I bought theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's latest book, The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, after seeing him interviewed by Stephen Colbert.
I enjoyed the book, though I agree with some Amazon reviewers that it doesn't really break new ground. But since my understanding of the old ground is shaky, I enjoyed Kaku's take on familiar topics.
Particle physics. Relativity theory. Quantum mechanics. Big bang. The search for common ground between how relativity and quantum theories view reality. String theory.
Spoiler alert: physicists haven't yet come up with a viable Theory of Everything. String theory is the leading candidate, but string theory suffers from not-so-minor drawbacks such as an almost complete lack of ability to test its validity.
To a theoretician, all these criticisms are troublesome but not fatal. But what does cause problems for a theoretician is that the [string theory] model seems to predict a multiverse of parallel universes, many of which are crazier than those in the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.
...Some might argue that these alternate universes are only mathematical possibilities and are not real. But the problem is that the theory lacks predictive power, since it cannot tell you which of these alternate universes is the real one.
Still, there's a lot to like about string theory.
It could resolve the conflict between relativity theory (space-time is smooth) and quantum theory (the subatomic realm is lumpy) by positing that extremely tiny strings are the fundamental constituents of reality.
Mystics would resonate with that notion, a point I made in my first book, God's Whisper, Creation's Thunder. Here's how Kaku puts it.
As a result of the torrent of equations, a new picture was beginning to emerge. Why were there so many particles?
Like Pythagoras more than two thousand years ago, the theory said that each musical note -- each vibration of a string -- represented a particle. Electrons, quarks, and Yang-Mills particles were nothing but different notes on the same vibrating string.
What is so powerful and interesting about the theory is that gravity is necessarily included. Without any extra assumptions, the graviton emerges as one of the lowest vibrations of the string.
...As physicist Edward Witten once said, "String theory is extremely attractive because gravity is forced upon us. All known consistent string theories include gravity, so while gravity is impossible in quantum field theory as we have known it, it's obligatory in string theory."
So while a huge amount of work remains to be done on string theory, there's a possibility it could live up to the title of Kaku's book, The God Equation.
However, this wouldn't be the God most people worship, but Einstein's God.
In this and other letters, Einstein despaired of answering questions concerning the meaning of life, but he was clear about his thinking concerning God.
One problem, he wrote, is that there are really two kinds of Gods, and we often confuse the two.
First, there is the personal God, the God that you pray to, the God of the Bible who smites the Philistines and rewards the believers. He did not believe in that God. He did not believe that the God who created the universe interfered in the affairs of mere mortals.
However, he believed in the God of Spinoza -- that is, the God of order in a universe that is beautiful, simple, and elegant. The universe could have been ugly, random, chaotic, but instead it has a hidden order that is mysterious yet profound.
In his final chapter, Kaku speaks about meaning in a familiar fashion that resonates with me.
In the end, I believe that we create our own meaning in the universe.
It is too simple and easy to have some guru come down from the mountaintop, bearing the meaning of the universe. The meaning of life is something that we have to struggle to understand and appreciate.
Having it given to us defeats the whole purpose of meaning.
If the meaning of life were available for free, then it would lose its meaning. Everything that has meaning is the result of struggle and sacrifice, and is worth fighting for.
Narratives and cognitive structures aren't "traps"
What never fails to amaze me is how religious believers and mystical enthusiasts will use the power of their human mind to criticize other people who use their human mind to criticize religion and mysticism.
The plain fact is that there's no way to communicate with other people except through mental capabilities such as language, reason, and such.
So unless someone wants to remain in their own private internal world -- and everyone who comments on this blog has indicated this isn't what they want to do -- narratives and cognitive structures are the only way to interact with others.
That doesn't have to be done through language, of course, though words are a powerful means of communication. Paint a picture. Dance. Perform music.
There are lots of ways to communicate a narrative. But underlying all of them is a message to be shared, and someone else to share it with. Absent that, each of us lives in an isolated subjective realm.
Below is a comment on a recent post from "Appreciative Reader." I liked it so much, I felt it deserved to be featured in a blog post.
One of the points made by Appreciative Reader is what I restated ahove: if a person wants to communicate with others, it makes no sense for them to denigrate language, narratives, and cognitive structures.
After all, that denigration is occurring by means of -- no big surprise -- language, narratives, and cognitive structures. This is like someone standing on a sidewalk, yelling at passers-by, "No one should be standing on the sidewalk!"
Dude, you really should practice what you preach before you do your preaching. Here's the comment from Appreciative Reader.
Hello, Dungeness. Long time!
I’m afraid I’m hogging the comments section of this thread. But I’m going to permit myself one more longish comment, because I disagree in the strongest possible terms with your POV, and I would like to articulate my disagreement clearly, and invite you to see if you wouldn’t, in light of what I’m going to say, like to revise your view.
Now at one level, obviously, I agree with um, and with you as well, as I’ve already said earlier on. If personally you don’t care to engage with narratives as far as some particular field, or even more generally, then that is, at one level, merely a question of your personal predilections, and as such your business and no one else’s. No question of “disagreement” with an essentially personal choice of that nature.
But the part where you generalize that kind of approach, when it comes to mysticism? The part where you seem to see narratives and cognitive structures as “traps”? I’m sorry, that’s something I find entirely nonsensical. Here’s why.
The beauty of the scientific method is this, that it helps us navigate through, and discover more and more about, and make use of, reality as we find it. Irrespective of the nature of that reality.
