Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Argument for the Reality of Eternity

In response to a student who complained that he didn't understand quantum mechanics, Von Neumann is supposed to have answered: nobody understands it. You just get used to it. Of course, quantum physicists have a set of mathematical tools that -- though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements -- and so they have something to work with which helps in "getting used to it".

Believers, in response to arguments against religion from non-believers, claim that such arguments do not take mystical reality into account -- that God, or more generally, the transcendent, is real, but ordinary language is incapable of dealing with it. The non-believer responds with charges of obscurantism, that the believer is evading the issue by taking refuge in nonsense.

But there are two issues here. The first is whether or not there is anything that is real but where all attempts at description -- staying within the confines of common sense language and Aristotelian logic -- fail. The second is what we do about it. I would argue, first, that the subatomic world is such a reality, though that alone does not grant license to the believer to believe (in God or whatever). To the objection that there is a mathematical language (which of course obeys Aristotelian logic -- the laws of identity, contradiction, and the excluded middle) for quantum physics, I repeat that this language does not describe the reality -- it just allows the physicist to make predictions. Hence there are a multitude of interpretations of that world, all of which are metaphysical positions, not scientific.

But, secondly, I would argue that there is an even more obvious reality that qualifies, namely plain, ordinary, everyday consciousness. The reason it qualifies is that the "now" is not an instant -- a point on time's continuum, but instead is extended over a small stretch of time (and space). Because the now is extended, I don't see any way that it could emerge from a strictly spatiotemporal process. In a spatiotemporal process every event is separated in time and/or space from every other event. Consciousness, on the other hand, puts together zillions of these separated events to form the "now". Within the "now" is the experience of time passing, but how is that possible? Consciousness somehow connects those zillions of events into one flowing whole, while within a strictly spatiotemporal process there is no way for events to aggregate as experience of anything larger than a single event. As I see it, this means that consciousness transcends time (and space), and so cannot itself be a consequence of a spatiotemporal process.

Granted, the argument in the preceding paragraph is no more than arm-waving. But there is enough of a mystery to consciousness that it leads a diehard materialist like Colin McGinn to assert that he doesn't expect there ever to be an explanation of consciousness, and another (David Chalmers) to hypothesize what he calls "naturalist dualism" to account for consciousness. What I propose instead is to assert the reality of the non-spatiotemporal (which in theological language is called the eternal -- not to be confused with time everlasting). What if the reason that quantum reality defies comprehension is that it too is non-spatiotemporal? That would "explain" how an unobserved electron could be in a superposition of states, that the position/momentum uncertainty is there simply because -- unobserved -- quantum particles are simply not at definite spatiotemporal locations, because at that level there is no space and time. And, of course, it would "account for" the non-locality observed in the Aspect experiments. But note that I put the words "explain" and "account for" in scare quotes, because appealing to non-spatiotemporal reality is not an understandable answer. But the point is that if one buys into this line of argumentation, then one should not expect one. Yet something definite has been argued for: that there is a reality for which our ordinary language fails.

What clinches the argument for me -- and is the reason I became religious -- is that mystics have been saying for millenia that fundamental reality is not spatiotemporal. And they have said so, or so they claim, by virtue of knowledge (of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality), not by metaphysical guesswork. Should we believe them? Given the argumentation above I have no problem believing them. But it should be pointed out that mystics also say something else, that just arguing from consciousness and/or quantum physics does not, and that is that the eternal is not merely real, but also Good, and that it is possible to realize that Goodness. It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion.

This, then, is my answer to the first issue: there is a reality that defies common sense language, and why it must be dealt with. Still to come: how to forge a language to deal with it.

49 comments:

Enigman said...

Hi, is the now not instantaneous? In my experience it is... Time seems to flow quite smoothly for me. I don't feel that I am existing in an instant, of course, but spread out; but then, time is a continuum... I am presently aware of some previous perceptions. (That 'presently' indicates a duration, but only as a matter of linguistic convention.) I am never aware of an isolated instant; but then, even my immediate perceptions are awarenesses of what my sense-organs and brain have already processed, and I am aware of those products smoothly...

scott roberts said...

I would think that quantum physics raises doubts over saying that time is continuous. If the concept of a duration less than 10^-45 seconds is meaningless (in quantum physics), then the continuity of time would appear to be a mathematical abstraction (which, by the way, might mean that the supposed refutation of Zeno's paradoxes through the concept of limits might not work, but that's another topic). And calling the now an instant is simply working from the viewpoint of that abstraction.

In any case, my "now" (what I am experiencing) certainly is not a point -- which is what I take an "instant" to be. I could not be hearing an A above middle C unless the duration of the now includes enough time to include enough air vibrations to make it a sound -- some significant fraction of a second.

As I see it, you are making unwarranted assumptions when you say "my immediate perceptions are awarenesses of what my sense-organs and brain have already processed...". Further, I think with more effort than the quick arm-waving I did in the post (that is, with more elaborate arm-waving), one can see how those assumptions don't hold up. What I suspect is that space and time are secondary qualities (like sound and color), not primary, so that rather than saying that consciousness transcends time, it is better to say that it produces time in the act of perception. The brain's function, then, is to act as a multi-dimensional metronome, to make sure that the different senses and mental activity align, both within an organism, and in interaction with other organisms. But this is all rash speculation, given that we are unable to think what it is like to be timeless.

seev said...

I just finished The Private Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield which attempts to describe consciousness as related to a sea of interconnected and interacting neurons in the brain. She does distinguish subjective feel from these objective brain events and goes on to say, I believe, that the emotions constitute this subjective feel related to the objective neuron sea. But isn't this just replacing one question by another; i.e., why are the emotions conscious? Well, I suppose I should ask her that. Anyway, it's probably true that the whole body is involved in consciousness... Just some random thoughts based on your very interesting post.

scott roberts said...

Yes, I would say that what is left unexplained (and in my view unexplainable) is how interconnection adds up to anything as long-lasting as feeling angry. Maybe an electron absorbing or emitting a photon experiences some sort of proto-emotion, but how are all those emotional bits combined into something larger?

I should point out that my argument for eternity from consciousness does not disprove the mind-brain identity hypothesis. Just that any theory based on that hypothesis must incorporate the non-spatiotemporal. Or to put it another way, if it is going to be modeled on a computer, you'll need a quantum computer.

seev said...

I'm still trying to follow your argument for why consciousness is non-spatial-temporal. Let's look at it from a process point of view. As I experience something a process is going on, neurons are being activated and stored. I become conscious of this flow via emotion which stimulates bodily chemistry, reactions, etc., which ARE consciousness. Also, why bring in discrete time steps? 10^-45 seconds is way too small a time step to be even involved. We're at a macro level here. Maybe philosophical one could argue that consciousness is non-spatial-temporal, but I don't see how scientifically you can do it. Clearly, from your standpoint, I'm totally confused!

scott roberts said...

Seev,

What I am arguing is that it is impossible to come up with a scientific explanation of consciousness -- which argument, of course, cannot itself be scientific, and must be philosophical. On the other hand, in the absence of a scientific explanation of consciousness, to say that there must be one is also just philosophical. I would point out, for example, that your statement that "I become conscious of this flow via emotion which stimulates bodily chemistry, reactions, etc., which ARE consciousness" has no scientific basis whatsoever. All that science can do is correlate certain conscious activities with certain neuronal activities. What it cannot do is explain how one gets the former from the latter.

In particular, no scientific evidence can distinguish between two hypotheses: the television model of consciousness and the emergence model. The latter is what is assumed by materialists -- that consciousness "just is" neuronal activity of sufficient complexity. The former is that neuronal activity serves to tune something mysterious into our spatiotemporal sensations. Now clearly, the TV model has a problem in the appeal to "something mysterious", but I would argue that the emergence model has a worse problem in that you can't get there (consciousness) from here (neuronal activity), and the reason one can't is the spatiotemporal separation of each neuronal event from all others. The many separated neuronal events cannot be added together to get the macroscopic events we perceive. (Why not? Try it: An event happens. So does another. What is there that can combine those events? Only another event on the same scale as the other two, but which somehow must -- as a single event -- be more complex than the other two. But if it is more complex, then it must be decomposable into simpler events -- spatiotemporally separated from each other -- and we are back where we started.)

So the debate is necessarily philosophical. And what tipped it for me toward the TV model is partly the questions raised about reality from quantum physics, but mainly it is the evidence of mystics.

My referring to the limit of time to a minimum of 10^-45 seconds has relevance only in that it indicates that time (and space) are not what they were assumed to be in classical physics. Which makes it uncertain that in trying to get a scientific explanation of consciousness, whether one can simply assume that it can be done within the parameters of classical physics.

seev said...

OK, I agree with your first paragraph. All that can be shown is a correlation.

In your second paragraph, could you say that "spatiotemporal sensations" are the same as what McGinn and Chalmers call qualia? But I'm still pondering "the spatiotemporal separation of each neuronal event from all others". Is this theory your own? Have you published the ideas in your second paragraph?

