July 27, 2008

EMERGENCE AND POTENTIAL SPACE



Ouroboros
Sculture by Dan Gerhart http://www.dangerhart.com/



The word "Emergence" has intrinsic appeal. It immediately leads beyond itself---to a space of potentiality. The world is wide open after that final "e"---or at least sort of. For the most part emergence is evoked after the fact. I hope to look a little more at the space beyond the final e, but first things first.

Emergence provides a way to account for the development of higher life forms and even spirituality without requiring a master plan or planner. Emergence oversimplified means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A portion of its appeal is it provides an alternative to the reductive perspective, which holds that higher levels can be
completely explained by lower levels. Thus biology can be completely explained by chemistry and chemistry in turn by physics. Emergence in contrast says that novel properties can appear at higher levels that are essential to complete understanding. It implies there is always something new under the sun---or rather the potential for something new is always there.

I work together on a science and spirituality blog with a Brandeis undergraduate that we call
The Bridge: A Science and Spirituality Resource. I took on the task of summarizing an intriguing but challenging article by Terrence Deacon for the blog entitled “Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel's Hub.” At the end of my second time through the 40 page paper I had one of those experiences in which science and spirituality really converged for me. The moment of insight intensified during several subsequent readings. It marked a considerable deepening of my morning meditation and perhaps other aspects of my spiritual life as well.

The primary purpose of Deacon's article was not spiritual, but instead to impart some order to the promiscuous concept of emergence by characterized three different levels. However he brings all three together under the Eastern-seeming concept of absence, a potential shaped by what is not there. He quotes from the
Tao Te Ching

Thirty spokes converged at the wheel’s hub to an empty space that makes it useful. Clay is shaped into a vessel, to take advantage of the emptiness it surrounds. Doors and windows are cut into walls of a room so that it can serve so some function. Though we must work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.

First something about the basic idea behind emergence. Thermodynamics tells us that the universe is running downhill and becoming increasingly random. In a state of randomness a change in one direction is balanced by change in the opposite; everything cancels everything else out. How then is life possible, to say nothing of the purposefulness on which we humans so pride ourselves? After all, we are---including our minds---part of nature.

The answer is that the way things fit together---relational properties---instead of a canceling each other out, may, depending on a confluence of events, build on each other. These relational or configural properties are responsible for the spontaneous production of order, such as the formation of whirlpools and also the origins of life. They explain why our organism can turn over most of the physical material it is made of and nonetheless persist.

Deacon’s three levels of emergence represent three critical transitions in the organization of matter. At the first level, higher order properties can emerge when separate elements become an aggregate. (These phenomena can be explained reductively, but including this level provides a complete sweep of the terrain.) For example, when H2O molecules aggregate, the properties of liquidity emerge. Becoming a liquid gives rise to characteristics such as surface tension and different kinds of flow that depend on the molecules’ relationship to each other. Not only H2O but many different kinds of molecules can become liquids. The characteristic behavior associated with liquidity, its “laws,” then become a higher level description of these systems.

The second level transition describes the emergence or self-organization of form. Here first-order emergence becomes unstable. An example is a Benard cell. When a shallow pan of water or other liquid is heated evenly from the bottom, hexagonal convection cells emerge. All different kinds of convection patterns occur initially but they cancel each other out. Only the hexagonal cells survive because their close packing is most efficient at bringing the heat to the surface.

The emergence of form occurs when random fluctuations at a lower level---here water molecules rising to the surface to remove the heat---give rise to relational regularity at higher levels that are beneficial to the system. These beneficial regularities in turn influence the lower levels to support this arrangement---the two work together so only hexagonal cells form. The kind of causality that occurs in these self-organizing systems is decidedly circular. As Deacon puts it, “interaction dynamics at lower levels becomes strongly affected by regularities emerging at higher levels of organization.”

Another example of a self-organizing system is the spontaneous generation of autocatalytic sets. Heterogeneous molecules form together into a cycle where, for example, A catalyzes the formation of B, B catalyzes the formation of C, and C of A. These cycles are very important in cellular metabolism. All that is needed to keep them going is the availability of raw materials and an energy flow through the system.


Check out this video which shows a very sexy autocatalytic cycle called a Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction.




With the third transition, some sort of informational memory is present, for example genetic material. This allows emergent forms to be reproduced over and over again. Think of it like a franchise with loose corporate control. Reproduction can then occur over time and even space. This memory is what makes development and evolution possible and by the same token gives a history to the system. The ability of self-organizing forms to reproduce---so their occurrence is no longer dependent on spontaneous self-organization---is arguably where life begins. These systems have a purpose of sorts---to reproduce and undergo change that enhances the possibility of not being canceled out.

These higher-level emergent systems are shaped by absence in several different ways. They are forged not by design, but by what is not canceled out. The forms that arise and then reproduce depend to a large extent on factors external to them, such as their fit with environmental conditions. Life and the mind to which it has given rise---in part because this passive selection goes on---is ever governed by the 'pull of yet unrealized possibility.'
Notice there is something quite startling to ponder here---should one be so inclined. The very notion of purpose itself implies an absence. Do we have it backwards?

Here is the passage close to the end that showed me how deeply this paper---which at that point I at best barely understood---had gotten to me.

Like something coming out of nothing, the subject of self is, in effect, a constitutive absence for the sake of which new constitutive absence is being incessantly evolved. In this sense, there is some legitimacy to the eliminativist claim that there is 'no thing' that it is. Indeed this must be so. The locus of self is, effectively, a negative mode of existence, that can act as an unmoved mover of sorts: a non-thing that nonetheless is the locus of a form of inertia---a resistance to change--- with respect to which other physical processes can be recruited and organized.


