Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Granite Universe

The world that I perceive seems pretty orderly. When I drive to work, it's always where I expect it to be. The people are always the same. I pick up where I left off on the previous day, and life generally proceeds in an orderly and predictable way. Even when something unexpected happens, I can generally trace back along a chain of cause and effect and determine why it happened, and understand both why I didn't expect it and why I probably could have.

In my experience thus far, there have been no "Alice in Wonderland" style white rabbits that suddenly appear in a totally inexplicable way, make a few cryptic remarks while checking their pocket watch, and then scurry off.

Why do I never see such white rabbits?

Well, at first glance, something like physicalism seems like the obvious choice to explain my reality's perceived order - to explain both what I experience AND what I *don't* experience. The world is reducible to fundamental particles (waves, strings, whatever) which have certain properties (mass, velocity, spin, charge, etc) that determine how they interact, and it all adds up to what I see.

In this view, what I see is ultimately determined by the starting conditions of the universe, plus the physical laws that govern the interaction of the fundamental elements of the universe, applied over how-many-ever billions of years. While no explanation is given for the initial conditions, or why the fundamental laws of physics are what they are, if you get past that then from a cause-and-effect stand point physicalism offers a pretty solid explanation for why my world is orderly and predictable, and why I don't see white rabbits.

And in the form of functionalism/computationalism + evolution it even offers a pretty good foundation for explaining the existence and mechanism of human behavior and ability.

But physicalism has a major drawback: It doesn't obviously explain the experience of consciousness that goes with human behavior and ability. Particles, waves, mass, spin, velocity...no matter how you add them up, there doesn't seem to be any way to get conscious experience.

Which is a problem, since consciousness is the portal through which we access everything else. My conscious experience is what I know. I "know" of other things only when they enter into my conscious awareness.

So, physicalism does explain why we see, what we see, and why we don't see white rabbits. But it doesn't seem to explain the conscious experience OF seeing what we see.

Further, by positing an independently existing and well ordered external universe to explain our orderly perceptions, we have just pushed the question back one level. The new questions are, why does this external universe exist and why is it so orderly? And this initially seems justified by the fact that physicalism explains how it is possible for us to make correct predictions.

BUT, actually it explains nothing.

Nothing has been explained because we are PART of the system that we are trying to explain by appealing to physicalism. If the order and predictability of our experiences are due to the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of physics, then we inhabit a universe whose entire future, including our existence and all of our activities and experiences, is fixed. Frozen in place by unbreakable causal chains.

Effectively (and maybe actually), the entire future of the universe can be seen as existing simultaneously with its beginning. We could just as well say that the entire past, present, and future came into being at one instant, and we are just experiencing our portion of it in slices.

But there is no "explanation" here. This "block universe" just IS. It just exists. It came into being for no reason, for no purpose, with no meaning. It exists in the form that it does, and there is no answer to the question "why?". We are part of that universe, existing entirely within it and contained by it. Therefore we also just exist. For no reason, for no purpose, with no meaning, our future history also frozen in place by causal chains. What is true for the universe as a whole is true for it's contents.

To try an make what I'm saying more clear: let's imagine a real block. Say, a block of speckled granite. Now let's consider two adjacent specks of white and gray. Why are they adjacent? What caused them to be adjacent? Well, if we consider this block of granite within the context of our universe, then we can say that there is a reason in that context as to why they are adjacent. There is an explanation, which has to do with the laws of physics and the contingent details of the geologic history of the area where this block of granite was formed (which is in turn derived from the contingent details of the initial state of our entire universe).

But if we take this block of granite to be something that just exists, uncaused and unique, like our universe, then there can be no explanation. The two specks are just adjacent. That's it. No further explanation is possible. The block of granite just exists as it is and that's the way it is. We *can* say something like, "there's a vein of white and a vein of gray in this block, and those two specks exist at the boundary of the veins and so they are adjacent", but while this sounds like an explanation, it really is just a statement of observed fact. It doesn't "explain" anything. And even this observation is made from "outside" the block, an option not available with our universe.

If some sort of conscious intelligence exists within speck patterns of the 2-D slices of the granite block (2-D because we've lost a dimension on our example...the third spatial dimension of the block will be time for these speck-beings), then who knows whether they will even be conscious of being made from specs of granite and of existing within this granite block with it's grey and white veins. Maybe the speck-patterns that they are formed from will be such that their experience is of living in a 3+1 dimensional world such as ours. But regardless, there can be no explanation as to why their experiences are what they are. Their experiences will be as uncaused as the existence of the block whose speckled nature gives rise to those experiences.

So physicalism in fact offers no advantage over just asserting that our conscious experience just exists. Why are my perceptions orderly and why are my predictions about what will happen next usually correct? Because that's just the way it is...and this is true whether you posit an external universe or just conclude that conscious experience exists uncaused.

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