Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cryogenic Paradox

The paradox I’m about to explain is one that has been literally keeping me awake at night of late. This was never intended to be a philosophy blog, but then it was never intended to be a travel blog originally either, so I’m giving up on defining what the hell my blog is about and just going with it. If difficult philosophical problems aren’t your thing, you are hereby excused. If , on the other hand, you’re game for a genuine mind-bender, read on. A warning in advance though. The stuff I’m dealing with here lies in that tricky territory of the extremely-difficult-to-talk-about-in-ordinary-language, and I’ve discovered through trying to talk friends through the problem, that the whole paradox just eludes some people, like a sort of colour-blindness. I’m reminded of the Simpson’s episode where Lisa asks Bart whether a tree that falls in the forest when no-one is there to hear it makes a sound, and Bart replies in a snap: “That’s easy! Yes!” I insist that if this doesn’t bend your mind, if the answer seems “easy”, then you’re Bart. But we could argue that one forever... Anyway, to proceed...

The so-called ‘problem of consciousness’ is one that has fascinated and preoccupied me since I was young. As a child I always felt there was something deeply problematic about the division between sentient and insentient matter. How does a brain - an assemblage of mindless atoms - become, merely through the complexity of its assembly, aware? I felt there had to be a missing ingredient, and when I was about sixteen I decided that all matter had to have some form of rudimentary consciousness, which the brain merely marshalled into the patterns and arrangements we know as thought. Otherwise, how does the brain bridge this magic gap? I simply couldn’t accept the ‘epiphenomenon’ position - that consciousness is a secondary, irrelevant froth arising as a side-effect in the brain. Surely that position puts the cart before the horse in the most egregious fashion. Likewise the ‘emergent properties’ argument, which argues that in complex systems ‘higher order’ properties may arise that transcend the properties of the parts. I can accept that the whole may have different properties from the parts, for example a bunch of heart cells takes on the emergent property of being able to pump blood when organised as a whole organ. But this type of emergent property is of an entirely different order from consciousness, which seems to involve a leap into something that is not in any way implied in the properties of the parts. Pumping blood can be seen to be a natural outcome of the arrangement of physical components with normal physical properties, such as elasticity, shape and so on - the raw elements of ‘pumping’ can be seen to be there - but awareness does not seem to be implied in the properties of the parts at all.

The paradox I’m about to elaborate deals is related to this problem, and I think gets to the crux of the issue. Before I launch into the paradox itself, however, I need to make some preliminary remarks to head off a critical misunderstanding. When I studied philosophy 101 many years ago, we were presented with a so-called problem involving two ships - let’s call one the Pierz and the other the Pedro. Gradually, planks are removed from the hull of the Pierz and attached to the Pedro and vice versa. The question is, at what point does the Pierz turn into the Pedro and the other way round? The answer of course is who gives a damn? It’s all pure semantics, a matter of how you choose to define your terms. The Cryogenic Paradox, and the related thought experiments I’m about to explain, on the surface may seem to resemble a ‘dilemma’ of this sort. However, for reasons I hope to make clear, to reduce the problem to semantics is to miss the point entirely.

OK, so here’s the Cryogenic Paradox in a nutshell. You may be aware that there were once - perhaps there still are - companies that offered people a service whereby, for a handsome sum, their bodies after death would be preserved in perpetuity in liquid nitrogen in the hope that at one time in the future, science would be able to resurrect them. Disregarding scandals whereby paying customers were found to have been allowed to defrost rather disgustingly in their time capsules, let us imagine that one day, such a resurrection becomes possible, and these people are brought back. The question is: is the consciousness of the reawakened person the same consciousness as that of the person before they died? By the same consciousness, I mean are the new experiences happening to the same locus of awareness? The question seems almost banal at first glance. The frozen brain can be likened to a computer that has been powered down for a century and has now been rebooted. Of course it must be the same consciousness, right? Certainly if the resuscitation technology is good enough, and the person has all their former memories, they will believe themselves to be this person and will be delighted that their investment has paid off. I have to agree that it seems untenable to assert that this is a new person who merely has your old memories and personality wired in. What would such an assertion even mean?

