Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Did you know that the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was a mathematician? Lewis Carrol was a pen name for Charles L. Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics, at Christ Church, England.
Remember Alice in Through the Looking Glass? When Alice states that she is seven and one-half years old, the White Queen says she is a hundred and one, five months and a day.
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the queen said in a pitying tone, “Try again; draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Are there impossible things? How about impossible questions? Mathematician Kurt Gӧdel proved that within any logical system there are logical questions that cannot be answered.
Are the following impossible questions?
Who would you be, if your mother had never met your father?
Would you exist- - at all?
What if one of your eight great-grandparents took a wrong turn and never met any of your other great-grandparents, who would you be?
How many seemingly minor, unimportant events are there in the history of your ancestry that, if changed in any way, would radically change the DNA of the person you are today?
When I was about six or seven, a terrible, horrible thing happened in my mother’s family. In the heat of a domestic argument, my mother’s oldest sister’s husband rushed out of the house in a rage, jumped into his truck and backed over their toddler son who was playing in the driveway. He was killed instantly. The marriage was destroyed, and the lives of my aunt, and three young female cousins were negatively impacted and changed forever. But what about that poor little boy? For days I had vivid images of his fear and pain as the wheels of that truck crushed the life out of him. What happened to him after that? For the rest of my life, I’ve emphasized with the pain and suffering of all living beings.
Several life-changing events happened to me around the age of 12 to 14. Perhaps most importantly, I discovered that I had a gift for mathematics, found Albert Einstein’s wonderful work, and had a stunning experience of consciousness expansion. I also gave up hunting, even though I lived in a remote part of the country where hunting and fishing were dominant interests of most boys my age. I loved being in the woods with my dog, Rover, a smart little border collie. We would stalk deer, wild turkey and occasionally an owl or an eagle. I carried a rifle, but rarely shot at anything living.
One day I did shoot a squirrel. My uncles and cousins hunted, killed and ate rabbits, squirrels, quail, and deer on a regular basis. The squirrel fell from the top of a large white oak, hitting the ground with a thud. As I approached the little animal, he regained consciousness and struggled to climb back up the trunk of the tree. But he was mortally wounded. He clung to the bark of the tree momentarily, within my reach, and then fell back to the ground. Just before he lost his grip, he uttered a terrible cry that pierced my heart. For a moment that seemed like an eternity, I felt his pain, fear and terror as acutely as if it were my own. I knew, beyond any doubt in that moment, that he was a vital, living being, with a warm beating heart and a quick brain. He was enjoying the prime of his life, and I had ended it. I had cut short all his earthly desires, all his future, and his future progeny. And I could not reverse it. He was gone; and with him, any desire I might have had to hunt for pleasure melted away like frost in the bright morning sun. I never carried a rifle in the woods again.
My empathy with living things has never faded. If anything, it has intensified. One consequence of this is that wild animals do not fear me. Even venomous insects do not attack me. I taught a high school algebra class for most of an hour once with a red wasp sitting on top of my head. I think that class paid more attention that hour than any class I’ve taught before or since! Domestic animals treat me like a long-lost friend. I love every cat and dog, every tree frog, ant and blade of grass.
So here is an ‘impossible’ question: Does consciousness exist outside the physical brain? It’s not answerable within most logical systems of scientific thought prevalent today. If you haven't experienced it, any answer you may have is nothing more than a hypothesis. Once you’ve experienced it, you operate in a different logical system, and within that system, the answer is clear.