How crushed is the political “left”?

In a truly lovely recent interview with singer Nellie McKay on the Jimmy Dore Show, McKay does a great job of telling it “how it is” on the political left in the USA these days. Completely crushed by corporate interests one could say. But is that really true?
This clip is well worth watching over lunch, McKay is adorable but also not shy in expressing her politics which includes disdain for Bernie Sanders who she regards as having corrupted and militaristic foreign policy ideas.

McKay’s modernized cover of “Whoopee we’re all gonna die” is awesome. (Though I would not applaud her performance it’s too sobering for applause but the thing is, she puts a smile on your face. Not many artists writing and singing about the horror and lunacy of war can do that.)

Nellie McKay singing "Fixin to Die"
McKay performing “Fixin’ to Die”.

Having thus glowingly approved of McKay, I will take issue with one throw-away comment she made. She let slip to Jimmy “the genuine left has been crushed”. That’s an understandable sentiment… if you mistakenly regard “left” as “US Democratic Party” and “independent mainstream news media” and enlightened educations and enlightened economics. Yes those have all be severely crushed.

But has the “genuine left has been crushed”? It’s not true but I know what she means.

There is zero representation of a genuine “left” in either of the USA Houses for instance, and virtually zero left opinion in mainstream cable news outlets (compared to right wing and centrist conservatism masquerading as “liberal left”). But at the grass roots leftist thinking and activism is rife.

Consider that the only significant right wing protest group in decades has been the Tea Party, and they are a pathetic lot, full of venom and hate and miserly misanthropic policies, which means they are not truly sustaining for a political moment. Compare that to Occupy and Our Revolution and Justice Democrats and the Zeitgeist Movement and dozens of others, seriously more than dozens of other small grass roots leftist movements, and then you will see there is just no comparison: the left is thousands of times more energetic and active than the right.

Older folks don’t “see” this because corporations still control the media and advertising domains, but younger kids who do not watch TV and who get long opinion pieces and lectures on blogs, YouTube and increasingly more on Steemit or DTube and other “free media” can see it. The trouble is where it matters, in legislatures and in academia and news media, the “centrist right” propagandists have won the battles… for now. But theirs is not a sustainable victory.

Once the propaganda fog is cleared people never go back, so it is a one-way ratchet effect when truth is spread and so, over time, perhaps within decades, the tired old conservatism and right wing corporate brand of politics (which includes the current establishment wing of the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party) will inevitably fade into obscurity. Any half decent sociologist could see this if they correctly interpret the data on social movement activism. The alt-right/Trumpists-extremists get perhaps 100 times more coverage in mainstream media than would objectively be “deserved” by their numbers and the proportion of sentiment that they share with the average citizen. Remarkably even mainstream media polling shows this!  So the alt-right resurgence and Trumpism circus phenomenon are short lived flashes of dying embers of capital realism.

A lot of people I am listening to on alt/independent social media are echoing this; there is a rapidly growing realisation that free market capitalism is not inevitable and is not the Fukuyamaesque end-of-history and that there is plenty more life in political economy ideas that have not been tried yet and have not been adequately synergised. e.g., a synergy of working class financial equality pressure has not been adequately united yet with the good aspects of liberalism and environmentalism. And the idea of capitalist realism is becoming to be seen as a fraudulent paranoiac idea, a complete myth.  And while “globalization” still reeks of the stench and exploitive-rape mindset of neoliberalism there is no good unification of enlightened political economy with international good will yet either.  So in short, a heck of a lot of room exists for evolution and growth and maturation in leftist politics.  The fruition of this, I believe, in the very far future, will be a complete abandonment of the notions of political “left vs right”.

The spark of truth emerges not from ideology clashing with ideology but rather with people interacting and discussing ideas and generating true intellectual foment not artificial ideologically lined up barrages. Truth also emerges from sustained action.  Debates in echo chambers of the left will not suffice to breath new life into leftist politics.

One reason I always have hope is that a corruption of morality is never sustainable.  And that is why although capitalist realism may have once seemed invincible, it need not be held as a drug of nihilism any longer, because it was founded upon immoral principles like supremacy of free market forces and dogma’s about the inevitability of inequality and unemployment.

By the end of the 21’st century I would suspect environmental and social ethics in politics and economics will have completely replaced the artificial notions of political left and political right. We just will not need those categories because the problems humanity and the Earth will face will not be left or right issues they will be humanitarian and universal ethical and moral issues.

The intermediate problem is in educating good people to see this. If the left wing in politics persists in sloppy liberalist thinking, in thinking there are no moral absolutes and everything is culturally relative, then the necessary universal virtues that humanity needs to overcome established political doctrines will not gather enough social impetus until perhaps it is too late and humanity becomes submerged under global poverty due to successive financial and environmental crises.

Note that I am not talking about “the west” imposing It’s judeo-christian spiritual values on society, no no no!  The universal ethic and morals I am talking about utterly transcend cultural boundaries, they are found in common in Hindu texts, Buddhist texts, Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts and in secular atheist philosophy too, and even the “new religiosity” of cyber-scientism. Wherever you seek moral and spiritual universals, all these different systems of thought on morality and ethics converge and they converge quite remarkably and consistently almost “mathematically”(?) This is all abundantly clear if you bother to do any deep critical reading in religion and philosophy. (For example, I was reading through the Buddhist Sutta Pitaka and Dammapada the other day and was struck by an amazingly high correlation in general philosophical principles with both Baha’i and Islamic texts, and even high overlap with the more abstract less melodramatic and less “biblical literalist” Christian and Talmudic and Vedic texts.)

It is  useless going to the current priesthood authorities to learn of these commonalities, because their vested interest is in forging the greatest possible disparity and division among the world’s religions and secular philosophies. They are the ones who crave to preserve power. The original teachings have no such elements anywhere — just read them — they never advocate investing power and authority in the clergy or priesthood.

All these “systems of thought” can be cynically viewed through the memetic lens of “systems of power and control” and there is much merit to having such a cynical lens (we would not be in good shape without such cynicism) but that is clearly not what the original founding teachings suggest.  There is no power and control system in the original texts. That authoritarian power and control appropriation of religion is an externally derived phenomenon similar to how capitalist bankers and financiers have corrupted the otherwise value-neutral monetary system of economics. The money idea, the idea of using a simple cost-free medium of trade and exchange, is not evil. What is evil is what ruthless psychopaths in financial institutions have done with the facility of money.  Of course precisely because money has become corrupted it is well worth at least considering alternatives, such as how to develop efficient economies without money.  Since money is so easily corrupted, perhaps it just isn’t a good idea any longer, at least not until humanity as a whole matures.  (I realise the irony there — a more mature collective human society would then not need money.  Once we learn to cope without money, we will never need it back again.)

But back to current politics and chances for an overthrow of the established orders and a de-crushing of “the left”.

Human civilization is too complicated for anyone to have prophetic powers about these things, but I am suggesting a fairly sober and conservative analysis that draws on historical trends and data on social movements.  Although Steven Pinker’s politics are embarrassingly naïve, his data collections in “Better Angels of Our Nature” are solidly sourced and in his database you can see the trends I am alluding to.  Go read his work. You do not have to buy-in to Pinker’s neo-capitalist politics to appreciate the value in the data he has collected on how human civilization is becoming progressively more peaceful and virtuous.

The thing is “civilizations” do not become more virtuous, people become more virtuous.

So all the data is evidence that people are becoming more peaceful and spiritually mindful.  It is a positive type of invisible force, a psychological force of good will and joy born from the fruits of cooperation and compassion.   People are naturally drawn towards such good peaceful ideas because they are safe they invite playfulness, they always come with the promise of greater joy an happiness.  These positive social forces exists in our times alongside a parallel destructive set of forces that seek to maintain the current socio-economic order of powerful wealthy and disenfranchised poor. The former positive forces are profoundly non-darwinian because they spread through recognition of interest in helping “the other” whereas the prevailing negative forces that are in decline and causing their own self-destruction in ironically, an accelerating darwinist fashion, are ruthlessly darwinian.  The non-darwinian positive social forces are destined to win I think, no matter what the present conditions, because they do not plant the seeds of their own destruction, they use positive feedback loops not negative feedbacks.

Remember you likely do not believe this hopeful positive aspect exists because you are watching too much right wing corporate media. Get out into the world talk to your neighbours, and you will see Pinker’s data is actually quite conservative. (If you live in one of those luxury “gated communities” then I suggest you will probably not find good thinking within you network of closest neighbours, you will probably just find a lot of fear and militarism and hatred and disgust for the plight of the poor, not sympathy you need to go outside a bit further!) People might be very angry and frustrated with modern capitalism but beyond their anger is a wellspring of human spiritual resource that can be harnessed for peace and true prosperity for all.


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”).


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.


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.


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: )

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.


An image I borrowed from 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!


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

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Dear Amtheamatics — The Silver Saxphones Say I Should Abuse You

That’s a slight corruption of the lyric from Bob Dylan’s “I Want You“. I was doodling around with some mathematics when Dylan’s song came up on my playlist.  Although it is a song about relationships it was speaking to me about mathematics and science this day.

Math Girls v1 cover

Math Girls series, volume 2, by Hiroshi Yuki, cover.

I really do want to abuse mathematics. I’d like to get it to work for me in the craziest ways. I’d like to write a novel about some advanced unforeseen mathematical theorems and investigations. To do so would require inventing some impossible mathematics. If this is to be done then the result would likely not be true mathematics, in that it would have little or no connection to future theorems and results in mathematical sciences.

The point of the novel would be to illuminate literature with a glimpse of the wondrous dream-world that mathematical minds tend to swim about in most days. So my novel would not need to be mathematically accurate. Just highly realistic. Inspirational without being 100% plausible. But plausible enough that a layperson or even many professional mathematicians, would not be able to tell the difference. Is this sort of semi-realism possible?

Surely it’s possible. The question is can I write such stuff!

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In the Head of a Symbolist

A lot of serious mathematicians would probably baulk against my project. “Why the heck wold you want to do fictional mathematics when real mathematics is so much more exciting?”, scream the grey saxaphones of the soulless.

Actually I do not have a great response to that question. Because real mathematical investigation is exhilarating. But I do have a weak reply. Partly, (and here most people might sympathise with me) doing real mathematics is bloody hard work. 90% of the time you have a problem to solve and cannot see your way to the solution. 9% of the time the solution seems clear but getting to the end of it seems like a marathon race or akin to sitting through 100 hours of parliamentary debates and select committee meetings. It’s not always like this, but when the only solution to a puzzle seems to be to grind away on some repetitive search task and tedious run-of-the-mill calculation, then the parliamentary analogy can seem subjectively appropriate.

That’s the non-glorious side of mathematics that most people experience from school. However, I’d like to put together a novel that presents the other mostly hidden glorious side of mathematics.

A mathematician will get a question stuck in their head. They might (in the past) go to a library to find the answer, or (these days) Google for the answer. 80% of the time they probably find someone has already answered the question. The other 20% of the time there is tremendous excitement in finding an unanswered question. It is tremendously exciting because it is so rare to find a good unanswered and unasked question. Although there are infinitely many unanswered questions and only finitely many answered questions, it does paradoxically seem very hard to find a good unanswered question. For a mathematician or scientist they are like gold. (This precludes the many asked questions that remain unanswered, since they have already been asked they are not the same kind of gold, more like silver or bronze.)

So if one is lucky there is no answer and no one has asked the question before. This is exciting and dangerous. It is dangerous because then the question will haunt the mathematician. Sometimes to the end of their life.

But such an event is also the fire of life. It can drive your mind like nothing else. Even cliché’s like “better than sex” do not even apply. It goes beyond cliché, and must, as with some religious experiences, “be experienced”.

In fact I would ague that genuine mathematical insight is a spiritual experience. And I am fully prepared to defend this thesis. One day I might even do so for real. It is an important idea that our modern western civilisation tends to discount as anti-intellectual and un-rigorous. But I think this is an unfair judgement and to paraphrase Kurt Gödel (one of the preeminent mathematical logicians of the twentieth century, and certainly the most famous), “a prejudice of our times“.

Yes. I think if one is really committed to investigating mathematics, whether one cares to admit it or not, one is engaged in a spiritual pursuit. It is certainly possible to be engaged with this spiritual discipline and yet deny vociferously that it is spiritual. If you do not believe in spiritual reality then naturally even when you are exercising spiritual impulses you will deny it. Almost everyone does this at some in point in life. You find yourself acting altruistically yet deny this is your motive. Someone tells you that you are acting selfishly or prejudicially and yet you deny it, but objectively there there can be no denial.

I have read (but not interviewed) a few mathematicians who strongly believe the exercise of mathematics is nothing more than manipulating symbols on paper or in one’s mind using certain rules. These rules are what we refer to as “mathematics”. They are wrong. They may be correct that this is what they truly believe. They may also be correct that in some societies and circles of acquaintances this definition of “what it means to be mathematics” is exactly such cold unemotional symbol manipulation.

But I can justify with a high degree of rigour that there is an alternative definition of “Mathematics” (yes, with a capital “M” for Mphasis) that goes far beyond the impoverished thinking of a symbol manipulator. Gödel knew this also.

My project is to take this higher plane spiritual view of Mathematics and put it into a novel that anyone can read and appreciate. It would not be to popularise mathematics. But my hope it would give a reader a sense of renewed wonder at the world. The human mind can go places without hallucinogenic drugs that most people never get to see. And these places can be amazing and awesome, scary and beautiful, captivating and sometimes almost horrific and frightening in their depth and complexity. Breathtaking and rejuvenating, sometimes deadening black & white in repetitiveness and then bursting with colours beyond the physical spectrum of anyone’s imagination.

Hmmm … that last hyperbolé might capture what I really wish to communicate. You see, one of the truly spiritual wonders of mathematics is that in investigating a challenging problem a mathematician is forced to dream beyond what they can imagine. How is that possible? What happens is that the problem reveals a computation or mini-puzzle that must be solved to answer the original question. Sometimes the solution to this sub-problem is so unexpected and revelatory that the mathematician has to stop and pause for wonderment. It is at once beyond what the mathematician could have imagined, so they check their logic and  …  yes, it is true, there was no mistake in the calculations. So the mathematician is then flipped in consciousness into believing what was previously unimaginable.

In this unfolding there is every hint of a truly spiritual endeavour. The final steps in this process are mechanical and logical, but getting to this point is the spiritual journey. Then having mechanically checked everything is ok the final dawning consciousness of the importance of the result for other branches of mathematics, or for the practical problem at hand, is again nothing short of a spiritual awakening. You do not have to believe or appreciate the spiritual significance. Many mathematicians refuse to and go to pains to avoid emotional responses to their own work. But the spiritual significance is real nonetheless.

It is not an easy thing to recognise either. Such mathematical spiritual realisations are often not “beautiful” in the same way as great art or music. They tend to be austere and elemental in their beauty. A perfect circle is, after all, quite boring. A hand-drawn circle seems to many people to have more “spirit”, especially when it is part of a greater work of art. But a mathematical mind finds more in a perfect circle than the line on paper. They see many, many new and interesting properties, and I am not even going to explain the transcendental number π, that is only one of many beauties in a circle. But if they try to communicate these niceties to the general public then a lot of the mystery seems to be inexplicable, and the beauty vanishes because the medium of communication is too dull.

This is the general problem of mathematical popularization. It is a contradictory endeavour. Mathematics cannot truly be communicated unless one learns the mathematics. So to attempt to popularize mathematics is fraught with impossibilities and paradoxes. You need to simplify concepts for a general audience, and at some point in simplification the essential mathematical mystery can get entirely lost. What remains is a façade, almost empty words that just “have to be believed”.

You know what I mean. When people say,

“Andrew Wiles proved the hundred year old Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995. Wiles’ work was hundreds of pages of proof and an exposition of diverse fields of mathematics, connecting Modular Forms with Elliptic Equations. Yet Pierre De’Fermat wrote that a proof of his theorem was found that was wonderful but would not fit in the margin of his book.”

Then we are supposed to be impressed right?

We are supposed to be impressed that Fermat had a wonderful proof which remained undiscovered for hundreds of years, and Andrew Wiles worked his butt off finding a proof that was a tour de force and involved mathematical ideas that were completely unknown to Fermat. And we are supposed to be impressed by all of this as if we understood the effort. Well, for sure I was impressed by Wiles’ achievement. And I can even retain some residual amusement that perhaps Fermat had an elegant proof but it was probably flawed.

But to have any insight into the spiritual wonder of Fermat’s Last Theorem is truly difficult to gain, unless one has some inkling of understanding f the meaning of the theorem and the tremendous complexity and intricacy and unifying ideas of Wiles’ proof. At one point in the BBC documentary about Wiles’ efforts Andrew Wiles has a moment where tears well up in his eyes as he remarks, “I will never do anything as important as this again”.

That almost gets to the spirit. It is a beautiful moment. Wiles has this seemingly simultaneous emotion of loss of greatness (“never again”) superposed with triumph (“as important as this”).

My point is that the general audience has to somehow trust that all of this is as awesome as the documentary and commentary suggest. The fact Andrew Wiles is not an actor really helps! But the inner core of emotion can only be guessed at. If I had to try to explain what Wiles was thinking I would take another essay, and even then to get to the heart of the spiritual aspects of Wiles’ work would take Wiles’ own words, and even then much of it would probably be lost in his own prejudices and misconceptions about the philosophy of mathematics, despite his authoritative knowledge of his own proof.

A Japanese Author Who Did Not Abuse Mathematics

Just want to now plug one author who has managed to avoid corrupting mathematics and yet tell an exciting and highly readable story. The novel “Math Girls” and it’s sequels, by Hiroshi Yuki, are best-sellers in Japan, and the first two volumes have recently been translated into English by Tony Gonzalez for Bento Books.

Excertp from Math Girls, p62.

Excerpt from Math Girls, vol.1., by Hiroshi Yuki.

The mathematics in these novels is the real deal. So give them a go. And if you are a high school teacher then I suggest retiring your textbooks, convert them to computer monitor stands, and using these novels instead. The textbooks can be a reference. But for learning, at least for beginning students, give them these novels at first, please! Once inspired then release the textbooks.

Actually don’t do that. After the novels, release the puzzles and curiosities in worksheets and recreational mathematics books. Keep the textbooks accessible but chained up in the reference shelf.

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Oh yeah … why “Amtheamtics” in the title?

That is my most common typing of “mathematics”. The sequence my fingers hit the correct letters on my keyboard permute the letters this way about 60% of the time. My funniest typo is “does not” which 20% of the time comes out as “doe snot”. Another common typo is “student” which 50% of the time becomes “studnet”. Probably my most common typo is “whihc”.

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Hmmm, the Force is Weak with this One

Well, I was meaning to expand upon the spiritual forces themes.    The trouble with analogies is that sometimes they are too vague, and it has been beyond my capacity right now to get deeper into the notions of spiritual forces.  I still do think the analogies with physical forces and fields has a lot more traction.

Not all analogies are good ones either.  And sometimes they only have great power when there is a deep truth behind them, even though you might not be aware of it.  Also, to write anything profound I wonder if one needs to write from a position of dominance of some kind, not necessarily of dominance over the ideas, but dominance over one’s ego.  If there is ego or dis-spiriting influence clouding the view then how can one’s writing and thinking be pure.  For these reasons I’m taking a little break from the spirituality theme.  But it’s a passion I have, so I will return.


I just Google’d “the force is weak with this one” and found this cartoon, courtesy of Beeslo and Colonel Panic.

"The force is weak with this one"


But this panel from “Family Guy” is the better LOL!

The weak nuclear force???

Sometimes you have to let ideas ferment and fall from favour before they can gain renewed life.  So that’s what’s going on with my thoughts on spiritual forces for now.

Spiritual Structure from Analogy

This is another in a series of posts about spiritual forces.  In this one I’m going to attempt to find out more about spiritual forces and dynamics using physical analogy.  But WARNING: this is a very direct physical use of analogy, from physical forces and associated concepts to spiritual ideas.   So I’m not certain this is the best way to approach the subject (of spiritual forces). But just indulge me ok, consider this a playful composition of ideas.

It is not a final draft. I’ve written it as a train of thought, showing you how my thinking works in something like real time.  Think of it as a delayed live action feed into my mind, with most of my daily cares deleted.   The purpose is not to show you how my brain works, but rather to motivate you to think of further ideas along these lines, or contrary creative ideas.

The Spiritual — A Reminder

For these letters, “spiritual” refers to abstract ideas like love, beauty, truth, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and the list goes on.  These are things that have an objective reality, but not a physical reality in their essence.  We can know of these spiritual attributes through our physical senses because all created things manifest something of these abstract eternal spiritual qualities.  A humble rock or speck of dust, for example, manifests the entirely abstract and atemporal quality of “beauty” in the form of it’s crystalline structure. It also manifest a tiny degree of “love” in the cohesion of it’s atomic bonding.

To be perfectly clear, “love” is not an inter-atomic force between charged particles.  The relationship between love and cohesive forces is really the other way around. Gravitational masses and opposite electric charges manifest a particular instantiation of love, which is a purely physical form, that being the attraction between oppositely charged particles, or between gravitational masses.  And of these two physical manifestations of the most basic an elementary aspect of love, it is gravity which is rather beautiful because it is universal and always attractive.   Of course, this can have grave and horrific consequences, such as getting too close to a black hole.

There are perhaps spiritual analogies to the gravitationally completely collapsed objects known as black holes. Can you think of one?

Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the spiritual)

Love can be compared to the universal force of gravity.  What is binded by gravity is mass.  What is bound by love are sentient souls. T he carrier of the force of gravity is the graviton. The stuff which feels the force of gravity is mass (which means gravitational charge).

In the classical picture the graviton acts via geometry, curving spacetime and thus veering two masses towards each other.   Or in the quantum mechanical picture the graviton mediates the force of gravity by an exchange of a quantity called “spin”, which we can describe roughly as an irreducible element of rotational symmetry.   Spin is conserved.   But gravity acts by locally violating conservation of spin.   So the quantum gravity interaction is sort of like: “one mass gives up rotating one way, and the other mass takes up that rotation” and thus globally the symmetry is preserved. This is more of a poetic description of quantum gravity than an exact account, but it suffices for our purposes.

The search for structure in spiritual forces leads me to wonder about what the spiritual analogues are for spin or spacetime curvature, and is there something akin to a conserved quantity?   Or is this taking the metaphor too literally?

Recall Hopper Dunbar’s advice the physical world is a tangible expression and reflection of spiritual truths.   What is seen and understood in the relations between physical entities is mirrored in similar patterns and relations among spiritual realities, and vice versa.   This is presumably not a perfect correspondence, nor is it even entirely logical, but it is my only current guiding principle, so I will take it as far as I can.

At first I thought my understanding is also far too dim to figure out any spiritual correspondence with the physical vectors of forces & fields and the scalars of energy & potential.   But then after a bit of contemplation on a wet humid summer day in Raglan, I thought there might be something worth writing about this. So I had a go.

If there is a correspondence it would be something like having two or more ways of viewing the spiritual force of love.   Two equivalent yet entirely different approaches to describing the force of love. But there is a correspondence with the force & field pairing.

In the spiritual realm the force of love is an intermediary between two souls.   The souls are the spiritually charged particles.

     Spiritual    :    Physical
             love ↔  graviton
             soul ↔ mass
spiritual impulse ↔ force

You could suppose a “spiritual impulse” is a type of wilful volition.   It moves a soul in a certain direction, an inner spiritual direction, not a physical direction. So volition is the spiritual equivalent of a vector force. So I’d prefer to use a correspondence of terms,

Spiritual    :   Physical
       love  ↔ graviton
        soul ↔  mass
    volition ↔  force

A field in physics is the pervasive presence of the force carrying particle (graviton).   So the spiritual correspondence to a field is the pervasiveness of love.   So we might suppose love is everywhere.

