The Lie That Is Art

21 December, 2009

Philosophers have often argued that art is useful because it speaks to an underlying truth. Data can lead to Knowledge which can lead to Understanding – art can help us get there. In his early work Friedrich Nietzsche spoke against this view. Influenced by Schopenhauer (and through him, the Buddhist tradition) he conceived of the world as being a bleak and terrible place. True understanding of this world leads to the realisation that all is suffering, and unlike the Buddhists, Nietzsche didn’t think that the way out was by following the Eightfold path. Instead he turned to the ancient art of the Athenian Playwrights.

Tragedy was an art form much admired in Athens. Aristotle thought it brought catharsis to the people to see such horrors and pathos on the stage. Nietzsche thought that the truth was much more horrible than what was in the Tragedies however. Like a Cthulhic nightmare, reality would drive us mad, but if we glimpsed the real through the safe eyes of art then we can grow as people, cocooned from insanity. By adding plot, character, and most of all reasons for the actions in the plays, the writers give us an easy way in to the chaos that lies behind our lives. We add meaning, but that meaning is a lie, and only exists to help make the truth palatable. By trying to find any other truth than this horror, art is making a mistake and showing yet more lies, without the sobering knowledge of the futility of life behind it. Nietzsche could be a bit of a downer. He also changed his views on art several times, and repudiated the above ideas in his later works.

The concept of the real world being a truly mind altering place was taken up by H.P. Lovecraft and his successors who wrote the Cthulhu mythos. During the early 20th century discoveries were being made that shattered any illusion that Mankind was at the centre of the universe. In the Cthulhu mythos characters realise their unimportance in the grand scheme of things. They are, in effect,  put in a total-perspective-vortex and their feeble simian minds find they cannot cope with the truth. If only they had looked at the truth through the lie of art! How could they be expected to cope with this: our collective existence is a meaningless accident and our time on this world is finite.

And yet, that truth seems rather banal these days. Whatever non-euclidean geometry drove Lovecraftian heroes to the brink of insanity just doesn’t seem as scary today. Has art finally led us to a place where we are comfortable with the meaningless of existence? And how do we tell which part of art is the terrifying truth, and which the comforting lie?


Why have you forsaken us?

20 December, 2009

When the Babylonians and Medes destroyed Nineveh they heralded the end of the Assyrian Empire. Splitting its provinces between them they inherited a huge swathe of land across the Middle East. The Babylonians were in no doubt as to why the mighty Empire had fallen. The Assyrian King Sennarcherib had destroyed the city of Babylon to remove any doubt as to where the Gods favour lay. Just as the Romans looked back to the Greeks with an admiration for their culture, so too had the Assyrians looked to the Babylonian city states as the source of their religion. This gave the Babylonians too much power in Sennacherib’s eyes, and so he razed the city and enacted the great rituals and festivals in the heartlands of Assyria. His son rebuilt Babylon and restored the Gods to their rightful place, but this was not enough it seemed, and when the Empire collapsed the blame was squarely on the defilers of the Gods, Sennacherib.

It’s easy to invoke the Gods when you are on the winning side, but what happens when those same Gods don’t defend you? The Assyrians had already broken the Kingdom of Israel and deported much of the ruling population. When the Babylonians inherited the Empire they continued the practice of moving troublesome populations around. Most famously the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II tore down the Temple in Jerusalem, installed a governor to look after the Kingdom of Judah and brought its leaders, including the young King, to Babylon where they would remain in exile for decades. How did the people of Judah reconcile this catastrophic event with their all powerful god, Yahweh, who was supposed to look after them? Some no doubt turned to other Gods who would be seen as more powerful, others realised that it couldn’t be Yahweh that was at fault, so it must be the people themselves who were to blame. By not being pious enough, by not performing the correct rituals, by not being good enough people, these were the reasons that Yahweh had turned from Judah – more than this, Yahweh himself had caused the Exile to show his anger just as he had hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in order to show his power in the story of Exodus. Great Empires were at the beck and call of Yahweh, but that was no guarantee that the people of Judah would be safe.

The prophets of this period (Jeremiah and Ezekiel) were not the first to come up with this sort of explanation. Half a millennium before Nebuchadnezzar II brought destruction to Judah, his namesake, Nebuchadnezzar I ruled in Babylon. One of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest victories was recovering the cult statue of Marduk from the Elamites who had plundered it decades before. A prophecy was written around the time of Nebuchadnezzar stating that a good king would arise and destroy the cities of Elam, bring back the statue and make the land whole and good. The prophecy talks of the three times that the statue of Marduk had been stolen by invading armies. In each case it does not describe the plundering as something that Marduk didn’t want – after all how could that be since he was the supreme God? When the Hittites captured Marduk around 1600 BCE it was described in the prophecy as a journey to the lands of Hatti in order to establish trade and make the lands known to the Babylonians. After 24 years he returned in the hands of a Babylonian King. When the Assyrians stole the statue around 1200 BCE it is described in the prophecy as Marduk travelling north to bless the people of Assur.

His final journey, to Elam (around 1150 BCE), is not described so positively in the prophecy. Marduk declares that he has decided to abandon Babylon, that he has sent the other Gods away and no sacrifices will be enough to lure them back. The land is cursed, and only the rise of the good king will return happiness to Babylon. Unlike the books in the Hebrew Bible which go to great pains to explain why Yahweh abandoned them, there is no such explanation in the prophecy of Marduk. He simply asserts that he will go, and so he does.

“I am Marduk, the great Lord. I went to the land of Elam – all the Gods went with me – I myself commanded it. The offering of the temple I myself withheld. People’s corpses block the gates. A brother eats his own brother. Evil lies across the land.”

“A King of Babylon will arise: he will restore the wondrous temple. He will take my hand and bring me to my city Babylon forever. Brother will love his brother. The marketplace will thrive. He will keep evil in line.”

It is up to Nebuchadnezzar to bring back their God, and as in all good prophecies, he does just that.


14 December, 2009

Around four and a half thousand years ago the warrior king Sargon established an Empire amongst the city states of southern Mesopotamia. His grandson, Naram-Sin, expanded the Empire to the north, defeated rebelling cities and was declared a God by the people. As a God, Naram-Sin was allowed to sport some fancy horns which can be seen in the image on the right. Naram-Sin ruled at the height of the Akkadian Empire. It quickly collapsed in his successors reigns but the idea of the Empire resonated for centuries. The language that it spread was the lingua franca of the ancient world for centuries afterwards, only finally dying out two and half thousand years later. When people remembered the Empire they also remembered its two most famous Kings, Sargon and Naram-Sin. One they associated with its meteoric rise, the other with its collapse. Naram-Sin became a literary figure more than a historical one. An ancient story tells of how Naram-Sin defied the Gods, was defeated in battle, realised the error of his ways and changed for the better.

At the end of the tale there is a message for the reader. It says that if you are a wise King you should heed the advice of the story, those who don’t will suffer the wrath of the Gods. It also reminds the ruler to pass on their knowledge, as this story does. Those who don’t will doom future generations. An example of just such a king is given at the start of the story.

Enmerkar was King of Uruk, but he disappeared. Diviners had told him of the Gods’ will, but he disregarded their advice, whatever that was. A council of Gods cursed him, Shamash in particular demanded harsh penalties on Enmerkar and his descendants. His ghost would not receive prayers, and his memory would not be preserved. Even his offence would not be known. So it happened, and Naram-Sin bemoaned the fact that Enmerkar left no record of what he had done wrong, other than to disregard the diviners. This was a lesson to all Kings – make a record of your triumphs and mistakes so that others can learn from you.

This story was copied down many times by scribes who no doubt liked the moral that writing was good for a King (it kept the scribes employed too). It is somewhat ironic that Enmerkar, a King about whom we know nothing, indeed his point in the story is that we know nothing about him, nonetheless still lives on as a character, a warning to others. His name is now immortalised by the nameless scribes of Naram-Sin. Of the billions of humans who have ever lived, Enmerker the Unknown, by dint of having his name recorded, may well be one of the more famous.

In The Cave

27 November, 2009

There is a cave where people are tied in chains. Their heads are fixed, staring at the back wall, where images appear. There is a fire behind them and in front of the fire pass a series of objects which cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The inhabitants of the cave have lived here all their lives and to them the shadows are all they know of reality. Indeed, were someone to take one of these people and release them from their chains, how would they even comprehend the true nature of what they saw when they were shown the fire, and the shapes that cast the shadows?

The cave is a metaphor that was used by Plato to describe our understanding of the world. For Plato the real world was made up of Forms, ideal versions of objects. He said that philosophers could break away from the chains and, after being disoriented by the truth, understand the way things really are. Once understanding was attained it was incumbent on the philosopher to bring his wisdom back to the people who were still convinced that the shadows were the real world. Aristotle considered the pursuit of philosophical knowledge to be the ultimate happiness. (Spinoza considered it highly ethical too, though perhaps it is not surprising that many philosophers consider their work to be of high moral/social/ethical value…) So how do we break the chains and join Plato in delivering good council to the world, and join Aristotle in his happiness?

While Plato’s Forms have fallen out of favour his metaphor of the cave still applies. We do not see the real world, we live in the virtual reality that is our minds. Our vision is put together not just from photons hitting light receptors in our eyes, but by complex algorithms in our brains that recognise faces, and fill in the blanks in our blind spots. But more than this there are places that our regular senses cannot probe. By my eyes alone I cannot determine the chemical composition of the Sun, or see a virus. Atoms are made of a dense centre and a strange cloud of probabilities and electric charge, all of which are hidden to me, instead I see the shadows on the cave wall.

Fortunately we have some ways of breaking the chains. The development of glass lenses led to the first telescopes being used in the 16th century. By using the properties of the lens to magnify his vision Galileo was able to see the phases of Venus and so prove the Heliocentric model of our solar system. He was also able to see four moons orbiting Jupiter, other worlds that no human before could ever have known.

The glass lens also led to the microscope and visions of tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye. Robert Hooke wrote a best seller published in 1665, which contained his drawings of objects seen through his microscope, including a louse, a fly’s eye, and plant fibres which contained what he called ‘cells’. The Dutch scientist Leeuwenhoek working around the same time was the first to discover micro-organisms and single celled creatures.

In 1800, during some work testing filters to observe sunspots, the astronomer William Herschel placed his thermometer beyond the red end of a rainbow produced by a prism. He was trying to establish the ambient temperature of the room but noticed that even though he could see no light, there was extra heat produced outside of the rainbow. He had discovered infrared light, unseen to human eyes, but detectable by human instruments.

In 1801, Johann Ritter discovered that the light at the other end of the spectrum, again beyond our ability to see, was especially good at darkening silver salts. This was the first detection of ultraviolet light. Within a hundred years the spectrum from X-rays to Radio waves was being studied and as astounding and unsettling as these ideas were, they were brought back to the cave and incorporated into our idea of how the world works. We cannot see them, but we see their effects.

Our instruments can guide us out of the cave, but so too can the stories and results of others who have looked at the fire itself. If you have never looked through a telescope at Saturn, or seen the moons of Jupiter then I would recommend it. But the instruments to see even further can be expensive or rare and not everyone can directly experience the new visions that scientists find every day. Nor could we lay people instantly understand the results of say, the Large Hadron Collider just by looking at the computers in Geneva. In these cases we wait for the natural philosophers to return from looking at reality, confusing at that reality may be, and try to understand through metaphor what we can never see ourselves.

Less than a Virus

25 October, 2009

prion01We animals are susceptible to a bewildering array of infections. On the largest scale we can be infested by other animals. Worms, lice and other parasites can rather literally get under our skin and cause great harm. Smaller than the animals are bacterial infections. Single celled organisms that reproduce far more rapidly than our own cells, bacteria are often controlled by killing them with antibiotics, exploding their cell walls and leaving the remnants to be cleaned away by our immune system. Smaller again than bacteria are viruses. Not even truly alive, viruses are strands of DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein sheath. Unable to reproduce by themselves if left in the open they will often degrade into something that is harmless. But put them near one of our cells that they can attach onto and something else happens. They invade the host cell, often pulled in by the cell itself which sees the virus as something useful. Inside the cell the complex apparatus goes to work and ends up creating more of the virus, reproducing it as if it were part of the cell. Some viruses will then be pushed out of the cell which continues making more of the virus, in other cases the cell simply fills up with virus particles and explodes releasing the virus to continue infecting neighbouring cells.

Each of these three type of infection can be bad enough, but there is a fourth type the we have only begun to really understand since the 1980s. Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare inheritable disease that attacks the brain and is always fatal. It seems that a particular mutation can cause the malformed creation of prions, and these malformed prions cause damage to the brain. We all have prions in our brains, a protein called PrPC sits at the surface of our nerve cells and is believed to help with signalling or transmembrane transport. Those who have the defective gene for creating this protein end up with CJD instead. But this disease is not just inherited, it can be passed on as well. In Papua New Guinea people who took part in elaborate funeral rituals which included eating the brain of the deceased contracted a disease called Kuru which was strikingly similar to CJD. Experiments revealed that by injecting the malformed protein (PrPS) into an animal, the animal would develop a similar disease. So now an inheritable disorder was also caused by an infectious agent.

