Tuesday, 27 October 2009
I'm not the only one in the family with a blog. Clemency runs one for her classroom at Outram School. Just today we learned that her blog has been given an award by Interface Magazine as New Zealand's best classroom blog . Take a look. See why. Her prize is the nifty little Toshiba netbook she is holding as the kids talk via Skype to the editor. There was a reporter from the ODT in the classroom today, and there will be a profile in an upcoming issue of the magazine. And, yes, we are quite chuffed.
I have been reading about John Bell, an Irish physicist who died in 1990 and who gave the world Bell's Theorem. If you click on the Wikipedia link to the theorem it will all be explained to you. If the explanation leaves you a bit mystified, let me briefly explain. John Bell was addressing some of the wierder aspects of quantum physics - the bits of the theory that common sense tells you simply cannot be true. His theorem is a set of equations that would have to be valid if the ordinary, common sense view of the universe was actually the way the universe was made. He invited scientists to come up with a way of falsifying the theorem because if his hypothesis was shown, by experiment, to be false, it would mean the odd predictions of quantum, physics were correct, namely, that either a) things in the universe had no reality until someone observed them or b) the impression that the universe is composed of separate, distinct things is an illusion or c) both of the above. In the early 1970s a physicist named John Clauser performed an experiment which showed Bells Hypothesis to be false. In the 1980s Alain Aspect did the same. Oh dear.
Some people have described Bell's Hypothesis as the most profound scientific discovery ever made, and if you stop to think about it for a while you can see why. Our whole Western world view is based on philosophical materialism; that is, on the idea that the only real things are matter and the four great forces (gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force) which act on them. Everything else, including life and consciousness are epiphenomena: that is, they are a sort of by product which arises from material reality. This philosophical assumption underlies the scientific method, and all forms of enquiry which model themselves on the scientific method, such as much of our psychology, sociology, Biblical studies and theology. Quantum physics has been dynamiting philosophical materialism for about a century now but everybody who realises this has been quietly looking the other way, particularly most of the quantum physicists. Unfortunately Bell's Hypothesis and the experimental falsifying of the same won't let us get away with such doublethink for too much longer. Sooner or later we will have to begin seeing the world differently because the world IS different. It's a hard thing accepting that the way we would normally and naturally assume things to be ain't necessarily so but we humans are given the luxury of being able do it step by step. Truth seems to be dolloped out to our species in bite sized chunks. In the few centuries just past we have had to give up the entirely reasonable, sensible views that the sun moves around the earth, that the world is only a few thousand years old and that human beings were created instantly out of dust. The universe apparently doesn't work by common sense. Common sense is, as I have said before, what tells us the earth is flat. We have had to learn to put aside our common sense in a series of quiet, but utterly profound revolutions
The Universe is more like a great thought than a great machine, said James Jeans, or maybe, given the oddity of quantum mechanics, more like a great dream. As we let go of the view of the world presented by our common sense we become more and more uncomfortable but we move more and more toward the truth. You shall know the truth, said Jesus, and the truth shall make you free. Free yes. Comfortable, no.
Monday, 19 October 2009
Thursday, 15 October 2009
As we get progress through the education system we tend to get more and more specialised. Study of English becomes study of the Romantic Period becomes study of Wordsworth becomes study of the Prelude becomes study of the rhyming patterns in the first stanza becomes..... Truly. I knew a guy once whose PhD thesis was on the reproductive system of earwigs. And as we specialise we tend to talk less and less with people outside our own discipline, so that the end result of higher education is that we come to know more and more about less and less. Now that's OK, it serves our society pretty well, and all the quite important stuff carries on: the electric milk frothers still get invented and the Ipod covers get ever more colourful. But sometimes there are very important things which can get overlooked because they are by products of someone's specialised discipline and therefore "none of my concern" to the folks who actually discover them and know about them. Like the way consciousness and physics are related for example.
Now I know that having used two of my favourite buzz words in one sentence has caused not a few eyes to glaze over but bear with me. Quantum physics has been around for about a hundred years now, and is investigated by....well... quantum physicists. It is one of the most robust and accurate theories in all of science. Not one of the predictions of quantum mechanical theory has ever been proven wrong and by some estimates about 1/3 of our economy depends in one way or another on quantum physics. But even though it is so practical and provable quantum theory says some seriously weird stuff. Like one thing being in two places at once, for example. Now this is not some strange theoretical hypothesis. People in laboratories with big expensive machines have shown without a shadow of doubt that this is actually the case. You can read all about it in The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosemblum and Fred Kuttner. These two are genuine quantum physicists who hold down prestigious jobs at respectable American Universities. They run a course at Cornell which explains physics to liberal arts students and this book is a distillation of that course. It is easy to read and quite easy to understand. It's just not all that easy to wrap you head around once you do understand it because what the physicists are telling us is that the world is a seriously weird place.
