How Science Empowers Philosophy

It’s pretty amazing that we can still understand Plato 2400 years later. Our world would be unrecognizable to him, yet a lot of his ideas make intuitive sense. But we know vastly more about the world, the universe, and the forces that govern things than he did. If we want, we can go back, nitpick, and make almost any philosopher look like a quack. But science is changing that.

Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our SelvesRecently I picked up Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland. It is a philosophy book through and through, but her approach to philosophy is modern, empirical, and diverse. She draws heavily from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and evolution to answer questions on the soul, morality, and free will with minimal assumptions. When she makes a claim, she provides factual evidence to back it up, showing why she thinks the way she does, often with citations for more curious readers.

I’ve read some philosophy from different periods of history for pleasure, but it gets old. It’s hard to read Kant these days without getting frustrated; so many underlying assumptions, perfectly common in his time, now seem groundless and misleading. Without any recourse to empirical proofs, we’re left trying to sort through his assumptions and figure out why he thought the way he did. His reasoning is correct in spots however, and it’s easy to get caught up in the flow an accept propositions because they sound right, even when they’re totally wrong.

The Ptolemaic universe probably made perfect sense to ancient world, but Copernicus showed it was false. Newtonian physics probably clicked for many people, but Einstein proved it wrong. When the next revolution in philosophy comes, we’ll be able to go back to philosophers like Churchland and Dan Dennett and precisely analyze the basis of their claims. If future science disproves or modifies a finding, we’ll see plainly how this changes the philosophical propositions resting on it.

Churchland’s writing is personable and entertaining. She sticks to the issues and draws her material from modern science, providing us a temporal touchstone on the state of philosophy today. I’m really enjoying this book, and wish more public intellectuals had her epistemic standards and clarity.

Deepak Chopra’s Cosmic Confusion

In all of history, no topic has been the subject of more bullshit writing than the spiritual side of life. We all live through the lens of our own experience, and it’s commendable to try to explain internal experiences, but because consciousness is such a mysterious and strange aspect of life, an unfortunate majority of opinions about it are sadly misguided.

Deepak Chopra, for example, says that matter is an illusion and consciousness is all there is. This is wrong. I’ve voiced my disagreement with his opinions before, but I assure you I’m not holding a grudge; I’m simply voicing my reaction to the ongoing dissemination of his ideas, which I find pernicious. We should all strive to understand our selves, so I don’t hold his efforts against him, but I would love to share a coffee with the man and let him in on the following:

Matter is real. It is one of the fundamental facts of the universe, as all sane people know. Even most insane people know this. Under some very special conditions, matter gives rise to organisms. As those organisms evolve, some gain tremendous complexity and computational powers to employ for survival, and very few attain what we would call consciousness. Referring to a persistent fact as an “illusion” isn’t helpful.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – Philip K. Dick

Some of the functions of consciousness remain a mystery, but we have no evidence to assume that consciousness is all there is. What we know as consciousness today has only been around for the tiniest sliver of the history of the universe, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. How can Chopra’s theories explain prehistory? If consciousness is all there is, does he believe that there was absolutely nothing in the universe until the first conscious being was born? What gave birth to that being?

Chopra’s philosophy seems like redressed Hinduism, where matter is maya (illusion) and we are all facets of Brahman (God). He redresses it with the ill-fitting jargon of quantum physics, a perplexing topic that arose from the exploration of matter. Chopra is certainly no authority on this dense and confusing field of study, and most quantum physicists disagree with his interpretations.

Chopra and his ilk love to refer to materialism as “reductionism” as if materialism reduces our significance in the universe. But this is bush league word play. Pay attention to how often they use that word and you’ll realize this is a cheap tactic in a mind game and has no relation to how the world is described by materialism.

And besides, not one facet of our internal experienced is “reduced” by materialism. Whatever explanation we throw at it, we all have an internal experience. Belief in God or spirits or a soul—even the belief that we are all biological puppets—doesn’t change the fact that consciousness as we know it arises from the brain. Beliefs don’t change our qualia and don’t change our perceptual apparatus. It only changes our explanation of these phenomena to ourselves. But those explanations are just words.

I’ve experienced the feeling of being in the true presence of divinity. It was a fully conscious experience and it came stamped with an undeniable feeling of authority. I came out of the experience thinking, “Oh, that’s what they mean when they say ‘God’.” In no way does this experience prove that there is some sort of external divine intelligence; it only proves that such a conscious experience is possible. Such a feeling is possible. It’s a beautiful feeling, but it says nothing about the fundaments of the universe, and the experience would have been totally impossible without matter (my brain, for example). I spend time every day cultivating that experience, and I need no belief of any kind to justify it. These are purely pragmatic concerns, denuded of metaphysics.

