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.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Zen; an interpretation

I recently bought a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Douglas R.Hofstadter. In fact, I bought the 20th anniversary edition, which includes an overview that effectively explains in synopsis each chapter of the book. The author did this, apparently, because he felt that so many people misinterpreted his intentions. The book is not about Zen at all, as he states himself, yet it’s his simplistic and dismissive representation of Zen that has prompted me to write this post (not quite true - see below).

Naturally, I had heard of the book and its companion, I am a Strange Loop, which I understand expands on some aspects of this one. I have acquired a copy of that as well, though I’m yet to read it. I think I’ve come across this book at just the right time for me. If I had read it 20 years ago (actually, originally published 30 years ago), I would have struggled with it. But, as it is, I think I’m reading it at just the right time of my philosophical development, especially in regard to mathematical philosophy. The book, which is quite lengthy and comprehensive, explores the very areas of philosophy that I’m interested in.

But whilst everything he says about logic is both enlightening and refreshing, as well as scholarly, I disagree with his interpretation of Zen, which he seems to portray as the antithesis of logic. It’s like he uses Zen as a reference for a perspective of non-logic, so his interpretation is that Zen is a 'non-state' (he elaborates on this later in the book). But I don't think Zen is about logic at all - in fact, it's a state of mind. My own interpretation is that Zen represents a particular state of mind when one is intensely involved in some activity. Now the activity could be physical, like tennis or playing cricket, or driving a car; or it could be mental like writing a story or painting a portrait, or playing a musical instrument.

What they all have in common is that it is a mental state where one feels removed, like one is totally involved yet one is ‘not there’, as virtuoso violinist and amateur surfer, Richard Tognetti, once said (no, he's not a Zen Buddhist to my knowledge). So it is a contradictory sense, or, at the very least, paradoxical. My own take on this is that one’s ego is not involved yet one feels totally engaged. It requires one to be completely in the moment, and what I’ve found in this situation is that time disappears. Sportsmen call it being ‘in the zone’ and it’s something that most of us have experienced at some time or another.

So I can understand why Hofstadter may interpret Zen as the representation of ‘contradiction’; even though it implies he’s never experienced a Zen state, or, if he has, he calls it something else. It is contradictory in explanation but not in experience. (To be fair, as I got further into the book, Hofstadter reveals that he knows a lot more about Zen than I first thought.)

Godel, Escher, Bach is an extraordinary and brilliant book, and I don’t wish to take anything away from Hofstadter’s achievement. He’s in another league to me altogether (after all, he has a PhD in solid state physics). For a start, he gives the best exposition of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem I've read, using a number of metaphors and allegorical dialogues, including one with Zen koans.

On the subject of Zen, I’m not a good practitioner, but I don’t try to be. From what I’ve read on Zen, it ideally requires ‘unattachment’, which also includes unattachment to goals and dreams. But without goals and dreams, what do people live for? So it seems contradictory to life, if one takes it literally. But, as a state of mind for when one is involved in an intense, challenging yet rewarding activity, it makes perfect sense. By the way, one only experiences a reward in this sense, when one is challenged. That’s why the most frustrating things in life are also the most rewarding. When one realises that, then one can achieve a sense of perspective as well as purpose. (I make a similar point in one of my earliest posts, The Meaning of Life, Aug.07.)

P.S. For all you pedants, 'unattachment' is not a 'proper' word (should be detachment) but in this context, detachment gives the wrong connotation. Unattachment means exactly that.

Addendum: I would challenge anyone to read Hofstadter's book without being forced to view things differently that they previously took for granted. I'm currently about one third through the book, and I am sure I will write another post on it when I'm finished.

Footnote: Daisetz Suzuki is the best writer on Zen I've read (in English). In particular, Zen and Japanese Culture (originally published 1959; my copy, 1973).

Addendum 2: I know, I keep adding to this when I should write another post, but my blog is not so much a journal as a collection of essays. On page 387 (Penguin 20th Anniversary Edition) Hofstadter quotes Escher: "While drawing I sometimes feel as if I were a spiritualist medium, controlled by the creatures I am conjuring up." I suspect many artists have felt this way, including myself when writing, and this is what I mean when I say the ego is not engaged. In fact, I have used this exact same description of my own writing on occasion. Australian actress, Kerry Armstrong, once made the point that acting doesn't involve the ego at all, quite the contrary, and I would make the same point about creating characters in fiction. So Hofstadter has described what I consider to be a Zen state of mind, by quoting Escher, but without realising it apparently.

For a more edifying discussion of Hofstadter's book, see the next post: Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The God hypothesis (not)

Normally, I leave my arguments on other blogs, on other blogs, but, on this occasion, I feel that this is such a widespread, fundamentally misunderstood philosophical issue, that I should address it here, on my own blog.

The argument took place on Dr. William Lane Craig's so-called 'Reasonable Faith' blog, and the original dialogue can be found here.

Larry Niven wrote his own commentary on it here, which is arguably more entertaining than the original (he didn't know the 'Paul' he was referring to was me).

Dr. Craig is careful about what he publishes, and he has his blog set up as a Q & A, which allows him to not only choose what he publishes, but to portray himself as an authority on whatever he cares to pontificate about. Naturally, he only publishes arguments that he believes make him look good, for which, the following submission didn't qualify.

Just so you appreciate the context: Dr.Craig laments the fact that the discipline of science only allows for 'naturalistic' explanations, so that, if there are 'non-naturalistic' explanations, we will never know the truth. In his own words, this is a 'methodological constraint' on science, imposed 'philosophically'. If you visit the above link, you will see that I specifically challenged him that he 'won't conjecture' where God may have intervened, and he evades the issue at first, but eventually says it depends on the gaps in the evidence (specifically fossil evidence).

Below is my third submission (following his response), which, not surprisingly, he didn't respond to; neither did he respond to the previous two. (I've edited out the intro which refers to the previous 2 submissions.)

(Addressed to Dr. Craig.)
Thinking about this some more, I realised that you haven’t thought this through at all.

Basically, you are saying that science restrains itself, philosophically, by only allowing for natural explanations. It could be far more (potentially) successful if it allowed for supernatural explanations – the so-called ‘God hypothesis’ (my terminology, not yours, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it fits your suggested philosophical approach to science).

My question is why isn’t the God hypothesis already applied? Quantum mechanics is an obvious area. No one understands quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman famously said, and he should know: he won a Nobel Prize for giving us the best exposition we have so far. So it’s a perfect candidate for the God hypothesis: all quantum phenomena can now be explained as evidence of God’s intervention, including quantum tunneling, quantum effects at a distance and even Schrodinger’s cat; especially Schrodinger’s cat, I would suggest.

Extreme weather events are another perfect candidate for the God hypothesis, supported by evidence from the Bible as well, so it has to get a guernsey (an Aussie metaphor).

Four hundred years ago, the God hypothesis would have worked for planetary orbits – actually, I think it was the hypothesis at the time - then Newton came along, proposed the universal theory of gravity, and it went out of favour.

And now we have evolutionary theory as another possibility, especially as it involves complexity at many levels, from DNA to entire ecosystems, so it’s the perfect candidate. But what if in the future, someone discovers more about complexity – I mean totally unexpectedly, like the way Einstein discovered relativity - then I guess the God hypothesis would have to be dismissed; but, then, at least, we could still use it in the mean time.

The point is, as you explicated yourself, we don’t know where to apply it. And, guess what? We never will.

Regards, Paul.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Life, God, the universe and everything

Recently, I was involved in a forum on Stephen Law’s web site (see my blog roll) which critiqued Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Stephen, in effect, set up a book club, whereby we went through all of Dawkins’ 10 chapters, one by one, over a period of about 12 weeks. My involvement was miniscule, and the nature of the beast meant that discussions went off on all sorts of tangents. Atheism reigned, as most of Stephen’s contributors, though not all, are staunch Dawkins’ supporters.

I should point out that I have used many of Dawkins’ arguments myself against religious fundamentalists, without knowing they were his. But I don’t share Dawkins’ apparent contempt for religion per se. In Australia, Dawkins tends to be seen as alarmist, but maybe it’s because the politics of religion, and the history of religion in politics, are different here. As Thomas Keneally (Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark) once said: Australians, generally, have a healthy disrespect for religion (or words to that effect).

I didn’t contribute much to Stephen’s forum at all, but somewhere in the midst of it I threw in a grenade by asking the existential question: ‘What’s the point?’

In addition to The God Delusion, I also read Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics, published in 1983, which covers much of the same material, some of it in greater depth if not greater overall length; but unlike Dawkins, Davies doesn’t have an axe to grind. It was after reading Davies’ book that I submitted the following comment.

‘The more I read about this and the more I contemplate it, the more I tend to conclude that the universe is not an accident. In other words, it’s purpose-built for life. This does not axiomatically lead to the existence of God, as both Paul Davies and Christian de Duve point out. The ‘God’ question is almost irrelevant; it’s the wrong question. The question should be: What’s the point?

Imagine the universe with no consciousness at all, and then ask yourself: what’s the point? There are only 2 answers to this question: there is no point; or the point is consciousness, because that’s the end result.’

