Re: Reality Theory

From: Mitchell Porter (
Date: Sun Nov 24 2002 - 02:24:57 MST

For me, there's two aspects to Marc's theory: a set of broad
philosophical postulates, and then the detailed theory, the
specific logical-physical-cognitive correspondences he proposes.

His postulates are

1. Cyber-Platonism: reality is made of 'formal systems'.
2. Possibility, actuality, and necessity are all the same thing:
  if you can exist, you do exist; and if you can exist, you must exist.
3. Metaphysical idealism as the criterion of possibility:
  to be is to be represented in a mind somewhere.

In my opinion 1), and very definitely 3), will prove to be on
the wrong track, while 2) might be true for all we know, but
it's a quite arbitrary supposition: no reason is offered as
to why *all* possibilities must be realized, rather than just
some, or none at all.

I want to address what's wrong with 1) at some length, because
it's a very popular way of thinking among transhumanists.
Platonism has always been about focusing on the concepts we use
to understand things, and saying that they are all that is real.
Cyber-Platonism is Platonism 2.0, the use of materialistic
information-age concepts in a Platonic way.

For example: the formalist interpretation of mathematics, which
says that mathematics is just a big game of meaningless symbols,
was invented to make materialistic sense of the subject, by tying
it to concrete things like notations on a page or bits in a
computer. These concrete games were the original 'formal systems'.
But ironically, we now have a new Platonism in which 'abstract
formal systems' play the role of the Platonic forms!

It's worth remembering the philosophical context of the debate
over Platonism. The originating issue is the problem of the Many
and the One: what is this 'redness' that all red things share?
(Also known as the 'problem of universals': an individual red
thing is a "particular", a property like redness is a "universal",
and the question is, what sort of 'thing' is a universal?)

In the medieval debates, there seem to have been three positions:
nominalism, Aristotelian realism, and Platonic realism.

1. According to nominalists, 'redness' is just a name. There are
no universals, and all that links red things is how we name them.
2. According to Aristotelian realists, both particulars and
universals exist, and you can't have one without the other:
there are no 'propertyless things', or properties floating free.
3. According to Platonic realism, only the universals exist.
There are no things; or, things are somehow 'less real'.

Cognitive science has given new life to nominalism, by going
inside the observer and describing the computation underlying
the act of categorization. A cognitive nominalist like George
Lakoff will ask: do we really think there is such a thing as
an 'essence of table', inhabiting all tables? Of course not.
'Table' is a fuzzy common-sense category, and whether an object
is a table is a judgement call made by an individual brain.
(You could also call this 'neural constructivism', by analogy
with 'social constructivism', which says that such categories
are social constructs.)

But when we go to fundamental physics, the natural attitude to
adopt is some form of Aristotelian realism. The Standard Model
may or may not be true, but if it's true, it's true objectively
and absolutely. The 'upness' of an up quark is not dependent
on observer judgement, it's an observer-independent fact. You
can't really be a constructivist about the things out of which
brains and societies themselves are constructed. But that means
that the problem of universals returns in full force, without
any nominalist escape-hatch: what sort of a thing is upness?

I hope it's clear that 'abstract formal system' is a universal:
it's the abstract pattern instantiated by each member of some
isomorphism class of concrete formal systems. And that should
in turn make it clear how odd it is to say that reality itself
is *made* of those abstractions, which we only know by way of
their instantiation in concrete systems. It would make more sense
to say that the universe is a concrete formal system, but that
would remove the argument for 3), metaphysical idealism.

Anyway, enough of that for now. I want to turn to Marc's proposed
system of correspondences.

Near the end of his book "Shadows of the Mind", Roger Penrose
talks about the three interpenetrating worlds of mathematics,
physics and mind, and adds that "No doubt there are not really
three worlds but *one*". Marc's system is a sort of impressionistic
unified model of the three worlds. He has three sets of four
concepts, one set for each world, each element in correspondence
with its neighbors:

Modalities, Concepts, Thoughts, Deliberation (mental world)
Information, Reflection, Time, Telos (physical world)
Essence, Comprehensiveness, Consistency, Completeness (mathematical world)

Or, to set it out as an ASCII mandala:


                        / \
                       / \
                      / Consistency \
                     / / \ \
                    / / \ \
                   / / Compre- \ \
                  / / hensiveness \ \
                 / / / \ \ \
                / / / \ \ \
               / / / Essence \ \ \
              / / / / \ \ \ \
             / / / / \ \ \ \
            / / / / \ \ \ \
           / / / / \ \ \ \
          / / / / \ \ \ \
         / / / Modalities--Information \ \ \
        / / / \ \ \
       / / Concepts----------------Reflection \ \
      / / \ \
     / Thoughts--------------------------------Time \
    / \


Now, so far this is like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life; it's just
a network of concepts. To be judged as a theory, it needs to be
expanded into a set of propositions, expressing some systematic
relationship between the dozen concepts that he's picked out.
And when I look at it in that fashion, asking just what it is
that the links represent, I conclude that it doesn't add up.
Relationships that ought to be analogous are in fact dissimilar,
or indeed hardly more than chains of association (notably the link
between TIME and CONSISTENCY). Some associations are stronger than
others, but I don't think this is the deep structure of reality
on display just yet.

Still, I wouldn't abandon it entirely. The planets don't move
around the sun in circles, but they do move around it, and the
introduction of a seemingly ugly idea - that they move in
off-center ellipses - led eventually to the inverse-square law
of gravitation. There might be the tip of a similar iceberg
hidden somewhere in the diagram above.

The new MSN 8: smart spam protection and 2 months FREE*

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed Jul 17 2013 - 04:00:41 MDT