Reasoning to the Extreme, or Descartes’ Better Dictum

Reason is not the opposite of spirituality.  Reason is the opposite of folly and ignorance coupled with prejudice and superstition. In other words, in moral and spiritual language reason is a good. People often fail to appreciate this (all the atheists who rant about how spirituality is an illusion, or that it can be based on science alone). Human reasoning is, of course, imperfect, so one cannot automatically and mechanically reason one’s way by logic and empirical science towards truth and morality (although some are trying, the atheists again, with some successes, and with noble motives for the most part, I applaud their efforts).  Although, if the militant atheists are trying to derive morality from evolutionary principles in order to exorcise religion from society, then I think they do not have the noblest motives at heart, because such attempts ignore the slim possibility that religion was never bad, it just gets corrupted over time by ordinary humans.   I think anyone with a fair and open mind will realise that the origins of most major religions were quite pure and good, you just have to read past all the fire and brimstone decorations and see through to the essence of the original teachings, which invariably contain both universal ideals and social teachings that were only relevant to the time and age they were revealed.  However, that’s not my focus for today.

My topic for this post sounds somewhat alarming, but bear with me, I hope to even convince myself of this by the end (although I am initially sceptical that I can). What I hope to achieve is a convincing argument that Reasoning which approaches perfection is a spiritual virtue, a human good, in fact a universal good, and that if sound and judicious reasoning is taken to the extreme we arrive at a spiritual state of truth, beauty, justice, wisdom, compassion and kindness. You can consider a very short version of this thesis being: a perfect reasoner (even without omnipotent foresight) will in general evolve towards a state of perfect honesty. Then once perfect honesty is admitted, the other spiritual attributes will almost inevitably follow.

Thesis of Ultra-Rationality

The thesis can be stated succinctly: “An ultra-rationalist eventually becomes spiritually minded.”

Being Spiritually Minded

I know there is a colloquial use of the word “spirit” which connotes some kind of ethereal substance, like a ghost or a fairy. This is absolutely not what I mean by the word spirit. Just want to make that perfectly clear.

For me spirit is not a substance. It is an abstracta, a state of mind, a condition of thought. Yet something must exist in order to have subjective thoughts, like a brain. Brains are fairly concrete substances, I think you’d agree. And yet the human spirit shines through the brain somehow, abstract thoughts crystallize into concrete reality through the intermediary between our brains and the world of ideas. What is “the world of ideas”? No one knows. But we all seem to have conscious access to abstract ideas, like perfect circles, transcendental numbers, the eternal quality of truth and justice. Some people call the realm of ideas the Platonic realm, but they cannot tell us what it is exactly. Some refer to it as the Mindscape or sometimes Mindspace. But these are just names. You can name anything to pretend it is real, but that does not make it real. However, I do believe there is something very useful and possibly “True” about the concept of an abstract realm of ideas, and I certainly think there is a lot of practical (and theoretical) use for a closely related, more restricted, notion of a mathematical platonic realm. I like the phrase “Mindscape” because it helps to remind me not to assume it is a geometric space like spacetime (although maybe it is? In an abstract mathematical sense every set of relations between identifiable “things” is some kind of geometric space, at some level). For me, the Mindscape includes the mathematical platonic realm.

OK, so we seem to need some substrate (some kind of substance, be it physical or otherwise) in order to metaphorically “put fire into the equations”, in other words, to translate spirit into concrete thought, action, behaviours. In our particular physical world there are hard scientific findings that are narrowing in on how conscious thought operates, which suggest the brain (neural activity) is not the complete story. The science is very young, but I suspect over the next decades or centuries science will be able to reveal a lot more about what consciousness is not, meaning that I think we will find consciousness is not a deterministically driven physical process, but instead must irrevocably involve a subtle and complex feedback that traverses time and space.  There are thus many subtleties about human consciousness and human spiritual ideals that science is far from understanding.  But whatever we eventually find, I think it will turn out to be obvious to future scientists that human spirituality is not completely derived from physical principles, and that there really is some kind of connection between brain states and the abstract realm of ideas that I am here referring to as the Mindscape.  The nature of this connection is, at the present time, quite mysterious and unfathomable, not only to scientists, but to pretty much everyone!  If mystics and dreamers had a good grasp of the way humans perceive universal truths and concepts like mathematical abstractions and spiritual abstractions, then they should be able to tell s.  The fact they cannot tell us about these things is, to me, proof they really have no clue.

One cannot easily hide behind such excuses as, “well, I actually do understand these mysteries of yours, but I do not have the words to describe them to you.”  To me that sort of evasion is just disingenuous or delusional thinking.  Although, I will concede the possibility a rare and talented individual will have such penetrating insight into the mysteries of mind and consciousness that cannot be put into words.  I am just sceptical that people who claim such insights are actually those rare gems of wisdom.  And I think even if the cannot put their ideas into words, they should have the capacity to explain a few of the larger principles in metaphorical or allegorical terms that we can begin to grasp.   (I think you can often just tell when someone is delusional, I do not have an algorithm or chemical test for it, but if someone approaches you and starts explaining their theory of consciousness to you, it should only take a minute or to to decide if they are for real insightful or just full of fanciful nonsense.)

Above I wrote, “For me spirit is not substance”, but that’s not just my view.  I also have a few like-minded friends who are hard-nosed scientists and yet who also think there is more to the human condition than mere physical biology. These are people who like the oft-cited contemporary philosopher David Chalmers, “take consciousness seriously”. By this he means we do not lightly dismiss consciousness as a bunch of illusions played upon the brain by the brain. We seek to answer or understand why subjective phenomenal experiences can exist in a world that science describes in purely objective terms (the “redness of red”, the searing pain of a knife cut dosed with iodine, the “pain of loss”, the intoxication of the experienced smell of coffee, all variety of mental qualia).

What I ask you to consider, to take very seriously, is the idea that while the brain definitely represents the patterns of our thoughts, the brains activities are not the reality of our subjective thought, there is still something more to human thought that we have no physical basis for, and this is our access to the eternal realm of ideas, the Mindscape.  A rough (imprecise and sometimes flawed) analogy is with computer hardware and software: a computer’s logic circuit activity is not the reality of it’s software, the logical functioning of a computer is rather a sign, an evidence, that there is software, it is not the software itself.  So it is, I believe, with the brain (analogous to computer) and the mind (analogous to software).

A nice question to ponder is if this analogy can be extended just a little further, one might ask what is the analogue to programming code for the human mind?  No one knows, or even comprehends the full nature of such a question.  But in very broad terms I think there is an answer in the Mindscape.  Our mind seems to have automatic effortless access to the Mindscape, it is how we see the phenomenal “redness” of red coloured objects, it is how we feel the burning fire of guilt and shame when we know we have done something universally wrong or evil.  To be sure the brain represents these abstracta in concrete form, the flood of hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, and such, associated with guilt, or the flood of dopamine and serotonin associated with realising one has done good or received pleasure.  Pleasure is an abstract notion, but the brain has evolved to give our physical self a concrete manifestation of the “feel” of this abstracta.  It is a remarkable phenomenon, this close association between physiology and abstract ideas.  On Earth it appears to be a unique human trait.  The connection between brain physiology and spiritual abstracta can however be easily broken.  This happens in psychopaths and unfortunate victims of severe brain injury or from side-effects of brain surgery.  There seem to be specific regions in our brains that interpret the patterns of our mind’s thoughts and if those regions get damaged we may still acknowledge the logical relations involved in our actions and their moral and ethical consequences, we might even still hold in our mind the connections between the spiritual virtues and concrete actions, but we lose the translation of our feelings into physiological responses, like the aforementioned hormonal surges.  We say, in such cases, people lose the capacity for certain emotions or empathy.

What I will attempt to convince myself of, as a corollary of the Ultra-Rationalist Thesis, is the idea that even such psychologically damaged people can, with concerted effort, find ways to become spiritually aware, or regain a form of spiritual sensitivity after having lost it.  And if some of the recent brain-plasticity research findings are true, I think it might even be possible, through reason, to recover states of phenomenal awareness by re-training the brain to re-represent the feelings and emotions that were once lost, through neural “re-wiring.  That is a big “if“, but I see no reason it is completely impossible.  It just might take extraordinary efforts.  (One must also bear in mind that when someone says “may take extraordinary efforts” they mean that it could be difficult to impossible.)

It is within the Mindscape one can find all the notions of spiritual ideals: these are things like the virtues of love, honesty, truthfulness, wisdom, compassion, courage, kindness, mercy, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and so forth. They have many names these spiritual attributes, but they are in a broader sense all aspects of a One — which is to say, they are all different facets of an abstract sphere within the Mindscape, a sphere which is hard to define, not a geometric sphere, but an abstract region or cloud of ideals which most philosophers of metaphysics might refer to as “the spiritual virtues”. They are not “human virtues”, they are universal virtues, goodnesses that transcend species and universes.  They are cosmic in scope, applying to all things to do with thinking rational minds.

If a mind is not rational then the comprehension and implementation of spiritual virtues becomes confused, corrupted and meaningless.  This is the first heuristic reason why rationality is more closely associated with spirit than most people might think.

No Ordinary Rationality

For my thesis it is necessary to get past the idea that morality can be approached through ordinary rationality.  My suspicion is that such fancies are practical impossibilities, because ordinary human rationality is not pristine and perfect, it is clouded by emotion and desire and attachments to the material world, attachment to excesses of pleasure, possessions, attachment to sexual appetite as opposed to genuine love, and other base cravings.  It’s not the all of these attachments are bad things, in fact some of them are great, after all, what’s wrong with indulging in pleasure and sex and the like?  Nothing.  But it is the secondary or unconscious impulses associated with such cravings and desires that clouds true rationality.  But that’s ok, that’s what makes us all human and interesting, and all a little bit crazy.

The militant atheists have devised a scientific approach to morality under the rubric of Flourishing.  They say human flourishing can be more or less objectively defined, and morality can be derived from this starting point.  They are, I think, only half right about this project.  It is a good project, but it is fundamentally lacking an appreciation of why or how human consciousness subjectively can be aware of the eternal abstracta, the qualities I refer to as spiritual attributes.  Spiritual attributes are, in my view, a different type or category of mental qualia.  They are not as raw and immediate quale as things like the “redness of red” and the “sting of pain”, for such raw quale are about the physical world, they are not about anything abstract.  Qualia associated with pure abstractions have a different sort of ontology.  There is no 650 nanometre wavelength of light associated with the conscious understanding of the spiritual meaning of abstract concepts like the qualia of truth, justice,  kindness or honesty.

