Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Jim Holt has written an entire book on this subject, titled Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Holt is a philosopher and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times and the London Review of Books, according to the blurb on the inner title page. He’s also very knowledgeable in mathematics and physics, and has the intellectual credentials to gain access to some of the world’s most eminent thinkers, like David Deutsch, Richard Swinburne, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose and the late John Updike, amongst others. I’m stating the obvious when I say that he is both cleverer and better read than me.

The above-referenced, often-quoted existential question is generally attributed to Gottfried Leibniz, in the early 18th Century and towards the end of his life, in his treatise on the “Principle of Sufficient Reason”, which, according to Holt, ‘…says, in essence, that there is an explanation for every fact, an answer to every question.’ Given the time in which he lived, it’s not surprising that Leibniz’s answer was ‘God’.  Whilst Leibniz acknowledged the physical world is contingent, God, on the other hand, is a ‘necessary being’.

For some people (like Richard Swinburne), this is still the only relevant and pertinent answer, but considering Holt makes this point on page 21 of a 280 page book, it’s obviously an historical starting point and not a conclusion. He goes on to discuss Hume’s and Kant’s responses but I’ll digress. In Feb. 2011, I wrote a post on metaphysics, where I point out that there is no reason for God to exist if we didn’t exist, so I think the logic is back to front. As I’ve argued elsewhere (March 2012), the argument for a God existing independently of humanity is a non sequitur. This is not something I’ll dwell on – I’m just putting the argument for God into perspective and don’t intend to reference it again.

Sorry, I’ll take that back. In Nov 2011, I got into an argument with Emanuel Rutten on his blog, after he claimed that he had proven that God ‘necessarily exists’ using modal logic. Interestingly, Holt, who understands modal logic better than me, raises this same issue. Holt references Alvin Platinga’s argument, which he describes as ‘dauntingly technical’. In a nutshell: because of God’s ‘maximal greatness’, if one concedes he can exist in one possible world, he must necessarily exist in all possible worlds because ‘maximal greatness’ must exist in all possible worlds. Apparently, this was the basis of Godel’s argument (by logic) for the existence of God. But Holt contends that the argument can just as easily be reversed by claiming that there exists a possible world where ‘maximal greatness’ is absent’. And ‘if God is absent from any possible world, he is absent from all possible worlds…’ (italics in the original). Rutten, by the way, tried to have it both ways: a personal God necessarily exists, but a non-personal God must necessarily not exist. If you don’t believe me, check out the argument thread on his own blog which I link from my own post, Trying to define God (Nov. 2011).

Holt starts off with a brief history lesson, and just when you think: what else can he possibly say on the subject? he takes us on a globe-trotting journey, engaging some truly Olympian intellects. As the book progressed I found the topic more engaging and more thought-provoking. At the very least, Holt makes you think, as all good philosophy should. Holt acknowledges an influence and respect for Thomas Nagel, whom he didn’t speak with, but ‘…a philosopher I have always revered for his originality, depth and integrity.’

I found the most interesting person Holt interviewed to be David Deutsch, who is best known as an advocate for Hugh Everett’s ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. Holt had expected a frosty response from Deutsch, based on a review he’d written on Deutsch’s book, The Fabric of Reality, for the Wall Street Journal where he’d used the famous description given to Lord Byron: “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. But he left Deutsch’s company with quite a different impression, where ‘…he had revealed a real sweetness of character and intellectual generosity.’

I didn’t know this, but Deutsch had extended Turing’s proof of a universal computer to a quantum version, whereby  ‘…in principle, it could simulate any physically possible environment. It was the ultimate “virtual reality” machine.’ In fact, Deutsch had presented his proof to Richard Feynman just before his death in 1988, who got up, as Deutsch was writing it on a blackboard, took the chalk off him and finished it off. Holt found out, from his conversation with Deutsch, that he didn’t believe we live in a ‘quantum computer simulation’.

Deutsch outlined his philosophy in The Fabric of Reality, according to Holt (I haven’t read it):

Life and thought, [Deutsch] declared, determine the very warp and woof of the quantum multiverse… knowledge-bearing structures – embodied in physical minds – arise from evolutionary processes that ensure they are nearly identical across different universes. From the perspective of the quantum multiverse as a whole, mind is a pervasive ordering principle, like a giant crystal.

When Holt asked Deutsch ‘Why is there a “fabric of reality” at all?’ he said “[it] could only be answered by finding a more encompassing fabric of which the physical multiverse was a part. But there is no ultimate answer.” He said “I would start with the principle of comprehensibility.”

He gave the example of a quasar in the universe and a model of the quasar in someone’s brain “…yet they embody the same mathematical relationships.” For Deutsch, it’s the comprehensibility of the universe (in particular, its mathematical comprehensibility) that provides a basis for the ‘fabric of reality’. I’ll return to this point later.

The most insightful aspect of Holt’s discourse with Deutsch was his differentiation between explanation by laws and explanation of specifics. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation gave laws to explain what Kepler could only explain by specifics: the orbits of planets in the solar system. Likewise, Darwin and Wallace’s theory of natural selection gave a law for evolutionary speciation rather than an explanation for every individual species. Despite his affinity for ‘comprehensibility’, Deutsch also claimed: “No, none of the laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there.”

It needs to be pointed out that Deutsch’s quantum multiverse is not the same as the multiverse propagated by an ‘eternally-inflating universe’. Apparently, Leonard Susskind has argued that “the two may really be the same thing”, but Steven Weinberg, in conversation with Holt, thinks they’re “completely perpendicular”.

Holt’s conversation with Penrose held few surprises for me. In particular, Penrose described his 3 worlds philosophy: the Platonic (mathematical) world, the physical world and the mental world. I’ve expounded on this in previous posts, including the one on metaphysics I mentioned earlier but also when I reviewed Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician? (March 2009).

Penrose argues that mathematics is part of our mental world (in fact, the most complex and advanced part) whilst our mental world is produced by the most advanced and complex part of the physical world (our brains). But Penrose is a mathematical Platonist, and conjectures that the universe is effectively a product of the Platonic world, which creates an existential circle when you contemplate all three. Holt found Penrose’s ideas too ‘mystical’ and suggests that he was perhaps more Pythagorean than Platonist. However, I couldn’t help but see a connection with Deutsch’s ‘comprehensibility’ philosophy. The mathematical model in the brain (of a quasar, for example) having the same ‘mathematical relationships’ as the quasar itself. Epistemologically, mathematics is the bridge between our comprehensibility and the machinations of the universe.

One thing that struck me right from the start of Holt’s book, yet he doesn’t address till the very end, is the fact that without consciousness there might as well be nothing. Nothingness is what happens when we die, and what existed before we were born. It’s consciousness that determines the difference between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. Schrodinger, in What is Life? made the observation that consciousness exists in a continuous present. Possibly, it’s the only thing that does. After all, we know that photons don’t. As Raymond Tallis keeps reminding us, without consciousness, there is no past, present or future. It also means that without memory we would not experience consciousness. So some states of unconsciousness could simply mean that we are not creating any memories.

Another interesting personality in Holt’s engagements was Derek Parfit, who contemplated a hypothetical ‘selector’ to choose a universe. Both Holt and Parfit concluded, through pure logic, using ‘simplicity’ as the criterion, that there would be no selector and ‘lots of generic possibilities’ which would lead to a ‘thoroughly mediocre universe’. I’ve short-circuited the argument for brevity, but, contrary to Holt’s and Parfit’s conclusion, I would contend that it doesn’t fit the evidence. Our universe is far from mediocre if it’s produced life and consciousness. The ‘selector’, it should be pointed out, could be a condition like ‘goodness’ or ‘fullness’. But, after reading their discussion, I concluded that the logical ‘selector’ is the anthropic principle, because that’s what we’ve got: a universe that’s comprehensible containing conscious entities that comprehend it.

P.S. I wrote a post on The Anthropic Principle last month.

Addendum 1: In reference to the anthropic principle, the abovementioned post specifies a ‘weak’ version and a ‘strong’ version, but it’s perhaps best understood as a ‘passive’ version and an ‘active’ version. To combine both posts, I would argue that the fundamental ontological question in my title, raises an obvious, fundamental ontological fact that I expound upon in the second last paragraph: ‘without consciousness, there might as well be nothing.’ This leads me to be an advocate for the ‘strong’ version of the anthropic principle. I’m not saying that something can’t exist without consciousness, as it obviously can and has, but, without consciousness, it’s irrelevant.

Addendum 2 (18 Nov. 2012): Four months ago I wrote a comment in response to someone recommending Robert Amneus's book, The Origin of the Universe; Case Closed (only available as an e-book, apparently).

In particular, Amneus is correct in asserting that if you have an infinitely large universe with infinite time, then anything that could happen will happen an infinite number of times, which explains how the most improbable events can become, not only possible, but actual. So mathematically, given enough space and time, anything that can happen will happen. I would contend that this is as good an answer to the question in my heading as you are likely to get.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The real war in Afghanistan is set in hell for young girls

This is probably the most disturbing documentary I’ve seen on television, yet it elevates 4 Corners to the best current-affairs programme in Australia and, possibly, the world. I remember reading in USA Today, when American and coalition forces first went into Afghanistan after 9/11 (yes, I was in America at the time) a na├»ve journalist actually worrying that the change to democracy in Afghanistan might occur too quickly. I found it extraordinary that a journalist covering international affairs had such a limited view of the world outside their own country.

My understanding of Afghanistan is limited and obviously filtered through the eyes, ears and words of journalists, but there appears to be two worlds: one trying to break into the 21st Century through youthful television programmes (amongst other means) and one dominated by tribal affiliations and centuries-old customs and laws. In the latter, it is the custom to settle disputes by the perpetrator’s family giving land or daughters to the victim’s family. In other words, daughters are treated as currency and as bargaining chips in negotiations. In recent times, this has had tragic consequences resulting from a NATO-backed policy to destroy opium crops, which is the only real way that Afghan farmers can make money. Opium is the source of income for the Taliban but the trade is run by drug smugglers, based in Pakistan. They are the Afghani equivalent of the mafia in that they are merciless. With the destruction of crops, that the drug smugglers finance, they are abducting the farmer’s daughters, from as young as 7 years (as evident in the 4 Corners programme) for payment of their debts. The government and NATO are simply ignoring the problem, and as far as the Taliban is concerned, it’s an issue between the drug smugglers and the farmers.

This is a world that most of us cannot construe. If you put yourself in their shoes and ask: What would I do? Unless you are delusional, the answer has to be that you would do the same as them: you’d have no choice. It’s hard for us to imagine that there exists a world where life is so cheap, yet poverty, perpetual conflict and no control over one’s destiny inevitably leads to such a world. I hope this programme opens people’s eyes and breaks through the cocoon skin that most of us inhabit.

More than anything else, it demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Taliban, the cultural ignorance of the coalition and the inadequacy of Pakistani law enforcement.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

It’s time the Catholic Church came out of the Closet

This programme was aired a couple of weeks ago on ABC’s 4 Corners, but it demonstrates how out-of-touch the Catholic Church is, not only with reality, but with community expectations. More than anything else, the Church lets down its own followers, betrays them in fact.

This deals specifically with a couple of cases in Australia, and it’s amazing that it takes investigative journalism to shine a light on them. Most damning for the Church, is evidence that protecting their pedophilic clergy and their own reputation was more important than protecting members of their congregation.

The most significant problem, highlighted by the programme, is the implicit belief, held by the Church and evidenced by their actions, that they are literally above the law that applies to everyone else.

This is an institution that claims to have the high moral ground on issues like abortion, therapeutic cloning, gay marriage, euthanasia, to nominate the most controversial ones, when it so clearly lacks any moral credibility. Most people in the West simply ignore the Catholic Church’s more inane teachings regarding contraception, but in developing countries, the Church has real clout. In countries where protection against AIDS and birth control are important issues, both for health and economic reasons, the Church’s attitude is morally irresponsible. The Catholic Church tries to pretend that it should be respected and taken seriously, and perhaps one day it will, when it enters the 21st Century and actually commits to the same laws as the people it supposedly preaches to.