When I wrote my post last week about the existence of mathematical objects, I had not yet noticed that Massimo Pigliucci was writing about similar topics. More specifically, he is discussing cosmologist Max Tegmark’s idea that ultimate reality just is mathematics. Here’s Pigliuccia describing Tegmark’s ideas:

The basic idea is that the ultimate structure of reality is, well, a mathematical one. Please understand this well, because it is the crux of the discussion: Tegmark isn’t saying anything as mundane as that the world is best described by mathematics; he is saying that the ultimate nature of reality is mathematics.

This is actually not at all a new thesis, though Max is advancing it in new form and based on different reasoning then before. Indeed, the idea has a long philosophical history, and can fruitfully be thought of as based on two distinct philosophical positions: Pythagoreanism, or mathematical Platonism; and Mathematical monism.

Mathematical Platonism is the idea that mathematical structures are real in a mind-independent fashion. They are not “real” in the same sense as, say, chairs and electrons, but they do have an ontological status independent of the human (or any other) mind. As readers of this blog know, I’m actually sympathetic to (though not necessarily completely on board with) mathematical Platonism. The best point in its favor is the so-called “no miracles” argument, the idea that mathematics is too unreasonably effective (at predicting things about the world) for it to be just a human invention, rather than somehow part of the inherent fabric of the world. (Interestingly, this argument is equivalent to one by the same name advanced by scientific realists to claim that science really does describe — approximately — how the world is, as opposed to the antirealist position that the only thing we can say about science is that it is empirically adequate.)

Mathematical monism is the stronger doctrine that not only are mathematical structures real, but they are the only real thing out there (or, more precisely, everywhere).

The combination of Platonism and monism yields a class of theories about the ultimate nature of reality, of which Tegmark’s MUH is one example. We have seen another one several times in the past, in the form of Ladyman and Ross’ ontic structural realism, the notion that there are no “objects” or “things” at the bottom, just (mathematical) relations.

I’ve liked Tegmark’s writing about multiverses, so I’ll look forward to reading his book when it becomes available. I’m sure it will be very clever and cogently argued.

But my knee-jerk reaction to this idea is just to throw up my hands and say I give up. As I indicated in my post from last week, I have enough trouble just understanding what it could possibly mean to say that mathematical objects exist in a mind-independent fashion. Now I’m supposed to believe not only that they exist, but also that ultimately they are the only things that do? That the physical stuff of our daily reality is somehow made of mathematics? Words are being used in ways I don’t understand.

Frankly, this is the sort of thing that makes me see the appeal of anti-realism as a philosophy of science. Science works really well for ordering our daily experiences and for rendering natural processes predictable and controllable. If you go beyond that, say by discoursing about “ultimate reality” or whatnot, then there’s real danger you’re just babbling.

Tegmark’s going to need a mighty good argument to persuade me of his view. But who knows? Maybe he has one. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve had a chance to read his book.

Comments

  1. #1 SelfAwarePatterns
    SelfAwarePatterns.com
    December 16, 2013

    Tegmark’s idea seems farfetched but, as someone commented to me today, it is thought provoking. According to the Standard Model of physics, we are ultimately composed of elementary particles. According to string theory, we are ultimately composed of one dimensional strings of energy. According to quantum field theory, it’s excitations of fields and the whole universe is a wave function.

    Reality may be structure, patterns, relations, all the way down. We may never encounter a brute irreducible thing. In that context, I can see where Tegmark’s idea might make sense. Maybe. Or it might simply be a category error.

  2. #2 couchloc
    December 17, 2013

    I don’t know this work but I agree with you that I don’t think I understand what it means for the universe to be made only of mathematics. I think I can understand what traditional platonism amounts to in positing abstract objects alongside other things. But the current view I don’t understand. How could such things as my arm, my thoughts, cups of coffee, tables, just be mathematical entities?

  3. #3 MNb
    December 17, 2013

    “Words are being used in ways I don’t understand.”
    The same for me. I wonder why it is not enough to say that math is the best, the most coherent and always internly consistent language to describe the material reality we live in. That doesn’t mean it always does a satisfying job. I refer to the study of economics.
    So now my question is: economy is part of our reality. What does it mean to say that economy is mathematics?

  4. #4 Nihilist
    December 17, 2013

    Of course, if one takes Hume’s argument seriously…and I mean really seriously…then the ultimate reality is contingent. There is no necessary anything. The laws of physics and mathematics are just as continent as anything else and we are confusing a particular timeslice of an ever evolving materiality for a persistent global state. If the ‘universe’ ( materiality of reality ) is non-symmetric, then there can be no TOE…at bottom there is no one equation that everything can be reduced to. To an atheist this follows naturally because if one believes in a TOE, the next logical step is to be in a mind that ‘meant’ the world Al Farabi style.

  5. #5 G
    California USA
    December 17, 2013

    The question I have is: how would the “mathematical universe” hypothesis be falsifiable? I can’t see a way that it could be; which puts it in the same realm as positions for or against the existence of deities.

    I do tend to agree with mathematical Platonism: that mathematical objects and relationships have a kind of objective reality and ontological status outside the minds of their proverbial beholders.

    But it’s beginning to look more as if “everything” is not reducible to “one thing,” even if “everything” has a point of common origin in the Big Bang. (By analogy, birds are not reducible to fish even though both had common ancestors.)

    As for economics, IMHO it’s at best a descriptive field, but at worst it’s more pseudoscience than science, when used as a means of justifying various ideologies about the production and distribution of goods, services, and wealth.

  6. #6 sean samis
    December 17, 2013

    Frankly, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to disregard anti-realism all together. Until they can demonstrate something useful or definitive, it seems an empty exercise.

    sean s.