I'm still concerned about applying quantum physics here because of the scale. At a macro level we have classical physics. But you're saying this is happening at a micro-level.

Perhaps you have seen the Stuart Hameroff Quantum Consciousness papers? I haven't read much in this area but maybe you're drawing on ideas from these papers?

scott roberts said...

Yes, I am talking about qualia. I agree with Chalmers that they need to be "taken seriously", as he puts it. I disagree with him that it can be done within a naturalistic framework.

No, I haven't published anything. I do not have the academic credentials to get away with it for one thing, but also because it is a a difficult argument to state, much less understand. Maybe, by exposing it here to criticism, that argument can get tightened up, but that would just mean a better type of arm-waving, not getting past it altogether.

All I've taken from quantum physics is a sense of suspicion with regard to space and time. That is, one way to interpret the weirdness of quantum physics is to say that at the subatomic level there is more going on than fits into a spatiotemporal framework. But that interpretation is metaphysical (as are all the others), so I do not expect to find answers to consciousness there. I've looked at Hameroff's ideas, but can't say I'm too interested. My own opinion is that consciousness cannot be explained by anything, because it is fundamental. Everything else is to be explained in terms of consciousness. But since I cannot prove this, I see it merely as placing a bet -- I think it is more likely than the materialist view, so I will use it as my starting point for understanding "things in general".

seev said...

Yes, you may be right. Consciousness may be fundamental. Your ideas are fascinating and I'll keep working on understanding them.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi,

There may well be an ultimate reality that is non-spatiotemporal. This IS a metaphysical problem that we can't get at because there is no known way of determining if there is 'anything' that is non-spatiotemporal. We can't examine the non-spatiotemporal, so we can't tell if it's real, or if ultimate reality is 'it'.

There may be other reasons we can't get a grip on quantum mechanics; it might not be non-spatiotemporal. We simply don't know yet.

McGinn may be wrong. We simply don't know enough about consciousness yet. We're not even in a position to conclude that dualism a real representation of the mind/brain issue. Nothing rules out a physicalist possibility.

What mystics claim may be incorrect. I can accept they experience something, but it could be a delusion. A significant point is that it isn't possible to distinguish between knowledge about something 'real' and a delusion. We simply don't know enough about the mind/brain yet.

Getting on to Good. This only has any significance when set against evil, or sin. But there is nothing that could make us conclude evil, sin or good are anything other than human interpretations of events in the context of how those events involve humans and animals, and sometimes inanimate things (e.g. the planet).

If you start out with the pre-condition that God exists and so does sin, which theists appear to do, then Good, as experienced by the mystics, might simply be the blissful emptiness that occurs in the mind when sin is removed from the equation. They may be experiencing nothingness, in a state of mind, which when compared to the physical world around them (including 'evil' human actions) does appear to be so blissful and peacefull that they perceive as good.

Further more, if God is defined as he often is, as neither existing or not-existing, non-spatiotemporal, etc., then I'm not surprised that when someone switches off consciousness and stops experiencing our customary perceptual, thinking, take on reality, that he might associate this experience with God. It doesn't mean he is really experiencing any knowledge of Good or God. He's simply switched of most of his normal faculties.

"...mystics have been saying for millenia that fundamental reality is not spatiotemporal. And they [mystics] have said so, or so they claim, by virtue of knowledge (of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality), not by metaphysical guesswork."
- The fact they've been saying something means nothing. It's merely a claim.
- They claim it by virtue of knowledge. That claim should be challenged. How do they know this?
- of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality. Again. I'd ask how they know this.
- not by metaphysical guesswork. Sounds like guesswork it to me.

"[mystics say] that the eternal is not merely real, but also Good" - How do they know this? Does this actually mean anything?

Your two posts together appear to beg the question in this respect. You appear to have already decided that we are sinful to begin with, which in itself pre-supposes God. Then you introduce metaphysical problems here that can't be shown to be associated with God in any way, you just think they are. Then you discuss the experiences of mystics, and how they come by some knowledge that you appear to accept unchallenged. This 'knowledge' appears to be sufficient to convince you to believe. But you already believed, otherwise you wouldn't be treating sin and Good (and that we need saving) with the seriousness that you do.

"It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion." - It was already religion, you already believe; but it still remains metaphysical speculation. You have a belief in God and have taken some metaphysical speculation and think that in someway this supports your existing belief. It doesn't.

If you insist on believing, knock yourself out. But what you have here is a pseudo-rational explanation of you pre-belief based on massive leaps of faith in metaphysical speculation.

scott roberts said...

Ron,

Before this argument occurred to me, I was an agnostic. In other words, it is simply not true that prior to my accepting this metaphysical argument I believed in God or Original Sin. In fact, I still do not believe in these things. I just consider the religious outlook as described in these posts to be more reasonable than the secular outlook I used to have.

What I don't understand is why you think you are different. Note all the "may's" and "might's" in your comment. Yes, all mystics might be deluded, but some of them might not be. Yes, the eternal might not be real, but it might be. I have simply added up all that I know and decided to bet on the eternal being real. You, I assume, have decided to bet on its not being real. How is one any less of a metaphysical choice than the other?

seev said...

ha ha good point, Scott. The materialist -- I'm more than half through Dawkins' The God Delusion -- takes as his or her default position that there is no mystery, other than problems that haven't been solved yet through reason and/or measurement. Fine. But that the world itself is a mystery is something I can't get out of my silly head. Perhaps I'm in good company though: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” said Ludwig Wittgenstein. Might add Heidegger here too.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Scott,

Metaphysically there is no difference, but we are not simply metaphysical beings. The "might's" and "may's" are there simply to acknowledge that we don't have all the answers, and that in some areas we don't have any answers.

"In fact, I still do not believe in these things." But from an earlier post, "Sin: In my view, religion isn't religion unless it acknowledges Original Sin, or something similar." Perhaps the italicised believe means something. Would you care to expand. The rest of your blog posts appear to be steeped in theology that goes beyond mere metaphysical questioning, but without any apparent justification.

"Before this argument occurred to me, I was an agnostic." - As you say elsewhere, you got religion. I'm not particularly commenting on how you got it, but I am saying that it now appears to be a pre-requisite to the rest of your reasoning.


On some other points:

1) "Yes, all mystics might be deluded, but some of them might not be." - How do you tell the difference?

2) "Yes, the eternal might not be real, but it might be." - How do you tell the difference?

3) Fairies might exist, and they might not. How do you tell the difference?

4) "...quantum mechanics... You just get used to it." - So is quantum mechanics telling us something or not? How do you tell the difference? "...though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements."

The key difference between 1-to-3 on the one hand and 4 on the other is that 4 is testable, falsifiable, repeatable and allows prediction of outcomes, while 1-to-3 do not.

The material world appeared to hold most of the answers to our questions, but then hit upon this apparently non-sensical world of quantum mechanics. What was the solution? Was it to ignore it as merely strange and unknowable? Was it to mystify it in language and build a religion around it? No. The solution was to investigate it scientifically, use its results where we can, and continue to investigate it rigorously. Do we have all the answers yet? No. Does that mean we should give up on science and turn to mysticism? No. When did mysticism ever solve any problems in this world? It never has, unless you want to call the introverted introspective reclusiveness of personal mysticism and religion a solution. As I said before, we are not simply metaphysical beings.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi seev,

If you're reading The God Delusion then that book, and atheism generally needs to be put into context. Dawkins is trying to cover a lot of ground with a popular book, so of course there will be gaps in it.

The contextual problem is this. Many, possibly the majority, of Christians and Muslims (and others, but these two are currently dominant) want to use the metaphysical uncertainty that we all share, attribute real known truth to it, dress it up in theology add religious ritual, make claims about 'holy' books, and then, with all that instantiated certainty, press that view on the world.

How do you get from unanswerable metaphysics to deciding that homosexuality or adultery are sins? How do you even explain sin?

This is the main thrust of Dawkins' book, a challenge to religous bigotry. In places the book may appear a little abrasive, but this is tame compared to the centuries of vitriolic scare mongering and damning that non-believers have endured. Many theists still think that some people should be put to death because their activities infringe some religous law or other.

This is the context in which the book should be read.

If you want to discuss metaphysics with Dawkins that's another matter. He may or may not be interested, I don't know.

Ron Murphy said...

Scott and seev,

What follows is my personal view. It is not sacrosanct. It is open to criticsism.

I think metaphysical contemplation is a beneficial, both personally and as an organised human quest for understanding. Philosophy poses some great questions and makes tentative attempts to answer them. Sometimes questions that where once considered to be metaphysical are brought into the scientific realm and are answered sufficiently reliably that philosophers generally no longer ask the questions.

The cornerstone of philosophy is scepticism. The unwillingness to accept dogma without question. The problem I have with theology is that it rarely asks difficult questions. In some areas, such as religious dogma, it gives up on scepticism. It appears to ask difficult questions, but in practice only those that can't be answered. So questions of ultimate origins can be debated. The nature of reality can be debated by atheists and various forms of theists and deists.

But once you start coming into this world theology starts to invoke what amounts to magic. When do you ever see serious in depth debates between Christians and Muslims - any debates end up in stand-off. Theists are in the difficult position, in that if they successfully criticise another religion the very same criticisms can be used against their own theology.

Take the Quran. If you ask a Muslim why he believes the Quran should be considered the authentic word of God, one of his answers will be because it says so. If you ask how one can be certain that Mohammed isn't simply some deluded 'prophet' that merely thinks he conversed with an angel. He'll answer that he believes it because it is true. Scepticism has gone out the window.

Similar questions arise with regard to Christianity. What would make one believe that some guy named Jesus was the Son of God? Other than some other guys said so. Where is the philosophical scepticism?

In short, I find metaphysical questioning reasonable. What I don't see any good reasoning about or evidence for is the mystical trail that leads from some unanswered question, through theism, to religion and religious dogma.

seev said...

Yes, Ron, it's hard to understand how this might exist: ....the mystical trail that leads from some unanswered question, through theism, to religion and religious dogma.

But I think you overstate in the case of quantum mechanics. Very few scientists of any repute are still trying to question the paradoxes that arise, i.e., the wave particle duality, the non-existence of a state until a measurement is made, the non-locality phenomena. I recently finished Paul Davies The Cosmic Jackpot. Many well-known scientists are turning to philosophy, some to mysticism, which is almost a relief from the strangenesses of some scientific speculations and questions on origins of the universe(s). Not saying this proves mysticism, but I am saying there are questions that can't be answered by a Richard Dawkins type of reductionism.

scott roberts said...

Ron,

When I'm being careful, I use the word 'know' for things I've experienced, like what I had for breakfast this morning. I use the word 'believe' for things that I haven't actually experienced, but have no reason to doubt, like most historical events and most scientific results. I've never seen a gene, but I believe that they exist and do things like determine eye color.

For religious and metaphysical issues, I don't have a word, but in those cases where I've come down on one side or the other, the phrase "I think it likely that..." probably comes closest. I think it likely that fundamental reality is eternal, loving intellect, and I think it likely that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. I also think it likely that we survive death in some manner. And so forth. But I could be wrong about some or all of this.

1) "Yes, all mystics might be deluded, but some of them might not be." - How do you tell the difference?

By reading them and seeing if they sound reasonable. What "sounds reasonable" means is, of course, not readily specifiable. And, of course, I can never be 100% sure.

2) "Yes, the eternal might not be real, but it might be." - How do you tell the difference?

I gave my reasons in my post. How do you tell the difference? Or are you agnostic on the matter?

3) Fairies might exist, and they might not. How do you tell the difference?

If they existed they could be seen, heard, etc. Since I have no reason for thinking they exist, and since neither I nor anyone I know has experienced them, I assume they don't exist. Eternity, or the transcendence of subject-object duality, or Original Sin, on the other hand, are not empirical objects, so different rules apply.

4) "...quantum mechanics... You just get used to it." - So is quantum mechanics telling us something or not? How do you tell the difference? "...though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements."

The key difference between 1-to-3 on the one hand and 4 on the other is that 4 is testable, falsifiable


See above. One can only be empirical if the question at hand has to do with empirical objects. So another thing I do not understand is why you would think there is some point in comparing science to religion (assuming fundamentalists are not in the conversation). Of course science gives reliable results, but that is because it restricts itself to that about which one can get such results. Religion does not provide reliable (testable) results because it deals with that about which such results are impossible. Yet you seem to have opinions about these matters, so how did you arrive at them?

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Scott,

"I think it likely that..." - This implies some thought process that evaluates that likelihood. Your assessment here seems to be based on the question of whether there are other forms of reality where common sense language and logic fail. First, why does that failure anywhere else say anything about God or the Eternal. Second, why would you say that your examples, the subatomic world and consciousness are particular examples? Just because we can't explain things yet, or even ever, doesn't mean they form some other reality - any failure with respect to those examples says nothing more about anything else. We have very basic senses that have diffculty examining anything outside our genetically programmed range: the acuteness of sight and hearing, the limited electromagnetic spectrum we can detect. If it wasn't for the many instruments that have been invented to translate these out-of-range phnomena into human sense inputs we wouldn't be able to observe lots of stuff. Some planets are nothing more than wondering stars to the naked eye, and others are invisible. We don't attribute other realitiness to them. To conclude, or to find it 'likely' that these knowledge gaps imply God is to invoke the God of the Gaps.

Mystics - "sounds reasonable" - Unfortunately it's very easy to be taken in by what sounds reasonable. This sounds like Swinburne's Principle of Credulity and Principle of Testimony, which itself sounds like the most unreasonable irrational principles to hold; a charter for gullibility.

Fairies - "If they existed they could be seen, heard, etc." - Not if they are invisible, never present themselves to humans, but magically make some things happen some of the time. Fairies are not empirical objects, so different rules apply. To anyone who actually thinks fairies exists Swinburne's principles hold?

The problem here is that whatever criticism you have of fairies can be applied equally well to mystical claims. Every time there's what we might call a sensible objection, simply change the definition. The definition of God is constantly changing - in some cases it appears to change according to the arguments that question the existence of God, such as, "He neither exists or doesn't exist." Theism's history has consisted of eternal rationalising God in the face of challenges, both from withing religious circles and without. Another example is that God is unkowable. Well, there are an awful lot of claims made on his behalf for an entity that is unknowable.

The Eternal - I am agnostic, but it requires clarification.
1) A non-purposeful unexplained, undefined in terms of time, entity (for want of a better word) that resulted in the this universe, and possibly others, but with no subsequent interaction on a causal level with what happens in the current universe.
2) A purposeful unexplained, undefined in terms of time, entity (for want of a better word) that resulted in the this universe, and possibly others, but with no subsequent interaction on a causal level with what happens in the current universe.
3)A purposeful unexplained, undefined in terms of time, entity (for want of a better word) that resulted in the this universe, and possibly others, and which has subsequent interaction on a causal level with what happens in the current universe.
4) ... others that approach various forms of theistic God.

I'd say we cannot distinguish between (1) and (2). We might want to speculate, and we may even attempt to apply reason. As I said previously, I think these are worthwhile activities. I see no reason to give up on trying to understand our origins, even if currently the result is out of reach.

The problem with (3),(4) and other hypotheses associated with religious beliefs is that if there is some interaction with this universe then in principle there should be material evidence of it. There isn't, as far as I know. Centuries of atheists asking for evidence from theists has produced none. There's no more evidence of God than there is of fairies.

So, where does that leave us from my point of view? Take your choice, (1) or (2). Become a mystic if you wish. If you want to say, by definition, that God is outside of the material world and therefore outside science, fine; but that's going on in your head, and nowhere else - you can't show it to be anything more than a concept, a human mental construct. If you want to use that mysticism to guide how you should lead your life, and you want to make that public, or want to share it with the world, then expect questions and criticism. If you want to go further, as many theists do, and attempt to persuade or even impose your views on the world, then expect even more searching questions, and expect objections.

If you go down the route of (3), (4), ... expect even more questions, and probably some ridicule, because to many people it's just pie in the sky. You might as well be talking fairies. "So another thing I do not understand is why you would think there is some point in comparing science to religion." - Because religion does claim interaction with this world. You discuss 'sin' in your blog. Sin is something humans 'are' (sinful) or 'do' (to do evil), and humans are material beings, and sin and evil in a religious context says something about how these material beings should behave (e.g. don't perform homosexual acts, don't blaspheme, etc.) This is in the realm of science.

I've considered the above, and from what I can tell it doesn't make one jot of difference to my material life whichever of (1) or (2) I decide to use as a working model of our origins. What about my mental life? Anything that I have ever read or witnessed in the behaviour of other people, particularly on matters of how I behave, myself, or how I behave towards other people, takes nothing from any religious sources that isn't already available from human experience.

In other words, it's all irrelevant in my life, outside my interest in philosophy and science. And, what's more, it's no business of the Archbishop of Cantebury, or whoever one's local God Scout is, what I do with my personal or public life, as long as I'm not asking other people to live by my stanards.

From another perspective, we interact with the material world all the time. The body is so used to interacting with the material world that most of it's actions are automatic. We are material creatures. There is no evidence that we might be other than purely physical. We appear to have minds, and they give the impression of consciousness, so we play out our lives as if we do have consciousness, particularly with respect to interacting within the material world. Some people have experiences which to them appear to 'transcend' the material. But this could be an illusion, and to all intents and purposes we can act as if it is an illusion, because to ignore those experiences has no impact on the material world, other than the way in which some people choose to interpret those experiences.

We have the materialist model that works well most of the time. Other than death there is no way of escaping this material world view. It's in your face all the time. There are other models, or world views, which are obscure, esoteric, insubstantial; but whether you believe them or not appears to have no impact on the meterial world.

