Alchemist Shop, Prague
Final part of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there around some themes from the End of Belief.The next day I showed up at M's shop with the same odd, unidentifiable feeling of the previous day. Had I any New-Age-Woo-Woo bones in my body, I'd be tempted to say that place had strange energy. Instead I wondered which scene from which Hollywood movie classic my brain was randomly processing through an already punch drunk limbic system. The only thing I was pretty sure of was that it was a scene that didn't end very well for the protagonist.
As soon as M saw me, she grabbed her bag, the shop keys and my arm in a single seamless motion that lead us wordlessly out the door. Her anxiousness was palpable and I already started to fear the worst - without having the faintest clue about what the worst would even be. The hard click of the shop's lock was still ringing in my head when she turned to me, gathered herself and solemnly spoke four of the most beautiful words in the English language: I need a beer. It took a superhuman effort not to kiss her on the spot.
M ordered řezané pivo, a popular mixture of light and dark beer. That also seemed to be the mix of moods in her expression, and for that matter, a good metaphor for the third Tetralemma position (both yes and no). I kept the metaphors to myself, though, and just ordered dark beer. Somehow that better fit my own mood. Well, no, not really - I just love dark beer.
She had had a fight that morning with her fiance, she said before half-emptying her glass in one sustained gulp. No details offered, and none asked. I just figured I had better not fall behind for whatever was coming next, so half-emptied mine as well. Does happiness always have to be this elusive? she finally huffed in the direction of the window.
Yes. Na zdraví. I said and clinked my glass to hers. You mean happiness is always something you have to work for... she said with a groan and roll of her eyes.No, not at all, I shook my head and finished my glass.
I started to explain myself, but had to first stop to savor the mixture of expressions that now danced across her face: intrigued; analyzing; radiant; playful; inviting. It was a kaleidoscope of so much that is wonderful about the human mind. When I finally recovered and opened my mouth again, though, she suddenly reached across the table to place two fingers over my lips. Her eyes locked onto mine, and I could feel and smell the beer on her fingers. My superhuman-effort-reserves were running critically low. Mercifully, M broke the tension by ordering us two more of the same before leaning back in her chair. Not taking her eyes off mine, she nodded that I could now explain what I meant. With some effort I recovered my train of thought but was sure I had left my wits far behind me. The pursuit of happiness as such is actually relatively new on the scene of human history, I finally began. It seems to be an invention of the Iron Age - or more precisely, the Axial Age. Interestingly, it's the same age that gave us all of our current religious, spiritual and scientific belief structures. All that mediating on mountain tops I suppose. After 0.5 liter of strong dark beer in two gulps I was on more of a roll than I needed to be. M, as far as I could tell, was impressively unfazed so I resolved to slow my ramblings down. Did she know that in every Indo-European language, the word for 'happiness' derives from the word for 'luck'? I asked. Your random universe again, she smiled. Hhmm... yes, interesting... in Czech it's actually exactly the same word: štěstí. So what are you saying? Everything is just lottery?
Huh... I like that metaphor! I beamed. Yeah... we all certainly play the lottery. You know... buy our tickets, choose our numbers as best we can, and then hope. And lose. Then play again. Maybe win a little now and then. And we just keep playing.
... Until we run out of time to play... she sighed and wordlessly paid the bill as our beers came. Ah... so she's now pressed for time after all, I thought. That's OK, this is her show, I nodded to myself.
My point is, I said - still wanting to get one last point in before the second round made my incoherence manifest - that we shouldn't focus on playing the lottery. We do the best we can in life. But in the end, chasing happiness is a fool's errand. Trying to help other's chase their happiness is a fool's errand. If we have any biological mandate, it's not for happiness. It's to create meaning in our lives. Happiness is just the damn carrot the brain holds out to us - it really wants meaning in the end. That's what the grey goo in our skulls is computationally designed for; nothing else. Same reason it makes us miserable at times. That's the stick it beats us with to make us go out and create meaning. I was rambling again and thought I had lost her when she started drinking her second beer as fast as the first. Suddenly she set her glass down and leaned in toward me.So tell me how I am supposed to know which meaning. She deadpanned. How I am supposed to know what it means that we met? Or do you want to say because there is no meaning from the universe, I can freely choose my own meaning? Or is that also just lottery?No, no I didn't mean it like that. I said and had to grin at just how convoluted my meaning actually was. But don't get me started on free-will, or we'll be drinking all night! I continued. It's just that I mean there is no forward-looking meaning to anything. Meaning is only given in hindsight... that's how we can change it over time. Beats the hell out of me how that helps, I shrugged, except in one respect. If we know that little fact, we can always have hope, no matter how awful life seems to be at the time...
