Sunday, 28 February 2021

Chance and luck - can you will the outcome? Lent 2021, Day 12

The question, how much free will do we really have, has been one of the most debated, and existential issues in philosophy over the millennia. Science, ever since quantum mechanics has become accepted, takes a balanced view. Outcomes affecting all life, all matter, are governed both by deterministic and by stochastic (i.e. based on random probability distribution) factors.

We know that the next Transit of Venus will occur on 8 December 2125 (deterministic), while that the next simultaneous Transit of Venus and Mercury should occur on 26 July 69,163 (that is, in the 692nd century), assuming that no events of a stochastic nature intervene before then.

The mathematics of chaos theory, whereby a tiny change in initial conditions creates a significantly different outcome (the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas setting off a hurricane in China) is micro-determinism rather than the genuine randomness inherent in quantum mechanics. With enough sensors to gauge the air disturbed by the world's butterfly population and a powerful-enough computer making sense of the data, science could predict that hurricane. However, quantum physics proves the impossibility of predicting both the path and the momentum of a subatomic particle from initial conditions.

So much for the science. How does this affect our lives? How much free will do we have - are our lives governed by the complex maths of beating butterfly wings, or rather, by the inability to measure the superposition of entangled subatomic particles?

For me, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics provides a key to the magic of the universe. No longer is it purely deterministic, no longer are we just 'something that happened', no longer are our fates preordained. The quantum world is the key to consciousness, the key to chance. And the key question - can you alter the outcome of a quantum event by willing it one way or another?

Over the years, Schrodinger's cat has become the most-often mentioned feline on this blog, but here's a recap for those who are new to this famous thought experiment. A cat is placed in a sealed box along with a vial of poison gas, a Geiger counter and atom of a radioactive isotope which could either decay, or not decay. If it does, the Geiger counter detects it, triggering a hammer that shatters the vial, releasing the gas that poisons the cat. Quantum uncertainty posits that without a conscious observer to open the box to see the outcome, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time, ie. whether or not the atom has decayed is entirely down to the whether a conscious mind is involved. We are again in the forest where a falling tree makes no sound if no one is there to hear it. [This is the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The Many Worlds Interpretation holds that in one universe, the cat lives, in another, the cat dies. In both, however, the presence of the conscious observer is essential to determine the outcome.]

So - you are the conscious observer. It is your task to open the box. You like the cat - can you will it to survive? On the other hand, it may be a mangy tom that urinates all over your garden and keeps you up at night with loud yowling, and you're indifferent to its fate. Would that change matters?

We live in a world of chaos, all the more so with a pandemic in full swing, which offers a testing ground for this theory. We can all take precautions - stay away from others, wear a mask, wash our hands, keeping them away from the face, and ventilate our indoor space. 

But is there a metaphysical dimension to staying Covid-free?

The outcomes are binary: either you get infected, or you don't. If you do, either you get it seriously, or it passes mildly or without symptoms. If you do get it seriously, either you die or you live. If you don't die, you either recover fully, or the long Covid stays with you for years to come, affecting negatively the quality of your life.

Two elements are crucial. The first is rooted in the physical world. It's not being complacent. [Complacency - a missing word in Polish. Samozadowolenie really misses it.] Being on guard, being acutely aware of the dangers you step into as you go shopping or mingle with strangers, and acting accordingly. Nothing supernatural there. But the second element does carry an element of the metaphysical. It is feeling gratitude that you are currently well. Are the grateful less liable to infection? Yes - if you weave that gratitude into the constant fight against complacency; if you train yourself to be observant and mindful. Simply not wanting to get ill can help if that triggers good behaviours. And if you believe in the power of belief.

Am I healthy because I’m happy? Or am I happy because I am healthy? Is my positive approach to life a result of the fact that I’m happy and healthy – or does the fact that I’m happy and healthy stem from my positive approach to life? Rationalists would stick to the first answer. Yet many of us would instinctively say “well, there’s something to be said for the second”. Indeed, but is there a deeper, scientifically determinable mechanism at work? Am I really able to think myself into a state of healthiness and happiness? Does being positive in life boost the immune system? Research into the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect) suggests that this may indeed be the case. Again, let’s take the question a stage further. 

Belief in the power of belief. If you don’t believe that a positive outlook can improve your health or slow down disease – then the likelihood is it won’t. If you do believe in belief, then the likelihood is - it will. If you are not mindful in your life, you are in greater danger.

This is how I see the role of luck in our lives. Steered by conscious mindfulness.

If you are experiencing a run of good luck, be aware of it, be grateful for it, appreciate it. Don't count on good luck to cover up your complacency. As the Rabbi says - if today you're having a shitty day, remember, tomorrow will be better. And if today you're having a great day, remember - tomorrow could be shit.

There is a balance to be striven for - the balance between fatalistic acceptance and unyielding fortitude - not buckling, not weakening, not giving in to laziness.

Tomorrow: materialism, comfort and luxury.

This time last year:
Define your Deity

This time three years ago:
The Mysteries of Quantum Physics

This time four years ago:
Lent starts tomorrow

This time five years ago:
Coincidence and survival

This time eight years ago
The Book of Revelations

This time nine years ago:
Strong late-winter sunshine

This time ten years ago:
Best pics from February 2011

This time 11 years ago:
Kensington

This time 13 years ago:
End of the line



Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Ego, the Consciousness and Spiritual Evolution: Lent 2021, Day 11

I wrote yesterday about the baggage of shame, embarrassment and guilt that one carries. Yes, it is a part of who we are, but it is associated with the ego, not with the consciousness. What is the consciousness, then, and why is it disconnected from the ego?

The purest expression of our consciousness are our subjective experiences, qualia. 

Unlike those embarrassing memories, qualia flashbacks are always pleasant as they are of pure experiences, unfiltered through the baseness of the ego. Two I had today - I wrote a few days ago about my memories of February 1976, the time I was going to university interviews and my father's installation of a new central heating system. The smell of the enamel paint on the new boiler was imparted into the fibres of the towels in the adjacent airing cupboard; unbidden that precise sensation - of holding up a towel to my face and smelling it, freshly laundered and with that faint aroma of enamel. The other - late spring, early spring, 1977, Coventry; I'm exploring the south-eastern suburbs on foot, Far Gosford Street, Binley Road, Brictorian streets, terraced houses, a fresh wind, and a feeling in the air that soon it will be spring.

