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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.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

On The Complexities of Modern Atheistic Views (Part ~1)

Abstract: Modern Atheism is rooted in Enlightenment values, though man-on-the-street Atheist is only dimly aware of what these are..... Science is erroneously presented as a united front and sure-handed authority on everything when that’s not quite true..... Accounts of the mechanics of “trees” do not tell us what we’re supposed to make of "the wood”..... Epicurus was "not interested" in Gods.....

We cannot objectively apply moral value to rationality..... The Terminator is a metaphor for call centres.....

I have tagged myself as “Atheist”, “Nihilist” and “Militant Agnostic” but all are misleading..... The question “What is going on?” is unanswerable..... I talk about Nietzsche too much, like some kind of philosophical tourettes..... The Black & Decker Linefiner will liberate our future.....


I am clearly an Atheist, though I rarely apply that label to myself. Because I can’t say my ontology (my view of what IS) is defined by whether there are Gods or not (by Zeus! what the Holy Father Abraham do we really even mean by “God” in a philosophical context? That concept is by no means standardised or nailed down – another discussion for another time) and in applying the label “Atheist” these days you are aligning yourself with a particular view which is not quite me: i.e. a faith in the safe, secure hands of the scientific world view and the progress of humanity towards utopian godhood. Whilst I clearly do take a broadly scientific world view (largely because it would seem to me mule-headed c***ishness to the point of pathology to deny the rationale behind the most basic scientific conclusions) I have too much training in the history of scientific methodology, and the philosophy of knowledge and truth, to view everything scientific as safe and secure.

In the media “science” is all too often presented as a consistent, united front, with the conclusions of scientific research presented as certainties, which you – yes you, you dancing ass! (Ok, maybe not you, dear reader, but most man-on-the-street peasant folk) – lap up without question. But this is not how it is. The scientific world is a raging hotbed (a very polite and professionally restrained raging hotbed, but a raging hotbed nonetheless) of conflicting schools of thought, theories, convictions, agendas, egos and reputations; of specialist areas that barely understand what each other are doing, let alone attempt to reconcile their disparate findings with one another. And conclusions presented are not the same as the raw data – conclusions are the raw-data-findings of a study after interpretation has been added – i.e. put together with other background knowledge and spun in a way to make it meaningful and applicable to other... “stuff”. Furthermore, very few experiments are perfect, in that there is often room for doubt that one is really measuring exactly what one set out to measure, that there might not be some “extraneous variables” affecting your results that you hadn’t thought of. And, when talking about broad conclusions, there is always a slight bias skew in the agenda behind the design of the experiment in the first place; that you decided to look at this rather than this or this – why are you doing this research? Is it really for simple, dry, open-minded truth-gathering curiosity? No, it’s because you wanted to finally K.O. the idea that IQ could be purely genetic... or you wanted to create a man-made fibre that can lift Hawaii on a spider-web-thin thread... or you wanted to show that the theory you’ve devoted the last thirty years of your life to is ok, dammit, and those pesky island hobbits are not a new species of human at all... This is how science works, and, actually, what is so good about it – it is pragmatic, focussed, directed, and develops through competition of people and ideas, peer review. But that means we have a skewed, oddly weighted, and constantly revisable set of information to deal with if we are going to try to draw broad conclusions about life in general. No individual research aims to do this – science is about how the trees work, not what we’re supposed to make of the whole wood.

Whether you realise it or not, as a standard modern Atheist you are necessarily buying into Enlightenment values – the primacy of logic and rationality above all else, the fundamental goodness of logical, rational, systematic thought and the liberation and salvation of mankind that it will effect. The Enlightenment is the label historians give to the explosion in scholarship, intellectual, scientific and cultural pursuits that happened in the West in the 18th century. The fallout from this had a massive sea-change effect on Western society and set in motion a transformation that is still on-going today. The fact that many Western societies, whatever their tired traditions and affectations of multi-faith acceptance are, consider themselves secular (i.e. basically a-religious) is a direct effect of this. No random hoon would casually consider themselves an Atheist before the Enlightenment – that was a weird, radical, cultish, metaphysical position to take, rooted in obscure esoteric philosophy, and besides it didn’t mean the same thing as it does today. Epicurus, an ancient Greek, for example, was an Atheist not because he didn’t believe in the Gods per se, but because he figured if they did exist their concerns would be so utterly divorced from ours, our lives so utterly inconsequential to them, that any meaningful communication with them was impossible and pointless. So forget about them. On the other hand, when Abraham’s faith is tested, when he takes his firstborn Isaac up the hill to sacrifice, it’s not his “belief whether God exists or not” that is being questioned – the guy is talking to Him. No – what “faith” means here is whether Abraham believes that he should obey God, that God has humanity’s best interests at heart, that God is really the true authority Abraham should be bowing down to. That God(s) existed was a given – practically no-one doubted this in antiquity. But to be an Atheist today is to dig all that “faith in the primacy of rationality” stuff that the Enlightenment offered, and to be impressed with the fruits produced by it, the transformative effect on human society that it’s had. It is very tempting to say that if you don’t dig all that maybe you should GTFO of modern society and go and live in a candle-lit hut. At least the Amish have the guts to follow the strength of their convictions in that respect.

I clearly do buy into Enlightenment values to a massive degree – though it is a quite post-modernist warped version that has filtered down to me. I’m by no means convinced that we can ultimately attach a definitive value to human progress, or that it is necessarily going anywhere. For example the fundamental “goodness” of logic and rationality, their “liberating” effect on humanity – logic and rationality are as likely to be used for soulless reductionism, narrow standardisation and systematisation of life, manipulation, control and tyranny: Both the politics and technology that made Stalin’s reign possible are direct results of the application of Enlightenment rationality; as is the atomic bomb; as is mass-pollution planet-rape by multi-nationals; and, ok, not quite as serious, but still horrible: Battery-hen farming. Or call-centres. Or systematic technology-aided genocide (that one is bit more serious). These are examples of “instrumental rationality”, where all of life and the world is rationalised as a set instruments to be used, instrumentally, towards some specific end. “Instrumental rationality” is personified in the fear-of-technological-progress-orgy that is The Terminator – its “rational” narrow-focus cannot be “reasoned” with (the end goal is self-justifying and all that matters) and it “absolutely will not stop”. If that sounds like the management at the call-centre I once worked at, it is no co-incidence. But this stuff is a result of Enlightenment values playing out, as much as any cure for cancer or tolerant humanitarian peacenik vibes. Which is not to say Enlightenment values are bad (grr!), but they are not uncompromisingly good, golden, utopian, and wonderful either. Rationality is simply a tool. I may be tempted to harp on about the "goodness" of my Black & Decker Linefiner, and how it is going to liberate our future, when I first get it and I’m still all excited. But I could just as easily use it to build a gas chamber or mutilate fluffy rodents as make a nice set of functional shelves. In fact applying moral values to the progress of rationality and technology is a bankrupt exercise – moral values are not factual and objective. We can’t say this progress is good or bad, it just is. It’s simply a transformation, an increase in the complexity and power of our species, and where it’s headed, who knows?

So. I sometimes call myself a Nihilist, but I don’t really mean it. Besides, the term is misleading – people normally take it to mean 1) I am some kind of decadent, immoral, self-destructive time-bomb of a human being, that took all that late-70’s punk fashion-pose guff a little too seriously; or 2) I sit in my Spartan hovel staring blankly at the paint peeling off the bare walls and bewailing the meaninglessness of existence, probably in black and white photography, and probably in Swedish. Neither of these is true. Ok, the latter is slightly true. But my moroseness is probably about some girl or another – I don’t really have a problem with the meaninglessness of existence, that’s fine by me. Nobody, in reality, can actually be a Nihilist. Nihilism means no belief in any value system whatsoever, and everyone has a value system – in the sense of valuing some things over other things – it’s kind of necessary to living. Attaining true Nihilism would result in death within 24 hours, one would suspect. Nietzsche is often said to be a Nihilist, but this is a confusion – his life-long philosophical project was dealing with the impending onset of Nihilism, which he saw as a given, given how Enlightenment values would play out. They would destroy our previous value systems (i.e. religious values), undermining them and making them untenable by revealing them to be simply necessary myths and fictions. This would leave us with a void that needed to be filled, like having a lover who has just moved out, taking all the furniture. We would be left hollow and directionless, and probably spend our time splashing out on creature comforts, getting make-overs and partying with strangers to try and distract ourselves from the weeping of our souls in the small hours of the night. He was kind of right, that’s kind of what did happen, except that he didn’t see the reactionary resurgence in literalist, fundamentalist religion (fleeing doormat-style back to your old lover) or the kind of progressive, broad-minded, flexible mutations in faith that would occur to accommodate the progress of knowledge (staying friends with your ex... maybe?). But Nietzsche was all about the idea that this hollow void, this Nihilism, was simply a transitionary phase, a dithering despair caused by not knowing which way to turn now, and he was adamant that if we really looked into to void, the worst-case scenario, we would see nothing was necessarily as bad as we thought it was and we could move beyond our Nihilistic fug and into something new. Trouble is, most people are too scared to do this. Oh well, eh?

