Paul P. Mealing

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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 provided 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:

"...it 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.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Why and how European Western philosophy begat the scientific revolution

I’ve been reading a book, The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent, subtitled A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. At close to 450 pages, it’s a weighty philosophical tome, both literally and figuratively. According to the back fly leaf, ‘Jeremy Lent is a writer and the founder and president of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth.’ A very noble goal in itself, and the book goes some way towards describing a ‘manifesto’ to achieve it. ‘Lent also holds a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.’ In a former life, he was ‘the founder, CEO and Chairman of a publicly traded internet company.’

I acquired the book after reading a review in New Scientist. I knew from the outset that I would have disagreements with Lent, yet I believe his tome is worth reading for a number of reasons. Besides, no one ever completely agrees philosophically with someone else, which includes everyone who reads this blog.

He essentially traces the development of human civilisation in both the West and the East, using the premise that culture determines largely how we think and, by giving a brief yet not superficial history lesson, attempts to understand, if not explain, why we are historically and culturally, in the West, where we are today.

He gives particular emphasis to the Platonic Christian cultural evolution in the West and the Neo-Confucian evolution in China, which incorporated Confucianism with Taoism and Buddhism. I have a particular interest in both of these developments, though I wouldn’t call myself a scholar. I have read widely in all these areas and even studied Western philosophy along with science and mathematics without the academic qualifications to make me an expert in any specific area. It is this interest that originally led me to produce this blog.

I’ve made the point in earlier posts that we all think in a language, which both determines and limits what we can actually conceptualise, and provides the basis for much of our cultural norms. Lent makes the same point and illustrates what he means with a very good example.

Australian Aborigines in their indigenous languages don’t have words for left, right, front and back. Instead, directions and relative positions are always given by compass directions even though they don’t use a compass. It’s well known that Aborigines have an uncanny sense of direction (by Western standards), which has been essential to their survival for millennia. I once read a description of someone (a White Fella) stopping a Land Rover on a track so that he and his companions (Black Fellas) could pursue and kill a kangaroo in the scrub. When they turned to go back with their kill, he naturally went to return the way they had come, whereas they went in a straight line back to the Land Rover even though they couldn’t see it. In AFL (Aussie Rules football) Aboriginal players are known for having a strong sense of direction on the field and where everyone is. Anyone who’s seen a game of Aussie Rules would appreciate what an advantage that could be in the run of play.

The curious thing is that we don’t know if the language determines the innate ability or the other way round. One suspects it’s a combination of both. The language reinforces the specific cultural requirement that the individual needs, not only to ‘fit in’, but, in this case, to survive in an unforgiving landscape with limited visual markers, and where the terrain changes, revealing and hiding specific markers as one travels.

Lent has been influenced by George Lakoff, whom he references more than once. I’ve encountered Lakoff in my own reading and even had correspondence with him. These encounters are partly chronicled elsewhere, but essentially Lakoff explains virtually all knowledge from the perspective of metaphor, including all of philosophy, science and mathematics. Lent also talks about the significance of metaphor in its cognitive role of elevating humans above all other species. Just on that point, metaphor is a form of analogy and many of them become what Lakoff calls ‘frozen metaphors’ and what I’d call clichés. I’ve written about this elsewhere as well, but analogy is our first and most important method for explaining something new to someone else. It’s our ability to integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge which allows us to learn unfamiliar concepts; and analogies, including metaphors, are our key means of achieving this. As Lent points out, we use metaphors all the time without even thinking about them. How often do we say we ‘see’ something when we mean we ‘understand’ it, yet the context of the word allows one never to be confused.

But Lent also borrows from Lakoff, whether intentionally or not, in another way when he reinterprets a scientific discovery in a context of his own making. He talks about Neo-Confucianism as effectively foreseeing modern scientific developments because of its gestalt approach to the Universe. For example, he cites Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, as evidence that ‘The traditional Chinese notion of qi [sometimes called chi] as an all pervasive force of energy and matter could now be related to the findings of modern science.’ In other words, Einstein’s mathematical discovery apparently confirms an ancient Chinese principle. It’s very easy to reinterpret a discovery (like Einstein’s equation) in the context and language of an ancient tradition which never came close to acquiring the mathematical genius such a discovery entails. In fact, Einstein’s discovery rests on millennia of mathematical and scientific developments in the Western world that Lent is effectively arguing is inferior to Neo-Confucianism.

Now, I need to point out that I have also called myself a Neo-Confucianist, but I see its importance in a psychological context rather than as a worldview that somehow trumps modern scientific thinking. As I said in my introduction, I’ve read widely in this area without becoming a scholar because I see it as an alternative philosophy to Western monotheistic religion, which is the psychological context I refer to above. It is in this context that I can find some agreement with Lent.