So while I think science can meaningfully contribute to some aspects of morality, it is not the whole story, and never will be, since by definition science is a never-ending pursuit of truth.  You never know in science when you’ve hit the big TRUTH, the absolute.    This is because in science all theory is subject to revision conditional upon the reception of new empirical data.  And by the way, if you think science is nevertheless the only (or the best) approach to morality we have going, then you should think again.  Even if there is no attainable absolute Truth about matters of morality and flourishing, there is always an abstract idea of a limit to how far science can take us, and if you take the scientific approach to morality and extend it to an infinite limit, then you have at least a theoretical absolute.  This sort of infinite limit process is something mathematicians are thoroughly familiar with in the field of number theory and set theory. Many pragmatic mathematicians would deny that infinite numbers have any relevance to the real world, but few would deny that as idealization, infinite numbers are perfectly well defined and can be thought of as real in an abstract platonic sense.  It is in a similar or analogous sense that I think absolute Truth and the corresponding absolute limits of all other spiritual attributes, Love, Honesty, Justice, and so on, all have a reality apart from, and independent of, physical reality and physical science.

To be clear: this is not to say that a science of human flourishing is ill-founded.  Scientific basis for human flourishing is on the contrary, a conveniently culturally neutral and logically valid way that we can rationally approach the absolutes of virtue and morality.  I just think the atheists (myself included a few decades ago when I was young and naïve and bullish about science) should not be fooling themselves that such an approach is perfect.  There might not be anything left over after cultural filtering perhaps, in which case even science would have no basis for moral universals.  But I seriously doubt that will ever be the case.

Cultural Relativism

It is also worth mentioning here the problem that a person’s sense of morality can lead to different decisions and outlook depending upon the culture in which they are embedded.  This leads to notions of cultural relativism, which are no doubt tricky for internati and modalityonal law and cross-cultural relations, but they are not the concern of ultra-rationality or scientific flourishing approaches.  The whole idea of ultra-rationality and scientific approaches to morality is to abstract away cultural vagaries and then see what is left over, and if anything is left over, then that is what we can assume (conditional upon revisions of data as always) are the known universals of human moral reasoning and theory.

People should not confound moral relativism with spiritual absolutes.  Both are valid concepts.  Embedded within a culture you must deal with moral relativism, and that is because no one culture, or single human being, or special group, can claim to have privileged understanding of the ideal absolutes (unless they are perfect beings, and there are very few such individuals, perhaps only a handful have ever lived, that we know of historically, if that many).

Emergentism and Systems Approaches

There have been attempts over the last 30 years or so to create a foundation for human cognitive development and moral reasoning based on ideas borrowed from physics.  As absurd as that sounds, the people doing such philosophy were not all mad.  In the 1990’s the branch of classical mechanics known as Chaos Theory was helping to spread ideas about non-linear dynamical system theory into many branches of science and on into popular culture.  It became almost obligatory for anyone studying almost any complicated, or hard to explain phenomenon, to speculate on a Chaos Theory or Catastrophe Theory explanation.  This became so common that it eventually lead to a lot of bad science and philosophy.  Much like the concept of Natural Selection, the ideas of non-linear dynamical systems became so routinely used to explain almost any complicated phenomena, that some of the far reaching applications started to become obviously vacuous (although not so obvious the to people publishing the ideas).  You probably know what I mean — the kind of non-explanations that go something like, “this knife is sharp because it was adapted to cut squishy tomatoes”, a parody of course, but some of the literature on dubious chaos theory applications are not all that dissimilar, and hundreds of vague articles portending to explain aspects of human psychology using evolutionary theory had similar useless explanations that sounded really good.

The problem is that everything that can replicate and evolve within a changing environment is subject to natural selection.  This is fine, but it does not explain everything interesting, it just explains the broad brush strokes.  Evolutionary psychology is a good example: of course adaptation and selection shape human psychology, but that is not a profound insight, and it does not help us understand any particular details, such as the neurological aspects of psychology, or the conscious qualia aspects of psychology.  The knife was sharp because some chef ground it on a grindstone or kitchen sand-board.  Yes, the alternative evolutionary explanation for the knife’s sharpness has a truth to it, but it is fairly far from a useful piece of reasoning.  It is almost pointless worrying about the evolution of the knife sharp enough to cut squishy tomatoes, but exceedingly helpful to know that a grindstone will help get the knife actually sharp.  You should keep this in mind the next time you read a cute little story about evolutionary psychology.  All psychology has evolved.  Telling us psychology is adaptive is as about as useful as telling us wet towels are damp.

In like manner dynamical systems are all over the place in nature.  In fact, neglecting quantum mechanical effects, our entire world is (in the classical mechanics approximation) just one big dynamical system.  Thus, “explaining” cognition and psychology and morality using dynamical system theory is a bit of a joke (a joke not appreciated by the researchers who take dynamical systems frameworks for morality seriously).   The point is, pretty much everything is a dynamical system.  So there is nothing revelatory about saying that a whole lot of human behaviour is underpinned by what dynamical system principles allow, because that is such an obvious claim it is almost useless.  It is like saying that books are based upon words.

One idea that earlier adopters of the dynamical system approach to morality were hoping to explore was the notion of emergence.  This is the idea that special dynamical systems create high level patterns that feed-back upon the low level base-physics, thus altering the overall dynamics of the system.  Their thinking was that human consciousness and moral sensibility was just some sort of pattern of activity going on in human brains and associated sensory organs.   When a high level structural feature that is composite (composed of many fundamental physical parts) is found to have causal efficacy over the motions of the individual microscopic base-level psychics of a system, then you have what these researchers might refer to as genuine emergence.  Although, fatally I think, in many cases the dynamical system thinking enthusiasts conveniently drop the qualifier “genuine”, and then their concept of emergence becomes vague and useless.  The principle of the dynamic systems approach to consciousness and morality is that the human mind emerges from the complicated workings of our brains and sensory organs.  But there is genuine emergence, which is typified by causal efficacy (top-down causation, the high level structure influences the lower level physics), and there is weak emergence, which is far more generic in nature and involves no top-down causality, only bottom-up causation, but with time evolved top-down feedback.  Top-down feedback is very different to top-down causation, and it seems many emergentist/chaos theory enthusiasts seem to either forget this or fail to appreciate it, and slip into the grievous error of mistaking weak emergence for genuine emergence.

The problem is genuine emergence (in dynamical systems) is a fiction.  Genuine emergence has never been shown to actually occur within the theoretical framework of dynamical systems theory.  In fact, an elementary point that seems to be totally (and inexplicably) ignored by applied dynamical systems theorists of this emergentist bent, is that no dynamical system can ever exhibit genuine emergence because of the fundamental fact that dynamical systems theory is based upon deterministic partial differential equation modelling.  Differential equations model processes that are locally and microscopically determined and purely bottom-up driven in complexity.  In simple terms: every dynamical system can be explained by the fundamental elementary physical constituents.  They are bottom-up driven examples of complexity.  This is a completely ordinary and mundane fact that is routinely ignored by philosophers and applied scientists who are still, to this day, seeking to find a principle of genuine emergence from within dynamical systems theory.  They will never attain their goal because of the aforementioned fundamental facts.

Now that’s not to say genuine emergence does not exist in nature.  (In fact I think it does exist, and that it surely must be at the heart of how the human mind makes sense, true subjective sense, of the world).  But genuine emergence cannot be found within classical dynamical systems theory.  At the very least we will need to employ the full apparatus of quantum mechanics to attain a sound physical basis for genuine high-level top-down causal emergence in nature.  Here I can only speculate on how quantum theory could help.  The basic (untested) idea is that phenomena that occur in quantum physics, such as entanglement and non-locality, are likely (in my view) manifestations of deeper structural topological properties of spacetime.  If we eventually understand the base causal processes that allow entanglement and non-locality to exist in nature, then I suspect we will find a limited variety of backwards causation in nature.

Backwards causation is a seemingly bizarre idea whereby the future states of a system can influence the past.   Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s time travel.  And I think given backwards causation one can build a solid theory of the genuine emergence of top-down causation.  But not without backwards causation, at least not with our known physical laws.

The general principle for this type of causal genuine emergence is that high level structure can propagate information backwards in time, at the quantum scale, and so classical mechanics is violated, we get the appearance of faster-than-light signalling, but only at the deep structural level of spacetime where the topology allows backwards time signalling through something like sub-atomic scale wormholes (or something of that nature).  It’s possible to see some evidence for this, although it is not direct.  The philosopher Huw Price has a series of articles dealing with time-reversal symmetry and retrocausation in physics.  Retrocausation is just another name for backwards time causation.  Price does not say that retrocausality in quantum mechanics is due to propagation of particles backwards in time, in fact he does not propose any particular mechanism, he merely shows, from fundamental principles, that quantum mechanics with locality (things can only influence nearby events) implies physics must have some kind of retrocausality.  Most physicist take the results of analyses like Price’s and say they do not want retrocausality and soi instead they must swallow non-locality in the laws of physics.  Price argues this conventional interpretation of quantum physics is possibly misguided or even wrong.  Non-locality, he suggests, is a lot stranger and hard to fathom than retrocausation.  I agree with Price.  (You can watch Huw Price talk about this here: Retrocausality — What would it take? A talk at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, at LMU Munich, December 2011.)

The thing is, there is no known mechanism for non-locality, it is just a flat-out bizarre notion, for non-locality essentially says that things taking place here, now, can somehow influence physical events at some other place far away at the same time.  Retrocausality, on the other hand, is fairly simple and easy to comprehend, you just need some sort of sub-atomic mechanism for backwards time signal propagation.  Spacetime Wormholes give us such a mechanism.

But clearly our universe does not allow time travel.  So how can this be right?  The (brief) answer is that backwards causation must only be possible at very small length or time scales, the typical scales associated with quantum mechanical effects.  We thus need to postulate Planck-scale spacetime Wormholes, or minimal wormholes, not macroscopic wormholes. So no one will be able to build a time machine to send large, massive or other extended objects,  backwards in time, because the backwards causal processes will (I suspect) be found to be either irreducibly sub-atomic in scale, or unstable to large fluctuations that mess up macroscopic thermal-regime physics (the levels of physics at which biology takes place essentially).

This is all wildly speculative, so I will stop this theme and get back to ultra-rationality.  I just wanted to set the stage by mentioning these ideas about a foundation for morality based upon science, because to appreciate the ultra-rationalist theorem you really need to think beyond physics, and consider pure abstractions and the potentially infinite limiting processes that would be required of science to approach such ideal abstractions.  Appreciation how genuine emergence might exist in nature is a big part of this sort of philosophical project.  Because if we restrict physics to classical causation then there truly is nothing in nature that cannot be explained by analysing the dumb mindless dance of atoms and molecules.  Clearly the human mind is not analysable in such base-level physics terms.  That’s why understanding genuine emergence is important.  But classical dynamical systems theory with top-down feedback cannot give us genuine causal emergence.  Classical feedback operates only via bottom-up physics.  Another way of stating this, is that in classical physics without retrocausation effects, no amount of fancy structure and feedback can produce anything like subjective thought or consciousness.  In classical physics consciousness has to be regarded as an illusion.   Everyone’s private experience tells them something different however, we all know that consciousness is very real.

