Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Review article: Secrets of the Seven Seals (2014)

Review article

Secrets of the Seven Seals
The Philosopher's verdict: plenty of implied connections


Discovering The Lead Codices: The Book of Seven Seals and the Secret Teachings of Jesus
By David and Jennifer Elkington
£19.99, 288 pages, Watkins Publishing (May 2014) ISBN-10: 1780287666

Most of what we know as the Old Testament, upon which the New Testament was founded, is in fact propaganda, not history. The ancient Ten Commandments, as set out in Exodus, for example, have had many incarnations, with the laws being adjusted to fit the needs of political expediency. It's been at least a little like the tale of the commandments written on the side of the barn described by George Orwell in his Twentieth century parable of the animal revolutionaries of Home Farm - a tale designed to mock the communists in Russia for rewriting their orthodoxies.

And the Tanakh or Hebrew Canon – the Old Testament, as it usually called – is riddled with inconsistencies as a result of being rewritten and edited to exclude anything that might be perceived as Christian. For example, Genesis tells of the sacrifice of Isaac: this was omitted as a result of antipathy to the Christians, when Mark's Gospel was composed, the story of the Crucifixion ends at the site of the empty tomb. The Resurrection text was written into it subsequently, possibly as much as one hundred and fifty years later.

The Old Testament the modern reader will see, has come down to us via Saint Jerome, who used the adjusted Hebrew texts. These are not the texts that Jesus and the Christians would have been familiar with but ones that had been entirely rewritten and edited, to expunge the mention of Jesus, the early Christian movement and certain of the Temple mysteries. The central claim that the The Lead Codices makes is that these sealed books offer us more than a glimpse into this highly secretive, controversial world. They give us a deeper understanding of Christian origins – and in particular, the ancient royal cult of the semi-divine King.

Presenting the factual background, the Elkingtons explain that the view we have today of early Christianity is drawn mainly from the writings of Eusebius, an early Church Father and adviser to the Emperor Constantine. It was Eusebius who drew up the Nicaean creed, the article of faith that is still used in modern times. People who objected to his teachings were accused of heresy, and silenced. Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. It was at this council that Jesus was finally voted as having divine status, the creed was agreed upon and the dating of Easter was confirmed. Jesus was God, and now equal, if not superior, to all of the other gods – no longer was he a dangerous mortal. It was also at Nicaea that the orthodoxies of the faith were established: for the first time the word 'heresy' began its intimate association with the Church.

A key propagandist in this case was the philosopher and early Christian Father, Saint Justin Martyr, who was born around 100 C.E. in the former Roman city of Flavia Neapolis (modern-day Nablus), near the old territory of Samaria. Justin took issue with the Jews over their rewriting of texts. In a text supposedly recording a conversation with a representative of the offending group, called Trypho, he declares:

'I certainly do not trust your teachers who refuse to admit that the translation made by the seventy elders who were with King Ptolemy of Egypt is a correct one and attempt to make their own translation…. They have deleted entire passages… and I wish you to observe that they have altogether taken away many Scriptures composed by those elders.'

Following the conventional histories here, the Elkingtons explain that the decision to adopt the newly altered canon is thought to have taken place at Jamnia in the years after the fall of the Temple in 135 C.E. and that there is a disguised account of this process in which Ezra hears the Most High speaking to him from a bush. Ezra was the new Moses. He was instructed to write the new canon in the form of a series of books, only some of which were to be made public.

Ezra's 'new law' was no doubt based partially on older oral tradition, and perhaps even scraps of earlier written material, but its main core of animal sacrifice was most certainly not part of the original Law of Moses. Not that the Elkingtons make this point, rather they are interested in what Ezra 'left out'.

'The remainder, containing the source of understanding, wisdom and knowledge, were therefore of utmost importance. It is possible that they were the pre-Christian books that came to be preserved only by the Christians: The Ascension of Isaiah, 1 and 2 Enoch and so on.'

The discovery of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, indisputably the Biblical find of the age, brought this issue into sharp relief, since texts long cited as major, yet written out of the Scriptures, were found in the hoard. The Scrolls contain the earliest versions of the Hebrew bible, maps to hidden temple treasure, and insights into the ideas of Jesus and the early Christians.

However, the Elkingtons' particular claim is that what has been hidden away or completely rewritten is nothing less than the secret history of Hebraism, the long-lost original theology… and the fact that it was based upon ritual performed at the Temple of Jerusalem. They explain that throughout antiquity the Temple played a crucial role as a mouthpiece of the divine through the person of the King-Messiah, but that by the time of Jesus the image of the Temple had become tarnished, and the Temple itself had become effectively Judea's central bank. 'Payment of Temple tax was compulsory for every devout pilgrim, and such a captive following – thousands went up to Jerusalem every year for the Passover – brought phenomenal power, as well as intrigue, strife and political assassination, as various parties struggled for prestige and influence.' They write:

'When we first looked upon the codices and their iconography, an image of the Temple, with its accoutrements, was precisely what stood out for us. One of these accoutrements strongly affirmed that this was indeed the holy place in which Jesus had preached and worked: the Seven-branched Menorah, or candlestick. This singular item was to be found in only one place: deep inside the Hall of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in 1st-century Palestine.'

The Elkingtons' write that seeing the Menorah on the codices 'was the moment of confirmation – that the codices abounded in hidden knowledge, sealed in books and then hidden away for many, many centuries.' However, 'it was only when we first saw, on one codex, the face of Jesus, the Man of Woes, with all of its power and the sadness in its eyes that we began fully to appreciate the codices as repositories of early Christianity.'

The problem of reconciling all the views of the Old Testament scriptures was one that beset the early Church for many years. According to the Clementine Homilies, Jesus himself says:

'On this account do you go astray, not knowing the true things of the Scriptures and for this reason you are also ignorant of the Power of God. Therefore every man who wishes to be saved must become, as the Teacher said, a judge of the books written to try us. For he said:  "Become experienced bankers." Now the need for bankers arises when forgeries are mixed up with the genuine.'

The homilies are named after Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the 2nd century. In them, Clement makes an astonishing, though at the time secret, admission:

'For, even if they should say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are the truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the true truth, that according to the faith.'

The issue that Clement, was corresponding about was the real nature of Jesus' raising of Lazarus from a state of apparent death … apparent because in his response Clement reveals the truth by giving a verbatim description of what is in the original text. But first of all, here is what you can read in today's Bibles:

'Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?"  So they took away the stone.

Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."

Compare this, to the 'secret text':

'And they came into Bethany, and a certain woman, whose brother had died, was there. And coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and said to him, "Son of David, have mercy on me." But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb.

And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him.

And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days, Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth came to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked [body]. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence arising he returned to the other side of the Jordan.'

The Elkingtons quote the second (but not the first) text, while stressing that many scholars question the antiquity and genuineness of this document. However, they say, supposing that the secret text is the more authentic, it makes clear that the raising of Lazarus, one of the most remarkable miracles in St John's testimony, 'was a ritualistic affair'.

As Colin Kirk explains in his recent book, Jesus Forever Reborn (Xlibris, 2014) at the time of Jesus, only one small sect, called the Pharisees, a wealthy minority of businessmen, traders and bankers, believed in resurrection of the body. Advocacy of the idea was thus highly political.

What this instance demonstrates is that this Gospel was changed, and it is likely that others too suffered the same fate. Gospels were expurgated, revised and edited into a form that suited the needs of the soon to be organised religion of Christianity. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, as does John (who omits the Last Supper). However, when we come to the events of Jesus' execution, each is seemingly at odds with the other, particularly regarding the actual day of the Crucifixion: in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke it occurs the day after the Passover, whereas in John it is the day before.

