Sunday, January 2, 2005

Some Cheap Philosophy for the New Year

It seems fashionable these days to use the ideas in quantum physics to explain things we observe in our everyday world, like the notion that nothing exists until it is actually observed. This is expanded upon to generate the idea that we can create our own reality, or we can change reality by thinking. Well, I say, yes, it is a psycological truth that our own attitude can change the way in which we view the world. It’s called the Pygmallion effect - if we can picture something, and if we have the internal motivation, we can bring it to be. For instance in 1998 I pictured myself tuning pianos, and now I do it. But this is an idea that has been around for centuries and it doesn’t really have anything to do with quantum physics, does it? Bertram Russell thought up all this stuff a long time ago. [see note below].

Another annoyance is the implication that people bring on their own unhappiness because of their own inadequate beliefs. True in some cases, yes, but it’s a “blame the victim” philosophy. It is true that we each see the world in our own unique way due to our biases, and sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us. But on the other hand, I also believe there is such a thing as external reality. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, would we?

When people talk about life after death, they often say something like “oh, the energy we have goes on in some form after we die”. I get a little bit irked about the use of the word “energy”, I guess because I have a degree in physics, and “energy” means something measureable and observable. I think sometimes there's confusion when folks use a metaphor but don’t realize it’s just a metaphor. The “energy” or “soul” lives on after death, so they say, like some kind of ghostie floating around or something. Perhaps I came off as a hard-headed skeptic, I just have a problem when people confuse the observed and measureable things in our world with those things which are metaphors can not be measured. I'm cool with metaphors, just realize that’s what it is.

I had a chat a while back with a guy who was convinced that we have previous lives; there is such a thing as psychics and ghosts; blah-de-blah-blah. I tried to be open-minded yet reasonably skeptical with him. But he was a “believer” and he tried to convince me of his truth, almost the same way an evangelical Christian would try to convert me. I thought it a bit ironic - it’s like he was being closed-minded about his open-mindedness.

I’m not saying that the universe consits of only the observable and measureable, I just object to people holding on to stupid ideas which have been proven to be untrue, like psychic phenomena, and it pisses me off when people think they can “prove” ideas which are inherently unprovable. There is a vast, vast universe beyond what we can measure and prove, and there is such thing as the “soul”, but to me it is a metaphorical reality. For instance, it is the soul, or the true self, which told me that engineering was the wrong occupation for me. And the fact that there is indeed a vast, vast universe of things beyond human understanding is, well, mind-blowing. And although I am a skeptic, it’s interesting to speculate about what is at that boundary between the knowable and the unknowable. Maybe we will meet again at some enormously distant time in the future, can’t prove it not to be true.

Ok, here’s my theology in a nutshell: imagine a huge black sheet of paper with a small white circle on it. The white circle is what we humans can measure, explain, and predict with observation and science. The black paper is the great mystery. Maybe the little white circle gets bigger as we advance, but the overall sheet of paper is enormous. Maybe even infinite. Call the whole thing “God” if you want to. And what one individual human can comprehend is an even smaller circle within the circle. Having said that, it also remains true that the universe does have physical rules and “God” is NOT capricious.
Vast and mysterious, but not capricious.

NOTE: My thinking about this sort of thing was set off by watching a movie called |“What the bleep Do We Know”| and having a discussion with a few people afterwards. The topics in the movie include quantum physics, psychology, metaphysics, and spirituality. The film features interviews with individuals presented as experts in science and spirituality. The film has received |widespread criticism from the scientific community| and grossly misrepresents the meaning of various principles of quantum mechanics. In fact a physicist in the film, David Albert, has stated that his comments in the film were placed so out-of-context that his views were totally misrepresented.