Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nounema, Elementa, Cognita and Consciousness

Ontological discontinuity: Consciousness interrupts the comatose state with a start.

As promised in a previous post I want to look in more detail at a passage taken from one PZ Myers’ blog posts. This passage was a response by Myers to a flurry of comments on his blog by a group of fundamentalists who said they knew why the universe is rational. Over to PZ:

Their primary approach is to assert that because logic exists, god exists, and therefore any attempt to apply reason to a problem is evidence for god. They are unable to justify their premise, however, so it’s a silly game they’re playing — there is no reason to assume an anthropic being was necessary to conjure logic into existence or even that any kind of intelligence was required, any more than we could argue that intelligence is required to start an avalanche. Small fluctuations can lead to large scale changes in that example, so there’s no logical barrier to the idea that unintelligent processes seed universes that expand with internally consistent rules (and universes seeded with illogical rules, if that were possible, wouldn’t exist and definitely wouldn’t be populated with intelligent beings contemplating the laws of their universe).

Like all mathematics logic “exists” only as a platonic object until its configurations and operations are formally reified in our world by some medium such as natural processes, machinery, or thoughts. The kind of logic that is being referred to in the above passage, at least by Myers himself, is that whose existence is of the reified kind; viz: Myers talks about what is “necessary to conjure logic into existence”. So, what, then, is necessary to give logic a physically reified ontology? In answer Myers appears to allude to the inflationary multiverse; here an infinite physical production line generates small bubble universes with randomly chosen physical regimes and these expand into full blown universes (if their randomly selected regimes allow). But even if we accept this speculative cosmology the universe generator itself is a remarkable logical construction that begs an explanation. As I have pointed out many times before, attempts to “explain” exhaustively leads to a “turtles all the way down” regress; each explanation will contain contingent conditions which are explained by another explanatory object which in turn will contain contingent conditions… and so on.

The reason for this regress is that we explain our observations by embedding them in a narrative that describes a larger context. That embracing narrative itself can be “explained” by embedding it in yet a larger contextualising narrative … and so on, and this leads to a nesting of contexts within contexts to the nth degree. In the mathematical physical sciences the explanatory contexts/naratives most usually employ some blend of algorithmics and statistics (or “Law & Disorder”). But be that as it may, it is not always practically possible to use these mathematically descriptive objects even if we think that a phenomenon is ultimately generated by law and disorder principles; after all, practitioners in biology, history and sociology use narrative intense descriptions that don’t readily reduce to algorithmics and statistics.

An understanding of the ultimately descriptive & contingent nature of scientific explanatory objects leads us to appreciate this: Our explanations can never account for what we observe in terms of absolute necessity but only in terms of a conditional necessity; that is, our observations are only necessary if certain postulated conditions hold. For example: The observed motions of the planets are necessary if Newton’s laws hold. Of course, these postulated conditions, without a 'turtles all the way down' regress, have no necessity in and of themselves – they could “poof” out of existence at any time or any place without any logical violation. Therefore “creation” is not something that just occurred a long while ago at the Big Bang; “creation”, as far as we are concerned, occurs everywhere and everywhen in as much as the cosmos’ sustained existence issues out of a logical void of unnecessity everywhere and everywhen. A Grand Logical Hiatus accompanies us at all places and times and therefore constitutes a generalized form of ex nihilo creation. Ex-nihilo creation, in the logical sense, then, is a present tense continuous process. For the scientifically illiterate the explanations of science are a kind of modern magic that has replaced the divine magic of creation and therefore in their minds it serves the same magical role of divinity. But for those of us who have seen through the trick of science and understand that our scientific explanations can never deliver asiety, the realization dawns that in an absolute sense our explanatory powers are no further forward than they were in the Stone Age; all we have succeeded in doing since then is come up with some sophisticated tools of description.

In trying to explain the existence of a rational universe Myers hints at the weak anthropic principle: Thoroughly illogical universes (=disordered universes?) would not support sentient beings, therefore sentient beings must expect to exist in and observe a rational context. Sentience, then, implies a rational universe – I wouldn’t disagree with Myers on this score. But, does a rational universe imply sentience?  An affirmative answer to that question is not an obvious truism; conceivably universes both irrational and rational could exist apart from an indigenous sentience. In fact, it is likely that there are far flung reaches of space and time that have or did have a rational state without the presence of an indigenous sentience to observe them. (Our cosmos, if it is more than just a deceptive façade of perception, gives every appearance of being a realm of noumena.) So, if and when science is done with a full description of a rational universe do we simply have to accept this description as a brute fact for which there can be no meaningful answers to questions that try to probe deeper? Welcome to what Paul Davis calls the “absurd universe”, the universe that “just is” and let’s have no further questions please, because further questions are unintelligible to the descriptive logical methods of science!

