Saturday, 31 March 2018

Religion and Happiness: Lent 2018 summary

Day 46: Easter Saturday

My annual period of self-denial and spiritual focus is coming to an end; this is the 27th year in a row - the first was in 1992. Then I gave up nothing more than giving up alcohol, confectionery, fast food and salt snacks between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Over the years, I've forsworn more items (meat in particular), but more importantly, I have begun treating Lent as a time for spiritual growth rather than just giving up things.

After the excesses of Christmas - the alcohol-fuelled merrimaking and excessive food consumption that sees you though the dark, cold and miserable time of year in  our hemisphere, I look forward to the beginning of Lent more and more with each passing year; it's both a welcome detox for the body and a chance to revisit those most important aspects of what it is to be human, to be conscious, to be alive, to think, to reason, to feel.

As those of you who've followed by Lenten quests over the years, a key issue for me is to seek a clearer path towards the truth. In general terms, I believe it lies neither in the received truths of organised religions nor in the reductionist materialism of traditional science. Rather, I intuit that we humans do have a spiritual nature that is metaphysical and indeed supernatural; that consciousness evolves, that the universe has a purpose, and that God exists - but we have yet to come anywhere close to an understanding of what God is or means. All we can do is seek - our seeking should be based on insights, intuition and reason, on reading widely from many sources, looking for highest common factors, looking for commonalities between cutting-edge science and human tradition - and intuition.

Some of us have a need for a spiritual search, a search for meaning - others don't. Those that don't may feel the need to dismiss my personal search as misguided. But the search is moving me in the right direction, and this Lent I have found much inspiration in Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe. While taking great pains not to write off classical Newtonian science and all the advances it has brought us over the past three centuries, Kauffman opens doors to new ways of looking at our universe that do not dismiss an intuitive approach.

Doubts in my mind have often been engendered by that cold scientific approach. It is born of the faith that consciousness resides in the brain and that death means a final snuffing out, an extinction of self; nothingness. Classical science based on certainties plotted by quadratic equations would posit that thinking otherwise is nothing but self-delusion. But Kauffman - and other serious scientists too - are pointing to a new view of reality, based on the uncertainties at the heart of quantum mechanics, and on the rejection that we're not far from uncovering a final grand theory of everything. The evolving universe is too complex for that, says Kauffman, who posits that the laws of nature themselves may be evolving. I found myself several times during the course of reading this book having insights that not only brought on new horizons - they actually made me feel happier. [I felt a 'Good News' moment of true joy when I read that a serious theoretical physicist arguing that dark energy and dark matter might indeed be consciousness, or that consciousness might be a property of matter along with energy and mass. I was overjoyed to read these ideas.]

Yes - happiness. Being optimistic and positive is a far better way to approach life than being pessimistic and negative. I have met people, ostensibly successful, wealthy and driven, whose worldview is dreadfully negative, whose negativism and misanthropy acts as a black hole sucking in all the hope of people around them. We should avoid contact with such people.

Happiness brings about greater mental health, health and happiness are linked; if you feel there is sense to life, that life is about moving forward on that great universal continuum from Zero to One, then your life has more meaning, you are more likely to fulfil your human potential.

This time last year:
Health and fitness in a Quarter of Abstinence

This time five years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Cycling to work - the new season begins

This time eight years ago:  
Five weeks into Lent

Friday, 30 March 2018

Winter returned for a morning

Yesterday morning, earlyish start - and this...

Out on ul. Karczunkowska, Trombity bus stop. Snow coming in horizontally from the east. I make my train in good time, trudging through mud churned in with snow on the temporary path to W-wa Jeziorki station. Temperature: +1C, wind gusting to 35kmh.

Heading into town, I catch the 07:55 train which has come from Czachówek Południowy, change at W-wa Zachodnia (below). A dear old three-windscreened EN57. One of the last.

Below: A little deja vu thing... By the Hard Rock Cafe, Złote Tarasy.

Veturilo hire bikes standing a bit idle; far from ideal cycling weather.

Outside the InterContinental hotel, even posh cars get snowed on

And on to my destination, Rondo ONZ 1, which afforded good views of a city under wet snow

By the afternoon, the snow had gone. A good thing. Here's a Chausson APH 48 'Pig Snout' outside the Palace of Culture.

This classic bus, the only one in existence in Poland, served Warsaw in the immediate post-war years, to be replaced by the more modern Chaussons in the late 1950s.

This time last year:
Globalisation and the politics of identity

This time four years ago:
More photos from Edinburgh

This time five years ago:
Edinburgh continues to fascinate

This time six years ago:
Ealing in bloom - early spring

This time ten years ago:
Swans arrive in Jeziorki

Thursday, 29 March 2018

A Brief History of Time review, Part 2

Lent 2018, Day 44

My Lenten quest this year strolls along the boundary layer between Science and Religion; an important area of inquiry through which few humans tread. I have come to have a deep respect for Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe - the words 'humanity' and 'creative' being all-important descriptors of the word 'universe'. Kauffman's world view is more open to notions of the universe having a direction and purpose; of a universal consciousness that's continually evolving. Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time hails from a passing age, in which it was believed that before too long, science would be able to explain everything.

As I wrote yesterday in Part 1 of my review, Hawking's bestseller remains a milestone in popular-science writing. It sets out the two theories of how we understand this universe in which we live, at the subatomic level (quantum mechanics) and at the galactic level (relativity). It also explains black holes, the radiation (subsequently named Hawking radiation) that seeps out of them, despite previous theories that nothing should escape their gravitational pull. And Hawking describes Time as an arrow that flies only one way - and why that should be.

So there we are, at the end of chapter 9, cheering on scientific progress in its quest to unify all theories into one, so we end up understanding everything. But hold on... Chapter 10 is called The Unification of Physics, and in it, Hawking explains the current (as of 1988) thinking in terms of unifying quantum theory with relativity. It was all meant to be so simple... "In 1928, physicist and Nobel prize winner Max Born [said] 'Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months'. " Hawking continues; "I still believe that there are grounds for cautious optimism that we many now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature."

Aafter introducing the then-trendy superstring theory (space-time was thought to consist of ten or 26 dimensions back in 1988), he asks: "But can there really be such a unified theory? Or are we perhaps just chasing a mirage?" Kauffman believes that a Grand Unified Theory, a single set of rules that consistently describes and explains everything, is exactly that.

Hawking sets out three possibilities:

"1) There really is a complete unified theory, which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.

2) There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe ever more accurately.

3) There is no theory of the universe; events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner."

I intuitively rule out possibility 1) on the grounds that we are not smart enough. The complexity of the universe (be it just our biodiversity or our human economy here on planet earth) is growing so rapidly that it would be folly to believe that we could. I'm happy enough with 2); an infinite sequence will take an eternity to unravel - to me, that feels instinctively right. And 3) also seems right - until eternity minus one chronon, when all (and I mean ALL) will become totally clear.

Hawking then sets up a straw-man argument... "Some would argue for possibility 3) on the grounds that if there were a complete set of laws, that would infringe God's freedom to change his mind and intervene in the world. It's a bit like the old paradox: Can God make a stone so heavy that he can't lift it?" Reductionist materialist scientists can take pops at medieval views of God and they can do it well; but it's time for religions to reconsider the notion of a supreme deity in much the same way that scientists (including Einstein himself) had to reconsider the laws of nature once the theory of quantum mechanics was proven to be correct.

Kauffman could also suggest a fourth possibility, namely that the laws of nature, the universal constants, the boundary conditions, are themselves evolving - so science is ultimately chasing a moving target. Kauffman's view of the universe is far grander that the dry calculus of classical physics. Positing consciousness as a property of matter, along with mass and energy hugely complicates mankind's search for a final theory. Those biologists who insist that the seat of consciousness resides exclusively in the human brain (and in the brain of higher-order animals) have yet to prove it, just as theoretical physicists have yet to unify quantum theory and relativity.

But then Kauffman has yet to prove that consciousness resides in subatomic particles; experiments into the way the conscious human observer can influence the outcome of quantum experiments by force of will are are a long way off from showing any conclusive results.

One way or another, science is far from 'over'; it behoves those of us who take the view of the universe as being purposeful, travelling in an untidy line from Zero to One, through chaos to order, to keep up with the latest discoveries in cosmology and particle physics.

Let me give the last word to Hawking: "What would it mean if we actually did discover the ultimate theory of the universe? If the theory was mathematically consistent and always gave predictions that agreed with observations, we could be reasonably confident that it was the right one. It would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity's intellectual struggle to understand the universe." But Hawking acknowledges that this is not all... "Even if we do discover a complete unified theory, it would not mean that we would be able to predict events in general." This is because of a) the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics limits our powers of prediction and b) the equations would be, says Hawking, too complex to solve "except in very simple situations."

But even so, "A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step, our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence." Phew! Here's Hawking getting very close how I see Heaven, Nirvana, Valhalla what have you - total consciousness, awareness of everything.

Well worth taking the trouble to read. Steven Hawking's great message to mankind was "be curious, be determined." He most certainly was both. He inspired many people to inquire more deeply into the nature of our universe. Striving to make the most of our potential as human beings is a noble aim.

On my own journey from Zero to One, I feel that this Lent I have taken another small step forward; life is a quest to learn; don't come to me for spiritual answers but for an open-ended discussion from which I hope all parties will increase their understanding at least a bit. See this life as but a short stage in an eternally long learning process.

This time three years ago:
"We don't need no [tertiary] education"

This time four years ago:
Arthur's Seat - Edinburgh's urban mountain

This time six years ago:

This time seven years ago:
A wee taste of Edinburgh

This time eight years ago:
First long bike ride of the season

This time nine years ago:
Life returns to Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Early spring dusk

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Brief History of Time - review, Part 1 - Introduction

Lent 2018: Day 42

Never before in my 60 years has stranger on public transport ever asked me about a book I was reading; and now twice this week fellow passengers did just that, as I was sat there with my copy of Steven Hawking's best seller. That a book by the British scientist, who died on 14 March, should so well known as to prompt comments from people here in Poland says much about its fame.

On hearing of Prof Hawking's death, I reached for A Brief History of Time from my father's bookshelf. Like many of his books it is neatly bound in clear polythene, and catalogued (with the number 19). My father wrote 'Xmas 1988' on the half-title page; the publisher's copyright pages says this is the seventh(!) reprint, dated 1988 - of a book that first appeared in 1988. Verily, a best seller, with over ten million sold by 2008.

 Pencilled notes in the margins and underlined phrases or sentences from beginning to end, plus numerous newspaper and magazine cuttings (including one from Scientific American, dated December 1991) suggest that not only did my father read the book from end to end, but he continued to dip into it as and when new stuff came to light. Looking at my father's notes from nearly 30 years ago, when he 65, I can see a vital interest, intellectual curiosity and broad background knowledge.

Thirty years is a long time in science. The number of subatomic particles know to science has grown, as has the number of galaxies in the known universe, and the number of stars within those galaxies. The age of the universe is given as being between 10 and 15 billion years, today scientific consensus says 13.8 billion years. Gravitational waves had never been detected. Planets orbiting other stars had never been detected. Dark matter is mentioned only in passing, just three sentences in a paragraph about the rate of expansion of the universe. Dark energy is not mentioned at all (now reckoned to be 67.3% of everything the universe consists of). We now know far more - and the more science discovers, the more it realises it still doesn't know. "Ultimately," writes Hawking, "most physicists hope to find a unified theory that will explain all four forces [gravity, electromagnetism, weak- and strong nuclear force] as different aspects of a single force. Indeed, many would say that this is the prime goal of physics today."

Having read Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe (2016), it seems that that goal has been abandoned as astrophysicists and nuclear physicists peer further into the unknown and come up with more questions than answers. Hawking is still of the Newtonian old school of reductionist materialism, believing that mankind was on the verge of discovering all the answers through quadratic equations that elegantly piece together the pieces of the jigsaw into one Grand United Theory. Kauffman is far more cautious - and more metaphysical. He believes there's far more out there than phenomena that are calculable; his background in theoretical biology gives him a messier cosmology than Hawking's. Kauffman mentions Steven Weinberg Dream of a Final Theory (1998), and says that the "hard-headed realism" of scientists who chase such a theory, who try to tie up all the loose ends and tell us - "here it all is, finally solved " - robs our human lives of mystery and magic.

I feel there's more than a little of that with Hawking. While he does a grand job of explaining the incredibly complex and often counter-intuitive cosmos down to the subatomic particle, I detect a certain intellectual arrogance - the universe as a problem for the sublime human mind to solve, to reduce down to numbers and formulae.

A Brief History of Time should not be attempted by a lay reader without some basic understanding of the building blocks of our universe; the notion of spacetime, singularity, quantum uncertainty. Coming at this cold expecting a Dummy's Guide approach will not work. Having said that, Wikipedia is a wonderful tool (for me, the biggest single achievement of the Internet Age), and the ability to pick up at least a superficial grasp of a new concept (such as the Pauli exclusion principle) is very helpful in tackling this book.

Hawkings breaks the subject down into chapters dealing with the universe, the elementary particles, black holes, and of course, time itself. This makes is easier to get one's head around it all; plus, for the lay reader, there is famously only one equation in the book, which is E=mc².

The rest of my review of A Brief History of Time here.

This time last year:
Eyes without a face

This time two years ago:
London blooms in yellow

This time three years ago:
London's Docklands: a case-study in urban regeneration

This time four years ago:
Scotland and its language 

This time five years ago:
Death, our sister

This time six years ago:
First bike ride to work of the year 

This time eight years ago:
Poland's trains ran faster before the war

This time nine years ago:
Winter in spring: surely this must be the last snow?

This time ten years ago:
Surely THIS must be the last snow?

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Local update at the start of the last week of Lent

A lovely warm day, with temperatures into double digits - the best way to clear snow, with the sun's rays rather than rain. A long walk (12,000 paces today), and time for a local update. It looks like ul. Karczunkowska will have a new bus stop, between the new Totalbud building and the state security-printers, PWPW. The new bus stop will be 450m from the one on the corner of Puławska and 400m from Trombity. This makes sense. Too many PWPW employees drive in by car, parking on verges, pavements even on street corners. Take away an excuse to use the car, and conditions will be better.

Though work should have started on 12 March, it hasn't really - will the new bus stop be ready by 30 April? And will it be called Pozytywki (50m from corner of Karczunkowska and ul. Pozytywki) or PWPW?

Spring is here, astronomical and meteorologic; I spot my first toad, making its way across Pozytywki towards the pond, now ice-free.

A look from the (unnamed because it's meant to be temporary) road linking ul. Gogolińska and Karczunkowska round the side of Biedronka. A nice view of the viaduct as it begins to take shape.

Meanwhile ul. Trombity is still being dug up for the water mains, so Monday-Friday during work hours, there's no getting through.

Coming soon - a Lenten review of the late Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

This time last year:
"Jeziorki bogged down in railway mud"

This time two years ago:
Ideas, and how they take hold

This time three years ago:
Russian eyes peering down on Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
The fate of urban wetlands?

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Afterlife - a myriad possibilities, now that the Magic has been brought back

Lent 2018 - Day 39

I mentioned David Eagleman's Sum - Forty Tales from the Afterlife in my last Lenten post. Written by a neuroscientist, it is another in a line of books which shows that the magic in our lives had not evaporated when Isaac Newton set out the foundations of classical physics. Building on the new panpsychism that Stuart A. Kauffman outlines in Humanity in a Creative Universe, I'd like to posit my current views on consciousness and the afterlife. This post follows on from the question left at the end of this post.

For many thinking teenagers brought up in traditionally religious households, there comes that 'Santa doesn't exist' moment when the comforting nostrums we grew up with are blown away by a confrontation with science, rational thought and logic. For me, I never really let go of a deep belief in a deity, though certainly not the deity that traditional (Polish) Roman Catholicism tried to instil in me. Unlike the great majority of my generation, I have not abandoned belief in an afterlife. And unlike that minority of my generation who still go to Mass regularly, my version of the Nicene Creed stops after 'I believe in one God, maker of all things visible and invisible'. Of course, what's meant to me by 'God' and 'maker' still needs a lot of shaping, and this is central to my spiritual quest for clarity and understanding. But God, a Lord, a King, male, two eyes, nose, mouth and beard - no.

