At what point do I start meditating? by mattsteinglass
February 20, 2009, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


Thich Nhat Hanh in Ho Chi Minh City, March 2007 (photo M. Steinglass)

Thich Nhat Hanh in Ho Chi Minh City, March 2007 (photo M. Steinglass)


How do we know we secular folks are rational and have an evidence-based and fundamentally sound model of the universe, and the religious folks do not? Well, people like them used to sit around arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. That’s completely ridiculous, ergo we have a solid mental model of the universe and they don’t.

Or so I used to assume, growing up in the 80s. Then people started saying some weird stuff about what was going on in the world of physics. First there was this stuff about string theory. Apparently some of the intractable riddles of quantum theory or accounting for gravity in general relativity or something would be solved if only the universe were composed of giant strings with either eleven or thirteen dimensions. Then it turned out the strings had to vibrate. That didn’t sound very elegant.

Then in the late 90s people started talking about how very arbitrary a lot of different cosmological constants were. Again, this made the universe seem like something of a kluge. By early last year I had started to really tune out on these popular physics articles, because they made me increasingly uncomfortable. And then along came this NY Times article that just about did the trick. Apparently the problem with the arbitrariness of a lot of those constants was that if you didn’t set them just right, it carried the implication, due to something about entropy and information theory, that there had to be trillions of human brains floating around in outer space.

At this point I started to feel that any intrinsic common-sense “non-ridiculousness” advantage that might have been held by the physicists, over and against the angels-on-pinheads crowd, was really slipping away. And now I’ve had the bad sense to go and read a Scientific American article about how the latest thinking about quantum entanglement may really conflict with special relativity, because apparently if you have a particle that’s quantum entangled with another particle somewhere else in the universe and you try to measure some property of the first particle (which is a bad move — I wish these guys would just leave the particles well enough alone in their unknowability already) then  it appears that you will actually instantaneously also really physically change something about the other particle, wherever it may be. And that special relativity, which was supposed to make it impossible to say “instantly” unless you factor in the speed of light, gets blown up by this quantum entanglement in a way that implies that from this perspective there simply is no such thing as a narrative of the universe and things can’t be said to happen before or after each other at all.

I don’t doubt that these guys know what they’re talking about. But if they were supposed to be “disenchanting” the universe, they are failing miserably at their jobs, and they are making it seem like the guys down at the local Mindfulness Center have a more realistic fix on the shape of the universe than I do. Sessions are twice a week; should I go sit?

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Theoretical physics gets into some pretty goofy territory sometimes, but you have to understand that as a certain excess of the discipline, rather than as an exemplary model of what scientists are studying. And the same is true with something like a college literature department, which is an academic discipline that is the butt of a lot of jokes (especially after the Sokal hoax) because of absurd jargon that sometimes doesn’t make sense, but the majority of the work is still fairly conventional hum-drum literary research on say Chaucer or Shakespeare, etc. But in popular articles of course its the guy that says that there are billions of brains floating around in the universe that gets the attention.

But whatever any individual may be saying about how some phenomena of the universe works, and however wrong it may be, it is still the case that the sort of reasoning and methodology that takes place in scientific inquiry has still had the best success at explaining the workings of the world. Whether or not people are able to adapt that kind of mental discipline to their own thinking is another question entirely however…

Comment by Paul J.

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