Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Aesthetics of Psychics

Is there such a thing as being psychic? After a century of failure to validate any claims of telepathy, clairvoyance, fortune-telling, and the like, it might seem daft even to raise the question. Yet this would be to ignore the reality from which the modern notion of “being psychic” emerged. There have always been people who are acutely sensitive to nature and to other people. They may pick up on nearly imperceptible signals and are attentive to the spiritual or mental states of others, or even that of nature, being raised to ecstasy or troubled with pain. Though there might not be anything properly supernatural about this, it is far from an ordinary ability. This is something real, like having rhythm, but there is a temptation to make this into something intelligible, thereby falsifying it.

When you try to make “being psychic” something intelligible, like telepathically receiving words or images, you take whatever was real about such sensitivity and turn it to something false. The modern notion of “being psychic” incoherently flounders between nature and supernature. Is it a natural power? If so, then it would be something intelligible under our notions of physics and biology. It would be something measurable, testable, with some genetic or molecular basis. Is it something beyond our nature? In that case, there is no sense in speaking of someone “being psychic,” as the supernatural phenomenon belongs to something other than the person. When you try to make it something intelligible, following a fixed rule, you make it into something that will be proven false, since you have denied what was real about it.

Do the empirical falsifications of psychic claims mean there is no such thing as psychics? Only in the sense of having determinate powers following some fixed rules. If we return to the original conception of someone who is sensitive or in rapport with his fellow creatures, or with the reality that underlies them, we can no more say that this is unreal than that there is no such thing as having rhythm. A person who “has rhythm” goes by feel, knowing when to speed up, slow down, hesitate, or keep two times at once. If he were to try to write this in musical notation, or to turn his gift for improvisation into a fixed set of rules, he thereby would falsify the gift, producing something other than his art.

Ancient cultures recognized that certain people had a sensitivity to nature, a rapport with the fundament of reality. This was manifested as a sense of harmony, balance or peace. In cultures with more ethical conceptions of the Divinity underlying nature, those who had a rapport with goodness, wisdom (not intelligence) or justice might be trusted to speak for God. Again, attempting to render this intelligible falsifies it. We intuitively apprehend, for example, that it is good and beautiful to save life, while it is evil and ugly to murder. If you try to rationalize it, saying that it is to your biological advantage or in your enlightened self-interest to abstain from murder or to prefer a society where people aren’t allowed to go around killing each other, you have taken the virtue out of virtue. You are saying that the only reason you don’t kill is because it is not expedient to kill, which is hardly distinguishable from the soul of a murderer. The assumption that reality is always improved by making it more intelligible is repeatedly falsified in art, morality and religion. Those who are wedded to this assumption will have a low appreciation of these aspects of human existence.

Psychics represent a segment of the population who are not ashamed of their subjectivity, and recognize it as a basic reality that needs no extrinsic justification. They go astray, however, in modern society, starting in the nineteenth century, when some psychics thought they needed to make their abilities into something objective, in order to be respectable. This naturally failed. If we are surprised at why psychics persist in their self-belief even after empirical falsification (setting aside the shameless charlatans), we must recognize that they still retain some sense of subjectivity as a value in itself. Indeed, without such self-belief, their aesthetic sensibility would be impossible. An artist must have confidence in every stroke, every beat, or his work will lose the quality of art, making it something too labored, too constructed. Those who lack the ability to feel a Negro spiritual well enough to sing it are incompetent to judge this area of existence. Instead of looking down upon the lack of technique or understanding, they should look up to the noble genius that reveals a glimpse of deepest reality, if only as a flash to be seen, not understood.

Some will dismiss this as obscurantism, but even the most plodding intellectual endeavors in science and philosophy are subservient to this aesthetic desire for insight. Without this, no one could take any joy from his work. Scientists themselves do not criticize the idea that Truth is a positive value to be sought. The worthiness and nobility of their endeavor is something presupposed, and any attempts to justify science in terms of expedience, i.e., for its technological and economic benefits, reduce it to something unspeakably profane and bourgeois. No one could revere a science for such mundane reasons. If it is shameful and falsifying to rationalize scientific pursuits, let us not rationalize the overtly aesthetic.

Everything Is Impossible

Suppose I described a tree to someone who had never seen anything like it. I might say it was a giant creature with countless sprawling arms that never moved, and its body was full of intricate vessels that extracted water from the ground imperceptibly. Most fantastic of all, it had the power to transform light and air into its food, and grew to its great size without taking its bulk from the earth or any other solid thing. Nonetheless, its body was rigid, pound-for-pound stronger than steel, yet lighter than water.

The person being told this might be forgiven for taking this as a tall tale or myth, and the same is true for any natural object. Everything seems impossible or fantastic if we never experienced anything similar. If you saw nothing but cosmic dust, you might never imagine that there could be such a thing as a star. If you saw a barren planet, you might never guess that there could be such a thing as life. If you saw only bacteria, you might never deduce the possibility of more complex organisms. We are able to explain the complex in terms of the simple only after the fact. We have a poor record of determining in advance what is possible or impossible.

If all you knew was physics, you likely would not be able to derive much chemistry. Anything beyond the hydrogen atom is computationally problematic. The few unknown things we have been able to predict are mostly simple structureless entities like fundamental particles and black holes. Everything else comes as a surprise to us. No cosmologist or astronomer anticipated the existence of quasars or pulsars. As with most new things, we first observe them and then try to explain them.

After a long history of discovering things thought to be impossible, if they were ever imagined at all, we should realize how unreliable it is to claim that something is impossible simply because it is outside of our experience. Everything is impossible when abstracted from experience. It is only familiarity that makes these impossible things no longer fantastic.

When Mathematics Fails as Theology

It is fitting that the failed California doomsday prophet should have his formal education in engineering rather than theology, since his contorted interpretation of the Bible relied on a hermeneutic that would make mathematics theologically informative. While it is easy to ridicule his particular belief, the mentality that created it is quite widespread, and can be found even among the most eminent scientists who profess no religious faith. By this mentality I mean the fallacy that mathematics can determine ultimate questions of reality.

Camping’s unwavering certainty in his prediction (“The Bible guarantees it”) was grounded in the appearance of remarkable mathematical coincidences that pointed to May 21, 2011 as a Biblically significant date. Given the premise that the Bible is absolutely true, and the additional premise that his inferences are mathematically certain, we can appreciate why Camping would present his particular interpretation of Scripture to be as authoritative as Scripture itself. Mathematics allows no room for interpretation, so it seems, as the numbers speak for themselves.

This mathematical absolutism disregards the role that subjective choices play in developing a mathematical model. Just because our model accounts for all the data, that does not mean we could not have constructed another model that works equally well. In general, it is impossible to prove theoretical uniqueness. Camping, for example, found it astounding that the same date that was seven thousand years after the Flood was also after the Crucifixion by a number of days equaling the square of the product of three numbers with significance in Hebrew Gematria. He ignored the fact that his dating of the Noachic Flood in 4990 BC was highly idiosyncratic, as well as the more obvious fact that any number of arithmetic operations could have been chosen. Further, why must the end date be determined by the square of the product rather than the cube? In short, he made some deliberate subjective decisions, consciously or unconsciously, which led to the desired result that the Rapture would occur in his lifetime.

Lest we think that such mathematical idolatry is confined to elderly fundamentalist preachers, let us take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum. The famed physicist Stephen Hawking has recently proffered his view that it can be proven – through abstract mathematical theorizing, of course – that heaven does not exist and God is unnecessary. The basis of this claim is his construction of a theoretical model whereby the universe “creates” particles with mass, and the universe is self-enclosed with respect to temporal causality. As with Camping, this model is cleverly constructed to confirm a priori convictions Hawking has held for decades. He already suggested in A Brief History of Time that the need for a beginning of creation might be elimintated by “rounding off” the light cone so there is no causally “first” event. “What need then for a creator?” Such a manipulation was highly tortured, as it would contradict a plain interpretation of general relativity by allowing effectively superphotonic expansion, and generalizes the notion of temporal causality to the point that it is no longer an effective constraint on physical theorizing. Such liberties are part and parcel of the “anything goes” approach to modeling the early universe.

