Monday, December 20, 2010

My "Progress" Project Begins - final bit of backstory

Three years ago I found myself in a frustrating situation, career-wise.  I had started doing research for a dissertation on "reduction and emergence" -- the philosophical study of how complex things relate to simpler things.  Earlier, I described my debates in college with fellow physics majors about whether it would be possible to predict the future exactly using physics.  As it turned out, there were similar debates in the philosophy of science, and I saw my chance to make my point and perhaps publish it.

At the same time, my personal interests had already moved on to bigger, more human questions.  The more I thought about the idea of "modern progress" the more I started to think it was nonsense.  It seemed to me that, one, a utopian world would be pointless and uncreative, and, two, the world as it is today is no closer to utopia than it has ever been.  Of course, these are very imprecise issues, compared with the sort of thing analytic philosophers are supposed to think about.  And I found that most of the time, when I raised these questions around other grad students or professors, they were either dismissive or simply uninterested.

But here's why it struck me as important.  The main reason science is considered the most useful thing a person can do, is the belief that it gives rise to new technology that makes the world a better place.  But if technology hasn't made the world a better place, what reason do we have for thinking that it ever will?  And if it won't, then the whole reason we have for valuing science above all else dissolves, regardless of how well-established scientific facts might be.

These sorts of thoughts drove me with all the more passion into literature, poetry, and even religion and mysticism.  I needed to figure out what, if not science or traditional religion, human life is all about.  Sure, we can never know these things with certainty, but it seemed to me that something had to be found that could replace the religions that used to give life meaning, and that this missing thing was something other than science.

The void inside me continued to open wider, and I approached another point of crisis in my life.  Nothing my fellow philosophers were doing seemed worthwhile -- it all seemed like mere science-worship to me.  At the same time, I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.  It seemed that most religions were full of superstitious beliefs that I could not sincerely believe.

I spent dozens of hours a week trying to write these thoughts down.  I wrote dialogues, aphorisms, jokes, essays, and fragmentary notes of all kinds.  I shared these with only my closest friends, and I gradually started organizing them into a book.

At that point, three years ago, it still wasn't a very good book.  I wasn't completely sure where I was going with it -- it was all over the place.  But the one theme that kept emerging again and again was progress.  I wrote dozens of arguments for why progress had to be a myth.  Finally I decided that this was where I needed to begin -- I needed to develop in depth my argument for why progress is not possible.  And I believed I had found a scientific argument.  I just needed time to work on it.

So I took a two-year leave of absence from the department.  Not only was I going to work on my own book, but I was going to see if I could finally build a life for myself outside of academia, where I could have the freedom to read, think, and write about things that I found important -- as opposed to things that would get me a job.

The two years the followed (that is, from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2010) have the been the best of my life, and I finally feel like I've found peace with my questions and something sacred to build my life around.  But it has also been the most difficult two years I've been through.

To tell this story entirely would be to tell everything I'd like to say in my book.  Instead, I'll simply summarize what I've been up to:

Summer of 2008, I lived with my parents and compiled all my notes on progress.  Fall 2009 and spring 2010 I lived as a hermit in a studio apartment, reading dozens of volumes of anthropology, history, archaeology, political science, economics, sociology, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and sacred texts.  I completed a first draft of my book.  Summer 2010 I taught nuclear science at a summer camp for gifted junior-high students (CTY).  Fall 2010 I went to see my close friend Claire in Santa Cruz and lived there among hippies and counter-cultural types for a few months. That November I experienced a religious conversion while reading about traditional lifestyles, the Bible, and the Koran.  I also completed a second draft of my book.  Spring 2010 I returned to Utah, met my lovely and talented future wife, Emily, completed a third draft of my book, learned to play the guitar, and began to plan for the coming collapse of our society.  Last summer I went back to CTY to teach logic, and this fall I've been back at grad school writing my prospectus for a dissertation on evolutionary theories of scientific change.

There's the superficial version of what's been going on.  So much for my backstory.  In the next post I'll start on the cosmic backstory -- the story of "progress" ...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More is Not Better!