I’m sure these facts have been laid out for Mr. Chopra over and over again, yet he keeps on with his message, adjusting his pseudo-scientific jargon ever so slightly but failing to learn or change or grow. It makes me question his motives. The fact is that his name has become a brand, and to admit his prior confusion hurts the brand. After all, what does an enlightened spiritual guru need with a net worth of $80 million? He doesn’t need any of your money, and you don’t need any of his nonsense.

Journals, Art, Journeys

When I was young my oldest brother Jeff showed me what an amusing pastime it was to keep a journal. I’ve found this essential. Without keeping a record of the day’s events, we forget most of the coincidences, oddities, and revelations of our lives. Even when we remember the facts of our experience, it’s impossible to recapture the exact feel of events. Most of my life I’ve kept some kind of book on the go, whether it’s just funny lines or ideas or scenes from movies I’d like to see.

It seems important because of this main fact: memories are not real. When you think about an event in your past, (spoiler alert) your brain does not magically go into the past. Our brains attempt to reconstruct our reactions to that experience, but our brains are different now, so the reconstruction is imperfect. Plus, memories can be bent and changed.

Regular journal entries give us a window into our state of mind at the time. This is crucial if you want to understand your life as a journey or narrative, or if you want some sort of proof that you’re getting closer to your goals or developing intellectually.

The same can be said, on the macroscopic scale, of art and science in culture. Art expresses the zeitgeist while science improves our understanding of each moment. We could never have had The Wire without ancient Greek literature, and we could never have invented smartphones without first understanding how radio waves work. This only works when people write it down.

Occasionally an artist makes a conscious effort to draw our attention to cultural development by retelling ancient, fundamentally human stories with current language and culture. The best example is Ulysses by James Joyce. The story is not about a guy named Ulysses in ancient Ithaca, but a man named Leopold Bloom in 20th century Dublin. The title and structure of the novel showcase thousands of years of human values in flux.

“This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

It can be great to read old, embarrassing journal entries because it means you’ve grown. Without writing it down we have no proof. And without a record it’s sometimes impossible to understand how we could have believed the crazy notions we’ve outgrown. This blog is likely full of ideas I’ve outgrown. I’m fine with that. Years from now I’ll be glad I was observant, honest in my assessments, and most importantly, that I wrote it down.

 

P.S. There will be no blog post next week because I will be busy eating food. Happy Holidays everyone.

Wordfail

Most of my favorite works of art deal with psychological, internal, and (if I may) spiritual problems. I might be in the minority on that, but it’s hard to tell. Most pop cinema and music seem to actively avoid these issues in any serious or thoughtful way, but my view may be skewed by massive PR budgets, while many profound works count on niche marketing and word of mouth.

Two nights ago I was working through an internal process during my meditation, essentially allowing my sensory inputs to drain out and empty, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that many of these internal obstacles literally defy rational language. The scientific method is a beautiful tool for explaining and enhancing our understanding of our world, but when it comes to internal experiences, scientific language fails to capture the experience in any way I can relate to.

I can talk about the cessation of dialectical thinking, stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system or increasing respiration for lowering systolic blood pressure, but these descriptions are cold and say nothing about the end-user experience, despite their medical accuracy.

To speak about “turning the light around” captures more of the mysterious essence of the experience, even though this phrase provably does not describe what’s going on in my body. All language is in a sense arbitrary. If we can find language that more closely captures the experience, we should use it.

Scientists have been encroaching on this field for a while now, and with good reason. Some organizations like The David Lynch Foundation try to analyze meditation from a scientific perspective so they may explain it to rational people. This is totally laudable and seemingly essential these days. But I was always more affected by artistic interpretations of internal experiences, art forms that somehow poetically capture the ineffable nature of what’s happening, what it feels like to have internal revelations.

This is where I find uncompromising value in art. Art is the best conveyor of human experience, and exposure to it seems essential to me if we want to mature as human beings.

All communication is symbolic. The word “kite” is not the physical object called a kite. If the best we can do to symbolize an actual kite is to come up with a verbal grunt with sharp sounds on each end—a sound that is intrinsically meaningless—then we are at least slightly lame as a species. The word itself seems complete gibberish to someone without experience of an actual kite. But to watch a film of some kite-flying enthusiasts, or read about a child’s wonder as the wind pulls the kite down a sunny beach, is to learn on more than merely verbal levels.