And with that goes a rejection of an afterlife floating on a cloud with a harp. My own experiences of anomalous memories going back to childhood suggest that I am currently living what could be called somebody else's afterlife, although the feelings are not that powerful, they are consistent and ever-present. Entangled electrons across space and time?  I'm not ready to answer one way or another, but at least science is open to the possibility.

Kauffman's book promised the magic to re-enchant us, to show us what science can now consider possible with current interpretations of quantum mechanics. To bring back the magic that Newtonian physics had replaced by rationalism, dry and calculated.The conscious observer is required to determine the outcome of the quantum experiment. The conscious observer's will might affect it one way or another (though science needs to prove this). Even if this effect is weak, my belief is that it will grow, evolve. [The placebo effect is now reported to be stronger in humans undergoing clinical trials than it was half a century ago.]

But beware - moving forward from Newtonian certainties does not mean we can indulge in any sort of mystical woo - healing crystals, miracle cures, dream catchers etc - there does need to be a tangible bridge to scientific method. Repeatable and peer-reviewed experiments.

So can we will our afterlives? Many won't care; lacking the sensitivity to the vibes of the universe; agnostic whatever their background (people who go to church without really thinking about why); lacking the curiosity, insufficiently observant of the world around them. They who did not place a true value upon their consciousness will not be rewarded in the hereafter - and it won't unduly bother them to know that. But those of us  that do, those of us with that curiosity and sensitivity, those of us that want to live it all again but next time round at a slightly higher level of consciousness, greater sensitivity and awareness, just that bit nearer the unity of the eternal and infinite - "then if you will it Dude, it is no dream".

This time last year:
Warsaw photo catch-up (Rotunda going down)

This two years ago:
Conscious of being conscious

This time four years ago:
New road and retail

This time six years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy

This time eight years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?

This time nine years ago:
Four weeks into Lent

Friday, 23 March 2018

Edge of town

The field between Nowa Iwiczna and Zgorzała is filling up with housing, new units are appearing each time I walk over there. This photo (click to enlarge) is from last Sunday; an azure sky, fading to midnite blue at the zenith thanks to the polarising filter that also whitened the snow. Low-voltage power lines and a rutty track converge at infinity. Crisp shadows from the sun that's getting stronger by the day. A brief moment of anomalously familiar memory; how could I have witnessed such a scene in my West London childhood? And yet I've had this feeling before. 1950s USA or Scandinavia; housing on an airbase in the far north - Alaska? Greenland?

This time two years ago:
The Name of God, Consciousness and Everything

This time four years ago:
The clash of narratives

This time five years ago:
The Church and democracy

This time six years ago:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time seven years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time eight years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time nine years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time ten years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Humanity in a Creative Universe - what have I learnt?

Lent 2018 - Day 31

Time to sum up my summing up of Stuart A. Kauffman's book. This is the book I'd been waiting for many years to come along - but I had to be mature enough to read it. big A thank you to my brother; he bought it for me for Christmas 2016, but it would be a year and six weeks before I'd get round to reading beyond page viii of the preface.

This is a book written by a scientist who feels that the way science has progressed over the past three centuries has closed the door to our innate sense of magic and wonder. The reductionist materialism of classical Newtonian physics has made us feel that we're nothing more than meat robots witnessing a meaningless universe - we're born, we live, we die - that's it.

Yet many of us intuit that there's far more to life and the universe than those sets of quadratic equations that can prove where everything's from and where it's all heading. Rather than being yet another quasi-mystical hippy quest for a transcendental something, this is a book based on the career of well-rounded scientist with a strong knowledge biology, theoretical physics and mathematics.

The enigma at the heart of quantum mechanics - namely how can something be and not be at the same time - until it is consciously observed to be either one or the other - opens the doors to a far more open-ended worldview than that offered by classical physics, suggests Kauffman.

Our universe is open ended, expanding at an accelerating pace; our society - our technology and economy is likewise unfolding exponentially in terms of what's possible, ever building upon and recombining with that which came before, creating a future that's intrinsically unknowable.

Kauffman's worldview is that it is better to be positive and optimistic and open to new possibilities than to be otherwise. One's outlook ought to be a worldview that makes one happy; good mental - and physical - health comes from being positive and optimistic. Living in fear of a vengeful God or else mired without hope in a meaningless universe over which one has no control does not engender a positive, optimistic outlook.

These are general thoughts. But on to my deeper, more personal responses to the book.

As my regular readers will know, from my earliest childhood I have had anomalous memory experiences, every bit as real as unbidden and untriggered flashbacks from my life - but they are not of this life, but from another time and another place. I have written much about this phenomenon of my mind (most fully here).

Kauffman's book has opened up the notion that the vector communicating anomalous memories may be quantum-related. It may be (as I wrote before), be dark matter or dark energy related. I am now certainly a long way from believing in reincarnation as a religious concept, though it has occurred to me that for such a belief to take hold, many more people than I must have also experienced 'past-life flashbacks'.

The other notion that I've held since childhood is that of 'edge of chaos'; that our lives are in perpetual risk of tipping into disaster or tragedy, and that by consciously discounting the dangers that we could fall prey to, we can ward them off. This idea would neatly fit with Kauffman's (as yet unproven) assertion that the outcome of quantum experiments can be willed - and not just neutrally observed - by the conscious observer. And that we can therefore affect our fate by our will. Our greatest enemy in this worldview is complacency. "If you will it, Dude, it is no dream."

Eight years ago, I read another book suggested by my brother, neuroscientist David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Eagleman, a Possibilitarian, espouses the view that we cannot definitely rule out - nor rule in - any form of afterlife. Click! Given Kauffman's notions about the Poised Realm - moving from the Possible to the new Actual, which then creates new Possibles - the concept of 'Possibilianism' becomes, well, possible.

Let's go back to Schrodinger's cat. Alive and dead until the conscious observer peeks into the box. Assume Dean Radin is right, and the conscious observer can will the outcome of the experiment. "Hurrah! My beloved cat lives!" - or "Meh, I don't really care." Or: "The cat poos on my bed, scratches my furniture - this experiment is a good opportunity to be rid of that pest."

Could it be this way with God? With an Afterlife?

Those that want one, peek into the box upon their physical demise - and get what they willed. Those that deny, or simply do not need a God or an Afterlife, or just don't care - their consciousness is extinguished the moment their bodies cease to function - open the box and that's that. An eternity of nothingness, no consciousness to observe it.

Now ask yourself - what is your will?

[Coming soon - a tribute to Steven Hawking in the form of a Lenten review of A Brief History of Time.]

This time five years ago:
Always let your conscience be your guide

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe with prawns 

This time nine years ago:
Polish economy - recession thwarted

Friday, 16 March 2018

Knowing and being... and intuition

Lent 2018: Day 31

A sign of a good book is when an air of sadness descends over me as I approach its end, like knowing that a good conversation with a friendly mentor is drawing to a close. And this I feel as I begin the penultimate chapter of Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe, a book that has not so much transformed my thinking as clarified it and put it into a far more scientific framework. More on that in my conclusion tomorrow.

Kauffman states his wish for "a gently transforming civilisation", or indeed multiple woven civilisations (of which Kauffman claims there are around 30 on this planet right now). I hope so to, but fear that human progress to date has been achieved in fits and starts with bouts of destructive chaos smashing against order and progress. “Reason alone cannot guide us sufficiently for living our lives forward,” says Kauffman, quoting Kierkegaard. What is needed is intuition.

Intuition, rather than reason, is what happens when rather than working something out logically, we stumble upon an answer in a flash of inspiration, building on something that went before, often something unexpected or unplanned. So often, in science, in economics, in the arts, what happens is a recombination of old ideas and new questions, creating new concepts that become new Actuals.

Kauffman gives as an example the way that improvisation comedy works. Unscripted, a comic throws in a line, an idea, and the next one works it into something comedically appropriate, then the next comic, following the thread, but giving it a twist, taking it to a higher level. He cites Beyond the Fringe - the classic British comedy revue of the early 1960s, in particular Peter Cooke and Alan Bennett's Great Train Robbery sketch.

Oscillating between the electron, the galaxies, the evolution of the biosphere on our planet and human creativity - Kauffman attempts to place the works of Shakespeare, Keats and Dylan Thomas in an unprestatable universe of quantum mechanics.

Is there then a place for God in such a worldview? Kauffman is careful not to use the vocabulary of religion. He says 'consciousness' and 'Mind' rather than 'soul' or 'spirit'. There is no omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Deity; neither is there a Supreme Architect nor Watchmaker who created the mechanism, wound it up, set it off and watched it unwind from a neutral distance. Rather, there is an Unfolding, a Becoming, a Perfecting; an infinitely patient process of creativity, the evolution of Mind becoming exponentially more complex.

At the heart of Kauffman's worldview is the science of quantum mechanics, the notion that without a conscious mind to observe the outcome of a quantum experiment, the electron hovers in superposition; the Schrodinger's cat remains dead and alive until a human opens the box to see. Now, Kauffman, drawing on the controversial works of Dean Radin, moves a step further to say that the conscious observer can influence, or will, the outcome of the quantum experiment. "I want the cat to be alive! And hey! It's alive!" Verdict - still needs plenty more experimental work to show that this is the case. The next scientific question mark hovers over the the seat - and indeed - the nature of consciousness. Does it reside exclusively in the brain of higher-order animals (a cat, a mouse, an octopus yes - an ant, no) - or controversially - is consciousness also to be found in single-celled life forms like amoeba and bacteria such as E. coli?

Kauffman goes further. He claims, on the basis of intuition, that consciousness resides at the subatomic level. I have posited such an idea on this blog, but with no scientific background whatsoever, it is pure poetry on my part. The notion that the dark energy and dark matter - invisible, unmeasurable - that is believed to make up over 95% of the universe's mass-energy content - could be consciousness is also something I have considered.

Science will either one day show this to be false - or true. Or metaphorically true. Or neither and both. We shall see - or not.

A final summing up of Humanity in a Creative Universe in my next post.

This time last year:
Rzeszów [coincidentally, I was back there just yesterday]

This time four years ago:
A tipping point in European history

This time five years ago:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time six years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time seven years ago:
A week into Lent

This time eight years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time nine years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time ten years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Milestone for Jeziorki as viaduct takes shape

Just a brief post to mark the first spanning of the pillars with steel beams; the viaduct carrying ul. Karczunkowska over the railway line at W-wa Jeziorki is taking shape nicely. I'm back after a week in London; this has happened during my absence.

Still a vast amount of work to go, and no, Ian Wilcock, I do not see any chance of this being open to traffic this year! I'd guess that within a few months it will be possible to cross on foot (during a public holiday of course) but all the ancillary work (on-ramps, stairs, wheelchair lifts, acoustic screens, crash barriers, signage, lighting) will go on an on. And the final sign-offs before cars are allowed over it. Second half of next year, I'd say would be optimistic.

