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On self-defining laws of physics

  1. Aug 16, 2009 #1


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    This is a line of thought arising out of quantum physics – specifically, from the principle that to the extent something is not actually measured or observed, it can best be described as a superposition of all its possibilities.

    A simple scenario for how the world began:

    Suppose we imagine, to start with, that there are no rules. Let’s suppose that anything can happen in the world, and maybe everything does happen – at this point there’s no way to tell. If there are no rules, there’s no way to relate events to each other in space or time, or to define what actually happens in any event, so there’s no meaningful difference between happening and not happening.

    Now it seems that when we look deep into the quantum realm – for example, when we extrapolate back toward the very beginning of the universe, or when we describe the quantum vacuum of “virtual events” – we have something that approximates this sort of chaos where “anything goes.” So maybe it makes sense to think of the basis of things as an infinite plenum of unstructured happening, where any sort of event can occur.

    The question is – could there happen to exist, within this original chaos, some sort of system that defined its own rules? Suppose for example there happened to be a web of the kind of events we call “interactions” – i.e. “relational events”, events that happen between other events. The “rule” defined by this system would just be that every event in the web has to link two other events within the system. A rule like this would be entirely “de facto” – it doesn’t make anything happen, it just selects the set of events that happen to “obey” it.

    So now we have a subset of events that is not entirely unstructured. As to whether any particular event does or doesn’t belong to this set – that’s determined entirely by the other events that this event connects. The set has no “objective reality” – it exists only for those events that happen to participate in it, and even for them it doesn’t exist “as a whole” in any definable sense.

    Let’s imagine this as a superposition of an infinite number of random, virtual interaction-webs. The question then becomes – could there happen to exist with this some web that defines a further level of structure for itself, building on the original rule? For example, could there be a rule that makes some links different from others, in a way defined by the web-structure itself? If so, we would then have a superposition of more-structured webs, within which there might happen to exist webs with a further level of definition – and so on.

    Note that from an objective, “external” viewpoint, all the events in our initial lawless chaos are still “there”. Nothing has happened to prohibit or eliminate them, except from the point of view of events in our web of more-structured interaction. Nothing separates or “protects” those events from the surrounding chaos. Any event that’s linked into our network might well also link up with other non-participating events. But these external links would only be “virtual” – that is, there would be no way to determine (within the web-structure) whether or not they actually occurred, or to define anything about them, since the only definitions available would be those given by the structure of the participating events.

    What’s the point of all this?

    Well, the physical world you and I actually experience is a lot like these hypothetical “self-determining” sets of events.

    All we can ever experience are events, and unless we prefer solipsism, these events must be interactions linked up with other events out there in the world. We know these interactions are very highly structured, in many different ways, at many levels. And they communicate a lot of information, of many kinds. Most important, we know that all this information can be defined in terms of the interactional structure of the web itself. We know that, because the interaction-structure is all we experience.

    Now this is not how we usually define the information we observe. We usually interpret our experience as information about the states and properties of real things in the world around us – not as structures in the interaction-web itself. We assume the world consists of real things that contain information “in themselves” – and this assumption works very well, for most purposes. Likewise it works to imagine that these entities have to “obey” very precise physical laws, at least down to the sub-microscopic level. So for most purposes it makes lots of sense to think of physical things as real “in themselves”, and physical laws as absolute.

    But we don’t actually have any access to information about things except what we get through the interaction-web. Nor do we have any empirical basis for the laws of physics, except what’s given that way – so all the structure we observe by interacting must be definable in terms of other observed interaction-structure. All the information we have about the world must in principle be definable in terms of other observable information in the web, without reference to any absolute reality “in itself”, or any absolute laws.

    So the point is that the world we experience could in principle be nothing more than a self-selecting subset of a primordial event-chaos, whose laws are given entirely “de facto”. It could be, in other words, that all the events we experience just happen to “obey” the laws of physics by accident, because all the events that don’t happen to “obey” them can’t be seen, or even meaningfully defined, within this web of interaction. Such events remain “virtual”, because the laws of physics are the conditions under which any information in this system is definable.

    So far this is just a philosophical fantasy – and the picture I’m trying to sketch here is far enough from our usual ways of thinking about the world that I find it difficult to make clear, even though I think there’s compelling logic behind it. I’m very curious whether that logic will seem apparent to anyone else, or seem relevant to the situation in quantum physics – so if any of this makes sense to you, please let me know.

    Thanks – Conrad
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2009 #2
    We are in complete agreement, here. I've some posts (some in this forum, I think) saying the same sort of thing. I'll expound a little:

    One thing this implies is that the question, "Why are there only certain physical laws" can be answered, "There are infinite laws, but only some are non-paradoxical and thus have evolved to a point where complicated classical beings like ourselves can recognize them as such". So all non-paradoxical things we can ever imagine (assuming they really are non-paradoxical--whatever that means) are actually true. Its a rather humbling thought.

    Another point to ponder is that there is no super-rule limiting the growth of order. Even time and space are merely facets of these non-paradoxical rules that work together. Since there is no limit to order, and since obviously order grows (in a timeless sense) from the chaos, then there is probably infinite order (that's what I call "God", by the way)-unless, of course, infinite order is paradoxical. But then one can still ponder "extremely immense" order.
  4. Aug 16, 2009 #3


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    Hi Conrad

    What you describe is the approach I take. And there is a tradition in this way of thinking that goes back to the first metaphysics - Anaximander and his apeiron indeed.

    In modern times, it is precisely the approach taken by the pragmatist philosopher CS Peirce - he called it semiosis. Peirce was "rediscovered" about 10 years back. But there are many others who have said similar things. Wheeler with his pregeometrty for example.

    I believe that you need three key concepts to develop this as an idea.

    1) Vagueness: this is a description of the QM foam, the pregeometry, the apeiron, or whatever we choose to call the indefinite and limitless state of potential that is the initial conditions for what follows. Mathematically, I argue, this can be treated as a state of pure or infinite symmetry. Pure symmetry gives us a model that we can work with.

    2) Dichotomisation: The question then is how can a potential, a vagueness, an infinite symmetry, get broken to become a more definite state of somethingness? The dichotomy is the obvious answer. So obvious that it was the foundation of greek and other first philosophies. It has become so buried in the foundations of our thinking that we no longer even realise that it is what we do. Anyway, a dichotomisation is a symmetry breaking. It solves the problem of how a something can come from a "nothing". It says that the only stable (because complete and exhaustive) way to divide a potential is in to exactly opposite directions. Action and reaction, event and context, figure and ground, substance and form, local and global, atom and void, stasis and flux, discrete and continuous, space and time, matter and mind, particular and universal, initial conditions and boundary constraints, measurements and laws, etc, etc, etc.

    3) Hierarchy: Then once a vague potential has been dichotomised to form a broken symmetry with two directions, we get the third thing that is the mixing of what has been separated. So from a simple division we get a rich or complex mixture as the two things interact (over all scales). This gets us into hierarchy theory and hierarchy modelling. Holism and systems science.

    Peirce called these three levels firstness, secondness and thirdness. Unfortunately much of his writing seem very opaque. He created a lot of personal jargon. But he did create a systematic metaphysics (which recapitulated much that was at least implicit in the ancient greek metaphysics).

    If for example you research the origins of the word chaos, you will see that it was the formless potential that Anaximander later made more "scientific" when he called it the apeiron. So this really is not a new way of thinking but instead the most ancient of all.

    Why don't we think this way today, especially in physics? Well we were won over by the greek atomist's model of reality. Which had the advantage of being more simple in its causality. It was a better brand of modelling for technology, for exerting control over nature (as opposed to understanding nature).

    Now it seems pretty plain that atomism is in the class of "too simple" a model of causality. If we want to answer the deepest questions about reality. But once people get into a habit of thinking about things a certain way, they don't seem to find it easy to think in other ways. Indeed, they get quite religiously protective about their traditional system of thought. As we see the whole time in these forums.

    But other ways of thinking do exist and have existed longer. They may not be better for everything. Atomism (which embraces mechanicalism, monadism, locality, etc) is still likely to be the optimal tool for creating human technology. So great for applied physics. But a vagueness-based systems approach, which sees hierarchies arise out of dichotomies, is a causality complex enough to frame the big answers to the big questions.

    What has been lacking has been the mathematical formalisms. People have not been able to "shut up and calculate" using a systems logic in the way they can with an atomistic logic.

