Truthiness and fictionality

Truth is a complex idea, and Stephen Colbert’s truthiness construct reveals just how painfully funny it is that truth must be taken so seriously.  To simply write about such an idea leaves something to be desired.  Paradoxes are nutritious but lack in flavor.  Bland, boring, cream-of-gray-matter stuff.  A room-full of PhD’s or a clever columnist surely could (and regularly do) whip the idea of truth into a fluffy meringue — enough to elevate the blood sugar but not to sustain a person.

Embody truthiness in a complex character like Colbert though, add a dash of political analysis and a smidgen of satire, and what emerges is a piquant recipe for human insight.  Add a first course of Jon Stewart, and you have a well-rounded, satisfying meal.

I am here to point out that the other side of truthiness, for those who relish (pun intended) not only its nuances but its irony, is fictionality, by which I mean:

It is possible at times for fiction to better represent reality than that which is writ large as real.

Colbert won’t talk about fictionality, but it is easy for those of us who suspect him of as much to revel in.   His duplicitous discourse challenges not only the interpretation of the pseudo-reality he creates, but the one presented by the Media he imitates — that which is writ large.  Historical fiction and conspiracy fiction like The DaVinci Code are more specialized examples of fictionality at work.

Scientists (writ large) like to think of themselves as playing by a special set of rules, guided by the special pretenses of the scientific method and rational analysis.   Once you are in the club, the rules say you can leap bias in a single bound and are capable of superhuman feats of paradigm shifting.  A lot of grandstanding with little grounds for being exempt from criticism as far as I am concerned.  In this regard, hardly different from the politicians, corporate wonks, and “real people” Colbert pokes fun at.

All people, advanced scientific degrees or not, have the ability to understand the logic, reasoning and inspiration behind insights, scientific or otherwise.  Whether they exercise the ability or not is another issue.   The nuances are part of the fun for those who do.  Those talented purists who hold the Truth-is-a-lock-and-________ (God, logic, science, FSM)-holds-the-key ideal no doubt find such ideas distasteful to think about.  Yet truthiness and fictionality must not be relegated to the empty halls of thought.  They should be elevated to food for the soul.  Truth and Fiction are just bland ideals without truthiness and fictionality to spice up the rations we get.

Bon appetite!

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Conceptual veils

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”   Does complexity both come from and lead to simplicity?   Isn’t it a relative scale like light to heavy?

A catalytic chemical reaction is a fine example of what he means, I think.  The before and after states are simple equilibria.   Complexity arises from a third molecule that has the capacity to temporarily couple and transform one simple state into another.  Complexity is the relationship of the three. It does not eliminate the essential roles of the two simpler states.

When we look at questions about complex systems we should similarly expect to find relative simplicities on either side of a complex intermediary.   Consider the question, How and why do living things reproduce?

  • Simplicity 1 :  molecules that are chemically compatible tend toward intimacy
  • Complexity arises:  the double helix of DNA
  • Simplicity 2 :  replication creates self-sustaining patterns

Before the double helix was understood, a veil hung over our understanding of the depth of the fundamental relationship between structure and reproduction.  The double helix itself was a mystery but so too were the pervasiveness of simplicity 2 and the importance of simplicity 1.  Watson and Crick and associates got at the complexity by first understanding the simplicities better than anyone else.

Science doesn’t deal well with deep mysteries.  Concepts are developed that allow for the discussion of observations and measurements despite no known causative agent or mechanism.  These concepts are, by definition, inferior.  In the case of reproduction, the pre-mechanistic scientific concept was “heritability.”  Scientists accepted that it was just a matter of time before a mechanism was discovered.  They kept doing their best thinking but left room for more.   The double helix came into focus and the veil lifted.

In theoretical physics, the most fundamental complex system is characterized by the question, How and why does something that behaves in predictable, stable ways exist? The answer, by default, has been terribly muddled.   All we have to deal with are concepts!   No one, despite what convoluted discussions and calculations imply, has seen an atom.   The onslaught of non-real concepts has made us forget that there is no reason to reject a real causative mechanism for material complexity, one that results in “simple” explanations of other emergent phenomena.   Quantum mechanics, Newtonian physics and special relativity create so many conceptual cross-currents that any simplicity 1 and simplicity 2 are hopelessly lost like a boat in a storm.