This is where I cut a lot of slack for religious literature. There are a lot of religious books which, if taken literally, are absurd and stupid. But those books tend to elicit analogical and mystical interpretations that resonate with people in deep ways. Reading The Bhagavad Gita, I never once expected that the events depicted in it really happened. But I was moved by it, and I continue to find it beautiful.

This might be why I value “saying something” over simply making art for money. I am glad to fork over my hard-earned cash for a meaningful experience, and usually annoyed when I walk away from a movie or book thinking, “so what?”

I have written on this previously, if anyone is interested.

Change Your Brain – Pt. 4

In “Change Your Brain” parts 1, 2 and 3, I tried to recommend books that had a positive effect on my behavior. Glancing back over recent posts I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking, and it stands to reason that the book I just finished contributed to that change in a major way.

We can’t know exactly why we are the way we are. Since each of our ‘minds’ arise out of the darkness of unconscious processes, it stands to reason that we should look toward the unconscious when we need a tune-up. Discovering our unconscious assumptions and bringing them into consciousness allows us to shed light on the processes that guide our minds.

The following book might have made me a little more sane.

Science and SanityScience and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski

The book’s full title is Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems. This is the foundational text for the branch of study called General Semantics. Its claims rest on the fact that language and science are forms of human behavior. If our behaviors and interpretations of reality are not accurate to the facts of the world, our evaluations, and therefore our future behaviors, will result in harmful shocks, delusions, failures, etc. We use science to communicate facts to one another. These facts offer dependable models. But in our communication and even our thinking, unconscious assumptions can deform the information and leave us with models that are false to the facts of the world. If these unconscious assumptions aren’t remedied, our species will become less sane.

So why pick on Aristotle? Briefly, this work is an attempt to recondition the Western mind. Because Aristotle had the last word on philosophy before the Dark Ages, his theories went untouched for centuries and have become engrained in most Western culture. Though Science and Sanity was published in 1933, we still have a long way to go.

Aristotle inherited the primitive language of his day. The language was formed by cultures that did not have the benefits of rigorous analysis. He inherited a mythologized interpretation of reality, a worldview that explained phenomena in anthropomorphic terms without the checks and balances of science. Aristotle used the language of his day to express the laws of “logic”, thus introducing primitive unconscious assumptions about the world to future generations. World events halted the progress of philosophy after Aristotle and his works became canonized. Simply because he was the last word in reason for hundreds of years, his philosophy took deep root in the Western mind.

Aristotle’s assumption of properties in objects and his use of subject-predicate language take the brunt of Korzybski’s criticism. Words are words and things are things and never the two shall meet. No word can ever “be” the thing it describes. When I claim “Mark is lazy”, I overstep empirical means by ascribing to Mark some property of laziness which I have not looked for scientifically. In truth, all I have is my empirical observations of Mark’s behavior. To say “Mark acts lazy” is more accurate to the known facts and describes the world as a dynamic process.

I know this seems like nitpicking, but subject-predicate reasoning leads to unjustified inferences about the world and in extreme cases can lead us to completely false assumptions. Most pernicious is the fact that these assumptions usually go unchecked because they happen unconsciously.

Next on the chopping block is Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle. This is the claim that a thing, A, is either true, or it’s negation, not A, is true, and nothing else is possible. This thought pattern oversimplifies observations in the worst way. Korzybski’s revision encourages a revolt from this two-valued logic to an infinite-valued logic. A person can be wholly inside a house, wholly outside a house, or partially inside and partially outside to any conceivable degree.

Another major consideration is the elimination of elementalism in language. Elementalism describes the breaking down of concepts into constituent elements that cannot exist outside of the whole. Most famously, Newton broke down our reality into ‘space’ and ‘time’ and this verbal trick led countless scientists on the search for the properties of ‘space’ and ‘time’ which led to failure, of course, since there are no such observable things as ‘space’ or ‘time’. Einstein proved that they are inseparable. When we verbally separate them, we must make sure this separation remains on the verbal level. Words are not things.

Another example is the linguistic dichotomy formed between ‘mind’ and ‘body’, two aspects of a whole that cannot exist independently. A man who researches the properties of ‘mind’ while disregarding ‘body’ does himself a disservice because the properties of ‘mind’ involve the ‘body’, and vice versa, to varying degrees. Entities work as-a-whole, and should be analyzed and spoken of as such.

