Tuesday, August 21, 2012

God Is Retreating

It's getting increasingly difficult to be religious – not that it stops lots of people from persisting – as the progress of science forces God to retreat step by step. In  the world and how we learn it works, God is becoming redundant.

I'm talking mainly about the monotheistic god who is supposed to have created the world out of nothing and continues to watch over it, even to steer everything in it minutely. Other so called religions have a much more complicated or vague relation to reality as we experience it.

Up until the end of the Middle Ages, a creator god was as reasonable an explanation as any to be found. Considering what little people knew about the world's nature, maybe it was even the most convincing explanation.

Not so before the emergence of Christianity, though. The Greek philosophers and many other thinkers had lots of other ideas about cosmology and the nature of existence, where the gods were often quite peripheral (I've written about that here: Cosmos of the Ancients).

But when monotheism took over in Europe, much of the previous philosophy got lost – for a thousand years. God as the only primary cause became the law, enforced by the power of the church as well as that of the worldly government. Any cosmology had to start with God uttering “Let there be!”

And it made sense, because there was no clear alternative that seemed more plausible. In the world impregnated by Christianity, the all-powerful god made some kind of sense and presented answers to the questions asked in that setting.

But in the late Middle Ages, the texts and thoughts of the Greek philosophers reemerged and spread over Europe. They inspired new questions about reality and a growing questioning of the Christian explanation of the world. People started to think outside of the Christian paradigm.

What was the first to be questioned, although the most distant from human everyday life, was the Christian perception of the cosmos: the geocentric perspective, with the earth at the center and the rest of the universe moving around it.

This had been supported by most Greek philosophers as well, but not all of them. And the Greeks had tried to explain how such celestial movements as can be seen in the sky could be natural, of themselves instead of constantly controlled by a god.

Astronomers dared to calculate anew on the movements of the planets, searching for other models than the one Christianity made necessary. Copernicus (1473-1543) was the first to describe a heliocentric perspective, where the sun instead of the earth was at the center. His idea took quite a while to get widely accepted.

The consequence to Christian religion was tremendous, maybe more so than any later scientific revelation. A god who had created the whole world out of nothing as a kind of playing ground for his own image, mankind – why would he not have made their place the very center of the universe?

Was that god to be understood merely as a local god, bound to our planet? Or a very distant god, who created so many things that earth was peripheral?

When Isaac Newton (1642-1727) could calculate the movements of the planets by celestial mechanics, the need disappeared for a god to manually control the orbits of the heavenly bodies, including earth. The universe moved by itself, according to its own laws.

God was degraded from the active doer to little more than a clockmaker, winding up a mechanical clock at the dawn of time and then just letting it tick forever, without the need of any additional divine interference.

Still, there was mankind, the species that God was said to have created in his own image. Nobody could deny that this species stood out from the rest of the world's creatures in a most magnificent way. Although the cosmos moved like clockwork, in little need of divine assistance, surely mankind was its goal and reason, and the proof of a divine task?

Then came Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His theory of evolution introduced the revelation that mankind has not been the same through the ages, but evolved from creatures quite different from our present form. That would be a strange roundabout way for an omnipotent god to create his people.

The continued discoveries in evolution showed another clockwork, from the formation of self-reproducing molecules with increasing complexity, to single cell organisms and then multiple-cell organisms, which continued to evolve into the fauna we find today – and still keeps evolving.

This explanation didn't even need a clockmaker, since what we call life could appear spontaneously in the chemical melting-pot that was the earth already four billion years ago.

So, what was the goal of the whole of God's creation, proved to be quite possible without him. For mankind to appear, he didn't need to do a thing.

Not much was left for him. Really just one thing: the role of the clockmaker, the one making the universal clock and winding it up at the dawn of time.

But in the 20th century, the expansion of the universe was discovered and led to the big bang theory. The emergence of the universe, 13,7 billion years ago, was in no need of a creator god. Nor was the development of galaxies, stars, and planets.

What had been the ultimate doing of a monotheistic creator god, making the universe emerge, was revealed as the consequences of natural causes, physical laws – and not even those were decided by a divinity. They simply appeared in the first moment of the big bang expansion, and could have been completely different, creating an entirely different universe.

Not even the universe was unique.

At this point God is all but retired. He's hiding in the possibility of having been the initiator of the big bang, much like a parallel universe could be. Like the very first moment of the big bang, he has been reduced to kind of a singularity. The only role for him, not already taken over by other actors, is that of the initiator of the initiation of the big bang.

Until we find the most plausible natural explanation for the appearance of the singularity out of which the universe emerged, a creator god is allowed to hide behind it, maybe (but not likely) responsible for nothing more than causing the initial singularity.

He was not even to decide what natural laws were to govern the universe, since those took shape within the first few moments of the big bang. God has become a singularity, a possible, though insufficient, answer to one remaining question our probing minds now focus on.

Either he will do like the universe and expand from that singularity, finding some kind of role of vast consequences in the intricacies of reality at the grand scale – or he does the opposite, and poof, vanishes completely.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Driven by Pleasure

In an episode of Through the Wormhole dealing with evil and psychopathy, a neuroscientist explained how normal people and psychopaths drive their cars. He did so while driving his car. It struck me: Oh, what if he's a psychopath? It turned out he is.

Well, what he himself found was that his brain has the same characteristics as those of a psychopath. That doesn't necessarily mean he will start behaving like one. But it means he could.

Here is an interview with him in Wall Street Journal. He doesn't keep it a secret. Actually, he seems quite intrigued by it.

I was surprised at my sudden impression, telling me that the scientist talking very scientifically about psychopaths might be one, himself. In my mind, I had the impression that he was. When it was revealed that he really was, at least in the sense of his own neurological definition, I wondered what gave me the idea.

He was sitting in his car, driving down the street, telling the camera how normal people relate to other people in traffic. But when he started to talk about how psychopaths relate to the same situation, I got the impression that his level of excitement rose. He talked about them with an ingredient of pleasure.

That could be a core difference between psychopaths and those who are not. The latter can also, occasionally, commit brutal deeds. But they don't enjoy it. The psychopaths do.

That's gotten lost in the conventional descriptions of psychopaths. Mainly, they are described as people lacking empathy, as if that alone would make them do evil deeds sort of automatically. Hardly. They do them when they think they can get away with it. And then, they make sure to enjoy them.

It's about lust and its gratification. We all do a lot of things we regret, because lust pushes us. When the promise of pleasure exceeds a certain level, we can't help ourselves. You don't have to be a psychopath, stripped of empathy, to have it happen to you. But there has to be lust involved.

We must have the lust for brutal and sadistic actions to consider them. Some people do, but not many at all, fortunately. I doubt that it's because they lack empathy. Instead, maybe it's just that their lust far exceeds any moral or empathic inhibitions.

My impression, which I don't claim to be able to prove, is that ethics are fundamental in us all. Really fundamental. We can't ignore our sense of right and wrong, unless our brains are so damaged we probably forget how to breathe. It's a basic component of our species, and it has probably been with us for millions of years.

Sadly, we don't have a completely trustworthy instinct as to what is right and what is wrong, in the altruistic perspective. We are easily fooled, even by ourselves. But we can't escape making an ethical judgment on everything we do. That just doesn't cease, not even in psychopaths.

I know that a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists would disagree. But there you are. I have not found reason to change my view.

Biologists zoom in on animals triggered by inner reward systems, such as dopamine and the like. It's not very flattering that such simple chemistry would lead our actions. But we are animals, too.

We're strange creatures, because we're both animals and conscious beings trying to live by reason. We even call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, the wise wise human. But repeating it is no magic formula turning us into complete intellectual beings.

We still have the emotions and they are responsible for most of our actions, especially the spontaneous ones and those we can't stop even if we know we should. Our wisdom is mostly at work making up excuses for them.

We are particularly vulnerable to irrational, emotional action when we convince ourselves that our conscious minds are in control. When we pretend not to be animals. That's when our actions can get out of control, simply because we refuse to see that it's possible, so we are unprepared.

When analyzing psychopaths as well as the rest of us, we need to recognize the animal in ourselves to have a chance of understanding why we behave the way we do. There's no guarantee that we can change if we're just aware of our animalistic instincts, but we're sure to fail if we're not.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That Damned Why

Continuing to watch episodes of Through the Wormhole, I sense a pattern. The science described mainly speculates about the how, rarely about the why. That might be increasingly insufficient as we get closer to the inner workings of the universe.

Science continues to embrace the Aristotelean principle of cause and effect – something making something else happen – but since the dawn of the industrial revolution, research has more and more been done with the object of putting to knowledge to practical use. Like investment in pursuit of profit.

This modern science has led to spectacular changes in society. Airplanes fly around the globe, radio waves fill the atmosphere with all kinds of entertainment, complicated machines pop out of factory assembly lines in a beat similar to that of disco music. There's no denying that science during the past 200 years or so has changed society and life in it more than even visionaries imagined beforehand.

It has been accomplished by substituting “why” with “how” in most research. How do things work, and how can we improve them for our benefit? That's all fine.

But our quest for truth about the universe and about ourselves – that demands a different perspective. We need to follow why to its root. Like children do when pestering their parents with a new why after each answer. We need to drill ourselves down to the core, although it's utterly frustrating.

The ancient cause that Aristotle and others speculated about was something with an intention. The cause intended the effect and aimed at it, as if by a will of its own. That was the nature of the cause. The primary cause, at the beginning of the long chain, was often described as some kind of divinity, a will behind the emergence and workings of the universe.

Today, though, we see cause more like a mechanism that just happens to have this and that effect. The universe is seen as a machine, because we live in the age of machines. Surrounded by a multitude of machinery, our minds are trapped by their limited cause and effect, and we think the whole world must be the same, somehow. It might be true, but we should avoid taking it for granted.

Maybe there's even reason to question the very idea of cause and effect, something happening because of something else. It may be true for the machines we make, but they are the results of how we think, so they may be anomalies to the normal working of the universe. Artifacts.

Could it be that everything in the universe behaves as it does, because of itself? Or all things just relate to all other things without any one of them being the initiating force? They're just engaged in a cosmic dance where no one leads and no one follows.

I have no idea. The thought just keeps popping up in my head that we're still thinking inside the box, taking things for granted that need to be questioned. Maybe also the question why is irrelevant, and should be replaced by something less restrictive, like: What's really going on?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pseudoscience and Pseudoskepticism

Yet an episode of Through the Wormhole, this time about the sixth sense and some similar parapsychological concepts. Some quite spectacular claims were made in the episode, so I had to check out the sources. Not that solid.

It seems the TV show preferred sensation to sincerity. That's what usually happens when parapsychology is treated by the media. Well, that's how the media treats just about everything.

But parapsychology tends to upset more than natural science ever does. It upsets lots of scientists, who regard it as utter nonsense, and that upsets a lot of people who put their trust in it. The battle has been going on since the 19th century, at least.

One problem with parapsychology is that it's been professed by so many cheats, calling themselves psychics and making a living out of it – or just using it to put some sparkle in their lives.

But that's possible because the established scientific community, as well as organized society as a whole, doesn't want to have anything to do with it. So, it's virgin territory for scoundrels and the superstitious. If parapsychological claims were elaborately examined by the scientific community and debated in a scrutinizing way by the media and society as a whole, it would clear up quickly.

I'm not saying that it would necessarily lead to all claims of parapsychology being refuted. That remains to be seen. Anyone insisting that nothing of it can be true is just as unscientific as they claim parapsychology to be. History has repeatedly shown us that unbelievable stuff turns out to be real. We simply don't know until we know.

In the 1970's, probably as a reaction to the growth of New Age movements, skeptic societies started to be formed with the explicit intent of disproving paranormal claims of any kind.

The first one was the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), founded 1976 in the USA. Carl Sagan and several other famous scientists joined it.

Already in 1980 they had a scandal, when trying to disprove an astrological claim (the so-called Mars-effect) and cheating when doing so. One of the founding members, astronomer Dennis Rawlins, reacted and left the organization.

They later changed their name to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). It's an organization with a mission. They don't want to check if paranormal claims can be true. They want to prove them false. That's not a scientific attitude.

They (and similar organizations) even insist on additional demands on the verification of paranormal claims. Carl Sagan said: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

What's that? Extraordinary evidence. Either there's evidence or there isn't. Otherwise it would be like demanding a part to be more than 100% of the whole. What they mean, without admitting it, is that they just don't want to change their paradigm, their idea of how nature works.

That's the problem with parapsychology. If it is real, something is very wrong with how the natural sciences describe reality. The consequences to established scientific definitions would be enormous. Precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis – that's not possible within the realm of present physics.

So, why would a physicist want to examine such things, running the risk of having to throw his own knowledge into the fire?

There's another problem with examining the paranormal, linked to that of its threat to the present understanding of physics. Since it presupposes that our laws of physics are incomplete or even faulty, how to be sure of an isolated, reliable testing method? We may be able to design a test that hints at something paranormal happening, but it's much more difficult to decide what paranormality that is.

Most people claiming to have paranormal abilities also state very firmly that they don't have complete conscious control of these abilities. They are dependent on vague circumstances, such as mental calmness, a positive atmosphere, an object of heightened significance of some sort, et cetera.

Since we deal with the psyche, that can come as no surprise – but it fits poorly with the trial and error of natural science, which demands the repetition of identical experiments with identical outcomes. The psyche is not that clinically consistent.

For example, when testing clairvoyance or telepathy with cards marked with different simple symbols, again and again to exclude statistical coincidence – that's boring. What mind works well when bored?

Natural science deals with the palpable world (mostly), whereas parapsychology by definition is something of the psyche, which is rarely palpable and its workings are often seemingly irrational, impulsive, and constantly changing.

To a great extent, psychology meets with the same problem. Statistics may show the likelihood of some or other human behavior, but the individual is still quite unpredictable. There are so many exceptions to any psychological rule, natural scientists sneer at it.

The only reason psychology is sort of accepted as a science is probably because it adheres faithfully to the paradigm of present natural science. Psychology makes sure not to be a threat or a challenge to natural science, so it's allowed in the temples of learning, albeit in the foyers.

How many theories in psychology would really pass Carl Sagan's demand for extraordinary evidence? Coming to think of it, how many theories of natural science would?

These last few years, I've noticed the term pseudoscience used for the whole bunch of ideas that do challenge or oppose the natural science paradigm – parapsychology, astrology, and so on. That's a strange term. Pseudo means lying or false (intentionally false). So, false science. That's stating that it can't be true, also that its proponents really know this. Quite an insult – and quite unscientific, of course.

According to Wikipedia, where the term is used a lot, pseudoscience is a word dating back to at least the late 18th century. But my impression is that it's been pretty much asleep, waking up the last decade or so. I suspect the use has been encouraged by the skeptic organizations, but I don't plan to spend time investigating it.

I checked Google Trends, but that starts at 2004. Pseudoscience as a search word has had about the same popularity all through that short period. But when trying the Swedish synonym, pseudovetenskap, Google Trends showed that its use started in 2009. Before that, nothing.

I compared with the word parapsychology and found that since 2004, its use on search engines has decreased tremendously – also the Swedish equivalent. Since the last year or so, pseudoscience is searched more than parapsychology. The derogatory term replaces the name of the discipline.

On the other hand, the word metaphysics remains much more popular than both of the aforementioned (probably mostly thanks to Aristotle), and the word paranormal practically hits the ceiling – increasing tremendously from the fall of 2009.

That's all worth studying, but I move on.

Pseudoscience is a ridiculous term, but it has its counterpart: pseudoskepticism, which was introduced in 1987 by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, who was actually one of the founding members of CSICOP. He used it for skeptics who were just out to deny paranormal claims, whatever science they had or lacked to support it.

That term makes more sense than pseudoscience, since it points out individuals instead of complete fields of research. Still, it's not likely to move the investigation forward. And according to Google Trends, it hasn't caught on.

A serious investigation of the paranormal is still distant.

Time Is But a Measure of Change

I saw another episode of the thought provoking TV-series Through the Wormhole, and here I go again: this time about time. I doubt that it exists as an entity of its own. It's just a convention we choose in order to note and measure change. That's all there is: change.

I find it amusing that Einstein, who revolutionized time by making it relative, only implies it in his famous formula E=mc^2. Energy is timeless, so is mass, but c, which stands for the speed of light, needs time to have a quantity. It travels this distance in that time.

What really happens is that the light changes location, being constantly on the move. It was there, now it's here. And it went this way. That's just as true for any object in the universe. Planets move, galaxies move, continuously. Time is a way of describing change, but it isn't the change. The movement is. Time is a tool by which the observer can measure the change.

Light is again odd in this perspective, since time ceases to exist at its speed. If you could travel at the speed of light, time would stretch out infinitely. You would remain in the instant forever. That makes it impossible for you to at all perceive that you exist. So, light has no subjective existence. It only exists to us observers, traveling at a lesser speed.

So, with Einstein's formula as well as with other methods, we measure time by an entity that is timeless by nature.

Anyway, Einstein was far from the first to realize the relativity of time. That's how we all experience it. Sometimes it's slow, sometimes fast, and sometimes we forget about it completely, as if it ceased to exist for a while. The Wormhole episode mentioned how time goes faster the older we get, even presenting a formula for it. Alas, I know that.

What we relate to, and the whole universe with us, is change. If nothing changed, it would be like no time. Existence would be completely immeasurable. In all practicality, it would not exist.

The complexity of the universe as we experience it allows for countless changes. Every situation is in some way unique, separable from every other event. The sun rises and sets, day after day, but the view is never identical.

We live in a cosmos where its parts interact in patterns so complicated that no pattern is repeated. It's caused by what's called entropy, but I prefer the word disorder. Cracks in the uniformity increase. That causes change, which gives us the ability to perceive time passing.

Choosing time as a measure of change, we jump to conclusions about the universe. Because time consists of a past and a future, we search for a beginning and an end. Change in itself makes no such demand. We also expect some kind of continuity and consistency – again, that's nothing change in itself postulates.

Everything changes. Time, too. Maybe there could suddenly be a change of change, so that it stopped. If so, there would be no way of observing it.

The idea of change being a core ingredient in the world is well-established in ancient Eastern thought. It's even the title of one of the oldest Chinese books, I Ching, The Book of Change, traditionally used for divination. If you want to understand what might happen, you must start by accepting that everything changes, whether you like it or not. Be consoled by the fact that if there were no change, we wouldn't be.

Time is a line from the past to the future, but we really have no other experience of it than the moving point on the line that is the present. At any given moment, we are in the present, with both the past and the future elsewhere. That's how we experience it. Time is not a boat ride, but a stream passing us as we stand firmly in the middle of ourselves.

I look in the mirror and can compute, although with some difficulty, that I've grown older. Well, my face has. But me, I'm the same. It doesn't happen to what's really me, whatever that is. Time is no illusion, but it's not an adequate description of what we go through in our lives. It's just one way of looking at it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

We See the Aliens When They Cease to Be Alien

SETI is a worldwide science project searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. They listen for radio signals, but that's jumping to conclusions. Radio communication is a recent thing on earth, applied for no more than a hundred years or so. Who says we'll even stick to it ourselves, much longer?

The science of exploring the unknown is complicated, mainly because we don't know what we don't know – so how to find it? Usually, we try to apply things we are familiar with and just multiply them or make a theoretical assumption of what they will be when developed much further.

But our own history tells us that very often we don't progress by developing old solutions. We jump to new ones. New methods, new technologies, new discoveries. So, if we search for intelligent life in the universe, we can't limit ourselves to the method that happens to be the favored one on earth at this point in time.

Radio waves travel by the speed of light, of course. That's fine when communicating around the earth. Any destination on earth is reached in a fraction of a second. But for sending messages across the cosmos, that speed is completely unsatisfactory. It takes four years just to send a message to the nearest star outside our solar system, and just as long to get the response.

Advanced civilizations wishing to communicate with other planets in our galaxy or beyond it have to find other methods. They must go beyond the speed of light, or there's not much point to it. They wouldn't even know if other civilizations still exist, once they hear from them.

So, to search for extraterrestrial intelligence we need to search for communication exceeding the speed of light. We don't know how to do that yet, but therefore it's also too early to call it impossible.

As far as I understand, the speed of light is not the highest speed there can be. The present laws of physics just state that something traveling below that speed can't accelerate beyond it – and vice versa. But there can be things traveling constantly beyond the speed of light. Maybe that's what interstellar communication is all about.

I don't know. I just have fun speculating. I'm watching episodes of Through the Wormhole and my mind goes in a spin.

As for aliens, I was sure of their existence already in my early teens. To me it was simple: There are so many stars in the universe, surely also even more planets, considering how they are formed, so there just has to be a multitude of planets with life, some of it surely at least as intelligent as ours.

To my surprise, physicists at that time (the late 1960's and early 1970's) were much more doubtful, not to say categorically opposed to the idea. I think they were irritated by the speculations going on in science fiction, which they tended to regard as amateurish nonsense.

They've changed since. Today, most astronomers take almost for granted that there is plenty of life in the universe, and therefore by necessity also intelligent life. They agree to the simple statistics of it.

But aliens don't come and greet us, as far as we know. They're just as elusive as the gods we've worshiped through history. Astronomers explain it with the law of physics rejecting travel even close to light speed.

The aliens might be spying on us from their own planets. But if so, they only have our radio signals to read, which have only been transmitted for a little more than a hundred years. That doesn't go very far in our vast cosmos. So, most of the aliens are yet to discover us.

Still, I would be surprised if it turned out that we've never ever been visited by aliens. If they could reach us, they'd be a lot more advanced than us, so they'd make sure not to interfere with our emerging culture – like we do when we study wildlife in nature. They would think that there's a time for everything and nothing good comes out of rushing things.

But they would be curious. Life is like that. Once you're aware of being alive (see my previous blog post), your curiosity grows and you want to know all about it. So, of course you want to have a look at other species reaching the same awareness.

They might even secretly interfere at times of dire need, just to make sure that we survive as a species – in spite of our self-destructive tendencies – because they are curious to see how we turn out, eventually.

To find out if aliens from a civilization that has to be superior to ours have visited us, we have to think like them. That's not easy. So, it's kind of a self-adjusting principle: We find them when we are able to understand them.

To Be Aware of Being

I'm watching episodes of Through the Wormhole, reminding me of the cosmological speculations that have been a kind of background radiation in my brain since I was a tiny kid. I'm sure we all have them. This time, the subject is life and its origin.

I wonder about the definition of life. Scientists talk about an entity separate from the world around it, by some kind of membrane, surface, skin, whatever. That entity must be able to reproduce. And that's about it.

The old Greeks were more interested in the ability to move and do something. What makes me able to go where I want to go, instead of just lying there like a stone on the ground? That was the mystery to them. Aristotle talked about a first mover, sort of getting that stone rolling.

Life is hard to define, because it's an old concept that emerged from ancient perceptions of the world. To primordial man you lived or you were dead. In case of the latter they believed that the something making you alive had left the body, for example as a spirit of some kind. How else to explain that someone who was so lively suddenly does nothing and starts to decay?

That gave birth to ideas of an afterlife. Also the fact that dead people were still present in the memories and dreams of the ones still alive. So, death was just as much a mystery as life, and the border between them unclear.

But contemporary science asks the question about life from a biochemical perspective. Amino acids and so on. DNA. That's all fine, but it's far from life as we experience it, and even farther from how our predecessors saw it.

The universe is full of chemical processes, many of them very intricate even without DNA. Movement and change are everywhere. What really stands out is not the complexity of the chemical process, but the fact that we humans are aware of our own existence.

That's the essence of life to us, that's the root to mystery and miracle. We are aware of ourselves. As far as we know, the stone on the ground is not. Nor is the river floating through the landscape, not even the earth and the sun. Probably not DNA either, or any one of the millions of cells in our bodies.

Regarding other animals, I don't know, but I suspect that they have some kind of self-awareness. Anyway, we humans definitely do, and wrestle with it from cradle to grave. That's what makes us alive: we know we are. Otherwise we would not ever be able to ask ourselves what life is.