Now, by asking the question in the paradoxical context of imagining there is no consciousness, it highlights the very enigma one is attempting to grasp. As someone pointed out, without consciousness, who asks the question?

The first response to this (on Stephen’s site) came from an ‘anonymous’ contributor, who seemed personally insulted, and, following a short diatribe, asked, ‘What’s wrong with no point?’ To which I responded, ‘Nothing wrong with no point. We agree to disagree.’ After all, I’d already said it is one of only two answers in my view. My antagonist allowed this through to the keeper (to use a hackneyed cricketing metaphor) and pursued it no further.

Recently, in another post, I speculated that we may never truly understand consciousness, because it is an emergent property, and we are now faced with the epistemological possibility that emergent properties may never be explained in terms of their underlying parts, at least, mathematically (see my Oct.08 post, Emergent phenomena).

But there is more to this: according to Dawkins, we are all just ‘gene-replicating organisms’; so consciousness is totally irrelevant – a byproduct of nature that allows us to ask totally irrelevant existential questions. I’ve said before that if we actually didn’t experience consciousness, science would tell us that it doesn’t exist, just like science tells us that free will doesn’t exist (see my Sep.07 post on Free Will). This suspicion was reinforced earlier this year, when I read an article by Nicholas Humphrey in SEED magazine, who concluded that consciousness is an illusion, and its sole (evolutionary) purpose is to ‘make life more worth living’, which could be translated into one word: ‘happiness’. So, syllogistically, one could conclude that happiness is an illusion too. As a pertinent aside, I wonder how Humphrey can distinguish his dreams from reality. (Refer Addendum below)

Paul Davies attempts to tackle this conundrum head-on in his book, The Goldilocks Enigma, and concludes, if I interpret him correctly, that the universe exists because we are in it - in a sort of causal loop. He’s elaborated on an idea originally formulated by his mentor, John Wheeler, more famously known for coining the term, ‘Black Hole’.

So in a way, Dawkins and Davies represent 2 polar views on this, and I tend to side closer to Davies. Davies, who is an astro-biologist, as well as a physicist and philosopher, says that he’s ‘agnostic’ about life existing elsewhere in the universe, but, while he may be scientifically agnostic, he’s said elsewhere that, philosophically, he favours it. Davies is far from a crank, I might add – even Dawkins treats him with respect.

In another post, earlier this year (Theism as a humanism, Aug.08), I postulated the completely ad-hoc idea that God is the end result of the universe rather than its progenitor. Now, I’ve said on many occasions, that the only evidence we have of God is inside our minds, not ‘out there’, yet the experience of God, because that’s what God is (an experience) always feels like it’s external. There is actually neurological brain-imaging evidence to support this (New Scientist, 1 Sep.2007, pp 32-6) by Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, showing that ‘Religious feelings do seem to be quite literally self-less…’ In the same context, I’ve also quoted Ludwig Feuerbach: ‘God is the outward projection of man’s inner nature.’ My conclusion is that there are as many different versions of God as people who claim to experience him, her or it. So God is, at least partly, a projection.

Where is all this leading? Fuerbach’s assertion, and all our cultural attributions, would suggest that God is the projection of our ideals. But, if one takes Feuerbach’s postulate to its logical and literal conclusion, then God could be the emergent property of all of our collective consciousness. In that case, the universe really would have a purpose.

Addendum (4 April 2010): I may have misrepresented Nicholas Humphrey - please read the addendum to my post Consciousness explained (3 April 2010)

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Is psychology a science?

This is another letter I wrote to New Scientist in response to an article by Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist apparently, and author of What Should I Believe? No, I haven't read her book, but the article is erudite and intellectually provocative enough to suggest that she's worth reading.

I have to point out that I don't have a degree in psychology or science, or philosophy, for that matter, but I've studied all three at tertiary level, and I've read widely in all fields. The reason I was prompted to write this is that I've always held an opinion on it ever since I did study psychology at Uni and was struck by the obsession of the faculty to be taken seriously as a science. Having also studied science, and physics in particular, I was always aware that there were differences. This is not to denigrate psychology, at all, but to point out that whilst the study of psychology becomes more technical I believe there are fundamental aspects of psychology that make it uniquely different to the study of other 'natural phenomena', which is how I define science.

Below is the letter I wrote. By the way, I haven't really addressed Dorothy Rowe's article, which was titled, Ask better questions, just responded to her opening question.

'Is psychology a science?' is the opening question in Dorothy Rowe's article in New Scientist (1 November 2008, p.18). Somehow, psychology still seems to sit somewhere between science and philosophy, involving both, but not belonging to either. Human behaviour will never be distilled into a set of laws, even remotely like physics, or even biology. In other words, the ability to predict behaviour outcomes, will be statistical at best. In psychology, an aberrational datum will be seen as an outlier, whereas, in physics, it's either an error or the genesis of a new theory. Also, different theories attempting to provide insight into the same behaviour, generally don't provide any synergy. Example: attachment theory and Lee's 6 types of love both deal with relationships, but have no common ground. This is not an atypical example.

I was taught that psychology was a dialectical process - opposing theories are combined into a new thesis; like the nature and nurture debate (genes versus environment) having to be both taken into account. Science is also a dialectic process, though, between theory and experiment, rather than between opposing theories.

I found that psychology is a very good tool for tackling philosophical problems, like the social dynamics that lead to acts of evil (see my Oct.07 post on Evil). So, at the end of the day, they deal with different issues, different problems. Science may tell us where we came from, but it can't tell us why we kill each other. So I still see them as separate, but having some methodologies in common.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Emergent phenomena

A couple of weeks ago in New Scientist (4 October 2008), there was one of those lesser featured articles that you could skip over if you were not alert enough, which to my surprise, both captured and elaborated on an aspect of the natural world that has long fascinated me. It was titled, ‘Why nature is not the sum of its parts’.

It referenced an idea or property of nature, first proposed apparently by physicist, Philip Anderson, in 1972, called ‘emergence’. To quote: ‘the notion that important kinds of organisation might emerge in systems of many interacting parts, but not follow in any way from the properties of those parts.’ As the author of the article, Mark Buchanan, points out: this has implications for science, which is reductionist by methodology, in that it may be impossible to reduce all phenomena to a set of known laws, as many scientists, and even laypeople, seem to believe.

The article specifically discusses the work of Mile Gu at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who believes he may have proved Anderson correct by demonstrating that mathematical modeling of the magnetic forces in iron could not predict the pattern of atoms in a 3D lattice as one might expect. In other words, there should be a causal link between individual atoms and the overall effect, but it could not be determined mathematically. To quote Gu: “We were able to find a number of properties that were simply decoupled from the fundamental interactions.” To quote Buchanan quoting Gu: ‘This result, says Gu, shows that some of the models scientists use to simulate physical systems have properties that cannot be linked to the behaviour of their parts.’

Now, obviously, I’ve simplified the exposition from an already simplified exposition, and of course, others, like John Barrow from Cambridge University, challenge it as a definitive ‘proof’. But no one would challenge its implication if it was true: that the physics at one level of nature may be mathematically independent of the physics at another level, which is what we already find, and which I’ve commented on in previous posts (see The Universe’s Interpreters, Sep.07).

This is not dissimilar to arguments produced in some detail by Roger Penrose in Shadows of the Mind, concerning the limitations of formal mathematical reasoning. According to Penrose, there are mathematical ‘truths’ that may be ‘uncomputable’, which is a direct consequence of Godel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ (refer my post, Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? Jan.08). But Penrose’s book deals specifically with the enigma of consciousness, and this is where I believe Anderson and Gu’s ideas have particular relevance.

I would argue, as do many others (Paul Davies for one) that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ phenomenon. If science is purely reductionist in its methodology, as well as its philosophy, then arguably, consciousness will remain a mystery that can never be solved. Most scientists dispute this, including Penrose, but if Anderson and Gu are correct, then the ‘emergent’ aspect of consciousness, as opposed to its neurological underpinnings, may never be properly understood, or be reducible to fundamental laws of physics as most hope it to be.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The philosophy of Philippe Petit

I never intended to write movie reviews but this is certainly relevant to philosophy in more ways than one. Last night I saw the film, Man On Wire, which is the story of Philippe Petit, who walked between the New York Trade Centre twin towers in 1974, after he walked between the north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1973 and between the Notre Dame towers in 1971.

After the film, we were then privileged by an interview with Philippe, now 59, who, also, at his own insistence, answered questions from the audience. The film won an award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and deservedly so. It’s an extraordinary film about a truly extraordinary man, and to see and hear him in the flesh is just as revelatory as watching him in the film.

When you meet someone like Philippe you realise that this is evolution in action. He is such an unusual person, who really doesn’t fit in normal society, yet he can do things that the rest of us can’t even contemplate doing. He made the comment in another interview (that I read) that curtailing his activities is like cutting a bird’s wings – it’s what they are meant to do. To quote: ‘Where is imagination? Where is the beauty of living? I am not advocating danger, but at the same time, to force birds to carry a leash is to kill the idea of what a bird is.’