Jesus' actions in the Temple, (which the Elkingtons see specifically reflected in the codices) made him the Church, and it made Christianity what it was and still is today. Suddenly the Temple was in man. God was a concept no longer rooted to a particular, centralized spot: he was everywhere, but particularly within us.

The Elkingtons argue that the codices show Jesus:

'… making his point overwhelmingly. He is making reference to the most archaic form of Israelite belief. He is sending out a message that the original Temple worship should be restored and that the abuses carried out in the name of God at Jerusalem should be brought to an end. He is pointing out the illegitimacy of the priesthood at Jerusalem – and as King he has the right to effect the necessary reform.'

Both history and Christianity tell us that Jesus was the Messiah, that is, that he was a king, and that he was crucified. However, Christianity makes the even greater claim, that, by virtue of his status as the Messiah, he is in some way semi-, or even fully, divine: that he is in fact the Son of God.

The last of the canonical Gospels, written by Saint John, is deemed to be the most reliable in terms of historical detail and first-hand knowledge. It reveals a surprising level of topographical information about Jerusalem in the 1st century and contains incidents and names that do not occur in the other Gospels.  John's is the only Gospel most likely to have been written by an actual disciple of Jesus.

John's is also the only Gospel that mentions that the notice on Jesus' cross included the words 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews': the other three Gospels say only 'King of the Jews'. The Elkingtons explain that what John actually says is: 'Jesus the Nazoraios'. Nazoraios is most likely to be a Greek word taken from the Hebrew notzer, meaning 'the one who keeps/guards the old ways'. This became the general Hebrew term for Christians.

What the authors of Discovering The Lead Codices: The Book of Seven Seals and the Secret Teachings of Jesus play down however, is that St John is perhaps best known as the author of the Book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible. They don't even mention that John writes of a book sealed with seven seals.

But we might recall that, when broken, the first four seals unleash the infamous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first seal releases a rider on a white horse with a bow who is given a crown. He probably represents war. The second seal releases a rider on a red horse with a giant sword. This horseman is supposed to represent bloodshed. The third seal releases a rider on a black horse carrying a scale, who symbolizes famine. The fourth seal releases a rider on a pale green horse who represents death.

Some scholars propose that the first horseman on a white horse is actually the victorious and triumphant Christ himself. Most, however, believe the first horseman is war since this fits better with the character of the other three riders. (Another candidate would be the Antichrist himself, who is supposed to usher in the horror of doomsday.)

After the famous four horsemen are released at the breaking of the first four seals, the last three are then opened. The fifth seal is supposed to release all the souls of the martyrs who were slain for the faith. They ask how long before their deaths are avenged and they are assured that justice is not far behind. The sixth seal unleashes the Day of Wrath. The sun goes dark, the moon turns blood red, the stars fall from the sky, and islands and mountains disappear. After the breaking of the sixth seal and before the seventh, four angels are dispatched to each of the four corners of the earth. One of these angels places a mark on the foreheads of 144,000 souls (12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel) to protect them 'as the lamb's blood on the doorpost protected the Israelites from the last plague of Egypt the night of Passover'.

What strange things can the seventh and final seal ushers in? Why, the spookiness of a half hour of silence. After which seven angels blow seven trumpets.

Now this is all fine stuff, but instead of linking the story into that of their own leaden seals, which evidently have been rather brusquely broken in the archaeological investigations, the Elkingtons simply note that the main codex of their hoard was closed with seven seals, and that seven is a significant number, associated symbolically with perfection. They are more interested in in the fact that the main codex has a portrait of 'a bearded man, with a halo framing his portrait' on the cover.

'Looking over his wife's shoulders, as she delicately prised the first pages apart with tweezers, David Elkington writes that he was rendered speechless by what he saw. 'The silvery pristine beauty of the image was deeply moving: but what on earth was it? Most remarkably, among all the aged and corroded pages in the rest of the codex, this one was uniquely pure. It was totally unmarred by time and the external elements: it was a miraculous vision.'

For them, 'The face reveals much. It has suffering written upon it, and yet it is strangely serene.' Who can it be?

'The codex is sealed on all sides with lead binding rings and contains some script. What stands out in the script is the row of Xs – the ancient Hebrew letter form of Tav, the letter T; otherwise known in the Palaeo-Hebrew alphabet as the cross. 'X' is the name of Yahweh – the Lord, the Second God of Israel, Son of God Most High. Quite simply, there is no one other than Christ whom this face could represent. What we are looking at is the first icon. No other theory of identification stands up to close scrutiny. The image is kingly, and it portrays a man who had obviously attained a reasonable level of esteem. The rendering of the image would have been expensive: no one would have gone to this trouble had it not been vitally important to do so. The process of making the face and then setting it in solid lead would have been difficult using the processes of the day.'

Their idea is that the image of Jesus, this eikon, this secret image, to be seen by very few, would upon contemplation reveal certain of the mysteries behind the veil – in this case, the veil of flesh. 'What we have here is an example of the old Temple theology meeting the rise of Christianity – in the form of our artefacts.'

The parallel story in the book, comprising around half of the text, is the 'ripping yarn' one of an international chase for the priceless relics, which brings in the Queen of Jordan and the Pope. The book opens with this unpromising appetizer:

'A wild Bedouin Arab with a hoard of priceless antiquities and his dubious accomplices. We were not comfortable with the way things looked, but someone had to do something to save the codices.'

At the outset it seems that the codices will be worth millions of dollars an and the Elkingtons are the only people determined to save them for the academics to study. At one point the London police confiscate the precious lead codices, and a police officer leading the enquiry took the tablets, without the Elkingtons' knowledge or permission, to the British Museum. There, Dr Irving Finkel, deemed them to be forgeries.

Experts! Who needs 'em… The Elkingtons certainly didn't, pointing out that although Dr Finkel is a well-respected historian in his field of Mesopotamian cuneiform: 'These books were written at least 2,000 years after the emergence of cuneiform.'

The police however did believe him and lost interest in the artifacts which was good news in a sense as David Elkington was able to get them back.

'When I arrived back home, I opened the envelope and inspected the tablets. One of them had been damaged. There was a distinct bend, forming a ridge on the upper left-hand corner. Deemed to be fakes, they had been treated with disdainful irreverence: as valueless pieces of scrap metal.'

The Elkingtons describe some of the frustration they felt as bit by bit an opposed view of the codices as crude forgeries built up, and as contact after contact declined to be named in support of their views.

'There have also been confident claims that all symbols on the codices are to be seen elsewhere, that they are crude copies made by forgers. This assertion is inaccurate. As one of our experts puts it, 'the most complex pattern, which appears several times and seems to have been the main symbol of whatever the codices represent, has not been found elsewhere.' One commentator has stated that the seven-branched menorah on all the codices is uniquely wide and semi-circular and that, as comparable examples have not been seen anywhere, it must be a forgery. Such tortuous reasoning seems to be de rigueur among those who are seeking to condemn the discovery.'

However, they do not give the reader convincing reasons to believe that the codices are not in fact fakes, a mélange of symbols from various sources, including certain text elements that have been repeatedly stamped into the lead in ways that belie any possible secret meanings. Had they done so, the book would have had a much greater value. As it is, I don't think the 'ripping yarn' adds anything to the serious matters, but surely it makes the book more palatable for a general audience, who might otherwise tire of a diet of obscure disputes about ancient languages.

