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(DV) Williamson: The Matter of Mind, Myth, and Metaphor (Part Two)







Improvisation From The Proscenium
The Matter of Mind, Myth, and Metaphor (Part Two of Three)
by Harold Williamson
May 19, 2005

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* Read Part One


Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

-- J. B. S. Haldane

Stemming from the earliest attempts to understand our perceptions of fundamental reality has been the belief that there is more to it than meets the eye. The genre of philosophical thought known as metaphysics deals with the implications that arise from the logical analysis of our physical world that go beyond the scope of sensory experience. But any theory that logically implies a metaphysical solution cannot be scientifically conclusive. However, those who have found meaning and truth with the acceptance of metaphysical interpretations should not be troubled because science prohibits it; science as a method of inquiry just simply cannot support it. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant was troubled because metaphysics had not arrived at acceptable answers to the uncertainties of the existence of God, the soul, and free will. He wondered what he could know, what he ought to do, and what he might hope. Kant arrived at the assertion that no one can understand God in the way we understand “nature” or  “phenomena”.  But he also held that no one can know “things-in-themselves,” or “noumena”, only as the “mind” constitutes them.

Thomas H. Huxley refused to consider Kant’s idea of noumena because it was not demonstrable by 19th-century science, but with the possibility of new discoveries he did not rule it out. At the beginning of the 21st century, quantum physics considers noumena all the time, such as virtual particles and antiparticles, supersymmetry, and “dark matter.”  The “particles” and “fields” of science are ideas.  No one has ever seen a “particle” or a “field”. They are “truths of reason,” not “matters of fact.”  Science’s Standard Model of the universe has all “matter” being composed of elementary particles. This is essentially the same idea as the “crackpot” theory of the atomos conceived some 2,500 years earlier, but instead of having different shapes as proposed by Democritus, the modern versions have “spin”, “charge”, “mass”, and are mutable. Some particles are point-like and have no mass, while they all have very peculiar characteristics that cannot be perceived in a straightforward way. They are detected by observing their interactions with other particles in the detectors of particle accelerators. It is a miniaturized modern version of the shadows on the wall in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic

Basic to human understanding is the perception of both an object’s location and its distinguishing characteristics. In the particle world we cannot know either one with certainty, and we cannot know both at the same time. At the heart of quantum theory -- the basis of 21st-century science -- is the mathematically proven Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that shows the more that is known about where a particle is, the less we can know about what it is doing, and vice versa.  The ability to measure things breaks down in the tiny world of quanta, and this uncertainty leads to many strange occurrences. For instance, the exact location of a particle cannot be predicted with 100% certainty. The location of a particle may be at a precise location with 99% probability, but there is the remaining 1% probability that it is somewhere else -- anywhere in the entire universe. Couple this with the new aptly named science of chaos and this uncertainty is magnified exponentially with time and makes indeterminacy the norm. Since these particles constitute the entire universe, quantum uncertainty takes Kant’s world of phenomena and noumena into a realm consisting only of probabilities. While large numbers of radioactive atoms obey the laws of statistics, additional knowledge will never allow the prediction of exactly when one particular atomic nucleus will decay. Because quantum uncertainty is an inherent property of matter, Pliny would now be saying that the only certainty is the betting odds.

The earliest speculations that the perceived diversity in the physical world comprises a common underlying essence prompted criticisms from Heraclitus to Socrates that this was beyond human knowledge and the senses. Plato subsequently countered with the argument that abstract theories of mathematics provide a model of reality beyond the senses. The Renaissance revived this debate with the skepticism of Montaigne and the experimental philosophies of Galileo and Descartes, and it continues to this day. Modern physics began by seeking unknown mathematical formulas that related observed phenomena and has progressed beyond the limits of an empirical science with intricate mathematical formulas that relate things that are unknown and unobservable. The study of superstring symmetry involves mathematics that considers a universe with ten dimensions, while the brain evolved to perceive only four of them for human understanding. 

For the most part, theories have not been the means for knowledge breakthroughs. New technologies have enabled new discoveries, and explanations and creative ways of using what was found have been ex post facto. However, theoretical physics with theories in search of the “real” world has been thriving with the opposite approach, and now seriously considers new mathematical models of the universe long before there is any hope for the possibility of their experimental verification. Within the discipline of particle physics, the interplay between theory and experiment has been very effective in producing new discoveries that add to our knowledge of how we think the universe works. The positron, antiproton, pion, and neutrino were predicted by theory; the muon, tau lepton, and upsilon were surprise discoveries. The mathematics of the theorists has proven to be more than “saving the appearances” by predicting unknown phenomena that were subsequently confirmed by experiment, and Plato’s idea that mathematical theories provide a model of reality beyond the senses is alive and well.

