Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frankenstein in Chains, Science Restrained.

Why do people fear scientific research? When, if ever, should research be curbed? Marcelo Glieser has posted an interesting essay on Fear of Science over at Harmonice Mundi.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Harmonice Mundi: The Work Begins

Greetings All.

So a new project has begun! Together with some scientist and science journalist colleagues I am starting a new project dedicated to exploring science and its proper context withing culture and the human experience of a sacred. Together with KC Cole, Marcelo Gleiser, Ursula Goodenough and Staurt Kauffman I invited everyone's participation.

The new blog is called Harmonice Mundi: Cosmos and Culture in Context and we will each be contributing. The topics will be familiar ones to those who have read the posts here but will range over a larger set of possibilities.

Please come by and join the conversation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where do Facts Live?

It has been a while since I have been able to post. My research group recently received a large grant from the DOE to use fusion machines to study astrophysical jets. Getting things started on that grant along with the other equally fun and challenging science projects my group is involved with has been eating my blogging science/religion/philosophy brain.

(For those interested in the use of fusion machines to study astrophysical phenomena - a subject which relatively new and very cool you can check out this link)

In my continuing research for the new book I have, however, been playing with some ideas that are new to me and I just wanted to share one of these on this fine fall morning (in upstate New York at least).

The hallmark of popular notions of science is the belief that it gives us access to an objective world. For most people science is about facts - Newton's constant G, the mass of an electron, the wavelength of blue light. These facts and their manipulation through theory have given science its power of the world and over our lives.

Traditional religious life also has its "facts" though in this domain the certainties are "derived" from scripture. The hallmark of popular notions (and practice) of religious life is a certainty in these facts of a "spiritual" universe.

The conflict of course comes because of the differing ideas of what a fact is and how it is derived. As a practicing scientist I am much enamoured with the potential to overthrow existing theories (and their interpretation of facts) in ongoing empirically based investigations. This is something that is rarely built into the structure of a religious institution. Still what I am struck by is the ubiquity of the human need for facts, for a supposed solidity in discreet chunks of knowledge. This is not a surprise of course. Our little lives are rounded by a sleep, as Shakespeare said, and the twin darkness's capping our experience make life both weird and scary. Certainty would be great if it were possible. But is it? And what price to we pay for imagining it to be so?

In the that vein I wonder how much we lean on the certainty we think science gives us as a crutch, a replacement, for the certainty which is now more difficult to maintain through traditional religion (this is related to the point Walker Percy makes in Lost in the Cosmos). For me the real radical promise of science is not its certainty but its constant creativity, its demand that we be willing, forever, to upend our most cherished beliefs. There have been many philosophies (and some religions) that emphasized the point that life is flux. Is this a place to ground our groundlessness?

Now clearly there is a world out there pushing back but... Are we demanding more of our predicament when we imagine that we can imagine the horizons away? Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security that we were never meant to have.

Just thinking out loud...

On a separate note I will try and post once a week for the foreseeable future. Hopefully on Mondays mornings. (its good to have a deadline even if its one you invented for yourself.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

No Finality for the Final Frontier

Time to give up on manned space travel for a while?

I have been thinking a lot about this since the Augustine report was issued a month ago. The report, commissioned by the Obama administration to examine the future of the "Space Program", was unusually blunt in its assessment of the nation's direction in space. In essence the answer was "nowhere." The commission came to the conclusion that given typical levels of funding, NASA was simply not going to be able to achieve any of the lofty goals of getting back to the Moon or on to Mars. Since the levels of funding are not likely to get higher anytime soon (especially in this economic climate) the comission seemed to say something like "figure out something else to do but stop pretending we can have both grand and achievable goals."

As someone who is part of the NASA astrophysics research universe I have always wondered why the humans-in-space part of the NASA budget seemed so essential when the robots-in-space part was doing so well. Its hard to argue that the Hubble Space Telescope has not had a huge impact on the public perception of NASA and US science. While I certainly want to see a permanent human presence in space, the lack of clear direction (the Space Station is clear example of a clear lack of direction) of that very expensive effort made it difficult for me to understand the never-ending cuts in the astrophysics/space science aspects of NASA's work.

Now, with the Augustine commission's report, it seems like the potential to at least address the issue realistically will hover out there for a bit.

What would it mean to give up, for a while, the manned program? Would it be a loss of something mythic and necessary? Would it be the first step in giving up completely like the Chinese fleets poised to discover the new world and then called back to be burned by a xenophobic emperor? Could it, on the other hand, be the first step in figuring out a rational, realistic plan for a human presence in the extended solar system (rather than just low earth orbit).

I for one think it would be better to have a long term workable plan than another pie-in-the-sky vision that everyone knows will never be funded. And in the meantime we could use a fraction of that money to find extra-solar planets, search for gravitational echoes of black-hole collisions, watch new stars being born, drill for life on Europa etc etc etc. All the cool things possible from space via telescopes and robotic probes.

I for one am ready for that kind of trade off.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Machine Time: Gains and Losses

From Time by Barbara Adam

As it melded into our social relations, decontextualized and disembodied, clock time facilitates an acute present orientation and a sense of distance, disconnection, independence even from the physical world and external influences. When machine-time, which has no consequences, no cause and effect, no accumulation, no irreversibile change, no memory and no purpose, is employed as a synchronizing and organizational tool, an illusionary set of temporal relations are set in motion that become real in their lived consequences. In factories, people become synchronized to the clock-time rhythm to be treated as appendages of the machine. The machine time gets elevated as the norm to which they are expected to perform. Children are educated in accordance with its mechanistic beat. Public life is regulated to its invariable rhythm....

All times are equal under the clock. Time created to human design irrevocably changed the human-time relation. The ultimate transcendent and recalcitrant became malleable and manageable. It yielded to human control. With its aid, moreover, unprecedented rationalization and undreamed of levels of efficiency in productivity and social organization were achieved.

This is the change we are heirs to. So much gained. So much lost. Now, perhaps, we must find some middle way, some sanity in place and duration that sustains and maintains all we are capable of.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Deep Ecology of the Self

I just spend a couple of days solo camping in the Finger Lakes National Forest (NY State rocks!). OK, so it was solo car camping. But still, you know, there might have been a bear or at least a really angry squirrel out there.

The time alone and the hikes got me thinking again about Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos" and his cogent analysis of the dilemma of the self-conscious self. Just to recap from a couple of posts ago: Percy looks at the fundamental problem that all of have - bound in time as self aware beings for whom our own nature, our own core being, must remain forever opaque to ourselves. In response to this problem we have, over time, tried different strategies to deal with the dilemma. In various ways we have tried to create meaning, sense and a lived experience of connection with the world. There is a high feeling in us that reaches out to the Universe we find ourselves born into. From that core experience we have tried, with varying degrees of success, to find union with the world via religion, art and science. But for us "moderns" each approach alone has been found wanting. Each one has led to an inevitable sense of disappointment, both individually and for the culture as a whole.

In a discussion with the friend who led me to this book I began thinking about what might be possible now, at this fecund moment in history. In my book I was arguing for ways that science can reveal a sacred character of human experience. In light of Percy's unpacking of the problem, I think what might be needed, and possible, is an approach which might be called "Deep Ecology of the Self". Deep Ecology is a philosophical approach to setting humanity into its planetary context. It takes the idea that all life has inherent value and that, in light of this value, we must dramatically rethink our approach to human interactions with the rest of the global ecosystem. Links have been drawn between the stance of the Deep Ecology and the philosophy of the 17th century dutch thinker Spinoza with his identification of God with the natural world (that is a very coarse simplification). I include a link to the Wikipage on it Deep Ecology here.

One of the relevant principles of Deep Ecology is the tenet that:

"appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great."
How does this relate to the self and its dilemma? Our problem as moderns is that we are unmoored. Science has shown us the grand scale of the Cosmos and then, supposedly, told us that we don't matter for dog poo in it. Most traditional religions have been trotting behind science trying to understand where traditional scriptural-based beliefs can fit into the intricately woven natural world science uncovered. The self, each of us, falls between the cracks. We are desperate for meaning but denied recourse. Deep ecology tells us that life in its context has inherent value. Without debating the merits of this proposal (which I think we all intuitively feel) you can see how the self might find its proper home with the Universe this world-view recovers. Each one of us is not a master of the Cosmos given the world to do with as we wish (be fruitful and multiply, etc etc). Instead we are of-the-world. Embodied in salt-water tears and the sweet fragrance of our young children's' kisses. No different, no better, no worse than the rest of life.

This approach holds great promise to me even as the mere sketch I provide here. It can hold the truth of science's understanding from astrobiology to genetics to social dynamics. It can hold our deepest spiritual yearnings for connection, place and meaning. It echoes what Stuart Kauffman has written in the Reinvention of the Sacred and it stands alongside all that the movement towards sustainability asks of us.

We have a home. We have a place. We have just forgotten it. Now, as we face the challenges of climate change and resource depletion, we can remember and rebuild self and society to honor both.

Please feel free to share this column with others but please cite the source.
Thank you!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Time Became Money

I am doing research for the new book and reading the most amazing material on the emergence of modern time consciousness in Europe of the Middle Ages. The key development was, of course, the distribution of public clocks. The beginning was the town square - the bell tower. Then, as the centuries progress, clocks make their way into manufacturing institutions and homes and finally onto our bodies in the form of pocket watches. The transition was slow but with it came a sweeping, radical and all encompassing re-imagining of time that has accelerated into the crazed life-in-15-minute-intervals human universe we inhabit today.

Perhaps the most important transition in all of this was the lifting of time from the natural cycles of daylight and human or animal work/exhaustion. In its place came an abstract time, the hour was a unit devoid of context and with this stripping of embodied duration came the ability to turn time into a commodity. Time could become money in a simple equation that equated two abstract de-contextualised units (duration and currency). So began wage slaving and the world, our world, has never been the same. Time economies emerged and with it a wave of "isms": Taylorism; Marxism; Existentialism (no, I don't think the last one is a stretch).

Now here comes the interesting point - that same abstracted time was the very lifeblood that allowed the new science of Newton, Laplace and others to recreate both heaven and Earth in the image of a powerful all-encompassing universal physics. The time of celestial mechanics and the time of the mill worker were the same - both new, both invented, both transformative.

Human invention and human discovery. Cultural artifacts and scientific truth. How do these overlap? Does one always lead the other or can they change places like horses on the track?

Please feel free to share this column with others but please cite the source. These things take work after all.
Thank you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Have

I have been traveling for a while; a book reading in Chicago; meeting with a former grad student in SF;a great drive up the west coast to Seattle. I never cease to be amazed how beautiful and varied the US is from one side to another. The trip gave me time to meet some great people, have some very far reaching conversations and read from some unexpected sources. There is one book in particular that I want to pass along.

Lost in the Cosmos by the novelist Walker Percy is a faux self-help book which is, actually, a highly insightful exploration of the problems of the self. Using a series of self-tests written with tongue firmly held in cheek Percy unpacks the fundamental dilemma of being conscious through the slippery and ever shifting nexus of "the self".

A couple of quote from Lost in Cosmos
As soon as the self becomes self-conscious - that is aware of its own unique unformulability in its world of signs - from that moment forward it can not escape the predicament of its own placement in the world.

The self in a world is rich or poor accordingly as it succeeds in identifying its otherwise unspeakable self, e.g., mythicaly, by identifying its otherwise unspeakable self with a world-sign, such as a totem; religiously, by identifying yourself as a creature of God.
But totemism doesn't work in a scientific age because no one believes, no matter how hard he tries, that he can become a tiger or a parakeet.
In a post-religious age the only resources of the self are self as transcendent and self as immanent.

You don't have to agree with all Percy says to see sharp point of his emphasis. Assuming we are the only species on the planet which has granted this evolutionary gift of self-consciousness and, acknowledging the precarious position our use of this gift has placed us in, Percy's insights are timely and useful.

My special thanks to Scott for pointing me to this book.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sixty Symbols: Figures of Physics

The last post was very long so this one will be very short. My friend Robert Pincus (cloud physicist and gastronome) recently forwarded this site called Sixty Symbols to me and I think its wonderful. Produced by the University of Nottingham its an innovative attempt to take people through the world of symbols in physics and astronomy.

There are separate video clips for a range of physics' most important symbols. Things like

z: cosmological redshift
h: Planck's constant (quantum physics)
c: the speed of light

and lots of others which occur in fonts I don't have access to.

The symbols of physics carry a kind of compressed meaning which can reach an almost poetic level sometimes. I have always found equations profoundly beautiful because, like poems, there is an economy in which just a few short strokes of the pen embraces entire universes of dynamics, relation and potential. It is interesting to note in this regard that Wolfgang Pauli dreamt in the symbols of physics. In his 30 year long correspondence with Jung he came to believe that these symbols were like archetypes in their own way (the history of physics has yet to absorb this side of Pauli's life). Pauli saw the symbols as almost mythic in their ability to embrace the world. That might be going too far but if you think there is something unusual happening in poetry then one can argue the same characteristics of mind and the world happen in mathematical physics as well.

I hope you enjoy the site. I am slowly working my way through the videos. Some are better than others but the idea is a grand one indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

After the Race: Futures in Space Real and Imagined.

On December 19 1972 Apollo 17 lifted off the launch pad on a pillar of flame. As the crushing weight of acceleration pushed the three astronauts into their seats neither they nor anyone else could guess that this would be humanities last trip to the moon. Just two and half years after Neil Armstrong’s small but epoch making step onto the lunar surface, Apollo would be canceled for lack of interest. Three more missions had been planned. They were all sacked as Congress and the President contented with a failed war in Vietnam and domestic unrest at home. The times were changing.

In the three decades which followed Apollo, NASA continued to achieve stunning successes in the domain of robotic exploration. Jupiter and Saturn were explored from orbit. Mars was visited by a flotilla of spacecraft including robotic landers. The Hubble Space Telescope and other orbiting astronomical platforms opened unimagined windows onto the Cosmos. These were all tremendous and lasting achievements. They may, in fact, be our nation’s most important contributions to science. Still something seemed missing. For many observers, the conquest of space by robots, irregularly shaped boxes of electronics with solar panels, seemed less than what the great visionaries of the 20th century had in mind. In the decades since Apollo something seemed lost. The dreams of lunar colonies, Mars expeditions and a burgeoning interplanetary culture waiting just ahead of us were differed to a later date.

It was in the arena of manned space flight that the vision stalled. After Apollo, NASA and the other space agencies focused not on the conquest of space, but merely on the exploitation of Near Earth Orbit. NASA’s manned effort went into the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. Both these projects were ambitious technologically but lacked the clear focus and larger vision of Apollo. In the case of the Space Station it was hard for scientists and the public to understand what the expensive, decade long project was built for other than doing it “because we can” and because it gave contracts to aerospace corporations. A growing sense of drift enveloped the manned space program throughout the 1990s. When the Shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2002 killing all on board it was on a mission whose scientific objectives including “mixing paint with urine in zero-gravity, observing ant farms, and other comparable activities—all done at a cost greater than the annual federal budgets for fusion energy research and pancreatic cancer research, combined.”

The loss of an ambitious vision for human space exploration can be seen as the loss of a greater myth for the future. It is no surprise that the cancellation of Apollo paralleled a change in the stories science fiction. At about the same time the manned space program stalled, our narratives of possibilities began to shift their emphasis. Science fiction always responded to the realities around it. Looking at its imaginings we can chart a similar arc from an ever expanding future to a diminishing sense of constraint in the midst of high technology.

The USS Enterprise of Star Trek and the giant Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program where born of the same mythic vision of who we were and what we might become. In its particular manifestation, Star Trek was a creation unique to the United States and to western civilization in it’s the long trek from the first Greek scientists to the dreams of Enlightenment rationalists. It doesn’t take a PhD in cultural studies to notice how closely Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets looks like a United States of the Universe. Still, its grand imagining of a united human future free of (internal) warfare and endless exploration was compelling. It captured the optimism embodied by the Apollo program. While the show was canceled after a few seasons it would go on to become iconic, the perfect representation of the grandest vision of what science might allow us to become.

Star Trek was, of course, not the only dream of a boundless future which awaited us as scientific advances opened the doors to the conquest of space. In fact it was a culmination of that dream. Throughout the 20th century science fiction books and movies charted the landscapes of imagination and many of its mappings showed us worlds of pure promise. In the wake of World War II and the stunning advance of science, the fiction in these science fiction stories began to seem less insular, less the domain of geeks, and more part of a collective cultural dream. The pervasiveness of its images in popular culture made it into a shared myth.

The classic “Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov was a good example of post-war optimism in what the human expansion of space would mean. Published in 1949 Asimov’s trilogy went on to sell millions of copies and spawn a continuing series of sequels and prequels. In Asimov’s future the Milky Way Galaxy has been entirely colonized by humanity. A billion inhabited worlds support a human population of 100 trillion souls. In was not a utopia. The cycles of civilization, with their rise and fall, operated even in galaxy spanning cultures. In spite of these “realities” Asimov had captured the essence of the myth of a boundless future by presenting readers with a vision of nearly infinite human expansion. We would continue forever.

What tied these fictional Universes together was their background of shiny omnipotent technology. The main characters lived on massive, powerful starships. Every ship had its crew of technicians standing before banks of blinking lights in perfect control of machines that could navigate the void or shape worlds. The Universe still contained dangers in these stories (often driven by our own inescapable flaws) but what mattered for the myth of the future was that humanity had left its nest. We had become something more, something greater.

Throughout the 1960’s a kind of standoff had been achieved between visions of a boundless space-faring future and the apocalyptic nightmares of nuclear war. Even with the grave and ever-present danger of nuclear conflict, the culture of post-WWII America and Kennedy had been one of hope. Apollo had been the most concrete manifestation of that optimism in where our future might take us. By the early 1970s that hope had begun to fade and with it new, more claustrophobic visions of the future began to emerge. In time these would come to dominate the science fiction landscape. Shiny utopias gave way to the dirty futures of dystopia.

The first earth day was held on April 1 1970. Eight years before that Rachael Carlson had published “Silent Spring” a warning that pollution and pesticides where damaging the natural world. The first visions of environmental degradation entered cultural consciousness just as Apollo was winding down. Other threads were then woven into a changing vision of the future. During the 1970s the United States experienced two oil shocks. For the first time people confronted the possibility that the fossil fuel party they had been attending for seven or eight decades might not continue indefinitely. The loss of US industrial prowess to Japan, Germany and others and the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis drove hope into cynicism. In spite of renewed economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s concerns about environmental degradation continued with global warming beginning to impinge on popular consciousness. Even the engines of growth in 1980s and 90s drove fears that manifested themselves in science fictions’ vision. While globalization, biotechnology, and the rise of computer networks allowed some imagine new futures of unlimited frontiers, others saw something far more forbidding. In popular consciousness it seemed that something had turned. The most pervasive visions of the future seemed stuck in an ever descending spiral.

One particularly influential vision emerged in 1980s in a form called Cyberpunk . Beginning 1984 William Gibson, an American expatriate living in Vancouver, became the genre’s founder with a series of books both visionary and prophetic. It was Gibson who single-handedly invented key features of the terminology and imagery we take for granted in our real web-laden culture. “Cyberspace” was his term and his invention. The world he saw was a dirty future, a Darwinian high-tech nightmare overrun by global corporate elite wielding more power than nations. Below them moved the vast masses feeding at the bottom of an information economy that had morphed into a kind transcendent alternate reality. Gibson imagined a claustrophobic dystopia of human beings modifying their bodies in the service of technology and endless sprawling cities where decay mixed with hyper-tech innovation.

The universe of “Cyberpunk” was been given many forms by authors such as Bruce Sterling (considered as a co-founder of the genre with Gibson), John Shirley and others. Cyberpunk themes have also been explored by non-science fictions writers. Feminist author Marge Peircy’s 1991 book He She It combined themes of environmental destruction with the degradation of human life under a corporate dominated information economy. In film, cyberpunk ethos and vision become dominant including critically acclaimed smaller films as well as box office mega-hits. Blade Runner predated Gibson’s first book Neuromancer by two years but was later hailed as capturing the essential, dark vision of Cyberpunk. Most notable and noteworthy were the wildly successful “Matrix” series. In the universe of the Matrix human beings have lost a war with Artificial Intelligence, machines of our own creation. In the ultimate act of environmental destruction humans “scorch the sky” to deny machines solar power. In response, the victorious machines reduce humanity to a power source. Human beings become mere bio-batteries made docile through enforced connection to a virtual world that that recreates the late 20th century. The Matrix takes dystopia and the human/internet interface to extremes. The radical popularity of the Matrix films (the series took in more than 1 billion dollars) is testimony to the pervasive influence of the Cyberpunk vision. As a whole, the myth of the future had gone to the dark side.

It is worth noting that space travel is often not an essential part of the cyberpunk vision. Like the real world we live in, the conquest of space stalled in these stories. Space travel was confined to Near Earth Orbit or to outposts of industrial exploitation which seem hellish and far away. In some stories nations have completely given up on their space programs and it is either large corporations or smaller private groups which push forward. In cyberpunk the grand vision of exploration in space has been, for the most part, replaced with a darker vision of survival on Earth.

Of course science fiction forms a diverse set of voices. Some familiar with its forms could take issue with the sketch I have outlined here. Along with the darker vision of cyberpunk there were writers and directors exploring more optimistic and hopeful futures. Star Trek itself gained its popularity in mid 1970s, years after its cancellation. Still it is difficult to argue with the fact that that in the last 30 years of the 20th century the mood of our future visions has changed. That change paralleled a loss of the mythic narrative which accompanied the conquest of space. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century we find ourselves facing a very different world and a very different sense of the future. Those who oversaw the heady acceleration of science in the last century had reason to see the future as boundless. Now we face boundaries which can not be escaped. The change in the myth of the future is testimony to the greater change in our understanding of what science is as a cultural force. More importantly, the shift in our myths of the future allow us to see constraints which Science has created for that future.

(this essay is modified from The Constant Fire)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Vanishing Time

It is the essential mystery. Subject of a thousand books, ten thousand papers and an uncountable number of late night conversations among philosopher's, poets, priests and physicists (not to mention just about everyone else).


Since Time, Cosmology and cultural history are the subject of the new book I am working on I have been reading some really wonderful stuff on everything from the development of the modern mind to the history of night. One of the most fascinating arenas for thinking about how human beings' encounter with Time has changed is the history of the clock.

Mechanical clocks, those with escapement mechanisms, did not begin to make a public appearance in earnest until the 1300's. It was in that century that public clocks, often with bells for ringing the hours, began to appear on towers in public squares. The enormity of this change can not be underestimated as it encompasses every aspect of human being, every dimension of human consciousness.

What was the day like for most people before these machines with their resonant bells appeared? Was it guided solely by the natural rhythms of daybreak, mid-day hunger, the long shadows of late afternoon and the gathering stillness of dusk? If so, think of the change in experience, the vital movement through the day, that came with the ringing of the bells and spinning of the clock's hour hand (minute hands do not appear until later). The day is now shattered, broken into metered pieces that can be parsed and sold. The body, both personal and environmental, is exchanged for the machine in the most intimate experience of the flow of time. Before the clock you looked to inward and outward to experienced world to gauge the passing of time. After the clock you wait for the machines' signal to tell you where in the day you stood.

With this change the night also begins its transformation. This clockwork begins to become the dominant metaphor for the Universe entire. The wheel of the sky was, after all, the one place where metered time made sense for millennia even if it was only for an astronomical/priestly elite. The advent of public clocks made everyone's time as rational as the astronomers. And yet, in making this rational (and rationally managed) time the norm, astronomy, physics and eventually cosmology would be transformed. As the first giant clockworks are lifted into place in towers across Italy, the winds whisper Issac Newtons name.

Whose Time do we live now? Where did it come from? Who ordained its manner and its fashion? The character of even this most intimate of experiences is, in some very definite sense, socially constructed even as it reflects the deepest truths of physical law. Is there a tension between these two poles between which we might pull apart some new perspective on our embodied essence?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Intersection of Thoughts and Things

Do our cosmologies, our fundemental physics, our grandest philosophical/scientific ideas reflect the rarefied domains of mind and pure reason or do they live through the very real, very dirty process of living, embodied, in the world? The best answer to this question, at least for the most famous example of relativity theory, comes directly from Galison's book "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Map's". As Galison summarizes

When Einstein came to Bern patent office in 1902 he entered an institution in which the triumph of the electrical over the mechanical was already wired to reams of modernity. Here clock coordination was a practical problem (trains, troops, telegraphs) demanding workable, patentable solutions in exactly his area of greatest professional expertise: precision electromechanical instrumentation. The patent office was anything but the lonely deep-sea lightboat that the no-longer young Einstein had longed for as he spoke to the Albert Hall audience in the dark days of 1933. Reviewing one patent after another in the Bern Office, Einstein had a grandstand seat for the great march of modern technologies. And as coordinated clocks were paraded by they were not traveling alone. The network of electrical chrono-coordination provided political, cultural, and technical unity all at once. Einstein seized on this new, conventional, world-spanning simultaneity machine and installed it at the principled beginning of his new physics.

It was, in Galison's eyes, no accident that Einstein finds himself in the patent office which itself was no physics backwater. There was an intersection of thoughts and things, culture and creation, politics and philosophy swirling around the invention of relativity theory. As Galison says
Staring through the metaphorical we can find the literal, through the literal we can see the metaphorical.
I think this is not just true of the emergence of relativity but of all our grand discoveries. Our highest abstractions are woven through with the concrete of breath drawn upon breath and the clash of humans in the sweat and mire of daily life. This is the sacred as profane, the transformation of embodied life into distilled essence and back again. This is our wondrous gift in being human.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Abstract Embodied: Part I

We separate and compartmentalize the imaginative life of our species and in doing so flatten and reduce ourselves. We restrict our understanding of history and the full field of possibilities into which we might move. Our grandest conceptions of space, time, cosmology and life live separately from the day to day truck of commerce. There is the sacred and then there is the profane. They are, we think, separate and distinct. In making that distinction we cleave the world into two less-than-halves and miss what is most remarkable about being human.

The profane emerges from the sacred as well as the other way around. The abstract and the concrete support each other and can not be encountered separately.

In working on the research for my next book I have been reading Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time and I would like to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the overlap between social and scientific history. Galison has taken great pains to show how the most arcane of scientific theories - Einstein's relativity - did not spring from a rarefied and disconnected aether of abstract thought. Instead it emerged in a context where light signal travel times and the meaning of simultaneity were at the very center of the culture's deepest concerns.

The world of the late 1800s was crisscrossed with thousands of miles of telegraph cable and railroad lines. It was a world that was shrinking far faster than our digitized globe. For all of human history few people traveled faster than 40 miles an hour (a galloping horse) unless they were falling from a cliff. Suddenly train lines where whisking people from one city to another at sustained speeds of 75 mph or more. Even more astonishing telegraph cables reaching from Denver to Dakar to Peru to Paris allowed news to flash instantaneously across continents and oceans. For the first time in human history the meaning of "at the same time" had an import and an ambiguity to it that had never existed before. If it was 10:00 am now here in Rochester, what time was it in London?

Empires depended on the answer to this question. The determination of longitude, established by a comparison of local time with the time at a distant standard meridian could mean the difference of miles between contested boundaries. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Kings cared about simultaneity.

Into this fray comes young Albert Einstein - patent clerk/physics student - ready to take on the physics of electromagnetism, moving bodies, time and simultaneity. What matters for this discussion is the simple fact that he did not dream up this issue on his own. He did not arrive there by simply wondering in the realms of pure thought. He did nothe did not end up at his questions alone and he did not end up there by accident. The entire world was waiting for him.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Stars Less Vivid: Experience and Evolution

Last week I wrote of an experience watching the sunrise over a jetty at the edge of the Lake Ontario. I was taken by the question of how this experience is conditioned by the dominant technologies a human lives with: a clearing in the trees, a wharf lined with wooden sailing ships, a parking lot leading to a concrete jetty. In the comments to the piece both Occasional Reporter and Mike Gottschalk raised issues which have dovetailed with some of my own continued meditations on the subject and so are worth a few more words. The question can be posed simply as follows:

What aspects of human being are unmediated by culture and time?

In other words how much of our day to day perception, how much of our abstract thinking, how much of our sense of a sacred or even an absolute, is given form through the prism of our culture's "facts on the ground". Some answers to this are obvious as in "no twitter, no tweeting". But the deeper issues lay in what has been constant and what has changed across the 1000+ generations since we became cultural modern in action and symbol.

I have been concerned with Mythologies for a long time because they might to carry some trans-historical constants in them, at least in our need for certain kinds of stories to set our lives and their transitions into meaning. Is this true or just wishful thinking? Our powers of reason seem to be an ingrained aspect of human being and their gradual refinement has led to ever increasing degrees of "sophistication" in the social structures we create. And what of the Sciences that our reason have bestowed to us? It is exactly the promise that Science stands above history (and Time entire) that makes it so alluring.

So there are ways to argue for continuity - for a direct link between the hunter-gather stepping out from the trees before the infinite horizon of the shoreline and my stepping from a 1999 Subaru Outback to walk past the Port-O-Potties out to the jetty.

And yet, and yet... Somehow something feels different. Somehow I get the sense, deep in the artificially illuminated night, that there is a profound difference. I get a sense that there are profound differences. In the plasticity of our brains we adapt to our physically structured cultures and that changes experience itself. Do the stars in our satellite girdled world shine less vividly? Does distance lose an essential extension when vaulted by combustion engines and electromagnetic signalling? It may work the other way as well. Are we closer to a whole when news of Iranian's struggling for voice flashes around the planet in quick succession with Micheal Jackson's global superstar demise?

What explicitly is lost? What explicitly is gained? What, if anything, remains constant?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Relections on Sunrise and Material Engagement

What was it like? How did it feel? For the ten thousand thousand years before we came to see the world through the lens of technology, through the refraction of machines, what was it like to be human?

This morning I saw the sun rise from a pier that stretches into Lake Ontario. It's easy for Rochesterians to forget this giant expanse of fresh water exists. 175 years ago, broad high waterfalls 5 miles upstream led the city's founders to site their new habitation inland. The great lake is hidden even from the highest hilltop. The ability to watch night give over to the pale pink of 5 am over the lake always comes as something of a surprise to me.

In the quiet of morning light rising from the horizon as I wondered what would this would have been like 500 years ago. How would it be, say, for a member of the Seneca tribes who inhabited this area. For them there would be no jetty, no line of boats at the wharf, no massive steel bridge. Instead they would have met the water and morning light from a wooded coastline that stretched as far as they eye could see. My technological self had driven here to watch the planet rotate. Soon I would drive back. The day which I know would follow would be mediated by machines many of which I barely understand in their immediate physicality: the car I pilot, the iPhone I use for notes, music and communication, the computer I write this post on. As a physicist I get the principles but in their material presence they are manufactured goods that originated elsewhere and whose inner workings I am, in general, not supposed to be concerned with.

How different this is from most of those whose genes I carry. For the bulk of our history, even down to a mere 5 or so generations ago, the world was much closer, much more familiar. The night sky did not disappear behind a veil of electric light at sunset and the objects we lived with were formed, for the most part from materials we also lived with. In his fine small volume Prehistory, The Making of the Human Mind the archaeologist Colin Renfrew speaks of the role of material engagement in driving our shift from hunter-gatherers to sedentary agricultural city builders. A braiding of what we built, how we valued it and how lived together occurred that radically altered our consciousness and our encounter with the world from which we evolved. As Renfrew puts it

The social context, the necessary matrix for the development of technological innovations during the increasing engagement with the material world is dependent upon social relationships that in many cases are based on cognitive advances.
Changing social relationships change "mind" which change technology which changes social relationships etc. In the process our relation to the world changes. It seems this process never stopped. In the last century or so I would argue something has changed, something has shifted Our machines and the culture they generate (think facebook and twitter), now rely on abstractions made concrete in the form of circut boards and composite materials. In the "developed world" the engagement with the material relies on an electrical engineers sense of the word. This has to be different from a world made of rope and timbers.

So where has the evolution of human culture taken us now? We fly in a myriad of conceivable fashions, we project our machines across the solar system, we control the world on the level of atoms, we rearrange the genetic fabric of life. All the while we still stand very close to those grandparents to the Nth power, our ancestors who stepped out from clearings in the trees to watch the sun rise across the lake.

What it means to be human has changed so much in such a short time as our technology, our material forms of engagement ran away into abstractions. So much lost and gained. So what clearing, collectively, are we stepping out into now?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Nobel Edict

Just a quick link to the webpage page of the St. James Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium whose memorandum on climate change is worth reading. Here is a description of the symposium.
The St. James’s Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium was held in May 2009 at St. James's Palace and The Royal Society in the United Kingdom. The Symposium provided a unique opportunity for Nobel Laureates from across the disciplines to gather with world experts in climate change and a small number of policy makers and global business leaders. Together they contributed their ideas and authority to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. The focus of the Symposium was the climate crisis and its implications, particularly in the context of the economic and development challenges facing the world.
I post this because I recently had the misfortune of picking up the late Micheal Crichton's State of Fear in the airport and finding out it was a ridiculous climate skeptic screed in novel form. I read thinking "this guy has millions of readers who will believe this". It made me very, very depressed. Maybe a long list of Nobel Prize winners can help convince people. It can't hurt.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Little More on those Aliens

"Sometimes I think we are alone, sometimes I don't. Either way the the thought is staggering"
Buckminster Fuller

The presence of extraterrestrials in the popular imagination is a testament to the plasticity of the human imagination. One could argue that fictional ETs are simply reworking myths of angels and demons. Alternatively one can say they are essentially new myth - one that is elementally modern (similar, perhaps, to narratives of Artificial Intelligence battling their human creators). Either way stories of civilizations in space composed of human looking creatures (with prosthetic foreheads to make them look a tad different) or bags of protoplasm form a staple of our culture's stable of possible futures. All this without a single shred of evidence that they exist.

Stories matter. Stories are how we understand ourselves and set our individual and collective life into context, creating meaning, establishing purpose and building relationship. At the highest level our collective narratives rise to the level Myth. As Joesph Campbell, Mirce Eliade and others have stressed our dependence on Myth have never gone away in our march to modernism. It just went underground reappearing in "that fantasy factory" (as Eliade called it) of movies and novels. In this sense it is important to pay close attention to both the science and fiction of SETI as well as astrobiology. And, in this sense, the introduction of sustainability issues into astrobiological thinking marks a turning point, a maturation perhaps, in our thinking.

Beyond the infinite futures of Star Trek, beyond the dystopia of the Terminator, beyond the easy optimism or quick despair we awaken to what might be universal for technological societies - limits and their consequences. We still don't know what sustainability means. We have no examples of technological societies that are sustainable over long timescales (is it even possible?). All of these questions however will be solved first in the imagination for that is where all creativity begins. Our first steps into thinking about sustainability, SETI and astrobiology represent an opening of the imagination.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where are all the Aliens?

Thinking about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is a fascinating exercise in thinking about about civilization. This link is inevitable because any rational search strategy forces you to consider what civilizations do, how they evolve and, most importantly, how long they last. Back when nuclear war was our biggest worry the question of civilizations' endurance always seemed to hing on its bellicosity. Our new found recognition of climate change and the limits to growth changes that perspective. Now we have to ask if there is something fundamental to the very agent which makes civilization seem possible which can, in turn, threaten it - technology.

To that end I want to share with you a paper I have been reading that I found on the astrophysics preprint server. The paper is called THE SUSTAINABILITY SOLUTION TO THE FERMI PARADOX and its authors Haqq-Misra & Baum have been remarkably creative in merging SETI with our new concerns. The Fermi paradox is an old conundrum (which may not have really started with Fermi) that asks, essentially "If ETs exist, why aren't they here already?" The idea is that if one assumes an exponential expansion of a star-faring civilization then unless things just got started everywhere in the galaxy civilization-wise, we should already have been overrun by little green friends.

Haqq-Misra & Baum have an answer for this that comes from our new understanding about limits to growth. Here is their abstract.
No present observations suggest a technologically advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) has spread through the galaxy. However, under commonplace assumptions about galactic civilization formation and expansion, this absence of observation is highly unlikely. This improbability is the heart of the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox leads some to conclude that humans have the only advanced civilization in this galaxy, either because civilization formation is very rare or because intelligent civilizations inevitably destroy themselves. In this paper, we argue that this conclusion is premature by introducing the “Sustainability Solution” to the Fermi Paradox, which questions the Paradox’s assumption of faster (e.g. exponential) civilization growth. Drawing on insights from the sustainability of human civilization on Earth, we propose that faster-growth may not be sustainable on the galactic scale. If this is the case, then there may exist ETI that have not expanded throughout the galaxy or have done so but collapsed. These possibilities have implications for both searches for ETI and for human civilization management
I will let you read the rest for yourself and see what you think.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Difficult Truth

I have been traveling for the last week or so. Mostly Southern California which also seems like some kind of weird, alien landscape for my Northeastern sensibilities. If you come from industrial New Jersey, having all that beach unoccupied seems post-apocalyptic. Where are the wall-to-wall blankets? Where are the boom-boxes every 5 feet? Even with the miles of highways that double as parking lots its hard not to see what drew so many people to LA and its environs.

Which brings me to a point I have been thinking about as I start working on my next book. Sedentism, Agriculture and City building. The last great sheets of glaciers receded about 12,000 - 10,000 years ago. As the impossibly vast and mile high planes of ice retreated back to their polar warrens our ancestors slowly began a shift in culture that shifted the balance of Earth's biological force.

From archaeological digs in the hills of Israel to the plains of France a portrait of our transition from small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gathers to large dense populations of hierarchical structured city dwellers is emerging. The change in consciousness which came with this transition is also being explored as scientists try to piece together how value became materialized in objects like gold amulets conferring status and power. Finding measures of value, systems of weights for example, constituted both technological and conceptual revolutions. The world went from a matrix we were embedded in to a reservoir of materials that served our purposes.

As the small collections of permanent dwellings that characterized the beginning of agriculture transformed in permanent villages which then became complex cities the framework for our globe spanning culture was laid. Now from space the spiderweb of lights illuminating how city building consciousness has transformed the globe can be seen from orbit. We have come a very long way, in a very short time.

As with all things scientific the purpose, for me at least, in these archaeological investigations is to make the mundane stand out, to make what is right beneath our noses become strange again, become worthy of notice. What we call civilization was not pre-determined, it is not the result of an inevitable progress of evolution. Instead what we inherited is the results of a long series of choices. This is an important point because we have some very hard choices staring us down right now. These are choices about how we want to live, how we want to structure our civilization so that it might become sustainable for the long run. That is what sets this moment apart from all those which preceded it.

Our city building ancestors make their choices deliberately but without a planetary context. And so we ended up with London, LA, Tokyo, Hong Kong and the 100,000 kilometers of industrial supply chains which feed them. Now, in just a few short decades we have woken up to the consequences of our choices for the blue world which supports all this frenetic activity. Those choices for the next civilization will likely not be so unconstrained.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Feeding The Priests: Science, Religion and Society

So the NASA proposal on star formation is finished and has been committed to the great unknown of the review process. Now that's done I am reflecting on how cultures throughout history (and prehistory) have kept those charged with "truth-making" in business.

Modern society spends a lot on its scientists and there are lots of us. Some of us work on very practical applications of science designed to make people healthier, more productive and, perhaps, happier. Some of us work on big questions with no practicle applciation. Either way, in many ways science functions as a priesthood in the big mythological sense of bringing the culture a sense of what is true and real in the world and offering some control over that world.

Did other societies have as large as "priestly class" as we have? Whatever the proportion of that class relative to the society as a whole how where their activities funded? How was the culture's "treasure" apportioned to the people who were responsible for dealing with the culture's unseen truths (Gods, spirits, etc). Throughout time there have been shamans, temple priests, monastics and monasteries. Sometimes these were highly organized with great amounts of wealth committed to their development (think the churches of medieval Europe or the mountain monasteries of Buddhist china). How does our activity compare with theirs? The impulsive in both cases has similar imperatives even if the effect is very different.

We have been at this truth game for a long, long time. How is the nuts and bolts of funding the truth-makers similar? How has it changed?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Science and Money: The Process

While its good to think on the large scales about science, art, spiritual endeavor and the search for the True and the Real, sometimes it's the day to day that matters. There are the scales on which metaphysics and the grand ideals of science exist and then there is the writing of your latest NASA grant. For the last week I have forsaken the former and have been living with the latter.

I have been to the mountain and have seen how laws, sausage and science funding is made. The truth is, it ain't so bad. After years of this I am still quite amazed at how well the system can works.

Science funding moves in a pretty straight forward way. You have an idea, you find out which funding agency the idea relates to best (NASA, the NSF, DOE, NIH, the alphabet soap goes on and and on). Then you figure out which program in that agency is right one to apply to (Astrophysical Data Program, Origins, AstroBiology, Living with a Star etc etc - these are NASA programs). Next you give up a couple of weeks of your life to write up a 15 page proposals with figures and equations. The proposal needs a decent narrative and a good balance of showing what your group has done and showing what you think you could get done in 3 years of funding. Then, if you are lucky, you have a talented administrative staff to help you navigate the pages and pages of government-issue forms and tables. Finally you send it in and light a candle at the alter of St. Euler who watches over grant proposals on astrophysical fluid dynamics. Then you wait and wait and wait.

It takes about a 9 months for the grants agency to get back to you. During that time a review committee gets selected and flown in from all over the country to discuss and rank the giant stack proposals the agency must deal with. The funding rate is usually somewhere between 10% (ugh) and 30% (ugh still but better). These panels are where the rubber meets the road meets the suasage making.

I have satt on a lot of these panels and for the most part I have to say they work. It is a most fascinating exercise to see the very human politics which goes into the search for eternal timeless truths. People have their biases. Some argue their case better than others. Sometimes a strong or well known personality can dominate the process. Still, in spite of all our foibles, it almost always seems that the best science gets recognized and rises to the top. I have always been impressed by this and it gives me faith that we have stumbled on something, some genuine workable means to organize the effort to understand the world.

Of course those proposals at the top don't always get funded. There simply is not enough money to fund the best ones that deserve funding (which I would estimate make up about a third of the proposals). Hopefully that will change with the new administration.

So that is how it works and if you ask me, in general it does work. I have had lots of proposals fail and enough proposals make it and overall I think the system is as fair as it can be.

But there is an important caveat here. I am writing about grants on the scale of an individual scientist or her group. When we talk large projects like the Large Hadron Collider or the International Space Station all this changes. Politics with a capitol P enters the picture in a big way. Projects on that scale, with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on the line operate in a different realm. It is at that level that one can ask how the balance between science and other, less scientific, demands are managed.

The search for truth and spending of a nations treasure - how do they overlap? How do they balance?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Crazy Science

In his insightful book "The Trouble With Physics" Lee Smolin made the case that something has gone wrong with physics, the queen of science, over the last 40 years. In Smolin's view the last generation of effort in theoretical physics (at least those who study "fundamental physics") has stalled.

After centuries in which each generation uncovered some deeper and more elemental character of physical reality than the last (gravity, electromagnetism, statistical physics, relativity, quantum theory) the endeavor has lost its momentum. In the 40 years since the basic elements of the standard model of particle physics was put in place no deeper insight into the roots of the model have been discovered. Quantum Gravity, the holy grail of theoretical physics uniting the twin pillars of Einsteins' General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, remains elusive. Despite its elegance and mathematical insights String Theory has not yet lived up to its promise of a theory of everything. The values of the 20 constants, which the standard model demands be put in by hand, remain unexplained by a deeper law.

For Smolin the requirement of invisible higher dimensions, which form the hallmark of string theory ,is part of this failure. If you need to invent invisible realities to make a theory work then, he argues, you are not explaining, you are explaining away. The same point can be made about the ideas of the multiverse - the universe of unobservable other universes - which are now a standard feature in many cosmological models.

These "crazy" ideas of modern physics (extra dimensions, extra universes) make many physicists nervous. They sound so much like plot devises from a Star Trek movie. Where are the close ties to experiment that form the hallmark of empirical investigation? Shouldn't physics and all of science be about the facts of this world, not the mathematical imaginings of some other possible worlds?

These conundrums are part of the dissatisfaction that have led some scientists to step entirely outside the box and ask what are we missing? What basic cherished principle are we holding onto and, in the process, holding ourselves back. It is from this vantage point that some are asking if the idea of physical law itself must be revised. It is from this vantage point that some are willing to ask what would Law without Law look like?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Law and Time: Who's on First?

So I am in the midst of the annual NASA grant writing binge which is my excuse for not writing more on my new favorite topic: Law without Law.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a piece for DISCOVER magazine on this strange and, for me, revolutionary topic. As the comments to the last post artfully reveal this is really where the metaphysical rubber meets the empirical road. For today let me just give a little background. The term "Law without Law" originated, as far as I know, with the great American theoretical physicist John Wheeler. Wheeler was so far ahead of the curve in so many ways its hard to tabulate them all. He managed to be both radical, skeptical, hard headed and a dreamer all at the same time.

In his essay of the same name Wheeler asked about the interaction between quantum phenomena and observers and used a thought experiment involving a gravitationally lensed quasar to muse on the notion of "observer-participancy". In this wide ranging essay Wheeler seems to be arguing that reality is ongoing creative interaction between what he calls elementary phenomena (individual quantum processes) and observers (you and me). Only taken together as a whole, he says, does the world take the form we see. It may be essential here to emphasize the "we see" part because Wheeler never doubts there is a world out there but what he is asking about is the form of the world that humans are part of as observer-participants.

One could go on quite a while about this article which I recommend and ask if its crazy or sloppy or insightful. The point for this post is the conclusion that sits above his specific thinking about quantum mechanics: the so-called Laws of Physics, the timeless, eternal constraints which hover above and beyond this world, may be a fiction. Using the evolution as his example Wheeler asks

"Are the laws of physics immutable and eternal or are theses laws, like species, mutable and of a higgledy-pigglety origin"

Wheeler points to the origin of individual species as the result of countless blind accidents and then asks could the laws of this universe have emerged in the same way? Do they still emerge in the same way?

As a number of people have pointed out in the comments this, on face value, would seem impossible and, if it were possible, would challenge some of the most cherished assumptions of the scientific enterprise. Since I spent the last month reading and talking with scientists like Lee Smolin, Stuart Kauffman and Andy Albrecht on just this subject I will try and unpack the idea a bit more in the some of these posts (while still diverging every now then onto different subjects).


Check out the Wheeler article if you have time. It is long an technical in places and even has a strange shift in font (which comes I believe because it is actually 2 different pieces put together for the particular volume it was published in). I suggest starting on page 20 with the section called Law without Law.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Law without Law: an introduction

Here is a thought for the day.

For 2500 years (if we go back to the Greeks) the ideal of science has been to decipher the timeless laws which govern the universe. These laws, embodied in mathematical form, are the skeleton on which the flesh of the world is thought to be hung. They are the guide, the constraint, perhaps even the cause for the world having its appearance and structure. They are eternal and changeless, existing "outside" the material universe. For some they are like thoughts in the mind of God.

What if this very old, very powerful idea turned out to be just a metaphysical stance? What if there was a very different way to think about the nature of physical law that placed them squarely within the embodied, evolving world?

It makes my head spin.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Cherished Enemy

I have been following the really amazing response to the bloggingheads debate between me and Eliezer Yudkowsky. So much of it is thoughtful on both sides that it is a joy to read and learn from. There is also, sometimes, a line of reasoning which I have encountered before which always makes me sad. In the science vs. religion debate there are those on both sides who simply don't want to hear any attempts to develop a different perspective on these two long-lived human endeavors. There is an enemy out there - strident myopic atheism or religious dogmatism - and they want it to stay.

Even after one acknowledges the pointlessness of the extremes these poles can take and begins to argue for an alternative, the combatants seek to bring the argument back to the original line of antagonism. It's as if there is more comfort in having that enemy present then in finding a new line of reasoning which allow those who reject the extremes to build a useful language for a very different kind of discussion. An atheist who finds value in the domains of human spiritual endeavor is therefore not atheist enough and becomes an enemy for one side of the antagonism.

This is not new. History is rife with historical antagonisms and combatants who carried their ageless grievances around with them like talismans. The enemy became their meaning, their reason for being. The enemy became cherished for who would the combatants be, what would they become, without their enemy? How different this is from the perspective articulated by someone like the Dali Lama who spoke from the depths of wisdom and compassion about "our friends, the enemy."

Polarities are easy to support and can provide a sense of order and place but they don't require much work. We can fight against intolerance, we stand up against dogma and prejudice, we can retain the integrity of our cherished values and still allow ourselves the courage to look anew. Our creativity is best served not by holding a view of the war between extremes but in imaging an alternative.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Foxes, Hedgehogs, Science and Knowing

So the second installment of my debate with Eliezer Yudkowsky at bloggingheads is now posted for anyone who is interested. It was great fun and I thank Eliezer for participating in the dialogue with me.

There is a point I just wanted to touch on again related to the many ways we come to understand ourselves in the world. After 20 years of practicing science I remain deeply enamored of its methods and the grand beauty of its worldview. I also continue to marvel at the ways other forms of human inquiry reveal other aspects of our nature and its dilemma. From poetry to painting there are many paths to illuminating the human condition. That is why, even as an atheist, I became interested early on in the long history of human spiritual endeavor.

Isaiah Berlin once used a line from the Greek poet Archilochus to characterize different approaches to philosophy.

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"

Berlin was trying to differentiate philosophies that saw the world in terms of a single defining idea (hedgehogs) and those who who drew from a wide array of experience and were suspicious of overarching approaches (foxes). I would like to line up in the fox category. William James remains my hero with his distrust of "block Universes" or block ideas.

The debate between science and the domains of spiritual endeavor is usually cast as a choice between reason and faith. As a atheist and one who is committed to empirical investigation I am not big on faith but I do reject the idea that those who are committed the integrity of scientific practice must also see reason as the only means to understanding ourselves in the broadest sense of the word. Within scientific practice it is reason and a commitment to letting the data, the world, speak for itself. But when placing science into this broader context of human being I think the other ways we create meaning must have a place at the table.

Its easy to fall for the false certainty that comes by fully embracing a single metaphysics, confusing it with all-embracing methodology, and then letting your membership in an orthodoxy lull you in a false sense of comfort that comes with easy applause lines. Far harder is the path of embracing our strange complexity while retaining a determination to think clearly and feel deeply. But in our attempts to pass through the bottleneck of the next century I am convinced we will need all the sources of wisdom we can find.

Such, it seems, is the way of the fox.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Doing away with Time?

Time is the root. Time is the riddle. Time is what keeps slipping through our embodied and conceptual fingers no matter how hard we try to grab hold of it.

No problem has perplexed philosophers, scientists and theologian more completely than the nature of time. Is it real? Does its reality extend all the way down to the very essence of existence? Is it emergent? Does it come into being only as a result of some meta-principle that is, itself, timeless. Is it an illusion created by a consciousness that evolved to parse the world in way that were advantageous to move one generation into the other. Even the words we use get us into trouble.

Many physicists believe that a deeper and perhaps more radical understanding of time will be the solution to no decades old problem of quantum gravity. A non-trivial subset of the great revolutions in physics were based in re-imagining time and its place in physical reality. To that end I provide a link to a new bloggingheads debate between the independent physicist Julian Barbour (author of the End of Time) and the philosopher Craig Callender. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Blogging Heads Time Debate