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Friday, July 10, 2009

The Island of Philosophy

I had reached a definite point in my life; a half century of aimless existence, and it felt as if the sand in the hourglass was speeding up its inevitable descent into the lost aeons of time. I wished the flow would slow or even cease. There was still too much left to do; too much to achieve, too much to learn, too much to appreciate.

I sat on an old fish-box. The quay was not busy. There were some fishermen idly chatting in the evening sunshine. I envied them their lifestyle. Their rugged, unshaven faces displayed the harshness of their livelihood, but around their eyes the wrinkles of laughter revealed, that in the main, they were happy individuals; taken up with a physical occupation that left little room for philosophical enquiry. Life was the next fishing trip, followed by the rewards of coming back to land. The cycle of their life was constant, just like the steady heave of the sea under their boats.

My own life was not constant in any sense. True, I had spent the major part of it in a routine job that, eventually, had given me the opportunity to pack it all in and follow the tide of my existence into the sunset of my life. Yet I had never attained the sense of calm acceptance that the relaxed smiles of these fishermen portrayed. There was always the struggle, within, to find a better reason for existence. There had to be more to life than the routine of work, rest, and play. As the years passed, I knew that, at some stage, I had to strike out and devote myself to the things that I felt mattered in life.


A trawler appeared around the corner of the pier wall, accompanied by a swarm of seagulls in frenzied excitement. The gulls rose high and then dived, knifelike, towards the stern of the boat, where some fishermen were throwing fish-entrails into the churning waters. The chugging of the boat’s engine was a strange, musical background to the wild squawks of the gulls. I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly, wanting to take in the real beauty of the scene. There was a wash of colour, as the red and yellow boat ploughed through the grey-green water, against the backdrop of the crimson of the western sky. The pier wall and the small fishing village added the perfect frame to this small region of space-time.

I tried to imagine the mathematical formulae, that I had spent the past two years studying, coming up with the causal structure of this wonderful scene. Even were this possible, how could they factor in the sense of joy and wonderment I was feeling, being a part of it? I smiled internally, as I realised that being part of the scene meant that I could never fully understand it’s causality structure. I was forever locked in the scene and could not rise above it; to look at it as would a transcendent being or god. It had taken me years of study to realise this simple truth; one I’m sure the fishermen had an innate understanding of, but would never be able to express in so many words: the great truth of quantum reality - that there is no real objectivity. We cannot remove ourselves from reality when we are part of it - how simple an idea and yet, how utterly hopeless for mankind to come to an understanding of existence.

Cogito ergo sum.” Descartes was right but should have added that the existence, implied by thinking, was not an existence apart from reality, but within reality. Reality is, in effect, our prison. Plato’s idea was right all along: we live like prisoners in a cave, staring at shadows cast on the wall facing us, by a fire behind us, that we can never see - being bound hand and foot. The fire is part of our reality but we can never see it. To us all that exists are shadows and the real causal structure of our existence is denied to us. Yet Plato believed that philosophers could somehow escape their earthly shackles, and not alone see the fire, but escape the cave and experience the wonders outside - the sun, sky and all the glory of nature. Was it for this reason that I had become so taken with philosophy of late? The path through science, while necessary to explore, was not leading to my escape from the cave. The great truth of quantum reality- that reality is in essence unknowable - was like a dark cloud that descended over my intellectual journey.

I breathed out slowly and tried to clear my mind of this sombre thought. I wanted to bathe in the beauty of the here and now. There is nothing wrong with being a hedonist and enjoying life as it presents itself. The only problem is that the pleasure is always fleeting. That is why hedonism never works - it entails its own destruction in that a desire fulfilled is no longer a desire. But, for now, I wanted just to gorge on the peace I felt, as I watched the gull-speckled boat enter the haven of the harbour. I tried to breathe slowly, deeply; cleansing my mind of all thought. I let the visual perception take over. I felt my eyes fill with the sensation of colour and shape. I felt the millions of cells on my retinas sparkle into life and fire the nerve cells in my brain. I closed my eyes now and locked in the image, letting my senses sample it like a fine wine taster. But try I might, the image began to fade. Soon it was just a blur of colours, just like a modern abstract painting. Then, it was gone. I opened my eyes again. The boat was now at the quay wall, and there was frantic activity with ropes, fenders, and fish boxes.