Thinking back on my first four years of grad school, it's often difficult for me to figure out what kept me going, what I was searching for, and what I thought I was on to.  The fact is, even at the time I was never entirely sure.

I had found Nietzsche and Lao Tzu.  Both seemed to be able to express certain basic truths about life that couldn't be found in science or academic philosophy. It became increasingly clear to me that university academia produced scholars, and not Nietzsches or Lao Tzus.  I continued my search for philosophers of the past who spoke to me in the same way.

But spoke to me in what way?  I'm not entirely sure.  Their writings were not dry and pointless like much of academic philosophy.  Instead, they were clear and thought-provoking.

This led me to more earnestly doubt the idea, still dominant in philosophy and science, that the only really useful way of thinking about things is scientifically.  On the face of it, it seems pretty reasonable to demand scientific evidence before believing something to be true.  Otherwise you might as well believe whatever you wish.

But on more careful thought I realized this was a false dichotomy.  In fact, most people have never demanded truly scientific proof in their entire lives, and yet they still manage to go about their daily business with reasonable success.  Only a very small percentage of the population has been trained in scientific methods, and these people generally only employ it when they are at work in the lab.

From this point of view it seemed all the more bizarre that Nietzsche and Lao Tzu were basically off limits in academic philosophy.  How had science, which really constitutes such a small portion of our lives, managed to take center stage in academic philosophy?

I came at this problem from every angle I could.  I took voluminous notes on every thought that seemed to bear on the subject.  Eventually, from all these notes, a simple theme began to emerge.  The reason we put so much faith in science today is the same reason I had been drawn to it as a kid:  science is seen as the source of modern progress.  Everything that makes our lives civilized -- namely, technology -- is the result of scientific discovery.  Or so the common wisdom goes.  But once I started thinking about it, I had difficulty finding an example of a technology that had made life truly "better."  Medicine and agriculture had lengthened our life spans and increased the population, but more is not the same as better.  Transportation and communication devices allow us to interact over long distances, but once again faster is not the same as better. 

On the other hand, I realized that these doubts were facile and unoriginal.  "Has technology really improved our lives?" sounds like a parody of an eighth grade writing exercise, I admit.  Nevertheless, these doubts gnawed at me constantly.  The fact that they were cliches made them no less disturbing.  Everything we do is based on the assumption that modern society is better and we can continue to make it yet better still. 

These thoughts led me to the next stage of my search.  It would prove a dangerous detour, but ultimately a worthwhile one.  In 2007 I became convinced that one could make a clear-cut argument, based on the modern theory of evolution, that societal progress is not possible in the long-run.  Though this project distracted me from the spiritual lessons I needed to learn, it led me to take a much needed two-year leave of absence.  Living as a virtual hermit during this time was the jarring experience I needed -- to help me rediscover the importance of the divine.

(I'll write more on my leave of absence tomorrow, at which point I should be done telling the backstory.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Tao-te-Ching

For the past six years, books have been my life. I've read dozens of classic novels, dozens of histories, and dozens of philosophies.  Many of these have been excellent, even life-changing.  But the most excellent, the most life-changing, and actually the most trusted books I've read, and the only ones I'm ever motivated to reread, are the following:  the Tao-te-Ching, the Confucian Analects, the Hindu scriptures, the Buddhist scriptures, the Koran, and (most importantly for our culture) the Bible.

This was not the outcome that I initially expected.  For a long time my bets were on the great dead philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Frege, Carnap, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sellars, and/or Rorty.      I actually did find many interesting ideas in these writers, but mostly on the nature and limits of human knowledge.  While this is an interesting topic in its own right, it does not provide a foundation at all.  In fact, each philosopher has a tendency to dispute the main doctrines of his predecessors.  Nothing is taken for granted in philosophy.  The philosopher's job, it turns out, is to doubt everything.

But for this very reason it's no wonder I was led to philosophy first.  I myself had been led to doubt everything.  In light of modern science, I had discounted religion and spirituality.  But science turned out to be primarily a technical enterprise, unrelated to how we live our everyday lives.  So I found myself doubting the sufficiency of both reason and faith, the two biggest games in town.  From this point of view, my question was a typically philosophical one.