What about energy and potential?  Here I thought of the concept of the “power of love” which certainly gets mentioned a lot in literature.  Power is a measure of the use of energy over a given time.  The more energy used over a shorter time the greater the power.   The power of love is thus a measure of the strength of one’s love for something or someone, and whatever influence the force of love has (attracting souls) then greater power of love is a quicker attraction of hearts and souls over a shorter time.

Here’s a problem.  You see, I could not quite abstract away the concept of time, which is a very physical notion.  It seems to infect our sense of spirituality because we (as physical beings) cannot easily project ideas outside the world of time.  Time is a funky thing.  But you can have concepts of time without necessarily thinking of pure physics. Anything that changes implies some kind of time.  Time is a way of measuring rate of change.  Time is what you need to observe any change.  So if the state of a soul can change, then this implies a notion of spiritual time.  But I do not currently have the intellectual resources to talk deeply about a separate sense of spiritual time to physical time, so for now I’ll just merge the two.

Taking power of love as the measure of the rate of attraction (in spiritual space, not physical space) of two souls, we obtain a clearer grasp of the energy of love.  The energy of love is the capacity for love that a soul possesses, which may or may not be employed as an attractive force.  But when there is a greater energy of love from one soul compared to another, then a third soul will naturally feel more strongly connected or attracted (spiritually) to the stronger source of love’s energy.

What is the “energy of love” then? I’d like to abstract away the physics terminology as much as possible.  And what is the potential corresponding to this energy?

Recall, the potential (physics) is the pervasiveness of the energy all over space.  So in the spiritual realm this must correspond to the latent capacity for expressing the energies of love which exist all around our heart and mind.  It pervades every possible thought we have, every idea, every sensation and qualia that our consciousness can convey to our soul. It’s a beautiful correspondence is it not? E very thought is permeated by a capacity for love.  Negative thoughts merely have an absence of full capacity of spirit.

So what is the energy, if love is the force? I’m not sure if I can make any distinction.  If love is a spiritual vector-like force, giving a wilful inner-direction of spiritual motive for a soul, then love’s energy gradient must yield the equivalent spiritual dynamics.  And it is an equivalent way of thinking about love.  The force way of thinking is about motive direction.  The energy way of thinking must yield the same spiritual dynamics but via a gradient of energy.  The direction of maximum increase in energy gives the same motive as the vector of the force of love.

I know I am mixing the physical and spiritual terminology here, but I must for now, in order to try to find the hidden structure.

At this point I can only think of asking the reader for suggestions. What is the spiritual idea corresponding to an energy of love?  We cannot just be lazy and call it energy.  Energy is a raw physics concept.  I am after a proper spiritual concept which plays the role of energy.

My bet current opinion is that the spiritual reality most closely corresponding to an energy, for love, is the human (or other sentient being) sense of excitement in their thoughts and feelings for others.  This is a spiritual energy.  The more inner-excitement one soul generates compared to others, the stronger the force of love which they emanate and with which they can draw others to them, in a spiritual sense.  Closer in heart, so to speak, closer in mind.

This excitement I will term “soulful radiance”.  Although radiance is also a physic concept, it is often used in literature to mean the inner state of joy of someone.  So that’s my meaning.  I’ll adopt radiance as meaning one’s inner state of joy and rapture.  Maybe “rapture” is the word I should use, but I like the imagery of radiance, so I’ll stick with it.

Notice how impossible it is to discuss any of this completely void of physical terms.  It just cannot be done.  Maybe we could draw some abstract symbols and coin new names for them. That’d be fun, but would be a diversion for now. I just have to trust readers will be able to figure out what words here represent inner unseen spiritual realities and which are the physical correspondences.

So now the correspondences read,

Physical   :    Spiritual
  graviton ↔ love
      mass ↔ soul
     force ↔ volition
     field ↔ the volition latent in all possible thoughts
    energy ↔  soulful radiance (rapture/joy/bliss)
 potential ↔ the latent radiance (rapture/joy/bliss) pervading all possible thoughts

Remember, a force can be any type of motive impulse, not just gravity.

So for the particular spiritual force of love we get volitional states of a soul of a particular kind.  These are the kinds of wilful volitions that attract and bind hearts.  For example, the thought that you will send someone flowers today because you love them, or write a meaningful poem for them, or simply smile and comfort them.  These are all thoughts you might entertain as a consequence of the force of love acting upon your inner heart (the aspect of your soul which feels the qualia of emotions).

You maybe then actually carry out the physical actions correlated with putting such will and volition into practise, but that’s all physics.   The primary motive came from the spirit.  Do you see that? It’s important I think.  Too many of our actions are not informed by spiritual impulses, and they tend to be the bad ones!

Now I ask you, for convenience is there a single word which translates as “volition latent in all possible actions”? And is there also one for “the latent rapture pervading all possible thoughts”.  It’d be nice to have such words for elegant simplicity. Maybe you’d care to suggest a few?

What is “latent will or volition”?   It’s something like the (abstract) space of all possible thoughts.  We could call this the thoughtscape, the realm of ideas. Or maybe it is a bit more subtle?   Anyway, the truly beautiful idea I am led to is that within every possible thought there is a potential, a spiritual energy, a radiance or rapture. It’s degree must depend upon other factors, but to think of an inner potential radiance in all thoughts, even humble thoughts, is a wonderful thing.

To think we can also inwardly, in our mind, experience the fullness of such inner radiance by thinking good thoughts is another wonderful thing.  And to think that the spiritual equivalent of “power”, which is the rate of progress or change in such inner radiance, is free for us to tap into if we only relax our busy mind and think such thoughts, is, well, it is an empowering thing to think.  And that such thoughts can inform our day to day physical actions, impressing their spiritual potency and potential upon our physical potential, that again is a wonderfully empowering realisation.

Why then spend your time thinking non-radiant thoughts, thoughts of low spiritual radiance?  They are not going to produce sparkling wilful volition, and will not likely be spiritually attractive, since their love (a spiritual force) will be weak.

These are just the initial ideas I get when applying the physical–spiritual metaphors and analogies.

It’s a bit crazy to think of taking these metaphors and correspondences further, but I’ll do it!   Even if it is crazy, I think it is beautiful.

An Answer to the Analogy Question

A spiritual analogy for the gravitationally completely collapsed objects known as black holes?

Well, it might be a love so strong that it engulfs your mind, a love so potent you will sacrifice yourself for your beloved.   A love so strong it might tear you up and leave you completely dead to your self.  Wouldn’t the greatest be that you end up living as one with your beloved?  Yes, but how many people can claim to have reached that state of perfection?

Maybe, sadly, many who try to reach that state will expire from the effort, give up their physical existence and hasten their physical existence along to become more swiftly at one with the dust. I used to pity such people.  But now I pity ourselves for failing to provide a world that can sustain such love.  This is what life is largely all about.   Ever been stumped by the question, “what’s the meaning of life?”   (Not the definition of life, that’s easy, but the meaning, the purpose, do we actually have any purpose?)

Mainly from reading the thoughts of wiser people, I’ve grown to realise there are many good answers.  One is that we exist to love.  And a large portion of our lives are wasted if we are not constantly actively pursuing living in a way that makes the world around us a happier and more peaceful place for all people to live within.  If you or I could just help one person to give the world their full potential and not expire from the effort of wanting to love too much, but to instead become brilliant from the effort, to become magnificent and radiant from the pain and fire and bliss and ecstasy of their love, well then, wouldn’t that make life worth living?


Flames of love. The pain can hurt and seem unfair or burn away unhealthy desire and attachment.

There is a lot more to write on this topic, but that’s enough for today from me.

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Spiritual Forces In and Out of Time

What were spiritual forces again?  They are abstractions of human emotions, they are the positive impulses that remain even when all biology and physics is ignored.  Remember, in structuralism one does not imagine the rest of the non-essential stuff of a system is non-existent, rather, we just conveniently ignore it to focus on the essential components and their relationships.  This is a process of thinking called abstraction and generalization.  The concepts involved with spiritual forces are things like love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, honesty, and so forth.  Everyone is familiar with what I mean then, but try to define how humans arrive at an understanding of these spiritual abstractions and you might get stuck.

