Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Illusions, The Scientific Copout

Whenever someone who thinks of themselves as scientific can't for the life of them figure out why something is the way it is, they try to convince themselves that it really only seems to be the way it actually appears. With other words: they deem a phenomenon to be an illusion. The most commonly held mystery to be labeled such an illusion is free will, that troublesome and unpredictable nuisance that constantly presents itself in our lifeworld.

The problem that many of those who engage in science have with free will is understandable. The scientific method is not an empty pursuit to just come up with neat descriptions of natural phenomena. Science has a purpose beyond mere investigation. It helps us to better understand our lifeworld so that we can make the right decisions in order to achieve a desired state. It helps us predict the outcome of our actions.

Free will is the ability to make the wrong choices. In fact, right and wrong can only exist in the context of free will. Right and wrong is not here used as a synonym for true and false. The words are used to describe our sentiment about an act in our lifeworld. Right implies that things could have been wrong, and wrong implies they could have been right. But something that is false cannot be conceived of as true. Verity is a label for of a statement that, when held in our mind, can either be fulfilled or not. "I euthanized my cat" False. Right and wrong is the label for a statement like "I should not have euthanized my cat". It implies I could have euthanized my cat had I willed it at the time. I realize that true, right, wrong and false are used interchangeably and their meaning depends on the context (the sentence they apply to). But I narrow their use to create clarity.

The implication of wrong is that I could have acted differently. If I could not have acted in any other way than I did, how could it be wrong? Even our system of justice takes this position. Manslaughter is less severe than murder because with the former death was not intended. However, it was still the result of careless behavior that the process of jurisprudence deemed to be the wrong behavior, behavior that could have been avoided. Now if a person is declared insane, they are not at all subject to the same laws. This is because we believe they could not have acted in the "right" way. Right and wrong in the lifeworld of an insane person is so alien to us that we disavow them of their responsibilities. We only punish people if we believe they were rational and that they could have acted in some other way than they did. They chose, through their free will, to do what they knew would be deemed wrong by society at large.

So if free will is an illusion, then so is the concept of right and wrong. And by implication, the discipline of ethics is pointless. Morality becomes an empty concept. Why would anyone think free will is an illusion given how central it is to our lifeworld? The trouble is that it implies a fundamental unpredictability, which means that our efforts to determine the reaction of every action is put in jeopardy. If free will exists, then there are things that cannot be predicted. With other words, there is a mundane, a most common phenomenon that cannot be explained. However much science we throw at it, we will be left with at best statistical distributions.

The fascinating thing about modern physics is not that it's "weird" but that it uses some of the same toolsets as social sciences. Why? Because both have indeterminacies! So both have turned to statistics to overcome the limitations on the act of "knowing" that any indeterminacy introduces into a system. Long ago, these uncertainties were considered by some physicists to be an indication of the incompleteness of our current models. That has long since passed for most. But, since uncertainty is still antithetical to the purpose of science, new "explanations" have been conceived.

Some fulfill their need for determinacy by considering the wave functions in quantum mechanics more real than the world we observe. A world outside our lifeworld is conceived, a world well beyond the world we can observe in its immediacy. Mysterious parallel universes are postulated, universes where the wave function collapsed differently from the way we perceived it collapse in our lifeworld. In fact, it is imagined that the wave function never collapsed at all! Reality is not the lifeworld we observe, but some bizarre eternal Hilbert space containing all possible states at all times. It is Platonism brought to its delusional end state.

In a Scientific American Special Report Parallel Universes (SCA45026), Max Tegmark gives a clear outline of the theory that our universe is just a subset of a larger "multiverse". I have no problem with this by now quite common theory in itself. To think that our observable universe is all their is would be the same as thinking that because I cannot observe something form my wife's exact perspective, her perspective does not exist. Or, even worse, to therefore assume she does not exist at all! It would be that naive solipsistic conclusion that "she's a figment of my imagination". My wife's effect on me is very real, consistent and evocative and I can but conclude that she has her own lifeworld similar to yet distinct from mine (even if I can never experience it in its complete immediacy).

My major problem is with the comment above a graphic ("The Nature of Time") on page 9 of the report. I don't know if Tegmark wrote this comment himself or it was added by the editors at Scientific American. Anyway, the comment goes as follows:

MOST PEOPLE THINK of time as a way to describe change. At one moment, matter has a certain arrangement; a moment later, it has another. The concept of multiverses suggests an alternative view. If parallel universes contain all possible arrangements of matter, then time is simply a way to put those universes into a sequence. The universes themselves are static; change is an illusion, albeit an interesting one.
Wow. This is Platonism gone hey wire. Change does not exist! Not really anyway. Well, sort of. But it's an illusion, a flicker on the wall of the cavernous background of my lifeworld. Tegmark makes no secret of being a Platonist. On the contrary. He celebrates it, demonstrating through his writing that even scientists are political animals. On page 11, Level IV: Other Mathematical Structures, in paragraph 4, he says:

As children, long before we have even heard of mathematics, we are indoctrinated with the Aristotelian paradigm The Platonic view is an acquired taste.
By using the word "children" and "indoctrinate", he infantilizes the Aristotelian perspective. He then elevates Platonism to a refined status for a few initiated by calling it an "acquired taste". Sort of like anchovies, which can only be appreciated by true food connoisseurs. How political we are indeed, despite our noble efforts towards objectivity.

Of course, the split between the illuminati and the rest of the riffraff has been part of Platonism since, well, Plato. It's the whole philosopher-king complex. However, the exclusivity issue is not really my main gripe with Platonism. Some things are really only understood by a very few. The issue is with how the ideal is held to be real and the real, well... they're the famous shadows on the wall. Or, more succinctly: our lifeworld is an illusion. It's a shimmering, vibrating mirage.

Illusion means something which is not really what it seems. A magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. A thirst stricken wanderer lost in the desert stumbles towards a pool of water and discovers it's not there, just tricks of light on the atmosphere. To fully understand these illusions, our analytic approach should be to bracket out the irrelevant without removing the essence. In order to analyze these phenomena in their purest form, we only want to remove what is preconceived and not consequential to the thing in and of itself. In the case of the mirage in the desert, we cannot bracket out the it that refers to the optical phenomenon, which is indeed very, very very real. What happens to the wanderer is that the interpretation of, and the assumptions about the phenomenon changes as the wanderer approaches the pool of water.

In the case of the magician, the empty hat turns out to be a rather curious non-standard stovetop hat. The phenomenon, the thing as it is in its purest form in our mind, the perception of pulling something out of something empty is real. Obviously, some may say, it's just that the freakin' rabbit was under the table! And there's a hidden whole in the table and in the top of the hat! But this is the crux, the seeming impossibility of getting the rabbit into the hat, the emptiness, is an assumption made by the viewer because of the context in which the phenomenon was perceived. And the same with the pool of water. It's not really a pool of water at all. It's an optical phenomenon. However, this does not diminish the reality of its occurrence. The optical phenomenon is quite real.

So what is this comment in Tegmark's article about change being an illusion? What is he (or the editor) trying to tell us? The comment states that "the universes themselves are static" and "time is simply a way to but these universes in a sequence". Simply usually implies that there is nothing more complex below it. Something simple is something that can easily be understand. It's a concept that can be held in our mind without confusion and a desire to ask more questions. Simplicity usually implies that no further investigation is necessary. In the case of the comment, change has been explained as a simple sequencing of determinate states. This seems to indicate that other types of sequencing would be possible since the "parallel universes" are hypothesized as a higher reality (note: Platonists tend to be very hierarchical). Does simply here then mean arbitrary?

The article itself clearly hypothesizes the existence of parallel universes which might have identical copies of us. It makes the interesting observation that such parallelism is not predicated on mysterious quantum events, that parallelism is likely (even inevitable) if the universe is infinite in size and almost uniformly filled. It goes on to speculate that at a higher level, a type of parallelism he calls Level IV, there may be manifold, in fact an infinite number of parallel mathematical universes. Again, this falls back to Plato's concept of the ideal, the world of Forms. Tegmark speculates that there are a limitless variety of such worlds (or universes). One of them, he suggests, might just be an empty dodecahedron.

In the article itself, Tegmark, makes no reference to change being an illusion. Which is reassuring and makes me suspect it was added by a careless collaborator or editor. But lets' for a moment, assume it is an illusion. What are we left with? What remains are sequences of static frames. Any inquisitive mind would ask what causes these frames to be arranged in any given way. Or: why did my life end up edited into the film I have been watching unfold?

Extrapolating from Tegmark's concept of the very real and fundamental existence of infinite possibilities, we end of with a superset of all possible combinations of all frames. That is, time has an infinite number of dimensions. The birth of George Washington could have been proceeded by World War II. I could have died before I was born. Even more interesting, Prince Ferdinand could have been shot twice in the same way 100 years apart. Some sequences might be stuttering repetitions, a truly fantastic time construct where time is an infinite dimension of zero length (some form of recursive loop, or, in other words, a static time frame).

Of course, none of this would be too troubling if time were just an illusion. It would not be much of an issue if we were what Tegmark calls the bird (a theoretical cognizant being watching all these worlds from a higher plane). But, unfortunately, we are what Tegmarks calls the frog (perceiving everything within the plane itself). The bird could choose to watch the frames in any sequence it desires. But the question is why do we find ourselves experiencing the specific mirage we perceive? Who are we? Are we just an arbitrary member of our set of doppelgängers? When I die, will the branch that I call my "self" be a random selection of all the viable states that evolved since I was conceived? Of course, I'm just a frog, so what do I know. I'm trapped by my inability to fly up into a higher dimension.

Our lifeworld is obviously full of things that suddenly appear from the unknown, then exit into our remembered world (the model of the place beyond the horizon of our immediacy) and then return into our immediate world (the here and now). To deny the existence of things in the unknown is foolish. The consistency of things that are suddenly incorporated into our phenomenal universe is so great that we have to assume they are as phenomenally real in our absence as the phenomena experienced in our remembered and immediate sensory realm. This is not about doubting the existence of parallel Level III universes (Tegmark's term for similar universes that exist due to the nature of quantum events). If an unknown has any effect on our phenomenal world, we have no choice but to incorporate that phenomenon into our remembered world. They become a part of our life. The only issue is the importance of why phenomena enter into and pass between the immediate and remembered world in the very consistent and specific sequences that they do.

Calling time a simple illusion is to deny the phenomenon of immediacy and remembrance itself. It is the same as denying the immediate world and remembered world as such. It is to deny the existence of self. If we deny the existence of self, certainly it becomes moot to ask why we experience certain sequences of frames. There is no we. There is no frog. But that leads us into contradiction with Descartes famous cogito ergo sum (who was it that denied the existence of the frog?).

I hope that the comment on page 9 of the report was a careless editorial mistake. Since he raises the issue of the anthropic principle and decoherence, it would seem as if it was. But some aspects of Tegmark's focus does indicate a disinterest in what I would call the more real and more important (our lifeworld, the result of the remembered world and the immediate world). Again, he makes no political secret of being a Platonist, thereby elevating perfect forms (the equations, the constants) to a higher importance than their imperfect shadows (the illusion, the phenomena). Truth is to be found not in how we experience the world as such, but in how we experience mathematics. It would seem to me (though I am conjecturing a little), that Tegmark believes he can somehow be one of his allegorical birds, freeing himself from the limitations of our frog-like existence.

We cannot escape ourselves. Even Plato recognized this prima facie truth. We are always the frog and never the bird. Despite how egocentric it may seem, all truths must extend from our immediate and remembered world. This does not mean we cannot postulate phenomena independent of our lifeworld (worlds beyond the perceived and the remembered). But all such worlds are more surreal than real, hazy dreams out of which potentially instantiable phenomena (conceptual phenomena that can become sensory in nature) enter into our lifeworld . The construct Tegmark lays out is a limitless conceptual world we can never really access in any true sense of the word real.

His conceptual worlds (Level IV parallel universes) are similar to a thought experiment I posed to myself a decade ago, an experiment very akin to the anthropic principle. Imagine anything was possible: What would happen? Such a thought experiment should not be considered to describe reality. The real is that which manifests itself (becomes sensory). To conflate the worlds conceptualized from such thought experiments performed, mind you, by the frog is to conflate the ideal with the real. They do not, by the mere definition of real, exist in reality. Only in the ideal.

The Platonic temptation is to hold the ideal as somehow superior (perfect circles, golden ratios, elegant integrations, etc.). And the ideal starts seeming more real than the real itself. But as can be seen by the previous sentence, such attribution blurs the border between two useful concepts. Note that both "the ideal" and "the real" are mere concepts since "the real" in any sentence is a mental phenomena of that which manifests itself in our sensory domain (a representation of that which is in actuality).

Reality is never as as simple as it is experienced in its immediacy. Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn't have the rich cultural and technological lifeworld that we have. Thanks to our memory, we can experience a complex juxtaposition of phenomena by recalling what has happened in the past, being aware of what is happening and guessing what may happen in the future. Every time we look into and around a phenomenon, we discover yet more phenomena. We correlate them together and create a model within our lifeworld of what is in actuality. No phenomenon that presents itself to us is in-and of-itself a "simple illusion" (something that did not happen).

An illusion is just a misunderstanding, an incorrect correlate about the the "blurb" (the sensory phenomenon as experienced). Time is most likely not the irreversible order of frames it seems to be its immediacy. But the specific sequencing that we experience is very real and its causes, the phenomena that occur within immediate conjunction, beckon to be explored. It may seem bizarre to some to suggest time has causes since cause is by its classical definition predicated on time. But what I am suggesting is that perhaps the concept cause needs to redefined just as atom has been drastically redefined since Democritus coined the still useful term atomicos.

Math can reveal new yet unexplored possibilities to explain the sensory phenomenon of time. But it is necessary to explore the sensory realm itself to establish what is real. And usually when we make such exploration, reality turns out to be more fascinating than any of our current mathematical ideas. Such exploration in turn even alters and advances our systems of math. To believe math is itself reality is to believe that the mystery of reality can make itself known to us through mere silent and inner contemplation. Perhaps there is big m Mathematics out there from which all things emanate. But it is not our small merely descriptive set of symbols and relationships. To talk about big m Mathematics is about as useful as talking about God.

And whatever you do, please don't call what is real and phenomenally present "simply an illusion". That's just a scientific copout...

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