Author Archives: Anthony Mannucci
In my previous post, I referred to Richard P. Feynman’s attitudes towards science and math. I would like to bring back Feynman’s memory. Feynman held interesting opinions about how scientists are treated in our society. It seemed to be a sore point with him.
Feynman has written many times about how our culture appears to respect the artist more than the scientist. It seems to me that this was a source of constant frustration to him. If true, should we be surprised?
Consider the goals of the artist versus those of the scientist.
The artist seeks to create feelings in those who view his or her art. There may also be an intellectual connection to the art, but the main purpose of art is how it makes you feel.
The scientist seeks to learn how nature works. Science is far more intellectual than emotional. Science is often supported for its practical benefits. There is a practical connection, but for most people not an emotional one.
Great art can make you feel happy, uplifted, centered, curious and validated.
It is perhaps surprising that great science can bring these feelings also. Generally it is only scientists who experience these feelings from science. Most people have a very limited emotional connection to science.
As a scientist, I am one of those people who connects emotionally to science. More precisely, I connect emotionally to nature and natural law. The encompassing power and beauty of natural law is stunning to me.
Let’s get back to Feynman. As one of the leading physicists of his day, he had to root out how nature behaves at a very fundamental level. Feynman won his Nobel Prize for the development of the first quantum field theory, which is a law of nature that includes the electromagnetic force (electricity and magnetism). This was a major achievement, because such theories had to explain exotic concepts such as the “wave-particle duality” and the “equivalence of mass and energy” (relativity theory). The “explanation” was fully quantitative, and produced precise numbers that agreed with laboratory measurements for specific experiments. This quantitative aspect is most impressive, and requires the use of mathematical concepts that are quite advanced and beyond the grasp of us “mere mortals”.
Feynman created models in his head of how the math and the physical concepts worked together to create natural law. His abilities in this regard were genius. In the end, though, he could not explain what he developed. This is not to his detriment. Such explanation is beyond the realm of science, because we have no measurements that tell us why nature is as it is. Without data, the scientific method has no application.
Back to emotion. It is not surprising that what is beyond our grasp is less popular than what we understand. Artists create feelings in us, which becomes our connection to the artist. Scientists tend to create feelings in only a few of us: other scientists. Non-scientists might be amazed, or perhaps repulsed, by what scientists create. The direct emotional connection is lacking, so scientists are naturally less popular than artists.
I urge you to go beyond the science and contemplate natural law directly. Contemplate your place in a physical universe that defines who you are (physically), how long you can live, and what you must do to survive. Contemplate the regularity and predictability of nature and what the means to you. Contemplate the universal nature of physical law: it is the same here, as it is across the street, as it is across the universe. It is so for all time.
How do you feel when you contemplate the majesty of physical law?
This post is inspired by “The Character of Physical Law” by Feynman. It is also generally inspired by the “spirit” of Feynman, who always inspired me.
One can now view his lecture “The Character of Physical Law” on YouTube. He eloquently expresses the importance of mathematics to modern science. This makes science impenetrable to many, since mathematical skill is reserved for the few. Suppose one tried to express physical law without mathematics. Would it appear as religious reasoning?
Feynman makes the excellent point that we are talking about a certain level of abstract mathematics here. The math used by physicists is not a variant of simple arithmetic. I admit this is a point I may have missed in my book. In the book, I declare that mathematics is a form of logic, and leave it at that. Feynman makes the correct point that, if math is a form of logic, it is of a very special kind. To do the math that physics requires, you really need to write down different kinds of symbols than are required by logic. Math that physicists use has to “look mathematical” to work.
If physical law (nature) is so closely tied to mathematical reasoning, and math “unlocks” many secrets of nature, what are the implications for those trying to understand nature before math was invented? Isn’t it possible that the search to understand God was essentially an attempt to understand nature, but without the math? Without math, nature cannot be described as effectively as we do it today. I use the word describe advisedly. With math, we can describe how nature behaves, but we cannot say why. (Feynman makes this point also in his lecture).