I think there are very intriguing things to discover if the search for the origin of life is modified into one for the origin of beings becoming aware of themselves. How did that awareness come about and what is its real nature?

Big Bang Is No Answer

Big Bang is presented as a theory about the origin of the universe, but it has no answer to that question. It may explain the emergence of the world, but not from where it came and what was before it. So, we still have no clue.

The scientists try to escape the question by claiming that there was no time before Big Bang, wherefore there's no point in asking what was before it. That's actually the same excuse Augustine had already in the 4th century about a divine creation: God created time when He created the world, so there was no before.

But the old Greeks were aware that something cannot come out of nothing. The Big Bang must have come out of something, which initiated it. We may be stuck in this universe, in the middle of that cosmic explosion, but none of it could happen without something preceding it. In all eternity, some Greeks claimed.

A divine creation has the same problem: If God created the universe, what created Him? If He has existed forever, we still have no clue as to what He is and why He is.

Fundamentally, the question about a world origin, which has been asked in most cultures and eras of the world, is a paradox. It's like when kids ask why, why, why – at some point, there's no answer.

If existence is bound by the fundamental laws of cause and effect, as Aristotle claimed, we are as far from understanding the first cause as he was. Everything that exists must have a cause for its existence, so there's just no beginning.

I think we get stuck in this paradox because we believe in the concept of time, as sort of an entity of its own, a force ticking on from the past to the future. But time is really just a convention we have agreed on. A way of measuring change: Before it was like that, now it's like this. Without change there would be no time. Actually, without change there would be nothing at all.

So, the basic principle of the universe is change. Things move from here to there, things expand and contract, things get hot and then cold, things grow and decay. What happens is the change. The natural laws we have come up with so far are mere measurements of change. We should try to find the law of change.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Mama, Just Killed a Man

Writing at some depth about the Queen anthem Bohemian Rhapsody would take a book, so here I will have to settle for just touching at the subject. A few thoughts on the lyrics. They're just as impressive as the music.

Hearing the song usually brings tears to my eyes. That's not only because of the beauty of it, but it strikes me as so overwhelming that something like it can come into existence. Against all odds – the firm doubts of the record company, the sheer unlikeliness of a weird young man named Farrokh Bulsara convincing a rock band to call itself Queen and record something akin to opera.

He decided to call himself Mercury, the messenger of the gods – but I guess he was thinking more of the metal sensitive to temperature and liquid already at -38° C. Maybe he had once made the experiment I did as a kid, putting a lighter under a thermometer, which cracked instantly as the mercury forced its way out. That's rock'n'roll.

Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded as early in their career as 1975, but Freddie Mercury is said to have worked on it since the 1960's.

Although the theme of the song doesn't imply it, I've always had the impression that it related to the Vietnam war, where young Americans – barely more than teens – were sent away to kill complete strangers far away, and get killed by them. That terrible situation, in the midst of a culture finally talking freely about love, gnawed on everybody's minds, not just the Americans risking to be drafted.

Even if the Vietnam war is not intended, it was certainly in the background when Freddie Mercury wrote the song.

Simply put, Bohemian Rhapsody is about a boy whose life is ruined when he kills somebody. Normally, what's to like about a boy doing that? But this murder seems accidental, involuntary, like that of a drafted soldier in a war he didn't understand the reason for. And his helplessness, his despair, is announced by his exclamation right after the humble and poetic prelude: “Mama, just killed a man!”

He tells his mom. What grieves him the most is that she will grieve it. He explains: “Mama, didn't mean to make you cry.” He want her to carry on, “as if nothing really matters.” That's his unselfishness in the middle of his selfish occupation with his own suffering as a consequence of his act. He's not at all concerned with the victim.

He sings: “Mama, life had just begun, but now I've gone and thrown it all away.” He doesn't speak of the life he ended with the bullet, but his own future, which was smashed in the same instant. He confesses: “Mama, I don't want to die! I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all.”

That's the logics of despair. Dying is so horrible, he wished not to have lived at all, so that he didn't have to face it.

We feel for him, because the first thing he does after the killing is shouting out to his mother. He's a kid, longing back to the security of home and his mother's bosom. His shot cut the umbilical cord. Suddenly, he's thrown into the adult world, and he has already failed miserably.

