Answers to Questions from Chris Rhodes on Epistemology, Physics and the Kalam

This is in response to a conversation between Chris Rhodes and me on Twitter. The subject is too involved to attempt on Twitter, so I am answering here.

1. Why should we believe it to be true and what evidence is there for it?

A. The physical structure of perception and cognition suggest it. The brain sits inside a box with no windows and is entirely reliant on electrochemical impulses through the neural network for information about the external world. Vision, for example, is not like a camera that throws a picture against a screen, but rather eyes take light within a very narrow bandwidth and transform that energy into electric impulses conducted through the optic nerve to a part of the brain that operates to make some sense of the data. It produces a picture through innate sensibilities and categories of understanding that are not present in the real world. For example, color doesn’t exist outside our imagination, but is created in the imagination as response to specific electromagnetic wavelengths. Hoffman has done experiments where he disrupts that part of the brain with magnets and causes the subject to perceive the world without color. That indicates the color is created in that section of the brain. Second, there are experiments which show how radically our expectations reduce the pictures we draw from vision out of the overwhelming confusion of sense data. The vast majority of what exists in front of us is never represented because we naturally focus on what we expect to be important. There was a famous experiment where a man was giving a lecture during which a man in a bear suit slowly walked behind him from one end of the stage to the other. Nobody in the audience saw him and disbelieved it happened until shown a video. The result of the experiments clearly show that we format sense data according to our expectations of what will happen next, and this is decisive in editing and focusing the picture in representation. The same types of experiments have been done in time and space representations.

B. There are certain conditions of thought which shape all representations and ideas, and further, we cannot even conceive outside those conditions. Space and time are among those conditions. It is impossible for us to think other than in space and time, even though reality outside the Newtonian band of existence seem to confound space and time entirely. This would indicate that space and time are merely our modes of drawing the world and not a feature of the world itself. One of the great challenges Einstein faced was trying to describe ultimate reality, which did not exist in space and time, because it is beyond our ability to conceive outside those conditions. No matter how you describe it, you always resort to spatial and temporal terms because we can do no other. That led to describing the absence of time as block time, which relied on a spatial metaphor. The paradoxes caused by relativity force us to talk of successionality, where in extreme relative motion we encounter situations where effect can precede cause. Here we are forced to use a temporal term to a reality where time doesn’t exist, and our inner sensibility leads to paradox. The same applies to the question of what happened before the big bang, where there was no time or space. There is no before, which is a misplaced concept.

C. We know from quantum field theory that the world itself does not exist anything like how we perceive it. Back to the case of the bus hurtling at us, we represent it to ourselves as a solid object in space and time. In reality it is an inconceivably complex interaction of various quantum fields existing mostly of empty space. Even the notion of solid matter dissolves at this level, where quanta are no more than coagulated energy along the field, and what we perceive as mass is merely the effect of the Higgs field slowing the flow of quanta in other fields. Consider that the wall in front of you is almost all empty space. The particles that make up atoms are very far from each other and what you perceive as a solid in space is quite different. What we perceive as the space of the wall is mostly empty, and what we perceive as a smooth solid is the result of the energy of this field not allowing light of certain wavelengths through. They refract back to us evenly and we draw a colored solid space in our mind. If we punch the wall. we physically encounter that energy and are repelled. At the deepest level of existence that we know, the world is entirely made of vibrations. The vibrations along the 24 quantum fields, and the vibrations of quanta themselves. All else is our representations. That is the basis of Hoffman’s analogy of bits to icons.

Under experiments with psychedelics we can see how these subjective determinations can be altered in all sorts of ways and still appear to us as realistic because we are altering our conditions of perception and thought, and in doing so we see its independence from the world in itself.

2. His theory is based on evolution, which we know as fact through experiments and observation. However, if you apply Hoffman’s theory to the thing that supports it, we have no reason to believe it. How do we know what we observed as evolution was really that? It could have been something else our brains

This is a question I deal with quite a bit and is my departure from pure Naturalism as we commonly understand it. There are two modes of thought, objectively technological and ontological. That is my major focus but far too wide to go into detail here. In the technological mode we adhere to our objective representations and what can be verified through them. Hoffman, Kant, et al. do not deny there is correct information here. If there were no correspondence between our representations and external world, there would be no adaptive benefit. But there is a degree of correspondence that derives from the unique conditioning of sense data by what is observed. If not, we would be eaten by tigers we thought were rocks, we could never catch any prey, airplanes wouldn’t fly, and we would never have reached the moon. Our objective representation of the world is what allows us to manipulate it because our attempts to measure objects and reason relationships between them are in close correspondence to innate properties of these objects beyond our understanding. This gives us correct information about measure and relation within certain limits of scale but can never tell us what these things we perceive actually are. That requires ontological thinking, which is in essence pre-rational.

