What does “exist” mean? God, ether, Hamlet, and Endo’s Silence

I have wrung permission from the modest gentleman Hi to post his long comment (in reply to mine about God)  as a “guest post,” partly because it got buried in my spam filter for two weeks but mostly because it raises so honestly the most genuinely difficult issues this weblog was established to address.  I don’t know all the answers to Hi’s acute questions, but I do know that I’ve worked on these same questions most of my life. I also know that everybody in the world should read the book Hi mentions, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. (Go do that and then come back here to discuss it?) So here is Hi, a molecular biologist who has alerted us to lots of issues in the history of physics and to Reading Lolita in Tehran among other things


Hi writes: I have been having trouble posting my comment for the last several days. I try again, although it may be better if it doesn’t appear.

I see a parallel between god and ether. Ether was an idea that used to be firmly believed. But the simplest idea of ether was not compatible with Michelson-Morley experiment nor Maxwell’s equations. Something had to give. A seemingly nice solution would be to tinker the concept of ether, namely by introducing Lorentz transformation. Now they had ether that was compatible with the experiment. That was until Einstein pointed out that the modified version of ether was no longer meaningful.

So, on one hand there was the old version of ether that would have been meaningful had it been compatible with the experiments. On the other there was the new version of ether that was compatible with the experiments, but was reduced to be meaningless. It was not possible to be both compatible with the experiments and meaningful.

In many situations, there is a trade-off. In the uncertain principle, if you want to know the precise position, you sacrifice the information about the momentum. Likewise, it seems to me, that if you make your concept of god more compatible with science, you loose the “godness” of the god, the very appeal that you want to believe in god. Gods that frequently and actively intervene with human lives, answering the prayers and causing miracles along the way, are difficult to reconcile with science. You can’t have it both ways.

It seems to me that many scientists who are believers keep a delicate balance to make their gods as compatible with science as possible but still meaningful enough for them. For example, read what Rob Knop of Galactic Interaction blog wrote about his faith. But it is difficult keep all the attributes of god that are traditionally believed in religions this way. Einstein can be considered to be an extreme example. (Although I don’t think it appropriate to consider him among the believers any more when he himself explicitly said he was not religious.) When the concept of god is made as pure and neutral as Einstein did, I have little problem. (And I believe Dawkins said so, too.) I would have preferred if he had not use the word “god” as it is contaminated with all the other images associated with it. But Einstein made clear what his god was not. He did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fates and the actions of human beings.” If this is close to traditional Judeo-Christian concept of god, why was Spinoza a controversial figure? Are you willing to go this far?

I have also encountered a graduate student in biology who was a creationist. It is strange how her biology and creationism can coexist in her head. I also met a Jewish student who had no trouble believing in the god that gives a special favor to his people. It doesn’t seem like he understood what that would mean to the Indians and the Chinese and the Japanese who worked with him. I think these are examples of compartmentalizations of thoughts. These are opposite of what I think is great about science. Newton’s breakthrough came out when he realized that the same laws can describe the motions of the stars and the motion of a falling apple. (Not to mention that the same laws apply today as well as yesterday.) Likewise, a great advance in chemistry was made when it was shown that organic substances can be synthesized without the help of any “vital force”. At the chemical level, there is no difference between the living and non-living. There is nothing that is privileged. The earth is no longer the center of the universe. It is true that we have all these different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. And I said chemistry is not merely applied physics, and biology is not merely applied chemistry. (And I would add that knowledge of acoustics won’t make you a better musician.) So, there is specialization. But that doesn’t mean that these different fields are independent to each other. Chemistry certainly binds what biologically possible. However excellent baseball pitcher you are, you cannot break the laws of physics. (And who says physics is superior to baseball?)

So, where do you fit? It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. And you seem to think you can have it both ways by defining the god as flexible as possible and making sophisticated philosophical arguments.

Statements like “God exists.” or “God is real.” are only meaningful if we agree on what we mean by “god,” “exist” or “real.” In what sense is “Hamlet” real? In a sense that “Hamlet” the man lived the life exactly like the way depicted in the story, or in a sense that the STORY of Hamlet exists in the minds of us who read the story? Likewise, it seems to me that it is the STORY of the god that really exists and not the entity you call god. We can make god exist depending on the meaning of the word “exist,” but that may also allow existence of unicorns and dragons. And what do we mean by “god”? Are you willing to limit the god the way Einstein defined it? Why do you care to call it “god” anyway? Isn’t is because the word “god” carries with it a flavor of traditional god that you are attached to?

(This reminds me of a character in a novel by the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo. The character, a young Japanese priest suggests using the world “onion” instead of “god”. In the story, he is considered heretic. In real life, some of Endo’s harshest critics were fellow Christians. Being an atheist, of course my view is different from that of Endo. But I feel a sympathy for Endo who struggled with his faith in a country where Christians are minorities and who had to ask tough questions about his faith.)

What about emergence? I have a mixed feeling about the word emergence. On one hand, I genuinely believe it is a useful concept and that there are phenomena that can be rightly described as emergent. (And the examples were discussed.) So, I’m in no way going to join the people who want to purge the word. (See the link below.) But on the other hand, it is true that emergence is often used to conveniently categorize anything mystical and magical and not well-understood. And I suspect that’s the way you are using the word emergent. But I really don’t understand your use of the word emergent, except to think that it is different from the way I use it.

But let me try to make some connection. Here is a quote form the following discussion about emergence.

“Supposedly, in the early nineties when the Russians were trying to transition to a capitalist economy, a delegation from the economic ministry went to visit England, to see how a properly market-based economy would work. The British took them on a tour, among other things, of an open-air fresh foods market. The Russians were shown around the market, and were appropriately impressed. Afterwards, one of the senior delegation members approached one of his escorts: “So, who sets the price for rice in this market?“ The escort was puzzled a bit, and responded, “No one sets the price. It’s set on the market.“ And the Russian responded, “Yes, yes, I know, of course that’s the official line. But who really sets the price of rice?“”

Perhaps you could call the “invisible hand” that makes the market function as the “god” of the market. But what would you achieve by doing so? Would you achieve any deeper understanding of how the market works? Would you worship the god of the market? In fact it would be quite misleading to anthropomorphize the system that functions without a single central player giving the orders.

I don’t question that you are genuinely fascinated by science. But it seems to me that you are often cherry-picking the science and the scientists that conform to your world view and in some cases interpreting the science in such a way to conform to your world view. (Weren’t some of the earliest posts by David and Gavin objections to your interpretation of relativity?) I think that if there is something we can learn from the history of science, it is that the nature doesn’t care what human being thinks. Quantum mechanics and relativity are certainly examples. When the physicists found the their old world view was wrong, they didn’t commit intellectual suicides. They embraced the new reality and that made the science richer. I find it liberating that the nature doesn’t care what human thinks, because it means that the nature doesn’t favor anyone. This is the reason that I don’t feel disadvantaged to do science as a non-Westerner, even though the modern science originated in the West. (There was a time when Japanese scientists were considered to lack originality and all they could do is to imitate. And lack of philosophy was attributed to it. But I think it was mostly proven wrong, I’m happy to say.) We can all appreciate the beauty of nature. But why do I have to give the credit to the god, and Christian god in particular?           (written by Hi)

jlb — Remember the etiquette on this weblog.  Saucy is okay.  Respectful is required. Bigoted is not okay, either against science or against religion.  I will use delete, though I have scarcely ever had to do so.  Besides below, a couple of earlier responses to Hi are here and here (by the poet).

10 thoughts on “What does “exist” mean? God, ether, Hamlet, and Endo’s Silence

  1. The thing I want especially to focus on (in THIS reply at least, since Hi raises so many different questions) is the example Hi gives of “the market,” that “invisible hand” which is precisely the kind of thing that raises such big issues for social and literary theorists. These things, like the meanings of words for instance, certainly exist and are real, but in what manner?

    Does “the market” EXIST? And if it exists, does it exist simply as a STORY we tell ourselves? Does this mere story control us so deeply that we are compelled to behave in accord with it? Like particles obeying the laws of physics? Take supply and demand. This was a “law” of economics constructed from observation and many empirical instances, rather akin to the way that Galileo found the inverse square law by rolling balls down inclined slopes and finding the same ration repeatedly evidenced: in twice the time, the ball always rolled four times further, andin three times the time, nine times further….

    In economics, a certain “law” is observed and hypothesized: short supply = high demand, all other things being equal. And we see here the role of idealization or what I call “the eidetic” in both physics and economics, where Galileo “leaps” from the consistency of the ratios at various degrees of incline to the idealized hypothesis of a “free fall in a vacuum,” something that he cannot verify empirically, but it makes so much coherent sense in terms of the other data and it makes possible new and further things in addition, like arriving at the laws for the orbiting of Jupiter’s satellites around Jupiter and the moon around the earth….

    But “supply-side economics” is more hypothetical — it was controversial and is still being worked out or rejected. The theory is based on results of earlier work but goes beyond into somewhat more speculative theorizing, like the standard theory in physis, which the Large Hadron Collider will confirm if it finds the HIggs boson. Note that this particle will confirm or destroy the standard theory everyone has been using since 1964 and no-one knows whether it “exists” or not. And if it is found, we still can’t really say we know “what it is” but just that certain laws apply to it. But it has good warrant as a predicted aspect of a physical theory with lots of verfication behind preceding parts of it.

    I guess I’m saying that science builds deep and rich and cumulative contexts of theory, and these theoretical contexts or formalizations guide the constructions of new hypotheses and the construction of ways to experimentally test the hypotheses. At least until a paradigm change, when theory might be shaken down more deeply and re-interpreted, but even then all the old work is never thrown out but re-incorporated. But science is a “going concern.” It moves along, grows, develops. That’s why it’s so exciting. And it is unpredictable and surprising despite its regularities.

    Now can all of this be carried over and modiified as appropriate to other disciplines, inquiring into other kinds of things? It seems to me that it can — BUT ONLY IF WE ARE WILLING TO ALLOW DIFFERENT METHODS AND DIFFERENT VERIFICATIONS AND DIFFERENT WAYS OF BEING TO those other kinds of things. “Hamlet” certainly exists, but its mode of being is quite different from that of a gravitational or energy field. Our working knowledge of both has been constructed rather rigorously and with the aid of theoretical tools that have been modified over time. Our description and understanding of both evolves formally over time and through history. It is a truism that the arts are not cumulative like the sciences, but they have their own kinds of formal cumulativeness within their own histories and practices.

    The problem with scientific dismissals of God is that they depend on using methodology developed to describe matter and motion in order to rule out the “existence” of “God” as a natural entitiy, or to rule out the existence of God as a supernatural entity who is NOT needed now to explain gaps in natural processes. I am perfectly okay with that, because God’s mode of being is a mystery and yet God is not an irrational mystery, in my experience, but an excitingly and profoundly rational surprise.

    But can those scientific methods be responsibly used beyond those assertions about natural entities and natural processes? Why do so many scientists believe in God, a conventionally religious God. I was raised in a secular university family and when God became real to me it was like something turned on in me, like discovering music or like discovering Euclidean proofs. The natural world I had always loved but that had never “proved that God existed” to me suddenly was full of God’s personal presence. I encountered God, or God encountered me, and that is what happened, not that I decided to believe in the existence of God. Instead, I decided to open myself to learning more about the God who was already perfectly real to me but still very unknown (and unknowable).

    I could give all kinds of what Hi flatteringly calls “sophisticated philosophical arguments” for why knowing God can be intellectual and cognitive as well as emotional and psychological but I am not really concerned about making an argument. All those books out there arguing over God are making very little progress that I can see. I would be happy simply to be able to clear some space for the human encounter with God to be viewed as having its own characteristics and disciplines and goals for those who want to pursue those disciplines, whether they are meditative or part of a particular religious tradition.

    Toward that end, I want to keep stressing the way that the mode of existence of every kind of thing is problematic in its own way. We do not know what gravitation is or how the wave-particle duality “really” works, but as Hi says, we know enough about these things to pursue them rigorously further than we know them already. To do that with God usually involves putting oneself into the “discipline” of some traditional practice or other, and being willing to be changed and confronted by the very disconcerting reality of what we desire to love. I

    recently read Martha Nussbaum’s account of how Winnicott, the great child psychiatrist and theorist, said that we humans tend to take the “good” stuff and we put it “up there in heaven to preserve it,” especially when we can’t find it here very much. That resonates beautifully for me. My faith in God is not so much a consolation as it is my attempt to affirm the ultimate value and preciousness of what is good and beautiful and honest — no matter what the world does to me or to others or God.

    This is what I would die for, so why not live for it, too? The STORY of a Creator who turns around and dies for us instead, and for the same reason we would die, is the most extraordinary expression of that impulse I’ve ever encountered. Remember that the monotheism of the Jews and of the Christians later was always conceived in terms of being the (unlikely) vehicles of blessing to the entire world, and I affirm an inclusivist Gospel, not an exclusivist one.

    But then when I look at the trees and the animals and the stars I feel all those same things there. Religion is one way of responding in a personal way to all the things in life that make us respond with awe and love and worship. This is perhaps especially visceral with women who are mothers and sisters and aunts and so on. We know very well what we love and how powerless we are too often to protect it. Perhaps we turn to God because God is what guarantees that innocence and joy and helplessness and vulnerability are infinitely precious no matter what. I think we are all to some degree worshipping creatures, which is why we turn so vindictive and so brutal when we are mistreated instead of welcomed into this world. But religion cannot be compulsory. I believe many people find their way of worshipping the “good stuff in other things rather than in conventional religion.

    I didn’t really get into the way that the market exists as I wanted to today.

  2. On the way I am using the word emergent — I went and read the link that was dismissing the term as obscurantist and semi-mystical. I thought the article itself was very weak, actually, since it did not even allow the meaning of emergent phenomena that Hi defends when he points out that while chemistry does “reduce” to physics, and biology to chemistry, it is still necessary to study the biological and chemical phenomena on their own level (of emergence) because the reduction, while valid, does not describe the phenomena on the level of its own organization.

    That is how I am using the concept of emergence, which Gavin said he thought would change the whole field of physics/science and I think it will too and is already doing so in the new neo-Darwinian accounts of mental phenomena. Physics began with the superb reductionism that produced the laws of motion, and that has been the dominant paradigm ever since. The mechanistic deterministic “clockwork” or algorithmic calculus that underlies all seemingly mental or spiritual or vitalist phenomena: ruling out or explaining the “metaphysical” in general. Descartes created this dichotomy between material and “immaterial” with his absolute separation of mind/soul from nature and it has dominated English speakers ever since. When I talk about emergent phenomena, I am not talking about the “immaterial,” any more than physicists are when they theorize energy fields of universal expansion through vaccuum of deep space. There is no “matter” there, only “energy fields,” but then matter itself turns out to be a “something” that involves a wave/field aspect anyway. Its “particle” nature seems to be one face that it can present.

    I think the principle or concept of emergence means that matter and the processes of the universe inherently are capable of producing new higher-order complexities, such as self-moving one-celled organisms. I agree with Hi that we don’t need a special non-natural intervention here or “vitalist” force. But we do need language that registers that something new has emerged, that this living cell is in itself marvelous and suggests that science is very different from the kind of science the West embraced in the 18th and 19th and even in the 20th century. Perhaps as Hi says, there is no privilege here, but there is a different level of organization with new features and attributes that open up a whole new field of possibilities, and they will be exploited by the universe.

    This recognition that while underlying organization produces the new levels of organization, each level requires study in its own terms, is what I am referring to as “emergence,” and this realization within science in effect re-unites the human world with the natural world and undoes the Cartesian split, since it suggests that even if language and art and culture don’t conform to laws as determinative as inertia and gravitation, they are nonetheless certainly higher-order complexities that must be studied on their own levels of organization, and in relationship to other high-order complexities to which they are indeed related. We must, of course, pay the greatest attention to what biology, chemistry, and physics can tell us about them but they are not “immaterial” or non-empirical phenomena in the old sense.

    This, it seems to me, entails that we allow these other realms of complex organization their own claims to “exist” and to be “real” ON THEIR OWN LEVELS OF ORGANIZATION, and not in the exact sense of reality that pertains to matter-in-motion. But as soon as we have different modes of existence or “realities,” then we are no longer talking about whether unicorns “exist” in a physical sense, which of course is relatively trivial, but what kind of existence unicorns represent as distinguished from the existence of quarks or trees or God. Now it is not trivial whether God exists, of course, but we would do better to look more thoughtfully at the mode of existence these various things exhibit for human knowers. God or the gods or the divine represent a unique area in human history and psychology and anthropology. This is a much larger and deeper area of questioning for human beings than the famous “unicorns” and “lepricauns” with which “God” is often compared so frivolously on some of the science blogs, which in itself should give pause to all these comparisons of “God” with the “Tooth Fairy” when the only thing these have in common is that they have not been detected to be natural objects or entities in the empirical world.

    We are faced with the fact that there are indeed “sophisticated philosophical” reasons why the idea of a Necessary Being or of a divine origin and end will not go away, for logical and intellectual reasons. We are faced with a consistent world-wide tradition of contemplative experience which is really quite impressive if you are willing to look at it, though I myself do not count mystical experience as a large part of my relationship with God. And finally there is the experiential testimony of huge masses of human beings in all times and places that they personally and communally experienced relationship with the divine.

    I welcome the efforts of science to look into all of this with its inherently reductionistic and matter-based empirical methodologies, and I think the discovery of the special place in the brain that lights up when we pray or experience or turn to God in times of extremity is fascinating and enlightening. Scientists will explain it as an evolutionary adaptation, and that’s fine. What remains to me is the fact that the universe has produced many kinds of mammalian creatures who bond so deeply with the seen and the unseen and share such deep emotional life and experience conscience and finally ask questions about everything, including the source of themselves and the universe. What is the precise nature of the existence of conscience or of beauty or of the scientific method, for that matter? I think we can make progress on these questions, but not reductively.

    I think we will look back on our own period as a late stage of scientific reductionism, when we still clung to a hope of explaining everything in same way the laws of motion can be approached, as though everything “exists” in just the same way that we used to think a concrete material object exists, before we woke up once again to the full significance of all the questions humans ask, about all the kinds of things they experience and care about. But will we get to that point in history, if both scientists and religious people continue to want to use only one way of knowing and the kind of existence it suggests as the single standard to which everything else must be reduced? That kind of intellectual extremism is our biggest problem right now, it seems to me. This reduction to a familiar standard or paradigm. Again, isn’t this why Plato and Aristotle affirmed the pluralism of the wyas of knowing as the essential vision of the liberal arts education?

    We need a new and wider understanding of what it means to think carefully and responsibly, and how we must always relativize our own cherished systems of knowing in relationship to other ones that may be very different and very effective in their own right. Whenever one way of knowing gains dominance, it does stifle thought — I agree with Hi about that. It’s interesting that Endo’s protagonist is in a setting where his belief-system is not dominant, and that I grew up surrounded by arrogant scientific reductionism and had to fight for the validity of emotions and desires and self-scrutiny and the weight of significance of certain events. Hi on the other hand has found the freedom of honesty and intellectual integrity in the world of science. I had to struggle (but not very hard) to appreciate science — but what I most have had to struggle with is trying to separate it from the dismissive and repressive worldview and outlook that characterized its role in Western culture for so long.

    I still agree more with myself than with Gavin and David and Rick and Hi about the nature of the revolution represented by relativity and quantum mechanics, because after the long and fascinating (if I do say so myself) discussion under Session One, Part 4 on QM, I went back and read again deeply in my own century (the 17th) and in the 20th century about the outlook and attitudes of the scientists at those times and what they were thinking and feeling. My challenge is to write about all of that without seeming to attack the credibility of science, which I have no wish to do, after I finish my writing on the Plato’s Ion material.

    Does this help to clarify anything now? And there are several other points I need to respond to, of course.

  3. HI

    I love arts and literature. I have never said and will never say that they are not subjects worth studying. And I don’t think they should be judged by the same criteria used in science. They are created by the desire to imagine and express. Why should they be valued by how “true” they are? Different disciplines have different goals and should be judged differently. Even engineering is different from science. Why should arts be reduced to science?

    Religions and theologies are certainly subjects worth studying. But do you have to believe in them in order to study? If someone study the religion of the Maya civilization, does she or he have to believe in the Maya religion?

    And if these different disciplines operate at completely different levels, there won’t be any conflicts between them. But the fact is that realms in which they operate sometimes intersects. (This doesn’t happen only between science and humanities. I suspect it happen often between different disciplines within humanities.) Religions do make claims in the realm where science and mathematics have something to say. Likewise, the extreme form of relativism (the one you didn’t believe to exist) denied the existence of the kind of reality that science is founded on. Science has right to speak out on such issues.

    What I have said so far has little to do with “emergence” except that existence of literature, such as Hamlet, can be categorized as “emergent.” That is, creation of the story Hamlet, as well as the experience of reading it (or seeing the play) are results of brain activities, but cannot be easily reduced to brain activities. But I still don’t understand in what sense you think god can be considered to be “emergent”. If existence of god is at the same level as Hamlet, the result of human imaginations, then we don’t have a disagreement. But that is not what you are saying. I gave an example of the market because I wanted to see what would be analogous to god in that emergent phenomena in your opinion. (I agree that the article that I linked is weak and I don’t agree with him (or for that matter with the premise of their entire blog), except that I am somewhat sympathetic to his opinion the the word “emergent” is often abused. The reason I linked it was more to quote the comment about the market.) Is god analogous to the market it self? Is it analogous to the empirical laws of economics that emerge? Or is it analogous to whatever governing the activities of individual agents that make up the market? (I guess that the problem is we are indeed using the word “emergent” in different ways. I don’t think my usage is different from Gavin, though…)

    You seem to think that comparing your god to “tooth fairy” is an insult. But “tooth fairy” is not so different from gods of Shintoism. The gods of Shintoism, the gods of Hinduism, the gods of ancient Greek, and the gods of Norse mythology. I believe all these gods are rooted in the common human desire as the Christian god, even if some of them don’t have the same kind of following that Christianity has today. After all, we use the same word “god” for them. Why do you place Christian god above all the other gods? Are you willing to talk about religions in general? Or are you only interested in Christianity, or at best Judeo-Christian tradition?

    Let’s talk about Christianity. And Endo is a good starting point. It is obvious that a big theme for him was the meaning of Christianity for a Japanese man like him. Or, to put in a different way, the question of whether it is possible for a Japanese to be Christian. It should be obvious if you read “Silence” that one source of his struggle was with his native land that, for the most part, does not accept his religion. (But I do not mean that he was not popular. In fact he was enormously popular. But he had to live with the fact that most of his countrymen and readers do not share his faith.) But another source of his struggle was the fact that his religion was foreign to him. The European Church lacked understanding of his culture and he also felt that the European concept of god was too harsh and too strict for his taste. (Can you imagine how aggressive all the Abrahamic monotheistic religions look from the Eastern point of view?) Endo studied in France, so his view was formed with actual interactions with Europeans. You said you found it interesting that Endo’s protagonist is in a setting where his belief-system is not dominant. Yes, isn’t it indeed interesting that his belief-system was not accepted by the European priests? (I’m not talking about “Silence” but am talking about “Deep River.” It is not as good as “Silence”, but being his last novel, you can get to see where Endo ended up with. In fact, the flaw of the novel could be that Endo’s intentions are too transparent.) It was very suggestive that the Japanese priest in the story was eventually thrown out of the church. It was also interesting that the backdrop of the story is mainly India, with the characters pasts in Japan, France and elsewhere casting shadows.

    So, can a Japanese be Christian? Endo remained a devout Christian, so it is possible. But that was only possible with strains and by resisting the teachings of the European Church. For most of us, unlike Endo who was baptized when he was young by the influence of his mother and aunt, Christianity is not something we have to protect and cherish at all cost. There is not much anti-Christian sentiment in Japanese society today despite the history of persecution during Tokugawa shogunate and anti-Christian sentiment that was coupled with xenophobia during WWII. There has been at least one Christian prime minister. There are many schools run by Christian churches. Many of them are considered prestigious and my siblings went to some of such schools. But despite that, Christian remains only 1% or less of Japanese population. Christianity doesn’t seem to be very compatible with our culture. It’s nice that you seem to believe in a “soft” version of Christianity, but you should at least acknowledge the hard edge Christianity brings compared to the softness of Buddhism and Shintoism.

    Of course my main problem with organized religions is that their gods seem highly implausible to exist. But that is not the whole problem. All the organized religions are too regional and culture-specific. Every religion is inherently unfair to other cultures. So, I don’t embrace Buddhism or Shintoism, either. It was understandable in a time when you rarely encountered outsiders. But the world is becoming borderless. As I wrote it before, I was pleased when I read that the linguist interacting with the Amazon tribe gave up his Christianity. That seemed to me a reasonable attitude when faced with a different culture.

  4. Thanks so much for another very thoughtful comment, Hi. Tomorrow I’ll put it on the front page with another guest post and I’ll make some responses. I’m also going to challenge everyone to read _Silence_ (and I need to reread it too) so we can discuss it further.

    The cultural information you cite is fascinating. It makes me wonder if you by any chance watched Ken Burns’ first episode on W W II last night on PBS? I wondered if you had any reactions to it? It offered some cultural explanation of why the Bataan death march was so harsh, but I wondered why were the captured U.S. soldiers on Guadalcanal were tortured? Was it to demoralize the American troops? It didn’t seem to fit with what we generally hear about Japanese military values and codes of honor. What the US did to our Japanese citizens was terrible, and I am not asking this judgmentally, but do you have any insight into the ethic behind that? And please feel free not to comment on this if you don’t want to. That first “War” episode started very slowly, but it gathered enormous power by the end, I thought. More on your comments soon.

  5. Gavin

    I did not say that emergence would change the whole field of physics/science. It will not. The ideas that lead to our understanding of emergence are now well understood. That revolution is done. Many physicists still don’t understand or appreciate it, but many physicists still don’t understand or appreciate General Relativity, which is far older. Also, its not emergence that is the driving force. Emergence is a consequence of renormalization procedures that attempt to connect theories at different scales. The idea of emergence is a powerful consequence, not a starting point.

    Janet, I agree with Hi’s observation that you cherry pick your science. When I first came here you were citing relativity and quantum mechanics to support philosophical positions that cannot be addressed by those theories. I suggested emergence might be a better metaphor, but when I return I find emergence being treated like some sort of universal law requiring each level of complexity to be treated “on its own terms,” even when discussing basic ideas like existence. This is not what emergence is about. If you want to use the metaphor, great, but keep in mind that it cuts both ways. People who understand how emergence works can put powerful constraints on what you can say at a certain level if they understand the adjoining levels. Emergence is a metaphor, not a law and not a revolution.

    The problem I see is that scientific theories are often most appealing when only partially understood. When you don’t completely know what is going on, then all possibilities are open. I spoke with a creationist who used General Relativity to explain why we can see distant stars in a universe only 6000 years old. He knew about space time bending, but he didn’t really know the rules. So he bent space time in a way that worked for him, and then claimed that GR supports a young Earth. When physicists explained that his bending broke the rules, then he latched on to more speculative ideas that he didn’t understand and claimed those would fix the problem. I explained that he had broken the rules of these speculative theories as well, and he is no doubt off mangling some other theory at this very moment. He makes a career of leveraging his own ignorance. Understanding is a prison for him. Whenever he achieves it turns to something more complicated, studying it until confusion overwhelms his understanding and he is liberated to believe his fantasies again. Ignorance is confidence.

    Don’t be like the creationist. If you don’t like what science is telling you, don’t just pick up pieces of concepts that you don’t fully understand and claim that they rescue your philosophical positions. Quantum mechanics isn’t going to help you with questions about human existence. Relativity isn’t going to help. Emergence isn’t going to help. If you want to discuss the human world, you must work at the human scale: chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology. If obscure theories provide useful metaphors, great. However, they are just metaphors and may be totally wrong on the human scale. They don’t prove anything. You have to face the science at the scale you want to study, and there is a great deal of well established science at the human scale.

  6. HI


    I didn’t watch the program you mentioned. It is difficult to answer the question of why Japanese commit those brutal acts. It is difficult to get a sense of how it was like to be in that situation and what they thought. I can only speculate. You should take it with a grain of salt.

    I can imagine how an atmosphere, where such brutal acts are accepted and even encouraged, could be created. I’m not so sure if the Japanese military had such great codes of honor. Hazing and bullying seemed to be common. Mafias also have codes of honor and that doesn’t prevent them from committing violence and crimes. I guess that the codes entail demands for loyalty. So, if suicide attacks are considered to be the ultimate expression of loyalty to the country, they are encouraged. Never mind the fact that it was not a good strategy to win the war. It was accepted as a patriotic thing to do and it was unpatriotic to object. I speculate that once the brutality to the enemy, even the captured enemy, became acceptable, it was considered disloyal to object.

    It is more difficult to talk about the ethic behind it. If you ask my personal opinions about ethical matters, I can answer you. But I cannot represent ethical standards of Japanese in general, let alone Japanese of half a century ago. And in any case, I’m not sure if that is a right question. Do people do unethical things because they lack ethics? I think in many cases they know what they are doing is wrong (or know that it can be considered to be wrong), but they do it anyway. I think that the factors other than the ethics that make people ignore the ethics are far more important.

  7. Let’s give everyone the month of October to read Endo’s Silence. Then let’s try to talk about it in November, gentle readers out there.

    Hi, there are things I want to respond to (above), as soon as I can get a chance to do so.

    Gavin, okay, so emergence in physics is only analogous to or metaphorically akin to the more general principle that each level of natural phenomena needs to be studied on its own level. What’s important for me here is that studying the organization of mental phenomena, for example, on the level of mental phenomena rather than on the level of neural connections (which is related and needs to be studied too of course) is a huge shift, historically, from the assumption that higher-level phenomena would be “explained” by being reduced to what is going on on the lower levels.

    You don’t think reductively about “Hamlet.” So why do you resist my trying to point out that brandishing reductionism as the only way to think is not really the gist of being scientific?

    Physics does operate through a methodological reductionism that is its greatest strength. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the concept of the emergence of higher-order complexity within certain kinds of conditions of turbulence is a revelation about the natural world that is highly interesting and do you really expect humanists not to greet it with some surprise and a great deal of appreciative wonder?

    Gavin, you think about science as a scientist thinks about it, and you have to expect that historians or philosophers will think of the same science in its historical significance or cultural impact, or in its seeming philosophical implications and not simply in its scientific meaning. You are being just a bit too repressive. It’s fine for you to say not to read what philosophers say about QM because their science is wrong (as it now turns out), but even where the science isn’t wrong, do you want to clamp down on any attempts to broaden out or make connections with other kinds of things, BECAUSE IT’S NOT SCIENCE? Of course, it’s not science.

  8. Gavin

    Actually, I do think reductively about Hamlet, but that is not the only way I think about him. Different ways of thinking about Hamlet reveal different things about him, and reductive thinking is very useful. For example, if my son says he can’t sleep because he is scared of Hamlet (I have a very well read son), I can respond by talking about Hamlet on his own terms. “Don’t worry, Hamlet is in Europe and he only kills people who sleep with his mother or get tangled in his affairs.” However, I could also give a very reductionist response. “Hamlet is a fictional character, he only exists in books and in people’s minds. He can’t hurt you because he’s not real.” Is there anything wrong with the second answer?

    Reductionism is correct and powerful, but it doesn’t do everything. Other ways of thinking may also be useful, but you can’t discard reductionism. The methods have to work together.

  9. a)The Jungian Theory of Syncronicity, is a clear demonstration that
    everything in this Universe is predeterminated.The Heisenberg’s
    Indetermination Principle comes from the human ignorance
    (we cannot see the reality in its totality)…so only an ignorant,can believe in Free Will.

    b)Matter is a complex form of energy; Energy
    is a complex form of Information; Information…is God’s Thought.

    The Universe is God…so we are parts of God.

    c) Every kind of “human desire”,is followed by a Chain of “Electron wave
    functions collapses” (in agreement with Schrödinger’s Theory) which will not
    follow ours expectations! …So the paradox is: if we want to get hold of
    something,we shouldn’t have to search for it. (Men stay still,and the mountains move…).
    A curiosity: The connection between the electron
    wave-function and the human intent has to do with the fact that
    experiments have proved that the intentions of the operator of a radio
    transmission facility, directly and instrumentably alter the
    “footprint”, the radiation pattern of the antenna. It has also been
    shown that the intent of the human being causes a divergence in
    the quantum field (which is the information field).
    Any divergence in the information field results in
    alterations of “probability”, which directly influences
    the outcome of any system which contains any element
    of chance, directly influencing the resulting observable
    events. (See the work of Princeton Engineering Anomalies
    Research at http://www.princeton.edu/~pear/).


    “In agreement with Henri Bergson’s thought (see the last pages of “Entre
    le temps et l’éternité” of Ilya Prigogine ,Librairie Arthème Fayard,Paris),
    we can accept the idea of a “Space-time absolute value”, where
    all the “Space-time relativ values” are incorporated (in agreement with Einstein’s
    theory of relativity); the conclusion is that there is only one Real
    Matrix of the Universe…so every other possible /potential parallel
    “event/dimension/future” it’s only a human illusion.

    All the other parallel Universes (or Multi-Universes,as Phd. Everett said)
    can only exist in our minds…perhaps whilst dreaming.

    Unfortunately several physicists are conditioned by Heisenberg’s Principle of
    Indetermination…which, as you will know, is enough explain the
    existence of Free Will.

    Well, the Principle of Indetermination is hardly bound by the limits of
    observations made by the human brain.

    (We cannot see the reality in its totality…Bohm taught).

    If we accept the idea that our Universe really is God,well,in a infinite
    Caos of Energy too, there must to be a logical (but not for human
    brain),exact,specific,and perfectly organized …Plan.

    How many significant (important) coincidences can happen to a person in his
    life,living in a unorganizated and stupid Universe?…I think no-one.
    Every synchronism in our life, is like an open-eyes-dream (Jung
    taught)…and we can thank the fine intelligence of our Universe…if
    they happen.”

    Fausto Intilla
    (Inventor-scientific divulger)

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