When I read that (the second time through) I had one of those powerful moments of knowing in which I could capture only a little of what was being known. As a student of intuition I suspect these are the best kind. I any case I am happy my unconscious was doing its job.

I felt myself to be a mere input/output tube. There was an intense focus of energy around my mouth, one of the ways into or indeed out of the devise. I enjoyed the minimalism and cleanliness of sensing myself as nothing more than this tube and the energy that served as its gate---of being largely without a self for an instant.

It was an experience of spiritual absence or emptiness, but not the kind of spiritual emptiness that verges on transcending the physical realm. Rather it was an emptiness that was pregnant with the most elementary aspects of human life---of feeding and of speaking, which lent it a hearty, almost animal-like vitality. It was also pregnant with everything I was not worrying about that would take care of itself. Finally it was pregnant with all that would flow through me and I might take in and perhaps transform. I felt very simple and very free. There was just potential space.


June 26, 2008

What is Real? Quantum Physics for Real Dummies

Let's warm up with this one. Do you know how radio works? I can't say I really do but I know this. Signals from a radio broadcast, like any other electromagnetic signals, are waves that travel in the atmosphere. Somehow recording a radio show sets a series of electromagnetic waves in motion that radiate out into space. They can be picked up by radios in the viewing area tuned to waves of that frequency. So all of space is packed full with electromagnetic waves, some from Garrison Keillor, some from Adolph Hitler, and some from the Big Bang.

The first time I really comprehended this I found it freaky. I was reading a book by the physicist Richard Feynman, who was my hero at the time. There I was being bombarded by waves of all kind carrying heavens knows what.

It helped me begin to understand a very strange experience I had a number of years before. One night my stereo tuner, which was turned off, started broadcasting music. It seemed to be coming from the back---from one of the connections. I thought the house was inhabited by ghosts. Why it happened then and only then is beyond me.

So much for the warm-up---which is actually a bit of priming. Here comes the quantum physics. Our physical experience is dominated by objects that have more or less clear boundaries, that are separate from each other. Also causality reigns. If I so choose, with my arm I can knock the folder next to my computer off my desk. This follows the laws of classical physics.

But at the quantum level, the level of subatomic particles, most physicists think that it is all chance and randomness. Probabilities rather than certainty or causality are supposed to rule. It is only when an observation is made that the function that determines these probabilities, the wave function, is said to collapse into a specific state. Before that all possibilities are said to coexist or are superimposed.

I highly recommend this video. It is a very clear presentation of the famous double slit experiment that helped demonstrate the very strange things that happen at the subtle atomic level. It is also very entertaining--- worth watching just to enjoy Dr. Quantum's facial expressions!







Not everyone was happy with the randomness that the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics enshrines at the core of reality. Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice." He was not willing to give up the elegant determinism of classical physics. So he proposed that there must be hidden factors, what he called hidden variables, which really control events at the quantum level.

In the 1930s, along with some colleagues, Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that the usual understanding of quantum mechanics is incomplete. It pointed out a paradox. If particles are governed by chance, then some of the predictions of quantum theory would also indicate that particles far apart from each other do not always behave independently. This would be like twins halfway around the universe instantaneously affecting each other. The notion that particles widely separated in space could communicate instantly is extremely problematic because it violates Einstien's own dictum that the speed of light is the fastest any information can travel. Einstein argued that this indicated that the irreducible randomness or chance quantum mechanics seemed to suggest at the base of everything also had to be wrong.

A younger colleague, David Bohm, in the 1950s became interested in developing a deterministic understanding of quantum mechanics. He did not like that the usual interpretation had no underlying theoretical framework. A strongly intuitive physicist, he favored models he could picture or experience at some level. Like Einstein, he also thought it impossible that information could travel instantaneously between particles--- or faster than the speed of light.

His answer was a model in which a quantum potential guides the behavior of particles in a deterministic but holistic way. (Bohm's work built on an earlier attempt by Louis de Broglie in the 30's to provide an alternate explaination.) For example the quantum potential tells the electron whether one or two slits is open--- see above video---and guides it so the observed results occur. The quantum potential is able to this because it contains what Bohm called “active information” about the entire system. In effect, it allows the particle to “just know” the big picture.

Meanwhile in the 60s another physicist named John Bell , influenced by Bohm, proved theoretically that to extend determinism to subatomic particles would necessarily imply what has come to be called non-locality---that particles far apart from each other would have to be connected or communicate at faster than the speed of light . (This is what Einstein could not accept, but 3 decades later it didn't bother Bell) In the 1980s a French team led by Alain Aspect demonstrated non-locality by performing an experiment proposed by Bohm and Bell (based on Einstein's initial thought experiment). Non-locality is sometimes called quantum entanglement, and it is now well accepted by physicist. In fact efforts are underway to exploit quantum entanglement technologically.





Bohm eventually proposed another whole realm, what he called the implicate order, as the source of the quantum potential. In the implicate realm, the two twins halfway around the universe from each other are actually connected. The implicate realm is unfolded or smeared out throughout our level of reality, what Bohm called the explicate order---like those radio waves that somehow caused my turned-off radio to broadcast music. He often used the idea of a hologram, in which every part contains an image of the whole to capture the relationship between the implciate and the explicate realm. But a hologram is static, whereas he saw the process of unfolding and enfolding between the realms going on continuously. He called it holomovement. To get a better sense of his ideas, check out this interview with Bohm.

