February 27, 2010
Here I would like to provide a wonderful documentary complied by the BBC on the story of light, and how it came to change the way we perceive the universe around us. As is the case with these stories about understanding, things are not always as they first seem… Thus I feel it is a good starting point to grasp the idea of how easily we can sometimes be deluded about things we think we know about i.e. how the physical world, human psychology and the physics of light were not as well understood – nor as easy to understand – as we first thought they were… And how the quest for understanding is about the constant revision of knowledge, rather than set dogmatic modes of understanding.
Once again… I take my hat off to the BBC. Many thanks guys and gals!
Light Fantastic explores the phenomenon that surrounds and affects nearly every aspect of our lives but one which we take for granted – light.
Light is why the sea is blue and the grass is green. Without light, there would be no life, no art – there would be nothing. Light is a necessity for human life but we are still trying to understand it…
The greatest names in science – Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Leonardo, and Einstein – have struggled to unravel its mysteries. This is the story of man’s attempt to understand the most elusive phenomenon; told through the dramatic reconstruction of events and experiments that have advanced our knowledge and broadened our understanding. From rainbows to photosynthesis, from brown skin to quantum theory, light affects everything.
1. Let There be Light
Greek and Arab scholars, and later Europeans such as Descartes and Newton all tried to understand light to gain a better understanding of God. Episode one shows how much of modern science’s origins came from the desire to penetrate the divine nature of light.
2. The Light of Reason
The second programme explores the link between the development of practical tools that manipulate light and the emergence of new ideas. For example, Galileo’s observation that the sun did not go around the earth, was made with a telescope that had been invented for Venetian soldiers and traders.
3. The Stuff of Light
Episode three charts the discovery of the true nature of light and its impact on the modern world. All of today’s technologies – electricity, mobile communications and our ability to illuminate the world 24 hours a day – stem from unravelling the mystery of light.
4. Light, The Universe and Everything
In the final programme Simon Schaffer finds that as more people were able to manipulate light, the more puzzling and tricky it became. This led to investigations into the strange relationship between light, the eye and the mind, and the development of new technology such as photography and cinema.
To find out more about the BBC, please click here.
OR to find out more about the Light Fantastic documentaries, please click here.
October 20, 2009
No doubt some of you will have noticed some unusual round dots at the top of some of the blogs contained within this website… And perhaps you might have wondered as to what purpose they serve.
But before I elude anything further about the nature of these spots, I would like to look at the definition of some words which we will need to understand before we proceed.
i. empirical method or practice.
ii. Philosophy. the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. Compare rationalism.
iii. undue reliance upon experience, as in medicine; quackery.
iv. an empirical conclusion.
i. the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.
a. the doctrine that reason alone is a source of knowledge and is independent of experience.
b. (in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) the doctrine that all knowledge is expressible in self-evident propositions or their consequences.
iii. Theology. the doctrine that human reason, unaided by divine revelation, is an adequate or the sole guide to all attainable religious truth.
iv. Architecture. (often initial capital letter)
a. a design movement principally of the mid-19th century that emphasized the development of modern ornament integrated with structure and the decorative use of materials and textures rather than as added adornment.
b. the doctrines and practices of this movement. Compare functionalism.
i. The doctrine that the function of an object should determine its design and materials.
ii. A doctrine stressing purpose, practicality, and utility.
iii. Philosophy The doctrine in the philosophy of mind according to which mental states are defined by their causes and effects.
In relation to specific doctrines:
i. (usually initial capital letter) Chiefly Architecture, Furniture.
a. a design movement evolved from several previous movements or schools in Europe in the early 20th century, advocating the design of buildings, furnishings, etc., as direct fulfillments of material requirements, as for shelter, repose, or the serving of food, with the construction, materials, and purpose clearly expressed or at least not denied, and with aesthetic effect derived chiefly from proportions and finish, purely decorative effects being excluded or greatly subordinated.
b. the doctrines and practices associated with this movement. Compare functionalism.
ii. Psychology. the doctrine that emphasizes the adaptiveness of the mental or behavioral processes.
iii. Sociology. Also called structural functionalism. a theoretical orientation that views society as a system of interdependent parts whose functions contribute to the stability and survival of the system.
From these important foundations I am now able to present an arrangement of ideas that may lead one on to a clearer understanding about the human condition… A condition that We, as human beings, are all afflicted with in our current state of being here on Earth.
In my humble opinion, much in philosophy has become overtly sophomoric. No doubt it was the Greek’s original intention for philosophy to teach one how to be content and happy in the life that we have. And, in many ways, this philosophical premise became a crusade to rid man of any unenlightened thought… Thought that had sprung from a time when mankind sought to explain the unknowable and unexplainable with “reason” steeped in magical and mystical overtones of faerie tail legend… Is it any wonder why the Greeks saw this as a big problem? For how could man become enlightened and understand his place in the world better if he was still distracted by a mixture of contradicting legends and folklore that spoke nothing of truth, reason or reality and bore very little resemblance the world that existed around him? These yarns could only serve one purpose: to distract mankind from life’s monotonous drudgery by providing him with a false/ignorant hope to go on to the end. Troubling indeed…
The Greeks made a valiant start at this purge of fanciful delights. And as they expounded their thoughts and ideas, a youthful realism began to cleave it way through the old mystical nonsense of past times, replenishing the stagnant curiosity of old, with a new invigoration gem of clear cut understanding. This new understanding allowed man to take action within the natural bounds of Universal order. Much head-way was made with Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all of whom hoped to benefit mankind with their observations of penetrating fact. Even right through to the advent of St Anslem’s ontological argument for the existence of God, the world of thought and reason grew in a holy quest for the betterment of all mankind in God’s world… For this betterment was based on an aspiration of becoming closer to our “maker,” so that we may live more pertinently to our station and find ways to rise above the base nature of animal instinct. And along the way it was duly noted that this type of betterment could only properly arise from understanding truth. So the great thinkers began to look for the truth in the simplest of nature’s systems – systems that God had made. This type of empiricism gave rise to a sort of reverse-thought-engineering i.e. observe the patterns and then describe them and realize their causes, mechanisms and purpose. Thus arose the likes of Locke, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Newton, all of whom sought truth from the hedonistic and troubled times of the Renaissance. These humble philosophers brought the human condition to a culminating point of understanding itself and our position in God’s creation. Politics, Science and Religious ideals were all discussed at length during this Enlightened period and from them refinement and the truth was distilled – thought it must be said that Religious decree during these times still held the better of people’s tongues in modest check. But as time progressed onwards, so philosophy became less guarded against the ever decreasing Religious whiplash, and eventually ventured into realms of the empty meaning of man’s true nature i.e. existentialism, phenomenology and analytic philosophy. However, during these broad-minded times, it seems almost as if the originators of their respective schools of thought have taken it upon themselves to argue every nuance of their ideologies so as to safe-guard their intellectual constructs against deceitful attack from opposing schools who would seek to undermine other’s ideals for the petty sake of embroidering their own truths in the general populous. And in unwittingly maintaining this prejudiced and superior view of their own ideals, many still forget to look to the natural world surrounding them for their inspiration, thus becoming fixated on obstinate practices of egocentric bias rather than the search for an health balanced truth and the cultivation of a real understanding about the Universe in which we live.