I have also called myself a “Militant Agnostic”, though this isn’t quite true either, since I have very definite views on what kind of deity doesn’t exist, what definition of “God” simply does not make sense. What I mean by “Militant Agnostic” is that I am utterly convinced that, not just me, but no f***er at all, really knows what, fundamentally, is going on. The question of what is going on, y’know, like, here, now and everywhere, all the time, is pretty damn fundamental. What exactly is going on, and what exactly am I? That’s a question I’ve been trying to find out more about since I became sentient, and I’ve never received a satisfactory answer. I don’t believe anyone has, but most people somewhere along the line seem to have quickly decided it was not worth pursuing much and either settled for some inadequate fudge that actually answers very little, or just ignored the question altogether. I find this incomprehensibly, pathologically insane, but I know I am in a minority. Most people simply don’t see the point in asking that kind of stuff, and I guess, if I’m honest, I can respect that – while it’s the reason I got interested in philosophy in the first place, philosophy does not provide any answers either, though the territory you explore, if you look in the right places, gives you a much better handle on the complexities of our basic situation. I no longer think that question is answerable – not just because of lack of information or reasoning ability, but because I can’t imagine what an answer to it would even look like, let alone one that would be sufficient, satisfactory or make sense. No amount of scientific knowledge about the mechanics of things will do this justice. And that is an assertion I will explore in successive parts. Brace yourselves, I can’t promise this will be “fun”...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Shopping Failure (F*** bargains)

You are becoming increasingly obsessed with Stalin, mass-murdering despot of choice for truly grand-scale politics (Hitler is too obvious. Overplayed. Old news). Or, rather, you want more detail on the Russian revolution in general. You also fancy reading more Kafka, y’know, for the laughs. It’s a lovely sunny day, a jaunt up town seems essential. It’s a joy to kick about all slow and lazy in public on a day like this... and uncommon de-stressing to put yourself in a situation where you really have nothing to do other than browse and shuffle around. So, a trip to the book shop – good idea. On initial first-pass browsing you find not one, but two books you’ve meant to get for a long time, and are confident you will indeed read, sharpish and with gusto, if you buy: Charlie Brooker’s Screen Burn (for the existential distress) and Camus’ The Outsider (for the laughs). The Camus is in a “3 for 2” offer, but you ignore this. You are not here to buy three books.

One cannot be haphazard about bargain-buying. Shops bank on people being seduced and bamboozled into spending more than they wanted or needed to by multi-buy bargains. That's why bargains exist. You end up with crap you never meant to buy and probably won’t have a use for; and you probably didn’t stop to work out that, in real terms, exactly what you’ve saved or gained is negligible. The house always wins. For this reason you normally ignore multi-buy bargains altogether. Not worth the mental energy of weighing up – just go in, get what you need – what you intended to get – and to hell with that shit. It is certainly possible to make substantial savings on bargains if you are dedicated. But to do this you have to show forethought, be always on the lookout, paying attention to the details, calculating your costs and benefits. You have to be vigilant – it takes effort. You also suspect that you have to be on the fringes of the autistic spectrum – it takes a certain kind of personality to have the motivation for this. Even in distressingly tight financial circumstances, you will never have that motivation.

But then you see that another Brooker book, The Dawn of the Dumb (his second compilation of Screen Burn columns), is in the “3 for 2” offer. Hmm; now; since there’s nothing to choose between the two Brookers (they’re two books of more or less the same thing) you may as well get the one that is in the offer, and pick a third book for free. So – to the Modern World History shelves, Russian section. But alas: None of them are in the “3 for 2”. So you are cast adrift, free-wheeling about the shop, and it becomes clear you have a problem.

You have become cautious about whim-buying books – you don’t do it anymore. Unless it’s something you deliberately set out to buy, or intended to read for a while, you will not read it. Reading takes a considerable time investment, time you too often don’t have. To be sure you will have the sustained interest to commit to this book you have to respect the ungovernable flow of your moods and inclinations, especially with non-fiction – unless you’re really motivated by the right frame of mind you will not muster the drive to pick that book up consistently enough to finish it. You have more than one pile of books that you bought because you thought “Ooh – that looks interesting...” whilst browsing; and they still look interesting whilst sitting in those piles by the side of the bed – but not enough that you ever get more than two chapters in. They are not by the bed for easy bedtime-reading access – they are there because that tract of carpet-real-estate has been designated “bookcase over-spill”. Your bookcase credit is in overdraft. You do not have space for more unnecessary books. Stop whim-buying.

Kafka cannot help you. You just remembered that you have The Trial at home which you still have not finished. No point in buying another, especially with Camus’ The Outsider to get through first. Nothing is leaping out at you as an essential purchase. So: What about a present for someone else? Good idea, but alas, again nothing presents itself as obvious, and your brain is suddenly blank, shrugging its shoulders at requests for suggestions as to what anyone might actually want. After what feels like a good 15-20 minutes, this is futile. But – you cannot buy two books in the “3 for 2” and not rock up with a third. No! This would be an admission of fundamental shopping failure. The store staff would not be able to comprehend this. It would blow their tiny minds, and engender suspicion, confusion and contempt. Don’t be absurd! You have been made to feel absurd by money-saving offers. God-damn it! This is now wasting your time.

So what course of action can you take here? You go back upstairs. You swap the Brooker for the original one not in the “3 for 2”. You buy the books. No questions asked. Safe. You can go to the library for your Bolsheviks intel. Admit defeat. Fuck bargains.

Humour Vs. Stress and Obstacles