  7. #7 sean samis
    December 17, 2013

    Nihilist,

    Of course, if one takes Hume’s argument seriously…and I mean really seriously…

    And if one doesn’t, it appears to be similarly lacking in credibility. We may never know what existence ultimately is, but wild SWAGs by Hume or Tegmark are not likely to help figure that out.

    sean s.

  8. #8 John
    December 17, 2013

    Opiate for the mathematician.

    A hypothesis in science must be able to be testable. It should also have some promise of offering predictions. The MUH competes with religion.

  9. #9 Gary S
    SoCal
    December 17, 2013

    Interesting philosophical considerations, thanks.
    Just math means there’s no “there” there.
    But please spell-check the title? ;^}

  10. #10 Physicalist
    December 17, 2013

    If you go beyond that, say by discoursing about “ultimate reality” or whatnot, then there’s real danger you’re just babbling

    Heh. “Danger” is my middle name.

    I think I’d be a target of your criticism when I explain ard argue for physicalism — I’m after the “ultimate reality”. And I think physics has pretty much got it.

  11. #11 John
    December 17, 2013

    I am another physicalist.

    Although the scientists who want or need to be published may like to think they “have it”, they don’t. Many observations reject the currently popular models (yes plural). The models of the big (cosmology) are inconsistent with the models of the small (quantum mechanics, etc.).

    I’ve published several papers, been asked to write a chapter of a book by Nova Science Publishers, and am retired. The last allows me to be independent of the social pressure to conform to Big Brother’s view.

  12. #12 Beth
    December 17, 2013

    I have enough trouble just understanding what it could possibly mean to say that mathematical objects exist in a mind-independent fashion.

    I think of things existing in a mind-independent fashion when different minds examining the ‘thing’ in question are in agreement about it’s properties. I think mathematical objects qualify as being mind-independent for that reason.

    Now I’m supposed to believe not only that they exist, but also that ultimately they are the only things that do?

    Consider the existence of simulated objects in a simulated world, such as ‘The Sims’. Does anything within such a simulation exist as other a conglomeration of mathematical relationships? It seems more appropriate to describe it as nothing but relationships than to insist that whatever physical substrate in our universe is running the simulation is what they are actually made of. The program could be halted and translated to continue running on a completely different substrate without the inhabitants noticing anything different.

    Particularly when looked at from the POV of the denizens of that world, it would seem to them that they were composed only of mathematical relationships because they would be unable to determine what that substrate their simulation program was on and whether or not it changed from one of their ‘moments’ to the next.

    I think of such hypotheses as the equivalent of the ‘we are living in a simulation’ hypothesis. It is a conjecture that has not and perhaps can never be proven false.

  13. #13 JimR.
    December 17, 2013

    Slate has a decent discussion about the Universe as a hologram: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/12/hologram_universe_physics_reconciling_gravity_and_quantum_mechanics.html

    I cannot decide if that supports the mathematical basis of the Universe. I believe things are going to get a lot stranger.

  14. #14 AnswersInGenitals
    December 17, 2013

    Tegmark meets Godel! (pronounced girdle, which is appropriate since he encompasses all). Godel demonstrated that any nontrivial mathematical system must contain elements – theorems, propositions, statements – that can neither be proved or disproved. Assuming Tegmark’s mathematical universe is nontrivial, what is the significance of such elements? And trivial here means really, really trivial; even simple arithmetic over integers is profoundly nontrivial. Is there “stuff” in our universe whose existence we can neither prove or disprove? How would that stuff interact – if it did – with the provable stuff?

    My many years of pondering this question of the ultimate nature of our universe has forced me to the conclusion that our universe is just someone’s screen saver. And they really prefer the flying toasters.

  15. #15 Nihilist
    December 17, 2013

    @7
    Please amaze us with your evidence for a non-contingent universe. Non-contigency is an assumption. The evidence points to contigency all the way down. It’s not a popular view since human animals like to think they have more value than slugs, or kernels of undigested corn which one spots in the toilet after a particularly nasty bowel movement.

    Sadly, since Pigliucci is a moral realist ( see his review of that pathetic excuse of a rational argument _The Moral Landscape_ )…being a mathematical Platonist would be par for the course. There are certainly stronger reasons for being a mathematical Platonist, but absolutely none for moral Platonism other than the fear that one would lose the rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon others into accepting one’s definition of objective morality…he just ‘knows’ and believes they exist…yet just can’t muster the evidence to establish his view…

  16. #16 G
    California USA
    December 18, 2013

    I heartily disagree with those who say that anything that doesn’t have practical utility is useless.

    Aesthetic beauty in and of itself has intrinsic value. Scientific truths and logical truths have intrinsic value. Engineering utility and economic utility have value. But these are different types and scales of value that are not interchangeable. The fact that their respective practitioners are paid does not reduce the value of their works to the common denominator of their paychecks or ROI as the case may be.

    The point about falsifiability or otherwise of Tegmark’s hypothesis is only that he’s making an assertion about the nature of reality itself, and within the framework of science any such assertions should be testable. Otherwise he can ground his ideas in the realms of philosophy, aesthetics, or religion, where their value is felt in a different way.

    Lately I’ve observed this: contending schools of philosophy are emerging, that are all based on scientific findings, and all seeking to ascertain a sense of our relationship to the ground of being or greater whole beyond the strict limits of those findings. The social ecosystems around these belief systems bear a remarkable resemblance to religious denominations that arise in relation to common points of reference in their respective scriptures or teachings or traditions. (I’m using the term “religion” descriptively here, rather than as a buzzword for a criticism.)

    It’s as if the focus of attention of a segment of the population, has shifted from theology to science as its basis for meaning, and then has diversified in the same manner as has always occurred in human history. This is a very interesting trend and it appears poised to take off.

  17. #17 fahad
    December 18, 2013

    hypothesis in maths is if all four sides of a quadrilateral measure the same, then the quadrilateral is a square the hypothesis is all fours sides of a quadrilateral measure the same.http://bit.ly/1ffpzE5

  18. #18 Anton Mates
    December 18, 2013

    The best point in its favor is the so-called “no miracles” argument, the idea that mathematics is too unreasonably effective (at predicting things about the world) for it to be just a human invention, rather than somehow part of the inherent fabric of the world.