Consider this possibility –

  • Simplicity 1:  Nothingness can be somethingness
  • Complexity arises: Cosmological coherence with capacity for both redundancy and novelty
  • Simplicity 2: Autocatalytic, scaling phenomena lead to predictability and stability from atomic scale up

What the hell is cosmological coherence?  I have an idea, but until people acknowledge that existing concepts are worth sacrificing, it will fall on deaf ears.  I do have hope that helping define the simplicities might set the search on the right track.  (Thus the preoccupation with nothingness.)

A cosmological mechanism as organized as DNA – but without the organic requirements – is almost certainly at play.   If only we can lift the conceptual veils.

Now you see it – now you don’t

While I trod my riparian route today my inner musings took a strange turn.  I was thinking about the universe and magic.  (The strange turn came later.)  It seems to me that we all arrive ready for a magic show.   From my earliest memories, I can remember welcoming the feeling of being amazed.  We want to not believe our eyes.

Then reason enters the picture, and the intellect starts to reflexively conclude “this must be a trick” when magic happens.  Considering that stage, street, and other forms of illusional magic are timeless arts drawing audiences of all ages even since the Age of Reason there must be an explanation.  It seems our innate capacity for awe literally overwhelms the rational function of our minds when the tricks are good enough, seemless enough, slight enough.  The same goes for optical illusions.  Like magic they create an inescapable and sometimes troubling experience that says at its most fundamental any understanding of experience is bound to be circular.  We realize we are easily deceived – benignly, beautifully, perplexingly so.

“The universe is quite the trickster,” I continued playfully.  Its magic is meta-magic though.  Instead of speaking to the personal it speaks to the whole.  If the cosmos practiced slight-of-hand (and I’m here to suggest that it does) how would we know given that personal experience is our primary guide?  Would that make God a magician?  I’m pretty sure none of the traditional religions would be interested in reconciling such a seemingly trivial view.   Still I got excited at how a slight-of-hand metaphor is the perfect way to explain my unique view on how dark energy comes into play in the universe.

“But wait!”  I couldn’t believe where my path had taken me. Quantum theory already re-introduced the trickster god.  The 20th century science pantheon of mathematically-indocrinated theorealities would not be complete without a god who ruled quantum indeterminacy, Heisenburg’s uncertainty theory, and the Copenhagen interpretation.   The forest transformed from inviting sanctuary to foreboding trap.

My own repose was doubly vexed.   I know the pitfalls of quantum theory, but in wanting to present the cosmos’s slight-of-hand there was quantum theory’s legacy pointing the way.   I realized the source of the irony several hours later.  The trickster and the magician are related and even blend together under dualistic thinking.  But Ancients understood the difference.  I had ignored it – briefly.  The distinction is that the trickster works from the insecurity created by illusion; the magician builds on the awe.

Quantum theory has primed us to see the universe as more than it seems.   I will give it that.  But I hope we are still capable of seeing that the cosmos is more than the work of a trickster.  More than mere now you see it now you don’t imperceptible tricks suggested by quantum mechanics, the cosmos streams from imperceptible slight-of-hand where a broken string becomes whole again and one ball becomes dozens.  Where coins disappear from a hand only to reappear behind an ear.  Where no laws of nature are violated, only made irrelevant by the possibilities beyond perception.

Let me be specific.  What makes the boats in the painting above?  The blend of bridge and clouds.  Unbelievable, yes.  But real, yes, at least in the perception created by the artist.

What makes matter?  The blend of dark energy and radiation.  Unbelievable, yes.  But real, it is possible.  A coherent cosmos is one where nothing is more magical than what is real.

Metaphysical Yoga

Yesterday I heard an interview with writer and yoga teacher Matthew Sanford on NPR’s Speaking of Faith.   Amazing, gifted person whose body was disabled after a car accident at the age of 13.  Check out the following, which is an excerpt he read from his recent memoir Waking:

Imagine walking from a well-lit room into a dark one. Imagine the darkness as a visual expression of silence. My rehabilitation made a mistake with the silence by focusing on the absence of light. It too quickly accepted the loss and taught me to willfully strike out against the darkness. It told me to move faster rather than slower, push harder rather than softer. It guided me to compensate for what I could not see.

Another course of action, however, is patience. Stop moving, wait for the eyes to adjust, allow for stillness and then see what’s possible. Although full-fledged vision does not return, usually there is enough light to find one’s way across the room. After a while, the moon may come out, sounds might gain texture, the world might reveal itself once again, only darker.

The darkness of certain physical views like quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle is dramatic.  Its experts have all had metaphysical rehab!   Media, art and literature accept their rehabilitated opinions, which morph into cultural messages full of positive spins – and, to certain ears, irony.  Quantum leap over your limitations… uncertainty makes the universe exciting, or… in an alternate universe you may be experiencing bliss!  After my brother parted ways with the physics community he regularly lamented this.

I would take it one step further now. Should theorists lose track of one basic principle – that physical theories must connect to physical reality – what would keep the problem from spiraling into a new type of darkness, one of human making?

[I am aware I keep mixing two notions of darkness / nothingness that are quite distinct.  See my Philosophy Disclaimer.]

Matthew Sanford says something similar happens to the disabled all the time.  They accept their fate as being cut off from their physical bodies rather than of needing to become more finely attuned to it and accepting of its subtleties.  First and foremost being as whole as possible should be more important that being “a fighter,” or in the case of physicists avoiding metaphysical crises, of being a pedant?  (That was John’s favorite insult to hurl at career physicists.)

Matthew Sanford, in reconnecting his mind and emotions with his disabled body, says he identified a common source of physical limitation in the world.  Without knowing it even able-bodied people disable themselves in small ways over a lifetime through closing down physical communication with the parts of themselves that hurt.  People’s focus is too often on accepting immediate relief through physical silence (a darkness of human making?).  He says instead we should focus on being patient with our existing capacity, however limited, and re-connecting with the energy and physical processes that built us in the first place.

Maybe I should rename this weblog Metaphysical Yoga.

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Necessity: The paradox of naming things… like this weblog

My posts so far have been about recent events, how they affected me, and why I decided to weblog.   The question remains, Why should anyone care?

A good place to start is with the title of the weblog.  You might be asking,what’s with “Hidden: The paradox of revealing nothingness” aside from, perhaps, a clever word play?  Maybe you get that I am in hiding, something about stealing relics and bad guy physicists, but are not clear if I am revealing nothingness or caught in a paradox where nothingness is the unfortunate consequence.  If it’s the first, then you may be unsure how you are supposed to tell when there is a revelation vs. nothingness vs. a revelation about nothingness.

Before we switch on the lights in a panic, I hope you will take a deep breath with me and consider that the dark is nothing to be afraid of.  At least not here.  You may wish I would turn on the lights and just give you a friendly tour.  You may be increasingly uncomfortable, imagining zombies, or hoards of bugs, or death each time I remind you that the lights are out.  But turning on the lights would mean deferring to our dominant sense, to “see” a problem that, while not imaginary, can only be solved by evoking our other senses.  No matter how many times someone tells you there are no such things as zombies, until you sit in the dark, awake, aware, and alone, and prove it to yourself, you will not be able to answer the more interesting question, Does nothingness have something to reveal?

When it comes to pondering nothingness (metaphorically = darkness), I would equate “using all of your senses” to letting our collective blend of scientific wisdom (wonder), faith and philosophy mingle instead of reflexively evoking a media sound byte understanding of valid debates and concepts.

I have reason to believe that these things – wonder, faith and metaphysical philosophy can be brought together only in darkness.  Not darkness in the sense of uncertainty and fear though.  Darkness in the sense of potential, of a coherence that, if it exists, is not separate, to be observed, but must be conceived.  The place it exists is in the paradox of revealing nothingness.

We are hardly the first to bravely go where I am suggesting I will go.  Any of you familiar with lay theologian C.S. Lewis’s “Wood Between the Worlds,” central to his Chronicles of Narnia prequel The Magician’s Nephew, can consider this endeavor a scientific and philosophical application of that spiritual vision.   Far, far fewer of you may be familiar yet with the radical doctrine of a 14th century Buddhist monk Dolpopa.  It energized, and divided, Tibet’s spiritual development for three centuries.  Then in the 17th century, political agendas that eventually led to the re-stabilization of Tibet and its establishment as a theocracy, squashed the rich diversity of doctrines such as Dolpopa’s that had flourished.   A potent doctrinal vacuum resulted.  I would compare it to the reality crisis sparked this century by the indoctrination of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Not just nothingness but emptiness, nothingness devoid of the possibility of meaning and ruled by uncertainty.


This 5 minute YouTube video “What is theoretical physics for?” is fascinating in relation to what I’m doing here.  Youth plus the perceived nothingness that surrounds us, in relation to physics theory, metaphysics and beyond.  Check out the funky lighting… he’s barely illuminated in the darkness.  Very humble.  I like that.

I know I said media perspective is bad, but I meant mainstream media…

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