There is a related sub-plot in the book concerning the trials of authors with publishers with which I can certainly sympathize. The Elkingtons relate how their book was on course for Easter publication until, at the publisher's request, Jennifer compiled a comprehensive report of everything they knew to date of the circumstantial evidence. Then:

'Instead, the knowledge we shared was used against us. Much to our dismay, we received a call from our agent saying that the publishers were pulling out following a report from the SDEMA, a private investigation agency in Israel that had been commissioned by them. The investigation was ordered despite our earlier protests that it would be a waste of money. A copy of the email from the CEO was forwarded to us. The email informed us that independent research had been commissioned into the background of the codices, causing the publishers to be very concerned by what they had discovered. The investigation, in their opinion, had cast doubts on the authenticity of the codices. They reassured us that they believed we had acted in good faith, but in their opinion we had been misled. The email went on to say that the report was devastating in its conclusion, destroying any credibility the artefacts might have; therefore, regretfully, they would have to withdraw.'

As the Elkingtons quickly point out, the same sort of thing was maintained for years about the Dead Sea Scrolls, aided by a forty year monopoly on the research by Professor John Strugnell, Head of the International Team of scholars selected to study the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the monopoly was broken, researchers soon decided that the Scrolls were not in fact medieval forgeries but vitally important historical texts. Clearly, if commercial publishers were to be the judges, the Dead Sea Scrolls would still be locked away and dismissed as of no scholarly importance. The Elkingtons of course want their Lead Codices and the Dead Sea Scrolls to be paired.

Image ©David Elkington 2014 and reproduced here courtesy of the publishers
However the links offered seem rather feeble. The scrolls contain, after all, extensive amounts of overtly Biblical text, approximately 900 texts written in Hebrew and Aramaic, whereas, on the lead codices, we are told here only that they offer  'common statements with reference to 'standing uprightly'' and implied connections from the symbols seen all over them. The Elkingtons insist that his amounts to 'more than a shared similarity'. And then, remember, 'there is the face of Christ on the front cover of the main codex – a clear link to the identity of the expected Messiah.'

Well, what is it about this image? The Elkingtons repeatedly remark on itspower and beauty of the  – making it sound like something that rivals say, the Turin Shroud (but is that a fake too?).  Detractors of the Lead Codices allege that the image has been crudely transplanted from an Italian source by a forger, or even that it is of a lion. But the Elkingtons see instead a great history:

'In the first few centuries ad, Jesus was symbolized by the image of a fish or by the labarum, an anchor-shaped cross. One of the first images of the bearded Christ in Western art is to be found in the catacombs of Commodilla, Italy, dating back to the 4th century. Perhaps the most striking early depiction of Christ is one that managed to survive the destruction of the icons throughout the Byzantine Empire in the years 730–87 C.E.: the Christ Pantocrator (the all-Encompassing) found in the monastery of St Catherine's in Sinai, dating to the 6th century. '

This Syrian icon of Christ Pantocrator, like many other holy icons, portrays Christ carrying a sealed metal book. Why is Jesus holding a book? The Elkingtons answer this, at least, this straightforwardly, by saying that in the Hebrew-Christian perspective: Jesus, the Logos, the 'Word', was holding the Book of the Law, God's laws, which were 'made flesh' in him – in the manner that Kings and Queens all over Europe were supposed to be there by divine descent. The Lead Codices continues:

'Placed alongside the frontal image on the main codex, these faces appear very like each other – so similar, in fact, as to be the same. Both are surrounded by a remarkable halo that serves, aesthetically, to separate the face from its background. The eyes, in each image, are very different from one another: one eye seems to be looking inward, the other outward (in fact, the inward eye is half-covered by shadow, which gives the strange illusion of a face in two halves). The face shows both holiness and introspection. But the significant thing about the icon from Sinai is that, although this is difficult to see in reproductions, it has two eight-pointed stars in the top left- and right-hand corners. This is one of the only instances of eight-pointed stars anywhere other than on the codices.'

The Elkingtons make much of the fact that eight-pointed stars are symbolic of kingship. The six-pointed star is familiar to us today as a symbol of black magic and of Israel: it is derived from the famous King, Solomon. The seven-pointed star denoted Solomon's father, King David. However, the eight-pointed star is indicative of the enigmatic figure of Melchizedek, the figure to whom Abraham showed obeisance. Melchizedek appears in the Book of Genesis as the King of Salem. His role is that of High Priest, and a cursory inspection of the codices showed definite High Priestly and regal references.

In the Gospels Jesus is actually called the 'cornerstone': he is the link – the physical link, in his role of King and High Priest – between humanity and God.

Earlier images seem to be influenced by Greek ideals of beauty, with Jesus as the 'new Apollo', and beardless. If the codices are genuine, then we now know, if nothing else, that Jesus really had a beard.

For the Elkingtons' many critics, it does seem that the actual lead codices are not so much a carefully hidden away collection of secret teachings as a richly decorated forgery. That said, the book is still well worth a read, as both a ripping yarn, and an unusual introduction to the deep and definitely mysterious world of Biblical archaeology. 

Reviewed by Martin Cohen. 

On the Nature of Things: Twenty First Century Update (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 1

 On the Nature of Things
Twenty First Century Update


By Alvin Yusin

 About two thousand years ago, Lucretius wrote a treatise, in the form of an epic poem, whose Latin title is De Rerum Natura*. There are two common translations of the title: On the Nature of Things and On The Nature of the Universe. But whatever it is called, Lucretius' poem is a remarkable work. It expounds the perspective of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose explanation regarding origins of the world and the living things on it differed from the perspectives held at the time by his fellow Greeks, which in turn derived from mystical notions form the Far East.

One such explanation has been described as the Theory of Chaos. It is claimed that before sea, earth, and heaven separated there existed a confused, shapeless mass given the name Chaos. Unknown gods and nature separated the earth from the sea and the heavens from both. Other or the same gods then laid out topography of the earth's surface appointing rivers and bays, fields and forests, raising up mountains, and so on. When this work was completed those gods created living creatures from heavenly seeds in the earth. Birds lived in the air, fish in the sea, and four footed beasts on the land. When a nobler creature was sought, the god Prometheus kneaded heavenly seeds with water thereby creating man in the image of the gods and giving man upright stature - so that he could look at the heavens.

It is a fine story, but Epicurus did not accept it as any kind of an explanation of the natural world. Instead, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, all things, inanimate (non - living) and animate (living) alike are composed of small particles called atoms. The arrangement and organisation of these atoms determines the form those things will take as well as whether it will be living or inanimate.

Lucretius’ poem includes this account:

The supply of matter in the universe was never more tightly packed than it is now, or more widely spread out. For nothing is ever added to it or subtracted from it. It follows that the movement of atoms today is no different from what it was in bygone ages and always will be. So the things that have regularly come into being will continue to come into being in the same manner; they will be and grow and flourish so far as each is allowed by the laws of nature.

Clearly neither Epicurus or his pupil Lucretius were satisfied by explanations that the universe was created by gods. Instead, in On the Nature of Things, it is said to have sprung into existence spontaneously through the random play of atoms.  Later, both gods and human beings came into existence as a result of specific arrangements of the atoms, and share similar forms. Life comes about when what might be called 'specialised atoms' came into existence and formed souls. A special feature of the gods is that their souls cannot leave their bodies. It is this circumstance that provides them with the gift of immortality. The soul atoms of human beings, on the other hand, do leave their bodies and with their departure comes death. Other than this one difference, gods and human beings are exactly alike. 

Of course, these days, both the Ancient notions of Chaos and Epicurus' theory have been discarded. They have been replaced by two different and conflicting notions. In a general sense, these opposing notions are not unlike the views of interacting forces held in ancient Greece. Modern perspectives, too, identify two diverse powers that have created the world and the living things on it. The first, theological perspective, claims that divine forces created and organized the inanimate or physical world, then created the animate or living things who populate that world. The other world view insists that it is solely physical laws framing the random combinations and re-combinations of specific elements and molecules that have, over vast periods of time, given rise to the world and all its living creatures.

Yet, if the specifics of these ideas differ from the specifics of the earlier theory of Chaos and Epicurus and Lucretius ideas they all share something. In their different ways, they all reflect the same conflict that appears in human explanations regarding creation of the universe and the living things on it. Are the world and the life forms in it the result of spontaneous random interactions of basic elements that over time have given rise to simple then more complex life forms? Or is this world and its life forms the signature of a carefully constructed universe containing a variety of life forms designed by some unknown, perhaps divine power. To make that determination requires a review of the great scientific theories of today.

There are currently three competing scientific viewpoints to explain the creation of the universe: the Big Bang theory; the Steady State theory and more recently the Dark Hole theory, however all are based on the shared assumption that the universe came into existence spontaneously and that random combinations of universe components gave rise, over time, to the inanimate and the animate that exist in the world today. The prevailing scientific account is the Big Bang theory. It maintains that about 10 – 20 billion years ago the universe, which was then extremely hot and dense, experienced a massive blast causing the existing matter and energy to expand, and following this expansion began to cool peripherally. Proponents of the theory use Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which identifies the ability of energy to convert to matter, to explain the mechanisms by which the energy driving the expansion of the universe gradually 'cooled' giving rise to stars and galaxies.

Now stars consist primarily of the element hydrogen. At the center of each hydrogen atom is the nucleus. Energy generated by stars comes about when these nuclei join - fusion. Such fusions generate the other elements, such as helium, the second lightest element and the second most abundant element in the observable universe. Heavier elements such as iron come about as a result of fusion that occurs when massive stars die at which time they explode. Over time peripheral cooling took place leading to element combinations called molecules that with further cooling combined to give rise to a variety of inanimate forms.

Over unimaginable periods of time, specific elements and molecules in some inanimate forms combined and rearranged themselves gradually giving rise to simple life forms. Of course, this perspective regarding the origins of life dovetails nicely with Darwinian perspectives of evolution, which seeks to account for the eventual emergence of the human species from these simple life forms. Today, most scientists accept the Big Bang Theory, certainly as it relates to the creation of both inanimate and animate forms. However, in order to explain the origins of living forms developing from non-living forms they rely upon another Ancient idea, that was theory promoted (but not invented) by Aristotle. This is the theory called Spontaneous Generation. The theory assumes that life forms can arise from non-living things: for example, that worms and flies spring into life from mud and water.

Naive though the Ancient theory is (nowadays we know that there is microscopic universe of bacteria, eggs and DNA present even in many supposedly inanimate things) Spontaneous Generation remains, in another sense, the only possible explanation for the origin of life in its most basic form - if the physicists explanations of the start of the universe are correct. But what if they are not? After all, here, the Divine Force Theory, the basis of all religions, has, in a sense, an explanatory advantage. It simply identifies God as creator both of the universe and the animate and inanimate forms in it. Is there proof that such a force exists? Truly religious individuals accept God's existence on faith and require no further proof.

Yet, even so, Saint Thomas Aquinas found it worthwhile to try to prove God's existence using another of the philosophical perspectives associated with Aristotle. The basis of that perspective is the truism that every effect has a cause.  That is to say, when something happens, something must have made it happen. 

When a specific cause always produces the same effect a causal relationship is assumed to exist between them. Aristotle's view was that the cause of an effect can also be an effect. For example, consider the question as to what is causes ice to melt? Higher temperatures cause ice to melt. (The effect). But what caused the temperature to rise? Let’s say that exceptional sunlight caused the temperatures to rise (so what was previously a cause has now become also an effect). There exists a cascade of causal relationships. In fact, Aristotle believed that all causal relationships could be traced back to a single one., which he named 'the Prime Mover', an approach to understanding causal relationships sometimes called 'retrograde analysis’. Aquinas was using retrograde analysis of causal relationships when he identified God as the Prime Mover. However, there may be a way to reconcile the Vital Force and Big Bang Theories as regarding living things. But before I explain how I think this approach can be used, two areas important to their study must be briefly addressed. These concern the operation of computers and human genetics.

First of all, computers. Computer science speaks of three essential components for the machine to function: hardware, software and input data. Of course, hardware has components of its own. However, the only hardware component of interest to us is the so-called Central Processing Unit located inside the computer. The CPU typically consists of electronic boards which process the programs - the 'Software' - required to accomplish the specific tasks the computer must perform.

Now consider a second area of importance to our question of origins - human genetics. Over the last forty to fifty years research has provided a much more detailed understanding of human genetics. It is increasingly clear that the development of human beings from conception to death is precisely programmed. I have a particular sense of this, as in my professional life, I specialised in the study of Pediatrics, Neurology and Psychiatry and Human Behavior. I cared for children with Developmental Disabilities, which was defined as children with Epilepsy, Autism, Mental Retardation, and Cerebral Palsy and 'other conditions requiring similar programs’ in the state of California. Many of these children had genetic disorders.

Anyway, what can unambiguously be stated is that genes consist of a chemical structure called Deoxyribonucleic Acid - or DNA. To understand DNA's function in life requires us to always remember that the human body is composed of proteins. Proteins are incorporated into the structures and functions of every organ in the human body. These organs in turn are composed of thousand of microscopic entities - the cells. Proteins with different shapes, compositions, and functions are manufactured in the organ in which they are found. Thus, proteins determine how human beings will look and how we function. They are involved in the initiation, performance, and termination of all human activities. Now what I want to argue is that at least in one sense, DNA is humanity's central processing unit, one containing all the programs that create, shape and modify proteins so that they can perform their function.

The inputs to this biological CPU come from signals either within the cells or from outside of them. These signals trigger the DNA programs to initiate manufacture of the proteins necessary to perform the required activity. When whatever was required is completed another signal terminates the program. But back to cosmology. Scientific theories increasingly hold to the notion that there is no vital force controlling the universe, that it arose as a result of cooling down from an extremely high temperature soon after the Big Bang and that the effects of that cooling are as described by the Theory of Relativity.

Yet, as we saw, Epicurus also believed that the universe came about as a result of combinations of atoms, small discrete particles that were the basic building blocks of all things even if there is no reason to suppose that he considered them in the same sense as we do today, with our theories of the specific structure of atoms and of the conversion of energy to matter (or vice versa). Equally, the Vital Force theory too accepts the fact that when the universe was first created first it consisted only of inanimate structures. So, in some ways there is agreement between Epicurus and modern theories regarding the origins of life. There is agreement that living forms (including human beings) came into existence by chance combinations of specific elements and molecules.

Epicurus sees a specific atomic structure - the soul - bestowing life on an inanimate form while scientists see all living things as containing DNA, or something similar, that stores genetic codes which allow those living things to develop and survive in their environments. The key assumption that must be made by those who hold to the notion that animate forms developed from inanimate ones is that early life forms programmed themselves. Yet no living thing exists without some genetic code to initiate its growth and development and there is no evidence indicating that any inanimate object ever established its own genetic code which then converted it to a living form. Similarly, all computers developed by human beings require someone to program them, or at least to create the computer chips that will allow them to process inputs and perform the function for which they were designed. Even so-called expert systems that generate new programs have had to be programmed originally.

So, rather than ask the old question, How did life begin? I suggest that the better question we should be asking is: How can the Big Bang and Vital Force theories be reconciled? To start to do this requires a separate discussion of the two components of the creation theories that exist today: inanimate forms and animate forms.

