Friday, February 24, 2017

Magic III: What if Nothing is Real? (Realism and Idealism)

Part of a series on magic:
Four Types of Magic
What is Not Science?
What if Nothing is Real?

Further reading: The Nature of Reality series, starting with Quasi-Realism

As a fan of both fantasy and philosophy, I have thought a lot about the concept of magic as it is used in fiction and superstition. For years, the phrase “it’s not magic” has struck me as strange whenever it has been used. What does the speaker mean? A year and a half ago, I wrote about four general ideas people have when talking about magic, and soon after I came to the conclusion that magic is what makes no sense when studied, because if it made sense, we would call it science. With this distinction, magic could only exist in made-up worlds. Yet recently I have come to see another perspective, where something called magic might actually be able to exist if something about the metaphysical nature of reality were different.

To begin, we shall talk about Metaphysical Realism. This is the philosophy that real objects exist independently of people’s perceptions, beliefs, and understanding. With every philosophical post I have written to date, I have implicitly assumed it to be true. And why not? It sounds like common sense, right? Well maybe, but among philosophers and fantasy writers common sense is not worth much.

Three hundred years ago, a philosopher named John Locke described a model for the physical nature of reality. He suggested that objects have primary qualities, which are intrinsic to the objects themselves, and secondary qualities, which depend on being observed. For example, what a blade of grass is made of would be one of its primary qualities, and its green color would be a secondary quality. The distinction was drawn between what objects are really like and how we perceive them.

This didn’t sit well with Locke’s contemporary, George Berkeley. Berkeley argued that if we cannot perceive primary qualities, why should we assume they exist at all? If the only way we could know the world was through its secondary qualities, which only exist when they are being perceived, then what evidence do we have that the objects themselves exist in any further sense? In this fashion, Berkeley argued that reality can only be said to exist when it is being perceived, and that the mind was the only truly real thing. This became known as Metaphysical Idealism.

To recap, Realism is the idea that reality exists on its own, independently of perception, belief, or understanding; Idealism is the idea that reality is only perception, a projection of the mind.

An argument between a realist and an idealist might go like this.

Realist: If things only exist when you perceive them, then when you look away from
something and look back, why is it still there? When we leave a clock and come back to it, why has the right amount of time always passed?

Idealist: Because our minds create reality as we expect it, and the expectations of object permanence and evolution are ingrained in us by the time we reach we reach a few years of age.

Realist: If reality is created as we expect it, then why is anyone ever surprised?

Idealist: Because there are billions of people in the world, and different people expect different things. This causes us to be surprised while other people are around, which makes us subconsciously expect to be surprised when we are alone.

Realist: What about the principle of non-contradiction? Not only are everyday things logically consistent, but so is the entire universe. I would expect, in an Ideal world, that two scientists might make independent discoveries that lead to contradictions, or that at least the fundamental laws of physics would be a complete mess. As it is, almost everything can be explained at the most basic level by one of two theories: Quantum Physics or General Relativity. There are plenty of scientists who study alternatives, but nothing has borne out anything in the last hundred years. This is exactly what we might expect to find in a Real universe, but in an Ideal world we would expect hundreds of equally plausible theories, generated by the multitude of presuppositions that the scientists bring to their studies. Science simply wouldn’t work in an Ideal universe.

Idealist: But it is what you would expect in an Ideal world if there was an all-knowing, all-seeing mind keeping everything consistent and continuous.

Realist: But how would that be any different from a Real world? What evidence could you present to justify teaching that the universe is Ideal, when the God whose presence is necessary for it not to fall apart makes it indistinguishable from a Real universe? Isn’t it more reasonable to choose to believe the idea that does not have the extra layers of assumptions? In fact, wasn’t that your original argument?

Idealism also suffers from another problem. By the same logic Berkeley used to get to Idealism—that we should not assume the existence of objects’ primary qualities, which we cannot perceive—we don’t have any reason to believe other minds exist either. This version of Idealism, that everything in the universe including the illusion of other people, is a projection of your own mind, is called Solipsism.

I have spent the whole discussion so far explaining Realism and Idealism and justifying my assumption that the bedrock of reality is Realism. But what does any of this have to do with magic? In part 2 of the magic series, I concluded that anything whose function has no mechanism driving it is magic, and everything else is science. Well secondary qualities are functions. Therefore, in an Ideal reality, where everything can be said to exist only as much as it is being perceived, everything is magic.

What would an Ideal world look like? It would allow manipulation of the physical world through perception, memory, and both subconscious and conscious will. It would not follow strict logic, but convenient yet arbitrary guidelines that can be bent and broken. In short, it would be like an exceptionally vivid dream.

Hmm. This sounds a lot like a certain popular long-running space fantasy TV show.

