The really, really big question

Review by Massimo Pigliucci. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright), £12.95/$27.95.

“Why is the sky blue?” This perennial question posed by children to their parents can be easily answered by modern moms and dads (after looking it up on Wikipedia): “Because the air scatters short-wavelength radiation better than long-wavelength radiation.” Yes, of course, you then have to explain what “wavelength” and “radiation” are, but it’s a start. No such easy answer is available for the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (for which Wikipedia returns a whopping 4,266 entries!). And that is the topic picked by Jim Holt for this lively philosophical-scientific quest concerning the ultimate metaphysical conundrum.

Holt sets up his pursuit as an “existential detective story”, in which his own musings are mixed with the thoughts of a wide range of thinkers, from scientists to philosophers to theologians, several of whom he has interviewed. I was happy to see Holt talk to philosophers who are knowledgeable about the relevant science, as well as to scientists who have at least heard of the word “philosophy”. I happen to think that the confluence of those two disciplines into what used to be called “scientia” (knowledge in the broader sense) is where a lot of the action is these days when it comes to a number of “deep questions”, including consciousness, free will, morality, and the very structure of reality.

I was significantly less happy to have to endure a whole chapter devoted to the musings of Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, since I think theology fails the test imposed by Hume’s fork (that philosophical assertions need to have either empirical or mathematical content to be taken seriously), and that the best thing to do with it is to “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” I mean, here we are, at the onset of the twenty-first century, and we are still taking seriously people who tell us that God is the simplest “explanation” imaginable for the universe? Could it be that you think so because your imagination is limited, or because you are confused about what counts as an explanation?

But Holt – to his credit – goes to the other extreme as well, also paying a visit to Adolf Grünbaum in Pittsburgh. Grünbaum tells Holt that he is going after a pseudo-question, because nothingness is impossible, which in turn implies that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is an example of “cadit quaestio”, a fallen question, in response to which it is far better to go out and grab a beer (generally speaking, not a bad suggestion anyway).

Like Holt, however, I don’t share Grünbaum’s slightly too cavalier dismissal of the whole shebang, and think that science and philosophy actually do have a lot to say about it. Which brings the reader to an intellectual tour de force that includes multiverses and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which should really be kept more conceptually distinct than is done in some places in the book), mathematical Platonism, the idea that the universe may be a simulation in someone’s computer (to which Holt gives remarkably little space, particularly compared to Swinburne’s deeply unenlightening musings), and even more bizarre ideas – such as the possibility advanced by Plato that the universe may be the result of an ethical compulsion, or Robert Nozick’s strange “principle of fecundity”.

One idea that I was hoping to see explored was James Ladyman and Don Ross’s suggestion that there is no “ultimate” stuff of which the universe is made, that “at bottom” it’s all about relations (don’t ask “Relations between what?” because you’d be missing the point). While those authors do not explicitly endorse it, a universe in which “every thing must go” (as the title of their book puts it) is also one that is particularly friendly to certain forms of mathematical Platonism, which would have connected quite nicely with Holt’s chapter on Pythagoras, Kurt Gödel, and Roger Penrose.

Regardless, throughout the book the reader will encounter – directly (based on interviews) or indirectly – the thoughts of some of the brightest and most provocative thinkers who have something to say about the deep questions, and two things clearly emerge from the volume. First, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is neither silly nor just of interest to philosophers and “armchair speculators”. Second, like all good philosophy, by the end of the journey the prize is not necessarily getting an answer, but rather consists in gaining a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the question.

Of course, regardless of which take you end up favouring about the origin of all things, you might still come to agree with Douglas Adams: “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.” Or maybe not.

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of the forthcoming Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (BasicBooks). His philosophical musings can be found

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  1. The problem I have with ‘why does the world exist?’ is that that question already assumes that a principle – Causality, exists over and above and beyond the realms of the universe itself..

    Yet Causality is part of the explanation we have for the universe that does – apparently – exist.

    What worries me is that philosophy is littered with this kind of casual extrapolation. Terms used to describe things in a certain context are used to posit questions and ridiculous answers about matters that are beyond the scope of those terms.

    There is a metaphysic that resolves these issues, but no one seems to understand it. The habit of thinking in terms that are relevant to our experience of living in a material world are, it seems, too ingrained to be abandoned when discussing it from a perspective outside it.

    I watch Penrose in one of his books lay all the groundwork for the acceptance of this proposition and at the last moment, his intellectual fingers slip, and he falls back into the safe pit of materialism.

    But of course, I have no formal qualifications in philosophy, so what do my opinions count for?

