The Universe Perceived

The Universe Perceived

If we perceive the universe, does it exist? And what if we fail to perceive? 

Why Does the Freemason Care?

I’m going to start off with something that people usually place at the end of one of these conversations: how does this question tie to Freemasonry? As we talk through these concepts, I’d like you to keep in mind several key notions which inform Freemasonry and the ideals of Freemasonry.

  • Freemasonry works towards the perfecting of Humanity; in doing so, it does not tell the Freemason what to think but how to be: moral, just, tolerant, seek truth and practice liberty under the law. Only the Free-Thinker can conceive of the ideal humanity and what that may achieve.
  • A Freemason’s foundation is founded on the principles of human solidarity, freedom of conscience, and the facts of Brotherhood. It places no restrictions on the search after Truth, and in order to secure that freedom, it demands the greatest tolerance from all members of the Order.
  • To a Freemason, the freedom of thought, speech, and action belongs to all Mankind – regardless of race, religion, or gender.

While we talk about the concepts contained in this discussion, allow yourself to keep coming back to these core ideas of Freemasonry. You can view an example of these principles here: http://universalfreemasonry.org

A Distant Philosopher’s Take

1024px-John_Smibert_-_Bishop_George_Berkeley_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn 17th Century England, the Age of Enlightenment was underway. New discoveries in biology, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, and physiology gave birth to an even wider range of philosophies. Many of the things we think about today were beginning to blossom in the minds of great thinkers.

One of those great thinkers was George Berkeley. Berkeley was born in 1685 near Kilkenny, Ireland. After several years of schooling at Kilkenny College, he entered Trinity College, in Dublin, at age 15. He was made a fellow of Trinity College in 1707 (three years after graduating) and was ordained in the Anglican Church shortly thereafter. At Trinity, where the curriculum was notably modern, Berkeley encountered the new science and philosophy of the late seventeenth century, which was characterized by hostility towards Aristotelianism. (Stanford, Philosophers)

Two Competing Ideas

Materialism of this time period meant “the concept that material things exist.” Berkeley’s take on this was that if one only believed in the senses, one type of perception, that this was a false view of the nature of the universe. The core idea of materialism is this: a thing exists independently of the thinking mind. A tree is a tree, whether or not there is a mind to perceive the tree.

Berkeley charges that materialism promotes skepticism and atheism: skepticism because materialism implies that our senses mislead us as to the natures of these material things, which moreover need not exist at all, and atheism because a material world could be expected to run without the assistance of God. In other words, there is no ideal of a tree, no spirit of a tree, so therefore there does not need to be a God to have a tree.

AlchemyWhat Berkeley proposes is “idealism.” This is not the modern interpretation of idealism; Idealism to Berkeley is the fact that a) We perceive ordinary material objects and b) we perceive ideas, therefore c) Ordinary material objects are ideas. Although there is no independent material world for Berkeley, there is a physical world, a world of ordinary objects. This world is mind-dependent, for it is composed of ideas, whose existence consists in being perceived. For ideas, and so for the physical world, esse est percipi. To be is to be perceived. Berkeley believed that while physical objects exist, the concept of them does not exist unless we perceive them as collections of ideas. These ideas are the construct of the human mind, and therefore, they, as individual objects, cannot exist without the human perception of them. 

Against Idealism

There are three main arguments against “idealism.”

  1. The most obvious objection to idealism is that it makes real things no different from imaginary ones—both seem fleeting figments of our own minds, rather than the solid objects of the materialists.
  2. What is the purpose of internal mechanisms and hidden structures to a world of ideas rather than a world of material existence? In other words, what is the point of the internal workings of a watch, if we don’t need to see them for the structure to work?
  3. Science should reveal the efficient causes of natural things, processes, and events. Isn’t it a step backward to imagine that all our physical substances are really based in “spirit?” Spirit in this sense is attributable to God.

A Modern Take

jawFast forward 400 years to 2002. John Wheeler, a physicist and contemporary & colleague of Einstein and Bohr, pondered the idea of existence from another angle.

Wheeler postulated that the universe is participatory. In the final decades of his life, the question that intrigued Wheeler most was: “Are life and mind irrelevant to the structure of the universe, or are they central to it?” He suggested that the nature of reality was revealed by the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics. According to the quantum theory, before the observation is made, a subatomic particle exists in several states, called a superposition (or, as Wheeler called it, a ‘smoky dragon’). Once the particle is observed, it instantaneously collapses into a single position. 

