Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

This work is lauded as theoretical physics for the layman, but it is no Dummies version. Hawking quickly exhausted any common language and ideas that he and I might have shared, strapped me to the back of his wheelchair, and warped to light speed.  And yet, it really was an enlightening read, and I feel better informed regarding the frontiers of science, at least as it stood 20 years ago. It was especially nice to learn from Stephen Hawking, the late 20th century’s Einstein, and the fact that Hawking overcame so much in his lifetime (a quadriplegic suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease) gives his ideas a courageous flavor. It also helps that the cover art of the 1990 edition totally looks like Hawking is the Emperor in his throne at the last duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Return Of the Jedi. “Take your weapon. Strike me down! Your journey towards the dark side will be complete!” And I trust this man to escort me “From the Big Bang To Black Holes”? Enough.

I really did appreciate the leap to being able to understand, partially at least, the beginning and end of the horizons of the empirically known universe in 182 pages. To be sure, some parts of the book were…shall we say…a black hole sucking all light of the understanding into the fathomless abyss where Hawking sits alone with the key to the origins and ends of it all. Or maybe he doesn’t. It was intriguing to learn that some of Hawking’s “Eureka!” moments weren’t always the byproduct of complex mathematical procedures, but some occurred spontaneously in rather mundane places and times, such as a conversation with one of his students, or during a bedtime routine. In other words, he fortuitously stumbled upon some of his best ideas like any normal bloke, not always painstakingly exhuming them from the deep, ponderous vaults of trigo-calcu-bra. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I definitely see good ole’ fashioned creativity and wonder at work in Hawking as he discovered new worlds (and anti-worlds) for his brain to roll around in. I find it hilarious that at one point he found himself so immersed in ‘imaginative physics’ that when he finally reached irreconcilable contrarities, he had to be reminded by one of his students that he was using imaginary time in some of his formulas, which didn’t always work in real time scenarios. And I feel smart again for a couple seconds.

Let it be known, I love having my mind blown. Hawking takes us on the journey of basic physics, but then reaches to the furthest applications of those fundamentals without all the mind-cramping math. He includes only one equation in the book: E = mc (squared), and this is simple enough to understand as he explains the implications of Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity on energy (E), mass (m), and the speed of light (c). The beauty of the whole thing is this: it is beyond me. I had to try to picture the ‘color’ beyond the white pages full of static black symbols. The words had to become events. My mind often transposed the convoluted processes into cartoons; after all, much of it only makes sense as story. How else is anyone supposed to understand what is going on inside a star or an atom? Reality transcends mere words. We transpose the unseen, untouched world into pictures, into analogy, into math, into poetry. In the end, science is fiction, language is myth, math is… music!  I believe Hawking reconciles himself to the metaphysics of physics, even if it is unconsciously, when he states, “It is meaningless to ask: Which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”

It is so interesting that so much of this book is now common knowledge at least in outline: The Big Bang, black holes, the variable nature of time and space. It was new depth in decades-old ideas for me as I relearned Einstein’s theory of relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, and quantum mechanics. I also finally understand a little better the nature of light, color, radio/x-ray/gamma rays…and the whole electromagnetic field that these waves wave on; and I can finally grasp the essentials of Super String Theory, which I’ve come to think is just a way to apply the mystery that particles cannot be differentiated from waves. Holistic cosmological evolution is now outlined in my mind more lucidly than it ever has been before. And I certainly know more now than I EVER wanted to know about black holes!

I was a little confused about Hawking attributing a sweeping loss of order to the universe in his elucidation of entropy with barely a nod to increasing order. He concedes the remarkable nature of human consciousness and man’s understanding of the universe, and refers to it as “a small corner of order”, but isn’t that small corner a greater improbability than all of the rest of the universe’s order/disorder put together? In other words, the concentration of evolution in terms of improbably and highly complex structure is weightier than all the entropy of all time. Doesn’t this warrant more attention and awe than quickly dismissing it as ‘a small corner of order’? Is he so eager to prove his point about the ultimate Big Crunch at the end of time, or the absence of cosmic intelligence, that he totally disregards the significance of his own sphere of existence and its rarity?