To start to get at why there is a paradox here, consider four people (excuse my toilet door characters):

I can define a bunch of properties for these people. John is tall. Jenny is a social worker. Pierz likes to swing dance. Luke is a movie buff. Etcetera. These are objective properties. You could also define subjective properties relating to their identity - John considers himself a bit of a bad boy, Jenny remembers holidays at the beach, and so on. But Pierz, for me, has one special property. He is me. He has the unique (for me) property of being the locus of my subjective awareness. This does not make Pierz objectively unique, since everybody on the list is also me for somebody (themselves), but it does make Pierz unique for me, and in a most compelling way! All the others on the list are different and have the property of being ‘not me’.

Now to get at the significance of this me-ness and its difference from any question of identity, let us imagine that tomorrow I have a car accident and suffer a terrible brain injury that wipes out all my memories and causes a personality change for the desperately worse. I commit some horrible crimes and am sent to prison. Now the person who will commit these crimes is not really me, in an identity sense. They don’t have my personality, they don’t have my memories, they never recalling having been this Pierz character at all. It’s as if all the planks on the good ship Pierz had been removed and replaced with nasty Pedro planks. And yet if I’m told about this future, I will still be afraid of those prison experiences that lie in wait, because this new Pedro-Pierz will still have that mysterious property of somehow being me. Or at least we presume he will. We presume that, because the brain and body are continuous with the pre-damaged brain and body, the ‘being-me-ness’ is not going to change.

Now let’s return to the Cryogenic Paradox. Because the brain is the same brain, and the memories are preserved, the customer who buys his place in the cryogenic freezer assumes that the person who wakes up in a brave new world will also have this same quality of ‘being him’ and not ‘being somebody else’. But what if he’s wrong? Isn’t it possible to imagine all the aspects of your identity transplanted into some new body that is in all ways identical to you but that somehow is missing that crucial property of happening to ‘be me’. Mightn’t you, in spending a lot of money on your frozen future, be buying a life for someone who will have your memories, your identity, but sadly be lacking that final magic ingredient which is required to make this a bona fide resurrection - the property of happening to be the locus of your subjective awareness?

If you’re still stuck on the idea that the memories and so on of your former existence guarantee the same subjectivity, let’s vary the thought experiment and imagine that the procedure was imperfectly carried out and you lost your memories in the reanimation process (using ‘you’ as a pronoun of convenience here!). Your whole brain is wiped terrifyingly blank and you’re reduced to the tabula rasa of a newborn baby. If you knew before being frozen that this was going to happen to you, would you be afraid? Or would you dismiss it as easily as you might dismiss such a misfortune in a stranger - someone who happens not to possess that unique attribute of ‘being you’? I think you’d probably be scared at least of the possibility that you might have to be the one to go through this horrible erasure.

This is because of the brain, the physical organ, being the same. But is the brain the carrier of the connection between this body, this awareness, and the fact of it’s also being your awareness in particular? You’d think it has to. And yet how can the brain, as a frozen chunk of ice and protein with no activity, preserve the continuity of this ‘being-you-ness’ apart from via your memories? Where on earth does this fucking being-you-ness reside for chrissakes anyway? How does my I-ness continue to ‘stick’ to a dead brain? Surely it can’t.

A related paradox is what I’ll call the Duplication Paradox. In this, a complete map of your brain is copied into a computer and then all the neural networks are painstakingly reconstructed long after your death in a new human. Again, this person believes that they are you, because they remember your family holidays, remember your friends, your life, your decision to undergo the brain copying procedure. But does this duplicated person really have the quality of ‘being you’, or are they just some other person in the future with your memories? If you know some horrid fate is in store for them, will you be afraid?

It’s hard to see how you can say that this person isn’t you, from an identity sense, since identity is only information, and they have all the information that comprises your identity. But are they you in the vital other sense? Imagine the duplication occurs again, so there are now two yous. Surely both can’t simultaneously possess the quality of ‘being you’ can they?

