Monday, 29 February 2016

Probability: chance or God?

Lent 2016: Day 20

From the dawn of history, the question of chance, coincidence, probability - indeed fortuity - has intrigued mankind. Prof Fr Michał Heller's book, Filozofia przypadku, begins with an overview of how humans have taken the notion of probability from something intuitive to a mathematical, analytical tool, which in its latest iteration plays a crucial role in the understanding of quantum mechanics.

Modern mathematical approaches to the question of probability, says Fr Heller, began in the mid-17th Century with Pascal (of Wager fame) and Fermat (of Last Theorem fame). Before that, probability was the realm of philosophers. In his Physics II, Aristotle defined 'chance' as an occurrence that neither happens always, nor one that most frequently occurs in the same way.

Fr Heller says that today, the many generalisations of the probability theory, of which the most spectacular of which are non-commutative conditional expectations, because they have properties that are completely surprising to our habits of thinking. Ah now, I admit defeat. Why, because according to Wikipedia, a non-commutative conditional expectation is formally defined as: "a positive, linear mapping \Phi of a von Neumann algebra \mathcal{S} onto a von Neumann algebra \mathcal{R} (\mathcal{S} and \mathcal{R}may be general C*-algebras as well) is said to be a conditional expectation (of \mathcal{S} and \mathcal{R}) when\Phi(I)=I and \Phi(R_1SR_2) = R_1\Phi(S)R_2 if R_1, R_2 \in \mathcal{R} and S \in \mathcal{S}."

OK, I was lost at 'positive, linear mapping \Phi'. But no matter. The point is this: mathematicians are way ahead of the rest of us in understanding how probability works at the sub-atomic level and indeed, at the level of the cosmos. Our innate, intuitive ways of thinking make understanding the probabilistic nature of the structure of the Universe extremely difficult.

Fr Heller points out that the early philosophers, trying to work out the nature of matter and life without the tools available to modern science, were like blind people. And blind people are reputed to possess sensitivities compensating for their lack of sight. This, says Fr Heller, includes heightened theological sensitivities, which we have lost along the way. He suggests that we should attempt to combine our scientific knowledge with the traditional sense of knowing God.

In Ancient Greece, opinion was divided as to whether chance is the cause of everything, or whether, as Aristotle posited, that the opposite was true. Chance is the result of divine intervention, supernatural, inaccessible to our understanding. In either way, chance was seen as something that could not be analysed using mathematics. Meanwhile, says Fr Heller, Hippocrates had already come up with the concept of diagnosis and prognosis, and so was on the way towards the Scientific Method.

As late as the early 19th Century, determinism was in fashion. Pierre-Simon Laplace could believe that if an Intelligence (later named 'Laplace's Demon') was vast enough to know all the forces acting on all the atoms and the greatest bodies of the Universe, it could deduce where everything would be in the future - for eternity; nothing could be uncertain.

Then came the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Lord Kelvin, 1851), and entropy, later quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Today we know that even if Laplace's Intelligence was indeed vast enough to know the state of every single atom in the Universe  and every force acting upon every particle of matter at a given instant, the uncertainty inherent in matter is such that after a while, the Universe would veer away from the predicted outcome.

So where is God in all this? Where is purpose, and the teleological Universe? We shall see. (I genuinely don't know after three chapters how Fr Heller is going to resolve this! A true Lenten journey of discovery!)

This time last year? Not even four, or eight years ago. This is my very first blog post dated 29 February. Out of interest, could not the additional day caused by the leap year have been inserted at a slightly better time, such as having a 31 June every four years? As it is, at this dismal time of year, there doesn't feel much to celebrate. And yet there is! We've been given an extra day to enjoy, free. Someone who's reached the age of 84 has had an extra three weeks of life added on!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Coincidence and survival

Lent 2016: Day 19

I've written about the enormously massive influence of chance that you and I are here today, sentient beings aware of their existence.

From the laws of physics being just right for a Universe to develop life, to the planet Earth evolving in the right direction to let that life blossom forth, to that infinitesimally tiny likelihood that all of your ancestors going back to the very beginnings of evolution managed to procreate.

Whatever woes and concerns trouble us now, we should always be able to step back and be conscious of - and grateful for - that miracle of being aware.

Chance - przypadek - has played such a huge role in our past - what role will it play in our future?

One thing is certain; because yesterday was good, it does not necessarily mean that tomorrow will automatically be good. We know that very bad events can kick off, almost out of nowhere.

Here, in this part of Central Europe, in the summer of 1939, who had an inkling that a catastrophic war was weeks away from breaking out, that would end leaving six million Polish citizens dead and the country under foreign occupation for half a century?

Disasters can come in many guises. Ones that threaten all mankind: supervolcanoes, orders of magnitude larger than the ones we've seen in recent history. Massive asteroid impact. Deadly infectious disease with an airborne vector. Nuclear war. Climate change. And flare from a solar storm hitting Earth could knock out most of the electricity on the parts of the planet it hit. [Read about the full range of global catastrophic risks here.]

They are, in themselves, statistically small risks, though the chances of them occurring are far, far higher than the chances of you having been born.

Scientists are doing their bit to keep them at bay (asteroids we'll be able to knock out in distance space before too long, disease, war and anthropogenic climate change are within our control; supervolcanoes are, however long overdue).

Can catastrophes be held at bay by metaphysical means?

I have written about our existence at the edge of chaos. Bad things - really bad things - can happen to us out of the blue. "...Things could be goin' jake one minute, then, presto - before you know it, you're history," to quote from Katherine Bigelow's film, The Loveless. Complacency, a weary acceptance that nothing bad will happen to me today because nothing bad happened to me yesterday, is the enemy here.

Just as we should spare a thought about fate at the personal level, so we should consider the wider world. Give thanks, offer gratitude that we are (with unhappy exceptions) at peace and getting on with it. Give thanks, and in doing so, pray that those really nasty catastrophes do not befall Mankind, so that we can continue to evolve spiritually, moving away from Zero, towards One, away from the bestial, towards the angelic. Pray. Pray for yourself, your nearest and dearest, your nation, our world.

This time three years ago:
The Book of Revelations

This time four years ago:
Strong late-winter sunshine

This time five years ago:
Best pics from February 2011

This time six years ago:

This time eight years ago:
End of the line

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Radom-line works change face of Jeziorki

A break from Lenten reflection, time to go for a long, long (20,000 paces/16km) walk.

Back after three weeks in London, I check to see how work on the Radom line is progressing. While I'm encouraged by the fact that progress is visible, I can also see how much work still lies ahead, and how the familiar face of my immediate neighbourhood will be changed by this project.

Below: at W-wa Okęcie, the footbridge linking the platform to the footbridge over the S79 is nearly ready for the finishing work - barriers etc. To the left I can see that there will be two south-bound ('down') tracks - the one further from the platform will be for goods trains - presumably the cisterns carrying avgas to the airport. Like at W-wa Służewiec, where interchange between trains is possible, W-wa Okęcie will have an island platform.