For me, this is where empiricism provides a sort of fail safe against egocentricity. The notion that knowledge arises from experience is of course a profound basis for developing a real understanding about the universe in which we live. If we see something occur i.e. an apple fall to the ground from a tree, and observe it occurring time and again in varying situations with varying objects, all of which fall toward the Earth… AND none which fall into the sky!? We would be forgiven for thinking that there is some kind of hold that the Earth has over objects. This profound realization of attraction i.e. that massive bodies exert gravitational pull on other bodies, while being credited to Sir Issac Newton, was no doubt observed way before an apple fell on his head. However, as Sir Newton was predisposed to making observations, he noted duly the act of an apple falling, somewhat understood the fact that the Earth was a spherical mass much like the other planets, and applied the notion of attraction to other celestial bodies and understood that a force was keeping the planets in orbit around the Sun. And after much consideration, named this force “gravity.” Most people today marvel at the aptitude of this modest man’s observation… However, in February of 1676 Newton writes to Robert Hooke to attest that, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This humble renouncing of the fame with which Newton was adorned for deducing the force of “gravity” is no doubt the sign of a reserved and well guarded scientist. For absolute certainty, while being a wondrous proclamation of self-assured understanding, is also total and absolute folly. Newton was wise enough (bearing in mind the world in which he lived) to know that “perfect-knowledge” i.e. knowledge that has total security from error, could only ever be ascribed to God himself.
Whether Newton knew about this inherent uncertainty in the way in which human beings perceive the world around them, we are not quite sure. But I feel he had an inkling towards it. How he deduced this i.e. as a fact based on empirical evidence OR if only inferred from philosophical ideals based on religious decree… Is open to debate. However, I would guess from all that I have read on the matter, psychology at that time had not been reduced to an effective and exacting form science as it is deemed to be today i.e. the idea of optical illusions – as well as the problems of perception (as discussed with regards to the table in Bertrand Russell’s book entitled “The Problems Of Philosophy“) – had still not been properly, nor fully documented. What Newton might have only guessed at (having done so after reading Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy“) was that observation was only as good as the machinery that was used to observe and deduce the facts that emanate the patterns in the “real” world around them. And if the machine is prone to deducing fact from fiction, as we have all too readily seen in Probably The Best Optical Illusion I’ve Seen In A While… And The Idea Of Priming! and Beau Lotto – Optical Illusions Show How We See… Well… Many of the deductions made by ourselves might be nothing more than fictitious notions based on the misrepresentation inherent in the architecture of our bodies resulting in illusion. So… Until we properly understand that we are prone to make decisions based on illusions, not facts, and that our idea of control and choice is to certain degree predetermined (see “The Secret You”), then we might never hope to free ourselves of the quandary that we, as human beings, continually make for ourselves.
Here I will use an analogy… At this moment in time, We (as a race) are very much like the three year old child that Rebecca Saxe talks about here. We aspire to be like the 5 year child, in that We aim to perceive the world more clearly by understanding the values of the other people around us, and we strive to determine how “accidents” and “misconceptions” occur i.e. others are either oblivious to, unaware of OR misinterpret real world events… And as we are only just three olds, we still haven’t properly grasped what the 5 year old child seems to so easily understand i.e. that Ivan the pirate didn’t actually mean to take/steal Joshua’s sandwich knowingly. Let’s bring it into context… In humanity’s case, it’s more that a divine power did not actually mean to kill all of those people with war, famine, disease, natural disasters, etc… It just happened naturally… Just as all things naturally tend to happen in this small corner of the Universal playground into which we were born. My guess is that we really had to make up the notion of a higher power than ourselves, so that we might be given the chance to somehow free ourselves of the helplessness that we all faced/felt/feared in the greater scheme of things. To not be able to control the death of those whom we love is a terrible thing indeed, as Charles Darwin all to readily understood by 1859…
Existence is not an easy thing… Lord Tennyson once described nature as “red in tooth and claw” and, with this, I feel he beautifully sums up the harshly competitive fight that all Earthly life must engage in on a daily basis. It hurts when we loose loved ones… And it seems to confuse us when we can not rationalize the misfortune that we all sometimes come across throughout the journey of our lives. No doubt we as a species have mastered much in the way of taming the needs of survival i.e. we have invented tools with which to hunt with, mastered the art of agriculture, understood the importance of fire… And above all, we can engage with one another in complex communication, via the mode of language, so that we can express abstract feelings and ideas to one another. Having done these things easily (as easily as passing down the information needed to perform these complex functions from parent to child OR teacher to student), we looked around us and noticed that animals did not act like us. No doubt, in our self-centered state of mind, based around our immediate survival, we thus concluded that We were above animals… And once we reached the top of the food chain, we became further deluded about our station. When storms destroyed our crops, we felt helpless. When disease killed our fellows, we felt defenseless. When the earth moved violently and our caves and/or buildings collapsed, we felt destitute and in need of shelter. How could we have understood the erratic flow that all weather systems here on Earth follow; weather systems that are based on the in-exact science of chaos? How could we have seen the invisible world of the bacterium and virus and known how to fight the unseen foe? And how could we have understood that the Earth is a round ball of rock still cooling from the force that created it in this inky black void of time and space, and so it will be disposed to have plate-tectonic shifts that cause sudden and violet quakes of Earth? After all… We can usually see when danger is approaching in the form of a predator and thus prepare ourselves to fend off an attack. We can see the moves of the attacker, understand their motives and weakness, and try to out manoeuver them… But when something goes beyond reason, confusion results. So why can we know somethings, and not others? Perhaps there is a force, obviously similar to ourselves i.e. clever, cunning, needy and yet absolvable in some simple way. If they are like us, then they must have appetites like ours… Appetites that can be quenched to invoke their good nature. Thus we came to the “realization” that perhaps there are these deities who could control the environment around us… And, as they were like us, in order to keep in their favour – much like the conquered keep in favour with their rulers – we offered them sacrifices to keep them appeased so that they didn’t kill us off randomly.
