Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 17 February 2017

My 2 sided philosophy

In a way, this gets incorporated into Roger Penrose's 3 world philosophy that I discussed last year, but the core principle of my world view, that turns up again and again in my musings, can be best understood as a philosophy in 2 parts, if not 2 worlds. I'm not an academic, so don't expect me to formalise this as I suspect one is meant to, but there is a principle involved here that I wish to make more fundamental than I have done in the past.

This has been prompted, not surprisingly, by various things I’ve read recently, in particular in Philosophy Now (Issues 117 & 118) and a letter I wrote to the Editor of said magazine, which re-iterated some of the ideas that I expressed in my post on Penrose’s 3 Worlds, referenced above.

A great deal of my personal philosophy stems from the view that there are effectively 2 worlds for each and every one of us: an inner world and an outer world; and the confluence and interaction of these 2 aspects of reality pretty well determine how we live our lives, how we navigate relationships and how we effectively determine our destiny.

I’ve even used this dichotomous philosophical principle as a premise for how I write fiction. Basically, a story should include an inner journey and an outer journey where the outer journey is the plot and the inner journey is the character. In fact, writing fiction reinforced my philosophical point of view, when I realised it’s totally analogous to real life. The outer journey is fate and the inner journey is free will. The 2 are complementary rather than contradictory, but the complementarity is even more obvious when one thinks of it in terms of consciousness and the physical world. To illustrate my point, I will insert an edited version of the letter (I referenced above) to the Editor of Philosophy Now.

This is in reference to an essay by Nick Inman, titled “Nowhere Men” (published in Issue 117).

One doesn’t need to argue for a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit’ to appreciate that some aspects of Inman’s argument have validity without religious connotations. In particular, there are 2 aspects of one’s self, whereby one aspect is subjective and uniquely known only to ‘You’, and another aspect is objective and known to everyone you interact with. But I think the most pertinent point he makes is that it is only through intelligent conscious entities, like us, that the Universe has any meaning at all. In answer to the oft asked question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Without consciousness there might as well be nothing. When you cease to be conscious there is nothing for You. Because consciousness is so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted in our everyday lives, we tend not to consider its essential role in providing reality. In other words, we need both an objective world and subjective consciousness for reality to become manifest.

As you can see, this is almost an ontological manifesto, which suggests that the existence of the Universe and the emergence of intelligent beings are entwined in ways which we prefer to ignore or dismiss. The scientific answer to this is that there is a multiverse of possibly infinite universes, the vast majority of which cannot sustain life. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but the multiverse is an epistemological dead end in that it explains everything and nothing, which, ironically, is its appeal. We don’t know if there is a metaphysical purpose to our existence, and I’m not arguing that there is; I’m simply pointing out that reality requires both an objective world, called the Universe, and a subjective consciousness, epitomised by our existence.

It is for this reason that the so-called strong anthropic principle (as opposed to the weak principle) has long appealed to me. Neither of the anthropic principles, I should point out, are scientific principles; they are more like metaphysical premises that can’t be proven or falsified, given our current knowledge. I’m currently reading a highly ambitious and lengthy book by John Hands called Cosmo Sapiens; Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe. It’s a comprehensive survey and review of the latest scientific theories concerning cosmology, biological evolution and the emergence of humanity. Not surprisingly, he briefly discusses Brandon Carter’s weak and strong anthropic principles plus John Barrow’s and Frank Tipler’s book-length dissertation on the subject. Effectively, the weak anthropic principle states that the Universe allows conscious intelligent agents to arise because we’re in it, which Hands points out is a tautology – a point I’ve made myself on this blog. The strong anthropic principle effectively states that the Universe specifically allows intelligent agents to exist otherwise it wouldn’t exist itself. It’s not stated that way, but that’s a reasonable interpretation, and, as you can see, it leans heavily towards teleology, which I’ve also discussed elsewhere. On that point, if one believes in teleology then it’s hard not to conclude that the Universe is deterministic, which means there is no free will. Einstein believed this so strongly that he couldn’t accept the inherent indeterminism displayed by quantum mechanics and therefore believed that the theory was incomplete and hid an underlying deterministic Universe that we're yet to discover.

Personally, I believe in free will and a non-deterministic Universe, which creates a paradox for the strong anthropic principle. I resolve this paradox by arguing for a pseudo-teleological Universe, whereby the Universe has all the laws of physics and parameters to allow conscious entities to evolve without determining what they will be in advance. I’ve argued this in a post on the fine-tuned Universe, and elsewhere.

I’m not arguing a religious reason for our existence, though, of course, I don’t know if such a reason exists, and I would argue that neither does anyone else, though many people claim they do. I’m arguing what the evidence tells me. We are the consequence of a lengthy and convoluted evolution that we are still struggling to understand and explain, even down to the molecular level. The Universe has laws and parameters that are ‘finely tuned’ for the emergence of complex intelligent life and we are the evidence. Without consciousness the Universe would have no meaning at all, which is why the strong anthropic principle is apposite if not scientific. Our existence is the only thing that gives the Universe meaning and we are the only entities (that we know of) that have the cognitive capacity to probe that meaning, which we do through science, I should point out, not religion.

Now, anyone who read my post on Penrose’s 3 worlds, knows it consisted of the Universe, Mind and Mathematics. So where does mathematics fit into my 2 sided philosophy? Mathematics, as most of us know it and use it, is a bridge between the Universe and the Mind, specifically the human mind. And it’s a bridge that has provided more insights and more meaning than any other we’ve discovered. In fact, the limits of our knowledge of mathematics arguably determines the limits of our knowledge of the Universe, certainly in the last century and since the times of Galileo and Newton. A few years ago, following in the footsteps of John Barrow, I wrote a post called Mathematics as religion. Religion, in its many cultural manifestations, often claims to have access to transcendental truth. Well, I contend that mathematics is our only depository of universal transcendental truths and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem effectively tells us that it’s infinite, so it’s a never-ending endeavour. By corollary, it follows that there are and always will be mathematical truths that we don’t know.

Last week’s New Scientist (4 Feb 2017) cover story was ‘The Essence of Reality’, which was an attempt to understand what truly underpins the Universe beyond space and time. Some argue that the answer is information, essentially quantum information, which of course is mathematical. The point is, notwithstanding whether that question can ever be answered, quantum mechanics, which is a little over a century old, remains our most successful scientific theory to date, and can only be understood and interpreted through the medium of mathematics.

Footnote: Brandon Carter’s definitions of his 2 anthropic principles.

The weak principle: ‘that what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the condition necessary for our presence as observers.’

The strong principle: ‘that the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers with it at some stage.’

Saturday, 4 February 2017

When the patients take over the asylum

Oscar-winning filmmaker and left-wing provocateur, Michael Moore, has suggested that Trump’s occupation of the White House has been akin to a coup. It should be pointed out that Moore actually predicted Trump’s win when others were dismissive. Personally, I find it difficult to give Trump credit for any nuanced strategic thinking. I think he’s just a completely inexperienced and incompetent politician with a severe case of power-gone-to-his-head syndrome.

What is indisputable (at a time when facts are disputed every day) is that Trump and his closest advisor, Stephen Bannon, have taken the reigns of the presidency with unprecedented zeal and dare-I-say-it, recklessness. Recklessness, because they are issuing executive orders without consulting the parties that have to enact them and with no apparent regard to the consequences at home and abroad. Stephen Bannon, like Trump, has no experience in political office, but unlike Trump wasn’t elected. He’s been criticised for sexism and racism, even white supremacy, and is best known as the executive chairman of Breitbart news, website for the ‘Alt-Right’. He is currently Trump’s ‘Chief Strategist’, and is widely believed to be the man behind the new executive orders banning Muslims from specific countries.

As an outsider (from Australia) it’s almost beyond belief that a new leader (Prime Minister or President) can come into office and, within days, start drafting new laws with immediate effect. Trump gives the impression that he has little regard for the ‘rule of law’ in his country, which was a key note of Obama’s farewell speech, who had no idea that this very issue would be put to the test by his successor. In fact, it seems that Trump’s key advisor, Bannon, who was not even elected by the people, is the man making laws, literally on the run.

When the acting Attorney General (Sally Yates) with over 27 years experience, defies a Presidential executive order because she believes it’s unconstitutional, then maybe people in high places should take notice. Obviously, I’m no expert on American constitutional law, but I imagine that issuing executive orders that are legally dubious could lead down the road to impeachment. It’s early days, so Trump and Bannon may temper their newfound egotistical powers, but neither give the impression of having that inclination. If they continue to issue executive orders that challenge the constitution or even the intent of the constitution, then eventually Congress is going to say enough is enough. After all, isn’t that the purported role of Congress?

As I say, I’m no expert, but one doesn’t have to be an expert to note that in his first 10 days of Office, Trump has pushed the envelope in abusing his newfound presidential powers like no one before him. Another example of overt abuse of presidential authority is the gagging of government scientists, even on social media; tantamount to declaring war on science.

Trump is like the school bully who has been made school captain – no, he’s actually been made school principal, if one extends the metaphor accurately. He is a man who boasts about groping women, who ridicules and humiliates his opponents and detractors, who is a serial liar and who foments hate towards Muslims, Mexicans and refugees. How did a man with these qualities get elected President when we knew all this before he was elected? I don’t completely blame the American people; after all he lost the ‘popular’ vote by 2.9 million. But I do wonder how many, who stayed away from the polling booth, now regret it.

There have been 2 side-effects to Trump’s presidency, one of which was expected and one less obvious. It was reported that a mosque was burned down in Texas (the congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center), which highlights the obvious side-effect of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. But the local Jewish community has offered its synagogue as a place of worship for the Muslims while their mosque can be rebuilt. This is the unexpected second side-effect of Trump’s policies.

I think Americans are generally compassionate, generous and accepting. I lived and worked in America before, during and after 9/11, so I witnessed first hand the inherent optimism of the American people in the face of adversity. I think Obama’s professed optimism in future generations of Americans, that he expressed in his farewell address, is well founded. I think Trump will bring out the best and the worst in the American people, but the best will prevail.

Meanwhile, in the face of this new authoritarian leadership of the so-called free world (isn’t that an oxymoron?) we could do a lot worse than follow the advice of former Dr Who actor, David Tennant.

Addendum: Yes, I've changed the third paragraph.