Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Where the mystery lies

If I appear to have a bit of an obsession with David Berlinski's writings, it may be because I share one or two of his obsessions (don't ask); or just that I have been charmed by his politically incorrect persona. But let me make it clear that I disagree utterly with his ultimate conclusions about human life and science – with his basic view of the world, in fact.

In a way, he is my ideal interlocutor, a deft articulator of a point of view I respect but reject.

He sees the scientific view of the world (which most of us implicitly accept) as being essentially ideological, as a set of commitments

… conceived without justification, the commitments determining the evidence rather than the reverse, and this by means of a psychological process as difficult to discern as it is to deny. The largest of these commitments, and the one least examined because most tenaciously held, is that the universe is nothing more than a system of material objects. Beyond this system – nothing. A universe of this sort might seem repugnant to most men and women, but many physical scientists have proclaimed themselves satisfied by a world in which there is nothing but atoms and the void, and they look forward to their forthcoming dissolution into material constituents with cheerful nihilism.

An uneasy sense nonetheless prevails – it has long prevailed – that the vision of a purely physical or material universe is somehow incomplete; it cannot encompasses the familiar but inescapable facts of ordinary life. A man speaks, sending waves into the air. A woman listens, the tiny and exquisite bones in her inner ear vibrating sympathetically to the splashes of his voice. The purely physical exchange having been made, what has been sound becomes what has been said; heated by the urgency of communication, the sounds begin to glow with meaning so that an undulating current in the air can convey a lyric poem, issue a declaration of war, or say with terrible finality that it's over. Making sense of sounds is something every human being does and that nothing else can do. More than three generations of mathematical physicists grew old before their successors understood black-body radiation; the association between sound and meaning is more mysterious than anything found in physics. And we, too, are waiting for our successors.

Part of his method, evidently, is to exhaust (exasperate?) us with his rhetoric. But here are a few unrhetorical points in reply.

Firstly, let's accept that old fashioned, commonsense materialism is, in the light of quantum mechanics and a computational perspective on the world, no longer viable. Even so, the world can still be seen as a physical, if not a 'material', system. The 'atoms' of this world can be seen as (physical) events or processes rather than as little bits of stuff.

Is such a view incomplete? Of course. It is concerned only with what underlies and ultimately generates and powers the pageant, not with the pageant itself. The pageant of life needs to be suffered or enjoyed or analysed or interpreted in its own terms.

Berlinski is right to suggest that human language is wondrous and unique, but wrong to see deep mystery in the meaning of sentences. If there is a deep mystery of meaning, it resides also in animal communication systems, surely. And those more primitive systems would lie closer to the mystery's source.

In fact, in my view, the mystery lies – if it lies anywhere – with subjective experience rather than with communication; and, of course, in the broader question of why there is anything at all.**

* The Advent of the Algorithm (Harcourt 2001), pp. 249-250.

** By the way, the latter question is connected to the first, because, in a sense, a world of inanimate objects, objects without a subjective sense (in other words a world with no one to see it, even to observe its traces as we do the early universe) is equivalent to nothingness, is it not?