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Philosophy & Science / Could fecal transplants help treat mental illness?
« on: September 16, 2019, 04:23:01 am »
Could fecal transplants help treat mental illness?

Liz Tung

One startling new study even found that transferring gut microbes from people with schizophrenia into germ-free mice can cause schizophrenia-like symptoms. (Microbes from healthy controls had no such effect in the mice.) The same study found what could be the mechanism for that change: dysfunction of the affected mice’s glutamate system, which is thought to be implicated in schizophrenia.

“So it shows that it could be a cause, but at the very least a strong contributing factor, that’s coming from the microbes that the person carries with them,” Julio Licinio, the study’s co-author, said.

Licinio added that the significance to this finding is that changing the microbes could have a therapeutic effect on subjects’ behavior, offering a new avenue for treatment.

The study also offers one more piece of evidence that microbiomes don’t just reflect mental illness, but could actually be causing mental illness.

“There is a possibility that there are some microbes that are very specific to mental illness,” Licinio said. “It would be a huge finding if that’s confirmed.”

Licinio added that this hasn’t been proven yet, but evidence so far points to the idea that there are at least some microbes that are specific to people with mental illness.

“So we are still being a little cautious because we don’t want to, you know, say, ‘Oh, this is the biggest breakthrough,’ and it’s not proven yet. But it seems to be the case that there are at least some microbes that are very specific to people with mental illness.”

Philosophy & Science / A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked
« on: September 11, 2019, 04:18:19 am »
A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked

From a bird’s-eye view, all these cases of noisy data look like any other noise, devoid of pattern. But it occurred to Schurger that if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach, the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks). There would be no purpose behind these apparent trends—no prior plan to cause a storm or bolster the market. Really, the pattern would simply reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.

“I thought, Wait a minute,” Schurger says. If he applied the same method to the spontaneous brain noise he studied, what shape would he get?  “I looked at my screen, and I saw something that looked like the Bereitschaftspotential.” Perhaps, Schurger realized, the Bereitschaftspotential’s rising pattern wasn’t a mark of a brain’s brewing intention at all, but something much more circumstantial.

Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.

But Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

Other recent studies support the idea of the Bereitschaftspotential as a symmetry-breaking signal. In a study of monkeys tasked with choosing between two equal options, a separate team of researchers saw that a monkey’s upcoming choice correlated with its intrinsic brain activity before the monkey was even presented with options.

In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

When Schurger first proposed the neural-noise explanation, in 2012, the paper didn’t get much outside attention, but it did create a buzz in neuroscience. Schurger received awards for overturning a long-standing idea. “It showed the Bereitschaftspotential may not be what we thought it was. That maybe it’s in some sense artifactual, related to how we analyze our data,” says Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University.

For a paradigm shift, the work met minimal resistance. Schurger appeared to have unearthed a classic scientific mistake, so subtle that no one had noticed it and no amount of replication studies could have solved it, unless they started testing for causality. Now, researchers who questioned Libet and those who supported him are both shifting away from basing their experiments on the Bereitschaftspotential. (The few people I found still holding the traditional view confessed that they had not read Schurger’s 2012 paper.)

“It’s opened my mind,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London who collaborated with Libet and reproduced the original experiments.

It’s still possible that Schurger is wrong. Researchers broadly accept that he has deflated Libet’s model of Bereitschaftspotential, but the inferential nature of brain modeling leaves the door cracked for an entirely different explanation in the future. And unfortunately for popular-science conversation, Schurger’s groundbreaking work does not solve the pesky question of free will any more than Libet’s did. If anything, Schurger has only deepened the question.

Is everything we do determined by the cause-and-effect chain of genes, environment, and the cells that make up our brain, or can we freely form intentions that influence our actions in the world? The topic is immensely complicated, and Schurger’s valiant debunking underscores the need for more precise and better-informed questions.

Philosophy & Science / The Quantum of Life?
« on: September 07, 2019, 11:01:53 pm »
The Quantum of Life?

