Paul P. Mealing

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

Friday, 22 December 2017

Who and what do you think you are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Socrates – the first philosopher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unexamined life is not worth living.

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

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

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

I was too honest to be a politician and live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Advice for new writers

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

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

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

I originally called this 'Notes on Writing'.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing as Art - Narrative Prose.

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

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


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

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

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

Plot & Character

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Developing Character

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

Point of View

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Some personal notes on writing a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, 5 November 2017

God and science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 September 2017

How and why beliefs matter in science

I was going to call this: What is reality? because there is so much disagreement about what constitutes reality in physics and philosophy. In some respects I've addressed that specifically in not-so-recent posts like, What sorts of things exist and how? and My 2 sided philosophy. New Scientist puts out booklets that contain articles published in their magazine (periodicals) on particular themes and two that I have are on quantum mechanics and cosmology. Both of these areas are at the frontiers of physics and therefore bump up against metaphysics and/or philosophy. So this post is intended to be a discussion of people's beliefs and my beliefs in particular, and how those beliefs affect our perspective(s) on science and reality. It needs to be pointed out that sometimes people argue metaphysical ideas as if they are scientific theories, when, strictly speaking, they're not. They will discuss their particular point of view as if it can't be challenged because (according to them) science has proved them right. I will provide examples as I progress.

Before I start, I need to mention a well-written book with a similar title: Why Beliefs Matter; Reflections on the Nature of Science by E. Brian Davies (Professor of Mathematics at Kings College London and a Fellow of the Royal Society); which I discussed back in February 2011 (twice).

When I studied philosophy at a tertiary institution (which I never completed, I might add), one of the lecturers made a salient point which has stayed with me ever since: there are things you know and things you believe, and what you believe should be contingent on what you know and not the other way round. So, for the sake of consistency, I need to define what I mean by ‘things I know’. Scientific discoveries and theories that have been demonstrated valid through evidence, I call ‘things I know’, whereas philosophical ruminations I would call ‘things I believe’. So, for example, I would contend that evolution is something 'I know' because 150 years of accumulated evidence in a variety of disciplines tells me so, even though I’ve not made any of those discoveries myself nor ever contributed intellectually or otherwise to the discipline of evolutionary biology. It needs to be pointed out that the evidence that demonstrates evolution to be valid could equally demonstrate it to be false – the evidence is not neutral.

Because quantum mechanics and relativity theories both challenge our intuitive ideas of how the world works, they provide grist for philosophical and metaphysical interpretations, some of which border on the absurd. Whether I fit into that category or not, I leave for the reader to draw their own conclusions.

I will start with Einstein’s theories of relativity because they have become the basis of all cosmological theories developed over the last century. It was 100 years on November 2015 that he published his seminal paper on the General Theory of Relativity (the Special Theory of Relativity was published 10 years earlier in 1905). In fact, I attempted an exposition on the General Theory to mark the centenary of its birth. This is one of the ‘things I know’ because the sat-nav in your car, or on your phone, utilises both of these theories to provide accurate locations. Of course, there have been innumerable experiments that have proven Einstein’s theories correct in the 100 years that have past since their inception, so there’s no argument concerning their validity. However, there were beliefs held by Einstein, as a direct consequence of his theory, that have since been proven wrong. A mathematical consequence of his theory was to express time as a 4th dimension along with the 3 dimensions of space, which led to the concept of spacetime. Whereas space and time dimensions can change depending on an observer’s frame of reference and velocity, the combined dimension of spacetime remains unchanged.

