Author Archives: John

What is Time?

What is time, and what does it have to do with consciousness? In this episode we’ll take a look at what science says about time and how it relates to things like free will and consciousness. While time itself can’t be fully defined and seems to be either a fundamental property of the universe, or of our minds, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about it. Unproven assumptions about time also crop up in many philosophical thought experiments.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Clarification about physics and consciousness – undefinability of time – entropy, free will and unknowability – entropy as a measure of disorder – Second law of thermodynamics – Evolution and 2nd law fallacy – free will and time – Daniel Dennett’s view of free will – multiple possible versions of the past – entropy and determinism – entropy and randomness – interpretation of quantum mechanics – Werner Heisenberg – the connection between space and time – train simultaneity thought experiment – Michelson-Morley experiment – time dilation – the twin paradox – Minkowski spacetime and determinism – Kant’s view (transcendental aesthetic) – what’s wrong with solipsism – usefulness of Einstein’s approach to time – Schrödinger’s Cat and time – black holes – vagueness of existing ideas on consciousness

A New Scientific Revolution?

Do we need a new scientific theory of metaphysics, and if so, what might that theory look like? In this episode, the first in a very long time, we’ll talk about why materialism just doesn’t work and why many philosophers miss the point on materialism. We’ll go over some of the reasons why materialism doesn’t work and we’ll get into how physics might change, becoming more “metaphysical”, to produce a new alternative to materialism.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

New podcast format – materialism, the dominant philosophical outlook of scientists – Isaac Newton and “gravitas” – Faraday and his fields – consciousness as an epiphenomenon – why consciousness could not have evolved according to strict contemporary materialism –
the evolution of states – why do emotional states synchronise with physical states – infinities in space – states in quantum mechanics – the Copenhagen Interpretation – the Problem of Measurement – Richard Feynman’s pronouncement on quantum physics – the brain as a chaotic system – perception of photons – neurons and firing – firing, neurotransmitters at synapses and ion migration – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – all we know is our interpretation of the universe – hemispheric neglect – the need for a more detailed definition of existence – solipsism and its problems – what operations are common in all measurements of position? – other people seem to exist – why do we all observe the same things? – how determinism rescues a form of solipsism, if you want it to – “fractals” as a model of the universe – the problem raised by free will – the possibility of a metaphysics theory of physics – subconscious vs conscious – how we do a huge number of things consciously but have no memory of them – are meditation and LSD any use for metaphysics? – the next mindcast

Could Consciousness Have Evolved?

I suspect the article that I’m about to write is going to annoy almost everyone, except for those who enjoy exploring genuine mysteries, even mysteries that challenge their existing beliefs.

Consciousness is a very woolly term, so lets focus on just one particular aspect of it, with which we’re all too familiar — the experience of physical pain. Now I ask you; could the experience of physical pain have evolved?

If you’re a “fundamentalist” Christian, you’ll answer “no”, since you will choose to believe that nothing significant can evolve. If you’re a materialist, you’ll likely answer “yes, of course it can — it did evolve”. Both of these answers are actually based on a combination of faith and misunderstanding.

Christians often misunderstand the theory of evolution by natural selection completely, making widly incorrect or irrelevant statements such as “complex beings cannot evolve by chance” (irrelevant, if you understand the theory properly) or “something as complex as the human eye could not have evolved” (incorrect). Evolutionary processes take place whenever the basic necessary conditions are in place; we can even program such conditions into a computer and literally evolve arbitrarily complex computer programs, limited only by the processing power and memory of the machine we’re using. Once the initial conditions are put in place, including a process mimicking natural selection that weeds out programs that are not fit for the purpose of their designated task, the evolution of a “well-designed” computer program takes place without human intervention.

I can well imagine, while I type this, a fundamentalist Christian picking apart my sentences and trying to explain to him or herself why they don’t make sense. If you’re that person, don’t waste your time like this. Instead, read a book that explains natural selection, genuinely try to understand it, and afterwards explain why you feel it’s wrong.

Materialists, on the other hand, are likely to feel that since we evolved and since we experience pain, the experience of pain has evolved. Let’s look at what’s wrong with this reasoning.

In my podcasts I’ve argued that a feeling, such as the feeling of pain, needs to be regarded as a separate entity to the processes of the brain that produce that feeling. I won’t reproduce my full explanations here, except to suggest listening to my podcasts and looking up the Knowledge Argument on Wikipedia. There is no clear reason why all our physical reactions to pain should not have evolved, including everything that happens physically in our brains. But the “inner” feeling of pain — that’s another matter. A truly matter-based machine, such as ourselves in the view of the materialist, should not have any inner sensation of pain, no matter what goes on with its senses, nerves, brain and facial expressions or vocalisations. And yet, we do have an “inner” experience of pain.

