Adrian's Writing Blog

news, articles and reviews

Climate Change, humanity and a tomato

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Three months ago, I was short-listed in the New Philosopher magazine for my article about luck but I didn't win. The new issue is out of the magazine but unfortunately I didn't make the short-list this time with my offering on the subject of 'Nature'. To be honest, as far as I can tell, the odds are stacked against you if you're not Australian, as they seem to dominate the short-list every time. Never mind, it's all good practice. Rather than let the article disappear into the ether, here it is:

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The word ‘nature’ has multiple meanings. For example, it can mean as the entire natural world, earth’s ecosystem. Alternatively, it can refer to a person’s fundamental way of behaving, their nature. As a result, when someone thinks of ‘nature’, they could be thinking of our planet’s environment or human behaviour in general. What’s more, they might even be thinking of something quite mundane, something that possesses the magical property of life, like a humble tomato, a physical manifestation of the wondrous process known as ‘nature’. Read More...

Aldous Huxley letter to George Orwell

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The current edition of New Philosopher magazine includes a copy of a fascinating letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) after he read a first edition copy Orwell's famous book, '1984'. I thought I'd reproduce it here in its entirety, as I think it touches upon a very important subject, that Orwell's dark dystopia was very perceptive and prescient in its warnings and ideas but missed a key point, that it wasn't the most efficient system of population control. Here's the letter:

Dear Mr Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the middle of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor eyesight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on ‘Nineteen eight-four’.

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Agreeing with all that the critics that have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once once, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals - the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution - the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at the total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology - are to be found the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen eight-four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in ‘Brave New World’. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognisance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile and the rest. Read More...

New Philosopher Magazine short-listed article

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Just a quick note to say that an article of mine on the subject of Luck was shortlisted in the latest New Philosopher magazine writing competition. I entered the competition because I enjoyed the recent issue of New Philosopher on the subject of Nature. Not surprisingly, the issue was dominated by climate change but it was very refreshing for the contributors to speak candidly about the subject. Unlike many popular magazines and newspapers, the articles in New Philosopher were direct, thoughtful, imaginative and knowledgeable.

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Anyone who has read my recent non-fiction, popular science book How Science Shows (that almost everything we've been told is wrong) will find a lot of the article's content familiar but it does have a unique twist, and it's shorter. Here's the article:

‘Luck’ by Adrian Ellis

Most people would like to be lucky; they’d wish that random events such as a lottery draw would swing their way and give them a windfall. They’d love to know that when they’d meet their future soulmate, they’d not - in the inimitable words of Alanis Morissette - then ‘meet his beautiful wife’. But everyone knows, at the end of the day, that the world is ruled by random chance. What happens is entirely beyond a person’s control and is simply pure chance.

Oddly enough, science can show us that the very opposite may be true. To explain this, we’ll need the help of a warmongering ex-Hungarian with a penchant for memorising telephone directories, a deeply uncertain cat and a man with a very large moustache. Read More...

Christmas, Spirituality and The Apartment

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At this time of the year, a lot of people get heartily involved in the popular elements of Christmas. That's great, but many people don't often know the origins of such elements. For example, the popular figure of Santa Claus is actually based on a Lapland ogre with a bright red face who was said to climb down the chimney and devour the children in their beds. Food was left out on Christmas night in a bid to prevent the monstrous humanoid from chomping on the kiddy-winkies. Parents traditionally told their children this story for reasons I'm not too clear on. Later, St Nicholas became the visitor that children would get if they were good and the ogre would come if they were bad, a figure that was later morphed into 'Black Pete', a man covered in soot, possibly from his hostile, chimney-based approach.

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Other people focus on the Christian story; a baby in a manger, along with a big, bright moving star and three kings or Magi who visit the infant, bringing gifts. This whole scene, oddly enough, is strongly connected to Ancient Egyptian beliefs. In Ancient Egypt, the star Sirius, associated with the god Osiris, the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, was 'born' at the beginning of the Egyptian Summer when it rose above the horizon. Its arrival was always accompanied by the Three Kings stars, a.k.a. Orion's Belt. Also, the word 'Magi' is the root word of 'Magician' and originates with the Zoroastrian religion popular in Persia in the centuries before Christ, a religion from which the cult of Mithra was born.