One of Einstein’s beliefs was that time is a fixed dimension just like space, so the future is just as fixed as the past. In other words, Einstein believed in a strict determinism, which rules out free will. This strongly held belief led Einstein to dispute one of the fundamental tenets of quantum mechanics: that it was random and its outcomes could only be predicted by probabilities. So how can I claim that Einstein’s specific belief in this instance has been proven wrong? It’s generally acknowledged by physicists that quantum mechanics is one of the most successful theories, if not the most successful theory, in the history of science. And indeterminism is an intrinsic attribute of QM brought about by the collapse of the wave function, called its decoherence (which I’ll elaborate on later). In fact, this has led to a range of widely held beliefs, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Only a month ago I wrote a post challenging the beliefs of a correspondent to Philosophy Now, who effectively argued that there is no time without consciousness. And a year ago (Nov 2016), I wrote a post challenging a paper written by a couple of academics in California that consciousness brings objects into ‘reality’ including spacetime, which is ‘impermanent’. And more recently, I came across an article in another Philosophy Now magazine (Issue 93, Nov/Dec 2012) called On ‘Known-To-Be-False’ Materialist Philosophies of Mind by Graham Smetham, a Buddhist philosopher. Yes, that’s the full title with ‘On Known-To-Be-False’ highlighted in red. Smethan argues that materialists (who argue that mind is a consequence of ‘materials’ like neurons and synapses in the brain) are using obsolete classical physics. To quote ‘…the belief in the existence of solid material stuff which exists completely independent of mind is now about as scientifically acceptable as the phlogiston theory of heat.’ The context of this proclamation was the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider, which effectively demonstrates that ‘Mass, and so matter, are derived aspects of an insubstantial process of reality.’ (Italics in the original.) Basically, Smethan adheres to an extreme interpretation of the Copenhagen interpretation of QM that ‘things’ only come into existence when observed by a conscious entity.

All three of these abovementioned ‘beliefs’ - argued as virtually indisputable - border on solipsism, which is the philosophical premise that everything you see and observe is the product of your mind. The problem with solipsism is that there can only be ONE observer, and everyone else is a product of that observer’s observations. To get around this, they would argue that mind came first, and all other minds are a consequence thereof, rather than a consequence of individual brains. Basically, they all argue that we have the causal process in reverse. Consciousness has not arisen out of an evolutionary process that itself arose from a cosmological process, but the entire cosmological process arose from mind, of which we are all a part.

There is a way, however, in which Smethan could be right, which he alludes to in his ‘Conclusions’. John Wheeler, who famously coined the term, black hole, has argued that we and the Universe are the consequence of a cosmic scale quantum time loop. The point is that QM allows for backwards in time possibilities that have been demonstrated experimentally. In the famous double slit experiment, it’s well known that ‘detecting’ which slit a photon will go through destroys the interference pattern that occurs when it goes through both. In other words, when we try and determine which slit a photon will go through it stops being a wave and becomes a particle. Only waves can produce interference, which infers that the photon goes through both slits simultaneously. Wheeler conjectured that if we ‘looked at’ the photon after it had gone through the slit(s) but before it hit the screen, it would have the same effect. This infers that the ‘detection’ works backwards in time. He was proven correct when the technology eventually caught up with his thought experiment.

There is something compelling about the idea that the Universe saw us coming, which would make it teleological and would support the so-called Strong Anthropic Principle. Paul Davies has argued cogently for the Strong Anthropic Principle without calling it by that name. In his book, The Goldilocks Enigma, he looks at all current scenarios and ‘beliefs’ concerning the nature of the Universe, and he concludes that ‘I have suggested that only self-consistent loops capable of understanding themselves can create themselves, so that only universes with (at least the potential for) life and mind really exist.’  This ‘belief’ is logically consistent with Wheeler’s ‘belief’ and it’s no coincident that Davies dedicated the book to Wheeler, whom he saw as a mentor.

In an earlier book, The Mind of God, Davies expresses the same view in subtly different words:

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.

I’ve written about this on other posts, and I’ve concluded that the Universe is pseudo-teleological in as much as the natural laws that it obeys allow for complex intelligent life to evolve without a blueprint or a final goal evident. Both QM and chaos theory make a deterministic universe virtually impossible - I will elaborate on this later.

Richard Feynman, who is arguably the most famous physicist in the post-Einstein era was mentored by Wheeler, and took Wheeler’s backwards in time idea and incorporated it into his Nobel Prize winning theory, QED (quantum electrodynamics).