First of all, consider inanimate forms. the Big Bang theory offered to explain the origin of the universe is based on mathematical and physical laws. much work has been done that strongly suggests that it is an accurate account in as much as it is in accordance with mathematical and physical laws, although questions remain, for example about the role of so-called Dark Matter in the equations. The theory offers a sequence of events in which first stars and galaxies come into existence and in turn create the atoms and molecules which make up all the inanimate forms that exist in the universe.

There is also some compatibility between the Big Bang and Vital Force theories when it comes to explaining the creation of animate life. both agree that DNA exists in living things. The conventional, 'scientific', approach explains the origins of DNA much the same way as any other molecule and inanimate form, that is by random combination of the four specific compounds (adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine) with other components arranged in such a way as to form strands. The explanation regarding origin of the 22 amino acids, which are the building of proteins, is the same as that of DNA.  The scientific perspective is that early strands had simple structures, perhaps precursors, of the more complicated genetic structures existing today that underlie all life forms. Over time, through the processes of mutation and natural selection, ever more complex forms developed.

There are several problems with this explanation. First and foremost of which is that the notion of DNA mutating in such a way as to eventually create new species lacks validation on science's own terms. Existing evidence instead indicates that mutations in DNA either creates a variety of genetic diseases (such as muscular dystrophy or sickle cell anemia) or, conversely, produce a genetic advantage - for example, people with the sickle cell trait show increased resistance to malaria. However, at the present time, there is no evidence to support the notion that mutations could have created DNA molecules of such variance as to produce a new species.

So, although the Big Bang theory does explain the creation of DNA and amino acids it does not explain how proteins came to be. Proteins, in essence, consist of amino acids that connect to each other to form very long chains. The amino acids sequences determine what specific protein is made. Amino acids, by themselves, cannot combine to form chains, never mind in specific arrangements.

Instead, it is the five compounds arranged on DNA strands that start the process that will allow very specific amino acids to be placed in the very specific sequences that produce in turn very specific proteins with correspondingly very specific functions. It is difficult to reconcile the creation of this function of DNA with the explanations provided by the mathematical logic of the theory of the Big Bang. The approach may provide an acceptable level of explanation for the development of DNA and amino acid structure, but it falls far short when it comes to the creation of these functional aspects of DNA.

There may be a way to address the question asked earlier concerning the reconciliation of the two theories. The first thing that must be done is to change the term 'vital force' for that of 'life force'. To understand what I mean by this, consider the cases of the physical phenomena sound and light. We know that sound and light exist, usually in the form of waves around us, but we only experience them when there is a specific structure that allows them to be expressed. For example, with sound, the human hearing apparatus and the radio are two such structures; with light, the human visual system and television are examples. Is it possible that whatever life force exists in the universe is experienced only when it enters a specific structure? If so, such a structure must have DNA and the various components that permit it to express life.

In this sense. the 'life force' would program, or perhaps we should say activate, the structure's components - just as light and sound activate eyes to see and ears to hear. When the life force enters the structure, it lives but should the structure be severely damaged or destroyed, then the life force can no longer be expressed. From this perspective, function overrides structure when it comes to life forms. And perhaps the most striking thing in this is how, in more than one way, such views recall those ancient notions of Epicurus regarding creation, life and death.

*The original text can be read at

Contact details:
Alvin S. Yusin

Email: <Tmy222 [at]>

Review article: The Outer Limits of Reason (2014)

The Outer Limits of Reason

The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us, by Noson S. Yanofsky, MIT Press
Hardcover £20.95 ISBN: 9780262019354
424pp August 2013

Reason, wrote John Locke, 'must be our best judge and guide in every thing.'

In so speaking, Locke epitomised a bright confidence in reason, widespread, which was born of the Enlightenment. More recently, however, such confidence has been lost as reason has revealed its own limits, one by one – not merely practical, but theoretical – limits which frequently would seem impassable. These are the limits which Noson Yanofsky addresses.

The survey is expansive, and adept. However, at heart, and despite some late and rather airy talk of humanity's special place in the universe (at least, at the level of quantum physics), the book represents the study of a phenomenon, rather than a quest for understanding. That is, one should not expect to find, on the whole, conceptual cohesion in the book. It is a deposit, a delivery, rather than a work of perception or wisdom. Nor does the book address the existential or the social limits of reason – so insistent in our time. Yanofsky's interest is – as the subtitle says – science, mathematics, and logic. With this in mind, then, here are the limits of reason that Yanofsky has found.

Linguistic perplexities

Yanofsky starts by looking at language. It would seem to be a pedantic start, with little relevance to the real world – yet it sets the tone: reason, and the language in which it is embedded, are more complicated than it seems. He writes:

There is one major difference between the world we live in and language: whereas the real world is free of contradictions, the man-made linguistic descriptions of that world can have contradictions.

He then gives some examples: 'original copies’; 'clearly confused'; 'larger half' and 'act naturally', adding that this last is his favourite. 'Even though the phrases do not really make sense, we human beings have no problem using them in common, everyday speech.' The famous philosophical example: This sentence is false,  he says is grammatically correct and might be either true or false, adding 'it is not self-referential and not equivalent to the original 'Liar' paradox'. But why is it not self-referential? 'This sentence has five words' is surely self-referential. So is 'This sentence is printed in blue'. Why not this one? It is left unclear. Instead, Yanofsky moves smoothly on, saying it would be 'nice to have a grammatically correct English sentence that is a self-referential paradox'. And lo, here it is, delivered by W. V. O. Quine:

"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation" yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

That's an ugly piece of writing, whether grammatical or not, so let's try to rephrase it straight away – if not to be less ugly, at least to be more what might be called 'grammatical'. The sentence is claiming to consist of two parts – a statement of fact about a particular phrase, and a quotation representing the phrase. The statement of fact is this: This claim becomes false when a copy of itself is inserted, minus the first two words, in inverted commas after the first two words. The quotation is: 'becomes false when a copy of itself, minus the first two words, is inserted in inverted commas after the first two words'.

So the whole 'Quine sentence' would be:

This claim "becomes false when a copy of itself, minus the first two words, is inserted in inverted commas after the first two words" becomes false when a copy of itself, minus the first two words, is inserted in inverted commas after the first two words.

Yanofsky says Quine's sentence is grammatical, as it is properly constructed: the subject is the phrase in quote marks and the verb is 'yields'. He argues that if the sentence is true, then because it predicts that, under certain conditions (which have been carried out), it should be false, it is false. But if it false, then the sentence has met the original requirements, so it is true!

Yanofsky and Quine seem very pleased with this. But others may well think it is all nonsense. Where is the original grammatical sentence? It would be, on this basis, possible to say that any sentence with a quote at the beginning is 'grammatical'. But not all sentences are equal. For example: 'Eat more fruit', is not only good advice but meaningful and grammatical. But sentences like: " 'Socrates is mortal' is blue all over", or " 'There are no tables in paradise' ran up the tree" look to us to be nonsense.

Quine's sentence is not rough, but legitimate, English – it is meaningless English. Thus it illustrates nothing. On the other hand, Yanofsky's oxymorons or 'baby linguistic paradoxes' as he calls them, are not paradoxical at all and merely reflect the fact that words have multiple meanings. Someone can indeed give you the 'original copies' because the term means something like the first copies made, rather than later ones. Someone can be 'clearly confused', because the clearly refers to the observer's degree of certainty about the other person's state – it is clear to them that the other person is confused. Where's the paradox? Yanofsky simply asserts:

Even though the phrases do not really make sense, we human beings have no problem using them in common, everyday speech.

Yanofsky is wrong on this, but the reader might suppose it is just a little bit of fun. But what can we make of claims though like this?

Human language is not a perfect system that is free of discrepancies (in contrast to perfect systems like mathematics, science, logic and the physical universe).

Now this is also nonsense – mathematics, logic and science alike rest on contradictions – which is the point of the rest of the book! So how did this strange claim creep in… it is quite antithetical to the author's major thesis. Still the minor thesis gets quite a long run. Many pages are spent on Russell's 'barber' paradox – which actually demonstrates that mathematics rests on contradictions – but only in a bizarre attempt to dismiss it.

Mathematical puzzles

To reprise the paradox: Russell's illustration is of a village in which the barber must cut the hair of everyone who does not normally cut their own hair – and the paradox arises when the barber's own locks grow long and he realises that he cannot cut them without breaking the rule. Yanofsky says that such a village operating under such a rule 'does not exist' – thus the problem is dismissed. 'Since the real world cannot have contradictions, the village does not really exist.' But of course, the imaginary village does not exist, yet the problem it illustrates does. One might also ask about what it is to 'exist' anyway – with numbers and perfect triangles not existing in any 'real world' sense either. However, the charge at Russell's example, rather than at the mathematical issue he was raising, seems so misguided that it hardly merits a counter-thrust.

Another rotten solution appears with regard to something called the 'interesting numbers paradox'. This notes that many numbers have interesting properties: for example 5 is a prime number and 6 is a perfect number (the sum of its factors is equal to itself). What is the first 'uninteresting number'? 15? 26? Yet whatever number we might try for, we will run into a problem. The first 'uninteresting number' has at least one thing about it that makes in noteworthy – it is the first uninteresting number.

Again, Yanofsky is quick to set the linguistic rules and dismiss the paradox. He says that there is no way to define what an interesting number is – the property is subjective. 'We cannot make a paradox out of a subjective property'. At this point in the book, certain important things are certain. Numbers are all clear and exact and have precise definitions. 'The concept of the number 4 is exact had has a clear definition.' Atoms are real, objects are not. The ship of Theseus exists as atoms. 'Of course the ship exists as atoms.'

We are fortunate to live among other people who learned to give the same names to commonly occurring external stimuli. Each of us calls these similar stimuli 'the ship of Theseus'.

This is also off the mark, alas. The philosophical ship exists as a hypothetical example, no atoms are involved. The problem of whether this ship made of new wood is the ship, or that pile over there is the true ship, is entirely to be solved by abstract debates over definitions, nothing to do with external stimuli. Eventually, noting that the ship is hypothetical, Yanofsky decides the existence of the ship 'is an illusion'. Along, presumably, with all our other categories and ideas. Unicorns too, have no atoms. But neither do mathematical objects. Triangles and numbers first out of the door?

At the beginning of the book this seems not likely. But as the story unfolds, with the mysteries of infinite sets and a rather complicated theory involving the mathematical 'axiom of choice', the existence of numbers and mathematical entities in general is increasingly questioned.

Metaphysical perplexities

Yanofsky says that the problem is that people generally imagine that there are objects out there which we give names to. This is the illusion. 'What do exist are physical stimuli. Human beings classify and name these different stimuli as different objects.'

At last, we get to a much more interesting discussion of modern physics which begins by noting the divide between the two main theories, relativity and quantum mechanics. (More mysteries arrive later too with a return to the assumptions behind quantum mechanics. One of the oddest is that of 'superposition' – the ability of quantum particles to have at any particular time more than one position. Subatomic particles can be in many positions simultaneously.)

Relativity theory describes the rules governing gravity and large objects, while quantum mechanics deals with 'the other forces and small objects'. Despite this difference in scope, the two theories are in conflict, as relativity requires space and time to be continuous, while quantum theory requires them to be discrete – exactly the issue that Zeno presented in his famous thought experiments.

Here, Yanofsky presents Zeno's arguments in a refreshingly clear and perceptive way, arguing that the oft-repeated mathematical responses to the issues fail to address the more profound, underlying philosophical questions. The only way out of the arrow paradox, for example, is to suppose that time is actually made up of lots of little instants, through which the arrow jumps (as it does in a photographic sequence). That would get rid of Zeno's paradox, but at great cost elsewhere.

Modern physics and engineering are based on the fact that time is continuous. All the equations have a continuous-time variable usually denoted by t. And yet, as Zeno has shown us, the notion of continuous time is illogical.

In everyday life, an infinite number of points with zero width will not stretch very far, nor will an infinite number of moments of zero duration last very long. But all modern notions of calculus, which is the basis of modern mathematics, physics and engineering, rely on such counter-intuitive properties of infinity.

Number games

Galileo was one of the first to note the counter-intuitive character of infinite sets, and the fact that, for example, the infinite set of whole numbers is no larger than the set of all even numbers. This can be well illustrated by noting that every even number is a natural number, and for every natural number there must be one that is double – an even number. If every natural number has its 'even twin', then the set of all natural numbers and the set of all even numbers must be the same size. Yes, by everyday thinking, there should be twice as many natural numbers as even numbers. But not when you can count to infinity. Should we abandon this rather odd idea of mathematical infinity and go back to common sense? But it is the odd idea that has proved more useful in practice – for interpreting the universe and in scientific predictions.

Okay. But this is only the tip of the problem. If (counter-intuitively) it turns out that there as many even numbers as there odd and even numbers put together – how many 'real' numbers will there be? Is this set any greater? With real numbers there is no one to one correspondence to the set of natural numbers. In fact, for every natural number there is an infinite number of real numbers. Worse, this infinity is larger than the usual one! Sets like this are called uncountably infinite and are indeed 'vastly larger' than sets that are countably infinite (like natural numbers). You can 'subtract' an infinite set from an uncountably infinite set and still have an uncountable infinity of numbers. Modern mathematics creates different levels of infinity.

The last function of reason is to recognise that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this.

      - Blaise Pascal

Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who formally confirmed the limits of logic and mathematics, actually thought that the human mind could transcend logic, for example by understanding certain statements that mere computers cannot ever prove no matter how many calculations they perform in the process. Yanofsky rightly contrasts this with the famous claim (well, it is within philosophy anyway) of the French mathematician, Laplace, his confident prediction in the 18th century that:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.'

      - Pierre Simon Laplace

However (and most certainly since the work of Edward Lorenz, who was both a mathematician and a meteorologist, in the 1960s) it has been clear that many things in the world around us are not predictable at all. Not in practice, and not in theory either. These are chaotic systems, where prediction of effects would require infinite precision about the starting points – the causes, precision that is physically and logically impossible. Yanofsky remembers too that Hindu priests thousands of years ago had already realised that the exact length of the lunar months was impossible to ever calculate – because the moon is affected by both the Earth and the Sun, and in turn affects the movements of the Earth.

In terms of weather, as Edward Lorenz memorably put it, the mere flap of a butterfly's wing in one country could 'cause' a hurricane a week later somewhere else, as a cascade of tiny effects change outcomes at higher and higher levels. And it is not just weather that is 'chaotic'. Economists recognise that stock movement fluctuations are equally dependent on small initial movements and feedback effects, and biologists recognise the interplay of forces that can affect phenomena such as the rise and fall of populations or the spreading of diseases.

Yanofsky writes:

The truth is that science was never really about predicting. Geologists do not really have to predict earthquakes; they have to understand the process of earthquakes. Meteorologists don't have to predict when lightening will strike. Biologists do not have to predict future species. What is important in science and what makes science significant is explanation and understanding.

