You may or may not have heard the music of the American indie rock band Eels - the creation of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett (also known simply as "E") - though if you haven't, do yourself a favour. One of the interesting facets of E's life is that his father was Hugh Everett, a mathematics genius who originated the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, a theory which essentially suggests that each time a decision is made a parallel universe branches off, creating a very large (perhaps infinite) number of parallel universes. Thus, everything that could possibly have happened in our past but didn't, *has* occurred in the past of another parallel universe. Many-worlds is now considered a mainstream theory in quantum physics.
However, Hugh Everett was a very distant father, and he died prematurely in 1982, when Mark Everett was just 19. In a wonderful, witty documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, Mark goes in search of his father and his research into parallel worlds by visiting old friends, talking to modern quantum physicists, and looking through his father's old documents and audio tapes. I highly recommend it - it both educates the viewer about the many-worlds interpretation, and tells an honest (and rather sad) personal story at the same time. It's available in six episodes on YouTube, which I've consolidated into a playlist and embedded below for ease of viewing:
If Mark Everett's life and music (which features throughout the documentary) interest you, you might also like to pick up a copy of his acclaimed book Things the Grandchildren Should Know (Amazon US and US). And definitely grab some Eels albums while you're at it...
Yesterday I was browsing the book Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John Barrow, Paul Davies, and Charles Harper Jr, and came across this interesting passage in the article "Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic principle" by Andrei Linde (yes, the usual light Tuesday reading for me). There are some really nice insights in there, so it deserves a careful reading - I've highlighted a few sections to point them out explicitly:
[W]e cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.
Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities.... The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental...
Now let us turn to consciousness. The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my "green" exists, and my "sweet" exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.
Is it possible that consciousness, like spacetime, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? ...Is it possible to...investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?
...Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well-studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?
I've said for quite a while that modern, physicalist science has come to self-define reality by saying that reality consists of those things that we can measure and study objectively through science. And yet I have elsewhere come across similar speculation and suggestions about consciousness from very respected physicists. Paul Davies maintains that mind and culture "will turn out to be of fundamental significance in the grand story of the cosmos":
Somehow, the universe has engineered not only its own self-awareness, but its own self-comprehension. It is hard to see this astonishing property of (at least some) living organisms as an accidental and incidental by-product of physics, a lucky fluke of biological evolution. Rather, the fact that mind is linked into the deep workings of the cosmos in this manner suggests that there is something truly fundamental and literally cosmic in the emergence of sentience
Freeman Dyson also says that "the tendency of mind to infiltrate and control matter is a law of nature."
Sadly, just as Linde's article was getting juicy, this is what followed:
Instead of discussing these issues here any further, we will return to a more solid ground..."
Aww, where's the fun in standing on solid ground!
If you think you understand what 'reality' is, then you don't. But BBC's Horizon team gave it a shot anyhow: "What is Reality?"
There is a strange and mysterious world that surrounds us, a world largely hidden from our senses. The quest to explain the true nature of reality is one of the great scientific detective stories.
Clues have been pieced together from deep within the atom, from the event horizon of black holes, and from the far reaches of the cosmos. It may be that that we are part of a cosmic hologram, projected from the edge of the universe. Or that we exist in an infinity of parallel worlds. Your reality may never look quite the same again.
Lots of brain-bending goodness in there, tuck in.
Issue 6 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration. Jim Schnabel discusses amnesiacs as possible psi subjects, Dominique Surrel looks at the heart and other organs as the seat of emotions, Kenneth Smith investigates the placebo effect and Floco Tausin studies 'eye floaters'. More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website.
Don't forget: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $4.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.
The latest issue of Paranthropology (1:2) has been released, and you can download it as a free PDF magazine from the Paranthropology website. The general theme for the new issue is “Paranormal Encounters in the Field”, from the "exotic locales investigated by anthropologists, and the haunted house of the ghost-hunter, to the laboratory setting of parapsychological research." Editor Jack Hunter explains...
By now I have written and talked about my undergraduate
fieldwork experience at the Bristol Spirit Lodge, at differing levels
of detail, in various places. I want this short article, however, to
deal specifically with the most significant event, at least in my
opinion, of my fieldwork experience: the occasion when, during a
trance development session, I lost control of my left arm.
It was normal practice for the Spirit Lodge to conduct mediumship
development sittings when the regular medium was, for whatever
reason, unable to attend. During such sittings all present members were invited to meditate in the Lodge in the hope that spirits might make themselves known through any receptive vessel. The method, therefore, was simply to meditate and see what happened. At the time I considered this an opportunity to relax in a calming environment, so I closed my eyes and allowed myself to relax, breathing normally.
I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to occur, so I just sat back and enjoyed the music. Soon, though, I began to feel my pulse become more pronounced, and my head began to slump forward as though I was falling asleep, despite maintaing an awareness of my body. This was very strange, as I was conscious of the fact that I must have looked quite odd to those with their eyes open, but I was unable to do anything about it: my head slumped forward heavily of its own accord. The sensation of detachment from my body grew and I began to feel as though I was floating just behind my body, but very close to it. I could still feel my body, but was aware that some sort of shift in the location of “myself” had occurred.
At the peak of this peculiar sensation I heard the seance leader say
that she sensed a presence with me, over my shoulder, and sure
enough I sensed it too. It was at this moment I realised that my
left arm was beginning to move: slowly at first, and then increasing
in rapidity until my arm was shaking around erratically. Once again
I was self conscious of the fact that I must have looked quite
strange to the other sitters, and yet despite this I was unable to
stop my arm from doing what it was doing.
This experience (amongst others of a less intense degree) altered
my appreciation of the belief in mediumship. I realised that there
were indeed experiences that could be classed as “mediumistic”,
and that even if there was no paranormal component involved in
the development of mediumship traditions, then at least there was
a physiological basis - experiences that feel as though they are the
product of an external agent influencing the body.
Topics covered include ghostly experiences, the Castaneda controversy, and spirit possession, among other things. Head on over to the Paranthropology website and download the issue for plenty of fascinating reading.
Issue 5 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and as with previous issues there's plenty of interest in the new release. Vladimir Rubtsov investigates the Tunguska Event and suggests "Maybe It Wasn’t What We Thought", James DeMeo follows the 'red thread' of Wilhelm Reich, and Larry Dossey tells Malcolm Gladwell to wake up and smell the presentiment. More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website.
Don't forget: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $5.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.
Here's a fascinating TED talk by Stefano Mancuso, a founder of the study of plant 'neurobiology', which explores how plants communicate, or "signal," with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators.
Watching this presentation prompts a number of questions for me. If consciousness is 'simply' an emergent phenomenon of a network of neurons, is it possible that other networks (roots, mycelia, even the Internet) could be self-aware too? Are we deceived mainly by the static nature of plants (or at least, their less noticeable movement) more than any other factor in thinking of them as vegetative? And once again, I am reminded of Dennis McKenna's psychedelic experience under the influence of ayahuasca (as told by Daniel Pinchbeck in his excellent book, Breaking Open the Head):
When Dennis McKenna, Terence's botanist brother, drank ayahuasca with the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament, he was turned into a sentient water molecule in the jungle soil, pulled up through a vine's roots to experience the miraculous molecular processes of photosynthesis in its leaves. "Somehow I understood - though no words were involved - that the Banisteriopsis vine was the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and covered the earth," he recalled. At the end of his vision, a voice told him, "You monkeys only think you're running things."
Observant readers would have noted that McKenna's monkey line is the footer to my comments here on TDG. Some have assumed previously that it's meant as a moderator tagline about who is in charge here on the site, but in fact it's there simply as a reminder against anthropocentric hubris and assuming too much about our current state of knowledge. Will we have a completely different outlook (and relationship) with plants in two thousand years time? And if we find that plants are sentient, where does that leave vegans?
I have posted regularly in the past about some cutting edge philosophical and scientific ideas based on quantum physics (such as Henry Stapp's speculation on an afterlife based on modern physics). But such ideas obviously aren't endorsed by 'mainstream' physicists, and so I recommend (as with most things we post here) that readers keep their wits about them, and educate themselves to the various opinions on these controversial debates. On this particular topic, Alan Boyle's recent interview with physicist Lawrence Krauss over is a good start:
Krauss worries that a lot of people can be fooled by appeals to the admittedly weird world of quantum physics — a world in which particles are said to take every possible path from point A to point B, in which the position and velocity of particles are necessarily cloaked in uncertainty, in which the mere act of observation changes the thing being observed.
In the last of a series of columns written for Scientific American, Krauss says "no area of physics stimulates more nonsense in the public arena than quantum mechanics." His list of "worst abusers" includes inspirational author Deepak Chopra, the best-selling book "The Secret" and the whole field of Transcendental Meditation. So what constitutes quantum quackery?
For those interested in following up on this interview, you can read a number of Krauss's articles for various publications via his website.
Previously on TDG:
Sorry, I know it's Monday and your brain is probably already struggling. But this brain bender is too good not to share: A series of quantum experiments has shown that measurements performed in the future can influence the present.
Tollaksen’s group is looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past. By extension, the universe might have a destiny that reaches back and conspires with the past to bring the present into view. On a cosmic scale, this idea could help explain how life arose in the universe against tremendous odds. On a personal scale, it may make us question whether fate is pulling us forward and whether we have free will.
Tollaksen's research was inspired by the work of physicist Yakir Aharanov, who came up with a fresh interpretation of quantum mechanics that allowed it to remain deterministic:
Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist.
“Nature is trying to tell us that there is a difference between two seemingly identical particles with different fates, but that difference can only be found in the future,” he says. If we’re willing to unshackle our minds from our preconceived view that time moves in only one direction, he argues, then it is entirely possible to set up a deterministic theory of quantum mechanics.
The article finishes by discussing the implications of the theory being correct - not least, that the Universe has a fixed destiny, and whether we can detect its 'influence' upon us now. Research into this question is actually being undertaken by famous cosmologist Paul Davies and colleagues at Arizona State University:
Cosmologists have long been puzzled about why the conditions of our universe — for example, its rate of expansion — provide the ideal breeding ground for galaxies, stars, and planets. If you rolled the dice to create a universe, odds are that you would not get one as handily conducive to life as ours is. Even if you could take life for granted, it’s not clear that 14 billion years is enough time for it to evolve by chance. But if the final state of the universe is set and is reaching back in time to influence the early universe, it could amplify the chances of life’s emergence.
....“The goal is to find out whether Mother Nature has been doing her own postselections, causing these unexpected effects to appear,” Davies says.
I wonder if this provides any support or mechanism for the positive results for the presentiment research performed by Dean Radin and Dick Bierman, in which individuals seem to have emotional reactions to future events.
How long until the computer mouse is seen as an archaic piece of equipment? Tan Le's human-computer interface reads the brainwaves of a user, enabling them to control virtual objects and physical electronics via their thoughts alone. Here she is discussing the headset at TEDGlobal earlier this month, as well as giving a practical demonstration of the technology at work:
To me, this seems like just the beginning of some brilliant enabling technology for physically disabled people. And further down the road, you can image the virtual reality immersion possibilities...