The point is that Hawking had many options available to him, but he did not take the most “obvious” option (in light of relativity’s causality postulate and observed expansion from a single point). Just as Camping wants the Rapture to occur in his lifetime, Hawking wants the universe not to rely upon a transcendent God. He ignores the significant role that his own subjectivity has played in the formation of his mathematical model.

Even if Hawking’s recently proposed theory should someday prove to be an accurate mathematical model of physical reality, it would not accomplish the theological aims he intends for it. The universe does not create massive particles out of nothing, but (theoretically) from a vacuum field or some other construct with definite quantifiable properties. However you want to characterize such an entity, it certainly is not “nothing” in a strict philosophical sense. Modern physicists play fast and loose with philosophical concepts in order to make their mathematical models appear to sanction their metaphysical predilections.

A universe that is self-enclosed with respect to temporal causality does not thereby find itself without need for a creator. To take a simple example, take a universe with one particle that has two states, A and B, where the event of being A causes the event of being B and the event of being B causes the event of being A. (I assume the physicist’s error that events cause events.) In this chicken-and-egg universe, our one particle goes back and forth between being A and B. Does it follow that it needs no creator? Not at all, for there is still no logical necessity that such a universe should exist at all, and we should have to ask ourselves why this particular universe with its causal structure and laws is actually existent, while some other equally mathematically valid universe is not. No natural order is absolutely necessary, in which case we must appeal to some higher cause to account for the natural order as a whole.

Hawking’s physical theories, like all mathematical models of physics, contain determinate assumptions that are not tautological. Since they are not logically necessary, and mathematical principles have no power qua mathematical principles to actualize themselves as physical reality, it follows that we need something beyond physics to account for why this particular natural order was granted reality rather than another. Most physicists overlook the need for metaphysics because they unconsciously ascribe to mathematical principles an almost mystical power to result in physical actualization. This poorly thought out Platonism is rarely formally declared, but is implied in the way physicists speak of their theoretical constructs, particularly when dealing with the early universe or attempts at “theories of everything”.

We might try to make the natural order logically necessary by declaring that every mathematically valid possibility comes into existence. This make nonsense of Occam’s Razor, as it postulates an unfathomable infinity of universes just to account for this one. Further, it does not solve the problem of logical necessity, as it is not logically necessary that every possibility should become actual.

Lastly, one could decide that the natural order needs no cause, and is just a brute fact to be accepted without explanation. This is irrational in the true sense of the word, as it declares everything to be without a reason. It is also profoundly inconsistent to insist that everything that happens within the universe, no matter how insignificant, must have a reason or cause, yet the entire universe with its natural order can come into being and be sustained in being (physicists generally ignore this metaphysical problem) for no reason whatsoever. Logical cogency ultimately requires grounding in a metaphysically necessary Being, and none of our physical theories, by virtue of their mathematical contingency, can meet this requirement.

To the philosophically literate, it is no surprise that mathematics is incapable of serving as natural theology. In our society, however, mathematical ability has become practically synonymous with intelligence, since it is most easily quantified (naturally), and it is positively correlated with other mental abilities. It is a mistake, nonetheless, to make mathematical ability the defining characteristic of human rationality, since computation and spatial reasoning are easily replicated by computers that have no subjective thought processes. Although Professor Hawking and Brother Camping have both done their math correctly, that is no substitute for authentic wisdom and understanding, which requires a more subtle grasp of concepts and an awareness of one’s own subjective assumptions.

See also: Causality and Physical Laws

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