Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Creativity, dreams, premonitions, quantum

posted by Rod Dreher

You know how little kids, maybe at the age of three, start asking questions that are hard to answer? My kid Matthew is 10, but he’s at that stage again — except this time, he offers what he calls “theories,” and then expects to talk about them. It’s kind of fun, because no matter how outlandish his theories, his bringing them up usually results in us talking about interesting philosophical issues, though rarely resolving them.
I find myself this morning a bit vexed, in a good way, about a conversation he initiated with me yesterday. It started when he told me he thought that “morphic fields” — a concept he picked up from reading a book from the heretical scientist Rupert Sheldrake — might be responsible for human creativity. His idea was that new ideas exist in some sort of cloud computer land, floating out there as information that, under mysterious conditions, our brains can access. What seems to us like original thinking is actually the receiver that is our brain picking up information available in the cloud, in a morphic field.
I told him I thought that was an interesting idea, but that I had some problems with it, and here they are. We had a fruitful conversation, one that led into areas that tied me up in philosophical knots, actually. We got to talking about Matthew’s theory as a way to explain people who have dreams or premonitions that actually come true. Could it be that their brains are in some way specialized receivers of information that exists in the cloud? If so, how could information on an event that hasn’t yet occurred in time exist? It makes no sense, yet many of us know someone who has experienced a predictive dream or premonition (I have personally), so something has to explain it. Does the future exist already — and if so, what does that say about free will? Or do multiple futures exist, like multiverses, and our free will determines which one we will enter into? If God exists outside of time, then time is laid out for him like a flat map — whereas for us, we experience it like a globe; we’re unable to see what is around the corner until the globe turns, though that reality may be said to exist. Right? If that’s so, why pray? Can God change the future?
That’s a lot to talk about with a 10 year old, and I was surprised by how the philosophical problems that emerged from our discussion stayed with me overnight. Well, it turns out a book I have on my shelf at home, “Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information” by Vlatko Vedral, an Oxford University quantum physicist, offers some clues that Matthew might find interesting. Follow this link to a Guardian interview with Vedral, both in print and on video, in which he discusses his ideas. His basic insight/argument is that information, not matter and energy, is the fundamental basis of reality. Here’s a short BBC video in which Vedral previews his book.
I have never read this book, but bought it a few months ago for some reason I can’t recall. Now I want to add it to the stack by my bedside. Readers, any of you seen this book, or are familiar with Vedral’s ideas? N.B., Vedral has said that the kinds of events we regard as “spooky” ought not to spook us at all – that they are simply manifestations of the natural world, and that they can be explained, or one day will be explained, through quantum mechanics. All of this leaves me wondering about how Vedral would attempt to explain the phenomenon of predictive dreams and accurate premonitions in terms of quantum mechanics. Also, Matthew’s “morphic field” idea about creativity is pretty hard to accept (hey, he’s 10 years old!), but if Vedral is right, I’m wondering if there’s not a germ of truth in the idea that information exists in a “cloud” around us, and the most creative people among us have a gift of being receptive to it at a subconscious level. I’m not saying that the Ninth Symphony was floating in the ether, and Beethoven simply downloaded it and printed it out via his own hand. But I am wondering if what we call “inspiration” can, in some sense, be thought of as being able to access information in an extraordinary way, and to filter it through our own brain information processor in such a way as to add to it by rearranging it.
Thoughts? Of course we don’t need a quantum woop-de-doo explanation for all creativity; a skilled artist can take the information available through normal means and resynthesize it in fresh new ways. Still, might there not be more to it?



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Joseph

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:06 am


Morphic fields sound like descendants of Plato’s forms. You might give him the Meno as a way to start thinking about these issues in Platonic terms. You won’t get the full-blown theory of forms there, but it’s a good start.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:24 am


Sounds like Matthew is well on his way in the development of abstract reasoning. Child development theory states that the area of the brain where this activity takes place finishes physical development around the age of four (symptomized by that incessant “why” questioning) and continues well into early adulthood. There is not timeline or measurement of “normal” or “average”, but I can tell you from my own experience that being taken seriously by a parent is the best possible encouragement you can offer him. I hasten to add, for some readers, that taking a child seriously also includes disagreeing with him, or prompting him to question his own assumptions and breadth of knowledge.
For early speculations in the topical direction, I encourage a reading of Carl Jung’s essay on the collective unconscious. An entertaining (if perhaps controversial towards some belief systems) read is Joseph Campbell, and his thoughts on universal themes in myth and legend.
Finally, no Franklin post would be complete without a fictional reference. ;-) Ironically*, though, there doesn’t seem to be an online reference: Heinlein, in his book The Number of the Beast, used the term “ficton” to represent a “quantum of fiction” or more generally the notion that imagination can spawn actual universes which, had we the technology, we could visit.
* There are plenty of websites out there that misspell “fiction” without the second “i”. ;-)



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m.e.graves

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:40 am


If so, how could information on an event that hasn’t yet occurred in time exist?
You think that because you are thinking of time in a linear sense. You are committing the mistake of believing in the inherent existence of three things: space, time, and self. Space, scientifically, is matter, of which all things exist. Matter consists of particles – protons and neutrons loosely collected into a nucleus surrounded by empty space and electrons flowing freely around each other. Even solids which seem packed of matter are, in truth, empty space flowing around these particles, though only slightly tighter than other states of matter. Looking at any being in such a manner would force one to acknowledge its emptiness and its interdependence on other things.
Look at the example of a hand touching a desk; the hand moves through space and touches the desk, energy and particles flowing through one another – the hand, the space, the desk – all becoming one mass of particles transferring energy through one another. Though only at a very small level, all three entities are affected by the one event. If it is understood that all of space is, in essence, one entity, then how is time affected? Time is merely the recordation of events as they meet each other and the intervals between the meetings. In order for events to meet, the events have to be inherently separate in the first place. When looked beyond the superficial viewpoint of everyday reality, one is left with the understanding that at such a basic level, all being are, in truth, one essence. Therefore, all events throughout the entirety of time are also one singular moment.
I guess from a Christian point of view, you could look at it this way, God exists outside of time. Godhead consists of three entities: Yahweh the Father or the Ground of All Being, Yeshua the Son, or the Active aspect of Being, and Sophia, the Holy Spirit, or the Wisdom aspect of Being. Just as the Holy Spirit moved freely within Yeshua as man, so too does the Holy Spirit move within us all. The Holy Spirit, God, is outside of time, so in this “morphic cloud” of its being, there is no time – all events have actually happened. I seem to recall that when the saints of old proclaimed some great truth, they would usually thank the Holy Spirit for moving within them. Creativity, Premonition – all of these things that seem outside of the realm of Science can then be attributed to an experience with the Holy Spirit.



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Al-Dhariyat

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:45 am


Smart kid ya got there, Rod. (not that I’m surprised).
To me, Morphic Fields reminds me of the beginning to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lots of great ideas are out there floating in the ether. Some land on the right target, others land on a flower or a tree and so are not articulated except as best as a flower can do so.
The Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything landed on a person who decided to spread the word of this powerful truth and thus help alleviate all of mankind’s ills. But alas, ten minutes later the Earth was bulldozed in order to make way for an interstellar highway.
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Helen

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:51 am


Rod, all your kids sound like wonderful interesting people.
There are many artists (see, eg, Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way) who see themselves almost like radio receivers, taking in ideas and creativity. From whence the ideas come I don’t know. (Many people would say God sends the ideas.) But there certainly are artists who claim that their art simply came to them, almost without their doing anything to create it. Artist as conduit, as it were.



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Chris

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:03 am


A really good and thought-provoking work of fiction sort of on this topic is Dan Simmons’ “Hollow Man.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hollow_Man_%281992_novel%29
The ideas he presents appear across his other work, particularly the Hyperion and Ilium books.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:12 am


Is there a theoretical physicist in the house? ;-D
Actually, I’m the one who may need one. As I recall, the core of the “time paradox” is mathematical, and very simple: Space-time as a four-dimensional construct, with three dimensions (space) being represented as axes with a “sign” (positive and negative) attribute, becomes mathematically invalid if one refuses to allow the fourth dimension (time) to have the same “sign” attribute. Also, as I recall, quantum physics introduced asymetry, simulteneity, and other nifty “breakages” of Einsteinian theories like the speed of light. One should not be surprised that they coined the term “chaos theory”, eh?
Of course, just because we can write a formula doesn’t make it valid. Hence, the paradox. ;-)



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Apple Jack Creek

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:14 am


I just finished reading a Neal Stephenson novel called *Anathem* which discusses similar concepts.
It is big, and thick, and is full of references to philosophers and mathematicians and so on from ancient history right on up (all while being set in a completely different world).
It’s not a ‘brain candy’ sort of read, where you just coast along with the story, but it is a very engaging story and at the same time, it makes you think about all kinds of fascinating ideas like the one your son brought up.
It’s currently in the sale bin at my local Chapters … I think you might enjoy it.