Both of these moments, uniquely mine, devoid of any negative emotions, reflect the existence of my conscious being. They are as equally as mine as those embarrassing memories, yet I feel they will persist.

Why do I feel that? Because, as I have written on this blog many times before, the qualia flashbacks than I can attribute to such moments experienced in this life are matched by anomalous flashbacks that I can't attribute to this life. That are neither of this time, nor this place, and yet feel just as familiar as the ones that are firmly placed in this life. I call this phenomenon xenomnesia - 'foreign memory'.

These anomalous experiences have a consistent 'feel' to them, the northern United States from the 1920s to the 1950s, and have been with me since childhood. They are an integral part of what it is to be me, and, along with my belief (shared with my father) in luck, form the experiential backbone of my beliefs.

Zen Buddhism has a notion called kōan, "a story, dialogue, question, or statement, used in Zen practice to provoke the 'great doubt' or to test a student's progress". Probably the most famous kōan known in the Western world is the one about the sound of one hand clapping. But this is the one that grabs me: "What did your face look like before your parents were born?"

On the second day of Lent, I asked "had your parents never met - would you still be? Not the physical you, but the conscious you - the awareness that defines how you experience life?"

In other words - was your consciousness predestined to be - to exist, to feel, to be aware? Was the choice of your parents, your biological body and its ego something random? Or was it somehow shaped by undefined factors? We are who we are - but by chance? I don't know; I can't even guess.

But what I do feel is that this is all a journey of growth, a spiritual progression, towards God, towards enlightenment, towards a unity, towards a continuous whole, to be experienced with joy and observed with curiosity. The journey is too long for one lifetime, which is but a bead along a thread, passing through a myriad living bodies, latching on to an ego, letting go of that ego, living and learning - that thread continues into Eternity.

How it does this - again, I don't know. but I instinctively feel that it somehow does. I will elaborate further during the course of Lent, but tomorrow I want to touch on the question of luck and predestination. 

This time last year:
The Physical, the Metaphysical, the Natural and the Supernatural

This time two years ago:
Heathrow Airport now and then

This time five years ago:
Radom line modernisation will change the face of Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
How do we perceive good and evil?

This time seven years ago:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time nine years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time ten years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over

This time 11 years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time 12 years ago:
Lenten recipes

This time 13 years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Friday, 26 February 2021

The sins that cannot be purged: Lent 2021, Day Ten

One autumn evening in 1970, I'm walking home from school up Argyle Road. A boy on a bicycle, riding the other way, sees me and swerves over to say hello. It's Raymond - my best friend from primary school. I pretend not to know him, to have forgotten him despite the fact we were still going to school together a little over a year earlier. But I had moved to the posher environs of Cleveland Park, and went to a grammar school, while Raymond still lived round the corner from our old house in Hanwell and went to a secondary modern school, having failed the 11+ exams. I shrugged my shoulders in feigned surprise at this odd encounter and went on my way.

The guilt did not go away - I still feel a sense of profound shame about this incident. I caught up with Ray online some 30 years later - a chance to atone. He was very big about it, saying that if that's one of the worst things I'd done in my life, I can't be that bad a person. And yet that shame about my behaviour that day - triggered by a mixture of snooty hauteur and on-spectrum introversion - haunts me to this day.

Hardly a sin in the eyes of the Church, certainly not an offence - but something that for me was an act of thorough unpleasantness. Over my life there's been a catalogue of others; thoughtless words, poor judgment; things I have failed to do - or say; avoidance of difficult but necessary decisions and conversations. These are my sins, sins in my book because of the embarrassment I cause myself by just thinking about them all those years later. If there is karma for one's sins, for me it takes the form of painful cringing when recalling them.

Science suggests that in our bodies, there is not one atom present that was there, within us, seven (some say nine) years earlier. Our bodies are constantly recycling molecules, and as we age we do so with atoms that were not part of us when we were younger. Yet our memories are with us still, passed on, somehow, from atom to atom, memories of bad things we did as children, bad enough to stay with us and remind themselves across our lifespan.

The present 'me' is a continuation of the old 'me', and those embarrassing or shameful memories are part of that link. This defines the human soul. As we wake each morning, we return to consciousness with our past a toolbag of useful experiences to be put to use in the future. And yet those uncomfortable memories of something I did as a child or as a youth or young man pop up, often unbidden, in train of thoughts. This mental/spiritual continuity spanning decades suggests to me the presence of a supernatural - supernatural as in something more than the scientifically definable at work.

Prising apart the ego from the consciousness, the biology from the spirit, the baggage of our past from the promise of the future is all important. The body dies; with it die the sins of the ego. The purity of consciousness survives - how it survives is beyond our understanding - it does so purged of these sins.

I shall return to the notion of consciousness fleeting through myriad biological bodies on its path to God in later posts in this Lenten series, starting with an introduction to my thoughts on reincarnation, tomorrow. 

This time last year:
Build Your Own Religion

This time five years ago:
God, Creation and the Fine-Tuned Universe

This time six years ago:
The infinitely long path from Zero to One

This time eight years ago:
Images of God

This time nine years ago:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time ten years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time 12 years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Yes, there is such a thing as Original Sin: Lent 2021, Day Nine

You feel the anger rising. Suddenly, you lose it. You are now shouting, the blood is up - you are ready to thump the miscreant, be it the person you're arguing with or a recalcitrant laptop. Fury has taken over, you have literally lost your senses, your powers of reasoning. You're spoiling for a fight. Your normal conscious self has been taken over by something far more primitive.

Familiar?

This, dear reader, is Original Sin. The Beast has taken over from the Angel in you. The reptilian brain, driven purely by instinct is in charge. You have lost the capacity to self-monitor and to observe objectively. 

