The Religion Of Science

Yesterday I came across an article which really caught my attention.  It contained a rather harsh analysis of the worldview behind science.

Is there a god? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck. Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding? Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes. What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it. Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.” I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.

I wish I had a strong rebuttal against these accusations, but I don’t.  That is the worldview that science leads you to.  It’s incredibly bleak.  It’s not empowering, and as the author points out quite vividly, I don’t think it’s a worldview a person wanting to “Enjoy Life” is going to take on.  But do we need illusions and superstitions, and do they improve our quality of life?  I’d argue that those won’t help either.

There are probably critical ideas missing from the scientific way of viewing the world, but I have to be really careful with this one.  Bear with me.  I suspect that there are aspects to our existence beyond our sense organs, and therefore beyond testability and reason.  You may want to exclaim, “Jason, what are these aspects of our existence which you claim are beyond our ability to understand?”  First off, I don’t know whether they’ll always be beyond our understanding.  Maybe one day we will understand how it all works, but for now, I suspect we’re still in the dark on many key issues.  As for why I feel this way, I can only point you to vague feelings within me.  For a key example, take subjective consciousness.  Science likes to say, “Look, we’ve defined who you are.  You’re activity in your brain.”  I’d argue that that’s a half-truth.  I don’t deny that what I experience is directly correlated with that brain activity, but I just don’t believe that what goes on in my brain is the entirety of my existence.  When I eat an orange, there are rich, vivid personal subjective experiences of tasting the fruit, smelling it, and feeling its texture.  That’s different from the electrical pulses shooting through neurons.  There is no way to test and observe these things outside of experiencing them for ourselves.  I don’t know how things taste and feel for you.   Considering there are people who hate oranges, whereas I personally love them, we must not be having the same subjective experience.

The reason scientists fear this line of thought is because it opens a big nasty door to superstitious nonsense and humanity has suffered so much pain from superstition.  If I can propose there’s more to our existence than what we can observe with our senses, why can’t religious priests claim there’s gods, goddesses, and evil spirits?  We don’t have any tools to keep people’s minds in check, and before long people are irreconcilable conflicts.  “My God is the true God, and if you don’t believe in Him, you must die!  Infidel!”  “No, you’re the infidel!  Your culture and your ways are blasphemous.  All of you must be wiped off the Earth to cleanse it!”

What I think most scientists, including myself, want from our fellow humans is simply this.  Once we open that big door, and you all speculate about higher aspects of yourself and what may be beyond our senses, beyond death, and so forth, realize that it’s all speculation and that you don’t know for sure.  When you claim to have a personal revelation from the heavens, realize that it isn’t the highest form of truth, it’s the lowest form.  It’s mere guesswork.   It might be true, it might not.  You’re dealing with an empty hypothesis with nothing to back it up.  And since other people aren’t likely to have the same personal revelations you are, accept that many people will be believing widely different things, and they’re not evil for doing so.  If we just can just all live together peacefully and say to one another, “There are many mysteries to the world.  In the end, we just don’t know a lot of things” we’ll be fine.

Next I’d like to share my own feelings on the idea of truth.  I hear a lot of atheists say things like, “I don’t like a lot of the conclusions I come to anymore than you do, but if it’s true, it’s true.  I want to know the truth.  That’s what matters to me.”   There’s a lot of courage to that position and I greatly admire it.  Even so, deep down, I suspect it’s based on a fundamentally wrong way of viewing the world.  These are vague feelings I haven’t fully fleshed out, but I’ll share what I’ve came up with so far.

I’ve noticed a trend as I’ve studied science:  the more we understand about the universe, the more powerful we become.  This leads me to believe that “truth” only matters when you’re powerless to the forces of nature.  We seek the “truth” about this world when we’re so clueless as to how things operate, we’re not skilled enough to remold reality how we wish it.  But I suspect that as humans grow in knowledge, the “truth” will matter less and less.  The more relevant question will become, “What do I want to experience?”

I have another vague feeling that we’re not properly understanding what knowledge is.  We have a flawed idea of inside and outside.  Self vs the world.  I doubt it’s the correct way of viewing things.  Long ago, I can’t remember where on my blog, I raised a thought experiment where a man was merged with a super-computer, and this man wanted more and more mental power to understand and control the world.  He consumed the entire Earth and turned it into computational machines connected to his brain.  Craving more understanding and thought power, he consumed the entire galaxy and turned it all into computational thought machinery, used exclusively for his thinking and storing the vast knowledge he’s acquiring about the world.  After all, we have to remember that all knowledge has to be stored in some physical form as data, just like information on a computer disk.  It takes energy to store it, and energy to retrieve it.  This can be made highly efficient, but ultimately you won’t get around the law of conservation of energy.  There will be limits.