Computer Logic is a Secondary Rationality

Computers, at least the current generations, are not fully rational, they are merely programmed.  Programming is a limited type of rationality: the computer follows it’s logical instruction flawlessly, right down to the coding error level, and integrated circuit miss-wiring level.  Mistakes in integrated circuit design are not the computers fault, they are manufacturing errors, and the computer will behave perfectly according to those human errors, while in and of itself it has absolutely no moral culpability.   Whatever purposes the humans designed into the machine, for good or bad, mistakes in design and manufacturing included, these are the moral responsibility of the human design team, not the computer.  The computer is morally blind.  That is ultimately why current computers cannot be fully rational. To be completely rational a mind is needed, a mind that can perceive and understand the meaning and consequences of it’s actions.

Human rationality should be correctly interpreted as a type of logical mindedness coupled with openness to factual data, but also coupled with subjective qualia access to the Mindscape.  It is this last coupling that many materialist philosophers deny, but I think that is a huge mistake.  Human consciousness is irreducibly and intimately linked to our capacity to perceive universal truths, and this is what distinguish the human mind from all other species on Earth that we know of, and we do not need to consciously reason our way to such conscious perceptions, they are built-in to our minds eye.  It is an amazing capacity, and currently unexplained by science.  But it is a very real capacity that we all share, at least when we consciously reflect upon how we gain our insights and understanding of the world given only raw sensory data into our brains. The data going into our brains has no interpretive layer of meaning, it is only through our access to the ideals and universals of the Mindscape that we are able to make conscious sense and meaning about the world our senses perceive.

This is why computer-based rationality is “less than human”.  To be sure, in some ways computer rationality is more powerful than human reasoning, simply because a computer can run through billions of possible scenarios, while the human brain has to reason using more imprecise heuristics that are often flawed (see the works by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky).  The point is that, (a) brains can help us also perform brute force search and look-up, but just not as fast and efficient as a computer, and (b) the human mind can do incredible things that computers likely will never have a chance of emulating, because a computer programme cannot access the Mindscape.

It is conceivable that once science has a better understanding of mental qualia and consciousness, a computer could be set-up to interface to systems like human brains that can access the Mindscape.  But this is mostly science fiction. That would be faking consciousness however, since in such an interfaced system the computer component would not be conscious, it would rather be feeding off the human component.  A more remote possibility is that artificial intelligence technology might conceivably evolve to develop full blown machine derived consciousness.  However I consider that to be totally science fiction.  Often people think like this: “The brain is just  a messy biological machine, so if brains can be conscious so too can computers, at least in principle, since there is nothing magical about biology.”

I would agree with such reasoning except for one crucial point: the brain does not produce consciousness.  If consciousness relied only upon the physics of brains, then we would not have subjective mental access to the Mindscape.  Yet it is evident through human art, science, mathematics, and ordinary everyday perceptions of qualia, that human beings do have subjective content to their thoughts.  Thinking is not just a working of atoms and molecules as portrayed in Douglas Hofstadter’s fanciful Careenium thought experiment.  That is self-evident because motions of atoms and molecules involve pure objective reality, nothing subjective can arise in such systems.  The brain is just such a system (even probably allowing for weird quantum effects, which after-all are not all that weird, and certainly quantum effects are not mystical, there are just non-classical and counter-intuitive).  What can happen is that emergent patterns arising from brains can be identified as signs and tokens of inner subjective consciousness.  The objective behaviour mirrors or reflects some aspects of consciousness.  But no physics can yield anything purely subjective.   The behavioural aspects of consciousness can be studied by studying the brain, but the inner subjective aspects of consciousness cannot be studied using the brain, for subjective studies you need a person, a mind, to report their private qualia.  You cannot do it using brain scanning alone in isolation from a person’s subjective reporting.  The best you can hope for is what the philosopher Ned Bock refers to as the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience.

It would be another long post, or series of essays to explain why I think computer consciousness is impossible, or very unlikely.  I can tell you the gist of it, which is that (in my humble and lowly opinion) I think human consciousness involves a top-down causation, and if what we know about fundamental physics is mostly correct, genuine top-down causality (whereby high level structures dictate what low level molecules and atoms can do independently of deterministic physical processes) is simply not possible unless there is some kind of retro-causation, i.e., backwards time propagation of information.  You can call this time travel, but it would only be possible at the sub-microscale at a level at which physical quanta are able to traverse microscopic spacetime wormholes.  This sort of non-trivial spacetime topology is only conjectured, and is not currently in the mainstream theories of physics.  But it is a plausible mechanism for the genuine emergence of backwards-time signal propagation without the classical physics paradoxes of time travel (because large macroscopic objects are not physically able to traverse sub-microscopic wormholes).

If such speculations are anything close to true, then it would suggest to me that human consciousness exploits this top-down causality, it is possibly how high level emergent states of consciousness, which are truly abstract patterns represented in our brains, get to have real active influence on our behaviour. It is a remarkable and elegant physical mechanism whereby the abstract (high level functional structure) can influence the concrete (microphysics).  In any standard type of physics without top-down causation no high level patterns can causally influence the low level microphysics, the arrows of causation are always “upwards” in conventional classical physics.

Retrocausation is a plausible mechanism whereby the mind can influence the body, so to speak, without the paradoxes of over-determinism or the philosophical anathema of epiphenomenalism.  And of course it is a two-way street, the brain influences the mind because the mind is certainly (demonstrably!) susceptible to low level physics goings on in the brain.  The brain is our physical window into our mental life.  We can understand so much about our behaviour from our brain physiology, but we will understand the entire system of mind and brain much better when it is realised that consciousness operates at a higher causal level, and both mind and brain interact in this intimate fashion, the one from bottom-up, the other from top-down, in a marvellous synchrony (including also of course many unfortunately pathologies, but that’s another subject).  By the way, I think the pathologies can also go two-ways, on the brain damage side it is obvious, but from the high level mental side, we have the pathologies of lack of kindness, lack of love, lack of compassion, and the mental pathologies of ingrained racism, sexism, and other prejudices, most of which arise originally at the level of mind, and are only by acculturation imprinted upon the brain over time.  For instance, people who are not exposed to the concept of “group” and “other” and “skin colour” will not become racist, you need the high level mental concepts in the first place to become racist, and yet the brain, at a low level, is clearly prone to racism (we all are) by the unconscious neurology which dictates our innate responses to unfamiliar patterns, unfamiliar odours, and unfamiliar voices and accents, unfamiliar language, and so on, up the hierarchy eventually into consciousness where it can then become socialised and talked about as racism.

What a lot of behavioural determinists irresponsibly ignore is that none of this primitive imprinting is necessary or fatal to human well-being, because human civilisation has also evolved even higher order abstractions called books, and schools and universities, which (if they are decent) should provide moral and ethical education, the best antidotes to our default brain chemistry which might otherwise leave us open and prone to becoming racist or sexist or sociopathic.

Behaviour is not Consciousness, Behaviour Indicates Consciousness

Rational thought has a conscious basis, I take that to be fundamental.  The limited algorithmic rationality of a computer, is, as mentioned previously, not completely rational because it involves no subjective understanding.  Computer algorithms simulate a weak type of rationality which is merely derived from the primary rationality of the programmers who write the software.  Understanding cannot be programmed, it has to be acquired.  If you disagree then we can part ways, or, if you prefer, please just regard this as my definition of what counts as rational.

So if we want to create artificial consciousness in computer systems, we will likely need to programme the software to learn and self-correct, and also use heuristics.  But I believe we would need to do much more, because, again as argued above, I think the only form of phenomenal consciousness that we know of in our universe operates by co-opting a physical system like the brain, but it operates self-effiaciously at a higher level of reality by virtue of top-down causation mechanisms. Although to call them mechanisms is a bit of a misnomer, because mechanical is precisely what they are not.  You cannot algorithmically programme top-down causation.  You can simulate it on a computer, but such a  simulation would in a very real sense not be the real thing, because genuine top-down causation necessitates infinite causal lops forwards and backwards in time.  At least the variety that I propose which achieves top-down causation vie more elementary spacetime topology that allows backwards retrocausation events.  When we admit both forwards and backwards time evolution processes, we must admit the potential for truly infinite causal looping.  (These are not the scifi time-loops that trap people in Ground-Hog day, or Doctor Who, type scenarios, rather I am talking here about generative, creative, and endlessly evolving feedback loops).  The character of such retrocausal feedback is utterly different to normal forwards time dynamical system feedback.  In the latter you cannot gain genuine emergence, in the former you can.  But the cost is a loss of determinism.  Also a loss of computability (unless you admit actual infinite loops in your algorithm, something no classical computation can achieve).

But supposing someone figures out a way to design a computer that can access quantum sub-atomic spacetime wormholes (a kind of far future extrapolation of Moore’s Law if you fancy, logic circuits based on spacetime topology rather than silicon chip etchings).  Then you can imagine, if I am correct about some of the physical basis for human consciousness, that maybe computers could achieve consciousness too.  And how would we know when such states have been achieved?  We would only be able to point to behaviours of the computer system.  We’d say, if it seems to exhibit certain types of complex behaviour, especially communication in second-order symbolic language, then we’d infer, yes, it must be conscious.  Only then, by the Ultra-rational Thesis, artificial intelligences could become cognizant of moral values, because they would have, in principle, access to the same realm of qualia that we might have.  Or they might access different regions of the Mindscape, who knows?  That’d be exciting, a new class of sentient creatures with complementary mental life to ours.  That’s actually the best outcome for science.  If our artificial intelligences become merely human-like in consciousness it would be pretty boring, although still a celebrated milestone in human science.

From Rationality to Spirituality

How to get from here to there in less than an entire book?  Trick: for a weblog I only need to convince myself.  The skeleton of the entire book-length thesis goes like this:

  • Rationality that includes consciousness (subjective phenomenal experiences) is a type of reasoning that has access to the Mindscape.  Thus, abstract concepts are comprehensible.
  • Rational reasoning, among other attributes, is dedicated to seeking out truth, if objectively possible.
  • A thorough analysis of the commonly understood spiritual virtues will reveal universal truths, in particular that the long-run best behaviours in a morally-laden world, whether in social groups or in isolation, will imply actions that are objectively identifiable as honest, trustworthy, kind, loving, compassionate, just, merciful, courageous, and so on.
  • Rationality alone will thus eventually (if taken to a limit) lead to spiritual behaviour.

