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Of all of the questions in philosophy, I believe that by far the most interetsting and deep is "what is mathematics?" I feel like the majority of questions in philosophy are easy, and amount to just getting the language straight (I wouldn't go so far as to just call them games though). Many philosophers think there are deep unanswered questions surrounding consciousness, but I would respectfully have to disagree. I think the problems there have mostly been solved, and they were not that difficult to begin with. All of the mind/body questions are essentially just language puzzles. And they aren't even that puzzling if you subscribe to the right philosophy (materialism, whether reductive or eliminative)--there are no large explanatory gaps or paradoxes, despite what people claim. All of the supposed "gaps" and "paradoxes" I've seen people try to construct seem pretty clearly an issue of those people confusing different modes of speaking, and thinking that they are discovering something important and deep about metaphysics, when they just aren't. In contrast, what I would call "The Hard Problem of Philosophy", the one that nobody has yet solved satisfactorily, and the one that keeps me up at night shivering the most, is "what is mathematics?" If we could answer this one, it would probably solve once and for all, all of the metaphysically interesting questions that remain. But as far as I have read, nobody really understands it, and there is still widespread disagreement about it, and curious explanatory gaps and paradoxes no matter what route you take. If ever there were a worthy question for philosophical inquiry, this is it!

Closely tied in with this question is the issue of whether one should subscribe to the Many Worlds Interpretation, or the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics (or equivalently, whether one should be a logical positivist or a realist about the physical world). It's hard for me to think about the one without the other, and likewise for the issue of reductionism (I'm thinking here of a particular sort of ultimate reductionism, not just mind/body reductionism). All of it is tied together, so I'm going to have to talk about all 3 at once. This is an attempt to summarize my thoughts and positions on these three issues, and the progress I've made in the past few years in understading this.

Among the most intelligent physicists that I've met, there are essentially only two approaches to understanding quantum mechanics. One is a realist approach (which I'll refer to as Many Worlds) and the other is an antirealist approach (which I'll refer to as Copenhagen--heavily influenced by the Vienna circle and the logical positivist movement). Realist is a tricky word, and has lots of meanings, so the first thing I should do is pin down exactly what it means in this context (and then replace it with something more precise). I used to think realist here meant that there was a real external physical world, independant of the mind of an observer. It was very hard for me to see how others could deny this, and so Many-Worlds seemed like a "no brainer" over Copenhagen from the get-go. But in fact, as I've come to admit, that's more of a straw man than anything, because most antirealists (at least physicists) do at least believe there is a physical world. If they really didn't believe there was a physical world, they could hardly understand how they make a living off of studying "physics" now, could they? ;) So what is it that they reject about the physical world, that they think realists are taking on faith? I think it's more a particular brand of reductionism (one that I subscribe to) that they reject.

I think reading Bob Laughlin's book helped me understand better how many bright people with very different POV's from me look at the world. I see a lot of things tied together... mathematical formalism, logical positivism, non-reductionism, and the Copenhagen Interpretation all fit into one world view. And that world view has never been my worldview, and while it's always seemed bizarre and inconsistent to me, I'm beginning to understand the strange logic of it better. My own worldview is something that is incompatible with all of those: representational realism, mathematical realism, reductionism, and the Many Worlds Interpretation. As I get closer to trying to understand how this alternate worldview works, I feel more openminded about it. But at the same time, I just can never quite get myself to take it fully seriously. Whenever I try to make sense of it, I'm always eventually led to paradoxes and inconsistencies. But perhaps it's because I'm just trying to drop some assumptions from my worldview, rather than dropping all of these assumptions at once.