One stop further south to W-wa Dawidy. Here, the island platform will go. Behind the digger we see the new 'down' platform taking shape. Once ready, the tracks will return to a new track bed, and the remnants of the old island platform will be demolished. A new 'up' platform will follow once the second track has been lifted and renovated.

Heading south from W-wa Dawidy towards W-wa Jeziorki - a new culvert channelling a drainage ditch under the tracks is being installed. This operation has to be done one track at a time, and there's another such culvert between W-wa Jeziorki and Nowa Iwiczna that is being replaced in a similar fashion.

Below: on the other side of the track, where the culvert emerges to let water drain off the fields into the drainage ditch that runs to the Jeziorki ponds. The small clump of trees that once stood here have been felled. Atmosphere spoilt.

Below: the pedestrian crossing at ul. Kórnicka - one of my favourite spots in all Jeziorki. The trees that once gave this place its unique klimat have been cut down. From an operational point of view, I can understand it, having seen the effects of trees on the line when I travelled from Luton Airport towards London just after Storm Henry had hit. But this specific spot has now lost its character.

Below: W-wa Jeziorki's new 'down' platform starting to materialise from out of the mud. It will be to the north of ul. Karczunkowska. The 'up' line will run parallel to the 'down' line, rather than bending around the island platform here, which will be demolished.

Below: more destruction of klimat - that glade between the road to Biedronka and the bus loop has been cut down. It is making way for the new viaduct which will carry ul. Karczunkowska over the tracks. W-wa Jeziorki station and the level crossing are visible - just - in the distance.

On the border between Warsaw and the rest of Mazowsze. The next station to the south is Nowa Iwiczna. In the foreground, the tracks are lifted. Pedestrians walk the coal train line as ul. Gogolińska, that runs parallel to the railway line has been churned into an ocean of mud by the contractors' vehicles. A culvert is being replaced on this stretch too. The train is a Koleje Mazowieckie R8 service that stops at W-wa Davidy and W-wa Jeziorki, unlike the semi-fast RE8 service. This train's for Góra Kalwaria.

Below: approaching Nowa Iwiczna. Once again the island platform is to be removed, and the 'down' platform will now be south of its current location. Note the tracks have not yet been lifted, but they end a few hundred metres behind me. Their rusty condition shows they've not been used for some while. And note the distance between the current 'down' track and the new platform, which suggests the lines will be moved to the west to allow a less less tight radius curve than at present, allowing faster train speeds and thus shorter journey times.

Work on this project began in late-August last year. Winter has been mild (again), allowing work to proceed nearly every day. But seeing the scale of what's still needed to be done, it will be a long time coming. Less than a quarter of the way there, I'd estimate.

From 13 March, the timetable will be altered yet again making trains using this single track even less frequent. Just to remind you - from a half-hourly peak-time service, trains from W-wa Śródmieście to W-wa Jeziorki are now running every 75 minutes. Thousands of rail passengers will take to ul. Puławska. It is too cold and too dark for two-wheeled commuting. Things will get much, much worse before they finally get much, much better. Shame about the trees though.

This time last year:
How do we perceive good and evil?

This time two years ago:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time four years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over

This time six years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time seven years ago:
Lenten reciples

This time eight years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Friday, 26 February 2016

God, creation and the fine-tuned Universe

Lent 2016: Day 16

Dipping into the concept of chance, probability and fortuity via Michał Heller's book Filozofia przypadku, in which the Catholic priest /mathematician /cosmologist posits that chance is not randomly distributed throughout space and time, but at critical points in the matrix.

At this stage, before going on, it worth considering the notion of the fine-tuned Universe. This scientific concept looks at the laws of physics that needed to have been in place for life to have come into existence.

One of these, according to Martin Rees, British astrophysicist and cosmologist, is the value of Epsilon, (ε), the strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei, is 0.007. If it were 0.006, no other atom other than hydrogen could possibly exist, and complex chemistry would be impossible. Yet, according to Prof Rees, if it were above 0.008, no hydrogen would exist, as all the hydrogen would have been fused shortly after the Big Bang.

There are many more, gravity; magnetism; dark energy - pushing galaxies apart at the right pace; water freezing from the surface down rather than from the bottom up, unlike other liquids. The energy state of the carbon atom allows for its abundance throughout the cosmos, a building-block of sentient life.

So - you can either consider these many factors creating conditions to be mere chance, without all of which we would simply not be here to marvel at the fact - or we can begin to ask why the Universe has been set up in such a way. A miracle here, a one-in-a-billion chance there, a statistical improbability over there. Yet all are in place, allowing life to exist here on our planet, at this particular time. Amazing, eh?

There are two schools of thought as to whether the Universe is teeming with life (the Drake equation) or whether further statistically-improbable factors, local to our Solar System have resulted in our Earth being an incredibly rare in our galaxy, the Milky Way, or indeed in any other galaxy (see the Rare Earth hypothesis). And indeed, there are scientists and authors who suggest that we are the only complex, sentient life forms that can do all the marvellous things we do (at least in our part of the Milky Way).

One way or another, all of these fortuitous coincidences must have come together to allow the Universe to form and expand, and for life on Earth to take hold and evolve - and the next question must be - for what purpose?  That will come later on.

In the meantime, it is worth pondering once again the stupendously improbable fact the you are here, alive, conscious, thinking, feeling... and here and now, at this time of year associated with contemplation, meditation. Be aware of this, and give thanks for your existence.

This time last year:
The infinitely long path from Zero to One

This time three years ago:
Images of God

This time four years ago:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time five years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time eight years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Between atheism and creationism

Lent 2016: Day 15

Prof Fr Michał Heller, the Catholic philosopher-scientist priest is an amazing figure, I'm surprised he isn't better known. Winner of the Templeton Prize in 2008, a prize richer than the Nobel Prize (other winners have been Paul Davies, the Dalai Lama and Freeman Dyson), Prof Heller is one of the foremost figures at the intersection between religion and science. His ideas are of great interest to me. Being a priest and a professor, and Polish, I reckon I should be able to garner intellectual and spiritual insights from him.

I managed to find no fewer than five of his books in philosophy section in the big Empik on Warsaw's Marszałkowska, so I bought two of them.

The first is his bestseller, Filozofia przypadku. Difficult to translate... the Philosophy of  - what exactly? Chance? Of Circumstance? Coincidence? Case? Event? Instance? Or this nice word - Fortuity? This is important, because the word is used a lot in this book, alongside the mathematical concept of probability (prawdopodobieństwo).

The second book by Fr Heller I bought was Zakład o życie wieczne i inne kazania krótkie (Google is telling me 'Department of Eternal Life...', but I'd go with 'A Gamble about Eternal Life And Other Short Sermons'. This is lighter of the two, as each sermon can be read independently, you can dip in and out of the book. And it is based on Bible, rather than scientific - or even more difficult (for me, anyway) - mathematical concepts.

