Category Archives: Science

Planting the Seeds of Intent for Sustainable Smart Cities

City of Tampa in full bloom.

In the late 1990s, Americans dreamed of a fully automated smart house. They smiled at the idea of turning lights on and off with a universal remote or voice command, they chuckled at the thought of a house regulating its own temperature, and their mouths watered at the notion of a house making breakfast.

Now in 2014, having actually built many things that were only dreams at the end of the century, visionaries are broadening their ambitions from smart homes to smart cities.

“What is a ‘smart city’?” you might be wondering. “What can it do now, and what might it be able to do in the future?” Excellent questions. Here are three examples of smart city technology that existtoday, and some thoughts about where they might go.

1. Smart Grids

According to energy.gov, the growth in peak energy usage has exceeded the growth in transmission capability by 25 percent every year since 1982. Given this staggering statistic, is it any wonder that over the past forty years America has endured five enormous blackouts (three of which happened within the last nine years)?

Until recently, utility companies tried to combat this problem by expanding (not improving) the current grid. This is no longer a viable option. However, smart grid technologies are part of the solution.

Currently, the most wide-spread form of smart grid technology is Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). AMI replaces the traditional electric meter with a smart meter that gives both the homeowner and the utility information about power usage in real-time.

This information helps homeowners regulate their energy usage and demonstrates the value of energy-saving appliances. In the event of a power outage or other problem, smart meters also help utility companies pinpoint the issue, allowing them to resolve it more quickly while keeping the problem from spreading.

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It’s Time For A Revolution – Science and Mysticism

It’s time for a revolution!

Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both” 

-Fritof Capra

god-and-scienceDo we need both? Sometimes I feel like those two camps are as diametrically opposed as the Democrats and the Republicans. Is it time for a revolution?

As I travel the country doing book signings and talks people seem pretty pleased to hear me say it’s time for a revolution in science and the new age/self help paradigm.

When I hear a new ager or a scientist say, “I wish they’d wake up” I usually say right back, “You know what, they are saying the same thing about you!”

As if any of us are really awake, and who gets to decide who’s awake and who isn’t? I’m beginning to think this whole “awake” thing is really a perspective and it ultimately depends on who’s doing the talking.  What is awake? What does it mean to “be conscious?” Everybody seems to have an opinion on this, and often they think theirs is the “right” one.

One of my favorite sentences is when someone says to me, “I am going to give you MY TRUTH” Oh boy, hold on folks, duck if you can because here comes a whole bunch of opinion and projections flying at your face like shit hitting a fan. I admit I’ve said it, recently in fact, which is why I am now thinking about this whole concept of truth, right and wrong, knowing, awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious.

Because the truth (ha!) is, I for one am bored with the old paradigm. The one where we all act like we know anything, we utter words like “unconditional love” and talk endlessly about the light being the place to be, and my favorite “It’s all an illusion.” Yea, explain that to my five-year-old when he’s got a scrape the size of Texas across his bum from skidding off his skateboard. That is no illusion, at least not to him; that shit burns, like for real.

This whole idea that life is an illusion is a fraud, I tell you, a fraud. While scientists are arguing about where consciousness lies, and while the new agers are meditating on their crystal imbedded cushions having out of body experiences, I am living this illusion and so are a lot of people.

And from what I am hearing (and I freely admit this may just be me creating my reality in which everyone agrees with me…hell, who isn’t?) is that people are pretty tired of being fed the old party line that everything is an illusion, or a series of ones and zeros that there is an us and a them (awake and asleep).

People want real, people want to know how to live in this life and not the next one.

People are over science, at least materialistic science; you know the one that says everything can be predicted with a math equation? Statistics show most humans are very much aware that something greater is afoot and they really don’t need science to tell them that.  And at the same time, they are pretty much over all the new age propaganda that a strategically placed crystal will solve all of your problems. At this point, most of us have pretty much figured out that there is no guy in the sky ready to blast us to burn in hell for all eternity for whatever wrongs we did in our 20’s (because seriously, who didn’t sin in their 20’s?). And one of my biggest pet peeves is that guru on the stage who smiles like a Cheshire cat and extols the wisdom of love and light after just having berated there assistant for not having their organic, fair trade whatever hot or cold enough. In short, we are tired of the hypocrisy, both living it and hearing it.

It’s time to get real, like really, authentic, the sometimes messy, sometimes ugly, real in this reality, real. It’s time to get conscious of what we are doing and being in the here and now.  And most of us, I for one, did not know how to do that. I did not understand how my body and my brain worked. Consciousness was just a fancy word I used to sound like I was, conscious that is, when in fact I wasn’t. It was much more fun to meditate and leave my body and float about in the void (Or more likely just taka a nap). It was much easier to slap a crystal on it or make a vision board and it was a whole lot easier to just blame it all on the whacky world of quantum physics.

And to me, all of those are just excuses to escape. There is this tendency to make the body bad, to make the mind bad. We spend an awful lot of time making the human experience out to be the bad guy, something to run from, when maybe what we ought to be doing is figuring it out.

And to do that I think the first step is to become integrated to our whole selves.  To truly become conscious. To be conscious means to be aware, and to me, to be present in the moment. How can I become conscious of alternate realities if I am not truly conscious of the one I’m in?

