Monday, March 31, 2008

Reality, A Scientific and Philosophical Perspective

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." -Albert Einstein

David Hume tells us that a given system cannot be proven with the laws of that system itself, because that is necessarily circular. This is a consequence of “Hume’s Fork”, stated in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic ... [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.

Hume is telling us that a priori, we can only decide upon relations of ideas, and that we cannot decide upon matters of fact a priori, but only a posteriori. (As an aside, it turns out that Hume’s Fork is self-defeating, since this is not really obvious a priori, and therefore we must determine it a posteriori. This is intriguing, and we’ll discuss it further below).

What does this mean about reality, then? It means that reality cannot be proven to exist using reality itself. That is, the subjective experiences we have cannot, therefore, be used to construct a purely objective reality. It’s always possible we’re living in a dream world of some other construction (such as the Wachowski Brothers’ film, “The Matrix”). We cannot accept our own personal subjectivity as an objective fact.

The question is, how do we salvage a meaningful conversation, then? Surely we can’t operate as if we were all glitches in some computer program, or that everyone else is a figment of our imaginations. It’s simply not practical.

So what we seek to do is to define a practical version of “reality” that we can describe by some means. To do so, we must make several assumptions. Those assumptions are:

  1. I exist.
  2. Others exist.
  3. Our mutual experiences are accurately represented.

From these three axioms, we can construct a practical version of “objectivity” that is simply meaningful (a priori, this would fall into the first of Hume’s Fork prongs above). That is, we can perform observations of pre-set experiments. The results from those experiments can then be compared. If they agree, and we assume that if we observe that they agree, then they do, then the reality that is evident “subjectively” (between the two observers) can be considered “objectively” to exist, because there are only two possibilities:

  1. They actually DO exist.
  2. They don't exist, but everyone experiences exactly the same observation in exactly the same way.

The case of (1) above is trivial, clearly if they exist we need not worry, and observation gets it right.

The case of (2) is more complicated. If our reality doesn't exist, but everyone experiences it exactly the same way, then our apparent reality is the only meaningful definition of "existence" that can be formulated without some “outside interference” from the “true” reality. For instance, let us imagine the most stressing case about proving reality exists, and assume that the truly objective "reality" is resides in Plane U. However, let us assume (the most stressing case) that the set of experiences our observers can undertake is described by a “non-reality", Plane X, and all of their observations are only consistent with Plane X, but not with Plane U (even though Plane U is the "true" reality). One would think that this eliminates our ability to determine the nature of reality, since everything we observe about "reality" (Plane U) is actually wrong (since it is all described by Plane X).

The actuality is, however, it doesn't even matter. In this case, Plane U (actual "reality”) becomes totally metaphysical with respect to Plane X. Common experiences of inhabitants of Plane X all point to the consistent set of rules intrinsic to Plane X. Predictions can be made about the behavior of Plane X by it’s inhabitants, and these predictions can be verified (this is part and parcel with observation, of course). This becomes a definition of what is “objectively real”. It is not truly objectively determined to be “real”, however it’s basically the best we can construct if all we observe is Plane X.

The only way the inhabitants of Plane X would know about the “true” reality in Plane U is if there is some intrusion onto Plane X from Plane U. For this, there are two cases: (1) when the intrusion only is experienced by one observer, and (2) when it is experienced by multiple observers. In the first case, we’re back to the limitations present upon our description of reality in the first place. The person is still subjectively experiencing something via their intellect and senses. They must process the information given to them by Plane U in their bodies, which remain in Plane X. So they are just as vulnerable to the pitfalls described above, in that they may in fact be mistaken. The second case, which is experienced by multiple observers, would actually be a case where one could draw a truly logical conclusion that “Something is wrong with Plane X.” What is observed to exist in Plane X is demonstrated (by some means) to be inconsistent with the “truth”. For instance, everyone would be experiencing “that chair exists”, but then they would all be shown that it is an illusion by the inhabitants of Plane U.

Without these “intrusions” by inhabitants of Plane U, the inhabitants of Plane X would simply conclude that Plane X is a self-consistent reality complete with it’s own rules. They can make predictions. They can construct things and form new ideas. They can study it and examine its consequences. Barring these intrusions from Plane U which clearly demonstrate that what they are experiencing is false, their reality becomes an objectively defined one, where one person can make a prediction about the course of events in a given “experiment”.

