Recently I’ve found reason to read up on several metaphysical theories floating around among physicists and philosophers – the Holographic Universe theory, the Mathematical Universe theory, the Simulation Reality theory, the Computational Universe theory, the Multiverse theory. Some of these theories seem useful in supporting other theories – the Multiverse theory can be used to support string theory for instance. Some complement each other; some effectively negate each other. All of these theories have the following properties in common:
1. Each is presented as a largely complete metaphysics. If you want to know what this means, one can read the pre-modern science texts of Aristotle plus his Metaphysics; or better yet, Aquinas’ Summa Theologia. A complete metaphysics will tell you absolutely everything you need to know about everything. The last nearly successful attempt to achieve this was Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind and the (so-called Greater) Science of Logic taken together. ‘Nearly successful’ idiosyncratically enough, for the same reason that it is not successful – Hegel has metaphysics spin inward as a question of what the human mind can know and how it knows it, rather than what the universe is and how best to describe it. That is the Modern turn in philosophy (beginning with Descartes), becoming primarily concerned with epistemology, and leaving questions concerning the actual data of nature to the natural sciences.
2. Now, however, we have some scientists and philosophers who think they can beat this wrap. The access to the deeper truths of reality, they assert, can be found in or via mathematics, as they can be elaborated functionally by computers and the simulations they generate. (It is notable in this context that none of their metaphysical theories seem to me to be epistemologically sophisticated, but we’ll consider their weaknesses later.) Thus each of these metaphysics is either elaborated mathematically or supported by appeals to mathematical principles, or to principles in the computer sciences, especially as applied to sub-atomic physics.
3. Each of these metaphysics is so dependent on mathematics, that empirical evidence for their claims is implicitly held irrelevant or at best tangential.
4. With the possible exception of the Multiverse theory, which has variations strongly physical in nature, each of these metaphysics denies, or at least undermines, belief in the reality of the physical universe, and indicate that the world of our senses is essentially illusory.
Let’s consider their basic claims one at a time (borrowing from Wikipedia):
The Holographic Universe: “In a larger sense, the theory suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a two-dimensional information structure ‘painted’ on the cosmological horizon[clarification needed], such that the three dimensions we observe are an effective description only at macroscopic scales and at low energies.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holographic_principle.
The Mathematical Universe: “Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure. That is, the physical universe is mathematics in a well-defined sense, and ‘in those [worlds] complex enough to contain self-aware substructures [they] will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically ‘real’ world'” (the direct quotations are from theory advocate Max Tegmark). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_universe_hypothesis.
The Simulation Reality: “Simulated reality is the hypothesis that reality could be simulated—for example by computer simulation—to a degree indistinguishable from “true” reality. It could contain conscious minds which may or may not be fully aware that they are living inside a simulation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulated_reality
The Computational Universe: “Pancomputationalism (also known as pan-computationalism, naturalist computationalism) is a view that the universe is a huge computational machine, or rather a network of computational processes which, following fundamental physical laws, computes (dynamically develops) its own next state from the current one.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics
The Multiverse: “The multiverse (or meta-universe) is the hypothetical set of infinite or finite possible universes (including the Universe we consistently experience) that together comprise everything that exists: the entirety of space, time, matter, and energy as well as the physical laws and constants that describe them. The various universes within the multiverse are sometimes called parallel universes or “alternate universes”. (Many variants.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse.
We’re going to set aside the Multiverse theory because of its many variations. (The one I initially had in mind was Tegmark’s, developed to support his version of the Mathematical Universe; that is, the Multiverse unfolds into differing universes in which a certain sets of mathematical structures realize themselves as the reality of their given universe. He also has his own variation of the Computational Universe as well, apparently.)
I’m not going to go into the details of these metaphysics. I admit I don’t have the mathematics or even the physics to approach them on their own grounds, so to speak. But I will give a brief report, as a layman, on the problems I’ve found in the cursory reading I’ve been able to give them. So think of this as the first remark of an interested outsider.
The first impression I get from all of these metaphysics, is that there’s a deep streak in the human consciousness of denial of reality. I find it extraordinary that clearly highly intelligent men and woman can indulge in what are clearly mystical speculations, simply because there are mathematical formulas that can be plugged into them. I’m reminded of the Kabbalists of the Jewish tradition, or the sacred word cultists of the Hindu tradition – find the magic number or the secret word, and god will reveal all.
What is it? the stench of being human? the crude tactile being of an animal that hungers? the many mistakes of a contingent consciousness? Why don’t they want to be human, just as given, just as we find ourselves? Will mathematics provide them with redemption? Nothing provides us with redemption; there is no redemption. There is this life we live – there is nothing else.
Secondly, this primacy of mathematics and computer simulations is putting the cart before the horse – or rather, it is saying that because there is a cart, the horse must be unreal *. These metaphysicians seem either to ignore the fact that mathematics and computers are invented by humans as tools for their use, or they think that the very fact of the invention indicates some greater truth about reality. Imagine when perspective was fine-tuned in painting during the Renaissance, some clever metaphysician, looking for the first time at a painting using the new technique, cried ‘Eureka! Don’t you see, that’s clear evidence that we are merely layers of paint on the firmament!’ That seems to me the same kind of reasoning that goes into theories that ‘the universe is holographic, because, well, there’s holography! we function like simulations because there are simulations that function like us!’