So I am having my own revolution of mind, body and spirit. Instead of fighting each other, I’m bringing them together.  Instead of breeding separation between  mysticism and science, I’m co-mingling them into my own scientific experiment about the mystical experience called life.

A little disclaimer: I am all for whatever works for you, whether it be meditation, yoga, angel cards and crystals. But I just want you to remember it’s you who’s doing the doing: it’s you who’s creating the meaning, not the other way around. Remember where your power lies and become conscious of that you.

The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 4)

resilience-1Click here for part 3

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology

Most of us take perception for granted as a photograph – in five sensory dimensions – of the real world. If you walk past the house where you were born, however, you won’t see it the way a camera would. You can’t help  but see it as a personal  part of your life. A termite inspector would see it a different way, as would a zoning official, an architect, a landscaper, and so on. The fact is that we can take any perspective we want on any object in the universe. No one disputes this fact, but it can’t be taken for granted, because there’s a deep mystery about how we apply mental models to the reality that spreads out before us.  The application of this mystery to the rise and fall of skepticism will become evident in a minute.

Increasing attention is being paid to the late Polish-American mathematician Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), who has lent a popular phrase to this whole problem of what we see and what is real: “The map is not the territory.” In a nutshell it captures the problem of believing in maps – or models – created by the human mind. It’s obvious when you walk past the house where you were born that your mind creates the memory of growing up there. But some models are so convincing that we forget how we made them. Or we think the map is the territory, and then many missteps can arise. If you own a lovely house but all you can think of is that it might have termites or that burglars are waiting to rob you in the night, mounting anxiety can take over to the extent that you are ruled by your fixation. To someone with claustrophobia, an elevator is never neutral – it’s the source of fear.

Skeptics are perfectly entitled to create and enjoy their own model of the world, but when it becomes a fixation, a valid aspect of the scientific method – demanding verification of facts – becomes a source of bullying, disdain, ad hominem attacks, and in the worst cases, blindness to reality.  But since militant skepticism is essentially a nuisance born on the blogosphere, it wouldn’t be a serious impediment to scientific thinking any more than booing fans cause a football team to march off the field. The importance of dismantling militant skepticism is minimal except when it comes to the kind of deeper investigation that Korzybski was interested in.

He devised mathematical theorems and non-Aristotelian logic to demonstrate that the neurological system of a scientist is engaging in a highly selective process – it consists of selecting out some information and omitting the remaining. This is the very essence of making a map, or a model. When you look at the house where you were born, there are literally thousands of facts about it that you ignore anytime you think about the house. How many nails have gone into the wooden framing? How many microbes and mold spores live behind the sheet rock? Who lives there now, and what are their lives like? Somewhere in the world somebody makes it their business to collect data on such questions and countless more, because our ability to select and discard is infinite. The skeptics’ movement makes the mistake of giving certain models – basically their own, which is based on mistrust – a privileged position, when the truth is that all models have some advantages and some disadvantages.

The scientific model is abstract and reductionist. It isolates certain data (which are abstract) and organizes them to arrive at the essential qualities of an object (reducing it to pertinent facts).  This is a fluid, dynamic, and subjective activity. But it’s not the same as perceiving reality. Going to the most basic level of logic, one must concede that the human brain processes only the tiniest fraction of the billions of bits of sensory data that bombard us every day. We each have established our own filters for what we select and what we discard. If you are having chest pains and jump into your car to get to the emergency room, it won’t matter to you what the scenery is like along the way. Expanded to the activity of science, what this says is that every one of us is participating in the universe in a personal, creative way. There is no fixed reality “out there.”

So, how much weight should we give to how models differ from reality? Korzybski realized that there is an indefinite number of characteristics making up the physical environment that a scientist is unavoidably embedded within. He calculated the physical-energetic data impinging upon the sensory receptors of the scientist’s neurological system before the system engages in further levels of abstraction.  In other words, the threshold of data the your brain can process, is already an abstraction (a map) before you, or a scientist, starts to come up with newly created maps and models. For example, the simple fact that you can’t hear frequencies as high as what a dog hears, means that your threshold for perception isn’t perfect, complete, or even true. “This room is nice and quiet” isn’t true for a dog being tormented by a persistent shrill noise in its ear that doesn’t exist for you.

Science prides itself on investigating all kinds of things that the five senses don’t pick up. But this extension of perception, astonishing as it is when the Hubble telescope images distant galaxies, still doesn’t mean that science is viewing reality. Instead, it is expanding a map, putting in more detail.  As Korzybski might point out, there is no way to NOT be embedded in the universe we observe.  Here’s the pathway that maps take before anyone engages with the universe: Physical-energetic data is conveyed by our sense organs and transduced (transformed) into electro-chemical nerve impulses, which are themselves even further decoded (translated) by other higher order levels of the brain into conceptual-linguistic (thought) interpretations of what is then experienced as “real.”

If you suppose, as skeptics do, that science somehow transcends this intricate pathway, delivering “just the facts and only the facts,” you are being naive. Take just one mystery, that of dark matter and energy. By current calculations, which are very imprecise, 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and energy, which no one can see or measure. The visible universe, which we rely upon as the very foundation of reality, amounts to 4% of what’s out there. At the very least this means that the threshold of what the brain processes is a minuscule portion of the totality. If it turns out, as some theorists suspect, that dark matter isn’t even based on atoms and molecules, how can the brain, itself composed of atoms and molecules, conceive of reality to begin with?