Science, for all it claims of emotional detachment and pure mechanics, so quickly capitulates to egoism. Maybe this betrays my ignorance, but I am always stunned by the amount of angst wrapped up in the competition among the intelligentsia. Maybe this shouldn’t be a huge surprise, but still it is upsetting for me to learn—the scientific community is cutthroat! Reading Hawking’s short bio on John Newton at the back of the book floored me as regards the Machiavellian nature of Newton’s politics that polluted any hope of unbiased research he might have undertook.  Who would believe a word he said if they couldn’t reproduce the results themselves? And apparently times haven’t changed: Hawking couldn’t even get through this book on super-physics for the layman, a daunting enough task to warrant cutting out all extraneous drama, without alluding to recent skirmishes between himself and his colleagues, and years later he’s still defending himself, or ostensibly trying not to defend himself.  To the credit of Hawking’s scientific integrity, he has admitted at least some of his errors in the past. Immediately following a paragraph in the book in which he asserts “one cannot really argue with a mathematical theorem [referencing his own handiwork of course]”, he humbly acknowledges, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.” It seems that though one can’t ‘argue with the math’, one can change its meaning, even years later. Two plus two may equal four, but two apples and two refrigerators equal four…what? The idea that science is pure and math is not arguable is nonsense. Simone de Beauvoir rightly said that “every objective description, so-called, implies an ethical background.” We’re all trying to get at something.

The last chapter, ‘Conclusion’, was truly startling to read. Hawking all but admits a thirst for some kind of ultimate meaning at the end of the book. “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?...Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” I thought it was a brave move, especially after working so hard to debunk God. Then, as if he was the first to ask these questions in an intelligent way, Hawking commits an embarrassing faux pas by accusing philosophers of neglecting their task of asking ‘why’. “Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.” He cites Wittgenstein as a “comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant”, and obviously laments Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy as drifting away from the real purpose of philosophy. Let us suppose Hawking’s elitist view—that only certain people have the right to ask certain questions—is valid, and suppose it really is solely the philosophers business to ask the ‘why’ as Hawking suggests; then who is he, a mere empiricist, a mathematician, to question another sacred authority? Though I disagree with his accusation of modern philosophy, and though I think he has contradicted himself by questioning a fellow authority that he self-allegedly should be trusting implicitly to work unassailably in their specialized field, I still think he’s right in asking the questions himself. Maybe we all ought to be asking the big questions and making some discovery for ourselves, not implicitly trusting Hawking and Wittgenstein to do it all for us. In the end, the ‘specialists’ can’t save us. They can barely save themselves.

That all being said, I really did enjoy the book and I learned a lot. Mystery is necessary for the expanding soul, and we can take comfort in the fact that there isn’t an end in sight.  This ‘small corner of order’ is boundless—as deep as it is wide—and the longer the universe expands, the more infinite the scope and intricate the scale. The universe we know will always be a door to a larger universe as long as something keeps urging us to ask ‘what’ and ‘why’. And the question itself signals more; and if nothing else, we can always squeeze back through the small hole the question itself slipped in at. There’s always more for those who want more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

SeinLanguage by Jerry Seinfeld

For me, this book was an ‘inbetweener’. It helped lighten the load between Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time and an anthology of existentialist thought titled Existentialism. And lighten the load it did. I read just a couple pages each time I came to it, and put it down with a more cheerful and ‘breathable’ outlook.

Everyone knows Seinfeld’s humor (if you don’t, I don’t want to know you anymore…simple as that…just leave). He cracks jokes about everyday things that we take for granted, and helps us see the absurdity of what we accept as normality and common sense. A running joke on his sitcom Seinfeld is that it is a show about ‘nothing’, the irony being that it is about everything little that happens in our lives, and not any one big happening. His plots never go anywhere in the strict sense of narrative progress, but they explore the everywhere and find in it the irony and wonder of being.  

