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Monday, 26 July 2010

On The Complexities of Modern Atheistic Views (Part ~2)

Abstract: All writers have an agenda..... Absolutist Humanism is a particular type of Atheism that has faith in human progress towards Absolute Knowledge..... This is not strictly scientific..... I have tasted lots of pies but am not a connoisseur..... The universe is absurd and nonsensical in that the evidence and calculations necessarily lead us into paradox..... Mathematical logic screws itself with infinity..... Computers that can’t compute things always explode..... Quantum mechanics is mind-meltingly freaked out, man..... Certain particles are a bit like Boy George..... Interpretations in quantum mechanics are counter-intuitive and crude tools only..... Nobody knows how it can be like that..... The big bang has an oblivion problem..... Physics is an opera, dark matter is the deus ex machina..... Shit must make sense so we WILL find those pesky particles..... The history of the universe is possibly a cloud of possibility waiting to be knocked into shape by our possible observations (possibly)..... I bring the hammer down!..... Concepts such as space, time, quantity and cause and effect must be in place before we can make sense of any experience..... Calculations and empirical evidence tell us that these concepts are insufficient..... Wittgenstein had a “refreshing CV”..... Handy Andies are not advised for use in attempting to absorb oceans..... I cannot explain Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem very well..... To get Absolute Knowledge you would have to transcend the basic concepts that enable us to think and live at all, which, if not impossible, is at the very least a mystical idea analogous to Zen enlightenment, not simply a matter of reducing everything to basic old skool “graspable” logic – now that IS impossible..... Absolutists are f***ing idiots..... I sorely need an editor.....

Why I Don’t Buy Humanism

“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.” Says Einstein.

Dawkins adds: “In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’.”

That’s my emphasis added, there, readers. Why? Because that line was the moment, only half way through Chapter 1 of The God Delusion, where something clicked into place and I looked upon the pages with a wild surmise. Aha! Right-ho. That’s what we’re dealing with. It’s the point at which Dawkin’s underlying value system, and the convictions therein, ride up above the belt-line like a builder’s arse. From here on in one can predict all forthcoming twists and turns, since they must all issue from, and be tethered in line with, those founding convictions.

I mean: All writers, all arguments, no matter how rational and reasonable and logical, have an agenda. A gut instinct, a value set, a lifestyle-choice perspective that they intend to impress upon the reader. Do not be fooled by appearances of objectivity. Do not be fooled by any attempts at a dry, dispassionate tone. If you want to get under the skin of any author that aims to convince, the first thing to ask is: “What do they want the world to be like?” Never mind the details of the surface argument for now – dare to be sleazy and underhand, look for evidence of what the author blindly believes, presumes, craves and aspires to – and when you lower the dress of that surface argument again, it will all look a little less immaculate; and it’s cut and shape will make a lot more sense. Yes, it is kind of ad hominem, uncharitable, and pseudo-psychology – but if you do it properly it works. Nietzsche taught me this. Try it with me, with this piece of writing, see what you get.

In fairness to Dawkins he does not try to hide his personal convictions at any point. Dawkins is very up-front about his agenda. But that portion of quote (my emphasis added) told me all I needed to know about where Dawkins is coming from and what he takes on faith (I said “faith”, tee-hee): ‘Cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’”. Dawkins is an Absolutist. That is, he believes (or at least his statement strongly suggests he believes) in the linear progress of humanity towards absolute knowledge. That one day, through the true light of the scientific method we will know everything, be able to explain everything, grasp everything – there is literally nothing, in any sphere, that will confound our intellect and be alien to us. We will be Gods! Nevermind that to me this sounds like a longing towards the death of consciousness – what any Absolutist is ultimately aiming for is a state of rest when we finally have no more to disturb our thoughts, nothing more to think about, everything ordered and in its right place – it also gestures towards a whole range of connotations and associated ideas that no Atheist really, actually, has to buy into: In philosophy this is identifiable as a broadly Hegelian perspective – Hegel viewed the whole of history as progress towards what he called “The Absolute”. Also, the idea that humans should replace religion with a faith in humanity and the progress of humanity – this view is identifiable as what is called “Humanist” (or at least one of the many meanings of the term. This is what I will mean when I use the term "Humanist" here), which has been the default position of many scientists and some scientific schools of thought in the 20th Century. Finally the idea that human reason is paramount in nature – that the whole of creation (I said “creation”, tee hee) exists to produce us – we are the pinnacle of achievement in the universe. Whilst these beliefs are understandable positions to take, they are beliefs, attitudes, a faith, a value system – Absolutist Humanism is by no means a scientifically verifiable hypothesis or a logically self-evident argument.

