I’m told that readers like to get to know their authors better. So here’s my life story in brief (really).
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in the summer of 1956. I don’t remember that year but it was probably hot like most summers (winters are another story). When I turned five, my family moved an hour north to Gimli to live on the airforce base community of about 120 homes.
Looking back, I think I lived a fairly carefree life in that tiny town. We climbed trees and made forts in the nearby woods. We played hide-and-seek and football in the town park. We were in by dark as dictated by strict parents. We were all fairly poor (our family of five kids had one bicycle to share) but life was good.
When I turned twelve, we moved to a suburb of Montreal where we lived until I graduated high school the first time. Our town was French-English bilingual and had three school systems: French (Catholic, by default), English Public, and English Catholic. I went to the latter. They were good schools, not taught by nuns or brothers, but still with regular readings from the Bible.
Unlike what I hear about some religious schools, my schools had a solid math and science program. And there were a number of academic “keeners” in my cohort of fifty. In my final year of high school in Montreal we had to choose between algebra and biology in our schedules. Six of us petitioned the Vice Principal and he agreed to meet with us in a spare period Friday afternoons to teach us the Biology course.
In Quebec at the time, you graduated high school in Grade 11 and went to CEGEP (like junior college) for two years before university. But after Grade 11, my family moved to Regina, in the western part of the country, where high school went to Grade 12. So it was back to that for another year. I’d already set my sights on going to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, so I put up with Grade 12, graduated from high school a second time, and moved to the west coast of Canada at the end of one year in Regina. I loved SFU. I loved it so much that it took me 16 years to finally graduate and, by the time I did, I had almost two complete degrees worth of courses.
My BSc. was officially in Computing Science, but I also had courses in all the sciences, in math, in psychology, in sociology, in political science, and in Mandarin b
y the time I was done. I took eight years off in the middle of my degree, to work, get married, leave Vancouver, work more, get divorced, meet my future wife, and return to Vancouver.
I hoped to combine my interests in cognitive psychology with my background in programming languages and artificial intelligence to get a really cool job. But reality slapped me into place pretty quickly. Instead, I went to work writing accounting software in Vancouver (I know) and built up a good reputation as a systems designer and programmer. Until I burned out. For me, burning out, came with anxiety and panic attacks and the only way to cure them was to quit that line of work forever. Oddly, my solution was to go back to school.
So, at the age of 34, I decided to return and finish a degree in Biochemistry. I think I might be the only person in the world who started in computing and then went into biology. Bioinformatics was becoming all the rage and many biologists were eschewing the lab for the desktop just as I was headed the other way.
I took enough undergrad courses over the next two years that they let me into the MSc. program at SFU. My favorite course had to be Developmental Biology as that opened me to how different organisms pattern their growth. How and why organisms age and die was always my main interest and I hoped to find grad work in that area. But it turned out I never did for a variety of foolish reasons.
I lasted exactly one year in the masters program at SFU. I didn’t like my Supervisor and he was the only one working in my desired field. When I won a National scholarship, good anywhere in the country, I found someone more conducive to the kind of work I wanted to do and, once again moved to a different city.
This time, my wife and I plunked ourselves down in the wintry heart of Canada, Edmonton, Alberta, and I began graduate studies in molecular biology and genetics. I worked on a tiny part of nervous system development of the microscopic nematode C. elegans (look it up). For seven years. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that scientific research is easy. It isn’t. It’s a gruelling, drudging struggle against experiments that don’t work and results that don’t make sense. But I finally finished it.
Edmonton turned out to be not so bad. Sure, winters were harsh, but summers (all four months from June to September) were delightful. My wife and I got involved in volunteer work at the Northern Lights Folk Club (fabulous music), went to summer festivals, discovered great coffee houses, and worked our tails off.
I finished my PhD program at just the right time. Canada had decided it needed to get involved in the next big thing a few years earlier and built The National Institute for Nanotechnology right across from the Biology building on the University of Alberta campus. Nano! And Synbio! I was sold.
I found a postdoc Supervisor who worked at NINT (as the nanotech institute was called) and went to work there on what we called “The Nanobot” project. The idea was to develop an E. coli bacterial cell that could recognize cancerous cells in a human and secrete anti-cancer agents into the diseased tissue. Great idea! Hard to do. But we got a few papers out of it. In science, that’s what matters most: publications.
I worked there five years. They were interesting years, but after a while, I wanted more independence. I was introduced to an entrepreneur in the business incubator of our building. He had some interesting ideas about dealing with one of the biggest problems of modern society: how fossil fuel combustion leads to global climate change.
I looked into the problem a bit and came up with the hint of an idea of how to convert carbon dioxide back into natural gas using bacteria and sunlight. We had a concept for a business. Over the course of six months, I read more about the basic science and sketched out the general approach we could take. I was starting to get worried. Working in any academic institution, but particularly for a national research institute, you have no intellectual property rights to your inventions. The government owns everything you think up.
I didn’t have the technology fleshed out yet, but I was getting close. I approached the NINT director with the idea and he suggested I discuss it with my Supervisor. That was a no go. I discussed it with my future business partner who was very encouraging about our chances of raising private capital. So, in 2010 I left NINT and struck out into the corporate world. What a mistake that would turn out to be.
It turned out to be very hard to raise money for an unproven technology with a 5-10 year development plan in the middle of the deepest recession to hit the global economy since the 1930s. We tried. We talked to “Angel investors”; we went to Silicon Valley and talked to “Vulture” (I mean Venture) Capitalists; we tried friends and family (none of them had money).
As I fleshed out my ideas even more, I began to realize that my business “partner” had set us up in a “Jobs and Wozniak” relationship, just like the early days of Apple Computers. I was Wozniak, the technical expert with deep scientific knowledge, and he was Jobs, the salesman, the evangelist who was going to bring in the money. Only, he wasn’t bringing in any money and my wife and I were falling behind, spending funds we didn’t have on raising money we couldn’t get.
I started to see my “partner” as a high-flier, the kind of guy who likes to talk big and look successful but who is without substance. Worse, the few potential investors we did have, knew my partner, had a history with him, and wouldn’t put in a penny as long as he was involved. With their encouragement, I terminated the partnership, taking the rest of the Board of Directors with me. Months of legal and personal threats ensued. Some day I’ll incorporate this story into a thriller novel, full of suspense, intrigue, big money, and death threats. I think it’ll be a fun read, though it was no fun to live.
To avoid a lawsuit, I designed a different technology to extract carbon dioxide from big industrial emitters and convert it to methane with bacteria and sunlight. I think my second attempt was more viable than my first. A couple of our investors finally came on board. We rented some lab space from NINT (I even got my old desk back) and I was back in the research game.
We had a chance. At an Angel Investors conference, we were voted “Most likely to go public” (i.e. to form a company listed on one of the big stock exchanges). We had people’s interest. We got enough money from a small grant to hire a researcher while I kept writing proposals for more matching funds. We got close but not quite there.
In the end, the big, cautious, public money never came. Three proposals, three failures. The Chairman of the Board died an untimely death from an inoperable brain tumor. Without matching public funds, and looking at another three years of research before proof-of-concept, I pulled the plug on the company. I couldn’t take my investors money any more. We needed a million dollars to get to the finish line and it just felt like too much to ask. Operating on a shoestring budget, as we had for the previous three years, didn’t seem feasible anymore.
My wife and I took her our savings, bought a place in Cuenca, Ecuador and “retired.” We took a year or so to adjust to life in a different country. We worked on our Spanish and explored the Andean city, the coast, and the jungle area. We worked on our health; we walked all over Cuenca and took up Tai Chi. I taught myself Java and played around with some AI-type programming. Then I discovered the world of writing and the Deplosion Series was born.
So, what does all of this have to do with Empirical Physicalism and with what I believe to be true, today?
In my last few years in Edmonton, I’d read Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” It made a good case for the silliness of religion, particularly evangelical Christianity. I followed that up with Hitchens’ “God is not Great” which I found a little less convincing. That was probably because Dawkins, being a biologist, spoke in a language I found compelling. To be fair, I also read Francis Collins’ “The Language of God.” Collins was a well known biologist, head of the NIH. I thought his writings were sentimental nonsense.
I was on the road to atheism. In truth, I had long ago rejected the bible as the literal word of God. My education was in science and rational thought. It’s impossible to be a geneticist and not know that evolution is a fundamental concept; even Collins can see that. The teachings of Christ, like those of Buddha or Confucius, are filled with good moral lessons and advice on how to be a good person. But, when I looked at how people behaved in the real world, I saw “true believers” were far more likely to be intolerant, close-minded, fearful, and bigoted than the philosophy they espoused.
When I was much younger, I had explored the worlds of Lobsang Rampa and Carlos Castaneda. I was familiar with Tibetan Buddhism and drug-fueled shamanism. I taught myself to read palms, tarot cards, and tea leaves. I meditated and explored lucid dreaming. Nothing informed me of the workings of the world as much as science. Everything else was revealed as magical mysticism, built on smoke and imagination.
Still, God, the Creator, was a possibility. There are three important things for which science doesn’t yet have an answer: consciousness, abiogenesis, and the origin of the universe. Most of us call arguments that go, “But, science doesn’t know everything, so God” a God-of-the-gaps argument. It is important to recognize that science doesn’t yet have all the answers (and may never) and to be okay with that recognition. Still, as you’ll see, I think the scientific method is far more likely to get us to the truth than simply assuming miracles.
As a biologist, I was convinced that life is simply chemistry; complex, messy chemistry but chemistry nonetheless. I’ve published peer-reviewed articles about mathematical, computational models of the chemistry of cells. I’ve manipulated genes and studied their effects on organisms. I was certain that, with time and research, we would develop good models for the natural origins of life from the chemical environment of the early Earth. Life does not need God.
As a computer scientist with a background in cognitive psychology, I was convinced that consciousness was an emergent phenomenon of the brain. But I had to think more about the human soul. What could it be? How could it work? Some of my thoughts were posted in the blog “Do we have a soul?” The short answer is: almost certainly not. The physics doesn’t make sense. I’ve also incorporated my thoughts in The Deplosion Series of sci-fi novels, mostly in the “concepta” and “persona” of the Cybrids. I think it’s only a matter of time before we develop actual self-conscious AI based on a human-like mental data structure. As I’ve been writing the novels and reading about it more, I have some new ideas to work on. Consciousness does not need God.
That left the third area: the origin of the universe. Where did everything come from? I eagerly read Lawrence Krauss’ “A Universe from Nothing” hoping to gain some insight into this. But I was disappointed in the end. Sure, it’s a great review of the relationship between cosmology and quantum mechanics. Andrew Thomas’ series “Hidden In Plain Sight” is equally instructive. But neither can claim more than, “We don’t know yet.”
There are a few ideas: the multiverse, brane theory, black hole universes, oscillating universes, and so on. None of them satisfied me, though I found them all interesting. After more deep thought, I came up with the “Virtual Particle Chaos Hypothesis” which I’ve also blogged about. For me, as incomplete as it may be, developing these ideas convinced me there was a way for matter to organize itself from a state “prior to” the Big Bang. (I put “prior” in scare quotes because the idea of time before the Big Bang is a difficult one.) The shuffle of possible particle-particle interactions, leading to stable matter, could evolve without a Creator, into the natural laws we have today. The universe did not need God.
I was convinced. Whether my ideas are correct or not, I am certain scientists will one day, have a good theory for how a universe could come into existence in wholly natural ways. The last refuge of God was exposed. God wasn’t needed to explain abiogenesis, consciousness, or the natural origin of the universe. I became a Gnostic atheist, one who is certain God doesn’t exist.
But I wanted to put a positive spin on what I thought to be true and on how I came to that position. So I invented a new label for my philosophy: Empirical Physicalism. Empirical, because reasoning from evidence is the only way we have to properly support our notions of the universe. Physicalism, because evidence can only come from our experience of the universe, from measurements of what is real.
Empirical Physicalism is a philosophy that says we are alive in a natural universe. The universe does not care about us. It neither looks out for our wellbeing nor does it try to hurt us; it just is. Humans have no special position in the natural universe, nor does planet Earth or our solar system. We may not be alone in the universe, we may not be the only intelligent life form in the cosmos, but we are also not the “chosen people.” We, alone, are responsible for our development as a species and for our environment, as much or as little as we can affect it.
This philosophy is a materialistic one, but I call it physicalism because ”materialism” has come to have other undesirable connotations. But physicalism is not barren of beauty. Consciousness, love, kindness, community are all concepts that arise naturally as emergent phenomena of a complex conceptual system: the mind in its brain. That mind is as real as a rock, different but still natural, powered by its complex bioelectrical physiology.
Empirical Physicalism faces the universe and our place in it with a sense of pragmatism. It asks “what works?” What helps us survive, be happy, find our own meaning, make progress, help others? That’s still an open question. There’s lots to learn. There’s lots to think about.