Often I get stuck, and when I do I turn to inspirational writers and thinkers for help.  Some turn out to be a bit intellectually bankrupt, having some hobby horse to whip, but others are genuine searches for truth and meaning within beauty.  One author I’ve recently been reading was Hoper Dunbar, whom I quoted in the previous post.  He gave the structural analogy between Love and Gravity.  One a spiritual force, the other a physical force, connected in the realm of abstraction by the fact both are universally attractive.   And there was a deep insight that negative emotions and negative “spiritual forces” are merely the absence of a positive spiritual forces.  That’s a very helpful and liberating insight.  At least to me it was, because it suggests one can overcome laziness, anxiety, depression, worry, hatred, bitterness, and so forth, by focusing on things that are good and which lead to a mental strengthening of the positive spiritual forces like love.

It’s also not a bad motive for indulging in a healthy variety of hedonism.  You can think and worry about the great environmental problems of your generation, such as deforestation and global warming, but once the negativity rises to boiling point you can help yourself by switching to something positive, like writing or campaigning against environmentally harmful practises in your community or country, and by doing little things everyday to heal the world, such as recycling or using less electricity or creating sustainable energy systems around your home, or helping out at local charities and so forth, or even simply by donating some of your earnings to benevolent trusts, or maybe Wikipedia.  Free education is a massive foundation for healing and positive progress.   It makes one feel really good to do such things.  Do not try to save the world single-handedly either.  Avoid doing activities that weigh you down with emotional frustration and excessive burdens of care.  Practise healthy hedonism.

Search for ways to be at peace with the world around you.  Be creative, not destructive, and this means primarily in the spiritual realm, not only the physical.   As a physical being you cannot survive unless you raise entropy (disorder) around you, so don’t worry too much about that, the Sun provides plenty energy to keep a balance if used wisely.  But as a spiritual being you can do plenty to raise the intellectual and ethical climate around you, and in this climate, our spiritual weather, there is so much freezing cold around that a lot of warming, infinite warming, is what is needed.

Created from the Same Dust

There is a beautiful; passage in The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh which Dunbar uses to illustrate the analogies between physical reality and spiritual reality. It is another good example to study for the project of better understanding spiritual forces.

“O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all
from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the
other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created.
Since We have created you all from one same substance it is
incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same
feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that
from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of
oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.
Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this
counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of
wondrous glory.”

I could drop that last sentence and still find this passage strewn with layers of inner meaning. But for the sake of brevity I can only concentrate on a few interpretations. The important one I want to draw out is the sense of humility we should feel. We are indeed all created from similar atoms. Atoms of carbon are all identical. Same with nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and the rest, each type of atom is identical with it’s same kind. And yet they way they compose our bodies differs across all individuals, none of us are alike. And this difference gives rise to the divergence in the appearance and limitations and comparative abilities of human beings. And eventually, these differences exert an effect on our spiritual character — which is to say, the state of our mind and soul, how we behave inwardly, emotionally and ethically.

You do not have to know or define what a “soul” is to understand what I’m getting at. If you are a strict materialist philosopher and think mind and consciousness arise from neurophysiology, then fine, just use those chunked concepts and stay with this discussion at this higher level of abstraction. Personally, I think the abstractions can have real meaning and can be supposed as deriving an existence of their own independently of the physical world. Like the number π has an existence independent of any practising mathematical beings. But that’s just my opinion. At the present it does not matter too much what sort of metaphysics you believe in, since right now I am in a physical form. So I can abstract out the pure intellectual and spiritual concepts and talk about them and not worry excessively about how they arise from neurological dynamics or quantum effects in the brain or whatever.

The spiritual force here is the idea of humility. Although we are all different and have different skills and abilities, we can still feel humble before someone. There is always someone superior in some way. No one in history has ever been the champion of all things. But Bahá’u’lláh is saying something more profound. That we can always look to our origins and our ultimate fate (physically at least, which is to return to dust). It takes about nine months for a non-embalmed body to decay completely to a pile of unrecognisable dust, and fifteen years for a coffin of untreated wood to similarly completely lose it’s form. An embalmed body takes considerably longer, and I’m not sure if anyone knows exactly how long it takes for the process of returning to dust to complete. The Egyptian mummies allow statisticians to place a high upper limit on the process, maybe tens of thousands of years? I’m rather fond now of choosing not to be embalmed. I like the idea of getting back to dust as quickly as possible. It seems more humble and somehow more dignified. Each to their own.

But that’s all about the physical. The real message in the above passage is the spiritual state of the soul. To be humble is partly to remember our origins, but is much more than this. It requires recognition of the similarity of our spiritual natures, the non-physical aspects of our existence, the characteristics that we all have which can only be shown at a high level of abstraction, such as in our daily interactions with other people, and in the way we think and care about ourselves, about each other and about our planet. And if the Sun and stars were also in crisis we’d want to care about them as well. (Check out the Scifi movie Sunshine (2007) if you haven’t seen it, and extract away from it the slightly silly horror story aspects, and you’ll be left with a pretty cool sort of movie experience about our relationship with the amazing star which is our Sun. The sacrifice of the Japanese captain of the voyage is pretty emotional.) I digress.

Bahá’u’lláh says that because we were created from the same elements as each other, we should live more in harmony and unity. Why? The physical is being used here as symbolism for humility and unity, and yet within this analogy there is variety and difference. So the spiritual force of humility is as colourful and as wonderful as the variety of composition of elements that make up every person. You can be humble in so many ways. It’s wonderful, it really is.

Now what is this about walking with the same feet?

“… to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, …”

It is impossible to interpret this literally, and that’s a great thing about Bahá’u’lláh’s poetry. It is so colourful and metaphorical that it leaves no question about how to interpret it. There is no ambiguity. One has to interpret this symbolically and metaphorically. And what are the structural features being referred to here in the physical symbolism? You can think about that for yourself.

My take on it is that walking with the same feet refers to

Understanding Spiritual Forces Better

Spiritual forces are very interesting. To use them effectively one needs to understand them. To use gravity usefully is mostly a matter of intuition, but when you are a NASA engineer in charge of computing trajectories you also need to understand the physical force in fine detail, mathematically. The type of understanding required for using spiritual forces is a little different though. But there is some structure in them I think.  Spiritual forces require a self-understanding, because using them is a matter of using your spiritual reserves, your mind and intellect and (for want of a better word) your “heart”.

You can use your mind in many ways, for good purposes or for bad. The “heart” of your soul is where you summon the ability to use your mind for good. It is also where you know to recognise good from bad, which is sometimes a subjective opinion, but one which has enough universal facets that we all can basically agree upon what is generally “good” and generally “bad”. Honesty is generally good, and lying or concealing the truth is generally bad, unless you withhold the truth perhaps to save a life. People often relate the scenario of a physician who fears a patient is terminally ill, maybe with a 96% mortality estimate, but if they do not tell the patient they are likely to die, but give them some hope by concealing to true probability, then perhaps the patient may recover through sheer force of will and psychosomatic conditioning. It can happen. It’s not likely, mostly competent physicians are accurate about their estimates of presumed fatal conditions, but it can happen.

Now, I write “the heart of your soul is where you know good form bad …” but I do not mean it is a physical place situated in any spacetime point in your brain. This inner spiritual heart is an abstraction, it exists in no “place” other than in a realm of ideas.  But the ideas it is associated with (love, compassion, tenderness, mercy, hope) are all connected logically and yet mysteriously. And moreover, they have meaning in our lives, because humans, and other sentient creatures, behave according (in part) to the dictates of our spiritual natures, our ability to comprehend abstractions and hence to understand how the effects of love and sincerity and honesty and humility will exert influence on other people.  And I think we behave at our best when we listen more to our heart than to the promptings of our brain’s amygdala (and other primitive pleasure centres, which tend to steer us towards selfishness and cruelty).  Our primitive brain structures are not always bad drivers, they are merely spiritually neutral. I think we can all easily learn to redirect our primitive instincts towards higher and more noble goals. e do not have to allow ourselves to be slaves to our primitive instinctual appetites.

