Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Walkaway, a novel

I don’t often review novels on this blog – in fact, I think this may be my third. Actually, the title is exactly as written above, so people know that it is ‘a novel’ (written by Cory Doctorow), as if it could be mistaken for non-fiction – I’m not sure how. To be honest, I’ve never read anything else of his, and I bought it after reading a review, which is something I rarely do. I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, because it takes a commitment in time that one might rather spend elsewhere.

The review interested me because the novel portrays dystopia and utopia in the same story, both common themes in science fiction. There are many subgenres in sci-fi but there are 2 broad categories: speculative fiction and space opera. I tend to write space opera, though I’d call it science fantasy, because it contains fantasy elements. One of the characters in Walkaway makes the observation that ‘science fiction and fantasy are opposite sides of the same coin’; a deliberate ironic touch by the author: talking about science fiction from within a science fiction novel.

I went straight to my local bookshop after reading the review, because bookshops still exist in my part of the world – in fact, there are 2 about 5 mins from here in opposite directions; both thriving according to their managers. Sometime in the first decade of this century, Borders came to Melbourne with the intention of putting every other bookshop out of business, which is the American business model. Well, Borders are long gone and the locals are still going, so sometimes the American model doesn’t work in Australia, which probably has more to do with our small population base than anything else. I’m not an economist so others may be able to enlighten me.

Back to Walkaway: it’s based on a dichotomy which some may say is reflected in our current political climate, which is why it is worthy of a blog post. But that’s only partly true, even though the book is very political and the author would like to think: visionary. Personally, I‘m not so sure on the last point. One day, I’ll make my own attempt at trying to predict what makes a better world, but I’m the first to admit that most such attempts get it woefully wrong, so I can’t knock the guy for his efforts, and putting it out there for others (like me) to challenge.

Someone (Peter Nicholls) once said that what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is that it’s all about ‘what-ifs’. This is more true in speculative fiction (a good definition, in fact) than space operas, but it still applies because, almost by definition, sci-fi requires speculative technologies that probably don’t exist. I’ve also remarked elsewhere that science fiction invariably makes some comment about the current social dynamic in which it was written. Not surprisingly, Doctorow’s novel delivers on both of these in spades.

I think I can describe the premise without any spoiler alerts: basically, society has become divided between the ‘zottas’ (corporate lords and their feudal underlings) and ‘walkaways’ (hippies with magic-like technology so they don’t want for anything material). I need to explain a few things, but I should point out up front that I struggled to be engaged for much of its 500 page length. For the first half, it was a series of philosophical discussions interspersed with heavy sex scenes and martial conflict (war-like battles) – yes, I know I’ve done this myself, so I can’t throw stones. Well, actually, I can and I will as you’ll see. What happened halfway through was a fork in the plot which created genuine suspense. It wasn’t till near the end that I got truly emotionally involved and I can’t say how or why without giving things away. Now the fact that it took so long may say more about me than the book: nothing objective is more subjective than art. But enough about me.

At this point in historical time, the world is polarised in a way that I haven’t seen since the 1960s, and to some extent the novel extrapolates that polarisation into the future. The Left and the Right are getting further apart all over the Western world, and Doctorow has taken that to one of its logical conclusions (with significant help from technologies yet to be invented) whereby he’s dressed one up as evil and the other as virtuous. I tend to agree with Sam Harris (I don’t agree with him on much) that the far left is just as dangerous, volatile and violent (perhaps more so) as the far right. But letting that one through to the keeper, Doctorow allows his ‘walkaway’ characters to espouse his particular utopian worldview. Now, as an author, I need to point out that fictional characters don’t always express the views of their creator, and, in fact, an author’s fiction is all the better when he or she keeps his or her opinions out of it. Having said that, Walkaway is unapologetically a polemic, and needs to be assessed as one.

For a start, the novel is full of techno-jargon that the reader has to assimilate and learn as they proceed; basically making assumptions or ignoring it in the hope that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. The story is set in Canada but it feels distinctly Californian: not just the language and sexual mores, but the whole hippy combined with silicon valley on steroids thing. I’ve visited and worked in California (for about 3 months, 15 years ago) but California as a culture has been broadcast to the English-speaking world, and beyond, since the 1960s, through TV, movies and computer games. Anyway, in a nutshell, Doctorow’s utopia is the counter culture with AI – very advanced AI.

