Friday, February 25, 2011

New Blog

I've started an alternate blog, "Philosophy, Ecology, and Spirituality," where I'll be posting my philosophy book as I write it.  This blog will remain my personal blog, and I will continue to update both blogs periodically.  There is no need to check both blogs - I will post links on this blog to every new post on the other blog.

Today I posted:

-I.1.1. The Big Bang

Friday, February 18, 2011

Interlude II: Revelatory Dreams

In my previous post I described how, by the spring of 2008, my life had gotten on the wrong track completely.  I was working on a dissertation on reduction and emergence, a topic I no longer had much interest in.  I felt hemmed in because what really interested me was philosophy of the old-fashioned "deep" kind, which searches for broader perspectives, and not the technical sort of hairsplitting that the professors would accept as a dissertation topic.  But I decided to simply go through the motions, because I was tired of fighting.  I started reading Nietzsche again, and became once again steeped in cynicism.  And though I talked a lot about dropping out of the program, I didn't bother to set any wheels in motion.

My attitude changed radically after having what I now consider to be my third major mystical experience.  Somewhere deep in my subconscious there was still a connection with the divine that could not be broken.  But for this "still small voice" to be heard, it had to strike me with the worst terror I have ever felt in my life.  Looking back on it, I don't think anything else would have done it.  No positive experience could have forced me to change my ways, and I had grown used to the minor nightmares and flashbacks that struck me now and then.  Call it a lightning bolt from God if you want, because that's exactly what it felt like.

Sometime in March or April of 2008 I woke at 4:15 a.m. from a horrifying nightmare.  What exactly the dream was I have since forced from my memory.  What I do remember is that when I woke up I literally believed that I was going to die.  My heart was pounding in my chest like a jackhammer and I was almost certain that I would suffer cardiac arrest and die within seconds.  The nightmare was still vivid in my head and I was doing everything I could to forget it, because I also believed that even if I survived I was on the verge of slipping into utter madness. 

These beliefs were so strong in my mind that adrenaline flooded my system and I acted quickly out of desperation.  Recalling a doctor once telling me that some patients were on a dose of 3000 mg of the medication I was taking (I was on 100 at the time), I decided to swallow another 1000 mg right there.  I knew that it wasn't meant to be used this way (it's a long-term medication that you slowly build up) but I hoped it would shock my system into some kind of sanity.  Next, I dialed my best friend Claire in California, who had been with me during my breakdown in college, hoping she could talk me out of it.  When she didn't answer I called my dad.  After talking with him for about 15 minutes, walking up and down the dark street outside to get fresh air, I realized that nothing he said was doing me any good.  My heart was still pounding, my thoughts were racing, and in every way I felt that I was re-entering the manic state I had fought so hard to overcome in college.  I no longer thought I was going to die, but somehow I couldn't shake the thought that I had lost my mind.

Suddenly, on a whim, I asked my dad to promise me that I could buy a ticket the next morning and fly home as soon as possible.  The thought of leaving Pittsburgh turned out to be the only thought that could calm me down.  Once he'd made the promise, I went back to bed and suffered through five hours of visual and auditory hallucinations as the medication took effect.  By morning, I was doing all right again, though a little hungover.  At this point there was no doubt in my mind that I had to change my life.  Having come face-to-face with spiritual death, my faith in a higher power was renewed, and I was once again determined to follow my journey through to the end. 

During the leave of absence that followed, however, I still had a tendency to meander from the path I needed to take.  Somehow I knew that I needed to go through some kind of spiritual purification process, but I put it off because I was afraid, telling myself that I didn't want to risk another nervous breakdown.  I resigned myself to working on my Progress project while studying the Old Testament, the Confucian Analects, and the Bhagavad Gita on the side.  Reading these texts turned out to be a crucial decision, because I started to see that "religion" is in fact simply our name for what is profoundest in philosophy.  I came to realize that genuine religion doesn't claim to give you the absolute truth, but rather helps you to come to terms with the fact that reality will always be beyond human understanding, and shows you how to build a better life based on what you do know.

I had finally started to make real progress.  But there were still several things that were holding me up:

1) I was still afraid of practicing religion.  In particular, I was afraid of praying because I felt that if I attempted to confront the infinite, my mind would be too weak and would crack again.

2) I was afraid to give my heart to God, because I felt that, being unable to comprehend Him, I would end up worshiping a mere idea or idol.

3) However, I believed that if I stripped away all the unnecessary superstitions and trappings of religion, I could rediscover the "primal" religion and comprehend what spirituality really was.

Each of these fears and delusions were resolved in turn by a set of three mystical experiences I had while living unemployed in a dingy student-apartment in Santa Cruz.  I moved to Santa Cruz in late August of 2009, having saved up some money from a summer job and wanting to fulfill a promise and spend a few months living near Claire.  She was an old college friend (majoring in mathematics and literature at Caltech), and through all of my experiences she had been the only person I could tell everything.  She has always been there to nudge me back on the right path when I've lost my way.  At the time, she too was having a number of life changing experiences, including mystical ones, and we needed to get together and figure things out.

The first experience I had in Santa Cruz was an incredibly vivid dream.  I was hiking through the forest, searching for an ancient temple.  A demigod was guiding me, a blond man who was flying around in the treetops saying, "Come and I'll show you the true religion of your ancestors, the religion in your blood."  As we traveled the forest became flooded, the waters rising higher and higher.  Somehow I, too, was able to rise above the waters.  When we finally reached the temple I went inside and was met with a gaudy display.  It was a giant grail, covered in jewels, carvings, and symbols.  It was beautiful beyond description, but also somehow grotesque.  I knew that by deciphering the symbols I would come to understand this true religion.  But I found that the harder I tried to decipher them, the less I understood.

I woke up from the dream perplexed.  It took me several days to figure out the meaning, but when I finally did -- with some help from Claire -- it fit every detail perfectly.  By clinging to the religion of our ancestors we end up worshiping idols.  This is why it's impossible to discover the one true "primal" religion.  It's impossible to explain or comprehend what spirituality really means, because it's a relationship to the incomprehensible Infinite.  These realizations led me to give up on my quest to find the best religion, or to rid myself of all superstitions.  We are finite beings, and even if God could be expressed in symbols, like he was on the Grail in my dream, there would be no way for us to comprehend Him entirely.  Claire herself told me once, "Sam, you're never going to find 'the best' religion."

After I had come to terms with these truths, I started to meditate more earnestly on God's divine nature.  It invigorated me, and I suddenly felt like I was part of humanity again, most of whom believe in a higher power of some sort.  It felt like I had tapped into a powerful source.  Careful not to attempt to comprehend God, I was able to pray in a sort of half-hearted way, though it didn't feel quite right yet.  Part of me was still scared that I was worshiping an idol.

This is when I had the second dream.  In this dream I was in a large, middle-eastern city.  I was out in the streets, and felt the urge to praise God out loud.  When I did, first one person joined me, then two, then a dozen, and we were soon racing through the streets screaming at the top of our lungs, "Praise God!"  Everyone in the city joined us, and the din was deafening, but we all kept yelling louder and louder.

Once again I woke up puzzled.  This time I was up for about an hour working it out.  I realized that worshiping God is about feeling his peace in your heart, not about screaming it from the rooftops and converting everyone you meet.  It is about quietly studying the sacred texts, quietly praying, and quietly changing one's life.  Jesus said:

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do no keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words."  (Matthew 6:5-7)

The third and most important mystical experience I had was not a dream at all.  This time it was an experience of the joyful kind, the kind that brings one to tears. I was reading the Koran, and the phrase "Allah is merciful" which is repeated throughout, finally started to sink in.  It meant that all that is needed for enlightenment is a genuine desire to live according to what is sacred.  For example, according to the Koran, both Jews and Christians are saved because they follow God.  Theism is not a straitjacket.  It liberates you by showing you how to more easily avoid those paths that lead to self-destruction.  By healing your own spirit and making it whole, you are in fact given more power to accomplish what needs to be done.  God cannot expect you to be perfect -- only sincere.

Realizing this, I was finally able to kneel and pray wholeheartedly.

Within weeks my life was back on track.  I stopped taking all my medications completely, stopped having nightmares, met my future wife, and began planning out a final draft for my book on progress. 

If I were to formulate the two most basic things I've learned from these experiences, it would be these:

1) Pray or meditate every day.
2) Read some kind of holy scripture every day.

Even if you don't believe, try to finish reading at least 2 or 3 major religious scriptures at some point in your life.  I doubt you will regret it, and I wager it will be cheaper and more effective than any amount of counseling.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interlude I: Mystical Experiences

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you might have noticed that I jump around a lot. First I promise to talk about the history of civilization, then the history of evolution, and then the struggles I'm having with the department here, quickly getting caught up in tangents at every point. I apologize for this. But on the other hand this is a work in progress, and as I write I get a better idea of what I actually wanted to say. Perhaps later I'll come back and start organizing things.
In my last post I talked about my time off, and the philosophical difficulties I ran into as I tried to find purpose in the world without "Progress." If it's true that there are as many poor people in the world as there has ever been, then what is all this technology and bureaucracy for? What is civilization for? Up until I doubted progress, I had devoted my life to advancing science. Without progress, I was just no longer sure what to do with my brain.
But things were not as bad as they seemed -- back in 2009 living as a confused philosopher-hermit -- because all of my experiences so far had somehow prepared me for the next step, namely, an acceptance of the incomprehensible divine in everything.
No argument can possibly prove the existence of God (or the Tao, or Buddha-nature, or whatever). This is because the nature of the divine is beyond all human understanding. Then why even think about it? asks the atheist. But that's just my point, you can't. What you can do is come to an acceptance of your own inability to grasp it, and do your best to understand those aspects of the divine that can be contemplated by humans.
Why is it even important to think about God? For me, it brings a sense of purpose and of peace with my place in the world. But it is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling that I need to feel better about things. Through a number of extremely painful psychological lessons, I've come to learn that some notion of sacredness is necessary if one is to think and act freely and independently. Without it, you get caught between the rock of conformism, and the hard place of pure madness. In my case, conformism meant blindly following the academic path, and pure madness meant inventing a purpose for myself out of nothing.
The story of my relationship with God stretches back a long time, and to understand the life-changing mystical experiences I had in the winter of 2009, it is necessary to tell the whole story.
I first became an atheist some time around the age of 16 or 17, after reading the book Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. This book convinced me that the mind can be explained as nothing more than a collection of neurons firing. This convinced me that science had the only explanations worth thinking about.
This tendency in my thinking began to reverse in college, when I became fascinated with the experience of poetic inspiration. I found that reading poems like Wallace Stevens's "13 Ways to Look at a Blackbird" and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" altered my experience of the world in a way I couldn't explain logically. I still believed (and do believe now) that an advanced-enough science could, theoretically, explain poetic or mystical inspiration. But what I realized was that poetry gives you new and interesting ways of understanding certain things. At the time I was starved for meaning, and grasping at the most profound-seeming ideas at hand -- namely science and art -- I tried to create for myself a new and better world view combining both. This quest is what eventually led to my nervous breakdown around the time of graduation in 2004.
At the height of the breakdown, during what my doctors were calling a "psychotic break with reality," I had my first full-blown mystical experience. This is the most difficult of my experiences to explain, because I was so far off track it came to seem that my entire reality was breaking down. I'll try to be brief here because it's not worth dwelling on all the details, details that are all-too-painful to recall ...