Robbert Dijkgraaf, who is a professor at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and calls himself a mathematical physicist, describes in a not-too-esoteric lecture (on string theory) how Richard Feynman, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, told the world how he got this idea from Wheeler. Apparently Wheeler rang him up and said, ‘I know why all the electrons are exactly the same. It’s because they are all the same electron.’ So Feynman logically asked him how this could be and Wheeler responded: ‘Because the same electron simply repeats over time.’ If you go to the 19min mark of Dijkgraaf’s lecture, he explains it with images. What Dijkgraaf doesn’t explain is that an anti-particle (which is a positron in the case of an electron) going forward in time is mathematically equivalent to a particle (electron) going backwards in time. In an interview, I saw with Feynman, he said the ‘same electron’ idea he left alone but the ‘backwards in time’ idea he took from Wheeler.

And since we’re talking about time, I would like to reference a podcast someone alerted me to where scientists and philosophers explain how time has been effectively explained away in physics. While this is partly true, I found the discussion a little disingenuous, if not misleading, because they didn’t provide the context nor explain the significance of time in both relativity theory and QM.

To provide context, Carlo Rovelli, who has written a couple of popular science books (recently translated into English) has stated that at a fundamental level in physics, time disappears mathematically. And Paul Davies, whom I referenced above, has also written in The Goldilocks Enigma: [The] vanishing of time for the entire universe becomes very explicit in quantum cosmology, where the time variable simply drops out of the quantum description. To be more specific, John Wheeler and Bryce De-Witt, in the late 1960s, rewrote Einstein’s field equations for general relativity (gravity) in the same form as electromagnetism and time simply disappeared, which became known as the Wheeler-DeWitt equation.

And yet: Einstein’s very successful theories of relativity incorporate time as a 4th dimension into spacetime, which provides the effective structure of the Universe, even if it can be warped by gravity. And one of the most important and seminal equations in QM is the time dependent Schrodinger equation. What’s more, the wave function, which is the centrepiece of the equation, is incorporated into Feynman’s QED where its phase is time variant (as it is in Schrodinger’s original).

For me, this paradox simply underlines my ‘belief’ that time is the fundamental parameter that makes the marriage of general relativity with QM a stumbling block. I’ve written a number of posts on ‘time’ over a number of years, some of which I’ve plundered for this post. In one of the New Scientist articles I referenced at the start of this post, Anil Ananthaswamy explains how the wave function of Schrodinger’s equation, whilst it evolves in time, ‘…time is itself not part of the Hilbert space where everything else physical sits, but somehow exists outside of it.’ (Hilbert space is the ‘abstract’ space that Schrodinger’s wave function inhabits.) ‘When we measure the evolution of a quantum state, it is to the beat of an external timepiece of unknown provenance.’  My ‘belief’, which I’ve expressed elsewhere, is that time doesn’t exist in QM (in the sense that Ananthaswamy describes above). I came to this conclusion even before I read Ananthaswamy’s article because it would explain superposition, which is a well known phenomenon in QM.

What’s more, the ‘external timepiece’ could be provided by gravity, since gravity determines the rates of clocks, even to the extent that clocks stop when they reach the event horizon of a black hole. I find this a compelling idea, and compelling ideas have a tendency to become beliefs.

And getting to the nub of the title of this post, it’s beliefs that drive science or scientific breakthroughs. Basically, scientists follow a belief until it’s validated or it’s proven wrong.

I mentioned Carlo Rovelli earlier, who is a proponent of loop quantum gravity theory, and one of his books I’ve read is Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, which is essentially a brief and erudite history of physics going back to the Ancient Greeks. Curiously, he’s dismissive of Schrodinger’s equation, which he relegates to a footnote, and argues that the wave function is a mathematical fiction which has conceptually led people astray from a true understanding of QM. He argues that Heisenberg’s matrix formulation is conceptually superior because there is nothing in between observations – the wave function and Hilbert space simply don’t exist.

