How a Mathematician Got Turned Into a Mystic
Ode to Pocohontas
The wind which blows
through all our souls,
The spirit, the qi
Can you not see?
Can you not see the colors of the wind?
From age one to age 8, my religion was Roman Catholic, really echoing the teachings from my mother with only distant respect for my father. From age 8 to age 15, my religion was mathematics, and logic, which I considered together. For example, when I was twelve, I remember riding on the train from the University of Pennsylvania (where I took the junior advanced calculus course for regular undergraduates) reading a book called Metamathematics (by Klein?) recommended by my revered mathematics teacher of that year, Dr. Schub, which I approached as a kind of guide to everything. At age 15, in my senior year at Lawrenceville, I took several courses in mathematics at Princeton, including a graduate course in logic taught by Alonzo Church; I finished the first half, and attended all the second half, but dropped out of full involvement, as I reconsidered just how far one can go with deductive logic.
======== Quick summary of that earlier stuff to age 15
In fact, even as I start to tell the story... I want to tell it differently from the way I would tell it then, when I would report the raw logic and verbal reasoning I went through. Now I understand that the nonverbal part of the brain (let alone the “soul”!) is fully conscious, and I easily access my memories of what I was thinking at a conscious nonverbal level in the early days. In a way I resent those psychologists who talk about the nonverbal level of brain intelligence as “the unconscious” or “the subconscious”. When they look at a cat or a mouse, do they imagine that this creature is totally unconscious of what it experiences or what it does? Do they imagine that its brain is empty of all intelligence?”
But since I don’t want to spend too much time... I won’t really tell the stories about Catholic childhood, a bloody cross over my crib which puzzled me when I was eight months old and nonverbal, a picture of Jesus with the Sacred Heart at Holy Martyrs School which seemed more positive and reminded me of my mother’s spirit of love, the scary nuns who told us stories of kids turning into pillars of salt and who dreamed of how they could have enlightened poor Alexander when he built a temple to the unknown God... the book by Fred Hoyle, The Nature of the Universe, which really got me thinking when I read it at eight age and thought about it on the way to the bathtub... the shot of male hormones which Dr. Bone gave me at age 8.(either as a precaution after a hernia operation at age 7 or intense poison ivy, both indicators of how much time I spent outdoors in the woods).. the beautiful babysitter I tried to impress who gave me her paperback “algebra made easy” book soon after... questions about ethics and the proper goal of life at age 12 (which earned me a letter from the Vatican saying I was officially ex communicato)... refusing to sing any words which declared a belief in God even in the very civilized private school I arranged to go to after I totally rejected Catholicism and theism altogether...
Feeling ever more powerful in my mind, as I learned more mathematics and science, and one day staring out at a snowstorm through a huge window and feeling as if I could swirl things... And the “Aunt Mary” story I told my kids later; you can find it via the search engine on this blog.
But even then, I was firmly, clearly, logically committed to the extreme “What You See Is What You get” materialist view of reality, with total rejection of religion, paranormal, and all that. I do remember my mother telling me many times I should respect the story of Ferdinand the bull, who needed to learn to smell the flowers. (But I also remember the day that John Von Neumann died and what my mother said about that, as she stood on the other side of a white enamel kitchen table in our small GI house in Oreland, Pennsylvania, which we moved out of when I was 8.) Oh, and I did some experiments with hypnosis, following a book by Estabrooks, linked to lots of thought about AI, neural networks, computers and so on, which I worked on even before the arrival of FORTRAN.
== logical transition number one: to first-level sanity
Age 15 was the time of my first major reworking of my “ego.” Freud SOMETIMES uses the word “ego” to refer to the complex of verbal, symbolic reasoning we humans often rely on very heavily. At www.werbos.com/Mind_in_time.pdf, a paper published in Russia, I describe how the formal axiomatic foundations we develop are ever so crucial to human develop, once we let logic into our lives, as I did at age 8. Some might even say we start becoming humans, and grow out of being animals, when we let logic into our lives (I apologize for the fuzziness of this, but it is an important stage) – but at age 15 I made a rather discrete transition from being a human to being a first-level sane human, a human who actually did “smell the flowers.” In my ego, the transition was basically simple: instead of grounding myself in deductive logic, I grounded myself in inductive logic, which applies the scientific method to life, which fully understands the importance of the flow of empirical data (i.e. direct experience) as co-equal with logic in developing rational, stochastic well-defined conclusions about the state and the dynamics of the world we live in (including the state of ourselves seen in the mirror). And which pays full attention to “primary affective feedback,” the raw feelings of “this good,” “this bad,” light and dark... and is not confused even by reading parts of what Nietzsche says about such things. Let me not repeat the paper. (See Mind_in_Time for details.)
But none of that implies mysticism. Quite the contrary. In many ways, first level sanity is a recipe for living an energetic meaningful life in the total absence of any “supernatural.” I suspect that the transition which I made at age 8 is a lot like a major transition which John Stuart Mills made (described in the book Male Hysteria). He (and I) was a utilitarian both before and after, but more aware of feeling and of the real ground of our thoughts (even at the purely brain level).
At the end of age 15, just before starting Harvard, I was deeply inspired by reading D.O. Hebb, the Organization of Behavior, which begins by describing how proper Bayesian reasoning tells us to reject all those silly ideas about parapsychology despite what might seem like persuasive research studies; I agreed. One of my motives in embarking on a deep study of intelligence and neural networks was the drive to get the whole world to understand this better, and to become more sane in its behavior. (This was also the summer of Barry Goldwater’s peak.)
I remember a friend at Harvard who later said that age 15 was when I changed from being a pure mathematician to being an applied mathematician. But no, Dr. Schub. I never gave up my mathematics.
I should probably say at least a little bit about Lincoln Kaye, Lucy Schneider (hi!), and Bertrand Russell, all of whom had an effect on this transition. For example, I was repelled by what Linc told me about the concept of yin and yang; the idea that being female must be associated with being small and dark and wimpy and mousy really upset me. I had an image of the ideal woman I longed for who would be an exact opposite of that, and it’s funny that the image in my mind at that time was so close to Luda, whom I did not meet in mundane reality until late 1996! But when I opened myself to Lucy (as much as Catholic upbringing would allow), I had feelings on course to marrying her – certainly not a mouse, but certainly not such an Amazon woman as Luda. That ended by her choice. I also have a letter in my files (and scanned) from Betrand Russell to me, kindly explaining some simple points about logic, and nailing down key aspects of the transition in my ego.
Before age 15, I was somewhat deep into classical music, but Linc urged me to really let music “inside me.” I was a bit puzzled by his love of Mahler (who seemed a bit shallow and silly to me at the time, compared for example with Stravinsky and Bartok). After I made my ego transition, I certainly did let music get more “inside me,” and listening to my stereo was a big part of my life by senior year at Harvard.
First order sanity basically gives one all the powers which Estabrooks describes as the power of autohypnosis, available all the time (though in drowsy afternoons that may be limited).
==== logical transition number two, spring 1967
As I look back on the curious things I had seen by 1967 (age 19, when I was a senior at Harvard living on the “Gold Coast” of Adams House), it is a bit amazing to me now how firmly I rejected them all. Like the Aunt Mary story. Like personal experiences my mother told me about. By the Bayesian logic seemed overwhelming: based on what we know of physics, it seemed very clear that the prior probability of such things being real is incredibly low. Also, the accounts of paranormal and spirit in world culture get to be so extreme and self-contradictory and obviously biased and silly that I would not count them as much for evidence, in proper Bayesian convolution. (Hey folks, I still think in mathematics. I often feel like a bit of a fraud when I make it seem as if I am thinking in English! Mathematics and images first, English much later, English mainly as part of how to find crude fuzzy structure in the space of strategic planning. Hey, is that sentence an example proving how I don’t really think in English?)
I still remember the day (March something) in 1967 when that all changed. I have already written up and spoken that story many times. For example, in my chapter on “Why Space?” in a book on space policy edited by Krone from Apogee, posted at www.werbos.com/space.htm. I remember feeling unusual new energy when I retold it out loud to an audience of about a thousand people near Qufu, the “Vatican of Confucianism,” in a talk on “Neural Networks and Confiucianism.” I felt a special shiver up my spine as I told the story there, because the story involves Mao Tse Tung, and it seemed to reflect more of the future than it seemed to back at that time in 1967.