Fortunately, I saw that the greatest philosophers had read and thought the most broadly, and I stuck to my plan of reading all the classics I could, including religious ones. 

The first holy text I opened up as an adult was the Tao-te-Ching, which had actually been recommended by a number of fellow grad students.  This was also the first book I'd read that seemed to state things simply as they were.  Mentally, my hierarchy of great literature became:  (1) Tao-te-Ching, (2) Nietzsche, etc. ...

The first chapter of the Tao-te-Ching (my own wording by comparing several translations):


The Tao one can explain is not the eternal Tao.
The name one can name is not the eternal name.
The source of the world is unnamable.
The mother of each thing is naming.

So by remaining passionless one encounters spirit.
And by remaining passionate one encounters the tangible.

These are two faces of the same thing.
Together, they are called profound,
The profoundest of the profound.
Gateway to all spirit.

Isn't it obvious that it's talking about reason and religion?  The paradox of modern life, described over 2000 years ago by an obscure poet, Lao Tzu, in China.  This simple book, copied faithfully over millenia, readable in a single afternoon, had put its finger on a problem that Nietzsche had driven himself mad trying to explain.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Two Cultures

That fall, right after senior year at Caltech, I began graduate school in the History and Philosophy of Science (or HPS).  Though this field was certainly a better fit for me than physics, I would soon find myself facing very similar spiritual dilemmas.

HPS is basically a subfield of Philosophy, one which attempts to draw philosophical lessons about science by examining its history.  The university I entered was very strong both in HPS and in philosophy, with professors known around the world for their work.

Unfortunately, I soon found that my idea of modern philosophy was very different from what was done here.

I had read some philosophy as an undergrad, but apparently not enough to realize that there is a deep, deep rift between two dominant schools in the Western world:  Continental Philosophy and Analytic Philosophy.  The first concerns art, culture, individuality, and society.  The second concerns logic, science, and precise argumentation.

My department, of course, was pretty firmly in the Analytic camp, and Nietzsche was considered pretty far out of bounds -- a poet of little significance for science.  I was very disappointed to learn this.  Pretty much every philosopher I had read who understood my dilemma concerning Art and Science fell under the label of "Continental."

They had admitted me because everything I had submitted for admission to grad school-- including my writing sample and essay-- had been Analytic, concerning typical issues in the field (causality and complexity).  Obviously, I had avoided mentioning my wild ideas concerning art and Nietzsche.  But I hadn't realized that such things were completely beyond discussion, as they were for more obvious reasons in physics (since they can't be quantified).

For a time I considered transferring to a Continental department.  A nearby university had a leading program in the field, so I cross-registered in a class on Heidegger (an influential Continental philosopher from the mid-20th century).  My professors understood that I was new to philosphy and kindly humored me in this.

The course was very interesting, and I received an A in it, but I realized that switching to Continental Philosophy would not solve the problem.  To the same extent that Analytic philosophers neglected values, creativity, and poetry, Continental philosophers neglected science, knowledge, and precision.  My problem was that what I really wanted to study involved a combination of these elements.

Seeing that Analytic Philosophy was a more dominant and respected field, I stuck with my department.  I was encouraged by the fact that many of my fellow students expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the status quo, and similar desires to steer Analytic Philosophy toward a more broader perspective.  Perhaps, in time, our generation would rise up and remake the field.

