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.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Shame, shame, shame!!!

I managed to write an entire novel without resorting to an exclamation mark, so it’s an indication of my indignation that I’ve used them with such extravagance in the above title.

On this week’s 4 Corners programme, which provides the best investigative journalism in the country, they uncovered the extraordinary damage our government does to refugees in the name of border protection.

Former Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, called our detention centres ‘mental-illness factories’ and the 4 Corners programme demonstrated that beyond contention. Meanwhile, other media outlets in Australia, continue to feed the Australian public’s paranoia that refugees get a free ride at our expense. The truth is that we treat refugees, who have committed no crime, worse than the worst criminals in the country.

And this is because politicians from both of our major parties believe it’s necessary to win the xenophobic vote. Fear is always a good vote winner, which is why capital punishment in the US has the history it does. And the media also know that fear sells air-space on television and radio and print-space in newspapers, so they are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and help the politicians manipulate public opinion.

The height of the politicians’ hypocrisy (on both sides) is that they claim they are creating a ‘deterrent’ which will stop refugees from endangering their lives by crossing the Indian Ocean in ‘leaky boats’. They don’t acknowledge the fact that people only risk their lives in such circumstances because the risk of losing one’s life by staying where they are is even greater. Many of the refugees questioned have lost close relatives to political violence, so it is not safe for them to stay in their country of origin.

The most interesting aspect of all this is that it’s only refugees who arrive by boat who are put in detention. Those who arrive by aeroplane are treated entirely differently. Why is this so? You may well ask. It’s because those who arrive by plane attract no media attention whatsoever, whereas those who arrive by boat get all the media attention and therefore must be vilified by our politicians to show how ‘tough’ they are.

It’s unbelievable that our politicians can be so morally bankrupt, but the desire to win office, and stay in office, corrupts moral principles to the worst degree. As long as the public are unaware or unempathetic to our treatment of refugees, then politicians will do nothing to uphold their charter to treat them humanely. In fact, they will do the opposite because it will win them votes.

Addendum: It’s been demonstrated by neurological investigation that when people experience emotional pain it affects the exact same part of the brain, and to the same degree, as if they experience physical pain. This is why people self-harm when they are exposed to long term emotional stress, because the physical pain becomes a substitute for the emotional pain. This seems perverse, yet it’s been known to occur with animals as well (kept in captivity in stressful conditions).

When refugees self-harm, the idiot commentators, amongst others, tell us that they are seeking attention. Mental-health professionals know better: these people are at the extremity of their sanity and our government’s polices keep pushing them over the edge. This is arguably the most shameful behaviour one can witness in a 21st Century liberal democracy.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The dawn of the human mind

It’s an extravagant statement to make, bordering on hyperbole, yet, after seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, one struggles to find words befitting the discovery. The first thing that strikes you as soon as you see the images (in 3D) is how modern they look. You can understand why the first reaction from academia was that they were a hoax, not 34,000 years old as has been verified by carbon dating.

The significance of this film is that it will probably be the only one ever made. The caves are closed to the public, only selected scientists and academics can gain access and only at certain times of the year. The caves were hermetically sealed off by a landslide and that’s the only reason we have this preservation of ancient rock art executed during the ice age when we co-inhabited Europe with Neanderthals. I say ‘we’ because they are the common ancestors to most of the peoples in the world today. The human genome project has revealed that we all came out of Africa, including all indigenous tribal people, and Asians as well as Europeans.

One of the archaeologists, a young man with a science background, who spent 4 continuous days in the cave, tells of the emotional impact they had on him beyond his expectations. In particular, they filled his dreams with the animals he saw. He said he dreamt of lions, both depicted and real-life forms. He remarked upon the emotional and subliminal connection that they could still make with humans living over 30,000 years after they had been created. When I was a child (pre-adolescent) I used to draw animals all the time – they were my favourite subject – concordant with a fascination with animal life in general. I was fortunate enough to live near the bush (as we call it in Oz) with a creek running alongside our house that plummeted into a deep gorge, not that far from where we lived.

This connection and this fascination with wild animals is something that we’ve lost. For these people, one feels it was spiritual, and that’s not just a projection. Herzog went to a lot of trouble to place this particular artwork into a much broader context. Talking with a number of academics, it became clear that 30-40,000 years ago in ice-gripped Europe, art, in all its manifestations that we know today, flourished. In particular, there are numerous figurines, especially of the female form, and bone flutes from the same age. So we know that both graphic and sculptural art flourished as well as music, and we can assume that so did storytelling, mythmaking and religion. Many people make a connection between art and religion, and I think one can safely say that they were born at the same time. They both deal with the subconscious and our dreamworld. An archaeologist at another site, produced a bone flute made from the radius bone of a vulture with 4 holes drilled in it. He played The Star Spangled Banner (though he was obviously not American) to demonstrate that these ice-age humans used the same musical scale that we use today.

The same archaeologist, whom we met earlier in the film discussing his dreams, tells of an incident he saw in northern Australia (probably in a documentary) of an Aboriginal Elder showing someone some rock art from thousands of years earlier and explaining how it used to be maintained but now it’s not. He then proceeded to ‘touch it up’ or restore it. When the white man asked him if he was an artist. He said, no, he wasn’t the artist, the ‘spirit’ was. And this is something that all artists can identify with, like we are a medium for something beyond us, out there. This is the exact same sense that people have with religion. They were born at the same time in humanity: the dawn of the human mind.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Where does time go? (in quantum mechanics)

For those who are unacquainted with my blog, I’m not a physicist, or academic of any kind; I’m a self-confessed dilettante. I’ve written on this topic before (The enigma we call time, Jul. 2010) and it’s one of my more popular posts, based on an article I read in Scientific American (June 2010).

This time I’ve been inspired by last week’s New Scientist (8 October, 2011), which was a ‘Special issue’ on TIME; The Most Mysterious Dimension of All. They cover every aspect of time, by various authors, from the age of the universe to our circadian rhythms and everything in between and even beyond. But there were 2 essays in particular that caught my attention and led me to revisit this topic from 12 months ago.

Firstly, a discussion on Time’s Arrow by Amanda Gefter, who points out that, whilst the 2nd law of thermodynamics provides our only theoretical link with time’s arrow, because entropy must always increase, it’s not the solution: ‘If only it were so easy. Unfortunately, the second law does not really explain the arrow of time.’

The point is that entropy is statistical, as Schrodinger pointed out in What is Life? (refer my post, Nov. 2009) as is most of physics, but it’s not a deterministic law like, for example, Einstein’s general theory of relativity. So even though we can say that overall entropy doesn’t go backwards any more than time does, we can’t provide a mathematical relationship that derives time from entropy. In my post on time last year I said: ‘It is entropy that apparently drives the arrow of time…’ Gefter’s exposition suggests that I might be overstating the case.

Gefter goes on to say: ‘The only way to explain the arrow of time, then, is to assume that the universe just happened to start out in an extremely unlikely low entropy state.’ I’ve discussed this before when I reviewed Roger Penrose’s book, Cycles of Time (Jan. 2011), who spends a great deal of space expounding on the significance of the second law to the universe’s entire history, including its future. This is a bit off-topic to my intended subject, so I won’t dwell on it, but, as Gefter points out, the standard explanation for the universe’s initial low entropy is inflationary theory. But then she adds this caveat: ‘Inflation seems to solve the dilemma. On closer inspection, however, it only pushes the problem back.’ In other words, inflation itself must have had a low entropy and the standard explanation is that there were multiple inflations creating a multiverse.

Einstein’s relativity theories tell us that time is observer-dependent, yet entropy and its role in the evolution of the universe suggests that there is an ‘entropic’ time that governs the universe’s entire history. Then there is quantum mechanics that has its own time anomalies in defiance of common sense and everyday experience (see below).

I’ve recently started reading Professor Lisa Randall’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door; How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. This is an excellent book, from what I’ve read thus far, for anyone wanting an understanding of how scientists think and how science works, without equations and esoteric prose. In her introduction, she tells us that after giving guest lectures for college students, the most common question is not about physics, but how old she is. She’s young, blonde and attractive: the complete antithesis of the stereotypical physicist. In her first chapter she explains the importance of scale in physics and how different laws, and therefore different equations, are applied according to the scale of the world one is examining. I’ve written about this myself in a post (May 2009), which is also one of my more popular ones. Obviously, Randall is far better qualified to expound on this than me.

She mentions, in passing, a movie, What the Bleep do we know? to illustrate the error in scaling quantum mechanical phenomena up to human scale and expecting the same rules to apply. I remember when this movie came out and thinking what a disservice it did to science and how it misrepresented science to a scientifically illiterate audience. I remember having to explain to friends of mine, how, despite the credentials of the people interviewed, it wasn’t science at all. It was just as much fantasy as my own fiction, perhaps more so.

And this finally brings me to the second essay I read in New Scientist, titled, Countdown to the Theory of Everything, because it is ‘time’ that creates the conceptual and theoretical hurdle to a scientific marriage between Einstein’s theory of general relativity (gravity) and quantum mechanics. And this is what scientists specifically mean when they refer to a ‘theory of everything’. To quote Amanda Gefter again: ‘…to unite general relativity with quantum mechanics, we need to work with a single view of time. But which one is the right one?’ And then she goes on to quote various exponents on the topic, like Carlo Rovelli at the Centre for Theoretical Physics at Marseilles: “For me, the solution to the problem is that at the fundamental level of nature, there is no time at all.”

And this led me to contemplate how the dimension of time effectively disappears in many quantum phenomena, and at best, becomes an anomaly. In both quantum tunneling and entanglement, time becomes inconsequential. Also, superposition, which is just as difficult to conceptualise as any other quantum phenomenon, actually makes sense if time does not exist: something exists everywhere at once.

In May this year, I wrote an exposition on Schrodinger’s equation, aimed at physics students, which has since become my most popular post. Now Schrodinger’s equation, in its most common form, is a time-dependent wave function, which belies the ideas that I’ve just outlined above. But Schrodinger’s equation entails the paradox that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and time is part of that paradox. As Gefter points out: ‘Unlike general relativity, where time is contained within the system, quantum mechanics requires a clock that sits outside the system…’ The time in Schrodinger’s equation is the observer’s time and his equation tells us that the particle or photon that the wave function describes, actually ‘permeates all space’, to quote Richard Elwes in MATHS 1001. And as the standard, or Copenhagen, interpretation of quantum mechanics tells us, the observer is a key participant because it’s their measurement or observation that brings the particle or photon into the real world. At best, Schrodinger’s continuous time-dependent wave function can only give us a probability of its position in the real world, albeit an accurate probability.

Schrodinger realised that his equation had to incorporate complex algebra otherwise it didn’t work. I find it curious that only quantum mechanics requires imaginary numbers (square route of -1, i ). What’s curious is that i is not a number per se: you can’t count or quantify anything with i ; it’s more like a dimension. To quote Elwes again: ‘…our human minds are incapable of visualizing the 4-dimensional graph that a complex function demands.’ This is because the imaginary plane is orthogonal to the real number plane. Schrodinger’s equation only relates to the real world when you square the modulus of his wave function and get rid of the imaginary numbers.

I’ve argued in a previous post (Jun. 2011) that quantum mechanics infers a Platonic world like a substratum to the ‘classical physical’ world that we are more familiar with. Is it possible that in this world time does not exist? Penrose, in Cycles of Time, points out that we need mass for time to exist. This is because photons have zero time, which is why nothing can travel faster than light. However a photon in the real world has energy, which means it has a frequency, which means there must be time. Schrodinger’s equation includes energy times a wave function so all aspects are entailed in the equation. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also demonstrates that there is a clear relationship between energy and time, in exactly the same way there is between space and momentum. As Richard Feynman points out, translation in space is linked to the conservation of momentum and translation in time is linked to the conservation of energy. So time and energy are linked in the classical world and Heisenberg’s equation tells us that they are linked quantum mechanically as well, but only through a particle’s emergence into the physical world, even if it’s a virtual particle.

But if quantum phenomena are time-dimensionless then photons are the perfect candidate. The entire universe can go by in a photon’s lifetime. The same happens at the event horizon of a black hole. Does this mean that the event horizon of a black hole is the boundary between the classical physical world and the quantum world?

In Nov. 2009, I reviewed Fulvio Melia’s book, Cracking the Einstein Code, which is effectively an exposition and brief biography of Roy Kerr, a Kiwi who used Einstein’s field equations to describe the space-time of a rotating body, which is the norm for bodies in the universe. Kerr’s theoretical examination of a spinning black hole led him to postulate that it would have 2 event horizons, and when a body crosses the first event horizon, the parameters of space and time are reversed: space becomes time-like and time becomes space-like. This is because time freezes at the event horizon for an outside observer and the external time becomes infinite from the inside. Time becomes space-like in that it becomes static and infinite.

This post can be put down to the meanderings of an under-educated yet intellectually curious individual. If time does not exist in the quantum world then it actually makes sense of things like superposition, quantum tunneling and entanglement, not to mention time-reversal as expounded by Feynman in his book, QED, using his unique Feynman diagrams. John Wheeler also postulated a thought experiment in which a measurement taken after a photon passes through a slit in Young’s famous experiment can determine which one it passed through. I believe this has since been confirmed with a real experiment. It would also suggest that a marriage between the quantum world and Einstein’s general theory of relativity may be impossible.

Addendum 1: Earlier this year (May 2011) I reviewed John D. Barrow’s latest book, The Book of Universes, and I happened to revisit it and find this extremely relevant reference to the Hartle-Hawking universe devised by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, using Feynman’s quantum integral method on a wave function for the whole universe.

What’s relevant to this post is that ‘[Hartle and Hawking] proposed an initial state in which time became another dimension of space.’

To quote Barrow’s interpretation:

‘Time is not fundamental in this theory. It is a quality that emerges when the universe gets large enough for the distinctive quantum effects to become negligible: time is something that arises concretely only in the limiting non-quantum environment. As we follow the Hartle-Hawking universe back to small sizes it becomes dominated by the Euclidean quantum paths. The concept of time disappears and the universe becomes increasingly like a four-dimensional space. There is no beginning to the universe because time disappears.’

What’s more: ‘…the transformation that changes time into another dimension of space corresponds to multiplying it by an imaginary number…’

This gives rise to what ‘Hartle and Hawking called the “no Boundary” state for the origin of the universe… Its beginning is smooth and unremarkable… In effect, the no-boundary condition is a proposal for the state of the universe if it appears from nothing in a quantum event. The story of this universe is that once upon a time there was no time.’

The only problem with this scenario, as Barrow points out, is that there is no big bang singularity, nevertheless it fits the idea that the quantum world doesn’t need time and the very early universe must have been a quantum universe at the very least.

Addendum 2: Also from Barrow (same book), I found this mathematical joke:

The number you have reached is imaginary. Please rotate your phone through ninety degrees and try again. (Answer-phone message for imaginary phone numbers)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Utilitarianism and other moral philosophies

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on utilitarianism on the Rust Belt Philosophy blog. The discussion got a bit esoteric, and, not being an academic, I got left behind. Nevertheless, there are some things that came out of it which I thought worth jotting down. Very early in the history of this blog, I wrote an ambitious and lengthy essay called Human Nature (Nov. 2007) where John Stuart Mill gets a mention but the context was too broad to elaborate on the subject of utilitarianism specifically.

Also in the latest Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Philosophy Now, where the theme is Kant & Co, there is a discussion on the famous rail trolley moral dilemma, which is often given as a classic utilitarian problem. I need to say up front that I don’t call myself a utilitarian but I can see merits in the principle. As someone suggests, in the same issue of Philosophy Now, whilst discussing Kant’s moral philosophy, one shouldn’t narrow one’s options when it comes to assessing moral issues. In fact, I’m not sure that any moral principle can be used on its own, but I’ll introduce other moral principles as I progress.

One of the main points that everyone seemed to agree on, both at Rust Belt Philosophy and in Philosophy Now, is that moral decisions need to be considered on a case by case basis and you can’t just feed a set of parameters into a computer and come up with an answer. In other words, there is not a set of rules that you can apply for specific situations like an algorithm. This is one of the fundamental conceptual differences that separates science from humanities, because, in science, one uses algorithms, in the form of equations, quite a lot. Even, in biological sciences, there are categories and generic mechanisms that make biology predictable in a way that psychology and morality isn’t and probably never will be. In fact, morality owes a lot to psychology, and even Mill understood that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Utilitarian philosophy, as espoused by Mill in particular, is generally presented as the ‘greatest happiness’ principle, and on Rust Belt Philosophy, the term ‘maximising well-being’ was used, which was defined as ‘the opposite of suffering’. One of the points I made is that a lot depends on how one employs this principle, because, on face value, it appears that the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number of people’ means that the majority should always gain at the expense of the minority, which is why we have political parties and why we vote for them. Using some common contentious moral issues, found on blogs, in news media and in political rhetoric, I challenged this prevailing view.

I will quote directly from the comment I left on Eli’s blog:

If you look at real world, moral issues that occupy blogs, politics and media, they are invariably portrayed as being about one person’s rights, or one group’s rights, versus another’s. For example: the rights of gays to marry over the rights of straights to maintain the sanctity of marriage; the rights of an unborn child over the rights of its mother; the rights of refugees over the rights of people to maintain control of their borders; and the rights of Palestinians over the rights of Israelis.

If one takes the ‘greatest happiness’ principle or the ‘maximising well-being’ principle, then you might argue that the majority wins and the minority loses. However, I disagree.

If you increase the well-being of gays by allowing them to marry, it has no effect on the well-being of heterosexuals – does not affect them at all.

By increasing the well-being of refugees, it has no immediate effect on the well-being of the current inhabitants, and history shows that it leads to the increased well-being of everyone in the long term (this is a specific, currently contentious issue in Oz).

The well-being of an unborn child is intimately entwined with the well-being of its mother, so you can’t consider the well-being of one without considering the well-being of the other. Anyone who attempts to do this is attempting to take over the mother’s role, which is impossible.

The well-being of Palestinians and the well-being of Israelis should be able to be resolved through compromise, or so one would think. However, there is a serious imbalance in this case, and addressing that imbalance would go a long way to increasing the well-being of both parties.

These arguments, not surprisingly, reflect my own personal views on these matters, and there are contrary arguments, obviously, otherwise these topics wouldn’t be contentious.

In a dialogue with another contributor on the blog, March Hare, I made the following point:

But there is another, more fundamental point here that I think has been lost. Most people see moral issues like a football match, whereby one person’s gain can only happen at another person’s lost. I think as long as we have that attitude then progress on many issues: moral, political and economical; will stagnate. In a relationship, one rarely gains pleasure at the expense of their partner’s misery. Usually, either both parties are happy or both are miserable. When you have conflict the same equation applies. We should be looking at ways that both parties’ well-being is increased. And, in many cases, one party can increase their well-being without affecting the other party; gay marriage being a case in point. Yes, it may affect some fundamentalists’ sensibilities but it doesn’t affect their own well-being.

March Hare took exception to my point that gay marriage has no effect on the lives of those who oppose it, and we had a protracted discussion over this. March Hare does not oppose gay marriage, by the way, he just believed that my argument was flawed. In particular, he argued that the opponents of gay marriage would be harmed by the law because it affects them psychologically.

To quote him: ‘…they think their way of life is being attacked, they think their country is leaving them, they fear for their future and their children's, they fear for the safety of their children and the moral well being of all. They may even fear god's vengeance on the country.’

