Saturday, June 30, 2007

How Reality, Part 1

Human beings don't spend very much time on a reduced plane of material objects. We tend to live in a world of stories, which is what the individual self is: not an objective, external object but a collection of processes and internal conversations whose program is to cluster together and exclude enough information to function but include enough so as to appear to exist as an objective, external object. The result is something like a feedback loop, and identity is more or less a story that collection of different processes and programs tells itself.

So, the models of a material world are necessary, but they need to be used in tandem with poetics so the story can continue and the organism function. Religion is a way of organizing those poetics in a way that is coherent to our illusory selves so we can organize our internal universe enough to make it habitable. The content of said religions doesn't matter as much as the way said content is structured, and how it can be used to the best effect.

For example, in all the collected sayings of Buddha, not once does he say "You have to believe that karma is literally true or you're not a Buddhist." Never does Jesus endorse the Substitution Theory of Atonement over the Ransom one. These are things people use after the fact to make sense of it all, in the same way that religion is used after the fact to make sense of things. Someone doesn't have to believe in karma to derive value from Buddhist teachings. Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tze and the founders of many other religions had very non-dogmatic teachings that were later on dogmatized, changed from systems of individual salvation and enlightenment (two terms I take to mean the same thing) into political tools.

In the same way, the game of soccer gets transformed from a means of making sense of things and organizing the internal universe (I play soccer, it gives me joy, joy makes the world habitable) into franchises that channel that into financial ends (watch our soccer, buy tickets to our games, buy stuff from our advertisers). Not that I'm condemning this morally or anything, since I think that business is another means of self-actualization and making the world habitable for our puny, self-important egos. The point is that the same evolutionary platform that governs the universe itself also governs biology, which in turn governs social interaction, and that means that not just individuals but all systems tend to self-organize to give themselves maximum survivability and strength. Survival of the fittest; as above, so below.

The primary problem of human existence is survival; food, water, shelter, sex. Once we have that taken care of, we move on to the secondary problem: that the material universe is uncompromisingly harsh, violent, and random, where things must kill each other to live and that when you get down to it, the invidividual experience, the sense of "I"ness, has no objective scientific validity at all. But it's necessary to believe in it, because it helps propogate life and vitality. An egoless species would probably get eaten, and to any extent, it certainly isn't very fun. But, and here's what Nietzsche was driving at (I <3 Neitzsche); is a necessary fiction even fictional at all?

So, reductionist materialism dies on the vine. Yes, everything has a material basis, but that on its own only takes you so far. From a purely materialist perspective, why shouldn't all of us kill ourselves? It would provide the most benefit to organic life at large, since our corpses would provide a hearty meal to scavengers, maggots and countless trillions of bacteria. Eventually, billions of years from now, a species may evolve from said scavengers, maggots or bacteria that doesn't massacre one another regularly or build enough atomic weapons to render Earth a quasi-lifeless rock for thousands of years. The self dies, but it doesn't really exist in the first place; it's the collective illusion of a cluster of emergent processes.

For life to continue, we must believe in something that is scientifically false. Which means that it isn't really false, it is something that is "true" under a different rule set.

This is where poetics come in; religion, art, business. They provide us the means of building rule sets from scratch that affirm and continue life in a way that pure materialism cannot, because it builds an environment where the "I" is allowed to exist, and not just exist, but incorporate itself comfortably into the material universe. But as it solves the secondary problem of human existence, it creates the third problem of power and social relations, since the tendency of systems to self-organize means exclusion, which is a means of organization. These systems that give so many people the means to live as themselves are also semi-sentient, organizing principles, competing with one another over which get to exist.

This leads to sports franchises making money off of something you could, if you wanted to, experience daily for free. It leads to ethnic conflict. It leads to eugenics. And yes, it leads to religious fanaticism, which is the result of some very big jerks appropriating the religious experience of incorporation and salvation of others for their own selfish ends. This means religious leaders capable of twisting the words religious texts that condemn violence to justify violence; this means those soccer guys who support Arsenal kicking the crap out of Manchester United supporters; this means blackshirts assaulting those who dare to insult Il Duce. They are all religions, they all provide things necessary for survival, and they all produce problems stemming from the same things.

In business, this means that some companies channel that wonderful experience of independence and self-actualization that comes with owning your own business, or being a part of something you truly believe in, and use it to abuse eminent domain laws and use the government to crush their competition.

In art, this leads to, well, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: crap, that provides incorporation and salvation in the same way that pork rinds technically provide nutrition.

This is where we are right now, I believe. Religion, art, business and many other things I'm sure I'm forgetting to mention provide the tools necessary to survive in this harsh environment of stories we live in, but by the same token, produce the most daunting challenges to that survivability. The question is how to negotiate ourselves to that realm where we can solve the problems while keeping the benefits.

(Incidentally, this is the reason for my anarchism: the state, like art, business and religion, provides the means for self-actualization and incorporation of one's self into the environment, but the state is unique in that it provides those things only by letting some dominate others through violence, and thus it is an innately harmful means of doing so)

Am I making sense?


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Emergent Properties

The way emergent properties work is through a process of what in biology is called natural selection, or what Schopenhauer (I <3 Schopenhauer) called Will. Every action, whether human or not, arises from a list of pre-existing possible actions. Actions which have advantages over others are those that happen, in the same way that organisms with advantages brought by mutations tend to be more successful at reproduction. Existence, on a larger scale, is the result of a model much like evolutionary biology.

A totally objective universe without subjective beings in it is incapable of apprehending its own being, and therefore less fit for information transfer (which would be necessary unless you wanted a lifeless, motionless universe) than a universe with subjective beings in it. So out of all possible universes jockeying to be the existant universe, universal states capable of making the universe aware of itself (since we are a part of a larger whole) will tend to arise over those that don't. This is what Jung thought was the relationship between humans and God: a collaborative project.

This particular universe exists out of all other possible universes because observers give it an advantage over other potential universal states.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza is an Idiot

Normally, I wouldn't give the time of day to anything posted on, as any site with Ann Coulter on it is automatically suspect (Coulter isn't really a commentator, but she plays one on TV!). However, this piece from Dinesh D'Souza contains something much more dangerous than Coulterian obvious dumbassery: it has dumbassery that sounds smart.

Aquinas begins with two principles that are today at the heart of scientific reasoning. He argues that every effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is the cause of its own existence.

You know, I hate Sam Harris. A good friend recommended I read The End of Faith, I did, and somehow it seemed as if I read and understood every individual word in the book, I saw that time had elapsed, yet no change whatsoever had taken place. Reading Sam Harris is like chewing ice for dinner. Dawkins I do like, and consider him one of the most important minds of modern times, but the little bits and pieces of The God Delusion I've read have left me unimpressed, because his arguments therein are all completely beside the point. I'll probably do blog posts on both of them assuming that I find the time to read the entirety of TGD (as for Harris's book, we'll see if I have any tables that need propping up).

Still, as much as I dislike Harris and Dawkins's argument, they deserve a better rebuttal than D'Souza's brain vomit. And I say that as a (very heterodox) Christian. In 1748, David Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which you can read here online for free.

A relevant excerpt from part four:

25. But to convince us that all the laws of nature, and all the
operations of bodies without exception, are known only by
experience, the following reflections may, perhaps, suffice. Were
any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce
concerning the effect, which will result from it, without consulting
past observation; after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind
proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event, which
it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this
invention must be entirely arbitrary. The mind can never possibly find
the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and
examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and
consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second
billiard-ball is a quite distinct event from motion in the first;
nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the
other. A stone or piece of metal raised into the air, and left without
any support, immediately falls: but to consider the matter a priori,
is there anything we discover in this situation which can beget the
idea of a downward, rather than an upward, or any other motion, in the
stone or metal?

