Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Summary of Recent Thoughts

1. A fully deterministic world featuring physical laws of the usual sort would be time-symmetric (i.e. no way to objectively distinguish past from future). In a God’s eye view of the world time would not exist; also, from such a view one would see connections, but not causality. Time asymmetry and causation itself arise from the perspective of a point of view within the world.

2. Quantum mechanics shows us that an indeterminate future is brought into the causal past of the subject of experience as it interacts with the rest of the world.

3. The world is not a machine whose pieces obey deterministic laws with causality linking past to future. The world is a network of pieces which each have a subjective point of view as they interact with each other.

4. A subject’s interactions with the rest of the world constitute experience. Having first person, subjective experience is therefore part of what it means to be something existing in nature.

5. Our own human conscious experience is built up from the fundamental first-person experience of our constituent parts.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Atheists vs. Mysticism

An interesting exchange at The Raving Atheist takes the form of an interview with author Sam Harris. Harris, an ardent critic of traditional religion, turns out to be someone who also embraces Buddhism, meditation, and mysticism. The atheists probe this seeming paradox. The nature of conscious experience turns out to be an important theme here. I look forward to part 2.

Causality vs. Determinism

Regarding the problems with the usual assumption that fundamental objective causality exists in our world, see also this paper by Carl Hoefer which points out the surprising degree of conflict between the notions of determinism and causality.

Thanks go to this website (created by Brian Weatherson) for serving up new papers in philosophy.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The View from the Inside, Part 2

I was recently struggling to read some recent papers in physics which discussed interesting ideas for building a cosmology from the bottom up using pieces whose interactions obey quantum rules (for instance this one). Then Huw Price came to my rescue with a great new paper -- Causal Perspectivalism -- which covered similar terrain philosophically (with no math!).

Starting with simple thought experiments, Price steadily builds up a compelling argument that time asymmetric causality arises from our status as an agent with a particular perspective in space-time. Causality is not objective. A God’s eye perspective on the world (if indeed such a thing is a coherent notion) would see connections, but not causality. I should mention that this isn’t an extreme subjective relativist argument, since for a wide range of situations, all humans share a homogeneous perspective.

Looking back at theoretical physics, if you generalize from Price’s focus on human deliberative agents to all of physical reality, I think you have a picture consistent with relational quantum cosmology.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Speculative Thought on the Platonic Realm

One of the challenges of naturalism is that, taken strictly, it seems to rule out the existence of ideas or concepts as transcendent entities. Even for scientifically minded individuals, some concepts seem to exist in the sense of our discovering them, even though they are not part of nature. The prototypical examples are in the arenas of logic and mathematics.

I have often been critical of the disproportionate focus in academic philosophy on concepts and language as things of primary analytical interest, as opposed to their being derivatives of our (very complex) interaction with the rest of the natural world. But there are persuasive arguments that some of these concepts seem stubbornly non-reducible to nature.

It occurred to me that a way to naturalize these seemingly platonic concepts would be to picture them as gaining traction from a larger multi-verse. Science increasingly points us to the idea that our observable universe is a part of a larger complex of universes, each with potentially different characteristics along certain dimensions. As we and our world co-evolve, perhaps we reach toward ideas that do find a natural incarnation somewhere in this much larger meta-world.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The View from the Inside

One of the biggest conceptual pitfalls one faces when investigating the truth about reality is the tendency to picture oneself as something essentially separate from the rest of the world. (Another one is picturing self and world as static entities instead of active and evolving). The lesson of naturalism is that the world is an evolving network of related happenings which share the same fundamental character. We humans are embedded in this network.

It follows that it is incorrect to study the rest of the universe as if one was a truly separate and objective observer. We can’t look at the world from the outside. Our perspective is necessarily a view from the inside.

It is interesting to see how this notion of outside and inside viewpoints has played out in the arena of physics.

While Newton understood that motion only has meaning relative to something else, he still assumed one could measure things against an absolute backdrop of coordinates in space and time. The backdrop represented a God’s-eye view of the world. Einstein corrected this picture with relativity. Space and time became intertwined with matter and energy and could no longer be considered separately. There is no “correct” absolute frame of reference – it only makes sense to talk about the collection of reference frames within the world. It seems reasonable that a theory which turned out to give the correct explanations for the phenomena we observe at the cosmological scale had this conceptual feature – after all, our perspective is necessarily a parochial one inside the world.

Interestingly, the other 20th century revolution in physics, quantum mechanics, performs its calculations against a backdrop of time external to the theory. Given that the genesis of the theory was its success in explaining the behavior of the atom in a laboratory setting, this may not seem like a big deal. The measurements of atomic and subatomic phenomena obviously occur in the time frame experienced by the scientist in the lab.

However, in trying to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics into a new theory, the conceptual clash between a relational theory with no background space/time and another one which depends on a fixed background makes for a challenge. The work on a new theory of quantum gravity has taken many forms so far. Theorists in the largest part of the field, the various forms of string/M theory, have mostly deferred the issue of background independence so far, thinking the theories are rich enough that a background independent version will emerge in time. Others take the issue more seriously upfront, like the physicists working on loop quantum gravity.

I’ve been very interested to read some papers which preliminarily attempt to describe the universe in a way which is both quantum mechanical and background independent. These ideas implement the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics and are referred to as theories of relational quantum cosmology. I came across this last term in an appendix to Lee Smolin’s essay on the state of progress in quantum gravity theory (see the papers he references, for instance this one by Fotini Markopoulou. As far as I can tell, the idea is that the universe is a collection of micro-level space-time regions (observers) whose boundary interactions follow the rules of quantum mechanics. You build a cosmology from the bottom up, rather than assume there is a top-down quantum description of the entire universe. Time is a local, not a global phenomenon: relational, not absolute.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Problem with Theology

In recently reading some papers by theologians, I was first pleased to confirm that there are contemporary theologians earnestly trying to grapple with science and naturalism in a constructive way. Soon, though, this positive feeling was outweighed by the perennial weakness in the arguments put forth: rather than trying to discover truth through reason, theologians are trying to save what they can of the religious principles they already hold. The traditional term for this project is “belief seeking understanding”.

Now, we all have biases. The same poll data in this election season was read by Republicans and Democrats in different ways driven by wishful thinking. When it comes to the divide between religion and science, I have been biased to look for a worldview which offers scope for reducing the conflict: does this mean I could be misleading myself in this inquiry? Maybe. Perhaps a positive thing about the theologians is that their prejudices are out on the table and not hidden. Sometimes those who subscribe to scientific naturalism are accused as having an undeclared “religious” dedication to their worldview.

But at the end of the day this won’t wash. In our quest for the truth about the world, we must be able to revise or reject received wisdom -- something science does well. Theologians refuse this mandate essentially by definition.