Many reality theorists seem to be committed to the notion that there is but one true interpretation of Reality. They write elaborate books attempting to persuade us that theirs is the real truth, while the others are false. These perspectives include scientific realism, instrumentalism, mathematical realism, and what we shall call Buddhist centrism.
Scientific realists, of whom Einstein is a notable example, attempt to convince us that there is an objective reality that scientists describe with their many equations. This is probably the common sense perspective. Mathematical realists claim that mathematics is the only reality, as it describes the reality that underlies the superficial appearances of material behavior, while instrumentalists assert that mathematics is only a tool that provides a limited description of a greater reality. Then Buddhism’s centrist position holds that language, whether verbal of mathematical, determines and limits our conception of reality. If I was forced to take a position, I might say that the emotional value that we impart to data streams is the only reality.
Yet I will not be cornered. Each of these theories is only a metaphorical representation of reality. There are situations where each map applies and others where the map is inappropriate or useless. The issue is not to determine which position is true or false (the recurring fallacy of applying material logic to living systems), but instead to determine when the metaphor applies and when it doesn’t apply.
A common investigation into an unknown system from this perspective: Is the metaphor is appropriate? Applies here but not there. Misses this feature altogether. Here’s a better metaphor. Not quite, how about this one? Actually maybe a little of each. While neither is exactly perfect, better than nothing.
Metaphorical blends enable us to better understand an unknown phenomenon. We map the internal logic of the metaphor onto a system to better anticipate behavior. The blend helps us to form an internal model with which to better engage with the surrounding world.
This is how our senses work, visual, auditory et al. We digest input from our variety of sensory inputs, e.g. sight and sound. Our brain blends these diverse sensory signals together to generate a useful conception of reality. On the most basic level, these blends assist us to find food and avoid danger.
Why not the neural meta-structures of cognition? Indeed cognitive scientists believe that we create mental models to better navigate the immense number of data streams that bombard us on a moment-to-moment basis. The model determines which features of reality, i.e. which data streams, seem to be most significant regarding fulfilling our innate nature, e.g. sheer survival. Just as sensory input is blended to form a more useful conception of reality, it seems reasonable to assume that mental models are also blended to better assign value to those data streams that appear to be most significant.
It seems then that we blend both sensory input and mental models to better engage with our world. We are hardwired to evaluate these signals for utility, not whether they are true or false. There is not a true sense organ and a false one, a true model and a false model. Rather visual and auditory inputs are evaluated to better discard extraneous noise and hone in on the most useful data streams. Similarly models from different cognitive systems are evaluated to better engage with our imagined reality. Nature has organized living systems for utility, not to determine truth and falsehood.
Let us apply Nature’s logic to theories and metaphorical blends. The question is not whether a theory is true or false, but rather under what circumstances does the metaphor apply and where not. Is it an appropriate metaphor at all? Are there enough logical symmetries between two systems to warrant calling it a metaphorical relationship?
Let us take material mathematics as an example. It seems to apply almost perfectly to Matter but not to Attention. Indeed I have argued in many articles that Matter’s implicit logic, including the mathematics, is an inappropriate metaphor for the features of living systems associated with Attention.
In other words, the material metaphor is incredibly useful in one context and useless in another. This flaw does not indicate that the theory is false, just inappropriate for one phenomenal network. Unfortunately those who are married to absolute truth continue in their futile attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.
In similar fashion, the four theoretical perspectives we’ve highlighted are each metaphors that apply to certain features of reality but not others. We don’t waste our time attempting to determine which theory is true and which is false. Rather the question again becomes: in which context do they apply and which not?
According to the true-false postulate, every verbal statement has a true and false component. The postulate implies that there is always some innate ambiguity associated with any verbal proposition. What is the truth behind scientific realism? And how is it false? Let us start with the false.
Galileo, Kepler and Newton spawned a Math-Fact Matrix that determines the Molecular Realm. The correspondence between mathematics and phenomenal network is nearly exact. Virtually everyone agrees upon the theory of reality derived from the Molecular Matrix. Namely, we exist in a world filled with objects that interact with different kinds of energy to move through space and time in a continuous fashion. There are no breaks – no interruptions to break the concentration of these atomic particles and objects as they move in a completely predictable way from place to place. This realm of existence is our common every day physical reality.
A Math-Fact Matrix also defines and limits the Living Realm of Attention. In contrast to the precise predictability of events in the Material Realms, the Attention Matrix identifies approximate processes due to the possibility of Choice. In similar fashion to the Molecular Realm, the theory that was generated to make sense of the Attention Matrix is not hard for anyone to understand, as it is virtually the same as our common everyday mental reality. Namely, we exert mental energy to make choices and have experiences.
The consensus regarding reality and theory of the two Ordinary Realms provides support for scientific realism. In the Molecular Realm there is a general scientific consensus regarding matrix and theory. The consensus implies a single objective truth. The Attention Realm and its Matrix are also consistent with our common sense conceptions regarding mental reality. The consistency implies that there is a single subjective truth. Scientific realists could easily point to these two examples as validating their theory of reality.
The situation is not quite so harmonious in the Subatomic Realm. Even though virtually everyone agrees on the Standard Model of the Subatomic Realm, no two theorists agree on how to conceptualize it. In our terminology, the Subatomic Matrix, the metaphoric relationship between Quantum Mechanics and the empirical data associated with Subatomic phenomena, is nearly exact. Yet the theory of reality behind the Matrix is indeterminate, i.e. no scientific consensus whatsoever. Scientists do not agree upon the reality behind the Subatomic Matrix.
In this particular yet highly significant case, scientific realism blows up. It becomes an untenable position due to the inability of the scientific community to come up with a ‘true underlying reality’ of the Subatomic Realm that is agreed upon by everyone. As it can’t encompass the whole, the theory must be abandoned as a description of a logically consistent monistic Universe.
However, this single discrepancy does not automatically void scientific realism as a conceptual metaphor for reality. Metaphoric relationships, the basis of verbal abstractions, are never exact. Despite being ‘wrong’ in certain instances, the philosophical metaphor has a certain antifragile efficacy that can’t be dismissed, just because of a few internal inconsistencies. In particular, it has both motivational and explanatory power that provides an inexhaustible resilience.
We’ve shown a flaw in scientific realism, a situation where it leads to the wrong conclusions. But now let us illustrate some of its advantages – why this particular metaphorical blend has endured for so many centuries. This antifragility indicates that the metaphor has efficacy. As we shall see, it is anti-fragile because scientific realism is an effective way of understanding a particular type of phenomenon.
Scientific Realists believe that there is one true representation of one objective reality. Scientists have supposedly uncovered many of these true representations. Newton’s force laws are a great example. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is another. Others are waiting to be uncovered by some brilliant individual.
As might be surmised, this position is posited upon two suppositions: 1) There is an objective reality out there. 2) There is a single true explanation for this reality.
There have been many credible philosophical attacks upon both suppositions. The notion of complete objectivity is challenged in part due to the necessity of subjective human involvement. The notion that there is a single objective truth is undermined by the existence of equally plausible yet competing explanations for certain phenomena.
If there are so many fatal flaws, why has scientific realism exhibited such antifragility? Why does the model get stronger, rather than weaker, from the stressors introduced by the passage of time?
After all, there have been many models of reality that have completely faded away due to the introduction of superior models. A few instances come immediately to mind. Copernican’s heliocentrism killed Ptolemy’s geocentrism; fire slew phlogiston; plate tectonics replaced the fixed earth theory, and Ice Ages supplanted the Biblical Flood. Virtually nobody in the academic community continues to pursue these obsolete theories.
Why is scientific realism alive and well, despite its logical limitations? Hasn’t the metaphor been struck with mortal blows? After all, complete objectivity is an illusion and the same phenomena frequently has multiple equally plausible explanations.
Perhaps there are better explanations out there – theories that are not plagued by logical inconsistencies and encompass a greater reality. Buddhist centrism, based upon the notion of conditional truths, certainly fits this definition. The centrist position encompasses all explanations under certain provisional conditions.
