Jun 23, 2007

Quantum Soup - Buddhism & Physics

In the past few posts, I've been accused of so many different things, it's hilarious.

For example, some people say that I'm using science to advocate my religion, Buddhism. (Funny, but I'm not a Buddhist).

Then the Buddhists say that I'm talking about meditation, but applying it towards secular purposes, and thereby distracting my readers from enlightenment. (Funny, but the universe never told me I had a duty to guide my readers towards enlightenment).

Then others say that I'm mixing up science and Buddhism in a very bad way; you should never discuss "science" together with "God" or any similar concept like "consciousness", and if you do, well, you're just playing semantic games, engaging in philosophical debates that, in truth, have nothing to do with reality.

That's ....... interesting. Because science and religion do, in my reality, co-exist. Aren't there scientists AND religious believers in yours? Don't they live in the same cities, go to the same places, eat the same food, walk around in the same space-time reality?

Can't the Dalai Lama also do a double-slit experiment with a photomultiplier? Can't a quantum physicist also meditate on the effect of subjective thought processes on his lab experiment? What would happen, if the Dalai Lama and scientists were placed in the same space-time reality?

Well, in case you didn't know, this kind of thing does happen quite often. In the end, they're all quite interested in the same things, you see. Fortunately, some Buddhists and some scientists are more open-minded than, say, some of my blog readers.

Here's just one
example of "Buddhism meets Science":

Talking physics with the Dalai Lama
7 August 1998

The University of Innsbruck in Austria is one of the world's leading centres for research into the mysteries and subtleties of quantum theory. The work of Anton Zeilinger and colleagues at Innsbruck - such as the experimental demonstration of quantum teleportation - regularly appears in the leading journals, and in magazines such as Physics World .

Recently a surprising figure was seen in the labs. Was that really the Dalai Lama - the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize - checking out a quantum optics experiment?

Zeilinger had invited the Dalai Lama to his laboratory following a meeting at Dharamsala in Northern India last October at which he and four other physicists had, over the course of five days, discussed physics and cosmology with the Buddhist leader. In Dharamsala, Zeilinger had demonstrated some basic quantum phenomena - such as wave-particle duality - using a laser-based double-slit experiment with a photomultiplier tube connected to a loud-speaker. The Dalai Lama's visit to Innsbruck allowed other quantum effects to be demonstrated for him.

Zeilinger says that the Dalai Lama did not have a problem with photons having both particle and wave-like properties, but was reluctant to accept that individual quantum events are random. For example, he refused to accept that we cannot know which path a photon takes in a two-path quantum interference experiment. Zeilinger notes that continuity of existence is very important to Buddhists because it leads to reincarnation.

However, observation plays a key part in what we can know in both quantum theory and Buddhism, and Zeilinger was surprised to learn that the Dalai Lama agreed that there are not only limits on what we can measure, but also limits on what we can know, even in principle.

So what is Tibetan Buddhism? And what possible connection can it have with physics?

According to Alan Wallace, an interpreter at the meeting, Buddhism is a spiritual tradition with strong empirical, philosophical and religious components, including a belief in the after-life and reincarnation and healthy doses of meditation. Buddhism, he explains, is based on the four noble truths: the reality of suffering and conflict; the inner origins of suffering and conflict; the possibility of the cessation of suffering and its sources; and that Buddhism presents a path to this cessation through spiritual practices. The bottom line is that the root of suffering and conflict is ignorance and delusion, and that the path to spiritual freedom is the path of knowledge and insight.

Wallace is well placed to discuss the links between science and Buddhism. After spending 14 years as a Buddhist monk in India, Switzerland and the US, he graduated in physics from Amherst College in the 1980s. It was at Amherst that he met Arthur Zajonc, the physicist who was the scientific co-ordinator for the Dharamsala meeting. Wallace is now professor of Tibetan studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"It is natural for Buddhists to be interested in science, " he says, "because science is the most complete and successful theory of the physical universe we have. The Buddhist pursuit of truth includes not only the nature of consciousness, about which modern science knows very little, but also the entire world of which we are conscious."

Wallace agrees that quantum mechanics and Buddhism have many similarities: neither is fully objective (i.e. certain quantum properties only have meaning in the context of a measurement) nor fully subjective. Consciousness and various mind-body problems are also similar in this respect, he adds. According to Wallace, the Dalai Lama had not realized before that these sorts of philosophical questions could be so clearly demonstrated in the laboratory, while physicists were surprised that the introspective approach of Buddhism led to similar questions.

Zajonc says that he found many elements of Buddhism potentially quite helpful to the philosophical treatment of quantum mechanics. "It quickly became clear, " he adds, "that Tibetan Buddhism offers a vast and subtle set of philosophical approaches that we in the West would benefit by knowing, even in the sciences."

The conference in Dharamsala was the sixth in the "Mind and Life" series in which the Dalai Lama meets with scientists, but the first on the physical sciences. The previous five had been concerned with the brain, consciousness and related topics. According to Wallace, the meetings are a response to the Dalai Lama's own fascination with science and his belief that Tibetan Buddhism must not turn its back on modern knowledge. There are two main reasons for conferences: to provide a high-level tutorial for the Dalai Lama; and to encourage scientists to explore new ideas, inspired by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, psychology and meditation.

George Greenstein, a theoretical astrophysicist at Amherst College, spoke about cosmology in Dharamsala. The other physicists present were Piet Hut of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, David Finkelstein of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Zajonc and Zeilinger. "The dialogues, " says Greenstein, "included a good deal of factual information in which the Dalai Lama was extremely interested." Philosophical questions were also discussed. For example, is the big bang a moment of creation, as opposed to a transformation from one state to another? How can we understand creation? And did time and the laws of physics exist before the creation?

Greenstein says that philosophical questions are never answered, just discussed in new and interesting ways. His hope was that the Dalai Lama would ask the questions in new ways. "This happened in general, " he says, "but I cannot quote chapter and verse about specific topics. It was more amorphous and subterranean."

So why did Zeilinger agree to visit the Dalai Lama in the first place? "Science is an endeavour on which we have just started, " he says. "We are just fledglings and it is important to pull together all the intellectual traditions in the world."

Would Greenstein like to continue the discussions? "I would love to go back to Dharamsala, " he says. "Considering we were discussing all of physics and astronomy, we only scratched the surface. We flew over a new continent. I'd love to go back and land and walk around a bit."

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cool.

hash said...

Well, both scientists and religious people say they seek truth.
Religious people tend to insist that they must have an answer to everything. Be it karma or Genesis or what ever, there must be an answer.
Scientists tend to think that they are just finding things out. So it's Ok not having an answer now, we will one day find it out.

Allow me to quote Richard Feynman:
"...I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. ... I don't feel frightened by not knowing things; by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose..."
-- from "the pleasure of finding things out", interview with BBC in 1981.

another one:
"Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

yet another:
"Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation ... Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

It has been very hard for me to communicate the above to my religious friends (actually all of them Christian). The typical response was, "so, what do you believe? Nothing?" Well, I don't live in a black-and-white world, where I either believe or not believe, or some thing is either true or not true.
There is gray scale of trueness, and there is also hue and saturation to it.

It's kind of funny to talk about common grounds between quantum physics and Buddhism or some other religion. What if a few years later quantum mechanics is replaced by some new theory, say "Buddtum physics"? Shall we again talk about common grounds between "Buddtum" and Buddhism? I am sure people will find a way to do it, and do it equally well...

Going for lunch. It's a pity that science canteen does not serve quantum soup.

lau min-tsek said...

I instinctively understand where all this discussion is coming from since I have read Fritjof Capra's works.

All the debate so far has an emcompassing theme threading through it. And that is, that the works of theoretical physicists and cosmologists suggests that reality may be different from what we know. It just so happens that there are many similarities present present scientific works and Eastern philisophies and religions.

How would the relationship between science and religion be, if the renaisance had occurred not in Christian dominated Europe, but in, say, Hindu India, or Buddish Tibet?

Chritianity had many (unfortunate) antagonism with science, including burning "heretic" scientists at the stake, censoring the works of scientists and even placing scientists under house arrest (Gallileo spent his last years under house arrest by the Vantican for challenging church doctrine with science). So right from the beginning, the relationship between science and religion (read Christianity), was never a comfortable one. The take home message for scientists in the past is this: you can study anything, as long as your findings agree with the church. So to prevent persecution, scientists simply avoided any spirituality issues. This effectively lead to a separation of church and science.

Even today, I remember Stephen Hawkings once wrote that the former Pope told him in a meeting that the church can accept the big bang theory (it was actually formulated by a Vantican scientist to begin with) but not any investigation to the pre-big bang period, for to do so is to look into the mind of god (or something like that). Hawkings noted dryly that maybe the church and science are getting along better, but they still aren't talking very well with each other. (that is not the exact quote: I will need to read the book again to get the quote).

Things may be different if many of the advances in science happened not in Europe but in say a Buddist dominated country. I somehow don't think scientists will be persecuted by Buddists for suggesting that the earth is round, or that the earth is not the centre of the universe and that mankind is not the focus of the universe.

Maybe there would be less antagonism and more sharing of knowledge between science and religion. And science and religion would be quite different from what we know today.

As for growing a limb etc, I can see the point being made. It is meant to be provocative. You need to be prepared to abandon reality to prepare to accept a new reality. So sceptics think that no amount of mind power is going to grow another limb. But then, 1000 years ago, sceptics will tell you that no amount of mind power can get mankind onto the moon either. Aren't we glad they are wrong?

Anonymous said...

hmm I thought people like angry doc and geriatric_eunuch only commented that you indulge in wishful thinking, and wild speculation without evidence.

Anonymous said...

And the discussion abvout QM happened right in a post about limb regeneration, and the so-called evidence for it. I have yet see any retraction or qualification that Mr Wang is talking about a speculative field.

The common ground here is wide enough to be seen -- woolly heading thinking about topics that Mr Wang has no expertise is, but has no humility to avoid.

If he weren't so erudite about other socio-economic topics, it would not have been such a public disaster.

Anonymous said...

Without the help of scientific equipments to observe n measure,
1. "reality" is a flat world. BTW there is still a flat world organisation with a fair followings.
2. "reality" is the earth is stationary and the centre of the universe.
3. "reality" is there is no radio waves.

Not until we have the instruments to detect the missing 90% of the missing masses of the universe, we will continue to take reality as what we see it. One aspect of String Theory is the possibility of anti-gravity waves which can tranverse between paralled uiverse. Perhaps here lies the way for us to communicate with the spirit world.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to be so open-minded that one's brains fall out. You just happen to have a readership that is willing to tell you that.

Michaelk said...

Hi Mr Wang,

I disagree that religion can co-exist with science- not in the way that they exist in the "same cities" and "...go to the same places, eat the same food, walk around in the same space-time reality", but because their beliefs are irreconcilable.

Unless I am mistaken, Buddhism deals much less with deity-worship than it deals with philosophy. Buddhism also has many similarities to modern physics. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_science .

However, the conflict between science and religion is much more intense when it comes to Abrahamic religions. For example, Galileo's house arrest was because of his scientific observations. He found out that the Sun is at the center of the solar system, but the Church believed that the Sun rotated around the Earth. He was put on trial for suspicion of heresy for this.

Even the concept of a supernatural deity is shaky. There are too many logical arguments against this concept, but I will just mention this- the argument that a supernatural deity created the universe and life on Earth is much more far-fetched than scientific theories like the Big Bang and evolution, simply because the deity would have to be even more complex than the universe it allegedly created. Is it logical to have "faith" that a deity created the universe and life, not natural causes, just because one does not have the answers? Is it logical to assume that such a complex deity (or complex deities) exists, so as to explain the origins of the universe and life?

The answer to whether religion and science can co-exist is no when supernatural deities exist, but yes when they are not full-fledged religions such as Buddhism, which is more of a philosophy.

Michaelk

angry doc said...

"I disagree that religion can co-exist with science- not in the way that they exist in the "same cities" and "...go to the same places, eat the same food, walk around in the same space-time reality", but because their beliefs are irreconcilable."

Yes, Mr Wang was once again committing the error of equivocation or 'semantic games' there. :)

angry doc said...

"So sceptics think that no amount of mind power is going to grow another limb. But then, 1000 years ago, sceptics will tell you that no amount of mind power can get mankind onto the moon either. Aren't we glad they are wrong?"

Wrong. As a skeptic I challenged Mr Wang's claim on the powers of mind-hacking. This is not so much to say that 'mind power' is NEVER going to let someone grow another limb, but that Mr Wang had not presented any evidence that mindhacking can 'make the univere deliver everything to you'.

Incidentally, a skeptic who said 1000 years ago that 'mind power' could not get mankind onto the moon would still be correct today - a rocket did. Of course, if you are going to define 'mind power' as all human endeavours and not just thoughts and intents without actions, then we are just arguing over definitions.

Jimmy Mun said...

It is so unfair to knock the Catholic Church over and over again over Galileo. Some went so far to accuse the rise of the Catholic Church as the cause of the Dark Ages, which continued to stunt scientific development in the western civilisation until the advent of renaissance.

To that I ask: what happened to the non-Christian world in that thousand years? How can Western civilisation close a thousand years gap to become a world leader in science in a mere few hundred years? Big European brain size? Or maybe, there was really no gap, and the whole Catholic Church stunting science ideas were planted by people who needed to smear and discredit the Catholic Church. Hmm... is there an anti-Catholic Church movement emerging in Europe in the last 500 years, one that needs to discredit the Church's authority, to legitimise their own existence?

When the Bible was first used to calculate the age of the earth, it didnt crimp the freedom of any scientist; in fact, it stretched the conventional wisdom then, pushing the envelop to 4000 BC or more. It is a shame that a guesstimate that once furthered human imagination turned into a dogmatic cap on science, but it can be attributed as much as to the inertia of human imagination as much as it can be attributed to religion.

Any Christian with a proper IQ will know it is silly to take the Bible too literally. What kind of omnipotent God will take six whole days to get anything done, and collapse with exhaustion on the seventh? It is downright blasphemous. But they won't admit it because it is too inconvenient to explain. Many great scientists are devout Christians whose minds were not shackled by a narrow simplistic interpretation of the Bible or religion. Religion doesnt have to get in the way of science. Galileo, for example, never gave up his faith, despite his persecutions. I suspect most people who freely quote Galileo against the Catholic Church has little more than superficial understanding of what happened.

The pope recently abolished the teachings about limbo, an uncertain place in afterlife for good people who were born before Christ and aborted foetuses. The truth is that, the Church doesn't have all the answers, even to theological matters, let alone science. Theologians, not unlike scientists, are still searching for answers. But that is not going to stop some ignorant individuals from trying to act like know-it-alls and abusing religion to mask their stupidity.

Jimmy Mun said...

In case I get misunderstood, I am talking about the fundamentalist Christians, like Creationist crowd, whom I see as abusing Christianity and the Bible.

Kai said...

Very interesting, Mr Wang.

I have been a silent reader of your blog, but would just like to reply to tell you that your entries are very thoughts-provoking.

Keep them coming! =)

Mr Wang Says So said...

"I disagree that religion can co-exist with science ....l but because their beliefs are irreconcilable.

My thoughts.

Science and religion can be said to be irreconciliable in the sense that:

1. they don't always play by the same rules, and

2. sometimes they each insist that no one can play anything except by their own rules.

