Tuesday, April 25, 2017

All is Mind: Matter is an Illusion

Bernardo Kastrup, Dutch Philosopher (Veldhoven, NL)

Esse est percipi. (To be is to be perceived): A thing exists only if it is perceived.
    -- George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its
farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
    —William Butler Yeats, Blood and the Moon

For a time I totally believed that the world is made entirely of Mind.
Then the acid wore off.
    -- Nick Herbert

There is only universal consciousness. We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its thoughts. The inanimate universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms that we share the world with are the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated alters of universal consciousness. 
    -- Bernardo Kastrup

Recently Dutch philosopher Bernardo Kastrup published a book Why Materialism is Baloney criticizing the dominant "theology" of our time, namely that everything (minds included) is made out of matter. The prime doctrine of the First Church of Materialism was first set down by Democritus of Abdera (around 500 BC):

Nothing exists but atoms and empty space: all else is opinion. 

In the following millennia, natural philosophers have immensely expanded Democritus's ontology by getting more specific concerning the nature of "atoms" (we now call them "quarks and "leptons") and the forces that govern their motion and transformation (modern jargon for these forces is "vector bosons"). The immense success of modern physics at every scale from photon to galactic cluster is a powerful argument for the Democritean ontology. The undeniable existence of conscious experience is the only fly in the Democritian ointment. To explain the entire world, does Mind have to be added as an extra ingredient to the list of what exists (mind-matter dualism = Dualism)? Or will physics someday explain Mind as a particularly complex arrangement of atoms (matter monism = Materialism)?

The usual tactic of the antiMaterialist heretic is to argue that Mind can never be explained by mere physical brain processes because consciousness is 1. intrinsically OTHER than matter and 2. can do things (classified broadly as parapsychology) that are impossible for matter to do. Edward and Emily Kelly's book Irreducible Mind is a giant encyclopedia of things supposedly difficult or impossible for matter to accomplish.

AntiMaterialist Bernardo Kastrup takes an radically different, audacious and utterly preposterous approach by 1. denying the existence of Matter entirely and 2. arguing that everything is made of mind.

Kastrup's bold position is called idealism, a philosophy associated with Bishop Berkeley (1685 - 1753) and epitomized by his phrase:

All those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived.

 Kastrup recently published an 18-page paper describing his idealistic ontology which I was tempted to dismiss out of hand on the grounds that mind-only views such as Berkeley's are utterly preposterous. But as I looked further into Kastrup's paper, I realized that he was playing by the rules, lining up his premises and assumptions and attempting to put forth a coherent and persuasive argument for his preposterous model of reality. This is a show worth watching, I thought! How is this guy going to logically demolish "all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world" and how is he going to replace every single one of them with mere thought?

BK's first postulate is that the fundamental reality is "That which experiences" (TWE). That is all there is -- and all that there ever was and will be. We might as well call TWE by the name "God", but this primal reality is immensely larger than any God we mere humans could ever conceive.

Next there exist parts of this unitary reality that have separated themselves off from TWE and are somewhat independent of Big Reality. We can designate these Reality Rebels (which include ourselves and all other conscious beings) as "twe" (lower case). We like God are also "that which experiences" but our experiences are rather small.

A part of God that has separated from the Whole.
I'm beginning to like this metaphysics. According to Kastrup, we are all "Shards of God", in the words of Fug/poet Ed Sanders. Shards like us have two modes of perception: inner and outer. We are directly aware of some of our inner thought processes and indirectly aware of the outer world through membrane-mediated external thoughts.

Because we have separated ourselves from the Mind of God, we are mercifully unaware of the Supreme Diety's massively complex thought processes but perceive God dimly and indirectly as "the physical world". In Kastrup's view the physical world appears to us Reality Rebels as "the Body of God". And we perceive our fellow "shards of God" as those parts of the physical world that behave like physical beings with consciousness.

But what does it mean to perceive "the external appearance" of God and the "external appearance" of fellow shards? If we have truly separated ourselves from divinity, why do we perceive anything "external" at all?

And here we come to the most crucial point in Kastrup's philosophy. (We must be constantly aware that this guy is performing a philosophically dangerous high-wire act without a net and try to give him lots of support.) The separated shard is in a desperate position. If he separates completely from Reality, he ends up in a boring prison of solipsism. On the other hand, if he connects fully with Reality, his little personal twe dissolves into the universal sea of Supreme TWE.

Kalstrup's solution: the shard surrounds himself with a protective membrane of Minds That Lie (MTL). The sole function of a Mind That Lies is to take one thought and turn it into another. Once surrounded by this Decepticon Shield, the shard no longer experiences Reality-as-it-is, but merely a particular Representation of Reality. Kastrup calls this necessary shard-protective membrane the "Markov Blanket". And this Blanket's the weakest link in his argument.

How the world might look, information-wise, from inside a human-size Markov Blanket
For just as Kastrup points out that the weakest link in materialism is its failure to deliver a materialist model of Mind, the weakest link in Kastrup's philosophy is his failure to produce an idealist model of matter. Kastrup's magical Markov Blanket must manifest a lot of solid marvels out of purely mental material. It must produce, for instance, the very notion of "a simple material object" -- that exists by itself whether anyone is thinking of it or not. (To be fair, quantum theory possesses a similar weak link in its inability to clearly characterize the notion of "a macroscopic measuring instrument".) 

Materialists can't explain Mind. Idealists can't explain Matter.

A landmark achievement of Kastrupian philosophy would be to demonstrate from purely mental arguments (presumably including specific Markov Blankets made of Minds That Lie) why we seem to live in a physical space consisting of three spatial and one time dimension with a Minkowski metric. 

Kastrup's imaginative philosophy is entertaining and leads one into unconventional ways of thinking about the world. But always the proof is in the pudding. A truly successful model of reality should provide us entirely novel human experiences -- marvelous new experiences that were previously inconceivable. Yes.

Gentleman and ladies, start your engines. May the best reality win.

God wakes up and realizes the whole thing was a really bad dream.
Illustration by Sligo, Ireland artist Annie West, famous for her satirical cartoons of Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire

Nick meets a Luck Wave (design by August O'Connor)

I have spent more than a third of my life speculating (with congenial physicist friends) about what quantum mechanics might actually mean -- and have even written a book about it. The gist of the quantum dilemma is that we have a Quantum Theory that successfully predicts the results of every physical measurement. But with this theory comes an utter inability to tell a plausible story about what's really going on in the world -- both before, during and after a measurement. Physicists today possess an essentially perfect Quantum Theory, know how to experimentally produce subtle and delicate Quantum Facts, but cannot convincingly tell their kids a Quantum Reality story that adequately explains both Quantum Theory and Quantum Facts.

Many words concerning quantum reality were exchanged by quantum theory's founders -- especially Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr -- but not much progress was made until the remarkable discovery of Irish physicist John Stewart Bell who formulated an experimental test that could confidently eliminate an entire class of quantum reality models. Not only is it rare for physicists (or anybody else) to TALK ABOUT REALITY, it is even rarer (such was the importance of Bell's discovery) to come up with EXPERIMENTS ON REALITY. Consequently, Bell's original 1964 paper has become one of the most-cited publications in physics.

Bell's original experiment involved TWO ENTANGLED PHOTONS -- one sent to Alice and one to Bob. About this setup, quantum theory says two seemingly contradictory things: 1. that the quantum state of Bob's photon depends instantly (faster-than-light) on Alice's choice of what to measure; 2. that this apparent instantaneous action can never be used for signaling.

The physics jargon for instantaneous voodoo-like connections is the word "non-local". Non-local effects (either in theory or in practice) are as welcome in physics as a corpse at a wedding feast.

So before Bell came along, the theory of entangled systems was manifestly non-local (BAD!), but the same theory also assured that no experiment would ever be able to directly reveal this non-locality (GOOD!).

So quantum theory of entangled systems is NON-LOCAL: But all quantum facts are LOCAL.

What about quantum reality -- the underlying causal dynamics behind both theory and fact? Do we live in a world that's deep-down linked by abominable (to the physicist) non-local connections? Or is quantum reality nicely local, just like the quantum facts?

Bell's surprising conclusion (a powerful mathematical proof, not a mere conjecture) is that no local reality can underlie this everywhere local world.

Quantum reality must be non-local, according to Bell's proof.

To a physicist, Bell's conclusion is preposterous and must certainly be wrong. My first entry into the Bell's Theorem game was an attempt to disprove John Bell. Which ended in my formulating the world's shortest proof for the non-local nature of quantum reality.

Bell's Theorem is so simple that it is difficult to find a flaw. But Bell's greatest weakness can be summed up in the dichotomy: if reality exists, then it must be non-local; but if you DENY REALITY, then you are let off the hook.

But what could "denying reality" possibly mean?

One innocent (but crucial) assumption in Bell's proof is called "contrafactual definiteness" (or CFD, for short).

When you do the Bell experiment on a single pair of entangled photons, both Alice and Bob can set their detectors at only ONE SETTING. But to prove BT, you need to consider the possible results of FOUR SETTINGS. Four settings for the same two-photon event.

CFD assumes that: if we had performed three other measurements -- other than the actual one -- we would have gotten three definite (but unknown) results.

But if the nature of the quantum world is such that CFD is not valid, then you can't prove Bell's theorem. In fact, in a non-CFD world, you cannot even formulate Bell's theorem.

A recent paper by Gerold Gründler from Nürnberg, Germany, (What Does Bell's Inequality Actually Prove?) analyzes a few ways of "denying reality" by postulating (and perhaps even proving -- I am not sure) that we live in a world which does not support CFD. Gründler revisits and revises an earlier work by Israeli physicist, the late Asher Peres, entitled Unperformed Experiments Have No Results (3 page pdf).

Peres's paper suggests that we might live in a world where Unperformed Experiments Have No Results. But what are the details of such a world? How does it actually work?

What would it be like to live in a world where CFD is inconceivable?

Here's one attempt to visualize such a world.

Our thinking about the classical world is dominated by movies. It is easy to imagine rewinding the film, changing only one thing, then doing an (imaginary) retake. Certainly this cinematic model of reality allows us to at least imagine what the results of Unperformed Experiments might look like.

We can even add quantum randomness to the picture by allowing some features of the scene to depend on pure chance. Imagine filming a gambling table -- each reshoot, even of the same game, will give definite but different outcomes -- outcomes that are governed by statistical laws -- analogous to the probabilistic outcomes predicted by quantum mechanics. Bell's Theorem can be proved in a world like this -- a world of definite but statistically determined results.

