Archive for August, 2012

WorldLast time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the impossible problem of why the world exists at all (what the hell, eh?). How would that work?

Qualia, of course, are the redness of red, the indescribable smelliness of the smell of fish, and so on; the subjective, phenomenal, inexpressible qualities of experience, the bit that the scientific account always leaves out. They are often described as the ‘what it is like’ of an experience, and have been memorably characterised as what Mary, who knows everything about colour, learns when she actually sees it for the first time.

My case is that a large part, perhaps all, of the strange ineffability of qualia arises because what we’re doing is mismatching theory and actuality. It should not really be a surprise that the theory of red coloration does not itself deliver the actual experience of redness, but there is some mysterious element in actual real-life experience that puzzles us. I suggest the mysterious extra is in fact haecceity, or thisness; the oddly arbitrary specificity of real life, which sits oddly with the abstract generalities of a theoretical description. So it would help to know why the actual world is so arbitrary and specific: why it isn’t a featureless void, or a geometric point, or a collection of eternal Platonic archetypes. If we knew that we might know something about qualia; and also, I think about ourselves, since we too are arbitrary and specific, not abstract functions or sets of information, but real one-off items.

So can we therefore answer Jim Holt’s question for him? Some caution is certainly in order. Speculative metaphysics is like hard drink; a little now and then is great, but you need to know when to stop or you may find your credibility, if not your coherence, diminishing. But I think we can sketch out a tentative view which will clarify a few points and indicate some promising lines of inquiry which may well be rather helpful.

Let’s step back and look at the overall cosmic problem more empirically: the world does in fact exist and does seem to be rich and complex. What kind of overall chronology would make sense for a world like that? It could be one that starts, putters along for a finite time, and then stops. It could be one that stretches back indefinitely into the past but eventually stops at some point in the future, or one that started at a definite point in the past but goes on indefinitely. It could be indefinitely prolonged at both start and end. Or it could be one that goes round in a permanent loop.

The thing is, in different ways all these options seem to give us a universe which is unmotivated. If there is a final state in which the universe stops, why not go to that state in the first place – why spend time getting there? If the universe goes in a circle and ultimately reaches the state in which it started, why bother leaving the initial state? Our current view paints a picture of a Universe wound up by a cataclysmic Bang and then steadily running down through expansion and increasing entropy, to nothing, or as near nothing as makes no great difference: but it seems odd to start the world with a flagrant contradiction of the principle of decline that afterwards governs its development. The only world that makes sense in these admittedly vague terms is one that is going somewhere, but somewhere it will never finally reach: the only one that does that, I think, is one that starts and then goes on, not merely expanding, but transcending its earlier states and rising to higher levels of complexity indefinitely.

That doesn’t quite tell us why there is anything at all. What caused this indefinite existential transcendence in the first place? Some kind of ontic horror vacui? An inherent cosmic desire for there to be more stuff? One of the things I noticed in reading Jim Holt’s book was that there are one or two gaps in our conceptual toolkit when we embark on this quest. One of those is that we are looking for a causal explanation but we don’t really have any clear idea of what causation is at a fundamental level. Let me here just breezily offer the suggestion that the laws of causation assert the identity of one state of the world with a later state of the world: so for example to say that the world featured me striking a match in certain appropriate conditions at one moment is equivalent (under these laws) to saying there was fire at a slightly later moment. Now if that is true, the only possible causes of the existence of the cosmos at its first moment are either its non-existence at any earlier moment or its own existence at that first moment (if you allow simultaneous causation). I think this says the universe is either necessarily gratuitous or gratuitously necessary, but I’ll leave it with you there for now.

Why do the contents of the world seem so arbitrary and random? I suggest there are two reasons. First, the ongoing transcendence which drives the universe is nomic as well as ontic. It’s not just that there’s more stuff, there are more, and more complex, underlying laws. Our view of the long-term past and future is therefore obscured: the ancient universe was not just physically smaller but metaphysically impoverished or cramped, too, and long-term extrapolations are systematically thrown off by this. If we could understand the process properly, it may be that things would look less random – though I grant that for the moment this must be an optimistic article of faith rather than a rigorously deduced conclusion.

Let me just pour myself a bit of a digression here on the nature of the laws of nature. It is common to speak of the laws of nature or the laws of physics although this is clearly a metaphor, and a very old one. Few people, I would guess, suppose that the laws of nature are literally written down in some cosmic text and enforced by angelic police officers – although it is not uncommon to suppose that the mathematics we use to describe the world is actually what controls it, which I think may be a similar error.  So what are these laws? One problem for us is that not only are they not written down in any cosmic text, they’re not written down on paper in earthly texts either: so far as I know, no-one has ever set down a comprehensive list of the Laws of Nature. Physics textbooks set out a number of laws, indeed, but these tend to be the non-obvious ones, rather in the way that early dictionaries included only ‘hard’ words. The nearest thing to a full statement might be in those efforts to produce a Naïve Physics that ended up (in my opinion) producing something that actually struck the normal mind as far weirder than mere Newtonian physics; but they were explicitly setting out a misconceived version of the laws.