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Dan O.

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:18 am


Again, I’m not a theist… I’m also not a q-mech guy, so I’m gonna talk low-tech. But if I were a theist, and I believed that the past, present, and future exist(I am inclined to believe this), here’s how I would reconcile.
Suppose that the past and future exists as does the present. One isn’t therefore committed to determinism – the view that the state of the world (including our lives) at moment t entails the state at t+1. The fact that our lives are wholly present from the point of view of someone outside time is compatible with the view that our free choices effect portions of our lives. One gets confused if one allows the background of time creep in to the understanding of someone existing outside time. It’s not that choices are *already* made. It’s that one views the whole, including choices. Similarly for prayer and answers to it. The trouble is conceiving God as being receptive to acts, and then acting as if in time. God receives prayers and acts as if both are done at once (but not literally).
One thing that has always troubled me about explanations for creativity is that there need be any. I can’t see why there mightn’t be flukes, all over the place, and our particular talent is to harness them. Noise can be misinterpreted as patterns, simple errors can be grand innovations. Given that people are similar, it’s not surprising that several might make the same error, the same innovation, coincidentally.
Similarly, I don’t see why creativity must be reduced to recombination. After all, it seems sparks are required for acts of mere recombination (music is no more ‘decidable’ than predicate logic).
It might be the case that sparks come from somewhere. It’s equally plausible that sparks come from nowhere. More likely, it’s a bit of both.



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Charles Cosimano

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:33 am


Time does odd things. The PEAR eggs, for example, go nutzoid about three hours before an event in the news that causes massive mass emoting. My own out on the limb idea is that when human emotions get strong enough they do something at an information level that screws up time and the information goes backwards in it.
Why this would be is anyone’s guess.



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My Name

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:46 am


Rod, for the sake of your son’s future, encourage and foster these kinds of questions. Matthew sounds like he’s got a real gem of a mind.
Rod said: His idea was that new ideas exist in some sort of cloud computer land, floating out there as information that, under mysterious conditions, our brains can access.
re: morphic fields – If you change that phrase a little bit, you have a pretty good summary of how some cognitive psychologists think this works: “new ideas exist in the interaction of the mind with its environment, floating out there as information that, by perceiving the world, our brains can access.” It seems a lot less like voodoo when it’s expressed this way.
re: creativity – There is also a lot of research on creativity, and many findings suggests that there’s no magic there, either. People who are extremely creative become that way by working hard to become experts in the realms in which they are creative. It doesn’t always mean unpleasant and grueling work all the time (google “deliberate practice” for the more).
re: predictive dreams/precognition – There are plenty of nonmystical explanations of these phenomena. First, much of our perception is unconscious (or at least not explicitly conscious) Second, people (and many other animals) are extremely good pattern detectors. Third, many cognitive scientists view one function of dreams as memory consolidation. Putting these three ideas together means that at least some dreams will seem to have magical predictive properties. Moreover, people have an extremely powerful confirmation bias, so that a dream that has some similarity to a future event is taken as precognitive (and we retroactively modify the dream to fit better with real-world events). Other dreams that are life-like but whose events don’t occur in the real world are forgotten. My mother-in-law is a religious Buddhist who visits her “precognitive” Buddhist priestess friend quite often. Out of the many, many dream-based predictions that she has made about my family, virtually all of them have been false. But, because of my MIL’s confirmation bias, she only focuses on the predictions that have been right.
re: time and God – I don’t claim to know the answer, but I love thinking about this from time to time just to think through the arguments. Stipulating that God is omnipotent and omniscient, we can say that God exists outside of time, at least in some sense. That does not mean that the progression through time doesn’t exist. We can still claim free will even if God knows what we will do and how He will respond to it and how that response will influence our future (both in terms of our future environment and our future behavior). Since I can’t know the future, I must act as though my actions matter, even if my choices don’t because I can’t know whether my actions are the means by which God makes some things happen.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:55 am


Charles, it’s an intriguing thought, for sure.
In my academic travels, I’ve focused on personal and group dynamics, communication, whatnot. I was especially interested in non-verbal communication (NVC).
Our sense of time is completely subjective. No two people can express their sense of time in exactly the same way. We do attempt to objectively measure time — I even have a radio-linked clock that is updated from the atomic clock in Virginia — but our abstract approaches to it are generally flawed because of that subjectivity.
Anyway, a fundamental concept in NVC is about signal-to-noise. Of all the data our senses are receiving, we consciously process only about 20% of it. The rest (personal take on the concepts and hypotheses) is “absorbed” by the subconscious. There are, to me, fascinating tangents into dreaming (it isn’t sleep deprivation per se that causes us to hallucinate at some point, it’s that the subconscious uses dreaming to clean out the accumulation of that 80%), intuition (the subconscious repository finds something in that 80% that is relevant to a conscious thought process) and deja vu (the subconscious regurgitates data immediately, but our conscious minds can’t process that fast, so we get the sense of “already seeing” something).
Human emotions are, I opine, (just) another category of data. How we react to things, rationally, emotionally, instinctively, is a reflection of the data.



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Alicia

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:15 am


Rod, your son appears to have a wonderful imagination, and I suggestion Franklin’s suggestion that he should read Carl Jung.
I can’t resist linking to a bit of the time travel discussion from Season 5 of my favorite show (It works best if you visit the link first):
http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20313460_20398628_4,00.html
“MILES: What the hell are you doing, Tubby?
HURLEY: Checking to see if I’m disappearing.
MILES: What?
HURLEY: ‘Back to the Future,’ man. We came back in time to the island and changed stuff. So if little Ben dies, he’ll never grow up to be big Ben, who’s the one who made us come back here in the first place. Which means we can’t be here. And therefore, dude? We don’t exist.
MILES: You’re an idiot.”



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Alicia

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:19 am


I meant I second Franklin’s suggestion. Arghh.



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Salamander

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:28 am


Rod, when Matthew is of marriageable age, I have just the girl for him. My eldest daughter is also 10, gifted in terms of IQ, has sensory integration disorder, and we totally have deep philosophical discussions like that. They could hang out, read, talk history, philosophy and religion, and avoid lumpy-textured foods, frightening sports and loud noises together. ;)
I am of the mind that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously, rather like the sides of a cube — but that we can only perceive of them separately as we are passing through time.
I once read a charming little book once called “Flatland” which was about a two-dimensional being (A. Square) who lives happily in his two-dimensional world until one day he is paid a visit by the three-dimensional A. Sphere. Being a two-dimensional being, A. Square cannot perceive the full 3D roundness of A. Sphere. And since A. Sphere is 3D, he has to move through A. Square’s space, rather than within it. So A. Square sees a small point, which rapidly grows into a large and somewhat menacing circle, and then shrinks down to a small point again. He cannot perceive the whole of the sphere, because his brain is 2D. Anyway, he starts ranting on about a mysterious third dimension, which causes all sorts of problems for him…it’s a cute book.
My theory is that something like this occurs with time. Past, present and future exist in some higher dimension as an interrelated object, like some sort of super-hypercube. But since we can only pass through time, we experience it as three separate phases. Some of us maybe are able to pick up on the other aspects, though, and that gives us those flashes where we “see” something from the future or past.
I’ve had my share of prophetic dreams, and for the most part they are all pretty prosaic. I’ll dream that, say, I’m chopping onions and my husband is telling me about an event that happened at work. Then a few days or weeks later, I’ll be chopping onions and my husband will tell me about that event, and I realize we’ve already had this exact conversation — except we haven’t. At least not in this dimension.
It makes sense to me that if some people are more sensitive to smell, taste, touch or hearing than others, then some might be more sensitive to time flashes or whatever than others.



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Hector

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:28 am


While I certainly believe in precognitive dreams (they’re rare but they do exist, and I’ve had one or two), there’s no need to postulate a morphic field or whatever to explain them. I have a fairly simple understanding of precognitive dreams: they’re occasions on which either God or his messengers (the holy angels) choose to communicate with us and allow us to see things. I think this is consistent with the accounts of precognitive or prophetic dreams in Scripture (e.g. Daniel).
I believe in the truths of science, and in the truths of theology, but I also believe that we would be better off not trying to mix the two.
My sense of to what extent God can see the future is more than a bit heretical, but put simply I think that in order for us to have free will, the omniscience of God needs to be limited or at least self-limited in some way. I’m not clear how the reality of free will is consistent with God being able to see the future in perfect detail, and I’d rather doubt omniscience then doubt free will. To doubt free will, to my mind, is logically absurd, theologically dangerous, and false to our own experience.



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DS

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:29 am


When I was 10, all of my books were about fart jokes.
Captcha: flatulent literature (no, not really)



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meh

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:50 am


His idea was that new ideas exist in some sort of cloud computer land, floating out there as information that, under mysterious conditions, our brains can access. What seems to us like original thinking is actually the receiver that is our brain picking up information available in the cloud, in a morphic field.
Sounds kind of like science fiction author Philip K. Dick’s VALIS
VALIS is a 1981 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. The title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect of God.
This wasn’t just fiction for Phil, he took it seriously in his own life:
VALIS has been described as one node of an artificial satellite network originating from the star Sirius in the Canis Major constellation. According to Dick, the Earth satellite used “pink laser beams” to transfer information and project holograms on Earth and to facilitate communication between an extraterrestrial species and humanity. Dick claimed that VALIS used “disinhibiting stimuli” to communicate, using symbols to trigger recollection of intrinsic knowledge through the loss of amnesia, achieving gnosis. Drawing directly from Platonism and Gnosticism, Dick wrote in his Exegesis: “We appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction – a failure – of memory retrieval.”
At one point, Dick claimed to be in a state of enthousiasmos with VALIS, where he was informed his infant son was in danger of perishing from an unnamed malady. Routine checkups on the child had shown no trouble or illness; however, Dick insisted that thorough tests be run to ensure his son’s health. The doctor eventually complied, despite the fact that there were no apparent symptoms. During the examination doctors discovered an inguinal hernia, which would have killed the child if an operation was not quickly performed. His son survived thanks to the operation, which Dick attributed to the “intervention” of VALIS.
Another event was an episode of supposed xenoglossia. Supposedly, Dick’s wife transcribed the sounds she heard him speak, and discovered that he was speaking Koine Greek-the common Greek dialect during the Hellenistic years (3rd century BC-4th century AD) and direct “father” of today’s modern Greek language- which he had never studied. As Dick was to later discover, Koine Greek was originally used to write the New Testament and the Septuagint. However, this was not the first time Dick had claimed xenoglossia: A decade earlier, Dick insisted he was able to think, speak, and read fluent Latin under the influence of Sandoz LSD-25.
For further reference, check out crazy Phil’s Exegesis



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Mont D. Law

posted July 15, 2010 at 12:03 pm


“Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time.”
Get the child some Pratchett.



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Kristen

posted July 15, 2010 at 12:16 pm


It sounds like a good place to take this conversation with your son is for you to read St. Augustine’s “The Teacher” together. He wrote it as a conversation between his son and himself, and it deals in a more spiritual way with this question. I read it in college on a retreat with some professors (including Mark Mitchell, whom I think you know), and I consider it one of the most valuable and most formative books I ever read.



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Anonymous for this

posted July 15, 2010 at 1:54 pm


I don’t know about “morphic fields.” But I have an odd experience to share.
I had bought a piano. I only played by ear but wanted to try to learn to read music (never happened). One night I dreamed I was playing the melody line of the Beatles song “Yesterday.”
I woke up, went to the piano, put my fingers on the keys I’d been pressing in my dream, and played the melody line to “Yesterday” without missing a note.
Ok, coincidence, I play by ear, I’d heard it before, (though I’d never played it) etc. But here’s the weird part.
About a year later I was listening to the radio in the car. I wasn’t really playing attention, it was some kind of classic rock retrospective thing they were doing. The DJ said, “What famous song came to its author in a dream? We’ll tell you after the commercial.” I already guessed, and I was right–it was “Yesterday.” Mccartney dreamed the tune along with some strange words that he didn’t use.
So, I don’t know about morphic fields. But apparently the universe likes “Yesterday.”
[Captcha: styx of]



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Alicia

posted July 15, 2010 at 1:58 pm


meh, because I am an obsessed fan girl, I’m linking again to the EW “Lost” site:
http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20313460_20397424_10,00.html
“Valis” is one of the books that characters on the Island are seen reading, and it is listed as one of the influences on the creators of the series.
In addition to the “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” the Jungian concept of the Collective Unconscious may also be useful here. I also recall reading a book called “The Holographic Universe” that theorized that the Universe was like a vast hologram. Here is an interesting bit from the Wikipedia article on this concept:
…the only salient difference between the thermodynamic entropy of physics and the Shannon’s entropy of information is in the units of measure; the former is expressed in units of energy divided by temperature, the latter in essentially dimensionless “bits” of information, and so the difference is merely a matter of convention.
The holographic principle states that the entropy of ordinary mass (not just black holes) is also proportional to surface area and not volume; that volume itself is illusory and the universe is really a hologram which is isomorphic to the information “inscribed” on the surface of its boundary.”
The ideas expressed above, that “bits of information” might be dimensionless, and that the “volume” of the universe is illusory, seem very close to Matthew’s “morphic fields.”



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Matt Cardin

posted July 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm


Great post, great comments, fascinating conversation.
The overall tenor and direction make me think some of you would find Anthony Peake’s writings to be interesting, if you’re not already aware of him. He’s the British author who has caused something of a stir over the past handful of years with his “Cheating the Ferryman” theory, which posits that at the point of death we all enter a virtual reality type of experience of total recall of the life we just lived — and that in fact we’re all living in one or more versions of that reality right now. His theory hinges on the idea of a higher self, for which he borrows the classical term “Daemon,” that stands behind the subjective experience of individuated identity we’re each experiencing right now. It encompasses deja vu and other brain states, quantum physics, various paranormal this-and-that, and other things. He also refers to Philip K. Dick as a major illustration of his theory, and has received public responses from Dick’s widow, who disagrees a bit about Peake’s reading of her husband’s life but still finds it all fascinating enough to merit cordial attention.
As interesting as the theory itself is the amount of attention it has generated. Peake is rapidly becoming the new Colin Wilson. Just FYI.
Thanks again for the thought-provoking post, Rod.



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Alicia

posted July 15, 2010 at 2:42 pm


Hey, Matt, is Peake related to Mervyn Peake, by any chance?



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the stupid Chris

posted July 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm


Both Franklin and Alicia beat me to reference the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious.
What’s always interested me is how the zeitgeist informs creativity, not just in fiction but in science as well. The previously unthinkable becomes thinkable, then realizable often simultaneously in multiple locations.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm


In 2007, the Templeton Foundation held a symposium among scientists and scholars to discuss what it was about Budapest in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that produced such an extraordinary outpouring of geniuses, especially scientific and math geniuses. Hungary in the 20th century produced geniuses all out of proportion to the size of its population. Why? What the symposium concluded was that there was something to do with the educational system of the pre-WWI era (taken from the German model), the dynamism of the cultural interchange in Budapest, which was a Mitteleuropean crossroads, and the particulars of Budapest’s elite culture, especially Jewish culture, of the era. In the end, though, the symposium concluded that there’s no formula for this sort of thing. Outpourings of cognitive and creative genius sometime just happen.



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Anon Prof

posted July 15, 2010 at 5:23 pm


Franklin Evans wrote:
Is there a theoretical physicist in the house? ;-D
Will an astrophysicist do?
Actually, I’m the one who may need one. As I recall, the core of the “time paradox” is mathematical, and very simple: Space-time as a four-dimensional construct, with three dimensions (space) being represented as axes with a “sign” (positive and negative) attribute, becomes mathematically invalid if one refuses to allow the fourth dimension (time) to have the same “sign” attribute.
At first I thought you meant the “twin paradox”, but now I’m not so sure. What do you mean by the “time paradox”? Are you referring to the fact that there is no good theoretical basis for irreversibility? Folks have tried using entropy, but that doesn’t work for a bunch of reasons that are far too complicated to get into in a combox
Also, as I recall, quantum physics introduced asymetry, simulteneity, and other nifty “breakages” of Einsteinian theories like the speed of light.
No. Quantum mechanics has not introduced any breakages into either special relativity or general relativity. Special relativity is accounted for in the Dirac equation and relativistic corrections to spectra of atomic lines have been solved for decades. A self consistent description of quantum gravity has not yet been developed. This is what we are hoping the various flavors of m-theory bring us eventually.
One should not be surprised that they coined the term “chaos theory”, eh?
“Chaos theory” has nothing at all to do with either relativity or quantum mechanics. It is a reference to non-linear systems that are very sensitive to their initial conditions. Think of a double pendulum. The phase-space diagram is a mess, and this is a totally classical system. Chaos theory refers to purely classical systems that do not have closed analytic solutions and whose numerical solutions are extremely sensitive to the initial conditions.
Of course, just because we can write a formula doesn’t make it valid. Hence, the paradox. ;-)
Why is this a paradox?
“Quantum mechanics” is a useful mathematical formalism for describing molecular, atomic and subatomic phenomena. We can calculate very accurate spectra of all sorts of systems using this formalism. Whether it “means” anything particularly profound beyond its empirical predictions is doubtful. It does however, provide a fascinating case study for the underdetermination of science and the nature of scientific “truth”. James T. Cushing wrote an excellent history of the development of quantum mechanics title, “Historical Contingency and the Copenhagen Hegemony”. Antony Valentini recently finished a translation of the 1927 Solvoy conference proceedings that should be of interest to anyone wanting to see how science progresses and theories are selected. You can buy it from Cambridge Univ. Press, but it is also available for download (read free!) here:
http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0609184



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Anon Prof

posted July 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm


This thread brings to mind a previous discussion on this blog about “scientific literacy”. Physics students typically take three semesters of intro physics, one of modern physics and statistical physics, and two semesters each of modern lab, classical mechanics, electrodynamics, mathematical methods, and quantum mechanics. They then also take four advanced electives and 6-8 math courses. At this point, the best are prepared to go to graduate school and take two years of advanced course work. Some, though not all, will have taken electives in general relativity, quantum field theory, cosmology, and/or particle physics. Some fraction of these students then take a qualifier to determine whether they have a sufficient grasp of that material to do research on these topics (typically 50% of incoming grad students eventually earn a phd). Students go through a total of ~6 years of intense course work before they can begin exploring the cutting edge of quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, etc… It is rare for most of our students to do anything worth publishing as a first author for another two years into the program.
This is what it takes to become sufficiently “scientifically literate” in physics to have a meaningful opinion on research in one of the sub-fields of physics. I suspect that it is similar in other disciplines. The math may not be quite as exotic, but the knowledge base one must develop in order to be literate in a scientific field (by which I mean able to independently evaluate the quality of data, reliability of models, etc…) is staggering. This is why I am pretty sure that “scientific literacy” is a meaningless concept. At best it can mean absorbing the propaganda from various scientific popularizers (many of whom have a weak grasp of the material they are popularizing!). Scientific literacy cannot mean that one has the conceptual tools to intelligently opine on the safety of nuclear power, the meaning of quantum mechanics, the reliability of climate models, and the efficacy of vaccinations.
I’m not sure how to democratize scientific understanding or how to hold experts accountable to the public. This is a really tricky problem (particularly when contested values or big money is involved). I am absolutely certain that humility, faith, and integrity are crucial characteristics of healthy dialog between scientists and laypersons and we all have a lot to learn.



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Matt Cardin

posted July 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm


Alicia wrote:
> Hey, Matt, is Peake related to Mervyn Peake, by any chance?
No, there’s no relation I’m aware of, and I’ve even seen Tony Peake mention Mervyn Peake once in passing at his (Tony’s) forum, at http://www.anthonypeake.co.uk/forum. So I think it’s safe to say they’re not related, or if so, then only distantly.
I’ll second — or third or fourth, or whatever it is now — the references to Jung that have shown up in other comments here. CJ’s basic ideas are quite relevant to the subject at hand.



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Jillian

posted July 15, 2010 at 6:43 pm


The central doctrine of magic may now be summed up thus:—
(1) That a supersensible and real “cosmic medium” exists, which interpenetrates, influences, and supports the tangible and apparent world, and is amenable to the categories both of philosophy and of physics.
(2) That there is an established analogy and equilibrium between the real and unseen world, and the illusory manifestations which we call the world of sense.
(3) That this analogy may be discerned, and this equilibrium controlled, by the disciplined will of man, which thus becomes master of itself and of fate.
–Evelyn Underhill, “Mysticism and Magic”
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/underhill/mysticism.iii.vii.html
Rupert Sheldrake is not a “heretical scientist”, he’s a pretty classic case of a person in science wandering off and becoming an occultist aka pseudoscientist. The part of Underhill’s chapter about the Astral Plane and Astral Light captures his “morphic fields” rather exactly.
captcha ‘imposition is’



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Franklin Evans

posted July 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm


Anon Prof, thank you for correcting me, and for your patience.
My poorly phrased attempt to express the “time paradox” was really just a mathematician’s lament (I’m a software engineer, so my mathematical “literacy” doesn’t get very far past Algebra II and complex algorithms). It’s Descartes before the horse: if three dimensions have signs, how the heck can you expect us to believe a fourth one that prohibits it? ;-)
As for the “breakages”, I really do need to catch up. I thought (for example) that recent experiments indicated that particles could travel faster than c under certain circumstances. Was that observation error, or is there something valid seeping out of my sieve-like memory? Again, thanks. :-)



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Jon

posted July 15, 2010 at 7:23 pm


That your son is reading Sheldrake’s works at so young an age is surprising. They are well-written books not overly technical, but they do presume a certain amount of familiarity with science and philosophy. I read them in my freshman year of college and had no difficulty with them, but I wonder how many college freshman even have the necessary background to understand them.
Hope to comment more later– I am having a bit of a crisis right now as I have discovered that my credit card number is being used fraudulently in British Columbia and my debit card number is being used fraudulently in the UK– weird and ugly coincidence.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 15, 2010 at 7:34 pm


To be sure, I’d be very surprised if Matthew understood much of that Sheldrake — and I say that as someone who has only dipped into Sheldrake. He is a very fast reader, though, much, much faster than I am. I’ve never seen anything like it. He took “Crunchy Cons” off the shelf yesterday, never having read it, and put the whole thing away in half an hour. I thought he was putting me on, so I asked him questions that he could only have known if he’d read deeply into it. He answered them. Two years ago, I saw him devour an entire Harry Potter novel in a single day. I don’t know how he dies it.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 15, 2010 at 8:45 pm


Sounds like Matthew has eidetic memory. If that’s accurate, his comprehension will be limited only by his vocabulary, with a plateau at some point where he will start getting first-time words from context. Pattern recognition talent is very useful with language. If he’s also able to absorb across the horizontal and/or vertical scope of his vision, we may all be breathing his dust, and rather soon.



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Anon Prof

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm


Hi Franklin,
You might be thinking about the apparent superluminal motion of quasars:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superluminal_motion
Another possibility is that you are thinking about quantum entanglement being used to transport information faster than light. It turns out this does not violate the no-signaling theorem. One way to think about it is to consider the case of a white and black marble. If I slip one marble in your pocket and the other into mine, we can travel to opposite sides of the universe and as soon as you peek in your pocket, you “immediately” know what marble I have in my pocket (but clearly I didn’t communicate that to you across the universe). More sophisticated versions of such entanglement can give the illusion of sending info faster than light, but it doesn’t violate the no-signaling theorem.
Quantum tunneling is a phenomenon you might have heard of that allows particles to be transported faster than light. You can read more about that here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faster-than-light#Quantum_mechanics
I’m sure these aren’t the most satisfying explanations, but its the best I can do in a combox. The wiki entry should keep you busy for awhile.
Captcha: comet best



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Anon Prof

posted July 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm


One more thing… Here is a pretty interesting press release on theoretical work related to explaining the arrow of time:
http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/25430/



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Franklin Evans

posted July 16, 2010 at 9:17 am


Thanks, Anon Prof. I particularly enjoyed (in a fascinated by the train wreck way) the discussion following the TR blog entry.
I encourage all the readers to read it. Most may not have the science vocabulary to follow it very well, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but that also means you can look the words up and learn something about the inner workings of science and why outside observers sometimes experience a loss of trust. They’re all humans (dammit Jim! I’m a human, not a physicist!), they have human frailties and faults, and they let emotions cloud their scientific judgment as much as the next human, trained in science or not.
One phrase in the comments made me laugh: Star Trek voodoo physics! Considering the apparent ubiquity of belief in cartoon physics amongst the drivers who “share” my commute routes to and from work, the horse has left the barn and Elvis really isn’t coming back into the building. I just hope I survive (my commutes) long enough to see us make the first, valid step towards practical, interstellar travel.



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IrraliTrags

posted April 10, 2013 at 12:07 am


The next time I read a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as considerably as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I really thought youd have some thing fascinating to say. All I hear is often a bunch of whining about something that you could fix in the event you werent too busy looking for attention.

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