Monday, March 21, 2011

Is the Rationalist Project Dead? (2)

In the prior instalment:

I examined the basis for the very real fear that the "rationalist project", i.e. the ability to make reason the general underpinning of approach to life, and problems, is now defunct or dying. The basic problem inheres in how it's come to pass that after nearly 400 years, Westerners have failed to delineate and practice a common purpose in pursuit of reason’s goals.

Instead of a "full court press" aimed at a host of problems: global warming, education, population growth, energy use and pollution, life quality, economic fairness, we find a splintering off into multiple odd offshots often at contretemps: post-modernist malarkey, epistemological relativism, and the ascendancy of faith-based dogmatism and absolutist pretensions.

Germane to this, I also noted in the previous blog on this:

"Perhaps we must also invoke the historical schism that has existed from the time of the Ionians and the Greek Platonists, with the former pursuing the real scientific method founded in empiricism, and the latter more inclined to give equal sway to belief as to evidence"

This is more than just a passing fancy, and as I'll show the Platonic model has actually caused a grievous schism in rationalist energy and efforts, with Ionian-realist mode thinkers facing off against Platonic Idealists. At the crux of it, as Andy Norman suggests (op. cit., Pt. 2) seems to be the Platonics' demand that the burden of proof always rests on the claimant an no matter what the claim. (This even applies to the rejection of the Platonists' claim, say that a deity exists, and have some specific atttribute, e.g. "personal", "all -loving") etc.

One of the odd effects of the Platonists' model becoming so dominant is that, according to Norman, "presumptions are nearly immune to all challenges".

This is very intriguing, because in normal contexts and exchanges, presumption is always on the defensive. One cannot, for example, offer the presumption that some unproven entity, say Abominable Snowmen or unicorns, exist, and then argue from those presumptions.

In the same way, god-believers ought not be allowed to argue cavalierly from the presumption that a god exists when they've not even given the necessary and sufficient conditions for it to do so. (Far less any empirical evidence, and btw, referring to "stars, the Moon and the Earth" is NOT evidence in any sense, especially when the n-s conditions haven't first been articulated to be able to recognize the thresholds of evidence!)

But let's get to the underpinning of the problem here.

The Platonic model of reality basically evolved from the Greek Stoics who confronted the atomist -materialist philosophy (of Demokritos and Leucippus) by postulating that there was more to the cosmos than the mere sum of its parts. Thus, there was scope in the Stoic universe for the theme of emergence as well as for unseen realities. This was putatively the Platonic rationalists' basis for a later supernaturalism as accepted in the Christian world.

The Stoics then set the stage for the Platonic idealists wherein the "shadows in the cave" idiom expounded by Plato, came to the fore. This was the precursor of the school of idealist philosophies, all of which questioned the validity of the existence of an external reality.

In either case: realism/materialism or idealism, it must be understood that a context for "truth" is being defined. Clearly, one's affinity for scientific lines of thought will depend on where one stands in the spectrum of realism/materialism to Platonic idealism. That affinity will be greater, the more one embraces the former emphasis - to the essential exclusion of the latter.

For their part, religious and other transcendant world-views (derived from Platonism) tend to take the position that the human person is tri-partite in characters: a "soul", a body and a "mind". Rene Descartes thereby developed his dualistic conception of res cogitans (thinking thing) and res extensa (extended thing). In the first category he included the concepts of "mind" - the central thinking thing - and "soul", which ultimately governed the mind like a rider guides a horse. In the second category, he included all corporeal or physical things, including the body.

In the West, this Cartesian duality or mind-body split, inevitably brought with it a metaphysical elitism or preference - with the "body" being given short shrift to the "mind-soul" or res cogitans. Platonic idealists - particularly within Christianity - were motivated to debase and devalue the physical/material realm while giving priority to the mental. Christianity, which extracted many of its doctrines from (Persian) Mithraism - splitting the cosmos into "forces of light and darkness", and Manicheanism which viewed all flesh as an "evil" creation, was ripe for an ontological hijacking by Cartesian dualism, aided and abetted by schools of idealism.

In many ways then, it was Cartesian dualism that first interjected a virus that would later eat away at the foundations of reason, by introducing a spurious context for reason.

This hijacking was evident in the writings of many post-reformation theologians who took up the anti-flesh, anti-world cant of earlier Fathers such as St. Augustine and Tertullian. It culminated in the elaboration of more than 2600 Canon laws - of which more than half were proscriptions against one fleshly act or another.

By the early 19th century, the proscriptions based on this dualism had become so entrenched and formidable that they even included thought itself, e.g. one could not entertain sexual thoughts without committing a serious sin. Note also, at this time, the dualism concept had transmogrified theology (in the form of the Trinity) which was one major reason Catholicism refused to embrace the "expiation" basis of Salvation.

According to modern day evangelicals, "expiation through Jesus Christ's suffering and death" is what confers salvation. However, this dogma would've been sheer heresy to the Church Fathers in the early Enlightenment, because it would have been seen to attach excess import to one component of the Trinity and ignored the other two (Father, Holy Spirit). The Church Fathers at the time, therefore refused to consider this because of upsetting the balance of the Triune God. It was simply incomprehensible to award more power to one person than to the other two. ALL had to play a role in salvation, or none did.

As Biblical author Geza Vermes has pointed out (The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus) the Triune God is actually a high order abstraction. Indeed, it took many centuries for Church thinkers to fully explicate it, so as not to appear to diverge from monotheism. The point here being made, is that this Church controversy was actually the emergence of radical Platonic idealism within the Platonic Idealist landscape! In much the same way, it presages and even echoes later schisms that would emerge in the Realist-Materialist-Physicalist camp, i.e. between naive or "near realism" and "far realism".

In naive realism, the "pure phenomenon" can be apprehended through instrumentation or measuring device with a minimum of observer "disruption". In "far realism" observer disruption always accompanies observation and measurement, and especially in quantum mechanics, this disturbance is arbitrarily large (due to superposition of states). In "far realism" a quantum nonseparability can be incorporated (either through adoption of a statistical causality or a deterministic wave function a la the de Broglie-Bohm "pilot wave" model).

Most interesting here, in far realism we have the basis for a quantum nonlocality that many in the radical skeptical community of near realism still attack as "conjecture".

Already, we see the basis for multiple fronts and counter-fronts in rationalism and why it has lost power and coherence over the centuries. That is, as each sub-discipline or philosophy has branched off, it established its own predicates for presumption. That is, it justified its presumptive claims by defining what it regarded as rational by default, without need for explication or justification, or even offering necessary and sufficient conditions.

Thus, the Triune Deity of Roman Catholicism emerged as rational by default, even as the later "expiation of sins via Christ" did in Evangelicalism. And further, nonlocality in quantum mechanics emerged as rational by default because....after all, ....we had actual experiments (such as Alain Aspect's) to prove it.

This issue can be clarified with a single example of a thought experiment that has recently come under close scrutiny in quantum measurement theory. This experiment makes use of two detectors D1 and D2 placed at an equal distance from a device that acts on systems of "atomic magnets". The device acts to disperse the individual "magnets" (net-spin atoms) and send them in pairs (always in pairs) to D1 and D2 simultaneously. The question is, what spin is detected by each detector at the instant of observation? The general layout is sketched in the schematic diagram below:

D1 ( ) <-------------[D]------------->( )D2

The above scene captures the instant just before each detector intercepts an atomic magnet from the device. The quantum state observed is described by the spin number, which is (-½ ) for D1 and (+½) for D2, corresponding to the spin down and spin up orientations respectively. It is important to understand that these values can only be known definitely at the instant of observation.

