Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 23

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 22
Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 24

The last instalment of this blog (August 2021) aired the concept that the world needs a return to intense caring as the everyday basis for civilised society. Today there is a shortfall of intense caring in every sector of human activity, and as a result things are beginning to fall apart.  Religion used to supply intense caring, because it presented a world created by an infinite supermind.   (For countless centuries this was the only explanation of why a universe existed with any credibility.  It provided a thoroughly accepted backstory which supported the exercise of intense caring.)  But this is a form of personality cult,  which pivots on the example and authority of one quasi-infinite (super) source of example.   It is essentially a feudal model of the human predicament. 

The whole narrative of Anglophone and enlightened World society during the last thousand years has been away from this feudal paradigm.The simplest reason for trying to widen example, reaponsibility and authority in society, is that today’s world is far too complex for any single mind, however talented, to steer society. Simply on pragmatic grounds a society organised so that it can be effectively steered by many minds does a much better job than the feudal scheme of concentrating power into the hands of one individual.  In nine out of ten cases that individual is a tyrant, or morphs into one.

Clearly, a society where example and leadership are spread as widely as possible, will only work well (a) when education is working well and (b) when the cooperation and coordination methods used are thoroughly reliable and realistic. These conditions are not being met.

We know education isn’t working. But social cooperation and coordination are not working well either.

Intense caring norms in society can only happen when levels of inter-personal trust are high. Society is like a machine which requires oil to lubricate the millions of transactions which happen every day. That oil is inter-personal trust.  But modern knowledge has thrown up numerous toxic contradictions, some of which have been around for many decades and have still not been resolved.  This produces a wary, suspicious cognitive climate in society, especially among the intellectual and professional classes. Sweetness and light in purely intellectual areas, arising from new simplifying insights, where it exists, has an ameliorative effect on interpersonal trust levels. By contrast there are many default trends which have a muddifying effect on things, and increase the tendency towards tension and suspicion. 

Disruption, caused by social change, generational and male-female strife, excessive immigration, business failure and natural catastrophes, can all work the other way. Everyone is aware of this, and the result is that a strong social imperative to “live and let live” has gradually emerged. Where doubt is possible, people are advised to “give the benefit of the doubt”. But this makes everything more fuzzy, complicated and byzantine. It means that the sweetness and light (clarity of mind) which can flow from shared cognitive insights and conceptual simplifications hardly ever happens.  Indeed an unhealthy tendency has established itself whereby instant compromise is routinely trumping the more demanding cognitive style needed to establish long-term resolution of problems.

Today’s greatest cognitive quagmire is in modern physics, which is riddled with contradictions of the greatest seriousness. It means that there is no common, accepted, coherent, unified picture of how the physical universe works. The physicists themselves claim that the stuff of physical reality is ultimately mathematical, but the “mathematics” involved will naturally be extremely abstract, and there is no hope whatever that anyone could ever get a simple over-view of the whole.  (It is also absurd, since mathematics is formally adjectival and it doesn’t deal in “stuffs”.) This oppressive enigma is stuck there, like a dark cloud in the sky, which is commonly expected to stay around, getting ever darker, in perpetuity.

It also serves as a discussion-stopper, because it is currently an unhelpful source of mental turmoil which no one expects ever to be resolved.  There could not be a starker contrast with the view of the universe in the MiddleAges when physical reality was seen as a unified, harmonious Deity-designed Great Chain of Being.

Today’s over-view of the universe is not as foundationally secure as that of the Middle Ages was in its day.  It is, indeed, an almost non-existent over-view which has emerged during a period of seriously enfeebled rationality. (This means that it lacks conviction as well as coherence, logic and hope for the future.) 

The ultra-low rationality era which we are passing through is not inevitable. We must turn it around if homo sapiens is to survive, and not become the author of its own extinction.  This is the thought which is driving these blogs.

The first step is to do much bolder thought experiments and to consider the kind of thing which physics might be saying if we weren’t in this modern bind of ultra-low-confidence in reason.

John Wheeler’s Anthropic principle was that the conceptual picture modern physics presents must be consistent with the existence of human beings, and in particular with the human mind. Of course it must. Most physicists can see this, but they do not, in practice, do anything to bring it about.  For example, they persist in using mathematical models everywhere, as the norm in physics, even though they are aware that a mathematical model of the human mind is impossible. (The most difficult phenomenon for physicists to explain which is present in any physics laboratory, is the presence of human minds capable of conceptualising the universe.)

At the simplest level physics must deal in concepts, laws and models which have knowability. Whether we can ever “know” the distant past is problematic. The further we go back, the hazier it becomes.  The notion that we know that the laws of nature we recognise today were operating in precisely the same form, with the same constants, etc. at the time of the Big Bang, is ludicrous. Of course we don’t know this, and there is not the slightest chance that we ever could.

But assuming that we do know this is common practice, the norm in today’s professional cosmological speculation.

Looking into the past means looking at surviving traces of past reality, and survival being selective, these traces get fewer and fewer the further one goes back. The only logical way it can end is by whiteout.

So the picture which modern cosmology is trying to sell —by ignoring knowability— is one in which it is being tacitly assumed that there are universal laws of nature which have somehow been conceived, established and maintained —by some transcendental agency we can never know.  A common excuse is: <<We can’t investigate everything. There must be basic principles and laws which we take for granted… otherwise science would be a never-ending, impossible project>>. This is like Mrs Thatcher’s <<There is no alternative>> justification for her policies. It is an excuse which postulates that the only alternative to today’s gullible physics is endless frustration.  It is similar to the familiar <<After our strict regime…the deluge>> a kind of rhetoric which was used by every articulate tyrant in history.

But we do, mostly, treat these “universal” laws of physics as much more established, important and a priori than the raw evidence for them would justify. Almost everyone feels that a law like the Law of Gravity is much more secure than Karl Popper’s minimal “not yet falsified” category would suggest. Kant explained this puzzle by his brilliant insight that these laws must be pre-conditions for our own existence. The architecture-of-reality they embody, he was saying, is something on which our intelligence is obscurely predicated.    If these laws were not in place, we —as reasoning, conscious beings— wouldn’t exist. Unfortuntely he couldn’t offer any details about how this might happen.

The solution, Actimatics, was introduced earlier in these blogs.

Actimatics now offers a research programme and a professional discipline for looking at the mechanism by which this comes about.

We have learnt a crucial lesson during the six decades of the Computer Age —that bits of mindlike behaviour can be produced as the performance of a highly complex digital cybernetic structure.  Also conversely: that the notion that “mindlike” conditions or agencies can exist without cybernetic (material) backstories is feeble, and totally unconvincing. (Lewis Carroll guyed this idea when he had the Mad Hatter try to get his watch to work by filling the case with butter and jam!)  

To suppose that the laws of physics <<just happen to exist: there is nothing more to say>> is to make a claim which thoroughly contradicts the basic motif of science, namely that <<where something shows unexpected pattern, there must be an explanation!>>. It is this intense curiosity motif which drives science and which has created the modern world. Unfortunately Karl Popper —the only philosopher many physicists listen to— was unable to find a conceptual framework within which any explanation of the existence of the laws of nature could be sought.  He couldn’t find a workable version of Kant’s insight.     His concept that empirical evidence only points out those things which have defied falsification, is modestly valuable… because it points towards the crying need for something more. But it is only a first step towards understanding the problem.

And, to hold this line (assuming the existence of unexplainability), today’s science is tacitly relying on the dim assumption of a transcendental agency we can never know, a ‘TANK’. The TANK is really a version of a Godlike, Supreme Being, but in this special case gutted of any emotional, personal, edifying or moral sentiment.  It is not, however, immune from rational criticism. It is, actually, just as vulnerable as traditional religion: indeed, it may be described as an ‘attenuated’ version of traditional religion.   It is postulating that things of immense importance —of the kind highly intelligent, determined minds create— can be put down to (explained as a product of) an agency with no discernable cybernetic material backstory. That is the kind of thing intelligent people were willing to accept in the past, but no longer are.

The theme of these blogs is that this won’t do. Simply to meet the deepest logical consistency expectations of science, we need to recognise that it is the communal mega-mind of the human race which must be the ultimate source of the sophisticated structures which underly sub-atomic physics.         

CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 1st September 2021