It is an open question whether mathematics is an invention or a discovery. Eugene Wigner, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1963, wrote about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” and the unreasonably important role it plays in physics. Classical mathematical Platonism has had amazing success for over two millennia, and the line between theory and experiment is not so well defined when we consider Plato’s view of ideal forms as being archetypical of all temporal phenomena. There is a strange coherence between what our senses perceive qualitatively and what mathematics predicts quantitatively. We can easily be charmed to trust mathematics as a sort of “sixth sense” when it leads us to strange places. “Laws” of nature are mathematical transpositions of the inferences of science, and mathematics is representative of all that is known about the interactions of elementary particles. But this is, nonetheless, an ill-understood act of faith, because regardless of the aesthetics of their mathematical elegance, these models are only as true and accurate as the inferences that support them. Mathematics, by itself, does not explain anything. In 1931, the Czech-American mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel proved that all of mathematics is at least partially based on propositions that depend on logical systems that are outside the systems of mathematics.

Classical geometry has served us well, but it is limited in its ability to represent nature. Much of nature is not straight lines and planes or circles and spheres; but turbulent fluids and gases such as meandering rivers, ocean currents, and clouds, and irregular shapes such as shorelines, trees, and mountains. In 1975, the noted mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot named a new mathematics, “fractal” geometry. Actually it has been around for almost a century, but only with the advent of computers could we see the images being described by the mathematical functions. Since nature seems to be self-organizing, regenerative, and influenced by feedback, a form of nonlinear mathematics that is similar to fractals could be the tool needed to simplify while completely describing in detail the chaotic dynamics of the universe. Fractals emulate nature in that when “magnified”, the details do not become blurred like a photograph with a fixed resolution; they continue to reveal more detail, ad infinitum.  Moreover, the universe seems to be infinite in detail in all dimensions; and the closer we look, the more detail we find that we do not understand.  

Even though the inductive reasoning of science has proven to be a reliable method for arriving at useful generalizations, it is based on a belief that the universe is not illusory. “Illusory” does not mean that it does not exist; it means what is experienced by the senses is different from what exists. The implicit assumption of the scientific method continues to be that nature is objective, that reality is solid and independent of human consciousness, and the critical thinking that underlies inferences from discoveries, experiments, and observations is restricted to and limited by this paradigm. Regardless of human acuity, Western philosophy’s tripartite method of determining truth of knowledge begins with a (1) belief that if (2) justified is (3) true. Justification is by demonstration, and this is where the assumption that the universe is not illusory is crucial to the logic. Since we must trust that we are not being deceived by our observations in order for justification to happen, the search for truth through reason is uncertain. Therefore, reason does not determine “truth”; it only determines “what works” within our idea (mental model or construct) of reality that is based on what can be experienced by the senses.

The complexity of human consciousness is manifested by our experiences, perceptions, memories, emotions, and so forth; but it is not known whether observer effects and conscious experience are the same thing.  We believe not only what we see; we see what we believe. Cognitive science interprets sensory experiences to be mental constructs. It is not a little man, a homunculus, sitting in the brain watching an on-the-scene television broadcast that is being videotaped (memory) for review in the future. It is more like the milieu of actors and playwrights. Research has shown that occurring in the subconscious brain is an adaptation, an interpretive creation that attempts to associate stimuli with meaning as a precondition for conscious perception. Only the details that are somehow determined to be meaningful and relevant are allowed to be a part of the process of perception, and the rest are ignored while the brain compensates by providing an illusion of wholeness from this discontinuity. The perceptual information is then encoded for storage where it will be decoded in those circumstances where it can be useful in new constructs for memory and other perceptions. Thus we continue to see things not as they are but as we are, and it will be necessary to know more about how the human brain “connects” with fundamental reality before we can hope to raise the veil of uncertainty that obscures our world.

Physicists maintain that we “see” only about five percent of the universe, with the remaining ninety-five percent consisting of “dark” matter and energy.  Even though new technologies extend the limited capabilities of the human sensory apparatus to facilitate the ever deeper probing into the infinitesimal and immense space of the universe, they do not enhance the noetic processes of the brain that evolved concurrently with the senses to be of primary use to the human organism for its survival while hunting and scavenging the same prey favored by lions and hyenas in Africa’s sub-Saharan savannahs. Therefore it is not surprising that the discoveries of particle physics and astrophysics are pushing the human intellect to its limit. The actors in the brain are looking at an alien script and they don’t know how to interpret its meaning. Since the show must go on, it is improvisation at its very best. Even ordinary “matter” behaves in very counterintuitive ways when looked at carefully, according to Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This most convincingly is a caveat for empirical, inductive, a posteriori reasoning. 

In his Discourse on Method, René Descartes asserted, “Cogito, ergo sum [I think, therefore I am].”  His critics questioned what he meant by his inference: I think, therefore.... They wondered whether thinking is confirmatory or causative.  Little could they have known in the 17th century the implications of this rationalistic premise when related to 20th-century quantum theory where experiments have provided convincing evidence that the conscious mind of an observer has an essential and fundamental role in determining the nature of physical reality. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory of the 20th-century Danish physicist Niels Bohr explains the dualistic wave-particle behavior of “matter” by saying that no “thing” has discernible properties until it interacts with a conscious observer. Furthermore, the properties that are observed result from its interaction with a conscious observer. In other words, the basic fundamental physical properties of an unobserved subatomic particle are in an indeterminate state that will not become physically apparent until someone in the classical world decides how to interact with it. According to Dyson, the laws of subatomic physics leave a place for “mind” in the description of every molecule, and these laws cannot even be formulated without some reference to an observer.

If this is not the result of an incomplete theory or inferring too much from a single fundamental aspect of nature, we now have a new science that confuses the traditional roles of subject and object and inextricably connects the conscious processes of the human brain to the physical universe. According to Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, the brain can no longer be treated philosophically as a “black box” if we are to achieve a true understanding of conscious reality. The interaction between “mind” and “matter” strongly suggests that a connection does indeed take place in the brain between quantum states and classical reality. Roger Penrose, a noted mathematician at Oxford University, argues that it is due to quantum events in the brain that consciousness occurs. Penrose has worked in collaboration with Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona to propose the theory that within certain neural structures called microtubules a secluded environment exists where quantum events could occur.

Well, finally we have an answer to an age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to observe it, is there any sound?  According to the Copenhagen school there is no sound, no tree, and no forest!  To say that a “thing” has no discernible properties means that it is without form and void.  Of course this is a forest in the tiny world of quanta, but it is believed that the entire universe (humans and forests included) is all the same thing. Curiously, this concurs with the ancient description in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1:2) of our world subsequent to its creation. The heretic Protagoras would now be admonishing us: PHOOEY! [PHOOEY!]  I told you that man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not. This is the heart of 20th-century quantum physics.  So who among you can tell me with certainty that I was wrong in denying the possibility of objective knowledge? Until now, how could you even have known what I meant if you could not be certain what I said? Future applications of pure thought cannot be predicted. You should not have burned my books!”

So much for the requirement that students write science papers in the third person because experiments should be independent of the experimenter. When one considers the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, it would not seem possible to design an experiment without introducing experimenter bias. The mere choice of how a measurement is to be made determines what will be measured. Couple this with the fickle nature of human perception and the very method of our science introduces a priori experimenter bias.  From the very beginning, the conscious processes of creative thinking that design the hypothesis introduce an idiomorphic bias.  In other words, thinking shapes the experiment qualitatively to enable the object of the search to be the same as expected.

Based on an analysis in 1974 of mathematical coincidences inherent in the universe, the noted British astrophysicist Brandon Carter related a rather obvious and somewhat tautological observation: “What we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.” This connection of human observation with the physical universe has become known as the Anthropic Principle. Of course we can observe only a universe that is compatible with our own existence within it, but this principle merely limits the scope or our observations and does not imply that our observations compel the universe that we occupy to either have the form or behave in the way that it does.

To be continued . . .

* Read Part Three

Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based independent scholar. He can be reached at:  Copyright © 2005, Harold Williamson

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* Improvisation From The Proscenium, Part One
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* Truth in Humor
* Redefining America
* The Missing WMD: Bush's Red Herring
* The Darkness in America
* Spinning The Vietnam War: What Goes Around Comes Around
* None Dare Call It Murder
* It Isn't God Who is Crazy
* Don't Trust Anybody Over Thirty
* Faith in the Postmodern World
* Remember Who The Enemy Is
* Obscenity, A Sign of the Times and the Post
* Thinking Anew: A Do-It-Yourself Project
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* Bully for the Bush Doctrine: A Natural History Perspective