Causal conundrums

3. Cosmology

Where is the evidence to show that the whole of existence condenses into an atomic or sub-atomic level of reality, or that the physical universe defines and explains existence because that level of reality is somehow ‘more real’?  What makes us believe that the broader cosmos exhibits a singular nature rather than a unified plurality of natures?  Surely, we need only look inwards at ourselves to see a nature that differs fundamentally from the universe we look out upon?

Isn’t it obvious that there is more than the laws of physics at work in the universe, since things determined by those laws do not determine what can be done with them – for instance, could the Eiffel Tower put itself there?  Then isn’t one such event on one insignificant planet sufficient to redefine the nature of the whole?

What is existence?  What does it mean to exist?  Is change the determining factor – so to exist is to undergo change?  Is energy the common denominator – but what kind of explanation reduces things to less than they were?

How do things change?  Do causes generate their own possibilities, or is there some additional possibility making causality possible?  Is ‘causality’ another name for possibility-in-action?  But what is the spur to action?  Why do causes-in-action make things possible only when the circumstances are right – what makes an outcome ‘necessarily so’, what is the nature of possibility and its relationship to necessary consequence?  Do the characteristics of the cause predispose the characteristics of the effect, or is it the converse?  Ultimately, is every ‘outcome’ a convergence of factors that bind the past, present and future?  Then can possibilities-yet-to-be affect the course of events; is the greater scheme of things built ‘into’ or ‘upon’ the lesser?

Even though experience shows us that anything can’t happen, what makes us believe that what does happen must already be built into the cause?

Are we misperceiving reality by subsuming our observations to the theory that the future remains entirely predictable from a comprehensive knowledge of the past?

Is explanation biased towards the confirmation of ‘the explicable’ – as if the observable causes must explain all when there is nothing else to see, whilst any discernible gaps in knowledge are to be understood in terms of causes yet-to-be-discovered?

Do the parameters of the cause set the parameters of the effect; if so, how is change possible; if not, how is explanation possible?  That is to say, if there is a difference between a cause and its effect, then how does the cause explain it by being different; but if there is no difference, then what are we trying to explain?  In short, how does causality explain change – for either the effect is the same as the cause and nothing changes, or the effect goes beyond the cause and, therefore, the cause doesn’t explain the difference?

Do causes induce change through their divergence?  But what causes the differentiation? And even if causes were seen to cleave into effects, how would that explain the emergent differences?

Does a causal explanation of existence amount to no more than an edifice of ‘pseudo-explanations’ unless we can explain the putative ‘uncaused cause’ on which it is based?

Has the recent discovery of quantum uncertainty finally confirmed an established fact of life – that there is more going on than all we can presume to know for certain?

Is there more to ‘being possible’ than all that ‘is possible’ for the time being.  Is there more to change than all we can discern from the singular characteristics of the cause in a given time and place?

Is the material presence of the universe explained by another material presence?  Is this a sufficient explanation, or was the ‘original cause’ different enough to rank as an immaterial presence by present standards?  Then is it not possible for further material associations to bear immaterial insignia which do not necessarily begin or end with the beginning and ending of our universe – and what might this say about the overall state of existence – is the physical universe but a branch of something bigger than itself –extending into a mindful cosmos?

What counts as more or less real in the bigger picture of what is, can be or might be?

Is there nothing more to existence than an all-inclusive ‘sciencescape’ as enunciated by the scientific theories laying claim to it?

What do we really know of ‘reality’ apart from our narrow plane of perception, occasionally punctuated with explanations hailed for the time being as matters of fact?

Can words, theories and numbers, in aspiring to nothing but the truth, ever capture a truth that stands for the whole truth, as if it is within our gift to oversee existence in a godlike fashion?

To be in order to become, that is the question – whether there more to becoming than simply being – whether a cause stands on the threshold of something bigger than itself?

To be continued…

Mike Laidler

 

 

The ‘Technocene’

The dream of science is to look upon existence and explain it; but in reality, its paradigm of a universal ‘thingness’ could turn out to be just another grandiose edification of the imagination.  In this ‘image of objectivity’ the mystery of existence is sought in the technical details, with scientific knowledge perched at the cutting edge of truth and functioning as a positive feedback system in which a physical nature expresses and reconfigures itself by becoming self-aware through us – in particular, through scientific thinking, observation and experimentation.  In other words, nature is eminently explicable and, likewise, the human mind is a physical system that operates as an extension to its living ‘Technocene’; consequently the scientific brain currently represents the best known example of nature thinking about itself – and there is no arguing with nature – the only way a scientific explanation can be challenged is with an alternative scientific explanation.  But is explanation (qua theory) more of an imaginative state of mind than an objective state of the facts?  Does the assumption of an objective reality objectify the assumption?

Theoretically, the cosmic ‘Technocene’ is still evolving – nature is turning electronic in the advent of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) with the potential to overtake ‘brain power’ by a factor of many thousands because of its advanced operational efficiency – electronic circuits being faster than neural networks.  AI is seen as superior in the same sense that a person in a quiz or IQ test proves to be superior by being able to think faster than others.  But will ‘out-smarting’ remain the ‘name of the game’ in a post-evolutionary environment that is unencumbered by the usual biological fetters?  Ultimately, could AI out-compete us to extinction precisely because it has no need to compete and survive?  Would it need a biosphere at all?  So is humanity, indeed the biosphere as we know it, destined to go the way of the dinosaurs?  Or is the survival factor in Darwinian evolution just a ‘stop-gap’ theoretical attempt to mount an explanation on top of all the inexplicabilities of life and its origins?  Crucially, what theory of extinction explains the presence of life; what experiment teases-out the fact of life?

Unlike most scientific theories, the theory of evolution does not make specific predictions – even life is a ‘given’ – nevertheless, it has been highly successful at promoting a core scientific dogma – namely, that the ‘why’ of existence amounts to a subjective non-scientific departure from the objective question of the ‘how’ of natural events and their reasoned explanation.  Accordingly, the theory resonates with the idea of life as a technicality – an outgrowth of the laws of physics awaiting a precise explanation in the mechanism of nature – with reasoning, deliberation, knowledge and understandings operating as a part of nature and the sentient mind being the organic product of successive evolutionary adaptations.  But there is a contradiction in the claim that mental events are reducible to physical processes, thereby to become explicable in the uncharted depths of a physicality that is ‘observable’ on its own – as if the peculiar presence of an observer is not sufficient evidence of a radical change in the nature of nature – or as if those ‘how’ questions don’t trade on theoretical assumptions about the objective nature of nature and natural causes.

In sum, evolution proffers a retrospective biological explanation of human intelligence linked to our success as a species in the ‘fight for survival’, yet it remains theoretical, as do our ideas about whether the one depends on the other.  So it is not an inevitable fact that human and artificial intelligence will need to compete or that the human intellect will prove to be inferior to the lightening ‘mind’ of AI – or that quick-wittedness steers progress and innovation?  Nor is it certain that intelligence is ‘brain power’ or that AI will automatically gain intentionality or become ‘intelligent enough’ to recognise itself – to recognise its limits and seek to improve itself?  In any case, by what inductive logic do we presume to quantify intelligence against some arbitrary metric of ‘thinking-time’?  Furthermore, what makes us think that the dependency of life upon its chemistry explains things?  Is reality reducible to its lesser forms – is a ‘final analysis’ destined to show us everything by showing us a primordial next-to-nothing?  In fact, is the resounding success of science as science distracting us from its precipitous failure as a philosophy?

Mike Laidler

 

 

The hylozoism hypothesis

Is explanation the final factual frontier?  When we come round to thinking that something ‘requires’ an explanation we base the project on our idea about what might count as such.  But once we assume that we have our explanation we are inclined to forget that the idea of it is grounded in the hypothetical.  Consequently, we move away from the fact that we are relying upon assumption by assuming that we are not, because the fact is now ‘explained’.  And without doubt, the prevailing assumption of our scientific age is that ‘hard facts’ provide the real explanations – that causal explanations rationalise those facts and a joined-up knowledge puts things in their place – with scientific proofs standing at the summit of the known.  In other words, we assume that a real knowledge of the world seeks to explain it and anything ‘known’ in the absence of an explanation is inferior and incomplete.  It follows logically that our knowledge of ourselves, reality, life, the universe and indeed existence in general, must remain incomplete until we find the ‘final’ explanation?  But in what way might we expect it to finalise things?

  • If our presence in existence reflects the power and capacity of the universe as a whole, then is the universe both alive and not alive, thinking and unthinking, chaotic and organised, logical and irrational – and ultimately self-aware, self-justifying and self-explanatory?
  • If life is a material property is matter basically alive?

Despite all our scientific advances and achievements we still can’t account for the ‘isness’ of being.  Then how do we explain ourselves?  All we can do is refer one state of being to another – so life is  basically chemistry and everything is bound up with comings and goings that symbolise the impermanence of the ‘power to be’ within the overwhelming embrace of the ‘law of entropy’.  However this generalisation is more apparent than real and its logical premise merely adds to the confusion.  Confused means ‘fused with’ – for instance, the logic of explanation equates the mind to the brain as if their entirely different states of being are scientifically and, by implication, factually irrelevant.  This resembles the premise of the now defunct ‘hylozoism’ hypothesis: that life is an intrinsic property of matter since there is nowhere else for it to be.  Undaunted, science remains bent on explaining everything into-existence from some primal state – certified as the original cause of any change.  But when the child asks about life and death – that is, really asks – we find ourselves juggling with these conceptual confusions – hoping that our bodies and brains might hold the ‘material’ answers, somewhere.

Mike Laidler

 

 

The climate change challenge

It is said that ‘time and tide wait for no man’.  Then what is the extent of our reputed ‘God-given’ dominion over and ethical responsibility for the planet?  Do we actually know?  For decades it was largely thought that the facts on climate change were ambiguous and independent of human activity.  There is still ambiguity – because that is the nature of the facts.  And what is reason’s purview when so much of perception is tied to the image of what we want to see?  Indeed, despite the growing consensus that something needs to be done, plus the acknowledgement that actions speak louder than words, the notion of ‘necessary and sufficient action’ still remains a source of controversy.  Nevertheless, it is possible to cut through all the ideation and procrastination to test the true sentiment behind our stated wish to do something – bearing in mind that there is no scope for ‘doing a deal’ or reaching a compromise with the forces of nature.  In reality, climate change may be a symptom of a bigger problem and it is not nature that needs to be fixed.

Doesn’t ‘globalism’ mean that China’s emissions are also our emissions?  What if the time for making comparisons and apportioning blame is over?  Even the checked advance of climate change could mean that the ordinary and the everyday are destined to become the exceptional and occasional.  Or is it just a matter of hanging on until science and technology find the solution?  But isn’t our predicament also due to our insatiable desire for more technology?  Perhaps we need to be honest with ourselves.  If we are to be serious about climate change and its threat to civilisation, then is it not time to re-evaluate the social and economic priorities of the ‘good life’ with its rude incarnations in our vain and excessive indulgences in wasteful luxury and lazy convenience?  If we can’t rise to that challenge and begin to moderate our extravagances right now then all other measures, adjustments and innovations could be compromised.  This problem beggars the imagination and demands a radical redefinition of our civil responsibilities.  Something needs to be done, but it may be the one thing that we can’t expect the authorities to do for us?

Footnote

‘Philosophy Alive’ examines the relationship between our thinking and the facts.  This involves questioning our assumptions about what the facts mean.  For instance, if climate change poses an immanent threat of global disaster, then there is no doubt that we will need to take urgent and drastic action.  Some critics might point out that the ‘Armageddon scenario’ is still hypothetical, even in the long term, but there is a double consideration here – if the potential consequences are so daunting then we can’t afford to play ‘Russian roulette’ with the lives of our children, so to be pragmatic, we might need to treat the possibility as an inevitability and act accordingly.  Then, even if science has over-estimated the impact of climate change, the error is a good thing if it acts as a spur to positive reform.  Meanwhile, given that science is not infallible, let us hope that we have not already passed some unforeseen point of ‘no return’. 

Mike Laidler

 

 

Once upon a time

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’?  Isn’t it patently obvious that beginnings are context-specific?  Then are we thinking of some kind of generalised capacity or potential for things ‘to be’– a pre-universe which we understand in the context of what ‘comes to be’ by supposing some kind of cause that pre-exists everything else?  But that opens up the idea of another kind of causality in another kind of reality.  The problem is that we can’t reconcile our idea of everything ‘as caused’ with the existence of a preceding uncaused cause.  It would seem that existence as a whole is bigger than all the causes we can place ‘in existence’.  Also, ideas about the cause of the universe amount to theories that go beyond the empirical evidence.  And doesn’t our capacity for contemplating the nature of existence necessitate the existence of a thinker in addition to the natural causes under consideration – suggesting a nascent context of a different order?  Or do we think that nothing really changes – that an unchanging core of existence explains all: that all things are really one thing, that nature contains the blueprint of itself, in itself, for itself – because the potential was ‘there’ all along?

Is a definitive cause an explanatory myth?  Could ‘once upon a time’ be the stuff of a scientific fairy tale in which everything is explicable in terms of a singular beginning as something else?  Doesn’t the reality of change reveal a succession of beginnings that are distinguishable by their specific differences from the way things were?  Or is our perception of change an illusion?  Some say that the universe was already alive in its primordial state, so that when primitive life ‘appeared’ and subsequently evolved it was really nothing new.  And does the evidence not show that life equates to the material properties of a pre-existing nature, therefore it isn’t all that different after all?  But why then would we contemplate the event of life as a special case, possibly with its own unique beginning on this planet, if we are of the mind that everything shares a universal beginning in the same fundamental properties?  Perhaps there is more to existence than our linear logic can make of it in retrospect, in thinking from effect to cause?  Alternatively, the observable divergences and convergences could be joint aspects of a non-linear continuity that encompasses life, us and everything else – so it is no co-incidence that ‘the beginning of everything’ remains as problematical today for the scientific mind as it was for the ancients – because origins aren’t everything.

Mike Laidler

 

Countenances

Salvationist: “My wife and children are in heaven and though I believe we will meet again I can’t understand God’s purpose in leaving me here knowing that I suffer so much because of their absence.” 

Atheist: “I sympathise with your loss, but your belief that there is a divine purpose to life is preventing you from coming to terms with reality.  Even if there remains a part of you that can’t get over your bereavement and doesn’t want to forget, life requires you to carry on and move forward – to allow your wounds to heal naturally beneath their scars.” 

Apologist:  “Be careful what you wish for.  Tales of myth, magic and manipulation, from time immemorial, serve to remind us that our attempts control destiny, by fair means our foul, can invite tragedies that are far worse than any we are trying to avert.  Perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds.  And who are we to reject God for doing nothing, as if we could do better given the power to cancel all pain and suffering?”

Cosmogonist: “Take heart, it is possible that we live in a ‘multiverse’ whereby alternative, potentially infinite, versions of reality exist in parallel.  So there could be multiple versions of you existing in diverse ‘elsewheres’ – because the possibilities can take different turns at innumerable junctures.  It may be only in this ‘here and now’ that your loved ones have departed.  Yet there will be others in which you have an entirely different life and relationships, with or without children.  In some versions you are happy in others you are sad, for different reasons, whilst your beliefs and disbelief’s might be many and various.  And the message from quantum physics is: nothing is impossible.”

Scientist:  “Nature is everything – and we know what it is because it is all-inclusive.  We need to stick to the facts instead of trying to conjure scenarios that exist only in the imagination – and, therefore, don’t really exist.  One day science will explain everything; in the meantime, it has given us a life of leisure and luxury that is better and longer than anything our forebears could have dreamed of.  In addition, advances in medicine and therapy have moved forward in leaps and bounds to alleviate our suffering.”

Sage: “We are cleaved of a truth that is bigger than us and united in the being of which we are all lesser examples.  But death and decay show that everything we presume to own of life is not really ours.  Meanwhile, everything we take upon ourselves in the name of ‘the self’ encumbers us with consequences we cannot avoid.  Indeed, the claim to possession invites the spectre of loss.  Moreover, the comfort we seek from one another merely intensifies the prospect – as we subsume the question of life and death to one of gain and loss.  Yet no one else can restore you to the greater truth that you have willingly surrendered to your experiences of separation.”

Existentialist: “Belief and disbelief are two sides of the same coin – squandered upon the vain circumspections of our presumptions to categorise the truth.”

Realist: “We are obliged to live life prospectively whilst understanding it retrospectively.  Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, but our ability to acknowledge that fact enables us to adjust our expectations accordingly rather than trying to make the world fit into our preconceived ideas and ideals or conform to our summary prescriptions of right and wrong.  So we must find a balance between fact and belief that works in the present – and even if looking ‘on the bright side’ can turn out to be wrong, it may still, on balance, prove to be the most sustainable way of proceeding.”

Moralist: “Even if we can’t change our circumstances we can always change ourselves.  And though we cannot know what the future holds in store, it’s enough to know that we are doing the right thing by one another.  At the very least, we have a duty to keep trying.”

Humanist: “Human experience and rational thinking need to work towards finding a positive meaning to this life without the expectation of supernatural assistance, revealed knowledge or divine redemption.  We can waste our lives in the belief that another life awaits us.”

Psychologist: “The self that you take to be the recognisable continuum of your being is but a psychological device for creating a recognisable continuum.  Born into different circumstances you would have acquired different memories, understandings and attachments – in effect, you would function as a different person.  It is the emotional investment in a particular identity, with all its accompanying affinities and affiliations, which galvanises your mission to navigate a world of joys and sorrows as you experience the grit and glory of life through all your triumphs and tragedies.  All things considered, life is never more wonderful or daunting than when it pushes you to the limit – to actualise your latent potentials.”

Mike Laidler

Where are we?

Evidently, we owe our existence to the presence of a smallish planet orbiting a medium size sun in a named galaxy, the Milky Way, existing among many billions of unnamed counterparts.  But that knowledge isn’t sufficient for us to recognise ourselves or place the universe in existence.  Indeed, the sheer insurmountability of the problem has encouraged us to adopt an alternative approach, by acknowledging that everything exists ‘in  nature’, which we identify as the ‘all encompassing fact of existence’ – as if we can become familiar with the bigger picture by generalising from the details.

However, this introduces another problem.  Whereas everything in existence can be represented as a feature of a micro reality, sometimes called the atomic flux, that’s not where we find the reality of things that transpire.  In short, we are alive and dynamic in a different way.  Nevertheless we presume to gain explanatory depth by tracing our existence back to causes operating at successively lower levels – and our ‘findings’ are taken to be all the more robust when there is nothing else to be found.  But the upshot is not realistic, namely that the atoms are living our lives for us.  Something else is happening.  Something else exists that can’t be found at that level.

So the observation that there must be somewhere for existence ‘to be’ doesn’t prove that everything condenses into its causes in a ‘first place’ – even when there is nothing else to see at that point.  And this paradoxical fact carries on up the scale to include the fact of our thinking – seen as located in the brain ‘because there is nowhere else for it to be’.  But we could ‘see’ our thoughts long before we sought to ‘find’ them objectively.  And our scientific explanations are as much the result of our thinking.  Therefore, the ‘discovery’ that the brain is thinking for us doesn’t do justice to our awareness of the fact or the place of sentience within the very real phenomena of change.  In fact, only a misplaced awareness would deem to identify itself as a mere superficiality that makes no real difference.

Mike Laidler

Links:     ‘Mindless Replicants’: A ‘Point of View’ by Will Self:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b6pjh5

‘Science Stories’: The ‘uncanny valley’ of AI: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vy2jd/episodes/downloads