What is really real ?

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    I had an exchange of views on Guy McPherson’s blog recently concerning ‘mass’, trying to educate someone, without much apparent success… and today I find New Scientist covering much the same ground…


    It’s relatively easy to demonstrate what physical reality isn’t. It is much harder to work out what it is

    Read more: “Special issue: What is reality?

    NOTHING seems more real than the world of everyday objects, but things are not as they seem. A set of relatively simple experiments reveals enormous holes is our intuitive understanding of physical reality. Trying to explain what goes on leads to some very peculiar and often highly surprising theories of the world around us.

    Here is a simple example. Take an ordinary desk lamp, a few pieces of cardboard with holes of decreasing sizes, and some sort of projection screen such as a white wall. If you put a piece of cardboard between the lamp and the wall, you will see a bright patch where the light passes through the hole in the cardboard. If you now replace the cardboard with pieces containing smaller and smaller holes, the patch too will diminish in size. Once we get below a certain size, however, the pattern on the wall changes from a small dot to a series of concentric dark and light rings, rather like an archery target. This is the “Airy pattern” – a characteristic sign of a wave being forced through a hole (see image).

    In itself, this is not very surprising. After all, we know that light is a wave, so it should display wave-like behaviour.

    But now consider what happens if we change the set-up of the experiment a bit. Instead of a lamp, we use a device that shoots out electrons, like that found in old-fashioned TV sets; instead of the wall, we use a plate of glass coated with a phosphor that lights up when an electron strikes it. We can therefore use this screen to track the places where the electrons hit. The results are similar: with sufficiently small holes we get an Airy pattern.

    This now seems peculiar: electrons are particles located at precise points and cannot be split. Yet they are behaving like waves that can smear out across space, are divisible, and merge into one another when they meet.

    Perhaps it is not that strange after all. Water consists of molecules, yet it behaves like a wave. The Airy pattern may just emerge when enough particles come together, whether they are water molecules or electrons.

    A simple variant of the experiments shows, however, that this cannot be right. Suppose we reduce the output of the electron gun to one particle each minute. The Airy pattern is gone, and all we see is a small flash every minute. Let’s leave this set-up to run for a while, recording each small flash as it occurs. Afterwards, we map the locations of all the thousands of flashes.

    Surprisingly, we do not end up with a random arrangement of dots, but with the Airy pattern again. This result is extremely strange. No individual electron can know where all the earlier and later electrons are going to hit, so they cannot communicate with each other to create the bullseye pattern. Rather, each electron must have travelled like a wave through the hole to produce the characteristic pattern, then changed back into a particle to produce the point on the screen. This, of course, is the famous wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics.

    This strange behaviour is shared by any sufficiently small piece of matter, including electrons, neutrons, photons and other elementary particles, but not just by these. Similar effects have been observed for objects that are large enough in principle to be seen under a microscope, such as buckyballs.

    In order to explain the peculiar behaviour of such objects, physicists associate a wave function with each of them. Despite the fact that these waves have the usual properties of more familiar waves such as sound or water waves, including amplitude (how far up or down it deviates from the rest state), phase (at what point in a cycle the wave is), and interference (so that “up” and “down” phases of waves meeting each other cancel out), what they are waves in is not at all transparent. Einstein aptly spoke of a “phantom field” as their medium.

    For a wave in an ordinary medium such as water, we can calculate its energy at any one point by taking the square of its amplitude. Wave functions, however, carry no energy. Instead, the square of their amplitude at any given point gives us the probability of observing the particle if a detector such as the phosphor-coated screen is placed there.

    Clearly, the point where an object switches from being a probability wave, with its potential existence smeared out across space, and becomes an actual, spatially localised object is crucially important to understanding whether matter is real. What exactly happens when the wave function collapses – when among the countless possibilities where the particle could be at any moment, one is chosen, while all the others are rejected?

    First of all, we have to ask ourselves when this choice is made. In the example described above, it seems to happen just before the flash on the phosphor screen. At this moment, a measurement of the electron’s position was made by a piece of phosphor glowing as the particle struck it, so there must have been an electron there, and not just a probability wave.

    But assume we cannot be in the lab to observe the experiment, so we point a camera at the phosphor screen and have the result sent via a satellite link to a computer on our desktop. In this case, the flash of light emitted from the phosphor screen has to travel to the camera recording it, and the process is repeated: like the electrons, light also travels as a wave and arrives as a particle. What reason is there to believe that the switch from probability wave to particle actually occurred on the phosphor screen, and not in the camera?

    At first, it seemed as if the phosphor screen was the measuring instrument, and the electron was the thing being measured. But now the measuring device is the camera and the phosphor screen is part of what is measured. Given that any physical object transmitting the measurement we can add on to this sequence – the camera, the computer, our eyes, our brain – is made up of particles with the same properties as the electron, how can we determine any particular step at which to place the cut between what is measured and what is doing the measuring?

    This ever-expanding chain is called the von Neumann chain, after the physicist and mathematician John von Neumann. One of his Princeton University colleagues, Eugene Wigner, made a suggestion as to where to make the cut. As we follow the von Neumann chain upwards, the first entity we encounter that is not made up in any straightforward fashion out of pieces of matter is the consciousness of the observer. We might therefore want to say that when consciousness enters the picture, the wave function collapses and the probability wave turns into a particle.

    The idea that consciousness brings everyday reality into existence is, of course, deeply strange; perhaps it is little wonder that it is a minority viewpoint.

    There is another way of interpreting the measurement problem that does not involve consciousness – though it has peculiar ramifications of its own. But for now let’s explore Wigner’s idea in more depth.

    If a conscious observer does not collapse the wave function, curious consequences follow. As more and more objects get sucked into the vortex of von Neumann’s chain by changing from being a measuring instrument to being part of what is measured, the “spread-out” structure of the probability wave becomes a property of these objects too. The “superposed” nature of the electron – its ability to be at various places at once – now also affects the measuring instruments.

    It has been verified experimentally that not just the unobservably small, but objects large enough to be seen under a microscope, such as a 60-micrometre-long metal strip, can exhibit such superposition behaviour. Of course, we can’t look through a microscope and see the metal strip being at two places at once, as this would immediately collapse the wave function. Yet it is clear that the indeterminacy we found at the atomic level can spread to the macro level.

    Yet if we accept that the wave function must collapse as soon as consciousness enters the measurement, the consequences are even more curious. If we decide to break off the chain at this point, it follows that, according to one of our definitions of reality, matter cannot be regarded as real. If consciousness is required to turn ghostly probability waves into things that are more or less like the objects we meet in everyday life, how can we say that matter is what would be there anyway, whether or not human minds were around?

    But perhaps this is a bit too hasty. Even if we agree with the idea that consciousness is required to break the chain, all that follows is that the dynamic attributes of matter such as position, momentum and spin orientation are mind-dependent. It does not follow that its static attributes, including mass and charge, are dependent on in this. The static attributes are there whether we look or not.

    Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves whether redefining matter as “a set of static attributes” preserves enough of its content to allow us to regard matter as real. In a world without minds, there would still be attributes such as mass and charge, but things would not be at any particular location or travel in any particular direction. Such a world has virtually nothing in common with the world as it appears to us. Werner Heisenberg observed that: “the ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct ‘actuality’ of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation, however, is impossible… Atoms are not things.”

    It seems that the best we are going to get at this point is the claim that some things are there independent of whether we, as human observers, are there, even though they might have very little to do with our ordinary understanding of matter.

    Does our understanding of the reality of matter change if we choose the other strong definition of reality – not by what is there anyway, but by what provides the foundation for everything else (see “Reality: The definition“)?

    In order to answer this question, we have to look at the key scientific notion of a reductive explanation. Much of the power of scientific theories derives from the insight that we can use a theory that applies to a certain set of objects to explain the behaviour of a quite different set of objects. We therefore don’t need a separate set of laws and principles to explain the second set.

    A good example is the way in which theories from physics and chemistry, dealing with inanimate matter, can be used to explain biological processes. There is no need to postulate a special physics or a special chemistry to explain an organism’s metabolism, how it procreates, how its genetic information is passed on, or how it ages and dies. The behaviour of the cells that make up the organism can be accounted for in terms of the nucleus, mitochondria and other subcellular entities, which can in turn be explained in terms of chemical reactions based on the behaviour of molecules and the atoms that compose them. For this reason, explanations of biological processes can be said to be reducible to chemical and ultimately to physical ones.

    If we pursue a reductive explanation for the phenomena around us, a first step is to reduce statements about the medium-sized goods that surround us – bricks, brains, bees, bills and bacteria – to statements about fundamental material objects, such as molecules. We then realise everything about these things can be explained in terms of their constituents, namely their atoms. Atoms, of course, have parts as well, and we are now well on our way through the realm of ever smaller subatomic particles, perhaps (if string theory is correct) all the way down to vibrating strings of pure energy. So far we have not reached the most fundamental objects. In fact, there is not even an agreement that there are any such objects.

    Yet this is no reason to stop our reductionist explanation here, since we can always understand the most basic physical objects in terms of where they are in space and time. Instead of talking about a certain particle that exists at such-and-such a place for such-and-such a period of time, we can simply reduce this to talk about a certain region in space that is occupied between two different times.

    We can go even more fundamental. If we take an arbitrary fixed point in space, and a stable unit of spatial distance, we can specify any other point in space by three coordinates. These simply tell us to go so many units up or down, so many units left or right, and so many units back or forth. We can do the same with points in time. We now have a way of expressing points in space-time as sets of four numbers, x, y, z and t, where x, y, and z represent the three spatial dimensions and t the time dimension. In this way, reality can be boiled down to numbers.

    And this opens the door to something yet more fundamental. Mathematicians have found a way of reducing numbers to something even more basic: sets. To do this, they replace the number 0 with the empty set, the number 1 with the set that contains just the empty set, and so on (see “Reality: Is everything made of numbers?“). All the properties of numbers also hold for all these ersatz numbers made from sets. It seems as if we have now reduced all of the material world around us to an array of sets.

    For this reason, it is important to know what these mathematical objects called sets really are. There are two views of mathematical objects that are important in this context. First, there is the view of them as “Platonic” objects. This means that mathematical objects are unlike all other objects we encounter. They are not made of matter, they do not exist in space or time, do not change, cannot be created or destroyed, and could not have failed to exist. According to the Platonic understanding, mathematical objects exist in a “third realm”, distinct from the world of matter, on the one hand, and the world of mental entities, such as perceptions, thoughts and feelings, on the other.

    Second, we can understand mathematical objects as fundamentally mental in nature. They are of the same kind as the other things that pass through our mind: thoughts and plans, concepts and ideas. They are not wholly subjective; other people can have the very same mathematical object in their minds as we have in ours, so that when we both talk about the Pythagorean theorem, we are talking about the same thing. Still, they do not exist except in the minds in which they occur.

    Either of these understandings leads to a curious result. If the bottom level of the world consists of sets, and if sets are not material but are instead some Platonic entities, material objects have completely disappeared from view and cannot be real in the sense of constituting a fundamental basis of all existence. If we follow scientific reductionism all the way down, we end up with stuff that certainly does not look like tiny pebbles or billiard balls, not even like strings vibrating in a multidimensional space, but more like what pure mathematics deals with.

    Of course, the Platonistic view of mathematical objects is hardly uncontroversial, and many people find it hard to get any clear idea of how objects could exist outside of space and time. But if we take mathematical objects to be mental in nature, we end up with an even stranger scenario.

    The scientific reductionist sets out to reduce the human mind to the activity of the brain, the brain to an assembly of interacting cells, the cells to molecules, the molecules to atoms, the atoms to subatomic particles, the subatomic particles to collections of space-time points, the collections of space-time points to sets of numbers, and the sets of numbers to pure sets. But at the very end of this reduction, we now seem to loop right back to where we came from: to the mental entities.

    We encounter a similar curious loop in the most influential way of understanding quantum mechanics, the Copenhagen interpretation. Unlike Wigner’s consciousness-based interpretation, this does not assume the wave function collapses when a conscious mind observes the outcome of some experiment. Instead, it happens when the system to be measured (the electron) interacts with the measuring device (the phosphor screen). For this reason, it has to be assumed that the phosphor screen will not itself exhibit the peculiar quantum behaviour shown by the electron.

    In the Copenhagen interpretation, then, things and processes describable in terms of familiar classical concepts are the foundation of any physical interpretation. And this is where the circularity comes in. We analyse the everyday world of medium-sized material things in terms of smaller and smaller constituents until we deal with parts that are so small that quantum effects become relevant for describing them. But when it comes to spelling out what is really going on when a wave function collapses into an electron hitting a phosphor screen, we don’t ground our explanation in some yet more minute micro-level structures; we ground it in terms of readings made by non-quantum material things.

    What this means is that instead of going further down, we instead jump right back up to the level of concrete phenomena of sensory perception, namely measuring devices such as phosphor screens and cameras. Once more, we are in a situation where we cannot say that the world of quantum objects is fundamental. Nor can we say that the world of measuring devices is fundamental since these devices are themselves nothing but large conglomerations of quantum objects.

    We therefore have a circle of things depending on each other, even though, unlike in the previous case, mental objects are no longer part of this circle. As a result, neither the phosphor screen nor the minute electron can be regarded as real in any fundamental sense, since neither constitutes a class of objects that everything depends on. What we thought we should take to be the most fundamental turns out to involve essentially what we regarded as the least fundamental.

    In our search for foundations, we have gone round in a circle, from the mind, via various components of matter, back to the mind – or, in the case of the Copenhagen interpretation, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, and then back to the macroscopic. But this just means that nothing is fundamental, in the same way there is no first or last stop on London Underground’s Circle Line. The moral to draw from the reductionist scenario seems to be that either what is fundamental is not material, or that nothing at all is fundamental.



    Proving whether or not reality is an illusion is surprisingly difficult

    Read more: “Special issue: What is reality?

    PHILOSOPHERS are not being rude when they describe the approach most of us take as naive realism. After all, when they cross the street on the way to work, they tend to accept implicitly – as we all do – that there is an external reality that exists independently of our observations of it. But at work, they have to ask: if there is, how can we know?

