Pythagoras thought that the ultimate truth behind what we see around us lay in number. Galileo believed that the universe was written in the language of mathematics. Eugene Wigner famously described the effectiveness of mathematics in describing nature as unreasonable, and likened it to a miracle. Finally, Max Tegmark, in his book Our Mathematical Universe, completes the circle by claiming that reality is mathematics. Is there really some deep truth uniting mathematics and reality that demands an explanation? Is God a mathematician?
Theories in physics describe the natural world at the smallest and most fundamental level. Perhaps that description isn’t yet complete, maybe there are inconsistencies to be resolved, but physics is steadily moving towards a comprehensive account of the foundational building blocks of reality; whether those ‘blocks’ turn out to be particles, strings, or some other exotic and as yet unimagined unit. This is, at least, what you might have been led to believe. Hopefully, by the time you reach the end of this article, whatever else you might think of physics theories, you will no longer believe they describe, or even aspire to describe, reality at the most fundamental level.
Is matter real? Do objects only exist in the mind of a perceiver? 18th century philosopher, George Berkeley, answered ‘no’ to that first question and ‘yes’ to the second. In his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, he claimed that esse est percipi, or ‘to be is to be perceived’; a thing only exists if a mind perceives it.
Berkeley’s idea seems unlikely today and even in his own era, he had a hard time finding converts. While tempting to ridicule, especially in the specific form Berkeley imagined it, there is nevertheless the glimmer of something deeply insightful in his philosophy. In this article, I will try to convince you of this.
This article was inspired by Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #120 in which he talks with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (whom I’d never heard speak before but who was very impressive) and physicist Max Tegmark about the different ways science and philosophy approach reality. While I obviously recommend the podcast itself and although I constantly refer to Goldstein and Tegmark throughout, if you don’t have the time or inclination, it isn’t necessary to have listened to the podcast in order to follow what I discuss in the article.
This is my second article related to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124, a discussion with physicist Sean Carroll, about reality, physics, freewill, and a whole bunch of stuff in between. In this article I want to critically examine the tendency among physicists these days to base their understanding of reality on mathematical models they construct about that reality.
The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
The many worlds interpretation, first suggested by Hugh Everett in 1957, is an attempt to make some sense of the quantum mechanical assertion that unmeasured, or unobserved, quantum systems don’t actually exist in any particular state. Rather, they exist in multiple possible states at the same time and it is only once the system is measured, or observed, that one of those possibilities becomes actual. The many worlds interpretation holds that, at the moment of measurement, rather than one of these possibilities becoming actual, the universe splits into multiple branches, so that each possibility actually actualises, just in different universes.
The two topics I discuss in this article, downward causation and panpsychism, both come from Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #124 in which he sits down with physicist Sean Carroll to discuss… well, reality. Rather than working through these ideas in any detail, what I will mainly do is respond to Carroll’s criticism of them as “…attempts to wriggle around basing reality in stuff obeying the laws of physics [which] don’t quite hold together”.
Early on in the podcast, Carroll brings up downward causation, which is the idea that activity at a macroscopic level can somehow feed back and affect behaviour at the microscopic level in a way you wouldn’t understand if you were only studying the microscopic. With this, he is taking aim at the idea that consciousness can affect any of the ‘real’ physical constituents and processes from which it emerges. Now, if you start with the idea that the ‘real’ is the world as described by physics, which, by definition, means elementary particles and the physical laws that govern their behaviour, then Carroll is obviously right. But is this apparently reasonable claim as reasonable as it seems?
This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.
Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.
Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.
When is a reason not a reason?
There are two ways we use the word ‘reason’ of interest to us here (I will be ignoring ‘reason’ used to mean ‘rational’). The first (A-type) is used to explain something with respect to factual events or the past; i.e. the reason the sky is blue is because molecules in the air scatter blue light more than they do red, or the reason I broke my leg was because I fell off my bike. The second type of reason (B-type) also explains something but is future-oriented; i.e. the reason she bought a bigger car is because she wants a large family. Importantly, while only conscious agents can have B-type reasons, anything can have an A-type reason.
The central problem I want to address in this article is whether all B-type reasons ultimately cash out as A-type reasons.
In its grandest conception the world is simply the whole of the physical universe. If this sounds about right, then you have probably accepted the scientific/materialistic paradigm that saturates the modern intellectual atmosphere without realising there are any alternatives aside from crackpot religious or new age ones. This article will challenge this prevailing scientific/materialistic notion of world, specifically arguing that it is neither (1) fundamental nor (2) complete, and is, in fact, both (3) meaningless and (4) misleading.
Of course, there is nothing incoherent about defining ‘world’ as the totality of physical matter in the universe. The problem isn’t one of coherence, but of scope and relevance. Given its limitations, my argument is that despite being coherent in an insular kind of way, it isn’t the best definition of the word, and doesn’t even reflect what we typically mean when we use it.
Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True, is the latest in a growing number of works authored by prominent Western intellectuals promoting a Buddhism stripped of supernatural trappings and recommending meditation. I support both of these causes. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I think Buddhism is the only ‘religion’ which still makes sense when considered apart from its supernatural elements, and when so considered, no longer even qualifies as a religion. Meditation is also a worthwhile venture with many practical benefits, especially when the mystical and new age dimensions have been pruned.
Although the initial premises as I have outlined them above are beneficial and ‘true’, in my opinion the central themes of Why Buddhism is True are less so. As the title suggests, Wright’s central argument is that Buddhism provides the tools which allow us to pierce the illusions our naturally selected brains create for us, see things as they really are, and thereby, alleviate suffering. I will argue against this. But before going on the offensive it is definitely worth dwelling on what is good about WBIT.