Six years ago in a Slog Saturday essay, I introduced the concept of The Confluence of Discovery. Like pretty much all of my terms and acronyms, it rose without trace; but I was right back then, and every year that passes proves it.
Precisely what reality is (or isn’t) has become the big deal among neuroscientists, physicists and quantum theorists over the last forty years. Yet most of the ideas propounded about the sub-atomic realm, Time, Space and reality had been previously visited on a more intuitional basis by Buddhists, ancient philosophers, homoaeopaths, psychiatrists and cognitive behaviourists long before (and even during) that time scale. Conclusions such as ‘everything is connected’, ‘Time is an illusion’, ‘the lawless Quantum’, ‘the answer lies within’ and ‘separation is an illusion’ are interchangeable between Buddha, Planck, Einstein and Quantum mechanics with only minimal “translation”.
As usual in science, there are turf wars between different disciplines, and furious ongoing wars of words between Einsteinians, Continuum Timeists, arrow direction Time revisionists and other more radical avenues of thought. This latter syndrome is entirely healthy in some ways, but I can’t help feeling that more cooperation between physicists, anthropologists, zoologists and neuroscience would aid in the search for “a total theory of reality”.
The point is this: the really open-minded – the philosophers, the scientists, the researchers and the empiricists – have for millennia been trying to grasp (if you will) the reality of reality. But the rest of the human race – on the receiving end of communications, media and entertainment technology from science – is doing its best to either rigidly deny it, or run away from it whenever possible. And those with the economic, financial and political power are doing their best to hide it from them at all costs.
It’s hard not to see the irony. But then, we really are a unique species in having a full understanding of the certainty of death, while being able to deny it for 99.5% of every day experienced before the age of around 55. Perhaps it is fear of that finality – or confusion as to the point of it all – that leads every culture on Earth sooner or later to resort to reality-altering drugs. From tobacco, mescalin and alcohol all the way through to weed, coke, speed, valium and Prozac, the contemporary West is more hooked on drugs than ever before.
“Life’s a piece of shit when yer think of it,” sang Eric Idle in The Meaning of Life. The more I see of contemporary culture, the more I feel that “the point” is not to think. Everything I’m writing about in this double-header essay is really just another Weapon of Mass Distraction via instant, almost childlike, gratification.
Look, phone – take picture, no waiting! Strong beer, drink – lovely feeling within minutes! Big screen on wall, heap powerful – watch wannabees with no talent win, I could do that!
Most people are average: a harsh judgement, but true. A form, if you like, of reality. Their lives are going to be boring but benign, balanced but bland. And for a species cursed with introspection that produces aspirations and dreams, it is tough to realise they can’t draw, can’t sing, can’t write, can’t compose, can’t run, can’t kick a ball and can’t play an instrument anything like as well as thousands of others can.
Hence Karaoke. Hence Britain’s got talent. Hence auto-biographical cameras. Hence mobile phones. Hence Facebook. Hence Twitter. Hence beer, wine, whisky, Hello, OK and Sky. They all convince us that we have something to offer….and they all distract us from the reality that – in terms of fulfilment through the illusion of fame – we can only be famous for at most five minutes. We are not “special” enough to warrant mass public awe.
This is not just an irony, it’s a tragedy. Because there is a physical reality that dictates every single one of us is unique and does have a metier. After a lifetime of interviewing, analysing, observing and training people, I am convinced that every one of us beyond the most severely disabled has an extractable seam of genius in there.
Such realisation of human potential ought to be the kick, the power and the satisfaction of being a teacher: of bringing out the unique, practical talent of everyone. But that was dumped by bourgeois liberals and ideological fanatics years ago. Today, most people come out of the education system with no more idea about where their destiny lies than when they went in.
And trust me, that’s exactly how global big business, media moguls, bureaucrats, bankers, ISPs and their bumboy legislators like it: grounded, discerning self-confidence is bad for business, and even worse for oligarchies. It leads to searching questions and determined doubt. And we don’t want any of that. Goodness me no.