In his historical account of QM, Rovelli goes straight from Heisenberg to Dirac’s equation as if Schrodinger played no significant role. In fact, Dirac derived his eponymous equation from Schrodinger's, and therefore contains its own (fictional) wave function. Heisenberg and Schrodinger were rivals, philosophically, professionally and politically (during WW2, Heisenberg worked on the atomic bomb project for the Nazis while Schrodinger went into exile in Ireland). Max Born contributed to both Heisenberg’s matrix formulation and Schrodinger’s wave interpretation (by determining how to derive probabilities from Schrodinger’s eponymous equation). Even though Heisenberg eschewed Schrodinger’s wave function, Schrodinger was able to demonstrate that they were mathematically equivalent once Born’s rule was applied to his equation (by squaring the modulus of the wave function which removes the imaginary component). Dirac applied Einstein’s special theory of relativity to Schrodinger’s equation which provides negative energies (as Schrodinger himself had discovered and abandoned). But Dirac predicted that the negative energies could be interpreted as antiparticle electrons (positrons) and was later proven correct.

Obviously, Rovelli is far more knowledgeable on this topic than me, yet we have different ‘beliefs’, as do many other physicists. Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist at the University of Surrey, has written one of the best introductory books on QM I’ve read, called Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed. Unlike Rovelli, the wave function is key to his exposition and Schrodinger’s equation is the only equation in the entire book, which he calls 'the most important equation in physics'.

At the time I read Rovelli’s book, I also read Roger Penrose’s latest tome, Fashion Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. I’ve long been a fan of Penrose and we share some ‘beliefs’, though I don’t necessarily share his ‘belief’ of a cyclic universe. Penrose can be delightfully edifying or maddeningly esoteric. This book, however, I found quite accessible, and he put the more challenging aspects of his exposition in an appendix.

I didn’t realise before that Penrose does most of his own illustrations, which are surprisingly good quality for someone not known for his artistic talents. On the back cover is an illustration (credited to Penrose) of a mermaid sitting on a rock with a seashore landscape in the background and the underwater world in the foreground, including the mermaid’s tail. I know from reading the book that this is a metaphor for Penrose’s own ‘beliefs’ regarding QM. The underwater world represents the quantum universe and the seashore represents the classical world of physics, with the water’s surface representing the wave function collapse or decoherence that delineates the two. From what I’ve read and know on this subject, most physicists ignore this dichotomy whereas I ‘believe’ there are 2 worlds that interact and the so-called collapse of Schrodinger’s wave function is the mathematical representation of that interaction.

Penrose ‘believes’ that gravity causes this decoherence and reading one of the New Scientist articles I mentioned, decoherence occurs when superposition can no longer exist. The reason that superposition doesn’t occur on a macro scale, according to Penrose, is that if you get enough particles together they create a gravitational field which in itself can’t be superimposed. It’s well known that clock rates change in a gravitational field, even from your head to your toe. If you have a superposition (of 2) separated far enough then their different clock rates determined by Planck’s hf (or atomically) will cause a decoherence so the particle suddenly becomes 1 in the so-called classical physical world.

In another New Scientist article, Yakir Aharanov, at Chapman University, Orange, California, asked the fundamental question some 50 years ago: ‘Does time in quantum mechanics have to flow from the past to the present? The answer, at least mathematically, is no.’ Aharanov along with a colleague, Jeff Tollaksen, has been performing experiments to attempt to demonstrate this. I won’t elaborate, but, of course, some argue that the experiments, whilst compelling, can be interpreted in other ways. But Aharanov says the mathematical interpretation of time symmetry is 'very elegant'.

However, the decoherence, which I argue is the interface between the QM and classical physics world, creates a time asymmetry that we are all familiar with: the past is fixed yet the future is open-ended. Once decoherence occurs, the time symmetry that Aharanov ‘believes’ becomes time assymetrical. Schrodinger once pointed out (according to John Gribbin’s biography) that the Born rule, which multiplies the complex component of the wave function by its conjugate to remove the imaginary component and provide a probability, is effectively the same as solving the equation both forwards and backwards in time. As Arthur I Miller points out in Graham Farmelo’s book, It Must Be Beautful: ‘Born’s aim was nothing less striking than to associate Schrodinger’s wave function with the presence of matter.’ In other words, it was Born’s great insight that gave us a mathematical means to go from the quantum world to the classical world by transforming Schrodinger’s equation into probabilities.