For example, if you say ABC, science will say, "You cannot say ABC unless you can prove ABC in accordance with the scientific method."

Or if you say XYZ, religion may say, "You cannot say XYZ as it goes against what my holy book says."

In fact, our tendency is to take life, cut it up into different slices, and create different sets of rules for each slice.

For example, if you say PQR inc court, the judge may say, "This cannot be accepted unless you prove PQR in accordance with the rules of evidence."

If you say "I love you" to your angry girlfriend, she may say: "I cannot take that to be true unless you can ___[insert your girlfriend's rule]."

The thing is that science, religion, ABC, XYZ, holy book, judge, rules of evidence, girlfriend etc etc are all still part of our existence.

The fallacy that many people is that they confuse:

(a) what is provable / acceptable under one set of rules; with

(b) actual reality.

Often they make the mistake that if something has not or cannot be proved under one set of rules, it therefore follows that it can't be true.

Simple illustration - the fact that a person was acquitted in court does not mean that he did not actually commit the offence. He may have, or he may not have. The acquittal merely means that he was NOT proven, in accordance with the laws of evidence, to have committed the offence.

For science and religion, the irreconciliability you speak of arise from those rules.

Just remember - if ABC is not proven in accordance with the scientific method, it does not mean that in reality, ABC is false. It merely means that ABC cannot be proven in accordance with the scientific method.

Similarly, if XYZ is against the holy book, it does not mean that XYZ is false in reality. It merely means that XYZ is not in accordance with the holy book.

Science and religion can co-exist in existence by ignoring each other. Or they can co-exist, by recognising that there are certain areas where both science and religion want to know more about reality. To the extent that their respective rules do not contradict each other or can be bent, they can cooperate in those endeavours.

angry doc said...

Mr Wang,

A good scientist knows that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but absence of evidence is still absence of evidence, and faith and speculation do not evidence make.

The 'rules of evidence' required under science, the court, religion and girlfriends are not held to the same standard, so it is misleading to imply that they are equivalent in validity.

I don't think I can explain it as succintly and clearly as this writer did in his letter:

http://www.straitstimes.com/ST%2BForum/Online%2BStory/STIStory_124981.html

Interested said...

Angry Doc,

I may be mis-reading Mr Wang, but I don't think he "implied" any equivalence in the validity between the rules of evidence required under science, the court, religion or girlfriends. I think the point he was making was that different rules are applied to help answer the variously different questions that may be asked in different contexts.

So in the context of a legal dispute over a breach of contract, a typical question may be "Did X breach the contract made with Y?" Scientific rules have minimal relevance to this question. Instead, what is of primary relevance would be questions like, what were the terms of the contract; what did X do; was what X did in accordance with the contract, etc. And to answer these questions, we look to legal rules about contract, and about proof of the terms of a contract.

On the other hand, if the question were: "What happens when we ignite magnesium, and why?" legal rules about how we answer questions about breach of contract would, obviously, have no place. Here, the scientific rules would be most relevant (probably), because in our post-Newtonian context, the question is keyed to an answer determined by reference to scientific rules.

There are questions which, even now, may be answered using rules from different contexts. For example, the big questions like "what is consciousness?" could be answered by reference to scientific rules, or by reference to religious rules, etc. But there is no need to assert that any of these "rules" are equally valid. It depends on what sort of answer you want. If you want a "scientific" answer, you look to what science tells you and apply the scientific method, etc. If you want a religious one, that's where you start looking.

But, as you have pointed out, these various rules are not held to the same standard. How can they be, since they are formulated to answer different questions in different contexts. But since there is no attempt, as I read it, to imply equivalence, your observation is simply ad hominem.

PZ said...

Interested said...

"If you want a "scientific" answer, you look to what science tells you and apply the scientific method, etc. If you want a religious one, that's where you start looking."

____________________

This is most sensible, except it doesn't stop the likes of Fred Wolf and his ilk to co-opt science(QM no less - Zounds!) in order to lend greater credence to his metaphysical argument for the existence of *his* Cosmic Consciousness.

PZ

PZ said...

Interested said...

"Or maybe, there was really no gap, and the whole Catholic Church stunting science ideas were planted by people who needed to smear and discredit the Catholic Church."
__________________

You needn't look that far back in history if you want evidence of this.

And I say this not to discredit any religious institution nor the Catholic Church, nor making a moral judgment, but just stating the facts.

Witness the RC Church's stance on embryonic cell research today.

Now is this not fact?

Or perhaps it isn't in the alternate universe you inhabit where this stance is in your *reality* helping the advancement of science??? :-)

PZ

PZ said...

My apologies to "interested" it should have been

"Jimmy" Mun said....

PZ

angry doc said...

"But since there is no attempt, as I read it, to imply equivalence, your observation is simply ad hominem."

No, interested; if I implied Mr Wang implied equivalence when he did not, then it's 'Attacking a Straw Man', not 'Ad Hominem'.

Now the last two sentences in his comment reads:

"[Sciene and religion] can co-exist, by recognising that there are certain areas where both science and religion want to know more about reality. To the extent that their respective rules do not contradict each other or can be bent, they can cooperate in those endeavours."

This implies that science and religion are equally valid ways of knowing reality.

