The following is another iteration of my little hobby (see the "Evolution Section" at the end):
This talk is basically based on Parts II and III of the book I'm currently writing, with the working title:
The Illusion of Knowledge:
Why Uncertainty is Woven into Any Description of Reality—And Why It Does Not Matter
Part I focusses on formal thought systems, mathematics, and physics---in great detail, as witnessed by the over 140 equations introduced to the reader. In essence, Part I is a testimony to the human mind's unprecedented understanding of the workings of the reality it finds itself embedded in. Then, in Part II, notions of certainty are deconstructed, with respect to knowledge, truth, and reality. The subjective, context-dependent, and ambiguous nature of every experience and belief is emphasized.
So where does this leave us? Do we really live in a cynical universe, which reveals itself to the human mind just as far as it awakens the false hope in its comprehensibility and leaves us forever in a state of epistemological nihilism? I sincerely believe otherwise: enter Part III. With brave, radical, out-of-the-box thinking, I believe we can advance our knowledge of the most fundamental questions relating to our existence and existence itself. Some such ideas are: the information-theoretic and information-processing foundation of reality (universe as computer, reality as a simulation) next to the primacy and/or universality of consciousness (consciousness creates reality).
The TOK so far:
The book will be an open access publication with Springer. Yes, at one point I will try and crowd-fund the costs;)
The slides are found here and the transcript of the talk reads:
What is real? Well, all of this obviously. But what exactly is it? OK, so you all woke up this morning.
A sense of self kicked in. [break] Memories returned. [break] And you became aware of an external world. So, you are an entity that exist in a physical reality.
But this begs three questions. [break] What can we know about these things? [break] What is the true nature of reality? [break] And what is an “I” anyway? OK, so let’s start with the question of knowledge.
“The more you know, the less you understand.” [break] “I know that I know nothing.” To be fair, these quotes are quite old. Surely today people are less uncertain. Well…
“Those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt.” This is from the great philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. [break] “While differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.” Karl Popper was one of the most influential philosophers of science. And in the same vein: [break] “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Daniel Kahneman is the father of behavioral economics and a Nobel laureate. OK, so let’s agree that from a philosophical point of view the notion of certainty is a bit tricky. But we have science, which is a knowledge-‐generation machine. Or not?
Ever since the Pythagoreans, people have realized that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. Or in the words of the great mathematician David Hilbert: [break] “Mathematics is the foundation of all exact knowledge of natural phenomena.” But this raises a very profound question.
“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” [break] So, basically, “Two miracles confront us here: the existence of laws of nature and the human mind's capacity to divine them.” You all know Stephen Hawking and Eugene Wigner received the Nobel prize in physics in the 60s. Physicists have o]en been puzzled about the general nature of science, because
“Fundamentally, we do not know why our theories work so well.” [break] And “The deeper an explanation is, the more new problems it creates.” David Deutsch is one of the pioneers of quantum computing. But the bewilderment does not stop here.
“There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition can reach them.” [break] “Perhaps it is culture rather than nature that dictates the content of scientific theories.” Now intuition and culture don’t usually spring to mind when thinking about science. And are also not really ideas one would associates with these two great physicists.
So, yes, science works and gives us the amazing gift of technology. But what science exactly is and why it works no one really knows. And surprisingly, Kurt Gödel and Gregory Chaitin showed us that at the heart of mathematics lurks incompleteness and randomness. OK, to summarize: What we have been talking about is called epistemology. It is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. But just because our knowledge of reality turns out to be a bit elusive doesn’t mean that reality itself should be suspect. Now ontology is the word philosophers use when dealing with the nature of reality. OK, so, let’s move on to this question, what about the nature of reality? Well…
“Modern physics has conquered domains that display an ontology that cannot be coherently captured or understood by human reasoning.” Ernst von Glasersfeld was a distinguished philosopher who coined the term “radical constructivism”. This is the idea, that all knowledge is always subjective. But what exactly is he talking about here?