It must be obvious by now that scientific realism is not perfect. It must be equally obvious that the metaphor is as antifragile as ever, as evidenced by the current books written by esteemed professors in support of this position. What is the root of its staying power? Certainly not logical consistency or complete explanatory power.
I suggest that the antifragility of scientific realism is instead based upon two other factors. 1) The metaphor has incredible motivational power; and 2) the theory has limited yet significant explanatory power, not provided by the others, in some highly momentous circumstances.
Let’s start with motivation. The notion that there is single truth out there just waiting to be uncovered by some lucky and hardworking scientist drives humans to transcend themselves. The dream that there might be a unified field theory that encompasses all the basic forces of the physical universe has driven the scientific community for generations. The almost mythic quest has resulted in many collateral discoveries.
The relativism of the other theories of reality does not hold the same punch. The idea that there are many tools, many mathematics, and/or many provisional realities doesn’t tend to provide the intensity of focus that a single truth provides, no matter how logically untenable the position.
The second reason for the antifragility of scientific realism, I will call Ali Baba’s cave metaphor. Recall that a genii directed Ali Baba to a special magical cave that was filled with unimaginable riches, e.g. gemstones, gold and such. There were many other caves that were empty of anything but rocks and bats.
We can liken the one true theory to Ali Baba’s magical cave and the other satisfactory theories to the empty caves that don’t necessarily lead anywhere. In this context, the one true theory must open a door to unimaginable passageways into previously unknown dimensions.
There have been many instances of this type of model. Several notable examples come to mind: Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table, Maxwell’s four equations of electricity and magnetism, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Einstein’s special theory of relativity and Plank’s quantum theory. My Data Stream Dynamics metaphor is also explosive. Seemingly without end, the model’s limits have not been reached.
Let us be more specific. What does the Ali Baba cave metaphor reveal about the one true explanation of scientific realism? What qualities must the theory possess to attain the exalted status of singular scientific ‘truth’?
It is certainly possible to construct many models to predict planetary motion, as did Ptolemy. Yet most of these theories are dead in the water – no wind – limited application. With no extensions, they lead nowhere except to the back of a barren cave.
In contrast, Kepler’s planetary ellipses led to Newton’s force laws, which in turn culminated in the mathematical intricacies of astrophysics that have enabled us to send a man to the moon. And that is just part of the picture. Newton’s scientific truth regarding the absolute nature of a dynamic and objective reality also led to Physics, Chemistry and Biology – disciplines of the so-called Molecular Realm.
In similar fashion, Darwin’s evolutionary theory linked the previously separate disciplines of Biology, Botany and Genetics in a simple explanatory package. Finally, the theory behind Attention Dynamics links the previously unexplored territories of Conscious Attention, mental energy and experience, with Biology and Evolution in a mathematical system that embodies an elegant simplicity that engenders complexity.
In each of the aforementioned cases, the antifragile redundancy of the metaphoric systems verges on the miraculous. In other words, the linkage of multiple disciplines under a single relatively simple ideational umbrella imparts resilience to the stressors of time. The redundancy of the multi-dimensional logical network could be called indestructible. The multi-disciplinary model is akin to the limitless riches of Ali Baba’s cave.
While there may be an infinite number of equally plausible explanations for a single phenomenon, the one true explanation seems to possess a certain numinosity, a mysterious limitlessness that the other explanations do not possess. In the context of the Ali Baba cave metaphor, true theories of reality are limitless, while the others are limited. The other possible explanations don’t seem to possess this almost magical quality.
Despite its many philosophical failings on the meta-level, scientific realism is antifragile for at least two reasons. 1) The theory motivates individual scientists to enter upon an impossible quest that yields other advantages. And 2) the single truth aspect provides a convenient and apt descriptor for the super theories, those metaphoric models that open up an Ali Baba cave of secret passageways into previously inconceivable dimensions.
Yet again, we mustn’t look too closely in the corners; else we will find the feared and dreaded logical inconsistencies everywhere. Philosophers run away in horror! Not to worry. As the theory is actually a conceptual metaphor, this is to be expected. Ultimately scientific realism is antifragile because it has qualities that the others do not possess.
