Impossibility by John D. Barrow

barrowjd-impossibilityThe subtitle of this book is what really attracted me to it: “The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits”. As a philosopher, I’m fascinated by the idea that there are not only things we don’t know, but things we can’t know. Some scientists are searching for a theory of everything – a set of equations that will account for everything in the Universe. I don’t believe such a thing is possible for us, because it’s not possible for, say, a goldfish. Mankind is just another branch on the evotionary tree, subject to much the same limitations of perception and cognition. I read this book as an attempt to get some additional clarity on this issue.

The content of the book is diverse and deep, covering many areas, from language to mathematics to cosmology, and more. There’s a great deal packed into 250 pages. The most memorable section, for me personally, was a discussion on how complexity occurs on a particular fractal level of the Universe (terrestrial life), not at the extremes of the very large (stars and galaxies) or the very small (atoms and sub-atomic particles). The human brain is the most complex structure in the known Universe, and this gives us reason to speculate that the very function of the Universe could be to bring about the likes of us. We tend to assume that size equals importance, and the images from the Hubble Space Telescope certainly make us feel very unimportant. But what if complexity equals importance?

The book also contains a fascinating discussion on how the speed of light restricts us from ever getting a complete view of the Universe. When we look into deep space, we see it as it was billions of years ago, not as it is today, because it takes so long for light to reach us. And we can’t see the more distant parts of space at all, because the light emitted by very distant stars hasn’t yet had time to reach Earth at all. This puts us in a fishbowl of sorts and it causes us to make assumptions about what is beyond our knowledge. Since we are able to identify inflexible laws of nature in the part of the Universe that we can see, we assume that these laws apply across the entire Universe. But we simply don’t know, and furthermore, we can’t know.

Some of the content of the book was beyond me, particularly the more mathematical parts. Also, some of the content struck me as irrelevant to anything of practical value, such as a section on time travel paradoxes. If anything, this illustrated the importance of philosophy alongside science. It’s very easy to think of time as something physically real, but the only place that time exists, in the sense of a recording of events, is inside brains. Hence, no time travel paradoxes are possible, because there is no time. There is only an ever-changing now. Any discussion of time travel involves a misperception of time as a literal thing making a literal recording of the cosmos as it moves. This material in the book was a waste of time – no pun intended. The book culminated in a discussion of hidden problems in the voting process, which was a bit flat for an ending.

Overall, I felt this was an important book for me to read. The author has a very rational mind and a broad range of knowledge.

The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

fallonj-psychopathinsideIs anyone born evil? Okay, “evil” is a very religious term; let me put it another way. Is anyone born with a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic behaviour? A few years ago, before I knew much about neuroscience, I would have answered that question with a confident no. In my naivety, I thought that equality existed in nature – that we were all born with the same ability to be good or bad. I started to rethink that when I read Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and now, after reading James Fallon’s The Psychopath Inside, my original stance is convincingly refuted.

The typical human being feels empathy. When we see a suffering child, for instance, we instinctually feel compassion for him. It’s not a choice we make, but an automatic response. The mind of a psychopath works differently. There are particular areas of the brain that are switched off or deficient. This can lead to an emotional disconnectedness, and an ability to do harmful acts without the pangs of conscience.

Psychologist James Fallon once performed an experiment to see whether he could identify convicted murderers, purely by examining scans of their brains. The test group featured a fifty-fifty split of murderers and ordinary individuals. Alarmingly, Fallon was able to separate the murderers from the others with one hundred percent accuracy. Clearly, despite what we would like to believe about equality and freedom of choice, some of us have a genetic predisposition towards murder, and some of us don’t.

Fallon’s book got especially interesting when he turned himself into one of the test subjects, discovering that his own brain had these same psychopathic traits. And yet he is not a murderer. This finding led Fallon on a journey into his own past, not just examining how he has lived his own life, but delving into his ancestry, where he discovered a succession of murderers residing up the family tree. Fallon came to accept that he had psychopathic traits. He fully admits to being manipulative of others and sensing an emotional disconnectedness from people, even his wife. His psychopathic tendencies appear to have been kept in check by the fortuitous circumstances of his life. Had he been born into an abusive family, he might have grown up into a very different individual. It appears that full-fledged psychopaths are both born and made – a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and circumstance.

A really interesting issue to contemplate in relation to psychopathy is responsibility. Imagine a murderer getting caught, being put on trial, and holding up his brain scan for the judge to consider. “How can you hold me accountable for what I did?” he argues. “I was born this way. This is who I am. How can you blame me for acting in accord with my own nature, just like the lion that tears apart its prey because that’s its nature?” We have a “diminished responsibility” legal category for crazy people. Should we also include psychopaths in this? I wish the book had delved into this matter, but it doesn’t.

This examination into the neural basis of psychopathy brings greater clarity to the observation that equality is an illusion, striking as that may sound to the ears of polite society. Nature is not fair, as observation of the animal kingdom attests. There are winners and losers, and the whole game of life ultimately boils down to power struggles. So, the prime reason why we would incarcerate psychopaths is because of Lex Talionis, the law of the claw. We do it because we’re in charge, because we can, because we want to – because the number of empathetic individuals outweighs the number of psychopaths. So we will use that advantage to shape the kind of world we want. Fairness to all isn’t a concept that the natural world recognises. Nature is based on power, and that is all the justification we need. A truly balanced human being is one who is capable of both hostility and empathy, as each situation demands.

The Psychopath Inside is a worthwhile addition to the library of any student of human nature. Part medical textbook, part memoir – the author not only provides a great deal of research data, but is prepared to be unabashedly frank about his own life experiences.

Supernormal by Dean Radin

radind-supernormalDean Radin is the senior scientist at the institute of Noetic Sciences. This is his third book on psychic phenomena. His first two, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, concentrated on providing evidence for the reality of psi through statistical analysis of the wealth of experiments conducted over the past centrury or so. This new volume is largely concerned with why some people have a higher aptitude for psychic ability than others. The deciding factor that Radin attempts to identify as the culprit is meditation. The book is subtitled “Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities.” Psi phenomena are extremely slippery to prove in a lab setting, except by doing a huge meta-analysis. But what if we could demonstrate a measurable trend, such as an observation that long-term meditators outperform non-meditators? Using a wealth of experiments, Radin builds a very convincing case.

The one aspect of the book I’m not so sure about was the wisdom of using the “siddhis” of Buddhism as a credible blueprint for a modern discussion of psi. Siddhis are the alleged supernormal abilities of Buddhist masters, recorded in Buddhist scripture. Radin reckons there is more than a grain of truth in the old scriptures, although there is almost certainly a large amount of overdramatism.

Having read Radin’s previous books, I’ve noticed that any discussion of technique was absent. It’s all well and good to have evidence for psi, but what does an experimenter actually do to cause psychokinesis, telepathy, or precognition. This absence is finally addressed in the latest volume, albeit in a rather vague way. If you want to play with psi, learn how to meditate. Why? Presumably because meditators have the required mental discipline and are competent at holding prolonged “empty” states of mind, where the ordinary, incessant mental chatter is silenced. From my own past experimentation, I concur that it is indeed the state of “no thought” that provokes psi phenomena. And there really is no shortcut achieving an effect. It takes persistent practice. I could occasionally perform limited acts of PK, using a device called a psi wheel, but only when I was daily practising. And even then it was hard to figure out exactly what mental mechanism was causing the effect. The daily practice had the effect of making it easier to slip into a state of “no thought.” Now that I’ve been out of practice for years, it appears to be much more difficult when I decide to just give it a try once in a while.

