How we may misunderstand everythingOne of the themes of science of the past few centuries has been the gradual diminishment of man. It's one of the products of reason, simply because the overstatement of man's position in the universe was an outcome of not understanding the world, and filling in the gaps with magic.
In many ways, that diminishment has been a story of making a world we felt was real more abstract. When the sun was something a god drove across the sky, it seemed close enough to touch, definitely something that was familiar and comfortable. Because the universe was smaller, our deeds also seemed bigger. It was credible that our gods should care about us: we were just as much the centre of their world as they were of ours.
But it's hard to believe you're special when you are just another ape on just another planet circling just another small star in just another small galaxy, just like the billions of others like it.
In my post on consciousness, I discussed a couple of ideas that I am going to expand on here. The first is that what we take to be thinking is just the chatter of our brains' activity. The second is that how we look at things can mislead us about what we're looking at and, importantly, what information the things we look at contain.
It's interesting how often humans think they have a hard question because they simply ask the wrong question. Look at the "debt crisis" in the States. It looks like a hard question: how should taxation and spending be balanced? But it's the wrong question. The question is, why is everyone pretending that money has value? It does not (it's easy to prove so take my word for it): it's a placeholder for value.
Anyway, when we think about human consciousness, we ask ourselves, why are we self-aware and dogs aren't? We assume that they aren't because they can't communicate self-awareness to us (and do not seem to be self-aware when faced with the kind of test that would show we are). But here's the thing. What if the question is not how are we different from dogs but in what ways are we the same? We know we evolved from a common ancestor, and generally we ask ourselves at what point we evolved into something different. We even have a word for it: sentient.
But it seems to me we do not have different brains from dogs in kind, merely in degree. Dogs' brains have electrical activity, and one must assume the corresponding chatter. I'm not saying that would be like human thought but I am saying it would be similar enough that we can say dogs "think".
Is it that they "think" appropriately and we somehow need more intelligence and awareness than they do? I really don't think so. I believe our "intelligence" to be entirely incidental, and I believe it does nothing. I believe your body, including your brain, does what it does, and you just think you're doing something with it. Dogs are spared that illusion, possibly, because their chatter is less complex. (This is not the same thing as saying they are as intelligent as we are: they are clearly not, given that "intelligence" is defined in terms of our abilities, rather than in terms of anything more objective. It's rather saying that our brains are more powerful, which makes what seems like greater intelligence emerge.)
Aside: when I ask people why humans domesticated dogs, they'll say, because they are affectionate and good companions. But of course that is not why we domesticated them, even if it's why we now keep them. Our ancestors lived in marginal environments. They could not carry pets. (It seems a very human answer to me though. We choose the concept that makes our taking on pets quite noble: we domesticated dogs because they made an emotional appeal to us.)
We domesticated dogs for their sense of smell. They can find prey that is very distant. We must have noticed dogs hunting, and realised how effective they are. Who knows though? It may be that we should say that dogs domesticated us. Dogs are smart, so who's to say they did not realise that living with us, eating our food every day, would be far superior to having to run after prey all day and only eating every once in a while?
Regardless, I don't think there's any reason to believe that dogs do not have an appearance to themselves of being real, even though it must be different from ours. We know their cognitive activity is not on the same level as ours (and consequently their culture and politics seem simplistic to us -- arguably, almost certainly I think, they are just as complex as they need to be: evolution is a chisel not a sledgehammer).
Of course, it's not a comfort to us to think our way into being barely more "special" than dogs. I remember that it would upset Bella a lot when I would say that we were a type of ape, no more, no less. That it's true didn't enter into it for her. Like most religious types, she admitted different types of truth and focused on just not thinking about it a lot. Personally, I find it hard to want to be ignorant of anything but of course I recognise that the compulsion to educate myself is no more valid or decent in me than the desire to find spiritual comfort in a bleak world is in her. We were just constituted a bit differently, and I didn't despise her for it.
Still, I do think I can offer comfort, because while you do not exist, God (or a god, if you like) might. I know, small comfort indeed should there be a creator but no soul for him to have created, but you have to take what you can get.
The key element in my concept of consciousness is that we misinterpret something that is real. Our brains chatter and crosstalk all the time, and that chatter clearly contains information about what our brains are doing. If this neuron and this fire, it means something. Our science is not sufficiently sophisticated for us to be able to discern what the information is precisely (although of course we have some idea because we know which areas of the brain control which activities, although some things remain very uncertain to the point that we cannot be sure they actually do occur in the brain at all). This is quite beside the point though, because what we are saying is that we misinterpret brain noise as thinking because of how our brain represents it to itself. (Indeed, a perceptive reader will know that I cheated a little bit, because waves do of course sound different in different settings, and you could tell quite a lot from them were you skilled at it. Furthermore, you could certainly write software that could extract some information about the wave from its noise. My contention remains though that you could not extract all information from it because much would have been swamped. A good but not exact analogy would be a large choir. It would be very hard, were you to analyse a large choir's singing, to analyse each person's contribution. Is Jim a smidgen flat? Well, we can find output at frequencies that are a bit off, but we don't know that it's Jim because he is not distinctive enough. In a quartet, you surely could pick out Jim though, so it is likely going to be possible to retrieve information from the brains of, say, ants, which exhibit less chatter.)