  2. I can’t see how this can be anything other than an empirical problem. Science over the last century has presented us with so much that has been unexpected and pretty much unimaginable. No philosophy or theology has come close the the weirdness or the detail or the complexity of observed nature. How far from the simple Greek atoms are actual atoms and all their quantum strangeness? How much more interesting and multifaceted is the human brain compared to the soul, or even the mind?

    So, precisely what do we know about the matter of the creation of universes that convinces us that something can or cannot come from nothing? This very, very big question has a very, very big gaping hole where the answer should be. We simply have no idea.

    The options seem all too simple. You can get something from nothing, or you can’t. If you can’t, and if indeed what we experience is something, then does that mean there hsd always been something, eternally? What can we make of the notion of eternity if time itself is not part of the bigger picture but only a local phenomenon in this universe? We only have experience of human and animal agency, in this apparently material universe, and in what are very fallible biological systems, so why would we think agency is a concept that has anything to do with the coming into being of something? Paley’s idea persists.

    What if there are are other demensions? What if there are other dimensions of time, as there are with space? What if there are other dimensions that are not space or time but something as yet unimagined, something beyond the imagination of even the most fansiful theologians?

    If the past is any guide to the future we can’t rule out anything weirder than anything we have yet observed. Human brains are pretty imaginative, but we seem only able to imagine things that are at least something like our experience. So God is like some super natural person, with the flawed material mortal body removed? And created existence, like all human artefacts, must be created from something?

    So yes, we don’t get an answer yet, just more questions. What we don’t get is the answer that you can’t get something from nothing, or the answer that you can. The significant point in this respect is that the anti-science theologians do not have the answer. Nobody does. We have to keep asking the questions, hypothesising answers, and using our imagination to figure out how to test them.

  3. Ron: The problem is the usual metaphysical one extrapolating concepts and language designed to describe the workings of a universe that already exists, to some understanding of ’causes’ of it.

    It cannot be done. There is always some a priori – something you just have to take ‘as read’ as the basic starting point of rational thought. And the rational materialist a priori is that we are inside all that there is, and are wholly part of it. That’ simply doesn’t allow for any refutable statements about conditions outside all that there is, or before all that there ever has been. Because we cant get outside or go back to before.

    You might be able to go a bit further by abandoning rational materialism and looking at idealism, and make the physical universe less than we ourselves are in some way. Then we could look into ourselves for the origins of thephysical universe, as an engulfing metaphor to explain our experience, rather than as hard fact.

    But even multiverses are no more than the components of the set called the Universe.

    But that simply means we are in fact left with a deeper problem – the fact of our own existence.

    At some level the wisdom of Taoism is the only solution. The Tao, they say, is that which exists through itself.

    I’ll leave you with an amusing proposition.

    The phenomenal universe is the intersection of consciousness with existence

    Its a nice trinity, with father (existence), son (phenomenal universe) and holy ghost (consciousness)..

    The nice thing about being completely A-theistic, is one can look at religion from fresh perspectives..

  4. Leo,

    The problem with any idealism is that you’re on a one way train to solipsism.

    It may become simple in concept but opens so many more questions that cannot be answered.

    The connection to religous trinity is an an arbitrary invented convenience that miraculously fits Christian theology. Why not the father, mother, two sons and a daughter and a pet cat and a holy ghost?

    In idealism you can make anything up you like and it is inevitable consistent with everything else because any offered objection or refutation is met with any other arbitrary imaginative solution that pops into your head.

    I’ll give you an alternative proposition. I am the sole solipsist consciousness and you are a figment of my imagination. Or am I a figment of yours? No, you are a figment of mine. The odd thing is that I get the feeling you think you are a thinking thing that has thoughts that I cannot access. But you would be mistaken. What you feel you are experiencing consciously is just a part of my consciousness that is not accesible to this part of my consciousness.

    Or another one. God is a real trans-universal material alien that likes to create universes for fun, and ours is just one of many. He his laughing himself silly at all the dumb theists that just happened to have had a lucky guess that there is an agency behind all this, but all the additional speculative theology is pure fiction. This God, for want of a better name, left no trace of his work and is most impressed with material atheists. At least they acknowledge that it would be foolish to believe in some being without evidence.

    And so on with any fiction you like. Toaism is just one more fiction.

    The thing is it doesn’t matter that the components of a system cannot contain all the information that descibes the system that contains them. Part understanding is sufficient.