Most psi effects are small, although Radin has a striking personal story to tell about his own experience at a “PK Party”, where he accidentally ended up bending a spoon. I was also delighted to see the humble psi wheel get a positive mention, as this was my own personal area of interest and where I had some legitimate success.

Supernormal is written in a much wittier and more conversational style than Radin’s previous books. It’s very accessible, but no less deep. Although I have to say I didn’t much like the accompanying illustrations of superhero characters striking yoga poses. I think this image cheapens the credibility of psi and alludes more to those fraudulent career psychics who tout their so-called “powers.” The philosophical territory that the book deals with in the closing chapters is particularly profound. Psi phenomena provide the best evidence for the kind of non-dual underpinnings to reality that mystics have talked about for thousands of years. The book is written as a standalone volume, so there is some necesssary overlap with the previous books, in order to give a complete picture. But a little revision does us veterans no harm. I’ve learned a lot from all of Radin’s books. He is a meticulous thinker and a true pioneer. If I might indulge in a little prediction: when psi is eventually integrated into science, Radin will be looked upon as a key figure who was well ahead of the game. He’s doing really important work, especially when you consider that he’s investigating a side of reality that pioneers such as Stephen Hawking are not prepared to acknowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had a legitimate paranormal experience might be ridculed, accused of fraud or self-delusion, but we know better. So does Dean Radin.

The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin

radind-consciousuniverseThis is the first book written by the senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. It was first published in the USA in 1997, but did not have a UK publication until 2009, where it bore the title The Noetic Universe (some UK readers, having already sourced Radin’s earlier work, mistook this for a new book). Both the US and UK editions, stylistically, contain huge marketing blunders. The US edition features an illustration of a levitating spoon, which, let’s face it, is not the sort of image that conveys legitimate psychic research. Meanwhile, the UK edition has a bewildering title and is styled like a Dan Brown novel – because psychic dabblers and Dan Brown fans constitute the same audience, apparently.

But that is where the criticisms end, because, quite frankly, this book is phenomenal. It is a painstakingly detailed critique of psychic research across the twentieth century. It’s a little harder to read than the book’s follow-up, Entangled Minds, but that’s only because the sheer attention to detail in the facts and figures makes the reading experience a little dry at times. Perseverance is well worth it.

The usual attitude of the armchair sceptic is that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena. Unfortunately, the person who says this has, more often than not, never looked for evidence. This is exactly the sort of book that is essential reading for a genuinely objective sceptic who wishes to become better informed. No serious sceptic could maintain a scornful attitude towards parapsychology, after digesting this volume.

The reality is that psychic phenomena are real, but subtle and hard to replicate. Radin’s main argument is through the technique of meta-analysis – by combining the results of all available psychic experiments, the failures and the victories (as well as taking into account the problem of selective reporting), to achieve an overall odds-against-chance figure.

After making a credible case for the existence of “psi,” Radin concludes the book with some philosophical discussion about the nature of reality. What do experiences of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis teach us about how the universe works? This section, for me, was the most rewarding. My own past interest in doing personal psi experiments stemmed from a philosophical conviction that the universe is non-dual – which is exactly the sort of model that Radin identifies as necessary for explaining how psi phenomena can be real.

Radin seems to care passionately about influencing his peers in the scientific community. I applaud him for daring to stand alone, in a poorly funded field that is often ridiculed. I feel that this is an extremely important book, ahead of its time. If you read one volume on psychic phenomena ever, make it this one.

The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot

talbotm-holographicuniverseThere is good reason to believe that the universe is, in some sense, holographic. Put another way: solidity isn’t quite so solid. Science has a lot to say in defence of this counter-intuitive idea. Atoms are mostly empty space, which is what allows vast portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X rays and radio waves, to pass right through solid matter, including our bodies. Inside the atom, electrons are bouncing all over the universe with no regard for the speed of light restriction. There is a universe of localised objects which is held together by a deeper and more fundamental universe that is non-local. We may say the universe is “holographic” as a means of useful analogy. A holographic photograph has no actual three-dimensional solidity, but it gives the appearance that it does – as does the universe.

Talbot’s book begins by reiterating some deep and complicated scientific ideas by Karl Pribram and David Bohm. He suggests that the term “holographic” is more than mere analogy. Holograms have the curious property that if you cut them in half, you don’t end up with half the picture in each segment; you get two copies of the whole picture. The universe, it is claimed, is also like this. Each part contains the whole. Personally, I find more value in the simpler model that the universe is a non-dual unity; each part appears to contain the whole because there aren’t any parts. I rather like Bohm’s terms for the two sides of reality: the implicate and explicate order.

Once Talbot establishes his theoretical model of the universe, his interest is in showing how it can provide a rational basis for explaining paranormal phenomena. This is the very same insight that struck me some years ago, when I got to grips with non-dualism. I proceeded to experiment with psychokinesis, and managed to get some small but mind-blowing reults. PK was, however, something very slippery and hard to replicate on demand – which strikes me as the key reason why paranormal phenomena have never yet been integrated into science.

In the last two thirds of the book, Talbot tackles dreams, healing, stigmata, psychokinesis, the aura, clairvoyance, precognition, reincarnation, out of body experiences, near death experiences, etc. This is where the book started to fall apart for me. Although I have had direct experience of a psychic “ability,” there is no doubt that charlatans abound. Talbot provides a catalogue of paranormal experiences, some of which beggar belief. To his credit, he is conscientious about quoting his sources, but some of those sources seem more than a little dubious to me.

For instance, it is claimed that some stigmatics have nail-like growths protruding from their hands, mimicking the wounds of Christ. In Talbot’s view, this is due to the mind’s ability to change the body through intention. The Christian’s powerful identification with Christ through a lifetime of meditation eventually manifests in his own body. The problem is: if such stigmata are real, why isn’t the medical world standing back in awe? Why hasn’t it revolutionised our ideas about mind and body? This isn’t some highly subjective piece of evidence for PK or ESP. The stigmata is present and observable; it won’t wanish like a ghost when you shine a light on it. Since the phenomenon hasnt been subjected to scientific scrutiny, I have to question the reliability of the source. Talbot, however, doesn’t.

Similarly, he talks about Sathya Sai Baba in a positive light. Sai Baba was a very popular Indian guru, surrounded by countless devotees. He claimed to be able to manifest objects out of thin air. I have a hard time taking such claims seriously. The warning signs of fakery are all there: a love for public adoration, the projection of a larger-than-life image, and a refusal to subject your “powers” to scientific enquiry. It beggars belief how Talbot can simply accept this man’s claims without question. Talbot himself claims to have had profound experiences of his own in childhood: poltergeist manifestations and objects materialising out of thin air. All I can say about that is: I wish I had experienced it, because I’m unable to believe it otherwise.

I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. But when Sai Baba and the stigmatics came up, I lost all confidence in Talbot’s ability to separate truth from nonsense in the arena of the paranormal. If all the things that Talbot catalogues are true, then there is no good reason why James Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge has remained without a winner for decades. For a far more rational and level-headed examination of paranormal phenomena, read the works of Dean Radin.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

saganc-demonhauntedworldThe subtitle of this book is “Science as a Candle in the Dark,” which captures the theme beautifully. The book seeks to teach the importance of the scientific method in determining truth from error. It’s careful not to assert that the scientific method is the only method, but is clearly the most effective, as given by its success. The value of critical and sceptical thinking is discussed, with many examples. One of the best chapters is the one where the author discusses what he calls the “baloney detection kit,” covering the various logical fallacies, such as ad hominem abuse, appeal to authority, causation mistaken for correlation, etc.

I confess I wasn’t prepared for how fun this book was going to be to read – and that’s chiefly down to the type of subject matter that Sagan handles, such as his lengthy comparison of the UFO abduction phenomenon to the old stories of religious visions. He also spends some time going into psychic phenomena, and even Satanic ritual abuse.

