Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Week 32: Oprah's Book Club

Oprah's Book Club
On science and religion, and why scripture should know the value of its place.   

"Life is..." is a very different statement from "Life can be described by..."  This is because we can never say what life is, with absolute certainty; we can only infer life from its descriptions.  

Stated another way: We can never teach what life is; we can only describe how life works. Across these descriptions, patterns begin to resonate from which the true nature of life can then be inferred, albeit with varying degrees of uncertainty.  

From an infinite complexity of life arises infinite ways to describe that life. The two most commonly (mis)understood frameworks are, of course, religion and science. 

The former offers anecdotal descriptions based on scripture passed down incompletely from one generation to the next. The latter offers theoretical descriptions based on conclusions drawn from quantitative data passed down incompletely from one measuring device to the next.

Both frameworks paint incomplete pictures of life, but only science acknowledges that its pictures are incomplete.

Religion speaks in absolutes of what is and what should be; whereas science offers only theorems: statements that can never be proven true—only false.

Science accepts uncertainty as its central premise, and is in fact driven by this uncertainty to explore further, to understand better—to live more. Uncertainty, in a sense, is what gives life meaning: life as an end in and of itself.

Religion, on the other hand, is never uncertain. Uncertainty does not win followers, and without followers, there can be neither political support nor financial gain: Religion would go out of business. 

And so religion sells the false certainty of ritual and form, perpetuating an ignorance that does not explore, does not question, and simply obeys. "Look no further; ask no questions; do as you are told; and in the next life," religion promises, "you shall be rewarded." The promise of future rewards is what gives life meaning: life as a means to an end.

Religion gives people answers to questions that they aren't intellectually prepared to ask yet, and in doing so, shortcuts their journeys—straight into a ditch.  After all, why bother trying to learn new ways of understanding the world if some all-powerful deity is ultimately the answer to every question?

Some would argue that this isn't so bad: some people just aren't equipped for a lifetime of struggle. I can accept this. Self-imposed ignorance is OK with me.

But the hatred, discrimination, and violence that is often a product of this ignorance—not okay. And the only way to achieve self-imposed ignorance without the trifecta of hatred, discrimination, and violence is to free scripture to DESCRIBE truth, and stop forcing it to BE truth.
Scripture at its best functions like the greatest of literature: offering descriptions of life that while far removed in place and time, still resonate in the here and now through some shared and eternal struggle.

In this sense (setting my obvious biases aside), scripture does have a place in the modern world. But then again (biases reasserting themselves), one could also join Oprah's book club.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Week 31: The Gospel of Uncertainty (2/2)

The Gospel of Uncertainty
How modern physics learned to embrace uncertainty as the only absolute, and why if we would only "argue semantics" more often, we wouldn't have to fight and kill and blow-up and fly planes into tall much.  (continued from last week)  

Grappling with mysterious phenomena that couldn’t be explained through a classical lens, a group of physicists battled their preconceptions and struggled through their spiritual biases to give the world a new framework for understanding the universe: quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics led to a modern understanding of the universe whereby the intrinsic nature of matter is understood to be both wave-like and particle-like, simultaneously; but where we humans, because of our limited ability to perceive the universe in its entirety, can only see one or the other (wave-like or particle-like) at any given time—never both. 

In other words: what we are able to "see" depends entirely on our perspective, and since we can't "see" it all at once, we can only assume that "it" is too large for us to "see" in its entirety.

So what do we "see" then? What is reality?
The concept of wave-particle duality suggests that the intrinsic nature of the universe extends beyond our human ability to fully perceive it. And that we can only perceive 3-dimensional slices of a potentially infinite-dimensional universe at any given time.

This in turn suggests that human knowledge of absolute truth is an illusion, and that the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that we can never be absolutely sure.

It suggests that the reality versus perception dichotomy is a false dichotomy; that there is no reality versus perception, only common versus uncommon perception—coupled with varying degrees of uncertainty.  

Universists accept this uncertainty as a part of the human condition, and are in fact driven by this uncertainty to seek out new ways—new 3-dimensional slices—in which our infinite universe manifests itself to us.

They meditate on the distinction between the English verbs “to be” and “to be described by.”