If you really want to rile an Absolutist Humanist, point out the faint but definite whiff of Christian world-view that still clings, unnoticed (they are so used to the smell that they cannot smell it themselves), to their garments... the conviction that man is special and above the beasts, and is custodian of nature, which exists for him to do with as he will... the idea that there is an objective, eternal “God’s truth” that exists outside of ourselves and our perspectives... the narrative view of history: Pagans saw nature as cyclical, not linear and progressive – that’s a Christian “fall-from-grace-and-return-to-God-and-Heaven” thing. The Enlightenment values that the modern scientific view grew out of were, of course, originally Christian and, even if the relationship soon became fraught and they went their separate ways, some faint echo of Christian trappings still remain in the Humanist DNA.

Ok, so human progress is undeniable – in technology and medicine particularly our knowledge and control has exploded in its complexity. One simply cannot argue with the methods that have made this possible, one simply needs to look at the results, the sheer explanatory, predictive power of science and its astonishing success in application. Though it hasn’t all been linear – rather the history of scientific knowledge is a massively inefficient scrappy mess of false-starts, dead-ends, dormant periods, scattershot fragments discovered, lost, discovered, lost, re-discovered, re-interpreted etc. – it has only been properly linear since the Enlightenment, after which the learning curve appeared to reach escape velocity. However, it’s clear that to maintain linearity we must rely on ample communication and relative cultural stability. It’s no sure thing that such a period of growth and advancement will continue forever. By many accounts it almost certainly can’t, not at the rate seen in the last couple of hundred years, and it’s no more than a wild optimistic guess, a gee-whizz fantasy (based on analogy with past conquests), that it will result in absolute knowledge and control of everything.

Furthermore it’s perfectly possible that there is no significance at all to human progress. In fact I’m not even sure what I mean by “significance” here. Significant to whom? Not “God”, surely. To ourselves, yes, of course, but that’s solipsistic and hence objectively meaningless. How can we objectively measure the significance of our own progress? By how much impact we have on the universe? In the way that earthworms are an extremely “significant” force in my lawn? How does human beings’ “significance” rate against the “significance” of the gravitational pull of dark matter, then? What scale are we using? Is our “significance” in comparison to other animals (good luck getting other animals, i.e. anyone – anything – other than ourselves, to recognise this fact)? In comparison to E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’s “people”? Objectively we can’t say we (our activities, our degree of complexity, our power, control and influence) are “significant” or “not significant” in any way that ultimately means much in meaningful terms at all. So much for Humanism: as a driving value system it is essentially an admission of solipsistic navel-gazing. But why not, you say? I’m me so I believe in me and my progress. Anything else would be inauthentic and anti-life. Ok. Still doesn’t stop it being solipsistic navel-gazing.

Why Things Are Much Trickier Than Your Common Man-On-The-Street Atheist Understands

Perhaps I don’t really, properly, understand the myriad pies of knowledge that I’ve stuck my fingers into over the years. As a philosopher you get to taste a lot of pies from many different bakeries. Or “spheres of pie-making”. I mean, I know a little about a lot of things, but it’s all a bit slapdash and “jack of all trades” – I’m not a mathematician, a physicist, a historian, a theologian, a neuro-scientist – and as such can’t claim a deep and subtle understanding of those cats’ whole scene. I’m not a connoisseur of their pastry-based produce. But I am familiar with it. I’ve grappled with the conclusions and connotations of what I can glean from such areas, and there is something to be said for a distanced overview – you see things differently and put things together in a way that a specialist might not. And the evidence would appear to me to be overwhelming: The universe is absurd and nonsensical.

I mean that: Yes, on a day-to-day basis, on a mundane level, everything works rationally and logically, sure. And within most microcosms of study things seem to make sense and fit together ok. Well, the majority of the time. But at the fringes, when you start to really push the bounds of our knowledge and understanding, and ask bigger, awkward questions, it all falls apart. Of course it does, you may say, because it’s at the bounds of our knowledge... that’s why they’re “bounds”. But it’s more than this. The problem is that it necessarily falls apart – not through lack of data or calculation errors, but because, logically, it has to. That’s where your evidence and calculations ultimately, necessarily, lead you – into paradoxical absurdity. In philosophy this is so common as to induce a yawn – philosophy focuses on precisely these things. You take a subject, you ask fundamental questions about it, push your answers to their logical conclusion and find yourself faced with some intractable paradox or another that tells you that nothing is quite as it seems, all your common everyday concepts are ill-defined and no one actually knows anything about anything. But in science, mathematics and logic that’s not really supposed to happen. But it does.

Some examples (if you want to know more, or how massively wrong my interpretation probably is, buy a book and read it yourself. Lazy):

Mathematical Infinity: The concept of infinity in mathematics essentially has the power to collapse logic. This stems from the fact that infinity is not simply a big number – it’s not a “real number” at all, even though it can be treated like one – it is qualitatively different to numbers in the number system (ie. it is a difference of quality, not simply quantity). Once you start doing equations with infinity some very odd things start to happen. You can, of course, add one to infinity and it is still infinity. Or you can subtract one from infinity and it is still infinity. You could add infinity to infinity and it would still be infinity. Though presumably if you subtracted infinity from infinity it would be 0... or not. That’s what’s called an “undefined operation” which pretty much means it’s impossible to get a definite answer. If this was a 60’s sci-fi your computer would print out “zzz...zz..does not compute...zzz” and explode. 0, however, is the flip side of infinity and closely related to it. The idea of a black hole (a concept thrown up by the General Theory of Relativity) demonstrates this relationship – finite mass in 0 space = infinite density. Divide any number by 0 and it equals infinity (or summat, anyway... that’s another “undefined operation” and, as any school boy will tell you, if you try this on a calculator it will flash up “zzz...zz..does not compute...zzz” and explode). So far, so what? Well it means that you need to be very, very careful in using both infinity and 0 in mathematics – things can become so slapdash and flexible and “undefined” that you can end up proving that 2+2=5 or that anything, for that matter, = anything. And infinity is not just a problem if treated as a real number – there are similar paradoxical issues relating to infinite series of numbers or infinite sets or infinitesimal fractions and so on. There are types of infinity. Check out the work of Cantor. In philosophy the apparent paradoxes of this pesky beast go back as far as philosophy itself – from the likes of Zeno’s paradox to the basic problem that any measurement against infinite scale (eg. infinite space or infinite time) renders that measurement meaningless – if you cut a 10 metre length of rope into 10 each part is a metre. If you cut an infinite rope into 10, or 100, or 10,000,000,000,000 then what is it? The point is, if we don’t know how wide “space” is, there is actually no way to know how wide your smallest unit of measurement “really” is either...

Infinity has proved so problematic and counter-intuitive that it is tempting to blow a massive raspberry at the idea, throw your rattle out of the pram and insist it doesn’t really exist. But, aside from the fact that infinity is a very powerful tool in both mathematics and physics, and essential to our progress and current understanding of things, to deny it is to have to accept the equally illogical and counter-intuitive position that there is a “biggest number” after which counting stops. But what if you add one to that number? Um...

Infinity is both a limit and limitless. Logically it must exist and yet it can’t exist, because it collapses the structure of logic. Sense and logic are necessarily finite because they need to have structure, boundaries, to work and be measurable – to make sense. Infinity is a chaotic concept because it includes everything – it is therefore boundless and unstructured. Chaos. Oblivion. A paradoxical question mark that hovers around the edges of everything – at the edges, the structured, measurable, finite world we know would appear to flow out (at least theoretically) into senseless infinite white noise – or black oblivion. Infinity, 0. Two sides of the same thing.

Quantum Mechanics: At the quantum level (the mechanics of things smaller than an atom), whilst “shit” might all make good, sound sense in terms of predictions and equations, at a meaningful, humanly graspable level, “shit” is frankly mind-meltingly freaked out, man. In quantum physics it’s not simply abstract theoretical weirdness either; not just odd scratch-head quirks thrown up by our calculations that we can kind of shrug our shoulders at and move on from when we turn to the practical applications – the weirdness is there in the empirical observations – the results of physical experiments involving how particles behave are bizarre. The behaviour of sub-atomic particles is jarringly, unreasonably non-conformist with the rest of physics, like Sid Vicious at a cheese and wine function.

Get this: You want to know whether light is a particle (i.e. light is made of lots of “small bits of stuff” that fire from a light source and hit your eyes) or a wave (i.e. light is like sound – an energy vibration, a motion that ripples through “small bits of stuff” until it gets to the small bits of stuff at your eyes and affects them). So you do an experiment that will tell you. You set up a wall with two tiny parallel slits cut in it, and you fire a laser (a directed beam of light) at it. There is a photo-sensitive screen behind it to see what kind of pattern will be projected after the light has gone through the two slits. Now: If light is made of particles it will be like firing a bunch of tennis balls at the two small slits – those that make it through the two slits will hit the screen behind in two clustered clumps of particles. If light is a wave, however, as the wave hits each slit it will fan out like in ripples like a stone dropped in a pond – and because there are two slits, the two rippled waves will interfere with each other giving you a nice rippled effect of peaks and troughs on the screen behind. So: clustered clump of particles = light is a particle; rippled peaks and troughs = light is a wave. Simple. Yes?

So what happens? Um... both. You get rippled peaks and troughs... made up of particles. This makes no sense. It’s like asking if your coffee is “fresh ground coffee” or “freeze-dried ‘instant’ coffee” – and being told it is both. At the same time. It gets worse – a lot worse. You’ve established that light is a particle (even if it is also apparently a wave), so you try the experiment again, slowed down, firing one light particle a time to see what is going on. Maybe the particles are somehow affecting each other, interfering with each other, to give a wave-like effect. If you just fire one at a time, this should not happen and you will just get the clustered clumps you were expecting. But – even one particle at a time, you still get the wave-like peaks and troughs pattern. So what? Well it means this: for this to happen, that means each particle must be going through both slits at once in order to interfere with itself (insert own innuendo here). This means one particle thing can do two things, be in two places, at the same time – and act like two things affecting each other, even though it is one thing. Ughm. So: you set up a sensor on the slits to see which one it is going through. The sensor doesn’t physically touch or affect the particle in any way, it just observes. What do you expect to see? Will you see it go through both slits at once? No, you just see it go through the one. So have we been getting freaked out for no reason? Um not quite, because now, as soon as you start to observe it, the particle stops acting weird and just acts like a particle – on the screen you now do have the clustered clumps you expected and no wave pattern effect. It really is like, when the particle “knows” it’s being looked at, it stops acting funny so as not to give up its secrets – aha, you won’t catch me out like that! As soon as you take the sensor away, as soon as you stop looking, it does its Boy George role-ambiguity thing again.

The quantum world is very predictable, in that it acts consistently in a way you can predict once you know the new rules – so in that sense it is hard, verifiable science. However, in humanly graspable terms no one has any idea how to explain the how or why of what is going on. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that particles do not have an exact position or velocity but are rather smeared out in a kind of cloud of possibility, where they are everywhere they could be at once... a suspended state of “superposition” that is nevertheless very real (real enough to cause a physical wave effect on the screen) – that is until they are observed, at which point they collapse into just one definite point in physical reality. This is known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation”. Our observation of these particles essentially forces them to commit to a solid position. The “Many Worlds Interpretation” suggests that at every point of decision, where something like a particle could go one way or the other, the universe splits off into two forks – in one universe it goes one way, in the other it goes the other.

Neither of these ideas fit with old-skool mechanical physics or intuitive logic. In a universe where everything is mechanical and made out of matter, the state and position of everything is determined by hard cause and effect – the toss of a coin is not really random: When I toss a coin the angle of my thumb, the force exerted, air resistance and the angle at which it lands cause it to fall one way or the other – there is a direct line of cause and effect from the flipping of the coin to the side it lands on. If you know everything about the starting conditions and apply the laws of physics you can, in theory, work out where everything is, what state it is in and where it is going at any point in time. Hence in theory you can trace how everything in the universe will play out from the big bang onwards. There is no randomness, no true “decisions” where something could actually go in one way or the other – everything is predetermined, just an unbroken cause and effect chain playing itself out (and this includes us and our “decisions” since we are simply part of the physical, mechanical universe too). But quantum physics suggests particles appear in one position or another at random when observed; or, if we get rid of the randomness idea and try to preserve cause-and-effect determinism with “many (determined) worlds”, it still suggests that there are true “decision” points where a particle could genuinely go one way or another – and this does not tie up with traditional mechanical logic at all, but that’s the conclusion we’re left with. We just have to swallow our rational pride and accept it – them’s the breaks. There are multiple “interpretations” in quantum mechanics, but none of these give a comprehensive account, none of them are without inconsistencies or problems, and none of them are scientifically provable in the sense that we are sure that’s what is going on – we can only observe the end results. No, these “interpretations” are simply crude tools we have to use to try to get our human heads around the irreconcilable, paradoxical data that the experiments give us. But that data has been verified again and again – if it appears nonsensical it’s not the experiments that are at fault, it is our limited common-sense rationality. Richard Feynman, one of the star names in quantum mechanics famously started one of his lectures with this:

“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics... I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will go ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

For this reason many physicists simply refuse to speculate on how the hell you explain what happens in the quantum world – that’s metaphysics, philosophy, not hard practical physics.

Big Bang Theory: We seem to have accepted that, given gravity, the universe must have started with a big bang rather than just existed forever. It’s the theory evidence and calculations seem to fit best, though it still throws up the counter-intuitive idea of time beginning, of space having a boundary. What was before the big bang? Well, the question doesn’t really make sense – though we are faced with another problematic oblivion (0) rather than the oblivion of eternity (infinity) that we did have. Before that we had The Creator, which could be seen as an explanatory fudge to stop us having to deal with the problem of eternity. Though that problem is still there in God Himself – God is infinite and eternal. Who created him? Well either he has always existed, he popped into existence, confusingly, out of nowhere or we have an infinite regress of Gods. Same problem, different game.

As for the evidence of the big bang, there are still problems with that – the embarrassing little issue of not enough gravity in the universe for everything to be where it’s supposed to be at the moment, given that the big bang happened... leading to the massive speculation of “dark matter”, that we can’t see and don’t know for sure even exists, to compensate – really? “Dark matter” has always sounded suspiciously like a quick-fix deus ex machina in the opera of physics to me. But then, I’m no physicist. Another (related) problem though, is the failure so far of “big” physics (the laws of motion, gravity, general relativity, big bang ‘n’ all) to tie up with quantum mechanics. There’s a massive leap of faith going on that we will discover particles (using, for example, the Large Hadron Collider) that will enable us to reconcile the two into a unified theory of everything. Well, we’d better hope so, or we’re looking at a massive overhaul of everything... or worse, acceptance that “shit” just doesn’t make any sense. But apparently shit must make sense so that’s ok, we will find those pesky particles. Right?

To properly explain how the big bang happened such a “theory of everything” that incorporates both General Relativity (“big” physics) and quantum mechanical ideas like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would be needed. This is what physicists are working on now. Stephen Hawking suggests using Feynman’s “Sum Over Histories” approach (essentially a way to calculate the position and behaviour of particles by getting an average of all that particle’s possible paths) to work out the paths of particles thrown out by the big bang – and thus be able to accurately calculate the history of the expansion of the universe. Now, I don’t properly understand how this works and won’t pretend to, but together with the “Copenhagen Interpretation” there is apparently the suggestion here of the possibility that, by observing and measuring the universe, we are collapsing the position of the particles that make it up into just one firm, solid, actual reality. And what that appears to mean is that the universe “out there”, its history even, is not the solid thing we think it is at all, but is being knocked into shape by our observation of it. I have no idea whether to believe this or not or if it’s really a valid interpretation, but it demonstrates just how much more bizarre and counter-intuitive, how much less sure and straight-forward, the territory that we are led into by firm empirical evidence and logical calculation can be. We passed the stage where we can reasonably expect the application of Enlightenment rationality to deliver an easily understandable, neatly structured clockwork universe a long time ago.

Despite my snide remarks above, progress is being made with a “theory of everything” and it is very possible that we might, indeed, one day be able to combine quantum mechanics with General Relativity to develop a proper account of how the universe was self-caused. But even if that does happen, that’s the description of the mechanics – we are still left with an utterly strange, completely “other” universe that doesn’t “explain” what it is or what we are – because there is no frame of reference. The more we know about how things work the stranger it all seems – it does not come close to denoting meaning or purpose (nothing could be truly sufficient for this), or solving those intractable paradoxes about “how can it actually be this way? What sense can be made of this?” We just have to accept that that is, apparently, how it is. We are faced with the absurdity of existence, and a world we may be able to understand in a narrow, mechanical sense (in the sense that we can trace its history and predict its future) but cannot fully grasp – in the sense that we cannot get our heads around it to reconcile it with our lives and experience in a meaningful way.

Why The World Will Never Make Sense

To return to the Dawkins quote: “‘Cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’”. The key phrase that I take with issue here is “graspable”, since I’m pretty convinced that there are indeed things that are fundamentally “ungraspable” about our existence. So, if we can theoretically describe the mechanics of the universe fully, what, exactly, is “forever ungraspable”?

Well: Mathematical infinity screws up the solid architecture of our numerical counting system. Structure becomes non-structure with no apparent cut-off point, it blurs boundaries between numerical values, it warps and stretches the rational relations between things in a way that can make quantities and measurements impossible pin down, and undermines the fundamental idea that 1 is always 1, 2 is always 2, 3 is always 3 and so on. In quantum mechanics, we have the idea of an uncaused event. Random events, or true points of “decision”, are necessarily uncaused events – they necessarily have no explanation, no reason why one thing went one way and not another – we can talk about laws of probability all we want, but that is simply a description of trends after the fact, for predictive purposes, not an explanation in terms of an origin or genesis of that behaviour, how circumstances could come to be that way. It messes with the fundamental concept of cause and effect that we need to make sense of the universe. Just try to make sense of the idea of a mechanic telling you the reason your car isn't starting is because there is no reason, it's just not doing that any more. Nothing is broken, there's nothing to be fixed, it just happened. You could not accept this; you'd have to presume they simply couldn't find the fault. Also, the idea of one thing existing in multiple places at once messes again with our fundamental need for one thing to be one thing, not two or three or multiple things – to identify what is what, for things to have a definite numerically stable identity in space and time. With big bang theory we come up against limitations in our concepts of space and time – we have to modify what we intuitively mean by these concepts in ways that are paradoxical – that space can have a boundary, that time can have a beginning – and to truly “grasp” what this means we need to be able to think about what is beyond that boundary – i.e. think outside of space and time.

But here is the problem. Concepts such as space, time, quantity and cause and effect are utterly fundamental, basic concepts. The German philosopher Kant (himself a key Enlightenment thinker, a big champion of rationality, and, incidentally – some would say inappropriately – a Christian) called concepts such as these a priori “schemata or "categories" (we don't need to get caught up in Kant's impenetrable jargon here), meaning broadly that they are concepts that must be in place before we can make any sense at all of anything we experience. We cannot think outside of these concepts – they are essential to our being able to order our experience and make judgements on it. For example, just try to think of something outside of space and time, without using any spatial or temporal terms, metaphors or visualisations. In the 20th Century, that genius oddball philosopher of language, logic and the structure of thought, Wittgenstein (check out his bonkers career biography for a refreshing CV), pointed out that such things as spatial and temporal terms are inextricably imbedded in our language, our grammar – we cannot escape using them – and our language dictates how we think just as much as how we think dictates our language. So trying to conceive – in concrete, visualisable, understandable terms – of what is beyond or outside of our universe (spatial metaphor) or before the big bang (temporal metaphor)... well, we may as well try and mop up the Atlantic Ocean with a pack of Handy Andies. Without such concepts in place no conscious thought, let alone science or rationality, would be possible in the first place – and yet science and rationality are now telling us they are insufficient and we must go beyond them.

In pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding we find ourselves pushing the boundaries of our fundamental concepts. We can deal with this things in a narrow, mechanical way from a narrow, mechanical perspective, so long as we don’t think about how shabby our grasp of certain elements is too much – then we find new possibilities for predictive power and description opening up, because we have been forced cut loose from our fundamental concepts and admit they are flawed – ok, let’s just accept our basic concept is not quite precisely accurate and run with what we find. But those flaws in our concepts are brushed under the carpet, contained and left behind without being resolved. So when we try to translate our descriptions of mechanics into “graspable” terms, they reappear and we still simply can’t “make sense” of what this all means. We can’t say life, the universe and everything definitely means this or this or this; nor can we properly say that it is meaningless (to say it is meaningless suggests we understand it and have pinned it down enough to conclude such a thing). We can’t validly say anything much about the universe and existence beyond the narrow, mechanical, descriptive perspective at all – let alone relate it to mythical, narrative, religious or pseudo-religious accounts, because that involves re-engaging with our old concepts and relational meanings that we have had to contain and leave behind to get where we were going. This is fundamentally “other” to our everyday way of living, thinking and constructing meaning. The universe will never “make sense” in this way.

This should not be a surprise. As the study of infinity shows, logic is necessarily finite and structured. Any logical system is necessarily ultimately a contained, closed system. But in order to truly grasp the totality of that contained, closed system, you have to view it from outside. And if you can view it from outside, there must be something, somewhere, beyond that contained, closed system to go to. And if you’re going to report back on what you find outside and relate it to the inside, then you have to expand the sphere of that contained, closed system to include what is on the outside. And then you’ve just got another, bigger, contained, closed system that you have to go outside of again to fully grasp in its totality. Does that make sense? Read it again. I don’t pretend that this will make things any clearer, but I should mention that this idea is analogous to something called Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem”. Kurt Gödel, a mathematician and logician, demonstrated (in mathematical proof) that any rigid system of formal logic (eg. mathematical arithmetic) is necessarily incomplete. You can always develop propositions (statements) in a logical system that are undecidable, impossible to show as true or false, impossible to solve, by sticking to the rules of that system and the tools available within it. You may have a proposition that you know is true by going outside of that system (i.e. you can prove it using another system), but you simply can’t prove it using the rules of the system in question itself. This suggests that any complex logical system will be able to throw up more true propositions than it can actually prove by its own rules. No logical system is complete; you cannot grasp the totality of it from within – it has to be transcended to be fully “grasped”.

The problem, it seems obvious, is that our fundamental concepts – such as space, time, cause and effect, number – are insufficient – too narrow and limited, slightly misaligned, flawed, incomplete, inaccurate – to properly explain what is going on. What we are finding is that we are having to stretch these ideas out of all shape, to breaking point, to accommodate our new explanations of things – the way both logic and evidence are showing us that things are. What this means is that to properly “grasp” everything in the sense Dawkins means, we would need to transcend our most basic concepts, concepts that we cannot get outside of because they are fundamental to making sense of anything at all. Such “transcendence” is entering into the realms of Zen Buddhist enlightenment or Acid-guru "doors-of-perception" style “pure consciousness” (and closer to Hegel's original metaphysical conception of "The Absolute") – a radical, far-out mystical idea that is utterly, utterly different to what most Absolutist Atheists have in mind. What they mean by “graspable” is that we will one day reduce everything to the understandable, everyday rational logic that we currently have. That is not the same idea at all, and actually, as it turns out, logically and empirically impossible, since unsolvable paradoxes are thrown up. For everything to become graspable it is not reductionism, but transcendence that would be required. And this is something I don’t think common-or-garden Absolutists, or even most common-or-garden Atheists in general have yet quite... grasped.

I’m with Einstein.

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