Let me state a few preliminary things about the way I see the world. First, I think Descartes was dead wrong when he fallaciously concluded "I think therefore I am". What I would say instead is "I am aware of something, therefore something exists." I'm not convinced that I exist, in the way that he thought he did. With high probability, something approximately "me-like" exists, but that shouldn't be made into an absolute statement as I think it's only approximately true, and I am only approximately separable from the rest of the world anyway. I am on the other hand, 100% convinced there is something which exists, and I call that something "reality". So that's my general starting point for any sort of reasoning about philosophy--it's the only truth that I see as beyond any doubt: something exists, that's for damn sure! So now let's go about trying to describe it (which is by no means guaranteed to be possible). The first issue that I would disagree with logical positivists about is that I think it's very, very, very unlikely that the only things which exist are the things we happen to be aware of with our senses. If someone believes that the only things which exist are those which are necessary for describing their perceptions (or for even more radical positivists, only their perceptions themselves exist), then I think they are being incredibly egocentric and solipsistic. Why on earth would you think that you're that special, that the entire universe revolves around you? The only parts of it that exist are there for your benefit? As if the universe is your own private movie theater, made just for you to watch, with nothing outside of your little screening room? How disturbingly myopic! I would strongly disagree with that viewpoint, which tends to be what logical positivists (and many physicists today, who were influenced by logical positivists like Niels Bohr) still seem to believe. Nevertheless, perhaps the situation is more subtle and they're just taking a pragmatic approach. Perhaps in their heart of hearts, they do agree that there are very likely other things besides what they perceive which exist, but they just don't like talking about them much because they feel like there is no way to make progress on understanding what other sorts of things are out there, if we can't perceive them. "Where I cannot speak, I must remain silent." And that sentiment I can very much understand, even though ultimately I would have to disagree. (And the reason I would disagree, to skip ahead, is mathematics.)

Unfortunately, it's getting late and I need to get up pretty early, so I'm going to have to break it here and continue with a "part 2". I foresee it may take 3 or 4 parts to finish explaining the main point I have here, since this is stuff I've been saving up for at least 3 years, wanting to post.

Comments

( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
urlgirl
Dec. 6th, 2007 09:14 am (UTC)
Of all of the questions in philosophy, I believe that by far the most interetsting and deep is "what is mathematics?"

OMFG, I hate that I only saw this just now as I'm shutting down and going to bed for the night. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to reading your thoughts on this in the morning. I quit a career in mathematics in disgust over this very question, and the fact that I couldn't get anyone around me to even acknowledge its interestingness, let alone conduct a philosophical discussion with me on the subject.

I've learned much in the past fifteen years on my own on this very subject, but to this day the question gives me goosebumps. In a good way. Thank you. I shall go to bed happy.
spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 04:41 am (UTC)
I look forward to hearing if your opinions are at all similar.
pmax3
Dec. 6th, 2007 04:04 pm (UTC)
"All of the mind/body questions are essentially just language puzzles. And they aren't even that puzzling if you subscribe to the right philosophy (materialism, whether reductive or eliminative)--there are no large explanatory gaps or paradoxes, despite what people claim. All of the supposed "gaps" and "paradoxes" I've seen people try to construct seem pretty clearly an issue of those people confusing different modes of speaking, and thinking that they are discovering something important and deep about metaphysics, when they just aren't."
Hey, not so fast ... how can you just issue a blanket statement that materialism is the "right philosophy"?
spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 05:39 am (UTC)

how can you just issue a blanket statement that materialism is the "right philosophy"?

Thankfully, this is possible because of the first amendment to the United States constitution. :)

My journal, my opinions. That's not to say I wouldn't change my mind if someone gave me a reason to believe there were a better philosophy. In fact, I intend to read Chalmers book very soon, since a friend of mine vouches for his stuff being intelligent. But until then, I can only describe the situation how I see it... which is basically, that there isn't any serious competitor with materialism, or any reason to doubt that it's true.
pmax3
Dec. 7th, 2007 07:19 am (UTC)
I would second that ... Chalmers is absolutely brilliant. Btw, you may also like to have a look at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/ .
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easwaran
Dec. 6th, 2007 08:30 pm (UTC)
There's an interesting possibility in what you bring up - perhaps there are two correct ways of understanding the world. One is the anti-realist cluster you mention, and the other is the realist cluster. There's a book, Platonism and Anti-Platonism in Mathematics, by Mark Balaguer, that takes this position about mathematics. (I haven't read it, but I think he's wrong in the end. At least, the type of realism ("full-blooded platonism") and the type of anti-realism (I think some sort of formalism) he admits are both incorrect in my view, because they both make there be no fact of the matter beyond what follows from what axioms. I might buy something like this if the possibilities are something more like a standard platonism, and a fictionalism that allows for a meaningful search for new, "correct" axioms.)

The view I'm tempted towards however is very realist about the physical stuff, and anti-realist about mathematics. Though I'm becoming less convinced about the math part. I know there's some tension here, but I just don't see the indispensability argument working as strongly as it ought to.

