The Fabric of Real Things

Fol­lowup to: The Use­ful Con­cept of Truth

We pre­vi­ously asked:

What rule would re­strict our be­liefs to just state­ments that can be mean­ingful, with­out ex­clud­ing a pri­ori any­thing that could in prin­ci­ple be true?

It doesn’t work to re­quire that the be­lief’s truth or falsity make a sen­sory differ­ence. It’s true, but not testable, to say that a space­ship go­ing over the cos­molog­i­cal hori­zon of an ex­pand­ing uni­verse does not sud­denly blink out of ex­is­tence. It’s mean­ingful and false, rather than mean­ingless, to say that on March 22nd, 2003, the par­ti­cles in the cen­ter of the Sun spon­ta­neously ar­ranged them­selves into a short-lived choco­late cake. This state­ment’s truth or falsity has no con­se­quences we’ll ever be able to test ex­pe­ri­en­tally. Nonethe­less, it le­gi­t­i­mately de­scribes a way re­al­ity could be, but isn’t; the atoms in our uni­verse could’ve been ar­ranged like that on March 22nd 2003, but they weren’t.

You can’t say that there has to be some way to ar­range the atoms in the uni­verse so as to make the claim true or al­ter­na­tively false. Then the the­ory of quan­tum me­chan­ics is a pri­ori mean­ingless, be­cause there’s no way to ar­range atoms to make it true. And if you try to sub­sti­tute quan­tum fields in­stead, well, what if they dis­cover some­thing else to­mor­row? And is it mean­ingless -rather than mean­ingful and false—to imag­ine that physi­cists are ly­ing about quan­tum me­chan­ics in a grand or­ga­nized con­spir­acy?

Since claims are ren­dered true or false by how-the-uni­verse-is, the ques­tion “What claims can be mean­ingful?” im­plies the ques­tion “What sort of re­al­ity can ex­ist for our state­ments to cor­re­spond to?”

If you rephrase it this way, the ques­tion prob­a­bly sounds com­pletely fruitless and pointless, the sort of thing that a philoso­pher would pon­der for years be­fore pro­duc­ing a long, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble book that would be stud­ied by fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of un­happy stu­dents while be­ing of no con­ceiv­able in­ter­est to any­one with a real job.

But while deep philo­soph­i­cal dilem­mas such as these are never set­tled by philoso­phers, they are some­times set­tled by peo­ple work­ing on a re­lated prac­ti­cal prob­lem which hap­pens to in­ter­sect the dilemma. There are a lot of peo­ple who think I’m be­ing too harsh on philoso­phers when I ex­press skep­ti­cism about main­stream philos­o­phy; but in this case, at least, his­tory clearly bears out the point. Philoso­phers have been dis­cussing the na­ture of re­al­ity for literal mil­len­nia… and yet the peo­ple who first delineated and for­mal­ized a crit­i­cal hint about the na­ture of re­al­ity, the peo­ple who first dis­cov­ered what sort of things seem to be real,were try­ing to solve a com­pletely differ­ent-sound­ing ques­tion.

They were try­ing to figure out whether you can tell the di­rec­tion of cause and effect from sur­vey data.

Please now read Causal Di­a­grams and Causal Models, which was mod­u­larized out so that it could act as a stan­dalone in­tro­duc­tion. This post in­volves some sim­ple math, but causal­ity is so ba­sic to key fu­ture posts that it’s pretty im­por­tant to get at least some grasp on the math in­volved. Once you are finished read­ing, con­tinue with the rest of this post.

Okay, now sup­pose some­one were to claim the fol­low­ing:

“A uni­verse is a con­nected fabric of causes and effects.”


(In the right-hand image we see a con­nected causal fabric; the sun raises the tem­per­a­ture, makes plants grow, and sends light into the eyes of the per­son eat­ing from the plant. On the other hand, while “post-utopian” is linked to “colo­nial aliena­tion” and vice versa, these two el­e­ments don’t con­nect to the rest of the causal fabric—so that must not be a uni­verse.)

This same some­one might fur­ther claim:

“For a state­ment to be com­pa­rable to your uni­verse, so that it can be true or al­ter­na­tively false, it must talk about stuff you can find in re­la­tion to your­self by trac­ing out causal links.”

To clar­ify the sec­ond claim, the idea here is that refer­ence can trace causal links for­wards or back­wards. If a space­ship goes over the cos­molog­i­cal hori­zon, it may not cause any­thing else to hap­pen to you af­ter that. But you could still say, ‘I saw the space ship­yard—it af­fected my eyes—and the ship­yard build­ing was the cause of that ship ex­ist­ing and go­ing over the hori­zon.’ You know the sec­ond causal link ex­ists, be­cause you’ve pre­vi­ously ob­served the gen­eral law im­ple­ment­ing links of that type—pre­vi­ously ob­served that ob­jects con­tinue to ex­ist and do not vi­o­late Con­ser­va­tion of En­ergy by spon­ta­neously van­ish­ing.

And now I pre­sent three med­i­ta­tions, whose an­swers (or at least, what I think are the an­swers) will ap­pear at later points in Highly Ad­vanced Episte­mol­ogy 101 For Begin­ners. Please take a shot at whisper­ing the an­swers to your­self; or if you’re bold enough to go on record, com­ments for col­lect­ing posted an­swers are linked.

Med­i­ta­tion 1:

“You say that a uni­verse is a con­nected fabric of causes and effects. Well, that’s a very Western view­point—that it’s all about mechanis­tic, de­ter­minis­tic stuff. I agree that any­thing else is out­side the realm of sci­ence, but it can still be real, you know. My cousin is psy­chic—if you draw a card from his deck of cards, he can tell you the name of your card be­fore he looks at it. There’s no mechanism for it—it’s not a causal thing that sci­en­tists could study—he just does it. Same thing when I com­mune on a deep level with the en­tire uni­verse in or­der to re­al­ize that my part­ner truly loves me. I agree that purely spiritual phe­nom­ena are out­side the realm of causal pro­cesses, which can be sci­en­tifi­cally un­der­stood, but I don’t agree that they can’t be real.

How would you re­ply?

Med­i­ta­tion 2:

“Does your rule there for­bid epiphe­nom­e­nal­ist the­o­ries of con­scious­ness—that con­scious­ness is caused by neu­rons, but doesn’t af­fect those neu­rons in turn? The clas­sic ar­gu­ment for epiphe­nom­e­nal con­scious­ness has always been that we can imag­ine a uni­verse in which all the atoms are in the same place and peo­ple be­have ex­actly the same way, but there’s no­body home—no aware­ness, no con­scious­ness, in­side the brain. The usual effect of the brain gen­er­at­ing con­scious­ness is miss­ing, but con­scious­ness doesn’t cause any­thing else in turn—it’s just a pas­sive aware­ness—and so from the out­side the uni­verse looks the same. Now, I’m not so much in­ter­ested in whether you think epiphe­nom­e­nal the­o­ries of con­scious­ness are true or false—rather, I want to know if you think they’re im­pos­si­ble or mean­ingless a pri­ori based on your rules.”

How would you re­ply?

Med­i­ta­tion 3:

Does the idea that ev­ery­thing is made of causes and effects mean­ingfully con­strain ex­pe­rience? Can you co­her­ently say how re­al­ity might look, if our uni­verse did not have the kind of struc­ture that ap­pears in a causal model?

Main­stream sta­tus.

Part of the se­quence Highly Ad­vanced Episte­mol­ogy 101 for Beginners

Next post: “Causal Di­a­grams and Causal Models

Pre­vi­ous post: “Fire­wal­ling the Op­ti­mal from the Ra­tional