Note that if we ignore the whole issue of ‘being you’, there is no paradox here above the jejune level of the ship dilemma. Without this mysterious property of you-ness, you can simply dismiss the problem as a question of semantics. Who cares whether it’s ‘really’ the same person? Like the two ships Pierz and Pedro, the question of whether the copied consciousness is ‘really’ the same person can be dismissed as a matter of mere definitions. But if it’s you being frozen or duplicated, then the question becomes vitally concerning: what am I going to experience in the future?

But let’s try and define what we really mean here by saying that this person (Pierz) has the property of being me and this person (John) doesn’t. Obviously, if I imagine myself into John’s consciousness, I will find that he has the property of ‘being me’ too, once ‘I’ am inside him, so to speak! So once I stop viewing people objectively, but start viewing them from inside, from their own viewpoints, then I discover that, lo and behold, all of them are ‘me’. I can’t, once I (some meta-I that is capable of flying between heads) experience their viewpoint, actually distinguish between their ‘being me-ness’ and my ‘being-me-ness’. To determine if the amnesic subject post cryogenic resuscitation is ‘really me’, I would need to identify some marker, some point of difference between various subjects’ experiences of being a subject. Not differences in identity or quality of consciousness - these are easy to find - but differences in the essential quality of being a me (language here is a completely inadequate tool). But there is no such marker and can be no such marker. Whatever differences exist between the experience of being Pierz and the experience of being John belong to the contents of consciousness, belong to the identity, and not to the attribute of ‘being me’, which has no other qualities than exactly that.

To illustrate further, let us return to the accident scenario, where I lose my memories and my personality changes radically. Now before this happens, as I sit and imagine this future person, much as I might sit and imagine the future duplicated self, or the unfrozen self, I am trying to determine if their me-ness is the same as my me-ness. Are ‘we’ a continuous self, or is this some other person, whose experiences I therefore won’t have to go through. But if I imagine myself into his ‘me’ (and I know he will have a ‘me’), although I can see that his identity, his thoughts and memories have little in common with mine, there is no way, even in principle, to determine if this me-ness is continuous with, or the same as, mine.

In fact, whatever head I imagine myself inside, I can never determine if it is the same or a different me, self or other, and so the question of who the defrosted person is, me or somebody else, appears absurd, unanswerable, meaningless or unknowable. What the above considerations amount to is a reductio ad absurdum of the whole notion of I-ness, or of individual ‘I’s. And at the same time, our very real fear of death, our very real awareness that we have a future self, different to other selves that aren’t us, tells us we can’t simply dismiss I-ness. Nothing is more palpably real - I think therefore I am. Indeed reality can’t be imagined without a subject, and quantum physics tells us that the universe can’t even decide its state without one, but remains suspended between all the possible states it might be in.

All this relates vitally to the whole notion of personal death - or rather, of annihilation. Death we can define as the body or the brain’s death. Annihilation is the death of the subject. Annihilation or becoming-nothing is what we really fear, much more than physical death or death of the identity. We could cope with losing our ‘selves’, our identities, if we knew our deeper ‘I’ would continue, as in, say, reincarnation. Annihilation is what we are generally promised by science and the physical model of consciousness. Brain death = subject death, end of story. But for the notion of annihilation to make any sense, there has to be a subject, over and above the identity. You clearly can’t annihilate something that does not exist. And yet the Cryogenic Paradox reveals how deeply problematic such a subject is.

So what’s the solution?

Obviously if I knew, and could prove it in some kind of undeniable formalism like a maths proof, I’d have solved what is probably the deepest philosophical conundrum there is. But I’m going to look at some possible approaches, and put forward a solution that I’ll admit is speculative, and sounds radical, but to me is the most elegant and appealing.

First of all, there’s a possible philosophical objection that needs to be addressed. When we make statements about the properties of things, including people, we are making assertions about so-called ‘objective facts’. Even if such facts are relative, such as an object’s colour (in what light? etc) or when an event occurs (it depends on the observer’s motion, as we know from relativity), we can still relate these facts back to a single universal framework. We can resolve the relativity, and in fact have to, if the statement is to be meaningful. The problem is that I-ness is not such a property. As we have noted, objectively, everyone has a sense of I-ness, everyone is both a me and a not-me. So when we try to establish whether this property of I-ness holds for some particular subject other than the person we know to be ourselves, we are trying to apply a subjective category in an objective way. Therefore, like asking what was going on one minute before the Big Bang, the question is unanswerable because its premises are false.

This is probably the ‘philosophically correct’ rebuttal of the paradox, allowing philosophers to sleep again at night, at least until they get to thinking about their own death. I accept that the Cryogenic Paradox is based on a confusion of subjective and objective statements. However, this does not neutralize the potency of the problem, because we are still frightened by death, we still believe in annihilation, and the objective meaningless of self does nothing to assuage this. We are still left with an unbridgeable gulf in our paradigm between subject and object. Indeed, this so-called resolution merely hides the problem inside the problematic assumptions of objective logic. Of course the problem makes no sense objectively, but precisely that is the problem itself. What this rebuttal effectively says is that there’s no way to resolve the problem of the subject, so stop worrying about it.

In fact, we know from science that objective logic is flawed. Physicists have had to formulate a new logic to take into account quantum physics, with its intimate implication of the observer, because it turns out that the paradoxes of quantum physics can’t be resolved by objective logic — rather it’s objective logic that has to give way to quantum physics.

The classic example is the paradox that Einstein choked on. This article is already way too long for a blog post, so I’m going to summarize this in the most brutal way, and leave you to wiki Bell’s Theorem if you’re interested. Basically, the problem occurs when two particles are synchronized so that they have opposed spins, then separated by a large distance. One of the particle’s spin is then measured. We then can deduce the other particle’s spin, because we know it to be the opposite. So what? you think. It’s like having a white and a black chess piece in two hands - once the colour of one is revealed, you know the colour of the other. But the problem is that quantum physics tells us that until the particle’s spin is measured, it exists in a state of both spins simultaneously, only resolving to one or the other state when actually observed. So how does the other particle ‘know’ which spin to assume when its brother is measured a thousand miles away? Einstein came up with the thought experiment to prove something had to be missing from quantum physics, but he was wrong. Something was missing from objective logic.

OK, so let’s take a look at our toilet door for polygender groups again.

Now, with the ‘me’ bubbles, we have a representation of what is essentially our conventional view, once we accept that me-ness is real. In fact to avoid the confusion between identity and subject, let’s remove the word ‘me’ and replace it with the word ‘observer’:

Everybody has their own observer which is different from everybody else’s observer in some indefinable way that is not merely a matter of semantics, but ‘just is’. The indefinable difference of ‘my’ observer is what distinguishes me from others and what creates the continuity between my future, present and past selves. We assume the me-ness is somehow held together by the physical brain, so when someone dies:

And then when Luke is cryogenically restored:

Are you seeing the issue here? The observer’s are identical but we’re still asking if the observer that returns is the same as the one that ‘popped’.

Or let’s swap Pierz and Luke’s observers without swapping their identities:

Notice the difference? Me neither.

There is a philosophical principle called the ‘Identity of Indiscernibles’, which applies particularly in the area of the Philosophy of Science (my major, many years ago). It states that two entities with identical properties must be the same entity. Whether the principle holds or not is still moot. There’s a thought experiment known as ‘Black’s balls’ (not chocolate or salty, pace South Park) which purports to show otherwise, though then there are counter arguments and in the end, the boxers are still in their corners, sweating at the futility of it all. You can read more about it at the above link, but I warn you, it’s for real philosophers, not exactly thrilling. In the end, one starts to suspect that the problem is, like the Pierz and the Pedro, a matter of how you define things.