In particular, Lent argues that monotheism lends itself to genocidal activity against other religions and he quotes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament to support his contention. He makes the point that such genocidal activity was not just reserved for non-Christian religions, including Judaism from whence it was derived, but also within Christianity itself. We find similar issues within Islam in the modern world. Monotheism, according to Scripture, will tolerate no other God or Gods. Historically, this has led to some of the worst atrocities, and, in Islam, still does. I have my own issues with monotheism from my upbringing, some of which was resurrected when reading Lent’s account. He makes the point, by quoting renowned Christian thinkers, like Augustine among others, that the body with its sexual and base desires represents the opposite of spiritual purity. The obsession with sex in the Church has led to its own problems that are finally being revealed in the full light of the law in many countries, including Australia. The self-loathing that Lent cites in some Christian thinkers is something I can identify with. No one taught me self-loathing; it just came with the territory. I’ve had a strong aversion to the Bible and its teachings ever since.

I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge in many forms, including religion. So it’s not surprising that I read Buddhist scholars like Daisetz Suzuki, and have read various texts on the I Ching, including the renowned Richard Willhelm translation (English translation by Cary Baynes). I’ve read the full works of Carl Jung who was arguably more religious scholar than psychologist. He was the first to make me consider that God is something internal, not external, which makes the idea totally subjective.

Many famous scientists dabbled in what we would call occult practices, which were partly a reflection of the age in which they lived and partly a consequence of their striving for ‘truth’ wherever they may find it. Johannes Kepler was an astrologer as well as an astronomer and once took the stand in court to defend charges against his mother for being a witch. Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist ever, was also a numerologist and alchemist, much of which he kept secret. Erwin Schrodinger studied the Upanishads, the classical Hindu text, which he briefly discusses in his book, What is Life?  According to Lent, Niels Bohr incorporated the Taoist Yin Yang symbol into his coat of arms when he was knighted, because it represented the inherent and inexplicable complementarity (or paradox) of wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics. Einstein, in his own words, was not religious in the conventional sense, yet he wrote the following:

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes true religiosity, and in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.

Einstein was also influenced by the philosophy of Spinoza. But perhaps the greatest walking contradiction in science was a contemporary of Einstein, Bohr and Schrodinger: Wolfgang Pauli. Pauli was notably the most critical of any theory put forward, no matter by whom, and made famous contributions to quantum theory – in particular, the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which explains, among other things, why objects (including human beings) don’t simply meld into each other when everyone knows that all atoms are mostly empty space. But Pauli was also a personal friend of Carl Jung and studied the I Ching.

Getting back to Lent’s book, and his subtitle, Humanity’s Search for Meaning, one could argue that religion, in all its variants, is the consequence of this search, but only science and mathematics have provided us with real knowledge of our origins and the mysteries of the physical Universe. This leads to the next aspect of Lent’s discourse.

Before I go further, I should point out that I’m not a history buff and I would concede that Lent’s knowledge of history would almost certainly outweigh mine. However, I think his interpretations and reasoning of relative cultural evolution and comparative developments, especially in science, are speculative and therefore open to challenge.

He makes the relevant point, not lost on most history of science scholars, that there were times (not concurrent) when both the Arab world of Islam and the Chinese world of Neo-Confucianism were ahead of Western civilizations in the pursuit of science-based knowledge, like astronomy, mathematics and technology in general. Lent provides his own rationale as to why the scientific revolution occurred in Europe and not Asia. In the case of Islam, conservative religious scholars hijacked the debate, which happened in Christendom too, one could argue, but more on that later. In the case of China, Lent argues that the Neo-Confucian philosophical approach was not so much a failure to discover science, as we tend to perceive it, but that they had a different objective. He effectively argues that if we had adopted their approach the world would be a better place. I’ll return to that point at the end.

Arguably, Lent’s most contentious point is that Christianity and Science had a certain synergy that facilitated the advancement of science. For most of Western philosophy, science and religion were not dichotomized like they are today. But even today, scientists with religious beliefs will incorporate their beliefs into their science, usually in a way that only makes sense to them. But back in the day of Galileo, Kepler, and even Newton, this was the norm. Scientists of that period also had religious beliefs, and if they were European, then those religious beliefs would have been Christian. I don’t see any mystery or controversy on this point.

The major difference between the Western philosophical tradition and its Eastern counterpart is the role of the ancient Greeks, specifically Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, which Lent acknowledges. This was also the influence on the Arab world along with Hindu mathematical advances (particularly the adoption of zero) but science in Islam became a heresy under conservative religious leadership (at least according to Lent, and I suspect he’s right). Lent points out that it was the Greeks who coined the term ‘natural law’, astro-nomos (nomos is ‘law’) which, of course, gives us ‘astronomy’. Lent argues that, in the West, we adopted this as being ‘God’s law’, hence the tradition, even in the 20th Century, with Einstein and Hawking (an atheist) referring to the ‘Mind of God’, and Paul Davies, a self-confessed deist, even writing a book with that title.

