In the Clear Light of Day

In my previous post in this series, I related how I came to be interested in science through experiences I had while going to school in central Florida.  When I left home to attend college, I was determined to pursue a career in physics.  Away from the influence of family, I tried to maintain a faith in the religion of my childhood, but I could not do it.  I came to believe that the way to know about the world was through science.  I came to disbelieve that religion had anything to offer in terms of my life or well-being.  For me as a college student, religion became a form of superstition that could be replaced by a rational understanding of the world.  It wasn’t until I dropped out of school and faced to full existential threat of the Vietnam War, that I had to face the prospect that reason alone could not save me from the social and political forces over which I had no control.

In the midst this crisis, I accidently encountered a form of existential Christianity that I could accept.  This theology provided me with an assurance of self-worth without which I do not believe I could have extricated myself from certain doom.  This existential form of Christianity did not rely on supernatural explanations nor on scripture.  It relied on an understanding of human life to which I could relate given that I was facing a crisis.  It relied on a metaphorical explanation for God and for Christ in which these words referred to real human experience rather than some supernatural power.  This experience was invaluable to me because I do not think I could have moved ahead with a family or career without it.  But it did set up a long term dilemma that I had to eventually resolve.

The dilemma evolved over time as I pursued a career and raised two children with my wife.  During this period I came to experience a real power at work in my consciousness about life and about myself that led me to be a more moral human being.  I did not perceive this new awareness to have come from within myself because in many cases I was persuaded to do things that did not at first appear to be in my self-interest.  Some people might attribute these experiences as due to social forces or life experience, but there was a unity of consciousness that came through to me based on the ‘God’ symbol and ‘Christ’ symbol that could not have been due to social forces alone.  The best single word that I can use to describe these experiences is ‘revelation.’  It was revelation based on my own personal situation and about which no one else could know and it led me to make surprising decisions about my own life.

At any rate, I came to believe that there was a real power at work in human consciousness and that power could not be described as simply metaphorical.  In other words, my dilemma boiled down to this question: Did the word-symbol, ‘God,’ point only to human experience or did it point to a real power at work in the universe that I could experience through consciousness?  This question has led me to seek out a physical and non-supernatural basis for such consciousness that could be discovered through science and reason.

In order for me to convey some sense of my journey, I need to describe the intellectual dilemma raised by that question about the reality of ‘God’.  On one hand, I was taught through my science training that the universe was a collection of blind forces that were indifferent to human life, but out of which human life arose, struggled and prevailed.  On the other hand, my theological training and my experience of revelation convinced me that the universe was friendly to human life and that is the reason human life prevailed.  The key question for me became: how does the universe really work?  Is there some way for the universe itself to directly affect consciousness?  I came to the conclusion that the answer is yes.

Therefore, there are two opposite views about the nature of the universe that are useful for me to discuss.  One extreme is that the universe is a collection of blind forces that are, at best, indifferent to human fate.  The other extreme is that the universe is friendly to human existence.  It should be clear that either extreme can lead to aberrant life choices.  If one is convinced that the universe is hostile to life, paranoia or depression can result. I have, on occasion, experienced these emotions.  At the other extreme, naïve trust can result in a fatal ignorance of reality, and I have, on occasion, been tempted by misplaced trust in my own invulnerability.  Because these two extreme views can be so consequential, it will be helpful to discuss the evidence for either point of view.

In the past, I might have framed this discussion as ‘atheism’ verses ‘theism’, but I now believe this is misguided.  For one thing, raising the question of God at this point brings up a whole host of theological issues that are best left to a discussion based on faith rather than reason.   I prefer now to adhere to reason as much as possible, knowing that the first step towards faith is a reasoned assertion that we are not alone.  So perhaps the best way I can convey the relevant points of view regarding the nature of the universe would be through the concepts of materialism and rational agency.