    In other words, the question “what exists?” reduces, for what in philosophy passes for practical purposes, to questions such as “what do we mean by ‘know’?”

    Plato had a go at it 2400 years ago, defining “knowledge” as “justified true belief”. But testing the justification or the truth of beliefs traces back to our perceptions, and we know these can deceive us.

    Two millennia later, René Descartes decided to work out what he was sure he knew. Legend has it that he climbed into a large stove to do so in warmth and solitude. He emerged declaring that the only thing he knew was that there was something that was doubting everything.

    The logical conclusion of Descartes’s doubt is solipsism, the conviction that one’s own consciousness is all there is. It’s an idea that is difficult to refute.

    Samuel Johnson’s notoriously bluff riposte to the questioning of the reality of objects – “I refute it thus!”, kicking a stone – holds no philosophical water. As Descartes pointed out a century earlier, it is impossible to know we are not dreaming.

    Nor has anyone had much luck making sense of dualism – the idea that mind and matter are distinct. One response is that there is only matter, making the mind an illusion that arises from neurons doing their thing. The opposite position is “panpsychism”, which attributes mental properties to all matter. As the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington expressed it in 1928: “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff… not altogether foreign to the feelings in our consciousness”.

    Quite separately, rigorous logicians such as Harvard’s Willard Van Orman Quine abandoned the search for a foundation of reality and took “coherentist” positions. Let go of the notion of a pyramid of knowledge, they argued: think instead of a raft built out of our beliefs, a seaweedy web of statements about perceptions and statements about statements, not “grounded” in anything but hanging together and solid enough to set sail upon. Or even, possibly, to be a universe.

    This idea is circular, and it’s cheating, say critics of a more foundationist bent. It leads back to the suspicion that there actually is no reality independent of our observations. But if there is – how can we know?

    Mike Holderness is a writer based in London





    Dig deep enough into the fabric of reality and you eventually hit a seam of pure mathematics

    Read more: “Special issue: What is reality?

    WHEN Albert Einstein finally completed his general theory of relativity in 1916, he looked down at the equations and discovered an unexpected message: the universe is expanding.

    Einstein didn’t believe the physical universe could shrink or grow, so he ignored what the equations were telling him. Thirteen years later, Edwin Hubble found clear evidence of the universe’s expansion. Einstein had missed the opportunity to make the most dramatic scientific prediction in history.

    How did Einstein’s equations “know” that the universe was expanding when he did not? If mathematics is nothing more than a language we use to describe the world, an invention of the human brain, how can it possibly churn out anything beyond what we put in? “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here,” wrote physicist Eugene Wigner in his classic 1960 paper “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics, vol 13, p 1).

    The prescience of mathematics seems no less miraculous today. At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, physicists recently observed the fingerprints of a particle that was arguably discovered 48 years ago lurking in the equations of particle physics.

    How is it possible that mathematics “knows” about Higgs particles or any other feature of physical reality? “Maybe it’s because math is reality,” says physicist Brian Greene of Columbia University, New York. Perhaps if we dig deep enough, we would find that physical objects like tables and chairs are ultimately not made of particles or strings, but of numbers.

    “These are very difficult issues,” says philosopher of science James Ladyman of the University of Bristol, UK, “but it might be less misleading to say that the universe is made of maths than to say it is made of matter.”

    Difficult indeed. What does it mean to say that the universe is “made of mathematics”? An obvious starting point is to ask what mathematics is made of. The late physicist John Wheeler said that the “basis of all mathematics is 0 = 0”. All mathematical structures can be derived from something called “the empty set”, the set that contains no elements. Say this set corresponds to zero; you can then define the number 1 as the set that contains only the empty set, 2 as the set containing the sets corresponding to 0 and 1, and so on. Keep nesting the nothingness like invisible Russian dolls and eventually all of mathematics appears. Mathematician Ian Stewart of the University of Warwick, UK, calls this “the dreadful secret of mathematics: it’s all based on nothing” (New Scientist, 19 November 2011, p 44). Reality may come down to mathematics, but mathematics comes down to nothing at all.

    That may be the ultimate clue to existence – after all, a universe made of nothing doesn’t require an explanation. Indeed, mathematical structures don’t seem to require a physical origin at all. “A dodecahedron was never created,” says Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “To be created, something first has to not exist in space or time and then exist.” A dodecahedron doesn’t exist in space or time at all, he says – it exists independently of them. “Space and time themselves are contained within larger mathematical structures,” he adds. These structures just exist; they can’t be created or destroyed.

    That raises a big question: why is the universe only made of some of the available mathematics? “There’s a lot of math out there,” Greene says. “Today only a tiny sliver of it has a realisation in the physical world. Pull any math book off the shelf and most of the equations in it don’t correspond to any physical object or physical process.”

    It is true that seemingly arcane and unphysical mathematics does, sometimes, turn out to correspond to the real world. Imaginary numbers, for instance, were once considered totally deserving of their name, but are now used to describe the behaviour of elementary particles; non-Euclidean geometry eventually showed up as gravity. Even so, these phenomena represent a tiny slice of all the mathematics out there.

    Not so fast, says Tegmark. “I believe that physical existence and mathematical existence are the same, so any structure that exists mathematically is also real,” he says.

    So what about the mathematics our universe doesn’t use? “Other mathematical structures correspond to other universes,” Tegmark says. He calls this the “level 4 multiverse”, and it is far stranger than the multiverses that cosmologists often discuss. Their common-or-garden multiverses are governed by the same basic mathematical rules as our universe, but Tegmark’s level 4 multiverse operates with completely different mathematics.

    All of this sounds bizarre, but the hypothesis that physical reality is fundamentally mathematical has passed every test. “If physics hits a roadblock at which point it turns out that it’s impossible to proceed, we might find that nature can’t be captured mathematically,” Tegmark says. “But it’s really remarkable that that hasn’t happened. Galileo said that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics – and that was 400 years ago.”

    If reality isn’t, at bottom, mathematics, what is it? “Maybe someday we’ll encounter an alien civilisation and we’ll show them what we’ve discovered about the universe,” Greene says. “They’ll say, ‘Ah, math. We tried that. It only takes you so far. Here’s the real thing.’ What would that be? It’s hard to imagine. Our understanding of fundamental reality is at an early stage.”

    Amanda Gefter is a writer and New Scientist consultant based in Boston, Massachusetts






    We have witnessed a growing interest in experimental philosophy in recent years. The field that has commonly been referred to as “experimental philosophy” has so far been taken to include empirical tests of intuitions concerning philosophical concepts, such as knowledge and intentional action. There are lots of other areas of philosophy that rely on empirical data and even studies and experiments. Several years ago, it became slightly uncool to do philosophy of language in complete isolation from the empirical findings in linguistics. Many philosophers of language decided to conduct their own tests of certain word groups or word constructions. There are also several folks working in philosophy of mind who take empirical data in neuroscience and psychology seriously. Some of us also conduct our own studies in these areas.
     Despite this new movement, philosophy cannot yet be considered an empirical science or an area that reliably relies on empirical data. I don’t think that things will change in this respect any time soon. Part of the reason for this has to do with how colleges view departments and the traditions of those departments. In psychology it is common to have yearly start-up money, graduate research assistants, advanced statistics software and a subject pool. If you are in a philosophy department (only), chances are that you don’t receive any of this. Personally, I have been fortunate because I have joined positions in psychology and neurodynamics. These positions come with some access to subject pools, advanced statistic software, research money and research assistants.

    But my impression is that there is very little internal or external funding available to philosophers who want to conduct empirical studies. In some sense philosophy is doomed by its heritage. This is unfortunate.









    If you think that’s cool…

    Have you ever heard of Gravity Probe B? Let me tell you alllll about it, because it’s basically the best thing that’s ever happened.

    So Einstein’s theory of gravitation says that stress-energy creates curvature in spacetime, yeah? It then goes on to make predictions about how freely falling bodies will move in the presence of gravitation. These predictions were tested over and over again, and found to be very accurate — far more accurate than Newton’s approximation — but the real meat of the theory, the geometric aspects of it, remained untested. We knew that stuff moved in accordance with the predictions of general relativity, but we didn’t know whether the underlying conceits of general relativity were pure mathematical abstractions, or whether they were a reflection of actual, tangible reality.

    Let me change gears for a second and talk about what curvature means. There’s this notion called parallel transport. Imagine a vector somewhere in space; it has a magnitude and a direction. We don’t care what the magnitude of the vector is, so let’s just assume it’s a unit vector or whatever. All we care about is the vector’s direction.

    If you move the vector around a closed loop in space — any closed loop, be it a circle or a curlicue or a zigzag or whatever — in such a way that for every infinitesimally small distance you move it, you do not change the direction it points, then when it gets back to where it started you’d expect it to point in the same direction it was pointing at the beginning, yeah?

    Well, it turns out if you move a vector that way — if you parallel-transport it — around a region of curvature, it will not end up pointing in the same direction. It’ll be pointing in a different direction, despite the fact that as you moved it you kept its direction constant.

    This is just an intrinsic property of curved Riemannian manifolds. It’s just a thing that happens when you’re working in a space that isn’t flat.

    Well. Along come these bright people, mostly working at Stanford if I remember correctly. They had the idea to send a gyroscope up on a satellite and let it orbit the Earth and see what it does.

    A gyroscope, because of its angular momentum, resists any external force that would change the orientation in space of its axis of rotation. If you build a gyroscope that’s sufficiently precisely machined, and sufficiently friction-free, it becomes a sort of absolute compass, always pointing the same direction in space.

    The gyroscopes that were built for this experiment included the most perfect spheres ever machined by human beings. These spheres were small, a couple inches across. But they were so close to being perfectly spherical, if you blew them up to the size of the Earth, the highest peak on the planet would be about six feet above sea level. The spheres were sealed inside a bath of superfluid helium and suspended by an electric field, so the environment they were in was as close to frictionless as it was possible to achieve. These were serious gyroscopes.

    So bam, up goes the rocket, and the satellite goes into orbit around the Earth. They spin up the gyroscopes, pointing them very precisely at specific reference points in space — a star in the constellation Pegasus was one of the reference points, if I remember correctly. And then they just let the satellite orbit.

    If the geometry of space around the Earth is flat, the gyroscopes would be expected to remain pointed straight at their guide stars until some internal perturbation of temperature or pressure disturbed them — which, due to their precision, would have been quite a long time off indeed. But if the geometry of space around the Earth is curved, the gyroscopes should end up slightly off-target, with the amount by which they’re off-target increasing with each orbit around the Earth — each trip, in other words, around a closed path in spacetime.

    And you know what they found? They found that the gyroscopes were deflected from their original orientation. And what’s more, the amount by which they were deflected was consistent with the predictions of general relativity to within one percent. Now, one percent might seem like a pretty big margin of error, but we’re talking about teeny-tiny numbers here, and the observations were within one percent of teeny-tiny of the predictions. It was like firing an arrow from London and hitting the bullseye in Melbourne.

    The Gravity Probe B experiment — which concluded in 2005 — was the first direct measurement of the geometry of spacetime. And not only did the results of the experiment support general relativity, they confirmed it to within aminute margin of error. It’s astonishing, this experiment. We went out and measured the shape of space! And found it to be curved!

    It’s one of the great triumphs in all of science. Here’s a theory that, let’s be honest, is incredibly subtle and esoteric, and that makes predictions that seem literally impossible to test. And some very smart people figured out a way to go out there and directly test those predictions — not indirectly, not by inference, not by correlation, butdirectly. And the results of those direct tests were so close to the predicted values that we can basically call them exact.

    The mind boggles. It really boggles.





    A musician I just discovered, Oren Lavie. Good lyrics. Here a song to all the posts about dreams and dreaming




    Quantum Reality

    “The hints about consciousness are hidden in our existing model of reality. Today’s science as it is practiced assumes an external reality “out there,” existing independently of any observers (and not limited just to human observers). Therefore, the universe is independent of the human mind, even as our minds conceive the theoretical constructs of science. This sounds like common sense. People may be baffled by the riddle, “Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if no one is around to hear it?” but they have no problem with “Did the Big Bang occur if no one was around to see it?” Yes, of course.

    Although at first this seems obvious and reasonable, a fixed, solid, reliable universe is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, whose incredible precision deals with the finest level of Nature, the subatomic domain. In everyday life, we seem to experience a world “out there,” while our own feelings, thoughts, sensations, etc., seem to be “in here.” That’s what we believe and what classical Newtonian physics taught. Quantum physics presents us with a radically different viewpoint: The subatomic quanta whose properties we study in the laboratory are inexorably tied to the act of measurement. The observer is involved in what he observes. Quantum properties exist in potential form (invisible, unlocatable in time and space) until a measurement is actually carried out.”


    Deepak Chopra stuff, but worth considering…






    That should settle it, then?

    Eben Alexander, Harvard Neurosurgeon, Describes Heaven After Near-Death Experience :
    Alexander’s tale is the cover story on Newsweek’s latest issue, which features the headline, “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience Of The Afterlife.” Alexander, a Christian, claims he took the journey to the afterlife when he slipped into a coma in 2008 after contracting a very rare bacterial meningitis.


    puffy, pink clouds…

    pink clouds





    Physicists extend special relativity beyond the speed of light

    Now two physicists – James Hill and Barry Cox from the University of Adelaide in Australia – have shown that Einstein’s theory of special relativity can be logically extended to allow for faster-than-light motion. They’re quick to point out that their finding in no way contradicts the original theory, but simply provides a new aspect of it.


    speed of light



    wmiller on Descartes, in laid-back manner




    I think the Harvard neurosurgeon ‘Heaven is Real’ thing is bullshit. Right, he has his near death experience, but it’s really no different to any common or garden dream, or a lucid dream, or shamanic visionary journey, in what I would call the Otherworld, which, as I understand it, is some sort of subtle realm which intersects with ordinary solid every day reality… think of it as another dimension, which is available to us in certain modes of consciousness.

    This Otherworld has been described by every single culture that there has ever been on Earth, the only people who ever ever denied its existence are the materialist rationalists, of the Dawkins variety, who have over-dominant left brains, and try to squeeze ‘reality’ into a nice manageable logical package where they can feel safe and secure in an orderly world that makes sense.

    Anybody who takes a powerful psychedelic knows that the Otherworld exists, just as surely as people know that this common everyday world of houses and tables and chairs exist.

    Does this common everyday world of houses, tables, chairs exist ? Well, that’s another issue, but it has some sort of substantial quality, and we can interact with it in a fairly predictable manner, so much so that we take much of it for granted. It is indeed miraculous, and it is indeed ephemeral, because, for us, before we were born it did not exist, and after we die it will vanish.

    Back to the Otherworld. I, personally, have absolutely no doubt whatsoever of its existence, and find arguments with those who deny it, to be generally extremely boring. What it is and where it is and why it is and how it is, etc, well, that’s all, as yet, unexplained and mysterious.

    I think that neurosurgeon is just naive and he has not studied the subject in any depth, he’s just grabbed onto a rather trivial personal experience, framed within a traditional quasi-christian cultural trope, and seen an opportunity for a book publishing deal. Yes, rather boring.

    There’s a whole different way to approach this. Rather than the exploration of mental imagery, via NDEs or OOBEs or drugs or lucid dreaming, you can do it via your fully awake and alive normal experience, if you learn how. Learning how is not easy, but can be done. It means finding your soul. That’s a very troublesome term, because everyone immediately thinks in terms of the christian heritage, with all the junk and baggage that comes with that worldview. So it’s preferable to use the term subtle body, but, really, it amounts to much the same thing.

    As a vague hypothesis, I’d suggest that, by prolonged practice, one discovers a means to shift consciousness ( awareness, attention ) away from the usual brain function ( thinking, self-reference, etc ) possibly into another part of the nervous system, possibly the autonomic nervous system.  ( It’s well known and established that advanced yogis can consciously control heart rate, for instance ).

    Then, I speculate, this shift of consciousness permits some direct access to the electro-magnetic fields which surround our bodies, and which appears to be the functioning principle, at least to some extent, involved in chi, qi, ki, prana.

    That’s conjecture, and as good as any other conjecture, because nobody really understands this stuff, and you don’t need to understand it to be able to use it, anymore than you need to understand the mechanics of the inner ear to be able to hear.







    The Measurement That Would Reveal The Universe As A Computer Simulation

    If the cosmos is a numerical simulation, there ought to be clues in the spectrum of high energy cosmic rays, say theorists






    The career of physical medium Indridi Indridason is described in The Icelandic Physical Medium Indridi Indridason by Loftur R. Gissurarson & Erlendur Haraldsson, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, 1989, 53-148. The paper is from Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson’s web site. Indridason’s career as a medium was cut short by illness after only four years. He died in 1912 at the age of 29. During his brief career, he produced most of the phenomena that other physical mediums have produced, including levitations, appearance of lights, odors, direct voice communication, materializations, apports, and poltergeist phenomena. Indridason was Iceland’s first medium and the Experimental Society in Iceland was formed for the express purpose of investigating his mediumship. During his seances, his hands were held by someone selected to be the “watchman” to rule out fraud as an explanation for the phenomena that occured.

    The paper is interesting and entertaining to read …






    Richard Feynman on Lucid Dreaming :

    • In reading through his memoir, it becomes clear that Feynman kept track of his dreams, and even performed reality checks — returning to rooms he had visited earlier in his dream, for example, or testing the limits of his senses whenever he found himself in a state of lucidity. He even describes experiencing something that sounds very similar to the “sleep paralysis” mentioned in the AsapSCIENCE video above, though he never refers to it as such. He even provides some tips on how to avoid some of sleep paralysis’ more terrifying effects:

      During the time of making observation in my dreams, the process of waking up was a rather fearful one. As you’re beginning to wake up there’s a moment when you feel rigid and tied down, or underneath many layers of cotton batting. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a moment when you get the feeling you can’t get out; you’re not sure you can wake up. So I would have to tell myself — after I was awake — that that’s ridiculous. There’s no disease I know of where a person falls asleep naturally and can’t wake up. You canalways wake up. And after talking to myself many times like that, I became less and less afraid, and in fact I found the process of waking up rather thrilling — something like a roller coaster. After a while you’re not so scared, and you beging to enjoy it a little bit.





    Next up in what is quickly becoming a series on heterodox Christologies: Jesus was really a shaman. This claim was found in Norwegian media last week – more precisely in the Sami branch of the state channel NRK’s online news site. The (neo)shamanic healer Eirik Myrhaug went on record saying that he saw Jesus as “a great shaman”: “after all he was 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and that’s a typical shamanic seance”.






    Shamanism and Noh 

    Ralph Abraham∗ 

    July 22, 2012 


    In support of our theory on the evolution of mathematical ideas from pale- 

    olithic shamanism, we are interested in the survival of shamanic ritual elements 

    in the classic theatre arts of Japan. In this short article we describe some of 

    these elements in their historical contexts. 