This talk of other realms did not endear Bohm’s work to mainstream physics. To add insult to injury, he worked closely with the Indian teacher Krishnamurti for many years. Nonetheless a small number of physicists preferred his causal or ontological model and have worked to refine and extend it. It is now called Bohmian mechanics.

Even though the quantum potential reinstates causality, it leaves us with a universe very different from the commonsense world we experience. ( It is important to point out that none of this affects the laws of physics at the macroscopic level, but rather our picture of the subatomic realm.) In what we generally call objective reality, distant objects only affect each other when a signal of some sort, a communication, travels between them. To rescue locality as well as causality the way we usually think of them, like Bohm, we have to accept another level of reality where distant particles really are close together.



This is quite a trade-off! At the same time there is something that rings true about this situation. I mean this in the sense that things very often do seem to turn into their opposites. In any case, all us dummies can take comfort in something Richard Feynman said, "I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics."

So far there has been no way to test Bohmian mechanics against the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics that claims that randomness rules. Just recently some preliminary data about the density of the early microwave radiation left over from the big bang seems to support Bohmian mechanics---according to Antony Valentini (also see first reference below and very end of post). If it is confirmed, it will cause quite a stir!



Additional Web Information:

Written in the skies: why quantum mechanics might be wrong, 2008, Nature On-Line (It is limted access, but important so I've reproduced the critical paragraphs below).



Quantum Randomness May Not be Random, 2008, New Scientist



David Bohm and the Implicate Order, by David Pratt



Do Deeper Principles Underlie Quantum Uncertainty and Nonlocality? 2005, Science



Interesting short video about the early history of quantum mechanics

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Written in the skies: why quantum mechanics might be wrong
Published online 15 May 2008 Nature doi:10.1038/news.2008.829
Zeeya Merali

'snip'

Almost all measurements of the cosmic microwave background seem to fit well with the predictions of quantum mechanics, says Valentini. But intriguingly, a distortion that fits one of Valentini’s proposed signatures for a failure of quantum mechanics was recently detected by Amit Yadav and Ben Wandelt at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (see 'Deflating inflation?'). That result has yet to be confirmed by independent analyses, but it is tantalizing, Valentini adds.

“It’s far too early to say that this is definite evidence of a breakdown in quantum mechanics — but it is a possibility,” he says.

Hiranya Peiris, an expert on the cosmic microwave background at the University of Cambridge, UK, is impressed by the new work. “This is a pretty cool new idea,” she says. “Nobody has ever thought of using the cosmic microwave background to look into really fundamental quantum questions — cosmologists just assume that quantum mechanics is correct,” she says.

But Peiris adds that Valentini must now come up with more detailed predictions about the types of distortion that will arise in the cosmic microwave background to convince cosmologists that they are really caused by a breakdown of quantum mechanics. “He has thrown some really exciting ideas out there, but now he needs to do the nitty-gritty calculations,” she says.

May 22, 2008

Salmon, Rice, and Peas--and Swiss Chard too


On weekend evenings when I was a child my family often had no-bother meals. One favorite was salmon, rice, and peas all mixed up together. The other was bagels and lox, which we had most Saturday nights. Bagels and lox are of course an ethnic tradition, but salmon, rice and peas seemed to be particular to my family.

The salmon and the peas were canned and the rice was Minute Rice. I can't say I loved the dish then, not like bagels and lox. But it was comfort food.

Over the years, every month or so I have had a yen for salmon rice and peas. I still use canned salmon but I’ve upgraded to frozen peas and longer cooking rice. At first I missed the special sweet, processed taste as well as squishy texture of the canned peas. But it's actually better with frozen peas.

Other than the above changes, I have been pretty faithful to the original recipe. This is not to say it always taste the same. To the contrary it’s not just one dish but a whole family of dishes---at least to my salmon-rice-and-peas-attuned palate. By adjusting the proportion, the salmon can dominate, the peas can dominate, or anything in between. Each of these endless variations can have tends to have subtly different overtones and undertones.

I just throw it together with minimum thought. However I cannot exclude the possibility that my unconscious mind is tailoring the mix to the needs of my palate (or my psyche) for the evening. Intuition can direct our actions whether or not we listen for that inner voice. Of course the best cooking comes about when we listen (see
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!?).

After a long abstinence, a few weeks ago it was a salmon rice and peas night. I had an idea for an alteration I just couldn't get out of my mind. My latest culinary enthusiasm is chard. I had a few leaves of chard in the refrigerator (with only one or two good days to go). Breaking all my year of salmon, rice, and peas near-purism, I considered cooking them up and throwing them in.

This was not something to be undertaken lightly. It seemed a sacrilege as well as a boundary crossing sure to have consequences other than the simple success or failure of the dish. Moreover why was I thinking of changing a trio that already played endlessly interestingly together into a quartet? Eventually I recognize that in spite of my careful conscious weighting of the pros and cons, the project was going forward. I started cooking the chard.

I usually do not add the juice from the salmon to the concoction. But chard has a strong taste. To balance it I decided I needed to add the juice as well as the whole can of salmon.

The first bite left me astounded. It was delicious; the flavors were bright and exceptionally well-balanced. But even more than that, it evoked my mother's palate—everything that was good about her cooking—perhaps more than anything I have tasted since her death.

I certainly crossed a boundary. But instead of moving further away from tradition it brought me closer to its core. Looking back, I guess I was never so crazy about salmon rice and peas, because it didn't have the brightness of my mother's weekday food (especially with those can canned peas).

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My mother wasn't a particularly skilled cook, but her food was tasty and she relished eating. She ate slowly and luxuriated in it perhaps more than anyone else I have ever known. All this was permission-giving to me. Learning to cook from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a prelude to my scientific career.
(see Food and the Spirit: Rededicating My Thesis 27 Years Later)

My mother also became interested in the kind of cooking championed by Julia. She however had a severe handicap. She just could not grasp what it meant to sauté something. She was fascinated by the concept and often asked me to explain it to her. She would seem to get it, but a number of months later she would ask me again. She was an intelligent woman, and I was incredulous at her apparent idiocy about the concept of sautéing.

After my experience re-creating the essence of my mother's food, I decided to look up sauté in the dictionary. It says:


To lightly fry in fat in a shallow, open pan—n. [French, "tossed (in a pan)," from the past participle of sauter, to leap, from Old French, from Latin saltara, frequentative of salare (past participle), to leap....]


Food leaping from the pan is a lovely image for sautéing. But I began to see that it is also somewhat problematic of a concept. Leaping is a relative thing—or rather the time of cooking before leaping. I'm not sure we really want sautéed chicken breasts to leap from the pan until the chicken is cooked. We don't want sautéed mushrooms to leap from the pan until they give back their juices.

These legalities—although I can't say exactly how—helped give me some insight into my mother's problem with the concept of sautéing. She sautéed all the time. She just couldn't figure out how it was different from pan frying or browning. She already had categories and she couldn't fit a new one in, especially one that is, like the others, not so well defined.

At some level I suspect her question was less about sautéing than it was about the essence of French cooking. This new technique she thought she could learn—if she could figure out what it meant— just might help situate her in this celebrated cuisine. And indeed Julia does mention a large number of tips in Mastering Vol I, such as high temperature and drying food with a paper towel (Ug, See
Intuition and Brussels Sprouts---what!!?). But it wasn’t really a new technique, rather just another name for what my mother on occasion already did.

In contrast I first learned to cook in the context of French cooking. I didn’t pan fry food but did that thing called sauté from the start. Also thanks to Julia, I had much of the context that went with it. I would not be surprised if other women of my mother's age felt the same way about sautéing, but were ashamed to admit it and kept their perplexity to themselves.


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My mother's difficulty was that a new word was used for a deeply familiar technique. Something similar can occur when familiar words are used in a new context. This happened to me around my first computer, a Mac. I was profoundly intimidated by frequent reference to “a finder” and to “a chooser.” I felt the same way when somewhat later a computer-savvy colleague said of a computer, “This machine has no security. I have to put some on.” I was dumbfounded. It was clearly important, but security meant men in uniforms. How could you put men in uniforms on a computer?

These words were chosen because they were considered intuitive in the sense of user-friendly. But I didn't know enough about computers (or computers with high-level languages) initially and then the internet to have a context for them. Because they were familiar words used in mysterious contexts, they seemed doubly impenetrable to me--- uncrossable barriers between those who were in the know and those who were not.

Our categories—the way we break the world up into kinds—are essential to our ability to construct meaning and hold onto it. After awhile it becomes hard to rename them, give them new context, or add another ingredient. To be sure “it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” But perhaps there is a more subtle lesson to be gleaned as well.

The categories that help one person or group make sense of the world can be different or have different contexts from those of another person or group. Sometimes it takes an act of intuition—along with some compassion for the way we all tend to hold on to familiar meanings—to translate in between. Good things tend to happen when we make the leap!

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Coincidentally, it turns out that the word Salmon is from the same root as sauté. The Latin name for Salmon is Salmo, hence the jumping or leaping fish!


I'd love to hear about your favorite comfort food---with or without embellishment.

April 21, 2008

ANOTHER SLANT ON CONSCIOUNESS: Vulnerability, Presence, and Power



A while back I did a post on Hillary (Hillary and the Woman Thing) in which I talked about her appeal to me when she allowed herself to feel and show vulnerability. She became a much more three-dimensional figure, and I felt her presence as never before. It was a wonderful complement as well as an antidote to her poised and tough persona, which strikes me as too image-bound. This, among other things, got me thinking about how female power might differ from male power and even more generally about the connection between vulnerability, presence, and power. I will flirt with the first question here but end up focusing on the second.

I knew I had to write about this, yet it is a challenging topic. On the face of it, vulnerability isn't power, its weakness. It's a bit like claiming that up is down. I had only a sketchy, nonverbal sense about why I felt so strongly that this conventional wisdom is wrong.

Then I attended a seminar at the Women's Studies Research Center, where I work, by my colleague Hilde Hein, a philosopher who studies museums. During her talk she presented a double analogy she had used years ago in a talk on aesthetics. She showed on one side of the screen a picture of a proud aggressive looking nail and on the other a more humble sewing needle just entering some fabric. Below is her eloquent description of these different implements, taken from her early paper. She writes that both are employed, “…to bind together diverse substances, both [are] progenitors of socially significant structures." You will have no difficulty knowing him from her.”

He is strong, rigid, and straight, with a point at one end, the better to penetrate resistance substances, and a strong head at the other. A few sharp and well directed strokes fix him firmly in place....He remains there, stalwart and unyielding until the material that he punctures softens and rots away and he himself becomes brittle and rusted. She, by contrast, is pliant, sleek and tapered, her purpose integrated continuously throughout her form, which is, however distinctively marked by a hole at one end. A thread, introduced through that orifice, is carried distributed and left behind to hold together and shape a unity out of separate fabrics, which, once joined,live out their collective identity long after she has passed to be of service elsewhere.


This fable of gender difference intrigued me---the commanding authoritarian male who actively maintains structures with iron force as opposed to the more generative female whose nurturing guidance leaves only an inter-psyche thread. I found myself thinking about it when I woke up the next morning and sensed that this was a way into what I wanted to say. Among other things, its truth/ non-truth quality---its aptness along with its limitations as a caricature---captures the ambivalence I feel about framing this issue through a gender lens.

In her paper Hilde focuses initially on the different kinds of artifacts and then art each produces. I will focus only (and only briefly) on the different kinds of sheltering each provides for us. The strong proud nail is essential to the outer boundary layer that separate us from the environment--- our building and houses. The more humble and well traveled needle is essential to creating a boundary layer closer in--- our clothing.

Yet we humans, both male and female, are made of the softer penetrable stuff on the outside at least. The boundary of our body with the external world, our skin and flesh, is soft and permeable like cloth. Because of this we can experience the kiss of a young spring breeze on our face and the joyful effervescence of bubble bath. Of course it also means we wound and tear. To keep out infection and to heal, we have to be sown together, with needles---and nowadays disappearing thread.

We are no crustaceans separated from the world by a hardened shell. Instead the tougher stuff, the more rigid part of our body, our bones, are hidden inside. When they break or fracture, nails---or even mental plates---may be required to keep them in place and maintain the integrity of our skeletal structure.

We are made to be permeable to the external world and to each other. (In fact what are called mirror neurons in our brain make us mirror the feelings of others even when we are unaware of doing so.) To the extent that we experience and reveal our inherent vulnerability, we paradoxically reveal the stronger stuff inside. When Hillary's face revealed her vulnerability when her opponent came over to her podium in a debate during her first Senate campaign demanding she sign a statement, she seemed not only more likable, but stronger and more resilient. We saw the bones of her Being. This moment of being seems to have been the turning point in the race.

When we defend against external forces we don't like and the feelings they bring up---something alas we all do---we pretend we can maintain ourselves inviolate. Like George Bush we hold the line and become the decider of what we will let in and what we will keep out. Instead of feeling our vulnerability to the vicissitudes of life and fate, we turn it around and preemptively---and/or indiscriminately---kick ass. (The more openly vulnerable the target, the better to deflect our own banished feelings.) Instead of strength, we show meanness or bravado. Instead of letting life reveal the bones of being human, we try to stage manage it so it becomes an endless photo op.

The truth is we can't keep out difficult feelings, and perhaps especially painful vulnerability. It is inherent in the curse and gift of consciousness. Even if we try to deflect them by projecting them outward and making sure others feel them instead, they still leave their mark on us---in our muscles and maybe even our bones. In some real sense we store the unpleasant feelings we wish to keep out inside our bodies. (Remember the old saying that you become what you resist.)


My chiropractor tells me that like muscles, bones can hold tension. I'm not completely sure how this works; it could be that bones can store blocked Ch'i, or life force. In any case, the muscles that hold the bones in place have to maintain tension to do their job. I suppose as a result they can hold a certain amount of unnecessary tension as well. Difficult feelings we refuse to feel also can be stored in the patterns of reaction of muscles, including presumably the muscles that hold the bones. Whatever the mechanism, unfelt feelings tend to make our bodies function in a rigid and stiff or otherwise maladaptive way---the very opposite of the resilience and flexibility we all desire.

Experiencing vulnerability is not the same as feeling victimized. Nor does it mean taking to heart what another is saying or doing. Being vulnerable in the sense I am using it means fully feeling whatever is happening and letting it reverberate through the bones of one’s being. What I found so magnificent about Hillary in the debate in her first Senate race I described above was that she was completely present to that difficult moment.

This is a more difficult task with a backlog of stored trauma, as many of us have, or just stuff. But it is not impossible, just more of a challenge. The trick, it would seem, is to be completely permeable. This means feeling whatever is happening, remaining present as it reverberates through both our bodies and our being as long as it needs to, and then letting it pass out through the other side.

This ability to be fully present in the moment---and the next moment and the next moment--- feeling one's vulnerability to the external world and whatever it brings and brings up, links vulnerability not only to presence, but to real power. In difficult situations, correct action---actions which will serve others as well as the self---can only come from being present to what is happening as it echoes through our being before it goes out the other side. This is true whether it calls for the forceful structuring of the nail, the more gentle guidance of the needle, or something in between. No doubt we will often get it wrong, but with the effort to stay conscious, perhaps we can get it right much more of the time.


March 21, 2008

WOMEN IN SCIENCE and...(an illuminating conjunction)!

One of a series of 36 posters by Pamela Davis Kivelson for the PDK Poster Project on Women in Science.



The title of the article on women in science was a little bit odd, "Why Can't a Woman Be More like a Man?" and there were some other clues as well. But my misgivings were allayed by the following sentence that appeared close to the beginning. "The research on gender and vocation is complex, vibrant, and full of reasonable disagreements; there is no single, sensible answer." I experienced a pleasurable crisp feeling as I read that.

I have been somewhat less condemning of the Lawrence Summers escapade (transcripts of his comments) than most of my colleagues at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis. (See also) As a scientist I feel that even controversial, "politically incorrect" data should get an airing, especially if it speaks to critical cultural controversies. However, I have to acknowledge that I cannot say how I would have reacted had I been at his presentation.

The facts seem clearly stated in the third paragraph of the article. “ Women comprise just 19% of tenure-track professors in math, 11% in physics, 10% in computer science, and 10% in engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 25% of the Ph.D.'s in the physical sciences---way up from the 4% of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields." This apparently clear statement of the facts along with the crisp sentence cited above helped set me up (primed me) to be more accepting of the author's argument than I otherwise might have been.

She argues that the low percentage of women in these fields reflects the female tendency to prefer careers connected to nurturing. She cites, for example, a survey in which 1500 professors (gender breakdown not given) were asked what accounts for the low percentage of women and 74% chalked it up to differences in interests. She also cites work by Baron-Cohen suggesting that autism is the far end of the male spectrum. He feels that the male brain on average is wired to be better at systematizing and the female brain better at empathizing.

In a skillfully presented case, the author suggests that the campaign to get more women in these as well as other aspects of science is not just a con, but a juggernaut completely out of control. Those on the gender equality in the sciences bandwagon have hoodwinked university presidents, the NSF, and now even Congress into making a nonexistent problem a cause célèbre. A Title IX program for the physical sciences analogous to the Title IX program for sports is in effect (although its requirements have apparently been unevenly enforced). They have been able to do this, she claims, because of:



… a body of feminist research that purports to prove (emphasis added) that women suffer from “hidden bias.” This research, artfully (emphasis added) presented with no critics or skeptics present, can be persuasive. A brief look at it helps explain the mind-set of the critics and their supporters. But it is a highly ironic story. For the three recognized canons of literature are, in key respects, travesties of the scientific method, and they have been publicized and promoted in ways that ignore elementary standards of transparency in objectivity.

Since I only had the information the author gave me, at first reading I found her arguments plausible against two of the three sources used to bolster the feminists perspective (see below however). Introducing the third source, she wrote “How in the face of women's clear tendencies to choose other careers and more balanced lifestyles, can one reasonably attribute the scarcity of women in science and engineering to unconscious bias and sexist discrimination? Valian showed the way.” Quoting Valian, she continues:

In white, Western middle-class society, the gender schema for men includes being capable of independent, autonomous action...[and being] assertive, instrumental, and task oriented. Men act. The gender schema for women is different: it includes being nurturant, expressive, communal, and concerned about others.

Continuing to describe Valian's work, she says:

Valian does not deny that schemas have a foundation in biology, but she insists that culture can intensify or diminish their power and their effect. Our society, she says, pressures women to indulge their nurturing propensities while it encourages men to develop "a strong commitment to earning and prestige, great dedication to the job, and an intense desire for achievement." All this inevitably result in a permanently unfair advantage for men.


I recognized some deep resonance with Valian’s claims. However just as I was starting to reconsider the easy pass I was giving the argument of the author of the article I was reading, I learned about mandatory gender bias workshops in which interactive theater about exaggerated situations is used to try to raise the consciousness of physicists and engineers who get government grants. This did seem over-the-top. I was also kept in line by a report of a Title IX review requiring a female physics professor to make a list of all the equipment in the lab and indicate whether women were allowed to use each item.

I finished the article and then noticed that what I had been reading was published in the American Enterprise Institute bimonthly newsletter. I also recognized that the author Christina Hoff Sommers had written an intensely antifeminist book (while claiming herself as a true feminist). Uh-huh, I thought to myself.

In retrospect, the last paragraph of the article made perfect sense.Sommer's wrote, "Americans scientific excellence is a precious natural resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation's health and safety" She then points out that people from MIT have started more than 5000 companies in the past 50 years. She asks, "Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results?"

Cooperative science works, and more of it sounds great to me. Moreover, as current events strongly argue, the well-being of our economy and our health and safety as citizens depends considerably more on having leaders capable of objectivity and willing to assure adequate government regulation and than it does on resisting any hypothetical decline in scientific and technological innovation that having more women in these fields might bring. Besides having more women might increase innovation!



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Without thinking more about the article, I went on to my real task for the evening. It was once again rereading a paper by John Bargh and Melissa Fergerson on the automaticity of higher mental processes. They reviewed studies showing that researchers can prime all kinds of higher level behavior most of us generally assume depends primarily on conscious processes. For example just by giving subjects scrambled sentences containing several words relating to a stereotype they can prime subjects to identify with a stereotype and thereby influence their behavior. In one study subjects were primed with the stereotype of university professor or hooligan. In a second apparently unrelated task, those primed with the professor stereotype answered more Trivial Pursuit questions than those primed with hooligan.

Even as I have appreciated the growing body of work in Social Psychology on automatic behavior, I have been a bit resistant to it. For one thing, it seems that random priming influences would more or less cancel out in real life. Also this work is often used to make the point that introspection is useless since our behavior is governed by extraneous influences of which we are unaware. Certainly introspection, like anything else, has its limits, but it is often invaluable.

That night the words of the article almost danced on the page. I really got it, or the version of it that makes sense to me. Even very subtle consistent environmental influences can over time have a powerful and long-lasting effect on the psyche. Once again, the message about the power of conditioning hit home. Wow!



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The next morning as I lay in bed, I was quite astonished when I recognized the relevance of the work on automaticity to the women in science problem. No wonder the words danced on the page! The women in science article had in a sense primed me to get the social psychology material on environmental priming (and vice versa as well--- why not reverse priming since things stick around in our head?).

As I lay there, my thoughts kept coming back to the female junior physics professor who Sommers claimed had been required to list for Title IX reviewers whether women were allowed to use each piece of equipment. I wondered whether she had instead been asked to report, on the basis of equipment logs, the percentage of time women got to use important pieces of equipment versus men? Such a question could provide data on one aspect of potential implicit gender bias in laboratories. (The other question, if it makes sense that all, would look at explicit bias.) So I decided to check out Sommers sources. Yes, I found that the female junior physics professor, not shy about her hostility to Title IX review,really did tell a reporter for Science Magazine that she was required to list all her equipment and say if female lab members could use each piece. (I still suspect this is not the whole story.)