Anyway, I think most of the more positivistic types don't quite work the way you're saying. Bas van Fraassen is probably one of the most prominent ones these days, and his views are just agnostic about everything that's unobservable, rather than "atheistic" about them. Also, even if the view was just that the only things that exist are the ones I am aware of, it's no criticism of this view that it makes me look special. Maybe that should give me some pause, but there's no reason why this couldn't be the case. It also could even possibly explain some of the problems of consciousness - there is no problem, because only the one solipsistic center is conscious, while everything else is purely material (so there's no problem of other minds, because they don't exist). I agree that this is an awkward position to take, but none of these arguments against it are decisive.

I think the bigger worry for all this is just the fact that we don't have anything like certainty even about our own mental states and perceptions. There's a great series of psychological experiments showing that people must be conscious of far more than they realize, and also that they aren't conscious about things that you would expect them to be conscious of. And this undercuts one of the pillars of positivism (and cartesianism in general), which is that one can be certain of one's own sense-perceptions.
spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 05:02 am (UTC)

Perhaps there are two correct ways of understanding the world. One is the anti-realist cluster you mention, and the other is the realist cluster.

That's pretty interesting. I've wondered that, although I still suspect that in the end one is going to hold up better than the other.

Incidentally, the place where I really think this might be true is politics. A lot of the time, I see liberalism and libertarianism as both consistent, and equally correct political systems. They just serve different purposes so that certain groups prefer one and other groups prefer the other. Other political issues (the ones involving individual rights, as opposed to questions of what's the fairest way to distribute the wealth) I see as more objectively right or wrong.

Regarding Bas van Frassen, I went to a lecture of his once (on interpretting quantum mechanics). I was bothered by his approach in the same way that Copenhagen always bothers me. I often wonder how it doesn't reduce to solipsism, but from what you're saying here, maybe it does and he doesn't care?? That seems kinda crazy. I mean, even if it were true, how would it make sense to go around giving lectures to people, claiming that you're the only one who really exists and everyone in the audience is just a mental construction you've made up to describe your perceptions? Wouldn't this offend some people? (I agree it's not an argument against it... but wow, if there are really philosophers who argue that, I'm impressed with their audacity!). From an individual perspective, I can't rule it out, but then it doesn't really seem like you can have much of a discussion about it. Also, it doesn't seem to explain how similar people appear to others.

At van Frassen's lecture, I remember constantly wondering how his views made sense when you're talking about multiple observers... there didn't seem to be any explanation of why one person's observations would tend to relate to another person's observations in a particular objective way. I wonder if I heard it again now, having become more open to Copenhagen, if I'd appreciate it more though. He also appealed several times to "supervenience" which I am not too crazy about.
onhava
Dec. 7th, 2007 06:02 am (UTC)
A lot of the time, I see liberalism and libertarianism as both consistent, and equally correct political systems. They just serve different purposes so that certain groups prefer one and other groups prefer the other.

I sort of want to vehemently disagree with this, but I worry that I'm misunderstanding what you mean by at least one of "liberal", "libertarian", or "correct".

So instead I'll just link to Belle Waring's famous "And a Pony!" post.
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spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC)

I think most of the more positivistic types don't quite work the way you're saying.

Oh, and I meant to ask. Isn't the whole point of positivism that certain questions/statements aren't meaningful because they can't be cast in terms of some sort of sensory input? If you're agnostic about propositions concerning things which cannot affect your senses, then it would seem to me that by definition, you're not a positivist since you think they are meaningful propositions. Or is there a broader definition of positivist that people like van Frassen fall under that gets around this?
easwaran
Dec. 7th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
I don't think there are any philosophers any more that are positivists in the traditional sense. van Fraassen though I think is sometimes considered a "neo-positivist". But he's not talking about sense data - he's actually talking about external objects that are observable. He says all we should be committed to is the observable - I don't really know how he distinguishes observable from unobservable. (Even though we need a telescope to see Pluto, it's still observable because if we were there we could see it - this distinguishes it from a virus, which we really do need a microscope to see.)

His theory is epistemic, not semantic the way the logical positivists had it.
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smirkingjustice
Dec. 6th, 2007 09:11 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised that as a physicist you would be so quick to reject paradox. I personally think that there is an absolute reality shared by many people, and for each individual person, that absolute reality is entirely inside their minds. I just finished reading Lon Milo Duquette's Chicken Qabalah, in which he posits that everything is both real and imaginary, we just have no idea how real our imagination is. This is conveniently consistent with spellwork in western folk magic, which mainly focuses on imagining (or symbolically creating) something in your world with enough conviction that it actually appears.
spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 05:20 am (UTC)

I'm surprised that as a physicist you would be so quick to reject paradox.

