Thursday, 8 January 2015

SETI and then…

In previous postings I’ve enthused about the difference any one of us can make through our choices and what we do every day in seemingly ordinary ways. Also there are opportunities to take part in activities that may in the past have been out of reach, or placed out of reach, for most people - for example by making a contribution to scientific and medical research – and appreciating the results.
We can all make such a contribution – and it could turn out to be an important one - through an increasing range of 'citizen science' projects in which the nature of the research means that there is a massive amount of data to process even by supercomputer standards.
Public facilities may not exist or official priorities may lie elsewhere, so the idea is to distribute the computing load over the internet to individual volunteers with their own participating computers located all over the world. There are now millions of computers in the various programmes. I have been involved with one such overall scheme for some time. This is BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. After downloading and installing the BOINC software (to get going, Google BOINC) you can select the research projects (one or several) that you would like to support.
At the time of writing there are 43 projects available to choose from including finding cures for diseases, studying global warming, joining a quake-catcher network and much else besides. The blocks of data are seamlessly downloaded, analysed on your computer and then uploaded back automatically to the University in the background.
Within BOINC, the project I’m involved with is SETI – the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – which is now very much a citizen science project since official support was cut back, presumably due to a lack of results in a political or business cycle. The programme was saved by a vigorous voluntary campaign of fundraising which, incidentally, included the actress Jodie Foster who starred in the film 'Contact' which was based on the novel by Carl Sagan. But SETI is still a small and dedicated team working on a tight budget and based at the Berkeley SETI Research Centre.
With SETI the analysis looks into the data gathered for a ‘candidate signal’ from civilisations elsewhere in the Milky Way. Now I do know that we could do with a good deal more terrestrial intelligence down here, but projects like this might help to gain a much wider perspective – one that current events suggest is vital. SETI is indeed a noble quest and it addresses one of the most fundamental questions that humanity can seek to answer.
My two computers in the SETI programme mainly process data (using their spare cycles – idle time – there is no cost to this) from the huge radio telescope at Aricebo in Puerto Rico - which you may also have seen in the Contact film. There are other large radio telescopes throughout the world that are also taking part in the programme.
All this and more is a real democratisation of science as well as its expansion and it provides an opportunity for people in all walks of life to contribute towards major discoveries or improvements and to push back boundaries. It makes me aware of what a privilege it is to be involved with this inspiring work. I would not want to miss such an opportunity.
Helping with research such as this is just one of the many ways in which we can all make another difference every day of the week. You can, of course, choose a very different project (for my own part I may also get involved with earthquake detection) and you could be part of an international team that makes an important breakthrough in your chosen field.
In terms of SETI, while no intelligent signal has been found as of the time of writing, the area probed thus far is just a drop in the galactic ocean (remember those drops?). And we now know that there are far more potential places for life to arise in the Galaxy and even the Solar System than we would have dreamt of just a few years ago. Part of the range of SETI’s work is to look for new kinds of signals contained in the data and to develop new algorithms – so, I like to imagine, there may already be something there!
There is a real chance of answering definitively, and within the lifetimes of people alive today, the question that human beings have asked since the dawn of our awareness – are we alone? Contact could happen tomorrow, next year, by 2050 or much further into the future. But if we don’t seek, we shall surely never find.
There’s another question I’ like to address. Suppose that SETI did succeed, what would we then do? Firstly I hope that the success would have a salutary effect on undesirable entities such as dictatorial regimes, those with regressive political attitudes, religious extremists and such like.
But this result would by no means be instantly guaranteed as scope for denial by irrational individuals is virtually limitless as is the scope for conspiracy theories (‘they’re making it all up’) and outright mind control (‘you’re forbidden to express belief in this on pain of death.’).
Nevertheless, should there be a copy of Encyclopaedia Galactica included with new physics and new engineering results (albeit with its own associated hazards) I think there would be rapid progress if the rest of the world is mature enough to handle it. It may be no more than belief, but I have great confidence in human capacities to cope with external shocks – and nothing could be much more external than this!
But would ET be hostile or benign? An important question indeed. Benign seems the more likely to me. What would a hostile civilisation be able to gain if it was 1,000 light years distant from us as a lesser civilisation? In contrast a benign civilisation could transmit its knowledge and information about its culture and pitfalls and so propagate its views on the Cosmos and its approach to life and help us to survive natural and human shortcomings. This is assuming of course that the extraterrestrials are not so alien in their form or the environment in which they live as to rule out much of their approach.
Also, if by some faster than light means a hostile civilisation was, in fact, able to engage in conflict, the relative number of such civilisations would I believe go down assuming that conflict with other aggressive civilisations is somewhat more likely than with peaceful ones. Hostile civilisations would also possess extremely formidable weaponry, of almost unimaginable power, possibly with one weapon able to destroy an entire solar system. The more of these weapons were around, the more likely will be accidental destruction.
If a message is received through SETI, should there be a reply? First of all there is no hurry, with a built-in delay of an absolute minimum of 4.2 years (light speed to the nearest star) and more likely 420 or 4,200 years. But you can be sure that some rich egotist would try to jump the gun and defy collective wisdom presumably expressed through the United Nations.
Decency would suggest that we should respond by at least saying “We are here. You are not alone.” and saying something of what we are and what we have accomplished off our own bat – perhaps along the lines of the famous Voyager disk - since the sender may have similar ingrained search imperatives to our own. But what more?
The greater the distance the less the point in asking questions as it is more likely that we would obtain the answers more quickly from our own research, possibly including the work of home grown aliens (intelligent machines).
But the situation would be very different if faster-than-light (FTL) communication or travel is possible notwithstanding General Relativity - and that we have developed this capacity ourselves. If FTL applies only to communication, then a productive dialogue would be possible in which we were, for the most part at least, the pupil.
If physical transportation turns out to be possible, then I believe that great caution is needed and there should be patience with the resulting slow progress. ‘Civilisation shock’ needs to be withstood and we are, of course, capable of being deceived. ‘Contact’ gave one illustration of this very gradual pace of widening awareness with benign extraterrestrials as the guides.
Though it may sound negative, there is something, I think, to be said for carrying on by ourselves secure in the knowledge that we are not alone in the Cosmos. Somewhat selfish perhaps, but there would be less chance of our civilisation being totally destroyed – as isolated peoples have had happen here on earth even when, at least in terms of their social and environmental values, they were arguably more sophisticated than the rest of us and had much to offer.
This said, I can’t help wondering what data my computer has been analysing as I write this piece. You just never know!

