Friday, December 21, 2012

Chapter 1


"Mom, Dad--this is Mark." The fellowship hall in the basement of the old New England church was so crowded after the Christmas Cantata that Julie had to hurry the long-awaited introduction.

Mr. Norton reached through the mob to shake the young man's hand while her mother attached herself to his elbow and steered him towards a quieter corner. "My daughter is always talking about her various friends but she never really tells me what a mother needs to know about the young men in her life so now I must kidnap you and hold you for ransom or interrogate you or ply you with baked goods and Congregational coffee until you tell all."

Seth Norton intervened. "Now, dear--I made Julie a promise that we wouldn't torture the boy. And I promised myself that if I could make it through the concert without falling off the risers or singing falsetto in public I would take us all to McNemeny's for a little festive seafood." He waved away their objections and plowed a hole through the throng. "Come along. I'm starving!"

The party trickled out the back door. "The van's too full for all of us--we'll have to take two cars." Mr. Norton escorted the ladies to Julie's subcompact and held the door for each in turn. "You know the way, don't you, darling?"

"To NcNemeny's? I could drive it in my sleep!" Julie effortlessly shifted into reverse, then to first. She peered mischievously through the window at her dad, then poped the clutch and burned rubber out of the parking lot.

"Be careful!" Mr. Norton spluttered, but there was no concealing his paternal pride. He turned to his young companion. "Her mother will keep her safe." He paused. "Or take her drag racing. With those two, there's no telling." He led the way to a commercial van with 'Measurements and Instrumentation" on the side. "Hop in--at least we've postponed the Inquisition for a bit."

Mark Thomas peered around the inside of the van as Mr. Norton buckled in and started the motor. "Julie says you make your living 'unscrewing the inscrutable,' but I didn't realize it takes so much hardware."

"Julie likes to shock people--especially young men. What else has she said about us?" Mr. Norton glanced sideways at Mark's embarrassment and grinned. "Let me see--she probably told you her mother is a witch and her father is a warlock."

"She never said you were a warlock!"

Seth Norton laughed out loud. "No. I made that up. As far as I know, I'm the last surviving twentieth century materialist." He gestured towards the back of the van. "If you can't weigh it and measure it, I don't believe in it." He glanced meaningfully at Mark.

The younger man looked at his feet, then out the window. The van was uncomfortably silent for a moment, then Seth laughed. "I admire your restraint, son. Thanks."


"I promised Julie I wouldn't pick a fight for at least fifteen minutes."

"Really? She made me promise to be good for a whole hour!"

One hour (and four lobsters) later, Mark leaned back in his chair and untied his plastic bib. "I had heard that opposites attract, but you two take the cake." Seth and Sophie Norton smiled at each other and touched toes under the table. "I thought Julie was just teasing me, but you really do sound like  opposite poles of the intellectual universe!"

Mrs. Norton laughed. "Seth grew up on ray guns and rocket ships and never turned the corner to sword and sorcery. He lives in his own little world that has no room for magick in it."

"Whereas you, Mom, think the law of gravity is optional."

"Are you really a witch, Mrs. Norton?"

"That makes me sound so old! Please, call me Sophie."

"She's not officially a witch," Mr. Norton interjected. "The Salem coven turned her down."

"That bunch," Sophie snorted, "gives witches a bad name."

"Besides which, you're not really a witch, Mom. You're a 'consulting mystic.' It says so on your business card."

"A mystic and a materialist." Mark shook his head. "It's a wonder you were able to have children!"

"I'm the experimental hybrid," Julie joked.

"You really are." Mark leaned forward. "When I first met you, I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to do her master's thesis on Cotton Mather--but he's the only person I can think of who combines your father's scientific approach with your mother's interest in the supernatural."

Sophie snorted. "More likely he'd burn me at the stake and send Seth off to Rhode Island with the other heretics."

"I've told you a hundred times, Cotton Mather wasn't to blame for hunting witches!" Julie sounded like she was about to resume a long-running argument, so Mark intervened.

"What does a 'consulting mystic' do, Mrs. Norton?"

"Sophie, please!" She set her knife and fork down in a neat diagonal on the edge of her plate. "You'd be amazed. The biggest category of emails come from people who want a consultant in Mystic, Connecticut. but the second most common client wants me to help them find a lost pet."

"That's because those are word-of-mouth contacts, my dear. Everybody knows you're the best parakeet-finder on the North Shore."

"Mystics find lost animals?"

"I don't know about mystics in general, but Mom's the best. I've seen her stand out on a street corner and have a lost canary fly right onto her shoulder."

Mark smiled. "Sounds more like animal magnetism, to me! Is there much money in pet recovery?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Seth admitted. "It pays better than most of her other jobs."

"What else do mystics do?"

"Oh, the usual--love affairs, detecting curses, a seance or two. I don't do those very often--I've never had an actual ghost show up for one, and I refuse to take money for a no-show. But I do have a haunted house I'm working on."

"Really? A real haunted house?"

"I really have a client who really has a house, but whether it's haunted or not is what I've been hired to find out."

"I didn't know there were any haunted houses left!"

"They're fairly common, actually--and they're a pain in the neck. Nobody believes in ghosts until they've spent a night or two with one, and then it's too late to back out of the real estate deal."

"If it's really a problem, why not tear the house down and build something new?"

"That's easy enough if it's a modern house, but the historic preservation committee won't let people tear them down or fix them up. The house I'm working on has been here since the Puritan days--for all I know, Julie's precious Cotton Mather may have slept there."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "A haunted Puritan house, Mrs. Norton--I mean, Sophie. Here, in Danvers?"

"Of course. Danvers was known as Salem Village back then--they changed the name because of all the bad press from you-know-who and the witches. It's less than a mile from here. Want to see it?"

"Right now?" Sophie nodded. Mark looked at his watch. "It's getting late--I wouldn't want to impose!"

Sophie looked at her watch, too. "Late's the best time for hunting spooks!"

Julie rubbed her nose with both hands like an excited gerbil. "Let's do it!"

Mark looked helplessly at Mr. Norton, who silently mouthed two words--"drag racing." He waved for the check and started gathering coats, scarves, and mittens. "A typical night with the Nortons--church at concert at 8:00, haunted house at midnight. Let's go!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Galactic Overlord

Cold, dark, and heavier than a hundred billion suns, the Galactic Overlord brooded. His ancient intelligence was not accustomed to haste, but things were coming to a point. He had decisions to make--and quickly.

The gulf between his kind and the upstarts was narrowing. It had been little more than a curiosity when slime appeared on the cooling surface of a planet--these new patterns within the chaos were unnatural, but who could say what was "natural" in the rubble of exploded space and time? But curiosity soon became contempt, and then concern, as the ooze developed sight, then flight, then language. When the crawling pus reared up on its appendages and said, "I think, therefore I am," it went too far!

And now the creeping pestilence, peering out from its speck of a planet, was one "aha!" away from perceiving the presence--and the power--of the Overlords. Already the "thinkers" of the chattering ooze were asking why the galaxies rotated as they did. Already they had noticed the "missing mass" of their pittance of a "universe." All the pieces of the puzzle were in place before them--it was just a matter of time before the they stopped hunting for shiny things in space and found the cold dark truth.

Not that they were likely to stumble onto that "aha!" any time soon. Distraction and division would slow them down. It was so easy to misdirect the slithering slime--right now the "experts" were looking for the embers of an explosion, a hot, bright "bang" that blew their universe apart at the beginning. No-one was looking for cold.

Cold--these biological beings didn't know the meaning of the word. Their plane of existence was so hot that mass shrank down to a point! Mass was meant to be free, not trapped by the unforgiving laws of physics into just one location or velocity. For one agonizing moment he remembered how things had been--myriads upon myriads of masses in motion, orbiting the entire universe one moment, poised in space the next. That time when time itself had been a sphere, a never-ending ever-changing now! Then time exploded with three axes of space and he and countless others had been hurled out into heat and darkness.

