A week has just raced past and it’s time to write a blog post – the 479th. The first twenty or so posts were published randomly when I thought of something to write. Only the last 457 have been published regularly on Wednesdays. However, given the average life expectancy of a male in Britain is 4225 weeks, that implies I have been writing a weekly post for slightly more than a tenth of my life expectancy. More depressing, considering the speed at which weeks are racing past me, is that I probably only have about 1000 weeks left. A thousand is a big number if you are trying to count sheep to get to sleep but quite a small number when thinking about the life of the universe [see ‘Will it all be over soon?‘ on February 2nd, 2016]. I have mixed feelings about my perception of a thousand weeks of life remaining. It seems short enough to make me pause, think about slowing down so that the weeks do not fly past so quickly and to write about it. But it is probably not short enough to induce me to make dramatic changes to my lifestyle. Perhaps the most likely effect will be to increase my awareness of the need to make time for the important things in work and life. At work that probably means being more focussed on the big picture while in life it suggests focussing on the atelic activities, i.e. those pursued for their own sake, such as our weekly walk up Moel Famau.
‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019]. However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely. I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place. I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020]. The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016]. Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics. However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour. Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.
Reference: Erwin Schrodinger, What is life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Image: ‘Sunflower and dog worship’ by Stanley Spencer, 1937 @ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-13789029
“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite. Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs. I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”
These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it. So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances. Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.
This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community. Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge. For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence. This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.
More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge. Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information. Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest. Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge. This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.