Value Realism

In Chapter 5 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel challenges the traditional Darwinian narrative about the origin of values.  This is a formidable task since the traditional view makes a lot of sense:  through natural selection and adaptation, each species learns to value whatever is beneficial to its survival and reproduction.  Condensed to the main point, value is the product of evolution; it was not present at the beginning of life.  He refers to this point of view as “Value Subjectivism.”

“Value Realism,” by contrast asserts that the propensity for life is a value present at the beginning of life, before evolution has a chance to create it.  Nagel begins his argument by asserting that pleasure and pain are real fundamental values: “Nevertheless I remain convinced that pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like.”  Nagel readily admits that such a position is explained in the Darwinian narrative as an illusion created by natural selection, but he resists that logic as unconvincing:

“The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that.”

This is a difficult argument to make because the traditional Darwinian narrative makes sense and Value Realism requires deep reflection on the nature of life, not something that we non-philosophers are disposed to do.  I found myself resisting Nagel’s argument, though by the end of the chapter, I had a grudging acceptance of the possibility that he might have a valid point.

I think Nagel’s main point comes to a placing of real value on survival and that survival takes precedence even over replication.  For me the key paragraph contains the following:

“First, with the appearance of life even in its earliest forms, there come into existence entities that have a good, and for which things can go well or badly. Even a bacterium has a good in this sense, in virtue of its proper functioning, whereas a rock does not. Eventually in the course of evolutionary history there appear conscious beings, whose experiential lives can go well or badly in ways that are familiar to us. Later some descendants of those beings, capable of reflection and self-consciousness, come to recognize what happens to them as good or bad, and to recognize reasons for pursuing or avoiding those things.”

Nagel’s position is a minor adjustment to the Darwinian narrative, but it emphasizes that all organisms needed motivation to survive even before motivation to replicate.  It is a re-statement of the principle that natural law favors life.  The same teleological principle that provided for life from ordinary matter provides for the guidance of life toward survival.  In the final analysis, it is difficult to tell if Nagel’s “Value Realism” is a reason for natural teleology or consequence of natural teleology.

Nagel re-emphasizes that the alternatives to a natural teleology are either a chemical “miracle” or divine intervention.  The probability of random chemical encounters producing anything as complex as DNA or RNA (or their precursors) is so small that “miracle” appears to be impossible.  That leaves divine intervention which Nagel and other atheists resist.  Nagel thinks that any divine intervention that circumvents the natural order is as impossible as “miracle.”  I agree with him on this, but I think that there is another alternative: God works through the natural order because God would not need to circumvent natural law that God created.  What we call natural law, like the universe in which we live, is much stranger than we imagine it to be.

If natural teleology is true then I would attribute the teleological principle to God and this is exactly the step that atheists who criticize Nagel fear.  According to his atheist critics, Nagel’s position is too compatible with theism.  However, the atheist argument can still invoke Occam’s razor and insist that natural teleology is the simpler explanation.  The real question is whether natural teleology can support the full gamut of subjective experience attributable to human consciousness.

The Teleological Solution

At the end of Chapter 4 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel finally turns to his candidate for best solution to the problem of consciousness:

I am drawn to a fourth alternative, natural teleology, or teleological bias, as an account of the existence of the biological possibilities on which natural selection can operate. I believe that teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law. . . . Teleology means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are “biased toward the marvelous.”

A teleological bias in physical law means that the laws governing all fundamental interaction would tend to produce outcomes that favor life and consciousness.  But, according to Nagel, such a bias could not be expressible in reducible physical law:

The idea of teleology as part of the natural order flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century. Teleology would mean that some natural laws, unlike all the basic scientific laws discovered so far, are temporally historical in their operation. The laws of physics are all equations specifying universal relations that hold at every time and place among mathematically specifiable quantities like force, mass, charge, distance, and velocity. In a nonteleological system the explanation of any temporally extended process has to consist in the explanation, by reference to those laws, of how each state of the universe evolved from its immediate predecessor. Teleology, by contrast, would admit irreducible principles governing temporally extended development.

The challenge for any teleological based theory is whether such time-dependent changes in physical law can be experimentally detected.  If such goal-based bias cannot be detected in physical law, then teleology is essentially a faith-based system.  Experiments to detect time-dependent changes in physical law have so far come up empty.  So, the effect is very small if it exists at all.

I also think there must be some time-dependent effects in physical law, otherwise how could order producing organisms be created in a universe where unguided physical law seems to favor an increase in disorder.  Of course, Nagel believes such effects are attributable to “naturalistic” effects and I think they are attributable to an ordering power at work in the universe.  The difference is that an ordering power could be interpreted as evidence for God and a naturalistic approach would favor a non-theistic interpretation.  The advantage of Nagel’s interpretation is that atheists can embrace the evidence for an order producing power without directly naming it or considering it evidence for God.

The main weakness in the current atheist argument is the denial of an active ordering power in the universe.  This position flies in the face of common sense and puts atheism on the defensive, relying on arguments based on the problems with religious institutions.  This may seem like a strange thing for a believer in God to say, but atheists need a strong metaphysical argument for the naturalistic position so that faith-based institutions will take seriously their arguments about the failings of religion.  Nagel provides that metaphysical basis and atheists would do well to pay attention to him.

However, others have criticized Mind and Cosmos because Nagel fails to garner support from science for his position.  (See, for example, https://chronicle.com/article/Where-Thomas-Nagel-Went-Wrong/139129/.)  Such support does indeed exist and Nagel’s failure to include references to the science means that his argument is weakened.  In fact, even Nagel’s summary of the book in the New York Times seems to step back from the teleological argument because he does not mention it: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/?smid=pl-share.

And then there is the charge that Nagel has been too soft on the theistic option.  I don’t find him soft on theism so much as failing to put forth the standard arguments against religion.  The arguments against religion consist almost entirely on the problems that religion can cause among its adherents plus the incomprehensibility of religion from the point of view of non-theists.  But arguments against religion are not arguments against theism so I find this criticism out of place.

Of course, Nagel does admit that his teleological explanation does not definitively rule out a theistic interpretation.  But he correctly points out that theism seems like an unnecessary complication if the naturalistic explanation is sufficient.  This is where I think the argument between believers and atheists should be:  to what extent is the naturalistic explanation sufficient to account for human subjective experience?  I think that a naturalistic teleology in particular and atheism in general will fall short of satisfying the deep human yearning for spiritual truths.

That is probably the real reason that Nagel’s atheistic critics do not like his book.  A proper debate on the merits of the atheist position looks very weak unless some sort of ordering power is conceded.  But conceding an ordering power seems to be conceding too much because it can be mistaken for evidence of divinity.  However, Nagel maintains that atheism is a viable alternative if one views the ordering power as a natural teleology that is not subject to divine control.  In this position he does not waver.

Consciousness and Dualism (Part 3)

Late in chapter 3 of Mind and Cosmos, Nagel introduces one of the candidates for a likely solution to the problem of Cartesian dualism.  This approach can be called monism or panpsychism.  Panpsychism is the view that matter and mind are two different manifestations of a single unnamed substance.  Nagel thinks this path offers one possible framework for an eventual solution:

“Everything, living or not, is constituted from elements having a nature that is both physical and nonphysical— that is, capable of combining into mental wholes. So this reductive account can also be described as a form of panpsychism: all the elements of the physical world are also mental.”

“A comprehensively reductive conception is favored by the belief that the propensity for the development of organisms with a subjective point of view must have been there from the beginning, just as the propensity for the formation of atoms, molecules, galaxies, and organic compounds must have been there from the beginning, in consequence of the already existing properties of the fundamental particles. If we imagine an explanation taking the form of an enlarged version of the natural order, with complex local phenomena formed by composition from universally available basic elements, it will depend on some kind of monism or panpsychism, rather than laws of psychophysical emergence that come into operation only late in the game.”

However, there is a serious problem.  We have no idea how elementary particles could possess subjectivity which Nagel calls the “proto-mental” attribute.  Such an understanding would be necessary in order to build a framework for explaining how individual particles could come together and form conscious organisms.  The best candidate for such an explanation is quantum physics, but our understanding of quantum physics today is limited to its computational aspects.  If those aspects are real, then computation only supplies part of the solution.  And you would need to assume that consciousness is partly the result of computation.

There are some philosophical positions that hold that consciousness is all computation (Dennett, Kurzweil).  Anyone holding such a position may be quite happy with a quantum solution since it would explain how minds could be made of matter with computational abilities.  Still, one would need to work out the details of how individual particles with computational ability can be organized so that the total organism’s mind appears to be an unbroken whole.  That work might be made easier by quantum entanglement, but there is very little theoretical understanding on which to build.

Quantum entanglement provides some theoretical advantage over classical computation.  Quantum entanglement enables quantum information to be coded more compactly than classical information giving it the ability to reduce entropy.  Low entropy is a characteristic of order.  In this way, quantum computation has order producing power beyond the ordering power of classical computation.  But how this could take place in biological organisms remains a mystery.

Nagel finds additional problems with panpsychism when he imagines how it might address the developmental problem of life.  How did life originally arise from non-living matter and how did this proto-mental attribute of matter overcome the unlikelihood of random chemical interactions leading to life?  He concludes the section on panpsychism with this pessimistic comment:

“The idea of a reductive answer to both the constitutive and the historical questions remains very dark indeed. It seeks a deeper and more cosmically unified explanation of consciousness than an emergent theory, but at the cost of greater obscurity, and it offers no evident advantage with respect to the historical problem of likelihood.”

I find myself more optimistic about the outlook for a form of panpsychism that is based on quantum physics.  I think the entropy lowering capability of quantum computation will go a long way towards explaining the ordering power inherent in life and consciousness.  The problem is that quantum computation does not really explain subjective experience unless you assume that subjectivity is the result of computation.  And that assumption re-introduces the problem of dualism because you would need to assume subjectivity in all matter, not just living matter.  As soon as you’ve assumed that subjective experience is an attribute of living matter only, then it has to be an optional attribute, introduced by something besides physical law.

Consider what happens at the moment of death of any living organism.  For a brief instant, the chemical composition remains unchanged, yet life and consciousness are gone.  Subjectivity as we have come to know it during life has disappeared.  This would seem to indicate that subjectivity is an optional attribute of the material world, and that is dualism.

I suppose it is possible that there are subtle changes in the chemical composition at the time of death, but will those changes be sufficiently observable to clearly indicate which came first?  The subtlety may be telling us how miraculous consciousness is in the first place.  One can also consider the action of anesthetics which cause temporary unconsciousness.  For example, ether can cause unconsciousness in humans and inactivity in the one-celled animal paramecium, yet its exact action remains unexplained.

While I think that panpsychism based on quantum physics offers hope for explaining the tremendous ordering power of life and consciousness, I do not find that it offers a complete answer to the problem of dualism when viewed from the materialist point of view.  I am drawn more to the idealist point of view as a solution to dualism.  No less a world-class physicist than Leonard Susskind has suggested that the universe may be like a hologram. (A hologram is a three dimensional projection from a two dimensional source.  For Susskind’s analogy to hold, the universe would need to be a four dimensional projection from some external source.)  Susskind is an atheist, so he will not agree with my perspective that the universe is a projection from God, but that appears to be the only view that solves the problem of consciousness and dualism.

Thomas Nagel doesn’t agree with me either.  He finishes up chapter three by dismissing the theist path of an intentional power, but gives more credibility to what he calls the teleological framework.  The teleological path requires that the laws of nature are “value free,” yet they proceed toward a defined purpose or goal.  Nature’s laws would need to be “value free” to avoid the appearance of an intentional designer.  He needs to say more about how a desired goal can be free of value, and he promises to do so later in the book.

Theism and Materialism

In Chapter 2 of Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, the author explores the typical positions held by proponents of theism and by proponents of evolution.  His focus is sharpened by analysis of the different ways that each point of view attempts to make sense of human beings who are part of the world that ought to be intelligible to us.

According to Nagel, theists appeal to a deity who is outside the natural order, but who nevertheless provides intention and directionality to the natural order and who assures us of the basic reliability of our observational capacity and our reasoning ability.  It is a reassuring position at the expense of requiring a power outside of the natural order.  It suffers from a lack of any serious attempt to make human beings intelligible from within the natural order.

Evolutionary naturalists, on the other hand, claim that humanity is intelligible from within the natural order based on science and reason.  But, again according to Nagel, the problem is that both science and reason are the products of evolution and we have no authority outside of ourselves to substantiate the reliability of our understanding of science.  In Nagel’s terminology, evolutionary naturalism undermines its own claim of reliability.  Ultimately, the evolutionary explanations fail because the science that we possess has failed to explain consciousness and therefore failed to explain why we should trust the judgments arising from our consciousness.

I think Nagel is stretching too far for a criticism of the evolutionary point of view.  Its main problem is the inability for science to explain consciousness.  To find fault for the inability of evolution to provide reassurance that our reasoning is sound is the same criticism that can be applied to the theist position.   Both positions are based on faith!  Theists have faith in God based on a religious community and Darwinian evolutionists have faith in science based on the scientific community.  If anything, the evolutionary point of view has the advantage in that the scientific community is generally more unified and disciplined than the religious community.

The primary distinction between the two points of view, then, is the position and importance that each assigns to humanity.  Theism relies on a power outside the normal purview of science to explain and give meaning to human life and consciousness while evolution relies solely on current science at the expense of diminishing any essential or transcendent importance for human life and consciousness.

Nagel is searching for middle ground.  He wants an explanation for consciousness that does not rely on a power outside the natural order.  At this point in his book, I think he fails to see that any such explanation will be relying on faith in something.  Whether that something is science or philosophy or some combination, it will still be the object of faith.  Given the constraints on his search that there can be no power outside the natural order, his explanation would not be able to claim any more authority than evolutionary materialism.

From my point of view, a form of theism that provides a way for God to work through the natural order provides the best alternative.  The importance and discipline of science is maintained and modified so that human life and consciousness have access to transcendent power for guidance and assurance.

Scientific reductionism ends at the quantum boundary, so the assumption of transcendent consciousness working at the quantum level provides for the needed adjustment to science while maintaining the entire scientific edifice based on empirical evidence and reductionist explanation.  And there is scientific evidence for an order producing power working at the quantum level.  This evidence is being developed by the nascent scientific discipline of quantum biology.

The strongest evidence to date comes from quantum action during photosynthesis, but I expect much more evidence as quantum biology matures.  After all, isn’t all of physics based on quantum action?  The only alternative besides dualism would be a view that posits new scientific principles acting at the biological level.  But, it seems to me that there is too much continuity between chemistry and biology.  That continuity leaves little room for wholly new principles to be plausible.

Consciousness (Part 2)

Conclusion

Within the framework of a universe whose total entropy is always increasing, there is the surprising fact that the laws of physics allow for temporary decreases in entropy.  This direction of decreasing entropy is counter to the overall increase in total entropy and yet does not violate any physical law.  Processes that temporarily decrease entropy are essential to life and they are also present in such well-understood phenomenon as lasers and superconductivity where the process is traceable to quantum physics.  I think it is a reasonable position that all such processes of decreasing entropy are traceable to quantum physics and to decoherence in particular.   Quantum computation is a real process, though it is not yet practical on a large scale.  Quantum computation happens during entangled states of coherence and the results are reported by decoherence.  The most direct evidence that this is happening in biological organisms is from photosynthesis.  During photosynthesis, extended quantum coherence takes place during the transport of photons from the light-harvesting chlorophyll molecules to the reaction center where food production begins.   This results in the near 100% efficiency with which light energy is transported.

Quantum physics is the most fundamental of the physical sciences.  It accurately describes all interactions at the level of fundamental particles, whether they be matter particles such as protons, neutrons or electrons or whether they be energy particles such as photons (light).  If one takes the position that quantum states are real (though they are not directly measurable), then it is reasonable to conclude that the universe must decide where and when such states collapse into a single measurable quantity: the universe must make a decision for every single transfer of energy.  That is the fundamental decisionality underlying all physical activity.

I think it is a reasonable to extend the quantum role in photosynthesis to biology in general.  The protein folding problem in particular has significant similarities with photosynthesis in that an energy landscape must be navigated.  In photosynthesis, the energy landscape funnels a photon to the plant cell’s reaction center where food production begins.  In the protein folding problem the protein folds by navigating an energy funnel to a conformal state which has a lower overall energy level.  The shape into which proteins fold is crucial to their function in the cell and undetected misfolded proteins are implicated in some disease processes.  Recent research supports the view that quantum physics plays a role in protein folding (cf. Lou and Lu, 2011).

It is reasonable to extend the role of quantum computation to the operation of all biological molecules.  They are certainly small enough to be affected by quantum effects.  It fits the overall model that the cell is an information processing marvel.  DNA contains information about the sequence of amino acids in proteins in a coded form (three nucleotides per amino acid).  RNA and ribosomes decode the sequence to produce proteins.  Proteins work together to form complex molecular machines that assist the cell in keeping entropy low despite the constant loss of entropy to the environment.  There is an amazing real-time cooperation, an unbelievable choreography among different cell functions that would be impossible to fully explain through any other mechanism.  A reasonable position is that quantum decisionality is active throughout all biological organisms and the most basic unit of processing is the biological molecule as Professor James A. Shapiro has suggested.  Recent research supports the view that quantum entanglement is active in the DNA molecule (cf. Reiper, Anders and Vedral, 2011).

Although the exact path to creation of the earliest forms of life remains hidden from us, it is reasonable to think that the laws of physics and chemistry favored a path to life.  The alternatives to such a conclusion are either that life happened by blind chance or there was some supernatural intervention in the creation process that bypassed the laws of physics.  A reasonable thought process must rule out both of these options as highly improbable.   Since it is reasonable to think that quantum processes play a significant part in modern biological cells, it is a reasonable extension to think that quantum processes played a part in the creation of life.  It is the quantum computations that provide the necessary bias toward life.

(For those readers who have a theistic view of the universe, as I do, let me pose the question about supernatural intervention this way:  Why would the Creator of the universe put in place laws of nature that He or She would need to bypass?  I view the laws of nature as a kind of covenant with the universe.  The rules of quantum physics allow all the needed degrees of freedom for God’s intervention in history.)

Quantum computation is a real process, but is still in the research and development phase.  Some very simple calculations have been demonstrated such as factoring small numbers.  Factoring is one application that has garnered much interest because factoring can be done much faster on quantum computers than on ordinary computers.  If factoring can be done quickly on large numbers then some public key cryptographic systems would become obsolete.    For example, the RSA scheme relies on the impracticality of factoring large numbers, typically 617 digits long.  Public key cryptography is used to support the security infrastructure that enables shoppers to connect securely to a web site when they provide payment information.  The largest number factored by conventional methods during the RSA factoring challenge, which ended in 2009, was 232 digits and Microsoft has recently blocked any keys with less than 309 digits.  The largest number currently factored by quantum computer using the well-understood Shor’s algorithm is the 2 digit number 21.

However there is another quantum factoring algorithm that has demonstrated factoring of the 3 digit number 143.  Very interestingly, this algorithm finds the factors by arranging the quantum hardware (qubits) in a pattern where the answer can be read when the qubits settle in their lowest energy state, possibly using a quantum process similar to the one proposed for photosynthesis, that is, traversing an energy landscape toward the lowest overall energy level.  However, there is no reason to think this new algorithm can be scaled up for very large numbers.  (Within the past few weeks, there has been another report of quantum computation that works by traversing an energy landscape.  That claim comes from D-Wave Systems which hopes to produce the first commercial quantum computer.)

But it would be a mistake to assume that natural quantum computations of the type that take place during photosynthesis are implementations of any known mathematics.  The analysis that was done on the photosynthesis data led researchers to conclude that the quantum computation was not an ordinary search algorithm of the type that would have been implemented by a human programmer.  If quantum decisionality is the physical process underlying consciousness as Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff propose, then it is unlikely that the full spectrum of quantum computations could be implemented on any ordinary computer.  The quantum computations would be both non-deterministic and, ironically, non-computational in Penrose’s analysis.

In a recent paper, Physicist Roger Penrose and Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff have summarized their proposal and answered critics.  The paper is titled, “Consciousness in the Universe: Neuroscience, Quantum Space-Time Geometry and Orch OR Theory” (Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol. 14).  The Penrose-Hameroff proposal for quantum consciousness calls for quantum coherence within the very numerous microtubules that support brain cell structure.  Microtubules are very small hollow tubes in the neurons, about 25 nanometers in diameter, which would appear ideal for isolating quantum coherence from the environment.  Unlike the microtubules in other cells that form and break apart as needed, the microtubules in neurons are stabilized by another protein, called the tau protein.  Mature Nerve cells don’t divide, so microtubules do not need to become spontaneously active during nerve cell mitosis.  Neuronal microtubules will break apart if the tau protein becomes compromised, and a malfunctioning tau protein is one possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  Penrose and Hameroff end their summary paragraph with a surprising admission: “We conclude that consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe.”  That is the first time I recall hearing such a statement from Penrose and Hameroff.

While the Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis for quantum consciousness has not been experimentally verified, it does fit my overall paradigm of quantum coherence and decisionality being the primary mover of life.  I have been following the developments in quantum consciousness for over 20 years, since Roger Penrose’s first book on the subject, The Emperor’s New Mind, in 1989.  I am sufficiently comfortable with the theory to think that quantum coherence is the phenomenon behind our amazing consciousness.  The details will almost certainly be different than Penrose and Hameroff propose, but the direction is solid, and I am confident that an intelligent, decisional consciousness does indeed play an intrinsic role in the universe.

I have also emphasized that one cannot immediately conclude that such a consciousness is God.  The question of God is a theological question about oneself and one’s relationship to some power.  The power that I have elucidated over my several postings on science is the decisional, conscious ordering power of the universe.  It is a power that comes to us free of cost; it transcends time and space by its amazing non-local properties of entangled particles; it does not require any energy, and is the primary power causing a bias in the laws of physics supporting life, supporting entropy lowering processes.  I emphasize, once again, that entropy lowering processes are temporary and localized so that the total entropy in the universe increases.    For readers wanting a less theistic view, I recommend “the Information Philosopher” (Bob Doyle).  He also sees order in the universe emerging through the action of quantum physics, but he applies this concept to philosophy rather than metaphysics.  He points out that even though the total entropy in the universe is increasing, so is the available entropy: there is always more available ordering power as time increases.  His web site is http://www.informationphilosopher.com/.

Even for readers with a theistic view of the universe, I would not recommend a direct correlation between the consciousness inherent in the laws of physics and God.  It may be impossible to completely distinguish the deterministic aspects of quantum computation from its non-deterministic aspects.  Therefore, I analogize the consciousness inherent in nature as the “hand of God,” although not in any anthropomorphic sense.  It is the vehicle through which God interacts with history.

Nevertheless, these developments in physics, biology and in the very new science of consciousness have the potential of sending a shock wave through theology and religion.  Throughout history, religion has responded poorly to or reacted against the best scientific evidence.  From Galileo to Newton, religious dogma has been confronted with scientific truth and has struggled to respond appropriately.  During the enlightenment, as people of faith came to terms with Newton’s mechanistic universe, God was deemed to have withdrawn from the world and Deism was the result.  The modern secular imagination has no place for religions that demand God’s supernatural intervention in history or for a three story universe.  The scriptural worldview is woefully outdated.  Yet, theology holds that God is real and that God acts in history.  So theology must answer the question about how God acts in history if supernatural explanations are no longer appropriate.  The best answer that I know of today is something called “process theology.”

Process theology is a type of panentheism.  A panentheistic view holds that God is present in all aspects of matter and energy, but that God is not limited to or identical with all matter and energy.  Process theology is based on the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and emphasizes changeable relationships rather than permanent entities as the basis for truth.  For process theologians, God’s power is exercised through acts of consciousness, through persuasion rather than coercion, and therefore requires a robust theology of free will.  And because free will is an essential property of humankind, God is therefore not the immutable, changeless God of traditional theology.  God interacts with history and is changed by history.  Since God is in all things, process theology also reconfigures the concepts of good and evil to avoid a reductionist form of Manichaeism; that is, there is no need for a devil or Satan role to account for evil.

Process theology emphasizes God’s imminence in the world, but also acknowledges God’s transcendence of the world.  Within Process Theology, evolution is guided by God, but not in a deterministic sense.  God represents the creative aspect of evolution.  According to several sources, process theology has influenced both Christian and Jewish writers such as Harold Kushner, Abraham Joshua Heschel, William E. Kaufman, W. Norman Pittenger, John B. Cobb, Thomas Berry and Marjorie Suchocki.  Marjorie Suchocki’s pamphlet, “What is Process Theology,” is a good place to begin learning.

I found it interesting to read a review of Hartshorne’s discussion about the proof of God.  From his 1970 book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, he identifies four possible philosophical options relating to cosmic order and God:

(A1) There is no cosmic order.
(A2) There is cosmic order, but no cosmic ordering power.
(A3) There is cosmic order and ordering power, but the power is not divine.
(T)    There is cosmic order and divine power.

Hartshorne holds the fourth position identified as (T), but insists that he does not arrive there by “proof.”   I have not read Hartshorne’s book, so I don’t know to what extent he uses empirical evidence for cosmic order, but I think that empirical evidence is very helpful in giving more weight to option (A3) compared to (A1) and (A2).  In my view, reason can be very helpful in arriving at a conclusion that there is a cosmic ordering power, but that faith is necessary to conclude that such a power is an expression of divine action.   If the evidence from physics, chemistry and biology is all we have, then a “leap of faith” is required to get from position (A3) to (T).  However, there is more evidence, but exploring that evidence will require delving into the social sciences, particularly psychology, to elicit reasonable conclusions about the structure of experience and selfhood.

In this context, faith is a decision one makes when reason based on empirical evidence does not apply or cannot guide our logic.  But there are other kinds of evidence and that brings me back to consciousness and the role of empirical evidence in understanding consciousness. 

David Chalmers has probably done more than any other philosopher towards putting the science of consciousness on sound footing.  But his most contentious position is that there are two paths for making progress in consciousness studies.  One path is the traditional and reliable reductionist path where complex mental processes are explained in terms of simpler, experimentally verified biological functions.  The reductionist path can explain how the brain works and therefore what brain functions are necessary for consciousness.  Chalmers calls this the “easy” question, and it is a long way from being answered.  The second path has the very difficult problem of dealing with the experience of consciousness and why the sensation of being conscious arises from brain function.  I have phrased this second question as the question about the ontology of selfhood: why is it that we have a self with which to experience life?

Chalmers insists that the second question cannot be answered from function alone and he posits a new category to deal with the “hard” question.  Taking a clue from historical scientific efforts to subject new phenomenon to reason, he favors creating a new fundamental category for subjective experience:

I suggest that a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental. We know that a theory of consciousness requires the addition of something fundamental to our ontology, as everything in physical theory is compatible with the absence of consciousness. We might add some entirely new nonphysical feature, from which experience can be derived, but it is hard to see what such a feature would be like. More likely, we will take experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time. If we take experience as fundamental, then we can go about the business of constructing a theory of experience.

Chalmers also proposes that a bridging theory can be constructed that will correlate subjective experience with brain function and this might take 100 years for meaningful progress to occur.  Others are not so sure.  Daniel Dennett does not think the hard problem is real.  For Dennett, consciousness is an epiphenomenon; it is an illusion generated by biological function.  He thinks that consciousness is adequately explained by a reductionist approach that explains brain function biologically, neurologically or computationally.  On the other hand, both Thomas Nagel and John Searle think that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be scientifically solved at all.   For them, consciousness is real but it must be explained philosophically.

Subjective experience may be the essential evidence necessary for consciousness science, but I think that it must be organized around a concept of self in order to be coherent and have an impact on our life.  We usually are not concerned with simply reporting individual and isolated experiences; we report and attempt to make sense of what these experiences mean for ourselves.  I think the fundamental entity is a sense of self; in other words, it is human self-consciousness that is the interesting phenomenon psychologically, philosophically and theologically.  And there already exists methods for dealing with experiential self-consciousness in the only universe we know about: developmental psychology, existentialism and process theology.

Developmental psychology has shown that there is a crucial point in the development process around 18 to 36 months where self-awareness appears.  If self-awareness can be equated with self-consciousness, then the structure of self-consciousness can be described through the analysis of psychological states arising at about the same time, namely empathy, embarrassment, shame and guilt.  But such an analysis must await another series.

Thomas Nagel once wrote a paper titled, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”  The interesting question going forward is what is it like to be a self?  H. Richard Niebuhr’s contribution to this question has been formative for me, so I expect future expositions to be based on this seminal quotation from The Meaning of Revelation: “To be a self is to have a god; to have a god is to have history, that is, events connected in a meaningful pattern”.  And, according to Niebuhr, a “god” can be any power to which we intentionally relate ourselves.

I began this series in order to examine the role of reason for a person of faith.  I believe that a mature faith must resolve certain issues with respect to science and with respect to history.  This portion has dealt only with the physical sciences, and it has confronted the question of the kind of god that is compatible with science.  I have followed the best science that I know of, but I have also woven a narrative through the scientific evidence to elucidate something of the nature of the universe and its creator.  This narrative is not meant as proof; it is an exercise in metaphysics, but it demonstrates to me that faith is compatible with science and that science informs us about how God is likely to interact with us.  Not only does science not disprove the existence of God, it provides the essential evidence for a cosmic ordering power which is, if one choses, the hand of God.  I hope my future essays will explain possible motivations for making such an affirmation.

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.

Why Does the Universe Exist?

Why Does the Universe Exist?
(And, Is this the Right Question to Ask?)

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Jim Holt has written a very interesting and readable book on this topic: Why does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story.  I should say at the outset that while I found the book engaging and interesting, I also found Holt’s insistence on a philosophical answer somewhat frustrating.  My own journey leads me to desire an empirical approach, even if that approach leads to an ambiguous answer.  This essay is a meditation on Holt’s book as it applies to my journey.

The author points out the question about “something rather than nothing” is a modern question since the ancient creation myths are intended to provide an assurance of purpose rather than a modern explanation.  The first mention of ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) in the West comes in the early Common Era (CE) when theologians posited God’s creation of the universe out of nothing in order to remove any restriction on God’s power by eliminating any reliance of already existing matter.  The author traces various answers (and non-answers) to this question over the intervening centuries.  The theological, philosophical and scientific answers are punctuated by intriguing tales of the author’s own history and travels to visit the many scholars and writers that he interviewed.  Those personal asides keep the reader interested in his quest even if some of the answers provided by such thinkers are less than enlightening.  Although the author clearly favors a non-theistic, philosophical answer, he does a fine job of including views contrary to his own.

A key aspect of this book is captured in the subtitle, An Existential Detective Story.  The question, “Why does the universe exist?” echoes the question, “Why do I exist?” thereby placing the personal existential question front and center.  That is one reason I am interested in this book, but I think the personal existential question (“Why do I exist?”) is more important than the cosmic existential question (“Why does the universe exist?”).  My own journey has taken me to more of a scientific view of the universe.  I went to school in central Florida shortly after the Soviet Union launched the successful Sputnik satellite.   At that time and in that location there was increased emphasis on math and science as the United States sought to catch up with the Soviet Union.  I became very much interested in science, especially physics.

My own educational history was not trouble-free, however.  Early on in eight grade I missed some classes due to illness and received stern warnings from my history and algebra teachers.  I had to intensify my effort, particularly in algebra, in order to get back on track with the rest of the class.  I learned to study on my own because I had no other way to learn the material if I did not understand it in class.  This habit of studying on my own fed into an intense discipline of self-reliance that has characterized much of my life.

Born into a military family, I moved to a new school district every few years or so.   Even though I was an outsider to each new school community, I came to rely on the schools as the one consistent structure in my life as we moved around.  So it was very unsettling to me to find that I was in danger of failing in school.  But, as I developed the discipline of self-study, I soon began to enjoy the process of learning about subjects that were not fully covered in the classroom.  As I progressed through Junior high, I would sometimes find myself spending time at a local science bookstore, perusing books on subjects like Einstein’s theory of relativity.

By the time I was in high school, I was confident that I wanted a career in science.  There were still disappointments however.  For example, I was not selected to take the new class in calculus.  When my friends who were in the class found out that I was studying calculus on my own, they encouraged me to apply for a special exemption and seek admittance by recommendation of the teacher.  I did so and the teacher required that I take one of his exams to see if I was really qualified to participate.  Fortunately, I easily passed the test and was admitted to the class.  As a result of taking calculus in high school, I was able to exempt the standard beginning course in calculus when I started college.  I was also told by my physics teacher in high school that I had scored the highest score on the Physics portion of the SAT.  So I had good reason to think that a career in science was my purpose for being in the world.  That was my first answer to the question, “Why do I exist?”  If only life were that simple!

It is one of the main ironies of existentialism that its presentation as a formal philosophy negates its reality.  To say that “existence precedes essence” is a statement of essence from which all urgency has been eliminated.  Yet, existentialism’s real power comes from its urgency, its immediacy of experience, its emphasis on decision and personal responsibility.  Perhaps the best way to understand and communicate the existentialist dilemma is through story rather than philosophy.  Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have won a bet that he could write a complete six word story with a beginning, middle and ending.  The story is probably apocryphal, but is worth recounting because of its brevity and poignancy.  After his betting partners anted up, Hemingway is reputed to have scribbled the following words on a napkin: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”  Hemingway won the bet.

This story brings the immediacy of human contingency to the center of our consciousness without saying a word about death.  In one of Hemingway’s authentic short stories, he deals with the power of nothingness.  In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” two waiters discuss the lone remaining customer in their café as it approaches closing time.  The customer, an old man nearing eighty years and deaf, sips brandy while the two waiters discuss his attempted suicide.  They surmise that the suicide attempt was over despair about “nothing” since he has plenty of money.  The young waiter wants the man to leave because he has a wife waiting at home for him and doesn’t like being kept until closing time.  The older waiter is more understanding of the customer and his need for a clean, well-lighted place to drink.  At one point, the younger waiter says to the deaf man as he pours another drink: “You should have killed yourself last week.”

Finally, the young waiter drives the customer away, and the two waiters close the café.  As the older waiter leaves, he muses to himself about the human condition:

“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

The story is full of answers to the question, “Why do I exist?”  The young waiter has youth, confidence, a job and a wife waiting at home.  The deaf old man likes to come to a clean café to get drunk.  The older waiter is “of those who like to stay late at the café. . . . With all those who do not want to go to bed.  With all those who need a light for the night.”  But these answers are set over against the nothingness that awaits those who do not fill up their life with activity and purpose.

One answer to the personal existential question is purpose.    To use philosophical jargon, purpose is teleology.  But a teleological answer is not a very popular approach to the question of the existence of the universe, because it does not usually show causal effect.  However, Jim Holt does include a modern-day teleologist, John Leslie, in his book.  Leslie believes that there is something rather than nothing because of an “abstract need for goodness.”  Holt is incredulous: “You’re actually suggesting that the universe somehow exploded into being out of an abstract need for goodness?”  Leslie responds, “Provided you accept the view that this world is, on balance, a good world . . . .”  And therein lies the catch.  With all of the tragedy, with all of the suffering, with all of the horror, how many can reach the conclusion that the world is, “on balance,” good?  Leslie does have an answer and it leads to the nature of consciousness.  Jim Holt is clearly not convinced by Leslie’s argument.  He calls Leslie’s approach “the ghost of a Judeo-Christian Deity.”

When we ask about the reason for the creation of the universe, we are generally asking for a causal explanation.  That is, there exists some event or agent that caused certain things to happen which resulted in the creation of the universe.  We focus on causal explanations because we can generally subject such explanations to some kind of objective verification to which we can all more or less agree.  Holt tells us that all such causal explanations fail because they all lead us to a first cause for which there is no explanation.  I believe that this failure of any causal explanation is the main reason that Holt prefers a philosophical approach.

Holt is ultimately drawn to an abstract philosophical answer that is directly related to the concept of nothingness.  The theological approach fails in his mind because there is no explanation for God.  The scientific answer fails because there is no explanation for the scientific laws that had to be in effect at the time of creation.  Holt’s mentor on this path is Derek Parfit, British Philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford, England.  I confess that I could not follow Holt on this path.  Part of the problem for me was the very abstract approach to the question.  For example, Parfit (and Holt) use such terminology as “meta selectors” and “selectors” when speaking of how our universe came to be out of all the infinitely many cosmic possibilities.  Using Parfit as a guide, Holt ultimately comes to the conclusion that whatever selectors may have been active, the most likely selectors would have resulted in a generic, mediocre universe.  This would be a universe filled with good and evil as well as large helping of the ordinary.  In other words, exactly the universe we do have.

Another problem for me is Parfit’s belief that “personal identity is not what matters” (Holt’s emphasis.)  It may be, as Parfit believes, that the person I am today is not the same person as I was yesterday, but that does not diminish my sense of self or my responsibility for what I did yesterday.  This point of view diminishes the personal existential question to a footnote to the main discussion on the cosmic question.  I have just the opposite view.  For me, the personal existential question is primary.  I think that is the true meaning of “existence precedes essence.”

I did, however, salvage something important from this part of the book.  According to Holt, most thinkers about the cosmic existential question proceed from why the universe exists to a conclusion about how it is.  In other words, if you know (or think you know) why the universe was created, you can proceed to describe how it currently behaves in a manner that is consistent with its creation.  Parfit’s innovation was to go from how to why, and Holt names two key facts about how the universe is: causality and nomological simplicity.  Although this reversal of normal methodology fits well with my approach (which I will describe later), beginning with only causality and simplicity is completely inadequate.   For one thing, the laws of physics are not all that simple!  A full empirical approach would begin with a much larger set of observations, including observations that point dramatically to an underlying order in the universe.

It turns out that I am what Holt would call a rejectionist.  I do not think there is a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why does the universe exist?” Nor I do not think that the cosmic existential question is the most important question.  Although I wonder about it and ponder what cosmologists and physicists think about it, I do not consider it more important than the personal existential question.  Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the personal existential question framed by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experience in Nazi concentration camps and describes the insights he derived from that experience that led to his form of therapy.  Using language typical of the immediate post World War era, Frankl writes (in translation):

“But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings?  Is that theory true that would have us believe that man is no more than the product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? . . . Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

“. . . There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even is such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Frankl’s emphasis on free choice is typical of the post war existentialists.  The freedom to choose one’s attitude toward the absurdity of existence is a key theme in Camus.  Sartre, too, emphasizes the decisional aspect of life.  Holt is fond of mentioning Sartre, but seems to focus more on the absurdity of existence over against nothingness (“le néant”, as Holt puts it) rather than on choice.  I will later show that decisionality is a power that runs throughout the universe and therefore forms the foundation of my approach to both the nature of the universe and the reason for its existence.  That is a position that puts me remarkably close to panpsychism that Holt describes in his chapter on mathematical Platonism.  (Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is present in matter and therefore there is no mind / matter duality.  There would be no need for Descartes to say “I think, therefore I am” because thinking and being would be synonymous.) But before I get to that, let me summarize what Holt says about the rejectionists.

Holt names Adolf Grünbaum the “Great Rejectionist.”  Grünbaum considers the cosmic existential question a “pseudo-problem,” and if he turns out to be right, Holt’s quest “would be a colossal waste of effort.”  Grünbaum was born in Germany in 1923 and was 10 years old when Hitler took power.    His family was Jewish and he remembers being attacked by a gang some members of which were shouting, “The Jews killed our Savior.”  Quite apart from the experience of antisemitism, Grünbaum became disenchanted with religion and believes that the cosmic question ultimately arises because of a religious presupposition that even atheists don’t recognize.   Grünbaum simply believes that the universe is not in need of any explanation.

Holt tries to convince Grünbaum by asserting that nothingness is simpler than existence and therefore should be preferred.  If nothingness is preferred, then the existence of the universe is a surprise and really is in need of an explanation.  Grünbaum responds that we only know what is natural by what we observe and we have never observed (or don’t have any reason to believe in) the universe’s nonexistence.  Holt counters with the Big Bang theory, which he believes means that the universe was created from nothing.  Grünbaum dismisses that because even the Big Bang theory predicts that time began at the Big Bang Singularity and therefore there can be no causal explanation (and no reason to assume anything) prior to the existence of time.  I think Grünbaum wins this debate and even Holt admits that the Big Bang theory, by itself, does not guarantee that the universe came from nothing.

I am not quite the extreme rejectionist that is Adolf Grünbaum, but I have sympathy for his argument.  Personally, my position is closer to physicist Steven Weinberg who prefers to think of the cosmic existential question as part of a bigger question about the nature of the universe.  The nature of the universe is important for me because if one is going to satisfactorily answer the personal existential question, then the answer, the purpose and meaning for our life, should be as consistent as possible with the nature of the universe.  To do otherwise would be, in my opinion, to risk a premature personal encounter with le néant. And when I encounter le néant, I prefer the refuge of a clean, well-lighted place called empiricism.

In my next post, I will describe panpsychism and my approach to the cosmic existential question.