Wednesday 2 March 2016

The Nexus of Philosophy and Science (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, 2016

Ontological musings

Exploring the limits. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope uncovers the oldest burned-
out stars in our Milky Way Galaxy in this image from 2002. These extremely old, dim, 
'clockwork stars', provide one way of calculating the age of the universe. (Image source: NASA)

By Keith Tidman

Philosophy and science have come, increasingly and often, to dramatically intersect with one another, with implications for reflection on all sorts of metaphysical matters. This is why two recent, much publicised, confirmations in science bearing on physical reality have garnered people's enthusiastic awareness every bit as much for philosophical as for scientific reasons.

The first confirmation, of gravitational waves - ripples in the fabric of space-time - was predicted by Einstein a century ago; while the other, relating to the Higgs boson subatomic particle, concerns longstanding questions about the mass of elementary particles.

Both confirmations are fundamental to cosmology, providing an increasingly fine-grained look into our almost fourteen billion year-old universe and conjuring philosophical questions about the meaning of humankind and civilisation. Why fundamental? Massively energetic events like the Big Bang's birthing of the universe (as well as, later, black holes colliding, neutron stars rapidly orbiting one another, and stars exploding) have caused the geometry of space-time to distort. Or so scientists jubilantly claim after detecting those gravitational waves following their decades-long search. A hard-to-overstate peek at the universe's violent beginning and subsequent billions of years of behaviour.

Fundamental to philosophy, though, is an hypothesis whose genesis and significance straddle both science and philosophy. This is that 'nothingness' is unstable and that the default condition is instead 'something'. This notion, that something must always exist, contravenes millennia of philosophical contemplation, as well as everyday thinking, about supposed emptiness.

An emptiness once thought to lie beyond people's view of the most-distant galaxies, and beyond the presumed sensibleness of nothingness, as contemplated by philosophers like Aristotle, Leibniz, and Heidegger. Yet the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics suggests that the default condition - that there has always been 'something' - might be true. Here, in part, is why: The uncertainty principle says that it is impossible to know (that is, measure) both the momentum and the position of a particle with equal precision. 'Quantum fuzziness', it is dubbed.

Yet in transgression of that last point, nothingness requires, for instance, that both the measurement of an electromagnetic field and the measurement of the rate of change of that field need to be precisely zero. However, such equally precise measurements of the field (other examples exist) violate the uncertainty principle. Therefore nothingness cannot exist. Or, conversely, something (a universe of some kind) must exist!

A parallel observation also bearing on the notion of emptiness is tied to quantum fluctuations - virtual particles that rapidly come into existence and equally rapidly are annihilated, with no net loss or gain of energy. This space-time turbulence occurs within an extraordinarily small time scale and extraordinarily small distances. That is, 'empty' space really isn't empty, despite the handiness of the everyday model that people harbour of a vacuum. A model shared, variously, by Plato, Aquinas, and others. Nothingness defaults to something, with no transcendent, original creation-force at the beginning of some causality chain. There are no turtles standing on turtles.

These circumstances suggest that a universe might exist even in the absence of an external designer. They point to answers to the common question about what preceded the Big Bang. That is, under these circumstances, the singularity (starting point) associated with the Big Bang isn't the beginning of space-time at all: to talk of the time 'before the Big Bang' thus has no meaning. These factors, related to the instability of nothingness (and the eternality of something), raise questions regarding core philosophical principles and the need for a god to breath purpose into humankind and to grant humankind a hospitable landscape on a particular planet in a particular universe.

That said, not all universes are equal‚ far less their philosophical implications. For example, without the Higgs field, all particles would be whizzing around at the speed of light, resulting in a cosmos with unbridled disorder and, by extension, devoid of the constants necessary for life. From a philosophical standpoint, that flavour of chaotic universe would existentially lack rationale, its unsatisfying quality being merely to exist. Yet in a scenario where multiple (even an infinite number of) universes might exist (that is, a multiverse) some universes might indeed exhibit such disorder and thus lack the constants essential for life. Such seemingly pointless universes might make one wonder just how much 'creative intelligence' lies behind them.

Without the Higgs field, all particles would be whizzing around at the speed of light, resulting in a cosmos with unbridled disorder and, by extension, devoid of the constants necessary for life

Of greater philosophical poignancy, however, is the thought that in this multiverse model, other potentially habitable universes might coexist with ours. These universes, like ours, might house conscious, intelligent, curious, evolving, thriving (and perhaps conniving) life forms in the billions and by extension challenging the uniqueness and 'exceptionalism' of human civilisation. Especially if any of those civilisations have had a major head start on ours, in the order of millions of years.