Meanwhile, I knew that I needed good teachers if I was going to make any headway in the field.  I wasn't about to make the same mistake of setting out into the wild blue yonder on my own.  I automatically turned to books.  So far the only helpful teacher I had found was Nietzche, and I knew that if there was anyone else to help me, it would be another diamond in the rough.  I made a list of books that are considered "classics" in literature, poetry, science, philosophy, and religion, from all time periods and cultures, a list that would grow to hundreds of books, and set to work reading each one.  I took my time, but I worked diligently, reasoning that I could meet a goal of at least 50 or 100 books per year, not including those assigned for class.  This was a crucial decision, and years later it would lead me to a much, much better place.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Brush with Nihilism

I wrote that short story -- mentioned in the previous post -- during the spring of my sophomore year.  It sparked a wild creative impulse in me that would culminate in a nervous breakdown two years later.  I was playing with fire:  isolated from those things that are supposed to give life meaning, including family, religion, and edifying art of any kind, I delved into my own mind.  I wrote stories, poetry, and contemplated the nature of life, the mind, and society.  But I did so largely without the benefit of a guide.  I was arrogant, and simply assumed that, using pure reason and raw creativity, I could unlock something new -- something more meaningful than either science or art.

I was looking for religion, but without realizing it.

In my studies I continued to do well.  In fact, my GPA steadily rose through my senior year, and I managed to graduate with honors.  I participated in fascinating research each summer, and had a great social life.  It was spiritually that I was in trouble.

Egged on by my amused peers, I started writing humorous, philosophical essays poking fun at the arrogance of scientists, the worship of pure intelligence, and the pointlessness of philosophy.  These were all worthy targets, but I had nothing to put in their place.  I flirted with nihilism. 

In fact, in the summer before my senior year I discovered Nietzsche.  For the first time in my life, I thought I'd found someone who seemed to understand me perfectly.  In case you've never really appreciated the seductiveness of his prose, try to imagine what effect the following passage had on a young man such as myself:

"I venture to speak out against an unseemly and harmful shift in the respective ranks of science and philosophy, which is now threatening to become established, quite unnoticed and as if it were accompanied by a perfectly good conscience.  I am of the opinion that only experience -- experience always seems to mean bad experience?  -- can entitle us to participate in the discussion of such higher questions of rank, lest we talk like blind men about colors -- against signs the way women and artists do ('Oh, this dreadful science!' sigh their instinct and embarrassment; 'it always gets to the bottom of things!')." (Beyond Good and Evil, Section 204)

Continuing this thought in a later passage:

"The dangers for a philosopher's development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all.  The scope and the tower building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows wary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a 'specialist' -- so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. (Section 206)"

Such passages had a profound effect on me.  My growing passion for Nietzsche's writings would have a powerful influence on my decision to pursue grad school in philosophy after graduation.

If you were to ask me today, I would say that reading Nietzsche can have a positive influence on your life, if you are prepared for it and guided through it.  In my case, I dived right in on my own, and though the frankness and scope of his thinking had a positive influence on me, his deep cynicism had a decidedly negative impact that took me years to shake off.

Hopefully I've given enough background that you can see why I might have experienced such an intense psychological collapse my senior year.  When it reached its climax (an experience I don't care to describe in detail here), I checked myself into a mental hospital for three days.  My final quarter of coursework was completed that summer.  I experienced a full recovery by fall, but flashbacks and anxiety attacks would persist for several years.

The breakdown I experienced was overdue and needed.  It allowed me to glimpse God for a brief moment and win back my soul.  Immediately afterwards, I discovered that I was, overall, a more sensitive person.  I couldn't listen to heavy music anymore, I had to take it slower when I read poetry or philosophy, and it pained me to notice myself behaving arrogantly.  I even had a harder time watching violent or emotionally intense movies.  I found myself preferring art with a moral message.

Something deep in my brain had rebelled-- and powerfully-- against my lifestyle.  I didn't realize the significance of this until several years-- and several hundred books-- later.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Three Universes: A Psychological Crisis Deepens

I still vividly remember my inner conflict over physics as an undergrad.  On the one hand, all the physicists I was meeting, no matter how brilliant and good at what they did, turned out have little or no interest in the outside world.  No wonder, I suppose.  To be one of the world's best physicists, you probably have to devote yourself exclusively to physics.  On the other hand, I knew that physics was considered the deepest and most fundamental knowledge of reality.  No matter who I talked to, they said you could go on to study any science you wanted once you had a physics degree.  So I stuck with physics as my chosen major.