Paradoxes are instances of collisions between different language systems, models, or paradigms. Paradoxes are fine as long as you're aware that you're stitching together incompatible ways of speaking or thinking.

But in a sense, I think the whole enterprise of both philosophy and physics is to resolve such paradoxes. The job of most philosophers is to look for subtle paradoxes in different ways of speaking, by creating thought experiments, and trying to come up with ways to resolve such paradoxes by finding a more consistent way to talk about something. We do the same thing in physics, but instead we call it "unification". Unification is stitching together two seemingly incompatible theories into one consistent theory. And like philosophers, we also often do this by proposing paradoxical thought experiments.

I'm not aware of any physicist or philosopher who would think a paradox was something you were supposed to have in a theory, rather than a sign that there is something further that could be done to make the theory better.

I would agree that there are both real and imaginery aspects of everything in our mental phenomenology, and that in a sense we each live in our own world.
spoonless
Dec. 7th, 2007 05:23 am (UTC)

I'm not aware of any physicist or philosopher who would think a paradox was something you were supposed to have in a theory

On second thought, I think there are some pragmatist philosophers who might argue that it's neceesary to have multiple ways of describing things, and therefore we shouldn't always worry about resolving paradoxes. It's generally physicists who are more insistent on unification.
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naebliser
Dec. 7th, 2007 09:37 pm (UTC)
I'll take a stab at this one. I like getting the chance of stepping outside my specificity for a bit to think about more universal problems. I can't say that as far as I am knowledgeable of the Copenhagen Interpretation that I really understand it either. I don't think wave function collapse is it's own phenomenon. I being a materialist & physicalist myself, have always leaned towards probabilist interpretations of quantum phenomenon, where it starts to get fuzzy for me - is why so much consideration has to be put into these 'worlds' that different probabilistic combinations of events that did not happen create. And how probabilistic uncertainty automatically leads to application of the superposition principle. Truthfully - I don't see much value in anthropic reasoning to make sense of 'our' universe. Certainly there is some use in it, but I see using examples of what isn't existent in our universe to explain what is existent in our universe as bunk. I just can't believe that multiple universes can ever interact with each other- Why would that ever be the case? Isn't the universe complicated enough without it being a multiverse? But this is all based on my perception that time is for whatever reason a unilaterally forward moving process, and the ultimate decider of every coin toss, period. This seems like the most reasonable way to operate, but I suppose I could be wrong. Just something about the many worlds interpretation seems like someone took holistic interpretation to far, and the Copenhagen, not far enough. In any case I do not stay up thinking about such things, maybe I would if I was a quantum theorist but I have a feeling that questions of duality are never satisfactorily answered until the prostrate of the duality is investigated ad nauseum. I am with you that consciousness is not dualistic because I believe that anatomy, biology, and neuroscience are delimiting it to a concrete localized process - and it has been shrunken down to the arena of the brain only. I have no idea how one could ever shrink down the arena of quantum mechanics to something smaller than the entire universe - obviously a particle accelerator is not big enough - because the phenomenon does not arise from there as consciousness does from the brain, but is just a very small litmus of the giant process you are trying to explain. Essentially you are fucked to try and be a philosopher and a physicist at the same time, and if you can find enough proof to think one way or the other at anytime in your lifetime as to what the gravity of the ultimate answer would be, then you are being naive and relying on human intellect alone to consume the universe's mysteries when that intellect is yet in it's infancy.
-<3 (that's why I specialize.)
killtacular
Dec. 13th, 2007 10:52 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post, and I like how you kind of divide up the worldviews into the broadly "realist" and broadly "anti-realist" camps. I've kind of had thoughts along those lines before, so its nice to see. And while I, of course, think there are interesting philosophical problems others than the ones you mention and that their are interesting philosophical issues are just pseudoproblems resulting from confusions of language, I think it is also worth pointing out that most philosophers are physicalists/materialists of some sort or other and so would agree with you there.

However, at least for most anti-realist types now, I think, the claim is not that there isn't anything other than our sense data, or that all that exists are what are necessary for describing our perceptions. The idea is that we just don't have any epistemic justification for believing in those things we can't observe. So it is more like your second option, and that for the things we don't observe we just have no evidence for (or against) them and so we lack any reason or justification for believing in their existence. You can certainly still disagree with this, but the anti-realist isn't committed to solipsism, at least.
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