writing about my life

What is your heresy ? Here’s mine…

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This piece is partly in honour of the AI scientist Ben Goertzel who seems from his writings to have an active spiritual sense, and to at least credit the existence of what he calls ‘psi’. (He also has a very cool ‘stoner-geek’ manner when he talks which has prompted various witty comments…) I am in doubt about many things but reading and sensing Ben’s lofty grasp of math and code, I wavered in the old, and not unknown to me, direction of believing in a spiritual reality un-knowably beyond science once more. Yeah sure I should make my own decisions and thus should be able to work this out for myself, but no man is an island, and that’s why I am writing this for others (and thereby considering it more carefully for myself).

I came across a quote by Darwin the other day in a quotation book where he spoke of facts that didn’t fit with his ontology of causes in nature as being the ones that escaped his memory most easily.

I had,… during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed by my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favourable ones”

This gave rise to a strange association, since it made me remember various experiences I have had in my life which could loosely be called paranormal. This post is just a rap about the thoughts that quote gave me. I found had done exactly what Darwin did and conveniently ruled these inexplicable experiences out of my mind, perhaps through believing I was in the grip of madness. One time I played with a Ouija board with some other students at university and the glass emitted a loud popping sound and jumped into the air. Another time I saw a Buddhist monk standing in the street in Camden Town and suddenly seemed to perceive that his mind was linked to a beautiful rippling pool of energy from some kind of higher sphere that he had somehow channelled down into himself.

Aged 19, at the Sri Rangam Temple in Trichy, India, I sensed a powerful ‘field’ of energy. Also another time in my mid twenties I entered Canterbury Cathedral and experienced a similar kind of rippling energy in the air inside the building. I would think twice before mentioning these experiences in the company of hard scientists because I find it a slightly unpleasant feeling to be thought a little mad !

I now feel it is as much a wrong turning to become a “scientific materialism fundamentalist”, as to be any other kind of fundamentalist. We just end up full of hot air when we reach too far into unsupportable and over-bold assertions about the nature of the whole universe based on our tiny and highly provincial habitation of a very small corner of it. These thoughts mingled in my mind with those from another book: “Impossibility” by John D Barrow. They formed a kind of Lovecraftian vision of a strange and ominous universe full of insoluble mysteries. Barrow points out that the insoluble problems of reality outnumber the soluble ones and presumably implies that any general intelligence with less that infinite IQ would find this. Some problems are algorithmically intractable, some cannot even be framed or represented. I don’t even know whether the quantifier ‘some’ can describe an infinite set in that last sentence either ! Is mathematics infinite or will we one day come to its end ? I doubt it, after all it embodies concepts of that very infinity within its own esoteric scribbles.

The sceptical elimination of some paranormal phenomena will clearly work for a lot of cases but I think scientists can become arrogant about eliminating all mysteries when we are indeed sitting on top of, or thinking with, one of the truly great unsolved mysteries -that of the grey matter that is itself reading what I have written here. And one catches a sense that any explanation that was ever offered for consciousness just couldn’t quite sum it up. It was the physicist David Bohm who suggested that the brain, in neural microtubules, might somehow leverage quantum mechanical effects in the generation of consciousness. Recently other voices have joined in, with some thoughts now at large that photosynthesis also leverages quantum phenomena. I feel I am sinning somehow if I allow a crude blanket statement that no anomalous phenomena exist in space-time, the great assumption of all science is that the sun will rise tomorrow -i.e. that processes are regular. But this regularity is an axiom which we take on a kind of faith.

Weirdness may well exist out there, and it might be staring back at us too! What is the personified universe saying to me ? I seem to have to reach beyond my own collection of habitual thoughts bequeathed by the past into a space that is utterly present tense, and inherently unique. I am the anomaly.

After musing for a while again I now have a further statement I wish to make about this:

it is actually evil to fake scientific results

You are emitting a highly condensed and dangerous kind of lie if you do this. Scientists have to have a bold, confident and can-do attitude, and believe in their power to solve problems. It is a psychological error, though, to overstate this and be too sure about things, like some young quantitative Mohammed Ali. The faith that the universe never contains anomalies, and that our limited conceptual architecture has seen right to the limits of possibility in this, is indeed a kind of fundamentalism. It is like someone who has just embarked on the excitement and thrill of reading and thinking, but who resolutely stays with all the conclusions of the very first few books they ever read.

I find some kind of idea that the universe has a mirror aspect – it reflects back our own prejudices onto us, and we assume that is all there is. Maybe the eastern philosophical traditions view this kind of idea as less heretical. I’d love to keep researching all this, and will keep a background module running on it in my small way, but I am a code addict too and will probably shelve the largest questions again in favour of that intricate, almost predestined dance of logic which does answer so many questions for me.

Darwin also said that adaptability is more powerful than intelligence. If we can’t adapt to our own perceptions we are not truly scientific. Yes we must also question them, and knock them down if we can, but I haven’t been able to knock down those experiences. Denying facts and forming models that rule out psi because it’s a mystery is this kind of ‘cooking the books’ which I allege above is a such a great crime. When I had these inexplicable magical experiences I ran off and developed a load of ill-formed ideas about them, became confused and then assumed I was crazy, but it is only now with a little more maturity that I feel I can absorb them properly. Not that absorbing is comprehending, mind you.

Some of you will think I am mad for this, but I have another benefit, which is to have common ground with most of the non-scientist human race who aren’t quite as sure as that minority of material fundamentalists. I have more I can talk about with people from other traditions, which feels great. There is a spiritual fellowship available as well as a scientific one. I don’t need to face those arrogant and lonely arguments defending sceptical materialism I used to have as an undergraduate.

It is also an axiom of science that, to count, experiments must be reproducible. How could you ever demonstrate that this regularity is a sound assumption ? A naive view takes the assumption of regularity and then extends it too far. But without it we can’t even start, except to say “there are sensations” and leave it at that. The singularity that we find at the beginning of the universe may have been a unique event, and maybe there are indeed other such events which defy the models we usually build. And maybe that’s all we can ever find out about them, except when magical intuition grants us brief glimpses.

After all the only thing I truly know is that I know nothing, and frankly I’m not even sure of that !


Written by Luke Dunn

November 24, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Prose

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