As a plot device, there are very convenient technologies, which allows one to make just about anything, including food, homes, transportation, you name it. The hippy group are called ‘walkaways’ because, not only did they walk away from society, called ‘default’, but they can walk away from anything they’ve built and start all over again. That’s a fundamental premise of this ‘new’ societal order. Another fundamental premise is that theirs is a leaderless society and that there are no ‘snowflakes’ – people who think they are special.

I have philosophical problems with all of this, but then it is a philosophical manifesto dressed up as a good versus evil fiction. Ah, that’s why the author feels compelled to tell us it’s ‘A Novel’ on the front cover.

For a start, I don’t believe in leaderless societies. I’ve never seen a leaderless project of any nature that’s worked. I wrote, way back when I started this blog, a post called Human Nature, where I contended that leadership is a fundamental aspect of humankind, but it only works when those being led are invested in the leadership. In other words, they need to believe that the leader has the requisite skills and expertise to lead in that particular endeavour, whatever it might be: a sporting event, an engineering project, a nation, a theatrical production. I once wrote an essay on leadership, before I had a blog, but, in essence, I argued that a leader is best measured by the successes of those he leads rather than his own successes as an individual. In other words, good leaders bring out the best in people.

I find this whole ‘snowflake’ thing just bullshit, but I admit that’s my own particular perspective based on my own experience. I live and grew up in a society where the greatest ‘sin’ was to have ‘tickets on yourself’. This means that in whatever you do you’re judged on your current endeavours and should not take for granted whatever respect you’ve earned. I think this is very healthy and effectively punishes complacency without throwing away whatever you’ve gained. In walkaway society, the characters tend to conflate ‘snowflakiness’ with leadership.

I mentioned the plot device that allows walkaway characters to magically invent anything they need through ultra-superior technology – I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve spent a working lifetime in engineering, so I know the true value of infrastructure and our dependency on it. There are so many things we take for granted (like sewerage) that we don’t appreciate what life would be like without them. I mention sewerage, because, of all the utilities, it would have the biggest and earliest impact if they all failed. My point is that, like everything technological that we take for granted, most people have no knowledge of its underpinnings or how they’d cope without it. Doctorow’s plot device attempts to cover this with an internet-like infrastructure called ‘interface’, energy from hydrogen ‘cells’, virtually 3D printable anything, including food if required, and transportation with blimps; all without anything resembling an economy.

I wouldn’t be giving too much away if I mention that one of the technological inventions that the walkaways have is the ability to upload (or download) their consciousness into AI. I think this is called the singularity. I admit that I am sceptical about this particular futuristic prediction, but given that it’s a work of fiction, I look at it as the ‘fantasy’ side of the same coin, that one of the characters conveniently reminded us of. My aversion to this scenario is that, personally, I don’t want immortality, in a machine or any other form. I’ve actually addressed this issue in my own fiction, so it’s there for someone else to take apart if they want to.

To be fair, a lot of people will enjoy this book, and some (if not many) will find my criticisms harsh. Arthur C Clarke once famously said (or wrote) that “any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic” (that may not be verbatim but it’s close enough). All fiction is a blend of fantasy and realism, including mine, and the mix varies depending on the author and the subject. Science fiction novels can explore alternative societies, which is one of the things that attracted me to it when I was young. As I alluded to above, Doctorow’s novel comes across as a philosophical treatise, which I think is flawed, and it’s completely dependent on technology that’s indistinguishable from magic.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

What Sorts of Things Exist, and How?

This is another ‘Question of the Month’ from Philosophy Now. I’ve submitted 6 in a number of years and they’ve published 5. In this case, I suspect they want an ontological discussion, which I’ve effectively side-stepped, so it may not make the grade. I always try and write something they won’t expect, and I’m vain enough to admit I’ll be disappointed if it fails. Regular readers of my blog will see that, philosophically, it’s consistent with what I’ve written elsewhere. There is a word limit of 400, but I’ve been unusually economical with 353.