Many claims have been and continue to be made about other models of reality, some are what we call theistic, or religious. If someone makes claims for any other model that the most obviously most reliable one, then they need to provide good reasons for accepting it. "sounds reasonable" doesn't really do it for me.

scott roberts said...

Ron,

So far, in your comments, you have not addressed my argument about consciousness. You seem to think that it consists of "science has no explanation for consciousness, therefore there is eternal reality", but it is more specific than that. It says: IF one assumes an atomistic, spatiotemporal reality, THEN because of the spatiotemporal separation of events there can be no awareness of anything larger than one of those events. There is awareness of larger things. Therefore, reality cannot be fundamentally as thought of in classical physics. Now, of course we know that classical physics does not explain everything, so what the argument says is that at a minumum, to explain consciousness one would have to invoke something like quantum weirdness, such as the superposition of states and non-locality, i.e., that which does not fit into a spatiotemporal framework.

That is all that I am claiming from the consciousness argument alone. Hence, I can't rule out that some explanation along the lines of Stuart Hameroff's might someday bear fruit, though I can rule out that there will ever be a conscious (non-quantum) computer.

As for the rest, all I see in your comment is your arm-waving for "I think it likely that materialism is true" in opposition to my arm-waving for "I think it likely that materialism is false". And that all boils down to whether or not one takes mystics seriously. (Actually, there is more to it than that, but that's all I've mentioned. Another reason I have arises from reading Owen Barfield's work, especially Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, on the evolution of consciousness, but going into that takes us off in other directions. I hope to post about him by and by.)

Really, all I can say is that I am quite familiar with all your arguments, having been thoroughly exposed to them -- and for a long time having agreed with them. But now I find them not only not compelling, but wrongheaded. I suppose I could go through your last comment, rebutting each point, but I know that will not accomplish anything, just as your rebutting of each of my points does not accomplish anything. About all I can say is: read Franklin Merrell-Wolff (the mystic who to me most "sounds reasonable"), and read Owen Barfield's book. Or don't, but if you don't we don't really have anything to say to each other. Or if you do, yet find Merrell-Wolff unreasonable, and Barfield's arguments unconvincing, there is nothing more that I can do to convince you, just as there is nothing you can say to convince me.

Which we never could. I did not start this blog to convince atheists to be religious. My intent was to present an alternative way of being religious (rather than the traditional one based on faith in a particular revelation), one that I think is more appropriate in this age of pluralism and doubt. As such, it is mostly directed toward the existing religious community, though I do admit I would hope it provides an alternative possibility for those who reject traditional religion, for the usual reasons, yet are also not happy with materialism.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Scott,

"...IF one assumes an atomistic, spatiotemporal reality, THEN because of the spatiotemporal separation of events there can be no awareness of anything larger than one of those events. There is awareness of larger things. Therefore, reality cannot be fundamentally as thought of in classical physics...to explain consciousness one would have to invoke something like quantum weirdness, such as the superposition of states and non-locality..."

1) To assume atomistic, spatiotemporal reality does not mean it is the case. Even if current science indicates that this is the case that tells us only what current science is telling us, which is not necessarily what reality is. At an even lower level reality might be continuous. We don't know.

2) Saying what we can't be aware of (i.e. of anything larger than an event IF atomistic) does not say anything about what we can be aware of, particularly consciously, at least directly. It may be possible, as is the case with some areas of knowledge, that scientific instruments can give us indirect information that we can't directly be aware of. But directly through consciousness? How do we know what that can tell us?

3) How can you tell what is required to explain consciousness? Consciousness hasn't been investigated sufficiently from the scientific, materialist point of view, and it's not clear what conscious beings are able to understand about their own personal consciousness using their minds alone. There's simply no evidence to suggest mystical experiences have any bearing on reality.

And this is partly why I think mystics can't say that what they are experiencing is a representation of reality. Whatever they are experiencing they are not in a position to say what it is.

Merrell-Wolff's idea that reality as we usually understand it may be brought into existence by consciousness sounds like a plausible hypothesis, but that's all it is. Just as materialism as one level of representation of reality, despite some of it's problems, is also a plausible hypothesis.

The main difference is that the evidence for materialism is abundant - we appear to interact with the world so convincingly that it would require very good evidence persuade most people that it's only an illusion. Even if, in deeper reality, it is an illusion, it's so effective that it is actually useful to us. It's a good working model of reality.

Merrell-Wolff's view is merely a concept as far as we can tell, despite his claims to the contrary. His mystic methods for accepting his view appear more like self-hypnosis or self-delusion than real enquiry. If you open yourself up to belief in some idea, swamp yourself with it by repeated exposure, holding criticism at bay, then you might well convince yourself that it's reasonable. Similar methods have been used in the political sphere throughout the 20th century. So, though it presents a view of reality as a model, it hasn't been particularly productive as a working model.

I don't think that there is much diffrence, in terms of our thinking on reality (that it is something beyond our reach and that materialism is only a representation of reality). I think our difference in views starts from there - when try to decide how we can get at reality in the most reliable way, and what we take from it or make of it.

I've read about Merrell-Wolff but I've not ready his work directly. I've not read Barfield's book. I'll look into both further.

Andrew Louis said...

A few things:

A.) Paragraph 3. Certainly I agree with you that quantum physics is merely a language that allows physicists to make predictions, and predictions only. But, in order for this to work, what is the analogous religious language? (or better put mystic language) and/or what form does it take? Furthermore, how does it speak to and/or predict, and what does it predict. Essentially, it seems like that’s a loose end here.

B.) Paragraph 4. I smell some Kant and Pirsig here. Pirsig said in some way or another that Quality is that tiny moment of time which exists between the moment you sense (in this case see) something, and the time you intellectualize over/about it. (the whole analogy of the train and the cars and bla-bla-bla, you know Pirsig) NOTE: I take Pirsig's word intellectualize to be a package word that contains within it the process of Kants transcendental aesthetic and the idea of synthesis, he was a fan afterall). I take you to be saying the same thing here - which is that your using the language "spatiotemporal" in the place of Quality and that our consciousness makes connections via synthesis after the fact - or rather, after that tiny moment. But I’m not certain where you get “your” tiny moment from (your extended now)? I’m with you, but how do you lock that? Certainly quantum physics is fuzzy enough that it looks to be there, (I’m thinking of the photon light test and the slits in paper bla-bla-bla). I’m missing something.

C.) Second to the last paragraph. You state, "It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion." I'm curious to know what you mean by religion. Certainly if we're talking about Buddhism sure, but I'm not so certain this translates to western Christian traditions and Muslim traditions (essentially western Plutonic traditions). Unless of course we're talking about forms of Gnostic Christianity. Not only that, but where is God in all this? And how do you define God? Are you saying he’s the eternal? Is God “Quality”.

I think this is some great sht here by the way.

PS,
I always thought it was interesting that Pirsig came up with the only philosophical trinity. Quality/object/subject. father/son/holy ghost. Where the father is transcendental, the son is objective, and the holy spirit is internal and subjective. Interesting, but perhaps childish.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

I am a little reluctant to get into this debate, mainly because it seems to me that you are quite willing to make wild assumptions (incidentally ones contrary to reality) and then argue away with an innocent look on your face :)

I am also a little concerned that your grasp of logic is shaky.

For example:
The complete non-problem you are proposing about how a series of micro-events can lead to the experience "now". I don't really understand why or how this presents an issue for you.
When you switch on a lightbulb, it appears to your perspective to instantly and suddenly be on where before it was off. This of course is only true at the macro level of your preception. In fact, there are billions of electro-chemical transfers that must occur before the filament even begins to glow. There is also a slow (from a sufficently fast perception) from dull slightly red filament to the fully bright one you see when you switch on the light. This kind of perception zooming can be done essentially infinitely. You can keep on extruding smaller and smaller slices of time until an electron's orbit around the nucleus takes seemingly longer than the orbit of the earth around the sun. You would then slow it down a billion times more (in perception terms).

You are, it seems to me, doing nothing more than expressing a personal disbelief about the combinatorial effect of neural activity being capable of preducing the experience we call consciousness.

To get us started on this, I propose you explain from your perspective why it is that:

Certian drugs (example alcohol) can profoundly effect our consciousness. We know and can experimentally show that these substances have measuable effects on the physical brain. If consciousness is somehow independant of the meat, why do drugs change our conscious experience?
also,
Why do they change our experiences in mostly predictable ways?

scott roberts said...

CC,

How does what you say about ever-finer distinctions apply to my argument? Let me put it this way.

Neurons interact. But taking a finer look, one says synapses fire, and finer than that one says ... electrons emit and absorb photons. One could make my argument at any of these levels of granularity, but since the electron level is the finest we know about, let me go with that.

Suppose there were only two hydrogen atoms in the universe. Then the electron in one can at most experience its energy state shifting as it absorbs an electron passed from the other electron. There is no way IF one assumes a real spatiotemporal separation of one electron from the other, that there is some experience that consists of the combination of the experience of the electrons taken singly.