And he’s right, because even though the law would have no effect on their own lives it would affect their phobias, as he so aptly describes them. However, if we passed a law, or maintained a law, that validated their phobias then that would create even more harm, though not to them, but to gays, in the way of persecution and vilification, which we’ve witnessed in the past. So capitulating to these phobias would actually create more harm and my utilitarian argument still stands, and, in fact, stands even stronger.

But this issue about ‘rights’ raises another principle, which is ‘universality’ and is taken up by Peter Rickman in Philosophy Now when he discusses Kant’s moral philosophy. Gay marriage is a case in point, where people are asking for a universality of an existing law, that currently applies to heterosexuals, to apply to same-sex couples. If one accepts same-sex relationships as both legal and psychologically valid (as they are in most Western societies), it’s very hard to deny them the same rights as opposite-sex couples, and I’ll return to this specific issue later.

But universality is tied to reciprocity which is tied to empathy: what’s good enough for you is good enough for everyone else. Reciprocity is most famously associated with Confucius, and 500 years later, Jesus, and is often called the golden rule. Confucius purportedly presented it in the negative: ‘Don’t do to others, what you wouldn’t want done to yourself’; which I think has more emotional weight. It emphasises the negation of harm rather than the giving of charity. It also emphasises the need for empathy – we are less likely to harm someone or persecute them or vilify them if we can see ourselves standing in their shoes. I’ve written elsewhere on the importance of art, and storytelling in particular, in promoting empathy. This is very much a humanist philosophy, and Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was in fact the first humanist philosopher (see my post on Jesus’ philosophy, Jan. 2010) though I would argue that both Confucius and Socrates predate Christ by 4 to 5 centuries as more likely contenders.

In an interview in New Scientist (13 April 2011), Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the word evil, should be replaced with the term ‘lack of empathy’ or something similar. I’ve written on this topic myself (refer Evil, Oct. 2007) because it requires the denial of empathy to perform atrocities, yet we hear about it all the time. We have to deny someone their basic humanity in order to treat them inhumanely yet we are surprisingly masterful at it. For this reason, I argue that empathy has to be a key component in any moral philosophy. In fact, I argue that morality cannot be separated from psychology, and I believe Mill understood this as well, albeit in a different context.

Mill, by his own admission, wanted to develop a social science which he called psychology. The term, social norm, had not been invented in Mill’s time, but he certainly understood the concept. In particular, Mill understood that conscience is largely a product of social norms and not some inner voice provided by God.

Everyone believes they know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, intrinsically, and we often say, ‘You know it’s right,’ as if it’s undeniable, carved in stone. But, when people contemplate if something is right or wrong, they invariably and subconsciously reference their social norms. Social norms have been driving moral behaviour through all societies and all ages. Mill understood that social norms could be changed and that they didn’t have to be governed by the Church. And this brings me back to the discussion on gay marriage because it’s an example of a social norm in progress. Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed enormously in the last half century in Western societies, despite opposition from sectors of the Church (to this day), to the extent that it’s no longer considered criminal nor a mental health issue in mainstream society. It’s really only a small step to legalising gay marriage, but one that politicians are reluctant to take. Retired Australian High Court judge, Michael Kirby, in a recent interview, said that it’s really a generational issue because he believes that young people already don’t have an issue with it.

So morality, as it’s practiced, is intrinsically related to social norms. What was considered radical in the past becomes the status quo in the present. Abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage seem so last millennium, yet they were contended more vociferously than gay marriage is today. One would like to think that we are making progress at a societal level, but only future generations will let us know.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The trickledown fantasy

This is a BBC documentary featuring 3 kids (2 in one family) living in modern-day Great Britain.

The really good part about this doco is that it’s almost totally from the mouths of the children. They understand their world just as well as the adults do, and you really do wonder about their future. Possibly the most extraordinary scene in the film is 11 year-old Sam getting his first ever barbershop haircut for a birthday present, from money saved up by his aunt, because it’s outside the family’s necessities list. And this is 21st century England.

The interview at the end of the programme with Danny Dorling (this is a transcript) puts it all into perspective. It’s all about the poverty gap and its pernicious effect on society at large. We really can’t afford to go down this path.