The lack of scientific consensus on the true underlying nature of the Subatomic Realm indicates that scientific realism is false, in that it is not the one true logically consistent theory of reality. However the theory is both motivational and provides a plausible explanation for super theories, i.e. models that have multi-disciplinary applications. In these cases, its efficacy is its truth. In such a way, scientific realism is both true and false.
Each theory/model/metaphor (I use these terms interchangeably) accounts for a certain sector of reality, yet is unable to account for another sector. In other words, each theory is incomplete. Yet antifragile models account for a phenomenal network that the others can not address.
For instance, instrumentalism applies to Ptolemy’s model. While able to predict planetary position, the mathematics indicated that planets move in perfect circles at a constant velocity, a position that has long been rejected by the Scientific Establishment.
Instrumentalism is also an appropriate metaphor for the Subatomic Realm. The Standard Model, which everyone agrees upon, is an instrument of prediction for as many levels of accuracy as desired. Despite this ultimate precision, the model doesn’t allow us to understand what is really happening, as evidenced the lack of consensus by experts on the nature of the Subatomic Realm.
The current lack of understanding does not preclude the possibility of someday coming up with a more cogent, understandable explanation for the potentiality-filled concentrations of information that inhabit an atom’s interior – the one true explanation that scientific realism predicts. Despite this possibility, there will always be some circumstances that instrumentalism applies, just not everywhere. For instance, it doesn’t account for super theories – interdisciplinary models, e.g. evolution.
The same analysis applies to mathematical realism. There is some truth in the notion that the underlying structure of the Universe is mathematical. This position has certainly inspired many great thinkers, from Pythagoras to Galileo and on to Einstein. Mathematics certainly has the ability to reveal patterns that are hidden by complex surface manifestations – informational noise.
While an amazing number of circumstances succumb to the precise predictions of equations, there are other phenomena that are entirely inaccessible to mathematics, for instance our conscious experience of the qualities of things. When we consume a lemon, we experience yellow, sour, a citrus fragrance, hard and smooth. Although physicists can easily predict the lemon’s trajectories if thrown into the air, none of these experiences can be captured by a differential equation, no matter how sophisticated.
Mathematics is also helpless before the innate feelings that drive our behavior. Feelings, such as hunger and fear, impel us to impart value to the content of the data streams that we encounter. The feelings that attribute value are an essential engine for every living system. Without appetites, we fade away and die. Although feelings drive living behavior, they are inaccessible to mathematics, as they are motivated by unquantifiable qualities.
Buddhist centrism holds that all theories are verbal constructs that are only applicable under specific conditions – very similar to the position we are pushing. Even if this position is true, which we believe it to be, centrism doesn’t account for super theories – relegating them to the same status as every other theory.
While logically true, centrism lacks the conflationary focus that drives humans to transcend themselves. Recall that humans tend to conflate metaphor with the reality it explains. Although an illusion, the belief in reality is quite inspirational.
For instance, the belief in a divine purpose that guides my path motivates me to overcome difficulties, surmount obstacles and achieve my goals. The belief in permanence, despite the reality of transience, inspires me to care for objects. Rather than meditate their motivational power away with the understanding that all is transitory emptiness, I would rather believe in the illusion of reality.
This is the truth of conflation. Entering the trance drives us to climb tall mountains, ford raging rivers, fight off demons, internal and external, in the quest to return home for a reunion with family. Believing in the conceptual illusion of homeland, Odysseus overcame great odds to reunite with his wife, Penelope. In the quest for Buddhist truth, the Chinese monk Tripitaka went through incredible travails, e.g. fire mountains, demons that wanted to eat him, and emotional difficulties with his partners.
In both cases, the deep understanding that all is ultimately emptiness could have defused these epic odysseys. Indeed after traveling for years from China to high in the Himalayas with the hope of obtaining the sacred scriptures, Buddha’s assistants provided Tripitaka with a book filled with blank pages – according to them the real truth. If he had known, would he have continued his mystic quest with its 88 ordeals?
The belief and engagement in the underlying fantasy of plays and movies is what makes them good. Holding onto the notion that the drama isn’t really true robs us of our emotional rollercoaster – hating the bad guy, disappointment at the hero’s misfortunes, perhaps tears when the lovers are finally united after overcoming unimaginable difficulties.
The existential reality that we going to die and therefore life is meaningless – no matter how true – is a dead end path – devoid of motivational power. On the other hand, these deep truths can take the sting out of adverse and overwhelming circumstances and events. This is the pragmatic and relative truth of existentialism.
Believing the fairy tale to be real – that everything happens for the best – that the good go to heaven and the evil go to hell – no matter how delusional – provides hope for the future – the will to go on despite despair – the satisfaction that the Universe will ultimately administer justice.
It is evident that each version of verbal truth is provisional, as Buddhist centrism postulates. Each reality theory applies to one circumstance, but not another. Each model is true under one set of circumstance, false in another.
Provisionalism is not at all like the absolutism of Material Logic, which is set-based, either-or, inside or outside, true or false. These contextual truths have much more in common with Living Logic, which is fractalized. Metaphorical constructs are shattered at the boundary lines.
With these considerations in mind, it is impossible to take the notion of absolute truth in the living world too seriously. We must take great caution when applying the definitive lines of Material Logic to the fractalized boundary lines of Living Logic of our Realm of Attention.
Yet certainty is not lost altogether. Sometimes absolutism motivates us to transcend ourselves. Just don’t let it pull us over an emotional cliff.
Those seemingly reasonable humans who are committed to logical consistency spend their creative energies in the almost mystical quest to find the one true theory – the theory that is true in all instances – never wrong – always right. If but one thing is wrong – Heaven forbid! – perhaps some circumstance doesn’t quite fit into the set of right answers, they dump the unfortunate theory and immediately begin looking for another. Such fickle infidelity! What is the world coming to? And the partnership had been so fruitful. No tolerance. Don’t they realize that nothing is ever perfect in our verbal world of conceptual metaphors? While true of mathematics, perfection is not a feature of words.
Scientific realism provides us with a good example. Rather than absolutely true or false, its truth is provisional, i.e. dependent upon context. This common sense and widely held theory is based upon the notion that there is an objective reality out there. Scientific realists hold that the aim of science is to uncover the truths, frequently mathematical, that underlie this objective reality.
While useful sometimes, the theory is certainly not perfect in all cases. Sometimes overstates his case – exaggerates his own importance – attempts to be everything to all people rather than sticking to his own domain. His followers attempt to turn him into the one true god, when he is just a conceptual metaphor.
Just? Having been around for millennia, scientific realism is a powerful antifragile metaphor – perhaps more enduring than many of those fragile gods – even older than most of them – persisting in one form or another since Pythagoras. Not just any old metaphor or a fragile absolute truth, scientific realism is antifragile – actually becomes stronger with stress.
Scientific Realism = Powerful Antifragile Conceptual Metaphor
Due to its shortcomings regarding the Subatomic Realm – no consensus regarding the realm’s underlying reality, scientific realism is certainly not the one true theory of reality. Rather scientific realism has endured because it is both motivational and explains the existence of super theories (Ali Baba’s Cave metaphor). In other words, the metaphor is appropriate in some circumstances and inappropriate in others. Rather than absolute, the truth of scientific realism is situation dependent – provisional.
Conceptual truths of most varieties are provisional. Our intent has been to bring this misunderstood feature of verbal reality to conscious awareness. In so doing, the discussion attacks the notion of absolute truth and falsehood that seems to infect brilliant individuals everywhere. These geniuses inappropriately apply the true-false model of Matter’s Logic to the Living World. Rather than true in all circumstances, as it is in the non-verbal material world, conceptual metaphors must be evaluated for utility on a case-by-case basis – fractal style.
That damned fractalization of the boundary line – the result of a reflexive process. Never a distinct line. Unless you look closely, it is impossible to ascertain whether border dwellers are inside or outside of the set.
Hold on. Slow down! Fractal style? What the hell does fractalization mean? Are you just attempting to impress us with some fancy jargon? Or are you really saying something of significance? If so, you must unpack this dense verbiage. Provide us some machetes to cut through the underbrush.
This leads us to Fractal Logic – the topic of the next article.