    This assumes that we know what a “reasonable” level of predictive effectiveness would be, if mathematics was just a human invention. Our leading theories about how the world works are non-deterministic, and even deterministic processes can rarely be predicted in detail once they take on real-world levels of complexity. It’s not clear to me that the universe is particularly more predictable (or less predictable) than it “ought” to be.

  19. #19 Kevin
    NYC
    December 18, 2013

    ” How could such things as my arm, my thoughts, cups of coffee, tables, just be mathematical entities?”

    well.. how could they just be fluctuations in a field? or particles? or protons and electron?

    I guess..

  20. #20 eric
    December 18, 2013

    I wonder why it is not enough to say that math is the best, the most coherent and always internly consistent language to describe the material reality we live in.

    I’m reminded of something that I believe Gould said about people drawing false causal relationships between cyclical phenomena. If you’ve got two cycles, you can always develop a relatively simple mathematical expression that predicts one based on the other. People read into these expressions a remarkable coincidence but in fact the chances of some sort of fixed relationship between two cyclical phenomena is 100%. The same seems true to me of math and the universe. We seem to live in a rule-governed universe. Given that observation and given the flexibility of mathematics, the chances of some mathematics being able to form a reasonably good fit to the rules we observe is not a remarkable coincidence – the chances of that happening would (IMO) be 100%. It’s just a question of finding which mathematical relationships fit best.

    Its not like the fit is magical. In the past we had worse fitting equations. We made hypotheses, tested them, abandoned the equations that were not accurate an kept the ones that were. And in the future, we will very likely abandon some of today’s mathematical descriptions of the world in favor of even more accurate future versions. Any good fit we see today is due to human blood, sweat, and tears in creating mathematics that have that a decent (but still imperfect) fit and abandoning the math that didn’t fit as well. In a sense, what we see in today’s mathematical descriptions of fundamental laws and forces is the end result of a long “artificial breeding” program, and the folks who are claiming the fit can’t be coincidence or the result of mere hard work are expressing a theory analagous to creationism.

  21. #21 Sean T
    December 18, 2013

    @Kevin,

    Well, because we know how electrons, protons, fields, etc. behave and interact. We’ve discovered these behaviors and interactions through scientific work. If my coffee cup is made of electron clouds surrounding a positively charged nucleus made of quark combinations, and my table is made of the same, we know that the electron clouds of the cup and table will repel each other, and therefore my coffee cup will not pass straight through the table, but rather be supported by it.

    Now, if my coffee cup is made of continuous functions and my table is made of the same, how do these continuous functions interact? Do two continuous functions repel each other? Is that universally true, or do they sometimes attract, and if so, under what conditions?

    Tegmark’s hypothesis may be valid, but to say that it’s no more implausible than physical scientific theories seems unreasonable to me.

  22. #22 sean samis
    December 18, 2013

    Nihilist;

    Regarding “Please amaze us with your evidence for a non-contingent universe.

    You’re the proponent for the idea that the universe is contingent, the burden’s on you; please amaze us with your evidence for a contingent universe.

    As for me, I see no value in the idea; I am not aware of any advantage to the idea.

    sean s.

  23. #23 Nihilist
    December 18, 2013

    The amount of mathematics that has any utlility whatsoever is vanishingly small so I don’t get the argument for Platonism from the utility of mathematics.

    @22
    Since there is no logical or necessary connection between the succession of events, the world is contingent by definition. Causality is logical inference within a theory. There is nothing necessary abou it.

  24. #24 Zifre
    December 18, 2013

    There are a variety of predictions that the MUH and related Everything/Nothing theories make. None of them are laboratory-testable predictions, though.

    Most obvious is that, if MUH is true, physics should never encounter an irreducible object. Everything should appear to be fully describable by its mathematical relationships.

    Another wait-and-see style prediction of MUH is that, for anthropic reasons, the laws of physics should be the simplest ones compatible with us having evolved here – no extra quirky details at all!

    The “dirty secret” prediction is Quantum Immortality. Look it up if you like. Scientists are rightfully ashamed of how unscientific it feels as, if it is true, many individuals would eventually have adequate evidence to believe in it, but consensus science never would.

    The MUH if true would also “solve” some philosophical puzzles such as the hard problem of consciousness (it requires a neutral monism that retrodicts that there should be no obvious reduction of qualia to physics or vice versa) and the problem of induction (it predicts that the laws of physics should stay constant). But it’s not clear whether solving fundamental assumptions of science by use of new fundamental assumptions is really an improvement.

    In my view, if the MUH still looks to have passed the first two tests (in the second and third paragraphs) four or five decades from now, then it would be worth seriously considering, though not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And who knows, maybe someone will come up with clever new predictions.

  25. #25 John
    December 18, 2013

    Zifre
    There are some subtlety is the current philosophy of science. The testing of a hypothesis is the outcome of an observation is either rejected or not rejected – not “proved”, “supported”, etc. Also, the acceptance of a model requires that there is a test(s) that are not rejected by the candidate model and is rejected by competing models.

    The MUH seems unable to meet these criteria. Your suggestions are also derivable from other models such as math is only a description tool in a physical universe.

  26. #26 Zifre
    December 18, 2013

    Hi John,
    That’s an unusual mix of Popperian and Bayesian ways of talking about science. I don’t think you’re combining them in a compatible way. For engineering purposes I find the Popperian framework eminently usable, but for abstract theories like the MUH we really need to be using just the Bayesian framework.

    I listed four predictions of the MUH, as many people are quick to call theories untestable when they haven’t spend any significant time considering tests. If you read up on the predictions, you’ll find more details on the observations that would be expected given the MUH versus alternative theories.

