Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Death Of Certainty?

I've just discovered - nearly ten years after the event, but I never claimed to be fast - that Stephen Hawking has changed his mind and declared that a Theory of Everything is unachievable. This is not quite as radical a piece of side-switching as the Pope announcing his conversion to Islam would be, but it's pretty significant and his reasons are interesting (not new, but interesting anyway, especially given his status in the world of science).

Some Background

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a general feeling among scientists that explaining the universe was on the verge of being done and dusted: there were still some minor issues to be resolved, but essentially all the elements of a complete explanation were in place and all that was left for the future was further refinement. So much for science, but in the field of mathematics things were not quite as rosy - the branch known as set theory was undergoing a major crisis as a result of the discovery that it permitted logical contradictions.

The idea of sets is so simple that even I can comprehend it but the nature of the particular problem requires a little thought to understand (at least for me it does, anyway). The crux of the issue is this: set theory allows for the creation of a set of all sets that are not members of themselves, resulting in sets that are members of themselves only if they are NOT members of themselves. Paradox! Disaster! I can only just about get my head around this (if you're looking for a more complete analysis go here) but the next link in the chain that is leading us (I promise) to Hawking - Gödel's incompleteness theorem - leaves my comfort zone as a distant spot dwindling on the horizon (so any requests for clarification would be better addressed to a slab of concrete than to me).

Here we go, anyway: both the set theory problem and the incompleteness theorem(s) are variants of the liar's paradox, an old philosophical conundrum. What Gödel succeeded in doing (by means that are completely beyond my ability to grasp) was to encode 'this statement is unprovable' and embed it in arithmetic. The implication of this remarkable feat is that mathematics is incomplete. In other words, there will always be statements which are true but which can never be proved to be true.

Meanwhile back at the homestead ...

Along came Einstein and abolished some common sense notions about the universe, but his theories subsumed Newtonian mechanics so - albeit with a little grumbling - they were accepted without too much of a problem. And then there was Heisenberg who demonstrated that, at least at the subatomic level, there could be no such thing as certainty, and that was a heavy blow but the desire to arrive at a theory of everything persisted, and thus was born string theory, superstring theory, M theory, and wherever-the-fuck-we-are-now theory.

There are good philosophical reasons (see Hume and Popper et al) to suppose that even if a Theory of Everything is possible we can never be sure that we've arrived at it, but Hawking's point, insofar as I understand it (and he's not the first or only person to make this argument, just the most famous), is that because mathematics is incomplete physics, too, must be incomplete and because mathematics never can be complete neither can physics. Bye-bye Theory of Everything. Obscurely, that makes me happy!

Monday, 22 August 2011

The City Of Dreadful Night

This started off with a search for the poetry of W.B.Yeats and, through the magic of site-skipping, ended up somewhere else entirely, but first a small digression:

Somebody - I can't remember who now - asked me fairly recently why I don't write poetry and I don't think I answered the question at the time so I'll do it now, and the answer is 'I don't write poetry because I suck at it'. In my mid to late teens I turned out reams of the stuff, all heavily indebted to Dylan Thomas and each one individually the literary equivalent of a steaming cow turd. Unfortunately having the technical knowledge necessary to construct poetry is no guarantee that the final result is going to be any good, and that same knowledge robs you of the ability to deceive yourself about its merits. For a while I embraced free verse as my saviour until it dawned on me that the lack of a formal structure actually makes it harder to produce anything worthwhile. So I gave up, and I remain given up.

Anyway, getting back to the true subject of this post, I'm not sure exactly how I ended up with James Thomson's 'The City Of Dreadful Night' but it was like meeting an old friend after an absence of many years. Thomson was the author of 'Sunday Up The River', a technically accomplished but, in my opinion, rather limp specimen of the kind of sentimental verse that Victorian parents doted on and considered sufficiently undisturbing and morally improving to be part of the literary diet of their children, and to which I was subjected at junior school (it could be that I'm being unfair in this assessment, which is based on memory of an abridged version of the piece. I haven't read the whole thing and I'm not sure that I will).

Somewhat later - in fact during the period when I was producing my sub-Thomas crap - I came upon an extract from 'The City Of Dreadful Night' in a poetry anthology, which started with this stanza:

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: All was black,
In heaven no single star, on earth no track;
A brooding hush without a stir or note,
The air so thick it clotted in my throat;
And thus for hours; then some enormous things
Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:
But I strode on austere;
No hope could have no fear.

