Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is it All In The Mind?

It is commonly believed that quantum physics tells that 'all is in the mind', that 'we create our own reality', or that 'that everything outside our consciousness exists yet has no reality except in what we are making of it'. A recent film 'What the Bleep Do We Know' popularises this view, but makes many mistakes.

Physics motives for saying this:
A big problem in physics is that the wave functions that are spread out have a shape which satisfies well-known equations, but it is still not clear, when and how physics gets just one actual outcome. The electron may have a wave function spread out over the whole room, for example, but if you have detectors in the room, only one of them, at random, will detect the electron. In quantum physics, we do not have a good reason why an electron can only be found in one detector and not somehow in all of them. So there has been a lot of discussion in the past 70 years of how in physics the standard theory with waves just leads to one outcome. This has given rise to very many alternative ideas:.

1. Only an appearance
2. Occurs to a good approximation
Decoherence theory,
3. Classical apparatus
N. Bohr,
4. Experimenter looks
W. Heisenberg,
5. Effect of consciousness
E. Wigner,
6. Consciousness creates an actual result
H. Stapp,
7. Consciousness produces nature
S. Malin,
8. Spirit produces nature
E. Swedenborg,
9. Nature is essentially spiritual
‘New Age’,
10. Nature and spirit are identical
C.J.S. Clarke,
11. Quantum physics shows us religious roots
E.H. Walker
Suggested means for getting one definite actuality

Those of you that have read some popular physics will recognize some of these alternatives, and they are all designed to answer the same measurement problem. The first suggestion is called Everett’s many-worlds interpretation, in which there is not any real selection, but all alternatives occur the same time, for example in some set of parallel universes. The second theory of ‘decoherence’ says that it really like that, but that it appears to a good approximation as if only one outcome occurs. Niels Bohr thought it was the fact that experimental apparatus was ‘classical’, with no wave behavior, that gives rise to a particular outcome. We now know that quantum physics applies to the experimental apparatus as well, so that does not really solve the problem. Werner Heisenberg, Eugene Wigner and Henry Stapp have in turn introduced the speculation that selection is something to do with consciousness or mind, and this has given rise to a whole stream of suggestions in which consciousness (or something) has become more and more involved in trying to solve the problem of quantum physics.

Wigner in a paper of 40 years ago suggested that it was the consciousness of the observing scientist, and this idea has been carried on by Stapp, who says that consciousness is actually involved in the brain. Stapp believes that since a quantum brain has many alternate things that can happen, consciousness selects one of these outcomes to produce a result. I have listed other alternatives here, which get progressively more ‘way out’. A few of these ideas we can imagine being true, for example that ‘spirit produces nature’, but some people have gone even further than that, and have said that nature is somehow essentially spiritual – that it is connected with, or equal to, the spiritual. Others have continued this theme to say that quantum physics is a way of learning about spirituality, a way to regain our spirituality. There is a great range of possible solutions here that try to solve the same problem: how something that is described by a wave can produce a definite outcome. The trouble starts from the fact that when physicists think about nature, they only have two ideas in mind: they can think of a wave or a particle. The difficulty is that the objects which quantum physics tells us are in nature are not just waves, and not just particles, so the challenge is to find a new understanding and a new picture.
In theistic science, we start by taking a realist view of the quantum world, as composed of dispositions or propensities in particular forms.

Philosophical motives for saying this:

As well as the more extreme ideas above, there are further ideas that have been proposed. James Jeans, the mathematical physicist, wrote about 60 years ago that “the wave function looks like not something solid and substantial, but looks more like an ‘idea’”. Some (e.g. Zohar) have taken this to mean that quantum physics tells us about ideas. Others, discussing the putative identity of spirit and nature, have tried to work out various ways for why they appear to be different. They have said that perhaps spirit and nature are different grades of energies, different frequencies, different dimensions, and/or different ‘fineness’ of material.
Theistic science will tell us that suggesting ‘different dimensions’ here is trying to use spatial analogies (thinking from ideas of space) to distinguish mind from nature. When people try to talk about ‘different frequencies’, they are using temporal analogies to think about this difference.

There is a strong impetus in much 'New Age' physics toward nondualism, in which our own consciousness is identified as 'essentially identical' to the Consciousness of the Source.

In the Spirituality Approach, I discuss whether nondualism can be true within Theism:
  1. How to distingush the Natural and Spiritual? here
  2. Is Nondualism the way to go beyond the physical? here
  3. How do we love others in a nondualism? here
  4. Is there esoteric knowledge about spirituality? here
  5. How can there be permanent spiritual growth? here
  6. What is Enlightenment without Paradox?
    Nondualism from a Theistic perspective, here.

In Theistic Science:

According to Theistic Science, the natural world is really and definitely produced by generative processes, of which spiritual and mental stages are intermediate parts. The natural world is not itself living or consciousness, but is produced in part by means of worlds and by people which are conscious.

Moreover, the physical world is not an arbitrary production, but is constrained at least by the past: by what already physically exists. We say that the natural world is the terminus and containant of spiritual processes, and is the base for the spiritual degrees as are the foundations for a house.

This has important philosophical, biological and theological consequences. It is most important as our actions in the physical world have the function of building up the permanence of our spiritual bodies, our souls.

There are important analogies between mental and physical processes, but these analogies do not indicate identity, as is often supposed, but arise from systematic correspondences of function.

To explain all these things within the context of science and theism, I have written my book Starting Science from God. The book website is 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Appearances of Reincarnation

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, we only live once on earth. After death we live in a spiritual world and move eventually to a permanent place that depends on the spiritual nature we created by our actions on earth. We are not reborn or reincarnated again on earth, to have another attempt to do better next time.

Historically, however, there have been many stories about reincarnation, notably the "transmigration of souls" (metempsychosis) that Plato describes in the Republic. Reincarnation has been an essential part of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is interesting to see when it became popular in the west. We might assume it came with the great interest in spiritualism in Europe and America that started in the 1840s, which lead to a great many scientists becoming interested in it, with the formation of the learned societies of psychical research in the period 1850-1900. But it did not: there was no hint of reincarnation among those beliefs. Instead, it came through the books of theosophists like Annie Besant and was imported into western thought from the early 1900s. It has subsequently become rather widespread among spirit communicators, and it is especially dominant in the "channelled works" written under dictation from spirit sources that claim higher knowledge.

This essay is not concerned with the moral or theological basis of reincarnation, but discusses instead the evidence that has been presented in its support. The idea might simply be regarded as mistaken if it were not for the evidence that has been described for example by Ian Stevenson in his 1966 book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. There are two main kinds of evidence. The first is the evidence of birth marks in young children as shown by Stevenson. The second comes from hypnotic regressions, in which a subject under hypnosis is "taken back" to relive his past lives. Often a great deal of historical evidence is produced that cannot be plausibly only invented; realistic names may be given; and unusual languages may be spoken fluently. Sometimes these pieces of evidence are spontaneously recalled.

Most recently there has been regression to the "between life" status and reports of discussion with spiritual advisors about the choice of life into which to incarnate, and afterwards a review of the "lessons learned" from the reincarnations. Taken all together, these pieces of evidence are sufficient to convince a lawyer like Victor Zammit that reincarnation does in fact occur (see Ch. 24 of his book A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife: Irrefutable Objective Evidence).

I am not going to rehearse the numerous details of the observations and histories here. Rather, I want to suggest alternative interpretations of both of these kinds of evidence, interpretations moreover which are to be expected if Swedenborg’s descriptions of the spiritual world are correct. To start with, therefore, I remind the reader of some aspects of Swedenborg’s account.

According to Swedenborg, the conjunction between heaven and earth is by means of beings in the spiritual world:
With every individual there are good spirits and evil spirits. Through good spirits man has conjunction with heaven, and through evil spirits with hell. These spirits are in the world of spirits, which lies midway between heaven and hell. … When these spirits come to a man they enter into his entire memory, and thus into his entire thought, evil spirits into the evil things of his memory and thought, and good spirits into the good things of his memory and thought. These spirits have no knowledge whatever that they are with man; but when they are with him they believe that all things of his memory and thought are their own; neither do they see the man, because nothing that is in our solar world falls into their sight. (Heaven and Hell 292)
That is, there are indeed close to us beings who have lived in the past and in whose memory there are indeed descriptions of past ages and past languages. Those memories are not active, so there is no interference with the current life. Sometimes, however, there is some ‘leakage’ of that memory into the current consciousness of an individual on earth, and, then, strange voices or memories from past lives appear that he attributes (erroneously) to his own past life. Swedenborg relates:
If a spirit were to speak from his own memory with a man the man would not know otherwise than that the thoughts then in his mind were his own, although they were the spirit's thoughts. This would be like the recollection of something which the man had never heard or seen. That this is so has been given me to know from experience. This is the source of the belief held by some of the ancients that after some thousands of years they were to return into their former life, and into everything they had done, and in fact, had returned. This they concluded because at times there came to them a sort of recollection of things that they had never seen or heard. This came from an influx from the memory of spirits into their ideas of thought. (Heaven and Hell 256).
It appears that the normally-quiescent memories of the associated spirits may be specifically awakened during hypnotic sessions, when the current individual’s mind is quieted. The minds of the spirits may then be aroused to think of their own previous lives. It thus appears that memories are not "labeled" with their originator, so whatever memories are recalled in hypnosis may afterwards be appropriated to whoever experiences them (not necessarily the originator).

