Monday, January 24, 2011

Arne Naess and the Call of the Mountain

In the last twelve months, this blog strayed somewhat from its tagline and became a vehicle for exposing the pseudoscience of some Hawaiian fruitloop with a cult following. It's been kind of fun, but I'm a bit tired of arguing with people now. I figured it was time for a change.

Today I was reminded by a friend about a man called Arne Naess, a visionary philosopher who was central to the foundation of the deep ecology movement. His writings were a massive inspiration for me when I studied ecology in the '90s, starting with this excellent little book. After having spent several years studying particle physics, which could be seen as an extreme form of reductionism and of abstracting oneself from the world (it needn't! but it can seem that way sometimes), this approach to investigating reality was a real breath of fresh air.

He spent nearly 25 years living in a hut high on a Norwegian mountain, and wrote An Example of a Place as a celebration of it. He saw the mountain in many ways, including as 'a great father'. Naess considered all of these relationships to be as genuine as any material reality, and saw them as calling out to be deeply experienced. He referred to them as being the key to "the establishment of a place as a Place."

I have a great deal of respect for someone who can exemplify and articulate his own radical philosophy with such brilliance. His approach could be described as being deeply spiritual (it certainly is by him), but it doesn't compromise on anything that science has revealed to us about our world.

We seem to be creatures evolved to encompass only our immediate environment and tribe. It is deeply challenging for us to take on board the reality the global reach of our interdependence with each other, with other species, with ecosystems and landscapes and the climate. The scientific facts themselves convey very little of the reality they describe. The reality cannot but be transformative for anyone ascribing to any kind of deeply-considered and heartfelt value system. It doesn't matter how much hyperbole is used, or how much melodrama and over the top CGI they are presented with, or how loudly or how often they are repeated, the facts themselves cannot give us that.

In addition, we're asked to rely on increasingly complex scientific inquiry to hand the current picture down to us, which puts us at an even further remove from it. It shouldn't surprise us if people prefer to turn away altogether from consciously putting their trust in science and devote themselves to the safe haven of simplistic opinion.

One of the primary motivations of deep ecology, as Bill Devall says elsewhere in the documentary (see link at bottom), is "the search for meaning in a world of facts."

We need to build our own philosophy, as an active participant, to find our own personal way of seeking that meaning. The aim is "self-realisation", a way of being in the world that embraces our interdependence with nature, using imagination, deep reflection, appreciation of wildness, fullness of experience and, above all, action.

It stands in contrast to the continual stream of denial that modern life twists our arm to accept on a daily basis. It's so easy to find ourselves falling into the trap of believing that the less attention we pay to the source of everything we eat, drink, breathe and travel through, the better. For some of us – at least some of the time – a kind of wild awareness that this is no way to live becomes a thing to be cherished. For Naess it was far more: experiencing our interdependence as fully as possible lies at the heart of inquiry, and living in accordance with that inquiry lies at the heart of the true Self.

This might look like fluffy subjective ecopolitics, at least at first glance, to someone of a materialist disposition. For me personally, this man's vision stands at the very heart of what science is all about: the attempt to transform the way we see our world, and live in it, in accordance with What Is.

Arne Naess died in 2009 at the age of 96, two years ago as I write this. I feel sad that I found out only today.

The full 51 minute documentary can be watched here, on Daily Motion.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bob, I have been trying to find an answer to the question what is the fabric of space-time made of. Generally, the answer I get is that it is not a physical object and that it does not exist as such, but rather a mathematical object only. Yet, it is said that objects in space curve this fabric, which creates gravity. So, how can object curve nothing and create something? As I researched further, I came along with the dark matter concept, which is supposed to be 98% of space. Some claim that this dark matter is the space-time fabric, but the reason it is invisiable is because it does not interact with matter. This opened another question for me, if it does not interact with matter, how can then matter curve it to create gravity. I sent this question to Nassim too, but he never answered.

Bob said...

Hi anonymous. That's a great question.

Firstly, let me say that there are lots of speculative theories about the detailed structure of spacetime, and therefore lots of possible answers to your question from a theoretical point of view. Speculative theories can be fun, but you never know whether there's any truth in them.

So it's best to focus on what we know about spacetime, which is what comes from two very well-established theories: QFT (quantum field theory) and GR (general relativity), both of which have been tested to astonishing degrees of precision. I think your questions are more related to GR, so I'll try to explain in those terms.

In GR, as you say, massive objects curve spacetime, and this curvature gives rise to what we experience as a 'force' of gravity. The nature of how this happens is very unusual. When we say a massive object curves spacetime, what we mean is that the presence of mass (or energy) actually causes distances to change around it. (And times too, but let's stick to distances.)

For example, the mass of the Earth has a measurable effect on the space around it. Normally a circle has a circumference of pi times the diameter of the circle. But if you measure a circle around the earth, it is one inch less than it should be. It's an inch less than pi times the diameter.

This might seem very small, but it actually has some very strange geometrical effects, for example that straight lines cease to exist. If you throw an object in a curved space like this, it won't follow a straight line (because there aren't any), it will follow a curve.

Sometimes people say that gravity is not a 'real force', it's merely an illusion of a force because of curvature of spacetime. I think this is a very good way to think about gravity. It's how Einstein was thinking when he came up with GR. I'll try to explain...

If you were in empty space, with no massive objects and no gravity, and you threw a ball, it would travel in a straight line. If you are on the earth and you throw a ball, it doesn't - it follows a curve. It looks like there's a force acting on it, pulling it down. But it's not really a force - it's just moving through a space where distances have been distorted.

But the distortions are so small? Why would such a small distortion curve the path of a ball so much that it would come right back down in a matter of seconds? The reason the ball curves so much is because it has a long time to do it.

If you throw a ball in the air for two seconds, that may not seem like long to you, but then you're not used to relativity. Think how far a light beam would travel in that time! Nearly to the moon and back! The ball might not move far through space, but it moves a long, long way through time. Two seconds is a very long time. The spacetime path is extremely long, but all we see is the space part, the curved trajectory. The time part is long enough to curve the path of a ball very significantly.

Throw the ball faster between the same two points, and it won't curve so much, because the spacetime path is so much shorter.

So gravity is best seen as the illusion of a force. Our feeling of weight is entirely due to the fact that we're being prevented from following a natural path through the curved spacetime around the Earth. It's an illusion. Jump off a cliff, and you'll feel weightless - no problem. If you go into orbit, you're in a perpetual freefall, which is why astronauts feel weightless.

(cont'd below)

Bob said...

(continued from above...)

We're prevented from being in freefall by the ground. It's the ground that makes us feel heavy. Anything that forces you into an unnatural motion will give you weight - that's what g-force is about. Confined by the ground, we feel g-force in exactly the same way that a racing driver feels g-force when confined to his seat as his car takes a corner quickly.

This doesn't answer your question of what the fabric of spacetime is made of. The answer from GR is that it doesn't need to be made of anything.

When physicists talk about the fabric of spacetime, all they're talking about is the distances between points in space and time. The technical term is the metric. There doesn't need to be anything of any substance there at all for gravity to work. If the distances are distorted even slightly, things will move in curves and act as if there was a force on them. And if you prevent them from moving in those curves, they will feel the illusion of weight.

Of course this is only one way of looking at it, but it's a very fruitful one.

Regarding dark matter - let's clear this up a bit. It's often said that 98% of the mass/energy in the universe is dark. We can only see 2% of what (we believe) is out there.

The other 98% is not all dark matter. It's made of:
2% normal matter that's just not visible from Earth (for example interstellar gas)
23% dark matter (some substance we haven't been able to identify)
73% dark energy (the strangest one of all, but a natural part of GR)

It's not true to say these are 'space' or 'the space time fabric'. They are forms of energy.

It's also not true to say that they don't interact with matter. They do. Like all forms of energy, they have this effect of distorting spacetime - for example by changing distances around them like the Earth does. And this influences the motion of matter. In other words, they all interact gravitationally with matter.

I hope some of that helps. It's a difficult topic to try to discuss, but I've done my best to address your questions in a way that's understandable. There is a lot more that can be said, of course, but I was trying to give a brief response! You may find that the more you think about it, the more questions you have. Some things may start to make sense if you keep returning and asking the same questions. I hope you'll want to explore further.

If you do, I highly recommend these two BBC programmes:

They're an hour long each, but I think you'll like them.

When you've watched those, read this again, and see if it makes any more sense. You never know. And be careful of anyone who offers you what seem like easy answers. Simple pictures can be great, so long as they're held lightly, and so long as they don't prevent you from asking more if you want to get to the bottom of something.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I just have one more question. I did experiment with a metal ball on a string. If you put magnet next to it, magnetic force will beat up gravity and we can see deflection of the string being pulled by the magnet. Now, I put ball on a string next to skyscraper. This big building should excert force on surrounding space. I put ball very close to the building (like 1mm or so, it took me some time to get a moment with no wind). I used laser mesure to check if there was deflection on the string, but I measured none. I know that gravity is very weak force, so should I be looking at really small deflection, like micrometer? Is it even detectable? The size of thr ball is just standard glass marble. Thanks

tarunkrsnadas said...

Hi Bob

My friend Steve used to say "The mountains are really powerful". I had no trouble understanding his meaning and I agree. I also agree with Arne. The high mountain experience is one wherein the soul can stake her claim to the conscious being that experiences her.

Being at one with the forces that nurture one's heart is a most rewarding reality.

Which brings me to the use of the word fruitloop. You say it as if it had some derogatory meaning. I think what happened to you here is good for everyone to learn from. When you criticise, people defend themselves, sometimes even angrily and irrationally. Srila AC Bhaktivedanta Swami said "Tell the truth but tell it nicely". We can understand the reason for this.

However, not enough impetus and the ball won't roll, too much and all hell breaks loose. I guess wisdom will teach us, eventually.

Once, in India, whilst travelling by train, my friend Jagadish became embroiled in a heated philosophical discussion with some Indian gents. I was concerned as to what to do if a fight broke out.

The arguement continued for hours. About sunset, I decided to munch on some sweet cakes I had brought along. I offered them to Jagadish and his companions. Immediately, they began congradulating my intelligence for knowing how to change the mood. Actually, duhh! I was just being a gentleman. I applaud your intelligence for this post.

Nevertheless, when I read from "How to Make Friends ..." x Dale Carnegie, he says "Always allow the other man to save face".

If your heart is like the mountain, you'll always find a way to return to peace. Nassim has PROVED NOTHING but he HAS asked a lot of interesting questions. Give him credit for his oblique thinking and forget the rest.


Bob said...

I think fruitloop is pretty a generous term. If he were just asking interesting questions, rather than manipulating vulnerable people into thinking he's an authority in order to sell his brand of misleading pseudoscience and prejudice against honest inquiry, and if he didn't respond to valid criticisms of his science with a stream of rhetoric, immature personal attacks and blocking all further communication, then I'd be happy for him to save face. As it is, I think it's more important to counteract some of the damage he is doing to people by exposing him for what he is.

It's not as if he won't continue to be surrounded by fans who value blind faith over honesty. He'll be fine - you don't need to worry about him.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say Thankyou :)

i work in the environmental engineering sector and am constantly amazed by the utter rubbish some companies get away with selling to a willingly deluded public.

I am more disturbed and depressed than amazed by how willing adults are to believe sheer nonsense - i believe in some part we prime people to believe lies as children -- we all want the fairy tales to be true to some extent.

I read with great pleasure your clear and surprisingly calm dissemination of some seriously deluded and misguided "scientific" claims.

I take my hat off to you for your well rounded and stead fast response against a seemingly endless tidal wave of utter rubbish spouted by what seems like an almost cultish support for Nassim.

You have repeatedly asked in almost all of your responses for someone to in any way disprove your debunking of Nassims clearly wrong scientific claims.

It is no surprise that anyone has taken you up on this clear and polite invitation.

SO Thank you for taking the time in writing your responses i hope it manages to guide some people towards a more honest and genuine appreciation of the universe we live in and away from delusional feel good nonsense.

Mark said...

Think that Nassim answered you pretty good.
When the educated intellectuals of the day believed the earth to be flat, they even had a mathematical proof for it. They could literally blind you with math. I think you're just pissed with Nassim because not only does he have a personality, he is clearly alot smarter than you aswell - that must really hurt. It's so unfair. Must bust your world view wide open

Anonymous said...

Yes Mark, whatever. Keep dreaming pal.

Bob said...

Mark is one of many people who just "think" things. About the laws of physics and the nature of the universe. They choose what they like best, and stick to it. They don't give any reasoning.

Because, for them, the most reliable source of all knowledge about the universe is their feelings. And their prejudices. They trust their gut. If they like what some bloke on the web is telling them, that'll do for them.

I'm one of many people who thinks that if you want to know about the physical nature of the universe, it's best to take a detailed look at the physical nature of the universe and see what it's like. I think that's far more important than whether or not I happen to like an idea.

I can't argue with Mark's gut feelings about the universe. All I can do is say honestly, dude. Do you really think you can just choose what the laws of physics are like that?

If I've got you wrong, that would be unfair, of course, so I'd like to hear more. Maybe you're not coming from prejudice and the belief that the world revolves around your personal feelings. If not, then please share your physical evidence or reasoning or explanations for anything that I've said being wrong. Or anything that Haramein has said about physics being correct. That would be interesting. Anything at all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob, I'm not a scientist at all just fascinated with quantum physics and the potential for it to explain what is commonly considered unexplainable. Which is how i found Nassim's work, but I am not one to just believe anything. Id love to find out that we are all one consciousness which has subdivided itself for the purposes of experiencing different perspectives , but first id need to see some science. Real science... anyhow, Have you heard of the holographic model of the universe - not Nassim's Holo- fractal model but the model put forth by Karl Pribram and David Bohm, (as i recall one was an understudy of Einstein's) which was detailed in layman's terms in "the holographic universe" by Michael Talbot? It has some very interesting perspectives on the whole "why are we here and what are we??" Question. It seems very plausible to me but I'm just an electrician not a big brained scientist like yourself so I'd really like to know what you think as some of your explanations actually clear certain concepts up for me. Thanks! -Mike from Canada

Bob said...

Hello Mike from Canada.

This is a post about Arne Naess and ecology. Forgive me if I decline to discuss Haramein or Talbot or their misconceptions about science here.

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