It seems, to take another example, that small bits of matter are not actually there until they are observed. No, I am not making this up. Atoms and electrons and quarks and so forth exist in a state of superposition; that is they are in a number of different places simultaneously until observing them causes them to exist in only one of the possible places. No, seriously. This is experimentally demonstrable. Read the book. And if atoms and other little bits and pieces are so influenced by observation what does that say about the bigger things that the little things make: rocks and air and me, for example? And what does it mean that observing something somehow pulls it into existence? When I choose to look at light as a wave it will appear as a wave. When I choose to look at light as a stream of little particles, a stream of little particles is what I will see. Odd. What does it all mean for the consciousness which does the observing? For free will which chooses how to look at things? Now these question have existed for as long as there have been quantum physicists who knew all this stuff, but they have been largely ignored because they are metaphysical, and therefore none of the business of physics. And because they are the business of physics the metaphysicists have paid them scant attention. Our learning system strikes again! Rosemblum and Kuttner have made this connection between physics and consciousness and meaning the central concern of the course they teach at Cornell and the central concern of this book.
Most of us operate quite happily using the physics of Isaac Newton which describes what goes on in the world we inhabit day by day. The world, we all think, is solid and dependable and exists regardless of whether anybody observes it or not. Our consciousness is maybe just a freak accurence; a strange by product of the physical matter of which the "real" world is composed. Or perhaps it is a thing separate from the world which inhabits the world of matter and allows us to observe it. Quantum physics suggests something else. Something far more radical, and dangerous to our self understanding. Exciting as the possibilites of this learning are, it's no wonder the physicists have been happy to quietly close the door on this stuff for so long.
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
If we do not find some way to transform our pain, I can tell you with 100% certitude we will transmit it to those around us. We will create tension, negativity, suspicion, and fear wherever we go. Both Jesus and Buddha made it very clear to their followers that “life is suffering.” You cannot avoid it. It is no surprise that the central Christian logo became a naked, bleeding, suffering man. At the end of life, and probably early in life, too, the question is, “What do I do with this disappointment, with this absurdity, with this sadness?” Whoever teaches you how to transform your own suffering into compassion is a true spiritual authority. Whoever teaches you to project your doubt and fear onto Jews, Moslems, your family, heretics, gays, sinners, and foreigners, or even to turn it against yourself (guilt and shame) has no spiritual authority. Yet these very people have often preached from authoritative pulpits.
Monday, 12 October 2009
If I name someone an enemy, they are not affected in the slightest. They are unlikely to be changed by my opinion; they will probably not even notice or care what I think of them. But the naming of them as enemy lays out in broad daylight, for everyone to see, the hurts and anxieties I have harboured concerning that person. Hold onto the name "enemy" and I hold onto the hurt and I am shaped by it. I hold it and am harmed by it; note: me, not them. If I do as Jesus suggests and rename them as "beloved", they may similarly be not much affected, but I shall be free.
I noticed also that immediately after Peter names Jesus "Messiah", Jesus in his turn names Peter as "the Rock on which I will build my church". What occured to me last night was that when that piece of name calling occured, unpredictable Peter was the least solid, least rock-like person you could ever wish to encounter. It was as he heard Jesus' name for him and as he began to rename himself that his character changed.
"Who do you say I am?" asked Jesus. His naming of Peter invites Peter to ask "Who do I say I am?". The answer to both questions can have powerful effect.
On Sunday, for reasons I won't bore you with I got to sit in the congregation during the 8am service. Right at the start of the service a large black cat walked into the church. I'd never seen it before, but it was big, glossy, well cared for and holy. It walked under the pews, between the legs of parishioners and up into the sanctuary where it walked slowly around the altar purring. I retrieved it and put it outside. I haven't seen it since.
That'll teach me to put Simons Cat videos on my blog.
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
This video is "Simon's Cat". there are three episodes on Youtube, all worth a look.
I thought of this today when meditating, although I was trying hard not to think of anything. My good resolve was shattered because Haku, the cat we have somehow inherited by a process I won't bore you with now, decided to join me. I was the only one in the house and she was lonely. But more, than that, she is fascinated by meditation and prayer. She knows what to do when people are asleep or when they are sitting quietly with a vacant lap. When they are in this other state, she is intrigued and tries to investgate. She pokes. She sniffs. She bats. She sharpens claws on my woollen cloak. She tries to get a response: any response, and in so doing acts (very well might I add) the part of the Zen master testing his students' resolve by stalking among them with a big whacking stick. And then, she purrs and settles down still beside me; not asleep but still. The meditating cat.
I think she has the drop on me as far as progress towards enlightenment goes, because I suspect she may be there already. No, seriously. She is an innocent. She hasn't fallen yet. She may butcher birds and gain great pleasure from their slow deaths and she may scratch my sofa and drag me from my holy pastimes, but she is an innocent. She has not eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil , and never will. She is completely present in the now, and, I suspect, completely present to the ground of her being; and as Meister Eckhart might say, her ground is God's ground. She is not obscured by ego because her little brain is not capable of producing an ego. She enjoys the state that I once enjoyed, in the first few months of my earthly life, and to which I suspect, the long pilgrimage of this earthly life is designed to lead me back. Of course she doesn't know this; she's not up to that, or much else by way of knowledge, but she is up to recognising when someone is praying. And she seems to approve.