“We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.” ― Albert Einstein
If only we can accumulate enough reproducible facts, we can decode reality. Is this not the utopian goal of science? Embedded in this fantasy is the desire for mastery of our fates and the fates of all others, imagining that knowledge is power rather than control, and conflating the two concepts. The single, subtle philosophical difference underlying all the imprecations hurled between mystics and theologians, anomalists and scientists, and skeptics and believers revolves around the positivist confidence that if we can only determine the universe of questions, we can ultimately obtain the answers and thereby take away all pain and doubt by establishing the finite boundaries of the imagined universal library vs. the constructivist idea that knowledge is inextricably experiential, that consciousness cannot be disentangled from reality, and that the dream of an accurate and comprehensive Encyclopedia Galactica is actually a nightmare that would empty the universe of meaning, invalidate conscious participation, and render existence artless and inert. Okay, I got the fancy rhetorical crap out of my system. Here’s the deal. Basically, if we ever find the fundamental building blocks of reality and can authoritatively describe what can happen and what can’t happen, sentient creatures are screwed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love me a scientist. Anyone who has the sheer existential gall and intellectual curiosity to honestly apply themselves to the fundamental question of how we are here at all, and the mechanisms that drive existence deserves all the fame, money, and kudos we can shower upon them. It’s a noble undertaking, and I desperately hope it never succeeds. I’m not suggesting that we all retire to hermit caves, cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, and stare at our navels, rather we should consider the implications of success at the positivist endeavor to find meaning buried in laws of the physical universe. The laws that might govern a “God Particle” or a “Goddess Wave” are the ones that will make us a mere side effect, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. And I’m too pretty to be ignored.
All human inquiry is geared towards answering the simple question of why we are here and why things look the way they do, but in our information saturated environment, we are forced to take shortcuts, roughly sketch the outlines of that distant shore, and make meaning through metaphor, always approximating as we hammer the square peg of our symbol systems into the round hole of what may or may not be universal structure. Our language and our biology imposes limits, or as cognitive scientists and linguist George Lakoff said, “Our categories arise from the fact that we are neural beings, from the nature of our bodily capacities, from our experience interacting in the world, and from our evolved capacity for basic-level categorization – a level at which we optimally interact with the world. Evolution has not required us to be as accurate above and below the basic level as at the basic level, and so we are not”. Yet, we can conceive of a reality fully described, endlessly rearranging our maps and symbols with the confidence that eventually this sifting of signs will produce the key to understanding ourselves and our world. All epistemology, regardless of flavor, aspires to ontology. Unfortunately, if the project of examining every relation between every symbol and the reality it speaks of ever comes to fruition, this spells the collapse of reality itself, a reduction of existence to a binary abyss.
Theodor Fechner, Kurt Lassiwitz, Theodor Wolff, Jorge Luis Borges, George Gamow, and Willy Ley considered both fictionally and philosophically, the idea of a “Universal Library”, that is, a repository for books that contains every combinatorially possible arrangement of linguistic symbols. Certainly, much would be nonsense, but in containing every possible way in which we can arrange them, buried deep within the stacks would be the singular tome that provided the accurate map between language and reality. Librarians can breathe a sigh of relief, as weeding policies could still be applied – only one symbol system is really necessary, since every possible combination within that symbol system could be represented, and although again the vast majority of our volumes would be complete gibberish, we could be assured that the elusive final decoding of reality was still hidden in the depths. Of course, we need not fuss and use any of our modern character sets at all, for as Willard van Orman Quine noted, “The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two is sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters. It is a letdown befitting the Wizard of Oz”.
The inexplicable, those things that cannot be represented in a meaningful map, are the equivalent of the apparent gibberish volumes that science and skepticism mercilessly weeds, and populate the bulk of the Universal Library collection. But as they are tossed in the rubbish heap, they carry with them the possibility that it is the expansiveness of consciousness relative to the reductivism of positivist epistemology that contains the cypher. Escape from the all-encompassing containment of ideology may only be possible through the introduction of absurdity, throwing a wrench in the endless repetition of zeroes and ones in search of meaning by periodically introducing new symbols, thus the Universal Library once again becomes infinite.
“If only we can accumulate enough reproducible facts, we can decode reality.”
Strangely enough, the inevitable outcome of this noble endeavor has already been predicted, not by scientists, but in literature – namely the story of Faust and Mephistopheles. Faust represents the scientific establishment in its quest for perfect theories and infallible explanations for reality in all its manifestations. Well into his search, perhaps nearing the end, Faust comes to face the question about higher beings, gods and the demonic realm. He finally sells his soul to the Devil. This is where Mephistopheles, a major demon, appears to Faust to tempt and trick him in different ways.
What do we see today? We see SETI searching for evidence of life outside our planet to support evolutionary thinking. We also see numberless instances of UFOs, and alien contacts with promises of mass landings in the future. According to the story, most scientists will succumb to the alien ideologies which solve all problems, especially the favorite one of scientists, living forever as an eternal youth. The small minority of scientists who don’t believe in the alien explanations won’t be ultimately taken down to hell by the aliens, like the large majority will.
Actually, the Faust tale implies scientists will eventually be divided into two camps – those agreeing with alien thinking, and those agreeing with traditional, religious thinking. Each group may work independently of the other so that neither impedes the other’s progress. We can look forward to a Golden Age of scientific achievement at that time.
It is possible to have conscious experiences that you are not able to precisely express in words and verbal or mathematical concepts. Like the variables in math equations, the words in logical explanations are approximations of reality, not exact conceptual replications of reality.
1 + 1 = exactly 2.
One “what”, exactly?
The logical form is perfectly valid. But the information content — the ‘values’ that are ascribed to the variables — are fuzzy and indeterminate rather than precisely true of any ontological reality that exists external to the conscious mind that conceives “1 + 1 = 2”.
Quantum physics is unsure what is the bottom of the barrel “1”. Is it an infinitesimal 1 dimensional vibrating string? Is it a probability equation? Is it quantum foam? Dark energy? Dark matter? A black hole? Is it an electron, a positron, and a photon? 1 electron + 1 photon = ? 1 electron + 1 positron = ? 1 black hole plus 1 dark energy = ?
1 + 1 = 2 is a precisely and perfectly “valid” statement, but it is meaningless in terms of information content. Formal logic can test the “validity” of statements, but it can tell us nothing about the “truths” of reality.
If A then B. If B then C. Given A. Therefore C.
That is a perfectly valid syllogism. But try to “define” the terms A, B and C.
If cats then rats. If rats then traps. Given cats. Therefore traps.
So what? Are we to assume that if we see a cat we are to expect a trap? Do cats “cause” traps? Do cats cause rats? Do rats cause traps?
The information content of formally logical statements is not tested by logical operations. It is tested against the empirical information content of our conscious perceptual experiences “of reality”.
We “look”, and we see “a cat”. We assume there is an ontological cat that is “causing” us to have a perceptual experience of “seeing a cat”. We see a rat that we assume to really exist, which causes us to “see it” when we “look”. We see a trap, and again we assume there is a real trap “out there”, that is causing us to have the conscious perceptual experience of “seeing a trap”.
The empirical information we gathered does not suggest cats cause rats and rats cause traps therefore cats cause traps. The empirical information suggests that the real ontological existence of things like cats and rats and traps causes us to have conscious perceptual experiences of “seeing” those things when we “look” and when the things are “there”.
What caused the universe? What caused cats? What caused consciousness? Science is no closer to answering these questions today than religion and philosophy were 2500 years ago. The true answer to all those questions is, “Nobody knows.”
We empirically “discover” what is real via conscious perceptual experience “of reality”. We can build up a large base of true empirical knowledge of reality, long before we even begin to construct a conceptual understanding of how that reality “works”, and how it is possible for us to consciously “experience it”.
Before we start worrying about finally understanding “everything”, we have a long way to go before we fully understand “anything”. Formal logic — verbal, symbolic, mathematical — produces “valid” statements. But mere formalism does not even begin to address any questions about truth and reality.