Read More...

Why do we move forward in time?

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This week, the New Scientist magazine gave me a big compliment by making my latest letter to them their Editor’s letter of the week. Here it is:

Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?


The article concerned was one of a series of articles in the New Scientist that week (issue 3037) about aspects of physics that non one had yet solved. The tricky nature of time is definitely one of these big conundrums. We all experience time flowing; we do things, one after the other, day after day. Around us clocks tick and cars drive and birds fly etc. We can't seem to stop or alter this flow of time. We can't make time stand still. It can certainly sometimes seem as if time is flowing more slowly than at other times. For example, waiting to go into an exam can seem to last forever, but while you're doing the exam, time can seem to scream by. I remember once starting a strategy board game, then becoming completely engrossed and then looking up and finding out that two hours had gone by, as if in a flash. Read More...

Nietzsche and Casablanca

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In this month's Brainpickings, there's an interesting article about the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, who was a rather clever bloke but not particularly modest, as shown in these quotes from one of his letters:

“It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being. I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy.”


“It seems to me that for a person to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when he does so — not to speak of boots.”


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In between making statements about his own incredible importance, Nietzsche did make some interesting comments about life, people, morals and society. One point he made was that he thought it was vital that people's lives contained hardship. This wasn't because of some streak of sadism. Instead, Nietzsche said the whole point of life was to face and overcome difficulties. Each and every one of us, he believed, has to encounter difficult challenges, agonising decisions, trial and tribulations throughout our lives. That is the only way that we can truly achieve and succeed. Nietzsche writes:

Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.


The philosopher Schopenhauer, who Nietzsche admired, thought that life's difficulties should be avoided. Schopenhauer recommended people hide away. Nietzsche had the opposite view. He said; 'take the challenges on! You need them! They'll make you a better person!'

Nietzsche is saying a very similar thing to my article suggesting that life is really like Casablanca, which is cool, as it means that a famous philosopher agrees with me. Yes! Unfortunately, it's also clear what I thought was an exciting new idea has actually been around for nearly a century and it isn't new at all. Hey ho.

Reality is Casablanca

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In this week’s Brainpickings - a web site dedicated to interesting articles about writers and writing - there is a very interesting article about C.S.Lewis. Lewis is the famous author of books such as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. He was both an author and a Christian philosopher. In the article, focussed on his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, Lewis poses a fundamental moral and spiritual problem:

The problem of pain, in its simplest form was the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that "God" wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we'd have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in "either goodness, or power, or both."


It’s a tricky question. In a nutshell, it is: ‘If God’s full of love, why’s he put us here in a place full of suffering, misery and pain?’

There are lots of possible answers to this question but here's three popular ones:

  • God is good and he wants suffering in the world for a good reason. Unfortunately, we can’t understand why because God purpose is beyond our limited understanding. In other words, we’re too stupid to understand why we have to suffer.
  • We’re fundamentally bad; it's our own fault there’s suffering. We basically deserve what we're getting.
  • God doesn’t exist and the universe is what it is because of physics. There's no Big Reason nothing to ponder. This is the materialist or atheist solution and is fully believed by such academic luminaries as Richard Dawkins.

Unfortunately, none of the above answers are particularly positive. In fact, they’re all pretty depressing, which doesn’t improve the lot of anyone who's already unhappy about ‘the problem of pain’ in the first place.

But there is another answer! Hooray! If the Influence Idea is correct, then we, as thinking minds, are separate to physical reality and influence physical reality in order to make Life happen, including the functioning of our own bodies. This is a scientific idea, grounded in fact and logic, so there's no need to actually believe anything in order to say, with confidence that God exists (a.k.a. Original Mind, Tao or Atum) and there's Life After Physical Death etc.