Now for someone whose imaginative life was already warped by weird fiction and surrealism this was heady stuff but it took me years to track down the full poem, and I wasn't disappointed when I did. The poem is a tour de force: a lengthy meditation on madness and despair, on a life spent locked in the benighted city of the melancholy mind.

The poem is too long - truly epic in fact - to post, but you can find it here.

Enjoy it (if you can!).

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Into The Mystic

I was half-watching a documentary about one of Dan Brown's books of piffle (probably 'Angels And Demons' but I wasn't really paying a great deal of attention) that (undoubtedly because I wasn't paying a great deal of attention) inexplicably seemed to segue into a nun waxing indignant about the Higgs boson. Now it's always pleasant to be presented with evidence that scientists have a sense of humour, but nicknaming the thing 'the God particle' was possibly one jape too far as it presented this poor woman with a large number of sticks, the wrong ends of which she was waggling vigorously and embarrassingly in public.

This reminded me of a piece I read quite some time ago in which Deepak Chopra was trying to pray the Copenhagen interpretation in aid of the proposition of Eastern philosophy that reality is constructed by the mind rather than the other way around (it's not actually as absurd an idea as it may sound!). The comprehensive rogering that he received on various militantly atheistic blogs as a result should persuade him to leave quantum theory to the three people who understand it in future but - lovely man though he undoubtedly is - I suspect he's too stubborn to give in so easily. Anyway, it has to be said that while in principle I support the debunking of woo wherever it is to be found I often read these blogs with irritation because it seems to me that in pursuit of rationality their authors dive into a kind of reductionism that throws the baby out with the bath-water and then dismantles the plumbing too.

As may have become clear over the course of previous posts I'm not exactly a fan of religion - in fact I can quite understand, if not quite approve, the desire to burn every prophet in history on top of a bonfire of every religious text ever written - and I find the traditional ideas about the existence and nature of God (or gods) ludicrous and, in the case of the Old Testament Thunderer, despicable. When it comes to making claims about the nature of reality then I want to see empirical evidence in support of those claims before anybody starts making laws and judging people on the basis of them, and so far evidence for the existence of a deity or deities equals a big fat zero. Nevertheless, perhaps because of mystical experiences (or bouts of temporary insanity if that's your preferred interpretation) I had as a child, I'm reluctant to completely dispose of the numinous, or at least of the notion that both human beings and the universe itself are somehow more than the sum of their parts.

So where does that leave me:

Belief in the existence of a personal, kind and loving God? Not a chance!

Belief in existence of the universe? Yes, if only on the grounds that denying it leads to some serious philosophical problems and might possibly cause me to end up in an institution where the walls are made of rubber.

Belief that the universe possesses consciousness and intelligence? Well, some parts of it certainly do but whether it does as a whole I don't know.

Belief in survival of the personality after death? It doesn't seem likely.

Belief in the survival of some kind of essential me after death? I don't know.

Belief that I'm a part of something greater? Definitely yes!

Where all of this is leading me is something I'm still trying to work out, and part of that working out process will be a post about where I think reductionism might have it wrong and mysticism might have it right.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

There's a riot going on ...

"What causes riots is a hot Saturday night in any dumb cockroach-filled neighborhood where there's a lot of guys standing on the corner and they don't have no bread, no broads and no wheels." - Murray Roman

OK, flippant, but you get the picture and it isn't untrue: whatever the proximate cause may be the underlying one is just a bunch of people with a feeling that they've got nothing to lose. Those who do the finger-pointing in the aftermath of a riot - the politicians, the police, the media and all the other self-styled leaders of men - throw words like 'thugs', 'gangsters', 'anarchists' at the participants, slap mobile phones and Twitter around a bit for aiding and abetting and don't take the analysis any further because they can't take it any further without admitting that there's a larger problem to do with society itself that they are unwilling and unable to fix.

Let's for a moment forget about those who actually take part in riots (and there are doubtless many seriously unpleasant people among them, but the existence of such people does not provide an adequate explanation in itself of what's going on here) and let's take a look instead at those who don't. The people who don't riot, and would never dream of rioting, are those with good jobs, nice houses and a tolerable life, those in other words who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. So the solution is ... never going to happen. Unfortunately the next best solution, a revival of the social contract that guaranteed that no-one would be homeless, without adequate medical care or stuck in a life without hope or joy is not going to happen either because it's unachievable without squeezing the rich, who have the money to buy enough politicians to ensure that they don't get squeezed.