In the interview, I was lucky to be audience to, he continually surprised us with his answers, at once candid and honest, and also deeply profound. He said he does not think about death – he won’t even use the ‘D’ word, it is the ‘L’ word, Life that he looks in the eye, while surrounded by terror. When he is aerial, he truly lives in the moment – I cannot think of anyone more Zen than he is, yet he is typically French: animated, talkative, elfish even, yet, in his own way, deeply philosophical and wise. 'I don't believe in God, but God believes in me,' he said in response to one question.

Go and see the film, and be contaminated by his madness and his energy that is, paradoxically, so, so sane.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Who is the best philosopher?

Once again this is a 'Question of the Month' (though last month) in Philosophy Now. You might have noticed that I haven't created a category or label for this because I haven't got one that really fits. I thought of 'historical' but it seemed a nonsense to create a label just for one post. (I changed my mind.)

As you can tell from my introduction I even question the question: is it really possible to evaluate the 'best philosopher'?

Below is my submission.

By what criteria does one judge this? The philosopher with the most influence over historical time? The philosopher who made the greatest contribution to ethics or to epistemology? The philosopher who provided the best answers to ‘all the big questions’? I’m not sure there is a ‘best philosopher’, because philosophy is not a competition like the Olympics. Instead, I will approach this by asking another question: who is my favourite philosopher? Even this is not easy, because there are three who immediately spring to mind, all living in the same century: Buddha, Confucius and Pythagoras. But I will settle with Pythagoras because I believe he really has had the biggest influence historically, and because he was a true polymath, even though all evidence of his teachings, his discoveries and his ‘school’ are second hand at best.

Pythagoras’s most outstanding discovery was not the right triangle proof that bears his name, but the realisation that musical pitch had a mathematical relationship. But the real legacy of Pythagoras’s philosophy was another, not unrelated, revelation. Mathematics had been used by various cultures well before Pythagoras, for the purposes of commerce and accounting, as well as measurements and geometry for construction projects, but it was Pythagoras who appreciated that mathematics was an inherent aspect of the natural world and could provide answers to questions concerning the mysteries of nature, including questions of astronomy. This is a paradigm that is still with us today, and, arguably, has driven science since the time of the Renaissance, 1,000 years after Pythagoras.

The connection is Plato, and consequently, Aristotle. According to Kitty Ferguson (author of The Music of Pythagoras), Plato actively sought out Pythagoras’s most accomplished student, Archytas of Terentum, and back in Athens, Plato set up his famous ‘Academy’ using a ‘Pythagorean curriculum’, that he adopted from Archytas, known as the ‘quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music’. There is no doubt that Plato’s Pythagorean curriculum, and its influence on Aristotle, paved the way for the paradigm of mathematical scientific enquiry that eventually led us to Newton’s theory of gravity, Maxwell’s equations, thermodynamics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory, with all the technological spin-offs of flight, space travel, computers and diverse engineering marvels that we embrace in the modern age. So I would argue that, historically, Pythagoras is the most important philosopher in the pantheon and that makes him eligible for the best.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Theism as a humanism

Yes, I know, it’s an oxymoron, but it’s appropriate to my worldview. For over 2 weeks I observed and participated in a discussion on Stephen Law’s blog (see side-bar) with a guy called Sye, who maintains he has a proof for the existence of God. Sye’s idea of an argument is to make an assertion, call it a proof ‘by the impossibility of the contrary’, then insist that you prove him wrong. His favourite ploy is to ask you to prove something that doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist, or something that has never happened, never happened. ‘Prove the Bible is not the Word of God.’ ‘Explain how God did not reveal Himself as an objective reality.’ When I say, ‘I can’t explain something that never happened’, he says, ‘It’s your assertion, you prove it.’ In this way, he deludes himself that he can beat the best ‘atheist’ minds at their own game. But his victory is so hollow that it’s not even hot air, more like a vacuum. Yes, I know, I shouldn’t mix my metaphors. (Sye’s web site, by the way, is

Stephen was patient in the extreme, and kept coming up with new and original arguments, which was an education in itself, and refused to be drawn into the ‘intellectual black hole’ as someone aptly called it. But even arguing with someone who thinks an argument is an endless round of assertions and refutations, and whose most common response is ‘prove it’, can help you to better understand and appreciate your own beliefs – hence the subject of this post.

Ludwig Feuerbach was a 19th Century philosopher, whose most famous quote was, ‘God is the outward projection of man’s inner nature’, which I used in the introduction to my essay: Is there a God? (Jun.08). Feuerbach, by the way, claimed he wasn’t an atheist, but perhaps he would have been, if he had lived in an age when being an atheist didn’t make you an instant pariah and social outcast. As I’ve said before, I’m not an atheist, and I live in a different age, so I don’t have the same problem. He saw religion as a ‘consciousness of the infinite’ or as ‘the infinity of the consciousness’, but his attempts to elaborate on this conceptually are not very edifying; at least, not to me. But, more significantly, he saw that God, in whatever guise we perceive Him, Her or It (perhaps One is the best label) does not exist independently of humanity. And this was the particular approach I took in my arguments with Sye on Stephen’s blog. At the risk of offending some people, I have to say that I have ‘issues’ with the Bible, not least, because I believe it was a contributing factor to my neurosis as a child, and that’s all I care to say on the subject.

So how do I justify the statement: theism is a humanism? Well, firstly, I don’t believe God exists independently of humanity, or perhaps, even life, and it is only through human expression that God is given human traits – look no further than the Bible. I read somewhere, possibly in a magazine on Eastern philosophy, when I was studying it, a supposition that the collective karma of humanity creates God. If this is true, then we would not only get the One we believe in, but the One we deserve. So I would suggest, rather provocatively, that we are responsible for God rather than God being responsible for us, simply by living our lives. It's an 'existential' view of God, if you like. And it certainly overcomes the ‘problem of evil’ as philosophers like to call it (read Stephen Law’s satirical post on ‘The God of Eth’). In this worldview, even atheists contribute to the One just by being humanists. Which is why I don’t have a problem with atheists: it is not their beliefs that I judge them on, but their actions and attitudes towards the rest of humanity. And, likewise, I judge all theists as humanists.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Epistemology; a discussion

Recently (1 July) I wrote a post on The Mirror Paradox, which arose from my reading of Umberto Eco’s book, Kant and the Platypus back in 2002. The post was an edited version of part of a letter I wrote to Eco; the rest of the letter was to do with epistemology, and that is the source of this post.

Some people think that because we can’t explain something, either it is wrong or it doesn’t exist. Two examples from the opposite sides of philosophy (materialism and fundamentalist religion) illustrate this point very clearly. In a previous post, The Ghost in the Machine (Apr.08), I reviewed an article in SEED magazine (Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project). In the same magazine, there is an essay by Nicholas Humphrey on the subject of consciousness. Effectively, he writes a page-length treatise arguing that consciousness must be an illusion because we have no explanation for it. This is despite the fact that he, and everyone he meets in life, experiences consciousness every day. Humphrey’s argument, in synopsis, is that it is easier to explain it as an illusion than as reality, therefore it must be an illusion. Personally, I would like to know how he distinguishes dreaming from living, or even if he can (please refer Addendum below, 4 April 2010). Another example from the polar opposite side of rational thinking is evolution. Fundamentalist Christians tend to think, because we can’t explain every single aspect of evolution, it can be challenged outright as false. This is driven, of course, by a belief that it is false by Divine proclamation, so any aspect of the theory that is proven true, of which there is evidence at all levels of biology, is pure serendipity. (Refer my Nov.07 post, Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?)

I’m making a fundamental epistemological point that we don’t understand everything – another, excellent example is quantum mechanics (see The Laws of Nature, Mar.08), where I quote Richard Feynman, probably the world’s best known expert on quantum mechanics (he had a Nobel Prize to prove it), and arguably its best expositor, who said quite categorically in his book, QED, ‘…I don’t understand it. Nobody does.’ There is nothing that makes less sense than quantum mechanics, yet it is arguably the most successful scientific theory of all time. Historically, we’ve always believed that we almost know everything, and Feynman was no less optimistic, believing that we would one day know all physics. But, if history is any indication of the future, I choose to differ. In every avenue of scientific endeavour: biology, cosmology, quantum theory, neuroscience; there are enormous gaps in our knowledge with mysteries begging inquiry, and, no doubt, behind those mysteries, lay a whole gallery of future mysteries yet to be discovered.

None of this was in the letter I wrote to Umberto Eco, but it seems like a good starting point: we don’t know everything, we never have and we probably never will. The only thing we can say with confidence is that we will know more tomorrow than we know today, and that is true for all the areas I mentioned above. As I’ve already said in previous posts: only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is.

Actually, this is not so far removed from Eco’s introduction in Kant and the Platypus, where he hypothesises on the limits of our ability to comprehend the universe, which may include metaphysical elements like God. He postulates 4 hypotheses based on matching items of knowledge (symbols) with items of physical entities (elements), which he calls, for convenience sake, 'atoms', and various combinations of these. As a corollary to this approach, he wonders if the graininess of the universe is a result of our language rather than an inherent feature of it, as all the hypotheses require segmentation rather than a continuum.