    But actually I believe that many of the mathematical ingredients are lying about. Especially in fractal maths, scalefree nets, anticipatory neural networks, dissipative structure thermodynamics, and other mathematical advances of the past 20 years.
  5. Aug 16, 2009 #4

    Terrific post, I'm anxious to dig in to some of that stuff. Some brief responses to Pierce's points:

    1. Yep. Quantum foam, hidden variables, seems exactly the sort of thing we would see if order evolved from chaos. It would appear only in the foundation of order, and what is more a foundation than the simplest of interactions between the simplest of objects (particles)?

    2. Dichotomy - I ~think~ I generally disagree here, unless I've misinterpreted this point. I think this sort of dichotomy is based on the presumption that there is some law of conservation within the chaos itself. If there's no need to conserve any quantity, then imbalance is fine. Nothing needs to be balanced in the chaos. Admittedly, the idea of conserved quantities is one of the foundations of order, itself (if not the foundation of order), but its still very much order, and the chaos is very much not order. Also I'm not sure if you were thinking that extremes of something can be called a dichotomy (not the definition i prefer), or that only a balance of polarity of something is a dichotomy (the definition I prefer).

    3. Heirarcy - I'm picturing that scale as simply the various levels of order.
  6. Aug 16, 2009 #5
    Sounds like Spinoza's "Deus Sive Natura" to me. All of the ideas you guys are talking about, natural laws being necessary consequences of rational logic, fits with 17th century rationalism.

    Spinoza's "The Ethics" might be worth flipping through. It's a lot easier to read in book form but you can find it at http://www.spinozacsack.net78.net/The Ethics, Benedict de Spinoza.pdf It's Spinoza's attempt to derive everything from God/nature through ethics from basic rational premises.

  7. Aug 16, 2009 #6


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    This indeed would be the advantage of the dichotomy - that it leads to a law of conservation so to speak. The closed realm emerges out of the radically open.

    I agree this is an utterly different viewpoint to the familiar one. Allow a couple of years for it to make sense. I thought this stuff was nuts when I first came across it.

    Anyway, this is a self-organising or bootstrapping causality. So what emerges has to be in balance to persist. If it arises in unbalanced fashion, it would destroy itself. Kind of like the way the universe has a nice flat space equilibrium and so expands to infinity and heat death rather than collapsing almost immediately after the big bang.

    You got to start thinking of two opposites that are complementary. Two kinds of things or directions that are mutual and synergistic. Take all the dichotomies we employ daily in scientific modelling.

    Like signal-noise. Noise is defined by what is not signal and signal is defined by what is not noise. This is a balanced and closed definition as each direction defines the other, and all other directions are excluded.

    This was the basis of modern logic - Aristotle's law of the excluded middle.

    It gets complicated because there is a traditional notion of hierarchy as simply a stack of levels. You have small stuff and build up in successive layers to larger states of organisation.

    But I am talking here of a different brand of hierarchy maths in which there is included the idea of top-down causality - the causality of global boundary constraints.

    This kind of systems view can be reduced to just three cannonical levels - the dichotomy representing two bounding extremes, and then the third thing that is its middle ground of interaction.
  8. Aug 16, 2009 #7
    The only beef I have with Spinoza is (unless I've misinterpreted him), that he stopped way short of admitting that there could be infinite order, or at least effectively "infinite" as far as mankind is concerned. He had the right idea, I think, but assumed that his current empirical knowledge of the structure of the universe was sufficient to know that the universe was finite, which apparently caused him to confidently assume there was some unknown limit to order.
  9. Aug 16, 2009 #8
    You sure you're reading Spinoza correctly?

    VI. By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite—that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.
    Explanation—I say absolutely infinite, not infinite after its kind : for, of a thing infinite only after its kind, infinite attributes may be denied ; but that which is absolutely infinite, contains in its essence whatever expresses reality, and involves no negation.​

    That's page 1 of The Ethics. Spinoza very explicitly believes that God and Nature are infinite. God and Nature are the infinite implications of logic. This world is necessarily the only world that could exist because anything other than exactly what we have would violate logic.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  10. Aug 16, 2009 #9


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    Spinoza, like any philosopher, has some reasonable things to say. But I think it has to be accepted that he was seeking a metaphysics that would justify a Christian conception of God. So not at all the pure metaphysics approach I am talking about.

    Think of it this way. A systems perspective is indeed "god-like" in its hiearchical causality. It too has a top-down, mind-like, causality - based on global boundary constraints - that is an essential aspect of the story. The whole is as fundamental as the part - which is why the intelligent design crew and other religious bandwagons have attempted to co-op holism in the past, giving it a bad name.

    But the difference is that God is a "complex" something and global boundary constraints are a "simple" something. God-thinking does not appeal as it tries to pose the complex as the origins of the simple. The systems approach is still a way to have the simple as the origins of the complex.

    Nothing could be "simpler" than a vagueness, a pure state of symmetry. It lacks any complexity, any development. It is the simplest thing that can be imagined - simpler than even a nothing (a nothing being a definite lack of anything, which is not a simple idea as this then demands a judgement, a context, by which the lack of thing-ness is being measured).

    Anyway, the Christian God does several things which are invalid in the systems view I express here. It posits the complex as the origins of the simple. And it posits the creator as external to the creation.

    The systems view (like traditional atomism/mechanicalism) sees the simple as the ground to the complex. And being a boot-strapping metaphysics, self-organising, the creator and the creation are one (two directions of a dichotomy indeed).

    Of course, many have tried to reinvent God to make him a simpler vague ground of potential (a spiritual force rather than a bearded old geezer). And to argue nature is actually god-stuff. Spinoza would be one of these trying to morph God into something more acceptable to a systems perspective.

    But why bother? If you succeed in getting rid of the twin features of the complexity, the externality, then you end up with something different and non-God like anyway. And all that is left is the chesire cat like grin of religiosity, the cachet that goes with being connected to a powerful human institution. The woo-woo factor.

    So leave Spinoza out of this. Though I have to admit that Peirce was pretty religious at times (you have to look through that). And so was Hegel (again, just look through it).

    Oh well. What can we do in a world still contaminated with old memes? I mean Hawking and his reading the mind of god, the LHC and its search for the god particle. Everyone exploits the woo-woo factor as appearing to be talking about Christian belief still gets everyone going. A powerful dichotomising force in human society indeed.
  11. Aug 16, 2009 #10
    The way I interpreted Spinoza's use of "infinite", here, was that God had infinite different attributes, just like we've said here that reality allows infinite different possibilities (rules) which we called "chaos". But I don't recall anything along the lines of Spinoza ever suggesting God was the result of order growing without bound, to become infinitely complex, self-aware, intelligent, etc.. But then it has been several decades since I read any of that.
  12. Aug 16, 2009 #11
    Well put, and that is a very important point! --Still, being a theist, I say God is simply the most complex level of order, which is infinite and was the case outside of time, for time is only another facet of that order rather than a limit within which order can grow. Its not that God created everything, its that God is the pinnacle of everything (OR if we define "God" as "The ability of order to grow, including all those levels of order", then we could say God created everything--which is saying "The natural tendency of order to grow is what created order"--its a little circular but still has some subtle meaning)
  13. Aug 16, 2009 #12


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    No, broadly speaking, Spinoza was arguing the line that god was a simple spiritual force.

    Others like Hegel argued something more like that humans exist as part of the synthesis that makes a complex god possible. So for there to be good (thesis) there had to be evil (antithesis), then finally the synthesis of the two (God).

    There are a bunch of related ways of playing around with this pool of ideas.

    Another dichotomy to explain the difference is becoming-being. So vagueness is the state of becoming, the simple and unformed (also insubstantial). Then what arises is the complex, the being. So again, if God is (a) being, then logic says he must lie at the end of this arc of (self)development. And Hegel and others tried to make Christianity work by switching the creation around this way - making it teleological.

    The greek mythical cosmogensis (read Hessiod) is more systems-like as out of chaos (via dichotomies) emerged a whole complex hierarchy of gods. So a multiplicity resulting from divisions such as divine and mortal, good and evil, land and water, etc.

    And what you should note here is that vagueness is not like conventional notions of probability - dependent on a countable set of microstate, or even an infinty of microstates (or specific "attributes" as you are terming it here).

    Microstates and macrostates do not exist in vagueness, in a state of pure symmetry. Instead they are the two extremes of scale that would dichotomously emerge from vagueness. There would not be Ashby's variety, the raw material of statistical mechanics, in the vagueness. Just the potential for things to become divided in that direction (along with the counter-matching direction of a global macrostate).

    Tough to follow some of this I know. How do you exorcise the notion that the small atoms, the microstates, pre-exist the macrostates, the global contexts or organisation forms that act upon them, that select from them? It is like rejecting the firm ground that stands under your intellectual feet. And no-one is more certain they are standing on firm ground than a person institutionalised by physics.
  14. Aug 16, 2009 #13

    From Wikipedia (ok, so I could have found a better source):
    Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and other religious texts. In the summer of 1656, the Jewish community issued to him the writ of cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication), perhaps for the apostasy of how he conceived God.​
    Spinoza's concept of Deus sive Natura (literally God or Nature) is arguably about as far as you can get from a Christian God while still using the word "God." You can literally replace "God" in anything he wrote with the word "Nature" and get the same result. His "God" is really a combination of logic and mother nature, and it's what got him excommunicated from the (Jewish) church.

    Fleem, God is order without bound for Spinoza. God is the substance supporting all other substances. This notion is even consistent with modern quantum mechanics.

    For Niels Bohr this God would represent the manifold:
    in our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold and aspects of our experience.

    Niels Bohr. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1934) 18.​
    For David Bohm this God would represent deeper reality:
    “the deeper reality is something beyond either mind or matter, both of which are only aspects that serve as terms for analysis.”

    Bohm, D. (1990) `A New Theory of the Relationship of Mind and Matter', Philosophical Psychology 3: 271--86.​
    Just some more food for thought :smile:.

    Oh, also, I would say that Spinoza's God is exactly the systems type you described and not the Christian type.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  15. Aug 16, 2009 #14


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    Hi Kote...blush...yes, I was mis-remembering there about the Jewish roots against which he was rebelling. But he is often cited by Christian theologists.

    Yet still, I would argue there is a basic flaw in his model - the urge to arrive at a monadic answer on "what is fundamental". Dichotomies should always rule metaphysics (but never dualities)!

    So citing from this useful page...http://www.friesian.com/spinoza.htm

    "The way that Spinoza argues it is that there is only one substance, and then that there is only one individual of that substance. In the tradition of Anselm and Descartes, God is a "Necessary Being," who cannot possibly not exist. Existence is part of his essence, and he cannot be without it. But existence is not the entire essence of God. Instead, the one substance is characterized by an infinite number of attributes. Besides existence, we are only aware of two of these: thought and extension. Thus, where Descartes had seen thought as the unique essence of the substance soul, and extension as the unique essence of the substance matter, Spinoza abolished this dualism, and the paradoxes it generated. Thought and extension are just two, out of an infinite number of, facets of Being. A reductionistic scientism that wants to claim Spinoza as one of its own typically overlooks this aspect of the theory: Spinoza's God thinks, and also is or does many other things that are beyond our reckoning and comprehension. Thus, although Spinoza was condemned by his community for the heresy of saying that God has a body (denying the transcendence of God common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm), God is nevertheless much more, indeed infinitely more, than a body."

    The standard religious dichotomy (a flawed model) wants to divide reality into the ordinary and the divine - the maker and the made, the creator and the creation, the father and his children (who should do what they're told).

    This folkloric metaphysics - the kind of just so creation tales invented to bulwark authority in primitive tribal settings - then gets more properly worked over in greek philosophy. We end up with the great set-piece debate at the core of the Athens school - substance vs form as the ousia, the essence, the principle of nature. What Aristotle and Plato spent so long dialoguing about.

    So Spinoza is picking up substance-form and trying to match god-human somehow to this basic metaphysical dichotomy. Is god a substance? Is god a form?

    It sounds here like Spinoza was saying here that he must be both. Then saying he was even in some respects substantial was offensive to people as - in the neoplatonist tradition of Christianity in particular - the realm of substance is flawed, a pale and inadequate shadow cast by the realm of splendid form.

    So the difference here - which would bear on whether Spinoza is close to, or far from, the view I am advancing - lies in the nature of the synthesis.

    I am saying that substance and form (as primary dichotomous extremes of nature) must have been one only in the cloaking symmetry of vagueness. That is one was indistinguishable from the other in that original state of potential. Then to exist at all, in any fashion whatsoever, substance and form must become ontologically separated.