But let me be brief. One day, at lunch in Adams House, we had an intense debate about whether Mao might be open to trade with the US. Since I read the New York Times from cover to cover every morning back then (lying in bed, after quickly dragging it from my door)... I quoted two earlier speeches by Mao, and the “if” conditions he gave, which I felt the US could meet without abandoning Mao or giving up the principles of us on the executive committee of the Young Republicans. (I was still an intense moderate Republican then, working with Ripon Society; I even had a nice conversation with Nixon in a Boston bar in 1966.) The SDS folks in the debate disagreed; “OUR Mao would never trade with you dirty rats, at least not before the full occupation of Taiwan by the red army.” So then I quoted verbatim a new speech I remembered from Mao, from when I was reading in bed... the page numbers (from and something like page 31, NOW I forget the number)... the new “if.” When the SDS folks look dumbfounded, I “moved in for the kill.” (Oops. Sorry. I was sane, but not yet Quaker.) Loudly quoted every sentence, and my young Republican friends loved the moment.
Until dinner time. I had just let that go, and gone back to my serious work of the day, probably related to a professor at MIT. (Minsky or Saloma, both of whom I took independent studies with.) Dinner that day was incredibly depressing. The SDS people and the Young Republicans had both scoured all the resources available at Harvard very energetically, and did not find the story I had quoted in such detail. They had found just how many different editions there were of the New York Times, and verified that not a one of them had that story. The Young Republicans really tried to be helpful and said they could try even more newspapers beyond UPI and AP and Globe (which they had checked)... but I said, no, I remembered it quite clearly in the New York Times, the only paper I subscribed to... if it’s not there... Have I lost my mind? My mind really SEEMED to be working so well, but...?
The following morning was a real shocker not only for me but for the others. There it was exactly as described... but I had not quoted the date, which was the next morning. I really wondered: “NOW what do I do with may Bayesian reasoning? How can I do Bayesian reasoning if I just discount the whole stream of most solid, definite experience I rely on? I myself am stuck with my own experience to some degree, even if I can throw in a few very careful caveats. Such caveats could lead to madness, so they are not the way.” Two major reconstructions of my ego: (1) I formally decided to myself that there is a 50% probability that the stuff we call paranormal might be real somehow after all; and (2) precisely because the logic against it is so strong, it becomes a really first priority issue to try to understand what is going on here, and how one might explain (or discount) the paranormal nature of this.
Given the highly confused an unreliable nature of what I could read about paranormal or spiritual experiences of others, I decided to work hard to get MORE DATA. “DATA is what I need here.” How could I refine the possibilities in such a huge space of possible explanations, without a lot more data (including the kind of reliable data which might help me calibrate what to believe form other people)? At some level, I also remembered how basic physics is also part of the proper “realm of Von Neumann,” and opened my mind a bit to the scary idea of going back and revisiting that complex area as well, to get a better idea of what is or is not possible after all. (I later learned that things we call “paranormal” and even what people interpret as “soul” is not so impossible after all, even in empirically-grounded physics.)
Per (1): I ordered myself to “open all my eyes” and look for any evidence I could find of what might be going on. And I resolved to look very actively for new data, and try to find ways to get the data of first person experience I needed to try to sort out what I believed.
========== logical transition number three, summer of 1969
From 1967, to 1969, I did not see anything evidentiary about the paranormal or spiritual. I spent 1967-1968 getting an M.Sc. at the London School of Economics, trying to restore the more human side of my life, but much more involved in seminars on world politics, European institutions and the search for a future mate. I do remember the day I audited a class by Karl Popper, when he suddenly unexpectedly smiled, singled me out, and asked me to address his class on the empirical method as applied to ethics. Maybe Karl Popper knew more than I realized, and I regret I never had a chance to learn more about that. Nothing paranormal there – unless you count my strong reactions to a fellow student, Judith Landstein, whom I later saw as a kind of “shadow” or “foreshadow” of Luda. (But my former Catholic background still got in the way.) I also spent a lot of time writing programs in FORTRAN, which I took to the University of London computer (King’s College?) to begin to implement some of the neural network ideas I had at the time.
