In sight of the supranatural

Part 1

Realist:  ‘I don’t see a place for God in the universe.  There is no supernatural meaning to life, no divine purpose to existence, no celestial antidote to the finality of death, no sublime answer to those heart-felt ‘why’ questions – and we are quite capable of deciding matters of right and wrong for ourselves.’

Phenomenalist:  ‘How do you know you are right?’

R:  It’s obvious.  Show me otherwise.

P:  Do you regard yourself as a product of nature?

R:  Of course, and that’s why I can see things for what they are.

P:  Then what makes you begin to consider the status of meaning, purpose and the supernatural in the first place?

R:  I’m simply responding to what others claim.

P:  But wouldn’t you agree that all manner of events take place within nature?

R:  What’s your point?

P:  Well, things change and either nature represents everything through a plurality of natures or because it hosts a supranatural reality that goes beyond the parameters of the purely mechanistic.  Either way, the idea of a universe that remains devoid of thoughts and intentions doesn’t do justice to the facts.

R:  That doesn’t prove there is a meaning to existence.

P:  Nevertheless, the presence of a mindful, meaningful overview represents something of a larger reality than that portrayed by the blind workings of nature in its biological forms.

R:  Aren’t you are jumping the gun by claiming that this proves there is a meaning to life itself?

P:  Perhaps it is you who are failing to address the facts, because you want to say that the reality can be explained in terms of its ‘building blocks’.

R:  Well it can.

P:  Only by redefining the facts to suit.

R:  It is you who are doing that, by implying that mental life is something more than the physical properties of the brain.

P:  Yet, without a sentient dimension to reality the physical functions of the brain would not be observable.

R:  But there is nothing to see except the workings of the brain.

P:  However, you wouldn’t expect the brain to display anything else.

R:  That’s because there is nothing else.

P:  Only at the level of brain processes.

R:  Don’t be ridiculous.  You are contradicting the accepted findings of science.

P:  It was once thought that the brain changes colour when we perceive different colours, but now we know that brain processes differ from the properties of light in the outside world.  Likewise thoughts differ in kind from the biological properties of the brain.  The evidence suggests that effects, like perceptions, are not simple copies of their causes, otherwise nothing would change.

R:  But causality is in control.

P:  Although we can’t be sure what it amounts to.

R:  What do you mean?

P:  Causality is a transitional process – causes change, effects redefine causes and the tide of change raises questions about how to address the evidence – how do we find a basis in fact, and is it right to start by assuming beforehand what must constitute an acceptable candidate?  In short, what we find is that the cause doesn’t tell us everything.  We can’t even be sure about what nature is and whether we can explain it as a thing that explains other things – the cause of all causes.

R:  So what are you saying?

Mike Laidler

To be continued…

 

 

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Life: as we know it

Reporter: ‘What makes life alive?’

Professor: ‘All the things that constitute a living organism.’

R:  ‘But those things started out as non-living chemicals – so what makes the difference?’

P:  ‘Well, we now know that life evolved gradually and became more and more sophisticated.’

R:  ‘So did evolution make life?’

P:  ‘Not exactly.  It may be that life arose by chance to begin with – in a very primitive form – and evolution took over’.

R:  ‘And does evolution work by chance?’

P:  ‘Not exactly, but evolution makes the difference that enables life to change and become more complicated.’

R:  ‘Then can we understand life better in its simplest forms?’

P:  ‘As it happens, evolution tells us more about how life works, even at a basic microbial level.’

R:  ‘So what is the difference between a living organism and a non-living thing?’

P:  ‘The clue is in the name – in the way a living thing is organised.’

R:  ‘How does this show that chance might be the original cause?’

P:  ‘Because there’s nothing else to see.’

R:  ‘Does it mean that chance is organised?’

P:  ‘All we can say is that something happens.’

R:  ‘But how does not seeing a cause mean that it can be identified as chance?’

P:  ‘You need to understand that science is based upon a combination of observation and reason, and scientists are always ready to change their conclusions when new facts are observed.

R:  ‘So we can conclude this interview in the knowledge that evolution does and does not explain life, and chance may or may not be the cause – because the fact of an explanation does and doesn’t mean that the facts are explained.’

P:  ‘As it happens, there is no better explanation than the scientific one.

R:  ‘Is it the observation of life as different that causes the problem for explanation, especially when it is scientifically plausible to look at it in terms of something else – as if the problem can be reduced by identifying its non-living causes?  Is that why some scientists want to regard viruses as alive and computer viruses as forms of life created by us?’

P:  ‘Who knows what we might discover in the future.’

R:  ‘But surely it all goes back to the fact of life as something different, otherwise we would have no idea of what to look for or explain?’

P:  ‘Perhaps we will find new forms of life in the universe which will completely change our ideas about what life is’.

R:  ‘Except you must be able to spot a vital difference in order to identify it as alive, and we can’t avoid the problem of explaining that difference by finding out that life is really something else – it just shifts the burden of explanation onto something else.’

P:  ‘That’s the fun of doing science – we just never know for sure where the evidence might lead us.’

R:  ‘Then we will have to conclude by admitting that we don’t even know what amounts to a conclusion.’

P:  ‘Exactly.’

Mike Laidler

 

Nature myth

Nature: the great unknown

‘known’ to everyone.

The first-known

– too big to be a thing

– too general to be a cause.

The omnipresent godforce of science

– the putative power to be

– the archetypal source of everything.

A ghostly presence inhabiting every happening

– the orderer of orders

and progenitor of necessity.

The grand non-explanation

defined of itself

in being as it is

‘for no purpose’.

Mike Laidler

Candles in the dark

Certainty is a candle that shines in a darkness of its making.

Normality is an artificial measure of reality calibrated by the fact of what we find ourselves doing.

Ignorance is the fact of what we don’t know created of what we choose to know.

Answers are the prescription narcotics of a thorough education.

AI was invented long before the computer – through our ambitions to define intelligence as IQ.

We are apt to forget that a simulation, which is just like the real thing, is still a simulation.

Just as logic offers no antidote to madness, so science contains no cure for bad philosophy.

If the quantum world is real, it does and doesn’t follow that the real world is quantum.

‘All pathways lead to physics’ so long as we keep on walking backwards – down the chain of being.

We look upon a universe that is more than us only to see everywhere the evidence for what is obviously missing.

There is a world of difference between an objective fact and our knowledge of it.

We see as we believe, believing we see as we see.

Equality is the image of a sameness made from the perception of a difference.

Politics is a balance of powers which pivots upon how much unfairness can be tolerated in the name of necessity.

Contradiction is a fact of life we are happy to accept so long as we can avoid being caught in the act.

Mike Laidler

The advent of Artificial Intelligence

What are we waiting for? Is it not here already? Or is it not yet powerful enough to match our expectations? But what do we expect – programmes for perception, language, memory, cognition, action and intention – plus a socio-emotive awareness? So what has been achieved to date? Has the technology managed to mimic the full range of abilities of an insect, fish or bird – or will it all follow naturally from the development of a hyper-intellect? Then, if AI can simulate these motivated abilities, and duplicate the purposive dynamic that gives intelligence its thoughtful meaningful aura, will this automatically settle another hypothesis yet to be proved – that life’s ‘vital spark’ may also be replicated as a virtual cog in an algorithmically-driven machine?

Mike Laidler

Subject to oneself

Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain?  But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition?  So consciousness ‘looks on’.  And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation.  Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects.  Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.

However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception.  And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight.  Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?

Mike Laidler

Before and after

We see ourselves perceiving the world on the basis of things ‘as they are’, ‘out there’, ‘in existence’, but there is a problem with this ‘world view’ because perception, in common with everything else, involves the coming-to-be of things that were not – and this raises a question of change which we cannot resolve ‘at source’ either by looking for a first cause or by attributing the form of the effect to its cause.

In addition, knowledge and explanation contrast radically with an external reality of objective facts now drawn into the realms of observation – but we believe that the logic and language of proof can iron out the difference.  Indeed, the grammar of explanation begs the question of a ‘deep structure’, holding everything in place, whereby all ensuing differences are seen to evolve as a result of secondary shaping influences.

However, even though causes are seen to underlie effects, those effects are not merely embedded in their causes like sculptures waiting to be released from blocks of stone.  So there is more to change than the nature of the underlying preconditions, just as there is more to the shaping influences than pure chance.  That is not to say that chance doesn’t have a part to play, but it means that evolution by chance is not the explanation.

Accordingly, whilst it may be said that everything happens by co-incidence, there is more to co-incidence than blind chance.  And whilst we rightly remain wary of accident, we know that all eventualities are contained within prevailing boundaries of possibility – anything cannot happen at any time.  In fact, no cause explains those prevailing boundaries even though we come to explain outcomes as effects belonging to causes operating within them.

Consequently, perception maps the world with contours of its making whilst perceiving itself as the effect of an objective reality.  But the very presence of perception shows that reality is subject to change – with effects arising as modified causes.  And despite our aspirations to explain change causally, causality remains subsidiary to the changing boundaries of possibility.  Then who can say that we too are not instrumental in ‘the shape of things to come’ – beginning with ourselves as mere causes on the threshold of change.

Mike Laidler