Nothing will change this until enough of the people with good jobs, nice houses and a tolerable life find themselves without these things, and the consequences of that will be so far from pretty that everyone should be breaking into a cold sweat of fear at the thought and moving the foundations of the Earth itself in search of a solution, but they aren't and they won't: if I've learned anything from all these years on this planet it's that human beings learn nothing.

Addendum: the destruction of people's livelihoods, homes and peace of mind is inexcusable and intolerable in any kind of civilised society. Riots are an evil, full stop.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Religion Sucks: Norway And An Abrupt Termination

Recent events in Norway have, rather than fuelling the fire of this discourse, had the opposite effect of dampening it. I could - I fully intended to - grab my trusty Chainsaw Of Logic and cut the world's religions (most of them anyway) into bleeding chunks but I find myself wondering what the point of it all would be: it's all been said before by more intelligent people than me and, ultimately, I don't really care how absurd anyone's beliefs are as long as they give them some measure of happiness and they don't use them as an excuse to hurt anyone who can't accept them.

The problem is not even religion per se but our own accursed and apparently incorrigible habit of mistaking the mental models we make of reality for reality itself. Whatever ideologies we embrace, whatever stories we tell ourselves for the sake of comfort or understanding, whatever scientific or magical structures of thought we build in explanation of the universe and our place in it, are, at best, approximations to the truth and not truth itself. In other words they're all flawed and we have no business making them the basis of any kind of coercive or punitive action against anyone who is doing no measurable and indisputable harm to anyone else, and we certainly shouldn't be killing children to make some kind of political point.

It's wrong, that's all there is to it.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Religion Sucks: The Personal Stuff

I’m the child of occasionally church-going parents (an escaped Catholic father and a Presbyterian mother) and between the ages of five and ten I attended a Church of England school (not as the result of any religious conviction on the part of my parents, it was simply the only school in the village). The teachers at the school did do their best to pump us full of Christianity: I’m not sure how successful they were on the whole but I don’t think I can be counted as one of their triumphs in that, looking back, I don't honestly think I ever truly believed in God, or at least not the God they were anxious I should believe in. On the other hand I didn't do much questioning either.

Until my mid-teens I went through all the 'right' motions - even attending a weekly Bible class - but in all honesty my motives for doing so were insincere and self-serving. I suppose that I could have continued to pay unreflective, agnostic lip-service to the culturally-approved mythology forever (many do, I think) except that at some point, and for reasons that are obscure to me now, it occurred to me that it didn't make any sense.

When I say that it didn't make any sense I'm not talking about the mismatch between the Biblical world-view and the scientific one (mainly because I was too ignorant of science at the time to be aware of it!) but the ludicrous nature of the exposition(s) of the nature of God and the whys and wherefores of creation: to believe in something because it is absurd is just not an option for me, and in any case the explanations offered by the Abrahamic religions strike me as not merely absurd but out and out bonkers!

I was suddenly left without a spiritual basket for my eggs and, impelled by a combination of egotism and need, I went through a few - among them Buddhism, Vedantic Hinduism, a kind of non-literal polytheism and Taoism - before fetching up as a pantheist who is just a wafer-thin mint away from being an atheist.

And that will do for now, I think, as I have to go and grind an axe or two in preparation for the next post ,,,

Friday, 15 July 2011

Religion Sucks, Preamble

I've been promising myself (or somebody, maybe even a Higher Power!) that I'd try to worm my way around the writer's block by producing something - anything - even if it's not fiction. I don't guarantee that any of the parts that form the postamble will be cogent, coherent, comprehensible (or even written in anything that is recognisable as English) but I'll give it a bash.

What may (or may not) follow this brief introductory spasm may (or may not) be a series of personal reflections on the greatest misfortune ever to emerge from the muddled thinking and desperate hopes of humankind, i.e. religion. These will probably not be well-reasoned, and for reasons of personal sloth they will certainly not be supported by references, but this will give everyone the opportunity to point out the deficiencies and suggest amendments or corrections, or to pile in and hammer the crap out of me.

I'll amble away now and leave you with a quotation from Mark Twain. Take it away, Sam:

Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane - like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell - mouths mercy and invented hell - mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

From The Mysterious Stranger