So I am neither attacking a straw man, nor am I conducting an ad hominem attack on Mr Wang.

Jimmy Mun said...

PZ,

Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, it is not illegal to do embryonic stem cell research - just don't expect any US federal funding if you do not stick to their guidelines.

Anyway, Singapore has been benefiting from an exodus of experts from USA due to such constraints and we should be the world leader in embryonic stem cell research by now. Except we haven't, have we?

Even if Christianity does hold back science, which belief system out there can claim to have built a more conducive environment for science and has tangible evidence to show? Why hadnt the Mayans or the Chinese landed on the moon when Columbus or Marco Polo arrived?

PZ said...

Jimmy mun said

"Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I know, it is not illegal to do embryonic stem cell research "

What has legality got to do with anything?

The point is, the RC Church is against this research and if it could stop it, it would as in the days of Galileo where the RC Church was all powerful. Remember the Inquisition?

That it can't today, doesn't invalidate the original point.

"Even if Christianity does hold back science, which belief system out there can claim to have built a more conducive environment for science and has tangible evidence to show?"

I am not saying that Christianity has not contributed anything to science. You have slipped a strawman into your argument.

PZ

geriatric_eunuch said...

To that I ask: what happened to the non-Christian world in that thousand years? How can Western civilisation close a thousand years gap to become a world leader in science in a mere few hundred years? Big European brain size?

It was just good old commerce, Jimmy Mun, nothing to do with brain dimensions. Europeans shifted from being simple barter traders to mercantilism in the late 11th-12th centuries. Buy stuff here where it's abundant and sell it there where it's scarce, and make a profit. They learnt that from the Muslim traders dealing in the spice business. That led to a boom in their economies, the adoption of money as a medium of exchange, and the invention of loads of technology (particularly ships and weapons) to enforce their trading monopolies. Then came their voyages around the globe as they wanted to cut out the middleman i.e. the Muslim spice merchants, colonisation, the slave trade, discovery of the Americas, and even more wealth to spend on discovery.

The Reformation began in the late 15th-16th centuries leading to the Wars of Religion between Christians through to the mid-17th century. Nothing like a good war to hasten the speed of invention, as we know from recent history. As the authority of the Catholic church shattered and monarchs fell, the dead hand of dogma and suppression of ideas likely subvert their power (sound familiar?) lifted, and here we are on Mr. Wang's blog.

What happened to the non-Christian world all this time? Basically they weren't as agressively expansionist, had sat on their early laurels till it was too late, and the Europeans came, saw, and conquered. This is a horribly terse account, but you get the gist.

Jimmy Mun said...

PZ,

my argument is a strawman only if I claim Christianity to be superior to other belief systems. I do not think so. I am merely pointing out that Christianity may not be especially bad for the scientific progress.

Columbus set sail during the era of Spanish Inquisition. Copernicus didnt get into trouble even though he ought to be the originator of the Heliocentric model, not Galileo. In fact, one Erastosthenes measured the circumference of the earth, and maybe even the distance from the earth to the sun over 2000 years ago. What that got Galileo into trouble, could very well not be his scientific ideas, but what he felt was the implications of science on theology.

And, as geriatric_eunuch said, which I do not disagree, sometimes, science propers best when there are conflicts. The joy of humiliating religious loons may just offer that little extra incentive for scientists to work harder.

PZ said...

Jimmy Mun said:

"my argument is a strawman only if I claim Christianity to be superior to other belief systems."

You clearly do not understand logical fallacies in informal logic and argument.

It was not so much WHAT you said but that you implied *I* had stated that made it a strawman.

Let's revisit TWO of your original statements.

"Even if Christianity does hold back science, which belief system out there can claim to have built a more conducive environment for science and has tangible evidence to show?

Your implication here is - "Because Christianity has done a lot of good it's alright to overlook the evil that it has perpetrated in the past."

This is on par with saying - Since T.T Durai has done so much for the NKF in the past, let's overlook some of his *indescertions* that he has been accused and convicted of.

"is there an anti-Catholic Church movement emerging in Europe in the last 500 years, one that needs to discredit the Church's authority, to legitimise their own existence?"

The Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo and the cover-up of priestly paedophilia are just some of the evils that have been committed by the RC Church.

To accuse those who are merely stating facts of history as having an agenda and trying to discredit the name of RC Church is blame the messenger for the message.

To accuse those of *misunderstanding* history is to be in denial.

But why am not surprised?

PZ

Interested said...

Angry Doc,

Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I did mean "straw man" and not "ad hominem".

To return to the point - you say that Mr Wang's last sentence implies an assertion of equal validity. And since you disagree with that implied assertion, I take it that you are of the view that one view (presumably scientific) is more valid than the other.

But what do you mean by "equal validity?" "Validity" implies that there is a standard against which either explanation of reality may be measured. And "equality" implies that the two things on either side of the equation are matters which may be measured against a common standard of assessment (and, in your view, I surmise, one comes out ahead of the other when so measured). So if you mean to say that there is an assertion of "equal validity by reference to a common standard of assessment, which I, Angry Doc, deny", I think I have to disagree.

First of all, is there a common standard by which one can assess either of these sets of rules? If we take it as impermissible that we assess Galileo's scientific observations by reference to religious rules, then in fairness, it may not be permissible either to do the converse. What is happening here is a question as to which of these alternatives (or a blend) is more compelling/convincing when they attempt to describe something of relevance to them both (e.g. "reality"), or if they are equally compelling/convincing. And the answer to that question is, I think, a subjective one.

Depending on one's upbringing, society, schooling, accidents of genetics, one view, the other, or a blend, will be more convincing than any other to the individual in question. But the specific reasons why one view is more convincing may not be the same for every single individual - that is to say, there is no common objective standard by which one view can measure up against the other(s).

You can see this happening most obviously when a hypothetical "rational" and atheist scientist enters into a discussion with an equally hypothetical religious zealot. Any attempt at convincing the other that his/her view is "invalid" will fail because each is viewing his/her reality through different lenses. It is only when there is a concession that there is a choice between lenses that the process of persuasion can begin.

Once that concession is made, it may be possible for the scientist to persuade the zealot to defect. But I think it is not wholly accurate to say that this desertion proves that the scientific explanation is "more valid". The desertion comes about because of choice, and not because one view is "more valid" than the other (although I can say which set of lenses I would prefer, given my own idiosyncracies). It may be that these two people now share some agreement on "reality," and then set about persuading others with such success that the religious zealots of the world are now reduced to a very small minority (Hurray!). Does that make the scientific view more valid than that of the remaining few zealots? Only if one equates validity with the ability to "convert" - i.e. persuasiveness.

Moving on from that, are the two views "equally valid" if both scientist and zealot remain unpersuaded by the other, resulting in an impasse where neither defects? I think not either, since there is no common ground or viewpoint between the two. Nor would introducing an impartial observer help, since that would just bring in a third point of view with its own idiosyncracies as to persuadability.

So I read your disagreement with Mr Wang to mean "I, Angry Doc, am unpersuaded by Mr Wang's assertion that the religious and scientific explanations of reality are equally valid explanations of reality because I assume that they may be compared by a common yardstick of persuasiveness and I, Angry Doc (presumably of a rational and scientific turn of mind), am unpersuaded." You seem to have assumed that there is a common standard by which both explanations may be measured, and in lieu of any indication what that standard might be, may have inserted yourself as that standard (or maybe you were doing it by reference to an idealised independent and objective third party).

But I don't think that's what Mr Wang meant. Apologies to the author if I have mis-understood him, but maybe all he meant to point out was that these different world-views exist, that every individual (may) have a choice between them, and that that choice then colours his/her individual reality.

Whether you choose to believe this and Mr Wang's other claims about the powers of mind-hacking - well, that's your choice. Presumably, Angry Doc, you need empirical proof via application of the scientific method to be persuaded. That's great. Others, however, may not; and they may well be gullible fools from your standpoint. But that's their problem. And anyway, Mr Wang is just sharing his personal experience about this.

Making a big assumption about Mr Wang's accuracy and truthfulness about his personal experience during meditation: do you refute that it happened? What empirical proof do you have to refute it? Can that subjective experience be refuted in some objective sense, or is this all a rational scientist can say: "Mr Wang's interpretation of his subjective experience during meditation cannot be proven to be valid using current applications of the scientific method. Therefore those of us who choose to frame our beliefs by reference to the scientific method have chosen not to believe that Mr Wang's interpretation of that experience is valid." The first part of this statement is observable fact. The conclusion, however, derives from a subjective choice. And the same argument may, I think, be extended to Mr Wang's theory about mind-hacking. It may be unprovable by means of the scientific method. But does that make it "invalid" if, at least for Mr Wang, he can perceive through meditation, etc, that it happens?

Which is not to say that Mr Wang might not be a crackpot to you and me. He may well be, if you and I assess this by applying the scientific method. But is this standard universally relevant to everyone and in all possible contexts? Most of all, is it relevant to Mr Wang within the context of mind-hacking?

You seem to have chosen to disbelieve what Mr Wang said, because what he says has not been proven by reference to applications of the scientific method. But what Mr Wang said is, perhaps, unprovable by such means. That just means that it is not proven by means of the scientific method. It does not mean that what Mr Wang says is utterly invalid. It just means that it is unpersuasive for those who choose to frame their beliefs by reference to the scientific method. Nor does the view that Mr Wang's assertions are at least valid for him mean that he is asserting that such subjective validity makes it equally valid as anything else "proved" by reference to the scientific method. They are differently valid, by reference to different rules.

angry doc said...

A very long post, interested, but if I understand you correctly, what you have just said was basically:

"People are entitled to believe what they want to."

Certainly that is true.

People are free to believe that there is a UFO behind a comet which will come and take their souls to heaven if they commit suicide, to use a rather extreme example. However, I won't consider the method by which they came to that conclusion as a valid way of arriving at that conclusion, and I don't think there is evidence that there was indeed a UFO behind the comet.

(No, I don't think Mr Wang is starting a cult or trying to sell his readers anything; I just think he made an unsubstantiated claim about the powers of mindhacking.)

Interested said...

Angry Doc,

Neatly summarised - wish I could be as succinct! Just a little add-on. I was primarily trying to make the point that claims of validity (or otherwise) have to be measured against what are, ultimately, subjective standards. But your comment above makes this plainly clear.

