quantum weirdness, skepticism

The Observer Effect: A Rejoinder to Skeptics

To rest and unfocus my mind, I found myself earlier today idly reading this article, linked in a newsletter I get, which asserted that “astrology isn’t fake—it’s just been ruined by modern psychology.”

I found it a failed article. The author claimed that new translations of fragmentary manuscripts revealed hitherto unknown techniques and insights that enabled ancient astrologers to understand the correlation of cosmic motions (only apparent cosmic motions, such as retrogrades, at that) with grand human events. But she revealed nothing of what those techniques and insights might be, or what made them any better  than the chart reading astrologers already do. She also seemed to privilege the public life over the personal, to be saying (not in so many words) that predicting the assassination of Caesar was somehow nobler and “realer” than grubbing for guidance in the backyard of your own psyche. Finally, having dissed the use of astrology in the service of personal psychology, she came back around to it and admitted it was one of the reasons astrology was valuable. Huh??

The article went nowhere, and it left me saying, “If that’s the best you can do, then, yes—astrology IS fake.”

Astrology, which doesn’t interest me much, is a systematic (psst—that’s why it doesn’t interest me) subset of the “significant coincidence” mindset that skeptics are always at great pains to mock and debunk. They are particularly hard on birthday coincidences, which I’ve written about—the uncanny thrill of meaningfulness we feel when someone important to us turns out to share our birthday., or some other significant date in our lives. The skeptics find it laughable and contemptible the way new age–leaning types take this as emotional proof that the universe cares about them and has lovingly lit their backyard walkway with its mighty stars.

Skeptics’ main weapons for destroying this puerile wishful thinking (which they seem to find a threat, the way bullies are enraged by vulnerability) are based on 1) statistics: they show that sharing a birthday with someone or other in a random roomful of strangers is so common as to be almost inevitable, and 2) confirmation bias theory: you encounter at least as many people who share your birthday who mean nothing to you, but like a scientist deep-sixing negative experimental results, you just don’t notice them.

There’s one trouble with these arguments, and that is what quantum physics calls the observer effect. The observer, the act of observing, detectably displaces the observed. You can’t catch reality not being looked at, because you’re always peeking, however indirectly. The most august and monumental instruments, standing cold and alone in their sterile fastnesses in the night, humming dispassionately, are projections of the “vile jellies” of our eyes; they are cartoon crab eyestalks goggling at the galaxies or the gluons. And seeing participates in the ordering of the seen.

So maybe there really is meaning in the universe—because we see it there.

But, but, but—sputters the skeptic—it isn’t really there! It’s a fantasy! The reality behind the colorful backdrops we hang to hide it is indifferent, unknowable, colorless, tasteless, formless, qualityless, a droning Brownian vibration like the snow and static on a 1950s TV screen after hours.

And I say that, too, is a fantasy. And a faith. A heroic faith in ourselves, that cast away in the subatomic pablum of a senseless universe, with sufficient unsentimentality we can harness its blind powers for our own, and bestride the cosmos, and conquer death.

We’ll see about that.

There IS no “really.” Every attempt we make to peel away another layer of contingent appearances, to strip ourselves out of the equation, we do with and from within a human mind. In a perishable human body.

There’s no escape.

Whatever we imagine, including an inviolate cosmos of physical and mathematical laws unsmeared by the toddler’s applesauce of human imagination, we see . . . through a human imagination. Pure abstract rationality is a highly trained and specialized form of human imagination, a clear plastic lens inserted to improve on nature’s more flexible but occluded one. Does it discover truths, proven as such by their predicted and stupendous success at manipulating matter and energy, our technology that Arthur C. Clarke called “indistinguishable from magic“? Oh my, yes! And of course these discoveries are driven by an ulterior motive: to become more powerful, less vulnerable, to build ourselves a safe and stylish home in this dangerous place—and also, if this is our faith, to feel superior to other primates whose gods are less potent. So sue us, we’re alive.

And so-called superstitions about synchronicity and meaning are also attempts to make ourselves more significant, safer, and more at home here. They don’t have the power to discover and create structures in the material world, but they do have power to discover and create structures in the emotional world, laws of wisdom based on centuries of shrewd observation, by which we can navigate with more confidence and orientation through our lives, and accept the things, like mortality, we cannot change (yet—I’ll toss the ardently believing “skeptics” that bone).

If the way that something is proven “true” and “real” is that it works, there are structures in thought and feeling that work and don’t work, too. Addiction is based on an untruth: it doesn’t work. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous manifestly do work. The “Logotherapy” of Viktor Frankl, finding motivation through finding meaning, works. The detached equanimity of Stoicism works. The skeptics say that synchronicity isn’t “true” even if it warms our “hearts” as surely as infrared radiation warms our skins—both essential for survival. The counterskeptics might rejoinder that, you know . . . hubris doesn’t work.

Just sayin’.


consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, scientific arrogance, skepticism

The New Dark Ages

If you’re a regular scienceblog reader, you may think that by that title I mean something like Carl Sagan’s “demon-haunted world”: the return of superstition (if it ever went away) in the form of New Age spiritualism, with its wishful thinking and willful ignorance.

Actually, I mean a Dark Age of science.

Now that may drive you straight to the other extreme of dismissing me as a New Age crank. In fact I probably have almost as little patience with that worldview as you do. But I do think (and have said repeatedly here) that dogmatic materialism, which persists in biology even as physics has blown past it, will look as brute and dark as Ptolemaic cosmology when we look back from a vantage point to which science itself is taking us.

A friend, no conventional believer, who nonetheless wrecked his knees sitting zazen and is an admirer of Simone Weil — both examples of what used to be called “mortification of the flesh” in quest of the “spirit” — wrote that a Jesuit monk he visits “made the point that the Hebrew Bible turns the creation myths of the ancient near east on their collective head by presenting a creator God who requires the assistance of human beings to continue the process of creation. There is no expiration date on that role in the individual’s life.  That is, old people aren’t excused from being co-creators because they’re receiving social security payments.” This (slightly edited) was my response:

I desperately need to hear ideas like that about co-creation. The reductiveness of science — that every human motive is just glorified, self-deceiving biology — has burrowed deep into my mind like the parasite in Alien, from where it mocks me to prove it wrong. It was to avoid this that I rejected science for the arts and humanities in the first place. I’ve joked that my later-life immersion in science editing is “the revenge of H.L.” [early biophysicist boyfriend], but maybe it’s no joke. I found the scientific view of the world (which he exemplified) deadening then, and now it threatens to deaden me. The sorta-scienceblog I occasionally write in is all about just that — protesting the reductiveness of so much science and science-centered culture, and predicting that science itself, if it pursues the truth, is going to blow that view out of the water. The so-much-more-than-needed-to-get-the-job-done extravagance of creation — from the birds of paradise (Natural History is doing a special issue on Alfred Russel Wallace) to the human brain — suggests that creativity and even consciousness permeate nature [can we entertain this possibility without shutting down inquiry by defaulting to a god?] and that the random collision and mutation of molecules that accidentally confer a survival advantage is as inadequate to explain nonhuman phenomena as human ones. But it’s a Dark Ages in that regard right now.

consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, skepticism, Whither Homo sapiens?

That’s Deep.

David Brooks—a pundit turning philosopher, who seems to have wearied of the merely topical—makes a case that where we come from does not entirely determine or limit where we go:

Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. . . .

While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. . . . Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions. . . .

Babies are not deep. Old people can be, depending upon how they have chosen to lead their lives. Babies start out very natural. The people we admire are rooted in nature but have surpassed nature. Often they grew up in cultures that encouraged them to take a loftier view of their possibilities than we do today.

It’s very hard for people to hear or pay attention to what we don’t already think. I am grateful to David Brooks for striking out at an angle to today’s roads most traveled, even though his gentle, humanistic rebuke to scientistic reductionism will be scoffed at by “skeptics” as wishful thinking and by religious conservatives as wimpy appeasement. (They’re much more Manichaean: it’s salvation or it’s sin.) It’s a little sad, too, that to many, Brooks will seem to be making tracks in new snow, when it’s really only a thin layer of amnesia over the well-trodden paths of the past 5,000 years. I’m still glad he’s saying it, even if (or maybe just because) he may be speaking too softly to be heard by many, even from his political pundit’s bully pulpit.

The more I immerse myself in science and the culture surrounding it, the more the territory not ruled by biology seems to shrink, and the more cheered I am by the rare exceptions, those evaporating puddles of freedom from the totalitarianism of the selfish gene. Almost everything can be, and is, reduced to the marionettery of those coiled strands of DNA: any altruistic impulse can be, and is, explained away by kin selection or group selection, any creative impulse by competitive sexual display, attachment by its advantages for survival, most of high culture (literature, philosophy, faith) by the denial of death. At least one pair of thinkers has posited that evolution eliminated advanced intelligence until H. sapiens came up with denial: no other species had found a way past the threshold where the dawning awareness of mortality brings on such a sense of futility that it kills the impulse to reproduce.

That’s debatable—as one Amazon critic of that book wrote, “the fact that I know that I am going to die some day … and even obsess about it from time to time … hasn’t prevented me from having a family”—but what seems undeniable is that all this reductionism kills the impulse to transcend, possibly justifying “low” behavior, tearing the clothes off any “pure” motive, and certainly lowering expectations of oneself and fellow humans. This began with Freud, who saw everything but sex as sublimated sex; he and his iconic cigar have now been replaced by an inflatable Darwin parade float.

To be immersed in the world of science-think, which extends well beyond science into its cultural corona, is to be almost brainwashed by this reductionism. I play this game with myself: a thought or emotion comes up, and I slot it into its biological context. Of course my family is all excited about the newborn twins, my parents’ third and fourth great-grandchildren: we’re programmed to ooh and ahh over little bundles of our own genes. As the only childless one in this fecund family—not by choice—I’m a loser in the only game that counts, lamely serving the germline from the auntly sidelines. Whatever I do or write will no longer boost my reproductive success by attracting attention, resources, and mates (if it ever would have—even now it doesn’t work quite like that for females, which helps explain our divided motivation), so what’s to drive it?

Which brings me back to David Brooks’s point: the only qualities, motives, and acts that are uniquely human are those that can’t be reduced to biological utility, that even defy it. They are few, and they compose a thin layer of human life—the new snow of the neocortex falling on deep reptilian ruts of rutting and brawling. They are the rare and precious things that cheer me up. Empathy, the ability to imagine another’s subjectivity, sometimes to the point of one’s own disadvantage. Witness, the way we are the universe’s way of looking at itself, wanting to know out of wonder and curiosity and not only for advantage. Love, what happens AFTER (in Brooks’s words) “we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues,” when we’re living with another individual, getting bruised by the rough edges and gazing into the depths. Creation, a transaction of witness between you and the universe whether a fellow primate ever praises it or not.

What Brooks says is that is that this thin layer of human existence is what we experience as “depth.” The depths of our biological heritage, on the other hand, feel driven, propulsive, powerful, intoxicating . . . and ultimately stereotyped, fleeting, and shallow.

Later: That isn’t stated right. Most of what makes our lives meaningful is biological, starting with . . . um . . . being alive. Most of our strongest emotions are about staying alive, passing life on, and protecting it.

But. It’s that extra dimension that gives those emotions depth, much as shading a line drawing of an apple makes it look three-dimensional. That added dimension of stopping and wondering and imagining What is this? WTF is all this?—the gaze of that third eye, neither predatory nor desirous, with no agenda but astonishment, opened by language and death—may be the thinnest veneer on our consciousness, but as the Higgs boson gives every other particle its mass, this is what gives everything its depth.

Later still: In the course of a dialog with commenter realpc at my other blog Ambiance, it struck me that nature is not reductive (as scientists keep finding out to their fascination and chagrin). Our current popular concept of it is. The culture that has grown up around science, crafted by certain popularizers—the Pinker-Dawkins-Dennett axis, the aggressive “skeptic” blogs (a culture which I think misrepresents and undersells science itself)—is proudly reductive, billing materialism and evolutionary psychology as the antidote to sentimentality for the tough-minded. It’s very macho (which is not to say women can’t play), and a good part of what drives it is pleasure in feeling superior to and putting down others who are soft-minded enough to see any sign of meaning, purpose, or mystery in nature. If you traced this ‘tude’s cultural history, it might lead you back to the French existentialists, particularly the trousery swagger of Sartre and his compatriots, who billed themselves the only ones tough enough to look a meaningless universe in the eye and to emblazon their will on the void . . . boys peeing their names on blank snow.

consciousness, skepticism, What is life? What is death?

A Mechanism of Immortality

. . . that even a materialist could love?

I’m not a convinced materialist (that takes belief, and I am not a believer of any kind—I’m as pure an agnostic as you’ll find), but I’m immersed in science all day long and so I am conversant with its core belief, which is—crudely put—that only what has a demonstrable physical, material basis is real. Let’s take that as our premise just for the moment, without taking it as truth or untruth.

We all have odd thoughts sometimes, and what follows was one of mine. It was spurred by hearing about someone who, late in his own life, had quite convincing hallucinatory conversations with his deceased wife. And more than one person my age who has said that it was only when their second parent died that they lost them both. And the truism, maybe especially a secular Jewish one, that memory is our immortality.

What if that’s literally true?

Another ingredient in this thought is having copyedited a book about the Singularity, the techno-geek fantasy that machines will bring us immortality (it’s been called “the Rapture for nerds”). Various mechanisms are imagined, but one of them is transferring our consciousness into a silicon substrate, a deathless machine. I am extremely skeptical of this and think it’s basically a religious hope of escape from death transferred lock, stock, and barrel onto science, but that’s beside my point here.

Which is: What if we actually transfer at least a part of our consciousness into another brain?

That seems less of a stretch than transferring it into the alien medium of silicon. And love is the technology of transfer. Longtime couples, besides sharing a lot of experiences, certainly incorporate parts of each other’s outlook into themselves. “Becoming one flesh” might be a metaphor not only for feeling one another’s joy or pain, but for an identification intimate enough to incorporate some of each other’s cognitive traces. When one dies, then, maybe some aspects of their consciousness literally live on in the other’s brain.

Just putting it out there. When I listen to jazz, it feels like Jacques is listening through me.

Cross-posted on Ambiance