A Graphic Book Conversation About Physics

If you are interested in taking a peek into what a theoretical physicist who seems to be more interested in being honest than making a splash (or name for himself as an arrogant hard core crusader) would like you to know about his views on fundamental physics and metaphysics try “The Dialogues; Conversations about the Nature of the Universe” by Clifford V. Johnson. He’s at USC  but I forgive him (UCLA joke). I use the word metaphysics in the sense of the interpretation of physics, not spiritualism or the like. It is a graphic book (novel? Kind of? In his preface Clifford seems fine with comic or any terminology). The art is good, some panels even more than needed (a lot of work went into this!), but the reason I am highlighting the book isn’t the graphic art, as much as I appreciate it. I enjoyed the frank, honest talk about the limits and joys of science, particularly math and physics.

It is hard to convey that feeling. I’m not a physicist, but I “do” medical science research, and I know the feeling of discovery and wonder. I have tried to give a taste of that in some of my earlier blogs. I may have been partially successful; my “circle triangle square” blog gets the most hits of any I have written. I spiffed it up and re-posted last year ago or so but I think it is still the original that gets looked at. The hits sometimes come in bursts so I wonder if someone uses it for a class or discussion group. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether Clifford does it for you, but I think he makes a good effort. I recognized much of what I love about basic science and math in his graphic book.

Consider spending a couple of hours with this book. That’s all it takes to read it. You’ll learn some physics and how at least one theoretical physicist thinks about what he does as a theoretical physicist.

Spoiler alert: regarding physics: it ain’t over, and for that matter the fat lady may never sing. Physics is a process with no definitive end in sight. Theories of everything are a dicey proposition and at best may be untestable conceptual frameworks with a series of equations empirically describing what we can measure regarding energy flows. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box (a metaphor he uses) and all the pieces may not be able to be grasped or measured by our finite brains and resources.

We knew that, didn’t we? Still, if you like the scientific conversation, read Clifford’s book.

If, on the other hand, you want to know more about science and implications of consciousness on the nature of reality, stick with the books on Biocentrism by Lanza and Berman for a more quantum based approach or Bernardo Kastrup’s works for a more philosophical approach. I haven’t run into anything new on that front. I suspect that’s not a coincidence. Those authors do a great job, physics is physics some new interesting stuff but so what, and Zen is Zen.

And samsara is samsara. Arrrrrgh. Keep the faith, don’t let them get you down as they hurt and destroy to feed their beast, their greed and anger and ignorance. Do whatever you can to do good and to stay strong.

My love and hopes for a better world to all.

 

Two Sutras, a Poem, the Brain and Everything

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I like that Buddhism says that mind, as in brain process, not Mind as in Buddha-Mind, is a sense perception, that the brain is a sense organ, like the eye and ear in seeing and hearing.

The brain is indeed a sense organ in that it evolved to organize energy inputs and channel them to other parts of the brain, just like sense organs do. Only the brain’s output is a context, that is, a story. It is a “meta” sense organ in that it organizes the other senses. And just like the eye can generate it’s own output without “external” inputs (close your eyes and you will see things, colors and lights, generated by random firing of retinal cells) the brain can generate it’s own outputs without inputs; we call them thoughts.

In fact, some would say this is the nature of all of our experience of the dualistic world. We project the universe we experience our brain processes, like the Lankavatara Sutra says.

Too abstract? Try this. Each eye sees only 2 dimensionally. It has to; the retina is a flat sheet in the back of your eye. We project a 3 dimensional world. Our brain compares inputs from both eyes to make that story up. We can do it with one eye, even though there can be no 3 dimensional perception with just one eye. We do it by what we have been conditioned to expect, based on evaluating relative size, shadows, etc. That’s why pictures can look 3 dimensional to us, whether paintings, movies, photographs, TV, etc. It’s why optical illusions work and why one-eyed people don’t walk into walls (at least not a lot more than two-eyed people) and can drive.

How about this? You can’t see a “yellow” photon (that is, a photon at the energy we describe as yellow as shorthand). You have no yellow perceiving photoreceptors. Your brain puts yellow together from various inputs from the retina and projects it back out

Those inputs from one part of the brain (the visual cortex) to other parts of the brain (the visual association centers that put together the world into a coherent visual story) are no different on a brain level than the input of a photon on the retina of the eye that causes changes of energy that are then transmitted to the brain in the first place. Energy in, energy out.

So yes, the brain is indeed a sense organ. Well done, ancient Buddhists!

Lets go wide and deep on this.

first, go small, very deep, to strings, if they exist, we get to just energy patterns. At that level, there are no things, things disappear.

