Archive for the 'science' Category

What can look like magical thinking in science

March 8, 2015

I think the material, physical world is a consequence of other aspects of the universe — maybe of other dimensions, of an immaterial realm, of a material but less substantial realm, I’m not sure how I would characterize it but probably as layers which get less dense as one goes up, sort of analogous to layers of the physical atmosphere.  I don’t think the immaterial world is an artifact of our physical selves, of our biology or of our chemical processes or of our thought processes or of our “imaginations.”

So when I read yet another article approaching something like anxiety as having existence because it is reflected in brain chemistry, I think “Here we go again, around and around the same old mulberry bush.”

I think the idea that we can eliminate anxiety by eliminating its scaffolding is unrealistic.  I don’t think the processes are transitive — while I do think we play out in the physical world issues that exist in less tangible realms, I think we are like echos or reverberations.  So I don’t think trying to modify the echo or the reverberation is going to change the original tone.   “On earth as it is in heaven” may be true, but “in heaven as we try to make it on earth” I don’t think flies.  The idea that the process works in both directions — is transitive —  I think has some dynamics in common with superstitious beliefs and practices: that manipulation of one thing will lead to changes in another, and hence we can control the latter through our control of the former.

That’s not my understanding of how things fit together and interrelate, for what it’s worth.

What I think we end up doing by trying to change things like changing the physical scaffolding for anxiety is, instead of eliminating problems, changing how the issue becomes manifested in the physical world.  We may even eliminate a particular disease, a particular manifestation, but a different kind of problem I think is also born when we do so.  Maybe drug-resistant infections are a more obvious example, but I also wonder if autism, and its increased incidence, and dementia, and its increased incidence, can be helpfully thought about that way.


ISIS and Ebola

September 18, 2014

We’ve had to deal with al Quaeda and AIDS, now we have ISIS and Ebola.  Maybe the world is periodically visited by human and microscopic scourges, maybe there is no lesson to be learned, but maybe there is.  If we were talking about an individual and not about the world, I would say the pattern repeats until we get what it’s about and learn something new and do something different — not as a matter of punishment but as something necessary for some kind of progress to be made.

So, what’s the lesson?

Finding one’s voice

April 12, 2013

I’ve been accusing other people of needing to find theirs, so chances are it’s on my to-do list.

I had a friend whose vocal chords were damaged during thyroid surgery and had to leave her field of teaching.  Her reinvention of herself is an interesting tangible illustration of this.  She became an education liaison for a large scientific project.  On the other hand, even after many years, she seemed to feel her mood state had not recovered from the surgery, despite the medication to replace the thyroid hormones.  She found her voice again and yet she didn’t.

My first serious boyfriend expressed his concern repeatedly that I would succumb to what he perceived as family pressure to go into science.  I think he thought I’d lose myself and my voice if I did that.  (He is a musician and works as a literary editor in that field, I think.)  A teacher of mine pressured me to break up with him (stupid of me to accede to that), having pressured me to sign up for his classes and more.  In turn, a math teacher tried to rescue me from that teacher and pull me into the math/science world.

I think ultimately I pushed it all away but only after being shaped by the disciplines and personalities.  I don’t think I pushed it away on purpose, rather, this is in effect what seems to have happened if I look at it in retrospect.

Where does that leave me in terms of finding, and maybe describing, my “voice”?  For sure, especially at my age, I’m a little past letting everyone else tell me where it is to be found.  Sometimes I think finding it is a matter of pausing and observing what I tend towards once I put aside all the clamoring requests and dutiful tending to administrative, and other, responsibilities.  And that I guess I’d characterize as seeing things without as many common assumptions as most people seem to harbor, kind of like a voice of reminding that there are other possibilities.

Big bang or rent in the fabric (or both)?

November 25, 2012

I seem to have discovered that if I have a lot of love for someone, but don’t act on it in the usual way, and resist trying to form a particular relationship with them, something else is produced instead.  It feels almost as if, if I pull away, something pours forth from the rent in the fabric of the connection.  At a mundane level, that something sometimes seems to be seeing others engage in a pattern of behavior I have engaged in, or it may be some new insights that occur to me or some lessons I finally come to learn in my own life.  At a different level, what pours forth feels analogous to something beautiful, like music, streaming out.

This got me thinking about the Big Bang theory.  What if the initial movement was more of a tear than an explosion?  A tear in which an original unity separated enough into two parts to have the parts interact as distinct entities in their own right?  Maybe the bang came out of that (subsequent) interaction, maybe the tear was in a way a bang itself.  I don’t know, but a tear would be an easier way at least for me to understand how things could have gotten started.  I guess we’ll have to wait to see what science discovers through its own means.

Breaking the puzzle piece

September 2, 2012

The Republican National Convention was a lot about upwards striving — a certain pattern of immigration and small business development.  Not a lot about downwards falling.

Rather than accept that what goes up is supposed to come down, I think some group of people at some point either misunderstood or tried to avoid the second piece of the sequence.  Instead of continuing to be willing and to follow where that leads, they don’t.  Maybe it’s an exercise of free will, maybe it’s being paralyzed by fear, maybe it’s through an attempt to use the human cognitive ability to change the circumstances externally instead of learning to accept external circumstance through internal development.  (I think humans have tried very hard to move as many things as we can from the “things we cannot change” category to the category of things we can.)

Some people do take the fall, even publicly.  Sex scandals, plagiarism scandals, cover-ups are some of the mechanisms.

Upwards striving seems to produce a set of attitudes towards life, downwards falling I think produces another, including compassion for other human beings.  There’s some variety within each set, but the sets as wholes are characterized by very different perceptions of the human condition.  People who avoid falling don’t collect that item on the scavenger hunt that is the spiritual journey — their art project needs some variation of that component.

If a person doesn’t want to fall and break, they sometimes try to break or change their environment instead — through medicine, technology, using other people — I see it as almost a form of cheating.  In fact the recent cheating scandal at Harvard reminds me of this sort of spiritual pitfall, because it, too, includes the claim of having been following the guidance of superiors (of teaching fellows in the Harvard case) and indeed all the answers come out looking very similar and it is not clear whether a process of learning and improving skills has been improved by the manner in which the exercise was undertaken.

A lot of perception, in my experience, is about rearranging understandings as if one could remake the (art project) collage over and over again.  I think maybe this process stops being available once a component has been broken in order to avoid playing it out in one’s life; let’s say one needs to experience loss, and one tries to avoid it through manipulating others or manipulating the environment.  (To use another Harvard cheating scandal, Ted Kennedy’s, it’s like having someone else take your exam.)  What we learn from the experience of loss is not learned if loss is avoided.  When the upward strivers go on about the need for creative destruction in capitalism, I want to say that it’s needed in spiritual life, too.  One of the components we need for spiritual progress is compassion.  I think this is acquired through experiencing and processing loss without hiding from its import and with honestly and fearlessly looking at what it reveals about ourselves, others, and the world.

That’s what I see in fearful and strident talk about refusing decline at a national level and about treating people who have fallen on hard times harshly — I see people who have refused to take the fall themselves or have shrunk from its import (I’m thinking about somebody like Rick Santorum here — he seems to have gotten some of it but not all of it, having filtered the feedback through some self-protective maladaptive coping mechanism, it looks like to me.)

I suppose if human cognitive ability got us into this detour in evolutionary development through willful avoidance it will also lead us back on track in some way.  Or, at least it can.  Or it could lead to a third way of human society developing, something that comes out of a combination of our lives as animals and our permutation of it through species willfulness.

We’ve been calling out for extraterrestrial help for quite some time by now, whether from gods, God, ETs, whatever.  The thing of it is, from my point of view, is that we don’t listen when we actually get a response.  In some ways, I think we’re stubbornly insisting on staying lost in this detour, of doing this our way, even if it’s dead end.

Why isn’t the answer reincarnation?

August 29, 2012

I was reading a piece about how we sometimes acquire memories of things we haven’t directly experienced in our physical lives, and a letter criticizing it.  Both were in The New York Times, and I thought, not for the first time, “I guess to Times‘ readers and writers, a notion like reincarnation is just not on the radar.”

Reincarnation provides a conceptualization and vocabulary for understanding, talking about, and learning from this phenomenon, I think — it has utility even if people find it foreign at first.  Like scientists who find the notion of time travel so incredible, these folks are confusing the limitations of their understanding with the limitations of human understanding.

In universities I used to notice how people could get so much mileage out of discussing fairly commonplace understandings from one discipline in another department or school within the university.  This strikes me as similar but opposite: it’s the failure to import the ideas across departmental lines that is notable here.  I am hopeful that some enterprising scientist from a culture that uses the concept of reincarnation or shamans will eventually help cross-pollinate those ideas with what grows in scientific fields.

Similes and metaphors

February 2, 2012

I sometimes wonder whether we have taken too literally what was meant as an analogy in our monotheism: the idea of loving God as if he were a parent.  I think God, the universe, forces we can’t see, need our positive regard as much as we want theirs.  I don’t think God is grudging and I do think our attitude towards God matters.  So, I’m inclined to believe that the notion of God that portrays him as a parent could be a development out of an attempt to get people to love God with more effective focus.  As I see it, a problem arises, in terms of making spiritual progress, if we get stuck in the analogy and can’t move on to faith in and a relationship with a more impersonal “God.”  Just as we need to get our own egos out of the way, we need to stop insisting that God have one, too, at a certain point in our spiritual development.  In this regard, I think physicists and mathematicians have a leg up, with their ease with abstract thinking.  I suspect that relating to the universe involves both an earthy component of loving from the heart (as we would a parent, spouse, or child) and a more diffuse component of perceiving without our usual limits of material consensus reality (a sort of abstract mental process).  To me, combining the two in one person, integrating the two components in ourselves, is the great mystery.


Alternative paths to self-awareness, or, could the Buddha have been a brain scientist?

February 1, 2012

I was thinking about how I sometimes see science and social science as being other languages through which to understand the universe and to get to the same understandings as people receive through art and spiritual explorations and other activities.  I see a subset of us trying to use technology and biology to understand our mental processes in some way, and my question this morning is whether such pursuits can lead to self-awareness.

My first inclination is that using external means and objective descriptions of what’s going on in our brains won’t let us arrive at internal development of ourselves, that it will remain unconnected from our tending of our own activities and attitudes, but it occurs to me that I don’t actually know that it can’t lead to the same understandings of the universe.  Maybe it’s a language some people can actually use to do that and can use more readily than languages that require, for example, direct faith that forces greater than ourselves exist in the universe.  Maybe it’s a language not just for skeptics but for people who are connected to their inner lives in a different way from people who come to their understandings through greater and greater self-awareness through a process supported by a low-tech discipline like prayer and meditation.

I guess my own skepticism about whether the high-tech approach to self-awareness is a helpful idea is rooted in concern about its costs, costs to other people and to the environment, before the people using it arrive at their enlightenment.  On the other hand, maybe once we are this far down this path, we need to finish the journey, and maybe it really is the only way some people can arrive at their understandings.

I know that whenever I feel myself being close-minded, I take a step back and examine whether the limitation resides with me and not with the person in whom I wish to see it.

Renconciling with science

December 21, 2011

I think a lot about how to resolve what many people experience as a divide between viewing the world through science and viewing it through a spiritual lens.  I’ve had people in my life terrified I would succumb to the family pressure to become a scientist, and others who campaigned to dissuade me from the liberal arts, or at least from my teachers there who clearly wanted my participation in their magisterium, if not their lives.

So, it amused me to remember this picture, which Willy kept in his office:

I was visiting my sister, who was working in Washington, D.C. at the time, and my cousin Gail was visiting at the same time, as I recall.  I’m pretty sure Gail took the picture.  I’m not entirely sure what the picture meant to Willy, who hadn’t come with me on that trip.  I think he seemed to get a kick out of it as something I had done when I had gone off “on a frolic and a detour” without him.

The way I would like to interpret the picture is as illustrating part of the on-going “ping-pong match,” or mirroring back and forth, between spiritual partners:  I am reading someone else’s understanding of the universe, in their own, scientific language, and I will sing back that understanding as accurately as possible in my own language.  How I have been able to understand what I am “reading” in that language I suspect has something to do with Willy as some sort of interpreter, whose understanding I could absorb through some other means; he certainly had the physics and math for the scientific understanding, and I suspect, in retrospect, he had other kinds of understandings in other languages, as well.


Chip off the old block

November 4, 2011

I think I learned from the Brian Greene series on space and its physics which is being broadcast on Nova on PBS this month that scientists want to chip a piece off of space to create a particle, using the particle accelerator under the Alps.  I couldn’t tell whether this would replicate a natural process or be something new.  And my thoughts about that left me wondering whether this experiment was a wonderful thing or a terrible idea, something that would lead to changes in our world, for better or for worse, or something that is neutral to our present dynamic.

I guess I wish I trusted scientists and thinkers who rely on reason more than on other faculties, to have thought through the possible consequences of their actions in a way I don’t think their chosen means of discerning is actually capable of;  in other words, do these folks really know what they’re doing?

But I can also see the possibility that these scientists may be actually replicating, unknowingly, an important event that took place in another place at another time.  Which doesn’t mean this experiment won’t have consequences, just that it may be a natural outgrowth of previous events and in a way “necessary,” regardless of where it leads.  And for all I know, it may lead somewhere very helpful.

What I guess I wish I could be sure of is that the scientists have enough “willingness,” the emotional orientation of wanting to serve the greater good, that if their experiment doesn’t serve the greater good, their efforts will be blocked or edited in some way so that the greater good is served, regardless.

I do think we make progress regardless, but I also think some paths in this progress are more painful than others.  I think we can’t discern which path will be which with our intellects and reason, however prodigious.  Making that discernment I think is a place for what I think some people, especially those oriented towards using reason and intellect to navigate the world, call “intuition.” I guess I think of it more like asking for directions at a gas station when we’re lost, or maybe listening to that global positioning device.  I would like to encourage scientists to do it, if they don’t already, and I think they will actually make more progress in their chosen fields by their own measures if they do.