A Case of Mild Insanity? Physics & Philosophy

By | June 1, 2011

“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”

(Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design)

I read a statement like this one and I ask: who has gone insane, the great physicists or me? But it is not just the theoretical physicists and cosmologists who try my sanity of late. The philosophers also have their role in this mad comedy.

Below I list some statements that most of us accept without hesitation.

Why should anyone have to argue for any of these propositions? Aren’t they obviously true, something any sane person can easily affirm?

But in my studies of philosophy and an overview of some the sciences (primarily physics and cosmology), many experts reject each of these common-place propositions.

Consider that most of us affirm

….that we exist as persons among other persons with whom we communicate and interact.

…..that these other persons are mindful beings much like oneself.

….that our reality includes a natural and social environment.

….that we perceive and have knowledge of animals, plants, hills, and other people in these environments.

….that many of us enjoy significant degrees of freedom and self-determination.

….that our past differs from our present and future in being closed and beyond alteration, whereas our present and future are relatively open.

….that the world we inhabit is one world and not an infinity of worlds.

….that the world exists independently of our experience of it.

….that much in our environment (especially our natural environment) was there long before we came on the scene.

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But, much to surprise of many of us, we actually have to affirm and argue for these propositions because brilliant people — e.g., scientists, philosophers — have argued and currently argue the contrary.

Let us take them one by one, and briefly state the challenge.

We exist as persons among other persons with whom we communicate and interact.
Believe it or not, a good part of Western epistemology has consisted of the effort to deal with the skeptical view which declares that all I really know is that I (the conscious individual) exist as a thinking being (see Rene Descartes); I cannot even be sure I am a corporeal being. Any belief concerning all ‘things’ external to the immediate content of the individual mind is in question and must be defended by rational argumentation.

Other people are mindful beings much like myself.
Another problem that philosophers in the West have grappled with is that of showing that there are other minds besides one’s own.
“Yes, those creatures out there look, act, and speak as if they had minds similar to mine; but that is only something I infer from their outward behavior. I really don’t know that they have minds.”
Can you believe that this has been taken as a serious problem in philosophy?

Our reality consists of a natural and social environment.
A close analysis of our experience and the workings of our brain indicates that all we really experience is a model concocted by our brain’s reception of signals from the external world, but we cannot be identify, much less describe, the reality external to the workings of the brain. Hence, we cannot be sure about that the nature of that reality.
In their recent book, The Grand Design, Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow suggest this skepticism regarding our ordinary notions of ‘reality’:

“Model-dependent realism: … our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world.” “Realism: the idea that there’s a world with particular properties that exists independently of the observer. (418, Kindle) – Modern physics makes it difficult to defend realism, e.g. refer to problems of QM (423, Kindle)

We perceive and have knowledge of animals, plants, hills, and other people in our environments.
Traditional Western philosophers tend to adopt theories of perception which deny that we ever directly perceive ordinary things (animals, trees, people, dogs) in our environment. Instead that claim is that all we directly perceive are the immediate sense data or impressions in the mind; hence, our putative knowledge of ordinary things in the external environment is thrown in doubt. Oddly, some modern physicists and psychologists have also taken this skeptical view concerning knowledge.

Many of us enjoy significant degrees of freedom and self-determination.
Historically, the free will / determinism problem with which Western philosophers have grappled throws into question our ordinary belief that we have a degree of autonomy, freedom and self-determination. Allegedly, once we understand the real workings of the world we should recognize that everything we do is pre-determined by conditions over which we have no control. Again, surprisingly a number of modern scientists (mainly psychologists and physicists) have taken this position which denies autonomy to persons.
Hawking and Mlodinow:

“we are no more than biological machines and free will is just an illusion.”

