Sunday, January 31, 2016

Philosophy 002 - the epistemology/metaphysics bowl of oatmeal

A couple of months ago I started this revolutionary series of posts on philosophy. By revolutionary, I mean that they it will likely cause Socrates to spin in his grave. In the first post, I discussed my reading in philosophy and set down my thoughts on epistemology, particularly how little we know, what that realization should mean to us and how to tell the difference between different levels of doubt. My approach sounds a little like Abbott & Costello’s Who’s on first? routine – with the concepts of I don’t know, I don’t care and enough being my predominant principles. If you have any more interest in it or don’t have a job and nothing to do, you can read it (11/10/15).

Towards the end, I wrote: “Just to make sure we are on the same page, when I ask the question of when we can say we have knowledge, I do not also mean to ask by it - when can we know something is real or true. Our knowledge is based on what we think is true or real and we may be completely wrong. If we learn we were wrong about a belief or fact, it merely means that we now have increased our level of doubt, or do not have enough certainty to believe we have knowledge.”

I want to tackle that question of whether we can know “reality,” that is, the essence of things. Epistemology and metaphysics are considered two separate philosophical categories, but, in truth, it is impossible to separate them as one always bleeds into the other – that is, where what we can know bleeds into what there is and vise versa. Not only is it not possible to draw a line, but probably, we are always discussing both at the same time, because we are stuck in ourselves and all attempts to escape that, even with technology, must fail.

Don’t expect a handy formula from me or that I am going to try to settle any issues. Absolute truth is, of course, unknowable – except perhaps we can know that we can know something (right or wrong) and that we are limited in what we know. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least discuss both reality and our knowledge of it. And maybe that means mostly discussing what are sometimes given as an answer, but aren’t.

The first thing that pops into my mind in thinking about how we can know what is real, is that the answer is not faith. For many people, faith allows them to believe they know the truth, but I reject it as just a matter of opinion, convenience and comfort. I’ve discussed this in previous posts on occasion, mostly concerning (Atheism on 4/28/13 and I promise not to eat your children on 5/30/10). I don’t want to repeat everything I wrote there, so it will be much shorter. Faith is merely a form of belief that something is true based on something other than evidence. Probably faith is most often discussed concerning the existence or not of God. Although people may share a religious faith in general, often that means that they say that they belong to the same religion (whether or not they know anything about it) or perhaps have memorized similar or rituals, icons, prayers, etc. Even if someone is deeply knowledgeable about their religion's dogma, it doesn’t upgrade their faith to more than a belief and I find that even people professing the same faith find, if they can speak openly, that they differ on precisely what it means. Hence, there were and still are many divisions of religions, claims to be the “true” religion and the concept of heresy. One man’s true religion is another man’s cult and arguably, for every religious person, there is a unique religion. 

Science, which is essentially a disciplined approach to reason made to come closer to the "truth" does get us a little closer. By that I mean that I accept to some degree the philosophies of Charles Peirce and Karl Popper to the extent that we cannot know the truth, but through rigorous procedures, scientists or we ourselves can learn what is not the truth, and thereby by subtraction add to our empirical knowledge brick by brick, unpeeling layers and chipping away by experiment and moving forward haphazardly by educated guesses – hypotheses – and sometimes dumb luck (some would argue, mostly dumb luck).

But, Popper would tell you that at the bottom of science or any rational thought is some type of faith. First, all knowledge just leads to other questions, and eventually you get to those axioms or premises that can’t be proven or disproved, and you believe them because they seem necessarily true. One is the belief that reason can lead us to the truth or experience tells you that you can rely on it (like the sun coming up tomorrow or the earth not disintegrating beneath you). How do you prove that? You can’t. Still, every philosopher and scientist inherently accepts it, at least implicitly if they don’t think about it.

But is the “faith” that lets us accept basic premises of logic or reason the same type of “faith” that there is a God or that a religion is true? I don’t think so though we use the same word for it. The first is something that without which we could not use logic or reason or function and everything that we believe is real would no longer be a belief. The second is the acceptance of a much more complicated analysis without reason (which is essentially what faith means). As even believers know, it is quite possible to believe in or use reason without the basis of believing in God or religion. Though some philosophers/theologists argue that reason begins with the concept of a deity or God, I consider them so divorced from any reason or logic that can be cogently stated, that I can’t take it seriously. Even among philosophers who beat these issues to death in page after page, sometimes that is what the argument comes down to – we just know it isn’t so. Others can differ, of course.

