Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Adventures In Quantumland by Ruth Kastner: commentary and review

Picture of me blowing smoke

Ruth Kastner has made another effort to explain the “transactional theory of quantum mechanics”. My Amazon review of this excellent book is included below with a link to her text. In this commentary I address one technical aspect (or consequence) of the theory and separately her more speculative ideas in chapters 6 and 7 (both mentioned in the review). Her first attempt at explaining her ideas to a lay readership, the book “Understanding our Unseen Reality” 2015 is reviewed here.

The technical issue is I hope straight forward. In Dr. Kastner’s scheme, energy is not transferred, nor a spacetime event realized until a virtual or “incipient transaction” becomes a “real transaction”. Incipient transactions happen between any potential emitter of some quantum of energy, and all the possible absorbers of that quantum (the atoms that could absorb it) throughout the universe! They happen outside of spacetime and so their instantaneous virtual interaction throughout the universe is not at issue here.

What is at issue is that as I read her, no real transaction can begin until one of the emitter (offer wave) absorber (confirmation wave) pairs is promoted to a real transaction. A photon cannot be emitted until it has a determinate absorber destination! How does this idea work if the absorber is an atom in the detector of a telescope on Earth, and the emitter is a star in a galaxy 10 billion light years distant? How could there have been an actualized transaction between a star and a telescope that did not exist when the photon was emitted? I have identified two separate problems here.

First, the confirmation waves come from absorbers capable of absorbing the photon which, at the time of its emission, might have been an X-ray photon. But by the time of its real absorption by some atom in our telescope detector has been stretched way into the red end of the spectrum. It is possible that our red-capable absorbing atom could not possibly have produced a confirmation wave for an X-ray photon.

Secondly, at the time of the emission, the atom that ended up in the detector of the telescope might have been anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth/Sun system such as it was at the time, perhaps a just coalescing mass of hydrogen gas and dust swirling around a proto-star. How did that lucky atom end up in our telescope and not in the center of the Earth, or the moon or anywhere else in the solar system? Further the spatial relation between the proto solar system and our emitting star would be completely different than it is now 10 billion years later. But when we trace the path of our captured photon it always appears to have made a beeline (least time) path between the emitting star and that particular place in space where the Earth (and our telescope) just happen to be 10 billion years after emission.

I suspect Dr. Kastner has an answer here, or I am misunderstanding something about what she means about emission requiring an actualization between offer and confirmation waves. I hope she will address a query sent to her. If she does I will update this blog entry with her explanation.

In her chapters 6 and 7 she goes off the rails speculatively speaking. Her aim in chapter 6 is free will. There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before by others (broadly a theory called dual-aspect monism, see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Kastner begins by demolishing the anti-free-will arguments of David Dawkins and others of a similar type. She does a marvelous job from the viewpoint of the idea’s epistemological absurdity. If there is no free will, then Dawkins’ book isn’t really “his” and so on. In this she is entirely right even to pointing out that the view reduces us to automatons, something I have said for years (see my “Arguing with Automatons”).

Kastner points out that if nothing else, quantum mechanics shows the universe is not fully deterministic. Quantum mechanics “makes room” for free will. That’s fair enough. She also recognizes that “making room” and “the phenomenon” (free will) itself are two different things. Why? Because free will is not merely not-determined (indeterminate) but purposeful. Free will introduces teleology and if not for the universe as a whole then at least for the free-willed individual. Choice is always exercised “for a purpose”, and this is something quantum mechanics doesn’t address unless…

Kastner’s next move, the metaphysical move, is where she goes wrong. Perhaps, she says, quantum phenomena are not merely indeterminate. Perhaps they are also proto-volitional; there is in the phenomenon that which leads directly to the human sort of free will through some ascending volitional hierarchy? Something is “built into physics” that bears the germ of volition. She is, in effect, saying: we have a mystery here (free will) and we have a mystery there (Quantumland), perhaps one mystery is the explanation of the other? Now she emphasizes that this move is pure speculation but what is the point of it other than to fix a source of volition in a universe that is otherwise determinate and indeterminate at the same time, but not volitional.

No one (including Dr. Kastner) asserts that virtual quanta are conscious, but nor can anyone (including Dr. Kastner) tell us in what exactly, besides the non-teleological behavior described so well by mathematics, this proto-volitional consists! What is even a single “identity characteristic” of a proto-volition? In what way does (or even might) proto-volition contribute to quantum measurement outcomes? Where would a proto-volitional term fit into the equations of quantum mechanics? If there is no place for it why say it (volition) might be there other than the purely metaphysical need to have it start somewhere coupled with the metaphysical assumption that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical (including Quantumland).

To put the matter another way, Quantumland is speculation but not “empty speculation”. There are observables, particles communicating at seeming space-like distances and being in two places at once. A “foundation to macrophysics” outside of spacetime makes perfect sense in this context. Raw space and time can be seen to emerge from its seething processes. Quantumland explains a lot. It gives us part of the mechanism of spacetime emergence, and it removes the mystery from many of its emerging observables.

By contrast there is no observable that demands volition at the microscopic level. That volition (or proto-volition) is to be located there explains nothing about the mechanism of [much later] emerging consciousness. Free will is expressed only by or through consciousness (human or animal) as far as we know. The speculation here is empty of content. Nothing stands as an example of a property that ultimately adds up to consciousness or the volitional will of consciousness.

Quantum mysteries are encountered at just the point where they enter spacetime, but volition is not encountered in any obvious way until we reach all the way up to macroscopic brains. This is not to say that quantum phenomena are not involved in producing consciousness. It would surprise me if they weren’t! But this does not mean that quantum phenomena are themselves volitional or even proto-volitional there remains no teleology in physics.

This then brings me to chapter 7 where there is a related problem. The problem in chapter 6 is the emptiness of the speculation, the ad hoc quality of throwing volition into Quantumland because materialism has no other place to put it. In chapter 7 the problem is an induction fallacy. That Eastern metaphysics refers to a world beneath (or above or beyond) that of our physical senses, a world that is the source of the physical, does not mean they are talking about Quantumland! A Buddhist or Hindu using the word ‘energy’ and a physicist using the same word are not necessarily talking about the same thing (Dr. Jacob Needleman pointed this out to me a long time ago using “The Tao of Physics” [Capra], one of the books Kastner mentions in this chapter). Of course they could be talking about the same thing, and if you read enough of both you can cherry pick qualities from each that seem to overlap. Kastner does this in this chapter.

At the same time, Dr. Kastner gives herself the clue to their difference. The “spiritual traditions” all ascribe some sacredness to that which underlies our ordinary reality, but she doesn’t fully grasp the implications. Sacredness is intrinsically teleological. The source of our ordinary reality according to the “spiritual traditions” is purposeful, and being indirect products of it, we human beings have some relation, some responsibility to that purpose. But in no wise does it make sense to say we have any responsibility to Quantumland (nor does Dr. Kastner say such a thing), and this is precisely because Quantumland is not teleological.