What really gave us the scientific revolution is the appreciation of the role of mathematics in understanding all aspects of the natural world and its cumulative revelations from Galileo, Kepler and Newton to Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, culminating in the so-called golden age of physics in the 20th Century. Lent acknowledges the cultural origins of this paradigm in ancient Greece, starting with the Pythagoreans, but sees it as a cultural metaphor (like Lakoff) that we have come to accept as ‘truth’, effectively replacing conventional religion. As anyone who regularly reads my blog will attest, that’s pretty well my intellectual position.

Not surprisingly, Lent challenges this paradigm, specifically the ‘truth’ part, citing the mathematical relationship between π and a circle’s area (for example) as being true, yet does not axiomatically constitute a universal ‘truth’. However, I argue that there are innumerable universal truths in mathematics – look no further than the primes. To be fair, Lent is not alone among philosophers or even mathematicians; Stephen Wolfram, who famously created Mathematica, argues that mathematics is a cultural artefact, just as Lent describes.

Lent argues that if we were jellyfish, for example, with the same intelligent and cognitive capacities as humans, living in a fluid environment then the mathematics we know may not have developed if there was nothing ‘discrete to count’. I’ve met this argument before (though different analogy). It’s the relationships between numbers rather than the numbers themselves that constitutes mathematics and it’s those relationships that have allowed us to describe, if not understand, such natural phenomena as electromagnetism, gravity, the life cycle of the sun, the chemical attributes of every element; and so it goes on. So even if there was nothing to count, it’s hard to imagine mathematics not existing in a form that allows us to comprehend the Universe on such a diverse range of scales. In fact, even the very notion of scale and its significance in determining the dominance of specific natural forces suggests that mathematics is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the Universe. 

Lent, among many others, contends that we’ve imposed mathematics as a human-made structure onto the Universe, and argues that discoveries in the 20th Century in the field of chaos and complexity reveal the inadequacy of Newtonian based physics to explain the natural world.

First of all, science, of all human disciplines, appreciates that knowledge is not fixed; it’s a neverending endeavour. In fact, Lent gives examples of Einstein’s physics overturning Newton’s and Riemann’s geometry replacing Euclid’s as evidence that mathematics and the science it spawns as not representing universal truths. I find this argument disingenuous when it’s well known that Riemann’s geometry is effectively an extension of plane geometry onto curved surfaces; Euclidean geometry is flat. And Einstein’s theories of relativity reduce mathematically to Newton’s physics when the speed of light is not relevant, which is most of the time as we all know. In fact, in both cases it demonstrates that mathematical consistency is a feature of advances in physics. Euclid’s geometry is still a universal truth that can actually be used to decide a feature of the Universe. For example in flat geometry a triangle’s 3 angles will sum to 180˚ but on a positively curved surface will be greater than 180˚ and on a negatively curved surface will be less than 180˚. In principle, this should allow us to determine if the Universe is negatively or positively curved or neither.

The discovery of chaos, fractals and complexity in the 20th Century are just another set of discoveries in both mathematics and nature that open new doors onto our understanding of the world, including so-called self-organising phenomena that are prominent in biology, cosmology and mundane objects like whirlpools. Lent talks about these phenomena as if they challenge science at its core, and argues that Neo-Confucianism and indigenous cultures effectively foresaw this new brand of science with their holistic view of the world. Paul Davies gives a very good account in his excellent book, The Cosmic Blueprint, published in 1987, where he argues that this self-organising principle represents another ‘arrow of time’ alongside entropy. Whilst Lent acknowledges the contribution to this new field by Lorenz, Mandelbroit and others (he doesn’t mention Poincare’s seminal role), he fails to point out that they are all mathematicians and it’s fundamentally a mathematical field.

Lent is not the first to point out that the idea of a Platonic realm fits neatly into the Christian view of Heaven, and argues that this is what distinguishes Christendom from other cultures like Neo-Confucianism. I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s only mathematics that provides a cultural link to Platonism. I’m not aware of anyone, including mathematical Platonists (like myself), who believe that there exists a world of ‘ideal forms’ for everything on Earth and that our psyche recognises them from previous lives or some-such. This has more in common with Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ than anything else in science or religion. Arguments for mathematical Platonism rarely cite Pythagoras or Plato, but more likely Godel or Wigner or Penrose.

To address Neo-Confucianism, Lent acknowledges that there is a triumvirate of Earth, Man and Heaven, without acknowledging its obvious similarity to the Christian view. The major difference is that Christianity sees Christ as an essential link between Man and Heaven, whereas, in Neo-Confucianism, the link exists without the necessity of a monotheistic God. The point is that there is a transcendental realm (with or without God) and Man is the only connection between it and Earth. One could say the same holds true for mathematics if one was a mathematical Platonist.

