2019-08-12

Lt. Doolittle strikes again


Those who harbour a knack for science fiction books and films might have enjoyed John Carpenter's Dark Star, a grade-B comedy on the crew of a cosmic ice breaker removing unstable planets across the galaxy to blaze a safe trail for future colonists. One day, after twenty years of deterioration, the ship has a serious malfunction: one of the intelligent planet busters gets stuck in its brackets, threatening to blow up right at the side of the ship.

Due to the damage to the ship's computer, the crew members cannot activate the release mechanism and attempt to abort the drop. After two prior accidental deployments, Bomb #20 refuses to disarm or abort the countdown sequence. The computer activates dampers to confine the blast to a diameter of one mile, but that is all it can do at the moment. As Pinback and Boiler try to talk the bomb out of blowing up underneath the ship, Doolittle revives Commander Powell, who advises him to teach the bomb the rudiments of phenomenology. After donning a space suit and exiting the ship to approach the bomb directly, Doolittle engages in a philosophical conversation with Bomb #20 until it decides to abort its countdown and retreat to the bomb bay for further contemplation. [Wikipedia: Dark Star]
Bomb #20 & Lt. Doolittle, scene from John Carpenter's 'Dark Star'
Doolittle's conversation with the bomb counts among the funniest moments in science fiction. The lieutenant attempts to convince Bomb #20 that it cannot know for sure that it has received a real detonation order, as that order has arrived by way of electrical impulses only – mediated. Without immediate knowledge of the outside world there is a significant probability the impulses have transmitted false data. Would the bomb shed its existence, once and forever, based on a – perhaps false – perception?

Dark Star has amused me ten years ago; it has me chuckling even today, 300+ philosophical essays after first watching the film. The problem Doolittle puts before the bomb cannot be solved by rational means. Cartesian rationality has reduced selfhood to mind, and mind located in the brain or in a micro-chip of an individual. The brain in a jar scenario Doolittle sells the bomb as nature-of-reality keeps us caught stewing in our own juice, with no means of knowing whether there is an outside world at all – unless we allow irrational knowledge in. Despite heavily building on Descartes' emphasis on the mind as the core of what we call 'me' (the subject), modern science admits the sensory perception of an observer for determining what is objectively true and real. Insisting on just one reality existing 'out there', well knowing that different observers see different realities, science has outsourced perception to supposedly unbiased machines, thus adding another layer of perception between the observer and the observed.

Despite everything that is wrong with the general notion of modern science, let's just assume for the sake of argument that it has a good grip on reality, and let's try and solve some exemplary questions.


What is Time?
So there we delve right into the 'matter' of time. What is time?
Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change... [Wikipedia: Time]
Wikipedia's definition of time as a measurable process might be just as good as any definition, weren't it for the fact that numerous philosophers, whole cultures even, have denied its existence altogether, for good reasons I won't get into with this article. So what are we left with?

The above definition negates itself by saying that time is indefinite, literally not defined, i.e. without an end. We might also say it pervades everything in its way, informs everything, or even is everything. So it cannot be a separate thing; rather a no-thing. Following the above formulation it could be an aspect of existence, a 'component quantity', as Wikipedia put it, a quality, or just a mental concept.

Apart from this not-merely linguistic observation, considering that time is not a thing we can touch, smell, taste, feel, hear, i.e. perceive physically, how do we perceive time scientifically? How to we measure time?
We don't.

As opposed to the above definition, time is not getting used for sequencing events, comparing durations, or quantifying change – time's existence is assumed on the basis of our perception of changes. A snail creeps through our visual field from left to right; we think that this takes time during which the clock has moved from displaying one-quarter past the hour to one-half past the hour; we think that the clock has measured time. But the clock doesn't react to something timy. It has not observed an external process or thing, it just follows a mechanical or electronic program: the movement of the sun past a sundial, the falling of crystals through the neck of an hourglass, the releasing of a spring, the movement of electrons. A mechanical clock not fully wound or a digital watch whose battery is mostly empty give different figures. So clocks don't measure time. If anything they measure 'energy' discharged from celestial bodies, Earth's gravity, a spring, a battery, or decaying atoms.
Sgt Pinback & Lt. Doolittle, scene from John Carpenter's 'Dark Star'
What is Energy?
So what is energy? Can you see it, touch it, hear it...? Again, there is no way by which we could safely state that energy is a thing in the usual sense of English vernacular. Energy is a concept encompassing a broad range of different manifestations, from gravity to heat, electricity, velocity, or light. Again, like with time, we cannot measure the essence of it; its mere presence cannot be perceived, only effects that we attribute to its discharge. That means it is hardly different from black holes, dark matter, and dark energy, all of which cannot be perceived; they exist merely within mathematical formulae that describe concepts in physics.


