Best Possible World: Gateway to the Millennium and Eschaton
This might also be called the Apology Page. Not many people have ever taken seriously Leibniz' suggestion that this is the best of all possible worlds, but that is the intent here. One could say that this is an exercise in metaphysical apologetics.
When it comes to cosmogony, there are just two choices: naturalism and supernaturalism. According to naturalism ours is just one of an infinite and more or less random ensemble of worlds or universes. There may, however, be at least some self-selection involved in our being here. If this universe were incompatible with 'intelligent' observers, we would not be here, we would be somewhere else. Also, just by probability, the average observer is most likely to find herself in a densely populated universe, rather than a sparse one. It would seem that elementary logic and probability are already loading the dice in favor of our having a reasonably hospitable home.
Is this the best that naturalism can do? If we want to do any better are we going to have to call on the gods? Not quite yet!
There are those, calling themselves naturalists, who would rather at this point appeal to the Quantum. By doing so they controversially carry the notion of self-selection a few steps further. You may have heard about the 'measurement problem' in quantum mechanics. It seems that electrons and other wee things have a hard time deciding whether to be particles or waves or be in any definite state at all, unless they are being observed. This ambiguity in itself has left physics notoriously vulnerable to metaphysical speculation, almost ad nauseum. The problem can be extended by noting that 'measurement' remains virtually undefined.
The basic question pertaining to measurement is the issue of deliberation. Or, to come full circle, is there such a thing as a natural measurement? Can there be observations without observers, and just what constitutes an observer? Most physicists suppose that a universe could exist without any observers, and that it would exist in a more or less definite physical state, but this is only a rather vague belief which is recalcitrant to justification, and absolutely recalcitrant to verification, unless...unless we posit a cosmic observer. Obviously we are seriously pushing the envelope of nature.
To make a long story short, if we push the Quantum hard enough we can drastically reduce the ensemble of possible worlds by appealing to a quantum bootstrap principle. In order to graduate from mere possibility to actuality, any deserving universe must include a final phase that is sufficiently populated with observers to satisfy the quantum measurement problem on a cosmic scale. Just applying a moderate push to the bounds of physics is enough to drive one perilously close to the pale of eschatological theology. It may not be quite so easy to draw a line between naturalism and supernaturalism.
Moving on from the problem of the Quantum, we next encounter the problem of the Mind, and once again confront the issue of natural vs. supernatural.
The Nature of Mind
There was a time when we distinguished ourselves from the other animals because of our powers of reason. The icon of the Enlightenment was Rousseau's 'Smile of Reason'.
Well, it seems, at least since the time of Machiavelli, Marx and Freud, that we have devolved from rationalists to rationalizers. The primary target of postmodern deconstruction is precisely the notion that there exists any such archetype as Reason. Reason has been dethroned by the Selfish Gene. What was once a singular and progressive history of ideas has been reduced to an endless interplay of mere memes.
There is a problem, however, that the deconstructors of the mind are not facing up to. The whole notion of deconstruction is based on the possibility of analysis. Behind deconstruction lies analysis and the analytical movement in philosophy. Behind the analytical movement in philosophy lies the atomistic impulse of science. Everything must have a foundation, and the foundation of deconstruction is to be found in the ancient concept of the Atom. To deconstruct the mind is, in some very non-trivial sense, to atomize the mind.
Many scientists and philosophers have for most of the last century been searching diligently for the mental atoms. But if you ask them they will tell you that they have come up empty handed. This does not mean that they have abandoned the search, but there is an unmistakable skepticism amongst the would-be analyzers of the mind.
Nonetheless, there remains the quite prevalent view that the mystery of the mind has been virtually reduced to the firings of individual nerve cells and the combinatorics of binary bits. After all, what else could it be? Won't we, before long, be able to build a thinking machine? Once we have such a device we can analyze its software and hardware to our heart's content, and therein will lie the answer to our question about the nature of the mind.
I will not stand here and swear to you that this will not happen. But I can offer to you a reasonable alternative.
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More than a few people have been waiting rather patiently for a new worldview. Indeed, the concept of the paradigm shift had become such a cliché that it fell out of use. There are, of course, obstacles to any such advent.
Worldviews don't just grow on trees, waiting to be plucked down. Someone has to think one up and then facilitate its promulgation. And even if someone does come up with a new, improved 'mouse trap', there is sure to be resistance from the owners and maintainers of the previous models. With this in mind let us take stock.