And, this is a key thing, we can uncover some of this mystery, and use our soul-heart better and more efficiently, by exploring the structure of these ideas, and for this, I’ve realised, after reading Dunbar and similar author’s, can be achieved in part by reasoning with analogy from physical metaphors.

Love and Instinct and Higher Emotions

How many people associate romantic love with sex? I sure do! I cannot separate the two. But there are other types of love. Love for nature (which you cannot have sex with), love for ideas, love for art, love for family and friends, love for yourself (which you can have a sort of sex with if you like), love for your work, and so on.

I wish to focus here on romantic love.

The sexual impulses are driven largely my our primitive neurologically wired instincts. But, you see, there is something far more beautiful in romantic love when you get your amygdala and cerebellum working in concert with your higher intellect.  Sex is terrific, wonderful, fulfilling, but only maximally so when it involves the heart.  If you engage in purely physical sensual sex it can be pleasurable I guess, but is it not also a bit empty?  (I cannot comment from experience here, but I guess this is what it’s like to have sex with someone purely for physical gratification.)

To my mind it seems a bit cold and clinical to say this, but I’ll write it anyway.  The thing is, there is a powerful spiritual force of attraction in true romantic love. It binds the inner hearts together more strongly than any physical attraction.  But when combined with raw physical attraction, a spiritual love can be utter hedonistic dynamite. I mean real intellectual sparks and explosions and vanishing of self and ego and immersion in one another on all levels, all physical levels and all emotional levels and all intellectual levels and all spiritual levels.  This is an ideal, but I think two people in love can achieve it’s realisation.

And this ideal, and the hope for it in my own life, is why I’m writing these words.  But for now, I want to get back to the more abstract concept of spiritual force and try to understand it at a more intellectual level, because, for me, greater intellectual understanding is sexy.


Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the physical)

I’ll start from what I can understand, which are physical forces. the two I will sue for examples are electromagnetism and gravity.  The two spiritual forces I will try to discover structure for are love and humility.  You can probably complete a similar exercise yourself using any other sort of spiritual force.

Force and Field

For every physical force in nature there is a corresponding quantum field, which results from the statistical dispersion of force-carrying particles throughout spacetime. The simplest examples are the electrical force and the gravitational force.  The force-carrier for electromagnetism is the humble photon (a particle of light). The force carrier for gravity is the even humbler graviton (because it is extremely weak in interaction compared with the photon).  So the quantum fields are due to the statistics of photons and gravitons for these two forces.

The thing to realise is that even when there is no particle about in space to feel a force, there is still a quantum field.  There are still photons popping up and vanishing all over the place and time.  So fields exist everywhere, whereas forces only exist when there is a particle which can be influenced by the field. In physics, such particles are called elementary charges.  Electrons and protons are examples of electrically charged particles which respond to the influence of the electromagnetic field of the photons.  Any particle with mass is a gravitational charge (mass is just another name for “gravitational charge”).  Pretty much everything has positive mass, and with gravitons as the force carrier all positive mass exerts an attractive force, which is why gravity is universal in attraction, and in the spiritual realm corresponds most closely with the force of love.

Even massless photons feel the influence of gravity because they carry pure energy, which Einstein worked out is a special form of mass.  Basically, energy is mass without inertia, that is to say, energy responds to gravitational fields but the resulting acceleration is not hindered by inertia, so photons zip along at the maximal possible speed, which is by (circular?) definition the speed of light, what else!  There are thus two kinds of mass: (a\i) gravitational mass, which includes energy, which responds to the force of gravity, and (ii) inertial mass, which causes matter to feel a time delay and appear sluggish in response to an acceleration (by any force, gravity or another).  Because photons have zero inertial mass they respond instantly to forces, and thus experience no passage of time, they live and die at once.  You cannot make a clock out of a photon, at least not easily, not without some external inertial reference frame.

There are other forces in nature and other types of charge.  The “chromodynamic (QCD) force” and “QCD-charges” like quarks and gluons for example.  But I will not describe them here. But later on (in another essay) they will serve a purpose in further understanding spiritual forces.

They (charged particles) respond in one and only one simple way, by accelerating in the direction in which the field is strongest.  A major job of a physicist is therefore to calculate the strength and direction of electromagnetic fields, because then they can predict to the future motion of charged particles.

Fields are cool.  They exist all over space and time because there is a finite probability for a photon (or graviton) to instantaneously appear at any given place or time. So a field pervades all of space and all of time for each fundamental force of nature.  What is the spiritual analogy for the forces of love and humility?

Forces and fields are just one way of looking at physical interactions.  There is another way, equivalent and complementary, which uses the concepts of energy and potential.

Energy and Potential

Isaac Newton discovered the concept of force. Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and others used it to describe electricity and magnetism.  But while physicists were discovering how to analyse the way machines do useful work, and how heat always seemed to mess things up, limiting the efficiency of all possible engines, physicists gradually realised there was an amazing abstract concept associated with temperature, which turned out to be the kinetic energy of motion.  Furthermore, this new concept of “energy” seemed to crop up everywhere in physics. Eventually Joseph Louis Lagrange and William Rowan Hamilton worked out a way to convert from Newton’s equations for forces to equivalent equations that used only the concept of energy.

And precisely analogous to the way every force has an associate field which pervades all of spacetime, the concept of energy has an associated quantity called a potential which pervades space and time.  And just as only substantial particles (charges) can experience a force, so only substantial matter can be endowed with energy.  And just as a field pervades all of space even when there are no charged particles around, so too does a potential exist everywhere in space and time even when there is no substantial energy.

This was remarkable, amazing, fantastical even.  Forces are vector quantities you see, they have magnitude and direction.  Their direction tells you how a charged particle will respond (by accelerating in the direction of the force and in proportion to the magnitude).  But energy is a scalar quantity, meaning it is just a number, it has no direction. So how could physics via forces be equivalent to physics via energy?

The equations derived by Lagrange and Hamilton show that a force is equivalent to a gradient in energy, i.e., a change in energy from one place to another.  And a field is equivalent to a gradient in potential.  So there are the following two-way correspondences.

Gradient in EnergyForce

Gradient in Potential ↔ Field

Force carrying particles ↔ Fields

Energy carrying particles ↔ Potentials

And those four correspondences summarize a huge amount of the structure of modern physics, without (sorry) the beautiful mathematical details.

The important thing for physics was that there were now two different but entirely equivalent ways of doing calculations.  Scientists could choose which method was easiest in a given context, the Force+Field methods of Newton, or the Energy+Potential methods of Hamilton and Lagrange.  And they could even switch between these two points of view without too much trouble.  This duality in the possible explanations of nature has had tremendous technological impact.  And our understanding of quantum mechanics (and hence semiconductor electronics, all modern computers, lasers, telecommunications, the internet, nuclear power, discovery of DNA, and most advanced medical imaging methods, and there is a lot more to come, including quantum computing) would have all been impossible using only Newtonian physics.

Force and Field — Energy and Potential (the spiritual)

Hey, don’t expect too much in one day!  This is the topic for my next post.


What’s a Spiritual Force Then?

Reading “The Artist and the Mathematician” by Amir Aczel, is one of those frustrating experiences, like trying to get a decent suntan on a patchy cloudy day in Wellington. It’s the only day you’ll have free for months, and the clouds keep blocking the way, but you know the UV rays are tanning you anyway, it’s just too cold when the clouds are blocking the heat for it to be pleasant.