I shall be referring to both books during the rest of Lent, but firstly, a brief overview of what Prof Heller is trying to achieve. He dedicates Filozofia Przypadku to two men - Richard Dawkins and William Dembski. The first, an outspoken atheist, states that the Universe, everything, us - it all just happened by chance, without cause or purpose. The second is a proponent of intelligent design, a more sophisticated form of creationism that, while rejecting the literal assertion that the Universe was made by God in six days, less than 10,000 years ago, still posits that God has designed it all.

Fr Heller proposes that to explain evolution and the Universe, one has to accept the role of chance/fortuity. And this the book sets out to do, using mathematical models of probability to see where from a range of random outcomes, ones favouring the evolution of sentient life took place.

A reading of Bill Bryson's marvellous A Short History Of Nearly Everything, which I reviewed here, filled me with marvel at the stupendous amount of coincidences that had to have happened along the way for us to be alive here today and thinking. Filozofia przypadku looks at the mathematics behind quantum physics - the stuff Larry Gopnik was teaching in A Serious Man - tough stuff for those who've not studied maths beyond middle school (O-level in my case). Fr Heller takes a stroll through the history of the mathematics of probability, from Leibniz (the last man who it was claimed knew everything) to the present day. And then the book returns to easier ground - theology.

A heavy-going (in places) book - yet five titles by Fr Heller at Empik (an up-market WH Smith) suggests there's a considerable market for his work in a country of intellectuals. His message - reconciling God and Science - seems popular.

So - there'll be a fair bit of this coming here between now and Easter.

This time last year:
A peek into the Afterlife

This time two years ago:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time three years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Lent and Recession - a nice parallel

This time eight years ago:
Early intimations of spring

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Define 'spirituality'

Lent 2016: Day 15

My brother sent me this challenging e-mail:
Are you able to clarify your use of the word 'spirituality'? For me it has been for a long time been a bit of a slippery suspect word. A definition may provide some resolution.
And then this quote:
"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." - Ludwig Wittgenstein

So then! "Of, or pertaining to the spirit or the soul". Straight away we get into the notion of the question of what is the soul, or spirit. To me, 'mind' and 'spirit' are one and the same. Consciousness, awareness, thoughts as they pass through the hardware of the mind, feelings, ideas, moods. Not being a dualist, I do not hold that the soul is something separate from the body existing in the realms of the immaterial that has no connection with the physical universe. Rather, the mind and body are as one, holism, monism.

Let's now look here:

'Spirituality' is that part of our human existence that dwells on the metaphysical, that which is beyond the visible, tangible, reducible. It is essentially built upon moments of higher states of awareness, those moments when one reaches, however briefly, an enlightenment, enhanced understanding. I believe we have an obligation towards the purpose of spiritual evolution not to let those moments passed without giving them some thought.

The matter of whether consciousness is more than just the flow of electrons and chemicals around our brain is, I would posit, a spiritual quest, and indeed, the journey from Zero to One.

I may be falling for the God of the Gaps - until the moment science discovers the seat of human consciousness, it is everywhere and nowhere. But I feel (instinctively) that there's no one seat. Rather, it is distributed. Maybe even outside the cranium (reports of organ transplant recipients noting anomalous dreams, memories and preferences). This is all part of the journey in the direction of understanding, a direction of continual improvement.

Back to belief. I do hold that the higher truth, higher than has so far been determined by Mankind, lies between what is traditionally known as 'religion' (a search for meaning on the basis of sacred texts passed onto humanity by the Supreme Being), and 'science' (a search for meaning on the basis of theses verified through the observation of repeatable experiments).

The more I read about the way thought, perception, feeling, awareness - the whole mental process works, the less I believe that it can all be boiled down to electrons passing from synapse to synapse.

But it's more than about just this. Ultimately, it is about purpose; it's not just the 'how', but the 'why' that intrigues me.

This time last year:
Consciousness, the Soul, Eternity

This time two years ago:
On Governance, Institutions and Civilisation

This time five years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time seven years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time eight years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on
Nine years ago today I bought my first digital camera!

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

What purpose serves the Universe?

Lent 2016: Day 14

My brother e-mailed me with a follow-up to yesterday's post. Four points, but it was the fourth that instantly intrigued me (the first three shall be addressed in future posts).

My brother asked: "Are we in a teleological universe? Perhaps not in the sense of an final cause as in 0 to 1 but a direction (infinity is best understood as a direction rather than a state... Can a universe which does not possess metaphysical agencies have teleological properties?"

Teleology - defining something by its purpose rather than by its physical properties. According to Aristotle, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak.

A little googling and up pops Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos (2012). Prof Nagel refutes the notion that the Universe does not possess metaphysical properties, saying that evolutionary biology does not take the conscious mind into account, and is therefore incomplete. The Universe is expanding with a purpose. "Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.” Wow. That's amazing. I feel part of that process. And purpose. Continual improvement of the whole, a direction.

The nub of Prof Nagel's argument is that objective, reductionist science can explain matter but cannot explain our thoughts, our awareness, our consciousness. Scientists would argue that our bodies are discreet, complex organisms, and all that goes on in them is a result of chemical and physical actions and reactions. From Wikipedia: "Nagel's position is that principles of an entirely different kind may account for the emergence of life, and in particular conscious life, and that those principles may be teleological, rather than materialist or mechanistic." Wow again. And this from an atheist, Larry.

So - can the Universe have teleological properties? And is the fact that we are conscious proof of that? And if so, are we part of the process of the Universe evolving?

Plenty of meaty questions (and more) for the remaining four and half remaining weeks of Lent. Two weeks gone. All Lenten resolutions stoutly upheld!

[Coencidence: I think not... Prof Nagel taught philosophy at Princeton University from 1966 to 1980. Ethan Coen (one half of the Coen Brothers) studied philosophy at Princeton, graduating from there in 1979. Nagel gets slyly referenced in Coen Brothers' movies The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man.]

This time last year:
Will your Soul last for eternity?

This time five years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time six years ago
A week into Lent

This time seven years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time eight years ago:
Over the fence

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Devil is indeed in doubt

Lent 2016: Day 13

There are three possibilities: No God, no afterlife - nothing. Just a universe of atoms, a few of which happened to combine to create sentient life. Consciousness is the product of mere coincidence, and once the living being that hosts it is dead - it is snuffed out for good. No point looking for meaning; it's all just random circumstance.

Possibility number two: God exists as per the Scriptures, believe in Him (for He is male, according to the Scriptures), live according to His precepts, as handed down to you directly as the Word of God, and you will be rewarded in a heaven that is not of this material universe, for ever more. On shot at redemption.

Possibility number three: We don't know. Maybe the third possibility is that the number of possibilities is endless. This is what we seek. We want to know. We read, we ask, we talk, we experience. We learn, we grow, we evolve spiritually.

Today was a day when the devil visited with doubt. "It's all rubbish. No afterlife, no spiritual growth, no evolution, just better days and worse days. Better years and worse years". Possibility number one - no God, no afterlife, nothing. Pointless. Bad news heaped upon bad news (Putin-Trump-Brexit-Syria-etc), too much work (a 12 hour working day today after the second weekend working in a row), stress, another day of rotten weather; to rainy for a proper walk.

It's at times like this that I have to tell myself not to despair, don't abandon the search. Refine it, Meditate upon it. Reach out to that which is elevated. Pray - ask - listen. And when that familiar anomalous memory hits me (entering the lift to my office - suddenly it was 1954 once again), and when good happens rather than bad - things are back on track.

Revelation will not come in one shining moment of epiphany. Rather, it is something that builds, becomes more sophisticated, understanding becomes slowly clearer, like a fog very gradually lifting, like a complex shape that takes on definition - but over a long period of time.

This time last year:
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This timeT three years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This four three years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This five years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time seven years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time eight years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Music, mysticism and the human spirit

Lent 2016 - Day 12

Not the post I was planning to write - but moved to write this one by chance. Eddie had read that someone in England had been jailed for 'battery', which he found amusing, until I explained. The word in that context triggered the Genesis song from Trick of the Tail, their 1976 album, Robbery, Assault and Battery. So I gave it a listen. And then - why not - my favourite track from that album, Entangled. The last two minutes and ten seconds are guaranteed to send me off into a reverie...

Back in the summer of 1976, when the album was new, I went on holiday to Poland with a group of over 80 or so young Polish people from England, to see our fatherland. Two coaches, lots of travel between cities. Music cassettes would be played on the coaches' sound systems, and Trick of the Tail would regularly get a hearing.

Several plays, enough to become etched in my memory. Entangled would be on the tape deck as the coach headed along empty rural roads, on either sides fields, ripe with wheat; agriculture then was still basic, horses, human hands, scythes, sweated toil. In the distance, the spires of churches, small white clouds on a blue sky. An idyllic scene that enraptured me, a connection - albeit through the glass of a coach window - with the land of my forefathers, a deeply emotional moment. Click on the link below, and set the slider bar to around the 04:24 mark, close your eyes and imagine the scene - summer, Poland, golden fields, farm workers moving through the crop, scythes swinging, wiping brows... timeless.

Can you imagine it? The scene was nowhere near what songwriters Tony Banks and Steve Hackett had in mind as they wrote Entangled. Steve Hackett said of the song: "it was the idea of drifting in and out of consciousness" - a theme I explored two days ago.

The effect that music plays upon our consciousness is partly the result of our experiences, coming of age, dancing, falling in love, musical memories that trigger when the right sequence of notes is played.

But strip away memory - are there universal cues that work for you, me, them, everyone? Do specific successions of notes, musical intervals, major and minor keys, harmonies,beat - do they have the same effect on everyone's consciousness? Are there cultural differences? Is this something we've gotten used to over time? And is it just consciousness - is it biology too? Certainly musical beat and heartbeat have something in common.

And why does a minor chord sound sadder, darker - than a major one? It's only notes, after all?

Music has its place in the mystical. Church music should elevate the spirit and put one in the right state of consciousness. [Polish church music is dirge-like and usually fails to uplift, unlike the polyphonic music of Orthodox Christianity. Unless it's done right - a trained choir in a large church with good acoustics.]

I recall one day at primary school, all eight classes of Juniors were gathered in the upstairs hall, and two ladies came to give a talk about music. They'd play snippets of classical pieces on a record player and they talk to the children and ask questions. One I remember. "What does that put you in mind of?" asked a lady. Ian Lavin, from my class, put up his hand. "Gondolas," he stated, with a great degree of certainty. I was very impressed (we were eight or nine at the time). Thinking back now, the answer may have been prompted by the similarity of the music to a soundtrack accompanying film of Venice shown on black & white TV (this was the mid-1960s). Music and memory - associations with past experience - clearly has an influence on the way our consciousness responds.

Music holds atmosphere, klimat. But not all music. Compare the Romantic composers to what came before. Bach to me sounds mathematical, devoid of intrinsic atmosphere (unless you need a soundtrack signifier that the film is set in the early 18th Century). Chopin, however, immediately whisks me off to moonlit fields rimmed with coppiced willows in Mazowsze - just as Elgar and Vaughan-Williams transport me to Edwardian England. I have similar strong associations sparked by American popular music from the 1930s to the 1950s. The power of music over our conscious minds transcends the here-and-now.

But the big unknown is this: will, some years after my bodily demise, a little boy grow up with an unusual fondness for pop music - British and American - from the 1970s?

Listening to T-Rex - in particular (for those songs never re-resonated with me post-teenage in that universal, timeless way as have done songs by David Bowie, Roxy Music or Pink Floyd) - takes me right back, totally, to the klimaty of the 1970s. I am there in spirit. And yet I can feel that same momentary spiritual congruence listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys' New San Antonio Rose (1940).

This time last year:
My first Pendolino journey

This time two years ago:
Poland's universal panacea

This time three years ago:
Of taxis, deflation, crisis and strikes

This time four years ago:
Lent starts again

This time five years ago:
Art Quiz

This time six years ago:
A month before Spring Equinox

This time seven years ago:
The beauty of winter
[some of my finest winter photos]

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Mysticism, the Occult and human spirituality

Lent 2016: Day 11

The death yesterday of Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, coincides with a Lenten post I'd been planning about occultism and its place in Mankind's quest for the spiritual.

Heading to Luton Airport on Thursday, I spotted a stately home on the top of a ridge, overlooking the Midlands main line. The house, which must have pre-dated the railway, had a particularly fine sweeping view, and the owners must have been displeased at the appearance of trains rushing through the valley below. I was suddenly minded of 'Mount Prospect', seat of Lord Mount Prospect, eponymous subject of a short story by John Betjeman. For Lord Mount Prospect, you see, was an Ember-Day Bryanite.

Like any other sect, the Ember-Day Bryanites (a delicious invention of Betjeman's) history begins with a fevered individual's epiphany in which God has spoken unto him, a group of followers emerge, a brief flowering, then disappearance into obscurity and oblivion.

Cults and sects claiming to bear secret mysteries only to be unfolded to adepts have come and gone. Man likes mysteries, they are at the core of storytelling - a most human of traits.

The acquisition of secret knowledge - in contradiction to Christian teaching, which holds that the Bible holds all received truth - was once a risky endeavour. With the Holy Inquisition riding forth, as Umberto Eco points out in The Name of the Rose, people with unorthodox views would indeed hide them and engage in secret rituals.

From Foucault's Pendulum it was but a short jump to the Gnostics, Albigensians, Templars, Rosicrucians, Illuminati and Freemasons - and here we are in Dan Brown territory. Humans are always attracted to mysteries. Holy Blood, Holy Grail, upon which the Da Vinci Code draws, has them all - the bloodline of Christ, temporal power and wealth to be gained by those who Know.

To start a cult, come up with a belief systems rooted in a mystery, hide it well, and then market it. Scientology is a great example thereof. Steeping oneself in mystery does indeed provide comfort, but the danger is that the feeling of comfort slows down spiritual growth, or points it into blind alleys.

In today's world with instant online access to an endless amount of information, it is difficult to hide religious mysteries. In any case, in the Western world, the Church has ceased hunting down, interrogating and punishing heretics. There is no need for hiding. The occult - knowledge of hidden secrets - might appeal to our inherent desire for mystery - but essentially an obstacle to spiritual growth. Searching for meaning in secret symbols attracts those with an inclination towards restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests.

The human search for higher meaning, for spiritual enlightenment can unfurl itself unhindered, not sequestered in catacombs but reach for the brightness of truth, elusive though that might be. Spiritual growth depends on openness to learn, to acquire positive insights that are common across cultures and faiths. Wikipedia allows us to read about many hermetic cults and occult belief systems; all of a sudden it becomes easy to learn what drove them, and what notions they have at their core. It is also worth testing hypotheses, scientific, pseudo-scientific, philosophical or medical, against the arguments of sceptics (or even skeptics). I find a useful source of evidence-based counter-arguments to many far-fetched theories.

We are on a spiritual quest, an evolutionary journey from zero to one; we are aware that we perceive and that awareness should grow, within our lifetimes - and beyond - but we must keep searching.

This time last year:
How do we see God?

This time two years ago:
Who needs a Leica with a Noctilux lens when you can do this?

This time three years ago:
Fides quaerens intellectum

This time five years ago:
To the Devil with it all! - short story, Part II

This time six years ago:
Building the bypass as the snows melt

The time eight years ago:
Two weeks into Lent

Friday, 19 February 2016

Dreams and visions of lives past?

Lent 2016: Day Ten

At that twilight time between wakefulness and sleep comes that sublime moment as we drift off. Catch yourself doing this lucidly. It's instructive. The mind is unwinding from the day's cares, and as it does so you can teach yourself to look over your train of thought and ask - "what was all that about?" Strange trains of thought, that seem familiar at first. And then you stop yourself, as you're worrying about some matter or other... What was it? Pulling yourself back towards wakefulness, you realise - this is entirely invented. There is no such matter bothering you. It doesn't exist! Your subconsciousness has made it all up.

More often than not, those twilight trains of thought are pleasant. On Wednesday evening I was travelling back from Birmingham. I'd had an early start, waking at 04:45. So I was tired after an intensive day chairing a conference. As the train rumbled south from the industrial Midlands, I found myself dropping off, waking up as we hit points, so I was in and out of this semi-dreamlike state. I was carried away to another time, but the same place - a century ago? Edwardian England flashed by outside.

Provincial station hotels clad in shiny tiles, tramlines through the wet cobbles; the towns gave way to countryside. Gas-lit halts through which rushed steam-hauled express trains headed for London, steam whistle shrieking, as dusk fell.* My reverie continued until I fell fast asleep, to be wakened as the train reached Solihull.

Full-blown dreams, achieved while fast asleep in the REM phase when slumber is deepest, have sometimes been so realistic in the historic sense as to make me wonder whether these are something more than the usual 'house-keeping' of the human brain

I have mentioned many times on this blog those sensations of anomalous familiarity, as flashbacks occur to moments that are not of this lifetime. These I have felt since childhood. [A detailed account of dreams and flashbacks here.] Perplexing, puzzling yet not at all unpleasant, they happen in an instant, are gone, yet leave a lingering after-taste, leave me hungering for more.

Could this be a split-second insight into a past existence/s? I don't know. A life-long quest to find out, to learn more, and I feel at the age of 58 that although I've come a fair way in being able to define this phenomenon of consciousness, I can neither identify what it is, nor where it comes from.

And although I have spoken of this phenomenon with many people, it scarcely resonates with any at all. So this is not something usual. But it is, I firmly believe, part of what it is to be me.

But what about you? Have such feelings of anomalous, anachronistic familiarity ever befallen you? Even rarely?

* Just had such a flashback - once again, Edwardian railways, clerestory coaches, milk churns by a wooden fence, moonlit night.

This time last year:
Monist or dualist: which are you?

This time This time last year:
Grim prospects for Ukraine

This time three years ago:
Wrocław's new airport terminal

This time four years ago:
A study in symmetry: Kabaty Metro station

This time five years ago:
To the Devil with it all - a short story

This time six years ago:
Waiting for the meltdown

This time eight years ago:
Flat tyre

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Health, happiness and wholeness

Lent 2016: Day Nine

The holistic approach to medicine has its critics, but there is something to it. Disease is the opposite of ease. Willing it to be so helps. I am a strong believer in the placebo effect (and working with the pharmaceutical sector for many years, I know that it does too). In medicine, there is a saying: "There's no such thing as a healthy person. Only undiagnosed diseases." A take on Stalinist prosecutor Andrey Vishinsky's quote: "Give me the man, and I will find the crime". Much as the healthcare profession (especially the private sector fee-for-service part of it) would like this to be true, it's worth doing what you can to avoid the clutches of the doctors, unless (until) you really need them.

The obvious part of it is keeping fit and eating well. Not smoking. Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of exercise, moderate drinking, cutting out sugar other than in the fruit. But then there's thinking yourself healthy - and this starts to be controversial. It tends to work for me, so I go along with it. One day last week, I felt the very first symptoms of common cold coming on. It was a cold evening, and I felt the chill. But I could not afford to fall ill, having an important conference in Birmingham in a few days time. So I willed the virus away. Go, virus! I do not want you! Die, you spiky invaders! Immune system - do your work! And the next morning I woke up feeling just fine.

I've had several such little miracles, which on their own prove little - but it is my philosophy. Be sensitive to the smallest anomalies in the way you feel, that may turn into something nasty if ignored - and try to will them better, bearing in mind that in clinical trials, the placebo will work in 18%-20% of cases. (And imagine how frustrated the pharma companies are when their new drug, on which they have pinned their hopes, fails to outperform the placebo).

In coming years, research may well inform us as to which people respond better to the placebo effect than others. My guess is that one's mental outlook will be a good pointer. Being happy helps keep you healthy and vice verse. But I would add a spiritual aspect too - linking health and happiness with celestial order, we should express our gratitude for what we have, and in a grateful state of mind ask for health and happiness for ourselves and for our loved ones.

Monism - considering the entire Universe, all things visible and invisible, the material and the spiritual as one - requires a holistic view of mind and spirit. The effect of spiritual will on our well-being is important. A life in balance in which bodily health and spiritual well-being is neither ignored, nor obsessively pursued, but where conscious awareness of both plays an important role.

Believing in the power of belief is necessary.

Of course, sceptics would argue that this cannot be proved. Steve Jobs could not cure himself of pancreatic cancer by drinking freshly-squeezed fruit juice.

All I can do is to offer my gratitude for being happy and healthy, and hope that I can continue to be so for many years to come - as a demonstrator, as proof-of-concept.

This time last year:
Kicking off Lent again

This time two years ago:
Design, Build, Finance, Maintain, Operate: Improving the procurement of Poland's infrastructure

This time three years ago:
Wait to spend or save lives now? An infrastructure quandry

This time seven years ago:
It's not rich countries that build roads, its roads that build rich countries

This time eight years ago:
Snow that was doomed to melt

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

How much spirituality do we need?

Lent 2016: Day Eight

For some of us, there is no spiritual quest, there are no longings for the metaphysical. Life is focused on earning money and making our way in society. Externally we may all look the same, but matters spiritual are deeply hidden. Intelligence isn't the clue here, nor is gregariousness; it is something intangible. It is about how some people feel a strong urge to make sense of it all and to seek communion with the Eternal Sublime. How often though? How intense is that need?

Devout people may have daily rituals around prayer at set times. But how often do they genuinely feel that they have engaged in meaningful contact with the metaphysical? Some indeed will have, and do so frequently. But for others - the ritual brings comfort, rather than a genuine spiritual insight.

This is not about religion or being religious. Some go to church each week, but they do so because they feel that one should go, rather than this being an active form of seeking contact with God, a chance to enter an exalted state of existence.

Prayer is a two-way communication with God; it requires a sincerity and an openness to the return channel. It can happen when you create the right conditions - a calm mind unfocused on the worldly, a readiness to listen to that inner voice. Some people need ritual for this to happen, familiar magic words that open the door to a spiritual state. Others can let their consciousness attain that state readily. Is it hard work? Or should it come spontaneously to those who reach out and seek? How much spirituality do we need?

For me, such moments are rare, but as I get older, they become ever so slightly more frequent. But I am aware of this being a lifelong quest for enlightenment, a spiritual journey on one short stretch along the infinitely long road from Zero to One. Moments when one stops short with an insight that amazes, that casts new light on life. But always - more questions than answers. Not just questions of logic, based on scientific reductionism - "yes, but by what mechanisms does this happen?" The deepest questions that our consciousnesses need answers to revolve around purpose.

Spiritual evolution is key. Those of us who actively seek growth, seeking a closer connection with Unity, can do this in tiny steps. Progress is slow and hardly tangible, and yet is there. Away from the beast, towards the angelic. It begins from understanding your biology and rising above it. The base, the furious reptile brain, driven by the most primordial of motivations. A calm, clear awareness of the span of life, from birth, development to maturity - and in maturity a life focused on continuous improvement. From that first moment in which one is conscious of being conscious.

Sitting here and writing, I know there is a long, long way to go. So many profound insights that need to be experienced, studied, understood instinctively and communicated. The Lenten time is one in which I focus more intently on matters spiritual, but not to the exclusion of the remaining seven-eights of the year.

Should we be spending every moment of our waking life in pursuit of spiritual goals? Probably not. Sometimes, these things come to us, an if we try too hard, they evaporate before us. Better let chance intervene and take its course. The middle way between trying too hard, and not trying at all.

This time three years ago:
The Chosen Ones

This time four years ago:
Fixies in the snow

This time seven years ago:
Just the ticket (in praise of Warsaw's 20-minute bus/tram/metro ticket)

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Consciousness and coincidence

Lent 2016: Day Seven

As Bill Bryson points out in A Short History of Nearly Everything, the fact that you or I are alive is the result of such a statistically tiny improbability as to be nearly miraculous. Tracing back to your parents, and their parents, and so on generation after generation backwards through time and evolution, the odds that one of them didn't get eaten or trodden on before relaying Life onwards to you outstrip those of winning the lottery by an order of several billion.

The birth of any single living thing then should be regarded as miraculous, a coming together of myriad coincidences that all had to have happened. The slightest slip. Literally. Thirty years ago this spring, a certain Iwona was practising her slaloms ahead of a group skiing holiday on a dry ski slope. She fell and caught her thumb in the mesh, breaking it. With a week to go, there was a spare place in her ski party, which I took. And on that holiday, I met the mother of my children. Would they have existed had it not been for that accident?

My father told me about his many close shaves with death during the Warsaw Uprising. What had he died there - would I have existed had it not been for his good fortune? And so on, back and back and back - to the very origins of life itself. Coincidence after coincidence after coincidence.

And life - even at its most basic - is unbelievably complex. Take the humble bacteria. Look at how it is constructed, and it works. From its outer membrane, to its little flagellum waving about to give motility, to the DNA within the cytoplasm. One of the first manifestations of life on earth, and behold its complexity. Scale up from unicellular organisms until you get to us human beings. Utterly amazing we are, yet what small matters exercise our passions!

And then the Universe - the known Universe, that is - for who knows what lies beyond the 91 billion light years diameter of what we are aware of. 91 billion light years? Yet the Universe is only 13.8 billion years old - so how did that happen? One Universe, or one of many? How many? The vastness of it all - and among all this, the most complex thing that we know is the human brain.

Miraculous. The contemplation of the miracle of our existence - that we are consciously able to savour it - the act of being conscious. The Universe is indeed a complex place, but awareness of its complexity and our existence within it needs to be cherished. We should thank and praise God, the Universal Singularity, for that miraculous chain of coincidence that has led to us being alive. Revel in that awareness, for it is good.

This time two years ago:
North-east of Warsaw West revisited

This time three years ago:
Looking for answers

This time four years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time six years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time eight years ago:
Okęcie dusk

Monday, 15 February 2016

Giving it up for Lent - spiritual and physical aspects

Lent 2016: Day Six

When I did my first Lent properly in 1992, I gave up alcohol for 46 days in a row and considered that a heroic achievement. Year on year, I added things to give up - meat, confectionery, cakes and biscuits, salt snacks, fast food, sugary drinks... The idea was to make it increasingly harder each year. Well, yes and no.

Looking back at my first Lenten blog post (here) dating back eight years to 2008,, then already my 17th year in a row, I see that that Lent was the toughest I've ever done. Add to the above list coffee, tea, dairy and fish! Since then, I've stepped back from that extreme. Coffee I carry on drinking, as numerous studies have shown that moderate coffee intake (to three-four cups a day) help stave off dementia. Dairy and fish I keep eating, as the dairy is needed for bones and fish is good for the brain.

Mens sana in corpus sanum - a healthy mind - and therefore consciousness - and therefore spirit - in a healthy body.

While the dietary regime is laxer than it was in 2008, the 46 days of Lent are now for me not so difficult to accomplish; it becomes routine as this time of year rolls around. Confectionery, cakes and biscuits I hardly ever eat anyway, so I'm not missing a thing. Meat - yes, a good steak, grilled medium-rare; a pork pie or fillet of duck. But not to the extent that it can't be replaced by tuna, salmon, prawns or swordfish. Again, no huge sacrifice, more a question of being aware of what I'm eating. Salt snacks and sugary drinks I partake of very rarely. So it's the alcohol that's the real sacrifice. The rest is ritual.

The additional bits of Lent - a commitment to write throughout the period about matters spiritual, have been added in recent years. The will to do is harder to enforce than the mere will not to do. So walking and sit-up targets have also been added.

Lent is associated in the minds of people - even in the increasingly atheist UK - with 'giving something up'. Indeed, passing through the ticket barriers at Ealing Broadway station today, I heard a conversation between two station staff talking about 'giving it up for Lent'. A joking reference, but a reference to Lent nonetheless.

The physical benefits of giving up things up for one eighth (exactly) of the year become clear after years. There is in this week's Economist an interesting piece about the regenerative powers of the human liver. It will be interesting to see what effects my annual Lenten abstinence will have long term on my body, given that the rest of the year I'm drinking moderately - and in the run-up to Christmas/Yuletide, immoderately. As I noted in the New Year, my alcohol intake over the whole of 2015 averaged exactly 28 units a week. This used to be the recommended safe limit for male drinking until the Chief Medical Officer for England announced that it is now 14 units. But then I doubt that takes Lent into account.

I am also minded of the Spanish vineyard owner, Antonio Docampo Garcia, who died this month at the age of 107. He attributed his long life to four bottles of red wine a day. Two with lunch, two in the evening. There's more than a bit of blarney about this, given the self-promotion of his family business. We'd be talking over 40 units of alcohol a day, given a 13.5% ABV wine. This is as much as Prof Dame Sally says we should be drinking over the space of three weeks. I dare say that on occasion Senor Garcia was indeed known to knock back that much, but not on a daily basis.

In vino veritas. I find that after four pints of best bitter all is clear. The secrets of the Universe unfold, the Ways of Man become evident and the tongue (and indeed pen) flow readily with wit and wisdom. But not every day. (Looking back over my Lenten writing, there's maybe fewer well-wrought phrases, but the argumentation holds together well.)

So - is the sacrifice of giving up alcohol for Lent a health thing or a spiritual thing? Given that I have had some Most enlightening insights after imbibing several ales or glasses of wine at a sitting, I'd say that alcohol consumption has indeed been instrumental to furthering me along the path of spiritual growth. But then stopping altogether for one eighth of the year has helped me grow spiritually even more over the years, by building my will power. Will, I posit, along with memory, is vital to what it is to be a conscious human being.

"If you will it, it is no dream." Theodore Herzl, Dude.

This time two years ago:
Curry in Warsaw - the lunchtime meal choice

This time three years ago:
Faces, humour and landscapes

This time four years ago:
The first heavy snow of winter

This time five years ago:
God's Dwelling Place - a short story

This time five years ago:
Beat this for a snowy winter!

This time seven years ago:
Poland's most popular male outer-garment

This time eight years ago:
The Frost Gods return

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Mind, matter and life

Lent 2016: Day Five

At each end of each strand of chromosome within your body are telomeres, protective caps which shield the ends when cells divide and multiply. After a finite number of cell divisions, the telomeres wear down, and this is the cause of the aging process. Telomeres were discovered in 1975-7 by Nobel Prize winners, Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak.

Since then, Dr Blackburn has researched causes of telomere decay. She found that in people living with high levels of stress in their lives, telomeres were shorter by the equivalent of a decade's life-span compared to those living low stress or stress-free lives. But can telomeres be lengthened, more resistant to what happens to them during cell multiplication?

Dr Blackburn carried out three experiments, which conventional science would consider the flaky end of research - seeing what effect meditation would have on telomeres. The results - entirely solid, statistically significant - suggest that the effect is indeed positive. Her research was replicated by other researchers. Google 'telomeres' and 'meditation' to find many articles on this subject . Here's a link to one - in Scientific American.

Meditation. Does this mean if we want to live longer we need to sit cross-legged on the floor and chant 'Om'? The modern, Western, take on meditation is mindfulness, which has blossomed into an industry in its own right. The trick, I believe, is to strip out mumbo-jumbo and ritual incantations that are there because a religion says it should be, and to find the mechanism at the core, which makes this a scientifically-proven therapy. At its heart, meditation - mindfulness - means being aware of your conscious experience, focusing on breathing in and breathing out while being entirely still.

Meditation is very much embedded in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but a relatively new concept to Christianity. [A little aside to my Ealing-born readers - anyone remember Ks. Andrzej in the parafia, early- mid-1970s? First priest to talk about meditation and mysticism to enquiring teenagers...]

Anyway, I find I do mindfulness best when waking in the middle of the night (an entirely natural thing). Lying awake at night, I focus on my breathing, I give thanks for the miracle of my conscious existence. And soon I'm back asleep again.

Since the 'dawning of the Age of Aquarius' and the New Age, the Western world has been awash with pseudo-mystical twaddle, healing crystals, quack cures and charlatans. Some have become very wealthy, some have many followers. Wrong goals. Yet at the heart of it all, the holistic approach to mind-body matters has been gaining ground in the scientific community. But scepticism still holds strong. If Deepak Chopra, for example, lives - as is his goal - 'way beyond hundred', will that have validated his belief of the primacy of consciousness over matter? Or will it have been because he was blessed with good genes and followed a healthy lifestyle?

I have written about luck and happiness and health (here and here) and am inclined to subscribe to the holistic view that mind can alter matter. Being consciously thankful for your health is, I believe, helps in keeping you healthy. And praying for good health helps too. I also believe, to a degree, that not wanting an ailment - by actively willing it away at the very first intimation of a symptom, can help.

The stronger the belief, the better it works.

Ah yes, and read this, from last week.

This time last year:
Compositions in blue and white

This time four years ago:
Waiting for the change to come

This time five years ago
A wetter Poland?

This time seven years ago:
Heavy overnight snow

This time eight years ago:
Changing Jeziorki skyline

Saturday, 13 February 2016

How religions tend to hold back spiritual growth

Lent 2016: Day Four

Organised religions are essentially about social control, using fear of God. "Do thus, and you shall escape punishment." Indeed, you will be rewarded with an eternity in Paradise for merely obeying the precepts of the religion you follow for one short lifetime.

And don't ask questions. Accept. This is rather stultifying.

Existence, conscious existence demands of us inquiry, which leads to far more meaningful spiritual growth than mere unquestioning obedience. As long as your inquiry is conducted genuinely, in good faith. It is better to spend a lifetime seeking answers to the eternal mysteries of the Universe than to be told what to believe and go along with that dogma. Surely God, the Universal Singularity, the Purpose, the One, would rather that we sought than just accepted?

I was once (or twice) told that like a good soldier follows orders without question, so a good Catholic follows the precepts of the faith in the same way.

But I believe in growth, in the endless journey of improvement (a view known as the Whig interpretation of history), in which Mankind is slowly moving away from the brutish towards the angelic. The road out of darkness towards light is long and often painful, but it is a road, an upward slope, it is a journey, we are all upon it. So for a religious leader to hold up a text written millennia ago and say: "this is it - the ultimate answer" denies us the journey. This approach enervates and removes the stimulus for growth. Growth comes from discovery of the new, within ourselves, within the Universe.

Poverty, suffering and disease should not be the default human condition, rather things from which we are moving away from. Thus should it be with ignorance.

Science has moved forward since the days of the mediaeval alchemists because of the questing nature of the human mind. The boundaries of scientific knowledge are being pushed ever forward. And yet the Dawkinsite orthodoxy of "the Universe just happened - there is no God (so don't bother looking)" is just debilitating to personal growth as any fundamentalist tied to the literal word of God as in their Holy Book.