The descriptive nature of science’s logical constructs, by themselves, are destined to lead us to an absurd universe. From a human point of view this feels most unsatisfactory; our intuitions (or least many people’s intuitions) tell us that there must be some deeper reason “why” things are as they. These inquiring intuitions remain unsatiated in a strictly descriptive explanatory paradigm (although some people may not feel these intuitive questions to be particularly compelling; they therefore remain incurious and phlegmatic about them – perhaps they don’t have the necessary brain structure that prompts these questions). The classic response to this impasse is to claim that science is an activity which only provides answers to questions of “How?” but does not attempt to answer the question “Why?”; when asked on a cosmic scale the latter question is the domain of theology.

In this post Myers’ discusses this “Why vs. How” dichotomy in connection with a particular example; namely, very regular holes which appeared in a straight line down his street. In an ironic twist Myers shows that he fully appreciates Dembski’s explanatory filter; he quickly eliminates natural causes for the holes and  concludes that they are due to human agency. As Myers himself admits, this agency entails intents and purposes; that is, human motivational factors which are taken for granted as givens in this context. If in a social context a feature can be shown to be an outcome of these givens then it is often considered to be sufficiently “explained”. But human intents and purposes are hardly elemental stuff; they are complex high level cognita and a far cry from “law and disorder” explanations which merely describe patterns of elementa that can be tokenised with simple bits and bytes. In contrast to the flat meaningless descriptions of the mathematical physical sciences which only answer the question “How?”, answers to the question “Why?” posit as their starting point the intricacies of the sentient world where intents, purposes and above all, meaning, in the deepest sense of the word, are conferred upon that which is “explained”. But there’s a catch: Although this kind of explanation satisfies the human need for meaning, its presumed starting point is the contingent complexity of sentience. In contrast law and disorder explanations reduce the logical complexity of the objects one needs to accept as givens, perhaps making it easier to take them on board as simply axiomatic (although in doing so they fail to satisfy intuitive questions about intents and purposes). But a world explicated in terms of intents & purposes satisfies the longing for meaning (although in doing so posits the complexities of sentience). In summary: What law and disorder explanations gain in logical simplicity they lose in meaning; what explanations based on intents and purposes gain in meaning they lose in logical complexity. But there is one thing going for a-priori complexity that an absurd logical simplicity doesn’t have; you’re not going to find asiety in the elemental; it’s too simple for that; the only other place to look for asiety is in the a-priori complex.

Given the very human background where questions about intents and purposes find meaning and satisfaction, it is natural to ask if the otherwise irreducible absurdity of the descriptions of the physical sciences can be addressed in a similar way: Do the brute fact contingencies necessarily present in scientific descriptions of “How?” have humanly meaningful significance in terms of intents and purposes? Myers at least shows he understands the question:

Similarly, if there was a god busily poofing the entirety of the cosmos into existence, that’s an awful lot of evidence that can be examined for motive…are we to instead believe it is so incoherent that we can discern no possible purpose behind all this data?

But although he understands the question, Myers finds no ultimate meaning in the cosmos in terms of intents and purposes:

When people try to argue that science can’t answer “why” questions, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t like the answer they get — there is no why! There is no purpose or intent! — and are actually trying to say that the only valid answer they’ll accept is one that names an intelligence and gives it a motive. That is, they want an answer that names a god as an ultimate cause, and a description that doesn’t include agency doesn’t meet their presuppositions.

For Myers, then, all explanation must ultimately reduce to the flat descriptive answers to the question “How?” rather than “Why?”; including, one presumes, the existence of human sentience which science conjectures to be an outcome conditioned on our particular regime of law and disorder. For Myers, answers about the outer most explanatory context to the cosmos must reduce to physical science’s flat descriptive absurd explanations. But I have more than a sneaky feeling that Myers would not like it any other way: Looking at the passion and anger with which he advocates his position one wonders if answers to “How?” are the only kind of explanation he can handle. In fact I’m sure I have read somewhere on his blog where he says something to the effect that if a sentience existed that was totalising enough to be the outer most explanatory frame of our cosmos (i.e. God) he would consider it his duty to oppose this cosmic “tyrant”. I think we have to leave PZ Myers to stew in his own mindset. I can hardly blame him if for some reason he doesn’t have or hasn’t come to terms with the strong instinctual questions about “Why?”, questions which embrace the whole cosmic set up, universe generator and all. Perhaps to him meaningless descriptions of patterns of elementa may be completely intellectually satisfying; I can’t hold that against him. But having said that I have to admit that many other people, myself included, have nagging instinctual questions about “Why?”; questions that can only be answered if one assumes the complex world of cognita as a starting point. And these questions are not just about minor affairs in one small corner of the universe, such as why my local authority are digging perfectly cylindrical holes; rather these questions frame the whole universe generating caboodle. Unless those questions are satiated the universe, as PZ Myers will no doubt maintain, is an unintelligible incoherent and meaningless absurdity. But in this sea of insentient absurdity we find an amazing anomaly; conscious cognition, the very thing that has constructed this absurd paradigm of the comatose!

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