I picked up by backpack and threw it over my shoulder. The small ferry boat had by this time filled up, and I could see from the look in the skipper’s eyes that he was about to set off. His eyes met mine, and he nodded. I threw my pack onto the fore deck and clambered down a rusted ladder onto the wooden boat. The boat was nearly full and there was only seating for about ten people - five on either side - and these had been taken. I propped myself up against the stern compartment, where there would be a better view, and hopefully, shelter from the splashes of seawater breaking over the bow. The skipper threw my backpack to me, to store in the aft compartment, and then, after a quick head count, started up the engine. The boat slowly reversed away from the pier.

There is always a frisson of excitement at the start of a boat journey. Maybe it’s being the centre of attention of those left behind - standing on the pier, looking enviously on. Their looks suggest that, they too, would like to be on board. A handful of people waved and the mostly-tourists on board waved back, sheepishly. I almost raised my hand too but pulled back, feeling slightly foolish. My eyes gazed along the group of well-wishers on the pier, and the sense of genuine goodwill made me relent. Soon I, too, was waving sheepishly as the boat made its way out through the mouth of the harbour. The concerted waving had introduced a sort of camaraderie amongst the passengers; as soon as the hands lowered, each turned to the other and made the sort of opening remarks that lead to the friendly, trivial conversation of fellow travellers. The young couple to my right smiled openly at me. To start conversation, I made a simple comment about the good weather. I enjoyed exchanging experiences and information with them in the carefree, open way that only strangers can; knowing that the end of the journey will bring a final and resolute separation. But will it? The thought went through my head, even as I made light conversation. Are these random links, once established, never broken? Is there a weird sort of quantum entanglement at work?

One of the great joys of having a conversation with complete strangers, is that you can throw out subjects to them, that you dare not do in ordinary converse. So, soon, I had introduced the topic of quantum entanglement to my unsuspecting audience of two. As luck would have it, they were both students and had some limited conception of what quantum theory was about. However their studies of philosophy and history did not allow an in-depth knowledge.

But why should it?’ the blond haired Jan asked, his thick Dutch accent making his English sound laboured. His equally blond friend Maria nodded in agreement. Her English was better and her voice softer.

There is absolutely no need to understand such things.’ she insisted.

I smiled at her certainty, recognising in it the sense of certainty I had myself as a youth. How soon had I lost it!

You are right.’ I conceded. ‘There is no absolute need, yet I contend that there is some need. For instance think of the world view of a chap like Plato. Everyone concedes he had a great mind; but for all his greatness, he lived in a world of comparative ignorance. He came on the scene way ahead of such momentous human achievements as the Enlightenment, the revolution of Einstein’s general relativity or the even greater thought revolution of modern quantum theory. Just imagine what he could have achieved if he had had the benefit of all this modern knowledge!’

So you are saying we can’t be competent philosophers without this understanding of quantum theory?’ Jan’s voice had a tone of mocking tolerance and I began to feel an antipathy towards him. Amazing how human frailties can take over rational argument. I tried to quell my rising sense of dislike for the young man but nature was more powerful.

Competent philosophers?‘ I raised my eyebrows and laughed. Yet, inside, I felt disgust at the way I was feeling about this young man. How do I get into such situations? More and more, my interactions with people had been troubled; some feel belittled by my comments, others just get angry and try to hit back. Yet, all the time, I just try out my ideas on them. I treat them like a blank canvas and put forward a thesis without knowing where it will lead. What annoys people is that they suspect that they are merely being used as a rough template for my emerging ideas. When they come forward with their own musings, they find them cast aside as worthless or indeed baseless.

I could see that Maria’s eyes were on fire with indignation at the seeming put down of her friend. This pained me as I liked the young woman’s surety of herself. Yet the similar sense of assuredness from the young man, made me want to put him down. Is this a male on male thing? Am I the old stag prancing, with knotted antlers, in front of an upstart from the herd. Is this old stag trying to impress the female deer? I almost smiled to myself at the thought but luckily contained it. I was in enough trouble: time to placate and retreat.

I’m sorry,’ my tone was conciliatory, ‘I have the greatest respect for philosophers. My amusement was at the idea of applying the word competent, in its strictly utilitarian sense, to the likes of Plato, or Hume or Kant. Competency implies limitation. To be competent there has to be defined boundaries to a skill - once reached, you are deemed competent. But I believe, and I suspect you also believe similarly, that there are no boundaries to philosophy. It is an open set.’

As I spoke I studied the two young tourists to discern their interest in my words and I knew from the intensity of their expressions that they were captivated. I continued my thesis. ‘That raises the interesting question: how to decide who is a good and who is a bad philosopher? There are no guild standards to judge by. In fact as soon as a standard is posited, a new philosopher comes forward to reveal the inadequacies of the old standard. But to get back to my original point, these temporary philosophical standards are always embedded in a current state of knowledge.’

Jan opened his mouth to intervene but I held up my hand feeling I knew what was troubling him. ‘I know that they are also embedded in a culture and a history and a belief system, but for the moment I am only concerned with knowledge. The current state of knowledge was, in Plato’s time, one of mathematics of shape and form - geometry. Very few people at the time could have understood, or indeed had, the opportunity to understand the laws of geometry.’

Both were now beginning to look bemused and bewildered at where I was leading them but had not the courage to interject. ‘But the point I am making, is that these laws were understandable by the general philosophical populace, privileged though they were. Nowadays the background knowledge is one of general relativity and quantum theory: leading into a postulated theory of everything, that may encompass string theory in manifold dimensions, or even more weird multiverses, or wild foam theory. Alas, the modern philosopher cannot have the time or ability to have a real understanding of these exotic trends in human thought and, at the same time, be a savant in the broad history of philosophy, and contribute to modern philosophical thinking.’

The two young people had by now a glazed look in their eyes. I knew, immediately, I had lost them. I had lost them by introducing strange theories: theories of which they were, obviously, totally ignorant. But I had also lost them as potential converts to my way of thinking. I wanted to spread the word amongst young people; to think on life in the broadest sense. I wanted them to be excited by pure mathematics, weird new developments in physics and neuroscience. I wanted them also to be excited by aesthetic beauty, whether it is fine arts, architecture, music or literature. I wanted them to travel all roads that, taken together, lead to real understanding. I was convinced that no one road would lead there: it was not a conventional two-dimensional map. To access that elusive third dimension that leads to understanding, all roads on the surface of the map must be taken and taken at once!

I let the conversation recede and turned my head away, staring at the waves. I had lost interest, and they had lost interest. No harm done. That is what happens on journeys - senseless conversations and then parting never to meet again. But I knew we had become entangled and that, that, could not be destroyed. Sometime, somewhere in our futures, we will have our entangled states resolved. I had meant to explain what entanglement was, but had not got round to it. Did I really understand it myself?

A sudden big wave passed over the bow of the boat and sprayed everyone with sea water. The boat lunged down into the trough of the wave, and I felt my stomach churn. I held onto the rail, as the water lashed my face a second time. Everyone was now saturated, and belatedly the skipper started handing out oilskins to anyone who wanted them. Happily, I donned an oversize yellow suit that made me look like an old fisherman.

The sea was getting very choppy and, one by one, the passengers were succumbing to sea-sickness. I tried not to look, as they retched over the side. Mentally I was fortifying myself against a similar fate. The Dutch couple, beside me, were white but had not given in, bravely fighting the nausea. From under my yellow hood I gave them a conciliatory smile, and was warmed to receive one in return. No harm done obviously. I turned to gaze at the wild waters. Inwardly, I was delighting in the turmoil of the sea. It was a fitting start to my journey.

Every time the boat crashed down, it sent a spray of white water into the air, accompanied by a loud bang. The water cooled my face and acted as a gentle balm. The gulls raced ahead and then, in a smooth gliding motion, let the boat catch up, before swooping down into a wave trough, and then off again. The waves were now looking ominous to a landlubber, but the skipper seemed unconcerned, inside his little cabin to the fore.

I was between worry and excitement. I sensed the power of the sea. The waves could take my life away at a whim. The interminable energy of the surface was a constant reminder to me that life is a delicate balance, at the best of times. The undulation of power in the rise and fall, eddies, vortices and currents, created by the fury of the water, was a reminder that all life was subject to such seeming chaos, albeit at different levels. I thought of the surface of the sun. There, there is never peace - for the inferno of burning gases causes the surface to witness constant furious storms, worse than the fiercest hurricanes that earth can produce. The entire surface is one gigantic frenzy of chaos. Yet, from our distant perspective, the sun is a calm and peaceful presence.

At the other end of the scale, the vacuum of the quantum world sees storms of infinitesimal change, where tiniest fundamental particles and their antiparticles jump in and out of reality in an unimaginable frenzy. It is not a wonder, therefore, that the sea, which is a phenomenon of our human scale, can, too, exhibit such wild behaviour. What is miraculous is that there are times when it is totally calm. That, peculiarly, is a phenomenon that is not apparent at the extremes of the infinitesimal or the cosmological.

Could there be a germ of insight here? Insight, I was constantly searching for insight; for some slight symmetry or particular asymmetry in the perception of life, or even in the personal understanding of what life presented to me. This insight could be my life’s goal, once discovered. It could, in an instant, make sense of my existence: be the answer to the “Why”. Why is the most enigmatic question there is. It can spread its wings to encompass a multitude of situations; each then adding up into the philosophical why - the big question.

I had spent so much of my recent efforts on the question of how, that there was little need for a why: just move back a stage of the how if there is a why. Eventually you find yourself at the Big Bang: the supposed start of time. But of course there was time before the Big Bang, but just in another universe. Soon we were looking at multiverses, and wild theories of foam surfaces, where untold infinities of universes come and go. This surface, too, has the form of a chaos of sea. You cannot escape turmoil. But where is the calm?

A large crash sent a wall of water over the boat and everyone was now saturated and miserable. Maria, the young Dutch girl, had succumbed to the elements and was wretchedly retching over the boat rail. Her companion, equally white, was heroically massaging her back but was also on the verge of voiding his stomach to the turbulence of the sea. I felt sorry for them. I knew that they would now sell their soul, just to be back on solid ground. The more they wished for relief, the slower time passed.

Time is such a mental thing, or maybe I should say duration, because time just is. It cannot be experienced. It is duration we perceive, and all our perceptions are personal. For me, at that moment, time was fleeting because, despite the discomfort and the potential danger, I was exulting in the experience of being alive. I was not willing time to pass, but in it’s impish way, it was running too fast for me. Time is a demon. It senses our feelings and acts contrarily to our desires. I had felt the years pass too quickly of late, now that I had discovered a reason to live. The many years of pointless existence had passed so slowly. Time was definitely asymmetric. It flowed in one direction but it also acted contrarily to expectation. This aspect of time was not something I had come across before. Was this another insight?

On the horizon, the tall peak of the island had become visible. Had it been there all along and not been noticed? I knew it was only just over ten miles from shore, so it must have been visible. Perhaps the boat had changed course. I looked back at the wake and saw that the track disappeared almost as soon as it was made. The tumult of the water destroyed the past. If it were a calm day the wake would be visible for miles. Histories are lost in turbulent times. Perhaps that is why we know so much about Greek culture. True there were the many wars, but there was comparative peace too. Funnily, eventually all histories will be lost if one thinks of it. The march of time has been likened to the increase in entropy – the ever-increasing drive towards total chaos. Does entropy exist as an objective reality or is it a scientific fantasy? The scientist posits entropy as the ever-increasing complexity of existence - akin to a decreasing state of knowledge of the overall state of a system. The supposed ultimate state for the universal system is one of infinite entropy, or conversely, minimal knowledge. So, on a cosmic timescale, we are forgetting our past, or rather we are losing our past. A cosmological Alzheimer’s disease!

We are forgetting our past inexorably. What does that mean for the infamous quantum field theory of the sum or superposition of all possible histories making up reality? A curious idea I could never really understand. Good old Schroedinger’s cat - is it both dead and alive? The quantum theorist says that it is a superposition of both states in a probabilistic sense. Some maintain that the cat has both existences. But if knowledge of our histories is decaying in the entropic sense, then surely, reality is decaying. Is the end of the universe the end of reality? Perhaps, another insight.

The island was now fully visible and the sight of it helped raise everyone’s spirits. It rose like a giant cone from the grey waves to a towering height. At its base, what seemed like millions of gulls flew in the airstreams created by the sheer cliffs presented to the water’s edge. At their base, the waves were white and frothy and ominously dangerous. The boat, keeping a safe distance from the hazardous rocks, circled the southern shore of the island. It seemed incredible that this tiny craft could find a safe landing on the treacherous shoreline. But the skipper was all the while unperturbed, puffing on a soggy cigarette and gesticulating with his free hand, pointing out a sea arch, or one of the many sea stacks that littered the shoreline. The gulls had gone into a frenzy at the approach of the boat. They dived at the stern and swooped away in steep wide arcs, their cries filling the air. I felt elated at the scene. This was real life at its best - being tossed on the waves in a tiny craft, at the mercy of the sea, in the shadow of an ancient island, and under the constant attention of thousands of flying creatures. How could my sum of histories add up to this special moment?

I closed my eyes and went into a deep state of peace. I took off on a voyage backward from that point, stopping off at only the seminal moments - those that were etched indelibly onto my sub-conscious mind. I flew swiftly past the years of professional work and rearing of family. My first landing was far back in childhood - perhaps I was about ten or eleven years old.

The feeling came back as if it never left me. Wellingtons on and the duffel coat fastened, I headed out into the heavy rain, my hand in the coat pocket clutching the small birdbook given to me by my best friend. It was the first birthday present I had ever got, and thereafter, no present could ever live up to it. So as I stole out of the house, unobserved. I knew I was setting off on an experience that was to be very special. It was the first time I had the opportunity to use the birdbook.

Up to then I had little interest in birds but yet had a romantic idea of birdwatching. Locked into this view was the possibility of escape from the reality of my own life, with its unhappy family environment and poor circumstances. I saw in becoming a birdwatcher an avenue in to the world of some of the characters I’d read about in children’s books. I fantasised about the world of the Secret Seven or the Hardy Boys, and found my own life to be dull in comparison to the adventurous lives they perpetually led. I developed a deep longing for adventure and mystery in my life, but the life of small town West of Ireland provided no such drama. The drama it provided was anything but adventurous - it was sordid and horribly real - not the clean wholesome bit of smuggling or whatever of the Hardy boys – my childhood fictional heroes.

I had somehow identified birdwatching as being associated with this fantasy life, and hence my lukewarm interest in birds. This was very unusual at the time when most boys, if they saw a bird, would reach into their pocket and take out their catapult. Dead or wounded birds were interesting to them, or perhaps robbing bird’s nests, but just looking at them would have caused malicious laughter and sneering. So my interest was definitely against the grain. My best friend was more one to use a catapult in his interactions with birds - and he had quite a good shot too - but somehow he understood my need to look at birds, and when he produced the present for my birthday I was very surprised but inwardly delighted.

We were inseparable as friends, going everywhere together, but the exchange of gifts was not the done thing amongst boys. For that reason I was embarrassed by his offering and quickly put it away lest other boys notice and start to jeer. When I got home later that evening, I spent hours leafing through its coloured pages. I couldn’t wait for morning, to go out and do some birdwatching. Then, I would be like those children in my books, and maybe adventure might soon follow.