The Neo-Confucianists, for whatever reason, never made the link between mathematics and the natural world and that is why the scientific revolution didn’t happen for them. For example, chi or qui is an energy source or flow, which is a concept used in traditional Chinese medicine and elsewhere. The point is that chi is never quantified as it would be in Western science. In fact, Raymond Tallis, who writes a regular column for Philosophy Now, argues that it’s only because we are able to quantify ‘stuff’ that the field of physics exists. In other words, mathematics as a tool in physics only came about because we can measure things. This is also a touch disingenuous when one looks at all the examples where mathematics predicted physical phenomena and objects rather than the other way round. Maxwell’s equations gave us the constant speed of light in a vacuum; Einstein’s special theory of relativity gave us the mathematical equivalence of energy and matter; Dirac’s equation predicted the positron; Pauli mathematically predicted the neutrino; and more recently Higgs predicted the Higgs Boson.

But Lent’s overall thesis contains ideas that I actually agree with: humans have demonstrated a capacity to be too successful for their own collective good. Naturally, I haven’t done Lent’s arguments full justice, given obvious self-imposed limitations, but basically he infers that science, being the most successful endeavour in the history of the world, also contains the seeds of our potential doom. He doesn’t make this point so dramatically, but I doubt he’d disagree with my synopsis.

It should be noted that Lent and I don’t disagree that the scientific revolution is a direct consequence of our Greek neo-Platonic heritage. We don’t even disagree, I would suggest, that science could be part of the problem or part of the solution. We disagree on whether science truly tells us something about the natural world or whether it’s fundamentally a cultural artefact that provides just one view of reality with no special significance. According to Lent, the Neo-Confucian philosophy provides another view of equal if not superior importance. There is a fundamental problem with this stance, however - throughout the book, he cites modern scientific discoveries as justification for the Neo-Confucian worldview.

The last 2 chapters are worth reading on their own. In particular, the penultimate chapter would make an excellent essay, where he discusses the trap of ‘perpetual economic growth’. The last chapter ventures into science fiction, though more dystopian than utopian. It’s worth reading just for the discussion on ‘society collapse’, with particular reference to the Roman Empire. From my perspective, these chapters are almost divorced from the rest of the book, though, obviously, the author wouldn’t think so. I found them depressingly prescient, and are probably worthy of their own post.

I don’t think Lent is anti-science, neither is he ignorant. But where he sees science as a cultural artefact, I see it as a quest for ‘truth’ that is largely successful but unbounded. It’s important to appreciate that science is never complete. Mathematics is the key; I see this as obvious, whereas Lent would see me as delusional.

Addendum: I received a very generous and gracious reply from Jeremy Lent, which you can read in the comments, along with my response.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Walkaway, a novel

I don’t often review novels on this blog – in fact, I think this may be my third. Actually, the title is exactly as written above, so people know that it is ‘a novel’ (written by Cory Doctorow), as if it could be mistaken for non-fiction – I’m not sure how. To be honest, I’ve never read anything else of his, and I bought it after reading a review, which is something I rarely do. I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, because it takes a commitment in time that one might rather spend elsewhere.

The review interested me because the novel portrays dystopia and utopia in the same story, both common themes in science fiction. There are many subgenres in sci-fi but there are 2 broad categories: speculative fiction and space opera. I tend to write space opera, though I’d call it science fantasy, because it contains fantasy elements. One of the characters in Walkaway makes the observation that ‘science fiction and fantasy are opposite sides of the same coin’; a deliberate ironic touch by the author: talking about science fiction from within a science fiction novel.

I went straight to my local bookshop after reading the review, because bookshops still exist in my part of the world – in fact, there are 2 about 5 mins from here in opposite directions; both thriving according to their managers. Sometime in the first decade of this century, Borders came to Melbourne with the intention of putting every other bookshop out of business, which is the American business model. Well, Borders are long gone and the locals are still going, so sometimes the American model doesn’t work in Australia, which probably has more to do with our small population base than anything else. I’m not an economist so others may be able to enlighten me.

Back to Walkaway: it’s based on a dichotomy which some may say is reflected in our current political climate, which is why it is worthy of a blog post. But that’s only partly true, even though the book is very political and the author would like to think: visionary. Personally, I‘m not so sure on the last point. One day, I’ll make my own attempt at trying to predict what makes a better world, but I’m the first to admit that most such attempts get it woefully wrong, so I can’t knock the guy for his efforts, and putting it out there for others (like me) to challenge.

Someone (Peter Nicholls) once said that what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is that it’s all about ‘what-ifs’. This is more true in speculative fiction (a good definition, in fact) than space operas, but it still applies because, almost by definition, sci-fi requires speculative technologies that probably don’t exist. I’ve also remarked elsewhere that science fiction invariably makes some comment about the current social dynamic in which it was written. Not surprisingly, Doctorow’s novel delivers on both of these in spades.

I think I can describe the premise without any spoiler alerts: basically, society has become divided between the ‘zottas’ (corporate lords and their feudal underlings) and ‘walkaways’ (hippies with magic-like technology so they don’t want for anything material). I need to explain a few things, but I should point out up front that I struggled to be engaged for much of its 500 page length. For the first half, it was a series of philosophical discussions interspersed with heavy sex scenes and martial conflict (war-like battles) – yes, I know I’ve done this myself, so I can’t throw stones. Well, actually, I can and I will as you’ll see. What happened halfway through was a fork in the plot which created genuine suspense. It wasn’t till near the end that I got truly emotionally involved and I can’t say how or why without giving things away. Now the fact that it took so long may say more about me than the book: nothing objective is more subjective than art. But enough about me.

At this point in historical time, the world is polarised in a way that I haven’t seen since the 1960s, and to some extent the novel extrapolates that polarisation into the future. The Left and the Right are getting further apart all over the Western world, and Doctorow has taken that to one of its logical conclusions (with significant help from technologies yet to be invented) whereby he’s dressed one up as evil and the other as virtuous. I tend to agree with Sam Harris (I don’t agree with him on much) that the far left is just as dangerous, volatile and violent (perhaps more so) as the far right. But letting that one through to the keeper, Doctorow allows his ‘walkaway’ characters to espouse his particular utopian worldview. Now, as an author, I need to point out that fictional characters don’t always express the views of their creator, and, in fact, an author’s fiction is all the better when he or she keeps his or her opinions out of it. Having said that, Walkaway is unapologetically a polemic, and needs to be assessed as one.

For a start, the novel is full of techno-jargon that the reader has to assimilate and learn as they proceed; basically making assumptions or ignoring it in the hope that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. The story is set in Canada but it feels distinctly Californian: not just the language and sexual mores, but the whole hippy combined with silicon valley on steroids thing. I’ve visited and worked in California (for about 3 months, 15 years ago) but California as a culture has been broadcast to the English-speaking world, and beyond, since the 1960s, through TV, movies and computer games. Anyway, in a nutshell, Doctorow’s utopia is the counter culture with AI – very advanced AI.

As a plot device, there are very convenient technologies, which allows one to make just about anything, including food, homes, transportation, you name it. The hippy group are called ‘walkaways’ because, not only did they walk away from society, called ‘default’, but they can walk away from anything they’ve built and start all over again. That’s a fundamental premise of this ‘new’ societal order. Another fundamental premise is that theirs is a leaderless society and that there are no ‘snowflakes’ – people who think they are special.

I have philosophical problems with all of this, but then it is a philosophical manifesto dressed up as a good versus evil fiction. Ah, that’s why the author feels compelled to tell us it’s ‘A Novel’ on the front cover.

For a start, I don’t believe in leaderless societies. I’ve never seen a leaderless project of any nature that’s worked. I wrote, way back when I started this blog, a post called Human Nature, where I contended that leadership is a fundamental aspect of humankind, but it only works when those being led are invested in the leadership. In other words, they need to believe that the leader has the requisite skills and expertise to lead in that particular endeavour, whatever it might be: a sporting event, an engineering project, a nation, a theatrical production. I once wrote an essay on leadership, before I had a blog, but, in essence, I argued that a leader is best measured by the successes of those he leads rather than his own successes as an individual. In other words, good leaders bring out the best in people.

I find this whole ‘snowflake’ thing just bullshit, but I admit that’s my own particular perspective based on my own experience. I live and grew up in a society where the greatest ‘sin’ was to have ‘tickets on yourself’. This means that in whatever you do you’re judged on your current endeavours and should not take for granted whatever respect you’ve earned. I think this is very healthy and effectively punishes complacency without throwing away whatever you’ve gained. In walkaway society, the characters tend to conflate ‘snowflakiness’ with leadership.

I mentioned the plot device that allows walkaway characters to magically invent anything they need through ultra-superior technology – I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve spent a working lifetime in engineering, so I know the true value of infrastructure and our dependency on it. There are so many things we take for granted (like sewerage) that we don’t appreciate what life would be like without them. I mention sewerage, because, of all the utilities, it would have the biggest and earliest impact if they all failed. My point is that, like everything technological that we take for granted, most people have no knowledge of its underpinnings or how they’d cope without it. Doctorow’s plot device attempts to cover this with an internet-like infrastructure called ‘interface’, energy from hydrogen ‘cells’, virtually 3D printable anything, including food if required, and transportation with blimps; all without anything resembling an economy.

I wouldn’t be giving too much away if I mention that one of the technological inventions that the walkaways have is the ability to upload (or download) their consciousness into AI. I think this is called the singularity. I admit that I am sceptical about this particular futuristic prediction, but given that it’s a work of fiction, I look at it as the ‘fantasy’ side of the same coin, that one of the characters conveniently reminded us of. My aversion to this scenario is that, personally, I don’t want immortality, in a machine or any other form. I’ve actually addressed this issue in my own fiction, so it’s there for someone else to take apart if they want to.

To be fair, a lot of people will enjoy this book, and some (if not many) will find my criticisms harsh. Arthur C Clarke once famously said (or wrote) that “any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic” (that may not be verbatim but it’s close enough). All fiction is a blend of fantasy and realism, including mine, and the mix varies depending on the author and the subject. Science fiction novels can explore alternative societies, which is one of the things that attracted me to it when I was young. As I alluded to above, Doctorow’s novel comes across as a philosophical treatise, which I think is flawed, and it’s completely dependent on technology that’s indistinguishable from magic.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

What Sorts of Things Exist, and How?

This is another ‘Question of the Month’ from Philosophy Now. I’ve submitted 6 in a number of years and they’ve published 5. In this case, I suspect they want an ontological discussion, which I’ve effectively side-stepped, so it may not make the grade. I always try and write something they won’t expect, and I’m vain enough to admit I’ll be disappointed if it fails. Regular readers of my blog will see that, philosophically, it’s consistent with what I’ve written elsewhere. There is a word limit of 400, but I’ve been unusually economical with 353.


The terms, ‘things’ and ‘exist’, seem self-evident yet they’re not. And the word, ‘how’, whilst the apparent key to understanding this, is probably the most enigmatic part of it. What does one mean by ‘things’? As well as a physical object, examples of which surround you everywhere you go, a thing can be an idea, a concept, a mathematical equation or a tune in your head,  So I’d divide 'things' into two categories: those that are constructs of the mind and those that are independent of any mind. Not surprisingly, some have an existence that seems to bridge these two worlds, the physical and the mental. Take music, which can exist as a written score on a page or as physical compressional air waves; yet we experience it as some-thing transcending the physical that elicits emotions, memories and sometimes a tendency to dance or swoon or even cry. In this case, the 'how' is utterly unfathomable.

We all have dreams that deceive us into experiencing something that literally feels and looks real, yet when we awaken we know it isn’t. Dreams are solipsistic, which means they only exist in our minds, but so do colours even though they appear to exist externally. Then there are stories, which like music, can exist as words on a page, yet in our heads can evoke strong emotions and take us to completely imaginary worlds, not unlike dreams. In fact, if we didn't dream, I wonder if stories would have any cogency. Stories embody imaginary 'things' by their very design, yet they are part of being human, as is all art.

Science, over centuries, has attempted to explain the physical world, yet it’s like peeling an onion. It has reached a stage where fundamental 'things' are described by quantum mechanical wave functions – mathematical entities that may or may not physically exist. Mathematics appears to be a product of the mind, yet there will always be mathematical 'things' that we can never know because they are infinite, like all the digits of pi or every prime number. So is this a third category of 'things' - abstract truths?

Addendum: This 'essay' was published in Philosophy Now, Issue 121, August / September 2017. I've included some of their edits (like the last 2 words), though not all.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

What’s really happening in Syria

I wasn’t even sure I could write a post about this, but it’s too important to ignore. Earlier this week I watched an investigative programme into the tens of thousands of people who have ‘disappeared’ under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is shocking almost beyond belief, reminiscent of documentaries I’ve seen on the holocaust under Nazi Germany. More than anything else, it made me aware of how our fortunes, or misfortunes, are firstly and foremostly determined by our birth, which is contrary to what we are all led to believe; at least for those of us who were born into a Western society.

What struck me was how intellectuals, in particular, seem to have been targeted. To give one example, a woman who was a doctor and a chess champion has disappeared with her entire family, including small children. Another example, is a dental student who was tortured and killed. In fact, there are over 6,700 photos of young men who have been tortured to death, all documented and tagged by a bureaucracy obsessed with following rules even when the documentation is self-incriminatory.

I could not help but put myself in the shoes of the victims, realising that the only difference between them and me is where I was born. There is enough evidence – 600,000 pages – to indict Assad on crimes against humanity, but the UN is powerless because both Russia and China have veto rights and together have blocked any move to prepare a criminal case against Syria’s governing regime.

It goes to show that in the 21st Century you can get away with the most heinous crimes if you have enough power and enough influence on the global stage.

This is not a lengthy post, because words alone cannot convey the burden of injustice that the world is witnessing in virtual silence.

Watch this short video if you can access it.

Friday, 14 April 2017

48hr Flash Fiction Challenge 2017

Actually the competition (ran over the 8-9 Apr weekend) was called the SFL Challenge (Sci-Fi London Challenge), which I came across in New Scientist a few weeks earlier. You had to register and you were given a title and a line of dialogue from which to write a 2000 word short story in 48 hrs (actually 50hrs). But in reality, you only needed 24 once you got the bit between your teeth, though, in some circumstances that in itself may take 24 hrs. I was lucky in that I found the story started for me as soon as I put pen to paper. I say 'lucky' because that doesn't normally happen. It also could mean that the story is complete crap, but obviously I don't think so, otherwise I wouldn't be willing to post it here.

This is the complete opposite to the science fiction I normally write or used to write (as I haven't written anything in the past few years) in that it verges on real science, whilst my novel length attempts I would call science fantasy as opposed to so-called hard core sci-fi. You’ll understand what I mean if you read it. It could almost actually happen. In fact, similar ‘incidents’, for want of a better term, have notoriously happened in the past. I can’t say anymore without giving the plot away.

Some may think it a touch ambitious for a male writer to tell a story in first person female, or even a conceit, but I have done it before, though not in first person. There is little difference, from a writer’s perspective in writing in third person intimate or first person. Third person intimate (as it’s called) is distinct from third person omniscient. The point is that in both third person intimate and first person, the story is told from inside a character’s head, so little difference really.

                                                  FUTURE GUARANTEED

Cue dialogue: The drug could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people too empathetic.

Word limit: 2000


‘Someone once said that evil should be called lack of empathy. When one looks at history, even recent history, atrocities have always occurred when one group of people demonise another group. In order to commit atrocities like genocide, or even milder forms of human rights abuse like denying sanctuary to refugees, it requires one to completely reject any empathetic feelings.’
          Dr Robert immediately had the room’s attention by mentioning the word ‘evil’ in his first utterance, and possibly hit a nerve by introducing a topic that everyone would have an opinion on. I looked around the room to assess the reaction of the seventy odd people present and noted, that as a woman, I was in a distinct minority. He went on to woo us further by suggesting the highly improbable, if not impossible.    
         ‘So imagine if we could cure evil, so to speak. We could guarantee the future.’ He paused to let the idea sink in. ‘Imagine if we could create a drug that would effectively eliminate evil; that would stop all atrocities in their tracks. A drug that could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people more empathetic.’
         As a science journalist, I knew this was an extraordinary claim. But was it just a blatant, self-promoting publicity grab or did it have substance? I needed to find out. In his next breath, Dr Robert offered me a means to that end.
         ‘We are looking for volunteers to trial this drug. And we have set up a web site for people to register. It will be a controlled double-blind experiment, so some of the volunteers will be given a placebo. We have already passed this by an ethics committee, which is why I can tell you about it here today.’
          The group broke up and we went into an adjoining room for drinks and nibbles. I got myself a glass of white wine and observed Dr Robert from the fringe of the pack.
          I guessed that he was in his early forties, reasonably good looking, with a relaxed and confident manner. I got the impression he was used to addressing large groups of people, and possibly corporate boards, using a combination of charm and intellect to persuade others to follow and support him in whatever he wished to pursue. I had to admit he reminded me of my ex-husband, who had used the same combination to sweep me off my feet when I was not quite twenty. More than a decade later, with wisdom and hindsight, I now know that someone who looks and behaves like they were perfect casting for the romantic lead of the movie playing in your head, can in reality be self-centred, inconsiderate and insensitive to the needs of others. Richard wasn’t evil, just a bastard, but an empathy enhancing drug may have performed wonders.
        I was abruptly broken out of my reverie when I saw Dr Robert approaching me, carrying a glass of red.
       ‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
       We both changed hands with our glasses so we could cordially shake. His grip was gentle, which I suspect he reserved for women.
       ‘Jennifer Law, I’m a journalist with Science of Today.’
       ‘A very respectable periodical. I understand you have a wider audience than just geeks and science professionals.’
       ‘I would like to think so. I’ve been told that even some politicians read us.’
       ‘Well, you must be doing something right.’
       ‘Or possibly something wrong.’ We both chuckled and I lifted my glass to my lips to hide behind. Then I got serious. ‘To be honest, I’d like to be part of your trial.’
       ‘So you can report on it. From the inside, so to speak.’
       ‘Exactly.’
        He gave me a look as if he was reassessing me. ‘Well, at least you’re up front.’
       ‘Yes, I find in the long run, it earns respect.’
        He gave me another look, and I believe he liked what he saw. It occurred to me that he possibly liked blondes. From my experience, dark haired men often do.
       ‘Here’s my card,’ he said, taking it out of an inside pocket.
        I looked at it: psychiatrist. It had his mobile number.
       ‘Thanks Dr Robert. Tomorrow I’ll go to your web site and register.’
       ‘Call me David.’ And he touched my arm ever so lightly.
        We both smiled and he turned his back so he could meld into the crowd.
        If I was to be honest, we’d been flirting and despite the alarms going off inside my head, I had to admit I enjoyed it.