(BTW: it’s about the Bourbaki phenomenon in mathematics and how it influenced structuralist philosophy. But the really interesting stuff is the mathematics, and Alexandre Gröthendieck, and sadly that is not much of what the book is about. I’d like to find a good read about Gröthendieck’ s mathematics, not the guy himself, although his life is fascinating )

Actually, truth be told, I’ve read a couple of books on the topic of structuralism, and every one of them was as annoyingly vague about defining exactly what structuralism is! They beat around the topic, mentioning it’s importance in displacing existentialism as the new philosophy for the 20th century, and how structuralism eventually gave way to post-modernism, but they never actually define what it is exactly. And they talk about the influences on structuralism, which as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the linguist Roman Jakobson and the mathematicians Bourbaki. And you just have to either give up and look up Wikipedia, or imagine they’ve defined structuralism implicitly through bulk force of examples. I guess that’s ok, but it is still frustrating, especially for someone who likes to sprint to the mint of a goal of understanding rather than jog and slog.

So in this post I’m going to tell you what structuralism is in essence in sprint fashion, and then link it to something less boring than foundational mathematics and philosophy. And to do this I am not going to consult Wikipedia. You can do that yourself. My version is a subjective impression. (So I may have left out some essential features, but too bad. I apologise in advance if I tread upon any academic toes.)


Structuralism is merely a guiding philosophy. So it can be applied to almost any intellectual endeavours. The core essence of structuralism are the principles:

(P1) Everything (objects, thoughts, ideas, … can be studied as a system comprised of component parts. Structuralism first says, “identify the system of interest and isolate it’s parts”.

(P2) To understand any phenomena (physical or intellectual), you should [1] find the relationships between the irreducible component parts. [2] Abstract away (i.e., ignore entirely) any non-essential features, such as properties that are not inherently part of the most basic structure of your system, i.e., those properties which are not connected by any relationship to the principle components your wish to study. Then, [3] analyse (if this is your intent) the whole system by using any and whatsoever tools you have available or can find or invent that reveal the interactions between these parts and the effect the state of the whole system has on these relationships.

(P3) To understand a system it is not necessary to break it up into the absolute minimalist parts possible, but rather to analyse it at some level of abstraction: this could be a complete reduction to atomistic parts (physicists do this), or a near reduction but only down to molecular level (chemists do this), or it could be any manner of chunking of components from chemical up to biological, or (as cosmologists prefer) stellar or galactic chunks. But structuralism applies not just to nature, the same levels of chunking can be performed on ideas, such as language, art, economic systems, religions, you name it, any system. And what isn’t a system?

To elaborate upon these core principles of structuralism I’d just add a few comments:

(1) Even a single subatomic particle is a “system”, albeit the simplest kind, one with only one component part. Having only one part merely makes structuralist study of an elementary particle pretty boring. (Only it’s not really. But that’s because quantum mechanics makes a grand ‘vacuum field’ out of all elementary particles, so it’s never just a single entity. But that’s another essay.)

(2) Examples are plenty: In Anthropology: The mathematician Andrei Weil helped Claude Levi-Strauss organise the study of kinship relations in human societies using the mathematical apparatus of Group Theory. Their data was the patterns of allowed marriages amongst Australian Aboriginal families. They ignored (abstracted away) all things like wealth and material possessions, geography, etc. In Linguistics: Jakobson and then later Chomsky and successors, have had tremendous success understanding language (origins, acquisition, learning, evolution, the whole gamut …) by abstracting away spelling and meanings and analysing using logic just the grammar or deep structure. How did they do this? Well, taking away spelling and meaning leaves you with no workable communicative language for sure, but it does leave behind a skeleton of all languages. That’s the power of structuralism. It gets rid of stuff you do not need, and leaves just the essentials, which makes analysis much easier and less clouded.

The linguists were not interested in communication you have to understand. Their goal was to understand how language is acquired and developed across human life times, and how it evolves across civilisation time frames. Since you do not need to know about the poetry and literature of a society for such studies, you can abstract out the word meanings, and just leave very abstract relations between types of words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.). Worrying about lyrics and poetry is just a distraction for linguists who want to study language universals, sine anything requiring translation is not a universal. But relationships between the way a language links nouns and adjectives and verbs is something universal, or if it’s not, then there should be some deeper structure which is universal (one hopes). And indeed, that was what Chomsky discovered.

In fact, so universal were Chomsky’s discoveries about structure of languages that they even apply to computer languages! They apply to fictional languages like Klingon. And they will probably apply to extraterrestrial species languages, if we ever contact extraterrestrials.

In Economics every economist who develops a mathematical model for features of a subsystem within an economy is applying structuralism. They may not call it structuralism, but that’s what it is. It’s the same in most other sciences. In Mathematics, well, I mean mathematics itself is almost entirely structure, perhaps the purest form of structuralism known. Although pure structure does not quite define mathematics, it is a large part of what mathematics is — the particular structures of numbers and geometry and sets and categories.

Why Structuralism is Not In Vogue

The laughable thing is that structuralism is put into practise all the time, every day, by most people in most professions. This still includes artists, but most prominently it means scientists in any discipline, mathematicians (of course), politicians, business managers, sometimes lawyers (although that particular profession is a bit dark for me). There is no field of human intellectual endeavour these days that does not have professional tools that in some form or another embody the above principles of structuralism. And, of course and naturally and obviously and all those cliché’s, structuralism was practised for millennia before it ever had the label “structuralist”. The ancient Greek philosophers were structuralists, as were the ancient Egyptian linguists, as were the Stone Age artists and inventors and speakers.

So when we say structuralism is “not in vogue”, this just means it is not considered trendy in circles of philosophy where it is discussed (or used to be discussed) as a guiding principle. It’s been supplanted by post-modernism, which is less well-defined and entirely useless for doing anything actual practical and helpful in this world. So if you consider yourself a “structuralist” and feel that post-modernism is a rabbit-warren of confusing and contradictory ideas with no logical basis, then you are not alone. Maybe post-modernism has some importance to the world, but other than generating a lot of dry academic papers (and pretty much limited only to literature and philosophy journals) over the last fifty years or so, I cannot find it.

OK, I know I’m not being fair to post-modernists. But come on! What are the real fruits of post-modernist ideas? I am open to opinons, and will admit I might be wrong about post-modernisms (lack of useful impact) impact on society. If there is a good idea within it’s scope I guess the idea that human beings and our ideologies are not fixed and static, and that people with different world views do not necessarily have wrong world views, and that ambiguity and paradox are possible and signify a coexistence of differences that may have a deep hidden resolution which we are just too dumb to figure out. These are useful ideas because they give one a reason for believing in the possibility of peace.

The peace which comes from realising there are always more than two ways of seeing things, and none of them might be perfect. That’s my positive gloss on post-modernism, and if it is halfway correct and valid then let’s celebrate post-modernism. But I think the literary criticism and philosophical movements associated with post-modernism have not really contributed such positve ideas on a global reach. They should have, by my humble reading, and I’m a bit mystified why they have not been so forceful. But maybe that’s just a demonstration of my own ignorance. I’ll leave readers to comment on that (typically one doesn’t appreciate their own ignorance until informed of it by others).

Structuralism on the other hand has immediate and clear practical use and is really quite a helpful sort of way of thinking about the world, or about the part of life you are interested in. It has transcended philosophy because it is hardly discussed in philosophy any more, and yet is used by practical people every day.

My pet theory on this is that when ordinary people start to take up a branch of philosophy it starts to become boring for philosophers. Philosophers (most of them I suspect, at least those who call themselves philosophers) have some kind of built-in ego drive which forbids them from thinking of themselves as ordinary. (But, I also suspect, the very best philosophers go against this grain, and are truly humble and consider themselves as the most ordinary of people.)

But be warned. Structuralism is not everything. Plenty of stuff falls outside it’s scope. Nevertheless, it is a vastly useful philosophical method, because it is so general and has proven practical worth.

Spiritual Structure

One question I am currently interested in is whether structuralism has anything to offer our understanding of spirituality. You know what I mean by spirituality? No? Well, it’s not ghosts and stuff.

Spirituality is a very natural and easily understood aspect of human existence. It means things like love, justice, honesty, compassion, kindness, wisdom (and knowledge), forgiveness, mercy, friendliness, and all such similar virtues and attributes of divinity. That’s all.

Whatever concerns these things is precisely what I refer to as spiritual reality. It’s a separate reality to physics because none of it can be reduced to physics. But it is connected to physics through the existence of sentient intelligence, like human beings. Human beings have an ability to comprehend and innately feel spiritual reality, but you cannot isolate it from human interaction and existence. Without sentient intelligence to comprehend these abstract things, there is no spirituality.