The terms, ‘Things’ and ‘Exist’, seem self-evident yet they’re not. And the word, ‘How’, whilst the apparent key to understanding this, is probably the most enigmatic part of it. What does one mean by ‘Things’? A thing can be an idea, a concept, a mathematical equation, or a tune in your head, as well as a physical object, examples of which surround you everywhere you go. So I’d divide Things into two categories: those that are constructs of the mind and those that are independent of any mind. Not surprisingly, some have an existence that seems to bridge these two worlds: the physical and the mental. Take music, which can exist as a written score on a page or as physical compressional air waves; yet we experience it as some-Thing transcendent to the physical world that elicits emotions, memories and sometimes a tendency to dance or swoon or even cry. In this case, the How is utterly unfathomable.

We all have dreams that deceive us into experiencing something that literally feels and looks real, yet when we awaken we know it isn’t. Dreams are solipsistic, which means they only exist in our minds, but so do colours even though they appear external. Then there are stories, which like music, can exist as words on a page, yet in our heads can evoke strong emotions and take us to completely imaginary worlds, not unlike dreams. In fact, if we didn't dream, I wonder if stories would have any cogency. Stories embody imaginary Things by their very design, yet they are part of being human, as is all art.

Science, over centuries, has attempted to explain the physical world, yet it’s like peeling an onion. It has reached a stage where fundamental Things are described by quantum mechanical wave functions – mathematical entities that may or may not exist in the physical world. Mathematics appears to be a product of the mind, yet there will always be mathematical Things that we can never know because they are infinite, like all the digits of pi or every prime number. So is this a third category of Things?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

What’s really happening in Syria

I wasn’t even sure I could write a post about this, but it’s too important to ignore. Earlier this week I watched an investigative programme into the tens of thousands of people who have ‘disappeared’ under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is shocking almost beyond belief, reminiscent of documentaries I’ve seen on the holocaust under Nazi Germany. More than anything else, it made me aware of how our fortunes, or misfortunes, are firstly and foremostly determined by our birth, which is contrary to what we are all led to believe; at least for those of us who were born into a Western society.

What struck me was how intellectuals, in particular, seem to have been targeted. To give one example, a woman who was a doctor and a chess champion has disappeared with her entire family, including small children. Another example, is a dental student who was tortured and killed. In fact, there are over 6,700 photos of young men who have been tortured to death, all documented and tagged by a bureaucracy obsessed with following rules even when the documentation is self-incriminatory.

I could not help but put myself in the shoes of the victims, realising that the only difference between them and me is where I was born. There is enough evidence – 600,000 pages – to indict Assad on crimes against humanity, but the UN is powerless because both Russia and China have veto rights and together have blocked any move to prepare a criminal case against Syria’s governing regime.

It goes to show that in the 21st Century you can get away with the most heinous crimes if you have enough power and enough influence on the global stage.

This is not a lengthy post, because words alone cannot convey the burden of injustice that the world is witnessing in virtual silence.

Watch this short video if you can access it.

Friday, 14 April 2017

48hr Flash Fiction Challenge 2017

Actually the competition (ran over the 8-9 Apr weekend) was called the SFL Challenge (Sci-Fi London Challenge), which I came across in New Scientist a few weeks earlier. You had to register and you were given a title and a line of dialogue from which to write a 2000 word short story in 48 hrs (actually 50hrs). But in reality, you only needed 24 once you got the bit between your teeth, though, in some circumstances that in itself may take 24 hrs. I was lucky in that I found the story started for me as soon as I put pen to paper. I say 'lucky' because that doesn't normally happen. It also could mean that the story is complete crap, but obviously I don't think so, otherwise I wouldn't be willing to post it here.

This is the complete opposite to the science fiction I normally write or used to write (as I haven't written anything in the past few years) in that it verges on real science, whilst my novel length attempts I would call science fantasy as opposed to so-called hard core sci-fi. You’ll understand what I mean if you read it. It could almost actually happen. In fact, similar ‘incidents’, for want of a better term, have notoriously happened in the past. I can’t say anymore without giving the plot away.

Some may think it a touch ambitious for a male writer to tell a story in first person female, or even a conceit, but I have done it before, though not in first person. There is little difference, from a writer’s perspective in writing in third person intimate or first person. Third person intimate (as it’s called) is distinct from third person omniscient. The point is that in both third person intimate and first person, the story is told from inside a character’s head, so little difference really.

                                                  FUTURE GUARANTEED

Cue dialogue: The drug could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people too empathetic.

Word limit: 2000

‘Someone once said that evil should be called lack of empathy. When one looks at history, even recent history, atrocities have always occurred when one group of people demonise another group. In order to commit atrocities like genocide, or even milder forms of human rights abuse like denying sanctuary to refugees, it requires one to completely reject any empathetic feelings.’
          Dr Robert immediately had the room’s attention by mentioning the word ‘evil’ in his first utterance, and possibly hit a nerve by introducing a topic that everyone would have an opinion on. I looked around the room to assess the reaction of the seventy odd people present and noted, that as a woman, I was in a distinct minority. He went on to woo us further by suggesting the highly improbable, if not impossible.    
         ‘So imagine if we could cure evil, so to speak. We could guarantee the future.’ He paused to let the idea sink in. ‘Imagine if we could create a drug that would effectively eliminate evil; that would stop all atrocities in their tracks. A drug that could permanently enhance mirror neurons and make people more empathetic.’
         As a science journalist, I knew this was an extraordinary claim. But was it just a blatant, self-promoting publicity grab or did it have substance? I needed to find out. In his next breath, Dr Robert offered me a means to that end.
         ‘We are looking for volunteers to trial this drug. And we have set up a web site for people to register. It will be a controlled double-blind experiment, so some of the volunteers will be given a placebo. We have already passed this by an ethics committee, which is why I can tell you about it here today.’
          The group broke up and we went into an adjoining room for drinks and nibbles. I got myself a glass of white wine and observed Dr Robert from the fringe of the pack.
          I guessed that he was in his early forties, reasonably good looking, with a relaxed and confident manner. I got the impression he was used to addressing large groups of people, and possibly corporate boards, using a combination of charm and intellect to persuade others to follow and support him in whatever he wished to pursue. I had to admit he reminded me of my ex-husband, who had used the same combination to sweep me off my feet when I was not quite twenty. More than a decade later, with wisdom and hindsight, I now know that someone who looks and behaves like they were perfect casting for the romantic lead of the movie playing in your head, can in reality be self-centred, inconsiderate and insensitive to the needs of others. Richard wasn’t evil, just a bastard, but an empathy enhancing drug may have performed wonders.
        I was abruptly broken out of my reverie when I saw Dr Robert approaching me, carrying a glass of red.
       ‘I don’t believe we’ve met.’
       We both changed hands with our glasses so we could cordially shake. His grip was gentle, which I suspect he reserved for women.
       ‘Jennifer Law, I’m a journalist with Science of Today.’
       ‘A very respectable periodical. I understand you have a wider audience than just geeks and science professionals.’
       ‘I would like to think so. I’ve been told that even some politicians read us.’
       ‘Well, you must be doing something right.’
       ‘Or possibly something wrong.’ We both chuckled and I lifted my glass to my lips to hide behind. Then I got serious. ‘To be honest, I’d like to be part of your trial.’
       ‘So you can report on it. From the inside, so to speak.’
        He gave me a look as if he was reassessing me. ‘Well, at least you’re up front.’
       ‘Yes, I find in the long run, it earns respect.’
        He gave me another look, and I believe he liked what he saw. It occurred to me that he possibly liked blondes. From my experience, dark haired men often do.
       ‘Here’s my card,’ he said, taking it out of an inside pocket.
        I looked at it: psychiatrist. It had his mobile number.
       ‘Thanks Dr Robert. Tomorrow I’ll go to your web site and register.’
       ‘Call me David.’ And he touched my arm ever so lightly.
        We both smiled and he turned his back so he could meld into the crowd.
        If I was to be honest, we’d been flirting and despite the alarms going off inside my head, I had to admit I enjoyed it.

