Archive for December, 2013

Something from Nothing

something

The world is mostly nothing.  And it came from nothing.  If you consider the amount of “empty” space between the stars and galaxies, well over 99.999999999% of the universe has nothing.   But if you also consider the stuff of every day — like this table my computer is resting upon — about 99.999999999% of it is empty space.   It feels solid to us, but the reality is that the distance between the subatomic particles is immense, and thus the reality we see as solid and real is actually mostly empty.

Of course, this could mean that our perceptions are illusions.   Consider: computer programs can create the illusion of vast worlds, all located on a tiny hard drive in the computer, used by an even smaller memory unit.   It still is only two (or perhaps three) dimensional on a screen, but the ‘feel’ of being in a vast world exists.   It’s not too much of a stretch to expand the metaphor to think of our reality.

That’s absurd, right?   Space and time exist.   But space and time are the same thing – it’s space/time.   And it seems to be a unified entity, meaning all space/time exists together “simultaneously.”   In other words, just as you can travel about in space, theoretically one could travel about in time; indeed to travel through space one must travel through time, they are unified.  Yet for some reason we don’t comprehend, we’re temporally uni-directional.   And it appears that while we can “speed up” our passage through time (if we traveled at near the speed of light we’d age much, much less quickly than those left on earth), we can’t go in reverse.

A quote from Einstein after the death of his friend Michele Besso

A quote from Einstein after the death of his friend Michele Besso

This is all very odd – and I’m not even going to delve into quantum and particle physics, except to note that they indicate that matter, or “stuff,” isn’t really a particle but a ripple in a field that has no precise location until it is measured or perceived.    That means that we’ll always see the world as having a real discernible form because we’re perceiving it.   If we ceased to perceive it, it would lose that form.

That makes no sense, and with all due to respect to Erwin Schroedinger, cats and other animals – and perhaps any form of life, including plants – perceive in some way.    Which ones magically solidify reality into one form?  Well, that’s anybody’s guess.

British clergyman Bishop Berkeley – who has both a university and a Star Trek character (spelled Barclay, the actual phonetic pronunciation of the Bishop’s name) named after him – thought material reality was simply a persuasive illusion.   All we have is perception and experience, but we can never truly judge the reality of those perceptions.  Dim witted people responded to Berkeley with things like “if reality is an illusion, why don’t you just jump off a cliff.”  Of course, the perception of and experience of pain or even death would still be real.  Whatever reality is.

Berkeley thought it was in essence God’s dream – we were products of God’s mind.   And if we keep the metaphor of a dream going, it’s apt.  Consider our dreams, especially dreams in which one knows he or she is dreaming.   Those dreams have space, color, sensation, but yet we’re silently (or perhaps not so silently) snoozing in bed, creating those worlds in our minds.  Perhaps waking reality is more like the dream world, but with different rules and laws.  Why would such a view make any less sense than the idea something exploded from nothing and we inhabit a world where we drift quietly with no discernible purpose?  Given our utter lack of knowledge about why there is something and not nothing, both possibilities are equally plausible.

Of course, a universe coming from “nothing” can also be seen as non-sensical.  Before the big bang time and space presumably did not exist.  The term “nothing” is a space-time term.   The beginning of the universe is a space-time concept.  Before space-time existed, time did not exist.  Neither did space.  Can you imagine a reality that is not defined by space or time?

We cannot conceptualize the reasons for our existence because they are completely outside our frame of reference.  We think in space-time terms, but space-time is a creation.    I’m not saying it was created by a God — and if one believes that, it just pushes back the core question to “where did God come from.”  Moreover by definition God becomes non-material, with attributes not defined by space-time.   Such a God would be utterly incomprehensible to humans, suggesting that our God-myths are just that – myths.    Perhaps they came about because people were trying to put into words some kind of deep intuitive spiritual knowledge but then again, perhaps not.

We cannot imagine what is not space-time, so we are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual capacities.   We think everything has a beginning and an end because we are unable to conceive of reality absent time.   We think everything has a location because we cannot imagine reality without space.

universe

But that says less about reality than our ability to understand it.  So it seems we inhabit a world that given our understanding of the laws of physics, should not exist – because it requires getting something from nothing.  Clearly our laws of physics themselves are not universal, at least not outside our space-time universe.   That means we can be reasonably sure of a few things:

1.   The belief we are in a meaningless universe of mechanical practices that follow the laws of physics without regard to anything immaterial (spirit, a god-concept or something like that) is unlikely to be correct.  It relies on an assumption that this is “all that is,” but that requires a contradiction: our world came from nothing, but you can’t get something from nothing.

2.  The idea that life is an illusion, a “dream of God” or some other fundamentally different nature is as realistic a belief as a belief that we experience an external world “out there” that we as discrete, separate individuals come in contact with.   In fact, the odds are greater that Berkeley was on to something, given how bizarre quantum physics operates.

3.  Science is defined by measurable material phenomena, and generalizes laws about the physical world – our space-time world.  Therefore science cannot answer questions about a deeper fundamental nature of reality, or where this world came from.  Thus science is pragmatic in the sense it tries to explain how the world works – or how we experience the world working.   While it can inform philosophical and spiritual speculations, it cannot give definitive answers.

4.  Neither philosophy nor spiritual/religious experience yields definitive answers to these questions either; to me that means one has to be playful, non-dogmatic and open minded.

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A New Age?

“We are in the most fundamental way, Stone Age people ourselves.  From a dietary point of view, the Neolithic period is still with us.  We may sprinkle our dishes with bay leaves and chopped fennel, but underneath it is all Stone Age food.  And when we get sick it is Stone Age diseases we suffer”  – Bill Bryson, At Home, pp. 46-7.

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Are we really just late Stone Age people?

