Saturday, October 31, 2009


Sire, je n’ai point besoin de cette hypothèse. (Pierre Laplace)

Consciousness is assumed by the conscious person to be a reflection of the whole of reality – at least in principle. Doubts concerning what may lie outside of the brightly-lit area of consciousness are quickly turned into comfortable rationalisations. The human intellect always has absolute pretensions in this respect. The mind has to inhabit a world; and no mind is satisfied with the thought that the world it knows is not the whole world. What may or may not exist in that world is for many an extremely emotive issue, exciting the most fundamental feelings of our species. It is nevertheless the case that our comprehensible world is relative to us and to our sensory-cognitive apparatus. Our world always requires the possessive adjective, and always will, even if we ourselves turn into something different. Nevertheless, we are conscious of our permanent position outside of and ‘beyond’ any world that we inhabit, intellectually speaking. It goes without saying that when we talk of a ‘world’ we are talking of a strictly intellectual notion, a construct that is not given in immediate sensory awareness. What is given in immediate sensory awareness is something far more restricted that we habitually amplify by means of our intellectual world. When we talk of a ‘world’ we are more often than not talking of a Theory of Everything.

Theories of Everything, whether they be in myth, religion or science embody our attempt to establish the framework of individual and social life within the cosmic context. This can be established as a meaningful relation between mind and world or it can be established as a meaningless relation. Theories of everything in the modern scientific sense are chiefly of the latter kind. There is no scientific reason for this except that post-Enlightenment science gave itself the task of opposing the claims of religion (or what is referred to as ‘subjectivism’) and in so doing threw the baby of meaning out with the bathwater of unconvincing symbolism. Modern Theories of Everything not only insist on their completeness, but also take pride in their ‘objectivity’. This word means in essence that the minds that dream up the Theories of Everything have no place at all within them and remain unaccounted for. It remains, however, the case that the totality words all, whole, entire, complete, always, forever, eternally, never, only etc. are among the most powerful in the language because of the emotional charge they carry. Intellect and emotion come together in sentences containing these words and they thus constitute powerful motivators. The motives to engage in an intellectual enterprise that permits the use of these totality words arise in a range of emotions difficult to characterise but spanning the whole range of desires for wholeness, belonging, possession and power from the benign experience of oceanic, mystical ‘oneness’ to the malign wishes of the totalitarian spirit of control. Such feelings are among our most powerful motivators and allied with the intellect constitute some of the deepest reasons we have for doing anything, including spinning the supposedly ‘objective’ theories of science.

Just as children represent the world of their experience in simplified stylized geometrical pictures of what they perceive, leaving out the inconvenient, unmanageable, fuzzy or complicated bits, so do we with our theories: they are simplified abstractions, toy versions of what we think is there or what we want to be there. They are ‘models’, that is to say, adult toys. Inevitably, our theories are beds of Procrustes, because we simply chop off the inconvenient bits and deny them reality. This is in certain cases just good mental hygiene, allowing concentration and clarification; but in others it is akin to a kind of madness in which ‘reality’ is experienced in a distorted fashion. All beliefs are necessarily an interpretation from a standpoint and therefore a distortion of reality; but belief that regards itself as exclusively valid and as providing a kind of repeatable ‘recipe’ for reality is probably more dangerous than most. The most dangerous of theories are possibly those that deny any place for the psyche for they reify human beings and prepare the ground for inhumanity.

Since the eighteenth century, theories of everything have been theories of matter and as such they have been theories of things, theories that have completely left us out of the picture except insofar as we can be considered as things. With his conception of the geometrifying mind and the geometrifiable world, René Descartes set the groundwork for the mechanisation of all things, us included, and since L’Homme Machine by de la Mettrie, the enthusiasm for making mindless robots out of us has been unbounded. Dualism having subsequently been abandoned, there was no place in a theory of matter for the person. So while theories of everything have striven to be literally theories of every thing, i.e. object, in the universe, they have not been theories of every aspect of reality. How could they have been, since so-called ‘things’ are constructions of our (i.e. the human) sensory-cognitive apparatus. Since things are mere abstractions and to that extent illusory, theories of every thing are based upon a delusion. Theories that leave persons out of the picture because persons are not things are like theories that say “because you are not white – or blue-eyed, or rich or male or whatever – you do not merit consideration” or some other such reductive, de-humanising nonsense: they are in essence an attempt to deny status to what is inconvenient to an all-embracing theory. They are attempts rigorously to define what should be included in the theory in order to exclude certain realities by denying that they are real. Persons, are entities of incalculably higher dimensionality than items in the 3D world of our everyday sense-perception, and therefore have immeasurably increased degrees of freedom. They are inconvenient to those minds that would enthrone themselves as controlling gods over a universe of meaningless and mindless things flying around according to immutable ‘laws’. Thus they have to be abolished by such minds.

The fact that physics no longer supports such an eliminative view of persons and minds – how could it since the observer is an integral and essential part of the system observed – should encourage those who have chafed under the materialistic dogma for years to decline to go along with the prevailing wisdom any longer and assert the right of the person to the consideration it deserves. This is a rebellion heavy with consequences, since it entails re-incorporating persons into our world-view. This cannot be done without a radical shift in the ruling paradigm and such a shift will have seismic consequences for many other systems, not least of all for science, education, ethics, the law, economics and so on. Once the thing-ideology has been exposed for what it is – a feature of our sensory and cognitive handicaps – we will be able to consider all manner of wholes that so far we have reduced to what we thought of as their basic ‘building-blocks’, but which were, in fact, no more than features of our habit-ridden mental powers. We unquestionably need the geometrification of reality for our technological enterprise; but we need for our own well-being to see it as no more than heuristically, and far from exclusively, valid.

Modern theories of everything, despite their encouraging features, are still theories of matter. As such, they come in two varieties: those that are still in the old, essentially classical mode of the ultimate algorithm governing all the behaviour of every particle; or else they are in a slightly more modern, less presumptuous, less arrogant mode which leads people to want to see our models of reality as no more in essence than symbols of a totality that we can only partially understand, symbols that – while they make productive contact with reality – bear more resemblance to artistic and mythical symbols than to definitive and exhaustive representations or re-constructions of some universal machine. Let’s call the defenders of the former type of theory the ‘reducers’ and those of the latter the ‘includers’. The reducers in the scientific community have a tendency to make fatuous statements about knowing the mind of God or making His existence impossible. The includers, by contrast, bring people to a much more modest view of the extent and tentative character of our knowledge. The reducers express the desire for universal mechanical stasis. The includers express a much more dynamic and creative conception both of the place of human beings in the cosmos and of the interaction between their mind and the world. The reducers see knowledge as reaching an end-station in the perfect parallax, presumably, of model, world and understanding, of midworld, foreworld and hindworld, forgetting hyperworld, the world as such, the world that overarches the one we think we grasp, the ultimate unknown that neither they nor anyone else understands. The includers, by contrast, seem more inclined to trust the unknown process – let’s call it ‘chaos’, despite the value-judgement inherent in this word – and to dignify it with the ability to conduct its own affairs. After all it did it for billions of years before we came on the scene. Order that we can grasp arises out of chaos in non-predictable, non-mechanical, non-deterministic ways – unless viewed by one of those who, even in contemplating the emergence of order from chaos, still nurture an irrepressible nostalgia for the ‘mechanism’.

The Theories of Everything of the past three hundred years have been strictly theories that deprived the world of any possibility of our establishing a human relationship with it. No-one any longer considers the possibility of establishing a relation with reality as if it, too, were a quasi-human. We ought to be grateful that it is not. But that in no way entitles us to assume that reality has less than personal qualities. It is simply not logical to assume this. It is impossible for humans to live in a universe in which they have no place, from which persons are squeezed out, and in which they are de-humanised and reified. But the really liberating thought is this: we don’t have to live in such conditions any more. We don’t have to assume that our desire to belong arises from delusion.

The prophets of mechanistic meaninglessness – and there are still far too many of them – no longer have physics or philosophy in their thrall; they do not even have them on their side, for mechanism as a belief is officially defunct. Theirs is a worn-out ideology, an intellectual dead-end; and as an ideology it can profitably be cast aside. It can profitably be retained, heuristically, as a method for continuing the prosthetic extension of our bodies, that is to say our technological enterprise. But any theory of everything that we try to work out has to abandon the reductive concept of a fundamental building-block to the universe and evolve the means of considering the whole as an integrated, co-ordinated and perhaps intelligent if unpredictable process. String-theory is not a theory of ‘things’ in any sense that we understand the word ‘thing’. It is far more a theory of dynamic processes.