It's around twenty past seven; the passenger train to Skarzysko-Kamienna has just left, and a full coal train, electric hauled, passes W-wa Jeziorki station on the 'up' line heading for the sidings at Okęcie.

I must also mark today the passing of the great theoretical physicist, Steven Hawking. I shall celebrate his life in a post about his best seller, A Brief History of Time, as soon as I can. His admonition to us all to be curious and never to give up in the face of adversity is so important.

UPDATE 16.03.2018 - a wider view - in a snowstorm. All three tracks now spanned.

This time five years ago:
Goodness gracious!

This time six years ago:

This time seven years ago:
Cycling and recycling

This time eight years ago:
Winter clings on to the forest

This time nine years ago:
Toyota launches the iQ

This time ten years ago:
Old school Łódź

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Perivale Tryptych

Perivale! Where I left to go to Poland in 1997. Unremarkable 1930s suburban sprawl, sliced through by the railway (Central Line and Great Western Railway), by the road (the A40 Western Avenue), and, more gently, by the River Brent.

Below: looking westward towards Greenford station, an eastbound Central Line approaches Perivale. Above the train some rare relics of the GWR, some semaphore signals.

Below: the footbridge over the Western Avenue. In the distance gleams white the Hoover building, a gem of Art Deco architecture. On the horizon to the left, Wembley Stadium

Below: the River Brent dissects the Ealing Golf Club, the right bank (to the left in this photo) being in Perivale, the left bank (right) being in Ealing.

It might look pretty in the sun, but Perivale had lost its semi-rural charm to urban sprawl back in the 1930s. As far from the centre of London as Jeziorki is from the centre of Warsaw, I know where I'd rather live!

This time seven years ago:
Cycling and recycling

This time eight years ago:
Winter still holding out in the forest

This time nine years ago:
Little car, huge price

This time ten years ago:
Old school Łódź

Monday, 12 March 2018

Observations from another time

Lent 2018: Day 27

Early morning, West London. I'm sitting at the desk in my father's spare room when suddenly PAFF! There it is - that absolute moment of congruent consciousness. All of a sudden I experience a flashback, prefect in sensory detail. Unbidden, unprompted. It is the 1960s, summer, seaside. It could be Stella Plage in France or Eastbourne; a family holiday. The smell, the smell unbidden comes to me - back from a day at the beach, the tang of salty skin, suntan oil, damp towels and swimwear; a sunlit hotel room.

Exactly as I felt it half a century ago.

This type of experience is not unusual for me; these unbidden memories of past qualia [singular: quale] have been a feature of my existence for as long as I can remember. Reading Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe, over the past weeks of Lent, I can appreciate these flashbacks in physical terms; when they happen, for a split second I can observe - as in observing a quantum experiment, electrons in superposition, observed. Spin up or spin down.

Kauffman, drawing on his own work and that of others, posits that electrons may possess a property other than mass and charge, namely consciousness. Consciousness, will... memory? Ethics, even, as my brother suggested to me in a recent email.

I wrote these words a year and half ago to describe my flashback experiences:
This is deepest memory; where does it reside? In the bones? In the optic nerve? There are memories that can be recovered by thinking back to an event; there are memories that can be triggered by a smell, taste or (as in this case) a sight, a sound, a feeling; there are memories that spring into your consciousness unbidden. 
Those moments when that 'time slide' happens fill me momentarily with a yearning to return and to relive them - a brief feeling that evaporates all too quickly, leaving a residue of hope - an expression of experiencing a continuity of consciousness...
A "memory hiccup". The seaside holiday flashback is one that's entered the canon of my stored qualia; another is the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing in the run-up to Christmas, mid-1960s, looking into the shop window at F.H. Rowse's at the seasonal display of toys, in particular a Corgi model of an Aston Martin DB4 in mint-green and white, racing number on the doors, running around a toy race-track. There's a nip of frost, snowflakes in the air, a busy evening, people and cars rushing, Christmas is just days away...

Comforting; familiar.

Detail. Observation is very important in life; coupled with curiosity, observation is one of the fundamental building blocks of the desire to learn. Talking to my son the other week as I drove him to the airport, he was telling me about his memories of Warsaw Okęcie airport from his childhood, before the Etiuda terminal was open. His memories are extremely detailed (such as the fact that prior to 9/11, security was conducted at the gates, the colour of the seats in the old terminal, border control procedures prior to Poland entering Schengen).

This is conscious memory; as a child, my son was vitally interested in air travel in all its facets, and made mental note of his surroundings. So many people just pass through life without really noticing. Yes; but take one of those people who pass without really noticing and prompt them - maybe some sparks of a more detailed memory emerge.

The most interesting phenomenon of memory is the unbidden, unprompted stuff. I can't recall, when on a family seaside holiday, I ever stopping to think - "Ah, there's that combination of smells again..." And yet those qualia return, they do so as precise and sharp as ever, bringing with them those emotional yearnings, and savouring them is so, so sweet.

What does one need to be open to such experiences? A certain sensitivity to klimat, atmosphere, spirit of place, spirit of time (Platzgeist and Zeitgeist), a sense that such recalled qualia are an intrinsic part of what it is to be you.

This brings me to my own, highly personal, quest - to find the causes of the anomalous recalled qualia that have the same intensity and reality as the ones described above - but are not from my lifetime. Again, I have a canon of these experienced over my 60 years; familiar, consistent in place and time; I have catalogued them most fully in this post, here.

What I've learnt so far (two crucial chapters still to go, for those who've followed my Lenten explorations this year) is the importance in quantum mechanics of conscious observation. If I have been the observer of the qualia that occurred on a childhood seaside holiday in Eastbourne, was I not also the observer of the qualia that occurred at a State Fair in the US sometime in the 1930s? Or watched fleets of silver B-29 bombers flying over the Pacific, headed for Japan? Or approached that low, long white building among the pines and birches that was my office in the 1950s?

"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." - J.B.S. Haldane.

This time last year:
Spirit of age, spirit of place

This time two years ago:
The crux of the matter

This time four years ago:
10,000 steps is a lot for one day

This time five years ago:
Bary mleczne - Warsaw's cheap eateries 

This time six years ago:
Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake lens reviewed

This time seven years ago:
Old Town, another prospect

This time eight years ago:
W-wa Śródmieście - commuters' staging post

This time nine years ago:
Filthy ul. Poloneza
[Now re-named ul. Kujawiaka]

This time ten years ago:
A sight that heralds the coming of spring

Sunday, 11 March 2018

From the origin of conscious life to us and beyond

Lent 2018: Day 26

Once, not so very long ago, the vast majority of people, asked where life came from, would have stated categorically that it was the result of divine intervention...

And then, in 1952, Stanley Miller at the University of Chicago, did an experiment in which he flashed sparks of electricity through water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen. He wanted to replicate the atmosphere of Earth in its earliest days, through which lightning would zig-zag. The result - after five days, a brown sludge formed; amino acids, organic molecules. Primordial soup. The publication of Miller's work caused a major stir around the world - life had been created in a test tube! Now there was no need for God - this (coupled with evolution) is how we came about!

But hang on a minute - there's still a mighty long way from simple amino acids to complex proteins, to the double-helix structure of DNA, to self-replicating bacteria. In the decades that followed, many more experiments into prebiotic chemistry were carried out, synthesising ever-more complex molecules. But to date, science has yet to create living, procreating beings in a test tube. Which is not to say that many scientists today still believe that divine intervention was necessary to create life on Earth.

The notion of panspermia, of life propagating itself across galaxies, is one of the theories (along with deep-sea vents) as how those amino acids eventually turned into living beings. Studies of meteorites that fell to Earth (such as the Murchison meteorite which fell on Australia in 1969), suggest that DNA and RNA components, the building blocks for life, may have formed extra-terrestrially in outer space and been brought to earth, seeding a fertile biosphere that had all the right conditions in which they could thrive and replicate.

This is all clearly important, but at some stage, that life would have become conscious. Now, given that in Humanity in a Creative Universe, Stuart A. Kauffman says that Mind is a part of the universe and did not originate with life, he is open to the notion that "even simple life has rudimentary consciousness and free will." One way or another, consciousness "must have evolved enormously to yield the human mind, cognitive, emotional, intuitive, sensate.." And here Kauffman confesses to being in a quandary; either consciousness resides in the atom, in which case it appeared in the universe very shortly after Big Bang, or at the time the first compound organic molecules became self-replicating life forms.

All this in the 4.1 billion years since the first cells are believed to be formed (Earth is 4.5 billion years old). Around 3.5 billion years ago lived the most recent population of organisms from which all organisms now living on Earth have a common descent (the Last Universal Common Ancestor, LUCA), a single-celled organism with a ring of DNA floating freely within it. In the intervening years between the last LUCA dying and the first Homo Sapiens being born, an amazing parade of life forms has come and gone; 99% of all the species that ever lived on Earth are now extinct.

Now just imagine the massive leap from single-celled organisms to us. That took around 3.8 billion years. 

Now imagine a leap of that same magnitude that can be attained over the next 3.8 billion years. What angelic beings could exist then? How great their consciousness? [The Sun is expected to remain stable for the next 5 billion years, but the Solar System should not be a constraint for our descendants. Never mind the biology or the technology that would exist then - just consider that consciousness...

This time last year:
Changing Jeziorki, late winter

This time four years ago:
A night of musical enchantment

This time five years ago:
A selfless faith

This time six years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time seven years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time eight years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time ten years ago:
Spring much closer 

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Do the Laws of Nature govern or describe our universe?

Lent 2018: Day 25

Into the second half of Lent, z górki now... and indeed coming to an end of the second part (of three) of Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe, my Lenten read this year. In chapter 14, Kauffman asks about the foundations of our universe, the frame of Newton's billiard table, if you like, the 23 physical constants (such as the speed of light, the strength of gravity, the forces that bind atoms together)... well... do they govern or do they describe?

The reductive materialists would have us believe that they merely describe. But the fact that if any of these constants had slightly different values, the universe would have been so different that intelligent life would probably not have emerged. If, for example, the strong nuclear force were just 2% stronger than it is, then hydrogen atoms would behave quite differently, drastically altering the physics of stars, ruling out the existence of life similar to what we observe here on Earth. Or if there were just slightly more dark energy in the universe, it would have expanded too fast for galaxies to form.

It seems to many physicists that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life; indeed only the presence of beings intelligent enough to be able to measure these constants requires them to be such as they are for us to exist in the first place. To get around this conundrum, some physicists propose a multiverse, in which an infinite number of universes co-exist, none of which is measurable by any other, most of them being lifeless duds because the different physical constants there precluded the evolution of life.

Here on earth then, our biosphere evolved as it did in a way that no Newtonian equation could have foreseen - the complexity being too great to capture. Which in turn, suggests Kauffman, means that no "final grand theory can entail the entire becoming of the universe or multiverse. There are in this universe, three dimensions,  plus time, as far as we know, runs one way, from past to future. There maybe other universes in which this is not the case...