Bill Bryson’s brilliant book At Home, tracing the history of the house and its various rooms, starts with a chapter on how and when people actually started to have homes for the first time – when the first cities arose back around 10,000 BC.    He notes that it’s odd that people formed cities and switched to agriculture.   Hunter-gatherers had a better diet, were healthier, and the move to agriculture was in some ways a step down.   Of course, larger populations could grow and the human need for community was far better achieved when we weren’t simply searching for game in small groups.

He also notes that this happened all around the globe at about the same time – give or take a few thousand years.   That may seem like a wide discrepancy to us, but given that humans have been around for almost 200,000 years, it’s pretty amazing that suddenly we developed agriculture.   Some foodstuffs like corn (maize) are completely human made, reflecting a remarkable capacity to manufacture new plant species.   In a real sense, that was the start of our “age” of humanity.

Bill Bryson's "At Home" is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Bill Bryson’s “At Home” is the latest must-read from the witty intelligent author

Sure, there are sub-strata – the iron age, the bronze age, etc.   Perhaps from a wider perspective humanity entered the “mechanical age” or the “age of agriculture” about 12,000 years ago, and that age is ending.   Civilizations rose and fell in the last 12,000 years, but something happened in Europe to create a whole new reality.   The Europeans moved from a traditional view of the world — one with practical knowledge built on core religious beliefs and long held traditions — to a radically new understanding of reality.

With the enlightenment individualism reached a new level.   Up until then individuals existed, but identity and core perspectives remained communal, even in Europe.  The idea of “individual rights” would have been virtually meaningless in most of human history, individual rights were always part and parcel of community rights and values.   Distrust of tradition and an embrace of reason freed the human mind to go places that were either off limits or at least unimagined before.  The printing press created the capacity to spread ideas and knowledge, making rapid growth in understanding and science possible.  Gunpowder took war and politics to another level, making possible the sovereign state and the conquest of the globe by European imperialists.

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

With the industrial revolution humans (workers) ceased to be seen as individuals with worth, but as objects; simply means to an economic end

Through the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism – an entirely new mode of production that greatly expanded the capacity of humans to create material wealth – humans came to see the planet as an object to be conquered, exploited and used for whatever humans wanted.   The environment was no longer sacred, but there to used as we see fit.

All of this led to the ultimate breakthrough – modernism.   If I could label the new era, it would be the quantum era, one where science, knowledge and technology create a dramatic breakthrough in human capacity comparable to the rapid and still inexplicable (at least with any certainty) rise of agriculture and cities 12,000 years ago.   If we are still at base Stone Age humans eating Stone Age food and getting Stone Age diseases, we may be at the beginning of not just a new era, but a new age of human development which could last 10,000 or so as well.   Looked at in that light, this is an extremely exciting era to be part of!

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

Will our future be megapolis life, artificially produced and engineered?

The new era will see new foods, new diseases, new cures, and probably a completely new way of life.  If we could glimpse 5000 years into the future, we might be appalled at how different it would be.   The core family structure might give way to something new, the new individualism may mean human culture will be completely remade.

One thing is likely: the new era will have its peaks and valleys, major disasters and eras of plenty and prosperity — even if those terms take on completely different meanings.  The glimpses we see are both compelling and frightening: genetic engineering, lack of privacy, borders ineffective, humanity more divorced from nature and community than ever before.   Or will we reject that path and try to develop a future more in tune with nature and each other, choosing that over the materialist individualism of the post-enlightenment era?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines - is that the future?

Fat, connected and having all our needs taken care of by machines – is that the future?

Where this new era is leading is yet unknown.   Our modern physics, genetic discoveries, and ability to manipulate both the planet and life itself is new territory.   This brave new world will yield a new kind of human.   We’re straddling eras as we dash madly into a future that is almost uncertain to be unlike anything we have yet to imagine.

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Nelson Mandela – the Radical Hero

mandela prison

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century.    He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.

The path Mandela took to this position was interesting.  He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance.    His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party.   But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre.   69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK.  Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance.  He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals.   Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.

On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC.   He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.   Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.

While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism.   With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice.   They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location.   When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer.   Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another.   With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism.  Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.

In the eighties the tide started to turn.   While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable.   Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa.  Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.

The young Mandela was a fighter

The young Mandela was a fighter

Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization.   The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously.   That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.

Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath.  The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt.  In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism.  To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation - something some on the right still do not accept

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – something some on the right still do not accept

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years.   He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge.   Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly.   However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking.  An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.

The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society.   South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems.   Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela's former prison

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela’s former prison

Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations.  When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments.   True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.

Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies.   Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent.   British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.

What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked.  Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man.   The haters will never take that away from him.    He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be.   That is part of his greatness.

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The Conservative Critique of Capitalism

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is "Marxism"

To Limbaugh even a conservative critique of capitalism is “Marxism”

While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”

The charge is absurd.

Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced.   Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions.   Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions.   History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity.  I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.

When the Church built the new St. Peter's it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory).   That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

When the Church built the new St. Peter’s it used an early capitalist method: selling indulgences (time off from purgatory). That had an unfortunate side effect for the church: the reformation

Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas.  The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism.  He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.”   He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering.   Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.

The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible.   Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder.   Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.”   Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE

The Argentinan Pontiff knows poverty – and is becoming very popular among Catholics

The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal.   Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing.   They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture.   It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption.  It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility.   Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.

Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals.  It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring.   The culture maintains social stability and order.  Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything.   Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe.   That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.

For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values.  That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith's fans!

Count Karl Marx as one of Adam Smith’s fans!

Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic.   While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context.   If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era.   Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly.   Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.

To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes.   Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom.  Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship.   Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare.  A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas.   Custom has been replaced by fad.  Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”

Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters.   That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist.    The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works —   So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.

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