Saturday, 29 December 2007

Language and the World

The world does not have truth: it is truth.

In representing the world, we distort it.

Truth is not in the domain of language.

The role of language is communication via representation. It is not to mirror the world, this is impossible. Language acts as a bridge between minds, drawing on the socially defined metaphysics of meaning and symbolism. If language represents at all, it represents internal (not external) states...but, it cannot mirror them for internal states do not have a logical structure. In articulating states into language, we impose logical structure upon them. Ergo, language is less representation than encryption; distortion; translation.

Internal states can however, become more or less linguistic. Our perception is based on a semantic understanding which translates the world into concepts. Objects, universals, space+time and identity. This draws on an internal linguistic structure (because, it is a form of symbolism and all language is based on symbolism). The more rationally we appraise our perceptions/sensations, the more we are making them into a conceptual metaphysics (a symbolism): The more we are translating the world into universals and impressing meaning over the top of it. The more we rationalise our understanding of the world, the more we draw our veil of metaphysics between it and us.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Symbolism, Meaning and Reality

When we experience, we do not experience reality. Reality is matter; physics. We experience through a veil of cultural conditioning. What we experience is the symbols given to us by our cultural substrata. The archetypes that exist within the noosphere of social life; this informs all our perceptions.

In this way, Plato was wrong: we do not live among shadows of the Ideals. We live among the Ideals, for they are not outside of us, they are within us. It is the Ideal of redness that we experience, with all the associations and emotions that are tied into it. Redness is not a quality of the world, it is a quality of the mind, the broad cultural mind we live in. This sphere of Meaning is essential to experience. We do not experience the Facts of material reality, for they are meaningless. Experience is Fact filtered through, informed by, Meaning. And Meaning is determined by the cultural conditioning, the archetypes we have grown up in which provide our context. In a way, this is objective: Meaning exists outside of us as individuals, and symbols take on their own life apart from the culture which generates them. The causative mechanism is opaque; thus, symbols are objective, independent of subjectivity even though they are not Real in the strict, material sense. This is the group soul of Jung, I think. And this, this realm of symbolism and of Meaning, is in all the important ways more real than Reality.

Funny though, how for Idealists such as Plato, we live in a material shadow of the symbols which are the true Reality, transcending experience which demands particularisation; when in fact it seems to me we must reverse the picture and we live in a symbolic, Ideal shadow - epiphenomenon - of material Reality which is beyond experience. We demand universals, categories, in order to make any sense of the data we are bombarded with. We create those Ideal boxes in order to confine Reality into a comprehensible form - a narrative.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The only blog about science, religion and the status of metaphysics you'll ever need to read

Okay maybe not, but I'm determined it's the last one I'm going to write. I'm absolutely sick of this subject now and want to get back to more interesting topics but I feel the need to lay down my feelings on this once and for all.

I'm getting increasingly worried by the "new atheists". This movement, for any who aren't aware, is the one spearheaded by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris: top-ranking scientists, who wherever possible decry the stupidity of religion on all grounds. My major issue is how they misrepresent both religion and science. I will also say here that (despite how I may sometimes appear) I think science is a beautiful thing; I am not anti-science, this would be idiotic in the extreme. I also know that there are as many theistic fools trying to push weak arguments to win some fictitious 'battle' as there are atheistic. There is a middle road, but in order to walk that we need to understand exactly what the roles of science and religion are.

Sam Harris' recent article for the Washington Post carries a rational and appealing argument for the destruction of religion based on (a) the naivety of belief in God, (b) the intolerance of some adherents. I'll address his naive and offensive statements about Islam at the end of this blog, for the main part I want to concentrate on his belief that religion has no place in society.

Harris' claims that atheists should emphasise their "reason and intellectual honesty" as opposed to their absence of faith. He believes that grouping themselves as Atheists marginalises their arguments by placing them within a subset, one of many, belief-systems. This is a very complex and tricky issue, and one which requires strict untangling, but once unravelled may isolate the key problem in this entrenched battle of wills.

Rationalism is not a belief system. Or at least, it should not be one. Rationalism is a means of acquiring information. It is a way of thinking which places facts within a particular order, and allows us to draw conclusions from them. The type of conclusion is not determined by rationalism: in this sense, it is open. The key element of rationalism is its emphasis on empiricism and logic. The method demands no assumptions unless justified by one of these two means (usually empirical evidence takes priority, upon which logic is put to work to extrapolate further information). In this way, any truth is known to be grounded on solid inductive principles and understood to be beyond reasonable doubt.

The method and ideal is great: it has enabled massive advances in understanding the natural world, and these have led on to fantastic tools to improve our standard of life, our health, the passage of information and our ability to act in and upon the world.

But, what the proponents of rationalism have to realise is that not being a belief system is a double-edged sword. Because, humanity does need belief systems. The ordering of facts according to logic suits us when we need to approach the world logically. But there is so much more to life than this...logic cannot answer questions of value or meaning, it cannot offer us moral guidance or hope, and it cannot give us a framework in which to contextualise the importance of events in our own lives. Although many people try to bend scientifically discriminated facts to offer answers to these questions, what this actually does is distort the nature of science and go beyond the very remit of empirical-logical inference upon which science depends. Pulling answers about the meaning of life from Darwinian evolution, from quantum physics or from neuroscience misrepresents not only the facts but also the method by which they are acquired. Karl Popper and Mary Midgley (not to mention Ludwig Wittgenstein) have written extensively on the true nature of science, and the kind of questions that are accessible to the scientific method. They all conclude that much of human thought lies outside the realm of rational investigation, and that any attempt to cross this divide results not only in bad science, but also bad everything else (whether the subject be morality, language, religion, art, etc).

The questions of value, meaning and purpose do not have answers within the material world: these are metaphysical in the truest sense, and whether or not we can associate an area of the brain with the act of thinking about these things, the values and systems which these thoughts generate, the social superstructures arising from our mass contemplation on questions of human-import are not material entities, and do not follow the rules laid down by rationalism.

What religious belief systems offer is an approach to living which interprets the world through a particular system of values. What all religions have in common, is a transparent admission of their context for understanding the world and events within it. This is perhaps the one thing lacking from the peculiar form of western rationalism which has come down to us from Greece, via Anselm and Descartes. This peculiar rationalism claims to strip away all context from thought, placing the individual intellect above and beyond everything else: the implicit claim is that the individual can process logic so smoothly as to analyse the world's facts removed from any context. This idea, that the individual mind can reach outside of its own subjectivity and attain a rational peak from whence to view the world as it really is, in all its objective glory, constitutes such a firm base for western thought as to be entirely buried from sight. There is an interesting corrolary if we examine the concept: This idea of the self as a unitary entity comprehending space and time from outside mirrors very effectively the picture of God which the west has struggled so hard to rid itself of. The very idea of a rational intellect perceiving the world and its nature beyond its own particular subjective context has in fact replaced the naive God of centuries hence, with a naive Self. In believing that we as subjective beings within the world can raise ourselves above and beyond subjectivity, we betray not only our arrogance but also the very intellectual tradition which provides the context for western rationalist thought. Rationalism is not a universal, as the Enlightenment claim goes: it is embedded within the western tradition, and has the western tradition embedded within it: the emphasis on individualism is not a universal value. The value of culture is essential to many, and therefore cultural beliefs and nuances are taken much more seriously than in the west; tradition, which Europe claims to have broken with so effectively during the struggles of the Enlightenment and Renaissance, is regarded as essential to any understanding for the rest of the world: it is both naive and arrogant to believe that we as individuals can see so clearly now as to disregard the wisdom developed over millenia by our people. It is naive and arrogant to believe that we can even remove ourselves from it.

The proliferation of scientific attempts to describe the structure of the world should give us a clue as to the nature of the problem. We now have a whole host of competing hypotheses to choose from: multiverses, superpositioned particles, superstrings, two dimensions of time, Boltzmann brains, the universe within a black hole...for every experimental finding there are at least two theories adequately explaining the data, and in terms of the "big picture" we seem to have no way of knowing how to choose between different interpretations of what it looks like. This is because this big picture is simply beyond science's capabilities. It is beyond the capabilities of humans. We cannot objectively comprehend the world of which we are part. The subjective mind, no matter the elegance of its logic or the detail of its micoscopes, cannot step outside the universe and view it "as it really is". Our science is excellent at making predictions, which we can then test and establish with a degree of certitude whether they're true or false. This can lead us to an understanding of how the physical world works within the specific parameters of this action. What this cannot do is answer questions when we do not even know the context, or when the context is outside the physical universe. As different scientists attempt to give an answer to these "big picture" questions, we get a multitude of different pictures in much the same way as different religions offer different takes on the question.