    So is Spinoza talking about god as a vagueness (a state of nature which subsumes both substance and form)? Or is his god a crisp expression of both substance and form - is he an infinite variety of already actual attributes (of both formal types, and material types)?

    It is about 20 years since I skipped over Spinoza's approach so I may be doing him a dis-service. But I don't think he was really taking my systems approach (and there are other systems approaches which may indeed sound like his).

    In summary, I think it is important to be able to follow the flow of ideas in human history - we have to understand how our prejudices were formed if we are not to be unnecessarily constrained by them. But in practice, I never found much in European philosophy, circa 1600-1850, that could be properly called an unadulterated systems causality. That era in philosphy was largely about the re-birth of atomism and scientific method, wresting itself free from a context of scholasticism (largely the abuse of Aristotle) and religious doctrine. It had other fish to fry.

    Now I was surprised to find very clear support for the systems approach in pre-socratic greek philosophy, and also to a degree in Tao and Buddhist thought. And starting with Peirce and the rise of holism in late Victorian times, we see another return to these ancient and forgotten basics. Hegel would be about the only interim landmark in my book. But I do know of other systems thinkers who quote Spinoza approvingly. So perhaps I ought to check him out again more carefully.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  16. Aug 17, 2009 #15
    Interesting that you mention finding your approach in greek philosophy. I was looking into a response for you and came across this comment in a NY Times book review (admittedly these greeks weren't presocratic):
    The German and English Romantics (Shelley aside) got Spinoza wrong. Reading his superbly cryptic masterwork, the "Ethics," I find myself agreeing with Strauss that Spinoza pragmatically was an Epicurean materialist. As in Epicurus and Lucretius, Spinoza's God is scarcely distinguishable from Nature, and is altogether indifferent to us, even to our intellectual love for him as urged upon us by Spinoza.​

    Disclaimer: I took Prof. Goldstein's course on Spinoza/Rationalism while she was writing that book :smile:

    Because of his use of the word "God," Spinoza has been mischaracterized to no end. Also, with regard to 17th century philosophy... I think it seems that the empiricists did win out in terms of their influence (although you mention monads, so I see that you are familiar with at least one other rationalist!). Hume etc were all opposed to Spinoza, and they get much more mention today. Actually I did find a lot more in common between Berkeley and Spinoza than I expected, but that's another story.

    I'll have to look at your questions about comparing Spinoza's philosophy to yours tomorrow. Personally I've found Spinoza to be very convincing. His theories have always been compelling to me in that they are consistent with modern scientific / empirical views while at the same time can explain, to some extent, the seemingly infinite regress in time of arbitrary physical causation. Causation and the physical world are not arbitrary if they are necessary implications of logic. Unless that logical rational base exists, the notion of causality is at least an arbitrary artifact of circular inductive reasoning and at worst inconsistent. Ex nihilo nihil fit.
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2009
  17. Aug 17, 2009 #16
    That quote from the book review is the way I'd remembered Spinoza, as well. but like I said its been a few years since I ready any Spinoza
  18. Aug 17, 2009 #17
    Dichotomy creates opposites
    -> opposites creates reactions
    -> reactions creates change
    -> change creates mutations
    -> mutations creates human being
    -> human being creates dichotomy
  19. Aug 17, 2009 #18


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    Reading this summary of Spinoza's physics makes me realise why my recall of his stance is murky. It seems it actually is murky and open to much interpretation....


    Which concludes:
    "It is far from clear that any thorough and consistent account of Spinoza's physical theory can be found. He says too little that is focused and direct, and the various partial and indirect discussions of such fundamental topics as inertia and the individuation of bodies are individually underdeveloped and problematic, as well as in prima facie tension with one another."

    The article places him as a philosopher trying to fix the holes that arose in Descartes res extensa and res cogitans - Descartes dualism of substances. Spinoza went for a dual-aspect approach and made them two attributes of the one substance. Then further, tried fo fix Descartes problem with the relationship of reality to god by making the one substance with its two aspects the "body" of god, so to speak.

    So like all metaphysics, it revolves around dichotomies. But - although much is probably lost in translation - it goes wrong for me in the fact that we seem to be dealing with two brands of substance, or two faces of substance. Whereas the historically telling dichotomy is actually the one that splits reality into the asymmetric directions of substance and form. The original divide argued by Plato and Aristotle.

    Epicurus and Lucretius, by the way, were the popularisers of atomism (Lucretius following on in Roman times). So like Spinoza in being materialists, perhaps. But anti-systems guys in the sense that their dichotomy of atom-void located all the casuality in the substance of the atoms and rendered the void, the global form, causally impotent. The void is an a-causal notion - which was heresy in its day and is so again today with our more active view of the QM vacuum.
  20. Aug 17, 2009 #19


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    Thank you, I appreciate the comments! But the approach I’m taking above is a little different from what I think of as the metaphysical approach, which interprets the world through basic principles of logic, such as paradox or dichotomy. Instead I wanted to focus on an aspect of the world’s structure that I think is underappreciated -- that is, to the extent information in the world is observable, it must be able to be defined entirely from a point of view inside the interaction-web, in terms of the “experienced” structure of interaction.

    As I noted, this is not how we normally define the information we have about the world. The normal thing is to take up a mental standpoint “outside” the world and think of it as made of real things that have structure in themselves – while the interaction-web through which we see that structure isn’t taken as important.

    This objective viewpoint on the world is natural to us in daily life, and metaphysics is the most highly-developed extension of this viewpoint. It takes the point of view invented by the Greeks, who learned to envision the entirety of being, "the All", as if we could stand outside and see it as a single entity.

    Without denying that our whole intellectual / scientific tradition has evolved in and out of metaphysics, I’m thinking that the problem in front of us is learning how to envision the world differently, from a point of view “inside”. I think we need to try to understand how much is implied, just in the fact that all this information is structured so that it can be seen and defined entirely from a point of view within it.

    I imagine this may require some rethinking of what seem like basic logical principles. If we see a dichotomy, we need to ask – how do we see it, in what interaction-context does this become a meaningful distinction? A paradox says – “A, and also not-A” – assuming A and not-A are in the same context, since otherwise there may be no contradiction.

    If we’re trying to envision the beginning of the world “from inside”, I think the key issue is that there is no given context to begin with, in terms of which contradictions or dichotomies can be defined. Undoubtedly all kinds of structure have arisen – along with the interaction-contexts that make them meaningful. So the challenge is to imagine primitive ways of “making a difference to each other,” where both the difference and its context emerge together.

    In other words, if we’re inventing logical structures (or mathematical or systems-theoretic models), we can do it in many, many different ways. But in which of these structures will the structure itself be observable from inside? Any model that doesn’t fulfill this criterion can’t be a faithful model of our physical world.
  21. Aug 17, 2009 #20


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    Yes, although "fix the holes" understates what Descartes did in tearing the classical cosmos into two parallel worlds, mental and physical. The subject/object distinction he invented is so basic to how we think in modern times, that it's hard to imagine how people conceived the world before.

    If Spinoza tried to put the world back together, while acknowledging the depth of Descartes' dichotomy, I think Leibniz was the one who created the real synthesis... imagining a single universe made out of different points of view in relation to each other. But he was still imagining the world "from outside" as a system of relationships all coordinated in the mind of God. There wasn't yet a concept of the world as all these different points of view in communication with each other, negotiating their one reality together, with no absolute "external" point of view.
  22. Aug 17, 2009 #21
    I found the SEP article on Spinoza's physics to be rather biased. The article on Spinoza's metaphysics seems much more complete and balanced to me, presenting opposing views. More importantly, the metaphysics article shows how little any specific physics Spinoza had mattered to his overall view. Spinoza's physics matter about as much as Descartes' physics (actually Spinoza's quoted views of physics are from his 2nd hand description of Descartes' views). Descartes was wrong about physics, but he had more important things to say.
    So while necessitarianism is true from God's perspective, and while we can understand the metaphysical principles which guarantee the truth of necessitarianism in virtue of the existence of such comprehensive ways of conceiving the world, the ways of conceiving finite objects we tend to adopt will rarely, if ever, be sufficiently complete so as to entail true predications of necessitarianism. ​
    This passage shows how Spinoza's metaphysics is compatible with any specific notion of physical laws that we can come up with. Any physics we claim to know can only hope to be an approximation of the underlying infinitely complex logic necessitating all causality.
    If there are true but incomplete ways of conceiving objects, Spinoza will occupy the interesting position of consistently affirming both necessitarianism and its denial, relative to these different ways of conceiving objects. This pairing sounds like a contradiction until we appreciate the force of Spinoza's conceptualist account of modality. If the truth-value of modal predications is sensitive to ways of conceiving objects, as the modern day anti-essentialist would agree, and if Spinoza endorses a variety of modally relevant ways of conceiving objects, then he can consistently affirm both the truth and falsity of full-blown necessitarianism relative to different ways of conceiving objects.
    In my mind, this is the true strength of Spinoza's metaphysics. There is real necessitarianism (determinism/causation) in the world, necessarily, a priori. The fact that physics can never reveal this causation is an epistemological issue resulting from the fact that finite beings can only approximately model an infinite universe. We don't, however, need physics in order to prove causation. It is already proven.

