Friday, October 29, 2010

The Limits of Thought

The link at the bottom is to a radio phone-in show exchange that occurred on 20 October, 2010 between Australian trade union leader Kevin Bracken and Melbourne’s 774 ABC show presenter Jon Faine.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard felt it necessary to dismiss Mr. Bracken’s beliefs, briefly outlined to Mr. Faine, as “stupid and wrong”. Shadow Attorney General Robert Clarke said Mr Bracken's comments were a direct insult to Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The Australian trade union secretary, Brian Boyd, said Mr Bracken did not speak on behalf of the organization, and that "The official Trades Hall position is not to entertain that theory". MUA union national secretary Paddy Crumlin also distanced the union from Mr. Bracken’s comments.

No-one suggested that Mr. Bracken had every right to express these views, or that the behaviour of Mr. Faine, the phone-in talk show presenter, had been anything other than exemplary in attempting to first ridicule and then silence him. I am instantly reminded of the recent WikiLeaks scandal, in which Hillary Clinton was twice quoted in a BBC newscast as condemning the exposure of American government skullduggery in the “Iraq Diaries”, and never a word of condemnation of what the leaks revealed.

While all of the above-quoted reactions can themselves be defended as free speech, they share the common characteristic that they were all attempts to guide the public into channels of opinion that are considered “correct” by our political leaders. The beliefs uttered by Mr. Bracken on the public airwaves were not mainstream beliefs, should never have been heard in such a forum, and it was felt immediately necessary to inoculate the public against them.

The Australian reported that the Federal Opposition, however, went further, with Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg asking Ms Gillard in Parliament what action she would take against Mr Bracken “to send a message that such remarks are unacceptable”. This strikes me as a very small step short of banning altogether the public declaration of views such as those held by Mr. Bracken. In Europe, as you probably know, it is now illegal to declare publicly any disbelief in the Jewish Holocaust. In Muslim countries, of course, there are similar injunctions against defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, and much more besides.

And I think this brings us to the point of this little brouhaha. Mental freedom, like other kinds of freedom, has limits. We’re not generally aware of this, because it’s not, mostly, in our nature to test the limits of mental freedom. Indeed, those limits very much define who we are. Outside them lies madness, the world of crazies and lunatics, a mental cliff which consists of nothing other than disobedience to the strict limits every culture imposes on thought. Mostly, we swim apparently entirely freely in this shared stream of thought. And that very freedom gives it the feel of objective reality.

But the very real social and cultural constraints on thought – even in our so-called democracies - are every bit as absolute as those which govern our bodies. We may swim freely between the mental banks set by our cultural mainstream, but any attempt to change the course of that stream and our voice will be swiftly drowned out.

The present example of thought control is fairly typical in that it staunchly avoids any appeal to the physical evidence which one might suppose a science-based culture would feel it necessary to marshal to support censorship. In fact, it’s quite striking how little part physical evidence plays in the structure of our most cherished beliefs. On the other hand the example is remarkable because the subject matter censored does not, apparently, involve the protection of Australia’s interests. Why did first Mr. Faine, and shortly thereafter all these public figures, feel it necessary to so thoroughly silence Mr. Bracken on a matter seemingly only affecting another nation?

I offer two reasons. First, Mr. Bracken is something of a public figure himself, and so his views may (and indeed did) have wider impact than those of a mere nonentity. Second, the dam that Mr. Bracken proposes breaching will inevitably cause political waves which will spread far further than the borders of America.

The reaction of Jon Faine, the show host, is singular also in its sudden intensity. It’s almost as if Mr. Faine feels as much threatened by Mr. Bracken’s remarks as if he had declared the Holocaust a hoax (Faine is Jewish).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Our experience tells us that the physical world is solid, real, and independent of us. Quantum mechanics says, simply, that this is not so.
[The Dancing Wu Li Masters – Gary Zukav, p.78. Bantam Books, 1986.]

There’s a lot I want to write in this blog, about the impermanence of “facts”, the importance of authority, the equivalence of consensus and "truth", and of course the 9/11 elephant that’s still hiding conspicuously in your living room. But it’s been hard to know where to start. Whenever I feel the urge coming on an internal voice interrupts me: “Nope, you can’t say that until you’ve explained this!” So then I ponder “this” and realize that it, too, requires preliminary explanation.