The world appears to be much more an active system of interconnected and interacting wholes than a collection of bits. The system of wholes is hierarchically structured, but the hierarchy is not one of relative importance since each part reflects the whole, each part mirrors the whole. Each part in the system is an information-driven whole that, as it were, looks both ways: it is connected dynamically to the apparently simple levels below it and also to the apparently more complex levels above it. One is reminded of Leibniz’ system of monads, each of which mirrors the entire universe; but in distinction to the monads which Leibniz understood in mechanical terms as hermetically sealed from each other and orchestrated by a ‘pre-established harmony’, the wholes of the present universe appear to be dynamically related to each other in informational, one could say ‘intelligent’ or ‘creative’ terms as well as in material terms. Innovations in sub-wholes have implications for other sub-wholes and also for the whole system. Wholes can be analysed in terms of their own sub-wholes; but to imagine that only analysis gives understanding is foreign to the nature of a holistic approach. Wholes have to be understood, in their turn as sub-wholes of a greater system. The mind is one such whole or sub-whole, depending on one’s point of view. It is connected downwards, by analysis, to a series of ‘objects’ of increasing simplicity from brains to cells to molecules to sub-atomic particles; but the arrows of explanation do not any longer all point downwards. To the synthesising mind, it is connected upward to a system of meanings, personal, social, cultural, historical and perhaps cosmic that are no less legitimate objects of investigation than any so-called ‘ultimate’ consitutents. The mind, our organ of cognition, cannot be explained away by descriptions of its material basis. Its meanings are an essential aspect of its structure. Minds and mindlike entities such as meanings, intentions, projects, values and so on are only material if one adopts a one-sided, analytical approach to them. There is no logical or empirical reason for denying them substantial existence in their own right as sub-wholes of a universal mental realm.

Meanings and objects are not of course fundamentally different; but the observer’s position in the ‘hierarchy’ determines how they appear. Thus the mind can not be reduced to a collection of things, be it brain or anything else, though seeing it as such may be illuminating for certain purposes. The mind can be considered in its own right as a complete system reflecting the universe. The brain as object, in this case could be seen as the projection in three-dimensional space, and accessible to the senses, of a vastly more complex, multi-dimensional entity making use of quantum processes in ways that are not accessible to our object-besotted obsession with objects. When entities of higher dimensionality are understood by means of such projections, they are inevitably simplified, shorn of some of their degrees of freedom and distorted. The person, however closely allied with a brain and its history, can be viewed by a similar logic not as a collection of 3D things as the Positivist dogma insists, but as an indivisible multi-dimensional whole that is destroyed by any attempt to decompose it. This whole may, of course, be a projection in human consciousness of an entity of even higher dimensionality.

Certain scientific egos may want to understand the self as just the movement of particles, but they will always exclude their own self from such reductive strategies because it is not only disagreeable but also impossible to understand oneself that way. It is time, for this reason, that the mechanising ego was eliminated from science altogether. The nonsensical, inhuman, ego-driven vision of the Comte de Laplace is dead and gone – fortunately – and in its place there are the glimmerings of a new synthesis that will make the universe a more benign place, that accommodates us not as anomalous objects equipped with the delusion of consciousness, but as persons. Nothing is lost in this new synthesis. All scientific methods retain their dignity as heuristic devices; they just no longer rule the roost as the only intellectual attitudes possible and can now be cut loose from the thing-ideology. Nothing is lost and much is gained by an intellectual pluralism that relativises the scientific idiom and keeps it in its place. This procedure enables us to get out of the intellectual strait-jacket that prevented us from viewing ethical or spiritual statements as having any meaning, even though we always knew we can’t live without them. In terms of the thing-ideology, they indeed have no meaning, but that is because the thing-ideology as a vision of totality can dispense with meaning as part of its housekeeping; it is not because ethics or spirituality are meaningless. These matters are only meaningless within a species of discourse that cannot or does not need to deal with them, namely a reductive, materialistic discourse. It is now completely obvious that another types of discourse, the holistic, synthesising type, is required to supplement the ideology that has bedevilled science for centuries.

A theory of everything that does not include in it persons, their purposes, their values and their meanings is merely a partial theory. After all, we as persons, are products of the universe just as sub-atomic particles are and we are wholes just as they are. A universe without any possibility of persons’ being integrated into it is not a universe but a toy distortion. The wailings of the Existentialists about the absurdity of human life were only sustained by the thing-ideology and the 3D vision of reality; and these are unable to accommodate us. To abolish ourselves because of these prejudices is, however, completely and utterly silly. Once we have shrugged them off as anything more than useful intellectual methods, our place within reality can be re-established and rediscovered. Our history is as old as the universe and our future destiny is inseparable from it. There is no reason at all why we should not have a stake in it, a role in its total economy and a part in its future.

