Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Hard Questions are Hard: The Cosmos as a Phase of Being

Why is reality mysterious? Why should difficult questions persist for so long despite the successes of physical science?

An answer to these meta-questions may lie in the concept of a phase transition. As discussed in prior posts (like this recent one), a school of quantum gravity research has arisen which explores the idea that the visible cosmos (of matter bound in space-time geometry) arises at lower energies from a more fundamental quantum world. This more fundamental level is usually characterized by a network of quantum systems, subject to a directional causal arrow, but otherwise connected in a highly non-local fashion (little or no recognizable spatial geometry).

This model is inspired by the myriad examples of phase transitions observed in nature, and particularly those in the field of condensed matter physics (which utilizes the toolkit of quantum field theory to describe the phenomena). Superconductors, superfluids, etc. display remarkable emergent features which arise under certain pressure/temperature conditions.

Picture our familiar physical cosmos as a portion of reality which condensed into a “classical” phase, but retained subtleties in its nature which reflected its pre-transition roots. If this analogy works, then it would explain our situation: while classical explanations usually work well, some phenomena defy such analysis because their foundations go deeper. This could be the case, for instance, for the arrow of time and for conscious experience itself.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

2 Ontology Papers

1. I discovered on the web the writings of Ian Thompson. He is a physicist by career but someone who is also well versed in philosophy and has been setting out his own stance on things metaphysical. In “Power and Substance” he says some things I thought made a lot of sense. He likes the idea that dispositional properties (or powers) are ontologically essential. He sets out an argument that dispositions could be taken to constitute a substance rather than as properties. I am intrigued by this argument, but agnostic about it on first reading. What I really liked (hopefully not just because I agree) is his take on how a dispositions-based ontology comports with the picture of quantum physics (section 6).

Friday, December 04, 2009

This Just Doesn’t Ring True

Karen Armstrong is a prolific writer about religion, and stakes out a conciliatory position in contemporary debates between "new" atheists and theists. I have not read any of her books and I don’t claim any expertise on the subject matter! But nonetheless her take on religious history as presented in this op-ed piece bothered me. Perhaps someone more familiar with her work and/or with history can set me straight.

Here are excerpts:

In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence…