Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Contemplating the Deeply Strange

I watched this bloggingheads.tv dialogue between Robert Wright, whose latest book (The Evolution of God) I reviewed in the prior post, and Tyler Cowen, economics professor and prolific blogger at Marginal Revolution. They discussed Wright’s book but also expanded somewhat on each of their own views. One thing both men have in common is that they are non-believers, but take the challenge of responding to religious impulses seriously. I wanted to highlight here a good point made by Cowen. (The relevant parts of the dialogue span a couple of minutes beginning at 38 minutes in, then a few more starting at the 47 minute mark.)

Paraphrasing, Cowen says most non-believers should think more about religion and should specifically take the design/fine-tuning argument seriously: contemplation of this often leads to the concept of a complicated multiverse. He says we need to consider that our common-sense view of the world is wrong, and that there is room for a “deep strangeness” in reality. He mentions quantum mechanics and says one has to come to terms with a reality that seems absurd. He says his alternative to believing in God turns out to be believing something strange as well.

I would add that the multiverse concept in particular, is not only strange, but, if embraced, commits one to acknowledge something transcendent (a reality far beyond our observable universe). Investigations of our world have led to several ways to motivate the multiverse: in addition to the fine-tuning argument and the interpretation of QM, there are extensions of specific cosmological theories (eternal inflation, the string theory “landscape”), and there is the modal realism of philosophers. If a non-believer is motivated to explore deeper explanations of reality, he or she will almost surely end up somewhere well beyond a common-sense starting point.

Once you rule out the supernatural entities and interventions of traditional theism, there’s still a lot of hard work to do to explain what’s given to us: and the journey may lead to places one didn’t intend to go.

26 comments:

Thoughts said...

What always amazes me is the power of elementary eduction to impose an idea of the world on students. The best example of this is our 'view of the world' or 'conscious experience'. Elementary education teaches children a blind naive realism, kids emerge from school believing that what they see exists exactly as they see it. I was once at an 'open day' at my son's school and they had a beautiful model of the eye. When she and I were alone I asked my son's biology teacher how we 'see' and she said the light goes in through here and makes an image there, "on what we call the 'retina'". "But what sees the image on the retina?" I innocently asked. "Its the brain" she replied. It was clear that the teacher was unaware that there was even a problem with such a simple answer. So the school turned out generations of kids who probably suspected that their Play Stations were conscious entities.

School science teaches incomplete explanations as if they were the total truth and the idea that these theories are complete can be as hard to dislodge as any religious fairy tale.

So I would ask 'non-believers' to just think about simple things such as what sees the image on a retina or how perspective works, or why we cannot see our eyes move in a mirror and what sees the face in the mirror when our eyes are moving or why 'now' has always gone or how you could know anything if the present instant is no time at all etc etc ...... Its not rocket science, its simply being awake!

Steve said...

Education probably doesn't "impose" naive realism, but reinforces it. But I mainly agree with you.
I support getting some philosophy into the high school curriculum; anything that introduces some more critical thinking would be helpful.

Steve said...

Looking at your biology teacher example, though, I want to clarify that I feel strongly that science class is not the place for this kind of discussion. That opens the door to potential mischief (see creationism).

Allen said...

So what do you think about the symbol grounding problem? Where does meaning come from, as opposed to mere syntax?

If we say something like "3 is prime", what are we talking about? Is 3 a "real" thing that exists independently in some way? Or does it only exist by virtue of being a component of human thought?

If humans had not evolved, would 3 not be prime? Would 3 not be anything?

How does this relate to Russellian Physicalism?

Steve said...

Hi Allen:

I think the semantics/syntax (or intentionality) problem goes hand-in-hand with the problem of first-person experience. The solution is that every event has a subjective experiential character to those involved in it. To have a subjective character is to also say it has meaning.

We know all living things invest events with meaning. If we take the leap and extend this to the entire physical world, then we have pan-intentionality to go along with panexperientialism.

With regard to "3 is prime", I think that the logical/mathematical truths are defined by being true everywhere in the multiverse of possibilities (necessary truths). Our actual world is only a part of the total set of possible things; those truths therefore transcend our world.

Russelian physicalism is a more cautious thesis, and stuff like the above extends beyond it in ways that I think are consistent (but weren't endorsed by Russell). The Russellian stance says that the physical world is not exhausted by the third-person facts: the world is made up of events which have an intrinsic character in addition to the extrinsic facts. Russell didn't want to commit in his writings that all events are experiential, even though his starting point was to examine the nature of our own experiential events and how we build them into third person scientific facts through intersubjective agreement.

The thesis about abstract truths isn't something which is part of the Russellian stance. I just think that the events we're talking about are actualizations of possibilities (consistent with QM measurement events). This in turn leads me to ponder the nature of the total space of possibilities. And that total space (or multiverse) seems to be the logical home for abstract truths.

Allen said...

Hmmmm. Well, I thought we might turn up something new with this line of questioning, but I think we're right back to where we left off.

I like your views on the multiverse of possibilities. I don't agree with your views on events or on "actualness".

If we have a space of all possibilities, then I would say that "actual" is indexical (similar to Lewis), which I think removes the need for these mysterious "QM measurement events" that you speak of. If all possible outcomes are actual to someone, then there's really nothing for a wavefunction collapse to do, is there?

And I have the same view as before on "events". I don't see how you have solved any problems or even moved in the direction of solving any problems by introducing the idea that the world is built up from subatomic "events" which have little bits of experience or intentionality or consciousness or whatever.

So the we're trying to answer the question of what is consciousness. By saying it's something we derive from "conscious" events, you've just pushed back the question one level to, "why are events conscious?". And you've introduced a new question, "how do these conscious events combine to form our conscious experience, which doesn't include a subjective experience of the subatomic event?".

So before we had one question, "Why are we conscious". Now you have two questions: "Why are events conscious," and "how do these events combine to create our consciousness."

Hmmmmmm.

Let me ask two questions. Maybe we'll turn up something new here:

1. What kinds of things exist?
2. What does it mean to say that something exists?

Steve said...

I'm sorry for being stuck in a rut. For what it is worth, I appreciate that assigning consciousness (C) to micro-events seems to you as just moving the ball, but I'll remind you that the reasoning that supports the move is that it gives C work to do to make nature run: actualizing possible events and thereby embodying a process of real causation. I never fully embraced panexperientialism until I saw that it could do some of this other metaphysical work.

On the multiverse, I actually agree that "actual" is indexical. All possible outcomes are actual to someone, I just think this means they are actualized to someone.

Anyway, I want to keep an open mind, and if you can jar me out the rut, that's great.

Those are good questions. Let me think a bit more before I try to answer: let me know if you want to offer some of your own thoughts in the meantime.

Jeff said...

Just found this unique blog - fantastic stuff! (BTW, I used to work near Villanova, on the other side of 476 - I'm out west now).

Its not rocket science, its simply being awake!

I used to be one of those hard-line physicalists, but what really changed things for me was thinking about the simple childhood why-am-I-me question. There is just nothing in physics that can explain why reality is being experienced from my perspective instead of someone or something else's, or in the more general case: how local subjectivity can exist in an objective physical model where there are no preferred locations or times. Yet, that is what is observed. The only way around it is to just flat-out deny that my consciousness exists (which some scientists apparently do). To me that is ignoring an observation, and therefore unscientific. If current physics was all there was, we should all be dumb automatons. But only a conscious being can understand "why am I me" - even a small child.

A secondary reason for me rejecting standard physical monism is somewhat more related to the hard problem: if subjective experience were only physical, than it should be observable by more than one observer - like any other physical phenomena. But no scientist can ever know what it's like to be you, or how you experience anything (such as color). Nor do I think they can ever devise an experiment to do so. Subjectivity is, well, subjective. It's easy to see how a local objective system can exist within a larger subjective context, but very difficult to see how a local subjective system can exist within a larger objective context. It would be like a black hole singularity in the system - and indeed, your subjective experience is cut off from the rest of universe like a black hole. Nothing outside you can observe it. I suppose Russellistic monism might explain this problem, but not the unique haecceity of why-am-I-me.

I've noticed that some highly-intelligent, scientific-minded people have this strange difficulty in grasping the why-am-I-me question. It seems like a silly tautological word trick to them. I suspect that is because they view it in the third person - as someone else asking themselves "why am I me", rather than asking it of themselves in the first-person. They don't realize that when you ask it the third-person, you have implicitly made someone else the "subject" asking the question, so there is no mystery. But when you ask it of yourself in the first-person, there is no explanation for why you are the subject. In order to do science, math, or engineering, they have developed this powerful, refined, third-person mental machinery which has served them well, and consequently, they have trouble disengaging it for this simple first-person question. But all that powerful third-person objective mental machinery still exists only within the context of the subjective first-person.

In my opinion, the why-am-I-me question might just be the most profound question that can possibly be asked. All knowledge depends on who and what "you" are. It even applies across simulation and dream scenarios. The only easy answer to it appear to be absolute solipsism, but that generates more problems than it solves.

Steve said...

Hi Jeff, and thanks. That was well put. I'm not sure why folks think 3rd person physical descriptions are also complete metaphysical explanations, given the primacy of 1st person experience.

As you indicate, though, there's a lot of work to do beyond this negative result to find a positive solution, given the inadequacy of solipsism (and also, in my view, the other traditional paradigms of dualism, idealism, etc.).

Allen said...

>> I'll remind you that the reasoning that supports the move is that it gives C work to do to make nature run: actualizing possible events

Finding some work for consciousness to do isn't the same as fitting it into an explanatory theory. I'd say you've shoe-horned it in there, but it doesn't look like a good fit. Again, you've just introduced new questions.

If all possible events are actualized, then why not just say that possible events ARE actual events. There's no intrinsic difference in the two kinds of events. And thus no need for an "actualization" mechanism. To me this would be a cleaner explanation.

I assume you will say something about events that haven't happened yet, but I think this just means you also need to re-examine your view of time. I think our differing views of time are ultimately what cause our lack of agreement.

I say time exists only as part of our perception. You say that it is a real and external thing that basically controls our perceptions and without which we would not perceive anything.


Hmmmm. Okay, what exists.

So first of all, I know that my conscious experiences exist. I don't know that "I" as an embodied entity exists, but I do know that my experience of being an embodied entity exists.

Further, while my conscious experience is unified and indivisible, the contents of my experiences are not. My experience is of discrete objects, events, thoughts, and feelings.

These perceived, discrete things are not created by my conscious mind, instead they appear in my conscious experiences fully formed.

As an example of what I mean: I don't examine my raw visual information stream and consciously puzzle out where the discrete photons occur, and from this deduce edges and surfaces, and then fit these together into primitives and then guess at volumes and then search through a list of similar shapes to find a match and then tag the result with an identifying name.

Instead, when I see a car, as soon as I am conscious of it, I am immediately conscious of it as a car. Even if I only see a part of car, I'm still initially conscious of it as an object of some sort, even if I don't know what that object is. I'm am never conscious of formless "raw" visual information. I am only ever conscious of "things". Even when coming out of a drugged slumber, and the world is all blurry and vague, I'm still aware of colored blotches and smeared out lights. When I close my eyes and press on them, I see sparks and flashes and swirls. Things.

So since I have never consciously perceived raw visual data, I can only infer it's existence. Though, by inferring it, and thinking about it, it does exist in some sense.

So everything that I perceive (exteroceptively or as a subject of thought) has some existence just by virtue of my being conscious of it. It exists in my conscious experience.

So. That's two types of existence:

1) My conscious experience exists.
2) Things that I am conscious of, exist.

Oops, hit the max size on a comment.

Allen said...

Note however, that I'm leery about drawing a major existential distinctions between things that I am conscious of via my senses and things that I think about. If I were a brain-in-a-vat, then I could be made to see all manner of things that are no more solid (though perhaps more detailed) than the things I imagine. Similarly, in my dreams I "see" things, and in the dream I certainly believe that I am really seeing. Also there are hallucinations of various sorts.

Further, there is the curious case of people with Synesthesia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia) , for whom some letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, or for whom numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990).

But what if synesthesia had some use that strongly aided in human survival and reproduction? Then as we evolved, synesthesia would have become a standard feature for humans and would now be considered just part of our normal sensory apparatus. We would be able to "sense" numbers in a way similar to how we sense chairs. In this case we would almost certainly consider numbers to be unquestionably objectively real and existing. They would have colors, shapes, textures, and would seem to be located in space (using the examples from the wikipedia article). Though maybe we would ponder the peculiar qualities of these "physical numbers", in the same way we now puzzle over the strangeness of quantum mechanics, or the mystery of time. In this hypothetical "alternate-universe", we might even conclude that the physical world is "caused" by the very tangible (to our synesthesia-evolved alter-egos) mathematics that describe it.

But, regardless, I would say that while most people PERCEIVE logico-mathematical objects differently than they perceive tables and chairs, this doesn't tell us anything about whether these things really have different kinds of existence. The means by which we perceive things doesn't tell us anything about the ultimate nature of what is perceived.

Allen said...

Okay. So far so good. Continuing on:

What about things that I am not conscious of at the moment (a big category)? Do they exist? Well, there are things that I have been conscious of in the past, but that I am not currently thinking of or sensing. These things exist I would say, even though they are not the current focus of my awareness.

Further, I'm also willing to say that things that I COULD conceivably be conscious of, but have not ever actually been conscious of also exist. They are possible inhabitants of my future conscious experiences, and as such have some sort of existence. After all, I can refer to them, even if only as a vague group.

What about experiences that I have not had? Well, I'm also willing to say that they exist also. For instance, it seems conceivable to me that I could have the experience of being Steve. This would involve rearranging a lot of the things that I'm conscious of, like my memories, my beliefs, my surroundings, etc., but it seems possible in theory. By replacing the things I'm conscious of with the things that you are conscious of, one by one, it seems reasonable to say that I would eventually arrive at the experience of being Steve. So, based on this I'll say that the experience of being Steve exists in the same way as the experience of being Allen exists.

So, let me revise my earlier list of things that exist. Now I'll say it is:

1) Conscious experiences exist.
2) Things that one could be conscious of, exist.


So, here I've assumed the existence of some things that I'm not currently conscious of, whose existence is entirely separate from mine:

1) Things that I have been conscious of in the past but am not conscious of presently.
2) Things that I could be conscious of, but have not been conscious of yet.
3) Variations of my conscious experience that amount to the experiences of others (like Steve).

Is this justified? Well, I'm still working on that part. Ha! But, at the rate I'm going it'll be a while before I get it all finished, so I'll just go ahead and post what I have and see what you think.

Jeff said...

Steve, thanks for your comments.

given the inadequacy of solipsism

I'm not sure so sure "inadequate" is the correct word for me. I think solipsism (and it must of the eternal absolute variety to explain why-am-I-me) is probably false, but I see no iron-clad way of proving it - and yes, I've read Wittgenstein and some of the better arguments. But there are always potential ways around them. In the end, ironically, the rejection of solipsism is subjective, and subjectivity is a tough nut to crack.

Steve said...

Allen:
>>If all possible events are actualized, then why not just say that possible events ARE actual events. There's no intrinsic difference in the two kinds of events. And thus no need for an "actualization" mechanism. To me this would be a cleaner explanation.

I thought we agreed “actual” is indexical, so I agree there is no intrinsic difference. The actual is the local region I’m causally connected to and experience. So, we disagree about the need for the “actualization process”, but can agree on the indexical idea I think. The possible events are ones which have not been experienced locally.

>>I say time exists only as part of our perception. You say that it is a real and external thing that basically controls our perceptions and without which we would not perceive anything.

Right, well I do think the flow of time as we know it in our experience is a local phenomenon, but yes I think time flow would be a feature of the process relative to other points of view, too.

Anyway, I like your discussion on what exists very much. Reading it through the first time, while I might have worded things differently, I wouldn’t disagree with anything.

Steve said...

Jeff:
Re: solipsism. I didn't mean to imply I think it can be disproved. I just think of it as one of those skeptical hypotheses that doesn't get us anywhere, so I havent' worried about it much.

Allen said...

>> Reading it through the first time, while I might have worded things differently, I wouldn’t disagree with anything.

Excellent! BUT, surely too good to last.

Okay, my previous comments were somewhat vague about what it means to say that something exists.

So, I think one meaning of "to exist" is "to be conscious".

But what causes conscious experience? Well, I'm beginning to think that nothing causes it. Conscious experience is fundamental and uncaused.

Why do we think that our conscious experience must be caused? Maybe this isn't a valid assumption. Maybe we are unduly influenced by the apparent nature of the macroscopic material world that we perceive?

So on the surface this may sound a bit off-putting, but I think it's not so radical.

From a materialist perspective, what caused the universe (or multiverse) to exist?

From a religious perspective, what caused God to exist?

From a platonic perspective, what caused the Numbers to exist?

From your perspective, what caused experiential events to exist?

And, of course, if anyone offers an answer to the above, the obvious next question would be "what caused THAT to exist?".

This drive to reduce our consciousness into smaller parts, I think is maybe misguided.

There's a lot more to say about this, BUT, it's late, and I'm curious to see what your initial response is. Maybe you've already been down this path and have rejected it.

Allen said...

So a bit more. I think that there may be a problem with the idea that we must explain conscious experience in terms of the things that we perceive, or things that we infer from what we perceive. So consciousness is the conduit through which we experience the world. BUT I think it's a mistake to conclude that consciousness is a product of what is experienced.

So consciousness is fundamental, uncaused, and irreducible. However, what we are conscious OF is reducible and representable. A crucial difference.

Take the brain. I'm willing to believe that the structure and function of the brain is closely correlated with the mind. My brain represents the contents of my conscious experience. The activity of the brain over time maps to the the contents of my conscious experience over time. Fine. But the brain is not the cause of my conscious experience. A brain is something that one is conscious OF, and thus has a secondary, derivative type of existence.

To the extent that I can think about my brain, it is something that I am conscious of, and so it exists in that sense. To the extent that I can examine and experiment on someone else's brain, that is also a perceived experience. But again, all of these things could happen in a dream, or hallucination, or to a brain-in-a-vat, or to someone in a computer simulation.

That something is perceived is no guarantee that it has an existence on par with, or superior to, that which does the perceiving.

Similarly, science. I'm willing to believe that quantum mechanics and relativity both describe my observations very well. But this is just the fitting of various formulas and narratives to what we are conscious of. There's no deeper meaning to science than that. It doesn't tell us about what fundamentally exists. It provides us with stories that fit what our experiences: "IF you were made from subatomic particles in a physical universe, THIS system of particles and forces is consistent with your current observations."

Science is basically us trying to make sense of a dream.

So in this view, consciousness is very simple. What's complicated is fitting "explanatory" scientific theories to what is observed, and identifying and explaining causal structures (e.g., a brain, a machine, whatever) whose evolving state can be interpreted as representing a series of "connected" or "related" instances of consciousness. But the observed physical system is NOT conscious, it just represents the contents of someone's conscious experience.

So initially this view seems somewhat...solipsistic (?), but ultimately I think it really isn't much more radical than any other theory on the table. For instance, any deterministic scientific theory entails that we have the experience of making choices without making actual choices (in the free will sense). And so does any indeterminstic theory that is based on bottom-up causation.

Beyond that, all theories eventually boil down to having to having to take some set of fundamental entities and laws as unexplained, unsupported brute facts. So whether it's one level down or twelve levels down, at some point they end up saying "and these things just exist, created from nothing, supported by nothing".

So, no matter which way we go, reality doesn't match our common-sense expectations. I think this view makes the fewest assumptions, explains the most, and ultimately seems no more fantastical than any other theory on offer.

Steve said...

Thanks for this, Allen.

A few thoughts -- as I said I agree with most of what you say.

Descartes was a little bit off. What we know best is that conscious experiences exist. (This is better than starting with “thinking”; also the “I” as an entity or substance is not on the same firm ground as the experiences themselves.)

From the contents of experience, we can infer that a multiplicity of things exist. Further, I trust our ability to infer the existence of things beyond those directly experienced, via recombination and extrapolation. (An account of how this works we can discuss later). I choose not to worry about the fact that solipsism can’t be disproved.

As you say, consciousness is fundamental – it is (or is at least part of) the ground floor of what exists.

Your account of scientific method and how it relates to experience is good – that is essentially Russell’s take on it.

Where my analysis might start to diverge is here: while our conscious experience is unified, and isn’t caused by or reducible to non-experiential things, it still is probably composed of smaller experiences which participate together to form our experience.

Can there be any doubt that the human brain/body is a composite system? If I damage part of my brain, my consciousness obviously changes. The brain/body is composed of cells. Speaking in evolutionary terms, single-celled organisms were around a long time before some of them started to work together in multi-cellular organisms. It is a grand, symphonic collaboration. The eukaryotic cell itself seems to have started off as a participatory endeavor between ancestral precursors. (And so on, as we push the story farther back.) I’ll stop here, because you can see where I’m going.

Allen said...

>> it still is probably composed of smaller experiences which participate together to form our experience.

If that's true, then our experience of existence is not an experience of what really is. Instead it is an experience of what can be composed from these smaller experiences that you refer to, right? Who knows what actually exists? I would assume that there's no way to penetrate the veil of this "composed" experience that we inhabit to see what the "real" world is actually like.

Our experience is not a mirror of what really exists, but more like a map that represents a possible existence.

But still, I question this need to push back the explanation to a separate layer. So we are at the top of your ontological stack, I assume. And we look below us to see what supports us. But then we have to look below that level to see what supports it, and below that level to see what supports it, and so on. Infinite regress. Turtles all the way down.

But instead, why not look at our own experience, which is the only thing we know directly, as the foundation of the ontological stack, and everything that exists rests on this foundation of our conscious experience? In this view, the stack goes up for as far as our intellect can see. And as our intellectual capacity expands, the our view of the existential landscape also expands.

This, I think, makes more sense.

Any proposal that has our consciousness as being "caused", is open to the possibility that we are caused to experience something that is not reflective of the reality that caused it. And one example of this is people with various mental illnesses. More on this below.

>> Can there be any doubt that the human brain/body is a composite system?

No, there cannot. But this is just what's perceived. We can look at the human body as a physical system and puzzle out it's structures and the linkages between them, in the same way we could look at mathematical problems and puzzle out their structures and linkages.

As I mentioned, I'm sure that the brain can be viewed as representing the contents of my experience. And I'm sure that a computer program could also be written that would represent the contents of my conscious experience and whose representational state would evolve as the program ran so that it continued to match what I experience over time. But this would not mean that the program was conscious, or that my brain is conscious.

The living brain and the executing computer program both just represent the contents of my conscious experience, in the same way that a map represents the actual terrain.

Again, dreams, hallucinations, brains-in-vats, and computer simulations all offer real or conceivable examples of scenarios where what is experienced might lead one astray in trying to determine the underlying nature of things.

For all we know we're giant amorphous blobs floating in 12 dimensional space, but with just the right internal causal structure (or in your case, "arrangements of experiential events") to produce the conscious experience of being humans in 3-dimensional space. Or we could be "boltzmann brains", produced by the random fluctuations of particles in just the right way to produce the illusion of our current experiences. Or, a similar example in the news recently, here.

So obviously it seems useful to postulate the existence of things like quarks and electrons, which we then use to make predictions about what will happen if we do this, that, or the other. However, I think there is reason to think that this only holds true in our own relatively well-behaved part of what is actually a vast experiential wilderness.

Steve said...

I understand your points -- I guess I want to have my “reductionist cake” and eat it too. I think it may be possible to BOTH think of our experience as foundational, and also think that it is composed of smaller, equally-foundational units.

Galen Strawson tried to tackle some of these issues when working out his panexperientialist views (here's my blog post on this).

He spoke of the fact that while our experience may reveal the true essential nature of experience, it may not reveal the full true nature of it. (He called this “partial revelation”).Quote:

“Experiential realities may be said to function as non-experiential but experience-causing realities for other experiential realities, and to function as non-experiential but experience-constituting realities for other experiential realities. Again, it may be said that although there is no non-experiential being absolutely speaking, there is non-experiential being relatively or relationally speaking.[Emphasis original]”

So, I think the explanations of science can carry over, at least in part, to inform our picture of reality – even as reality is at root experiential.

Jeff said...

So, I think the explanations of science can carry over, at least in part, to inform our picture of reality – even as reality is at root experiential.

Science is a powerful and useful thing. But I'm beginning to doubt very seriously that it can tell us anything at all about the ultimate nature of reality. The irrefutability of solipsism has already been mentioned - experience is always subjective (I cannot concieve of an objective experience), and consciousness is by nature, closed. But (as Allen touched on above) one can also assert the existence of an objective "layered reality". There would be no way to determine via empirical methods (science) whether or not there is a hidden layer or layers underneath all this observable stuff. We would be somewhat like software programs trying to glean the nature of the underlying hardware we're running on, which is impossible no matter what experiments we run. If such a layer existed, we'd never even be aware of its existence, outside of our imaginations. We may not even be able to comprehend the nature of it, since it would exist in terms utterly alien and unfamiliar to us. The hidden layer or layers would control everything (consistency, "miracles", etc) and there would be no empirical record at our layer. The layered-reality argument also applies to simulation and dream scenarios, and cannot be disproved, although it could be "proven" with God-like intervention from the outside. The problem is this: just the mere fact that we can make such a non-disprovable assertion, means that science will always be an incomplete way of knowing.

Steve said...

Those are good points and I agree we have to accept the limits on our knowledge. But science is so successful that I think our best thinking about the ultimate should carry over as much as possible.

Allen said...

Against Physics

Let me go through my full chain of reasoning here, before I draw my conclusion:

So the world that I perceive seems pretty orderly. When I drive to work, it's always where I expect it to be. The people are always the same. I pick up where I left off on the previous day, and life generally proceeds in an orderly and predictable way. Even when something unexpected happens, I can generally trace back along a chain of cause and effect and determine why it happened, and understand both why I didn't expect it and why I probably could have.

In my experience thus far, there have been no "Alice in Wonderland" style white rabbits that suddenly appear in a totally inexplicable way, make a few cryptic remarks while checking their pocket watch, and then scurry off.

Why do I never see such white rabbits?

Well, at first glance, something like physicalism seems like the obvious choice to explain my reality's perceived order - to explain both what I experience AND what I *don't* experience. The world is reducible to fundamental elements (waves, strings, experiential events, whatever) which have certain properties (mass, velocity, spin, charge, etc) that determine how they interact, and it all adds up to what I see.

In this view, what I see is ultimately determined by the starting conditions of the universe, plus the physical laws that govern the interaction of the fundamental elements of the universe, applied over how-many-ever billions of years. While no explanation is given for the initial conditions, or why the fundamental laws of physics are what they are, if you get past that then from a cause-and-effect stand point physicalism offers a pretty solid explanation for why my world is orderly and predictable, and why I don't see white rabbits.

And in the form of functionalism/computationalism + evolution it even offers a pretty good foundation for explaining the existence and mechanism of human behavior and ability.

But physicalism has a major drawback: It doesn't obviously explain the experience of consciousness that goes with human behavior and ability. Particles, waves, mass, spin, velocity...no matter how you add them up, there doesn't seem to be any way to get conscious experience.

Which is a problem, since consciousness is the portal through which we access everything else. My conscious experience is what I know. I "know" of other things only when they force themselves (or are forced) into my conscious awareness.

So, physicalism does explain why we see, what we see, and why we don't see white rabbits. But it doesn't seem to explain the conscious experience OF seeing what we see.

Further, by positing an independently existing and well ordered external universe to explain our orderly perceptions, we have just pushed the question back one level. The new questions are, why does this external universe exist and why is it so orderly? BUT, this initially seems justified by the fact that physicalism explains how it is possible for us to make correct predictions.

BUT, actually it explains nothing.

Allen said...

Nothing has been explained because we are PART of the system that we are trying to explain by appealing to physicalism. If the order and predictability of our experiences are due to the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of physics, then we inhabit a universe whose entire future, including our existence and all of our activities and experiences, is fixed. Frozen in place by unbreakable causal chains.

Effectively (and maybe actually), the entire future of the universe can be seen as existing simultaneously with its beginning. We could just as well say that the entire past, present, and future came into being at one instant, and we are just experiencing our portion of it in slices.

But there is no "explanation" here. This "block universe" just IS. It just exists. It came into being for no reason, for no purpose, with no meaning. It exists in the form that it does, and there is no answer to the question "why?". We are part of that universe, existing entirely within it and contained by it. Therefore we also just exist. For no reason, for no purpose, with no meaning, our future history also frozen in place by causal chains. What is true for the universe as a whole is true for it's contents.

Any explanation we derive is purely local to our particular viewpoint. In reality there is no explanation. Explanations are as subjective as experience. Of course this doesn't mean that I get to pick my preferred explanations, BUT I don't get to pick my experiences either.

To try an make what I'm saying more clear: let's imagine a real block. Say, a block of speckled granite. Now let's consider two adjacent specks of white and gray. Why are they adjacent? What caused them to be adjacent? Well, if we consider this block of granite within the context of our universe, then we can say that there is a reason in that context as to why they are adjacent. There is an explanation, which has to do with the laws of physics and the contingent details of the geologic history of the area where this block of granite was formed (which is in turn derived from the contingent details of the initial state of our entire universe).

BUT if we take this block of granite to be something that just exists, uncaused and unique, like our universe, then there can be no explanation. The two specks are just adjacent. That's it. No further explanation is possible. The block of granite just exists as it is and that's the way it is. We CAN say something like, "there's a vein of white and a vein of gray in this block, and those two specks exist at the boundary of the veins and so they are adjacent", BUT while this sounds like an explanation, it really is just a statement of observed fact. It doesn't "explain" anything. And even this observation is made from "outside" the block, an option not available with our universe.

If some sort of conscious intelligence exists within speck patterns of the 2-D slices of the granite block (2-D because we've lost a dimension on our example...the third spatial dimension of the block will be time for these speck-beings), then who knows whether they will even be conscious of being made from specs of granite and of existing within this granite block with it's grey and white veins. Maybe the speck-patterns that they are formed from will be such that their experience is of living in a 3+1 dimensional world such as ours. But regardless, there can be no explanation as to why their experiences are what they are. Their experiences will be as uncaused as the existence of the block whose speckled nature gives rise to those experiences.

So physicalism in fact offers no advantage over just asserting that our conscious experience just exists. Why are my perceptions orderly and why are my predictions about what will happen next usually correct? Because that's just the way it is...and this is true whether you posit an external universe or not.

Allen said...

BTW, note that while the above isn't directed squarely at Russellian Physicalism, I think that most of the reasoning still applies, with only minor tweaks and adjustments.

I think it works as a line of attack against any system that has human consciousness as "caused" by an externally existing system of more fundamental elements.

Steve said...

Again I'm sympathetic to most of this, since, as you know, I think traditional physicalism fails and I don't believe in the block universe.

But you seem to be saying that a brute explanation is no explanation at all. And I wouldn't be that strong, because we will need something ultimate or primitive in any metaphysics we come up with. We just want to maximize the explanatory power of what we propose. And traditional physicalism fails by positing a big arbitrary given which doesn't even explain consciousness (or causality or time or modality).