These are the kinds of mysteries that militant skepticism rails against when someone tries to deviate from the dogma of “the facts and nothing but the facts.” It’s not easy to come to terms with the interface between brain, mind, and reality. But to ridicule the investigation, as militant skeptics do, to denigrate someone else’s model because you are the privileged keeper of truth, to shrug of advanced theories as pseudoscience – in other words, to own allegiance to the skeptical model – is pure ignorance.

Korzybski confronts us with a sobering but undeniable fact: As each level of abstraction occurs in the brain, more and more information is omitted. A scientist, like all of us, is both objectively and subjectively placed further and further away from what could be termed “really real reality.”  So what is that reality? As Korzybski pointed out, whatever reality might be, it transcends the confined, limited, and anthropomorphic point of view that we are tied to, because of the neurological system and its constructed map. Reality must be accounted for in its totality before any wide-scale truth claim, reality-claim, or thesis regarding morality and consciousness can be considered mildly sufficient — no matter what field of study the claim is constructed within, whether that field is science, psychology, or philosophy. Until then, the Dawkins-Harris-Dennett movement, despite its noisiness, should take a lesson from Korzybski and realize that the map is not the territory.

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Touch Tones: Bring the “Hands-On” Tradition Back to Medicine

Let me see those handsBy Stuart Fife

In as much as the name describes a singular, cohesive, medial practice, there’s no such thing as physical therapy.

If you go seeking relief for an aching joint or an overworked limb, you’d likely be offered one of two phases of therapy, which are interrelated but not interchangeable. The first is physical phase, meaning a host of exercises and activities designed to prepare the body to cope and perform well. The second is the therapy phase, designed to make sure all the joints and muscles are free to function in the way we want them to. The differences are significant: when joints and body synergies have become altered, nothing but a hands-on treatment, informed by careful analysis, would help.

And yet, in the last two decades or so, many physical therapists have come to see their profession as centered around exercise. In part, this trend is driven by simple economics, as escalating health care costs made many in the field realize that the sort of treatment that could allow therapists to tend to multiple patients simultaneously was preferable to the old-fashioned physical therapy, a leisurely, one-on-one, hands-on affair.

It may seem like a solid calculation, but it’s not. It undervalues the most ancient, most basic, and most comforting of media: touch. The people who walk in to my practice expect me and my colleagues to take the time and understand their bodies, assess their condition first hand, and figure out how to make their recovery faster. And they know that no amount of catchall exercises could ever replace the careful and precise treatment that they get from a therapist committed to their individual healing.

And if you think arguing that every person is different and therefore therapists should be able to master a great number of therapeutic approaches in order to make sure that they’ve got something up their sleeves for everyone, you haven’t been catching up with the times. Sadly, more and more therapists are specializing, declaring themselves neuromuscular experts, say, or adherents of that particular approach or another. Such pigeon holing, I believe, might make sense for medicine at large, where doctors and patients alike benefit from developing a highly specific mastery of highly specific fields of practice, but it’s detrimental to physical therapists. We don’t heal livers or arteries or brain lobes; we heal human beings, and human beings are holistic creatures.

Such an approach to therapy isn’t only more pleasant and more effective, it also makes better business sense. It used to be that anyone needing physical therapy would co-pay a small sum per visit; now, that price has jumped up considerably. If you require therapy three times a week, say, you’re looking at a hefty monthly expense. And if you’re paying this kind of money, you don’t want to go somewhere only to be told to do some exercise you could’ve looked up yourself on YouTube. You want someone who takes their time, who looks and touches, who is focused on you and you alone.

Sadly, such seemingly self-evident expectations are anything but. Frustrated with the current state of physical therapy, more and more people are seeking solutions elsewhere, in other hands-on practices like deep-tissue massage. There will always be room for the purely physical aspect of our profession; it’s crucial, and serves the needs of many. But the best physical therapists, the ones that would thrive both professionally and financially, are those who get back to the traditional stuff, roll up their sleeves, and rediscover how rewarding it is, for therapist and patient alike, to work with your hands.

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Stuart Fife is the Director of Physical Therapy for Optim HealthFife2

photos by: heipei & maessive

VOD: Stop Buying Your Daughters Dolls and Get Them Into Science

There’s a new girl power anthem, and Beyonce isn’t singing it – it’s your daughter. They are telling you they are tired of being cast as “Princess Maids.” They like colors that aren’t pink or purple. They are telling you they are tired of being typecast by the toys that are marketed to them, and it is time for you to listen.

The commercial is for GoldieBlox, a toy company out to show the world that girls deserve more choices than dolls and princesses. GoldieBlox was founded by Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling who saw a need for girls to have creative toy options outside “the pink aisle” of the toy store. GoldieBlox is a combined book series and construction set starring Goldie – the girl inventor. The idea is to show girls that they aren’t limited to playing house or Disney Princess – they have just as much ability and opportunity to build things and invent like toys geared mainly for boys encourage. When you consider that less than 3 out of 10 graduating science majors are girls or that only 1 in 10 engineers are females – it’s time to start looking at the messages we are sending our daughters, sisters, nieces and friends about what they can achieve in math and science.

The video recruited Brett Doar, who created the epic Rube Goldberg machine for an OKGO music video. Together with three young actresses they recreated a Rube Goldberg using various girly toys and household implements to show just how awesome it is for girls to stop trying on dresses and start using their hands.

Take a look, and please send it along to any possible future inventor who could use some empowerment.

The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 3)

god-and-scienceClick here for Part 2

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology

The bond between militant atheism and militant skepticism has been unusually strong, to the point where attacks on religion are delivered as if no rational, science-mined person could object. In two posts the argument was laid out about how shaky militant skepticism really is in the light of current physics and cosmology. So that the discussion won’t seem too arcane and removed from everyday life, this post will examine the fallacies that undermine the skeptical position of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Since both have scientific credentials, readers of their books should have confidence that Harris and Dawkins are getting their science right. But it takes only a slightly deeper examination to raise doubts. In his book for young adults, The Magic of Reality, Dawkins provides a subtitle: How we know what is really true. It turns out, on reading what he has to say about truth and reality, that Dawkins believes firmly in the truth presented by the five senses, along with the scientific instruments, like telescopes and microscopes, that extend our senses. But reliance on the five senses is the exact opposite of what modern science has been doing for centuries, as far back as Copernicus’s discovery that our eyes lie to us when they see the sun rise in the East and set in the West.

The evident reason for Dawkins to make such an elementary mistake lies in his agenda (another thing science isn’t supposed to have), which is to discredit all subjective states as unreliable, leading to superstition, credulity, myths, charlatanism (which he intimates is the basis of Jesus’s miracles, although a loophole is left open in case Jesus was merely self-deluded), and the ultimate form of deception, belief in God. To date, Dawkins has offered no ontology (theory of reality) that corrects his mistake. Despite a fifteen-minute TED talk on quantum physics, he seems totally ignorant of current theories of perception, consciousness, the mind-body problem, or the observer effect, all of which grew out of the quantum revolution a century ago. In a word, he has made himself irrelevant by his crude linkage of his personal atheism and a fumbling defense of “real” science that was outmoded long ago.

Sam Harris presents a more sophisticated example because, to begin with, he claims a background in philosophy and a long-standing interest in Buddhism. Both areas are deeply concerned with what is real, how we know things, what constitutes the truth, and so on.  In his atheist mode Harris is nastier and more strident even than Dawkins (for example, he sees all of Islam as a threat and a present danger, since even “good” Muslims are infected with the inherent violence of their religion). But in various footnotes and passing asides, Harris concedes that subjectivity isn’t always the enemy of science.  There are medical states, for instance, where the patients self-report of pain, depression, anxiety, etc. are the basis of reality. If a patient says “I’m in pain” or “I’m depressed,” no brain scan is sufficient to say authoritatively, “No, you’re not.”

Harris came a cropper, however, in his last book, The Moral Landscape, when he made basic mistakes that a beginner in philosophy would be warned again.  His errors earned the book scathing and dismissive reviews. Stung, he added a long appendix to the second edition defending himself, and when that made no dent, he offered a standing prize to anyone who could convince him that he was in fact wrong.

The thesis of The Moral Landscape is that “conscious minds… are… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever those laws eventually turn out to be).” As it stands, the statement is recklessly absolutist, since it assumes that the operations of the cosmos, extending to an infinite horizon, are understandable by the human mind. Leaving that aside, Harris felt on safe ground because current scientific assumptions identify mind as brain, and there is no doubt that the brain is, indeed, constrained by the laws of nature. But reviewers balked when Harris attempted to firmly prove that morality has its basis in scientific principles operating over the course of evolution.  He had made a shaky truce with subjectivity in the past. Now he wanted to bury subjectivity in an area, morality, where scientism is weak at best. Natural laws don’t explain why humans are altruistic or love one another, much less do they explain our divided nature, where good and evil contend in an intractable, wholly inexplicable way.

Harris’s boldness exposes his allegiance to bad thinking about what is real and how we know the truth. Specifically, this is the misunderstanding that follows from fusing ontology (what may be ‘real’) with epistemology (what may be ‘true’) without first making sure that one’s apparent epistemological ‘truths’ are, in actuality, even real.   To arrive at a ‘truth-claim’ in regards to consciousness and morality via the scientific method, without first understanding the fundamental subjective nature of either consciousness or morality, Harris cannot be certain that his claims are based in reality. For all truth-claims, are made by the human neurological system, and the human brain is not a reliable or valid guide to the actual ‘reality of things’.

In a word, while Dawkins makes a crude claim that the five senses are reliable indicators of what is real, Harris makes a sophisticated claim in the same area, by assuming that the human brain, a physical object that evolved over millennia, is reliable as the model for everything that happens inside our minds. But if the five senses can’t be trusted, neither can the brain, which processes the input of our sense organs and fashions them into a three-dimensional model of the world. The model isn’t the same as reality. At best it is only provisional; at worst it may be very far from the truth, as witness hundreds of models from the past that have been thoroughly exploded (e.g., the Earth is the center of creation,  blood washes back and forth in the body like the tide, etc.)