This behaviour goes back to the earliest forms of conscious life, a flight-or-fight response to external stimuli that predates the evolution of rational thought. A switch is thrown, rational thought is supplanted by instinct. 

Will we never be set free? The theological notion of 'sin' is a shorthand here. When your cat, hitherto calm, suddenly turns on you and scratches your face, it isn't sinning - it is responding to a stimulus that it has instinctively flagged you up as being a threat. But when a human suddenly goes wild and turns to violence, that human brain - the most advanced thing we know of - has gone over to pre-human mode. 

I wonder whether humans have evolved over time to become less prone to rage than had been the case in early history? I would hope so. Is a propensity to lose one's temper a genetically inherited trait? Is it epigenetic?

Rage vs. anger, from 1500 to 2019. [Google Ngram viewer]

The road to God is long, the scale is eternal. Mankind's brief history as a species is the tiniest fraction of the time-span required by full spiritual evolution, hence my instinctive feeling - based on personal experience, that our consciousnesses exist for more than one human lifetime. To advance towards God is to lose one's beastliness - the characteristics of our reptilian ancestors. Striving towards a more angelic nature should be our goal in day-to-day life, trying to overcome the propensity to anger when things or people stand in our way. 

Often it is materialism, desire for more money, power and possessions, that leads to those conflicts in which the baser side of our animal nature becomes exposed. We get angry when we lose money, or lose power (losing face, losing one's place in a hierarchy). Lashing out is a reaction, unchecked by the conscious side our nature. Though almost universal it is a spectrum-like trait. Some of us, blessed with an easy-going disposition are slow to anger; this should be seen as a gift. Others anger with hair-trigger ease. 

Referring back to yesterday's post: Do I feel guilt for showing anger? Only if another person is involved, and didn't really deserve it. Tomorrow I will put the two together - sin and guilt - looking at sins of omission, errors of judgment, saying things I shouldn't (being more honest than discreet) - and how the embarrassment thus caused stays with me for decades - defining me, and my ego.

This time two years ago:
London's Smithfield Market

This time three years ago:
Mid-winter in late February
(from -15C in Warsaw three years ago to +18C today!)

This time four years ago:
Ten years of digital photography

This time five years ago:
Between atheism and creationism

This time six years ago:
A peek into the Afterlife

This time seven years ago:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time eight years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time nine years ago:
My Nikon D80 five years on

This time ten years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time 12 years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time 13 years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on



Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Guilty of feeling guilty: Lent 2021, Day Eight

Given my deep-seated belief that the purpose of life is to fulfil our human potential, my most profound feelings of guilt, experienced each day, revolve around Not Doing Enough.

I feel guilty when I'm wasting time. It's as precious a resource as our daily bread. It trickles away; the day's almost gone, and I've not done anything creative, I've neither exercised mind nor body - and I feel bad. This guilt is a driver. I cannot put my feet up - proper rest means getting into bed at the end of a hard-earned day and falling asleep immediately, without a feeling of guilt that Things Have Been Left Undone.

Office work tends to gets done - if anything's left undone for too long, a colleague or a client will let me know. An alarm bell, a call to action, it gets done, no one's unhappy.

But my own work, that which for which I answer alone to myself - those unwritten books - those unvisited places - those things that I always wanted to do, and for which there's no longer an excuse - put off again? [Covid offers an excuse; hopefully one that will go away before too very long.]

The sense of achievement when a task is done, ticked off, completed to my satisfaction, is always undermined by the guilt surrounding things still left to do. Emails not answered, investments not pushed ahead, writing left unwritten, books left to be read another day. 

"GET ON WITH IT!"

"Michael - you're pushing yourself too hard. Take it easier - relax!" 

"Be still, demons! You'll get me nowhere with wishy-washy blandishments! I seek awareness, understanding, I seek dialogue that enables spiritual growth - wasting away time and potential diminishes me!"

Pushing myself has many positives. On the physical side, I have been beating my previous year's best with more exercising, eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, walking more briskly, drinking less alcohol and having fewer lazy days. For full results of seven years of improvement, look here, but in short, this is where it's at... The table below assumes that every day since 1 January 2014 I have walked (physical training or not) an average of over 10,000 paces.

2014  2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Days with zero
physical training
234 26614883 27 17 11

A war on idleness is being won. It should have been fought and won 30, 40 years ago - but I lacked focus, self-disciple and will. But there's more to be done - in particular with writing. Last year I proved to myself that I can write serious and sensible stuff every day, for 48 days in a row without letting up. That's the way to do it. Should I ever start to let up - I'd feel guilty.

I have another guilt - environmental guilt. Having brought up my children not to drop a single sweet wrapper on the pavement, I am punctilious about the correct disposal of litter, including waste segregation. Solar panels on the roof have cut down monthly electricity bills from around 190 złotys/month to 25. But more than that, they will mean a few tonnes of coal a year less that need burning to power our house. I cannot not countenance the prospect of buying a car - especially a new car - that's powered by fossil fuel. My motorbikes have small (125cc) engines, I ride sparingly (on sunny days from late spring to early autumn) and with an aesthetic goal in mind.

We are trustees of our planet, trustees for generations to come; and, given my belief in a limited form of reincarnation (about which more in this series of Lenten posts), a liveable planet for future beings touched by this consciousness.

Guilt is associated with sin, but not in my theology. More about sin tomorrow.

This time two years ago:
On the Ho Chi Minh trail, West Ealing

This time four years ago:
25 days between deliveries of mail - Warsaw's labour shortage
(Not much better now - 13 days and counting)

This time five years ago:
What purpose does the Universe serve?

This time six years ago:
Will your Soul last for eternity?

This time ten years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time 11 years ago
A week into Lent

This time 12 years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time 13 years ago:
Over the fence

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

How much spirituality do we need in our lives? Lent 2021, Day Seven

This is a perennial question for me, the need to balance one's life between the material and the spiritual. For many, there's no need for any deeper questioning of life's purpose, no desire to search for meaning or understanding, no desire to seek connection with the Eternal and Infinite, no longing for the Metaphysical, no spiritual quest. Life is focused on earning money and making our way in society.  Externally we may all look the same, but matters spiritual are deeply hidden. Intelligence isn't the clue here, nor is gregariousness; it is something intangible. It's about some people's strong urge to make sense of it all and to seek communion with the Eternal Sublime. How often though? How intense is that need?

Devout people may have daily rituals around prayer at set times. But how often do they genuinely feel that they have engaged in meaningful contact with the metaphysical? Some indeed will have, and do so frequently. But for others - the ritual brings comfort, rather than a genuine spiritual insight. Yet this is not about religion or being religious. Some go to church each week, but they do so because they feel that they should go, and be seen to go, rather than their church-going being an active form of seeking contact with God, regular a chance to enter a more exalted state.

Moments of true spiritual enlightenment are rare in our lives, even if we seek them through meditation or prayer. Some times, some places are more conducive to such activities than others.

The corralling of human spiritual needs into one day of the week, one day in seven - the Lord's Day, the Sabbath - is predicated by our lunar calendar. That's why it's one-seventh. The Judeo-Christian God made the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. Literally? Metaphorically? Or mystically? On other planets inhabited by sentient life-forms, the calendar might look quite different, so the Biblical notion of one in seven is hardly a Universal constant. 

For me there is no set time of the week other than at the setting of the sun, and rarely (as I'm an owl rather than a lark), at its rising. The disappearance of the sun over the horizon is always a spiritual moment; it induces an awareness that I'm standing on a planet that spinning backward away from our neighbouring star. And when the moon rises into a cloudless night, and I can view it through a powerful telephoto lens, that consciousness of being an inhabitant of this particular planet awakes within me. Suddenly I am torn away from material thoughts of the everyday. And so, I seek out such moments, when the higher plane can be touched. A walk that involves setting out before sunset and returning in dusk's glow is part of my routine, especially on sunny days.

Sun melds into Earth

Today, out in Jakubowizna, augured well for such a spiritual communion, but by the late afternoon, low clouds on the horizon had robbed me of the experience. But I caught it two days earlier, on Sunday. Watching that sun go down, meditating upon that thermonuclear force.

The sun has a profound influence on my mood. In autumn, as evenings draw in, I mourn the shrinking day. Now, at this time of year, the slow but steady return of the light, conquering darkness, each day longer than the previous one, fills me with hope.

It is at this time of year that I feel a spiritual rebirth. Maybe the need to touch the metaphysical isn't consistent; maybe some seasons are more conducive than others to hearing that inner voice and to push open the door to a more spiritual state.

Spiritual evolution is crucial. It is happening, at least for those of us who actively seek growth, seeking a ever-closer connection with the Universe; it happens in tiny steps. Progress is slow and hardly tangible, and yet is there. Away from the beast, towards the angelic. It begins with getting to understand your biology and rising above it. The base instinct, the reptile brain given to unthinking furies, driven by the most primordial of motivations. A calm, clear awareness of the span of life, from birth, development to maturity - a life focused on continuous improvement. From that first moment in which one is conscious of being conscious one must wrestle against the mindless.

There is a long, long way to go. So many profound insights that need to be experienced, studied, understood instinctively and communicated. The Lenten time is one in which I focus more intently on matters spiritual, but not to the exclusion of the remaining seven-eights of the year.

Should we be spending every moment of our waking life in pursuit of spiritual goals? Probably not. Sometimes, these things come to us, an if we try too hard, they evaporate before us. Better let chance intervene and take its course. The middle way between trying too hard, and not trying at all.

In the meantime, I often feel guilt at spiritual indolence; letting things drift. Tomorrow I shall explain how I see guilt, and sin.

This time last year:
The Mechanical Engineers

This time two years ago.
Ealing in the earliest of spring

This time four years ago:
Fat Thursday: a blast against sugar

This time five years ago:
The Devil is in doubt

This time six years ago
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This time eight years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time nine years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This time ten years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time 12 years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time 13 years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Monday, 22 February 2021

How should we see God? Lent 2021, Day Six

For those who do not believe in a divine, supernatural power, there is no God - it's as easy as that. Life's an accident, live it as best you can, for when you die - it's all over, Player One.

For those that do believe in a divine, supernatural power, there are as many Gods as there are believers. Even if you take a devout follower of any organised religion, you'll find under examination that there are differences between the religion's stated doctrines and what that individual follower really believes.

Believers in a divine supernatural power can be generally grouped into those prepared to accept a given truth, revealed through holy texts, and those who seek their own truth, one that squares with their deepest and most honest thoughts on the matter.

Brutal honesty, constant winnowing of one's thinking to weed out cognitive bias, is crucial in this process. If you seek power, wealth or fame, you will be used to bending the truth to obtain your goals. But if you are seeking truth, you must not be swayed by wishful thinking, intellectual shortcuts or pre-digested, one-size-fits-all answers.

Over the next 40 days, I will be expanding on my beliefs, and how they have gained shape and clarity over the years. It is a deeply personal journey - hence I believe that the way to understand God is not with a crowd but alone. Alone, though aided by people who are likely to challenge your thinking, rather than by people who merely go along with what you are going along with.

Familiarity and comfort are offered by organised religions; peace of mind at the cost of acceptance. 

My main gripe with organised religion is how easy it is to turn a deeply spiritual purpose into a form of social control, be it to do with controlling our behaviour or defining 'us' vs 'the others'. Strip away the history and the trappings, a religion has its own continued existence to worry about. Any ecumenical movement that strays too far in terms of building bridges with other religions tends to get sidetracked.

And yet in our Universe of a couple of hundred billion galaxies, each of a couple of hundred billion stars, if there is a God - there is but one God, undivided by dogmas or histories. The same God for every one of those stars, and for everything in between, for everything conscious that ever existed and is ever to exist. A Universal God, certainly not human in form (such conceit! Such geocentrism!), certainly not for our human minds to grasp. And the notion that God is male (or indeed female) is again a sure sign of limited imagination. Given that we have so many unanswered questions regarding the nature of the Universe, we can only hope to see God as a Mystery, something that we are unlikely to unravel during the course of a lifetime. All we can aspire to, in our 80 or 90 years, is to get closer to God, to rise a bit further from the primordial, towards the angelic.

