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Machines Like Us

…but something is necessary

Sunday, 19 August 2012
by Peter Hankins

Last time I suggested that we might approach the Hard Problem of qualia by first solving the impossible problem of why the world exists at all (what the hell, eh?). How would that work?

Qualia, of course, are the redness of red, the indescribable smelliness of the smell of fish, and so on; the subjective, phenomenal, inexpressible qualities of experience, the bit that the scientific account always leaves out. They are often described as the ‘what it is like’ of an experience, and have been memorably characterised as what Mary, who knows everything about colour, learns when she actually sees it for the first time.

My case is that a large part, perhaps all, of the strange ineffability of qualia arises because what we’re doing is mismatching theory and actuality. It should not really be a surprise that the theory of red coloration does not itself deliver the actual experience of redness, but there is some mysterious element in actual real-life experience that puzzles us. I suggest the mysterious extra is in fact haecceity, or thisness; the oddly arbitrary specificity of real life, which sits oddly with the abstract generalities of a theoretical description. So it would help to know why the actual world is so arbitrary and specific; why it isn’t a featureless void, or a geometric point, or a collection of eternal Platonic archetypes. If we knew that we might know something about qualia; and also, I think, about ourselves—since we too are arbitrary and specific; not abstract functions or sets of information, but real one-off items.

So can we therefore answer Jim Holt’s question for him? Some caution is certainly in order. Speculative metaphysics is like hard drink; a little now and then is great, but you need to know when to stop or you may find your credibility, if not your coherence, diminishing. But I think we can sketch out a tentative view which will clarify a few points and indicate some promising lines of inquiry which may well be rather helpful.

Let’s step back and look at the overall cosmic problem more empirically: the world does in fact exist and does seem to be rich and complex. What kind of overall chronology would make sense for a world like that? It could be one that starts, putters along for a finite time, and then stops. It could be one that stretches back indefinitely into the past but eventually stops at some point in the future, or one that started at a definite point in the past but goes on indefinitely. It could be indefinitely prolonged at both start and end. Or it could be one that goes round in a permanent loop.

The thing is, in different ways all these options seem to give us a universe which is unmotivated. If there is a final state in which the universe stops, why not go to that state in the first place—why spend time getting there? If the universe goes in a circle and ultimately reaches the state in which it started, why bother leaving the initial state? Our current view paints a picture of a Universe wound up by a cataclysmic Bang and then steadily running down through expansion and increasing entropy—to nothing, or as near nothing as makes no great difference. But it seems odd to start the world with a flagrant contradiction of the principle of decline that afterwards governs its development. The only world that makes sense in these admittedly vague terms is one that is going somewhere, but somewhere it will never finally reach. The only one that does that, I think, is one that starts and then goes on, not merely expanding, but transcending its earlier states and rising to higher levels of complexity indefinitely.