Materialists are prone to saying that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or that consciousness occurs when a system becomes “self aware”. These statements are pseudoscientific — no real meaning can be extracted from them. Materialists believes this kind of thing because they think — wrongly, as I explain in my podcasts — that the alternative is to say that we have a soul which affects the workings of our brains.

Suppose the inner sensation — the actual emotion — that goes along with inner pain had really evolved. At what point on the long evolutionary road from inanimate matter to us did this matter start to feel pain? And again, I’m not talking about sensing damage to itself and processing information relating to that damage; I’m talking about the actual emotional experience of being in pain. Did the ability to experience pain in this way suddenly appear when we reached a certain level of complexity? If so why; at what level of complexity did this occur and what caused it to occur? At what point did we go from having no inner emotional experience of pain (or anything else) at all, to having some merest smidgeon of inner emotional experience? Or do even atoms have some sort of primitive pain-like sensation, which was steadily magnified as our complexity increased?

Both ideas seem absurd, and these kinds of considerations force materialists to get into saying things like “our emotions are an illusion” or “the emotions and the brain are the same thing” — again, pseudoscientific, irrationalist statements, if you really think it through.

The problem goes away to a large extent if you postulate the existence of a sort of primitive, unfeeling consciousness as the basis of the universe. This consciousness expanded in complexity and began to experience all kinds of more complicated sensations as the universe progressed, in exactly the same way that the material universe is imagined by materialists to have started out as some sort of primitive singularity, which gradually developed increasing complexity.

The material universe, from this point of view, constitutes one set of sensations that this consciousness (which is really us) has diversified into experiencing.

I think this kind of theorising sounds unscientific only because science has so little explored this idea that it has allowed everyone else to adopt the language involved and mould it to their own ends. We do, after all, experience emotion, and if we’re honest, we’re more certain of that than of any fact in the material universe.

Does this point of view suggest that God exists, that telepathy is possible or that we can contact the ghosts of our ancestors? No, absolutely not, although admittedly it’s probably kinder to a belief in some sort of a God than materialism, which really does make the notion of any sort of god utterly ridiculous. The only thing that’s currently labelled as “superstition” by materialists which this theory seems to me to make more plausible, is the notion that we might survive our own bodily deaths — albeit probably not in a form that would please many Christians or spiritual people.

However, I created this site in the hope that we can gradually move away from talking about what we want to believe and move towards what we can figure out logically, and ultimately translate into hard science with experimentally verifiable predictions.

I’m not talking about ridiculous experiments in psychokinesis here, or anything like that; I’m talking about the development of a theory that starts with our experience as its basis rather than any notion of “matter”, moves from there to show how our notion of matter arises and why space as we perceive it must have three dimensions, finally going on to explaining why we observe the particular fundamental particles and forces that we do observe — including hopefully experimentally-verifiable predictions about the observable universe.

I sometimes like to watch videos of Professor Richard Dawkins debating the truth of evolution with Christians. Let’s be clear — evolution is true in the same way that a table is a table; but there’s a whole other level to both the table (the fact that it’s ultimately made of space, interacting fields and subatomic particles following the bizarre laws of quantum physics, for a start) and evolution. This fact should not encourage us to sway into superstition.

What strikes me about these videos of Dawkins is that none of the Christians who debate with him appear to understand evolution by natural selection. Dawkins appears to suspect that if they did understand it, they’d agree that it was true. I think many of them probably indeed would. I suspect that most people who fully understood the ideas that I’ve tried to put across here and in my podcast would agree that they were true if they fully understood them — but most people do not really want to fully understand them, since they contradict almost everyone’s core beliefs — whether you’re a “spiritual” person or an atheist.

What if — just, what if — the truth about the universe was more interesting and more glorious than any of the simplified views held by either religious people or most atheists? As soon as you start saying “it must be like this, I just feel that it’s like that”, you move away from whatever the truth might turn out to be. To have a chance of dealing with the truth of any particular subject (I’m talking here about truth in the scientific sense), you have to firstly commit to using logic and rationality, and secondly to investigating the matter very thoroughly. You have to accept that you’ll never actually fully get to the bottom of anything; truth is a journey. You also have to accept that there are many things — most things, in fact — that you will simply never know. The correct scientific response to those things is not to jump to a conclusion and stick to it, but to simply say “we don’t know yet; let’s consider investigating”.

One last remark — in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not trying to start a cult! I don’t have many answers here; most of what I have are questions and suggestions about things we can investigate. But I believe in calling a spade a spade; if there’s something that doesn’t fit with any of our existing scientific theories — and the existence of emotion, in my view, clearly doesn’t — let’s carefully examine the underlying presumptions of our theories before we find ourselves fitting a square peg into a round hole.