In Doctor Who, the Doctor travels all over the universe, forward and backward in time. Unrestrained time travel has lots of problems though; for example you could go back five minutes and meet yourself, and prevent yourself from going back in time five minutes. Presumably then there would be two of you. But what happened to your past? How did you get here if you never time traveled?

Doctor Who fixes these problems by instating rules. You are not allowed to interfere with your own timeline. There are certain events in history that are fixed, and cannot be changed. Problem solved, right? Well it is shown in the series that you can interfere with your past timeline, and you can mess with the fixed points of history. There is no physical mechanism that prevents it. But when you do meddle with these rules, the universe strikes back and punishes you with a kind of karma. A Real universe would have strict mathematical laws, but we would expect an Ideal universe to have rules and guidelines that can be bent and broken, like we find in Doctor Who.

Any time this guy says "it's not magic," he's lying.

It was two and a half years ago that I first realized that I had no idea what “magic” was. My journey down the path of questioning led me to group the common uses of the word into four categories, which shrank to two: what could be explored through science, and what was impossible. Anything we call magic is really just science we don’t understand yet. Thus I reasoned that if something in a story is called magic, it means you are not supposed to think about how it works. But then I remembered the historical debate between Metaphysical Realism and Idealism, and found that in Idealism there is a logically valid way a universe could allow for magic. So if you want to have magic that is distinct from science in your story, and you want it to be philosophically plausible, Idealism provides the opportunity you’re looking for.

Of course, going on nothing but my own internal analysis machine, I could easily be wrong. I have not talked this over with anyone, nor gone through any of the rigors of peer review that philosophical ideas are subject to in academia. But the beauty of philosophy is that amateurs are free to explore it and apply it to their own lives and interests, and it can help us to lead better, kinder, and more fulfilled lives.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Scientific Jigsaw Puzzle

Recommended Pre-Reading:

I have always loved a good jigsaw puzzle. There is something deeply satisfying about taking a pile of colored cardboard scraps and turning it little by little into a predetermined picture. Every piece fit into its place and every edge matched up is a small joy. Losing yourself in the exercise is a wonderful experience, whether alone or collaborating with family or friends. In my time in academia, I have found that science is a lot like a jigsaw puzzle, with reality as its picture.

I have been a teaching assistant for college physics for two and a half years. I usually try to explain the models directly as they are, and stay away from analogies. There comes a point where most metaphors break down, and you have to say, “it’s kind of like that, but really not.” The example that makes me cringe the most is the bowling ball on a trampoline analogy of general relativity. It does have similar behavior to gravity, but only by accident. But once in a while there is a metaphor that works so perfectly that even I am satisfied, and the scientific jigsaw puzzle is one of them.

Each scientific discipline is a different section of the puzzle. The pieces that look like life, we call biology. The pieces that look like rocks, we call geology. The pieces that have space on them, we call astronomy. And so on. Teams of scientists around the world collaborate, each working in their own section or subsection. Every so often, the edge of one section is found to fit perfectly against another, to much celebration. Atomic theory connects chemistry to quantum physics. Evolution is the central hub of biology, but also links psychology to the rest of the puzzle. In the past 300 years, the puzzle has been taking shape into a vast, beautiful, solidly connected picture.

Sometimes a piece looks like it fits, but the edges don’t quite match up, or there is the tiniest bit of space between the tab and the slot. When this happens, other pieces won’t connect where they are supposed to, so we have to look down the line until we find where we made our mistake. There are even now some places where the pieces do not seem to fit. The centers of black holes, and the instant of the big bang, to name a few. These are places where quantum physics—the physics of the very small—and general relativity—the physics of the very massive—collide.

There are no edges; every section either connects to another or has a frontier where new pieces are being added every day. There are even whole sections waiting to be started. For instance, we know astrobiology—the science of alien life—will connect to astronomy, planetary science, chemistry, and evolutionary biology, but we don’t have any pieces to try to fit.

Some people, claiming to be scientists, have a picture in mind already when they approach the puzzle, and try to force the pieces to make that picture. They use the pieces to make a mosaic instead of trying to solve the puzzle. This is called "pseudoscience." Sometimes the difference is obvious, but sometimes it can be difficult even for those who spend their time immersed in the mental world of science to tell at first glance. But there is a family of methods for determining how well the pieces fit together: statistics. Subjecting ideas to rigorous mathematical fires of probability is kind of like holding two pieces up to the light to see if any shines through. Under this scrutiny, the pseudoscience falls apart, and it is up to the future wholeness of the picture to sort the correct ideas from the mere good ones.

And what a picture it is! It's a picture of the vastness of space and the beginning of time, of stars and galaxies, of matter and light, of life and humanity and curiosity. And the beauty of the picture revealed makes us all the more eager to finish the holes and expand the edges, searching for new mysteries waiting to be discovered.