My dear, you are physicist, not priest! And a half-drunk one! She half-laughed and half-sighed in exasperation as she got up to leave. Can't you just give me a damn quantum machine - so that I can have all meanings? That I can both marry and not marry tomorrow?
Tomorrow? I thought she had three days left to figure it out... I murmured to myself and followed her out.
That's what the fight this morning was about, she said softly as we walked outside into the street. He said either I am sure about marrying or I am not. If I am sure, then tomorrow is a good day to marry. So... so... I will marry. Tomorrow.
I didn't ask if she was really that sure. Life usually forces binary decisions from us, regardless. Or at least we believe that they're forced on us. For such exquisitely sophisticated and complex creatures, we are still driven by a remarkably simple flight or fight mechanism. We then tell ourselves heroic stories about making courageous right-or-left decisions.... really just to make ourselves feel good about the fact that we're obeying the brain architecture of a lizard. But what is a decision anyway? It's only a state of mind; just another part of the Cloud. A simple thought experiment shows this quite easily: imagine everything happening in the world just as it does now. People doing what they do. Now take away the label 'decision' from people's actions; let them simply act as they act. Is anything really missing other than the label?
The context of our thinking and feeling is everything. If our context is too narrow, we think we have no alternatives. But as Star Trek's Spock was fond of saying: there are always alternatives. And although he didn't say it, as a good Vulcan scientist I'm sure he knew: that is the power offered to us by a random universe - as long as we know how to pay attention to context. In that metaphorical sense of having endless possibilities, then, we all carry the quantum machines within us that M wished for. But I didn't tell her that; didn't share any of these convoluted points with her. In the state I was in I had lost track of them myself actually. Instead I just stood silently, and waited. Then I watched as she approached me, looked down and slowly took my hands into hers.
When her large azure eyes finally met mine they were shimmering in moisture. In that moment I caught a glimpse of the vast deep blue ocean in front of me, and realized I was only standing on the shoreline. She then leaned forward and carefully molded her lips to the left half of my mouth. And I wondered if this very moment might not be the best possible time to die. For some weird reason, though, I lived, and we parted without a word between us. As I watched her disappear into the Metro, I realized instead this was actually the best possible time to get gloriously drunk.
It's just as well I don't remember much between that moment and the next day when the late morning sun came crashing into my room. But Černé pivo - black beer - had clearly been my metaphorically appropriate companion. Several beer coasters from Fleků, Kocoura and a few other places were strewn between me and the crumpled bed covers. I rolled over to the night stand, clicked my phone to check the time and saw that I had a handful of emails, texts and two missed calls. When I tapped to have a look, the low battery warning showed. That's OK I thought; I was hardly up for squinting at a bright screen anyway. After wishing dearly for several minutes that I had not just moved my head, I finally fumbled for the charger, plugged the phone in and managed a half-crawl to the shower. That helped, but not as much as it needed to. A different black drink in large quantities was needed as soon as possible. The hotel breakfast bar was already closed but the kitchen took pity on me with a cup to go. I wandered across the street towards the river.
With several caffeinated pit stops along the way, I eventually made it all the way across the Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle. No idea how my legs managed to carry me that far in my state; apparently they just weren't in the mood for sitting still. For the second time that week I circled the castle grounds, looking in vain for the famous window where the Thirty Years War began in 1618. Wikipedia says it's at the castle; two locals I asked insisted it's across the river in the old town hall. I had planned on asking a tour guide there if I hadn't found it by then, but my mood at the moment wasn't really up for conversation. So I wandered the castle grounds again, wondering if being thrown from a window is really as bad as it sounds. Finally I gave up, leaned over the perimeter stone wall and took in the city and river view below. I don't know how long I stayed.
It was early evening when I made it back to my hotel. I had put off being back in my room for as long as possible, but by now was too exhausted to do anything but crash. For sheer distraction I picked my phone off the nightstand and checked for messages. A few emails and Whatsapps from scattered friends; calendar reminders from the previous day.
A missed call at 7:24 am that morning. From M. No voice message. A text at 7:25 am. From M. Please call me!
Another missed call at 7:52 am, followed by text at 7:54 am Sean please call me!!
It was now 6:15 pm. Her voice mail came on immediately. I had no clue what to say and hung up. I took a deep breath, called again, mumbled something incoherent and hung up. I texted her: Just got your message! Can't reach you, call me anytime, have phone with me! Calling two more times then holding my phone the whole night didn't change anything. The next morning I texted her as I was leaving from the main train station. Live well, be happy. I knew I wouldn't hear from her again.
Since my dreamy teenage years I had wanted to see Prague at least once in my life. The first city that understood Mozart must be a wise and magical place, I knew. Now, only a week after my first trip there, I was driving back there on the E50, my books, devices and guitar loaded in the back. I felt energized, curious, but also perplexed and humble. I felt strangely between the cracks of an old life and a new one. Then I remembered an old physics buddy of mine used to say that all the interesting stuff in life happens between the cracks. That was his shorthand for what Isaac Asimov once wrote in longer form: that real revolutions begin not with a Eureka-like cry of self-assurance and certainty - but with a perplexed, humble and curious murmur; with a strange feeling. I think they both meant that the end of our believing, the end of certainty, the moment it dawns on us that things are profoundly different than we thought, is when our real stories begin.
Estates Theater, Prague
Continuing Part I of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there on some themes in the End of Belief.
The Buddhists try hard to live by their Eightfold Path
, I reminded her. Living by the right
intentions, etc. as opposed to the wrong
ones is a huge deal in their doctrine. So when it comes down to it, Buddhists cling to binary choices as much as anyone else.
Well of course! She grinned. How else will they keep their Karma accounts in balance? She stiffened her back and primly ran her hands down the white tablecloth as if going down a bookkeeping ledger. When she got to the end she stopped for dramatic pause and leaned forward with playful sternness. I don't think you will make them very happy if you tell them the universe doesn't really care, she said.
Oh, I wouldn't worry about them, I smiled. They're quite happy with their fixed system of 'revealed truth'... not plagued with doubt like the two of us, I said and clinked my glass to hers. That seemed to strike more of a nerve in her than I intended. She looked down and swallowed, then looked up at me, as if searching. Anyway... I continued, hoping to gloss over the moment... it's not so much whether the universe cares or not. What's funny is they actually preach the Tetralemma; they just don't want to practice it. Which for them is a double paradox: if you believe everything is an illusion anyway, you pretty much have to admit the whole concept of binary right and wrong is an illusion too, don't you?
So, yes, well... she said, gathering herself. I agree that reality we see… I mean believe
we see… is just ah… ah… what’s the word… She was obviously looking for a different word than 'illusion', helped by an unexpected and delightfully goofy gesture of puckering her lips while trying to pull the word out of her mouth like a strand of toffee. While I half suppressed a chuckle, she sank her chin into her hand and huffed in frustration. Seemingly defeated, she then suddenly perked up and began outlining semi-circles in the air with her upheld palms.
… cloud? I guessed, prompted by the airy elegance of her motion.
Yes cloud. She said, not missing a beat. We think we see reality, but actually it is just Cloud. We have to see what is real behind
Cloud if we want truth. She paused and seemed to shrink an inch. Looking behind the Cloud is what I have
to do in next three days… she sighed and finished the rest of her coffee in a huge gulp. As she crossed her arms and huffed more frustration, I thought hard about what would help her.
M… what if there’s nothing behind the Cloud? I finally asked her emphatically. What if it’s all just
Then it's even worse! she laughed ironically. Escaping Cloud was my last hope... As she drooped her head and sank even further, I thought... Yup... I really knocked that one out of the park... We sat in silence for a moment, then worked our way through two more rounds of booze - sorry, I mean coffee - and I've somehow forgotten what else we said. Eventually she gave a somber, deliberate nod that told me she had to leave. And I felt I had failed her. Walking outside together, I assumed it would be the last I would ever see her. I took a long, calm breath and looked up at the night sky. In the dim light of the narrow cobblestone street I could see the Pleiades cluster. Bronze Age Europeans at these latitudes used them as a sign for planting seeds, I remembered from an earlier museum visit to the Nebra Sky Disk. At such poignant moments in life I do the present-moment thing very well... it's actually quite easy when you have no clue what's coming next... Before I could look down and wish her a happy life, she had leaped the gap between us and locked her arms around my neck. There was surprising strength in her slender arms and she seemed in no hurry to let go. After a while of standing motionless together - and me wondering what my response, if any, should be - it dawned on me she was making a statement. But no... as much as my old ego would liked to have imagined otherwise, it wasn't a romantic statement. At least not the conventional kind. She was simply welcoming me into her life. No matter what she would finally decide to do, no matter what path in life I would take, we were now joined by the higher designs of fate and so the universe was a good place - in spite of her momentary difficulties. When she asked if I would I come by the shop the same time tomorrow, I just nodded, feeling equal parts enlightened and