I will not consider the second gender-bias-in-science source Sommers critiques, as the story is too convoluted. However Sommers was less than judicious in her comments about the summary of the in-house MIT report made available to the public---which was what got the "gender equality in science" movement going in the first place. For example, she quotes from an ungenerous source, conservative anti-feminist Judith Kleinfeld who calls it “junk science” for not obtaining confidential informationin some cases and not revealing it in others.

In contrast I was struck by the judicious and sincere tone of the report. For example, on page 8, it says, “Data reviews revealed that in some departments, men and women faculty appear to share equally in material resources and rewards, in others they did not.”

Sommers in addition claims that the summary, which was publicized as showing objectively that there was a woman in science problem, failed to do so. I disagree since it documented the most important piece of information. It shows that from 1985-1994 the proportion of women in senior faculty positions in MIT’s School of Science remained constant at roughly 8%.

She also suggests the authors of the report might be misconstruing the broader problem in a critical way. Quoting from the report, she writes: [The summary concedes]“Junior women felt included and supported by their departments." Sommers continues: "Instead of acknowledging that the problem might be generational and confined to a small group of senior women from three departments, Hopkins and the other authors of the report claimed that the Junior women were naïve and simply did not know what was in store for them: [Again quoting the report] "Each generation of young women began... by believing that gender discrimination was solved in the previous generation and would not touch them.”

Quite to the contrary, the scientists place this paradox close to the core of their understanding of the problem. It is what we call the glass ceiling.

An important finding to emerge from the interviews was that the difference in the perception of junior and senior women faculty about the impact of gender on their careers is a difference that repeats itself over generations. Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was "solved" in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result. (p. 9: from section called: What the Committee Learned)


Implicit gender bias increases as women climb the academic latter . [From the summary of the report by the chair of the MIT faculty, p. 3:] "It was only when they came together, and with persistence and integrity, that they saw that as their careers advanced something else besides competence came into play, which for them meant an accumulation of slight disadvantages, with just the opposite for their male colleagues.

Two other paragraphs struck me as I read the report, especially after having "got" the work on priming.


...While the reasons for discrimination are complex, a critical part of the explanation lies in our collective ignorance. We must accept that what happened to the tenured women faculty in the School of Science is what discrimination is. It defines discrimination in the period from the 1970s up till today. But we, including for a long time the women faculty themselves, were slow to recognize and understand this for several reasons. First, it did not look like what we thought discrimination looked like. Most of us thought that the Civil Rights laws and Affirmative Action had solved gender "discrimination". But gender discrimination turns out to take many forms and many of these are not simple to recognize. Women faculty who lived the experience came to see the pattern of difference in how their male and female colleagues were treated and gradually they realized that this was discrimination. But when they spoke up, no one heard them, believing that each problem could be explained alternatively by its "special circumstances." Only when the women came together and shared their knowledge, only when the data were looked at through this knowledge and across departments, were the patterns irrefutable.

They found that discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful, but unrecognized assumptions and attitudes that work systematically against women faculty in the light of obvious goodwill. Like many discoveries, at first it is startling and unexpected. Once you "get it," it seems almost obvious. Of (p.10-11: from section called: How Did Inequality Come about? “Gender Discrimination” in 1999).


By 1999 when the summary of the 1995 report was released as a result of its recommendations the percentage of female tenured faculty at MIT in the sciences had increased to 13%, representing a 40% increase. However as far as I can ascertain, the percentage seems to have remained relatively steady since. Certainly there are fewer women than men who want to go into these fields, no doubt in part because of innate preferences. But implicit bias against women in science, which women as well as men harbor, exacerbates the situation. (By the way, you might might want to test and see if you have unconscious bias that associates science more with men than women.)


Finally this brings us back to those over-the-top workshops on gender bias mandated by Title IX. Implicit gender bias, like other implicit bias, is nearly impossible for us to become aware of on our own. Workshops on gender bias using interactive theater and exaggerated situations, rather than indicating a feminist agenda out of control, may make sense as a way to shake up implicit as well as explicit bias. However I feel it might be even more important to have workshops in junior high, high school, and college that help counteract the bias against becoming a scientist in the young women themselves harbor.



February 21, 2008

KARL POPPER AS THE 'ULTIMATE WARRIOR'


About a year ago I took Conjecture and Refutation by philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994) out of the Brandeis library (also see). I am a great admirer of Popper's work. He was among the first philosophers of science to suggest that scientific theories are a product of human imagination/intuition. He felt that theories come first and determine which experiments are done. In contrast, the logical positivists, whose views were prominent at the time and still are to some extent, believed that the data comes first and determines theory. Since for Popper theory is based on conjecture, he argued that falsification of theory, or disproof, not verification, is the proper work of science.

Flipping through Conjecture and Refutation, I saw that a previous reader had left me a gift. It was an exceedingly unlikely bookmark for a treatise on the philosophy of science---even one that was a reasonably good read. Sporting the rather terrifying image of the bulked-up Intercontinental Wrestling Champion Ultimate Warrior in full warrior regalia shown above, it revealed the human being at its least cerebral and abstract.Brandeis is a pretty lofty place. Is it possible, I wondered, there is a Brandeis student who reads philosophy of science by day but is obsessed by steroid-taking human gladiators of the least subtle kind at night?

The idea of calling Karl Popper 'the ultimate warrior' came to seem less strange when I started dipping into Conjecture and Refutation. One chapter in particular brought home to me that Karl Popper could rightly be seen as a champion wrestler.(By the way,eventually I read the medium-size print on the back of the card and the mystery cleared up. It is one of a series of wrestling cards given out with video rentals at Coliseum Video Stores. What do I know!?)




In the chapter that especially captivated me, called "Back to the Presocratics," Popper considers the early Presocratic Tradition in part in light of the question of the role of observation in scientific endeavor. The following passages are from close to the beginning of the chapter. They might surprise those who associate Popper only with the idea that scientific theories have to be falsifiable (and empirically so).


The questions which the Presocratics tried to answer were primarily cosmological questions, but there were also questions of the theory of knowledge.... All science is cosmology, I believe, and for me the interest of philosophy, no less than of science, lies solely in its bold attempt to add to our knowledge of the world, and to the theory of our knowledge of the world.

...[I] is good to remember from time to time that our Western science—and there seems to be no other—did not start with collecting observations of oranges, but with bold theories about the world.

The Presocratics were concerned with such issues as. "'How do we know that the world is made of water?'" or, "'How do we know that the world is full of gods?’" or "'How can we know anything about the gods?'" In contrast Popper expresses disdain for the kind of questions that tended to interest his fellow philosophers, such as, "'How do I know that this is an orange?'" an influence he attributes to Francis Bacon.


We must not forget that the function of the Baconian myth is to explain why scientific statements are true, by pointing out that observation is the 'true source' of our scientific knowledge. Once we realize that all scientific statements are hypotheses, or guesses, or conjectures, and that the vast majority of these conjectures (including Bacon's own) have turned out to be false, the Baconian myth becomes irrelevant. For it is pointless to argue that the conjectures of science—those which have proved to be false as well as those which are still accepted—all start from observation.

Popper uses two early Presocratic theories about what keeps the earth in place to illustrate his views. Thales (620-547 BCE), who is sometimes called 'the first Greek philosopher' and sometimes 'the father of science,' understood the earth to be suspended in water like a ship. During an earthquake, he thought, the disturbance of the water it is suspended in makes the earth shutter. Popper points out that Thales' theory was not directly based on observation, although it seems to have been inspired by analogy to the experience of the earth shuttering during an earthquake as well seeing (or being on) a ship rolling with the waves. Yet experience could have played no role in the theory of the brilliant student of Thales Anaximander (610-546 BCE) because his views ran directly counter to observation. According to Anaximander:


'The earth... is held up by nothing, but remains stationary owing to the fact that it is equally distant from all other things. Its shape is... like that of a drum... .We walk on one of its flat surfaces, while the other is on the opposite side.' [Popper continues]The drum of course, is an observational analogy. But the idea of the earth's free suspension in space, and the explanation of its stability, and have no analogy what ever in the whole field of observable facts.

Popper speculates that Anaximander came to his theory by recognizing that his teacher's Thales view, would lead to infinite regress. If being supported by water explains the stability of the earth, what in turn accounts for the stability of the ocean, and in turn what accounts for the stability of what supports the ocean?


From this we see intuitively that the stability of the world cannot be secured by a system of supports or props. Instead Anaximander appeals to the internal or structural symmetry of the world, which ensures that there is no preferred direction in which a collapse can take place. He applies the principal that where there are no differences there can be no change. In this way he explains the stability of the earth by the equality of its distances from all things.

This view of the earth as freely suspended in space but immobilized because of its equidistant position, Popper considers one of the boldest and most important breakthroughs in the history of human ideas. It made possible Copernicus’s views; but as the initial step Anaximander’s idea was an even bolder conjecture. We see echoes of it even in Newton with his mysterious and invisible gravitational force. However Popper is not easily satisfied. He inquires why did Anaximander not take the next step and postulate that the earth was a symmetrical globe rather than a drum.


There can be little doubt: it was observational experience which taught him that the surface of the earth was, by and large, flat. Thus it was a speculative and critical argument, the abstract critical discussion of Thales' theory, which almost led him to the truth theory of the shape of the Earth; and it was observational experience which led him astray.

Popper anticipates the argument against his views.


But, a follower of Bacon may reply Anaximander was not a scientist. This is precisely why we speak of early Greek philosophy rather than of early Greek science. Philosophy is speculative: everyone knows this. And as everyone knows, science only begins when the speculative method is replaced by the observational method, and when deduction is replaced by induction.

He answers:


This reply, of course, amounts to the thesis that scientific theories should be defined by reference to their origin—their origin in observations, or in so-called 'inductive procedures'. Yet I believe that few, if any, physical theories would fall under this definition. And I do not see why the question of origin should be important in this connection. What is important about a theory is its explanatory power, and whether it stands up to criticism and to tests. The question of its origin, of how it is arrived at—whether by an 'inductive procedure', as some say, or by an act of intuition—may be extremely interesting... but it has little to do with it scientific status or character.

Popper reveals that it is of little concern to him whether the Presocratics are called scientists, pre-scientists or philosophers. But just as the origins of a theory in observation or intuition has nothing to do with whether it is a scientific theory, likewise whether a theory turns out to be true or false has nothing to do with whether it is a scientific theory. A number of theories that have turned out to be false have been more generative in our search to understand the universe than less bold theories which still stand. Theories supported by many observations, just like theories based only on intuition, often turn out to be wrong. When this happens, Popper asks, should the historian or philosopher of science then reclassify them as unscientific?




A final comment----

Alas I suspect that in spite of the above, some will see Popper not as 'the Ultimate Warrior' but only as Hulk Hogan the runner up!