It should be pointed out that Schrodinger’s equation was purely suppositional. As Feynman once pointed out: ‘No one knows where Schrodinger’s equation came from. It came out of Schrodinger’s head. It can’t be derived from anything we know.’ I’ve jokingly called Schrodinger’s equation God’s equation because it attempts to predict the future via probabilities, and, statistically, it’s proven very accurate.

So what about the mathematical prediction that time disappears in quantum cosmology. I don’t know enough to answer that, but I’ve always found the Hartle-Hawking model of the Universe somewhat compelling. They argue, mathematically, that the time dimension may have originally been a 4th 'spatial' dimension (expressed through complex algebra, therefore imaginary) and this implies that in the beginning there was no time. Now, people will say: How can you have a beginning without time? I don’t know, but I admit that the idea appeals to me.

Is time symmetrical at a macro level, without QM? It’s been argued that Newtonian physics allows for time reversal and it’s only entropy that provides a direction in time. Entropy’s time direction is usually explained by the example of dropping an egg on the floor. If you were to run a film (or video) backwards of the event with the egg coming together and rising from the floor, everyone would know it’s impossible. But entropy doesn’t really provide a direction for time because it’s based on probabilities. To give another example, if you open a bottle of perfume in a room the perfume molecules quickly disperse to all corners of the room, they don’t congregate in one corner. There is an infinitesimal probability that they could all end up in one corner but there is a much higher probability, that increases with time, that they will disperse everywhere.

However, time asymmetry on a macro scale (without QM) is caused by chaos theory. Chaos theory is described as deterministic but unpredictable, which sounds like a contradiction, but it’s dependent on initial conditions; which is why weather forecasts are only predictable short term. A slight change has long term effects, but short term is predictable. This even applies to the orbits of the planets, which, despite appearances, are mathematically chaotic. It’s Earth's position in its orbit that's unpredictable (in the order of 150 million km over 100 million years).

I think that one of the more insightful posts I’ve written for this blog was called What is now? However, one issue I didn’t really address was: Is there a universal now? Towards the end of that post I explained how Einstein’s special theory of relativity made simultaneity impossible to be agreed upon by different observers, pending their relative velocities and positions in spacetime. Einstein concluded that there was no universal 'now' because everyone’s ‘time’ was different.

However, as we’ve already seen, Einstein was not infallible. One of the New Scientist articles I read challenges this particular aspect of Einstein’s relativity. Certainly, people who are in the same ‘frame of reference’ (occupy the same dimensional point of spacetime) would agree on ‘now’. Rovelli, whom I cited earlier, has argued that ‘now’ is the edge of the Big Bang. In my previous post, I made the point that we talk about an ‘age of the Universe’ which infers a universal now and I tend to agree with Rovelli: it’s the edge of the Big Bang which is everywhere in the Universe, including where you are currently standing or sitting. And entanglement, which is a feature of QM that doesn’t exist in classical physics, also infers a universal now. Science fiction writers, like myself, adopt a universal now even though we know we can’t physically send a signal anywhere in the Universe faster than the speed of light. But this contradiction (between relativity and QM) led to a renowned debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr, where Einstein famously called entanglement: ‘spooky action at a distance’. To cut a century long story short, every experiment, which has tested entanglement over relativity, has shown that QM triumphs.

This is a post with no conclusions, just a collection of ‘beliefs’, so I’ll finish with a joke provided by Robbert Dijkgraaf in his aforementioned video (at the 45 min mark).