Another category, perception, without reason or faith, is meaningless as far as knowledge is concerned, but I will add that it is undeniable that what we perceive has to pass through the filters of our senses, and that we can only approach existence or reality through them. We can know about things we can't perceive - for example, we can't perceive x-rays, but we can know they exist by perceiving their affect on other things, like marks on special film, or we can reason that things exist, which probably do, such as a black hole, but again we only get there by perceiving other things which we reason about.

But, whether we are applying faith or science or other processes like intuition, nothing can ever let us know what is true or real absolutely and reason, including science, and experience can only tell us what we are pretty sure isn’t true in particular times and places - and it is very uncertain knowledge. Descartes would argue that perhaps it is a dream or perhaps a demon has caused some belief, but I don’t think we have to go that far. Both reason and experience can tell us as much.

All this presupposes that there is a “truth” to be known, something we can call “reality,” at the bottom of what we experience, even if we can never really approach it closely or know it fully. We can start, again like Descartes, and say, “I think, therefore I am.” It makes immediate and intuitive sense. Even if everything thought is wrong or what we think is doing the thinking ain’t – there has to be something. And maybe that is the one thing we can be surest of – there is something, not nothing, because we wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t.

In the beginning of the 20th century though, the idea that there is some reality, something certain at the bottom of everything we think we see, hear, feel, etc., was thrown into question. It wasn’t the first time that the idea that we are not experiencing reality directly had been considered – Plato, Mahayana Buddhists, Bishop Berkeley and many others all discussed these issues. But with all of them, though they differ in some aspects, there was an underlying if unknowable reality. Even a minimal understanding of perception tells us that what we perceive is not identical with what exists, although once we state that, it becomes much harder to understand what exactly is there that we can’t comprehend. This is the juncture of metaphysics – which concerns that underlying reality - with epistemology. They are not the same though, even if the line is gray. If epistemology is a bottomless well, metaphysics is a bottomless well that we can’t even find. Said another way, we can always discuss what we know. It is not even clear if a statement about metaphysics even has any real meaning.

But as soon as I write this, I remember the little Kant that I possess. Usually, I shy from Kant because he is hard. But there are times I see a glimpse of something that I suspect may be beyond Spinoza and onto something – if only there was only an easier way to think about it. There no doubt is truth in his concept of “things as they are” - as opposed to “things as we perceive them"; that part is easy. But then you start thinking about his concept of the noumena, which I think, in one sense is like Plato’s forms (a ridiculous philosophical idea, but possibly the first fully developed philosophical idea in the West – something more than an aphorism or formula - that has perhaps framed a central discussion forever). And then when I start trying to understand positive as opposed to negative noumena, I google away from it very quickly. I’m working myself up to it, but like everything in philosophy, it is interpreted many different ways and Kant wasn’t all that clear – if he really understood his own concepts himself. Some day, maybe, I'll get to it.

Plato and Kant and all of that thought, sometimes hopelessly sharp and gloppy at the same time, but always untestable, at first glance seems to have lost a great deal of importance in the advent of quantum theory, which has been experimentally shown to have remarkable staying power. Even with all its paradoxes and mind-boggling concepts, most physicists believe it is the correct interpretation of nature. No, I don’t intend to work my way through that here either in any great detail, as I can’t satisfactorily summarize it in a few paragraphs. But it is not without its paradoxes too and that is where I want to focus. 

Standing on Max Planck’s shoulders (and Planck was the initiator of the concept of quanta) Einstein’s work on the quanta of light in the same “miracle year” in which he formulated special relativity and two other revolutionary theories was a primary generator for later quantum theory by Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrodinger and others. But he himself was also quantum theory’s greatest critic. For quantum theory, as most widely interpreted (usually called the Copenhagen interpretation) has a view of reality that does not seem very real at all. It posits that underlying the material world we know are not just particles and waves, but probabilities about them.

If that sounds confusing, or just ridiculous, you are on the right track. The great physicist Richard Feynman famously said (at least everyone is sure it was him, though it isn't clear when and where) that if you think you understand quantum physics, then you don’t understand quantum physics. If that is true, then we are right back to the type of zen-like concepts that brings Plato, Berkeley, Kant and so on roaring back.  And that would be fine with most physicists. Because, first, most don’t seem to care if their theory is complete, because it is testable and therefore, in at least one sense of the word, provable. And, second, most if not all of the great physics theorists, if you scratch the surface, are philosophers at heart, and often wrote quite a bit about it.