The Creation: God, Big Bang or Us?

The question of why the universe exists is a difficult one for both religious people and pure materialists. While a believer may say that God created the universe, this only begs the question of where God came from.

In my podcasts, I present the idea that matter is not what the universe is fundamentally made of; rather, our own “consciousness” (a sadly woolly term, but it’ll have to do) may be the basis of the universe. Physical matter may be just one thing that our minds construct or perceive. At one time this would have sounded ridiculous and woolly to me, but as I explain in my podcasts, I now believe it to be entirely rational, provided we go into some depth in defining our terms.

Some physicists argue that since “empty” space spontaneously produces pairs of particles and anti-particles, something clearly can come from nothing. This doesn’t really solve the mystery of the universe’s origins, however, because we’re still left wondering where space came from or why pairs of particles pop out of it.

Something I’ve been wondering about is whether “consciousness” or “mind” can exist in some simple, undifferentiated form somehow, which can then start to indulge in a process of differentiation, producing the plethora of things that we see in this experience. This doesn’t solve the basic question, but it at least takes us a step closer — in much the same way that physicists are drawn to idea of the laws of physics (and even time) somehow developing as the Big Bang progressed.

While the idea that I’m keen to discuss could also be interpreted in terms of God, personally I don’t see any evidence for the existence of a consciousness separate to living beings. This isn’t really important one way or the other for the topics discussed here, though. Those who want to believe in God will not find any contradiction of the idea in these theories, except for this site focussing on evidence and logic rather than on any kind of faith.

What really interests me is the possibility of a “bootstrapping” process, whereby a “primitive” mind (whatever that might look like) starts to create such things as the laws of physics and mathematics. Could such a process have taken place? Is that why we appear to exist in the way that we do?

The concept of “nothing versus something” is surprisingly complex. Once you have something rather than nothing, you are committed to a whole range of attendant concepts. For instance: how can you tell the difference between nothing and something? To observe any kind of difference between two things, the two things have to exists in different times, or different places, or at least be capable of being somehow or other viewed at the same time, so that we can see the difference between the two. And of course we’re already thinking of “nothing” as a thing in itself ….

It seems that we can’t form even a concept of nothing without also forming a concept of something. Nothing is … literally nothing. The number of different concepts that are required to form even the most minimal concept of “nothing” seems to be extensive. Many of them are outlined by the axioms of the various set theories in mathematics, but these theories leave out certain common grounds to all theories — such as the existence of space or time (necessary for the above reasons), or at least the ability to differentiate between two separate things.

I suspect that, quite possibly, the minimal set of concepts that we’d need in order to be able to form a conception of “nothing” are so numerous that they may even form the entire set of fundamental concepts that we, in practice, entertain as intelligent beings. Is it possible to enumerate them, or would such a task be pure foolishness? I think anyone who attempts to at least answer whether such concepts can be enumerated, would spend their time well. Set theory itself came about through a historically long process of reflection on such questions, culminating in Georg Cantor’s controversial paper of 1874 and moving forwards from there.

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out that you need exactly three spatial dimensions to fully form a concept of “nothing”? Is it possible that the 3D nature of space is there, lurking somewhere in the unspoken assumptions of set theory? We think of mathematical concepts as being purely abstract, written down only for convenience. But in thinking about mathematics, we are inevitably forced to visualise spaces, in the most general mathematical sense of the word “space”.

I remember laughing when my college mathematics tutor stated that some people think the mathematical cross product is the reason why 3D space exists and is three dimensional. I’m not laughing anymore … Although the suggestion conjures up visions of academics so divorced from mundane reality as to have gone off on a complete tangent altogether, if this idea turns out to have legs, it may one day revolutionise our understanding of physics and even our own existence.

What is Time?

Time seems to be one of those things like “likelihood” which can’t be defined in terms of other things; only via circular definitions. But there are some things that we can say about it.

Recently I was trying to figure out what the distinguishing characteristics of time are, other than the fact that we feel it passing. I came up with three things that go some way to defining time:

  • Things that are “in the future” cannot be predicted with certainty
  • Disorder increases as time passes
  • We feel that we are “freely” making decisions that affect the future

All of these three things seem like they might be related. Let’s take the whole issue of free will. There are many who say, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, that free will is an illusion. I take that back on second thoughts; the reason so many people think this, is that they believe, wrongly, that the future is predictable and determined by the present state of our universe and the laws of physics.

This is not in fact true. Newtonian physics seems to define a predictable universe, but Newtonian physics does not govern the behaviour of objects at the subatomic scale, or even the atomic scale. For subatomic particles, you need quantum mechanics. Many people think that quantum mechanics says that the behaviour of subatomic particles is “random”; but this isn’t the real kicker of quantum mechanics. The real kicker is that the observed state of a subatomic particle depends on the experiment you do to observe it. Since all our experimental apparatus are made up of vast collections of subatomic particles — at least from a certain points of view — the apparatus themselves should not have a state until they are observed. But to us, they certainly appear to have a state, independent of our observation.

This brings up the “problem of measurement” in quantum mechanics. At what level does an “observation” occur? At what level does quantum mechanics strangely cease to apply, if it does at all? If you’ve listened to my podcast, you’ll see that I like to play around with the idea that perhaps quantum mechanics does apply at all levels. The mathematical and philosophical difficulties of quantum mechanics aren’t solved simply by this assumption, but it’s an interesting approach to play with.

At any rate, the idea that the universe has a state, which leads to its future state, appears to be quite wrong, based on all available evidence. There really is no contradiction between physics and our intuitive experience of free will. Many people want free will to be an illusion, because it seems “unscientific”. I don’t think it is unscientific at all; we just need to allow science to change and progress, in the same way that “fields” were once considered unscientific but are now fully accepted by scientists.

Many, shall we say, mystical types, believe this opens the door to everything from God to telepathy. Again, this point is arguable, but I personally see no evidence for God or telepathy or any other religious or psychic phenomenon. There’s nothing there to explain.

Now, suppose we had a universe in which the future could be known, in principle, and could be predicted from the universe’s current state. There would be no possibility of free will being anything other than a a weird illusion; our emotions certainly could not be regarded as separate entities to our brains in any way at all, and could have no efficacy. There wouldn’t be any need for time either; Einstein/Minkowki’s four-dimensional spacetime would be more than the convenient abstraction, applying only to specific predictable situations, that it actually is; it would be a true representation of reality. Scientifically, however, we simply don’t live in that kind of a universe.

We’ve tied together the unknown nature of the future together with free will. But what about entropy, the tendency of things to become more disordered? Could we have an unknown future and genuine free will without entropy? I’m not sure about this, but I think, probably, no. Entropy works in a deterministic universe — for example, the particles in a gas would still be subject to entropy, even if they all behaved in a perfectly Newtonian way. But such a gas would behave in a way that was, in principle, totally predictable. Clearly, we can’t have free will and a genuinely unknowable future in a Newtonian universe. But what if we had the universe that we currently have, and yet we didn’t have entropy? What if things had no tendency to become more disordered?

It seems to me (and I admit to not having fully thought this through in detail) that we probably couldn’t have free will either. Any decision we made could only affect the subatomic level, where quantum physics clearly operates. Subatomic effects could not “follow through” to create macroscopic effects. We really would be the sum of our parts, and nothing more. Or am I wrong about this?

This is a very answerable question as far as I can see; just one that requires more thought than I have currently put into it …

Finally, if I’m right about all this, it cannot be coincidence that we have here two phenomena that allow us to have free will. Neither do I believe the universe was arranged by an intelligent being, unless that intelligent being is actually us. It seems to me that there must be a close relationship between these three things, so that one is just a manifestation of the other.

Teaching a Computer to Speak

Recently I’ve been wondering if it might be possible to create a computer out of fungus or plant cells. The idea is it’d work like a “neural network” in computing. You’d supply certain inputs in the form of electrical stimulation and get certain electrical outputs. If you got appropriate outputs for a given input, you’d somehow strengthen the relevant pathways, perhaps by amping up the current to encourage fungal growth along the right lines. If the output was innapropriate, you’d somehow decrease growth along those pathways.

But what if this did indeed turn out to be feasible? We’d have a “computer” that functioned a somewhat like a human brain, minus the structure. It wouldn’t be good at doing rapid calculations, but might be good at fuzzy logic of the kind the human brain is good at.

We could imagine teaching such a computer to recognise words, producing output corresponding to the typed version of the word in response to input representing the word spoken by a human being. This is something that digital neural networks can already do.

Beyond this, neural networks suffer limitations due to their lack of parallel processing ability; the fungus brain may suffer no such limitations. So could we go further, feeding the computer (perhaps I should say, “brain”), sentences taken from the Internet and getting it to produce, even speak, via appropriate apparatus, suitable responses? Suppose this worked perfectly and we got a machine that could produce a sensible-sounding response to most questions, in effect carrying on a conversation …

The problem is, the machine would be producing appropriate responses but with no context. Ask it what its name is, and it wouldn’t know. Ask it what the weather is like in Rome and it would produce an answer … but surely not the right answer. Could we somehow get the brain to understand context?