But let’s run with it and see what we get. If all the observers are identical, then perhaps they are all one. Perhaps there is only one observer. Of course, the observers are different in what they observe, including the self or identity through which they make their observations. So if we’re to speak of a single observer, it’s a kind of super-observer that can’t itself be observed (of course not, for that would entail a different observer, and we know there is only one). It changes our toilet door to look like this:

The difference then between identities or subjects does not lie in there being a different observer, but one observer with different perspectives.

This observer is constant and never dies, can’t be annihilated. Doorways of observation, though, perspectives, may come and go.

This resolves the Cryogenic Paradox. Both the man in the bed with no memories, and all the computer duplicates, plus Pedro, Luke, John, Pierz and Aunt Nellie’s ugly cat with the bung eye are all you. But only if you let go of the notion of identity and self, only from this super-perspective, this view of the ├╝ber-observer, the Ur-observer.

It also resolves the mystery of Bell’s Theorem. If there is only one observer, then it’s no mystery that an observation in one place can affect an observation in another. There is only one observer, one observation, the two are not separate. Only the illusion of separated observers creates the appearance of a paradox here.

Imagine a form of reincarnation where you can be reincarnated in parallel as well as in sequence, so your ‘next’ life might be as your own brother or best friend. Then what’s to stop you being reincarnated as everybody everywhere everywhen? Of course that is the wildest conjecture, but in a sense, something like that is implied. If all subjects deep down spring from the same observer, then, well fuck me, but that’s the best reason I ever heard to be nice to one another! You might have to be that person you’re doing over one day. You are that person. Right there is the ultimate wellspring of moral action. If we knew this, really knew it, wouldn’t we very quickly create the most optimised society we could, one that would also take care not only of all people equally but of all the voiceless subjects out there too, the animals and, who knows, the plants too?

As long as we think we’re in silos, and I don’t care, those silos include the soul too as far as I’m concerned, just another deeper way of separating ‘me’ from all those ‘others’, as long as we credit this insupportable separation, then we’re screwed by a fundamental error that makes us believe we can profit at another’s expense.

There is a mystery though here still (well, there are many mysteries, such as what the hell this observer is, and so on, though that’s outside the scope), which is a mystery similar to the problem of time, how there appears to be a current moment, though there is nothing in all the laws of physics that refers to such a moment or indeed to the apparent ‘arrow of time’ which gives time its direction. Why the illusion of separation? Why the division into so many points of observation, multiple keyholes? I suspect that the question 'why?' is not a good one once one gets to this kind of meta-perspective level. At bottom there is always a mystery.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Four

Several years ago I had a terrible flu, the sickest I remember being. Lying in bed, I was so drenched in sweat I'd have to change the sheets every few hours, a monumental task I'd accomplish in a reeling delirium before collapsing back into near-paralytic exhaustion. The room took on an evil, haunted atmosphere, the ticks of the walls, the dripping of rain on the sill echoing uncannily, as through some vampiric forest. On the third day I managed to bundle myself into my car and drive, chattering teeth, bones aching like an old man, to the doctor's surgery. Antibiotic prescription in hand, I then went to the pharmacy next door and sat on a chair under a searingly hot floodlight to wait for my pills. As I sat there, a terrible feeling began to grow inside me. I couldn't say what it was, just that something was awfully wrong, and something bad was about to happen. I suddenly desperately needed to remove the coat I was wearing, but as I sat forward to take it off, I heard a sound from behind me like an onrushing train, and then...

Darkness. But in the darkness, a light. I don't know what, where, who I am, but I can see that light, a perfect star of such purity, such utter bliss that words cannot describe it. And I realize: the light is me. I am that light. And that's all I am, pure and whole and free. I don't know how long this lasts. Seconds, an eternity.

Then something is changing, a tide is pulling me back into a murk of strange sensations that slowly resolve into me - the all-too physical me - lying face down on the pharmacy floor, a puddle of blood forming drip by drip from where my nose has hit the deck at full velocity. And some woman in a grey coat whom I will never forget looking down at me with a smirk on her face. I close my eyes again and wish myself back to that star, though of course it's gone for good.

Still, such an experience leaves an after-glow, a trace in the heart, and when the lovely nurse from the surgery next door came and picked me up and established my nose wasn't broken and looked after me until I was ready to face the freezing drizzle again to head back home to my cold, damp sick bed, I think she may have been slightly puzzled by my almost erotic radiance, a love and gratitude shining through the murk of my illness despite my attempts to simply be an obedient patient.

So far my Unified Theory of Happiness (I hope you've picked up the note of self-deprecating irony?), apart from spending most of its time straying egregiously from the topic at hand, has dealt with the notion of our 'set point', and how we simply normalize whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, thus giving the lie to the idea that more of what we want is the answer to satisfaction. The sublimely funny and insightful David Foster Wallace, writing about the failure of a luxury cruise to satisfy his wanting self, put it this way:

But the Infantile part of me is insatiable - in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction. (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, 1998, Back Bay Books, p. 317, fuck the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever).

So happiness, I never said explicitly, must at least partly consist in adjusting the satisfaction one experiences at the set point of normality, rather than trying to spin the treadmill of desire ever faster, chasing the next gratification, stuff the insatiable hole. Put like that, it's sort of obvious.

But there's still a question of where this happiness is to come from, once one accepts that this is it, that there's no greener pasture, no magical Tattslotto moment around the corner when All Will Be Well (and here I can cite the research showing that a) lottery winners are as happy one year after winning the lottery as they were before they won, and that b) paraplegics are as happy one year after the accident as they were before it (incredible but true, at least if the ABC is to be believed, and this being a slack-arse blog, I'm too lazy to go chasing the actual research). So you might as well wish for paraplegia as for a Tatts win, if happiness is what you're after). The answer, I'm going to argue is: it's there, it's in you. It's the light inside you that it sometimes takes a fainting spell while overheating with the flu to reveal.

Be yourself, and the happiness follows. Though it takes courage to be that self against the social currents that tell you to be otherwise. Tiziano Terzani called it a 'life in which one can recognize oneself' (in The End is My Beginning), a phrase that had a powerful resonance for me when I read that book on various borrowed couches in frozen Berlin last year. Perhaps it struck a chord because of a developmental quandary that quite possibly strikes many forty-ish people: with age you let go of the fierce fight to assert your identity, but in the same moment as you breathe a sigh of relief at giving up this taxing effort, a vague, at first unnameable unease rises in your gut, to ambush you at three a.m. with feelings of pointlessness, as if something of great value that you nevertheless can't pinpoint had quietly evaporated on you, and along with it, the memory of what it was. It comes down to this: if the precious you that you fought so hard for requires no such effort and was in fact an illusion then... what's left but more of the same and more of the same and so on and so on until death? It's so easy, with the comfort in one's skin that is the supposed pay-off of maturity, to settle into mere placidity and consign the real aliveness, the vital, raw awareness of being, to a bygone youth. Being yourself, it turns out, is a much more active, seeking thing than mere self-acceptance, as important as that is.

'A life in which you recognize yourself'. Yes indeed. Perhaps it's not possible to recognize oneself in every moment, but the focus to find and express the nature of who and what you are in itself inevitably brings forth this self and makes failure impossible. Give up on the extrinsics and devote yourself to the intrinsically joyous. It turns out to be the same for us all, I think: the people we love and the activities that make us feel most truly ourselves. It's amazingly liberating when you realize that you don't have to worry about the things you never really wanted to worry about anyway: how many Facebook friends you have, whether you're getting ahead, whether you're Missing Out somewhere.

Really, it's not string theory is it? The Unified Theory of Happiness is, like, pretty much derr when it comes down to it.