    Descartes was on the right track. All the way down to the cogito. I appear to be a thinking thing and appear to exist. I cannot figure out what it would mean to be a thinking thing that does not exist, or or a non-thinking thing that thinks it thinks. And there we are as far down as we can go. The trouble is that the upward journey can lead to anything. Solipsism being the simplest but least informative. But I cannot refute solipsism

    All I have is the persistent pesky troublesome in-your-face experience that seems like a material world. I accept fully that there is no way to prove solipsism or materialism or any ism. What if I examine the possibilities? Materialism seems to be an expanding predictable experience. The trouble with solipsism is that it feels just the same. If I was really just a consciousness then maybe I should be able to imagine my material experience away, or at least make some convincing adjustments to the experience. Turns out that what might be a solipsit existence is indistinguishable from what seems like a material experience. I then ask myself why I shoukd bother with solipsism. Why not just act as if the material experience is real. It would seem to make no difference to what I experience.

    With materialism comes science. Then evolution. Then biology. Then neuroscience. And these tell me that we are evolved from creatures that had no brain, no mind, and are related to all other life on earth. The trouble now is that as a species we have no colective memory of when our consciousnessbecame self reflective and introspective. For millennia now we have been under the impression that consciousness is the primary route to knowledge about ourselves and our place in the universe, when all along we are physical experiential beings. The brain is a physical self monitoring system. Never mind asking what it feels like to be abat, what doesit feel like to be a physical self monitoring biological automaton? It feels just like this. What does it feel like to have a self aware subsystem that can perform reflectively but where the introspection sees only the top level procceses in action in some vague program, but which can’t introspectively sense its own physical mechanism? It feels like having a free floating mind that has free will, just like this.

    And the further thing is, the more we get into neuroscience the more it demonstrates that the classical ideas about mind are quite wrong. If genuine material animals had brains like ours that were fallible in their introspective perspective, that evolved and forgetfully awoke into a consciousness that feels detached and free, then they might well make the philosophical mistakes that we have, before they developed sciences that could correct them.

    Our ancient conscious awakening has a parallel in personal development. By the time we have developed ourcsense of self and someintellect and language to contemplate what the mind is we have forgetten hoe our conscious awareness developed. Our infant brains don’thave the intellect to appreciate their own awakening, just like the species. No wonder philosophy got it so wrong in thinking the mind was paramount. All this time the physical brain has invented its own ghost in the machine, and built philosophies and theologies around that.

    The thing is, this material perspective, even if it cannot be proven to be correct, and even if alternatives cannot be refuted, is the only one that works. I really feels like I’m reading a book on philosophy and not just imagining I am in some really real solipsist existence. When Johnson said, “I refute it thus!” It wasn’t a strictly logically sound refutation, but it was good enough. And that’s what science does: good enough. The alternatives are far from good enough to tell us anything useful, except perhaps how gullible the brain can be.

    And as for religion, it not only tells us nothing, it tells us all sorts of varieties of nothings as each religion makes its own claims for truth. If only the religious took your warnings of uncertainty to heart and applied it to their own religion. Why presuppose a God? Why is faith a good methodology rather than a stifler of inquiry?

    Materialism is a working system that actually works. Idealism is an ideal that doesn’t.

  5. Oh dear. You have quite misunderstood.

    The chief points to be made was that mutatis mutandisall metaphysics are equivalently devoid of provable truth content. Because in a sense they define what is a fact and what is not, so the relationship between the facts – which we can use ‘truth’ to describe, or falsity, is a posteriori the metaphysics.

    That’s an important point. You cannot assign truth content to a statement that hasn’t been made.

    “What the world really is” is therefore in a class of statements that can be demonstrated to belong to the class of known unknowables.

    All our rationality and talk is concerned with derived entities – subsets of the class of ‘Life the Universe and everything’ and the real magic (sic!) is in the way these classes and subsets are constructed by us..and in the invisible noumenous relationships we create between them to account for their phenomenological behaviours.

    Science, by settling on a metaphysic of an inhuman unintelligent but utterly implanable class of noumena, replaces – or rather transforms God from an intelligent being who cares, to a set of rules called ‘laws of nature’ and removes the creation content.
    But the model really hasn’t changed that much. There is still a ‘spiritual realm’ where the ‘laws of nature’ operate behinds the scenes pulling the strings to ‘make stuff happen’.

    Your mistake is in thinking that I espouse a particular metaphysic. I do not. My purpose is solely to show that there are free choices of metaphysics, – perhaps an infinite set – and that the world of experience is mapped by them onto various entities, some of which are tangible and some of which are noumenous, and whose relationships are then defined and tested by the comparison of experience with the predictions of that model.

    But that that does not make the model true and it does not necessarily make it accurate.

    So when we want to compare metaphysics the only criteria can be that they in some way prove useful to us, in whatever terms human beings understand utility.

    Now I can take issue with your ‘inevitable transformation to solipsism’. That only happens if you do what I deliberately avoided, And that is state that experiences is ‘all inthe mind’. Solipsism is instantly avoided if you say that experience is all in my mind, and yours too, and better, is completely eradicated if not only is it in our minds, but also exists as the representation of something else that does exist independently on Mind. One or many., Which is the essential proposition of Schopenhuer, et al.

    Now remember we have, I hope, pounded home the nail in the coffin of Ultimate Truth, and shown that it is forever a concept that simply does not and cannot apply to our rational analysis of ‘all that there is’ .

    Ergo no metaphysic is ‘truer’ than another. WE have surely to find some other criteria to assess it, and when we look at science, we find indeed post Popper et al, that the people who have pondered this, myself among them, judge it on – not its truth content – but on its efficacy, utility, simplicity and accuracy.

    That is, science is a beautiful, self consistent, useful and accurate story about the world, as seen through the viewpoint and eyes of someone who considers the reality of the entities that comprise it as beyond dispute.

    But they are not beyond dispute. And in fact science advances by vigorously disputing them!

    We are forever inventing new entities to provide causal relationships between the entities of our materialistic world view.

    That is fair enough., The story is not yet told. And its sciences business to carry on constructing it.,

    But its not my business, or the business of philosophers…Their business is to remind scientists that it is, at best, a story. And that its ultimate foundation – the presumed existence of a material world, and our minds that seek to assess it, is just anther story – a metaphysical story, and is mutable should we decide that it is useful to do so.

    IN short whilst the materialist is happy enough to consider the intricacies of the external(ised) world, and even move its boundaries inwards into e.g. neuroscience, he cannot escape, except by denying its existence in a massive form of double think, that this assessment is being made by something that must necessarily be of an independent and orthogonal nature to the reality it is inspecting, if there is any hope at all that the inspection process leads to valid results. Inclusion of ‘consciousness’ as a derivative of ‘material reality’ leads to logical recursion. Our picture of reality depend on something that is part of the picture we are constructing, and that absolutely and completely nullifies any possibility that the picture can be true or complete, in the limit. Which is just another way of saying that pictures don’t have ultimate truth content, and are always less than what they depict.

    However, If we construct a slightly different metaphysic, and allow Mind to be independent of the physical reality it constructs from ‘whatever is the case’ …then we get a picture that is actually more useful in approaching certain areas of the problem under consideration. It won’t take us to the Truth, that cannot be done – but it may take us further. If we remove the useful, but only approximate nature of material reality being all there is, and instead see it as the result of combining two elements of some as yet undefined deeper reality ..then we can see that not only does material reality reflect aspects of the deeper thing, but it also reflects deeper aspects of the minds that are constructing it.

    As I said, this doesn’t lead to more truth content, but it does make sense of some hard problems in the realm of physics and human psychology. In particular it makes the construction of a multiverse entirely possible. Quantum reality spreads beyond and behind the classical universe, because the classical universe is merely a single picture, of many possible, that we select without being aware of how or why we do.

    The fact that some people react to similar stimuli in entirely different ways can be seen as a simple indications that they are making slightly different selections. They are, in deep sense, not living in the same world.

    So my purpose is not to claim that this or that metaphysics is more or less true – no. Its to say that there is no true, or rather, there is a true, but since it must necessarily encompass us in all our ponderings, we cannot step outside it to ponder it objectively.

    But by accepting that what we can ponder, is that which we can step outside, is to make progress in understanding the real nature of knowledge itself. Not as a true picture, but as a useful story, about whatever it is.

    And further to understand that there is an infinite set of possible stories, some of which are self consistent and rigorous, and some of which are comfortable, inconsistent but cheerful, and that its within the power of any individual to pick one and live by it as if it were true..

    The conflict arises when people through weakness, declare that it is true.


    As far as the Trinity goes, I was merely pointing out that an objective reality has to be constructed of (at least) three entities. Namely subject, object and whatever is divided to make the result.

    A fact that has been known since the dawn of time and summarised neatly in creation myths. And the myth of the descent of Man, when he suddenly eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and finds himself as subject in an objective world.

    And in the same gasp of illumination, realises that the world he finds himself in, seems to be governed by mysterious forces beyond his control and beyond his immediate comprehension. And the more he believes in the reality of the objects, the more he has to believe in the reality of the mysterious force(s) that guide their behaviour. Conveniently forgetting that the forces he apprehends may actually be no more than the artefacts of the invisible entity he used to formulate the objective view in the first place.

    The question is not whether its all in the mind, or all not in the mind, but how much of it is more convenient to regard as being in the mind…and why on earth anyone should care..