The next day I went on-line to register. I noticed that they asked for the usual parameters: age, gender, profession and education level. They also asked, rather unexpectedly, if we could take a week out of our lives to participate. Naturally, I said yes, but I suspect that particular question would have eliminated a lot of potential volunteers before they even registered.
       Those of us who were successful were booked into a hotel in the inner city, all expenses paid, and told on the first day to attend an introductory meeting in a ‘function’ room on the top floor. I estimated there were thirty or more of us, varying in age from early twenties to late forties, maybe early fifties, roughly equally divided by gender.
       Dr Robert addressed us, saying that we would be divided by ballot into two groups and separated. I assumed that one group would be on the drug and the other on the placebo. Dr Robert told us that even he didn’t know who would be on the drug and who wouldn’t.
       A female assistant then proceeded to read out a list of names which formed the first group and, as requested, they assembled one by one on the left side of the room, being the right side to Dr Robert and his assistant. I was in the second group so I moved to the right side.
       Before dismissing us, Dr Robert told us something about the purpose of the trial. ‘It’s important that you understand that this drug doesn’t enhance empathy per se. It enhances mirror neurons, which actually fire when we observe the activities of others. But it is widely believed that this feature, which is not unique to humans by the way, allows what we call empathy with others. The trial is to specifically observe how or if we can get inside someone else’s head, figuratively speaking.’
       I found it intriguing that he didn’t elaborate on how he would do that or how it would be measured. Someone in the other group obviously had the same thought, as they asked that very question.
      Dr Robert replied, ‘I can’t answer that as it may affect the results.’ He smiled knowing that his answer would only intrigue us further, but perhaps that was the idea.
      We then exited, under the guide of another two assistants, male this time, out separate doors.
      We were given an oily gold liquid in a cup; the sort one usually associates with cough medicine. It had no distinct taste but the texture matched its look. Of course one wondered if its lack of taste indicated that it was the placebo, but I knew that was intuitive thinking misleading cognitive deduction. We were told that we would be given the same dose under supervision for every day of the trial.

Over the next few days we had no contact with the other group. Under the supervision of our assistant, who called himself Jones, we were involved in discussions about racial issues and societal dynamics. We watched documentaries, mainly concerned with historical events like the civil rights movement in the 1960s and pre-War Europe in the 1930s. I have to admit I was starting to feel acute disappointment, as I could see nothing innovative or novel about this approach. I found myself becoming bored and irritated, with the daily cumulative feeling that I was wasting my time. Also Dr Robert had effectively disappeared and I was beginning to feel that I had been duped. I also began to realise that many in the group felt the same way. If we were taking the drug, as opposed to the placebo, then our mirror neurons were in full synchronicity.
      After four days we were told by Jones that we would be doing an exercise with the other group, which would be a role playing exercise. We would not be told what our roles were until we met. I noticed that the two groups even occupied separate floors of the hotel and used separate dining rooms. There had been no fraternising at all. Only a fire could have caused us to meet.

The next day we found ourselves in the function room where we had started. This time Dr Robert was no where to be seen.
      We were going to play a game and some props were introduced to help us. The props consisted of two partitions, in the form of fences with 2 metre vertical poles about 10 centimetres apart. They were placed about 3 metres from the opposing walls where there were no doors. Half of our group were allocated to stand behind one partition and half of their group to stand behind the other partition, which was the one behind us. So both sides had their opposing side standing between them and half their group who were effectively prisoners.
      Then those of us who weren’t prisoners were given a list of crimes committed by our opponents against imaginary members of our own group. The crimes included murder, rape, infanticide and torture; the usual accusations associated with war crimes. Each prisoner was given a number, which was associated with a specific crime. Our job, as a group, was to negotiate the release of their prisoners.
      Logically, we would exchange prisoners with similar crimes, but everyone, myself included, felt that treating it as a book-keeping exercise didn’t serve justice.
         Recollecting events later, I was surprised how seriously we all took it. No one said: It’s only a game. Both the assistants took up the cause for their respective sides, urging us not to give in to our opponents’ demands. I’m not sure how long it went on for, but later that morning the exercise was called off with no prisoners released, and we were allowed to return to our rooms.
      Later that day we were called back to the function room for a debriefing. I have to admit I didn’t even want to go back into that room, but I had the feeling that it would be the last time.
      This time Dr Robert was present and told us that the trial was over. He said we would all be debriefed over the next 24 hours and allowed to go home.