By my own rather crude estimation there have only ever existed two-and-a-half worldviews: 'eastern', 'western' and scientific. Am I having trouble counting? Who is being short-changed? Without exercising diplomatic caution, it is the mystics that I am hereby short-changing. After all, the mystics make a point of being mystical and so it would not behoove them to have any very definite view of the world. Among the Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, etc. one finds many flavors of pantheism, pluralism, nihilism and what-have-you. And in order not to leave our new acquaintances, the postmodernists, out in the cold, they might not object too strenuously to being provisionally included in this mixed company.
That pretty much leaves us with just the scientific and theistic views. It is the scientific view that has ruled the roost of modern intellectualism. The scientific cosmology must necessarily be the primary target for any new world view. But what do we do with those tired old theologians and other assorted mullahs of the world? Without giving away too many secrets, let's just say that we are going to have to make a preemptive move. I refer you to the first paragraph above.
For the last two or three thousand years there has been a ready made constituency for a new worldview, or, perhaps more accurately, for a new world. And is this not what the prophetic tradition is about? Let us proceed with this consideration.
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A Turning Point?
Just to recapitulate, for the last several centuries science and philosophy have been strenuously engaged in the analysis and intellectual atomization of nature and the world. There are indications that the deconstructive spasms of postmodernism signal a final phase in this very lengthy process. Perhaps the most appropriate monuments to this very significant historical epoch are the mile-wide 'atom smashers' that have been built on two continents.
Where then do we go from here? Will there no longer be a prevailing worldview, a vision or a sense history? Indeed, people speak of the end of history. If there is going to be a new epoch of history it will necessarily entail some sort of reconstruction.
Certainly from an intellectual point of view, after all the centuries of deconstruction, any systematic effort at reconstruction will be tantamount to creating a whole new world. What are the chances that any significant number of people would ever agree on a new starting point and a new direction for the future? It does not take any very astute observation to conclude that the chances for a concerted reconstruction appear slim. The only obvious recourse is the traditional, non-scientific one of appealing to a higher authority.
Easier said than done? Yes and no. Certainly the intellectual deck has been cleared. We can suppose that somehow nature will conspire to fill this intellectual and spiritual void. But what might one do to expedite this process, rather than just waiting on the sidelines, like the characters in 'Godot' and the assorted sects of fundamentalists, for a deus ex machina?
We can always try using our heads.
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If there is more to the world than just atoms swerving in the void, then we are going to have to use mostly non-scientific methods to investigate these other entities.
Perhaps the most logical starting point would be ourselves. Each one of us is necessarily the measure of our own perceptual world, and certainly the concept of the Self is a universal one. This is not to say that there are no skeptics, but those who deny the existence of the self are just as likely to end up by denying the existence of almost everything else as well, and we are right back to our deconstructive starting point.
What else might there be that we could agree upon? Phenomenologies of various sorts have been be used to explore for other universal attributes of the mind. It is not clear, however, that any very notable consensus is developing out of these efforts.
And so it seems about time to make my proposal. Admittedly it is something of a patchwork, and the only question is whether the whole is going to be more than the sum of its parts.
The primary pieces of the puzzle are just the emergent entities. Although we do not yet know specifically what these may be, we do know that the only claim to existence of these immaterial forms lies in their perceptibility and conceivability. If there exists anything more than mere collections of atoms, that existence must be in strict association with perceivers.
An irony of this observation is the implied inconceivability of a zombie world. The irony is that hypothetical zombies have recently figured prominently in philosophical argumentation over the ontology of consciousness, and it might seem that I am siding with the functionalists who insist that zombies are inconceivable. But I am taking their point and running it back. How so?
In making this move, I am taking a big step against mind-matter dualism, toward an inevitable immaterialism, but let us not skip ahead. I am arguing here mainly against naturalism. Naturalists accept emergent properties, but hold that they are purely spontaneous (i.e. natural) and have no logical prerequisites.
Maybe I had better pause here for a consideration of naturalism. Please pardon this spontaneous interruption.
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When I decided a few days ago to make this second attempt at a website, this was to have been the topic of the first page. With the BPW page, I was perhaps getting ahead of myself. That is, however, likely to remain the core idea of this obviously evolving website.
Naturalism is a rather succinct label. The only alternative is simply supernaturalism, and that is what we must consider. I may have been procrastinating just to postpone this inevitable confrontation.
I have spoken of the failure of the analytical movement to locate the mental or functional equivalent of the physical atoms. This is also known as the problem of holism. In psychology and linguistics everything seems dependent on everything else: everything is contextual.
First came the sensationists, then the associationists, then the behaviorists, and lately it has been the functionalists. Each in their turn has attempted to construct a theory of the 'mind' as a combinatorial construct of some set of simple elements. The continuing lack of success has given rise to our (neo) naturalists. The naturalists accept and even embrace the idea of emergent novel properties or entities. Thus they distinguish themselves from the physicalists or reductionists.