During the three weeks leading up to this experience, I was having what the doctors were calling a "manic episode": racing thoughts, inability to sleep or concentrate, decreased appetite, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur. My thoughts were moving so fast that every second seemed like a minute, every minute and hour, and every hour like several days. After three weeks of this I decided that I had to do whatever I could to end it. After another sleepless night, around 11 a.m., I finally took some Tylenol PM and dozed off for seven hours, waking at 6 p.m. Though I felt somewhat better, I could not even think about work yet and asked my girlfriend if she wanted to take a trip to the beach, so I could relax and clear my head.
I drove us down okay, but once we were there, the sight of the ocean under the darkening sky suddenly hit me with a vision of Eternity. I felt that I had finally come in contact with the most sacred and infinite thing in the world, and it caused me to break down in tears.
It was an immense relief. But I was far from cured. It took another week of off-and-on mania before I felt relatively sane again. My doctors told me I had manic-depression, and I believed them and started taking medication. I would continue taking this meditation until my final set of experiences in Santa Cruz in the winter of 2009.
After the experience of 2004 I noticed several dramatic changes in myself. First, I believed in God again, because I had experienced Him directly. During the next several years there were only fleeting periods when I doubted again. Second, I became more sensitive and compassionate. I had far less tolerance for violence in movies and music. It became much more painful when I said something that hurt the feelings of a friend.
But simply believing in God and being a nice person is not always enough. In my case, I still suffered from excessive pride and ambition, and I lacked any firm foundation upon which to build my philosophizing. But there I was, an intelligent student in philosophy grad school, being told that all that was needed for good philosophy was logic. My newfound mystical streak led me to doubt this dogma. My biggest problem was I had nothing to put in its place.
One day while driving my car to Cleveland in 2006, I was contemplating my frustration over pure logic, coming at it from every angle I could to figure out what about modern philosophy was driving me up the wall. I was contemplating the history of civilization, the future of humanity, and the purpose of philosophy -- and then I was hit with what I would later consider to be my second major mystical experience. I broke down in tears and had to pull to the side of the road for several minutes before I was collected enough to drive again. To explain what such an experience is like is impossible. But I have no doubt that again I came in contact with the Divine. After the experience I noticed that a great deal of my ambition had been broken. I no longer cared about philosophy or degrees or academia. I realized that what I really wanted, more than anything else, was to help people. From then on my only goal in philosophy was to make it into something that could change people's lives for the better, to give them the things that had been missing from my own life since I had fallen in love with pure science as a teenager.
Mystical experiences, I've found, can be either painful or pleasurable. Their impact on one's life is generally positive, but sometimes what one really needs a kick in the pants.
When I need a kick in the pants, it normally comes in the form of a nightmare. I mean literally -- a dream that causes me to wake up in a cold sweat, heart pounding furiously until I can decipher its meaning. This has happened to me dozens of times since my breakdown in 2004, and -- looking back on them -- I deserved every one.
The most intense nightmare I've ever had struck in the spring of 2008. I had been thinking about taking a leave of absence for some time, but suddenly my dissertation on reduction and emergence started to come together, and I figured that I would postpone this plan until after graduation.
I'm now very glad that I didn't, because it would have landed me in the fast track to nowhere: a dissertation on a topic that doesn't interest you is bound to land you in a job that doesn't interest you (as I've realized fully only in the last few months).
It took the worst nightmare of my life to change my mind. ... But I've got to leave this for next time, because it's time for me and Emily to spend some movie-watching time together. :)

(to be continued)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part IV

In my last post, I explained how my "emergence" project started back in 2007. As a grad student in the History and Philosophy of Science, I started to think that philosophy had become so distracted by science, that it had forgotten about the bigger picture almost completely. As I read all the great philosophers of the past -- such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche -- I found that they all very explicitly criticized the sort of narrow scholarship that I was finding in modern philosophy. They all looked for ways to break out of mere argumentation, and discuss things that matter. This was the sort of task that I saw ahead for myself.

I saw "emergence" as the first step. Emergence is the idea that complex things have properties that can't be reduced to the motions of atoms. I thought that if I could show that biology and the social sciences could not be reduced to physics, then it might leave room for art, literature, and old-fashioned philosophy as well. My theory of emergence was supposed to show that pure physics could never encompass the rest of science, because new "laws of nature" would arise in complex systems (such as molecules and organisms). After discovering that the mathematics I had developed for my theory had already been discovered and published by someone else, I decided that my dissertation would be about the wider philosophical implications of emergence.

But this landed me in pretty weird territory. Where was I going with all of this? What would my conclusion be? That physics is not quite as great as we thought it was?

So I asked myself, "Where did philosophy make its wrong turn?" The answer I came to was that it happened back in the 20s and 30s with a movement called "Logical Positivism." The logical positivists -- the most famous of which was Bertrand Russell -- had been extremely impressed with advances in physics, mathematics, and technology, and quite fed up with the obscure metaphysics of the Hegelians (the ruling party of philosophical scholars). They argued that old debates over God, morality, society, and values had all gone nowhere in hundreds of years, and that philosophy should imitate the methods of science, so that it could achieve similar progress. Science had given us cars, planes, and computing machines. Metaphysics had only given us incomprehensible arguments. Clearly (Bertrand Russell and others argued) science had gotten something right.

The writings of this group proved enormously popular among scientists, intellectuals, and the majority of philosophers in the United States. Over time, this way of seeing things became dominant. The task of philosophy was now to uncover the principles of logic that underlie the success of science. After a couple of decades of trying to develop this master system of logic, it became clear that the task was impossible or at least premature. Logical positivism eventually died (sometime in the 60s or 70s) -- but the goal of understanding science lived on as "Analytic Philosophy," based on the faith that the rational principles underlying the success of science could still be discovered.

All I had accomplished with my theory of emergence, at best, was to show that a certain proposed principle of science -- "reduction" -- was no good. But it seemed to me that I might prove still more. If there were no laws of nature that were universally applicable, then perhaps there were no laws of reason that were universally applicable.

Here's what I mean when I say I was in weird territory. My idea was basically that the whole of Analytic Philosophy was off track. This idea was by no means unheard of, and in fact there had been dozens of philosophers that had argued against positivism and analytic philosophy over the last 80 years, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Polanyi, and Richard Rorty -- all famous names. The problem was that all of these thinkers had been forced to the fringes of the Analytic tradition.

In December of 2007, the faculty asked me for a progress report on my research, including a sketch of what I was envisioning for my dissertation, so they could evaluate my performance in the program so far. Overestimating their confidence in my abilities, and underestimating the extent of their concern, I was completely honest about my interests. I mentioned Wittgenstein, Polanyi, and Rorty (all of which are usually considered off limits) and tried to explain that I wanted to make some of their ideas more precise.

Their reaction was not happy. They did their best to make logical mincemeat out of what I had written -- something that I had written not to be an argument at all, but merely a rough sketch. In meeting after meeting they told me that my progress was too slow and that I simply had to start going through the motions to finish my dissertation. They told me that I should just follow the formula: read everything written on my topic in the last 50 years, summarize it in about 50 pages, and then try to demonstrate that I had a solution to the problem. The impression I got was that it was not permitted to think "outside" of the analytic tradition.

At first I decided to follow their advice. After all, I was only a graduate student. I could work on these wider issues as a professor. So for a time I buckled down, and started to grind through. I worked on this throughout the winter and spring of 2008, reading everything I could get my hands on about reduction and emergence.

Once I had thoroughly understood the literature, I was extremely disappointed with the picture that seemed to emerge. The most reasonable arguments for emergence have been made back in the 20s by a philosopher called Samuel Alexander. He had even used the argument that it would be impossible to use physics to calculate everything in practice, even if it could be done in theory. He talked about how complexes could emerge, and give rise to new laws. He explained it all using common sense, and he even argued that it rendered logical positivism utter nonsense.

His arguments had never been adequately answered, in my view. This still could have made for an interesting dissertation, but the real problem at this point was that I no longer cared. It seemed like I could spend the rest of my life arguing over reduction and emergence, which from my point of view were merely stepping stones to what was really important, namely, reviving the old spirit of philosophy that was neither dogmatic nor overly logical, but which sought to face directly the biggest problems facing humankind. It did not seem to me that I was on the right track to accomplishing this.

In fact, I was fed up and wanted to try a new way of life entirely. I decided to take a two-year leave of absence to see if I could find a different path that would give me more time to read and think about the things that I cared about.