I won’t discuss Eco’s hypotheses, only mention them in passing, as I take a different approach. For a start, I would use ‘concept’ instead of ‘symbol’ or ‘atom,’ and ‘phenomena’ instead of ‘elements’. It’s not that I’m taking explicit issue with Eco’s thesis, but I choose a different path. I define science as the study of natural phenomena in all their manifestations, which is really what one is discussing when one questions the limits of our ability to comprehend the physical universe. Secondly, it is becoming more and more apparent that it is mathematics rather than language that is determining our ability to comprehend the universe – a philosophical point I’ve already discussed in 2 posts: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm? (Jan.08) and The Laws of Nature (Mar. 08).

Some people argue that mathematics is really just another language, but I would contend that this is a serious misconception of the very nature of mathematics. As Feynman points out in his book, The Character of Physical Law, translating mathematical ideas into plain English (or any other verbal language) is not impossible (he was a master at it) but it’s quite different to translating English into, say, French. To describe mathematics in plain language requires the realisation of concepts and the use of analogies and examples. Mathematics is inherently paradoxical, because it is conceptually abstract, yet it can be applied to the real world in diverse and infinitely numerous ways. Whereas plain language starts with descriptors of objects (nouns) which are then combined with other words (including verbs) that allow one to communicate actions, consequences, histories and intentions; you could argue that mathematics starts with numbers. But numbers are not descriptors – a number is a concept – they are like seeds that have infinite potential to describe the world in a way that is distinctly different to ordinary language.

Nevertheless, Eco has a point, concerning the limits of language, and one may rephrase his question in light of my preceding dissertation: is it our use of number that projects graininess onto the universe? This question has a distinctly Kantian flavour. One of the problems I had with Kant (when I studied him) was his own ‘Copernican revolution’ (his terminology) that we project our models of reality onto the world rather than the converse. As a standalone statement, this is a reasonable assertion, and I will return to it later, but where I disagreed, was his insistence that time and space are projections of the human mind rather than a reality that we perceive.

I truly struggled to see how this fitted in with the rest of his philosophy which I find quite cogent. In particular, his idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’, which essentially says that we may never know the real essence of something but only what we perceive it to be. (I think this is Kant's great contribution to philosophy.) He gave the example of colour, which, contrary to many people’s belief, is a purely psychological phenomenon. It is something that only happens inside our minds. Some animals can’t see in colour at all and some animals see colours that we don’t, for example, in the ultra-violet range. Some animals, that use echo-location, like bats, dolphins and whales, probably see in ultra-sound. It would be hypothetically possible for some creatures to see in radar, if they ever evolved the ability to transmit radar signals. But, more significantly, our discoveries in quantum mechanics and relativity theory, are proof that what we perceive as light and as time respectively are not necessarily what they really are, depending on what level of nature we examine. This leads to another aspect of epistemology that I will return to later – I don’t want to get too far off the track.

In fact, relativity theory tells us that time and space are inherent features of the universe, and, again, it is only through mathematics that we can decipher the enigma that is relativity, as well as quantum phenomena. But we don't need relativity theory to challenge Kant's thesis on the nature of space and time. We sense time and space through our eyes (our eyes are literally like a clock that determines how fast the world passes us by) and, again, this is different for different species. Many birds, and insects, see the world in slow motion compared to us because their eyes perceive the world in more ‘frames per second’ than we do (for us I think it’s around 24). The point is, contrary to Kant’s assertion, if our senses didn’t perceive the reality of space and time, then we would not be able to interact with the world at all. We would not even be able to walk outside our doors.

I once had an argument with a professor in linguistics, who claimed that 3 dimensional Cartesian axes are a human projection, and therefore all our mathematical interpretations, including relativity, based on Reimann geometry (which is curved), are also projections. The fact is, that we live in a 3 dimensional spatial world, and if we lived in a higher dimensional spatial world our mathematical interpretation of it would reflect that. In fact, mathematically, we can have as many-dimensional worlds as we like, as string theory demonstrates. Einstein’s genius was to appreciate that gravity made the universe Reimann rather than Cartesian, but, at the scale we observe it, it’s not noticeable, in the same way that we can survey our little blocks of land as if they are flat rather than curved, even though we know the earth’s surface is really a sphere.

After all that, I haven’t answered the question: is the perceived graininess of the universe a result of our projection or not? One of the consequences of Kant’s epiphany, concerning the thing-in-itself, is that it seems to change according to the level of nature we observe it at. The example I like to give is the human body, which is comprised of individual cells. If one examines an individual cell there is no way we could appreciate the human body of which it is a part. At an even smaller scale we can examine its DNA, which is what determines how the human body will eventually turn out. The DNA is actually like a code, only it’s more than an analogy, it really is a code; it contains all the instructions on how to construct the creature it represents. So what is the thing-in-itself? Is it the genome? Is it the fully grown adult body? Humans are the only species that we know of who have the ability to conceptualise this, and, therefore, are able to comprehend at least some of the machinations of the natural world. And this, I believe, lies at the heart of Eco’s introductory hypotheses. It’s not to do with matching symbols with elements, or combinations thereof, but matching concepts with phenomena, and, more significantly, concepts within concepts, and phenomena that emerge from other phenomena.

Many people talk about the recursive ability of the human brain, which is to hold multiple relationships within one’s mind, like my friend’s mother’s lover has a cat with an injured foot. I understand that 5 is the norm, after which we tend to lose the thread. In which case, I ask: how can we follow a story, or even an argument, like the one I’m writing now? In another post (Imagination, Mar.08) I suggest that maybe it was storytelling that originally developed this aspect of our intellectual ability. We tend to think of words as being the ‘atoms’ of a story, but, as a writer of fiction, I know better, as I will explain shortly. Individual words do have a meaning of their own, but, as Wittgenstein pointed out, it is only in the context of a sentence that the true meaning is apparent. In fact, it is the sentence, or phrase, that has meaning rather than the individual words, as I’m demonstrating right now. But it really requires a string of sentences, and a lengthy one at that, to create an argument or a story. The shortest component of a story is actually a scene, and a scene is usually delineated by a break in time or location at its beginning and its end. But, of course, we don’t keep all the scenes in our memory for the course of the story, which may unfold over a period of days, so how do we do it?

Well, there is a thread (often times more than one) which usually involves a character, and we live the thread in the moment just like we do with our lives. It’s like when we are in contact with that thread we have the entire thread in our mind yet we are only interested in its current location in time and space. The thread allows us to pull out memories of it, make associations, into the past and future. This is the really extraordinary attribute of the human brain. I’ve no doubt that other animals have threads as well, but I doubt they have the same ability as we do. It is our ability to make associations that determines almost everything intellectually about us, including our ability to memorise and learn. It is only when we integrate new knowledge into existing knowledge that we actually learn it and understand it. To give an example, again, from Wittgenstein, if you come across a new word, you can only comprehend it when it is explained in terms of words you already know. In a story, we are continually integrating new information into existing information, yet we don’t see it as learning; we see it as entertainment. How clever is that?

I argue that recursiveness in the human brain is virtually limitless because, like the cells and the human body, we can conceptualise concepts within concepts ad infinitum, as we do in mathematics. For example, calculus requires the manipulation of infinite elements yet we put them all into one function, so we don’t have to even think of an infinite number of elements, which, of course, would be impossible.

I’ve made the point in other posts, that the reason we comprehend the universe to the extent that we do is because we have this ability to perceive concepts within concepts and the universe is made up of elements within elements, where the individual element often has nothing in common with the larger element of which it is a part, so graininess is not the issue. I don’t believe this is a projection; I believe that this is an inherent attribute of the entire universe, and the only reason we can comprehend it, in the esoteric way we do, is because we are lucky enough to have the innate ability to perform the same trick mentally (see The Universe's Interpreters, Sep.07).

I’ve almost exhausted this subject, but I want to say something about schemas. I mentioned, earlier in this essay, Kant’s assertion that we project our ideas, or models, onto the universe in order to comprehend it. I discuss this as well in The Laws of Nature, but in a different context. Eco also talked about schemas, and while he said it was different to the psychological term, I will attempt to use it in the same sense as it is used in psychology. A schema is a template, is the best description I can give, whereby we apply it to new experiences and new knowledge. We even have a schema for the self, which we employ, subconsciously, when we assess someone we meet.

I argue that the brain is a contextual instrument in that it axiomatically looks for a context when it encounters something new, or will even create one where one doesn’t readily exist. By this I mean we always try and understand something on the basis of what we already know. To give an example, taken from Eco’s book, when Europeans first saw a platypus they attempted to categorise it as a mammal or a reptile (it lays eggs). But, if I was a European, or from the northern hemisphere, I would probably think it was a type of otter or beaver, assuming I was familiar with otters and beavers, because it is air-breathing yet it spends most of its time in river water or underground. Another example: assume you had never seen a man on a horse, but mythically you had seen pictures of centaurs, so the first time you saw a mounted man you might assume it was all one animal.

My point is that we apply schemas to everything we meet and perceive, often subconsciously, and when we become more familiar with the new experience, phenomenon or knowledge, we adjust our schema or create a new one, which we then apply to the next new experience, phenomenon or whatever.

