There Are Only Two Errors: Idealism & Materialism

Form and matter, together at last.
Form and matter, together at last.

There is that which is (and is not) and that which we know about that which is (and is not); i.e. there is ontology and epistemology. There are both and not only one.

To say that our thoughts are all that is, is Idealism, the first error. To say that we have no thoughts but things themselves only exist is Materialism, the second error. There are, of course, innumerable ways for human thinking to go wrong; I only mean these two errors, Idealism and Materialism, are the drivers of many or most of them.

Idealism says reality doesn’t exist per se as something outside our thoughts, or perhaps outside the thought of some superior being, perhaps God, perhaps a powerful (computerized, these days) demon. Idealism in its strongest and most erroneous form does not just assert that we can only know our own thoughts, or that we can’t know things are they are in themselves, but it says that our thoughts are it. The universe—by which here and everywhere I mean all there is—is only thought and utterly immaterial.

As we learned before, Idealism was The Consensus in philosophy in the Victorian era. Only deniers denied Idealism. As David Stove taught us:

In 1887 almost every philosopher in the English-speaking countries was an idealist. A hundred years later in the same countries, almost all philosophers have forgotten this fact; and when, as occasionally happens, they are reminded of it, they find it almost impossible to believe. But it ought never to be forgotten. For it shows what the opinions, even the virtually unanimous opinions, of philosophers are worth, when they conflict with common sense.

It is perhaps not surprising Materialism came on the heels of Idealism supplanting it as an overreaction in the opposite direction. It is also thus understandable that both errors waxed and waned over the centuries. Materialism is the idea that all that exists is matter, or rather matter-energy, or just plain energy since the two are equivalent in some sense. The universe is nothing but interacting “particles” or clashing fields of energy. Even our thoughts can be reduced to mere arrangements of matter and energy. We don’t exist formally, neither do our thoughts exist independent of matter.

Funnily enough, Idealists say matter is an illusion and Materialists say thought is an illusion. Both sides accuse the other of being figments of their imaginations, so to speak. The Idealists are one up on the Materialists with their rhetoric, though. If Materialism is true, there cannot be illusions. Illusions can only be had in non-material thoughts. Why? In order for there to be illusions, there must be an underlying Reality which is being mistook, and there must be an individual doing the mistaking. Material itself, i.e. arrangements of matter or energy, cannot be wrong, in error, or mistaken, deluded. To say, under Materialism, that there are illusions is to say matter is wrong about itself, which is absurd.

These errors have ties to physics, too. To say only “particles”, or whatever it is that is prime matter, say, strings, or only energy exists is Materialism. To say only there are only fields or “laws” of physics, i.e. forms, is Idealism. Together there is form and matter (or energy). Energy or matter must take a shape, and that shape is a form. Thus that form has to originate from something. It can and must exist as an idea and is not itself material. The marriage of form and matter in physics, and in ordinary philosophy, is called Realism.

Think of it this way. If all that existed was formless energy, or disorganized prime matter, and there were no forms then nothing could happen, no change could get started. And if all that existed were forms, then no interactions could take place, and again nothing could happen. Given what we see, it thus can’t be that energy or matter can exist without forms. Physics, then, is the search for the fundamental forms and the prime-est matter, if you like.

Physics hamstrings itself if it doesn’t consider these metaphysical ideas. Scientists do well enough with matter and energy, and they do understand that these must be wedded to form, without perhaps thinking of it in this way. But they are not so used to thinking about the immaterial nature of the forms, which is why physicists (in which I include computer scientists et al.) slide into Materialism, which is close to the consensus view today.

Stream: Trump’s—No, Wait—The Republican Debate

I say, old man. That's Trump!
I say, old man. That’s Trump!

Today’s post is at the Stream: Trump’s—No, Wait—The Republican Debate.

Winner? No question about it, it was Trump at a canter. This was conceded even before the debate began in the under-card where the four folks who couldn’t make prime time were asked questions not about themselves, but about Trump. They took it well, though, like those golfers who had just won a tournament back in the day Tiger Woods was at the top and who were asked, “How do you think your victory affects Tiger?”

The situation was repeated during the main event, where one of CNN’s not-so-bright panelists announced he didn’t want a cage match, but then started goading other candidates to bash Trump. At one point when Trump and the walking-dead Bush were going at it, CNN switched to a split screen so we could see what kind of faces Trump was making.