Go wide and big and in the vastness any thing, any fluctuation in the energy, you, the galaxy whatever, even our universe, is so negligible as to be essentially if not actually zero. Like a tiny + and – adding to zero. All change in the realm of what we (our scale of energy fluctuation) can perceive even extended by instruments, is no change at that scale, in the face of infinity, or 10^500 multiverses, or even in our known visible universe, or especially, as I understand it, if there is indeed no beginning no end. At that level, there are no things, things disappear.

So we are back to Shitou and the Tang dynasty Zen poem “The identity of Relative and Absolute” wondering what this vast UNI-verse, this undivided non-dualistic state, and awareness. What is that identity? How do we get to the reductionist stuff from the unified forces or to the unified forces form reductionist stuff? That is true science, the real theory of everything; only it isn’t a theory.

This brings to mind The Diamond Sutra, which says we should not attach to a person, a soul, a defined entity and identity of who and what we are.

To the state of being at the smallest of the small, say a “string” or the smallest quantum fluctuation of virtual particles in the void, at the smallest scale, you don’t exist. That is why a virtual particle, an expression of the vast limitless energy of the void, is “virtual;” it doesn’t feel us and we don’t feel it. Otherwise it would be a particle, not “virtual.” Yet some say that energy is where the big bang, or all existence, came from. It is fundamental. It is “the field.” Others say fields are just concepts that tell us how things act, to do the math (that is, quantum fields can be described by how they work, not what they are). In any case, there is nothing you can do to touch that string or virtual particle, you are too large, too coarse. That smallest world exists in a cosmos that isn’t yours, yet it is you. Yet you only exist as an individual entity (to the degree that you seem to do so) by virtue of the rules of the smallest of the small.

To the Universe/cosmos or multiverse or whatever, at the largest scale you don’t exist. You are too small a blip to register in the unending beginninglessness. Heck, even at the level of the galaxy, our solar system is too small to truly be said to exist as more than a small statistical fluctuation. At larger levels we aren’t even statistically present. Yet you only exist as an individual entity (to the degree that you seem to do so) by virtue of the rules of the biggest of the big.

And in fact, science tells us that there is no privileged time and space, that every point is the center of the universe

That cosmos, the smaller and smaller, or the bigger and bigger, that we can’t seem to touch, is us, because, well, here we are, right dab in the middle of it all.

The ancients would ask a new student “where did you come from?”

Meaning where are you? When are you? Who, what are you?

Good questions. And in some way, science and Buddhism start to converge in the answer.

You are the universe unfolding, without beginning or end, neither here nor there, neither existing or not existing, at least not in the way you think with your sense organs, your day to day relative existence, yet always at the center.

Please, lets take good care of that center!

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More Hippy Wisdom, Science and Upside Down Thinking

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On the commune, “The Farm,” I heard (and again I do not know if it originated there with Stephen Gaskin):

“Don’t limit the universe.”

That is something like when Einstein said ‘God doesn’t play dice” referring to randomness in quantum mechanics. Bohr responded by saying: “Don’t tell God what to do, Al.”

Or Shakespeare having Hamlet say: “there are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Our senses, including cognition, were evolved to limit the universe so we can deal with it as four-dimensional beings, not to understand the ultimate nature of reality.

It is an assumption of science, and many mystical traditions, that “as above so below,” though often applied very differently in science and mysticism or spirituality. In science, as we perceive ever deeper and deeper into the workings of things and uncover more complex facts about these things and their relationships using the tools of science to organize and extend the limits of our senses, our powers of observation, we believe we are getting closer to the Truth. As we look at and think deeply (and mathematically) about the smaller and the smallest, the subatomic world, and the the larger and the largest, the Cosmos, we see the same processes and so feel confident that science is hot on the trail of how it is.

And of course we are hot on that trail, until we hit the areas on the intellectual map in the middle of the ocean of our explorations that are labeled “Here There Be Sea Monsters.” These are the grand unifications we hope for, the realm underpinning quantum field theory, the play of energy writ large and small, where we start dreaming about multiverses and strings.

Then what?

What is in the spaces, the deep empty spaces between thoughts, between perceptions?

As I quoted Stephen Hawking in an earlier post: what breathes the fire in to the equations?

A recent book I read that Nyogen Roshi had suggested, an 800 page three volume compendium by a physicist, Thomas Campbell, called “My Big Toe.” My take on it sums up to:

Consciousness is the foundation, evolution is the process.

Tom suggests that information is the warp and woof of our perceptions, we have free will, and meditation is a tool to improve the quality of our being by decreasing random chaotic fluctuations and being more compassionate.

He also doesn’t like infinity much, and neither does Buddhism, which is why my GUT had “no beginning, no end” rather than “for eternity.”

