Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Universal Coincidence or Coincidental Universe

My question is: What is coincidence? I’m reminded of the old cliché, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Our lives today are so busy, so distracted and with so much to do with so much information that the task of sifting through it all is too enormous, that it becomes too difficult to ‘see’ something of true value that seemingly appeared by “coincidence”. Unplanned and unbidden it just showed up one day at one particular time and is remarkable just because of that. But is it just chance, pure luck and nothing more?

So, what is coincidence really? Is it plainly the randomness of nature and the universe where we take what we get, and if we get anything at all we should count our blessings? Or, can we perceive, anticipate and perhaps even create coincidence? Perhaps we need only fine-tune our perceptions to ‘see’ the trees in the forest and pick out the one for us? Perhaps then the myriads of events; information, opportunity, insights, that occur around us all the time are coincidences waiting to happen and what sets certain ones apart from the others is the realization of, to cognize, and recognize, them as they come along and determine if they will be of use to you. It is utilitarian in outlook for oneself, but it is also of benefit to others for they in turn can draw from you what they may need. You and what you have done, or have to offer, may be their coincidence. The question of being at the right place, the right time and recognizing it as such is the hard part and we all seek it in some fashion – some fervently, some passively aware and others blithely stumble along.

The day to day drudgery of sifting through life for the opportune coincidence, which, if you are not diligent enough at all times, may never come about, can have a life of its own. For some the bombardment of potential ‘signals’ is too much. They seek shelter and isolation in their lives; their lives become their universe. Others, friends, family or acquaintances, see opportunities continuously slip by them; they try to inform them of it, but soon become discouraged by the refusal to acknowledge this information and so remain insolated and insular from the greater universe. For some people the search for the pivotal coincidence is frenetic to say the least. They look hard for these moments but they cannot see the forest for the trees. Their search, their life is dotted with disappointments and dismal failures. They have the knack for picking the coincidence, which all about them say is the wrong one and clutch it to their breast as if a life preserver.

Security and survival are actually quite simple – going beyond that is somewhat more difficult. Being satisfied with what you have materially is the door to awareness of a much greater universe of fulfillment. But that is a whole other ...

And now for something somewhat, but not really, different …..

Energy? What is energy – really? Is it kilocalories/m2? Or is it MC2? Desire? Willingness? Vitamins? Quantum Mechanics? Belief? Oh, so many questions – both mechanistic and mystical. Can the power of the mind influence the day-to-day flow of the physical universe?

(1) Can I determine in some way my future, my destiny? Can I orchestrate events and experiences to facilitate my destiny? Can I create my own coincidences? I think through my choices I can guide things to be more likely to occur, but I am not truly enamored with the idea that I could actually create my destiny. Perhaps that requires a better definition. Destiny is pre-written, pre-ordained by some higher power. A future is just that, the future. Very poor to use the word in its definition, but what I mean by that is the future is what it will be regardless of any notion of pre-destiny. The future just happens and as such one could perhaps shape how the future could unfold. Do this and that happens, do that and this happens. Good choices and bad, good decisions and bad, good luck and bad? Hmm. But still I like that idea of future much better than the idea of destiny. I like the idea of a future that I can influence largely because it gives me some control over my future. I can make it willy nilly, or I can make it very deterministic. BUT …
I can’t help thinking what if my shaping of the future IS in my destiny? Huh. That one will take more analysis later.

Can I create light? Its that most enigmatic thing, simultaneously both wave and particle. Mechanistically ‘pure’ energy is Einstein’s E=MC2, fantastically large numbers, far beyond my being able to imagine them. If, as the physicists say, everything exists at different levels of energy and therefore reality is a myriad of energy levels, from undetectable (lower energy) to detectable (the five senses and perhaps six) to undetectable (higher energy) again, we ‘live’ in a very narrow band indeed. Perhaps as scientists detect more and more formerly ‘undetectable’ energies, we can begin to ‘see’ these evermore-sensitive devices as extensions of our minds and senses, or better still, replace our senses with these devices as our minds learn to see beyond the presently perceptual physical Universe and begin to ‘see’ at a whole new energy level. What would we see? A new level of existence – is it a new level of sort of the same thing, just at a lower or higher energy setting? Being aware of this energy however is a bit of a plague. If I have it so must others. Do we converse with it? Can we get more? Can I give it to someone else? Can it be taken away against my will? Can I lose it through poor husbandry? Or by disaster?

