Materia Prima

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The Beginning of the End
So this is it for me and Bernard d’Espagnat’s On Physics and Philosophy.

In the final chapter d’Espagnat allows himself to speculate on the philosophical and spiritual importance of his veiled reality (which he capitalizes) in particular, and the results of modern physics in general.

The chapter is entitled “The Ground of Things.”

It is in these concluding sections that d’Espagnat makes his final defence of a materia prima, a mind-independent reality, before the objections of both realists (who concentrate on empirical reality) and antirealists (who say mind is all).

Some of those arguments say there’s no reality-in-itself, some say it exists but is inaccessible, and others say empirical reality is “reality.”

Kant vs d’Espagnat
D’Espagnat believes “the Real” is a mystery as it is (in his opinion) not accessible through discursive knowledge.

He notes Immanuel Kant distinguished between phenomena and “reality-in-itself,” but disagrees with Kant that a mind-independent reality is just a boring “limiting concept” filled with “pure x.”

Cassirer vs d’Espagnat
Ernest Cassirer strongly objected to being content with a “mystery,” which he felt would be an unbearable block to scientific inquiry.

D’Espagnat says when possible the search for clarity is admirable, but the true spirit of science is to follow where the facts lead it.

The quantum entanglement shown in “Aspect-like experiments” (by Alain Aspect and others) are just part of our evolving scientific knowledge.

Materialists vs Mystics
Sometimes one should approach “mystery” the way mystics, poets, or composers have done so (though more often in the past).

Realists (materialists) have no reason to believe they hold all the keys to knowledge, even in principle.

As for the antirealists (and instrumentalists), if they think reality is something we ourselves build up, then mystery can hardly be called an exceptional “illusion.”

Affect vs Effect
The “affective” element of human existence is an aspect that seems to circumvent our rationality.

Kant felt the “affective mind” was not “ordered on concepts” and therefore could shine no light on Being.

D’Espagnat is more sympathetic to Descartes. Thought leads to the self-evidence of existence (“I think, therefore I am”), but d’Espagnat says just as self-evident will be our “joys and pains.”

We base our conjectures on what we know most intimately, and what could be closer to us than our “affective consciousness”?

This too should be able to inform us of Being, perhaps in some circumstances even better than science can.

Realism vs “the Real”
We can take a very realist position and imagine that if mankind disappeared the stars would continue in their courses.

This is an argument for a mind-independent reality—just not the one d’Espagnat has in mind.

D’Espagnat says just because our present existence is usually most conveniently described in realist terms (such as conventional space and time) doesn’t mean the realist position is actually true.

Even particle physicists who use the realist language of minuscule points and well-defined trajectories know that’s not what’s “really” going on.

Radical Idealism vs “the Real”
On the other hand radical idealism believes there is no reality outside the mind.

In other words, there’s no mind-independent reality.

D’Espagnat says his earlier arguments, either based on no miracles or intersubjective agreement (see chapter five) undermine idealism but not his veiled reality position.

Mathematical Realism vs “the Real”
Whether it’s “Pythagorism” or “Mathematical Platonism” there’s a belief that mathematical developments are discovered not created.

Again, this would be a mind-independent reality, but mathematically based.

Physical reality is either grounded on a pre-existing mathematical reality or there’s some strong connection between the two.

D’Espagnat reminds us that quantum formalism refers to observational predictions.

It’s possible “the Real” is mathematically based, but quantum theory isn’t going to get you there.

Brains in a Vat vs “the Real”
D’Espagnat disagrees with Hilary Putnam’s thought experiment that places brains in vats.

Connect electrodes to the brains and some supersmart being could send (in theory) images and other sensations directly to the brain.

Putnam says a vat individual could not truthfully say, “We are brains in a vat.”

That’s because his concept of a vat is based on an illusion.

So there’s no connection between this particular version of a “ground of being” and our knowledge.

D’Espagnat disagrees with the assumption that knowledge springs only from the senses.

Also, Putnam’s imaginary statement refers to specific entities. D’Espagnat’s concept of “the Real” is “conceptually prior to any such description.”

Self-Modification vs “the Real”
Francisco Varela and collaborators proposed “enaction” theory.

The brain’s main function is to modify its internal states rather than reflect the external world.

External reality is neither a projection of our mind’s contents nor the source of those contents.

There’s no need to imagine a “pre-given” reality.

D’Espagnat faults Varela’s book for vague terminology.

Does Varela mean “empirical reality” or “mind-independent reality” when he talks of “reality”?

Is the “subjective” an individual’s subjectivity or intersubjectivity?

D’Espagnat disagrees with Varela’s use of “secondary qualities” such as colour to make his arguments.

Even Varela’s arguments about attention and perception fail to convince d’Espagnat.

The mind may display selective attention but that’s a far cry from proving that mind and world somehow arise together.

Structure vs “the Real”
Some people say there’s no reality-in-itself, some say it exists but is inaccessible, and others say empirical reality is “reality.”

D’Espagnat says arguments against veiled reality will fail if they’re based on discursive (descriptive and rational) knowledge.

In other words, arguments based on what structures we see or don’t see are irrelevant to “the Real” as “the Real” doesn’t have structures in the way we’re accustomed to think of them.

Buddhism vs d’Espagnat
D’Espagnat notes Varela’s frequent references to Buddhism.

Buddhism speaks of “sunyata” or “emptiness” in rejecting objects in the world as intrinsically existing in the way we perceive them.

Furthermore our living “selves” have no absolute existence as individuals.

D’Espagnat hopes his veiled reality viewpoint will interest Buddhists, especially as there’s a pretty thick veil between consciousness and “the Real.”

Heisenberg vs “the Real”
D’Espagnat rejects Werner Heisenberg’s (posthumously published) view that empirical reality is a product of our human-made knowledge.

Heisenberg felt there were various “regions of reality” such that our knowledge of biology, for instance, weren’t entirely dependent on our knowledge of physics.

Heisenberg did think there might be something that’s “truly real,” vaguely reflected upon human consciousness.

However, he felt this level of reality would still be situated within ordinary space and time.

It’s on that count that d’Espagnat rejects Heisenberg’s arguments as irrelevant as “the Real” is not located in space and time.

Pro vs Con
In the end Heisenberg finds arguments both for and against a “ground of things” dubious.

You can argue against a “ground of things” but only in the sense of a “pregiven,” describable “world-per-se.”

D’Espagnat finds the “pro” arguments based on “commonsense” or a pre-existing mathematical reality also unconvincing.

D’Espagnat believes a “more fact-based reasoning” is called for.

Universality vs Events
D’Espagnat says over the past half-century interest in chaos and complexity led some scientists to demote scientific laws and promote the role of the “event,” previously seen as more or less accidental.

He says he argued against rejecting the “universal” in a 1990 book.

He’s more ambivalent about the emphasis on “events,” which he says takes place within empirical reality.

That reflects the way we’re “apprehending the Real” but doesn’t meant that’s what “the Real” is all about.

For instance, we don’t see objects as nonseparable, but that’s what quantum theory tells us.

D’Espagnat says Edgar Morin and others in this school of thought have somewhat retreated from their emphasis on events, complexity, and disorder.

Morin acknowledges that “Aspect-type” experimental results have shown some limitations in his approach.

Nominalism vs “the Real”
D’Espagnat is unimpressed with the revival of nominalism among “cultivated, literary, avant-garde people.”

It’s a belief system promoted in the Middle Ages by William of Ockham and others.

Nominalists nowadays reject the universal while applauding individual initiative, which they feel is a product of individual knowledge.

The problem is that nominalism is an all-encompassing philosophy, referring to all things, not just living beings.

The discrete atoms of classical physics have given way to “collective modes of existence.”

And again such arguments apply to empirical reality not “the Real.”

D’Espagnat vs the “Enlightenment”
D’Espagnat believes many sophisticated members of society are still enthralled by outmoded ideas of the “Enlightenment” (d’Espagnat’s quotes).

D’Espagnat acknowledges that research on chaos and events may eventually back nominalism.

However, he things quantum theory and inseparability will win out.

Spinoza vs “the Real”
D’Espagnat cautions against thinking Spinoza was a committed materialist when he talked of “God, in other words, nature.”

Although Spinoza’s natura naturans sounds like “the Real,” his natura naturata sounds like phenomena.

D’Espagnat does not agree there’s a willful, personal God behind all this, however.

Veiled reality is not “intelligible,” unlike Spinoza’s view of Substance.

Phenomenology vs “the Real”
Classical physics introduced mechanical, then mathematical, idealizations of objects.

How things supposedly “really are” became separated from our “direct experience.”

Quantum theory reintroduced a role for the human mind to account for our experiences.

In some ways quantum theories reinforces phenomenology.

Phenomenology sees an act of creativity in the human mind.

