Monday, July 19, 2010


Like most "literal-minded" people, I'm not that interested in metaphysics. I think the questions are interesting: Do we have free will? What is real? Is there a God? They seem self-evidently important.

Yet there's something wrong with most metaphysical speculation. I can't say it as eloquently as Hume so I'll just dig up the famous quote to express my sentiments:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

If philosophy departments are sophistry plants, then metaphysicists are the 20% in the 80/20 rule.

Still, Hume's statement contradicts itself. He wants us to avoid questions that can't be settled scientifically, yet his basis for the claim isn't scientific. There's something inescapable about questions of reality, purpose, and free will.

Free will is the easiest to settle. Everything in the universe seems pretty easy to explain in deterministic or at least probabilistic terms at a quantum level. There doesn't seem to be any scope for choice at the level of the tissues and organs, so it seems unlikely our brains can really make choices. Free will is a myth. But it's a myth that we should believe in. Stories are important to our lives, even if they are delusions. "Sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more." We deserve free will.

The fact that I casually advocate deluding yourself suggests I don't care much about reality. That is mostly true. I don't think subjective idealism is refutable. I don't think you can prove anything is "real" or even care what word "real" means. But I do, of course, have implicit views. As far as I'm concerned what's real is what our intuition, the principle of parsimony, and scientific experiments combine to tell us is real. The ground we stand on is real, by intuition. Electrons are real, by experimental evidence. God is not real, by the principle of parsimony. There is no higher purpose in the universe, no set of criteria for deciding what is right and wrong or what we should do. There's just what's in our heads.

This is why delusions are ok. What's "really real" is whatever we can construct in our minds. We can give ourselves goals and set rules for telling right from wrong. We can give these goals and rules meaning. And we should--for our own health and happiness (the two "goods" I give meaning to start with).

Thus my metaphysic says, in short, we are probably just clumps of matter that somehow, through some strange loop, became self-aware. We don't have any objective purpose, but we shouldn't care. We should invest some purpose--then ignore the ladder of reasoning we used to arrive at that purpose and pursue it as a given most of the time. That's how we'll be happiest.

I don't have use for thought experiments like the experience machine or questions about whether we live in a computer simulation, or even whether we have free will. We shouldn't care.

"Of course it is [just] happening inside your head . . . but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?"

Other interesting ideas in metaphysics I didn't get to mention:

1. In I am a Strange Loop Douglas Hofstadter makes an analogy for the interaction of neurons in our brain and our thoughts. I recommend reading the book because I can't explain it here but his basic point is that we can just as well say that our thoughts and feelings "cause" the neurons to fire in certain patterns as saying that those patterns "cause" us to feel the way we do. It's a semantic point about the meaning of "cause" but it's interesting.

2. In The Big Questions, Steve Landsburg notes that math is a universal. We're compelled by logic to agree with provable propositions. Perhaps, then, he proposes a sort of Platonism where math is the reality. It sounds better in the book.

3. The latter two films in The Matrix trilogy have an interesting "worldview." In the world of The Matrix there is an anomaly in the universe that is otherwise governed by (I guess) mathematical laws. This anomaly represents something like incompleteness or the halting program, and is represented in human form by Neo. Neo is the only person in the movies who can make choices, though he only ever makes one choice, because all the other "choices" are caused by this or that rationale. Neo gets caught in a fight with Smith that is analogous to the halting program, and he chooses to halt. Smith asks why, but there is no rationale, he does it simply "because [he] choose[s] to."

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