We can observe phenomena over time that allow us to build a view of evolution which is as reliable as our building a view of aerodynamics. We can trace how understanding has developed throughout mammalian history, for example, and through the various phases of man. We can study DNA to get a picture of a mechanism for these developments. But that is all we can know scientifically.

The deeper questions are beyond measurement and comparison, such as the question of intentionality in the universe. Man’s intellect and morality has perceptibly developed in a discernable direction, and at a superficial level the science of evolution can explain much of it. The problem is not that this explanation is false, but rather radically incomplete. What is DNA essentially? We can measure and relate scientifically, but never know what it is in its essence. It certainly has the appearance of a will or intention, but where does that come from? Is it a reflection or revelation of Being itself? And if so, are we intended as the development of consciousness of Being – a sort of Being in self-regard and self-experience? That’s where the mystery is, but beyond the objective understanding of technological objectivity.

3. Hoffman’s theory is not compatible with Kant’s epistemology or Seth’s theory. To give an analogy, Kant believes that if the actual world is a man, our vision is a shadow. Seth believes that if actual reality is a 6 ft tall man, we might see a 5’ 8” woman, and Hoffman believes that if actual reality is a man, we would see any number of things that could fill the role of a man’s relation to us. This is further exacerbated by their ideas of consciousness, which differ radically, with Seth thinking that it’s generated by the neurons in our brain as a the conscious experience of reality, while Hoffman thinks it’s the fundamental part of reality.

We need to separate epistemology from the question of consciousness at this point. I’m not sure that your epistemological analogy is quite right. Kant wouldn’t see it as a shadow at all because that implies external space and time. The same would apply to Seth and Hoffman. I think it is closer to the case that all three see our conception of the world as a construction derived from sense data through innate conditions of understanding and perception.

Consciousness is far more speculative and there are various theories that borrow from contemporary physics. Hoffman adheres to a theory among some physicists that consciousness is basic to the universe and progresses to higher levels of complexity and development in the same way as the cosmos. Others look to the wave behavior of the deepest level of reality and its similarity to wave behavior of the brain and posit a model that is like the wave interaction among quantum fields. All of this is, however, very early and speculative, although promising.

4. Hoffman’s theory is too ill-defined. He thinks we see representations of actual reality with some semblance of truth, but what truth stays through the representation? Does the color of the thing? The shape? How does our brain decide which representation to create?

I believe I addressed this above, but if you had other thoughts concerning this that I didn’t, let me know.

5. Assuming that Hoffman wishes to be consistent, he must also assume that what we call reason or logic is also a faulty, inaccurate perception of reality, that would mean that nothing we believe is valid, because we came to the conclusion through a process not aimed at truth, including his own theory.

Again, I believe I covered that above. In short, it is correct to a usable degree at the Newtonian level but becomes stretched to incomprehension beyond that.

6. Hoffman’s view of consciousness/mind is inconsistent. On one hand, he claims consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that the world is inhabited by conscious agents who create reality. However, this is incompatible with his view that our conscious experience is created and altered by evolution, and therefore something that gradually developed, rather than something fundamental.

Again, I addressed above the theory of progressive cosmic development and complexity from which he derived his theory. Our consciousness would be just one step along this development. He also entirely ignores the more primordial and deeper mode of ontological consciousness. There is far more profound truth in Beethoven and Shakespeare than in both volumes of relativity.

7. And aside from Hoffman’s theory, I think your characterization of WLC and certainly your characterization of Aristotle are both strawmen. First, when WLC dismisses the antimony, he does it on the basis that we have good scientific evidence that the universe began.

Let’s leave Aristotle aside for the moment because I don’t think it is all that relevant to this discussion. When WLC bases his claim on the assertion that there is good scientific evidence the universe he again is knowingly evading the real issue. First of all, there is no consensus among physicists that the universe indeed had a beginning. Roger Penrose would be a prime example of physicists who contest that notion.  

More important, he ducks the crux of Kant’s Antinomy by obscuring the meaning of “beginning”. Most physicists who adhere to a beginning of the universe are careful to distinguish that from the beginning of physical reality, where the big bang is no more than a change of state from what we are forced to think of as pre-big bang (even though the concept of time does not actually exist beyond the big bang) to our particular universe where entropy set in motion what we perceive as time and space.

The critical point is that we cannot possibly know anything about any origins of our universe nor can we apply the concept of time or our natural physical laws. Concerning the Kalam, that means that the premises assume things we cannot possibly know and therefore are not compelling.

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