Your table is a message from God
How we know things is one of the oldest puzzles in philosophy. When you know a table there is clearly some sense in which the table is inside your head. But it can’t be because it’s a solid object. The situation has been made even more puzzling by science , for science now tells us that actually the table isn’t solid at all . It’s mostly empty space punctuated by randomly appearing and disappearing energy events. Tables feel solid not because they are continuously impenetrable but because of force fields connecting the between here and Australia apart particles that compose them. How does it come about then that tables look and feel solid? How we know things has been illuminated, or perhaps made yet more opaque, by what scientists are telling us about the brain. Sense perceptions initially are nothing more than irritations of nervous tissue, if we can stick to sight and hearing for the moment, by sound and light waves. The brain turns these signals into codes which, in operations of bewildering complexity, it splits into yet more sub-codes which it despatches to be processed, in more operations of even more complexity, in different areas all over the brain, before, in a flash of lightning, it mysteriously unites them into a model, and, negligent of these miracles, you see a table, in an act of perception so routine most of the time you don’t even notice it.
This discovery that the brain works by constructing encoded models of things has led many scientists and philosophers to think that when we experience things we don’t directly experience the outside world at all but virtual models of it. ‘You and I, we humans, we mammals, we animals, inhabit a virtual world, constructed from elements that are, at successively higher levels, useful for representing the real world’ Dawkins tells us. Yet if the table out there is really mostly empty space, well that is so different from our ordinary experience of tables the two would hardly seem to be inhabiting the same house. Do we here have Descartes’ absolute division between the material world known to physics, the empty spaces and force fields, and the mental world in which we have virtual experiences of tables you can actually eat off, Descartes come back with a vengeance? Things don’t feel virtual to me, they feel real. Well, says Dawkins, they would do. ‘Of course, we feel as if we are firmly placed in the real world – which is exactly as it should be if our constrained virtual reality software is any good’.
I must suppose then that when Brian Cox looks out at the universe and says ‘isn’t it beautiful’ he’s not firmly placed in the real world looking at the real universe. The beauty does not arise from the stars and galaxies themselves but from the software in his head. Beauty is a kind of con trick played on us by our brains, perhaps to give us pleasure in order to make our brief stay on earth more pleasant so we don’t commit suicide before our genes can get into the next generation. There’s some heavy Darwin for you. Yet I don’t think anybody really wants to say that beauty is just a con. I wonder what Brian Cox himself thinks. I just can’t go along with Dawkins, although perhaps I have misunderstood him, despite the seemingly unavoidable implications of the science. The world feels real to me. Well it would, wouldn’t it, I suppose Dawkins would reply. No, it feels as if it feels it’s real. How can we reconcile our stubborn intuition that when we see a beautiful thing it’s beautiful because it’s a beautiful thing, with science now telling us that the brain knows things because it makes beautiful virtual models of them?
I’m casting around here, so perhaps I can put forward some seemingly unconnected ideas to see if I can give a sensible answer, or at any rate my sensible answer, to this old puzzle.
1. I don’t believe in a creator God outside the universe, but, along with Aquinas, I do believe that deep in the structure of things, far below all those baryons and leptons, there is a cosmic intelligence, as consciousness is somewhere deep in the body yet mysteriously also everywhere in it. ‘God is within the universe and that innermostly’ Aquinas wrote. Either this extraordinarily intelligible universe is just unintelligibly there, or it is the expression of a cosmic intelligence, in which case, you might reply, the cosmic intelligence is itself just unintelligibly there. But we do know that the universe knows itself, for it has produced us and here we are knowing it. But we don’t know very much. We know that electrons are both waves and particles but we can’t conceive how they can be two quite different things at the same time. Over 99% of the stuff of the universe is unknown, and perhaps even unknowable, dark matter and energy. A universe that only a little bit knows itself doesn’t seem to make much sense. An intelligible universe that is itself intelligent makes at least as much sense as an intelligible universe that is just there. God is the universe in its deepest place. I’m not a pantheist. I think the relationship of God to the universe is like that of a painter to his painting. Picasso’s paintings are full of his style, his personality, his very self – you recognize one immediately, and we actually say ‘that’s a Picasso’. The painting mediates to us the presence of the painter but it is, nevertheless, not quite him.
2. People often talk about biological mechanisms, and by that they mean that a living thing is a machine made up of physical working parts that require no further metaphysical explanation. But what is a machine? The difference between a machine and a heap of bits is the inventor’s idea that ordered the bits into a coherent whole. And here in front of us the coherent whole is actually working. You can’t see the inventor’s idea anywhere in the machine, but it is, nevertheless, present. His idea in invested in every part of the machine. Could the living things around us be machines in this sense? I don’t see why not. Science, by definition, examines material reality, so if there were an immaterial reality the microscopes and telescopes of science, by definition, would not find it. It makes sense to me to think that, as the complexity of a machine is held together by an idea, there must be some organizing principle ordering the immensely complex working parts of a biological machine. There are, after all, genes directing groups of other genes in organisms. But nobody has found a physical director of the directors. So could there be a non-physical ordering principle? Things are ordered because they need ordering. There is nothing in science that tells us there can’t be such a principle to which science itself is blind. Or is there?
3. I’m struck by the elegance whereby the different chemical elements are simply explained by mathematical re-arrangements of their atomic constituents. Hydrogen is one electron to one proton. Helium is two. In sodium chloride each ion is surrounded by six ions of opposite charge, each of them located at the vertices of an octahedron. Carbon has an atomic number of six, and is so important for life because four of its electrons are available to make co-valent bonds. Yet can these numerical explanations explain the whole character of the elements, especially their beauty? It is true that the way the atoms are arranged explains a good deal. Diamonds are hard because the atoms are closely packed, water is fluid because they are loosely packed. Yet there is more than this to the elements. Water is more than oxygen plus hydrogen plus loose packing. Is that ‘more’ what the brain’s virtual model inside our heads adds to what is out there? Or is there more to water than the eye can see, or rather cannot see, but the mind can?
4. I’m very interested in codes. In analogue coding, as the name suggests, there is some kind of similarity between the symbols of the code and what is encoded. But digital coding is quite different. Here a quite arbitrary meaning is assigned to the digits of the code by an intelligent encoder at one end of the process and read off by another intelligence that understands the code at the other. Thus there is no intrinsic connection between the pattern of pits in a CD and the music it transmits. It’s just that the encoding machine decided what pit would stand for what note and told the decoding machine what the meanings of the pattern were. Digital coding only works because there is intelligence at both ends.
I’m just wondering whether the things we see about us are meaningful because their meanings are transmitted to us through digital codes. The cosmic intelligence is the encoder. The patterns of protons and electrons in atoms and of nucleotides in DNA are the digits of the code, which are loaded, as it were, with the music of the universe, as the pits in a CD are loaded with the music you hear. Just as you need a hi-fi to decode the code and turn it once again into music, so evolution has provided us with hardware in the brain that does the same thing.
At least this account lets us out of the virtual model trap and allows us to make immediate contact with reality, as we hear real music, even though during the process of transmission the music was nowhere to be heard. It explains why things are so beautiful. They are the creations and reflections of beauty itself, as Picasso’s pictures of his mistresses are the creations of Picasso and reflections of his love for them.
Is there anything in science that tells us we can’t think like this?