Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Neither Special nor Trivial

Note: this is a navel-gazing post with no external links.

I'm thinking again about my modal realism and the status of the actual vs. the rest of the possibilities.  I summarized in a prior post (Actual as Indexical, After All?) my conclusion that, while my metaphysical model is very different from that of David Lewis, his idea that what it is actual is just what is local to a point of view made sense.  This implies that our actual world is not the result of a special creative outcome, and that we should probably assume that all metaphysical possibilities are actualized "somewhere" in modal space.  I saw this as just an extension of the Copernican trend familiar from science:  our local situation is not special; it's just another local neighborhood in a huge expanse of reality.

But more recently I've been reconsidering this.

There's an inconsistency with the rest of my metaphysics -- specifically with the foundational idea of an actualization process.  This is the causal activity which collapses a set of possibilities into an actual event, grounding change and experience.  If every possibility is actualized, why bother?  Being actual is trivial and this kind of process seems redundant.

I have a second problem, too. Given all of the suffering borne by sentient creatures in our world, the prospect of all metaphysically possible worlds being actualized, including countless horrible ones we can conceive of, is just hard to stomach.  This is the "problem of evil" for a modal realist.  I put this in quotes, since it's not a logical problem, or even much of a philosophical argument against the position, it's just a consequence that's very difficult to embrace (for me, anyway).  Our moral sense, like our other rational faculties, is ultimately grounded in the metaphysical reality we inhabit.  It's hard to make sense of that reality including so much gratuitous suffering.

So, while I continue to respect the impulse that we shouldn't think our situation is special, I also want to reject the idea that it is trivial and that everything possible exists in an even-handed way.  Is there an option between these extremes?  I'm not sure.

One idea is to revisit a "chaos" model for creation.  As I discussed when reviewing Timothy O'Connor's book (here and here), I don't endorse a classical theist view where a personal deity picks our world (or a subset of worlds) from his or her metaphysical card deck.  An impersonal, but indeterministic process can perform the same role.  Given the evident role for irreducibly chancy, spontaneous processes within our world, perhaps something similar happens on a trans-cosmic scale.  We're neither special nor trivial, we're just lucky.


Doru said...

Not a big fan of modal realism either.
I like the illusion idea which is exemplified by the “magic eye image experiment”. Is one of those images made of small little patterns that apparently doesn’t contain any coherent information, but if you stir for few minutes with the image right up your nose, you will start seeing some sort of 3D image embedded in there, etc.
Maybe that’s how the world is: apparent non-deterministic chaos with some sort of embedded entities in it capable to make deterministic observations of themselves.

Steve said...

Hi Doru. Just to clarify, I am a fan of modal realism; I'm just trying to make it work.

Thanks for your visualization - maybe actualization is something like a crystallization out of the chaos of possibilities.

Allen said...

It seems to me that there's a problem with any proposed actualization process, which is "so then what causes the actualization process?"

So we have our orderly conscious experiences and we want to explain them. To do this, we need some context to place these experiences in. So we postulate the existence of an orderly external universe that “causes” our experiences. But then we have to explain what caused this orderly external universe, and also the particular initial conditions and causal laws that result in what we observe.

So this is basically Kant's first antinomy of pure reason. Either there is a first cause, which itself is uncaused, OR there is an infinite chain of prior causes stretching infinitely far into the past. But why this particular infinite chain as opposed to some other? In fact, why our particular "infinite chain of prior causes" or "first cause" instead of Nothing existing at all?

It seems that either way (infinite chain or first cause), at the end you are left with only one reasonable conclusion: There is no reason that things are this way. They just are.

BUT...we could have just said that about our conscious experiences to start with and saved ourselves the trouble of postulating a whole multiverse. Right?

Maybe everything exists, or maybe only I exist. Either way, there is no reason for it. It just is that way.

Allen said...

As for your second problem, of all of the suffering implied by all possible worlds actually existing - it seems to me that actually the ratio of suffering to happiness doesn't go up that much. For instance, let's say there's world where I'm being tortured and am in agony. Well, it would seem possible that there's another world that's exactly the same where I'm being tortured in the same way, except I like it. And another where I'm being tortured but I'm indifferent to it.

So if every possible situation exists, then that includes me having every possible reaction to each situation. So, in the worst case, reality consists of 50% suffering (ranging from intense to mild) and 50% pleasure (from intense to mild)...plus a set of totally neutral worlds...neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Steve said...

Hi Allen. I guess the reason I have preferred the multiverse option (everything exists, at least in some sense) is because of the intuition that actual things could be different than they are. If only the actual exists (as a brute fact), then this intuition would be illusory.

Still, I think I would agree that there still probably is no full explanation even in this multiverse model -- there's seems to be no comprehensive reason for the actual to be what it is. That's why I'm left with the idea that it results from some spontaneity or chanciness.

The nature of the multiverse constrains what is metaphysically possible here, but doesn't determine it. Nothing is guaranteed.

Steve said...

P.S. I'm rusty on Kant, but the idea of indeterministic causation is one which I don't recall that he (and other classic thinkers) considered. But I may be corrected on this.

Allen said...

> That's why I'm left with the idea that it results from some spontaneity or chanciness.

But then what does the spontaneity or chanciness result from? What explains its existence and random nature?

It seems to me that any proposed answer to the question of what causes our conscious experiences really just changes the question of "then what causes what causes my conscious experiences?"

Can there be an explanation that itself needs no explanation? If not, then once you start down that path, you are doomed to continue forever.

Note that there's a difference between "describing what we observe" and "explaining what we observe". The first is science, the second is metaphysics. Description is not explanation.

If the material world and its causal laws or your proposed random substrate can "just exist", then why can't conscious experience "just exist"?

I saw your mention of the Consciousness Online conference, which had Philip Goff's paper "Ghosts and Sparse Properties" that discusses this idea:

"Zombies are bodies without minds: creatures that are physically identical to actual human beings, but which have no conscious experience. Much of the consciousness literature concerns how threatening philosophical reflection on such creatures is to physicalism. There is not much attention given to the converse possibility, the possibility of minds without bodies, that is, creatures who are conscious but whose nature is exhausted by their being conscious. We can call such a ‘purely conscious’ creature a ghost."

Also note the section on the Cartesian doubting process.

Ultimately I think our conscious experiences are fundamental and uncaused. There is no reason that they have the character and contents that they do. That's just the way reality is.

Allen said...

As to Kant:

“According to Kant, it is vital always to distinguish between the distinct realms of phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the appearances, which constitute the our experience; noumena are the (presumed) things themselves, which constitute reality. All of our synthetic a priori judgments apply only to the phenomenal realm, not the noumenal. (It is only at this level, with respect to what we can experience, that we are justified in imposing the structure of our concepts onto the objects of our knowledge.) Since the thing in itself (Ding an sich) would by definition be entirely independent of our experience of it, we are utterly ignorant of the noumenal realm.

Thus, on Kant’s view, the most fundamental laws of nature, like the truths of mathematics, are knowable precisely because they make no effort to describe the world as it really is but rather prescribe the structure of the world as we experience it. By applying the pure forms of sensible intuition and the pure concepts of the understanding, we achieve a systematic view of the phenomenal realm but learn nothing of the noumenal realm. Math and science are certainly true of the phenomena; only metaphysics claims to instruct us about the noumena.

The Cosmological Idea is the concept of a complete determination of the nature of the world as it must be constituted in itself. In this case, Kant held, the difficulty is not that we can conclude too little but rather that we can prove too much. From the structure of our experience of the world, it is easy to deduce contradictory particular claims about reality: finitude vs. infinity; simplicity vs. complexity; freedom vs. determinism; necessity vs. contingency. These 'Antinomies' of Pure Reason can be avoided only when we recognize that one or both of the contradictory proofs in each antinomy holds only for the phenomenal realm. Once again, it is the effort to achieve transcendental knowledge of noumena that necessarily fails."

Metaphysical Sciences said...

This satsang video is sponsored by University Of Metaphysical Sciences is the founder of UMS, which offers Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate D.D. and Ph.D. degrees in metaphysical subjects.

cpaul_hidden said...

I realize I'm making this comment a year after the original post. I've just discovered your site though, so several cross-currents are forming and I wanted to show them to your if you're interested.


Also, you must check out more on modal primitivism, such as Louis deRosset's academic paper "A new route to the necessity of origins" published in Mind in 2004, and the like (http://philpapers.org/rec/ROHANR)... if you haven't already.

Steve said...

Thanks Cherokee Paul. I will definitely check those out.