String theory and the problem of scientific revolutions

The article I’ll be talking about today is this one by Ethan Siegel called “Why String Theory is not a Scientific Theory”. Here’s the link:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2015/12/23/why-string-theory-is-not-science/#69e060a16524

 

 

Long story short: the astrophysicist/author in the above article needs to read some Thomas Kuhn and his book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What do I mean by this?

A Ph.D in astrophysics does not give one instant credibility to talk about a theory that is essentially about the subatomic world. Pardon my layman’s knowledge, but isn’t the study of the macro-scales of the cosmos different than studying the microscopic? Dealing with quantum physics all day and the mathematics of quantum physics is categorically different than studying stars.

With the immense proliferation of stuff claiming to be knowledge out there now, self-proclaimed experts, even Ph.D’s who then claim to know about every other subject are rampant. This goes in my mind for something even as close as astrophysics and quantum physics. I have no doubt that the author of the article here has a vastly superior knowledge of physics. That being said, his dive into philosophy, indeed ANY physicist’s dive into philosophy about how science is done, how revolutions in science occur, are fraught with problems.

First I’ll quote an article on the same subject by Tom Hartsfield that basically gives the same argument as Siegel, but uses the language of philosophy to justify its claim:

“String theorists met jointly with academic philosophers at a conference last month to talk about what we require of a theory for it to be held as correct. Do we need to test it experimentally? Or, are the qualities of beauty, consistency, mathematical interest, and greater funding proof enough?

It is a debate on which of two philosophies science ought to follow: empiricism or rationalism. The choice, to this physicist, is stingingly clear.

Science has been for its entire history fantastically successful precisely because it requires experimental tests to verify and confirm its claims. That criterion can be defined simply: empiricism. Ideas are not true simply because of their logic or conceptual beauty but because they are observed by human senses — or the extension thereof by cameras, telescopes, spectroscopes, thermometers, and so forth — and verified. Empiricism is not necessarily the best system of philosophy for all endeavors. Moral human beings accept many ideas and laws that are not learned from observation but instead found within (or without) and supported by the heart.

A different type of philosophical system describes the new guidelines that string theorists lust for: rationalism.

Rationalism derives truth via the process of deductive logic. Rationalism is the system of the mathematician. Theorems are logically correct because they can be built logically from a dictionary of axioms followed by deductions.

This conference greatly interests me, because apparently no Kuhnians were there. I’ll explain what I mean later. It is interesting that Hartsfield frames the debate around string theory as a debate between rationalism and empiricism.

So some background. String theory is a theory which purports to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity into a unified theory. It is a complex set of mathematical axioms which describe elementary particles as consisting of vibrating open or closed strings. String theory also predicts the existence of multiple new dimensions in space, because for the math to work, it requires these extra dimensions.

So essentially the argument from Siegel is basically that because string theory has predictions that are not testable by current instruments, it is not justifiably called a scientific theory.

Now I’m on my guard for pseudo-science as well, and its interesting how Siegel uses Ted-talks to back up the claim that string theory is essentially just a branch of mathematics. I’m also willing to say that string theory should just be called the superstrings hypothesis or something- now we are getting technical about what a theory is.

However his and Hartsfield’s essential argument about how science proceeds has been debunked a long time ago. Science does not proceed in a calm fashion of simply waiting for the better theory to come along and plug the holes of the first theory. Thomas Kuhn argued that there is a necessarily cultural, and therefore conceptual dimension, to science. They always use Kepler’s theory as an example in this narrative as well.

So the idea is that science can only proceed through observation, but its funny how Hartsfield and Siegel use Einstein as an example. Siegel’s justification is that Einstein’s theory could be tested and verified- however Siegel admits that string theory can also be verified, but its not possible with our current technology. My answer to that is- so what? It still makes predictions doesn’t it? But his caricature of how science actually proceeds is laughable. The idea that Einstein did no mathematical “pure reasoning” is absolutely absurd. Everyone knows Einstein was first and foremost a mathematician, and some of the proofs of general relativity could only be tested very recently.

Hartsfield strawmans rationalism as only caring about the beauty of an idea, instead of its internal consistency. If a mathematical theory is internally consistent, that actually means something and pushes mathematics forward. I have heard mathematicians talk about how even if string theory isn’t correct, its still pushing the envelope of theoretical mathematics (and the mathematics of how objects act in 6-10 dimensions) forward. So the idea that there are no concepts or ideas involved in science, that it is pure observation, has always been one of the guiding myths of science- in fact its one thing that gives science, or rather physics, its legitimacy.

The point the author was trying to make about Kepler and Newton is that it doesn’t matter how simple or beautiful a theory is, if it doesn’t correspond to reality its not true. This is so self-evident that it makes me laugh. But the idea that string theory is inherently non-falsifiable may actually be true- but again, one of the biggest quandaries in philosophy is that if something is non-falsifiable, that doesn’t make it untrue. It may mean, as the author claims, that its a weak theory, but to me the author doesn’t engage with any of the theory surrounding string theory.

What’s my point? Ideas matter. If we can extrapolate from current models, models that are empirical, like quantum theory, then maybe we can make predictions about certain things. In this sense, I’m not arguing for rationalism against empiricism (whatever that means)- I’m arguing for arguing the merits of a scientific theory on the basis of science alone. What’s funny is that the author, in claiming to do that, is actually doing the exact opposite in my mind.

Does this mean I’m a proponent of string theory? I can safely say I don’t have the theoretical physics background to make a claim one way or another. All I can say is that based on the fact that string theory isn’t provable by current instruments (by a longshot- it would take energy 1 trillion times our largest particle accelerators to prove string theory definitively correct, which might be pretty dangerous) perhaps theoretical physics (emphasis on theoretical) has hit a threshold where people are realizing that the line between philosophical speculation and mathematics, the line between science and philosophy, cosmology and cosmogony, has started to blur. I’m willing to give proponents of string theory the claim that they are doing actual work, trying to work within the mathematics of the Standard Model of Particle physics for example, but it is interesting that the territory that was once occupied solely by philosophy is now being usurped by science, and science is at a loss to prove its claims. The territory of the “big questions”- what is the universe made of? When did it begin? We have more answers to these questions for sure! But even more questions. The only big question is, as I have stated in my other posts about physics- have physicists hit a theoretical dead end? String theory, as well as some other TOE’s (theories of everything), represent in my mind not only science’s highest hopes for a complete totalizing knowledge about the world, but also its possible epistemological limits.

For an epistemological pragmatist, the question becomes- can we just practically assume the universe is made of strings? Will that make everything else work? And furthermore- if it is, what are the consequences of that theory, for my life?

To me, string theory does have one piece of elegance that I really like as a theory about the world and matter- it theorizes that all particles are not just strings, but vibrating string-like patterns of energy. This already agrees with modern physics (E=mc^2 anyone?) If one thing is for sure, physics has proved that stable self-contained concepts like matter and energy are not only convertible, but actually one in the same thing. Any theory about the world must take into account this basically inviolable philosophical law- that the universe is one inseparable whole, what some philosophers might call the One-All, in that the multiplicity is contained within the fundamental unity. The problem for the physicist then is explaining this multiplicity

 

 

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The political obsession with electoral politics and the Society of the Spectacle

Perhaps I’m just suffering from overload of watching too many political opinion shows on youtube, but I think I’ve stumbled onto something true. In America, we have an inability to think structurally, so much so that it hinders our ability to think critically about things. So many channels on youtube that are political, even if I agree with them about a specific issue, are focused on the here-and-now of American electoral politics- whats the latest trending story? What did Bernie say today? What about Donna Brazile? (and the worst) What did Trump tweet today? What about that political commentator I don’t like- did they say something I disagree with again?

The focus, in our day and age, should always be on the systemic nature of power and its connection to capital. Without this essential Marxist insight proper perspective cannot be gained into any geopolitical or national event of any consequence.

American politics has become one giant soap opera. Wannabee-political commentators take to social media and get into “beefs” with other commentators like they are rappers. Now, I’m not saying “let’s all get along”, but look at things like the debates at Politicon- its become one big theater!

Guy Debord, in the Society of the Spectacle, said this about the commodification of culture:

“When culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society.”

This parallels what Lyotard said later about the commodification of information and the prediction that knowledge would become the leading form of capital. In simplest terms, of course, this means that knowledge itself becomes the most valued thing to be bought and sold.

And so of course, the news media, or rather the production of “information” about the world, becomes also one of the biggest industries in the world. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, is one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of $12.9 billion dollars.

http://www.businessinsider.com/the-30-biggest-media-owners-in-the-world-2016-5/#5-facebook–1149-billion-26

Could even Debord have foreseen the explosion of the corporate sector with regards to the media? The proliferation of images that is so thorough that it has consumed all of our lives?

Of course, the largest media company of all is the one that allows them all to function within the space of the internet, that allows you to find anything in the first place, the proverbial link in the chain- Google.

Google, or its parent company Alphabet, is the largest media company in the world, proving Debord’s prophecy about the value of information. Now, Google doesn’t even crack the top 10 most profitable corporations in the world, those spots still go to multinational corporations that make and sell actual physical commodities like food, oil, and computers (WalMart, Exxon, and Apple are in the top 10). But the difference between $50 billion and $200 billion in profits in terms of the power it can buy you is minimal- Google still has more money than many poor African nations.

Can you prove this has an actual influence? In the case of Google, they are complicit in the Chinese government’s internet censorship of its people- a well known fact, but one that does not stop us from using Google and using Bing instead.

I’ve gotten a little sidetracked, but my original question was- why are Americans obsessed with electoral politics? Because in the media space of “Breaking News!” the only thing that matters is the spectacle of the now. “The Comey hearing!” “Trump’s trip to Asia!”

My thesis is this- the mainstream media acts in a way that it constructs time itself. In choosing what to cover, it makes the moment itself, it chooses what the Now actually is. It takes advantage of the fact that you can only speak one word at a time. By the time they’ve covered the “important” stuff (Trump’s latest tweet) they don’t have the “time” (read money) to get to global warming or the war in Syria. But in constructing the now, they do the work of revealing their own bias for those of us who can use Google.

My point is this- youtube commentators, independent political journalists, what have you- forget the mainstream media! There is only so much to be gained from a deconstruction of Fox News. Instead, we should offering alternative narratives for how to see the world.

Outlets that I feel are already doing this kind of journalism are Democracy Now, the Intercept, Vice News (sometimes), but even more so, I think its critical that Americans listen to non-American news outlets about non-mainstream subjects. I’m not even talking about the BBC America or RT. Americans are so caught in their own bubble that they aren’t aware of what’s happening in Greece, in Poland, in France, or even right across the border in Mexico! The best thing that an American can ever do to gain a picture of what’s actually going on in the world is to just travel to another country and watch the news. Then we won’t be so myopically focused on our own problems- America’s central problem has been and always will be our size- we are so large that many never need to escape the cupola of the wonderland we have created- the Happy Meal paradise.

Of course, my advice goes for those of you with the money to travel. But many people just don’t think they have the money to travel, when in fact they spend too much money on Starbucks coffee. (Just make your coffee at home!)

One last thing- this internal gazing at our one’s own nation’s politics also occurs in every other country, but I believe to a lesser degree because of the geopolitical space they occupy- America is the dominant country in the geopolitical sphere, it is the Empire, and therefore we are on average the least informed about other country’s politics, etc.

 

Jazz- the art of cool

 

Some people think jazz music is about showing off, or about music that is all about the intellect. I couldn’t disagree more. Its all about soul. The emotion that is carried through jazz, from Ella Fitzgerald to Wynton Marsalis, is about diving into the depths of the human soul and seeing what kind of melodies and harmonies lie there. Its really about revealing the colors and possibilities that are out there in music. And its also about one thing that is uniquely American- the art of being cool.

What is cool? Maybe Jack Kerouac said it best in one of his poems:

“The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks dont see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already
in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re
all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.”

I don’t think my generation makes good music because they come from a place of fundamental anxiety. Metal music is about anxiety- anger, at its root. A lot of modern music comes from weird places in my mind. Jazz soothes people and calms people because it does come from that place in us that doesn’t try to force negative emotions onto people.

 

A collection of aphorisms

I am going to do this post in Nietzschean aphorisms because, I feel like it. They are all connected, but cover a wide range of topics.

  1.  All paradoxes about the infinite are not really paradoxes- all seemingly illogical conclusions that come from infinities and the mathematics of infinite series only seem that way, but actually there is a deeper intuition at play. The infinite must contain all within itself and yet be able to add more- that is the definition after all of infinite. Correspondingly, all mathematics about infinities is not fascinating, just simply boring.
  2.  This is what Nietzsche meant by the fact that “mystical explanations are thought to be deep, the truth is they are not even shallow.” However this aphorism itself will be misunderstood by those who think that Nietzsche only thought that religion tricked the foolish. Nietzsche elsewhere in his corpus praised the surface of things, the shallowness, as opposed to pretensions of being “deep”. Therefore, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s statement is a praise of mysticism, or rather, a recognition that those who have “mystical insight” only have relative insight to the “herd”.
  3. One could misinterpret Nietzsche’s above-mentioned aphorism as pretentious, as a claim to immediate understanding of all metaphysical insights. But rather, Nietzsche understood that mystical understandings of the world precisely work from taking what is everyday ordinary experience and making it uncommon. We all have experienced those moments (which may be profoundly uncomfortable) where suddenly we see something we thought we knew very well and suddenly it seems frightening or strange.
  4. Human beings only learn through experience. The constant sensory flux of information, combined with the overwhelming amount of stuff that is in the world and the fact that the world is always changing, means we only learn through repetition. (Oh there’s that thing again- what was it called? Cow!)
  5. This is what Tantric Buddhism or Zen means by the fact that ordinary mind is the basis for everything, or rather, why the ordinary itself is brought out as something to be exalted. Because behind what we view everyday, if we alter our perception, are entire worlds. Like in the scene at the beginning of Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where a dead man is laying on the ground, and they gradually begin to zoom into his ear, and one begins to see the bugs crawling on the grass. Behind our normal human way of viewing the world, there are things that are normally beyond our perception.
  6. Much of the unseen world has been conquered by humanity, through microscopes, telescopes, infrared detectors, or simply exploring places that were ignored, forgotten, or previously uncharted in our own world, like the bottom of the ocean. Most of the world is now aware of things that are invisible- how incredible is that! Things like viruses, bacteria, etc. Therefore, one day, humanity will not only be aware of levels below that of the microbiological (the protein, DNA), but one day organic chemistry will also become ubiquitous, even though it is generally still specialized knowledge.
  7. Most of the world is aware of the atom, probably because of the advances in nuclear physics that led to nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. But the quantum world is so new of a discovery, that humanity hasn’t had time to situate it into its understanding of the world. With discoveries of phenomena like the Planck length, we have seemingly hit the bottom of the barrel. History should show us that there is no bottom of the barrel. The human can transcend the human, but not through merging with technology. Humanity will simply no longer apply to what we have become.
  8. Through all of the change that humanity has undergone, we are still mortal beings of flesh and blood for whom death is no abstract concept, but an ever-pressing reality. Science will not save us from this. But perhaps now the difference is this- in days gone by humanity accepted the infinite, made peace with it. Now it stands as a dark chasm that is both threatening and a challenge waiting to be explored. The question now is- will we, or have we, already reached those limits? Is knowledge of humanity’s theoretical limitations a prerequisite for a full understanding of what it means to be human?
  9. Heidegger undertook a project of full ontological understanding of Being, through the lens of understanding humanity, or Dasein. One was necessary for the other. Dasein is fundamentally, for Heidegger, a being towards death. If this is Dasein’s fundamental nature, can other aspects of Dasein be changed? Our lifespan? The way we act in the world? The way we relate to each other as a species?
  10. I think of Star Trek every time I want to understand what humans could be someday. The Vulcans are just a picture of what we could become, a society wholly based on logic, with an understanding of who they are in the cosmos. As knowledge continues to build over time, could we not, in some sci-fi future, approximate the Vulcans? Couldn’t all of humanity be given, from the time of birth, the tools to go through the world and all knowledge from prior generations, like the Vulcans do in their Science Academy? In my mind, what humanity has yet to achieve is a kind of worldwide planetary society.
  11. A worldwide planetary society would not be homogeneous, or tell everyone what to do. But it would instead allow the entire world to thrive, and create an end to things like hunger through automatic restitution of lost crops due to natural disasters, etc. It would require basically a UN that we pay taxes to, and is fully functional with no dominance of one nation (cough cough the United States). Only then could humanity look back collectively on our dark past and basically say- what the hell happened?
  12. Zizek is right when we say we need to go further and not admire local organization. We need new international solutions to our problems- international laws with real teeth, levels above the state level that can coordinate things with a degree of actual consistency. As it is, our fledgling attempt at world order has failed- it did not stop Rwanda, it did not Bosnia, or Darfur. And it certainly won’t stop Syria, because we have yet to let go of the doctrine of national sovereignty

Dzogchen- the path of pure joy

“The actual essence, pristine rigpa [awareness],
cannot be improved upon, so virtue is profitless,
and it cannot be impaired, so vice is harmless;
in its absence of karma there is no ripening of pleasure or pain;
in its absence of judgment, no preference for samsara or nirvana; ·
in its absence of articulation, it has no dimension;
in its absence of past and future, rebirth is an empty notion:
who is there to transmigrate? and how to wander?
what is karma and how can it mature?
Contemplate the reality that is like the clear sky!”

-Longchen Rabjam, Treasury of Natural Liberation

Dzogchen is the tradition in Tibetan Buddhism considered the highest path, the culmination of all paths, and yet it is also the path of non-doing, of spontaneous, natural enlightenment or freedom. Consequently, it carries profound implications, which is why this is the school that is spreading now that it has become popular rather than a secret teaching revealed only to the initiated.

Of course, there is a danger this path can be denigrated by New Agers and profiteers, but that is always the danger when trying to spread truth.

Dzogchen’s message is one of complete and natural purity- you are already, in your own nature, like a Buddha, like an awakened. All we have to do is wake up and realize it!

There is no karma, and therefore no sin, in this ultimate view, no innate stain on our most fundamental nature. It is Buddhism without the rebirth and karma- and yet it is authentic Buddhism!

I think the message of Dzogchen and the great master Kunkhyen Longchenpa can help heal the world- and many already agree. Many associate Buddhism with the first Noble Truth- “all life is suffering”. But I think its good that Buddha is being associated in the West with the essential qualities of a Buddha- tranquility and happiness, and of course, and more importantly, compassion and wisdom.

Throughout the work of Longchenpa, you can also find though a profound joy that comes from a real understanding of how life and reality really are. A realization that all things must pass, but if nothing really exists, then why worry about it!

 

DINOS (Democrats in Name Only)- The Deathknell of America

 

Senator Dianne Feinstein votes with Trump a third of the time. I repeat, a third of the time! Her Joe Manchin, and company give new meaning to the term “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”

The spotlight on Donald Trump has clothed the Republican party in an air of hypothetical “decency” in comparison, based purely on rhetoric alone. They are all just as corrupt. Every single one of them.

And I’m tired of the asinine, school-boyish type of politics, where Trump says a dirty word, or says something stupid, and we all gawk. Oooh, gasp! Grow up and read something about policy.

The defenders of the establishment will always come back and say “but Trump! The decorum, where’s our decency, o my lord!!” *Cue fainting* O my heavens, golly gee willakers!

Please.

That doesn’t mean we have to lower the terms of debate and become as crude as our opponents. But it means we have to seriously think about what’s actually wrong with our country, what’s BEEN wrong with our country, long before Trump came into office. We have to think about the structural reasons that gave us Trump! *Hint hint its the electoral college and gerrymandering*

On a serious note, the electoral college, gerrymandering, money in politics- all of these fall under one rubric, systemic corruption, or what my adviser likes to call structural corruption (as an analog for structural violence). If you know anything about structural violence, its the violence that is caused by those in power to keep the status quo the way it is, and violence is understood in a broader sense. Structural violence is the daily misery and poverty that we face in our inner cities, the exploding prison population, or so the buzzword goes, the “school to prison pipeline”.

The only candidate who was serious about ending funding and kickbacks for private prisons (and outlawing them) was Bernie Sanders. The military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex- all perpetuated by structural corruption.

In a Marxist framework, does the ideological-state apparatus, or hegemony, or whatever you want to call it, insure that the bourgeois state will always reproduce itself until there is revolution? Yes, but I’m not willing to accept that that revolution has to be violent, as the election of Salvador Allende in Chile showed (as long as its not undermined by the CIA).

Feinstein, just like Trump, and just like Clinton, is controlled by the elite, and everyone knows it, but some aren’t willing to admit the problem. I have yet to find a serious middle class Clinton supporter (or I should say anti-progressive Democrat) willing to admit that that isn’t the case. They just DON’T CARE. All history is the history of class struggle. I’m sorry if that scares the socks of the older elite, but I really don’t care!

They didn’t believe students when they protested the Vietnam War, they will always look down upon us. Elitism and snobbery is the name of the game in this country- poor whites look down on poor blacks, etc. Its what perpetuated segregation and Jim Crow. People like to feel they are superior to other people, even when they just profit off an unfair system, and found themselves in a good position in life. Class is always perpetuated by nepotism.

So once again, I tell my friends who are unwilling to embrace the socialist label- embrace it! Its what they fear the most! It has always been the hope of a true emancipatory politics, there is no shame in it, because socialism represents the vision of a society that takes care of all its people, not just in name only. It is a society that doesn’t let you, or your mother, go bankrupt when you get sick (which still happens in America- thanks Obama).

If you are frightened by what Trump represents, and what he means for your family, I ask you to extend your heart even further, to those innocent lives bombed by drone strikes that are kept in place by complicit Democrats, to those who were foreclosed on and became homeless through no fault of their own in 2008, to those in North Korea who still languish under the banner of “sane foreign policy” and are starved by an imperialist embargo.

A socialist vision is a world without oppression, a world where we take seriously what Martin Luther King said, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. A world where we no longer suffer under what MLK called the triple evils of our world: Racism, Imperialism, and Poverty (or Capitalism). Trump represents a strengthening of that first evil. But we should not ignore our complicity in the other two.

 

A quantum leap in music: Allan Holdsworth

 

 

On April 15th of this year, the music world lost a titan, and I lost my favorite musician. I grew up listening to his music with my father, who was a big fan of jazz fusion, people like Weather Report and Chick Corea. As a guitarist, I’ve learned scores of Holdsworth songs, trying to replicate his new techniques. He is known as a pioneer in legato technique, lightning fast improvised (!) soloing over complex chord changes. And its all pure- no “shredding” (in fact one of his albums is called Metal Fatigue). He got his start with the Tony Williams Lifetime group after Williams left the Miles Davis group. Holdsworth was lead guitarist in some awesome prog-rock/fusion bands like U.K, and his during his long solo career he played with a who’s who of jazz- Dave Carpenter, Steve Hunt, Jeff Berlin, not to mention his go-to power ensemble Jimmy Johnson and Chad Wackerman. One of my favorite tracks where he did a guest solo was on the title track of Stanley Clarke’s Stories to Tell album. I’ve been introduced to so much music through Holdsworth over the years, can’t find enough good stuff to say about him- I own his signature guitar, the HH2 Kiesel, which I adore.

But I want to share this as well:

https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/26952/AllanxHoldsworthx-xReshapingxHarmony.pdf

This is a 161 page Master’s Thesis on Holdsworth’s music written by a student from the University of Oslo in Norway. It won’t be the last! I knew eventually there had to be musicology written on him. The title of the thesis is “Reshaping Harmony”- no joke! Holdsworth really took a blowtorch to how people think about harmony- every single chord in most of his songs is not a standard chord, and most of all- it works! Its beautiful. The result is a very spacey effect (Holdsworth was a big fan of Star Trek), so that’s why I chose Proto Cosmos for the song to introduce people to his music. For even more far-out stuff, I’d suggest his Atavachron album. For more straight ahead jazz, I suggest the Sixteen Man of Tain album, where he plays with an upright bassist.

Holdsworth was known as an inventor of scales, which he actually created using a straightforward mathemetical process called permutation, a concept that is well-known to some musicians, but Holdsworth took it to a new level. He wrote down and cataloged every scale that has 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 notes with no more than 4 semitones (half-steps) in a row. The result is a musical pallet that is much more advanced than even the average jazz listener is used to, with resorting to non-Western things like quarter tones.

To get philosophical, I’d say Holdsworth really deterritorializes the field of music- there’s a running joke among fans that Holdsworth has to be an alien sharing his music with us Earthlings. Can’t any more deterritorialized than that! Definition of far out

I’m willing to admit its not for everyone, but I’ve yet to find someone that gets nothing out of listening to his music.

Great talk by actual physicist on quantum physics- Many Worlds, or Zero Worlds?

 

A follow-up to my post on physics and New Age pseudo-science:

Just watched this lecture by Ron Garret, former researcher at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. Really great and thorough scientific explanation of the double-slit experiment, entanglement, and other quantum phenomena that really demystifies it and explains them using actual scientific terminology (and some math). Really enjoyed it. His opinion is that the Copenhagen interpretation (wave collapse) can actually be mathematically proven wrong, and given that the Copenhagen interpretation is preferred by New Agers, I’m going to guess that that’s correct. To me, it still doesn’t get some of the worst problems with the “QM popularizer” issue, which is that measurement does not equal consciousness. However he gets to the basic point, from the abstract:

“Richard Feynman once famously quipped that no one understands quantum mechanics, and popular accounts continue to promulgate the view that QM is an intractable mystery (probably because that helps to sell books). QM is certainly unintuitive, but the idea that no one understands it is far from the truth. In fact, QM is no more difficult to understand than relativity. The problem is that the vast majority of popular accounts of QM are simply flat-out wrong”

I think his philosophical implications at the end could also be misinterpreted (although they were fascinating). Garret prefers Quantum Information Theory (QIT). He seems to prefer the idea that there is no such thing as one inherent reality, that there is no reality as such. I guess that’s what I’ve been saying too, but I really have to wonder if that’s not dabbling to much in the religious.

 

Physics and New Age pseudoscience- so what if time is relative?

Slavoj Zizek has written some really prescient stuff about the turn modern ideologies have taken when it comes to the whole “New Age” phenomenon and what it means for modern subjectivity. I’ll try to give some of my thoughts on this theme, and move into the territory of discussing how much physics really does relate to non-Western philosophies, and how to avoid some of the pitfalls of the “New Age” movement, or if the New Age movement signifies anything at all in trying to get out of some of the traps of modern subjectivity.

So, in my mind, New Age philosophy does consciously try to get out of the rationalist, logocentric ways of understanding the world, and tries to draw upon more “holistic” (their favorite word) ways of understanding the world. But in my mind, New Age philosophy frequently appropriates terms from Eastern philosophy without proper context- that’s their main shortcoming. In trying to be “holistic” (read tolerant) New Age theory tries to pick and choose what they perceive as good from Eastern religion while not bothering with notions that may seem “primitive”. Or, it may go the complete other direction, taking a concept like karma (an idea thats been so thoroughly appropriated its hard to even begin to talk about it) and making it something other than what was intended.

Nowadays, its been fashionable for people like Deepak Chopra to try to identify links between modern physics and Eastern philosophy, without really fully grasping the key conceptual ideas behind the physics. Whats wrong with, for instance, using quantum physics or general relativity as a metaphor for how our perception effects reality?

Take general relativity for example. Some might try to use it as a vehicle for explaining how our minds can actually “shape” reality. This word “shape” has been misused. It may be 100% correct to say that our minds shape reality in the sense that we *perceive* it to be a certain way, but fundamentally objective forces shape how we perceive reality. This is just common sense, but its not possible for your mind to bend matter like a superhero- but it is possible for you to use mind altering drugs to the extent that that’s what you perceive to be the case. In other words, our perception of the world *can* be objectively false under certain circumstances.

Now the argument from general relativity is much subtler- from general relativity, one can surmise that time itself is a function of causality. The way that we perceive time can vary given changes in the underlying physical matter (how much energy there is in a system, the speed of the body). This is obviously very different from saying that our mind itself causes these changes. But New Age theory always looks for rationalizations for things previously held to be “superstitions” through some kind of pseudoscientific explanation. What New Agers fail to realize is that beliefs in karma or reincarnation don’t need rational justification or proof- they are articles of faith. They are fundamentally spiritual concepts, not concepts that have to do with the physical world 

So to qualify my earlier posts- if general relativity tells us anything about reality and has parallels with aspects of Buddhist cosmology or metaphysics, I think we should remember what Buddha himself had to say about such speculation about the origin of the universe and things of that nature. If one gets shot by an arrow, it is useless to try to determine the ultimate origin of the arrow- who shot it, and why, etc. before one pulls it out. If concepts from Buddhist philosophy about the universe serve as useful parallels for scientific/cosmological concepts, so be it, but the search for origins is a fundamentally Western preoccupation. General relativity is one step toward such an origin theory, a TOE (Theory of Everything) in theoretical physics terms.

However despite the fact that we have come so far with the predictive power of our theories, in being able to predict the make-up of the background radiation of the universe, and from there to show what the universe looked like in the first second of its existence- I think there is a fundamental disconnect between science and religion, despite their apparent growing overlap. Perhaps science can give us a better context for explaining why we perceive the world the way we do. Science can never prove, for instance, the existence of an afterlife. In my mind, this follows from the fact that there seems to be natural barriers to understanding everything about the universe- things like the uncertainty principle prevent us from knowing the position and velocity of one particle perfectly, let alone a whole organism. Its almost like poetic justice in a way for science’s growing totalization over every aspect of reality, its Faustian Will to Know everything.

And yet, breakthroughs like special relativity have already given man almost godlike powers, to create the atomic bomb for instance. Some futurists would argue that we can’t begin to fathom how much science will advance because “we don’t intuitively understand exponential growth” (their favorite go-to phrase for predicting the coming “singularity”). No such singularity will occur. Maybe quantum computers are on the horizon, but I imagine cover stories about the Singularity will sound as hokey in 30 years as predictions of flying cars by 2000 were back in the 1950s. “But there are flying cars right now Stephen, they just aren’t marketable!” Yeah, I’m talking about little Jetson-like hovercars, nice try buddy.

So what if time is relative and not absolute? Well it flies in the face of typical “engineer” type mindsets about the world. I’m using this term generally as a kind of neologism for a rigid “no-nonsense” type of mindset about the world, because most engineers typically deal day to day with Newtonian physics. Gravity is this value, F=MA, etc. But gravity is obviously a very relative force depending on the mass of the bodies. It was observed long ago by Galileo that it doesn’t matter what the mass of the body falling toward the Earth is, it falls at the same rate. However, this is just due to the enormous size of the Earth. Even Newton’s law of gravitation can be read easily by a layperson to understand that there should be *tiny minuscule* difference between heavier objects and lighter objects falling to the Earth- so minuscule as to take very sensitive instruments to detect.

I digress. Despite my disliking for New Age interpretations of quantum physics and general relativity, my point is this- there are philosophical implications for these theories. One should not simply dismiss the implications and have a purely calculative disposition toward these theories. They are meant to interpret the physical workings of the world. But often the implications of those theories are so strange and difficult to understand (like the Twin paradox or Schrodinger’s cat) that they are either dismissed by rational scientifically minded people or used for pseudo-scientific speculation. Rather, it should be recognized that general relativity really does predict that if one twin is sent out at the speed of light on a mission in space, that twin will age slower than his twin at home, and though the journeying twin will have only experienced days, his twin at home will have experienced years, or be dead by the time he returns. This is a strange but fascinating result, from which we should not extrapolate further. This doesn’t mean that we can really bend time with our minds or something.

Seems simple enough, but apparently not for Deepak Chopra.

Postscript: 

I feel like I have been disillusioned, but also stumbled onto something maybe more profound. Perhaps even physicists can fall into this trap. I’ve known about David Bohm for a long time. Bohm is a quantum physicist who insisted that quantum physics has something extraordinary to say about the nature of reality and consciousness, based on interpretations of the double-slit experiment, among other things. However, popularizers of physics go way too far with Bohm’s theories about the meaning of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. I’m referring to the book that inspired me to write this article, the very frustrating read The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. Complete with the cover page that reads: “A remarkable new theory of reality that explains the paranormal abilities of the mind”, Talbot goes on to completely botch quantum theory by summarizing it in about 20 pages without referring to a single experiment. No mention of the double slit experiment!

I quote the book:

“Perhaps the most astonishing of all is that there is compelling evidence that the only time quanta ever manifest as particles is when we are looking at them”. 

First of all, no footnotes, no references to a single experiment- the entire chapter’s footnotes contain references to interpretations of quantum theory, such prestigious (cough cough) scientific works such as interviews with David Bohm and John P. Briggs’ “Looking Glass Universe”. The extent of their dabbling in scientific theory seems to be popular books written by David Bohm which they have obviously misinterpreted (or worse, Bohm is playing this game too for $$$- maybe a little of both).

Second, the quote is horseshit. Quanta don’t manifest as particles when we are looking at them, this is a misinterpretation of the double slit experiment. You can’t look at a particle! It means that when a quanta is measured, the instrument that is used to observe it effects it in such a way (a scanning electron microscope for instance which uses, you guessed it, electrons) disturbs the quanta which makes it a particle under certain instances. There are certain things like a superposition of quantum states, which I’m not too sure about interpreting because it means it can be both simultaneously, but the point stands- Talbot’s interpretation of quantum physics is at best a misreading, at worst junk science for profit off the weak minded. 

As someone really interested in the philosophical implications of quantum reality, I’m frustrated that Talbot does not clarify this. He goes on in the book to say that its about the interconnectedness of the universe, which is basically true (and kind of boring) but makes it out to be something later in the book about how consciousness is the “fundamental nature of reality” (the ultimate Deepak Chopra move).

To conclude, I have to say this- when Buddha said “all that we are is the result of what we have thought” he meant something about living an ethical life. Apparently Talbot doesn’t have any ethical considerations about whether he is accurately depicting science or not, the science that is the result of many hard working people, and deserves good public interpretation, not “paranormal” junk

Is there an objective reality? Lessons from relativity

 

As far as educational channels about cosmology and physics on youtube, PBS’s Spacetime is fun and based in comprehensive understanding of physics, not science fiction. This video is a great introduction into the concept of Spacetime itself based on Einstein’s general relativity theory.

There is also a book that I own by Einstein called the Meaning of Relativity, a good read but it gets into the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry pretty quickly. However for a truly comprehensive understanding, read that book.

It has just dawned on me that Einstein’s theory of relativity had as its precursor the philosophies of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. David Hume believed that causality was an illusion, that the series of events we see in terms of physical laws are not laws, they are just patterns that can be broken at some point in the future. However, if my understanding of relativity is correct, Hume made some prescient observations about this, but in fact the exact opposite is the case. In fact it was Kant, not Hume, who had the right intuition about the subject.

Time itself is the illusion, and causality is the fundamental reality. Time, according to general relativity, is a function of how our brains perceive reality, which is in reality a 4 dimensional static entity. Two observers (as the video explains) can disagree about the sequence of events of things and the distance between them, but their space time intervals are constant. I believe the innate cause of this variance in observation of time intervals between events is speed- therefore resulting in famous thought experiments such as the Twin Paradox. As one approaches the speed of light, time itself is no longer experienced as a constant. So in other words, the way that things interact, or rather, the way that things are interacting right now, is what is real. However, different observers can disagree on the nature of things, but within certain physical constraints and the way in which they differ is based on fundamental physical laws. The primary physical law is that the speed of light will always be perceived by any observer as the same. Based on a constant, we have variance, like a line on a graph. One’s perception of reality can only be within that line.

But general relativity still has far reaching philosophical implications. It fundamentally means that Kant was right when he said that time was not a real entity but a function of consciousness, an ordering principle of the mind.

In other words, Hume and Kant both tried to get out of a simplistic Newtonian understanding of the universe. It is this insight into reality, that reality IS NOT Newtonian, that we have yet to fully comprehend, and its something that I believe something like Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) has not taken into account.

But if the fundamental nature of reality is not Newtonian, and yet our everyday experience of reality is (everyone on Earth experiences time in the same way under normal circumstances) then does it really matter?

Yes it does, because our reality is being shaped by objects which now have to take these expanded physical laws into account. Our computers are dependent on an understanding of quantum mechanics, and our GPS’s need to take spacetime variance into account or be off by hundreds of miles. This is not new-age speculation about how “we are all connected”. This is the actual nature of our fundamental reality, in which there is no such inherent thing as time.

To me, this correlates with Buddhist philosophy so much that one has to be entirely unacquainted with Buddhism not to see it. There of course have been books on this subject (the Tao of Physics comes to mind) that have been either loved or criticized, and there have been misinterpretations of things like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, to me it shows how many great philosophers’ central insights, about how our perception of reality and reality itself are two entirely different things, were essentially correct. To me, my primary question is- was the great German physicist Einstein influenced by the great German philosopher Kant? I would quote what Richard Tarnas has to say about this subject in the Passion of the Western Mind, where he talks about the fundamental paradigm shift of Kantian thought, but I don’t have the book. So I will quote Gilles Deleuze in the first page of his book Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties: 

“On four poetic formulas which might summarize the Kantian philosophy: 

The first is Hamlet’s great formula, ‘the time is out of joint’…As long as time remains on its hinges, it is subordinate to movement, interval, or number. This was the view of ancient philosophy. But time out of joint signifies the reversal of the movement-time relationship. It is now movement which is subordinate to time…this is the first great reversal in the Critique of Pure Reason”.

Perhaps I am mistaken in my original assessment of overestimation of the importance of philosophical discourse for everyday reality- things really do have “dark precursors” as Deleuze said, or not so dark.

However, I do believe that Einstein probably did not need to read Kant to rediscover this fundamental truth. The power of Einstein’s imagination was well documented, and he described his thought process in detail. However, it does beg the Foucaultian question- in the historical episteme that is modernity, would it have been possible to ask about general relativity without Kant, without the essential insight that the world is not anthropocentric? Again, the text What is Enlightenment by Kant comes to mind more and more.

It seems that philosophy still has to play the eternal game of catch-up. When we talk about this supposed ontological turn, the question really is “which ontology?”. To me, the ontological turn means reimagining and questioning our everyday conception of reality, whether from a Heideggerian point of view, a Kantian, and taking into account non-Western ontologies as well, which have an entirely different view on phenomena like time.

Oh, and the conclusion! The conclusion is that there is an objective reality, but time is not a part of it. Time is not a container, time is a function of causality itself. In Buddhist metaphysics, causality is also the fundamental constant. Now that’s spooky!