To move into a non-CFD world, consider the case of a single Uranium atom. Physics considers all Uranium atoms to be EXACTLY THE SAME. Yet this one decayed in one second, while its identical sister is still alive after a million years. The first atom's short life is not due to some defect in its constitution. That's just the way the quantum world works -- identical quantum objects behave differently -- FOR NO REASON AT ALL.

Now consider how the movie analogy might work in a fully quantum world. We rewind the film, KEEP EVERYTHING THE SAME. Then change just one setting and reshoot the experiment.

Keeping everything the same is easy in a quantum world: every photon, electron, quark has always been just the same as every other. But the big problem is that each particle in the universe now behaves differently than in the first take -- giving rise to an entirely different universe -- a universe in which not only does the camera not exist, but the cameraman, the human species, and all life on Earth have vanished. In this second take on our present quantum reality the familiar Earth has no doubt disappeared as well.

As Heraclitus warned, you cannot step twice into the same river, because the river is never the same.

Might an Asher-Peres world in which Unperformed Experiments Have No Results be "hyper-Heraclitean" in the sense that in this kind of quantum reality even the same river is not the same river? In fact this river revisited second time round might not even be a river at all but the insides of a black hole.

Trying to visualize quantum worlds in which CFD is inconceivable might push us to think more deeply not only about fully quantum concepts such as "superposition", "entanglement" and "wave/particle duality" but also to revise our old-fashioned assumptions about everyday classical concepts such as "same", "different", "spontaneity" and even how to correctly use the word "again" when it comes to properly refilming in our imagination the very same event that has already happened once.

We house-broke quantum reality
Trained Schrödinger's Cat to purr
Now daily life's more uncanny
Than atoms ever were.

Asher Peres, who titled his bio "The cat who walks by himself", played a vital part in publicizing the role both he and myself played in the discovery of the quantum "no cloning rule". (How the no-cloning theorem got its name.) which eventually inspired MIT professor David Kaiser to write his popular science history book: How the Hippies Saved Physics. In addition to his pioneering work in quantum information theory, Asher Peres will probably be remembered most as a member of the team of six people who devised the remarkably clever Quantum Teleportation process.

The title of this post was taken from Gerard Manley Hopkins's splendid poem: That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection.

Asher Peres (bottom right) and his five buddies who invented Quantum Teleportation

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Xian Yao (Immortality Elixir)

Nick seeks the Elixir

At winter's end
Residing in Santa Cruz County
In year of Cassini's plunge into Saturn
My physician prescribes
Yang Forest Amber
For melancholy.

One taste:
My pains recede
Like morning mist
Upon Two Bar Creek.

Two taste:
My sluggish brain dissolves
Pops, prances, flies like sparrow.
I grow sly, wise
Observant as a child.

Three taste:
I rise to heaven as music
I sing to my supper, laugh at my woes.
Wellness flooding my being
Overflowing my banks

I cry:
Doctor, Doctor
No more medicine please.
Three taste make me
One with the Immortals.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Natura Naturans

Nick & Onyx (iPad 3 front camera; available light)

The other night on ecstasy
God the Father spoke to me:

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with Her myself
When time and space were new.

Out of inexplicable nothingness
I struck the primal spark.
I barely knew what I was doing.
I was working in the dark.

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with my own creation
When time and space were new.

So please hear, see, smell and taste Her
Caress Her Highness dusk to dawn
With new quantum senses She will teach you
When you get your mojo on.

Do you covet Natura Naturans?
I really hope you do.
I fell in love with Her myself
When time and space were new.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Nick Destroys an iPad

iPad3 on the operating table
I've been enjoying an iPad3 that a friend who works at Apple gave me -- especially the Sky Guide astronomy app for locating stars, planets and deep sky objects. And it's also great for reading eBooks and pdfs in bed. Recently the touch screen has been failing to respond so I traveled to the Apple Church in Los Gatos and found that it would be very expensive to repair compared to simply buying a new one.

So I decided to try to fix it myself. The Apple Father Confessor said I needed a new "digitizer" which is a fancy word for the touch-sensitive front screen.

It's not easy to take apart an iPad. No screws. The two halves of the clam-shell case are held together with a heat-sensitive glue.

Fortunately a company called iFixit sells a kit for opening an iPad and doing simple repairs. The key item in the kit is a black sausage-shaped plastic sack of liquid which iFixit cutely calls an "iOpener". You put this sack in a microwave oven for 30 seconds, then use it to soften the glue around the edges of the iPad. Then you slowly pry open the case with the help of a half-dozen green guitar picks and a few more specialized plastic prying tools.

I bought a new digitizer and watched a repair movie on YouTube several times until I thought I knew what I was doing.

Looked pretty simple. After backing up my iPad''s memory to iTunes,  I only needed to 1: Open the case. 2: Unplug and remove the LCD (liquid crystal display). 3: Unplug and remove the damaged digitizer.

4: Plug in the new digitizer. 5: Plug in the LCD. 6: Reseal the case and enjoy my new iPad. How could anything go wrong?

