19 August 2007

The future is unknown.  Much as we bemoan uncertainty in times of fear, it is the essential quality that makes life a mystery and an adventure.

We are empowered to affect the future, the more so when we are endowed with a will and a mission, and attuned to others who are so endowed.  A sense of empowerment is healthy for our bodies and our souls.  We live on life’s bracing outer edge; we feel more energized; we better resist disease; we even live longer.

Aspects of our social and political universe conspire to make us feel powerless.  Nothing is more conducive to fatalistic fears than the certainty of death.

‘Science’, that is the dominant culture of scienctists, tells us that death is annihilation: an eternity of oblivion; but science itself tells us that death is the biggest mystery of all.  We know nothing about the nature of our consciousness, or its relationship to the brains and bodies in which we dwell.  There is credible scientific evidence for aspects of consciousness that are independent of physical embodiment, and even for reincarnation.

Death is life’s most profound mystery. 

– Josh Mitteldorf

18 August 2007

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach blossom flows downstream
and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.

~ Li Bai (or Li Po) Tang dynasty, 701-762 AD

17 August 2007

Dark matter’ is the name applied to an unknown ingredient in the dynamics of the cosmos.  Galaxies appear to be held together by more gravitational glue than can be accounted for by adding up the stars and the gas and dust from which they are made.  Clusters of galaxies have a larger problem still.  The most conservative response is to hypothesize that the extra confinement force is ordinary gravity, but from some unknown substance. 

This idea in itself is more radical than it appears, because the standard Big Bang model determines how much ordinary matter (atoms and plasmas, made of electrons, neutrons and protons) can be in the mix.  So the hypothesized ‘dark matter’ must be made of something else – something never before observed in a physics lab or a particle accelerator experiment.

So the idea of ‘dark matter’ was already shrouded in mystery before the announcement this week that it doesn’t seem to behave consistently.  Pictures have been constructed comparing the three components in a galaxy cluster, and the dark matter seems to have separated from the other two.  (The three components are galaxies, hot gas, and dark matter.)  Previously, the best accepted picture of dark matter was that it is subject to gravitational force only; now it seems to be pushed about by ‘something else’. 

What is the fundamental nature of our astronomical universe?  The standard Big Bang model may be a house of cards.

X-ray composite picture

News release from the Chandra x-ray observatory
Overlay pictures illustrate separation of the three forms of matter
Movie of colliding galaxies

16 August 2007

Forever Oneness,
who sings to us in silence,
who teaches us through each other.
Guide my steps with strength and wisdom.
May I see the lessons as I walk,
honor the Purpose of all things.
Help me touch with respect,
always speak from behind my eyes.
Let me observe, not judge.
May I cause no harm,
and leave music and beauty after my visit.
When I return to forever
may the circle be closed
and the spiral be broader.

~ prayer of the Australian aborigines

15 August 2007

“One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum, in which men steal through existence, like sluggish waters through a marsh...”

Sir Walter Scott, born this day in 1771

14 August 2007

I know that I have a soul from personal experience.  I look at you and observe that your behavior and your appearance are enough like me that I extrapolate that you, too have a soul.  But what is this thing?  What is our consciousness, our sense of self?  Is there a physical basis for it in our brains?  Or a computational basis?  Does it have to do with the quantum measurement problem?  Or does it exist in a separate, Platonic world apart from physical matter? 

We don't know.  But it is presently fashionable in the mainstream scientific culture to presume that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of computation, and that any computer program that is sufficiently sophisticated will exhibit consciousness – more to the point, it will experience consciousness. 

(This hypothesis is considered so obvious to some scientists that they don’t take the trouble to make a case for it any more...they just presume it.  Take a look at this article from today’s Science Times, in which this premise is presumed without so much as a nod.)

In the following passage, Nick Herbert plays with the alternative hypothesis:

I was talking about sensory awareness with my companion Claire, a humanoid entertainment robot freed by the Electronic Emancipation Act of 2050.  As you probably know, all robots take periodic Turing tests in which they attempt to simulate a wide variety of apparently inner-directed behavior.  A graduate of the cybernetic equivalent of Bennington College, Claire had no difficulty in passing her T tests with honors.  I asked her whether robots ever indulged themselves in sensory awareness.  Could she, for instance, concentrate all her awareness into her right middle toe?  Claire furrowed her brow, quivered her lower lip.  “Don’t you understand?” she sobbed.  “I can do anything a human can do, and lots of things that humans can’t [here Claire’s electric eyes briefly twinkled].  But my inner life is nil, a complete zero.  Any awareness I may seem to have is just your own projection.  I’m nothing [sob!] but a clever fake.”

I put my arms around Clair to comfort her.  “You’re such a lovely fake, Claire.  But why are you crying?”

“Because that’s the way I’m programmed, you idiot!”

(from Elemental Mind)

13 August 2007

God grant me the courage to sell my car.

bumper sticker for a bicycle