Kastner must realize this implicitly as she reminds us multiple times that her ascription of volition to Quantumland (chapter 6) has no bearing on her physical theory as such. But nor is the traditional ascription of sacredness to “the other” some sort of mistake on the part of such traditions. It is a necessary quality of the other to which the traditions refer; a demonstration (as it were) that they are not speaking of Quantumland! There is nothing wrong with calling attention to the fact that spiritual traditions refer to “another reality” underlying our ordinary experience. Quantumland is also another possible reality underlying the macrophysical. But they are two different kinds of “other reality”.

If materialists wish to insist that the sacred sort of other doesn’t really exist, I can only say that until such time as there are observables that pick one theory out over another the same can be said of all the competing quantum others advocated by physicists and philosophers today.

I will leave things here because after all neither of these chapters bears in any way on the transaction interpretation of quantum mechanics as a physical theory. Unlike in her addenda to this latest book, Dr. Kastner isn’t resolving any paradoxes in these chapters. Indeed the misapplied logic (chapters 6 & 7) and misunderstood metaphor (chapter 7) is all on her side; though again and to repeat, none of this has ought to do with the explanatory value of the physical theory.

Adventures in Quantumland: Exploring Our Unseen Reality. Ruth Kastner 2019.

In (2015) Ruth Kastner, a physicist and philosopher, published “Understanding Our Unseen Reality”, a layman’s version of her earlier “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (2014). This book, “Exploring Our Unseen Reality”, is something of an addendum to that earlier work. It is really two books in one. The first half (roughly) is the book, while the last half is a collection of papers authored by Kastner, and sometimes collaborators, each addressing a specific (usually in more technical terms) issue covered in the book’s first half. Kastner frequently refers back (by chapter and page) to her earlier book. It isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book, Kastner makes her overall case perfectly well in this book alone using minimally more technical language (really symbols) to which she introduces us. On the one hand, this book’s explication of the theory’s main points and implications is brief. On the other hand, Dr. Kastner has had a lot of practice explaining the transactional interpretation and this latest attempt is clear and succinctly expressed.

Beginning with the basics Kastner moves us through subjects that are important to understanding her with a particular emphasis on the fact that her theory does not demand (I get the impression she encounters this idea a lot) that some mind be present to “collapse the quantum wave function”. To be clear, there are wave functions that minds do collapse. the ones that end in a quanta-absorbing event in one of our sensory neurons (and from there up the chain to our brains). In general, however, wave collapse is the result, the completion, of a measurement and that means a transaction between a quantum emitter and some absorber whether that absorber is in an eye, a brain, or the detector of some instrument.

The key to the theory is that the transfer of a quantum (measurable energy) requires an interaction between an emitter and absorber. There are two sorts of interactions here, incipient and actual. Incipient interactions happen between an emitter (an “offer wave”) and every potential absorber in the universe (“confirmation waves”), literally every atom that can absorb a photon of that particular energy. It doesn’t matter if these potential absorbers are near to or far from the potential emitter (in the incipient stage nothing has been yet emitted). Every incipient potential occurs instantly and simultaneously throughout the universe. One of these “offer wave/confirmation wave” (confirming that some emitter is ready to emit) “incipient transactions” wins out (remember this has taken place in zero time and across all space from our viewpoint in timespace) and becomes an “actual transaction”. The photon is emitted generating the beginning of a real singular timespace event propagating at the speed of light, and ends when the winning absorber receives the photon. The absorption constitutes a measurement because energy is transferred between the emitting and absorbing atoms. The transaction is complete.

If Dr. Kastner is right here, her theory has implications as revolutionary as the original insight (energy is quantized) resulting in the first generation of quantum mechanics. It would mean that no real photon can leave an emitter until a real absorber is selected out of the incipient possibilities. Personally I do not see how this can be. What if the absorber, the one that completes the transaction, is at the business end of a telescope while the [real not incipient] absorbed photon was emitted from a star 10 billion light years away; long before that telescope existed? There are several potential issues here and I suspect Kastner has an answer, but she does not explicitly address this. See my blog for further discussion.

In the final chapters of the book Kastner gets speculative about quantum mechanics and mind or more specifically the possibility of free will. This is not the “mind collapses the wave function” business, but its opposite. Not only does quantum mechanics give us an escape from absolute macroscopic determinism (fair enough) but rather that the quantum realm is somehow proto-volitional. The last chapter explores some speculations on the potential analogy between Kastner’s Quantumland (beneath spacetime) and various ideas present in ancient Greek and Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) metaphysics. Kastner follows others, citing references, in all of these speculations. I have problems with both of these ideas, but this is not for a review and Kastner is sedulous about these being purely speculative, having no direct bearing on the transactional theory as such.

Following her last chapter, Kastner gives us an epilogue calling attention to (and thanking) her predecessors in the explanatory thread leading to the transactional interpretation, followed by an addendum in which she addresses several long standing “quantum paradoxes”. Her aim here is to show that they are not paradoxes at all, but bad interpretations of data even apart from the transactional theory, and that the transaction idea can make paradox resolution easier to grasp.

In summary an excellent if abbreviated explication of the “transaction theory”. In response to her previous book I said that Dr. Kastner’s theory is the only one I’ve ever encountered that “explains quantum mysteries without explaining them away”. Having read this book I see no reason to change my mind.

The Mistake in Theological Fatalism

“God knows everything you’ve done and loves you. God knows everything you are going to do and still loves you” Vern Benom Grimsley

There is a present fashion among intellectuals, a belief they are not free willed in the libertarian sense, that libertarian free will is impossible in a universe of randomness (quantum mechanics) and determinism (everything else). Although this present fashion is rationalized by modern physics, the idea is as old as the Greeks. Democritus (of atom fame) was one of those who believed this, and so the debate has gone on for some 2400 years.

I make no secret of my scorn for this fashion (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”). It is the philosophical equivalent of adolescent obsession with self-mutilation. Philosophers, even atheist philosophers like John Searle (“MIND” 2005 and “Making the Social World” 2010), Nicholas Rescher (“Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” 2009), and Edward Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), address the absurdity of this position, though Searle admits he cannot reconcile his epistemological conviction that free will must be genuine with his equally strong metaphysical conviction (grounded in physics) that it is impossible.

In this context, the term ‘libertarian’ is not a political ideology but refers to the idea that some agency, my “I”, is volitional; “at liberty” to cause (in Rescher’s term “initiate” [atemporal cause]) some sorts of neurological activity in my brain. Some entity (often called mind) is the starting point of actions instantiated in the physical world by my body. In effect a subjective agent, I, and not merely neurological activity (which I am not aware of directly) am in command/control of my body, and this I, while resting on neuro-physiology, has some independence from physics; there is a gap between that which chooses, and the physiology the choice precipitates. For this reason, the term “contra-causal will” is associated with libertarianism.