The harm of Aristotlian systems is that they look for The Truth as opposed to a truth. Science and future humanity need languages that correspond to observable phenomena that operate within a context and as-a-whole. Accurate descriptions lead to accurate models of the world, and accurate models lead to sanity. As you might tell from the description so far, the aims of Science & Sanity reach far and deep and aim to completely reformulate many of the thinking-habits of Western culture.

But it doesn’t stop there. You’ll learn about colloidal chemistry, the dynamic gradient, differential calculus, Euclid and Riemann, Einstein and Minkowski, and why nothing truly happens “simultaneously” with anything else. This vast, multidisciplinary approach gives a philosophical and technical basis for using language in clear, unmistakable ways.

Science and Sanity claims that knowledge and language are only accurate when their structure matches the structure of the world. If we rely on words, and the definitions of those words are other words, concrete meaning retreats from us. The true test for a scientifically sound language, according to Korzybski, is that the language matches the structure of the world it represents. More far-reaching still is his insistence that structure is the only true content of knowledge.

Korzybski believes that mathematics most perfectly matches the structure of the world as well as our nervous systems, therefore acting as our most perfect bridge of communication. Since our linguistic processes must make instantaneous assessments of a dynamic world, differential calculus offers an analogy by its ability to provide us with empirically accurate snapshots of processes.

Overall, the work means to enhance our “consciousness of abstracting”, to keep us mindful of the world around us, to differentiate between our observations through lower order nervous centers (sense input) and our higher order abstractions (language, mental models, etc.). “Consciousness of abstracting” offers an scholastic approach to mindfulness, and means to keep us from confusing orders of abstraction. The attempt is to bring scientific clarity to human thought.

While there are large swathes of the book that are quite technical, mathematical and daunting, the underlying principles remain easy to understand (though I should admit that I was somewhat primed for it by Robert Anton Wilson). Chapter to chapter, the exposition is powerful and comprehensive through its nearly 800 pages.

I recommend this book for scientists, linguists, philosophers, and people with time to read.

Solipsism, Semantics and Science, Between You And Me

Previously I wrote that all our experiences of the world happen within our nervous system, that we cannot truly see past our perceptions and experience reality directly. While this is a fact, it doesn’t mean we remain completely separate from each other.

Dictionary.com defines solipsism two ways.

1. Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption

Obviously if all we can ever experience happens within our nervous systems, it’s tempting to think that we will always remain apart, that our experiences are never truly shared and don’t even overlap. Too strong a belief in that separation can cause feelings of isolation. But experience happens on many different levels, and some of these levels allow more connection with other people and the world at large.

Nothing in the Universe happens in isolation. Fundamental forces tie all matter together, so everything is related to everything else in a real, physical way, in differing degrees ranging between 0 and ∞ (not inclusive). This is why we have theories like the Butterfly Effect which claim the wind from a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane across the planet. (Careful! Don’t watch the movie of the same name starring Ashton Kutcher.)

Everything that exists is in constant flux, constantly changing and never static. When we talk about any thing, that thing is different one moment to the next (it may change in temperature, mass, and so forth, but at a minimum, the atoms and electrons, etc., are in different positions). So it’s wrong to speak of things as static, unchanging blocks of reality. A static noun implies an unchanging object. It’s much more accurate to discuss reality in terms of process transactions, using active verbs and avoiding the verb is and its other forms (to be, being, was, etc.).

So here we are in a whirling field of activity (of which we are a part). When we observe a part of the universe, we can never know all the details of an event because the characteristics of any event are linked to the details of every other event which are always changing, and so really, the universe is just one big, continuous, ever-changing event, never twice the same. What we perceive are objects abstracted from that event that fall within our range of frequency response.

By frequency response I mean that there is a range frequencies that are perceivable by the ear, other frequencies that are perceivable by the eye, and so forth. These naturally observable frequencies—including others like infrared that, through technology, come within our frequency response—are all we can perceive externally.

So we observe an object, a part of the whole event, and we abstract a set of details. Let’s say I’m watching tennis. Tennis is a sport that depends physically upon the sun, Earth, gravity, nuclear forces, and so forth, even though we do not think about or even perceive these factors. Instead, I focus on the ball, or the short skirts, depending on who’s playing.

The ball or skirt that I perceive is a tiny part of the entire event. The characteristics that I perceive in the ball are finite (because I can only perceive so much), but unlimited (I can always find new characteristics by looking in different ways). So what I perceive, the ball or skirt, will always contain fewer details than the actual event.

But this perception comes together inside my brain. The visual information, audio, movement and relations to surrounding factors (rackets, the net, etc.) all happen on an unspeakable, objective level. My brain compiles the information together into a workable model before I even become aware of it. And I cannot take my perception directly out of my head and place it into the head of my friend. But now that I have a workable model based on perception, I apply a label to the object of my attention; I choose to call it “ball”.

When I call it “ball”, I am applying a verbal label to this non-verbal, objective level of experience. It is the label that I communicate to my friend. But this label is just a label, a semantic tool used to signify my experience. The word “ball” stands for the assembly of perceptions in my brain. The label does not contain the same quantity or quality of information that my perception does. The label has few possible values, because “ball” is a generic term, but for my tennis example, “ball” has one value; the word signifies the actual object being hit back and forth by the players. My label leaves out all the information that I perceive when I perceive the actual ball. But now that I have a label, a means to communicate with my friend, something special happens.

I can apply labels to my experiences and attempt to describe that wordless, objective experience, and my friend can do the same. If I say, “the ball is fuzzy and purple”, my friend can think about what those words mean, or look them up if need be, and say, “actually, you lunatic, the ball is fuzzy and green. Take another look,” at which point I can test my perceptions against his at the verbal level. When I look and find that the ball is green and not purple, I have learned something. I am colourblind.

So while we cannot know reality directly, and we cannot know another’s perceptions, we can communicate with one another to compile more and more information about the experience of our fellow humans. Labels allow us to communicate, which is fundamental for human progress. Without communication, we would still be primitive instead of domesticated primates.

At the label level of life, we can have meaning. There is no such thing as meaning on the objective level of reality, and I doubt the universe as a whole has meaning. Meaning comes from language, and on that level we share reality with our friends.

If we really want to share reality, the key is clear communication. The more thoroughly we communicate our experiences, the more we are connected. This is part of the reason that clear language, proper grammar, and creativity are important to me. There is also a direct link between clear language and clear thinking. At the very least clear language is a symptom of clear thinking. But I have a hunch that clear language can lead to clear thinking. As our rational brains use language and logic to piece together our worldviews, increasing our linguistic capacities can only help the rational process.

Knowing what is communicable and how best to communicate is a key to creativity. Part of that is learning how to differentiate the real from the unreal, fact from fiction, and so forth, so that our friends can weigh our communications accurately. Semantics is essential to how we live and learn; it is how we translate our wordless experience of reality into shared experience. If we can nail down a systematic way of testing experiences against one another, we might learn how the universe operates. This is what science tries to do.

Science is based on a method of experiment and observation, a reduction of hopefully irrelevant variables, and then proper communication of the data to others for verification through further experiments. This is how we methodically tally one person’s experience with another. Through science we learn tendencies about the wordless, objective level of objects, and we can compile theories about the actual events, even the manifold of spacetime in which reality happens. Though science doesn’t prove anything 100%, the more scientific evidence there is for a theory, the more reason there is to believe it.

The goal of science is the discovery of our reality. Science is intentionally sterile to reduce the subjective variables that change so radically from person to person. If we can discover how the universe works independent of our personal experiences, we can fit our personal experiences to the truths of the universe to avoid unpleasant surprises.

In my personal experience, I can apply whatever metaphysics I want. I can believe in faeries, gods, demons, or whatever, and I can talk about them meaningfully and even use them to explain my experience, but this is not science. I might enjoy my metaphysics more than yours, but that doesn’t make them right. Even still, differing viewpoints are essential to scientific testing. The metaphysics of Ptolemy, Gallileo, Newton or Einstein helped move science forward because their metaphysics increasingly seemed to tally with the experience of others and the evidence of the day.

As science moves forward it becomes more and more sure of itself. Science continually out-modes metaphysics. That’s progress. It’s crucial that people keep posing new questions about the world as long as theories don’t get in the way of experience. Since theories can alter the power of our investigations, it’s a good idea to pause, take a breath, let the sense data register and be processed by higher abstractions, and try to see things for what they really are. Then, communicate.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. If my opinion tallies with your experiences, feel free to believe me. But you should feel free to not believe me as well. Belief might change your actions and perceptions, but not the external facts of reality.

Nice Nihilism

I recently read James Steinhoff‘s review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by Alex Rosenberg and it got me thinking. I consider myself a form of nihilist and I’ve noticed that many people are shocked by the notion. It seems like our culture has a phobia about nihilism. So to temper those fears, Rosenberg puts forward the idea of “nice nihilism”.

I don’t see why we need an apology for nihilism. Think through history about the people who have been killed or injured in the name of Nothing. Now think of the people killed in the name of some belief. Let the believers apologize if they want. Nihilism gives me no anxiety.

I consider myself a nihilist because I make a conscious effort to hold no fixed beliefs. I can watch the sun rise six days in a row and “believe” that it will rise on the seventh. But this isn’t a fixed belief, it’s just memory and understanding. I definitely do not hold the fixed belief that the sun will rise forever. As a matter of fact, I know this is impossible.

Many people assume nihilists are automatically immoral. They have no grounds to do so. I recently read a moronic tweet asking an atheist why he doesn’t just kill and rape anyone he wants? The atheist responded, “I do.” Of course he does, and so do I, because normal people don’t kill or rape. Let’s disambiguate the term nihilist from “asshole” forever. A better synonym for “asshole” would be “fanatic believer”.

Rosenberg takes a staunch materialist view of everything, it seems. He thinks that matter and energy and strict causality created all of reality, and that absolutely everything can be answered by physical facts. I find this ridiculous on a few levels. At exactly what point in history did science gain all the answers? It is a perfectly true fact that science has never had all the answers.

In the early days of the Newtonian revolution, everyone thought his system was The System. Of course Einstein proved that he was completely wrong. Sure, Newton’s theories were a huge jump forward owing to their usefulness, but let me just reiterate, he was wrong. The idea that there is some absolute space and absolute time is pure fiction, false to the facts of the universe. To assume physics will ever have all the answers is to disregard history with a faulty intellectual hubris. Not surprising since Rosenberg believes history is meaningless.

Everything that science has illuminated, it has done so through the human nervous system. There are no cold, hard facts sitting out there in a vacuum. Everything we understand about reality happens as a result of some nervous system interacting with the universe, of which that nervous system is a part. We can talk about the material basis for thoughts and feelings, but in order to express the uniqueness of each individual, we need something more.

Every one of us lives in our own unbelievably complex semantic environment. We interact with symbols, languages and feelings all the time, and all of these experiences become uniquely related to the observer. Even contemporary material science recognizes the effect of the observer on an observed physical system. Of course life loses meaning and purpose when you only consider the material side of reality. The semantic side is full of meaning, and inextricably linked to everything we know or can know about the universe.

Somehow Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can speak for the universe by eliminating the human experience. Then again, I haven’t read his book. I’ve only read the review. Anyway, it’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

I liked the bullet point Q & A that outlines Rosenberg’s position, so I’ll just give a quick rundown with my first reactions for your reading pleasure. Naturally snappy answers to big questions are oversimplified.

Is there a God? No.

“Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter much to me without any attempt to define God.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

Physics itself says nothing. Physics is the name human beings have given to our own scientific observation of the universe. But even physicists don’t agree. There is still no fully developed model of our universe that doesn’t contain huge contradictions. Loop quantum gravity, string theory, etc., are not compatible. Even the Big Bang is just a theory, and one that no monolithic scientific community can get behind. To assume our current science is on the right track to discover everything is ridiculous. As our powers of perception continue to increase there will be always be more unknowns in the universe.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

The question is a teleological error. Teleology, the doctrine that final causes exists, is nonsense to most modern philosophers, so the question is a silly one. The answer is correct though.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

I dare Rosenberg to define the word “meaning”. If he chooses to define his words with other words, and to define those words with still more words, he will eventually come to either a circular definition or ambiguous nonsense. Meaning is a function of the semantic structure of some human experience.

The term meaning is related to the level of abstraction taken into consciousness. Rosenberg wouldn’t admit that his book is meaningless, while most people should agree that a kitchen sink has no ‘meaning’. Meaning involves a cohesive structure of symbols, interpreted through a nervous system, reason, emotion, intuition, etc. As a writer, I consciously create meaning through the manipulation of symbols. Meaning is what we make it.

Of course if he’s talking about some objective meaning for all of life, I agree there’s no master plan at work here outside of our own.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Yes. Good call.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

On this point he is actually wrong. There have been numerous studies that show results from prayer and meditation. Even if prayer only serves to focus one’s attention on certain concerns, it has had an effect. This type of answer reeks of dogmatic atheism, a fanatical belief which I have no time for.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Are you kidding? Once again, asking ambiguous questions, making no attempt to define the topics, and writing them off. Forgivable in this short-form index.

Is there free will? Not a chance!

Hmm. It’s tough to define consciousness, but among its criteria is the ability to apply different responses to stimuli. The more responses an organism can have to a given stimulus, the more conscious it is. This is a very reduced and ambiguous definition, but broadly acceptable to my mind. Strict determinism makes a lot of questionable assumptions about why different reactions would be given to the same stimuli. Chaos Theory and quantum effects might form a material basis for an answer, but that level of reality is effected by observation.

It’s very easy to feel from daily experience that the decisions we make come from thinking and not because of material, deterministic factors. To say that thoughts are only the results of electronic impulses is to completely disregard the human experience, to disregard quality over quantity.

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.

To be fair and literal, nothing ever just goes on as before.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

This may sound controversial, but I agree. I do not believe in moral absolutes, and as there is no such thing as a teleological expert, all moral systems are of equal value. Obviously going around killing people isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, and so is simply stupid. I do agree with his assumption that people are naturally inclined to be good and nice.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

I more or less agree here. I think personal happiness is a good goal for life, and everyone’s personal happiness is connected with mine.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

To quote the creed of Hassan-i Sabbah “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Sabbah was the founder of the Assassins…so he’s probably not a great example for “nice nihilism”.

What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Huh?

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

History is a collection of data on the experiences and interaction of organisms similar to myself. If I can glean anything about what motivates people to act, I can apply this knowledge to my own decision-making process.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).

I have no reaction to this one.

 

P.S. I was reminded of a scene from The Big Lebowski that highlights the absurdity of this phobia towards nihilism. Three extortionists threaten to cut The Dude’s nuts off. Walter refers to them as Nazis but he is corrected by The Dude – they’re nihilists. Walter gets serious and says, “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”

Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.

A Far-Off Utopia

Science and religion don’t traditionally get along. The premises of religion are scientifically untenable while religious experience remains unquantifiable by scientific method. Of course being religious doesn’t mean you can’t be scientific and vice versa, but it occurred to me recently that science and religion don’t work together because they face opposite directions.

The scientific worldview gets more and more refined through time. It offers increasingly accurate discovery of our world, more and better ways to deal with problems, and continually improves on itself (in theory, at least). Science progresses along a forward timeline towards a far-off technological utopia.

Many religions, on the other hand, feel that we live in dark times. Hindu belief calls this age the Kali Yuga, as in Kali, the demon of confusion and pain. They consider it an age of spiritual degeneration, a dark age. Many Christians would agree that we live in an age of moral disintegration marked by vice and irreverence. There is something slower, more solemn, and holier about the past. They long for Eden.

The scientific person might say the religious person longs for something that doesn’t exist. Science considers the beliefs of the olden days naive; they didn’t have the tools or knowledge we have today. Since the scientific acumen of the people grows constantly, the people of the past must have been exceedingly dumb, relative to today, and especially relative to tomorrow.

The religious person has faith in a different mode of existence outside the scope of science. They don’t really look to go back in time, they are looking to get outside of time. Their Eden (or Heaven, for that matter) represents an extra-temporal mode of being, free from degeneration. Scientists can scoff all they like, the religious person isn’t worried. They can feel sure such a mode of existence is real, even without direct experience, because it has been documented through all stages of history as a fundamental human experience.

Technological utopia is unrealistic. As the leading-edge of technology is pushed further and further by specialists, the ability to integrate systems becomes harder and harder. The pursuit of technological achievement fills our world with cancer, confusion and noise in a way that makes it very difficult for us to find the sacred.

Eden is a mystical fable written by a desert-mad prophet and its lessons contribute very little to modern humanity. Longing for simpler times is fine, but shying away from technological convenience pulls one out of step with the rest of society. The world keeps getting noisier and the effects are inescapable.

If scientific and religious progress stopped, the scientifically-minded could still look for their utopia by looking outward towards an integrated, perfected whole while the religious-minded could look for their utopia by turning inwards to the realms of personal experience. Religion and science would still be looking opposite directions.

Maybe this is a good thing. Two heads are better than one, and if you look two different directions you have a better sense of the big picture. Interestingly, where history meets the future and the inner intersects the outer, we find the here and now.

Big Bang Theory vs. Kubrick’s “The Shining”

BIG BANG THEORY

The Big Bang Theory is the current, widely-accepted model of the birth of our universe. It was formulated in the early 20th century and refined to the present by progressive theory and experiment. The Big Bang is based on observations of redshifts in distant stars (meaning the stars are getting further from us), background radiation, and other conditions observed in our universe, and the scientific majority agrees that the universe is expanding from its origin as a singularity. The model explains many questions about why our universe is the way it is. Ongoing reiteration and support from the scientific community has made worldwide scientific hegemony of the matter despite that common sense tells us it’s impossible.

