Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The battle for the future of Islam

There are many works of fiction featuring battles between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’, yet it would not be distorting the truth to say that we are witnessing one now, though I think it is largely misconstrued by those of us who are on the sidelines. We see it as a conflict between Islam and the West, when it’s actually within Islam itself. This came home to me when I recently saw the biographical movie, He Named Me Malala (pronounce Ma-la-li, by the way).

Malala is well known as the 14 year old Pakistani school girl, shot in the head on a school bus by the Taliban for her outspoken views on education for girls in Pakistan. Now 18 years old (when the film was made) she has since won the Nobel Peace Prize and spoken in the United Nations, as well as having audiences with world leaders, like Barak Obama. In a recent interview with Emma Watson (on Emma’s Facebook page) she appeared much wiser than her years. In the movie, amongst her family, she behaves like an ordinary teenager with ‘crushes’ on famous sports stars. In effect, her personal battle with the Taliban represents in microcosm a much wider battle between past and future that is occurring on the world stage within Islam. A battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world.

IS or ISIS or Daesh has arisen out of conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria, but the declaration of a Caliphate has led to a much more serious, even sinister, connotation, because its followers believe they are fulfilling a prophecy which will only be resolved with the biblical end of the world. I’m not an Islamic scholar, so I’m quoting from Audrey Borowski, currently doing a PhD at the University of London, who holds a MSt (Masters degree) in Islamic Studies from Oxford University. She asserts: ‘…one of the Prophet Muhammad’s earliest hadith (sayings) locates the fateful showdown between Christians and Muslims that heralds the apocalypse in the city of Dabiq in Syria.’

“The Hour will not be established until the Romans (Christians) land at Dabiq. Then an army from Medina of the best people on the earth at that time… will fight them.”

She wrote an article of some length in Philosophy Now (Issue 111, Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016) titled Al Qaeda and ISIS; From Revolution to Apocalypse.

The point is that if someone believes they are in a fight for the end of the world, then destroying entire populations and cities is not off the table. They could resort to any tactic, like contaminating water supplies of entire cities or destroying food crops on a large scale. I alluded in the introduction that this apocalyptic ideology, in a fictional context, represents a classic contest between good and evil. From where I (and most people reading this blog) stand, anyone intent on destroying civilization as we know it, would be considered the ultimate evil. 

What is most difficult for us to comprehend is that the perpetrators, the people ‘on the other side’ would see the roles reversed. Earlier this year (April 2015), I wrote a post titled Morality is totally in the eye of the beholder, where I explained how two different cultures in the same country (India) could have completely opposing views concerning a crime against a young woman, who was raped and murdered on a bus returning from seeing a movie with her boyfriend. One view was that the girl was the victim of a crime and the other view was that the girl was responsible for her own fate.

Many people have trouble believing that otherwise ordinary people, who commit evil acts in the form of atrocities, would see themselves as not being evil. We have an enormous capacity to justify to ourselves the most heinous acts, and no where is this more evident, than when one believes they are performing the ‘Will of God’. This is certainly the case with IS and their followers.

Unfortunately, this has led to a backlash in the West against all Muslims. In particular, we see both in social media and mainstream media, and even amongst mainstream politicians, a sentiment that Islam is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reformed. It seems to me that they are unaware that there is already a battle happening within Islam, where militant bodies like IS and Boko Haram and the Taliban represent the worse and a young schoolgirl from Pakistan represents the best.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whom I wrote about in March 2011), said when she was in Australia many years ago, that Islam was not compatible with a secular society, which is certainly true if Islamists wish to establish a religious-based government. There is a group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, who is banned in most Western countries, but not UK or Australia, and whose stated aim is to form a caliphate and whose political agenda, including the introduction of Sharia law, would clearly conflict with Australian law. But the truth is that there are many Muslims living an active and productive life in Australia, whilst still practising their religion. A secular society is not an atheistic society, yet is religiously nondependent by definition. In other words, there is room for variety in religious practice and that is what we see. Extremists of any religious persuasion are generally not well received in a pluralist multicultural society, yet that is the fear that is driving the debate in many secular societies.

Over a year ago (Aug 2014) I wrote a post titled Don’t judge all Muslims the same, based on another article I read in Philosophy Now (Issue 104, May/Jun 2014) by Terri Murray (Master of Theology, Heythrop College, London) who made a very salient point differentiating cultural values and ideals from individual ones.  In particular, she asserted that an individual’s rights overrules the so-called rights of a culture or a community. Therefore, misogynistic issues like female genital mutilation, honour killings, child marriage, all of which are illegal in Australia, are abuses of individual rights that may be condoned, even considered normal practice, in some cultures.

Getting back to my original subject matter, like the case of the Indian girl (a medical graduate) who was murdered for going on a date, this really is a battle between past and future. IS and the Taliban and their variant Islamic ideologies represent a desire to regain a past that has no relevance in the 21st Century – it’s mediaeval, not only in concept but also in practice. One of the consequences of the Internet is that it has become a vehicle for both sides. So young women in far off countries are learning that there is another world where education can lead to a better life. And this is the key: education of women, as Malala has brought to the world’s attention, is the only true way forward. It’s curious that women are what these regimes seem to fear most, including IS, whose greatest fear is to be killed by a female Kurdish warrior, because then they won’t get to Paradise.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Why narcissists are a danger to themselves and others

I expect everyone has met a narcissist, though, like all personality disorders, there are degrees of severity, from the generally harmless egotistical know-it-all to the megalomaniac, who takes control of an entire nation. In between those extremes is the person who somehow self-destructs while claiming it’s everyone else’s fault. They’re the ones who are captain of the ship and totally in control, even when it runs aground, but suddenly claim it’s no longer their fault. I’m talking metaphorically, but this happened quite literally and spectacularly, a couple of years back, as most of you will remember.

The major problem with narcissists is not their self-aggrandisement and over-inflated opinion of their own worth, but their distorted view of reality.

Narcissists have a tendency to self-destruct, not on purpose, but because their view of reality, based on their overblown sense of self-justification, becomes so distorted that they lose perspective and then control, even though everyone around them can see the truth, but are generally powerless to intervene.

They are particularly disastrous in politics but are likely to rise to power when things are going badly, because they are charismatic and their self-belief becomes contagious. Someone said (I don’t know who) that when things are going badly society turns on itself – they were referring to the European witch hunts, which coincided with economic and environmental tribulations. The recent GFC creates ripe conditions for charismatic leaders to feed a population’s paranoia and promise miracle solutions with no basis in rationality. Look at what happened in Europe following the Great Depression of the 20th Century: World War 2. And who started it? Probably the most famous narcissist in recent history. The key element that they have in common with the aforementioned witch-hunters is that they can find someone to blame and, frighteningly, they are believed.

Narcissists make excellent villains as I’ve demonstrated in my own fiction. But one must be careful of whom we demonise lest we become as spiteful and destructive as those we wish not to emulate. Seriously, we should not take them seriously; then all their self-importance and self-aggrandisement becomes comical. Unfortunately, they tend to divide society between those who see themselves as victims and those who see the purported culprits as the victims. In other words, they divide nations when they should be uniting them.

But there are exceptions. Having read Steve Jobs’ biography (by Walter Isaacson) I would say he had narcissistic tendencies, yet he was eminently successful. Many people have commented on his ‘reality-distortion field’, which I’ve already argued is a narcissistic trait, and he could be very egotistical at times, according to anecdotal evidence. Yet he could form deep relationships despite being very contrary in his dealings with his colleagues – building them up one moment and tearing them down the next. But Jobs was driven to strive for perfection, both aesthetically and functionally, and he sought out people who had the same aspiration. He was, of course, extraordinarily charismatic, intelligent and somewhat eccentric. He was a Buddhist, which may have tempered his narcissistic tendencies; but I’m just speculating – I never met him or worked with him – I just used and admired his products like many others. Anyway, I would cite Jobs as an example of a narcissist who broke the mould – he didn’t self-destruct, quite the opposite, in fact.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Centenary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

This month (November 2015) marks 100 years since Albert Einstein published his milestone paper on the General Theory of Relativity, which not only eclipsed Newton’s equally revolutionary Theory of Universal Gravitation, but is still the cornerstone of every cosmological theory that has been developed and disseminated since.

It needs to be pointed out that Einstein’s ‘annus mirabilis’ (miraculous year), as it’s been called, occurred 10 years earlier in 1905, when he published 3 groundbreaking papers that elevated him from a patent clerk in Bern to a candidate for the Nobel Prize (eventually realised of course). The 3 papers were his Special Theory of Relativity, his explanation of the photo-electric effect using the newly coined concept, photon of light, and a statistical analysis of Brownian motion, which effectively proved that molecules made of atoms really exist and were not just a convenient theoretical concept.

Given the anniversary, it seemed appropriate that I should write something on the topic, despite my limited knowledge and despite the plethora of books that have been published to recognise the feat. The best I’ve read is The Road to Relativity; The History and Meaning of Einstein’s “The Foundation of General Relativity” (the original title of his paper) by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jurgen Renn. They have managed to include an annotated copy of Einstein’s original handwritten manuscript with a page by page exposition. But more than that, they take us on Einstein’s mental journey and, in particular, how he found the mathematical language to portray the intuitive ideas in his head and yet work within the constraints he believed were necessary for it to work.

