Archive for category Science and philosophy

Why am I an Idealist?

I am an idealist.  I’m not talking about foreign policy or international relations (Wilsonian idealism), but rather philosophical idealism.   What does this mean?  It means that I see ideas as the essential “stuff” of reality.  There are many forms of idealism (just look it up on Wikipedia), and rather than categorize myself I want to explore why I hold this position — not explain why, but explore, since I’m really not sure myself why I think as I do.

To the realist/materialist there is a reality “out there” made up of things external to the self, which one has to navigate in order to survive and thrive.    Most realists see the external world populated by many individuals like oneself, and life involves learning to interact with others, cooperate and sometimes fight.  At a practical level, there isn’t much difference between how one would live life as a materialist/realist and an idealist.   Experience is what it is.  If I jump off a cliff I can injure or kill myself, regardless of whether reality is made up of matter or ideas.   Poverty, war, disease, pain and sorrow are experiences that are as real and valid regardless of ones’ philosophy.

Most people in our culture are realist/materialists.  It seems to be how the world operates; our language and way of thinking are geared towards such an approach.   For me to reject that for idealism seems odd.   Yet since experience is something processed in the mind, the nature of reality is an open question.    A dream reality seems real — one appears to have a body and there are objects apparently external to the self — but its all in the head.  We also have developed virtual reality games, holographic images, and other ways that hint at the possibility that one can have an experience that seems to be enmeshed in a world of external entities, but is actually contained in a computer program or beams of light.

Moreover, without going into the scientific detail, it’s harder to hold on to a materialist/realist view of the world and make sense of modern physics than it is to have a more idealist perspective.   The paradoxes around time, basic particles, the nature of space-time, how light operates, etc., are immense.   Well established principles such as non-locality (one particle can instantaneously impact another, which should be impossible) and quantum tunneling defy common sense views of reality.   Probably the best author (and someone who is a realist/materialist) about this is Brian Greene, and his books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

OK, if you read those with an open mind you might say that my view is plausible, but so many questions are open that idealism isn’t self-evidently the best alternative.   So why do I believe as I do?

William James noted that peoples’ beliefs are often less about how they analyze reality and more a reflection of personality.   Perhaps my personality predisposes me to this kind of world view.   As a child I was naturally religious, reading the Bible by age 12 and taking prayer and faith seriously — much more so than my parents.    As I grew I became skeptical that one religious teaching could be right, but kept the sense of spiritualism.   Even my choice of music — Styx Grand Illusion, Yes, Supertramp, Alan Parsons Project, Kansas, and the Moody Blues, venture towards more mystical takes on reality.  The cynical realism of punk rock didn’t appeal to me, while traditional hard rock like AC/DC and Van Halen always seemed fun but shallow.  (And Grunge?  YUCK!)

Maybe by my nature I am drawn more to spiritual ideas (which link well with idealism) than material ones?   That is a bit disappointing if true — if we’re all sort of programmed to have particular world views through our personality, then how free are we?   Are people Republican, Democrat, libertarian or radical by dint of their personalities?

And what is it about my personality?   When I do personality tests a few things stand out.  I’m very non-judgmental (I’m radically on the ‘perceiving’ side), I easily accept both change and uncertainty, and I’m optimistic.  I don’t carry grudges, tend not to dislike people, and tend to be a bit dreamy and escapist.   I see those things as good, but my optimism can drive friends crazy, and my escapism probably has cost me life opportunities.

Perhaps the most important aspect of my personality that lends itself to idealism is that since a young age I’ve had a profound belief that I am in charge of and responsible for my own life.  I can blame no one else when things go wrong, I have to adapt and make do in circumstances I dislike, changing them if I can (figuring out when I need to adapt and when I can change things).   I view my success, happiness and joy as my responsibility and no one else’s.   This is a hard view to hold with a materialist/realist world view.

First, there would be the guilt attack — oh, that’s easy for a middle class American white male to believe, I’ve been born into comfort, taking responsibility for that is easy — but does that mean third world children born into a war zone are equally responsible?   Such guilt attacks usually come from within — how can I hold such a view, isn’t that arrogant and self-serving?   From an idealist point of view, though, its far more complex.   Managing life conditions is difficult, and material opulence can hinder joy and happiness and create illusions of false success.

Second, a realist world view makes such self-responsibility seem at best a delusion.  Drunk drivers, cancer cells, terrorists, and the ill winds of chance are there to threaten my life conditions.   To a realist/materialist life is a struggle, one has to compete and be on guard at all times — who knows what the world or other people might throw at you!   It makes more sense to see oneself as a victim of circumstance with a realist/materialist world view.  One has the responsibility to respond to what life brings, but life might end up a joyless struggle regardless of ones’ efforts.   My optimism and belief in personal control would be seen as a delusion, one likely to explode in my face someday when a true crisis hits.

Perhaps.   But its not like I haven’t had my own challenges in life.   If it’s a delusion, it might be one that is psychologically useful, giving me a positive attitude and a belief I can handle what comes my way.   Then again, maybe judging world conditions and ourselves on primarily materialist standards is misguided.   After all, my belief in control is not one of the individual self against the world, but of myself connected spiritually to the world; to me that’s the source of strength and opportunity.   It’s not me against the world, but me with the world.   That’s the kind of paradox (I’m responsible and can blame no one else, but that responsibility is based on a spiritual connection to everything else) that my personality has no problem holding.   To others it’s contradictory and downright corny.

Ultimately I can’t know if my idealism is correct.  It feels right at an intuitive level; I don’t believe I could convince myself to think differently.  My way of engaging the world and interpreting reality is part of who I am, it’s not something I can simply change or be talked out of.   And that’s a bit disconcerting.  I’m not sure why I think like I do, nor can I imagine thinking in a fundamentally different manner.   I suspect that’s also true of people who have a far different world view than I do.   I’ll have to ponder this further…


The Illusion of Objectivity?