The idea here is that this “I” in command (mind?) does not appear to be a physical entity and so libertarian free will commits to the added idea there is in the universe a “cause of the physical” that is not physical. This idea violates a central principle of physics known as the Causal Closure Principle (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genisis of Mind”). The two ideas, libertarian will and contra-causal will, are therefore associated, but the connection rests on the assumption the “I” is not a physical object. ‘Libertarian’ refers to phenomenology, first person experience, while ‘contra-causal’ cause is a metaphysical idea. “Theological Fatalism” addresses the former and is not necessarily committed to the latter should the “I” happen to be physical (see “I Am a Strange Loop” 2004 by Douglas Hofstadter and Lowe referenced above).

THE PROBLEM

On the other side of the debate, philosophers of religion (also going back to the Greeks) have an escape. God, being omnipotent, knows the trick of making contra-causal (and so libertarian) free will possible in a universe whose only other causes are random or deterministic.

Logicians then framed a puzzle. If God is omniscient, he knows everything that has, is, and will happen. This has to include every choice ever made (and ever to be made) by any minded being, personal or otherwise. If that is the case, if God already knows that when you step into a taquiria you will today order pollo and tomorrow carne asada, how can those choices be free? You cannot avoid the problem by intending to order chicken and then at the last moment changing your mind; God knows you will do that too. This puzzle is called “Theological Fatalism”. Even if God is the source of a third (contra-causal) cause, and “mind causes physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016, something Carroll of course denies is possible) that cause cannot be free in the libertarian sense because God already knows what the choice will be and can never be wrong about it.

The puzzle is reminiscent of Zeno’s paradox (back to the Greeks again). Zeno said that movement, change in space, is impossible because to move a mile, or a foot, or even a millimeter, one has to go first half the distance, and then half that distance and so on blocking any movement before it begins. Although it seems obvious that we can move, it took some time for philosophers, early mathematicians, to figure out where Zeno goes wrong. The distance between any two points can be divided into an infinite series of smaller distances. Mathematicians demonstrated that one can traverse or complete an infinite series in a finite time. Zeno did not account for time and in a sense the same is true of Theological Fatalism, or at least that is a part of the story.

Before I dismantle this puzzle I want to note that this argument is raised by scientists and philosophers by way of ridicule; God himself is (or would be) inconsistent with free will. Oddly, many present-day theologians and philosophers of religion have accepted the argument and decided that therefore God is either not omniscient or not omnipotent!

If a theologian does not understand that God must be able to do and experience in ways we cannot and that there are logical riddles, transparent to God, we cannot (perhaps never will) fathom, who will? Such philosophers should hang up their philosophy hats and go away. Logically probing how such qualities as omnipotence and omniscience go together and yet provide for free will is one thing. Denying this is possible because they cannot figure out how it works is ridiculous; the pinnacle of hubris!

THE SOLUTION

If God is God then he knows everything that has, is, and will happen throughout time with absolute assurance, never guessing, and never being surprised. His knowledge is immediate and atemporal, it is a knowledge of a sort we know nothing about by experience, nor can we grasp it logically. We can suppose that God’s knowledge must be infinite and perfect, but not what that is like to experience it.

I’ll go further for the sake of the conundrum. Harry Frankfurt is famous in ethics circles for coming up with a puzzle. A mad genius has learned to take over brains and can cause a person to make any decision the genius wishes. Moreover, the genius knows (here is the real genius) what decision you make as you are making it. If your decision is what the genius wants you to do anyway, she need do nothing. But if your decision is about to be what she doesn’t want, she can force you to make the one she wants and do so in such a way that you do not even realize you are being forced! The question is: is your will still free?

The short answer to the Frankfurt question is, I think, yes you are free when you make the decision the genius wants and no otherwise. My point in bringing this up is to note that God has the power (omnipotence plus omniscience) to be the supreme Frankfurt genius! While we appear to be free, we are merely compelled (having no feeling of being compelled) to follow God’s script. But this mistakenly implies a causal relation between what God knows and what we do. No one claims theological fatalism precludes freedom because it is causal . It is rather a logical problem. God does not cause, that is force, us to make a particular choice.  The matter is rather about what God knows in what seems, from our viewpoint to be “ahead of time”. But God’s foreknowledge is foreknowledge only from a human, temporal, perspective. What ever be the limits of human libertarian freedom, even the most dyed-in-the-wool libertarian does not suppose that such limits include contravention of natural law, including time.

In the comments here an interlocutor points out that what God knows amounts to fate, and for this reason we are not free. It is a viewpoint that amounts to a deduction from a universal perspective impossible for us to actually have. Since “God is one” one might argue that everything that, to us, appears differentiated about the universe is all illusion or but a shadow of the singular unified reality. This ignores the manifest, to us, reality of matter and a richly differentiated universe. Both views reflect the same singular reality, some shadow to God, differentiated reality to us. It is from this perspective that we are free even if what we choose is, from God’s universal view fated.

No libertarian claims our freedom is absolute. Just as we cannot contravene natural law, so also we cannot surprise God. So long as (and assuming) mind is a cause in time, the future is genuinely open in time! If from our perspective, always limited to the present, a choice makes a future difference, then our choice is free from within that perspective.

Of course we might still be wrong about this if God is a deceiver, if it is in fact the case (as in Frankfurt’s clever puzzle) that we are not the cause of our choices, or that we are that cause only when we choose what God has foreordained. But if we are deceived then God has to be causing our choices and that is not the crux of theological fatalism.

There is every reason to believe that God (should he exist) cannot be a deceiver (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology). It does seem to experience that our will itself, the subjective mind exercising it, is (provided we are of normal brain) sovereign over choice no matter what choice we make. That God knows what that choice will be does not abrogate its freedom from within the view of our temporally constrained, to the present, perspective.

From our viewpoint, future possibilities from among which we choose (God knows these also) are in fact genuinely open to us because we do not know what God knows. We do, subjectively, choose from among alternatives and “which choice” we make makes a future difference to us and others whom the choice may entangle. This is all a robust libertarian free will needs. The strongest advocates of libertarian will do not demand that no power in the universe knows what you will decide.  Being unable to “surprise God” does not equate to fate from our perspective.

Libertarianism requires only that we cannot know what that power knows and as concerns God’s viewpoint this is surely true.  To say then: “well our freedom is purely perspectival, or stems merely from our limited perspective” is trivially true, but over-simplified. All freedom short of God stems from or exists within some perspective. It is freedom nevertheless because from within any perspective it bears causal responsibility for the particular choice made.

All that libertarianism requires is that subjective agency, the self-aware subject, and not deterministic neurophysiology nor God causally, initiates action from within its perspective and this requirement is fully satisfied in the human experience of willing. We are free in our experience and if “mind can cause physics”, if contra-causal cause is real (possible if God is real), and God is not a deceiver, then we are free in the libertarian sense, from within our perspective, despite what God knows. God knows what we will choose, but so long as his knowledge is not a cause of our choice our will is free within its constrained perspective. Theological fatalism is a false doctrine.

