Part I: Response to Bob Felts on the topic of Applicability of Mathematics to Physical Reality

Bob Felts has provided several extremely interesting responses to my initial post and has come to a brief pause so I can catch up to what he has written so far. My response will also divide into several sections over the coming days. Here I will begin with thoughts on his Part I and another article he linked to that is perfectly central to our conversation concerning Quantum Field Theory, which we both seem to see as the elementary plane of existence.

This conversation began on Twitter as a discussion between an atheist and a Christian, but has taken a deeper and far more interesting turn to a comparison between a philosopher/poet/musician’s worldview grounded in esthetics and a mathematician’s worldview grounded in logic, yet both views stemming from the common starting point of physical reality as the rippling of waves. I think we will see that slight differences in how we view this primacy of quantum fields will ultimately expand into somewhat contradictory conclusions, which end with Bob’s concept of mind as computer and mine as resonance. More interestingly, this all ends up reinforcing the fact that both science and philosophy aim toward the same goal of exploring the mystery inherent in physical reality from radically different paths, but ultimately offer the promise of complementary, and therefore richer, comprehension rather than contradictory.

I therefore need to begin with a look at the article on QFT to which Bob linked, describing the universe as the rippling waves upon a pond, link provided above, and some of Bob’s interpretations of this article. This is where the nascent split begins as a tiny crack.

The article starts with a refutation of the existence of atoms:

“You might have gotten an inkling of this, learning about beta decay. In beta decay, a neutron transforms, becoming a proton, an electron, and a neutrino. Look for an electron inside a neutron, and you won’t find one. Even if you look at the quarks, you see the same transformation: a down quark becomes an up quark, plus an electron, plus a neutrino. If quarks were atoms, indivisible and unchanging, this couldn’t happen. There’s nowhere for the electron to hide.

 In fact, there are no atoms, not the way the Greeks imagined. Just ripples.”

The elementary ripples are the oscillations of quantum fields. Particles themselves aren’t really distinct objects but merely localized excitations on a quantum field. In the above example we see that as a neutron – part of an atomic nucleus and consisting of nothing but gluons and quarks when viewed from the understanding of quantum mechanics – decays, particles not existing in the neutron suddenly appear. What we actually see are localized excitations along the electron, quark and neutrino fields as they interact in what we observe as neutron decay. The electron did not suddenly emit from the neutron but rather the decay process caused localized excitement in the electron field. All fields exist in all places at all times, and the universe is in its most real sense an unimaginably complex interplay of these fields. What we think of as matter really doesn’t exist as such, rendering obsolete any distinction between mind and matter, or material and immaterial. There is only interplay among the waves of the quantum fields. Everything else is merely our representation as metaphor.

As the renowned physicist Sean Carroll describes this:

According to quantum field theory, there are certain basic fields that make up the world, and the wave function of the universe is a superposition of all the possible values those fields can take on. — Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture

The physicist Paul Sutter further explains:

“In our best conception of the subatomic world using the Standard Model, what we think of as particles aren’t actually very important. Instead, there are fields. These fields permeate and soak up all of space and time. There is one field for each kind of particle. So, there’s a field for electrons, a field for photons, and so on and so on. What you think of as particles are really local little vibrations in their particular fields. And when particles interact (by, say, bouncing off of each other), it’s really the vibrations in the fields that are doing a very complicated dance.”

While I agree in general with this article to which Bob linked, it does contain a metaphor I find somewhat inapt, and while it appears somewhat trivial at first, it could yet prove to be the first appearance of that initial crack:

“Picture the universe as a pond. This isn’t a still pond: something has disturbed it, setting ripples and whirlpools in motion. These ripples and whirlpools skim along the surface of the pond, eddying together and scattering apart.”

To my mind it is of primary importance to note that there really is nothing like a pond on which the fields float. The idea of pond suggests the false impression that there is an elemental medium upon which the fields themselves float. A false impression that carries the danger of reimposing material into the picture. It would be much better to imagine the waves themselves as fundamental and not floating on anything at all.

I’ll briefly address a few of Bob’s statements in Part 1 but will go into greater detail in the next few sections over the coming week.

1. This means that there are ripples that give rise to logic, truth, and meaning for these are the basis of our ability to describe events (Jeff’s “rational objectification”) and our ability to describe a “distance” between two events (which is the “is/ought” distinction). The only difference between the “rational objectification of events” and the “esthetic experience of Being” is that the latter involves a distance metric between two events or between an event and an “idealized” event.”

This contains a questionable characterization of logic, truth and meaning and a misstatement of my view of the difference between rational and esthetic knowledge. First, the fact that everything is fundamentally waves in no way implies that our capacity for knowledge necessarily leads to truth just because it emerges from these waves. Errors and misinterpretations also emerge from waves. The task is to distinguish between them, and this distinction lies in the way these waves function, not in the fact that they are waves.

Second, esthetic knowledge does not involve any distance between two events and knows nothing of an idealized event. It is a direct and unmediated experience of an occurrence that bypasses subject/object metaphysics to bring about a fusion of what metaphysics separates as internal and external.