If there is one weakness in the book it’s that it doesn’t quite do justice to those occasional areas of human enquiry where the scientific method lets us down. I’m something of an occult dabbler, and I’ve made successful experiments in psychokinesis. I was curious to see if my convictions about my own work could stand up against Sagan’s assertions. He is a little overly dismissive of psychic phenomena, and while discussing this subject he seems to forget for a moment that the scientific method is just a method, not our only means of determining truth. The reason the scientific method has thus far failed to give us proof of psychic phenomena is because the phenomena are extremely slippery and hard to replicate. A genuine experience of ESP might be a sudden feeling of dread that something terrible has happened to a friend, then later finding out that he’s been in a car wreck. Such an experience cannot be replicated in a lab, because the experiencer has no idea what he did to prompt it.

The arena of religion understandably comes under fire for anti-scientific dogmatism, but Sagan handles the topic respectfully, while not pulling his punches.

Overall, this is an excellent book. The first step in truth-seeking is not to determine what to believe, but to learn how to think. The Demon-Haunted World provides an excellent guide to that initial enterprise. Sagan is masterful at making science understandable for the lay reader.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

The essence of the theory being proposed in this book is this: the Big Bang was not just the creation of our Universe. Simulaneously, there were many other universes, which operated on very different physical principles. Most of these failed to become coherent and collapsed, but at least one (ours) happens to operate in just such a way as to facilitate galaxies, solar systems, and evolving lifeforms. Effectively, the God hypothesis (intelligent design) is done away with by giving yourself an infinite amount of attempts at creation by chance, which take place in adjacent dimensions to ours. Interesting idea, but one which seems impossible to prove. Atheists will probably like it, and theists will view it as a convenient means of doing away with God.

From my own philosophical perspective (non-dualism), I’m more in touch with the Ground of Being as being something impenetrably mysterious, by virtue of it existing beyond the contraints of space-time. The pursuit of a “theory of eveything,” which is Hawking’s particular hobby-horse, seems like a fool’s errand – like attempting to write out the digits of pi, as if the infinite can be captured within the finite. Not going to happen. At the edges of our understanding there will always be mystery. That mystery, in relation to the Big Bang, is the non-dual essence from which duality springs. Religionists call it God. Scientists call it the singularity. We’ll ever get to the bottom of what it is, because we’re finite and it’s infinite.

It seems to me that Hawking’s hypothesis is based on the desire to maintain the idea of the Universe as a machine – a view we inherited through Newtonian mechanics. In science, materialism reigns, while consciousness is seen as an insignificant product of evolution. The flipside is the mystical perspective, where consciousness reigns, and material reality becomes real only as an experience of consciousness. I support a position of neutral monism in between, where the Ground of Being is neither matter nor conscousness but the mysterious essence that gives rise to both.

Putting aside the highly theoretical parts of The Grand Design, the book has much going for it. There is some stimulating historical material, charting science from the Ionian Greeks, through to Copernicus, to quantum mechanics. The latter, as usual, is very tricky to understand for a lay reader like myself, but I gained some new insight. The book is marvellously presented, with colour diagrams that help to make the science comprehensible. There is a very good explanation of the double-slit experiment.

The book coins the phrase “model-dependant realism,” and explains this as the view that certain things are true (real) within the boundaries of particularly defined contexts. The idea of matter as illusory is explained at length. Inadvertently, Hawking succeeds in demonstrating something that the mystically inclined among us perceive but often fail to articulate. This material was priceless.

One of the great quests of science is how to come up with a quantum theory of gravity – in other words, how to integrate general relativity with quantum mechanics. This continues to elude scientists. Hawking concedes that the quest for a single theory of everything might ultimately have to consist of a bunch of separate theories united through an understanding of model-dependant realism.