A Grand Experiment

Wheeler’s belief was that the universe is built like an enormous feedback loop, a loop in which we contribute to the ongoing creation of not just the present and the future but the past as well.

To illustrate his idea, he devised what he called his “delayed-choice experiment,” which adds a startling, cosmic variation to a cornerstone of quantum physics: the classic two-slit experiment. The “two slit” experiment illustrates a key principle of quantum mechanics: Light has a dual nature. In the experiment, light — a stream of photons — shines through two parallel slits and hits a strip of photographic film behind the slits. We have even seen, now, a photograph of a particle in both states. This photograph seems to undermine some of the concepts presented here, but for now, we’ll continue building our overarching discussion. 

This “two slit” experiment outlines the theory of The Observer Effect: In physics, the observer effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. Thus, the basic idea is that observed, photons act like particles. Unobserved, they act like waves. Observation equates to a choice; Lack of observation provides multiple options/actions.

A Grander Experiment

Wheeler came up with a cosmic-scale version of this experiment that has even weirder implications. Wheeler’s version shows that our observations in the present can affect how a photon behaved in the past. This is a fairly large and complex experiment, described here by Mary-Jane Rubenstein, in “Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse.”

2000px-Double-slit.svg“Imagine a quasar — a very luminous and very remote young galaxy. Now imagine that there are two other large galaxies between Earth and the quasar. The gravity from massive objects like galaxies can bend light, just as conventional glass lenses do. In Wheeler’s experiment the two huge galaxies substitute for the pair of slits; the quasar is the light source. Just as in the two-slit experiment, light — photons — from the quasar can follow two different paths, past one galaxy or the other.

Suppose that on Earth, some astronomers decide to observe the quasars. In this case a telescope plays the role of the photon detector in the two-slit experiment. If the astronomers point a telescope in the direction of one of the two intervening galaxies, they will see photons from the quasar that were deflected by that galaxy; they would get the same result by looking at the other galaxy. But the astronomers could also mimic the second part of the two-slit experiment. By carefully arranging mirrors, they could make photons arriving from the routes around both galaxies strike a piece of photographic film simultaneously. Alternating light and dark bands would appear on the film, identical to the pattern found when photons passed through the two slits.

Here’s the odd part. The quasar could be very distant from Earth, with light so faint that its photons hit the piece of film only one at a time. But the results of the experiment wouldn’t change. The striped pattern would still show up, meaning that a lone photon not observed by the telescope traveled both paths toward Earth, even if those paths were separated by many light-years. And that’s not all.

By the time the astronomers decide which measurement to make — whether to pin down the photon to one definite route or to have it follow both paths simultaneously — the photon could have already journeyed for billions of years, long before life appeared on Earth. The measurements made now, says Wheeler, determine the photon’s past. In one case the astronomers create a past in which a photon took both possible routes from the quasar to Earth. Alternatively, they retroactively force the photon onto one straight trail toward their detector, even though the photon began its jaunt long before any detectors existed.” 

1-thefirsteverAt the time that Wheeler conceived of this idea, it had already been demonstrated in a laboratory. And, as I noted above, a recent photograph of a particle behaving in both ways has been seen floating around the internet. 

In 1984 physicists at the University of Maryland set up a tabletop version of the delayed-choice scenario. Using a light source and an arrangement of mirrors to provide a number of possible photon routes, the physicists were able to show that the paths the photons took were not fixed until the physicists made their measurements, even though those measurements were made after the photons had already left the light source and begun their circuit through the course of mirrors.

Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself — and building itself. By the choices we humans make, in observing the world around us and acting on those observations, we are creating the universe as it continues to move through time and space. 

Wheeler isn’t alone in his thinking; other notable, modern scientists have weighed in on our perceptions of the universe. Stephen Hawking noted: “The laws of science, as we know them at present, seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” Fred Hoyle, in his book Intelligent Universe, compares “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by a chance combination of amino acids to a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously.” Physicist Andrei Linde of Stanford University stated: “The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness.”

Participatory Anthropic Principle

The anthropic principle is a philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it: Sapience – to taste or to perceive, consciousness – aware of the mind and surroundings, of space and time. Wheeler speculated that reality is created by observers in the universe. “How does something arise from nothing?” he asked about the existence of space and time. He also coined the term “Participatory Anthropic Principle.” In 1990, Wheeler suggested that information is fundamental to the physics of the universe.

According to what he called the “it from bit” doctrine, all things physical are information-theoretic in origin:

It from bit. Otherwise put, every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe. (Wheeler, Interview)

Wheeler’s theory was that, in an analogous manner, consciousness may play some role in bringing the universe into existence. This is the core of what he called The Participatory Anthropic Principle.

Conclusion

https___blogs-images.forbes.com_startswithabang_files_2017_01_1-5JNJ0lwn_6wGru2LU9iDTAWe may choose to believe that the universe is made up of entirely material items and its existence would be here, whether we are or not. From at least the 17th Century, and probably earlier, people have conceived of the idea that the universe is created from our own minds, our observations, our “experimentation” on the world.

What we do in our day to day life, in our spiritual life, in our interactions with others has an effect on the world around us, causing the interplay of life and the stream of consciousness of time.

Perceiving the universe as a participatory place gives us a glimpse of the answer to the question: why are we here? I personally believe we humans are meant to create – life, activity, buildings, art, ideas, new thoughts – many things. To tie this back to the beginning, with regards to Freemasonry, we are working together, in ritual and in groups, toward perfecting humanity. If we are doing this, we are perfecting the universe – past, present, and future. 

Hidden Mysteries of Science

Hidden Mysteries of Science

Science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” We all perform scientific acts each and every day. Being aware and present in our actual work, home life, educational pursuits, and leisure all encompass some aspect of “science,” as described above. Do we not learn relationship interaction through observation and experimentation? Of course we do! Do we study others and then experiment with things like cooking, clothing ourselves, cleaning the house, and raising children? Absolutely. Life is science.

And yet… there are the science doubters. The Washington Post did an article, in 2015, on science doubters. Entitled, “Why is Science so Hard to Believe?” the article goes on to discuss confirmation bias, the discipline of the scientific method, and why so many people would rather believe media hype or misinformation from friends rather than actual science. Media is not science and it is not gospel. We consume the media that’s easy to consume rather than do the work for ourselves. It’s easier to doubt than to verify.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has an interesting quote: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” He also said that “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” Both of these quotes speak to the hubris of humans – we think we know much more about the word than we really do.

In a quote from an article on National Public Radio, the author quoted his friend, a professor of Jewish philosopher, as saying “science tries to make magic real.” The author goes on to specifically outline activities, now commonplace human activities, as ones that we once thought of as magical, for example, flying. We fly without a second thought; yet, 500 years ago, to say one flew was heresy, possibly leading to death. Other examples are the knowledge of “invisible” animals capable of making humans ill, or being able to see great distances into space (the past) through a telescope. The ability for our phones to “think” and talk with us would have been quite astounding to the medieval mind.

The author continues his journey with the main difference between science and magic: his belief is that the power of magic originates within us, where as science’s power originates outside of humans. Science is a set of immutable laws of the universe. Right?

Well, no. Science updates theories based on knowledge gained from further expressions of the scientific method, and then new theories are postulated. Science is evolving, a never-stagnant set of data that we are constantly testing and proving or disproving. Magic is generally seen as not obeying the laws of nature, being outside of those “rules” or “metaphysical,” as it were. Yet, we’ve all said it: couldn’t what we see as magic just be unexplained scientific laws that we do not understand quite yet?

Why are Freemasons charged to examine and study nature and science? Nature AND science? It seems that it might be because the world is made up of both the understood and the mystery. We have many questions to answer about nature and we use science to get there. Perhaps we could say we have many questions to answer about magic and science is the method. There’s no reason we can’t have wonder and reason hanging out together in our minds. We can appreciate the brilliant stars and the awe of an eclipse and still want to know how it happens. Knowledge does not take away wonder.

I want to believe that perhaps science and magic are part of the same evolutionary cycle – what starts out as magic becomes understood by science, which breeds questions within our curious minds, wonder at something unknown, triggering us to embrace the tools of science to explore. Freemasons get to play in both realms, being co-creators on the path of humanity.

