Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Terra Firma assumption trap

Most religions posit one form of dualism or another. After all, they all have to do with the recognition of suffering (qualia, if you wish), and this leads to the classic mind-body problem.

In Abrahamic religions, the universe itself is a real entity whose existence is undisputed, and independent of the souls that use it as their turf. The souls reside in bodies (that are part of the universe), and interact with other bodies (and hence with other souls). Souls do not interact directly with one another, but have to do so through the medium of the physical universe. After the departure of the soul from the body, it goes to various places like paradise or hell depending on certain criteria. It is unclear whether these places are part of the same universe or are different. But souls get to interact with each other once again (through bodies) at these places!

In Vedanta hinduism, however, the universe itself is an illusion, and is a product of the brahman (the universal consciousness, see this post). While many call this monism (which I think is a mistake), I think the closest modern philosophical idea that mirrors this is solipsism. Actually, according to my idea, we can admit the existence of multiple souls, but have a single brahman behind all of them. The multiple souls may or may not inhabit the same universe as I think I inhabit. If I admit other conscious beings in my same universe, I wish to term it inclusive solipsism. But if I am just dreaming up the universe, even admitting that other conscious beings exist in it makes no sense (in the same way as admitting that other people in our dreams are conscious).

Therefore, whether or not one is an inclusive solipsist, admitting that other conscious beings can also cohabit the same universe automatically leads us to concede that the universe has some kind of an independent reality of its own (and not a product of our mind). I have called this assumption the terra firma assumption in one of the earliest posts.

Of course, solipsism doesn't imply that there cannot be other souls in parallel universes which do not interact in any way with this universe.

Scientists are now trying to figure out the hard problem. The very recognition of this problem assumes that the universe is real, and that consciousnesses are a product of physical processes in this universe. Solipsism assumes the reverse - that the universe is a creation of the individual's mind.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence for solipsism comes from our my dreams - the world in my dream is as real as the world in the waking state. Searching for a solution of the hard problem in my dream seems silly upon waking up - definitely my subjective experiences during the dream had nothing to do with the physical processes that were part of the dream universe. I might imbibe alcohol in my dream and consequently feel drunk, but the cause and effect are just an illusion that becomes apparent on waking up. Substance dualism assumes the same, but at one level up in the heirarchy.

The reason so many scientists have tried to explain consciousness (and even God) is because they have all become victims of the terra firma assumption trap.

Experimental physics (including the WMAP satellite, or the LHC currently being built) gives us all goosebumps. We (solipsists included) are euphoric and get carried away closer and closer to this trap, in moments of weakness. Physicists like Weinberg, Capra, and even Penrose now seek to explain everything in terms of a few fundamental equations. Then there is the mystery of the anthropic principle which explains why fundamental constants are tuned in such a way as to support life.

But if we abandon the terra firma assumption, there is no need for any anthropic principle. In fact, the only thing that the WMAP satellite and the LHC will tell me is that the observations are consistent with the scientist's predicted theories. It does not tell me that the age of the universe that I feel around me is 13.7 billion years. The whole universe that I perceive (LHC, WMAP satellite et al included) is through my qualia. I have no way to vouch for the existence of this universe in a fashion that is independent of my qualia. Therefore, it is irrelevant to conjure as to how long the universe had been there before my existence. The notion that experimental evidence corresponds to reality itself comes under question, since "experimental evidence" in whatever form ultimately boils down to qualia states of my own mind.