stupefied. After seeing her off to the Metro station, I wandered the rest of the night along the river, trying keep things in perspective. Well, as much perspective as possible after three Irish coffees. If there were ever a sublime illustration of the exquisite random whims of the universe, I knew, this day was it. Of course randomness is always an unpopular interpretation. We seek the warmth and glow and beauty of higher purpose everywhere in life, and feel that to admit randomness would be like stabbing the meaning of life in the heart with an ice pick. But I think that's only based on a profound misreading of what randomness really is. And a worse misreading of what 'meaning' is. 'Everything happens for a reason', we learn since childhood, and reinforce that view in one form or another throughout life by our spiritual, religious and or scientific beliefs. Hollywood movies do their part too, of course. And we assign meaning according to what reason we imagine is behind it all. M had been primed by her beliefs (in her case, astrology) to think of our chance meeting as pre-ordained fate - that's why it meant so much to her. A traditionally religious person would have seen it, like everything else that happens, as part of God's plan. Finally, a traditionally scientific person would have seen the mathematical laws of nature gracefully turning their wheels, as they must in a lawful and causal universe. Here, the laws of nature are the scientific meaning of existence. But in each case, we believe in our metaphysical heart of hearts that a greater, forward-looking plan - call it The Plan - must be in place, everywhere and at all times. After all, our brains evolved over the eons as prediction machines; our existence is tethered to the unshakable conviction that The Plan - and hence, true meaning - not only exists, but that we can at least partly decode it. How could we possibly believe otherwise?
Except that The Plan is a figment of our imagination; part of the Cloud that M mentioned. Quantum mechanics already teaches that, at the most fundamental level throughout the universe, randomness rules. And this randomness is not, as some people like to imagine, one of human ignorance, limitation or misunderstanding. This randomness is the very essence of existence. It's as if the universe is saying to us: 'You might like to think
I need a Plan for what I do, but, seriously, guys... I don't.' And we should be thankful for that. Only a truly random universe holds all possibilities - if we know how to pay attention.
And as if to close the last escape hatch for our dogged misconceptions; the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Goedel and Gregory Chaitin show that even some mathematical statements are just true or false randomly. To bring that home with a small example: there are an infinite number of profound facts about the number 2 which are true for absolutely no reason. (Chaitin has put it quite pithily
"God not only plays dice in physics, but even in pure mathematics, in logic, in the world of pure reason.") Before you talk yourself into believing those are just bizarre, borderline situations that have nothing to do with 'the real world' you live in, it may help to remember that John Lennon knew better. I sometimes call it Lennon's Lemma: Life is what happens while you're making other plans.
But there is also a deeper point to understand. The Plan actually cannot
exist outside the Cloud of our imagination. To pretend otherwise is conceptually incoherent. To pretend that meaning
comes from anywhere but the same Cloud is just as incoherent. Things have the meanings we give them and no other. And we can change those meanings. That's not depressing, not frustrating, not an ice pick stab at life. On the contrary, that's actually where our true chances in life lie. Again, if we know how to pay attention. But that was for the next evening.To be continued
Charles Bridge, Prague
The city of Prague has always been a place of my favorite passions: contrarian thinking, beautiful music and epic beer. This is a composite, fictionalized account of my first ever journey and discussions there about the End of Belief. Anyone who knows me understands how much poetic license I generally take!
I have no idea what made me walk into the little shop. It was almost hidden under a brown stone archway, and in the grey afternoon light of Prague, seemed barely a shadow. Medieval architecture and cozy brew pubs are generally my siren call when traveling in Europe, not curiosity shops on the corner. Still I crossed the broad cobblestone square to get to it, feeling a strange sense of puzzlement of no known origin. There was no sound of the door when I entered, or if there was, I didn’t hear it. And in my mind there seemed no theme to the collection of stuff lying around on shelves and haphazard table settings. To be honest, I now can’t recall even a single item that was there, even though I lingered and held a few in my hand. It just seemed like a place of stuff. Lots of stuff.
Unless I’m in a music store, when a shopkeeper notices me is generally the time I try to leave. I had no reason for lingering there, couldn’t remember the phrase in Czech for “No, thank you”, and anyway, I wanted beer. But when she turned from the counter to smile at me I stood standing, looking back, frozen like an idiot. In that one instant her large, azure eyes, set into solid, elegant features had made her face seem like a single radiant gemstone. My eyes then followed the way her thick dark hair joined with her sweater to make the gem’s black velvet setting. I felt the flush of utter stupor and then stupidity course through me, so turned away in embarrassment - and started fumbling with more stuff. I should leave, I should leave, I kept thinking, but didn’t. A minute or two went on like this until I realized she was repeatedly looking toward me - seemingly nervous and worried. Great, I sighed. I had finally become the creepy psycho women were always being warned about. As I hurried to exit she called to me something in Czech which I knew meant she was calling the cops. Halfway out the door, though, I heard an emphatic “Wait… Can I help you?”