We fell into these deeply symbolic ways of being that allowed us to cope with the pain of life… These modes of thought allowed us to search deeply within our limited understanding of nature, and find reasons to justify the pain we felt when we lost those that we loved, or the comfort of our settled daily routines in our accustomed habitats was interrupted. For as animals, we fall into habits that are easy and sustaining… Why be a hunter gatherer who must travel endlessly, evading predators and hunting game while bringing up a family? Why not stay in one place, tilling the soil and provide for one’s family much more easily and successfully? We choose ease over difficulty. Most people do that naturally if given the choice. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t currently be seeing this Westernization of life style sweeping over the world i.e. mobile phones, supermarkets, packaged meet, central heating, education, etc…
Rarely do we question the deeper implications and consequences of our actions. Pollution, deforestation, wars, hunting, fly-tipping (evidence of which I see so much of now-a-days while working in the fields), our continual use of plastic bags at supermarkets, etc… all are signs of our own need for “immediacy.” We have to have things our way and we have to have them now. But can we sit with eternity and feel how small we are, just as William Blake once did? Can we grasp the “greater pattern” that we’re all a part of, and so guide our actions and thoughts towards a more relevant expenditure of energy and effort? Can we understand the logical progression of the social constructs within our minds that have allowed us a safe passage thus far in the history of planet Earth?
There are many questions to consider here… No doubt many of us will consider them irrelevant to their current lives. And, sadly so, they may never fully grasp the concept of what Life actually is or what it truly means to be alive. But this is okay. That they will be nothing more than the ideal consumerist meme machines operating within the parameters of conformity begged by the capitalist machine does not matter really. It’s just one way of being. No doubt there are already many casualties to the “ideal consumerist meme machine” way of being… Iceland’s economy has already collapsed and the general populace are already looking for more independent ways of sustaining themselves away from the international markets. But then there are casualties everywhere in Life. It is a natural process to loose others along the way. Thus, with some hope of awaking the sleeper lying dormant within us all, I will say this… If we carry on consuming at the rate that we are currently… AND carry on bringing children into this world… Then we really are acting out of stupidity rather than rational thought. Why? Because we are not understanding the system of the Earth that supports us all. We’re squandering and stretching it beyond its means and abilities. We have become too self reliant upon our economies and markets to provide for us. And unlike in the past, when things go wrong this time, we will not be able to use the notion of a deity to rid us our misunderstanding and stupidity. We will have to come to some painful realizations i.e. that we alone have damaged the ecology of the world around us. Many have forgotten the way of balance that the Tao speaks of. And many more forget that this world is one big nonlinear dynamical system that is prone to being highly sensitive to mankind’s own input. And element of chaos is inherent in almost all of the dynamical systems of the world. When we loose this knowing in our daily lives, we forget who we really are and where we came from. And so we forget how to properly act in relation to the truth of our situation. THAT’S FACT! So how can we re-grasp what we truly are, without repeating old memetically infectious patterns of mass consumption or deitific abandon? Do we implement a mass killing off of all of those infected with the “bad” memes, as Pol Pot’s and the Nazis’ own regimes once did, and hop to re-program the youth with better memetic drives? Hmmm. I think not…
Perhaps we should look elsewhere for inspiration, and try to counter the herd mentality with new reason based on sound logical thought? In order to do this… One place I seem to come back to time and again is the shore of hertical discourse. For there rests one philosopher in particular… A philosopher who’s much disliked views brought about his excommunication from his Religious brethren. What they failed to see were that his views seemed to balance beautifully with the moral beliefs and notions presented in the multifaceted philosophical and religious premise of Taoism… A doctrine of understand the eternal and divine nature of all things. No doubt this is rather mighty insinuation to be placed on one man. I think he deserves it none the less. For he is none other than the much overlooked and considerably underrated Barusch Spinoza.
Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza (November 24, 1632 – February 21, 1677) was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin. Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until years after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’ mind–body dualism, Spinoza is considered to be one of Western philosophy’s most important philosophers. Philosopher and historian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said of all modern philosophers, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Though Spinoza was active in the Dutch Jewish community and extremely well-versed in Jewish texts, his controversial ideas eventually led community leaders to issue a cherem (a kind of excommunication) against him, effectively dismissing him from Jewish society at age 23. Likewise, all of Spinoza’s works were listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) by the Roman Catholic Church.
Spinoza lived quietly as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honors throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions, and gave his family inheritance to his sister. Spinoza’s moral character and philosophical accomplishments prompted 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him “the ‘prince’ of philosophers.” Spinoza died at the age of 44 of a lung illness, perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis exacerbated by fine glass dust inhaled while tending to his trade. Spinoza is buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk on Spui in The Hague.
Spinoza was a bit of an anomaly as far as Philosophers go. He had the gall and vision to realize that if one were to “pigeon-hole” themselves into small boxes of “definite” reason i.e. via religious decree and social conformity, then one in essence traps all their future arguments into a logically narrowing corridor that allows no room for true expression of the eternal or divine aspect of everyday reality. Rather one will only be able to walk up and down these annals of its predefined conclusions. And this limiting scope can only provide the inventor to dig downward into a deeper pit of their own making… Eventually some might even hit a rock bottom of some kind. But, if not… Then their view of the eternal night sky above, and all its wonders, will only become more narrowed as their hole affords them an ever decreasing window to the heavens of possibility.
While (Spinoza) was not formally educated at University, he had undergone the traditional Jewish educational program of Shephardic Jewry – which stressed the study of the Hebrew language and the Biblical knowledge. Thus gave way to further study of medieval Jewish philosophers Maimonides (1140-1205), Gersonides (1288-1344), and Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410), in whose writings the whole range of Aristotelian philosophy in its medieval setting was extensively and intensively discussed. It is likely that his study of the classical Jewish thinkers raised for Spinoza doubts which ultimately mushroomed into full-scale philosophical perplexities. Perhaps it was at this time too that he began his study of Latin, a language familiar to many of his coreligionists in Amsterdam and certainly to one of his teachers, Menasseh ben Israel, who wrote several philosophical treatises in that language. However, on this point there is no certainty; a number of Spinoza biographers date Spinoza’s entry into the world of Latin letters after his excommunication – from the Jewish community. If he did know latin prior to that event, he would been able to read Descartes’ writings, and these materials would only have aggravated Spinoza’s philosophical perplexities. (Remember Descartes lived in Holland from 1628 until 1649 and that many of his writings were first published there.)