Let’s zoom into the fabric of reality. In other words, let’s enter the quantum world. [break] These are symbols from the book of nature. This equation describes the birth of quantum physics. Something no one saw coming. Indeed, Max Planck introduced it in an act of despair. [break] And it turns out that this new realm of reality is a truly bizarre place. Particles behave as waves and vice versa, depending on how you look at them. [break] There is an intrinsic limit to the amount of information you can have. [break] And everything is instantaneously connected to everything else. This is called entanglement and you can use it to encrypt information. But things get worse. Some quantum experiments are truly mindboggling: they appear to alter the past or break causality.
OK, let’s look at the universe. What is out there? [break] Well it turns out that of all the stuff there is, only 5% is ordinary matter. 26% is called dark matter, and no one really knows what it is made of. And 69% is dark energy, some mysterious force in the vacuum making our universe expanded faster and faster the bigger it gets. This was discovered in 1998 and was awarded with a Nobel prize.
And even things as innocuous as time, can be very problematic on closer inspection. So much so, that some physicists suspect it doesn’t really exist. [break] “The passage of time is simply an illusion created by our brains.” [break] And what about emergence and self-‐organization. This is a map of the internet. It is as though there is a fundamental force in the universe driving it to ever higher levels of complexity and structure. Just look at ants: where does this collective intelligence come from that allows them to become such an amazingly clever super-‐organism. And why can’t we humans achieve this?
OK , so reality is indeed a very weird place. But perhaps we can find a sanctuary of clarity and regularity within ourselves.
Let’s look at our brains and how we perceive the world. [break] “Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.” [break] “You're not perceiving what's out there. You're perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” [break] “What we call normal perception does not really differ from hallucinations, except that the latter is not anchored by external input.” Wow. But at least I am in control of my mind. Or not?
“The conscious mind is not at the center of action, but on a distant edge, hearing but whispers of the activity.” [break] “The exact levels of dozens of neurotransmitters are critical for who you believe yourself to be.” [break] “Beliefs about logic, economics, ethics, emotions, beauty, social interaction, love, are all products of the biologically evolved ‘hardwiring’ in the brain.”
These are the words of David Eagleman. He is a neuroscientists and writer. And yes, things get worse.
These two books are an embarrassment to any human being who believes in rationality. Countless experiments show how easily we can be manipulated. Without ever suspecting a thing. And don’t fool yourself. We all fail equally at this.
Other experiments have shown that the simple expectation of an experience changes how you perceive it. For instance, tasting wine you thought was expensive results in neural activity in your pleasure center. This does not happen for the same wine if you are told it is cheap. The same is true for how you feel pain. And then there are the placebo and nocebo effects, where your beliefs shape your reality. Like overdosing on sugar pills and nearly dying because you thought they were antidepressants. Then there is this phenomenon called false awakening, where you dream that you wake up. To experience this can be quite unsettling. [break] “To wake up twice in a row is something that can shatter many of the intuitions you have about consciousness: [break] that the vividness, the coherence, and the crispness of a conscious experience are evidence that you are really in touch with reality.” Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher of the mind interested in neuroscience. He asks: “Well how do you know that you actually woke up this morning?”
And then things can go terribly wrong in the mind. This book on psychopathology is a frightening 800 pages thick.
Jill Bolte Taylor studies brain anatomy. When she had a golf-‐ball sized blood-‐clot in her le] hemisphere due to a stroke, this is what she experienced. [break] My consciousness shifted away from my normal perception of reality, to some esoteric space where I'm witnessing myself having this experience. [break] I can no longer define the boundaries of my body -‐ I can't define where I begin and where I end. [break] I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there. Now these aren't really worlds I would expect from someone who’s left brain is being damaged, but rather from someone like…
…this. This is Christian Rätsch. He is an anthropologist specialized in ethnopharmacology. His book, called “The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants” is nearly 1’000 pages thick. And remember what Eagleman said about hallucinations: they are just as real. Perhaps this realization prompted the next quote. There are these extraordinary other types of universe. Aldous Huxley was talking about his experiences with LSD.
So what does this all mean? Where does it leave us? Well, if we are really honest, the answer is [break] We don’t know. Basically we are back to René Descartes. “I think therefore I exists”. So, the only thing I cannot deny, is that I am having a subjective experience now. That’s all. But perhaps we can do better. Perhaps if we are willing to abandon some of our cherished beliefs about reality we can start to understand more. And there is a glimmer on the horizon.
Information is physical. [break] All things physical are information-‐theoretic. John Wheeler helped develop general relativity giving us the word black hole. And Rolf Landauer made important contributions to information processing in the 60s.
“The universe is made not of chunks of stuff, but chunks of information — ones and zeros.” [break] “Quantum physics requires us to abandon the distinction between information and reality.” Seth Lloyd and Anton Zeilinger are currently pioneering the field of quantum information. They are helping us build quantum computers.
A second theme is that we are in fact involved in creating reality. This is an idea going back to Immanuel Kant and is also found in Buddhism. [break] “This is a participatory universe.” [break] “Reality is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition.” [break] “Consciousness is all that exists. Space-‐time and matter never were fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been among the humbler contents of consciousness.” Richard Tarnas is a historian and author of the book “The Passion of the Western Mind”. An epic journey looking at All the ideas that have shaped our modern world view. And Donald Hoffman is a cognitive scientist. So, continuing with this idea:
“Our belief that there is a single universe shared by multiple observers is wrong. Instead, each observer has their own universe.” [break] “This cosmic solipsism turns on all of our common sense notions about the world; then again fundamental physics has a long history of disregarding our common sense notions.” Amanda Gefter is a science journalist and author. And solipsism is the view that only one’s own mind exists. Her idea can perhaps also be summarized as follows:
Objectivity is the illusion that observations are made without an observer.” Heinz von Foerster was a physicists and philosopher and one of the pioneers of cybernetics.
But finally, a word of caution. Although these last quotes come from very sober and keen thinkers, they still could be wrong. In fact, everything I have been saying could be wrong. But if we all really are in charge of our own universe, made of pure information, it is essential for us to look for wisdom and truth within ourselves. Perhaps looking for reality outside of the mind is the wrong way to go. Thank you.
Index under construction (mostly just people for now):
- I don't really recall when this all started. Ever since I was 15 I wanted to study physics. After graduating in 1999, I had more questions than answers relating to reality and consciousness.
- In 2001: "On the Structure of the Vacuum and the Dynamics of Scalar Fields" (here) looking at some of the limits of modern physics.
- My first job (which would last for 12 years, where I was developing trading model algorithms for the FX market at Olsen Ltd) was an intuitive transition from fundamental physics to complex systems. "A New Kind of Science" by S. Wolfram.
- In 2005 I was looking for a new challenge in addition to my work and googled the Chair of Systems Design by chance.
- Applied for a PhD there (50% next to my finance job) and had to give a talk that summer where I started to think about the analytical/algorithmic and fundamental/complex paradigms; "Alternate Realities: Mathematical Models of Nature and Man" by J. Casti: science as the art of encoding reality domains into abstract representations.
- In the summer of 2006 I read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by R. Pirsig in a hammock on one of the Andaman islands after visiting Delhi and Varanasi for our charity noon.ch.
- I consolidated a lot of stuff between 2006 and 2009. These blog posts at Olsen Ltd and stuff on my old webpage: 1, 2, 3, 4.
- It all got more serious when I took a course on the philosophy of science during my PhD in 2008: G. Brun and D. Kuenzle, ETH Zurich.
- All of this now fuelled the contents of Appendix A of my dissertation (2010, PDF) which got updated and published in Springer's Theses series (2013): Laws of nature; paradigms of fundamental processes and complex systems; epistemological and ontological challenges; postmodernism, constructivism, and relativism.
- Which then prompted these blog posts about certainty, reality, and perception: 1, 2, 3, (2011 - 2012).
- Sometime: "Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos" S. Lloyd.
- 2011: "The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View" R. Tarnas, "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" D. Eagleman.
- Ideas which also flowed into this Ignite talk in 2011 (or as blog post), which represents a rough sketch of the current talk.
- 2012: "The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self" T. Metzinger.
- Not sure when the ideas of consciousness entered the picture, but happy to see such crazy ideas also being espoused by scientists and philosophers today.
- In 2013 I started negotiating with Springer and started writing...
- 2016: Contributed a chapter called "What is Reality?" to Lucy and Stephen Hawking's children's book "George and the Blue Moon". See more.