Saturday, January 28, 2017

swapping pictures

It's a bottomless source of ironic amusement that intellectual justifications for religious beliefs usually appeal most to the beliefs' current adherents. They relish hearing their cherished ideas defended and reconfirmed by multitalented communicators. And...I suppose I do too. That's probably why I took the time to read Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself and enjoyed most of it. I wish it all the popular or critical success that it can get.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that the book's major points weren't that groundbreaking or earth-shattering to me. His Big Picture is in harmony with mine. Nevertheless I appreciated Carroll's articulate and organized delivery as well as the specifics he laid out. I already knew about some of these supporting details and arguments—it's not my first exposure to these topics—but I learned some too. Obviously he can apply more physics knowledge to the Big Picture than I can, similar to how a neuroscientist can apply more neuroscience knowledge, or a philosopher can apply more philosophy.

As I see it, his model of "poetic naturalism" is consistent with my (poorly-named) "Pragmatism-ish". He proposes that there are diverse ways of conceptualizing reality. This diversity should be accepted but only on the overriding condition that each one can be mapped onto another without contradiction. Throughout these ways, ideas should be gauged with likelihoods that adjust appropriately as more samples of reality are taken. Likelihoods that aren't inherently 0 (logical impossibility) or 100% (logical certitude) shouldn't reach these extremes, yet likelihoods can and do reach values that are close to either pole.

Likewise in Pragmatism-ish, I've proposed that ideas, actions, and reality are in a triangle of relationships. Each of the three shapes/restricts/informs the other two. (I'm using the word "idea" in the most inclusive sense, so it might be a perception, concept, statement, hypothesis...) People perform the mental action of determining that if an idea A is likelier than not then idea B is likelier than not, if idea B is likelier than not then idea C is likelier than not, etc. These connections form a web (or network) of ideas. Eventually the web extends to ideas which may be termed "endpoints": ideas that should be expected to, with a particular frequency, match particular outcomes of particular actions really performed.

Once people verify these matches, or fail to, they can take the further action of judging what some of the ideas in the web mean as well as the ideas' accuracy. To probe a supposedly meaningful and accurate idea is to question how it's ultimately grounded. What is it connected to within the web, and what relevant endpoints have passed or failed fair tests? I've sometimes referred to measuring an idea's meaning by its "verified implications". A folksy version, which is so short that it's vulnerable to numerous willful misunderstandings, is that truth needs to works for a living.

Like Carroll, I would say that ideas containing an element of subjective experience can be valid as long as those ideas are kept in their correct place in the web alongside other more objective ideas. Then the limitation of subjective experiences is always evident: the experiences are events that happened in one subject's body (including their brain). The idea is still an expression of something real if it's understood to occur as a movement of the matter in that body.

Complexity is inevitable when the sifting process is conducted with the proper care and labor. There are many possible cases. Ideas with "tighter" connections to verified endpoint ideas merit more confidence than ideas with looser connections. On the flipside, ideas with no connections merit little. These freestanding ideas, which may be "freestanding" from the rest of the web because they blatantly clash with well-grounded ideas, are like when Carroll's statements in one domain don't map onto other domains. Another case is that an idea has meager meaningfulness because it connects equally well with opposite outcomes, so that in effect it's asserting nothing of consequence. Then there's the case of multiple different ideas connecting to the same endpoints, so that there's some rationale for claiming that the ideas share a meaning. Skilled translators watch for this kind of subtlety.

The abstraction of a web of ideas has a resemblance to Carroll's vivid "planets of belief". I admire his metaphor. It should be spread. The suggestion is that, within an intellectually honest curious person, compatible beliefs gravitate together to form a planet. Combining incompatible beliefs results in a tension-filled unstable planet. Outside influences can affect the planet's stability causing chain reactions and tectonic rearrangements. Under some circumstances, it can be prodded into breaking apart and reforming into a novel planet.

Some could object that Carroll ventured too far outside of his designated area, and he should've left topics beyond physics alone. My response would be that his readers should know better than to assume that he or anyone is able to cover the Big Picture comprehensively in so few pages. By necessity it's an overview or a taxonomy. Readers with greater interest will be doing their own follow-up reading anyway.

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