Our past differs from our present and future in being closed and beyond alteration; whereas our present and future are relatively open.
This is one that most sane persons never question; but surprisingly, theoretical physicists draw the contrary conclusion when they apply the paradoxes and puzzles of quantum physics to the macro-world. Again, a recent example is the Hawking-Mlodinow book, The Grand Design, where they state the following:

“Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history. The fact that the past takes no definite form means that observations you make on a system in the present affect its past.” (802 on my Kindle counter)

The world we inhabit is one world and not an infinity of worlds.
The contrary view is taken by a number of scientific cosmologists; for example, Hawking-Mlodinow, in The Grand Design, have stated:

“The universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. (1384-90 Kindle counter) Most of those correspond to other universes …. Many universes exist with many different sets of physical laws.” (1394-96 Kindle counter)
“The universe does not have a just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called quantum super-position. (582, Kindle)

The world exists independently of our experience of it.
Again some theoretical physicists have argued the contrary. Again I give quotes from The Grand Design:

“There is no way to remove the observer – us – from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason..” (228 Kindle) “Realism: the idea that there’s a world with particular properties that exists independently of the observer. (-418 Kindle) – Modern physics makes it difficult to defend realism, e.g. refer to problems of QM (-423 Kindle) “

Much in our environment (especially our natural environment) was there long before we came on the scene.
Consider the natural scene: animals, plants, oceans, continents, mountains, canyons (e.g. The Grand Canyon of Arizona). Surely, unless you inhabit an insane asylum and suffer from a specific delusion, you will agree that these things were there long before humans arrived on the scene. Yet, again, some theoretical physicists have suggested a view of physical reality which states the contrary. For example, again from The Grand Design:

“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” (1416-22, Kindle)

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Of course, in my many blog postings I argue for the common-sense view of things with regard to these and other issues. My working hypothesis is I’m not the one suffering a mild degree of insanity. But, of course, I could be wrong.

42 thoughts on “A Case of Mild Insanity? Physics & Philosophy

  1. john mize

    Yes, Juan, you do ordinarily argue for the common-sense view. There are a few exceptions, but that raises the issue as to what common-sense is. Perhaps you would be willing to think and write about the nature of common-sense. When should it be trusted, and under what conditions should it be rejected? I would find that interesting. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. philosophylnge

      Hello John. I suppose it oversimplifies to refer to the "common-sense view." Of course, what people regard as common sense often has to corrected and superseded. Surely this is part of what the sciences, good historical scholarship, and even some work in philosophy have done. Of course, we cannot always trust common sense. What people call "common sense" will vary, is culturally and historically conditioned; and, therefore, is often subject to modification or rejection. But this is the work of rational, critical philosophy, often working with the results of the relevant sciences. But having said this, I am surprised how often in dealing with the type of issues that I list in this posting, the sophisticated views which contradict common sense (e.g., we don't have knowledge of the world external to the mind.) are the ones which have not been sufficiently analyzed or examined. When they are, I find that the philosophy which takes our common sense ideas into account is the better philosophical position. Of course, this point has to defended by arguments. This is something I have done for a long time and will continue to do so. Thanks for your comments.

      Reply
  2. Milton Henneman

    The central question to this is —what is proof? Apparently your idea of proof is different from some other folks.
    You say that common sense assents commonly to certain things. But You have not said why commonsense must be the only
    point of view, scheme of things, conceptual frame that could be correct. All you have said essentially is that people who have a different point of view about what indicates the truth, are nuts. Not much of an argument. You are impressive as a complainer, but you can't seem to muster much of an argument.
    Physics says that despite the appearance of solidity, objects are made up mostly of space. this is contrary to common sense, which
    says things are solid that look and feel solid. My view is that there is more than one view possible and that the universe is not cut and dried—neither by physics nor commonsense.

    Reply
    1. philosophylnge

      I suppose if the view of some physicists is correct, there is no one, definite past. I'm replying to your comments of the past few days, but that path of the past my not be targeted by my reply, so it might never connect. Also, among those philosophical-"scientific views" is that objective reality as we know may be a fiction. As flesh-and-blood persons, you and I are mere fiction; after all, atomic physics has shown that all reality is nothing but atoms and energy. So maybe my reply will never be seen by your collection of atoms (which are mostly empty space and energy anyhow), even if it makes sense to say that collection of atoms can perceive, read, and comprehend. So maybe you're right in your objection to my objection to the crazy metaphysics that many scientists and philosophers adopt. Of course, this is mere complaining, which I suppose your commentary was not? But I appreciate your form of complaint anyway.

      Reply
  3. Alexandr

    Nice kick, but as any baseball fan would know, clulebavrs aren’t apparently impossible, and the associated physics have been known for a good long time

    Reply

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