Science news at the speed of thought

…but something is necessary

by Peter Hankins Story Source August 19, 2012

Last time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the impossible problem of why the world exists at all (what the hell, eh?). How would that work?

Qualia, of course, are the redness of red, the indescribable smelliness of the smell of fish, and so on; the subjective, phenomenal, inexpressible qualities of experience, the bit that the scientific account always leaves out. They are often described as the ‘what it is like’ of an experience, and have been memorably characterised as what Mary, who knows everything about colour, learns when she actually sees it for the first time.

My case is that a large part, perhaps all, of the strange ineffability of qualia arises because what we’re doing is mismatching theory and actuality. It should not really be a surprise that the theory of red coloration does not itself deliver the actual experience of redness, but there is some mysterious element in actual real-life experience that puzzles us. I suggest the mysterious extra is in fact haecceity, or thisness; the oddly arbitrary specificity of real life, which sits oddly with the abstract generalities of a theoretical description. So it would help to know why the actual world is so arbitrary and specific; why it isn’t a featureless void, or a geometric point, or a collection of eternal Platonic archetypes. If we knew that we might know something about qualia; and also, I think, about ourselves—since we too are arbitrary and specific; not abstract functions or sets of information, but real one-off items.

So can we therefore answer Jim Holt’s question for him? Some caution is certainly in order. Speculative metaphysics is like hard drink; a little now and then is great, but you need to know when to stop or you may find your credibility, if not your coherence, diminishing. But I think we can sketch out a tentative view which will clarify a few points and indicate some promising lines of inquiry which may well be rather helpful.

Let’s step back and look at the overall cosmic problem more empirically: the world does in fact exist and does seem to be rich and complex. What kind of overall chronology would make sense for a world like that? It could be one that starts, putters along for a finite time, and then stops. It could be one that stretches back indefinitely into the past but eventually stops at some point in the future, or one that started at a definite point in the past but goes on indefinitely. It could be indefinitely prolonged at both start and end. Or it could be one that goes round in a permanent loop.

The thing is, in different ways all these options seem to give us a universe which is unmotivated. If there is a final state in which the universe stops, why not go to that state in the first place—why spend time getting there? If the universe goes in a circle and ultimately reaches the state in which it started, why bother leaving the initial state? Our current view paints a picture of a Universe wound up by a cataclysmic Bang and then steadily running down through expansion and increasing entropy—to nothing, or as near nothing as makes no great difference. But it seems odd to start the world with a flagrant contradiction of the principle of decline that afterwards governs its development. The only world that makes sense in these admittedly vague terms is one that is going somewhere, but somewhere it will never finally reach. The only one that does that, I think, is one that starts and then goes on, not merely expanding, but transcending its earlier states and rising to higher levels of complexity indefinitely.

That doesn’t quite tell us why there is anything at all. What caused this indefinite existential transcendence in the first place? Some kind of ontic horror vacui? An inherent cosmic desire for there to be more stuff? One of the things I noticed in reading Jim Holt’s book was that there are one or two gaps in our conceptual toolkit when we embark on this quest. One of those is that we are looking for a causal explanation but we don’t really have any clear idea of what causation is at a fundamental level. Let me here just breezily offer the suggestion that the laws of causation assert the identity of one state of the world with a later state of the world. So for example to say that the world featured me striking a match in certain appropriate conditions at one moment is equivalent (under these laws) to saying there was fire at a slightly later moment. Now if that is true, the only possible causes of the existence of the cosmos at its first moment are either its non-existence at any earlier moment or its own existence at that first moment (if you allow simultaneous causation). I think this says the universe is either necessarily gratuitous or gratuitously necessary, but I’ll leave it with you there for now.

Why do the contents of the world seem so arbitrary and random? I suggest there are two reasons. First, the ongoing transcendence which drives the universe is nomic as well as ontic. It’s not just that there’s more stuff, there are more, and more complex, underlying laws. Our view of the long-term past and future is therefore obscured: the ancient universe was not just physically smaller but metaphysically impoverished or cramped, too, and long-term extrapolations are systematically thrown off by this. If we could understand the process properly, it may be that things would look less random—though I grant that for the moment this must be an optimistic article of faith rather than a rigorously deduced conclusion.

Let me just pour myself a bit of a digression here on the nature of the laws of nature. It is common to speak of the laws of nature or the laws of physics although this is clearly a metaphor, and a very old one. Few people, I would guess, suppose that the laws of nature are literally written down in some cosmic text and enforced by angelic police officers—although it is not uncommon to suppose that the mathematics we use to describe the world is actually what controls it, which I think may be a similar error. So what are these laws? One problem for us is that not only are they not written down in any cosmic text, they’re not written down on paper in earthly texts either. So far as I know, no-one has ever set down a comprehensive list of the Laws of Nature. Physics textbooks set out a number of laws, indeed, but these tend to be the non-obvious ones, rather in the way that early dictionaries included only ‘hard’ words. The nearest thing to a full statement might be in those efforts to produce a Naïve Physics that ended up (in my opinion) producing something that actually struck the normal mind as far weirder than mere Newtonian physics, but they were explicitly setting out a misconceived version of the laws.

It’s consequently hard to feel assured that all relevant examples have been covered, but again I will cut boldly to the chase and suggest that all laws of nature are in fact laws of conservation. They can all be reconstituted as assertions of the continued existence of an underlying entity in different cases, usually at different times. Certainly it seems that any law which can be stated in the form of an equation must be of this kind, because the equation of x with y essentially tells us that the quantity of underlying z of which they are both expressions remains the same whichever form we take it in. Laws which assert, or contain, a constant, clearly state the existence of a continuing fundamental entity in even clearer form.

If that’s true, then perhaps the laws of nature could be restated as a list of existential assertions (though some of the entities whose existence is asserted would be a little unfamiliar), which with a list of values would give us a comprehensive anomic account of the world.

Be that as it may, and getting back to the main point, it is at any rate clear that besides any confusion arising from any nomic evolution which may be going on, certain features of the world arise out of the operation of causality over time. Now it could be that time itself is actually constituted by the ontic growth of the universe (the steady drip of extra stuff providing the steady tick of the moments); but in any case that growth clearly requires time. It may be that some of the deep constant features of the universe are sustained in their existence directly by the same inscrutable principle which caused the universe to come into existence in the first place; but others definitely depend on a long stream of complex causality, and this is surely where the haecceity primarily comes in. We could say that everything is necessary, but that while some things are necessary in the light of metaphysics, others are necessary in the light of history.

To restate that: it may well be that the universe in which we find ourselves is actually the only possible one, and the product of a necessary ontological (and nomological) evolution; but the necessity of the details is both obscured from us by the nature of the evolution itself and also genuinely different from the direct necessity of the underlying features in that it derives its necessity through causation over time.

That’s why actual experience and actual qualia seem so strange and so difficult to capture theoretically. I hope that makes sense of some kind and perhaps appeals to some degree: I’m away now to sleep it off.

Peter Hankins is author of the Conscious Entities weblog.