Nevertheless, that insatiable longing I've described would overtake me almost any time I had a spare moment.  It urged me to read something deep and meaningful, or to write "profound" poetry, or to ponder consciousness or reality. 

I turned to poetry.  It seemed that of all the art forms, poetry was able to express the most with the fewest words.  I wrote many experimental poems, trying to express this longing that I had, but continually failing.  It was your classic, angst-ridden, jouvenile poetry, except filled with allusions to physics and science which, rather than making the poetry deeper, usually rendered it bizzare and incomprehensible.

I also start listening to indie rock.  Among my peers, indie rock was considered the pinnacle of modern art:  experimental and intelligent, yet emotionally powerful and accessible.  It never crossed my mind that a fellow 19-year old was probably not the best source of refined musical taste.  Probably because in our messed-up "modern" culture, everything is turned on its head:  newer is always better.  All that old-fashioned, sentimental crap, whether rhyming poetry, folk music, or religion, is for the weak-minded.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom that I had not yet thought to question.

So there I was, plowing through endless problem sets of mechanical math exercises, blasting avant-garde hard rock on my speakers, as if the combination of the two, Order and Chaos, Science and Art, would somehow satiate my soul.  After dashing off a few secret verses of nonsensical physics-poetry, I would then run off to get drunk with friends who seemed cooler than me, but who I later would realize were not all that much wiser.

My world was fragmented.  Physics, poetry, and the pop-culture banter of my friends each seemed to inhabit a universe all of their own.  My longing grew deeper:  this was not how life was supposed to be.  Inhabitants in each universe ridiculed the others:  physicists dislike poets, and the hip disdain both.

But then, out of the blue, I was inspired to write a short story.  The story combined elements of all three:  it was a sci-fi fantasy story exploring the nature of time, inspired by Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and infused with a darkly cynical avant-garde absurdism.  It poured out of me almost automatically over the course of three nearly-sleepless days. 

I still don't know what the story meant.  Probably not much.  But I showed it to my friends and ... they liked it.  A door was opened:  finally I had found a way to express myself.  But this door would soon lead to the opening of additional, very dangerous doors.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Physics Omniscient?

As I've been saying, Caltech had a great deal to offer in the way of intense experiences.  Cutting-edge science, brilliant and zany undergrads, and interaction with professors.  But for a mind like mine, that craves quiet contemplation and seeks out the wider connections among things, all of this activity was widely missing the mark and leaving me unsatisfied. 

One expects professors to be somewhat distant, especially toward na├»ve undergrads.  But I didn't have much luck explaining myself to my fellow physics majors either.  Most of them had already been entirely convinced that physics was the only genuine form of knowledge and the key to making all of science precise and unified.  Attempting to determine how deep this madness went, I would often ask whether it would be possible to develop a simple theory that could predict any future event.  Usually they would say that they did, and when I attacked this view they would do anything they could to defend it.  I found this defensiveness strange, since scientists had by no means even come close to having such omniscient knowledge.

The question of whether total knowledge is possible is actually an old debate in physics.  The 18th century physicist Laplace first pointed out that, assuming that everything is made of atoms, and that one has an equation of motion governing their movement, then given enough pencil and paper and time, one should be able to calculate where all those atoms will go based on where they are and how fast they're moving.  In this way the future could, theoretically, be predicted perfectly.  Of course, in practice there is no way one could keep track of all the atoms in the universe.  But sometimes shortcuts are possible in calculation, and in fact it is the whole business of physics to discover these, or its equations would be useless in practice.  So it was not entirely illogical for some of my fellow physicists to claim that the ultimate shortcut might one day be discovered.  Famous mathematicians and physicists from all different ages had held such a belief, from the ancient greek geometer Pythagoras, to the late quantum physicist Paul Dirac, to the still breathing and very influential Roger Penrose.

Nevertheless, from the time I first heard the idea to this very day I've found the idea that we humans might one day be omniscient thoroughly absurd.  Does the importance of modern science hinge on it?  No, of course not.  But to believe that omniscience is achievable is to believe that a simple equation could conquer the world, and thus destroy all its infinite richness and diversity.  This doesn't prove that it's not possible, but how could anyone honestly strive for such a goal?