The Big Bang Theory is not a scientific fact. It is a theory. It states that our whole universe exploded out of a singularity almost infinitely dense and almost infinitely small. But how can we believe, based on observation (i.e. scientifically), that our whole universe with it’s mind-boggling mass and size can fit into a point smaller than an electron? Common sense and experiential evidence tells us this is ridiculous, but expert testimony and high science support it as true. Counter arguments are generally dismissed by the scientific community and rarely make it to major media. Granted, physical and theoretical experiments have been carried out by “experts” to corroborate this majority opinion, but these experiments cannot prove The Big Bang Theory true in a way that is scientifically valid. The progress of this theory reminds me of the Vatican’s discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At best The Big Bang Theory is a good speculation which can help further exploration.

Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, and other pop scientists in contemporary physics seem to agree, though they might differ on the finer points of the theory. While selling this line on a television program, Hawking went so far as to declare that there is no God, but offered up a cosmology just as miraculous – that the Big Bang just happened. They seem to miss the point that the role of a scientist is to observe and to postulate, not to declare completely unprovable opinions. There is no such thing as holy fiat in science, and it seems to me that these declarations hurt future science because they narrow the aperture with which coming generations will view the universe.

Of course we need scientists to operate at all levels of intelligence, and the smartest will likely be unintelligible to the majority of the world. Specialized science pushes the boundaries of knowledge omni-directionally, expanding our understanding at increasing rates. But because the average person cannot understand quantum physics or super string theory, scientists are forced to dumb down their message, forcing people to accept certain assumptions without question, and this leads away from the spirit of science.

Initiates into scientific mysteries speak their own language, a jargon developed throughout history. The Vatican is likewise initiated into its own specialized explanations of mysteries. The cosmological explanations of the Dark Ages made some sort of sense to people of the time, even if they sound absurd from a secular, contemporary point-of-view. But look past the God question and ask if there are things in religion that improve humanity. Cultivation of morality, relief from personal suffering, and religious experiences are real effects that can be explained with the models put forth by the church. To that end, debating the fate of souls has some relevance, even if is clothed in bizarre cultural symbols. We should assume current theories will seem equally absurd in the future.

It is not my intent to say whether The Big Bang Theory is true or false. Obviously I don’t know. My complaint is the dogmatic approach modern popular science takes. Dogma caused the Dark Ages. If the theory explains the universe in a way you find personally useful, then by all means use the theory. But if you have a hard time believing that the whole universe can be contained in a space of virtually zero volume, then you shouldn’t just accept the theory because specialists in scientific jargon say it’s true.

THE SHINING

In the novel The Shining by Stephen King, a hotel caretaker is haunted by ghosts. These ghosts, who inhabit The Overlook Hotel, possess Jack Torrence, driving him to murder his child Danny. These ghosts have many magical capabilities, including the animation of lions made of shrubbery. Fortunately, Danny has a magical friend Tony to look out for him and keep him safe. The novel left me unsatisfied, and part of this is because I can’t comprehend the scope of the forces at work. There is so much magic happening that as a reader I’m forced to suspend my disbelief throughout. Even if I stay with the story to the end, I understand that nothing real is at stake.

But most people would agree there are no such things as ghosts, no such thing as magical fairies from the future who can tell you where to hide, and no such things as hedges that can bite your face off. Most people today are much too rational for beliefs like this. And this is why the film adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick is a far superior work of art.

In the film, the antagonism is believable. People understand that the mind is a fragile thing. It is able to bend and warp into psychosis and we understand this because we see it every day in the news. People do go on murderous rampages. Bushes do not attack people. Kubrick eliminated the hedge lions completely and focused the malevolent forces within the psychology of Jack Torrence. Instead of suspending disbelief, the audience is able to fully engage with the descent into madness of an alcoholic with cabin fever and the sympathetic intuitions of his young son.

The film version of The Shining is simply more honest. For most of us, possession by ghosts sounds impossible unless it is explained by way of psychology. The film trumps the novel every time because a) it is perfectly executed, and b) it is based on something society can observe and understand, as opposed to the Big Bang.

Art is about showing truth. Science is about finding truth. Speculation is a good starting point for both, but only as a spring-board to truth. In the end, truth should trump speculation every time. Therefore the winner in this week’s Battle Of Unrelated Things is Kubrick’s The Shining.