The universe is or seems to be real. I think that a rationalist has to accept its reality as axiomatic. It's not impossible that the world is a purely mental construct, or that we are all just subroutines in a big piece of code, but we cannot readily ascertain that. It is certainly an axiom of physics that the world is real.
When we were less advanced, our primary tool for observing our world was our vision. We looked at the world and reported to ourselves what we saw. We were mostly wrong because our vision is not on the whole well adapted to interpreting the macro world, but is fit for the purpose it primarily has: it helps us in the two major tasks that face all animals--getting food and getting laid.
We did not in fact use our minds, as you might think. Metaphysics is not on the whole a means of interpreting the apparent information in the world. Here's what I mean. Say you have a creek in your yard. You might wonder where it flows from. Now, if you take some of its water, examine its mineral content and look at the microorganisms it contains, you might be able to draw conclusions. That would be scientific; importantly, the answer you received would in a real sense be more correct than other possible answers, even if you could not fairly judge its correctness (in other words, you could not know that you had the right source but you could know you had the right type of source). But if you simply speculated on where it came from, even if you used some concepts that were themselves based in knowledge provided by science (such as that it must have come from ground higher than your yard), you would not be using the available information, and the answer you arrived at would in a real sense be equally as correct (or wrong) as any other plausible answer.
So metaphysics is a lot of fun, but it's not at all connected with the real world, because nothing that does not interact with the information that the world exhibits can be.
As our understanding shifted though, we became unable to discern facts about the universe with vision, even if we augmented the vision. First, we needed tools to help us understand what we were seeing. Second, we investigated things that were more abstract, so were beyond perception to a large extent.
Our chief tool is mathematics. Much of our theory of how the world is is formulated entirely in mathematics. We describe things that not only have we not seen but that we could never see (even allowing for sufficient magnification).
But maths is not real and much of our "physics" is no more than metaphysics. Of course, scientists will argue that their mathematical constructs are shown to be real when experiments concur with their observations but I'm going to explain briefly why you can consider this untrue.
We're familiar with the concept of garbage in, garbage out in computing. Computers can't make good output out of bad input, regardless how well programmed they are. Well, our experiments are maths in, maths out. We ask them questions in maths, and the answer comes back as maths. If it concurs with our theory's prediction, we say the theory is confirmed.
But I want you to consider this notion: say you went fishing with a net that had holes an inch across. When you return to shore, you hand your catch to a scientist. If he didn't keep in mind that other nets were possible, and convinced himself that only this way of finding and categorising fish existed, he would have to conclude that the world does not contain fish smaller than an inch across.
The reasons I have concluded that maths is not real are simple (maybe silly, I don't know) but they are products of deduction. Here is one. Pi is a very precise number. It's not built from other numbers, but exists on its own. You cannot, as far as I know, deduce it from other numbers. But there are, as we're so often told, no perfect circles in nature. So if pi is a relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle, we can readily see that it does not exist in nature. But pi is not only that relationship, right? Right. But in other places that we use pi, we define outcomes in terms of it, so that they are equally as idealised as circles.
Another reason is to be found in Goedel's theorem. I'm going to state my view briefly and if you want to know what Goedel actually said, you'll have to find further information. In effect, the universe is complete. It contains everything and nothing is missing. Yet our understanding is that mathematics cannot be complete. It cannot describe everything correctly (Goedel says that there must be truths that it cannot express, in fact).
I deduce from these ideas (the route is tortuous and you can be thankful I am not going to ramble along it) that mathematics is constructed by humans, rather than discovered by them. Not everyone agrees. There are theories that the universe is mathematical, so we simply uncover what is there. However, I take Einstein's view:
as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality
which I think is common. We were taught in our very first lesson in physics that physics creates a model that approximates to reality, rather than describes reality, and it seems to me that physics is the child of mathematics. Maths is a system that follows from axioms, but those axioms are chosen by humans. They are not arbitrary (for instance, five is the number of five things -- the things are real and there really are five of them) but they are products of human ingenuity, rather than things that have an exterior existence. When our maths works, the outcomes look like the way the world is.
But although we do forget this, that "looks like" means "looks that way to us". In precisely the same way that the chatter of our brains looks to us like thought, the workings of the universe look to us like something that can be manipulated in mathematics.
So the question asks itself: if what we perceive is just the "chatter" of a universe, which we misrepresent to ourselves with mathematics so that, just as in the noise of the wave that we previously discussed, we see information that is an artefact of our looking, rather than something that is part of the thing we're looking at, what information might the universe really contain?
I do not know. I do know though that this conception of the universe permits us to believe that science cannot be used to disprove God. It seems clear to me that God could be manifesting himself in the universe but the "noise" has swamped that manifestation, and our means of looking are so ill fitted to the task that we cannot see it for what it is.
I do not of course believe that. Just because we may be wrong about what we are looking at does not mean we are looking at a particular thing. But I do feel that it's wrong to be dogmatic simply because our techniques work well, particularly because humans are so often wrong, and sometimes wrongest when they think they're rightest.