They realize that descriptions are the parts from which they can infer the whole. And though they can never be absolutely certain that that which they infer is that which is, they have faith—and spend their entire lives in search of new descriptions to reinforce this faith.

An excerpt from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston:
After I returned from my survival test, the two people trained me in dragon ways, which took another eight years. Copying the tigers, their stalking kill and their anger, had been a wild, bloodthirsty joy. Tigers are easy to find, but I needed adult wisdom to know dragons. 'You have to infer the whole dragon from the parts you can see and touch.' The old people would say. Unlike tigers, dragons are so immense. I would never see one in its entirety.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Week 30: Wave-Particle Duality (1/2)

Wave-Particle Duality
How Thompson's electron shattered Newton's apple, and why we shouldn't try to pick up the pieces. What modern physics can tell us about the meaning of life. 

I just watched this clip from AC360 about a burgeoning new "religion" called Universism. Universism is about learning to accept the uncertainty that governs our universe. They are anti-faith, where the Universist definition of faith is "letting other people think for you."

At a typical meeting, they sit around and discuss everything from politics to life to love. There is no preacher, pastor, pope, imam or cleric to tell them: this is how you live your life, this is what you believe and this is how you love. Instead they share and listen and learn about what life can be like and how great love can be. 

They look closer and what they see is not a single orbital path but a fuzzy cloud of possibilities.
At the end, Tom Foreman, a hint of derision in his voice (because he is an asshole), describes the practitioners as—"a diverse group of disaffected souls, heading out into the world with the gospel of uncertainty." 

But is this so bad?
Consider that it was a new “gospel of uncertainty” that transformed the study of physics in the 20th century. The transition from classical to modern physics challenged all notions of an absolute order in the universe, demanding that we embrace a “gospel of uncertainty” in exchange for deeper insights into the nature of nature.
Classical mechanics, first expounded by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century, is the mathematical framework through which humanity caught its first glimpses of a rational order underlying what was previously a chaotic, capricious universe. 
Where you are, where you have been, where you are going, how you will get there: such questions were the bread and butter of classical mechanics, and Newton’s framework allowed for these questions to be answered with absolute certainty.
Classical mechanics was an adequate tool for probing Newton’s human-scale universe. But a macroscopic apple falling from a tree is very different from an infinitesimal electron zipping through a cathode ray tube, and as humanity began pushing beyond the limits of our five senses, Newton’s world—and the classical understanding of physics that it was based on—began to break down.  

The cracks really began to show at the turn of the 20th century. Up until then, electricity was understood classically as a wave-like phenomenon—described as a kind of fluid through which energy flowed. 

But in 1897, J.J. Thompson conducted an experiment that proved otherwise. His conclusion: electricity could only be described as a particle with negative charge moving through space—an electron. 
The classical view held that everything in the universe was either a particle or a wave; matter or energy—but never both. The descriptions were mutually exclusive: matter couldn’t be energy, and energy couldn't be matter (kind of like how men can’t be women, and women can’t be men).
And yet here was evidence to the contrary: Electricity was both a wave, and a particle! Both descriptions of electricity were accurate, and both provided wonderful new insights into the phenomenon, but they both couldn’t be right, could they? 
The nature of light soon came under new scrutiny, and when physicists looked more closely, they noticed the same thing! Depending on how you observed/measured it, light could be described as either a wave, or a particle!
The “reality” of light seemed to change depending on how physicists chose to “perceive” it!
But how could that be? How could there be more than one reality? 

Tune in next week! 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Week 29: Ink Blots

Ink Blots
with Ink Blots there's more
than one or two or three.

these Ink Blots they hide--
a great Infinity.

What casts this one shadow
here on the wall?

the narrow light too blinding,
to ever see It all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Week 27: The Things Reflected In My Eyes

The Things Reflected In My Eyes (瞳に映るもの)
Why photographs lie, and what beautiful photographs of ugly men can tell us about the nature of truth.

To be photogenic means to photograph well. It means that when four dimensions of space-time are flattened into two and much of your essence is lost, your physical attractiveness—at least—is preserved, captured in a photograph for posterity. 

Through Facebook, I find an endless supply of photogenic individuals at my fingertips. 

I often spend hours browsing through photos, indulging the horny little teenage girl in my mind who delights in filling in the gaps left by all the things not preserved, the dimensions that don’t photograph well.
This one with the strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows? He seems like the tall brooding type, a quiet intellectual that finds solace in books and writing, but who can also carry himself well in social situations, and happens to love math!
When I meet them in person, and they turn out to be even more than I imagined, I hold my breath and pray for the day when all Californians can get married. 

More often than not though, Mr. Photogenic turns out to be anything but what I inferred from his strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows. When this happens, it strikes at the core of my faith in mankind: How can a man so orgasmically beautiful be so heartrendingly stupid?

The fact that universally photogenic men can manifest so inconsistently in person is a testament to our multifaceted existence: We are not one-, two-, or even three-dimensional creatures; the essence of man spans so much more.

As beautiful as that sounds (yes I am aware of my tendency to gloss over ugly details), the fact is that there are some dimensions better left to the imagination: Sometimes, man’s essence can look like Maladora (exotically beautiful), but also smell like Maladora (pungently corpse-like).

I am sure photographers imagine their art is like a crucible. They frame the world through a camera lens, searching for that perfect angle, that perfect moment to crop out all irrelevancies and allow them to capture only what is important: the truth, as they see it.

But of course, multivariable calculus teaches us that 2 vectors cannot a 4-dimensional basis make. 

Photographs lie, and photogenic men can turn into the beastliest of boys, precisely because 2-dimensional images can only ever hint at the full nature of infinite-dimensional truths.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Week 26: Why Creationism is Dumb

Why Creationism is Dumb
How multivariable calculus helps us cut through complexity, recognize universal patterns, and thus discover our own truthsand why this scares the Pope.  

I met up with a new client at Cafe Flore today. She's a grad student at Cal taking multivariable calculus (scary!) over the summer.

I warned her that my multivariable calculus was a bit rusty, that I might not always be able to speak from a position of authority, that our relationship might have to assume a more egalitarian formthat we might have to work through this together. 

She seemed okay with it. 

Today's lesson dealt with the concept of basis, which is just a fancy mathematical way of saying coordinate system, or to generalize even furtherframe of reference.

In multivariable calculus, where you begin working in more than just one- or two- or even three dimensions, a basis helps you make sense of a quantitative world that extends beyond the realm of sensory experience. 

I think NYU Professor Morris Kline (1908 - 1992) put it best:
"No one can visualize a four-dimensional, non-Euclidean world, but those who insist on visualizing the concepts with which science and mathematics now deal are still in the dark ages of their intellectual development. Almost since the beginning of work with numbers, mathematicians have carried on algebraic reasoning that is independent of sense experience. Today they consciously construct and apply geometries that exist only in human brains and that were never meant to be visualized."
In one of her problems, my client was given 7 different vectors (think of an arrow), each of varying magnitude and orientation, and then asked to find a basis. 

I explained to my client that the 7 different vectors were like sets of unidentified fingerprints lifted from a crime scene: one from the bedroom doorknob, two from a champagne flute, several taken from a bloody butcher knife...and so on.

To proceed with the investigation, she needed to determine if those 7 sets of fingerprints belonged to 7 different suspects, or if really there were only 1 or 2 or 3 unique suspects.

It was up to my client to eliminate redundant sets of fingerprints (i.e. those belonging to the same person) until only a unique set remained: to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The problem reminded me of a Star Trek episode, “The Measure of a Man” (TNG: 2x09). In it, Captain Picard offers this closing argument in the trial over Commander Data’s status as a Federation Citizen:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time."
To solve this problem, my client needed to find a basis—a frame of reference—that would allow her to cut through the complexity and see fundamental truths, to "burn away irrelevancies" until she was left with a purer product.  

And so she did.

She used the tools of multivariable calculus to slice away at those 7 random vectors, cutting through the redundancies, the extensions, the overlapsthe linear combinationsuntil only 3 remained, each pointing in a unique "direction."  

Out of a dense fuzz of complexity, a simple pattern of only 3 variables emerged. Here was the basis, the coordinate system, the frame of reference: the truth, for all time. 

The discovery is so spiritually uplifting that Pope Joseph Ratzinger himself is roused from his transcendent slumber and, in nothing more than his pointy Prada shoes, quickly issues a papal bull accusing multivariable calculus of molesting little children.   

The full text of Theodore P. Olson's Captain Jean-luc Picard's speech:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man [Commander Maddox]—or others like him—will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him [Commander Data] – and all who will come after him – to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting." 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Week 25: The (Gay) Butterfly Effect

The (Gay) Butterfly Effect
An urban planning perspective on Prop 8, on what it means to walk, and on the crazy shit that happens when we stop.

The history of mankind is a history of unexpected connections, of chance encounters between people and ideas that pushed the envelope of human understanding and opened our eyes to more of our limitless potential.

This history is inextricably linked to our cities: great urban spaces where people from all over the world and from all walks of life came together, collided, and every so often, gave off a random spark that grew to illuminate the world in a whole new way.

And so I walk, because I know that walking can change the world. I walk because I know that, contrary to what Einstein believed, God does indeed play with dice.

Of course, I also walk for other—less noble—reasons: bumping into acquaintances, ogling cute boys on the street, or overhearing some juicy tidbits about who did what with whom last night.

Walking was all this to me, and more. But then Prop 8 blew into town.

The first few days after losing a constitutional guarantee are always the worst.

I remember sharing a narrow sidewalk in Concord, California with a portly, flaxen-haired office worker the day after Prop 8 passed. I was walking to lunch; she was walking back. I looked at her as we passed, and came to the unsettling realization that, statistically speaking—she probably voted yes. 

The realization unleashed a floodgate of raw emotions. Old wounds from the night before bled anew, the delicate scabs bursting beneath the pressure of a heart that seethed with anger.

I stopped walking.

The public space was supposed to be a forum for building trust. But now, all it did was to remind me with each chance encounter that this country had betrayed me—that it had betrayed itself.


I stop walking altogether, and because I stop walking, I stop trusting. Because I stop trusting, love has no foundation, and so when love finally dissipates—I am left without a community.

I take refuge from the world in an isolated gay enclave, stewing in the idea that they all hate me. Sequestered away in my homogenized homosexual bubble, I stop interacting with heterosexuals, and quickly forget that they aren't all like that. 

Over time, the isolation and ignorance breed fear, which festers until from it emerges an uncompromising hatred.

This hatred goes on to fuel a radical gay minority whose modus operandi involves strapping explosive devices to their bodies and blowing themselves up in the middle of straight nightclubs busy with the activity of breeders, many of whom—ironically—support same-sex marriage.

In a flash of flesh-rendering light, I depart from this world. The physical body dies, but my legacy of hatred—my ideas—live on, inciting still more disaffected and marginalized gay men to martyrdom.

The senseless indiscriminate violence of a radical minority shifts national opinion against the moderate gay majority. Discriminatory and draconian new laws are passed in a new populist uprising led by Sarah Palin; and San Francisco and New York, those bastions of guppydom (like yuppies but gay), respond by seceding from the Union. 

The civil war that follows will be known to future generations as the Great Betrayal: a reference to the large contingent of Bible-thumping Republicans who turn out to be closeted gay men and either defect or are psychologically overwhelmed by their own hypocrisy.

The decidedly un-civil conflict in the US helps to enhance China's standing in the world, allowing them to establish a new global hegemony through which the Middle Kingdom rises once more: English falls out of favor, supplanted by Mandarin as the lingua franca of global capitalism; South Korea re-integrates Hanja into their education system; Taiwan is peacefully reunified with the Mainland; and Vietnam successfully petitions China to become the 23rd province of 南越

Chinese citizens begin immigrating to Israel en masse and, with the tacit backing of the Middle Kingdom, quickly declare statehood. The new state contracts Lee Kwan Yew to serve as enlightened despot, and he—through a combination of social engineering, arranged interfaith marriages, market-based incentives, and the threat of capital punishment—finally establishes a lasting peace in the Middle East. 

...all because a bunch of gay butterflies were never able to flap their wings in California.