I don’t remember the first sentences we spoke to each other (and especially thankful I don’t remember what I said), but I’ll never forget when she suddenly stopped after a few minutes of small talk, collected herself and then stared into me like she was bracing for impact “There’s something I have to tell you… you will absolutely not believe. You will think it is so crazy, you will not believe what I have to tell you.” Before I could say anything, a customer walked in. She greeted him briefly and turned back to me with a worried but excited smile “Will you have a coffee with me when I close the shop in ten minutes?”
Her name was M___ (even though this is fictional, it’s still better not to use her real name). The shop was part time; her real calling was psychotherapy and spiritual research. OK, today is a good day for an open mind, I thought as our coffees came. Fortunately, Irish coffee; somehow I knew I was going to need it. She was getting married, she said… that is, supposed to be getting married… in three days. Uh, OK. I took a big gulp that half scalded my lips, but still congratulated her without missing a beat. I decided to settle in for whatever was coming next.
She had been having doubts about the wedding. For complicated reasons. She paused, thought for a second, then waved her hand dismissively. The point was: last week an astrologer told her that, just before her wedding, a stranger – a foreigner - would walk into her life, and change it forever. Someone with eyes just like mine, she said with a nervous glow. I was tempted to ask how she could even see my eyes past all the folds and wrinkles, but just took another gulp of coffee instead. She suddenly giggled and pointed out the wad of whipped cream on my nose.
Then out of nowhere M told me her whole life story. An impressive, dizzying mess from beginning to end that I - sorry - had to pledge to keep to myself. But really, I was deeply impressed at her creative life, not to mention her multi-tasking coping skills, and told her so. Sensing now a true comrade at arms, but wanting not to be outdone, I said I’d trump her mess with my life story, a true iconic catastrophe of the first rank. In the context of our discussion, there was actually a certain pride in saying that. M listened intently, and at times her eyes appeared to well up with a caring and compassion seemingly impossible from a stranger. At one point her hand reached out to hold mine. But when I was finished, she only smiled lightly, knowingly, as if to say my story was not so astonishing after all. Huh. My shoulders shrank slightly. Don’t take it personally I thought. After all, I’m in the presence of a true Bohemian Master. Suddenly it was all delightful and we started to laugh ourselves silly.
Did she know what she would do about her wedding, I asked, shifting into my concerned- friend mode. Complete stranger though she still was, the shift felt still natural and effortless. As I pondered that surprising fact, M just sighed and looked out the window. There was no point in following up with what might seem normal questions: did she love him; were they happy together, that sort of thing. She would have run through those questions a gazillion times without my prompting, and if those were not the right questions, she’d know herself why. Instead I asked if she had ever run across the Tetralemma method in psychology, seeing that psychotherapy was her interest. Her quizzical frown and searching eyes signaled she was ready to hear anything new that might be helpful, even from a babbling, goofy American that randomly wandered into her shop.
I explained that classical, Aristotelian logic allows only two truth values to things – True or False. The notion of ‘dilemma’, which M was obviously confronted with, comes from seeing only two alternatives – true/false; right/wrong; good/bad, this-way/that-way, etc. We humans seem lost without these types of binary choices. Maybe it’s all just part of the neural wiring for our fight or flight instinct, who knows, I shrugged. Anyway, a much older system from Bronze Age India was brilliant enough to allow multiple values. In this multi-valued logic, things might be true; or false; or something of both; or nothing of both. Buddhist philosophy, which you said you liked, is actually big on this idea too. Only sounds hopelessly impractical, I continued: Court judges of that period would sometimes use this system in a rigorous way to decide murky legal disputes that needed more than just a good guy/bad guy decision. I paused and waited for her eyes to start rolling but instead they stayed fixed on mine, quizzical and patient. I decided not to push her patience by mentioning that multi-valued logics were not only a lively area of mathematics research, but some artificial intelligence programs and integrated circuit designs also used them.
I think what you’re talking about is just how real life is, she laughed.
Maybe... I said - realizing how hard it was to faze her - but we real humans sure don’t seem to understand that in thinking about our real lives. Like I said, maybe it's hard wired into our brains. Everybody pretends to live by the binary choice code... or at least pretends we have to... or pretends we want to. Even your much more free-thinking Buddhists - who of all people should know better! - fall back into that binary trap.