Likewise, nothing very esoteric in the summer of 1968, when I had a job at the RAND corporation in California and then did my first year in the Harvard PhD program in applied mathematics. RAND reminded me a bit of a James Bond movie, with bright sun and beach and palm trees and security people, but only one woman I found attractive. That was relevant, because I tried to get close to her, and discovered more than I had expected. That summer I also borrowed a book on quantum physics from the RAND library, my only preparation for a graduate course on quantum physics I then took that fall.
In 1967, I did start reading science fiction again. (I hadn’t done so since high school). I did look for ideas there about what MIGHT be going on.
The big ego-changing event of 1969 was a consequence of the 1968 job. When I arrived in Ann Arbor for a new summer job, I had agreed to rent an upstairs room in a private house on Main Street. But when I entered that room, I had overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. It LOOKED just fine to me, a nice woody feeling similar in a way to my old room in Adams House. But somehow... something horrible. I did not know what to do. Because of the 1967 experience, I did not just laugh off this very strong negative feeling. I walked out to a pay phone along the street, and called up my mother (then an incredibly sensitive Irish Catholic druid kind of person) and asked what she would feel about this. Bear in mind, that I had no other place to sleep that night, I had limited money, and I was carrying everything in a big heavy suitcase, and had never been to the area before. “DO listen to your feelings if your feelings are THAT strong. You can find a place to sleep.” I looked around, and could see a lit-up tower about half a mile away, across a dark quadrangle. The tower turned out to be a student building, mostly unoccupied for the summer, and I signed a lease on the spot.
The next morning, a local headline “Murder on Main Street.” The guy had broken in the door to where I was, found no one, then broke into the only other apartment on that floor, and killed (knifed) the person sleeping there in the darkness. I have written more about this elsewhere, but here the impact was two-fold: (1) this paranormal feeling stuff did seem more likely to be real after all, and, just as important, personal; and (2) I resolved to order my “subconscious” to splits its feelings about those James Bond movies, still maintaining love for sun and beaches and beautiful Russian women and high technology, but firmly keeping weapons and nastiness as far away as humanly possible.
I started to construct one possible theory of what the paranormal stuff might be about. The time slippage did not puzzle me so much, since I certainly knew about time-symmetry even in special relativity. But the transfer of information puzzled me. The obvious explanation would be something like radio, based on a force field not yet known (hey, if you don’t know anything about dark energy or dark matter, why assume it couldn’t be active?). How could such a communications capability evolve to be part of our brains? Well, it took a lot of time and some very special molecules for eyes to evolve; H.G. Wells has a great story about the Kingdom of the Blind, showing how weird and occult and sacriligeous our eyes could seem to people who hadn’t yet reach that stage of evolution. So are we at the start of such a transition in evolution, as our new eyes start to develop? I then decided on a strong personal commitment to support that progress in evolution – a commitment which later waned and disappeared, but came back in 2009.
I no longer believe that theory, because a growth in data has convinced me that a more radical theory (but still viable in 3+1-D) is necessary. However, I see that evolution in DNA is part of the story.
=========== logical transition number four, summer of 1971
Back to another summer in Ann Arbor. Where weirdness is born?
Actually, from summer 1969 to summer 1971, I was open and personal about esoteric feelings. It was not a purely mundane time, even though I was working very hard in courses, such as Schwinger’s courses in advanced quantum field theory. In truth, it was also a period when a fellow student, Margaret Ho (from a family which started in Beijing, moved to Hong Kong when she was two, and moved permanently to Pittsburgh when she was eight), followed perfectly traditional Chinese practices to smoothly and easily slide me out of remnants of Catholic and Anglican culture. Very early in the game I asked if she would marry me and “be the mother of my children,’ and she agreed quite definitely. I really couldn’t say that our existence was entirely earthbound and mundane. Also, I feel great thanks to my old Lawrenceville friend Chen, who also joined the Harvard PhD program in applied math and intoduced me to her (and earlier introduced me to Confucianism).