Harris may argue that the scientific method can “stand on its own” apart from the nervous system of the experimenter via the use of technological systems that run on the logic and language of mathematics, etc. However, the data which computers churn out still has to come in contact with the nervous system of the scientist in order for a theory of morality and human consciousness to be constructed. (The deep question of whether mathematics is universal or somehow mediated by the human nervous system has yet to be answered with any certainty.)

If Harris hadn’t stretched his assumptions to the breaking point, he wouldn’t have revealed that he was making the same mistakes when arguing against God. For God, of all things, exists on the cusp between what we know, what we think we know, and what is indisputably real. An arthritis patient’s pain is indisputably real, even though subjective – in fact, it is real because it is subjective.  There is no scientific proof that a report by a mystic that she feels the presence of God isn’t real, and the subjectivity of the experience is the measure of its realness, not the measure of its illusory quality.

In a word, Harris and Dawkins, by turning their backs and scorning subjectivity, have fallen into traps of their own devising. Militant skepticism builds upon their mistakes, amplifies them, and employs scurrilous personal attacks to cover over their own intellectual flaws. In the end, the militant movement will collapse, not because the people who like God outnumber the people who dislike fear, and are suspicious of God. Skepticism’s agenda is doomed because its thinking is basically unsound.

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The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 2)

The birth of consciousnessBy Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology

As an attitude, skepticism is a natural part of the scientific method. It calls for solid proof and verification. As an agenda, however, the story of skepticism is quite different. The way that strident atheism has clothed itself in science seems convincing to people who are skeptical about God in the first place. But there’s no scientific basis for atheism, since God isn’t subject to experimentation. As the dust has settled, the agenda of militant skepticism has come to light – it’s basically another symptom of the blogosphere’s culture of personal attack, unfounded allegation, and a reckless disregard for the truth.

None of this is news. The fate of militant skepticism, whatever it may be, will drift apart from the serious business of doing science. After all, no scientific discovery was ever made by negative thinking. There has to be an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to break new ground, while the militant skeptics represent the exact opposite: they are dedicated to the suppression of curiosity and protecting rigid boundaries of “real” science.

But by a strange and unexpected chain of events, real science finds itself at a turning point where skepticism itself is proving to be a dubious attitude. The standby of the scientific method – gathering objective data to prove objective facts – has been undermined. The reason for this cannot be stated in a single sentence, because too many shadowy findings, suppositions, and theoretical conundrums are woven together. The leading issues can be stated briefly as follows:

Objectivity has been undermined by the measurement problem in quantum physics, which must account for how the observer actually changes or influences the thing he observes.

  • Also from quantum physics, the Uncertainty Principle undercut the notion of solid, tangible atoms and molecules existing in fixed locations. No one is sure about the implications for the human brain, since it is composed of atoms and molecules whose status is tied into the mystery of consciousness. 
  • The emergence of time and space, either through the Big Bang or at this very moment, remains mysterious. The pre-created state of the universe is a deep mystery.
  • The whole issue of consciousness, long ignored because of science’s aversion to subjectivity, has become a major concern, principally for two reasons. The assumption that the brain is the producer of the mind has never been proved; therefore, it presents the possibility of being wrong. Second, if consciousness is more like a field effect than a unique human trait, the universe itself could be conscious, or at least possess the qualities of proto-consciousness, just as DNA possesses the possibility for Homo sapiens even at the stage when life forms were only single-celled organisms.

These four mysteries or problems, whatever you label them, undercut skepticism – and more or less demolish militant skepticism – because they make science question its belief in such things as materialism, reductionism, and objectivity. That’s too many “isms” for a non-scientist to really care about, and there’s no doubt that the everyday work of science proceeds as usual without regard for issues that many would dismiss as metaphysics. But such an attitude is the same as accepting a dead end. For without asking the deepest questions about what is real and how do we know the truth, the current state of physics and biology will be mired in speculation and doubt.

Let’s drop the bugaboo about metaphysics and look with open eyes at two critical aspects of philosophy that can come to the aid of science at this moment. One is ontology, which asks what is reality? or how can we discover the difference between reality and illusion? The other is epistemology, which asks what is knowledge? and how do we come to know about the world?  Neither looks like a burning issue in everyday life, but they are, because each has a positive and negative pole.

The positive pole is located at the horizon of particle physics and cosmology, where figuring out what is real has become urgent business, now that the solid, tangible world of the five senses has been thoroughly undermined. It has become an object of fascinated study to look beyond our perception of space and time, and since the human brain operates in space and time, this new horizon requires sophisticated thinking about thinking itself.

The negative pole is found with militant skeptics, who are wedded to an outmoded belief that the five senses are basically reliable, that only physical things are real, and that “pure” objectivity is possible, with the corollary that subjectivity will always be the enemy of real science. This last belief totally ignores the indisputable fact that every experience, including the experience of doing science, is subjective. Militant skepticism blocks the way to an expanded science that is trying to grapple with the issue of how the observer is woven into the object he observes.

In the next post we’ll consider how irrelevant and misguided the skeptical agenda is proving to be by offering specific examples from the work of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose intention to keep science pure and objective has led them into blind alleys and rigid thinking – the very things science should avoid at all cost.

 (To be cont.)

