Book review: “What is Real”

What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum PhysicsWhat Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This reads like an edge-of-the-seat detective story about quantum physics. I never thought this subject was particularly friendly to being portrayed with this kind of drama. Most reading on sub-atomic physics is a kind of slog; a perfunctory sweat-labor with the objective of obtaining a walking around knowledge of the subject.

This book sets out the characters and the stakes involved with great narrative momentum. The assumptions behind the phenomenally successful equations of quantum physics (known as the “quantum foundations”) are exposed as unresolved philosophical issues. The questions surrounding the measurement problem (“who is doing the measuring”, “what constitutes a ‘measurer’?”, “why does physics insist on a discontinuity between laws ruling the very small and large?”) are still out there. And the fundamental ontological dilemma of exactly what is being measured goes begging.

This detective story never does find its culprit. That could be a problem for some but merely the effort to re-frame the basic assumptions and ask questions that have gone neglected through the power of the “Copenhagen interpretation” to squelch dissent turns this into a delicious peek into the politics of scientific discourse in general and physics in particular.

The book also considers the disaster that is logical positivism and the absolute necessity we face today of moving beyond excuses of solipsism, moral relativism and the primacy of a strictly measurable universe in this time of monumental crisis. The dilemma of living life as fully human and allowing for all humankind to continue to flourish hinges crucially on our ability to see where we have been misled by these pernicious philosophical assumptions.

 

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Annoyed with Naturalism

 
This idea that we are all stardust, part of the cosmic whole, non-dualistic beings ruled only by the same natural forces as matter… is starting to annoy me.
 
Not that I don’t think much of it is true. I am an avowed non-dualist, or at least I used to think so. I certainly have much more of a problem with harshly delineated mind-body or the spiritual-earthly splits. But like so much of what we reject, the rush to embrace the alternative usually involves crude apprehensions and the blunting of subtlety.
 
In reading about this “Spiritual Naturalism” I find much to celebrate and affirm as well as some significant areas of disagreement. The problems lie where all philosophic differences lie, in emphasis. When we become enamored by the notion of all-ness and embrace the blurring of distinction in alliance with some “spiritual” effort to escape mental prisons we forget something basic. Our decision to do this is mental and involves an intellect, and so a person, and so an observer/observed relationship. 
 
Another thing really grates me (this is after all a diatribe and so I’m using my “annoyed” voice here…). The Naturalists make a case for all things emerging for natural forces, including consciousness itself. I cringe when I read a sentence like:
 
“Consciousness, thought, emotion, meaning, value – all these are emergent properties of a particular arrangement of organic chemistry.”
(B.T. Newburg, “The New Copernican Shift: How Science Is Revolutionizing Spirituality” The Spiritual Naturalist Society https://snsociety.org/the-new-copernican-shift-how-science-is-revolutionizing-spirituality/)
 
I really don’t think that is true. First of all, the author is leaning too hard on the phrase “organic chemistry” as if the underlying explanatory powers in the calculations of that discipline serve the purpose of a generalized authority. I could just as easily say they are “emergent properties of math”.
 
The biggest danger we face with our search for meaning and understanding is to make materialist assumptions about matters of consciousness. The conceit of science is that all of this will be quantified and explained in terms of natural processes eventually. But what if consciousness recedes upon approach by these crude tools? What if, like our quantum physics, we will only find ways to measure and calculate probabilities without ever having to say anything about some underlying reality?
 
I’m making assertions here and I understand that. In philosophical discourse it’s always that way with metaphysics. What I never understand is the facile toying with concepts like non-duality and no-self without a experiential foundation. To enter into these things is not an armchair or TED Talk enterprise. The truth is that an encounter with these truths is devastating. 
 
Here is what I think is the case: consciousness precedes physical nature. Consciousness does not “emerge” from some set of arrangements dictated by evolutionary psychology.
 
Whatever consciousness is I’m quite certain it isn’t dependent on operatives like desire for power, or recognition, or survival.
 
Certainly our behavior is shaped by these things. But to make the leap into assumptions about things that are metaphysical using science’s lab tools of cause and effect just does not follow. And it really frosts me.
 
There. I said it. 
 
 

Book review: “How to Change Your Mind”

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics
Author: Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s nice to have your interest in a subject reinvigorated. My readings of late have rotated around cognitive science and personal transformation. Apparently those keywords must have made this book pop up. Reading it helped me re-connect my experience with psychedelics with who I am today (and probably why I keep adding books like this to my “to read” shelf).

So much of the psychedelic experience lies tantalizingly outside of our ability to form an intelligible narrative about it. This is both its bug and its feature. But the frustrations of communicability regarding my time spent unencumbered by restraints of conventional reality due to the presence of these molecules in my blood system are only the subjective dilemma writ large.

So I really appreciate Michael Pollan’s attempt at this journalism of consciousness. Talk about hard reporting. Some journalists go to war zones and put themselves in range of deadly ordinance in service of getting the story. Pollan chooses to travel to the brain on psychedelics. In both cases the challenge of getting the story is as formidable as the intimations of personal mortality.

The therapeutic benefit of this class of drugs has become a sliver of hope for me in a world that desperately needs transforming. The modern dilemma is one of scaling crisis in the face of an atomized psyche. In order to move towards a context where solutions to environmental, nationalist and even ontological problems can present themselves we will need something that resembles a trans-personal awareness.

So there is reason for hope that these drugs may play a beneficial role. My own take on them is that they can and should. And on personal reflection, having had the experience, the world has now and forever become psychedelicized; less opaque, more imbued with worth, unifying and celebratory. May we all get there in our own way.

