An Open, Intelligible, and Semiotic Universe

Keith Ward on Materialism, 12     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11

The universe is open, because the principle of indeterminacy rules out the possibility of precise prediction of the future. It establishes probability as more fundamental than definite determinism, and sees the future as open to many creative possibilities, rather than as predestined to run along unavoidable tram-lines.

This is so regardless of how we understand the mathematical structure of contemporary physics. Determinism is no longer supported by physics, the openness of the universe means that freedom is, from its perspective, possible. This of course has many implications, and speaks in favour of personalism especially. I feel no strong need to add anything further to this point at the moment.

The universe is emergent, in that it develops new properties – like conscious awareness or intentional action – that are not wholly explicable in terms of prior physical states, though such properties seem to develop in natural ways from previous physical states.

This is how it seems from the perspective of science. But given the description of the current state of physics, it is of course not at all clear what a “physical state” is.

The universe is intelligible and mathematically beautiful to a degree that could not have been envisaged even a hundred years ago. As Eugene Wigner has said, it is an unexpected gift that the mathematical structure of the universe should be as elegant and rationally comprehensible as it is.

This seems to imply the Platonic understanding of the mathematical structure, but a non-Platonic understanding of course does not mean that the structure is not beautiful.

Finally, the universe is semiotic, in that it does not simply rearrange its basic elements in different combinations. Many of those combinations are semiotic – they carry information. DNA molecules, for example, carry the codes for arranging proteins to build organic bodies. And perhaps the basic laws of the universe are computational, coding instructions for assembling new structures. As Paul Davies and John Gribbin put it, “In place of clod-like particles of matter in a lumbering Newtonian machine we have an interlocking network of information exchange – a holistic, indeterministic and open system – vibrant with potentialities and bestowed with infinite richness.”

I am not sure how common this usage of “semiotic” is. But the passage is perhaps as clear as at present it can be with regard to “information exchange” as far as this can be understood from the particular perspective of science. At the same time it of course cries out for the supplementation of philosophical reflection even for a basic understanding of its real meaning. Of course, Ward will soon provide precisely this.

If this is materialism, it is materialism in a new key. The physical basis of the universe seems to have an inner propensity towards information-processing and retrieval, that is, towards intelligent consciousness.

The “physical basis” seems by now to be a problematic postulate, a misleading conceptual residue. But again, “materialism in a new key”, insofar as it is the position of physics qua physics, is not intended here to be understood as in itself tantamount to idealism. The account only shows that classical materialism is regarded as obsolete in physics.

Ken Wilber writes in the preface to his important anthology Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists (1984):

“The theme of this book, if I may briefly summarize the argument of the physicists presented herein, is that modern physics offers no positive support (let alone proof) for a mystical worldview. Nevertheless, every one of the physicists in this volume was a mystic. They simply believed, to a man, that if modern physics no longer objects to a religious worldview, it offers no positive support either; properly speaking, it is indifferent to all that. The very compelling reasons why these pioneering physicists did not believe that physics and mysticism shared similar worldviews, and the very compelling reasons that they nevertheless all became mystics – just that is the dual theme of this anthology. If they did not get their mysticism from a study of modern physics, where did they get it? And why?”

I think a major part of the answer to these questions is simply: philosophy. It should of course be noted that idealistic philosophy does not necessarily involve all of mysticism. But mysticism could be regarded not only as something more that is not covered by such philosophy, but also as something that is in principle accounted for but not necessarily in itself explored by it. It is significant that Wilber, and the physicists whose texts he collects – Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, De Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington – do in fact speak in terms of mysticism. Yet it  seems the reason they became mystics is not just not their new physics itself, and also not just mystic experience, but inevitable philosophical reflection as partly but not entirely separable either from science or mysticism.

For the real idealist conclusion, philosophy must be added to contemporary physics. But the same was the case with classical materialism. The classical materialism of physics itself necessarily involved a degree of philosophical reflection, as does the current conclusion regarding its obsolesence. With the recognition of these facts with the help of philosophy, as well as of philosophy’s general unavoidability, it is of course quite possible that physics will be more generally pursued (as it already seems to be by some) on the basis of a philosophical affirmation of idealism, as in the past it was implicitly or even explicitly based on the philosophical presupposition of classical materialism.

But the support science lends to the cause for idealism remains incomplete; as Ward is aware, although it does go beyond a mere negative case against materialism. My concern is the truth of idealism in itself, as philosophy. As I have explained, the part of the case for it that makes reference to science or physics and their relation to materialism is included here, in the form of this commentary on Ward, merely for the sake of the kind of completeness of the representation of idealism that might be expected in this blog.

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