    PK Parties are events, somewhat unusual events, where people gather together to learn how to perform PK. PK stands for psychokinesis, or mind over matter! PK Parties work the best when people have fun and generate a lot of emotion, much like a party. Thus, I named them PK Parties.

    The purpose of this paper is to give information about the PK Parties, give their history, and provide all you need to learn how to perform PK yourself — even give PK Parties yourself. Over 8500 people have attended my PK Parties as of May 1988. About 85% of them have at least had what I call the “kindergarten,” metal bending experience. These parties are really not about metal bending. They are about learning how to use the power of your mind. Metal is a very useful feedback mechanism. Performing PK is really simple; we do it all the time. Often people are not aware how they can use their PK ability. There are some aspects of learning this technique that can help a lot of people in their daily lives.




    VICE: So, Caitlin. Death to a lot of people is a bad thing. A bummer, at least. What exactly is a ‘good death’?

    Caitlin Doughty: 
    A good death starts when you’re still young. You have to live your life acknowledging that death is inevitable and let it affect your relationships and view on the world. A good death is about planning your death and what you want done with your body and taking delight in it. It’s about the quest to have everything in place – literally and emotionally – when you die. Preparing for death doesn’t mean preparing for some kind of afterlife. Preparing for death is to enhance the life you’re living right now.






    Quantum ‘reality’ keeps getting weirder and weirder…


    “EINSTEIN mockingly called it “spooky action at a distance“: the finding that quantum particles can influence each other regardless of how far apart they are. We can only imagine his horror at a new experiment that extends the idea to time by entangling a pair of photons that never coexisted. As well as expanding the reach of quantum theory’s baffling implications, the experiment could improve long-distance cryptography.

    At the heart of the phenomena is entanglement, in which the quantum states of two entities become linked. The implications of this for spatially distant particles stumped even Einstein, but things got still stranger last year.Joachim von Zanthier of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and his colleagues showed that, in principle, entanglement could also work for particles that have never existed at the same time (Optics Letters, doi.org/bdwpsj).

    Now Hagai Eisenberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and colleagues have done the experiment, via a process called an entanglement swap.”







    Sam Harris on the ‘Heaven’ nonsense..


    “As many of you know, I am interested in “spiritual” experiences of the sort Alexander reports. Unlike many atheists, I don’t doubt the subjective phenomena themselves—that is, I don’t believe that everyone who claims to have seen an angel, or left his body in a trance, or become one with the universe, is lying or mentally ill. Indeed, I have had similar experiences myself in meditation, in lucid dreams (even while meditating in a lucid dream), and through the use of various psychedelics (in times gone by). I know that astonishing changes in the contents of consciousness are possible and can be psychologically transformative.

    And, unlike many neuroscientists and philosophers, I remain agnostic on the question of how consciousness is related to the physical world. There are, of course, very good reasons to believe that it is an emergent property of brain activity, just as the rest of the human mind obviously is. But we know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur. And if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned. I know that we do not understand consciousness, and nothing that I think I know about the cosmos, or about the patent falsity of most religious beliefs, requires that I deny this. So, although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)”




    “As a teenager thinking about the form and structure of what would comprise my forthcoming adulthood, I had a series of what I would call negative epiphanies, or sudden realizations that paradigms that I was being trained into and information which I was studying were dead-ends, otherwise known as bullshit. These negative epiphanies were useful for they left a void in my mind that wanted to be filled. These moments provided and continue to provide an opportunity to replace what I consider false information and concepts with knowledge that I consider more workable.”





    Here is a bit of “no shit, sherlock” – insight from me, recieved this morning, bear with:
    I wanted to post something about “the new age nonsense”, just to irritate the new-agers. But then I hesitated, and thought a bit about why they get so irritated and defensive? And then it suddenly struck me, clearly, for the first time – that all these beliefs are like rope handrails on a jungle bridge, they are there to support when you try to stagger across life.
    No wonder people get upset when you try to shake the rope handrails 🙂

    And then it struck me, that there little point in attacking people’s beliefs, whether they are mythical or logical. As there is little point in attacking people choice of clothes.
    The main exeption to this tolerance or indifference would be when the “believers” try to force their thinking on everybody else.

    ok. good. then that’s dealt with and clarified.
    boy, I’m going to get so enlightened eventually, I’ll become weightless 😉

    Here’s an unrelated video I found while looking for (new age) gobbledygook on youtube – the filming facinated





    Mari, some people have more dominant left brains, like scientists, who are always into unemotional hard logic, and some people have more dominant right brains, they live in a more dreamy poetic reality, and some people switch emphasis during the course of the day, left brain at  work doing mathematics, right brain in the evening reading romantic fiction.

    Neither is right or wrong, just the way we happen to be constructed.



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