When we look at Spinoza’s vocabulary, it is indeed thoroughly permeated by the medieval-Cartesian semantics. One might then raise the question, why do people say that he was the first modern philosopher? If he was so radical, why didn’t he create a new philosophical language, as did Aristotle or Hegel? The use of traditional terminology only misleads us into thinking that Spinoza was doing the same thing as did Descartes or Maimonides. A new philosophy should have a new vocabulary.
These queries and objections are quite natural and understandable; and occasionally both beginning and advanced readers of the Ethics often wish that Spinoza had completely cut his umbilical cord to his philosophical parents. Yet, the traditional terminology has at least one advantage: it allows Spinoza to debate with his predecessors on common ground and the common language. Spinoza really wanted to sever his ties with his philosophical past. One very effective way to do this is to come to grips head-on with this burden and all its trappings and to show that it is empty in its own terms. What Spinoza does then is to take the philosophical language of his predecessors and turn it against them, by showing that if these terms are clearly understood and consistently thought through, different conclusions will follow.
Let us take one example. If, as Descartes postulated, a substance is that which needs nothing else in order to exist, then there is, as he himself admits, only one substance, God. However, Descartes goes on to say that it is permissible to speak of substances that are not totally self-sufficient and autonomous: created minds and bodies. (Descartes, Principles Of Philosophy 1:51) To Spinoza this philosophical-linguistic license leads to serious logical and metaphysical sins. In adopting Descartes’ definition of substance but by adhering to it consistently, Spinoza produces both an effective argument against Descartes and a new theory of substance and God.
taken from: Ethics – Treatise on The Emendation Of The Intellect and Selected Letters, introduced by Seymour Feldman
Spinoza, who in his youth had become a pious devotee of Descarte’s dualistic belief that body and mind are separate, eventually realized the limits imposed by this view i.e. on fracturing the human experience into intellect and emotion, one was breaking up the whole picture of Life into individual elements that did not seem to add up into the whole. Unlike Descartes, Spinoza was able to communicate his own heretical belief that distinct ideas were true, indeed they were self-evidently true. No doubt Descartes enunciated this belief; but he did not consistently adhere to it throughout his own works, which attracted some disastrous results for his philosophy, as his critics were quick to point out. This firm and unshakable conviction that truth resides in clear and distinct ideas, which man is not only capable of possessing but actually possess. And, as if this is all the justification that is needed, he goes on to say that these ideas were fertile enough to produce a complete system of philosophy which, if not the best, is certainly a true system of philosophy. Spinoza never abandoned this conviction. This intuitive knowledge about distinct ideas being true, indeed being self-evidently true, is something of great importance for me. And this is what I am to explain here. No doubt we have seen that the Universe around us already uses self-similar structures to unfold its processes with. The picture of the neuron next to the universe seems to denote that we are using similar structures of matter in the brain to understand similar structures found in nature around us… Thus the brain, which gives rise to the mind and its ideas, by using these naturally recurring structures must also generate natural processes of mind that resemble the ultimate design of Universal flow i.e. it uses God’s own building blocks to precipitate a deep knowing with. And because of this interconnected union of cause and effect, I “feel” that there might also be a deep connection between the idea of biological evolution and fractal topography. But as of yet, I fear the understanding of complexity and dynamical systems that might be needed to prove this connection is beyond our current means. Saying that, I doubt it will be impossible, and very much hope that it is something that future scientists might well demonstrate.
Just as I, Spinoza was all to aware of the proper way to do philosophy; for philosophy is a science based upon clear and precise definitions, self-evident axioms, and valid argumentation. Something I have done very little of in these blogs… Nut that is besides the point for the moment. Because in order to provide a solid base for one’s radical views, he had to play the philosopher’s game. Utilizing the geometrical method Spinoza expresses and practices his epistemological convictions as he pursues metaphysical, psychological, and moral questions. For Spinoza, one should not begin to philosophize by reporting one’s own doubts or by venting “metaphysical doubts” in order to reach certainty, as did Descartes. For this can only lead to a philosophical dead-end: doubts breed doubts. Clear and distinct ideas, however, cannot be doubted; and that is why Spinoza begins his Ethics by laying down such ideas as definitions and axioms. Indeed, for Spinoza doubt is impossible. And Spinoza’s method then becomes his philosophy.
Rather than subjecting himself to the obvious and sealed fate of religious decree, he decided to open up to his experience of Life and let intuition guide his intellect into truth… And so, even though he played the game of a philosopher, I feel he was able to avoid the sophomoric trap of egocentric focus upon himself, and was thus able to forge a deeply branching view of conscious insight into the very nature of this material world and the reality it contains for us…
Spinoza believed God exists only philosophically and that God was abstract and impersonal. Spinoza’s system imparted order and unity to the tradition of radical thought, offering powerful weapons for prevailing against “received authority.” As a youth he first subscribed to Descartes’s dualistic belief that body and mind are two separate substances, but later changed his view and asserted that they were not separate, being a single identity. He contended that everything that exists in Nature i.e. everything in the Universe, is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality which surrounds us and of which we are part. Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality, namely the single substance (meaning “that which stands beneath” rather than “matter”) that is the basis of the universe and of which all lesser “entities” are actually modes or modifications, that all things are determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex chain of cause and effect is only understood in part.
This very beautifully resembles the Buddhist theory of the Interdependent Origination of everything. According to this law, nothing has independent, permanent, or absolute existence. Everything is part of a limitless web of interconnections and undergoes a continual process of transformation. Every appearance arises from complex causes and conditions, and in turn combines with others to produce countless effects. By interrupting the causal chain at certain key points, the course of existence can be altered and effects prevented by eliminating their causes. The entry goes on to say…
His identification of God with nature was more fully explained in his posthumously published Ethics. That humans presume themselves to have free will, he argues, is a result of their awareness of appetites while being unable to understand the reasons why they want and act as they do. Spinoza has been described by one writer as an “Epicurean materialist.”
Spinoza contends that “Deus sive Natura” (“God or Nature”) is a being of infinitely many attributes, of which thought and extension are two. His account of the nature of reality, then, seems to treat the physical and mental worlds as one and the same. The universal substance consists of both body and mind, there being no difference between these aspects. This formulation is a historically significant solution to the mind-body problem known as neutral monism. The consequences of Spinoza’s system also envisages a God that does not rule over the universe by providence, but a God which itself is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part. Thus, according to this understanding of Spinoza’s system, God would be the natural world and have no personality.
This ideal that God would be “the essence of the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part,” is an ideal that I very much feel at ease with. After all, man will never be able to know the exact motion, energy, character and property of every single object and particle i.e. both galaxy and subatomic particle, exactly at any one instant. This stupendous knowledge would be such a near impossible feat of perception that only a divine being OR God who is omnipresent and omnipotent could ever Know such an all-pervading thing. This idea of the ‘infinite‘ contained in a distillation of divination is the very essence of God. If God is the total sum of all the parts of the system i.e. everything in this universe and all the parallel universes and in all the other dimensions… Then God, who is omnipotent i.e. is not subject to perceiving illusions as we “mere mortals” do, will Know “itself” perfectly and do whatever it is that it is doing and flowing into i.e. it moves naturally and all Knowingly as a collective of all the parts that it is made up of and forces that are allowing it to move and change.
The identification of God with Nature, which is reflected in Spinoza’s frequent phrase “God, or Nature,” led many of his first readers to accuse him of atheism. Nor was this accusation restricted to the unwitting only; no less a philosopher that David Hume characterized Spinoza as an “atheist.” [D. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, section 5, pp. 240-241] But as the German poet Novalis remarked, Spinoza was “a God intoxicated man”; indeed, there are passages in the Ethics in which Spinoza speaks of God with almost mystical ardor, especially in Part V. With due respect to Hume, we must say that Spinoza was no atheist. But what about pantheism? It is clear that for Spinoza no individual mode is itself a ‘God’; nor is the collection of such individual things God. God is no mere aggregate that can be divided up or decomposed; yet, each mode is collectively the “face” of God, or God exposed concretely. In this sense we cannot sever God from nature or conversely; for God is, as Spinoza stresses, the indwelling, or immanent, cause of the world, just as all the modes, individually or collectively, are in God. The total dependence of all modes upon God and the intimate and incessant causal activity of God obliterate any real gap between nature and God. Because the term ‘pantheism’ is vague and misleading, some commentators have suggested instead ‘pan-en-theism’: “everything is in God.” But, as we have indicated, this is only one side of the coin: true, everything is in God; yet God is everything too. Perhaps it would be better to avoid using both terms; neither label is an appropriate title for Spinoza’s system. Better to employ Spinoza’s own expression – ‘God, or Nature.’
But the term ‘nature’ has in this context a dual connotation. In the Scholium to Prop. 29 of Part 1 Spinoza distinguishes between two different facets of nature, which he labels Natura Naturans and Natura Naturata. Unfortunately, there are no suitable English equivalents for these technical terms in philosophical Latin. The Latin ‘natura’ derives from the verb ‘to grow,’ ‘to be born’; this in turn is derived from the Greek ‘phuo’ and ‘physis,’ from which we get the English ‘physics,’ a natural science. Reflected in this classical etymology is the idea of nature as a dynamical system of growth and activity. The phrase ‘Natura Naturans’ is a Scholastic term, in which the word “naturans” is the active participle, “nature naturing,” which for Spinoza connotes the active aspect of God, or nature. Here God is described as manifesting infinite energy, or power. The phrase ‘Natura Naturata,’ “nature natured,” however, contains the passive participle, ‘naturata,’ signifying nature as produced and referring to the modes. Nature, then, exhibits tow aspects: one productive, the other produced; yet both are different dimensions of one and the same substance, God.
Spinoza has described for us a picture of an infinite but unitary system of interrelated things and events. It is a further consequence of such a conception that all phenomena satisfy fixed laws. Nature is not only an ordered system, a point insisted upon by Aristotle and repeated by many of the medievals, but it is a determinist system. It is a world wherein not only lawfulness reigns but in which purpose is absent. And here we have another of Spinoza’s radical conclusions. His natural determinism not only precludes chance, contingency, and irregularity; it disallows our customary conception of events and things as exemplifying design and goals. Aristotle’s “natural teleology” has been completely abandoned in favor a model according to which nature “obeys” strict mechanistic laws that do not express of manifest any ultimate goals and purpose. The traditional dicta that God or nature does nothing in vain, that God does everything for the best and that there are no gaps in nature – are all reinterpreted by Spinoza in such a way that we get a totally different perspective on the world. True – God does nothing in vain; for God acts according to the laws of his perfect nature, which is true freedom. True – God does everything for the best; for everything that happens happens necessarily according to God’s nature, which is infinitely perfect. True – nature manifests no discontinuities; but that is because God acts regularly , consistently, and omnipotently. The common ways of describing natural phenomena as good for some purpose are all “fictions,” whereby man imposes his own arbitrary and limited perspective upon nature. Here Spinoza anticipates the dominant tendency in modern biology, which dispenses with teleological notions in favor of the conceptual apparatus of biochemical and biophysical theories. All of nature is for Spinoza too a system in which ultimate purposes have no sense.
Since all of nature constitutes a unitary system, indeed one substance, human nature must be seen as an integrated element within this total complex. The medieval-Cartesian attempt to distinguish man from the rest of nature, to elevate him above the rest of the animal kingdom, was seen by Spinoza as not only an illusory metaphysical extravagance but also as symptom of a faulty psychology, whose moral consequences are serious, as we shall see. Keep in mind that the title of Spinoza’s treatise is ‘Ethics,’ i.e. it is a book that is concerned with the human life and the right way to live. But there is no use in writing about ethics if we have an erroneous conception of nature in general and of human nature in particular.
taken from: Ethics – Treatise on The Emendation Of The Intellect and Selected Letters, introduced by Seymour Feldman
We must understand this need that we have had to refer to the ultimate divine flow of the natural world around us as God. For whenever we try to define God’s decree, we unwittingly separate others, with very the will of our own minds, from God’s divine flow. No doubt, when mankind was younger than we are today, He might have looked at men who had journeyed from afar and so, perceiving errors in their ways of being, been overly judgmental towards their actions and ways… For how could He understand the reasons behind something that He has never seen? For example… No doubt a man from the desert would conserve water and enjoy imbibing a bit of salt now and again… And if a man from the mountains came to the desert and asked for water because he was over heating, even though he did not look parched or really in need of water, and the desert man gave him only salt…. Wouldn’t the mountain dweller feel confused? Having never been in the desert before, perhaps the mountain dweller does not understand that salt will help him more than water… Thus because the mountain man cannot see that water is life and that his need would be better served with salt, he might presume a selfish nature for the desert dweller. Man is only as good at deducing things from his senses and his previous experiences… And if he has not experienced something for himself OR/AND if his senses sometimes mislead him to misinterpret a situation, then how can he be truly sure of anything?
