This is a post I had on my other website that I replaced, so I am reposting it here, so it may live again…
A conversation between two friends on meaning, god, deism, the Universe, and a few tangentially-related subjects that sprouted off and grew wings of their own. It clocks in at 11,315 words long, but if you prefer the summary, read only the last two sections.
Enjoy, and we would love to hear anybody’s thoughts on the subject-matter.
Hope all is well with you. Congratulations on getting the book finalized and out there. I watched a video of a lecture today that I thought you might enjoy. The speaker has written a book onthe subject of how there is something from nothing. It touches on recent cosmology with some interesting history on thought and how it has led to todays understanding. My own thought is that he doesn’t really answer how something came from nothing, rather he re-describes “nothing” as a form of quantum something, which to my mind begs why is there a quantum something rather than nothing (perhaps straying into reductio ad absurdum territory). Anyway i thought you may enjoy it.
Thanks, I appreciate it. It’s been a bit of a ride to get it finally finished! I had watched this lecture before, and I loved it. I devoted a chapter to it in my book. I love this question, and I have been thinking about it recently. I think the question is wrong to begin with. Nothing is a concept of our language and our mental constructs we use to express ourselves. Think of making a chair from wood. Before you begin to create the chair, does it exist? Of course not, but the raw material does, the potential for a chair to exist does (probabilistically speaking), and the energy (person) to assemble that chair. But in our day-to-day paradigms, we think we made the chair, and before the chair existed there was nothing. Nothing is an expression of our language, and not an inherent concept of the Universe. Might be a bad example, but I think it makes sense.
Every scientific concept we have ever had an opinion on, has been wrong. Literally every single one. I don’t think our concept of nothing is any different.
I pasted the chapter [from my book] below, It’s not long. I’m not trying to convince anyone with my view, but at least to make you think. What do you think?
“There was a firestorm in the philosophic community due to Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing. The crux of it rested upon the assertion that Lawrence made in regard to the nothing that a Universe can be born from, the quantum field, which is as close to nothing as we have we ever arrived at. Soon after its publication, David Albert (a professor of philosophy, and physicist) wrote a scathing review of the book for the New York Times saying that Lawrence was flat-out wrong,1 and that his book never addressed the basic question of how a Universe was born of nothing, because the Quantum Field is something, even if it isn’t comprised of matter.
But what if the nothing that philosophers clamor for, and demand explanation of, to explain our origins, never actually existed? What if there was never nothing, i.e., a region devoid of fields, physical laws, matter, anti-matter, and the Higgs boson, and semantics is the only thing being argued every time someone rails against the latest scientific findings inching ever closer to the bottom of all things? Maybe “nothing” doesn’t, and never did, actually exist, and that there has always been something in one way or the other. What if there is no “outside of the Universe”, or Multiverse? Alongside the history of science has come with it, at every step, the uncomfortable notion that we have been wrong about almost everything we have had an opinion on, especially those things that are orders of magnitudes bigger or smaller than us, and even a lot of times, that which is on our scale.
What makes the notion of “nothing” any different?
Let’s take a look at some common-sense world views that met the cruel fate of greater understandings:
• The world is flat to the world is spherical
• Stars were immutable objects in the heavenly spheres to fiery balls of gas
• The invented geocentric worldview that gave way to the correct heliocentric perspective
• The ether to empty space, to space being a raging sea of subatomic activity with particles constantly appearing, and then disappearing into nothingness
• Time was an absolute function of the universe to being relative
• From many gods to one god to perhaps, one day, no god
Our notion of nothing is no different. Maybe there is no such thing as the “Infinite regress” problem, maybe it’s the “Finite regress” problem. And, if one day, we do find out that this is indeed the case, and I think it is safe to assume it is, then the age of God and religion will have finally come to an end.
“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense initiations can be mistaken, our preferences don’t count, we do not live in a privileged reference frame.” – Carl Sagan”
I wondered if you had looked at this question, glad to hear you have. Before I answer I have to say how much I enjoyed the lecture and love www.openculture.com. To me it is a great example of the internet living up to its potential.
In regards to the possibility that absolute nothing never has existed, that is a fair point. Maybe there has truly never been nothing at all, that some field fluctuating has always been there. I think that the main problem with that is the issue that was touched upon in the Q+A at the end of the lecture. If there has always been a fluctuating field from which universes arise then that means there is an infinite amount of time and thus universes. Therefore everything possible has happened infinitely many times already. Maybe this isn’t a problem as such just a very bizarre result of an infinite universe.
I read the review in the New York Times and to be honest I do agree. Especially this part
“The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”
The answer has been pushed further back. Now maybe it is as you say, that nothing is a concept that exists only to help us. However if there is an end to the regress and that end is “relativistic quantum fields” then I think it is still fair to ask why are they there and how did they come about. It maybe as unsatisfying an answer as they are there “just because and always have been” but that answer seems to be rather arbitrary.
As you said in your book we have been wrong about almost everything and perhaps we are wrong to draw a line here in the same way that we were wrong to draw a line saying “Let there be light and there was”, was the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing.
If there is a multiverse comprised of universes then I can’t see how that helps either. Maybe it explains where all the infinite Josh’s are, but it doesn’t help to explain why they are when they could just as easily not be there at all.
To be honest I know this is billed as one of the key battlegrounds between science and religion and perhaps it is to the very literal-minded types of religious folks. I don’t see why God has to be the supreme creator to exist. What if God is an emergent property of the Universe, a result of the organization of matter and energy against the flow of entropy, in the same way that consciousness is. This may not be the same God the Baptist bay on about but there none the less.