Hopefully this has made it a bit more clear why I kept turning back to art and poetry, which not only seemed to affirm the fundamental mysteriousness of life, but glory in it.  I meant to say more about this in today's post, but it's late, so I'll leave it for tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Longing I Could Not Shake

I've described to an extent how, as a physics undergrad at Caltech, my soul became by degrees more and more starved for meaning.  Caltech was certainly an intense experience, and in several ways.  We studied hard, we partied hard, and we were a creative bunch who could always find "wacky" ways to pass the time.  But my experience was missing the one essential element I had most anticipated, namely, deep conversations about important things. 

Caltech is a place where everyone is engaged in furious investigation, so furious that apparently no one has the time to ask "what for?"  Caltech has the best professor-student ratio of any top-notch university in the U.S. (3-1), and in fact I personally got to know or do research with half a dozen different professors from as many different fields.  But, despite my best efforts, I was unable to engage any of these professors in any useful conversation about the wider significance of their research, the long-term goals of their investigations, or how they connected to the real world.

The 80-year-old chair of the physics department himself, who I spent many hours with in a small (5 person) research tutorial my freshman year, would deliberately bring up Pulitzer prize winning nonfiction -- I specifically remember "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and "Godel, Escher, Bach," being among them -- discuss them superficially, drop a few hints that he found them imprecise and speculative, and then end further discussion with four words: 

"Very interesting. Very interesting."

One day, looking for help in clarifying my own research goals, I went to him and asked whether he would like to hear what they were.  "Not really," he said.  That's when I stopped bothering him.

My first summer there I worked with a planetary scientist on a theoretical puzzle concerning the moons of Mars, Phobos and Demos.  He was a bit more personable, and in fact I did have several conversations with him about the question of whether there was any useful knowledge aside from science and engineering.  But at no point did he budge from the position that all non-science was polluted with subjective feeling and therefore of little or no interest.  Bizzarely, it was thus impossible to get him to discuss the motivation or purpose of science, except in terms of having a successful career as a scientist.  But that's like asking a plumber what plumbing is for and having him answer, "So you can be a successful." "So you're saying that you can't be successful outside of plumbing?  What about carpentry?"  "But carpentry is polluted by subjective judgements that haven't been verified by plumbers yet." 

The next summer I worked with a theoretical physicist on quantum information theory.  He was a quiet guy, but we built up a rapport and seemed to understand one another on most things.  Later, when I wrote him a long letter defending my decision to apply to grad school in philosophy, he sent back an email containing only these words, "Different people think about different things."  At the time, I felt validated.  But now, looking back on it, this was the most brilliant refutation of all, because it pretended there was no controversy in the first place. 

I myself would often doubt there was a controversy.  But this feeling would only last as long as I was preoccuppied with some piece of mathematics or other.  As soon as I had a quiet moment, the old longing for something more complex -- more human, more anything -- would take hold and drive me back to my poetry.

My growing relationship with poetry and art is the next important chapter in this story.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Life at Caltech; The Riddle of the Complex

Exactly 10 years ago, I was one of three hundred bright-eyed freshmen at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA.  Palm trees, perfect weather, and problem sets would saturate my next four years.

I, like most of my classmates, was initially devastated by my academic performance:  about average.  But after seeing the typical fates of those who had managed to pass out of introductory physics or math -- one poor guy in my hall overloaded on credits and literally drove himself manic-depressive -- I was grateful to be normal for once in my life.  Gradually, I learned to spend what little free time I had drinking beer in the courtyard and making friends.

Since I had grown so accustomed to being a nerd, it took some time to realize that I was one of the cool kids at Caltech.  Looking back on my behavior, though, I now regret having blown my chance to use these newfound powers for good.  I gradually developed an artsy, avant-garde image and an absurdly crude sense of humor.  I drank, partied, and did my best to corrupt other hapless nerds into a hedonistic worldview.  I became part of a clique that, by the time senior year came, set much of the tone for what jerk-off behavior was and wasn't cool at Tech.  There were even, for the first time in my life, girls who liked me.