    You suggested that “math is only a description tool in a physical universe” leads to the same suggested predictions as the MUH. I think that was probably a typo in that physicalism has precisely the opposite predictions as MUH in all four suggested areas. That’s what makes them interesting tests.

  27. #27 sean samis
    December 18, 2013

    Nihilist;

    I asked for evidence; you gave me an argument. Arguments are not evidence, especially when they are illogical.

    Regarding, “Since there is no logical or necessary connection between the succession of events, the world is contingent by definition.

    This is circular reasoning, assuming what is to be proved. Please amaze us with your evidence that cause and effect are not necessarily and logically connected. Until then, your assumption that cause and effect are neither “logical or necessary” remains a bald assertion.

    A theory is an explanation for what is seen; causality can be seen. Your theory is that we should disregard what we can see for something we cannot see. That events are not connected is a theory for which you have yet to supply evidence or other reason to accept.

    sean s.

  28. #28 John
    December 18, 2013

    Zifre

    Yes, this particular mixture of science philosophy is a bit mine but based on how science (physics – my field) seems to be proceeding. I think science and religion easily fit into an engineering “useable” purpose in our endeavor to survive. Besides, St. Augustine incorporated the then current science into Christianity and current Christianity seems to be trying to do the same.

    I’ll have to re—read your text. I thought the items you listed were known or suspected (with some restatement to modern lexicon) before Tegmark and maybe before Pythagoris. Did I get this wrong? Therefore, not prediction.

    I don’t fully accept physicalism. However, physics uses math to calculate. Today “prediction” usually implies a calculation. I do accept (even propose) life can be treated by the same fundamental principles that drive physics. These principles are not mathematical (except for the equivalence principle) but are phrased in such a way as to be interpreted mathematically. I think it would be very difficult to distinguish a mathematical universe from one that uses math to describe it. I didn’t mean math is the only descriptive tool, but that math is one of many descriptive tools.

    Most obvious is that, if MUH is true, physics should never encounter an irreducible object. Everything should appear to be fully describable by its mathematical relationships.
    If reality can be described by math the same is true.

    Another wait-and-see style prediction of MUH is that, for anthropic reasons, the laws of physics should be the simplest ones compatible with us having evolved here – no extra quirky details at all!

    Reality modeling by humans looks for the simplest. The quirky details happen because of our incomplete view.

  29. #29 couchloc
    December 19, 2013

    @Kevin ”How could such things as my arm, my thoughts, cups of coffee, tables, just be mathematical entities?

    well.. how could they just be fluctuations in a field? or particles? or protons and electron?”

    There is a difference between the cases that’s important as I understand it. Physical entities are located in space and have causal properties, such as a particle’s ability to bump something or an electron’s ‘s ability to cause a change in electric charge when combined with other electrons. But mathematical entities are usually understood to be abstract and nonphysical. By definition they have no causal properties (what causal properties does the number six have?). So while I can understand how electrons, etc. can contribute to making up my arm, or a table, I don’t know what it means to say a mathematical entity could.

  30. #30 couchloc
    December 19, 2013

    @sean samis “Please amaze us with your evidence that cause and effect are not necessarily and logically connected. Until then, your assumption that cause and effect are neither “logical or necessary” remains a bald assertion.”

    It seems to me that Nihilist is right here. If you suggest that causes and effects are “necessary and logically connected” it implies that effects follow from causes with logical necessity. This means that given the current state of the universe we can logically predict what will happen tomorrow. This is not a scientific conception or consistent with what we know about how things work in my view. Do you know who will win the next lottery?

  31. #31 Richard Wein
    December 19, 2013

    “Words are being used in ways I don’t understand.”

    Same here. As usual I come back to Wittgenstein’s remark: philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language. Many people doing philosophy are not even on the right battlefield!

    “Frankly, this is the sort of thing that makes me see the appeal of anti-realism as a philosophy of science.”

    I would avoid saying that until you’ve also checked out the things that anti-realists say. You may then–like me–judge that it’s best not to describe yourself as being in either camp. I for one consider the distinction between the two positions too ill-defined to be useful.

  32. #32 Richard Wein
    December 19, 2013

    P.S. I’m prepared to accept that at the lowest level(s) of abstraction at which we can model reality there are no discrete entities, just a reality best modelled by continuous functions (e.g. the quantum wave function). That seems to be the sort of thing that Ladyman and Ross have in mind (though I haven’t read them in detail). If it’s also the sort of thing Tegmark has in mind, I might agree with him. But I would still consider it a misuse of language to say that things (or reality) are made of such functions.

    The problem I often have with mathematical Platonists (and some others) is that I find it difficult to tell whether my difference with them is substantive or just linguistic. To be fair to Tegmark, my confusion may arise from having only read him through Massimo Pigliucci’s account.

  33. #33 sean samis
    December 19, 2013

    Regarding, “If you suggest that causes and effects are “necessary and logically connected” it implies that effects follow from causes with logical necessity. This means that given the current state of the universe we can logically predict what will happen tomorrow.

    couchloc; you make a grand and unnecessary deduction. Unfortunately, we don’t know “the current state of the universe”; we only know that little bit we can see, and fuzzily at that. We don’t even know the “current state” of our planet with great precision. When humanity becomes omniscient, we can test your deduction.

    Within certain limits, we can “predict what will happen tomorrow”; weather and even economic forecasting have increasing reliability. Some human behaviors can be forecasted with modest precision. We are far short of the information needed to predict the next lottery.

    If events were not logically, necessarily connected then much of our knowledge and technology probably could not exist, probably life itself could not exist. One can argue that everything is just random, but a convincing case for that cannot be made; simple probability makes the world we see unlikely to be the product of random events unconnected to each other. Being a simple guy, I prefer to take things at face value until someone can show me why I should not. That has been accomplished by others, but not by you nor Nihilist.

    sean s.

  34. #34 sean samis
    December 19, 2013

    Richard;

    You misread my very brief comment (#6). I am not “in” either “camp”. Nothing I said implied that I was. All I said was that the comments in question make me see the appeal of the other position, and that Tegmark’s effort seemed an empty exercise. The many comments that followed have not altered my opinion. Anti-physicalism might be correct, but so far I’ve seen no reason to think so.

    sean s.

  35. #35 couchloc
    December 19, 2013

    sean samis,

    Thanks but your comments make it clear that there’s a difference over the terminology in this area which is splitting you and Nihilist. Here is how I’m using the terms: logical necessity is to be understood as a conceptual or meaningful relation between two things X and Y. For instance, it is logically necessary “that anyone who is single is also unmarried.” When we are talking about logical necessity we are not talking about whether predictions are possible in the universe, or whether events may follow one another with probability or something (which is off course true). We’re talking about whether the sequences of events that occur are strictly rationally inferrable from one another (that’s the standard meaning of “logical necessity”). What you’re referring to is some other sort of connection I think. There is no logical necessity in nature in this way of speaking although we can make predictions about it that may or may not come true.

  36. #36 Nihilist
    December 19, 2013

    sean samis: I have not read that Hume’s argument has been defeated. Kant spent the later half of his life dealing with it. If there is no logical connection between events, then by definition everything is contingent. I’m am not sure what the cozy feeling that the particular weighting of your neural nets
    gives you, has to do with logical necessity.
    I favor realist theories myself, but the logical necessity comes about because it is a logical inference ( explanation) within a theory. The theory is not the reality, the map is not the territory. There is no logical reason why the laws of physics cannot change over time or be local to a particluar space-time configuration. An example of contingency is radioactive decay. It is unpredictable in a Laplacian sense. We routinely accept uncaused causes in that sense. Tell me, what ’causes’ beta decay? What triggers the actual emission at the moment it occurs? Some things are just brute contingent facts of the world.

  37. #37 John
    December 19, 2013

    Just because we have not yet modeled a cause for radioactive decay doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

  38. #38 sean samis
    December 19, 2013

    couchloc;

    I appreciate your comments but I think there’s a different disconnect. You may be correct about what “logical necessity” means, but I have never used that term in this conversation. I have written of causality being “logical or necessary”, but that is a different thing as you surmise.

    I think that the difference between Nihilist’s position and mine is that Nihilist assumes that causality is a mirage, while I treat it as real. (Nihilist could weigh in on this difference too.) It may be we are talking about different things, but I think we merely disagree about the same thing.

    sean s.

  39. #39 sean samis
    December 19, 2013

    Nihilist,

    I don’t care how Kant did against Hume; I am not in either one’s fan base so their final score is unimportant to me.

    Further, I am not aware that Hume’s argument has been verified or even found useful. It is one of a vast number of ideas that clutter up the world.

    There is no logical reason why the laws of physics cannot change over time or be local to a particular space-time configuration.)”

    There is no logical reason that the laws of physics cannot be constant over time or space, and SO FAR no evidence or other good reason to think that they are not. Given that we have no evidence or reason to think the laws of physics are inconstant, the simplest response is to treat them as constant until inconstancy is proven or becomes a necessary, complicating assumption; that later situation has not yet arisen.

    An example of contingency is radioactive decay.

    We don’t know why a particular particle decays at the moment it does, but that ignorance on our part does not disprove causality nor prove “contingency”. Certainly at scales above the quantum, causality appears to be the rule, not the exception. John’s comment is exactly correct.

    Some things are just brute contingent facts of the world.

    Some things just may be, but from that, a general universal assertion that EVERYTHING is contingent is not justified, necessary, nor logical. Some things are cats. But not everything, not even most things are.

    sean s.

  40. #40 Nihilist
    December 19, 2013

    It is interesting to me that those who argue for strict causality in the Laplacian sense, do not want to accept that this implies that humans do not have free will. As believers do to justify their faith, or realists for their belief in causality, they feel like they have free will, therefore they do. It reminds me of Nagel’s argument for mind…he just can’t see how it could have evolved from materiality.

    If we have free will, then by definition we create uncaused causes ex-nihilo every time we make a choice. and thus our world is radically contingent. I’m not taking a position here, just drawing out an implication.

    There are other uncaused events. One being the big-bang, or any of the other standard mentions in quantum mechanics. Not really sure what the issue here is.

  41. #41 sean samis
    December 20, 2013

    Nihilist;

    Like you, I take no position on “free will”. I think it’s the Third Millennium’s equivalent of counting angels dancing on a pin-head.

    Whether quantum events are uncaused or merely caused by things we don’t know yet has been discussed, the jury remains out on that.

    Likewise for the “big bang”: an “unknown cause” does not imply an event was “uncaused”.

    sean s.

  42. #42 Hayden Scott
    December 21, 2013

    sean samis

    Is your position that there is no thing that has been demonstrated to be without cause, just things that currently appear to be without cause but for which the “jury remains out”?

  43. #43 sean samis
    December 22, 2013

    Hayden,

    I am not aware of anything that has been demonstrated to be without cause; there are things for which the jury remains out regarding their cause.

    Please remember that demonstrating something to be without cause is a whole lot more than just finding that “we don’t know and probably never will”.

    sean s.

  44. #44 Hayden Scott
    December 23, 2013

    Hi Sean

    Thanks. Understand. So would it be right to say that you don’t provisionally accept that some things – for example, quantum events – are uncaused?

  45. #45 sean samis
    December 23, 2013

    Hayden,

    I don’t provisionally accept that some things are uncaused. Quite the opposite: since nothing has ever been demonstrated to be uncaused, I provisionally believe that everything is causal until proved otherwise. Which has never happened to the best of my knowledge. Quantum events are probably causal; we just don’t know what causes them. Yet.

    Happy Holidays.

    sean s.

  46. #46 Hayden Scott
    December 23, 2013

    Sean

    So there’s no uncaused first cause? It’s “turtles all the way down”?

  47. #47 sean samis
    December 23, 2013

    Hayden,

    Thanks for the laugh. No there probably is no “first cause”; at least not within our Universe. In other Universes or in other dimensions: who knows? Any answer about them is pure, wild conjecture.

    Something not part of our universe probably caused the “Big Bang”; what it was we don’t know. How physics works “out there” we don’t know. Maybe there’s something uncaused out there; we don’t know. Maybe it’s elves; we don’t know. But we do know there’s absolutely no reason to take theories about such things seriously unless there’s some way to test them, which there is not. So SWAG away Hayden; but don’t think your results are anything other than SWAGs.

    BTW, it’s elephants all the way down.

    Happy Holidays.

    sean s.

  48. #48 Hayden Scott
    December 23, 2013

    Hi Sean

    Laughs all round then. I thought your inclination to causation had theistic undertones. I was looking to draw you out on that. Turtles all the way down is fine by me. Either way, I’m out of my comfort zone. Infinite regress vs uncaused event. Both are difficult for me to comprehend.

  49. #49 Sean T
    December 24, 2013

    @sean samis,

    You seem to be taking the position of Einstein in the classic debate over the nature of quantum reality. Einstein pushed the idea of hidden variables that govern the result of quantum measurements. That is, what seems to be a random measurement result is actually the result of some hidden variable.

    For instance, if we measure the spin of an electron on a given axis, it can have one of two possible values, usually denoted spin up or spin down. If we know the spin of an electron on one axis, then measure it on a different axis, quantum mechanics tells us that we cannot predict the spin value obtained on the new axis, but only that we can give statistical probabities as to what the measured value will be. For instance, suppose we produce a stream of electrons of one spin state on an axis, say spin down on the z-axis. We then use a detector rotated by 60 degrees to measure the spins. We would expect a 50-50 mix of spin up and spin down electrons with that new detector, but we cannot predict which one will be measured for which electron. What causes an individual electron to show up as a spin down state? According to Einstein, there must be a hidden variable that we have left unaccounted for to explain this.

    Other developers of QM took the opposite view, namely that there is no cause for an individual measurement. The measurement process is inherently random. For many years, it seemed as if there was no actual way to answer the question. However, John Bell actually found a way to at least provide some insight.

    Without going into too much technical detail, what Bell found was that hidden variable theories could not reproduce the predictions of quantum mechanics unless they also did not possess the properties of locality, counterfactual definiteness and freedom. These are all technical properties, but ones which seem to be consistent with reality.

    Locality refers to the notion that distant events cannot instantaneously affect an entity. While Einstein was a chief proponent of hidden variables, he was also a proponent of locality; it’s the basis for his relativity theories. Loss of locality also allows for things like teleportation, telekinesis, etc.

    Counterfactual definiteness refers to the idea that it makes sense to talk about a measurement result without actually performing the measurement. For instance it makes sense to say that a ball thrown into the air will return to earth under the influence of gravity. Giving up counterfactual definiteness also implies that there are no real objects out there to be measured. For instance, the moon only exists when someone is looking at it; if nobody is observing the moon, it doesn’t exist.

    Freedom refers to the idea that an experimenter can choose what he/she wishes to measure independently of the system being measured. Loss of freedom implies that an experimenter somehow is constrained to only make the particular measurements he/she did in a given experiment on no others.

    In short, Bell’s work (and the subsequent experimental tests of it) shows that at least one of these three properties cannot hold if a system contains hidden variables. That is, we must give up on at least one of the following: universal causation, locality, counterfactual definiteness, or freedom. You are correct in asserting that it has not been conclusively demonstrated that there are no uncaused events. However, asserting that there are no uncaused events implies one of these other properties does not hold in the universe, and at least in my opinion, that seems stranger than the notion that there may be events that have no cause.

    BTW, please forgive me for my long post if you were already familiar with this aspect of quantum mechanics.

  50. #50 Nihilist
    December 24, 2013

    @49

    Thanks for that excellent post. Giving up universal causation also seems to me the most reasonable position as well given the evidence for Bell’s theorem. This would also imply that we have to give up the principle of sufficient reason which, as a nihilist, I am more than happy to do. Of course, these are all liminal issues…and as we all dwell happily in the shire of locality, there is never usually an issue.

    It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s raw contingency all the way down.

  51. #51 sean samis
    December 24, 2013

    Sean T;

    Regarding “ You seem to be taking the position of Einstein ”. I like to think Einstein was taking my position! [snark!]

    I have no idea what is the cause of quantum events; and I adhere to no specific explanation or conjecture beyond “they probably are causal and we don’t know by what”.

    About Bell’s work, I can only comment that perhaps he has merely disproved one explanation for the cause of quantum events, not all explanations.

    Also I find it highly ironic that one reason to accept Bell’s work (and jettison causality) is the desire to preserve “ technical properties … consistent with reality.”. Causality is a property consistent with reality also!

    I believe there probably is an explanation for quantum events consistent with locality, counterfactual definiteness, freedom, and causality. Since QM exists at the margins of what humans can conceptualize and verify, it is far from a closed book. I admit I don’t know the answer, and that I lean toward causality only because it is consistent with reality as we have observed it.

    Sean T, Happy Holidays!

    sean s.

  52. #52 sean samis
    December 24, 2013

    Nihilist,

    Since you regard #49 as an excellent post (I agree.) then your post #50 seems inconsistent.

    If “it’s raw contingency all the way down” then the property of counterfactual definiteness seem to be impossible. Sean T.’s #49 described that property this way:

    Counterfactual definiteness refers to the idea that it makes sense to talk about a measurement result without actually performing the measurement. For instance it makes sense to say that a ball thrown into the air will return to earth under the influence of gravity. Giving up counterfactual definiteness also implies that there are no real objects out there to be measured. For instance, the moon only exists when someone is looking at it; if nobody is observing the moon, it doesn’t exist.