One of the biggest mistakes of the atheist take on religion is that religions are defined principally by their metaphysical claims. The reduction of Christianity down to the doctrine of the trinity, for example. This approach (a) misses so much of what actually constitutes the religious life and (b) sets religion up as a rival to the realist truth claims of science. We must see that religion is not be understood in terms of truth claims about material reality. This is the fundamental mistake which is made by so many on both sides of the theistic divide. What religion does is offer a structure for interpreting life in terms of value and purpose by appeal to a level beyond rational, subjective thought. The structures of religion describe the metaphysical realm to which realism is not relevant: God must not be thought of as a being which we can ascribe existence in the same way we do to a chair or a table. Such ideas, that we can argue about and establish the existence or otherwise of God, demonstrate a dangerous category error which places metaphysics within matter. Metaphysics, of course, covers an enormous amount of ground: The ideals and categories of thought, the structure of logic and number, and the meaning and value of life are non-physical forms to which we can ascribe no temporal or causative relation with material existence. It is useless even to ask the question of whether these things precede spatio-temporal existence, or are generated from within it. It is a waste of intellectual effort to attempt to establish these metaphysics as underlying and guiding matter, or as being mere epiphenomena of human thought processes. They are both, and neither. If we view things from a rationalist-empiricist standpoint (ie, a reductionist material one), then they appear to emerge from the lifeless, inert interplay of material processes: it is matter which somehow generates minds, which then develop metaphysics. If we view things from a logical or mind-based (ie metaphysical; religious) standpoint, then they precede and through the pre-eminent structure of logic and number or transcendental consciousness, inert matter arises as a means of giving expression to these principles through the eventual emergence of individual consciousness: it is for the expression of these eternal principles that matter comes about. Whether we take matter or metaphysics/mind as the prime element of reality depends entirely on how we phrase the question, and according to what rules we answer.

The crucial thing we must realise is that both elements are equally important, and for we humans, as subjective beings, we are accountable to the metaphysical forms just as much as we are to the material. Human life is lived as much within the social noosphere of cultural thought as it is within the material world. It is the metaphysical structures of logic, archetypes, morality, which inform our understanding of life and the way we live. They place restrictions on us just as powerful as the material world, and they cannot be altered (or removed) from our consciousness any more than the limitations of matter can be removed from our bodies. To have minds is to exist within the metaphysical realm of thought-forms and implicit structures of interpretation. We can understand this clearest through maths: even though numbers are an abstraction from the material world, when we begin to investigate the abstract structure of numbers, we discover eternal principles and relationships such as irrational numbers; the sequence of primes; Fibonnaci numbers; degrees of infinity. These structures are inherent within number itself, independent of human experience of the world. Although numbers do not exist in a material sense (even the most simple integers do not exist; they are merely expressed through matter, or abstracted from matter, depending on how we look at it), they have qualities which are independent of human opinion. Irrational numbers such as the square root of two were not invented by humans: they were discovered within the nature of number itself. So it is with all metaphysics. The step we need to take is to disregard claims about 'realism', for this is a red herring. Realism cannot and does not apply to metaphysics. The nature of metaphysical entities however is independent of the minds which conceptualise them. Through the examination of these entities and structures we can discover new things about their nature, and understand better how they influence and effect our lives. Whether we understand mind as an epiphenomenon emerging from material reality, or as the guiding principle underlying it, the metaphysical structures which are expressed through it need to be investigated in order for us to understand the social-mental-cultural world of meaning in which we live.

One cannot really blame those of the new atheist movement for their attack on religion: in part, it is purely defensive. As rationalism has advanced and consumed everything in its wake, religions have assumed the form of rational belief systems in order to survive. This application of religious and scriptural myths to the material world, reflects the precedence which science has given to matter. The current debate over creationism vs evolution in schools is only one area where religious myth is being pushed far beyond its mandate and encroaching onto territory it has no claim to. The right of science over religion in this area should be obvious. Factual material and historical claims must be based on empirical data and reasoned thought, not myth.

Finally, I'd like to quickly address Harris' claims about religious extremism. It's become traditional to blame religion for the terrible crimes of the past, and also for events such as modern day terrorism. What Harris, along with so many others, fails to comprehend is that it is through the tools of science that these hate-crimes have been achieved: if religion is to blame for men wanting to crash airplanes into buildings, then it is science that has provided the ability for men to express anger so effectively. No one blames science for the atom bomb or the gas chamber. These things presumably were sitting dormant, waiting to be discovered; it is not the lack of moral conviction on the part of scientists (or in fact the lack of ingrained morality in science generally) which is at fault here - the blame is solely on the one who authorises their use. Swords, guns, bombs, tanks...all these are the result of science, of people applying the scientific method to manipulate the materials of nature. Why was morality not applied to stop implements of torture being designed and manufactured?

Secondly, in looking solely at the terrorist acts of some Muslims, Harris fails to engage any kind of debate about why people feel this angry, and why the people who provided some of the world's most just, peaceful and tolerant nations and empires have now reached the stage of such desperation that they have resorted to terrorism in order to make their voice heard. Blaming religion for this anger is stupid, plain and simple. In fact it's fucking stupid, but this is what comes of not having looked enough into the context and history that current events have grown from. It's what comes of the west's ignorance of its own traditions of brutality and manipulation, both explicit and covert, leading right up to the present day.

Okay, that's the end of the serious stuff. I needed to get that off my chest.

And now, a little light relief in the form of satire...

Friday, 19 October 2007

The Apple

The more i read about human history, and the currents of change and development that emerge through slotting pieces into place, the more it seems that humanity has never had any reprieve...we have always been pushed and pulled, tossed by innumerable spirits and contraflows, malign forces which never let us rest, never give us space to breath but always tug and drag and pummel the human spirit to different heights and troughs - different but not new, for the human condition remains the same now as twentyfive hundred years ago. Still, we ask the same questions, still, we await any answer, still, the challenges of work, society, war, family, friendship and love are what ultimately drive us.

Twentyfive hundred years is not long in the span of the world. To geology this is nothing. But it makes up most of recountable human history. It is the entirety of our sociological context, and more. The Upanisads, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Plato, Jesus and Muhammed...Al-Ghazzali, Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas, Copernicus, Newton, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Einstein. All these, but none seem to have really asked any new questions...just variations on ways of saying 'why are we here?'

But still I the metaphor of Genesis, we were expelled from the Garden of Eden, from the blissful existence of animal-like consciousness at one with the world around us. We took the advice of the serpent and our eyes were opened, we became like God, able to see and analyse, aware of ourselves as distinct entities. For what? What has this knowledge done for us? What has our Godlike ability to know good and evil enabled us to do? To sit in our centrally-heated houses, eating junk food, watching brain-dead entertainment, and working our lives away to be able to ensure our children have the same mundane existence we do. And this is the lucky ones. The rest are struggling to survive in war-torn nations, the environment so torn from nature and so overpopulated that there aren't enough natural supplies to even feed the local population. What have we done with the knowledge we suffer for?

Eve condemned to suffer in labour, the reduced gestation period of the human race: human offspring are almost twice the mass when born of our nearest primate relatives, and most of this is carried in the head. Evidence shows that naturally, the gestation period would have been much longer (as the human newborn is so pathetically incapable) but for the development of bipedalism, which restricted the birth canal and made childbirth the painful (and dangerous) experience it is now. These two factors, increased intelligence and walking on two feet conspire to force the human young into artifically increased dependence...meaning both that community becomes crucial to sustain young and protect women in labour, and that the neural pathways are immensely malleable: the knowledge which would otherwise have been hardwired into the brain in the womb, instead has to be learnt. This all gears us towards increased adaptability, flexible intelligence and dependence on others throughout every stage of our lives.

Interestingly, the first curse of Genesis - that placed on the serpent - is also evident in evolutionary terms. Many snakes are born with withered legs, useless for transport but obvious as a genetic throwback.

So, I find myself asking the question that has perplexed humanity ever since we developed the ability to wonder: Why are we here? What does the future hold for our species? Is it even to the future that we should be looking, when we seem to be getting the present so badly wrong? Is it transcendence that we're searching for, and if so, transcendence to what and where? Or is it merely transcendence of our own etiolated, concept-bound selves? If the future does not hold hope of some new, heavenly existence (either for our children in a material utopia or for us all in a spiritual realm), why do we persist in making the present a place of struggle?

Genesis offers no answers. This is the final of the three curses, man doomed to till the soil with the sweat of his brow. Perhaps this simply is our punishment for leaving eating the apple and presuming the Knowledge would make us happy.

There's plenty of info around on the irregularities of human gestation and development relative to other primates. Ashley Montagu's Growing Young (p66 onwards) is a good introduction, and also available free on Googlebooks.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Does the Universe Have A Purpose?

This is a response to The John Templeton Foundation's recent panel interview. Correspondents were asked to answer the question "Does the universe have a purpose?". Those interviewed were selected from a variety of disciplines, including astronomy, theology, astrophysics, biochemistry and computer science among others. The answers cover the entire spectrum from categorically No to certainly Yes, many opting simply for 'unsure' or 'possibly'.

The first thing that struck me about the question, was the fuzziness of what was being asked: It seems like a relatively straight-forward question, but once I begin to break it down, I find myself wondering who or what we are expecting an answer from – to which strata of 'reality' are we speaking?

My central point here is that in asking "Does the universe have a purpose?", we need to understand where we are locating the context of the question. Are we attempting to answer for the material structure that we inhabit, are we asking to the universe itself "Do you have a purpose, forget about our ideas, what do you say?"? Or are we asking within the sphere of human culture, does life have a grand (non-subjective) purpose, one imbued by our nature as conscious beings? Or, are we asking individually, do I experience purpose in my life?

These are all very different questions. The first, which many of the correspondents assume is the only angle, presents enormous difficulties. For there to be any 'objective' purpose to the universe (that is, one above and beyond human thought), we must needs postulate some grand power which defines it. As biochemist Christian de Duve points out, the idea demands some anthropomorphic creator-figure, one who has both the power and the will to determine Meaning for all creation. The question then becomes one of theology: an atheist must simply answer 'no', and a theist will almost certainly answer 'yes'. The problem with this interpretation, the objectification of Purpose, is that it forces us to attempt to see beyond our own minds. This begs the question of meaning: to even ask whether there is purpose outside of subjective consciousness is to attempt ourselves to assume a God's-eye-view on reality. How can we, as subjective, particularised minds attempt to state a truth (either positive or negative) outside of subjectivity?

Polymath Paul Davies' answer is particularly thought-provoking on this issue, reminding us that if 'purpose' is a solely human category (as chemist Peter William Atkins claims), then so is every concept employed in the practice of science: whenever we try to say anything about the world, we are applying human principles and ideas to 'objective' reality. Science (in fact, even perception) would be impossible without doing that. We are on a dangerous slope towards solipsism if we begin questioning the validity of concepts simply because they come from our minds.

There is a similar problem with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's claim that bacteria would view the purpose of human life very differently from ourselves (ie as a mere food source/habitable environment): bacteria would give no answer to the question. I find it hard to believe bacteria could even ask the question. To do so is entirely a human enterprise: of all the world that we know, it is only humans who are 'meaning-making beings'. It is only us who find any need of the concept of 'purpose'.

So yes, of course 'purpose' presupposes a mind to conceive it, whether that mind is the cause of reality or merely the perceiver of it – but we must also ask, does not the term "universe" presuppose a mind to conceive it? In order for there to be a concept 'universe', there must be a subjective mind which is perceiving it and creating concepts based on it. Reality itself, stripped of consciousness, simply is: it makes no claims and generates no concepts. It is not merely the positive assertion of purpose which is beyond objective material reality, but also the negative denial of purpose: To stamp one's own anti-teleological preferences onto a mechanical system is to go far beyond what empirical evidence could possibly entail. As Lawrence M Krauss succinctly states, "The conclusion is in the mind of the beholder, and it is outside of the realm of scientific theory and prediction". Purpose (or lack of it) is a conclusion, it is not a property which can be investigated by material science.

Removing then the theological option, at the opposite end of the spectrum we have pure subjectivity. This third approach makes no grand claims beyond the subject's own opinion, localising the ability to claim purpose within individual consciousness and having no bearing on the structure of objective reality. But one feels this approach is something of an apology for human thought. It commits the same error as the first, in placing human consciousness as an isolated sphere within objectivity – it is subsumed by the 'grander' material Real World, that which is not merely personal opinion. This relativism places all opinions – whatever they are – on the same footing, effectively saying "make your own mind up – it doesn't actually affect anything anyway"

The universe we live in is one determined by culture and the broader social context. We do not live in a universe of particles, bouncing billiard ball-like, or one of quantum fuzziness. We live and act within a sphere of human value, human endeavour, one where organisms exist and interact as part of a web of meaning. Individuals have values, and experience reality through the conceptual substrata of social conditioning. It is this "noosphere", the realm of intellect (both conscious and unconscious, individual and collective) which we experience reality through: the conceptualisation of material properties happens culturally. We experience a cup, not a collection of atoms adhering to each other. We experience the joy and horror of global social events, not meaningless organisms bouncing off each other. It is this broad social context which confers meaning, and this which confers our sense of purpose. Surely, it is within this context that we must locate any search for the answers to this question?

Lawrence M Krauss opens the possibility of empirical evidence for divinely-ordained purpose through the medium of a cosmic "I am here" blazing across the sky. I contend that it is not an "I am here" we should be searching for, but the knowledge that We Are Here. The vain attempt to escape human teleological thinking and place meaning and purpose outside our own intersubjectivity, outside our own value systems, has left us bemused to find there is none. We find ourselves asking 'so we can find no meaning outside of what we think of as meaning?' What would we expect! Material science in this sense seems to want us to take measurements after throwing away the ruler! If we remove the influence of the subjective human mind from what we are perceiving, what data are we left with? What is there to be seen when we are eyeless?

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Value of the "Merely Human"

The problem with science -and what we must now try to counteract- is its disregard for the human mind, for experience, feeling and human categories. Although the theories of quantum mechanics do replace consciousness (or at least the conscious observer) to an important role in the cosmological scheme, we are still left with a somewhat etiolated appreciation of subjectivity. Value, morality, purpose - these things are still beheld as not existing in relation to the "most important" aspect of reality: the material. These things are given a cursory glance as evolutionarily-developed traits selected for their utility, at best something to be enjoyed during our time here, but ultimately not being intrinsically relevant to the world.

The value of religon in this sphere is that it sacralises precisely these "merely human" elements - these qualities are essential not only to human society, but are what the structure of the cosmos depends on. Most religions teach that value is determined outside of human thought, and therefore is a pre-existing structure which we must do our best to abide by - it, in fact, is why we are here. It is the measure by which we are judged. It cannot simply be abnegated by appeal to objectivity.

This centralising of the "uniquely human" is something we must cultivate. Not in the sense of placing humanity (as was implicit at one time) as the rulers of the cosmos, as the mark by which everything else is judged, but by accepting that the powers we have, which we have acquired (or indeed, which are handed on a plate to self-conscious,socially-organising beings such as humans), come with a responsibility to use them wisely, according to the traditions of morality and value which have been passed down to us.

Friday, 7 September 2007

The Golden Spiral

What I love about the golden spiral is the way it unifies the subjective and the objective:
On one level it is a phantom of the human mind, extracted from nature where it is presented to the intellect as a mere potential; not present, but an abstraction waiting to be realised. On the other, its beauty represents everything that is wonderful about the natural world, the organic perfection which can be represented numerically but only experienced through direct aesthetic means.

The root of the golden spiral is in number: the spiral itself was discovered by the manipulation of the Fibonacci Sequence. It demonstrates how the mechanical processes by which human intellect categorises form and seeks to limit objectivity, themselves contain the seed of beauty; for beauty itself is representative of subjectivity.

The debate rages on as to whether numbers are real, preexisting the human mind (preexisting matter itself?), or whether they are 'invented' by humans as a result of our experience of the world, but our knowledge of the golden spiral rests wholly on the articulation of number. Only later did we find nature also utilising the simple harmony of the patterns Fibonacci discovered.

Tne golden spiral represents the eternal relationship between abstract and effulgent. The fullness, the irreducible organic gestalt of objective reality generates in the human mind the need to abstract into universal forms and numbers; it is this mechanical numeric form which creates harmony and beauty as subjective experience. The tripartite, dialectical relationship between object, form and subject, or between matter, universal and mind. Discovered first within number and then within nature, prompting the question 'from whence does it originate?' The answer of course is that all exist within an eternal relationship. To place one aspect as temporally - materially - prior, and then claim the others as entirely generated, entirely caused by it, is to make an ontological/teleological prejudgment which assumes the importance of material temporality over, for example, logic.

The Moving Stairway

Is it madness to say of an escalator that it has language embedded in it? It is a creation of the thinking, rational element of the world (the noosphere, as Teilhard de Chardin named it), and as such it is an articulation and expression of our human-cultural paradigms. It manifests human conceptuality and exists solely for a teleological demand within human society.

The escalator belongs - in every aspect apart from its material nature - to the structures of the human mind. It has been created based on an idea, a purpose which was conceived by an individual, in order to serve a need present within society. Its genesis is not within itself but within thought. It is essentially a means of transport, but within its essence, its being, is a communicative act directly from one mind to another.

An apple holds no such message-bearing elements. It exists for itself and is utilised by humans to satisfy a need. But this role is secondary to its existence and nature. A moving staircase has its essence outside of itself, its essence resides in the noosphere as a communication of its intended usage. Its essence necessitates understanding, it demands human intellect for without human society it has no nature: Of itself it is nothing. Dead, inert and meaningless, an unnatural collection of molecules; something which cannot be produced via natural process and can have no end via natural process except decay.

And much, very much of the world we live in is the same. So much of our day to day lives are sunk within social conceptuality, we do not see beyond our miniscule cultural horizons. An escalator is just an escalator. We see the essence, we see the noosphere's concept, we do not see the reality. We forget there is anything beyond our cultural paradigms. Maybe this isn't a bad thing. Probably intellect demands that letterbox apprehension. The more we filter and abstract the more precisely we can think and further our human endeavours. But surely there is something to be said for the ability to stand outside and accept the madness of human culture; to appreciate the objective from some other perspective than the one we normally live in?