The earliest known religious rituals uncovered by archeologists related to funerals. The death of a member of a tribe would indeed hasten questions regarding the purpose of life and an afterlife, genuine questions that - if answered plausibly with a strong story - could hasten one's ascent within the tribe's hierarchy. Respect and veneration to them that could explain the world in supernatural terms which would fit most closely with the tribe's observations and hopes.

In the times of the early hunter-gatherer tribes, building a religion would be a sensible activity. It would bind the tribe with a set of shared rituals and experiences, and bring comfort to those mourning the loss of loved ones. But those who built those proto-religions could also use them for personal gain. By linking their power within the group to a higher power, they could impose their will on the others, and so a proto-priesthood would form...

Rejecting God is today seen as analogous with rejecting those who seek to control the individual. I would argue against believing in any God that has been devised by humans for that purpose. Instead, I'd seek to refine what I mean by God, a concept far harder to grasp than one devised by committee to function as an ultimate authority.

God should not be seen as an instrument of social control. God should be seen primarily in terms of a purpose, a will, a force, a goal, a journey, a destination, a destiny - of which we are all a part.

This time last year:
Live fast or live slow? Preparing for Lent

This time two years ago
Warsaw growing in the sun

This time three years ago:
Of Consciousness and Will across the universe

This time five years ago:
The Devil is indeed Doubt

This time six years ago:
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This time seven years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time nine years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This time ten years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time 12 years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time 13 years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst



Sunday, 21 February 2021

Science, materialism and God: Lent 2021, Day Five

Once upon a time, some 400 years ago, there were no atheists. There were merely people who worshiped other gods than the one you worshipped. Literally every human being believed in some kind of a supreme being, and took comfort in everlasting life after death, a reward for a life well-led, in accordance to scriptural precepts. [To what extent that belief was instinctive, and to what extent it was taught, is something I shall return to in a later post in this Lenten series.]

Then something changed. In 1687, Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, one of the key texts that was to lead to the Enlightenment. The Principia outlined in detail Newton's laws of motion, a foundation of classical mechanics. Also included were Newton's law of universal gravitation and his laws of planetary motion. Man could now account for tides, the trajectories of comets, the precession of the equinoxes and other phenomena. Newton proved that the motion of objects on Earth as well as celestial bodies could be accounted for by the same principles, following the same laws.

Newton's thinking did not emerge from a vacuum. It was based on the observations and measurements of Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Plato, then after a pause for the Dark Ages, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Kepler. Hence his quote that he was standing on the shoulders of giants. 

What Newton did was to devise a conceptual framework, pulling all the strands together, thus creating classical physics, still for most of us the dominant model of how we understand the world.

It took the best part of a century for the implications of  the Principia to sink in - it wasn't God who moved the planets about their way - it happened in accordance to a mathematical formula, which can be demonstrated and proven.

Kings and queens who had ruled by Divine Right found their authority undermined by the rising tide of rational science; this came to a head with the French Revolution and the secular state that followed. 

And so the scientific method began to displace the hermetic gibberish of alchemy. Scientific proofs, peer review, repeatable experiments, began to push back against God as an answer. Thunder and lightning, volcanoes and earthquakes, eclipses and epidemics could all be explained by natural - as opposed to supernatural - causes. 

The pushback against superstition and irrational beliefs was in full force by the early 20th century, as Rutherford delved into the structure of the atom and Einstein defined spacetime. Before long, rational minds believed, the 'God of the Gaps' - the use of divine power to explain the ever-shrinking realms which science couldn't - would finally be squished into oblivion. Rational minds believed they would conquer the Universe with logic and irrefutable proofs. By the 1920s, theoretical physicists were convinced that mankind was years, months even, from an equation that would explain everything.

In a godless universe, matter matters. And so materialism came to supplant beliefs in a higher unknown. Those who remained with organised religion - and it was far harder after the horrors of WW1 and WW2 - more often than not did so for reasons of social cohesion, demonstrating loyalty to the group, rather than because of any deeply harboured spiritual feeling. 

We lived through a rat race in an age of conspicuous consumption. "Life's hard and then you die." "You only live once." "You die - that's the end - get over it." Reasons for living are boiled down to biological instinct - to establishing one's place in our mammalian hierarchy. Get money, power, the trappings of power - possessions, material possessions. In our post-Enlightenment rush to acquire the possessions intended to impress our fellow humans, we lost sight of higher aspirations. Even strictly humanist ones, a desire for fairness, a need to help others, and a sense of fulfilling one's human potential have been pushed aside in a life stripped down to its materialist minimum. 

But then Newtonian science ran into doubt. 

Quantum physics brought into question certainties that had been held for well over a century. Science has yet to resolve the inherent contradictions between the Standard Model of the atom and General Relativity which works on the galactic scale. Physics Beyond the Standard Model has yet to deal with Phenomena Not Explained, with Experimental Results Not Explained and with Theoretical Predictions Not Observed. In other words, physicists today are far less certain of what they really know than what physicists a century ago were almost certain they knew (or felt they soon would know).

It is likely that confusion will grow rather than decline, as competing theories such as supersymmetry, quantum gravity or string theory (none of which are readily understandable by the layperson) slug it out for supremacy. The age of scientific certainty - from the late-17th to the mid-20th century - is waning.

Is God coming back to to fill the gaps?

Certainly not as an Abrahamic God-as-an-old-man-with-beard-in-the-clouds, handing down commandments to Man, steering our daily lives from on high. Organised religions are having a tough time.

Yet mankind's innate spiritual sense has not died out. It is something much deeper than just a need for peace of mind or the wonder of gazing at a cloudless night sky; it is a search for understanding and a desire to be at one with the Universe. As our affluent society takes the edge off hunger and cold, our needs are becoming more sublimated. Experience becomes more important than possessions; quality of life starts to matter more than wealth.

To know where we are going, we need to look into ourselves and, without letting cognitive biases get in the way, ask ourselves what we really feel about God.

Next up: a changing definition of 'God'.

This time three years ago:
From the world of science to the social world

This time five years ago:
Music, mysticism and the human spirit

This time six years ago:
My first Pendolino journey 

This time seven years ago:
Poland's universal panacea

This time eight years ago:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time nine years ago:
Lent starts again

This time ten years ago:
Art Quiz

This time 11 years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time 12 years ago:
The beauty of winter
[still some of my finest winter photos]


Saturday, 20 February 2021

Would the Universe exist without God? Lent 2021 Day Four

"Define God." OK, but at the end of this post (with a very basic definition), and in a few days' time, and then on Easter Sunday, in the summing up of my Lenten posts. 

But first, an overview of the fundamental physical constants that holds the Universe together. Two days ago, I wrote about the several-billion (if not trillion) to-one chance of your existence. Today I want to write about the similarly improbable odds against there being a Universe as we know it at all. 

Science currently believes that there are 19 of fundamental physical constants, universal and constant across time, which determine the rules of everything. [Some are now saying 22.] 

Let us look at one of them, the strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei, denoted by the symbol Epsilon, (ε). According to Martin Rees, British astrophysicist and cosmologist, the value of ε is 0.007. If it were 0.006, no other atom other than hydrogen could possibly exist, and complex chemistry would be impossible. Yet if it were above 0.008, no hydrogen would exist, as all the hydrogen would have been fused shortly after the Big Bang. 

All the other fundamental physical constants are similarly fine-tuned for life. They ensure that galaxies are pushed apart at the right pace; that water freezes from the surface down rather than from the bottom up, unlike other liquids. That the energy state of the carbon atom allows for its abundance throughout the cosmos, a building-block of sentient life. That gravity is neither too strong nor too weak (as it is, gravity is 10-38 times weaker than the strong atomic force binding nuclei together). 

Had any one of these fundamental physical constants differed only slightly from those observed, the evolution of the Universe would have proceeded very differently and life as it is understood may not have been possible.

 Amazing, eh? Welcome to the fine-tuned Universe. British astronomer, Fred Hoyle (who first coined the term 'Big Bang') argued for a fine-tuned universe: "The list of anthropic properties, apparent accidents of a non-biological nature without which carbon-based and hence human life could not exist, is large and impressive".

So - you can either consider these many factors creating conditions to be mere chance, without all of which we would simply not be here to marvel at the fact - or we can begin to ask why the Universe has been set up in such a way. A miracle here, a one-in-a-billion chance there, a statistical improbability over there. [Some scientists posit that myriad Universes have failed to form because their fundamental constants were wrong.] But our Universe is here, because we are here to observe it. And the statistical improbability of the universe existing multiplied by the statistical improbability of you existing (see this post if you've not read it already)

Yet both are in place, the Universe, and you. Allowing life to exist here on our planet, at this particular time, and be observed by you.

This really should be freaking you out by now, even if you're an avowed atheist.

I'll be writing much more about the nature of God, my proposed definition of God (about as accurate as a cat's definition of electricity) over the course of this series. And what I believe God not to be. But for the time being here are some ideas:

God = a force/entity that enables the extremely improbable to happen - for you to observe and experience.

There was nothing, there was chaos. Now there is something; we know that, because you are consciously observing and experiencing something. So:

God = the journey from nothing to something, from chaos to order.


This time five years ago:
The Occult and mysticism

This time six years ago:
How do we see God?

This time seven years ago:
Who needs a Leica with a Noctilux lens when you can do this?

This time eight years ago:
Fides quaerens intellectum

This time nine years ago:

To the Devil with it all! - short story, Part II

This time 11 years ago:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time 13 years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Friday, 19 February 2021

Would the Universe exist without us? Lent 2021, Day Three


Inspired by a conversation with Andrew Nathan

"If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it - does it make a sound?" The answer is no - it does not make a sound. Sound, being the reception of acoustic waves caused by vibrations in the air, and their subsequent perception by the brain, requires someone around to hear it. Without a person present, there's a falling tree, vibrating air, acoustic waves - but nothing that could be subjectively experienced as sound, because there's no observer.

Anybody hear that?

Let's take it a step further: if there were no conscious life anywhere in the Universe - would it still exist?

In the 1930s, Edwin Hubble proved conclusively that the Universe is more than just our local galaxy, the Milky Way, and that nebulae long observed by astronomers are other galaxies lying far beyond. Supernovae - violent deep-sky events, stars exploding as they die, ejecting matter from which new stars, new worlds are born - have been observed by humans for millennia.

Without a human observer to ponder the phenomena of transient celestial events - did they happen? Yes. Astronomical sensors can now echoes of ancient supernovae that occurred tens of thousands of years ago. But did they have a meaning? Were they relevant? No. Not to us, on this planet, at that time.

I remember the awe with which I first observed the moon through a telescope. The moment I realised for real that it's not a flat disc. It's a huge, globular, rock, silently proceeding around our planet-home. With a stationary telescope, the moon passes through your narrow, fixed field of view quite quickly; that movement is imperceptible if you're looking up with the naked eye. The sky on a cloudless night (ideally well away from the light pollution of towns and cities) inspires those numinous thoughts that lift us above the concerns of our daily existence.We snap into a new, more elevated context - why are we here, what's it all about, where is all this heading? 

Unless you are a philosophical zombie - equipped with a human brain that can process information, a body that reacts instinctively... I rather see Trump like that; devoid of any capacity for wonder, unable to see in categories other than money, power and personal adulation. I doubt that Trump has a soul; a meat-covered skeleton responding to base instinct. The same goes for his offspring and followers.

But for conscious, aware people (and the fact you've read this far suggests that you are), there are the great questions regarding life. Is there a supreme being, and is there life after death are the two most important ones. How often we ask ourselves these questions is important too. For some, the need for a spiritual (i.e. non-material) reason for life is all great, for others - the philosophical zombies - it doesn't exist.