I will not repeat details of what she said coming back from her family, after a visit when she agreed to break off the engagement. I can say it was the most painful period of my life, bar none. I felt as if all the colors in the world were permanently gone, and I remember having to control my body like a puppet from afar just to inject the minimum quantity of food into it. My ego and my soul kept me alive, when normally I would have just died, really. (Some day I should also talk about a Harvard friend Jeff Keppel who also experienced things.) But I do remember a very bleak day, walking up Massachusetts avenue, looking at a tree and reaching out... and feeling how life and gentleness were not entirely gone from the world...
In such a state of mind, perhaps cauterized emotionally and still somewhat on remote control, I started a job in Ann Arbor with the Bendix Office of National Security Studies, which paid enough that I could rent a car and drive to work (again at University Towers) and eat at restaurants. I do remember a nice German restaurant I liked, in 1969 or 1971 (sorry!) and a nice German woman (no romantic connection) who mentioned her work with the Princeton group studying anomalous phenomena, which reminded me of my desire to be helpful with that next phase of evolution.
In the evolution of paranormal abilities... I tried to get a feeling or picture of who it was I was committing to try to be special help to. And forgive me... yes, I had a very extreme and anomalous dose of testosterone biasing my thoughts (hey, folks, testosterone encourages friendliness... well, a complex subject)... I probably had read some stuff by Anne McCaffrey by then, giving HER picture... what does a psychically sensitive person look like? How can you find them?
That was background. Here was the jolting experience of 1971. One day, eating (dinner?) in a Howard Johnson restaurant, I was served by a waitress with blue eyes who somehow felt like the kind of person I wanted to know. I decided to do an experiment. (If she can’t hear me, nothing is lost. If she CAN hear me, great.) I decided to think a thought very clearly: “If you are ARE one of those people, and you CAN hear me, I am totally putty in your hands, totally under control, to help in whatever way you want. To show you can hear me, just turn to the unusual red ring on my finger, a Harvard ring with a big red stone, and come up and comment on it.”
Dhe then turned around, and focused intently on my hand. Then she saw the ring, a rather special ring, and her eyes opened with the most incredible surprise... not fear but not motion... just weirded out but not ready for any more of this... and she quietly walked away almost as if in a trance of bewilderment. I suppose she wondered what to make of this, but so did I. Once more, new data forced an adjustment of theory.
There was an obvious adjustment to make. OF COURSE, radios require both receivers and transmitters. I forget whether the McCaffrey novel on that topic came before or after. But then I realized this was more personal than I thought. I realized that I too am quite different from the other folks she encountered in her life, even in this realm of the paranormal.
============== logical transition number 5, fall of 1972
By the summer of 1971, I had completed the course requirements for my PhD, and all attention shifted to thesis topic. That was a large subject for me, which I have written about in many places. It was especially frustrating for me years later when a gamesman in AI (of whom there are many, as inventive as Trump in making up stories) said that one of those professors had invented backpropagation first, implicitly... when that same guy refused even to let me have computer time to implement backpropagation in recognizing letters of the alphabet. “It could never work, and I do not believe you could get correct derivatives that way.” Later, as part of the thesis work, I proved that my chain rule for ordered derivatives is exact, but it was unclear for years whether they would even let me have a chance to go for the proof, because feelings were so bad. I respected them less and less, and feelings like that tend to become reciprocal.
Still, while focusing my work and my time on neural networks and intelligent systems, I also made some time to try a few experiments on transmission and such. More and more, I began to see myself as a kind of “bull in the China shop,” ultimate yang, in need of better input data just to guide my use of what I could do, let alone understand more.
In the fall of 1972, for three months, I shared a suite in a slum apartment in Roxbury, in Boston, because of money issues related to some folks in the faculty who actually wanted me to starve me away. I am grateful to my suitemate there, Michael Lambert, who took me in for $80/month room rent, though I was upset later when he double counted utilities and found a way to extract the extra money. In that period I mainly lived off of soybean soup (Michael had found a place to get a whole bushel at wholesale price) and soup made up of long brewing of chicken necks in vinegar (10 cents per pound). I remember times of hands shaking from limited nutrition. For a long time, my daily routine was to walk to the Harvard Medical School Library, across about a mile of sidewalks just full of dog shit, and immerse myself in books on neuroscience. But on a couple of those days, I did read through all the back issues of the journal of the American Society for Parapsychology, to see what ideas I could find there. (I was especially intrigued by the study of a youth names... Julius.. working at a warehouse, where boxes flew in the air when he was working.)