I truly believe we all need this sense of the hilarious mundane. Reading his jokes helps me, even if for a moment, not to be so consumed with restlessly prodding along the cosmic epic of my life, and to embrace the moment-by-moment joy and laughter that I can experience if I just open up my eyes. Not that Seinfeld’s humor always celebrates beauty and love, it also rejoices in the madness and destruction of the idiot, and that is funny too, no? Who doesn’t, at least inwardly, jump at a chance to call someone stupid, especially when that someone is us, and I think this urge helps us better define the boundaries of what we consider practical/impractical, or wise/unwise. The margins of our sanity can be a frightening zone to explore, but cognitively scoping out these borders can keep us from wondering too close in deed. Thus, comedy is a safety valve of sorts, allowing us to test the waters of danger in theory, not reality. That’s why I like to say, humor is soft danger, or soft fear. Humor is fear on weed. And that statement is weed on weed.

And now for a few examples from the book that had me rolling:

“I couldn’t be a maid. I wouldn’t have a good attitude. If I was a maid at someone’s house, I’d find them, wherever they were in the house. ‘Oh, I suppose you couldn’t do this…No, no, don’t get up, let me clean up your filth…No, you couldn’t dust, that’s just too tough, isn’t it? Don’t even try to help me. You rest. Save your energy so you can turn this place back into a filthy, stinking hole when I leave.’”

“Of course we all try and save time. Cutting corners, little short cuts. But no matter how much time you save, at the end of your life, there’s no extra time saved up. You’ll be going, ‘What do you mean there’s no time?  I had a microwave oven, Velcro sneakers, a clip-on tie. Where is that time?’ But there isn’t any.”

“So I was on this plane where it was this flight attendant’s first day on the job, but they didn’t have a uniform for her yet. And that really makes a big difference. I mean, now it’s just some regular person coming over to you going, ‘Would you mind bringing your seatback all the way up?’ I turned around, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And then she goes, ‘Well, I’m the flight attendant.’ ‘Oh yeah? Then I’m the pilot. Why don’t you sit down, I’m about to bring her in.’”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Future Of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

I’ve always been interested in how some of the brightest minds of different eras attempted to solve the dilemma of existence, those people who have cast a large shadow in history for one reason or another; people whom others have looked to for answers for their time, in whom the spirit of the age was represented but partially transcended; figures like Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Luther, Lincoln, Einstein, and, to cut to the chase, Sigmund Freud. The simple idea that many of our adult ‘parapraxes’ and neuroses may actually be unconscious fixations and frustrations carried over from coping mechanisms in early childhood was revolutionary, and kicked open the door to a surge of research into depth-psychology and eventually neuroplasticity. Freud was no joke, even though many of his theories were left far behind, as all theoretical tailings are, in the exhaust of later developments in psychology and psychoanalysis. The man was a courageous visionary in his time, and did much for science…and for religion. Some see his attitude towards religion as completely hostile, but I don’t think it was. His attitude towards some forms of religion and some religious attitudes was aggressive, but his posture towards religion in general was one of understanding of the time and culture in which they arose, and of the psychological prerequisites that occasion religious devotion. He happened to think that most every religion was indeed wishful thinking, or ‘wish-fulfillment’, but he didn’t think it was all bad, and actually thought it might be, in many cases, good for what ails a society and a soul.

Freud had written more extensive treatises on the evolution of religious belief in culture and individual psychology, but this short work is not to be ignored. If a work like Moses And Monotheism or Totem And Taboo was his assiduous proof, then Future Of an Illusion was his concise posit. It is direct and honest, yet offers a glimpse into what might be called Freud’s ‘humility’ in the matter of people’s cherished beliefs and traditions (though some may say it feels the opposite). I was actually impressed, and somewhat persuaded, by some of his points. There was a good bit of prefabbing and contextualization for his argument in the first few chapters, establishing that the mass of society needs either coercion or persuasion to abandon a lazy-impulsive lifestyle. He opts for the latter, persuasion, and loses no time in working to convince the reader of the dire need to displace religion with reason.

