Tuesday, October 26, 2021

New Book in Draft: The Weirdness of the World

... huzzah!

I would really appreciate constructive critical comments from anyone who is interested. The book is intended primarily for academic philosophers but should also mostly be comprehensible to non-specialists who enjoy my blog.

Each chapter of the book is mostly freestanding (most are based on previously published articles), so if you're interested, you can dive straight to the part that interests you instead of feeling like you need to read from the beginning.

Anyone who provides valuable comments will of course be thanked in the acknowledgements.  Anyone doughty enough to provide comments on the whole book will receive a free copy of the published book, with my thanks.

Draft available here.

[image source]


Introductory Chapter

In Praise of Weirdness

The weird sisters, hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about:

Thrice to thine and thrice to mine

And thrice again, to make up nine.

Peace! the charm’s wound up

            (Macbeth, Act I, scene iii)


Weird often saveth

The undoomed hero if doughty his valor!

            (Beowulf, X.14-15, trans. L. Hall)


The word “weird” reaches deep back into old English, originally as a noun for fate or magic, later as an adjective for the uncanny or peculiar.  By the 1980s, it had fruited as the choicest middle-school insult against unstylish kids like me who spent their free time playing with figurines of wizards and listening to obscure science fiction radio shows.  If the “normal” is the conventional, ordinary, predictable, and readily understood, the weird is what defies that.

The world is weird.  It wears mismatched thrift-shop clothes, births wizards and monsters, and all of the old science fiction radio shows are true.  Our changeable, culturally specific sense of normality is no rigorous index of reality.

One of the weirdest things about Earth is that certain complex bags of mostly water can pause to reflect on the most fundamental questions there are.  We can philosophize to the limits of our comprehension and peer into the fog beyond those limits.  We can think about the foundations of the foundations of the foundations, even with no clear method and no great hope of an answer.  In this respect, we vastly out-geek bluebirds and kangaroos.


1. What I Will Argue in This Book.

Consider three huge questions: What is the fundamental structure of the cosmos?  How does human consciousness fit into it?  What should we value?  What I will argue in this book – with emphasis on the first two questions, but also sometimes drawing implications for the third – is (1.) the answers are currently beyond our capacity to know, and (2.) we do nonetheless know at least this: Whatever the truth is, it’s weird.  Careful reflection will reveal all of the viable theories on these grand topics to be both bizarre and dubious.  In Chapter 3 (“Universal Bizarreness and Universal Dubiety”), I will call this the Universal Bizarreness thesis and the Universal Dubiety thesis.  Something that seems almost too crazy to believe must be true, but we can’t resolve which of the various crazy-seeming options is ultimately correct.  If you’ve ever wondered why every wide-ranging, foundations-minded philosopher in the history of Earth has held bizarre metaphysical or cosmological views (each philosopher holding, seemingly, a different set of bizarre views), Chapter 3 offers an explanation.

I will argue that given our weak epistemic position, our best big-picture cosmology and our best theories of consciousness are tentative, modish, and strange.

Strange: As I will argue, every approach to cosmology and consciousness has bizarre implications that run strikingly contrary to mainstream “common sense”.

Tentative: As I will also argue, epistemic caution is warranted, partly because theories on these topics run so strikingly contrary to common sense and also partly because they test the limits of scientific inquiry.  Indeed, dubious assumptions about the fundamental structure of mind and world frame or undergird our understanding of the nature and value of scientific inquiry, as I discuss in Chapters 4 (“1% Skepticism”), 5 (“Kant Meets Cyberpunk”), and 7 (“Experimental Evidence for the Existence of an External World”).

Modish: On a philosopher’s time scale – where a few decades ago is “recent” and a few decades hence is “soon” – we live in a time of change, with cosmological theories and theories of consciousness rising and receding based mainly on broad promise and what captures researchers’ imaginations.  We ought not trust that the current range of mainstream academic theories will closely resemble the range in a hundred years, much less the actual truth.

Even the common garden snail defies us (Chapter 9, “Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail?”).  Does it have experiences?  If so, how much and of what kind?  In general, how sparse or abundant is consciousness in the universe?  Is consciousness – feelings and experiences of at least the simplest, least reflective kind – cheap and common, maybe even ubiquitous?  Or is consciousness rare and expensive, requiring very specific conditions in the most sophisticated organisms?  Our best scientific and philosophical theories conflict sharply on these questions, spanning a huge range of possible answers, with no foreseeable resolution.

The question of consciousness in near-future computers or robots similarly defies resolution, but with arguably more troubling consequences: If constructions of ours might someday possess humanlike emotions and experiences, that creates moral quandaries and puzzle cases for which our ethical intuitions and theories are unprepared.  In a century, the best ethical theories of 2022 might seem as quaint and inadequate as medieval physics applied to relativistic rocketships (Chapter 10, “The Moral Status of Future Artificial Intelligence: Doubts and a Dilemma”).


2. Varieties of Cosmological Weirdness.

To establish that the world is cosmologically bizarre, maybe all that is needed is relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

According to relativity theory, if your twin accelerates away from you at nearly light speed then returns, much less time will have passed for the traveler than for you who stayed here on Earth – the so-called Twin Paradox.  According to quantum mechanics, if you observe the decay of a uranium atom, there’s also an equally real, equally existing version of you in another “world” who shares your past but who observed the atom not to have decayed.  Or maybe your act of observation caused the decay, or maybe some other strange thing is true, depending on your favored interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Oddly enough, the many-worlds hypothesis appears to be the most straightforward interpretation of quantum mechanics.[1]  If we accept that view, then the cosmos contains a myriad of slightly different, equally real worlds each containing different versions of you and your friends and everything you know, each splitting off from a common history.

The cosmos might also be infinite: There is no evidence of a spatial boundary to it, no positive reason to think there is a spatial limit, and topologically, at the largest observable scales, it appears to be flat rather than curving back around upon itself.[2]  The tiny little 93-billion-light-year diameter speck that we can observe might be the merest dot in a literally endless expanse.  If so, and if a few other plausible-seeming assumptions hold (such as that we occupy a not-too-exceptional region of cosmos, that our emergence was not infinitesimally improbable, and that across infinite space every finitely probable event is instantiated somewhere) then somewhere out there, presumably far, far beyond the borders of what we can see, are myriad entities molecule-for-molecule identical to us down to a tiny fraction of a Planck-length – duplicates of you, your friends, and all Earth, living out every finitely probable future.  Furthermore, if your actions here can have effects that ripple unendingly through the cosmos, you can even wave your hand in such a way that a future duplicate of you will have the thought “I’ve been waved at by a past duplicate of myself!” partly as a result of that hand wave.[3]  (Here I pause in my writing to wave out the window at future duplicates of myself.)

I won’t dwell on those particular cosmological weirdnesses, since they are familiar to academic readers and well-handled elsewhere (for example, in recent books by Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, and Max Tegmark).[4]  However, some equally fundamental cosmological issues are typically addressed by philosophers rather than scientific cosmologists.

One is the possibility that the cosmos is nowhere near as large as we ordinarily assume – perhaps just you and your immediate environment (Chapter 4) or perhaps even just your own mind and nothing else (Chapter 7).  Although these possibilities might not be likely, they are worth considering seriously, to assess how confident we ought to be in their falsity and on what grounds.  I will argue that it’s reasonable not to entirely dismiss such skeptical possibilities.

Another is the possibility that we live inside a simulated reality or a pocket universe, embedded in a much larger structure about which we know virtually nothing (Chapters 4 and 5).  Still another is that our experience of three-dimensional spatiality is a product of our own minds that doesn’t reflect the underlying structure of reality (Chapter 5) or maps only loosely onto it (Chapter 8 “The Loose Friendship of Visual Experience and Reality”).

Still another set of questions concerns the relationship of mind to cosmos.  Is conscious experience abundant in the universe, or does it require the delicate coordination of rare events (Chapter 9)?  Is consciousness purely a matter of having the right physical structure, or might it require something nonphysical (Chapter 3)?  Under what conditions might a group of organisms give rise to group-level consciousness (Chapter 2, “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”)?  What would it take to build a conscious machine, if that is possible at all – and what ought we to do if we don’t know whether we have succeeded (Chapter 10)?  In each of our heads are about as many neurons as stars in the galaxy, and each neuron is arguably more structurally complex than any star system that does not contain life.  There is as much complexity and mystery inside as out.

I will argue that in these matters, neither common sense, nor early 21st-century empirical science, nor armchair philosophical theorizing is entirely trustworthy.  The rational response is to distribute your credence across a wide range of bizarre options.


3. Philosophy That Closes Versus Philosophy That Opens.

You are reading a philosophy book – voluntarily, let’s suppose.  Why?  What do you like about philosophy?  Some people like philosophy because they believe it reveals profound, fundamental truths about the one way the world is and the one right manner to live.  Others like the beauty of grand philosophical systems.  Still others like the clever back-and-forth of philosophical combat.  What I like most is none of these.  I love philosophy best when it opens my mind – when it reveals ways the world could be, possible approaches to life, lenses through which I might see and value things around me, which I might not otherwise have considered.

Philosophy can aim to open or to close.  Suppose you enter Philosophical Topic X imagining three viable possibilities, A, B, and C.  The philosophy of closing aims to reduce the three to one.  It aims to convince you that possibility A is correct and the others wrong.  If it succeeds, you know the truth about Topic X: A is the answer!  In contrast, the philosophy of opening aims to add new possibilities to the mix – possibilities that you maybe hadn’t considered before or had considered but too quickly dismissed.  Instead of reducing three to one, three grows to maybe five, with new possibilities D and E.  We can learn by addition as well as subtraction.  We can learn that the range of viable possibilities is broader than we had assumed.

For me, the greatest philosophical thrill is realizing that something I’d long taken for granted might not be true, that some “obvious” apparent truth is in fact doubtable – not just abstractly and hypothetically doubtable, but really, seriously, in-my-gut doubtable.  The ground shifts beneath me.  Where I’d thought there would be floor, there is instead open space I hadn’t previously seen.  My mind spins in new, unfamiliar directions.  I wonder, and wondrousness seems to coat the world itself.  The world expands, bigger with possibility, more complex, more unfathomable.  I feel small and confused, but in a good way.

Let’s test the boundaries of the best current work in science and philosophy.  Let’s launch ourselves at questions monstrously large and formidable.  Let’s contemplate these questions carefully, with serious scholarly rigor, pushing against the edge of human knowledge.  That is an intrinsically worthwhile activity, worth some of our time in a society generous enough to permit us such time, even if the answers elude us.


4. To Non-Specialists: An Invitation and Apology.

I will try to write plainly and accessibly enough that most readers who have come this far can follow me.  I think it is both possible and important for academic philosophy to be comprehensible to non-specialists.  But you should know also that I am writing primarily for my peers – fellow experts in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of cosmology.  There will be slow and difficult patches, where the details matter.  Most of the chapters are based on articles published in technical philosophy journals – articles revised, updated, and integrated into what I hope is an intriguing overall vision.  These articles have been lengthened and deepened, not shortened and simplified.  The chapters are designed mostly to stand on their own, with cross-references to each other.  If you find yourself slogging, please feel free to skip ahead.  I’d much rather you skip the boring parts than that you drop the book entirely.

My middle-school self who used dice and thrift-shop costumes to imagine astronauts and wizards is now a fifty-three-year old who uses 21st century science and philosophy to imagine the shape of the cosmos and the magic of consciousness.  Join me!  If doughty our valor, the weird may saveth us.

[continue here]

[1] Greene 2011; Wallace 2012; Carroll 2019.  For a review of the leading interpretations, see Maudlin 2019.

[2] Vardanyan, Trotta, and Silk 2011; Tegmark 2014; Leonard, Bull, and Allison 2016.  If the topology is not precisely flat, it appears about as likely to have a negative, hyperbolically open curvature as a positive curvature suggesting closure.

[3] For a fuller explication of this possibility, see Schwitzgebel forthcoming.

[4] Carroll 2010, 2019; Greene 2011, 2020; Tegmark 2014.


Howard B said...

This is a theme in fiction. Not to quote Shakespeare-
I am halfway between being well read and being illiterate
Still take as examples: Gimpel the Fool, and Seize the Day.
The first being religious, the second psychological
The first hinting at the religious parallel to your thesis: God is unknowable; the second that other people are unknowable.
The first being by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the second by Saul Bellow.
I think great novelists and poets would be more inclined to agree with you, (some of them) than great philosophers- the philosophers want to stick up the world and steal its secrets; yet philosophy and philosophers too are weird
Perhaps we can mystically somehow "get" the world at a preverbal or preformulaic level

Daniel Polowetzky said...

Regarding there being the occurrence of every physically possible scenario, in a spatially infinite universe, which is weird enough,there is the modal realism of David Lewis. The latter view has the consequence that every logical possibility is truly instantiated, the actual being what occurs in our world, while the merely possible involves worlds that do not contain us. However, they are just as "real" as the actual (our world) world.
From the perspectives of morality and theodicy, the universe, physical and logical (in Lewis's sense)is hugely more horrific than common sense dictates.
There is far more suffering and evil than is considered in standard theodicy. Things couldn't really be worse, because if it is logically possible then it is "real", in Lewis'sense.
On Lewis's view, we can't take solace in the thought that our imaginations outstrip reality. Similarly, on the view that the universe is spatially infinite, along with the assumption that life is not infinitesimally improbable and that the bit of the universe we occupy isn't unique in the laws that govern it, is similarly horrific.

Arnold said...

Page 4, "Careful 'reflection' will reveal all of the viable theories on these grand topics to be both bizarre and dubious."

If the deep semantics of 'reflection' for reflectionism is: me here there...
...Then your third huge question "What should we value ?" should be the first huge question, as the two other huge questions, "What is the fundamental structure of the cosmos? (and) How does human consciousness fit into it?", answer themselves in reflection's...

If then is the quest-ion for 'value', then what is the structure of value...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Daniel: Yes, Lewis's modal realism is pretty weird and does have the consequence that every possible scenario is real in some world. Lewis is high in my estimation among metaphysicians with bizarre cosmological views.

Daniel Polowetzky said...

I assume that Leibniz wasn’t a modal realist. It would be difficult to maintain his cheery outlook.

Arnold said...

..."What should we value", refer or cite this review of Dickens's "Hard times"...
...as a everyday, non-modal, reckoning of reality for many people, maybe...

Philosopher Eric said...

I like that you’re writing a book to your peers in a way that’s reasonably accessible for normal people. Of course they may grumble about this a bit, as in “Come on Eric, by permitting normal people to comprehend us you’re also devaluing our credentials!” But anyone who has read your 2011 “Obfuscatory Philosophy as Intellectual Authoritarianism and Cowardice” should realize that you have absolutely no use for that point of view. Good!

For general criticism I initially ask myself: 1) Will the public enjoy this book? 2) Will I? 3) Will credentialed philosophers? In all cases I suspect so. Thus I’m afraid that I don’t have any true general criticism for you. I will say however that I don’t technically consider reality to be “weird”, but rather “wonderful”. An education in established physics, chemistry, biology, and so on tends to provide us with valid ideas that do seem weird for a while, though as we grow accustomed to them I think they instead become merely wonderful and interesting.

Given the physics measurement problem you might ask for my thoughts on “the many worlds” proposal? Yeah I do consider that weird, though I’ve also referred to it as ├╝ber magic to the nth degree — I don’t buy it whatsoever. Similarly the postulation that an infinite universe means that there must be someone out there like me who’s thinking exactly what I am, or actually an infinite number of these thinkers, merely suggests to me that I must not be in an infinite universe. I consider it the job of science and philosophy to transform weird understandings into wonderful understandings.

Finally there’s the existence of phenomenal entities such as myself. Popular modern consciousness theories propose that I’m essentially a product of algorithms that are properly converted into other algorithms. You then take that aspect of what they propose to posit that the United States itself must then also subjectively experience its existence. At some point science (aided by philosophy) should replace this weird idea for one that’s instead wonderful. For example it may be that your phenomenal experience exists in the form of an electromagnetic field created by means of certain synchronous neuron firing. Though initially weird, with continual experimental validation this should progressively be considered just another wonderful component of the causal dynamics which make up modern understandings of how things work.

As I’ve said however, I think you should continue on with the theme of weirdness and simply let me interpret your book a bit differently.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Phil E! I agree that weirdness can become wonder. The world is weird *and* wonderful! I'm not sure why we should take non-duplication, a single world, and the absence of group consciousness as fixed points in our thinking, though.

Philosopher Eric said...

I wouldn’t quite call them fixed points professor. I’m saying that as science progresses (hopefully aided some day by various widely agreed upon philosophical principles), that progressively more and more should be agreed upon in science. Furthermore from my own perspective I suspect it will become agreed in science that bajillions of full universes do not emerge from each millimeter of our space each second, that “infinity” will be considered a similarly ridiculous notion once its implications become rationally considered, and that the physics behind subjective experience will be experimentally revealed in science to demonstrate something naturalistically plausible (such as a kind of electromagnetic radiation for example). My own suspicions however, might be wrong!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wagers, as it were, rather than fixed points. Yes, I see the attraction of that, even though I might wager a bit differently.