A Demon Inside
Saturday, February 18th, 2023
On some merits of scientific thinking
Viewed against the immensities of space and the everlasting endlessness of eternal time, our existence as individual humans may seem pointless. Poets and philosophers have often tried to calm our minds about this fact. Their advice is not to ask too many questions about the cosmic meaning of our lives. Instead, they say, we should seek fulfilment in our families, our friends and the matters more close at hand. I have tried some years to folllow that advice. It didn't work. There seems to be a demon inside my head. That demon is good at sabotaging my attempts to think and live "small“. I know that similar demons live in other people's heads. Looking back at about 50 yeas of my life, my advice is to make friends with that little unnverving, cunning question-generating something. It may have a point. The more it can have its way, the more it rewards you that the cosmos and you may be a like bride and bridegroom who match well. So let's get started.
A Universe without a Point?
In 1852, the famous physicist William Thomson, later called Lord Kelvin, wrote an article "On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy“. Thomson used front-edge scientific knowledge of his days to speculate on the future course of the universe. In his article, he wrote about one striking consequence of thermodynamics: "The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws.“ Today, this effect, somewhat paradoxically, goes by the names "the heat death of the universe" and the "the big freeze" alike. The physical principles underlying the idea of the heat death are easy to understand. Heat is regarded as a form of energy. As such, it can flow from one region of space to another. In an isolated system heat always flows from regions of high temperature to regions of lower temperature. As this process goes on, differences of heat will become smaller and smaller all the time. And all other forms of conversion of energy always produce at least some heat as byproduct. This process is what Thomson calls dissipation. And there is no way how one can restore heat energy fully back to other forms of energy. As temperature becomes more evenly spread in the universe, all mechanically usable forms of energy gradually disappear. But mechanical energy is needed if we want to move things about in our universe. Mechanical energy is absolutely needful to any form of life as we know it. Putting these statements together will give us a rather dismal outlook. In the long run, the universe will no longer support life.s
This needed some time to sink in.
It did sink in. In 1875, two Scottish physicists, Stewart Balfour (1828 to 1887) and Peter Guthrie Tait (1831 to 19019), published a very readable book titled The Unseen Universe. They tried to reconcile the natural sciences with Christian belief. In a long chapter titled The Present Universe they wrote about the thermodynamical heat death. They concluded that "Immortality is therefore impossible in such a universe". All our doings today are like the business of some successful millionaire without an heir. A stark outlook.
A few more decades on, in 1928, some 76 years after Thomson's first sombre prediction, the iconic master of cosmic pessimism, H. P. Lovecraft (1890 to 1937) began his short story The Call of Chtulu with heavy wording: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." The story has no happy ending. (None of his stories have a happy ending.) I cannot resist the temptation to cite a few quotes from Lovecraft.
"I have seen the dark universe yawning Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge, or lustre, or name." (Nemesis)
"It is good to be a cynic — it is better to be a contented cat — and it is best not to exist at all."
“Today we know that the cosmos is simply a flux of purposeless rearrangement amidst which man is a wholly negligible incident or accident.” (letter to Natalie Wooley, May 2nd, 1936.)
“My attitude has always been cosmic, and I looked on man as if from another planet. He was merely an interesting species presented for study and classification.” (A Confession of Unfaith, 1922) Lovecraft was a master of cosmic horror. More than 80 years after his early death in 1937, his stories have spawned a universe of fan-sites, short films and community games. For Lovecraft, science and curiosity will forever only lead to the discovery of new "black seas of infinity“ that will "open up terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein …“ I know no other writer who makes hopelessness so enjoyable.
But was Lovecraft right?
Old Ifs and New Possibilities
The undiluted pessimism of Lovecraft is one possible interpretation of the physics of his days. Many thinkers like Lovecraft believed in some form of cosmic nihilism. Some, for example, believed that everything in our cosmos works like a mindless clockwork-mechanism. Free will is an illusion. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 to 1860), another pessimist and good read, rejected free will as "causality seen from the inside". In a world, where strict mathematical laws govern the motion of any particle and any change of physical properties, a free will has nothing to move or change. But as Lovecraft had admitted to his readers, his scientific knowledge was superficial. Had he gone deeper into physics, he would have got a sense of uncertainty about all the laws of nature, the findings of science and determinsm.
Lovecraft should have lived longer. In 1964 the German quantum physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912 to 2007) posited: "One believes to understand man if one can reduce man to matter. To shatter this belief you only need to ask: what is matter?" To Lovecraft, matter was probably made up of small solid particles behaving neatly to Newtonian laws. But Lovecraft obvioulsy didn't go deeper into physics. Today, there is no clear notion what matter could actually be. The question of determinism and free will is fully open.
When you read William Thomson's statement about the heat death of universe, a few paragraphs above, did you notice the loophole he left? Let us read again what he said about the thermodynamical laws as formulated in his days: "The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws."
The important word here is if: if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. Lovecraft, and many pessimists with him, seem to jump at dystopian visions. In the case of Lovecraft, the still young field of science fiction was greatly enriched by it. But Lovecraft didn't exploit the ifs and the freedom for interpretation they left to seek a more optimistic outlook on the universes.
Today, leading physicists and cosmologists seem to justify Thomsons careful if. Here are some examples. The astounding fact, discovered in 1998, of a universe expanding with growing speed led to a discussion if the laws of Newton or some fundamental cosmic constants might change over time. Quantum physics still cannot answer by what agent entangled particles are bound over light years of distance. And thermodynamic heat death may be checked by black holes producing new matter. This reminds us of a second if Thomson had placed with foresight: the heat death only holds for so called isolated systems. And the cosmos may after all not be so isolated as feared, with black holes being some possible point of entry of exit.
The new openness of physics was modestly put forward by Noble prize winner Anton Zeilinger in an interview on Swiss television in 2006. Zeilinger, a quantum physicist from Austria, readily gave answers about the physical facts of phenomena like teleportation, entanglement, causality or the reality of physical particles. But he remained quiet outside the strict field of his personal work. Instead of giving answers himself, Zeilinger suggested that physics needed a new Immanuel Kant. By the way, this leading scientist of the early years of the 21st century didn't seem very pessimistic. And he left all the big questions about Free Will, Determinism or cosmic dystopias undecided.
The Demon's Friendly Budging
At least for me, I can say that my personal philosophical evolution paralleled that of science from the 1850ies to the 2020ies. At the age of perhaps 14 I had discovered for myself the idea that everything in the world was determined by physical laws. A deterministic view of the world was the obvious and only possible interpretation of what I heard at school: life is wholly made up of particles like electrons, neutrons and protons etc. These particles follow strict laws of physics such as s=½·a·t², the conservation of energy or U=R·I and so on. So the electrons that where in my body did not go where my thoughts wanted them to go but where electric fields or the laws collision forced them to go. This was my deterministic or materialistic stage.
Enter the Demon from the beginning of this page: some psychic force in my head makes everything unknown, everything that challenges established paradigms attractive. What I tought I had understood, I found boring. Applying knowledge to practical tasks was in itself boring and unrewarding. I always regarded this trait of character less as a virtue than a failing. The search for the deeply unknown spoiled systematic learning at school and later, it made me give up a career in the mining industry. It forestalled any attempts at an academic career where systematic work is needed. The Demon by my side saw to it, that I did not enjoy routine. But it did not generally speaking prevent me from work. It rather channelled it in certain ways. The demon made me read some books five times over. (One book I can recommend is Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind on physics and Consciousness.) The Demon successfully kept me away from any successful career in most jobs. And it kept my noise stuck in books that promised depth.
Rewards started flowing in from my late twenties. Without falling prey to shallow forms of commercial esoterics or homebaken isms (I hope), I today feel and see the cosmos as a deep mystery. When that feeling gets very strong, I feel in the right place. I feel that the mystery is somehow friendly. In 1901 and 1902, one of the early pioneers of scientific psychology, William James (1842 to 1910) delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. Talking extensively on "The Varieties of Religous Experiences" he concluded that the core element of religious experience is the immediate feeling that the universe is good. This describes my rare but deep experiences of cosmic mystery quite well. It is bottomless uncertainty paired with endless curiosity and - paradoxically - unquestioning comfort in the good will of all the cosmic forces around me. This is how the demon rewards me.
But the demon also steers me clear of pessimism. When I feel pessimistic about machine intelligences taking over from us, I listen to the demon inside. It asks: how sure can you be that that will be the case and how sure can you be that this will not lead to some better form of spirituality? I cannot answer. When I feel pessimistic about the failings of human beings, the demon may ask: can you disprove that spirituality is not some kind of powerful agent that will finally prevail and build a fulfilling cosmos? The demon beside me is one that wants to keep things undecided and open, it budges me towards possibilites, not certainties.
Science is a good teacher for openness. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper (1902 to 1994) suggested what he called the principle of falsification. According to Popper, a theory is only proper science if it says how it could be disproven. Whether or not Poppers notion drives scientific progress is disputed. Few scientists ever suggest how their theories or hypotheses could be falsified. They rather try to make them seem as plausible as possible. But for building a private view of the world, Poppers principle is certainly useful. It budges and guides your mind to regions it wouldn't steer to of its own accord. Let us look at an example.
Conspiracy theories have been popular throughout history. The Catholic Church and Protestant Puritans saw evil witches and sorcerers at work for centuries. As late as 1778, a woman was beheaded for witchery in Switzerland. In nearby France, Antoine Lavoisir discovers and names the element oxygen. But fear of witches was not the last killing conspirace theory in Europe. Enlightened Europeans of the 20th century saw a great Jewish conspiracy at work throughout the world. And again, people were murdered.
When I feel tired and unnerved by life, I am less immune to some soft forms conspiracy theories than at other times. One such theory I like to give some credit is the idea of Big Money. The German automobile industry always gets its way by offering politician a place on their board of advisors. Delivery companies do not need to worry about parking rules as they will never be fined even if their cars routinely park on cycling lanes. The food industry can keep selling sugary and fatty food thus keeping my health insurance expensive. And, almost as a prove that Big Money is evil, it was later disclosed that in 1982, The Austrialian Secret Service ONA had warned the then Prime Minister that worldwide destructive climate change was a scientific certainty. But rather than advising Australia to quit fossil fuels, the minute went into the threats to the Australian coal mining industry if the knowledge became public. The Australian prime ministers seem to have taken the warning seriously. Australia protected its coal industry and kept playing down the need for a climate policy for decades to come. Good food for conspiracy theorists.
The good antidote here is Poppers principle of falsification. Whenever I feel too convinced by facts that Big Money ruins our well-being for profit, I ask myself: how could I, in theory, disprove my theory? This leads me first, to define exactly what I mean by Big Money. Elon Musk, Microsoft and some oil companies and some private equity firms are obvious enough. But how do I measure Bigness of Money? By profit? By revenue? By company value? Is a company with 20 thousand employees Big Money? And do I want to limit Big Money to private Companies? Or can a state also be Big Money? The scientific demon on my side urges me to be exact. And here I become uncertain of what I actually mean by Big Money. If one woman was rightfully convicted of poisoning someone, not all women are witches. And Big Money is not only the car industry (which I consider to be fairly evil) and fossil fuels. So trying to suggest how I could disprove my own theory leads me to claryfing the catchword of Big Money. And that leads me to uncertainty. And uncertainty here protects me from a too straightfordward pessimism. Such are the workings of the demon.
What this blog will be about
I started this first post of my blog today with the Big Cosmic View. We have come down from the high spheres of big ideas to the more immediate matters of politics. The former should give us orientation, the latter calls for personal standing and action.
In the posts to follow, I want to raise more specific topics. But I will try to limit myself to issues that one can decide for oneself. There won't be any appeals to society. Also, I try not to suggests what anyone should or should not do. My imaginary reader is the person who likes uncertainty, unexpected views and age old riddles. My imaginary reader is also driven by some - at least vague - moral urge that any feeling being should enjoy comfort, purpose and happiness and that we should care for one and another. Posts will also be limited to issues that ought to be placed in a cosmic setting. So the three guiding attributes of the posts to follow will be: personal, moral and cosmic.
Here is a loose collection of some of the issues I wish to cover: The cosmo-philosophical works of Olaf Stapledon. Could seemlingly inanimate objects be linked to psychic processes? Could we test if we are living in a computer simulation? How relevant is Stanislaw Lem's concept of sociointegrative degeneration?Is there a general upward tendency in evolution? Why are the laws of physics as they are? If there is progress over history, then of what?
Some further reading
As a suggestion to German speaking readers, here are some links to articles on some of the topics raised in this post. These articles are, as a rule with exceptions, shorter and more descriptive than the posts in this blog. They also often have references to books and scientific papers. If you do not read German get your browser to translate the articles for you. The result is actually quite good.
- Einige kosmische Zitate von H. P. Lovecraft
- Eine kurze Liste von echten oder scheinbaren Aporien
- Warum sehen wir kein Leben im Kosmos?
- 4 Mrd. Jahre Leben: Erdgeschichte
- Spekulative Evolution
- Der physikalische Wärmetod
- Erderwärmung (etwas Pessimismus)
- Der Transhumanismus als Vision
- Die Scholastik als wertvolles Erbe
- Seltsame Materie: das Quantenobjekt
Search my German archive
The search field below gives access to a collection of German articles, mostly on school mathematics and physics. But there are also a number of articles on speculative philosophy, cosmic history and sociological issues. Ask your browser to translate the articles into English. The result is often quite adequate.
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