What about the bodily birthmarks and scars that Stevenson found on many Asian children? In some cases the alleged cause of death in an immediate past life is reflected by a birthmark in the present life, since investigators could find and identify by family interviews the life history of a matching recently-deceased person. For example, Stevenson found that in cases of violent death the child may show a birthmark where he was knifed, shot or from whatever caused his death. These cases definitely do not appear as "spiritual possession" as described in psychiatric cases because the child’s life is otherwise normal. Zammit argues that these phenomena cannot be attributed to extrasensory perception, to fraud, to cryptomesia (memories previous acquired but since forgotten), to inherited memory, to collective unconscious, or to possession. In his mind, that leaves reincarnation as the only possibility.

We note that many (but not all) of Stevenson’s examples come from cultures in which reincarnation is the expectation. Moreover, many of them involve violent deaths. In that situation, what expectations should we envisage in the recently-resurrected spirit in the spiritual world? I should expect that many such persons want to reincarnate, if only to resume their earthly life cut short. Mostly, we can conclude, they become associated spirits with young children. The child’s memories appear between the ages of two and four, and then the association fades between the ages of five and eight. It is somewhat surprising to me that they manage to produce birthmarks and scars on the children, but, whatever the details are, they do not support the claim of the reincarnation of a single person any more than they support Swedenborg’s theory of associated spirits.

What then about the apparent memories between earthly lives, where events in the spiritual world are recalled under hypnosis? An author such as Michael Newton in his book Journey of Souls has given many stories of people recalling these. If we take these as veridical, this appears to be strong evidence for reincarnation. I argue, however, that some things like these should be expected in the spiritual world described by Swedenborg.
To understand what is happening, we have to consider events in the quotation Heaven and Hell 292 above from the point of view of the spirits involved. Imagine what must happen. They are living like "normal people" in the spiritual world, and then (somehow) they are transformed to be associated spirits with us (on earth) and with no active memory of their own. I suggest that this process appears to them just like reincarnation. We should expect there to be some discussion beforehand with their advisors concerning with whom to best become associated. We would expect that any decisions be taken with their long-term spiritual objectives in mind (with concurrence of the Lord). Then, after some period, they return to their friends and advisors in the spiritual world. (That period might not be a whole earthly lifetime, but they may perhaps not be able to judge time scales in the same way as us.) Moreover, many such "reincarnations" should be expected during life in the spiritual world, before their permanent place is found.

Again, I can envisage that some memories of associated spirits can be awakened under hypnosis and retrieved, as if they were the memories of the earth individual. Thus can not only "past lives" be "recalled" in this way, but also "between life" events. Moreover, something like "successive reincarnations" can and do occur which involve persons in the spiritual world. I can easily imagine this process being inaccurately described as the reincarnation, not of associated spirits, but of our actual selves, especially since the memories can hardly be distinguished. So there is reincarnation, but not as we know it.

Originally posted at the New Church Perspective blog.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Final Causes: Needed, or Always Present?

There has been renewed blogging and forthcoming debate concerning Aristotle's Four Causes, and how they might be necessary to understand living and non-living systems in nature.

From Wikipedia, these four causes are listed at
  1. A thing's material cause is the material of which it consists. (For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.)
  2. A thing's formal cause is its form, i.e. the arrangement of that matter.
  3. A thing's efficient or moving cause is "the primary source of the change or rest." An efficient cause of x can be present even if x is never actually produced and so should not be confused with a sufficient cause. (Aristotle argues that, for a table, this would be the art of table-making, which is the principle guiding its creation.)
  4. A thing's final cause is its aim or purpose. That for the sake of which a thing is what it is. (For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.)
These were the causes that Aquinas took as existing universally. The early natural scientists such as Boyle and Newton thought that all this was too complicated, and that in their new 'corpuscular philosophy' they only needed material causes (namely the corpuscles) and the efficient causes (namely the energy and momentum of those particles). If asked, they would want to deny formal and final causes, since those seemed to refer to overall system properties of an object or organism, and not to its mechanical parts.