Why the Everyday World makes Sense

Some people seem quite confused by the discrepancies between microscopic (quantum) reality and macroscopic (everyday) reality. The fact that the quantum level doesn't follow our normal logic has caused a lot of trouble for scientists (and only slightly less for the general public).

How can a level of reality, that we experience in our everyday lives, make perfect sense when it is generated from a completely illogical, counter-intuitive level beneath it?

The answer has to do with the way we are looking at the problem: macroscopic reality must make intuitive sense. Our minds have developed precisely in order to form predictions about the everyday world. We experience reality at the level of tables, chairs, grass and human actions willed by other minds. Our grip on the world is at the macroscopic level, and over the millenia individual consciousness has developed in order to understand the world at the level where it is active. Our sensory apparatus filters and interprets the world, applying forms and categories to the seething mass of undifferentiated data which bombards us. From this, we isolate and extract narrative threads which allow us to act effectively in the world. We cannot dispute that there are other events going on that we fail to comprehend. There are other narrative streams which simply don't fit into our minds, which don't make it through the logic filter, and so we don't connect isolated events which, seen from another dimension of thought, would be a clear process of cause and effect.

For example, we think in only one temporal direction. We find it exceedingly difficult to view cause and effect running from the present to the past. But doesn't this say more about our minds and the way they work, than about reality itself?

The reason the quantum world doesn't make sense in the same way the day-to-day world does, is not because of a structural shift between two levels of reality; it is because our minds suddenly reach 'home-ground' when we return to the everyday world.

The big question which this is leading up to, of course, is of the relationship between 'objective reality' and the subjective experience. But this is a topic for another blog.

Rationalism and Religion

I'm still struggling with the difference between rationalism and religion. Both doctrines use something we call 'metaphysics' and there's been a constant struggle between the two sides to claim particular words and concepts. The history of human development has been a constant bickering over how we understand reality.

The problem is, that there is metaphysics; and then there is metaphysics. It seems to me that the term is used indiscriminately to apply to two areas of thought which should be absolutely separate . It would be best to call one logic, and the other spirituality. It is unfortunate that the term applies as valid to the two equally. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that concepts generated within the one discipline can almost always be translated into the other with very little difficulty, although their implication is far from identical.

Terms like 'eternal', 'spirit', 'absolute' find use in both - and when a clearer definition is sought to clarify the nature of these concepts, we find ourselves still at a loss to understand of which area the speaker is referring. The idea of a non-physical entity - any non-physical entity - leads us into the same trap. Is the 'soul' an independent, real thing - or is it a word we use to refer to a quality we experience of someone? The word is still in common parlance as a metaphor. But what is the actual referent?

It has been argued that the majority of philosophers have in fact been talking of the 'realm' of logic: Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Leibniz, Wittgenstein...all were talking of no 'religious' qualities: they sought merely to describe the difference between the material world outside of us, and the world of thought inside of us. The problem comes when philosophy and religion meet, and thinkers such as Maimonides attempt to explain religious concepts by means of philosophical concepts, and thus identify the two. Now, this blurs the line and we know longer know whether in fact there is a real difference between the religious God and the Absolute of the philosophers (although the distinction between the concepts should be intuitively clear to us); between the Soul of religion, and the Spirit of philosophy (or even the simple idea of a person's 'essence'); or between the angels and the metaphorical message-bearing elements of manifestation attested by Maimonides.

Are these concepts identical? Kierkegaard definitely didn't think so. An autonomous non-physical reality has no place in philosophy, but it is the essence of religious metaphysics, which postulates beings and actions which are real in precisely the way we are, while having no material presence. But where does the use of metaphor begin and end? Do the intelligent, the rational of today, understand the power of myth as metaphor for the logical concepts of philosophy and all the soft mind-based experiences of meaning? Was anything else ever meant by these words? Many still believe in the literal truth of angels, a personal God, and the afterlife. Are these people merely fools, those who cannot exercise logic enough to grasp the concepts behind the terms and so naively create a supraphysical realm which is clearly not 'there'? Of the Abrahamic faiths, no scripture talks of ought but this world we inhabit. The metaphysical interpretation has always come after, 'on top' of what is talked of in the holy books.

My problem is this: Surely one must be correct. If we explain away the difference by saying that one is metaphor for the other (as Hegel did, and Averroes and Maimonides before him), then that still leaves us with a literally corect understanding and a literally false one. If religion is a mythical, 'dreamlike' description of philosophical truths, then philosophical logic must take a higher place than religious revelation.

And in doing this, we strip God of any personhood whatsoever: by rejecting the anthropomorphic imagery in favour of a logical Absolute, we are effectively destroying the fundamental humanness offered by religion - and this is what so often has caused the downfall of rationalism, whether in Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or even Hinduism.

But truth must lie somewhere. Is it again too much of an anthropomorphism to demand that the universe has a conceivable structure that is graspable by humans? Or is it precisely this element of mystery, that mere mortals cannot perceive the whole of reality except from within our limited subjective experience of it, is it precisely this fact that makes being alive so unpredictably special?

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Laws of Physics and Flexi-History

This article from New Scientist (also apparently published in the Guardian) puts into much better words the scientific basis behind the flexibility of time that I've previously hinted at. It's also very readable, so if you find my introduction boring don't give up on the article too.

In a nutshell, the author (along with several other leading physicists) believe that we have to stop viewing time as a straight line. The classical notion a timeline as immutable past leading inexorably into present, where the choices we make lead into a yet-to-be-decided future is looking increasingly dubious.

Instead, we have to focus attention on the present, the point which we as conscious beings inhabit. This of course would be no earth shattering news to those of the Indian religious tradition, who have always placed the focal point on the subjective 'now' of consciousness. It is a peculiarity of the west (and specifically of the Judeao-Christian tradition) that we attempt to understand time from 'outside'. Instead of placing our attention 'within', inbetween the fuzzy states of past and future, we attempt to begin from a precise objective point (where time began) and progress rationally along the continuum, admitting no difference in quality between our point of direct experience and those of memory/projective imagination. Of course, the rationalist timeline was first given expression in the Torah, the Jews placing the creation at an apparently definite, finite point in the past, from which time and reality has progressed quite happily until we reach the present moment. This was not always understood as a literal truth, mythology only having been reinterpretted literally in the last few hundred years (largely under the Christian/rationalist mindset which has created much of our current status quo). But I'm going to dismount my hobbyhorse because I want to briefly mention another interesting synchronicity before letting you read the article yourselves.

The numerical system provides some valuable insights into this new view of time: If we conceive the 'zero-point' as being the present moment of consciousness, we see that the negative integers and positive integers expand infinitely on either side of us. Given Georg Cantor's work last century on the number line and irrational numbers, can we project some parallel between the structure of infinitely divisible finite spaces (the interplay between rational numbers giving the number line its structure, and the irrationals giving the line its substance), and the unknowable complexity of the transcendental numbers, onto the quantum structure of time itself..?

The flexi-laws of physics

from New Scientist 30 June 2007

by Paul Davies

SCIENCE WORKS because the universe is ordered in an intelligible way. The most refined manifestation of this order is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental mathematical rules that govern all natural phenomena. One of the biggest questions of existence is the origin of those laws: where do they come from, and why do they have the form that they do?

Until recently this problem was considered off-limits to scientists. Their job was to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their form or origin. Now the mood has changed. One reason for this stems from the growing realisation that the laws of physics possess a weird and surprising property: collectively they give the universe the ability to generate life and conscious beings, such as ourselves, who can ponder the big questions.

If the universe came with any old rag-bag of laws, life would almost certainly be ruled out. Indeed, changing the existing laws by even a scintilla could have lethal consequences. For example, if protons were 0.1 per cent heavier than neutrons, rather than the other way about, all the protons coughed out of the big bang would soon have decayed into neutrons. Without protons and their crucial electric charge, atoms could not exist and chemistry would be impossible.

Physicists and cosmologists know many such examples of uncanny bio-friendly "coincidences" and fortuitous fine-tuned properties in the laws of physics. Like Baby Bear's porridge in the story of Goldilocks, our universe seems "just right" for life. It looks, to use astronomer Fred Hoyle's dramatic description, as if "a super-intellect has been monkeying with physics". So what is going on?

A popular way to explain the Goldilocks factor is the multiverse theory. This says that a god's-eye-view of the cosmos would reveal a patchwork quilt of universes, of which ours is but an infinitesimal fragment. Crucially, each patch, or "universe", comes with its own distinctive set of local by-laws. Maybe the by-laws are assigned randomly, as in a vast cosmic lottery. It is then no surprise that we find ourselves living in a patch so well suited to life, for we could hardly inhabit a bio-hostile patch. Our universe has simply hit the cosmic jackpot. Those universes that can't support life - the vast majority in fact - go unobserved.