PZ said...

Angry Doc wrote:

"People are free to believe that there is a UFO behind a comet which will come and take their souls to heaven if they commit suicide, to use a rather extreme example."
___________________

Truth is stranger than fiction.

The Heavens Gate Cult had believed precisely that and spread their message on the Internet.

They believed that Hale-Bopp, a comet, was the sign that they were supposed to shed their earthly bodies and join a spacecraft traveling behind the comet that would take them to a higher plane of existence.

Their leader and founder of the cult one looney Marshall Applewhite convinced thirty-eight other loonies to commit suicide so that their souls can piggy-bag a ride on a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet carrying Jesus.

Mindhacking worked in this case!

They ALL died.

No one knows if Jesus really was there to greet these wackos but mindhacking enthusiasts undoubtedly do. :-)

PZ

geriatric_eunuch said...

Columbus set sail during the era of Spanish Inquisition. Copernicus didnt get into trouble even though he ought to be the originator of the Heliocentric model, not Galileo. In fact, one Erastosthenes measured the circumference of the earth, and maybe even the distance from the earth to the sun over 2000 years ago. What that got Galileo into trouble, could very well not be his scientific ideas, but what he felt was the implications of science on theology.

Not quite, Jimmy Mun. Educated Europeans of the time knew perfectly well that the world was more like a chi ku than a chi hum and even had a rough idea of its circumference. Peasants were deliberately kept in ignorance since knowledge is power and it never hurts to keep information closely-held if you're the one enjoying the good life (in this case the monarchy and Catholic church) - especially if you've been telling them something entirely different for a couple of hundred years. Why, the heartland might even suspect that you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground and before you know it, your womenfolk are working as maids in a foreign land and civilisation will come to a grinding halt. I shall refrain (just) from making the obvious analogy and merely point out that lack of transparency is nothing new.

Copernicus kept his big mouth shut out of fear of the Church and because he wanted to become a bishop, a job for which he had trained. Galileo let his strong principles overcome his fear, published, scared the kiasi powers-that-be, and was duly accused of heresy for his pains. The Spanish Inquisition was an ISD joint venture between the monarchy and the Holy See to ensure that the cheeky Protestants kept on singing from the same hymn sheet.

So lucrative was the business in satay spices, Agent Provocateur silk underwear, and slaves that the two greatest maritime nations, Portugal and Spain, were jolly keen to cut out the middlemen Muslims and buy straight from the source. Thus they proposed to divide the world between them and to avoid wasteful conflict, agreed that the Portuguese would sail east along the African coast and round the Cape where they had already established forts and settlements while the Spaniards would sail west.

Now, they knew there was a dirty great ocean in that direction so nobody was stupid enough to want to test how long they could survive without rations. Nobody, that is, except Columbus whose faulty mindhacking led him to believe that hey, the Spice Islands really aren't THAT far away, dude. He convinced Queen Isabella of Spain to finance the journey and set off on his merry way. Had reality not intervened and plonked the Americas in his path, Columbus would have been prima facie candidate for the Darwin Award of the day. To his dying day, the stubborn old fossil refused to admit he was wrong and that he hadn't found the fabled Spice Islands after all.

The multinational investment companies that flocked over - for by then the Portuguese and English had also wanted a piece of the chiak boey leow action and had chope-d Brazil and the West Indies, respectively - were an unmitigated disaster for the indigent peoples. No resistance to European SARS, fearsome cruelty and enslavement, ensured that they perished in droves. Meanwhile, 66.6% of Europeans back home were indifferent to their plight since they enjoyed cheap labour for cleaning, cooking, and child minding. The other 33.3% muttered uneasily into their beards 'Aiyah, boh pian' at the local kopitiam while being waited on by silent sad-eyed slaves. To placate their anxiety and justify the cruelty and exploitation, the Spanish authorities debated whether or not to declare the natives part human and hence unentitled to legal or spiritual privileges. And the remaining 0.1%? Oh, they were helping the Inquisition with their enquiries.

There you are, Jimmy, a coarse history of the rise of European hegemony and the role of religion and power politics, in only 30 seconds and without mindhacking until pengsan. Boey pai, ah? You think got chance to get A* scholarship or not? I wouldn't mind joining Shu Min and Co. in the hao lian stakes, man. KTM sure get jealous.

Disclaimer:

[1] May contain nuts.
[2] No soft pink fluffy animals were harmed in the writing as we take our responsibilities very seriously.
[3] All the above to be read in the colour lavender.

BTW angry doc, an admirably cogent summary. As Interested says, I wish I had your talent for brevity.

angry doc said...

GE, thanks. I wish I had *your* talent for interpreting history, and certainly I would have liked to see more about the role of the Mongol empire in creating a taste for eastern goods in the Europeans which led to the subsequent explorations.

PZ, Wow! See? My thought created reality! Retroactively!

I knew about Heaven's Gate lah. I was just trying to be sarcastic in making my point...
=_=

PZ said...

Angry Doc: "I knew about Heaven's Gate lah. I was just trying to be sarcastic in making my point..."

PZ: ... :-( ... duhh.

Mr Wang Says So said...

In your reality, the cult members died due to a terrible mistake.

In their reality, they may have gone to a higher plane of existence.

It works like this. Go to IMH, and you will see many people who, according to the criteria of your own reality, are insane. For example, you may meet someone who really believes that he is Jackie Chan.

In your reality, he is a crazy person who thinks he is Jackie Chan.

In his reality, he IS Jackie Chan and you are someone who refuses to believe him.

Which reality is more real, depends on whose perspective you adopt.

If you begin with the idea that reality is illusion anyway, what's happening is that you're in your illusory reality, looking at the other guy's illusory reality, and saying, "Ha, he thinks he's Jackie Chan, he's living in an illusion."

Now, in the Hale Bopp situation, what's happened is that they died.

The interesting question that arises then is - what happens to consciousness after death?

The question is not confined to "weird" situations where cult members die, believing that something "strange" is going to happen.

The question extends equally to everyone who dies/is about to die, and holds any particular notion/belief about what happens thereafter.

For example, you could completely believe that after death, everything ends, and you have no more consciousness.

Or you could completely believe that after death, you could meet a guy called Jesus in a place called heaven.

Or you could completely believe that depending on the sum total of your acts and intentions in this life and past lives, you will be reborn in any number of different possible circumstances.

Or you could be unsure as to what to believe.

Or as you die, you could be in too much pain and suffering to have any thoughts abt what's going to happen next.

In each case, whatever your state of mind, the interesting question that arises is -

what is the effect (if any) of your state of mind, on what happens to your consciousness, after death.

Interestingly, across many cultures (which probably didn't have much effect on each other), there is this idea (whether true or not) that "ghosts" are ex-living people who died in such circumstances that they weren't able to figure out (yet) that they are now "dead".

PZ said...

Mr Wang said:

"Now, in the Hale Bopp situation, what's happened is that they died."
_______________

Hey! They did not die in *my* reality ok? Speak for yourself. Ok?

Now, meanwhile I am going to get a Kilkenny from the fridge, go and relak one corner first, then go play with my gnomes living at the bottom of my garden.

After that, I am going to meditate before I go searching for a black cat while blindfolded, at night, in a dark cellar which isn't there.;-)

PZ

geriatric_eunuch said...

Mr. Wang said:
Which reality is more real, depends on whose perspective you adopt

* Hello? Graceland? I'd like to cancel please. I hear Elvis has NOT left the building. *

The interesting question that arises then is - what happens to consciousness after death?
...what is the effect (if any) of your state of mind, on what happens to your consciousness, after death.


Actually, an even more interesting question might be 'What is the nature of consciousness'? Only if you can satisfactorily explain THAT can you then move on to ponder with any degree of confidence whether or not it will survive an encounter with the entity in the Armani black-hooded cloak, carrying a scythe. Otherwise, your quantum flying-pig-bakuteh is as good as mine, no?


PZ said:
Now, meanwhile I am going to get a Kilkenny from the fridge, go and relak one corner first, then go play with my gnomes living at the bottom of my garden.

You are not playing with a full deck. See a doc, preferably an angry one. ^_^ In the meantime, I'll see your garden gnomes and raise you 2 pixies, can't say fairer than that. ;-)

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Actually, an even more interesting question might be 'What is the nature of consciousness'?"

You are correct - that is very true, and indeed I have explored my own consciousness, through meditation and other means - have you?

You remind me of another post, where I asserted certain things about the meditation experience;

a reader then asserted, "This does not sound logical to me, can you prove it?"

and before I could respond, another reader, who calls himself "2nd" chipped in. saying in effect:

"Actually Mr Wang is right. Try meditating for yourself, as I have, and you will see."

So, yes, there are certain things we can only know through experience -

otherwise we are faced with the impossibility of describing the colour blue to a blind man;

or the taste of potatoes to someone who has never eaten them before.

There is no need to debate the nature of consciousness, when you can experience and explore it for yourself -

have you?

PZ said...

GE said:

"*Hello? Graceland? I'd like to cancel please. I hear Elvis has NOT left the building.*"

Hey GE, which you universe are you from?

Nanu ... nanu.

"You are not playing with a full deck. See a doc, preferably an angry one. ^_^"

Of course I am. How dare you???

My deck is 55 cards and three Jokers trump anything, the last time I checked. :-)

The Angry Doctor has left the building...looking for Elvis.

PZ

geriatric_eunuch said...

Hi Mr. Wang,

As I sat here thoughtfully twirling the stem of a glass of Minervoise between my fingers, I remembered an amusing little verse:

A centipede was happy, quite
Until a toad in fun, said:
"Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This worked his mind to such a pitch
He lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how..to..run.



I suspect that my mischievous toad gene will invariably rush to question your perspective on thought affecting reality. Could be a feature, could be a bug.

Anyway, I just wanted to ask if you caught the 2003 Reith Lecture on 'The Emerging Mind' by Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, one of the world's foremost neuroscientists? I found it completely riveting, hard brain research delivered with tremendous insight and great charm. He has some thought-provoking views on how humans developed abstract thought and the idea of self. If you think it's tough describing blue to a blind man, imagine how hard it would be to describe that colour to a fully-sighted person who 'hears' blue as F sharp (synesthesia)!

You can still listen to it (streaming radio) or read the transcript here if you missed it. Terrific stuff from a polymath.