The modern mind differentiates itself from the pre-modern by making a stark distinction between the object and the self.   Rene Descartes takes this to its logical extreme by recognizing that consciousness is the root of the subjective self.   The body and all the senses could be deceptive, but there is something that thinks – cogito ergo sum.

Yet consciousness is experience.   Whether or not the world is as our senses indicate, we experience sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound.    Those senses constitute experience, they are all that exist to the self.   From those sensations we make sense of reality, drawing conclusions, testing hypotheses and trying to figure out why the world is as it is.

Before modernism the world of the senses was part of the self.   Instead of a stark distinction between object and subject, the notion of subjectivity was expanded to include objects.   Existence was rife with symbols, consciousness pervaded all of what one sensed, the self mingled with all experience.    Modernism broke this link, and separated the self from all of what was sensed.  The self — or consciousness — thus stood outside of the rest of the world.   That world consists of other conscious selves, no longer connected through shared subjectivity, but disconnected from each other as separate thinking beings.

From there sensory experience was categorized, studied and tested.   Since other humans appear to be as we are we assume that they have the same kind of conscious experiences as we do.   Thus we are in a world populated with “thinking machines,” or bodies that function in service of a mind that itself may simply be a  myriad of material chemical reactions — an extremely sophisticated ‘natural’ computer.

Other entities appear to have sensual experience, but apparently do not have the capacity to reason and reflect.   These creatures are animal life forms.  We know that animals can reason in a limited manner, but the lack of linguistic capacity and reflection mean their consciousness is different.    Other life forms do not seem to experience the world, they just grow — plants lack consciousness.   Below that are non-life forms such as rocks, soil and inert matter.   Energy (and plasmas like fire) have a different status, though we know realize that matter and energy are the same — matter gets converted to make energy.

All this is accepted because it works in the world.   We can analyze reality as if we are discrete minds experiencing a reality we somehow find ourselves in for no apparent reason.   Yet this is an odd conclusion.   If our minds consist of only chemical and electric reactions, with DNA shaping our personality and capabilities, then there is really no separate mind able to comprehend experience.    Where does the self end and the object begin?

The self is our reflective thinking capacity.   Yet where is it?   Is it the brain?  But the brain is made up of objects – cells, blood, chemicals and the like.    What mix of chemicals, electric nerve impulses and the like constitute the self at any time?

At this level the distinction between object and self breaks down.   There are lots of objects that make up the brain, but the self emerges from it in some indistinguishable form.   To be sure, the self cannot live without the body (especially not the brain).   It can lose some parts of the body, but if the body cannot function at a fundamental level the self disappears — the body dies and the subjectivity is lost.

But what if the modern take on subjectivity is wrong?   What if it is not the case that a discrete subjective self is in a world of objects, trying to make sense of the objective reality in which the self finds itself?   What if objectivity is an illusion, what if the pre-modern view of expanded subjectivity is accurate?

First, it is only habit and bias that cause some to dismiss that possibility.   Since the self is constituted only by sensual experiences the idea that the self is separate from those experiences (or the source of those experiences) is pure conjecture.    In dream states, for instance, no distinction is made between what one takes within the dream as sensual experience (you can touch, see, hear and taste in dreams) and the self.   The dream is an illusion of objective reality during the sleep state.

There is no logical reason why waking reality could not be seen in a similar light.    It is more consistent and less malleable than dream reality, but that simply means it functions differently, not that one is pure subjectivity and the other is a discrete subject adrift in a world of objects.   Moreover, modern physics and brain research have mainstream theories that draw the same conclusion.   The holographic principle posits reality as a complex hologram, with the brain operating much as a hologram operates (it appears there is no other way to account for how the brain functions).

The fact that it is possible that the stark subject-object distinction is an illusion doesn’t mean we should dispense with it.   Practically, it has proven very useful, allowing us to manipulate the world of objects to achieve numerous goals.   Pragmatically, accepting the object/subject differences makes sense.

But does that practical manipulation of reality require that we posit a subject-object dichotomy?   Probably not.   It does allow us to remove ethical consideration of how we deal with the world because objects that are not conscious (or in the case of animals possess lower consciousness) do not require ethical treatment.   Killing a tree, killing ants and forging steel are all acts with no ethical content — we’re dealing with non-conscious objects.

If objectivity is an illusion and the self is mingled with experience, ethical issues become more complex.    It still may not be wrong to poison ants or build skyscrapers, but the act of doing so could affect the subject in some non-trivial way.   Moreover, how we deal with others would change.   With the subject-object distinction we can assume that our choices are individual and thus have no impact on others unless there is some objective trace (e.g., we hit another person, steal their money, or something like that).   Without the distinction then humans are not discrete separate selves, but may indeed be linked at some level with the rest of the world of experience.    In that case, ethical systems built on the idea of discrete individuals interacting through choice have to be rethought.

Of course, one could argue that the experience of reality as objective is enough to simply make that a working assumption.    Samuel Johnson used a similar argument against Bishop Berkeley (who also doubted the existence of objective reality) when he kicked a rock and said “I refute Bishop Berkeley thusly.”   The object moved when kicked, the world operates as a world of objects.   Yet as one learns in philosophy class, that doesn’t refute Berkeley or prove anything.   Johnson simply gave a pragmatic reason for accepting the subject-object distinction.

An expanded view of subjectivity seems odd to the modern mind, even if that’s the “natural” state of the human mind in nature.   Seeming odd doesn’t make it wrong, however.    It also wouldn’t mean the modern mind is inferior to the pre-modern mind, only that we may have one point wrong and we should consider the implications for how we live and understand the world.   This also could be an alternative to cold positivism and meaningless relativistic skepticism.

Row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…


The Age of Reason

A quick blog post today, as its late and we head to Rome tomorrow.