Is it possible then that religion is a branch of science? Both are concerned with the “almighty”. In one case the almighty is natural law, in the other, something more poorly defined. I am not sure how to define God “in general”. Am I suggesting that religion + math = science? Perhaps, at least in a certain sense.
Why abstract math is so important to understanding nature is a mystery, even to scientists. Back to my mistake in the book: math is a form of logic, so all we need is logic to understand nature. Logic is, at least in theory, something that everyone understands.
Feynman pointed out my error. Math, particularly advanced math, is really quite different than logic, although logic is an important element. Perhaps I am most convinced by the following: the importance of i. Not i as in “me” (but lowercase). i as in the “square root of -1”. Most of you have heard of i, but it does not matter if you have not. I will explain a little.
i is a number that, multiplied by itself, gives -1. Try using simple arithmetic to multiply a number by itself and get a negative number. It cannot be done. That’s because, using simple arithmetic, two negative numbers multiplied by each other always yield a positive number. Since simple arithmetic really is a form of logic, it would seem that if “logic rules nature”, then nature ought to follow the rules of arithmetic. That means nature should avoid i. And so it seemed to until the 1920s, when quantum mechanics (QM) was invented.
Although before QM, scientists sometimes used i as a mathematical convenience, it did not have a fundamental role. One could express the laws of nature strictly in terms of “real” numbers, that is, numbers that do not contain i. Thus, it appeared that nature was logical, mathematics was logical, and the reason math was useful for describing nature is that math was logical. The “reality” of the world was logic, not math.
Feynman set me straight. The reason is that, with the advent of QM, i was no longer a convenient mathematical trick, but it entered into the fundamental physics equations themselves. Before QM was known, using i was unnecessary (although I am sure there were clever theorists who could jam it in there. But it was not really needed). With the advent of QM, i became indispensable. We know of no way to write the fundamental laws without i. It appears that i itself is fundamental.
Since nature and logic are so closely related, one would expect that such a number as i, although possible to invent mathematically, would have very little to do with nature. Nature is supremely logical, but would have no use for a crazy mathematical construct such as i. Yet, we appear stuck with it. What does this mean?
To me, it means that nature is not as logical as I once thought. Nature is more mathematical than logical. Whereas logic is staid and solid, mathematics can be weird indeed. For example, mathematicians have learned to do arithmetic with infinity. They have defined shapes that are smooth, but have no slope. And they have defined shapes that always have a well-defined slope, but are very “jaggy” and jumpy. Mathematicians define worlds with infinite dimensions, and with fractional dimensions, none of which can be visualized or really grasped in an ordinary way.
Certainly, mathematical constructs, even the weird ones, must embody logic. These weird things that mathematicians invent have an underlying logical structure. But they are so much more than that, and so different than the logic that underlies the simple numbers.
Which gets me back to God. Understanding nature requires much more than using logic. It requires inventing weird objects such as i. Without this invention, we would have no way to describe how nature behaves. Nature is supremely logical, but it is also supremely weird. This is something physicists have understood for some time now. These days, the search for new physics is really the search for a new kind of math. I don’t know why that must be.
I believe nature is like a supreme being. It rules all. How nature rules seems to be impenetrable to us, despite all the scientific progress we’ve made. Thus, our understanding of science today, that leads us to reject religion as “foolish” and “arbitrary”, is somehow at a crossroads. The closer nature is to being impenetrable, the closer science is to religion. I am not suggesting that science and religion are the same, but that they become closer to each other as scientific understanding becomes ever more abstract and mathematically weird.
Such may be the math of God.
I thought you folks would enjoy this.
Back when I was a kid, I would hear the words of Jesus telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us and wonder . . . do I have enemies? Did the popular girls at school who seemed to be snearing at me all the time count as enemies? How about the teachers who kept insisting that I do my homework rather than just ace the test – were they my enemies? Was the dog who scared the ever-loving-crap out of me on my paper route an enemy? Enemy’s such a harsh word. Labeling those involved in low-level conflicts with me as enemies seemed awfully melodramatic – even for me.
Growing up in peacetime and as the child of parents who got along with the neighbors rather than starting Hatfield and MaCoy style fueds with them, enemies seemed in short supply. But I’ve always been…
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Posted in Uncategorized
Does it ever make sense to do the right thing, even if no-one knows that you did?
Materialistically speaking, that makes no sense. After all, don’t we do the “right thing” to raise the opinion that others have of us? If we make a sacrifice but no-one knows we did, isn’t that wasted effort?
Materialistically speaking, it is wasted. Imagine a world with no God, governed only by an impersonal natural law, that consists solely of material (physical) objects. It is irrational to expend effort that might benefit someone else and not yourself. In this impersonal world, one should expend one’s energy on helping oneself.
Yet, we are all aware of altruistic impulses. Altruism is often explained as a trait that developed through evolution. Altruism provides a survival benefit for the species as a whole, even though it might harm any individual member of the species. So, altruism exists because it is an instinct that evolved.
Thoughtlessly following our instincts is hardly how we view our lives. I would venture to say that nearly all of us of believe we do things for a purpose, or that what we do is rational. We have a good reason for what we do. However, altruistic behavior does not seem to have a good reason behind it.
Perhaps you have some sort of non-materialistic belief that there is something called “good” and you want to see more good in the world. I call belief in the “good” a non-materialistic belief, because it is a belief that is neither confirmed by an experiment nor rooted in the material world. For reasons I suggested already, this belief in the “good” is more than an instinct. We don’t behave in complex behaviors simply due to instinct. We find reasons for our behavior.
I encourage you to consider what you believe. Perhaps you will not call this belief a “faith”, but it is rather close to that. We certainly have beliefs that we cannot justify on strictly rational grounds.
Sometimes, my need to be irrational makes me want to hang my head. Why can’t I live a rational life? Isn’t a rational life superior to an irrational one? Eventually, I surrender to the irrational and accept it. That is my fate, and the fate of everyone I know.
Posted in Book Related
I recently heard an interesting talk by a survivor of the Holocaust. After the talk, the obvious question was raised: do you still believe in God? How has this horrible experience affected your faith?
The speaker side-stepped the question, but did provide the impression that his faith is gone. Although still active in Jewish life and in his synagogue, he no longer believes in God. I have heard others express a similar sentiment. “I believed in God until a such-and-such horrible thing happened to me, and then I could no longer believe.”
I find this attitude to be short-sighted.
We can all agree that horrible things happen to people. Why did you believe in God until the horrible thing happened to you? Were you not aware that horrible things have been happening for the past thousands of years?
If God has been around forever, then clearly God has allowed horrible things to happen to people. You can either stop believing in God, or change your understanding of God. If God only allows good things to happen to people, then clearly there is no God. Maybe God does allow that.
Bad things happen to good people. Assuming there is a God, then God allows bad things to happen to good people. How can this be? I don’t claim to have the answer.
If God allows bad things to happen to good people, and God allows evil in the world, why believe in God? In particular, since the natural world is explained by science far better than it is by religion, why believe in God?
The answer is that science has nothing to say regarding life’s purpose and meaning. Science cannot provide the information to help you form a world-view that makes you feel complete.
You need to feel complete. You need to feel you have worth and value, and that your life has meaning. You cannot escape this need, even if you never think about it.
Even if you don’t believe in God, you need to act as if you believe in something. Is that “something” God-like? In many ways, natural law (the laws of physics) are “God-like”, except that they don’t have a personal character to them. Natural law is not “jealous” or righteous, this is true. Natural law is not “loving”.
God as a concept is handed down to us from the time we are children, and we tend to form a naive view of what God must be. As we grow up, we learn things that contradict our childish views. Perhaps God is less personal than what we thought as children. An impersonal God, a God that resembles natural law, is not a God at all. It is too different from God to suggest that natural law is “God-like”.
I conclude with this declaration: worship natural law.
This declaration is not a scientific statement. Neither is it false.
This is something I question: speaking for God.
The tagline for ChristianMingle.com (a dating site) is: “Find God’s Match for You™” (note the trademark). The company acknowledges that tagline has caused controversy, but states “we do believe ChristianMingle is a tool God can and has used to bring people together.”
Is this an uplifting belief? Is this a belief that leads to our enrichment as people, to our betterment? Or is this a belief that is used to achieve a specific result?
Is this belief based on anything other than a desire to want it to be so?
Beware of such beliefs that imply an intimate knowledge of God. Insight into the Almighty is not why we believe. We believe so that we can allow ourselves to imagine a larger purpose to our lives. Yet, we must be humble in our beliefs because we recognize our limitations as human beings.
Beware of all beliefs that imply a knowledge of God, leading to a use of that knowledge to achieve specific results. That is using belief. Be suspicious of such use.
Then continue on your journey, believing your way forward, but remaining humble about the knowledge of where you will be.
Did you ever want to celebrate for no specific reason? Just an irrational desire to cherish that you are alive, that you have a life to share. An overwhelming sense of gratitude that you are doing reasonably well, not in enormous pain, and able to get by, at least today. This is definitely something to feel grateful for. (There is so much suffering in the world, any day you are not suffering is a time for rejoicing).
Then I think back to “the debate” regarding whether God exists or not. See it here.
At the start, the atheists said: science does not disprove God, but it refutes God. Belief in God is irrational.
Irrational? Isn’t irrationality the entire point? Does science refute love? Does science want to take away my joy, rare as it is, when I feel it?
Why would I want that? Why would I want to choose rationality as the driving paradigm for my life?
I wouldn’t, and I won’t.
We don’t think about this much, but there is a scientific theory regarding morality.
Here is an example. Imagine you are alone, in the office where you work. There is a sudden emergency: the building is on fire and will almost certainly burn down. As per standard protocol, the office safe is open for the day and there is about three thousand dollars cash inside. No-one would ever know if you took that money and kept it for yourself. Should you?
Whatever choice you make has consequences. I don’t need to invoke an almighty being that watches and judges you to know this. I only need to invoke natural law (what we call Vahhd in the book). As a conscious being, you will be aware of your choice and remember it. That memory changes the structure of your brain, and thus your thought generator. The thoughts you have from that decisive moment onwards will be different depending on the choice you make.
Whether an almighty being is involved or not, our moral choices have consequences. Natural law demands it.
Vahhd cannot be escaped. What does that mean in your life?
Scientists deal with the eternal “object”. The “thing” that does not care about you or know you exist. The Law that is ever present and everlasting, permeating everything.
I think of the material world as an infinite wall: static, impermeable, impossible to avoid or go around. It is always there, yet always ignorant of me. Yet, I study it with great intensity.
Why do I do this? To seek the approval of my peers? Am I trying to impress someone? Do I do this for the money (hardly!)?
The reason is fascination, awe, and a feeling of connecting to something larger. These are all feelings. Doing science is a passion.
I just wanted to say that.
Posted in science
This post suggests a new way to think about yourself.
According to science, our thoughts are the result of chemical reactions in our brains, mediated via cells called neurons and the connections between them.
I advocate that everyone get to know this complex physical system. I call it a “thought generator”.
When you wake up tomorrow, try to understand what your thought generator is doing. Try to “watch” the thoughts as they roll through your consciousness. Are these thoughts positive or negative? Confident or afraid? Social or anti-social?
“Watching” your thought generator at work is one way to become more aware of what you are as a person: a complicated amalgam of conscious and unconscious actions that define your life experience. The value of this exercise is realizing there is a lot of “you” that you don’t control, but you can try to watch and learn from this complicated “you”. This exercise will bring you closer to the spiritual journey that is your life.