Yes, I like Buddhism... she said with a slight hint of a frown. What trap you mean?
To be continued
Continuing from the last post to the subject nearest to my heart: science
And I'll start out by saying this will rankle many of my science friends, and in fact it would have rankled me some years ago. My point is that even science needs to find a way to move beyond its historical boundaries. At least if it's going to address the big issues coming in the 21st century - issues that ultimately, science itself will create. But before you start to worry, science people: this is not about the gooey-headed notion, often repeated, that science can't teach us about feelings, or morality, or the meaning of life. In fact I believe just the opposite - science has an enormous
amount to teach us about these issues. I'd even go so far to say that what science has to say here may one day be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. That is, if we find the intellectual and emotional courage to absorb those lessons. Usually we don't do that kind of courage well, but in fairness, it's a very hard thing for our naturally selected brains to do. OK, that
issue is also for a later posting.
At this point I should probably explain why - as much as I love art and music - I think science is the greatest thing the human mind puts out. Yes, science weaves breathtakingly beautifully narratives about nature - that's easy to love. But science is also the only human enterprise courageous enough to thrive on not knowing
. It's the courage of curiosity
that makes science both deeply humble and incredibly bold. It's why the story of science is the triumph of honest, transparent reason over naive intuition and wishful thinking. Again, something that is really, really hard for brains to do. Even when individual scientists may not be, science as a whole is open, dynamic, adaptable, and sure as hell never starts a meaningful line of inquiry with "Newton's sacred Principia
But where I believe science, at least as it currently practiced and understood, hits a wall is in dealing with us
. Us, as in the originators of science itself. It is, after all, a human activity whose outputs are the product of human minds. And it depends on finite, objective human language to formulate and communicate its content. That arrangement has worked wonders, of course, and spectacularly so since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. We can now sequence the human genome for $1000, and even have satellites that correct for the curvature of space-time just to help us find our friends at the nearest pizza place. And did I mention the robots on Mars? They're actually not quite as 'smart' as the iPhone4
But even one of the founding figures of the revolution, Renee Descartes, knew there was a problem at the core of the whole thing. A real hard problem
, as it's now sometimes formally called. How could any objective language description of the world, Descartes asked, possible account for our subjective experience of consciousness? The job of science is to account for observed phenomena, and there ain't nothing more observable than the fact of our own subjective experience. Strictly speaking, it's the only thing we ever observe. Except that subjective experience is not even a 'thing' - and if you think it is, just try describing it to a piece of computer software. And the more you try to imagine how something that is not even a describable 'thing' could even in principle show up as a 'thing' in any scientific language description, the more frustrating it gets.
It's a hotly disputed question today, and learned opinion is all over the map. Some, like Daniel Dennett
, claim subjective experience is just a 'user illusion' of self-referential information processing. Others like David Chalmers
think subjectivity could be a sort of fundamental property of matter, like, say an electron's spin and charge. Descartes himself thought subjective experience really was a different kind of 'thing' that's somehow attached to the normal 'things' in the world via the pineal gland in the brain. (OK, let's give Descartes a break here - it was the 17th century, folks.) Getting into the weeds of these and many other opinions worth mentioning will be several future postings, and I certainly have my own two cents to put in. The only point I want to make here, though, is that science and philosophy are looong
way from any kind of consensus. In particular we really have no bloody clue about when and why another entity is subjectively conscious. So far, science is not really helping us, and I think there are structural reasons for that. More future postings to come.
The thing for now is, though, we are not
that far from being confronted with exactly this question in everyday life. OK, we may never have a cranky hologram-doctor who sings opera like in Star Trek: Voyager
. Or an empathic Bicentennial Man
android who makes wood carvings and falls in love. But artificial systems are clearly getting better at simulating human-like behavior. In limited contexts, software agents have already passed the Turing Test
. Given that you and I only think each other is conscious only through our behavior, how many more decades will it be until our adapted empathy mechanisms cringe at the thought of turning off our computers at night? Sure, it's all still science fiction stuff. But it's also unavoidably what this century will have to deal with. And if that still seem too futuristic, then think about the recent findings in animal intelligence. Never mind great apes that we share 98% of our DNA with anyway. Watch some videos of parrots
and then tell me you don't see someone seriously at home. If you're a vegetarian: bless your intentions, but for perspective, you may want to watch a little plant intelligence in action
. Now tell me there's no cause for all of us
to wonder if we should look at our food sources differently. The problem of consciousness is moving into prime-time a lot faster than we're ready to deal with.
