Thursday, 18 June 2015

Frontiers 3 - Time & Reality

We have covered the probable drive to explore and quasi-colonise the solar system during the coming decades and the search for exo-planets that may, one day, in the very distant future be colonisable. It may seem odd now to consider two abstract concepts - time and reality - as possible frontiers. In practical day-to-day terms, we live in sufficient reality to serve our purposes and we experience time in a shared social setting. The frontier nature of time and reality is often, for most people, the realm at the further reaches of speculative fiction. And yet the conceptual search by physicists and cosmologists, perhaps also by imagineers in speculative fiction, is a cultural frontier of immense importance.

Einstein famously introduced the idea of a space-time that precluded any single and objective definition of simultaneity. This relativism has not yet worked its full way back through our culture as a relativism about reality itself. Yes, of course, there has been a form of widespread post-modern cultural relativism but this evades the issue. Social reality imposed by one prevailing order into which persons fitted was replaced in post-modern environments with a fragmentation that created many social fictions where there had only been one. The effect was to create a half-way house of identity politics and cultural relativism between the world of monocultures, ruling whole territories and suppressing dissent, and the reality of reality which is that individuals construct their own personal realities out of the shared reality of really existing material reality. This is now a world where the individual can believe what it is necessary for them to believe and have a structure of reality that is as unique as their fingerprint and yet one which can only be materially functional if it accords with the laws of physics that limit every social reality that has ever existed. No magical culture has fed its people through using magic alone.

The most interesting tension in this respect is between the magical thinking of human beings and material reality. The individual who is a magical thinker certainly cannot fly without the help of the technologist but vast tracts of experience can be made to fit into a magical model. While the technologists and scientists drive one frontier - the one that makes matter utile and more knowable - the magically-minded are driving another frontier - the one that can make life livable. The realities that are being squeezed between the two are those constructed out of the collapse of geographically centred dissent-resisting monocultures. The idea that monocultures can be collapsed into sets of identity without going further and seeing each individual as a self-transforming contained creator of their own reality who subverts (in time) the identity cultures as they once subverted the monocultures is the cultural frontier of our time. What we see is massive human variation emerging in ways that are not just creatively anarchic but potentially dangerous since the destructive outliers within the variation who understand technology can become murderous in their intent. They may desire to create, reversing the process moving from monocultural social reality to the realities of autonomous individuals, a culture of malignity finding and merging with like-minded malign individuals. Thus not only are socially constructed realities broken down into their components but new social constructions of reality arise out of those components, often for brief periods of time, making use of the instabilities of the current communications revolution. Nothing like this has appeared before in history.

The investigative frontier that is the scientific or philosophical investigation of time and reality (and space) has helped create this world of Heraclitean flux but the individual and bottom up social constructions involved highly volatile. In themselves they depend on belief, which may include unthinking belief in the claims of philosophers and scientists and on interpretations of what are thought to be those claims even if the scientists and philosophers have actually claimed nothing of the sort. A speculation which is logical or rational becomes detached from the original reasoning process to become a claim that becomes the basis for fear, hope, speculation, the struggle for status or resources - indeed, all those things that make us human-all-too-human. We see a lot of this in the disconnect between sober assessment of existential risk and the massive levels of apocalyptic hysteria to be found amongst the dimmer frightened rabbits who latch on to environmentalist or transhumanist movements. Rushing around like 'chicken-licken', they can make no sober assessment of either the original claim nor of the actuality of scientific method as hypothesis nor critique the use of a claim by special interests. They are, in short, at the frontier of human stupidity.

Einstein suggested that the passage of time itself is a fiction. This fictionalisation of reality is another factor that we have to take account of in describing ourselves as being at a cultural frontier as wild as the American West in its hey-day. It is our limitation, as a material creature existing as an autonomous unit within material reality, that constructs our perception of reality out of our senses and out of the structure of remembrance and of experience, created in turn out of our past sense experiences and possibly our genetics and somatics. We are stuck in a perceived reality, even as individual components, of all these social and material realities, one that is highly volatile but which we also know is uncomfortably contingent philosophically. Whatever it is we experience (Reality I) is known now not to be the reality of the external world in all its forms (Realities II, III and so on). Beyond all these realities, there is the reality of that which can never be known and which the most advanced cosmologists and physicists explore through pure number - merely creating a mathematical reality that may still have nothing to tell us about an Ultimate Reality which may not, in the end, be there at all.

The next frontier, I would suggest, is the cultural unravelling of the last true determinism - mathematical determinism - and even perhaps of the magical thinking behind accepting that cause and effect are necessarily absolutely true rather than true in our reality. This does not mean that magic is real - this is most unlikely - but only that the cultural frontier that appears to be dominated by number and logic at the high point of scientific culture, one that will get us to the stars one day (perhaps), is now justifiably capable of being critical of the ultimate reality of number and logic and so offering the opportunity to challenge its claims at those points of human existence where their technical use becomes meaningless. As the scientists try to move ever deeper into existence and into the conscious mind (expressed in advanced neuroscience), so the philosophical uncovering of the impossibility of knowing very much outside our own world carves out a subversive space that undermines science's implicit suggestion of meaning other than as an efficacious way of providing the basis for doing things in the world. If we do not want or need to do things in the world, then we do not need science quite as much as we thought. Increasing numbers of people may find it useful to stop doing and start dreaming solipsistically or in cultic shared dreams (or at least with the illusion, perhaps through shared ritual, in the existence of the shared dream).

This is the challenging aspect of the case. Let us return to Einstein who is said to have said (you can never tell with these quotations): "People like us, who believe in physics [note that word 'believe'], know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion". The uncertainties of science flip the mind from the clinical atheism of traditional materialism into a form of stubborn pseudo-theology in which speculation based on the intellectual perception of reality reintroduces magical thinking by the back door - this is as contrary to the expectations of three decades ago as feminists working with faith-based groups to control sex work or Pope Francis courting another religious group, the 'scientific' environmentalists, to win his debates on stem cell research. Meanwhile those who embed themselves in the simple business of being human and constructing their reality out of the business of being human in the world, perceiving reality as something lived, tend to materialism and atheism as pragmatic realities that allow life to be better lived on a day to day basis between birth and death. The tendency of an element of the scientific community to discover naively deism, spirituality, transhumanism, eschatology, meaning and platonic wonder (all the flummery of deep anxiety) contrasts with the ordinary Joe's increasingly happy abandon of religion in favour of pleasure and experience. It is as if the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is going into reverse in the Twenty First century at one level just as (in the developed world) the masses are finally discovering the sheer freedom of not having a priest or a magistrate breathing down their backs at another.

But one frontier is absolute. The present, which is just the remembrance of the nano-past while a finely honed somatic machine wards off threats and seeks out opportunities, cannot become the future and the past cannot be experienced but merely remembered as in the past - as a present remembrance. We live in a perpetual present where the past is simply the accumulated historic tool box of past presents and the future is a set of guesses that relies on material reality being predictable and social reality being probabilistic. The arrow of time is the sea in which we swim and there is no cultural work that can counteract this reality, no frontier at all, except speculative imaginings that paradoxically can only take place in the presents of the individuals concerned. That these speculative imaginings can now include the complexities of quantum mechanics changes nothing about the actuality of this presentism moving in one direction, even when remembering, even when in altered states. The perception is thus, once again, at odds with the material reality. We have the basis for belief starting in the very difficulty of accepting presentism as at the core of our being. Once we take our present recalling as the past and our speculations about the future as the future, we have created a past and a future and from there we have the imaginative basis for theory, ideology and religion. We are made human by our utter refusal not to invent complex realities moment from moment, building on the substrate of past experience and its predictive capacity as an evolved tool for survival.

Once we understand this, whereas making a spacecraft that can divert asteroids is a frontier, speculation about the nature of time and reality is not quite such a frontier at all. The frontier is billions of consciousnesses taking advanced and creative speculations about time and reality, incorporating them (literally insofar as the mind is embedded in the body) and constructing reality present by present in seven billion muted solipsisms embedded in a social reality that allows each component to feed off the others and feed the others in an excess of mutual vampirism. That is the frontier. We are vampires of the real, sucking the life force of the past to create the future through our presentism.

Intellectually the idea of the arrow of time as simply an emergent phenomenon arising out of a unified bloc of space time and of quantum physics strikes me as 'logical' and probably 'true' but it is irrelevant if the only thing we, as humans, can experience is presentism within the arrow, a state of being in which the arrow permits us the illusion (which is now a reality because we are constructed to convert it into a reality) of participation in the arrow of time ... which, of course, therefore exists. The experienced world may be less 'true' in one version of reality than the unified bloc but it is more 'true' in terms of what really matters. This is our own existence in the world - indeed, after all, if it has no use-value, one starts to ask why we are so engaged with constructing an understanding of the reality outside ourselves, especially when only very few humans are mathematically mentally fitted to even come close to understanding what it is they are later going to want to popularise and which the 'educated' public will take on trust with the same trust in the authority of the scientist that they once had in the authority of the priest. There is little functional difference in this trust even if we have very good reason to believe that the scientist is inherently more intellectually trustworthy than the priest. The trust, however, is relativistic and should not be accepted as absolute.

What the intellectual modelling of theoretical physics is tending towards, in terms of cultural belief, is a subtle undermining of the degree to which we can know anything for sure about or within complex systems, a move towards acceptance of the unknowability of other minds and, more debatably, one towards acceptance of the contingency of human existence and non-acceptance of any meaningful form of mental survival after termination. It also operates in favour of free will and against determinism insofar as it may be feasible that the evolved consciousness of the human being operates with a quantum unpredictable aspect. Tiny unpredictable quantum events may conceivably randomly change the things that happen in the material world of which we are part - or not! It can reasonably be argued that we are so embedded in the material world that a simpler model of cause and effect necessarily applies to us and that quantum effects would be so miniscule as to be meaningless in such lumpy creatures as ourselves. The doubt has been sown however - cultural leadership passes from the predictive assumptions of Calvinists and Hegelians to the dodgier game played by slippery Pelagians and Existentialists. This is not to say that the quantum world is not just an extension of an overall materiality in which we are all embedded but only that, whether we term things to be quantum or even spiritual, in fact they are still part of the same damn material continuum. So there we have it ... the frontier of time and reality is not to be found in the work being done to create new knowledge of time and reality but how we use these fictions to construct society and ourselves. Whatever we are in fifty years (the non-dead ones of us at least) will be partly dictated by the myths currently being created by the scientific-magicians at the farthest ends of such speculation.