So, it looks like we’re going to have to go back to first principles. Which actually suits me just fine, as one of the reasons I started this blog was the conviction that our foundational Western belief in “scientific objectivity” is leading us literally into a dead end, and to rescue the situation we all need to recognize this belief we have in an independent, objective reality for the harmful prejudice that it actually is.

I need some authority behind me on this one, so in this entry I shall quote from one of a small handful of books that have made a great impression on me; The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. The quote at the top concerns the foundational paradigm I want to get at first, and Albert Einstein has more to say about it –

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.

Zukav adds –

Most people believe that physicists are explaining the world. Some physicists even believe that, but the Wu Li Masters know that they are only dancing with it.

And a page further on – is no longer evident whether scientists really discover new things, or whether they create them.

It’s easy to skim over this stuff without taking in the paradigm-smashing import of what, with considerable scientific authority, is being said. Zukav states the shift of focus now required of us –

“Participator” is the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics. It strikes down the term “observer” of classical theory, the man who stands behind the thick glass wall and watches what goes on without taking part. It can’t be done, quantum mechanics says.

Quantum mechanics leads to the possibility that reality is what we choose to make it. I repeat, this is not New Age mumbo jumbo. This is respectable physics (though not in the conventional sense). Because gravity will act on you whether you’re a skeptic, a True Believer, or a careless goat, philosophers have been led to conclude that the universe goes heedlessly on its way regardless of what we do, and scientists to believe in the existence – somewhere - of “absolute objectivity”. Objectivity tells us that the world is “out there” and we – the (mere) subject, whose interests and concerns have no real weight at all – are “in here”. Objectivity supposedly involves eliminating the prejudices of the one doing the observing.

Our daily experience seems to allow for this. The world “out there” seems – no, surely, is! – undeniably real. But the effort to eliminate the subject that experiences this undeniable reality itself involves prejudice. The prejudice of the scientist is, paradoxically, his supposed objectivity. One of the aims of science has been to get us off our high horse - to dethrone us from our pre-scientific occupation of the centre of the universe, and organised religion as the ruling authority of that occupation. Science has sought to replace the absolute of religion (God) with the absolute of objectivity (Flatland): that which is true for all observers. He who can claim objectivity can claim to know the truth, or at least the path to it. And so we face today a new hegemony; that of objective science, which - I am reliably informed by a follower of science - is above mere opinion, and whose truths, therefore, are incontrovertible. But let me again quote Zukav -

In fact, it is impossible to be without an opinion. An opinion is a point of view. The decision itself to study one segment of reality instead of another is a subjective expression of the researcher who makes it… According to quantum mechanics there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture.

The new physics is based not upon “absolute truth”, but upon us. It comes as an enormous relief to me, as I hope it does to you, to realize that at least some of the science that has been mostly engaged since Galileo in relentlessly relegating humanity to an ever smaller and less significant role in the universe, now supports the idea that we are after all needed, in order to bring the universe into existence in the first place.

Zukav first published The Dancing Wu Lee Masters in 1979. He based much of it on experiments that were being performed fifty years and more previously. Back in 1958 Niels Bohr had written, in Atomic Theory and Human Knowledge, that quantum mechanics, by its essence, entails "a radical revision of our attitude toward the problem of physical reality." That was more than half a century ago. I don’t believe that any such “radical revision” has yet permeated the brain cells of the public at large, or even of those who consider themselves followers of science. In fact, I think most people feel they have physical reality figured out just fine; it’s other people that have all those crazy ideas and beliefs. Indeed, has the belief that whole swaths of the human population are just plain crazy ever been so prevalent as it is now, in this supposedly scientific age? Zukav remarks -

The more clearly we experience something as “nonsense”, the more clearly we are experiencing the boundaries of our own self-imposed cognitive structures. “Nonsense” is that which does not fit into the prearranged patterns which we have superimposed on reality. There is no such thing as “nonsense” apart from a judgmental intellect that calls it that… Nonsense is nonsense only when we have not yet found that point of view from which it makes sense.

In general physicists do not deal in nonsense. Most of them spend their professional lives thinking along well-established lines of thought. Those scientists who establish the established lines of thought, however, are those who do not fear to venture boldly into nonsense…

Out of the flow of raw experience we form idealizations to explain the world. These idealizations are of such rigid durability that, when subsequent experience contradicts them, we question the validity of the new data, rather than the validity of our idealized abstractions. What we defend as “objectivity” is part of this inevitable prejudice.

Now, with that briefly dealt with, if not entirely out of the way, perhaps I can begin.