    This seems at odds with “raw contingency” and consistent with causality (if not with “hidden variables”).

    If it is raw contingency all the way down then one cannot predict what will happen when a ball is thrown up in the air. Perhaps you could explain that to us.

    Happy Holidays!

    sean s.

  53. #53 John
    December 24, 2013

    The last several posts seem to accept the Christian view of a beginning to the universe and a God external to the universe.

    Steady state, quasi steady state, cyclic universe models accept the Hindu idea of an everlasting universe with Gods in the universe.

    Bell’s theorem identifies some things that cannot be in the Theory of Everything if we accept General Relativity and quantum mechanics as limited parts of the TOE.

    Personally I like to posit what a TOE might be that is testable.

  54. #54 Nihilist
    December 24, 2013

    @52
    You seem to be missing my point. If one asserts that no necessary being exists ( a necessary being exists in all possible worlds), then all beings which in fact do exist are contingent beings…ie, are not necessary beings, they did not have to exist. Hence, there is no logical necessity to anything that actually exists. It all could have been different and may may be different in the future…because there is no logical neccessity to it.

    Contingency follows from accepting that nothing by necessity exists, or by rejecting that at least one being by necessity exists.

  55. #55 Nihilist
    December 24, 2013

    As an addenda, my problem with applying logical necessity to ‘reality’ as part of one’s metaphysics, is that you end up having to accept one branch of Münchhausen’s trilemma:
    1) Infinite regress,
    2) axiomatic foundation ( the way of faith )
    3) Circular argument.

    If you accept Hume’s argument against induction and accept Popper and Hans Albert’s positions, then you avoid that whole issue…but you end up in a contingent world.

  56. #56 sean samis
    December 25, 2013

    Sean T.;

    Regarding:

    Counterfactual definiteness refers to the idea that it makes sense to talk about a measurement result without actually performing the measurement. For instance it makes sense to say that a ball thrown into the air will return to earth under the influence of gravity. Giving up counterfactual definiteness also implies that there are no real objects out there to be measured. For instance, the moon only exists when someone is looking at it; if nobody is observing the moon, it doesn’t exist.

    Counterfactual definiteness sounds (to me) an awful lot like a proxy for causality. Do you think there’s a significant difference? What do you think that difference is?

    Happy Holidays!

    sean s.

  57. #57 sean samis
    December 25, 2013

    Nihilist;

    Your clarification (#54) and addenda (#55) don’t help your argument.

    The question remains unanswered: If it is raw contingency all the way down then one cannot predict what will happen when a ball is thrown up in the air. If events are purely contingent, then what will happen with the ball is totally unpredictable and the principle of counterfactual definiteness is negated. Since you relied on Bell’s work to bolster your argument, you cannot just jettison his assumptions without jettisoning his results. That is what we would need to do to accept your claim that we live in a “contingent world

    You theorize a good deal, but the problem for you is that causality is what we see in operation now, and when we look back at the development of our Universe, we see the evidence of causality all the way back to very near the beginning.

    There’s no denying that before some point in the past, we cannot tell what was happening; we cannot see what caused what. It seems that because of this doubt from the beginning, you wish us to ignore all the evidence of causality since. There is no reason to do that.

    Happy Holidays!

    sean s.

    p.s.: You use the term “necessary being” three times in #54, which I find odd because it appears to be a reference to a “necessary person or creature”. Theists arguing for the necessity of God also speak of the need for a “necessary being”. I’m pretty sure you’re not making their argument for God, but I do want to ask if the point of your argument is to disprove God. Is that it?

    If you wrote about “necessary thing” then you’d be clearer at least to me.

    ss

  58. #58 Nihilist
    December 27, 2013

    @sean samis

    Sean,
    Hume’s argument against induction is that there is no logical necessity that a ball thrown into the air must come down. Based on our experience – which if Hume were alive today would no doubt say – based on how our neural nets have been weighted, ie calibrated, we expect the ball to fall after it has been thrown into the air. The world as we have found it is relatively stable from a stochastic standpoint – if there was too much noise, evolution could not have occured. My point about contingency is that since the argument against induction has not been refuted ( IMO ), science in practice assumes a more fallibilist perspective – this at the price of certainty but it better explains the growth of knowledge. There is no logical necessity that events be connected. This is a metaphysical statement. That they have been in practice connected cannot be used to derive logical necessity. This is the black swan argument. Just because all the swans ever sited are all white does not logically entail that all swans are white. I visited Australia some years ago and happily photographed my first black swan.
    We certainly can predict the outcome of events even if the world is radically contingent ( which is not the same as random ). We build airplanes which fly, bombs that explode, cars that work, GPS devices that are accurate, etc.
    To quote Hume:
    “that the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood.”

    As Hume pointed out, the basis for predicting how the world will behave in the future, is based on how it has behaved in the past. This is an inductive inference which carries no logical necessity nor practical necessity for that matter.

  59. #59 Nihilist
    December 27, 2013

    @57 “If you wrote about “necessary thing” then you’d be clearer at least to me.”

    As an atheist, I have no problem with this.

    To me the world is contingent, singular, ironic, and semiotically open.

    A thought experiement: on Jan 1 in the year 231 on the proleptic Gregorian Calendar, the speed of light changed from 299792457.999999 m/s to its current 299792458 m/s.
    Please provide an argument that would demonstrate that this is LOGICALLY impossible.

  60. #60 sean samis
    December 27, 2013

    Nihilist;

    According to Wikipedia (an admittedly uncertain source, but easy to get to; the IEP’s definition is in accord with it.)

    Fallibilism (from medieval Latin fallibilis, “liable to err”) is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs. In the most commonly used sense of the term, this consists in being open to new evidence that would disprove some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that “any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences.” This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.