This was in the spring of 2008. For the next two years, I was no longer in Philosophy School, but out on my own.

Interlude: Adventures as a God-seeking Hermit

During my four years as a grad student I had managed to save up several thousand dollars. This was enough money that I was able to spend much of my two years living on my own, unemployed, reading, thinking, and writing for most of the day. Summer 2008 I was with my parents in Hyrum, Utah; August 2008 - June 2009 I lived in a studio apartment by myself in Logan, UT; Summer 2009 I lived in Rhode Island (teaching nerd camp) visited New York, and ended up in Santa Cruz, where I lived unemployed until January 2010, when I returned to my parent's house, broke, and met my future wife, Emily.

In all this time I didn't spend five minutes thinking about reduction or emergence. Analytic philosophy in general only took up maybe 5% of my time. My perspective widened, and I reveled in my freedom. I thought mostly about civilization, society, progress, evolution, and utopia. My main obsession for the first year of my break was to find a way to prove that progress and utopia were impossible. It seemed to me that this was the surest way to finally cure philosophy of its obsession with science.

What I failed to realize at first was that this project would bring me no better satisfaction than emergence had. You would still be left with the question: so what? So what if science isn't so great? What do we replace it with? So what if there's no progress? What are we supposed to strive for?

I spent a lot of time looking for philosophers other than Nietzsche or Lao Tzu that could help me. I delved into Montaigne, Lichtenberg, Paul Valerie, and Thomas Carlisle. They were all worth reading, but none of them brought me the satisfaction I was looking for. In every case they questioned pure science, but they never had anything to replace it with. Over and over they made the point that science was mechanical, dead, and without life, vitality, or purpose. But then where does one find life, vitality, and purpose? These things are obviously essential to a satisfying life, but nobody seemed to know what they were.

In these philosophers from centuries ago, I had found a group of fellow sufferers. We'd all been searching for a spirited way of life, but lacked any way to explain what this really meant. Nietzsche called science "despiritualizing," and Carlisle lamented its lack of "sweetness and light."

I myself wrote voluminous notes on this ineffable thing, which I referred to as "vitality" or "spirit." But whenever I went back over these notes they struck me as vapid and unilluminating. The best way I could express it was to say that life must be lived energetically, perhaps even violently, fighting with tooth-and-claw the way animals do in the jungle. I justified this view to myself by appealing to Darwin's theory of evolution, and the fact that modern society had made people into sheltered cowards. Stories from long ago of knights fighting for honor -- I told myself that this was the long lost ideal that was missing.

This was far from satisfying, because there I was, a hermit living on rice and omelettes, spending my days on long walks in the cold contemplating the meaning of life. I was nowhere near the ideal of barbaric living that I supposedly held, and yet deep down I felt that my life was closer to being truly spiritual than ever before.

At times, I was tempted to think that I had finally grasped what spirit was. I would be on a walk, and I would think of one of my hero philosophers who had gone mad trying to discover it. For moment it would seem like I saw what they had been trying to say. But the next moment I would be seized by inexplicable horror, deep anxiety, and racing thoughts. Usually the only way to fight down this anxiety would be to remind myself that the universe is far too complex to be comprehended by any finite mortal, like myself. My nervous breakdown from college would come back to me, and I would back away from these thoughts, afraid of being burned again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part III

Tensions between myself and my professors in graduate school started already when I arrived as a first-year student back in 2004.  As I described in an earlier post ("The Two Cultures"), I was looking for a more human type of philosophy, one that considered moral, social, and spiritual concerns.  This is what brought me out of physics and into philosophy in the first place.  But what I found was that the philosophy department here was primarily concerned with logical analysis of science, rather than considering its wider meaning.

But there still seemed to be grounds for hope.  Philosophers have always prided themselves in considering alternate points of view and discussing them rationally.  I realized that though I might disagree with my professors, this would make interesting grounds for discussion.  Furthermore there was a great diversity of opinion among them, and several of them seem to be receptive to some of the philosophical points I want to make about science.