Today about thirty students made the trek to Siena, while a few others had things they wanted to investigate in Florence.   The high light of Siena was the cathedral museum Santa Maria della Scala, and the famous Piazza del Campo.

Unfortunately I ended up missing a lot of the art seminar because a student got ill after lunch and I assisted her back to the train station.   I ended up leaving early as well, doing some logistics for the Rome trip tomorrow.

Tonight I had my Galileo seminar, which I’ll probably redo in Rome for those who didn’t get back from Siena in time.    In 2009 I blogged about Galileo during the last Italy trip, you can get more details from that post.   Much of what we covered two years ago we hit on today.   But this seminar more overtly built on two themes.

1.  The move from humanism towards reason.   Instead of humans being the center of the universe, our ability to use reason to understand nature becomes primary.    While Petrarch and Dante dealt with love, and Boccaccio with lust and death, for Galileo the language of God was math.  The world was not to be felt or emoted but to be understood and analyzed.

To be sure, the humanists started the move in this direction.   They advanced realism and emphasized the material alongside the spiritual.  With Galileo the focus now is on the abstract, seeking to use the mind to find laws of nature.   Discovering the power of mathematics, Galileo and others of his era reckoned that math was the key to unlocking God’s true meaning, which was exhibited in the workings of nature.

Galileo and his contemporaries like Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler found a contradiction in the church’s embrace of Aristotle as an authority.   For nearly 300 years Aristotelian scholasticism put forth both Aristotle and the church as authorities.    If you got an education, it started by accepting their authority, and learning within a framework designed to support and not contradict existing knowledge.

The problem, as Galileo noted, is that Aristotle said you are to question authority and experiment for yourself.    He believed he was more true to Aristotle than the church was.  This leads to the second theme:

2.  Authorities no longer could control information and conventional belief.  Galileo was dangerous not because he thought the earth orbited the sun — most high up in the Church knew he was right.  He was a threat because he was willing to say so and take it upon his own authority to follow what the science says rather than leaving it to the clerics.

These two shifts would change western civilization forever.   Galileo didn’t cause them, the same sorts of ideas were sweeping Europe.   Being close to Rome where the Church had power, Galileo was more vulnerable.   If he’d been in Germany, Great Britain or even still in Padova he’d probably had been fine.

At this point, the age of reason overturns the age of faith.  Nature becomes something outside of humans, to be understood and potentially controlled using the scientific method to understand the laws of nature — the mind of God.   Galileo would die the same year Isaac Newton was born, and Newton would take the project a step further to present a model of a “clockwork universe,” where everything can be predicted and explained (if you have enough data).

This shift away from church authority and both humanism and spiritualism pushes us towards the enlightenment.   It has propelled us to progress, to build capitalist economies, to advance medical science, create new industries, and have technological devices that allow me to blog from Italy to whoever has a computer and types in my web page.

But this shift has also given us pollution, chemcials in and around us, potentially poisoning us and risking the planet’s capacity to sustain human life.   We’ve wasted resources and have seen mass atrocities and abuse of this technology.

This intensifies the dilemma noted a couple days ago with Machiavelli.    By emphasizing the abstract and material over the human, we’ve increasingly mastered our material world, but without really thinking of the values and consequences of our actions.   By rejecting external authority we set up intense conflicts of values and ideals with no clear way to settle them.

This is also true of music, Steve pointed out, noting that in 1600 in Florence a completely new form of music emerged called opera.   Important in bolting from tradition and using reason to rethink tonality was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo.

Steve also has been pre-occupied about the 1300s this trip, a period of tumult and transition.   He wonders if maybe we don’t have a lot to learn by reflecting on the world in that era, even if it seems so distant.  He has a point.  Steve suggested that we’re increasingly distrusting reason as a primary tool, in part because it can’t handle values.    Reason is a tool, but it is value free – it can serve evil, it can serve good.   Perhaps what we’ve lost is that focus on the human that figures like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio provided.   Perhaps in this era of crisis and transition, we need to re-discover human values, not just more cleverly use reason.

I think her name is Paola, she's the hotel keeper at Hotel Giappone one of the hotels we're at. Bruno at Hotel Abaco downstairs helps us every trip -- we've had groups here five times, great hotels! Ciao, Firenze!

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Is There A God?

(This reflects my own internal musings over the past few weeks, already discussed in a blog entry ‘The Nature of God?‘ last month.)

We’ve reached a time in history where most well educated people have developed a deep skepticism of religion.   Even those who still profess a faith often treat it as a minor aspect of life, something held on to out of habit more than conviction.   In Europe only 20% of the population still believes there is a God.   Even here in the US core biblical knowledge that all used to share is becoming rarer.   When I was a child everyone learned about, say Jonah and the Whale, and knew who Abraham and Isaac were.   If I ask a class that now a days only one or two out of thirty students will know.

The skepticism of religion seems to answer the question “is there a God” with “no.”  But really, the question goes unasked.  Instead a particular belief system is being replaced by another one.   Atheism generally is an embrace of materialism (belief in the dominance of matter, or things which can be seen and measured in the world) and rational logical thought.    This was the enlightenment alternative to religious faith and tradition, after all, and the enlightenment is winning.

A belief that matter is all that matters (pun intended) has to be called into question, especially as scientists learn more about the nature of matter, time-space and the universe/multiverse.   A focus on reason or rational thought discounts the entire emotional side of human existence, relegating the part of our experience that gives us a true sense of meaning — joy, anger, happiness, sorrow, etc. — to second class status.   In short, even if one thinks that particular theological perspectives or religious dogmas cannot be believed, that shouldn’t automatically lead to an embrace of materialism and rationalism as the proper way to understand life.    Reason, after all, cannot provide ethics or morality, it is only a tool that can lead to conclusions based on evidence and assumptions.   Reason does not tell us what our values should be.

So I would start by going back to the question: is there a God?