Other conceptual issues with Iron Age science that have to do with us
are different objective problems of self-reference. Here's a bullet point version of some controversial claims I'm making:
- I'm a big believer that quantum mechanics is a much bigger deal than is generally appreciated. Feynman of course famously said that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Maybe he was more right than he realized. Personally, I'm not bothered by randomness or even entanglement - and that somehow things don't 'exist' until they're measured. I'm cool with all that for reasons that, yup, will be in future postings. What really bugs me is: what the hell is a measurement? Yes, it's a question as old as quantum theory itself. I just think we've made zero progress on it. Well, maybe not zero - there are some modern theories which keep Schroedinger's equation valid forever with no collapse. Many-worlds and decoherence are solid, plausible ideas, I think. My problem with those versions, though, is that they imply that the universe as a whole is ultimately linear and deterministic. Ultimately that may turn out to be the case, but a) there seems to be experimental hints that quantum randomness is real and not just appearances, and b) more importantly (to me), I have other philosophical reasons (read: prejudices ;-) for thinking otherwise. In fact, I think the schizophrenic structure of quantum mechanics (nice linear wave function until suddenly - oops - it ain't anymore) is somehow trying to tell us something about us. I have no clue what that the secret message is, and I'm not yet willing to believe in a connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics. I also worry that Wheeler's participatory universe is more poetry than science. On the other hand, hell, maybe it doesn't go far enough. In any case, I do believe that if we really understood quantum mechanics, it would completely, utterly, totally reorder the way we look at science, ourselves and the universe. Just sayin'.
- Another self-reference problem I have is kind of Goedelian: Iron Age science imagines 'laws of nature out there' that account for everything. In as much as human minds 'discover' those laws, those same laws have to account for their own discovery by humans. So a complete Theory of Everything has to have the information content to contain itself among everything else it's accounting for. From an information-theoretic standpoint that may not work out too well, folks, unless the theory has infinite algorithmic complexity. Of course in that case, it's not discoverable anyway. None of that needs to be a strict logical paradox, but at the least it does make a conceptual mess. Again, just sayin'.
- On the subject of conceptual messes: the more we learn about our brains, the more we learn how many and how deep our cognitive biases are. We can label our thinking 'logical' and 'objective' all day long if we want. Truth is, our brains keep us alive by cherry-picking the data it takes in from the world (and from ourselves). We then generate selective interpretations of the selected data for all kinds of weird, opaque 'reasons' of convoluted neural circuitry that would humble us to our bones if we knew how arbitrary the whole thing is. None of this is terribly new. But think of the irony in the context of science. Science is, again, a product of the human mind. So science itself is teaching us not to trust science too much. That's pretty cool and exactly why I love science. But it also leaves me with an odd feeling that if I really took that message to heart, I would wind up with a totally different view of the whole thing.
It's in our nature to believe stuff; we just can't help ourselves. As science writer Michael Shermer likes to put it, we are all 'belief engines'
- and not just about religion, UFOs and the supernatural, but also science, politics, culture and everything else that makes up our mental universes. But what's so surprising to me - given how hungry our neural circuits always are for novelty
- is how static and conserved our beliefs actually are. And here I mean all of humanity for the last 2.5 thousand years.
It seems just short of astonishing that even in the 21st century, essentially all of the world's belief traditions come from a single time in history - the Axial Age
, from about 800-200 BC. That's roughly the Middle Iron Age for most of Eurasia and North Africa. That's not only a while back, but also a pretty short time span - roughly between Homer and Hannibal. Or a single Chinese dynasty (Zhou). That may sound like overblown hyperbole - something like Alfred North Whitehead's oft-quoted claim that all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. But when you go down the list of what came from the Axial Age
, the basic foundations for how we see the world today are essentially all there.
And it's not just that all our religion, spirituality, and moral belief in the Golden Rule originated here. It's also all the pieces we think of as belonging to secular modernity - humanism, rationality, materialism, even democracy and market economies. The Renaissance was in fact, very aptly named - it was rebirth, not new discovery. It's the same with the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, at least when you're talking about the fundamental precepts. It's not that enormous progress hasn't been made of course; obviously we're no longer using sundials and bleeding sick people. And by the way, we send robots to Mars. But you could also make the case that Democritus, Epicurus and friends might smile today at a lecture on string theory and rightly say "You didn't build that". Our current scientific conception of ultimate reality is, as it was for them, tiny units of matter obeying strict mathematical rules written, somehow, by 'nature'.
That's not only surprising, but I think a big problem that will only get more pressing over time. All of our belief traditions - including even, yes, the scientific ones - are overdue for a serious makeover. In short, it's really time for us to move beyond the Iron Age. Here's just the roughest outline of why I think so.
On religion, my basic points have been said as well or better elsewhere. If I just list religious war, denial of science, misogyny and sexual abuse scandals, and say I don't think those would really be the ideal cultural contributions to carry into the future, I think you know what I mean. It's not that any religion explicitly supports any of these, of course, but honestly, they're pretty much an unavoidable side effect when real-life, all-too-human people take ancient Iron Age texts too literally. Unless you're a fundamentalist/orthodox believer, I assume you agree with the point already. And if you are, then almost by definition there isn't much I can write here that will persuade you. Of course if you're an atheist, you're just shaking your head at the whole thing anyway.
I'll also only touch briefly here on Buddhism, the fourth largest religious/spiritual segment after Hinduism. Forget for the moment, all the legacy stuff from Hinduism (e.g., reincarnation, Karma, etc) and just focus on its basic philosophical insights. Technically, they're called the Four Great Truths, part of which is the Eightfold Path, of which my layman's summary is: we suffer because we cling to stuff. (Or rather, our illusions of stuff) The way to stop clinging is to live a good, moral life, practice mindfulness, and meditate. Everything else is, to me at least, a lot of bells and whistles. Sam Harris has a great article
on this point that the Buddha himself might have largely agreed with. Even reduced to that, though, Buddhism is still a system of 'revealed truth' - i.e. it just makes various claims and then passes those on as faithfully and conservatively as possible. Buddhism of course has several different branches, but these are all add-ons; none of them contradict the basic doctrines themselves. It's all the more ironic that the Buddha explicitly admonished his followers to question all of his teachings, when in fact the tradition has no mechanism for doing so. Query a Buddhist about specific points in their doctrine, and the answer usually starts with "The Sutras say that..." or "Master So-And-So teaches that..." In another posting I'll get into where I think meditative traditions like Buddhism can do better on this point. Specifically, where I think some of the basic doctrines can and should be adapted.
So much for spiritual metaphysics, at least for now. The very delightful author Karen Armstrong makes the point
that many big sages of the Axial Age - like Parshva, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius and Socrates - were actually more interested in how to live a moral life than in metaphysics anyway. In a way, maybe the Golden Rule was the greatest innovation of the Axial Age. If we could keep only one thing from the age, my vote would be for that. It sure beats the prevailing eye-for-an-eye thing from the Bronze Age. But here's where I think Iron Age moral thinking will get us into trouble; and in fact, where it already does. First, a warning: I'm going to write something incredibly controversial here, and compound it by being too brief here to defend it
adequately. But here goes: We're taught throughout our lives to think in terms of individual responsibility. We're the captains of our soul, masters of our destiny. We can choose, say, to go with God or against him; make good Karma or bad; meditate or not. It's all on us. We're free to choose. If you're among the overwhelming majority who are convinced we do, in fact, have something we can meaningfully call free will, there's not much I can write in such a format to convince you otherwise. (Though I would invite you at some point to nevertheless have a look at Sam Harris' talk on the subject.) I will claim here, though, that someday, maybe in this century, whether we like it or not, 'free-willers' will be in the minority. It's not that the philosophical arguments will become more forceful - at least to me they are as clear as ever, anyway. But the neuroscience of the mind will become so ubiquitous in its accounts, so pervasive and encompassing, that the arguments will take on a visceral meaning even in everyday life. It's inevitable - whatever room you think is left for arguing the case for free will, it is shrinking just as fast as neuroscience makes progress. And t
hat's when the trouble will begin; we have yet to adapt our system of laws, social interactions or psychology to such a seismic shift in the way we look and treat each other and ourselves. But we will have to. Again, that's a controversial claim - even many neuroscientists would dispute it. But then again, many 19th century biologists also disputed the theory of evolution. Many physicists including Einstein disputed quantum mechanics. Ancient habits of thought die hard, and the belief in free will holds on for dear life like nothing else in the human mind. I think the reason we cling to the idea so resolutely, and are willing to accept so many cognitive dissonances within us to hold on to it, is that we think we need it to survive. The idea that we don't have any such thing as free will is, I think, literally terrifying to most. It seems we would give up everything about us if we give up on free will. Life would become a meaningless pit of
despair, with no reason to do anything, no reason to even live at all. Let me be the first to say I feel your pain; I know what you mean. I've been there. But let me also give hope: if absorbed properly, the realization that free will - like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny - is just figment of your imagination, is actually one of the most liberating and healing perspectives possible. Finally, it may sound paradoxical, but I think we would actually have a better society for it. More on that in future posts.
Next topic: getting science itself out of the Iron Age.