  6. Leo,

    All of what you say is fine, but merely proposes yet another story based on yet more unprovable presuppositions. Why on earth would I want to presuppose there is a God that would make me the least concerned about transforming him? I find it odd that despite the claims to unkowability about everything and the possibility of anything that there is a tendency to inject God into the conversation as a presupposition without any reason for doing so.

    I agree the question is not whether its all in the mind, or all not in the mind, but how much of it is more convenient to regard as being in the mind. The material world makes a great inconvenience of itself that I don’t see idealists ignoring except for fleeting moments of introspection that are still consistent with a material brain thinking it is experiencing an idealist reality. My very point is that it is all arbitrary when we are trying to prove anything, but all very inconveniently material when we try to stop eating or walk in front of a bus.

    And objective reality does not have to be constructed of at least three entities. That’s just one more model in which you are making unrelated relations between unconnected patterns, which conveniently coincide with one religious perspective. It has no more credibility than me saying that there are zero, one or two aspects to reality because some of us have no penis, some one, and we mostly have two legs two eyes. Your pattern matching assertion is consistent with Apophenia.

    There’s also the tentative materialist model that everything is one thing in different forms. The mass energy equivalence makes that easy. Emerging models of digital physics and information theory speculatively suppose variations on everything being information. And all idealisms are just more speculative propositions.

    And so most conveniently we return to the materials model that is with us even when we try to avoid it.

    That’s all it’s about. Going with the most inconveniently persistent appearances from the materialist model that turn out to be conveniently useful.I suspect more people travel in material planes than go astral planing. Or, to be fair, most people think they are in material planes than think they are astral planing, whether one or both perspectives is wrong. Think how complex and detailed an aeroplane is, and simplistic the notion of astral planing is. If the mind is the working reality why would it bother inventing a complex object like a plane? It the material world is reality then the simplistic model of astral planing can be dismissed as simply the imaginative function of the material brain. If both are wrong its still the materialist model that seems so persistent and common – given the tentative evidence yet unprovable truth of whether all those people in planes really exist. I can add all the caveats of uncertainty you like, and still find the materialist model most persuasive.

    Out of all the many possibilities we can define it is the material definition that comes back and defines the very organ that does the defining, the material brain.

    The multiverse and quantum physics are only problems in as much as they are scientific problems on the continuous road of discovery. They are no less problems for any other model. They don’t seem to go away by wishful thinking.

    “The mind…it might take us further.” Apparently not in several millennia. We still have pretty much the same concepts and models that solve no problems at all. There is no way for the model of the mind to intervene on the peskier problems that appear to us as material problems. No amount of pure mind work solved the problem of smallpox. Yes, smallpox, Jenner and all the rest of the material experience might be a false representation of some unknowable reality, but as you say, why does that matter.

    There is no weakness regarding truth in science as you assert because it is not declared to be absolute incontrovertible truth. Except in the simplistic sense that we declare facts to be true for convenience. All scientists know that the theory of evolution is just a theory. It’s not an issue of proving it beyond all doubt within a materialist model that itself is not beyond doubt. The whole point of the theory of evolutions is precisely that it is consistent with a materialist model in a more persuasive way than alternatives. Scientists know full well that many different models can be consistent with a set of observations – just look at all the cosmological models. That isn’t a problem for them. They need only investigate within the closed system of a material model to see progress; progress as defined within that very same model by the extent to which the material model offers up evidence for the material brains to consider.

    Which is why, if a God ever did reveal himself, rather than being invented (how would we tell the difference) then he would be incorporated into a materialist explanation according to his nature. As would fairies. As was the one time inconceivable notion that the earth surface is made of plates that move imperceptibly slowly around the globe. The simple beauty of the material invention is that it and its science adapt according to what appears most true in that context, not what is actually unknowably true. It already accepts the unknowable as so far unkowable.

    And the materialist scientific model is a bit more careful about declaring what is unkowable. By your own standards of scepticism we cannot know whether what we think is unkowable is actually unkowable or simply currently not known to be knowable. The linguistic gymnastics of mysticism don’t seem to solve any problems

    The problem with choosing a mind model is that the mind can construct and find consistent any model it chooses, as the many religious mind models tend to do. Why is there evil? Because God has a plan that we don’t understand. Why don’t we understand it? Because God and his ways are ineffable. If he’s ineffable how do you know so much about him? Because he reveals himself through the bible. How do you know the bible is true? because it says it is the word of God. How do you know it is the word of God? Because in it God says he is revealing himself to us. … Endless and pointless word games. It’s called imagination, and it can produce fiction. And by use of the mind alone we cannot distinguish between fictions.

