Saturday, October 27, 2012

How Culture and Cosmology Intersect: A Review of Adam Frank's “About Time”

Book Cover with a broken watch

Cosmology is a fascinating field to read and think about. And whenever I do, I am overwhelmed by two contradictory feelings about myself and my relationship with the universe. I feel both small and big at the same time. Small because my whole existence, my life, worries, achievements, thoughts and dreams combine to much less than a mere speck, a fragment of a fragment when seen in the enormously big picture, the canvas of our universe (which in turn may only be a speck within the even greater multiverse).

Yet it also makes me feel big because of my fortunate place in this whole process and evolution. In fact, my own personal existence is intricately linked to the Big Bang, the birth of our universe. My own body is stardust, dipped in and made from particles that have been shaped the way they are through a process of billions of years! At the same time, it is also our previous cultures, the combined and shared history of our humanity that have led us to this particular moment, through their inventions, efforts, and most importantly, imagination.

Adam Frank in his book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang has tackled a highly ambitious undertaking here because he is linking our own evolution as a species to the creation and development of technology. As he himself reinforces various times in the course of the book the two, evolution and technology, affect each other in mutual and reciprocal ways. Put differently, we are where we are, namely our current scale and status of our evolution and technological progress, not to say prowess, due to the achievements of our past, the cumulative work of our ancestors.

Our humanity started with simple tools, drawings and myths that have turned into complex and sophisticated gadgets filled with even more possibilities for the future. Along the way, we both shaped and were shaped by technological invention and scientific discoveries. Newton gave us a paradigm that people lived by until it was shattered by Einstein's theory of relativity with the development and subsequent implications of quantum mechanics.

The most original part of Frank's thesis is to point the arrow of progress in two directions, that is "up" and "down." He claims that material engagement, the needs and wants of a particular people at a particular time led to the development of necessary technology, while at the same time, the new technology itself directly affected perception of time and culture. 

Hence, in terms of time, for example, the downward movement has been changing our perception of time in everyday life, whereas its upward movement has influenced our ideas about time in relation to philosophy, physics and cosmology, which in turn also affects our lives in significant ways.

On this epic journey we then encounter pretty much everything from radio, television, washing-machines, Internet and GPS. Some of them are based on daily necessities, others have sprung up due to new discoveries in science, yet each discovery on its own has left an indelible mark on our consciousness reshaping our life and culture.

Yet among all these inventions, the most relevant one must be the clock. The moment time became precise and countable, in fact, even a physical embodiment and reality of our lives, our paths toward discovery and innovation accelerated significantly. Time has become the essence in our digital age. 

Our whole day, not to say life, is structured - some might say enslaved - by time. Time is money; time is running out; don't waste my time; we are a time-obsessed culture that simply never has enough time despite all those time-saving gadgets. This obsession over time as we experience it today is rather a modern idea, something that previous cultures lacked, for better or for worse.

For a clear and wide-ranging overview of how culture, time and cosmology go hand in hand, I recommend this well-researched, informative and entertaining book. Although it tends to become a bit didactic towards the end, the book's indisputable strength lies in spinning the narratives of human culture and tying it with the history of cosmology. 

It is fascinating to see how one idea and discovery led to another; how we all live and move in this web of time and technology. This is followed by Frank's optimistic and open-minded invitation to continue rebuilding and refining our theories about the universe, something from which, in the end, everyone, not only the scientists, will benefit.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Oh Platonia! On the Eternal and Timeless Land of Philosophy and Quantum Mechanics

An Underwater shot with colorful plants

The following post is a (hopefully) poetical and playful but by no means claiming to be an accurate portrayal of Julian Barbour's concept of Platonia. I have stumbled upon this stunning idea of the possible nonexistence of the time dimension while reading Adam Frank's book About Time (review of which is upcoming).

Oh Platonia,

I wish to apply for acceptance and citizenship in your beautiful and expansive country at the crossroads of philosophy and quantum mechanics where time is not relative but immaterial and pointless.

I want to bathe and immerse myself in your endless stream of Now and to enjoy the many individual and encapsulated moments that give our minds the persistent and pervasive illusion of time.

