The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

This biography of Paul Dirac, the Nobel winning British physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics, is foremost a mental biography. It is the story of an intuitive, mathematical mind that, using abstract thinking alone, correctly predicted the existence of anti-matter. He did no experiments.

The author chronicles Dirac’s social behavior, his impact on others, his emotional blindness, his insistence on mathematical and theoretic purity.  Farmelo makes the case that Paul Dirac had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.  He was mathematically brilliant, but lacked social intelligence –  the ability to ‘read’ other people as the complex emotional beings that they are, which is the hallmark of Asperger syndrome.  Weak social intelligence can seem like callousness.  Dirac’s lack of personal connection seemed to be on purpose, and people were offended and would think him mean. When someone like Dirac is also known to be very smart, what else can explain his manner? Dirac just did not give the personal regard that people seek. He did marry and have children, but his wife came to be very frustrated, and his children did not fare well. He loved watching Cher, but had no other interest in music.

People like Dirac can seem to be like sociopaths, but poor social intelligence is not sociopathy.  Sociopaths often have a very strong social intelligence, indeed a powerful ability to understand what others are feeling, what others want. This is what makes them often skillful manipulators. Their lack of empathy allows them to avoid guilt as they use others. They can convey warmth and concern, all the while acting viciously.

This was not Dirac.  He could eventually understand people, after using deliberate and careful perception, logic and analysis.  And when he did, he could be caring and loyal.

His contributions to physics were substantial.  He solved many of the important issues of early quantum mechanics, and won a Nobel Prize, but his later years were not very productive. He insisted on abstract mathematical beauty and was unable or unwilling to engage the rough promise of new experimental results.

Social intelligence uses a great amount of mental capacity, and may be the chief reason our brain’s evolved so large.  Weak social mentation can liberate other mental talents, free up ‘disc space’ for other types of mentation, such as visual or spatial thinking.  This is the story of the savant, of people like Dirac.

Dirac was lucky to arrive in Niels Bohr’s time. Bohr’s genius was leadership.  He had a great managerial intelligence, even though he was a clumsy speaker and writer. He and his loving and intelligent wife fostered an intensely supportive environment for gifted and varied personalities, some with social intelligence and empathy, and some without, Nobel minds like Schroedinger, Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, and Heisenberg. Even Bohr’s son would eventually win a Nobel Prize.

Under Bohr, these great minds unravelled, in a short few years, the mysteries of chemistry and nuclear forces and brought human knowledge to the very edge of what is knowable, a place we have yet to surpass.

Leonardo from Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, The flights of the Mind, Charles Nicholl, Penguin Books, 2005.

During his lifetime, Leonardo da Vinci was not considered the greatest visual artist of all time.  No, his personal lot was difficult, and endlessly trying.   He was an illegitimate son, a homosexual, a genius without peer, and always dependent for financial support on petty, vain, narrow-minded, and falsely pious rich men of medieval Italy.  He suffered fools continually.

A genius can’t really know what non-genius is like, and so life is puzzling, other people are baffling. The genius feels oppressively different and lonely and can be driven to seek expression, if not in this life, then for in the future.   This is how it was for Leonardo.  His work speaks to us 500 years later. His genius was visual, as Mozart’s was sound, his creativity futuristic, astonishing the world to this day.

“My advice is not to trouble yourself with words unless you are speaking to the blind.”

Three paintings:  The Lady with an Ermine, La Belle Ferronniere, and Mona Lisa are exquisite masterpieces. Leonardo presents his subjects radiant, unposed, mysteriously bemused, elegant, and subtly but powerfully defiant. We look at them, and they look at us.  We sense that they are unmistakenly people, individuals with thoughts, and hurts, and hopes, individuals who have a story.  There is a feeling of intrigue, something has happened. Leonardo doesn’t just capture pose, and clothing, and expression, he captures mentation, one can feel them thinking.  And they have dignity. Leonardo feels for them, and wants us see and feel for them also.  They are prisoners of sorts, sexual prisoners, sold into marriage by their families, to rich, older men.  They are confined – perhaps like him – by sexuality, the circumstances of the times, by the mediocrity of the powerful.  And so, too, with his Jesus. In The Last Supper, his Jesus is a person, not an icon.  This Jesus has resignation, disappointment, regrets, friends, and human needs, and is resigned to being misunderstood.

Leonardo’s paintings are astonishingly few. Late in life he regrets this, yet one senses that an element of purpose limited his output.  A subtle protest, perhaps, as if he felt it a blasphemy to give his artistic gifts over to the despicable, undeserving wealthy.  He was most proud of his work on medical illustrations, created from laborious dissections of human cadavers, carried out in the hospitals full of the unpretentious, common humanity.  He hoped to aid medical knowledge and treatment. This was his way to contribute his talents to the deserving.

Leonardo sensed the mystical in visual experience.

“Observe the flame of a candle and consider its beauty.  Blink your eye and look at it again.  What you see now was not there before, and what was there before is not there now.  Who is it who rekindles this flame which is always dying?”

J.R.R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey, Houghton Mifflin Company 2000.

The oldest and deepest desire satisfied by fairy tales is to tell tales of the great escape: the escape from Death.”

There is a sublime sadness in the eyes of the hero, Aragorn, within the triumph of resilience that is the story of The Lord of the Rings.  J.R.R. Tolkien suffered loss of his father to rheumatic fever, when he was four, and loss of his mother to diabetes when he was twelve.  He was raised by Catholic priests. He was gravely sickened with trench fever in World War I.

By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

He eventually married – a long and good marriage – and became an Oxford professor of old english, the literature before Shakespeare.  He taught in the years when Britain lost its confidence, Orwell wrote of the corruption of language, society abandoned religion, and Hitler rose to power.

For Tolkien, the great legends, such as Beowulf, speak eternal truths, the truths known before writing, known before civilization, truths that even the authors themselves do not realize they are telling, truths from God.

For Tolkien, God tells a legend story that He makes to actually happen:  the story of  Jesus Christ.

Modern times chose to turn away from the old stories and their truths.  For them, the past was not wisdom, it was superstition, Mythology doesn’t teach, it is artifact.

And for Tolkien, the price paid was ghastly wars.

The Lord of the Rings is a re-telling, for the modern ears that will hear, the old knowledge.  Tolkien re-tells the ancient lore for the modern reader, he re-presents the immemorial truths.

The Lord of the Rings is a story of common people and the power of common loyalty, of the universal temptation of power and the sure corruption by power, of the dangers of disbelief and the meaning in mortality, of the journey of living and courage in the face of despair, of the necessity of resisting evil and of staring annihilation in the face, of looking to one’s own sin and resisting the of sin of others, of facing insurmountable odds and of holding fast, of the power of simple friendship and the king restored to his throne.

“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat” – although it contains glimpses of final victory.”

History is not progressive, it is the perennial story, the recurring struggle with sin and death.

There is deliverance.  There is the Evangelium – joy beyond the veil of the world, the truth of the living God.

Modal Consciousness

Zen Mind is described as a state of egolessness, devoid of self consciousness.   One can utilize this state of mind, Zen shows us, in archery, martial arts, and calligraphy.  Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herrigel, is the short classic story of a westerner’s attempt to achieve Zen Mind and become a skilled archer. During the author’s eight years of training he is continuously redirected from trying to hit the target.  The arrow should release itself, you see, like a tree branch that bends to release a load of snow.  One doesn’t aim.  Without ego the arrow finds the target.  Zen Masters blow out candles with their arrows at 80 yards, blindfolded.

The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of LIfe, by Alison Gopnik, reviewed by Michael Greenbergin the New York Review of Books, March 10, 2010, describes what the author has discovered about human consciousness before age 6.  Children this age, she reports, have “lantern” consciousness as opposed to “spotlight” consciousness, which develops soon thereafter.  In “lantern” consciousness one does not have a sense of being a self observer as one is having experience, one is just “taking it all in”, with no intentionally focused attention.  This is likened to what an adult experiences watching a movie, immersed in the unfolding visual and auditory experience, with a suspended sense of self.

In “spotlight” consciousness, after age six, we develop the focused intention of the self-conscious observing self.  We direct our ‘show’.  We have a sense of me looking to see what I seek to see.  We have ego, filtering and directing our experience.

As adults we seem to be able to do both “lantern” and “spotlight” consciousness. This is empowering, and maddening.  Zen shows us that suspending “spotlight” for “lantern” consciousness can take some effort and training – it doesn’t seem natural – but it can be quite beneficial for perceptual and motor tasks.  Having unattached attention, any golf professional will tell you, refines skill and improves ability to perform body kinesthetic and hand-eye movements.

“Lantern” consciousness seems more like animal consciousness.  “Spotlight” consciousness may be uniquely human.  Why did it evolve?   Perhaps “spotlight” consciousness is for social living.  Having me at the center of my perception may be very important for negotiating the interpersonal landscape.  The social environment is every bit as perilous for humans as the predator environment is for animals.  Human survival depends on successful membership in groups.

“Lantern” consciousness may be more effective for acts in the natural world.  Animals hunt, move, and fight very well.

This duality can be maddening.  Our consciousness can shift.  This is not fully manageable.  We choke in sports, freeze on stage, lose our golf swing, suddenly forget what we were going to say.

History of Christianity

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek,  and author of American Lion, Andrew Jackson in the White House, reviews Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years, by Diamond MacCulloch, in the New York Times Book Review, April 4, 2010.

Meacham tells us he is officially sympathetic to christianity.  ” I am an episcopalian who takes the faith of my fathers seriously“,  but then, with qualification: “if unemotionally“.   He notes, too, that MacCulloch is also sympathetic to christianity, but also with qualification:   “I would now describe myself as a candid friend of christianity. I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human experience and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems” . . yet, “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”

So, Religion is OK, but only unemotionally, and don’t forget it is crazy.

Meacham seems to accept that religious faith is necessarily dogmatic, rigid, opposed to critical thinking, and intolerant.  He doesn’t seem to know that what makes religious faith, faith, is that it is a decision held knowingly in the face of known doubt and uncertainty.  And contrary to his concerns, the history of christianity is full of debate and philosophy and disagreement.

Meacham seems also to equate having religious faith with being ‘literalist’ –  taking the words of the Bible as only factual, without metaphor.  In this thinking, one is all or none – the Bible is all factual truth or all metaphor.   Yet he very likely would not deny that the Bible is great literature, written over thousands of years by numerous authors mostly unknown to each other, truly an authentic compilation of human literary effort.  And he would without doubt affirm that there is great truth in literature.  Not one element of profound literary theme or structure is missing from the Bible.

To the religious, the question of the literal truth of the Bible is not a meaningful, or even valid question.  It seems intended to diminish the sophistication of faith, and deserves no answer.  Is not all knowing, all conceptualization, ultimately metaphorical?  Is not story a powerful way to communicate profound truth?

Meacham approves of MacCulloch’s accusation that the Apostle Paul justified slavery.  But this is a weak point.  Paul wisely advised the very fragile early church to avoid radical opposition to the “existing social distinctions.”  This included slavery, which was, in those times, the ubiquitous norm of all civilizations. Meacham seems unaware of the powerlessness of the early christians, despite having read this history.  Their swift demise would have quickly followed any political stance against Roman power.  This, after all, is precisely what happened to Jesus.  A surviving movement was better than no movement at all.

Meacham also notes, approvingly, another MacCulloch opinion:  “For most of its existence, christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths, doing its best to eliminate all competition, with Judaism a qualified exception”. Huh?  Christianity has had its corruptions, and has been an instrument of political power, but what religion has built more hospitals, schools, and universities?  What religion has most fostered the independence of learning and the pluralistic societies of our day?

Men in Combat

“Combat fog obscures your fate…and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between men”

In Sebastian Junger’s War, a book about a company of soldiers in the Korengal Valley of Eastern Afghanistan, we experience war conceptually, and devoid of the cynicism of most war commentary.  Junger doesn’t speak to whether war is good or bad, but what it is. The book is a case study of men in combat, and it illuminates a wonderful aspect of our humanity.

Survival in combat depends on the precise coordination of individuals in a group.  It is the group that moves, acts, responds, not the man.  Alone in a firefight every man would die.  And so, out of necessity men in combat become a network of acute mutual dependence.  It is more powerful than any bond forged in peace.  Like a parent to a child, a man knows that the group depends on him for its survival, and like a child to a parent, he depends on it for his own.

In war, every part of a man’s life becomes devoted to his participation in the network of dependence.  All his decisions of personal organization and conduct affect the web of mutual protection.  He makes sure his boots are laced, or else he is too slow to his gun.  He monitors his supply of water and nutrients, or else he risks exhaustion while on patrol, slowing the group, exposing them to attack. Every daily act has a meaning as profound as life and death.

What is striking is how immediately men adopt the identity of the team: one gets the sense that we are evolved to coordinate and move as a pack.  But men that experience combat invariably have difficulty adjusting to peaceful society.  They struggle to leave the mindset of battle.  Despite the terror, fear, and death, the men in Junger’s unit miss combat—they crave it.  They have become adrenaline junkies (like the soldier that yells “better than crack!” over the roar of gunfire), but strangely, excitement alone fails to explain the feeling of loss felt by a soldier who leaves combat:

“In these hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not the most alive—that you can get skydiving—but the most utilized.  The most necessary.  The most clear and certain and purposeful.”

Junger observes that an act of courage in combat is indistinguishable from an act of love.

It seems we are not meant to live frivolously, leisurely, and lazily, as we do too often when our survival is not threatened.  We have the capacity to live vividly, to experience each personal decision as profoundly important to our survival and the survival of our group.  We seem to move closer to what we are meant to be, when we are forced with every step to consider the well-being of those on whom we mutually depend.

Something or Something else

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Steven Weinberg.

Science seems to have the unspoken goal of finding explanations that have no arbitrary element.   Nothing can be a certain way, when it could as well be another way.  Why it isn’t always has to be explained.   The result is that scientific explanations require that purely random elements somehow build the non-random world we know.

This is proving difficult.  The great mathematician, Kurt Gødel, proved that all logical systems require a ‘given’, an assumption that is unprovable by the logical system itself.  Reality seems so far to be the same.

Sean Carroll, in “From eternity to here“, 2010, tells us that the most important and baffling ‘given’ in our Universe is the unidirectional nature of time.  He traces the irreversibility of time to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy can only stay the same or increase.  Entropy is the measure of disorder of a system.  All of the other fundamental laws of physics seem to be time reversible.  Somehow, time reversible processes create time that is irreversible.  Carroll ventures to explain this.

Changing low entropy into higher entropy is the dynamic that creates our knowable world, the evolution of life, the existence of stars and planets, and galaxies, the unidirection of time.   And so entropy must have started low, but this is very improbable and therefore it must be explained, why didn’t it start high?

From eternity to here” gives us a wonderful tour of the advanced science that is grappling with this question.  We are presented the concepts behind  mathematical equations that have been found to predict the behavior of the universe.  In something like a parlor trick, science theory tells that what exists is what is probable. Anything can exist, however, no matter how improbable, given the immense time and space of the universe.  Infinity solves equations, Infinity has happened, yet the universe is only 14 billion years old. Empty space can have virtual particles that improbably, but actually, pop in and out of existence, and nothing can escape a black hole, except, improbably, something does. Probability helps explain reality, except when it doesn’t.  Cause and effect exists, except when it doesn’t.