This is something like the ontological argument of the old theology – if it can be thought, it must exist, and the most perfect of what can be thought must exist as perfection itself. (The mathematical/ simulation/ holographic universe is clearly more perfect than the one we have now. E.g., shit is not really shit – smelly nitrogenous waste from a biological digestive system of an aging animal doomed to die – it is really an eternally running computation of a perfected mathematical formula – it is illusion to see it otherwise.)
Third, like the strong suggestion of an ontological argument afoot, one sees strong hints of pre-modern argumentative forms, as well as some strangely attenuated modern argument forms. One sees (in at least the popular presentations of these metaphysics) reasoning by analogy. This was a common Medieval practice that has largely been abandoned, or used metaphorically. Reasoning by analogy is very tricky, since it assumes that structures of one kind of entity can be deduced from the known structures of another kind; the ontologies of the entities compared need to be pretty much same, and this has to be argued convincingly first. The reasoning follows thus: as one entity appears to function as another, the structures of the two entities must be similar or even the same; in the same measure, if the structures of two entities are similar, their function must be similar. Thus to say that because measurement of universe can be computationally simulated, that there fore the universe must be computational, is really reasoning by analogy – as the computer functions so must the universe.
The loose use of more modern argument styles is rather troubling. Nick Bostrom, advocate of the Simulation Reality, structures many of his arguments in a probabilistic fashion: the probability of X being likely, the probability of Y dependent on X, the probability of Y approaches being true. The implication of what this really means, logically, is revealed in a sentence like: “Now, if these assumptions are made, what follows (…)” (http://www.nickbostrom.com/astronomical/waste.html) – In other words, the argument really only leads to an assumption, upon which we are to accept the proposal. This is sloppy argumentation.
Speaking about sloppy argumentation, it should be noted that although these metaphysics effectively undermine the notion that reality is fundamentally physical, they lapse continually into claims on the physical – sub-atomic physics proves this, physical laws indicate that – how can the physical possibly be hi-jacked to disprove its own physicality?
Fourthly, the clear move to reduce the reliance in scientific research on empirical evidence is frankly alarming. Many of us depend on the ability of science to provide us an empirically testable reality that can produce, not just reasoning and argument, but actual facts about ourselves and the world we live in. If science is reduced to mathematics, then scientists are reduced to preachers explaining doctrine that we will have to take on faith. Then the charge of anti-science factions, e.g., religious fundamentalists, that science is merely another religion itself, will receive validation from within science itself.
It is not surprising that occasionally some philosopher can come up with crackpot theories about alternative realities in which we are all illusions without bodies. Philosophy has long had history of some thinkers getting carried away with the sheer brilliance of the reasoning process, off into fantasy lands constructed out of mere words. There’s always a danger, in attempting to reason through the deepest questions of human existence, to think that one has found the ultimate truth of it all, especially if one has a strongly systematized logical structure. The structure seems to organize reality so well, some become convinced that the structure of the logic is the structure of reality.
But logic, philosophy, mathematics, the sciences, are merely descriptions of what we can know of reality. Although any one science only investigates, describes, and explains a particular part of the whole picture, there is no one science that can give the whole picture (such an effort is what we expect from philosophy) – nonetheless, we have long depended on the sciences to provide reliable descriptions of what they do investigate, that are coherent with some human experience of reality. If the sciences are allowed to go into metaphysical speculation without empirical grounding, then reality is irrelevant. The most extreme post-modern claim – there is no single ‘reality,’ only strong narratives that we attach to for ideological reasons – becomes the default epistemic position.
I know that the mathematical/computational metaphysicians are not aware they are helping to construct such a trap to walk into – they are convinced that mathematics – since, within its own logical domain, it is very trustworthy – can vouchsafe the reliability of their logical claims; that is, the math being reliable, the metaphysics built upon it must be reliable. This is simply wrong. Epistemologically, mathematics have their own domain. They reside in the human mind. They can be used to measure reality; they cannot replace reality.
Reality is just this messy stuff we keep belching out when we eat certain foods. It is the stuff we bump into when we’re not looking. It’s that big thing floating above the earth at night. It is the machine we build and the clothing we wear. It is the desire that urges us, the frustration we feel when desires go unmet. It is the shit that stinks.
A metaphysics that cannot account for my bowel movement is effectively worthless. Intriguing, perhaps, and entertaining. But most science fiction is. But I will not allow it to establish the new religion of a trans-humanist, post-humanist, or otherwise anti-humanist religion. I haven’t freed myself from the hypnotism of religion to buy into mathematical mysticism. This earth is filled with problems, corruptions, and imperfections of unnumbered variety. But it is the only earth I have, for the short amount of time allotted me. And it is the only reality in which I have any interest.
We are unredeemed. There is nothing to be redeemed. There is no hope and no future. There is only ‘come as you are, leave and farewell.’ That’s what it means to be human. Live with it.
* Obviously these metaphysicians never read Nagarjuna, who, some 2000 years ago, demonstrated that the cart could not exist as anything more than an (empty) concept, being necessarily an aggregate. I allow that one can disagree with Nagarjuna, but clearly his argument is considerably more sophisticated epistemologically than those such metaphysicians produce. For that matter, the arguments of Occam, of the famous razor, whose rule they continually violate, are as well.