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14 March 2006

Blowing Quantum Foam Bubbles...

Or: "How Not Thinking Hierarchically About Nature Will Get You In Trouble: Part n In A Seemingly Infinite Series."

Part n, as reported in our nation's greatest journal of fiction, The New York Times. (They do sometimes get things factually correct.)

Quantum indeterminancy at the ultramicroscopic level does not necessarily say jack squat about the existence (or not) of free will in one recently evolved species of primate -- let alone anything about the ability of that species' contingently evolved self-consciousness (an apparently unique event, at least in degree) to somehow reconstitute the universe at the quantum level, as this article righteously points out. Not that effects across levels of complexity are ruled out a priori, but they are often assumed a priori.

Reductionism is well-known; but its opposite (there must be a technical name for it) -- the a priori belief that the levels of greater (or greatest -- usually, the human mind) complexity somehow dominate the behavior of the less complex levels -- is equally silly, IMHO.

Re: the subject of this article. Just another escape from reality, IMHO. When are we going to just grow up as a species? Nobody's tending the universe, including ourselves. We can't even tend our own little planet! So, let's just get on with life and all things life-enhancing, already! Grrr. :)

Meanwhile, while upper-middle-class Americans search endlessly for "meaning" in God, the quantum flux, Madonnakabbala, shopping, et al, etc., &c., 3 billion people go hungry for no good reason whatsoever, to name only one gigantic issue among many.

Call me a crazy Marxist (I'm not -- a Marxist, that is ;)) but Engels was dead on when he wrote of the need to view nature hierarchically (other non-Marxists have done so, too, of course -- in case you're all worried now). Classic example: wetness does not exist at the subatomic level. Or atomic. Or molecular. Only when you've got a whole lot of H2Os hanging around do you get "wetness." Is that some kind of fuzzy mysticism? Nope. No natural selection occurs with one individual -- you must have a population ("individual" doesn't necessarily mean "organism," btw). Does that mean natural selection is fuzzy mysticism? Nope. A matter of which level of complexity of matter matters. Or: it's a good bet (not a sure bet) that proximate causation for a phenomenon will be found, well, at the level most proximate to that in which the phenomenon occurs. Especially after 400 years of quite successful reductionism in the sciences, I hasten to add. Might be a good idea to think a little more broadly, without falling into some fuzzy mysticism. I guess Goethe might have had a point, scientifically, after all? (See his Theory of Colors -- can't find a link to an English version online...)

This admittedly rushed version of what I'm trying to get across applies to time as well as space, I think: what does it matter what happened to a few thousand primates on the savanna 10 million years ago (unknowable, anyway) when you're concerned with, say, why 3 billion people go hungry every day, 2001 notwithstanding. Might the answer be found in, oh, I don't know, economic and social systems, and in the recent history thereof? This is coming from an evolutionist, remember -- just not a reductionist evolutionist. Evolution throws down the frame, but 1. we can't know exactly what that frame was, or even is; 2. we do know that the frame of possible actions is quite large, as we have a hugely flexible brain; 3. therefore, the "reasons" must exist within the frame. I wouldn't blame poverty on, say, gravity, but that doesn't mean I don't accept Einsteinian spacetime.

Get yer levels right; look for interdependencies, but don't assume that any level of complexity in nature (or mind) has priority or dominance in any phenomenon, a priori. Also, and it goes against the American ideology to consider the following, but there may actually be things we cannot know, let alone control. In fact, it seems outrageously hubristic to expect, as many seem to, at least subconsciously, that we, a recently evolved primate species on one tiny planet in one corner of a gigantic universe, will "figure it all out" ("Theories of Everything," whether in physics, religion, politics, biology, [sub in field of thought here]). Let alone that the universe exists for us. I don't see the difference between that notion and the one that noses were created to hold up eyeglasses, the sun to warm our faces, and so forth.

Re: reductionism, or, "figuring it all out.":

Having just finished creating hundreds of test items for an ethics course, and having had to review a lot of ethical philosophy (as well as read plenty I never had before), I can say the following. I have yet to find a better ethical rule than the one Confucius (not Jesus) was the first to state: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." (see here, too; he said it twice -- or at least, whoever recorded him in the Analects between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC did). And of course, there will be case-based exceptions to this rule, too, but the burden is on those who would flout the rule.

It's a heck of lot closer than Bentham's felicific calculus (a ridiculous notion: one must go around literally calculating the pain and pleasure each and every moral action will cause before acting) or Kant's equally ridiculous insistence on categorical imperatives, which he actually extended to the point of saying that truth telling applies even in a situation in which you are asked by a murderer where his next victim is. I mean it; Kant defended this position. Now, don't get me wrong: Kant was brilliant, more so, I may say, than anyone reading (or writing) this post. That's what's scary about his dogmatism. The modern defender of the sanctity of personal autonomy was led to privilege truth telling over a human life in order to defend a non-consequentialist ethical system. If murder doesn't remove human autonomy unfairly, I don't know what does.

As Mark Twain once wrote, in "The Diaries of Adam and Eve":

In fact I was not sorry she came, for there are but meagre pickings here, and she brought some of those apples. I was obliged to eat them, I was so hungry. It was against my principles, but I find that principles have no real force except when one is well fed.
Exactly. So, let's make sure everyone's well fed; then we can all discuss categorical imperatives and suchlike.

13 March 2006

The Crush

My I is entangled with you

then, you flatten me

and hide me in your vessel

thats why I'm such a bother

give me back!