    If this definition of “fallibilism” is acceptable, then I am all for it. You critique this as coming “at the price of certainty”; this is immaterial because in this particular area certainty is really not obtainable; and whenever we think we are certain, we usually discover we are mistaken. The “price of fallibilism” is infinitesimal.

    You did go further: “at the price of certainty but it better explains the growth of knowledge.” Almost. “Fallibilism” enables the growth of knowledge; it appears to be a necessary cliché to remind you that much of what we know now has come at the price of abandoning prior, false ideas. Only by acknowledging our fallibility is “the growth of knowledge” at all possible. The “value of fallibilism” is inestimable.

    Regarding “This is the black swan argument.” This argument is overplayed, generally, not just by you. I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book; or more correctly I read the first third and then put it away as tiresome. It is not necessary to eat the whole apple to conclude it’s tasteless. In matter of fact, inductive science and causality survived the discovery of the Australian black swan, and many other unexpected phenomena. As one of my sons says sarcastically: big woop.

    Hume’s argument (as you present it) against induction seems inconsequential: we are never sure. OK. So what? Does that fact invalidate any knowledge we currently hold? No. Does it mean we must abandon induction? No. Does it mean we must abandon our acceptance of causality? No. Does it mean we should do anything differently? No.

    In point of fact, other that pointing out the obvious, Hume’s argument has virtually no meaning at all. Perhaps no one has disproved Hume’s argument because there’s no reason to bother; it is not important to anyone anyway (except to those philosophers lacking anything useful to do). At least induction and causality are useful concepts; “raw contingency” or “radical contingency” are not only unverifiable; they are useless. Certainly you have failed to show us a reason to care about it or them.

    sean s.

  61. #61 sean samis
    December 27, 2013

    Regarding #59:

    A thought experiment: on Jan 1 in the year 231 on the proleptic Gregorian Calendar, the speed of light changed from 299792457.999999 m/s to its current 299792458 m/s.

    Please provide an argument that would demonstrate that this is LOGICALLY impossible.

    Why? There would be no point because no such argument is required. This thought experiment bears no relationship to anything I have written.

    Induction or causality don’t preclude the event you describe. But since you have not (and cannot) provide an argument that proves this event did happen, and since no combination of things have been logically demonstrated to cause this event, no one has any reason to give the question further thought.

    sean s.

  62. #62 Nihilist
    December 28, 2013

    Thanks…for the discussions. They have been instructive.

    Paris VIII

  63. #63 sean samis
    December 28, 2013

    Thanks to you as well. I wish you (and all) a Happy 2014.

    sean s.

  64. #64 Sean T
    December 30, 2013

    sean samis,

    I apologize for not responding sooner; I was away for the holidays.

    I do think that counterfactual definiteness represents much more than just a proxy for causality, or at least more than what we normally think of as causality. Denying counterfactual definiteness implies a denial of realism, with realism being understood as the idea that there are real objects out there waiting for us to measure them, even if we choose not to do so. Denying counterfactual definiteness implies that it makes no sense to say “even though we didn’t make this measurement, what would we have found for the electron’s position if we had?” Similarly with any other measureable property of this electron that we chose not to measure. In what sense then, does it make sense to say that this electron exists independently of our measurements of it if we cannot sensibly discuss the measurable properties of the electron without having actually first made the measurements? In a very real sense, therefore, we bring the electron into existence by measuring it. That’s the implication of a denial of counterfactual definiteness. The moon only exists if someone is looking at it. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, it truly doesn’t make a sound because it actually does not exist.

    Now, personally I’d rather think that there are uncaused events than that the moon only is there when someone’s looking at it. I cannot present a truly logically valid argument for this preference, however, so I won’t quibble if you’d prefer to hold on to the idea that all events have causes. Certainly you may wish to hold on to causality and counterfactual definiteness (esp. the realism that this implies), but deny locality. Just keep in mind though, that while a denial of locality will allow you to keep causality, it may not be such a great deal. For instance, implied in our usual notion of causality is the understanding that if event A causes event B, then event A must occur at an earlier time than event B for all observers. That notion is lost if you deny locality. Event B may very well preceed event A for some observers in a non-local universe.

    The current state of science is that it’s not really clear which of these ideas must yield, only that at least one of them must. All of them seem very strange to me personally, but that’s okay; it just means that the universe is a strange place (or more precisely, that the universe works quite a bit differently than what our monkey brains have evolved to perceive as “normal”). Personally stating that there is no real cause to explain why this particular atom of U-238 released an alpha particle at this particular time seems less weird than the alternatives, so I choose to deny causality. Whether you choose to deny causality, locality or realism is really a personal preference, at least as far as current scientific understanding is concerned. Therefore, I won’t argue with your choice of maintaining causality. I just wanted to point out the implications of that choice.

  65. #65 sean samis
    December 31, 2013

    Sean T;

    For instance, implied in our usual notion of causality is the understanding that if event A causes event B, then event A must occur at an earlier time than event B for all observers. That notion is lost if you deny locality. Event B may very well precede event A for some observers in a non-local universe.

    I don’t think that’s quite right. With Relativistic considerations, the timing of an event must be considered according to the relative locations, motion, and distance between an observer and the event. This does not mean the order of events is different depending on the observer, but that the order in which events are observed may different for different observers.

    Quantum entanglements are a special challenge to causality, but only if one limits all “communications” between particles to the speed of light. Certainly communications within our observable universe are so limited; but theories which endow reality with many more that 3 dimensions (plus time) create an opportunity for entangled particles to “communicate” through non-standard channels. The explanation may be something else entirely.

    There is no reason to choose between A:causality or B: localism; at least not yet. One or the other of causality or localism may need to be fine-tuned as we discover more, but neither need be denied.

    Have a Happy 2014!

    sean s.

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