If we try to ascribe a personality to something that has none, then we are violating the very definition of it. Let me use a common example of misrepresentation… One that we use daily, called “nothing.” To call nothing “nothing” is, by the very definition of naming it, making it something. And thereby it ceases to truly be nothing. In reality nothing cannot be described, as there is only an absence of everything. Nothing is empty of all measurement and meaning and devoid of any need or understanding. The very definition of zero is a deep all pervading ideal that relates to essence of God. To call God “God”, is in essence making the same mistake. When we call God “God” we are limiting the divine and eternal through man-made necessity to try to understand what God is. When mankind was young and innocent, he couldn’t help himself from doing this. But now, with the advent of science, math and philosophy, we can begin to Know and understand what we didn’t Know… Albeit indirectly by Knowing our error. When we see this, we might begin to understand how we trap ourselves into misunderstanding a thing. When this wisdom is truly learnt, one can begin to become free of one’s self, and see what the Buddhists call “samsara.”
Let us return once again to Spinoza…
In addition to substance, the other two fundamental concepts Spinoza presents, and develops in the Ethics are attribute – that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance, and mode – the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself.
Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For him, even human behaviour is fully determined, with freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. So freedom is not the possibility to say “no” to what happens to us but the possibility to say “yes” and fully understand why things should necessarily happen that way. By forming more “adequate” ideas about what we do and our emotions or affections, we become the adequate cause of our effects (internal or external), which entails an increase in activity (versus passivity). This means that we become both more free and more like God, as Spinoza argues in the Scholium to Prop. 49, Part II. However, Spinoza also held that everything must necessarily happen the way that it does. Therefore, humans have no free will. They believe, however, that their will is free. In his letter to G. H. Schaller (Letter 62), he wrote: “men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.”
No doubt we have touched on the area of free-will in a previous blog entitled “Do We Have Free Will?” And again, if we look closely, we can see that while we are lead to believe that we do have free will… Our perception and the resulting actions we chose are based on constructs of the body and mind, which are deterministic structures that are subject to laws and rules about the way they operate.
Thus, in Shirow Masamune’s “Ghost In The Shell,” when Major Motoko Kusanagi says:
“There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure, I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience.
“I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.“
…she is in essence providing the viewer with a very accurate description of how free we all actually are. We are all confined – within these organic bodies, limited by our frailty, we need air to breath and food to nourish – only free to expand ourselves within these boundaries. Basically, it is only the way in which we perceive the environment around us that affords us most of our freedom. We can choose to see it with the limitations of social conditioning i.e. we are decide to simply use the memes that are passed down to us by our religious, political or moral decrees to define and understand our world with… OR we can think deeply about this experience (without digging a deep hole from which we cannot escape, as do most philosophers) and define our own terms and ideals, within reason to our needs, and build up either a greater fiction in which to live, or develop a better understanding more suited to the world around us. Either way… The choice is ultimately ours.
Spinoza’s philosophy has much in common with Stoicism in as much as both philosophies sought to fulfill a therapeutic role by instructing people how to attain happiness (or eudaimonia, for the Stoics). However, Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On the contrary, he contended, an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion. For him, the crucial distinction was between active and passive emotions, the former being those that are rationally understood and the latter those that are not. He also held that knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it to an active emotion, thus anticipating one of the key ideas of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.
There are many such constructs that we as humans take for granted in our every day lives… We use them and talk of them as though they were real… And yet we do not understand most of their true meanings. Rather we memetically use these ideas like parrots who simply repeat the words that they hear… Their inability to understand these words holds no bearing on their ability to reproduce them and string them into a scentence that seems to make sense. They mearly copy what they hear. But if we cannot understand their true meanings, then are our babblings really as “clear-cut” as we perceive them OR think them to be? Are we articulating anything meaningful, or are we just regurgitating what others have said before in our own slightly different way?
Which brings to mind Shirow Masamune’s “Ghost In The Shell” once again… At one point, while watching a “ghost-hacked” trashman dealing with the fact that his wife was nothing more than a simulated memory implanted in his mind, Batou says to General Motoko:
“That’s all it is: information. Even a simulated experience or a dream; simultaneous reality and fantasy. Any way you look at it, all the information that a person accumulates in a lifetime is just a drop in the bucket…”
Real, certain truths are hard to know. The universe is in a continual state of flux. Most of the ultimate truths that we, as a society, think we know for sure are not really truths. Rather they are perceived truths based on a combination of empirical, rational and function interpretations about that which we have observed. Thus the truths themselves are meaningless… Many will not stand the test of time. This it is the processes which allowed us to derive these “truths” that become all important. Processes are patterns… And these understanding these patterns gives us a better idea about reality and truth. Patterns, most of which are like the nonlinear dynamical equations that Lorenz studied in his weather systems, are prone to unpredictable change. Thus, in order to understand something with any certainty, we must embrace uncertainty. Then, once we have done this, we can begin to see truth as it should be seen: something that changes with time, circumstance and varying environmental pressures.
As we have seen… Man is prone to illusion. This is a truth. And in order to See clearly, We will all need to understand the human-condition better, just as Beau Lotto is doing. Then, once we can see the loop holes in our seemingly exacted perception of the world around us, we will be able to probe deeper into what we are, why we are, how we came into being and where we derive our understanding from. Perhaps then, many of the solid, every-day truths that we take for granted may be replaced by a deeper more penetrating realism that will allow us to function better as a species i.e. we may free ourselves from the greed, hatred, mindless over-population and other self-centered desires that clutter and place strain on our delicate planet… And perhaps in ridding ourselves of these capitalist ingrained values, we might be able to implement a more caring and ecologically sound way of living and understanding that will penetrate deeply into the surrounding environment. By educating ourselves through science, we begin to see the patterns residing within the complex chain of cause and effect that occurs within the planetary ecosystem here on Earth (something which is currently understood only in very basic parts) and thus understand how it forms complex cycles that oscillate in a multitude of interconnecting, delicate nonlinear dynamical systems. Anything tugging on one side of the system will also tug on all the infinite subsets of the system, until the combined viscosity of these seeming small and insignificant changes start to effect other areas of our ecosystem, perhaps warping some important creature and their life giving process, much like the honey bee and it’s pollenation cycle, into dysfunction.
Whether we want to hear it or not… Chaos is sensitive and unpredictable. This is a truth… A truth set in patterns that repeat themselves across many scales all over this universe, and probably even beyond it too.
