Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On metaphysics

Everything, it seems, is a matter of perspective.

I have been thinking about what I believe to be the case. I suppose that I mean what is my metaphysics, but that would imply that I have a coherent system that I apply to the world. I do not. Not only do I not know or think I know what the world is really like but I think it is impossible to know. I know what it seems like to me, but I am aware -- or at least I think I am aware -- that that is just how it seems from the perspective of a being like me.

(Let me get this out of the way: when I say I don't exist, I do not deny the reality of a being sitting here on my back verandah, smoking a cigar and enjoying a port. There is a being here. But I mean that it is not distinct in its substance from any other being, indeed any other thing, and the "self" that it seems to have is only that: a seeming, a delusion. I do not mean that that being cannot interact with other beings, nor do I mean that it cannot seem directed, cannot make and do things that seem to belong only to it. I mean that the feeling that I have that I am a passenger in that being is entirely false. The self is illusory, I believe, as persistence of vision. I can show you in a matter of minutes that the latter does not exist -- by demonstrating change blindness to you, which is easily done. In case you do not know what "persistence of vision" is, it is the notion that you have an internal picture of the things you look at, which you adapt with new information. I can demonstrate its falseness by inviting you to download this movie. It's a loop that flickers. Watch it for a minute or two, then ask yourself what changed in the movie. Don't cheat. Try it. You will not see a change. If you cannot figure it out, I will tell you by email, or if a couple of people ask in the comments, I will explain. More are available here. It's truly amazing when you do see it. So I believe my "self" is nothing more than an illusion caused by a brain that is change blind. I do not believe any other explanation of us is coherent. This fascinating article finds an analogue of change blindness in choices, which astonished me, but I think shouldn't have.)

I can find a perspective on which there is not even a distinct being but I don't know how useful it is for describing the world. My understanding of string theory is that there is an "underlying" stratum (my word, I've never seen it called that) that manifests in many dimensions, and looks a particular way in these that we are aware of. Time and space obviously would not have any meaning in that stratum (I say obviously because they are simply outcomes in the four dimensions we can experience). Is it dimensionless? I do not know. String theory is ferociously abstract, and can only be understood through maths. My head starts to hurt when you introduce a lot of pis and sigmas. I am a Bear of Little Maths, but I don't think it matters. I can get by without really incorporating it into my worldview, because, let's face it, metaphysics doesn't butter any parsnips. It's just a way of saying "I wonder what the butter really is".

What did I mean by you can't know what things are like? I don't think this is particularly controversial. It's an extension of Nagel's idea that there is nothing it's like to be a bat. We can only know what the world is like to us: whether we are talking about what we can perceive or what we can measure with the tools available to us. It's commonplace to say that quantum mechanics is not conceivable for humans, but it's a deep truth about the world in my view. The world is a fucked-up stew of randomness that seems to work to us because we are made to see things working. What does it mean to say that an electron is everywhere at the same time? It's easy to say but impossible to make sense of. Could it mean that there is only one electron, and we perceive it as moving, being everywhere? Yes. Could it mean that we just can't ever know with precision where things are? Yes. Could it mean that there is one substance, which sometimes seems to be an electron? Yes.

See, I start, and soon I am stuck in quicksand, convinced that anything can be true. I suppose that's the lot of a sceptic. When you do not cleave to one truth, you are open to many truths. But here's the thing: I do believe there are many truths, many perspectives.

I wanted to share with you why I started this post. Check out this song. It's wonderful and it makes me think about what it is in me that it resonates with. It's not that it's a type of music I like (although I do) or am well versed in (I'm not particularly). So what is it?

If you are not here when you're alive, you obviously cannot continue after death. Should I be delighted that I cannot have an eternity in the hell some believe awaits me, or deeply sad that I am so limited? I think life is easier if you have comfort; that is all I can say about it.

Why am I not then a nihilist? Why do I think it matters how one is to another? Dogs don't care about that shit, do they? They care only about hierarchy and where their food is coming from. But I am not a dog. I am a confused being. Sometimes I feel I could reach beyond that confusion and find something more concrete, but do you know, I'm not sure I would like it. Even so, I have tried to give my children a basically functional understanding of life. I try to frame morality in terms of its utility, rather than insisting that they should acquire a useless code that will just hold them back. I would rather they were clear-eyed cynics than foolishly Romantic, always disappointed in a world that doesn't behave in ways that their code desires. I look at my sister J, whose life is a torment of morality, and I cannot think of a worse fate for them. J cannot get a boyfriend because no man can match her template. I don't mean that she just hasn't been lucky enough to meet the one. I mean she is not living on the right planet: this one simply does not have people who are able to match the ideals she thinks it should. Such is the world of the ideologue, the jihadi even. I can't help thinking that the bin Ladens of this planet, those benighted souls, would be disappointed in Muhammad, since he was a man, not an idol, and men are condemned to disappoint each other in some way or other.

You know why I want a walled garden, with a pear tree? That is the symbol to me of a life without that confusion. I have only ever known people to have that who seem to know who they are. I have the misfortune to be a working-class boy with a middle-class mind. It's more trouble than you'd imagine.

But I can picture contentment. I can even picture it with Mrs Zen. I am optimistic so far as that goes, without reason, or at least, my only reason is that I will not be despondent. So long as I believe I am more sinned against than sinning, that will, I think, remain true.

So much for metaphysics. I never can concentrate on it for long before I start to focus on the more practical, the me me me. Well, ultimately, it doesn't matter what the world is really like; it matters only what it is like to us.


There is no more. I know, it promised to be much more. Hello? That's me. I don't know what to think about it, but it's what I am.


Anonymous Dr Zen said...

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April 22, 2009 at 9:35 AM  
Anonymous nobody said...

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April 22, 2009 at 6:38 PM  

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