Religious science

It is often said that the principles of Buddhist philosophy are supported by the science of quantum physics, but I have never seen an explanation of why this is so.

Here is one.

The first principle of Bhuddist thinking usually encountered by Westerners is the idea that objects are not solid and concrete but are transient and impermanent. The belief that objects are permanent is a great illusion leading to attachment to material gain that in turn leads to unhappiness and discontent. The example often given is the simple one of a table. It looks solid, but in reality it is in a constants state of transition and flux and decay which will end eventually in its disappearance. It is not the reliable permanence it appears to be. The argument expands from this: no object is permanent and it is only our minds and expectations that make any thing so, and ideas of the self are included. The self is an imagined entity and not a concrete thing, and it is subject to the same rules of change and decay as any other thing we consider to be permanent and real.

This is why Buddhists set such a high value on meditation as a way of finding and existing in the present. While this is accorded a religious function the role of meditation can be understood in an entirely secular way, as a means of detachment from a world we construct which is illusory. Buddhists teach meditation as an act of concentration upon stillness, training the mind to stop unbidden wandering and spontaneous trains of thought. A much used analogy is with a bucket of muddy water. Like the water, the mind only clears as the water becomes still and the mud in it settles.

We can think of the illusion of permanence as the drawing of lines across time. This line drawing is the creation of simple narratives, where we connect series of apparently related objects and events causally in our minds. When we do so we take for granted their reality. Selves, relationships and desires are all imagined in the course of this storytelling. However, the fragility of our stories frequently strikes us. Lucky and chance events are perceived to be life changing. We are always insecure, and often discontented and unhappy because of the decisions and choices we feel we have made, or have been unable to make.

Causality is an aspect of Buddhist thinking that confused me for a long time. Buddhists insist on the truth of cause and effect, but the causality of events – the material arrival and departure of things – and the deduced determination of past and future must be illusory if the permanence of the objects linked is unreal. However Buddhists refer not to a causality of events but of actions. Right thinking and right action are the essential means of determining only the right path, not any specific event, and this kind of causality does not infer any control over objects and events, or any power to determine the future in any material way. The difference drawn between an action and an event is subtle, but all important. To take an action is an internal decision, determined yes, but determined by state of mind, attitude and critically by positive or negative feelings. Sympathy and empathy, which Bhuddist practice believes can be engendered by meditation, are critical factors in right thinking and right action. An  event, on the other hand, may be beyond control. Buddhists do not attempt to predict what might or might not happen, but believe that right thinking leads to right action, which will lead to happier outcomes for human beings. So an action is something organic and internal, and it depends on your feelings and disposition. It may have happened, be happening or be about to happen. An event is something that has happened. It is external, and can only be reported afterwards. Actions determine and are determined by karma, events do not and are not.

There is another famous Buddhist example which (indirectly) shows the perceived difference between an action and an event. You are asked to imagine standing by on open window on a high level of a tower block. The story is about determining choice, and is told to demonstrate that consideration of even extreme negative possibilities is only human, and not mad or harmful in itself. To think about jumping, the anecdote goes, is normal. You are only mad if you jump. Lying behind this story is the belief that no event is necessarily determined. What happens next is not yet an event. Every human being would think about jumping. To consider jumping is not the event of jumping. Some human beings might feel like jumping. To feel like jumping is not the event of jumping. Some people might actually decide to jump. To decide to jump is not the event of jumping. Finally, a person does jump, and dies upon impact with the ground. It is now an event because it has happened, but at no stage has it been exactly determined. Even if we have jumped, it could have been otherwise to the very last infinite fraction of a second.

This point about determination is where we get a disagreement within science. Many scientists would argue that the act of jumping out of a window would be a material event that could be regarded as genetically predetermined in the form of, say, a mental illness. The argument is often made that in fact human beings have no free will. As we have seen, Buddhists are curiously ambivalent about free will. There is cause and effect, but it is of a different kind that is not able to determine material events, only your disposition towards them. From here, we can get into an undecidable argument about whether an internal attitude would be genetically determined in any case (and Buddhists would respond that it doesn’t matter since all material outcomes – the events considered to be determined – are unreal)). More often, there is a stand off between nature and nurture which leaves us in a deterministic no man’s land. However, if we want to avoid this impasse science does have an alternative view: if we follow the principles of quantum physics, intentionality is not considered at all. Using the example above, we would have to consider both that we have jumped and that we have not jumped, and regard each in the light of probability. There is no absolute event, and if we were somehow made to stand by the open window inside a large box, hidden from observation and with a malevolent gene that will at some stage fire a fatal trigger to our brain, we might be considered, like Schrodinger’s cat, to be both alive and dead, with a probability attached to each degree of outcome. (Of course, Schrodinger’s cat is a goner – we might not have the fatal gene at all, but I think that the reduction of risk does not negate the application of probability, it just changes the odds.)

To consider events as probabilities radically changes our perception of them. When we think in terms of probability, it is impossible to imagine a fully determined event. No matter how exactly we define the timing of an event, there are always an infinite number of times at which the event might happen. And when we consider the likelihood of occurrence there are always an infinite number of possible degrees of probability between 0% and 100%. So in this way we are considering infinity times infinity and literally anything can happen at any time. Nothing can be determined or predicted. Any ‘story’ can only be retrospective, based upon observation. In other words, we have reached the Buddhist view of material events.

Of course, the Buddha never mentions probability or suggests that we might be both alive and dead. However, Buddhism does view the world as immaterial and materially undeterminable. Things, events and human control are all illusory. Equally, quantum physics does not take a moral stance and suggest a course of right action. But it does suggest that our endless quest to identify events in terms of certain material outcomes is futile unless we are willing to address them in terms of probability and risk. So to add values of empathy and love to this immaterial world view may well be sentimental, but it is not necessarily unscientific.

Emotion

We all know what emotion is. We know what feelings we would normally define as emotions. But when it comes to defining and measuring emotion precisely, or even predicting it, we are less clear. What is it? How strong is it? Where does it come from? When does it come? Why does it pass? When is it good or bad? What effect does it have on us? We know what part of the brain controls emotion, and we have become reasonably skilled at controlling difficult and dangerous emotions, but we still have only vague answers to all of these questions. 

So into this relative vacuum I offer some thoughts on emotion. As usual, they are the observations of a lay observer, and no expert.

First, the Latin root ‘mot-‘ means movement, and ‘e’ can indicate out, from, away, maybe even beyond. Emotion and movement are closely linked. When we feel emotion we say we are moved, and we talk of being moved to laughter or tears. However this movement is of a unique kind. It is not always externally visible. It is not a physical motion as such, although it is felt physically. It is a movement nevertheless that displaces us. It is a powerful force. 

Second, emotion is always a response and has a trigger, which is often identifiable. Emotional response is always instantaneous. It is almost impossible to control and is often unwanted. Emotional responses can be minimised and repressed with practice but they are extremely difficult to erase.

Thirdly, emotional responses are not rational and considered. They are instinctive and spontaneous, and often momentary. They often surprise us. 

Fourthly, they are impermanent. We talk about a ‘wave’ of emotion for this reason and also because emotional feelings tend to increase to a peak and then vanish. So even deep emotions are transient and fade away.

Fifthly, emotion impels action. We are almost always visibly moved. We act on impulse. Even when we think our actions are considered they are almost always emotionally triggered. We only have to look at Hamlet to see how thinking makes action impossible. We might even go further, and say that emotion and action are so inextricably linked as to be the same thing.

And finally, emotions are uniquely defining of experience. Extreme happiness or suffering mark the most intense responses of our lives. It is our emotions that give our experiences meaning. However, we do not necessarily remember everything that we feel or experience. It is often the intensity of feeling that we remember, not the duration. 

From this, we can say that emotions are immediate and experiential. They are extremely difficult to predict with any precision. They are uncertain in nature, extent and duration. They are contingent on events as much as on our response to them, which is equally contingent and in turn varies according to other emotions and events. They have no intentionality and occur regardless of outcome. An outburst of emotion can lead to actions and further decisions that unexpectedly change our lives. And finally, they are hard to recall and describe in detail. We talk about ‘reliving’ events which we experience emotionally. It is almost as if, in the effort to remember, we need to recreate them, and in the case of very painful emotions this is often disturbing and difficult. In fact, it is generally accepted that replaying powerful negative experiences is harmful. Emotions are not like memories.

This means that if emotions are a movement they are not linear. They do not remain at a constant level. The movement of emotion is instead wavelike. It surges suddenly, and then fades away. Our memories may recall exceptional emotion as an event, but fail to recollect the feeling itself. Like an exceptional tide, we note only the high and low water marks. We are very familiar with this wave/sea analogy in the way we talk about and remember emotion. It reflects the movement of emotions, their unpredictability, and also perhaps their wild and often savage nature.

This all means that while emotions form our most intense and important experiences, they are also the least accessible part of experience to memory when we look back on them, and for most people at least our emotions and the emotional parts of our minds are the least well understood. They can cause us discomfort, guilt and even shame when we try to explain them. In fact, we often regard our emotional responses in a pejorative way, as if they are of a lesser order than rational, thought through responses. This is strange. Why would we demote the source of our most important experiences?  

A further interesting paradox also suggests itself. Emotions like fear and surprise are obviously key to our survival, not just because they tend to keep us away from danger but because they short cut rational processes. In evolutionary terms emotions are a critical advantage. But our emotions also make our behaviour radically unpredictable. In fact, they make our actions indeterminable since they lead to sudden, random impulses which may sometimes be contrary to all reason. For anyone who has a determinist world view it is therefore better to ignore the workings of the emotions. They’re wild cards. Emotions do not care about outcomes and mean that anything can happen. 

Now, in the spirit of emotional response, lets take a wild leap.

We live in an increasingly fragmented, digital, data driven world. Everybody has a gut feel that the world is not governed by data, but nobody has put forward a plausible or cogent argument why it is not.

This, I suspect, is because the more detailed our data pictures are, the more divorced they are from reality. What if, instead, the whole universe is emotional? That is, the universe behaves in an emotional way which is not comprehensible to data our rational analysis?

In fact, quantum physics reflect exactly this state of existence by acknowledging that all events – even events that appear to be happening ‘now’ – can be measured only by probability.

Just as human beings are contingent and just as part of our brains are governed only by probability and uncertainty, so too is the whole fabric and matter of the world in which we exist. So we might say that the mathematical way of measuring emotion is very familiar to us. It has already been identified by quantum physicists as the way in which matter events must be evaluated, through probability. 

What is the link between probability and emotion? 

Anything that can be felt will be felt. Emotion is our connection to and comprehension of the probable world. Emotion reflects events that may happen, could happen, are happening or have happened. Like probability, emotional is therefore conditional. However, the feeling is the same whatever the probability of the event. The cause is sublimated into the feeling, whatever that cause might be.

In this sense, emotion is not personal but universal. We recognise these universals as compassion and suffering. Emotions are not governed by our human data bank any more than by data we generate. Genes don’t determine emotions, or at least they do so only in the same way that they make us respond to gravity, or the fact that the the earth revolves around the sun. Emotion and its expression as suffering and compassion are a natural forces. Our genes make us emotional because that is the way we understand and negotiate the universe. We are emotional creatures in an emotional world.

An essay on intelligence

We live in a strange world that is almost entirely imaginary. In order to reassure ourselves we call it ‘real’ or ‘material’ but it is no such thing. Objects are permanent and lasting only in our minds. There is nothing apparently material that does not age or decay, and this is the cause of much unhappiness and suffering. We surround ourselves with objects, shoring ourselves up with the illusion of permanence. But everything passes, everything changes. It is all a dream.

Our invention does not stop at the world we live in. In order to make sense of this world and to make it cohere we make equally insecure material objects of ourselves. In doing so, we invent ourselves. And the vehicles we create for these material inventions are stories. We make ourselves into stories – or we make stories of ourselves – and in these stories we surround ourselves with objects. Every version of reality as we understand material reality is mediated by a story, a connection of what we perceive to be past events and present objects in a way that makes sense of those objects, where they came from and what our place is in relation to them and to other material selves.

This material world appears to be tantalisingly knowable. It is intricately signed. Through language, every object has a signifier, and every aspect of every object has a signifier. These can be arranged as we wish. Over the last century, problems have been revealed with this system of signifiers, which have been shown to be disconcertingly self referential. But the conclusions that have been reached imply simply that these signs are also material objects, not that they are as unreal as the objects and selves they signify. While this undermines meaning and truth, it does not provide an alternative, suggesting instead the nihilistic position that all factual statements are ultimately paradoxical, and that all conclusions are therefore drawn against themselves.

The imaginary material world is central to the way that the human brain perceives existence, so of course in this sense it is useful. Human beings all think the same way (I am speaking in the most general terms here of course). So the illusion of material reality is one that everyone can share. A BMW 5 series for instance is not just desirable in Germany but almost all over the world. We could say that ownership of one constitutes a common human goal. This is far more true than to say that a common human goal is to reduce poverty or global warming. This is how powerful the illusion that objects are real has become. How can ownership of a BMW be more important than saving a child from starvation? And yet, at least for many wealthy people in the West, it is an objective on which they are happy to spend a vast proportion of their income, whereas a tiny minority spend only a small portion of their income trying to eradicate poverty. The reason for this strange imbalance is that new car buyers are acquiring a gleaming object that will bring them happiness. When they buy it, it is an extraordinary fact that they expect this happiness to be permanent, and expect the object that delivers it to be permanent too, and all kinds of schemes and mechanisms and industries have been invented to mask the fact that this is not so (and of course to exploit it), and to try to ensure that everyone’s dream car is always new. Lease buy arrangements are designed to achieve exactly this, an everlasting new car that never dies.

This is so expensive and delusional you might be wondering why I have said it is useful. The reason as I have already said is simply that almost everyone thinks like this. It is a commonality even though it is very clearly not a reality. But a commonality, a shared delusion, is in a way real because we can be sure that it is something that (almost) everybody understands. It is a starting point

But equally, it is very clear that, as a means of perception, the objectification of reality is very overrated. It is mistaken for the world, for reality and for truth. But it also raises the question which has stumped the post-modernists and almost everyone else since: if the material world is not real, then what is?

And this is where we get into strange territory.

In order to suggest a way of exploring it, I am going to use a work that was published several years ago, which contains some interesting basic information about the way our intelligence works. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman famously argued that the human brain has two quite different systems for forming thoughts. System one thinking is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypical, and subconscious. System two is the opposite. It is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious. He observed that the conflict between these two systems produces frequently unreasoned and apparently irrational decisions. He observed that this is because our immediate actions are far more deeply influenced by system one responses than by system two responses. However, the memory is a system two function, carefully constructing and reconstructing experience. This means that our remembered or imagined responses are not always the ones that actually affect us most powerfully in the moment.

Kahneman was interested in the way responses are measured and assessed in advertising and commercial research, and realised that most methodologies were almost entirely organised around analysing memories. He proposed a different measure of pleasure or pain sampled from moment to moment, immediately, without the mediation of recollection or memory. Kahneman called this “experienced” pleasure or pain. He distinguished this emotional response to stimuli from the “remembered” sensations traditionally measured in research and compared the outcomes. He found that the two measures gave very different results. He identified in these results the existence of two ‘selves’, the remembering self and the experiencing self. One significant finding was that the ‘remembering’ self did not care about the duration of a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Rather, it rated an experience by the peak (or valley) of the experience, and by the way it ends. Memory, he found, only recorded extremes and outcomes, and this retrospectively erases the actual experience. So in this way system two memory creates an imaginary world which is at one remove from the experiencing intelligence, and which dominates the retrospective perception of the experience. The actual experience itself is forgotten, like a dream. This memory, however, is extremely inconsistent and variable because it is constructed, or imagined, by the remembering self. This is why remembered experience can differ wildly from person to person, whereas actual experience is consistent and common.

Kahneman’s research gives us a number of clues about what is real and what is imagined within human intelligence. We can clearly conclude that ‘experienced’ moments are real, even though they are registered by us as emotions and not always remembered. Conversely, what is remembered is imagined, even though remembering selves believe this imagining is reality. What is really interesting, though, is that Kahneman’s experiments show memory recalling only peaks and valleys, and ignoring duration. This is why so much of our emotional response is erased by memory. It is as if the memory is a beach being washed by the sea. The waterline mark is recorded only as a single line and not as a moving variable. Another way to imagine this is that experienced events are a curve, whereas memory is a linear construction, so while the retrospective mind can touch reality it immediately diverges as a tangent to it.

These images are necessarily metaphorical and imprecise because our imaginations deal only in two or three dimensions, and cannot easily cope with the added dimensions of emotional force and time. Emotional response in particular is not something we are used to constructing within a system two rationale. Emotion however is a whole dimension of consciousness. The word itself describes a dimensional space and is derived from the Latin root ‘mot-’ . It means a movement out, or outwards, or beyond, indicating movement outside normal perception or three dimensional physical movement. Emotion as the fifth dimension (time being the fourth) is a useful idea, and it might be essential in helping us to imagine reality in a different way.

So Kahneman presents us with a picture of a remembered narrative or self, constructed by one part of the human brain, which interacts with the emotional existence of others momentarily, by means of the unstructured emotional life of another ‘experiencing’ part of our brains. Storytelling narrative and language become a surface across which the lines of remembrance encounter, experience and forget the ‘moving’ and fleeting moments of emotion which give all narrative meaning.

If our brains function in this way we have an insight into why we are so fixated with the permanence of the transient and with the reality of the imaginary. We spend much of our intelligent lives creating narratives and filling them with objects, but our brains also work in another way and understand, momentarily at least, that happiness happens elsewhere. The narratives by which we mediate the world are grand illusions and only provide us with the opportunity to experience reality in the momentarily way. We tend then to freeze that experience, to mortify it into memory, and because we cannot capture these moments our glimpses of happiness become the opposite, the source of unhappiness and discontent. This also gives us a hint as to how meditation works. By stilling narrative, meditation allows more access to this other emotional life. The more we cease to tell stories the more open we are to happiness. Put simply, narratives create unhappiness by creating illusions of permanence.

Unlike the apparently random experienced moments which occur like dreams, narratives are structured and recordable and fixed, and therefore provide us with only a fleeting opportunity to glimpse our emotional lives. Both storytelling and the reception of stories, written spoken or otherwise performed, offer these instantaneous opportunities for emotional encounter as we discover waves of emotion felt and encountered by others by means of the dual and simultaneous linear and wave functions of our minds. Narrative attempts to smooth these waves but cannot capture them, touching them only at a single instant.

If we imagine that the emotional consciousness moves, as Kahneman begins to suggest, literally in a wave form, this wave motion of the emotional part of our consciousness has another interesting application. The action of the mind Kahneman describes may either be analogous to or may indeed directly reflect the observations of the slit experiment in quantum physics*. In this experiment, particles are observed to leave a wave pattern when passed through a small gap until subjected to direct human observation, at which instant, astonishingly, the motion of the particles becomes linear. The observation of the  particles may reflect both the condition of the particles themselves, and their movement, and also if Kahneman is right the way our minds perceive and connect them. Thus they have both linear and wave motion. Clearly system one and system two intelligence is each adept at observing events in these two different ways, and if we follow this reasoning through then in the literal sense of the word particles themselves might be said to be emotive [moving beyond] and describe the way our universe is felt as well as percieved. We could take this further by looking at the role of probability. Mathematics cannot give data for the wave motions of the particles and instead translates their location into probability, since that is how we approach momentariness and uncertainty using the medium of numbers. Probabilities are events that are not defined by outcome, and they are also events which encompass whole waves of possibility and are not instead defined, as it were, by a high water mark, by a line of seaweed on a beach.

The way that the mind tells stories might then be almost exactly analogous to scientific observation of the slit experiment in quantum theory. In each instance we see the human brain behaving in the same way. In order to remember, our memory demands that we construct a smooth narrative containing a series of events which we can imagine to be real. Within these narratives are only the briefest of touch points with our emotional perceptions, but we understand that these have a higher value in our lives (called ‘happiness’ or ‘suffering’). We therefore construct our narratives around these single felt moments of emotion, whether horror or pleasure, and attempt to preserve them by going off  at a tangent from them, just as once observed we perceive particles to travel in a straight line. The reason for this sudden linearity is not a sudden change in the behaviour of the particles or the wave of felt emotion but because of the inflexibility of our observation and memory. We build narratives carefully to their touchpoint with truth in a predictable, linear fashion. There is a flash, and then the moment is gone. From the perspective of storytelling the moment vanishes, and yet we instinctively understand a moment of emotion as the meaning and value of the story. Our memories are addicted to this linear process, this flirting with truth. Certainly it can be egotistical (‘authorial’ or even ‘patriarchal’) since we build our narratives around the moment of truth as if we own and master it, almost as if we were the makers of the emotion rather than of the linear process by which we stumbled on it. But the emotional part of our brain was already there. It has dreamed this moment and outcome many times and in fact resides in it. It is how we know it for what it is. (What is more, the less authorial and authoritative we are, the more likely we are to understand, value and nurture it.) This subconscious is like the wave imprints formed by the flow of the unobserved particles. We can’t remember consciously what it is. The act of remembering makes it linear. But of itself, it is entirely experiential. We can express it only as a feeling. It is never an event, only ever a probability. It is continually moving and changing and has no outcome.

And weirdly, when we construct a story which contains one of these brief moments of illumination so that it can be repeated we call it make believe and regard it as as fictional. We feel that we have experienced the moment of emotion vicariously, and because it exists outside our ‘normal’ illusion of reality and memory, the elaborate narrative construction we call real, we call the storytelling that gives us momentary access to happiness fiction. Thus, humans have managed to confuse utterly the real and the unreal, living a delusional existence while condemning themselves to believe that the only reliable, fixable and repeatable experience of happiness is made up and fictive.

What I think fiction then does is manage this touchpoint of smooth narrative and the random emotional curve, so that we all experience that curve at the same time and in roughly the same way. I said above that at least the commonality of our illusions was useful. Well, so equally are fictions, because in experiencing a story we share this touchpoint. Fiction becomes a means of sharing experience, of sharing the emotional life of our intelligence. Because it is so human to torture ourselves with illusions of memory – because in fact a large part of our brains is constructed that way – fiction has a value as a means of experience which nothing else can offer. It gives us a glimpse of truth. In fiction, it is as if the wave curve we are riding as we write or perform touches the corresponding curve others ride as they read, watch or listen and the reward of contact is remembered and made repeatable via the fiction’s uses of the constructions of narrative.  I said above that narrative is a surface, but we can readily imagine this interaction of the fourth and fifth dimensions of our existence using just the first two, so that fiction can be imaged as containing a smooth straight line of narrative between the two mirrored waves or curves of the delivery and reception of emotion, to both of which the line of narrative is tangental.

(It is undoubtedly wiser to extinguish the power of memory as far as possible through meditation but this will always – perversely – seem a removal from the roller coaster which is being human, and of course it removes us from the enjoyment of fiction which has become our normal means of accessing truth. This does not mean, I would hasten to add, that meditation is not probably a beneficial and preferable alternative. I say this as a poor and sporadic practitioner. If meditation can peel away the illusion of narrative, we are left wondering how manipulative fiction may actually be in the opportunities it offers for apparent authorship.)

Leaving aside the question of meditation for now, this analysis of narrative and fiction offers a different perspective in the understanding of storytelling and consciousness. It removes (emotes) us from the self referential analysis of language and replaces spirituality with an idea based on our emotional existence, which we have through the operation of part of our intelligence. This theory categorically refutes all kinds of materialism as a means of perceiving our existence. It refutes Darwinian determinism insofar as it is precisely that, a means of predicting and understanding future human or animal behaviour. Darwinian analysis is only another materialist narrative and like all narrative it is constructed retrospectively as memory. Of course it has some validity for the future, but this validity can be expressed only as probability. Although we might regard what did evolve as inevitable in retrospect the maths dictates that literally anything else could have happened and may yet. Contingency can only be calculated as chance and in the maths of probability there is by definition no rule that discounts the unlikely. This fact also defeats scientific determinism and dataism for the same reasons. There may well be no past event that cannot be analysed and fully understood by means of data but equally there is no future event it can reliably predict. The random action of emotion in our decision making – like the wave motion of particles in the physical universe – makes all predictive analysis worthless. In reality, anything that can happen does happen.The next position might be literally anywhere and anything.

*For more explanation of this see my essay on QUANTUM TRUTH

Probability

Last week, while fog bound yet again in Guernsey Airport departures lounge, I was having the inevitable conversation with a friend about the amount of wasted time we spend sitting in airports. This led me to think, again, about the amount of time I spend simply traveling. Going from A to B is not, I think, something humans are either good at or genetically designed to do. We become stressed, ill tempered and frustrated, eat unsuitable food and sit around without exercise. It is extremely bad for us. Travel does something awful to your sense of humanity too. Normally, I am the sort of person who mostly tries to help other people. When I am in Just Fucking Get There mode, however, everything changes. It’s not that I don’t intend to be helpful, but if I am charging along on a straight line trying to make the next train connection, or an earlier, I simply don’t see anything else. The blinkers go on and I turn into the Teleological Human.

I don’t think this is just me. Travel focuses your brain on achieving speed in a straight line. You could say that this is chase or flee mode. I excuse my behaviour with the observation that it is no wonder that our instinct is to switch everything else off.

What tortures us when our brains behave like this is the need to achieve certainty. Every travel plan is an attempt to control chaos, and of course many travel plans are disrupted by contingent events. We never know if we will arrive. We are dicing with probability.

Calculating probability is on the face of it simple. Expressed as a percentage, it is the number of possible target events divided by the number possible outcomes, times 100. So the probably of throwing a 1 on a dice is 1/6×100, or 16.67%. The probability of dying is obviously harder to calculate. You need a lot of data, and much of it is pretty variable. If you are a 58 year old man who has never smoked you can calculate a rough probability that you will die of lung cancer by dividing the number of people like you who die of lung cancer by the total number of people like you, but obviously the accuracy will be poor because of the very vague way I have defined ‘people like you’. Insurance companies make these calculations all the time though, using far more sophisticated data sets, in order to calculate risks and charges to customers. And of course bookies make their money by setting odds in the same way. As data becomes more and more sophisticated they are able to profit by calculating bets on increasingly minute and arcane events. The probability of arriving when you travel is one of those calculations you can’t make, which is why travel is so stressful. You simply have no idea of the number of journeys like yours made against the number of successful journeys completed unless you have access to many years of weather and travel data. If you travel a lot, you probably have some feel for the percentage. I’d put mine at around 75 but I am a natural pessimist when it comes to time keeping. What you can’t escape from though, is the fact that probability says that anything can happen. As an actuary friend of mine once pointed out to me with some satisfaction, everything you do has a probability attached to it, even if the data sets are indeed unknown and it is therefore impossible to work out. Probability is a practical mathematical law behind the whole of human existence, even if it is mostly obscured by ignorance and the unavailability of data.

This is a tantalizing fact. Everything is knowable in terms of probability. But of course, that means nothing is knowable. Maths looks useful, but at the one time it could actually help us it tells us nothing. Everything is simply to some degree probable, and can happen.

This fact presents one of the key dilemmas in storytelling. Why do you make one thing happen, and not another? As with rolling a dice, different outcomes may have more or less equal probability. Why do we choose one outcome against another?

You can see this question posed openly by modern writers. Kate Atkinson’s book Life After Life demonstrates as a tour de force that many outcomes to a story are equally plausible. You could then say that fiction is the exploration of probability. It is divided from reality only because it gives an account of what might happen, rather than an account of what does happen. But then again, in terms of probability, even the things that do happen are governed by the same mathematical laws. In this sense, fiction is not fiction at all, but an account of existence, and fiction is itself a fiction.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t answer my question. Why do fictions take a definitive course at all? Should every fiction propose an alternative version of itself?

My answer to this is that they do. Post modern criticism has been expert at pointing out the multiple layers of textuality and semantic play in even the simplest-seeming work. The more interesting question is not how authors present versions of events but how they account for what is true within those texts. We have to step back rom the multiplicity of action to understand that that is simply the nature of action. There is always another version, an alternative truth. What is true is the fact that we experience and have to deal with multiple realities, with probability. It is not actually a big deal that anything can happen. We are used to this. It is our condition. We live in a calculably incalculable universe. What matters is not the calculation (unless we deal in insurance or run books), but what we make of that. I keep coming back to Hamlet. This is exactly what he learns. Or rather, it is what we learn, because what we have watched and heard by the end tells us that the world is exactly the same as a play, a fiction played out by actors. We have witnessed a possibility and now we face others. Far from revealing layers of meaning, Hamlets shows us that what matters is not what we say but what we do, or rather perhaps what we don’t do. We what mean or think is irrelevant. Anyone can think of killing a king, for instance. Thats not mad at all. But to do it, thats madness. What we do determines what we say, so when we speak we cannot tell the truth. We betray our motives. We give away our intentions. We do not have the power to speak the truth, or rather, we don’t have speech with that sort of power. Events are contingent probabilities and so are beyond verbal reasoning, rational prediction or governance. We have no power over them, spoken or otherwise. It is therefore essential not to join in. It is critical to pause. We have to stop. The madness only stops when we stop too. Silence is the only restorative. And that’s what we feel at the end of the play. Thank God it’s all over.

So Hamlet only regains control when he rests, and Shakespeare when he ends. He has simply been carried along by events. All along, we know Hamlet is not really the kind of person who murders people and drives his girlfriend to suicide, just as I am not really the kind of person who ignores old ladies on trains. On an utterly trivial level, this brings me back to my problem with travel. If we are so obsessed with arrival and getting there we actually cease to exist as human beings. No, really, its that bad. Unless we pause.

Actions before words

It is a good idea to read my post on Being Material before reading this post, though hopefully it still makes some sense if you don’t.

My position on materialism is not ‘show me what is not material’, but ‘show me what is’. The validity of material objects and facts stands to be proven as such. So this then brings us to a common argument used by material realists to validate their position, and this is about progress. Without some of the things which I am arguing do not materially exist, material progress (it is argued) would be invalidated, and with it would disappear all those material comforts and benefits which we covet and on which we depend. Are we really prepared to abandon all of these and adopt what might easily become a monk like existence in the name of compassionate idealism?

The important point to make here is that I am not suggesting that we give up anything, or stop doing anything, provided that we can show that it does indeed benefit other living things and is being pursued with a compassionate purpose. In fact, compassionate purpose endorses and validates material progress. It is not an argument against medicine or the development of technology, although it may well be an argument against single minded or unconsidered belief in those things, and it may well, too, affect the way we pursue them.

The notion of progress is a complex and often a problematic one. There are convincing pragmatic arguments that some forms of potentially beneficial progress are more harmful than helpful. Research into smallpox, for instance, could equally produce an effective antidote or a weapon of mass destruction. It is almost impossible to open up one possibility without opening up the other. My approach is, I think, more useful than a pragmatic approach which judges on outcomes in this instance, because it allows us to evaluate the nature and intent of human engagement. However it is impossible to consider a subject like this without taking pragmatic considerations into account. It is at least arguable, on both this basis and using the principle of care, that it is reasonable to anticipate the malevolent development of this and other viral weapons, and therefore necessary and beneficial to develop effective antidotes.

A similar if more difficult argument could be applied to the defensive development of weapons. It is clearly sometimes necessary to be realistic, however compassionately. Tibet arguably faces annihilation because of the admirable but idealistic (and therefore pacifist) world view of its people. Action to defend compassionate existence and indeed to prevent others acting with an overt lack of compassion is clearly sometimes justifiable if morally difficult. Action was necessary to oppose and defeat Hitler whose lack of human compassion threatened the Jewish race with extinction. Whether the bombing of Dresden could be defended is another matter entirely. However the complexity and difficulty of decision making under the pressure of existential threat is obviously unimaginable to anyone who has not been placed in such an unenviable position. What I think is reasonable to say is that in these cases the compassionate criteria is more useful than judgment by outcome because it allows us to evaluate our actions as we take them. And it is fair to speculate that this approach might have avoided the carpet bombing of German civilians during WW2.

In order to judge actions on the basis of compassion it is necessary to be clear and courageous about our purpose. If we accept the idea that truth is determined by the degree to which thought or action reflects compassion it follows that the purpose of human life is to care for all livings things, to borrow from another ancient religion. To care for all living things is to strive to create a network of compassion. ‘All’ means humans as well as all organic life, so that self interest is bound up in care for all things. A living thing is also a passing, dying thing, so there is no object or objectification.  Most importantly by this truth we address external existence and transform it only through the medium of care. Compassion replaces observation and identification. It is a self evident truth but it is not a material fact. And critically it is only provable through experience. It describes the way that human existence touches the existence of other things. We should then seek to create space for ourselves to live compassionately, and to practice compassion whatever we do, and to avoid and ameliorate suffering. This can lead us to do and rightly to justify many activities which are not compassionate in themselves, simply because the world is not perfect and they are the best we can do to achieve our purpose.

Immaterial judgement works both ways. We are talking about a transformation of mind, not necessarily a transformation of material existence, which would often be futile and negative.

A Crazy Quantum Theory for Hamlet

Particles move in a wave pattern unless observed, at which points of observation our human imaginations are only capable of seeing tangents – creating the illusion that particles travel in straight lines, even though experiments clearly demonstrate that they don’t. The problem is not in the stars but in ourselves – the problem is not the science but the tangential nature of human perception. In the strange world of quantum physics there are no realities or certainties. Replacing these are probabilities. Even the instant of the present is rendered uncertain because of the uncertainty of the next and previous instant. Quantum physics appear to reveal a strange world, but in truth it is not so strange. It is a science of stories. Stories and histories are constructed in the same way, from ‘concrete’ observations which are then embedded in an accepted trajectory and which, once embedded, are almost impossible to shift. (A recent example of this is the way the Labour Party are still blamed for the financial crisis due the fact that they were in power when it happened, and the narratives formed in the press – even though as a narrative this is palpably absurd.) Our only recourse in this world of inventions is the making of our own stories. So once Claudius has made himself the apparently legitimate king the revelation of a different history exclusively and specifically to Hamlet is a problem. Special knowledge is as useful as special providence. Providence is common to all or akin to madness. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is part of a more complex pattern of events – a wave form, if you like, where everything else happens. Hamlet considers it precisely as a modern physicist would, on the basis of probability, and famously ponders the odds to himself. Anything could have happened. This is the significance of the ghost. Shakespeare uses this Deus Ex Machina to break the rigid lines of assumption that are created by governments and eponymous rulers. The ghost forces Hamlet to consider what might have happened as more real than the events which common assent says did happen. The reason the ghost still has authority is because it is a voice from the fabric of probability. You could say, in fact, that far from being a mythical figure it is a mathematical one. It simply expresses aloud the most likely course of events. It is the voice of quantum probability, and it expresses the unseen curve of the past. Having acknowledged the high probability of the ghost’s version of events – a probability which Hamlet had in any case already acknowledged – he still therefore needs to test it, and the only way to test probability is by making a story. This is why the turning point of Hamlet is a play written by Hamlet. It shows us, in a crude and simple way, what stories do. The question then is what does Hamlet the play then become? The work is literally a quantum leap. It reveals the relationship of storytelling to a reality composed of probabilities, and of course in doing so it demonstrates the central role of fiction as truth telling in a secular world.

Quantum Truth

Science and Maths have a lot to say about truth, but apparently little to say about care and compassion. Scientific truth has always had an unusually clear and unambiguous status in Western thought. Most current philosophical approaches recognise the existence of scientific truths. Some rationalists rely on the ultimate existence of scientific fact, even if the fact is as yet unknown. Meanwhile the behaviour of scientists is held under less scrutiny than that of other parts of society. Scientists grapple with the moral implications of what they do, but rarely use moral arguments to limit their investigations. They often do things that would be considered to be wrong or criminal if other people did them. There is some debate about whether they should do these things or not, but little debate about the factual or objective status of the knowledge they develop.

Quantum theory however places some doubt on this whole approach. Quantum theory tells us many strange things, but the most important thing it tells us is about the movement of particles. If you shine a light source from one side of a gap onto a surface on the other side you can tell the light travels in waves because it is divided into a bar pattern, which is created by the wave motion as the light passes through the gap. This is GCSE physics. If you direct particles at a gap and place a detector on the other side you get a similar bar pattern, indicating that the particles also travel in waves, like light. This seems unsurprising, except that when you observe a single particle continuously it travels in a straight line and not as a wave at all. The observation of the particle changes the nature of its motion completely, and alters the outcome of the experiment. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. Particles have a wave motion, except when directly observed. We see the effects of the wave motion on the detector, but the instant we observe closely the particles travel in a straight line. We don’t see the wave motion any more. More confusingly, waves move in a body, but particles don’t. Each particle has its own wave motion. This means that we can’t rely on the movement of a ‘body’ or group. A single particle can theoretically be anywhere, since we cannot know its direction or speed of travel, and its existence can therefore only be described as a probability. As Brian Cox says, the consequence of this is that anything that can happen does happen. Using quantum rules physicists can work out the probability that any particle will be anywhere. However, quantum physics deals only in probabilities.

This is the reason for the strange story of Schrodinger’s cat, the purpose of which is to demonstrate what quantum laws imply for storytelling. The imaginary scenario is that the cat is placed in a box with a radioactive source which emits lethal particles unpredictably and at random, and which will kill the cat. The lid is then closed. The cat’s life and time of death then become a number of probabilities which are all real, and it is therefore possible to consider that the cat is both alive and dead. The story has multiple outcomes and both object and fact are erased and replaced by a range of probability.

Quantum physics therefore has fatal implications for the status of facts, because it turns facts into probabilities. Everything can happen. This consequence of the observation of the movement of particles is comprehensible according to ordinary logic, but the disappearance of the wave motion at the instant of detection is less easily understandable. It is as if a linear movement is created by observation, and that is exactly what does happen. One way to explain it is to say that every instant of the particle’s movement is like the tangent of a curve, and at any one instant we only see that tangential line. Because of the nature of our observation we are not able to ‘track’ the particle, and only see its imaginary movement before and after the moment of observation. This tells us as much about our brains as it does about particles. It is why human beings observe a straight line, but science observes a wave. The particle therefore has two motions – its observed tangential direction at the moment of observation and its wave movement, which can be detected but which remains unobserved and unknown.

While this might seem to be a strange account of reality – Einstein himself only accepted it with reluctance – it is oddly consistent with a world view which says that truth is different to a fact or an object. Firstly, it helps us to explain and understand why we observe objects as factual and solid when in fact they are in a constant state of flux and change. And secondly it explains why reality is not a linear objective story but a moment of interaction. Although we were discussing human emotions above, the parallel with that observation and the observations of quantum physics are more than just an analogy. They are different languages approaching the same unstable reality where facts and objects are not as solid as they seem to be.

As we have seen, maths is central to Quantum theory, because everything has a probability as a form of existence. It is almost as if all existence is now mathematical, and it is certainly the case that any prediction has a mathematical form, as indeed (and more strangely) does the probability of something having happened already. In this way, all action is governed by probability and compassionate (and evil) action is mathematical in the sense that it is a human interaction with probability.

So the rule of probability has direct implications for the way we tell stories, and in a closely connected way for what and how we remember.

Truth, facts, and an injured bird

The difference between truth and facts is an important and much debated one, especially if we discount any notion of religious ‘higher’ truth. I therefore want to make the argument that, in a purely secular sense, it is possible for there to be a kind of truth which is not factual, and that this is the most important kind of truth. On the face of it, it seems a common sense notion that, even if you remove the notion of ‘higher truth’ in a religious sense, you can still make a distinction between a fact that is demonstrably true and a moral truth. Two plus two equals four is a fact, but it is not usually considered to be a moral principal, so while we might say it is true, it is not ‘a truth’ in any moral sense. So what I mean by ‘common sense’ is that the distinction between something that’s just true and something you can live by as a truth is one most people would understand in principle. However the question of what exactly constitutes a clear moral truth is a much harder one.

One attempt at an answer might be to assert that there is no real difference, and that a moral truth is just a fact that has a broader positive outcome. That sounds OK in theory, but it is hard to apply in practice. It is outcome dependent, so it is backward looking and often only useful in relation to past actions. It also assumes that you understand what a positive outcome looks like. In other words, it begs the question both of what constitutes truth ‘now’, as we encounter moral decisions, and also how we recognise truth as we experience it. It assumes that we understand truth as an ‘outer’ system within which we all operate. This notion leads to pragmatist arguments framed in terms of greatest good or best outcome for survival.

Realists object, plausibly, that we are too limited in our understanding to comprehend fully what constitutes an ‘outer’ definitive truth in this way. So the opposite way of approaching this is to say that moral truths are like facts, but more important, and that we do our best to judge their importance without ever having perfect knowledge. So all we can say is that there is a true comprehension of a fact, though we don’t necessarily know what it is. In one of his excellent podcasts, Sam Harris gives an example of this as follows. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the moon is only there when it is perceived – that is, that the existence of the moon is not true, although it appears to be. Nevertheless, there is still a truth, which is that our comprehension works in order to perceive it like that. So there is always something that is true even though we may not know about it, and however many times we step outside the boundaries of what we believe to be true, there is always a further big truth. Effectively though, this ultimate big truth is not knowable. As Harris says, “It is possible that what we say may not be true. We don’t locate what we say within a true consensus, just an existing and partial one”. So we are always just doing our best.

There are also problems with this position. One is that however far the truth of comprehension recedes, you comprehend it, so the argument against the pragmatist position works in reverse. Can you imagine a new outer truth without in some way comprehending it? The other and more problematic objection is that this is an argument about the truth of factual observation, and although it might be good science it is just like pragmatism in that it still doesn’t help us with an understanding of what is right or wrong now. It doesn’t tell us what is a moral truth, and what is just a fact, and so it still denies a distinction between facts and truth.

There is a further problem with these two approaches to the understanding of truth, which is that they are completely exclusive of each other. Either we have a closed system of comprehension within which something is true or false, or we have an open system in which nothing as we understand it may be true at all. They are utterly incompatible. There are two further positions which are then produced by this contradiction. One is the suggestion that there is no such thing as truth at all. The semantic argument supporting this assertion is that the statement “John has a ball” is the same as the statement “it is true that John has a ball” and that the concept and meaning of truth add nothing to the fact. Clearly this is a logical step, and only true if there is no distinction between truth and fact. The other proposal is that there are multiple and conflicting truths. Neither of these add anything new in terms of understanding what moral truth might be, because in opposite ways they deny its existence.

My proposition is that we can shift the ground on which we are considering truth. It seems to me that we often make the mistake of assuming that truth is a fact a priori, which of course leads us to try to identify the meaning of truth as a fact in itself, using factual language. Defining truth has thus become the subject of a semantic debate where we are either seeking to attach a sign to an object, and finding nothing there, or depending on scientific definitions of fact and substituting these for truth. But I think there is a different way of considering moral truth which identifies it as quite independent of fact. It is not possible to understand what truth is at all if you try to define it within factual terms. Maybe truth is not factual?

So let’s say for instance that you save a bird with a broken leg. You feed it and attend to it and eventually release it back to the wild when it can survive. Now it is a fact, and true, that you have taken care of it. It is however not true because of the existential state of either your mind or the bird but because you have done something from which something else has benefited.

Now according to all the arguments above this truth, if it is a truth at all, depends on the outcome, the survival of the bird. However, there is another truth at play here, which relates to your motivation, and because you had nothing to gain from saving the bird let us say that the reason you saved it was because you felt compassion. The fact that you felt compassion is not dependent on the outcome. It would  remain true even if you thought you could save it by giving it arsenic. And maybe then it wasn’t a mistake and you felt that it was kindest to kill it. While more questionable the compassion remains true. Compassion is not contingent on outcome. (And if you really did just want to kill it we are looking at the opposite of compassion and the truth is then the practise of evil, for which the same arguments apply.) In all these instances we are considering the interaction of two living things and an outcome, of which the interaction is the only truth in the situation – the outcome itself is determined by a number of different factors and is not reliable or constant, so it is immaterial to the truth of the way you have acted.

This means that, strangely, it is a truth that you have taken care of it, which reflects your intention, but it is not a truth that is has survived, which although it may be factually true is contingent. This only seems strange because we are used to thinking of truth as a matter of fact. But moral truth is not factual. It is a state of mind and a manner of action, or interaction.

Materialists do not succeed in identifying truth because they do not make this distinction. They would assert that actions are material facts and that these are therefore truths whatever the outcome. They ignore the important point that it is purely the condition of the mind and body (both yours and the bird’s) that constitutes the truth. Truth is composed of suffering and compassion.

If this is so, then humans can comprehend truth even when they cannot comprehend facts. We will rarely know the exact outcome of what we do, but we can still act with compassion, in accordance with the truth that if we do so we will intend and be more likely to achieve a positive and beneficial outcome for the object of our intentions. And that object is also not a mere thing, or fact. For every act of compassion there is a state of suffering, which is the equal and opposite truth. We do not need to understand, then, that the bird had a minor injury and that you were a vet, or that the bird had a fatal injury and you had no skill. These would be material facts, not truths, and quite different to the fundamental truths of suffering and compassion which are not material.

In order to observe and understand truth we need to resist the temptation to take the moment of truth and story-tell it, in effect to materialise it and make it objective. The material facts – your skill, your action, and the condition of the bird – are infinitely variable and both these and the outcome are contingent and not reliably true. The truth is that you responded compassionately to suffering.

Populism or Democracy?

What is the difference between a populist government and a democratic government? Populism is a political doctrine that proposes “that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite, and which seeks to resolve this”. The underlying ideology of populists can be left, right, or centre but what is common to all populist leaders is the identification of this ‘common enemy’ against which the people are divided. While this sounds like an enterprise entirely consistent with a democratic purpose it quickly leads to the opposite result. The identified elite rapidly become a scapegoated minority, as with the Jews in Nazi Germany. Modern populism has a further more sinister dimension, because it tends to scapegoat minorities whether they are an elite or not, like Muslims in Trump’s America. The distinctive characteristic of populist ideology remains division of one part of a population against another, smaller part – and generally the easiest target will do.

A democracy is quite different, at least in intent. It is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Although some forms of democracy do produce divisive politics – as in the UK – the purpose of a democracy is to create a government that represents and reconciles the opinions of a whole population.

So why is a single issue plebiscite undemocratic? Simply because plebiscites are designed to divide opinion. For this reason they are readily adapted as populist tools. They are designed to set two sides against each other in order to create a simple minority/majority. They are a powerful weapon for populists because they designate losers as a minority to be ignored and often held in contempt, and of course the result of a plebiscite can be used as a powerful argument against compromise and reconciliation and an expression of ‘popular will’. Their divisive nature tends to polarise debate and destroy consensus, so that where democracy thrives on common assent and negotiation plebiscites are designed to carry the will of a single faction. A plebiscite is in this sense the opposite of a democratic vote

Truth

It is important to distinguish between facts and the truth. It is true that according to our rules of maths 2 plus 2 equals four, but while that is a fact it is clearly not a truth.  It is conditional on the laws of mathematics, which can also be used to undermine it, so although universally accepted it is not absolute. But while it seems easy to make plausible statements about what truth is not it is much harder to say what it is without resorting to stuff that sounds suspiciously like religious mumbo jumbo (such as truth is love, which seems more truism than true). I think a more interesting way to answer the question is to use the quantum rule as I applied it to storytelling. This states that events only happen causally when observed. Before and after that moment anything can happen, or rather everything that can happen does happen. Truth can be imagined as analogous to the particles in quantum physics, as the wave form of all experience from which our consciousness of narrative and identity is formed. But this wave motion of experience disappears the moment any part of it is consciously identified. As in quantum physics the observation of the moment leads to the invention of past and future and beginning and end, and is tangential to the motion of the wave at the moment it is observed. The observation creates a narrative but obliterates our perception of the material from which the story is made. So truth momentarily informs morality, but it vanishes under the coercive vision of the moralist (or the atheist, or the materialist, or the priest, or etc). Truth is therefore not expressible other than in fragments,  jokes, half remembered dreams. How can this elusive truth be related to love? Unconditionality governs the wave form, just as particles may appear anywhere. Love is unconditional – it is only the reciprocally unconditional relinquishment of control that allows the wave to be perceived, imagined and ridden. If the purpose of human life is to care for all living things love is the means by which this happens. This is why pragmatists become confused about Darwin. The theory of evolution is a highly plausible attempt to delineate (narrate) the unknowable. As with a story, we know what has happened if we observe a moment closely but this knowledge gives us no power to predict the future or indeed exactly to recount the past. As soon as the moment is identified it dissolves according the the quantum law by which we perceive it. Critically, the question should not be, is Darwinian theory true? but when is Darwinian theory true? And the answer is at all times except when observed, at which point the linear nature of our observation makes the evolutionary course unintelligible. It is the same as any other story we might wish to invent. So just as nothing is material unless observed, so everything is by the same argument true. In this sense we can assert that truth is immaterial.

A note on faith. Faith is our tenuous perception that truth is a wave form. But as above once formed into an observation the consciousness of faith immediately becomes teleological, at which moment it is no longer faith. It is therefore the nature of faith to be destroyed in the moment of affirmation. This does not of course devalue faith. On the contrary, it recognises faith as a means of perception provided it is not immediately dogmatised. Dogma can however be a medium to faith just as storytelling is a medium to experience and scientific observation is a medium to the deduced wave motion of particles.