Opened iPad. LCD on left; new digitizer on right
Opening the iPad was a lot easier than I expected (that iOpener really works). An important feature of the repair kit is a well-crafted set of screw drivers that you won't find at your local hardware store; and that are absolutely essential once the case is opened. The drivers include three very small Phillips bits, size 0, 00 and 000. The smallest 000 size was perfect for removing the LCD (which covers up all the connectors). The drivers also include a magnet for retrieving tiny screws as well as the fabled pentalobe driver used by Apple to make its products difficult to repair. For the iPad there was no need to deploy the magic pentalobe driver, but if I ever get my hands on an old iPhone, that driver will come in handy.

Everything came apart easily. Inside the iPad it's mostly batteries -- three big black flat rectangles that take up most of the space.  

Now to put everything back together again.

The digitizer cable has two parts which plug into two adjacent FFC (Flat Flexible Connector) sockets which I have labeled D1 and D2. These sockets are a type of connector called ZIF (for Zero Insertion Force). To remove the cable, you lift a latch which frees it; after inserting the cable (presumably with zero force) you lower the latch to lock the cable in place. The latches can be snapped open or closed with a flat plastic spatula included in the repair kit. 

The LCD cable also plugs into a FFC socket which I have labeled L1. This socket is also a Zero Insertion Force connector with a latch/unlatch mechanism identical to that of the two digitizer sockets.

Open iPad showing three flat cable sockets D1, D2 and D3
Now my trouble began. The digitizer cable plugged easily into socket D1 but would not go into socket D2. The D2 latch was snapped open but the cable only went in partway, as though the latch was actually closed. I pushed all sorts of small plastic slivers, including part of a credit card, into socket D2, trying unsuccessfully to pry it open.

As a last resort, I decided to push the cable into D2 as far as it would go and anchor it with a bit of duct tape. Since half of the flat digitizer cable was already latched in socket D1, perhaps this desperate measure might work. I also figured that maybe I never needed a new digitizer in the first place but my problem might have been due to a bad D2 socket.

With the digitizer cable fastened as securely as I could manage, I moved on to the task of plugging in the LCD screen.

Closeup of the digitizer sockets (D1 and D2) and the LCD socket (L1)
Unlatching socket L1, I pushed the LCD cable in as far as it would go. Definitely not zero force, but with a bit of effort I was able to get the cable into its socket almost as far as the white "water line" printed on the cable that indicates full insertion.

Then the socket broke.

And scattered lots of tiny gold-plated pins across the circuit board. If you look closely at the L1 connector, you can see that it is missing 6 or 7 of its little golden pins.

Whoops! Now I had converted my sophisticated iPad tablet computer into an inert lump of eJunk. The fault was in the so-called Zero-Insertion-Force connectors. Neither socket D2 nor socket L1 had behaved as I had been led to expect. Was this due to my own incompetence? Or were those sockets on the edge of failure from the start? One friend speculated that these sockets are cheaply designed for easy assembly only -- and are not expected to be reused. My guess is that quality control is very bad on these connectors and I had simply drawn two deuces in the iPad repair lottery. In any case, I had learned a lot about what's inside an Apple tablet computer and consoled myself with physicist Niels Bohr's famous saying that an expert in a field is someone who's made every possible mistake. Towards becoming an expert on iPads, I had taken the first few steps.

However three other things that happened this week more than made up for my fixit failure.

Number One: My friend KSCO radio host Dr Future gave his wife Mrs Future a new iPad for her birthday. Then dear Mrs Future kindly passed her old iPad on to me. Thank you Allan and Sun Lundell for this timely and generous gift.

Number Two: Artist, author, philosopher Michael Grosso posted on his Consciousness Unbound blog an over-the-top review of Harlot Nature, my latest book of quantum tantric verse. Thanks, Michael, for your very appreciative review of my work.

Number Three: I just found out that this year's  Kanamara Matsuri Festival of the Iron Penis will take place on Sunday, April 2, 2017. If you are traveling in Japan next week, you may want to include this unusual event in your schedule.

In the city of Kanayama, the male phallus is honored on this day in many shapes and sizes. How did this festival come about?

One story tells of a demon who fell in love with a woman and hid inside her vagina, biting off her newlywed husband’s penis, twice. She then sought help from a blacksmith, who made her a metal phallus. It broke the demon’s teeth and sent him off for good. They later enshrined it in Kanayama Shrine as a sort of commemoration.

I won't be traveling to Japan next week, but here's my humble contribution to the iron penis festivities:

Kanayama wife, instead of a locket,
Kept a demon inside her soft pocket
When inside her you slip
He will bite off your tip --
Not a Zero-Insertion-Force socket!

Festival of the Iron Penis, Kanayama, Japan

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Man Who Could Fly: A Book Review

Tycho's Star: SNR 1572
In 1572, a new star appeared in the heavens, brighter than the planet Venus, then slowly disappeared over a period of 18 months. The new star (stella nova) was closely observed and measured by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who christened the star, "new and never before seen in the life or memory of anyone". Brahe's discovery challenged the reigning Aristotelian dogma of the incorruptibility of the heavens. We know now that this event was not a "new star" but an old star ending its stellar career with a colossal explosion, which today's astronomers call a "supernova". The hot debris from this explosion is named Supernova Remnant 1572 (visible now only through powerful telescopes) or "Tycho's Star" for short.

Kepler's Star: SNR 1604
Thirty-two years later, a second stella nova appeared in the heavens and was dutifully described by Tycho's successor Johannes Kepler. This new star of 1604 was also a supernova explosion and is now called "Kepler's Star" or Supernova Remnant 1604. Although many supernovas have since been observed telescopically in other galaxies, Kepler's Star was the last local supernova visible with the naked eye.

Almost coincident with these revolutionary celestial explosions was the birth of a man whose explosive behavior challenges modern science at its core. Joseph Desa, born in 1603, in the small town of Copertino, located in the heel of Italy's boot, was a completely unlikely scientific revolutionary. Clumsy, absent-minded, unfit for the simplest profession because of his tendency to fall into prolonged reverie, bedridden as a young boy for 6 years, Joseph earned the nickname Boccaperta (Gapingmouth) for his stupid-looking countenance. He first attempted to enter a monastery, but was dismissed after eight months for incompetence in the kitchen. Through the help of a influential uncle he was accepted into the Conventual Order of the Franciscans in the nearby town of Grotella where he was given the task of caring for the mule.

As a Conventual friar Joseph became a candidate for the priesthood. And, through a set of seemingly miraculous circumstances, he actually passed his exams and was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 25.

And then his troubles began. The new priest could levitate.

Before his ordination, Joseph's frequent reveries (or ecstasies) might be tolerated but now these trances were often accompanied (especially while saying Mass) by literal flights into the air, in seeming violation of (today's) laws of physics. Joseph's miraculous flights occurred over a period of 35 years till his death in 1663 at the age of sixty, and were witnessed by hundreds and perhaps thousand of people.

Johannes Kepler by Gabriel Herrera; St Joseph of Copertino by Michael Grosso

Recently writer, painter and scholarly researcher Michael Grosso arranged for a translation into English of an Italian biography of Joseph by Domenico Bernini written in 1722, only sixty years after Joseph's death and forty-five years before he was canonized as a Catholic Saint. Grosso used Bernini's work and many more recent scholarly accounts of Joseph's deeds (including documents from the Vatican archives) to produce his own analysis of this 17th-century gravity-defying Franciscan monk. 
Michael Grosso and The Man Who Could Fly
In The Man Who Could Fly, Grosso tells Joseph's story in brief and then again in more detail, analyzing Joseph's alleged levitations from a number of angles including scientific, psychological and religious perspectives and even considering Joseph as a performance artist in the context of sacred theater. In addition to telling a compelling tale of the unusual life of an unlikely miracle-worker, Grosso does the reader a favor by examining Joseph's behavior from a variety of approaches that a merely biographical approach might ignore.

For instance, from the historical viewpoint, levitations connected with religious ecstasy have been documented for at least 200 Catholic saints, about equally divided by gender. For comparison, only five naked-eye supernovas have been observed in the last 1000 years. Until recently, evidence for levitation and for "new stars" was of the same nature -- personal testimony concerning a rare and short-lived event. Today, with telescopes and photography, we can make lasting records of supernovas. Levitating saints are allegedly still around. It would be interesting to see if this book inspires scientific recording of ecstatic flight by a monk or nun with a digital video camera.

Ironically, the life of Joseph, the gravity defier, coincided in part with the life of Galileo, who was the first to work out the mathematics of the motions of falling bodies. Both men were several times examined by the Italian Inquisition under the same Pope (Urban VIII) and both received essentially the same punishment -- enforced isolation from the public -- house arrest in the case of Galileo and confinement to remote and inaccessible monasteries in the case of Joseph.

In Joseph's case the inquisitors did not doubt the numerous reports of his levitation, but were concerned that his powers might be of demonic origin, or that, through his wonder working, he might turn into a popular figure (such as Martin Luther) who could challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. Anticipating a Luther or a demon, the inquisitors in Naples were totally disarmed by the unfeigned humility and clumsy helplessness of  Padre Giuseppe Gapingmouth. Neither a demon nor a demagogue, what to do with this guy who could fly?

Naples sent him to Rome for a second inquisition where he levitated in the presence of Pope Urban VIII. The Pope's decision was to "get him out of town". The Pope moved Joseph from Grotella (in Italy's heel) where he was drawing huge crowds of miracle seekers (he also was gaining a reputation as a healer) to Assisi (whose patron saint is St Francis) almost 500 miles to the north. As a Franciscan monk, Joseph welcomed the chance to be near the relics of St Francis. He was employed there as a gardener's assistant and kept away from the public -- a kind of monastic house arrest. 

Coincident with Joseph's confinement, Galileo was under house arrest in Florence, less than 100 miles from Assisi. One can only speculate how Galileo might have reacted to the sight of a monk that could fly. Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) indeed.

In searching for a context that might explain Joseph's flights, Grosso places them in the category of unusual mind-matter interactions, which range from familiar (but not yet understood) acts such as your own mind lifting an apple with your hand, to astonishing sports performances, to table tipping, poltergeists and mental influences on quantum random-number generators (Schmidt machines). He also cites cases of mediums such as the Scotsman D. D. Home and Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason, who went into trance and levitated, sometimes carrying others up with them (as did Joseph). Grosso speculates that certain states of mind can give rise to physical forces as yet unrecognized by science. Grosso criticizes scientists who dismiss out of hand the phenomena of levitating saints, not only for their unjustified dogmatism but mainly because their "stolid incuriosity" is so unworthy of a true scientist.

Just as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler carefully documented their "new stars" without having the slightest idea what was really happening in the sky, so Michael Grosso carefully examines and presents the evidence for Joseph's levitations (including the processi, the records of Joseph's inquisitions which are still on file at the Vatican). This is a scholarly and richly informative book on a phenomenon deemed by many to be "impossible". This impact of this carefully written book is enhanced by multiple readings. I've read it three times. And who is to say, perhaps Grosso's book might inspire some young and imaginative reader to discover the secret of "the man who could fly".

On the other hand, the solution to the mystery of the Franciscan frequent flyer might not be possible using only what we know today. 

The nature of Kepler's new star, for instance, was solved only recently, and needed new knowledge for its understanding.  At the end of the 19th century, Lord Kelvin calculated that the Sun was no more than 25 million years old, which was "impossible" because the Earth itself was known to be much older than that. The source of the Sun's energy was finally explained only after the discovery of two new forces -- the strong and the weak nuclear interactions. Once scientists could explain the Sun, it was only a matter of time before they were able also to explain supernovas, as a logical consequence of the same two new short-range nuclear forces.

It may not be too farfetched to hope, in analogy with how we managed to understand the Sun, that when scientists can confidently explain the origin of ordinary consciousness (whether via a new force or some more sophisticated twist), then the path will be open to explaining the outlandish behavior of religious super stars such as St Joseph of Copertino, the patron saint of aviators, astronauts and exam takers. Thank you. Michael Grosso, for telling so well the story of this truly marvelous man.

Joseph of Copertino from Thuen Karelse's Field Guide to Flying Saints

Friday, March 3, 2017


Jim Rintoul, live at the Boulder Creek Bistro 12/04/1996
One of the most inventive poets
of Boulder Creek's Middle Bistroscene Era
(when giants walked the earth)
was Jim Rintoul
captured below on video
(Dec 4, 1996) by Allan and Sun Lundell.

I wonder 

how many among us 
poets and writers have ever
somewhere in the recesses of our minds
felt that we had the power with our words
to launch something so powerful
into the heart of a culture
that it would just rip it apart
and something beautiful and new
would emerge?

I know that this fantasy
animates much of my life.

That's where this comes from:


(upon slaying unavoidably
a few pillars of conventional wisdom.)

Had you ever thought about
how hard it had become to do
anything really holy anymore?

The holy event
demands a rawness,
a stripped situation,
the down comforters
of modern convention
had smothered
the sacred impulse
in its own dank heat.

The valley of the shadow of death
had been buried
under asphalt intersections
and fertilized lawns.

Just think about
how hard it had become
to get really naked anymore.

The clothes of common understanding
clung to bare skin
like a hot wet fog
like a thick exhalation.

Bones packed in such fat,
like flies in amber,
can't be easily rattled
to stir the demon guides
and spirit helpers.

There was just no way around it, Judge --
I had to destroy that culture to save it.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day 2017

Tub once full of Ahlgren wine

Love to my lovers
To my friends and my haters.
Love to my teachers
Priests, warriors, lactators.

Love to the Beautiful Mystery
That keeps this comical opera hot.
Love to the music, the costumes, the art
Much love to you and your role in the plot.
If One Mind hides
Beneath all this
Then give Big Mind
A hearty kiss!
Heart-shaped stardust Valentine

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Blarney in Concert

Von Karman Vortex Street


When a fluid such as air or water flows past a small obstruction, the flow oscillates up and down at a particular frequency, each deflection forming a circular vortex in the fluid. This chain of alternating vortices is called a Von Karman vortex street after Theodore von Karman, the Hungarian-born physicist who first characterized this particularly beautiful and common natural phenomenon which takes place, for instance, when water waves move past an island or air moves across an airplane wing. The oscillation of air as it moves past a small obstruction also forms the basis of certain wind instruments such as the flute and the whistle.

Nick producing Van Karman streets using a black aluminum "Guinness" whistle
By attaching a resonant tube to the fluid obstruction and manipulating its length, the frequency of the von Karman street can be coaxed into the audible range and a certain sort of music produced which some find enjoyable. This music can be experienced solo but is considerably enhanced by the presence of other instruments producing sound by other physical means.

On Sunday, Feb 19,  the Santa Cruz Art League (located at 526 Broadway) is hosting a concert (5 to 7 PM) of Irish music by the band Blarney featuring two vortex street musicians, Kim Fulton-Bennett on the Irish wooden flute and Nick Herbert on the Irish penny whistle. Their von-Karman-based melodies will be augmented by Matt Johnson on banjo and gittern and August O'Connor on bodhran (Irish frame drum) and guitar. Wine and snacks served at intermission and an open gallery featuring various imaginative representations of the human body (The Figure Contemporary) will add to your enjoyment. Details available at the Santa Cruz Art League website. More about Blarney here.

Blarney on Broadway: Matt, August, Kim and Nick

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nick at 80

Nick at 70


Slovak-Ukrainian immigrant ancestors
Appalachian coal-mines, Lake Erie steel mills,
Thirteenth-century seminary-schooled
By Latin-savvy Catholic priests

LSD at 27 in East Palo Alto:
Too much reality
All in one shot!
Freaking Christ Lord Jesus,
Please make it stop!