But the morning was another of those dreary, wet, cold days. The rain was coming down in buckets. I stared out the window for ages, hoping it would clear, but eventually I realised that it was there for the day. Undeterred, I put on my Wellington boots and coat, tucked the book into the deep pocket and, without a word to anyone, just headed out. I had no plan of where to go but made my way downtown and turned left towards the Abbey cemetery. The cemetery ran alongside a pedestrian walkway that straddled a small river for about half a mile. I reckoned there could be some bird life there, but the rain seemed to have made all birds take shelter. I was disappointed and disillusioned. This was a poor start to my entry into a new adventurous world.

I followed the walkway towards the railway end. Thereafter it cut back towards the town. This territory was all very familiar to me. It was remarkable how free we were back then. From an early age, the whole town and its environs were our playground. Apart from certain areas where we knew that, if we entered, we were under threat from enemy gangs, we were safe in the familiarity of being on our own turf. But the striking thing was that, beyond certain points, we did not stray. Outside these limits was a world unexplored and even mysterious. We were no longer on familiar ground. One such limit was at the railway end of the walk. Here we normally took the right turn that brought us back to town. The river dipped left, under the road, and headed south to the rear of the railway, off into the unknown.

I stood in the pouring rain at the railway exit, and my hand still on the book, I turned south towards the railway. My heart was starting to thump, as I realised the decision I had made. I had decided to strike out - to push forward the boundaries of my existence. I was taking control of my life, perhaps for the first time. I had made a decision to go and search for adventure, rather than wait for it to come to me. A curious feeling of well-being engulfed me. I was at peace with the world. I didn’t mind the rain or the mud at my feet. I was following my own goal. I refound the river bank which was now just passing through flat fields. I walked along, happy in the knowledge that this was all new. I did not know where it led to, but I never had to worry about getting lost either.

Eventually I stopped and took up position in some bushes and started to birdwatch. The rain still came down in sheets and the bushes provided no shelter. The bushes were to be my camouflage, to conceal my presence from the birds. I crouched among the bushes and remained absolutely still. Time passed. I had no watch but I had no need to tell the hour. I was so content. There was silence except for the noise of the rain on the leaves and the stream. The heavy swollen river moved slowly, its muddy waters flowing in the direction away from town. I threw a twig into the current and watched it float away and knew that its journey would take it to places that, someday, I would explore.

All day, I spent there, in the rain, my hand in my pocket protecting the birdbook that never had to be opened. No bird appeared that day. I never got to identify the beautiful kingfisher or the elusive bittern. But I had identified something in myself. I cannot, to this day, say what it was, but it generated a feeling that, ever since, I have had only fleeting recurrences of. Maybe it was the feeling of the self being realised - I don’t know but it has driven me, and been my constant hidden companion ever since.

A seminal moment yet nothing happened!

On seeing the island, a faint glimmer of that seminal moment had re-emerged. It was telling me, I was on the right course. I opened my eyes and was amazed to see that the boat was approaching a small sheltered pier. The waters were calmer now, just heaving in and out of the narrow cove entrance. The skipper expertly brought the boat parallel to the pier wall and threw over two fenders, before jumping off and securing the ropes. I waited for the rest of the passengers to disembark first, then throwing my bag over my shoulder, stepped over the rail onto the island.


Island of Philosophy

I have been working on a book about the relationship of modern science and philosophy for some time now.
A lot of my time has been spent trying to get to grips (if it's possible) with the meaning of quantum theory. I find the subject captivating least of all because of the lack of consensus amongst practitioners as to its interpretation. How then can the larger implications of the theory be brought into mainstream life and philosophy?
I have treated the subject by placing it in a prose format. This has the advantage that I don't have to annotate the book with references or to be scientifically expert (which I certainly do not ever hope to be).
What I want is a freedom to navigate the worlds of science and philosophy without the constraints of the professions on either side. this may lead to a lack of depth when viewed from a particular side but hopefully gives a better balanced bilateral approach.
I will be publishing the book capter by chapter initially on this blog and hope that it reaches an audience who will engage and critique it freely.