Goldilocks enigma

The multiverse theory is a step forward, but it still leaves a lot unexplained. For a start, there has to be a universe-generating mechanism to make all those cosmic patches. There also has to be a process whereby each patch acquires a set of by-laws, perhaps at random, perhaps not. These requirements demand their own laws - which maybe we should refer to as federal laws or meta-laws - to govern the creation of law-driven universes.

In itself that is not an overriding objection. Cosmologists have concocted a way for an endless stream of big bangs to occur spontaneously throughout space and time, each triggering the birth of a "bubble" universe somewhere and somewhen in the boundless multiverse, with each bubble governed internally by its very own by-laws. However, their calculations appeal to quantum mechanics, relativity and a host of other conventional oddments from the standard tool kit of theoretical physics. Accepting such meta-laws as given - true without reason or explanation - merely shifts the mystery of the laws of physics in our universe up a level, to that of the meta-laws in the multiverse.

The basic difficulty can be traced back to the traditional concept of a physical law. Since at least the time of Isaac Newton, the laws of physics have been treated as immutable, universal, eternal relationships - infinitely precise mathematical rules that transcend the physical universe and inhabit an abstract other-worldly realm.

These perfect rules were supposedly imprinted on the universe - somehow - from outside, at the moment of cosmic creation, and haven't changed an iota since. In particular, the laws care nothing for what is actually happening in the universe, however violent the physical processes may be. So the universe depends on the laws, but the laws are strangely independent of the universe.

Four hundred years on, physicists still cling to this model of physical law, even though they have no idea what the external source of the laws might be. So long as science appeals to something outside the universe, we must abandon any hope of ultimately understanding why the universe is as it is. A large element of mystery will lie forever beyond our reach.

There is, however, another possibility: relinquish the notion of immutable, transcendent laws and try to explain the observed behaviour entirely in terms of processes occurring within the universe. As it happens, there is a growing minority of scientists whose concept of physical law departs radically from the orthodox view and whose ideas offer an ideal model for developing this picture. The burgeoning field of computer science has shifted our view of the physical world from that of a collection of interacting material particles to one of a seething network of information. In this way of looking at nature, the laws of physics are a form of software, or algorithm, while the material world - the hardware - plays the role of a gigantic computer.

Perfect past

The mathematics of the laws may be the same, but the change in perspective leads to profoundly different conclusions, as we discover when we ask just how powerful the cosmic computer may be. Every computer's performance is limited by the finite speed of its processors and the finite storage capacity of its memory. The universe is no exception.

Bits of information, even in the subatomic domain, cannot be flipped faster than a maximum rate permitted by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. Meanwhile the storage capacity depends on the physical size of the observable universe, which is limited to the maximum distance light can have travelled since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. From this, Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has calculated that the observable universe can have processed no more than 10120 bits of information since its birth.

Does it matter that the universe commands only finite computational resources? Maybe not to the traditional view of the laws of physics, according to which Mother Nature computes the action of her laws in a transcendent heaven of infinitely precise mathematical relationships. But if we replace this highly idealised view with one in which nature computes in the real universe, then Lloyd's bound has serious implications. In effect, we have no reason to suppose any physical law can be more accurate than 1 part in 10120. Beyond that we can expect the law to break down and become fuzzy.

For most practical purposes Lloyd's number is so big it might as well be infinite. For example, the law of conservation of electric charge has been tested to only about one part in a trillion, still 108 powers of 10 too crude to reveal any possible breakdown arising from the finite information bound.

However, Lloyd's bound isn't fixed: it grows with time, and at the instant of the big bang it was 0. At the time the large-scale structure of the universe was being laid down during the first split second, the bound was still only about 1020 - possibly small enough to have cosmological consequences. So we are led to a picture in which the laws of physics are inherent in the physical universe, and emerge with it. They start out unfocused, but rapidly sharpen and zero in on the form we observe today as the universe grows.

Flexi-laws of this sort are not a new idea. They were proposed 30 years ago by the physicist John Wheeler. The way he expressed it is that the laws of physics were not "cast in tablets of stone, from everlasting to everlasting". Rather, they emerged over time, congealing from the ferment of the big bang.

Can the flexibility in the laws explain the Goldilocks enigma? Is there enough wiggle room for the universe to somehow engineer its bio-friendliness? Freeman Dyson, one of the pioneers in the study of the biological fine-tuning mystery, wrote that the more he learned about the various accidents of physics and cosmology that permit life to arise, "the more it seems that in some sense the universe knew we were coming". Dyson's dramatic assertion raises the obvious question: how? In the first split second, when the laws were in the process of settling down, how could the universe "know about" life and consciousness coming along billions of years later? How can life today be relevant to the physics of the very early universe?

Surprisingly it can, thanks to the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle says that even if you know the state of an atom at one moment, there is an irreducible uncertainty about what its properties will be when you observe them at a later moment. One way of expressing this is to say that the atom has many possible futures encompassed within the overall fuzziness of quantum uncertainty. What's more, the principle works just as well for the past as for the future, so an atom has many possible histories leading up to its present state. By the rules of quantum physics, all these parallel realities must meld together to yield the present state of the atom.

The same general conclusion holds if we apply quantum mechanics to the entire universe - a subject known as quantum cosmology, made famous by the work of Stephen Hawking. Since we cannot know the quantum state at the start of the universe, we must work backwards in time from our present observations and infer the past.

As Hawking has emphasised, it is a mistake to think there is a single, well-defined cosmic history connecting the big bang to the present state of the universe (New Scientist, 22 April 2006, p 28). Rather, there will be a multiplicity of possible histories, and which histories are included in the amalgam will depend on what we choose to measure today. "The histories of the universe depend on the precise question asked," Hawking said in a paper last year with Thomas Hertog ( In other words, the existence of life and observers today has an effect on the past. "It leads to a profoundly different view of cosmology, and the relation between cause and effect," claims Hawking.

We can illustrate these abstract ideas from quantum physics with the help of a concrete demonstration suggested 25 years ago by Wheeler. His experiment is a variant of Thomas Young's famous 200-year-old double-slit experiment, designed to reveal the wave nature of light. A pinpoint source of light illuminates a screen punctured by a pair of parallel slits, projecting onto a second screen beyond. Light spreading out from each slit overlaps with that from the other. Where the light from both slits arrives at the image screen in phase, the waves reinforce to produce a bright band. Where they arrive out of phase, they interfere destructively, producing a dark band. The series of bright and dark bands are called interference fringes.

Mystery sets in when you turn the brightness right down. According to quantum theory, light may also be considered to consist of photons, which behave like a stream of particles. So what happens if you allow only one photon at a time to traverse the apparatus? Experiments show that although it takes a lot longer, an interference pattern does build up on the photographic screen, one photon at a time. Presumably each photon passes through only one slit, yet somehow it appears to "interfere with itself" and contribute to the pattern.

A wily experimenter might decide to place detectors at the slits to see which one each photon goes through. Nature, however, outmanoeuvres us. Whenever you determine the path of the photons, no interference pattern results. So you have a choice: look to see where the photon is heading and destroy its wavelike behaviour, or choose not to look, and allow the photon to manifest the wave aspect of its character. It essentially boils down to a choice of particle or wave. The photon can be both, but not at the same time. The experimenter gets to decide which.

So far so good. The novel twist that Wheeler added is that you can delay your decision to look at the wave or particle aspect until long after the light has passed through the slits. Using a pair of telescopes placed at the image screen, you can look back at the slits and infer which one any given photon emerged from. Do this and you destroy the interference pattern. In effect, the observation you make affects the nature of the past - specifically, whether the photon behaved as a wave or a particle. Physicists call this strange phenomenon "quantum post-selection".

There is a temptation to assume that the light "really was" either a wave or a particle in the past, but quantum physics denies this. It is simply not possible to ascribe a well-defined past to this system. Rather, your decision to make a particular observation - what Hawking meant by "the precise question asked" - determines the nature of the past. Crucially, however, the delayed-choice experiment cannot be used to change the past, or to send information back in time.

This aspect of quantum weirdness may appear startling, but it has been tested by experiments and found to be correct. In such experiments the quantum reach into the past is only a few nanoseconds, but in principle it could be extended to billions of years. And when it comes to quantum cosmology, it can penetrate right back to the big bang itself.

So how can this backward-in-time feature of quantum mechanics explain the bio-friendliness of the universe? Well, obviously we can rule out from the multiplicity of quantum histories any that don't lead to life, because that would conflict with the basic fact of our own existence. However, in the standard quantum cosmology advocated by Hawking, all of the alternative histories, without exception, conform to exactly the same laws of physics. So while a photon travelling from a source to a screen can take many different paths, the actual laws of motion that govern its path remain the same whichever route it takes.

Wheeler's idea was more radical. He claimed that the existence of life and observers in the universe today can help bring about the very circumstances needed for life to emerge by reaching back to the past through acts of quantum observation. It is an attempt to explain the Goldilocks factor by appealing to cosmic self-consistency: the bio-friendly universe explains life even as life explains the bio-friendly universe.


