Sunday, 30 November 2008

Blogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home

In a recent post (Me and My Demographic) I mentioned the idea of "morphic resonance." I realise that this may not have become quite such a household expression nor so well understood as has, say, "Collateralized Debt Obligation," so I thought I'd return to the subject. I don't pretend to have any great insight here, it's just something bright, shiny and slightly mad that caught my eye.

Actually, it always surprises and interests me, how -- given the way even the serious newspapers and broadcasts are daily churning over much the same stuff (of which the "arts" component now seems entirely driven by publicists' press releases) -- we still manage to take away quite different doggy-bags of scraps from the Great Media Feast. What catches my eye probably won't catch yours.

This is a good thing: it means there's still a future for conversation. My partner -- an academic with a high-maintenance news habit -- can be literally entranced by the heavyweight end of a broadsheet for several hours, and may need reminding to sit down, or even asked to move along if the traffic is building up. I, on the other hand -- an idiot with a bottomless appetite for pictures and strange trivia -- make straight for the cartoons and the "human interest" supplements. Lively and sustaining conversations (and, of course, arguments) result.

But, returning to "morphic resonance." The surprising and interesting thing is how very mediaeval most of us are, despite a lengthy exposure to education and ready access to information. One's Inner Superstitious Peasant (ISP) is never far from the surface. And there's nothing gets the attention of your ISP quicker than a really good coincidence. Check my earlier post X Marks The Spot for a good example. A truly splendid coincidence like that is like a giant hand appearing from a cloud and writing the words "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" on the roof of your car. Hard to ignore, hard to dismiss.

Of course, what counts as a significant coincidence is very much a question of what you notice, or are equipped to notice. For all I know, the leaves on our back lawn this morning may spell out "And what are you looking at?" in Aramaic, and may have done so every Sunday for the last six weeks. A rational person might say that such phenomena are merely the side effects of chance operating within our cognitive framework. I think a lot depends on how you feel about those famous monkeys trying to type out the complete works of Shakespeare. Will they produce a complete Goethe before they manage a Shakespeare or after? And where are they getting all those carbon ribbons from, I'd like to know?

The best coincidence, the one that everyone sees every day without giving it much thought, is the fact that the sun and the moon, as seen from planet Earth, are pretty much exactly the same size. Think about it: the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon in diameter, but happens to be 400 times as far away, and thus appears to be the same size. When the maths are just right, the little 'un covers up the big 'un as neat as a plug in a plughole. For the Ancients this was simply a given, and they presumably thought it made perfect poetic sense -- brother sun and sister moon, the greater and the lesser light, and so on. The sheer gobsmacking wonder of the 3-D truth of the matter was unavailable to them.

But what to make of such a thing? There seems to be a hard-wired resistance to the category of "amazing but ultimately meaningless coincidence" in the human brain: in evolutionary terms you can see how this may have saved us from being eaten by leopards and, as a by-product, given rise to useful things like the National Lottery. Your ISP brain's insistence that All this must MEAN something! must either be bypassed or placated.

Hard on the heels of anything that gets the attention of the ISP comes the Grand Alchemizer, the magus who theorises what it all means, and how it can be put to to practical use. Just as the ISP loves a coincidence, so the GA loves to spot patterns and correspondences. A kidney-shaped bean? It must be useful in the treatment of kidney ailments. That old woman looked at you in a funny way just a week before your cattle died? Burn the witch! A cloud exactly the same shape as a Collateralized Debt Obligation? Come on, it must mean a recession!!

Universities, curiously, are still quite hospitable to Grand Alchemizers, despite claims to being "evidence-based research-led" institutions. But only in the humanities. When scientists develop GA tendencies, they're either on their way to a Nobel Prize, or to a life of ignominy on the fringes of respectability. "Morphic resonance" is the work of one such, a man called "Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D". That "Ph.D." tells a tale, as do the titles of some of Dr. Sheldrake's bestselling books: The Sense of Being Stared At, and Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, for example.

Here is the blurb for The Presence of the Past : Morphic Resonance & The Habits of Nature:
"Challenging the fundamental assumptions of modern science, this ground-breaking radical hypothesis suggests that nature itself has memory. The question of morphogenesis - how things take their shape - remains one of the great mysteries of science. What makes a rabbit rabbit-shaped?
.. these questions remain unanswered in part because convention is hobbled by the reductionist assumption that finding the answers to such questions is largely a matter of figuring out the machinery of nature, of getting to the bottom of an ultimately mechanical universe. But, Sheldrake suggests that nature is not a machine and that each kind of system - from crystals to birds to societies - is shaped not by universal laws that embrace and direct all systems but by a unique "morphic field" containing a collective or pooled memory. So organisms not only share genetic material with others of their species, but are also shaped by a "field" specific to that species."
Now, I'd like to say I'm agnostic about this sort of thing, but that's not true. I'm deeply schizophrenic. I have nothing but admiration for science, scientists, and the scientific method. I read New Scientist and Scientific American (at least, I did, until our Staff Club cancelled the subscriptions when its budget was recently slashed by the university by 50%). But I also find Carlos Castaneda entertaining, love "cabinet of curiosities" websites documenting the weird and wonderful, and find Richard Dawkins a boorish dork. I also suffer from / enjoy repeated encounters with The Uncanny. I am very far from being an enemy of science, but recognise and to a degree sympathise with the huge constituency out there that salivates when the gong labelled "Challenging The Fundamental Assumptions Of Modern Science" is struck. However, those folk who want to "believe in something" simply because the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate are merely Agents of the Anti-Dawkins, and not to be taken seriously. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people stop believing in God is not that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything.

This is a subject to which I will return, if only because I think the proposition "This reminds me of That, and maybe we can understand That because we are familiar with This" is fundamental to the way art works, trading under the name Metaphor. That science sometimes works in the same way (but likes to pretend it doesn't), is illustrated by the story of Vortex Theory, which is oddly reminiscent of and connected to String Theory in more ways than one. Briefly:

"A theory of the atom had to explain:
  • The stability of atoms.
  • The variety of atoms, as shown by the periodic table of elements.
  • The vibrational properties of atoms, as shown by their spectral lines.

Lord Kelvin had seen smoke rings made by his physicist friend P.G. Tait, and was impressed by their stability, and vibrational properties. He had a vision of atoms as vortices in space. How to explain the variety of atoms? In 1867, Kelvin presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in which he wrote:

Models of knotted and linked vortex atoms were presented to the Society, the infinite variety of which is more than sufficient to explain the allotropies and affinities of all known matter.

So Tait set about preparing a list of knots, to see if there was a relation with the elements in the periodic table.The vortex theory of the atom soon disappeared, but Tait's 10 years of work on his list of knots of up to 10 crossings and the conjectures he made (some of which have been proved only recently) have been an inspiration ever since. Further, the idea of relations between knots and fundamental properties of matter is being shown to have a continuing force."

(Text taken from

A fundamental difference between science and non-science is probably the readiness of science to drop those bits of a hypothesis that are shown not to work. Reluctantly, sometimes: this is the same infuriatingly smug Lord Kelvin who insisted that the Earth was 20-40 million years old (based on his calculated rate of cooling from a red-hot state), and who pronounced in 1900 "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, all that remains is more and more precise measurement," and in 1902 that "No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful." Doh!

But note, too, how science has kept the other bits just in case they might come in handy. A stack of theorems and conjectures with a handy metaphor at their core, kept in a drawer and taken out from time to time for tinkering. A behaviour which, oddly enough, is traditionally referred to as "string saving."

1 comment:

mauro said...

I suppose that the "Anything goes" is good enough to state things about science.

Given an attention to the extremes (as well depicted in Musil's MoosBrugger figure who's causal connection chain went from the rock surfacing the terrain to the young countrywoman killed as the true cause, for him, of his wounded foot) I am a firm asserter of the artistic way to organize knowledge: a liberal association of seemingly unrelated concepts.

As a photographer (I have some identity problems here :-) I have also to consider that what seen was the first thing to be rejected as an evidence, by early scientist. So if I ask myself the status of my visual investigations it is not easy to look at it as "scientific". For that reason I usually end up considering it more on the side of "Inventio" as stated by Leonardo. "Casually" he was involved in Alchemy too.