The first aspect of answering any question is to define the term.    What does God mean, especially if we’re asking in the abstract, rather than asking about a particular God-story.   The Christian, Muslim, or Hindu Gods may all be fiction, but that doesn’t mean there is no God.    For any of their beliefs to be right, there first has to be a positive answer to the central question on God’s existence.

There are various ways God can be described.   God is the prime mover, the one who set the world in motion.   Before Newtonian physics was modified by Einstein the need of a prime mover caused most people to accept the need for a God.   And it does seem like science requires if not a prime mover, at least something to cause the “big bang” or to generate space-time.   So part one of a viable God concept is that God is something that is outside space time that in some way caused this universe or world we experience to come into being.   At this point there is no requirement God be a conscious entity, just a causal mechanism.   And, being outside space-time, there is no need to ask “what created God” – creation and a “beginning” are attributes of being in space-time.

God could also be seen as  a spiritual presence.  Here the going gets trickier.  Religious experience is real, documented over time (famously by William James), and has the capacity to create happiness, improve recovery from disease and yield a more satisfying life.   But how do we understand that experience?  It doesn’t seem to matter what religion one believes either — all Gods seem capable of miracles.   The usual way to approach this in a materialist sense is to see it as a psychological aspect of humanity; religious experience is a chemical reaction of the brain.

But that’s unsatisfying.  Depression, for instance, is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but do we really want to say that all ‘negative’ emotions and experiences can be “fixed” chemically?   Can we find a “religious” chemical treatment that gains the benefits of religious experience without actually having the faith?   Such a “brave new world” approach to psychology is scary.   Perhaps chemical imbalances are caused by a mix of stress, negative thoughts, and cultural pressures.   To focus just on treating the symptoms would be to ignore the causes and the possibility that human mental health is more than just chemical reactions.

The spiritual/emotional/inspirational side of life can’t be found in purely material terms, it’s the stuff of dreams, internal meditation, reflection, imagination and art.    We have to have a different standard of observation, more subjective and comparative than use of the scientific method.   If we do that, then a wide realm of possibilities open up.

So I would posit the following God concept:  God refers to an essence outside space and time.   As such it is likely immaterial, in that it would not be subject to the laws of nature as we experience them in our space-time universe.  As I noted last month, if we see reality as primarily spirit (or consciousness) rather than stuff (or matter), then there is a good chance that a God would have consciousness.

Looked at in this way the question of “Is there a God?” has three possible answers:  a) Since we cannot not determine for certain yes or no, it’s a pointless question; b) the probability is that there is no conscious God and any causal mechanism for the world’s existence has a natural/material basis; or c) the probability that there is a God is great, with God defined as a force/source outside of space time (at least in part) with some form of consciousness.

“C” is a superior answer since “a” requires us to dismiss thoughts about the nature of life and our purpose as irrelevant since we can’t have certainty.   I’m fine with uncertainty.  “B” requires dismissing as unlikely the possibility of anything outside of matter and relegates consciousness to mere chemical/material reactions.   That may be the case, but it seems a leap of faith to assume that’s the case.   “C” leaves open a vast range of possibilities from pantheism to a kind of deism, virtually all existing religious beliefs, and a variety of spiritual and philosophical perspectives (including Plato’s notion of the ideal).

So yes, there is very likely a God with some kind of consciousness existing at least in part outside space/time.   But what God is remains ill defined.   Is it a part of all of us (are we all aspects of God?), is it a spiritual force, is it an entity with individual identity?    Those are harder questions.    So I guess for now I’m a Deist.


The Nature of God?

I noted awhile back I was reading Columbia physicist Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality and trying to get my mind around just where theoretical physics is taking us these days.  It’s mostly conjecture, though often buttressed by pretty sophisticated math.  All this begs the question why do we even have a reality?   

Our minds have trouble with that question because it’s hard to imagine something without a clear beginning or causal explanation.  To get a universe you have to get something from nothing.  To get a God there has to be something from nothing.   If time stretched back an infinity, how could we reach the present?

Of course, part of this is simply that we’re limited in perspective by inhabiting a space-time universe where we move from past to future able to explain what happens by looking at how nature operates.  We live in a world where you don’t get something from nothing, where things happen for a reason, and everything we imagine had to come from somewhere else.   Clearly, the universe must reach out beyond space and time.

Modern physics suggests that as well.  String theory posits ten dimensions; we only experience three (or four, if we include time).   Holographic theories even see the reality we experience as a kind of projection from elsewhere.   To answer the question “why is there a reality” or “why is there something and not nothing,” we have to change our perspective.

It’s like the old joke “A cowboy rode into town on Friday, stayed three days, and left on Friday, how is that possible?”  If you get fixated on Friday as a day, then you’ve got an impossible dilemma.   You might try creative answers (he rode in on Friday but didn’t stay there and rode around for the next four days before actually staying), but that gets silly.   The only way to answer that question clearly is to recognize that the frame of reference is wrong.   Friday is not a day, but the name of the Cowboy’s horse.   Suddenly it makes perfect sense – and is far more parsimonious than some contorted explanation.   We need to think outside our three dimensional box.

We try to understand the world as having to fit into reality as we experience it.   Either we throw up our hands and say “it’s meaningless, we just live, die and that’s it” or we find some belief to hold on to, or choose to have faith in teachings proclaiming themselves to be the answer.

In religion the God concept emerges as the point of mystery, the source of a reality we cannot grasp.   The Tawhid in Islam is a concept that God is one — perfect, incomprehensible and indivisible.    Hindus have the Brahman, the supreme and universal spirit from which the universe emerged.   It is the source of the material world, but its essence can only be known from inner meditation.   Both would be consistent with the idea of a holographic multiverse.  Even the Christian God is often put in impersonal terms — the Word, the Alpha and Omega, the Spirit.    Yet while Christians do personalize God, Muslims see God’s nature as so incomprehensible to the human mind that it is forbidden to try to make an image of it, or give it human traits (God cannot be angry, jealous or sad — such petty human emotions would be beneath God and in fact to attribute them to God is extremely disrespectful.)   For Hindus, despite starting from a similar point, anything goes in describing God.   Brahman encompasses all so God can take a multitude of forms.  Hindus appear extremely polytheistic, but ultimately there is only one Brahman.

If  the source of reality is outside not only of space time, but of our capacity to even reflect on the nature of its existence, a God or Spirit concept is a shorthand for an unknowable (and least through material inquiry) source of reality.   In this view there is one key difference between science and religion.  In science the source of our world is likely impersonal, a force of nature that can be explained and studied (or perhaps not, if we don’t have access to it in our three dimensional space-time world).  In religion there is a sense of will or consciousness that not only constructs our world but gives our spirit life.   In such a view the nature of reality is consciousness, not just material cause and effect.   Consciousness would have some immaterial connection to that larger reality that cannot be measured or understood through science or investigating the nature of material/three dimensional reality.    This “spirit” thus is key to both self-discovery and understanding the nature of our world.

In that sense scientists are looking to math as the abstract key to transcend the limits of our capacity to make sense of explaining the origin of material reality.   The hope is that we can find a way to test it or see into a “larger reality.”   Religion and spirituality represent a similar effort, but one done through internal reflection and meditation, hoping that access to a ‘hidden reality’ or other dimensions can be achieved through exploration of the mind and consciousness.

If the consciousness/spirit theory is correct, the good news is that life is probably unending and expansive.   This existence is only a part of what we are, and we will likely never cease to exist.   In fact, if consciousness projects reality, we are probably all part of some greater unity.  As in Plato’s allegory of the cave we are living in a world of illusions, shadows on the wall, and mistaking it for reality.   But if reality is just impersonal forces of nature, then we may be condemned to never truly understand it; our capacities are too limited.   Just as a cat will never understand general relativity, we cannot perceive beyond our horizons.

So I for one will continue to explore thoughts, consciousness, dreams and intuition on the possibility that perhaps that’s a key to understanding a world larger than this one.   If I’m right, a journey inward may yield rewards and lessons.  If I’m wrong, well, as long as I have some fun and treat this effort playfully,  no harm done.



A short blog entry tonight, reflecting on life in general.

Yesterday morning my two sons (8 and 5) were bored and we decided to get on our mud boots and take a hike.  It was glorious!   Our backyard opens right into the woods and trails leading to a river (which by mid-summer becomes more like a creek).   Most of the trails are still covered with snow, but the melting streams of water heading down to the river, the animal tracks, and my sons’ joy in exploring nature was exhilarating.   We were out nearly two hours before trekking back home.

I’ve also been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality.  You can find a good review by clicking here. The book is about the possibility of multiple universes (or a “multiverse,”) which is a very active field in theoretical physics.   It further removes humans from the center of reality, but also poses some paradoxes and quandries that I find thoroughly enjoyable.  It also puts life in context — the political and personal dramas of the day are real, but ultimately part of something far greater.

My own favorite is the idea of the holographic multiverse.   To be honest, I like it because it fits my own philosophy on the nature of reality almost like a glove.  It has parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and empiricist philosophers like Bishop Berkeley (who had a Star Trek character named after him).   Given the apparent ‘nothingness’ of reality once you dig down deep into subatomic particles, and the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of quantum physics, this kind of theory has the potential to clear that up.   Reality’s paradoxes and contradictions come from the fact we take the experience of reality, which is an illusion interpreted by our senses, as being the nature of reality.

I could speculate more on what this might mean (and will likely do so in future blog entries), but at base it convinces me that it is too easy to get caught up in the “stuff” of the world or the “common sense” of the culture we are born into.  We can get hypnotized to follow a myriad of suggestions thrown our way about what the world is, what we ought to do, what is normal, and what life is all about.   Maybe the key in life is to look for what has meaning beyond the external stuff of the world.   Connections with people, concern for the emotional state of others, putting spirit and soul ahead of power and goals.

And somehow, on a warm spring day as the snow melts, kids laugh and we witness nature shifting to a new season, I can’t help but think that despite all the insanity, pain and hatred in the world, we can enjoy a very beautiful and meaningful existence.


Particle or Wave? Individual or Collective?

One of the well known paradoxes of quantum mechanics is that light is both a particle and a wave.   On its face this appears to be contradictory.    In one state light appears to have its energy spread out, creating interference patterns if waves intersect.  In another state, particles act, hitting things like sensors which allow us to operate remote controls for TVs and garage doors.  There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to conceptualize light as being both at the same time.  It’s not like the particles form a wave in the way water molecules form ocean waves.   Rather, the essential nature of light is that it is both a wave and a particle at the same time.   This is still unnerving to many, despite the physicist Nils Bohrs notion of complimentarity:  these states are not contradictory but complementary, as you need both to describe reality.

I was thinking about this in light of recent discussions about whether or not social phenomena are simply the product of individuals making choices, or if humans are best seen as part of a larger whole, a society.   There are some who view this distinction much the same way one is tempted to view the particle/wave issue.   One can see the world is made up of discrete human identities making choices and, through their actions, producing some kind of social reality.   As complex as that reality may be, it can be broken down to the individual actions, and explained at the individual level of analysis.

Others see the individual as being the product of social forces and cultural heritage.    You are born into a particular circumstance, and depending on your position in society and your cultural and family environment, you develop in particular ways.   The idea of being truly an individual is illusory; yes, we have identity, but who we are in this world reflects the forces acting upon us as much if not more than our own individual capacities.

Pondering these different views, I realized that it’s wrong to posit the question as if we had to choose between two positions – humans are individuals simply making choices and thus producing reality on the one hand, or society is a barrage of forces producing and empowering/constraining human identity on the other.  That is to view these as contradictory.  What if we saw them as complimentary?

In quantum physics, you see light as a wave or as a particle depending on what you are looking for.   If you seek to measure its wave like properties, that is what you’ll find.  The data won’t give you much information explaining how light functions as particles.   It does tell you something though — you know that near the peak of the wave you’ve got a higher probability of finding a particle.  As the wave spreads out, the probability goes down (this also opens the door to phenomena like quantum tunneling — atoms can appear on the other side of a barrier, as if one could suddenly walk through a wall.   That is really strange, but if it didn’t happen we wouldn’t have our sun!)  If you look to measure the particle functions of light, you’ll find a photon, but you won’t know much about the wave behavior.

Humans can be viewed the same way.  If I want to examine the psychology of crowds or mass behavior, analyze statistical trends, and treat humans as something that can be studied as an aggregate collective entity, I can do that.  Indeed, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and others have very convincing powerful theories that need no information about individual psychology or action.   Highway engineers can study traffic patterns without having to figure out the psychology of the individual drivers.    You can extrapolate downward (if crowd psychology works a certain way, than individuals must be reacting in particular ways) but you don’t need to.

If you want to study human psychology and behavior, you can do that too.   You might be able to explain a lot about what a few individuals do, though it won’t be enough to explain the broad trends of history.   It may give clues, but for most larger issues you have to go above the individual level of analysis to the cultural, governmental or even systemic.

Often these are seen as contradictory, and the battles between “methodological individualism” on the one hand, and “structuralism and social constructivism” on the other can be intense.   In international relations theory this is known as the agent-structure problem.    And like in quantum mechanics, there is a complementarity principle called constructivism.   Humans are agents acting to reproduce or transform social structures, but individual actions are not enough unless they are part of a larger social or cultural movement.

So the issue of whether or not humans should be looked at as individuals only or as part of a social structure only is wrong headed.   We are both, we cannot be understood as separate from our society and culture, but society and culture cannot exist without individuals.   We are both particle and wave.

That last sentence is true on a couple of levels.  Just as light is both particle and wave, so is matter.  That means that all of us share that trait with light — we have wave lengths, and we have particles.  We’re so big that the particle aspects (matter) of what we are become obvious, but every particle that makes up our bodies is both wave and particle.  Paradox is the essence of reality.


What is Life?

In a surprising experiment, it appears that DNA molecules can “teleport” from one place to another, meaning that they don’t move through space but simply “leap” there, much like the transporter effect on Star Trek.   The mechanism is not human made, but based on the effects of quantum mechanics.   Here’s an interesting tidbit from the article:

“It could be that the propagation of life is able to make use of the quantum nature of reality to project itself in subtle ways, as has been hinted at in previous experiments. Alternatively, it could be that life itself is a complex projection of these quantum phenomena and utterly depends on them in ways not yet understood because they are incredibly hard to detect.

Speculatively, (and Montagnier doesn’t directly suggest anything so unsubstantiated), it could also be the little-understood quantum properties of the water molecule and not just its more obvious chemical bonding properties that gives it such a central role in the bio-engineering of life-forms. Water might be a good medium in which DNA can copy itself using processes that hint at quantum entanglement and ‘teleportation’ (our term).”

It never ceases to amaze me how little people think seriously about the implications of quantum mechanics and recent experimentation in sub atomic particles on philosophy.   We cling to a Newtonian materialist “objective” view of reality, when science is increasingly showing a strange world with properties outside of what are capable of understanding at this point in our intellectual development.

We have no clue what exactly life is, or why it exists.   We speculate.  Some thinks that life is simply a product of nature, and there are rules within nature that we should conform to in order to live moral, productive lives.   Others think life is an accident, and that we can make up our own rules as we go, morality is our invention.   Some are convinced that there is a God, and that God gave messages to humans through prophets or even sent his son.   They try to interpret and understand holy books to give them a sense of how to live.   Some believe in particular new age spiritual ideas, using methods of meditation and spiritual connection to try to harness unseen energies and potentials.   Others believe that the mystery surrounding our existence is far greater than that which we know and understand, and remain open to diverse ideas, but unwilling to embrace any dogma.

I am in the last category, though I believe that there is for lack of a better word a spiritual dimension to life that is far more important and powerful than the crude materialist cause and effect we experience in our everyday life.    Why do I think that way?   What is it about my personality or experience that cause me to choose a certain way to interpret reality, while others choose differently?  I don’t know.

All through life I’ve been filled with a sense of magic.   From chance meetings to lucky breaks and problems that turned into gifts, it seems that coincidence has been a strong ally of mine, and that seems (for lack of a better word) magical.

It can be the time in Italy when Steve (another faculty member on the trip) and I went to buy groceries for a group picnic, planning to meet the 40+ others at 7:00 at Piazza Michelangelo overlooking Florence.   A cab got us to a grocery store in an unfamiliar part of town.  We grabbed food as quickly as we could, not thinking of how much we were buying.   We paid and realized we didn’t know where we were, no cabs were close by, and we had only 20 minutes until we were to meet the others.   After a few minutes of ‘gallows humor,’ I said, “well, let’s just get on a bus, it’ll take us somewhere.”   It got us to Piazza Michelangelo at 6:59.   Our group was right there.    We had bought the perfect amount of food.

Yesterday I was planning for this year’s Italy trip, and tried to buy a ticket for a student who was going to return separate from the group.  My credit card was rejected.  Frustrated, I also tried to open a document for the group deposit.   It wouldn’t open (though I’d opened it before).    Just before the offices closed I called down and found out that a new credit card with a new expiration date had arrived.  I ran over and got it.   I realized that my efforts to pay a hotel deposit and the travel deposit (the document that wouldn’t have opened) would have failed with the old card.  Moreover, I found a much better, cheaper ticket for the student than the one I had been trying to purchase.  Tiny events, but it still felt like a bit of magic.

Coincidences pile up and bring situations that I never could plan for, but are what I need (not always what I think I want).  I’ve learned to go with this.   I try to avoid being upset when things go wrong, because I figure they’re going wrong for a reason.  I try to be open to new opportunities, figuring that if something presents itself, there might be something to gain.   It may be a work opportunity, people in my life, research or whatever.

The more I feel like I’m living “magically,” the easier life seems to be.   It could just be my own psychological ploy.  Perhaps there is no magic, but my perspective diminishes stress, which in and of itself makes life easier.   By taking life as it comes rather than trying to plan and push for a particular future, I don’t get upset when things don’t go as planned; I am quite comfortable knowing that I’m not in control.   By seeing coincidence as a powerful force to be welcomed, I become adaptable and willing to change.   Not professing any certainty in what life is all about helps me not to be judgmental or upset when people don’t do things the way I would.   Even if there is no magic and the material world just unfolds according to its own laws, my perspective makes my life easier.

But maybe life is magical.   Maybe the quantum properties we don’t understand guide us gently, offering possibilities and potentials that we can choose to follow, ignore or fight against.   Maybe our identity in his world is just one aspect of who we are, just as my hand is only one part of my body.   My intuition senses a kind of unity of existence, even as my senses perceive distinct material objects.  But modern physics already tells us that our senses are not very good at perceiving the intricate workings of nature; there is no reason to think that they give me the information necessary to understand the nature of reality.   They give me the capacity to navigate this reality.

So what is life?  I’m not sure, but I choose to embrace the sense of magic and synchronicity that seems evident in my every day life.   That doesn’t explain the pain of this world, the tragedies, or the problems.   But I don’t think we can improve things if we focus on the negative.    In fact, maybe if more of us saw magic in our daily routines we’d take a step towards having the capacity to make the world a better place.

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The Soul in Quantum Life

This is part four of a series of posts in which I post bits from this strange book that somehow came to me called “Quantum Life: A User’s Guide – in English, a Quantum Life language.    Click here for earlier entries.

Here’s today’s section:

The Soul in Quantum Life

So far we’ve explained how through separation from the collective whole an individual enters the world of Quantum Life with no knowledge of reality.   For the player, Quantum Life is reality.  Yet Sunitolp (creator of the game) and others realized early on that such an experience would limit the individual to reactive sensation-based existence, without the capacity for reflection and even learning and growth.   It became clear that a core part of an individual’s identity had to not only remain present with each player, but players had to be able to access that core, and the core had to process information and learn about key values and experiences in each Quantum Life round.

Since ignorance of reality cannot be sacrificed — otherwise the game would be seen for what it is, an illusion that is not real,  existing only for entertainment and learning — the core could not be consciously accessed.  It’s existence is felt, can be ignored, can be listened to, but there is something mysterious about it.  It is constantly with players and it is their core sense of identity.   The core is a source for guidance on how to live which if ignored or rebelled against can lead to real problems during a particular round of play (also called a “life.”)

The core serves three other functions.  First, it allows the collective whole to learn from what all players are experiencing.  We grow as a whole as we process and learn the emotions, thoughts and experiences of those individual identities playing the game (again, writing in a Quantum Life language like English makes it impossible to really capture the meaning of key concepts in reality).   Second, it allows the individual perspective or identity grow in its own way, benefiting the individual.   Finally, it retains information and learning through multiple rounds of play, accessing it and allowing the core or “soul” to develop.

Communication – Since the soul or core is connected to reality outside the game, it also is a focus of communication with others playing the game.   Though the communication is not clear or overt (one doesn’t suddenly get a message from someone else), it is real.  Apparent coincidences, sudden offers of help, chance meetings, and even complicated interactions can be planned in advance.  The player “feels” this communication as a kind of desire or hunch.   A couple that wants to have a relationship but are not yet together in this round of Quantum Life may decide to meet at a gas station, arranging events so the two end up at side by side gas pumps.    Unless an individual’s judgment is clouded by fear or anger, usually suggestions from the inside are followed because it feels like what the person wants to do.

This is important for a couple of reasons.  First, it allows players some control over their circumstances, partnerships, and life conditions.   Between rounds players can decide they want to experience a particular kind of existence together in the next round and set up certain frameworks.   People are also part of deciding how they’ll enter the game.   But due to the ignorance principle, even repeated efforts to set events or relationships in motion can be sabotaged by the player.   Players may fear acting on what they strongly want to do, may let anger or jealously cloud their capacity to follow the “voice inside” as it’s sometimes called.  Because communication is through hunches and feelings, people are capable of dismissing it.   Again, fear is the main obstacle to people being able to use the soul’s connections with others and with greater reality to improve the experience of Quantum Life.

Spiritual Development: In Quantum Life “spiritual” refers to non-material aspects of existence which cannot be known.   Of course, in reality “spiritual” refers to greater understanding of reality and connection with the collective whole outside the game.   A level of Quantum Life is mastered when the player is able to live in accord with the communication from the soul, without fear or other factors intervening.   A player then can as an individual learn to live in a material world, handling challenges and uncertainties, without the benefit of the constant support and companionship of the collective whole in the real world.

This development is not a constant movement forward.   People can progress or regress, and some rounds of play can be especially difficult.  Yet in general the lessons learned stick with the player (especially if reinforced) and over various rounds of play become ‘second nature.’  Players who manage to almost effortless live in accord with the communication coming via the soul reach a point where the game is no longer interesting.   They become implicitly aware that it is not reality, but an illusion.   At that point they move on to other experiences, or they may re-enter Quantum Life to act as a guide or facilitator with other players, using based on agreements before rounds of play.

What do I gain (or lose)? Players of Quantum Life reinforce the notion of individual perspective, and have a keener grasp on its potential.   Those who have mastered the game believe their connection with the whole is stronger and more satisfying than beforehand.   They can conceptualize of separation and individuation, and that is a powerful sense.   The downside will be spending part of existence either addicted to the game (repeatedly making the same errors and being unable to progress through higher levels), or find experiences very difficult and painful.   Not all players believe the capacity for joy warrants the price that isolation and alone-ness costs.

Now that we’ve addressed the concept of the game, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty — how is it played, and what does one expect?

— I’ll end here today.  Going camping for the weekend far away from computers.  But I’ll bring the Quantum Life: A User’s Guide along.  It’s a fascinating read.

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Quantum Life

(More posts on the Quantum Life handbook:  Click here).

I was minding my own business when suddenly a bright light appeared and for a minute I seemed to be traveling through space with thousands of white lights zooming beside me.  Then everything was still.  Absolutely still.  I looked down and saw my office was normal, except for this strange book.   The book is too long to post in one entry, but I’ll start at the beginning.   It’s very strange:

Users Guide, Quantum Life
English version, a Quantum Life language

The game Quantum Life is a community inspired game where you enter a virtual reality in order to experience various sensations and situations that do not exist here in the real world.   These include a full range of emotions, senses like hunger (desire for nourishment to have energy to continue), thirst (desire for liquid nourishment), sexual activity (an intensely pleasurable sensation involving two or more players), and pain.   Some of these, like ‘sexual activity’ have been designed specifically for Quantum Life to make the game more interesting and complex.   Others, like emotions involve aspects of our own existence to which we’ve grown immune.  For instance, sadness or melancholy is a feeling of depression that causes a kind of deep emotional pain.  We don’t experience that because our knowledge of reality assures us that that all sadness is misplaced.  Thus we soften its experience and hardly notice it.  In Quantum Life people literally end their existence (something invented for the game called ‘death,’ which means that particular round of play is over for an individual) out of despair.

Warning:  Addictive. Because Quantum Life opens one to experiences, sensations, dilemmas, and connections with others, players often become addicted to continually playing the game, losing themselves in this virtual world.  However, there are rules concerning continuous play.   These rules are governed by a concept called Karma whereby your actions in one “life” (a round of play ended by death) affect the circumstances you encounter in the next life.   You can also choose to try to build positive karma by going into life in very difficult circumstances, often having the ability to experience a sense inhibited (blindness, missing limbs, mental abilities outside of what is normal, etc.).   Others go into circumstances of intense pain, hunger or want – an existence so divorced from our reality that some players repeat it over and over.   In between rounds you will have to decide whether or not to keep playing.

Goal of the game: You cannot win Quantum Life, but there is a goal, and a number of stages.  The game posits a world that is material, with pleasure seeming to come from material possessions or activities.   Players initially try to gain wealth or status in order to improve their material well being to have positive experiences.  At some point it becomes clear that material well being is shallow – it gives momentary sensations but there is a void, or a sense of emptiness that must be filled.  That leads players to seek spiritual well being, tied to emotions and a sense of self.   Here the player learns contentment and serenity – the material and emotional turmoil that affects one in level one becomes easier to navigate.   At level three one wants to turn to help other players reach level two.  These players are helpers, oblivious to the fact it’s a game but nonetheless helping other players master the game.  Once level three is mastered, most players lose interest in the game and move on to something else.  We believe, however, that experiencing these intense sensations and emotions creates a deeper and more meaningful life, and that the risk of addiction to the game is worth the benefit.    The goal of the game at all three levels is to overcome fear.

Fear: Fear is unique to Quantum Life. It is a state of utter uncertainty about existence, ones’ own value, what will happen next, and what could happen.   In Quantum Life it is easy to imagine numerous experiences that would be painful, and fear acting lest they become ones’ reality.  Lacking the core inner knowledge we all have about the nature of reality, Quantum Life strips the soul bare, leaving it uncertain and afraid. Only through experience does one learn at every level to overcome fear.

There are three levels, and within each (described later) various sublevels.  It is always possible to move forward, fall back or get stuck at a particular level.  In level one the main fears are lack of status, lack of material wealth, lack of people who care for you, lack of a good life partner, etc.   As long as there is fear of material deprivation, people stay in level one.   In level two the fear is that of spiritual deprivation.   These people often fear they are unworthy, they feel guilt for their misdeeds, they develop religious beliefs about the world and posit moral rules, fearing such things as eternal pain and “damnation” as judgments against their misdeeds.   They fear the consequences of their choices, and distrust material sensations as “evil temptations.”  At first such types may lash out at society or those caught up in level one.   Once they overcome their fear and understand spiritual well being comes from forgiveness and acceptance of weakness, they are ready to level three.

Fear at level three is fear of emptiness – what if there is no spiritual center, no God, or no eternal existence?   What if the end of the game is just that – the end?   When people first arrive at level three they try to help others in levels one and two, but their fear that life lacks meaning causes them to have difficulty engaging the material world.   They may retreat to either a life of asceticism (going without material sensations) or escapism of various sorts.  Once they start to accept that it’s alright not to know what reality is and to appreciate the game and life sensations as they come, they find it easier to reach out and help others.     At some point, they realized they’ve mastered this game and are ready to move to new challenges.    Most people who quit playing Quantum Life make it through level three. It’s rare that after numerous life challenges people don’t go back to try to move to the next level.  That is not addiction – addiction is going back to the same circumstances and not making progress to the next level.   People in level three get pushed towards helping those addicted to the same type of existence as a way to break that addiction (often circumstances are discussed between “lives” in order to figure out how to approach the next round.”)

Of course, none of this would work without complete ignorance of any kind of reality outside of Quantum Life.   The only knowledge people have of reality is through deep intuition.   Interested in playing Quantum Life?

The next section tells you how Quantum Life works — the mechanics of the game (how is it that an individual’s choices lead to different experiences), the possibilities (e.g. replaying a life if it ends in something called ‘suicide’ – the purposeful ending of one’s own life), and all that.  There are also different epochs, ranging from a physical “primitive” existence to very complex social forms.   You’ll never be bored!

(I’ll post more in the future from this fascinating book)

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