The corollary is that if a person is somehow deprived of an inner sense of spirituality, it should be possible to re-train their brain to become at least partially susceptible to spiritual capacities, through rational reasoning alone (taken to an extreme).  At the start of such a process is it not necessary for any emotional primitive brain responses such as the warm glow of pleasure and good conduct or the heat of guilt, such primitive brain hormonal responses would likely slowly become engaged, unless brain damage was severe and some sort of block to hormonal feedback with higher brain functioning was the case.  In such cases a person might only ever be capable of approaching spirituality through proverbial cold academic rationality (which, when you think about it, might not be such a bad way to go).  The one comment about the cold academic approach I will add is that I am not sure humour is one of the universal spiritual virtues, I tend to think it is, but it is possible a sense of humour is not easily recoverable without the relevant neurochemistry, I might be wrong. The weird idea that occurs is a person who appreciates a good joke but who does not have any compulsion to laugh (out loud or inwardly). I guess such people could exist.  Did Oliver Sacks, or his psychiatrist colleagues, ever write about such patients?  But does a “sense of humour”, i.e., the warm inner glow of delight and amusement necessarily entail that one must laugh, at least silently on the inside?

Some people might take this sort of philosophizing as justification for extending mercy to criminals, giving them second chances, using rehabilitation instead of punishment.  All this could be sound and reasonable, but the Ultra-rational thesis is not a free lunch.  There is nothing in the thesis about how close to the limit of perfect rationality would be needed to reform a psychopath.  Also, the thesis, if applied in a criminal justice system context, necessitates the capacity for rational thought in the first place, which is not a sound assumption for many pathological personalities.

Spirituality to Rationality Theorem

Perhaps this another book-length tome?   But I do think one can go the other way too, which would be to give a close converse to the Ultra-rationality thesis.   In fact I think it is easier.

  • Spiritual virtues include honesty and courage and patience and knowledge and wisdom.
  • Filling in some gaps, I think you can see it is easy to go from the extreme perfection of these spiritual virtues to ultra-rational reasoning.
  • Why would anyone who loves truth and wisdom not wish to engage the limits of rationality?

A comment to make this more plausible, is that ultra-rational reasoning is not the stereotypical cold hard scientist who looks only at data and uses supposedly flawless algorithms for decision guided behaviour.  For a start, such a perfect being is illusory — many well-known problems are computationally intractable, and so no amount of algorithmic devising can solve all decision procedures perfectly rationally.  Secondly, data is never complete, unless the problem is incredible simple.  So in most situations an ultra-rationalist cannot use scientific methods, and probability theory will only get you over a few hurdles, so the rationalist will need to employ their best understood and humane, or spiritual, heuristics.  These include possible inconsistencies, such as when compassion and kindness clash with honesty.  Here is an example I like (because I put it into almost daily practice myself). Telling someone they are stupid is not a smart way to improve their desire for learning, every good teacher knows this, but the ultra-rational teacher would not be dishonest, they would give a student knowledge of their progress, but avoid telling them anything negative, and instead phrase their advice and feedback absolutely truthfully in positive terms, this is always possible.  Only lazy teachers condemn students.  It is not rational to tell a poorly performing student they are dumb or lack intelligence, because intelligence is a relative notion, relative to a proud geek’s Halloween pumpkin with Newton’s Principia inscribed on it’s skin in microform, most children are pretty smart.  If the intent is to educate, to stimulate learning and curiosity, the more rational approach is to tell the student  what they have mastered and then how much more power they could gain from a little bit more studious effort, practice, and time.

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Descartes was not wrong, he just did not extend his idea to the general case.

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The Arcania of Arkani

It is not often you get to disagree with a genius. But if you read enough or attend enough lectures sooner or later some genius is going to say or write something that you can see is evidently false, or perhaps (being a bit more modest) you might think is merely intuitively false. So the other day I see this lecture by Nima Arkani-Hamed with the intriguing title “The Morality of Fundamental Physics”. It is a really good lecture, I recommend every young scientist watch it. (The “Arcane” my title alludes to, by the way, is a good thing, look up the word!) It will give you a wonderful sense of the culture of science and a feeling that science is one of the great ennobling endeavours of humanity. The way Arkani-Hamed describes the pursuit of science also gives you comfort as a scientist if you ever think you are not earning enough money in your job, or feel like you are “not getting ahead” — you should simply not care! — because doing science is a huge privilege, it is a reward unto itself, and little in life can ever be as rewarding as making a truly insightful scientific discovery or observation. No one can pay me enough money to ever take away that sort of excitement and privilege, and no amount of money can purchase you the brain power and wisdom to achieve such accomplishments.  And one of the greatest overwhelming thrills you can get in any field of human endeavour is firstly the hint that you are near to turning arcane knowledge into scientific truth, and secondly when you actually succeed in this.

First, let me be deflationary about my contrariness. There is not a lot about fundamental physics that one can honestly disagree with Arkani-Hamed about on an intellectual level, at least not with violent assertions of falsehood.  Nevertheless, fundamental physics is rife enough with mysteries that you can always find some point of disagreement between theoretical physicists on the foundational questions. Does spacetime really exist or is it an emergent phenomenon? Did the known universe start with a period of inflation? Are quantum fields fundamental or are superstrings real?

When you disagree on such things you are not truly having a physics disagreement, because these are areas where physics currently has no answers, so provided you are not arguing illogically or counter to known experimental facts, then there is a wide open field for healthy debate and genuine friendly disagreement.

Then there are deeper questions that perhaps physics, or science and mathematics in general, will never be able to answer. These are questions like: Is our universe Everettian? Do we live in an eternal inflation scenario Multiverse? Did all reality begin from a quantum fluctuation, and, if so, what the heck was there to fluctuate if there was literally nothing to begin with? Or can equations force themselves into existence from some platonic reality merely by brute force of their compelling beauty or structural coherence? Is pure information enough to instantiate a physical reality (the so-called “It from Bit” meme.

Some people disagree on whether such questions are amenable to experiment and hence science. The Everettian question may some day become scientific. But currently it is not, even though people like David Deutsch seem to think it is (a disagreement I would have with Deutsch). While some of the “deeper ” questions turn out to be stupid, like the “It from Bit” and “Equations bringing themselves to life” ideas. However, they are still wonderful creative ideas anyway, in some sense, since they put our universe into contrast with a dull mechanistic cosmos that looks just like a boring jigsaw puzzle.

The fact our universe is governed (at least approximately) by equations that have an internal consistency, coherence and even elegance and beauty (subjective though those terms may be) is a compelling reason for thinking there is something inevitable about the appearance of a universe like ours. But that is always just an emotion, a feeling of being part of something larger and transcendent, and we should not mistake such emotions for truth. By the same token mystics should not go around mistaking mystical experiences for proof of the existence of God or spirits. That sort of thinking is dangerously naïve and in fact anti-intellectual and incompatible with science. And if there is one truth I have learned over my lifetime, it is that whatever truth science eventually establishes, and whatever truths religions teach us about spiritual reality, wherever these great domains of human thought overlap they must agree, otherwise one or the other is wrong. In other words, whatever truth there is in religion, it must agree with science, at least eventually. If it contradicts known science it must be superstition. And if science contravenes the moral principles of religion it is wrong.

Religion can perhaps be best thought of in this way:  it guides us to knowledge of what is right and wrong, not necessarily what is true and false. For the latter we have science. So these two great systems of human civilization go together like the two wings of a bird, or as in another analogy, like the two pillars of Justice, (1) reward, (2) punishment. For example, nuclear weapons are truths of our reality, but they are wrong. Science gives us the truth about the existence and potential for destruction of nuclear weapons, but it is religion which tells us they are morally wrong to have been fashioned and brought into existence, so it is not that we cannot, but just that we should not.

Back to the questions of fundamental physics: regrettably, people like to think these questions have some grit because they allow one to disbelieve in a God. But that’s not a good excuse for intellectual laziness. You have to have some sort of logical foundation for any argument. This often begins with an unproven assumption about reality. It does not matter where you start, so much, but you have to start somewhere and then be consistent, otherwise as elementary logic shows you would end up being able to prove (and disprove) anything at all. If you start with a world of pure information, then posit that spacetime grows out of it, then (a) you need to supply the mechanism of this “growth”, and (b) you also need some explanation for the existence of the world of pure information in the first place.

Then if you are going to argue for a theory that “all arises from a vacuum quantum fluctuation”, you have a similar scenario, where you have not actually explained the universe at all, you have just pushed back the existence question to something more elemental, the vacuum state. But a quantum vacuum is not a literal “Nothingness”, in fact is is quite a complicated sort of thing, and has to involve a pre-existing spacetime or some other substrate that supports the existence of quantum fields.

Further debate along these lines is for another forum. Today I wanted to get back to Nima Arkani-Hamed’s notions of morality in fundamental physics and then take issue with some private beliefs people like Arkani-Hamed seem to profess, which I think betray a kind of inconsistent (I might even dare say “immoral”) thinking.

Yes, there is a Morality in Science

Arkani-Hamed talks mostly about fundamental physics. But he veers off topic in places and even brings in analogies with morality in music, specifically in lectures by the great composer Leonard Bernstein, there are concepts in the way Bernstein describes the beauty and “inevitability” of passages in great music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Bernstein even gets close to saying that after the first four notes of the symphony almost the entire composition could be thought of as following as an inevitable consequence of logic and musical harmony and aesthetics. I do not think this is flippant hyperbole either, though it is somewhat exaggerated. The cartoon idea of Beethoven’s music following inevitable laws of aesthetics has an awful lot in common with the equally cartoon notion of the laws of physics having, in some sense, their own beauty and harmony such that it is hard to imagine any other set of laws and principles, once you start from the basic foundations.

I should also mention that some linguists would take umbrage at Arkani-Hamed’s use of the word “moral”.  Really, most of what he lectures about is aesthetics, not morality.  But I am happy to warp the meaning of the word “moral” just to go along with the style of Nima’s lecture.  Still, you do get a sense from his lecture, that the pursuit of scientific truth does have a very close analogy to moral behaviour in other domains of society.  So I think he is not totally talking about aesthetics, even though I think the analogy with Beethoven’s music is almost pure aesthetics and has little to do with morality.   OK, those niggles aside, let’s review some of Arkani’Hamed’s lecture highlights.

The way Arkani-Hamed tells the story, there are ways of thinking about science that are not just “correct”, but more than correct, the best ways of thinking seem somehow “right”, whereby he means “right” in the moral sense. He gives some examples of how one can explain a phenomenon (e.g., the apparent forwards pivoting of a helium balloon suspended inside a boxed car) where there are many good explanations that are all correct (air pressure effects, etc) but where often there is a better deeper more morally correct way of reasoning (Einstein’s principle of equivalence — gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration, so the balloon has to “fall down”).

philsci_immoral_helim_balloon

It really is entertaining, so please try watching the video. And I think Arkani-Hamed makes a good point. There are “right” ways of thinking in science, and “correct but wrong ways”. I guess, unlike human behaviour the scientifically “wrong” ways are not actually spiritually morally “bad”, as in “sinful”. But there is a case to be made that intellectually the “wrong” ways of thinking (read, “lazy thinking ways”) are in a sense kind of “sinful”. Not that we in science always sin in this sense of using correct but not awesomely deep explanations.  I bet most scientists which they always could think in the morally good (deep) ways! Life would be so much better if we could. And no one would probably wish to think otherwise. It is part of the cultural heritage of science that people like Einstein (and at times Feynman, and others) knew of the morally good ways of thinking about physics, and were experts at finding such ways of thinking.

Usually, in brief moments of delight, most scientists will experience fleeting moments of being able to see the morally good ways of scientific thinking and explanation. But the default way of doing science is immoral, by in large, because it takes a tremendous amount of patience and almost mystical insight, to be able to always see the world of physics in the morally correct light — that is, in the deepest most meaningful ways — and it takes great courage too, because, as Arkani-Hamed points out, it takes a lot more time and contemplation to find the deeper morally “better” ways of thinking, and in the rush to advance one’s career and publish research, these morally superior ways of thinking often get by-passed and short-circuited. Einstein was one of the few physicists of the last century who actually managed, a lot of his time, to be patient and courageous enough to at least try to find the morally good explanations.

This leads to two wonderful quotations Arkani-Hamed offers, one from Einstein, and the other from a lesser known figure of twentieth century science, the mathematician Alexander Gröthendieck — who was probably an even deeper thinker than Einstein.

The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their intense alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light—only those who have experienced it can understand it.
— Albert Einstein, describing some of the intellectual struggle and patience needed to discover the General Theory of Relativity.

“The … analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

“A different image came to me a few weeks ago. The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration … the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it … yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.”
— Alexander Gröthendieck, describing the process of grasping for mathematical truths.

Beautiful and foreboding — I have never heard of the mathematical unknown likened to a “hard marl” (sandstone) before!

So far all is good. There are many other little highlights in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, and I should not write about them all, it is much better to hear them explained by the master.

So what is there to disagree with?

The Morally Correct Thinking in Science is Open-Minded

There are a number of characteristics of “morally correct” reasoning in science, or an “intellectually right way of doing things”. Arkani-Hamed seems to list most of the important things:

  • Trust: trust that there is a universal, invariant, human-independent and impersonal (objective) truth to natural laws.
  • Honesty: with others (no fraud) but also more importantly you need to be honest with yourself if you want to do good science.
  • Humility: who you are is irrelevant, only the content of your ideas is important.
  • Wisdom: we never pretend we have the whole truth, there is always uncertainty.
  • Perseverance: lack of certainty is not an excuse for laziness, we have to try our hardest to get to the truth, no matter how difficult the path.
  • Tolerance: it is extremely important to entertain alternative and dissenting ideas and to keep an open mind.
  • Justice: you cannot afford to be tolerant of dishonest or ill-formed ideas. It is indeed vitally important to be harshly judgemental of dishonest and intellectually lazy ideas. Moreover, one of the hallmarks of a great physicist is often said to be the ability to quickly check and to prove one’s own ideas to be wrong as soon as possible.

In this list I have inserted in bold the corresponding spiritual attributes that Professor Nima does not identify. But I think they are important to explicitly state. Because they provide a Rosetta Stone of sorts for translating the narrow scientific modes of behaviour into border domains of human life.

I think that’s a good list. There is, however, one hugely important morally correct way of doing science that Arkani-Hamed misses, and even fails to gloss over or hint at. Can you guess what it is?

Maybe it is telling of the impoverishment in science education, the cold objective dispassionate retelling of facts, in our society that I think not many scientists will even think of his one, but I do not excuse Arkani-Hamed for leaving it off his list, since in many ways it is the most important moral stance in all of science!

It is,

  • Love: the most important driver and motive for doing science, especially in the face of adversity or criticism, is a passion and desire for truth, a true love of science, a love of ideas, an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty and power of morally good ideas and explanations.

Well ok, I will concede this is perhaps implicit in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, but I still cannot give him 10 out of 10 on his assignment because he should have made it most explicit, and highlighted it in bold colours.

One could point out many instances of scientists failing at these minimal scientific moral imperatives. Most scientists go through periods of denial, believing vainly in a pet theory and failing to be honest to themselves about the weaknesses of their ideas. There is also a vast cult of personality in science that determines a lot of funding allocation, academic appointments, favouritism, and general low level research corruption.

The point of Arkani-Hamed’s remarks is not that the morally good behaviours are how science is actually conducted in the everyday world, but rather it is how good science should be conducted and that from historical experience the “good behaviours” do seem to be rewarded with the best and brightest break-throughs in deep understanding. And I think Arkani-Hamed is right about this. It is amazing (or perhaps, to the point, not so amazing!) how many Nobel Laureates are “humble” in the above sense of putting greater stock in their ideas and not in their personal authority. Ideas win Nobel Prizes, not personalities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that while expounding on these simplistic and no-doubt elegant philosophical and aesthetic themes, he manages to intersperse his commentary with the claim, “… by the way, I am an atheist”.

OK, I know what you are probably thinking, “what’s the problem?” Normally I would not care what someone thinks regarding theism, atheism, polytheism, or any other “-ism”. People are entitled to their opinions, and all power to them. But as a scientist I have to believe there are fundamental truths about reality, and about a possible reality beyond what we perceive. There must even be truths about a potential reality beyond what we know, and maybe even beyond what we can possibly ever know.

Now some of these putative “truths” may turn out to be negative results. There may not be anything beyond physical reality. But if so, that’s a truth we should not hereby now and forever commit to believing. We should at least be open-minded to the possibility this outcome is false, and that the truth is rather that there is a reality beyond physical universe.  Remember, open-mindedness was one of Arkani-Hamed’s prime “good behaviours” for doing science.

The discipline of Physics, by the way, has very little to teach us about such truths. Physics deals with physical reality, by definition, and it is an extraordinary disappointment to hear competent, and even “great”, physicists expound their “learned” opinions on theism or atheism and non-existence of anything beyond physical universes. These otherwise great thinkers are guilty of over-reaching hubris, in my humble opinion, and it depresses me somewhat. Even Feynman had such hubris, yet he managed expertly to cloak it in the garment of humility, “who am I to speculate on metaphysics,” is something he might have said (I paraphrase the great man). Yet by clearly and incontrovertibly stating “I do not believe in God” one is in fact making an extremely bold metaphysical statement. It is almost as if these great scientists had never heard of the concept of agnosticism, and somehow seem to be using the word “atheism” as a synonym. But no educated person would make such a gross etymological mistake. So it just leaves me perplexed and dispirited to hear so many claims of “I am atheist” coming from the scientific establishment.

Part of me wants to just dismiss such assertions or pretend that these people are not true scientists. But that’s not my call to make.  Nevertheless, for me, a true scientist almost has to be agnostic. There seems very little other defensible position.

How on earth would any physicist ever know such things (as non-existence of other realms) are true as articles of belief? They cannot! Yet it is astounding how many physicists will commit quite strongly to atheism, and even belittle and laugh at scientists who believe otherwise. It is a strong form of intellectual dishonesty and corruption of moral thinking to have such closed-minded views about the nature of reality.

So I would dare to suggest that people like Nima Arkani-Hamed, who show such remarkable gifts and talents in scientific thinking and such awesome skill in analytical problem solving, can have the intellectual weakness to profess any version of atheism whatsoever. I find it very sad and disheartening to hear such strident claims of atheism among people I would otherwise admire as intellectual giants.

Yet I would never want to overtly act to “convert” anyone to my views. I think the process of independent search for truth is an important principle. People need to learn to find things out on their own, read widely, listen to alternatives, and weigh the evidence and logical arguments in the balance of reason and enlightened belief, and even then, once arriving at a believed truth, one should still question and consider that one’s beliefs can be over-turned in the light of new evidence or new arguments.  Nima’s principle of humility, “we should never pretend we have the certain truth”.

Is Atheism Just Banal Closed-Mindedness?

The scientifically open-mind is really no different to the spiritually open-mind other than in orientation of topics of thought. Having an open-mind does not mean one has to be non-committal about everything. You cannot truly function well in science or in society without some grounded beliefs, even if you regard them all as provisional. Indeed, contrary to the cold-hearted objectivist view of science, I think most real people, whether they admit it or not (or lie to themselves perhaps) they surely practise their science with an idea of a “truth” in mind that they wish to confirm. The fact that they must conduct their science publicly with the Popperrian stances of “we only postulate things that can be falsified” is beside the point. It is perfectly acceptable to conduct publicly Popperian science while privately having a rich metaphysical view of the cosmos that includes all sorts of crazy, and sometimes true, beliefs about the way things are in deep reality.

Here’s the thing I think needs some emphasis: even if you regard your atheism as “merely provisional” this is still an unscientific attitude! Why? Well, because questions of higher reality beyond the physical are not in the province of science, not by any philosophical imperative, but just by plain definition. So science is by definition agnostic as regards the transcendent and metaphysical. Whatever exists beyond physics is neither here nor there for science. Now many self-proclaimed scientists regard this fact about definitions as good enough reason for believing firmly in atheism. My point is that this is nonsense and is a betrayal of scientific morals (morals, that is, in the sense of Arkani-Hamed — the good ways of thinking that lead to deeper insights). The only defensible logical and morally good way of reasoning from a purely scientific world view is that one should be at the basest level of philosophy positive in ontology and minimalist in negativity, and agnostic about God and spiritual reality. It is closed-minded and therefore, I would argue, counter to Arkani-Hamed’s principles of morals in physics, to be a committed atheist.

This is in contrast to being negative about ontology and positively minimalist, which I think is the most mistaken form of philosophy or metaphysics adopted by a majority of scientists, or sceptics, or atheists.  The stance of positive minimalism, or  ontological negativity, adopts, as unproven assumption, a position that whatever is not currently needed, or not currently observed, doe snot in fact exist.  Or to use a crude sound-bite, such philosophy is just plain closed-mindedness.  A harsh cartoon version of which is, “what I cannot understand or comprehend I will assume cannot exist”.   This may be unfair in some instances, but I think it is a fairly reasonable caricature of general atheistic thought.   I think is a lot fairer than the often given argument against religion which points to corruptions in religious practice as a good reason to not believe in God.  There is of course absolutely no causal or logical connection to be made between human corruptions and the existence or non-existence of a putative God.

In my final analysis of Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, I have ended up not worrying too much about the fact he considers himself an atheist. I have to conclude he is a wee bit self-deluded, (like most of his similarly minded colleagues no doubt, yet, of course, they might ultimately be correct, and I might be wrong, my contention is that the way they are thinking is morally wrong, in precisely the sense Arkani-Hamed outlines, even if their conclusions are closer to the truth than mine).

Admittedly, I cannot watch the segments in his lecture where he expresses the beautiful ideas of universality and “correct ways of explaining things” without a profound sense of the divine beyond our reach and understanding. Sure, it is sad that folks like Arkani-Hamed cannot infer from such beauty that there is maybe (even if only possibly) some truth to some small part of the teachings of the great religions. But to me, the ideas expressed in his lecture are so wonderful and awe-inspiring, and yet so simple and obvious, they give me hope that many people, like Professor Nima himself, will someday appreciate the view that maybe there is some Cause behind all things, even if we can hardly ever hope to fully understand it.

My belief has always been that science is our path to such understanding, because through the laws of nature that we, as a civilization, uncover, we can see the wisdom and beauty of creation, and no longer need to think that it was all some gigantic accident or experiment in some mad scientists super-computer. Some think such wishy-washy metaphysics has no place in the modern world. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to the prevalence of evil in our world, and tragedy, and suffering, and surely if any divine Being was responsible then this would be a complete and utter moral paradox. To me though, this is a a profound misunderstanding of the nature of physical reality. The laws of physics give us freedom to grow and evolve. Without the suffering and death there would be no growth, no exercise of moral aesthetics, and arguably no beauty. Beauty only stands out when contrasted with ugliness and tragedy. There is a Yin and Yang to these aspects of aesthetics and misery and bliss. But the other side of this is a moral imperative to do our utmost to relieve suffering, to reduce poverty to nothing, to develop an ever more perfect world. For then greater beauty will stand out against the backdrop of something we create that is quite beautiful in itself.

Besides, it is just as equally wishy-washy to think the universe is basically accidental and has no creative impulse.  People would complain either way.  My positive outlook is that as long as there is suffering and pain in this world, it makes sense to at least imagine there is purpose in it all.  How miserable to adopt Steven Wienberg’s outlook that the noble pursuit of science merely “lifts up above farce to at least the grace of tragedy”.  That’s a terribly pessimistic negative sort of world view.  Again, he might be right that there is no grand purpose or cosmic design, but the way he reasons to that conclusion seems, to me, to be morally poor (again, strictly, if you like, in the Arkani-Hamed morality of physics conception).

There seems, to me, to be no end to the pursuit of perfections. And given that, there will always be relative ugliness and suffering. The suffering of people in the distant future might seem like luxurious paradise to us in the present. That’s how I view things.

The Fine Tuning that Would “Turn You Religious”

Arkani-Hamed mentions another thing that I respectfully take a slight exception to — this is in a separate lecture at a Philosophy of Cosmology conference —  in a talk, “Spacetime, Quantum Mechanics and the Multiverse”.  Referring to the amazing coincidence that our universe has just the right cosmological constant to avoid space being empty and devoid of matter, and just the right Higgs boson mass to allow atoms heavier than hydrogen to form stably, is often, Arkani-Hamed points out, given as a kind of anthropic argument (or quasi-explanation) for our universe.  The idea is that we see (measure) such parameters for our universe precisely, and really only, because if the parameters were not this way then we would not be around to measure them!  Everyone can understand this reasoning.  But it stinks!   And off course it is not an explanation, such anthropic reasoning reduces to mere observation.  Such reasonings are simple banal brute facts about our existence.  But there is a setting in metaphysics where such reasoning might be the only explanation, as awful as it smells.  That is, if our meta-verse is governed by something like Eternal Inflation, (or even by something more ontologically radical like Max Tegmark’s “Mathematical Multiverse”) whereby every possible universe is at some place or some meta-time, actually realised by inflationary big-bangs (or mathematical consequences in Tegmark’s picture) then it is really boring that we exist in this universe, since no matter how infinitesimally unlikely the vacuum state of our universe is, within the combinatorial possibilities of all possible inflationary universe bubbles (or all possible consistent mathematical abstract realities) there is, in these super-cosmic world views, absolutely nothing to prevent our infinitesimally (“zero probability measure”) universe from eventually coming into being from some amazingly unlikely big-bang bubble.

In a true multiverse scenario we thus get no really deep explanations, just observations.  “The universe is this way because if it were not we would not be around to observe it.”  The observation becomes the explanation.  A profoundly unsatisfying end to physics!   Moreover, such infinite possibilities and infinitesimal probabilities make standard probability theory almost impossible to use to compute anything remotely plausible about multiverse scenarios with any confidence (although this has not stopped some from publishing computations about such probabilities).

After discussing these issues, which Arkani-Hamed thinks are the two most glaring fine-tuning or “naturalness” problems facing modern physics, he then says something which at first seems reasonable and straight-forward, yet which to my ears also seemed a little enigmatic.  To avoid getting it wrong let me transcribe what he says verbatim:

We know enough about physics now to be able to figure out what universes would look like if we changed the constants.  … It’s just an interesting fact that the observed value of the cosmological constant and the observed value of the Higgs mass are close to these dangerous places. These are these two fine-tuning problems, and if I make the cosmological constant more natural the universe is empty, if I make the Higgs more natural the universe is devoid of atoms. If there was a unique underlying vacuum, if there was no anthropic explanation at all, these numbers came out of some underlying formula with pi’s and e’s, and golden ratios, and zeta functions and stuff like that in them, then [all this fine tuning] would be just a remarkably curious fact.… just a very interesting  coincidence that the numbers came out this way.  If this happened, by the way, I would start becoming religious.  Because this would be our existence hard-wired into the DNA of the universe, at the level of the mathematical ultimate formulas.

So that’s the thing that clanged in my ears.  Why do people need something “miraculous” in order to justify a sense of religiosity?  I think this is a silly and profound misunderstanding about the true nature of religion.  Unfortunately I cannot allow myself the space to write about this at length, so I will try to condense a little of what I mean in what will follow.  First though, let’s complete the airing,  for in the next breath Arkani-Hamed says,

On the other hand from the point of view of thinking about the multiverse, and thinking that perhaps a component of these things have an anthropic explanation, then of course it is not a coincidence, that’s were you’d expect it to be, and we are vastly less hard-wired into the laws of nature.

So I want to say a couple of things about all this fine-tuning and anthropomorphic explanation stuff.  The first is that it does not really matter, for a sense of religiosity, if we are occupying a tiny infinitesimal region of the multiverse, or a vast space of mathematically determined inevitable universes.  In fact, the Multiverse, in itself, can be considered miraculous.  Just as miraculous as a putative formulaically inevitable cosmos.   Not because we exist to observe it all, since that after-all is the chief banality of anthropic explanations, they are boring!  But miraculous because a multiverse exists in the first place that harbours all of us, including the infinitely many possible doppelgängers of our universe and subtle and wilder variations thereupon.  I think many scientists are careless in such attitudes when they appear to dismiss reality as “inevitable”.  Nothing really, ultimately, is inevitable.  Even a formulaic universe has an origin in the deep underlying mathematical structure that somehow makes it irresistible for the unseen motive forces of metaphysics to have given birth to It’s reality.

No scientific “explanation” can ever push back further than the principles of mathematical inevitability.  Yet, there is always something further to say about origins of reality .  There is always something proto-mathematical beyond.  And probably something even more primeval beyond that, and so on, ad infinitum, or if you prefer a non-infinite causal regression then something un-caused must, in some atemporal sense, pre-exist everything.  Yet scientists routinely dismiss or ignore such metaphysics.  Which is why, I suspect, they fail to see the ever-present miracles about our known state of reality.  Almost any kind of reality where there is a consciousness that can think and imagine the mysteries of it’s own existence, is a reality that has astounding miraculousness to it.  The fact science seeks to slowly pull back the veils that shroud these mysteries does not diminish the beauty and profundity of it all, and in fact, as we have seen science unfold with it’s explanations for phenomena, it almost always seems elegant and simple, yet amazingly complex in consequences, such that if one truly appreciates it all, then there is no need whatsoever to look for fine-tuning coincidences or formulaic inevitabilities to cultivate a natural and deep sense of religiosity.

I should pause and define loosely what I mean by “religiosity”.  I mean nothing too much more than what Einstein often articulated: a sense of our existence, our universe, being only a small part of something beyond our present understanding, a sense that maybe there is something more transcendent than our corner of the cosmos.  No grand design is in mind here, no grand picture or theory of creation, just a sense of wonder and enlightenment at the beauty inherent in the natural world and in our expanding conscious sphere which interprets the great book of nature. (OK, so this is rather more poetic than what you might hope for, but I will not apologise for that.   I think something gets lost if you remove the poetry from definitions of things like spirituality or religion.  I think this is because if there really is meaning in such notions, they must have aspects that do ultimately lie beyond the reach of science, and so poetry is one of the few vehicles of communication that can point to the intended meanings, because differential equations or numerics will not suffice.)

OK, so maybe Arkani-Hamed is not completely nuts in thinking there is this scenario whereby he would contemplate becoming “religious” in the Einsteinian sense.  And really, no where in this essay am I seriously disagreeing with the Professor.  I just think that perhaps if scientists like Arkani-Hamed thought a little deeper about things, and did not have such materialistic lenses shading their inner vision, perhaps they would be able to see that miracles are not necessary for a deep and profound sense of religiosity or spiritual understanding or appreciation of our cosmos.

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Just to be clear and “on the record”, my own personal view is that there must surely be something beyond physical reality. I am, for instance, a believer in the platonic view of mathematics: which is that humans, and mathematicians from other sentient civilizations which may exist throughout the cosmos, gain their mathematical understanding through a kind of discovery of eternal truths about realms of axiomatics and principles of numbers and geometry and deeper abstractions, none of which exist in any temporal pre-existing sense within our physical world. Mathematical theorems are thus not brought into being by human minds. They are ideas that exist independently of any physical universe. Furthermore, I happen to believe in something I would call “The Absolute Infinite”. I do not know what this is precisely, I just have an aesthetic sense of It, and It is something that might also be thought of as the source of all things, some kind of universal uncaused cause of all things. But to me, these are not scientific beliefs. They are personal beliefs about a greater reality that I have gleaned from many sources over the years. Yet, amazingly perhaps, physics and mathematics have been one of my prime sources for such beliefs.

The fact I cannot understand such a concept (as the Absolute Infinite) should not give me any pause to wonder if it truly exists or not. And I feel no less mature or more infantile for having such beliefs. If anything I pity the intellectually impoverished souls who cannot be open to such beliefs and speculations. I might point out that speculation is not a bad thing either, without speculative ideas where would science be? Stuck with pre-Copernican Ptolemy cosmology or pre-Eratosthenes physics I imagine, for speculation was needed to invent gizmos like telescopes and to wonder about how to measure the diameter of the Earth using just the shadow of a tall tower in Alexandria.

To imagine something greater than ourselves is always going to be difficult, and to truly understand such a greater reality is perhaps canonically impossible. So we aught not let such smallness of our minds debar us from truth. It is thus a struggle to keep an open-mind about metaphysics, but I think it is morally correct to do so and to resist the weak temptation to give in to philosophical negativism and minimalism about the worlds that potentially exist beyond ours.

Strangely, many self-professing atheists think they can imagine we live in a super Multiverse. I would ask them how they can believe in such a prolific cosmos and yet not also accept the potential existences beyond the physical? And not even “actual existence” just simply “potential existence”. I would then point out that as long as there is admitted potential reality and plausible truth to things beyond the physical, you cannot honestly commit to any brand of atheism. To my mind, even my most open-mind, this form of atheism would seem terribly dishonest and self-deceiving.

Exactly how physics and mathematics could inform my spiritual beliefs is hard to explain in a few words. Maybe sometime later there is an essay to be written on this topic. For now, all I will say is that like Nima Arkani-Hamed, I have a deep sense of the “correctness” of certain ways of thinking about physics, and sometimes mathematics too (although mathematics is less constrained). And similar senses of aesthetics draw me in like the unveiling of a Beethoven symphony to an almost inevitable realisation of some version of truth to the reality of worlds beyond the physical, worlds where infinite numbers reside, where the mind can explore unrestrained by bones and flesh and need for food or water.  In such worlds greater beauty than on Earth resides.


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Propelled by Beams of Intellectual Light

One frustrating thing about being a mathematics teacher is the difficulty of conveying to young students the sometimes terrifying giddiness of plunging deep into mathematics. There is an awesome sort of thrilling vertigo associated with trying to understand, and work through, high level mathematics.

The cool thing about mathematics is that it is endlessly capable of providing such a thrill, no matter what your age or talent, no matter what level of ability you already have. There are also many different paths one can explore to get these adrenalin rushes.  Godel’s incompleteness theorems loosely suggest there is no end to the depths and heights of mathematical investigation.  There will always be a need for new distilled crystallized axioms that try to best express our most basic and unquestionable mathematical presumptions.  A possible future might even see multiple parallel universes of mathematics, pure imaginary worlds that can never collide because their alternative fundamental axioms will never be able to be proven to be across-world consistent, and yet which cannot be proven to be inconsistent.

One recent path I took was reading about some recent discoveries from the papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s work is one of the most amazing collections in mathematical history. Not always the most applicable to modern technology (hardly any physicists have ever made use of Ramanujan’s results), but as pure abstract journeys of the mind Ramanujan’s work stands almost unparalleled in history.

math_Ramanujans.manuscript_Near.Fermat.Counterexamples

Ramanujan’s manuscript. The representations of 1729 as the sum of two cubes appear in the bottom right corner. An equation expressing a near counter example to Fermat’s last theorem appears. Image courtesy Trinity College library. (From: https://plus.maths.org/content/ramanujan )

The analogy I conjured up was that of climbing Mount Everest without ropes or oxygen. Getting deep into mathematics can be that terrifying. You constantly get the piercing anxiety of, “I will never understand this!” Everyone knows this feeling, because school mathematics is still compulsory in most countries. Everyone hits this barrier at some stage. No matter how good they are with mathematics. People only vary in when they get to such a wall.

People who hit this wall early probably bifurcate: they either haul themselves over the wall with gargantuan heart-pounding effort, and continue on to excel in mathematics or sciences, while the others get daunted by the height and cannot see the other side and give up.

mind_mindfields

An image I borrowed from http://universalhiddeninsight.weebly.com/ blog, it seemed to capture the physical/intellectual interconnections in our minds, plus a sort of infinite mental expanse quite well.  I didn’t want to post a brain explosion image!  That might give the wrong impression.

This is, I know, too simplistic a picture, but I think it captures the psychological impact of mathematical learning for many people. Sometimes you can hit several walls, and maybe only the sixth or seventh seems insurmountable, and so you retire grand mathematics ambitions and turn to maybe history or teaching or a relatively safe branch of applied mathematics. But even going down those seemingly safe avenues there are walls of unimaginable height and beauty that can disturb you.

And this is part of the wonder and beauty of mathematics.

The other imagery that came to my mind was the primal fear the astronaut Chris Hadden spoke about when sitting confined in a Space Shuttle launch cabin and getting the giant or all kicks up the backside when the main rockets ignited and hurled him into orbit. (By the way; Hadden recorded a pitch-perfect cover of David Bowies’ “Major Tom” track while in orbit on the ISS, one Bowie himself described as, “the best cover he had heard.”) Going by recent history, there is only a 1 in 30 to 1 in 40 chance of surviving such rocket launches. So it is a fantastic gamble deciding to be an astronaut. It is amazing people still volunteer, considering robots are almost capable of performing most of the tasks needed in space missions. Why take the risk?

If you talk to Hadden and his colleagues I’m sure they will tell you it is dozens of times over worth the risk. Just watching the Earth slowly rotate underneath in the vastness of black space is something that seems to change the soul.

With surviving great overwhelming terror comes profound spiritual awareness.

The terror can be purely mental, it does not have to be physical. But there is a fascinating connection here in the human brain. Terror and other similar deep emotions like fear and envy, arise in the amphibian primitive centres of our brains, the amygdala and hippocampus, while the impact rises up to higher conscious brain functions and we can sometimes get an experience of an inner world of abstract delight and insight when these primitive regions are stimulated. (I know the mappings of brain regions to psychological states is not as simple as this, so neurologists please do not hassle me about this, q.v.  The Amygdala Is NOT the Brain’s Fear Center, by Joseph DeLoux, Psychology Today, 10 August 2015. The amygdala is more correctly merely a threat-response system, it is not a source of conscious fear, the amygdala merely contributes in small part to a more neocortex driven feeling of fear or fright.)

The flight-or-fight response originates primarily in the amygdala, and it is an unconscious response. The consciousness of being in sheer panic or rage filters up to higher brain regions only after a few seconds or moments, which is neurologically a fairly long time — at least a few dozen or hundred cycles of 40 Hz brain wave activity. But we are eventually consciously aware of our responses. What the conscious systems do with these feelings is then a complex matter. Some people are able to thrive on the fear or rage and go deeper into the rabbit hole. Others rebel and go for safety. So perhaps a whimsical caricatured “difference between” X-Game competitors and Wingsuit flying daredevils and a mathematical genius is only the type of stimulus they fly form or dive into. Get anxiety from heights or open spaces or hanging upside down then you might be more of a mathematician. Get anxiety from an undecipherable maze of symbols on paper that are demanding decryption, and feel ill at the hopelessness of untangling them, then you might be more of a skydiver or rock climber.

So I wonder if the act of doing mathematics has a tremendous amount of associated unconscious neural activity? I wonder if this translates into a thrill and adrenalin rush when some insight is gained and a forbidding intellectual wall appears to crumble and a new revelatory insight into the world of mathematics is unveiled? And I even wonder if this can be addictive?

Whatever your inclination, when you next hear about a mathematical or scientific breakthrough, spare a thought for those who made those endeavours possible. For every breakthrough there are hundreds or thousands of researcher’s who will never get the accolades and awards, but who daily put themselves through the anxiety-ridden turmoil of smashing their minds up against intellectual barriers and paralyzing laser grids of the mind, or who feel constantly like they are falling from infinite heights of mental anguish and never know when the fear will cease. But all they are doing is sitting or pacing around in their laboratory or study wondering desperately where the much needed inspiration will come from to rescue them from the impending calamity of intellectual loss.

When the magical insight arrives, if ever, then the risk of the depression becomes all worth it, because the thrill of insight and discovery in the invisible planes of abstract theory and intellectual monuments is like being driven across the cosmos on beams of light. The journey is an expansion of your mind, it receives new ideas, allows your brain to form new connections, and opens up fields of intellectual inquiry previously barred. The propulsion system is imagination, insight and, dare I say t, some sort of spiritual impulse. If you are a physicalist then I suppose there are neural correlates for all of this — and you may think of it all as non-miraculous if it makes you feel better —, but think deeply and you might realise there is something more. Doing truly insightful mathematics or science does, I think, at the very forefront and apex of human endeavour, bring something new into the physical universe. From where it comes is perhaps unknowable. You might admit, if you have been touched by real inspiration, that perhaps, just possibly, maybe even likely, there is a world of imagination and abstraction beyond our physical reality, perhaps even closer to us that the atoms constituting our body, perhaps more like the essence of our selves, an existence our body and brain are merely borrowing temporarily ‐ or the converse, depending on your point of view.

This is what is so hard to explain to young children and even mature students. To explain the feeling of experience of these intellectual thrills, and to even hope to remotely compare them to physical danger and excitement, is incredibly difficult for a teacher. These are in the realms of “you really have to experience it for yourself.”

To replicate such intellectual adventure in a classroom is one of the prime responsibilities of a teacher. Yet our schools suppress most attempts in these directions, sadly. I call upon call teachers to put away textbooks and exam-preparation sessions, and replace them with adventures into mathematical depths that offer no clear or easy chance of escape. How you motivate such exploration is up to you, all I can say is try it! Just give your students freedom to explore. Then be prepared to catch them with your firm gedanken safety rope when they cry out in terror!

math_Ramanujan_Man.Who.Knew.Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity“, by Robert Kanigel, Abacus Books, 1992 (See goodreads.)

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Pressing the Origins

If I were pressed to write less than 700 words on the current state of cosmology and tie it in with infinite number theory and the deplorable state of scientific media communication, then I might write something like this following email to my friend Syko.

Let me first get you “in” on this conversation:

Syko made a comment in an earlier email to the effect that he could agree the origin of the universe can be taken seriously, but … (in his words):

I … rather support the notion of the origin. I struggle with the idea that the universe is infinite. Doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t buy it.

Then I wrote back saying something like:

Things do not need to make sense for them to be real.  There are some wonderful and bizarre levels of “infinite”, in fact far more infinitely many layers of infinity than most ordinary people realise, but since you Syko are not an ordinary person I can reveal some of the panorama for you.  And in any case, you do not get to buy in to Nature, Nature has bought you, and you have no say in this deal!   If it is an infinite universe then it’s infinite and you’ll have to suck that up, if it is finite then it’s finite and we have to live within that.    As Feynman said, “The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you accept Nature as She is — absurd.”

One thing about the potentially infinite expanse is that it is darn hard to kill off our universe.  How can you destroy it?  In 1998 those crazy astronomers measured the expansion was accelerating.  So gravity will not seem to be crushing us out of existence in a few trillion trillion years, so it’ll just keep expanding forever from what current measurements can predict.

But within that infinite expansion there are amazing things that could happen.

One is a cyclical time cosmology.  You can Google that along with “Penrose” since any discussion of cyclic time without Roger Penrose is probably New Age clap-trap. Penrose is however the real deal.  I WARN YOU, it is pretty awesome stuff!   So Google at your own peril!  hahahaha!
cosmology_conformal_cyclic_cosmology
Then Syko replied:

Haha. Nature is not for me to buy, but the theories of mere men are, until proven. The infinite thing is a little to abstract. I get that there was a beginning. That the universe could be expanding. But the idea that it has no end or frontier and that it never ends. Well , I don’t think that’s right. It seems lazy to say it’s infinite.

And that led to my longer email about cosmology, the infinite, and science communication.  Here it is …

         *          *          *

Hey Syko,

I’m curious why you think it is lazy to theorise the universe could have infinite extent in time?  (Note that this does not imply infinite extent in space unless the expansion does not slow down to an asymptotic limit.)

Surely the idea of an infinite time is not really lazy, none more so than theorising time will be finite.  However, stating a theory which begins with such an assumption, either way, finite or infinite, is a lazy approach in a sense (and perhaps that’s what you mean?)  because it is simply assuming a fact that should be provable or falsifiable by other means, either by a less presumptive theory or by observational evidence.

But in any case, the best evidence available to date tells us the universe will expand forever.  This is not a theory.  It is a fact about the dark energy component of the universe together with the theory of general relativity.  It could be wrong, but it’s the best answer we have at present.

These physical “potential infinities” are one thing.  But the really exciting stuff, I think, is in pure mathematics where the transfinite numbers are considered.  It takes some mental effort to wrap your head around the concepts, but there are amazing possibilities involving transfinite number theory being applied to solve hitherto impossible problems in analysis (calculus) including maybe tackling problems that arise in quantum mechanics and general relativity when calculations arrive at irreducibly infinite numerical answers.  The idea before was that the theories had to be wrong or incomplete because they gave infinite numerical answers to fairly basic questions.   But modern mathematic suggests the idea that the infinite number answers might be totally sensible if interpreted according to transfinite arithmetic.  However, this is not all worked out and there is a communication gap between the physicists and the mathematicians.

Ordinal number spiral

When you have time… I am also curious about people who cannot conceive of anything existing prior to the “Big Bang”.   People are fond of saying that the Big Bang arose out of nothingness as a quantum fluctuation.  But this is sheer madness, since quantum fluctuations cannot fluctuate without a pre-existing spacetime in which to fluctuate.  And no one has ever shown how spacetime can fluctuate itself into existence from nothing.   In fact, there is not even a primitive philosophy about how to do it, so the physics has absolutely no hope of actually explaining the existence and origin of the universe.

So I really lose patience and can get quite irate with scientists in the media who get into the public airways and start saying things like how physics has explained the origin f the universe.  It is utter nonsense and gives physics a bad reputation in my opinion.   To give you some idea of the scale of this lunacy, at least in my opinion, I would describe it as analogous to a reputable biologist speaking to the media in all calmness and coolness and seriousness telling them that not only all known diseases, but in fact all future possible diseases from all possible vectors whether they be based either on DNA-based pathogens or non-DNA based life, have all been cured in theory by recent discoveries in the field of quantum medicine.

What physics can do is explain how things evolved after the period of cosmic hyper-inflation which happened after the universe became more than a singularity.  The actual history prior to this is completely mysterious to physics.  We do not even know if there ever was an initial singularity.   People who argue science says otherwise are completely deluded and are impossible to debate and argue rationally with.

That’s my opinion.  I wish people would take my opinion more seriously and read them, and take them to heart, before issuing any public relations announcements on behalf of science.  Of course if people did so and qualified all their claims and speculations correctly no science press conference could possibly last for less than about 30 minutes I imagine.  Hahahaha!

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You know what, I actually prefer Sir Roger’s hand-drawn diagrams:

Penrose CCC diagram

If you are interested in business strategy and economics and marketing, there is a dude Ben Thompson writing a great blog on such matter.  I mention him because he also uses hand-drawn diagrams to amazing effect.  It’s only data viz art, but funky cool.  Check him out here: https://stratechery.com/,  and there is his podcast here: http://exponent.fm/.

 

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Small and Large Prime Lecture Times

Is this why blogs were invented? So people could just let off steam.

TerryTao_on_gaps_between_primes_the_glance_at_the_watch_moment

The glance at the wrist watch.

Whatever the case, I have some steam about academic seminars which needs something to heat. Preferably a department HOD or resident seminar organizer, or the lecture hours manager.

In my lunch hours I get time to hold a mathematics seminar in my office. The audience size is 1, and the guest speaker is not present.

Well I don’t have the privilege of working in a great mathematics or physics department at the moment. So I need to YouTube for all my seminars. This gives up control. So if something annoys me all I have is a blog and a few friends who occasionally do not mind a small buzzing noise in their ears emanating from my general direction.

The origin of my current plume of steam is Terry Tao, Ph.D. Small and Large Gaps Between the Primes (www.youtube.com/watch?v=pp06oGD4m00).

Here I am enjoying my lunch with coffee listening to Professor Tao explain the sieves, the loglogloglog theorems, the probabilistic number theoretic models and other tricks for deducing the bounds on gaps between primes. Then about 43 minutes into the video he glances at his wrist-watch and clearly wonders if he has enough time to explain the ideas in some detail. He says,

“Zhang’s big breakthrough was that he found a new theorem about primes in arithmetic progressions that was not available before.

[glances at his watch]

Ummm, arrr, or, ok, maybe I, I won’t say exactly what it is … “

Well, damn! That kinda’ spoils the whole movie doesn’t it!

So it’s understandable isn’t it. You have 55 minutes for a seminar and should really stick to it, since lecturers have students waiting for classes and so forth. But then I thought, why?

It’s bullshit. Students can attend the darned seminar. They could learn something. Or at worst catch some useful zzz’s. Classes can be put on hold, or even canceled, did that ever hurt a single student? Then you just go and let a guy like Terrance Tao talk for as long as he damn well pleases without a single clock in sight to distract him.

That’s how to run seminars people!

Not so’s people are all like this …

Tyranny_of_time_white_rabbit_2

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The little things that make a human divine

Was just searching the meanings behind names, for characters in my novelette.  It’s important (integral really) that what I write is careful, and the names are important symbolically.  (I certainly do not feel the same about real life — names in reality are unimportant for me, they are attachments to the past, and serve a fine purpose, but are not exceptionally relevant.)  However, when you start writing fiction you (might? … well it happened for me) get a sudden change in perspective on names.  It’s unlike the real social sphere.  In a sense, a writer of a novel is creating an imaginary universe.  They are it’s deity.  So quite amazingly (to me at first) it becomes a sensitive matter, a matter of deep ontology, to create characters with meaningful names, or cryptic names, or just names that have a special emotional resonance—for you, the writer.  They are your creatures, and you owe them some sort of benevolence and respect.  Yeah, yeah.  This is all a bit dopey and indulgent.  A writer is no deity, even in their own mind, in fact sometimes you feel the antithesis of a benevolent demigod for the universe you create. So what?  It’s how I  genuinely, and unselfconsciously connected to the story I’ve been aching to forge.

There’s a good website here www.behindthename.com/ and I came across Janani Dhinakaran’s blog, The Outsider’s Journey, and bang!  It just gave me the inspirational kick to start a blog so that I could ditch my overly introverted journal, and basically unseen F/B pages (which are not great reads anyway) to start a proper journal for my kids to (maybe someday) read.  “Oh boy!” I tell myself.  This could be hard to write, and harder to read.   But thanks Janani, whoever you are.  May we happily meet by random chance one day and not even know it, but feel the surge in life’s connected continuous fields (giving us a little buzz somehow) and re-radiate the mysterious happiness of the moment to all around us.

It did not take much effort on my part to have Janani make this divine little influence in my life.   Guess that’s what makes people all the more wonderful.  They can touch another’s soul without ever realizing it.  Now all  I need to do to thank her is get my novelette going faster and be true to the imagined humanity of the characters I have and will create. That’s all, pff!  ‘s not too much pressure being a fictional deity.

It was the tiniest impulse.  Maybe the tipping point was just her blog entry janinthesky.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/starry-night/ which did it?  Gazing at the stars was so important for me as a kid growing up in Aotearoa, I had my parents get extra windows installed in my bedroom, so I could watch the stars as I feel asleep. Pretty obvious resonance then huh?  But I’ve had loads of tremendously insightful and achingly gorgeous moments browsing the web, so why now?  Ahhhh, that’s a little secret I will not yet divulge.  Who really knows what one’s motives are though?  I’ve read research suggesting most people tell fictions to themselves, stories they believe, to explain their actions, which are (the psychologists tell us) very, very tenuously related to really what drives them.

Professor Sean Lane at LSU says that even being forced to repeatedly deny something has a weired psychological backfire effect—amazingly some people (which includes the mythical yet undeniably impactful “average person”) can be self-deceived into believing the lie in the denial.  Here’s a brief except from ScienceDaily.com:

To explain, Lane cited the “illusory truth effect,” the idea that hearing false information repeatedly will make it seem truthful, simply because it’s familiar. His study takes this idea in a new direction.

“They’re telling the truth, they’re denying, but later this thing seems familiar,” said Lane. “They’re confusing the familiarity of the repetition [with the truth], not realizing that those repeated denials are what makes it seem familiar 48 hours later.”

This means that telling the truth can actually lead to a false memory. A man who repeatedly denies being present at the scene of the crime, for example, might actually begin to imagine that scene — where it was, what it looked like, who was present — even if he was never there. It feels strangely familiar to him, and because the repeated denials have slipped from his memory, he can’t explain why.

False memory is a well-documented phenomenon, and Lane has researched it extensively throughout his career. In a courtroom, it can be disastrous. Through studies like this one, Lane offers forensic investigators a deeper insight into this bizarre behavior.

An accessible read on similar psychology is Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception.  Try the NYTimes review of the book if you are in a hurry.

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My mind has it’s own theory, about why Janani’s blog inspired me, and I believe it to be sincere, since I haven’t thought much about it. I haven’t had time to repeat it to myself to believe it for banal psychological self-delusion reasons.  It’s just this first theme for this blog which popped into my head (or should I write “out of my head”?).

Ha!  Maybe this is all fiction.  Thing is, if it is, I don’t know it!