    These views are very relevant to modern theories. Both Bohm and Bohr, diametrically opposed thought leaders on the interpretation of quantum mechanics, present theories consistent with Spinoza's metaphysics.

    I think it was very purposeful that Spinoza's theory in areas can be vague. I think he understood his limits. This is exactly how practicing empiricists, hundreds of years later, have come to present ideas consistent with and strikingly similar to Spinoza's rationalism.
    I would argue that Spinoza's "vague" view is the ultimate, general, systems-type, metaphysical framework. And Spinoza has a very clear answer for your question, which should be obvious from the passages above. To comprehend (in modern science, to model) a thing, requires a system of comprehension more complex than the system to be comprehended. It is because of this epistemological barrier that we can never create a faithful model of the physical world. The best we can do is to prove the ontological truth of such laws, without ever being able to comprehend and explain them completely. Again, although I'm not sure how much interest you have in QM, this view is exactly the view given by David Bohm, the champion of modern causal realism, in his notion of the implicate order.
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2009
  23. Aug 17, 2009 #22


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    You may still be interested in my brand of metaphysics then. It is connected to an information based approach, and is also an internalist approach.

    The philosophy of Peirce is called semiosis - a theory of how meaning arises in nature. It is now being developed into biosemiosis and even pansemiosis. The pansemiosis is in a fairly tentative stage, but biosemiosis is pretty respectable.

    Closely connected to Peircean approaches are more traditional entropy (and negentropy) based modellers who arise out of Prigogine's far from equillibrium/ open systems/ dissipative structure/ maximum entropy production camp of thought.

    Again, this was an information based view that has become respectable in theoretical biology and is now being generalised to physics and cosmology in tentative ways. That is, it still sounds cranky, and quite a bit is, but there is something in it.

    Take for example the work of Stan Salthe - he comes across as opaque, if not nuts, but there is real depth once you can dig down to what he is really talking about.


    Salthe is also an internalist. And again there is a small community around this issue, trying to understand what it would mean. And again this is essentially Peircean.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/16654694/Emergence-of-the-Internal-Perspective-in-Western-Science [Broken]
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  24. Aug 17, 2009 #23


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    And my approach of course dichotomises causation, therefore bypassing old dilemma like determinism.

    Causation comes in two forms - construction and constraint. That is the bottom-up, atomistic-like and additive act of construction. In interaction with the top-down, global organisation or form-based, force of boundary constraints.

    Nothing is really determined because everything emerges from vagueness for a start. There is an inherent creativity - the foam of possibility as we might call it from QM. But as something develops, it does accumulate increasing constraints. The space of action of its components becomes more tightly defined. Yet action is still "free" within those constraints.

    Spinoza's ethics was favourable to this way of thinking from memory. At least he was warmly cited by Vygotsky, my favourite psychologist.
  25. Aug 17, 2009 #24
    I guess that's where we differ on this issue :smile:. I'm with Spinoza on the idea that causality (or determinism), as an extension of symmetry, is an analytic truth. Logic gives us symmetry. Ex nihil nihilo fit. Apparent violations of causation are epistemic artifacts
  26. Aug 17, 2009 #25


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    Yes but there are still two ways to make things happen. We can construct actions. Or we can constrain possibility to the point where something has to happen. Both look like determinism in the extreme.
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