Friday, November 19, 2010

Kelvinitis in the year 2010

The present state of cosmology and neuroscience has a flavor akin to Lord Kelvin’s famous statement he made in 1900 that “Physics is almost complete.” Cosmologists today tend to believe that all that remains for them to do in their field is to unite relativity and quantum mechanics into a Final Theory of Everything. Almost all neuroscientists believe that they will soon be able give a full theory of consciousness solely in neurophysiological terms. However, these optimists have unfortunately overlooked a number of prominent gaps and errors in current science that have direct relevance to the question of visual space.
The list includes—
—the failure to understand the nature of the difference between physical space and phenomenal space:
—the unconscious assumption that space is necessarily three dimensional (or that space-time is necessarily four-dimensional). This assumption has recently been nibbled at by main-line cosmologists, as in brane theory.
—the failure to replace, in biology and psychology, Newtonian cosmological theory with the Special Theory of Relativity:
—the failure to understand the complex nature of time:
—the assumption, without evidence, in Brane Theory that all branes (parallel universes) must be filled with the same sort of matter as that contained in what cosmologists currently recognize as “the Universe”.
—the mistaken idea that the Identity Theory of mind-brain relations is true, and/or has been shown to be true, and not, as is easily demonstrable, totally false.
—the simultaneous use of two incompatible theories of perception—the representative theory of science and the naïve realism of folk psychology. This leads to complete confusion in the science of perception:
—the failure to understand the difference between the body image, the body schema, and the physical body:
—the widespread use of incorrect terminology throughout neuroscience, such as “The brain thinks”—as Ray and Bill have listed:
—the use by many scientists of pathological skepticism in the evaluation of the data from parapsychology.

Two simple questions will illuminate these gaps in knowledge:
“Where in the phenomenal world that you experience is your physical brain located?”
“Are the sensations that you experience parts of your own organism?”


  1. So, the failure to replace, in biology and psychology, Newtonian cosmological theory with the Special Theory of Relativity is one of the prominent gaps and errors in current science, is it? Maybe so, but it seems strange that you chose relativity theory instead of quantum physics. The question of relativity theory is doubtless important enough for physics. But as for biology and psychology, it looks to be quantum theory much more than the other that knocks aside the mechanistic view of the material world, which view would leave no room for mental life, or perhaps for any life. This view went along with the old Newtonian framework, and so this framework must be knocked aside for biology and psychology to flourish. Yes, right, but why exalt relativity?

  2. I agree with David, there are as many foundational problems in physics (and in both special relativity and quantum mechanics in particular) as there are in the philosophy of mind. If anyone is interested I invite them to take a look at the website that David and I set up, However, I think that issues there are distinct from the focus of our discussion group. It would help to address some of the subjects which John is raising here, and see if there is a way to avoid just speculation, and see whether any progress can be made in trying to concretely resolve any of the issues.

  3. I stress STR for reasons I present at length in my paper [Smythies J. 2003 Space, Time and Consciousness. J. Consciousness Studies. 10, 47-56.} because this subject has been greatly overlooked—in contrast to the reams devoted to QM.

  4. John has reviewed a number of things we have discussed and debated on the blog. I will restate my own positions on the ones most relevant IMO to visual space:

    1) Because of the scale of visual space, I am not convinced that explicating visual space is a problem for cosmology, given that is mainly studies much larger-scale features of the universe (e.g., gravitation).
    2) Also as a matter of scale, I am not convinced that visual space is obviously related to problem in QM, especially given the apparent stability of our visual perceptions at any given moment.
    3) I believe that a full epistemological analysis of visual space remains to be done and is necessary. Such an analysis may illuminate how visual space became such a perplexing mystery partly (if not wholly) because of how scientific epistemology was originally constructed, especially by leaving secondary qualities out of its ontology (which, as I have noted) are the carriers of primary qualities in visual space--a fact no one reading this seems to have acknowledged).

    As much as false optimism, the false and immodest promises of physics and neuroscience are perhaps the result of a sort of naive delusion that there is an empirical answer to every scientific question--the "naive faith" of which Whitehead wrote. Recognizing the difference between empirical problems and conceptual (or logical) ones may lie at the heart of understanding the nature and structure of visual space which, I have come to believe, is largely a philosophical problem, not a scientific one.

  5. I omitted one key point: I remain to be convinced that substance dualism is not an artifact of scientific epistemology (i.e., Locke's division of primary and secondary qualities), and that the notion of something existing that is not also extended may be vacuous (no pun intended).