Freud is actually pretty fair in his acceptance of the idea that religion was developed as a necessary, instinctual response to the need of mankind to survive in a hostile environment. He asserts that man personified nature, creating a father-image to protect and rule over him, and slowly grew out of an infantile animism to value his personality as it grew powerful in intelligence to order his own way through chaos. He assigned this growing consciousness the value of an anthropomorphized Power—God—but now humanity is having a hard time salvaging truth from those ancient analogies (“important historical recollections”). Thus, the idea of ‘God’ is an ongoing cultural neurosis, an illusion that at one time was subscribed to by the masses and is still propagated by the collective pressure to repress the growing disconnect been our religion and our reason, and conform to the dogma of this shared myth. All is not lost, however, and even this communal fixation has some value in that “devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain [individual] neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the [cultural] neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Who can blame Freud for catching onto, and pulling back the curtain for others to see, the conspiracy with which religious leaders dupe simple people into believing something for which no reason or proof has been provided, except the mandate not to question or one would lose their privileged status as God’s ‘darlings.’. He specifically zeros in on three bogus claims of religious teachings that are used to manipulate the flocks of possibly well-meaning followers: 1) The teachings ought to be believed because they were believed by primal ancestors, 2) We possess ‘proofs’ from these same ancestors, 3) It is forbidden to raise a question of their authenticity on penalty of excommunication, death and/or hellfire. Who can disagree that these are indeed harmful traits and can bring any ideology into question? The real danger of trying to cement ancient paradigms lies in the attempt to transplant ideas into a new ethos, away from its native soil and environment. All the old ideas have to be put into theological zoos, cramped, withered, and anemic away from home; and the new theology all but kills the original thought which was wild, often contradictory, and rather uncivilized. The new form is hardly recognizable: “The truths contained in religious doctrines are after all so distorted and systematically disguised that the mass of humanity cannot recognize them as truth.”

Now, some of it did feel outdated. Freud lauds scientific progress ad nauseum. Does he not realize that for all his dissection of totemism in his other works, science is becoming the new totem of our age, the fetish of modernism? Here Science becomes the one god, and Freud is his prophet. Freud is a believer in logical positivism to an embarrassing extent, and subordinates the subjective thinker far below objective phenomenon, putting all his eggs in the one basket of external reality. Freud thinks reason will save the world, and I don’t blame him for pleading for more balance between faith and reason, but his answers come across as na├»ve. He gives a downright obnoxious illustration of one of his children that was “distinguished at an early age” for calling out during a children’s story time in which a fairytale was being shared, “Is that a true story?” When he was answered in the negative he turned away in disgust. Freud’s point? “We may expect that people will soon behave in the same way towards the fairy tales of religion.” What a downer. Did he really have no appreciation for imagination, beauty, and the power of symbols? What can I say—he wasn’t so far ahead of his times that he wasn’t influenced by the utopian dream that intellectual prowess alone can bring peace and love.

I applaud Freud for wanting change to come the non-violent way. He saw two ways that change could come about: “Either these dangerous masses must be held down most severely and kept most carefully away from any chance of intellectual awakening, or else the relationship between civilization and religion must undergo a fundamental revision.” Glad he elected to pursue the latter. What a peach. But his ending is pathetic, and, as all endings become what we are most remembered for, it is a terribly disgraceful way to go out. The paragraph to the last is a defense of science, and the last sentence is almost funny…except it’s not. “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” Geez.

So, ironically, we’re stuck having to cull some semblance of ‘systematically disguised and distorted’ truth from Freud’s illusion of science’s majesty. What’s new?