There is a logical connection here, to what I suggested earlier, that we only understand new knowledge when we integrate it into existing knowledge. A schema is a consequence of existing experiences and knowledge, so cognitively it's the same process. The corollary to this is that when we encounter something completely alien, we need a new schema altogether (not unlike Kuhn's paradigm-shift).

I read recently in New Scientist (31May 2008) that someone (Karl Friston) had come up with a Bayesian interpretation of the brain (using Bayesian probability), at all levels, including neurons (they strengthen connections based on reinforced signals). The brain makes predictions, then adjusts its predictions based on what it senses in a reiterative process. He gives the everyday example of seeing something out of the corner of your eye, then turning your head to improve your prediction.

Schemas, their interaction with the world and our modification of them accordingly, is such a reiterative process, only on a different scale. Previously, I've talked about the dialectic in science between theory and observation, or theory and experimentation, which is another example of the same process, all be it's at another level altogether and is performed in a more disciplinary manner.

This is where I should write a conclusion, but I think I already have.

Having completed this essay, it has little resemblance to my letter to Umberto Eco in 2002, in either content or style, but some ideas and some arguments are the same.

Addendum (4 April 2010): I may have misrepresented Nicholas Humphrey - please read the addendum to my post Consciousness explained (3 April 2010).

Monday, 7 July 2008

Layers of Being

You’ve probably noticed that a recurring theme of some of my essays is the virtue of self-honesty. I guess that’s why I am attracted to existentialism – in fact, I think it’s fair to say I was attracted to it long before I knew what it was.

I am going to discuss 3 layers of being, based on my own experience and observations, and I am sure some will argue that there are more, while others may argue that they don’t exist at all, but, basically, this is possibly the most personal of my essays thus far on this blog, so it’s not very scientific.

What do I mean by layers of being? I’ve already said that it’s important in philosophy to define one’s premises and concepts. I think a good starting point is another one of my recurring themes: the inner and outer world. Some people, especially some philosophers, would prefer not to make any distinction, but I find it unavoidable. I’m a writer of fiction, and it was whilst writing fiction that I first appreciated the significance of the inner and outer world. Fiction, in a Paul Mealing defined nutshell, entails a character’s journey. Once you take that approach, it generates its own corollary: the character is changed and altered by the events in the plot that he or she encounters. To extend the metaphor, the plot becomes a vehicle for the character’s own inner journey. I was aware of this from my very first attempts to write fiction. Of course, it’s exactly the same in life, only we don’t use the terms, plot and character, in real life.

So I already have 2 layers: the inner and outer world. Before I introduce the third, I need to elaborate on these 2, as they are the most obvious and also, they are experienced by everyone, even if you would prefer to conflate them. The most obvious interface or interaction between these 2 layers is found in relationships. It is through relationships that we practice integrity or deception, generosity or rejection, engagement or apathy. There are other terms: love, jealousy, anger, hate, envy, revenge, charity, empathy, compassion. All these terms only acquire meaning within the context of relationships, but, of course, it’s unavoidable that they also reflect something deeper within the individual.

But there is one simple rule or criterion, which, I believe, puts all relationships into perspective, and that’s expectation. In any relationship: family, work, love, sport, even legal; there are expectations. It is when an individual’s expectation is in agreement with the group’s that there is harmony. When this expectation is either above or below the group’s, or the other’s, there will be conflict. By above or below, I mean we either expect more or less of our own role compared to what others might think. And one can see that honesty plays a key role here – if we deceive someone into an expectation that can’t be met, either by them or by us, then we have already started on a bad footing.

Paradoxically, this leads to the third layer of being, and the one I started off with: deception to oneself. Our relationships with others have a direct internal reflection and vice versa. To take an example, if we hate someone it corrodes our own soul, leaves us bitter in a way we can’t fathom. Likewise, jealousy alienates the person we love. These are contradictory causes and effects, yet we have all experienced them. Surely, you say, this is not dependent on a third layer, this is merely a further extrapolation of the inner and outer world.

What then is self-deception? I’m talking about neurosis where one has a distorted view of oneself. The dissociation that can occur between individuals and others can also occur within oneself. I know this because I have experienced it. When I read of people who have gone off the rails, I can sometimes see myself, as I know how easy it is to have a distorted view of oneself and feel like one has lost their core, or what we sometimes call our identity. Of course, this self distortion directly affects our relationships with others – it has an impact on the outer world – the two are not independent.

And this is why I place so much emphasis on self-honesty, because, without it, one can’t be honest in one’s relationships with others. But, I believe, it is also this third, deeper layer of being that provides the spiritual dimension that some people claim. In other words, it comes from a self-examination and a level of self-honesty that most of us fail to achieve. It doesn’t require a belief in God, but, ideally, it should lead to a sense of egolessness. What Buddhists most likely call the no-self, though I’m no expert in Buddhism.

One must also define what one means by ego. Again, I think Buddhism provides a key - to do with attachment, though I’m not opposed to attachments per se. There are healthy and unhealthy attachments, all to do with choices, but I’m getting off the track. Buddhism deals with attachment to life in general (samsara) and I would say that ego is an essential aspect, arguably, the very consequence of this. Again, ego can be healthy or unhealthy, so the egolessness I refer to is an ideal, whereby one becomes ‘unattached’ even to oneself, albeit sounds like a complete contradiction.

Have I personally reached this state? No. Maybe when I die. After all, one doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to believe that death is the final letting go of ego (I think a Jewish philosopher once said that, but I can’t remember who it was). Of course, I’m yet to prove it.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

The Mirror Paradox

The mirror paradox is best stated as a question: why is a mirror image seen as left to right reversed but not top to bottom? I’m not sure why this is always seen as a philosophical conundrum, when it involves science, and, to a lesser extent, psychology. Having said that, I’ve rarely seen it explained correctly, so maybe it is a philosophical conundrum after all. Certainly, Stephen Law, in his excellent book, Philosophy, believes it’s ‘a puzzle science cannot solve’. But I beg to differ: it’s a real optical phenomenon entailed by the 3 dimensional spatial world in which we live.

In the Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987), Richard L. Gregory (Professor of Neuropsychology at University of Bristol, UK) in my view, talked all around the solution, without actually delivering it. He certainly understood that there is no rotation in the mirror (see below). However, he seemed to think (like Stephen Law and Umberto Eco) that there is no reversal at all, though he once obliquely referred to an 'inversion', so maybe he knew without knowing that he knew.

In 2002, whilst working in America, I read Umberto Eco’s Kant and the Platypus, which was as stimulating a book as I’ve ever read on epistemology, though I think it would be a difficult read for anyone who wasn’t familiar with Kant, at least at a rudimentary level. When I had completed it, I wrote a long letter to Umberto, who acknowledged receipt of my letter but never followed up with a response. I learned later that he had a fight with throat cancer, so I take it as no slight that he didn’t respond further.

In one of his chapters, he gives a lengthy discourse on the mirror paradox, and that was one of my points of contention. He argued that a mirror ‘reverses nothing’, but a second reflection did reverse left to right, which restores the image to what we normally see. I pointed out to him that this was illogical, nevertheless there is a specific case where he is correct. I will return to this specific example at the end of my discourse. I need to say that I have great respect for both Stephen Law and Umberto Eco, as both of these men are far more knowledgeable than me in their respective fields.

Most people explain the mirror reflection in terms of rotation, as it appears that the mirror rotates the image around, and this is particularly compelling for mirror-reflected writing, as I explicate below. But this merely raises another question, effectively transcribing the paradox, not solving it. Why does it rotate the image about the vertical axis, not the horizontal axis? Stephen Law gives an analogy: if you walk through a door that opens on the right side, why does it open on the left side when you come back the other way? The answer is because you turn yourself around. Law argues that if we lived in zero gravity, whereby you could turn yourself upside down to open the door, it would still open the same way, so the implication is that it’s gravity that creates the emphasis on the vertical axis. In fact, Stephen Law speculates that if we lived in a weightless environment then perhaps the ‘mirror puzzle would not even be a puzzle’. But I believe he'd be wrong: it's the left-right symmetry of the human body that creates the emphasis on horizontal over vertical reflection.

All these explanations and descriptions seem to overlook the fact that there is no rotation in the mirror at all – in fact, it’s the lack of rotation that gives us mirror reflection. I believe that most of these explanations actually appreciate this fact; they just fail to explain it. But I have been keeping you in suspense – the answer to this puzzle is deceptively simple: the mirror doesn’t reverse left to right, or top to bottom, it reverses back to front. We live in 3 dimensions, not 2, and a mirror reverses everything in the dimension perpendicular to its plane. So the rotation is a genuine illusion (it doesn’t happen), but the reversal is a true optical phenomenon.

Below is an edited version of my exposition that I sent to Umberto Eco.

Normally, if we want to see something back to front we have to turn it around. Generally we do this by turning the object through its vertical axis but we can also turn it through its horizontal axis. If we turn it through its vertical axis, as happens when someone turns to face us, their left side appears on our right and their right side appears on our left. This is unavoidable. But they could also turn to face us by standing on their hands, in which case they would appear upside down but their left side would still be on our left and their right side on our right. Then if they stood by doing a half cart wheel they would resume their normal stance but left to right would be reversed. The mirror quite literally reverses the image back to front without rotating it through any axis at all. So we don’t see the image upside down but likewise we don’t see the left side on the right or the right side on the left. This is the illusion pure and simple. The illusion, when we face a mirror, is that it appears to rotate us around a vertical axis, when in fact it doesn’t, it turns us back to front. If we look at something between us and the mirror, we see the front of it facing us, and the back of it facing us in the mirror. This is the key to the illusion. When we look at ourselves in a mirror we expect to see ourselves as others see us, but we can only do this when we have 2 mirrors, which appears to really rotate everything about the vertical axis (as Eco contended), but, in actuality, restores front to back to front again. But I’m fast-forwarding - I will elaborate on double reflections later.

In other respects we are not fooled by the mirror’s conservation of left and right. If we see in the mirror someone standing behind us and to our left, we automatically look over our left shoulder, not our right. Where we are fooled is when we reach for something on a table between us and a mirror, as in the case of an object on a dressing table or a bathroom bench top, while watching the object in the mirror. If we reach for an object at the back of the table, we appear in the mirror to be reaching forward towards us, rather than away. Likewise, if we drag an object on the table towards us, we appear in the mirror to be pushing it backwards not forwards. If you doubt this, try shaving or combing your hair with your left hand instead of your right (or your right hand if you're left-handed). We’ve trained our preferred hand through years of practice.

When we look in the rear view mirror at a car parked behind us while standing at a traffic light, we see that the driver is sitting on the same side of the car as we are and we are not confused. Because we know the car is behind us, the same as in the previous example, when we knew that the person standing behind us in the mirror was on our left or right side just as the mirror dictated. If the car was traveling towards us, we would expect to see the driver on the opposite side to us because the car has been turned around it’s vertical axis. If we turned around to look at the driver behind us at the traffic light, we would still see that he or she is on the same side of the car as we are, because both cars are facing the same direction, even though we have turned around to look backwards. Therefore, when we look at the driver in the rear view mirror we can see that left and right have been conserved. So why is it that when we look at the number plate we have to read it backwards, as if it's been rotated?

Writing not only provides the best illustration of the illusion, it also provides the best means to understand it. If you hold up a page of a book with writing on both sides while facing a mirror, the side facing you is readable, but the side facing the mirror is mirror-reversed. However, if the page was transparent, then the writing on the other side would also appear mirror reversed exactly as it does in the mirror. Take a sheet of plastic or cellophane, or anything clear that can be written on. If you hold up this transparent sheet so that the writing is mirror-reversed to you then it will also appear mirror-reversed in the mirror. Likewise if you hold it up so that the writing is readable to you then it will appear readable in the mirror. So where did the illusion of rotation go?

The illusion has gone but the reversal hasn't. Because when you hold up the sheet so you can read it, you are looking at the front of the sheet whereas the image you see in the mirror is the back of the sheet. Left to right is not reversed but front to back is. The front you see in the mirror is actually the back to you. If you were to place yourself between the sheet and the mirror, without changing its orientation, you would see the writing mirror-reversed. The mirror mirror-reverses the back of the sheet. And, of course, you would have to turn yourself around to read it, which only emphasises the illusion that the mirror rotates the image, but actually it doesn’t. The reason writing always appears reversed left to right, is because we always turn it left to right to face the mirror. We do the rotation, not the mirror.

This brings me to the third image created by a second mirror. If you set a book upright on a dressing table (or a table with a mirror behind it) with the front cover facing you, then the back cover will be mirror-reversed in the mirror. If you then took a small mirror (say a shaving mirror) and place it between yourself and the book, but facing back into the main mirror (or background mirror) you can create a third image of the cover in the main mirror. This is very easy to do by small adjustment of the angle of the foreground mirror. Naturally enough (but only because we know in advance) we can read the front cover in the third image exactly as it appears to us on the table. If we didn’t already know this, I believe it would be a complete surprise. The important point is that the image is not rotated at all, it is simply reversed back to front twice, using an intermediary mirror that is facing away from us.

In fact the foreground mirror behaves in exactly the same way as the transparent sheet I referred to in the previous example. If you could see through the foreground mirror so it’s image could be read from the back (in other words if it was a transparent screen with the book cover projected onto it) we would be able to read it exactly as we can in its reflection in the background mirror. The point is though, that the foreground mirror reverses the image, not from left to right but back to front. The foreground mirror only has the writing in the right order because it is facing away from us. If you were to place yourself between it and the background mirror (and turn yourself around) you would see the writing is mirror-reversed as you would with the transparent sheet. So the background mirror mirror-reverses the foreground mirror.

But, as I alluded to earlier, there is a specific situation, and a common one, where a second mirror does translate the image directly from left to right, which upholds the illusion of rotation. We often find ourselves in a bar, or a bathroom, with 2 vertical mirrors joined at right angles like 2 walled mirrors. In this case the image you would see is a double reflection no matter which mirror you looked in. In fact, if there were 2 extended wall mirrors, then there would be 4 images of you, including the prime image. If you were to press your finger into the corner, you would see 4 symmetrical images of it, one of which would be you. Another unique feature of this third image is that it would always remain in the corner of the room as you moved about, whereas the other 2 images would follow you around. This also means, of course, that everyone in the room would see themselves in the corner (assuming they had a clear line of sight).

The (apparent) non-reversed image results from a secondary reflection coming off a primary reflection that you cannot see, because the two reflections simultaneously 'swap' over on the adjacent mirrors. This, in fact, does resemble a rotation about the vertical axis, simply because the mirrors are joined on a vertical axis. And this is what led Umberto Eco to argue that the first mirror image is not reversed left to right but the second image is. He is correct, in this specific case, but only because we create a virtual vertical axis of rotation by the very careful alignment of the 2 mirrors.

So now I have turned a simple answer into more than 2,000 words, and either have confused you completely or explained a common phenomenon thoroughly. I hope the latter.

Footnote: I had a brief discussion with Stephen Law on this topic. We agree to disagree over my belief that science does solve this puzzle. You can visit his post on this subject (and our dialogue) at the following: And explore the rest of his excellent site.

Addendum: If you think this exhausts the subject of mirrors, you should read Richard Feynman's quantum mechanical explanation of reflection in his truly fantastical book, QED, The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Problem with Democracy

Anyone who has read my posts on Trust (Apr.08) and Human Nature (Nov.07) will know that I already extol the merits of democracy. In fact, I think it is the best form of governance yet devised by humankind, but, then, I’m one of the few lucky ones who really does reap the benefits from this political system. I live in a country where changes of government and leadership occur without violence, bloodshed or even the need for large exchanges of money. Yes, deals are done, but, as proven by our most recent election, it is the populace who makes the final decision, and in an emphatic manner. To quote Confucius, ‘to rule truly means to serve’, and, in a genuine democracy, if the government doesn’t serve its people then it gets sacked. And, paradoxically, that is part of the problem that I allude to in the title of this post.

Many commentators lament the fact, especially in the current age of climate change, oil shock and looming famine, that, because of our election processes, governments are ham-strung when it comes to implementing long term agendas. But I believe this problem can be analysed in a more precise fashion. Let’s start with oil. I can remember reading in a small unobtrusive column in Scientific American in the late 1990s, of a highly respected expert in oil exploration (no, I don’t remember his name, only that his credentials were solid and his message was dire) forewarning that oil production would become a serious issue before 2010. So we’ve had ample time to pursue other sources of energy as well as more efficient means to use and distribute what we had.

Ironically, when I was working in Houston on an oil-related project in 2001, I read in USA Today that petrol consumption, per capita in the US, was the same as it was 25 years earlier. I can remember driving the US highways and seeing huge pickup trucks with semi-trailer size turntables towing ‘trailers’ (caravans for the rest of us English speaking nations) or motor homes towing a ‘compact’ or even a small jeep behind them. While I was there, registrations in trucks overtook registrations in cars for the first time (trucks include pickups and SUVs in the US). This, I learned later, was the direct result of political intervention because America had lost the car market to the Japanese, and the American motor industry was now dependent on ‘trucks’ for their livelihood.

An English TV car show, Top Gear, a couple of years ago, revealed that the biggest selling car in the entire world was in fact a Ford pickup truck. The show’s host, Jeremy Clarkson, pointed out that there were more examples of this specific vehicle on the road than people living in Australia. We live in a consumer society: consumption literally drives the economy; and that is why this situation not only exists, but is encouraged.

Also, while I was in Houston, someone lent me a book about the moon written by a professor of cosmology (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name). One of the chapters dealt with a subject that bears no relation to the moon whatsoever: the ozone hole over Antarctica. The author told the whole story of how a scientist predicted in the early 1970s that CFCs could affect the ozone layer. Even when his prediction came true his prognosis was ignored, debated and generally discounted. It took more than a decade to overcome the political inertia and misinformation fed by corporate interests before anything was finally done. Exactly the same scenario now applies to climate change. I read an article by a motoring journalist, earlier this decade, citing the ozone hole as an example of ‘crying wolf’ because the predicted catastrophe never happened. The journalist seemed unaware that it was averted only because of global political intervention in response to scientific advice.

As I related in a previous post, Living in the 21st Century (Sep. 07), I was one of a rare few who heard the scientific adviser to the English government (again, I don’t remember his name) give a lecture, at Oxford University in 2000, on the coming ‘pinch’ we will all experience in food, water, and energy as the result of global population pressure. I still wonder today, as I did then, why he was delivering this message to a small audience of academics rather than the politicians who apparently appointed him. The obvious, and cynical, answer is that the message was the wrong one because it would not win votes or elections.

Earlier this week I saw an interview with David Attenborough by Andrew Denton (on Australian ABC TV) whom Denton introduced as ‘the most traveled person on the planet’. When asked if he was an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, Attenborough responded negatively. He lamented the effects of population growth on both the human and animal world and could see no easy resolution; an issue I’ve already commented on in the abovementioned post.

What have all these issues got in common? They all involve scientists advising governments, and the population in general, well in advance, that action needs to be taken on a global scale or we will all suffer economically, environmentally and health-wise. So why are they ignored? They are ignored at the time of their revelation because, they are not only future forecasts, and therefore debatable, but they require action and commitment on a large scale, and, more significantly, they won’t be supported by the very people who elect governments into power. And this leads to the problem with democracy: action is only taken when the people who elect governments are directly affected by the consequences of global issues. All scientific advisers will tell you, that, by the time that happens, it is simply too late.

In last week’s New Scientist (14 June 2008) there is a well-researched and well-articulated article written by Debora Mackenzie, entitled What Price More Food? She gives it the sub-heading: ‘It’s the crisis the world should have seen coming’; just like oil production shortages; just like climate change; and just like water crises, both future and present.

Economic growth is the universal paradigm that all governments and politicians swear by. It is the only criterion by which to judge the ‘health’ of a nation. Unfortunately, as I pointed out in Living in the 21st Century, it is currently linked to population growth. Tell any economic rationalist that zero population growth should be the goal and they will have a seizure. I’m merely stating the obvious, but the obvious is easy to ignore when its consequences, and therefore its resolution, can be postponed.

None of this is helped when we have a global religious institution determined to maintain its anachronistic standards on issues like birth control and contraception. Recently the Vatican attempted to portray itself as a 21st Century institution by announcing some new ‘mortal sins’ that include possible research into gene therapy – in other words, the demonisation of science. Personally, I find the Vatican’s stance on birth control and the use of condoms, in particular, morally irresponsible at best, and reprehensible at worst. As I’ve said elsewhere, ignorance is the greatest enemy facing the 21st Century, and unfortunately the Vatican is clearly part of the problem when it could be part of the solution.

Am I a pessimist or an optimist? Well, I’m a pessimist if we maintain the status quo, but I’m an optimist if we adopt a more politically amenable approach to science. We have both the intellectual ability and the technological resources to change a great deal. Global communication is a key instrument, I believe, in educating people at grass roots level and engaging in public debate, as I’m attempting to do now.

Politicians on the ‘right’ see science as subordinate to economic imperatives. There is still a strong belief that ‘market forces’ will overcome all our global ills, including climate change, food shortages and everything else. They may even be right, but it’s an imbalanced approach when it’s obvious that the global-majority-poor suffer the brunt of these ‘forces’ and the global-minority-wealthy remain the least affected. The wealthy are obviously in the best position to effect the greatest change, but they will only act when their ‘constituents’ are directly affected, hence the problem explicit in the title of this essay.

Politicians on the ‘left’, on the other hand, are more ready to demonise science; they see it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Genetic engineering is a case in point, where they ignore the fact that all of the food we consume today is the result of genetic manipulation by humans over centuries (yes, even before Darwin); so it’s all ‘unnatural’, strictly speaking. The aforementioned article in New Scientist makes it clear that market forces and corporate interests have not delivered the result that the world obviously needs, but, equally, the author points out that genetic manipulation, either by breeding or specific gene splicing, is the only means we have to resolve this situation, and, more significantly, the technology exists today.

My point, I guess, is that science can deliver solutions and problems, depending on how it is employed. But we are in a period of unprededented growth (the world population has doubled in my lifetime) being driven by an almost religious dedication to an economic paradigm that is a significant contributor to the problem. There needs to be a balance introduced into the equation that not only allows for zero population growth but actively encourages it. Female emancipation and education is part of the solution, as many people, including Attenborough, acknowledge. But there also needs to be a recognition that scientists are the harbingers of future problems, and we ignore them at the cost to the quality-of-life for future generations. The 21st Century will be remembered, either as the century we turned things around or the century where we lost the best part of what we have gained. I truly, sincerely hope that my pessimism (and David Attenborough’s) is ill-founded.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Is there a God?

This was the 'Question of the Month' posed in Philosophy Now, Issue 65 (January/February 2008).

To be put into perspective, this post should be read with one of my earlier posts, God, theism, atheism (Aug.07), and possibly also Does the Universe have a Purpose? (Oct.07) I need to add the significant caveat that I don’t expect others to believe what I believe. Religion is a very personal, even intimate, experience. As I said in that earlier posting, I believe atheism is a perfectly valid and honest point of view. I only have a problem with atheists when they insist they are axiomatically intellectually superior to theists, in the same way that some theists believe they are axiomatically morally superior to atheists. Both points of view are equally fallacious to me.

I’ve made the point previously that there is only one objective and honest religious truth: we don’t know. The corollary to this is that religion is an experience that is as subjective as consciousness itself.

Below is my submission to Philosophy Now.

To answer this question one must ask another: what is God? Even if the answer to the original question is in the negative then one must explain God away as a cultural artefact or a myth or a psychological phenomenon. I believe a good starting point is 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s statement: ‘God is the outward projection of man’s inner nature’. Yet it’s more complex than that, as it always manifests itself as an interaction. Firstly, I believe that God is an experience, and I readily concede that if a person has had no experience, that they would call God, then they would logically be atheists. I make this assertion from the simple pragmatic fact that the only experience we have of God is in our minds, not out there. Some people have this experience and some don’t. Those who don’t tend to think that those who do are either irrational or delusional. Those who do tend to rationalise their experience within a cultural context. So the answer to this question is very personal and very subjective. Whilst one can rationalise a ‘creator’ God based on the freakish laws of nature that culminated in our conscious existence, the experience of God is independent of any such rationalisation. For me, God is a response to introspection at the deepest level, that comes from one's sense of connection to humanity and even to other living things – in other words, to nature. If one considers that we live on a grain of sand on a beach amongst a shoreline of beaches separated by oceans from other shorelines of beaches, one gets the sense of our truly inconsequential existence, yet it also produces a great humility. It is a sense of a greater purpose that leads one to consider God, either as an entity, or a source, or perhaps a destination. It is only because we have the mind to stretch beyond our mortal existence, in this way, that we believe in its possibility. This perception of something far greater, beyond us, can create supreme humility or supreme egotism – it depends on the beholder.

Footnote: The best book I've read on this subject is Karen Armstrong's The History of God. As I mention in response to a comment below, The Unconscious God by Viktor Frankl gives another perspective again.

I also point out in my response to the same comment that I appreciate that different people have different ideas of what or who God is. I think that is an important, and often overlooked, point.

Addendum: I came across this quote in the I Ching, which seems appropriate.

"There, in the depths of the soul, one sees the Divine, the One... To know this One means to know oneself in relation to the cosmic forces. For this One is the ascending force of life in nature and man."

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Aristotle, Confucius, Ethics and Happiness

This is an essay I wrote whilst a student after I read Aristotle’s Ethics, one of the true classics. Anyone can buy it, even in paperback – it’s still in print, thanks to Penguin.

It’s quite incredible that the ruminations of thinkers from 500 to 300BC are still relevant today, yet despite the fa├žade that we present, is humanity any more civilized today than it was then? I think, that as long as hypocrisy dominates integrity in politics, civilization will struggle to achieve its unstated goal.

Even slavery still exists, though in a more insidious form. At least, back in Aristotle’s time, a slave was called a slave, whereas today they are called ‘illegals’ or ‘indentured’ in cases where it has been legalised. For the sake of clarity, I call slavery the practice of ‘bonding’ an ‘employee’ with a debt they can’t pay off, so they effectively work for nothing. It’s much more common than people realise, and it’s not just prostitutes or the underworld who are involved.

I’m slightly off track, but it’s a detour that makes relevant my belief that, though history makes us more aware, it takes an unclouded eye to see the truth up close.

The essay originally had the title: What is the connection between happiness and moral behaviour? Those who have read my post on Human Nature will recognise that I’ve lifted the reference to Plato’s dialogue on the ‘just and unjust man’ straight from this essay.

This is not a comparison, by the way, between Aristotle and Confucius, which I understand has been done by others, though I don’t know who those others are. Nevertheless, both men saw themselves as teachers and both had an influence that spans well over 2,000 years. Leaving aside the world's three most famous mystics: Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed; arguably, only Pythagoras’s legacy has had a greater influence on the global cultural evolution of the past 2,500 years (read Kitty Ferguson’s The Music of Pythagoras).

Below is the original essay (I've removed all the references, but most of the quotes are either from the Penguin edition of Ethics or, for Confucius, from Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Whilst no one would consider happiness and morality as mutually exclusive, there has been a tendency, both from our Christian traditions and Freud’s pleasure principle, to consider them as a necessary compromise. However as early as the 4th Century BC, both Aristotle, and to some extent Plato before him, challenged this most pervasive view of humanity. Leaving Plato’s arguments aside for the time being, Aristotle’s treatment in his Nichomachean Ethics is by far the most comprehensive and leads the way in developing a philosophical nexus for happiness and moral behaviour.

It is a central theme of Aristotle’s Ethics that happiness is the greatest ‘good’, and while this is discussed specifically in Chapter vii, Book I, it reoccurs in his discussions on Virtue, Friendship and Contemplation. Like most seminal works of the intellect, Aristotle’s Ethics is significant not only for what it contains, but for what one believes is missing. It is in filling in the gaps that one grasps the greatest insights and inspiration from his work. I will attempt to elucidate on what I perceive are the strengths of Aristotle’s arguments, as well as discuss the Ethics’ shortcomings in light of what others have contributed to the subject.

Firstly the word happiness is less than ideal as a translation for 'eudaimonia' as many point out, including Jonathan Barnes in his introduction to the Penguin edition. In fact many use the term: ‘the good life’, but it too is less than ideal. To quote Barnes: ‘... the eudaimon is the man who makes a success of his life and actions, who realises his aims and ambitions as a man, who fulfils himself.’ But later in the same passage he confuses us by saying: ‘It will not, of course, do to replace “happiness” by “success” or “fulfilment” as a translation of eudaimonia...’

But leaving Barnes comments aside, in the aforementioned Book I it is obvious when Aristotle is talking about happiness, he is talking about a lifelong event: it is in effect the sum of a person’s life. ‘One swallow does not make a summer... Similarly neither can one day, or a brief space of time, make a man blessed and happy.’ He makes it clear he is not talking about fleeting moments of pleasure that we all experience; he is talking about achieving our highest potential as human beings. ‘..happiness demands not only complete goodness but a complete life.’ In his concluding Book X, he goes further and gives this attribute an almost religious significance.

It seems to me that there are two aspects of Aristotle’s happiness or eudaimonia, and they are intrinsically related. One is to do with our day to day conduct and the pursuit of personal goals, and the other is to do with our interaction with others. It is obvious that these two facets of living cannot be separated, yet Aristotle fails to make this connection explicit.

The central tenet of Aristotle’s treatise on virtue is the much discussed ‘golden mean’. He gives examples, from how to manage money to bravery. A man too deficient in courage behaves cowardly, but the man too confident in his own abilities is foolhardy. I found Aristotle’s elaboration and exposition on ‘the golden mean’ longwinded to the point of being tiresome, but there is one brief passage which everyone can relate to, and which encapsulates the concept of eudaimonia as it arises in our everyday lives.

‘By virtue I mean moral virtue since it is this that is concerned with feelings and actions.... But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate, that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue.’

Aristotle considered this passage so important that he virtually repeats it in his summing up of Book II. The point about this passage, and its reiteration, is that it brings together both aspects of eudaimonia that I alluded to above: as a means of living one’s life and relating to others. Aristotle makes the additional point that this constitutes a moral virtue, but that is better understood when one reviews his thesis on friendship. It is in regard to friendship that I find the two aspects of eudaimonia most closely aligned.

The thrust of Aristotle’s discussion is that true friendship, as opposed to utilitarian friendship, is in itself a moral virtue, and that a friendship of this quality is dependent upon an individual’s moral character. Aristotle was aware that one cannot obtain a good friendship unless one is oneself a good person. In some respects, Aristotle used his particular concept of friendship as a measure of a person’s goodness or moral character. I believe this is the key to Aristotle’s philosophy, because living requires by necessity an interaction with others and the quality of that interaction by and large determines the quality of our lives. Whilst this is as much psychology as philosophy, it is the essence of both living a ‘good life’ and of being a ‘good person’.

If Aristotle’s discussion on friendship is his most accessible and most readily appreciated, his discussion on contemplation is probably the most vague and the most open to diverse interpretations. He concludes the Ethics with a discussion on contemplation, raising it as the highest goal for philosophy and life in general. In this regard it takes on religious significance. Barnes criticises Aristotle’s thesis because Aristotle argues that it is only acquired knowledge that is worth contemplating not research, but I think this misses the point completely. There are two other philosophers who can throw light on this subject: one who influenced Aristotle and one who did not.

Appendix A by Hugh Tredennick of the Penguin edition provides a synopsis of Pythagoras’s philosophy and influence with particular reference to his religious views. Pythagoras is best remembered as a mathematician who first perceived and quantified the relationship between mathematics and musical tones. But Tredennick points out that he was first a religious teacher, who believed in the transmigration of the soul ‘...his view of philosophy as a way of life, a contemplative activity for the emancipation of the soul’; shows the influence Pythagoras apparently obtained from his travels in the East (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1989, but Ferguson, 2008, says that this belief came from Orphism, not Eastern influences as many believe).

Tredennick also makes the point that this view no doubt influenced Plato and Aristotle. Here we have the idea of contemplation as a means of not only achieving virtue but of achieving immortality in a religious sense. But it is another philosopher who lived in Pythagoras’s time, whom I believe, provided a better exposition of contemplation as a form of self-realisation.

One cannot help but perceive similarities between Aristotle’s Ethics and the teachings of Confucius who lived approximately 2 centuries earlier, as both were concerned with the moral character of individuals and the application of ethics in political life. But Confucius’s ideas on contemplation are closer to contemporary ideas in psychology than Aristotle’s and therefore are more accessible. His view of contemplation is looking inward at the deepest inner self. Confucius (in Chinese, K’ung-fu-tzu) was a strong believer in self-knowledge and self-examination as a path to moral rectitude.

This view is probably best expressed in the modern idiom as soul-searching, whereby one attempts a higher degree of self-honesty, which is not only echoed in modern psychotherapy, but also in Sartre’s idea of ‘authenticity’. Confucius also understood the significance of our relationship with others in achieving enlightenment of the soul or self. From the annalects: ‘A man of humanity, wishing to establish himself, also establishes others, and wishing to enlarge himself also enlarges others. The ability to take as analogy of what is near at hand can be called the method of humanity.’(6:30)

But unlike Aristotle, Confucius would have argued that eudaimonia in the form of success and fulfilment is possible even when a man faces adversity and misfortune. Confucius knew this from personal experience. (He spent 12 years in self-imposed exile, and was unemployed and homeless, but during this period his circle of students increased and his reputation flourished.)

It is also the theme of innumerable narratives, some fiction and some not, that continue to inspire us. But if we take either the Pythagorean or the Confucian view of contemplation, then Aristotle’s argument for making contemplation the best means for an individual to achieve the highest ‘good’ starts to acquire validity. It could be argued of course that Aristotle’s conclusion fails to make this clear, but I at least can see a valid argument even if I have to construct that argument myself.

As I intimated in my introduction, it is what I believe Aristotle left out of his Ethics that contributes most to a nexus of happiness and morality. This is best understood I believe by contemplating Plato’s dialogues on the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ man. The basic argument is that the unjust man can get away with whatever he wants if he’s in a position of power or persuasion, and being unjust has no negative consequences for him, only for others. On the other hand, under these circumstances a just person can never be happy because he can simply never win and therefore will always be the unfortunate one. Plato’s argument is that the just man is temperate and can curb his appetites and desires with his rational abilities.

There is a great deal that can be contended with this point of view, and it doesn’t address the issue of happiness and morality as being concordant, but to focus on this aspect of Plato’s dialogues would be a digression. The essential element missing from Plato’s argument, and unrevealed in Aristotle’s thesis, is the social consequence of being just or unjust.

To put the argument another way, one should consider rewards as a criteria for happiness or beneficence. What are the rewards for being just compared to the rewards for being unjust? Simply put, the rewards for being unjust are material rewards assuming one can get away with it. The rewards for being just are less tangible but they are related to the notion of a social contract. Not the social contract of the 19th Century but the more intimate social contract inherent in Aristotle’s friendship. The rewards for being just are friendship, loyalty and trust. It can be argued that these rewards also exist for the unjust man but they are contingent on his material possessions, wealth and power - in other words they are utilitarian. For the just man these rewards extend beyond immediate close associates and they are based on the man’s character, nothing else.

There is another negative effect resulting from being unjust which is more subtle. The unjust person must necessarily create a distorted perception of his or her world. The unjust man or woman suffers from a dishonesty to the self not unlike Sartre’s notion of mauvaise foi. The unjust person believes that his or her rewards are justifiably earned and the fate of those less fortunate are self-inflicted. Even Hitler believed that what he was doing was for the betterment of our world. The unjust person often believes, contrary to the perceptions of others, that his or her view of the world is completely just. This psychological component of the just and unjust person is not considered by Plato, or Aristotle for that matter, possibly because of the distorted perceptions that existed within their own society. After all, no one at that time, no matter how enlightened, would have taken into consideration the plight of slaves in a discussion of what was just and unjust, or of what constituted a ‘good person’.