Maybe it could be trained to recognise the difference between an approving human voice and a disapproving one. Disapproving voices causes a weakening of whatever pathways just fired; approving ones strengthen them (via some suitable mechanism). The brain has to detect approval or disapproval and then engage, via suitable output, a mechanism that strengthens or weakens the last pathways that fired.

How far could such a machine, in conversation with human beings, actually go towards sounding fully human? A baby can go all the way, but of course is extensively pre-programmed by evolution. How far could we go with a completely unstructured fungus brain?

If it did learn to sound actually human in its responses, would we expect that it would then actually have feelings? I’ve argued in my podcasts that a digital computer could never have feelings, but a fungal brain I’m less sure about … after all, we really don’t know why babies end up having feelings.

This experiment might sound whacky, and doubtless progress would be very slow, but I’m inclined to try it. Even a fungus brain that could recognise characters would be huge achievement … I wonder if it’s possible to grow vats of neural cells? Even plants presumably have neural cells of some kind, otherwise how do plants detect light, and how does Mimosa pudica move in response to touch? Or is this some other mechanism entirely? Time to have a look at Wikipedia …

What Is Meant By “Position”?

We are accustomed to thinking that physical objects have “positions” which we can come along and measure. We think of the position of a thing as being a property of the object and as existing to an infinite degree of accuracy, even though we never measure positions to an infinite degree of accuracy.

But is this view of position really correct? Is it possible that measurements of position are not one-shot events that try to measure something infinitely precise “as well as possible”, but rather iterative processes that in themselves determine the positions of objects?

Measuring the position of an object might involve first pinning the object down to some particular space; we must make some measurement that convinces us that the object to be measured exists to some degree of probability within some particular volume. We then make further measurements, determining that the object lies within the scope of our measurement, that it lies between certain rough borders, and then determining ever more precisely which two other objects in each dimension it lies between.

In quantum physics our view of the nature of position and measurement has caused us to create infinite-dimensional mathematical spaces in order to deal with the phenomenon of position. We cannot say exactly what causes us to even think that an object has a position, and we cannot currently break the measurement of position down as an iterative process, into a series of steps. Perhaps one day we might manage to do this, just as Einstein broke down the measurement of length into certain very rough initial steps involving time. When that day comes, we may finally be able to rid quantum mechanics of infinite mathematical spaces.

The Three Polarizer Paradox: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

A tutorial on the “three polarizer paradox”. Actually the stuff we see in this tutorial won’t be all that paradoxical, just a little unexpected perhaps. The real “paradox” will emerge in the next tutorial when we look at photons. Nevertheless, we need to know how things look classically before we start messing about with semi-hypothetical particles …

Malus’ Law and Light Intensity: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

A tutorial on Malus’ law and where it comes from. Malus’ law enables us to predict how the intensity of a beam of polarized light will change as it passes through polarizing filters. Even if basic old optical laws don’t interest you, it’s worth studying this stuff, since we’re going to move on to looking at how this whole thing works when we start claiming that light is made up of photons, which is going to be quite interesting.

This is the first tutorial I’ve published in a while … thanks for your patience if you’ve been waiting for it, and many thanks to those few who emailed me and asked when the next tutorial was due!

Is the Universe a Giant Fractal?

Modern science propounds the view that the universe, in all its complexity, was created from simple starting conditions following some simple rules. But what if science has it the wrong way round? What if the universe only exists as far as our momentary experience of it, and it is our experience itself that is being built up following simple rules? Indeed, science seems to be verging on contemplating this very idea when it contemplates the strangeness of quantum mechanics. In this episode, we’ll leap right ahead and contemplate the unthinkable possibility that we are generating the universe as we go along, much like a computer generates a fractal image.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Materialism makes it hard to explain free will and Schrodinger’s cat – missing considerations from the materialist viewpoint – could everything exist in our minds? – what is the mechanism by which the mind constructs reality, if it does? – Mandelbrot and his fractals – infinite complexity – similarity between physical universe and Mandelbrot fractal – Big Bang and Gödel – our experience could be generated much like a fractal – Hindu/Buddhist metaphysics – we all automatically apply certain mathematical rules in our minds in observing or creating the world – why is the universe full of unexpected stuff? – why can’t we walk through walls or defy gravity? – what is it that all measurements of position have in common? – the hack at the centre of quantum physics

Featured Music: “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar

Does Anything Really Exist?

Very little, if anything, about our experience of the world proves that the physical world really exists independently of ourselves. In fact, the notion of existence is a somewhat badly-defined notion, and many possible mathematical models of reality might fit our experience. Many of us believe that things exist independently of us and look for explanations of life and the universe in terms of physical entities interacting; whether this is ultimately a fully correct way of looking at the situation or not (rather than being simply a practical approximation to part of the real situation) is open to question.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

The brain lives in a box and generates a sense of space itself – what part of reality is constructed in our brains and what part is “out there”? – what does the word “exists” mean? – do objects exist independently of us? – Why do we think objects exist? – solipsism – dreams and hallucinations – anticholinergics vs psychedelics – our brains can create a sense of a vast universe whether it exists or not – complexity of the universe does not prove its independent existence – does the existence of death prove that the universe is “real”? – we don’t really know what happens after death – the universe appears to store information – do other people exist? – Newtonian physics vs Quantum physics – the importance of emotional distance – Could it ever make sense to say that the world is 5000 years old? – the Theory of Relativity and measurement of distance

Featured music: “Cichy zapada zmrok” (The Dusk Quietly Falls) sung by Marysia Ananiewska.

Turning the Universe Inside Out: Quantum Mindcast Episode 5

View the universe from a new perspective with the help of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In this episode we’ll discuss a remarkable book and an equally remarkable idea; the idea that large parts of what we think of as external reality are in fact created by our brains as a sort of theatre in which to place the physical world. The consequences of this idea will turn out to be extremely profound, and may ultimately suggest a new way forward for the science of physics.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Kant – the obscurely-written Critique of Pure Reason – Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics – Kant’s metaphysics question – what is metaphysics? – how is pure mathematics possible? – the certainty of mathematical propositions – a priori vs. a posteriori evidence – Descartes’ Discourse on Method – Descartes’ demon and The Matrix – is the universe real? – the 3D nature of space – the inconceivability of a four dimensional space – Relativity – space is constructed by the brain – life inside a 4D computer simulation – pure vs. empirical may not be a a fixed distinction – the brain is only an object in a space it generates – how much of the physical world is “out there” and how much do our minds generate? – dualism in religion – Descartes’ demon – the pineal gland – how do emotions connect to the physical realm? – the mind generates experience of emotion and of physical reality – solipsism – hemispheric neglect and blindsight – Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – what do we mean by “external reality”? – cogito ergo sum – how do we know we exist? – the traditional Western model of reality – an ongoing process for humanity

Featured music:

Recommended Reading

The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (only tackle this one if you want a challenge!)

Prolegomena by Immanuel Kant (easier than “Pure Reason” but still not light reading)

Discourse on Method by Descartes (very readable)

Modelling Light as a Plane Wave: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

It’s interesting to model the electric component of EM radiation as a plane wave. Although this isn’t a fully realistic model and neglects such important aspects as electric flux density, nevertheless it captures some aspects of light and it’ll get us started with waves, which there is going to be a lot more of later on.

Can There Ever Be a Grand Unified Theory of Physics? – Quantum Mindcast Episode 4

How mathematical theories show us that we can never have a complete theory of physics — or even the human mind, it seems. In this podcast we’ll descend to the most fundamental level of rational enquiry and delve into mathematics to ask whether it really makes sense to think that we can capture ultimate truth in mathematical equations.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

The strange story of Whitehead, Russel and Gödel – Principia Mathematica – Kurt Gödel – formal systems – the incompleteness theorems – why we can’t create a grand unified theory of arithmetic, never mind the universe – theories of physics are like nets laid over a mountain range – Roger Penrose and Shadows of the Mind – Plato’s allegory of the cave – the weather and the brain are chaotic systems – chaos theory and Penrose’s crooked chain of pool balls – brains are unpredictable – consciousness is not in the gaps of physical theories – microtubules – do Gödel’s theorems prove anything about the brain? – Gödel’s paranoid food poisoning obsession – the curious relationship between logic and paranoia

Featured music: Length and Brecht (Remixed) – Halogen

Recommended Reading

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness by Roger Penrose

Free Will and Quantum Physics – Quantum Mindcast Episode 3

Free will is not an illusion; why the laws of quantum mechanics show us that our sensation of "free will" cannot be proved to be any kind of illusion. In this episode we'll look at what quantum mechanics is and roughly how it works; we'll talk about the relevance of quantum mechanics to consciousness, and we'll look at the strange scientific mystery of Schrödinger's Cat.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Why people assert that free will is an illusion - the brain as a mechanism - Laplace's demon - the brain depends upon quantum mechanical laws - an analogy for how quantum mechanics works - the problem of measurement - Copenhagen interpretation - Many Worlds theory - the Paradox of Schrödinger's Cat

Sam Harris - The Delusion of Free Will

Featured music: Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 4

Electric Fields: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

Light is made up of magnetic fields and electric fields, intertwined — at least from a certain point of view. While every child knows what a magnetic field is, sort of, less know what an electric field is, even though they are just as easy to demonstrate. We’ll look at electric fields in this tutorial.