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photo by: kevin dooley

The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism

woman-with-question-mark-gesture-via-Shutterstock-615x345Skepticism has gotten itself into a pickle – perhaps something a lot more serious than a pickle – that is undermining its good name. The credibility of Wikipedia may be at stake (see below). We live in a skeptical age, because the cornerstone of science, “Everything must be verified,” is a skeptical position. When a researcher claims to have accomplished something remarkable, such as cold fusion, his experiment must be replicated before it will be believed. The need to verify, to lay out credible facts, has become second nature, and not just for scientists.

Facts, data, information, research findings, statistics – these are woven into every aspect of our lives.  Which means that skepticism is woven in, too. Hence its good name. Without accurate polls, politicians would be lost (consult Mitt Romney, who believed in skewed polls all the way to election night).  But there is no reason for skepticism to become a militant crusade. Facts are facts, as the saying goes, and when a political ideology like Fascism identified Einstein as someone who conducted “Jewish science” (a term coined by the Nazis), such a label is not simply abhorrent – it misconstrues what science actually is, a universal enterprise that has no place for personal, religious, or political prejudice.

The rise of militant skepticism clouded the picture, however, beginning with its popular attack on religion. The aim of Richard Dawkins, as stated in his best seller, The God Delusion, was to subject “the God hypothesis” to scientific scrutiny, the way one would subject anti-matter or black holes to scrutiny. In fact he did no such thing with God, for the scientific method requires experiments that can be replicated and facts that can be verified. Dawkins offered no experiments to prove or disprove the existence of God. What he actually did was to subject religion to a barrage of scorn and ridicule, attacking it on the rational improbability – as he sees it – that a deity could possibly exist.

The commercial success of his book wasn’t hard to explain.  Long ago Darwin’s theory of evolution had toppled the creation story found in the Book of Genesis, and through a domino effect the toppling continued. By the time The God Delusion appeared in 2006, organized religion was still in decline, and millions of readers were happy to seize on a “scientific” book that relieved them of any guilt over not going to church or temple. Atheism was held out by Dawkins as the only enlightened position one could take on the God question. He anticipated that readers would flock to become atheists with himself in the lead, a social movement that never, in fact, materialized.  Polls continue to show that well over 80% of people believe in God, and something like 1 in 8 atheists go to church, while no massive surge in unbelief has occurred.

The God Delusion, aided by a handful of other best sellers attacking religion in the same vein, did have one decisive effect, however.  Science became yoked to the tools of rhetoric and demagoguery, going so far as to lose any trace of objectivity. These tools, once shunned by science, were useful to Dawkins, given that he had no actual scientific proof that God doesn’t exist. Hostile reviewers cried foul, but the complaints came from a mixed lot of religious fundamentalists, philosophers, and theologians who hardly presented a united front.  Among the most educated and the least educated groups, Dawkins had no credibility. But the job had been done. It was now “scientific” for militant skepticism to practice forms of intellectual dishonesty that have only proliferated.

Thanks to the Internet, skepticism can spread with the speed of light, carrying in its wake all forms of unfairness and bad faith. A distressing example has been occurring at Wikipedia, where a band of committed skeptics have focused their efforts to discredit anyone whom they judge an enemy.  The problem has been slow to gain traction in the public arena, because Wikipedia has constructed an elaborate set of rules to minimize editorial bias. Ironically, the skeptics have turned these rules, which run to hundreds of pages, to their advantage. They have become so skilled at thwarting anyone who disagrees with their point of view that a small swarm of skeptical editors is capable of outnumbering, bullying, and even banning all those who oppose them.

You can see the results at the Wikipedia entry for Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist who has served as a lightning rod for militant skeptics for several decades.  Intelligent, highly trained, an impeccable thinker, and a true advocate for experimentation and validation, Sheldrake had the temerity to be skeptical about the everyday way that science is conducted. He made his first splash by questioning the accepted assumptions of Darwinian evolution, and most recently he published a cogent, well-received book about the hidden weaknesses in the scientific method, titled Science Set Free.  His avowed aim is to expand science beyond its conventional boundaries in the hope that a new path to discovery can be opened up.

But you’d never know it from Sheldrake’s Wikipedia entry, which is largely derogatory and even defamatory, thanks to a concerted attack by a stubborn band of militant skeptics. Since I am close to Sheldrake personally and have Wikipedia woes of my own, it’s not fair for me to offer accusations over the extent to which Wikipedia is under attack. But the skeptics have been caught in the act, which is the pickle they find themselves in, as I mentioned at the outset of this post.

You can read a detailed account in a series of online posts written by Craig Weiler at his blog The Weiler Psi. Confronting the militant pests at Wikipedia resembles taking hold of a tar baby, as Weiler relates in his most recent post, pointedly entitled “Wikipedia: The Only Way to Win Is Not to Play.”   The unsavory fact is that skeptics have figured out how to game Wikipedia’s attempts to provide fairness, and we are all the loser for it.

Dawkins and the militant skeptics are symptoms of a deeper problem that turns out to have fascinating implications. Noisy as they are, these hostile crusaders have had no impact on the everyday activity of doing science or keeping faith. But that is about to change. The deep question of what is real is one that contemporary science can no longer avoid. How this is leading to the decline of skepticism makes for an intriguing mystery story, which will be discussed in the next post.

(To be cont.)

***

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What Would God Think of the God Particle? (Part 2)

Particle-collision-via-ShutterstockClick Here For Part 1

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University

The “God particle” seems to be well and truly with us. The award on October 3 of the Nobel Prize in physics that focused on the Higgs boson – the technical term for the God particle – capped a decades-long search that has cost billions of dollars. In the first post we discussed why the discovery of the elusive, fleeting Higgs boson is two-edged. It represents a triumph in human curiosity and our drive to understand the universe. At the same time, however, a huge stumbling block hasn’t been overcome. In fact, the Higgs boson may indicate that creation (whether God exists or not) is becoming ever more mysterious.

The mammoth collider at CERN Switzerland blasted the Higgs boson out of the invisible quantum field so that it could be observed, at the faintest level of measurement and then only for precious milliseconds. But this was enough to disclose the finest level of the subatomic realm so far known to be real. The problem with getting this close to the source of creation is that space, time, gravity, matter, and energy have become more and more ambiguous, as if the quantum revolution hadn’t already done enough in that department. With the probability that so-called “dark” matter and energy may account for 96% of the universe – along with another probability, that “dark” stuff doesn’t obey the same laws as visible mater and energy – the picture of creation is undergoing radical revision.

Stephen Hawking added to the ambiguity, in his last book, The Grand Design, by siding with those who have basically given up on a Theory of Everything and are settling for a piecemeal patchwork or mosaic of theories, each pertaining to distinct regions of creation while never being synthesized into one grand design. If God exists, the deity must be smiling. For behind the high fives and hoopla over the Higgs boson, there’s a growing doubt that we are anywhere near to understanding the nature of reality. These doubts arise from two major sources.

First, there’s broad agreement that science doesn’t comprehensively describe reality to begin with. Over a century ago the pioneers of quantum theory dismantled the common-sense notion that the world “out there” consists of hard, solid, tangible things. As one of the greatest of these pioneers, Werner Heisenberg, noted, “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” No one has ever refuted this claim, and when you add into the mixture the Uncertainty Principle, which says that quantum objects can be located only by the probability that they will appear at a certain place (only after it is observed does a particle actually settle into a measurable position), the solid, tangible world is radically undermined.

The result is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in science: How does the shadowy, invisible quantum domain transition into the familiar, reassuring world we perceive through the five senses?  Something almost inconceivable is taking place, and to parallel this mystery, there is a second one. How did atoms and molecules give rise (if they did) to the thinking brain? The glucose that feeds your brain isn’t very different from the sucrose in a sugar cube, but a sugar cube can’t read this sentence, while your brain can. The starting point for solving these two mysteries was neatly summarized by the illustrious British neurologist Sir John Eccles: “I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent.”

Until very recently the two mysteries we’ve described (leaving out others that are more technical, such as the debate over Einstein’s cosmological constant) were essentially shrugged off by working physicists, who are content to accept the ordinary, common-sense world when they drive their cars, and who delve into the quantum domain as if it were a separate reality, which it isn’t.

The second reason that physics might be very far from understanding creation can be traced to the failure, now decades old, to mesh the two greatest achievements of twentieth-century physics – Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.  It’s highly embarrassing that two such spectacular intellectual discoveries don’t agree with each other. We won’t go into the technical reasons for the disagreement. It’s enough to say that trying to make them mesh has led theorists to the very brink of creation, to the boundary in spacetime where space and time emerge from a pre-created state. (One reason for celebrating the Higgs boson is that it represents a minuscule but vital step toward the pre-created state).

So the popular sentiment that we are near the big answers to big questions is hardly shared by many theoretical physicists who know more about their own theories. There is certainly a camp that believes the only way forward is to build more powerful particle accelerators to probe finer and finer fabrics of Nature, while another camp sees a way forward beyond the Standard Model and supersymmetry, through string theory, which offers a possible mathematical mode for the pre-created state (mathematics becomes the only guide left, since imagining the quantum vacuum, which precedes time and space, is mentally impossible).

Speaking for ourselves, we side with a small but farseeing group who turn for answers to consciousness, working from an unassailable fact: Reality, as far as humans are concerned, consists of the things we experience. Even the most arcane activity of physicists – and the Higgs boson is extremely arcane – are experiences; so is mathematics – if the laws of mathematics exist outside our experience, we will never know that or be able to prove it. For decades consciousness has been dismissed by “real” scientists as simply a given.  But Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, was as real a scientist as you can get, and he said this: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. We cannot get behind consciousness. ”

This belief that mind is inescapable, that so-called “objective” science must one day come to grips with subjectivity, was shared by any number of quantum pioneers but got put on the shelf while the thrust of physics remained physical. The vast majority of physicists continue to work and think as if mind shouldn’t be part of their equations. As long as such a belief persists, despite its self-contradiction (can the mind really ignore the mind?) there will be more elementary particles for expensive machines to blast out of the vacuum state. At the same time, God will rest comfortably that creation’s greatest mysteries haven’t been revealed. At some point, perhaps in the near future, science will finally accept, and awards will soon follow, that the mind cannot be left out of the picture that the mind studies.

What Would God Think of the God Particle? Part 1

particle or wave?By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University

The award of the Nobel Prize in physics generally creates a mental blur for most people, since no one can comprehend the current state of physics without training in advanced mathematics.  This year was somewhat different, thanks to a nickname.

As the world learned on October 3, the British physicist Peter Higgs and the Belgian physicist Francois Englert shared the Nobel, as was widely expected in the profession. The award was given for a theory involving a missing particle in the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. The particle had come to be known as the Higgs boson when it was postulated or more popularly as “the God particle” from a 1993 book by Leon Lederman, another Nobel laureate who also served as the director of the prestigious Fermilab.

The discovery last year at CERN in Switzerland of the Higgs boson was a triumph for the Standard Model theory.  Higgs and Englert, along with Robert Brout, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble, had hypothesized the existence of a field filling the entire vacuum of space.  If it hadn’t been dubbed the God particle, physicists wouldn’t be saddled with an embarrassing, catchy name.  Meant initially as a joke, the enduring moniker suggests that in some way science has reached an ultimate destination. Creation has surrendered its final secret, even if there is no God. But in reality particle physics keeps moving forward, and after the celebration at finding a Higgs boson dies down, new frontiers will open up. Meanwhile, every physicist who is asked about the God particle takes pains to distance himself from the label, including Higgs himself.

Now that God has been invoked in the discussion, however, it’s worth asking if we are getting closer to understanding Him/Her/It in a way that matters beyond the arcane of quantum physics.

Certainly a step was taken in our understanding of the finest fabric of the cosmos. In technical language, the ubiquitous Higgs field allows all particles in the universe to acquire mass through interactions with it, as the particles move through space, via a kind of dragging effect analogous to chunks of matter moving through molasses (elementary particles being the equivalent of the chunks and the Higgs field the molasses). High energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN revealed the elusive Higgs boson. The Higgs, unlike the photon, which is also a boson, has a mass, expected to be in the approximate range of 125 (or more) times the mass of the proton. Bosons are particles in quantum theory that carry forces – for example, the photon is the carrier of the electromagnetic force. They can be packed together in unlimited amounts. The Higgs boson is very unstable, instantly decaying after its creation into other particles prescribed by quantum field theory.

What’s also clear is that particle physicists were willing to go to almost any lengths to provide evidence for this missing link. It took many billions of colliding protons in the huge LHC CERN accelerator, backed up by multitudes of computers around the world to painstakingly analyze the data, before the discovery of the God particle seemed real. Most physicists by now, although guarded, believe that some form of Higgs boson was in fact observed last summer. And the rapid award of the Nobel is a testament of that commonly-held belief. The difficulty of this achievement was underlined by the fact that the Higgs boson is so mysterious and fleeting that it took from 1964, when its existence was first proposed, until last March to verify that such a particle actually exists.

Being irritated by a nickname doesn’t dispel the widespread belief that science is somehow getting very, very close to understanding the fundamental nature of reality. Some take an optimistic view of the road ahead. There is hope that the Higgs field may help bring together general relativity and quantum theory. Currently cosmologists believe that dark energy permeates the universe, evolving according to general relativity, and is responsible for an accelerating expansion of the universe. Although a standard Higgs particle would say little about dark energy, more exotic versions could provide theoretical understanding of it. Scientists will have to look at the LHC results on how the Higgs decays into other particles after it is produced in high energy collisions. The “dark” side of the universe poses both a new frontier and a stumbling block.  Cosmologists seem to agree that all the luminous matter in the universe makes up only 4% of whatever exists. All the hundreds of billions of galaxies, composed of many billions of stars, make up just 4% of everything. The rest may be in the form of dark matter and even the more exotic (but unknown) dark energy. So if the “Higgs-like” particle discovered at CERN turns out to be the more exotic form, it could help us understand dark energy.

As Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director of the LHC project, stated in a 2011 talk, “The Higgs is neither matter nor force. The Higgs is just different.”  We won’t go into the differences here, except to say that there is reason to assume that the Higgs isn’t one of a kind but the opening wedge to an entire class of so-called scalar particles. One optimistic view of the results observed so far holds that the discovery will lead to new developments in particle physics. These would open up a finer level of the quantum domain and thus bring physics closer to its holy grail, a Theory of Everything, a grandiose-sounding, particle-based view of the cosmos.

The more pessimistic overview, (but as its proponents claim more realistic,) states that the LHC results have not given any evidence of the existence of other particles that would be needed to continue our understanding of the physics beyond the Higgs, to what is expected to be the next theoretical development, dubbed supersymmetry. As such, there’s a major snag in attempts to ultimately develop a Theory of Everything. Even leaving arguments related to theories of physics aside, such a theory, as envisaged, doesn’t say anything and in fact cannot say anything about life, evolution and the phenomena of mind and awareness. It is not even clear how gravity, the last of the four forces of nature described by general relativity, will fit into the Standard Model – at this point, a great deal of current theory, including the widely touted superstring theory, is interesting speculation.

It is inescapable that two world views, one scientific and technical, the other human and experiential, must either collide or converge. That is, the universe must make room for how human beings evolved in order to investigate the creation that gave rise to us. Any Theory of Everything that leaves the human dimension out – as particle physics tries overwhelmingly to do – cannot reach its goal. The Higgs boson, as viewed from the world we all experience every day, isn’t simply arcane. It leads toward a collision of world views rather than a convergence.

We will discuss what this means in the next post.

Continued in Part 2

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