Prior to the observation (actual detection), neither spin value can be known according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics. That is, while the atomic magnets are in transit - from device to either detector - there is no definite information concerning which spin is going where. The reason has to do with what is called the superposition of states. To fix ideas, consider the whole atomic magnet in the device, before being ejected. If it’s a helium atom, then there’ll be one up spin and one down spin and we can write for simplicity:

PSI = Sigma_{(ups) + (downs)}

Here the Greek letter on the left of the equal sign denotes the superposition of states that can be observed (detected) at either D1 or D2. On the right hand side of the equal sign this is given as the sum of all those (4) possible states. The superposition must include the possibility that the up spin (U+) can be observed at D1 or D2, and that the down spin (D¯) can be observed at D1 or D2. Thus, although the atom itself has 2 spin states, the superposition indicates 4 possibilities, since there are two detectors.

The argument that the outcome "depends on perspective" is rubbish, since it is the observation that determines the outcome, and there is only one. In the orthodox (and most conservative) interpretation of quantum theory, there can be no separation of observed (e.g. spin) state until an observation or measurement is made. Until that instant (of detection) the states are in a superposition, as described above. There’s nothing mysterious or strange about this as it follows entirely from the mathematics. More importantly, the fact of superposition imposes on all quantum phenomena an inescapable ‘black box’. In other words, no information other than statistical can be extracted before observation.

The late physicist Heinz Pagels, for example, has referred (in his excellent book, The Cosmic Code, Bantam, 1982) to quantum measurement theory as an ‘information theory’ and noted the entire quantum world is embedded into what we observers can know about it. Obviously such knowledge is obtainable exclusively from observational or experiment results. Since only one apparatus is used, like I've shown there are no "differing perspectives" only one - at the instant of observation.

Pagels goes on to endorse the best policy in such matters as simply being a ‘fair witness’. That means absolutely avoiding embellishment of the results, including projection of ‘fantasies’. If one insists on reading more into quantum measurement results than their statistical significance allows, self delusion ensues.

What we see with this extended example is two things:

1) Pagels and the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI) theorists have introduced a near realism form of QM which avoids mystification, subjectivity and exploiting QM for use in "supernaturalist" projects

2) They have succeeded in engendering yet another schism within the far realism domain of rationalism, further complicating efforts to arrive at a unilateral rationalist front.

Others have seen the need for the CI theorists (such as Pagels) as countering an attempted Platonic model hijacking of empiricism via quantum mechanics. That argument goes like this, if it is claimed that the quantum wave function (U) is real, but the mathematical basis is based on evolving statistical probabilities, then an idea is being foisted which lacks empirical validity.

However, the adherents of the Stochastic Interpretation (SI) including Brian Hiley and the late David Bohm, have claimed it is THEY who are the latter day Ionians precisely because they are invoking a REAL wave function as opposed to an abstract mathematical artifact!

The more important point seemingly missed in this face-off of rational realists is that QM itself has re-aligned the rationalist universe by making acausality rational! (Thus, introducing Quantum Logic, which has subsumed classical either-or logic in the subatomic sphere!) The starting place for this is the Heisenberg Uncertainty which is a representation of the limits of the wave-particle duality and which is usually expressed via the Poisson brackets (with non-commuting variables x, p):

[x, p] = -i h/2π

where h is the Planck constant of action (h = 6.62 x 10^-34 J-s).

If two variables a, b commute, then one has:

[a, b] = (a*b - b*a) = 0

if not, then:

[a,b] = (a*b - b*a) = -1

and we say a and b are 'non-commuting'. (You may observe one aspect at any one time, but not the other).

In term's of Bohr's (Complementarity) Principle, the variables x (position) and p(momentum) are regarded as "mutually interfering observables".

A way to precis this is to simply state that the whole of reality for a given situation isn't accessible to us at once. If we focus on the wave aspect, we lose the particulate and vice versa.

Of course, if Heisenberg's principle didn't apply - meaning we could know both the position and momentum to the same degree of accuracy, then:

[x, p] = 0

All of this comes to the fore in the most formidable battleground for the rationalist project: Consciousness.

Either one of two things must be true:

1) Consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain which ceases at death (Realist rationalist view)


2) Consciousness is a more general reality than the physical body and persist after death (Platonic idealist model).

Or, is it possible to reconcile both of these using another alternative, and thereby rescue the rationalist project from further disarray and division? We will see in Part 3.

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