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That Spot (the one between necessity and free will)

I’ve been suffering a recent issue with an itchy spot on my back. Right where I can’t get at it. Since no one including me seems to have a proper back scratcher anymore (did somebody confiscate all of those?) I’ve had to improvise with one of those triangular rulers that became popular at the time of America’s refusal to go metric. It works really well as a back scratcher by the way. And probably easier to find than an actual back scratcher in case you need to know.

That spot, which goes off daily like clockwork, is currently my morning companion of irritation. Kind of like an annoying relative who overstays a visit. And now it has come to also represent another resilient pest: my need to tell you what I’m thinking. Neither seems to want to just go away so here we are then.

“It doesn’t work in theory, only in practice…”. I love that phrase. Switches up the familiar order. I came across it in a description of the Church of England’s struggle with outmoded traditions and doctrines. It’s flips around the old cliche and becomes descriptively potent across a whole spectrum of habitual behavior. Like the high school prom for instance. We still return to this hidebound ritual even though its function as cotillion and precursor to marriage has long since faded. We do it even if we don’t know why.

A friend wrote a thoughtful post where he asked questions about the origins of his ethical sense since he wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household. He wondered; “Are people good because they are Christian or do they become Christian because they are good?” Great question. I tried my best to answer and promptly wandered into the nether land of the good vs evil puzzle.

But another one of his questions scratches today’s itch even better: “How much conscious choice do we have in becoming who we are?” This speaks to the question of free will. Now we’re talking about a much easier subject right? Good thing I love this stuff and have lots of time between breakfast and lunch.

We sense free will. We operate as if we have it. Then we learn that this might not be true by instruction and analysis. The science of cause and effect says “Nope”. Evolutionary psychology says “Sorry, only passing on the genes matters!”. Chemistry is action/reaction. Physics offers a small out with indeterminacy but even that is only a way to draw a line from A to B.

Another leg under free will that gets blasted away (free will is the Many Legged Beast after all) comes from the spiritual teaching of the need to release the ego. If, as the sages tell us, ego is an illusion created by the “I” that doesn’t exist, then free will is just so much salt spray on the wave of existence. Or something like that.

So am I free? Not if I have to scratch that damn itch.

And not if I have to clean the house today. But if I don’t and instead go into my studio and make something out of stuff that has no reason to exist other than I willed it to be, what is that? Tell me that I am doing it to gain attention from the opposite sex in order to propagate my genes and I’ll tell you that boat has probably sailed. Say that I am still only making art because I’m operating on a remnant of that dynamic and I’ll tell you quite plainly that while that explanation might have descriptive value it has nothing whatsoever to do with the internal dance of consciousness that is the creative process.

Maybe this is all just mental yoga. All I know is that the experience of free will is real and performs psychic and physical transformation in me. The “fact” (if you will) of determinism is descriptive and has great explanatory powers. But it is true only if it is generative and speaks to richer complexities, and not just dismissive of the valid and fully operative processes of consciousness.

Now I’m going to go lick a begonia.

Really? I was just so sound asleep.

Mark Noble as Ötzi from the BBC’s “The Iceman Murder” (2005)
 
I used to do this weird thing as a kid. I would pretend to be asleep. My whole family would be up and about on a Saturday morning and I would just lay there in bed with my eyes closed trying to convince the world that I was still sleeping. I was awake and tracking the noises around me. I was also determined not to let anything perturb me or my self-imposed catatonia. This all came back to me today in a flash of memory; my brother screaming in my ear, “Wake up Dave. Wake up!!!” And me just laying there like Otzi the frozen man.
 
And now that I am thinking about this and laughing at my stubborn resolve in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, it occurs to me that my parents didn’t get involved. Or they probably were enlisted by my frustrated siblings, stuck their head in the door and figured out the game straight away.
 
I also now think back on the perverse pleasure I got just by causing my poor brother to engage in my madness. In the tight dark world of my adolescent sleeping fantasy, I just couldn’t believe that he actually continued to try and rouse me. Once the game was on there was no backing down for me. To suddenly “wake up” would be to admit my charade. So I just lay there with my brother shaking me and screaming “Wake UP!!!” in my ear.
 
This was all seems pretty silly now. At some point after my brother would finally give up I would get out of bed and claim obliviousness to the whole incident. I would actually insist that I was just very tightly sleeping. Very, very tightly.
 
Ridiculous, right? But it was about something. Maybe it was about control. And the joy of staying purely inside myself while the world went mad trying to break in. I read this wonderful essay by Chris Higgins where he says “…we all actively shrink from the world in countless ways, to what we can use and what we can bear.”
 
When I think of it like that I recognize the powerful impulse in us to be self contained and impervious. I also recognize how this comfort zone limits my ability to sense the world, to learn from it. The philosophical stance, the awareness of our ignorance as the beginning of knowledge, can only be seen as essential to break out of this limitation. It’s about fighting like the dickens to maintain an openness, especially towards well meaning individuals with whom we disagree. Believing what we believe is not the issue. We all need to do that. We must also remain open.
 
As Higgins says:
“Open-mindedness in turn appears first as a sort of aesthetic sensitivity, a capacity to perceive the uniqueness of a complex, irreducible situation. Then it takes the more familiar forms of humility and impartiality. Finally, it seems to represent a type of integrity, a capacity to avow the stranger within and reintegrate the self.”
(from his essay “Openesss in Three Dimensions)