The evolution of complex systems breeds systems that explode into further complexity. Consider, says Kauffman, going back 50,000 years and seeing what goods and services would be on offer to humans to trade for. The number would be small and basic. As human society, and its economy grew in complexity, so did the permutations of goods and services, multiplying exponentially. Just looking at the clutter on my desk as I write, I see so many. Darkened lenses on fashionable wire frames to place over my eyes when the sun is shining brightly. A satirical fortnightly magazine offering me laughter at the expense of the people who run the country. A graphite rod clad in wood that allows me to write down symbols on paper. And a sharpener for it, and an eraser to remove its marks from the paper, should I make a mistake. Above all, a laptop and all the services that it offers - including the ability to write this very blog post. "Combinations of the old and new uses of old goods, services and production functions to create new complements and substitute goods, services and production functions. Diversity begets an explosion of further diversity." And so we allow the emergence of an ever more complex universe - here at the human scale - that no physical law could have prestated.

OK - so now Kauffman poses another question; in the same way that Darwinian evolution is occurring within our biosphere, could the physical constants not have evolved over time until they got to where they are now? "If so the universe can 'try' different laws and constants, and that set [of them] that at any moment yields the most complex universe, wins."  By trial and error, then laws of physics that don't work are rejected for the ones that favour an ever-better functioning universe.

Can these laws and constants emerge from, as physicist John Archibald Wheeler, 'the higgledy-piggledy'? "Imagine... something outside of space but inside of time that might have predated the Big Bang". In this chapter, Kauffman says that we have allowed ourselves to be trapped in the Pythagorean dream, a dream further entrenched by Newton, a dream whereby we claim that our universe has fixed foundations. Religious people say God fixed those foundations, which govern our universe. Reductionist-materialist scientists say those foundations just accidentally happened, and that they describe our universe.

A new way is to say that those foundations came into being in a higgledy-piggledy way, and that they are themselves evolving. Why they are evolving, where they are evolving towards - that, dear reader, is the nature of God - for me at least. The Unfolding, the Becoming.

This time last year:
Coincidence, consciousness and quantum physics
[Coincidentally, this post also quotes John Archibald Wheeler]

This time three years ago, Warsaw's M2 metro line opened:
It's been 19 years, 11 months and 1 day...

This time five years ago:
A selfless faith

This time six years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time seven years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time eight years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time ten years ago:
Spring much closer

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Right and wrong in science and philosophy

Lent 2018: Day 22

“If  panpsychism is real, then life can have started with some form of consciousness that must have evolved very much from electrons to E. coli and Stentor, a single-celled organism with no neurons, to us.”

This is an almost incredible statement coming from Stuart A. Kauffman, a renowned scientist with a lifetime's work to draw observations from. Many of his peers will sneer dismissively, convinced that consciousness can only exist within the brain of living creatures – and nowhere else. In their conviction, they have cut themselves off from considering other alternatives.

Why trust one scientist and not another? At the end of the twelfth chapter of Humanity in a Creative Universe, I've pencilled the words “Kauffman is right/wrong.” It's binary. Kauffman's theory (not just his, I must add) is itself in superposition, like an electron in a quantum experiment. He is neither right nor wrong until such time as a conscious observer can peer into a box to view the result of a putative experiment designed to test subatomic matter for such properties as consciousness and will. As of time of writing, science has not unravelled these mysteries. Therefore it is as wrong to say that Kauffman is wrong as it is to say that he is right.

But could he be part right/part wrong? Kauffman talks about Aristotle's philosophical notion of the excluded middle, the answer to which, like the result of a quantum measurement, cannot be anything other than 'yes' or 'no'. The electron's spin, on measurement by a conscious observer, is either 'up' or 'down'. Before measurement, it is both. But ideas are not subatomic particles. Many philosophical, political or economic constructs are right up to a point. Some, being far from perfect, are just about good enough to stand the test of time – existentialism, social democracy, capitalism, quantitative easing. But this is not sufficient for Science.

Sceptics refer to the 'God of the Gaps' – what we humans don't understand, we tend to ascribe to the workings of a supernatural being, whether it's lightning or floods. Kauffman is careful to avoid talk of a supreme deity. When covering the history of science and philosophy, however, he describes how the notions of deism (a non-interfering God) and theism (an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God) competed with one another. He notes that Newton's worldview had the effect of relegating God from an omnipresent deity to the watchmaker that once made, and wound up the clock, and then stood back to let its motion unravel across the fullness of time. Rather, Kauffman's God is consciousness, distributed across space and time, continually evolving from electron to single-celled organism to us. This of course begs the question – what next?

Before moving on, some thoughts from my brother, who emailed me the following comments about Humanity in a Creative Universe (which he bought me, before buying a copy for himself).

“There are questions with unknown answers; then there are problems where we don't know the right questions to ask; and then there are the problems where we don't know or even have the language with which to formulate the questions. Kauffman has spent many years trying to formulate such a new language. 

"Prior to the Enlightenment, nearly all debate about heat and fire was couched in nouns rather than verbs; we now know that fire is a process. Science too is also a process - not simply a body of knowledge. Orthodox religions have become bodies of knowledge rather than emerging constructs; perhaps this is where the conflict between science and religions lies.”

This time two years ago:

This time four years ago:
Getting ul. Karczunkowska ready for Biedronka opening

This time five years ago: 
God's own risk

This time six years ago:
A third of the way through Lent

This time seven years ago:
Balancing surfeit and shortage

This time eight years ago:
Congruent consciousness