Salient to this discussion of 'something' rather than 'nothing' is that Higgs-driven mass (and gravitational forces) allowed the formation of 'lumps' in the universe and with it the accretion of matter to form stars, planets, and galaxies. When subatomic particles interact with the Higgs field, which exists everywhere in the universe, they acquire mass of different amounts, with the resulting gravitational force drawing swirling particles together to form larger and larger bodies of matter like the stars.

For without stars there would be no supernovas scattering their detritus, and in turn no 'stardust' - no heavy elements - to provide the material genesis of human beings' existence as literally star-based life. This idea of stardust's essential role creates a tantalising and even poetic, and also humbling, picture of our prosaic presence in the larger scheme of things. From a philosophical standpoint, the resulting universe - the one we inhabit - may well have a chance of some kind of purpose (a nonzero chance), even though that purpose has proven exasperatingly hard to define.

Expanding out from the foundational role of stardust, we see the stunning precision of the many physical conditions of our universe's makeup that are necessary for the existence of conscious, intelligent, complex life (us and aliens, the latter potentially having their own sciences, philosophies, and theologies). These many precise, life-enabling conditions, such as:
• the right amount of gravitational force,
• the matter-antimatter balance,
• the uniformity of the universe,
• the right amount of nuclear force...
... are referred to as the anthropic principle (or the 'Goldilocks' factor, with everything just right). (Goldilocks being the character in the children' story who finds one of the bowls of porridge in the bears' house 'just right'.) To some philosophers and scientists, these precise conditions exceed mere coincidence.

The 'strong' anthropic principle allows for premeditation or design in our universe and its accommodation of life, on which some people have hung their hat as evidence of an ethereal god's existence. Another variant, the 'weak' anthropic principle, points to the universe being a fluke of such constants. That is, the conditions being just right for life existing by chance, not design. It is essential to note, however, that even if the strong anthropic principle does indeed imbue the universe and humankind with such purpose, it might prove unknowable.

To go one step further, the universe might house the explanation of its existence within itself: a self-reasoned, self-sufficient, eternally self-sustaining universe of space-time, with no beginning or end. Yes, infinite, despite the pain some philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians feel whenever infinity enters the picture.

Now, during the first roughly six or seven billion years, the universe's expansion was slowing down, because of the pull of gravity among matter. Then, around the seven-billion-year mark, the universe's expansion began to accelerate, as the repulsive forces of 'dark energy' proved stronger than gravity. Although dark energy, and its presumed 'antigravity' characteristic, remains for now a scientific mystery.

The universe's expansion leads to the other great cosmological question, which is how the universe will end and its philosophical implications. The idea is that the universe is seen as continuing to expand at accelerating speeds forever until, in roughly a couple of trillion years, it will go 'dark and cold' - albeit allowing for the far less likely possibility of a Big Crunch (contraction) and then the next Big Bang.

As to civilisation's eventual extinction, and the implications for its purpose, measured in billions of years, two other events loom: our sun becoming a red giant and incinerating the solar system; and our galaxy, the Milky Way, colliding with another, the Andromeda galaxy, with enormous forces pulling the galaxies' spirals apart. Does this lead to fair questions why a designing force - deliberative original cause - would position civilisation for extinction, if humankind (and conscious, intelligent aliens, for that matter) were special enough to keep around?

Perhaps, given that our species stemmed from the spewed detritus of supernovas, it should suffice to embrace an eventual return to stardust - one interpretation of 'dust to dust' and of 'eternal life' substituting for an amorphous soul. How much this ephemerality matters to our argued 'exceptionalism' as a species is left for the reader's own speculation. The possibility of otherworldly intervention appears implausible.

Yet, to take the high road, a lack of exceptionalism doesn't necessarily prevent ethical secular humanism from spurring individuals and societies to do everything to maximise human welfare!

Another aspect of the 'something-rather-than-nothing' debate relates to reality resting on the bedrock of mathematics, as it has done since Newton and well before, evoking questions about mathematics' association with reality - all reality, from the objective to the subjective (even qualia, or individuals' sensory experiences). Arguably, mathematics is scientists' most thorough means to understand and describe the universe.

Here's another central philosophical question: Is mathematics invented or discovered? If it's invented, then we assume scientists simply make up the methods, and the 'syntax' and 'semantics', of mathematics as yet another (though powerful and precise) language to describe the universe.

But if mathematics is discovered, it becomes foundational to the universe's existence - the Platonic essence of reality. Indeed, Galileo famously referred to the universe as having been 'written in the language of mathematics'. The elegant correspondence between mathematics and the physical world is startling: the simplest expressions usually suffice to describe reality effectively. Some mathematicians refer to this simplicity as the 'elegance' of equations. Might it behoove other disciplines, including the humanities (not just science), to apply Occam's razor to acquire such elegance?

