It’s not a joke

Harpers has a history of publishing weirdness without comment. You can take it as, “How can people believe this stuff?” or you can take it as “What if this is real?”

The ancients and people in indigenous cultures take psychic abilities as a natural part of their reality. We Western scientific types know that stuff is impossible. Except for the scientists who study the paranormal in controlled lab experiments and consistently find positive results.

Lily Dale Assembly is a community on Lake Erie that has been a refuge for people with extraordinary perceptions since its founding in 1879. In the 19th Century, it was common for intellectuals and scientists to be interested in spiritualism. Charles Darwin, William James, Henri Bergson, George Eliot, Conan Doyle, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Pierre and Marie Curie…

In the 20th Century, we began training posychic abilities OUT of our children, both with a “scientific” education and by rewarding them for paying more attention to their sense perceptions and their logic, less attention to their imagination and intuition.

This Harper’s article is about a summer camp in which kids are encouraged to use and develop the psychic powers that they were born with.

An unlikely application for AI

David Cope, 81 years old today, has led Silocon Valley and the musical world toward a convergence, through a long and progressive career. He began 40 years ago writing programs to extract stylistic information from databases of music and create new compositions in given style. This computer-generated piece starts out like a particular Mendelssohn Song without Words, then goes its own way, while continuing to sound unmistakably like Mendelssohn.

In recent decades, he has created the cyber alter ego named Emily Howell, whose musical compositions fill several albums. Here’s a prelude in its own unique style. Here’s some eerie movie music.

All of this is more original and more emotionally compelling than I would have thought possible.

Perfect fullness that is never depleted

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते ।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam
Puurnnasya Puurnnam-Aadaaya

(Repeat 27 times, then)

Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih

This is perfect fullness. That is also perfect fullness.
From the fullness of divine consciousness, the fullness of the world is derived.
When fullness is derived from fullness, there is no diminution of fullness.

Schrödinger’s Cat and the Secret of Life

Irwin Schrödinger described his Cat Paradox in 1935. You’ve heard the gist described in many ways. In quantum mechanics, if something is possible and something else is possible, it is always possible for the something and something else to exist in superposition. An object can be in two places at once. A proton can be spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. An electron can be spread out all over the space around the atomic nucleus, and a neurotransmitter molecule can be flipped in open and closed configurations.

So Schrödinger described to us a situation in which the Quantum Cat is alive and dead aat the same time. Intuitively, we knew that this made no sense. It had to be wrong.

Resolution of the paradox is simple, but it entails a change in world-view that most (not all!) physicists have resisted mightily. The change is from reductionist-physicalism to cartesian dualism. In other words, physicists want to believe that physical reality is the only reality. Particles and fields, energy, space and time are real, and they constitute a closed causal system, influenced by nothing outside them. Talking about spirit or consciousness or God is a distraction that philosophers might indulge, but physics has no need of these ideas, because the physical world is completely explained in terms of physical variables.

By contrast, dualism asserts that there is a physical world and there is a mental world. Both exist in their own terms, and no description of reality can be complete that neglects one to speak exclusively of the other. There are interactions between mind and matter, without which we cannot understand our world.

(Not incidentally, Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne demonstrated with a 30-year running expermient that the purely mental world can influence physical reality.)

Why quantum mechanics needs a separate world of mind

Schrödinger’s formulation of quantum mechanics was based on a wave function as the primary reality. The dynamics of the world is explained as a change in the wave function, and Schrödinger’s equation describes how the wave function changes from moment to moment. Schrödinger’s equation and his wave function were appreciated and accepted for many months before physicists asked the question, How does the wave function relate to anything that can be measured in the laboratory? It was Max Born who proposed the answer that is still accepted today. He said that the wave function can be evaluated at a particular point, or for a particular configuration, and the square of the wave function then tells you the probability of observing that position or that configuration. Where the wave function is large, the probability of finding the particle is high. “Finding the particle” is a measurement, and the word means what you think it means, but it also has a special significance in quantum theory. 

As long as a system is not being measured, it continues to hum along in a way described by Schrödinger’s equation. But at the moment a measurement is made, the wave function “collapses”. Schrödinger’s equation ceases to be applicable, and instead the system’s wave function is described with all the probability stacked up in one place—after all, you can no longer speak of probabilities when you know 100% what was the result of the measurement.

But what’s so special about a measurement? How can we tell definitively when the world is governed by Schrödinger’s equation and when it abruptly changes its state? Whatever the measuring apparatus is, isn’t it made of physical matter? So it has its own Schrödinger equation and its own probability function. If we think in this way, the system and the measuring apparatus are one system, and that system has its own big wave function. That big wave function never collapses.

Physicists have found many ways to weasel out of this paradox, most involving “decoherence”. It’s clear to me (my personal view, shared by a minority of physicists) that the collapse of the wave function must involve something that’s outside of physics, something that can’t be described by a wave function. My view is that that “something” must be mind, or consciousness, or awareness. A “measurement” must involve a conscious being learning something new. Collapse of the wave function is essentially an interaction between mind and matter.

Resolution of Schrödinger’s cat paradox

Return now to the cat who is in a superposition of being alive and dead. The reason this makes no sense is that someone knows whether the cat is alive or dead. It is the cat who knows. The cat is continually “measuring” itself to determine that its soul is connected to its body. 

“The cat is continually measuring itself to determine that its soul is connected to its body.”

This hints at a definition of life, and a hypothesis about why living things are essentially different from inanimate matter. Living things have an awareness inside them. The awareness is constantly adjusting and juggling quantum probabilities to keep the body alive. This leads us to the Inverse Quantum Zeno Effect, but that’s a topic for another day.

The take-home message is that life is a relationship between consciousness and matter. Consciousness takes up residence within a system and biases the probabilities from moment to moment by “measuring” them. This is a hypothesis, the germ of a theory about why life is a special state of matter.

Schrödinger, late in life, wrote two books speculating about how life works. Francis Crick, late in life, also wrote a book on the relationship between consciousness and living matter. Here’s another book by my new friend, Amy Lansky.


I have been reading (in translation) the original text of the I Ching, a 3000-year-old Chinese compilation of wisdom and divination. I am struck by how often the text calls for xiang 享 , a word that is translated “sacrifice”.

What did sacrifice mean to the Chinese at the time of the first Dynasty? What parts of it resonate with our Western humanistic tradition in the 21st Century? And what parts feel all wrong?

The Biblical idea is to kill an animal and burn it instead of eating it. The food is said to be given to God (or gods) to placate their* anger. Did this tradition exist in China as well?

Helmuth Wilhelm was the first modern translator of the I Ching. He says

“To the authors of the Book of Changes the meaning of sacrifice was not to bring about human happiness or to ward off misfortunes To them, the purpose of sacrifice was to keep open communication with the divine and with the spirits whih inhabit the unconscious world. Sacrifice is an act in which the ommunication is consummated; its ritual leads to the experience of basic unity with the forces beyond the threshold and reasserts man’s participation in this unity, but it is kept clean of specific aims and purposes.”

Helmuth Wilhelm

To the modern scientific sensibility, the Biblical notion feels like cruelty founded in superstition, and Wilhelm’s version is not much better. One thing I appreciate about Wilhelm’s interpretation is that prayer should never seek a particular path to what we wish for, but only the ultimate end itself. The Universe works in unexpected ways.

The modern version of sacrifice? Today, billionaires and robber-barons give some fraction of their windfall profits to vast, world-changing projects. It can be an attempt to broaden their values or it can be a cynical investment in public image.

I am not a billionaire, but I appreciate the priviliged position into which I was born. Living in a spirit of generosity and letting go of money is a part of who I am, and it is a part I struggle with regularly. I gamble with investments and lose. I feel guilty spending money on my own comfort in ways that other people take for granted.

But here’s a part of my practice that works for me. Periodically, I feel worried and fear that I won’t have enough. When I feel that way, I give away money irresponsibly, borrowing to make donations, or running up my credit card. I pick people whose work I admire and organizations that I believe to be important wellsprings of change in the world.

Money comes and disappears in unexpected ways. I don’t do financial planning. Instead, I nurture faith that the Universe cares about me, and that my needs will be provided in unexpected ways. Today, I’m 73 and I still have enough to eat.


* Is God a “He”? Is Elohiym a “they”?

When scientists disagree

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, she is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Arthur C. Clarke

I’d go further and suggest a rule of thumb: When a lone scientist goes against the consensus, be very wary of his opinion. But when there is a 5% minority arguing to overturn an established principle, it’s a good bet that the minority will prevail.

Double birthday

(In my judgment) the two greatest composer of the Late Romantic period were born this day in 1833 and 1840. I’ve recorded two piano pieces in their honor.

Opus 119 was Brahms’s last work for piano (1893). This intermezzo has an energetic, agitato theme at the beginning and end with an unapologetically romantic melody in the middle.

Listen to Intermezzo Op 119 #2

The Seasons is Tchaikovsky’s best-known piano work, a short, characteristic piece catching the flavor of each of the 12 months.

Listen to May

Molecules that evolve

We know that plants and anmals evolve, bacteria evolve, and viruses evolve, all under pressure of natural selection.

In this study, stretches of RNA were placed in a test tube with enzymes that copy RNA. The molecules of RNA evolved into an ecosystem of mutually-supporting molecular species.

from Quanta Magazine

There are two take-home messages for me.

First, this experiment is promoted as a step toward understanding the origin of life. The experiment actually shows how far we are from understanding the orgin of life. These long stretches of RNA are far more complex than any molecular structure that could be expected to arise by chance in an inorganic world. And they can’t reproduce without enzymes that are proteins, not RNA, and which also are far too complex to arise by chance. Experimenters are keeping the test tubes supplied with a continuous source of the replicase enzyme.

Second, even in this simplest of environments, cooperation is already emerging. This contradicts the “selfish gene” dogma which has ruled the community of academic evolutionary science for more than half a century. According to the dogma, evolution promotes selfishness, and even behaviors that look like cooperation must have a selfish advantage for each cooperating individual, or else the cooperation cannot evolve. This is seen to be false even for the simplest molecules, which evolve in short order to become interdependent.

After many years of studying evolution from a theoretical perspective, I have become convinced that the classical processes of blind mutation and natural selection could not account for what we see. I see evidence for Lamarckian inheritance, i.e., that an individual’s adaptations in response to life experience can be passed to offspring. (James Shapiro calls this natural genetic engineering.)

But this effect does not help to explain the origin of life. For this, I think a more radical hypothesis is required. The best explanation I have is that consciousness, independent of matter, is a fundamental element in the fabric of the universe. Consciousness has created life as a home for itself.