Beauty, Truth And the Eye of the Observer

This week a tangled web
and at the center of it
a place to come back to time and again.
a look at the world physics, and its recent history,
the quest to describe our physical reality
and a dip into the cognitive sciences
and evolutionary neurology
to point out how they might relate
to recent developments.
QBism for example,
a branch of Quantum Physics that’s attempting to rewrite the equations
from the position of a subjective observer.

This is where we all come to
in this day and age
to understand what’s going on.
ultimately we need to turn to the physics.

Before we do…
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I guess no-one would want to argue with me if I say
that Quantum Mechanics is where it’s at in the world of physics.
No doubt, we’ve had a load of technology out of it over the last hundred years…
That would be smart phones, computers, lasers, MRI scanners
so we’re using it everyday…

But in an earlier episode we saw
how we might be led to the conclusion
that the story of physics,
the story of discovery
that brought us Quantum Theory,
the story of that higher quest,
that living embodiment of the enlightenment
seeking absolute,
empirical truth
through an exploration of the building blocks of reality,

We saw how we might conclude that narrative of a physical materialism might have reached its end.

And we’ve looked at the underlying,
fundamental question facing this narrative.
We’ve dipped into the conflict between the material and the ideal.
The idea that maybe we cannot ever know
the truth of our perceptions.
The idea that there is no certainty to be found in our observations.
And that we cannot know we looking at a real external space,
or if are we just translating something else,
essentially deceiving ourselves?

And the physical description of reality provided by quantum physics doesn’t help.
Firstly its given breath to a myriad of existential models
ranging from the multiverse to the string theory…
Even though if we’re not up to speed on the minutiae
Somewhere at the back of our minds we’ve gained the idea that
what it says about the world we live in is pretty wacky…

The existential certainty that we rely on,
the objective reality that it anchors for us,
in many useful ways,
just gets brought into question.

Flowing from the basic tenets of scientific endeavour
There is an argument that it is not the place of science
to answer questions of morality, or behaviour.

It is not within the remit of science that
conclusions of aught arise out of descriptions of what is.
To counter that though
as I will
is to point out a danger
in that we are implicitly asked to turn our backs on our own human responsibility,
the responsibility that we may express through our own interactions and behaviours.

Within the idea of scientific objectivity it is implicit
that the philosophical questions of morality,
or ethics
be shut down, and left unheard.
But this needn’t be unchallenged.
As new technologies expand our horizons to include
work in neuroscience and evolutionary modelling,
sciences that have only begun to take shape in the latter part of the C20th
perhaps we could begin
to make more accurate conclusions
and informed decisions
about how we do operate in the world,
and what our place in it is.

First up!
It was only at the turn of the nineteenth
and Twentieth Century,
and that’s not so long ago,
that there were concerns about Newtonian or classical mechanics.
All that apple and gravity stuff that we understand to be
inverted commas “True”.
And these concerns stemmed from a model developed by
a Newtonian physicist named James Clerk Maxwell
who had managed to unify
the phenomena of light, magnetism and electricity
with a theory of electromagnetic radiation.
This was in the mid C19th, circa 1860.

Of course this was great stuff.
Just like we have our lasers and MRI scanners out of Quantum Mechanics
so in the C19th came electrical power, light bulbs, telecommunication
and on and on,
the foundations of today’s technology.
But there was a problem.

What happened
was that the Rutherford-Bohr model –
The model we all know from the text books.
of atoms composed of a positively charged core
surrounded by
negatively charged neutrons came along…

And all well and good
except that under Maxwell,
his theory of electromagnetic radiation
showed that the energies in this description of an atom just didn’t add up.
Huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation would be given off,
Electrons would just be thrown off at random.
and the energy would just fade away,
too quickly,
Atoms should just collapse.

So this was an acute problem,
Science I guess just as it does now,
had a crisis,

It needed a complete revolution….

Enter Quantum Mechanics.
The essential difference being
that the classical laws of physics are deterministic,
Quantum Mechanics is not.

From the Copenhagen Interpretation (1927)

physical systems generally do not have definite properties prior to being measured,
and quantum mechanics can only predict the probabilities
that measurements will produce certain results.
The act of measurement affects the system,
causing the set of probabilities to reduce to only
one of the possible values immediately after the measurement.
This feature is known as wave function collapse.

Quantum Mechanics relies on probability, for its predictions.
It says we can only predict probabilities in answer to the questions that we ask
and it incorporated wave-particle duality,
the concept that particle behaviour may be described in terms of both waves and particles,
as seen in the Double Slit experiment
that we also did at school
In so doing,
it solved the problems that had been found to exist with Classical Mechanics.

As Albert Einstein wrote:[1]

It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.

But this changed our understanding of nature in fundamental ways,
it answers problems we had with our understanding of physical reality,
and gives us powerful new technology and tools, insight but
it turns our picture of reality on its head.

Especially if we are familiar with the ideas of superposition,
quantum tunneling, spooky action,
ideas that challenge our notions of time and space, the speed of light
and the basic solidity of even the earth that grounds us.

What Quantum Mechanics is telling us
doesn’t fit with what we experience,
with our measurements, or with the common sense.

I recently found out that given enough energy in a system
quantum Mechanics can describe
the behaviour of every kind of particle.
Not just the stuff at an atomic scale.
We are talking planets, cars, people, insects…
It’s not just for the tiny stuff.
Quantum mechanics it turns out
mirrors Newtonian prediction
for all but the most tiny of systems.
Its brilliance is that it swaps from Newtonian Physics
only when that gets stuck.

But the idea that cars, horses and planets and universes
just like big particles,
are capable of superposition or spooky action seems absurd.
And the challenge to our belief systems even at the human scale are equally demanding.

How we perceive the world, is this for example…

“How do I know there is a glass of water on the table beside me?”

And the classic human scale answer?

How about
There is light in the room.
Light bounces off of the glass of water.
The light is modified,
and reflected
some of the modified light enters my eye.
The light is focused on my retina,
My optic nerve becomes excited
Chemical electrical signals are modified in my brain.
And my brain sees it.
or is minded to know the glass is there.

So without going into the finer points
of perception and consciousness as yet.
We can come to that later,
but we can be clear enough to
tell a story of electromagnetic and electro-chemical cause and effect
and to say that our brains
enter a mindstate that corresponds
to the belief that there is a glass of water on the table beside you.

Now this is essentially just another narrative
but its a narrative that science,
or physics at least
is deeply committed to.
We believe our experience, our empirical evidence
common sense tells us of this truth…
so any theory of physics needs to back this truth up.

So to do that every one of the steps
in our glass of water narrative
needs to occur in accordance with
whatever the fundamental laws of physics happen to be.

Now if they are going to be quantum mechanics
then you have a problem.

Imagine one of the single photons taking that journey
in the room, bouncing off of the glass, bringing that information.
It would seem reasonable that we may ask where it might be at any one instant.
We should be able to track that particle, No?
But it turns out we can’t.

Routine experiments which scientists do, everyday
Simple experiments, verified day after day
where an electron,
or any other particle is fired into a black box
and comes out of the other
make a nonsense of the question.

We have all of the equations we need
to explain the fundamental laws of motion
and these are very successful
at describing a particle state,
They describe where the particle will occur, for how long, etc.
These are the equations that give us
the MRI scanner and the latest microchip.
And these equations describe a particle state
called superposition.
Which is when a particle is in a position
that is neither here, nor there, nor anywhere specific.

And these equations actually predict that
when we observe the particle
our brains should go into superposition too.

Now to go further
When these boxes are actually ripped open
we always find the particle…

So why should that be?
Why is it that there
there never fails to be a “fact” about where we have found the particle?

We know from the equations that there is no position.
Only superposition
But we find position.
We rip open the box and we find the particle
on either route A or B.
Not stuck between them, hovering in and out of existence.
Not here and there.
It never looks fuzzy.
And we don’t get dizzy and feint.

So arising from this empirically gathered evidence
is a standard consensus that the particle must exist in such a form
that asking where it is
must amount to be making a basic category mistake.
We are saying that everything we thought we knew about the world
has been misunderstood at a fundamental level.

A category mistake is a philosophical idea –
originally from Gilbert Ryle in 1949,
Such as a semantic error,
Whilst you may be able to put the words in that order
It doesn’t mean you made sense…
Or in this case
to ask where the particle is,
is to fundamentally misunderstand its nature!
like asking what the politics of a tuna sandwich might be…

And it seems this flat-out contradiction
between the predictions of the quantum mechanical laws of motion about what happens
our every day experience of what we perceive happens
might be telling us there is a problem with the science,
telling us something is missing.

We can question the science…
But increasingly we are beginning to question our perception.

To leave the Quantum Theory behind for a moment
I want to point out how some new research and theories within the cognitive sciences
may help unpack the problem.
And not just new theories to be fair.

If we try to define common Sense for example
from an evolutionary stand point
we might understand its fitness,
and therefore its success over time.
And to understand our perceptions and our minds,
in a similar way would appear to make sense.
The problem with the standard view however is to mistake
fitness with accuracy, or truth.

Must Natural selection shape us
to have conscious experiences
that truly reflect a state of external reality?

Or might this be reification…
reification is a logical fallacy
where something, simply an idea
is mistaken for something concrete or real?

The evolutionary argument is that those ancestors
that were unable to see a clear reality or truth
were at a disadvantage
they were less likely to survive to maturity,
and therefore were less likely to breed.
This failure to see truth would result in deselection.

The problem with this argument however is that it assumes
abstract truth is an essential factor of fitness.
And this is not accurate.
To counter this is to see
that this standard view misses a number of key elements
in evolutionary theory.

Firstly fitness and truth are completely separate concepts.
Evolution has never been concerned with truth.
And fitness never required it…
And secondly the idea of an abstract or absolute fitness also makes no evolutionary sense.
Fitness is a fluid movable concept in which the present state of the organism,
and the environment
play equally an important role.
It needs adaptability. Different truths at different times.

And Don Hoffman is

He gives a great example of this by talking of steak.
To a hungry lion, a hunk of steak has great fitness.
It’s less fit for a lion that has just eaten,
And to a cow it’s next to useless.
Fitness may develop over time in relation to different factors,
there is no abstract, absolute fitness required
that can be equated to truth or reality.

And from a neurological standpoint
we’ve looked at recent research that suggests how our brains are pre-programmed
with certain basic primitive frameworks upon which we build highly individual emotional and moral narratives. From Lisa Feldman Barrett and Jonathan Haidt

Why not our perceptions?

The study of evolution now has the advantage of having access to vast computing power.
This enables modelling scenarios that were once impossible.
And with an understanding of game theory it is possible to map Evolutionary pathways
with amazing accuracy.
Its mathematical processing,
based on chances and probabilities
and any world we want can be created, in the computer,
and any organism.
with perceptual systems tailored just the way we want them.

We can ask the computer what happens, how it evolves
when an organism clearly sees the truth by modelling it.
And Hoffman has done it.
In the simulations some organisms see all of the truth
Some see some of the truth
Some see none of the truth
But they are all fully tuned to fitness in that world.

When these evolutionary simulations are run
the result is that truth goes extinct
Every time.

In reality truth does survive but only
when it is programmed to be monotonic with fitness.

And on the face of it we might conclude that only absolute truth should give rise to fitness
We can see that this is not the case.
A monotonic function is one in that the more you have the better.
Unless truth and fitness are essentially the same thing,
where truth would be synonymous with fitness then truth will lose, fitness wins.
Truth like water is not a monotonic function of fitness.
The idea would be that no water means no survival – fair enough,
but then the idea is that the more water we have the better.
We know this isn’t fair enough.
We have evolved to require an optimum amount of water.
Water is not monotonic and neither is truth.
And neither are a substitute for fitness

For a real life illustration of fitness surviving over truth Hoffman turns to nature.

The Jewel Beetle… survived for millions of years in the outback of western Australia.
It’s habit being that the males fly around looking for a flightless female.
bigger is better,
The find one, land and mate with her.

Fair enough,
a simple story a survival.
But the Jewel Beetle story got complicated
so much so that the Australian government had to get involved.

It turned out that to a male Jewel Beetle
a discarded beer bottle
is pretty much the sexiest thing on the planet.
Like a female it’s glossy, brown and bumpy…
little dimples at the base,
and it’s big
as we know
in Jewel beetle terms, that’s hot.
so the males swarm them,
and all but ignore the females.

This beetle that had been around for millions of years
was on the brink of extinction
before the government stepped in to do something.

On the face of this
it looks like the billion year-long success story of the Jewel Beetle
shows that they knew what they were doing.
They must have had a good grasp of reality.
They must have seen the truth
so that what they saw, and felt and acted upon
was fit for purpose.
The beetles knew the truth about what a female was,
so thanks to evolution, for natural selection
and the empirical truth.

But the appearance of the bottles reveals
this ain’t what was happening.
The fitness to survive was more likely the result of a little trick,
a twist in a circuit board,
bringing brown and glossy,
bumps and whatever else together
in a hormonal soup
that said, the bigger the better, go for it!

Evolution gives us perceptual systems
but they are not there to tell us the truth,
they are tricks and hacks
heuristics and projections
that have been selected to make reproduction happen.
What this means to us
is that our perceptions are a great guide to keeping us alive,
They are very useful for fitness,
But if we think they are giving us an insight into the ultimate nature of objective reality
They are not.

Moving on from this understanding
of this process of reification
that exists within us,
Hoffman recognises implications
for how we do understand the world and further argues,
that all perception is essentially a desktop to reality,
like a computer desktop,
an interface
which allows us to see only what is necessary
to make our everyday tasks possible,
and shields us from unnecessary complications.
He talks of evolutionary arms wars
as wars waged between differing interfaces,
moths and birds,
lions and zebras.

As an aside it might be possible to extend this
analogy to include beavers and dams,
man and environment
religions and faiths,

But Hoffman’s interest is to note,
as does common sense
that it is impossible to calculate consciousness from
our existing narrative of physics.
The hard question.
But by starting the other way round it can be shown
how the maths can resolve a load of problems.
Hoffman is able to mathematically calculate quantum mechanical phenomena,
to reproduce the mathematical formulas
and answer them with the use
of a simple mathematical construct
that represents a unit of consciousness –
what he calls a conscious agent
The equations just fall out.

So I’ve argued here that we know that physics,
our single most powerful tool for understanding the nature of reality
has a history of fallibility,
it is a road map of hacks and heuristics,
that have no doubt helped us survive
and thrive
but from the perspective
of being
the objective journey into
the truth and
the abstract reality
We might as well have been staring at nothing more than beer bottles in the desert.

Couldn’t resist that last statement but I’m not denying the usefulness of the interface
the computer desktop, the technology and where we have achieved.
I’m just saying that the new journey is inward.

And before I get me gone I want to talk about QBism,

In QBism, like Hoffman’s Conscious Agent Network theory,
the approach is from the other direction.
It draws on the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics yes,
but uses a Bayesian or personalist (or “subjective”) treatment of the probabilities
that appear in the theory
in order to properly align it with a kind of realism
they call “participatory realism”,
wherein reality
consists of more than can be captured by any simple third-person account of it.
For QBism or Quantum Bayesianism from which the name comes
the central concerns of the theory are the actions and experiences of an agent.
The viewer must be included in the calculations.

It was Thomas Bayes (he died in 1761)
who first developed the concept of probabilities being a measure of subjective belief
and his ideas were later developed to include
Bayes’ theorem (alternatively Bayes’ law or Bayes’ rule)
which describes
the probability of an event,
based on prior knowledge of conditions
that might be related to the event.
For example, if an illness is related to age, then,
using Bayes’ theorem,
a person’s age can be used to more accurately assess the probability that they have that illness,
compared to
the assessment of that probability
being made without knowing the person’s age.

From Wikipedia

According to QBism,
quantum theory is a tool
which an agent may use
to help manage his or her expectations,
more like probability theory than a conventional physical theory.
[It], QBism claims,
is fundamentally a guide for decision making,
shaped by some aspects of physical reality.

The mechanism is that all probabilities,
are valuations made by an agent.
They represent the degree of belief the agent has in a particular outcome.
and these outcomes are personal experiences
for the agent gambling on them.
Whilst different agents may agree upon the consequences of a measurement,
the outcome remains essentially individual.
And any measurement apparatus is considered a tool and a part of the individual
an extension of the individuals perception system.

It is essentially a method for turning statements of subjective belief into mathematically solvable equations.
The magic is that with its use many of the problems of Quantum Physics disappear.
And I’d need to do a lot more work on this but here for example,
as I get it,
we no longer have to think about the field of probability as reality,
we don’t have to explain why the particle in two places, and any place all at the same time
because what we are seeing is an explanation of our expectations,
an expression of our belief
not a statement of
concrete reality.
Once we open the box,
of course we find the particle somewhere.
As part of the expectation our knowledge has been updated
the chances become 1 to 1, or 100%.

Full circle here, a theory of Quantum Physics that has
been dismissed out of hand in being accused non-materialism.
It can’t be enough though to discount a theory
on a simple belief system.
It should really be disproved by the scientific method.
And essentially maybe this should be an avenue we do pursue,
especially in the light of the building research in the cognitive sciences
that begin to underline the process by which we build a conscious world.
Physics essentially represents the battle between determinism and free will
that has been raging for many centuries.

We take a look at that next week.


6 comments on Beauty, Truth And the Eye of the Observer

  1. Shane Griffin says:

    The answer is simple and has been told to us forever by each and every civilization and system of beliefs before us but man has had a terrible habit of focusing on our contradictions and differences vs doing the plausible thing and searching for the common denominators, simply finding the mean, and allowing universal truth a seat at the scientific table. The eye of the observer is the greatest hint as to where we will find the answers to all of our questions. The middle way will always lead us to understanding, just as all life emanates from it’s central core. When two truths seem to oppose each other they are being viewed from opposite branches. Search out the common until you find the base of the tree.

    1. Ant says:

      I guess that is where I am at. The point being to firstly explain how we are so dependent on narrative to strip it back to reveal the base of the tree you talk of here. Thanks for the comment Shane.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I listened to this episode whilst in the middle of reading
    Feser, (I think), tackles this notion of evolution making us fit not ‘true’ head on in the book. So sure, behaviours like your beetle confusing bottles with females is an error (a false positive) but reason itself (Principal of sufficient reason) is not refutable and I presume you and the authors of various research mentioned used reason. Retorsion etc.

    1. Ant says:

      Thanks Jonathan, for listening and for taking the time to comment.

      Feser’s book, yes, thanks for the heads up.
      Just looking at the issues he’s covered
      he seems to be hitting the zeitgeist
      and these are ideas that need to be out there.
      Will check it out.

      But from what you write further
      I’m picking up you have an interest
      in the technicalities of “logical discourse”.

      All good by me, but I’m not classically trained!

      So I do understand the concept of a false positive,
      Thank you…
      But some of your terms I had to look up…
      Forgive me if I misrepresent.

      And the idea that reason is irrefutable,
      and that we all use it
      of course
      makes sense,
      by definition –
      But to me this falls short.

      What we need to understand is that this is not
      by way of reason existing
      as abstract truth
      or as reality.
      It is more that it functions as an analogy
      for a set of rules
      by which language builds a consensual belief system.

      It seems to me more an analogy
      for a step by step construction of reality
      out of a meeting of minds,
      or out of empathy.

      It’s a word game!
      A layer on top of our cognition.
      Not truth.
      And it will always therefore
      depend on some expression of value.

      And it isn’t that we should not employ reason,
      or that I cannot see the irony in doing so…
      Would that be a retorsional irony?
      I recognise that there are huge contradictions to be resolved.

      It is that we can not be complacent
      in exploring the foundations of reason too,
      or of our linguistic structures
      or of the metaphorical frameworks that we employ
      in seeking to understand
      what we must,
      so that we might find true consensus in moving “forward”.


  3. Fantastic article post.Thanks Again. Awesome.

    1. Ant says:

      Thank You too. All comments gratefully received.
      And thanks for your time. More to come.

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