As this computational super-being expands, imagine the eventual limit.  That being would consume the entire universe and make every piece of matter its own personal mind.  At that point there is no distinction between the self and the outside world within that universe.  The whole nature of knowledge debate is thrown out the window.  The “world” is what you want it to be at that point.  You just change the data within your machines, and then simulate whatever environment you wish for.  You may say, “Well, the REAL truth is that you’re in a machine, like the Matrix.”  Yeah, and so what?  I guess if you want to build a probe and waste some of your energy flying around looking at your machinery, go for it.  But understanding the “truth” about that reality isn’t going to do anything for you.  Truth seems irrelevant at that point.

Knowledge of the outside world wouldn’t necessarily even have to exist in that universe.  It’d be a waste of energy and space.  Knowledge of the past wouldn’t matter.  All the transitions the matter had flowed through until reaching that almost God-like state of pure control and harmony.  To store knowledge of history and past states of existence requires space in a brain, or in a computer, or whatever.  The more of the past you try to store, the more you limit your own future potential because you could use that energy for your own creations.  You probably would and should only keep knowledge of the past things and forms which you find beautiful, so you could use them in your creations.   I’d keep 3D models of plants, lovely animals, birds, and so forth, but I don’t think I’d ever resurrect a virtual mosquito.  Send those to oblivion.  *hits delete button*

We humans need to know the truth about the world because we’re subjected to so many dangers and are weak.  The stronger we become, the less truth matters.  There might be some sort of evolutionary big picture where science is one of its first stages.  We move from an age of discovery to an age of creation.  I don’t know.  We’re still pretty far from that transition, but it seems to be the direction science is taking us.

I have a few more thoughts to share on this idea of “truth”.  There’s a good chance that we live in a universe with infinite parallel universes along side us.  The universe may well be a cyclic process with new big bangs happening all the time.  A universe is born from random quantum fluctuations, expands and expands, until it’s so thin it’s basically nothingness, and then random quantum fluctuations cause other big bangs, and so on, indefinitely.  The random fluctuations provide the initial conditions and raw material for us to work with.  We’re dealing with an eternal creation machine making every possible reality, with every possible law of physics.  What would the “truth” be?  That is there is no absolute truth?  That anything is possible?

Now let’s take a look at the ultimate end of science — complete mastery of the universe.  Once we achieve some sort of perfect state of harmony, what do we do with ourselves?  Say we built this grand computer out of ever spec of matter of the entire universe and immerse ourselves in every conceivable fantasy and paradise.  What then?  We’d have to periodically erase our memories to free up space for new memories.  Otherwise the entire universe would be consumed with storage of our past memories.  So in time, its inevitable that we’d have to forget things that have happened to us.  No matter how precious the memory, a romantic encounter from 2 billion years ago would eventually have to be thrown out to make room for new experiences.

If you think this through, imagine what you would you use your computational power for?  Say you enhance your brain and powers.  What are you going to want?  I’d presume you’ll want a virtual experience that’s very difficult to overcome, pushing you to the limits of your abilities.  Otherwise it’d be boring.  The only way to enjoy harmony is to rid ourselves of emotions as we know them.  I can’t conceive of a world without our emotions.  They make life worth living.  Emotions and feeling.  Being challenged.  They’re core laws and important creation factors of the universe.  And you’re definitely not going to want the “strategy guide” loaded into your mind, telling you all the answers to beat the game.  What fun is that?

Maybe we all complain about this world because it seems the difficulty setting is too high.  Most of us are so weak, without working together we can’t accomplish anything.  But maybe long long ago, we’ve beaten this game of life before.  We all sat in virtual reality and said to ourselves, “I’m bored.”  “Me too.”  “Let’s erase everything and immerse ourselves in the beginning.  We’ll work together and do it all over again.  I wonder how we’ll solve this game of infinite solutions this next time?”  Just a thought.  But if we’re finite beings, I don’t think many of us realize what the word “infinite” really means.  It never ends.

My conclusion these days is to embrace the world’s struggle as it is.  Try to overcome it as best you can, and find ways to work together.  This is some sort of cooperative experience.  I say this all with reservation though.  There is a lot of suffering and misery here.  As I said before, you have to realize that any speculations about the “big picture” of life are just that — mere speculation.  If you don’t agree with me, I’m not going to stone you to death, and I don’t believe you’re going to hell.

13 thoughts on “The Religion Of Science”

  1. Enjoyable post! 🙂 I’m a new reader/follower of your blog. I especially liked the discussion of reaching the point where the self and ‘outside’ can’t be distinguished. It reminded me of a short story by Isaac Asimov, ‘The Last Question’,
    His story seems like a simplified fictionalization of the philosophical implications you wrote about here, so you might enjoy it. 🙂

    Below, I just wanted to think out something that puzzled me in your post as well as ask what you think on it.

    From the paragraph about the ‘half-truth’: “When I eat an orange, there are rich, vivid personal subjective experiences of tasting the fruit, smelling it, and feeling its texture. That’s different from the electrical pulses shooting through neurons. There is no way to test and observe these things outside of experiencing them for ourselves.”