Book Review: Lost In Math by S. Hossenfelder

Another in my book review series, this is philosophy of science in the capable hands of a physicist. As usual, I have a commentary in which I offer something of an alternative that could break the philosophical logjam that is Dr. Hossenfelder’s primary concern. It is presented here in this separate essay.

In my book review (below) I mention Dr. Hossenfelder’s “secondary concern”, that being the politics and economics of doing physics in a university research environment. I made only cursory reference to this part of her book, but it deserves a little more attention as it is, in part, the result of the lack of break-through empirical discoveries on which university physicists could hang their hats. The doctor spends a good chapter on this subject and hits on all the players. Too many post docs chasing university jobs, too many tenured professors in major physics department not making room for new players, too much emphasis on volume publishing and citation in a limited number of journals.

It is thanks in great part to this publish-and-be-cited cycle, and the money being chased by it, that novel approaches to existing problems are not more prevalent. In the absence of data, new approaches are mostly ignored until (thanks to success if it comes) they cannot be ignored any longer. But that can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, their proponents are left out in the cold. Speaking of cold, Dr. Hossenfelder briefly addresses the dark matter mystery and mentions Fritz Zwicky (who passed away in 1974). Zwicky proposed dark matter as a solution to the galactic gravitational mystery back in the 1930s. A crack pot idea then, but no more.

Lost In Math by Sabine Hossenfelder 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist with a social media following, a much beloved blog, an attitude, and now a book to go along with it all. This is not a physics book, it is a philosophy book. Its subject matter falls squarely into “philosophy of science”. It is not a book about philosophy of science, but a book that does philosophy of science. Specifically, She mounts a strong critique of present attitudes and assumptions underlying approaches to today’s work in theoretical physics and cosmology. Particle physics, string theory, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics and field theory, black holes, and the origins of the universe all come within her scope. In Dr. Hossenfelder’s view all of them suffer from a similar bias towards the idea that mathematical consistency alone is a truth criterion. Nowhere is this made more plain than in her delightful demonstration that the present predilections of every single one of the above fields can be turned into a multiverse hypothesis!

Hossenfelder knows that data is important. She also knows that modern experimentation in the physical and cosmological sciences is expensive and sometimes takes years to produce data and sometimes not even then. The physicists know this too. It used to be that theories explained existing data and then made new predictions subsequently confirmed or ruled out by further experiments. But the easy experiments have been done. The problem is that there are too many physicists, too many people chasing the next grant, the next tenured position, and not enough money, or new data, to go around. This is a part of the problem, the economics, sociology, and politics of the field. She addresses these, but they are a secondary concern. Her primary concern is squarely philosophical.

At the present level of exploration of physical foundations there are darned few predictions to be confirmed or denied either because doing so is too expensive, experiments have resulted negative outcomes, or the predicted phenomena lie beyond any conceivable experiment. What then are the legions of theoreticians to do? Noticing that many of the successful physical theories of the past have a certain elegance and simplicity about them, intrepid physicists turn to beauty and the notion of naturalness. Neither of these ideas is bad, but they are not, by themselves, good arbiters of truth and this is exactly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point and the primary subject of the book.

Of the twin notions, naturalness is the easier to quantify as it comes down to there being no, or few, “arbitrary numbers” needed to make the theory match the data. The number “1” (or numbers very close to it) is “natural” because it doesn’t change what it multiplies. Un-natural parameters (outside of science known as “fudge factors”) detract from a theory unless they can be satisfactorily explained. The demand for explanation of the fudge factors drives further theory building and she notes that as one is explained, others seem inevitably to appear. Beauty is a more vague idea still as are associated ideas of simplicity (related to naturalness) and elegance. Beauty is, after all, in they eye of the beholder and this is no less characteristic of physicists and their foundational theories as it is in art.

Dr. Hossenfelder traveled from Stockholm to Hawaii and points in between interviewing famous physicists to garner their opinions on this subject. These interviews form a goodly part of the book. Some of her interviewees work firmly in the mainstream of modern physics. Others occupy peripheral positions but have enough street credit to be read by their peers, at least for a while. Her interviews are brilliant and funny. She asks good questions, philosophical questions, and all her interviewees agree with her! The present tendency in physics she so well illuminates is a problem! But there is also consternation. “What else can we do?” is an oft repeated refrain.

Through the process of relating all of this to us, Dr. Hossenfelder expresses her own insecurities about her choice of specialty, and even physics altogether! Has she wasted her time she wonders? Perhaps. But if I had the power I would hire this woman instantly; not in physics, but in philosophy! This theoretical physicist has a lot to contribute to the philosophy of science. Not that the physicists will care much of course. As is often the case in philosophy, insights go unrecognized until after problems that might have been avoided have fully broken upon us.

Dr. Hossenfelder is not absolutely alone crying in the wilderness here. There are a few of her peers in the physics community who see the same problems and have written about them; Lee Smolin comes immediately to mind and there are, perhaps, a few others. She should not despair however. Her credentials are impeccable. She has a lot more to contribute, if not to physics directly, then to philosophy of science. She should embrace her new community!

Why True Physical Theories are Beautiful

Picture of me blowing smoke

In 2018 Sabine Hossenfelder, physicist, published “Lost In Math”, a philosophical critique of certain present trends in the philosophy of science, physics and cosmology in particular. My review of her book is published HERE where there is also a link to the book on Amazon. Her exposition deserves a little more treatment that does not strictly belong in a book review, and in that connection I offer this commentary.

The dominant theme of the book is that physics and cosmology have largely transitioned from a regime where empirical data drives theory development to one in which the consistency of a theory’s mathematics, an idea called “naturalness”, and less quantifiable notions of elegance, balance, and symmetry, are arbiters of the theory’s likely truth. Dr. Hossenfelder repeatedly asks why physicists think this should be so? She asks this of them literally, and the answer is there is only the one universe [that we know of], and one big bang. If there is more than one “fundamental principle” necessary to make the universe cohere one needs to explain how it is they are so perfectly coordinated. If everything there is began with a singular event, there should be a singular explanation. “One principle” is self-coordinating; simpler.

Let’s grant that this is a reasonable hypothesis. Everyone knows we do not yet have this single unifying principle. So while this conviction gives us a reason to keep looking, it says nothing about the truthfulness of intermediate theories nor, by itself, does it guarantee the truth of a given unifying theory. Traditionally, given a certain body of positive data (not a null result which at best tells us where not to look) the better theory is the one that explains more of that data without having to add fudges (arbitrary features) to fold disparate data into the explanation. This is the “naturalness problem”, and between it and beauty it is the more important claim because it is at least partially quantifiable.

Naturalness comes in two flavors. A theory is “more natural” if it has fewer arbitrary numbers, but also if such arbitrary numbers as it has are closer to 1. Why 1? Because if all the arbitrary values one needs are equal to 1 then they all cancel by multiplication or division and you end with no arbitrary parameters! Sometimes we set values to 1 (we often treat the speed of light way) to simplify solutions to equations. But we are not speaking here of solving equations, but of finding them. We find the parameters by measurement and we have measured many of them. From the viewpoint of theoretical physicists those measurements, when far from 1 are the data that most need explaining.

Take for example one of the simplest of these, the proton/electron mass ratio which happens to be 1836.152… (the … meaning there are more decimals here). First notice that this is a unitless number. Numbers with units are not at issue. If we measure the mass of an electron in grams we will obviously get a number different from that same measurement in ounces. No one worries about such differences. But if one divides the mass of a proton (in grams) by the mass of the electron (in grams) we get that 1836 number and that same number comes out no matter what unit we use. Physicists think that this number cries out for an explanation. Why? After all, the ratio between the mass of the sun and the mass of the Earth is (roughly) 3.3 x 10^5, hardly near to 1. Why doesn’t that ratio cry out for an explanation?

The answer here is that we know of many planets surrounding many suns (and long before we found these we knew the mass of the 8 planets of our own solar system) and their ratios vary greatly. Because we know of so many examples, we understand that these values just come out as they do depending on specific circumstances having to do with forming solar systems. The Sun/Earth ratio just happens to be what it is, there is nothing particularly mysterious about it.

So why not say the same about the proton/electron mass ratio? It just is what it is? Well, that might be the case, and this is partly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point but the problem is there are many solar/planetary mass ratios but only one proton/electron mass ratio. Every proton in the universe is 1836.152… times heavier than every electron! It is the universality of the ratio that makes it mysterious. Why should the ratio be this number and no other anywhere in the universe? Taking a cue from the variety of solar/planet mass ratios it is this mystery, that leads (and it is only one such possibility as Dr. Hossenfelder deftly shows) one to postulate a multiverse. Perhaps, like solar/planetary masses there are many proton/electron mass ratios. Those that are other than 1836.152… belong to other universes!

But a multiverse is not entirely satisfying. After all, we can still ask how it is that we are the lucky lottery winners? Only our ratio (or something close to it) results in stable elements from which we might eventually spring? There is no answering that question unless there is a reason to believe that 1836.152 is more likely than other possible values as for example 7 is the most likely number to appear in the possible sums of numbers on two 6-sided die. But assessing such a likelihood depends on our having other examples, other actual proton/electron mass ratios from those other universes. Without such a probability distribution, the multiverse hypothesis simply pushes the question out from “why this number” to “why this universe”. In the end it is the same question.

In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder takes aim at simplifying assumptions, like naturalism. She doesn’t say they are wrong. She says that there is nothing inherent in the structure of the material world that necessitates their truth. Yes, there is support in human psychology, that we notice the unusual (she gives an example of an image of Jesus appearing on a piece of toast), but this does not mean that what we notice really is unusual (crying out for explanation) in the physical foundations of the world.

The doctor is right. It is one thing for physicists to try on such hypotheses even without new data. Perhaps they will stumble on a simple theory that does “explain it all” without needing arbitrary numbers, or at least without many arbitrary numbers. Even then we have no empirical ground to assert that “the theory” is found unless it makes some new testable predictions we can afford to test! It is also possible physicists are right about there being a single solution, though it might lay beyond the ability of human mind to discern.

Remember our conviction that such a solution exists comes from our observation that the whole universe goes together. Quantum mechanics and gravity work seamlessly in the universe. Can we not take for granted there is a description of the universe that explains their connection and at the same time is testable even if we cannot afford the experiments?

Dr. Hossenfelder is not saying no. She is not denying there is such a theory and she is not claiming that human mind is incapable of discerning it. She is saying first that no one knows if this is the case, and second, mathematical consistency, balance, symmetry, simplicity, elegance, and even naturalness, without empirical evidence, cannot tell us that we have in fact found that theory! These are Hossenfelder’s points and she is correct about them. Nevertheless, because gravity and quantum mechanics do inter-operate, it seems rational to insist that a universal theory exists.

Is there another alternative that removes the mystery from the numbers? In her book, Dr. Hossenfelder addresses various subdisciplines of physics separately. She is sensitive to the nuances of each subfield and her point is that they have a common problem. I do not have the space in this essay to address each of these areas separately so I choose one for illustration.

All the subdisciplines of physics addressed by Dr. Hossenfelder converge in cosmology, in particular the big bang. The [presumptive] story, as I understand it, is that in the first Planck times (5.39 x 10^-44 seconds) of the big bang (with or without inflation) there were no separate forces, no ratios between the various numbers, nothing but undifferentiated hot radiation. As this all began to cool (and we are still talking less than a second here), the forces split apart, first gravity, then the strong force, and then electromagnetism and the weak force the two splitting up shortly following.

The mystery is why the unified forces separated at exactly the temperature and pressure they did to reach their present values? This is not to say the force relations were the same then as they are now (see Unger & Smolin “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” [2015]). It is possible they evolved into their present values over time. The first atoms (ions) formed (nucleosynthesis) a few seconds after the big bang. By this point, the strong force at least had to have its present value or something close to it. The electromagnetic force and the weak force must also have been close to their present values shortly thereafter while gravity may also have reached its present relation with the rest of the forces over some interval.

Physics has taken three philosophical positions on the big question.

1. The relations are brute. They might have come out otherwise. There is no explanation to find, we just got lucky.
2. There is a multiverse and a broad range of numbers are manifest in other universes. Again, with or without a probability distribution, we got lucky.
3. The forces had to come out the way they did. There is a discoverable, lawful, purely physical reason that necessarily determined the force relations.

Is there another alternative? Yes, a traditional one.

4. The force relations are designed! Call this the “God Hypothesis” (GH).

The beauty of GH does not settle its truth any more than the alternatives put forward by physics. Its possibility is suggested by the mystery physics has set out to solve; why are the force relations what they are? Their tuning appears intelligently configured. That doesn’t mean it is, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t! GH meets every desideratum of the physical theories except mathematical consistency, for which it substitutes logical consistency. Nothing could be more natural than “God is one”.

Physics and cosmology have well explained the present macrostructures of the physical universe from galaxies, to stars, and planets. All of this the outcome of early conditions and the force relations. No design is necessary to shape the present cosmological outcome given those conditions and forces. But it does not follow from these explanations that the effect of the whole, the present universe, wasn’t intended by some intelligence capable of producing it. Physics does not know by what means initial conditions came to be as they were. To suggest that “God did it” is dismissed as a “God of the gaps” argument, but this ignores the philosophical issue. The nature of early conditions can be probed only so far. There must inevitably come a first physical expression. Even this discovery, would not settle any of the positions enunciated by physics as concerns a first physical event of our universe.