Comparisons of PrPC (the healthy protein we all have) and PrPS revealed something startling. There was no difference in the amino acid chain that made up these proteins, they were identical in makeup, but different in the way they folded. Proteins are made up of long strings of amino acids which fold into three-dimensional shapes, and these shapes determine their properties. By folding in a different way the PrPS becomes lethal. It also affects normal PrPC – for some reason the PrPC reforms itself into PrPS when it comes into contact with the PrPS. So by eating the brain of someone who has PrPS, or by having surgical instruments that have the PrPS on it stuck into you, you may end up having your normal proteins changed into something deadly.

In the UK in the 1980s, cattle were being destroyed to prevent the spread of BSE, another prion disease. In the 1990s a small number of people died of vCJD (a CJD variant) which was identified as having come from BSE infected beef. The ten people who died from vCJD were all very young (average age of 27) compared to classical CJD where the average age of onset is 65. This leads to the thought – what is the incubation period for vCJD? And how variable is it? In a worst case scenario, the people who have already died from vCJD represent an outlying anomaly and the full force of the disease has yet to reveal itself. The average length of time for CJD to express itself after someone is infected by contaminated surgical instruments is 15 years. It has been more than 15 years since the BSE was removed from the vast majority of british beef and the rate of vCJD has not spiked so we may be looking at a best case scenario where only a few hundred die of this disease.

In any case, proteins are not susceptible to our normal methods of sterilising (radiation and heat do not ‘kill’ them since they are not alive anyway) so unless we increase our understanding of prions we face a fatal disease, already within a number of people, with no hope of a cure.  Doctor’s advice: don’t go eating anyone’s brain. At least it wont spread that way.

Medical Ethics

23 October, 2009

medical-sharps-300x300Often in life we are faced with problems that we cannot solve ourselves. In many cases we can go to specialists who will be more able to analyse the problem and give us a solution. When your car breaks down and you take it to the garage to be repaired you trust that the service people know what they are doing, although you may get a second opinion. The same with getting a mortgage or any other major decision. When it comes to our health the decisions we make can be literally life or death and so we would like to arm ourselves with as much information as possible. Yet some decisions on, say, whether to try a treatment or not may require more information than we can absorb in a timely manner. Risk analysis can be difficult when weighing up, say, a 99% chance of chronic pain for the rest of your life versus a treatment that has a 2% chance of giving you cancer. In most countries with a modern health service, patient consent is a something that has to be explicitly gained. Some consent forms can be daunting though, and perhaps put patients off of getting treatment simply be being so dense with information. In many cases it is difficult to say whether one choice or the other would be best, and if a trained doctor can’t tell you, then what chance do non-specialists have? Of course as autonomous individuals it seems right that we should make our own medical decisions, but this can be dangerous.

Vaccinations are without a doubt one of the greatest life savers humanity has ever produced. Some are better than others though. Flu vaccines are variable in their effectiveness since each season’s shot is based on a subset of the viruses that are out in the wild. The flu shot will protect most people (after a couple of weeks) against that subset, but not against others that may be more widespread than predicted. In addition many of the most vulnerable people cannot create the antibodies that the flu shot should allow them to generate. Herd immunity is the best protection for the elderly, that is, if everyone was to get the flu shot there would be less flu going around and less of a chance for any individual to catch it. Most countries deem the expense of giving everyone the flu shot every year to be too high compared to the benefits of reduced mortality. This may be the sensible choice, but it is arguable.

Other diseases are much more troublesome. The measles vaccine is far more effective and only in rare cases will someone not get immunity from taking the vaccine. But such people exist, they take the vaccine, fail to develop immunity and don’t get measles simply because there isn’t that much of the disease around since everyone else took the shot. But what about when people opt out? By not getting the vaccine and allowing yourself (more likely your child) to get the disease you are increasing the chance of those non-immune people getting the disease as well. Even though they did all that could be done to prevent it, by quirk of fate, poor genetics, they get no help from the vaccine, and no help from herd immunity. Should vaccines therefore be mandatory? Should this medical decision be taken out of our hands?

Broad powers are granted to medical staff in the cases of outbreaks of especially dangerous diseases. Indeed we would probably not want someone to make their own medical decisions if they had been infected with Ebola and wanted to leave the isolation unit. It is not all or nothing, and an accommodation must be reached between, for example, the Human Right of Vaccination (as described by Mary Robinson) and the Human Right of freedom to do to our own bodies what we wish.

The ethics of testing drugs is also fraught with difficult, arguable choices. There are a large number of new treatments available now that have never been tested on pregnant women. This is entirely understandable, since who would risk unknown harm to their unborn child? Yet the result of this is that many conditions have treatments that cannot be given to people when they are pregnant simply because we don’t know the effect, and indeed probably never will. For some diseases, such as AIDS, it is often difficult to get people to try new drugs since the existing treatments are a ‘gold standard’ and work very well. Sure the new drug may be even better, but is it ethical to ask people to risk their lives with something that may be no better, or even worse than placebo, when there is an available, and worthwhile treatment? In all cases, whether searching for new treatments and cures, or even administering the existing ones, ethics plays a large part in the medical world.


14 July, 2009

InfinityThe manager of Hilbert’s Hotel had a problem. He prided himself on the fact that his hotel, having an infinite number of rooms, was always open and had space for new guests. It was what made Hilbert’s that little bit special. The hotel could afford to run since an infinite number of guests had arrived the previous week and generated an infinite amount of income, which was just as well as the cleaning bill was infinite too. The manager was going through the bills when disaster struck – another guest arrived! Flustered for a second, since all the rooms were taken, the manager realised a solution. He moved the guest in room 1 to room 2, the guest in room 2 to room 3 and so on and so on. This left room 1 free for the new guest, and the crisis was averted. When later that day an infinite number of new guests arrived the manager took their appearance in his stride, and knew just how to fit these visitors into his very unique hotel.

The above idea, the Hotel with infinite rooms, was created by the German mathematician David Hilbert to highlight some of the paradoxical thinking that is required when dealing with the infinite. Mathematicians use infinities in many different ways. One of the first ways we are introduced to a mathematical notion of infinity is in calculus. Infinities here are used as limits for sequences. Many sequences will tend towards an actual number, for instance the sequence of 1, followed by a half, then a quarter, then an eighth and so on, will tend towards zero. The sum of such a sequence will tend towards 2, and we can define 2 as the limit of the sum of the series. When a series diverges, say 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 … then we can define the limit as infinity. This particular use of infinity doesn’t seem to bring in too many paradoxes, and we can safely use calculus without the spectre of the infinite hotel.

Is space infinite? This is still an open question in cosmology. The evidence at the moment implies that there is no boundary to the universe. This does not however immediately imply that the universe is infinite, it could exist in a particular finite shape. To use an analogy, from a two-dimensional viewpoint there is no boundary on a globe. We can walk any way we wish around the world and we will never leave it, yet it is finite. The latest evidence from the cosmic microwave background radiation suggests however that the universe is flat, and this leaves open the possibility that it is infinite in size. Not that we will be able to see much of this infinite universe, beyond what is called the ‘observable universe’. Due to the action of dark energy the universe is expanding at such a rate that eventually the only stars we will be able to see will be those of our local galaxy group. Our observable universe is shrinking in size within this infinite universe, although it will take trillions of years until all we see is the one galaxy we are in.

Speaking of trillions of years, is there an infinite amount of time? It doesn’t seem too difficult to imagine that there will be no end to time, things will just keep happening. But what about the other way? Can we imagine no beginning to time? That one seems a little bit more fraught with difficulty, though for psychological reasons rather than any physical reasons. The evidence does indicate that there was a beginning to time as we understand it. As for an end, when the universe experiences heat death and there is no more energy flowing around, when even protons have decayed into nothingness, will there be anything occurring to distinguish one moment from another? Will time have any meaning then?

Theologians often use the idea of infinity. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is shown a vision of the ultimate – Brahman, that which is without end, that which is without qualities. When approaching this infinite being we cannot say anything about what it is, it would be a paradox to do so. All that can be said is what is is not, Neti, Neti, not this, not this. Well of course it doesn’t take too long for people to start saying what the ultimate is, and it happened fairly quickly in some forms of Hinduism. Meanwhile the monotheist philosphers of the west had decided that God was three things – all good, all knowing and all powerful. Omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. By giving God these infinite characteristics the theologians could start to answer some of the difficult question. Infinities lead to Hilbert’s Hotel and paradoxes, and what better way to describe God than through paradoxes. How does the theist explain suffering in a world created by an all good God? One imaginative way is to say that we offend God in some small way, but due to his infinite nature such an offence warrants an infinite punishment. His all good nature is what is stopping such an awful punishment but leaves in the suffering we see in the world. Once infinities are posited, explanations can get quite paradoxical. And would a God who wasn’t all powerful, say 99% powerful, be worthy of worship? Is an unending nature required for a God?

The infinite is a concept that has flowed through our culture since ancient times, from Zeno’s paradoxes to Escher’s paintings. It is useful, indeed necessary for vast amounts of our scientific understanding of the world. And yet, one can still posit that the universe has no actual infinities, that they are a trick of mathematics, and the actual is finite indeed. Like this article, there may be an end to everything.