As long as the laws of physics are fixed, as they are in Hawking's cosmology, their enigmatic bio-friendliness is left out of this explanatory loop. But with flexi-laws of the sort advocated by Wheeler, the way lies open for a self-consistent explanation. The fuzzy primordial laws focus in on precisely the form needed to give rise to the living organisms that eventually observe them. Cosmic bio-friendliness is therefore the result of a sort of quantum post-selection effect extended to the very laws of physics themselves.

"As long as the laws of physics are fixed, their enigmatic biofriendliness is left out. Bring in flexi-laws and it's a different story"

Wheeler's ideas are far from properly worked out. They remain, as he quaintly referred to them, "an idea for an idea". However several theorists, including Yakir Aharonov, Jeff Tollaksen and others at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and myself are attempting to place the concept of flexi-laws and quantum post-selection on a sound mathematical footing.

How can we test these outlandish ideas? If the fidelity of the laws of physics really is subject to a cosmological bound, then the structure of the universe might betray some remnant of the substantial primordial fuzziness. A more direct test could come from the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, in which the quantum states of a collection of particles are linked in such a manner that an observation performed on one affects all the others simultaneously.

The key point about an entangled state is that it requires many more parameters to define it. For example, 10 atoms may have their spins aligned with or against a magnetic field. In a non-entangled state, you only need 10 bits of information to define the state for each atom. But if the atoms are entangled, you must specify the values of 210, or 1024, parameters.

As the number of particles goes up, so the number of defining parameters escalates. A state with 400 entangled particles blows the Lloyd limit - it requires more bits of information to specify it than exist in the entire observable universe. If one takes seriously the inherent uncertainty in the laws implied by Lloyd's limit, then a noticeable breakdown in fidelity should manifest itself at the level of 400 entangled particles. Such a state is by no means far-fetched. Entangled states of about a dozen particles have already been created, and experimenters have set their sights on 10,000 as part of the effort to build a quantum computer

In the orthodox view, the laws of physics are floating in an explanatory void. Ironically, the essence of the scientific method is rationality and logic: we suppose that things are the way they are for a reason. Yet when it comes to the laws of physics themselves, well, we are asked to accept that they exist "reasonlessly". If that were correct, then the entire edifice of science would ultimately be founded on absurdity. By bringing the laws of physics within the compass of science, and fusing nature and its laws into a mutually self-consistent explanation, we have some hope of understanding why the laws are what they are. In addition, we can begin to glimpse how we, the observers of this remarkable universe, fit into the great cosmic scheme.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Restatement: Leibniz's Law of Identity

A while back I blogged about Leibniz's Law of Identity and how all other logical truths descend from this one necessary formula. I faced some criticism from a few people claiming that axioms such as Modus Ponens and the Law of the Excluded Middle were not evident within the Law of Identity.

Leibniz's law can be stated thus: A=A. It is evident how this principle is a necessary precursor to any subsequent logic, as if A is not identical to itself, then no other true statement can be made. If A is not A then 1+1 no longer equals 2, as the definition of 1 is fluid and not static. Staticity of terms (ie, self-identity) is necessary for any inference from the nature of those terms. New inferences cannot be developed without this principle.

But how is A=A a sufficient basis for all other self-evident logical truth?

Modus Ponens is the basic law of inference in logic. It can be stated thus:

1.P -> Q.

It states that if we accept "P entails Q" (for example, being upper class entails voting conservative), and if P happens to be true, then Q must also be true. In effect, it states the principle that if we accept one thing leading to another thing, we must accept that when the 
one thing happens the second does too. Common sense.

It can be restated as an equation:

if (P->Q) then (if(P)->(Q))


P->Q = P->Q.

Given this form, it is clear to see how it is merely an affirmation of tautology. It bears precisely the same form A=A. It holds no additional content, and therefore is not a seperate truth, but simply a derivation from the Law of Identity. Leibniz's law is both the necessary and sufficient condition for ensuring the validity of Modus Ponens.

The Law of the Excluded Middle is similarly obvious:

A statement must be either true, or if not true, then false. There is no inbetween, a statement cannot be both true and false, and cannot be neither true nor false. It must be one and only one of these. Without wishing to go into Logical Positivist-type delineations of some statements being meaningless and therefore outside the realms of truth or falsehood because they contain no sensible assertion, it should be clear how the LEM is true.

We can restate the LEM as A=not-not-A, ie A cannot equal the negation of A. Or, A=A.

What Leibniz believed was that all analytic (self-evident) truth was explicitly derived from A=A. This, he saw as the emanation of truth from (and within) the mind of God. Human intellect could trace this path through the use of logic. Synthetic (contingent) truth was similarly derived solely from A=A but the process by which this happens is not accessible to the human mind. The manifestation of reality and the circumstances which surround us are necessarily derived from God's own nature and thought - therefore this is necessarily the best of all possible worlds (as it must be, if derived from the source of goodness itself).

A=A is itself a statement (albeit an obscure one) about God's nature: God is identity. I am that I am (Exodus 3:14)

Friday, 25 May 2007

A post-structuralist understanding of reality.

Re: Astronomy vs Astrology. As the 12 constellations no longer match up to the designated divisions of the solar year, does this discredit the Ancient art of astrology?

Again here the physicalist paradigm must be brought into question. The last 400 years have seen an increasingly rationalist interpretation of reality and the human experience. But this does not mean that we can disregard the structures which emerged from the prerational 'dreamtime'  of early human consciousness. To do so is to retroactively enforce our modern belief system onto the past. It is a grand mistake to think that the ancients drew up these beliefs as a rational interpretation of the cosmos...they have a much deeper significance. One that goes beyond the reductionist-materialist lens we in the 21st century have chosen to wear.

If we can accept a post-structuralist understanding of literature,we are saying that the intention of an author is irrelevant to the relation between text and reader. That is, the author alone does not determine the correct meaning of a text: the reader creates anew the text as she interprets it, using her subjective apparatus, the filters of her past experience and belief systems/personal mythology. The intention of an author is in fact not an intrinsic part of the text at all. That is due solely to the reader. The question I ask is, why can we not also accept this of reality? The individual creates anew the world through their own experience of it, and their subjective relationship to events, placing a unique and unchallengable sense of meaning onto the mere 'fact' of matter.

To claim that an atheistic physicalist universe can only be correctly understood in atheistic physicalist terms is to run counter to the very implication of this cosmology...if there is no 'creator', no deity to enforce an absolute "intention" behind facticity (that is, no deity to assign one and only one true interpretation of the facts; to make true a single claim "this happened because of this...", "if x then y", disallowing - negating - any other interpretation), if there is no such dominant power in reality then there is only subjective awareness to place the multitude of perspectives, opinions and interpretations upon the soulless facticity which exists nebulously 'outside' of us.

If there is no objective viewpoint, then we cannot subsume individual interpretations under a hierarchy of correctness. There is no 'correct'. It is the responsibility of each individual to create the meaning and the relationship between events in their reality. Causality is something we must actively create ourselves. Mythology is our own responsibility. Living is an activity, something we do creatively and must take responsibility for.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Structure of Time and History

It's funny that the bible technically places the creation - and man's subsequent fall from grace, where he is condemned to work in order to survive, to till the land with the sweat of his brow in order to eat - at roughly the moment in history when agriculture began, and civilisation in the Near East first spread its wings. It also ties in almost perfectly with the first written language. I wonder what change in the mode of consciousness this development had.

The use of writing forces man's apprehension of the world into a strictly linear sequence. Words are always read in order, and form a static unchangeable structure. The power of language to change consciousness is a topic I can't go into detail here, but it's clear that the development of writing and the emergence of civilisation happen at eerily similar times. The ability to view ourselves objectively, to be 'self-aware' forces an appreciation of change, development, and therefore places consciousness outside of the present in which the rest of the kingdom of nature is bound.

The Bible effectively tells history from the point of view of human civilisation. All of prehistory is given a cursory few paragraphs of mechanical progress, all well and good, until mankind-proper comes onto the scene, homo sapiens-civilisatiens. Perhaps the Israelites of 900BCE who were consolidating their tribals myths (which would be written down in the Torah a few hundred years later), knew that really there had only been 3 or 4 thousand years of history prior to them. Those 3,000 years were all they cared about - the rest was just context. Those centuries contained all the developments from the point of mankinds real inception - all our drama and cultural/conscious evolution has happened in that miniscule space of time. By then we were distinct from the animal kingdom, and our "noosphere" of self-aware consciousness had formed a world independent of the material environment. Prior to that, man was just another species at the mercy of our environment.

So, I wonder what the relation between the point that mankind became able to conceive its own history, mankind's awareness of itself, and the actual event of history is. We take for granted a particular view of time: we think of the beginning (big bang), a series of moments, billions of years, all progressing through to the point of 'now' that we inhabit. But this reductionist view is only one way of understanding.

It has been mooted in physics circles that the past only happens when consciousness is able to think backwards - ie, the past is created retrospectively from the point of the present. This implies that there is no past, only the now: the point of awareness creates the illusion of previous moments in a linear sequence. So we in fact create a history that never was. There was no beginning, only the now, looking outward and imagining concepts such as 'before' and 'after'. The past being an established 'fact' which leads mechanically to the 'now' is a view we have to challenge. The past is just as much a fiction, a creation of the single truth of consciousness (which exists only in the eternal present), as the future.

dates and facts for those interested: agriculture was developed somewhere between 8,000 and 4,000BCE. The first sproutings of civilisation were in Mesopotamia (Sumer, as it was known then; Iraq as we call it now) and Egypt between 4,000 and 3,000BCE, with the first evidence of 'cuneiform' writing dated to 3100BCE in Mesopotamia...the biblical 'year of creation' is 4004BCE. Human civilisation, human existence as we know it, has existed for a mere five to six thousand years. Absolutely everything that we know of humans doing has happened in that infinitessimal dot of time.

The Liberation of Consciousness

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

I believe fundamentally in the liberation of the human spirit. This is all I believe in, and all that I work towards. The emancipation of intellect from the categories and hollow forms that bewitch it; the freedom of mind from the cage of intellect; and the growth of life, consciousness itself, beyond the boundaries of individual mind.

This is the ultimate aim of all philosophy; and indeed, at its source, all religion. Philosophy has always served the purpose of disambiguation. It serves to demonstrate where the truth lies behind the veils that obscure our sight. The veils are language (that which conceals both thought and experience within the narrow concepts of society, and tricks us into thinking in terms defined by the lowest common denominator), social custom (that which defames individuality and the perspective of true consciousness by placing the so called objective above the subjective - and thereby replaces the most concrete, indubitable form of truth with an unknowable facticity stripped of perspective and therefore inapprehensible), and mind itself - that is, the false ego which itself is a creation of social custom and false categorisation. Selfhood is perhaps the most pernicious of all these three veils, but its effects can only be tackled once the initial pair have begun to be deconstructed. Our illusion of selfhood locks us tightly into consensual reality, creates self-ishness which divides us from our neighbour and is inherent in the consumptive, flaccid drive to satisfaction that controls our society. Only when we believe in a 'self' can we be manipulated by mass marketing and politicians. Only when we have a self-image to preserve and feed, do we let other people tell us what we need in order to be fulfilled. Only through the illusion of selfhood can we be led to forsake those around us and our environment, by believing that others' feelings are different from ours.

So, philosophy has always sought to liberate the spirit by means of disambiguation - by reminding us what life is actually about, and rediscovering the elementary truths concealed by our naive infatuations. Religion also has sought to do this, though the means of the mystics who gained these insights have been turned into dogma by those who misunderstood and had themselves not yet gained this perspicacity. They intuit the beauty and freedom of the mystic's soul and set it in stone, let it corrupt and disintegrate through the ravages of time and weather. This is the reason that religion must constantly renew itself - this is a large contributing factor in the multiplicity of religions and their apparent (surface) tensions. Anyone who has gone within their tradition and found the gem at its core reports the same colour stone, the same patterns it casts, for at the root of reality and consciousness there is only one truth. And that is consciousness itself.

The Teleological Suspension of the Objective

Fear and Trembling sets forth Soren Kierkegaard's attack on the absolute ethical system of Hegel. Using the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham (whom God tested by asking to sacrifice his own son Isaac), Kierkegaard shows how an individual can, through religious faith and a personal relationship with God, suspend the normally absolute code of ethics. Thereby, acts which normally - from an objective standpoint, would be considered immoral, in fact entail no evil; and because they are not comprehensible from a logical viewpoint, only from the 'absurdity' of irrational faith, they transcend the universal code and establish faith as the basis for something far more important than the everyday 'rules' of life.

The most important implication of Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical (as it is called), is not in its new, faith-based attitude toward morality: it is in the possibility of the particular ascending above the universal.

Kierkegaard does not dispose of the universal (as later existentialists would); he does not strip reality down to a purely subjective experience, meaning and truth inscribed only from the pen of the individual. He accepts that the universal is there as guide and rule. There is indeed a perfect form against which everything must be judged. We, the particular, the individual in manifestation, stand perpetually in relation to the awesome form of the Absolute. But this relation is not insusceptible to change - for the fluid power of particularity can at times break it banks and overcome the iron hand of objective Truth. At these times reality is turned inside out, and individual experience takes the upper hand, the power of A Mind, My Mind, reaches up and over the staticity of Mind the Form, and we realise the imperfection of that which is prefect. For the Absolute cannot change, has no ebb and flow, it has no power of adaptation. The personal only can approach and be influenced by situation, and in this way its imperfection is the very thing which makes it perfect.

And this in some small way is the meaning of life - that to be an individual, no matter how weak, corrupt and ephemeral we are, tossed between the hands of destiny and lost in the flow of statistic and chemical interchange, we still can overcome all of reality, and place ourselves above that which defines truth; we can, by means of subjectivity, rewrite the rules of reality.

The Dangers of Language

"Our own language has been invented for the purpose of expressing our own experience. When we use it for discussing other peoples' we assimilate their experience into our own". (RG Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

It's funny how much of our lives we live entirely within the realm of symbolism. The human mind interprets experience in terms of concepts, words. This is a beautifully unique capability of human beings (to our knowledge), but the problems it generates - and conceals - hold a curious fascination for me.

Language is essentially a limiting force; it reduces experience into universally comprehensible units of data. The word 'chair' is the universal form of particular instances. The word represents all and anything which falls under the concept 'chair'. Plato argued that the universal is the true expression of an object - that particulars are but shadows of the universals that the human mind utilises. But this misses so much of the quality and impact of the particular. Imagine the difference between the word chair and the experience of a chair! While Plato is correct in seeing the purity and eternity of the universal (the concept represented by the word), it is also an etiolated, bloodless extraction from reality. All power has gone from it, stripped and corrupted from reality into mindstuff. Meaning without experience.

But all symbolism does this, for communication demands it. There is no other way to transfer an experience from my mind into yours. We must reduce reality to a vastly simplified representation...and just as MP3s grow in size as they grow in quality, the amount of information in our communication increases exponentially as we try to do the experience justice - to give the listener more depth and quality, we have to use more and more words.

But there is a crucial problem here: it is impossible to give a completely accurate description of an experience. Language always masks the particular by translating it into a universal, and no matter how hard we try we cannot fully communicate the depth of an experience without the listener being in exactly the same place at the same time. In effect, the representation would need to mirror the experience on an atomic level, so that it was precisely the same as the original. But, still the listener would not know how the experience felt to us. Our experiences are based on associations and past experiences (again the dreaded 'concept' enters the equation...we colour an experience of the sun, for example, by what we know of it, and what we have experienced of it before. One who has seen an eclipse in all its glory, or understands the nuclear process ocurring within it from moment to moment, is not experiencing the same sun as one who knows nothing of these wonders).

Experience itself, in all its unthinkable glory (that is, unintellectualisable - or undepictable) cannot be transferred between minds. It can only be more or less represented, a general sense given and we hope that too much isn't lost in the translation. Essentially though, the more different someone's experiences (including their feelings about the source objects/relations), the less they will comprehend our own meaning behind the words.

Precisely this is the beauty and the danger of symbol, of language. Of concept. The experience loses so much in being reduced to language. So much of our experience is cauterised by the boundaries of intellect and language that our understanding of reality is often more like an autopsy than a marriage. It is the inexpressible that is truly captivating, and this is what is killed by representation.

The return to subjectivity within philosophy, the gauntlet that Kierkegaard threw down to Hegel and his followers, represents this same knowledge: that the universal may be perfect, but its meaning and impact is nothing compared to first-hand, lived experience. Logic shrinks into insignificance when faced with everyday life.

Descartes in NOT WRONG shock

Saturday, 10 March 2007

The archetype of Christ

The past one hundred years has seen an increased focus on the historical figure of Jesus - our investigation into the specifics of his life, environment, and teachings have brought undreamed of information (and the most ludicrous sensationalist speculation under the guise of unbiased research) and perhaps shattered forever the Church's previous presentation of him.

However, the one thing made most apparent by this trend is not the failings of Christianity but the problems at the very heart of our world view.

The symbolism, the meaning of Jesus - and crucially, his message - have been forsaken in the search for historical fact. Historical fact which ultimately is doomed by its nature to leave us spiritually disappointed.

The crux of 1st century messianic Judaism and the Christian movement which drew on much of its ideology, was the apotheosis of mankind; that each individual could reach up to the heights of divinity. That the Godhead was in fact an imminent part of our own nature, just waiting for us to realise it.