Even if physics could settle empirically what exactly that first physical event was (likely not possible given the limitations of macrophysical instrumentation), there would remain the mystery of the event itself. Unger contends that physics, and time, are prior to our universe, but in the earliest times of our universe, there may not be regularities, laws, to be probed. Smolin thinks some of the regularities are inherited from a parent universe. The Cosmic Microwave Background might present evidence for this. But the properties of the CMB make it impossible to distinguish such evidence from the outcome of lawless randomness. Other physicists assert the origin of our physics is concurrently the origin of time, and to speak of a “prior to” that event is meaningless.

Whichever view one takes, no empirically accessible explanation can in principle exist. Only the explanation that there is no explanation, that the properties of the first physical event were brute (or effectively so), that we are lucky, remains open to any legitimate science.

A sensible GH entails purpose on the part of the [purported] intelligence. Such purpose must be diachronic, across all-time, and that means evolving observers such as ourselves (and possibly many more on other worlds) are some part of the intended outcome. Thus a sensible GH takes mystery out of all of human experience as concerns the nature of our universe from the big bang’s conditions to the nature of human consciousness and what it experiences.

GH does not explain the details of how it is the universe got from the big bang to here. That is the point and role of science, and GH in no way opposes science’s empirical discoveries, nor explanations (theories) grounded in empiricism. GH opposes only the unwarranted claims, by science, that the universe as a whole is purposeless, and that empirical discovery precludes the existence of a designer!

“Prolegomena to a Future Theology” sketches a first principles GH. It is logically consistent and abjures historical authority or the opinions of theologians whose ideas rest on such authority. Logical consistency plays the same role as mathematical consistency in physical theory. It does not prove the truth of the theory but it is a necessary condition of it. It is with this idea that I close these comments by returning to Sabine Hossenfelder’s book.

The present thought in physics and cosmology, that there is one theory that covers all phenomena, that such a theory will be natural and relatively simple, and that it will turn out to be beautiful is strongly supported by the GH. Beauty is a slippery idea. The term has no well-defined characteristics necessary or sufficient to determine it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is, though, a notion of beauty connected to the GH. It supposes that beauty, with truth and goodness are qualities of God’s character.

Beauty, in particular, is that quality expressed through material reality. What is beautiful might largely be a matter of taste. But most of us agree that a sunset is beautiful as is the night sky filled with stars, or for that matter the bright blue of a cloudless day. What God does always has beauty, and this includes not only the end (the night sky) but the means, first physics.

GH does not guarantee we can find a first physics, but it does guarantee that should it be discovered we will find it beautiful. Naturalness is another matter. It must turn out the magic numbers in physics, if they do not disappear altogether, must arrive at some minimum number. If it happens that God set the force ratios deliberately to achieve the present (and still-to-come future) universe it might still be true that those numbers “had to turn out” as they did based on prior conditions. GH does not preclude a physical, law-governed explanation for the settings. A GH does not, and should not, prescribe mechanisms.

A GH rules out the notion the numbers really are brute, there is literally “no reason for them”, though as noted there might be no discoverable physical reason for them. A GH supports the conviction there “must be a reason” though not necessarily a physical one. Lastly, a GH does not rule out a multiverse but it does make it redundant. If God can “pick out” the numbers, he can do it once and has no need of a landscape. Nor would this mean God did not utilize a landscape, but if a landscape was necessary, such a creator would not be the God of a consistent GH.

We can derive all of this from a first-principles GH. What it means is that Dr. Hossenfelder is correct in that beauty, naturalness, and mathematical consistency, even taken together, are not enough to establish the truth of a physical theory. But she is wrong, if GH is true, to assert that the true physical theory might turn out ugly. If GH is true, there must in fact be a unifying theory because the whole universe does, obviously work together, and since God did it, the true theory must come out beautiful. The irony here for physicists is that their belief that “the true theory will be beautiful” is evidence for the GH!

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind

selfie

Physics rests on the “causal closure principle” (CCP). The CCP has three legs:

CCP(1): Physics comes only from physics.
CCP(2): Physics produces only physics.

Together these say the physical effects we observe come only from prior physics, and physical causes (using cause in its common language sense) produce only physical effects.

CCP(3): There is no teleology in physical mechanism, no goal-directedness. CCP(3) is something of a corrollary of the first two legs. Physical relations and interactions are either determinate or indeterminate, but either way they are not “before the fact” directed at particular outcomes.

If God does not exist, the only philosophy of mind (PoM) consistent with all three legs of the CCP is eliminative materialism. Every other nontheistic PoM that rejects eliminative materialism and accepts that mind cannot be logically reduced to physics, violates the CCP in one or more ways.

PoM theories that claim mind exists in some sense of that word, that mind is real and emerges from ordinary physics without anything “in principle undetectable” (QM aside) added to physics to make it happen violate CCP(2) but not CCP(3).  They assert, plainly enough, that physics results in something that is in some sense non-physical, but mind’s emergence is just as accidental (contingent) as all other [physical] emergent phenomena (from stars to liquid water to life).

PoMs claiming that physics is incomplete, that something else must be added to ordinary (measurable) physics to make mind emerge (dual-aspect monism and panpsychism of various sorts) violate both CCP(2) and CCP(3).

Only theism can both accept all the CCP while accommodating mind’s reality (and for that matter libertarian free will). Theism also grounds our conviction of agency which nontheistic theories universally deride. I write about theism extensively but my purpose in this essay is to show that the [supposed] problems with theism for physics and PoM are no worse than those of nontheistic PoMs. This is to say both suffer from equally serious metaphysical and epistemological problems.

Being inaccessible to empirical (or for that matter logical) demonstration (or falsification), a “God hypothesis” is a speculative solution, a curve drawn arbitrarily to fit points (mechanistic nature of the universe joined with free will for example). Other speculative solutions, so it is claimed, are equally possible and equally impossible to confirm or deny. In fact however it is more difficult than it seems to come up with these alternative solutions. Speculative solutions that fit all the points (the mind-independent world and everything in experience) and remain logically coherent are difficult to invent. Many have tried. Like theism, atheistic attempts at solving the mind problem are also data-free speculative solutions because the data, mind emerging from brains, cannot be observed!

Physicists are often eliminative materialists (nothing emerges strictly speaking) or reductive-materialists (only an epiphenomenon emerges).  Only eliminative materialism is fully compliant with the CCP and logically coherent, but it is also the solution that is most prima fascia absurd from the subjective viewpoint it denies exists! Reductive-materialism either violates CCP(2) if epiphenomenal-mind is taken to be something real or it is logically incoherent! Physics causes the external conditions of a mirage, but the illusion that is the mirage happens only in a mind. An illusion presumes a subjective experience in which the illusion occurs.

The view that a non-material mind emerges from ordinary physics violates CCP(2)! The idea is coherent because mind is not taken to be an illusion. The problem is that no physicist has ever seen a physical phenomenon emerging into (or as) a nonphysical one. We see physics emerging from physics all over the universe from galaxies and stars to liquid water to life, but all of what comes of these events (causes and effects) is physical! The retort from physics is that we do not see any other non-physical emergence because the one such thing that has happened in the universe is the very mind we are trying to explain. Mind is the evidence that physics can produce mind. Surely this argument is circular? It plainly begs the question to say that the evidence physics alone can explain the appearance of mind is mind!

There are a few philosophers who follow the physicists here (John Searle, Bob Dole among others), but many philosophers see problems in this approach. First there is the circularity already mentioned, but in addition, this solution (whether it includes a role for quantum mechanics commonly cited by both physicists and philosophers) entails that mind’s appearance is contingent. Not only might it not have appeared in the universe, something every materialist accepts, but its appearance is mysterious. The mystery applies to mind in general, and individual minds in particular. Why is consciousness ubiquitous in animals with complex nervous systems?

Troubled by these problems, materialist philosophers seek solutions that remain [purportedly] physical while, at the same time, channeling universe evolution towards consciousness and by doing so taking its mystery away. But every one of these solutions violates CCP(2) and CCP(3)! The idea that universe evolution is directed is plainly teleological! This is what prompts philosophers (and some physicists) to grasp the straw of quantum mechanics,  but this (I will argue) doesn’t help them.

To explain genuine mind in a Godless universe there are dual-aspect monisms (Henry Stapp, Donald Davidson, Thomas Nagel) and panpsychisms (David Chalmers, Philip Goff, John Leslie). Under normal circumstances both of these theories would count as metaphysical, that is not physical theories at all! They are physical not logically, but merely by ancestry. Purportedly they remain physical (or physics grounded) because their novel (never specified) qualities can only have originated in the big bang!

Dual-aspect monisms make the claim that physics is incomplete in the sense that there are additional fundamental properties in micro-physics not yet (and perhaps never to be) discovered. The physical in this view includes the mental in a proto-property form. This undiscovered addition is not conscious; atoms are not aware. Nevertheless the qualities of this extra-physics direct event unfolding towards that which yields consciousness. Working backwards from consciousness, this channeling must also encompass the preconscious stages of life’s evolution and the origin life throughout the universe. To our empirical experience, only life, some life, becomes conscious, and that only as it gains the right sort of complexity following millions of years of evolution.

If dual-aspect monism of any sort was true however, we would expect its effect to show up in the equations describing the regularity of physical evolution. There is no such term in the equations of macro physics so to say that this extra aspect of the physical is a part of physics surely begs the question.

This is why I think so many philosophers grasp at quantum dynamics to locate proto-mental qualities. We cannot directly measure quantum phenomena until they interact with the macro physical world, and quantum phenomena, technically, are not random but indetermined. Perhaps (so they speculate) we can locate the proto-mental in the difference between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’, in effect shielding teleology from possible detection? But surely a proto-mental is not the only possibility accounting for the restriction from random to indeterminate (see note on this distinction at end of essay).

Furthermore no one (physicist or philosopher) has been able to say what properties the proto-mental has, how they restrict random to indeterminate, or how the indeterminateness of the quantum phenomena we know push the macro universe towards consciousness. Even Henry Stapp’s “Quantum Zeno Effect” addresses only the narrow interface between brain and the human type of consciousness. Even if this speculative connection turns out to be a measurable phenomenon, no one has suggested how the physical world accommodates it. They all seem to agree that the proto-mental cannot be conscious in the sense that we experience it, but that tells us nothing of what properties it does, or even might, have and how they work!

What all of these theories entail however is that the mental (the proto-mental at least) must be antecedent to the physical! If it has a downward influence on the physical, which these views entail, it has to be ontologically real! Where does it come from? If the foundation of the universe is physical, what is it in or of the physical that grounds the proto-mental? The idea of a proto-mental here is not incoherent by any means. But it’s coherence largely depends on there being something about the fundamental ontology of the universe that isn’t physical! Moreover something that directs with intention!  Teleology is here introduced something the more honest of the philosophers admit they cannot seem to avoid.

For these reasons, dual-aspect monisms violate CCP(2) but they also violate CCP(3) because whatever else the extra might be it is clearly teleological. Instead of the universe ending in one state or another driven only by contingent process, the extra-physics channels evolution toward a specific outcome! It is therefore purposeful in the sense of being goal-directed.

Panpsychism is the converse of dual-aspect monism. It isn’t that mind builds up particle by particle thanks to some undiscovered property of particle physics, but rather it is the universe taken as a whole that comes to embody the extra physical qualities. Philip Goff (in a paper) neatly distinguishes two forms of panpsychism, micro and cosmo versions. Micropanpsychism is much like dual-aspect monism. The mental is attached to physics at the particle level but it isn’t effective except as contributor to a totalizing affect of the cosmos. Micropanpsychism has dual-aspect monism as a foundation but asserts that its impact is felt only in relation to the whole universe. You might think of this like neurons and brains. Every neuron in your brain is a foundation of brain functionality. But mind doesn’t show itself other than at the level of the whole brain, or at least large parts of it. In Micropanpsychism, the properties of the whole emerge from properties of the parts.

Cosmopanpychism abandons the dual-aspect foundation and asserts it is only the universe as a whole that reveals proto-mental properties. This view needs no micro-alteration to physics. Mind emerges from brains the way stars emerge from gas clouds because special properties of the totality, properties described by laws parallel to those of physics, are able to invoke it. Somehow, the entire universe acquires properties (usually not taken to be conscious as such) that come to direct physical evolution, and then biological evolution, towards consciousness.

This idea clearly violates CCP(3) (it is teleological) but is precisely an attempt to avoid violating CCP(2).  It is unsuccessful because the panpsychist claim is essentially that from the total state of the universe there emerges a parallel collection of qualities (properties and laws) that evoke mind from brains!  At one level or another, physics results in non-physics and so violates CCP(2). Besides Goff, David Chalmers is a proponent of this view.

For the cosmopanpsychists the “mental qualities” do not (typically) amount to the emergence of a literal Cosmic Mind, a “thinking universe”. Such a view would amount to substance dualism at the level of biological mind! But the philosophers who assert this do not, with one exception that I know of, specify what any of these properties are. As is the case with all the other theories, none of the qualities that supposedly effect the transformation nor any part of the mechanics of their interaction with the other-than-mental are anywhere given.

The exception here is John Leslie who asserts the property or quality characterizing this emergence is goodness. We normally think of goodness as a quality of the character of persons and so, by extension, of their minds. Emerging with the big bang is not only purposeless physical mechanism, but a parallel quality of goodness. A universe pushed in that direction is so pushed because goodness is a quality of it from the beginning, and mind is good!

To get the job done, any of these extras must, necessarily, be effective. It does no good to say that something besides the physics we know, something that is nevertheless physical (or quasi-physical), might or might not push cosmological evolution towards life and life towards consciousness. If the operation of these extras is itself contingent then what would be their point? To do the job they must not only have the necessary power, but that power must result in their goal-directed effect. The extra-in-physics, its goal-directedness, must be logically antecedent to the physics we measure that does not, in any aspect, appear goal-directed.

Where does antecedence come from? Since all of these philosophers are materialists, it must originate, with everything else, in the big bang. But there is nothing in the physics of the big bang that contains anything of the mental, anything of this extra there, and certainly nothing to which we can point that bears value; goodness. The big bang is a quintessentially physical event. What is  the proto-mental property in physics? How does it arise from within an other-than-mental physics and yet be logically antecedent to physics?

The extra-in-physics, under any of these approaches, hangs, metaphysically, on literally nothing! In John Leslie’s view, not only is universal mechanism goal directed, it is also moral! For him, morality happens to pop into the universe with the big bang and it is this quality that underlies drift towards the mental. How, presumably in the absence of any mind, has this direction become good? Even if it is, how does goodness effect the direction of physical contingency?

Does physics itself have an analogous problem with this last point? Where does the physical universe come from? Why is there any physics at all? Physicists have an out. They have the quantum vacuum which, while purportedly physical, cannot in principle be directly probed. This boundary layer between physics and nothing insulates physics. As concerns physics itself, and anything it gleans of quantum phenomena, the CCP is not violated. It is for this reason, I think, that so many philosophers reach for the quantum straw. We have already seen that this move is ad hoc. Moreover it goes against that which we have discovered about quantum behavior. No “mental term” is needed in the equations of quantum mechanics any more than in macrophysical equations, and goal-directedness is not implied by any of our multiple quantum interpretations.

To be fair, many of the philosophers who propose the solutions outlined above recognize that these suggestions violate the CCP. All claim (often citing Occam’s Razor) that violating the CCP is less onerous than supposing there is, for example, a God who knows the trick of making all of this work out the way it has. Working out a way, that is, for purposeless physical mechanism, mind, and even libertarian free will, to coexist in the universe. What troubles me about these philosophers is their refusal to admit that these problems (what brings about cosmological mental properties. How precisely do they interact with physics) are in some respects more mysterious than God! At least God can be supposed to “know the trick”.

Perhaps in the greatest twist of irony,  many of these minds have thrown up their hands and returned to idealism, abandoning the CCP entirely! Not only is the mental logically antecedent to physics, it is ontologically prior! The above mysteries are resolved because mind causes physics and not the other way around! The irony is that, in essence, this is what theism has claimed all along! I should not need to point out that in God’s absence, the metaphysical ground, prior to physics, of the mental is unfathomably mysterious!

How does a “God hypothesis” avoid violating CCP(1) with particular regard to free will? Doesn’t a genuinely (libertarian) free will entail (as Sean Carroll has put it in “The Big Picture”) that “mind causes physics”? In a narrow sense yes, theism violates CCP(1) but theism has an out. Mind is presupposed after all and constitutes the one exception to CCP(1) in the universe! The Theist is free to change CCP(1) to read: “physics comes only from physics and mind”. This move doesn’t help the physicalist because for her, the issue is the emergence of mind from physics without presupposing mind. They can, of course, say that mind is the only exception to CCP(1), but that surely begs the question, there not being any other evidence that physics can do this.

The change to CCP(1) is not circular in Theism. Yes mind is an exception. It is in truth a cause of physics. But here mind is presupposed. CCP(1) is not violated because mind doesn’t emerge only from physics. The exception, that part that evokes subjective experience from brain activity, comes not from physics but by some indirect route from God. It must be indirect (I do not believe God personally manages emerging individual minds) because God is changeless while mind, individual mind, changes with time. Mind’s direct source (besides brains) must be inside time.

Theism does not violate CCP(2) because physical mechanism still produces only physics. The result of mind-producing-physics, say the movement of my arm, remains physical. Theism does not violate CCP(3) because physical mechanism remains perfectly purposeless. Purpose as such remains entirely in mind. Notice that CCP(3) does not say that the physical universe has no purpose, only that the local operation of its mechanism (macro and micro)  is purposeless.

The goal of this essay has been to argue that nontheistic notions of mind’s emergence (or lack of existence) have problems equal to or exceeding the problematic aspects of theism. Let’s review.

God is a fantastical being. Positing his existence demands at the least an addition to what physicists take to be the only ontology of the universe; the physical. A God hypothesis demands that this entity has the power and knows the trick to producing the physical as well as causing minds to arise from the physical work of brains and interact downward with the material world. This mystery cries out for a physical explanation; at least a suggestion of what it is about the physical that makes that connection. Theism does not supply this physical answer, but nor does physicalism or any of the extra-physical theories covered above.

On first blush, the extra-physical ideas demand less addition to our fundamental ontology. The physicalist theories demand, if not technically an addition to ontology, at least that the physical can do that which no observation, no experiment, has seen it do; bring about something nonphysical. The extra-physical theories do demand a new, non-material addition to ontology. It isn’t God, but yet it must have the power to bring life and then mind about. Not only must it have this power, it must surely succeed. If the emergence of consciousness remained contingent and might not have happened the extra-physical qualities of the universe would be redundant. Further, any direction, anything other than absolute contingency, implies a teleology that has to be antecedent to the physics it influences!

The atheist philosophers who hold such theories recognize that they do move partway towards God (at least a Deistic version of him). In effect they are a “functional God”. But if there is no real God, then in what, metaphysically speaking, do any of these properties cohere? If you add to this stand-in the property of “having purpose”, and to backstop an infinite chain of prior cause, being first (and so uncaused) cause, you pretty much have gone all the way to God. In the end, the purely physicalist theories are nonsensical because mind is both prima facia obvious and non-physical. The extra-physical theories, if they do not need all the qualities of an “Abrahamic God”, require enough of these properties (non-materiality, purpose, antecedent cause) to be equally fantastical! When, in addition, you accommodate the problem of these mysterious properties emerging, literally from nothing, you end at a full-blown God concept that is at least deistic if not fully theistic.

Updated Dec. 2018


Note on the distinction between ‘random’ and ‘indeterminate’

The distinction is important in quantum mechanics (I believe) because quantum phenomena come out in a well known and repeatable probability distribution even though there is no reason, no cause that we know of, why they should not be actually random. An electron could, theoretically be anywhere in the universe but there is a 99.9% probability that it will be found in bounded range of locations.

Here is a mundane macrophysical example I hope captures the idea. Imagine a fair six-sided die. Any face from 1 to 6 can come up with equal probability. The die is random within the confines of possibility (even an electron cannot be outside the universe). Now suppose you have a heavily-loaded die in which two sides, 1 or 6 are likely (and repeatedly) to come up on 90% of the throws, but within that 90% a 1 or a 6 are equally likely. That die is no longer random, but it is indeterminate.

 

Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.