Wasn’t I talking about Einstein? It's so easy to get lost in this stuff that I can’t blame any of the philosophers for the muddle. It’s like Bilbo Baggins told his nephew, Frodo –It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Dammit, I did it again. Anyway, Einstein would have these intense informal debates with Niels Bohr, who was perhaps as great a theorist, that were sometimes the real show at physics conventions. Bohr would hold strongly that there was essentially nothing underlying reality but probabilities which would “collapse” upon being observed into what we think is reality. Einstein claimed that “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Bohr replied “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” It was a lot more specific than that, but those are pithy summaries. They’d go back and forth but Bohr seemed to always come out on top, at least in the mind of most quantum theorists. 

Einstein, with two colleagues, Podolsky and Rosen, formulated a thought experiment which, if correct, meant at least that quantum theory was incomplete. In my own admittedly sketchy understanding, it goes like this: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle holds that you cannot measure both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time, because the measurement of one itself affects measuring the second. You can conceive of a thought experiment though which would enable a particle to know of the spin of another particle at a distance – even an unimaginable distance like a different galaxy.

And this “spooky action at a distance” (Einstein’s phrase) concept, now usually called entanglement, would require that the information travel faster than light, which relativity says is impossible. All that probably sounds rather murky. Except, entanglement has been tested experimentally over and over again in every conceivable way, including with the most modern instrumentation. And the particles seem to know instantaneously what a paired particle is doing.

To be clear as possible in this miasma, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox did not mean quantum theory was wrong at all – some aspects of it have been declared to be the most experimentally proven concept of all time – but the interpretation of the results. And there are other interpretations of it that I’m not going into here. Einstein simply offered that the theory was not complete and Heisenberg’s principle, which seemed unassailable, was therefore not necessarily true. But no matter what he threw out there, Bohr always seemed able to convincingly bat it down.

Except . . .  only recently, a group of scientists (Aephraim Steinberg and friends at the U. of Toronto) have claimed that their experiments have shown that Heisenberg’s principle does not always hold so tight (relax, not even going there), which, would mean, if they are correct, that now it appears that maybe Einstein was right after all, although it is too late to tease Bohr about it. All of this is the subject of those who are looking, as did Einstein, for a theory of everything or a quantum-relativity theory. Maybe it’s possible. Maybe it’s just not understood at all yet. But, if it is possible to solve this paradox, the technological revolution it would engender would probably make the computer revolution look like tinker toys in comparison.

So, of course, I went through all of that stuff in as light and fluffy a way as I could to tell you what I think. Even with the most accurate of scientific apparatus, the answer to the question of is there an underlying reality, is there something more than potential or probabilities until something is observed, are there things as they are, and so on, continues to elude us. I'm not at all convinced by the Copenhagen interpretation. Plato’s answer that ideal forms exist is not more unsatisfying than the idea that probability is all there is until there is a collapse of waves into reality, at least metaphorically. Some may know the story recorded by Boswell that when he and Dr. Johnson came out of church and he said to Johnson that despite the unsatisfactory nature of Bishop Berkeley’s argument that matter did not exist, they could not refute it. Johnson simply stated, “I refute it thus,” and kicked a big rock. It seems though that Bohr and Heisenberg and others have determined that Johnson refuted nothing in terms of what existed before Johnson observed the rock and the wave pattern collapsed into its form. They hold it did not exist, and they and their successors can wave oodles of experimental results which say they have the better of the argument.

A well-known thought experiments popularly called Schrodinger’s Cat, was conceived by Erwin Schrodinger, one of the most brilliant of quantum theorists, who helped provide a mathematical basis for the science. Stated succinctly, if you have a cat in a locked box and dropped poison in the box, there is a 50% chance that the cat is alive or dead before you open the box, because that is when the probability waves collapse into reality - you just can't know when that is. You are probably thinking, I don’t care what anyone says, that cat is either dead or alive. And I agree. The truth is, as often as you read about Schrodinger’s cat, remember in your head that the experiment was made not to prove the Copenhagen interpretation, and that he himself rejected that interpretation. I admit to some confusion as to whether this is originally so or that he changed his mind, as I've read both, and to be honest, there is only so much rereading or research I can do on a topic if I ever want to post. I know as much as I do about him because I’ve read him directly in a little read essay. But I believe that Schrodinger's original or latter interpretation is rarely stated accurately or fully in any popular retelling and perhaps even in physics’ books. Schrodinger, like many great physicists, was quite taken with philosophy, particularly ancient Greek philosophy (both he and Heisenberg wrote on the topic). His own views in the end are possibly even weirder than quantum theory, in short, that all existence is one great mind. But, this is not my conclusion either and I really don’t think even the most brilliant physicists have the advantage over us in thinking about it.

