Is Big Business Finding a Soul?

Changing times demand changing leadership principles. The post Is Big Business Finding a Soul? appeared first on ORBITER.

Last week, in Brazil, I had the opportunity to address corporate leaders from some of the most prominent companies in the world, from Google and Facebook to Audi and Pepsi. The topic, broadly speaking, was “What Is Leadership in the Twenty-First Century?” These were mostly (but not exclusively) tech companies, and my presentation revolved around the impact of technology in modern society, its promises and existential threats.

The usual model for a business, at least from the outside, can be simplified as thus: The product, or products, must be sold at the most profitable margin possible. This requires an efficient and creative staff, a lean production line, a good distribution center, an appealing advertisement platform, and, of course, a captive consumer. It is quite a challenge for any company to excel in all of these categories.

To improve profits, companies tend to cut down expenses in production, use cheaper materials, low-paid jobs, bad compensation packages (the recent complaints from Amazon warehouse workers come to mind, a cheaper workplace, and other even less appetizing options. Companies that focus on the outdoors, like oil and gas, timber, mining, or large farms, might cut costs by ignoring waste production, not worrying or cleaning after air and water pollution and general environmental degradation. Pharmaceutical companies may charge absurd prices for some of their drugs in complete disregard to their mission to alleviate human suffering.

As I had a captive audience, I stressed that this age of corporate moral disregard should come to an end. I saw a few heads bobbing. We can see signs that things are changing, even if slower than most of us would like. I repeated:

The age of corporate moral disregard is coming to an end.

Case in point, visit, for example, Chevron’s website. You will quickly notice that most of the opening page centers around headlines like “Creating prosperity,” including a photo of a woman working on her solar panel in what appears to be a third-world country. Their 2018 report on “Corporate Responsibility” says things like this: “Chevron supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to deliver value for global societies.” Further down, “Protecting the environment is at the core of the Chevron Way.” We see pictures of wind farms too. Corporate responsibility is their central message.

Other companies say the same. Go to Shell’s website to find this very promising statement on the main page: “Shell is a big company that supplies around 3% of the energy the world uses. We want to play our part and contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. Working towards our Net Carbon Footprint ambition is how we plan to do this.”

Unless hypocrisy can go unnoticed forever, we sense that something is happening. The message is changing. And finally, I believe, for the better. Corporations are beginning to understand that, at the end of their production, manufacturing, and distribution chain is a human being—just like the ones who are working for them. They are beginning to wake up to the fact that every company needs not only a code of conduct and a mission statement, but also a soul. It is the corporate soul that speaks to the consumer, who will scrutinize how the company’s values and actions align with his/her own, and now more than ever with such easy access to news and data from so many sources. Smart businesses know that to be successful they must make the consumer into their ally, their partner; they know that the chain of production and the act of buying form one big whole, like the mythic Ouroboros—the snake that eats its tail and closes itself in a circle.

They know that the secret is to create brand allegiance.

And how’s that going to happen? Well, the examples I gave above and many others point to the obvious fact that as society becomes increasingly aware of the existential risks from global warming and environmental degradation, the companies of the future—the ones that will have a future—need to restructure their message around the search for low carbon emissions and low overall environmental impact.

21st Century values

They must respect their employees and their clients. They must strive to align their business practices with 21st Century values, where consumers, especially younger ones, are more attuned to the impact companies have on the world.

More than twenty-three centuries ago, Plato elaborated a pedagogical plan for future leaders in his book The Republic. His goal was to educate the philosopher-kings, leaders who had a broad intellectual, physical, and moral base to be the mentors and role models of the communities they served. Even if Plato’s strategy didn’t quite work out at his time (it did to a point, as his pupil Aristotle mentored none other than Alexander the Great), it could be easily bootstrapped from political leadership to the new leadership in the corporate world.

What kind of human being do you want to see at the helm of a company you buy products from? What does the company stand for in the world? What are its values? We live in an age where major corporate leaders have become celebrities—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. Do their companies or brands reflect your values? Are their practices ethically aligned with yours?

As long as there are choices in the marketplace, consumers have much more power than they believe. If corporations embrace values that resonate with those of a growing number of consumers worried about the future of our species in a highly stressed world, they will definitely be ahead of the game.

And it can’t be only lip service. It’s actions that count here, not words.


The post Is Big Business Finding a Soul? appeared first on ORBITER.

Tangible Pervasiveness

Matter can indeed sprout out of nothingness, causing the universe to expand. The post Tangible Pervasiveness appeared first on ORBITER.

“Nothing” is one of those words that inspire all sorts of musings. Not, of course, in the sense used to answer questions like “What’ve you been up to?” But the nothing nothing—the void, total emptiness. Is there such a thing? Or is Nothing—let’s use a capital “N” to characterize it—just an idea, a concept we invented to help us organize the way we see the world?

In the real sense of the word, this is a metaphysical question—the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of things, including being, space, time, cause, etc. But then, it is also a very physical question, concerning the stuff that exists in the universe.

There is a sense where Nothing can only be conceived in a materialistic worldview: “Nothing” would mean the absence of matter, the no-stuff parts of reality. The Greeks were into it—at least the Atomists Leucippus and Democritus, and, later, Epicurus. To them, all that existed was Atoms and the Void, bits of matter moving about in perfectly empty space, i.e., Nothing. So it had to be a materialistic worldview with an added property, that matter was made of tiny bits of stuff, perfectly separated and independent from one another. There were no forces between them, they just collided and stuck to one another upon touching.

Aristotle would have none of it. He conceived reality as never having any emptiness. Space was filled up with “ether,” the fifth essence. So, Aristotle added a strange kind of matter to the mix, a matter that had different properties from the usual kinds of matter we see. This idea, with variations, would come in and out of fashion throughout the centuries, as physicists grappled with the bizarre twists reality threw at them.

Religions complicate the conversation, especially the ones that presuppose omnipresence, that the divine essence is everywhere at once. So even if matter may be discrete and there is void in between, there is no emptiness in a strict sense, as everything is pervaded by some intangible divinity. But I’ll leave this sort of intangible pervasiveness out of our conversation today. Our focus is tangible pervasiveness.

In the 17th century, Newton went back full force to the Atomistic worldview, rejecting the notion that space was filled with some kind of material. In particular, he attacked Descartes’ idea of a plenum, somewhat similar to that of Aristotle, that some material filled all of space. The key difference between Descartes and Aristotle was that for Descartes this stuff acted on normal matter, creating, for example, vortices that were responsible for the planetary orbits about the sun. Newton, using his brand new theory of gravity, showed that any kind of stuff out there capable of moving moons and planets about would cause enough friction to have them all spiral down to the center of their orbits. No game.

Newton was missing something

But Newton knew something was missing in his theory. When he proposed that any two masses attracted one another, the assumption was that they did so instantaneously. The sun tugged on the Earth (and the Earth on the sun) with a mysterious force that acted at a distance. What caused it, Newton wouldn’t try to answer: “I feign no hypotheses,” he wrote. A clever choice. Physics is about the how and not the why of things. It describes what we can see of reality and, so long as the description explains the data, we are good. Why masses attract one another the way they do is not, it was decided, a scientific question.

Light, to Newton, was made of tiny corpuscles, little atoms. Using this idea, he explained many of the properties of light. But then, there were others that he couldn’t explain, or did so convolutedly. The alternative that gained impetus during the nineteenth century was that light was a wave. Light diffracts when passing through a small aperture or across an edge, and refracts when moving from one medium (say, air) to another (water). But if light was a wave, it needed a medium to support it, just like water waves move in water and sound waves in air.

The solution was the “luminiferous ether,” an imponderable plenum whose sole purpose was to allow for light to move from point A to B. A weird medium it had to be, echoing Aristotle a bit: weightless, transparent (so we could see stars), offering no friction to matter (to avoid Descartes’ issues), and very rigid (to allow for fast wave propagation). In short, a pretty magical plenum.

The alternative, light propagating on empty space, was unthinkable, unacceptable, deeply counter-intuitive. For about fifty years, the ether ruled. But experiments searching for it came back empty-handed. Finally, in 1905, Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity where he demonstrated that the ether wasn’t needed: light, mysteriously, does travel in empty space. So, no ether.

Einstein and the vacuum

But then, Einstein himself confused the issue when he proposed, in 1917, that the whole of space is filled with something called a “cosmological constant.” This he did out of desperation, after he found out that his equations predicted an unstable universe that would collapse upon itself. This extra term is understood as an energy of the “vacuum,” of empty space itself. So, in a sense, the ether was back, in new clothes.

How can empty space have energy? Well, this goes back to Newton and his mysterious action-at-a-distance. In the nineteenth century, physicists came up with the concept of a field, the idea that the space around the source of a force—say, a mass that attracts other masses gravitationally, or an electric charge that attracts or repels other electric charges—is actually filled with a field that has energy and affects other masses and electric bodies. The field is how other masses and charges “know” there is a mass or charge somewhere out there. Within this classical view of the world, all of space has some field in it, even if the sources are very, very far away. It may be weak and negligible, but it isn’t zero.