Dr Robert debriefed me personally. I’m unsure if that was deliberate, but I suspect it was. I have to confess my original attraction, even warmth, for him felt tainted by the experience that he had just put me through.
      ‘May I call you Jennifer?’
      ‘Sure,’ I said, feeling raw. ‘Can you tell me if I was on the drug?’
      ‘There was no drug. Everyone was given a placebo.’
       I was so stunned that words would not form in my mind.
      ‘But, believe it or not, the trial was a success.’
      ‘How can you say that?’
      ‘We gave everyone the impression that their mirror neurons would be enhanced, and they were to the extent that we kept you in a group. Empathy has a dark side in that it causes people to associate more strongly with their group. It’s as much a cause for evil as an antidote.’ He elaborated, ‘The real purpose of the trial was to show that empathy, through mirror neurons, is a two-edged sword.’
      I said no more. I left the room knowing that any romantic feelings I might have felt for Dr Robert had long dissipated. Not because he reminded me of Richard, but because I couldn’t abide his deception, however he may justify it.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The importance of purpose

A short while ago, New Scientist (Issue: 28 January 2017) had on its cover the headline, The Meaning of Life. On reading the article, titled Why am I here? (by Teal Burrell, pp. 30-33) it was really about the importance to health in finding purpose in one’s life. I believe this is so essential that I despair when I see hope and opportunity deliberately curtailed as we do with our treatment of refugees. It’s criminal – I really believe that – because it’s so fundamental to both psychological and physical health. As someone who often struggled to find purpose, this is a subject close to my heart.

As the article points out, for many people, religion provides a ‘higher purpose’, which is really a separate topic, but not an unrelated one. The author also references Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning (very early in the piece), which I’ve sometimes argued is the only book I’ve read that should be compulsory reading. The book is based on Frankl’s experience as a holocaust survivor, but ultimately led to a philosophy and a psychological method (for want of a better term) that he practiced as a psychologist.

I’ve also read another book of his, The Unconscious God, where he argues that there are 3 basic ways in which we find purpose or meaning in our lives. One, through a relationship; two through a project; and three through dealing with adversity. This last seems paradoxical, even oxymoronic, yet it is the premise of virtually every work of narrative fiction that all of us (who watch cinema or TV) imbibe with addictive enthusiasm. I’ve long argued that wisdom doesn’t come from achievements or education but dealing with adversity in our lives, which is impossible to avoid no matter who you are. It makes one think of Socrates' (attributed) famous aphorism: The unexamined life is not worth living. If we think about it, we only examine our lives when we fail. So a life without failure is not really much of a life. The corollary to this is that risk is essential to success and to gaining maturity in all things.

Humans are the most socially complex creatures on the planet – take language. I’ve recently read a book, Cosmo Sapiens; Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, by John Hands. It’s as ambitious as its title suggests and it took him 10 years to complete: very erudite and comprehensive, Hands challenges science orthodoxies without being anti-science. But his book is not the topic of this post, so I won’t distract you further. One of his many salient points is that humans are unique, not the least because of our ability for self-reflection. He contends that we are not the only species with the ability to ‘know’, but we are the only species who ‘know that we know’ (his words) or think about thinking (my words). The point is that cognitively we are distinct from every other species on the planet because we can consider and cogitate on our origins, our mortality and our place in the overall scheme of things, in ways that other species can’t possibly think about.

And language is the key attribute, because, without it, we can’t even think in the way that we all take for granted; yet it's derived from our social environment (we all had to be taught). I understand that children isolated from adults can develop their own language, but, even under these extremely rare circumstances, it requires social interaction to develop. This is a lengthy introduction to the fact that all of us require social interaction (virtually from birth) to have a meaningful life in any way, shape or form. We spend a large part of our lives interacting with others and, to a very large extent, the quality of that interaction determines the quality of our lives.

And this is a convoluted way of reaching the first of Frankl’s ‘ways of finding meaning’: through a relationship. For most of us this implies a conjugal relationship with all that entails. For many of us, in our youth, there is a tendency to put all our eggs in that particular basket. But with age, our perspective changes with lust playing a lesser role, whilst more resilient traits like friendship, reliance and trust become more important, even necessary, in long term relationships, upon which we build something meaningful for ourselves and others. For many people, I think children provide a purpose, not that I’ve ever had any, but it’s something I’ve observed.

I know from personal experience, that having a project can provide purpose, and for many people, myself included, it can seem necessary. We live in a society (in the West, anyway) where our work often defines us and gives us an identity. I think this has historical roots. Men, in particular, were defined by what they do, often following a family tradition. This idea of a hereditary role (for life) is not as prevalent as it once was, but I suspect it snuffed out the light of aspiration for many. A couple of weeks ago I saw David Stratton; a Cinematic Life, followed by a Q&A with the man himself. David, who is about a decade older than me, came to Australia and made a career as a film critic, becoming one of the most respected, not only in Australia, but in the world. However, the cost was the bitter disappointment expressed by his father for not taking over the family grocery business back in England. Women, on the other hand, were not allowed the luxury of finding their own independent identity until relatively recently in Western societies. It’s the word ‘independent’ that was their particular stumbling block, because, even in my postwar childhood, women were not meant to be independent of a man.

The movie, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, which I reviewed back in 2010, does a fair job of addressing this issue in the guise of cinematic entertainment. To illustrate my point, I’ll quote from my own post:

The movie opens with a montage of people being sacked (fired) with a voice-over of Clooney explaining his job. This cuts to the core of the movie for me: what do we live for? For many people their job defines them – it is their identity, in their own eyes and the eyes of their society. So cutting off someone’s job is like cutting off their life – it’s humiliating at the very least, suicidally depressing at worst and life-changing at best.

So purpose is something most of us pursue, either through relationships within our family or through our work or both. But many of you will be asking: is there a higher purpose? I can’t answer that, but I’ll provide my own philosophical slant on it.

Socrates (again), who was forced to take his own life (as a consequence of a democratic process, it should be noted) supposedly said, in addition to the well-worn trope quoted above: Whether death is a door to another world or an endless sleep, we don’t know. And I would add: we are not meant to know. I’m agnostic about an afterlife, but, to be honest, I’m not expecting one, and I’ve provided my views elsewhere. But there is a point worth making, which is that people who believe that their next life is more important than the one they’re currently living often have a perverse, not to say destructive, view on mortality. One only has to look at suicide bombers who believe that their death is a ticket to Paradise.

Having said all that, it’s well known that people with religious beliefs can benefit psychologically in that they often live healthy and fulfilling lives (as the New Scientist article, referenced in the introduction, attests). Personally, I think that when one reaches the end of one’s life, they will judge it not by their achievements and successes but by the lives they have touched. Purpose can best be found when we help others, whether it be through work or family or sport or just normal everyday interactions with strangers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

My 2 sided philosophy

In a way, this gets incorporated into Roger Penrose's 3 world philosophy that I discussed last year, but the core principle of my world view, that turns up again and again in my musings, can be best understood as a philosophy in 2 parts, if not 2 worlds. I'm not an academic, so don't expect me to formalise this as I suspect one is meant to, but there is a principle involved here that I wish to make more fundamental than I have done in the past.

This has been prompted, not surprisingly, by various things I’ve read recently, in particular in Philosophy Now (Issues 117 & 118) and a letter I wrote to the Editor of said magazine, which re-iterated some of the ideas that I expressed in my post on Penrose’s 3 Worlds, referenced above.

A great deal of my personal philosophy stems from the view that there are effectively 2 worlds for each and every one of us: an inner world and an outer world; and the confluence and interaction of these 2 aspects of reality pretty well determine how we live our lives, how we navigate relationships and how we effectively determine our destiny.

I’ve even used this dichotomous philosophical principle as a premise for how I write fiction. Basically, a story should include an inner journey and an outer journey where the outer journey is the plot and the inner journey is the character. In fact, writing fiction reinforced my philosophical point of view, when I realised it’s totally analogous to real life. The outer journey is fate and the inner journey is free will. The 2 are complementary rather than contradictory, but the complementarity is even more obvious when one thinks of it in terms of consciousness and the physical world. To illustrate my point, I will insert an edited version of the letter (I referenced above) to the Editor of Philosophy Now.

This is in reference to an essay by Nick Inman, titled “Nowhere Men” (published in Issue 117).

One doesn’t need to argue for a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit’ to appreciate that some aspects of Inman’s argument have validity without religious connotations. In particular, there are 2 aspects of one’s self, whereby one aspect is subjective and uniquely known only to ‘You’, and another aspect is objective and known to everyone you interact with. But I think the most pertinent point he makes is that it is only through intelligent conscious entities, like us, that the Universe has any meaning at all. In answer to the oft asked question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Without consciousness there might as well be nothing. When you cease to be conscious there is nothing for You. Because consciousness is so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted in our everyday lives, we tend not to consider its essential role in providing reality. In other words, we need both an objective world and subjective consciousness for reality to become manifest.