In previous Lenten blog posts, I have mentioned quantum physics and how it has changed philosophers' outlook on the biggest issues. Notably, the concept of 'superposition' - of a subatomic particle being in two states at the same time until observed. When a conscious observer is there to check the outcome of the experiment, the particle's superposition collapses and it becomes one or the other. Without an observer in the forest, the tree is both upright and fallen at the same time (within the bounds of statistical probability. Aspens and birches are more brittle than firs, so the chance of a fir tree falling are slighter). 

The physical existence of superposition, verified in many thousands of laboratory experiments around the world for the past 90 years or so, suggests that something can be, and not be, until observed by a conscious person. 

Schrodinger's famous cat becomes Schrodinger's Universe - present/not present and until there's a conscious observer around to be aware of it, it is and it isn't at the same time.

Can it therefore be that God is - and is not - at the same time, until we have a personal awareness of God?

_________________________________________________

"And everything was made for you and me 
All of it was made for you and me" 
 
- Iggy Pop, The Passenger, 1977

_________________________________________________

More tomorrow!

This time five years ago:
Dreams and visions of past lives

This time six years ago:
Monist or dualist: which are you?

This time seven years ago:
Grim prospects for Ukraine

This time eight years ago:
Wrocław's new airport terminal

This time nine years ago:
A study in symmetry: Kabaty Metro station

This time ten years ago:
To the Devil with it all - a short story

This time 11 years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time 13 years ago:
Flat tyre

Thursday, 18 February 2021

Best day of winter so far

The strong sunlight on the snow boosts your organism; you feel alive and full of verve. Get up and go!

Chances are this will be the last day with a crisp frost, fresh snow, strong sunshine and blue skies. The forecast is for rain and snow, temperatures hovering above zero and heavily overcast.

Below: view from my bedroom window - eventually. The roller blinds had frozen shut; the answer was hot tapwater from a watering can poured into the bottoms of the window frames. And what a view!
 

Time for a short, half-hour walk before the working day begins in earnest. Below: sun rising through the birches, ulica Dumki.


Below: further along ul. Dumki...


Perfection - not even having to use a polarising filter; this is how my 16-85mm Nikkor lens captured the scene, taken from the frozen lake. From my afternoon walk.


Below: a 209 bus departs from Jeziorki Płn bus stop heading for Dawidy.


Below: an empty biofuel train heads back from Siekierki power station, passing between W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy stations.


Sunset approaches, looking west from the other side of the tracks.


Below: setting sun illuminates the last of the row of new houses, ul. Trombity 59 A-L


Below: sunset taken from the other end of the same row of houses, ul. Trombity.


Your life: a miracle? Or something that just happened? Lent 2021, Day Two

"You are as insignificant as a grain of sand"

"The Universe was made for you."

Which of these two statements are true? 

I'll argue that both are. 

I'll start this post by hitting you with some big numbers.

Science currently (2021) estimates the Universe to consist of 200 billion galaxies. Each of those galaxies consists of anywhere between a hundred million and a hundred trillion stars; there are therefore more stars in the observable Universe than there are grains of sand on Planet Earth.

Our entire galaxy, the Milky Way, is pretty ordinary, consisting (it is estimated) of somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars, of which ours, the Sun, is pretty ordinary.

The Universe is estimated to have been around for around 13.8 billion years (and what happened before the Big Bang remains a matter of competing scientific theories). Our planet has been around for 4.5 billion years, and life on Earth has been around for at least 4.1 billion years. And from the moment the first life form took on the hallmarks of being alive, reproducing, evolving, an unbroken chain of ancestors has made it all the way to you - alive, conscious, right now. Had just a single amoeba or proto-fish or lobe fin or dinosaur or early mammal or hominid in that chain died before it had the chance to reproduce - you'd not be here, reading my blog at this moment in time. A chain consisting of billions of successful reproductions - and now, here you are. A lineage, an ancestry running all the way back to the very first successfully-reproducing form of life on earth

The odds of your existence, of your consciousness being here, now, to pore over these words, are infinitesimally small. And yet it happened. Rejoice!

Is that not a miracle? 

Or, would you turn it the other way round: there's so much life, even conscious life, with 7.8 billion humans alive on our planet right now, that your existence is totally unremarkable...

But had your parents never met - would you still be? Not the physical you, but the conscious you - the awareness that defines how you experience life?

It is this dichotomy, the way you subjectively see life is crucial to understanding that the Universe was made for you, for you to observe, to sample, even to a very limited degree.

The conditions for you to be you have all been met, right the way back to the Big Bang. A Universe that's physically right, that has the right set of laws of physics to enable it to expand, to develop heavier atoms that can combine into molecules that can build proteins and cells - and conscious life.

It's pretty miraculous. If the Big Bang were to start all over, what would be the chances that 13.8 billion years later, on one planet orbiting an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy, you'd pop up to start observing it unfolding?

Sit back and consider that miracle. That's what it means to be alive, a conscious observer of an unfolding Universe. To make it more amazing, consider this: the hydrogen atoms that you are made up of have been around since shortly after Big Bang, and will exist after your death for another nonillion years (1032) before decaying (science currently estimates).

Your consciousness is a part of this Universal process. 

A tiny part/A huge part.

This time three years ago:
The evolution of the biosphere cannot be predicted

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki meltdown in the fog

This time five years ago:
Health, happiness and wholeness

This time six years ago:
Kicking off Lent again 

This time seven years ago:
Improving the procurement of Poland's infrastructure 

This time eight years ago:
Wait to spend or save lives now? An infrastructure quandry

This time 12 years ago:
It's not rich countries that build roads, its roads that build rich countries

This time 13 years ago:
Snow that was doomed to melt


Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Lent 2021; my thirtieth

By Easter Sunday, falling on 4 April this year, I will have completed 30 Lenten periods of abstinence, beginning in 1992. Each year, without exception, I have given up alcohol (a much harder task for me as a sociable young man than it is for me today, in lockdown, with no social gatherings, and with bars and restaurants shut). 

For the first 20 or so Lents, the period has been little more than giving things up, exercising the will not to do something. Far harder than not doing something is doing something, and doing it consistently, regularly. Building good habits, for the good of body and soul. Much of the sensible living habits I have adopted into my daily, year-round, life, has been an extension of a Lenten resolution. Good things have come from Lent, I find.

