Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A metaphysical complaint

I wish to lodge a philosophical complaint with the universe.

Some scientists object to philosophical discussion of any kind. They think philosophy is pompous and pointless. They think philosophers do nothing but wield incomprehensible ideas by means of abstruse jargon in the aid of failing to solve irrelevant problems, purely to satisfy their solipsistic egos. Which is odd, because that sounds like a fair description of many scientists.

It is natural that philosophers and scientists despise each other. Scientists resent that they cannot answer the questions that philosophers ask. Philosophers resent that they cannot answer any questions at all. But asking the questions is contribution enough.

I do not have a question. I only have a complaint.

Every time scientists make a deep discovery, in their euphoria they rhapsodise over the spectacular beauty and simplicity of Nature. They exclaim that Nature is a book, open for all to read.

The hell it is.

Nature is not an open book. If anything, it is a rambling endless Borgesian library of locked volumes filled with an illegible scribble written in a foreign language for which we have only an out-of-date tourist phrase book.

The scientist's belief in the ultimate simplicity of nature is not supported by their own favourite tool, evidence. Which makes it akin to that most blunt and primitive of intellectual instruments: a religious doctrine.

Once upon a time we could be forgiven our aesthetic delusion. Newtonian mechanics, and even Maxwell's electromagnetism, can all now be observed and verified in a high school science lab. The basic rules can be written on a single piece of paper, and anyone can make a (rudimentary) confirmation of them. It's quite fair to say that the vast range of physical phenomena that can in principle be inferred from those rules is truly breathtaking. So far Nature appears to be not just an open book, but a succinct and cherished postcard.

This little parable from the standard science sermon crumbled when science entered the 20th century. We required quantum mechanics to make sense of atomic structure, and the high school lab was no longer an adequate temple in which to recite from Nature's bible. To probe further, we required synchrotrons and cyclotrons, and then massive particle accelerators.  We have learnt a vast amount about nuclear forces, but Nature has hardly gone out of its way to show us these particular pages of its hallowed bestseller.

That was just the beginning. Now we are building particle accelerators bigger than a city, and struggling to measure ever fainter glimmers from further and further out into space -- and still we haven't got to the end of the story. We don't know if there is an end. Maybe one day we will build experimental apparatus as large as Earth, or as large as the Solar System, or bigger still, and finally reach a complete and consistent understanding of all of Nature's basic rules. Maybe. But if we do, we cannot can sit back and claim, "Yep, the answers were right there before our eyes."

The universe is complex -- perhaps too complex for our small brains to ever fully understand. After all, what makes us so special? Think of all the poor animals who understand even less. The reptiles have been around for millions of years longer than we have, and there is no evidence that a single one of them is aware of the Dirac equation.

And here is my complaint. Why not? Why can't it be obvious? Why do we have to work so hard to make sense of the reality we live in? Why is it that even among the human race, the little understanding we have is comprehensible only to an arrogant and tiresome minority?

In architecture there is the concept of "exposed structure". At its most extreme, this means that you put all of a building's vital structure on the outside, where it can be seen -- all of the beams and girders and struts and supports -- along with the heating systems, the pipes and ducts and cables, and the elevators and the stairs -- everything that's essential to the building's function. The idea is to be honest about how it is made and how it functions.


It is hardly one of the humanity's greatest aesthetic products, but I am glad to rescue this quaint architectural notion and elevate it to a metaphysical principle. It can be a central piece of terminology in my new field of Whinge Philosophy. I want to challenge the idealistic scientists who claim that the universe is beautiful and simple and the best of all possible universes.

"Look, Pangloss," I say, "the universe could be much simpler. It could have exposed structure. Its operation -- its complete operation -- could be so simple as to have been clear to the Neanderthals. We could all comprehend it in childhood as easily as we all learn to walk and talk. Why not?"

Why not indeed? Could such a reality even make sense? Or is there a metaphysical version of Goedel's incompleteness theorem, which proves that you cannot have a self-consistent functioning reality, where all of the laws of Nature would be clear to any child with at least three out of five operating senses, and where all relevant quantities could be measured to sufficient accuracy between thumb and forefinger? For those scientists bored of building billion-dollar experiments to eke out yet one more digit of an obscure coefficient in a contorted theory, maybe there's fun to be had with these realities that don't exist, but should.

Is it really too much to ask that all of reality be fundamentally different?

Perhaps it is. Objecting to the Universe is unlikely to be satisfying. Even if you believe in some high-level Management, you probably also believe that Its policies are immutable.

If I can't object to all of reality, then I can at least object to the naive belief that Nature is a book. By all means try to make sense of this recursive labyrinth of infinite subtlety -- but don't tell me it's simple!



In other news...

My attempts continue to write up my summer adventures in India and elsewhere, suitably embellished for your reading pleasure. As of yesterday, they were still extremely dull. So: more embellishment required.

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