Thursday, 24 May 2012

Religious people should all be scientists

Right off the bat I want to apologise for the shortness of this entry. Honestly the same old work commitments completely put the blog out of my mind until the last minute (well actually they've been putting almost everything out). Anyhow, with some recent progress came free time and with that comes the opportunity to write about a fun little subject I've been thinking about for a while.

Science and religion seem to be seen as opposing influences more and more often these days. These disagreements stem from the fact that either being religious is seen as anathema to logical scientific work or that areas where science disagrees with religions merely demonstrate how dangerous it is. I could make a long winded case showing that this is true, but perhaps it's easier to say that it is, to me, obvious that these two different systems of belief (of living even) are clearly not aligned whereas I think they should be.

This idea came from the fact that again and again I was reading scientists and mathematicians talking about when they truly understood some essential law of nature, it was like contacting something higher. Not necessarily a higher being or power, but a higher sense of order and wonder. There is a great documentary about the mathematician Paul Erdös, N is a number, where he makes this point very eloquently. He completely dedicated his life to maths and the discovery of new ways of understanding it, and he talks about how in maths, on the one hand there are great proofs, which are extremely elegant and beautiful, and on the other there are clumsy, clunky ones. When you see an elegant proof, he says, then you are seeing the one which God has written down in his notebook.

I think if you asked many deeply religious people how to get closest to god, they would probably say you should do his work, preach the word and do kind/charitable acts. However I think what better way is there to be close to God than to see, to rediscover even for yourself, one of the basic rules which he set in place in creating this reality. Surely in the careful balance and elegance of those rules he has left just a small measure of his signature.
I am sure that some would see what I'm saying as heretical, that God told us pray, so we should pray. Honestly though, if you believe in Him, then surely you can see that he left these markers in place in such a way that we could, not only find them again and again, but also that finding them would improve humanity in such a huge and far reaching way.
This then, is my final point. I think there is local charity, feeding, clothing and caring for those who need it, and certainly that is wonderful. Science though is a kind of charity which is just as rarefied. Scientists don't expect great credit (look at Norman Borlaug whose work saved millions from starving... then ask yourself why you've never heard of him). Certainly they also don't expect to get paid great sums. Yet still, scientific advancements are huge force in the improvement of life for all humanity (take modern medicine, mobile phones, electricity, there are any number of examples to choose from).

Surely for any religious person then, by taking part in new discoveries, you are not only helping people in a meek and humble way, but you are also bringing yourself as close to the heart of God's creation, to his very indent upon our universe, as you will ever be able to get. Obviously it's hyperbole to say all religious people should be scientists, still now that I have this perspective I can't think of anything more holy, nor any pursuit which religions ought to be more deeply in favour of.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

What type of civilisation are we?

Rather than starting with a broad overview of my topic this week, I want to start with a more gentle lead in. Recently in the wide ranging scope of my procrastination activities, I noticed something about politics and politicians. It seems that in almost any area where there is a large disagreement, one of the most consistent criticisms which each side uses of the other is that they are being short sighted (here are some Google examples to demonstrate: short sighted Romney, short sighted Obama, short sighted Tories and short sighted Labour). This seems strange to me, as I think it seems reasonable to expect that, within our society, politicians are one of the groups who might be more focussed on the long term. However they are repeatedly accused by one another and by journalists by being just the opposite.
Obviously I don't think these links constitute any sort of proof that politicians are short sighted, but what they do show is that this is something which people care about (enough to generate multiple articles from all sides). This is a problem which, whether it's there or not, we often worry about.*
The thing is I can't get away from the feeling that now, more than ever before, we seriously need to be thinking in the much longer term. There are all manner of problems where, if we keep going at the rate we are, the numbers indicate we will run into serious problems. Whether it's the amount of waste we produce, peak oil and the potential for an oncoming energy crisis, food shortages, global warming, nuclear weapons, it's surprisingly easy to come up with quite a long list and, even if you disagree that some of those are problems, that still leaves quite a few that are. The point about almost all of these issues is that they require massive cooperation not just within countries, but between countries, and additionally often there are short term gains to be had by being the ones who don't act. Taking global warming as an example, I think it is fairly accepted that making a big move towards lower carbon emissions will mean a drop in standard of living for any country which attempts it. That means that if just a few countries act they will be at a disadvantage, the problem can only really be dealt with if everybody acts in unison which, it seems clear to me, will require some pretty seriously long term thinking. The fact is, I don't think we're making especially good progress on any of these problems. This, more than anything, would be my proof that our entire society still has quite a limited view into its own future, we are still thinking in the short term.

It has been my belief for a while that we will soon come into a new way of thinking about the future of our species and our collective civilisation. However I recently stumbled across a video which allowed me to put some names to these ideas. You can find the video here, it's of Dr. Michio Kaku, an American theoretical physicist, answering a particular question (one of a bunch he answered) for a group called Big Think. I'd advise you to watch it yourself, but in case you don't I'll give a brief overview.
Basically he's talking about a way of classifying civilisations called the Kardashev scale. The simple explanation of the scale is that it's a way of talking about alien civilisations far beyond our own, so a type 1 civilisation will harness and control energy on a planetary scale, a type 2 would do it on the scale of entire solar systems and a type 3 would be harnessing energy on the scale of entire galaxies. Mostly it's just a fun science fiction concept, but what Michio Kaku is doing is extending it. He's implying that for a society which uses power on a planetary scale then it will also be a requirement that other aspects of that society also operate on a planetary level, for instance, a single world government or truly worldwide transport system.
He argues that we are slowly metamorphosing into a truly global civilisation, on this scale a type 1. That we are seeing a number of emergent global systems which demonstrate this, for instance, the internet as the first truly global communication network, the European Union as the first move towards a true global economy or rock music as a global musical form (I'm not sure how much I agree with that last one). He also argues that this is happening right when we are faced with a new set of truly global problems, which will require cooperation on an Earth-wide scale to solve. These problems he mentions are pretty much exactly what I was talking about before, these are problems which require a different kind of thinking.

It seems clear to me then, that we are facing our first truly global set of problems as a species, and that we are currently poorly equipped to deal with them. I think you can argue that this is why almost everything we are doing seems so short sighted (because, essentially, it is). All of our current solutions and laws seem mostly tailored to operate on a local scale. Things like subsidies designed to make businesses stay where they are (even when it is less efficient for them to do so). When you start to look at the world as one complete system, almost everything we do seems geared only to help the country which it occurs in (which, if you think about it, is pretty much what you would expect) at the cost of overall efficiency/helping humanity as a whole. What I suppose I'm saying is that we are still, in a strange way, operating as though we are localised tribes. Take pollution for example, movement on worldwide pollution has been slow and awkward, but movement on local pollution (of the kind which used to cause smogs or make people ill) has been fairly widespread and successful. Obviously it seems silly to blame the politicians for this, the real culprits are the public. I believe we, as a people, are still thinking in terms of “our problems” and “their problems, a thinking which is merely reflected by our politics.

I definitely enjoy Michio Kaku's take on this, that as these global problems manifest more and more, so our thinking and problem solving will develop to the level where they can take on that kind of problem. It does seem clear to me that this will be required, before too long. That, eventually, the human race will have to cooperate on a much larger scale or face a long and painful decline. However I also think that we are products of our evolution, that we specifically evolved so that problems for our tribe were a big deal, but problems for the tribe next door were, generally, good news for us. If the guys nearby all die out, that just means better hunting.
Lots of people have theorised that it wont be until we have some outside “other” people to focus on (in fiction, this normally means aliens) that we will actually begin to solve our own problems. Honestly I hate this fix, it's just a way of saying “we are flawed, we can only succeed through that flaw”.
Over one hundred years ago, when the industrial revolution occurred, a huge number of new systems came into place to help account for this sudden restructuring of human society. They were ingenious and wonderful and, in places, they've cause us horrible problems now that we no longer need them, but my point is that, in a pinch, it is our human intelligence and creativity that allowed us to see problems and find ways out of them. This might sound as though I am agreeing with Dr Kaku, however there is one difference. I'm saying that while we will overcome these problems, the solutions, rather than being emergent, will be, as ever, made by our own hands.

[I feel I should briefly apologise for this entry. Due to work commitments it was written pretty late in the week and I didn't take as much time over it as I would've liked (the final argument still feels a little rushed, but I'm out of time to fix it)]

*[There is an argument, one which I've participated in, that the long term thinkers of our society, rather than being politicians, are corporations. Honestly I don't believe this is true at all, I feel like the banking crisis, or the current state of copyright law in the technology sector are both excellent examples which demonstrate that. I'm not going to argue the point here however, as it would likely take an entire blog entry and, unlike attacking politics (as a whole), it would probably involve me getting political and showing my leftist tendencies (something I'm keen to avoid here)]

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Magik, looking back

I feel as though, having written the past four entries on the subject of magik, I ought to attempt to sum this all up before moving on. In case you missed them, I started by talking about my general feelings about magikal practices and why I follow them, over the following three entries I talked about what are, to me, the three central tenants of any such practice: Imagination, Intention and Will. I worry slightly that this set of entries, more than any other I've done, revolve around areas which interest me and only me, if that is the case for you, then sorry about that. Still my original intention was to come to a better understanding of what this subject means to me, what it can and should become and how my relationship with it is particular and personal. I think that I managed that, and in this entry I will try to explain how. However, I promise that after this week I will be moving on to other things.

Why do I do magik? I covered this already in the first entry, but thinking about it for the past months has made me realise that there are other reasons. Mainly, that it is more interesting. That allowing myself the freedom to see the world from an angle where everything is filled with symbols and meaning is wonderful fun. It also has the huge advantage of occasionally stunning me out of the monotony of day to day existence.
I also think that the practice of magik is psychologically useful. That there are lots of habits and mental cul-de-sacs which it is easy to stumble into and difficult to get out of. Magik gives me a way of feeling as though I can much more easily overcome and escape them (and as a result, I think, makes me much more open to recognising that they are there). I'm not saying that it's a quick fix for that type of problem, but rather that it is a fine way of flagging to your unconscious that this is something you consider problematic, which is normally a good first step.

What have I learned? I'm not sure why you would ask this question, but it's one which has become starkly defined for me as I've moved through these weeks. I think the thing which I'd forgotten is why I got interested in magikal matters in the first place.
You see although I've been talking fairly glibly about spells and changes, in actuality the majority of practitioners of magik seem to be very much into it for the mystical side. I think the quote which stuck with me (which, I apologise, I can't find, it came from an excellent podcast I listened to) is that “the ultimate aim of any mystical system is to remove the dividing line between yourself and the world”.
From a young age mystical traditions have always held a deep fascination for me and I've read fairly widely and deeply on the subject. Often they spring from, or make up the basis of, religious organisations (Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, even some of the mystical elements of Christianity and Judaism) and they were all interesting to me. I can't explain exactly why except that I've always felt there are certain things wrong with the way we think, and that we ought to work on fixing them. However the point is that this was my entry point into the much more practical and down to earth magik which I've been talking about here.
This realisation has sparked a whole lot of further reading and investigation, and I expect it will result in a few more in depth entries on mysticism and enlightenment here before too long.

Finally, I've come to see much more clearly that these three things, will, imagination and intention, are important to me in every aspect of my life. I use or refer to them in most important decisions that I make.
You may think this is silly and, I think, being totally honest, it is. Obviously decisions could be based around any number of sets of values and they might still be totally valid. What I realise though, is that this structure, this idea of combining simple steps, is something really valuable to me no matter what the structure itself is. That whether I create successes or failures, having some ideas to hang them on, even if it doesn't entirely make sense, is an excellent tool for staying motivated and keeping a feeling of control for long enough to make progress, whatever that means.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Will, getting things done and why I'm not a great man

Thus far in this series I've been talking about various qualities and how they relate to my practice of magik. In a magikal sense the concept of Will is all about focus, about removing distractions and becoming wholly present in the moment. I don't have a lot to say on that however, but one subject on which I've done a great deal of thinking is that of willpower. The constant struggle to get things done in the face of the ever present potential for procrastination. In this entry I'll try to explain just how important I think this struggle is and what, for me, have been the most effective methods for occasionally gaining the upper hand.

The true exemplars of success in this area are the great persons throughout history. The Mozarts, Da Vincis and Newtons, who seem to achieve far and beyond what is normally available to us mortal men (if you need convincing this is a great example). However, I have one very serious problem with the way that modern society tends to see genius's like these. Taking Mozart as an example, there is a tendency in all the stories about him to talk about his natural brilliance only, as though it occurred in a vacuum. Certainly he had talents and certainly they were great, but by focussing on these we are missing out on a vital part of the story, that he worked hard on developing those talents, that he, in his lifetime, was more involved in music, more dedicated, than most professional musicians alive today.
It has always felt to me that by focussing on the genius of these individuals, and ignoring their many years of dedicated work, we are underselling ourselves. One of my favourite examples of this dedication is the story about Aristotle, that he used to sit reading at night with a metal ball in his lap and a metal basin on the floor, so that if he fell asleep the sound of the ball hitting the basin would wake him, allowing him to continue reading. I want you to take a moment, and just imagine what you could achieve with that level of dedication. The same level of understanding as Newton may not be available to all of us, but the degree of effort which he expended certainly is and with it I am a firm believer that we could all achieve stupendous things.
Allow me to give a silly example. Let's say I want to learn to survive in the jungle. If I spend an hour every week, first taking classes, then later actually flying out into the rainforest and being shown around, then perhaps I might expect that after a year I would do okay on my own out there (I might make it through a week). If I stepped this up to an hour a day of learning, with day long trips out into the Amazon, then it's reasonable to expect that I'd learn to take care of myself a lot better in that year. Finally, if my plane goes down and I am left as the only survivor alone in the middle of the rainforest (for the sake of plausibility, let's allow me to have a couple of guidebooks which say what's poisonous and what isn't), well then probably I will die in a matter of days. However, if I don't, if I survive for a whole six months then I think it's reasonable to expect that I will now be very adept in those conditions, I will have learned vastly more than if I was only taking in chunks of an hour a week. Naturally this is, as I said, a silly example, probably those six months will also leave me with all manner of infected wounds and other nasty injuries. However my point is that in most learning even what we would normally think of as dedicated people aren't coming close to that Aristotle level of commitment (though admittedly, normally their lives don't depend on it). It is almost always possible to work just that little bit harder, to squeeze a few more hours of the day into an activity. *

This idea of potential, this sense that I could, with the right level of hard work, become a successful astrophysicist, or novelist or mathematician, is one I have held to for much of my life. The problem is that it's an extremely dangerous concept. In the first case, because if I can become that astrophysicist, starting with total dedication today, well then, I can just as easily start tomorrow and let myself have a bit of a rest until then. Secondly, if you accept that you have this level of potential, then the sheer breadth of choice is breathtaking and, frankly, a little paralysing. I want to have all three of those occupations I mentioned, all three of them sound like they would be fun to me.

Why all this talk about potential and great men then? What I'm trying to get at is that, by mastering this battle with our inner procrastinator, we can do amazing things. It doesn't even have to be along the lines I've been presenting, putting all our efforts into one area, but I know, with some certainty, that if I'd replaced all the activities in my life which I now, years later, regard as being a waste of my time, with more, shall we say, productive(**) pursuits, then I would have done some remarkable things by now. This is a fight worth winning (or at least, worth losing just a little less) and these grand examples are important because, paralysing though it is, they are a demonstration of the heights to which I believe we could all rise.

I have, I hope, laid out a reasonable case for why you ought to be trying to do these things. Now though,I feel I should force myself to make some pronouncements about how (though I suppose I should qualify them by saying that this is what has worked for me and that, even then, it doesn't always work).
I think willpower is really about three things. The first of these is the realisation of potential, the acceptance that 'oh, I actually can do this'. Obviously this is easy if we're talking about keeping your flat clean, a lot harder if you're talking about becoming a master in some field. Either way, I think it's just hugely helpful to be able to imagine a future world where you can see that you've managed the task.
The second is that you need to have a sense of path, of the route you can take to get to that imagined future place. This path doesn't have to be complicated, just doing a drawing a day, or a week even, for instance, but doing it with the knowledge that each step will take you a small distance closer to the end goal (additionally it also needs to be paired with the knowledge that it will take a long time and that progress will, at times, be slow).
The third thing you need is desire, a real need to do this thing. Getting this going, particularly right at the start, can be tough and normally for me it goes back to my previous blog entry, that I need to understand (or at least examine) my reasons for wanting to follow this path. Too often I've become involved in developing a new skill only to realise that my reasons for doing it aren't in enough to carry me through. For instance I only started because a particular friend was doing it and so, as soon as they stop, so does my desire.
Often I've simply stopped with the first two, or even just the first one, making tiny advances in learning this language or mastering that ability, but in the few places where I have managed to muster all three, the momentum of that is enough that keeping it going is actually a lot less trouble than you might imagine.

I should probably point out, what I'm plotting out above is how to achieve great things, not how to hoover up slightly more often (obviously hoovering could be part of some grander whole of self improvement, but generally it wont be). Honestly, if I had any sort of pronouncements for smaller tasks I would present them, but I don't, if you can figure it out please let me know.
The other slight caveat is that, if you truly want to develop in one area, you probably need to accept that you will be losing in some other area. This could simply mean that you will dump yourself down in front of the tv to watch soap operas less, but in the extreme cases, it may mean being less social or being less successful at work. Going back to Newton, he, and people like him, were powerhouses, they produced huge swaths of work which seem impossible to us, but they were also completely involved in that world and I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that they weren't particularly well rounded.

I want to finish by acknowledging that this felt, to me, a little like I was writing self help at times and that's probably not a good thing. Honestly I think it's the idea of potential and of the amazing plasticity of the human brain which are of interest to me, but as I say, it felt wrong to write an entire entry on willpower without giving some pointers about what I feel are needed to use it successfully. The other reason is of course, I love it when people I know surprise me by creating or doing things which are unexpected and impressive and I'm always a little disappointed by how few of them seem to think they can or should be trying.

*[Personally, I take this idea to extremes. For instance, my feeling is that in the same way that Mozart's brain was wired differently, I tend to believe that with true dedication (listening to, playing, writing music non-stop) I could achieve a similarly new wiring with time. I think it is totally fair to say, however, that with a high enough level of dedication, each of us could achieve a lot more than we do now.]

**[This is a dangerous word because it can be different from person to person, but what I mean is that there are some activities which are gratifying in the short term, and others which you could argue provide more satisfaction in the long term, at the cost of short term pain (learning a language for instance)]

I thought I should just quickly apologise for this entry going up a bit late (due to a deadline at work) and potentially being quite rough around the edges (due to being edited at two in the morning).