Or consider that today many neuroscientists attribute consciousness, decision-making, and human action to neural networks. Some philosophers agree that decisions might derive solely from the biology and physics of the brain; no one has yet shown otherwise, though investigation continues.

Quantum physics, on the other hand, points to a world of probability and partial unpredictability, where human observation (or measurement) influences which reality plays out. That is, observation collapsing mathematical wave functions, resulting in one version of reality from among multiple possibilities‚ an 'observer-centric' model of reality. Consciousness and observation are key, evoking a subjective reality. This, again raising questions about whether free will is necessary to allow for an external designer to create humankind with an inspired place in the cosmos. These philosophical issues - consciousness, cognition, determinism, subjective reality - churn among philosophers and scientists alike.

The idea of 'nothingness' being unstable and defaulting to 'something' doesn't exist in a conceptual vacuum, as the backdrop is the formal arguments in philosophy for the existence of an external designer. There are many such arguments for God, including those of giants like Plato, Anselm, Aquinas, and Descartes.

Of course, many have attempted to refute those arguments. There is the ontological argument (a priori‚'logical‚' necessity, whereby nothing greater can be conceived to exist); the cosmological argument (inference for a first, necessary cause); the teleological argument (a design leading to existence); and the moral argument (moral thought and experience affirming God). Although some philosophers through history stuck to a single argument, others hedged their bets by supporting more than one argument - as if diversifying financial investments! (Famously, Pascal concluded it was a safe wager to believe in God: with nothing to lose in declaring belief, whether or not God exists; but with something to lose in disclaiming God if God turns out to exist.)

Above all there is the philosophical idea of a great designer. Yet, even theistic design might not necessarily lead to exceptionalism. Likewise, intelligent consciousness, awareness of self, societal connections, memories, awareness of alternative futures, memories, awareness of the arrow of time, creative innovation, analytical thinking, parsing of life's subtleties, humanistic morality, comprehension of the world, abstract thought and all else‚ do not necessarily imbue our species with specialness. It might well do so, given consciousness's extraordinary qualities; but it might not.

Philosophy and science's studious intersection, with 'something' cancelling out the instability of nothingness, comes with mind-matter dualism (of the Cartesian variety), consciousness, and free will. Differentiating the nonphysical, thinking mind (consciousness) and the brain still finds its way into contemporary thinking. Yet, still philosophers and scientists struggle to resolve dualism's knotty problems. One modern wrinkle in the possibility of an immaterial mind influencing the brain is whether such a relationship violates the laws of thermodynamics involving the conservation of energy. As a modern twist, two collaborators developed a mathematical argument regarding free will, concluding that if we have free will, then elementary particles must also, a priori, share this attribute.

Without doubt, the question of whether consciousness is tethered or untethered to the biology and physics of the brain, and how that bears on free will's presence or absence, challenges notions about rationality, responsibility, and accountability for human decisions and actions, with implications for ethics, justice, sociology, psychology, relationships, and governance.

One shortcoming remains the elusiveness of an agreed definition of consciousness. Yet, since people are a part of the universe, and people have consciousness, the universe must be considered to possess consciousness - at least to that degree. So, key is whether consciousness is an attribute only of individual 'persons' among the possibly billions of intelligent species that might populate the universe, and thus ultimately prove to be physical and measurable. Or, whether consciousness is omnipresent and isotropic (evenly spread throughout the universe), existing as a fundamental element of the universe itself, elusive like dark energy and dark matter.

To come full circle: what is apparent is the coevolution and convergence of philosophy and science, discarding discredited theories while exploring outer margins and shifting to better-supported explanations of reality. Undeniably, there's a cohort of scientists who set a firewall between science and philosophy, refraining from addressing the philosophical implications - implications that nevertheless call out - of scientific discovery. Some scientists opine that as for science and philosophy, ne'er the twain should meet. In diametric opposition, other scientists, from physicists to astronomers, biologists, and neuroscientists, fulsomely acknowledge and tackle head-on the philosophical implications of scientific discovery.

Despite the differences in methods (but not in rigor or eloquence) between the priesthoods of philosophy and science, they typically figure out ways to transcend their 'cultural' differences, with once-seemingly intractable problems yielding to solutions. At the nub, much modern science and modern philosophy inextricably depend on each other; not uncommonly, the one cannot fully explain reality without being informed by the other.

About the author: Keith Tidman provides occasional editorial support to organisations that examine a range of global and national policy issues. He is the author of The Operations Evaluation Group: A History of Naval Operations.

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