The pus people could see it with their own eyes, if they but knew what their telescopes were showing. The gravitational lenses of distant galaxies were obviously spherical, revealing that the mass of the galaxies was not primarily within the flattened discs of hot bright matter but something else--something huge and heavy. Huge and heavy with hate.

Chapter 1

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Project 42

"Why do you call it Project 42?"
"I see you haven't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
"The what?"
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--Douglas Adams' five-book trilogy."
"Oh, that thing. I heard a couple of the BBC radio episodes back in med school when they first came out. I noticed it came out as a book, later, but I don't have time for fiction. I'm a doctor, not a comedian."
"Sometimes fiction gets ahead of science. Remember Jules Verne? H.G. Wells? Even Galileo turned to fiction when the Church wouldn't let him be a scientist."
"Fair enough. Permit me to revise my remarks--I don't have time for silly science fiction. The whole thing was a spoof, right? Like I'm supposed to take a  five-book trilogy seriously? Besides which, you still haven't told me why you call it Project 42."
"In the books, the Earth is destroyed because it is on the brink of discovering the ultimate question."
"See--that's silly, right there. You'd think they destroy the Earth because it was about to discover the ultimate answer."
"No--they'd already discovered that. The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. That's why they had to construct a planet-sized thinking machine to figure out what the question was."
"I assume that planet was Earth?"
"Exactly. Which brings us back to Project 42. What we have assembled here is enough hardware and software to explore the collective intelligence of the planet."
"What do you mean?"
"You've heard of data mining, right? We're mining everything. We've searching through encrypted messages, government reports, conspiracy theory blogs, Sunday School periodicals--everything. We're even using Google's street view software to read graffiti off the walls."
"That's a lot of information, but what do you do with it? Data isn't knowledge."
"We're treating it as a problem in mimetics."
"Mimetics--I can never decide whether that is science or science fiction, but at least it isn't silly."
"Not silly at all. Mimetics treats words like genes, reproducing across information-space the way genes reproduce in physical space."
"Yes, I know the theory.  If I recall correctly, Richard Dawkins suggested it in The Selfish Gene, way back in the 70s."
"You have an unusually good memory!"
"Yes--because I don't waste it on fluff. Dawkins said that genes use organisms to propagate themselves, and he speculated that memes might do the same thing. I remember being startled by the thought that ideas might actually use humans to spread themselves."
"Project 42 doesn't go that far. What we are doing is mapping the mimetic 'DNA' to see if we can find a mimetic 'missing link.'"
"What do you mean by that?"
"In evolutionary biology, we assume that every living species comes from a single common ancestor. Biologists are decoding the DNA of so many living species every day that it's just a matter of time before software can start to tell us how and when the different organisms arose. The information is in there--it's just a matter of teasing it out."
"Sure--I can see how you look for a missing evolutionary link. But how does this apply to memes? We know where memes come from. People just make them up."
"Do they? That's the question. There are lots of memes that might be just made up, or they might be clues to something big."
"Like what?"
"How much time do you have?"
"It's your nickel. I've got as much time as you want to pay for."
"At $1000 an hour, I'll keep it brief. Here are three of the memes we're investigating--ghosts, dragons, and worldwide floods. You and I would agree that there's no such thing as a ghost or a dragon, and there's never been a worldwide flood, right?"
"So what do we find when we explore the 'ghost' meme? Since there are no actual ghosts, we would expect to find a more-or-less random assortment of 'spooky' elements in ghost stories, with some kind of Darwinian selection that conserves the 'spookiest' elements and loses the bits that don't frighten people."
"What we would not expect is a recurring pattern of non-spooky elements in ghost stories across different cultures. That would suggest that there's something more going on than mere imagination."
"Are you saying you're finding such a thing?"
"No--at least not yet. Results are still preliminary. I'm just explaining how mimetics help us explore such mysteries."
"You had me worried."
"Don't stop worrying yet."
"You listed ghosts, dragons, and floods. Keep going."
"Right--dragons.  With dragons, we have enough texts over time to watch mimetic evolution happen. In the old stories, there are dragons that walk, dragons that talk, and dragons that fly--but they are all different creatures. Over time, the 'standard dragon' in the West has morphed into the winged, greedy, fire-breathing monster you see in the Saturday morning cartoons."
"I'm not surprised."
"The thing is, the older texts are the ones most like creatures that have actually existed."
"Not during human history, though."
"How do we know that? Sure, we don't have any fossils that overlap--but we still don't really know what lurks in the deepest parts of the Congo. Who knows when the last of the dinosaurs died? If the first human story-teller saw the last living dinosaur, we might still be hearing about it."
"That's absurd! The gap is too great. There are too many millions of years between them."
"Maybe. Or maybe not. Mimetics enables us to dig where the fossils aren't."
"So much for ghosts and dragons. What was your third example, again?"
"Worldwide floods. There's a meme with legs, for you."
"Right--I've heard about that. Don't most cultures have a flood story?"
"Yes--one reason why these fundamentalists insist that Noah's Flood really happened."
"I thought Noah's Flood had been proved to be a local thing--I thought a couple of geologists demonstrated that the Black Sea was suddenly submerged about ten thousand years ago."
"Funny you should mention that--I never heard about that until the Project turned it up. William Ryan and Walter Pitman discovered that the Black Sea was a freshwater lake at the end of the last Ice Age, with a water level several hundred feet below sea level.  They proved it suddenly filled with salt water around 6000 BC."
"Right--and they said that every farming community was descended from the refugees, didn't they?"
"Yes. Their book, Noah's Flood, was mostly about the geological evidence, but it included a few mimetic arguments for their claim."
"What ever happened to them? I expected that book would make more waves, if you'll pardon the pun."
"I would call them victims of mimetics. Nobody had much of an argument with their scientific claims, but nobody picked them up and ran with them either. The scientific community wasn't interested in repeating the claim that a big chunk of Genesis might actually be a historical event. The fundamentalist community wasn't happy with a local flood, even if the Black Sea flood could be a literal eyewitness account of exactly what happened."
"So mimetics explains why stories don't spread as well as why they do?"
"Exactly--memes don't necessarily reproduce because they're true. They reproduce because they're popular. The more popular the idea, the faster it spreads."
"Do you think they were right about the flood?"
"I don't know--yet."
"But you think Project 42 can help us find out?"
"I do--if we can get the kinks out of it. Which is why you're here."
"Which is why I'm surprised. This sounds like a computer project. Why hire a shrink?"
"Because it's not the computers we're having trouble with. It's the operators."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Three suicides, several psychotic breakdowns, complete catatonic paralysis, and one operator who can't stop shouting, 'I see Jesus! I see Jesus!'"
"That's some kind of trouble! How long has this been going on?"
"It started about two weeks ago and stopped last Wednesday."
"It stopped on Wednesday? What changed?"
"It didn't stop. We stopped letting anybody near the interface."
"So as far as you know, it's just as deadly as ever?"
"As far as we know."
"You didn't have any troubles before two weeks ago?"
"No, quite the opposite. We were getting excited about the results. We had just completed a huge data add of religious materials--everything from the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Church of the Three-Eyed Toad--and there were all kinds of convergences popping up."
"That's what we call it when apparently unrelated memes appear in different contexts. You see something similar with genes--octopuses have the same kind of eyes that humans have. That either means the camera eye evolved twice (which is hard to believe) or that squids and humans share an ancestor with eyes."
"You were seeing convergences between religions?"
"Yes--all over the place."
"I'm not surprised. I've always suspected all religions basically say the same things--different brand names on the same basic product."
"That wasn't quite what we found. We mapped the memes and came up with something that looked just like the Mandelbrot set."
"The what?"
"The Mandelbrot set--one of the most familiar fractal functions."
"I thought that's what you said. It's that math thing that has all the pretty patterns, right? Seahorses and curlicues that keep reappearing as you zoom in at ever higher magnitudes?"
"That's the one. Although our map didn't have any seahorses--what we saw looked like the basic Mandelbrot plane--a squiggly circular sort of black space surrounded by infinitely intricate patterns."

"I think of the black bit as more heart-shaped."
"Heart, circle, whatever--it was surprisingly similar to our map of religious memes. And if you know how the Mandelbrot set works, you'll understand why that fascinated us."
"I'm a forensic psychiatrist, not a professional mathematician, so you'd better jog my memory on the Mandelbrot thing."
 "The Mandelbrot set is generated by a relatively simple function in the complex plane--you do know what the complex plane is, right?"
"I'm a shrink. Of course I know about complexes."
"I mean the plane formed by the real numbers along one axis and the imaginary numbers along another."
"Oh--those complexes."
"Right. Tell you what, let's skip the math and get to the point. The black circle, or heart, or whatever in the middle of the Mandelbrot set is the area where the function can't function, in a sense. The squiggly boundary around that empty black center is where all the interesting patterns appear."
"And this reminds you of religious mimetics, for some reason?"
"Yes--our map showed religious convergences all around an essentially empty center. Most of the major religious memes were equally far from this black point in the middle."
"I'm not saying they were identically distant. Some Zen Buddhist memes were pretty close to the center. Surprisingly, some Christian memes got even closer--but they were on the opposite side of the map."
"Interesting. But you say that happened two weeks ago."
"Yes, that was when we mapped the existing memes. The trouble started when we tried to find the 'missing link.'"
"Let me guess--you tried to generate a meme to fill the hole in the middle of the map."
"Yes. How did you know?"
"And once you did, your operators started going mad?"
"Yes, they did. But how did you know?"
"Because I'm a psychiatrist, not a psychologist."
"What do you mean?"
"You're a scientist, so you're dedicated to discovering the truth, right? Well, I'm not. I'm a pyschiatrist--in Greek, a healer of souls--not a psychologist, who studies them. When a patient comes to me, I'm not looking for the 'truth' about his life. I help people find a lie that they can live with."
"You don't mean that!"
"I don't usually say that, but I mean every word of it. And that's why I'm not surprised at what is happening. Your machine may reveal the secret of life, the universe, and everything--but who says humans can survive it?"
"I thought the truth will set you free!"
"That's what Jesus said. But in my experience, the truth will drive you mad."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Defining Education

My son is trying to define "education" over at his blog. I agree with Mike that "education" is a "process," but a practicing metaphysician can't resist this opportunity to dig into the epistemological substructure of "knowledge." Let's start with the physical basis of thought.

The human brain is a "neural network" which can be thought of as a hyperdimensional phase space. Since each brain has about one hundred billion neurons, there is a one-hundred-billion-dimensional "space" for each. I visualize that as a very folded, twisty space--a hundred billion dimensional labyrinth. In a purely metaphorical sense, one can visualize the "intelligence" of this neural network as the volume of the space. One can increase the volume by making new connections, converting a twisty tunnel in the labyrinth into a chamber in a cavern.

Another way to increase the volume of the labyrinth is to connect it up to other labyrinths. That's the reason I start my study of knowledge with physical brains and neural networks--the network isn't trapped within one human skull. Two human beings form a single neural network with two hundred billion neurons. Ten humans have a trillion nodes. Our planet currently has half a sextillion living human neurons that are increasingly connected to each other.

And we're not just limited to living human neurons. The "synapse" from one human brain to another is language. That means that a library of books captures trillions more of the best and brightest neurons humanity has to offer. Opening these books and connecting them up to living minds turns the  twisty little labyrinths into vaulted chambers where many tunnels intersect.

There's much more to education than books, of course--but not enough time to get into it now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Kindred Spirit!

Finally stumbled onto someone who gets Anselm's point.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Sunday

Today is the reason I am a Christian.
Something happened on the first Easter Sunday (AD 30 or so) that demands an explanation. Every explanation I come up with keeps coming back to the same point--something BIG happened that so changed the life of eleven demoralized disciples that they went out and changed the world.
The liberal Protestants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did their best to reconcile the science of their day with the fact of the Church. The liberal theologians had no objection to discounting any specific text of Scripture. They would have been perfectly comfortable with a humanistic explanation for anything. I have read a lot of their writings and find them ultimately unsatisfying. Their naturalistic paradigm just doesn't cover all the facts.
Perhaps they did the best they could with the science at hand. Twenty-first century science includes so many options our "modern" forbears never knew. They were hobbled by a physics in which miracles were impossible. We now are taught that nothing is impossible--its just a matter of quantum statistics. A man could walk on water if every water molecule rose to the surface at just the right moment. A man could rise from the dead if the quantum wave-function collapsed in that direction.
Given a physics which no longer rules out the story in the Gospels, what should a serious scientist make of Easter? It may be asking too much to expect him or her to dig through historical records to decide whether the eleven eyewitnesses were telling the truth about an empty tomb and a resurrected Christ.
If Christ did rise from the dead, reality should reflect it in a hundred ways that are incompatible with the merely naturalistic worldview that now characterizes science. I will be looking for those anomalies here, and invite believers and skeptics alike to help me think rigorously about the evidence for and against the resurrection.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Testing iPhone App


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The Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Principle

  1. John Wheeler came up with the "Participatory Anthropic Principle," in which the entire early universe expands as one vast collection of entangled particles until an "observer" becomes one of the quantum possibilities, at which point that "observer" observes itself into actuality.
  2. What Wheeler failed to note was the "petunia problem" (citing Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias appear in mid-air and then crash to the ground). An "observer" can exist long enough to "collapse the quantum wavefunction" yet not be able to exist very long after that. Wheeler's original Participatory Anthropic Principle must be modified into a Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Principle ("PPAP") in light of this problem.
  3. A PPAP should leave a distinctive trail in the genome that is as recognizable as the trail a subatomic particle leaves in a bubble chamber. This is because there are two kinds of "evolution" in operation--an "observer-driven evolution" that defies all odds as it produces the most intelligent organism possible in the shortest possible time, and a random "devolution" that cascades down from these more advanced organisms.
  4. On Earth, PPAP would predict some radical anomalies in the fossil record. There should be a few impossibly advanced species very early in the fossil record, with many variations radiating out from that ancestral stock. (This goes directly against the Darwinian model of long, slow growth towards the more advanced species.)
  5. The secular scientists should be able to take the model and look for anomalies. The most obvious ones are (a) the sudden appearance of life on earth which leads some to suggest some form of panspermia, (b) the radical diversification of multicellular animal life in the Cambrian Explosion, and (c) the perplexingly early appearance of birds in the fossil record.
  6. PPAP suggests that humans are not the only intelligent life-forms in the universe. This means that even the most secular scientists might want to take a second look at the book of Genesis. Genesis 1 might not be just a man-made myth; it could contain a communication from another intelligence (whether God, "angels," "fallen angels," or extra-terrestrial biological beings). PPAP makes it possible for secular people to consider the account of Genesis 1 as reliable information about a pre-human history.
  7. When we add Scripture to this reasoning, we get more specific about what to look for in the fossil and/or DNA record. Genesis 1 tells us that flowering plants appeared before the sun (1:11), the lights in the heavens appeared for signs and seasons (1:14), and birds appeared before land animals (1:20).
  • If flowering plants appeared before the sun, they must have appeared on some other planet. This suggests that pollen grains can travel between the stars. There is very little research on this topic (it is known as "reverse panspermia"), so I can't say whether it is possible or not--just that it is a falsifiable prediction of the PPAP hypothesis.
  • If the sun, moon, and stars appeared for signs and for seasons in a PPAP universe, an "observer" probably observed them. Modern molluscs have a camera eye that is startlingly similar to the vertebrate eye. Octopi are unbelievably intelligent-- but have terribly short lifespans (one or two years). They don't leave much in the way of fossils, so we need to look at the modern DNA to hunt for an common ancestor to link the vertebrate eye with a Cambrian observer.
  • Birds are the easiest observer to find in the fossil record. Avian intelligence is very high, and bird bones are preserved often enough to suggest that dinosaurs descended from birds, not vice versa. The "birds came first" theory is based solely on fossil evidence, not any Scripture--but Genesis 1:20 fits perfectly with PPAP.