What’s Real, What’s Not and So What?
Looking last week, at how we perceive the genetic narrative of evolution,
led me to realise that what we know,
or at least what we think we know
is, or at least can be,
The difference it makes to us,
whether we see our place in the world as a bunch of chemicals at the beck and call of our genes,
or whether we see ourselves as an expression of an external culture
within which we can have some control, or influence
can not be under-estimated.
I pointed out how Dawkins vision of a selfish gene has held pride of place within our culture for decades.
The decades of information technology,
of open minded discovery
and where the the primacy of science has become carved in stone.
And I think from this,
we can begin to see what it means to understand this concept of our cognitive landscape,
where accepted truths, cognitive biases, or extended phenotypes,
where heuristics, or memes, such as Dawkins Selfish Gene,
provide the hills and valleys and rivers
of a world we newly inhabit.
This our cognitive landscape, superimposed upon our more traditional, more primal landscapes, that are rapidly becoming ever more distant to us.
This is new.
On an evolutionary timescale, this has hardly even happened yet.
This new world of information, of knowledge, of data, is the new landscape;
We interact with it, We form it, and it forms us.
We evolve with it
But it’s a landscape in which we’ve substituted what would be,
historically, our natural drivers,
We’ve substituted them for simulations.
And they’ve become intensified, concentrated…
Once where there were woodlands, and predators. Now there is tech, there’s traffic, and stressful schedules.
Our brains struggle to catch up with it all.
I reckon that we could identify this
as pivotal in the rise of mental health problems across the world today.
And from that might emerge an effective conversation,
about how we deal with it.
And hence, the new narrative.
But I hear you, saying that a narrative, it’s just a story, it isn’t real!
That our beliefs and behaviours are guided or expressed in narrative perhaps also needs an amount of unpacking.
So OK, that’s where I’m going to go with this.
What is real?
Look, I am a fan of science and scientific theory, not one of these science deniers.
I like to think that I’m founding my beliefs on some form of truth.
And you’d think you’d be on safe ground with that! I know I did.
But can you see where this is going to take us?
It can come as quite a shock to see that much of what you believe, much of what guides and directs us… what we have in mind, is usually a story. Not fact!
Andrei Linde, one of the main authors of the Inflationary Universe Theory. He said
“The current scientific model of the material world obeying laws of physics, has been so successful that we forget about our starting point as conscious observers,
and we conclude that matter is the only reality, and that perceptions are only helpful in describing it.
But in fact
we are substituting the reality of our experience of the universe with a conceptually contrived belief in an independently existent world.”
So what is a conceptually contrived belief?
And what if we explore other narratives?
What if our perceptions are as real or indeed more real than material objects.
What if consciousness is fundamental?
Well, we just don’t know
but there are advantages to be had from exploring the different narratives, rather than discounting them.
What makes a fact right for example?
Now, I’d say its perspective.
And where do we get perspective? Its through narrative…
And narratives are shared, culturally, individually, by conversation.
Perhaps the point is to be found in that conversation?
So what better place to start then…
than with an examination of what is real,
a conversation had between Sean Carroll and Alan Wallace, at The institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement At Dartmouth, in Feb 2017.
A Buddhist monk and a theoretical Physicist holding a discussion on the Nature of Reality.
Sean Carroll brings us the lessons we have learned from quantum mechanical inquiry in the last century or so.
Alan Wallace, the lessons of 5000 years of Eastern philosophy.
OK, As a science fan,
it’s easy… No?
The story of physics, that if we look deeper and deeper we will see what the world is built on,
that we can reduce our inquiry to the scale of the most tiny building blocks….
and that sooner or later,
we will be able to understand everything.
There are atoms made of particles and fields and energy, even now
The God Particle, The Higgs
We can explain it all,
We know what we’re doing.
It’s just a matter of time before it all comes together.
I guess that might be entry level but it’s what we know.
Anything else is just mumbo jumbo…
Or is it?
Well, there’s a basic argument underlying this stuff. and its been around since at least 300BC.
In Carroll’s corner we see Aristotle, the realist, or the materialist.
As such, he believes that everything around us exists outside of us,
in a separate but real world, or our own concrete universe.
Things are real, made of stuff and our minds are machines built to sense them.
Ha! You can not prove this! Trust me…
But Realism claims the common sense view.
It believes our perception gives us a faithful impression of a concrete reality. Reality is a collection of objects which we experience through our senses.
If you can see it, measure it, or weigh it then it is real,
part of reality.
If you can not – then it isn’t.
On the other hand, in Wallace’s corner,
Plato presents us with a different perspective.
In order to compare the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature
He has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained up in a cave
all of their lives.
They face a blank wall.
They watch the shadows on the wall,
The shadows are projected on the wall when objects pass in front of a fire behind them.
These shadows, for the prisoners, are Reality.
And Socrates explains how the inmates of the cave don’t even want to leave the cave
Because this is all they know.
But the educated prisoner, the philosopher, escapes and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all.
From this flows the idea that it is consciousness that is fundamental, not matter. Our interpretation creates our reality.
Plato’s allegory by the way is something that I refer to time and again.
This is the matrix, the landscape, the trickster.
Raphael represented this dialogue,
in The School of Athens which he painted in 1510.
The painting thought to be a humanist allegory in its depiction of the Art, and Philosophy and the Science of the Italian renaissance
has Aristottle and Plato, each holding books, at the centre of the composition, at the top of the stairs.
They are surrounded by other notable intellectuals.
Aristotle the materialist, reaches out as if to touch,
or to feel,
or the clay upon which we are founded.
And Plato the idealist,
he points to the sky,
and the sun,
where his truth will be found.
So… maybe you are thinking one way or the other,
Realism is wrong
or Idealism is wrong.
Someone needs to lose this debate, right?
But that is not the point. and Freeman Dyson sums this up,
“reluctant to engage in discussions about the meaning of Quantum Theory, because […] experts in this area have a tendency to speak with dogmatic certainty,
each of them convinced that the solution to the problem has a unique claim to be the final truth.
As a physicist [Dyson] was more impressed by ignorance, than by knowledge”
That is not hoover man Dyson by the way….
And both Carroll and Wallace were fully aware of the limits of their own positions.
But what emerged, may be of some use to us,
in trying to unravel who we are, so that we might thrive.
So that we might open new doors.
Or at the very least help to extend a conversation to which we all need to belong…
So how did the conversation develop?
Firstly, Carroll was pretty forthright in stating that there are things that physicists do not know.
Things that may never be known.
Like the sun to the prisoner in the cave.
Or the hard question..
Or how consciousness works.
But he then points out that there are some things that physicists do know.
First he says, we know that the universe appears to us in layers.
Whether its the layer in which the chair is made of cloth, or fabric, wood and metal
or the layer at which matter becomes atomic,
or the layer at which the world is a collection of atoms –
Both views are valid.
And both are compatible.
It makes no difference whether to describe an iPhone as a collection of elemental particles like electrons and atoms, a field of electromagnetic forces,
or as a bunch of apps which we use to organise our lives,
or as a bunch of wires and circuit-boards that will stop working when we drop them into a bucket of water.
Each narrative or perspective means something to the appropriate observer. Each one is correct.
And they overlap
and they do so without interference.
The narratives, the perspectives, the layers…
And this is what the universe is like! We know this…
And we know that one of these layers is quantum mechanics.
Its the layer of electromagnetic forces, of atoms and particles.
The layer that has given us the The Higgs-Bosun, the particles that make everything we know possible.
Crazy as it sounds, with a million questions left unanswered Physics says this layer is figured out…there will be nothing new!
The point is that Physicists suspect that it may never be able to answer those million questions.
Take dark matter for example.
Maybe there is dark matter to be discovered
There must be, theoretically,
but maybe it won’t have any measurable effect for us.
It is possible, and likely that we and it lead completely different lives.
We exist on different layers.
And the way our biology works,
how we interact as humans with the universe,
that won’t allow us to interact with dark matter.
And if we can’t interact with it, how then, can we know it…
Is it real?
For arguments sayk, what if the dark matter particle is about the size of a small van, has big ears, a trunk, four legs, two tusks and its grey all over? What if its just that we can’t see it… in the room?
This layer that we do have figured out though, Quantum Mechanics,
according to Sean Carroll
“the deepest and most fundamental picture of the world we now have”
What does it tell us?
Well, the Higgs Bosun in 2012, this wasn’t about finding a new particle locked up inside something else as so many people think.
We are no longer reducing and reducing to find smaller building blocks.
There is no Higgs hiding in a proton…
Higgs didn’t exist until we smashed two protons together at crazy speed.
Look, I love this stuff, you got the protons, like little knots of energy, vibrating like a packet of sound waves, smashing together!
Like a storm in the harbour and two crazy waves get deflected off the wall. Smashing together to make a 30 foot wave.
The waves overlap in the quantum field and for a zepto-second there is a Higgs-Bosun.
A big disturbance in the energy field!
So this layer we do know, which we can call Science.
But let’s not get it mixed up with a unified theory of everything…
This is physics, quantum mechanics
an exploration into the material world…
What quantum mechanics is telling us now
is that we know…
that any particle that we can interact with.
We can create.
2012 was about how we create such a particle, not about finding it,
And this is a science that knows all of the forces that exist, and from that it knows there is no life after death, no soul, no bending spoons with the power of thought.
It knows how all of the stuff comes together,
knows how to explain memory,
and knows that there’s nowhere known to science for a soul to go after death!
In this science, consciousness emerges from the complexity of the brain, out of material…
There’s a core theory covering this, and gravity, and magnetism etc. Physics gets this.
This layer is nailed. Or this is what Physics gets!
And yes there will be layers above this and below this but those layers are out of the cave..!
They are out of bounds…
We can begin to see Carroll’s narrative here, his perspective
and Wallace identifies the fundamental, unquestioned assumptions that he makes.
Determinism – that the future uniquely follows from the present. That there are laws by which reality functions.
So that, from a starting position,
where the nature of all matter is understood, using these rules we can determine a future state. The universe is clockwork!
And then Realism – that there is a real world out there, independent of any observer. It exists and we derive facts about it using our senses. They do not lie!
And Physicalism – that everything that exists is physical, and that which can’t be measured is either irrelevant or illusory. Traditionally it has been thought that everything will be measurable given technological advances. It seems now we are prepared to accept a physical limit to reality.
And yes this is a good and useful narrative, but as with all narrative, the assumptions are to be followed by attention.
And according to the father of Psychology William James,
What we attend to becomes our reality.
Are there not different narratives to be heard, experienced?
Can we not ask
Why the world is so mathematically perfect?
It could be more or less mathematical, no? Unless we have discovered absolute truth here…
Maybe the underlying reality,
maybe fundamental reality is not physical at all
Maybe it is pure mathematics,
and all that we can know emerges from that.
Roger Penrose, has a mathematical narrative, reflective of Pythagoras and Plato that says mathematicians don’t start with assumptions,
they are actually exploring pure reality.
They are holding pure conversation in the language of reality, in the fabric of reality.
So does reality boil down to elementary particles or pure maths?
In the work of John Berrow, and Frank Tipler
there is the idea of…
a set of fundamental constants throughout the universe without which life would not exist…
A universe which is life friendly.
A life force, or even a god.
And when you get into gene environment interaction as a driving force of nature, why not?
Why not the universe has emerged in order to bring forth intelligent life,
making Biology or evolutionary forces the underlying reality?
So now we can ask if reality boils down to elementary particles or emerges from pure maths, or from the power of evolutionary forces?
And then again , both Max Plank and Einstein thought that mind is fundamental,
they both implied that there may be a superior mind in action, revealing itself in experience.
They talk of an abstract consciousness
like the rationalist God of the Dutch Enlightenment,
the god of Spinoza.
And James Jeans, a lancashire man, and a mathematician, in his book The mysterious Universe of the 1930’s said that
“The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter… we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”
Mind here is the underlying reality. What we see around us is brought into existence through thought or a single consciousness.
Matter, Mathematics, Evolution, Mind…
And now information,
The work of John Wheeler, and Steven Hawking, through the words of Anton Zeilinger
“One may be tempted to assume, that whenever one asks questions of nature, of the world there outside,
there is reality existing independently of what can be said about it.
We now claim that this position is void of any meaning.
It is not even wrong.
It just doesn’t mean anything.”
Wow! But he goes on…
It is obvious that any property or feature of reality out there, so to speak,
can only be based on information we receive.
There can not be any statement whatsoever about the world,
or about reality,
that isn’t based on such information.
It therefore follows that the concept of reality,
without at least the ability in principle, to make statements about it,
to obtain information about its features,
is devoid of any possibility of confirmation or proof.
This implies that the distinction between information, that is knowledge, and reality
is devoid of meaning.”
We have Matter, Mathematics, Evolution, Mind, Meaning
I’m not taking credit for any of these, or this research. I’m just pointing out what Wallace was saying…
From Carroll’s materialist narrative emerges the idea that idealism might be making a misdirected, last stand against Copernicus, who in the renaissance told that it was the earth revolving around the sun and not the other way around.
It is an argument that idealism attempts to put the consciousness of human experience at the centre of the universe and in so doing is falling prey to confirmation bias.
It is in search of a world that fits its own belief system and is ignoring the evidence.
And incidentally it was Copernicus who said that to
…“know that we know what we know,
and to know that we do not know what we do not know,
that is true knowledge.”
and that was Carroll’s central point so, there has to be a certain amount of irony involved
in making the three assumptions of determinism, realism and physicalism
and then to be concerned only with what your measurements can see,
and to follow that by saying that everything else can only be unknown…
What we have looks suspiciously like a culturally based bias. The confirmation bias of a white and western intelligentsia behaving as if it is at the centre of its own universe.
And Wallace points out that in the light of all of these different narratives, maybe we could find intelligent life elsewhere.
Does reality have to remain unknown?
Could we look to Asia for example?
Could it be 5000 years of Asian culture might know something about the nature of reality?
Buddhism has been studying mind, and consciousness for 2500 years.
That makes 2 and one half thousand years of human experience pointing to the conscious mind of thousands.
This is empirical evidence for mind.
It exists, within 2500 years of Asian experience.
Wallace asks only that we in the West bring the resources of Western science to the table and try to catch up with it… Work out what to measure. Let’s see where this attention takes us…
And Carroll is also aware of the the dangers of jumping to ideological conclusions about what we are missing.
In this stark world it turns out,
we all, every mammal alive on this earth will live for approximately one and a half billion heartbeats.
In fact, humans actually double that at 3 billion, but the point is we are squandering these heartbeats, at roughly one per second.
And while the story of physics tells us,
that the electrons and atoms will get on with what they are doing regardless,
it doesn’t mean we can’t do the same.
There’s no requirement to become a nihilist.
We can get on with what we feel we should.
We can fall in love or make crazy choices,
We can enjoy free will, and being human.
What it means is that every heartbeat counts.
So we go in search of the dividing line, that is the courageous path of the scientist, or the storyteller, the philosopher.
Let me know. Comment please, sign up, donate…
I’ve been Ant Biggs and you’ve been listening to COW-the podcast.