A Christmas message

Philosophers, mystics, and even cognitive scientists seem to agree that there is no reality, that it’s all an illusion.  The vague, ambiguous category of persons called neuroscientists will take it a step further, and insist that consciousness itself is an illusion.  If you ask them what, exactly, is it that’s having the illusion, if not a consciousness, then you’re subjected to that look that combines disappointment, concern, and pity.

And yet, If I’m driving my illusion down the road, I can’t steer it into your illusion coming the other way without resulting in the two of us having substantially the same illusion about the outcome.

On the other hand, if the whole thing is my illusion only, conscious or not, I am, in effect, God. In which case I refuse to generate a Son just to send him down for you to torture to death and then coopt for your own purposes.

Merry Christmas.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.


My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.


Fact is…

Years ago, when I was at Purdue University studying Anthropology, I was in one of those combined departments you get in a relatively unremunerative major. In this case, it was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Sociology vastly outnumbered, outspent, and generally outdid us. We were like poor relations who were allowed to live with our betters because otherwise we would have been homeless, and that would not have reflected well on the family, would it?

I had a pet peeve, of course, and it was against the sociologists, of course. It seemed to me that they spent all their time studying either trivialities (e.g., why Freshman girls pledging sororities chose the ones they did) or the obvious (e.g., whether people generally prefer to socialize with others like themselves). God knows what conclusions were gleaned from the former, but the latter almost universally confirmed what was expected. Every once in a while, they would turn up something counterintuitive, but that was seldom, and when it did happen, more studies followed up, to see if the results could be replicated.

Of course, my perceptions of the kinds of research conducted by Purdue sociologists were severely biased, and almost certainly grossly exaggerated the percentage of pointless studies. All the same, there was one significant factor about the second variety, the studies of the obvious. When such studies confirmed expectations, they were almost never revisited. In the wisdom of my youth, I thought, good, they never should have been done in the first place.

Nowadays, it seems clear to me that there is good value in investigating “common sense,” since, as the old saw goes, it is often neither common nor sense. But here’s the rub: when such studies confirm general expectations, they’re still only rarely revisited for replication. In fact lack of attempts to replicate research has become an issue across the board; just google “replication in research,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Not revisiting studies of what seems obvious probably stems from a combination of confirmation bias and reluctance to waste time and money in short supply. But the extension to studies of any kind undoubtedly relates to mundane career decisions. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s study. If you’re a junior scientist, or even a senior one, it is far better for your career to come up with something unique. Even then, you’d better get positive results, or your chances of publication are slim, and no publication means time wasted, career-wise.

And why, you’re asking yourself, does this matter? Two reasons: First, there are potentially many common-sensical hypotheses that are unsound, but are propped up by poorly designed studies, and thus become part of the scientific canon. Second, the pursuit of the trivial in an effort to avoid replication opens up science for ridicule by people with political agendas.

The remedy seems clear enough. Replication studies and negative results need to have the same status as original studies with positive results. Try convincing a journal editor or department chair of that, and good luck.