For the sake of full disclosure I was raised a catholic but from a fairly young age identified myself as an atheist. I have always been curious and asked questions and the Churches answers seemed to be well rather childish “It’s so because we say it’s so” type of answers. I fell in love with Darwin, natural selection, and from there to Dawkins and beyond. However in the past couple of years I have had a change of heart and mind. I no longer identify as an atheist. What type of deist I am, if I have to be a type, is hard to explain and is certainly something I am trying to refine. Goswami in the film “Quantum Activist” has some ideas that i am exploring.
Any way mate I love thinking about stuff like this so thanks for sharing the chapter of your book. I see my ideas and thoughts always as a work in progress and subject to change. I appreciate the opportunity to express them and see how they stand up out side of my head. My opinions have always been shaped by being challenged and I am grateful for that.
Josh, you are speaking my language. I love having this kind of conversation, and am dismayed at the usual nonsense that gets passed off as conversation these days.
You pose all valid questions, and concerns regarding the nothing that nothing is or was, or could be. But I left out a few things that I remembered after sending the first salvo (for lack of a better word) that I’d like to put in now.
The net energy of the Universe is exactly 0.00. All the positive energy (matter) in the Universe + the negative energy (gravity) is equal to zero. Zero = nothing right? This is experimentally verified, not a philosophical position, so that opens up another bag of worms such as the nature of the Universe, matter and energy and various other things I am probably not smart enough to know yet.
Also, in regards to your opening paragraph. The leading contender for a theory of everything actually posits there are an infinite number of Universes, both outside and, get this, inside [yes inside!] our own local Universe. There is even [un-verified yet] physical evidence of an external universe, and plenty of theoretical and mathematical evidence to suggest that it is so. In fact, today, I was reading about all the various types of multiple universes, dimensions etc that can be possible today in a book by Michou Kaku, and it boggles the mind. I recommend a BBC documentary called “What happened before the Big Bang”. It’s about an hour-long but incredibly captivating.
Anyway, on the nature of the question, where did those fields come from. I think that it too suffers from being a question that cannot be asked of an immaterial Universe. Much as you cannot ask evolution why it produced us, but you can ask how. The why question is just our language, not an inherent quality of the Universe, and even if we grant deism virtue, it begets the notion that we have scientists today who want to create their own universes, so will that make them Gods? And how does that reflect in a deist position of our own Universe. It does not, perhaps cannot, grant that creator omnipotence, nor is he causally connected to us. But I must say, I am intrigued by this emerging persona. Perhaps it is more than the sum of its parts and a cosmic consciousness evolves. That’s fascinating but I wonder if we’ll ever know.
But to bring it back around. We also have to remember our predisposed evolutionary weakness at this point. We crave questions and meaning, and as we have seen time and time again, when we have nothing to do, we do things that are self-destructive (which is why societies usually crumble from the inside out). I think the same has become of asking questions where there are no questions to be asked. We are evolutionarily predisposed to assigning meaning and persona to things where there maybe none. It was explained recently to me in an article like this: The caveman who heard a noises in the brushes, and thought it a tiger/rival tribes member laid awake in fear, and was thus prepared for any eventuality, so even if it was a tiger or rival in the bushes, he was more likely to survive and therefore pass on his genes, and if it weren’t a tiger, then all he lost was some sleep. But either way, persona was assigned. Whereas the caveman who brushed it off as nothing, and did happen to be tiger, did not live to tell the tale and pass on his genes.
So, I think the following quote is befitting this juncture.
“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly” – Wallace Stevens
Feel free to use whatever you want from our discussion. it will probably need some serious editing though, my thoughts tend to ramble.
The zero energy of the universe point definitely is a good one and precludes influence from beyond…heavenly or otherwise. By that I mean that the idea of a deity that influences our universe while residing outside of it is bunk. He/She/It can’t add energy to the universe from beyond it if the sum total is to remain zero..unless some energy is lost when he does so (“What the lord giveth the lord taketh away” hmm.) To that to me implies that the divine is a part of the universe if it is there at all.
I’ll pick up where we were, in particular the point about the evolution of belief or at least a survival point for its existence. It certainly makes some sense. I’ve also had it pointed out that by being able to look across the Savannah and imagine lions lurking in the tall grass gave us an edge. We didn’t have to react to the presence of a lion we could preempt that by imagining the existence of the lion.
The fact is that there is meaning in the world and it is not all imagined. I think this is where I started to have doubts with a purely materialistic view of the world. For example I am currently reading “Reasons and Persons” by Derek Parfitt. Now the book can be discussed in terms of its form, I’m reading it on a Kindle but there are many other forms and editions it could have. Or we could look at its structure, the font it is published in or even more tellingly the language it is printed in. The french version looking similar but different to my English copy and the Arabic or Japanese versions looking very different again. We could drill deeper look at the different types of paper and ink (e-ink included) and then drill deeper to its constituent parts and look at the various elements it is composed and their configuration. At this point though I think we would have lost something. The book has a meaning a sharing of ideas that is completely independent of its material form. Now I’m not too sure what I’m trying to say here perhaps just that meaning exists independent of material form but it is there and that says something to me. There was a quote I saw one time in a BIology class, I do not know who it was by and I wish I did. It is quite long and the summary of it was this.
A biologist started his career fascinated with ecology and the interactions of species. To understand this better he realized he needed to study the individual species in more depth to gain knowledge of their unique behavior. From there he studied individuals and the systems that make an individual function. This led to the study of organs and tissues and then to the cells that comprise them. Studying cells led him to study the components of cells and how they interact and make the cell work. This required study of the chemical interactions in the cell, the production of energy the replication of DNA. Studying the biochemistry led to an examination of how electrons are transferred in a reaction and how catalysts assist. Looking at the ions, electrons and other components of the chemical reactions he realized that somewhere along the way he had lost the study of life.