It is hard for me to believe that there are people who believe that the world was created in seven days. Over 40% of Americans believe that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. This is the result of accepting a text as holy truth and refusing to move on.

As a youth who spent seven years in a Roman Catholic grammar school, there was plentiful occasion to ask the tough questions. The stock answer for the toughest was 'it's a matter of faith'. Or - when I'd push the boat out too far - "the Devil makes you ask those questions". Constructing a massively complex theology around four Gospels leaves much room for questions. The Vatican's crack theologians are no doubt better prepared for them than the average parish priest, but even so, one knows where to draw the line, how far one can question, and when the questioning should stop in the interest of polite society.

Today, I would certainly not - out of basic human respect - take up the matters that I have been writing about under the 'human spirituality' label [see below] with any priest. Nor indeed with any other mediatory agents that place themselves as anointed intermediaries between God and Man.

But to someone else who genuinely seeks a higher understanding and spiritual growth, I am willing to discuss; with an open mind I am ready to learn from and share insights with those who are also on the same journey. This brings more benefit and enlightenment.

Tomorrow: prayer, meditation and human biology

This time two years ago:
When trams break down

This time four years ago:
Who are the thickies of Europe?

This time five years ago:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time six years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki

Friday, 12 February 2016

Consciousness outside the body

Belief is belief; but when it comes to science, empirical evidence is a must. Repeatable proof. Now, the matters of which I write are, to us, in the infancy of spiritual evolution, difficult to pin down or examine in a lab bench. They belong to the philosopher and the poet - and the theologian.

Our sensitivity to the spiritual is weak, it varies from human to human (indeed from living being to living being). It comes in flashes; if we were to be subject to the fullness of Knowing in one go, it would literally blow our minds. But I believe it will grow, with each coming lifetime. Orthodox church teaching suggests one life, one shot at redemption - and if successful, eternity with God.

I tend to disagree. We can grow but a fraction of the way from zero to one; why should an eternity in Paradise await us for behaving ourselves in the short space of one life time? [The answer is, of course, social control, but that's for another post.]

We can either say - it's a spiritual thing, and the spiritual is no part of the physical universe, it is something entirely separate. This is Dualism. Or we can say - the universe is holistic, the One, spiritual and physical intertwined. This is Monism, and it is what I tend to believe in. [I say 'tend', for should experience, should things I find going forth on this lifelong quest suggest otherwise, I am open to fine-tune or even change fundamentally my belief. But it must be genuine.]

We live, we learn, we die - then what? Has that spiritual evolution - that tiny increment of distance closer to universal understanding - been lost forever with our deaths? I believe not. And I believe this on the basis of being open to signals that have been telling my consciousness over the years that this life is but a part of a continuum, witnessed in the here-and-now through our individual eyes. What we have witnessed and what we have learnt will roll forward.

But what are the mechanisms for transmission? Scientific ones? Here is gets flaky. Here I'm on shifting sands, on dodgy ground. Endless scientific discoveries push forward the boundaries and close off that which hitherto Mankind had been happy to ascribe to the existence of God. This is the concept of 'the God of the gaps'.  Once upon a time thunder and lightning were clear proof that God exists. And that a flat Earth, under the dome of the heavens, likewise.

So any attempt to explain a phenomenon that I believe to be as real as your ability to imagine the smell of an orange must be sound enough for both science and for me.

Right now, I have identified four putative ways in which our consciousness can free itself of our physical, living bodies.

The human microbiome - the trillions of bacteria we slough off daily. They live within us and on us, we excrete them, we exhale them, when we walk we shed clouds of them. Bacteria can lie dormant for 250 million years. What have they learnt of us while we hosted them?

Brain waves - science is closing in on this one: see this new research about electrical brain waves in mice here. But can those waves be detected outside the mouse's skull? Or our own ones? If so, how far away? For how long? As a teenager, this was my favoured theory. "I'm picking up transmissions from some dead guy's brain". And - er - why not gravitational waves, first detected yesterday?

Atoms as a repository of consciousness, memory, will? Atoms are around forever. The electron shells whiz round the nuclei for eternity. The hydrogen atoms of which we are made (8% of our body weight) have been around since shortly after the Big Bang. Wow! Do they carry property other than just electric charge? What will they have learned during their short time as part of us?

Dark matter. This stuff makes up 84.5% of the total mass of the Universe. And science hasn't the foggiest idea what it is, other than it exists and is pushing the Universe apart. Or if not dark matter, then dark energy, which constitutes 68.3% of all the energy in the Universe. It would be a big 'God of the gaps' for me to posit that until science does discover its nature, dark matter and/or dark matter is the will, the purpose and the intelligence of the Universe.

Now look, dear reader - I'm open about all this. I hold no view one way or another, save that one day Mankind may have a better insight into these mysteries than it does right now. In the meantime, I intend to read, to seek, to experience, to synthesise, to speculate - but above all, remain open to the mysteries of the infinite.

Tomorrow: organised religions - holding back spiritual growth with orthodoxy.

This time two years ago:
Sustainability and the feminisation of business

This time three years ago:
Lent kicks off (somewhat earlier than this year)

This time four years ago:
Feeling at home on the ice

This time seven years ago:
Wetlands in (a milder) winter

This time eight years ago:
Railway miscellany

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Defining the human experience

Poets often have our human life more precisely measured than any scientist. Insights offered by Mankind's greatest poems often precede scientific validation by hundreds or thousands of years.

This is Poem XXXII from A.E. Housman's cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I. 
Now - for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart -
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart. 
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
Long before Joni Mitchell sang that we are "stardust/Billion year-old carbon", Housman intuitively felt that the matter of which we are composed comes together to form us - and then disperses. He notes that life is but a brief moment in time; our priorities are to communicate sincerely with one another - and to help one another, before the time passes. But the last verse suggests rebirth, constant rebirth.

Housman, being a classical scholar (he taught Enoch Powell at Oxford), refers to the 'twelve-winded sky', the 'wind's twelve quarters', as used in antiquity, rather than the eight/16/32 wind directions that have evolved since the Middle Ages. His references to 'the Roman' in Poem XXXI, On Wenlock Edge suggest that Housman felt a strong familiarity with those times. He has seen before. And is certain that he will do so until Eternity.

Six of the poems from A Shropshire Lad were set to music in 1909 by Ralph Vaughan Williams, my favourite British composer. On Wenlock Edge and From Far, from Eve and Morning are the first two songs from this YouTube clip (click below).

By way of coincidence, this is a quote from Warsaw-born Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, featured this very morning as Quote of the Day on the Moscow Times' Twitter feed:
All was before
All will be repeated again,
And only the moment of recognition
Brings us delight.
Yes. That 'moment of recognition'. So perfectly, succinctly put.

Written on this very day that Mankind first announced the first detection of gravitational waves.

Tomorrow: spiritual or physical? Transmission of consciousness.

This time two years ago:
The City of Warsaw wants you to complain

This time three years ago:
Czachówek's wild woods in winter

This time four years ago:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw

This time five years ago:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time six year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time seven years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter

This time eight years ago:
A week into Lent