Our current way of life needs to finally embrace the eternal present, the uniqueness of each current state of our lives. We need to throw away our electronic gadgets that continuously mock and enslave us with their digital counter-face.

No better time than Now! In your eyes, dear Platonia, the cat that jumps is different from the one that lands. Our brain fools us into seeing an imaginary and arbitrary relationship between causes and effects, when in reality there is neither. The “me” of the past is not the “me” of the present.

Thank you, dear Platonia, for making me see the errors of my entrenched ways and for removing the shackles of my past with the burden of my old but completely unreal selves. Now you have made me truly free to roam wherever I please.

Why worry about the future when it will never come? Tomorrow is a vacant idea; it is an abstract lie we try to convince ourselves of despite its many global features of make-believe and fantasy. In fact, whatever is necessary needs to happen now, both joy and suffering make their impact and presence known only in the moments of the eternal and paradoxically timeless present. No other moment for change and realization than the fumes of the here and now since in your eyes, tomorrow is a thing of the past and yesterday will never come!

Remember, Platonia that you owe your name to the great and illustrious philosopher-poet Plato who saw and wrote about your beautiful eternal face from the caves of human consciousness.

You are perfectly aware of the fact that we are created anew each moment, that the mystics have always been right since we need to live right here and right now. Incidentally, we may think we are aging but that is only the perception of our fragile shell. How could we age and die if time is nothing but an illusion and does not exist?

Platonia, do you agree with Heraclitus that no one ever enters the same river twice? I believe both yes and no. Certainly, the river has changed, and so has the person. But after all, is change not another illusion, the supposed comparison between now and then?

The notion of a previous river is part of our common human-fold delusion because neither the river nor the person can have possibly existed in the past. Every now is a new creation, an unrelated and gratuitous moment-to-moment mystery, a blessing and the miracle of existence!

No two moments can ever be the same, nor can they ever be compared to each other because they do not exist separately. This is all there is to it, and Descartes needs an amendment. He ought to be rephrased as I am thinking, therefore I am and exist right now. Nonetheless, there is no positive correlation between the previous and the current voice of this mysterious “I” in my head.

So there you have it. I am shedding this time-conscious and time-bound illusion, or rather delusion, of my so-called unified personality as imagined on the time-spectrum. I shall exist fully, completely and wholeheartedly in this very moment, the ever-present magical act of creation, the beauty and wonder that exists, that has ever existed and will never perish nor decay.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Billionaires Feeling the Pang of Guilt and Social Injustice

Bridge with a Welcome Sign

Although I find it highly unlikely and implausible, not to say impossible, that any billionaires will ever read this – the poor reflections of a penniless philosopher - I want to start with a (rhetorical) question aimed at the super-wealthy: How much more (money / power) do you want?

Now I am asking this without any malice, anger or resentment. I am not blaming the super-rich here; I do not claim that many of our social problems could be alleviated if they decided to give and share a little, that is, if they were not so greedy after all. I am simply asking when and where the limit is. The sky perhaps? The universe?

We often bounce around or hear the word “billionaire,” but we can barely grasp the amount of money this actually implies. How long would it take to count those hundred dollar bills? In fact, billionaires are millionaires more than a thousand times over! Even if we take into account the fact that life is getting more and more expensive, the rising costs of property, of food and luxurious lifestyles, if we count in inflation and that fuel prices for jets have gone up too, there is still and always will be more than enough money in a billionaire's bank account!

No matter how a billionaire has gotten their money, whether it is inherited, through hard work, intimidation, good business sense, smart investing is really beyond the point. Yet the fact remains that they have more than enough to weather the storm, any storm for that matter and to lead the type of lifestyle that most people cannot even dream about.

Some of the billionaires - in all fairness - are doing something or rather quite a bit to help. They become philanthropists, and they tend to do an excellent job at it because they can. The agreement signed by the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets out there to give away half of their fortunes for charity over their lifetime is more than commendable. 

It shows a beating and warm heart for the plight of the world, for the 99% of us living ordinary lives by counting and limiting our budgets, by thinking more than twice and turning the coin several times before spending money.

I think some of the super-wealthy are (finally?) realizing, both on a logical and intuitive level that the distribution of wealth is simply not fair. Capitalism may be a good system to live by with its driving competitive edge, but somehow most people end up with little to nothing regardless of how much and how hard they work. So this system really ends up benefiting the few over the many. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor is the mantra of the modern world.

But what good is all your money when you are dead? You cannot take it with you where you will go next, the same place all the other 99% will go too. And if there is an afterlife, I would fear for my life if I were a billionaire, since on the other side of existence, your money cannot buy you extra security and electric fences. 

The mob will be angrier than ever at that point and if you are lucky enough to have been chosen by St. Peter, you should barricade yourself behind those gates of heaven. But don't make yourself any illusions because Jesus will strip you of your given names and give you an uncomfortable lecture on camels and needles.

The pang of guilt is a good thing after all. It brings you more in touch with us common folks. We are the faces pressed against the windowpanes outside of the sumptuous castles before the French Revolution (no threat intended). We do exist too and are not just a statistical number. 

We rely on your whims and good faith, on the crumbs of your bread. We beg you not to forget us, but to think of us from time to time. I know that many of you may never have gone through these stages of life; this lack of experience has hampered and stunted your feelings of empathy and compassion.

When you are among the “lower” classes you must live in constant fear. Whatever you have is not enough, and it can slip away faster than you think or can say Amen. Therefore, you have no choice but to follow what others are saying; you must please those in power because you are desperately holding onto your job, the little money you are making to get by.

Your existence is bound to that of others, such as the decisions of your boss who can hire and let you go anytime or your landlord who can kick you out because you are slightly behind next month's rent. These types of experiences add, apart from paranoia, a sense of humility to our lives.

With the exception of some of the self-made multi-millionaires and billionaires out there, few of you will ever know what it really feels like to worry about tomorrow or to suffer from a growling stomach, to know that your options are limited and to be aware of the fact that, unless you win the lottery, you will never be able to own a house, for example.

Those of you who used to be poor, who once had a brief taste of and encounter with poverty (although the rags to riches fairy-tale is so rare that we can count them on our fingers – no wonder it is called a dream!) you should still have the vestige of a memory where you too suffered on a daily basis to obtain money in order to get by.

Please do not forget that feeling, that moment of shared humanity that is our common denominator. And yes, help us, in any way you see fit. It is more than appreciated and remember, we do not hate; we just ask you to acknowledge our existence. As the Beatles sing, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is an Idea worth dying for?

Dedicated to John Lennon, with love

John Lennon Imagine
I remember watching a documentary on John Lennon about his bed-in publicity stunt for the growth of peace and hair. His intention was to promote peace by simply staying in bed with his wife Yoko at his side. One of the moments that stuck with me was a phone call he received from student demonstrators asking for his opinion and advice. It was during a very sensitive era of continuous social upheavals where unarmed students were being dispersed by armed police.

The student leader wanted to know what to do next, and Lennon, to my surprise, simply told them to go back home, to refrain from getting into altercations, and to leave the battleground, so to speak. At first, I was disappointed with his response.

The rebel and social activist in me wanted them to stand up for their human rights, to face the police - perhaps even the National Guard and the military - with their activist heads held up high so that they could get their point across, both nationally and internationally, and then take credit for an indelible mark in history. Of course, it is easier said than done, but since it was a time of revolution and since John himself had sung about it previously, I was wondering why he told them to run and hide like wimpy kids.

Nowadays, my view on the matter has changed. Nothing is more precious and valuable than human life, and, in a sense, nothing is worth dying for. I guess you can call me an “anti-martyr.” In fact, I consider myself more of a humanist and give this part of me priority over the opposing idealistic strains. No religion, no nation, or even social cause is worth its salt in the end. In times of war, I would prefer to stay home and watch the events on TV and would rather not engage in them actively, publicly, or personally.

Although I may be accused of cowardice, and rightfully so, I would like to reiterate a point I made elsewhere on this blog. What good would I be for my loved ones six feet under the ground? Sure, they could all conceive of me as a hero, be proud of my actions and the memory of me will shine bright like a shooting star, but in the end, I won't be there.

I am not denying the existence of a soul, but even so, I will not be able to hug my loved ones, feel the weight of their kiss on my cheeks since the spiritual world is as light and fluffy as it comes. A spiritual entity cannot be there physically, and although it would be better than nothing, it still does not beat and pales in comparison to being alive and kicking. Put differently, if there are people you really care about in the world, do not lay down your life, do not sacrifice yourself for any cause whatsoever.

To build upon this idea, I would like to point out the most basic and essential of all human rights, the right to life. I am, as you may guess by now, against the death penalty, the taking of a person's life. I do understand the reasons for wanting or wishing to extinguish the life of an unrepentant and cruel monster, a sadistic and relentless killer, but I believe that underneath all those disgusting and nauseating layers, there is sacred human life.

So to return to the answer to the question above, the title of this post, my answer can be construed as a clear and definite no, namely that it is not worth dying for (or over) ideas. But life, the world and particularly morality, not to mention my own mind, all abhor absolute statements, so I am going to rephrase it here.

If your idea, your cause, falls into the realm of politics, I would still side on a “negative” answer. My example: the most extreme forms of political change, revolutions. Many people have been driven and swept by the need for dramatic change and have been ready to sacrifice their lives for it.

What most of them never find out is that these high and lofty ideals often dissolve, or in fact, turn to their icy polar opposites once achieved, like the cursed touch of Midas. A case in point would be the French Revolution that eventually and undeniably brought with it positive change, but it initially got mired in a bloodbath unseen and unheard of in which noble heads kept falling and rolling. And what happened next? It was all followed by a dictatorship par excellence by the imposing, at least mentally definitely not physically speaking, figure of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Second case in point, the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks, with nobility the head target again; they had ideals that theoretically looked and sounded good, but which devastated and stagnated the country and society over the various decades to come. Any of the passionate fighters for social justice who lay down their lives for that cause must have been turning in their graves.

Incidentally, the Iranian Revolution, closer in time, freed the people from the bloody hands of a regal tyrant while handing them over to even bloodier and more blood-thirsty hands of fundamentalists who used the banner of religion. My point is that because of the volatile nature of politics, one should strive for change, but not risk one's life over it. Put differently, John's advice is reverberating here.

As to religion, I am a bit more torn. One thing I am sure of though, I completely disagree with any kind of killing in the name of God, yes, that includes the Crusades and the (not so holy) Spanish Inquisition, where religion, and with it, God's name, was used as a pretext and political statement for power and domination. Yet at the same time, where religion becomes an expression of personal freedom (another essential human right), where truth and integrity are combined with peaceful measures and purposes, I might slightly hesitate.

On the topic of religion, I cannot but admire the steadfast and courageous conviction of Jesus Christ. He stood up strongly and uncompromisingly for what he believed in; his death, although not entirely inevitable, was the culmination of a statement of peace that was at open war with the establishment of the times. Socrates equally embraced death; instead of reversing and backing away from his ideas, he held fast to his notions of truth and personal integrity and drank the bitter cup of hemlock.

In a similar vein, I consider John Lennon. He stood up for his ideals of peace and truth. He was expressive of them in a world full of lies and deception. He may have had his personal failings, and he may be guilty of poking the establishment a little bit too aggressively at times, but overall he did not wish to do anybody any harm.

His death took him away from us and made him an immortal legend. It gave him a singular place in the hearts of humanity to come, a firm place up along the stars in heaven. If it had been possible, we would have much preferred to have him here with us, celebrate his birthday in the land of the living, as his absence, even after all those years and across various generations, still pains us.

But in this case, like Socrates, Jesus, or Gandhi, we have someone who eventually sacrificed his own life for an ideal that establishes and redefines the common good, a death that we wished would not have occurred in the first place, but is, nonetheless, a statement on the affairs of the world, its blindness, its bigotry, and its insanity.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Road Rage and Creating a Personal Sense of Peace

Lion Statue staring aggressively at the Camera

Sometimes I wonder, just like the chicken and egg dilemma, which one comes first: a calm and soothing situation that translates and leads to a peaceful mind or whether it is the mind itself that creates the calm state and situation. If you consider the state of happiness, this issue may become clearer.

What is the cause of happiness? Often we relate it to one or various external events or situations. For example, you just received good news via call, mail or email; it is a nice and sunny day; you have finished Friday (thank God) and are ready for a weekend of relaxation and / or parties. Other factors may include a general sense of gratefulness, accomplishment or blessing with one's life, the status quo. You enjoy your family and your work, a job that you love with an overall financial status that is better than can be expected.

In all or any of these cases, we have specific reasons to feel happy. Yet this is not always guaranteed as a causal relationship; we often demand more than we have, so we could quite easily imagine having a better and more satisfying job with a higher income, more days off, living in a more pleasant climate and so on. Some people, in fact, will never pause to feel true happiness as they keep pushing themselves mercilessly ahead like a stubborn mule-driver toward what they perceive to be a state of happiness. Others are never happy until they die.

When it comes to feeling happy, it is usually linked to reason; we are rational beings or at least grow up and live in a society that considers rational thinking as an important trait. Anything irrational is deemed inferior, such as superstition or fantasy and as such, those ideas or beliefs will be attacked on logical grounds and assumptions.

As a result, we often put our feelings under close scrutiny and doubt and double-check our feelings by running it through a logical filter. Feeling sad without a reason puts us at risk of becoming or being depressed while feeling happy without a reason may make us look foolish, or worse, insane. We ask ourselves, how could the poor be possibly happy with all their turmoils and unsatisfied needs?

A peaceful mind can be approached and evaluated from similar angles. A person living in a war-torn place has neither peace nor happiness and the same may apply to the one struggling daily for livelihood and survival. When your world lacks any vestige of peace, it becomes difficult, if not downright impossible, to have peace of mind. Yet there are situations where people in the most wretched situations still manage to feel and even project a sense of peace, which is rather the exception than the norm.

Could it be merely a personality trait then? Are we dealing with Type A versus Type B personalities? Are some people simply more attune with peace? Do they have a serious lack of or an empty slot in the aggression department? If we look upon ourselves as helpless victims of our brain and mood swings, then the answer may be yes; it is part of our personality; you are simply born with it.

However, others are able to control their aggression, to deal with stress without erupting in a mighty all-engulfing tantrum and manage to see the positive side of things or the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you are born with it or you learn how to do it, I do not know. But I do think that we have the capability to learn to guide and control our feelings, at least to a certain degree.

Road rage seems to be a common enough situation in which anger tends to win the upper hand. If you find yourself in a serious road rage incident, there are a number of choices you have to vent and release this building and bubbling anger. You can honk your horn, you can shout obscenities at the other driver or, and this is the worst and most problematic case, you can step out of the car and “take it outside” by engaging in a fist fight I presume.

When you are swarmed by those feelings, your reason or rational side will be out-manned (though road rage wreaks havoc with women too!). More likely, your anger will win the day, but all throughout there is a little voice that tells you to “take it easy,” not to escalate the violence and that all of this simply makes you look foolish. Easier said than done. We often throw caution to the wind when we get caught up in this emotional whirlwind.

As Buddhists claim (and often they lead by example in this department) there is a way of cultivating and fostering a sense of peace, and it is through mindfulness and meditation. Yoga has become a more accepted and popular choice, at least for middle and upper classes these days, but to me mindfulness is more than a regular scheduled esoteric activity during the week.

I believe that mindfulness ought to be practiced and reinforced constantly. It should be a state of mind throughout our daily lives. I am aware of the fact I should meditate more (I rarely do), but as my own personal side experiment, I try to be aware of my feelings when they arise, a meta-awareness of how I usually behave, think and feel in the day. Imagine a silent Big Brother watching you from the inside.

This (type of insanity?) falls into place rather naturally with my inquisitive and analytical mind; I simply try to observe myself without commenting on anything. In fact, judgement would make it only worse and perhaps even amplify those feelings. But to return to our case of rage (whether on the road or not) I simply look at myself and my “presence” or awareness affects me in certain ways. Put differently, I have created an awareness that looks at my consciousness. (I am not the first, Descartes did something similar except that he kept judging and evaluating his thoughts.)

Just by shifting my attention, I find that my rage diminishes. The voice of anger and destruction tries hard - but to little avail - to reason (!) and bargain with me, giving me a canister of fuel for actions I would most definitely regret an hour or a day later. Yet by merely being attentive to one's mind, by shifting one's focus inward in a wordless and perhaps compassionate way, one can learn to deal with these negative emotions and consequently create a sense of peace within the confines of one's skull. To boot, it is a much cheaper and more accessible home-brewed tool of psychoanalysis.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Five Alternative Candidates for the Presidential Election

An empty wooden chair in a shack
Eastwooding Country-Style
After watching a rather underwhelming presidential debate tonight, I imagined who would be some possible alternative choices for the upcoming presidential election. 

So here is a list of five people who should be on the ballot come November ... well maybe not exactly according to the American people, but in my own humble opinion.

# 1 Quentin Tarantino

Sure, the levels of violence might go up and there will definitely be blood, but at least it will be done with an element of artistry. His presidential speeches might be filled with expletives, but he will be more in touch with how many of us actually communicate in real life and not hold back his real emotions.

As to foreign policy, he will hire a couple of entertaining and philosophical hit-men to get the job done, and the “Wolf” to clean up after them. In fact, he will empower women and give them a training academy to become proficient martial arts fighters.

Movies will be on every school curriculum since kindergarten, and he will perhaps introduce the metric system to the United States and consequently change the names of the nation's beloved burgers. 

He will pardon criminals and psychopaths and hire them as his personal staff and code them according to colors. The world will not be a more peaceful place, but it will be more entertaining at least.

#2: Clint Eastwood

This guy should be in office! He won't even have to travel to meet delegates or foreign officials, he will just imagine them next to him in the empty chair. If things get out of control, he will pull out his gun and ask them in a gruff voice to go ahead and make his day.

And if foreign operations are deemed necessary, he will call his pals to get it done, the full cast of The Expendables with all their explosive bombs and weapons.

#3 Prince Harry

Yes, technically impossible you might say because he is a British royal. But it might be worth bending the rules a little to let this guy become the next president. Imagine the fun we could have with this guy as commander-in-chief!

Politics will be an endless party and the White House will be as vibrant as Studio 54 during the rolling and groovy late 70s. And the staff will run around naked, drink to heart's delight and jump into the pool (the White House must have a pool somewhere).

As to Foreign Policy, who cares? Life is for having fun although he may occasionally show off his military gear and shooting skills to the foreign diplomats.

#4 Jerry Seinfeld

A presidency about nothing. His speeches will be acute and sarcastic observations about political life and strife, and he will make a mockery of every leader around the world. No one will be spared from the stiletto of his wit.

As to staff? Well, George will be his VP obviously, and Jerry will counsel him in his “foreign adventures.” Elaine as Secretary of the State, that is whatever they do in this position she can do well or even better yada yada. And the Press Secretary? Who else than Kramer with his elegant mannerisms?

#5 Lisa Simpson

OK she may be too young for office but in terms of smarts she can definitely hold her own. Lisa will stand up for human and animal rights, and she will make morality, honesty and decency the number one priorities.

Yet in order to keep up a certain level of zaniness, she would have to select her brother Bart as her VP. That way he can play pranks on politicians and leaders everywhere and “Eat my shorts” will be translated in various languages around the world.

Homer will keep working at the nuclear plant, doing what he does best and thanks to him, Lisa will not be too harsh on things like drinking beer in public. Secretary of the Sate will be no other than Ned Flanders with his upbeat attitude and unflinching optimism.

Anyhow, personally, I would never wish to be a president. It is a complex and ungrateful position with way too much responsibility. I have enough troubles and headaches with the decisions in my own life, let alone making decisions that have possible repercussions on the lives of billions of people! 

But I hope that my dear neighbors across the border will make the right decision and vote responsibly, in the best interest of the entire nation and the promotion of world peace.