Is Reality a Matter of Taste?

“If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” –Bernard Carr, cosmologist, Queen Mary University of London

The universe we live in appears to be finely tuned. Gravity, the cosmological constant, the nuclear forces and the mass of the electron all have values such that if their values were any different they “would have prevented the emergence of stars, planets, organic life and, in some cases, the universe itself,” as philosopher Mary Jane Rubenstein puts it in the preface to her book Pantheologies. Now, theists “know” perfectly well why this is the case: because God made it that way. Atheists on the other hand have no taste for a “God” behind reality and so must look to a theory of a near infinite number of different universes all with different values for the above mentioned properties so that our universe becomes just a matter of statistical happenstance. They would argue that this universe has life and planets and stars because this happens to be one of the universes that is hospitable to such things. No need for a God to fine tune things when randomness will do. To their particular taste, our universe is the cosmological equivalent of 1000 monkeys at 1000 typewriters eventually writing Shakespeare.

From what I understand about quantum theory, which admitedly is quite little, the majority of physicists agree that the theory is sound but there is no meaningful consensus as to how to interpret the theory, leading to a number of different models of the nature of reality. How do the physicists decide which interpretation to adhere to as the most likely? From what I can tell they tend to choose the one that causes them the least amount of disgust, the one who’s implications don’t overturn too many of their previous assumptions of what reality is and how it works. To be blunt, physicists appear to decide which interpretation is the “right” one based predominantly on taste.

It seems as though no one can say what the nature of reality is in a way that everyone else can agree on. The world is split, as ever, into metaphysical factions, despite the advances of scientific theory. Philosopher Hilary Lawson states in an episode of the Philosophy For Our Time podcast titled The New Enlightenment:

“I think we just have to give up on the fantasy that we can describe how things are, that we can describe reality. In much the same way as the Enlightenment itself got rid of the religious belief that somehow God was the person who decided what was going on, we just gave up on God, I think we have to give up on our God which is “Reality” and “Truth.” But that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t make progress with our narratives, and what I would call closures, in terms of creating better accounts of the world that enable us to achieve things.” 

I think that most people, without thinking about it too much, accept the scientific materialist model of reality. But it’s worth remembering, as Gordon White (who has a palpable distaste for materialism) says in his book Pieces of Eight, “Materialism, it must be understood, is a premise of science, not a finding.” Scientists appear to have a taste for materialism, and why wouldn’t they, it is a necessary requirement for their whole field of endeavour. White goes on to quote Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion:

“Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads. These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith grounded in a ninteenth-century ideology.”

So even the materialism that most people take for granted turns out to be largely a convenient preference. But there are some genuine issues with materialism as a model that explains all of reality. As Dr. Sheldrake alludes to in the above quotation, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a perennial bugbear of the materialist model. So does that mean that materialism is completely useless and we should throw it out altogether? Of course not. Here’s Lawson from an other episode of Philosophy For Our Time titled The Problem With Materialism:

“So if the world’s not material, what is it? Well people have had a variety of proposals: It’s mind, some people have suggested it’s mathematics, a recent arrival on the block is people are now saying it’s information. So people have had all sorts of ideas about what the world is made of and you can make a good case for all of them. You can develop the narrative, you can make a good case, it can sound plausible. But they all break down because they’re human concepts, they’re not the nature of the world. And what our concepts are doing, and what our language is doing is not describing some ultimate reality, it’s enabling us to do things in the world, they’re tools to enable us to do things. And if you hold the world as a material thing, then you build the world like that and you try and make everything material. You operate in that closure as I would argue. And within that closure you create your system, and you can do a pretty good job of it, but there are lots of bits of it that just don’t work: that you can’t quite make any sense of thought, you can’t quite make any sense of other areas of your overall account.

“If instead you start with immaterialism, and you say the world is all mind, well you know there are some good people in the history of philosophy who’ve had a very good attempt to account for how the world could be all mind. So in each case you can develop a closure. You can hold the world as if it’s all material, you can hold the world as if it’s all immaterial, you can hold the world as energy, you can hold the world as mathematics, and as I say some people are having a go at holding the world as information, which I have to say, I don’t think works very well, but never the less, they’re plausible narratives. But they will always break down because they’re not descriptions of reality, they’re the tools we use to describe reality. And that’s why it’s none of these things. We can’t, with language, say what is the ultimate stuff of the universe. What we can do is we can hold the universe in all of these different ways, and achieve different things with these different ways of holding it.”

What Lawson is describing is what White would call “a multi-model” approach to metaphysics. If we are unable to describe reality accurately, perhaps we should judge our models by a different metric. As I said in a previous post, I’m a big fan of the saying, all models are flawed, but some models are useful. This is exactly what Lawson is getting at. I would like to see less arguing over who’s model is right and more discussion about what each model can be used for and how, because, I think it’s fair to say that at this point in the timeline none of the models appear to be right. But many of them can be useful, even the ones that you may find particularly distasteful, be they atheism, theism, string theory, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, or whatever model sticks in your particular craw.

Robert Anton Wilson was early in his attempt to popularize a multi-model approach with what he termed the New Agnosticism:

“…By the New Agnosticism I mean to designate an attitude of mind which has elsewhere been called “model agnosticism” and which applies the agnostic principle not just to the “God” concept but to ideas of all sorts in all areas of thoughts and ideology.

“The agnostic principle refuses total belief or total denial and regards models as tools to be used only and always where appropriate and replaced (by other models) only and always where not appropriate. It does not regard any models, or any class of models, as more “profound” than any other models, or any class of models but asks only how a model serves, or fails to serve, those who use it. The agnostic principle is intended here in a broad “humanistic” or “existential” sense, and is not intended to be narrowly technical or philosophical only.” (The New Inquisition)

This, I think, is the most appropriate position to take when trying to wrestle with concepts of reality and metaphysics. Arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong seems fruitless to me and when it’s fundamentally an argument over taste I’m less than convinced that trying to persuade people to join your metaphysical camp is even a rational activity to engage in. 

I’ve been using the term taste deliberately in this discussion because I like the metaphor but an other way of putting it is that people’s worldview is determined by their biases. I haven’t done enough study to be able to say anything useful about where our biases stem from, but I know that they’re sticky and I suspect that they are deeply entangled with our senses of identity, so I’d say that it’s worth being skeptical of our own biases and it seems like an uphill grind attempting to change anyone else’s.

My personal biases tend towards a pantheistic metaphysics. In Rubenstein’s Pantheologies she outlines how, historically, pantheism has been consistently maligned with the language of disgust and repulsion, from theists and atheists alike, across myriad fields and disciplines. Clearly pantheism is an acquired taste. Perhaps that’s why I’m so eager to encourage an agnostic, multi-model approach to metaphysics; if everyone abandons the need to be right about “reality,” and adopts a willingness to approach metaphysical models based on their potential utility, then maybe pantheism can pull up a chair and join the Big Table. 

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close