And as the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in
all natural operations, is arbitrary, where we consult not experience;
so must we also esteem the supposed tie or connexion between the cause
and effect, which binds them together, and renders it impossible
that any other effect could result from the operation of that cause.
When I see, for instance, a billiard-ball moving in a straight line
towards another; even suppose motion in the second ball should by
accident be suggested to me, as the result of their contact or
impulse; may I not conceive, that a hundred different events might
as well follow from that cause? May not both these balls remain at
absolute rest? May not the first ball return in a straight line, or
leap off from the second in any line or direction? All these
suppositions are consistent and conceivable. Why then should we give
the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than
the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us
any foundation for this preference.

In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It
could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first
invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.
And even after it is suggested, the conjunction of it with the cause
must appear equally arbitrary; since there are always many other
effects, which, to reason, must seem fully as consistent and
natural. In vain, therefore, should we pretend to determine any single
event, or infer any cause or effect, without the assistance of
observation and experience.

This was written more than two hundred and fifty years ago, and it's air tight. There is no justification for the Thomist claim that all events need a cause and no effect is self-causing, other than the human brain is hard wired to perceive things that way. There are no holes.

Jump ahead to the 20th Century and what Hume wounded, Mr. Heisenberg finishes off.

Quantum indeterminacy is the assertion that the state of a system does not determine a unique collection of values for all its measurable properties. Indeed in the quantum mechanical formalism, for a given quantum state, each one of these measurable values will be obtained non-deterministically in accordance with a probability distribution which is uniquely determined by the system state. Note that the state is destroyed by measurement, so when we refer to a collection of values, each measured value in this collection must be obtained using a freshly prepared state.

Cause and effect simply is not an absolute law that the whole universe operates under. If you told any self-respecting physicist every effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is its own cause, he'd laugh in your face.

Boom, there we go. Harris and Dawkins's arguments are stupid, because while technically correct they proceed from false premises. D'Souza doesn't even have the "technically correct" part.

Quid es Veritas?

On CBR, a person I dearly respect but disagree with often had this to say yesterday:

What I'm saying mostly is that there is an objective reality, completely independent of our beliefs.

A god (or gods) either exists or it doesn't. Magic and the supernatural are either real or they aren't.

There's no objective evidence that any method other than the scientific one produces results. Science works whether you believe in it or not.

What scientists and theologians are trying to do is basically the same thing: explain the nature and reality of the universe and the things in it.

To which I must reply with this:

Binary logic is not isomorphic. The Ancient Greeks certainly thought so, which is part of the reason why they hated irrational numbers, to the point of (if I recall correctly) drowning guys who suggested that the square root of two was an actual number. In the system of binary logic, everything neatly divides into "true" and "false" and "All truth values are decidable" is considered axiomatic.

We ran into a few problems with that in the twentieth century, namely with two chaps named Wittgenstein and Gödel. Wittgenstein convincingly argued that there are no absolute rules governing any one bit of language, and thus there is no way to determine if something is true in all circumstances. For example, the word "Fire" doesn't obey absolute rules.

As a noun, "There's a fire over there."
As a command or warning, "Fire!"
As a question, "Fire?"
As the answer to a question, "Fire."

So, Wittgenstein concluded, there is no way within the bounds of human language to determine absolute truth, only ways of determining truth within specific language games that had rules of construction and truth-bearing. Symbolic logic is a language game, as is science, as is theology. Not only communication but means of thinking are human language, including math. This is where Gödel comes in.

Kurt Gödel was only 24 when he received his doctorate from the University of Vienna and only 25 when his Incompleteness Theorems were published in 1931 (yeah, I know, I feel inadequate too). The implications of the proofs are astounding.

  1. Someone introduces Gödel to a UTM, a machine that is
    supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly
    answering any question at all.

  2. Gödel asks for the program and the circuit design of the
    UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely
    long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth

  3. Smiling a little, Gödel writes out the following sentence:
    "The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will never
    say that this sentence is true." Call this sentence G for Gödel.
    Note that G is equivalent to: "UTM will never say G is true."

  4. Now Gödel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is
    true or not.

  5. If UTM says G is true, then "UTM will never say G is true" is
    false. If "UTM will never say G is true" is false, then G is false
    (since G = "UTM will never say G is true"). So if UTM says G is true,
    then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM
    will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.

  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So "UTM
    will never say G is true" is in fact a true statement. So G is true
    (since G = "UTM will never say G is true").

  7. "I know a truth that UTM can never utter," Gödel says. "I
    know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal."

What Gödel succeeded in proving was that in any given mathematical or logical system, by using the axioms of said system you would inevitably run into questions that cannot be decided one way or the other. You can always, of course, jump to other systems to decide them, but all this does is create an even larger system with the same problem. Any given logical or mathematical system is necessarily incomplete.

So, the assumption "All truth values are decidable" inevitably leads to the conclusion "Not all truth values are decidable." Crazy, isn't it? And if you bring in other truths from other systems to help, you just delay the problem into something else. It's turtles all the way up.

This means that we live in an environment of "truths" that are constantly overlapping and interacting with one another, and indeed competing, but that there is no absolute truth that transcends the whole of the universe anywhere, only very carefully defined rule sets that if operated correctly lead to truths that exist absolutely only within the confines of their specific rule sets. Binary logic is a language game/rule set that leads to specific results in specific circumstances but by necessity it can never truly encapsulate the whole of the universe. Hence, not everything operates precisely on a true/false paradigm, as the idealist/rationalist/positivist tradition argues.

This also means that theology and science are different language games/rule sets, and thus such contradictory statements as "There is no God/are no gods" and "There is a God/are gods" can both be simultaneously true.

There's a fellow in the Bible I believe who asked a very interesting question: Quid es veritas? What is truth?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mad Genius

So, my friend Paul McEnery wrote this post and I feel the need to share it here so as to avoid putting up original content, 'cuz that's like, work.

Heh. Which hat do you want me to wear for this issue? The querulous swot who can give you chapter and verse? Or the incomprehensible mystic who'll fluff Shiva's underbelly for a laugh?

Oh hell, let's do both at the same time. Just think of me as Severus Snape.

The first thing to understand is that the Creator God is just as much of a human creation/projection as spaghetti carbonara. All cultures come up with creation myths. Hell, not just myths of the beginning of the world, but myths for the beginning of every little detail. For the last ten years, we've seen one after another creation myth trotted out on DVD about how punk rock got started. It's just one of the things people do, like swapping lists of the best ever graphic novels. And on every occasion, the face of the God looks just like the countenance of the culture. (Fun fact: Monty Python's "God" is the great cricketer W.G. Grace, which is exactly what you'd expect them to pick.)

The thing is, for me, that it's idolatrous to pick an avatar for a universal paradigm and choose to elevate it above all others -- especially when the counter-examples against that paradigm are conclusive. The question for me is always: does your idea of "God" truly match your experience? Does the physics for which He stands actually hold water? If the answer to both of those questions is no, then what are you doing hanging on to such childish things? Sure, when I was a child, I spoke as a child. Now that I'm older, I'm obliged to upgrade my interface. Even so, now I'm looking through a dim screen that's only 15 inches across. In the future, I'm going for the full immersion, altered state, elf-hugging virtual reality.

For my money, the poetics of the "Creator God" are really, really dull, and do nothing to elevate the "soul" to the place of ecstatic participation. For that, I prefer to think of the universe as Shiva's dance. Those buildings towering above me? Nothing less than a slick move on the celestial dance floor. That sunset? It's Kali's flying into the air and over the shoulders of her divine consort -- check out her pleated skirt! It's all one big organismic illusion, and we get to make pieces of it ourselves as we go. What a trip!

But illusion or no, it drags us off the straight and narrow to trudge along in the mildewed boots of false perception. We're part of the constant recreation of the universe! We gave it a spring cleaning and tarted up the old place with a swank four-poster quantum foamy mattress and some lovely string theory curtains in the bay windows. So out with the misery shades of dead man's drapery; that dinge won't wash any more!

Creation is a single instant that takes a bloody age to unfold, scattering its fractal providence all over the Elysian fields. Toss out last week's tulips; they stink of wilt. Blossom your own self like a nursery sunflower, all radiant and frolicky, sucking up the mulch of yesterday's thought and transforming it into a big round yellow smiley face. Beam on!