It takes various pieces of sensation and constructs some entity that shares these qualities.

However, on some level the source of these sensations still independently exists.

Quantum theory states that some physical quantities can only be observed through human intervention, thus undermining phenomenology’s belief in independently existing sources of phenomenon.

Modern “Sages” vs “the Real”
In “developed” societies there are “sages” who take rather contradictory views.

They say there is a reality independent of us.

But they also say it’s “obvious” we rely on our perceptions to gain access to that world.

So they conclude it is illogical to speak of an “unreachable” reality.

We should make only statements relying on sense data or tautologies (statements that are always logically true).

However, d’Espagnat continues to oppose the view that our perceptions necessarily reflect reality as it really is.

Our modern “sages” try to combine realism and positivism, converting “reality-per-se” into “observation-per-se.”

But there is no “observation-per-se” as observations involve human intention and selection.

The Describable vs “the Real”
If we reject the materialists’ rejection of “the Real,” does that force us into the camp of the radical idealists?

D’Espagnat says we shouldn’t confuse “the Real” and “the describable.”

First, existence takes precedence over knowledge.

Secondly, there is something that says “no” to any arbitrary constructions of reality.

Third, it’s hard to imagine an “a priori” that evolves.

And fourthly, there are universal laws that make predictions, and it’s hard to envision how laws could do so unless you believe in miracles.

Even Michel Bitbol and Hervé Zwirn have not entirely rejected the concept of “the Real” even as they critique it.

D’Espagnat says thinkers should avoid pushing deductive reasoning into areas where it may not strictly apply.

As a sidenote, d’Espagnat says classical instrumentalism believes a concept’s meaning and “reference,” the collection of data about the concept, are the same.

Even if you replace “data” with “prediction” it’s not a universal position as predictions require a predictor.

And that predictor is some being who’s doing the predicting.

Laws vs “the Real”
Bitbol and Zwirn may move a bit toward Platonism when they acknowledge something may constrain us that is not entirely attributable to us.

However, they believe this “something” is totally inaccessible.

D’Espagnat disagrees, and thinks Plato would disagree too.

“The Real” must have some influence on empirical reality’s structure as Maxwell’s laws (for instance) are obeyed by phenomena.

D’Espagnat’s “extended causality” links not instances of phenomena but rather phenomena and “the Real.”

These structural “extended causes” move beyond Kantian causality and recall Plato’s Ideas.

Structures vs Hints of Structures
D’Espagnat says “the Real” is prior to mind-matter splitting, so the mind may detect hints of the mind’s source, which is “the Real.”

That veiled reality is not the same as the underlying reality described by structural realism.

D’Espagnat says mind-independent reality is not the source of our physical laws. At best these laws are distortions of the “great structures” of “the Real.” At worst they’re just very obscure “traces.”

In the end “the Real” isn’t describable, indescribable, or party describable.

The first two options imply a total presence or lack of description, and the third option implies “the Real” has parts, which isn’t the case, says d’Espagnat.

Conceptualization vs Meaning
If “the Real” can’t be conceptualized can it have any “meaning”?

D’Espagnat cites Zwirn’s argument imagining a creature as far ahead of humans as humans are ahead of dogs or monkeys.

We can conceptualize things that dogs or monkeys can’t, so surely a superhuman being could conceptualize things we can’t.

D’Espagnat believes that poets can allude to things that we somehow know exists even if these concepts can’t be made explicit.

Plato’s Cave vs “the Real”
At first glance Plato’s Cave approximates d’Espagnat’s view of veiled reality.

It suggests the emergence of (shadowy) empirical reality (seen in the cave) from “the Real” (the porters who place their Platonic Ideas in front of the light).

However, the fable doesn’t deal with how consciousness (the prisoners) would have emerged from “the Real.”

Furthermore, “the Real” cannot be separated into parts (while the porters hold separate objects).

We cannot conceptualize “the Real” yet Plato conceptualized his Ideas.

Finally, even without prisoners there’d still be the shadows, while in d’Espagnat’s system phenomena would exist only in relation to consciousness.

Traditional Thought vs “the Real”
D’Espagnat warns against a syncretism of old cultural elements and new philosophical points, but he wonders if “the Real” has any bearing on traditional systems.

Religions speak of an “immorality,” which suggests some absolute time that physics no longer can support.

However, perhaps the other term “eternity” suggests escaping this illusory time.

And perhaps there is a “continuous creation” of Being in a process independent of time.

Heisenberg vs d’Espagnat
Heisenberg, says d’Espagnat, doubted thought could illuminate deep matters as (according to Heisenberg) thought returns to its source.

But d’Espagnat notes that new science has allowed us to move past old science’s viewpoints, such as materialism.

So thought has been able to illuminate some deep matters.

Platonism vs d’Espagnat
D’Espagnat sees similarities between his view of causality and Aristotle’s.

Aristotle was a realist and was concerned with causality not just in the realm of phenomena but in “reality-in-itself.”

Furthermore, Aristotle was not beholden to the idea that causes precede effects.

Instead there could be “final causes” to which things might tend under the influence of Aristotle’s God.

As d’Espagnat’s veiled reality is beyond time, “the Real” could impart such a “final cause” on empirical reality.

Also, Aristotle’s interest in causation beyond mere phenomena reminds d’Espagnat of his own interest in causation between “the Real” and empirical reality.

Aristotle distinguished between “power” and “act” while Newton supposedly saw just “act.”

Aristotle saw matter as the seat of a vague potentiality.

Materia prima is pure potentiality.

“Informed matter” exists on more and more complex levels. Simple beings can be the “matter” for more complex beings.

These complex beings in this process are more “real” as their potentiality is expressed.

Therefore the deep meaning of reality lies not in the tiny components of complex beings, but rather the meaning is the complex beings themselves.

In a similar fashion, in empirical reality the wave functions have an “epistemological reality” at a lower level than, say, macroscopic objects in the wake of decoherence.

Although Heisenberg did not cite decoherence he did ponder the possible role of wave functions as a “materia prima.” Abner Shimony went on exploring this issue.

However, they’ve both admitted it’s hard to formulate these ideas precisely.

Plato vs d’Espagnat
As for Plato, d’Espagnat reminds us of his earlier concerns about the Plato’s Cave.

However, for Plato the deeper meaning was not in the things themselves.

They didn’t reside just in “us” either. He wasn’t a radical idealist.

Platonic Ideas (and his concept of the “Good”) bear resemblance to “the Real.”

However, Platonic Ideas are conceptualizable while “the Real” is not.

Many scientists believe, still, that analyzing more and more sense data will get us closer to the deeper meaning of reality.

However, advances in science have relied on a “rapprochement” between science and a philosophical position (Platonism) that questions such a program.

D’Espagnat notes that “Platonism” is a term nowadays often interpreted as “Pythagorism” with real mathematical objects.

D’Espagnat does not agree with “Pythagorism,” but notes that there’s some relationship between it and Platonism.

Even veiled reality has a smidgeon of Pythagorism in it as empirical reality’s objects are somehow a dim reflection of “the Real.”

Einstein vs d’Espagnat
Albert Einstein appears to have believed “the Real” could in principle be apprehended in its details, even if in practice that was rarely possible.

However, the goal remained to explore this deeper world by discovering universal laws.

Einstein also believed in three levels of religious experience.

The first was based on fear, the second morals, and the third transcends ordinary human views of God.

At this third level, Einstein thought, a sublime order is reflected in nature and in thought.

Even scientific materialists no longer believe the common materialism that the mass media disseminates.

However, there have also been developments that make us question some of Einstein’s philosophical positions.

D’Espagnat sees some compatibility between his views and Einstein’s even if Pythagorism doesn’t have to be entirely correct.

“The Real” does not have to be totally intelligible.

The human mind may tend toward the structures and qualities of “the Real” in the sense that Max Planck had a strong affective experience in his theoretical work.

It’s not necessary that mathematics reveals everything about “the Real.”

Rather, as long as we have some concept of “the Real” that we can tend to, the structures and qualities of the mind may be drawn to it even as it never fully understands it due to the mind’s limitations.

The Spiritual vs the Scientific
Maybe this idea is closer to Einstein’s third-level religious experience rather than a completely knowable “Real.”

The human mind tends to quest and exploration, though never able to fully accomplish what it desires.

Einstein was still grounded in physical materialism.

Later developments in physics have shown us something more human-oriented. We can’t limit Being to just material components.

The mind may somehow “recall” aspects of Being as consciousness is not just a product of matter.

Archetypes of some of our feelings may lie with “the Real.” There’s no way to prove this, or disprove this.

But crucially we can no longer see science as an impediment to the “spiritual impetus that moves mankind,” an impetus, according to Einstein, that makes us desire to live “the whole of what is.”

And it is an impetus that possesses both unity and meaning.

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