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year’s Dispositions

A happy New Year to everyone. This posting is a little late for New Year’s resolutions but here is a list of the things that I will try to hold to in 2015. In fact there’s little or no change from 2014, which could be interpreted as success or challenge – most likely both. Such lists of ‘dispositions’ give a picture of where you stand and who you see yourself as in terms of values you consider important and, despite my observation above, is usually best thought of as a work in progress.

Valuing the individual and safeguarding their inalienable rights.
(Humanity consists, in the overwhelming majority, of people who are worthy of respect and who are entitled to personal freedom, security and a measure of happiness.)

Valuing family and community.
(Those closest to us deserve our greatest, but not our exclusive, love and attention.)

Being true to oneself and thinking for oneself.
(If you are not true to yourself it is hard to be true to others. Nature gave all of us the capacity for thought, but did not empower or appoint natural 'authorities'. What a waste it would be if seven billion people declined to use their powers of thought.)

Having an open and enquiring mind, and valuing knowledge.
(Our comprehension of the world is always provisional. New knowledge or a more developed understanding may call for new views. No-one is in a privileged position in respect of truth. Reliable knowledge and sure understanding are hard won.)

Being considerate to other people and the environment.
(Do as you would be done by. Disregarding the environment means disregarding future generations.)

Being active in the community, volunteering, supporting good causes and seeking to enhance the common good.
(We should try to secure 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' within our reach, beginning with those who have least.)

Being regardful of injustice and suffering and seeking to alleviate them.
(Human beings are the means by which justice can be served, diseases cured, injuries healed, innocence protected and suffering lessened.)

Seeking to comprehend people more fully and thinking carefully about their different situations.
(Imagine walking in another's shoes – mile after mile. 'Understand and judge not'.)

Being fair and forgiving.
(Who would wish to be on the receiving end of unfairness? Vindictiveness is a corrosive emotion. Forgiveness heals both parties.)

Listening to others, being tolerant of other points of view and being prepared to admit that one's own views might need to change.
(Wisdom does not belong to an exclusive few. Even where we think that wisdom is lacking, we should suffer 'fools' gladly, because it is right and because we may find ourselves amongst them.)

Willingness to accept light from whatever quarter it may come.
(Some of the deepest insights come from the most unexpected sources – external and internal. Rule out no possible origins as possible providers of meaning.)

Living by the rules of society and valuing democracy, its institutions and procedures.
(If the rules seem unfair or wrong, free societies have processes for change. The most valuable 'institution' we have is democracy itself. If there is a lack of respect for it and it is undermined, so is society and so, ultimately, are all of us as individuals.)

Being accountable and living with integrity.
(Integrity can be seen as honest accountability to oneself. More widely, accountability is to the whole of society not just particular groups.)

Being polite, temperate and modest.
(Who would wish other people to be disrespectful to them? There are too many displays of petulant anger and far too much infantile boasting. We all have good reason to be modest, most evidently if we could see ourselves as others see us.)

Helping to create harmony and cultivating inclusion.
(A harmonious common life is the core of a unified society. Exclusion diminishes those who do the excluding as much as those who are excluded.)

Recognising the value of stewardship.
(Stewardship can contribute more to the common good than most 'leadership' and can take the form of leadership by example.)

Being truthful and reflective.
(Truthfulness is something that we can all contribute to society and there is much to reflect upon both within society and within ourselves.)

Attaching a high value to reason and evidence.
(Against the pitiless background of evolution we've developed as the predominant species not least because of our abilities to reason and to evaluate evidence. So if it stands against reason, it's probably wrong. If the evidence lines up against it, it's also probably wrong.)

Being courageous and visionary.
(Having the courage of ones own convictions is good, but it often takes more courage to change ones convictions on the basis of what we have learnt. We should form our own picture of a desirable future, one that recognises the freedom of others and seeks to enhance the common good.)

Cultivating a sense for the profound and the magnificence of the Cosmos.
(Stillness and reflection in quiet places help in gathering the self, contemplating that which is beyond the self and in seeking personal meaning. Above our heads on a clear night we can look out in wonder on half of everything.)

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Happy Christmas to everyone!

A friend and neighbour of mine who is an Anglican minister proposed a pre-Christmas question of expressing what Christmas means for oneself using not more than 140 characters (as for the limit on text messages).
An intriguing idea. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing the results since I’ve found this pretty challenging and have not so far come up with anything original, positive and so succinct. I wonder what readers of this blog think!
But I did stumble across a rather nice quote from Charles Dickens (or one of his characters) while looking for something else (I wasn’t trying to crib a contribution from the internet – honest!): “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Sounds good to me.
Since originally writing this little post a reader has sent me the following, which most closely matches what I feel myself:
"A time of year for inclusivity, joy, love, altruism and reflection about the real meanings in life. A place to step forward from with no fear and positive intent."


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Let All Be Heard

I’ve recently been doing a bit of scribbling in one form or another and not wishing to overestimate my capabilities, I’ve been fairly cautious about estimating the value of any of these efforts. But at least this did cause me to reflect on the fact that we do not hear nearly enough from ‘ordinary people’ as to the views that they hold on important matters.
This is especially true when these views diverge from ‘expert’ opinion, received ‘wisdom’, what leaders (elected, unelected, members of special interest groups or simply self appointed) and the wealthy owners of the press tell us and what we are supposed to accept as true. All too often, the people are manipulated by these privileged individuals and are not respected. This is not how it should be.
I for one would like to hear more from this needlessly silenced majority drawing on the wealth of experience that they hold and the abundant common sense that they have acquired. I say ‘silenced’ rather than ‘silent’ for good reason. People tend to be reluctant to say what they think on many subjects of substance, sometimes because they have been made, by various social pressures, to feel inhibited or embarrassed about expressing their own sincere views.
It is unfortunate that there are many people who may have very interesting things to say but who are silenced by this sort of anxiety, a fear that is often, sometimes deliberately, put into them by critics who, superior beings that they no doubt are, would much rather hear echoes of their own voices.
There are those with power and influence who without a second thought imagine that they speak for the people at large and take the liberty of doing so, invited or not, whenever they feel like it and who do not relish being told to ‘hold on a bit’.
But each person is distinct from all others and accordingly will have a unique perspective on life and singular experience of the issues that it inevitably raises. It is true that one risks looking rather odd when, at a certain stage in life, putting personal understandings and judgments into the public domain. To this I simply say ‘If this is the case, then so be it!’ No doubt I will find myself amongst those people who I believe should be suffered gladly!
In my own case (happily devoid of power and influence I hasten to add!) the stray reader may also detect what might be seen as my tendency to attempt to square circles! I admit that I find such exercises irresistibly tempting but, this said, I am not sure that the strict geometric impossibility is the best metaphor.
Perfect circles and perfect squares exist only as abstract concepts. What’s more, I enjoy making seeming impossibilities possible. In the end, this may be so only in some respects, or when viewed from unconventional angles. But once ‘imperfection’, albeit slight, is allowed to enter the picture so also do far richer possibilities come into being ‘amidst every perfection is a measure of imperfection’.
Furthermore, conducting the circle ‘squaring’ exercise can itself be revealing, and elements that may in abstract have appeared to be irreconcilable are usually not quite so in practice. Unsuspected affinities may come to light, and our understanding of each may be much enhanced.
All this, of course, being the exact opposite of, for example, tribalistic party political propaganda, commercial lobbying or certain religious recruitment and conversion processes – and so much the better for that. The divisiveness that these groups can create damages and diminishes our society.
In this light, I firmly believe that we should all take courage and make clear what we think regardless of the pontifications of leaders. We should do this whenever we can and in ways that suit each of us best, since all of us will have something distinctive and worthwhile to contribute and our society will be all the better for it.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Principles for a Virtuous Economy

I’ve often spoken of the desirability of the country benefiting from a Virtuous Economy rather than the exploitative, extractive, grotesquely unequal, cartelised, profiteering, shareholder obsessed and anti-citizen economy that we now endure.
I do not accept the view that base motives are acceptable and that the economy will automatically translate them into benefits for everyone. The worse the motive, the worse will be the outcome – either absolutely or relatively. This is the normal consequence of malign actions. A virtuous economy would see better motives and, I firmly believe an improved and much fairer set of outcomes to the immense benefit of the common good.
But while the general tenet of the social value of virtuous motivation should at least be appealing if not patently obvious, what should be the actual principles and the specific virtues that underpin a virtuous economy and by which companies, governments and individuals should abide? I suggest that they should include the following:

·     Loyalty – This is rapidly becoming a near forgotten corporate virtue. Loyalty to longstanding and decent principles, to the country, to the community, to fellow citizens as customers, to vulnerable individuals and to the workforce and, I almost forgot, to the shareholders.

·     Moderation – Meaning, for example, companies making good and useful products sold at fair and moderate prices for a reasonable profit to which no-one could object.

·     Respect – Companies, Governments and other organisations showing through their actions respect to all citizens, in particular their customers or electors, the workforce and the environment.

·     Truthfulness – Displayed, for example, by not promoting deceptive products or using confusing or concealed pricing, no ambiguous or misleading advertising (for example, as is so often the case with ‘health’ products). No breaking of promises. No claims for credit where it is not due.

These to be exhibited in place of the all too common current vices of disloyalty, contempt, greed, deception and selfishness. We are into the realm of misinformation and indeed conspiracy - for example with ‘industries’ acting, and being allowed to act, as cartels in respect of pricing, barriers to entry and much else besides.
Corporate disrespect involves treating customers, especially and inexcusably elderly and more vulnerable people, as profits fodder. There is also bribery by vested interests - for example, of political parties to adopt policies that intentionally inhibit legislative reforms which would be in the public interest but which would also decrease private profits.
When properly implemented, virtuous consequences could be thought of as being exhibited by the economy itself through its structure, but it is the actions, rules and, to link to another topic, the dispositions of the people that implement them that are ultimately responsible for the economy’s moral quality. So it is on these that we should focus our attention. What might these dispositions be? In my view they would certainly include:

·     Seeking to eliminate economic injustice, exploitation and unfairness. This relates to the classical virtue of justice.

·     Valuing the individual. Society consists, in the overwhelming majority, of individual people who are worthy of respect and who are entitled to freedom, security, useful employment and a good measure of happiness.

·     Beyond the individual and family, valuing community and nation through consideration to other citizens and seeking to enhance the common good, beginning with those who have least.

·     Valuing and respecting democracy, its institutions and its procedures. The most valuable 'institution' we have is democracy itself. If our version of democracy is constructed to deny the electorate proper choices, if it is manipulated and abused to further commercial interests there will be a lack of respect for it. And if democracy is undermined, so is the economy that operates within it, so also is society and the individuals that comprise it.

·     Being truthful, accountable and living with integrity. Integrity can be seen as honest self-accountability. More widely, accountability should be to the whole of society not just to particular groups (such as political party supporters, donors or co-religionists). Truthfulness, another of the classical virtues, would be rewarded by ordinary citizens far more often than is generally recognised, although it does call for considerable courage.

·     Respect and loyalty are integral to a virtuous economy. Respect and truthfulness are essential for a virtuous polity and for a healthy democracy.

·     Helping to create harmony and cultivating inclusion. A harmonious common life is the core of a unified society. Exclusion diminishes those who do the excluding every bit as much as those who are excluded.

·     Recognising the value of stewardship throughout society. Stewardship – helping to look after and preserve what is important to community and country - by all the members of a society can contribute more to the common good than most top down 'leadership' which, in fact, has much to answer for.

These dispositions along, no doubt, with a number of others, would be held by a ‘citizenry of good intent’ and put into practice in both their private and professional lives. They would also be reflected in the economic and social policies of government.
But all this, of course, we do not have in today’s society. The state of the economic and social system in this country is at root a problem in morals and morale and it is up to us, we the people, Everyman and Everywoman, to do something about it.
The political class that became established through this system and which clings to its power relationships and questionable practices (while pressing change on others) will never change itself or the system from which they profit despite their oft-repeated promises which, as we have seen, are all too easily broken.
And we should be clear that there is no magic 'invisible hand' of market self-regulation that we can rely on to steer us clear of the consequences of this value-free condition. There never was - this has been one of the biggest economic hoaxes of all time. To suppose there is some wondrous economic system that will transmute base motives - such as extractive greed - into golden benefits for all of society is a convenient fiction equivalent in truth to the medieval belief in Alchemy.
One is also reminded of the computer metaphor GIGO, Garbage In - Garbage Out in relation to the quality of data input and the worth of the subsequent output when the program has run. In the present context we will also have GIGO, read as Greed In – Greed Out or, in terms of notorious personalities, Geckos In – Geckos Out.
In view of the constant references to growth as the way out of our problems it should be understood that economic growth at any given percentage rate cannot be sustained indefinitely, as we should have known, since percentages are an exponential phenomenon. No economy can be above the natural order of things – nature abhors exponentials as much as vacuums.
And it should be clearly understood that the ‘market’ is not a part of the natural order either – the dominant western conception of which is not an absolute, it is an entirely human concept – one constructed by the private beneficiaries - rather than one that should have been shaped to serve wider purposes rather than frustrate them.
The economy should operate as a social market. A capitalist model will only operate in the general interest if, as Keynes pointed out, it is governed by 'gentlemanly codes of behaviour' rather than the exploitative culture that has been so evident in recent times. Nor should the pursuit of personal wealth be an end in itself. The end, as Keynes also said, should be to live 'wisely, agreeably and well' - qualities which, if not wholly describing it, are certainly consistent with a virtuous economy.
The economy should be at the service of society rather than a cosseted entity existing independently of it to which society is expected to bow the knee and take the consequences. It should be an honour system in which respect, trust and regard for the individual form the bedrock. Individual citizens, private companies, the public sector, voluntary organisations and Government, both national and local, should share a vision of the good of the nation and take personal, policy and commercial decisions accordingly, seeking to operate always within the Common Good to move towards a land of found content.
The virtues of Loyalty, Respect, Truthfulness and Moderation along with the associated dispositions, a citizenry of good intent, the concept of stewardship, commonly held and socially oriented values and even, with due consent, some ancillary ‘leadership of good intent’ in certain areas, will be the secure foundations of the Virtuous Economy and the basis on which it operates to enhance the Common Good.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Reflections on Dreams

Dreams, their origins and their interpretation, have been a subject of intense speculation for people at all levels of society since ancient times. However, unlike the prevailing views that were held in antiquity, in modern times relatively few of those people having an active interest in brain activity have thought that preoccupation with the meaning of dreams is justified, but the purposes and process of dreaming have intrigued even the sceptics.
Here, however, as someone who has always taken a keen interest in the subject I do want to say something about the content of dreams, my understanding of their possible meaning(s), how these might be accessed and what we may infer from them about our personal lives, our nature - and also about reality, particularly in respect of time and communication.
The first point to clear up is that in my opinion at least, although some interesting things may be learnt, unless you are neurotic your dreams will not tell you very much that is absolutely fundamental about yourself that you do not already know.
Your dreams may however reflect what you do know about yourself in a variety of ways and employ a wide variety of images and settings in so doing. And there will be especially rich dreams that can be seen as having more than one level of meaning. The connections between these layers can be interesting.
Much of the classical imagery of dreams was set out by Sigmund Freud, particularly in his monumental and path-breaking work The Interpretation of Dreams. Quite a few people today are no doubt still unhappy about some aspects of Freud’s analysis and the erotic imagery (trains, tunnels, piers, clock towers, trees etc.) of which he wrote but I think that at one level it tends to be correct (but why a clock tower rather than a train you might fruitfully ask).
Some dream images may have more than one personal association and they may evoke more than one emotion – for example involving anxiety (as may be instanced by the possibility of missing a train) as well as more pleasurable sensations. There is usually some food for thought there I think.
Carl Jung, once a colleague of Freud, gave less prominence to sexual imagery than Freud himself and some of what he said added richness to Freud’s perceptions on dreams. Jung introduced other images too, such as the well known mandalas.
Furthermore, most people will have their own set of visceral images, but I will not go into any detail here. I forget whether it was Freud or Jung who pointed out that in dreams some groups composed of three elements may refer to the male genitalia - these could be trios of people or animals for instance.
But in my opinion there is a lot more to the understanding of dreams than this. One of Freud’s perceptions was that the elements used in the composition of one’s dreams make use of what he termed ‘the day’s residues’. These are bits and pieces of our mostly mundane experiences during the preceding day that, as the modern understanding goes, the brain is likely to be sorting out for longer term storage or eventual removal. But these residues may be combined and built on to produce a particular story-like dream.
How may dreams be interpreted? The first thing to make clear is that an off-the-shelf guide book approach to images and their supposed significance simply will not do. There is in fact only one person who can interpret a dream properly and thoroughly, and that is the dreamer themselves since the dream uses their residues and personal images, and its meaning relates to their experiences either recent or from years ago – quite often childhood, puberty or experiences with a high emotional charge.
Other parties may gently aid in the dream interpretation, usually by way of a well placed suggestion or two, and by being generally supportive and encouraging in the process but, importantly, directly intervening no further than to ask the occasional question such as: “What were you feeling at this point in the dream?” or “Have you had this dream before?” If you do this, my advice is not to have eye contact with the other person – sit at an angle.
One factor that is very important in interpretation is the feeling tone in dreams. What emotions accompanied the dream or certain parts of it – excitement, anxiety, awe or typically a fusion of many feelings? This is the area where the unravelling is likely to be especially productive. Productive, that is, primarily in terms of interest rather than dramatic revelations.
Centuries ago dreams were given great weight when they related to major events that were supposedly coming down the track from the future. I’m profoundly suspicious about the verity of such reported historic or religious dreams and suspect that many of them in fact never occurred but were stories aimed to further self-interest, promote an agenda, manipulate either the ‘masses’ or Kings (in which case it’s best to be positive and right!)
I must say that have no time for seeing dreams (or anything else for that matter) as ‘omens’ with their predominant focus on the negative, on helplessness and thus the diminishment of the role of free will and the effectiveness of action to counter possible very real threats such as impending war.
But I expect many of us have had what appear to be glimpses of future events in our personal lives. I’ve had a few of these myself but before going overboard one should realise that there are seven billion potential dreamers every night, making some two hundred trillion dreams that occur worldwide in a lifetime! Some of these dreams will surely look like predictions but, as rational analysis reveals, could also be a product of chance. But maybe not all of them – and there is another sort of future related dream too.
These are those dreams where, on waking, you do not sense a reference to the future or even remember the dream unprompted. But an apparently run of the mill (if slightly odd in feeling) and maybe forgotten dream may leap back into mind when an event occurs in the future that was ‘seen’ in the dream. In my case these always have several characteristics in common – the time period is always the following day, the matter is always utterly trivial, it always has a ‘visceral’ nature, it is highly visual, and there is no way of seeing that a particular dream may be of this nature or of nurturing one.
As an aside, this question of timing seems, from my experience at least, to be important in such direct interactions as there may be between people’s minds. Years ago there were many instances where the first few words that a close relative was going to say came into my head. These always made up just a short phrase and the time gap was always one or at most two seconds. This phenomenon no longer occurs however. The tenuous connection with dreams was the relaxed state of my mind at the time of occurrence. But I digress.
It is as if, to extend Freud’s concept, such future-perceptive dreams include some of tomorrow’s residues. If there is anything to this, and of course there may not be, there are profound implications for the nature of time. But then, there have to be profound differences from our day to day impressions of time. A straight line, clockwork time simply cannot be. It is woven in with space and space time is warped by matter and there cannot have been a straight line infinity of time preceding the present.
I have sometimes though that of the temporal triumvirate of the past, the present and the future, the only one with a questionable reality is the present. This may sound surprising but by way of explanation, if you imagine yourself sitting in a room opposite someone, the sound of their voice comes out of the past as does their visual image (at a different, much faster speed) since both take a time to reach you. The processing of this information and your thoughts also takes time so that ‘the present’ is a smeared combination of incoming information and the brain’s work to render it comprehensible. This will apply to other sensory inputs too. In terms of the reality of the future, we have previous experience of reaching futures 100% of the time so, hopefully, we can expect this to continue.
My subjective experience suggests the possibility of tonight’s dreams including some of tomorrow’s residues as well as today’s so that ‘dream time present’ would also include elements of the very near future to be reached following the exercise of albeit constrained free will. One can envisage a sort of asymmetric bell-type curve of the probabilities of residue inclusion in dreams with the much greater probabilities being from the preceding day.
One other thing to look out for when interpreting a dream which appears to be significant is that the true focus of the dream may not be on the central character but one who is either less well defined or apparently in a lesser role.
To give one example, I had a dream when on holiday which caused me great concern about the welfare of a colleague who was the central character in the dream. In parts of the dream I was accompanied by a figure to my left and slightly behind me as we rushed to find my friend. The concerns I had did not evaporate and on my return to work I felt I must ask my colleague if she was alright. She said that she was fine but asked if I had heard about Godfrey. It turned out that poor Godfrey had committed suicide whilst I was away. It was then that I recognised the figure beside me in the dream.
Returning to Freud’s views on dreams, he placed great emphasis on the role of wish fulfilment even when the ‘wish’ coming to light may appear to be a highly negative or embarrassing one - and one which may be steadfastly denied by the dreamer. This idea can be revealing and we should pay close attention to it in the interpretation of dreams even though its presence is not always obvious and the supposed ‘wish’ is not always palatable.
So there is, after all, the potential to learn something from our dreams although I would emphasize that in my opinion it is more a question of there being a number of aspects of interest rather than dreams being of central importance for fundamental and heretofore unrealised self-understanding.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Question of Free Will

Do human beings have free will – or are what we see as our ‘choices’ and our future in fact strictly determined? I don’t see people running amok if the ‘wrong’ answer is given but it is important nonetheless to have some idea of where we stand and to give reassurance as to our independent identity.
This is a fundamental question that has, through the ages, received the attention of some mighty thinkers and it is still being posed today, informed opinion, as so often in other matters, taking its familiar oscillating trajectory. But, in my opinion that the answer to this question is a little more involved than simply a bald yes or no. Rather, I see the ‘dilemma’ as artificial.
A cynic might suppose that long established religions have a vested interest in the existence of free will (or else there would be no sin, no punishment and one less need to belong to religious groups) while science has, in times past, from time to time seemed to point towards the deterministic alternative as, surprisingly, have some more recent philosophers.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century at the highpoint of development of the world view of Newtonian Mechanics (which I will here caricature as quantified forces acting on particles like billiard balls) it seemed that given enough information about the relative positions and movements of the particles at any one time (and some kind of external and utterly vast computing capacity) the future could be predicted with certainty.
But the Romantic Movement had already reacted against the classical scientific mechanistic picture, and the ‘clockwork’ model was finally shattered by the advent of Quantum Mechanics and Field Theory. Even though the approach of quantum mechanics with its irreducible uncertainties has replaced the classical mechanics, it is not entirely clear that the classical conclusion regarding free will cannot be re-cast within this framework.
The great scientist Albert Einstein, although a co-founder of quantum theory, did not find its philosophical implications consistent with the world view that he preferred, and accordingly he expressed the opinion that – if we but knew it – the future was as entirely determined as the past.
I must say that while I heartily yearn for Einstein’s world view in general to be proved right (caricatured as ‘God does not play dice’ – i.e. there is something with a more defined structure underlying quantum mechanics) the free will conclusion is the one aspect that I would least wish to be true.
Einstein however, positioned himself away from the mainstream of developments in quantum theory. Even so, excursions into the weird world of the quantum have a tendency to produce a mystical train of thought- such for example as this: Perhaps the quantum world is the substrate of the mind of God and ‘reality’, and we ourselves, are thoughts within it.
There may be world views finding their origins in quantum theory that bear striking comparison with some (admittedly selected) of the assertions of eastern religions. These were presented very eloquently by Fritjof Kapra in his still popular book The Tao of Physics some years ago. The essential understanding that is relevant our subject here is that all times may merge into an eternal present. Kapra also draws our attention to the eastern view that opposite poles are manifestations of an underlying unity.
The apparent opposite poles that we are considering here are of course free will and determinism. I say ‘apparent’ since there is a unifying idea - the notion of constraint. Determinism would then be seen as perfectly constrained choice, there being only one possible outcome. Complete free will on the other hand would be the absence of any constraints – or would it?
It has been pointed out many times that without rules, without the ‘laws’ of physics (or indeed the Highway Code) there would exist only choiceless chaos. In fact we would not be here to make any choices at all, and even if in some Poincare event of unimaginable unlikelihood (now more often thought of as the question of ‘Boltzmann Brains’ arising if there was an infinite universe) an individual was accidentally and randomly assembled that individual would be unable to predict, even statistically, the outcomes of his actions and thus have no paths at all to follow.
So both determinism and free will can be seen as involving choice under constraint. The questions that remain are how much constraining is going on and is there an ideal level of constraint. In some ways the situation here is similar to one of the points that I made in Arne Saknussem. Different mixtures of constraints give rise to differing richness of choice possibilities and the ideal would produce a maximal range of high quality choices.
When you consider the orderliness of Nature and the small number of types of physical forces and constraints that there are (with the prospect of even fewer given the ongoing work of physicists to produce a unified theory) it seems likely to me that we are already close to that ideal level – a highly desirable circumstance with minimal, though essential constraints.
These are the main reasons why I think that the supposed dilemma between free will and determinism is an artificial and unproductive one. We can regard ourselves as having, as it were, freedom under the law (s of nature) and making choices accordingly. All roads do eventually lead to the Rome of choice.
Furthermore, in practical terms we must surely act as if we have genuinely free choices, constrained or not. Without this perspective there would be no sense of responsibility that extended beyond the self. So my position is that we can confidently go out and make our own (though hopefully not always immediately self-serving) choices and take responsibility for them.