More recently my Lents have taken on a more spiritual focus, a period of intensified search for meaning, for understanding conscious life and its purpose. The uncovering of spiritual truth is, I posit, is a journey that takes far longer than one lifetime. A quest that spans millennia; thousands of millennia.

Have we a part in that quest? Do even you want a part in that quest? 

Many of us are not in the least bit interested. Dismissing notions of a Divine Being, of an afterlife - indeed of a spiritual side to human nature - to life itself, many humans of all levels of intelligence - are entirely materialist in their outlook. "When we die, that's it. All over," they say. "You only live once". YOLO. An excuse, then, for indulgence, self-indulgence - and often at the cost of the environment. "Tearing up the highway in a big old dinosaur." 

So - there's this life. It's getting shorter every day. The world spins and circles the sun; we are back where we were but have moved on, the upward spiral of learning and understanding. 

This year, I intend to contrast materialism with mindfulness. And I will be returning to old questions, such as how much spirituality do we need in our lives; is there an afterlife and if so what does it look like; what is the nature of God. I freely acknowledge that I am but two yards along a road that is infinity miles long, but I feel I am a few inches further along that road than I was last year or five years ago, and a foot or two further than I was 20 or 30 years ago. 

Last year's Lenten exploration - 'Build your own Religion' was particularly useful to me, confirming that I have no intention of building a religion, rather I seek to bridge the gap between religions and science, based on my philosophical observations. 

I want to consider who - or what - God is; the Universe and why it exists; if there's an afterlife and if so, what it's like; how much 'spirituality' we need in our lives, and how this all fits in with a more humanist approach to living a life to fulfil our potential.

The basic building block of my approach is our own conscious experience, the feeling of being; how it feels to be, when you are still, calm, without external stimuli, without your ego getting in the way. Mindfulness, if you will, meditation, decoupling of the awareness from the material.

Today, there's a thick layer of snow outside; by April we could easily be experiencing an early-spring heatwave while blossom fills the trees. A time of year of re-birth, the best time of year, brightness and optimism emerging from out of the depths of winter.

There are 46 days between now and Easter Sunday (Sundays included); each day I shall explore aspects of the spiritual quest, with the hope that this exercise will bring new enlightenment, new insights into the conscious condition. So join me, do - I'd be grateful for the company along the way, any comments, questions, do please jump in, all will be responded to, either in the comments box or by email.

This time last year:
Grey February dusk; buzzing Warsaw

This time last year:
Skierniewice-Łuków line modernisation announced

This three years ago:
Entropy and anti-entropy in a constant-ruled universe

This four three years ago:
Truth, spin, bullshit and lies

This time five year:
How much spirituality do we need?

This time eight years ago:
The Chosen Ones

This time nine years ago:
Fixies in the snow

This time 12 years ago:
Just the ticket

Monday, 15 February 2021

Future, past

Forty five years ago; February 1976. A time of incipient change. Ahead of me, my A-Level exams (equivalent of Polish matura), summer holidays in Poland - then university.

But which one? It was this month 45 years ago that I set off on my own to see five universities around the UK - Lancaster, Warwick, Kent, Essex and East Anglia. These were my choices for the university admission process that would end with offers of grades needed at A-Level. I'd never travelled so intensively, or so far, on my own around England as I did that month. I came back from East Anglia, Norwich (or was it Essex, Colchester), with a dose of the flu, leaving me bed-ridden for a few days.

It was a specific time in my life. My father had just installed a new central heating system in the house - on his own - and I recall the smell of the paint of the new Potterton boiler, looking into the little window at the blue pilot light, watching it ignite the gas with a muted 'whoomph', the warmth, the copious hot water... At the time, I was making an Airfix kit of a North American P-51D Mustang, USAAF Eighth Air Force, England, 1944. The period appealed strongly to me; in the pop charts were Glenn Miller and his Orchestra and Manhattan Transfer with another Glenn Miller hit - Tuxedo Junction - 1944 was only as distant from 1976 as 1989 is from today.

And in the Radio Times for Saturday 21 February 1976, on BBC 2, an intriguing programme... 

"Introduced by Melvyn Bragg: So You Wanna be a Rock 'n' Roll Star. Tonight 2nd House looks at the reality behind the fantasies with a three-day slice in the life of the Kursaal Flyers, one of the bands most tipped for success in 1976. The film records their ups and downs, joys and anger, in dressing rooms and motels, and includes extracts from two concerts."

It really is worth seeing. If you haven't got a spare hour and 20 minutes, bookmark it and return - a slice of rock history, a snapshot of an era.

This I had to see. Turned out to be most influential - director Mark Kimel's documentary went on to inspire Comic Strip Presents Bad News Tour and of course This Is Spınal Tap, both parodic satires of rock bands on tour. Influential for me too. The 'Flyers' aspect (I didn't know at the time that the name referred to a funfair ride at Southend's Kursaal amusement park) appealed to me, as did the vintage Americana the band's music drew on, a heavily country-influenced sound. The cover art of the band's second album, The Great Artiste (1976), prompted me to buy it later that year.


Mama's boys indeed - the documentary shows that all but one of the band lived with their mums (like Colin out of Bad News).

Watching the Kursaal Flyers documentary influenced me greatly; I'd see them live, at the time (just before punk rock emerged), the pub rock genre was destined for success. Acts like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Dave Edmunds in the Stiff stable, from Southend and Canvey Island (the Kursaals' home) Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods. Of those five universities I visited 45 years ago, I ended up in my first choice, Warwick, to study America - a country my postwar generation obsessed about. 

This time last year:
New platforms, Sułkowice and Chynów

This time two years ago:
Birds return to frozen ponds

This time three years ago:
Bending the forces of physics with your will

This time five years ago:
Giving it up for Lent

This time seven years ago:
North-east of Warsaw West revisited

This time eight years ago:
Looking for answers

This time nine years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time 11 years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time 13 years ago:
Okęcie dusk