Metaphysics explained

The term “metaphysics” owes its origin to one Andronicus of Rhodes who lived at around 100 BCE and was an editor of Aristotle’s corpus. Aristotle had something to say about everything and Andronicus was soon confounded with an editorial problem: how to discern the great philosopher’s early works entitled “Physica” (physics) from the ones following it.  Unpretentiously, he used the term “Metaphysica” which simply means “the ones that come after physics”. And thus “metaphysics” was born.

In Physica Aristotle enquired upon the nature of things, for instance why some things fall (e.g. rocks) while others rise (e.g. smoke). In Metaphysica he addressed more general questions like what are the basic elements, he critiqued Democritus’ atomic theory as well as Pythagoras’ core idea that everything is ultimately made of numbers, and he discussed – but mostly rejected – Plato’s views which were in many ways similar to Pythagoras. He also theorized about the nature of causes (causality) and pondered upon ontological semantics – what it means to say that something actually exists. Aristotle considered his entire corpus as a concise study of nature and never differentiated between “specific” and “general” questions. For him nature was a seamless continuum.

Nevertheless, his successors many centuries later made the distinction between “physics” and “metaphysics”, the former being the experimental study of nature while the latter the probing of what was beyond the scope of science. So what is the study of metaphysics now? Its domain shrinking as the various scientific disciplines mature, metaphysics is very much in doubt. Most scientists do not think that there can be something in nature resisting the application of the scientific method. Unexplored areas such as dark matter, string theory, quantum gravity etc., although still beyond experimental scrutiny, are not considered metaphysics; they are falsifiable scientific hypotheses, and as such fall well inside the “Physica” of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, there seems to be one last bastion of metaphysics that still holds: consciousness. The epistemological problem with consciousness is that it cannot be measured objectively. Measuring instruments currently available, such as PET or fMRI scans, can really “see” inside a thinking brain and produce bundles of amazing images. Those images however must be corroborated with what the person in the scanner felt or thought at the time of study. In other words the experimenter needs the subjective report (the person describing their experience) of the experimental object (the brain inside the person) in order to validate her results. There seems to be a disturbing gap between the object (brain – third person reporting) and the person (consciousness – first person reporting), that is apparently unbridgeable.

As a last bastion of metaphysics consciousness is a serious one. Consciousness underpins all measurements and, therefore, all of our science and all of our knowledge. We know what we know because we think that we do. If science proves unable to incorporate consciousness in its corpus then we must remain forever skeptical about the nature of our universe and of ourselves. This amounts to a bomb ticking at the foundations of all natural sciences.

In this light, Artificial Intelligence aiming to reproduce consciousness in a medium other than a biologically evolved brain is a heroic attempt to save science. A thinking robot will not be a simple curiosity but indisputable proof that consciousness belongs to the material world.

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The archeology of ideas

There is a curious phenomenon in the academic world of peer reviews and science journals. Pick up any scientific journal you like and look at the dates of any paper’s references at the end. Most will be from the 2000s. You may find a couple from the 1990s. If you look hard you may also get the odd and rare reference from the 1980s. And that will probably be it. So what has happened to scientific ideas dated before the 1980s? How come they are virtually extinct from the present?

One might suggest that as science progresses ideas are in constant review. Most fail in the light of new evidence. New ideas replace old ones in an evolutionary way. Or one may take a sociological perspective of science and, adopting Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the generational aspect of scientific progress, suggest that science runs in approximate 25-year cycles; old professors need to die or retire in order to be replaced by new ones; old professors’ ideas die with them and new professors’ ideas become the latest fad. Hence the 20-25 year reference time window at the end of academic papers.

Whatever the explanation might be the fact remains that there is no such thing as a de novo idea. All ideas, scientific or artistic, have roots that may travel a long way in the past, certainly beyond the time frame of an academic generation. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is not something that just happened to occur in some people’s heads when computers came about. Ideas about mechanical intelligence and artificial life circulate for thousands of years. The body-mind problem, so central to AI, has kept Plato awake at nights, and many a philosopher since.

The deeper one digs the more revealing discoveries one makes. It is a truism to say that ideas link to our cognitive systems, but the repercussions of this statement are immense. It means that there may be ideas beyond our ability to conceive them. Human consciousness, individual and collective, is a cognitive and cultural time continuum. Therefore, we cannot hope to adequately inform ourselves about the quality and value of what we think unless we can associate our thinking with facts about our nature and history.

Apparently, the archeology of ideas is something that is  missing from modern scientific and artistic production. I am often bemused when eminent physicists “discover deeper questions” that arise, say, from particle-wave duality; ignorant of the fact that such questions have been posed before, and they only needed to have asked their classics colleagues  in order to know. Not to mention prominent artists who seem to display the mindset of persons living in the Middle Ages.

The “two cultures” problem is evident here. Humanistic studies, arts and sciences all speak  different tongues, exist in a state of mutual suspicion and frequently hold each other in contempt. As a result many scientists are disconnected from humanity and a great number of humanists and artists live in a magical, pre-scientific world.

There are of course exceptions, and these exceptions have inspire me to cross a few lines and dig into the archeology of ideas. I was trained as an engineer but I am also a novelist. What fascinates me in Artificial Intelligence is not only the technologies but also its vision and its deep roots in our collective past. Turing Dreams will  try to wade along a lonely – and academically deserted – “third culture” path of linking science to humanities, in the hopeful attempt of discovering, and describing, a heroic narrative of scientific endeavor in the making.

The ignorant miracle-workers

Cornelis_Pietersz._Bega_-_De_AlchemistIs science the surest way of arriving at truth? Can we validate its worth beyond anyone’s doubt? Surely, the limits of knowledge have been discussed ad nauseum by the ancients. Aristotle did not approve of Platonic metaphysics, but ask any string theorist what she thinks about the laws of nature and she will tell you maths. Where is maths? Where does it reside, before expressing itself in the motion of bodies or the flow of fluids? Where does music go when the instruments stop their play? Historians of science tell us that once upon the Middle Ages science and magic were twin sisters, Siamese twins living together side by side and forcefully separating not before the time of Descartes. His definition of res extensa was followed by logical positivism a few centuries later; but no one would have given a toss if it wasn’t for the Industrial Revolution. I stand firmly behind this argument: if it wasn’t for the engineering miracles that were produced as a result of scientific discovery, science would have been little more than a pastime for gentlemen and gentle ladies of plenty means and time to spare. Everyone had to bow to the miracles of science because the damn thing worked – and it did so better than prayer. Planes fly after all, not by well-wishing (although I often see many fellow passengers pray during take off) but by engines roaring and good wing design. But do we really know why they fly? I would argue that we do not, not really. We do have a good set of equations available, and a sound theory of aerodynamics that we teach to college students, but this corpus of descriptions sits uncomfortably on top of vast, unwavering void of stark ignorance. At the end of the scientists’ day what remains in the Petri dish, or the computer printout, or the spectrum of a far away galaxy, are unanswered questions followed by more unanswered questions. Some call this a virtue. And why not: there is certainly something alluding to heroism in a person willing to face mysteries whilst remaining agnostic. Heroics apart, however, the bottom line is that working the miracles of science was, and still remains, the biggest mystery of all. The body of knowledge is riddled with holes, curious singularities where our notions precariously stand. I would like to give three ready examples of such “singularities”. First, the Big Bang; and of course all that follows it, which is the whole of physics. Our descriptions of the universe, mathematical as they are, should not be confused with knowledge. Secondly: Life, the origin of. How did it come about? Thirdly: the mind. If you have doubts about those three examples, let me put them in another way. The litmus test of true knowledge is the power of reproduction. If I know something – truly know it, not suppose it – then I can reproduce it, nominally or otherwise. If we knew, or came to know, the nature of the Universe, of Life and of the Mind, we could easily reproduce all three of them. We do not (not “yet” some will say, but I dispute that). What we do (re)produce are similes; or simulations of. Scientists are ignorant miracle-workers performing in the circus of history while the rest of world watches in amazement. How long more will the show last? A good answer would be “when the miracles run out”. And then what? What will follow science? A retro-religious era perhaps?