Now add another atom. Again, for the same reason, the greatest experience possible is that of a single electron. And so on, up to a zillions.

It doesn't matter if one set of a zillion electrons are arranged in the form of a brain, and another in the forms of sun, trees, air, etc. -- given the assumption, there can be no experience more complex than that of a single electron absorbing or emitting a photon.

Therefore, I reject the assumption. That means that space and time are not fundamental. Now one can remain a physicalist and have consciousness in the world, but only if one assumes that space and time are not fundamental (as some physicists do, e.g. Lee Smolin). But such a world is an eternal world, as theologians use the word. So by itself this argument only says that for consciousness to exist, there must be non-spatiotemporal reality. But it seems to me that that means the whole materialist viewpoint -- which had its origin in accepting as fundamental Newton's strictly spatiotemporal universe -- needs reexamining.

On the fact that alcohol affects consciousness in predictable ways, that is explainable just as well with the TV (idealist) model as it is with the emergent (materialist) model, as discussed in an earlier comment. And that is the case with all brain experiments -- they do nothing that can let one say that one model is to be preferred over the other.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

There is no way IF one assumes a real spatiotemporal separation of one electron from the other, that there is some experience that consists of the combination of the experience of the electrons taken singly.

I understand what you are saying, but you are not explain why. Why do you believe this is so?

Do you feel a certain way?
For example, do you feel sick, well, tired?
In any case you are describing the general state of your body which is constructed of trillions of individual cells. You have no perception at all of the individual cells, only of the emergent sensation that is a combination of countless bioelectric signals interpreted by your brain.

Consider your hydrogen atoms for a moment. Lets say there are four of them. One is struck by three photons at once, the energy state attained by this electon is essesially an amalgum of the three energies of the distinct photons. The frequency of the light emitted by this electron when it drops back to its original energy state will be a mixing (if you will) or accumulation of the others.

Consider it another way. Consider a human finger. It is composed of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, etc in various amounts. Can any oxygen atom point at something. Do hydrogen atoms have the ability to crook and flex? These things, these ideas or functions are emergent from the collaberation of all of these atoms in combination. It doesn't matter at all that the individual atoms have non of these properties. You are confusing a system with its components.

It doesn't matter if one set of a zillion electrons are arranged in the form of a brain, and another in the forms of sun, trees, air, etc. -- given the assumption, there can be no experience more complex than that of a single electron absorbing or emitting a photon.

If this were true, no macro systems could exist.
You computer is built on a binary system. There is no operation in your computer that is more complex than 1 or 0, yes or no. By combining these yes' and nos together you can create ever more complex systems which seem on an intuitive level to defy the simplicity of their components.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Cont..

In my third year of computer science I was given the project of writing a program that would simulate electronic circuits. There are two kinds of circuits, combinational and sequencial. The former are easy to simulate. They are basically just a string of logic gates. No feedback. An imputs travels through successive logic gates to produce an output. My tutor told me that simulating combinational circuits would be sufficient to pass the project but that if I managed to simulate sequencial it would net me big marks because it was a much tougher prospect.
I made the same mistake that I'm sure every other year had made when attempting this project. I tried to model the system itself. I eventually realised that that would be impossible for a sequencial circuit. There are simply too many possibilities, too much feedback. It finally occured to me, to simply model reality. I realised that a real physical logic gate has no idea that it is a part of a system. It doesn't know and it doesn't care, it just does what it does. I modeled the behaviour of the various logic gates themselves and the means by which they pass information to each other. A simple system of inputs and outputs. I had no clue if it would work or not until I finished and fired it up. Sure enough, it accurately portrayed the behaviour of any circuit I built with it. It didn't know what an SR flip flop was or how it was supposed to work, but it worked just fine anyway. The moral of the story is that complexity is always built on simplicity. No matter the system, if you did into complexity deep enough you will find an impossibly simple foundation.

We don't intuatively understand the nature of simple to complex systems. We are used to looking at the world as a series of distinct macro objects. Reality on the atomic level is nothing we recognise.

There have been some bizarre cases in neuroscience. Split-brain patients for instance, where the corpus callosum is severed. The commications lines between the hemispheres of the brain are cut. The results are often two distinct personalities. Unsurprisingly, the personality in control of the left brain can speak and the other can't etc. Even religious views can differ between the two. In one case, one side of the brain was theistic and the other atheistic :)
Every component of what we think we are. If the basic nature of who we percieve ourselves to be can be radically altered by messing with the meat, so to speak; is it not reasonable to surmise that the meat is the sourse of who we are?

On the fact that alcohol affects consciousness in predictable ways, that is explainable just as well with the TV (idealist) model as it is with the emergent (materialist) model, as discussed in an earlier comment. And that is the case with all brain experiments -- they do nothing that can let one say that one model is to be preferred over the other.

True, in the same way that it equally fits with us all being in the matrix. You are proposing an unnecessary element and you are not justifying its inclusion. The additional element is also left entirely undefined. "Something mysterious". It reminds me of a cartoon This one

The Celtic Chimp said...

Finally managed to get the comment to post, blogger is giving me hell :)

Did I mention I really hate computers :>

Ron Murphy said...

"But such a world is an eternal world" - But the term 'eternal' is already a temporal concept - it just means a long time that never stops in the future and goes back into the past forever. Being temporal we have no useful concept of the non-temporal. We certainly have no way of attaching notions of God to that concept which we don't have; or worse still, associating it with our very parochial human values and the conceptual framework of morality we construct around them. It's wishful thinking. The most thorough answer we can give is, we don't know what the hell we're talking about.

At the conceptual edge of our universe, in the metaphysics that much of this cosmology is, we're clutching at straws. It might even be possible to offer up some variations on the maths for some of this stuff - but we still don't understand it.

But God? Give it up Scott. It's fantasy.

scott roberts said...

CC,

Interestingly enough, the way I see it it is the emergentist who is saying "and then a miracle occurs". I am not at all denying that emergent properties exist. The body does have properties that can't be discerned in its cells. I am just saying that consciousness is not one of them, that, from the assumptions of materialism (in particular, that spacetime is fundamental, and that the simple things are not conscious), consciousness is a miracle.

You might also be interested that my argument first came to me while I was a grad student of computer science, with a particular interest in cognitive science. What I realized was that because of the separation of each logic gate from the others -- that the maximum experientiable information was that which could be carried on a connecting wire -- a computer could not be conscious of anything greater than 1 or 0. This is because there is no way the information on one wire can merge with that of the other within the system. As conscious observers, we, of course, can perceive more complex information in the system, but the computer can't. Then transferring the argument to the brain -- if one assumes the brain is a strictly spatiotemporal system -- is a (excuse me) no-brainer.

On the three photons arriving simultaneously, I don't think that would be different from a single photon with a higher frequency. But suppose the electron can distinguish three inputs from one. Well, then, it is no longer as simple as we thought, and the argument would shift to the separated units within the electron, or would just take a "counting electron" as the maximum possible experience.

None of this really answers your question "why do I believe this argument", but I'm not sure how to answer it without just repeating it. Why do you believe that consciousness can be an emergent property from a non-conscious base? Appealing to systems and complexity just begs the question.

scott roberts said...

Ron,

No, in theology-speak, 'eternal' means non-spatiotemporal, not time everlasting. Unfortunately, many, if not most, of the laity are also unaware of this.

Yes, we do not understand what it means to be eternal, but if we try to do without the notion, can we say we are truly acknowledging the whole of reality? Only by assuming that all mystics are liars or deluded. Why not, instead, consider the possibility that some of them are more highly evolved? As the old analogy goes, an intelligent but sightless species could not understand the concept of sight. For that matter, we cannot understand consciousness (in the sense of being able to describe what it is, how it works). We just know we are conscious.

And as a bonus one gets an interesting interpretation of quantum physics and how it relates to perception. (Briefly, that quantum reality is inherently non-spatiotemporal, and perception turns it into the macro world of spatiotemporal objects -- that is, space and time are secondary qualities, like color and sound, not primary.)

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Scott,

"'eternal' means non-spatiotemporal, not time everlasting" - Even if we allow for that, it's still not telling us anything we knew we didn't know already. You've not detracted from our ignorance.

"but if we try to do without the notion" - You can have the notion, but if you don't understand it your not really able to derive anything from it, such as a theology.

"can we say we are truly acknowledging the whole of reality?" - We can easily acknowledge all reality simply by saying, "We think we understand such-and-such, but we think there's something beyond that, about which we're clueless." The problem is when, after declaring that, we invent theologies that supposedly explain the bits we don't know about. That's when you go off the map of reality as we know it.

"Only by assuming that all mystics are liars or deluded." - That works for me. Some might say Deepak Chopra covers both angles, for example.

"Why not, instead, consider the possibility that some of them are more highly evolved?" - OK, let me consider it..... Nope. The whole concept of evolution is built upon a non-mystical material foundation, which is our best representation of our understanding of reality. There's no evidence of their advanced evolution, and I certainly wouldn't assume it - why should I? If we must speculate like this, my guess is they retain brain characteristics that are pre-human - they haven't yet mastered rational thought.

But again your stuck with what you maybe can't know. We understand evolution because we see the evidence of the fossil record, DNA records, and in terms of the evolution of consciousness we can compare our brains with other animals. I don't recall reading anything about the brains of mystics that would suggest they are any different. In fact what brain examinations there have been show that what passes as mystical experience is just brain stuff - as with Michael Persinger's experiments with his 'God helmet', where the inner experience of some 'other' (i.e. God) can be stimulated or inhibited at will in the lab.

"For that matter, we cannot understand consciousness" - I agree. Then why pretend you have a better handle on features of consciousness that suggest a connection with God?

The secondary qualities of like color and sound are as yet unexplained features of consciousness - so what have they to do with it. Space and time are what we perceive reality to be - and we can say no more about it than that. The maths of it is about as near to mysticism as we get.

"an interesting interpretation of quantum physics and how it relates to perception" - There is no evidence that quantum physics relates to perception in any way whatsoever - except in that it's a finer grain view of the particles that interact on a macro level, that in turn make up the biology, that in turn result in consciousness. Come Scott, you've been reading Deepak Chopra, haven't you.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

Why do you believe that consciousness can be an emergent property from a non-conscious base? Appealing to systems and complexity just begs the question.

Well, most obviously I believe it becasue it already does, us ;)

I disagree that it is question begging. There are innumerable systems in nature which show exactly this kind of emergent property. I think it is a fundamental principle of the universe.

Consider:
You body contains trillions of what we would call living cells.
Your body is "alive". Yet your body is made up of dead matter. The carbon atoms in a lump of coal are exactly the same as the carbon atoms in your body. Your being "alive" is an emergent property of the specific organisation of that dead matter. Matter itself is simply the coalesence of energy in a particular pattern. Hydrogen is made of exactly the same components as gold, just in different amounts and configuration. Hyrogen and gold exibit wildly different characteristics. You could collect the same amount of electrons, protons and neutrons as both hydrogen and gold and they would still exibit their emergent characteristics. The proof of emergent properties of systems which are statlingly different from the component parts is everywhere around us in the universe.

I would be interested to know if you think any animals (other than humans) have any form of consciousness.

"Now" the conscious experience cannot to your mind be the result of spatiotemporal mechanics as it is not instantaneous. (No change in state in the universe is instantaneous. Infact, time itself is nothing more than the observation that states change.)

Consciousness somehow connects those zillions of events into one flowing whole, while within a strictly spatiotemporal process there is no way for events to aggregate as experience of anything larger than a single event

Your attempt to explain why this is so does not follow logically. You say X is so therefore Y without actually explaining why Y (pardon the variable) has anything at all to do with X.

So what if what we percieve as "now" is made up of zillions of discrete operations? So what if we percieve the crunch of all this data and its changes as time passing? I honestly can't see any issue with that. If you have a logical case to make, I'd like to hear it but it reads more like a declaration of personal incredulity.

Show me as simply as you can in logical steps why the experience "now" cannot be the result of spatiotemporal operations.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

One more thing.

You realise that being non-temporal necessarily entails being static as any change in state is invoking time. Anthing that was non-temporal would also be changless (in the extreme) No thoughts, no actions, no anything.
If there is something eternal, it is guaranteed that we have never interacted with it, not it with us. Maybe it is only non-temporal part of the time ;)

scott roberts said...

Ron,

Do you think that physicists should have dropped quantum physics once they realized that they were dealing with things they couldn't imagine (and still can't)? In any case, my argument can be interpreted as saying that we are not clueless about eternity. That, in fact, our normal, everyday consciousness would not exist if eternity didn't. We cannot "picture" eternity, but then we can't picture things being in a superposition of states, or as being both wave and particle, either.


I have not read Chopra, and have no intention of doing so. The mystic I find most instructive is Franklin Merrell-Wolff (Experience and Philosophy if you are interested). On mystics not "mastering rational thought", you might wonder, then, why Wolff recommends studying mathematics and philosophy as a disciplinary aid for those on what he calls "The path of Reason". If you want an example of a philosophy built on the reality of eternity, read him.

scott roberts said...

CC,

As I said, I do not deny the reality of emergent properties. But the supposed emergence of consciousness is precisely NOT of "exactly this kind" of gold from atoms. Nor, I suspect is life, but that's another discussion.

Your examples are observable objects emerging from observable objects. But consciousness is that which does the observing. The question you are begging is "Can that which observes be built out of the kind of thing which it observes?" My answer is no, and I give that answer, in part, because that which is observed is necessarily spatiotemporal, and cannot be combined into observation, which transcends that separation. So far, I haven't seen any basis for answering yes.

But, as I said in the earlier post, my argument is just arm-waving, which is why I can't make my argument more compelling. On the other hand, I haven't heard a ghost of an argument that answers the question "how do we see trees, rather than zillions of photons?" Of course, a materialist (other than McGinn) must think there is an answer to that question in terms of observable, spatiotemporal objects and events. All I am really saying is that I very much doubt that that attempt will succeed. Instead, I am exploring the possibility that objects become spatiotemporal in the act of perception. We each make our choice, with the strong possibility that we will not know if we made the right choice in our lifetimes. So be it.

Yes, I think animals are conscious, that all life is conscious in some sense -- though only humans are self-conscious. As for the non-living, there are those who say that all matter is "trapped spirit" or something like that, but I can't say that I know what that means.

So what if what we percieve as "now" is made up of zillions of discrete operations?

Because the "now" is continuous. If you say that is just a smoothing out of the discrete, I ask how does that smoothing happen? That is, that just begs the question of how the now exists as it does.

You realise that being non-temporal necessarily entails being static...

I realize that I don't know how to imagine the eternal. But I also don't know how to imagine consciousness existing in a strictly temporal universe. How, without evoking a transcendence of time, do you explain that we experience change? (see here, starting with the 4th paragraph for the logical problem).

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Scott,

"Do you think that physicists should have dropped quantum physics..." - No. They go on doing the maths and the experiments. But they don't go adding on a theology based on no evidential link whatsoever.

"my argument can be interpreted as saying that we are not clueless about eternity" - As a hypothesis without evidence to support it. No better than a guess. I can interpret my perception of the moon as a ball of cheese.

"We cannot "picture" eternity, but then we can't picture things being in a superposition of states..." - I agree. So physicists tend not to build imaginary theologies on top of this stuff that we can't really get our heads round. Except of course those that already presuppose God, and then do the mental gymnastics to make it all fit - the rationalisation.

As for Franklin Merrell-Wolff and his recommendation of philosophy and mathematics, well, so what. That aspect of his recommendation is fine; but it's what comes after, at the edge of what we can reliably know that he just keeps on going making stuff up.

We can't help but rely on our faculties, which in a crude sense correspond to elements or rationalism and empiricism, which we combine the best we can: we think about stuff; we test stuff; we think a bit more based on what the tests tell us; we think about more tests; we do those tests... slowly building up as reliable picture as we can.

The error is in that when empiricism reaches it's current scope and one continues to rely on rationalism alone, we start to make up all sorts of dumb shit, with no way of verifying it: we think up some stuff; we think up some more stuff; all sounds pretty good so we think up yet more stuff...ta dahhhh! Mysticism.

We don't really understand consciousness too well. So we're certainly talking out of our hat when we talk about transcending consciousness. How can you know you're transcending when you don't even know what it is you're supposed to be transcending? Is all we can say about mystics is that they put themselves into some fuzzy state. All the stuff reported by mystics is just nonsense.

We're pretty sure that what we do understand about the universe complies with the laws of thermodynamics. If there was anything special going on in the heads of mystics that's anything like they ever claim then it would register externally as either massive consumption of energy, which for the brain basically means blood flow; or a massive reduction in energy, which would leave their brains mostly dead. What does it mean to experience 'nothingness' for example? Where do they transcend to when they transcend? What exactly is happening in the brain when they experience stuff like this? They just have the knack of making their neurons think they're doing something special. I have a similar knack. I can imagine an atomic bomb going of in my head - it's quite vivid when I close my eyes. But I don't think it registers with any of the agencies that measure that stuff. Atomic explosion or a leaf in the breeze - whichever I imagine probably consumes similar amounts of energy and activates similar numbers of neurons. What we 'imagine' in our heads isn't actually happening in our heads - the clue is on the word.

There's a further clue, in how they have to achieve these states - the quieter and more peaceful the surroundings the easier it is. If you come across a mystic that's navigating some astral plain, or is out their at one with the universe, or whatever their flavour of mysticism, just give them a swift kick, or even a tap on the shoulder - he'll soon be back in the room.

Most of Wolffie's stuff is just made up strings of mystical concepts that sound profound but are really just bogus ideas. They are unsubstantiated claims. His stuff reminds me of that other fruitcake Pirsig.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Scott,

Your postitions and objections are not rational. I don't know how else to put it. You are trying to create logical problems where non exist.

You want to believe what you believe. The line of reasoning you use is insufficient to convince anyone of anything. As Ron says above, your hypothesis is nothing more than guessing. You make arbitrary distinctions for which there is no justification.
Any evidence that contradicts your view is "not the same thing" . Not because you can show logical why this is but because you just declare it so.

As for the non-living, there are those who say that all matter is "trapped spirit" or something like that, but I can't say that I know what that means.

This was the preverbial straw for me. If you can even refer to something as silly as that then this debate is a waste of time, you are already a universe away from anywhere I can reach you. :)

Ron Murphy said...

Scott,

(picking up where CC left off)

"Can that which observes be built out of the kind of thing which it observes? My answer is no" - I think you have already at this point presupposed a mystical aspect to observation - i.e. a mystical consciousness. Observation consists of nothing more that one object responding to another. In us it's pretty complex - sense data enters the brain, causes neurons to fire which changes the states of other neurons - which we perceive as a tree, or whatever.

A multi-meter can observe in the same way. It can take in current and make numbers appear on a screen that correspond to the current. All very crude compared to what our brains do, but the same in concept. But just because it's complex and hard to understand for us is no good reason for inventing mystical explanations. We simply have more work to do to try to understand it. It appears that for some centuries we've been at this impasse, and that has been time enough for the mystical explanation to become dominant. But that's changing. Bit by bit we are learning more. We just have to be patient and not jump the gun.

"because that which is observed is necessarily spatiotemporal, and cannot be combined into observation, which transcends that separation" - I did point out the problem with relying solely on a rationalist approach. Why do you think the observed cannot be combined with observation? What do you even mean by this? And what do you mean by the transcending bit? Have you presupposed something mystical?
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Ron Murphy said...

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"how do we see trees, rather than zillions of photons?" - Well, we do 'see' zillions of photons; we just don't perceive them as such. Basically, precision. We can't see precisely enough. Which in the case of photons is to be expected. For the macro world stuff we evolved to cope with it's sufficient to deal with bulk measurements. And generally we need far less detail than specific bulk properties. When a lion was about to leap on our ancestor he was too busy running away to count photons. If you listen to a Geiger counter as it is gradually exposed to radiation: click..(ok)..click...(still ok).....crackle-crackle-Fzzzzzz! Shit run! For our macro just sub-millimetre acuity, and just sub-second responsiveness, the 'spatio-temporal' aspect of photons swamps us - we only perceive the bulk result.

Photons don't even get back into your visual cortex; they stop at your retina. You don't even get the opportunity to perceive photons. And, it's not as if our neurons use fast electron flow to propagate signals - they use action potentials, the much slower migration of ions across the neuron's surface - a relatively much more complex and slower process; and then there's the transition across the synapse which uses the emission of chemical signals. Don't you realise what this means for thousands of years of philosophy on perception? Much of it is pretty useless.

"All I am really saying is that I very much doubt that that attempt will succeed" - You doubt these attempts succeed, but you give credibility to transcendence? I think a little perspective is required.

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Ron Murphy said...

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"I am exploring the possibility that objects become spatiotemporal in the act of perception" - What experiments did you have in mind? Hold on. What I meant by 'in mind' was how are you considering testing these ideas, not how are you going to make stuff up.

"We each make our choice, with the strong possibility that we will not know if we made the right choice in our lifetimes." - Well if you actually live a lifetime of any length the odds are that most of it existed in this very material world. Many people go through life without any transcendence. I don't know of any got through it without some material sustenance. Most animals get by without a hint of what we would call rational thought; and even humans are only partially rational, as most of our behaviour is automatic, or sub-conscious if you prefer that term. We are mostly empirical entities.

"Yes, I think animals are conscious, that all life is conscious in some sense" - How do you determine that? Humans have about 100-billion neurons; sea slug about 2,000; round worm 32. So I can see how you might think there is some sort of consciousness there. A sponge has none, but it's alive. Like I said, we don't really know what consciousness is; but we're pretty sure it has something to do with the quantity and configuration of neurons.

Part of the problem for us is all the extinct intermediate species. We have a few scraps: humans, chimps, cats, ... And that gives us the impression that there's a certain something that makes our consciousness special, so that it's tempting to think that our type of consciousness got switched on somehow, maybe by God. But this is a very parochial view. How many neurons, and in what configuration, and with what combinations of neuro-chemicals, and with what formation of folds in the brain, does it take to class a brain and it's owner as a self-conscious being with the capacity to reason about itself?

"Because the "now" is continuous. If you say that is just a smoothing out of the discrete, I ask how does that smoothing happen?" - Have you ever seen a movie which uses discrete pictures? Or even flicker cards? That's how it's done. The brain fills in lots of stuff. You're in luck. Watch this Horizon if you can: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mgxf

"I realize that I don't know how to imagine the eternal. But I also don't know how to imagine consciousness existing in a strictly temporal universe. How, without evoking a transcendence of time, do you explain that we experience change?" - Because we can't explain some stuff doesn't mean we have to make other stuff up.
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Ron Murphy said...

From your other post...

"The common sense way of thinking about the self is that it persists as one observes objects. I was not seeing the tree, and now I am. But in stating this, I have also stated that in seeing the tree the self has changed. Are there two 'I''s involved?"

This is a very confused view. Look at this and other related stuff. How does the split brain theory tie in with your theology and the special place that the human 'person' has in your account.
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Ron Murphy said...

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Think also about the Star-Trek transporter problem thought experiment. You are zapped, to become and information stream, transmitted as data across to another device and reconstructed from new atoms locally. Are you the same person (A)? What if at the receiving end two copies of you are produced. Are there two of 'you' (B)?

In case (A) you are you in any real sense, because provided all your atoms are put in the same arrangement with the same electron energy levels then yes, you are the same. This includes, on each and every neuron, the precise state of each action potential as it was flowing down the neuron (i.e. the precise positions of potassium and sodium ions etc.) From that point on your experiences, as brain processes, pick up from where they left off - it just seems to you that in a flash your surroundings have changed.

In case (B) at the instant you arrive you are identical in all respects; but you immediately start to diverge. You don't have any ongoing mental connection with the other you (whichever you we are talking to now) - i.e. no telepathy or any such crap. But you do have the same memories. Your thought patterns may be so similar that you may actually feel as if you are reading each other's minds.

But wait! Even that diverges pretty soon after (though we don't know to what extent that would happen) because when we remember something it isn't perfect recall. When we remember something we are reconstructing the memory as live action in our heads - that is your heads, and you will inevitable have slightly different reconstructions, influenced by all your diverging experiences as you go, variations in blood flow as your hearts start to get out of sync... real complex divergence. Before long you'd probably be like real close identical twins. I mean real close, since at least to start with you'll have the same warts, scars, and brain states. If you have a girl friend you will both think she is your girl friend; and she won't be able to tell you apart - though over time she might come to prefer one of you as you diverge. If someone asks you a question you might even come out with the same words, in stereo. I'm sure it would be really freaky to experience and observe; because we know how freaky it is when identical twins are so attuned, and they wouldn't even come close to this.

Of course this is hypothesis. But at least it's based on current science and isn't complete speculation.

Ron Murphy said...

Scott, you've got an admirable imagination. You come up with some interesting ideas. But that's all they are. It's pure rationalism tinted with a bit of known science, but with a massive dose of presuppositional theology.

This whole notion you have, of the rationalism of mystics, your theology, just doesn't stand up to common sense. It's so easy to use the very same reasoning that you do, based on no data, and concoct any sort of flim flam...

Deep in our past, when mysticism was appreciated much more than it was now, evolution produced a dynasty of old masters, man-gods, who were able to communicate with the universe. Knowing that mankind would not have their skills again for countless millenia they needed to ensure that mankind would be watched over until the second coming of the man-gods, until evolution again produced more of their kind. Together in one grand project they willed into existence a God to look over mankind and mitigate his many errors. Man, being as fallible as he is, was unable to maintain this knowledge, this history, and regularly invented their own explanations. Jesus was just one such man, who had an inkling of the prophesies of old - that men can be gods, and this will happen, as the second coming, when man again evolves into man-god mystics.

Now, there's absolutely nothing you can say which will refute this. Or any other of an infinite variety of stories. In other words, my story is just as much bollocks as any other story, including the stories of the Bible. The Bible may contain aspects of history, as we would expect given that most stories need to be tied to some aspect of reality to have any credibility whatsoever. The combination of the real credibility of the historical content of the Bible and the fictitious stories, together give the Bible a pseudo-credibility, which through tradition has come to be believed by so many billions of people over the ages. The variety of religious stories that we've accumulated throughout the ages is testament to our imagination, rather than the representation of reality.

If you think any particular theology is real, rather than pure fiction, you need to start coming up with real data, rather than trying to form some tenuous link between your theology and physics.

scott roberts said...

Ron,

Nothing you said here is (a) news to me, or (b) refutes my position. Split brains, or even teleportation, does not prefer the emergentist model over the TV model. And

Have you ever seen a movie which uses discrete pictures? Or even flicker cards? That's how it's done.

is as blatant a begging of a question as there is. How is it done? How does the brain fill in?

I will grant that the whole mysticism business goes beyond what the public facts admit, that though idealism might be true, that says nothing about God, just allows the possibility.

So when you say:
But they [physicists] don't go adding on a theology based on no evidential link whatsoever.

are you implying that all the talk by physicists about various interpretations of the maths and experiments (hidden variables, many-worlds, etc.) should not go on? Should string theory be stopped in that it is not testable? Now let me assume that you don't object to all interpretation or hypothesis formation, even though testability is not, or at least not yet, in the cards (e.g. there is no way to test for the many-worlds interpretation). Let us also, for purposes of discussion, say that all mystics are delusional. Then I would still say that my interpretation of quantum physics is just as viable -- naturally I think more so -- than the others.

It can be stated as: sense perception turns the unimaginable into spatiotemporal images. We know from physics that the unimaginable is real -- superposition, wave/particle duality, non-local effects, which just don't fit in the classical spacetime of Newtonian/Einsteinian physics. We also know that the brain is capable of creating spatiotemporal images (the spacetime of our dreams does not exist "out there"). So Ockham's Razor is satisfied -- no unnecessary entities have been added, while the others (other than Copenhagen -- which is essentialy the absence of an interpretation) violate it.

(If you're interested in seeing an elaboration of this interpretation, see Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness: The Physical Basis for Immaterialism. You'll be happy to know that it contains no appeal to mysticism.)

So, unless you are willing to call David Deutsch (an upholder of the many-worlds interpretation) theological, I would at least think my interpretation deserves a hearing.

Ron Murphy said...

Many systems to which we do not attribute consciousness and mystical notions exhibit bulk properties. Temperature of a gas in a chamber is the bulk property of the kinetic energy of the particles. If some particular particle pings this way instead of that, or varies in energy as it collides, its effect on the temperature is not significant. The motion of the particles, to us, is essentially random. The extent to which quantum effects impact such a chamber makes no odds to our bulk measurement of temperature.

Meta stability is a problem in electronics. But it's a problem that is overcome for the purposes of providing pretty reliable computers. Sure, all sorts of errors can occur in computers, cause by other problems above the level of quantum effects, but they still manage to do very meaningful and specific work most of the time. Quantum effects are negilgable in our macro world, but are no less a part of it. But they are simply not recognizable by us.

There's no reason to suppose that the brain isn't a macro level bulk processing system - i.e. consciousness is a bulk effect of many neurons in action. In this sense 'emergence' isn't anything mysterious to be figured out. Given all the systems that we model at different levels of detail there's no reason to think the brain doesn't fit in with this concept in it's emergent consciousness, any less than temperature emerges from particles of gas in motion.

A computer spreadsheet is nothing more than an emergent concept that we understand, based on the particular behaviour of the compueter: the program, the data structures it operates on, the calculations it performs, the presentation of dots on a screen, that together cause some recognition in us as a cenceptual spreadsheet. What makes you think that our thoughts aren't mere self-recognised emergent processes like this?

Even though we don't understand consciousness enough, there's no evidence to show it is anything more than this.

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Ron Murphy said...

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We have no standard concept within any branch of science that has transcendental effects, mysticism, theology, that you're trying to attribute to the human mind. As a hypothesis (and quite a complex one given there's no data) it stands alone with no reason to adopt it. Or, if you insist on adopting it them so many other theologies can be concocted, such as the one I offered.

And yes, many of the ideas at the boundaries of regular physics and cosmology are speculations. But that's the manner in which they are treated by the proponents - they know they are speculative attempts to explain the science and the maths. Nobody is trying to say that string theory plus the concept of 'Goodness' implies there is a God. Except those that presuppose God and want to use anything they can to justify that presupposition - i.e. confirmation bias.

Clearly, from a materialist point of view, quantum effects can make themselves effect the sub-atomic world. They may even effect a single atom. But when we see a lump of iron, even at the microscopic level, it's still pretty stable and predictable - certainly enough to make very stable large scale structures that last decades or centuries. If we observe discrepancy in a metal lattice, and that metal is held under inert conditions, of no stress, and say in a vacuum, then the anomalies in the metal don't change to any observable degree.

When we come to more complex chemicals the same applies - they are pretty stable over time, unless they are involved in some chemical reaction.

In biological systems the bulk biological and chemical processes that are essentially continuous are just too large scale and messy for any individual quantum events to have any meaningful impact.

And, if quantum effects were so effective, and at the heart of consciousness, then we'd have conscious legs, conscious toe nails, conscious bacteria, conscious plants. We'd certainly have self-conscious and self-aware mice, fruit flies, sea slugs - and these organisms have been studied pretty well and their brains found to be virtually the same as ours in fine details.

The differences between the various life forms that have consciousness as we recognise it is the collection of bulk properties of the brain - it's size, the number of neurons, the presence of a neo-cortex, the number of folds in , etc.

Add to this the fact that we are unclear about what conscious thoughts actually consist of - which neurons, how many neurons, the flow of data, the detail of the data (i.e. there various ideas about the level of computation - what makes up the 'bits' of data). But, a lot of what we do know about the brain's relation to thoughts is geared very much to macro properties. So, stimulating specific neurons, or small groups of neurons can make people have out of body experiences; various functions can be localised to areas of the brain. And in fMRI scans, as crude as they are, can show many brain functions in action.

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Ron Murphy said...

Nothing refutes your position because you haven't really got anything to refute. How can stories be refuted? Again I refer you to my dumb theology - you can't refute it. It's as useless as yours.

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Ron Murphy said...

How does the brain fill in? We don't know the detail for sure, but we have plenty of comparative examples - virtually every measuring device we have. An old analogue voltmeter doesn't react to individual electron flow, it fills in the details. A water flow meter doesn't account for the eddies in the water as it passes through, the variations in flow rate. A similar filling in works with cinema film - the out of sync wagon wheels appear to rotate the wrong way, to give an illusion that is in the actual film as it plays, not specifically in our brains, but our brains 'see' the apparent reverse images as reverse rotation. The brain is complex and is adapted to our evolved needs; so there are hypotheses that explain the brain's filling in as efficiencies in the process, and part of the predictive mechanism. The point being that there are similarities with many other less complex systems - and not a sign of mysticism. We simply don't need transcendental mystical stuff.

And the mystics haven't got a clue what's going on in their brains. Being in a fuzzy state is no indication of transcending anything other than their own common sense.

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Ron Murphy said...

"that though idealism might be true, that says nothing about God, just allows the possibility." - But it allows countless other fantasy possibilities, just look on the fantasy shelf in a library or book shop. And that's why it's useless - it doesn't tell us anything that is actually useful.

"We also know that the brain is capable of creating spatiotemporal images" - So is a camera. So what. Since we live in what we have evolved to see as a spacial temporal world the brain isn't likely to present in any other way is it. That's why we find the quantum stuff tricky to get our heads round - it doesn't appear to us in our macro perceptions, and doesn't appear to us in thoughts, because it's on such a small scale. Our brains haven't evolved to see this stuff, because they haven't needed to.

But note that spooky quantum effects weren't dreamt up by some mystic to explain God. They are scientific observations in a material model of the world, and as such challenge us to adapt that model to what science finds. They are not an excuse for every flaky mystic to come out of the cupboard and claim them for themselves.

"the spacetime of our dreams does not exist "out there"" - We have no reason to suspect our dreams are anything more than our conscious stuff partly inhibited through sleep. They exist as neuron processes just as our conscious thought does - and our sub-conscious activity that we don't actually perceive.

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Ron Murphy said...

Avery? Idealism by another name, that is being proposed as an alternative view. But as with all versions of idealism, you can just make stuff up to fit anything. Once you start on the track of idealism it leads inevitably to guesswork, and eventually nothing more than theology. Is there one consciousness of which we are all aspects? Are there many consciousness? Are you a figment of my imagination, along with everything else about the world I appear to experience?

Idealism asks more questions than it answers. So I'm not sure why Avery thinks there's any mileage in it, give his whole thesis rests on one particular problem - we don't yet understand consciousness as much as we'd like to. He's replacing one particular unknown with infinite others.

And, just like God, Avery's idea can be made to fit anything he likes. For example, if AI eventually produces machine consciousness, Avery will simply claim, "Look. I told you consciousness is at the core of everything. Here is non-human 'matter' exhibiting consciousness." But Avery won't have contributed one spec of useful information. All the hard work will have been done by those that work within the material model - because that's the most productive one we have.

This idea that we don't have an absolute grasp on reality, whether it exists or not in any absolute sense, isn't a problem for materialism. Try here and here.