Things get even more interesting when you add ideas from quantum physics. In this case, even if you could imagine a completely empty space, devoid of any sources of gravitational or electric force, there would still be a leftover energy, the “zero point energy,” the energy of nothingness. How come? Well, according to quantum theory, there is a fundamental uncertainty in nature, an uncertainty that affects the values of physical quantities such as distance, momentum, energy, and time. Every measurement of these quantities fluctuates about the mean, even if a system has zero energy.

Something from nothing

Now, combine these fluctuations in energy with Einstein’s idea that energy and mass are interconvertible (with some caveats we don’t need to worry about), the famous E=mc2 formula. Then, these small fluctuations of energy could produce pairs of particles that would bubble out of the vacuum, or empty space: yup, matter sprouting out of quantum nothingness. The best part is that we know this is right: empty space can actually produce attractive forces between electric plates, an effect known as the Casimir Effect.

The big question is whether something like this is responsible for the mysterious accelerated expansion of the whole universe. We know it’s happening, and we have called the culprit “dark energy.” The best candidates right now are Einstein’s cosmological constant, the energy of the vacuum somehow dialed to have just the right value to match observations, or a strange quantum field that pervades all of space, called, not surprisingly, quintessence, echoing Aristotle’s plenum.

In its turbulent existence over the past 25 centuries (or more), it seems that Nothingness is now relegated to a mere metaphysical concept, incompatible with physical reality. Space does appear to be filled with stuff, stuff that determines the fate of the universe itself.


The post Tangible Pervasiveness appeared first on ORBITER.

Mind vs. Matter

If the materialistic view alone can't explain the mind, then what?

As the title of this essay implies, mind and matter are concepts that have, at least historically and to many people, collided over the ages. The confusion remains—and I do not presume, in this essay, to provide an answer. But given the very essential nature of the topic—after all, we are made of matter and somehow have minds—how can one avoid its fascination?

Let's start with the materialist view. The starting point is very simple: everything that exists in the world and that we can see and measure with our tools—the data of our sensorial connection with reality—is made of material stuff. Period. This includes the stones we see with our eyes or pick up with our hands, the galaxies receding from one another we see with our telescopes, the elementary particles we probe with our accelerators. So far so good.

But what about feelings, subjective manifestations of our consciousness, such as love or the sensation of seeing blue? No worries there for the materialists. They don't claim to understand consciousness or how the mind works, but they do claim it's a matter of time. What else is there, anyway? Echoing the Greek Epicureans of twenty-three centuries ago, it's all atoms moving in the void (now translated into quantum fields moving in spacetime), combining into the material structures of the world, including sensations, feelings, etc. Yes, the materialists would argue, the human brain is profoundly complex in its behavior. But this complexity only temporarily precludes us from understanding it. No need to invoke anything else in an attempt to explain it. Our current blindness will dissipate in due time.

This is clearly a statement based on the justified confidence we have in the power of science to make sense of the world. We've done wonders so far, and the mind's turn will come.

But is there a problem with this materialistic view when we move from tangible stuff to the mind? A part of me, trained in the rigors of theoretical physics, fights against it. What else could there be? Isn't the brain a bunch of neurons connected by synapses bathed in flowing neurotransmitters? On the other hand, another part of me, open to the fact that we understand so little of reality and that there is (thankfully!) so much mystery surrounding us, is eager for something new. But what?

Going beyond the materialistic view presents a whole set of issues. Should one bring back Cartesian dualism, presenting some kind of soul as being as real as atoms? Sounds very difficult, especially within Descartes' view that the soul was a different kind of stuff, immaterial, not filling space as normal stuff does. A supernatural explanation to the problem of consciousness is not an explanation, at least not from a scientific perspective. We feel, given what we have been able to describe of the world, that we can do better.

Ontological descriptions of reality

Scientists base their description of reality on what philosophers call ontology—the fundamental players that, in a sense, are the basic building blocks of everything that exists. The Greek Atomists proposed atoms and the void, and now we think of interacting quantum fields as the fundamental entities of reality. Fields have physical properties, or attributes, such as their energy and momentum, their spin (a kind of implicit rotation), and their interactions with themselves and other fields. Their behavior is restricted by fundamental laws of nature, empirically discovered over hundreds of years of experimentation: energy-momentum is conserved, electric charge is conserved, spin is conserved. Particles like the electron, or the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, are excitations of their respective fields, subatomic bundles of energy that move in space and time. Zoom into the workings of the brain at the most fundamental levels, and we would only see fields interacting with one another.

To a growing number of scientists and philosophers, this just can't be the whole story. There is a current resurgence of an old idea called panpsychism, whereby mind is pervasive in the universe. A recent book by philosopher Philip Goff, from Durham University in the UK, explores this view in detail: Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I'm enjoying reading it so much that I want to devote a whole essay to it. But for today, I just want to highlight Goff's central idea. (The reader may enjoy listening to Goff's conversation with physicist Sean Carroll in this podcast, where the materialistic and panpsychic views clash, collegially.)

Panpsychism's appealing beauty

In decreasing degrees, mind exists as a fundamental property of reality in humans, birds, rocks, and electrons. Panpsychism proposes a new ontology, beyond that of the strictly materialistic view, adding a new player, consciousness. So, experience is pervasive, even in things that are not “alive." Sounds crazy, of course, given that we consider experience implicitly as a property of things that are alive. But there is an appealing beauty to it, a sort of unifying principle that brings together all that exists: mind is everywhere and in everything. Now, panpsychism is not a revival of Cartesian dualism: consciousness as a fundamental entity of reality is not supernatural. It's a natural phenomenon, with its own laws. The more complex the material entity, the more complex its manifestation of consciousness.

The hard thing here is to pin down where consciousness, as a fundamental part of physical reality, resides. Or maybe this is the wrong question, predicated by our materialistic worldview. Consciousness is not matter, but it is manifested through it. Is it, perhaps, a bit like life? We can't quite pin down what life is, although we are really good at describing what it does and how it does it.

The jump from nonliving to living matter remains an open question. The expression of consciousness depends on the structure that upholds it (electron, rock, frog, person), but it is a qualitative phenomenon that can't be pinned down in a materialistic description of the world. The crux of the problem, then, seems to be whether the quantitative can express the qualitative, or whether something new is needed to expand our view of reality.

To panpsychists, there is no other way out but to embrace the latter and broaden our worldview. They may have a point.


The post Mind vs. Matter appeared first on ORBITER.

Who—or What—Caused the First Cause?

Archetypes of creation and the origin of all things.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was right on when he proclaimed that the hardest question we can ask is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The German philosopher knew that human thinking unfolds in an endless chain of causation and that, by going back and asking “But what caused this?”, we inexorably hit the wall of walls, the First Cause—the cause that caused everything else without itself being caused.

Aristotle, who constructed a machine-like cosmos with nested gyrating spheres like a set of Russian dolls, conjectured the existence of a sort of deity, the Unmoved Mover, an entity capable of imparting motion while it itself did not move. So, even the pragmatic Aristotle had to resort to a supernatural cause to deal with the First Cause challenge. The outer sphere would later be known as the Primum Mobile, the sphere that impinged motion from the outside in. Outside, in Medieval cosmology, was the realm of God and the elect.

But the age-old question continues to trip us all: What is the cause that caused everything else?

This is a question where science and religion are profoundly enmeshed, if not in practice at least historically. After all, most religious traditions, past and present, have a narrative that tells of the origins of all things, a myth of creation. These narratives are sacred, as they describe the origin of all things through the action of a deity or deities, or through some process that defies the workings of nature. To bypass Leibniz’ question, creation myths make use of an Absolute Being, a cause that lies outside the normal workings of the world, outside space and time, outside the chain of causation that defines our material existence.

It makes sense. In pre-scientific times, how else would one account for the existence of the world? To boot, creation myths serve a social purpose, establishing the power hierarchy that holds the tribal morals together, the value system that defines their shared creed. When God first appears in Genesis 1, it is clear to the reader that he/she/it is the Creator, omniscient and omnipresent, not of this world but somehow in this world; a pervasive, immanent presence, that makes itself felt in mysterious ways.

Many creation narratives

Different religious cultures would have different narratives of creation, most of them with supernatural gods responsible for the creative act, marking the beginning of time itself. Such narratives make use of a linear time, with a beginning at some point in the past. Some traditions—for example, the Maoris of New Zealand—suggest that the world came to be on its own, without the influence of an active deity: it appeared, out of nothing, from an ineffable urge to exist. Others, notably from China and India, would report that in the beginning there was an egg, floating in nothingness, and that the egg cracked the world and its forms came to be from the different parts of the egg.

Yet in other creation narratives, as in a Taoist myth from before 200 BCE, the cosmos emerges on its own, as order coalesces from its dynamic interplay with chaos. Most creation myths belong to this category, having a beginning in time, either from the action of a deity or deities, out of nothing, or from chaos. These are the first three archetypes of creation.

But not all creation stories go like this. Some make use of either a circular time or of timelessness. The Hindu myth of the dancing Shiva uses the god’s choreography to illustrate cycles of creation and destruction, as the cosmos emerges and collapses endlessly in the infinity of time. And the Jains, also of India, do away with creation altogether, suggesting that time has no beginning or end. These cyclic-time or no-time narratives complete the five archetypes of creation.

In scientific times, the question of the origin of all things has returned full force, under research in modern cosmology. Most of the mathematical formalism to deal with this question was developed during the twentieth century, with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The central idea is that matter tells space how to bend and thus, if we know—or can effectively model—the matter that exists in space, we can solve the equations for its geometry and, potentially, for the origin and fate of the cosmos itself.

Desktop universes

Before there was much data on how the universe and the matter in it behaves, physicists used the machinery of Einstein’s theory and what little was known of the distribution of matter in the cosmos to devise what I like to call “desktop universes”—cosmological models that attempt to say something about the origin and evolution of the universe as a whole.

Remarkably, all five archetypes of creation reappeared, now under a scientific guise. In 1917, Einstein himself initially proposed a static universe, where time was not present at the cosmic level. In 1922, Russia’s Alexander Friedmann proposed different possible solutions to the cosmic equations where time did play a role, resulting in two essential cases: a universe with a beginning in the distant past followed by expansion, and a “phoenix universe,” where origin and expansion of space would be followed by contraction and implosion in a presumably endless cycle.

When Hubble discovered the cosmic expansion, with galaxies receding from one another with speeds that grow with their relative distance, his data forced cosmologists to reassess their models. In the 1940s, two rival models emerged: one, the Steady State model, proposed that time has no beginning or end, and that the thin-out caused by expansion was compensated by the creation of more matter to keep appearances the same—a timeless universe. The other, the Big Bang model, suggested that matter was compressed to huge temperatures and densities at earlier times and that it cooled off and reorganized itself into different structures as space expanded.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s a model called the Mixmaster Universe suggested that as we approach the origin of time, space behaves chaotically, with different dimensions growing at different rates. The ordered universe as we know it emerged from this initial chaotic state—another recurring archetype of creation.

We now know that the Big Bang model describes extremely well what we can observe of the universe, once we include not just ordinary matter but two other ingredients, dark matter and dark energy, with physical properties that mostly remain unclear. An obvious consequence of the Big Bang model is that, as we go back to very early times, the physics changes and we must impose corrections to Einstein’s general theory of relativity and to the matter content. Here, models making use of the bizarre properties of quantum physics impose drastic changes to the “beginning.”

A universe out of nothing?

The pioneering idea is credited to Edward Tryon’s universe out of nothing, refined later by Stephen Hawking and James Hartle and, in different versions, by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin. With variations, the essential idea is that the universe could emerge into existence from an initial static state of zero energy due to a random quantum fluctuation, the “out of nothing” creation archetype.

It goes without saying that such analogies should be taken with a grain of salt: the notion of an archetype is contextual—a germ of an idea dressed in different clothes in different contexts. Even so, we seem to be limited to conceiving of the origin of all things in only a small number of ways. Current scientific versions of cosmic origins revisit some of the archetypes, including bounce cosmology models where the universe may go through many (infinitely many may not be a possibility) cycles of expansion and contraction. There are many such bounce models currently being discussed.

Scientific narratives of creation remain unable to make sense of the First Cause. This is due to the very nature of science, which calls for a conceptual framework to set the stage for models to exist. Before we talk about bounce models or quantum fluctuations, we need to describe space, time, energy, matter, what laws hold them together and how we can apply them within the concept of time.

To say that we have solved the question of the First Cause—using either an oversimplified model of quantum cosmology or a highly hypothetical one that makes use of extra spatial dimensions or separations between our physical dimensions and others—is not just confusing to many, but incorrect.

Despite remarkable progress in our understanding of the physical universe and its 13.8-billion-year-old history, when it comes to “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, we remain as stuck as Leibniz.


The post Who—or What—Caused the First Cause? appeared first on ORBITER.

My visits to majestic Notre Dame made me feel connected to something bigger than we are.

The post Touching the Infinite appeared first on ORBITER.