Two things collided. I saw Leon Wieseltier on The Colbert Report and was enthralled by his view of modern social life. That moved a friend of mine to look for other YouTube videos of Wieseltier. She posted a good one that then moved me to look at more. Bottom line, I ended up watching a fair bit of the man last week. Still enthralled.
Meanwhile, after my last post about religion and atheism, a reader commented that she found the article so balanced she couldn’t tell on which side I stood. As an agnostic, that’s the goal. Yet, in one of the videos, Wieseltier expresses an idea that really grabbed me.
It has to do with on which side of what line I stand.
The cool thing for me is that he and I start from the same basic premise. I wrote about this in the God: Three Questions post. Wieseltier is talking about the same thing (but in more correct established philosophical terms — I tend to make it up as I go along).
The line in the sand is (philosophical) materialism. Wieseltier — and I — believe the material world isn’t sufficient to answer all possible questions. We believe there is an additional reality besides the material one.
Note that this is different from an everyday definition of “materialistic” — the implication a person is overly focused on worldly goods. There is a connection in that a materialistic person is usually not a spiritual person. Intriguingly, there is an implication of shallowness in this form of materialism that seems reflected in the common bias against atheism.
Philosophical materialism is the view that all of reality is material “stuff” we can study and understand. As such, materialism is a monistic view. The view that there is something more than “all this” is a dualistic view.
Thus, Wieseltier and I are dualists. It really is the fundamental dividing line between “believers” and “unbelievers.” As Wieseltier points out, standing on the non-materialist side are Jews, Christians and Muslims of all stripes (from fundamentalist to non-practicing) plus Buddhists and Unitarians and even Wiccans and Druids.
That’s not meant to be an argument based on numbers. It only serves to illustrate how many variations there are on non-materialism.
Materialism, on the other hand, is an ever-converging view with a presumed single endpoint — a full and accurate account of the material world. Such a full understanding would provide the answers to every possible question (so far as answers are available — physics and math deny that certain knowledge is possible even in principle).
And that last little bit there? That bit about how science has already shown that some knowledge is impossible even in principle? For me, that’s where the cracks in materialism begin to show.
When you add in Quantum Mechanics things get decidedly shaky. There is a view among some physicists that, whatever else might be true, materialism has to be false. Dualism might also be false, but materialism can’t be true.
Fortunately for non-believers there are other kinds of monism; it’s not cut-and-dried. Physicalism extends materialism to include emergent behaviors not fully explained by the material parts alone. And we know QM is, at best, incomplete, so perhaps we’ll find a basis for materialism yet.
Even so, at this point, two things really stand out to me: Firstly, the unknowns in the current materialist view. Secondly, the rising complexity of that view. Occam’s Razor suggests that simple solutions trump complex solutions. The scientific physical view of reality seems at least as complex as alternate views, so materialism gains no Occam points with me.
Even if we accept the bizarreness of QM, and even if we figure out how entanglement works, we’re still left with a weird conclusion: The odds are extremely high that we’re a virtual reality simulation!
Quantum Mechanics says reality isn’t smooth, but made of parts. Think of them as pixels on a 3D computer screen. Even time — as far as we know — moves in quantum steps. Think of them as computer cycles. Consider also that the blueprint for all biological life (DNA) is a digital code. Think of it as stored data.
Computer simulations are improving all the time. Is it likely we will make them so good that “actors” in them will think they are self-aware beings? Is it likely a civilization with that capability would use it? Is it likely such a civilization would run lots of life-like simulations?
If you agree those are all likely, then the odds are high that we’re in a simulation right now. The odds of being in a simulation increase with the number of simulations, and if you agree simulations are both likely and frequent… well here we are.
And the physical evidence strongly points to a simulated reality. Simulations require steps — time cycles — and can only model points of reality — pixels.
Plus there’s nothing spooky whatsoever about entanglement if reality is simulated. Calculations and data are simply adjusted moment by moment as needed.
So, if you are a strict materialist, you have to assume there’s a good chance reality is a simulation. Plus you probably have to deny free will — or at least account for it. And you have some really interesting questions to answer about quantum entanglement and human consciousness. There’s a lot yet on your plate!
And while Wieseltier is Jewish and I’m Vaguely Deist, we’re also both on the spiritual side of the line. We go on to say, not only is there more than “all this” to reality, there is some sort of intrinsic purpose and meaning behind it all.
That’s a teleological view, and it’s pretty squarely in spiritual waters. (But if we are a simulation — which the odds suggest is likely — then there could be utterly non-spiritual purpose and meaning imposed by the programmers. “What happens if we set the Legs parameter to only 2? I bet they won’t even be able to move around!”)
The more common teleological views are spiritual views of some kind, even if only a vague belief in Karma and the Platonic reality of Good and Evil. As pointed out above, there are myriad forms of non-materialism.
It’s not a simple view to pursue or defend. How do you point to something non-material and say, “There, see!” Dualism is like the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) in QM — it simplifies the model. Interestingly, the MWI is itself a form of dualism.
So there it is. I’m squarely on the non-material side of materialism; I’ll remain unconvinced until certain proof exists otherwise. I have my reasons, but it is ultimately a matter of faith, hope and choice (just as it is with materialists).
I’m less certain about how dualism plays out; it may be as simple as emergent properties; I wish for it to be more. There’s a lot more uncertainty in my spiritual views. I recognize those as potential interpretations of simpler phenomena.
Or maybe the smoke points to a real fire.