Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Consumer's Guide to the Foundations of Reality

After reading about the crazyist approach to metaphysics, I was inspired to make a survey of various things that I have heard proposed as the true underpinnings of reality; the One True X that Underlies Everything Else; the bottom layer of the cosmic architectural stack. I suspect this question is even more impenetrable to common sense than is metaphysics of mind. Not really much of a surprise; this is why we have religion and poetry and art, which seem to do a much better job on such things than philosophy. But that doesn't stop people from trying to approach the big questions with a more prosaic frame of mind, so here's a list of candidates, with my own personally biased annotations. I'm throwing together philosophically serious metaphysics with New Age hoohah and other miscellany, because it seems appropriate – the former kinds don't really seem any sillier than the latter once you discount the cultural packaging they come in.


Materialism, "atoms and the void". Materialism doesn't seem that crazy to me, but possibly my common sense has been warped by decades of hanging out in the vicinity of artificial intelligence labs. For most people, picturing the universe (and more to the point, themselves) as complicated machines is crazy, because there's nobody home.

Feel like I should mention Thales and the other presocratics for proposing not just that the world was made of matter, but a specific kind (water, in his case). This may have been one of the earliest times that the metaphysical question arose, and that someone tried to posit a generalized single stuff making up the plenitude of different stuffs found in the world. So we can forgive him for making a crude guess, but maybe not for opening up this unanswerable and unprofitable line of thinking in the first place.


Idealism is another philosophical classic, the dual of materialism, it never made much of an impression on me. Pretty crazy – Samuel Johnson famously demonstrated that by kicking a rock. Still it dominated European philosophy for a long time and is not dead.

[David Chapman, whose work you should read if you like this sort of thing, would call idealism simply wrong. My own point of view – and maybe it just means I am not taking these questions as seriously as he does – is that weird-ass philosophical ideas, like weird-ass religious ideas, cannot be "wrong" or "right". They convey world views, and the best you can do with them is get a feeling of "yes, I can with a bit of straining envision what it is like to see the world in this way". It's possible that some of these worldviews may be more or less helpful or harmful to your well-being, but that is to some extent independent from whether they are interesting.]


"In the beginning was the word". We can't escape language, it is everywhere we look because we bring it with us:
Elements of what we call language penetrate [so] deeply into what we call reality that the very project of representing ourselves as being mappers of something language-independent is fatally compromised from the start.
– Hilary Putnam, quoted approvingly by Richard Rorty

Given that, it's easy to see it as somehow foundational.


The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.
– Muriel Rukeyser, The Speed of Darkness

Mathematical Structure

This one (articulated by Max Tegmark) may be my current favorite, as it takes my innate tropism towards abstraction and formal elegance to an ultimate conclusiona. But it also seems somewhat static and dead, as do many other scientifically-minded forms of metaphysics that de-temporalize time.


The theory that the universe is a cellular automata and physics is computation. Pretty crazy when it was invented (by Edward Fredkin I think), it soon become a staple of hard SF and transhumanoid economists, and by now is almost taken for granted in certain circles. These theories always lead, of course, to the suspicion that the particular computation under consideration is not really a bottom layer at all, but instead our universe is a simulation running on a vast computer in some larger (more fundamental) universe. Does this stack of virtual machines bottom out somewhere? If not, see "recursivity", if it does, well, then that is the true foundation.


A somewhat-occult tradition going from Pythagoras and Robert Fludd, through Harry Smith, to various new agers.
Pythagoras conceived the universe to be an immense monochord, with its single string connected at its upper end to absolute spirit and at its lower end to absolute matter–in other words, a cord stretched between heaven and earth.
I'll say this about music; it has the unique capability of serving mathematical pattern formation/seeking, gut-level emotion, and the spiritual, whatever that is. That doesn't mean it constitutes reality, but as it transcends a whole bunch of everyday categories that seems to locate it somewhere beyond.


From G. Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form, which derives boolean logic and the entire universe from the simple act of imagining a distinction. The most compact and elegant foundation I've encountered, although it's not clear what can be built on it – efforts to ground more traditional mathematics on it have faltered as far as I know, and it remains a fringe work.
Thus we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way as to be able) to see itself…This is indeed amazing…But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one other state which is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever sees is only partially itself…In this condition it will always partially elude itself.
A similar idea also apparently appears in Deleuze but I've never been able to make much sense of him


"The world is the will to power -- and nothing besides!". – Nietzche

"According to all this we may regard the phenomenal world, or nature, and music as two different expressions of the same thing...” will, the fundamental world-stuff, expressing itself as nature indirectly and indistinctly as through Platonic Ideas, but immediately and subtlely in music as will-in-itself." – Schopenhauer (note the link to music also)

I wish I had time to study these thinkers in more depth, because I think I suffer from exposure to the cartoon versions (Nietzche became a cartoon version of himeself, confounding the issue even more). But I have experienced the feeling that a will to exist lies in the core of everything. See the next entry:


Vitalism, Hylozoism, the life force! I don't quite grasp how it works as a metaphysics but architect Christopher Alexander has published a beautiful four-volume demonstration of the living universe, so I bow to him:
I state this by means of the following hypothesis: What we call “life” is a general condition which exists to some degree or other in every part of space: brick, stone, grass river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city. And further: The key to this idea is that every part of space— every connected region of space, small or large—has some degree of life, and that this degree of life is well-deļ¬ned, objectively existing and measurable. 
I believe that this is true; not just a nice way of talking. As I try to explain it, quietly for all its grandeur, and try to make the artist's experience real, I hope that you, with me, will also catch a glimpse of a modified picture of the universe. 


A popular favorite. The kind of crazyism that is so baked into culture that it stops being crazy and just becomes boring. Nonetheless, seems to work for a lot of people.

The Absolute

Seems tautological, in that it says that there is a bottom layer to reality and gives it a name, without being able to say anything sensible about it. And it's also just "God" with all the anthropomorphism stripped out, but I'm starting to suspect that anthropomorphism is the only redeeming feature of religion. A very 19th-century idea, but I don't suppose you can properly appreciate what the 20th century was all about without understanding what it was rebelling against.

The Tao

Serves about the same role as "the Absolute", but in a less ponderous, more poetical form, a little more apophatic, able to acknowledge the absurdity of trying to grasp the infinite with finite teools. "I call it Tao, but that is not its name".


A favorite of somewhat new-agey yet scientific thinkers like Gregory Bateson or Christopher Alexander (see Life). Appealingly abstract. Patterns of what, though? Perhaps that question is missing the point.


This is way too vague for me, but I realize I know nothing of Whitehead. From skimming Wikipedia, I guess that the innovation of this metaphysics was to dethrone the eternalist point of view in favor of something that can incoporpate change. Sounds like a good idea.


Well, I'm the only fixed point in the swirling chaos (from my own perspective). Perhaps I invented it all! Leads to solipsism and madness and hence ultimately boring.

Humans, or Intelligence, or Consciousness

The anthropic principle, the collective form of Me.

Self-interest, evolution, conatus

Metaphysics for economists and evolutionist. What is real is what persists, what persists is what can act in its own interest. Somewhat similar to will, I suppose, although without the sturm-und-drang.


A metaphysics based on love seems too gloppy to support the violent universe we live in. And the word has become weighed down with tacky usage. But let me just acknowledge the genuine religious emotions that can come along with this idea and leave it at that.


It's turtles all the way down. Which is close to saying that there is no bottom layer, which will be the subject of a later post.


My own invention, sort of, when I realized that much of the argument over which of the above concepts is the One True Foundation of Reality can be reduced to status-competition games among different social groups. Eg, if materialism is true, scientists get more respect; but if some form of religion wins this competition then theologians and philosophers get more respect. This is most evident today in the sputtering and fruitless debate between "new atheists" and their opponents. In other words, the real underlying force and substance behind everything is status-seeking (see "self-interest" above, but this is on a somewhat more meta level). The question of ontological priority is really a question of social priority, and status thus becomes more fundamental than any of the tools used to achieve it.

Naturally many of these overlap. After all, insofar as any of them are even a little bit true, they must be different descriptions or aspects of the same thing. Gather enough of them and some common dimensions seem to emerge (eg, human-centric vs not, static vs energetic/dynamic, knowable vs. unknowable, poetical vs formal, reductionist vs holist).

[ [ Next installment: the cure for metaphysics ] ]

1 comment:

John Redford said...

Or it could be the classical Greek concept of apeiron, which I gather is ineffableness, that which cannot be named. Everything comes from it and returns to it. It Is What It Is, to quote the big guy.

However, as an American and therefore a philosophical pragmatist, I like your Status definition. Ultimate reality is provisionally taken to be whatever serious, thoughtful people think it is right now. All qualified citizens get to vote on it! The vote might change as better arguments come along, but it's an ongoing process.