Saturday, May 15, 2010

Straining Credulity

If a tree falls...

I know, it is one of those elementary mind benders, perhaps the very first paradox that I can recall wrestling with long before I had any idea that it was a philosophical pursuit. Like the notions of molecular motion and space that is really time (and matter too) the question of persistence was first posed to me by my brother Stephen, who was home from college and more than happy to blow my little but open and eager mind with these simple yet delightfully difficult philosophical concepts.

By persistence, I am referring to the notion that things, matter and the arrangements thereof, persist, or continue to exist, even when there is no human consciousness to perceive them. Two books that I am reading deal with this question in quite different ways. As a result, I am finally to a point where, if I am to have any hope of assembling my own thoughts and musings into a world view, I have to make some hard choices.

I finally have to decide if that damn tree makes a sound or not.

The first of these books is Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy where, although he acknowledges the fact that philosophical inquiry must question human perception as well as physical phenomena, he also argues for persistence and the fact that

Philosophy, if it cannot answer so many questions as we could wish, has at least the power of asking questions which increase the interest of the world and show the strangeness and wonder lying below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.

Of course, I'll never know for sure, such is the nature of the question, but at 53, after lo these many years of contemplating those 'commonest things' I am finally ready to stand.

It makes a sound. Matter persists.

As much as I would like to believe in the anthropic principle--that is, the idea that human consciousness is in fact the defining characteristic of matter--I cannot agree with the central assumption of this principle which holds that that without human perception no thing exists.

It is not as logical as Robert Lanza and Bob Berman would like make it sound in their recent best-selling defense of the anthropic principle, Biocentrism.

They write of a "solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random--even if that is exactly what standard contemporary physics baldly suggests."

As neat and efficient as a 'biocentric' answer might be, what really strains credulity is this idea--supposedly grounded in 'common sense'--that life is no coincidence or worse, that the Universe is the 'true' or 'real' purpose of human consciousness.

In fact, common sense actually tells us that it can't be that easy. Even if the 'standard contemporary physics' does not have all the answers (that still-elusive 'Theory of Everything'), to me, the more challenging and interesting questions arise from that very sense of uncertainty.

Don't take my word for it. Many actual physicists, according to Anil Ananthaswamy in The Edge of Physics, hold simply that 'biocentricism' is nothing more than a 'cop-out' which conveniently avoids having to explain "all things from first principles."

I think that 'biocentrism' is the very opposite of a logical explanation. Even by another name, this notion sounds suspiciously like a philosophy that would replace genetics with eugenics.

Common sense, when it comes to physics or philosophy, is often just a lazy way out of ignorance.

We have only to recall that at one time, most people believed that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. Many millions or billions of people--perhaps even a majority of those alive today--believe in a sentient and often personal god (or gods) who knows them and cares for them as individuals. Many people believe in 'creationism' and deny global warming, for the same reason.

Indeed, it takes far less work to explain things as they seem to be in order to avoid actually 'straining credulity'. And yet, if credulity were the only measure, and say, evolution is still up for debate, why aren't 'flat-earthism' or 'geocentrism' still widely held beliefs? Or, are they, Mr. Beck?

For me, the question of persistence not up for debate. Say, did you hear that tree fall?

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