But what of this reality that élite thinkers still seek to encapsulate and define? Would the mass of the population be interested if they knew more about it?
That depends on where the search ends…..if indeed it ever does. “The more I learn, the more I realise how little I know,” Einstein said: there is no such thing as “settled science”. And dramatic breakthroughs (for better or worse) are very rare: fire, the wheel, clocks, anaesthetic, the internal combustion engine, antibiotics, television, nuclear power, the pill, DNA, computers, and the transistor to chip drive towards mobile communications.
I say ‘for better or worse’ because very little we have invented/discovered in recent modern history has produced anything other than problems. But also notable are the varying speeds of “advance”.
From 3,500 BC until AD 1840 we came up with fire to keep warm, wheels to transport ourselves around, clocks to tell us when it was lunchtime, and jungle juice to overcome the trauma of surgery. The other seven took precisely 177 years, and all of them present us with moral, ethical, pollutive, anti-social and potentially species-threatening issues that span entertainment, war, information, sexual mores, attention deficit and – there it is again – celebrity obsession and narcissistic chatter.
The development of nuclear weapons dominated the way post-war baby boomers thought for a generation: it made mass numbers of people think about our capacity for mutual annihilation. But since around 1975, it is personal travel, easily available sex and mobile infotainment gadgets that have transformed everything….and they are all things that make us project a false image more, and think less about where we’re heading as a species.
I have a film-star tan, a sexy sports-car, a body for sin, and a G5 Android to record that lifestyle and let me talk to all my friends all over the world. I don’t have time to think: I get all the reflection I need from the mirror.
In that context, how often a black hole burps and what the point of the damn thing might be is highly unlikely to create tabloid headlines beyond puerile Sun-punning: ‘Eggheads in big black belch hiccup’, for example. What Science Finds Next is going to have to be gob-stoppingly mega to capture the ‘popular imagination’ powerfully enough to change its direction from inner to outer.
I’m bound to report that, at the moment, the portents are not that good. Science being what it is (or rather, isn’t) nutjob belief systems and zero-evidence ideologies are few and far between. The state of play on what reality is, why we’re here, how all this lunacy started and who might have been behind it is in the yes-and-no with reservations holding pattern space at this moment in time.
Indeed, so uncertain are the certainties re this one, not even the higher end of “Science Correspondent” has an attention span broad enough to warrant an article about it on cont P32 Col6 let alone a front page splash. So I am reliant on the superior intellect of the average Slogger to bear with it, and then perhaps even retweet/email/text/broadcast the content.
The good news is that pretty much everyone in the relevant scientific field agrees about what the goal is: to come up with an overall theory of the Universe that defines reality once and for all. The bad news is that there are over twenty different directions of theory all testing different hypotheses, and all of them seem plausible. The even worse news is that the hurdles in the way of A Theory of Everything are sevenfold, and nobody as yet is anywhere near removing them. Even Stephen Hawking has at last admitted that he probably won’t crack it before he dies.
If you’re interested, these are the Magnificent Seven:
1. The two main areas of study are general relativity theory (at the level of a full-size universe) and quantum mechanics studying the sub-atomic realm. Experiments get different results at each level, theorists in each level have radically different ideas, and neither field has an adequate explanation for space and time…or is even sure they exist.
2. The Big Answer is something to do with Space, Time, thermodynamics and gravity, but we don’t know how they fit together.
3. Within Time studies, there are two opposing schools of thought: Continuumists and Arrow directionalists.
4. What was Big Bang really all about? The assertion made when I was at school (with which I disgreed even at age 13) was that there was no Time before BB. Physicists have now let go of this inversion of basic chemistry in favour of there having been a cosmos of some kind with Time in it….but as to what it was and why there was a bang, we haven’t a clue in any empirical sense.
