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.