The ideology of meaninglessness, the ideology of purposelessness, that enjoyed such a hand-rubbing vogue for so long, as people extricated themselves from the arbitrary oppression of religious authorities, stands or falls with the ideology of things, the thing-obsession, the thing-dogma. When we reduce the notion of the world as a collection of three-dimensional things to no more than a practically useful fiction we thereby we abolish the reasons for which we have seen the world as a heap of inert matter without sense or direction, without any feature that we can relate to. We are sick of meaninglessness and it is the thing-ideology that has made us as sick as we are. But this is a totally unnecessary sickness since it results from a self-induced purblindness and not from any necessary feature of the world. All we have to do is to cease seeing the world as a bunch of dead things and start seeing it as a co-ordinated, living, intelligent process that while clearly not personal is nevertheless not less than personal. Once we acquire the ability to do this, we will be vastly more open to the thought that it is a benign process that accommodates us. As an assumption, the notion of the intelligence of the universe is not in any sense irrational and we should think twice before indulging in knee-jerk rejection of it to which our adolescent rejection of religion drove us. He adolescent fury that abolished God because of His alleged tolerance of evil is really not very sensible. The notion of a universal intelligence is completely compatible with what we call ‘evil’ in the universe, because the universe, after all, was not designed in any way or according to any purpose we can grasp and was therefore clearly not designed for our comfort. To expect an intelligent universe to pander to human frailty is infantile. Such a universe would be a sort of nightmarish universal nanny state.

Since it is the controlling ego and its rather immature emotions that rejects talk of an intelligent universe, and since the mind, when left to itself without coercion, without forced belief, naturally experiences its innermost processes as harmonisng with those of the world, there is already in that alone much good evidence for the intelligence of the universe. If we approach the issue of our relatedness to the world in a spirit of open-minded preparedness to be surprised, we do not necessarily lose anything at all. Rather than trying to prove a negative all the time (“the universe has no meaning,” “human life has no sense,” and the like) we should have the courage to adopt a new assumption (e.g. ‘the universe is an intelligently co-ordinated whole’) and, without thinking in terms of some definitive ‘proof’, nevertheless assess dispassionately the evidence we can find for this view. There is evidence for viewing human beings as intelligently co-ordinated wholes, there is evidence for viewing societies as intelligently co-ordinated wholes, there is evidence for viewing the planet as an intelligently co-ordinated whole and in the new physics, there is evidence for viewing the universe as an intelligently co-ordinated whole. If this were not so, physicists of the stature of Fred Hoyle and David Bohm (not to mention Newton and Einstein) would not have entertained the idea for more than a few minutes. Many, if not all, of the greatest scientific and philosophical minds have entertained the assumption without that impairing their ability to do rigorous science. It has been the little ego-maniacs, terrified at the idea that they may not be top dog, who have rejected it. So if, in addition, this holistic view of the world is vital to our moral health and psychological well-being, and if the egoist is ill, we owe it to ourselves to see if we can make sense of it. It is not a matter of resuscitating an outmoded theology, it is rather the need to make spiritual and moral sense of the universe that calls for such a policy. We need to feel at home in the universe, however uncomfortable that universe may be for us.

We need a theory of everything that is not simply a theory of bits of matter mapped in a mathematical model, a very big binary number, but rather a theory of everything that, far from excluding us, considers the world as a creative totality, a permanent self-creating entity that is constantly renewing itself, a universe of which we are parts and of which we possess the fundamental properties of intelligent creativity. Wholes are not just inert lumps of stuff, they are units of meaning and value; their meaning and their value being the reasons for which they exist to interact with other wholes. The universe is a volcanically creative and staggeringly protean whole that is constantly exploding into the adjacent possible and generating bursts of creative innovation. And no reductive analysis can do justice to this generative drive to innovation. In our most recent model we see it as evolving explosively from particle soup to plasma to gas cloud to first generation suns and galaxies to second generation suns and galaxies to life-seeded milieux, to the home of consciously self-observing intelligences. This creativity, says the thing-ideology is the result of chance and necessity, and nothing else.

Believe it if you like!