Materialism is the point of view that the universe is a collection of blind forces that are responsible for everything.  It is the point of view that all of life and consciousness emerge from random interactions of matter with the known physical and chemical forces, namely electromagnetism, gravity, the nuclear force and the weak force.  From a practical perspective, perhaps we can ignore the nuclear force and the weak force because they play virtually no part in the biochemistry from which life and consciousness emerge.  It is about these constituent forces and associated particles that our best theories inform us.

Rational agency is the view that there is a rational power active in the universe that is or can be friendly to life.  This rational power, by definition, must have some ability to direct events in the universe and this activity must be done through normal physical forces.  There must be no appeal to supernatural powers. This purported rational power is not ‘God,’ but many physicists and scientists have used that word to describe a belief in a rational order to the universe.  I will try to avoid using the word ‘God’ in this way except when quoting or paraphrasing other writers for whom ‘God’ has this meaning.

To make the leap from rational power to God requires a faith in certain additional attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and omnibenevolence.  Belief in all four attributes results in the theodicy paradox of why there is evil in the world which, again, has to be reconciled by faith.  The theodicy paradox requires that the theological problem of evil be reconciled with the divine attributes of complete power, complete knowledge and complete goodness.  The theodicy paradox has resulted in some well-known renunciations of faith.

Materialism and rational agency are at two extremes hypothesized for the purpose of understanding each one separately.  Randomness is a key attribute of materialism and directed action is a key attribute of rational agency.  In the real world, these two attributes are not mutually exclusive and may both be present to some extent.  It will be helpful to view materialism and rational agency as two concepts in a dialectic from which some synthesis may emerge.  I will need to lay out some significant scientific principles in order to explain how randomness and directed action might both be present in the world.

But, I would like to begin with a discussion of panpsychism which Jim Holt includes in his chapters on mathematical Platonism.  Panpsychism is the view that consciousness has a physical basis and is present in the tiniest units of matter.  I had gradually come to the conclusion that panpsychism is real through my studies of Roger Penrose and his view of consciousness which I describe in my very early posts from 2007.  But I didn’t know it by that word until I read Jim Holt’s book.

So it was with eager anticipation that I began to read of Jim Holt’s treatment of mathematical Platonism which begins with an interview of Roger Penrose.  Sir Roger explains his view that the universe can be understood as three interrelated worlds:  the platonic mathematical world, the physical world and the mental world.  These three worlds are arranged so that each is dependent on one of the others.  There is circularity about this arrangement not unlike M. C. Escher’s waterfall or staircase drawings: the platonic mathematical world is dependent on the mental world which is dependent on the physical world which is dependent on the platonic mathematical world.  In fact, Holt tells us that Penrose’s early work on “impossible objects” was the inspiration for some of Escher’s drawings.

The basic idea of mathematical Platonism is that the world of mathematics is a real world with an independent existence that can be discovered and explored by mathematicians, in much the same way that other empirical sciences work.  Many mathematicians take this point of view.  One of the best arguments for the reality of a mathematical world is the apparent fact that mathematics is indispensable to physics.  Holt brings up the counter argument that there are ways to completely describe some parts of physics (Newtonian physics) without recourse to math.  I have severe doubts that such an approach could be extended to relativity or quantum physics, and, even if it was, no physicist would use it.  Therefore, it is very hard to escape the notion that math is crucial to doing physics even if one does not believe it has an independent platonic existence.

This puzzle is at the heart of Penrose’s worldview: Why is it that the abstract world of mathematics can agree so well with the empirical world of physics?  This agreement is not acquired easily.  There is almost always significant debate and disagreement over physical theories and the mathematics that represents those theories.  Decades sometimes elapse before the scientific community comes to some agreement about the correct form of a theory.  We tend to think that Albert Einstein, alone, came up with the theory of relativity, but the final form of the theory has benefitted from Einstein’s dialog with many others. But Holt seems to discount any meaning to the agreement between mathematics and experiment, preferring to characterize Sir Roger’s vision as “a spell” that gradually wore off.

I recently have been taking a series of online courses in theoretical physics.  The amount and quality of educational material online is absolutely amazing.  The particular physics series that I am taking is taught by Leonard Susskind, one of the premier senior theoretical physicists in the world.  There are more than 70 individual teaching sessions available at last count, and most sessions are more than 90 minutes long.  I have completed most of the sessions and all of the sessions on Quantum theory and Relativity.  I can say with confidence that any explanation of these theories without mathematics would be superficial.  The math is part of the indispensable narrative that explains why the theories are true.

It is one of the ironies of my life that while I was studying physics at an east coast college, over 2000 miles away, on the west coast, Richard Feynman was developing a new approach to teaching physics.  This new approach was the basis for his lecture series, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, published in 1965. Leonard Susskind was one of Feynman’s friends and colleagues.  As it turned out, I became dissatisfied with the physics curriculum and changed to math.  When I chose a career, I chose software engineering where my math background served me very well.  I spent several years developing the code for yield and present value calculations for many different type of investments in an investment accounting package.  So this review of theoretical physics has been very helpful considering my detour through software engineering.

Math may be indispensable to physics, but not all of the relevant mathematics can be used to explain empirical results.  When there are multiple solutions to equations, some of the solutions clearly don’t correspond to real-world answers.  The simplest example is when theories require the square root of a value and in almost all cases, it is the positive value of the square root that is meant because a negative number would have no physical significance.  In other cases, mathematical equations need to be qualified by physical insights that are not always obvious directly from the mathematics.  In special relativity, the Lorentz transformation uses both the speed of light and the velocity of an object.  Mathematically, the velocity could be greater than the speed of light, but that is prohibited by the theory.  In other words, the development of mathematical support for physics involves a complex dialog between what the mathematics is saying and knowledge about the actual real-world that the math is intended to describe.  This illustrates Penrose’s point that the real physical world is described by only a small portion of mathematics and that the math only describes a portion of the real physical world.

The mathematics that does correspond to physical reality is extremely important, however.  It allows physicists and engineers to make predictions about real-world results.  I think it is a mistake to discount this predictive ability of mathematics, as Holt seems to do.  I think there are deep underlying reasons why the abstract world of mathematics actually does correspond to physical reality even if those correspondences are hard-won.  I have come to the conclusion that this correspondence is not a coincidence and forms part of the evidence for the physical basis of consciousness called panpsychism. This correspondence is also the reason we think the universe is described by a well-ordered set of rules that we call the laws of physics.

Speaking of evidence, how much evidence constitutes proof?  Well, the standards for proof vary depending on the importance of the consequences of proof.  Using our legal system as an example, there are at least two standards that will illustrate the correlation between the standard of proof and the consequence of proof.  One standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that other is proof based on the preponderance of the evidence.  I first learned about the different standards for evidence between criminal trials and civil trials from the O. J. Simpson case.

For those who need to be reminded, in 1994 the retired football player and actor, O. J. Simpson, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and another person.  He was brought to trial and in October, 1995, he was acquitted.  In 1996, the families of the murdered victims brought a civil suit against Simpson for wrongful death.  The jury in the civil suit found Simpson liable and awarded the families $46 million for damages.

The standard of proof for a criminal case is based on certainty “beyond a reasonable doubt”; whereas the standard for a civil case is based on the “preponderance of the evidence”.  Part of the reason for a higher standard of proof for the criminal case is that the consequence of a guilty verdict is significantly more severe than in a civil case.

The same idea can be applied to evidence for other questions.  On the question whether our universe is better explained by materialism alone verses rational agency, how important are the consequences?  I came to the conclusion that though the consequences are very important, they probably don’t warrant absolute proof beyond any doubt.  Therefore, I think that a standard of proof based on the preponderance of the evidence is appropriate, particularly considering that a reasoned acceptance of rational agency can be a first step towards faith.  Typically, that means that there is a greater than 50% chance that the evidence supports one side of the question.  For me, the evidence greatly exceeds a 50% confidence that rational agency is a better explanation for the nature of the universe.

The weight of the evidence is something on which reasonable people might disagree.  But disagreement does not mean that one party is being either irrational or stubborn.  Disagreement is not a reason to condemn another person.  I don’t know of any examples where others have spoken about reasons for rational agency in the universe and the standards of evidence for that position, but I do know about such effects on some people concerning the question of God.  One’s perception of the evidence will vary greatly based on personal experience.

In one case, Rabbi David Wolpe inscribed his 2008 book, Why Faith Matters, to his children: “For Eliana and Samara: All the proof I need.”  A Rabbi’s son himself, Wolpe was raised to a traditional Jewish faith.  As a teenager, he soon lost that faith because of the problem of evil (the theodicy) and became a devotee of Bertrand Russell, a noted atheist.  Wolpe describes this period in his life:  “Life was suddenly murky, a place of night and fog.  Human life was an accident and everything that happened was a simple product of blind forces.  I longed for help in navigating this new terrain.  How does one live in a chaotic world?  I found a path in the words of an English philosopher.”

In time, Wolpe became disenchanted with Russell primarily because Russell’s personal life was such a mess.  If Russell’s ideas were correct, why couldn’t he live a life that Wolpe wanted to emulate?  Wolpe tells us: “Russell proved in the end to be an unexpectedly useful guide.  The atheistic philosopher with his corrosive wit taught me to question, constantly and repeatedly.  What Russell did not teach was that questions could themselves lead to faith. A brittle faith fears questions; a robust faith welcomes them.”

Wolpe’s journey from faith to unfaith and back to faith happened quickly enough for him to make a career choice to become a Rabbi.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is Antony Flew whose journey back to faith took almost his entire life.  Son of a British Methodist minister, Flew was an outspoken critic of theism for over fifty years.  In the early 2000’s Flew gradually admitted that he had changed his belief to a form of Deism.  My reading of Flew’s book, There is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, leads me to conclude that Flew’s Deism is very close to what I am calling a Rational Agent.  While Flew’s conversion has spawned much controversy, it is notable for Flew’s insistence that he has followed the evidence wherever it led, and has done so his entire life.

Let me now return to the physical basis for consciousness.  Holt’s summary of panpsychism is helpful:

The doctrine that consciousness pervades reality is called “panpsychism.” It seems to harken back to primitive superstitions like animism—the belief that trees and brooks harbor spirits. Yet it has attracted quite a bit of interest among contemporary philosophers. A few decades ago, Thomas Nagel showed that panpsychism, for all its apparent daftness, is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. Our brains consist of material particles. These particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves—features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons, and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.

Another contemporary thinker who takes panpsychism seriously is the Australian philosopher David Chalmers. What attracts Chalmers to panpsychism is that it promises to solve two metaphysical problems for the price of one: the problem of stuff and the problem of consciousness. Not only does panpsychism furnish the basic stuff—mind-stuff—that might flesh out the purely structural world described by physics. It also explains why that otherwise gray physical world is bursting with Technicolor consciousness. Consciousness didn’t mysteriously “emerge” in the universe when certain particles of matter chanced to come into the right arrangement; rather, it’s been around from the very beginning, because those particles themselves are bits of consciousness. A single ontology thus underlies the subjective-information states in our minds and the objective-information states of the physical world—whence Chalmers’s slogan: “Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside.”

Panpsychism is one of the philosophical presuppositions that I needed to support the evidence for rational agency.  Another philosophical presupposition is objective realism:  the world is a real independent phenomenon that exists whether I exist or not.  The third pillar is that the universe is an ordered unity, understandable by science and reason.  There is empirical evidence for panpsychism and for the proposition that the universe is an ordered unity, but objective realism must simply be decided.  There cannot be much of a discussion about evidence if one takes the position that all evidence is subjective.

My next segment will begin a series on the evidence from physics and cosmology.

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