In other cultures, schizophrenia is a gift

I have sometimes wondered why schizophrenia survives in the human gene pool.  Perhaps it is a way of knowing things that are not accessible to the five senses, but that are supremely useful to a community (even if that knowledge is less dependable than the five senses).

Phil Borges tells about visiting shamans the world over, experiencing firsthand their trances and the knowledge that comes through them, asking their stories and (usually) traumatic childhoods.

Cosmologists shaking in their boots

Cosmology is arguably the most ambitious of all the sciences. It is built on astronomy, to be sure, but also a great deal of particle physics and quantum theory in energy regions where we have little or no data. 

Learning anything about the universe as a whole requires enormous investments in astronomical observations at all wavelengths and statistical analysis of the collected data. On the back end, these results are compared to computer simulations that start with a few simple assumptions and then follow the physics from the Big Bang to the present, and, finally translate the large-scale picture to a prediction of what we should be seeing as we look out from our present vantage.

Every fact that we have about the universe as a whole was obtained at enormous cost in time, dollars, and effort.  Because the facts we have about the universe are few, in good faith we can only entertain theories that are very simple. For example, if we have 7 measured facts about the universe and a theory with 6 free parameters, the theory is on shaky ground.  If we need 7 free parameters to explain 7 observations, then we are open to the charge that any other theory might serve just as well.

The heyday of physical cosmology began with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 and continued through 1997.  Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was studying astrophysics, there was an enormous sense of excitement and pride because of one agreement between theory and observation.

28% of matter in stars (and interstellar clouds) is hydrogen, and the rest is helium. If we extrapolate the present temperature of the universe (3 degrees above absolute zero as inferred from the cosmic microwave background) back to the big bang, then we could calculate what nuclear reactions would have occurred in the first three minutes that the universe existed. The answer we got was 28% helium, 72% hydrogen. (This story is related in Steven Weinberg’s very readable (but dated) book, The First Three Minutes.)

What happened in 1997 is that two independent measurements of the expansion of the universe both showed that the expansion is speeding up, and this required a negative gravity to explain it. A negative gravity substance was postulated and given the name “dark energy”, and another kind of matter, “dark matter” was needed as well, partially to make up for the dark energy.  We know absolutely nothing about either DM or DE except that they utterly resist detection by any means outside these observations of the structure of galaxies and clusters of galaxies.  

Since 1997, cosmology has been in an uncomfortable zone where science really can’t do business: there are more assumptions that go into the model than there are facts that the model can explain.  Clearly, we need more observations, more facts, more opportunities to test and constrain existing theories.

This has been a golden age for automated observation of the heavens and sophisticated data analysis.  As the new observations come in, The problem has been getting worse. Sober, conservative leaders in the field speak of a crisis in cosmology. Two such articles have appeared in recent months. The one that I just linked (by my Harvard classmate of 50 years ago, Joseph Silk) notes that theorists have indulged in a kind of cheating to make their models appear consistent with the data. They have chosen parameters for the expansion and the density of the universe that are halfway between values measured by two kinds of methodologies. If you compare Observation A to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible. If you compare Observation B to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible in the other direction. But, as Dr Silk points out, if you compare Observation A directly to Observation B, you realize that the two are too far apart to be compatible, and that our research and analysis methods must be called into question.

Dr Becky Smethurst emphasizes that one implication of the new perspective is that the universe is closed and finite and will not expand forever.

The other recent article notes that all of the measurements that pointed to speed-up in the expansion (and the need for dark energy) came from one direction in the sky.  If you look in the opposite direction, the epansion is slowing down. Maybe it’s not that the whold universe is changing its expansion at all, but only that our little neighborhood has shifted direction. But we’re out of the frying pan, into the fire, because the same evidence suggests that the universe may not be completely uniform and symmetrical, as theories have always assumed. The trouble with asymmetrical models is that they call into question the very simple equations that are our hope for staying within 6 or 7 free parameters. There’s a worse problem, actually: The equations of gravity (Einstein’s General Relativity) are so insanely complicated that they cannot be solved even with the largest supercomputers we have except in the case where the equations are enormously simplified either by (1) a very high degree of symmetry that vastly reduces the complexity, or (2) weak fields, called the “Newtonian limit”. If this situation persists, we will have 

Sabine Hossenfelder does a good job of explaining the context in this video.

Sustainable Agriculture

Everybody knows that the predominant agricultural practices around the world are unsustainable. We are losing topsoil every year. The energy cost of fertilizers and transportation has become a large and growing part of the price of food. We need larger and larger applications of pesticides as insects evolve pesticide resistance.

But what can we do? With 7½ billion people to be fed, the human race has become addicted to the high levels of productivity that only high-tech agricultural can provide.

What if it isn’t true?  Suppose that permaculture could be practiced in a way that actually produces more food per acre than monoculture.  That would be one of the most optimistic and hopeful directions for the human future, second only (perhaps) to direct interventions by ET.

Here’s someone who thinks permaculture can beat the “green revolution” at its own game.

Here’s a more fleshed-out version of the argument, in print with footnotes.  Chapter 8

Plotinus’s Instructions for Living

“Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.”
— Plotinus was a Roman Platonist in the 3rd Century AD. He anticipated and rejected the Enlightenment vision of a world unfolding according to physical law alone.

“To make the existence and coherent structure of this Universe depend upon automatic activity and upon chance is against all good sense.”

and again:

“Those who believe that the world of being is governed by luck or chance and that it depends upon material causes are far removed from the divine and from the notion of the One.”


The Meaning of Life

I don’t know that this is right, but it is my best guess, at this point in my investigations, both scientific and introspective.

Consciousness exists independent of space, time, and matter. Life is consciousness taking up residence inside a physical body.

Living cells have some resemblance to machines, but here’s one difference: human-designed machines are engineered for reliability, which means that quantum fluctuations are averaged over so many particles that the machine’s behavior is absolutely predictable. For example, silicon computers are miniaturized until they have a few thousand atoms in each transistor, which is as small as they can be without danger of quantum uncertainty causing unpredictable behavior.

Remarkably, the behavior of living cells is the opposite. They are “engineered” to be hypersensitive to quantum fluctuations, so that a single quantum event can be amplified to cause behavior changes in the cell as a whole. I don’t know that this is true, but there’s some evidence for it. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have argued that quantum events are important in microtubules that carry streams of charged particles in and out of cells. Most directly, Stuart Kauffman has studied the molecular structures of dozens of neurotransmitters, and he concludes that most exist in quantum superposition states, like a computer memory cell that is simultaneously 1 and 0. This is the behavior characteristic of qubits, which are the building blocks of quantum computers. This suggests that the human brain might be capable of a kind of information processing that no conventional computer (technically, a Turing Machine) can perform. But more important: it means that there is an opportunity for a conscious will to intervene behind the veil of quantum uncertainty, and still produce macroscopic effects through a living body.

Illustration to Blair's "The Grave" (first edition 1813); tombstones in smoke and flames; in the foreground a partially draped nude man kneels, his arms raised in the air, seen from behind; a gowned female figure, representing his soul, flies downwards from the sky and embraces him; a proof before title.  1808 Etching

In conventional understanding, physical behavior of quantum-scale objects has an element of pure randomness built into it. If my hypothesis is correct, then what is called “quantum randomness” is not really random, but it is a realm where free will may find an open window into the material world. There is experimental evidence that human intention can modify processes that quantum mechanics calls “random”. Robert Jahn, Dean of Engineering at Princeton University, performed experiments demonstrating exactly this phenomenon over a period of 30 years in the Princeton PEAR lab. And more recently, Dean Radin has compiled evidence that human intention can modify quantum interference fringes.

I am encouraged by this model, rudimentary as it is, because it is both fully consistent with all we know of quantum physics, and also suggestive of ways that we might explore understanding a broad and compelling body of psi research that the mainstream of science has categorically dismissed. (And Yes, this is a proposed solution to the Problem of Free Will, in either a classical, deterministic mechanics or a quantum mechanics that includes pure randomness.)

— Josh Mitteldorf

Does Quantum Mechanics Undermine the Scientific World-View?

It is science, we believe, that has lifted us above primitive superstition to obtain verifiable, objective knowledge. Science, the crowning achievement of modern man. Science, unlocking the deepest secrets of the universe. Science, destined to bring the whole of the universe into the human realm of understanding and control.

Science tells us who we are, how we came to be, where we are going. Speaking of another culture, we might describe these prescriptions and these stories about the way of the world as a religion. For ourselves, we call them truth, fact, science—fundamentally different from other cultures’ myths. But why?

We accord a privileged status to our stories because we think that the Scientific Method ensures objectivity. Ours is more than a mere religion, we think, because unlike all before it, it rests on verifiable, objective truth. Science is not just another alternative; it encompasses and supersedes all other approaches to knowledge. We can examine dreams or Chinese medicine scientifically. We can perform measurements, we can run double-blind studies, we can test the claims of these other systems of knowledge under controlled conditions. The Scientific Method, we believe, has eliminated cultural bias in prescribing an impartial, reliable way to derive truth from observation.

Could it be that the Scientific Method is not a supra-cultural royal road to truth, but itself embodies our own cultural presuppositions about the universe? Could it be that science itself is a vast elaboration of our society’s more general beliefs about the nature of reality?

Our culture is not alone in believing its myths and stories to be special. We think that ours are true for real, while other cultures merely believed theirs to be true. What are our justifications? Perhaps we have simply done as all other cultures have done. Those observations that fit into our basic mythology, we accept as fact. Those interpretations that fit into our conception of self and world, we accept as candidates for scientific legitimacy. Those that do not fit, we hardly bother to consider or verify, prove or disprove, dismissing them as absurdities unworthy even of consideration: “It isn’t true because it couldn’t be true.” It was in that spirit that Galileo’s scholarly contemporaries refused to look through his telescope, because they knew Jupiter couldn’t have moons.

At bottom, the Scientific Method assumes that there is an objective universe “out there” that we can query experimentally, thus ascertaining the truth or falsity of our theories. Without this assumption, indeed, the whole concept of a “fact” becomes elusive, perhaps even incoherent. (Significantly, the root of the word is the Latin factio, a making or a doing,[3] hinting perhaps at a former ambiguity between existence and perception, being and doing; what is, and what is made. Perhaps facts, like artifacts and manufactures, are made by us.)

The whole of 20th century physics invalidates precisely these principles of objectivity and determinism has not yet sunk into our intuitions. The classical Newtonian world-view has been obsolete for a hundred years, but we have still not absorbed the revolutionary implications of the quantum mechanics that replaced it. Amazingly, eighty years after its mathematical formalization, quantum mechanics defies interpretation. Today some five or six major interpretations of quantum theory, along with countless variations, boast adherents not just among amateur philosophers and new-age seekers but among mainstream academic physicists, many of whom eschew interpretation altogether and use the mathematics of the theory in apparent disregard of its ontological significance.

[In quantum mechanics, it is demonstrably impossible to separate subject from object. Yet, &lsquo:objectivity’ is fundamental to the scientific definition of truth. This is a deep crisis. Denial that quantum mechanics could have any implications for the nature of mind, or for paranormal science, or for the origin of the universe has led to a censorship of a great deal of telling stories and experimental data, which undermine the traditional scientific world-view.]

The world-view of classical science I describe in this chapter, obsolete though it may be, still informs the dominant beliefs and intuitions of our culture.

Charles Eisenstein


Biological Inheritance of Memories

The idea that a parent could pass inherited characteristics to a child was thoroughly discredited in the 20th Century. The idea that the parent’s learned memories could be transmitted seemed beyond the pale.

Now experiments have forced us to accept these things as possible, perhaps commonplace, though we have very little idea how they work.  We can talk about small RNA molecules and epigenetic imprinting.  But to conceive that these chemical stamps can form a robust language capable of comprehending a broad range of things that an animal might learn—this strains the imagination.

Article in Quanta Magazine

Micrograph of a roundworm with fluorescent green and red highlights of its germline cells and neurons.