This is how i feel about materialistic reductionism. Something – meaning maybe a good name for it – gets lost as we drill down ever further. Eventually we get to the mathematical probability waves of quantum physics and now what are we talking about? I don’t know but I do know that knowing the molecular components of “Reasons and Persons” does nothing to impart its meaning to me. (actually reading it doesn’t seem to be helping either so maybe that is a bad example 🙂 )
A change of subject.
I read your recent blog post with some interest. I wonder if ever-increasing the length of the human life is worth it. I don’t want to die, I don’t want anyone else to either and I do want to live as long ass I can. However what will people do with a 200 year life span? I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on health and the health care system. I am interested i working in the field and I am interested in the role nutrition plays in health. In one documentary i saw recently “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead”, (Australian film and very good), they are in a diner in Oklahoma interviewing people about their diet. it was a little depressing one guy basically took the point that “well i am here for a short time so I’ll make it a good time” His point? Well why not just enjoy yourself however you want because life is finite. Hedonism basically. Looking around the planet I don’t think he is alone in his view. So do we want a world full of 200 or even possibly a 1000 year old hedonists? I don’t think the planet could sustain it.
Well I went looking for that biology quote and found this one from B. Russell
“Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” ~Bertrand Russell
We study what we can, how we can and learn a great deal. But lets not be arrogant and claim that is all there is 🙂
Cheers mate look forward to hearing from you soon.
I think you make a nice point in regards to reading Reasons and Persons, but you make a slight oversight. The meaning, or combination of words, is independent of the specific medium you are reading it on. But it is not independent of a medium, for if it has no medium to impart its ‘meaning’, then it cannot exist. If it cannot be imparted or shared, then can it be said to exist?
Your opinion on living to 200, or 1000 is right, but only if you project your current worldview into the future, which is a mistake. I used to make this same mistake in the past until I read a great article by someone I can’t remember (oops), and it dawned on me. Think of a slave-owner 200 years ago dreaming of the future, a future that will always have slaves. Or a poor agrarian farmer, thinking that because he is always hunched over the land, that every farmer of the future will do likewise. Recognize this, and you will see that the values, aspirations and subjective morality of this future will be far different, and superior to ours. No longer will people have to slog out the 9-5 which robs us of our creativity, aspiration, health (mental and physical). No longer will we have to sacrifice our family time, or night outs with our friends. Knowledge will be valued on the same level as friends and family, for we will know that the state of the world, through the application of our knowledge, is responsible for our quality of life, for the love in our lives.
Also, remember, that technology is progressing to such a state whereas a specific material is not necessarily needed. You will be able to turn sand (abundant and useless) into anything else, even a cake! We could go mine asteroids, with billions of tons of raw materials and use that to provide for our needs. Also, as the world advances, and its women become more educated, they tend to have less babies. This has been shown time and time again as developing countries mature into developed countries. The population of Earth is expected to peak at 9 billion, and then come back down. Lets not also forget the expansion of humanity into space. Already a company wants to sent 10 lucky people on a one-way trip Mars in 2023.
To answer the next email you sent after this one, I don’t believe that my thought of objective meaningless is arrogance. To be blunt, but hopefully not condescending, I believe it is the other way around. Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is the best one. We need not prove anything to show objective meaningless, though we do need to prove that an objective meaning exists. Until proven otherwise, if we were being scientific, we would hold that it is true there is zero meaning to the Universe, until proven otherwise.
The science of our day is hurtling towards the multi-verse theory. If it pans out to be true, and the likelihood is that it is (I’ll continue the argument as if it is), then there are an infinite number of Universes. Universes in which the vast majority of them cannot and will not ever support life for the Planck constant is off by a factor of a few percentage points, or the nuclear force was off by a smidgen, or dark matter wasn’t present by which matter orients itself to create stars, galaxies and planets. Our Universe is truly a diamond in the rough, but for every universe that can support life-like ours, there will be an infinite number of Universes that can’t. They are, and forever will be formless. Even in this specific instant, there are many Universes being formed now, some even offshoots of our Universe. (Just read that last part today, truly fascinating stuff). What kind of objective meaning can there be? These Universes are causally disconnected from us, rendering the word ‘objective’ itself meaningless. At best, you can think of these Universes as beings, whole and unto themselves in voids, unable to see any other or interact with other beings, and we (as well as everything else in the Universe) making up their constituent parts (cells) much as mitochondria, DNA, and bacteria make up our fiber.
With that, I pass the baton onto you and look forward to your response
Thank you for the reminder that the future doesn’t necessarily have to be bleak. I get frustrated all the time when people throw their hands up and despair at the state of the world. As if it is inevitable that it won’t or can’t be changed. Yet here I am making the same error and presuming that people, gifted with a longer life span, will simply carry on as before. You make a really good point how social changes and revolutions to the norm by their very nature are hard to predict. People have amazing capabilities to grow and develop, refine and change, so who can say how we would react to an increase in lifespan?
In regards to meaning well I’m not sure if I follow your point. Yes meaning requires a medium to be communicated but it is also independent of the medium. That is why it doesn’t really matter how it is transferred so long as both ends can understand each other. In fact in regards to extraterrestrial life that is one of the things that i read. The odds of us even being able to communicate with any other life form is rather low. Not just due to intelligence but due to how we communicate.
