Monday, August 19, 2013

I Refute it THUS, or Vote 1: Reality

I adore John Lennon's LSD flavoured view of the world in Strawberry Fields Forever, but please don't try to tell me that "nothing it real" when you're not tripping. When the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson heard a similar claim from some Bishop called Berkely, Johnson kicked a rock and said "I refute it thus". Decartes' famous maxim was extended to the other end of the body: "my toe hurts, therefore I am.," By extension, the rock also is, and the rest of the universe is too.

I find myself becoming more committed to physicalism. This idea is more commonly referred to a materialism, but I shy away from that term because in the past dopey theists have conflated it with economic materialism.  I want to scream to my religion teacher back in 1978, no I don't believe that owning lots of stuff makes you happy, I believe the universe can be explained by the application of science, and that apparent supernatural concepts like spirituality, the soul and gods are actually manifestations of physical phenomena, usually the workings of the human brain.

"In the beginning was the Word", goes the gospel of John, and it's explicitly stated in disciplines like semiotics that the only thing worth caring about it the word, and not the object that it refers to. Or if you're a deconstructionist, you'll worry about the text, but not about the real world it describes. To me, there's something fundamentally flawed in that approach. It might seem like I'm stating the obvious, but the modern world is full of examples where the story of something takes over from the actual thing it tells you about. The election of Ronald Reagan - an actor - as President of the United States seemed like a major capitulation to this trend. The invasion of Iraq on the basis of non-existent weapons of mass destruction was another good example. There was even an anecdote about a member of the Bush administration being dismissive of what he called the "reality-based community".

So what seem like nebulous concepts of philosophy are being played out in ways that affect us severely. My suspicions were confirmed when Tony Blair said he used prayer to help him decide whether going to war in Iraq was the right thing.

The internet is another distraction from the real world, it's one great lump of  "the Word", and there's a huge temptation to ignore the real world that gives this word meaning. I like to compare the virtual world of the Internet with the strange world of quantum physics, where a particle can be mathematically said to both exist and not exist. It's a world at odds with the atomic world we observe. The conundrum was expressed by the concept of Shrodinger's cat, where he imagined a device which would kill a cat depending on the status of the quantum particle. The cat would have to be considered both alive and dead until the status of the particle was determined.

The thought experiment was not meant to propose the cat could be in both states. It was more to expose an problem arising from our incomplete knowledge of the quantum world. It's a problem that needs to be solved by gaining more information about quantum mechanics. We already know the cat isn't alive and dead at the same time. In this regard I agree with Einstien's famous quote about playing dice with the universe.

My little comparison is only a metaphorical one, meant to say that the physical world and the virtual world also seem to run by different rules. As a materialist I say the real world wins. When I got a letter from Google, it felt like a had a version of the Schrodinger's cat experiment in my hands, and it was a victory for physical reality. Henceforth all internet text and imagery will be put in its place. Going outside and looking at the blue of the sky will always be a superior experience to the hex code #aefbfb.

I welcome any corrections if I have misrepresented any facts, history or science in this blog post.

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