    Such mind models are never played out by their proponents. Why are you here interacting? How are you interacting? Are you a single conscious mind arguing with yourself? Instead of just offering playful models why don’t you tell me what you think you actually are. Are you denying that you are a material human entity? How committed are you to your mind model?

    Here’s a proposal of discovery. Try to overcome your material perspective of existence by digging deeper into your mind. To help you with that task dedicate yourself to it full time, not eating or drinking for at least a month. Get back to me with the results. I fully accept the possibility that what might appear as your material death may in fact just be a mental symbol of you achieving Nirvana. Good luck and god speed.

    If you decide to stick around in this material model of computers and the internet by all means continue the dialogue.

  7. Well, you can’t answer this question without clarifying its meaning. Does this question ask for the purpose of the universe? Or does it simply ask fro the science behind existence? For the former, I recommend a great video by Neil deGrasse Tyson, found at

    Otherwise, one could say that the science behind the existence of the universe is far too complicated for human comprehension. As we are but minute components of the universe, we cannot possibly understand it, as it is literally bigger than we are, and infinitely so, too. So to say that there could, in theory, be nothing, would be futile. There is no possible way, through science or philosophy, to discern what “reality” is, as we assume that reality is what we perceive, and thus we cannot discern what “no reality” is. It would be impossible to experience it, and thus impossible to conceive of. Therefore, I would say that this question is pointless. There is no possible way to answer without having an infinite amount of doubt, and thus one could just as well say any one thing and it would be as “right” as any other. We could ponder this question infinitely, but never find an acceptable answer.

  8. Jeremy,

    Given the OP includes the analogous question about the blue sky I take to be a question to be about how things work rather than some search for mystical purpose. I find the mystical sense of the question presupposes something, usually an agent, often God, to provide thst purpose for us, theimplication being we should be trying to figure what purpose was intendedfor us. I see no reason to presuppose such a source of mystical purpose, and conaequently no need to presuppose such a type of purpose.

    I agree in part about understanding the system. That components of a system can’t fully understand the system of which they arecomponents depends to some extent on the meaning of understanding. If we suppose it means knowing every detail about ever component then there is a simple issue of capacity. Knowledge, or its simpler form, data, must be instantiated in statesof the container component. Put simply, digitally, there not enough bit capacity for the component to record all bit states of all other components and of itself.

    Suppose a 16 bit universe is trying to be fully understood in every detail by a 2 bit component. For any instant there are 65536 states to record (including the 2 bit component wanting to do the recording), but only 2 bits, or 4 states that the component can record. And that’s just a static state. It assumes we don’t want to record dynamic data, multiple states, of the system. Even if we have a 16 bit universe and a 15 bit component there is only 1 bit of the remaining system to record in the component; but to fully know the system the component hss to record its own state. The only component that can record a full system is one that is the whole system – a 16 bit component. And that’s just for one instant of the system. A component does not have capacity to fully know a sytem in any sense that includes useful dynamic information.

    But full information isn’t necessary for reasonable and useful understanding. Newton’s laws provide a pretty good understanding of how bulk objects behave at low speeds comparec to light speed. Science also approximates in its measurements – absolute precision may be unatainable, but isn’t needed. Our models are always simpler than what we model. That’s why they are useful.

    The sun is a much greater mass than earth and all the brains on earth. There are too many atoms in the sun for all their states to be known in all our brains, books, computers. But we wouldn’t say we know nothing about the sun’s processes. We use models quite well. I see no barrier to creating useful though incomplete models of the universe. We don’t know for sure that we can’t know about the universe from the outside. What we call science is barely a few hundred years old. What will we know in 1,000, or 10,000 years? When we enhance our brains and create self-advancing AI how fast will our progress be?

    If some of our models are correct we already know the fate of the universe, and so of course the fate of the future human brains that will want to understand the universe. But it’s not that long ago we figured the end of our solar system, in which case humans millions of years from now will start to contemplate seriously how to escape the death of the solar system. When, if, we are roaming the galaxies and when, if, we discover extra universes, maybe we’ll be looking for another new home. I’m sure there are plenty of objections to this view, but they might just be based on the colloquial perspective of current science. And this isn’t a claim that this might or could happen but it is a claim that we don’t know it won’t.

    If it still seems far fetched to some, them imagine how how far fetched notions of solipsism, brains in a vat, or God, seem to others, and yet these philosophies and theologies have been considered seriously in philosophical and theological circles. There is a tendency to treat extreme scientific specukations as fiction, science fiction, which of course it is. But many phlosophical and theological speculations are no less fictional. There’s a picture around on the net from a book store (it might be a doctored picture) with a section sign that reads “Religious fiction” – a tautology if ever there was one.

    So, I’m not sufficiently convinced that trying to understand ‘nothing’ is pointless. Or whether something can come from nothing. You may be right that it is a futile persuit, but we’ll never confirm that for sure. And anyway, since when has following trivial persuits disuaded human inquiry? It’s something to do in lieu of any God given mystical purpose – we make our own purpose no matter how trivial.

  9. The point I was trying to make is that underpinning all notions about existence is an unprovable assumption about the intrinsic nature of it. The assumption lies in the categorisation and reification of experience – which I hold to be a priori of any theory about it – into entities which can be then related as phenomena with causal relationships.

    And that the history of that process is one in which religious ideas are the actual language: science is the direct descendant of a (religious) world-view where the spiritual realm has been transformed in detail, but not in principle, from the domain of actively intelligent natural forces with personalities, into one where they are blind and mechanical.

    However that is an aside.

    The issue in point is that if – as I do – you regard the ultimately only evidence for anything as humanity’s experience of it, the reification process – which is in some ways analogous to an algorithmic compression of experience into short-form tagged ‘entities’ – things – that exist, in a space-time matrix and relate to each other via defined ‘natural laws’ of one sort or another, then this process itself introduces the ideas of space, time, materiality and causality. Which is Kant, of course.

    Ergo it is invalid to project these derived concepts beyond their ‘sphere of applicability’ – that is, beyond the ‘phenomenal world’ and speculate using them about what lies ‘behind it’.

    As I tried to say, making space time materiality and causality ‘ultimate reality’ when they are simply a useful set of tools to INTERPRET it with, is the huge mistake. Leading to unanswerable questions such as why the laws of nature are what they are, and what happened before the big bang.

    Making these derived qualities contingent on a particular view, throws the problem into a different focus: Why, the question becomes , do we humans choose this way of relating to experience? And the answer is because its useful for us. We have stumbled on a particular categorisation that enables us to do well and prosper, and the anthropic nature of the universe is simply because we – whatever we are – have simply chosen a view of it that complements our own natures.

    That solves the problems of why the physical world seems to be the way it is, and why it seems to suit us, it doesn’t of course solve the question of what we are, and what the universe really is, but it does at least stop us asking pointless misdirected questions about it, in a language too limited in concepts to do so..

    And perhaps reminds us that science itself is not based on ultimate facts, but on a derived model of the world, right down to the limits of perception. The map, is not the territory.

  10. Leo,

    I accept fully the “unprovable assumption about the intrinsic nature of it”.

    “The assumption lies in the categorisation and reification of experience – which I hold to be a priori of any theory about it”

    The problem with a priori is it’s ambiguous meaning. In a strict sense I think it ought to mean prior to absolutely any other contingency. The trouble is, when we get further with one perspective or another it can take on a different meaning. So, for example, we could say that our minds have a priori innate knowledge. But in the context of physical biological evolution what a human mind may think is a priori innate is only relatively a priori, in that past ‘experiences’ in evolution contribute to the formation of the DNA that builds the brain that has the mind that has ‘innate’ knowledge, such as suckling.

    If you’re really do mean ‘first class’ (for want of a better expression) a priori then I would ask why you hold the categorisation and reification of experience as such? You are after all presupposing that you are a mind that can identify whether something or other should be held a priori; which, if that mind later accepts evolution, turns out to be wrong. Under evolutionary biology the categorisation and reification of experience is itself a physical experience of a brain, not some magic of a mind.

    Personally I have no inclination to take anything a priori. I’m open to whatever I can figure out. All I can figure out is that the subjective experience that I have of a material world seems to damned persistent to ignore. Given all other possibilities are equally arbitrary and impossible to choose from based on reason alone, I go with the flow and where materialism leads me. I’m open to suggestions, but so far I’ve found them unconvincing.

    Take yours….

    “the history of that process is one in which religious ideas are the actual language”

    That’s presumptuous. No living humans know the slightest thing about the history of human evolution, how and when language developed, or the place of religious ideas in that frame. And, incidentally, can you explain how you are prepared to conveniently consider history with regard to religion and not with regard to evolution, the latter of which suggests that my objection about the known history of language is a reasonable one: language and religion are lost in our evolutionary un-documented past.

    “science is the direct descendant of a (religious) world-view”

    No it isn’t. It may be coincident with it because religion dominated culture for so long. There is no indication that science could not have developed independently. If anything science is in direct opposition to religion in that science uses the senses and reason to discover, while religion uses speculation, faith, and affirmation. Such different methodologies that I can’t see how science could be descended from religion. If you want to play with that analogy I’d say science is the intelligent, outgoing and well-adjusted younger sibling of a fanciful bewildered spiteful older brother who resents the progress of the younger; both children of the flawed human mind. Rather than the naïve inwardly looking introspective religion, science uses all the capabilities of collective minds to develop methodologies that compensate for the personal subjective limitations.