In my previous post -- "Physics Omniscient?" -- I described how, in college, I debated my fellow students concerning the possibility of a mathematical "Theory of Everything."  It is considered to be one of the central doctrines of modern science that, given a large enough computer, the laws of nature, and the configuration of all the particles in the universe, one could theoretically predict the future perfectly.  Anyone who has studied physics extensively enough comes to realize this that this is true.  Everything that happens is governed by natural laws.  There's no room for magic.

At no point in my career have I doubted this principle.  It's about as sure as the law of gravity.  But during college and early grad school I came to realize that way too much was being made of it.  People were claiming that eventually all sciences would be reduced to equations in physics, that there would even be equations for human consciousness, and that everything would ultimately be explained in terms of particles, demonstrating that basically everything except physics has been an illusion.

It seemed to me that this "physics-worship" was a lot like the "science-worship" that was going on in society at large.  In fact, mathematical physics is considered by most philosophers of science to be the only realm of knowledge that has made real progress.  This worried me greatly, because it directly contradicted my own conclusions that intelligent people need to stop thinking exclusively about molecules and start thinking about things that matter, such as society and values.  And it seemed to me obvious that values and society were never going to be reduced to a simple, easily calculated equation.  If it could, then obviously life would be rendered pointless and trivially mechanical.

These seemed to me obvious points, but as I tried to express them in my philosophy of science papers in grad school, I found that my professors wanted extraordinarily precise arguments for every small point I wanted to make, no matter how clearly true.  I realized that in philosophy these questions had already been debated for decades.  If I wanted to make my ideas into a dissertation, I had to show by logical argumentation how they were better than previous ideas on the same topic. 

My first attempt to do this was my "philosophical account of emergence."  In analytic philosophy, "emergence" is the notion that complex things are more than the sum of their parts.  The opposed notion, "reduction" is the notion that complex things really just reduce to the atoms that make them up.  Reductionists usually saw physics as the most important and profound science.  Emergentists wanted to give every science equal footing, or perhaps even put the social sciences at the top is the most important.  It seemed to me that emergence had the greater promise for helping philosophy out of its physics-obsessed muddle.

Most reductionists had argued using the principle I described above, namely, that a large enough computer could calculate what would happen using the laws of physics that govern the motion of atoms.  The emergentists had been struggling over the decades to overcome this argument, publishing dozens of papers and books over the decades, but not seeming to get anywhere.

My own line of attack was this.  I argued that even if the laws of physics were true and never changed, you could still see the "emergence" of higher level laws (such as Darwin's laws of evolution, for example) which had to be understood in their own terms for science to advance.  This was not an entirely new idea, but my way of defending it was new.  I employed a concept that hadn't been used in the debate before, the "possibility space," which is basically the idea that the laws of physics still allow for number of different possible "complexes" -- such as humans, trees, computers, etc. -- each of which operates both according to the laws of physics and according to the principles that apply to the complex structure.

Did you get that?  If not, you see why it took me almost 30 pages to explain the idea in sufficient detail.  Eventually, this paper passed as my "philosophy comp" (or thesis) and I earned my M.A.

Still, the professors only passed it "with reservations."  I knew that I had a lot of work to do if I was going to make it into a dissertation.

At this point I started debating directly with those professors who leaned more toward the "reductionist" camp, trying to see what they found implausible about my ideas.  This led to my next big "breakthrough" (as I saw it at the time) -- a fully mathematical theory of emergence.

 What I believed I could prove was that the possibility spaces left by the laws of physics were too big ever to be calculated by a physical computer.  In other words, even if one had a theory of everything, there'd be no way for finite mortals (like ourselves) to use this theory to predict everything.  This would mean that the laws of physics would always leave room for computational "shortcuts" -- in other words, the laws of biology, social science, etc.

Did you get that?  Really? Even if you think you do, you don't.  The point of the argument is that it's supposed to be mathematically precise, and I haven't given you the mathematics yet.  By the time I succeeded in working out all the mathematics myself, none of the professors were able to understand it.  They either told me that they didn't have the mathematical skill, or that I had not explained myself clearly enough. 

I was frustrated, but far from giving up.  By this point I had started my fourth year of grad school, and I realized that my skills at mathematics had started to wane.  So I looked around for similar ideas published by physicists or mathematicians, to see if there was someone I could learn the proper math from.

Lo and behold!  I discov
ered that a physicist had proven the exact result I had set out to show, and using almost identical mathematics (his word for a possibility space was "partition").  This vindicated me, I felt.  I no longer felt like a crackpot churning out incomprehensible mathematics.  Someone else had come to the same result using the same basic ideas (On the Computational Capabilities of Physical Systems, 2001).  In fact the results had been published in a highly respected physics journal, Physics Review Letters.

I sent the article to the professors I was working with, explaining that I was not at all disappointed that my ideas had already been published, but actually relieved, because now I could write my dissertation about the philosophical implications of the theory, rather than spending all my time on mathematical formalism.

This was Fall 2007.  But the next few months would prove rough, and would seriously shake my determination.  I'll leave the story for next time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

All I can say is, God bless the Egyptian people

I know I promised to talk more about my experiences in philosophy grad school in this post.  In fact, earlier I promised to talk about the history of life and civilization, to give more context for current events.  But changes are happening quickly now, all over the world, so maybe it's time to get back to the point.

During the next 3-30 years, our society is in for some massive changes.  There is a lot to be excited about, but also a lot to worry about and prepare for.  Countless websites have sprung up all over the web talking about the "collapse" that is coming, and many of them have done a good job of uncovering and explaining what is going on right now and why.  You've got entire towns of people who are trying to live sustainably and self-sufficiency in Oregon, Vermont, and all over the world.  But I'm not yet satisfied with the "big pictures" that are out there yet.  I started explaining my own views in a previous post ("An Alternative Perspective on Collapse"), but there is still a lot I'd like to say.  It's all just too big.  There's no way to sum it up in one post.

So let's come back to what's happening right now.  As oil and arable land have become gradually scarcer, food prices have been rising around the world.  Over the past year a series of floods and droughts has made the harvests especially bad.  Poverty is at its worst in decades throughout Asia and Africa.  Almost the entire Middle East is on the cusp of revolution.  The Tunisian people have already revolted entirely and their president has gone into exile.  The Egyptian people have been protesting en masse for a week now, and though food, police, and many basic services are in jeopardy, they have vowed not to stop until they have an entirely new and democratic constitution.  Similar protests are happening in Jordan and the Jordanian king has already fired his cabinet and started sweeping reforms to avoid a similar fate as Egypt.  There are further protests and talk about revolution in Libya, Sudan (which just yesterday and today had massive protests in its capital), Saudi Arabia, and Syria.  Israel is shaking in its boots (,8599,2045166,00.html).

Basically the entire nation of Egypt is on the streets calling for the resignation of their "president" (i.e. dictator), Mubarak, and the drafting of an entirely new constitution by the people.  These are mostly peaceful demonstrations -- the violence that has occurred has been largely due to criminals and a few radicals.  Mubarak, who's been in power for 30 years, seems to know that his time is up.  He's told the army not to fire on civilians, and has agreed to leave office this September.  But the protests are continuing as before, because the people want to rid themselves of the current government entirely. 

The Egyptian people are crying out for freedom and democracy in clearest and most courageous way you could imagine.  Yet the Obama administration continues to send military aid to Mubarak's regime, and has no plans to stop.

But why would our leaders support dictators? you might ask.  Is this even believable?

The U.S. economy is heavily dependent upon goods produced by cheap labor overseas, including oil from the Middle East.  Democracy and prosperity in China, Saudi Arabia, or India would be bad for the stock market and could lead to another crash.  Our leaders know this, and so they are doing everything they can to maintain "stability" in these regions.

For details see:

and a 15-year-old Egyptian boy who discovered the truth:

This is unacceptable.  It's the most blatant example of hypocrisy from our leaders that I've seen since the 2008 bank bailout.

If I were politically active, I would be out circulating petitions and taking part in protests right now.  The 80 million brave citizens of Egypt deserve our support, not our oppression.