Here’s an essay on some interesting philosophical problems, especially relating to self-reference and divine simplicity. I’d like to trim and polish the material up someday for my future blog, but I won’t have the time or energy for the foreseeable future.
Part I: that the “flow of time” and libertarian free will don’t make sense
It’s not just that I disagree with the popular ideas that time “flows” and that human beings have “free will”. These ideas are just meaningless; they’re not even wrong. But when even great philosophers have embraced nonsensical ideas, they must at least be placeholders for something very important.
What could it mean for time to flow–with respect to what could it flow? Yes, time advances with time, but this is trivially true. (Cf. latitude increases with latitude as well.) Past events don’t exist now, but they exist at their own times. (Cf. other latitudes aren’t present at my latitude, but at their own.) If the past were somehow destroyed, as the A theorists believe, then all statements about the past would be undetermined or false, or they would be statements only about our memories. It’s not even necessary to invoke relativity, as if the A theory would make any more sense in a Newtonian or Aristotelian universe.
Nor can I make sense of a mode of causality that is neither deterministic nor random. I am baffled that others claim to have a direct experience of possessing such a power. I myself am not aware of any internal assurance that from a given prior mental state I ever could have willed other than I did. I don’t even know what that would feel like. If “free will” made any sense, it would be heresy. Christianity clearly teaches predestination and slavery to sin. Fortunately, “freedom of the will” in any sense other than compatibilism is nonsensical, so insufficiently coherent to impute heresy.
Can we find some common ground? I agree that the spacetime metric locally has Lorentzian signature and that causality operates within light cones. I agree that deliberation and choice are part of the causal chains involving people. You will say “if that’s all you mean by the flow of time and free will, then clearly you don’t believe in them.” So be it.
That can’t be the end, though. There must be a reason people are so drawn to such beliefs even when it is difficult to reconcile them with both science and religion.
Part II: Paradoxes of self-references and the limits of the first-person perspective
From a global, third-person perspective, free will and the flow of time make no sense. That goes for any global perspective–scientific, religious, or philosophical. The best that can be said for free will is what Kant said: we must treat ourselves as free agents when we are making decisions. However theoretically incoherent, free will seems to be an unavoidable pose for practical reasoning. “I will do whatever I am causally determined to do” (or “I will make a nondeterministic random choice”) may be true, but doesn’t help when we are in the midst of making a decision.
Laplace asserted that a demon with complete knowledge of the universe at one instant in time could, using the laws of Newtonian mechanics, predict the entire future and infer the entire past. Karl Popper later realized that this couldn’t possibly work if the demon is itself part of the universe. Then the demon would have to be able to predict his own future choices. But suppose he decides to do the opposite of whatever he predicts he will do? We have a paradox. Paradoxes related to self-reference like this were used by Russell to critique “naive” set theory and can be used to prove the undecidability of the Halting problem over Turing machines.
It has been argued by Thomas Breuer that no observer can perform a complete measurement of the state of a system of which it is a part. For the proof, a self-measuring system consists of a total system with its list of possible states, the measuring apparatus with its list of possible states, and an inference map that associates sets of apparatus states with sets of total system states. Breuer makes an assumption of “proper inclusion”, i.e. that the apparatus is a proper part rather than the whole, and interprets this to mean that there are distinct system states with the same apparatus state. Given this, the conclusion is unsurprising. Notice how the problem is set up. One could, I suppose, identify the measuring apparatus and the system itself, and then say that the system perfectly “measures” or “knows” itself simply by being itself and in whatever state it’s in. Clearly this is not measurement or knowledge as normally understood, which requires a duality between subject and object and a representation of the latter in the former.
For the impossibility of complete self-knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether the knowing being is deterministic or not. Descartes realized correctly that consciousness involves privileged knowledge of itself. In the 20th century, we realized that a being’s perspective necessarily also involves a certain ignorance of itself.
I am a unique perspective of the whole universe, as Leibniz taught us. (To quote Wittgenstein “I am my world.”) This distinctive perspective is necessarily partial. In particular, some degree of knowledge of myself is only possible from an outside perspective. (Wittgenstein again: “The subject does not belong to the world but it is a limit of the world.”)
This, I believe, is what greater minds than mine have found troubling. If the flow of time and freedom of the will are necessarily connected to a limited perspective, can only be conceived from a combination of knowledge and ignorance, then doesn’t that mean that my first-person perspective is an illusion, is a lie? And that the only truth is the third-person perspective of science and religion?
Part III: Validity of the first-person perspective
We emphasize again that the conflict is not between science and religion or between competing philosophical schools. All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. This can and has been used to argue that the latter is simply false. Indeed, I myself have claimed that certain conceptualizations of personal experience, when carried over as objective statements about the world, are false, or rather meaningless. However, it does not follow that the manifest picture of the world, our lived experience with it, is simply invalid.
The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth. However, there might not be any such global view from nowhere. Or, equivalently, the global perspective might just be the union of all partial perspectives.
An example of how this would work is Carlo Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which assigns a distinct state vector/wavefunction to every system relative to every other system. Such theories would recognize states of systems relative to various other systems, but no perspectiveless “true” state. This is a more radical form of something we have already learned to live with from the theory of relativity. Even in Galilean kinematics, each observer has his own standard of rest, and it is meaningless to ask which is truly at rest. Clocks on the ground run slightly slower than clocks in orbit. Which is right? Both: they both correctly measure proper time along their worldlines. One must settle for answers to such questions, because that’s all there is. Could it be possible that all physical processes–including those in our brains–are slowing down at an equal rate so that we would never notice? No, because ideal clocks are defined to keep uniform time. As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.
In physics we have learned to live with perspectival relativism without it leading to incoherence or pure subjectivism. One notices that physics has been quite a bit more successful with this than continental philosophy. Post-modernism promises to deliver us from the tyranny of metanarratives but immediately imposes its own obnoxiously tyrannical metanarrative.
How did physics avoid the fate of postmodernism? First, abstract truths (mathematics) as well as the contingent laws of physics are taken to be universally valid. Second, partial truths become absolute truths when the necessary indexicals are attached. Other observers may see things differently than observer A, but they all agree on what it is that observer A observes. Third, every observer can explain every other observer’s observations from its own perspective and the same universal laws of physics. Fourth, the framework explaining how different observers/frames/system perspectives relate does not surreptitiously adopt one particular perspective the way postmodernism, contrary to its own principles, adopts the metanarrative of oppression as universal and absolute truth.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a global, all-encompassing “view from nowhere” which presumably would not involve features such as a flow of time or libertarian free will. Would that be a problem? Well, one could presumably reconstruct any and all of the partial views from the global view, while no single partial view could recover the global view. Does that not mean that the global view would be more true?
The situation is analogous to the case of emergence. Macroscopic substances are made of atoms. From the configurations of all the atoms, one could infer the state of the macroscopic object, but since that state is a course grained description, the reverse is not true. Does that mean that atoms are more real than the things they compose? This seems to be a common philosophical belief. However, in this time of anti-metaphysical skepticism, the idea of one existing thing being “more real” or “ontologically prior” to another existing thing should be treated with more suspicion than it usually gets. What does it really mean? An object either “really” exists or it doesn’t. Wholes can’t exist without their parts, but parts can’t exist without forming some sort of whole.
Similarly, we should question whether a perspective that is more complete is therefore more true. If a global perspective exists, it may be true that partial perspectives can only exist given its framework, but it is certainly true that there could be no global perspective without there also being partial perspectives (because each constituent of the universe globally conceived is a particular perspective, cf. Leibniz again). If anything, it is the partial perspectives that here are in the role of atoms. Of course, just as in the case of emergence we compared existing atoms to existing composites, we are here comparing the global viewpoint (if there is such a thing) to valid first-person perspectives. False beliefs held in the first person perspective are not equal in truth to a correct global perspective, or for that matter to a correct partial perspective. I am assuming there is a correct apprehension of the world from my point of view.
But wait a minute. Don’t we know that there is a global perspective? Isn’t that God’s perspective?
Part IV: God doesn’t have a perspective
It’s interesting to consider why Breuer’s and Popper’s arguments fail when applied to God. How is it that God can have complete self-knowledge? The reason is that our usual model of knowledge fails in His case. For finite subject A and object X, we think of A’s knowledge of X as an internal state of A, the presence within A’s mind of a representation of X, this knowledge being a proper part of A and ontologically distinct from X, indeed which may or may not even correspond to the truth about X. However, God is completely simple, so He has no internal states. In this case, we are told not regard God’s self-knowledge as a proper part of His mind (from which one could show that it must be incomplete) but as identical with His being.
It is unacceptably anthropomorphic to think of God as having a perspective on the world. This would make Him part of the universe, rather than its transcendent principle. God has no internal mental state corresponding to his perspective on the universe; His knowledge of the universe is rather a property of us–one might almost say that it is us. The scholastics used to put it that we have real relation to God but not vice versa. If there is a global, third-person view from nowhere, it has nothing in particular to do with God’s knowledge. It is not one degree closer to His omnipotence than our partial, first-person views.
Here is another way to reject the idea that this global view makes our first-person views to be falsehoods. Just as your perspective and my perspective are just two partial views compared to the global perspective, our perspectives and the global perspective are just three finite creations compared to God’s absolute transcendence.
In the Middle Ages, it was generally believed that a hierarchical universe was most neatly congruent with monotheism. Given the universal human symbolism of heaven and the sky god above, we should always speak of this intuition with respect. But it was challenged, first by Nicholas of Cusa, precisely on grounds of theological appropriateness. Cusa thought a universe without center or privileged perspective and with a number of indeterminate features more fittingly expressed God’s complete transcendence. We have now grown used to the idea of the Earth as just one more celestial body flying through space and can’t appreciate the disorientation such ideas must have caused at the beginning of the Renaissance.
Or perhaps we can. Suppose it should turn out that we must accept the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics after all. Wouldn’t that take Cusa’s program of equalizing perspectives to a whole new level?