But if we don't originate in this physical reality and we can leave it, why are we all going through all the suffering that comes as part and parcel of living our lives? What's the point? An answer may lie in reading the reports of people who say they've temporarily stopped living their physical life and visited the AfterLife…

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In previous centuries, there have been reports about this other realm from people that had temporarily died but then reawakened in their bodies (known as an NDE or Near Death Experience), but these were sketchy and anecdotal. Fortunately, thanks to modern technology and solid research, we have several recent, comprehensive studies to draw upon. I personally recommend the books ‘Heading towards Omega’ and ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’, which are both written by highly experienced doctors and academics.

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In both books, many people who survived NDE events report what they experienced and the testimonies are highly consistent. Almost all the survivors report that the after-death realm is an absolutely wonderful place. They state that our physical lives, by comparison, are just awful, full of pain and constraints and suffering and problems. Physical life, according to the NDE subjects, is actually even worse than we think it is; it’s only the fact that we’ve forgotten how wonderful the inter-life realm is that makes Reality for us even remotely bearable. Crucially, the NDE survivors also add that we have all willingly decided to live our physical lives because we believed that the experience would benefit us.

Such an idea leads to a simple but highly meaningful question; ‘what should we do to improve ourselves?’ Most of us would agree that we want to become better people during our lives, to be more courageous, more compassionate, more charitable, but how would we go about it? If we were in Heaven, we could perhaps ask God to transform us into ultimately lovely people… but there’s a problem with that. If we did that, we wouldn’t have improved, we’d have just been changed into someone else by another’s hand. This is where living a physical life full of challenges and difficulties starts to make sense. By living such a challenging life and succeeding in it, we have really improved as people.

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In the classic film ‘Casablanca’, the hero Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, faces all sorts of challenges and choices. Eventually, by the end of the movie, he becomes a better person. In the film’s climactic scene [plot spoiler], he surprises Elsa by telling her that she should leave with Victor Lazlo and not run away with him. He still loves her but he realises that she’ll only be truly happy if she gets on the plane with another man. If she doesn’t, she’ll regret it, maybe not today but soon and for the rest of her life. It’s a famous scene and a famous line and it’s meaningful; Rick has turned the corner, walked away from bitterness and anger. He has acted selflessly and improved the world.

But what if the film had been different? What if Rick had asked a Higher Power, five minutes in, to transform him into a wonderful human being? The net result would have been the same (freedom fighter escapes, woman is forgiven, man shows he cares) without a lot of talking, wearing of raincoats and singing of the Marseillaise. But such a transformation would have been rubbish, false, pointless. For Rick’s story to touch our heartstrings and stir our souls, he had to face challenges in that story. He had to resist the temptation of stealing Elsa away for himself. He had to face the option of wallowing in self-pity and bitterness, but instead rise above that and do the right thing and it was hard for him to do it; he had to reach down and pull himself into a good place. The challenges he faced were tough and we, the audience, didn’t know, until right at the end, which choice he would make but when he did make the right choices and become a better person, it meant everything to him and to us. It gets me every time. I practically blub when they sing the Marseillaise.

The same ise true of our own lives. Deep down, many of us want to become better people through our own experiences, our own choices and actions. Just as with Rick, we have to experience all sorts of challenges to be sure we are great people. A wise person would say that we don’t know how good we are until we are challenged; it is only when we’re challenged that we find out. We can’t just ‘talk the talk’, we have to ‘walk the walk’ to be sure.

This idea, that we are living physical lives to improve ourselves, has interesting consequences. For example, if Reality is a construction created by minds for personal improvement - a therapy environment - then the only things of real importance to us in Reality aren’t actually the physical things of reality at all - they’re just props. The only important thing in Reality is the state of our own minds. All extrinsic things like money, attractiveness, material goods etc are ultimately irrelevant and only of use if their presence helps us improve our minds. Anyone in Reality who is preoccupied with material things is akin to someone spending all their time playing a computer game because they're obsessed with amassing as many gold coins as possible. Such an attitude by game players often invites pity and ridicule but Reality is an artificial environment too, an immersive, affecting environment that we only temporarily experience.

It seems that Reality is the film 'Casablanca', only we don't know the ending. It is an immersive environment that we have all chosen to experience, from birth to death, and by doing this, by living our physical lives, we hope to rid ourselves of negative thoughts and negative reactions. Just as Rick had to face temptation, overcome bitterness and choose selflessness during the two hours of ‘Casablanca’, we are spending four-score-years-and-ten here because we want to achieve the same goals, only possibly with less raincoats…

p.s. Literally trying to live out 'Casablanca' is tempting too, but kind of dumb, but Woody Allen was very funny when he tried it in his film 'Play it again, Sam', which is definitely worth seeing.

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The universe is a construction

In this week's New Scientist magazine, there is a very interesting article called 'Cosmic Conundrums' about the problems in modern cosmology. The strap line for the article was: 'what can we do when cosmology raises questions it cannot answer?'

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There's no doubt that modern cosmology has several problems that it is current incapable of solving; here's a list of them below. The first two are mentioned in the article.

Boltzmann's 'Well ordered Universe' problem

Ludwig Boltzmann noticed in the late nineteenth century that the universe was in a very well-ordered state; in simple terms, it worked. The suns were stable and supplied energy, planets orbited them, supporting life. What confused Boltzmann was that he knew about thermodynamics and the Law of Entropy. It made no sense that a universe in which things always got more chaotic over time, it would be in this state after billions of years. It made no sense.

The fine tuning problem

The laws of the universe are extremely friendly to life. In fact, the ratios of the fundamental constants are incredibly, precisely, just right for stars and planets to form. If one or more of them were even a tiny amount different from their real values, we couldn't have atoms, never mind stars. Somehow, possibly by astonishing accident, our universe has just the right fundamental constants for atoms and stars to exist.

The baryon asymmetry problem

When the Big Bang banged, it should have produce equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. This is because, according to physics, the universe treats anti-matter and matter both equally. The only problem with this fact is that if the universe had treated them equally when it began, the matter and anti-matter would have cancelled each other out by colliding in a flash of light, leaving nothing but some radiation. Clearly, this hasn't happened and there is nothing in physics to explain why.

What's very interesting about this list of problems is that there is an answer that solves them all, that makes them all make sense. It is very simple:

The Universe is a construction

In other words, the universe didn't come into existence as a random event. The universe is a creation, made with a positive purpose and designed so that it is stable. That is why its settings (its laws, constants and ratios) are astonishingly fine-tuned so that suns and solar systems can form. That's also why our universe is filled with matter, whereas a universe that was created as a random event from nothing should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter.

The strange conundrum then becomes, if that's the only logical answer and it solves all the existing conundrums, why hasn't it been accepted and widely disseminated?

The reason, in a word, is materialism. The dominant belief in modern science at the moment is materialism. Materialists believe that only inert matter exists. Even our minds are not real. According to materialists, they are simply a sensory phenomenon, like a rainbow. Materialists only believe that our universe came about as a random event, an event without any bias, an event where there was no tendency or movement towards a particular goal. It's worth noting at this point that materialism is purely a belief; it is not based on any scientific evidence. Some scientists may think that science has proved materialism but there are many experiments made by senior scientists that negate this view. These experiments have been dismissed on spurious grounds because they don't agree with materialism. Ironically, it's a lot like the Renaissance Vatican priests refusing to look in Galileo's telescope.

In case someone is thinking that I'm making a case for religion, I'm not. The fact that the universe is a construction doesn't mean that it was made by God (or a god). The evidence doesn't indicate who or what constructed our universe, or how or why it was done. Our universe might have been created by a single entity, it might be a technological creation by an extremely advanced civilization, it might be a huge, collaborative, consensual illusion. The evidence doesn't help us work this out, but it sure is an interesting question.

If any readers would like read a related idea of mine, that also explores how life exists, please have a leaf through the Influence Idea. There's lots of attractive illustrations and pictures of famous scientists and some sheds.

I've sent the New Scientist magazine a letter about this cosmological conundrum, pointing out that all the problems they mentioned are solved if we accept that the universe is a construction. They've been very kind to publish my letters in the past, so it may turn up in the magazine at some point. Here's hoping! :-)

postscript:

They have published my letter. Hooray! That is very good of them, as any scientific view that's even a little non-materialistic can get some serious flack. Thank you, New Scientist magazine.