George Johnson

Fire in the Mind

Viking 1996
pg 25


In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mainenance, Phaedrus, the author Robert Persig's alter ego, is sitting outside a motel room in the West, drinking whisky with his travelling companions and listening to his son Chris, tell ghost stories. "Do you believe in ghosts?" Chris asks his father. "No," Phaedrus says. "They contain no matter and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people's minds." Then he pauses and reflects: "Of course, the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's minds."

Pushed up against this edge, science often retreats into platonism. Here on earth there may be no such thing as a perfect circle, but we recognise the rough approximations because we somehow have access to the perfect circle, the pure idea existing in a separate ectoplasmic realm. And so we are left with a duality between mind and matter, ideas and things.

Some followers of the information physics being pursued in Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and elsewhere suggest a way of bridging the divide: the laws of the universe are not ethereal, they say, but physical - made from this stuff called information, the 1s and 0s of binary code. And so they seek to turn science back on itself and use information theory to understand where the laws of physics lie (in both senses of the word - where they reside and what their limits are). If information is as physical as a matter and energy, and if ideas and mathematics are made of information, then perhaps they are rooted in the material world. But the price for banishing platonic mysticism maybe a dizzing self-referential swirl: laws of physics are made of information, information behaves according to the laws of physics. Everything begins to seems like ghosts.

For a while, modern science was content with explaining the how of existence, leaving the why to religion. At least, that is what we were taught in school. But sometimes it seems that in the final act of the millennium, science the world over is reaching beyond its self-imposed limits. With its grand unification theories and cosmological schemes, it is seeking answers so fundamental that they border on theology:

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why does the universe seem to operate according to mathematical laws?

What is consciousness - a biological artefact, an accident of evolution, or something deeply woven into the warp and woof of the universe?

But as our scientific cathedrals become ever grander, the ideas are much more difficult to test; it becomes harder and harder to tell whether the orders we see are real.

Is information truly fundamental, or just an artefact of brains parsing the universe in their own peculiar way?

Does complexity arise inexorably, or is the concept just a human intervention?

One reads time and time again about how the human brain is the most complex device in the known universe. But it is the brain making this immodest judgment, elevating itself and complexity - whatever it is - to the pinnacle of creation. We may be like fish up against the edge of the aquarium; the shapes and colours that dazzle us could simply be our own reflections distorted by the glass.

With its scientists, both orthodox and heterodox, and its subcultures both ancient and new, the world around Santa Fe is a particularly interesting part of the aquarium. The tensions concentrated between New Mexico's four magic mountains run throughout Western civilisation. This passion for an all encompassing order, this raging cerebral fire, is nothing less than humanity's driving force, a unifying spirit that extends across continents and throughout time.

The Gnostics believed that the mind was like a flame, a little glint of starlight trapped inside earth bound flesh. And so they looked upward, longing for the day they could ascend from this prison as pure spirit, pure understanding, streaming toward the sky.

The Pythagoreans gazing into the confusion around them and insisting that all is made of number;the Aztecs chipping their cosmology into a discs of stone; the Australian aborigines guided on their walkabouts by the invisible maps they called song lines; Paracelsus with his elaborate system linking the body's illnesses to the movements of the stars; the Scholastic philosophers contemplating their universe of concentric crystalline spheres - everywhere we look we see the flame that drives the search for a science that would not only explain why the universe is the way it is, but why we are in it.

In New Mexico, living side-by-side with the scientists, who see themselves on the expanding circumference of the bubble of knowledge, are cultures whose ancient beliefs still preserve the first sparks of Promethean flame. The descendants of the Anazasi dancing in resonance with the seasons, the fundamentalists with their attempts to predict the future through biblical interpretation, and the physicists and biologists with their search for hidden harmonies are battling over the same spiritual ground.

All are trying to make sense of life's overwhelming complexity, to come to terms with the fact that, for all our well laid plans, we are buffeted about by contingency and chance. Each of these subcultures, in very different ways, is trying to replace randomness with order, to spend webs of ritual and reason, to try to convince itself that if we don't actually live at the centre of creation, at least we can comprehend it - that there is reason to believe that the human mind can pierce the universal panoply. Each is trying to answer the question of why we are here, as a species, a society, and as individuals. In both science and religion we seek creation myths, stories that give our lives meaning.

pg 104

In the end, all of our searches for order are fated to bottom out in randomness. No matter how far we go in compressing the signals pouring in around us, there will always be some irreducible uncertainty. With chaos, we might at least get loose grip on the disorder by finding a low-dimensional attractor. With quantum randomness, not even that much control is possible.

Something about the mind, why it to find patterns both real and imaginary, rebels at this notion of fundamental disorder. A few scientists have come to question whether quantum randomness is truly impenetrable. Like Einstein, they do not want to believe that God plays dice.

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