What you’re resorting to is basically magical thinking. Faced with any and every thing, the closed-minded God-believer will say, “…because God!”, without thinking through what that means. What you are doing is the exact equivalent of that, except instead of “…because God!”, you’re using the more sophisticated but essentially similar “…because mysticism!”.
And you know what, even in a world of actual magic, that kind of magical thinking is …I’m sorry, nonsensical.
What is Rowling’s Hogwarts after all? It’s a system of understanding, and cataloging, and analyzing, and then channelizing the magical forces in a (fictional) magical world. No real magician (as in, real magician in a hypothetical or fictional world where magic reigns) would simply put up his hands and say “…because magic!” and leave it at that.
The real magician will find out how exactly the magic operates, essentially use the scientific method and empiricism on that magical world, much as we apply the scientific method to QM [quantum mechanics, I assume] for instance. Unless he is able to do that, he can never even become a magician.
So, I’d say your view, that narrative-building as far as mysticism—even granted, for the sake of argument, that mysticism is a thing (which after all in a larger context is by no means a given)—as something that is essentially beyond cognitive understanding, is …well, blinkered, not clearly thought through.
Of course, in a mystical world, or in a magical world, or in our everyday mundane world, whether you personally engage with some particular narrative, or any narrative, that like I said is a whole different matter. That is your business and yours alone.
I can choose to live in this world without having formulated any detailed narrative, any detailed personal worldview, about the nature of QM, or for that matter even gravity, or the universe, and still manage to live a full enough life, as long as those aspects are not important to my everyday functioning.
But to see all narratives as “traps”, and to see mysticism, should mysticism be a thing (or for that magic, should magic exist) as something essentially beyond cognitive understanding, that kind of POV simply does not hold up to examination.
I’m reminded here of the fable, parable, whatever, of someone-or-other finding a piece of truth on the way. And the Devil looks on at what’s happening, smiling. The Devil’s minions are super worried, and grovel their miserable way up to their horned scarlet master, asking him in wheedling tones why he’s not worried, because that piece of truth can take that man forever out of the Devil’s reach.
And the Devil smiles knowingly, and says, This has happened before, and this will happen again, and all that poor fool will do is go cataloging that piece of truth, and never actually leave my dominion.
I guess the message within that fable, parable, whatever, is what you’re channeling here, right? Well, okay, at a personal level that message does make some kind of sense. If I wish to live in this world, using things like computers and GPS and computers and whatnot, then, if I get caught up in compulsively understanding the mechanism of each and every thing I see and would use, then that bottomless rabbit hole would end up being what my entire life will devolve into.
I’ll never actually use those things, I’ll never find the time to live my life. Which is clearly dysfunctional, unless that kind of inquisitiveness is, A, somehow limited and focused, and B, somehow channelized, into a profession perhaps, such that I draw some kind of personal benefit from it.
To that extent, and also to the extent that it is, like I’d said earlier, a matter of one’s own predilections, this kind of attitude, of not wanting to get into cognitive structures and narratives, might work, at a personal level, as long as one doesn’t get too deep into whatever-it-is, and as long as one is …well, lucky enough to get by despite one’s ignorance. The channelizing of one’s energies away from cognitive understanding might then even be beneficial, at a personal level.
But to generalize that argument, as you are doing, and to think of cognitive structures and narratives as “traps” is, …I’m sorry, that makes no sense at all.
UPDATE: Here's a response from Dungeness.
Brian, since my name is invoked in your commentary, I hope you'll include my
response to this off-point screed about my remarks. I certainly didn't generalize
any attack on cognitive structures and narratives at all. Gosh, I didn't build up
or advance any "narrative" except that it's entirely dubious to opine that
an inner transcendent experience can be "proven" hallucinatory or bonafide
through cognitive means either by skeptic or believer.
Here's my full response:
@ But to generalize that argument, as you are doing, and to think of cognitive structures and narratives
@ as “traps” is, …I’m sorry, that makes no sense at all.
Wow, that's quite an indictment AR. I was responding to your targeted question
of whether a transcendent inner experience was a "hallucination or bona fide". I
only asserted that the cognitive trap was trying to make sense of a transcendent
experience in an attempt to validate it as "hallucination or bona fide". Language and
logic as we know them fall short in that Solomon-esque endeavor to validate an
transcendent experience. I only suggested a different lens and a mystic's discipline
were needed. Perhaps in lieu of "needed", "helpful" would be a more acceptably
I never "generalized" this to "cognitive structures and narratives". That's overreach.
By the way, I explicitly lauded scientific rigor and never suggested we abandon it
either. At a practical level, the clarity, heightened awareness, and health benefits
of a mindfulness discipline only enhance science and its path of discovery.
@ Faced with any and every thing, the closed-minded God-believer will say, “…because God!”, without
@ thinking through what that means. What you are doing the exact equivalent of that, except instead of
@ “…because God!”, you’re using the more sophisticated but essentially similar “…because mysticism!”.
To equate mysticism with magical thinking and close-mindedness is dismissive and
misses the mark also. Ironically, mysticism, in contrast to the blind faith of religion,
insists that you confirm premises experientially within via a disciplined practice of
mindfulness. Mysticism acts collaboratively and complementarily with science.
There's no place for magical thinking.
"We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive
where we started And know the place for the first time." --T.S. Eliot
Posted at 09:30 PM in Comments, Mystics, Science | Permalink | Comments (34)