My point I think was to say, look meaning is independent of the medium and therefore is it immaterial? You made me think when you raised the point that perhaps meaning just doesn’t exist at all. That it is a product of our evolution and psychology. After reflection I think I disagree. Meaning is out in the world whether we are here or not. Now meaning can be interpreted many different ways so I best be clear what I am referring to. I am not using meaning as a synonym for explanation. That is what we use meaning for when we answer question such as why are we here? or what was that noise I just heard outside the cave? Rather I am using meaning in the sense that I have in my mind certain thoughts and ideas that I wish to share with you. In order to do so I have to transcribe them and pass them in some way, but the way is irrelevant. So long as you and I both have a method we can both understand then I can use it to pass on meaning. If the media is irrelevant then in what way is meaning tied to the material? If it is not tied to the material then where does it exist? I think this is compelling simply because it occurs all the time we constantly see symbols, actions, signs and infer meaning from them. Sometimes correctly sometimes not. Even if i do not desire to share it where are my thoughts in the material context. Yes, neurons fire and we can see this activity with functional MRI, but it does not tell us anything about the thought associated with that firing. Now if meaning is a quality that is unrelated to the material world, not in that it does not require the material world, but in the way that we can know everything about a medium of communication, down to the atomic level and no nothing at all about its meaning. Materialism has limits.
One quick thought experiment that may or may not help. I am copying the argument form a website that I go to frequently.
“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/
I will leave the implications for now and if this interests you at all then the link has some refutations. My thinking on this is far from complete and clear. At times I feel certain and others I wonder. I definitely appreciate any thoughts you have on it.
Onto the next topic. Can all be known?
My quick answer is: Yes but not by us.
This i what I meant by my second email. We are equipped with certain perceptual apparatus that provide us with information about the external world. We also have the ability to formulate thoughts and reason. Together those are the sum total of the tools we have to determine the world. We can create machines, computers, sensors etc that reveal ever more levels of detail but they can’t provide us with a way of seeing the world that we don’t already possess. We are standing on an island of perspective and reason and think that this is all there is? Our brains process billions of bits of information of which we are only aware of thousands. We aren’t even aware of all the things our perceptual machinery take in. Never mind the fact that 99% of the universe is composed of Dark energy and Dark matter so-called because though it exists mathematically it is unperceived. Now this last point is readily answered with, “Well not perceived…yet!” That is true but the point I am trying to get out is that we have a certain perspective on the universe and that perspective limits what we can know. You raise the multiverse theory, different universes having different Laws of Physics or different values to the constants. What will we ever be able to know about them? in some of those universes the laws could be so vastly different that we wouldn’t be able to know anything at all.
I recently watched an interesting documentary, “What the #$%& do we know”. It was another look at the implications of quantum theory and has some really good points. One being the implications of quantum mechanics are that we create the reality by observation. But if the act of observation creates the reality then the reality has to take the form the observer can observe. I stand by my point that it is arrogance to assume that our reason and our perception is all that is required to know everything about the universe or multiverse. There are and will always be unknowable properties out there.
Cheers mate really enjoying this sharing of thoughts.
PS The claim to “arrogance” is in no way meant to be a personal slight. It should be read as a “We” and not directed to solely to you.
I would like to start by going back a a few emails. You had mentioned earlier that it was a fact that there is meaning in this world, but you said it without any accompanying evidence. As I earlier mentioned, and if we are to be honest in the face of rational inquiry. We will take as fact, or at least, according to the empirical evidence today, that the Universe is without meaning. There is no evidence anywhere or anyhow for meaning that cannot also be said to be arbitrary and subjective. We can go forward from here, I just wanted to restate that, and perhaps create a foundation. If we wish to invoke science, and we regularly do, and since we want to either come at, (or not) a meaning in this Universe, we must agree from where to start.
Something that seems to me you have misinterpreted (I made a few gaffes in the language). I do agree with you that if you read a book on a kindle, it can be independent of that media, but it is NOT independent of A media. For example, it needs light waves for the information to traverse from the Kindle to your eyes, It needs neurons in your brain to decrypt, and decipher the information for you, it needs the atomic and molecular structure of the kindle (or book) to be present at all. Since it can never be independent of a media, it cannot be independent of material form as you claimed. It can be independent of a specific material form, but not ALL material form. Which is more important, a car engine, or the steering well. They are both equally important since you can’t have one without the other, and the same goes for your book/meaning argument, though I do not indeed to give meaning equal weighting since if it’s there, then it comes above and beyond information, and without information, it doesn’t exist. This differs from the example in that you can’t have a car and drive it to (or a cake and eat it too), without having both steering wheel and engine present. But in our Universe, information comes first. I think this is a major shortcoming that corrupts a lot of the thinking involved in these types of questions, as our real world examples don’t apply on an Universal scale. At best, they can be used as metaphors to inform, and hint at what could be.
Another quick nostalgic moment. You mentioned the molecular components of Reasons and Persons did nothing to impart its meaning to you, but it did. Without those molecular components, without the protons, neutrons, and electrons of your kindle, or any book on which you could read it on in any language, you could not take its meaning at all. So independence is not insured.
In regards to ET, and the (hopeful) meeting with aliens one day. It’s not true that there will be no mode of communication. Allow me to impart one of the wisdom’s I learned from Stargate SG-1, one of my favorite tv shows. In one episode, we learn the history of an intergalactic council, of 4 different groups of aliens. All 4 had different languages, cultures, technology and seemingly no hope of communication. Good thing then, that they were a lot smarter than us (or at least the writers). What would any technology-faring civilization have to have in order to be a technology-faring civilization? The answer is mathematics, physics, and chemistry, which are universal constants. They would certainly have different names for it, but the numbers, the base configurations, the law of relativity, time dilation, mass dilation etc would all be exactly the same as ours. Theres would most certainly be much more advanced in their understanding of it, but the base, the foundation, would be identical, and from there, we could build a mode of communication.
In the next paragraph, you say that meaning is out in the world whether we are here to see it or not, but i must disagree with your disagreeance (Did I just make up a word? 🙂 ). There is information yes. The entire Universe is full of information. Now, this information taken together (more than likely), creates something greater than the sum of its parts. This extra something, that wasn’t there in its separate parts, is not necessarily an objective meaning to anything. For as soon as one little atom changes, or one tree is felled in the woods with no one watching, the sum total (plus meaning) also changes. This is similar to the argument for free will. Some claim we have free will because the combined totality of our brain, neurons etc creates something greater than its part. But I don’t believe this. The greater sum total is still completely and utterly dependent on its disparate parts. And when damaged, the apparent free-ness of our will evaporates. MS, schizophrenia, turrets and various other mental diseases attest to this, as well as addictions to caffeine, sugar, drugs and thousands of other factors that nudge us this way or that, subconsciously, unconsciously, and subliminally. Even experimental evidence exists today showing that binary decisions are made in the subconscious and pushed to the prefrontal cortex, with the illusion that it was consciously chosen, though it was anything but. So yes, our consciousness is more than the sum total of its parts, but its not free, and there is no necessary meaning involved in that process.
To correct a slight error in your previous email. Dark matter does not only exist mathematically, it exists physically. We can see its physical effects in the Universe, and extrapolate the sum energy total of the Universe through its mathematical and physical effects. We can even map out where the Dark matter is on a Universal map, and show that normal matter collate along strands of dark matter. We can even see how it bends light via gravitational lensing. It is physical, it exists, we just don’t know what it is, though there are several theories on that front.
Are you sure that everything can be known, but not by us? We have laws of physics that accurately describe 99.99% of the whole Universe. We know what happened in our Universe going back to a nanosecond after the big bang, and we even have evidence (both mathematical and unverified physical) of external Universes. Everyday we learn something new, and the relentless pursuit (getting faster everyday) of learning will never end. I think it is fair to say that one day, we will know everything about our own Universe, and then the horizon will be external to our universe, and who knows how, evolutionarily speaking, our ancestors will be equipped to handle such information? If the Universe is a cosmic conscious, some kind of inherent divine sovereign, as I think you think it is (please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted you) then does it not make sense that conscious beings will fully crack the code?
I’m not so sure you fully appreciate the multiverse theory. You say, what we will know about them? But we know quite a bit already if the math is right. The laws of physics are completely random in each one as well as the amount of dark energy and dark matter. These 3 (random) forces combined, in each Universe in regards to the others. In that sense, our own Universe is randomly, and luckily (for us) amiable to life, without any meaning being present anywhere. This does not negate, as I mentioned earlier, that information can aggregated to be more than the sum of its parts. But this is information nonetheless, and any added information, (which is just more information) is not independent of the building blocks of information that brought about its existence, and therefore, not independent. It simply cannot be.
Can it be perceived as having such meaning? Absolutely, and I think this is where the fault lies. As you acknowledged before, we are predisposed to find meaning where there is none. When we were cavemen, this played a crucial part in our survival, and eventual dominion of this planet. But now that we do not have the scepter of hysteria, death, and an early grave upon us, does not negate the powerful effect it still exerts upon our mental worlds today. I see no argument, or counter-argument, in negating this powerful tool which renders us hopeless in the quest for impartiality in regards to our Universe, and any such existential questions.
I also cannot hope but wonder, in this quest for meaning, how could we ever be sure of it? What could we hope to find? Certainly not happiness or inner-peace. We already know at a basic level (and learning more everyday), what provides human happiness, and Buddhists certainly have the inner-happiness part down pat. I can’t help but equate this endeavor to the beginnings of religion. What is this, if not similar, to the philosophical inquiry thousands of years ago into the workings of our world and universe, simply absent the information that was required to know how the big bang happened, and the course of evolution which eventually culminated in the not-so-humble homo sapien, which eventually culminated in religion which has so corrupted our inner faculties. Our brains are simply not equipped for uncertainty. That’s why it takes many years of training, inquiry, tests, and I imagine, failed hypothesis’ before someone can be a scientist, and even that is not proof that one will open in all manner of new hypothesis’ and theories. Even Lawrence Krauss, to go back to the lecture that started this exchange severely dislikes the notion that the laws of physics are random. Perhaps if we asked him ten years ago if he thought that there was a chance of it being true, he may have been adamant that it never would be. Since we are not equipped for uncertainty, and we also have no chance of ever fully knowing the meaning, short of arbitrarily defining it as such and such, which some people would do (that’s why religion exists, and why new ones keep popping up). So in light of that, whats the point anyway? (I am not trying to equate your yearning to understand, or infer meaning to the villainous religions of today, merely commenting on the similarity in their inception. They are extremely bastardized versions of honest inquiry many thousands of years ago. Everything can be bastardized, and if you were to happen upon such a meaning, it would be safe to say 100 years from now, then you would not recognize it yourself, as honest and good-hearted as your intentions are)
I mean, being in awe of the workings of the Universe (which I routinely do) is different in that we do know how it works (and if we don’t yet, we soon will), but that is different in that our brains, which are evolved to understand clear macroscopic processes on Earth, simply cannot envision things working on distances millions or billions of lights year across (we can’t even imagine a light year). But this meaning you seek is, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, useless in that it provides nothing, and never can. It wouldn’t guide your life, your morality, our ethics or any other such notion of human existence. Maybe my own thinking is subconsciously rooted in this thought but I can’t see a way around it, nor can I see the evidence of meaning anywhere. Only the absence of it, and given what we know about the Universe, I’m quite sure that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
In summary, given that we are disposed to find meaning where it does not lay, that we could never hope to see such meaning objectively, and any such meaning would be arbitrary to each individual concordant with the causes and effects that make up their life, and that such meaning (information) would be dependent on its disparate parts unique to each person or being, which ensures it has no hope of independence either; as such, any cosmic consciousness that arose as a result of it, would be purely incidental, much as we are, in the sea of 7 billion other beings, and given that our own cells that make up us, have no hope of ever finding a meaning to their existence or to any other cell in our bodies, leaves to me, very little room for objectivity, independent meaning, or objective meaning anywhere and everywhere.