I doubt you disagree with Einstein and Schrodinger (and much less importantly, me). Something happens in that box. We don't know what it is, but it happened at a certain time that can be fixed, if we only knew how, and it isn't going to change upon our observation of it. There was a time, probably like many young people and some fictional authors, when I wondered if after I left a room, it blinked out of existence. This solipsism (all that exists is our own mind) or ego-centrism that the universe exists just for us, or whatever you want to call it, is passed by rapidly by most people as they age.

So, yada, yada, yada, let me sum up even shorter what I take from all of the above, in which I’ve as pithily as possible condensed my decades of reading philosophy, without all that many references to any particular philosopher or scientist from whom I may have glommed this or that idea:

There is a something which we can say is real. Upon saying that I am suddenly reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s response upon hearing that American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller remarked that “I accept the universe.” He said, “Gad, she’d better.” And so better we all. In fact, if you don’t read philosophy or about quantum science where the idea is batted about that maybe there is nothing, of course you accept the universe and never think about it. And even if you adopt a Bishop Berkeley approach or the Copenhagen interpretation, you’d better have something to eat and watch out for traffic or everyone else will get a chance to debate it except you. Whatever all this is - of course it is something. What it is, we will probably never know for sure and that is simply because we are limited in what we can perceive and understand. I’ve always been attracted to mysticism (but not rituals) for some reason, but, I don’t believe in it. We can’t expand our minds by yoga or LSD or any other manner other than study – and in that we are very limited – such that we can comprehend the universe sufficiently to approach its core unity or complexity and to get by in life. Some would say this core unity is God, and I don’t believe that (I’ve always believed “God” used in that manner is synonymous with the words “I don’t know.”)

But, whatever reality is, I believe it is beyond us.  We’ve been conditioned by the processes of evolution for millions of years to survive on this planet in certain situations. That does not include a brain that can comprehend the cosmos from every perspective. Nor do I believe we can create machines that extend our abilities, like telescopes or computers, because in the end, they are limited by our ability to design and comprehend them. Is it conceivable that there is the possibility of intelligent life that is so vastly beyond us such that it might understand it all? I guess anything is possible, but I doubt that exists either, on this planet or another. I take another philosopher’s observation as a starting point. “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” So too, I would add, does every organism take the limits of its species' perceptual abilities, even extended by mechanical means, for the limits of existence. I qualify most everything with “I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.”

We are, at least so far, helplessly trapped in our minds. Not to worry. They are big places and even a John von Neumann, who seemed so smart to other smart people as to be almost like another species, so vast was his comprehensive ability, could not comprehend but a tiny fraction of what is probably possible, just like if you trap an amoeba in a small pond, it will not have an opportunity to explore it all.

I also stand with Einstein, rather than Bohr. Just as a younger Einstein was able to show how to unwind the paradox between the then law of relativity with the propagation of light (for that is what his theory of special relativity sought to do), just as his predecessor and benefactor, the undersung Max Planck, was able to unravel a paradox of heat radiation by the realization that energy may travel in discrete amounts (quanta), eventually science and/or philosophy cuts through it or expands our horizons and we suddenly understand better. Or at least some of us Homo sapiens do and the rest of us hang on for dear life until technology makes it so that if we can’t understand how something works, we don’t care, because we can push a button.

I am not suggesting at all that we are not, as a species, going to continue to do and learn amazing things. I am, to the contrary, convinced that we cannot even see where we are likely going 30 years from now, never mind a century or two. But there are limits, and if Schrodinger and Spinoza or the Buddhists or mystics and others are right, and it is all just one big bowl of oatmeal or as they would otherwise describe it, we cannot get there and remain human, for it would require a nirvana like experience in which we would be something much more and less at the same time. That's for mystics and frankly, they are deluded.

So, yes, Einstein, there is something behind all of this scenery, and we can learn more about what it is. But, just as I believe he was right that quantum theory was incomplete, so I believe that all theory is by necessity incomplete and always will be. As long as I can watch football on Sundays five or so months a year, it doesn’t bother me at all. But, I do enjoy thinking about it.

You know, and I promise this is my last thought on it. Maybe my blend of metaphysics and epistemology is really the same as my epistemology. Because the last few paragraphs started to sound a lot like I don’t know, I don’t care and – mercifully, enough.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .