Friday, 31 October 2014

Secret Societies and Esoteric Traditions

Meetup at the Elstead Hotel, Bournemouth, Thursday 6th. November 2014

This week, the subject up for discussion is a pretty broad spectrum from esoteric traditions in general to secret societies such as the Freemasons in particular. In this article I'll try to provide some links to some online subject matter in the hope that it sparks some interest.

Firstly, as usual, my own take.



intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.


(from the Latin word occultus "clandestine, hidden, secret") is "knowledge of the hidden"


also called Hermetism, is a religious and philosophical tradition based primarily upon pseudepigraphical writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus ("Thrice Great"). These writings have greatly influenced the Western esoteric tradition and were considered to be of great importance during both the Renaissance and the Reformation. The tradition claims descent from a prisca theologia, a doctrine which affirms that a single, true theology exists which is present in all religions and was given by God to man in antiquity. [Wikipedia]


These days you will run across two prevailing views of secret or occult societies: the one dismissing them as silly men with silly handshakes pretending to be powerful and the other claiming a world-wide  conspiracy working to bring about a New World Order. There is probably some truth in both views but how and why do they exist.

I used to be of the former persuasion: I giggled at the thought of men in aprons and rolled-up trouser legs. Then, in the early 1990's, I read a huge bestseller called the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Primarily about the discovery of a secret - perhaps treasure - in a remote village in the Languedoc region of France, it also contained a fascinating history of secret societies including the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Whether or not you buy into the story of Rennes-le-Chateau (and there are many debunkers), the book is still a great read and I still recommend it after all these years.

That book created one of those publishing flurries we see from time to time when a subject catches the public imagination. I read several other books on the same theme until I picked up yet another huge bestseller which created yet another publishing flurry: Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods. So, true to form, I started reading many of those "alternative archaeology" books too. One of those books was co-written by the founder of our little Meetup group, Ian Lawton (who was not, by the way, very complimentary about Mr. Hancock and his research).

Nevertheless, what fascinated me was the way the ancient civilisation stuff merged inevitably with the history of the esoteric societies. Looking back, all roads lead to Egypt. Hermes, the greek god associated with Hermeticism, was the Greek version of the Egyptian god, Thoth.

There is far too much history, theory and conjecture to attempt to cover in a small blog article, hence the reliance on links. But if you are interested in the roots of western (perhaps all) religions, alchemy and magick, sacred geometry, biblical history and the meaning of many of the Old Testament stories and many, many other fascinating but mostly dismissed or hidden aspects of our collective history - including the founding of the United States, then I would urge you to seek out some books on the subject and judge for yourself whether it is all the work of conspiracy nuts or not.

So here are some links for your perusal:

List and descriptions of various Secret Societies.

Lecture notes by Robert Lomas (see below) on the Origins of Freemasonry.

Below is a multi-part interview with Christopher Knight, a freemason who extended his research into freemasonry to other areas, including ancient history. The Hiram Key was one of the books I read when it was first published.

Robert Lomas is co-author, with Christopher Knight (above) of the Hiram Key. He is also author of several other books and something of an authority on the masons.

Another multi-part interview with one of the authors who started it all for me, Michael Baigent who, sadly, recently passed.

Andrew Gough is someone I've followed and, occasionally, conversed with for many years. He has a wealth of experience and does a bang-up job of presenting his research online. His web site is a must visit, I would say. Here's a link to some of his work with one of his video selections as a taster.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Quantum Mechanics: Part Three


We are almost up to date but throughout this hurried history of Quantum Mechanics, I might have given the impression that the Copenhagen Interpretation is the only show in town. Not so. Although it remains the orthodox approach, there are many competing interpretations. I’ll mention a few here and provide links for further reading if your interest is stimulated. Indeed, this link …

Quantum Reality (not to be confused with Nick Herbert’s work of the same title).

… really does the job for me.

In its own way, each of the above is somewhat controversial. We have already discussed Einstein’s objection to Copenhagen and many other scientists, to this day, feel a strong affinity with Einstein’s view. Nevertheless, this is still the “textbook” interpretation.

“Many Worlds”, originally proposed by Hugh Everett in the 1950′s in an attempt to resolve the much debated measurement problem and the fate of Schrödinger’s cat. According to Everett the cat would have – not nine – but as many lives as there are probabilities arising from the measurement experiment. In other words, if a decision can have a thousand probable outcomes, then a thousand new worlds are created to realise each and every one of them. At first this theory was derided as being too fantastical to deserve consideration but by 1995 this online Many Worlds FAQ was claiming outright support from 58% of a poll of 72 leading scientists.

I could go into a long analysis of each interpretation in turn, rehashing the information available if you follow the links I have provided. But I won’t. The general point to be made here is that the interpretations fall into two camps: the realist and the anti-realist (we could add another labelled “don’t ask”). Those eminent scientists, mathematicians and philosophers who have what they would call a rational, common-sense view of reality would likely opt for the more realist interpretations such as Consistent Histories or Transactional. This group doesn’t feel comfortable with paradoxes such as nonlocality. They insist that electrons are little lumps of matter – not metaphysical wave packets that only achieve physical reality once an observer happens across it. They would probably be keen to adopt Albert Einstein as their patron.

David Bohm’s Implicate Order theory is quite an odd one to box and label. Bohm himself was a materialist and disliked the idea of dice throwing just as much as did his mentor, Einstein. Thus, Implicate Order is a realist theory complete with the hidden variable that Einstein suggested must be present to make Quantum Mechanics a complete theory.

David Bohm

Yet it is this theory that is probably most popular among New Age thinkers – the very people who would naturally select the anti-realist stance. In my view it is the holistic emphasis of the theory that appeals to the more idealist among us. Whatever the attraction may be, it is true that Bohm’s philosophy has inspired several best sellers which, according to your viewpoint, either fall into the category of popular science or New Age (or both). These include Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe, Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics.

Last, but not least, is the interpretation that draws the most flak from the scientific establishment: the one which says that a conscious observer is required to collapse the wave into a “real” particle. The argument against it is simple and, to most, self-evident: if it has taken evolution billions of years to produce a self-aware, sentient being, then who was around in the universe to play the role of conscious observer while evolution was doing its thing? Well, religious people would say that the answer to that is obvious: God. Others, such as Amit Goswami, hold that the universe itself is conscious or, to be more precise, that consciousness is the prime cause; that physical reality is a product of this primary consciousness

Quantum Mechanics: Part Two

Determinism or Not?

What we now see developing is a schism among the luminaries of early 20th century physicists. They were divided into two philosophical camps: those who supported the probabilistic Copenhagen Interpretation (Bohr, Heisenberg and others not yet mentioned) and those who supported a deterministic model of reality (Einstein, Schrödinger, Born and others). It might be surprising to note that Einstein – the man who turned classical Newtonian physics on its head – should be so vehemently opposed to this interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, especially since it appeared to be an inevitable conclusion arising out of his own theories. But, in my view, Einstein passionately believed that the universe is structured in a beautiful and logical manner, however strange that logic may appear to traditional science. As such, nothing (in the physical realm, at least) was ultimately beyond human comprehension. The Copenhagen Interpretation, on the other hand, introduced messy and irrational randomness. This was just intolerable for Einstein and, it seems, for a majority of scientists, engineers and technicians to this day. Nevertheless, the Copenhagen Interpretation remains, among quantum physicists, the current orthodoxy even though it has several challengers.

The crucial difference between the two standpoints was: determinism or not? Determinism states that every event has a cause, going back to the beginning of time, i.e. the Big Bang (or whatever the current theory of the beginning happens to be). Another way of stating it (theoretically) is to say that, if we could know all of the pre-existing conditions, we could accurately predict everything that will happen in the future. This, of course, has far reaching implications, not the least for the concept of human free will and accountability. For example, if someone goes out one morning and shoots his neighbour, can he be held ultimately responsible for his action if it was inevitable from the moment the universe came into being? On the other hand, quantum mechanics introduces probability at the most fundamental level. Another big philosophical question now begs: does quantum level probability allow for choice? If, by deciding to observe an electron, I collapse the probability wave and determine its position or momentum, does that signify that the universe does indeed allow for my free will?

Lest anyone be in any doubt about the quantum description of the electron vis-à-vis its position and/or momentum, we are not talking about a limitation of the measuring equipment to determine either or both, we are talking about the electron having no position nor momentum until we make the measurement of one or the other. This is crucial to the debate above.

Einstein was not about to lie down and quietly concede the point to Bohr and his Copenhagen confederates. In 1935 he, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen invented a thought (gedanken) experiment designed to expose the incompleteness of QM. This became known as the EPR paradox. The measurement problem as described above is one of the bizarre outcomes of QM but it leads into another, even more bizarre, consequence and this is what Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen latched on to in describing the paradox.

The EPR Paradox

Two particles can exist in a state referred to as “entangled” – that is, they behave as one physical system. The EPR argument centred around entanglement together with a particular measurement. In addition to position and momentum, another property of a particle is that known as its “spin”. Using convenient terms, we could say that the spin is either “up” or “down”. So, with the entangled pair, if we measure the spin of one particle to be “up”, we can say with absolute certainty that the spin of the other will be “down”. The paradox is this: if we allow the pair to fly apart – even light years apart – the measurement of the spin of one particle should instantly yield certain knowledge of the spin of the other. As neither particle (according to QM) had a definite spin direction until the first measurement was taken, how would the remote particle receive the information determining which spin direction it should display. Einstein’s Special Relativity specifically rules out faster-than-light travel so how could information travel across light years in an instant? Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance” and thought it demonstrated that QM violated causality (a.k.a. determinism), thus rendering it inconsistent. In physics this spooky action at a distance is called “nonlocality”. Einstein maintained that something must be missing from QM – probably some form of hidden variable – that would account for the spookiness.

John Stewart Bell

For many years following the EPR paper, nobody tested the argument experimentally. In 1964, John Stewart Bell – a young physicist from Northern Ireland – produced a theorem that rejects all models of reality based on locality. The proof (Bell’s theorem) states that in order to assume locality, any model (including the hidden variable variety) must satisfy a mathematical inequality, known today as Bell’s Inequality. In 1982 actual experiments carried out by Alain Aspect and his team (and others since) appear to prove that Bell’s inequality is violated and left little doubt that nonlocality is a fact of nature – at least at the sub-microscopic level. Just so that we are sure about what nonlocality means, let’s use a big world analogy: two men are given flags and told that if one raises his flag, the other must drop his. They are sent a short distance apart and we ask first man to raise his flag; immediately the second man drops his. Ok, we say, the second man must have reacted when he saw the first flag go up. So we send the first man to New York and the other to Tokyo. We film and accurately time the proceedings and ask the first man to raise his flag. Immediately the second man drops his. How? Maybe the second man had a radio and received a signal? But no, we can even rule that out because his flag dropped before the time it would take for a radio signal – travelling at the speed of light, of course – could reach him. It is as if the space between the two men did not exist and the second man knows instantly what the first is doing. This is a very simplistic analogy, of course, and it must be pointed out that there is little present evidence of “big world” nonlocality although, recently, experiments by Anton Zeilinger and his group have confirmed that essential "spookiness" and confounded those hoping for a return to "rational" physics.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Quantum Mechanics

The Dreams Stuff is Made Of

Someone recently said of quantum mechanics that we don't get it because the way we think about it is all wrong. That we should think of reality as a dream. I probably agree.

I mentioned, at our last meeting, that I would post an article I wrote some time ago. It is rather long so I'll split it over a few posts. Needless to say that I am no physicist - my 1968 O Level didn't even mention QM. But, like so many others, I find the subject fascinating because it is the one area of science that hints at a greater reality that is beyond the lab, beyond the arrogant certainty of materialists and it may hold the key to a whole new world.

This could well be my last contribution to the group, so I hope you enjoy it.

Part One: From the Strange to the Bizarre

The rock solid foundations of classical physics were shaken by Einstein and relativity and the door was now open for even more weirdness. The early 20th century saw the development of a new branch of theoretical physics which, at times, more closely resembled philosophy than traditional science. Here the work was done not so much in the empirical world of the lab but increasingly in the abstract, using mathematical models and in “thought experiments”. One of the originators of this new science was Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist now regarded as the father of Quantum Mechanics.

Neils Bohr

But let’s go back a little. In the late 1890′s, Max Planck had applied his imagination to explain another of these stubborn late 19th century scientific anomalies: so called “black body radiation”. Put simply, this is to do with why materials glow brighter the hotter they get. Planck didn’t much like what he found: that the energy emitted by these black bodies behaved, not as waves, but as discrete packets called “quanta”. In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper on the quantum nature of light (the photoelectric effect): a paper which was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1921. Einstein proposed that light can be thought of as a constant stream of particles (think of night-time tracer bullets in a war movie). Each of these particles, or photons, contained an amount of energy proportional to the frequency of the radiation. Thus, photons of red light would contain less energy than those of blue light because blue has a higher frequency than red.

Now, all this led to a degree of discomfort among the physicists of the time including Planck and Einstein themselves. Almost a hundred years earlier, an Englishman named Thomas Young invented his famous two-slit experiment to demonstrate the wave-like properties of light (see the video below). On the other hand, Planck and Einstein had now shown a distinct particle-like behaviour. It appeared that both positions were correct though they should have been mutually exclusive.