Edward Feser has recently been trying to revive the theory of all four causes, and has often claimed that the particular lack of final causes in modern physics is the source of many of its problems in understanding the nature of living organisms.

Feser says that he is encouraged in this respect by the renewed emphasis in the philosophy of physics on dispositions:
Recall first that for the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition, the fundamental sort of final causality that exists in nature is the “directedness” of an efficient cause toward the generation of its typical effect or range of effects. It is similar to what contemporary writers on dispositions and causal powers like C. B. Martin, John Heil, Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and George Molnar have in mind when they speak, for example, of the way dispositions are “directed toward” or “point to” their characteristic “manifestations,” or the way causal powers are “directed toward” their characteristic effects. Hence the directedness of brittle objects toward shattering, of soluble objects toward dissolving, of the phosphorus in a match head toward generating flame and heat, are instances of finality as that is understood in the A-T tradition. The A-T view is that unless we regard such “directedness” or “pointing” as immanent or inherent to the natural phenomena that exhibit such dispositions and causal powers, we have no way of making it intelligible why they have the manifestations and effects that they typically do. Causes and effects, dispositions and manifestations would become inherently “loose and separate,” so that any effect or none might follow upon any cause. Such Humean fantasies are for A-T an inevitable result of the abandonment of immanent final causes.
I have also contributed to this study of dispositions, starting with my 1988 paper "Real Dispositions in the Physical World". This and related papers are available at the website A recent book "Philosophy of Nature and Quantum Reality" studies them further, especially concerning quantum physics.

However, and this is my main point, the case for the four Aristotelean causes in modern physics is, in various respects, both weaker and stronger than Feser makes out, especially concerning his aim to base a new understanding of living creatures using 'form-matter dualism' (hylemorphic dualism).

The stronger case for the four Aristotelean causes comes from a closer examination of physics, and also on the recognition that there is something universal about the four causes.  Boyle and later Laplace may have thought that they were getting rid of final causes, but in fact they had not. Even in the most simple corpuscular ontology -- according to which the world is made of particles like billiard balls that collide with each other -- there is still a need for final causes. That is because the corpuscles have to be 'perfectly elastic'. This 'elasticity' is exactly a disposition, of the kind that Feser was referring to in the paragraph I quoted. Elasticity is a final cause, strictly speaking. We might even say that the "corpuscles desire to maintain their original shape". Furthermore, the corpuscles have a form, namely that shape of the corpuscles. Admittedly, 'form' in Thomist philosophy has many more components than just that shape, but the shape is definitely one ingredient that explains the behavior of the bodies while interacting.   I discuss the dispositions of classical physics in Chapter 3 of my book.

The weaker case of the the four Aristotelean causes is clear when we compare mechanistic and wholistic explanations of the behavior of living organisms. There are two main options:
  • Maybe the final causes are those that depend on the final causes of the microscopic parts. This is the mechanistic or reductionist explanation.  
  • Or maybe the organism's final causes are more global or macroscopic aims, such as eating, growth, reproduction, or even mental desires for pleasure or satisfaction. These are the 'organismic' or 'wholistic' final causes.
In contrast to Feser's claim, we see that it is not the absence of final causes which leads to the reductionist account. Rather, it is the choice of specific final causes as the source of the observed behavior. Are the important final causes those related to the organism (and its desires) as a whole, or only those of its microscopic parts? The modern predilection is to choose the microscopic final causes. Hence the desire to read books about brain cells, neurons, and genes. It is the reason why the idea of a selfish gene has become popular.

This choice (between microscopic and macroscopic final causes) is the important choice to be made when trying to understand living creatures. We do not automatically understand them better by trying to postulate the existence of final causes, because (in fact) final causes never really went away. 

The true issues are are clearly manifest, for example, in Syphax's post "Lingering questions about hylemorphic dualism". Here we see the tension between the causes arising from the microscopic parts of an organism, and the causes relevant to the whole organism. Are both kinds of causes present, or only the microscopic causes? And if more than microscopic final causes are effective, how to we understand (for example) the laws of conservation of energy and momentum? These are the interesting questions.