    A brain can be experienced externally (you see a brain, touch it, slice it up for microscopy etc.) and internally (conscious awareness). Consider how when having surgery on your brain, you’re awake, the surgeon could arrange some mirrors so you can see your brain. Your brain is a conscious thing and can see itself from outside, at the same time, but can’t see its neuronal workings by introspection whilst experiencing. That doesn’t mean that your experience of an orange is different (in the sense of ‘independent of’) “the electrical pulses shooting through neurons” or the collective unit of your brain.

    It seems that we can’t test experiences (ours or others) outside of experience because it is the brain collectively having the experience: you can’t become that brain at that instant of experience, so you can’t verify someone’s experience. With your own experiences, you can’t internally examine what your brain is physically doing at the moment you experience something because it is doing the experiencing, the sustaining of a 3D environment, mental environment, functioning body. But when you look at a brain externally, you can see from absence/malfunctioning of certain parts, or from the cessation of function altogether when someone dies, that conscious awareness (as physically manifested – they don’t respond) is impaired/lost. So you can’t experientially verify a person’s experiences, but you can at least see that the brain is the organ where consciousness arises.

    What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think it is a half-truth. “Science likes to say, “Look, we’ve defined who you are. You’re activity in your brain.”” This doesn’t seem complete, so is perhaps why it seemed like a half-truth. At any one moment, you are an active brain set in an active body set in an active environment. Experiencing an orange as an individual requires taking into account all these things if you want to scientifically explain how the experience arises. Also, a person can’t be definined solely as activity in their brain for that reason: their brain is within a bodily and environmental context, is slightly but constantly changing as the context changes. ‘Isolating’ the brain to try to explain how consciousness happens wouldn’t work. So I think you’re right that what goes in in your brain isn’t the entirety of your existence, but a contextualized brain could be enough to explain your sense of existence and all it entails.

    I’m curious about what you think in reply to this.

    And I’m slowly going to read through your older blog posts.

    1. Hi Beth. Thank you for the very thoughtful comment. You raise some very difficult issues, and all I can do is just share some of my thoughts. I find the problems you bring up to be of such immense difficulty, my mind spins in circles until eventually tiring itself out and quitting. When I wrote this, I specifically had in mind what a lot of philosophers these days are calling the “hard problem” of consciousness. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find a brief discussion of it on wikipedia:

      The philosopher David Chalmers also brings up this issue in this Youtube video:

      > “That doesn’t mean that your experience of an orange is different (in the sense of ‘independent of’) “the electrical pulses shooting through neurons” or the collective unit of your brain.”
      > “So you can’t experientially verify a person’s experiences, but you can at least see that the brain is the organ where consciousness arises.”

      I entertain the idea that many different types of physical processes could bring about similar, if not the same subjective conscious experiences, and if that’s possible, it seems to lead to a conclusion that conscious experiences have their own independent existence, outside of someone or something having them. For example, as we build artificial brains out of silicon and other electronic materials, I find myself wondering whether or not those machines will have experiences like you and me. It may be able to eat an orange and actually taste its sweetness, and feel its texture, just like I do. If that’s true, then there’s a possibility that rather different physical processes could bring about the same subjective conscious experiences. The conclusion is there may be an independent existence to those experiences, different from brain activity. Similarly, it seems possible to me that multiple people could be having the same subjective experience, or at least so similar that it isn’t worth drawing petty distinctions. Feelings of loneliness, the refreshing touch of a cool breeze, or the sweetness of apple juice. I often find myself thinking that there’s this shared pool of experiences, existing in some inexplicable Platonic sense, which all of our brains are tapping into. When I eat an orange, I find it plausible that other human beings either in the past, or somewhere else in the world, have had or are currently having an experience nearly identical to mine.

      Now how could I ever test that multiple people are tapping into the same subjective experience at once? If we were to go to dinner together, and I peeled an orange, handing one wedge to you, and I take another, and we both eat them, it seems possible we’d have the same taste sensation. In the end, I don’t see how I could ever know. It seems to require a step of faith to believe that others are conscious and alive at all. It’s possible that I’m in a sort of alien constructed simulation and that everyone I’ve ever interacted with, including you, is nothing but digital data on a computer, simulated by advanced AI systems.

      Maybe I believe others share the same experiences because I find it comforting. I want to believe that I’m not completely alone in this strange universe. It also seems to be a necessary condition to live a moral life. I believe others suffer as I’ve suffered. When you stub your toe, I reflect on how painful it was when I’ve stubbed my toe, and I believe your experience is the same, or very similar, belonging to the same “class” of “stubbing toes” experiences. I could shrug it off and say, “Who knows if your toe pain resembles my own. There’s just no way of knowing.” I believe others have felt the same joys I have, such as pride in a job well done, or the thrill of making a new discovery. Though as you pointed out, when we reflect on the actual physical matter producing these experiences, you have to take into account everything. The physical matter is never identical, and there’s all kinds of differences in people’s brains. If I take that idea too far though, I just find it lonely. I choose to have faith that others are conscious and have similar experiences. Well, there are complications to this ideas well, which I’ll address in a minute.

      There are other possible explanations, one of which I find troubling and run away from. The entire discussion we just had may be incorrect. I may be the only conscious observer that exists. Quantum physics brings in some rather nasty considerations to all of this. What exactly is going on with the wave function? Based on my observations, Schrodinger’s wave function collapses, and I experience one of the nearly infinite parallel realities. How can multiple observers work within that framework? To be honest with you, reflecting on it scares me. I don’t like some of the implications and sometimes find myself clinging to say the Copenhagen interpretation, even though, when I think it out, the many worlds interpretation makes a lot more sense to me. The many worlds interpretation, if true, seems to drive me to the ultimate form of insanity.

      But many ideas in physics drive me to insanity. I was reading Brian Greene’s book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws Of The Cosmos, and a lot of the implications are too much to think about. Take the simplest form of the multiverse – the quilted multiverse. Evidence seems to suggest that the universe is homogenous (rather evenly distributed) in all directions on the large scale, and many cosmologists believe our universe could well be infinite in extent. Taking into account that matter can only be so dense before collapsing into a black hole, and that physical matter, with its states of position and energies, can only be configured so many different ways, the conclusion is there are an infinite number of Jasons and Beths, exact duplicates of you in me, and our entire universe, in every way other than position in space-time. If brain activity produces conscious states, we’re not unique at all. The universe has produced an infinite number of me and you. An infinite number of people are living our identical lives, choices and everything.

      Questions about the self are too much for me. If you want to define who and what we are as our brains located in a unique position in space-time, that’s fine by me. I greatly respect that position, and I tend to hold it most of the time, unless physics leads me off to weird conclusions. In the end, I just don’t know for sure. Consciousness may dance among related parallel universes in a higher dimension. Time may not flow at all. Modern physics gets too complicated, and I don’t always know how to interpret what the equations are telling me. I have no idea. I’m at a point in my life where I’m so confused about everything, I often just throw my hands in the air and exclaim, “Whatever. I don’t care anymore.”

      I wrote all of this while I was very tired, and I’m just about to go to bed. Forgive me if I jump all over the place. I didn’t have much time to talk about the self, but I’d love to discuss it further if you like.

  2. I’m writing my own glossary to better define terms, which people must agree on if a productive conversation is to follow (of course sophists have a destructive agenda). I define truth as “an accurate description of the natural world, or its parts, or of how it’s been artificially modified.” Then there’s “absolute truth,” the “concept that a given fact is always valid, regardless of parameters or context.”

    So philosophy is “the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It differs from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. Standard philosophy has five or more branches, depending on interpretation.”

    I use the acronym “meela” to remember philosphies branches of metaphysics, estiphinology (knowledge), ethics/politics, logic, and aesthetics. At age 58 I almost completely changed my view of reality. I pretty much started in the knowledge area, filling the gaps that always bugged me. I then ran through the “meela”s:
    – Metaphysics, to me, is Plato’s cave, ideas of our universe being a molecule in a giant’s tube of toothpaste, the whole majic/religion/spirituality thing, etc. For me it’s just a square-filler to get past, even if it does mean a lot of parasites having to get real jobs. To me the Matrix is the socially engineered parasite oligarchs, their nobility (government), and us hosts. Those successfully taking the red pill escape, but doing so in real life is a lot harder than in the movie. So for me the meaning of life is to be happy because everything I do is towards that end — it always was my meaning, I just didn’t know it because I was socially engineered. Now that my brain is outside of the Matrix, it takes more work to be happy because superstition doesn’t work anymore. Just like in the movie, many people know better but choose the blue pill.
    – Knowledge, to me, first includes logic so I know what’s true, what’s not, what’s known/unknown, probabilities, etc. It includes knowing myself.
    – Ethics is the study of what is moral. I’ve concluded what’s moral is a personal thing; no two people are exactly the same, but we can agree on how get along, i.e., the self-ownership/non-aggression axiom. Politics is simply the use of force; the study of politics includes whether or not politics even has a place in human life. I say no, Plato said yes, and especially for slaves.
    – Logic, to me not that difficult but made to see so by sophists. To me all those college courses are just misleading pseudo job creating filler.
    – Aesthetics to me is the study of what makes life beautiful. Like morality, no two people understand it the same, and that’s part of what makes life beautiful — to me.

    1. Pete,

      I was just reading Spinoza’s Ethics yesterday, and when I saw your comment, I thought of your glossary. Your comments inspired me to plan to post a future entry on definitions of ethical terms here soon, using Spinoza’s classifications as the basis. Feel free to use any definition I post in your work. I found a lot his definitions very insightful.

      I used to actually collect philosopher dictionaries. For example, I have an Immanuel Kant dictionary, defining each and every term he uses, briefly explaining what he means when he uses it. I find them really insightful and helpful, especially when I’m thinking, “Hmm. If I was to define this idea or term, how would I do so?” I look forward to obtaining your glossary when it’s complete.