So is there structure and pattern and relation between spiritual realities?

Here’s a visual puzzle: what does the following diagram represent?


(Hint: the bite out of the apple is a misdirection. It’s nothing to do with a computer technology/company.)

I’ll leave that question hanging here for a while I think. It’s good to ponder. For a start you need to have a clear idea in your mind of what is meant by a spiritual reality, and what systems it might imply and what structure there is within those systems.

It’s a difficult area of analysis because spiritual reality is already highly abstracted. It ignores physical stuff, and concentrates our attention on the high level interactions between spiritual entities. So human beings are a physical form of spirituality. But to study spirituality we want to drop as much of our biology and physics as possible, retaining only what is minimally necessary for understanding the abstractions of love and mercy and justice et cetera.

Spiritual Minimalism

One of the great things about this way of thinking is that “negative abstract concepts” like hate, oppression, injustice, do not have the same status as the associated positive concepts. The negatives are merely the absence of the positive. So, to take a physical analogy as illustration, darkness is the absence of light. Light (photons or electromagnetic waves) are a reality, it is stuff (structure in spacetime if you wish to know) which exists. Darkness and shadow do not have such an independent existence, they are the absence of light photons, they exist only as secondary reality, their existence depends upon the prior existence of light and an object which blocks the light and another object which receives the light and shows up the shadow.

You might disagree or find flaw in this idea, the idea that spiritual negatives are merely absences. But it does seem to pan out when you think deeply about it. Take hatred, often seen as a highly active emotion. You really hate someone (let’s say). How can this ever be interpreted as merely the absence of love for this person? Perhaps they’ve done something so horribly evil that there is simply no way you can ever find anything about them to love. So you hate them. Thinking deeply about this, really it is this persons actions or speech or other outward behaviour or appearances which you are hating. These are not the person themselves. You have no idea what is or has been going on in their head. They could be a totured psychopath. Or a deeply misunderstood person. And when you really think about it hard, you do not really hate them, but you feel incredibly sorry and sad for their condition. They become pitiful, in a very literal sense, you feel absolute pity for them. You think that their death might be the happiest thing that could happen for them (in the extreme case — I do not advocate death penalties — just the idea of their death seems like the best release for everyone, them, you, society). In any case, you find little love for this person, and in the end you pity them. Hatred was an emotion you felt along the way, but it has dissolved in the end (some people never get through to this stage and will hate for the rest of thier lives, and ironically this is in turn slightly pitiable, but I guess we can’t be judging how people feel, feelings are what they are, and I only know they can change over time). If it does dissolve, that is good I think, but it still leaves no love.

So there you have it, an absence of love, revealed, eventually, as a source of prior hatred. Because when you’ve finally reached the stage of feeling utter sorrow and sadness for someone who just cannot in any way be loved, you can only be happy and let go of your hatred if you leave the loving of this tragic person up to some higher power, some entity more capable than yourself for dispensing a measure of love. At the very least, you might be able to say that, “if this person had had more love earlier in their life then maybe I would not have ended up hating them so much.” Maybe you can’t say this, but you might be able to accept it as a possibility? You move on. Or at least, I hope you would.

The (hate)=(absence of love) example is the most extreme I could think of, so it suffices to make the point. I won’t elabrate further.

The late William Hatcher wrote about spiritual minimalism and paved the way for us. Sadly he is not with us to help continue. But I think there are some good things that can emerge from spiritual minimalism. Not the least of which is a deeper understanding of how differing human approaches to happiness and well-being are related, and how the divergent religious beliefs that co-exist in the world are distractions which hide deeper and more peaceful and enduring universals of peace and societal cohesion and unity within a greater diversity.

Spiritual Forces

It is the dark/light analogy which interests me after reading Hooper Dunbar’s lectures, printed in “Forces of Our Time” (Hooper C. Dunbar, George Ronald, Oxford, 2010). The subtitle of his lectures is, “The Dynamics of Light and Darkness“, but it’s not a physics book on optics!

It is a book about the forces which shape individuals and society. By “individuals” we mean any sentient being living within a complex society. And so, when you think about it for a while, you realise these “forces” he is talking about must be abstractions of the notion of “force” borrowed form physics. So Dunbar must be using an analogy or metaphor here. And I would very much like to understand it better because I think it will add to the question (or to the answer) of how structuralism can be applied to understanding human spirituality, and thus help me to escape from the vague stuff about spirituality that comes under the heading of “New Age” or “Mystical”.

I try to avoid mysticism, since it is literally a mystery to me. But I know such things (human spirituality) is not approachable with hard sciences either, because nothing subjective can be made completely scientific. But, with some help, and with some creative analogies and metaphors, I think some structure can be found. (A very new-agey Bahá’í once suggested this was possible to me! — that was after a lecture I had given on quantum mechanics and it’s implications for the harmony of science and religion — for which I concluded there was no current analytical connection between this physics and religion, but there were a few philosophical bridges only, such as the possibility for free will in a universe with non-deterministic laws.)

The launching point I had for this essay was the following brief excerpt from Forces of Our Time (page 6.):

“Another profound and important tool for investigating spiritual reality is the awareness that spiritual truths are expressed at every level of creation. There is a crossover between truths at one level of being and those at another level of being, so that if we understand a relationship or pattern of physical reality, we will find that the same relationship exists not only in varying instances within the physical world itself but also, in a higher set of circumstances, in the spiritual realm.”

That’s pretty exciting to me. If it all pans out. But who’s to say it does? Is this guy Dunbar on to something or is this just philosophical hot air? He continues,

“Knowledge of nature and spiritual knowledge are essentially the same thing because the physical world that scientists study can be seen as an expression of spirit — as tangible reflections of spiritual truths.”

It gets a bit vague though, since the connections are tenuous. One fairly concrete analogical connection is with Love and Gravity. Gravity is the universal attractive force in the celestial sphere (the physical cosmos in other words). Love is likewise (the universal attractive force) in the spiritual sphere.

I guess my problem is that this really is only a metaphorical connection, and it can only ever be such between physical and spiritual. But let’s play with this and see where it goes. If there is anything to Dunbar’s philosophy (and as I understand it he is speaking primarily of the ideas he has borrowed from Bahá’í philosophy) then there should be a lot more structure which can be related by this primary analogy from Gravity to Love.

(That’s the puzzle solution BTW ‐ the apple was my symbol for gravity, you know … Newton and all …)

My next post, Forces In and Out of Time picks up this topic and takes it further.

Parting Thoughts of Structuralism

The irony about trying to understand the definition of structuralism is that the very idea it encapsulates is so incredibly general that it is hard to pin it down without examples, and the essence of structuralism is so simple that it hardly merits a definition. It is simply what one has to do in order to understand any system comprised of many parts. You have to break apart it’s structure (and there is often more than one way of doing so, which adds to the apparent ambiguity of the idea of structuralism) and extract the essential relationships between the parts, and forget about the non-essentials.

There is an art to this of course, since if you fail to ignore some non-essential relationship or parts, then you will have too complicated a structure which will perhaps defy or at least hinder a useful analysis.

And what is “a useful analysis”? Well, this too is frustratingly vague or too general. But I would define it as anything which helps to achieve your purposes. So first you need a purpose. If it to discover and label the underlying similarities across a vast family of languages then a useful structural analysis will consist in an abstract of language which can be shown to be an umbrella structure covering all the languages in the family. But it will be a description at a high level of types of word (a deep level correspondence), not at the word-words correspondence level itself (that’d be a machine translators purpose, and would be described as a surface level structural correspondence).

Another example: if you wished to understand how market crashes arise in economics you would not bother with the structure of prices of commodities in economics, but would instead study (probably) the interactions between agents using the pricing systems, since that is where the euphoria and panics in market bubbles and crashes happens.

OK, that’s all for now. Later I hope to write more on structure of spiritual reality, if it’s possible. It’s all unknown territory to me, so please send in any comments if you are still reading!