Friday, April 16, 2021

Gravity. Bet you fall for it too

Gravity: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives

Brian Clegg
Non-fiction, 335 pages

Books like this don’t have happy endings. In fact, they don’t have proper endings at all. They begin with questions and end with even more questions. I like to read them anyway.

Clegg begins with history: What were the earliest notions of gravity and how did they evolve? When people think of gravity they often think of Isaac Newton, but the idea of gravity had precedents in ancient Greek thought. Later, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and others elaborated on the ideas that later influenced Newton. Then in the twentieth century, Albert Einstein introduced an entirely new framework for understanding gravity.

 About the time Einstein was tackling gravity, other scientists were developing quantum physics. Now a new problem arose. Einstein’s gravity is very good at explaining the behavior of large objects like stars and planets, while quantum physics can account for the behavior of small objects like atoms and particles. However, the two theories don’t play well with each other.

 In the latter half of the twentieth century string theory was developed as a means of unifying the two theories. String theory, however, introduces a number of unanswerable questions.  Clegg discusses several newer theories that may help resolve the problems of string theory. One of these was inspired by graphene, a one atom thick layer of graphite. When graphene is cooled to an extreme temperature, it appears to violate the rules of special relativity. Peter Horava wondered about the implications of this finding. Einstein gave us the concept of space-time. Horava’s theory breaks space and time apart again. By doing so, he is able to make general relativity and quantum physics work together.

 All of the recently emerging theories will require further research. Gravity, the weakest of the four forces, has remained elusive. Gravitons have been hypothesized, yet never found.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Ephemera? I don't think so

Brain Wars the scientific battle over the existence of the mind and the proof that will change the way we live our lives
Mario Beauregard
Non-fiction 250 pages
HarperOne. 2012

Mario Beauregard introduces his book stating, that according to materialist science only the brain exists; that mind, soul, and consciousness are ephemera produced by the brain and as such, cannot exist independently of the brain. The Cartesian model of brain/mind dualism is false. Only the brain exists, nothing more.

This is essentially the view taken by several materialist theories. The author argues, however, that none of these theories provide a satisfactory answers to what David Chalmers calls the "hard problem "of consciousness which ponders how experience arises from brain processes.

Chalmers is a philosopher. I am not. I wonder if subjective experience isn't just another ephemera produced by the brain. On the other hand, my subjective experience seems real enough that I wonder if those who question the materialist view are correct after all. Beauregard claims that, "multiple lines of hard evidence show that mental events do exist and can significantly influence the functioning of our brains and bodies. They also show that our minds can affect events occurring outside the confines of our bodies, and that we can access consciously transcendent realms—even when the brain is apparently not functioning."

I'm not sure that I buy the first of Beauregard's premises, that mental events exist and can influence body and brain. In the first chapter, "The Power of Belief to Cure or Kill" he shows how Voodoo can kill and placebos can cure. But how does this refute the materialists? Why can't mental events and beliefs be products of the brain, and therefore ephemera?

In his sixth chapter, Beauregard cites psychic (or psi) phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis as evidence that consciousness exists apart from the brain. Since psi phenomena are non-local, how can they be produced by a local mechanism such as the brain? Although Beauregard's argument has become more compelling, I am still inclined to reject it.

Many skeptics reject the existence of psi phenomena. However, Beauregard and others make a compelling case for its reality. Although early psychic researchers were sometimes taken in by charlatans, contemporary researchers use more rigorous methods. Using sophisticated procedures to insure accuracy, they still achieve results that are highly unlikely to be due to chance.

Today, it is not the psychic researchers but the skeptics who are biased. Psi is an established fact. However, the fact that it occurs does not mean that it occurs frequently and dependably. It remains a rare human experience. Does it prove that consciousness can exist independently of the brain? I don't think so. People have claimed to pick up radio stations through the filings in their teeth. Perhaps the brain occasionally acts like a radio and picks up non-local information. That wouldn't prove that consciousness exists apart from the brain.

In his seventh chapter, Beauregard makes his most persuasive point. If consciousness is merely a phenomena of the brain, how is it that people report being conscious during near death experiences? More remarkably, how is it that they report such vivid experiences when their brains are working at greatly reduced capacities?

Other books have addressed these questions. One such book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience", examines near death experiences (NDEs) in great detail. Author, Kevin Nelson neatly explains all the phenomena associated with NDEs as products of the brain responding to particular conditions. Although he dissects each phenomena thoroughly, his cumulative explanations do not adequately explain the detailed and complex narratives that some people have reported after returning from the brink of death.

It is because NDE narratives can be so complex and detailed that I am inclined to think that diminished brain function can only explain the grosser aspects of NDEs and not their details. However, other factors may be involved. Perhaps in some cases NDE memories are simple confabulations, false memories invented by troubled brains to explain what they can't understand.

Beauregard presents several very compelling cases of NDEs. One such is the case of Pam Reynolds. Prior to brain surgery she was chilled to a point of near-death. Blood no longer pumped through her brain. Her eyes were taped shut, yet she reported observing her operation while outside her body. Is this a case of invented memory, or did it actually occur? If so, does this prove that consciousness exists independently of the brain?

For his final arguments, Beauregard looks toward mysticism and quantum physics. In 1976, biomedical researcher and atheist, Dr. Allan Smith had a life changing mystical experience while observing a sunset. While NDEs are often reported after body and brain trauma, there was no apparent cause for Dr. Smith's experience. Throughout history people have had mystical experiences in which they perceive themselves to be one with everything and no longer confined by a mortal human existence. Psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, gave the phenomena a name. He called it Cosmic Consciousness.

Early in its development, quantum mechanics encountered a problem—one that remains a mystery to this day. The problem is this: the act of observation influences the phenomena that is observed. Scientists have attempted to explain this in a number of ways, but never to everyone's satisfaction.

Some people claim that consciousness affects external phenomena, yet this is only one way of viewing the interconnectedness of observers with observations. It may be that the human mind lacks sufficient language or logic to understand the reality. It may be that the theory of quantum mechanics is missing an undiscovered piece. This is what Einstein thought.

Einstein knew that quantum mechanics allowed for the possibility of entangled particles. These are particles that mirror each other, seemingly instantly and at any distance. Einstein and his two collaborators wrote that because non-locality, or "spooky action at a distance" isn't possible, then something must be missing from quantum mechanics.

Einstein was wrong. During the final years of the 20th century, non-locality was proven to exist. The implication of non-locality is that everything is connected and indivisible. That means the mystics are correct. Each of us is indeed one with everything. Consciousness is not dependent on the brain.

Yet countless books on neuroscience make it plainly clear that if certain regions of the brain are damaged, then profound changes in personality emerge. The same can be said for changes in sense perceptions, speech, mobility, etc. How then, can it be said that consciousness does not depend on the brain?

Books like this, as well as those which attempt to prove an opposite view, often fail to define consciousness in a thorough manner. An initial omission of definition flaws the ensuing discussion. Whether consciousness is ephemera produced by brains, or whether it is non-local and nondependent on brains, is a question that can't be resolved until we agree on just what consciousness is.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Cut them down to size

Illustration of USA wealth curve 2016
USA wealth curve 2016



V.O. Diedlaff is free on Kindle April 9
When shrubbery gets overgrown it must be pruned. Same goes for big corporations sprouting monopolistic tendrils. But it's easier to prune a garden than an economy. About half a dozen companies buoy up the value of the stock market. Of those, five are major tech companies. They trade as AAPL, MSFT, AMZN, GOOGL and FB. Most, if not all, of these engage, or have engaged, in monopolistic practices.

Now and then these companies come under scrutiny, but little ever gets done. If one political party has a good idea, the other calls it a partisan ploy. One big reason our politics is so partisan comes down to the influence of large unregulated corporations. Today there are no fairness doctrines to constrain broadcast media, and no rules at all for social media.

Aside from partisan politics, trust-busting doesn't come easy. To tilt at financial monoliths without regard as to where their rubble will topple would be dangerously quixotic. Monopolies must be disassembled carefully. Adding to a hesitancy to disassemble them is the unspoken fear of unleashing the Invisible Hand.

I hope some day to be able to prove my belief that bad old ideas become parasites that stunt the growth of new thoughts. Adam Smith used the term Invisible Hand only twice in his writings and never in the context in which it's popularly used. The idea that an Invisible Hand will balance financial markets in lieu of regulating them has never been tested. That's because financial markets have always been regulated. When regulations were weakened to allow the Invisible Hand more freedom to balance markets, lenders and borrowers got greedy. The result was the Great Recession of 2008. When the government realized that banks were too big to fail — that if the banks failed the greater economy would collapse — it rescued them financially. Institutions were enabled while common folks lost their homes. Enamored of their bonuses, bankers quickly returned to believing in the balancing Invisible Hand.

Because they were too big to fail, the largest financial institutions should have been reorganized. They weren't. Small competitors can play a bit dirty without disturbing the economic order, but when large companies do so, they have become monopolies, and must be cut down for the social good.

It's high time for companies like AAPL, MSFT, AMZN, GOOGL and FB to face regulation and partial disassembly into companies designed to collaborate and compete with smaller entrepreneurs. Just like the Tooth Fairy, there is no Invisible Hand. It's a myth the greedy promoted while grabbing advantages for themselves.

America needs a more balanced economy; one with a larger middle class and reduced levels of both poverty and opulence. Pruning monopolies like the big five will help achieve this but it's not enough to rebalance our economy. According to Economic Policy Institute:

"In 2019, the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 320-to-1 under the realized measure of CEO pay; that is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a big increase from 21-to-1 in 1965 and 61-to-1 in 1989."

In 1965, a worker in 1965 whose boss made 21 times his salary could be invited to his boss' home for dinner. In 2019, a worker earning 320 times less than his boss is unlikely to ever meet him. Not only has the degree of income inequality increased enormously, class distinctions have grown, and our sense of community has shrunk. Back in 1965 the wealthiest paid high progressive taxes. They may have complained, but they didn't suffer all that much. We need to tax wealth to prevent it from growing into a weed that disrupts social harmony.

Lastly, a Hands-On effort to balance our economy will work faster and more efficiently than an Invisible Hand ever will. Yet we need to be cautious. The Soviet planned economy didn't work well. It might work better today because of our abundance of internet driven consumer data. Still, we shouldn't attempt it. When Capitalism excels it 's because competing businesses create innovation. Innovation stops happening when companies grow too large. We need to encourage innovation and that means more entrepreneurs and fewer corporate monoliths.

But we won't have more entrepreneurs without the right economic conditions. While many entrepreneurs start with little capital, they can't start at all if they live from one paycheck to the next. Universal Basic Income (UBI), or similar stimulus programs could allow people to take entrepreneurial  risks without risking everything. Larger organizations could receive government startup funding. A helping economy unleashing creativity and innovation is what we need to reverse climate change and restore American prosperity.


V.O Diedlaff is author of, We Can Fix It: Reclaiming the American Dream.