30 April 2006

It was a great collective achievement for human civilization to arrive at an agreement that there is an objective material world. This is not the same thing as admitting scientific causality – we still might imagine that this objective world is a playground of Zeus and Apollo – but it is certainly a prerequisite.  It assures us that our observations and deductions about the world will be comprehensible and relevant not just to ourselves, but to other people.  Where you and I disagree, we have mutually-agreed criteria for helping us resolve the difference. Figuring out the rules of reality became a social project.  Different times and places, different mythologies about the workings of the world swept through segments of civilization.  We like to think the scientific worldview is the capstone of all these.  We believe it has cross-cultural appeal, at least to a class of rational people everywhere, and it has staying power.

But in building the edifice of science in the 20th century, in seeking to understand the script that matter follows in its motions and its transformations, scientists found that the model of the single, objective reality was unsupportable.  Scientific inquiry undercut the very foundation on which science was built. 

This is the radical significance of the quantum mechanical concept of the observer.  It is not new age hoopla, but the straightest science, the view of reality put forward by Heisenberg and Schroedinger, authors of quantum mechanics 80 years ago.  Right around the time I was born, it was made explicit by Feynman in the form that physicists now take as their working model:

While we're not looking, the Universe does every possible thing. It is a superposition of worlds that do not even obey the basic principle of energy conservation.  All these alternative histories only serve to determine the various probabilities of finding the world in one state or another.

As soon as we look (when we make a ‘measurement’), all these probability calculations are realized. We say that ‘the wave function has collapsed’, and we mean that a single history has been chosen from among all possible worlds.  But the strangest feature of this system is that our choice of what to observe determines the way in which the wave function collapses.  This ‘complementarity’ is the result of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.  Half the information about the system is deeply incompatible with the other half.  There are an infinity of ways in which we might choose which half to observe, instantly rendering the other half meaningless.  This choice actually affects (retroactively!) the path that the Universe took to get to the state that we see now.  

You and I continue to think in terms of a single, objective reality out there, but it is only a habit of thought. We don't know any other way to cope.  Regarding our world as a quantum reality is simply too bizarre for us. 

Here is what Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog think is a more realistic reality.

29 April 2006


“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

~James Baldwin

28 April 2006

We Are Made One with What We Touch and See

We are resolved into the supreme air,
We are made one with what we touch and see,
With our heart's blood each crimson sun is fair,
With our young lives each springimpassioned tree
Flames into green, the wildest beasts that range
The moor our kinsmen are, all life is one, and all is change.

With beat of systole and of diastole
One grand great life throbs through earth's giant heart,
And mighty waves of single Being roll
From nerveless germ to man, for we are part
Of every rock and bird and beast and hill,
One with the things that prey on us, and one with what we kill

One sacrament are consecrate, the earth
Not we alone hath passions hymeneal,
The yellow buttercups that shake for mirth
At daybreak know a pleasure not less real
Than we do, when in some freshblossoming wood
We draw the spring into our hearts, and feel that life is good

Is the light vanished from our golden sun,
Or is this daedalfashioned earth less fair,
That we are nature's heritors, and one
With every pulse of life that beats the air?
Rather new suns across the sky shall pass,
New splendour come unto the flower, new glory to the grass.

And we two lovers shall not sit afar,
Critics of nature, but the joyous sea
Shall be our raiment, and the bearded star
Shoot arrows at our pleasure! We shall be
Part of the mighty universal whole,
And through all Aeons mix and mingle with the Kosmic Soul!.

We shall be notes in that great Symphony
Whose cadence circles through the rhythmic spheres,
And all the live World's throbbing heart shall be
One with our heart, the stealthy creeping years
Have lost their terrors now, we shall not die,
The Universe itself shall be our Immortality!

~ Oscar Wilde 

27 April 2006

If you will but steadfastly regard the mystery that is in you, it will eventually yield and display its secret.  When a man begins to ask himself what he is, he has taken the first step upon a path which will end only when he has found an answer.  For there is a permanent revelation in his heart, but he heeds it not...If he will take the trouble to make a deep analysis of himself, and to ponder calmly over it, he will eventually discover that there is a part of himself which receives the flow of impressions from the external world, and which receives the feelings and thoughts that arise therefrom.  This...is the unseen witness, the silent spectator, the Overself...

“The connection between mind and body is so intimate that popular thought, whether learned or not, has readily accepted the assumption that the brain is mind, and body is self, yet it is only an assumption.  It is possible that, if self-consciousness can exist separately, popular thought is mistaken and that the appearance is deceptive.  This last thought we must consider, and consider without any bias either for or against the body...

We must dig with the drill of mind beneath the attraction of the physical world, and try to find the eternal realiity which it hides...using the scalpel of keen thought, prying into your inner self, you may arrive at the tentative position that the body is only part of your self, and that the real essential source of the ego notion has so far not been traced out.

~ from The Secret Path by Paul Brunton

26 April 2006

“XV. Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations are, such will thy mind be in time. For the soul doth as it were receive its tincture from the fancies, and imaginations. Dye it therefore and thoroughly soak it with the assiduity of these cogitations. As for example. Wheresoever thou mayest live, there it is in thy power to live well and happy. But thou mayest live at the Court, there then also mayest thou live well and happy. Again, that which everything is made for, he is also made unto that, and cannot but naturally incline unto it. That which anything doth naturally incline unto, therein is his end.

Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, born this day in 121 AD.

25 April 2006

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

~ Edward R. Murrow, born this day in 1908, took great personal risks to offer American TV an independent view of their world, stood up against both the CBS management and the US government as was necessary. 

“The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.”

24 April 2006

“Of all things poetry is most unlike deadness. It is unlike ennui or sophistication. It is a property of the alert and beating heart…”

“The defining function of the artist is to cherish consciousness.”

~ Max Eastman, American journalist, poet, socialist, idealist, 1883-1969, edited The Masses and founded the Men's League for Women's Suffrage before becoming disillusioned with Marxism later in life and writing for Reader's Digest.