Back to Niels Bohr.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of Bohr’s long and productive career was his principle of complementarity. The two-slit experiment mentioned above shows the wave nature of light because, if light is projected through two slits on to a screen behind, wave interference patterns can be seen on the screen. Think of two pebbles dropped into a pond: the ripples of one will interfere with the ripples of the other. This can only happen with waves. However, what if we had a projector that could send discrete particles of light (photons) through the slits? Individual particles, one at a time, cannot possibly interfere with each other because only one particle is going through either of the slits at any moment. Thus, common sense would insist, particles cannot produce interference patterns. The problem for the common sense view is that they do! How? To this day nobody really knows although there are several competing interpretations. Nevertheless, this is not just theoretical musing on the part of quantum physicists: the particle gun two-slit experiment has been performed.

If it has not become clear yet, we are now into an area of physics where the nature of reality itself is in question. How can something like light be two things at once, each valid, each dependent upon how we observe it. If we design an instrument to observe the wave properties of light, then light is a wave. If we design experiments to show the particle nature of light, then light is made up of particles. Common sense says it can’t be both. Niels Bohr says “Oh yes it can!”. Bohr tells us that we cannot think in classical “either-or” terms when considering quantum effects. In the two-slit experiment, the nature of light is indeterminate until we make a measurement: the act of measurement determines its “reality”. This is complementarity and it is the basis of the so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation” of Quantum Mechanics (Bohr was a professor at Copenhagen). [This link to Robert M. Pirsig's essay is well worth a close look.]

Werner Heisenberg

The debate over wave-particle duality rages on to this day. Another aspect of Quantum Mechanics that has produced even more controversy is the "Uncertainty Principle". This was the work of German physicist, Werner Heisenberg and it became the other main ingredient of the Copenhagen Interpretation. Like complementarity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty maintained the position that – at least at the sub-atomic level – reality is nebulous.

Particles such as electrons have properties such as position and momentum but the Uncertainty Principle states that if we attempt to measure one of these values, it is then impossible to know the precise value of the other. In the big world of planes, trains and automobiles, this would be like a driver saying: “my speedometer tells me that I’m doing 40 mph but, because I’ve determined that, I can’t say where I am”. Of course, the quantum effects are not really noticeable in the big world. So, again, uncertainty says that the more accurately you measure the position of a particle, the less sure you are of its momentum (and vice-versa).

The logical conclusion of all this is that, if we cannot say anything precise about the physical nature of a particle until we interact with it (observe or measure it), then it does not have a precise reality until that interaction takes place. Some interpret this by saying that I (the observer) am required to bring into physical reality those things which I observe. Others maintain that an observer is not required, only some form of interaction. But as far as I can tell, few really dispute the uncertainty principle.

Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist and contemporary of Heisenberg, devised a now famous “thought experiment” to illustrate quantum uncertainty. This has become known, simply, as “Schrödinger’s Cat”. To paraphrase this oft-repeated story: a cat is shut in a box with a sealed bottle of poison gas and a triggering device. This device is actuated (or not) by a random quantum event (a radioactive particle decay) with a 50% probability of happening within a certain time. If the event does take place, the device triggers a hammer which breaks the glass and releases the poison. When the time is up, an observer opens the box and the cat is either alive or dead but the question is: in what state was the cat before the observation? Uncertainty would have it that it was both alive and dead!

Schrödinger’s important legacy to Quantum Mechanics is, however, his wave equation. Another physicist, Louis de Broglie, theorised that if electromagnetic energy can behave as particles then perhaps particles such as electrons also behave as waves. Schrödinger agreed and formalised the wave theory of matter in his equations. So now, instead of imagining electrons as little balls of matter in orbit around a much bigger ball called the nucleus, we have a “standing” wave surrounding the nucleus. In this picture, the electron is not a particle at a specific orbital position unless and until we measure it and “collapse the wave”. Later, Max Born – another German physicist and good friend of Albert Einstein – discovered a statistical property of the wave equation: if it was multiplied by itself (squared), it would predict the probability of finding the position of a particle. He concluded that the wave function was a mere mathematical abstraction and that the particles were – always – physically discrete, classical points of matter. Einstein agreed. He was one of the opponents of the nebulous view of the Copenhagen Interpretation, arguing famously that “God doesn’t play dice”.