Monthly Archives: September 2012

Response to Feedback

I want to start by thanking the people who have provided me with their constructive comments on my current series of blog posts. I appreciate their candid and thoughtful suggestions, since their comments help me to gauge how well I am managing to connect with my intended audience. I will address the points raised in subsequent posts. This will I hope make my writing more user friendly and encourage a wider audience.

I would like to use this as an opportunity to make my aims clearer as well, and explain why I have chosen the approach I have done. Some of what I will say here will be an elaboration on what I wrote in my previous blog post under the heading of The Bigger Picture. I will begin by explaining why I think what I am writing about is so important.

The worldview of materialism is false. That is as plain as I can put it. The materialists are wrong. Many people know this already, but many people don’t. And some are simply unsure. So why am I so certain of this fact? And what is the big deal anyway?

To answer the first question – science. It is what I understand science is saying about the world we live in. Many people will find this surprising. Surely science is the friend of materialism? In fact many people go so far as to equate the two. But they are not the same. Materialism is an interpretation of science. Nothing more. It is a popular conception held by both scientists and non-scientists alike concerning the nature of the universe they believe science suggests we live in. The reality however is the connection this worldview has with science is via Newtonian mechanics – a 17th century understanding of physics long ago surpassed by more contemporary theories – quantum mechanics being the primary one.

But the Newtonian worldview has endured to this day. And in some respects this is justified. It works. We can use it to great effect in engineering. It helps us build new machines. New technologies. Gives us a comprehensible scientific model of the world. Enables us to understand astronomical phenomena such as the orbit of the planets, the universal law of gravitation, and many more things besides. It is fair to say Newtonian mechanics was an intellectual triumph of the enlightenment period.

But it is not true. Newtonian mechanics does not tell us the truth about the world. No more than our senses do. In fact Newtonian physics accords so well with our senses this undoubtedly is one of the main reasons we have not yet shaken off its subtle but wide ranging influence on our thinking. Quantum mechanics on the other hand has very little to do with our senses, its inherent abstractness being its own enemy. We are not drawn to it. It is not in our bones. It is so bizarre it is like the stuff of science fiction. But it is not enough to simply label it as weird and move on as if it doesn’t exist. Materialists readily admit it is weird. But it is possible for something to be weird and not profound. But this is not quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is both weird and profound. In fact strictly speaking it is just profound. It seems weird only because our view of the world is so wrong in the first place. We find it strange because it knocks up against our common sense view of the world in the most fundamental and profound way possible. It shows it up for what it is – an illusion.

But why does this matter so much? It is not simply the fact that this worldview is inaccurate that is the problem. It is the fact that this worldview has consequences – albeit consequences not always readily observable. Not in the same way that the adverse consequences of religions are observable for instance. As atheists like Richard Dawkins will happily tell you, we can directly see the violence and dissention caused by the sectarian nature of different religious groups. But to imagine a materialistic atheistic outlook does not have consequences on behaviour is not credible. We are being asked by materialists to accept a world devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Consciousness, according to this view is a mere quirk of nature, something the universe spat out at some stage, either by accident or simply to promote a better chance of species survival. The natural order of things is struggle and competition. By being the fittest and you will reap the rewards that superiority naturally merits.

I am familiar with the common types of counter arguments frequently directed at this kind of reasoning by atheists, some of which I outlined in my previous blog post. And I certainly understand humanism. In fact I wrote a blog post about humanism a short while ago, where I essentially supported it. The full context of that particular blog post was not apparent from its contents however. It was partly a reaction to what I see as a potential danger of modern day spirituality – a tendency to downplay the seriousness of what we do to others since nothing is real anyway. It is not a view I support however. This world may not be physically real but the suffering is certainly real. And like I pointed out in my humanism article, we are free to define our own morality based on the suffering our actions cause others. This need be our only criteria. Nothing more is needed. Not appeal to a higher source. Nor appeal to a spiritual purpose. At higher levels of reality certain things might not seem so real and important. But they are certainly real and important at this level of reality. And whilst we are here that is what really counts.

Something I ought to clarify is that I am not suggesting all atheists are unhappy and unfulfilled. I am not even suggesting most are. But life is extremely tough for millions of people, full of much suffering and torment. Some people will find meaning in their lives despite all this. But many won’t. The fact that some are able to do this is no reasonable argument against what I am stating here. It is possible for some people to run 100 metres in less than ten seconds but not everyone will do this. En masse there is bound to be negative consequences of such a bleak outlook on life. And the view that the materialist perception of reality will not have any adverse effect on the behaviour, attitudes and the subsequent goals of people is simply not credible. How can it not matter that we are all some kind of accident of nature. And that we, along with all our loved ones will perish at death forever. To suppose this will not somehow negatively manifest on a sociological level is frankly naïve. So to answer the second question – yes it matters.

There are many paths to enlightenment. Like everything else, what works for some people will not work so well for others. What has worked for me is understanding science. Piercing the veil of misconceptions and seeing firsthand the truth beyond all the myths. I don’t wish to project this approach on everyone else. Quantum physics is not for everyone. I know this. But my reasons for putting emphasis on quantum mechanics is not a mere matter of projection. I acknowledge that materialism can be refuted on many levels. There are many robust philosophical arguments against it. Some very powerful ones in fact. And from my understanding anyone prepared to spend zillions of man hours meditating is likely to have some kind of transcendental experience sooner or later. But in my opinion quantum mechanics provides the single most powerful reason to reject materialism – short of having an actual transcendental experience yourself. It hammers the final nails in the coffin so to speak. Once understood sufficiently there is not much wriggle room for any materialist ideas to sneak through and see the light of day.

Not everyone who is familiar with the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics comes to this conclusion however, some reasons for which I discuss in my previous blog post. But I am sure that many who are exposed to the full force of the mathematical description will understand why I have these views. There are, it has to be acknowledged, many excellent qualitative explanations of quantum mechanics available in book stores everywhere – some exceptionally good ones in fact. I can’t hope to surpass or perhaps even equal the quality and breadth of some of the better popular science books available on the subject of quantum mechanics. That is the first reason why I have taken this alternative approach. I don’t wish to simply repeat what many others have done before me. And in some cases have done so well. I see no real point in that. What I do genuinely feel I can offer though is a fully self-contained mathematical description of quantum mechanics. And when I say self-contained I mean specifically one that does not assume any prior knowledge of mathematics. The second reason I have taken this approach is due to what I see as the inevitable shortcomings of purely qualitative descriptions of quantum mechanics. A purely qualitative explanation of quantum theory, however well explained, will always fall short of providing a full insight into all the subtleties of the theory. This is because the mathematical structure of quantum theory is so far removed from anything we directly experience. This is completely contrary to classical mechanics whose variables are (generally) proxies for familiar everyday phenomena. It becomes nearly impossible to meaningfully describe all aspects of quantum theory in purely nonmathematical language. Something essential gets lost in translation in any attempt to do so.

I now wish to directly address the comments regarding what I have written so far, and help to make clear why I have chosen to do things in the way that I have. My first blog post on this subject focused on the concept of information. I decided to start this topic with a description of information derived from modern data communications theory, first formulated by Claude Shannon back in the 1940s. I did think twice about starting in this way since I knew this would entail a fair bit of detail, which many would inevitably find a bit dry. My reasons for going ahead in this manner anyway were twofold. Firstly I considered it a good starting point since it will immediately lead into a mathematical definition of information. But in addition to introducing the topic of information it also provided a good opportunity to present some of the mathematics that I needed to develop for later topics. I could have curtailed some of those mathematical details and still maintained a reasonably meaningful discourse on information theory, if that had been my only goal. But since it wasn’t my only goal I included a slightly more detailed account than I otherwise might have done. But I think I probably have to be realistic here. There are many who will just see a bunch of equations and have a complete mental block straight away. It has subsequently been suggested to me by others that this would probably be one of the main contributing factors preventing my blog posts from having a broad readership. So I have decided to address this issue by putting future articles in the following format: I will include a purely qualitative, reasonably concise (if possible) self-contained discussion of the main ideas, which will be posted directly into the WordPress webpage. The main aim will be to express the ideas in as non-technical way as I can possibly manage without losing meaning. In addition to this I will continue with my current approach alongside this by providing a more technical and generally more mathematical description of the same ideas in the manner I have done so far. This will be separately placed in a PDF file which most web browsers will enable direct viewing of, or alternatively can be downloaded for later viewing using Adobe  Acrobat or similar software. Keeping the two levels of description separate in this manner will enable readers to pick and choose which format is most suitable for them. For those who wish to read the more technical stuff the less detailed accounts should still provide a useful summary of the main ideas. Before my next article in this series I will include a less technical and somewhat more concise description of what I have written so far on information theory.

It is my sincere hope however that some people will still choose to read the more technical accounts despite all the often necessary mathematics that goes along with it. I hope this for all the reasons I stated above. I always include appendices anyway, which is where I go over the basic mathematical ideas, which can either be read or not depending on the specific needs. In the appendix section of my last post I included a brief explanation of how the binary number system works for those not already familiar with it, and a brief explanation of probability. My final appendix was a full eight pages long where I covered the topic of averages. This might seem like an awful lot of exposition for the purpose of explaining something as basic as what an average value is. The reasons for the length of this section however were twofold. Firstly I used this appendix section to cover other mathematical topics that I would need to cover at some stage anyway. For instance rather than put the subject of rearranging formula into a separate section I chose instead to cover it briefly in this section. I was killing two birds with one stone. So that contributed to some of the extra length. The other reason was that I will often be inclined to labour certain points if, from my experience, they are often not well understood. There are certain distinctions concerning averages that I highlighted in this section that I know people are often not clear about. And this at times includes people who feel confident they already understand the subject of average values. Some of these finer points are important to understand for some of what I write. And for quantum mechanics it becomes absolutely essential. So I covered the topic of averages with this long term goal in mind.

One of the ironies of attempting to explicitly explain all the maths from first principles is at first glance it actually looks more technical than otherwise would be the case, by virtue of the extra level of detail. An equation suddenly popping up out of nowhere does not immediately look so complicated as a page full of equations. At first glance people will just see one equation rather than a page full of maths. But if I was to pursue things in a different manner it would defeat my entire purpose of making what I write about fully accessible to people who have no prior knowledge of mathematics. It is a clear cut case of being the lesser of two evils.

One of the difficulties for me is getting the right balance between level of mathematical detail and basically overdoing it. This is much more difficult than it sounds since (unfortunately) I can’t temporarily unlearn what I know whilst reading back what I have written and see how it looks from the point of view of someone not already familiar with the mathematical concepts. But I try to err on the side of caution by including everything that I feel would be needed by someone with no prior knowledge of maths. But as I pointed out above, a lot of the most fundamental stuff is put separately in appendices anyway, which can be either read or not read, depending on whether the reader is already familiar with the ideas.

Finally, just to cover another point that was bought up by a reader. I pointed out in my previous blog post that quantum mechanics is sometime misused by people trying to use the theory to advocate spiritually orientated ideas, and I used the example of telepathy to make the point. The perfectly fair comment made by this reader was that quantum mechanics is so weird anyway that it is understandable it would be used in new age literature to promote weird or profound ideas. Indeed, as was pointed out by this reader, quantum mechanics seems magical and mysterious all by itself. It seems difficult to overstate just how profound it is. Two points here. Firstly I am a strong believer in the existence of psi abilities, despite what I wrote about quantum mechanics not lending direct support to it. I am in fact a big fan of Rupert Sheldrake, who to my mind has provided convincing data of the existence of telepathy. So I am not making a statement about whether or not phenomena such as telepathy actually exist. I personally feel quite sure it does. But it does no good to use quantum mechanics in an unwarranted fashion and go beyond the facts to support an idea. This just adds extra ammunition to the materialists who want to debunk anything that does not exist in their scientific frame of reference – telepathy being one of them. Also I am not making a statement about all new age literature. It is just that I have seen specific examples of misleading applications of quantum theory to new age beliefs in some books. Not all. There are some very fine new age books out there on the book shelves. I know. I have some myself. The second point is I want to be absolutely clear that I am in no way downplaying the significant and profound implications of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is very very profound. It is why I am writing all this in the first place.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in believing our world is real. Presumably the whole idea of coming here in the first place was to buy into its sense of reality; to role play in a world we believe deeply in our bones to be real. It is the only reality most of us know whilst we are in human form. But we have allowed our materialistic mindset to get the better of us. We are permitting a preoccupation with the physical to persuade us there is no ultimate meaning in life. That what we do and how we treat others ultimately does not matter. We just live out our brief lives, grab what we can for ourselves, and pursue goals that reflect the notion that the natural order of things is competition. And who can blame people for being that way, given the worldview they are operating under. But I look forward to the day when we can finally shake off the shackles of materialism once and for all. That will be a day when a genuine hope of a better world might just be round the corner. It will be a day when hopefully we can turn away from the self-destructive path we are currently on and recognize the long recognized spiritual truth – we are all one.

But we have to realize first that science is a friend of spirituality. Not an enemy.