy depended. The aristocracy would have overturned the democratic process if they could because they believed that they were meant to rule and the masses were like parasites. This is a point of view that I believe is still held by many people in positions of power today.

To be fair to Matyszak, he describes the process in some detail, so my summary loses some nuance in its brevity. One of the points worth noting is that the assembly was not very tolerant of someone providing expert advice in an area that was not their expertise, even if they were aristocratic. For example, they would expect someone talking about ship-building to be a shipwright.

It’s well known that Socrates fell foul of the assembly. Aristophanes, a celebrated playwright, ‘in a satirical play, The Clouds, [depicted] Socrates (and philosophers in general) as mocking the Gods and teaching dishonest arguments.’ Specifically, ‘Aristophanes has a young man learning how to use sophistic arguments to avoid paying his debts, and is taught by Socrates to disrespect his parents.’

I don’t think anyone knows the full political context of Socrates’ demise, but we can assume that he did not back down from a fight, physically or intellectually. He was, one suspects, someone who was willing to die for his principles.

Does he deserve the epithet, the first philosopher? It needs to be pointed out that the famous Socratic dialogue style was given to us by Plato, though many believe that he learnt this from Socrates himself. Nevertheless, the Socratic dialogues of Plato (the only ones recorded) undoubtedly reflect Plato’s views and not Socrates’, who may or may not have agreed with his student on specific arguments where he is represented.

I’ve always felt that the core feature of philosophy, as we’ve inherited it in the West, is argument, and it seems to me that this particular method of philosophy started with Socrates. Philosophy without argument is prescriptive like the Ten Commandments or the sayings of Confucius. Argument, augmented by analysis, is how I would describe philosophy as it’s practiced today.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Advice for new writers

I wrote this so long ago, I can't remember when; but it was when I was bold enough to believe that I could teach creative writing in a course. I eventually did teach a writing course, many years later, along slightly different lines to what I propose here. Having said that, I believe everything I say here is still relevant. Anyone who has read Elvene will know that I practice what I preach.

I should point out that I've changed my 'method', for want of a better term, since I wrote this, in that I usually write one draft, but I do 'sketches' on the side. That is the method that I developed through trial and error, and that is the method I used for Elvene. As I keep repeating, every writer has to find their own method that works for them.

Having taught a course, albeit briefly, I know that the exercises one gives out are more important instruction than anything I might say. As in all activities, doing provides the best learning.

I originally called this 'Notes on Writing'.


Writing

Anyone can write - if you can talk you can write. You only need a subject and the desire to communicate knowledge about it. It is exactly what I am doing now.

But writing a narrative is another issue altogether. You have to create characters, plots, human relationships, and then glue them all together in such a way that they appear real. Sounds impossible doesn't it? Well it almost is. But if you have the desire and the creative source to feed that desire, then you can.

You have to have a subject and something to say; and no one can provide that but you. But the skills and the tools and the techniques can be learnt. They can be improved upon and mastered, not unlike learning a musical instrument, the only difference being that the music has to come from you.

So what is the difference between writing and creative writing? Creative writing is a broad term that covers many forms, including plays, screenplays, short stories and poems. To avoid any miscomprehension I will narrow the focus - what I am talking about is simply narrative, I call it narrative fiction.

Fundamentally, writing narrative, as opposed to writing any other form of text, is that it's art, and in that sense it has more in common with music, painting, film-making and any other form of creative expression, than it has with simple communication.

Communication is directly associated with language, ideas and to a large extent, logic. They all arise from the left side of the brain. Artistic expression, in any form, arises from the right side. Creative writing, in all its forms, not just narrative, is quite simply writing with the right side of the brain. That then, is the whole purpose of this course: to teach you to write with the right side of your brain. And quite frankly, at my very best, that is all I can teach you. What you do with that skill, once you've acquired it, is really up to your own imagination.

Writing as Art - Narrative Prose.

I have my own definition of art. Art is the transference of an emotion, experience or abstract idea 'felt' by one person: the artist; to another: the recipient. The recipient can be anyone, but for the transference to work, there has to be a sense of identity in the work - something the recipient, in the case of writing, the reader - can relate to.

That's it in a nutshell. Sounds simple, but in truth, requires a lot of work to be successful. It is the combination of a lot of factors, including talent, conviction, practice and sheer perseverance.