Cruz was twice offered the chance to go after Trump. He refused. Trump never rose to the bait either. Trump even patted Cruz on the back and announced Cruz had a wonderful temperament after CNN’s panelist started chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

And what was the big story immediately after the debate? Trump’s pledge to stick Republican and not run as a third party candidate.

It’s not only that, but Trump actually gave reasoned, responsible, real answers to (most) questions. There were no explosions, though they were undoubtedly hoped for. Trump was the only one calling out the idiotic idea that global warming—he said it properly: global warming, not “climate change”—was our scariest threat. Trump even pushed past some odd audience boos. (Where did they get that audience anyway?) Face it, the man never backs down. That, for many, is obviously his appeal…

Go there to read the rest.

Comment On “Origin of probabilities and their application to the multiverse”


Today, since I’m very busy, a small-ish review—mere comments, really—of “Origin of probabilities and their application to the multiverse” by Andreas Albrecht and Daniel Phillips. I got this paper via George Shiber, who many of you should know. Paper is relevant to my book, which is mere days—nay, hours—from being wrapped up. About the book, more very soon.

Probability suffers from an empirical bias, which is natural enough in the sciences where probability is used to make predictions. Logic, which is a narrow branch of probability, never suffered the same fate having been developed before empiricism struck. As such, nobody blinks when they’re confronted with non-empirical examples in logic, but people treat the same examples in probability suspiciously.

Anyway, the authors say D are observables (i.e. data), and T some pertinent theory. They say T “always requires a ‘model uncertainty’ (MU) prior [Pr(T)] that provides a personal statement about which model(s) you prefer.” This isn’t so. We’re sick of the example, but let T = “We have a 6-sided object, etc., etc.” Then P(see 6 | T) = 1/6, and we don’t need any uncertainty in T. T is a premise, an assumption, or model. Now this experiment can be empirical or imaginative. If empirical, it works as physics.

Given T, we predict D. If T is all we have, then unless we see something that T said was impossible—not unlikely, impossible—then nothing will falsify T and so we stick with T. That is, all non-impossible observations are consonant with T. And this means if T is all we have, then T is all we have. (This is why hypothesis testing, frequentist or Bayesian, is wrong.) Anyway, the authors work only with Pr(D|T).

There is no such thing as Pr(T), but there exists Pr(T|some premises or assumptions) = 1. If we have other premises which say “T or T'”, then based on those premises we can judge Pr(T| premises) = 1 – P(T’| premises); and we might even be able to say Pr(T| premises) = some definite number. But not all probability is quantifiable.

Authors next bring up idea of eternal inflation, which is best popularly described in the book Many Worlds In One by Alex Vilenkin. Very crudely, the idea is that infinite pockets of universes continuously pop up and go their own way; communication between universes (most say) is not possible. Obviously, quantum mechanical events take place in ours and, it is said, in the other universes, too (faith matters, even in science); which is to say, QM observables are measured. But as far as we know, we don’t know precisely why. Enter probability.

Here—and everywhere!—we must keep separate ontology and epistemology. There are things and our knowledge of things. Bell’s Theorem and other arguments show that our knowledge of (some) things is limited. But these arguments do not prove the ontology doesn’t exist, which is to say, they do not prove, as some claim, that causation no longer functions. Probabilities are measures of uncertainty: they are not drivers of it.

Authors say:

We believe that in every situation where we use “classical” probabilities successfully to describe physical randomness these probabilities could in principle be derived from a wavefunction describing the full physical situation. In this context classical probabilities are just ways to estimate quantum probabilities when calculating them directly is inconvenient. Our extensive experience using classical probabilities in this way (really quantifying our quantum ignorance) cannot be used to justify the use of classical probabilities in situations where quantum probabilities have been clearly shown to be ill-defined and uncomputable. Translating the formal framework from one situation to the other is not an extrapolation but the creation of a brand new conceptual framework that needs to be justified on its own.

This seems on the right tack. Only since probability is epistemological, there is no such thing as “physical randomness”, except in the sense of “measurements we don’t know the values of.” There’s no hope, that I can see, of writing down even the simple wavefunction of you scanning these words with your eyes, therefore we’ll always be stuck with locally explanative or determinative and not fully causal models.

Locally causal models abound. For instance, the authors cite billiards. “This ball caused this one to move” is a locally causal model, and a good one. But those rolling, colliding balls are governed at base by QM processes (this could be strings or whatever), so in principle a wavefunction could be written and we could make good probability predictions which quantified our uncertainty in the balls’ locations. Only difficulty with the authors’ position is this:

This argument that the randomness in collections of molecules in the world around us has a fully quantum origin lies at the core of our case. We expect that all practical applications of probabilities can be traced to this intrinsic randomness in the physical world.

If by “intrinsic randomness” they mean “intrinsic unpredictability”, then I’m right there with them. But if they mean the principle of causation evaporates at some small scale only to return, magically, at some heretofore undefined larger-scale point, then I’m not.

Also, I do not see the need for a classical “notion” of probability as distinguished from a quantum one. All probability is conditional on whatever premises are fed in, which is a universal notion. Scale doesn’t matter. Nor causality. Probability can make use of causal notions, but it doesn’t need them. We can say Pr(drownings | high ice cream sales) is high without any notion that ice cream is causing drownings. We can say Pr(eight ball in the corner pocket | this layout and this much force hitting the cue ball and this angle) is high or low while understanding we do not have a full physical or causal description down to the QM level. If we did know the QM premises about the billiard table, we can add them and get better predictions, but where we also know we do not have a full causal description.

Authors say “that fundamentally classical probabilities have no place in cosmological theories”. About measurement problems, I’ll say only this. All theories of many world, multiverses, or whatever, do not explain why this/our localverse, or whatever you want to call it, takes these states. Probability conditioned on suitable premises, some of which are observational and others logical and metaphysical, allow us to quantify our uncertainty in these states, but they never say what is the ultimate cause either.

We ran long, so I skipped commenting on the “randomness” of the digits of pi. I have a discussion in my book.

Stream: December 12, 2015: The Day Science Died. #COP21


Today’s post is at The Stream: “December 12, 2015: The Day Science Died. #COP21“.

President Hollande of France slid to the microphone, and, with great Gallic aplomb, announced December 12th, 2015 will be a day that lives in “infamy.” Or maybe it was “history.” It’s hard to tell since that gentleman was rather excited when he spoke, seeing that the world had just entered into a momentous agreement to spend as much as your money as humanely possible to prevent the unpreventable.

So take your pick: infamy or history. Either way, this fateful date will be remembered as the Day Science Died.

Did you ever know her? Science used to work hand in hand with Government, discovering new things, telling us how stuff worked and easing our lives, saying what was true about the world and what was false. She was uncompromising and did not suffer fools. But now she’s gone.

Close watchers of that once robust being had seen it coming for years. Oh, sure, Science maintained a brave public face, making appearances here and there in an effort to reassure us that things were not as bad as feared. It turned up at odd venues chatting amiably about the mating habit of Mongolian muskrats and of how the leafs of a rare Peruvian plant might be made into a terrific balm. But it was clear to those who knew her best that the disease had made its way to the bone, that it was only a matter of time.

The end wasn’t pretty, either. Instead of letting her pass away quietly in private, Science was wheeled into COP21’s hall and was humiliated and made to suffer to the last. Scores of our planet’s leaders gathered round her and chanted “We can stop climate change!”, “We must hold the earth’s temperature to a 2 degree increase!”, “The globe is warming out of control!”, “People are being inconvenienced by climate change!”

On and on it went, with each nonsensical pseudo-scientific taunt piercing the flesh of Science. The wounds were mortal, but still she struggled for life, that last spark of Truth giving what strength it could. It was a pitiful thing to see! In the end she had shrunk to a fraction of her former size, her breath all but extinguished; when at last, during a lull, a lone delegate made his way to Science’s broken body and said, “Have no fear! I have here an enormous grant to study the effects of devastating climate change. Take it, and you will live.”

And so, in that quiet moment, when she had one last chance at dignity, Science hesitated for a moment, but then reached out her feeble hand toward the very drug that caused her sickness and was to be her demise…

Go there to read the rest, if you dare.

And now let’s have, if possible and if circumstances allow it, a moratorium on this dismal topic. I hope it lasts at least a day.