  6. I stressed STR for reasons I presented at length in my paper “Space, Time and Consciousness” (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 47-56, 2003).
    Alex Comfort’s paper on this topic was published in 1989:
    “A bridge to twenty-first century science. Lancet II, 1512-1513.
    The relevance of STR to this problem (how to fit evolutionary biology into the block universe of STR) has been much neglected in contrast to the reams written on the different question of the relevance of quantum theory and the mind-brain relation. But I would be happy to add QT to the list.
    I agree with Bill that there are both geometric and philosophical aspects to the SVS question—especially if we look at its metaphysical aspects—using ‘metaphysical’ in E.A. Burtt’s sense—a critical study of the basic concepts used, often very haphazardly, by scientists..
    If there are no empirical answers to some scientific questions, I wonder if there are no philosophical answers to some philosophical questions?

  7. What is the current scientific status of the block ST theory of the universe in cosmology, John? If it is not considered viable, that might explain it not receiving attention.

    Generally-speaking, philosophy includes geometry, and always has (e.g., Pythagoras), so it is not a question of philosophy + geometry. The area known as the "philosophy of space and time" includes the philosophy of geometry.

    Today in philosophy the term "metaphysical" =
    "ontological," the study of what is real, rather than being about making assumptions explicit.

    Wittgenstein tried to show that confusion (and incoherence) arises when what are logical problems are confused with empirical ones. So strictly speaking there are no scientific problems that are not, at least in principle, also empirical, given the nature of the scientific method. But there are logical problems that are not empirical, and therefore, not scientific (yes, I suppose that is another example of modus tollens, David!) The trick is to recognize which is which, something that most neurophilosophers fail to do. This probably explains some of the "false promises" of science, because science may mistakenly assume that a certain problem has an empirical answer, when it really requires a logical one instead.

  8. Other than its unsurpassed record of "successes," one of the reasons science gets away with its "promises" to answer any question, no matter how unscientific or profound, is because the scientific method is open-ended and therefore heuristic by nature: one never knows when it will eventually be able to "solve" a mystery--at least so it advertises. It wants people to believe that *in principle,* if only given enough time, measurements, experiments, and resources, it will eventually find an "empirical" answer--as if an empirical answer was satisfactory or possible to all questions. But as Wittgenstein argued, that only works for empirical questions, not logical ones, and people (especially philosophers) are forever mixing them up!

  9. Re current status of the concept of the block universe:
    Here are three eminent physicists on this topic:

    Louis de Broglie (1959): “Each observer, as his time passes, discovers, so to speak, new slices of space-time which appear to him as successive aspects of the material world, though in reality the ensemble of events constituting space-time exist prior to his knowledge of them . . . the aggregate of past, present and future phenomena are in some sense given a priori.”
    Stannard (1987): “Physics itself recognizes no special moment called ‘now’ —the moment that acts as the focus of ‘becoming’ and divides the ‘past’ from the ‘future’. In four-dimensional space-time nothing changes, there is no flow of time, everything simply is ...It is only in consciousness that we come across the particular time known as ‘now’...It is only in the context of mental time that it makes sense to say that all of physical space-time is. One might even go so far as to say that it is unfortunate that such dissimilar entities as physical time and mental time should carry the same name!”
    Eddington (1920): “Events do not happen: they are just there, and we come across them...[as]...the observer on his voyage of exploration.”

  10. And three eminent philosophers: —
    Quine (1982): “A drastic departure from English is required in the matter of time. The view to adopt is the Minkowskian one, which sees time as a fourth dimension on a par with the three dimensions of space.”
    Heller (1984) “I propose that a physical object is not an enduring spatial hunk of matter but an enduring spatio-temporal hunk of matter.”
    Lastly Broad (1953): “...if we assume one additional spatial dimension beside the three we can observe, and if we suppose that our field of observation at any one moment is confined to the content of a {3,4}-fold which moves [in t2] uniformly at right angles to itself along a straight line in the {3,4}-fold, then there is no need to assume any other motion in the universe. This one uniform rectilinear motion of the observer’s field of observation, together with the purely geometrical properties of the stationary material threads in the four-fold, will account for all the various observed motions (various in both magnitude and direction) of the material particles which are the appearances of these threads in the successive fields of observation.” (note: “{3,4}-fold” here means Minkowskian space-time). Broad adds “…it has the positive merit of introducing unity and simplicity into the phenomenon of motion that is otherwise lacking.”

  11. Thanks, John, for providing these passages. Apparently the block universe theory is part of a view more generally known today as "Eternalism." I don't know how helpful it is, though, for elucidating the nature and structure of VS, especially its internal structure, moreover, in relationship to the brain. Again, the theory strikes me as possibly being an artifact of analysis, resulting from the fact that physics simply has left the "now" of time out of its picture of the world.

    More to the point is how to explain the lack of geometrical congruence between the structure of the visual brain and VS, and how to reconcile the two. Simply putting VS in another dimension does not solve the problem of congruence, i.e., how VS would result from the spatial arrangement we now know exists in the brain.

    The close correlation between scotomata and localized lesions in the visual areas shows that there is not only a causal relation between VS and the brain, but a spatial one. I remember one scotoma case, who had sustained a shrapnel wounds to his head in WWII. He reported seeing a distinct little black shape in his visual field. When his brain was X-rayed, there was found a small shrapnel fragment embedded in his visual cortex. When he was showed the X-ray, he exclaimed that it was the exact shape of the spot he "saw" in his visual field.

    This can be taken to mean that metric (thus size- and shape-specific) features of VS are closely related to the corresponding physical structure of the brain. However, it is then hard to explain why VS is not split in half because of the division between the hemispheres. Just saying there are neuronal "connections" between the two hemispheres only begs the question of how such "connections" alone can create a topologically continuous space with metric attributes.

    If VS were somehow "synthesized" from the patterns of neuronal activity in the cortex, it is not clear what kind of process would be required to stitch it together into the integral whole we experience (and here I am again echoing the comments of Hubel & Wiesel made 30 years ago). I don't think Eternalism can provide an answer to this conundrum, because a "slicing" mechanism is not sufficient to achieve the topological integrity required (i.e., eliminating all the topological tearing and stretching that goes on in the "processing" of visual "information" in the visual system).

  12. As the last item in his list of failures John calls: "the use by many scientists of pathological skepticism in the evaluation of the data from parapsychology." This kind of skepticism is a pathological one, indeed, but we all could help to cure those poor people of it - by presenting them convincing results of very interesting experimental research on extrasensory perception (ESP). Everybody is able to ESP, of course, the one more, the other less. A very easy method is the following: put a target (a clearly structured black figure on white paper, for example) between two empty index cards and enclose all this in an envelope. Hand then this opaque envelope over to your subjects and let them draw what they are visually perceiving.

    Here you can see drawings that have been made when I compared predominantly negative afterimages with clairvoyant images of the same target ("ring with cross"): . And here is a small report on ESP-experiments also of other authors: containing drawings that show the actual genesis of clairvoyant images.

    Moreover, I published a number of such images in my book "Empiristic theory of visual gestalt perception", Part 6, VII. And I published three books on my own ESP-research that contain qualitative (1989) and quantitative (1994) results, while a third book (1992) contains 3.167 clairvoyant images of about 50 targets - suitable as a basis for statistical evaluation of the results also of any future ESP-research.

  13. Bill, what you say about scotomata is quite suggestive of an interpretation whereby visual space is located in the visual cortex, and I agree that the fact that there are two cerebral hemispheres involved has to be handled somehow. I think that results from split brain patients are also relevant here as far as constraints on possible theories go. Maybe we have to do more thinking outside of the box so to speak here, and see whether there is at least a consistant position (even if a bit of a bizarre one) that does locate visual space in the visual cortex. Consistency, while a presequisite of truth, of course does not entail it though.

  14. One thing seems puzzling. In a comment on Part I of my essay, Robert brought up a challenge from evolution to a traditional assumption. Now, John has brought up the concern about how evolutionary biology could fit into the block universe of relativity theory. Well, but Robert is a full dualist, and John speaks of the mind or soul as exalted and transcendent. Given all this, the mind or soul would have to come in from outside somehow, apart from the material processes among living bodies, including evolutionary processes. But then evolution, at least in terms of what the school of Darwin says, cannot be the adequate explanation for all the observed facts of living beings. That being so, why then should evolution be taken as any serious basis for anything in philosophy or in the theoretical underpinnings of physics?

  15. To take up David’s last point: the reason why evolutionary biologists have stayed away in droves from replacing Newton with STR is the enormous and alarming paradigm shift such a change entails. These biologists are embedded (as we all are) in the common sense Newtonian view of the world as composed of 3D organisms, that move about in a 3D world of objects, that themselves are in a continual state of movement—waves breaking on a beach, leaves fluttering in the breeze, volcanoes erupting red hot streams of lava, etc. It is then difficult to regard all this dynamic activity and evolutionary progress in terms of viewing successive cross-sections of a 4D piece of stationary sculpture—the block universe. In Newton’s universe, matter is confined to the ‘now’ of time: in the universe of SLT matter extends from the site of the Big Bang to the farthest reaches of the future. Even here, the Big Bang is no longer an explosion, but becomes the place where all world lines are crammed together as closely as possible. We can rename this the ‘Big Density’.
    In SLT an individual observer’s ‘now’ of time is marked by where that observer’s moving (in Broad’s t2 or Stannard’s ‘mental time’) consciousness is located at that instant. To repeat a physicist’s (Stannard) account :

    “Physics itself recognizes no special moment called ‘now’ —the moment that acts as the focus of ‘becoming’ and divides the ‘past’ from the ‘future’. In four-dimensional space-time nothing changes, there is no flow of time, everything simply is ...It is only in consciousness that we come across the particular time known as ‘now’...It is only in the context of mental time that it makes sense to say that all of physical space-time is. One might even go so far as to say that it is unfortunate that such dissimilar entities as physical time and mental time should carry the same name!

  16. If nothing changes, evolutionary theory has to be reworked. Instead of saying that organisms change (evolve), we have to say that the world lines of organisms, in different locations of space-time, are arranged differently. On the ‘left’ (so to speak i.e. nearer the site of the ‘Big
    Density’) the world lines of organisms form simple a simple sculpture. As we look to the ‘right’ these word lines become progressively more complex. Why this sculpture should portray this difference between different places in space-time, when seen as successive 3D cross-sections, in terms of the evolution of 3D organisms (when these organisms do not actually evolve in Darwin‘s sense) may seem to us peculiar: but the universe is not there to please us.
    Consider how the successive still frames of a cine film, when run through a film projector, produce the illusion of moving objects.
    This also has an impact on the idea of creation of the universe.
    Richard Dawkins’s battle lines against the Christian Church are drawn around the competing concepts that the Universe was either created by God, or simply appeared from nowhere, at the time of the Big Bang. However, if SLT is right, this changes to giving accounts of how the block universe got here. If it was created by God, then God has created the entire block universe already. It all exists now, together with the human consciousnesses moving in t2 along its world lines, that observe it necessarily from the outside. On the other hand the block universe (plus moving consciousnesses as before) may simply exist without having been created. In other words there is not, and never has been, anything else. A supplementary suggestion made by physicists recently is that our 4D block universe is just one of many other such 4D block universes distributed in a higher-dimensional space (-time).

  17. Yes, right, no doubt. But then, why should we not simply say, so much the worse for the school of Darwin and their fancy theories of evolution?

  18. We are still left with the "section" that corresponds to VS, if in this case, "moving" through an otherwise motionaless block universe, which sort of brings us back to first base as to what effects that "slice," whether spatial or temporal.

    More than that, what happens to dynamics in such a cosmology and especially views such as the Wheeler-Thorne geometrodynamics? Eternalism doesn't strike me as being a particularly compatible view with quantum indeterminacy either, but is instead simply a spatialization of time which, again, leaves unexplained how such a block "exists" in any ordinary physical sense.

  19. To throw another opinion into the discussion, I think that there is a clear conflict between special relativity and space-like collapses in quantum mechanics, as shown for example with Aspect's experiments on quantum entanglement. My own opinion is that this shows that special reference frames are necessary in quantum mechanics (as Schrodinger also held) and that this shows that there are some fundamental problems with special relativity, unless a purely epistemic interpretation is given of it for example in terms that signals can only be sent at the speed of light. Tim Maudlin has a nice discussion of some of the extreme implications of this last approach.

  20. It would be nice to hear from Bernard what he thinks of this interesting suggestion of a potential clash between SR and QT.

  21. Coming back to Horst's comment, as John and I know from a recent colloquium he gave on psi to students associated with the Center for Brain and Cognition, for some reason psi is being held to a much higher standard than ordinary science. There is general skepticism even towards experimental results that have been independently replicated in different labs. The problem perhaps is that we have no theory to connect paranormal perception with normal perception--and, of course, this is where Horst's theory may prove useful, because it tends to show that psi works very much like ordinary perception. Why should it be otherwise? Perhaps it is that we expect more of psi that we do of ordinary perception? Unfortunately psi seems to be associated with a kind of error free omniscience that surely no mortal could possess!

  22. Of course the problem is that no respectable theory or framework connects paranormal perception with ordinary perception! You underestimate what this fact means or entails. If psi were for real, that might seem to lead in rather short order into some sort of mushy idealism. Indeed, it might well seem to lead quickly into exactly the kind of mushy idealism whereby the magical dreams of the toddler or nursery child would be revived. On this basis, yes, psi would look to be associated with error free omniscience, et cetera. No rational adult, let alone any competent scientist, will accept or even tolerate this conclusion otherwise than under absolute compulsion. So then, the astonishing thing would be if psi were NOT held to a much higher standard than ordinary science.

  23. I am not as negative about psi as David, but I partially agree with the requirement for a higher standard. I think that what Hume says concerning miracles is relevant here when he asks "which would be the greater miracle" for there to be a violation of the known laws of physics or for chicanery etc. to be involved. I think that there can be good evidence, and perhaps some current evidence actually measures up, but I have yet to be convinced. I probably am convincable though.

  24. I think Robert overestimates how negative I am about psi. Yes, it would be possible to have the research set up so that chicanery et cetera are clearly excluded. It could be that this is assured beyond any reasonable doubt and unto a moral certainty. There might then be results that show something exotic is going on, and again, this might be shown beyond any reasonable doubt and unto a moral certainty. I concede all that. The problem would then be, what exactly is going on? Given that there is no intellectually responsible framework into which to place this outcome, I would be almost literally in the position of not knowing where to put it or what to do with it. This would remain so even though I would have to agree that there is something exotic going on that I cannot explain away. I suspect many of the honest hard line skeptics would say what I have just laid out captures their concern. (To be sure, there are doubtless some skeptics who are "pathological" instead of honest.)

  25. I suggest that members are being overly pessimistic about the alleged lack of a theoretical framework for psi. Bernard and I have both published very similar comprehensive theories of psi based on a paradigm shift in our concepts of space, time, matter and consciousess. Jean-Pierre has also contributed significantly to this. Back in the fifties Thouless and Wiesner published their theory of "Shin" and Scott-Moncrieff came up with the Clairvoyant Theory of Perception.

    With regard to the relation between STR and QT one way to bring them together might be to see to what extent one can translate statements in QT expressed as the movement of 3D particles into statements about the 4D structure of their world lines observed by the time-traveling observer.

  26. Though I am not really involved in paranormal research myself (finding ordinary perception mysterious enough), and therefore view it from the sidelines, I will just mention something I raised during John's recent colloquium on psi at UCSD.

    Some years ago, the Stanford Research Institute engaged in a long-term research project to study what is called "remote viewing," funded largely by the U.S. Defense Dept., I believe. Headed by physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, the project investigated psi for purposes of military intelligence reconnaissance application. One of the interesting discoveries they made in trying to remotely "see" a remote target in the USSR (some sort of facility or plant) was that the subject, a military man, reported seeing a row of large storage drums on one side of the place, which did not gibe with existing satellite photos of it, which he had not seen. As it turned out, those drums had been removed some time earlier. This prompted the idea of "remote viewing of the past," which corresponds to what parapsychology calls "retrocognition" (in contrast to precognition)--the ability to "see" the past.

    While the SRI Remote Viewing research has (not surprisingly) been attacked by CSICOP and others, Targ and Puthoff stand by their results. Whether the U.S. military is currently using remote viewing for intelligence purposes is probably not information to which we are privy. But if it is being used productively, what basis is there for the continued high level of skepticism? It borders on the irrational, especially since precognitive visions are apparently as old as recorded history.

    I am not sure that we as a group are really competent to address in any thoroughgoing way problems in STR or QM, so hopefully we can recruit a theoretical physicist for that purpose. Even there, someone like Bernard Carr is not an expert in QM, as his work has been on large-scale cosmological questions (e.g., black holes).

  27. Perhaps Bernard could suggest a suitable physicist, well and broadly versed in both STR and QT, to fill this role? Andrei Linde at Stanford, one of the pioneers of inflationary cosmology, supports a dualist position re consciousness. I have corresponded with him in the past and will try to contact him.