Despite these external changes, and despite 40 hours of math problems per week, my inner life continued -- keeping journals, pondering imponderables, and visiting libraries during every spare moment.  But rather than trying to get ahead in physics like everyone else, I decided I wanted to learn about other things, like literature, art, and poetry.  The more I read, the more I needed.  It became like water for my parched soul.

But my thoughts and journals were by no means limited to non-science.  I frequently entertained the wildest speculations about the nature of the universe.  Since reading Hawking's book, I had read and continued to read popular books about time-travel and wormwholes, artificial intelligence and Godel's Theorem, and chaos theory and complex systems theory. 

For a scientist reading this, perhaps it paints a picture of a gullible mind.  But that was not how I saw myself.  I wanted to teach myself to think creatively, to see the big picture, and to understand the line between a scientific idea and a mystical or pseudoscientific idea.  I was extremely skeptical of the theories of Douglas Hofstadter, Roger Penrose, and Stuart Kauffman, for instance, and in fact I would have been very surprised to ever learn that they were true.  What I admired in them, however, was their ability to critique and explore ways of thinking outside the usual frameworks.  They were rebels -- the bad-boy hipsters of science.

But what was I searching for in all of these mad ideas, neglecting my problem sets in the library late at night?  I'm still not entirely sure.  At the time, I was certainly obsessed with the idea that physics -- mere particles moving according to equations -- was not the whole story about reality.  It wasn't that I thought that there were spiritual forces in addition to particles, or meaningful coincidences, or life after death.  It stood to reason that everything was made of particles.  But the most interesting things that these particles could do when brought together, from composing symphonies to staging political revolutions, did not seem to fall under the purview of physics at all.  And physics was supposed to be science at its best.

Still, how would I know I had found what I was looking for?  I couldn't have told you.  Physics was apparently the only precise science.  But real science must be precise, which meant that physics was the only real science.  But physics was only about particles, and not about things we care about, like people or societies.  Thus I was driven to read the writings of avant-garde mathematicians who thought they could extend their precise models to so-called "complex systems," that is, people or societies.  But even if this were possible, what could you do but laugh off a simple equation describing all of human civilization, no matter how true the equation?

On and on my search went.  But what was I after? 

I think, ultimately, it was a search for the divine in a world from which God had long since been banished.

(Background story to be continued ...)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Allure of Physics

I had always read a lot of science books growing up.  But the book that changed my life, at the age of 15, was Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time."  (For those of you who were asleep through the 90s or were too young to remember, Stephen Hawking is a British physicist in a wheelchair who became famous for his skill at explaining Einstein's theories to non-physicists.)

After reading this book, I became convinced that physics was the key to understanding The Big Picture.  What is this world all about?  Where did it come from?  Where is it going?  These were my favorite sorts of questions.  And since I was a smart kid and good at math, I decided that physics would be my career.  I even had the secret wish that I would one day solve the problem that had stumped Einstein and every physicist since:  Grand Unification.

In our society, physics is always shrouded in mystique.  Physicists throw around these mystical sounding terms, such as "The Theory of Everything," "Quantum Mechanics," "General Relativity," "Space-time," etc.  To make things worse, they use their theories to build atomic bombs, rocketships, lasers, and X-Ray machines.  Can you blame me, a 15-year-old boy, for getting mixed up with such riff-raff?

Perhaps now, 15 years later, I can give a more objective description of what physics is.

Let's stick to the basics.  Physics is a science.  Its area of interest is, roughly speaking, how things move.  The typical questions that physicists like to ask are "How does an electron move?" or "How does a planet move?" or "How does light move?" or "How does an X-Ray move?"

Surprisingly, for almost any practical question like this, physicists have discovered an equation that allows you to calculate a precise answer.  This is why, in beginners' physics, you always start out with dumb questions like, "Driving at 60 miles per hour for 5 hours, how far have you gone?" The point is to teach you to think about motion in terms of numbers.  The scope of physics is, to put it bluntly, very narrow.