Therefore, given very simple assumptions about our existence and the existence of others, we can use observation to define a reality that is the only meaningful reality we can experience (i.e. the one that affects us directly). Could there be some other plane that exists? Certainly. However, pending further evidence of it (i.e. mass intrusions of that plane onto ours), we observe a reality that is consistent, predictable, reliably certain, and we can even estimate how uncertain our answers can be.

I shall now consider some questions that arise to elucidate the matter.

What does this mean about a scenario like The Matrix © (Wachowski Brothers film) where all of reality is only experienced via a simulated world for those in the Matrix? Is the Matrix real?

The answer is, in this particular film, actually no. The Matrix is not "real". In the movie, the "real" world (Plane U) actually impinges upon the "simulated" world (Plane X) regularly, and the occupants can become aware of the "real" world (Plane U) without any extra help (they can wake up spontaneously, as was described in the film, or given a stimulus to help them wake up... the “red pill”). Therefore repeated observations of similar circumstances will reveal different results for different people, which is a red flag (pun intended) that what they are experiencing is not actually real.

The case I'm discussing is if the creators of the "Matrix" made zero intrusion into the "Matrix" (Plane X) with their own reality (Plane U), and made it impossible for participants of the "Matrix" to ever understand that there is another "reality" outside their own. In that case, then yes, for the purposes of the people in the "Matrix", then reality would be defined as whatever the designers of the Matrix decided to put into place (Plane X), so long as the laws were universally applied to all the people in the "Matrix". There would be nothing to distinguish between their "simulated" reality (Plane X) from the "real" reality (Plane U). Any experiment performed in Plane X would give results consistent with Plane X's "reality", and hence the reality they observe is the only one that has meaning. The designers of the Matrix could make the Matrix arbitrarily complicated, and the laws governing the Matrix by its inhabitants would be consistent with what they understand. The designers could, for instance, make gravity not work in one specific place in the Matrix, so that you fly up into the sky if you walk over it. The observers in the Matrix (Plane X) would conclude that there is no invariance with respect to space in the laws of their nature. However they would construct a law that functions, and move on with their observations.

What does that mean about the assertions of science?

Of course, all of modern science is based on observations, in fact it is science's very cornerstone. I have already argued that this is not a limitation, per se, even in the most stressing case (where "reality" is entirely contrary to what we observe). The assertions that "I exist, others exist, and our mutual experiences are accurately represented" are very meager assumptions... regardless of anything, observations assuming these axioms are an internally consistent set of rules that, for all intents and purposes , describe our universe. Einstein realized this, and remarked "All of reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one". This sums up the basic ideas I have outlined above. We have no way of determining whether reality exists or that nature should be at all predictable, but it turns out that there is an overwhelming quantity of evidence to support that claim. It seems to us, for all intents and purposes, that reality exists, even though a priori there is no reason for it to do so.

As we can see, modern science is the best method of obtaining practical information about the plane of existence we live in, regardless of whether there is some plane or not.

What does that mean about metaphysical assertions (those about Plane U)?

It still means that assertions about Plane U are entirely metaphysical and don't impact Plane X in any repeatable way. Are they equally "correct" with observations observed in Plane X? Not really. There is no way to determine the validity of assertions about Plane U without experiencing it in some way (or possibly being instructed about it). The statements of utility that can be used to predict behavior and observable phenomena can at least be shown to be self-consistent with reality, and reap some benefit from them. For the inhabitants of Plane X, Plane U could be anything. Underpants gnomes playing video games with us, an omnibenevolent God, the Greek pantheon, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, all your ancestors that ever lived, a group of apes banging on a keyboard who happened to get our universe on this time around, etc. There is no way to determine its validity. Therefore, statements about Plane U are necessarily of less utility than statements about Plane X, because the latter can be demonstrated to be true or false within the construct of that reality itself, whereas the former has no predictability whatsoever. Thus, asserting that metaphysical statements are "equivalently right" to statements about the reality we observe is simply false. Yes, there are assumptions inherent to both. No one denies that. However, the assumptions one must make to demonstrate science to be true are very small (three, to be precise), but the number of assumptions one must make to determine metaphysics to be true are unbounded (possibly infinite), and do not affect our observable reality in any way. In fact, the assumptions that must be made to make observations about Plane X also apply to inhabitants of Plane X who claim to experience Plane U! We’ll discuss this below. So arguments about the existence or nature of Plane U are, a priori, qualitatively different from the arguments that are made about observable facts in Plane X. The latter impacts the occupants of Plane X. The former does not.

What does this mean about "revelations”?

Ostensibly, the Christian viewpoint is that Plane U does exist, and has indeed impacted on Plane X (God regularly interacted with people in the Old Testament, Jesus came down to talk with people and was God, etc). So really, what this boils down to is: How seriously do you take people's assertions that they interacted with Plane U? That is a totally personal choice. We can dismiss them as lunatics, or dismiss the claims of those making them as falsehoods, or believe the stories and proclaim their divinity, but neither one can be demonstrated to be really true or false without some external verification. So expecting someone to simply believe that Plane U exists without demonstrating without a doubt why this is so, is an exercise in futility. It just won't happen.

Furthermore, as mentioned, even in this case, we must assume the same three assumptions present to describe Plane X (our reality). If there is some information “revealed” in some way, we must process this revelation in Plane X. Our brains reside in Plane X, and so do our senses. If God implants the knowledge in our heads, we still must use our brains to interpret what God is saying. We still must assume that what we are experiencing is accurate… God could be playing tricks on you, or you could be insane, or you could be mistakenly interpreting some ordinary occurrence of your brain to be a message from God. However, on top of those three simple assumptions, a large (possibly infinite) number of OTHER assumptions must be made about Plane U. The complexity of the epistemology builds without bound.

If actual, undeniable proof of God's existence were presented to each and every one of us, we would all recognize the existence of Plane U as an undeniable fact. However, in the entire sum of human history, no such undeniable evidence occurs, and therefore we cannot determine the existence of Plane U. Some choose to act as if it doesn't exist at all (i.e. U = X). There's no way to tell them they are wrong. The preponderance of direct evidence shows them that they are right. No unambiguous observations ever recorded have shown that they are wrong. Claims of divinity of people that lived long ago are basically of no actual evidentiary value for us, unless they are corroborated widely and supported by archaeological evidence (i.e. we can be very confident that Pompeii was burned by Mt Vesuvius, but we are doubtful that Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf). Equally incorrect is the denial of observations about Plane X based on assertions about Plane U impacting Plane X. It's patently wrong to denounce an actual observation in the only reality that is meaningful in order to make unprovable assertions about Plane U, which impacts Plane X. Therefore, denying things like cosmic inflation, evolution, the quark model, plate tectonics, radiometric dating, and the solar model are simply uninformed assertions that are shown to be wrong. Responsible people would abandon their assertions straight away when they are shown to be false. However, this is another cycle, one that needs to be broken in order for us to make practical progress in society.

The people who deny what is right in front of them are actually taking a big gambit. Rational information can be constructed to determine what reality is really like. Assuming that Plane X (our reality) was constructed by some entity in Plane U (“heaven”), the best bet (assuming this entity is benevolent) is that the entity would prefer that you be truthful. The truth is, reality is as we observe it. Imposing what you THINK reality involves is akin to telling God what to do. You are constructing a God that doesn’t actually exist, and worshipping that God instead. This is idolatry, and given the other assumptions people make about such an entity, this entity would be displeased at people for worshipping this idol.

Frankly, even from a theological standpoint it’s better to examine what is presented to you. There is always the position that God works through natural means, and that we should examine God’s workings and machinations with open minds. If you’re wrong, at least you were wrong for a good reason: that you rationally examined the facts and came to the wrong conclusion. However, if the reality is as you observe, and you assert that it is otherwise, contrary to the observation, the only excuse you would have is that you placed obedience above rationality and truthfulness. Perhaps God works this way, and would rather us be obedient than moral.

Frankly, if that is the case, I think I’d rather spend eternity elsewhere, thank you very much.

by Rappoccio of AvC

Full discussion of Reality on AvC

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