I also remember reading both front page and home page of the Christian Science Monitor, posted next to the sidewalk, which gave me a feeling “If only I could belief something offering more positive hope... but reality is reality..” But I could at least glare at cars in a way which got me across the street pretty easily.
One day, Michael showed me a little paperback book entitled something like “How to help yourself with ESP.” I would have laughed at such a thing in contempt a few years earlier, but at this time, still seeking more and better data on the unknown side of the human mind, I realized: “This guy proposed clear and simple exercise/experiments I could do myself. I don’t need to evaluate his intellect. I only need to try the experiments, and see if they work. If they do, I can learn something. If not, I won’t spend too much time on it.”
The curious thing is that they work, enough for me to do something with. I forget all the details, and some which I remember are not suitable for a blog. The first led me to see and feel energy flows around a little plastic mobile. Unconsciously I learned a kind of deep steadying breathing to marshall my focus, to visualize the motion as it was and as I wanted it to be, and push. Not easy, nor really remarkable, but remarkable enough to give me feedback on the important feeling part of it. The second was basically just a simplified version of the old kundalini exrecise of moving energy from chakra to chakra.. and that worked very neatly, even though (or perhaps because?) I had never even heard of it before. That was an incredible zinger.
After that, I resolved to learn more about what exercises or experiments had been used by serious, focused people all over the world across time. I mentioned a few in my previous blog post. Then at one point, when I was coordinating a group of people supporting Scoop Jackson for President, I met an attractive woman who casually mentioned she belonged to the Rosicrucian Order. I looked into that, studied a bit of the history, and concluded that this would be the least hokey group with the most useful exercises of all the ones I could find; some people found it suspicious that they had been committed to using simple English as much as possible since the massive reorganization under H.Spencer Lewis, but this did not bother me. I read Lewis’s book the Rosicrucian Manual, and it made a lot more sense to me than alternative around then. Lewis was very active in Quakers, but he argued that there is a need for an additional structure of (competing) schools to get deeper into specifics and basic training, even within the absolute freer structure of Quakers and America in general. Though he gave his views/experience of the specifics, in ways which seemed self-contradictory at times, he emphasized the spirit of free inquiry, the “walking question mark.” Some of the old symbolism seemed alien to me, but there was a lot less of that here than in the Catholic Church, for example, and Lewis was careful to subordinate all that to the greater context and to goals which I could fully commit myself to.
And so I joined, and was a member until something like 1981 (after a boss of mine in the US government made some scary noises and I realized I needed to avoid stupid misunderstandings). (Also, by 1981, I had learned enough that I could go to what Lewis described as a later stage anyway.) I still recognize the great importance of having schools out there which address very directly the issue of creating curricula to help people enhance their own experience and capabilities, within a free context in which they can shift from school to school or quite without trouble. With “mystery schools,” as with universities, a certain degree of hierarchy and even evaluation is unavoidable, to build up a system of teachers; this often leads to corruption and death by power seeking, in many schools, but embedding them in a larger (competitive) free society reduces those costs/risks.
For awhile, I disentangled the basic history of this and many other groups. Certainly I noted the roles of Pythagoreans, Stoics and Platonists, a connected part of a long tapestry of mystery schools moving forward to today and back at least to Egypt. As one small part of this, I looked through the magazine Rose-Croix published in France in the nineteenth century and held in Harvard’s Widener library, and compared signatures between that and Lewis’s famous “FUDOSI” charter. I was also intrigued to learn of Walt Disney’s role in the group; great cartoons like Pocohontas (or Wall-E?) were not just superficial in nature.
Today, for the first time in over 30 years, I decided to go back and attend a small Rosicrucian discussion group.. as part of respecting and supporting an important mission.
Who knows? All for now.