BUT science is pessimistic. In its quest for the ultimate in determinism, the creation of the universe, it applies the notion of birth and ultimately death. So if there is a start to the universe there must be an end, which scientists have said will be the slowing down of the expansion of the universe and then its retraction back to the singular point. All will be destroyed in the process. So, why should humanity struggle to know? Why the struggle for better, or to be better, or good? Why think of the great things, why do the great things when the rationalists would have us lose it all in the end anyway?
So, to heck with the poor, sick and disadvantaged! Who cares about the environment, global warming or cooling (take your pick), the aged, the young, the dolphins and the whales?! I mean really, if its all gonna die anyway, what the hell am I worried about? And why do some people think they have the ‘God given right’ to make me feel like I should care?

Truly unpredictable, random, events and occurrences are rare - if they exist all. Events are predictable in as much as circumspection being incomplete renders choices as either best guesses, vibes, intuitions or stabs in the dark. This is where statistics enters the fray. There is no certainty, only best 'mathematical' approximation. There is no substitute for knowing. However, the degree of knowing required to take the seeming 'unpredictability' away from existence would seem supernatural. Ignoring the consequences is a whole different matter, as is letting go of the sense of foreboding or dread of having to endure the unknown every second of existence. This latter ignorance is the most prevalent and causes the most anxiety and fear.

Coincidence ...

Infinite possible realities simultaneously exist - one's we recognise consciously are what we term as coincidence. The realities co - incide. Serendipity, some call it. What we choose to recognise , or let in to our minds, becomes the 'new' reality. Orchestrating the appearance of coincidences is controlling one's own existence within the many possibilities, actively searching, recognising and choosing among them the course of one's future. Doing some action 'when the time is right' is an attempt at this. Patience is a virtue in these instances as is no hesitation and quick action when that time does come. The exhilaration of having 'guessed' right or doing what 'feels' right is second to none. But to actually explain this, or the sense of catastrophe when things go poorly, is very difficult as often the words cannot truly be found to express it. We just knew.

Regrets are the retrospective view of the past, knowing in the present, other choices that may have been taken in the past ( which were not known then ) to perhaps alter the present existence. One cannot know a regret until an action has been taken, but one can attempt to predict a possible regret as a possible outcome of a choice.

In this light 'unintended consequences' have new meaning within the process of choices of realities in which we find ourselves. Unintended consequences may appear 'unpredictable', but this is because of limited circumspection before a choice was made. True, we cannot know all the possibilities and consequences of our actions, but this is more a result of our lack of ability to do so than the notion that it cannot be known at all and so is naturally unpredictable.

Just thinking out loud here ...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Really?

I received an email poem that lamented the notion that God has been taken out of school, government and, via the efforts of political correctness, of Christmas. Here it is ...

Hi Lord, its me.

We are getting older and things are getting bad here.
Gas prices are too high, no jobs, food and heating costs too high.
I know some have taken you out of our schools, government and even
Christmas, but Lord I'm asking you to come back
and re-bless Canada.
We really need you! 
There are more of us who want you than those who don't!
Thank You Lord,
I Love you.


The following is my two cents worth ... And I know God is maybe hearing me ... LOL!

------------

Now really ... Do you really think god has been taken out of our schools, government and Christmas???

I hear God Damn this and that all the time at school! Or bless you when someone sneezes! All the principles we hold dear in public school come from the Protestant religion!  Work ethic, achievement, good works, community, sharing, individualism, hard work etc etc. good Lutheran and Calvinist stuff, with the odd Catholic thing tossed in here and there, but they are mostly in the "separate" school system. We may be "public" but we are hardly secular! When our education system was created it was done on purpose that the catholic be named the separate Catholic system and the other called the public protestant (read dominant) system (this all thanks to central Canada wanting to exclude French immigration to western Canada). The word protestant was dropped, but never its intent and the pretense to be 'public' is silly! We still hold to the commandments as our basic code of conduct. That we don't stop and pray four times a day, or have craven images everywhere (protestants got rid of those) or have recognized priests preaching to youth (again a very Protestant thing where we don't need preachers, each can read and interpret the bible, so we educate teachers and make them teach/preach through the curriculum the virtues of godliness through the protestant virtues of working hard and making progress through capitalism) doesn't mean that we have forsaken the almighty! In fact, in school and out in society in general, Western Christian values have never been stronger than they are today! 

