December 17, 2010
The other day Sandy sent me an email asking me if I’d write a post on absolute truth. I responded to her and had planned to post something up on my site on the same topic. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy to do so. Well, tonight I’ll write up a few thoughts.
I wonder sometimes if we search for absolute truth because we fear change. We search this world for something concrete – something we can use to get a solid footing. I find change to be one of the most difficult things to think about.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
– W.H. Auden, Lullaby
The worldview I was taught as a child had a lot more certainties and comforts to it than how I see things today. There was an absolute moral law, good and evil, and an eternal paradise for those who followed those laws. The Earth and all of the universe were snapped into existence, as were all the different forms of life we see throughout the Earth. Everyone’s life had a plan and purpose to it. The grand architect had thought out every little thing. Every time something bad would happen to me, my mother would always tell me, “Don’t worry. There’s a purpose for everything.”
These days I can’t see the world the same way. Comforts of those sorts come at a high price – stupidity and stagnation. A long time ago I wrote a post on life having a purpose, and I concluded that to look for a purpose in your life is to ask to be bound by fate. In other words, if your life has some sort of destiny, if you don’t follow that plan, you’re bound to be miserable and never reach your full potential. It’s antithetical to freedom. This sort belief is commonly held by those with religious convictions and is associated with faith, but I believe it’s actually the opposite of faith. If faith is the belief in things you can’t see, then why can’t you believe in yourself, and believe that you can make yourself into something you’re not now?
“All that we are not stares back at what we are.”
– W.H. Auden
If you study biology, you find that life is a complex, ever-branching tree. It’s constantly changing. With each new generation there are variations and change. Over incomprehensible lengths of time, the life on our planet can change into things beyond what you’ve ever imagined. To think that simple cellular life like bacteria, given sufficient time, will start to stick together and form huge colonies which we call life. Mindless matter on its own accord, by its very chemical properties, leads to conscious sentient life-forms such as us and the dinosaurs.
If you study the Earth, you find that the landscape of our planet is in constant change. Even the ground beneath our feet is a slow moving fluid with new earth rising to the surface and the old earth being sucked downward at subduction zones, making its way back into the mantle. The climate is no different. There have been times in our planet’s history where it was a giant frozen ice-ball. In its early stages it was a molten inferno.
Our universe is also undergoing constant change. All you have to do is look out of a telescope, and if you’re clever enough to know what you’re looking at, you can see the progression from near the beginning of the big bang (the cosmic background radiation), to the development of the first stars and galaxies, all the way to today. Even when you look out onto a field of grass, each blade represents a different time period. Light takes time to travel. Whether an object is near or far, they’re all coming to you in discreet packets, all from different eras of time.
All you need to do is spend a little time studying astronomy and astrophysics. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at its center the most bizarre object. So much stellar mass has collected there that the force of gravity has smashed it into a singularity, forming a “black hole”. If you look at the orbits of stars near the center and calculate their velocities through shifts in their spectra, you find that four million suns are crammed into a tiny ball. As this strange object spins, space and time warp and bend (Whatever that means… Oh, time bends? Oh, and I can build a hallway that loops back on itself in a sort of four-dimensional doughnut? You don’t say). It may well be a gateway to a “baby” universe. Some physicists believe our universe was born by the reverse process. The black hole sucks matter in and spews the matter into an alternate universe in a big bang. The “universe” as we know it likely isn’t a uni (one) – verse. It’s probably a very complicated, ever-changing multi-verse.
The Earth will eventually be incinerated as our sun moves off the main sequence toward the red giant phase. Our world is a temporary, transitory, ephemeral stage.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Oh, I must say I find it all bizarre. Some ten years ago I set off to find the “truth”. Everything I’ve found is bizarre. As some people search for something in life, most of them turn to love. When you study neuroscience, the same exact brain activity which takes place when someone shoots up on cocaine happens when people fall in love. People endlessly struggle, hoping their brains will release those reward chemicals and send them off into ecstasy. But in the world of pointless toil and struggle, giving you that rush all the time won’t do. You have to earn it. So off people go in search of happiness, their brains wired in such a way to constantly pursue one another, and every now and then they’re happy. That doesn’t always last though.
I spent most of today reading evolutionary psychology. If you want to know the truth about this world, then I recommend studying it. If you want to find joy in life through love, then I don’t recommend studying it. Love is something you don’t want to examine too closely. Just trust me on that one. You’ll see all the reasons women find certain types of men attractive, and why men prefer certain types of women, and then you just find yourself sick to your stomach and abhorred at what you really are. I’m sometimes ashamed to be a man. The world would be terrible if we followed the instincts as they are in us. We have no choice but to repress our instincts, but that too puts us under psychological duress. The human condition is something to behold.
So I find myself out late at night, exhaling a cold plume of smoke. Then I walk out into a remote field and lay down and look upward at the stars. That’s when I think of Auden’s poem The More Loving One.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
– W.H. Auden, The More Loving One
And as I pointed out to Sandy, even the things we think we think we know, we don’t really know. The brain is a sort of clever charlatan. We see the light bouncing off of the surface of objects and then our brain reconstructs a virtual world for our conscious experience. We don’t see the world as it is. When you see, you’re not even directly seeing the light which came in contact with your eyes. Your brain is like a computer running a complex software program, and the data has been manipulated and distorted in all kinds of ways before it makes it to consciousness. You have different brain cells dedicated to seeing individual patterns oriented at various angles. I wish my scanner was working. I’d scan you guys some visual cognition tests to show you the effects. I’ll have to work with what I can find online. Take this “illusion” created by Akiyhosi Kitaoka. I put “illusion” in quotes because an illusion is simply your visual cognition system failing to properly translate the colors into the world as it really is. The gray lines separating the checkers definitely look tilted downward don’t they? It almost looks like the game-map in the first level of classic game Donkey Kong. You’ll probably be surprised to find out that they’re not tilted. They’re perfectly straight.
It’s a little sloppy, but all I did was open it up in Microsoft Paint and chop out the checkers using the rectangle tool. In one rectangular swoop I chopped out each section. There’s no tilt in the lines. I’d love to explain to all of you why this happens, but that’ll have to wait another day. I’m completely intrigued by this. Or check out this amazing drawing by Maurits Escher.
Look carefully at the top staircase. At first you’re going up the stairs (or down the stairs?), then you’re at the bottom… but you never traveled back up… *brain fart* There’s your spatial system interpreting the color contrasts and failing you. Here’s a staircase you can keep walking down but never make it to the bottom (and apparently, never have to walk back up either). I think it’d be pretty epic to play Q-bert on these stairs.
Your brain is a virtual reality machine. It interprets colors and processes them into a spatial environment – in this case, an impossible one. I might be going crazy, but I think this entire world we’re all in at the moment is a giant illusion. I say it’s an illusion because illusions are when your brain processes what it senses in the wrong way, giving you an incomplete or wrong picture. My brain is telling me “this is the world”, but it’s a trick, just like these drawings. Oh, it’s real, in a sense, but it’s not the complete picture. Like Newtonian physics, it’s a crude approximation which only applies to certain conditions. I think if I could step out and see the world in a deeper light, I’d see that time doesn’t flow how our brain tells us it flows, and that space is deeper than the 3D world we all think we inhabit. I have an almost neurotic desire to figure out that puzzle. I want to figure out the space-time fabric and rip open a wormhole and warp across the room.
I’m driven like a mad man to understand how the brain processes space and time, and how mathematics and physics can represent the universe. As Bertrand Russell put it, “I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.” All that weirdness of quantum mechanics and relativity draws me in like a curious schoolboy. I want to understand it, but when I come to questions like these, I find myself back to those early epistemological debates of philosophers like Kant. I can’t use the “automated” spatial and time brain-systems. You can’t “intuitively” understand it. I have to deduce it all through pure logic and mathematics, using clever thought experiments to help guide the way. Like I posted not too long ago, there’s areas of our brain which processes this sensory information, giving us a spatial orientation. If I can just understand how that process works in detail, and combine that with what we know from physics, I think maybe I can help solve some of the weirdness in quantum mechanics. Maybe I can even help unite quantum mechanics with Einstein’s relativity. Maybe. I can’t find anything more interesting to do. Some people find ecstasy in love, or playing music — I find ecstasy in figuring out how my brain works and understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe. It may all lead to nothing, but I’m having a grand old time.
Since we’ve been talking so much about change and illusions, I leave you with a quote by Katherine Mansfield.
“Everything in life that we really accept undergoes change.”
– Katherine Mansfield