What is Matter?
So what is matter, then? This is the stuff of perception... we believe. We can smell and taste the sweat on our skin, yet those molecules which reach our sensory organs represent only a tiny fraction of the diverse stuff a human being consists of. We can hear the clap of a hand or the sigh of a breath; another fraction of reality. We can see the shape and colour and movement of an animal, yet more fractions. And we may touch its body. (We'll come to this in a minute).

What happens when we see something? Rays (another imperceptible concept) of light approach a body, then get reflected by it and enter the eye of the observer. On passing the cornea they are getting refracted and inverted, then they hit the retina which reacts by sending electric signals to the brain. The brain interprets the signals into an image which the observer may use for orienting herself in 3D space. The rays, the reflector, the retina image, the signals and the brain's image are not the same thing, and certainly they are not the thing as such.

Rays of light are invisible until they hit an object and reflect into the observer's eye. The light particles that hit my eye are not the same which hit yours. The light changes its brightness and colour in interaction with the reflector. That thing we think we both see is invisible as long as there is no light reflecting from it. Its shape and colour come into existence only in interaction with light, and each light reflection is unique. So we don't see the same thing: each of us is taking in a different set of altered light rays. Fascinating, isn't it?

Eye sight has become the most important sense of civilized humans, but it provides perception only at a distance. According to the latest science visible matter is the smallest part of the stuff that makes the Universe. Less than one half percent can be seen. Not sure whether that includes other sources of radiation like micro-waves or infra-red, but the overwhelming amount of what the Universe supposedly consists of cannot be perceived or measured; it is getting deduced from formulae. A person who hears poltergeists or sees demons and ghosts, or someone having lucid dreams does have a less-distanced grasp on reality, you could say. At least they see something meaningful to their lives.

Now let's get closer. Let's touch that thing we've seen, say, a cow's horn. What happens here? Molecules emitted from the surfaces of hand and horn, some of which can be smelled, begin to mix when we approach the animal. The closer we get the more homogenous the mix, while at the same time it gets displaced by the very mechanism that will eventually stop the moving-closer of the hand. From what science believes, the space between atoms is huge. In a way it is empty, filled only with something science calls 'forces' – energy which, again, cannot be seen or otherwise perceived directly. The atomic charges of human skin and cow horn keep the actual atoms within each surface at a distance. They never really touch, though the repelling forces are taken up by our nerve ends, transmitted to the brain and then interpreted as a feeling of hard resistance, of pressure. We think we touch a cow when actually we're not. Amazing.

Perhaps it helps to rid ourselves of the idea that matter is made of atoms alone. Perhaps the 'forces' are part of matter as well. Even so, we still have the problem of not being able to directly perceive or measure it. We can't get to the thing-as-such. So far, it's all myths and stories, and they work only within a certain range. It's like with the Sun revolving around the observer – a good-enough story for a farmer, not for space exploration.


The thing as such, what is it?
Bombed out in space with a spaced-out bomb!
As all rational information comes pre-selected and mediated by our senses and interpreted by our brains only, direct contact and immediate knowledge seem impossible to achieve under the rationalist-materialist paradigm. The realm of numbers and hard facts are but an illusion. Which is not to say we cannot learn something here, or that there weren't other ways of knowing. Wild people have told white people how to learn about the beneficial effects of herbs: by asking the plants. It is not known to us how the Dogon acquired their knowledge about the stars but we may assume they have their way, and it's not by making it up. Just two examples of how perception might be quite different from how we think it works and/or how the substance of existence might be quite different from what we think it is.

The story of the six blind and the elephant describes perfectly how the thing-as-such cannot be grasped fully by perceiving (or measuring) it. One organ of perception alone captures one slice of that thing, and each further organ and each further technical measurement capture further aspects of reality, but neither the essence (if there is such a thing) nor the totality of it (if there is a separate existence to it) can be grasped by sensory perception alone. And perhaps even matter is not everything there is to existence. Hardly news to anybody not buying into the culture of utilitarianism, rationalism, materialism or scientism.

It's quite interesting what those notions have taught us. Yet we better not fall into the trap that those were the only ways by which perception can be interpreted into cosmological knowledge; nor do they provide the full truth about existence. The linearity and directedness of the dominant world view is limited by definition: things must have a beginning and an end, and we move from the first to the second. The civilized worldview breaks down with the infinitesimally small and the immeasurably huge because mathematics use to break down when Zero or Infinity enter the equation. What was before the Big Bang? It's a pointless question. There was no time before time has emerged through the imagined singularity.

By its non-understanding of circularity, diversity, unity, emptiness, or quality, the materialist world of the separate and discrete me-the-mind creates threats to its own existence. Based on the Cartesian worldview Doolittle has taught it, Bomb #20 believes that, as there is nothing outside of it that can safely be called real, it has to orient by what it knows about itself. Being a bomb and therefore being destined to explode it utters, “Let there be light,” before blowing itself up – a perfect mirror of the myth of the technological Golden Age and the reality of a world in collapse.

No comments: