Monthly Archives: July 2014

Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space?

George Johnson is a prolific science writer—the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. (He has written 14 articles for the New York Times in 2014 alone.)  He is also, by all accounts, a fine man. Last week in the New York Times he wrote “Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space.” Here is a brief summary of that piece.

Human may have been demoted from their central place in the heavens by modern science, writes Johnson, but we still believe that we will eventually figure out the how the universe works. It is generally believed we will do this by utilizing four basic concepts: matter and energy interacting in space and time. But there are some skeptics who think we might need a few more concepts, notes Johnson.

The first is the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He thinks there is more to the universe than physical forces, and that evolutionary laws need to be expanded to explain sentient life. Needless to say Nagel’s views have caused consternation. The psychologist Steven Pinker, denounced Nagel’s latest book as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Nagel, for his part, is an atheist who is not promoting non-scientific ideas like intelligent design. Instead he argues that science must continue to expand to find more complete answers. Nagel writes: “Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning … but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.” (Any thoughtful scientist would agree.) 

The discovery or invention of a mathematics so in tune with reality also amazes Nagel. (Many evolutionary epistemologists are not surprised that brains, which evolve from nature, are thus in tune with nature.) Even neuroscientists cannot yet explain how mind emerges from the electronic circuitry of the brain. (That “they can’t explain that” posits some as yet unknown explanation. It is one thing to say this explanation is supernatural and by definition such explanations are outside the purview of science. It is another to say that further explanation is needed, and no scientist would disagree with that.)

To fully explain mind, Nagel argues, requires another scientific revolution. Such a revolution posits mind as fundamental and a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” This would require directional, possibly even purposeful evolution, and would expand on the model random mutations and environmental selection. “Above all,” Nagel writes, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” (Again few scientists would disagree. Thus Nagel’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear.)

In addition, notes Johnson, the biologist Stuart Kauffman also suggests that Darwinian theory must be expanded to explain the emergence of intelligent creatures like ourselves. (There is nothing surprising about this. My article on “Piaget’s Biology” in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy)notes multiple biologists who argue similarly.) And David Chalmers, an important philosopher of mind, has seriously considered panpsychism–the idea that rudimentary consciousness pervades everything in the universe. (However Chalmers does not say that panpsychism and the physicalism underlying contemporary biology conflict, although he does say, in this interview, that panpsychism “is a radical form of physicalism precisely because it introduces mental properties as fundamental.” So Chalmer’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear. It seems to me that panpsychism might even be expected given the evolution of higher intelligences from lower one. It also seems, on briefest reflection, that this does not mean mind more fundamental than matter, but rather that it is an emergent property in evolution. My basic point is that the reference to panpsychism doesn’t clearly challenge scientific orthodoxy.)

Johnson also notes that the renowned physicist Max Tegmark argues that mathematics is an irreducible part of nature–perhaps the most fundamental part. Johnson marvels at mathematics’ effectiveness in describing reality. (Piaget wrote extensively about how children’s reflective abstractions largely explain how the mind evolves, as well as the correspondence of mathematics and reality. And there are Platonic, evolutionary and other explanations of this correspondence.) Tegmark argues the universe is a mathematical structure from which matter, energy, space and time emerge. Other mathematicians note that most mathematics doesn’t describe reality at all. But for Johnson, Tegmark provides another example of a challenge to scientific orthodoxy.

Johnson conclusion from all this is mixed. On the one hand we’ve come a long way in understanding our universe in the 5,000 years or so of civilization. On the other hand, from the vantage point of 5,000 years hence, our science today will be primitive. So Johnson is not sure of the extent to which challenges to the orthodoxy are substantive.

My conclusion is that Johnson is correct about the former claim—we have come a long way since the dawn of civilization, but I’m not sure about his latter claim—that today’s science will be primitive in retrospect. In some ways this is true, but in others it may not be. There is a good chance that evolutionary, quantum, relativity, gravitational and atomic theories will survive almost intact. Why? Because while revolutionary disruptions occasionally happen in science, as Kuhn suggested, more often change is slow. Change is mostly gradual, evolutionary change, not radical, revolutionary change. Newton’s theory of gravity is not wrong—it works fine at speeds much slower than light—although Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complete.  The ancient atomists were correct that atoms are small indeed even though they didn’t have a modern atomic theory. And Euclidean geometry is not invalid because of non-Euclidean geometry–parallel lines still don’t meet in Euclidean space! In the far future we may find out we knew  a lot more than we thought we knew.

As for new ideas that challenge scientific orthodoxy I think Carl Sagan said it best: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

Summary of Erich Fromm’s, The Art of Loving

The Art of Loving

I previously written a number of columns on love but I have not mentioned a small book I read in my early twenties—and the first book I ever gave to my wife—Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. It begins:

Is love an art? Then it requires knowledge and effort. Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one “falls into” if one is lucky? This little book is based on the former premise, while undoubtedly the majority of people today believe it is the latter.

Fromm thought that we often misunderstand love for a variety of reasons. First, we see the problem of love as one of being loved rather than one of loving. We try to be richer, more popular, or more attractive instead of learning to love. Second, we think of love in terms of finding an object to love, rather than of a faculty to cultivate. We think it is easy to love, but hard to find someone to love, when in fact the opposite is true. (This relates to our earlier discussion about the commodification of love.) Finally, we don’t discriminate between “falling” in love and what Fromm calls “standing” in love. If two previously isolated people suddenly discover each other it is exhilarating. But such feelings don’t last. Real love involves standing in love; it is an art we learn after years of arduous toil, just as we would learn any other art or skill. Real love is not something we fall into, it is something we learn how to do.

In the end, though loving is difficult to learn and practice, it is most worthwhile, and more important than money, fame or power. For the mystery of existence reveals itself, if it ever does, through our relationships with nature, productive work and, most of all, through our relationships with other people. Thus to experience the depths of life, we should cultivate the art of loving in its many varieties.

Review of Steve Taylor’s, Back To Sanity

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
~ Blaise Pascal

I recently read a short piece in the Guardian titled, “This column will change your life: just sit down and think.” It began with the above quote and noted a recent scientific study that showed how people detest spending even a few minutes alone in a room just thinking—almost half prefer giving themselves electric shocks during that time! The study also revealed that even with sufficient leisure time, almost no one spends it just thinking.

A possible explanation comes from the psychologist Steve Taylor’s recent book, Back To Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our MindsTaylor argues that the “urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive that we’re scarcely aware of it.” The cause of this phenomenon is the state of psychological discord that Taylor calls “humania,”(human madness) which is a product of our ego-separateness. (It also is the cause of the major problems facing humanity like warfare, oppression, and environmental destruction.) We mistakenly believe that we are isolated individuals encased inside our heads. Thus we fear that if we dwell on what’s inside, we will experience loneliness. In response, we distract ourselves with constant activity. 

Taylor argues that this psychic discord manifests itself primarily as continuous “thought chatter” which makes us feel incomplete. We experience not serenity but the “madness of constant wanting,” of material possessions, happiness, power, fame, money, sex or whatever else we think will make us complete.  While some are more affected by humania than others, Taylor believes that most modern Westerners suffer from this psychic discord caused by ego-separateness while, surprisingly, indigenous people generally do not. 

Taylor’s prescription is to break through the “surface of our being,” the part “filled with disturbance and negativity,” to find that “deep reservoir of stillness and well-being” which is at our core. This does not entail returning to the lifestyle of indigenous people and foregoing modern conveniences, but rather learning how to be more integrated human beings. Yet we cannot find inner peace just by reading a book. We must work at our psychological development, toward attaining  “a state of permanent harmony of being.”

Reflections – Inner peace is the best psychic state. If we do not experience it, we have almost nothing; if we experience it, we have almost everything. And we can find it by sitting quietly in a room alone. But reading about this is not enough. We must work at it. For as Spinoza said, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”

Still too much thinking can be bad too—there is a well-known connection between rumination and depression. Of course ruminating is obsessive-compulsive, which is unlike  a calm, meditative state. If one negatively ruminates when alone with their thoughts, then they are probably better off distracted by activity. This is controversial advice, and I would be happy to hear from readers with other insights.

Examples of Great Writing: “The Value of Philosophy”

Will Durant                                                            Bertrand Russell

Yesterday’s column discussed good writing, mentioning the great prose stylists Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. (Who are also two of my intellectual heroes.) Here are examples of their extraordinary prose on the question of the value of philosophy. The first is from the introduction to Durant’s The Pleasures of Philosophy (1929), and the second is from the final chapter of Russell’s classic, The Problems of Philosophy (1912). I’ll let their beautiful prose speak for itself.

The busy reader will ask, is all this philosophy useful? It is a shameful question: we do not ask it of poetry, which is also an imaginative construction of a world incompletely known. If poetry reveals to us the beauty our untaught eyes have missed and philosophy gives us the wisdom to understand and forgive, it is enough, and more than the worlds wealth. Philosophy will not fatten our purses nor lift us to dizzy dignities in a democratic state; it may even make us a little careless of these things. For what if we should fatten our purses, or rise to high office and yet all the while remain ignorantly naive, coarsely unfurnished in the mind, brutal in behavior, unstable in character, chaotic in desire and blindly miserable? …

Our culture is superficial today and our knowledge dangerous, because we are rich in mechanism and poor in purposes. the balance of mind which once came of a warm religious faith is gone; science has taken from us the supernatural bases of our morality and all the world seems consumed in a disorderly individualism that reflects the chaotic fragmentation of our character.

We face again the problem that harassed Socrates: how shall we find a natural ethic to replace the supernatural sanctions that have ceased to influence the behavior of men? Without philosophy, without that total vision which unifies purposes and establishes the hierarchy of desires we fritter away our social heritage in cynical corruption on the one hand and in revolutionary madness on the other; we abandon in a moment our idealism and plunge into the cooperative suicide of war; we have a hundred thousand politicians, and not a single statesman.

We move about the earth with unprecedented speed, but we do not know, and have not thought where we are going, or whether we shall find any happiness there for our harrassed souls. We are being destroyed by our knowledge which has made us drunk with our power, and we shall not be saved without wisdom.

And now we hear from Russell:

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value — perhaps its chief value — through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps — friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad — it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge — knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man’s deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Why Write?


On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

The two most important books that influenced my writing are Strunk & White’s classic, The Elements of Style, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. I have also been influenced by reading wonderful prose stylists like Bertrand Russell and Will Durant. Finally, I was heavily influenced by a graduate school mentor William Charron, who forced me to rewrite my master’s thesis about ten times. I sometimes think he overdid it—seeking perfection in one’s writing causes paralysis—but he taught me the invaluable lesson of rewriting, which is the single best secret to good writing that I know of.

Unfortunately the time constraints of researching and writing a blog make it impossible to continuously rewrite. I certainly reread my posts and make quick changes before publication, but I don’t have the time for the ten or twenty rewrites that are necessary for really good prose. So it’s a tradeoff. I substitute quantity for quality, but I think there is value in not over analyzing a topic too. Stream of consciousness writing, being less constrained than obsessive rewriting, allows one to proceed without undue delay and is more revelatory of one’s true feelings.

Recently I read the interview about writing with psychologist Steven Pinker at edge.org. Pinker reasons that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.” But writing is “cognitively unnatural,” according to Pinker. Until the last few millennia, for almost the entire time there have been modern human beings, no one wrote anything. In fact it is an odd way to communicate. You don’t see your audience, you don’t know who they are or what they know, and they don’t ask you questions. It is so different from face to face conversation.

Pinker thinks we write to draw another’s attention to something. “When you write … you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.” This may seem obvious but consider how much writing is done to impress, like academic writing, or to protect oneself, like legal jargon. So while we write for ourselves—to learn and understand—we surely write for our audience too. Not to impress them, perform for them, protect ourselves, or shove dogma down their throat—but to see new things with them. To point out things that both the writer and the reader may have missed.

Leaving a small part of myself after I am gone—a legacy of the best of me—motivates my writing. It’s not as good as real immortality, and I may still get a cryonics policy, but it is something. To leave a small part of yourself in this electronic cloud. To leave a soft whisper in the air. Humans have been trying to do this for millennia.