The naturalists come in two main flavors: epistemic and ontic. The former maintain that emergence is mainly just subjective and due largely to our (innate?) inability to make a proper analysis of sufficiently complex systems. But they are unable then to explain the considerable success of the biologists in grasping and exploiting these 'illusory' entities. How could such considerable ability be based on sheer ignorance? The same goes for our everyday ability to communicate successfully, more often than by mere chance.
This leaves us with the ontic variety of naturalist. Those mysteriously emergent entities are objectively real, albeit immaterial. There are, roaming the philosophical forest, a few who call themselves non-reductive physicalists, but theirs appears to be a rearguard action.
What are we to make of these immaterial entities? From whence do they come? Where do they reside? If they are 'real' then they exist independently of human consciousness. As to their origin, they are just a concomitant of evolution. End of story? This website is dedicated to the real possibility that this is not the end of the story.
It is with extreme reluctance and foreboding that the philosophical and scientific communities are being pushed into acknowledging an immaterial realm that is of material consequence. Quite suddenly we are having to confront an immaterial but very substantial aspect of 'nature'. (N.B. the 'scare' quotes!)
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The question to be put to our erstwhile naturalists is where does nature end and the supernatural begin? Why are they not being spooked by these immaterial, emergent entities?
The response is limited. They may side with Aristotle, contra Plato, and declare these emergent forms to be inseparable from their material substrate. They may also cite the comparable and notorious spookiness of quantum 'mechanics' and exclaim, 'c'est la physics.' What more can an underpaid, secular philosopher be expected to say or do?
But you and I must keep on trucking, or maybe it's just me, anymore.
With all these emergent properties shifting about, why not imagine an emergent intelligence beyond our own individual emergent selves? Now we're getting down to the nitty and the gritty.
If my intelligence is more than the sum of my atoms' intelligences (and what is the IQ of a carbon atom?), then why not suppose there is something more than the sum of all our individual intelligences? Fine, but then do I have to turn my collar around? No, but it may be advisable to fasten one's seat belt.
If there is nothing to prevent the emergence of a global intelligence, then it is just as likely to happen as not. But when, and where is the evidence? Who knows? But it might be foolhardy to ignore the possibility that the emerging Internet is more than an accidental concomitant of it.
But why must we limit our horizons just to the Earth? Almost by definition, these emergent entities are non-local, rather like their quantum mechanical cousins. If there can be a global intelligence then why not a cosmic intelligence, with all the appropriate interplanetary linkages? And so we have an evolving cosmic intelligence that is more or less accessible to all of us. But are not most scientists well into supposing that ours is not the only universe? Other universes that exist well outside of our own parochial space-time manifold would surely be wanting to belly up to this same table.
Are you beginning to see why the secular philosophers have already jumped through virtually every hoop in order to avoid having to own up to even one actually emerging entity? Do you really suppose they are anxious to give up their ivory towers for the wooden sandals of the novitiate?
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0. The Best Possible World Page
1. The Nature of Mind
2. Taking Stock
3. A Turning Point?
6. Beyond Naturalism?
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Post-Theology and/or Pre-Millennium
Now I sure don't have the keys to the kingdom, but I can do simple arithmetic. Given that one universe exists, and that there is no law against it, there ought to exist a non-denumerable infinity of other universes. Now even if only one out of a quadrillion of those universes had as much intelligence (sic) as ours, that would leave us only another non-denumerable infinity of cosmic genii with whom to contend. Now unless there is another law that specifically prohibits these emergent genii from engaging in non-local, intercosmic intercourse, we're talking many, many megabytes of intelligence here, there and everywhere, and everywhen, for that matter.
But if the intercosmic Genie is so smart, well, why are we so stupid? Why are we barely able to keep ourselves from committing nearly constant mayhem on each other? Where is this Genii when we truly seem to need her? Does the world not seem to have more than its quota of evil. Perhaps we are dealing with an evil Genie? You and I are certainly not the first to have wondered about this.
There is really only one answer to this question that has ever made any sense. All is well that ends well. One cannot address the question of good and evil without addressing the eschaton. If you remember Theology 101, you will remember that eschatology has to do with the end(s) of all things. But, wait, isn't the end of the world also something bad, hardly something to look forward to? How can two wrongs make a right?
There is a kind of throwaway answer. The end of the world is kind of like graduating to eternity, after, admittedly, a few hard knocks. It's about going somewhere, nowhere and everywhere. Again, no one has presented me with the keys to that kingdom, not yet. But some of us are sure to find out sooner than others, and despite all appearances I am really not in a big hurry -- only a little hurry. I am a minimalist when it comes to hurry. Thus we have the Millennium. I'll bet you'd thought I was going to forget about it.
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Can we not and should we not imagine that somewhere out in all that infinity of intelligence at least one creative intelligence finally hits upon a formula for creation. Perhaps some genie figured out how to anthropically engineer a newly emerging universe so as to optimize its physical parameters for life, and, indeed, for other intelligence. This engineering scenario does not have to be performed by a genie, it could just have been a normally cooperating group of advanced civilizations. Or perhaps some other genie simply 'falls asleep' and more or less inadvertently dreams up a whole world, rather like the Buddha under the Bo tree. Or perhaps there is a band of inter-cosmic computer hackers who are particularly adept at the programming of virtual worlds and artificial intelligence.
Here is the point. We have pretty darn good evidence that life is possible. Now if there is not a creator to begin with, the power of creation is almost certain to emerge somewhere and somewhen, and when it does there is a very powerful, unstoppable(?) bootstrap mechanism in place. If life is spontaneously possible, then it seems natural to presume that even more life is deliberately possible.
Unless there is a strict law against creation (and who would enforce it?), then creation is most likely to be the predominant source of all life. That would mean that the average critter is pretty darn likely to actually be a creature, owing its ultimate existence to the more or less deliberate acts of some form of creative intelligence.
Where does that leave us? From whence did we come? Don't we have sufficient evidence to prove that our particular world was a purely accidental occurrence? All I am saying at this point is that with all the potential and actual intelligence that may exist in an infinity of cosmoses, we ought to consider the possibility that we may be more intimately networked into that creative potential than one might want to suppose from the relatively naive point of view that characterizes the mindset of the average materialistic scientist. Just a thought.
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Something Wrong with this Picture?
Now I may be biased, but at this point it seems to me that we are presented with an almost nightmarish scenario. Instead of a garden of Eden, we seem to have every imaginable world existing in every possible contortion, each one copied at least a million times over. The sheer quantities have run rampant. Something is wrong with this picture.
Where is the Federation when we need it? If the creative impulse is not to run amok, then there ought to be sources of restraint. One might hope that there is an overriding moral force of some kind, or at least some kind of quality control in the creative process that would respect the rights of the creatures vis a vis the creators. But I think there is even a more basic flaw in this thought process.
The whole concept of separate existence is a product of the Newtonian, Cartesian mind set. The most natural state of affairs was supposed to be that of individual atoms swerving in the limitless void of space. General relativity and quantum mechanics have, admittedly, only made a very small dent in the Newtonian worldview. But the rigidity of this mind set is equaled only by its fragility.
This is why I believe that the issue of reductionism is crucial to any new worldview. Anti-reductionism is anti-atomism. Inasmuch as anything is physically irreducible, to that same extent the sanctity or absoluteness of space is violated. It is the overriding idiom of modernism that we are somehow lost in space. At the same time that we revel in our splendid isolation, we also tremble at the fear of falling into the absolute oblivion of the void.
Now with the postmodern rediscovery of the mind, consciousness, and other seemingly unanalyzable, irreducible entities we are being forced back to accept the Cartesian duality of mind and matter, or more accurately we should say mind and space. But is not this logical dichotomy the basis of all the incoherence of modernism? Any new worldview will have to nip this incoherence in the bud. Now I realize that there is a whole gallery full of philosophers who have been trained from early on to jeer at the merest mention of immaterialism. That is hardly conducive to reasoning.
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So Bring on Chicken Little!
(There is a bit of a story behind the Chicken Little epithet. It is a story that involved nearly ten years of my life. This story figured prominently in the previous incarnation of this website. At some point it may be advisable to resurrect a copy of that site, just to keep the record straight. In the meantime, certain allusions and illusions are liable to creep back in, so, kindly, bear with me.)
My contention is that there are a more than a few potential Chicken Littles running around in this postmodern world of ours. I am certainly one of them, although I seem to be the only one out there with a website, as far as my modest googling skills can attest.
There are more than a few of us who question the cosmic hegemony of materialism. Now if one is content with mysticism, dualism or some other form of incoherence, one is free just to go on with one's own life. But if one strives for coherence the options narrow rapidly. If there is an option besides immaterialism, it surely is obscure. In the West, immaterialism has not been taken seriously since the heyday of Hegelian idealism almost two centuries ago. In the East, immaterialism has never not been taken seriously, but that is another story.