Friday, March 9, 2018

Resolutions of Truth

In his Ted Talk, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman talks about how he and his associates did many simulation experiments where they created a variety of virtual worlds and creatures to inhabit them, and ran them forward using Evolutionary algorithms. They found that, with natural selection, the trait of seeing the world as it was went extinct, and fitness won out every time. Hoffman suggests that we see our world like a computer desktop, an interface full of icons that help us interact with the world, but are completely different from the objective parts of reality they represent.

Life evolves to see the world in ways that are useful, not in ways that are true.
We already know that the Universe is different from how we see it. The Earth looks flat, but it is really more like a sphere. Solid objects seem like continuous matter, but really they are made of atoms, which are mostly empty space. Planets seem to follow Newton’s idea of gravity as a force, but as Einstein discovered, objects in space really take as close to a straight path as possible in curved space-time. Hoffman’s idea, however, is more like what I discussed in Representational Realism, where reality-in-itself is fundamentally different from anything we can imagine, because the act of constructing a picture in our minds is automatically at least one step removed from reality itself.

In their public conversation, Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson discussed Hoffman’s interpretation of an icon-based perception of the world. They disagreed slightly with his interpretation, because our perceptions and mental pictures inform us to some degree of what will happen when we interact with them. Thus, it is not correct to say that the icons we see are nothing like reality, but they are versions of the truth at a low-resolution.

This fits with my own experience, and I presume the experiences of most people as they progress through life. In our quest for nobler purpose and deeper truth, we keep finding that the truth as we see it is not entirely correct, and that some nuance at the edges of it speak of something more complex. We continually find ourselves looking closer at things we thought we understood, only to find new insights about them that cause them to make even more sense and explain things more thoroughly.

As reality pertains to the human experience, the lowest resolution is one of stories. We see how the patterns in the world and our lives line up with the archetypes buried in our unconscious minds—or how they deviate in tragic or amusing ways. At a slightly higher resolution, the world is made of agents of choice,* people with free will who craft the future through effort and action. At a higher resolution, we find deterministic biology and physics, with organs, neurons, and fluid systems performing their tasks like clockwork. And at the highest resolution known to humankind, we find probabilistic quantum physics, where two systems that start out exactly the same can end up differently, but with well-defined probabilities for each. That might be the highest resolution, or there might be more layers hidden beneath it. No one knows.

You might wonder, as we come to understand higher and higher resolutions of truth, if there is any reason to look at the world in the lower resolution pictures. Shouldn’t we just go with the clearest, most in-depth understanding of reality, and throw out the naive views we had before? I’ll answer that question with another question: is it better to look at a map of the world, to walk along a beach, or to examine a handful of sand? All of the layers are important, because every time we peer closer, we lose a little of the big picture. What I’m saying is that reality comes in layers. At one level, physics is probabilistic, but at a large enough scale, it behaves deterministically. At one level, human beings have free will and the power to make the future, and at another level we act out our archetypal instincts like actors on a stage. All of these pictures are true, and we find the richest, fullest understanding and engagement with the human experience by taking all of them seriously.

*I am actually not sure what order free will and archetypes come in. It may be that free will is sandwiched between telling stories at a lower resolution, and acting out archetypal instincts at a higher resolution. I left the main text as it is, though, because its lower-resolution explanation gets my point across nicely, while this higher-resolution explanation in the footnote would bog it down.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Why does Anything Exist?

The Nature of Reality:
Representational Realism
Existence and Natures

We have talked a lot on this blog about the nature of reality, about how real things exist objectively, and have natures by the mere fact of their existence. But there is a question we have yet to touch upon, and that is why there is a reality in the first place. Why is there a Universe and people and furry critters and chocolate fondues, instead of nothing at all?

When we speak of “nothing,” there are three definitions we have to keep track of. The first refers to the lack of something expected, such as when a parent asks their child, “what are you doing,” and the child replies, “nothing.” We are not interested in this type of nothing today. The second type of nothing people think of is empty space. There is no air or other matter, just the void. Those who are thorough in their thinking will say that it does not count unless no light is passing through it either.

We, however, will go a step even beyond that. To get a true State of Nothing, we must eliminate even time and space. No matter, no energy, no particles, no space, and no time. When we ask, “why does anything exist rather than Nothing?” this is what we mean.

Figure 1: This is an empty rectangle. It is not Nothing.

Figure 2: This is not even an empty rectangle. It is Nothing.

One possible reason reality exists is because there is an eternal God who has the ability to will things into existence. With this kind of God, creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing,” is possible. If you look carefully though, this does not answer the question, but shifts it to “why is there a God rather than nothing?” A common response to this is that God is exempt because he is eternal, whereas the Universe had a beginning. This is unsatisfactory on two accounts, the first being that the claim that something exists eternally does not, in fact, explain why it exists in the first place. Secondly, we don’t know for sure that the Universe is not eternal. Perhaps a parent universe gave birth to our universe, in which case the Greater Universe might have an infinite sequence of past events. There is also the issue that time behaves in ways not well-understood in extreme cases like the big bang, and future scientific discoveries might reveal that concepts like “beginning of time” and “past-eternal” are naive, like the belief that all matter is made of air, water, fire, and earth. Alternatively, it may be that God is ontologically necessary, that is, it is impossible for him not to exist. But the justifications for this claim, the Ontological Arguments, are circular in their logic.

Another common response to the question of why anything exists is to reverse it and ask, “why should we expect there to be Nothing rather than a Universe?” It is a fair question, but not an answer in itself, and we have to be careful not to use it as an excuse to stop thinking about the topic.

Two common philosophical ideas about Nothing are of interest to us. The first, is ex nihilo, nihil fit, which means, “from nothing, nothing comes,” or, “nothing comes from nothing.” It seems like common sense that if nothing exists, nothing can come from it. After all, we don’t see random things popping into existence out of nowhere. However, “out of nowhere” is an example of the first kind of “nothing” that we said at the beginning of the discussion that we were not talking about. It is different from out State of Nothing, because in our everyday experience the Universe is already there, and the Universe is not Nothing. Still, it may not seem a stretch to assume that nothing can come from a State of Nothing either.

The second philosophical idea about Nothing is that in order to be a true State of Nothing, not only must it have no matter or energy or space or time, but no laws of physics may apply to it either. In this view, a law of physics would count as something, and such a law would itself need an explanation as to why it exists.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we try to apply ex nihilo, nihil fit and “no laws of physics may apply” at the same time. As we talked about last time in the Nature of Reality series, a law of physics is a representation, often written as a mathematical equation, of a physical state’s nature. If Nothing’s nature is that nothing comes from it, we can write that as a mathematical equation, dQ = 0, where Q is a vector of all possible quantities that can change, and d represents any change that happens to those quantities. Translated into English, the equation means, “the change in anything that can be changed is zero,” or, “nothing changes.” Thus, if nothing comes from Nothing, then that in itself is a law of physics that applies to a State of Nothing.

What we have just shown is that the claims, “nothing comes from nothing,” and “no laws of physics apply to a State of Nothing” contradict each other. This means that at least one of them is not true. Either at least some law of physics applies to a State of Nothing, or a State of Nothing would be unstable, and instantly create something.

If we accept that at least some law of physics applies to a State of Nothing, we cannot yet answer why anything exists, because that law could easily be “nothing comes from nothing.” However, it could also be something like String Theory or some as yet unknown Theory of Everything, which would predict universes coming into existence. Either way, we run into the question of why that law of physics exists rather than Nothing. The only solution I can think of is that, since mathematics and logic are transcendentally true, there is something buried deep within their uncharted depths that makes the ultimate law of physics ontologically necessary.

On the other hand, if we accept that Nothing has no laws of physics that apply to it, then something must come from it. As there is no limitation on what pops into being from this state, we might expect not only to get the Universe from it, but an infinite number of universes, where everything that is logically possible happens. These universes would be completely separate spacetime continua, so we would never be able to observe them, and it does not make sense to think of them as being in any direction from us, or before our universe or after.

Ultimately, I cannot answer the question of why anything exists rather than Nothing. We can, however, propose some possibilities. Perhaps, emergent from pure logic and mathematics, there is a law of physics which, when acting upon a State of Nothing, causes a universe to be created. Perhaps Nothing is not bound by any law, and so from it all things that are logically and mathematically possible spring forth into existence, each in its own universe. Perhaps there is a middle-man, like a God or a Force or a cosmic automated factory that is brought into eternal being by pure logic, and from which universes are created. Or perhaps the Universe merely exists because it exists, and the State of Nothing is a meaningless construct. Regardless, the Universe does exist, so let’s get out there and make the most of it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Life in the Universe – Probability and Perspective

Recommended Pre-Reading:
The Fermi Paradox

When we look up at the sky at night from a place without too much light, we can see thousands of stars. Telescopes and centuries of formal astronomy have shown us that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Considering the mind-bogglingly high number of chances for civilizations to arise, and the incomprehensible amount of time that has passed since the big bang, it seems natural to ask why the sky is so silent. Where are all the aliens? This is famously called the Fermi Paradox. But is it actually a paradox? Do we really have good reason to believe there should be aliens everywhere?

Back in the days of Ancient Greece, Aristotle modeled the solar system—or rather the terrestrial system—with the Earth in the center, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolving around it in perfect circles. There is something in human nature that makes it easy to believe that the universe is centered around us. Aristotle’s model survived for over a thousand years into the middle ages, until a troublemaker by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus shook the world with the model we all know today, with the sun in the center and the Earth being a planet, just like all the other planets. Since then, the Copernican Principle has been the idea that there is nothing special about us. We don’t live at the center of the Universe, Earth is not a special planet, the sun is not a special star, and so on. We are an ordinary part of the Universe, just like everything else. Taking the Copernican Principle to its conclusion, it seems the cosmos should be positively teeming with civilizations’ phone calls, TV shows, and internet sites.

On the other hand, we must also consider the Anthropic Principle,* which basically says, “we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a place where intelligent life is possible.” For example, if you were to wake up in a room and find a letter which said, “There are a million rooms just like this one, and only one of them is occupied,” would you think to yourself, “what a miracle it is that I find myself in the only room out of a million that is occupied”? Of course not, because the fact that you are there is what makes it occupied. When applied to life in the Universe, the Anthropic Principle shows us that even if the chances of life arising around any particular star are a soul-crushing one in one septillion (1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 0.000000000000000000000001) over 13 billion years, it is completely unsurprising that we find ourselves here on a planet that is perfectly suited for intelligent life. In fact, since we have no reason to believe the entire Universe ends anywhere near the edge of the observable universe, it doesn’t matter how infinitesimally small the odds are, there is really nothing interesting about the fact that we exist.

Taking the Copernican and Anthropic principles together, all we can really conclude is that we are probably normal as far as civilizations go. However, we still can make no reasonable guess as to how many civilizations should exist. There might be millions in our own galaxy that we are just on the brink of finding, or there might be no others in the entire observable universe. There are those who claim life should be everywhere, and those who claim Earth is unique. Who is right? We don’t know. What we do know is that neither has a good enough argument to win the debate, because there just isn’t enough data yet.

Click to view larger.
Speaking of data, we can turn this question into a scientific one with the Drake Equation, which says the number of civilizations in a given volume of space is equal to a bunch of stuff multiplied together. Those variables are the rate of formation of stars in that volume that could potentially host life, the fraction of habitable stars with solar systems, the average number of habitable planets per solar system, the fraction of habitable planets where life begins, and the fraction of planets with life that evolve civilizations. I have taken liberties and condensed some of the variables together to make it easier to explain, but that is the gist of it. We know the first three pretty well. Almost all stars have solar systems, and it is quite common for stars to have rocky or ocean planets in their habitable zones. However, Earth is the only planet we know of that has life, and we don’t know how it got started, so we have no idea what the last two variables are. They could be anything from so small that ours is the only planet in the Universe with even microbial life, to so large that we might stumble upon our neighbors’ interstellar radio network any day now.

Talking about the Fermi Paradox has always bothered me. Not because it is a paradox, but because everyone calls it a paradox and I don’t see why. A paradox requires a valid theoretical prediction that either leads to two apparently contradictory conclusions, or disagrees with observational evidence. But the assumption that life should be everywhere in the Universe is not valid, hence no paradox. Regardless, whether or not we are alone is still one of the deepest, most awe-inspiring questions a human being can ask.

*The Anthropic Principle should not be confused with the Strong Anthropic Principle or the Weak Anthropic Principle, both of which apply the Anthropic Principle to the Universe. The Weak AP assumes there is a multiverse, while the Strong AP assumes there is not.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Question at the Core of Existence

A year ago, the intellectual giants Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson got together on Sam’s podcast to talk about the relationship between fact and morality, and ended up arguing for two hours about the definition of the word “truth.” Sam argued for what Jordan called Newtonian truth, which is the set of beliefs that most closely resemble fact, while Jordan argued for what he called Darwinian truth, which is the set of beliefs that lead to the survival and flourishing of humankind. Though they parted on a friendly note, they left with the frustration of talking in circles without end, and their audience felt the same.

From the promotional poster for their Vancouver event this coming June.

Although I side with Sam over this disagreement of definition, the question begs to be asked, what went wrong between them? How can two men with IQs so far through the roof that you couldn’t see them with binoculars disagree so stubbornly about the mere definition of a single word? I suspect it was not about the word at all, but something deeper and more profound than either of them realized. It surrounds a single question so basic and monumental that the entirety of human existence revolves around it.

For most of my life, I thought the most important question was, “What is true?” After all, it seemed like the quest to understand the universe and how we have come to wake up in it was the highest, most noble goal of being alive. If someone was factually incorrect, it seemed my duty to drum up a logical argument and correct them for Truth’s sake. As recently as August of last year, I wrote a blog post titled “Truth,” in which I treated Truth with a capital T as if it were a god. But being skeptical in nature, I came to doubt that putting Truth at the center of my existence was, in fact, objectively correct. To my great surprise, I discovered that there is another, more fundamental, more profound question than what is true.

One of the observations that led me to this conclusion is that not all truth is equal. For instance, it never does you any good to know exactly how many atoms are in the paint on a particular stop sign. It is obvious that this type of fact is pointless, but I needed to know why. What makes some truths worth knowing, and others a waste of time?

We are here, existing with corporeal bodies on Planet Earth. We have internal drives that cause us to do things, but we also have a strange feature called a will, which lets us choose actions and courses that deviate from the path of least resistance. We can do things that are easy, or things that are hard. We can reach for pleasure or satisfaction, or to meet the needs and desires of others. We can set out to punish wrong, or to forgive. Thus, after the observation of self-existence, the very first question, which guides our lives from beginning to end, and which must be asked anew every waking moment, is “What should we do?”

In answering this, we find a momentary purpose. Some people go out and act on this purpose immediately, but those who are wise look open-mindedly for relevant facts, using the purpose as a guide. For the most part, the better informed we are about the facts relating to our purpose, the better we can fulfill this purpose. It may be that during our pursuit of relevant knowledge, we discover something that makes us reevaluate our purpose, and this new purpose may send us looking for other information, and the cycle continues. We might say that this is the course of intellectual maturity. Looking at this cycle, it is easy to see how one might get these questions, “What is True?” and “What should we do?” mixed up in their order of importance. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first? It’s hard to tell.

But it can be resolved by considering an asymmetry between the questions’ results. It is possible to have great and meaningful purpose while being completely wrong about the facts. Just compare people from different religions, who believe different sets of facts that contradict each other, but who have equally purposeful lives. On the flip side, however, things are different. It is completely possible to have deep and thorough knowledge about many things, problems that need solving, injustices that need correcting, and also have a clear understanding of the boundaries of one’s knowledge, and yet do nothing at all. While logically these amount to A and not B, and B and not A, there is no question that from a human perspective there is a world of difference between the two. It is infinitely more fulfilling to be with purpose than with knowledge, and fulfillment is what we spend every bit of energy striving toward.

I think the core of the argument between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, the disagreement between the lines, is to what degree one must ground themselves in factual reality in order to have a maximally positive purpose-driven life. Sam’s position is that it is essential to have the facts straight, and the more factually correct you are, the nobler a purpose you find, and the better you will be able to successfully live it out. Jordan is more interested in what to do when the facts are beyond one’s reach or comprehension, or when doubting one’s current knowledge might lead to a loss of purpose. Both men have important things to say, and are well worth a respectful listen.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Where Secrets Lie – The Well of Images Part 2

Read Part 2: "Where Secrets Lie," at (WritersCafe is having problems, so I am looking for a new platform.)

After months of hard work, I am pleased to announce "Where Secrets Lie," the second story in The Mentor, the Hero, and the Trickster, book 1 of The Well of Images.

Accepting Professor Berkeley's offer to take her on as a research assistant, Hope is dismayed when Berkeley forbids her from entering the Realms on her own, because of dangers unknown. Samuel, the only person who could be her delving partner, is completely disinterested. Can Hope find a way to convince him to join her, or will she have to brave the uncertain depths alone, behind her mentor's back?

When starting a new project, it can be easy to get wrapped up in beginner's enthusiasm. Getting through the first challenge is tough, but your excitement gets you through it. The hard part begins with the second challenge. You're already tired, and some of that enthusiasm is draining away. Worse, all of the parts you're most excited about don't happen until later, and you find yourself having to grind through the boring parts of the journey, while trying to make it look interesting enough to keep your readers' attention. With that in mind, getting "Where Secrets Lie" to a high enough quality level to share with the world is one of my most significant writing milestones. Here is to a successful future of the series.

The Well of Images is a fantasy series of short stories, following two college students in their adventures through the Unconscious Realms, full of symbolism and mythological archetypes. If you have not read part 1, or if you are from the future and want to read a later chapter, you can find them in the Finished Stories tab.

If you like "Where Secrets Lie," why not support me on Patreon? It means a lot to me to know that others find what I am passionate about to be meaningful.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Quantum Entanglement

Science has discovered a whole lot of cool and mysterious phenomena, some stranger than fiction. Today, we will dive into one of these, explaining it with accuracy, as well as the background knowledge that someone unfamiliar with it would need in order to understand. Today’s topic is quantum entanglement.

First, what is quantum physics? Put simply, it is the study of the very small. In a microscope, we can see things that are too small to see with our own eyes, like the cells that make up all living things. This is still far too big to be quantum. Zooming waaaaay in, we find organelles, chromosomes, DNA strands, proteins, and finally the basic building blocks of all matter: atoms. Now we have arrived at the level of quantum physics.

“Quantum” means the smallest possible amount. It does not mean consciousness, alternate histories, or time travel, so put those thoughts out of your mind. Quantum physics is the study of things that cannot be divided. For instance, an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus cannot have less than a certain amount of energy, called its ground state. Above that is the first excited state. To gain more energy, an electron must receive enough to make the difference between the ground state and the first excited state. After that, comes the second excited state, and so on. Think of it like climbing a ladder. If you want to get to the next rung, you have to lift your hand all the way up to it. If your hand isn’t high enough, it won’t be able to grab onto anything, and will fall back to where it was before.

Electrons have a little-known property called spin. They don’t actually rotate, because that doesn’t make sense, but they have a magnetic field as if they were rotating. If you measure an electron’s spin, you will either find it to be aligned with your measurement, spin up, or opposite your measurement, spin down. The details get complicated, but the important thing is that there are only two possible spins that an electron can have. Also, it is impossible for an electron to be without spin.

A quantum state is the way that a particle or system of particles is at any given time. An electron’s state includes its energy level, which atom it is a part of, or lack thereof, and its spin. Electrons are a type of particle called fermions, which means that two of them cannot have their total state be exactly the same at the same time. Looking at an atom again, there can only be two electrons in the ground state of energy, since there are only two possible spins. A third electron would have to go in the first excited state, and would not be able to get to the ground state.

There is one more important fact about quantum physics: a particle can be in two or more states at once. An electron can be 50% spin up and 50% spin down. This is called quantum superposition. To be clear, it is not halfway between spin up and spin down; it is both at the same time. If you measure something in quantum superposition, it becomes 100% one of its options, and we say it collapses. This means that if you measure an electron in a 50% spin up, 50% spin down state, it will collapse to be either 100% spin up or 100% spin down.

Think of it like these two sine waves. There cannot be two fermions with the same wave, but they can be antisymmetric like this.

Note: this does not mean consciousness creates reality. What exactly counts as a measurement is still debated, but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with consciousness. There is no counter-evidence either, but the burden of proof is on the person who wants to make the claim that there is a connection.

So if you have two electrons in an atom’s ground state, you would think that one has spin up and the other has spin down. But in reality, one is 50% spin up and 50% spin down, and the other is 50% spin down and 50% spin up. You might ask, how can this be? We just talked about how it is impossible for two electrons to be in the same total state. Well, unlike in everyday life, in quantum physics, order matters. Half-down-half-up is different from half-up-half-down—different in exactly the right was so that the two electrons occupy different total states.

If you take an electron away from its atom, its spin will still be in a superposition of up and down. This means that if you measure it, it will have a 50% chance of collapsing to spin up, and a 50% chance of collapsing to spin down. The same is true for the other electron, 50% for spin up, 50% for spin down. But here’s where the magic happens: When the two electrons are in the atom, they must be opposite from each other. If you take them out of the atom, they must still be opposite from each other. So if you measure one and it collapses to spin up, you immediately know the other one is going to be spin down. The thing is, it does not matter how far apart the electrons are. You could separate them by light years, and measuring one will collapse the spin state for both of them at once. This is quantum entanglement. It can happen for all kinds of particle combinations, and for many properties besides spin. A lot of neat stuff regarding it has been observed in labs, and there are even theoretical technologies based on it like quantum computers.

To reiterate, when two particles are entangled, measuring the entangled property of one will immediately determine what you will get when you measure the entangled property of the other, even if two people do the measuring at faraway places at the same time. Although it seems like instantaneous action faster than the speed of light, there is unfortunately no way to use entangled particles to communicate, so it does not break the speed of light barrier. After all, when you measure your particle, you have no idea if the one on the other end has been measured yet. Too bad for humanity’s galactic civilization 10 million years from now. But even if it doesn’t solve communication light-lag, quantum entanglement has plenty of other uses, and it’s quite a marvelous mystery of the universe.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Nature of Natures

The Nature of Reality:
Representational Realism
Existence and Natures

In the past, I’ve argued for the metaphysical theory of Representational Realism, the belief that Reality exists objectively, on its own, and that what we perceive is not reality, but a copy of reality constructed in our brains from the information provided by our senses. This raises the question, what is Reality really like? If our perception is just a translation of data from our senses and memories, prone to error and bias, how can we know what is really true?

Even though we can never directly perceive Reality, we can learn some things about it through reasoning. If something is objectively real, it must be well-defined. I don’t mean in terms of word definitions, but that it has a “way that it is,” also known as a nature. This is true independently of whether we know what it is or not, or even whether there is anyone in existence to do the knowing. The mysteries of science have an answer now, and that answer has always been true. Gravity followed Newton’s formula before Newton. DNA existed before Watson and Crick. The natures of things, even those which do not yet exist, are already set within Reality, and have been since the beginning of time.

So what are these natures, and what do we know about them? The most successful process for trying to figure them out is science, particularly modern physics. The nature of gravity is best described by General Relativity, and the natures of pretty much everything else in the universe, bar some as-of-yet unexplained phenomena like consciousness, are emergent from Quantum Field Theory. This is where we get the idea of the laws of physics, mathematical representations of the natures of real things. There are laws of physics for the fundamental level of nature, as well as approximations for larger systems like fluids, solids, electricity, and all kinds of stuff.

The Einstein field equation (top) and the Schrodinger equation (bottom) together describe almost all of physics as we know it.

When we talk about the laws of physics in the context of the nature of Reality, we mean the most fundamental. Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity work for the most part, but there are still places they don’t, like the centers of black holes and the first instant of the big bang. It is thought that at the base of everything there is a single true law of physics describing one all-encompassing nature of Reality, a Theory of Everything. The two major contending Theories of Everything right now are String Theory, which hypothesizes that all things are made of spacetime membranes and extremely tiny strings; and Loop Quantum Gravity, which hypothesizes that there is a smallest possible amount of space and time. Neither of these theories has any evidence backing them up, so it is still an open question.

But let’s back up. How do we know everything has a nature? It may seem like I’ve sped through the logic and left a lot of room for error. So let’s think about what would happen if things did not behave according to their natures. It would mean that their existence, properties, and everything about them would be fuzzy and undefined. This is what I call quasi-real, the worldview, often unnoticed by those who have it, that reality only exists as it is understood, and anything outside of our understanding does not have a definite state of existence yet. In a quasi-realist view, scientists do not discover facts through their experiments, rather they conjure them into existence from a sort of fuzzy pool of potential realities.

One might ask whether quantum physics provides evidence of quasi-realism, and against the idea of natures. After all, you can do an experiment where you prepare two or more electrons or other particles exactly the same way, and end up with different results. But this apparent lack of a nature is just an illusion. Run the experiment enough times, and you will see that the results follow a clear distribution of probability. Take the famous double-slit experiment. When photons—light particles—are shone through two tiny openings, they will land on what seem to be random places on the other side, bending when they pass through the slits. But let enough photons through, and a clear pattern of alternating dark and light fringes appears. This pattern always appears when you shine enough light through two slits of the right size, no matter where or when you do the experiment. So although it may seem that there is something inherently non-natural about the unpredictability of individual photons, they are actually following their nature.

What about abstract things, like love, a symphony, or the appreciation of beautiful art? How can these things have a well-defined nature? The answer is tricky, because these words are used in ways that are not well-defined. But if you zoom in and isolate one concrete part of it, like how seeing the painting affects your brain and body chemistry, we can begin to see how it might be possible, that these abstract constructs are emergent from level upon level of complexity. We cannot describe a Shakespeare play at the level of quantum physics, not because it’s impossible, but because there is not enough computing power in the world to do it. The higher up the chain of emergence, the more difficult it is. When we talk about something that concretely exists, it is well-defined, whether or not its nature is possible to compute or understand in fundamental terms.

What about free will? Doesn’t the existence of choice challenge the idea of natures? You might be surprised, but free will is actually an emergent property of determinism. Think about it, you never make a decision without a reason. Sometimes you don’t know the reason, and it was your brain and body working automatically in their deterministic way. Sometimes you have an idea of the reason, partially the values you were taught as a child, which you were reminded of by a stranger smiling at you as you walked past each other, and a thousand other things adding up. The often misunderstood point of free will is that we have the ability to do things for good reasons, not for no reason at all. Now you might say there is a loophole, as we choose between actions that have good reasons and those that have bad reasons. But this choice is also based on reasons. No matter how you slice it, it’s reasons all the way down. Of course I am not saying that we don’t have free will. We do. I’m just pointing out that free will is not a basic-level principle of reality, and it has a well-defined nature.

Many people believe in the idea of the supernatural, a layer of reality that is not bound by natural laws, but nonetheless exists. This simply doesn’t make sense. Anything that exists must have a way that it is, which is another term for nature. The average person, however, does not think at the philosophical level, but rather uses it to describe a collection of phenomena like ESP, ghosts, demons, angels, and God. However, the line between the supernatural and the natural is arbitrary. Many things that were once called supernatural, like the weather and the motion of the objects in the sky, were later understood by science, and so lost their supernatural status. Nowadays, it seems to me like the supernatural is a cover behind which people hide when their beliefs are called into question. If I tell a believer there is no evidence for the existence of ghosts, and that mere witness testimony does not count, they will probably accuse me of being a close-minded naturalist, rather than countering my claim with evidence.

This accusation is baseless, because I personally believe in several things that may be considered supernatural. Consciousness and hypnosis, for starters, and I have personally had out-of-body experiences and meaningful dreams. Because they are real, they have a well-defined nature, and can be understood. Anything that exists, whether you call it supernatural or natural, has a nature, a way that it exists and interacts with the rest of reality. This does not close the door to the possibility of God or demons; quite the contrary, it brings these things into the realm of serious consideration rather than quasi-realist speculation. I don’t disbelieve in the supernatural. Rather, I don’t see the division between natural and supernatural as having any meaning. It all comes back to the fact that anything that exists must have a way that it is, a well-defined nature. For each “supernatural” thing, we can ask whether it exists, and test it empirically just like every “natural” thing. And for each, there is a definite answer that is already true.

But enough of case examples, let’s get to the center of the issue. What would it mean for something not to have a nature? Remember, an object’s “nature” in this conversation means the “way that it is.” Suggesting that something exists without having a way that it is simply makes no sense. That would mean there is no true well-defined statement that you could say about it. For instance, does it explode when wet? If yes, there must be something about its physical properties that causes it to explode, which would be part of its nature. If it does not explode, that would also be explained by its nature. But what if it only explodes sometimes? Even then we will be able to calculate the probability of it exploding in a certain amount of time based on its nature. In order for it not to have a nature, it must not act according to probability, which means it should have the same chance of exploding in the next three seconds as it does in the next ten minutes as it does in the next hundred trillion years. This lack of probability would not be because of our human lack of information, but inherent in the object’s very being. Of course, this would apply not just to exploding, but to turning blue, transforming into a pizza, growing arms and legs and break dancing, blowing up the Earth, and every other possible thing that can happen. All this because it would have no nature preventing it from doing so, because not being able to do something is a well-defined statement about the way that it is. The fact that we have a Universe where it is possible for things to make sense is evidence that everything has a well-defined nature.

But what if something had a nature that was not well-defined? Could something deviate from its nature in small amounts, following its nature most of the time, but just once in awhile doing other things? Well no, because as we discussed, even having a probability counts as a nature, so the real truth would be that we are wrong about its nature, and its true nature really does explain everything that it does. Take gravity for example. Newton’s theory explained planets and moons most of the time, but not all of the time. Newton predicted that all planets should orbit the sun in perfect ellipses (ovals), but the planet Mercury’s ellipse swiveled so that the point where it was farthest from the sun moved each year. Then Einstein came along with his General Theory of Relativity, a theory of gravity which worked like Newtonian gravity in weak fields, but differently in strong fields. General Relativity predicted Mercury should precess exactly as it did. Ultimately, it wasn’t that Mercury behaved in a way slightly different from its nature, but instead we weren’t quite right about what its nature was.

The key to all this is the difference between knowledge and fact. It is easy to believe that we know a lot more than we do, and therefore the vast plunges of the unknown must be inherently unknowable. However, this can be overcome if we acknowledge that no matter how certain we are about what we think we know, there is always at least a small chance that we may someday find ourselves to be not quite right, and have to amend our beliefs to better reflect the truth. Fundamental facts about natures are always true, always have been, and always will be regardless of whether we agree about them, or if anyone knows them at all. It all comes down to one simple tautology, that everything that exists has a way that it is. Though true by definition, its vastly powerful implication for knowledge and understanding goes unnoticed by so many.