Kinetic Energy – The Energy of Movement: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

Stuff that moves has energy by virtue of the fact that it’s moving. Although it’s hard to say what energy really is, we know it when we see it, and movement definitely counts. In this tutorial we’ll do a little bit of algebra to get from our basic definition of energy to figuring out how much energy a moving thing has, exactly. This is really going to help a lot when we get on to looking at light and photons. Honest.

What is Energy?: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

Before we start looking at light, let’s break down some of the key concepts involved in understanding light. We’ll start here with energy; a term that is rigorously defined in physics and yet nevertheless impossible to fully grasp. In fact, it’s surprising how many things in physics, or indeed in life, are possible to define and yet impossible to grasp. At least being able to define a thing is better than bandying about words without having any clear agreed definition — we’ll leave that to philosophers. At least for now.

The Unknowable Photon: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

Photos are weird. Fact. Once we start thinking that light is made up of photons, we’re left with some pretty strange conundrums just as soon as we start to think it through. It’s almost enough to make you give up and start arguing that photons don’t exist …. except that they’re so darned useful. By considering the weird nature of polarized photons, we can start to see what kind of mathematical theorem we might be looking for exactly, when we’re trying to formulate a mechanics of the quantum realm.

Michio Kaku on Free Will: Why Science Says Free Will Exists

The physicist Michio Kaku on free will:

I came across this short video on YouTube and couldn’t resist posting it. To be honest, the fact that Michio Kaku would defend free will surprises me. I had him pegged (for no reason but idle prejudice) as a “free will is an illusion” guy.

In this video he doesn’t really bring out the aspect of quantum physics which is really the most supportive of the whole idea of free will, though. He talks about randomness, and it’s true that the random nature of small things shows us that there is no iron mechanism that determines our actions, as some (such as Susan Blackmore) seem to think. But of course it’s still possible to argue that, if small things behave in a random fashion, that still doesn’t mean they are guided by some mysterious “will”.

We need to dig deeper into QM (quantum mechanics) to understand why it leaves the door wide open for free will without conflicting in any way with the known laws of physics. The behaviour of small objects seems to depend on the actual observations that we choose to make, and that’s what’s really so interesting about QM.

Quantum physics is an incomplete science, and I just know this article is going to come across as me searching for loopholes in physics that would allow free will, when in actual fact the case for free will is far stronger than it might initially appear from this brief summary.

What can I say? I can only implore you to check out the Quantum Mindcast, where I’ll be explaining episode by episode why the world is not quite as it appears and why we really do have free will.

Mary’s Room and the Theory of Evolution – Quantum Mindcast Episode 2

Episode 2 of the Quantum Mindcast. In this episode we’ll take a look at a couple of intriguing thought experiments that help to shed light on the nature of consciousness and physical reality; namely, Frank Jackson’s “Mary’s Room” and John Searle’s “Chinese Room”. We’ll also talk about the Theory of Evolution and why it’s not quite the full story.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

Mary’s Room, aka The Knowledge Arguments – Emotion and the brain are not the same – experience vs. knowledge – Quale – Who makes the grass green? – The mind vs. the brain – Searle’s Chinese Room – Why do so many people dislike the Theory of Evolution – Why consciousness cannot have evolved.

Featured music: Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata no. 14 in c sharp minor ‘Moonlight’, op. 27 no. 2 – i. adagio sostenuto

Ram Dass and Terence McKenna in Prague

This is a really great YouTube discussion between Terence McKenna and Ram Dass, also known as Richard Alpert, filmed in Prague.

Both of these guys have spent their lifetimes engaged with the idea that the outer world is somehow a projection of the inner mind, and that by changing the inner mind we can, and should, change the outer world.

McKenna’s ideas were almost invariably potty, but he’s easily forgiven since he was also highly entertaining. At least he makes a refreshing antidote to the ultra-serious mode of existence that most of us spend much of our lives in. If you’re weary of your job or the demands of family life, McKenna appears as a bolt from the insane blue, a person highly concerned with questions so abstruse and downright peculiar that you can end up feeling like you’ve been transported to another, somewhat more interesting planet, just by listening to him.

McKenna was obsessed with “magic” mushrooms, for good or ill; he and his brother Dennis figured out how to grow them back in the 70’s and published a book on the subject. Although McKenna sadly died in 2001 (allegedly of a mushroom-shaped brain tumour), his voice and ideas, however crazy, live on in Internet form. The Internet is a richer place for it.

Ram Dass taught at Harvard in his earlier guise as Richart Alpert. It was there that he met Timothy Leary and became heavily involved with LSD. Alpert later traveled to India and became interested in Indian spirituality, largely ceasing to have much to do with LSD, since he seemed to later form the opinion that LSD can at best give one short-lived insights into something that only non-drug spiritual practice can attain for the longer term. He was renamed Ram Dass by his guru and in 1971 wrote the spiritual classic Be Here Now.

As of the date of publication of this blog post, he is still alive and still teaching, although he suffers some verbal impairment due to a stroke.

Both men in his video appear to be concerned with the question of how the inner world can change the outer world, and why so little progress appears to really occur. Dass seems the more optimistic of the two, although McKenna often expressed huge optimism in his speeches (alas, much of it was connected to his belief that something huge would happen on December 21st, 2012 – and as we now can say, if anything did happen, it happened pretty quietly).

Polarized Light: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

A tutorial on polarized light. Polarized light behaves according to rules that we could think of as belong to classical physics. Nothing too weird happens, and we can make concrete predictions about future observations on the same ray of light. But don’t worry, things are going to get very crazy when we start to look at photos in the next tutorial. This tutorial just paves the way for the vile monstrous insanity that is to follow.

Timothy Leary: Crazy or Ahead of His Time?

Timothy Leary, in case you don’t know, was a psychologist at America’s prestigious Harvard University. At the age of around 40, he began to study the effects of the chemical psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms) and later LSD. Both substances were entirely legal at the time.

Before long his studies began to appear somewhat less than academic, as he began to find the whole idea of applying an academic framework to these powerful substances slightly absurd.

It’s very interesting to speculate on what his life trajectory might subsequently have been if he had not then been essentially persecuted by Richard Nixon and chased all over the world on inflated charges of possessing tiny quantities of cannabis, at one point facing a fifty-year prison sentence.

I highly recommend Higgs’ book on Leary; it’s a superb read and manages to avoid falling into either the anti-Leary or pro-Leary camp.

One thing that really intrigues me about Leary is that he seemed to be an extremely happy guy, whether he was on LSD or not. Check out the following interview, made when he was in prison, for instance.

The woman who introduces the interview (introducing herself as Joanna Leary) is in fact Joanna Harcourt-Smith, who at the time was completely devoted to Leary, sort of, and changed her name to his, even though they weren’t actually married.

Harcourt-Smith is still around, I’m pleased to say (and was recently rather astonished to discover), and has an interesting website here.

Leary was also noted for his lack of responsibility, leaving many bitter feelings and wrecked lives behind him. But, as John Higgs points out in his book, he also inspired a lot of affection in people. I wonder if his apparent constant state of happiness had something to do with his refusal to take anything seriously – a rather dangerous attitude when it comes to other people – or whether he had simply, as he claims in this interview, learned how to “operate his nervous system”.

Or did he just feed off entertaining people and being the centre of attention? In other words, to what extent were the insights that he felt LSD gave him responsible for his radiant demeanour, if at all? It would have been interesting to see more of what he was like prior to LSD. I suspect he was much the same as we see him now, in prison. A perpetual optimist, self-centered and ruthless perhaps, but also rather inspiring.

Observables and Compatibility: 5-Minute Quantum Physics

A tutorial on observables and compatibility, using some examples drawn from every day life.

When we’re looking at very small objects, we can’t observe them without disturbing them. The process of measuring the value of a property that we consider them to have, becomes an active process that causes them to manifest that property — a bit like measuring how violent a person is by punching him in the face and seeing if he attacks you or not. One side effect of this is that often measuring one “observable” will disturb the measurement of another observable, in which case we say the two observables are incompatible.

European Food Safety Authority Claims Profound Knowledge of Consciousness

It seems the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has astonishing insights into the very nature of being, far beyond anything philosophers or scientists have been able to attain. I may as well give up working on this site before I’ve even started it. Crabs, apparently, are not sentient (mere machines!) while “higher” animals are sentient. Case closed.

Further evidence crabs and other crustaceans feel pain [BBC News]

While admitting that “Crustacean Pain” is a great name for a thrash metal band, I wonder whether the EFSA’s controversial stance may be influenced more by their desire to not have to worry about the ethics of boiling lobsters or maiming crabs than by scientific considerations.

Are We Machines? – Quantum Mindcast Episode 1

The Quantum Mindcast is here: a podcast about consciousness and quantum physics.

Quantum Mindcast

In this episode:

The world is a projection of the mind – Introducing the Quantum Mindcast – The mind-body problem – Why there’s little point discussing stuff like telepathy – Schrödinger’s Paradox – Are we machines? – How the brain works – Three common responses to the mind-body problem – Philosophical zombies – We don’t need to throw rationality out the window.

Featured music: Illumination by Action Davis, featuring Emmalyne Braswell

Note: Francis Crick apparently died in 2004. His work, however, lives on.