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quantum physics

This week’s highlights from philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

There’s been an interesting bun-fight in the media recently between physicists and philosophers. As you know, physics and ethics were once conjoined in one subject: philosophy. The first philosophers, like Parmenides or Empedocles, were also physicists, searching for the unifying material elements of the universe much as CERN is now searching for the God Particle.

The first ethical philosophers, like Pythagoras and Heraclitus, tried to build ethical systems that fit with the scientific facts of the universe. Stoicism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism are ethical theories and physical theories of the cosmos. That’s part of their beauty – they’re trying to be theories of everything.

That all changed with Copernicus, who shattered the hegemony of Christian Aristotelianism in the sixteenth century, and severed the umbilical cord between ethics and physics. You see some ethical philosophies in the Enlightenment try to imitate the extraordinary achievements of Isaac Newton and the new mechanistic science – Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example.  But other philosophers saw clearly that, if the universe was entirely ruled by mechanistic and predictable laws, it left no room for conscious free choice, thereby rendering much ethical thinking absurd. How could the little atoms of man possibly become self-aware and choose to change themselves?

Descartes suggested the soul might exist in the pineal gland, which became in his philosophy a battleground between the body’s ‘animal spirits’ and the soul’s celestial yearnings. But clearly this is an unsatisfactory solution from a scientific point of view – anatomists cut open the pineal gland but alas no angel flew away.

So physics and ethical philosophy simply ignored each other, and carried on their separate way. Physics grew in stature and success – we put a man on the moon! – while ethical philosophy became less central to our cultural conversation. Physicists like Einstein typically maintained a polite silence about the implications of their cosmic speculations for people’s ethical or religious beliefs.

In the last few years, however, this gentleman’s agreement has broken down. Scientists like Richard Dawkins have felt more prepared to go on the offensive and rubbish people’s religious beliefs. And this has encouraged physicists to also weigh in and announce that ‘philosophy is dead’, as Stephen Hawking charmingly put it last year. They’re usually particularly vocal shortly after publishing a new book, for some reason.

Which brings us to this month’s bun-fight. Last year, the physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called A Universe From Nothing, about how the universe could spontaneously come into being from quantum instability, without any need for an Aristotelian ‘First Mover’ pushing the start button (watch him give a talk about it here). Richard Dawkins declared it another nail in God’s coffin, and it’s since been reviewed a staggering 156 times on Amazon – those Skeptics sure are enthusiastic!

Last month, the New York Times published a rather rude (and certainly remarkably late) review by the philosopher David Albert, criticising Krauss’ theory of nothingness: if fundamental laws of physics already existed, then something existed before the universe.

This in turn prompted Krauss to give a somewhat intemperate interview to Ross Andersen of the Atlantic, hitting back at ‘the moronic philosopher’ of the NYT, and at philosophy in general.

Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers…Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’


This in turn promoted various ‘WTF’ pieces, including NPR asking ‘why are physicists hating on philosophy?’. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote to Krauss suggesting he may have gone a bit far, so Krauss wrote a slightly less punchy piece saying, OK, philosophy is fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but it hasn’t contributed much to science recently, and anyway theology is a goddam disgrace.

Now you can say this is just a ridiculous bit of departmental handbags, but I think it’s great. In the words of Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire: ‘You think we’re fighting, I think we’re finally talking!’ It is good that physics and philosophy are talking to each other again, and that people are seriously trying to build a theory of everything that incorporates both the very small, the very big, and the very weird fact that humans are conscious beings reflecting on the cosmos.

There are going to be some arguments along the way, like any separated couple giving it another go, but both sides are engaged in the same mission – trying to work out the nature of reality, how humans fit into it, and how we can build the best possible lives and societies within it. Philosophy has a lot to bring to that conversation, not least to the question of how we define ‘the best possible life’, and also to the question of how we can transform our emotions.  That question is both a biological question, a psychological question, an ethical question, and also a physical one – how is it that humans are capable of consciously examining their automatic programming, and changing it? How can we enhance this remarkable capacity?

I was on the radio show and podcast Little Atoms yesterday, talking to Neil Denny about  how people use ancient philosophy today. He’s been running that show for a few years as a sideline project after his day-job. What an incredible success it’s been – it’s hosted many of my heroes, from Adam Curtis to Jonah Lehrer. Neil and I had a good chat, though sadly ran out of time before we could discuss the contemporary Skeptic movement and community, which fascinates us both. But here’s a video I made of The Amazing Meeting – the annual gathering of Skeptics in Las Vegas. I talk about my time among the Skeptics and also interview James Randi in my book.

Which was finally published on Thursday, by the way. We had the launch party at the Idler Academy – it was good fun. The book had a nice review in the FT, and the Independent did a great article on the rise of philosophy clubs. But it’s still somewhat battling against the odds as a first-time book – so do please spread the word and, if you feel very altruistic, write the first review on the Amazon page.

I also had a goodnatured scrap with Anne McElvoy on Radio 3’s Night Waves (I’m on 21 minutes in) this week.  Anne, who studied analytic philosophy at university, was horrified by the suggestion that philosophy was or could be a form of therapy for the emotions. But this is not a controversial claim – for those who think it’s ‘tosh’ (as Barry Gardiner MP put it on Twitter), have a look at Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, or, even better, read my book!

Here’s a fascinating study highlighted by the blog Neuroskeptic, which suggests there is a connection between whether a person thinks they are ‘depressed’, and how depressed they think other people are. The study found a person might actually have a lot of depressive episodes, but not consider themselves depressed (and therefore not seek help) because they think that everyone feels that way.

Neuroskeptic wonders if this study suggests anti-stigma campaigns are a bad idea – if people believe that everyone has emotional problems, perhaps they will feel they should stop making a fuss and not bother to seek help. Well, maybe, but hopefully anti-stigma campaigns also highlight the fact that there are many different ways to do something about emotional problems: support groups, CBT, other talking therapies, SSRIs, and so on. Personally, I remember how terrified I was when I had depression etc, and how ashamed I was – and I’m sure that me hiding the condition from almost everyone I knew (out of shame) simply exacerbated the problem.

The Occupy movement now has a lunatic fringe (as it were) – Occupy the DSM. And Luke Fowler’s films about RD Laing were just nominated for the Turner Prize. Not on YouTube alas, so here is Laing from Adam Curtis’ The Trap.

Finally, here’s a lovely piece by Robert Zaretsky from the Wall Street Journal, looking at the 150th anniversary of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which featured the godless student Bazarov, an inspiration for Friedrich Nietzsche. The problem, says Zaretsky, is we’ve all become so bored and un-curious that no one even believes in nihilism anymore. To misquote Walter from the Big Lebowski, say what you like about nihilism, at least it’s an ethos!

See you next week,


Jonny Wilkinson and quantum physics

I’m definitely going to buy the upcoming autobiography of Jonny Wilkinson, one of my sporting heroes. The World Cup-winning rugby star’s book doesn’t sound anything like the usual sporting autobiography rubbish. Instead, it sounds like a deeply spiritual account of his struggle with a crippling fear of failure, and eventual arrival at a Buddhist outlook on life.

Wilco writes in The Times that his fear of failure was so powerful that he didn’t feel any satisfaction or pleasure even after winning the rugy World Cup with a drop goal in the last minute.

He would practice obsessively:

“Each week leading up to the big day, I hit about 250 to 300 practice place kicks alone. I average 200 to 250 punts using my left foot and exactly the same number using my right. A daily total of 20 dropped goals with each foot and 15 to 20 restarts, six to seven times a week, would pretty much constitute a solid preparational build-up. That makes a total of about 1,000 kicks to prepare for just 20. That’s near enough 50 rehearsals for each single defining event. To me that has been a totally acceptable ratio. My longest session on record ran for a hefty five hours and then another hour and a half later that same evening. I have been totally obsessive when it comes to getting things right, never stopping until I was happy.”

“It worked in many ways but it was a fairly destructive method and the success made it an addictive one. It seemed to touch on my obsessive streak, taking it to a new level, and before long it was getting well out of hand. The final whistles had barely sounded and I had already begun sacrificing for the next weekend, afraid that if I stopped to celebrate and embrace it I would have severe consequences to face.

“I think [his fear of failure] was rooted in an even deeper fear of death,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to avoid death: it was like a game I could not win. The closer I got to family and friends and the better things got, the more I had to lose.”

But he arrived at a higher understanding after reading about quantum physics:

“I read about Schrodinger’s Cat [a renowned thought experiment in physics] and it had a huge effect on me. It was all about the idea that an observer can change the world just by looking at something; the idea that mind and reality are somehow interconnected. It is difficult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train. I came to understand that I had been living a life in which I barely featured.”

“I do not like religious labels, but there is a connection between quantum physics and Buddhism, which I was also getting into. Failing at something is one thing, but Buddhism tells us that it is up to us how we interpret that failure. The so-called Middle Way is about seeing everything as interconnected – success and failure, victory and defeat. Who is to say that the foundations of success in the 2003 World Cup were not built on the failures that went before?”

Now, he says:

“my faith has given me a handle on it, based around the ideas of rebirth and karma. It has also given me the ability to understand that rugby, like life, will also come to an end. I guess I had been trying to block that out, hoping that it would last for ever. But I have accepted my career will finish one day and I am in a place that will enable me to make that transition comfortably. I will not have to reinvent myself to cope with life after rugby.”

“My motivation today has nothing to do with status, money or ego. Before I wanted to be the best in the world and I would watch other players to see how I measured up. Now when I do something great on the rugby pitch it is not about being better than others but about exploring my talent. I look around at the spectators and their enjoyment at having seen a great game. I reflect on the fact that my club, Newcastle, has become stronger, something that is good for the health of the business and the staff. My fulfilment is no longer about self-gratification; it is about seeing the happiness of others.”

Here’s some more stuff about how he learnt to control his moods:

“When I allow myself to feel great, letting in only the most positive and optimistic thoughts, then great things start to happen. When I decide to let instinct and compassion drive me instead of judgment, then good people seem to appear in my life and nice things begin to occur for them, too.

What helped me to notice this first, however, was in fact the flip side of the coin. It was the impact of my negative and self-pitying moods.

The mornings when I got out of bed the wrong side or woke up feeling a little off were so often followed by awful “why me?” days when everything just seemed to go wrong. Have you ever stepped back to look at the damage you cause in other people’s lives when you are concerned only with moaning about your own misfortune or taking out your frustrations on them? I did, and I started to look at how all those bad days could easily have been great for me and those around me if only I’d shaken off the ill-feeling.

If I open my eyes and I feel a little low, with a touch of anger now, I take a bit of time to drive the negativity away. I concentrate on how lucky I am to be in the position I am, with the friends I have around me. I inspire myself by concentrating on thoughts of what might happen in my life if I really pull out all the stops and how I could help others to achieve their goals, too. I retain a memory of something which makes me laugh out loud and I make sure I leave my front door with a smile on my face. I choose to have a great day and in doing so I choose to help my colleagues at least have the option of a good one, too.

As long as I never stop trying to achieve more my route will be OK

If I stop to consider how any one of the many factors that make up my life today came into being, I will find its path littered with coincidences and chance. If I trace my life back far enough I will notice some nonsensical and, to be honest, unfeasibly ridiculous moments when my path crossed with someone or something at just the right time.

At other times important people appeared from nowhere and stepped into my life and made it better. There were also instances when my world was turned upside down, my trust tested and my ego crushed. I know now some of these moments actually saved my career in so many ways and others somehow managed to make me a better and stronger-performing person.

Back then I was blind and deaf to all this. Nowadays I try to listen to what my experiences are telling me – I truly believe the world has my best interests at heart – provided I am prepared to fight for those interests in the right way. I realise now I shouldn’t be afraid when some new, unexpected (and probably unwelcome at the time) avenue suddenly opens up in front of me. I am on my way down a new road now, but my dreams and hopes are still the same as when I set off. As long as I never stop trying to achieve more, and to follow my dreams, then the route will be OK. It might not look exactly like the perfect map I envisioned at the beginning; I believe, instead, that it will turn out to be going somewhere far better.

That all makes sense to me now. Sort of, at least. But it certainly didn’t for a very long time and I suffered because of it. If I hadn’t worried so much, I would have made more of my time. And if I’d done that, I would have enjoyed life to a far greater extent and I might even have got to more or less where I was wanting to be a lot quicker.

I am still trying to make sense of all this. I probably never will. But I don’t think that’s a problem in the least. What I do know is that I feel a lot better in myself and enjoy life and success a lot more now. A lot more. And that’s important. How can I explain? About how we can take in what is happening around us, the people, places and things, the good and the bad, and utilise them to move forward? It is a bit like creating a painting.

How we physically influence the outcome and mentally perceive what happens in front of our eyes determines the kind of picture of life that we will paint. Without our perceptions there is no real world out there. Our interpretations of what we see, taste, hear, touch and smell give us our attitudes, our limits, our successes and our failures. They give us the memories of our pasts and dreams of our futures.

These and all the emotions which go hand in hand with them become the colours from which we can choose when we want to begin the painting process. Our actions, which are driven by our feelings, offer us the opportunity to live; they let us go out and leave a mark, they put the brush in our hands. Actions cause things to happen and from those outcomes we learn, we improve and we find the best path for an amazing existence. We make our own masterpiece. And it all starts from a blank canvas.

I base my perceptions and beliefs on a natural desire for peace and the desire to experience exciting opportunities. The quality of how I see things determines how much of my zest for doing good stuff, for being brilliant if you like, manages to shine through. We can all shuffle our views and interpretations around a bit to make a better life. Just look at the way we are able to put the past behind us and reinvent ourselves, if we so choose. We can throw away yesterday’s painting and begin afresh tomorrow.

To make the best of life, sometimes you need to run into a few dead-ends and sometimes you have to be prepared to drop back and look at your painting from different angles. Once or twice we may be required to go back to the start before the realisation of the helpful or unhelpful really sinks in.

How ambition can be infectious

“I don’t want to lose” is not the same sort of thought as “I want to win”. The message that this focus emits is totally different. The first is almost a plea for mercy which gives away any power you have as you cry out to be spared by chance.

The latter is an eminently stronger, more proactive intention which forces you to look inside and uncover the innate strength we all possess for making things happen.

As a member of an underdog team I have been pipped at the post too many times because when potential glory loomed, the grip of fear was stronger than the liberating effect of ambition. Fear is negative and inhibiting; ambition is positive and motivating. The effect is manifested in a team as a whole.

Focus the key to putting mind over matter

What we focus our minds on is more often than not what we end up with – well, pretty much what we end up with. There is a slight difference. In my head I can hit the ideal kick over and over again. In real life I probably can’t but I reckon with the right preparation, understanding and conditions, like the ones in my mind, I could get damn close.

Practising flawlessly in the mind without even venturing anywhere near a field can actually improve my physical skills and begin to close the gap between imagination and reality. There is no harm in striving for perfection, there is only good. With my thoughts and imagination I am drawing the experience towards myself. With great actions I can finally receive it.