This is my aim… When we are able to See some obvious patterns at work, we might be able to understand their flow. And having see the divine, we then might be able to see the natural flow that precipitates Life in the universe. For when one understands the complex interplay of all the forces of matter, the electro-magnetism lying central to these forces, as well as the principles guiding them – and do so all once – one can begin to see the flow of chaos and probablity, just as Boltzmann once saw it. And when we see this tide, and understand the workings of the human mind better, we will be able to separate certainty from the not-so-obvious stories and faerie-tales that man made-up long ago to explain his existence in the dark and unenlightened past. Within these blogs lies a system of empirical truths that can set you on a path that will lead you away from the socially confusion of everyday life… Only if you so choose it. For I’m not asking you to change… Rather, what I’m implying is that your effort to remain what you are is what limits you. And in a time when chaos and a deeper understanding provide humanity a freedom within the confines of old dogmatic ideals… Well… Wouldn’t you feel obliged to move on into new dizzying hights of understanding? So that you can provide a better life for your off-spring, without upsetting the delicate planetary ecosystem that supports us all… And ecosystem which is precisely based on chaotic ebbs and flows??? OR… Do you want to ignore the sacrifices that We all, as organisms here on planet Earth, have made on our journey thus far to reach these dizzying hights of being? Because by wrapping ourselves up in “consumerist delight” and ignoring this pattern of Life, we are stagnating into a habitual order… An order that is only doomed to fail in a Universe that undergoes continuous change.
As the Puppet Master said in “Ghost In The Shell”, “Life perpetuates itself through diversity, and this includes the ability to sacrifice itself when necessary. Cells repeat the process of degeneration and regeneration until one day they die, obliterating an entire set of memory and information. Only genes remain. Why continually repeat this cycle? Simply to survive by avoiding the weaknesses of an unchanging system.” If we do not change, then how can we grow? Do not become complacent with what you have now i.e. this never ending supply of food that many of us take for granted here in the Western world… It is not sustainable!
- “Chaos often breeds life, while order breeds habit…”
And so I’ll move on to the point of this blog… No doubt those of you who have read some of the other blogs within this website will have noticed some rather strange circles that were included at the top of some of the blogs? To be exact, there were eight in total…
Let us discuss these points once again very briefly so that we can understand what each of them was directing our attention towards:
Here we can begin to understand the process of the stars i.e. how the solar system that Earth exists within came into being. I provide as much evidence as science has afforded me to demonstrate the idea of accretion and planet formation in as clear and concise a way as possible. We even have the chance to understand the types of stars that form, their respective life spans, and therefore we can begin to glimpse how improbable that it was that our solar system came about in the way that it did.
In this blog I begin to address some important points about how Life, once the Earth had formed and cooled down from the immense forces of accretion, possibly came about. It demonstrates how easily amino acids can come into being i.e. a simple result of methane, carbon dioxide and electricity arcing through the atmosphere, and also demonstrate that complex hydrocarbon molecules form easily around stars as they ignite. We then move on to see probably the most fundamental natural process that demonstrates how life could have easily come into being i.e. the naturally occurring formation of lipids bilayers in water, which easily close into vesicles. We then look at the first fossil records and notice that a single type of cyanobacteria, called “Stromatolites,” existed 2 billion years after the Earth’s formation…
Here I provide nothing more than an article that I found in the Los Angeles Times on 31st July 2009 which raises some very important issues concerning human understanding and the evolution of religious ideals within society.
In this blog I present an atricle from New Scientist magazine that discusses the idea of what constitutes Life as we know it. Here we see how scientists are about to herald the second genesis of Life… A genesis that man has nudged in the right direction. From the simple organic matter that is found everywhere in the universe, science is now only moments away from recreating a similar organism to the first single celled organisms that took a foot hold here on Earth over 2 billion years ago.
Sir Roger Penrose offers a humbling and honest look into what “reality” really is. This constitutes the basis for our own experience of Life, and clearly demonstrates how each of us can be subject to imposing their own beliefs and notions onto what reality really is.
Susan Blackmore provides here very deep and penetrating look into what We, as human beings, are… In many ways one may find this the most troubling point of all. But ultimately, when one lets go of one’s egocentric delusion, it will become clear how natural and sound an explanation this observation realy is. Once we understand the delicate nature of how easily we can be led into making decisions, then we can begin to ask the important question about how this occurs?
Are we really as free as we think we are? In this blog we can begin to understand how and why the notion of free will is really nothing more than an illusion founded on misunderstanding. This important point paves the way to understanding how your freedom arises and how you can begin to untie yourself from dogmatic ideals as perceive new horizons of being.
The last of these points is probably the most important. Here Beau Lotto examines the human condition of Seeing, and demonstrates that we are more prone to illusion than we care admit. This will be the last humbling reminder that we should need to know that certainty is nothing more than a delusion between what we sense and what is really there. No doubt this delusion is very handy, for it allows us to navigate the dangers of the world very accurately so as to ensure our survival. However, there are aspects to this delusion that we must grasp in order to make better and more adequate decisions about what we can do to ensure our long term survival.
These are the points so far discussed. And I should mention that there is a key to deciphering what they show us… This key lies in their arrangement. Once in their respective places, one might begin to see the boundaries in which we are free to expand ourselves.
Remember not to look at the finger that is pointing towards the open sky… For looking at the finger is to miss the point in heaven that it is directing your attention towards.
September 24, 2009
These are certainly not my own words… Though I have replaced my own name within their framework of wisdom. And there is a reason for doing this…
Having read Toporek’s own enlightening essay “In Praise of Uncertainty” only a few days ago, I felt great relief from a heavy unknown burden that had been inflicting great trouble over most aspects of my daily life… A trouble that I had been trying to resolve within my own being for sometime now.
You see… Being a meme machine, and understanding my own suseptability to conform to the unspoken norm of the every-day consumer life in which I must function and survive, as well as the chaos inherent in any nonlinear system, I found myself entering into paradoxes of mind… Paradoxes that I somehow recognized from Kurt Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems. However, my understanding about paradoxes was strictly limited to the logical axioms of mathematical and philosophical abstaction. I had no exerience with porting over these paradoxes to express ideas within the social bounds of my own life… How did Gödel’s ideas relate to my own troubles and plight.
No doubt it takes great courage to face one’s own demons… But it also takes devout persitence, as well as a deep penetrating honesty about one’s own ways of being… For without these two extra ingedients, to know what those demons truly are, would be impossible. To simply be courageous and jump into battle without any idea about the motives and mind of one’s opponent is for certain nothing more than great folly… A folly where one’s success is left to the winds of chance and presumption.
And having pondered deeply over these inner turmoils, as chance would have it, Toporek’s essay jumped onto my screen late one night as I Stumbled through the internet by chance, only with a vague guidance from the predefined parameters of my initial choosing. And having drunk in the wisdom within his pages, I began to realize the reason for this heavy feeling of miunderstanding that I carried around with me… Why the eternal golden braid just didn’t seem so eternal and golden as I Knew it was meant to be…
“Uncertainty” was the key to my freedom. And the chains were my unquestioning participation in the usual memetic social conditioning that most of us adhere to. There is no certainty… Certainty is like trying to predict the flow of a nonlinear dynamical system. As system where the highly sensitive dependence on initial conditions meant any idea I stated with certainty, was nothing more than a chance to define an illusion in a world of chaotic flow.
To understand one’s role in this game of chance, one must embrace the knowledge of chaos. For within its warm embrace, lies deep furrows of eternal patterned delight… Patterns to enthralling that their beauty transcends any words that might try to describe them. For within these patterns lies the essence of the Tao…
And, as if to Know and Embrace this Wisdom that Toporek helped me to discover, I just had to copy out his beautiful flow of words and add my own name in there as an affirmation of this freedom of Self.
“So, tell me Karl, what are you going to be when you grow up?”
As a child, it always bothered me when an grown-up asked me that question. And being so young and naïve, I didn’t know exactly why it bothered me so much… But today, with a little more headroom on my shoulders, I think I’m beginning to understand why it did, and still does, bother me…
The only absolute certainty is uncertainty itself.
According to legend, it was this assertion that prompted the Delphic Oracle to recognize Socrates as the wisest man in Greece. Socrates replied that he possessed no wisdom whatsoever, but paradoxically the Oracle interpreted his unapologetic acceptance of ignorance as evidence of great wisdom. The pride of many prominent Athenians was wounded by the idea of being ranked below this self-proclaimed ignorant, so he was accused of corrupting the young, and was sentenced to death by poisoning.
2,000 years after Socrates’ execution, at a point in time between the birth of Descartes and the death of Kant, the West became helplessly enamored with certainty. Calculus became the fundamental discipline that helped us understand and define reality with great accuracy, even when it was ineffective at amicably resolving the battle between Leibniz and Newton regarding its discovery.
According to Lao Tzu, what is true can’t be described, but after Newton’s discoveries of gravity and the laws of motion, it was hard not to be convinced that reality could be outlined and explained through scientific exploration. Newton was followed by Bernoulli, Coulomb, Avogadro, Fourier, Faraday, Kelvin, Joule and Maxwell, and with every new discovery the certainty that the universe could be completely understood through the reductionism of equations grew ever stronger. The prevalent scientific posture after Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism was that at the end of the 19th century “all the great physical constants would have been approximately estimated, and the only occupation left to men of science would be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals”. Of course history had different plans, and a new batch of scientists that included Curie, Rutherford, Planck, Einstein and Bohr proved that the universe was not that simple to figure out. Radioactivity, the equivalency between energy and matter, the relative flow of time, and light behaving as both wave and particle were a few of the new discoveries. During the 20th century each new finding increased the level of uncertainty, but the final blow to the dream of absolute scientific determinism came in 1926, when a young German physicist proved that it was impossible to know the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. At the age of 25, Werner Heisenberg formulated the Uncertainty Principle, laying the foundation of what became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The implication of this discovery was that unpredictability ruled at the fundamental level of subatomic particles. The principle imposed a very real physical limitation on human knowledge, one that could not be overcome by technology. At an elementary level, scientists were doomed to predict only probabilities, never actual outcomes. Einstein strongly disliked this conclusion and died trying to disprove it, but years of experimental consistency confirmed his worst fears: God does play dice.
In 1932 Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Since then, the description of reality has only gotten stranger and more uncertain. Some of the latest scientific breakthroughs, like the discovery of Quantum Entanglement, seem to imply that not only is time an illusion, but locality as well. Recent discoveries by Leonard Susskind, Juan Maldacena and Ed Witten support the idea that we live in a holographic universe and that, despite its apparent solidity, objective reality does not exist. According to the Holographic Principle, objective reality is just a mirage created in our brains based on sensorial input; its our way of interpreting an otherwise undifferentiated, infinitely interconnected and splendidly detailed hologram. In this universe, all aspects of reality are merely interpretations relative to the observer, making it impossible to reach any kind of universal certainty.
It took 2,500 years, but Socrates was finally vindicated: The only absolute certainty is uncertainty itself!
So now we return back to this troubling question… “So, tell me Karl, what are you going to be when you grow up?” As I grew older I would get the same uncomfortable feeling when, at a job interview, I was asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I even found it utterly uncomfortable when a priest prompted a young couple to promise eternal love to each other.
At some point I started to realize that, in most cases, the people asking me these questions were just trying to satisfy their own expectations with my answers, and that very often I would provide the expected response just to keep them at ease. Many of the people striving for certainty just want the confirmation that their particular belief system is legitimized; confirmation that a son will be a doctor and not an ballet dancer, confirmation that a partner will never behave in a way that may threaten the marriage, confirmation that a couple’s public commitment will continue to validate the church’s authority.
Today I know that the uncomfortable feelings those questions arouse in me had little to do with any particular answer, and a lot to do with the questions themselves; that I do not want my future to be seen as a means to validate someone else’s expectations, that by answering I am turning myself into a potential liar, and that the only honest answer to such questions is, and should have always been, I DON’T KNOW. Any other answer would represent a self-imposed compromised fate, a voluntary limitation of my own freedom, an imposition of countless personal and communal hopes and fears over the limitless possibilities of reality.
I DONT KNOW may not be the most romantic or reassuring answer, but it is often the most honest. Unfortunately more people today want to be right rather than honest. Through schools, temples and popular culture we are taught to perceive certainty as a virtue. The preacher narrates Biblical events as if he had experienced them himself, and talks about the afterlife as if he had already been there and back; the science teacher talks about subatomic particles as if he had actually seen them; and all over the world celebrities are admired for their apparent confidence and self assurance (heck, if Bono gets behind this cause it must be important). Recently we have experienced a string of international leaders that are far more concerned with appearing to be right than with actually doing the right thing.
Religion manufactures certainty from the past and imposes it over the present, while present science places its faith in future technologies to increase its own certainty. Everyone holding a position of authority refuses to display signs of ignorance for fear of appearing weak or conceding.
I am not afraid of doubt, but I am terrified by the recent resurgence of certainty and fundamentalism. Doubt can bring about humbleness, while certainty can lead to arrogance. Some of the most horrific episodes in history are those involving arrogant madmen.
Instead of allowing perception to be informed by experiential reality, a madman will try to force reality to conform to his prejudice. He will try to impose an order on reality and will attempt to destroy any element that challenges such order. But chaos is the reality of nature, while order is just the dream of men. Inevitably, one man’s dream will become another man’s nightmare, and our attempts to impose an artificial order on reality will often end up in despair and destruction.
Expectations are futile, control is a painful illusion, we are made of uncertainty. Let chaos be and order will naturally emerge; strive for order and you will live in chaos. How do I know this?
I DON’T KNOW…
If you would like to find out more about Toporek and his work, please click here.