This concept has been more and more misunderstood in our search for historical rather than eternal truth (eternal meaning present in every moment, outside of particular, temporal, constraints). The immanence of the Christ archetype has been forgotten, lost, as we externalise Christ; we are then validated in our mundane, disrespectful self-image as we realise 'oh, he was just another dull human, just like the rest of us - not special at all'. Those searching for the truth of Jesus miss the point entirely. The truth was in his message, which was the same message as many teachers in those times: Man and God are one, but we must strive to transcend our mundane nature and rise above our lower selves.

Now it seems we have entirely lost this idea and we view ourselves - like we view Jesus - as purely material, unimportant, interesting maybe but ultimately meaningless.

We are more than that. In these times, we have to realise the divine that rests within us. That, or watch our nature slide into chaos.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

More on symbol and HTML-Reality metaphor

"In a sense, all user interfaces can be seen as interactive allegories of the computer. When Apple engineers introduced the Macintosh and its Graphical User Interface (GUI), they replaced the dry world of command lines and DOS prompts with a world of simple simulacra. The Mac cloaked the computer's workings inside an audio-visual "desktop metaphor" whose folders, trashcans and icons served as active and intuitive representations of the computer's internal processes. These simulacra proved enormously popular among non-technical people, and as computers and the internet continue to saturate the world at large, we can expect user interfaces - including internet browsers, web sites and program control panels - to plunge us even deeper into such iconic simulations, and to pull us furtehr from the binary codespace where the action "really" lies. Perhaps our tame digital metaphors will one day bloom into allegorical landscapes, and desktops, windows and browsers will open into three dimensional worlds animated with daemonic agents and interdimensional portals that conceal an underlying layer of purely logical protocols."
(Erik Davis, TechGnosis)

Is this not the same way that the philosophers and mystics have been veiwing the normal world for the past two and a half thousand years? The sensory experience we have are internally created metaphors which represent the real 'action' that is happening behind the scenes; the illusion of cause and effect, of colour, movement and scent, the social fiction of a cohesive self; the 'logical protocols', the 'code' which creates the appearance of a world is never experienced in itself (it cannot be: experience is caused by it, and is therefore a subset of the code: it is a particular 'program'), but can be manipulated by those with the correct tools.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Magic and symbol

Magic is something much misunderstood. I define it simply as the transference from imagination to reality: concepts within the ethereal realm of imagination, are brought into physical ('particular') manifestation.

The key idea here is the use of symbols. The ancient cave paintings depicting hunts were created in order to access the immaterial symbolic realm: an 'ideal' prey, the universal deer, is succesfully caught in the imagination, and this is the first step towards making that happen in reality. These works of magical art came about at the point when humanity was realising that we could use our minds independently of our environment. The ability to see with the mind's eye, something which is not real, and furthermore to express this in a form that others can understand. How amazing this must have felt to those first generations who developed these abilities! Now, we take this for granted but we must admit the wondrous power that this must have held for the primitive human beings exploring the new world opening up within them.

Precisely this is why magic has been so important to humans: we are the only animal capable of imagining. As soon as we held this ability, we knew it as a holy process asnd began treating it as such. The direction of imagination through ritual is a potent transformative tool, and essential in reaching individual maturity in a stable manner. It is essential for the ordered cohesion of society. And this, we have been slowly losing our hold on for the past 400 years. Our culture has lost its understanding of - and respect for - the subtle modes of consciousness. Through our bifurcation of reality (ever since Galileo and then Descartes divided Mind from Matter and instructed us that the two may meet but are distinct and separate worlds) and the subsequent hypertrophy of rational intellect (the hard, scientific approach as opposed to the softer, mythical/emotional one) we have reduced all aspects of Mind to an accidental speck, a benign growth from the huge mass of Body.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

The history and near future of the Western economy

Back in the 17th Century Descartes localised reality, making individual consciousness itself the only thing we can truly know. Ever since, Europe has led a growing subjectivism and individualization of consciousness – the strict hierarchies which had dominated our society previously were now recognized as ossified remains ripe for extirpation.

The move in general for the past four hundred years has been towards personal liberty, individual perspective and the right to self-determination. In the twentieth century this political idealism took its most aggressive form in the restructuring of culture along ideological lines in the birth of social orders such as fascism and communism. Very few would have guessed fifty years ago that the dominant force would become the consumerist capitalism which lacks any focus but the sating of individual hungers. In hindsight, it is perhaps obvious – the intellectual tradition of the West has degenerated, collapsed under its own weight and where before a culture could be united under the banner of 'the people' struggling for self-determination against an oppressive historical regime, it seems we have now given up: our lackluster democracies are populated by individuals too wrapped up in passively entertainment to take an active role in the guiding of politics; our governments are bound by dependence on dubiously-gained finance, finance which is essential to any party wishing to remain in power as the marketing tricks of sound bite politics are all the overfed masses are capable of comprehending; the ideological few who may still exist within mainstream politics see their best ideas ignored by the people, who are more concerned with the price of oil or a pair of jeans than in finding a sustainable future for the whole human race.

Has the common man/woman always been too nearsighted to see beyond their immediate comfort? Or is this development merely the embodiment of society governed by a species incapable of rising above our basest desires?

Our intellectual freedom, struggled for, died for by millions, has resulted in a culture where we've decided we can't actually be asked to think for ourselves (god forbid we should actually think about anyone else). 'My own corner's alright, and I happen to like these clothes made by the Gap; where else can I find nice trousers at a price which allows me to run my car, eat well, go out every weekend and do everything else I want with my life? I would buy them from somewhere ethical if I had the money' translates as if I could be asked to live morally without it impinging on my own lifestyle and the fact that we've all grown up expecting to have everything we want at the click of our fingers, then I would. Yes, consideration of others comes only if it's not at the expense of ourselves.

The question of whether these things are (1) necessary, or (2)making us happy, is not even asked.

My prediction is that within the lifetimes of everyone who's going to read this we're going to have that choice taken out of our hands: the luxuries that the western world has come to enjoy are basically the expectation that we can all live the lives that the rich and powerful lived in preceding centuries. These lifestyles are based on manipulating others to provide materials for our consumption: food, clothes, goods and services. The raising of everyone above the status of 'worker' to 'consumer' has effectively transferred that lower status onto other nations. But this trend cannot continue. The yearning for rights, freedom and self-determination follows in the nations which are currently the worlds' working class as a necessary consequence of the imposition of our socio-economic structures upon them. When the rest of the world realizes that it no longer has to be the powerless producers propping up the west's indulgence, the redistribution of wealth and lifestyle will become inevitable. And that means that a lot of what we take for granted is going to disappear.

The dual prong of consumerism is: (1) Dependence on someone else doing the hard work for increasingly little reward, and (2) The numbing of our spirits as a result of having everything provided for us: why bother thinking or challenging ourselves when we can just feed ourselves stupid? The constant need for more stimulation prevents us being able to stop and enjoy life for one moment: we become obsessed with getting and never giving; we suffocate as we refuse to exhale. We are so far distant (both spatially and in understanding) from either the source or the manufacture of physical objects we use in daily life, we no longer have any connection with the wider world. It is no surprise that we no longer respect the planet or the natural forces that have produced what sustains us. When we no longer respect and revere the very food which keeps us alive, as a holy gift, it is no surprise that we are the unhealthiest we have ever been, or that our bodies and spirits are rebelling against us with a host of internally generated diseases.

For the right-minded in the 'developed' world, the task now is also twofold: firstly, we must begin seeing the global consequences of our actions. This means understanding where the products we buy have come from, and understanding the economic forces that our consumerism supports. The 'cheapest bargain' often comes at the expense of other humans who are at the bottom of a long chain. The ethical choice may seem more expensive or demanding, but choosing the alternative which damages other humans, animals and nature as little as possible, is not just helping others in the world, it actively creates a world that is better, and more fair, for everyone. This is a daunting task, but one we must get used to, even if it happens slowly at first. Just because we can afford something, doesn't make it right to use it. Respecting food, alcohol, drugs, books, cars, petrol and electricity, respecting our own bodies and minds, is not just the moral thing to do: it is the sane thing, and will lead to much greater appreciation of our own lives and what we are blessed with. Because, to take one example, to overeat is just as damaging as to under eat. The correct path is to eat respectfully, without waste, using only what we need, and what will be best for our bodies, and actively supporting food that has been produced respectfully. The resources of the planet are not ours for the taking, they are gifts and if we abuse them, they will harm us (as we are now finding out).

Secondly, we must address the stagnation of our own spirit: We have become so lost in the mechanistic illusion that the idea of value above subjective enjoyment is now not so much laughed at as completely ignored. The belief that we are essentially biological machines with an accidental 'added extra' of consciousness has been damaging in the extreme. The joy of being alive, of living authentically and being an individual is something many seem eager to forget. But to respect ourselves as conscious beings means to live fully, to challenge ourselves and realize our own potential. It is not enough to simply seek enjoyment. In order to find fulfillment in life we have to step beyond our preconceptions. Break out of our bubble of assumptions about who and what we are. To know that we are in control of our own destiny, and imagination is the limit of what the future holds.

And this is the step towards humanity becoming what we were meant to be...