As Alan Turing first pointed out (and this was before Crick and Watson the conventionally credited discovers of human genetic codes and DNA) human cells perform a very complex job in working out what kind of cell they need to become. In an organism, all cells have the same DNA- it is their location in the organism that decides the form they eventually take. But as one cell's decision affects its neighbour, their decisions also affect it – the process is replete with feedback effects.

Chaos theory describes processes that are deterministic but not predictable. However, quantum mechanics describes processes that are not only beyond prediction, but not even deterministic. 'We cannot determine what a single object in a quantum system will do in the short term. This takes us one more step outside the bounds of reason.'

Subatomic physics offers another challenge to conventional science: within it, the experimenter cannot avoid being part of the experiment and influencing the outcome. The world takes on the shape we see because we are looking at it – it is not that humans find out the properties of things by looking at them. When properties of an object do not exist before they are measured, it is the death of 'what philosophers call 'naïve realism', says Yanofsky – adding:

Before any measurements, the properties are in superposition. When X is measured, the X property collapses to a single value while the Y value remains in superposition. If the Y property is then measured, then it too collapses. The point is that if the measurements were done in a different order, then the values could collapse into different values.

This leads on, naturally enough, to Schrödinger's Cat. This is the celebrated thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger in which a cat is locked in a box with some radioactive material that may or may not decay. If it does, it kills the cat, and if not, not.

Quantum Entanglements

The notion of superposition means that until Schrödinger observes the process, the radioactive material is in 'superposition', and has both released and not released the atomic particle, and has both killed and not killed the cat. But what, asked Eugene Wigner, what if instead of Schrödinger opening the box and forcing the universe to make up its mind by either emitting the particle or not emitting it, he gets a friend to do it, and then the friend reports to him the fate of his cat afterwards? Wigner's point was that surely the friend's perception would be enough. Any conscious being would seem to be enough. (All of this assumes that cats are not conscious, an assumption many cat owners wold puzzle about.)

Yanofsky writes of the experiment:

Quantum mechanics places simple materialism in jeopardy by highlighting a new entity in the universe called consciousness. This consciousness is not made of physical objects and yet it affects how the universe works. Consciousness causes a superposition to collapse to a position. No longer are there only physical objects and spaces between them. Scientist and materialists must incorporate consciousness into their worldview.

Thus far, so much the usual stuff. However, Yanofsky extends the debate slightly further by arguing that quantum entanglement - where the state (the 'spin') of one particle describes the state of another – spells the end of reductionism – which he calls a 'fundamental superposition of all science. Today, the conventional view of modern physics, the so-called Heisenberg-Bohr hypothesis, is that there 'is really no underlying physical universe. Values [as in electron states] do not exist as a conscious observer measures the property. The value is not here before hand, rather the measure causes the value to come into being.'

As Yanofsky puts it, for three thousand years, the main goal of science has been to provide deterministic – cause and effect – rules for all phenomena. Yet now in the subatomic realm, science has started to argue for the reverse approach, the laws of quantum mechanics are non-deterministic, it describes a universe where space and time are discrete rather than continuous as in general relativity. Yet why should what is true for particles have no implications for thing s made up out of particles?

In everyday life, we normally think of the Earth as our reference point, and that reassuring notion has survived many theoretical insights into the nature of the universe. But given that the Earth spins on its axis at about 1000 miles per hour, and furthermore rotates around the sun at 67 000 miles per hour, let alone that the solar system itself is thought to whirl around our galaxy at half a million miles per hour – where is the fixed reference point? 'A stationary observer on Earth is far from stationary. There are no absolute observers, no absolute measurements and no absolute space and time. All is relative', says Yanofsky. How do we make sense of claims such as that 'every object that is moving has more mass than when it is stationary'?

Entanglement shows that there are no closed systems. Every part of a system can be entangled with other parts outside of the system. All different systems are interconnected and the whole universe is one system. One cannot understand a system without looking at the whole universe. That is, 'the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.

Einstein dismissed entanglement, calling it 'spooky action at a distance', and Yanofsky says that, more generally, physicists have made a mistake in trying to make mathematics the final arbiter of truth. 'They want their theories to be as mathematical as possible. A theory is not really acceptable to physicists until they see nice equations. Whereas in earlier times math was considered a language or a tool to help with physics, nowadays mathematics is the final arbiter of a theory. Physicists have placed their faith in the symbols and equations of mathematics. If the math works, then the physics must be correct. Galileo's lead has been followed too literally, it seems. Galileo, that is, who wrote:

Philosophy is written in that great book which continually lies open before us (I mean the Universe). But one cannot understand this book until one has learned to understand the language to and to know the letters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures. Without these means it is impossible for mankind to understand a single word, without these means there is only vain stumbling in a dark labyrinth.

- Galileo

The culmination of this approach is the pursuit of string theory. This tries to be the long-sought Theory of Everything, uniting all the known forces in the physical universe in one explanatory framework. Yet it remains a theory beyond empirical investigation: 'there is not a shred of empirical evidence that it is true'. Similar problems arrive with the new idea of not one but infinitely many universes – the multiverse. As Yanofsky says, Neil Manson, a philosopher, has called the concept of the multiverse 'the last shout of the desperate atheist'. The parallel universes are by definition unobservable, unverifiable, as 'unscientific' as any deity could be. They require instead a 'leap of faith'.

When Copernicus upturned the Solar System to put the sun at the centre, the mathematics did not work, all the planets' predicted movements were wrong. The geocentric system of Ptolemy was better. It was only when Kepler turned Copernicus's perfect circles into ellipses that the planets began to follow the mathematics.

Again, Euclid's ten axioms, upon which modern mathematics was constructed, contained within them what the French mathematician Jean-Baptiste d'Almbert called a scandal: 'the scandal of geometry'.

The fifth axiom, about parallel lines never meeting, was hard to demonstrate. It evaded deduction even by taking all the other nine axioms as true as a starting point. Only in the nineteenth century did Johann Gauss finally show that the problem with the axiom was that it could be either true or false! Two geometries in fact were needed – two contradictory ones. They were split asunder and called Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry.

When Einstein was attempting to put his ideas into mathematical language, he found it impossible to describe the curves that space makes to influence the way matter moves – which is at the heart of his notion of gravity. That is, until someone pointed him towards non-Euclidean geometry. 'To this interpretation of geometry, I attach great importance, for should I have not been acquainted with it, I never would have been able to develop the theory of relativity.'

It's a simple point, but a good one, and  often overlooked. Yanofsky's book is full of such useful pointers. There are plenty of non-fiction books that start well, posing brilliant and witty challenges, and then dribble out into repetition and platitudes. Publishers, of course, like such books as they reason (probably correctly) that as long as the book is purchased it does not matter how bad the main body of it is. But here is a book that starts badly, with a floundering look at philosophical paradoxes, and then slowly but surely finds its feet and becomes a stimulating and confident account of new thinking in science and mathematics. One might say, Noson Yanofsky warms to his theme. So, too, does the reader.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Republican Economics Twenty First Century Update (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 1

Republican Economics

Twenty First Century Update

By Bryan Blears

I wish to argue here against what I see as a political drift towards plutocracy - the rule of the cliques - and in favour of an alternative political model in which the economy is directed to serve the welfare of the public. For this purpose I borrow the term republicanism, from the Latin res publica (which literally means, to serve the public).

The word thus captures a series of egalitarian revolutions that have been a part of our history for as long as there has been leadership. Indeed, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes humans of the late Pleistocene period 'ganging up on their alphas' to ensure fair food distribution within the group. It seems that for far longer than anyone can remember, people have rebelled against their masters for a fairer and more equitable distribution of the goods of society.

However there is one period of history that exemplifies this struggle best - the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th Century. During this time, liberal writers including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine and John Locke wrote about 'natural rights', key to them being the right to private property with an emphasis on individual and economic liberty. The Freemasonry movement helped to spread these ideas to the Thirteen Colonies of the now United States, where they blossomed into a revolution against the longstanding British monarchy. Shortly after this, the people of France stormed the Bastille and declared themselves the First French Republic. They drafted a document entitled The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen', a work that was monumental in creating the modern idea of natural human rights.

The revolutions of the Enlightenment were opposed to several key principles; hereditary rule, in the form of the monarchy, and social disparity or aristocracy - economic imbalance which favoured a minority group. The feudal societies of Europe were unveiled plutocracies, societies in which a small elite group were prosperous at the expense of the public, and so, as generations had done for aeons of unrecorded history before them, the majority rebelled against the selfish and detrimental rule of the minority. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even if the monarchical system has largely been buried, there will always be new bases of power that threaten the welfare of the general public, and the resistance of this consolidation of power should be a priority for anyone with an interest in protecting their liberty and preserving the social order. At present, one of the main threats consists of the consolidation of wealth by economic entities such as corporations and the existence of economic alliances, by which I mean people with a mutual interest in their consolidation of wealth and assets. Both of these interfere with a fairer, more egalitarian distribution of wealth.

There are clear lessons to be learned from failed republican movements; movements which have sometimes failed to secure individual rights and have even resulted in the creation of new tyrannies. But the idea of an economy and state which serves the common good should not be a novel concept to political theorists of the modern world. If governments are formed and maintained for the good of each person within a society, it is nothing less than a breach of mandate to let down the people who depend upon that government to establish and preserve their economic rights. The true economic right of each person is the right to receive the fruits of the entire economical system in fair proportion.

In Das Kapital, Karl Marx wrote about placing the means of production back into the hands of the world's workers. There is no doubt that in this declaration, Marx had to some extent a republican agenda; rallying against the economic rule of a minority over the majority. In this respect, the Russian Revolution of 1917 resembled the previous revolutions of the Enlightenment which sought to reclaim economic and political power for the people.

But the left-wing ideology that emerged from the Russian Revolution was an ideology that undermined certain republican principles. Primarily, it destroyed individualism and sought to place the welfare of society as a whole above that of individual members of that society. Similarly to Napoleonic France, the production power seized from the Tsarist and Jacobin regimes was simply put to another use - nationalistic supremacy.

One only has to compare the prohibition of freedoms in both societies, and the millions of people who were forced into warfare for them to reflect that following these revolutions, workers were not freed and the ideal of 'liberty, egality, fraternity' was quickly abandoned.
In these societies, as in socialist Britain for a while, the concept of labour was promoted, even given a heroic quality. Miners continued to mine with hunched backs and blackened faces, railways continued to be laid and industrial capacity was increased - for the benefit of society perhaps, but not for the individual worker. George Orwell pointed out the hypocrisy of exemplifying labour for the good of a society at the detriment of that society's workers.

The alternative economic view presents itself in favour of individual economic liberty. This laissez-faire, free-market ideal of capitalism seeks to allow the market to flourish through less government interference: the market would regulate itself, according to proponents, by the principles of supply and demand. It was believed that if a company provided a product of inadequate quality or at excessive cost, shoppers would simply go elsewhere. This simplistic and sociologically naive concept contributed to the political drive to deregulate economies during the 1980s, a drive which continues to the present day (shrugging off the small road-bump of the collapsing financial institutions for example.)

The flaws of both of laissez-faire and socialism are already well known, even if, in the present day, we often find the exaggeration of the latter. In Britain, America and much of the rest of the developed world too, some areas of the free market (particularly those of privatised public services) have been conquered by a handful of large corporations - a state of monopoly that can cause severely detrimental effects to prices and the quality of services provided from a consumer point of view.

The problem for laissez-faire economics is that there is a point at which a corporation becomes so powerful that it can control the decisions of consumers and thus undermine the principle of competition. During the process of growth, companies gain the capital to ensure dominance of their sector of the market - earning not only economic power in the form of money to invest in advertising and in buying out the competition, but brand power and in the case of public utilities, power to control the market through necessity.

According to textbook theory, people are free agents capable of making economic decisions which the market is supposed to adhere to. But the concept of supply and demand falls apart when, in the case of public services like transport and energy, demand is a fixed constant and therefore customers have no choice but to accept the level of service and the prices that they are given. If cheaper competition arises, larger companies are able to buy out or outbid them for key contracts, and they have the economic capacity to influence policy through pressure groups and scientific research in their favour. We saw this economic coercion in the tobacco industry of the early 1900s, and it often may lie to the detriment of the public, as is the case with the use of corn syrup in foods under the guise of a 'low-fat' health craze which has swept across Britain, convincing office workers to seek foods which contain sugar instead of fat.

Another problem with a market that emphasises profit, rather than public benefit, is the wastefulness of having to rely upon demand to keep the economy running. Companies are perfectly capable of saturating the market with new inventions or produce thanks to the ease of modern manufacturing and logistics, which would cause their profits to fall.

One solution is to hold back some of their produce from the market, a tactic which was shown in the film Blood Diamond as a way for companies to keep the price of conflict diamonds high by storing them for release into the market at a later date. The other method is to create more demand. This is done by manufacturing new products, often differing only slightly from their original counterparts. The iPod was quickly remarketed into the iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle and so forth; products which in reality perform the same tasks and are diversified only in shapes, varieties and colours. This creates a demand to buy new products where in reality new products do not exist, fuelling the economy through consumption for consumption's sake. Although this may increase GDP, it is ultimately an economy based on sand; however profitable in the short term, ultimately it becomes a black hole which swallows up resources.

I think that the bubble of free-market capitalism has grown to a bursting point. An ideological principle more suited to the pioneer trading outposts, in which each person could form a prosperous small business, has now become a dangerous orthodoxy of both economists and politicians. The stark reality of that system presents itself today in stagnation and monopolisation. While economists of the early 20th century envisioned a world full of new markets and new resources, and thus promoted economic freedom as the proviso to economic growth, modern academics recognise the existence of a post-growth crisis in which resource limitations and the consolidation of economic power stand in the way of equality, progress and a fair deal.

It therefore seems as though both the system of socialism and that of laissez-faire have serious flaws, one of which is that they infringe the rights of the individual. The former infringes individual rights intentionally, for the benefit of society as a single entity, and the latter system infringes them surreptitiously - it allows non-human entities such as corporations to possess the economic capital that makes them, rather than consumers, the holders of economic market power.

The principles of a government which serves the public interest must be to prevent these two infringements of individual economic liberty. Republicanism, and the concept of personal liberty, challenges the inevitable monopolisation of an unregulated market - consumers should have the ability to choose between competitive suppliers and to possess the economic liberty to hold the companies that provide their products or service accountable.

The use of regulation in the market is not incompatible with the economic liberty that we recognise in the capability to start a business and make money. It simply asserts the responsibility of prosperous businesses to use their profits for the welfare of the public rather than, for example, to fund higher bonuses packages and dividends to support the lifestyles of a modern-day aristocracy. A policy of overt regulation of the market also guarantees the emergence of new enterprise, invention and innovation, by limiting the ability of companies to conquer the market and prevent competition.

The principle of republican economics is therefore to ensure economic freedom by placing restrictions upon economic freedom. This is not as contradictory as it sounds, as long as governments perform their function of protecting the public from the appearance and consolidation of power, a function which too many administrations today neglect in favour of letting the market do as it pleases.

Contact details:
Bryan Blears
Email: <bryanblears [at]>