But that wasn't how it was presented at all in the popular science books I read as a teenager.  Instead, it was all about faster-than-light spaceships, artificial intelligence, and using fusion to create energy for free out of water.  Most physicists seemed to think that science would soon solve all problems.  And not only were physicists supposedly the smartest people around, they had already done the most to create the wondrous technological world we now live in.  The future, it seemed, was physics.  And I was going to do everything I could to be part of it.

Four years later, I started my undergraduate career as a physics major at Caltech.

(Background story to be continued ...)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Value of the Ancients

I enjoy reading old books.  Most people seem to assume that the best books are the most recent ones.  But I say the older the more worthwhile.  Old books have proved their mettle.  It's good to read new books too, of course, but it's always more of a gamble.

It's very difficult for a book to survive more than a few decades.  For example, when Emily and I browse the clearance boxes at the used bookstore on Craig Street, most of the books we find there are less than twenty years old.  In fact, it's always surprising, and a bit sad, to find a book more than 50 years old in the clearance boxes, because you know that if it isn't sold, they'll have no choice but to throw it away, and chances are you're looking at one of the last copies.  There are probably around a million new books published every year.  It would be impossible for a library or used book store to save a copy of each one.  Most books are doomed to oblivion.

But there's a bright side to these sad thoughts.  Any book that has survived centuries -- or millenia -- must be something exceptional.  And we've got many such books: the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Ovid, Cicero and all those other brilliant Greeks and Romans living a couple of millenia back.  Of course, fewer books were written back then, but the test they've had to withstand has been just as grueling.  For 1500 years they had to be copied by hand from one crumbling manuscript to another.  Life was not easy during the Dark Ages, and it should flatter Aristotle that monk after monk found the time to copy all his many books.  Most Greek philosophers were not so lucky.

A similar story can be told about the holy books of the world's religions, including the Bible, the Tao-te-Ching, the Koran, the Confucian Analects, and the hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu scriptures out there.  Some have estimated that there have been at least 100,000 religions or religious sects created over the course of history.  Those that have survived must be something extraordinary.  In fact, I know they are, because nothing else I've read has done nearly as much to clarify my thinking.

It is absurd when scientists talk about "overcoming" religion or philosophy, simply because they have proven mistaken now and then.  Perfect knowledge is not obtainable by us tiny mortals.  But we've certainly accumulated some gems worth passing down. 

"I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it." -Confucius

"He who by reanimating the old can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher." -Confucius

Confucius lived around 500 B.C. and is considered one of the founding figures in Chinese philosophy. Yet he claimed that most of his knowledge was more ancient still, from books which are now lost.

Friday, November 12, 2010

About my blog

I'm keeping this blog primarily for the sake of my family and friends.  As of recently, I've started feeling the need to express my philosophical thoughts, but in a form that people close to me can understand.  As most of you probably know, I've been working on a book now for several years.  But perhaps I've been writing this book for an audience that doesn't exist.  What use is a philosophy that only the person writing it can understand?  Or only a small circle of professionals that specialize in the same topic?  This is the sort of thing you are pushed to write in today's academic world.

When I realized this, I thought maybe I'd start another draft of my book, a draft understandable by those I care most about -- my wife, parents, siblings, and close friends.  A book that spends less time explaining obscure theories and more time explaining how we can change our lives in a positive way

Maybe, I thought.  But books are so darn time-consuming. 

Today, I had a new idea.  I know what I want to say, so why not just say it?  Hence this blog.  It's an attempt to share my philosophy, two or three thoughts at a time.

One more thing tonight before I sign out.  You may be wondering about the title.  "Recovered philosopher?  But I thought Sam was still getting a PhD in that subject."  Very true.  Definitely still going for the PhD.  But I feel like, by starting this blog, I'm finally emerging into the real world, to talk to real people about what I've found out there in philosophy-land -- the Land-of-Old-Books.  It's easy to get lost in that world, and those who forget to return are the true "philosophers."  A fate I personally aim to avoid.