As you can see, this is almost an ontological manifesto, which suggests that the existence of the Universe and the emergence of intelligent beings are entwined in ways which we prefer to ignore or dismiss. The scientific answer to this is that there is a multiverse of possibly infinite universes, the vast majority of which cannot sustain life. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the multiverse is an epistemological dead end in that it explains everything and nothing, which, ironically, is its appeal. We don’t know if there is a metaphysical purpose to our existence, and I’m not arguing that there is; I’m simply pointing out that reality requires both an objective world, called the Universe, and a subjective consciousness, epitomised by our existence.

It is for this reason that the so-called strong anthropic principle (as opposed to the weak principle) has long appealed to me. Neither of the anthropic principles, I should point out, are scientific principles; they are more like metaphysical premises that can’t be proven or falsified, given our current knowledge. I’m currently reading a highly ambitious and lengthy book by John Hands called Cosmo Sapiens; Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe. It’s a comprehensive survey and review of the latest scientific theories concerning cosmology, biological evolution and the emergence of humanity. Not surprisingly, he briefly discusses Brandon Carter’s weak and strong anthropic principles plus John Barrow’s and Frank Tipler’s book-length dissertation on the subject. Effectively, the weak anthropic principle states that the Universe allows conscious intelligent agents to arise because we’re in it, which Hands points out is a tautology – a point I’ve made myself on this blog. The strong anthropic principle effectively states that the Universe specifically allows intelligent agents to exist otherwise it wouldn’t exist itself. It’s not stated that way, but that’s a reasonable interpretation, and, as you can see, it leans heavily towards teleology, which I’ve also discussed elsewhere. On that point, if one believes in teleology then it’s hard not to conclude that the Universe is deterministic, which means there is no free will. Einstein believed this so strongly that he couldn’t accept the inherent indeterminism displayed by quantum mechanics and therefore believed that the theory was incomplete and hid an underlying deterministic Universe that we're yet to discover.

Personally, I believe in free will and a non-deterministic Universe, which creates a paradox for the strong anthropic principle. I resolve this paradox by arguing for a pseudo-teleological Universe, whereby the Universe has all the laws of physics and parameters to allow conscious entities to evolve without determining what they will be in advance. I’ve argued this in a post on the fine-tuned Universe, and elsewhere.

I’m not arguing a religious reason for our existence, though, of course, I don’t know if such a reason exists, and I would argue that neither does anyone else, though many people claim they do. I’m arguing what the evidence tells me. We are the consequence of a lengthy and convoluted evolution that we are still struggling to understand and explain, even down to the molecular level. The Universe has laws and parameters that are ‘finely tuned’ for the emergence of complex intelligent life and we are the evidence. Without consciousness the Universe would have no meaning at all, which is why the strong anthropic principle is apposite if not scientific. Our existence is the only thing that gives the Universe meaning and we are the only entities (that we know of) that have the cognitive capacity to probe that meaning, which we do through science, I should point out, not religion.

Now, anyone who read my post on Penrose’s 3 worlds, knows it consisted of the Universe, Mind and Mathematics. So where does mathematics fit into my 2 sided philosophy? Mathematics, as most of us know it and use it, is a bridge between the Universe and the Mind, specifically the human mind. And it’s a bridge that has provided more insights and more meaning than any other we’ve discovered. In fact, the limits of our knowledge of mathematics arguably determines the limits of our knowledge of the Universe, certainly in the last century and since the times of Galileo and Newton. A few years ago, following in the footsteps of John Barrow, I wrote a post called Mathematics as religion. Religion, in its many cultural manifestations, often claims to have access to transcendental truth. Well, I contend that mathematics is our only depository of universal transcendental truths and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem effectively tells us that it’s infinite, so it’s a never-ending endeavour. By corollary, it follows that there are and always will be mathematical truths that we don’t know.

Last week’s New Scientist (4 Feb 2017) cover story was ‘The Essence of Reality’, which was an attempt to understand what truly underpins the Universe beyond space and time. Some argue that the answer is information, essentially quantum information, which of course is mathematical. The point is, notwithstanding whether that question can ever be answered, quantum mechanics, which is a little over a century old, remains our most successful scientific theory to date, and can only be understood and interpreted through the medium of mathematics.

Footnote: Brandon Carter’s definitions of his 2 anthropic principles.

The weak principle: ‘that what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the condition necessary for our presence as observers.’

The strong principle: ‘that the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers with it at some stage.’