AND there's a big Christmas tree right outside my door in the student commons area! What Christmas has to do with god is beyond me for this is not the time of the birth of christ but rather a church means of usurping the pagan winter solstice ritual and bending it to gather converts. I know Christ would not approve of this Christmas thing, Easter neither for that matter. But these are left over rituals, traditions, however they were initially concocted that we have come to hold near and dear. This is true especially with their entrenchment to the economic market and the sale of sugar in confections and the notion of gift giving as a great Christian act of charity upon which the health of the general economy depends.

As far as god and government .... Well who would have ever thought as fundamentalist a Christian as Harper would ever rule our land!!?? Yup. More jail time, more prisons, more crime (even though with twice the population as when I went to high school in the early seventies there is today half the crime!!). Dickens would love this scenario. Ebenezer Scrooge, for sure! Are there no prisons, no orphanages!

Today we are less accepting, more intolerant, more hard line, more vengeful, less forgiving and more deterministic than I can remember. Who is to blame for that? To me if we were to truly come to God we'd get rid of those very things that religious people claim to want back! People should be more accepting, less rigid, more forgiving and more open to the possibilities of life.

Church and state must be definitively separated and no one who follows any religion or sect of a religion allowed to run for office, it only skews their thinking to the human constructed God rather than the actual higher power, the people they represent. And we should get rid of this celebration towards hedonistic capitalism called Christmas and the pagan images like the tree with the angle on top. So too with this Easter bunny, spring and the pagan notions of fertility and renewal tied to Christ's resurrection. Ridiculous! It's all ridiculous.

Is god responsible for the price of gas? I mean, because we don't all worship god gas prices go up?? Really? Unemployment and the general standard of living is god's fault? Really? God must be insulted by these infantile beliefs and disappointed that his creation can't yet to do better. The very people who call into question materialism and are doing better are called down as unchristian in their acceptance, forgiveness and positive view of life.

I think I'm with the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson on this, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. No man can conform his faiths to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind." -- The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Okay. I'm done.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Truth and Certainty in 1974

I graduated High School in 1974 with some vague notion of what to expect in life, some 37 years later ... this is an essay about unfulfilled expectations.

Truth and Certainty in 1974

We strive for truth. We like truth. We talk about the truth of things often and at length. We prefer the comfort of certainty and we are decidedly uncomfortable with uncertainty. We do not appreciate being told an untruth. We have been taught to believe certainty is truth and uncertainty is untruth, a lie or a truth yet to be revealed which makes us uncertain in the moment. Who is ‘we’? We are those in the era of Modernity, which has been all about truth and certainty, the triumph of rationalism.

But we confuse truth for certainty.

It seems that we would prefer certainty, the idea that something ‘is’ all the time in every circumstance the same. The subject is predictable, quantifiable and reproducible if it is turned into an object. There is comfort in that. Of course, what I am speaking of here is what my generation of the nineteen-sixties and seventies learned in science and math class - the scientific method and inductive reasoning. It was all so very tight and comfortable: Avogadro’s number, Mandeleev’s periodic table, Pauling’s chemical bonding, Bohr’s electron shells, Einstein’s E=MC2, Linnaean species classification, Descartes’ coordinate system, Euclidean geometry, Galileo’s acceleration, Kepler’s elliptical orbits, Boyle’s law, Newton’s mathematics and physics, Faraday’s electromagnetism, Watson and Crick’s double helix, DNA and genetics were all so easily understood and accepted. It all made sense; it was logical, sequential and certainly made the natural universe, the physical world around us, understandable. The hardest thing we had to do was memorize the exact formula, phrase or definition so that we could reproduce them on demand any where at any time. They were our constants in life and were defined to us as scientific facts, axioms or truths in our world and for all time.

We learned through our science teachers, who never shared their doubts, a collective and universal philosophy that all things could be studied systematically and that answers could be found eventually to everything that was in our universe to understand. Mathematics teachers and their courses taught us the rigorous logic of numbers, orders of operation, how to take apparent randomness and make a logic out of it. This helped us to discover that there was no randomness. We thanked the great philosophical minds of the Enlightenment who objectified the natural philosophies, put them under our control and through slow and methodical manipulation created the beginnings of what we now know as science. This demystified much of the mystery of the human philosophies, too. Religion had many holes in it with the geocentric Aristotelian based notions of our physical world and so became distrusted as more and more of these holes were turned into scientific discoveries – new logical verifiable truths. Authority came under attack and has never entirely recovered to this day. No longer could mystics hold sway over us, moral authority was condemned and we were made free.

Or were we?

Science, we were told, explained our lives as certainly as the earth traveled around the sun, as we, too, lived and died like the sun. It was comforting, they said, for us to know that we were not ruled by fantastic tales in ancient books. And it was equally comforting to know that walking on water was impossible, that making water into wine was highly unlikely, laughable in fact, and that we could no longer be controlled by such ideas. With the loss of supernatural explanations for the unknowable we subsequently became masters of our own destiny and have need only of believing in the rationalism of science to get through the day. God had to be seen in a new light as a new dogma called scientific rationalism became the new path to salvation. The numbers of people attending churches plummeted as people walked away to the freedom of rationalism, a different old dogma.

Science and math classes made everything sound exciting and within our grasp of knowing. And it was easy to get a good mark in school for the correct process and the correct answer was all that was required. Discussions of whether ideas were right of wrong died away, deductive reasoning was abandoned. It didn’t matter. The scientific method and inductive reasoning now held sway. Fact now mattered. Memorization, the lowest order of thinking, was de rigueur and class was fun as we dissected live frogs and blew up stuff in the lab. By extension we believed that all things could be dissected, the parts studied and, therefore, the whole knowable. And we were told that it was ultimately democratic in that we could all know this, it was in all the published works to be found and so no one could have dominion over us unless we chose it to be so. There was solace in that and hauntingly similar to old time religion as science became THE WAY and canon to modern life. All one had to do was believe, and how could one not? Science was all about fact and a fact was a fact. After all you'd be called a lunatic at worst and a silly eccentric at best if you refused to believe in fact. We knew where science stood and you knew were we stood. Most reassuring to be so sure. This degree of certainty, this truth, however, did not extend to all subjects.

The human sciences were a conundrum. Because of the tag ‘sciences’ we thought they would be like all the other sciences, the natural sciences, we were also learning. You know, the fun stuff! In English Literature class (boo hiss) we sought certainty, the truth, as we were finding it in those other classes. Instead, to our great dismay, we were often asked our opinion of what we thought the author or the story was on about, or what it meant to us. We were perplexed. What did it matter what we thought? Isn’t there an expert about such things who would tell us the answer, the facts, we had to know? Stunned to the core and not knowing how to even begin to respond to such a question, we did as we did in science class. We flipped the pages of our books and to our consternation and horror only found endless pages of the same thing, words! In our science textbooks we found in each chapter a brief explanation of the topic, examples of the topic, facts and figures, pictures, diagrams and charts related to the topic and then a set of questions about the topic - a thousand clues to an answer. There were practice questions to make sure one got the right answer and the answers were in the back of the book. In fact there was a lot you could hang your hat on when you opened a science or math textbook, or when being asked a question by the math or science teacher. But this was decidedly not true in English Lit class.

No, those English Lit texts were texts of poetry: one poem after another after another, for a whole book, hundreds of pages and no questions and no answers to practice with. There were no charts or diagrams to illustrate what we had to know. In effect there was no truth and therefore no certainty. This was a most unsettling feeling. We’d have to read the poems one at a time, line by line, seemingly endlessly discussing them and surmising and guessing what they could possibly mean to us, or society. Well, didn’t the author have that? Didn’t he or she know what they were writing about and why? If what was wanted was to know what the poem meant why ask us? Ask the authors! ‘How would I know?’ was a common refrain from the students. The authors, the experts, the inventors and authorities in the other texts in the other classes seemed to know exactly what they were about and told us everything we needed to know, why not these books of poems?

Short story books: one story after another. Sometimes with a few questions at the end that actually tested whether we had read the thing or not, and again asking us for our opinion. Well, we began to think, if they have to ask us for our opinion it must mean that these people didn’t know themselves! This then means they are weak and these subjects are weak compared to the math and science classes. And if they were stories of fiction, then what did it mean at all? Fiction is deliberate untruth, is it not? Its just fiction, isn’t that right?  Could mean anything to anyone and so it was pointless.

Then there was the novel, a big fat book written by someone supposedly important of whom we did not know. The Grapes of Wrath what kind of a title was that? Who's this Steinbeck fellow and if his title was bad what good could the rest of the book possibly be? But worst of all were the plays. William who? Shakespeare? And he wrote when, and about what? With long forgotten strangely stilted English - thee, thou and methinks? Oh, and the ugly questions that followed; ‘What did you think he meant by that?’ ‘Do you think he was trying to make a social statement?’ ‘Why is Hamlet timeless?’ Or worst of all, ‘Do you think that this applies to today?’ “How would I know?” echoed repeatedly from the students.

Thoughtful, good, teachers asked questions like that and it wasn’t their fault. We eventually found out that each poem, story or play usually meant different things to different people. Really? And how did that work? That was most dissatisfying, particularly when in science or math class we either knew it or we didn’t and it was more a failure on our part of not studying well enough to answer the questions asked of us. But this being asked, in English class, what we ourselves thought was a tough proposition. “Hmm, I don’t know,” we’d reply to a question. And then slyly ask the teacher, “What do you think?” We clamored for the truth, for the teacher, an authority, to tell us the answer. We wanted to be definitive, certain and we didn’t want loose ends, or unknowns, or worse, fictions – these were tantamount to lies. There was no substance here, why should we bother to even try to learn this stuff. It was all so ‘unscientific’. Our marks suffered.

Some teachers fell for the ease of the scientific gambit, let us off the hook as it were, and objectified the work of literature as a thing, a definitive subject, and began to ask questions a scientist would ask, “How are the beginning, middle and end different?” “What is foreshadowing?” “How was the story constructed?” “Who is the protagonist and who the antagonist?” Parts were labeled, descriptive terms added and tight comprehension questions were asked in familiar multiple choice form that tested whether we could read and comprehend the words and could dissect the work. Everything became wonderfully quantifiable and accountable. Either you knew it or you didn't and it could be shown in a list of marks and a final grade. Teachers asked fewer and fewer questions about whether we understood the work or not, or whether we could relate the work to our own live or to the lives of others. Less and less were thoughts and ideas asked of us. Opinion, they said, was freely allowed to everyone and could not be graded, verified or accounted for, as it was personal and just a feeling, a sense that could not be quantified and so safely ignored in terms of assessment. We felt better, didn't talk about it much and our grades went up.

In Social Studies, that peculiar combination of geography, history, politics, economics and sociology, the same kind of scientific analysis was applied when we tried to understand what made human history what it was. Names, dates and places along with drill and skill made us memorize our Prime Ministers, the provinces and their capitols, as well as certain individuals who had been deemed important enough to make a note of and be celebrated. We studied the countries of the globe and new them as population totals, types of industries, GNP’s, social structure and political system, as well as major rivers, deserts and mountain ranges. We were not saddled with the moral or ethical questions of why people choose go to war, other than the clash of empire or megalomaniacal personalities. Calamitous events just happened and we had to know them as they either led to a nation’s creation or to its demise. That was reason enough to know them, I suppose. Key people, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin had to be known as well as Martin Luther, Gandhi and FDR as objects not subjects embedded in a world they had to interpret and deal with just like we did. We knew much of what happened, but very little of why. But that was all right, we knew how our systems worked, what we needed to do within them, and why it was as good as it was. After all, this was much ado about nothing, really.

Now, after all these years, it has become clear to me that science was the easy part of my education, but it prepared for me next to nothing for the rest of my future. Much of the higher level math I never used, most of the scientific facts were likewise never used except as trivia in answers to board game questions. Even when I did my Industrial Engineering courses, science and math were there, but we're not the most important thing, communication was. The timeless stories of heroes with so human foibles like Achilles, Zeus and Heracles as well as the parables of Aesop were lost in favour of the harsh reality of modern great religious and political leaders and the rational reasons for their success and failure.

History, politics, economics, the poem, the play, the novel, and essay writing were the subjects I came to use everyday of my life. How to interact with people, people with different views and beliefs, their stories and how I reacted to them was the day to day activity of life. Where we all come from, what we believe, how we organize, what we interpret, our wants and desires all need to be addressed on a daily basis. All of these cannot be addressed by science as all defy logic and the drive for fact. Emotional responses, no matter how much the psychologists might disagree, are individual. Some more than others, to be sure, as group think does occur, but mass hysteria is the abandonment of the individual to the group, so it does start with the individual. Rationality of the sciences is lost. And, finally, opinion can indeed be evaluated! There is such a thing as a right or correct opinion as much as there is a wrong one, while most lie in the realm in between. Holding a poor or wrong opinion just because one can is a poor reason to do so.

In any case, my point is that science does not give us any hints what we can look forward to in our lives other than a very narrow band of certainty, which we claim as truth, that is completely surrounded by the unknowable future of human interpretation, action, interaction, wants, needs and desires often all in the thrall of that very human of traits and attribute - emotion. This has left us uncomprehendingly lost in our lives as the great expectations of fact have been supplanted by the reality of life that is far from logical, rational and scientific.