Counterpoint

While on the subject of writing as art, I wish to express a very personal point of view. I don't believe in the process of writing as compiling an assortment of dissociated ideas, topics and scenes; experimenting with them by applying various tools and techniques; and by so doing, creating an original story.

I believe instead, that you should have an idea and possibly a character, together with a very tentative plot before you even put pen to paper. Otherwise what you write may be a creative work, and it no doubt will in the final analysis, say something. But I fail to see the merit, or even the pleasure, of creating a work with no original goal in mind.

The exercises I put to you, I admit, will not have a goal in terms of creating a finished narrative. They are quite simply just what they claim to be - exercises. But I hope they will teach you skills and techniques, and help you develop 'tools' that you can put into practice in achieving your own literary goals. That is the fundamental purpose of this course.

Plot & Character

To start a novel, or any story for that matter, you need three essential ingredients. You need to create a world, at least one character, and a plot of some sort, even if it's only in concept form.
The world simply means time and place - a setting. But I don't mean setting in a theatrical sense that can change from scene to scene, but in a more universal sense, like a map that encompasses the whole story. And I'm not just talking about physical parameters, but also demography, society, civilisation and everything that involves the central character.

The main character is generally the whole purpose of the story but this should be rendered unselfconsciously. He (or she) is usually, but not always, the vehicle for your transference, but you should never think about this on a conscious level - it should quite simply happen - evolve, if you like, with the story itself.

Plot and character are inseparable in the same way that matter and gravity are inseparable. One creates the other, which then affects everything else. They are mutually inclusive, and if you think about it, this is equally true of life.

The plot is best thought of as the vehicle for the characters development. The plot in fiction is life's equivalent to fate. As a writer, you are God. You create the world, and you create the challenges, disasters and pitfalls. The characters' growth, then, is dependent on their response to the situations you create. That is why the best novels are imitations of life, at least on a psychological level.

From the perspective I've given above, you can see that the pinnacle of this trinity is the Character. Both the World and the Plot are only significant in that they interact with the character, and to some extent, create the character. This, also, is true of life.

Counterpoint

It should be pointed out that there are basically two different types of novels: in one, the emphasis is on plot, and in the other, the emphasis is on character. All writers create their own balance between these two aspects which can be thought of as vertical and horizontal. The vertical aspect is the character, and the horizontal aspect is the plot. Popular novels put the emphasis on plot or horizontal aspect. This keeps the story ticking over and maintains the reader's interest. They are entertainment novels, not thought-provoking, and are not meant to be. They are escapism, and I read them the same as everyone else for the same reasons. They are not necessarily of lesser value, and if they are well written, can become classics within their own field. The best examples which spring immediately to mind, are John Le Carré's George Smiley novels.

In conclusion, a story can be thought of as a journey, and the best stories contain an external journey and an internal journey, which are essentially associated with the plot and the character. The external journey, as in life, provides the forces for the internal journey.

Developing Character


I rarely describe my characters - I let the reader create their own picture. When you create a character, you are not making a physical model, you are creating a person who has emotions, motivations, temperament, fears, loves and distractions - someone just like you.

You should unfold a character to the reader as real people unfold to you. Remember your first impressions of someone, and then as you get to know them how they reveal more of themselves by what they think, what they do, and how they respond to certain situations. This is how you reveal a character to your audience – he or she develops in the unfolding of the story - that is why character and plot are so interrelated.

When you first create a character, you, yourself, might know very little about him (or her), so you give them some freedom - observe as the reader would: see how they respond to things, what friendships, loves or insecurities they develop. If you can detach yourself in this way from your creation, you'll find he or she becomes more and more like a real person.

So don't try and create a fully rounded character straight off. Sure, you have some preconceptions of him or her, as you have of anyone you first meet. But put them in the story, then let them reveal themselves.

Counterpoint

We use source material for characters even though we don't know it. In this respect writing is very similar to acting, and I'm surprised that more people don't see the connection. Both writers and actors create characters, and they both use the same material: either themselves or people they know. Even when you use someone you know, you are not putting that person into your story, you are using them as a model, the same as you use your own experiences as a model for your creation.

Dialogue

Dialogue is obviously very closely related to character. I personally find it hard to write convincing dialogue until I know my characters fairly well.

Dialogue serves two purposes: it informs the reader of something pertinent to the story, and it reveals something about the character. It is also, most obviously, the main source of interaction between characters, and if you give it that perspective - as an interaction between two or more characters - you'll find that's the easiest way to write it.

Don't use dialogue to preach to your readers - as a mouthpiece for your own opinions. Dialogue must have relevance to the characters and the story otherwise it's simply boring. Sometimes a character can say something profound, and it can work very well, but it only works when it's said in context with the moment and it's not contrived.

Mix dialogue and prose, that way you create a picture, a tableau that is believable. A test for good dialogue is to leave out the characters' identities - not identify who's talking - and see if it stands up.

Exposition

Exposition is probably the easiest form of prose to write and ostensibly the most boring to read. Exposition is the most common form of non-fiction prose, and it's not all boring - take this text for example. But the question needs to be raised: is there a place for exposition in fiction?
In simple terms, exposition is explanation, as opposed to the more common forms of narrative: action, description, introspection and dialogue. I use the word introspection for 'characters' thoughts'.

There is a very relevant adage to writing fiction, 'Show, don't tell', and I would have to endorse that as a principle, but there are other factors to be taken into account as well. The most important principle, I believe, is making every word count. Sometimes, just sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness, it is easier to tell than to show, and sometimes it is more relevant. There are certain rules in writing exposition that make it more acceptable and readable. My own personal rule is that exposition should always be written from a specific character's point of view - that way it doesn't intrude into the story as an external element. This makes the distinction between exposition and introspection very fine, if not indistinguishable. Exposition which is not a character's thought, must, by definition, be written in narrator's voice. If the narrator isn't identified with a specific character, then he is omniscient. This too, is a form of acceptable prose and is not breaking any rules.

The other rule I personally endorse, is that exposition, where possible should do more than explain - it should provoke and stimulate. It needs to be there for a reason, unless of course you are simply trying to save words. But you as a writer have to make that decision. If showing is more boring than telling, then tell.

Counterpoint

When you first start writing, you'll most likely do a lot of writing in exposition without even realising it. This will even come out in the exercises I give you. Exposition is in broad terms, writing with the left side of the brain, and with practice, will disappear as a dominating factor in your writing. But don't fight it at first, because it can help you to get the bedrock of your story onto paper. When you undertake revision, you'll find that as a style it will jar you, thus forcing you to rewrite in different narrative forms. This will also force you to delete whole scenes and write completely new ones - this is all part of the process, and is what makes writing so painstaking as well as rewarding.

Introspection


Introspection, or 'Characters' thoughts', should not be mistaken as unspoken dialogue, and could probably be more accurately described as insight. In that respect it has a special function which is pretty well self-explanatory. It allows the reader to get inside the character's head, and that is what makes narrative fiction unique, not only in art, but in all forms of story-telling. Certainly, you can have soliloquies in plays and films, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and it is not their natural mode, whereas in narrative fiction it is the natural mode, and that's the difference.

Streams of Conscious novels are almost entirely written in this narrative form, but that is not an element of writing I wish to pursue, not because of any prejudice I have, but because of my lack of experience in that arena.

So introspection (my own term) is to give the reader specific insight into a character's thoughts, motives and feelings. There is nothing much else one can say about it, except not to rely on it too heavily, and use it for selective characters in selective situations. In other words use basic common sense.

Description

There is really only one rule about description - it should be relevant. Description can be the most boring form of prose, even more boring than exposition, it's the part of a narrative that people will skip over in order to get on with the story. So how do we avoid that?

One way is to simply avoid it as much as possible, prune it to a minimum; but there are less severe measures. Remember you are working with the reader's imagination, so you use all their senses. Let them feel, touch and taste things. Atmosphere - evoke emotions and sensations - create ambience.

Just for a moment, compare the sensations of a book to the sensations from a film. In a film everything is portrayed in absolute detail, but how much of that detail actually gets through. Now think back to the novel - is it necessary to describe every scene in absolute detail: the detail conveyed in a film? No. So use cues, not just visual cues, but any that come to hand. The advantage of relating a story from a specific character's point of view is that you pass their sensations directly onto your reader - that is the whole secret of narrative prose.

I have a personal rule that description has to be absolutely relevant to the story; even then I try to weld it into the narrative so that the reader passes through it without perceiving a conscious interface. Remember that the reader will always paint a different picture in their mind to yours; so let them. Your description should be like props on a stage rather than elaborate full-house scenery.

Do not be afraid to use imagery or metaphor, but keep it original and relevant. Remember imagery and metaphor should come unbidden, like composer's notes, otherwise it reads like dough that has failed to rise.

Counterpoint

You should never be conscious of writing description, or any other form of prose. When you can move from dialogue to introspection to exposition to description to action without conscious thought, but just as the narrative demands it, then you've mastered the art of writing narrative fiction. Your prose should flow without discontinuity, just like a horse changes gait over difficult terrain. This even comes down to lengths of sentences and paragraphs. It needs to be done by feel and intuition, but the tools only come with practice.

Action

Outside of dialogue, action is probably the most challenging form of narrative to write. It is in a technical sense, a special case of description, but there are fundamental differences.

The key to writing action, even a complicated scene like a battlefield, is to portray it from only one character's point of view, after all only a limited number of things can happen to one person at one time. The other essential point is to remember that action is always linear. It is, in analysis, a sequence of events within a specific time frame. And that is the fundamental difference between action and description - it has the added dimension of time. So you must use that dimension to best effect.

There are different types of action - the most obvious is adrenalin pumping, but often it is not dramatic at all, and sometimes it may not even involve a character.

Counterpoint

Many of the issues raised in writing description apply equally well to action. The best way to evoke an emotional response to action is to get inside the character's head - transfer their emotions and feelings to the reader's imagination.

Always use the reader's imagination - that is the essential connection - your imagination to theirs. If you are always conscious of that, you'll stop writing bad prose.

Point of View

A lot is said about point of view, but the only relevant point to remember is whether the point of view is inside the story or outside the story. Most writers like to keep the point of view inside the story which means it is always being related from the point of view of one of the characters. This is true whether the point of view is first person or third person intimate. Another point of view is third person omniscient, which means that the narrator is the story's equivalent to God.

First person usually, but not always, tells the whole narrative from a single character's point of view, whereas third person intimate changes point of view from one character to another according to circumstances. Third person intimate has obvious advantages, in that the narrator has more freedom, and can also give more insight into more characters through 'introspection'. For this reason it is the most common form of narration.

Style

Style is not something you create deliberately - it is a natural result of writing with the right side of your brain. If you deliberately try and write in a style or emulate a style, you will probably fail - it is something that evolves in the course of your work.

It can be best perceived by comparing it to musical styles - I don't mean jazz, rock, classical, but different styles within those boundaries. Consider the different musical forms that different musicians/composers can get from a common instrument. Have you ever noticed that musicians have a 'signature', that you can immediately recognise. Electric guitarists are probably the best example, but also pianists, and even classical composers - compare Beethoven to Bach for example.

Likewise, writers develop their own 'voice' - a narrative voice as distinct from their language voice - and that is their style. That does not mean to say that writers don't change their style according to different types of stories they may write, but generally writers are consistent in their style if they remain consistent to their genre.

Counterpoint

Style has a lot to do with your own preferences in story-telling. Most writers have a preferable point of view, and most rely heavily on two or three modes of narrative, rather than all five. But there are many elements of writing that affect style, and analysing them, while it may prove interesting, is not necessarily helpful to you as a writer.

Your own style will be affected by your reading preferences, but it is more of a subconscious activity than a conscious one. If you concentrate on the content of your work and its transference to the reader, then style will take care of itself.

Some personal notes on writing a novel

Writing a novel is often described by writers as going into a tunnel - it is a very apt metaphor. It suggests a one way journey, and it conjures up the loneliness and self-reliance imposed, as well as the perseverance and sheer concentration required to complete the journey.

But, from my experience, I would use a slightly different metaphor - I see it as a road, self-made, on a very large map. The road gives a subtly different emphasis. When you travel a road you are focusing on a distant goal or goals, milestones that seen at a distance are simply points to be aimed at, while the real work and concentration takes place close at hand where details are closely observed and the construction takes place painstakingly slow and progressive.

The two points are important - you need something in the distance to focus on, otherwise you're construction may be impeccable, but it is also aimless and meandering. More obviously, the real work is done at your current point in the story, where words and sentences are laid down like bricks and mortar, creating an edifice that can only be seen in your mind's eye.

When you get closer to the end of your road, you'll find yourself looking back more often than forward, because the perspective at the end of the novel includes everything that has gone before. Also when you're near the end, most of the work has been done - you're not left with a lot of freedom to create any additional impact, unpredictable endings notwithstanding.

Of course I'm talking about the first draft, which means that you'll go back over your road many times, patching holes, repaving whole sections, and sometimes creating detours and/or shortcuts. But the first draft is the bedrock of your story - it may be badly written, and in most cases it is, but you should not change the course of your story in consequent drafts. You may make subtle shifts in emphasis, flesh out one or more characters because you now know them better, but otherwise the first draft dictates both the course and the focus of your story. Anything less than that means starting another journey.

The map is what you start with - it dictates the physical and abstract parameters of your story. It is probably not clearly defined when you start, nevertheless it must exist in your mind if not on paper.

Another point is to treat the story like life - if something has happened that is pivotal to the story or to one of the characters, don't regress and change it because it makes 'life' easier. If you really do feel you've made a wrong turn, then stop, and don't start again until you are sure you are going in the right direction. Sure, there are times when you feel like you are fumbling around in the dark trying to make some connection that seems elusive, but often a break is what's required. If you persevere, and if you believe in yourself, then the connection is always found again, and it is like turning on a light. In fact writing a novel is not unlike realising a vision, and the vision starts off as the map, only becoming concrete as you make the journey - the same journey your readers will follow.

Counterpoint

The above comments are my own personal experience of writing a novel. It is important to point out that there are probably as many different ways to write a book as there are writers. For example, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret), apparently never took a break from a work-in-progress. If Simenon was forced to take a break he simply threw the work away and started something completely new. As the most prolific French writer of the last century, he did that all of three times, or so I'm led to believe.

But most writers do see their work as a solitary occupation. To discuss your works-in-progress is to dissipate your creative energy, and it contaminates your work - receiving feedback too early can interfere with your own personal vision. Most importantly, writing alone assures that you are not inhibited to express yourself. As a rule never show your work until you are ready for a second opinion - you need to be confident that the work can take feedback without losing its fundamental integrity.

Writing plays and screenplays is a different matter. I've had no experience with plays, but they are often work-shopped in a group environment that is completely contradictory to the solitary occupation of a novelist. Stage and cinema requires interaction with a whole team of players and technicians, whereas writing a novel is one of the most introverted and solitary forms of art that one can attempt.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

God and science

Sometimes people I disagree and argue with hold extreme positions. This frequently happens in politics and religion, and it’s currently happening globally in the Western world. A curious observation I’ve made is that people, who hold an extreme position, often assume that anyone who disagrees with them holds the extreme opposite position – there’s no room for compromise or nuance.

This is especially true when arguing about religion. People who believe that the Bible is the sole arbiter of truth, when challenged, will automatically assume that the challenger is a militant atheist in the mould of Richard Dawkins. I’ve struck this from both sides. For example, on this blog, when I once pointed out to an anonymous contributor that the Universe created the means to understand itself (a point I’ve often iterated), I was told that I must be a creationist.

The reality is that extreme positions begat extreme opposition. So, when Islamists practice extreme prejudice against non-Muslims (to the point of genocide) it creates a backlash against all Muslims.

In recent posts, I’ve argued strongly against the idea that ‘mind’ pre-originated the Universe and therefore us. This could be taken as an argument against God, but it’s not. Mind is something that we experience and it has evolved. Most scientists and most people (with a Western education) believe that there existed a time in the Universe’s history when there was no mind. In fact, in the context of the history of the Universe, it was mostly absent of any mind (that we are familiar with). God, on the other hand, must exist outside the Universe, and therefore, arguably, outside of space and time. Even Augustine made this point (according to Paul Davies, if my memory serves me right, in one of his many books, probably The Mind of God).

I mentioned Dawkins earlier, as an exemplar of someone who holds militant atheist views (by his own admission), yet he’s always referenced Davies with respect, even though they are philosophically miles apart.

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 122, October/November 2017), the theme (they always have a theme) is Socrates, which, of course, must include Plato. In fact, they coin the term ‘Socrato’ and boldly write it on the cover. Within there is an article by Ray Liikanen called The Reverse Solipsist, which is a fictional Socratic dialogue between a resurrected Socrates and a science philosopher (in the mould of Dawkins). I was suitably impressed by this ‘dialogue’ that I looked up a reference for Liikanen at Causalargument.com where there is a 50 page document discussing Kant’s and Hegel’s arguments for ‘first cause’ and Liikanen’s own specific argument, which ostensibly answers Leibniz’s famous question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Liikanen is not credited with any titles or academic credentials (neither am I) but is cited for his essay, Beyond Kant and Hegel, published in The Review of Metaphysics (March 2013).

You are probably wondering what my 3 introductions have in common. Well, the crux of Liikanen’s 50 page argument is that the answer to Leibniz’s question is ‘mind’, and, whilst I disagree with much of his argument and his overall thesis, it contains elements that I actually agree with.

In particular, he references a Socratic dialogue (by Plato this time) whereby he puts a compelling argument (in response to Anaxagoras) that explaining an effect does not explain its cause. Socrates argues by analogy, that explaining how his muscles and bones and sinews work to get him in a sitting position doesn’t explain the motive and mental processes that led him to decide to sit. Liikanen extends this argument to the entire cosmos, whereby cosmology explains the evolvement of the Universe in all its machinations and Evolutionary theory explains the diversity and progenitorial process for speciation, yet no scientific theory explains the cause. To quote Liikanen:

Where all empirically grounded theories naturally fail is that they are limited in their explanatory scope. It is for this same reason that present day apologists employing an empirical method fall into the same kind of fallacious reasoning pointed out by Socrates more than twenty-four centuries ago.

But where I part company with Liikanen is that he argues that ‘pure reason’ can provide answers that empirical science cannot. I argued in a post almost 3 years ago (Dec 2014) that science is a combination of theory, mathematics and evidence, but only evidence can gives us ‘truth’. Mathematics provides abstract truths and its role in formulating physical theories has become increasingly significant in the last 4 centuries (since Galileo, Kepler and Newton), yet, without evidence, mathematically based theories (like String theory) are just theories.

Liikanen takes Kant’s and Hegel’s arguments for a priori deductions over empirically derived ones to give an ‘inevitable’ answer - even a proof - that the cause for the effect we call the Universe is ‘absolute mind’, which, of course, equates to God. I readily admit I can’t do justice to Liikanen’s arguments, given the time and space, but I have a fundamental issue with the premise that pure reason can provide answers that science is unable to furnish. If there is one thing we’ve learnt from science (especially in the last century) it’s that nature’s mechanisms, at all scales, are beyond anything we can imagine. Pure reason is not going to solve a puzzle that science can’t fathom. And, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there will always be puzzles beyond science, because science is a never-ending endeavour. But I actually agree with Liikanen that there are limits to what science can tell us.

Liikanen makes the point that we live in a finite universe (thus far) that arose from an infinite nothingness or void. And here’s the thing: infinity is something that we struggle to grasp cognitively let alone intuitively. Only mathematics provides a home for infinity in a way that we can cognise, even to the extent that we can differentiate between countable infinities and uncountable infinities.

If one looks at other intelligent species like all the primates or dolphins or some species of birds, none of them can grasp the astronomical reality that we have discovered – a discovery that started very early in human development – let alone esoteric topics like quantum mechanics or complex algebra or differential calculus. My point is that there could be concepts that are beyond us in the same way that cosmology is beyond every other species we know.

Science tells us that the Universe is fine-tuned for complex life to emerge, and as I’ve said before, we are the evidence. Whether this implies a God is completely dependent on what one believes irrespective of science. I’ve long argued that science is neutral on the question of God, and I agree with Michio Kaku that whilst there are some unanswered questions that will be answered by science (in say, 100 years time) the existence of God isn’t one of them.

I’ve always maintained that God is totally subjective. Liikanen’s ‘proof’ for the existence of God is a philosophical argument premised on the belief that there must be something instead of nothing even when there was nothing.

Liikanen makes the point, that I’ve often made, that without mind the Universe may as well not exist. But mind is a consequence – it’s an effect rather than a cause.

Liikanen argues that the Universe’s increasing complexity contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. It so happens that I’ve been re-reading Roger Penrose’s book, Fashion Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe, and Penrose spends copious print on this specific topic as he does in virtually every book he writes on cosmology, because it’s a conundrum that most science writers tend to ignore. In my last post, I described entropy as being probabilistic and gave the example of perfume molecules dispersing to all corners of a room instead of congregating in one particular place. Penrose describes a similar scenario, only on the scale of the Universe. The difference is gravity, which makes the particles in the Universe clump together rather than disperse.

Entropy occurs when you have a system in equilibrium, but a system that’s far from equilibrium with an energy source (like the Sun) creates self-organising complexity. Davies makes the same point in The Cosmic Blueprint.

Addendum: My reference to Penrose's book is a bit of a gloss. His discussion is quite elaborate, even dense for some readers, including myself. Having said that, I think it provides a refreshing alternative to String Theory and is worth repeated readings if you're interested.