Last year I kicked off the new year with a post about open and challenging questions in physics. Those remain open and challenging and probably will for some time. Some of them are very old (and very unresolved) questions; others were from modern scientific efforts and understandings. It’s possible we may never find answers for some.
At some point, for some reason, about a month ago I started making a list of things I thought were probably true; things I believe in. I say “probably” because, as with those open science questions, we don’t know the truth of these things; many are vigorously debated.
Some of what follows pertains to those science questions, some of it is more social observation on my part.
I’m going to start by transcribing and expanding the list I made. The items are in the order they occurred to me over a period of several days, so I expect this first pass to not have much order or coherence. Some later items key off earlier items, so the list is a bit disjointed.
If I really hate the first pass, I’ll make a second one trying to impose some order. (But given what seems to be the casual order of the day — so many off-the-cuff YouTube videos showing no preparation at all, for instance — maybe I’ll just let it stand as is.)
Anyway, here we go…
The first item reminds me of what probably induced the list. I read How to Change Your Mind (2018), by Michael Pollan, an author whose work I’ve enjoyed before (I especially liked his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire, which was made into a PBS special very worth seeing). The excessively long subtitle of the 2018 book is: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (what is it with these science books with subtitles long enough to act as a Forward).
The book is about how, now that the stink Timothy Leary put on serious psychedelic has finally dissipated, researchers are having some absolutely stunning results with these drugs in fighting addiction and depression. As one of the people Pollan spoke with said, there’s a lot of fool’s gold here, but also real gold. There are challenges to such research — double- or even single-blinding just isn’t possible — but some of the results are notable and certainly suggest further study.
Anyway, one of the key takeaways for me was a deep impression of the power of the mind to create reality. Kant was first to point out what is now common coin: The only reality we know (or can know) is the model of it inside our mind — a model built on inputs from our nervous system and our experience of reality.
This is why what’s called “set and setting” are so important with psychedelic experiences. Bring ugliness into it, and that is what you will experience. Bring beauty and wonder, and that is what you’ll experience.
So the list starts off with one word: Placebo. I believe in the placebo effect. I believe in the power of the mind to affect the body. I’ve experienced it personally, and I’ve observed it in others.
This also applies to much of our spiritual and religious experience. The things we truly believe we make true. If you believe fasting leads to spiritual epiphany, then if you fast, it probably will.
I’ll add that I also believe these experiences, real as they are subjectively, are not objective truth. Spiritual epiphany is not how reality reveals itself to us. (It may, however, be how our humanity reveals itself.)
Well, that used up a lot of my word count. I’ll try for brevity from here on.
The second item is free will. I believe we have it in the commonly understood sense of the term. Specifically, if reality could be wound back to the point of some decision, it’s possible you could choose otherwise. The flip side of the coin is that I do not believe reality is fully determined.
I believe there is only one universe. I do not believe in multiverses of any kind. I consider them, absent physical evidence, as science fiction fantasies. In particular, I do not believe in the MWI. (See these many posts for details.)
[I’ll add that I’m often appalled that people who probably pride themselves on their scientific skepticism fall for such fantasies. I see it as being a form of modern religious belief. Their skepticism blocks spiritual apprehension, so that natural human tendency comes out in these sorts of fantastic “scientific” beliefs.]
Skipping down the list to #7, a related item: I believe reality is dynamic — it “calculates” itself as it evolves. I do not believe in the Block Universe Hypothesis. (I’ve posted about that, too.)
Further, I believe reality is more-or-less as it appears to us. I do not believe we live in some very different reality and are fooled into perceiving an illusion. Our senses are hugely limited, of course, and our personal experience of reality is a wireframe version, but that wireframe is accurate as far as it goes. Our combined history and experience ratify a consensual reality, and our instruments give it increased credence.
I believe in philosophical realism. I do not believe in any form of philosophical idealism. (I also don’t believe in any form of panpsychism.)
I believe in the Heisenberg cut. That is, I believe in the emergent classical universe. I do not believe a quantum description of the universe is meaningful. I do not even believe in quantum cats.
I believe we’ll continue to fail to increase the size of quantum-acting systems beyond some point. Some combination of environmental factors will always confound those efforts. Eventually we’ll be forced to accept cats are always classical. (Maybe then we’ll finally shed the MWI fantasy.)
I believe intelligent life is special. I believe consciousness is special. Very special. And unique. I do not believe consciousness is algorithmic or computational. I believe computational simulations will always fail.
This item ties back to both of the first items. It’s our special consciousness that grants us that stunning power of mind to shape and explore our own reality. And I think it’s the dynamics of the brain that grants free will.
Further, I believe we’re (probably) alone in the galaxy and perhaps alone in an even greater space than that. Easily the local group if not the visible universe. I believe the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that self-aware intelligence is very rare indeed. Rare on the order of 20 or more orders of magnitude. I do not believe in aliens, and I sure as hell do not believe in UFOs (more wishful thinking fantasy).
In some sense, Ptolemy was right: We are the center of the universe. The only center that matters.
I believe time is fundamental and only runs forwards. I believe, despite Einstein’s knitting of space and time, that time is distinct from space and is more fundamental than space. (See these many posts for details.)
I believe our culture has taken a turn for the worse. I believe we’re backsliding into medieval dark ages thinking. I believe if we don’t over-come our worst tendencies as ape-descended shits, we will never go to the stars in any form.
I believe the interweb is both the best and worst thing to happen to humanity. It’s a tool of amazing power that we have yet to tame.
I believe spammers, scammers, and thieves, should get the death penalty. I’m mostly kidding about that, but I believe we need to take the problem a lot more seriously than we do. I believe we need extreme efforts and extreme penalties.
(And, yes, I do still believe in the death penalty for special cases. Deadly repeat offenders where there is clear and incontrovertible evidence. That said, I’m a little on the fence with this one. I can definitely relate to the opposing arguments. Mostly I just wish humanity could manage to grow the fuck up.)
I believe we’ll solve social problems of race before we’ll solve social problems of sexism. Not that we’re showing much sign of solving either.
Race is an artificial construct. Humanity is not comprised of different species; we’re all the same under the hood. At root, race is a paint job and accessories, nothing more. Socially, race is culture, which is inescapable but also artificial.
Sex is real. Men are significantly different from women. Biology is a huge factor here. (See these posts.)
I believe in a teleological universe. I believe our (special) lives — our special minds — have purpose and meaning outside our individual lives.
I have no idea what that purpose might be — it’s a mountain we climb never reaching the top (it’s the journey that matters; it matters that you climb).
And I’m quite aware that, of all my beliefs expressed here, this is the most tenuous and difficult to defend. In fact, I don’t defend it, I surrender to it. Faith in something beyond ourselves is a deliberately irrational act of surrender. It’s a bit like love in many ways.
I oft find myself bemused by those who so readily reject the notion of greater purpose and meaning but are quite comfortable with multiverses and other “scientific” fantasies that are equally without hard evidence (and, thus, not as scientific as claimed). As I said above, I really do think that’s just their Yang trying to bust out.
I believe that humanity, in light of the ubiquity of religion and spiritual outlooks, is either apprehending something real or is just wired towards belief. The very same people believing in science fantasies are those that tend to believe in that wiring. Yet they seem unable to recognize it in themselves. I find that fascinating.
Could my beliefs ever be proved wrong? You bet! A discovery could be right around the corner that tosses any one of these right out the window. Belief must always be provisional. Even our scientific theories must be provisional.
But until then, I’m free to believe what I believe. And so are you!
Stay believing, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.