It’s consequently hard to feel assured that all relevant examples have been covered: but again I will cut boldly to the chase and suggest that all laws of nature are in fact laws of conservation. They can all be reconstituted as assertions of the continued existence of an underlying entity in different cases, usually at different times. Certainly it seems that any law which can be stated in the form of an equation must be of this kind, because the equation of x with y essentially tells us that the quantity of underlying z of which they are both expressions remains the same whichever form we take it in. Laws which assert, or contain, a constant, clearly state the existence of a continuing fundamental entity in even clearer form.

If that’s true, then perhaps the laws of nature could be restated as a list of existential assertions (though some of the entities whose existence is asserted would be a little unfamiliar), which with a list of values would give us a comprehensive anomic account of the world.

Be that as it may, and getting back to the main point, it is at any rate clear that besides any confusion arising from any nomic evolution which may be going on, certain features of the world arise out of the operation of causality over time. Now it could be that time itself is actually constituted by the ontic growth of the universe (the steady drip of extra stuff providing the steady tick of the moments); but in any case that growth clearly requires time. It may be that some of the deep constant features of the universe are sustained in their existence directly by the same inscrutable principle which caused the universe to come into existence in the first place; but others definitely depend on a long stream of complex causality, and this is surely where the haecceity primarily comes in. We could say that everything is necessary, but that while some things are necessary in the light of metaphysics, others are necessary in the light of history.

To restate that: it may well be that the universe in which we find ourselves is actually the only possible one, and the product of a necessary ontological (and nomological) evolution; but the necessity of the details is both obscured from us by the nature of the evolution itself and also genuinely different from the direct necessity of the underlying features in that it derives its necessity through causation over time.

That’s why actual experience and actual qualia seem so strange and so difficult to capture theoretically. I hope that makes sense of some kind and perhaps appeals to some degree: I’m away now to sleep it off.

We discussed once before that old philosophical puzzler: why is there actually anything at all? Jim Holt’s new book Why does the World Exist? is an entertaining but basically serious assault on this fundamental issue.

Near the beginning he has a splendid chapter about nothing (as it were). He’s a little hard on the Greeks and Romans, suggesting that to them the very idea of zero was inconceivable. That’s surely reading too much into the fact that Roman numerals don’t include a symbol for zero (and you know, the Romans themselves didn’t even use those formal numerals when they needed to do everyday sums, but another system altogether). But his brief history of nothing from Heidegger (‘nothing noths’, apparently) through Bergson to Nozick, and his explanation of the problems that arise from confusing nothing and nothingness, is lively in the best kind of way and stimulating. Could nothing even exist? Holt regards true nothingness as tough to conceive of and spends some time on different ways of attempting the feat. I don’t think I find it that hard myself to think that the world might be null and empty or a Euclidean point (there’s a Greek conception that’s pretty close to zero for you).

That is the question that drives this enquiry, though: why all this stuff? Wouldn’t it be more natural if there was nothing? Much of the book is formed of conversations with selected luminaries, and the first of these, Adolf Grünbaum, simply denies that there’s anything puzzling about the world’s existence. All this stuff about creation of a world out of the void is just a hangover from Genesis as far as he’s concerned. That seems a little too easy. Holt’s second interlocutor, Richard Swinburne, thinks by total contrast that the simplest explanation for the cosmos is, in a word, God, though God himself is inexplicable. That, in a quite different way, seems too easy too.

Holt talks to David Deutsch about a quantum multiverse and Steven Weinberg about Theories of Everything, but both, with refreshing clarity and honesty, deny possessing any ultimate answer to his question. Roger Penrose believes in three separate worlds, but his basically Platonic conception doesn’t seem to offer us anything very new, or to me very satisfying.

With John Leslie things start to get interesting, if bizarre: he believes in axiarchism: the universe exists because of the moral requirement that goodness should exist. There seem to be great difficulties with getting ontology from ethics: attentive observers will have noticed that the moral requirement for goodness doesn’t seem to have much direct causative effect in the real world.

The person Holt is most impressed by is Derek Parfit, who appears (I haven’t read Parfit himself on the subject) to offer not so much a theory as a framework in which all possible universes are theoretically available, but one is actualised by a Selector, a principle which prioritises one. Holt likes this framework and he builds on it a theory of his own. For reasons which were never clear to me, he believes we only need to consider four possible Selectors: simplicity, goodness, fullness/non-arbitrariness, and no Selector at all. Surely there are many more possibilities than that, whatever a Selector is supposed to be (and that’s not quite clear either: for Parfit I suspect it is the kind of intermediate convenience that can be cancelled out of the final solution but Holt seems at times to take it as a metaphysical reality)?  Anyway, Holt decides to arbitrate between the Selectors by using them on themselves as meta-Selectors. He thinks only two emerge from this exercise: Simplicity and Fullness. He concludes that if all selectors or no selectors are going to be applied as a result, we end up with a universe of surpassing mediocrity. That seems to be his final view: the world exists like this because it was the most mediocre option the cosmos could come up with. Amusingly he goes on to ask: what could be the reason for my own existence in such a Universe?

Not a convincing conclusion, then, but an intelligent account of the kind that causes the reader to nod in sage agreement or exclaim in frustration by turns.

Turning aside from Holt’s conversations, let’s see if we can get straight the reasons for puzzlement about why there is anything. Well, isn’t it that Occam’s Razor tells us that entities are not to be multiplied, and so we expect a minimal number of entities in our world. Why does Occam work? I think it really operates on two levels. Strictly Occam is a metatheoretic principle of parsimony: it’s not about reality, it’s about which theory we should prefer. Given any set of facts, there is an unlimited number of different theories which will account for them: we need some way of choosing and Occam tells us to pick the simplest account, or more precisely, the one whose picture of the world contains the smallest and least complex set of things. Strict Occam doesn’t tell us that this simplest theory is absolutely going to be the true one, and sometimes it eventually turns out that it isn’t; but going for simplicity seems the most practical way of picking out one version from the range of possible theories: it may be the only fully comprehensive and consistent principle we can apply. (In practice what we often rely on is not a marginal difference of complexity but a kind of Occamic click: sometimes when a good theory comes along it provides an abrupt and substantial drop in the complexity of our world view: all of a sudden quite lot of different things make sense, and that’s really what makes us think the theory must be true.)

But in addition there is second pseudo-Occamic principle lurking below the surface: things don’t happen/exist for no reason.  Whereas the strict version of Occam is epistemic, this idea is ontological: it doesn’t just tell us what to think it tells us what probably exists, and prompts us to think that the simplest theories are not just the most convenient to adopt, but more likely to be true than any others. It is mainly this pseudo-Occamic idea that leads us to be, not happy as kings (as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested) but puzzled that the world is so full of a number of things. Leslie’s axiarchism seems almost to invert this principle, claiming that good stuff can indeed spring into existence for no other reason than its intrinsic ethical qualities.

We should notice that the pseudo-Occamic principle mainly tells us that things don’t change; so if there were nothing to begin with, nothing could be expected to come of it (a point Holt covers in his discourse on nothing, by the way); but even if there is something, we should expect the universe to be relatively uneventful. So even if it’s easy for Grünbaum to shrug off our Occamic propensity to prefer a theory which gives us a cosmic nothing, he also needs to explain why we seem to be in the midst of a world which has a long complex history and is constantly changing.

One possible answer here is some form of the Anthropic Principle: we’re in a world with that long complex history because otherwise it couldn’t contain us. As we know, the anthropic principle comes in a variety of forms: at one end there are unobjectionable versions which say: the fact that we find ourselves in a world that contains enough detail for human beings to be part of it is no more surprising than the supposed stroke of luck that we got ourselves born on a planet with an atmosphere: if it had been otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. At the other extreme are scarily idealist versions of the principle which say that our existence actually reaches back in time and reconfigures the fundamental constants of the universe.

Another reason we might want the anthropic principle is to help us whittle down a multiverse. Multiverses of one kind or another seem to be a popular option for helping to explain the world, but again they come in reasonable and less reasonable forms. Parfit seems to have one variety in which slightly different laws or constants operate in different regions of space; but other conceptions have sets of universes which implement everything that isn’t logically contradictory. There are problems with this, not least with the issue of identity across worlds. Multiversians would have it that are universes where I never wrote this post – but there aren’t, because I did: those people who failed to write it are people exactly like me, not me: and it follows that all possibilities are not realised after all, and cannot be, no matter how much the worlds proliferate. Personally I suspect that since the alternative universes make no difference to our world, merely providing an explanatory convenience which they could do even if they didn’t in fact exist, they might as well not exist.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with consciousness? Puzzlement over the existence of the world is partly, I submit, puzzlement over why there are such specific and apparently arbitrary details to it. Why anything, yes, but even if something,why on earth all this? That is strongly related to the questions why me? and What on earth am I? There is a special intractability to questions of this kind: we don’t want the answer to be purely logical because then we would get eternal archetypes, and we’re not that; but we don’t want something random, arbitrary, or notional either because after all we are real. Theories are about generalities, but we’re asking for a theory of the particular. It is haecceity – thisness – that makes us and our qualia so special, but haecceity seems to require an unprecedented kind of explanation that doesn’t exist.

Next time I’ll attempt to give it…