Friday, November 20, 2009

Re-defining Where We Live

(A short rant for a Friday)

If you’re like me, you learned the following story.

The universe, or cosmos, consists of a four-dimensional space-time continuum which contains matter and energy. It all began with a big bang singularity: time as well as space started then, so it doesn’t make sense to ask what happened “before”. The universe probably extends beyond what is observable, but the same physical laws prevail everywhere. Nothing exists outside the universe.

Every statement in that paragraph is likely wrong.

1. Space-time is probably not continuous; in fact, space-time may not be fundamentally distinct from matter-energy.

2. We don’t have a quantum gravity theory yet, but any version will likely banish the big bang singularity. Our universe almost certainly arose from a pre-existing context.

3. Observable physical constants appear fixed, but this has been questioned in some cases; we have no good reason to think physical laws are fixed beyond what we can observe.

4. According to many proposals multiple universes exist. And if they do, there’s no good conceptual reason to think they are entirely isolated from each other (just because we appear causally isolated from our point of view).

I think trends in cosmological and physical theories lend support to a different picture. What we think of as the actual world is just a local neighborhood in a larger expanse. And I can see no non-arbitrary reason to think this larger reality is anything short of being a realm of maximal size. The maximal size is the one which encompasses all metaphysical (=logical) possibilities.


Allen said...

In light of all of the above, what would you say are the fundamental elements of reality? Still experiential events? Or physical events that have a proto-experiential aspect?

I still lean towards the idea that (human-style) conscious experience is fundamental.

The only catch being, "how can something as complex as a conscious experience be irreducibly fundamental?"

But I think this is confusing two things: conscious experience vs. the contents of conscious experience.

The fact of my conscious experience itself seems quite simple and irreducible. However, what I am conscious of (the content of my experiences) can seem quite complex.

As an analogy, it seems reasonable to me to say: Content is to consciousness as an electron is to the universe.

In a physicalist ontology, an electron is something that exists within the universe. An electron can't be "liberated" or taken outside of the universe, or considered independently of the universe of which it is a part.

Similarly the things that I am conscious of exist only within the context of my conscious experience. I'm thinking somewhat along the lines of Kant here, but minus the noumena.

Which is not to say that only my conscious experience exists, but rather that only conscious experiences exist. If physicalists can have multiverses, why not multiconsciousnesses?

Why do our conscious experiences exist? Well, why would a physicalist say that the universe exists? It just does. There's no explanation for that (at least none that doesn't depend on some other unexplained event).

Why do my conscious experiences have the particular contents that they do? Again, I'd ask the same question for any other ontological theory. Why did the universe have the particular initial conditions and governing laws that it did, which lead to our present experiences? It just did. There's no explanation for that (again, at least none that doesn't depend on some other unexplained event).

So, I'm not sure what is lost by taking this view...that consciousness is fundamental. And it seems to me that it resolves a lot of otherwise unanswerable questions, without introducing any new ones that I can think of...

Doru said...

The story that I tell myself about the world is so much more interesting and captivating when it has a sense of mystery, imagination and speculation. In the same time I try to keep a reality check list to preserve some linearity in it. My monistic view is that the Universe (the observed) cannot be separated from you (the observer), and this doesn’t mean they are the same, it says that they are “one” (holistic, or a whole).
Now that they got the Cern super-collider back online, I cannot wait to see if science will be able to observe those famous “Higgs bosons”, the only scalar particles in Universe that give matter the mass.
If that is true, what is your speculation in possible applications?
Gravitational energy storage? Like a battery that stores energy into its mass becoming heavier as is charging, or lighter as is discharging.
Or maybe anti-gravitational? Like those levitating machines in Star Wars.
Space jumps? Also in Star Wars.
Time travel? Sorry Star Treck, I am very skeptical on this one.
Consciousness explained? Sorry Allen, I am also skeptical we will ever reach conclusion.

Steve said...

Hi Allen:
I basically agree with you with regard to what's fundamental. The relationship between our experience and what it is composed of isn't easy. The unity of our experience (when it's working properly) gives it a simplicity, while the contents are diverse and give it a complexity. Your analogy is good, I think. I'm thinking that there exists a network of experiential events and ours involves a symphonic coordination of diverse sub-events. But if you tried to break it down, you'd lose the unified experience you started with.

Conscious experience is fundamental. Physical events are just those inferred events we don't directly participate in, but extrapolate via our theories. As to whether it is human experience which is 'more' fundamental vs. a more primitive proto-experiential event I don't feel strongly about right now: why can't they be equally fundamental features on the network.

Steve said...

Hi Doru:
I agree with you regarding monism -- it need not imply there is just one thing.

I hadn't thought about practical applications from finding the Higgs. I am always interested to try to keep up with what's happening. I love physics and I think our ideas about reality need to comport with our state of scientific knowledge. On the other hand it seems to me that the current situation leaves plenty of room for our metaphysical theorizing!