  3. Hi Jason. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts about it. Your blog is a really stimulating one to read. I think these problems make the mind of anyone who thinks about them start spinning in circles – but there’s hope that if we let our minds spin long enough, they’ll go flying off in the right direction.

    Thank you for the link to the David Chalmers video. I find his view that consciousness arises by strong emergence very difficult to accept. (Possibly because it’s quite disheartening to take the perspective that any scientific explanatory account of consciousness is impossible because it’s over and above physical processing.)

    I’d argue that it probably isn’t possible for many different types of physical processes to bring about similar/the same subjective conscious experiences. Although we may eventually be able to build artificial brains out of silicon or other electronic materials, I think the machines we’d build would be highly modelled on human brains (with advancements in intellect) if we were aiming to give them self-consciousness. Although the physical basis would be different, structurally and functionally could an artificial brain really be different? Probably only time will tell the answer to this. But since nature solved the problem of creating consciousness for us, like the problem of flying, I imagine we’ll end up following its lead..
    “The conclusion is there may be an independent existence to those experiences, different from brain activity.” I agree with you that feelings like loneliness, pain, delight, or the deliciousness of apple juice etc. are experiences which are nearly identical in all human beings, but would say it’s because our brains are so very, very similar in structure. The general form of the brain is genetically determined, so although all brains are unique, all brains are sufficiently the same for us to have pretty much the same experiences and pretty much be able to do the same things. It’s why it seems implausible to me that experiences could be independent or over and above contextualized brain activity. Another train of thought that leads me away from the idea of consciousness emerging is sleep or anaesthetic-induced unconsciousness. Changes in brain activity lead to sleep, a chemical interacting with the brain leads to the loss of consciousness. These suggest that consciousness is something happening in the brain as a physical object.

    In Antonio Damasio’s book “The Feeling of What Happens” (you might have read it, but in case you haven’t I’ll add the example), he writes about a man struck by an absence seizure due to epilepsy. The man behaves like a normally functioning human being: he can walk around, pay attention to objects. But when Damasio spoke to him, called his name, tried to communicate with him, he didn’t respond. It seems that, although he can perform tasks normally, he’s lost his sense of self (he doesn’t recognize his own name etc.). With no sense of self, he can’t be consciously or knowingly experiencing anything – he seems to be what philosophers call a zombie. After a while, the man came to and asked ‘What?’. It would be interesting to put a person struck by an absence seizure in front of a mirror to see if they could recognise themselves. It suggests that impaired brain functioning (his epileptic condition) is responsible for his loss of self for a moment. I read your blog entry on the Illusion of Self and agree with you about it: that it’s illusionary and inconstant over time. It seems like the illusion of self generated by the brain is vital for consciousness.

    As an aside, someone told me about a philosophy professor who believed his ‘self’ was a transitory illusion, and therefore didn’t set up a pension because he didn’t want to be giving money to some future self that wasn’t ‘him’. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s quite funny.

    It’s seems like a leap of faith made with strong wings to enable the leap. From observing yourself, you know you blink, smile, talk, move intentionally, and when you touch your own hand you know you have a sensation of touch. When you perceive a being behaving in a way almost identically, it’s very reasonable to infer that they are consciously perceiving (that they taste the orange you taste, sense a touch, smile because they’re happy), too, although you can’t prove it because you can’t partake of their experiences. Standing in front of a mirror together, we’d both show recognition of ‘ourselves’ and each other. Inanimate things don’t do that. Even my cat doesn’t do that, although he has a shade of self-consciousness (he knows what he wants and how to get it with imploring eyes). So it seems that the leap of faith to believing another human is as consciously aware as you are is the same leap as believing that what you see is a real, physical environment: the real, physical person next to you acts in almost the same way as you, so you infer they are like you in terms of experience, if you’ve accepted you’re both physical beings in a physical, non-simulated universe. It’s possible you’re in an alien constructed simulation, but we (plus everybody and everything else) would both have to be data stored in a computer in that case. If you insist you’re conscious and I insist I’m conscious, and we agree tentatively that we both are, then our consciousness would still have a physical basis, dependent on the simulation, don’t you think?

    The idea that there are all kinds of differences in people’s brain is one I find very lonely, too. It seems to be the reason why people struggle to connect with each other, struggle to meet each other’s needs. We can empathise to a great extent if we try to, I think, but understanding a person as they understand themselves (totally taking on their perspective), whilst being totally understood in return, sometimes seems unachievable to me. Perhaps it’s possible. It’s well-founded faith to believe people broadly have similar experiences, though.

    When I first read about the measurement problem, it seemed an excitingly mind-blowing puzzle. But I never thought before of whether multiple observers can work within that framework. Thank you for putting that question. I don’t know enough yet to express a favoured interpretation, I’m sorry. All I can say is that it seems you or I or someone has made observations and we’ve ended up in one of the parallel realities where the right interpretation of quantum mechanics eludes us.

    We may not be unique, but it seems we have know way to know if we are or not. Does Brian Greene’s book say something about a multiverse possibly being necessary to formulate fundamental physical laws? I’m curious, I need to read it. Perhaps we could save thinking about the troubling implications, at least until we knew whether we definitely need to posit a multiverse to reach a fundamental physical understanding of the universe.

    Your blog seems like a way of saying you still care about the questions, even though they’re mind-boggling. 🙂 Thank you for replying to me. I enjoyed reading it and I’d enjoy it if you wanted to discuss the self more, too.

    It’s off topic, but I was wondering do you think maths has an existence independent of the physical universe? Maybe you’ve written a post about it somewhere already. I was having a (light-hearted) argument about with someone, and just wondered your thoughts.

    1. Beth,

      Thanks for the reply. I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Just as a forewarning, there’s a lot on here that I’m not really proud of. That’s especially true the farther back you go. Many entries are very sloppy. I come home after working, I’ll have something pop in my mind as I’m out for a walk, and then I’ll slop it down here on my blog after I come inside. Some entries are better thought out than others.

      I’d like to address some of the points you raised at another time, but for now, maybe I can try to tackle your last question:
      > do you think maths has an existence independent of the physical universe?

      I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about this question because I’ve made such little progress on it. Take the nature of numbers for instance. What is a number exactly? The only definition I’m aware of is Frege & Russell’s attempt, “a number is the class of all classes similar to it.” Most physicists I’ve encountered find this to be a petty and useless definition. When you talk about numbers, and the philosophy of them, they sort of shun away from the discussion.

      For example, a while back I took a mechanics course, and one of the problems asked for the minimum initial horizontal velocity a weighted pendulum would need to swing over an axle. I calculated the minimum as the point where the pendulum would stand straight up above the axle, and in a perfect theoretical sense, stand up straight, perfectly balanced by gravity. Technically it wasn’t the minimum. Say the velocity I calculated was 4 m/s. In a perfect world, even at 4.0 m/s, it would never swing over. The true minimum was something just slightly higher, but what number would that be? Would I use 4.01 m/s? 4.001 m/s? 4.0001 m/s? How close to 4.0 m/s can you get? I then argued to my professor that there wasn’t a true minimum. You could get as close to 4 as you like, but never reach it. My professor seemed to shrug it off and say, “I understand the point you bring up. Any smidgen above that will work.”

      From what I can tell, few people seem concerned about the nature of numbers, and have little concern about whether or not they have an independent existence from physical reality. As for me, I find the question pretty fascinating. Then again, I’m a very philosophical kind of person, who loves debating things others find trivial and useless. 🙂

      Where to begin? Maybe I’ll just lay out a rough road-map of my thoughts on the subject, instead of getting too far into the details. I don’t feel this question can be answered without knowing exactly how the mind works. You need to know how the brain processes information. Ultimately I think of numbers as a form of information. Like when Bertrand Russell speaks of classes. How does the mind perform abstract thought like this? Understanding classes requires the mind to understand subtle forms of similarities between experiences. When I have one book on my desk, and another one beside it, it can identify that they’re both similar, classifying them both as books. Then the mind seems able to form a group of the two books, and relate that group to another group of two other objects, say 2 DVDs on a shelf, and form a common group based on a common shared property. We then assign a visible symbol “2” to that concept, and we call it the number 2. I suspect that the mind may process quantity that way, but numbers are probably more subtle than this. The more I’ve studied the brain, the more I’ve noticed that it approximates reality, oftentimes simplifying things. But despite what many physicists may believe, I find Russell’s definition fruitful in many respects. It does seem to explain things like why our minds can’t understand the meaning behind large numbers. If you were to enter a library of books, and I said there were 10,000 books in that room, would you really “grasp” what that meant? I don’t think so. 10,000 books, 8,000 books, 6,500 books, it’s just a group of symbols written down, or spoken out loud at that point. For example, I don’t think I have any sort of real conception of how long 13.7 billion years really is. I can write down the numbers, and say it out loud, but you have to really push through analogy after analogy before you “get” what that statement really means. The same is true of sizes. You see a number 4.3 x 10^-8 meters. How small is that?

      Extension is different. We can represent spatial extension with numbers, say in polar, spherical, or Cartesian coordinates, but I don’t think the mind needs any concept of number to understand space. Young children roam freely around a room without any training or conception of numbers. Space and the objects within it are information processing constructs which the brain is pre-wired to understand. This quest has ultimately led me to machine vision and artificial intelligence, and I’ve been hoping to understand how I could build a machine which understands space, and could navigate its way through an environment. After spending some time studying machine vision algorithms, and thinking of how the mind can perceive depth from stereo vision, or from movement, I feel I’ve made some progress in this area.

      I find myself thinking about this all the time. When I’m out for walks, I make myself conscious of how my brain is perceiving the spatial environment around me. I think of the images on both of my retinas, and I think of the rates of changes in patterns falling on them. There will be a tree off in the distance and I’ll be walking down the sidewalk. I think of the statistical similarities in the patterns of the sidewalk texture, how there’s a rough border separating it from the green grass, and how these patterns change at varying rates. The tree pattern changes very slowly and grows in size. The sidewalk texture flows by much faster and in the direction of my movement. As I walk forward, certain patterns start at the middle of my eye and progress their way toward the bottom of my retina (well, top since the image is inverted), and then falls “off screen”. Knowing that further visual patterns change more slowly than things up close, and combining this with my intended bodily motions and sensory feedback, I have a sense of moving and existing within space. We now understand these processes well enough to build robots which can walk around a room, build a 3D model of that room, recognize locations and objects, and avoid obstacles. I don’t think this is the only system the brain uses to extract spatial information from the environment, but it’s certainly one of them, and it’s all I’ll discuss at the moment.

      I currently can write you algorithms and software logic which can do this. I have space and a cloud of data points showing depth of objects’ outer surfaces. Let’s say this robot I built using these algorithms was conscious, in some sense. Self-conscious even. It could understand space and extension without knowing what numbers are. I think this same dynamic happens in children. Even in adult minds, we don’t use mathematics to understand space. But now the next question becomes why numbers can represent space?

      What is going on when we measure angles, or calculate distances between points? Whoo boy. Tough question. I don’t really know exactly. I’ll share some of my thoughts very quickly, hopefully before this comment becomes too long to read. We come back to intended body motions. We intend to move to the right, so we take a step in that direction. The visual patterns and other sensory feedback changes accordingly. Then we take a step back, to the left, and we see the visual pattern and sensory feedback which we had initially. This dynamic is where I think our intuitive sense of space and extension come from. It’s based on a sort of sensory information pattern consistency. The reason science has been successful using numbers to represent reality, such as representing physical objects as extended in space, having a velocity, acceleration, and so on, is because the structure of reality works that way at certain levels. The world’s structure is consistent enough to reproduce similar sensory experiences like this, we can have space and time. Like I said before, the brain has a partial limited notion of reality, and things really do work the way the mind represents them on certain scales. But if the objects are small enough, or we’re moving fast enough, this all breaks down. Our brain’s model of space and time are gone. It doesn’t work that way anymore.

      I think our models of physics, such as assuming objects exist in this Cartesian box of spatial coordinates, is based on that intuitive notion. Our mathematics is mostly based on that model as well. There are requirements reality must adhere to in order to be able to be represented in such a fashion. I may be mistaken here, but I believe cause and effect has to hold. But when you deal with say a singularity in a black hole, where you have to deal in terms of quantum gravity, cause and effect cannot be untangled. That makes this very difficult. Our intuitive concepts of reality, and objects existing in space, and a flow of time, and all of that break down. Pretty bizarre, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to wrap my head around it.

      If somehow you could exist within that black hole singularity yet keep your normal thought processes intact, I’m guessing you’d be completely lost and not understand anything going on. Which brings us to whether or not maths has an existence independent from reality. I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not 100% certain of everything that can be represented in mathematical expressions, but my guess is it’s limited. The logic of say computer code, which we use to write software programs, I think is more versatile. I wouldn’t limit myself to explaining all of reality in terms of just mathematics and differential equations. I’d also include software code. Logical interrelated steps of operation. You can program a computer to do every form of mathematics, but it can do other things as well. So I would go with that over just mathematics.

      I’m still researching a lot of the deeper aspects of physics, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics. I have a lot of physics questions I’m working out, such as what happens as the wavelength of radiation becomes less than the planck length, and you have to deal with gravitational disturbances screwing up the oscillations and warping the space-time. I don’t quite know how to handle those situations and have a lot to learn myself.

      That’s as far as I’ve gotten with that question. I’ve studied a lot as to how the mind represents reality, especially our visual system, and I’ve been working to understand a lot of the more difficult physics, which takes years and years. I suspect I’ll be working on these problem for many years to come. I’m working to carefully take apart the math, and see why it correlates with my brain’s model of reality, and why these equations can make accurate predictions. I think I’ve made progress over the past four or five years. Get back with me on all this fifteen years from now, and I think I’ll be much further along…or maybe not. 🙂

      1. I guess I should make a final clarification. You specifically said “physical reality”, as opposed to the totality of reality. I don’t see any way mathematics can represent all of reality. How could a differential equation represent the smell of freshly cut grass or the sensation of the color red? For a while now I’ve kind of held a dualistic view that conscious experiences differ from the “data structures” and “information” of reality. I’ve never liked it, but I’ve never seen a way around it. The oscillating matter waves don’t look like anything. They’re just mathematical waves. Probabilistic fuzz. They don’t have color. They don’t smell like anything. They don’t sound like anything. The waving of a burst of light is just oscillations of electric and magnetic fields.

        I agree with you that we could look in the mirror and see “ourselves”, at least as the brain creates the illusion of such within the “person network”. But when I think of the true self, I’m looking for something more consistent. Less transitory and ephemeral. I think of it more as the capability to have experiences. Even the zombie man you referred to still has this true self.

        Maybe I should ask you this. If I had sufficient technological means, and place you in a disintegrator, leaving you as a pile of atoms on the ground for twelve hours, and then reassemble you, would that reassembled person be “you”? Would that same subjective consciousness arise in you again? Or would someone else be in there the next time?

        Or say I took half of your atoms and mixed them with other atoms, and then reassemble two identical Beths. Identical in every way. Which one would you wake up as? Or maybe neither?

        If you agree that you would wake up in any of these thought experiments, we have another problem to consider. Instead of waiting twelve hours, let’s wait until the universe continues to expand, dilutes itself back to nothingness, and then another big bang occurs. Atoms are formed again and life evolves. Natural processes once again assemble a new brain. Do you think it’s possible that you’d “wake up” as this new life form? I’m not saying you’d remember your past life, or that past illusory self created by your previous brain in the person network. You’d have no conception of what you previously were. But you’d subjectively awaken as something new.

        Consider that the brain you’re in right now is changing all the time. Let’s say I was a very skilled surgeon, and I went in and changed a lot of your memories. I put you in a male body, and then I wake you up. I give you a completely false history that you were married to this man who is now dead, I hire an actor to pretend he’s your brother, and so forth. If you allow me to do that, and you still say that you’d subjectively then experience life as that male, in that body, it seem plausible to me that we survive death and wake up as something new. I’m referring to this “true self”, not the self created by the person network.

        I’m curious as to what you think of the idea.

  4. Jason,

    I intend to reply properly, please give me a day or so. 🙂 Thank you for replying so fully, it was very interesting to read. 🙂 You know a lot more about these things than I do yet, but hopefully I’ll be able to give you a decent reply tomorrow.

  5. @Jason Summers – Hi Jason – I’m on the road, the last several days in a place with little Internet and a lot of survival challenges… I appreciate the feedback on my ideas, it helps me be a more better 🙂 writer. I’m also including a “true self” definition in my glossary (you can see its progress on my website).

    I agree reality is more than physical matter; e.g., “e=mc squared” contains matter, energy, and pattern, so those are my “triad” of reality. If I was dissembled and reassembled with all three the same as before it would be “me” again. If some parts were close but not identical, I don’t know but can speculate. Actually this happens to all of us because (I forgot my source but it’s probably reasonably accurate) our bodies continually replace their molecules as they grow, age, renew, etc., and every seven years or so we’re a completely different set of molecules. So to me, speculation beyond that is a matter of personal priorities; i.e., I swear I’m not copping out, I’m simply affirming it’s not a priority for me to spend much time on the pattern part of the “my reality” question. I’ve just turned 60, my health is really trashed out from our toxic society, so I prioritize my limited mental energy and time on stuff I’m more interested in. That’s why, to me, the metaphysics stuff is mostly a square filler to get past; but I can’t say for anyone else.

    I’m typing from a McDonalds and I gotta go, so I’ll get back to you on this and other stimulating subjects that help my mind try to stay young, and for which I say “thanx.”

  6. Can’t be certain we are better now than ever at establishing convincing arguments for one philosophy or another where despite practical or emotional appeal of one philosophy or another. In the absence of all knowledge, it appears people may reasonably hold an opposing views.

    This “quote” is simply that of a skeptic whose position is quite irrefutable at local levels of whether a person may act charitably for reasons not clearly utilitarian, or whether some person of god may be the prime mover in a cosmology of universe, multi-verse, or multi-multi-verse, etc. The more we recognize the limitations of understanding the ultimate bounds of reality (not just our own) the more we see that the smallest questions become a platform either for skepticism or faith. Science and philosophy are the human rational contributions to this understanding.

  7. @Briar – Which is to say, it is a reach to say “good and bad are no different” as the skeptic might, but that the fully rational inquiry of the question may ultimately not be completely convincing to the fanatical skeptic.

  8. I think the problem is mistaking science for a world view. Science is merely the scientific method. A very good process for attaining the most factual answers.

    It doesn’t tell you anything more than that…
    It can’t tell you what to do.

    Now, are there people who view science as a world view? Of course there are… and these people are fools. People who think politics should be governed by science and indeed fools and perverting science

    Science tells you nothing. First you must set your goals. Goals are based on belief (morals, ethics, philosophy). Now sure, what is belief? Is it just a combination of genetics and how you are raised with some randomness in the neurons. Possibly, that’s all I am. But at the end of the day, it matters not, as I still *feel* those beliefs and will attempt to have them over the next person with their own nature/nature/randomness…

    Then you can certainly use science to get to those goals. But that goals will always be debatable.

    You certainly don’t need religion, but you must acknowledge that the goals are always debatable and most in a complex society… goals involve trade offs with other goals.

    On a very basic levels, should we use societies resources to improve healthcare (good goal) or improve transit (another good goal) or maybe just have more leisure time (another good goal).

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