Monday, August 9, 2010

Ah, Point of View

Is the cosmos really a wasteland? Or does it just look like that? Herewith yet another angle on the naturalistic view of life and everything. One unavoidable feature of that approach is that the cosmos, at minimum, has ranges (regions) where meaning in our sense, thus as displaying purpose, is undetectable; at maximum it means that the cosmos lacks meaning as a whole. Modern materialism votes for the latter. My own view differs. I feel that meaning is present in us but not, discernibly, in the inorganic realm, The limitations of our view are really my subject this morning, and I’ll get there soon, but to continue with the build-up: If meaning is present in us, it seems to me logical to expect it to be present beyond us as well, and “writ large,” too. This makes me a dualist in that I conceive of “carriers of meaning” and of “matter” as realities different in kind. Materialism envisions degrees of difference only. Thus it supposes that common elements, arranged appropriately and moved by energy, at some point suddenly break into consciousness. I find that view a great deal more difficult to swallow than belief in God; belief in God merely means that if I have consciousness and a sense of agency, that feeling must also have an origin. I didn’t cause my own awareness.

The notion of a dualism, of a passive and of an active principle, is deeply embedded in human thought. It’s there as prime matter and form in the Aristotelian stream, as the receptive and the creative in Taoist philosophy (or, Okay, call it poetry, if you like); it’s present as indestructible matter and immortal soul in traditional western thought, as particle and wave in physics. We even encounter it in matter; it is dualized as energy and matter, and the announcement of their equivalence in Einstein’s e=mc2 is one of the moments of “revelation” in our times. Genuinely fascinating. Matter turns out to be a kind of congealed or crystallized form of energy; matter is therefore extraordinarily, if only potentially, energetic. The energy is still there, holding quarks together by the strong force and holding the particle-waves, the electrons, statistically hovering over atomic nuclei. The quarks themselves may be, for all we know, the tiniest balls of purest fire, and it isn’t all that outrageous to imagine the cosmos itself as a vast echo of a (for us) inconceivably great burst of energy. Indeed that is today’s orthodox doctrine concerning the origin of the universe, the Big Bang theory. The universe is running down, to be sure, hence we find its congealed, crystallized residues as solid matter—but only from a particular point of view—thus only as seen by creatures of our size. And that’s a potent qualifier, when I ponder it.

I enjoy vastly to enlarge or greatly to miniaturize the scale of things, the speed of time. Doing so reminds me that we may be living in a reality which is a whole, whole, whole lot greater than we imagine. Thus something that looks like a wasteland to us at our scale, may very well be full of fascinating meaning to another agency at a scale greater than ours. Similarly, processes that look extraordinarily mechanical to us—thus, for instance the chemical processes inside our cells—may be chuck full of agency. Sometimes I playfully think of that as “chemical civilization,” actually organized and managed by “little people.” Here is an analogy. Many decades ago now, long before superfast computers were available for modeling, at a research institute where I was working we used an inclined board on which we created grooves to represent traffic systems. We covered this board with glass and then poured rice kernels into this system to detect where traffic jams would likely occur at different times of day. We modified the design until traffic flowed with optimal smoothness at rush hours—and submitted that arrangement to our client. Rice kernels worked perfectly well to simulate cars each driven by a conscious person. From certain points of view, human behavior is altogether predictable statistically, and never mind free will, day dreams, genius, sainthood, and all the rest.

The cosmic vastness certainly looks like a wasteland to me. But, ah, point of view. To repeat what I said a few days ago, the ancients had an even more limited view than ours. Their thought, their speculation forms the background, the habituation that colors ours. For these reasons a “naturalistic” cosmology, under which we would seem to be out of place, fits what I perceive—but may not be the real truth of the matter. That is why cosmology is at best a kind of playground of the mind on very hot days as we watch the bees in the backyard.

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