Tom may disagree with my couple of sentences summing up his work, but it was 800 pages, so I may have missed something.

And it is not that far from the GUT I started my writing with:

You are the Universe unfolding

Mind evolving

No separation

No beginning, no end

As well as blogs I wrote about evolution, and Mind, Zen, and yes, breathing fire into the equations that create a Universe.

In Buddhism there is an idea that most unenlightened views are “not even wrong” (a statement I like by a physicist deriding a crazy theory, but here more a statement of fact than a put down), but rather are “upside down thinking.”

As a self-taught painter in high school I found turning a canvas upside down was quite useful in giving a new perspective to the work, highlighting asymmetries and abstractions (color, shapes) I may have missed by knowing what I thought the upright painting was SUPPOSED to look like. I later learned that is a pretty standard technique that I stumbled on. You can see the painting anew and learn a lot by doing that. So upside down perspectives aren’t even wrong, just not what you are after. They may even provide insights that set you on the right path!

And science is simply upside down, I suspect, when it limits consciousness to being an epiphenomenon of this incredibly marvelous (in the true sense of the term) brain.

It is not that science is wrong about brains. The complexity of even the smallest brains should astound. More on that in another blog, but as an example I like the teeny tiny brain of a wasp that is less than a millimeter (a twenty fourth of an inch) long (the whole wasp, not the brain!) that allows for complex behaviors like flying, finding the larvae of another insect in a tree, and then injecting it’s wasp eggs into the sac of that larva of the other insect so the wasp’s larva can eat it later.

It is really, as I wrote recently, just a question as to whether consciousness itself is primary or an epiphenomenon.

I know it may be impossible to prove that the former is true using the techniques of math and science. Although considering Consciousness primary, while perhaps implied when we find that turning the canvas of science upside down, answers some deep questions, doing so relies on subjective experience and that is not the rules of science as most commonly understood. We can’t get “outside” of Consciousness to dissect and measure it. We can measure brain function very well though.

Legitimate as many of us feel that meditation and insight and subjective experience are as away to pursue Truth, they are not necessarily the accepted definitions of “scientific method.” Do we need “scientific method? I would answer: Yes, if we don’t want to fall prey to superstition and we want to do any kind of complex engineering. It is a very powerful tool.

I just suggest that it is OK to turn the canvas upside down and then back, that we don’t, a priori, based on an interpretation of science, a metaphysical stance, limit the Universe.

 

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Where the Rubber Meets the Road; Lessons From a Busy Month

 

I haven’t written on this website for about a month. I have been doing a lot of reading (non fiction mostly) and writing (trying fiction mostly) while keeping up my practices (medical/scientific and Zen). Very invigorating.

Three themes kept reappearing this month.

First, it is fun to have fun, and to share my enthusiasm, which I often have in abundance, but ego, praise and blame, and the need to “do” sneak in so easily. I set myself up for that!

Second, be careful about the stories you tell, they tend to come true in ways that may be unexpected or in ways that are not literal, but true nonetheless.

Third, when looking at how science describes the way reality functions, whether by studying biology and neuroscience, peeking into into the standard model of particle physics, quantum mechanics, string theory (metaphysics or physics? I am in the camp of those who think the former, but that is for another post), the cosmos as information or hologram, multiverses, multiple layered realities, computer metaphors, or whatever big picture cutting edge science and the various interpretations of science (metaphysics) can offer, it seems to come down to:

Is mind an epiphenomenon arising from evolved brain tissue, itself congealed energy, and that’s as far as it goes, or is Mind primary?

Does Mind arise from energy or is Mind the field in which energy and the organization of energy flows?

Does Mind need another field to maintain it, like a quantum field, or the vacuum with it’s teeming sea of virtual particles and energy without beginning or end, or is Mind a name for the ultimate field that, while still dualistic in a way, is an appropriate term to use because it reflects our experience, that is, is our mind, as we live it?

Is what we can measure and perceive primary or is consciousness primary?

Do we really describe Reality with the tools of the intellect, the mathematics we invent, the changes in energy we perceive with our senses, or do these tools of the mind just provide a great quantitative look at one layer that our monkey brains can handle, at the scale we evolved to live in, even if we push that out very far with very clever instruments and experiments, with the underlying energy and principles arising from Mind rather than the other way around?

Even that is of course a story, a concept, but I think when talking about science and practice, about how it is, that is where the rubber meets the road.

It isn’t whether I think I can prove Mind is primary. That’s exactly my point. It has been said that it is like a fish trying to prove water.

That’s why as busy as I get, and as interesting as I am to myself (I amuse myself greatly though it gets a bit much even for me sometimes), I keep up my practice.

I’m kind of curious.