5. At first, our post Big Bang universe had only two dimensions – Space and Time. We don’t know why, but it was. Now it is thought that the appearance of ‘Dark Energy’ suggests the Universe is growing a fourth dimension. Go figure.
6. There is a mot d’époque at the moment, and this buzz-word is entropy. Entropy (put very simply) is a measure of chaos. When it kicked off, the Universe was low in entropy. Now it’s much higher. When “maximal entropy” (as yet unclear) is reached, mathematically, Time disappears. Or stops. Or something.
7. Black Holes. I mean, whassa point eh? A very good question. We don’t know: but we do know that they swallow stuff nothing else can, that light cannot penetrate their horizons, that they bend space and time beyond all recognisable form, and that they belch heat. Could be they start new Universes, could be they create new arrows of time….we don’t know.
Now as we can see from all that complexity of unknowns, there’s not much in this on the face of it to startle the average Sun reader into a change in his approach to life, community and cold reality – not least because (even scientifically) one man’s reality is another man’s nonsense, cold or otherwise.
But if one extrapolates from the conundrums above, there are some interesting possibilities…..which I would summarise as follows:
i. I think it’s high time the astrophysicists and quantum grease monkeys started talking to neuroscientists and pharm researchers. It is, for example, quite possible that at least one dimension (or even two) are constructs of the human mind. We already know that in a basic sense we can (and do) dilate Time when highly occupied or drugged, and that under anaesthetic Time doesn’t pass for us at all. The power of the brain remains largely unexplained – placebo effect, for example is written off as a syndrome, whereas if we could reproduce the chemical that stimulates it, medicine would be revolutionised overnight. (Big Pharma, of course, isn’t interested in that at all)
ii. Einstein believed cosmic travel would be possible along the “gravitational rope” as he called it, which he saw as a wave we can’t see. In theory, some thermo-gravitational dimension could be harnessed to make light years irrelevant, in that it might bypass Time and let us go anywhere instantly.
iii. Although we don’t know what caused Big Bang, we do know that it has created an entropic Universe which doesn’t seem to make sense – and alegedly, on the other side of it is some form of cosmos.
In most instances, an explosion of enormous size represents a mistake. If a mistaken intelligence made the mistake, things might be a lot nicer on the other side. (Are Black Holes merely thermodynamic faults caused by smaller Big Bangs – star collapses and collisions – that also lead to the other side of Big Bang?)
iv. Suppose we are now very close to maximal entropy: if Time stops, nothing can “happen”. Does this therefore mean that we’d all live forever, albeit becoming interminably bored?
Let’s come back to Earth for a few paragraphs. In the temporal zone, there are clearly some things we could do without any genuine scientific advance at all to improve matters.
First up, we could re-engineer education to serve the species, rather than just the political, media and business élites. That is to say, take teaching as a profession back to its apolitical calling as the imparting of knowledge, the encouragement of questionning wisdom, and the amplification of talent. The application of forced egalitarian values to a system dealing with infinite human variation was always a nonsense, and it has spawned a disastrous mass ignorance.
Second, we could stop seeing health, education and social civics as separate disciplines. We should encourage maximum communicatory links between all three, and remove them from either politicisation or privatisation. They need to be ringfenced, mutualised and funded by NGO NFPs as the solid foundation of a continuing, not stagnant, civilisation.
Third, we could recognise – politically incorrect as it may be – that no ideological ‘ism’ is ever going to replace benign religion as a force for improving behaviour. I’m not talking about religion Siamese-twinned with State violence and conquest, but rather de-deified social values recognising a higher authority than individual appetite…..as espoused by the Buddhist-Judaeic-Christian traditions at their best.
It is my hypothesis that complementing that history with an equally high order of reality redefined by science stands a reasonable chance – no more – of giving Homo sapiens a Bigger Picture than any digital selfie could ever manage.
Far from delivering the individual citizen into servitude (as neoliberal capitalism and communism always do) such radical reevaluation of ourselves would add the dimension of humility we so badly need in order to achieve a reality of freedom.