Sunday, April 28, 2013

Nature's Little Joke

I'm in Vancouver on an astro-tour. Off to Washington State tomorrow. Below is a piece I wrote just before I went away, and before that is a piece I put on Facebook yesterday:

Had breakfast at a place that claims to be Vancouver's most famous breakfast cafe. It's good, and one of a kind. Big helpings, as much coffee as you want. The guy running it is small, about 70, bald and with a big mouth in both senses. Says 'fuck' a lot, teases the customers way beyond what most people could get away with, and has a sign up warning parents about his language. Also has a sign saying don't ask us to get your coffee refill, get it yourself. As I was eating, he told the people at the next table that if they had finished could they please move their asses. They got up straight away, no offence taken, laughing.

I was watching a guy called Brian Swimme on youtube today – he’s one of the archetypal bunch from California along with Richard Tarnas. And he was talking about Science and he’s obviously really awed by the observable evolutionary tendency of the material universe, as well as within life itself. (They are not separate.)

Archetypally, I attribute that evolutionary tendency to Pluto, the sheer power within the universe that is always wanting to move on to the next stage; and the endless creativity of Uranus, which means that next stage is something completely new, not just a re-arrangement of what came before, something we could never have thought of. And of course Neptune, the image of a universe that appears before us and which seems so real. What was the Big Bang if not Pluto, Neptune and Uranus acting in concert?

Brian Cox (on the right)
And then someone asked an awkward question: what does he think is the eventual fate of the universe? The conventional answer of course is ‘Heat Death’, about which the boyish Brian Cox waxes so enthusiastically, and for which the ladies forgive him because he’s so charming, though not exactly hot.

The Heat Death prognosis says that eventually the universe will expand into a chilly meaningless nothingness where there is nothing of anything.

Brian Swimme gave the interesting answer that he doesn’t think the universe has yet made up its mind what its eventual fate will be. I liked that. Douglas Adams couldn't have said it better.

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Swimme was further saying that we are living in an age where the old story of the universe has gone, and the new has yet to be born, and it needs to include the discoveries of science. I agree, up to a point.

But I also want an opt-out clause, or science becomes more than a story, it goes over to the dark side and becomes a 'fact' - the 4th kind of lie (along with Mark Twain's lies, damned lies and statistics.) And we need more than one story, ideally one that contradicts the science story!
A Canadian Indian friend in his 60s had a much older Indian friend in his 90s who wanted to know what this big deal science thing was about, so my friend did his best to explain, and the old Indian’s response was “So the horse shits”. Meaning that science explains the mechanics of the material world and that’s all, it’s low-level stuff.

Is that the case? Is science separate from philosophy, from anything that gives significance to human life? Certainly when it comes out with theories like Heat Death, then it seems to me positively anti-life, it is a demonised view of the universe, it makes me angry that it should be given credence just because some people can make the numbers add up on paper. And if I’d been Swimme, I would have said so, but then I would have lost academic credibility, because science has to be refuted scientifically rather than on human and philosophical grounds. 

It’s got it all sewn up, hasn’t it, a bit like Christians and the Bible 500 years ago? You can’t reject Heat Death just because it is an inhuman demonization of the destiny of the cosmos, you have to do it mathematically, and how would I ever do that? The modern mythopoeic elite has surrounded itself with a wall of numbers and none of the rest of us – the 99% - can contribute to that story.

For me, the deeper nature of the universe reveals itself not directly through science, but ironically when its method breaks down, which to me it seems to at extremes. Science is just a model, based on the idea of ‘Let’s pretend the universe is an object external to ourselves that is governed by purely material laws and whose nature we can discover through rational investigation.’ I have no problem with that, don’t think I’m anti-science, I’m not, I love it. But it is a model of the universe, not the universe itself, which is clearly unknowable in its deeper nature. 

And when you push a model to extremes, it breaks down, and that in my opinion is what happens when you push the scientific method to investigate reality at ever smaller and ever bigger levels – it breaks down, and you end up with the counter-intuitive quantum reality at one end, and nonsensical results like the universe is 96% undetectable dark matter/energy at the galactic end.

Now Dark Matter, that’s a good one. And if we think about Dark Matter as a story, mythologically, psychologically even, it is saying that our ignorance far outweighs the little bit we know. The unconscious can show its wisdom through jokes, and I think Dark Matter is one of those jokes. It’s maybe saying that we are getting MORE ignorant through science, through that approach to reality, because it has become THE way, we need to dance with it more lightly. 

The more we push science at the quantum and galactic extremes, the more reality recedes, leaving a paper trail of little jokes. I think Douglas Adams would understand that. Certainly Patrick Harpur would, the man from whom I learned to think Mythologically (along with my Canadian Indian friend): I recommend his book, The Philosopher's Secret Fire.

I think the big shift could come through brain research, which is starting to receive megabucks of funding. There are major projects in Europe and the USA to map the brain. And however philosophically na├»ve you are, when you research the brain you are faced with the created nature of the reality around us, its story-like nature, and you know exactly which bit of the brain creates what, deep structural stuff like time and space, you even know which bit of the brain creates the illusion of an object called the brain! So it’s deep, it’s paradoxical, it’s profound. I don’t hold much with collective human awakening, not for very long at any rate, and not to any great degree. But I think if anything can turn humanity into a metaphysical creature on a collective level, brain research can.

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Magic Dragon said...

Science again. Fascinating. yet, science has a very limited field of knowledge. By definition of what is science (and what is not), it shrinks the prespective and what that perspective is about. (the "object" and its relationship with the "subject)- So, science knowledge while valueable is by necessity limited, partial. It can not tell the whole story, much less the truth. It is still to concern with certanity (and truth is fluid not necessarily "certain"). So, what we get from science is what it can give us at a given moment. The big questions and the good answers are not to be found in the science raum! Even though, it can very well point at the limits and connections with other kinds of knowledge and when it does that then science is fascinating!

Cecil said...

Brian Swimme's idea about the Universe not having made it's mind up yet is lovely. It reminds me very much of this:

Joe Bill said...

What will the universe do? Whatever the universe does. After it does it, if there are scientists left to debate it, they will come up with theories as to why whatever happened was in fact inevitable and that the thinking before was naive and nobody thinks that now.

Cecil said...

They were obliged to invent Dark Matter and Dark Energy, otherwise their current theories about the Universe do not hold water. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are supposed to account for 96 percent of the mass of the Universe!

clarelhdm said...

That's a nice bit of writing. Thanks. I like it.

Kenna J said...

Right on time with your prediction about neuroscience's leading us away from science, there is a book popular now called Proof Of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, MD. Have you read it? He's a neurosurgeon whose brain went completely nonfunctional due to a bizarre meningeal infection, while "he" went to another whole world, similar to many others' near-death experiences. He writes from a position of expertise on both the brain and near-death experience, which is great. Here's a lovely quote from him:

"True thought is not the brain's affair."

Sharyn said...

Ahhhh you have redeemed yourself with this one. After the female slander one. Joke. Hawthorne trees in bloome in Portland now. Visit the Forest Park per my daughter. Sharyn