Immediately after confessing that he wishes never to have been born, the song shifts to sort of a mock opera, which is the madness he falls into as his world breaks apart. He's frightened, but it's also magnificent. Life and death, heaven and hell, all of it seems to collide inside his chest.

Then he cries for mercy. “I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me.” He wonders if they can let him go. But no, regardless of how much he begs. He is doomed: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.”

Expecting no mercy, he turns to anger and the song changes to hard rock. He's defiant: “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye!” He won't accept it, and thinks about fleeing.

But that moment of fierce defiance passes quickly. He has to accept his fate, since there's no way to escape it. When he finally gives in to it, the only thing left for him is to tell himself that he's indifferent. It's the last resort. Accepting the unavoidable fate is coming to terms with it as if willingly walking towards it, as if he didn't care at all: “Nothing really matters to me.”

The six minute song is a drama, the tragedy of one young man whose life is ruined by one sudden confused deed, like a mere whim, and how he struggles to come to terms with it. Although few of us have had that experience, we can all relate to it. Life is lived under the sword of Damocles. Anyone can be struck by it at any time. What to do but sing about it?

Here's the original video of Bohemian Rhapsody (on YouTube, the whole text is below the video):

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mental Narcissist

I watched all the episodes of the first four seasons of The Mentalist, the police procedural TV series. It's catchy. But it's not about a mentalist. It's about a raving narcissist.

The main character Patrick Jane, played bullseye excellently by Simon Baker, is a reformed conman psychic now consulting the police, helping them solve murders, while he is obsessed by revenge against Red John, the monstrous serial killer responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter. A juicy setup.

The crime stories are retro – skipping the CSI lab procedures, going back to the whodunit of writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Solving the mystery by contemplating and observing the people involved. That's a nice renaissance.

But chasing villains is not what makes the series magnetic. It's the mentalist, solving crimes by old deduction and by playing tricks, flashing an irresistible smile while bending the laws as much as any criminal. He behaves like a sociopath, not the least bit inhibited by justice or police ethics.

He's obviously very fond of himself, even when depression hits him. He behaves as if he's the only real human being in the world, and the rest of us are mere spectators of a lesser species. That's narcissism.

That's what the show is really all about. Narcissism, being intoxicated by the admiration of oneself. Patrick Jane is full of it, albeit in a very charming way, like a rascal boy reminding us that life is but a game. But he is a time bomb.

Narcissism may seem like a joke, but it's a mental condition with distinct hazards, especially when combined with a dose of paranoia. Jane's arch enemy Red John makes sure of that.

The secretive, unseen super villain is also evidently a narcissist, tremendously fond of himself and of forcing his impression on everybody – especially the one to whom he feels akin. He should, since they suffer from the same delusion.

So, the only proper ending, when ratings drop and the series approaches its unavoidable cancellation, is to reveal that they are both the same person, Patrick Jane and Red John. Maybe a split personality thing, or just a delusion gone haywire. He's chasing himself, because in his narcissistic universe, it's the only one worth the effort.

Although the creator of the series, Bruno Heller, is equipped with some guts, as can be seen in his former series Rome, I wonder if he dares to let The Mentalist reach that natural conclusion.

He might chicken out by revealing Red John as the twin brother of Patrick Jane or some compromise of that kind, but what he really should do is to go out with the bang of exposing Jane as the serial killer. The obsession of a narcissist, creating an alias of no less brilliance than his self-image.

In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy the series, although I'm frequently irritated by sloppiness in making the plot plausible, and some side-stories that are far too conventional to fit in this setting. Side-stories must relate to the basic theme of the show, or they're nothing but distractions.

At length, maybe what remains the most attractive in the series is the acting by Simon Baker. His smile is so genuinely devilish in all its charm, his posture and attitude fit the character so well, it's hard to imagine that it's not 100% typecasting. That's good acting.

And it's mesmerizing how his face turns from that careless rascal into the despair of someone who has lost everything, in spite of all his superior competence, at moments when he is harshly reminded of the tragedy in his past.

I can see a few more seasons of that before getting bored.