In fact we don’t have to believe that any more. The word ‘chance’ does little more than indicate our ignorance of all but the surface properties of things apparent to our rather gross senses. The creativity of the universe clearly has a large element of opportunism in it and that is as it should be, for otherwise we would have a dismal mechanism again. There is clearly an indeterminate element that is crucial, for intelligence requires freedom of operation (is this what we mean by ‘random’ and ‘chance’?). But we must not assume that ‘indeterminate’ means the same as ‘random’ and that by the use of such terms we exclude any thought of intelligence in the main current of creativity. We should never forget that intelligence is not necessarily human and intelligent creativity that surpasses our power of understanding could on occasion appear to us as what we call ‘chance’.

Something like the cumulative effects of intelligence seem with hindsight detectable in the events that led from the Big Bang, through the synthesis of heavy elements, the synthesis of life and the emergence of consciousness to us. The ‘happy’ coincidences, even before the appearance of life, are far too numerous to be comfortably ascribed to accident (some of them are described in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by Barrow and Tipler). Intelligence is indeterminate and the creativity of the universe can be seen as the streaming of its indeterminate potential into the world of time, space and causality. In creativity, the indeterminate becomes world, though it only becomes determinate thereby when viewed by the mechanising intellect. Of course there is stability. But we do not need to deduce from temporary stability the horrific eternal stasis that is entailed by mechanistic theories of everything in which movement is merely banal repetition and therefore nothing essentially happens.

As digitised modelling becomes the normal way of understanding the universe as totality, we more and more hope to find the Holy Grail of the Grand Unified Theory of physics. We put our faith in this Very Big Binary Number. This can never be anything more than the algorithm governing the latest model by means of which we understand the universe. This algorithm can only ever be a virtual machine within the computer, that is to say that it can never be anything more than a very long string of noughts and ones. The ideal is that it should be a maximally compressed number, a completely determinate recipe for every possible eventuality. Such a big binary number would amount to the subjugation of foreworld, hindworld, and hyperworld to one particular midworld methodology. But this big binary number, as a virtual machine, will inevitably leave most of reality out of consideration. It will thus always need supplementing by a symbol of totality that takes account of us and captures our sense of relatedness to the whole. Beliefs that minds arise inevitably from sufficiently complex computations are delusory, for minds will always grasp truths that are not part of the most comprehensive systems of logic while being required for the understanding of these very systems. A mind, to cut a long story short, will always understand the big binary number from some vantage-point beyond it. That is the in the nature both of minds and of computations.

The theories of everything come and go, they are our creation; we do not discover them. They do not lie around to be found. We discover the world in inventing them. That is their purpose. They change as we discover more. Discovering the world is to this existent analogous to discovering a person, in that one’s understanding is never finished, never closed off. One never has direct access to a person, but only indirect, and persons will always surprise. Approaches to a person have to be tentative, subtle and varied. Similarly, our Theories of Everything are perpetual approximations towards an unknown content. We must not assume, moreover, that because we approach we must necessarily arrive. The notion of a definitive theory of everything is a contradiction in terms. If we find ourselves speculating, in our visions of totality, on the nature of the intelligence that is capable of co-ordinating the entire universe, then so much the better. There is now no longer any danger of conceiving such an intelligence in human terms. The anthropomorphic universe is dead and gone, and good riddance. The universe is clearly not designed for our benefit by a smiling Father Christmas, but that does not mean that it is not intelligent or that we have no place in it. It does not mean that the universe is not providential or that we do not have a permanent stake in it. There is clearly in the creativity of nature much that strikes our intellect as ill-organised and wasteful, much that shocks the sensibilities that we have, as fearful and vulnerable creatures of flesh and blood that detest pain. But we should reflect that the universe can not be expected to be organised around us even though we belong in it. Moreover, the fringe of apparently wasteful and destructive chaos that surrounds all the creative accomplishments of nature may be precisely the zone of experimentation without which creative intelligence cannot function. The world can not be arranged for our comfort. There is clearly no use in searching for human values and human purposes in the cosmos; but that does not mean that the cosmos has no values or purposes. It very probably does have a place for our values and purposes, because it has a place for the values and purposes of every other entity that we encounter. Evolution is a value, survival is a value, adaptation is a value... and so on. Thus our theory of everything could well accommodate the notion that our intelligence and the meanings it vouchsafes us is nested within the universal intelligence and that it has its significance there and only there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The pontifical style irritated me to begin with; but then I understood its purpose. I can see, now that you can't logically claim to be arguing to prove a thesis and at the same time denying the possibility of proving anything.