Look forward to your response buddy.
After reading our emails I have to clear up what I am talking about here.
1) There is no meaning to the Universe. No grand plan or ultimate destination that has been decided in advance by some other.
2) There is meaning in the Universe. You called this information, and I can go with that. However the “information” is not about or tied to any particular material form. We can have intention, purpose. We can share our internal world with others. In fact, in my opinion, having meaning in your life is one of the keys to well-being and happiness. (See Viktor Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning”)
3) This type of meaning is independent of material. Yes it requires a medium in order to be shared but it is not dependent on that matter. Knowing as much as we do about the workings of the material Universe does not tell us everything about what is contained in the universe. That is how the subject of meaning entered our conversation. I was trying to make the point that there is information out there that the study of the material world tells us nothing about.
Physics looks at the workings of the universe, tells us how it runs. It can’t tell us what arises from its running.
My point here is simply if we think that understanding all the workings of every particle in the Universe is going to tell us everything about the universe we are wrong. There are levels of meaning. e.g. (I’m using this example from “I am a Strange Loop” Douglas Hofstadter)
A family watches TV, parents, kids and dog. They are watching a soap opera. The dog sees flashing colours on the light box in the corner of the room and that’s all. The kids see the TV show recognize that actors are playing characters and see that one of them, a woman say is crying, but they don’t know why. The adults are outraged and feel bad for the crying woman, she has just found out her husband has been sleeping with her sister! the injustice of it. A passing materialist tells them that only atoms and quarks, electromagnetic radiation and sound-waves are present in the room. He can’t describe the story or the feelings it invoked in the parents. He could tell them why and how they responded, there brains firing certain neurons in certain areas releasing certain chemicals but he couldn’t tell them how it felt to see the shame of the scorned woman played out on the TV.
There is meaning in the world that transcends the physical. we all experience it subjectively and then try to share it with others. If we are lucky perhaps we meet someone who seems to be able to share our subjective experience, and us theirs, more completely than other people.
Now you have said, and this maybe taking your argument further than you meant, that the meaning we see in the world arises solely out of our subjective interpretation. There is none, no external purpose or intention, only events happening that we respond as genetically programmed to. We search for meaning because the capacity of searching for meaning has helped our survival as a species.
I say that meaning is out there and we interpret it rightly and wrongly all the time. We have intention and purpose and we try to share that with others. Meaning wasn’t present at the big bang but came after. There was no plan or intention for the universe. But now there is conscious beings have meaning and purpose and can impart that and share it with others.
The next question, that interests me following this, is that is consciousness only located inside a life form, Homo sapiens, on a particular rocky planet in a particular solar system of a certain galaxy. I say no.
So in short consciousness is the source of meaning.
What use is this meaning? if we accept it is there that our lives can have a meaning that arises from consciousness then what will it be? Buddhism reflects on the interconnectedness of all things, the dependency between us, as a basis for compassion. That to me is a form of meaning that can have practical use.
You raised the possibility of a scientist being able to create a universe and asked would that make him God. Well if life arose in the universe he created, and that life evolved and began to wonder where they came from and some said there was a creator would they be wrong? Even if all the scientists in their universe pointed out how impossible according to their laws of Physics that would be.
Finally maybe there is no use but that doesn’t mean it is not there and its existence is a problem I think for having faith purely in the Scientific method as an explanatory tool for everything. There is no experiment that can determine what an artist means by a work he creates. Likewise there is no experiment that can tell you how I feel when I hear a certain piece of music that inspires me, or one that makes me sad.
OK I am stopping here. I don’t know if I am being clear. All of this to me at least leads to the idea that we can’t know everything. I’ll get to that in another email but in short I don’t think we have the capability to know everything. A computer can only do what it is programmed to do. Well we can only reason in ways that we evolved to do. To think that we can discern and figure out everything is hard for me to grasp. How can we know what we are not capable of knowing? We know a lot more than we did that is for sure. Progress in the last 150 years (since the industrial revolution say) has been breathtaking and on an accelerated track. However I am not blinded by the success and lured into thinking we are going to know everything. Other civilizations existed before ours thought they had the universe pretty well figured out. They were wrong.
Take care mate
In regards to your point 1), I must say that I agree. But in point 2) I can’t help but notice that whenever you discuss (from your perspective) meaning, that you simply invoke meaning and assume it to be true. Meaning is just a fancy word for doing what we need to know (or do) in order to survive and now that survival is no longer a daily issue, what we want to do to be happier. And to answer a point you made a few paragraphs later: with the advancement of neuroscience sometime this century, one day we will be able to know what you feel when you listen to music that makes you sad. With time and technology, we will even be able to supplant those feelings, dreams etc into other people’s minds (Some say by the middle of the century, others say at the end), but either way, the brain will be decoded and then the meaning will be shown to be subjective and nothing more than a collection of facts and information about the world.
In response to point 3), I still can’t agree with the independence of meaning. It’s just information, that when added together, produces something different from the sum of its parts, like a book does. A book is just a collection of words that invokes a mental picture. But since it cannot be independent of all material form, then it is not independent. Are we independent of the Earth? Nope, despite myself being a separate entity from the planet, I am so utterly dependent on it for food, water, and environment then I cannot be considered independent of it, nor can you, or the trillions of other creatures that inhabit the Earth with us. Independence is an illusion of our brains, much as I believe meaning is. And as such, meaning is not and cannot be independent. It simply produces something that seems independent from our subjective interpretation. But it is simply a repackaging of information that produces a different output. It is simply collective information about its environment, collected into your head or mine and processed in such a way as to think there is something more than it is.
Physics cannot tell us what arises from the Universe, but it can tell us all possible forms of energy and matter (with sufficiently advanced technology and simulations so maybe not right now but soon). With regards to the example about the family and dog watching TV, I think it’s a straw man argument. None of them are correct, yet they all are. Each experience is completely subjective. The correct answer is that the answer is the totality of their separate experiences put together, as each perspective is essentially correct. Nothing exists in isolation in this Universe and as such, nothing can be considered separate or independent. I think this is a flaw of our thinking in this subject.
You mention that meaning transcends the physical but what is physical? Our atoms are 99.99% empty space. Our atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons which are made up of subatomic particles going all the way down to the Higgs Boson Field which is exactly that, a field that other (otherwise massless) particles are dragged (or slowed down) through this field and in the process, giving them mass. Everything in this Universe is made up of fields and particles (that would travel at the speed of light) which is energy, which could be considered abstract. Our illusion of physicality is a combination of the gravity, weak and strong nuclear force, and light. So in essence, nothing is physical. There is nothing aside from those four things, everything else is subjective and personal and we have invented a word to explain that which eludes our comprehension; in this case, that word is meaning which is again, simply a totality of interconnected stuff.
The interconnectedness of stuff that the Buddha talks of, is likewise an abstract fact. Everything actually is connected. It is not a philosophical insight, but rather an explanation of the Universe as it is and since we cannot comprehend it, it feels invented and wise and makes us feel better, but by aligning ourselves with the natural flow of the Universe, we are simply going with the flow and this is the happiness he speaks of. Walking up a hill uses more energy than walking down a hill. Going with the Universe naturally creates conditions that are similar to this conversation of energy of walking down or up the hill. (to my thinking)
I must disagree on the point you make about reasoning in ways we are evolved too. The scientific method is testament to this in that we are not evolved to look at objects and processes objectively, but we can create (and did) a process in which subjectivity is removed (to the best of our ability) and what remains is that 95% of studies are objective in their outcome (The other 5% is down to chance). Since our science is progressing and we continue learning new educational techniques that circumvent our evolutionary predispositions to new information (both personally and socially), is it any stretch to say that in the future we will further overcome these mental faults of ours? Especially with the help of computers and AI (far in the future) that will actually view things objectively as their default state and upon which we will rely upon to expand the boundaries of our knowledge. I believe this thought is somewhat naive. Yes, in the past, some societies thought they had the answers, yet all their knowledge seemed to end at the horizon. Where do ours end? Today, we have the laws of physics that accurately describe 99.99% of the known universe. Surely this counts for something and everyday we learn new things and soon this knowledge will begin seeping over into new Universes and while we may not know the entire multiverse (and the infinite variations of the physical laws inherent in them), we will know all the laws of our Universe one day. (Note I didn’t say we can know every atom in our Universe, but everything that is possible with those atoms and energies.)
So in summary, my point of view is as follows:
1) Meaning is an abstract term to explain the interconnectedness of things we are unable to comprehend seeing as we are subjective creators of our reality
2) We are evolutionarily disposed to find meaning where there is none, which was instrumental in our survival as a species because we were physically weaker than most of the animal kingdom in our hominid youth. This is a fact beyond dispute and is a big reason I simply cannot believe it exists as we do not yet have the means to objectively view it 100% (if this ever changes and can be verified, I will happily change my position)
3) We have been wrong about almost everything that seems to make sense (from the perspective common-sense intuitions) since the dawn of time and seeing as how we are still (evolutionarily speaking) cavemen seeking pleasure, avoiding gain, and assigning meaning where there is none. I see no difference now.
4) The net energy of the Universe is 0. Everything in one way or another is related to either this positive or negative energy that equates to zero. This is why there can’t be a God (unless he is the Universe himself and we are his cells, I suppose you can call this the cosmic consciousness I guess) and seeing the Universe through this lens, where can meaning come into being? Even a personal thought is energy so it is accounted for in that 0. So to me, there is no room for meaning. Subjective meaning is something different
5) Words like materialism and physicalism are lingual abstractions we use from our collective (subjective) viewpoint. But the four (non-physical) forces of the Universe are all there is. I believe there is a great deal of confusion here as a result when arguing these points of view. These terms were invented hundreds of years before modern science discovered their true nature. Being in a time of objective ignorance, it is no wonder they falsely describe reality and in the meantime, we have not updated their definitions.
6) From my own subjective viewpoint, I prefer to abide by Occam’s razor stating that the simplest explanation is the best one for this circumstance and subject. We have no evidence that meaning is inherent (though a great philosophical point of view can be had, as you have clearly done) that cannot otherwise be classified or dismissed as subjective
In conclusion, It is my belief that any meaning one can have (or think they have) is nothing but the totality of information that they have gleaned from their surroundings in their course of their life. Without an environment, there is no information and as such, there can be no meaning. So it is no stretch to say that meaning is simply the sum total of what we have seen, experienced, and felt which is poorly translated through our languages giving us the feeling that we are somehow unable to articulate those parts that cannot be expressed leaving some part of that communication unspoken. In short, consciousness can be a source of personal subjective meaning but nothing of it can be considered objective, or even there in its absence. It’s merely an extrapolation of environmental and mental information that when coupled, becomes something more, perhaps at times producing a feeling of euphoria, awe, and wonder and has thus propagated itself through the gene pool.
Here’s what I am not saying. I am not trying to dismiss your arguments for self-made meaning (for lack of better words) and I do believe that having, or inventing a personal meaning of life is useful. I believe it is a necessary illusion that can motivate you, me, and all of us to heights unimaginable and allow us to treat each other with respect, compassion, and help us create a new set of ethics and morality. For me, my negative thoughts in regards to this subject does not detract from those moments when I seem to have awe, epiphanies, or set out to accomplish something because my mind willfully forgets that I think there is no meaning until I need it for such a debate as this, or when some causative influence instigates those thoughts. I in no way dismiss your philosophical points thus far, but I do believe that they are somewhat misinterpreted from an objective point of view.
You have said a few times that I assume that meaning exists and then make statements about it. Then you say it is merely the by-product of our functioning, a quality of our thinking. Having a brain will think, and then I think, therefore I ponder meaning. Well that may well be the case. perhaps all the meaning is only a byproduct of our thinking but if so how is it less real? A clumsy example software is a property of hardware, it cannot exist without it yet isn’t tied to any particular piece of it. We don’t dismiss software as just an arising property or an illusion and not worth considering. If anything it is the other way round, we disregard the hardware as irrelevant, and spend much more time dwelling on software. My point is that having knowledge of the non-material property, and I call it non-material because it exists independently of any piece of matter, is at least as relevant and some would say more so, as having knowledge of the underlying material form it is running on. This example may well blow up in my face,I’m not much of a computer scientist, I’m merely using it to point out that arising properties ARE what we are mainly concerned with. This knowledge is what Physics is unable to tell us and this is why I cringe when you say we are 99% of the way to knowing everything. We can’t know everything. At best we are some way to understanding materialism, I don’t say how far and I don’t see how anyone can, because we have no idea how far there is to go. Whenever we reach the bottom a fe years later a new bottom emerges. How old is the knowledge of Dark matter and Dark energy? What surprises and twists and paradigms shifting revolutions are left to be discovered. I really hope that we never reach the point where headlines around the world cry out “ALL IS KNOWN” because that will be the day that questions and explorations into ignorance stop. Once that happens then it will be true, “All is known” because nobody is looking at our ignorance. This is what the Dark Ages were (at least in Europe, India, China and the Middle East were doing their own thing) a time when the Church decreed all is known and people looked to them for the answers.
OK so back to arising properties. I mean we can say well that there is a lump of matter, with two arms and two legs and a head, and in the head there lies a convoluted lump of grey matter which has certain electro chemical properties. From these electro chemical properties arise other properties, self-awareness, identity, morality, meaning, none of which have any particular material form, although they all take place in a particular lump of grey matter. Nothing about that implies that these properties are less real than the material form they arise from. Then you say that at a certain future point, we will have the technology to transplant them and move them. Now we are getting into some of my favourite territory.
What if we did move them what then. What if we could decode the brain to such an extent that we could recreate it, all of its properties. Couple this with the incredible advances in biotechnology, especially DNA and protein synthesis and perhaps then we have the answer to our transportation needs. I could go to an airport (presuming we would still use such an outdated term) be checked in and scanned, then my information digitally transmitted to my destination (New Zealand or Alpha Centauri say). There I am rebuilt. I emerge from the arrival bay with the memory of having just stepped into the departure bay. If I was thirsty or hungry before I left I am the same now. My particular material form becomes irrelevant. It s deconstitutated and perhaps used to build the next person who arrives at the places I departed from. But what would happen if there was a malfunction, the original me wasn’t deconstitutated and instead emerged from the departure bay the same time I emerged from the arrival bay. Who would be me? Would they both be me? Neither one? Who would my wife choose to be with? Who would get access to my bank account my kids. Our identities are an arising property of our brain, the most subjective of all subjectivia, and yet so much depends on it. I don’t have nay real answers on this. It is a well-known thought experiment by Derek Parfitt I believe.
At a certain point in your email you start questioning what the physical is, how atoms are empty space, and even call the physical an illusion. This points at the importance of our subjectivity, perhaps that is all there is. I don’t know. I think somethings are shared based on the interconnectedness of things, which as you point out is merely the way things are and not a great insight (As an aside I think the Buddha would have agreed with you, his first thoughts were that he couldn’t teach what he had realised because it was too simple, nobody would go for it. He didn’t believe his insights would out live him by more than a generation or so at best. It is the simplicity of what he taught, and the effectiveness when the teachings are truly applied, that have made it last so long.).I think you are absolutely right here. Perhaps there is no true objectivity and all is subjective. That is where I think I fall on this. I am suspect of objectivity. I do believe there is a shared aspect to conciousness, another example of an arising property perhaps. Organisms evolve brains, brains evolve the capacity to think, thinking leads to self-awareness and reflection and this to consciousness and from there what arises next? Why should the train stop right there?
Why should all of this arising property and complexity terminate in just one organism? We aren’t even one organism. We are walking colonies of bacteria (10:1 bacteria to your own cells). Even within the cells we call are own there are mitochondria, which are nothing more than captives we have turned into slave labour. Basically drawing the line at our particular physical form and saying all this ends there seems incredibly arbitrary. Why can’t consciousness become more entwined between people. Group mentality, mob rule, lovers lying together, a family, a father and son or daughter all these seem to be examples of connections and entanglements of consciousness outside of just one brain.
So in short I think something arises from these entanglements. I don’t believe materialism can answer what it is that arises. I am interested in exploring what it is so I continue to ask questions and investigate where I can.