So I'm moving on to something more radical. The Unified Theory of Self, Part One! And this really is a unified theory. It's come to me out of nights lying awake at five a.m. (I'm a shocking insomniac - perhaps this blog is revealing why!), puzzling over a paradox that just won't let me go. My Unified Theory is the only solution I can find that makes any sense, despite its radicality, and I've therefore decided to inflict it upon you even though several factors militate against its publication: namely that it is difficult to understand (not to me, but apparently to others), possibly boring to read, and preposterous to common sense. Anyway, it all begins with a thought experiment I'm calling the Cryogenic Paradox...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Unified Theory of Happiness - Part Three

There was a time when I was about nineteen or twenty when my older brother Jeremy and I became close again after years of semi-estrangement. During this period we became possessed by metaphysical speculations that bordered on the deranged. This was in the wilds of Lower Templestowe at a time when my family was falling apart after years of putting a face on it. The centre didn't hold any more and we were like electrons thrown out of orbit, little charged particles flying about looking for some new mental nucleus to bond to.

To understand our state at the time, you have to know a little bit about the Newton-John family culture. We are - were - a family with a healthy intellectual confidence, so healthy in fact that when my brothers and I were growing up, we received a tiny dose of Smug in our breakfast cereal every morning. We were special, and the proof was in the genes. Not only did we have our beloved 'Livvie', who would occasionally sweep in like visiting royalty, leaving trails of Chanel no. 5 and an after-glitter of fame, but on the bookshelf was our great-grandfather's book of correspondence with Einstein, discussing such weighty matters as whether God did, in fact, play with dice (Great Granddad got his Nobel for the affirmative, Einstein famously screwed up). And apparently we had Martin Luther somewhere up the tree to boot - a claim to fame rather diluted by the generations, and the fact that the man begat like a Catholic.

This was all on my father's side, who was not without his own brilliance, topping his year at Melbourne University Med School, and having the gift of being able to shine at whatever he turned his hand to - though not, alas, the intricacies of human relationships. My mother's side had its own minor luminaries too, including our grandfather Osmar White, who wrote the book considered the classic account of the war in New Guinea (Green Armour). He also brought some macho kudos to the genetic table, having, I don't know, wrestled anacondas while dodging Jap machine-gun fire and what-have-you.

I don't know whether the hypertrophied intellectualism of our family was a form of compensation for our social awkwardness, or whether the intellectual ego was the cause of the clunky social skills. Perhaps both. We tacitly believed our extended family home - an acre and a half of fruit trees and lawns in the middle of suburbia - to be a sanctuary of advanced intelligence in a world of benighted ignorance. Social graces in our position were as irrelevant to us as to alien greys silently orbiting the world with their giant foreheads and thin wrists. So long as we understood one another, what need to decipher the peculiar codes and signals of the natives?

And then came the bombshell that our parents were getting divorced. I was never exactly upset about it, but I did assume that they'd go about it in a rational and enlightened fashion, as behoved our advanced level of consciousness - and it's true there were no ugly scenes, no bloodshed, no spiteful court battles. But they never spoke to one another again. It was not 'amicable', it was clinically hostile. And the Newton-John paradigm, the great Myth of Enlightenment, was revealed for what it was, so much glossy lacquer over an all-too flawed human reality, a family with a fully stocked larder of fears, griefs and silently nursed wounds.

We knew, when the thing collapsed, that we'd been fed a crock, my brother and I. But we weren't quite ready yet to surrender our treasured specialness. That bruising correction would take years. So it makes sense, looking back, that when we went looking for a new paradigm, we dreamt big. We didn't allow anything as inconvenient as evidence or common sense to trammel our winged speculation. The zenith (or nadir) of this madness took place in India, in the piedmont village of Manali in Himachal Pradesh, spiritual home of the world's most mind-bending hashish. (According to the story we were told - in retrospect obviously bullshit - the year’s first harvest of hash is collected by rubbing it off the skin of a virgin who has run naked through the resinous fields.) There, Jeremy and I spent a week or so lost deep in a haze of cannabis and philosophical delusion. I saw the meaning of Schroedinger's wave equation (just don't ask me to explain), and Jeremy deduced that the popularity of the English language was based on the correspondence of the words 'I' and 'eye'. (I ridiculed him for this - one lunatic scoffing at the other’s madness).

All this is by way of background to a conversation which took place between us one summery night back in Lower Templestowe in the living room of the home that would be sold while we were away in India a year or so later. That living room, with its green sofa and cream shagpile, its quietly bubbling tropical fish-tank, was the picture of middle-class suburban life. As the room we’d eaten dinner in together our whole lives, watched the ABC News in every night, the room in which my parents had had weary, grown-up conversations over brandy-and-drys at six o'clock every weeknight, it should have felt like the family’s heart and hearth. But it didn’t. It felt peripheral, its feng-shui all up the spout. It felt lonely, like the smell of carpet shampoo in an empty house on a Monday morning. I remember lying on that carpet one night in my depressed late teens and staring into the glassed-in world of the aquarium, suddenly possessed by the knowledge of my own eventual death. The idea of Not-Being. Its reality shifted in and out like venetian blinds being opened and closed. In the moments I could grasp it, it was pure terror - while the guppies butted the glass, the neons shimmered in the flow of bubbles...

But that summer night Jeremy and I were talking not about death, but about duality. The way that everything is paid for by its negative image. For every particle of matter, an antimatter twin to cancel it out. For every action, an equal and opposite. For every joy attained, an equal grief suffered. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As we spoke, it was as if we could feel the whole universe around us turning in its great yin-yang machinations, a blind, oblivious machine composed of mutually annihilating blacks and whites, able to give nothing that it wouldn’t be forced to retract later, a gigantic zero-sum living on debt borrowed from itself, left hand robbing the right to pay for the illusion of Being.

The room seemed more lonely than it had ever been and despite the oppressive humidity of the late summer evening, we felt cold to the heart. And then Jeremy, suddenly overwhelmed by the horror of the vision we’d invoked, cried out, ‘It makes me want to kill myself!’ Typical of him, I thought, to get emotionally carried away. I came back with the technically impeccable proposition that in fact this zero-sum universe could not, purely logically, inspire the act of suicide. It lacked weight of any kind - to annihilate the self was as weightless an act as to go on living. I felt the hollowness of this even as I said it, the cold dread in my heart giving the lie to logic.

In my last post I paraphrased Safran-Foer: everyone loses everything. Ashes to ashes. Matter-antimatter. But here’s the thing Jeremy and I didn’t know. Scientists now believe that the matter and the anti-matter in the universe don’t cancel out at all. There is, they now say, a flaw in the laws of physics that results in very slight asymmetry, so that for every billion particles of antimatter in the universe, there’s a billion-and-one particles of matter. And that one extra particle in a billion results in the universe. A ‘flaw’ they call it. An accounting slip that means we actually do get something for nothing: the world and everything in it. Scientists may call that a flaw. I don’t know. it seems a peculiarly antiseptic mindset that would describe as a ‘flaw’ something without which only a perfect nothing would remain.

Would it be straining the metaphor to imagine that same ‘flaw’ exists everywhere, that whenever something joyous is lost, some billionth particle remains, a mote of light, undying and unkillable? Whenever ashes return to ashes, and our lives are weighed in the balance, some billionth particle of goodness tips the scales in our favour? I may be roaming back into Schroedinger’s Wave territory here, but I like to think that. I like to imagine that for us, as much as for the universe as a whole, something remains, stubbornly indestructible, when everything has returned its debt to the void.

And what of the Unified Theory of Happiness? The truth is, I’m less enamoured of unified theories than I once was. There’s always a tiny flaw in them too, a grating sand-grain of mystery that yields to no explanation. After writing the first two parts of my theory, I fell into a mood of pessimism that lasted a week. The God of Happiness, that shining child within, winked out, and my words rang back to me as hypocrisy. But then this morning I opened the blinds to let in the pale winter sun, and there it was again: the flaw, the chink, the tiny opening through which joy shines into a being stolen from nothingness.