Mr. Carroll is left engagingly unable to explain how entropy started low, and time is irreversible.  We seem to be left with a given.

Most people can accept many if not most scientific explanations, but most people, unlike Steven Weinberg, can’t really feel that it is all pointless.  There just seems like there is something when there could have been something else.

Neuron History

On Deep History and the Brain, Daniel Lord Smail, 2008.

Does culture evolve  and if so, how?  This is a big question, for if culture evolves and we can change its course, then perhaps we can change our future.  We tend to see cultural history as showing a progression, a direction, and that the accumulation of knowledge is increasing in complexity and power, and is ‘passed on’ in such a manner as to influence successive cultures, for good or ill.

In On Deep History and the Brain,  Danial Lord Smail suggests that the engine and logic of cultural evolution lies in the neurology of the human brain.  In his thinking, biologic evolution is about genes getting what they want, and cultural evolution is about neuron’s getting what they want.  Genes and neurons, however, don’t want the same things, and this may not be good. It has been said that our future would either be like 1984, by George Orwell, or like Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.  Daniel Lord Smail thinks it will be like Brave New World.  Genes, he suggests, want to proliferate, but neurons want soma.

Mr. Smail notes that the ideas and knowledge that ‘take hold’ in the neurons of minds the most avidly, and therefore get passed-on the most powerfully, are those that stimulate body sensations, particularly pleasure, but also fear, excitement, enhanced perception, and feelings of solidarity.  These create mental energy and a sense of virtual experience.  We crave, after all, experience, because we crave learning, and we particularly crave experience and learning that are low cost in energy. Vivid brain stimulation and virtual experience can seem like living and learning “for free” – at low energy cost.

And so, for Mr. Smail, History with a capital H can be seen as a story of seeking, obtaining, and manipulating increasing intensities of mental sensation.   Wars are fought for access to sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and hallucinogenic drugs, and religious rituals are developed for shared ecstatic mood, body excitement, and feelings of unity.  Greater masses of collective organization are sustained.  Dominant elites achieve influence and control and maintain hierarchy, using both the positives of excited ideology and the negatives of threatened and uncertain physical and emotional abuse.  History becomes a story of excitement, propaganda, group enthusiasm, and the control of the many by the few.

Not unlike mass societies, our brain neurons seem to have a heirarchical structure, with reward neurons at the top.  Mental stimulations which activate most effectively the most reward neurons will have the most acceptance and proliferation, and these reward neurons, like pharaoh’s and kings, will drive the lessor neurons to serve their needs. Think rock concerts, multi-media experiance, drugs and alcohol, the passion of political rallies, movies, television, and “Amusing Ourselves to Death“, Neil Postman, 1985.

The direction of culture evolution may not be progress, but intoxication.

Legacy of Compromise

Legacy of Secrecy, The long shadow of the JFK assassination, Lamar Waldron, with Thom Hartmann, 2009

Democracies are new to the world stage.  And the first, truly world wide power, the United States, is a democracy.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the United States had unprecedented military dominance.  The US could and did topple and build whole governments the world over.  Yet, according to this book – and many, many similar books – within US boundaries, criminal enterprises with government-like powers, have thrived.  It is a curious and unexpected development that such a powerful nation could have had such an astonishing usurpation of its power within its own borders.

If the stories outlined in this book can be believed, rogue elements within the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, working within, caused more national injury –  including presidential assassination and forced presidential resignation – than any outside enemy could have hoped to achieve.  Illegal business – drugs, prostitution, protection, gambling, and fraud, etc. – have attained the power of life and death over citizens, the ability to kill and get away with it, even Presidents.

The getting- away- with- it is the stunning story here. With shrewd involvement, calculated funding, and planned compromise of politicians and law enforcers – including the FBI and the CIA –  criminal organizations have gained immunity within. And so for these authors, our democracy has become a symbiosis of the legal and the illegal, and there is a tenous balance of crossing the line and not crossing the line.  Scandals are the inevitable splashes when crossing the line spills over – think Watergate, the Kennedy and MLK assassinations, Chinagate, and many others.

This book’s story is a long one, of myriad overlappings of the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, and pro-Castro Cubans, organized crime, and political operatives who conspire and commit assassinations, and achieve business and foreign policy manipulation.

And the investigations don’t go anywhere, because they can’t go anywhere, because in all directions compromise is to be found.  Indeed it has all been engineered that way, to block the truth.   The good guys do some good, and some bad, and the bad guys do mostly bad, and maybe some good, and the whole story gets partially aired in a ‘limited hangout’ that hides the collusion of government and crime.

A mansion has many rooms, and there were many things going on during the period of the [antiwar] bombings.  I’m not privy to who struck John.”

James Jesus Angleton, 31 year veteran of the CIA and Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, New York Times, December 25, 1974

“Mr. Angleton did not deny, however, that he had been named and identified by a British counterspy, Kim Philby, in “My Silent War”, a book published in 1968 after he defected to the Soviet Union.”   New York Times, December 25, 1974,  Helm’s Disavows ‘Illegal’ Spying by the C.I.A. in U.S, Seymour M. Hersh.

Das Kapital, A biography

Karl Marx has convinced generations of western intellectuals that capitalism is evil.  He witnessed capitalism during its early and ugliest stage, in 19th century England, and made the case that capitalism was an unavoidably diabolical exploitation of the many by the few.   Alas, over the next 150 years, capitalism lifted the material well being of the working masses to a degree unimaginable by Marx in his time, sparing mainly those who decided to follow him.  And yet Marx lives on.

In Das Kapital, A biography, by Francis Wheen, 2006, we meet Karl Marx the man.  He is a polymath, a voracious reader, an energetic, ideophoric thinker.  He is a very unappealing person.  He is angry, grandiose, self-loathing, eccentric, obsessive, argumentative, distractable, litiginous, compulsive, sickly, mean, sarcastic, a severe procrastinator, and unkempt most of the time.  He would not have succeeded on TV.

Das Kapital, his major work, was never finished. It is ponderous, full of literary reference, circuitous, and contradictory. It may be the most unread but revered book ever written.  His most enduring point was that history had a logic, history was not just ‘one damn thing after another’, it was humans exploiting humans in an dynamic process (heretofore not understood until by him).  We can all relate to that.

Marx predicted that Capitalism would degenerate into crisis.  Capitalism fosters technological innovation, which increases productivity. But this has precarious effects on employment.  Sometimes increased productivity creates new markets and new employment, at other times, it does not, or not soon enough.  In the Great Depression, the tractor destroyed farm labor faster than the industrial economy could create new employment.  Marx would have expected the Great Depression.  He wouldn’t have expected its recovery with the modern social welfare capitalist state.

As the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously said:  “Marx asked all the right questions, but got all the wrong answers”.

Marx revelled in his apocalyptic vision.  He enjoyed the devilish, sinister story of history he was convinced that he uniquely discovered.   ” Das Kapital can be read as a vast Gothic Novel whose heroes are enslaved and consumed by the monster they created“.

One of Marx’s favorite books was Frankenstein.

Das Kapital is a passionately condemns western enlightenment.  He was one of many who would deride the very kind of society that allows people like him to do with such relish what they love to do – – independently think, read, and philosophize.

“one can argue that the most truly Marxist achievement of the Soviet Union was its collapse:  a centralized, secretive, and bureaucratic command economy proved incompatible with new forces of production.”

Today, Marxist ideas linger on in the shadowy background of cultural studies.  Here, diabolical, unconscious exploitation carries on in language, in words, in mores, in texts. Culture, now, is the exploiter.  And so Marxism lives on in issues of education, religion, psychology, and family – ironically, all areas Marx considered ‘bunk’.