2. This is problematic for several reasons, which Jeff will have to defend. First, how does anyone know what “Being” is, since we can’t directly experience it? Second, it betrays a form of thinking where “Being” and “copula” are distinct things. As a Christian, I would argue that this is equivalent to the “modalist” heresy. I don’t want to immediately derail this particular part of the discussion, but we may eventually have to go there (cf. my posts on the Trinity, which are more about the ways this doctrine shows how individuals think about things than it is about the doctrine itself.).”

Being is just that which we do experience directly in esthetic knowledge and indirectly through rational knowledge. The above formulation is backwards. Next, Being and copula are not distinct things, or things at all, really. Being is true sensible physicality. Reducing it to a copula is a diminished perception of that physicality.

3. Reason can’t be different from reality, since it’s all just ripples on the quantum pond1. What I think Jeff wants to say is that reason allows us to construct descriptions that may, or may not, accurately describe reality. The hard part is knowing which descriptions belong to which class. Jeff wants to reject the idea of “Being” and “copula”, but he has to provide a basis as to why. Why not say that “Being” and “accurate descriptions of Being” are both “Being”? (note the parallel to Trinitarian thought).”

As I pointed out earlier, reason can be explained as waves, but that in no way guarantees that reason itself explains reality. Hallucinations also are just ripples on the quantum pond. Epistemology seeks to discover the link, if any, between reason and a true understanding of the physical world. I will go into this in detail in a later section.

I’m not sure what is meant by the claim that I reject Being and copula. Being is at the center of my investigations and copula is a diminishment of perception of Being.

4. “If reason is just the swirling of atoms in certain ways in your brain, then you have to be able to experience it, even if the connection may not be obvious. As I will show in the next blog post, you do have neural paths for reason.

I believe this statement to be false in two ways. As I pointed out in the beginning, QFT does not explain anything in terms of atoms, which are conceptualizations of localized excitations of quantum fields and not matter that swirls, but rather as interplay among pure waves of different oscillations. This is an example of that seemingly trivial difference in understanding of QFT that will increase in significance as we proceed.

Second, this refers to my earlier explanation that reason itself cannot be sensed but only inspected as we draw it in our inner senses of space and time. There is no doubt that neural pathways exist for the play of reason, but that doesn’t imply we sense them. For example, we sense none of the workings of the brain that regulates the autonomic nervous system. In fact, we sense only a small fraction of what occurs in our brains. I had distinguished the neural paths of sense data which begin with specific neural receptors and reason, which has no such mechanism. We sense visual sense data through photon receptors, aural sense data from receptors designed to vibrate according to changes in atmospheric pressure, etc. Nothing similar occurs for reason.

5. This, too, is false. One of the things that has to be understood is that, when it comes to physical devices, there is no difference between the hardware and the software. We may not know what initial knowledge the wiring of our brains gives us, but it’s clear that it’s there. See, e.g. “Addition and subtraction by human infants”, Karen Wynn, Nature, Vol 361, 28 January 1993.”

I will argue that this is irrelevant because computers are a faulty metaphor for the brain and emergent consciousness.

6. Sure, our brains, being physical objects, have physical limitations on what they can keep in mind at one time. But the wonderful thing about Turing machines is that they can use external storage. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, man is the only animal that does use external storage for thoughts. We have all the physical bits in the universe by which we can augment our reason.”

This was in response to my citing Eugene Wigner’s writing on the applicability of mathematics to physical reality. The main point Wigner made is that reason/mathematics only seems to describe reality within narrowly prescribed limits of space, time, and chosen events. Other choices of those parameters can result in contradictory descriptions, such as the contradictions between Newtonian physics, Relativity, and Quantum mechanics. Wigner referred to Poincare’s presentation of four geometries, all perfectly internally consistent but with different premises which result in contradictory descriptions of space. The crucial factor at play here is not storage capability, but the inability of reason and mathematics to coherently describe all of existence. The applicability of reason and mathematics to physical reality is approximate, provisional, and extremely limited. The storage capacity is not in any way a factor.

Bob’s remaining sections stem from this initial claim of consciousness as computer. In the next section, I will examine an alternate understanding of consciousness, starting with the theory of this year’s Nobel prize winner in science, Roger Penrose, in collaboration with Stuart Hameroff of quantum theory of mind that is fundamentally non-computative nor strictly causal. We will also look at contemporary models of consciousness from contemporary neuroscience.

One thought on “Part I: Response to Bob Felts on the topic of Applicability of Mathematics to Physical Reality

  1. Thanks, Jeff. I’m taking notes. If you’re going to bring Penrose into the picture, be advised that he thinks that Searle’s Chinese Room argument is persuasive (““Searle’s point – and I think it is quite a powerful one…”, “The Emperor’s New Mind.”). But Searle is easily shown to be wrong (e.g, here, and here. I plan on have a more polished rebuttal to Searle (as well as the supposed “problem” of qualia) after I finish my post on Meaning. Rebutting those two misconceptions makes a nice companion to the material in “Meaning”. Penrose makes other fundamental mistakes (his focus on algorithms and what they can and cannot do), as well as his search for new physics to explain consciousness. He thinks new physics is needed because he fundamentally misunderstands computation.


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