    “However that is an aside.”

    It’s an important aside. Do you not accept that for any statement you make of a religious nature requires that you presuppose a God of some sort as the main subject and creator of the all religious phenomena and beliefs? The question is, why make that presupposition? Why not a naturalistic non-deistic, non-theistic, non-agent perspective? Or, why make any presuppositions at all? Why not just take what we find? Science finds no evidence of anything like a greater agent. All it finds we can categorise as ‘natural’ and non-teleological. Un-purposed unfolding of a physical universe is all we see.

    “this process itself introduces the ideas of space, time, materiality and causality”

    I fully accept that. But the point is that we can’t do anything else except add wild speculations. The ONLY reason to go with the flow of materialism is because it, and the laws of nature, time, causality, is how we seem to experience reality – or our view of it. No other reason. I accept fully that we struggle with causality, time, determinism, randomness. The laws of nature, incidentally, I see only as our models of reality. This is why they change as we change what we come to know. They may have nothing at all to do with any ultimate reality out there that might be within our reach in the future or forever beyond our reach: we cannot know whether what we think is unknowable is actually unknowable or simply currently not known to be knowable.

    “Ergo it is invalid to project these derived concepts beyond their ‘sphere of applicability'”

    Yes. And I don’t, except only as speculations. Some speculations are more interesting than others. Speculations about string theory, multiple dimensions, and so on, are to some extent based on what we know (albeit in our sphere of applicability) about cosmology, and how maths, having been successful in many ways, seems to suggest some possibilities beyond what we can currently observe.

    And, as yet, even given all what you go on to say next, there is no indication that we cannot look beyond the bounds of our universe. We might wonder, are we trying to go beyond what we can possibly know, or are we trying to expand our perspective into what is actually within reach but as yet unknowably in reach? The latter has been the case on a few occasions in the past.

    But some speculations, such as religious ones, seem to be based on a presupposition of some sort of God agent, without any basis other than it’s some romantic extrapolation toward what we see as a perfection of our human limited existence – God in our image. I find it a complete intellectual fraud.

    “As I tried to say, making space time materiality and causality ‘ultimate reality’ when they are simply a useful set of tools to INTERPRET it with, is the huge mistake.”

    Then I agree – but I don’t know who takes them to be ultimate reality, do you? They are models that we seem unable to avoid for now. They seem useful for now. Perhaps you are taking what is a working conclusion as a commitment to reality?

    For example, I might, and often do, appeal to evolution and its indication that our ancestors had no neurons, and so we must conclude that we are primarily physical creatures sensing by electrochemical means, and the brain, and in us the process that we think of as mind, are an evolutionary add-on, and that consequently the primary place that philosophy gives to reason is mistaken. I accept all the caveats, whereby we must admit the contingent nature of all of the material perspective that leads to this; but the alternatives offer far less; and the alternatives can’t take us out of the material experience.

    “Leading to unanswerable questions such as why the laws of nature are what they are, and what happened before the big bang.”

    Yes, quite. But just to nit-pick on religion once more, I see no reason to resort to some God of the gaps, or God of the pre-big bang.

    “Why, the question becomes , do we humans choose this way of relating to experience? And the answer is because its useful for us. ”

    Yes, I agree. For no other reason so far.

    “We have stumbled on a particular categorisation that enables us to do well and prosper, and the anthropic nature of the universe is simply because we – whatever we are – have simply chosen a view of it that complements our own natures.”


    “it doesn’t of course solve the question of what we are, and what the universe really is, but it does at least stop us asking pointless misdirected questions about it, in a language too limited in concepts to do so..”

    But it doesn’t seem to stop us making pointless and misdirected speculations about gods, or panpsychic universal consciousness, or any other of the favourites of theologians and mystics. Why do you suppose they can’t just say, yes, there’s stuff we don’t know, but the models we build of what we don’t know that give us something tentative and useful to know are actually pretty good.

    I’d suggest that if anything will lead us to understand causality, time and any other unknown it is science. Look at how science and it’s precursors of observation through experience changed our views of space-time, from simplistic flat earth, through geocentric and heliocentric, to Newton and then Einstein, and on to the cosmological observations that suggest the big bang, and the continued observations and speculations that lead onward; or, digging deeper, the weirdness of quantum physics. None of this was foreseen by fantasising about God.

    “And perhaps reminds us that science itself is not based on ultimate facts, but on a derived model of the world, right down to the limits of perception. The map, is not the territory.”

    I agree.

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