Stanford physics PhD
Silicon Valley magnetic ink-jet play
Esalen Institute Bell's theorem sage
Physics-saving hippie
Sequoia forest tantric bard

Thanks to father, brother, comrade, son
Thanks to mother, sister, lover, chum

Thanks to each of you
Who have touched my body
Who have aroused my mind
Who have inflamed my spirit

Even though it did not turn out
As I had hoped
Even though it did not turn out
As I had imagined
Thanks to each of you
For surprising me

Thank you for my miracle birth
Into this complex mysterious life
And next, before I forget:
Thank you in advance
For my upcoming death.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hymn to Her

Jose Munoz's mystical Mayan mural

O much-married, meat-is-murder,
Menopausal mamma from Missoula, Montana
I'm M-mailing you monthly
Monstrous mounds of Maui moonlight.

O planet-perambulating pinup,
Pantheistic, persnickety Philadelphia PhD
I'm postmarking and P-mailing you
A pack of Pope-blessed purple panties
Playfully empowered 

To grant your every pelvic wish.

O sassy Seattle sex scientist from Stanford
I sent you
specifically in Saturday's S-mail
Sixty sextillion soy-soaked 

Nobel-Prize spermatozoa
For your utopian breeding experiments
Or Sunday's spaghetti sauce:
Your choice, sister.

O A-cupped ace cook,
Angel-lipped Atherton acid head
I A-mail you annually
An ark of apples from Eve's garden
That you might discover thru your tongue
What forbidden knowledge really tastes like.

O thigh-ticklish, tender-hearted,
Trance-dance teacher from Taos, New Mexico
I teasingly T-mailed you this Tuesday eve
Twenty-three tubes 

Of theological transmission fluid:
That's hot Zeus juice, toots, 

And slippery goddess elixir too.
When spiritual overhaul time comes round
You'll be twice-born and thankful 

You tapped my titanic T-mail tubes.

O brainy, brown-eyed,
Buddhist bondage whore from Berkeley
I belatedly B-mail you
The Blessed Virgin Mary, the
Bethlehem Babe
The Holy Baptism, Benediction

The Bread, the Body and the Blood.
All the good parts from my Catholic boyhood
O brave and sacred prostitute,
I B-mail to you.
O luminous, lascivious, lactating Leo 

From Normal, Illinois
I lavishly L-mail you
Love in every form I can think of
Love in every form I can get away with
Love in every form that exists.

I use audio, video, radio, rodeo
Dream wave and astral tattoo
Etheric vibration, deep space oscillation
To make some impression on you.

Honey, I got rope burns on my cranium
Spine fused by astral arcs
Calluses on my testicles
And stretch marks round my heart

No regrets, dear, I learned plenty
Tho I didn't find the Grail
But one thing I hafta ask ya, love:
"When ya gonna answer your mail?"

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two

Harold Gilliam at Baker Beach, San Francisco
Harold Gilliam died last month (Dec 2016) at age 98. He was an eloquent writer on environmental issues and a popular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Intending perhaps to explore the inner environment of the physical world, Gilliam attended a weekend workshop at Esalen Institute in the summer of 1985 given by myself and my friend and physics colleague Heinz Pagels, To commemorate Gilliam's death and the death of Pagels who died a few years later, I am reprinting a few weeks apart the two Sunday Chronicle columns that Gilliam wrote about his experience with us in Big Sur. Part One is here. Fasten your seat belts for "Gilliam Does Quantum Reality: Part Two"

Harold Gilliam, SF Chronicle Aug 25, 1985

"To be or not to be." is not the question. It is the answer.
                --- Fred Alan Wolf

Bell's Theorem is the most profound discovery of science.
                --- Physicist Henry Stapp

Esalen Institute, on a verdant shelf of the Big Sur coast, far from the frenetic agglomerations of the Bay Area and Southern California, is an idyllic place for leisurely contemplation, for gazing out to sea and looking for clues as to what the world is all about and what your own place in it might be.

And that is what 17 people from various points of the compass were doing there on a recent weekend in a workshop on Quantum Reality as we noted here last Sunday.

We peered (metaphorically) into the microscopic world of the quanta, where atoms and subatomic particles perform their weird unearthly dances that physicists are only beginning to understand.

Consider Bell's Theorem, for example, which has revolutionized our view of the world, at least in the eyes of some quantum physicists.

As explained to us by physicist Nick Herbert, author of Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, Bell's Theorem, very much simplified, states that, if you shoot twin particles in opposite directions, and then if you change the spin or polarity of one of the particles, the other must change in the same way at the same instant, whether it's across the lab or across the galaxy.

Since the change in the two particles occurs simultaneously, this action seems to violate Einstein's dictum that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light -- 186,000 miles per second. How does the second particle 'know' immediately that the first particle has been changed, unless some superluminal message passes between the, an event for which physics has no explanation? The theorem seems to indicate also that events (and maybe people) can be influenced by forces that are "non-local" -- extremely remote.

Herbert explained it this way: "The mechanism for this instant connectedness is not some invisible field that stretches from one part to the next, but the fact that "a bit of each part's 'being' is lodged in the other."

Bell was not talking about people, but particles, yet his theorem has been eagerly adopred by believers in extrasensory perception: If particles can "communicate" with each other simultaneously over long distances (violating Einstein's speed limit), minds can surely do the same.

Everyone has heard the stories: A mother wakes up in alarm and learns later that her child at that moment was in danger. "Remote viewing" experiments at SRI International and elsewhere claim to substantiate telepathic communication. Perhaps part of each person's being is "lodged in the other."

And perhaps, some say, both are lodged in a transcendental mind that constitutes the basic order of the universe. Is science, I wondered, finally meeting religion in the rarified atmosphere of Bell's Theorem?

Herbert was speculating in a different direction about faster-than-light communication: "Superluminal signals would open up similar channels from the present to the past -- channels that would allow people today to change what by conventional reckoning has already happened.

I was reminded of a certain legendary young female:

There was a young lady named Bright
Who traveled much faster than light
She went out one day
in a relative way
And came back the previous night.

I was already drawing up a list of past events I would like to "unhappen; when Herbert's colleague spoke up in dissent. Pagels is the author of The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature and a new book on the origin of the universe Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time. He is also the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences and somewhat of an iconoclast. it turned out he didn't agree with Herbert at all.

Heinz Pagels & Nick Herbert, circa 1964
"Bell's Theorem does not prove that anything can travel faster than light," Pagels maintained, "It's a quantum fact, accepted by everyone, that the observer has an effect on what he's observing. Under Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, as soon as you observe or measure certain aspects of the quantum world, you change them. So the change in Bell's particle, which seems to happen faster than light, simply reflects what the observers are doing when they measure the particles."

Herbert's response and Pagels' rebuttal went too fast for me to even begin to follow, but it was clear that the two views represented a central schism in the fast-moving world of quantum physics -- Pagels representing the establishment view and Herbert the speculative, philosophical school.

When the dust had settled, i raised a question that had plagued me throughout the weekend. Physicists can spin mystifying theories about the invisible world of the quanta, but what does all this have to do with the price of potatoes?

Pagels responded with a glowing vision: "Quantum research results in new technologies, giant new industries, new economies, and in fact a whole new idea of civilization can come out of these developments. New technologies change our perceptions. The printing press, for example, led to the development of books and a new literacy that made democracy possible. The impact of computers has already made major changes in our economy.

"Nuclear weapons have created a period of unsurpassed world stability. There has not been a war between two nuclear nations -- as a result of a technology that came out of quantum physics.

"We're already living in the world of the quantum revolution: Microchips, the whole world of the computers, the whole world of the revolutions in molecular biology -- all these came out of the human mastery of the microworld that was made possible in part by the advent of quantum physics. The full implications of living in the world of the quantum revolution have not yet dawned on us. But these new technologies are driving the engines of social change,"

We sat there in silence for a moment, listening to the roar of the ocean. Then somebody said it: "But are they driving the engines of social change in the right direction? Nuclear weapons. for example ..."

Pagels responded: "I said these were technologies that changed our perceptions. I didn't say whether they were for better or for worse. That's for other people to decide, in terms of their own values. The new technologies open a whole new spectrum of moral choices, alerting people to examine their own consciences about matters as fundamental as human survival. My own view is that we must learn to live without using nuclear weapons."

I thought about that as i shifted around on the uncomfortable pillows that substitute for chairs at Esalen. it seemed to me that there was one overarching fact that had not received much attention: Quantum physics is giving us incredible new powers that we are ill-equipped to use. It's like putting a 5-year-old at the steering wheel of a Maserati on a downtown street. Compared with the R & D devoted to quantum research and its weapons-technology offspring, the attention given to learning how to use these powers wisely is minuscule.

Later, as I strolled along the clifftops over the roaring surf, it occurred to me that the contribution of quantum theory might not be limited to technology. For example, pre-quantum physicists assumed that the constituents of an atom were simply particles like electrons and neutrons. Later theorists decided that they were not particles but waves. The current view is that they are simultaneously particles and waves. Not "either/or" but "both/and".

In the Newtonian particle view everything was sharply defined as one thing or the other. Quantum theory introduces the idea that an object can be perceived in two or more ways, each valid. To be and not to be. That's the meaning of ambiguity.

The American mind, schooled in Newtonian definiteness and frontier certainties, is accustomed to precise labels. There are good guys and bad guys. There are friends and enemies. You are either with us or against us.

It seemed to me, as I paced the shoreline, that the quantum "both/and" approach might prove useful in our relations with each other and with other nations. A nation (like a person) might be aggressive, intransigent and tyrannical. It might simultaneously be peace-loving, friendly and cooperative. And the question would be: Can we move beyond merely opposing the negative qualities to encouraging the positive ones with equal energy and vigor?

Here, I speculated, might be a model that could revolutionize world politics just as the discovery of the quanta has revolutionized physics. It would not be the first time that a new scientific paradigm had led to a new world-view that had altered everyone's thinking in profound ways and influenced the course of history.

Or maybe, I thought, as I inhaled the aroma of salt and kelp on the sea breeze and watched the sunlight glittering from the swells offshore, maybe I was just experiencing an Esalen high.

View of Pacific Ocean from the Esalen baths