The constraints were not inconsiderable and include: the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass; the conservation of energy and momentum under transformation between frames of reference both in rotational and linear motion; and the ability to reduce his theory mathematically to Newton’s theory when relativistic effects were negligible.

Einstein’s epiphany, that led him down the particular path he took, was the realisation that one experienced no force when one was in free fall, contrary to Newton’s theory and contrary to our belief that gravity is a force. Free fall subjectively feels no different to being in orbit around a planet. The aptly named ‘vomit comet’ is an aeroplane that goes into free fall in order to create the momentary sense of weightlessness that one would experience in space.

Einstein learnt from his study of Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetic radiation, that mathematics could sometimes provide a counter-intuitive insight, like the constant speed of light.

In fact, Einstein had to learn new mathematics (for him) and engaged the help of his close friend, Marcel Grossman, who led him through the technical travails of tensor calculus using Riemann geometry. It would seem, from what I can understand of his mental journey, that it was the mathematics, as much as any other insight, that led Einstein to realise that space-time is curved and not Euclidean as we all generally believe. To quote Gutfreund and Renn:

[Einstein] realised that the four-dimensional spacetime of general relativity no longer fitted the framework of Euclidean geometry… The geometrization of general relativity and the understanding of gravity as being due to the curvature of spacetime is a result of the further development and not a presupposition of Einstein’s formulation of the theory.

By Euclidean, one means space is flat and light travels in perfectly straight lines. One of the confirmations of Einstein’s theory was that he predicted that light passing close to the Sun would be literally bent and so a star in the background would appear to shift as the Sun approached the same line of sight for an observer on Earth as for the star. This could only be seen during an eclipse and was duly observed by Arthur Eddington in 1919 on the island of Principe near Africa.

Einstein’s formulations led him to postulate that it’s the geometry of space that gives us gravity and the geometry, which is curved, is caused by massive objects. In other words, it’s mass that curves space and it’s the curvature of space that causes mass to move, as John Wheeler famously and succinctly expounded.

It may sound back-to-front, but, for me, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity only makes sense in the context of his General Theory, even though they were formulated in the reverse order. To understand what I’m talking about, I need to explain geodesics.

When you fly long distance on a plane, the path projected onto a flat map looks curved. You may have noticed this when they show the path on a screen in the cabin while you’re in flight. The point is that when you fly long distance you are travelling over a curved surface, because, obviously, the Earth is a sphere, and the shortest distance between 2 points (cities) lies on what’s called a great circle. A great circle is the one circle that goes through both points that is the largest circle possible. Now, I know that sounds paradoxical, but the largest circle provides the shortest distance over the surface (we are not talking about tunnels) that one can travel and there is only one, therefore there is one shortest path. This shortest path is called the geodesic that connects those 2 points.

A geodesic in gravitation is the shortest distance in spacetime between 2 points and that is what one follows when one is in free fall. At the risk of information overload, I’m going to introduce another concept which is essential for understanding the physics of a geodesic in gravity.

One of the most fundamental principles discovered in physics is the principle of least action (formulated mathematically as a Lagrangian which is the difference between kinetic and potential  energy). The most commonly experienced example would be refraction of light through glass or water, because light travels at different velocities in air, water and glass (slower through glass or water than air). The extremely gifted 17th Century amateur mathematician, Pierre de Fermat (actually a lawyer) conjectured that the light travels the shortest path, meaning it takes the least time, and the refractive index (Snell’s law) can be deduced mathematically from this principle. In the 20th Century, Richard Feynman developed his path integral method of quantum mechanics from the least action principle, and, in effect, confirmed Fermat’s principle.

Now, when one applies the principle of least action to a projectile in a gravitational field (like a thrown ball) one finds that it too takes the shortest path, but paradoxically this is the path of longest relativistic time (not unlike the paradox of the largest circle described earlier).

Richard Feynman gives a worked example in his excellent book, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. In relativity, time can be subjective, so that a moving clock always appears to be travelling slow compared to a stationary clock, but, because motion is relative, the perception is reversed for the other clock. However, as Feynman points out:

The time measured by a moving clock is called its “proper time”. In free fall, the trajectory makes the proper time of an object a maximum.

In other words, the geodesic is the trajectory or path of longest relativistic time. Any variant from the geodesic will result in the clock’s proper time being shorter, which means time literally slows down. So special relativity is not symmetrical in a gravitational field and there is a gravitational field everywhere in space. As Gutfreund and Renn point out, Einstein himself acknowledged that he had effectively replaced the fictional aether with gravity.

This is most apparent when one considers a black hole. Every massive body has an escape velocity which is the velocity a projectile must achieve to become free of a body’s gravitational field. Obviously, the escape velocity for Earth is larger than the escape velocity for the moon and considerably less than the escape velocity of the Sun. Not so obvious, although logical from what we know, the escape velocity is independent of the projectile’s mass and therefore also applies to light (photons). We know that all body’s fall at exactly the same rate in a gravitational field. In other words, a geodesic applies equally to all bodies irrespective of their mass. In the case of a black hole, the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light, and, in fact, becomes the speed of light at its event horizon. At the event horizon time stops for an external observer because the light is red-shifted to infinity. One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory is that clocks travel slower in a stronger gravitational field, and, at the event horizon, gravity is so strong the clock stops.

To appreciate why clocks slow down and rods become shorter (in the direction of motion), with respect to an observer, one must understand the consequences of the speed of light being constant. If light is a wave then the equation for a wave is very fundamental:

v = f λ , where v is velocity, f is the frequency and λ is the wavelength.

In the case of light the equation becomes c = f λ , where c is the speed of light.

One can see that if c stays constant then f and λ can change to accommodate it. Frequency measures time and wavelength measures distance. One can see how frequency can become stretched or compressed by motion if c remains constant, depending whether an observer is travelling away from a source of radiation or towards it. This is called the Doppler effect, and on a cosmic scale it tells us that the Universe is expanding, because virtually all galaxies in all directions are travelling away from us. If a geodesic is the path of maximum proper time, we have a reference for determining relativistic effects, and we can use the Doppler effect to determine if a light source is moving relative to an observer, even though the speed of light is always c.

I won’t go into it here, but the famous twin paradox can be explained by taking into account both relativistic and Doppler effects for both parties – the one travelling and the one left at home.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Two miracles that are fundamental to the Universe and our place in it

The 2 miracles I’m referring to will not be found in any scripture and God is not a necessary participant, with the emphasis on necessary. I am one of those rare dabblers in philosophy who argues that science is neutral on the subject of God. A definition of miracle is required, so for the purpose of this discussion, I call a miracle something that can’t be explained, yet has profound and far-reaching consequences. ‘Something’, in this context, could be described as a concordance of unexpected relationships in completely different realms.

This is one of those posts that will upset people on both sides of the religious divide, I’m sure, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since I re-read Eugene P. Wigner’s seminal essay, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. I came across it (again) in a collection of essays under the collective title, Math Angst, contained in a volume called The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics edited by Timothy Ferris (1991). This is a collection of essays and excerpts by some of the greatest minds in physics, mathematics and cosmology in the 20th Century.

Back to Wigner, in discussing the significance of complex numbers in quantum mechanics, specifically Hilbert’s space, he remarks:

‘…complex numbers are far from natural or simple and they cannot be suggested by physical observations. Furthermore, the use of complex numbers in this case is not a calculated trick of applied mathematics but comes close to being a necessity in the formulation of the laws of quantum mechanics.’

It is well known, among physicists, that in the language of mathematics, quantum mechanics not only makes perfect sense but is one of the most successful physical theories ever. But in ordinary language it is hard to make sense of it in any way that ordinary people would comprehend it.

It is in this context that Wigner makes the following statement in the next paragraph following the quote above:

‘It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here… or the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.’

Hence the title of my post. The key that links the 2 miracles is mathematics. A number of physicists: Paul Davies, Roger Penrose, John Barrow (they’re just the ones I’ve read); have commented on the inordinate correspondence we find between mathematics and regularities found in natural phenomena that have been dubbed ‘laws of nature’.

The first miracle is that mathematics seems to underpin everything we know and learn about the Universe, including ourselves. As Barrow has pointed out, mathematics allows us to predict the makeup of fundamental elements in the first 3 minutes of the Universe. It provides us with the field equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetic radiation, Schrodinger’s wave function in quantum mechanics and the four digit software code for all biological life we call DNA.

The second miracle is that the human mind is uniquely evolved to access mathematics to an extraordinarily deep and meaningful degree that has nothing to do with our everyday prosaic survival but everything to do with our ability to comprehend the Universe in all the facets I listed above.

The 2 miracles combined give us the greatest mystery of the Universe, which I’ve stated many times on this blog: It created the means to understand itself, through us.

So where does God fit into this? Interestingly, I would argue that when it comes to mathematics, God has no choice. Einstein once asked the rhetorical question, in correspondence with his friend, Paul Ehrenfest (if I recall it correctly): did God have any choice in determining the laws of the Universe? This question is probably unanswerable, but when it comes to mathematics, I would answer in the negative. If one looks at prime numbers (there are other examples, but primes are fundamental) it’s self-evident that they are self-selected by their very definition – God didn’t choose them.

The interesting thing about primes is that they are the ‘atoms’ of mathematics because all the other ‘natural’ numbers can be determined from all the primes, all the way to infinity. The other interesting thing is that Riemann’s hypothesis indicates that primes have a deep and unexpected relationship with some of the most esoteric areas of mathematics. So, if one was a religious person, one might suggest that this is surely the handiwork of God, yet God can’t even affect the fundamentals upon which all this rests.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Freedom; a moral imperative

I wrote something about freedom recently, in answer to a question posed in Philosophy Now (Issue 108, Jun/Jul 2015) regarding What's The More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth? My sequence of importance starting at the top was Truth, Justice, Freedom and Happiness based on the argued premise that each was dependent on its predecessor. But this post is about something else: the relevance of John Stuart Mill’s arguments on ‘liberty’ in the 21st Century.

Once again, this has been triggered by Philosophy Now, but Issue 110 (Oct/Nov 2015) though the context is quite different. Philosophy Now is a periodical and they always have a theme, and the theme for this issue is ‘Liberty & Equality’ so it’s not surprising to find articles on freedom. In particular, there are 2 articles: Mill, Liberty & Euthanasia by Simon Clarke and The Paradox of Liberalism by Francisco Mejia Uribe.

I haven’t read Mill’s book, On Liberty, which is cited in both of the aforementioned articles, but I’ve read his book, Utilitarianism, and what struck me was that he was a man ahead of his time. Not only is utilitarian philosophy effectively the default position in Western democracies (at least, in theory) but he seemed to predict findings in social psychology like the fact that one’s conscience is a product of social norms and not God whispering in one’s ear, and that social norms can be changed, like attitudes towards smoking, for example. I’ve written a post on utilitarian moral philosophy elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on it here.

The first essay by Clarke (cited above) deals with the apparent conflict between freedom to pursue one’s potential and the freedom to end one’s life through euthanasia, which is not the subject of this post either. It’s Clarke’s reference to Mill’s fundamental philosophy of individual freedom that struck a chord with me.

An objectively good life, on Mill’s (Aristotelian) view, is one where a person has reached her potential, realizing the powers and abilities she possesses. According to Mill, the chief essential requirement for personal well-being is the development of individuality. By this he meant the development of a person’s unique powers, abilities, and talents, to their fullest potential.

I’ve long believed that the ideal society allows this type of individualism: that each of us has the opportunity, through education, mentoring and talent-driven programmes to pursue the goals best suited to our abilities. Unfortunately, the world is not an equitable place and many people - the vast majority - don’t have this opportunity.

The second essay (cited above), by Uribe, deals with the paradox that arises when liberal political and societal ideals meet fundamentalism. One may ask: what paradox? The paradox is that liberal attitudes towards freedom of expression, religious and cultural norms allows the rise of fundamentalist ideals that actually wish to curtail such freedoms. In the current age, fundamentalism is associated with Islamic fundamentalism manifested by various ideologies all over the globe, which has led to a backlash in the form of Islamophobia. Some, like IS (Islamic State) and Boko Haram (in Nigeria) have extreme, intolerant views that they enforce on entire populations in the most brutal and violent manner imaginable. In other words, they could not be further from Mill’s ideal of freedom and liberation (Uribe, by the way, makes no reference to Islam).

In Western societies, there is a widely held fear, exploited by many right-winged and nationalist movements, that Islamic fundamentalism will overthrow our Western democratic systems of government and replace it with a religious totalitarian one. The reports of extreme human rights violations (including genocide, slavery and internet posted executions) in far-off politically unstable countries, only adds to this paranoia.

There are caveats to Mill’s manifesto (my term) on individual freedom, as pointed out by Clarke: ‘Excepting children and the insane, for whom intervention for their own sake is permissible…’ and ‘Freedom for the sake of individuality does not allow the harming of others, because that would damage the individuality of others.’

It’s this last point: ‘that would damage the individuality of others’; that I would argue, goes to the crux of the issue. Totalitarianism and fundamentalist ideologies should and can be opposed on this moral principle – political and social structures that inhibit unfairly the ability for individuals to pursue happiness should not be supported. This seems self-evident, yet it’s at the core of the current gay-marriage debate that is happening in many Western countries, including Australia (where I live). It’s also the reason that many Muslims oppose Islam extremists as they affect their own individualism.

On another, freedom-related issue, Australia has for the past 15 years pursued a ruthless, not-to-mention contentious, policy of so-called ‘border protection’ against refugees arriving by boat. Both sides of the political spectrum in Australia pursue this policy because our politics have become almost completely poll-driven, and any change of policy by either side, would immediately damage them in the polls, due to the paranoid nature of our society at large. This is related to the issue of Islamophobia I mentioned earlier, because a large portion of these refugees are from the unstable countries where atrocities are being committed. Not surprisingly, it’s the right-wing elements who exploit this issue as well. But it’s hard to imagine an issue that more strongly evokes Mill’s demand for individual freedom and liberty (except, possibly, the abolition of slavery).

As I said in an earlier post (the one I reference above), freedom and hope are partners. It’s the deliberate elimination of hope that drives my government’s policy, and the fact that this has serious mental health consequences is not surprising, yet it’s ignored.

Imprisonment is the most widely employed method of punishment for criminals because it eliminates freedom, though not necessarily hope. The Australian government’s rationalisation behind their extremely tough policy on asylum seekers is that they are ‘illegals’ and therefore deserve to be punished in this manner. However, the punishment is much worse than we dispense to convicted criminals under our justice system. It’s a sad indictment on our society that we have neither the political will nor the moral courage to reverse this situation.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

What is now?

Notice I ask what and not when, because ‘now’, as we experience it, is the most ephemeral of all experiences. As I’ve explained in another post: to record anything at all requires a duration – there is no instantaneous moment in time – except in mathematical calculus where a sleight-of-hand makes an infinitesimal disappear completely. It’s one of the most deceptive tricks in mathematics, but in mathematics you can have points with zero dimensions in space, so time with zero dimensions is just another idealism that allows one to perform calculations that would otherwise be impossible.

But another consequence of ‘now’ is that without memory we would not even know we have consciousness. Think about it: ‘now’ has no duration and consciousness exists in a continuous present so no memory would mean no experience of consciousness, or ‘now’ for that matter, because once it occurs it’s already in the past. Therefore memory is required to experience it at all.

But this post is not about calculus or consciousness per se; it arose from a quote I came across attributed to William Lawrence Bragg:

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

For those who don’t know, Sir William Lawrence Bragg was son of Sir William Henry Bragg, whom, as far as I know, were the only father and son to be jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, for their work on X-ray diffraction in crystals. Henry was born in England and Lawrence was born in Australia. I heard about them at school, naturally, but I only came across this quote earlier in the week. They were among the first to exploit short wave photons (X-rays) to find the atomic-scale dimensions of crystal lattices, thus pioneering the discipline of crystallography.

In the same week, I came across this quote from Freeman Dyson recalling a conversation he had with Richard Feynman:

Thirty-one years ago Dick Feynman told me about his ‘sum over histories’ version of quantum mechanics. ‘The electron does anything it likes’, he said. ‘It goes in any direction at any speed, forward and backward in time, however it likes, and then you add up the amplitudes and it gives you the wave-function.’ I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But he wasn’t.

I’ve discussed in some detail the mathematical formulation of the ‘wave-function’ known as Schrodinger’s equation, in another post, but what’s significant, in regard to the 2 quotes I’ve cited, is that the wave function effectively disappears or becomes irrelevant once an ‘observation’ or experimental ‘measurement’ occurs. In other words, the wave function ‘permeates all space’ (according to Richard Elwes in MATHS 1001) before it becomes part of the ‘classical physics’ real world. So Bragg’s quote makes perfect sense that the wave function represents the future and the particle ‘observation’, be it a photon or electron or whatever, represents the past with the interface being ‘now’.

As I’ve explicated in my last post, the default interpretation of Feyman’s ‘sum over histories’ or ‘path integrals’ mathematical description of quantum mechanics, is that all ‘histories’ occur in parallel universes, but I would argue that it’s a consequence of the irreversibility of time once the particle is ‘observed’. Now ‘observed’, in this context, means that the particle becomes part of the real world, or at least, that’s my prosaic interpretation. There is an extreme interpretation that it does require a ‘conscious observation’ in order to become real, but the fact that the Universe existed many billions of years prior to consciousness evolving, makes this interpretation logically implausible to say the least.

Brian Cox, in one of his BBC TV programmes (on ‘Time’) points out that one of the problems that Einstein had with quantum mechanics is that, according to its ‘rules’, the future was indeterminate. Einstein’s mathematical formulation of space-time, which became fundamental to his General Theory of Relativity (albeit was a consequence of his Special Theory) was that time could literally be treated like a dimension of space. This meant that the future was just as ‘real’ as the past. In other words, Einstein firmly believed that the universe, and therefore our lives, are completely deterministic – there was no place for free will in Einstein’s universe. Interestingly, this was a topic in a not-so-recent issue of Philosophy Now, though the author of the article didn’t explain that Einstein’s strict position on this was a logical consequence of his interpretation of space-time: the future was just as fixed as the past.

But, even without quantum mechanics, we know that chaos theory also contributes to the irreversibility of time, although Einstein was unaware of chaos theory in his lifetime. Paul Davies explains this better than most in his book on chaos theory, The Cosmic Blueprint.

The point is that, both in chaos theory and Feynman’s multiple histories, there are many possibilities that can happen in the ‘future’, but the ‘past’ is only one path and it can’t be remade. According to David Deutsch and Max Tegmark, all the future possibilities occur both in quantum mechanics and at a macro level. In fact, Deutsch has argued that chaotic phenomena are a consequence of the quantum mechanics' many worlds interpretation. In effect, they disassemble the asymmetry between the future and the past. According to their world-view, the future is just as inevitable as the past, because no matter which path is chosen, they all become reality somewhere in some universe; all of which bar one, we can’t see. From my perspective, this is not an argument in support of the many worlds interpretation, but an argument against it.

In my last post but one, I discussed at length Paul Davies’ book, The Mind of God. One of his more significant insights was that the Universe allows evolvement without dictating its end. In other words, it’s because of both chaos and quantum phenomena that there are many possible outcomes yet they all arise from a fixed past and this is a continuing process - it’s deterministic yet unpredictable.

One could make the same argument for free will. At many points in our lives we make choices based on a past that is fixed whilst conscious of a future that has many possibilities. I agree with Carlo Rovelli that free will is not a consequence of quantum mechanics, but the irreversibility of time applies to us as individual conscious agents in exactly the same way it applies to the dynamics of the Universe at both quantum and macro levels.

There is just one problem with this interpretation of the world, and that is, according to Einstein’s theories, there is no universal ‘now’. If there is no simultaneity, which is a fundamental outcome of the Special Theory of Relativity, then it’s difficult to imagine that people separated in space-time could agree on a ‘now’. And yet, the fact that we give the Universe an age and a timeline, effectively insists that there must be a ‘now’ for the Universe at large. I confess I don’t know enough physics to answer this, but quantum entanglement reintroduces simultaneity by stealth, even if we can’t use it to send messages. One of the features of the Universe is causality. Despite the implications of both quantum mechanics and relativity theory on the physics of time, neither of them interfere with causality, despite what some may argue (and that includes entanglement). But causality requires the speed of light to separate causal events, which is why the ‘now’ we experience sees stars in the firmament up to billions of years old. So space-time makes ‘now’ a subjective experience, even to the extent that at the event horizon of a black hole ‘now’ can become frozen to an outside observer.

Addendum: I actually believe there is a universal 'now', which I've addressed in a later post (towards the end).

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Are Multiverses the solution or the problem?

Notice I use the plural for something that represents a collection of universes. That’s because there are multiple versions of them; according to Max Tegmark there are 4 levels of multiverses.

I’m about to do something that I criticise others for doing: I’m going to challenge the collective wisdom of those who are much smarter and more knowledgeable than me. I’m not a physicist, let alone a cosmologist, and I’m not an academic in any field – I’m just a blogger. My only credentials are that I read a lot, especially about physics by authors who are eminently qualified in their fields. But even that does not give me any genuine qualification for what I’m about to say. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out something that few others are willing to cognise.

This occurred to me after I wrote my last post. In the 2 books I reference by Paul Davies (The Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma) he discusses and effectively dismisses the multiverse paradigm, yet I don’t mention it. Partly, that was because the post was getting too lengthy as it was, and, partly, because I didn’t need to discuss it to make the point I wished to make.

But the truth is that the multiverse is by far the most popular paradigm in both quantum physics and cosmology, and this is a relatively recent trend. What I find interesting is that it has become the default position, epistemologically, to explain what we don’t know at both of the extreme ends of physics: quantum mechanics and the cosmos.

Davies makes the point, in Mind of God (and he’s not the only one to do so), that for many scientists there seems to be a choice between accepting the multiverse or accepting some higher metaphysical explanation that many people call God. In other words, it’s a default position in cosmology because it avoids trying to explain why our universe is so special for life to emerge. Basically, it’s not special if there are an infinite number of them.

In quantum mechanics, the multiverse (or many words interpretation, as it’s called) has become the most favoured interpretation following the so-called Copenhagen interpretation championed by Niels Bohr. It’s based on the assumption that the wave function, which describes a quantum particle in Hilbert space doesn’t disappear when someone observes something or takes a measurement, but continues on in a parallel universe. So a bifurcation occurs for every electron and every photon every time it hits something. What’s more, Max Tegmark argues that if you have a car crash and die, in another universe you will continue to live. And likewise, if you have a near miss (as he did, apparently) in this universe, then in another parallel universe you died.

In both cases, cosmology and quantum mechanics, the multiverse has become the ‘easy’ explanation for events or phenomena that we don’t really understand. Basically, they are signposts for the boundaries or limits of scientific knowledge as it currently stands. String Theory or M Theory, is the most favoured cosmological model, but not only does it predict 10 spatial dimensions (as a minimum, I believe) it also predicts 10500 universes.

Now, I’m sure many will say that since the multiverse crops up in so many different places: caused by cosmological inflation, caused by string theory, caused by quantum mechanics; at least one of these multiverses must exist, right? Well no, they don’t have to exist – they’re just speculative, albeit consistent with everything we currently know about this universe, the one we actually live in.

Science, as best I understand it, historically, has always homed in on things. In particle physics it homed in on electrons, protons and neutrons, then neutrinos and quarks in all their varieties. In biology, we had evolution by natural selection then we discovered genes and then DNA, which underpinned it all. In mechanics, we had Galileo, Kepler and Newton, who finally gave us an equation for gravity, then Einstein gave us relativity theory that equated energy with mass in the most famous equation in the world, plus the curvature of space-time giving a completely geometric account of gravity that also provided a theoretical foundation for cosmology. Faraday, followed by Maxwell showed us that electricity and magnetism are inherently related and again Einstein took it further and gave an explanation of the photo-electric effect by proposing that light came in photons.

What I’m trying to say is that we made advances in science by either finding more specific events and therefore particles or by finding common elements that tied together apparently different phenomena. Kepler found the mathematical formulation that told us that planets travel in ellipses, Newton told us that gravity’s inverse square law made this possible and Einstein told us that it’s the curvature of space-time that explains gravity. Darwin and Wallace gave us a theory of evolution by natural selection, but Mendel gave us genes that explained how the inheritance happened and Francis and Crick and Franklin gave us the DNA helix that is the key ingredient for all of life.

My point is that the multiverse explanation for virtually everything we don’t know is going in the opposite direction. Now the explanation for something happening, whether it be a quantum event or the entire universe, is that every possible variation or physical manifestation is happening but we can only see the one we are witnessing. I don’t see this as an explanation for anything; I only see it as a manifestation of our ignorance.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Physics, mathematics, the Universe - is Reason its raison d'être?

I’ve just read Paul Davies’ The Mind of God: Science & The Search for Ultimate Meaning, published in 1992, so a couple of decades old now. He wrote this as a follow-up to God and the New Physics, which I read some years ago. This book is more philosophical and tends to deal with cosmology and the laws of physics – it’s as much about epistemology and the history of science as about the science itself. Despite its age, it’s still very relevant, especially in regard to the relationship between science and religion and science and mathematics, both of which he discusses in some depth.

Davies is currently at The University of Arizona (along with Lawrence Krauss, who wrote A Universe from Nothing, amongst others), but at the time he wrote The Mind of God, Davies was living and working in Australia, where he wrote a number of books over a couple of decades. He was born and educated in England, so he’s lived on 3 continents.

Davies is often quoted out of context by Christian fundamentalists, giving the impression that he supports their views, but anyone who reads his books knows that’s far from the truth. When he first arrived in America, he was sometimes criticised on blogs for ‘promoting his own version of religion’, usually by people who had heard of him but never actually read him. From my experience of reading on the internet, religion is a sensitive topic in America on both sides of the religious divide, so unless your views are black or white you can be criticised by both sides. It’s worth noting that I’ve heard or read Richard Dawkins reference Davies on more than a few occasions, always with respect, even though Davies is not atheistic.

Davies declares his philosophical position very early on, which is definitely at odds with the generally held scientific point of view regarding where we stand in the scheme of things:

I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident… I have come to the point of view that mind – i.e., conscious awareness of the world – is not a meaningless and incidental quirk of nature, but an absolute fundamental facet of reality. That is not to say that we are the purpose for which the universe exists. Far from it. I do, however, believe that we human beings are built into the scheme of things in a very basic way.

In a fashion, this is a formulation of the Strong Anthropic Principle, which most scientists, I expect, would eschew, but it’s one that I find appealing, much for the same reasons given by Davies. The Universe is such a complex phenomenon, its evolvement (thus far) culminating in the emergence of an intelligence able to fathom its own secrets at extreme scales of magnitude in both space and time. I’ve alluded to this ‘mystery’ in previous posts, so Davies’ philosophy appeals to me personally, and his book, in part, attempts to tackle this very topic.

Amongst other things, he gives a potted history of science from the ancients (especially the Greeks, but other cultures as well) and how it has largely replaced religion as the means to understand natural phenomena at all levels. This has resulted in a ‘God-of-the-Gaps’, where, epistemologically, scientific investigations and discoveries have gradually pushed God out of the picture. He also discusses the implications of a God existing outside of space and time actually creating a ‘beginning’. The idea of a God setting everything in motion (via the Big Bang) and then watching his creation evolve over billions of years like a wound up watch (Davies’ analogy) is no more appealing than the idea of a God who has to make adjustments or rewind it occasionally, to extend the metaphor.

In discussing how the scientific enterprise evolved, in particular how we search for the cause of events, reminded me of my own attraction to science from a very early age. Children are forever asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions – we have a natural inclination to wonder how things work – and by the time I’d reached my teens, I’d realised that science was the best means to pursue this.

Davies gives an example of Newton coming up with mathematical laws to explain gravity that not only provided a method to calculate projectiles on Earth but also the orbits of planets in the solar system. Brian Cox in a documentary on Gravity, wrote the equation down on a piece of paper, borrowing a pen from his cameraman, to demonstrate how simple it is. But Newton couldn’t explain why everything didn’t simply collapse in on itself and evoked God as the explanation for keeping the clockwork universe functioning. So Newton’s explanation of gravity, albeit a work of genius, didn’t go far enough.

Einstein then came up with his theory that gravity was a consequence of the curvature of space-time caused by mass, but, as Cox points out in his documentary, Einstein’s explanation doesn’t go far enough either, and there are still aspects of gravity we don’t understand, at the quantum level and in black holes where the laws of physics as we know them break down. As an aside, it’s the centenary year of Einstein publishing his General Theory of Relativity and I’ve just finished reading a book (The Road to Relativity by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jurgen Renn) which goes through the original manuscript page by page explaining Einstein’s creative process.

But back to Newton’s theory, I remember, in high school, trying to understand why acceleration in a gravitational field was the same irrespective of the mass of the body, and I could only resort to the mathematics to give me an answer, which didn’t seem satisfactory. I can also remember watching a light plane in flight over our house and seeing it side-slipping in the wind. In other words, the direction of the nose was slightly offset to its direction of travel to counter a side wind. I remember imagining the vectors at play and realising that I could work them out with basic trigonometry. It made me wonder for the first time, why did mathematics provide an answer and an explanation – what was the link between mathematics, a product of the mind, and a mechanical event, a consequence of the physical world?

I’ve written quite a lot on the topic of mathematics and its relationship to the laws of nature; Davies goes into this in some depth. It is worth quoting him on the subject, especially in regard to the often stated scepticism that the laws of nature only exist in our minds.

Sometimes it is argued that laws of nature, which are attempts to capture [nature’s] regularities systematically, are imposed on the world by our minds in order to make sense of it… I believe any suggestion that the laws of nature are similar projections of the human mind [to seeing animals in the constellations, for example] is absurd. The existence of regularities in nature are a mathematical objective fact… Without this assumption that the regularities are real, science is reduced to a meaningless charade.

He adds the caveat that the laws as written are ‘human inventions, but inventions designed to reflect, albeit imperfectly, actually existing properties of nature.’ Every scientist knows that our rendition of nature’s laws have inherent limitations, despite their accuracy and success, but quite often they provide new insights that we didn’t expect. Well known examples are Maxwell’s equations predicting electromagnetic waves and the constant speed of light, and Dirac’s equation predicting anti-matter. Most famously, Einstein’s special theory of relativity predicted the equivalence of energy and mass, which was demonstrated with the detonation of the atomic bomb. All these predictions were an unexpected consequence of the mathematics.

Referring back to Gutfreund’s and Renn’s book on Einstein’s search for a theory of gravity that went beyond Newton but was consistent with Newton, Einstein knew he had to find a mathematical description that not only fulfilled all his criteria regarding relativistic space-time and the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass, but would also provide testable predictions like the bending of light near massive stellar objects (stars) and the precession of mercury’s orbit around the sun. We all know that Riemann’s non-Euclidian geometry gave him the mathematical formulation he needed and it’s been extraordinarily successful thus far, despite the limitations I mentioned earlier.

Davies covers quite a lot in his discussion on mathematics, including a very good exposition on Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Turing’s proof of infinite incomputable numbers, John Conway’s game of life with cellular automata and Von Neuman’s detailed investigation of self-replicating machines, which effectively foreshadowed the mechanics of biological life before DNA was discovered.

In the middle of all this, Davies makes an extraordinary claim, based on reasoning by Oxford mathematical physicist David Deutsch (the most vocal advocate for the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and a leader in quantum computer development). Effectively, Deutsch argues that mathematics works in the real world (including electronic calculators and computers) not because of logic but because the physical world (via the laws of physics) is amenable to basic arithmetic: addition, subtraction etc. In other words, he’s basically saying that we only have mathematics because there are objects in our world that we can count. In effect, this is exactly what Davies says.

This is not the extraordinary claim. The extraordinary claim is that there may exist universes where mathematics, as we know it, doesn’t work, because there are no discrete objects. Davies extrapolates this to say that a problem that is incomputable with our mathematics may be computable with alternative mathematics that, I assume, is not based on counting. I have to confess I have issues with this.

To start from scratch, mathematics starts with numbers, which we all become acquainted with from an early age by counting objects. It’s a small step to get addition from counting but quite a large step to then abstract it from the real world, so the numbers only exist in our heads. Multiplication is simply adding something a number of times and subtraction is simply taking away something that was added so you get back to where you started. The same is true for division where you divide something you multiplied to go backwards in your calculation. In other words, subtraction and division are just the reverse operations for addition and multiplication respectively. Then you replace some of the numbers by letters as ‘unknowns’ and you suddenly have algebra. Now you’re doing mathematics.

The point I’d make, in reference to Davies’ claim, is that mathematics without numbers is not mathematics. And numbers may be to a different base or use different symbols, but they will all produce the same mathematics. I agree with Deutsch that mathematics is intrinsic to our world – none of us would do mathematics if it wasn’t. But I find the notion that there could hypothetically exist worlds where mathematics is not relevant or is not dependent on number, absurd, to use one of Davies’ favourite utterances.

Earlier in the book, Davies expresses scepticism at the idea that the laws of nature could arise with the universe – that they didn’t exist beforehand. In other words, he’s effectively arguing that they are transcendent. Since the laws are firmly based in mathematics, it’s hard to argue that the laws are transcendent but the mathematics is not.

I have enormous respect for Davies, and I wonder if I’m misrepresenting him. But this is what he said, albeit out of context:

Imagine a world in which the laws of physics were very different, possibly so different that discreet objects did not exist. Some of the mathematical operations that are computable in our world would not be so in this world, and vice versa.

Speaking of mathematical transcendence, he devotes almost an entire chapter to the underlying mystery of mathematics’ role in explicating natural phenomena through physics, with particular reference to mathematical Platonists like Kurt Godel, Eugene Wigner and Roger Penrose. But it’s a quote from Richard Feynman, who was not a Platonist as far as I know, that sums up the theme.

When you discover these things, you get the feeling that they were true before you found them. So you get the idea that somehow they existed somewhere… Well, in the case of physics we have double trouble. We come across these mathematical interrelationships but they apply to the universe, so the problem of where they are is doubly confusing… Those are philosophical questions that I don’t know how to answer.

Interestingly, in his later book, The Goldilocks Enigma (2006), Davies distances himself from mathematical Platonism and seems to espouse John Wheeler’s view that both the mathematics and the laws of nature emerged ‘higgledy-piggledy’ and are not transcendent. He also tackles the inherent conflict between the Strong Anthropic Principle, which he seems to support, and a non-teleological universe, which science virtually demands, but I’ll address that later.

Back to The Mind of God, he discusses in depth one of the paradigms of our age that the Universe can be totally understood by algorithms leading to the possibility that the Universe we live in is a Matrix-like computer simulation. Again, referring to The Goldilocks Enigma, he discounts this view as a variation on Intelligent Design. Towards the end of Mind of God, he discusses metaphysical, even mystical possibilities, but not as a replacement for science.

But one interesting point he makes, that I’ve never heard of before, was proposed by James Hartle and Murray Gellmann, who claim:

…that the existence of an approximately classical world, in which well-defined material objects exist in space, and in which there is a well-defined concept of time, requires special cosmic initial conditions.

In other words, they’re saying that the Universe would be a purely quantum world with everything in superpositional states (nothing would be fixed in space and time) were it not for ‘the special quantum state in which the universe originated.’ James Hartle developed with Stephen Hawking the Hawking-Hartle model of the Universe where time evolved out of a 4th dimension in a quantum big bang. It may be that Hartle’s and Gellmann’s conjecture is dependent on the veracity of that particular model. The link between the two ideas is only alluded to by Davies.

Apropos to the book’s title, Davies spends an entire chapter on ‘God’ arguments, in particular cosmological and ontological arguments that require a level of philosophical nous that, frankly, I don’t possess. Having said that, it became obvious to me that arguments for God are more dependent on subjective ‘feelings’ than rational requirements. After lengthy discussions on ‘necessary being’ and a ‘contingent universe’, and the tension if not outright contradiction the two ideas pose, Davies pretty well sums up the situation with this:

What seems to come through such analyses loud and clear is the fundamental incompatibility of a completely timeless, unchanging, necessary God with the notion of creativity in nature, with a universe that can change and evolve and bring forth the genuinely new…

In light of this, the only ‘God’ that makes sense to me is one that evolves like ‘Its’ creation and, in effect, is a consequence of it rather than its progenitor.

One of the points that Davies makes is how the Universe is not strictly deterministic or teleological, yet it allows for self-organisation and the evolvement of complexity; in essence, a freedom of evolvement without dictating it. I would call this pseudo-teleological and is completely consistent with both quantum and chaotic events, which dominate all natural phenomena from cosmological origins to the biological evolution of life.

This brings one back to the quote from Davies at the beginning of this discussion that the universe is not a meaningless accident. Inherent in the idea of meaningfulness is the necessary emergence of consciousness and its role as the prime source of reason. If not for reason the Universe would have no cognisance of its own existence and it would be truly ‘purposeless’ in every way. It is for this reason that people believe in God, in whatever guise they find him (or her, as the case may be). Because we can find reason in living our lives and use reason to understand the Universe, the idea that the Universe itself has no reason is difficult to reconcile.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Ruminations on The Sparrow (SF novel by Mary Doria Russell, 1996)

Russell is a paleoanthropologist and so is one of the characters in her book (Anne) whom one thinks may represent the author’s world view, especially concerning religion and God. Anne is basically a good natured and tolerant sceptic.

Whether Anne is representative of the author’s point of view or not, I found Russell’s ideas of God, as expressed explicitly by the main character, Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit (but also implicitly by others) to be old-fashioned, even anachronistic. The idea of God as a father figure and we being ‘His’ children is one I rejected in my teens, especially after reading Camus’ The Plague (La Peste).  So, in some ways, I think Russell is applying the same literary devices as Camus (pointless and undeserved human suffering) to challenge this particular version of God that many of us grew up with.

At one point the character, Anne, asks Emilio if it’s alright for her to ‘hate God’. Towards the end of the novel, another Jesuit priest proposes the idea (not original, I suspect) that God had to make room for the existence of the Universe by removing Himself, which is really a Deistic version of God that one sometimes finds appealing to scientists, because such a God would be non-interventionist. If one takes this to its logical conclusion, there is no reason for this God to have empathy or be the anthropomorphic version we are familiar with from the Bible.

The interesting point is that people sometimes ‘find God’ in the midst of their own suffering. I think of Viktor Frankl (an Auschwitz survivor) who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning and The Unconscious God, who argued that a person can find meaning through adversity. But this supports my own view that God is something that people find within themselves and is not dependent on making God responsible for whatever happens in the world.

As Russell’s novel makes clear, if one makes God responsible for everything that happens, then He’s responsible for the suffering as well as the triumphs of the human spirit. At the start of the story’s journey, the protagonists believe that everything they’re doing is part of God’s plan – it’s meant to be – but at the end, this premise is effectively negated.

One of the attractions of Sci-Fi for me, even when I was quite young, is that it allows what-if scenarios, alternative societies. I would suggest that Frank Herbert and Ursula Le Guin were particularly adept at rendering alternative social structures. Russell’s alien society is particularly well thought through and makes one consider how it may have evolved on Earth had other hominids (like Neanderthals) survived into an agricultural world. As it is, we were (and still are) very good at exploiting economically weaker sectors of our societies, at all levels, from global to local.

There is no clear resolution, at least for me, to the ‘God question’, which is a central theme of her book. One can end up ‘hating’ God, if one follows the logical conclusion from the book’s premise to its confounding end, but I believe that the characters in the story are simply following an antiquated version of God.

P.S. I should point out that this book won the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Oliver Sacks (9 July 1933 - 30 August 2015)

Oliver Sacks died last Sunday, but I only learned about it today. He is best known for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and the movie Awakenings, based on another book, where he is played by the late Robin Williams with Robert de Niro playing one of his patients whom he brought out of a catatonic state, even if only temporarily.

I've heard and watched interviews with Oliver Sacks when he visited Australia, which I believe he did a number of times. I wasn't aware that he was born in England (educated at Oxford) because his career as a neurologist really started in New York where he moved in 1965 and he was living in Manhattan when he died. I was also unaware that he was gay, which just goes to show that it was a non-issue for him.

Sacks was unusual for someone in his profession in that he really cared very deeply about the people whom he studied and showed a remarkable empathy for people that most of us would dismiss as unintelligible if not unintelligent. He was a remarkably good writer, and prolific, and like many scientists who can engage the public through their literary achievements, he was often criticised and devalued by some of his colleagues.

I confess that I've only read the one tome by Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), a book of case studies showing the imperfections of the human mind, but in a way that made the reader aware of its intrinsic resilience and evoking dignity, not pity, for his subjects. So even before I heard or saw him speak, I was a fan. He combined a deep humility with a stimulating intelligence - a very rare individual indeed.

This is a well researched and very fitting obituary in The New York Times.

I will take the liberty of borrowing this quote, which is so apposite:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Far from Men (Loin des Hommes)

This is a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, set in Algiers in 1954 and based on a short story by Albert Camus. Watching it, I was conscious of Camus’ philosophy all through it, and was not that surprised when I saw an online interview with Mortensen, who maintained that both he and the director (David Oelhoffen) drew heavily on Camus’ beliefs and principles when formulating the character of Daru.

As a friend of mine (who had already seen it) told me: it has similarities with another French movie (Of Gods and Men) both in terms of themes and geography. I reviewed Of Gods and Men (Des homes et des dieux) in June 2011. Both films involve men caught up in war against their wills and determined not to take sides, even when literally caught in the middle.

Camus had experience both in Algiers and in the French resistance during WWII, so he’s well equipped to tackle the subject matter. Viggo Mortensen’s character, Daru, teaches French to Arab children in a very remote location. Later in the movie we learn he’s lost his wife (not told how) and that he was an officer in the army during WWII (we assume, as the movie’s ‘now’ is the 1950s).

In the opening scenes, Daru is given custody of an Arab, Mohammed, who killed his cousin apparently, and whom he’s very reluctant to take charge of for reasons of humanity as much as inconvenience to his vocation as teacher.

Watching this movie I was reminded of a dream I had many decades ago where I was caught between 2 gangs in a pub (can only happen in a dream) and told I had to take sides. I surprised myself by refusing, even though it made an enemy of me to both sides, but, of course, I woke up before I had to deal with the consequences. That dream has stayed with me ever since, because it’s a metaphor for many situations we find ourselves in where we are asked to choose sides. In this film, this situation recurs repeatedly for its protagonist and we appreciate that this is Camus’ idealism tested in the crucible of battle where life and death, loyalty and execution are only separated by the thinnest of margins.

I haven’t read Camus’ original story, but I know enough about him to know that this character represents an ideal that he would have aspired to, as do most of us, but for which we are rarely tested and even fewer of us would pass.

Its relevance to the modern world is how easily it is to demonise Arabs and followers of Islam, in an Us and Them world. It’s worth watching this interview with Mortensen (though skip the first 4 minutes, which should have been cut) because he explains better than me how his world view is not so dissimilar to the character's, Daru, whom he plays.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Some ruminations on a debate about the existence of God

I came across this debate on YouTube between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty (31 May 2014): “Is it Reasonable to Believe that God Exists?” I’ve come across Sye before and even argued with him on Stephen Law’s blog (or attempted to) a few years back; probably more than a few years, actually. He’s a self-described presuppositionist and a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, who lives in Ontario, while Matt is a former Christian and now hosts a cable TV show, The Atheist Experience, based in Austin, Texas.

The debate is close to 2 hrs, including questions from the audience, which is followed by the participants’ ‘summing up’. I watched the entire debate partly because I was curious how Matt would handle Sye, who’s debating style is to make unsupported assertions then try and put the burden of proof, or disproof, onto his opponent. To give an example from my own experience: he once asked me to provide evidence that God had not made himself manifest to humankind (I’m paraphrasing from memory). I said I can’t provide evidence of something that didn’t happen, not happening. And his response was that it was my assertion therefore I had to prove it.

I was impressed by Matt’s temperament as well as his arguments, where he was very careful and precise whilst not being difficult to follow, even though he spoke quickly to ensure he stayed within the time limits imposed. Both of them were well prepared and had obviously researched each other’s positions. Sye cleverly used video excerpts of Matt to not only pre-empt Matt’s arguments but to support his own counter-arguments. Matt used humour in combination with rigid logic and precise language.

Sye’s argument was simplistic in the extreme: “It’s reasonable to believe that which is true; it’s true that God exists; therefore it’s reasonable to believe that God exists.” In his summing up Matt called it ‘kindergarten theology’ and ‘kindergarten philosophy’.

One of Sye’s key points of argument (which I’ve seen him use before) is to claim that his opponent can only argue from his (Sye’s) world view, and his world view is provided by God. He argues that any other world view is ‘absurd’, and in Matt’s case, Matt could, by his own admission, be a ‘brain in a vat’. However, Matt clarifies this by saying that he doesn’t believe he’s a brain in a vat, but it’s a well known philosophical conundrum that this can’t be proven. I first came across this in Stephen Law’s Philosopher’s Gym about 12 years ago, before I discovered him on his blog. In the debate, this logically led to a discussion on solipsism, which, Matt argued, can’t be proved to be false.

I’ve discussed this before, and, whilst all of us believe that everyone else we meet is not a figment of our imagination, there is one situation, which we have all experienced, where this is actually true. Neither Sye nor Matt mentioned this but that situation is a dream. A dream is solipsistic. So how do we know that we’re not in a dream. Because we have shared memories when we’re not in a dream. If I have a dream that includes someone I know, then when I next meet them in real life, they have no memory of that interaction, only I do. So unless one’s entire life is a dream then solipsism is a non sequitur if we have shared experiences that we can both remember.

One of the things that came out of this debate for me, and which Matt touched on briefly, is that if you have no common ground to begin with then you really can’t debate a subject. Specifically, Matt pointed out that he and Sye had different definitions of truth, which logically means that they would never be able to agree on whether something was true or not. I realised that it would be pointless for me to engage in an argument with someone whose entire world view is premised on fiction: a book of mythological stories. Sye argues that everyone knows that God exists, including babies (when Matt specifically asked him). No one can argue with that and Sye knows it, which is why he claims he’s unbeatable when it comes to arguments about the existence of God.

Matt argues that knowledge is a subset of beliefs, which I hadn’t considered before, and truth is based on evidence. Sye responded that evidence is something you take into a court and you become the judge but you can’t judge God. But if you don’t believe in God then that argument is irrelevant and without a God who actually intervenes in the assessment, one must use one’s own intellect to judge the evidence, which is what we all do all the time otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live.

So Sye’s basis for truth is God, which is revealed in scripture, and my basis for objective truth is mathematics, so we couldn’t be further apart. Sye would argue that I need his world view to believe that, because mathematics wouldn’t exist without God.  However, I would argue that mathematics trumps God because even God can’t change a prime number to a non-prime number or vice versa or change the value of Pi or make 2 + 2 = 5.  If Sye was to respond that God is mathematics then I might agree with him, but that has nothing to do with scripture.

Addendum: I've given this some more thought, plus I've watched the entire debate again. I believe I can challenge Sye's world view. Notice I say 'challenge' because that's the best one can do; I don't believe I can get him to change his world view any more than I believe he could get me to change mine.

Just to clarify my own position, I'm not anti-theist per se (as I've explained elsewhere); I believe God is something that people find within themselves, but that's another argument for another time.

My challenge is to do with my last paragraph of my original post, because I believe that mathematics gives us the only transcendental truths we know, whilst acknowledging that not everyone agrees with that position. By transcendental, I mean that mathematical truths exist independently of the human mind and even the universe. As someone once joked: If tomorrow the universe ceased to exist, the only part of science one could continue to do would be mathematics (that’s me paraphrasing John Barrow quoting Dave Rusin). I've discussed this position elsewhere.

My challenge to Sye is that mathematics even transcends God, for the reasons I pointed out in that closing paragraph. God can't change mathematics any more than we can: he can't make 2 + 2 = 5, amongst even more esoteric mathematical concepts like changing primes. If God can't change them, then logically they are independent of God. So I have a means of finding 'truths' that transcend God, therefore I don't need God in order for them to be true. What's more, mathematics provides 'truths' that anyone with the requisite intellectual ability can discover, without reference to any religious scripture or any divine revelation.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Freedom, justice, happiness and truth

This is the subject of the Question of the Month in Philosophy Now (Issue 108, June / July 2015). The actual question: What's The More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth? Please give and justify your rankings in less than 400 words.

Someone I showed this to said that the question was grammatically incorrect because it should be 'What's The Most Important'. However, I pointed out that then you would only discuss one of them and not all four.

Obviously, I don't always respond to the Question of the Month, even though I'm a regular subscriber and have been for a number of years. I'm not sure why I chose to respond to this one, except that it looked like a challenge. It's certainly something that I hadn't entertained before.

What's interesting is that when I started to write it, I had no idea how I'd rank them. I've done this before and it's actually very satisfying to resolve a philosophical issue simply by writing about it without much contemplation beforehand. It's similar to the spontaneity one finds when writing fiction, where I believe it's a necessary part of the process. Below is my submission.

To answer this question one must contextualise it and the context I choose is relationships. Relationships between spouses, relationships between governments and the people they govern, relationships between parents and children, relationships between employers and employees and relationships between figures of authority and the public at large. Because all these qualities: freedom, justice, happiness and truth; may have other contexts, but it’s in relationships that they are most important and most inclined to be abused or perverted. And there is one quality I would put above them all and upon which they are all dependent and that is trust. Because once trust is lost or suspect, then everything one values in a relationship becomes compromised at best and forfeit at worst.

Truth is the cornerstone of trust, so, arguably, truth is the lynch pin, but, if trust is lost, truth becomes a casualty. Honesty to oneself comes first, because, without that, one can’t be honest to anyone else. Truth informs justice because justice without truth is injustice. Justice and freedom are interdependent and require balance. Paradoxically, freedom is dependent on justice, because without justice we would have anarchy and only the powerful would have freedom. Here trust is paramount, because justice that doesn’t incorporate trust becomes oppression, and oppression is antithetical to freedom. So freedom arises from justice but only when trust is preserved. Happiness is intrinsically linked to freedom; suicide and self-harm are often the consequences of freedom curtailed, especially when it’s extreme enough to eliminate hope. Freedom and hope are partners, with hope being essential to psychological well-being; a precursor to happiness.

So there is a logical sequence of dependence, therefore importance. You can’t have justice without truth, you can’t have freedom without justice and you can’t have happiness without freedom, but requisite to them all is trust.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The fine-tuned Universe

I’ve discussed this before in relation to John D. Barrow’s revelations concerning the fine structure constant, amongst other things, in his excellent book, The Constants of Nature. A recent episode of Catalyst, called Custom Universe also raised this issue, plus the latest issue of New Scientist (6 June 2015, pp.37-39) explaining the extraordinary fine difference in mass between neutrons and protons (that can’t be explained with our current knowledge of physics) and, in particular, the consequences of small variations to that difference.

In other words, the stability of atoms, including the prototype atom, hydrogen, is dependent on the neutron being slightly heavier than the proton by 0.14% (the neutron is 939.6 Mev and the proton is 938.3 Mev). Making the difference much bigger would result in more complex atoms becoming impossible to create and much smaller would have converted all hydrogen atoms into inert helium, therefore no fusion in stars and no other atoms. Smaller still or making protons heavier than neutrons would have resulted in protons decaying into neutrons and therefore no atoms at all.

This is just one of many examples of fine-tuning in our universe that makes the evolution of complex life forms, and therefore intelligent life, possible. And, of course, we still don’t know why matter outweighed anti-matter in the early stages of the universe by 1 billion and 1 to 1 billion, otherwise the universe would be just radiation and nothing else.

The standard answer to this is the multiverse, which postulates that there exists up to an infinite number of alternative universes, and, logically, we must exist in the one universe that allows intelligent life, like us, to evolve. Brian Cox (in Human Universe) uses the analogy of a lottery. When we buy a lottery ticket the chances of winning is some astronomical number, and in our individual lifetimes, very few of us ever win. However, as Cox points out, someone wins every time, and that’s the same with the multiverse. We win because we are in it and all the others that don’t win are unknown and unknowable because no consciousness can evolve in them to find out. This is known as the weak Anthropic Principle, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

What many people don’t realise is that if there is an infinite number of universes then there must be an infinite number of you and me, because, in an infinite amount of space and time, anything that can happen once must happen an infinite number of times – a mathematical truism.

But many see the multiverse as a cop-out, because it explains everything and nothing. It says all things are possible therefore we are possible, problem solved. It provides an answer with no explanation. And, at its extreme interpretation, it says that everything is possible an infinite number of times.

Max Tegmark advocates this extreme interpretation in his book, Our Mathematical Universe, where he postulates up to 4 levels of multiverses, including the quantum multiverse. In fact, Tegmark conjured up a thought experiment, whereby if you die you just find yourself in an alternative quantum universe, and therefore you are effectively immortal. To take this to its logical conclusion, there must exist a universe where everyone lives forever, therefore we all eventually find Heaven, or at least, its mathematically plausible equivalent.

