Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Coping with White Space

In the video above atheist Sean Carroll explores the implications of his ulterior metaphysical vision of ontology, an ontology he believes to be all embracing and exclusive, in affect defining the boundaries of all he thinks has been, will be and is. This kind of ontological exclusivism is a common metaphysical interpretation of physics. Although I’m a great fan of the coherent highly integrated world that physics paints, I wouldn’t say that I’m so taken by it as to make it the basis of an all excluding metaphysical ontology, a metaphysic that doesn’t dare speak its name for of fear of being recognized as such.
Nevertheless there is plausibility in Carroll’s philosophy, a philosophy which is an arguable construction any reasonable person may feel they can place upon human experience and the human predicament. But plausible is not the same as rationally obliging, and in my opinion one can dissent from Carroll’s views with a clear scientific conscience in spite of the insistence of some secular fundamentalists to the contrary. The sort of ontological exclusiveness Carroll espouses looks suspiciously like a way of coping with the white spaces at the edge of knowledge by circumscribing it away.
I would not only question Carroll’s ontology but also his epistemology. There is a delicate balancing act to be maintained in the negotiations between institutionalized science and the wild card of human experience. If either is allowed to dominate the other intellectual pathology is a consequence. For example, there may come a point when the political entrenchment of institutionalized theories is so great that it is impossible for experience to inform them any longer, as Galileo found out. Conversely experience can lack the rational framing that it badly needs for its correct interpretation – something that I can personally testify to having seen what happens so often in evangelical Christianity. As regards this balancing act I find Carroll far too institutionalised to be an objective observer.

Video Content
Near the beginning of the video Carroll tells us triumphant tones:
In our thousands of years long quest in understanding the universe and how it works.. …we have finally figured out what the rules of the game are.
My Comment: May be or may be not; I can’t be this bullish myself. I construe Carroll’s scientific triumphalism as a reaction against the religious fundamentalists with their quack “science” who are very much abroad in America. Anomalies, in particular, have a way of eventually opening up into huge paradigm shattering vistas. And who knows there is still plenty of room in physics for anomalies to crop up! Physics is yet a fully integrated and exclusive system.
Carroll tells us that the (relatively) easy part of science is that of determining the rules of the (physical) game but the hard part is applying those rules successfully. This is probably true. However, I think we need to bear in mind that there are two types of rules: Viz: a) The local rules of a cellular system ontology. b) The non-local rules of an ontology constrained by global constraints. Currently physics is almost exclusively based on a cellular ontology, which is probably why the ideas of Nobel Prize winning physicist Ken Wilson apply. But what if non-local rules exist? Could we easily detect them?
Your friend says “I’ve always been partial to the green cheese hypothesis; I think the moon is made of green cheese”
My Comment: Carroll commences the easy work of refuting this idea from the point of view of physics, a physics which allows us “ahead of time” to contradict such arbitrarily constructed hypotheses. But this is as easy as shooting a rabbit that’s just been pulled out of the hat. Life is much more difficult if the rabbit has been spawned in the hedgerows and knows the ways of the wild: The moon landing conspiracy theory is also absurd, but it is a lot less easy to refute with just mockery alone. This is because it is not an arbitrary creation and didn’t appear “just like that” out of a hat. Rather, it has a history with causes deeply embedded in the current social malaise, a malaise of disaffection that generates a strong emotional rationale for this kind of conspiracy theory. Moreover, it doesn't do anything so obviously radical as to posit a very explicit break in the laws of physics (Unlike the green cheese “hypothesis”)
We don’t understand turbulence, weather, high temperature superconductivity, cancer, consciousness, economics…
My Comment: Note that “consciousness” appears in this list – it’s being categorized as a phenomenon to observe and explain, just like the weather: But where do I go to observe some consciousness? Don’t tell me a person’s brain, because all I ever observe there is a combination of a neural activity and emergent behaviour.  If “consciousness” is just a way of talking about a complex emergent aggregated phenomenon, then what’s the analogous term for that aggregated phenomenon we call the weather? Weather is a system composed of a huge number of particles which exhibits emergent behaviour such as storms, but it is wrong to conclude that storms are to air and water molecule as consciousness is to neurons. The conundrum of consciousness is that although human beings are a cluster of emergent behaviours that is not the same as consciousness. One doesn't observe conscious cognition; rather it is conscious cognition that does the observing; it is the beholder and not the beheld. Carroll can’t have it both ways; either he should simply ignore consciousness, or if he wishes to recognize it as something significant (as he has effectively done above) he shouldn't include it in his phenomenon list; in which case this would be an admission that consciousness doesn't classify as a member of the class of phenomena.
 You can’t bend spoons with the sheer force of your mind. There are no forces of nature which allow you to do that…Astrology cannot work; there  is no force that can extend from those stars to my little birth place…. We already know ahead of time that they cannot be right because the claims they are making are not compatible with the laws of physics as we know them
My Comment; Fair enough but only if we feel sure, “ahead of time”, that the cellular model of physics is all embracing and exclusive!
There is no life after death…That’s because there are no particles or forces that could contain the information in your brain after you die…that’s not compatible with the laws of physics as we know them. We don’t need to look carefully at past life regression studies or anything like that; the claim violates the laws of physics
My Comment: I suspect Carroll may be trading here on the connotations of the words “laws” and “violation”. The laws of physics don’t know themselves to be literally “laws” that cannot be “violated”; rather they are mathematical constructions describing patterns consistent with our observational experiences to date; this latter take, which uses neutral words like patterns in place of emotive words like laws or rules, doesn’t allow us to form statements with negative connotations such as “A violation in the laws of physics”.
Physics comes with an implicit understanding of the set of circumstances to which it applies: Viz: For all O then P , where O is a set of observational/experiential connections and P is the claim that physics ultimately “explains” O. The big question here is this: Are we to regard “O” as covering all possible experiences or just a subset of experience? At this point a philosophical leap has to made: For example, we might assume that the ontology physics handles (i.e. objects called fields) is inclusive of all there can be and that therefore “O” must cover all experiential connections. Accordingly, it might be argued that there is no observational evidence for O that isn’t explained by physics.  (This is what I mean when I refer to Carroll’s ulterior ontology). But in saying that we are, in fact, making a universal statement that is subject to the test of experience; that is, ultimately it is experience that is used to negotiate with a statement like For all O then P. Ergo, sufficiently compelling claims of occult experience are always on the agenda for analysis whatever Carroll likes to think ahead of time.
Having said that, however, we must recognize that “occult” claims are usually liminal in nature and therefore Carroll can hardly be blamed if he feels “ahead time” that these experiences are not compelling enough to warrant further investigation. Moreover, Carroll has a huge stake in the scientific establishment and therefore may be motivated by the all too human trait of desiring to draw a line round what can be defined as authentic experience, thus paving the way, ahead of time, for dissenters to be accused of the scientific equivalent of heresy!
There is no ghost in the machine. What you are is a collection of atoms obeying the laws of nature.
My Comment: I don’t believe in the ghost in the machine myself, but Carroll’s second statement here is blindingly obvious, and yet at the same time omits the blindingly obvious. It is clear that any observation one makes on a person will only ever reveal the third person perspective of matter aggregates in motion; that and emergent behaviour.  It is also obvious, and this is what Carroll is missing, those observations which are the data samples for our physical theories about human behaviour cannot be meaningfully divorced from the conscious cognition that is the assumed agent and underwriter of these samples. Ergo, third person narratives always entail an implicit and irremovable first person perspective. However we couch it, whether in first or third person terms, conscious cognition is always lurking in the background as the source of the data samples that are the rationale of all theorizing.
 I am myself very comfortable with the idea that conscious cognition can “explain itself” in the third persons terms of atomic motions in the brain. But in spite of that we never approach a another person is if they are just a collection of atoms or even a collection of high level stories that are simply a convenient way of talking about the emergent behaviour of that collection of atoms. Rather, a parallel story of conscious cognition is the empathic construction we make and associate with those third person observations on neural atoms; we know what it “feels like” to be that configuration of atoms and fields. It is this dual story of the first and third persons that flaws Carroll’s category system which places “weather” together with consciousness cognition. Weather may be a convenient way of talking about a huge collection of particles, but all said and done it is still a third person perspective and as such it is not a logical analogue of conscious cognition; the latter is in an entirely different logical category altogether. The stories of the first and third person perspectives cannot be reduced to one mother; they are two parallel perspectives that arise when conscious cognition makes observations on conscious cognition.

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