A number of recent scientific papers, some of which are listed in the “references” section below, have addressed the concept of a living universe. Let’s imagine for a moment that they are right. What would this mean for astrobiology’s perspective on the origin and nature of life, and for its exploration? 

Our ability to characterize nature relies on our capacity to question it, which depends in part on the technology available at any given period of time. It also relies on the human mind, which is notoriously poor at grasping holistic perspectives and better at dividing objects of inquiry into intellectually chewable bites. Too often, we overlook that our own limitations, not nature, generate isolating boxes, definitions and boundaries.

With time, the boxes become the entire landscape when they were simply meant to be pieces of a puzzle that connect with one another. These boxes shape and challenge our approach to scientific questioning, the development of intellectual frameworks, the boldness of our hypotheses, and our perspectives. They set artificial boundaries of where answers can be found, but also their nature and scope.

The search for the origin and nature of life epitomizes this challenge. It is the ultimate thought experiment, one in which we are fully immersed, like drops of water wondering about the ocean, struggling to define our own boundaries, when there may be none. It could be that the definition of a drop is variable, the answer possibly residing more in the changing nature of the ocean at any given time than in a true separation of the part from the whole. Maybe the drop is the ability of the ocean to infinitely shape-shift.

Is the absence of a consensus for the definition of life a reflection of methodological and technical limitations, constrained intellectual frameworks—or both? Science is without a doubt increasingly better at characterizing what life does with each passing day but brings comparatively fewer advances to the identification of what life is and how it originates. In that respect, the current exploration of the question of life could be compared to plumbing, which masters piping, cares about the interactions between the water and the pipes but does not touch on the origin and nature of water.

Is it because the answer resides at scales and resolutions technology cannot yet achieve, or is it that life is the result of exotic physicochemical processes yet to be discovered—or none of those things? Maybe the issue does not reside so much here, but rather in the way we approach the question itself, which is the result of how we are conditioned to think. It may be that life actually is what life does, that the answer has been in front of us all along, so obvious that we just don’t recognize it because our intellectual frameworks do not allow the space for us to see it.

Astrobiology expresses this challenge in its strategic vision through key questions: What is life? How will we know when we have found it? Can we draw a boundary between prebiotic chemistry and life? The first two questions speak about the fundamental nature of life, and our ability to recognize it beyond Earth when we still cannot clearly define it on our own planet. The last one inquires about the separation between living and nonliving, opening a space to discuss whether the passage from prebiotic chemistry to life is a transition or a stochastic shift.

Theories of consciousness and how consciousness relates to neural/homolog systems are being developed in the fields of physics, cognitive sciences and information theory. While their perspective is different from biocentrism, they provide pathways to explore the interaction between life, environment and the universe, and the relationship between life and consciousness. With consciousness shaping our perception of the environment and the universe, integrating information, organizing and interacting with it, and possibly transforming it, some of these theories, including biocentrism, bring the origin and nature of life to the quantum level.

Although they still need to be proven falsifiable, such theories invite us to shift our perception and consider what would happen to astrobiology’s questions when addressed from this viewpoint. If verified, a “theory of everything” takes life’s origin to the beginning of the universe. Because it involves interactions at the quantum level, it may also mean a theory of everywhere, in which the separation between living and nonliving is not a fundamental difference of nature between them, but a difference in the amount of energy and complexity of information that is being integrated, organized, stored, transformed and exchanged at any single moment. What separates living from nonliving is only the limit of our own awareness of these interactions.

In that frame of reference, Gaia is not a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by the biota anymore but a conscious symbiosis at a planetary scale. Coevolution is not what happens when life comes into being. It merely defines the threshold of our awareness of life’s ability to shape the universe.

For centuries, the notion of a conscious universe has rested as an exercise in philosophy (panpsychism). These recent works based on scientific observations and experiments blur the boundaries between the humanities, biology, information technology, cognitive sciences and cosmology. Most importantly, they shift the frame of reference for exploration.

The search for life beyond Earth is not so much a search anymore if everything we are, we live on, interact with and observe is alive. Rather, it becomes an exploration of life’s expression of diversity and complexity– not in the universe but by the universe, and a search on how to connect and exchange information with it.

Philosophy & Science / Dementia Made a New Man Out of My Dad
« on: September 06, 2019, 03:35:21 pm »
Dementia Made a New Man Out of My Dad

Raised in Apartheid-era South Africa, my mixed-race father had no shortage of scars. But as dementia overpowered his brain, I met a man I never knew existed.

It was a moment of pure delight. My dad got up from his recliner next to the big picture window in the sitting room of my parents’ house. The music that we always played caught his ear, and for some reason he closed his eyes and started to move to the music. “At first, I didn’t know what he was doing,” Mom said to me afterward. There he was, hands by his sides, smiling, and dancing slowly. Mom and I were thrilled. To say this was out of character for my dad would be quite an understatement. Dad had never been one to give way to his feelings or express much emotion. He always seemed to be guided by a fear that others would judge him as somehow wanting, less than others. But here he was just responding to how the music made him feel. Pure and simple.

They say you should always look for a silver lining in dark times. I would have never thought that dementia – the darkest of clouds – could even produce a glimmer of one. Turns out, I was wrong.

These experiences helped to intensify my dad’s feelings of inadequacy and insecurity throughout his life. He was a perfectionist and, frustratingly, Dad always wanted to be right. The end result was someone who was emotionally distant.

But amidst the distress of dementia, in his mind, doors gently closed, locking away memories and feelings that had plagued him throughout his life. It was astounding how his longstanding feelings of failure seemed to dislodge and slip away, how he gradually emerged from his shell.

I noticed it the first time I visited after my dad had fallen ill. I remember when he greeted me at the top of the stairs, he proceeded to give me a hug. I’m not sure what I was thinking beyond shock. Hugging my dad of old was always like hugging a rock – no response.

But not this time.

Do Plants Have Something to Say? One Scientist is Listening

Ellie Shechet

Monica Gagliano says that she has received Yoda-like advice from trees and shrubbery. She recalls being rocked like a baby by the spirit of a fern. She has ridden on the back of an invisible bear conjured by an osha root. She once accidentally bent space and time while playing the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, in a redwood forest. “Oryngham,” she says, means “thank you” in plant language. These interactions have taken place in dreams, visions, songs and telekinetic interactions, sometimes with the help of shamans or ayahuasca.

This has all gone on around the same time as Dr. Gagliano’s scientific research, which has broken boundaries in the field of plant behavior and signaling. Currently at the University of Sydney in Australia, she has published a number of studies that support the view that plants are, to some extent, intelligent. Her experiments suggest that they can learn behaviors and remember them. Her work also suggests that plants can “hear” running water and even produce clicking noises, perhaps to communicate.

Plants have directly shaped her experiments and career path. In 2012, she says, an oak tree assured her that a risky grant application — proposing research on sound communication in plants — would be successful. “You are here to tell our stories,” the tree told her.

I can with great effort make out what some of the research is saying, but it is interesting that anesthesia is a mystery that could connect quantum biology to the Hard Problem in an evidential as opposed to merely philosophically speculative sense.

Hameroff in 2006:

The Entwined Mysteries of Anesthesia and Consciousness: Is There a Common Underlying Mechanism?

Field theories gave way to computer analogies, but zero-phase-lag γ synchrony has rekindled collective field approaches to binding and consciousness. Some theories suggest complex, brain-wide electromagnetic fields generated by neural electrophysiology manifest binding and consciousness.93 But neuronal-based electromagnetic fields are shunted by glia and too weak to account for long-range coherence.26,27

An important clue may be that anesthetic gases are the only pharmacologic agents that act without forming covalent or ionic bonds with their targets (as far as their nonpolar effects are concerned). Relatively selective in affecting consciousness while sparing other brain activities, anesthetic gases act via  London forces which are quantum interactions.

Quantum implies the smallest units of matter and energy, but at the quantum level (e.g.  , atomic and subatomic scales), the laws of physics differ strangely from our everyday “classical” world. Quantum particles (1) can interconnect nonlocally and correlate instantaneously over distance (quantum entanglement, long-range dipole correlations), (2) can unify into single entities (quantum coherence, condensation), and also (3) can behave as waves and exist in two or more states or locations simultaneously (quantum superposition). When superpositioned particles are measured or observed, they immediately reduce to single, definite states or locations, known as quantum state reduction or “collapse of the wave function.” Superposition and quantum state reduction are used in quantum computers in which information (e.g.  , bits of 1 or 0) may be temporarily represented as quantum information (e.g.  , quantum bits, or qubits, of both 1 and 0), which reduces to classical information as output.94

It is generally assumed that quantum effects are confined to atomic scales, but the boundary between quantum and classical domains is ill-defined, and quantum effects can occur at macroscopic sizes.

Hameroff in 2018 (note 2014 was the year Orch-OR got a major prediction apparently correct):

Anesthetics act in quantum channels in brain microtubules to prevent consciousness

“Quantum consciousness” theories suggest that entanglement, coherence, and quantum computing occur in the brain, offering potential solutions to challenges in cognitive neuroscience, e.g., the “binding problem.” In conscious vision, perceptual information for an object’s shape, color, motion, and meaning is processed at different times in different areas of visual cortex (V1, V2, V3, and so forth). Yet somehow, the disparate content is “bound together” in unified scenes, e.g., a red kite flapping in the wind. More generally, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and visual sensory modalities, along with memory and feelings, all apparently processed in different brain locations at different times, are also bound together, integrated, in unified conscious perceptions. (Indeed, Mashour2 has suggested “unbinding” as the key effect of anesthetic action.) Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”—entanglement—may quite literally bind and integrate disparate brain content into unified conscious moments, like frames in a film or video. Sequences of such moments can give rise to our familiar stream of consciousness.

But anesthetic action suggests consciousness also involves electron cloud dipole pairs. Such pairs have integer spin numbers and are “bosons,” which disobey the Pauli exclusion principle and can condense into unitary coherent states. The relationship between (nuclear spin) fermions and (electron pair) bosons is unclear. Perhaps the rotational force of nuclear spin magnetic moments (torque) “tunes” or pumps quantum electromechanical activity in neuronal membrane and/or microtubule proteins to increase their vibrational frequency, the opposite of anesthetic dampening, and thus “promote” consciousness.

Quantum consciousness theories portray the brain as a multiscale hierarchy originating in quantum vibrational states at small, fast scales inside proteins in the neuronal membrane and/or cytoskeleton. These may amplify and resonate upward over many orders of magnitude (figs. 1 and 2). Rather than a computer, the brain may be more like an orchestra; rather than a computational output, consciousness may be more like music.

Philosophy & Science / What’s bad about this habit [in physics]
« on: September 01, 2019, 02:08:54 pm »
What’s bad about this habit

N. David Mermin

Space and time and spacetime are not properties of the world we live in but concepts we have invented to help us organize classical events.  Notions like dimension or interval, or curvature or geodesics,  are  properties not of the world we live in but of the abstract geometric constructions we have invented to help us organize events. As Einstein once again put it, “Space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions under which we live.”In some ways the point may also be easiest to see  in  quantum physics,where time and space refer ultimately to the time and place at which information is acquired or, if you prefer,  at which a measurement is made.

In my youth I had little sympathy for Niels Bohr’s philosophical pronouncements. In a review of Bohr’s philosophical writings I said that “one wants to shake the author vigorously and demand that he explain himself further or at least try harder to paraphrase some of his earlier formulations.” But in my declining years, I’ve come to realize that buried in those ponderous documents are some real gems: “In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience,” and “Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods for ordering and surveying human experience.”

I’m suggesting that this characterization of physics by Bohr is as true of classical physics as it is of quantum physics. It’s just that in classical physics we were able to persuade ourselves that the abstractions we developed to order and survey our experience were themselves a part of that experience. Quantum mechanics has brought home to us the necessity of separating that irreducibly real experience from the remarkable, beautiful, and highly abstract superstructure we have found to tie it all together.

Philosophy & Science / JF Martel: Rambling on the Real
« on: August 31, 2019, 03:43:19 pm »
Rambling on the Real

"The Real is the excess that makes every Weltanschauung we super-apes construct necessarily limited and ultimately inadequate. We never get to the bottom of things. We never arrive at the final truth. There is always something that eludes us. The concept of the Real is predicated on the notion that reality exceeds the capacities of human reason — absolutely.

Compare the way people conceived the cosmos in the Middle Ages with the way we conceive it today. Here are some pretty incommensurable differences. Some might argue that the medievals were dead wrong about the world and that we today are right. But then, medieval people laughed at the naivety of the pagans who dwelt in metaphysical ignorance before the birth of Christ. Nor is it very difficult to imagine that people living three or four hundred years from today will laugh at us for our current beliefs. As Richard Grossinger puts it in Dark Pool of Light, “the universe is overdetermined.” It is too rich, too complex, too deep, too alien for the human mind to grasp in its totality. The gap between what goes on in our cogitations and what actually is is unbridgeable, even as it moves, shifts, expands, and contracts. That gap is the Real.

Picture the following scene, a cartoon cliché. You’re standing on a darkened street corner at night. Suddenly an immense form appears on the brick wall ahead, a terrible, monstrous shadow cast by something coming around the corner. When the creature casting the shadow finally appears, it turns out to be an inoffensive kitten. The whole thing was a trick of the light.

Now, according to our conventional way of seeing things, the part of the scene where “truth" is revealed is the moment when the kitten shows itself. It’s at that point that you realize that the monstrous shadow was an illusion, that what was actually coming towards you was in fact the most mundane, benign, and knowable of God’s creatures. Yet if we entertain the concept of the Real I’ve just outlined, things change. The moment you were closest to “truth” — the moment you were most in touch with the Real — was in the interval during which you did not know what you were looking at. For then the monstrous shadow pointed you to a zone of potentiality with which you are not familiar, an open space between the little world you think you know and the big, real, unknowable world. What I mean to say here is that it is in moments of uncertainty, when we don’t know what we’re looking at, that we are epistemologically aligned with the true nature of existence."

Philosophy & Science / Quantum Gravity Could Reverse Cause and Effect
« on: August 29, 2019, 03:50:08 am »
Quantum Gravity Could Reverse Cause and Effect

Stephanie Pappas

Quantum time

The famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment asks a viewer to imagine a box holding a cat and a radioactive particle, which, once decayed, will kill the unfortunate feline. By the principle of quantum superposition, the cat's survival or death is equally likely until measured — so until the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. In quantum mechanics, superposition means that a particle can exist in multiple states at the same time, just like Schrödinger's cat.

The new thought experiment, published Aug. 21 in the journal Nature Communications, combines the principle of quantum superposition with Einstein's theory of general relativity. General relativity says that the mass of a giant object can slow down time. This is well established as true and measurable, Pikovski said; an astronaut orbiting Earth will experience time just a smidge faster than his or her twin back on the planet. (This is also why falling into a black hole would be a very gradual experience.)

Thus, if a futuristic spacecraft were near a massive planet, its crew would experience time as a little bit slower than would people in a fellow spacecraft stationed farther away. Now, throw in a little quantum mechanics, and you can imagine a situation in which that planet is superpositioned simultaneously near to and far away from the two spacecraft.

Time gets weird

In this superpositioned scenario of two ships experiencing time on different timelines, cause and effect could get wonky. For example, say the ships are asked to conduct a training mission in which they fire at each other and dodge each other's fire, knowing full well the time the missiles will launch and intercept their positions. If there's no massive planet nearby messing with time's flow, this is a simple exercise. On the other hand, if that massive planet were present and the ship's captain didn't take the slowing of time into account, the crew might dodge too late and be destroyed.

With the planet in superposition, simultaneously near and far, it would be impossible to know whether the ships would dodge too late and destroy each other or whether they would move aside and survive. What's more, cause and effect could be reversed, Pikovski said. Imagine two events, A and B, that are causally related.

"A and B can influence each other, but in one case A is before B, while in the other case B is before A" in a superposition state, Pikovski said. That means that both A and B are simultaneously the cause and effect of each other. Fortunately for the likely-confused crews of these imaginary spacecraft, Pikovski said, they would have a mathematical way to analyze each other's transmissions to confirm that they were in a superpositioned state.

Obviously, in real life, planets don't move around the galaxy willy-nilly. But the thought experiment could have practical implications for quantum computing, even without working out an entire theory of quantum gravity, Pikovski said. By using superpositions in computations, a quantum-computing system could simultaneously evaluate a process as a cause and as an effect.

"Quantum computers may be able to use this for more efficient computation," he said.

Philosophy & Science / The Case Against the Case Against Free Will
« on: August 27, 2019, 04:53:57 am »
The Case Against the Case Against Free Will


My aim in this paper is to demonstrate that those who believe that they have mounted a decisive, logically and scientifically based case against the existence of a human capability to engage in deliberate action, and thus that there is "no such thing as free will", have not in fact done so. It is to argue that, certainly at the present historical moment and perhaps in principle, there is no strong reason to distrust our experience in the matter of whether or not we possess the ability to make genuine choices. In part 1 of the paper, I state what I have observed to be the standard arguments in favor of causal determinism of human behavior, with an emphasis on the determinist principle itself and on the experimental work of Benjamin Libet and John Dylan-Haynes. In parts 2 and 3, I present a series of counterarguments which, taken collectively, militate strongly against the soundness of the hard determinist position regarding human behavior and its purported scientific foundation.

Nature Loves to Hide: An Interview with Paul S. McDonald

You write “to adumbrate such an alternative history is not an endorsement of any kind of perennial philosophy or pristine wisdom tradition.” Would it be fair to say, however, that you are revealing how deeply influential this alternative stream has been?

First, it’s important to distinguish between perennial philosophy and pristine wisdom, a distinction emphasized by several contemporary scholars. Those who advocate perennial philosophy hold that there is one original, ancient form of wisdom which appears again and again in every age, though dressed up under different guises. The historian Charles Schmitt said that this perennial idea “puts emphasis on the continuity of valid knowledge through all periods of history. It does not believe that knowledge has ever been lost for centuries, but believes that it can surely be found in each period, albeit sometimes in attenuated form.” The tradition of pristine wisdom (or philosophy) also holds that there is one original, ancient form of wisdom but that it has been hidden from public view, lost and buried or kept secret for various reasons; the seekers’ quest is to find this cache of knowledge, decode it if necessary, and then share it with one’s fellows. The standard history of philosophy began with and developed questions about the relation between how things appear to us and how they really are; then the question how it is that the real world came to be the way it appears, who or what made it that way; and then further, how it is that we can know about the way things really are. In contrast, an alternative history of philosophy has always been more concerned with questions about the nature and powers of the human soul, how to train and discipline this inner power, how to manipulate ‘secret’ words and objects to assist in this quest, and methods to achieve higher stages of knowledge in order for the soul to return to its source. Alt-thinkers’ metaphysics made constant reference to the hidden correspondences between the great world and the small world, the visible and the invisible, an inner nature and its “signature”; their theory of language is one centred on decoding these sacred signs; their theory of mind is one centred on training the human soul to ascend to higher states.

You discuss the influence of alchemy and Plotinus on Berkeley, the influence of Swedenborg on Kant, and the influence of The Chemical Wedding and Vaughan’s Anthroposophy on Goethe. What made this alternative current, long neglected, nevertheless a powerful artistic and cultural catalyst?

One of the most basic presuppositions of the alternative view is that reality is dynamic, the cosmos is an animate organism, guided by divine intelligence, a spark of which humans participate in. This is in stark contrast with view that reality consists of material bodies in motion, under the sway of mechanical laws. Further, Hermetic-alchemical thinking is deeply, inextricably visual, lending itself to many types of illustration, in charts, diagrams, talismans, etc.; intense visual imagery is tied up with their espousal of the creative imagination, something which, of course, appeals to writers, artist and creatives. Between the physical and intelligible is the imaginal domain which can be accessed in night-dreams, daylight-visions, hypnagogic states; it is an altered mentality cultivated by artists and writers and seers.
Alternative thinkers such as Böhme, Swedenborg, Pessoa, and P. K. Dick report that they received visions in a “flash” or stroke of light, the blink of an eye; ecstasy, rapture and other altered states, though not actually pursued, are often thematic elements of their approach. Alt- thinkers assumed an operative concept of language that treats words and names as bound to the things they signify; on their view nothing is arbitrary, nothing is relative, nothing is conventional; knowledge of the names of things confers power over those things; there are deep and abiding connections between the sound (or shape) of words and what they refer to. Again, amongst the basic tenets of the Hermetic worldview is an ineradicable commitment to the immortality of the human soul; physical death in the flesh is not an end but a portal to another existence, an alternate state which one has to be prepare for. An individual does not have to consider his/her life as a role assigned by birth or fate; it can be the product of self-fashioning, it can be treated as an artistic endeavour, and that is something that artists and creatives already believe in.

You point out that Hegel’s library included Agrippa, Böhme, Bruno, and Paracelsus, and that “Hegel aligned himself, informally, with Hermetic societies such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians.” You describe his classic The Phenomenology of Spirit as “Hegel’s initiatory experience. It is Hegel’s Eleusis, it is his Bacchanalian revel.” And you remind us “Eric Voegelin claims that Hegel’s thought belongs to the continuous history of modern Hermeticism, and refers to the Phenomenology of Spirit as “a grimoire.” How did Hegel escape the dismissal other Hermetic authors suffered?

Despite the strong presence of Hermetic ideas in some of Hegel’s works, his speculations exploded into areas rarely considered by Hermeticists before: ontology, ethics, politics, aesthetics, and history. Hegel remains important and relevant to contemporary concerns for several reasons: his concept of Geist (usually translated as Spirit) refers to a complex system of mutually interlinked agents, a virtual organism or living entity, which moved through various stages on its progress towards realization. He thought that he had gone beyond the traditional opposition of subject and object to a fully integrated aggregate of agents, with their history, culture and values. In doing so he brought into consideration, for philosophical and psychological purposes, distinct patterns of social interaction and reciprocal recognition. Hegel is the last great system-builder whose principles encompass every aspect of philosophical theory. His fundamental model of the dialectical structure of Reason means that there is constant movement in the appearance of thesis-antithesis-synthesis: something holds in place, brings about its own negation, and then yields a resolution of the conflicted states. Many features of Hegel’s thought had a profound influence on subsequent philosophers: Marx’s political economy, the late Sartre’s dialectical reason, French post-modernism, as well as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – though the latter are mainly dismissive and sarcastic. Hegel bequeathed to all these thinkers (and others) the central concept of human alienation: people often feel discontent with their circumstances, as well as within themsleves, divorced from their own basic desires and labour, and this can lead to over-turning, trying to replace that-which-is in order to create a new solution. His concept of ethics rejects absolute principles, timeless moral codes, in favour of a social consensus appropriate to a given society’s historical development. There are several notions more-or-less invented by Hegel which became key themes for the Existentialists: alienation, authenticity, historicity, the master-slave relation, and the collective struggle for a better community. An insightful article on some of Hegel’s lasting ideas, by Chris Christensen, was published in Philosophy Now magazine in Issue 129 (Dec. 2018-Jan. 2019) – it’s highly recommended.

Philosophy & Science / The Universal Law That Aims Time’s Arrow
« on: August 15, 2019, 12:42:41 pm »
The Universal Law That Aims Time’s Arrow

This gradual spreading of matter and energy, called “thermalization,” aims the arrow of time. But the fact that time’s arrow is irreversible, so that hot coffee cools down but never spontaneously heats up, isn’t written into the underlying laws that govern the motion of the molecules in the coffee. Rather, thermalization is a statistical outcome: The coffee’s heat is far more likely to spread into the air than the cold air molecules are to concentrate energy into the coffee, just as shuffling a new deck of cards randomizes the cards’ order, and repeat shuffles will practically never re-sort them by suit and rank. Once coffee, cup and air reach thermal equilibrium, no more energy flows between them, and no further change occurs. Thus thermal equilibrium on a cosmic scale is dubbed the “heat death of the universe.”

But while it’s easy to see where thermalization leads (to tepid coffee and eventual heat death), it’s less obvious how the process begins. “If you start far from equilibrium, like in the early universe, how does the arrow of time emerge, starting from first principles?” said Jürgen Berges, a theoretical physicist at Heidelberg University in Germany who has studied this problem for more than a decade.

These conditions would have occurred right after “cosmic inflation” — the explosive expansion of space thought by many cosmologists to have jump-started the Big Bang. Inflation would have blasted away any existing particles, leaving only the uniform energy of space itself: a perfectly smooth, dense, oscillating field of energy known as a “condensate.” Berges modeled this condensate in 2008 with collaborators Alexander Rothkopf and Jonas Schmidt, and they discovered that the first stages of its evolution should have exhibited fractal-like universal scaling. “You find that when this big condensate decayed into the particles that we observe today, that this process can be very elegantly described by a few numbers,” he said.

It seems that as a system begins to evolve, key details, like its symmetries, are retained and become encoded in the scaling exponents dictating its fractal evolution, while other details, like the initial configuration of its particles or the interactions between them, become irrelevant to its behavior, scrambled among its particles.

And this scrambling process happens very early indeed. In their papers this spring, Berges, Gasenzer and their collaborators independently described prescaling for the first time, a period before universal scaling that their papers predicted for nuclear collisions and ultracold atoms, respectively. Prescaling suggests that when a system first evolves from its initial, far-from-equilibrium condition, scaling exponents don’t yet perfectly describe it. The system retains some of its previous structure — remnants of its initial configuration. But as prescaling progresses, the system assumes a more universal form in space and time, essentially obscuring irrelevant information about its own past. If this idea is borne out by future experiments, prescaling may be the nocking of time’s arrow onto the bowstring.

Philosophy & Science / Is the Cell Really a Machine?
« on: August 12, 2019, 06:40:39 pm »
Is the Cell Really a Machine?

It has become customary to conceptualize the living cell as an intricate piece of machinery, different to a man-made machine only in terms of its superior complexity. This familiar understanding grounds the conviction that a cell's organization can be explained reductionistically, as well as the idea that its molecular pathways can be construed as deterministic circuits. The machine conception of the cell owes a great deal of its success to the methods traditionally used in molecular biology.

However, the recent introduction of novel experimental techniques capable of tracking individual molecules within cells in real time is leading to the rapid accumulation of data that are inconsistent with an engineering view of the cell. This paper examines four major domains of current research in which the challenges to the machine conception of the cell are particularly pronounced: cellular architecture, protein complexes, intracellular transport, and cellular behaviour. It argues that a new theoretical understanding of the cell is emerging from the study of these phenomena which emphasizes the dynamic, self-organizing nature of its constitution, the fluidity and plasticity of its components, and the stochasticity and non-linearity of its underlying processes.

RPG Discussion / Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition
« on: August 10, 2019, 10:22:39 pm »
It's under CCL, so here's a copy.

But if you want to buy a copy to support the RPG, go to DriveThruRPG.

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