What’s the difference between a physicist and a mathematician?
A physicist studies the laws that God chose nature to obey.
A mathematician studies the laws that God has to obey.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Odyssey; Homer

It’s not like me to read the classics, but this is a story that many of us grew up with, like Biblical stories, and I can’t help but feel that it has had an enormous influence on Western literature, and still has in the 21st Century. I came across a copy in one of my local bookshops, which has a huge range of classical literature, amongst all the more popular fare, both fiction and non-fiction.

The translation I have is by Samuel Butler - 1900, according to the Preface – where he discusses another relevant work he published in 1897, titled The Authoress of The Odyssey. That’s right: he argues that The Odyssey was written by a woman, whom he believes put herself into the story as Nausicaa. Following this preface there is an Introduction written by Andrew Lynn, who teaches literature at Barnard College, and who makes no reference to an ‘authoress’.  At the other end of the book, there is a section titled, About the Author, by David B. Monro, who discusses at length various theories and speculations about Homer’s origins around 7th Century BC. In particular, it seems that there are many ‘beliefs’ pertaining to where he was born and/or lived. I’m not a scholar of ancient Greek literature so I won’t elaborate or partake in any debate concerning Homer’s identity or of the possibility that the author was actually a woman.

The original story would have been in verse and would have been orated, which makes its origins all the more nebulous, which is true for much of ancient literature that survives to the current day, whatever its cultural origins may be.

I have to say that Butler’s translation is very easy to read whilst capturing much of the poetic imagery, one suspects, of the original. There is not a lot of description but there is a lot of detail in terms of customs, specific objects and relationships between classes of society, like Penelope and her maidservants or Odysseus and the swineherd on his land, for example. So one is embedded into the story by being made familiar with the society and its mores. This extends to the relationship between the protagonists and the gods.

Everything that happens in this story is dependent on the will or whim of the gods, and one suspects that this is what people truly believed at the time when this story was originally told. Every storm and every natural phenomenon is an ‘act of God’ so one’s fate is completely dependent on their favour or not, which is why sacrifices are made throughout the story, and one suspects, throughout the lives of the people who originally were the audience for this story. There is contact between the mortals and the immortals (or gods) and people are genuinely ‘god-fearing’ because gods are all powerful and have complete control over one’s destiny. This is explicit in the tale, and one can see parallels in Biblical stories. Whether this tale had the religious significance that we associate with stories from the Bible, I don’t know, but if it ever did, such significance has long been detached.

This is most definitely a bloke’s story, because it is an adventure involving a male protagonist, who has close scrapes with monsters, immortals, and who must overcome a series of ordeals, culminating in a bloody fight against strong odds to win back his estranged wife. All this makes it hard to accept Butler’s claim that the author was a woman, yet there are strong pivotal female roles. Not only Penelope but the Goddess, Athene (pronounced Ath-en-a, according to my Greek friends) without whom, Odysseus would never have made it nor won the day at the end. In fact, Athene comes across as the least contrary of the gods and the most understanding of the human condition. In fact, she reminds me of a warrior version of Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy in Chinese Buddhism).

Nausicaa plays a very minor role in the whole story, yet Hayao Miyazaki borrowed her name and her title (Princess) for his 7 book graphic novel, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which he also made into an anime movie.

Miyazake is not mentioned in an appendix to the edition I have, called Further Reading, that refers to literary influences, but does include a reference to the Coen Brothers' movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, starring George Clooney.

But ‘odyssey’ has become a term that transcends its origins, for it means “a long and eventful or adventurous journey” according to my computer’s dictionary. In fact, I would call ‘odyssey’ a fiction genre, and certainly every story I’ve written (not many) has involved ‘a long, eventful or adventurous journey’. But I suspect its biggest influence has been in Fantasy and superheroes, including the current highest rating television adventure story, Game of Thrones. I’ve long argued that superheroes are the 20th Century equivalent of Greek gods, though their relationship with humanity is decidedly different. They are not worshipped and they don’t need sacrifices in order to be of service to humanity’s well-being, but they are god-like in their abilities and humanlike in their character, which makes them very much akin to the Greek gods in Homer’s epic.

Whilst reading The Odyssey, I couldn’t help but think of Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman graphic novel series, which borrows from everywhere, including Shakespeare. Gaiman also wrote the award winning novel, American Gods, where he also borrows liberally from mythology (including Arabic mythology). Another  example is Tolkien borrowing from Nordic mythology as does Marvel studios. Gaiman has also recently published a book called Norse Mythology, which is on my ever extending reading list.

So Homer arguably provided the template for quest fiction, which might help to explain why it remains a classic after two and a half millennia. Stories allow us to extend our imaginations in ways that other art forms can’t emulate. Creating superhuman characters, be they gods or immortal, or somehow transcendent to the physical universe, is one of the more obvious tropes one can explore.

One of the more intriguing subplots in The Odyssey is Odysseus’s capture by Calypso who wants to make him an immortal like herself, yet he resists for 7 years. I remember an episode of Tarzan (as a radio serial, when I was a pre-pubic lad) being held captive by a queen who wanted to make him immortal, and not understanding why he resisted. Curiously, I’ve addressed the issue of immortality in my own fiction. As I’ve remarked elsewhere on this blog, I don’t wish for immortality – it’s not part of the natural order – yet one only has to look at the pyramids in Egypt to realise how this has captured the imagination amongst narcissistic leaders, and currently amongst those who believe we may one day download our consciousness into a computer.

Odysseus is one of the original superheroes along with Achilles, and perhaps that is why his story has become a part of Western collective consciousness.

Monday, 21 August 2017

In response to the assertion that cosmological time is a fiction

This is in response to a letter published in Philosophy Now (Issue 121, August / September 2017) by Peter Jones. I know nothing about him except he lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire.

Basically, he argues that claiming that science tells us that time existed prior to consciousness is 'scientism'. I will provide selected quotes to give a flavour of his argument.

"...the 'mathematical' continuum used by physics, which is a fiction, and famously paradoxical, and the 'intuitive' continuum: the continuum of experienced time. The non-fictional experience of time is dependent on consciousness."

And this is the fundamental premise of his thesis: that time does not exist without consciousness; which creates all sorts of problems for cosmology. I readily admit that time is one of the great mysteries of the Universe, yet I don't think our knowledge is so bare as to suggest that it's a mathematical fiction. I also acknowledge that it's probably the sticking point in our inability to find a compatible TOE (so-called Theory of Everything) which combines General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. Having said all that, Jones' assertion creates contradictions of its own. But before I address that specifically, more quotes:

"If we do not allow scientists to overstep their authority, then some reasoning here will lead us... to Nagarjuna, the Buddha and Laozi; and to the idea that time is a mental phenomenon such that by reduction, the only time is Now... We can dream of the past and the future, but nothing can happen 'in the past' or 'in the future'."

So, according to Jones, the only time is now and it's purely a mental phenomenon. Time external to the mind, as we all believe exists, because we all interact with it, along with the 3 dimensions of space, is a fiction. In fact, I'm not sure, but I think Jones may consider space to be a fiction as well, if one takes the following seriously:

" is very plausible that consciousness is necessary for time and space."

He argues that this was Kant's view, which, from my reading of Kant, I'd say is correct, but it's never made sense to me. Kant lived after Newton, but cosmology was not really a science in his time. In fact, cosmology is really a 20th Century science, arising from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and the discovery of an expanding Universe. I'm not sure Kant would consider the entire Universe to be a mental construction, which is the logical conclusion to considering space and time to be purely mental phenomena. If time and space, as described by the equations of physics, are both fictions, then the entire Universe must be a fiction, because the Universe has no framework and no structure without time and space.

But Jones considers religious texts to be more germane to this subject than science:

"If someone one day proves that temporal sequences of events occurred prior to consciousness, then we must dismiss the Upanishads as nonsense. Until then, we should pay it some respect."

I haven't read the Upanishads, yet I know that Schrodinger studied them, and they gave him the idea of a universal mind, if I understand him correctly. So maybe Jones believes that there is a universal mind in which the time and space of the Universe exists. That's the only way I can make sense of his assertion, but he never expanded on that specifically, so I'm guessing.

Given that context, I think Jones' last words (on the scientific approach to time) tells us everything we need to know:

"I wonder sometimes whether this approach doesn't deserve the title 'mysticism' more than the view it ignores."

So science, concerning time, is 'metaphysical conjecture', and religious texts like the Upanishads deserve more respect than our theories on cosmology, which are derived from Einstein's equations and observations based on discoveries like the Cosmological Background Radiation, which all but confirms the Big Bang.

Below is a letter of my own that I wrote to the Editor of Philosophy Now in response to Jones' letter. The arguments below are more specific than my discussion above.

I expect I’m one of many who found Peter Jones’ missive on ‘time’ (Letters, Issue 121) astounding, especially when he responds to Raymond Tallis’s claim ‘…that we know from science that there was a temporal sequence of events before there was any consciousness’, by saying: ‘We know nothing of the sort’.

Very few people believe that the Universe, which includes time, did not exist prior to consciousness. Even the use of the word ‘prior’ implies there was time without consciousness. So either there was no time in the Universe ‘before’ consciousness or there is no Universe without consciousness. Whilst these viewpoints can be defended ontologically, I’m not aware of any scientist who would. Roger Penrose has pointed out that there is no time without mass because photons have zero time. So the Universe requires mass for time to exist, which is a precursor to consciousness, if we accept that all conscious entities have mass. Therefore, logically, time existed before consciousness, yet Jones claims that everything I’ve just said is ‘metaphysical conjecture’.

Einstein made the connection between time and light, which allows time to be seen mathematically as another dimension. But we can actually see this dimension ourselves by looking at the night sky. Using telescopes, both optical and radio, we can literally look back in time; in fact, 100 million years using the Hubble space telescope. Life began 3.8 billion years ago, without consciousness, and the Big Bang is in the order of 13.7 billion year ago, according to current scientific thinking. Whilst I concede that all of these figures are subject to change, pending future discoveries and better understanding, which is the nature of scientific investigation, I don’t expect someone in the future to claim that the Universe started after life began on Earth. It’s a syllogistic contradiction.

Jones makes the point that ‘now’ is the only time we know, which he calls the ‘Perennial view’. I agree that consciousness exists in a constant now, which supports that view, and, like Tallis, I agree that without consciousness the terms past, present and future have no relevance. However, there is evidence that time existed in the past – one only has to take a photograph. But, even without photographs, we have memories. In fact, without memory (both short term and long term) we wouldn’t know that we are conscious, and there are cases where this has actually happened. People have been knocked unconscious but proceed to behave as if they’re conscious then have no memory of it. It happened to my father in a boxing ring which convinced him to give up boxing. I’ve heard anecdotally of other instances, like when a woman security guard shot a man after he knocked her out, but afterwards had no memory of it. So the fact that you know that you’re conscious means you have memory, which means there is a 'past' in time. We all know what we did seconds ago, not to mention years and decades ago, and we can often produce evidence in the form of photographs, letters and recorded conversations to substantiate it. None of this is metaphysical conjecture.

We also know that time is asymmetrical and there are a number of scientifically valid means of demonstrating this. Best known is entropy or the second law of thermodynamics explained very well by Erwin Schrodinger in his book, What is Life? and also by Richard Feynman in The Character of Physical Law. Chaos, which is a common phenomenon in the natural world, at a cosmological level, as well as at a biological level and even at a molecular level, also demonstrates asymmetry in time. It is described as ‘deterministic but unpredictable’ because minute changes in initial conditions change future outcomes dramatically. To determine the initial conditions, mathematically, requires calculations to infinite decimal places, which makes it impossible. This means that if you could hypothetically restart an event at those initial conditions the future would be completely different. And finally, quantum mechanics creates asymmetry in time because its outcomes are probabilistic, not deterministic. In fact, many people believe that every quantum event creates another universe following its own timeline. Now, that is metaphysical conjecture. But quantum mechanics itself is not; in fact, it’s the most successful theory in science.