The next day I went on-line to register. I noticed that they asked for the usual parameters: age, gender, profession and education level. They also asked, rather unexpectedly, if we could take a week out of our lives to participate. Naturally, I said yes, but I suspect that particular question would have eliminated a lot of potential volunteers before they even registered.
       Those of us who were successful were booked into a hotel in the inner city, all expenses paid, and told on the first day to attend an introductory meeting in a ‘function’ room on the top floor. I estimated there were thirty or more of us, varying in age from early twenties to late forties, maybe early fifties, roughly equally divided by gender.
       Dr Robert addressed us, saying that we would be divided by ballot into two groups and separated. I assumed that one group would be on the drug and the other on the placebo. Dr Robert told us that even he didn’t know who would be on the drug and who wouldn’t.
       A female assistant then proceeded to read out a list of names which formed the first group and, as requested, they assembled one by one on the left side of the room, being the right side to Dr Robert and his assistant. I was in the second group so I moved to the right side.
       Before dismissing us, Dr Robert told us something about the purpose of the trial. ‘It’s important that you understand that this drug doesn’t enhance empathy per se. It enhances mirror neurons, which actually fire when we observe the activities of others. But it is widely believed that this feature, which is not unique to humans by the way, allows what we call empathy with others. The trial is to specifically observe how or if we can get inside someone else’s head, figuratively speaking.’
       I found it intriguing that he didn’t elaborate on how he would do that or how it would be measured. Someone in the other group obviously had the same thought, as they asked that very question.
      Dr Robert replied, ‘I can’t answer that as it may affect the results.’ He smiled knowing that his answer would only intrigue us further, but perhaps that was the idea.
      We then exited, under the guide of another two assistants, male this time, out separate doors.
      We were given an oily gold liquid in a cup; the sort one usually associates with cough medicine. It had no distinct taste but the texture matched its look. Of course one wondered if its lack of taste indicated that it was the placebo, but I knew that was intuitive thinking misleading cognitive deduction. We were told that we would be given the same dose under supervision for every day of the trial.

Over the next few days we had no contact with the other group. Under the supervision of our assistant, who called himself Jones, we were involved in discussions about racial issues and societal dynamics. We watched documentaries, mainly concerned with historical events like the civil rights movement in the 1960s and pre-War Europe in the 1930s. I have to admit I was starting to feel acute disappointment, as I could see nothing innovative or novel about this approach. I found myself becoming bored and irritated, with the daily cumulative feeling that I was wasting my time. Also Dr Robert had effectively disappeared and I was beginning to feel that I had been duped. I also began to realise that many in the group felt the same way. If we were taking the drug, as opposed to the placebo, then our mirror neurons were in full synchronicity.
      After four days we were told by Jones that we would be doing an exercise with the other group, which would be a role playing exercise. We would not be told what our roles were until we met. I noticed that the two groups even occupied separate floors of the hotel and used separate dining rooms. There had been no fraternising at all. Only a fire could have caused us to meet.

The next day we found ourselves in the function room where we had started. This time Dr Robert was no where to be seen.
      We were going to play a game and some props were introduced to help us. The props consisted of two partitions, in the form of fences with 2 metre vertical poles about 10 centimetres apart. They were placed about 3 metres from the opposing walls where there were no doors. Half of our group were allocated to stand behind one partition and half of their group to stand behind the other partition, which was the one behind us. So both sides had their opposing side standing between them and half their group who were effectively prisoners.
      Then those of us who weren’t prisoners were given a list of crimes committed by our opponents against imaginary members of our own group. The crimes included murder, rape, infanticide and torture; the usual accusations associated with war crimes. Each prisoner was given a number, which was associated with a specific crime. Our job, as a group, was to negotiate the release of their prisoners.
      Logically, we would exchange prisoners with similar crimes, but everyone, myself included, felt that treating it as a book-keeping exercise didn’t serve justice.
         Recollecting events later, I was surprised how seriously we all took it. No one said: It’s only a game. Both the assistants took up the cause for their respective sides, urging us not to give in to our opponents’ demands. I’m not sure how long it went on for, but later that morning the exercise was called off with no prisoners released, and we were allowed to return to our rooms.
      Later that day we were called back to the function room for a debriefing. I have to admit I didn’t even want to go back into that room, but I had the feeling that it would be the last time.
      This time Dr Robert was present and told us that the trial was over. He said we would all be debriefed over the next 24 hours and allowed to go home.

Dr Robert debriefed me personally. I’m unsure if that was deliberate, but I suspect it was. I have to confess my original attraction, even warmth, for him felt tainted by the experience that he had just put me through.
      ‘May I call you Jennifer?’
      ‘Sure,’ I said, feeling raw. ‘Can you tell me if I was on the drug?’
      ‘There was no drug. Everyone was given a placebo.’
       I was so stunned that words would not form in my mind.
      ‘But, believe it or not, the trial was a success.’
      ‘How can you say that?’
      ‘We gave everyone the impression that their mirror neurons would be enhanced, and they were to the extent that we kept you in a group. Empathy has a dark side in that it causes people to associate more strongly with their group. It’s as much a cause for evil as an antidote.’ He elaborated, ‘The real purpose of the trial was to show that empathy, through mirror neurons, is a two-edged sword.’
      I said no more. I left the room knowing that any romantic feelings I might have felt for Dr Robert had long dissipated. Not because he reminded me of Richard, but because I couldn’t abide his deception, however he may justify it.