Equally relevant to this topic, is the issue of biological evolution, and I’ve just finished reading an excellent book on this subject, Life Ascending; The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane. Now many people (including Richard Dawkins, I imagine) will take issue with the word ‘invention’ and ‘evolution’ appearing in the same sentence, let alone on the cover of a book. But I doubt Dawkins would take issue with any of the material between the covers, even in the places where his name is cited. Lane, of course, is aware of some people’s sensitivity to the word ‘invention’ in this context, and is quick to explain he’s not referring to a ‘creator’ but to the extraordinary inventiveness inherent in the process of natural selection. In the same way, and for the same reasons, I have no problem in appropriating the word ‘design’ when discussing evolution because natural selection is nature’s design methodology and its more significant ‘inventions’ are the subject of the book, hence the totally apposite title.

Lane structures the book into 10 chapters that cover his ‘ten inventions’: 1) The Origin of Life; 2) DNA; 3) Photosynthesis; 4)The Complex Cell; 5) Sex; 6) Movement; 7) Sight; 8) Hot Blood; 9)Consciousness; 10) Death.

I have to say that this is the best book on evolution that I’ve read, not least because Lane has such a commanding knowledge of his subject and a very accessible style of prose. Lane is a biochemist by training and it’s his ability to explain what happens at a molecular level that gives the book so much intellectual weight. He appears up to date on all the latest discoveries and provides historical context everywhere; so we learn how theories have developed, sometimes stalled, sometimes been disproved and sometimes yet to be confirmed. Anyone who studies science, at whatever level, appreciates that we never know everything and we never will, but that we are constantly uncovering newly discovered nature’s secrets that would astound the likes of Darwin and his contemporaries with their depth and ingenuity.

All the chapters contain information that I wasn’t aware of previously, but the first two chapters are probably the most revelatory and the most enthralling. One suspects that it’s at this level that Lane is most intrigued and therefore most knowledgeable on all the latest developments. I won’t go into details, but he provides the best arguments I’ve come across on how life, at its simplest form, may have evolved from pure chemistry. In light of the title of this post, I was struck on more than one occasion on how just the right elements or combination of factors arose to produce the forebears of life as we now know it.

This is all good grist for those who believe we have a special destiny, and that there is the ‘hand’ of some immaterial force behind it all. The other extreme is to be dismissive of this view as ‘weak-minded’ and ‘unintelligent’, yet I find the idea that our existence is an accident that should never have happened equally absurd and, dare-I-say-it, unintelligent. My own view, that I’ve expressed elsewhere, is that the Universe is brim-full of purpose yet that purpose has evolved with no plan or blueprint in sight, no pre-destined goal, just a set of laws that have allowed it all to happen.

If there is a ‘creator’, then ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ works in a very strange fashion, certainly not in the manner that creationists and ID advocates would have us believe, because the ‘design’ has been done piece-meal with many wrong turns, much trial and error and many catastrophes on a grand scale, of which we could easily become one ourselves. In comparison to the epic story of life, we are like mayflies, existing for less than a day, thus far – it’s a sobering thought.

In regard to the ridiculous debate on religion versus science, it is worth quoting Lane himself from the last paragraph of his book.

I think the picture painted here in this book is true. Life most surely evolved, along the lines described here. That is not dogma, but evidence tested in reality and corrected accordingly. Whether this grand picture is compatible with faith in God, I do not know. For some people, intimately acquainted with evolution, it is; for others, it is not.

Addendum: This is a YouTube interview with physicist, Leonard Susskind, who discusses the fine-tuned universe on Closer to Truth, which appears to be a series of interviews with well known scientists and philosophers giving us their interpretation of philosophical cum scientific conundrums.

Susskind, not surprisingly, delivers a very compelling argument for the multi-verse, or, as he calls it, the mega-verse, and, in so doing, references String or M Theory as supporting this view. Personally, I'm a bit of a sceptic of String theory and its many variations, as it reminds me of Ptolemy's epicycles, but I may well be proven wrong in the near or far future. Only time will tell.

But what struck me as I listened to Lenny's argument, was that, even if it's true, it still means that our universe is very special, amongst all the possibilities. However, as I pointed out in my main post, if there are an infinite number of universes then it's not special at all.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Ex Machina – the movie

This is a good film for anyone interested in AI at a philosophical level. It even got reviewed in New Scientist and they don’t normally review movies. It’s a clever psychological thriller, so you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy it, though there are some pseudo-nerdy conversations that are better assimilated if the audience has some foreknowledge. Examples are the Turing Test and the Mary thought experiment regarding colour.

Both of these are explained through expositional dialogue in the movie, rather seamlessly I should add, so ignorance is not necessarily a barrier. The real Turing test for AI would be if an AI could outsmart a human – not in a game of chess or a knowledge-based TV quiz show, but behaviourally – and this is explored as well. Like all good psychological thrillers, there is a clever twist at the end which is not predictable but totally consistent within the context of the narrative. In other words, it’s a well written and well executed drama irrespective of its philosophical themes.

One of the issues not addressed in the movie – because it would spoil it – is the phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley’, which I’ve written about here. Basically, when androids become almost human-like in appearance and movement, we become very uncomfortable. This doesn’t happen in the movie, and, of course, it’s not meant to, but it’s the real piece of deception in the film. Despite appearances that the character, Ava, is a machine because we can literally see through parts of her body, we all know that she is really an actress playing a part.

I’ve argued in the aforementioned post that I believe the source of this discomfort is the lack of emotional empathy. In the movie, however, the AI demonstrates considerable empathy, or at least appears to, which is one of the many subtle elements explored. This is very good science fiction because it explores a possible future and deals with it on a philosophical level, including ethical considerations, as well as entertaining us.

There are nods to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Asimov’s I Robot, although that may be my own particular perspective. I’ve created AI’s in my own fiction, but completely different to this. In fact, I deliberately created a disembodied AI, which develops a ‘relationship’ with my protagonist, and appears to display ‘loyalty’. However I explain this with the concept of ‘attachment’ programming, which doesn’t necessarily require empathy as we know it.

I bring this up, because the 2 stories, Ex Machina and mine, explore AI but with different philosophical perspectives and different narrative outcomes.

Friday, 15 May 2015

In memory of B.B. King - 16 September 1925 to 14 May 2015 - a True Legend

This is a trailer for a documentary on B.B. King released last year. It says it all, really.

When I think of the Blues, I think of B.B. King.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Salt of the Earth – the movie

I saw this film last weekend, and, once again, I think this is a movie everyone should see. I said that about the last film I reviewed (Citizenfour), and, in both cases, despite winning awards, they’re only being shown in one cinema in the whole of Melbourne (yes, the same cinema).

Salt of the Earth is a documentary about the life and work of Brasilian photographer, Sebastio Salgado, from around 1969 to 2013, even though he speaks French throughout the entire film.

Salgado was educated as an economist and worked as one in Europe before he made the unorthodox choice of devoting his life to recording peoples and events throughout the world, although, in the latter part of his career, he reinvented himself as a nature photographer. His son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, co-directed the documentary with legendary German filmmaker, Wim Wenders.

The most famous photograph taken by Salgado, which some of you may have seen, is of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brasil (taken in 1986), where people look like ants climbing impossibly steep wooden ladders, laden with bags of dirt and covered in dirt themselves.

There are many layers to this film. Firstly, there is the subject of Salgado himself, who is an extraordinary human being, not least because he goes to places and witnesses events that very few of us have the courage to attempt. Over 40 years he has recorded and chronicled humanity at its best and worst – it’s like he is willing to go and witness what the rest of us have no compulsion to see.

The film is 1hr 45 mins, much of it taken up with monologue from Salgado and full screen projections of his black and white stills. Yet this is anything but boring cinema. His photographs alone have an emotional force that is often attempted yet rarely achieved in cinema. No one leaves this film without being deeply moved and questioning the very place of humanity in the world. Whilst that last statement reads like hyperbole, I will attempt to provide the context that leads me to make it.

Salgado himself is relatively quiet spoken for someone who has seen so much and travelled so widely. Yet his voice is an eminently suitable companion to his photographs, providing a gravitas with no hint of embellishment. The documentary not only tracks his private life but also the series of ‘projects’ he embarked upon, which provides the film’s structure.

Salgado is not someone who simply photographs people, often in circumstances most of us (in the West) can never imagine, he goes and stays with them, in refugee camps in Africa or the jungles of South America, for example. He really does chronicle their lives and, in so doing, captures with his lens their pain or suffering or ebullience that the rest of us can readily empathise with.

He records the Balkan wars, the oil fires in Kuwait, the droughts and consequential famine in Ethiopia and the genocide in Rwanda. This last event made him question humanity itself, and because you literally see the world through his eyes, via his camera, you find yourself doing the same. It was after this that he reinvented himself as a nature photographer, and it is in this role that I feel he produced some of his best work.

There is a point in this movie where I found myself wondering: do we, as a species, deserve the responsibility of being caretakers of this planet? Because that’s the role we have, whether we want it or not. This film brought this home to me more than anything else I’ve seen or read.

It creates a perspective that we rarely contemplate: the petty lives we live in the West, driven by economic consumerism; whilst much of the world is exploited, starved, imprisoned by inescapable poverty; and its wildlife pushed evermore into smaller enclaves, often pursued by poachers.

We have the knowledge and the technology to make the world a better place – I don’t doubt that – but whilst the entire Western world is driven by the accumulation of wealth at the expense of everything else, we will never achieve it.