Metaphor: The Language of the Mystics

Metaphor: The Language of the Mystics

In the outskirts of every society, you will find the mystics. Some are holy men in monasteries; some are Buddhists seeking enlightenment; some are public figures; some are Christians serving Jesus; some are Freemasons, like myself. Mystics have an amazing amount in common despite all that. They are not satisfied with what they learn in books, with ceremonies passed on for the sake of tradition, or with faith that comes from an assertion that “You really ought to believe in this.” What they want, instead, is conviction— the kind of conviction that comes only from a direct spiritual experience. Many say they have found it.

How do mystic seers convey their experience in words, or in stories? Our ancestors’ answer was: with tons and tons of different images – with metaphors, that is. Metaphors, after all, are symbols used to creatively describe a deeper reality, to give a sense of the color and taste of it. There are many metaphors in the teachings of Freemasonry.

How significant, then, is the relationship between mysticism and metaphor?

There are hundreds, maybe thousands or millions of metaphors in existence about mystical things. Rumi, the great Sufi poet, once said that God created everything in the outer world to serve as a metaphor for the inner. The outside world contains objects that can awaken and remind us of truths that, when applied, can be of real benefit. For example, if you read mystic literature about the soul, you might find the soul as ladder, the soul as garden, the soul as mountain, the soul as ark, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as shining, living stone or even precious jewel, and so on. There are equally as many metaphors about the path to enlightenment.

34382722213_6e1d57324f_zA metaphor is a comparison. A metaphor establishes a relationship at once; it leaves more to the imagination. It is a shortcut to the meaning; it sets two unlike things side by side and makes us see the likeness between them. A metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as,” while a simile is one that does use those words.

Why do metaphors in the writings of the mystics even matter? As the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explained in their writings, it is very difficult to discuss consciousness except through metaphor. Metaphors create new ways of thinking, new realities, and new worlds.

Do metaphors shape the way we think? Let us look at an example.

Juliet is the Sun
From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the metaphor, “Juliet is the sun.”

This statement equates two different things: one human, the other sidereal. Juliet is a human; the sun is a star. How do they get to be equal?

For the purpose of illustration, I will show how a metaphor is born, logically. We could say:

There is a human called Juliet.
There is a star called the Sun.
The human called Juliet is radiant.
The star called the Sun is radiant.
Therefore, the human called Juliet is like a star, called the Sun (because of the radiance).

Not very thrilling or poetic, is it? How can we make it more exciting? How is the metaphor created? First, we delete all the unnecessary words and steps, only leaving the simile “Juliet is like the Sun.” The final deletion comes about by eliminating the word, “like.” Voila! “Juliet is the Sun.” 34382660583_c940b54102_z

As we can see, this metaphor comes alive through deletion and transformation. Keep taking away words until something “becomes” something else. Keep stripping away the Maya and the illusion until we arrive at the truth: the direct perception or the mystical experience.

In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to a man as it is, infinite.”

If you have ever had an “aha” moment, there is something wonderfully joyous about experiencing the mystical – to remember that we have spiritual faculties in us open to the dimensions beyond. Wonder. Awe. The metaphorical language of the mystics points us to the stars – bridging earth to heaven and to a world beyond itself.

But how do we react when we encounter something that exists outside of our realm of study? Does everything have to fit into what is already known, otherwise it doesn’t exist? The experience of the Transcendent seems to defy expression.

One of the greatest mystical saints of all times, St. Teresa of Avila, says that the intellect cannot go with her to the higher realms. It must stay behind. She writes in her book The Interior Castle: “One should let the intellect go and surrender oneself into the arms of love, for His Majesty will teach the soul what it must do at that point.”

I do believe the central role of metaphor in shaping consciousness can be impactful in someone’s life. I also believe the intellect is not always our ally. 35192178685_29b4993ed4_z

Such was the case with Edgar Mitchell, astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission. On his return trip from the moon, he stared out of the window at our blue planet, Earth. At that moment something profound hit him. All of a sudden he was lifted out of his normal consciousness and felt an intense oneness with planet Earth and the universe. In a flash of higher consciousness a higher truth was revealed to him that dramatically changed his intellectual perspective. (Watch Edgar Mitchell’s “We Are One” video)

How lovely to live in possibility, to think in beautiful metaphors, to cherish the precious jewel in each sacred word,  and to overflow with sweeping amazement. Your turn. What mystical metaphor would you want to leave behind as a jewel to humanity?


Note: Featured images are from the Art Exhibition, Beyond the Stars; The Mystical Landscapes from Monet to Kandinsky.