Thursday, January 31, 2008

Boltzmann Brain, the Baataristic Crisis, Skepticism, and the Bundle Theory

This recent New York Times article and the cosmological debate it recounts touch upon humanity’s coming philosophical crises, the Baataristic Crisis, though I believe that the crises is less likely to be brought about by theoretical advances in cosmology than by the development of virtual reality that is indistinguishable from presently perceived reality.

If the writer was a brain floating in space and believing that it was a human named Dennis Overbye on earth, the floating brain’s thoughts would be identical to the thoughts of a human named Dennis Overbye on earth. How can any distinguishing be made between the two? None can be made. The writer believes that he is a human on earth (as he appears to himself to be), but there is no evidence to support this belief. It is possible that the writer is a brain floating in space. . . but that is not the point that I wish to make; that point was made by the cosmologists. The point that I wish to make is that the writer does not and cannot know whether he is a brain floating in space. Any insistence that he is a human on earth is only that: an unsubstantiated insistence, and a dismissal or incomprehension of the intractable problem of epistemological certainty. In exactly the same way, any insistence that he is a brain floating in space would be only that: an unsubstantiated insistence and dismissal or incomprehension of the problem of certainty. The facts that differing configurations of reality are theoretically possible, and that certain knowledge of any configuration of reality is impossible, form the foundations of Skepticism.

On the first page of the article, the writer uses the word “skepticism,” but in only a casual way, meaning “resistance to existential or philosophical challenge.” The philosophical school of Skepticism might identify the cosmologists’ theoretical scenarios as challenges to perceived reality. Creating and considering such challenges, as thought experiments and theoretical possibilities, fall under the classic purview of Skepticism.

The phrase “the cosmic equivalent of an egg unscrambling” may be implying that this is an absurd event, when rather, in fact, “eggs unscramble” regularly at microscopic levels. There is no arrow of time at microscopic levels, because microscopic elements arrange and re-arrange themselves constantly into repeating patterns. At microscopic levels, time moving forward and time moving backward are indistinguishable: the T-symmetry is symmetrical. Boltzmann correctly described a universe of infinite temporal existence: such a universe would exhibit time symmetry -- that is, eggs would regularly unscramble, just as they do at microscopic levels.

“If some atoms in another universe stick together briefly to look, talk and think exactly like you, is it really you?” As human technology advances, such challenges to personal identity accumulate, and humanity is led closer to Buddha’s No-Self view, which can also be called the Bundle Theory of Personhood. If (as rational and scientific thinkers are inclined to believe, because it de-necessitates traditional, non-rational notions of supernatural, divine, or spiritual essences) consciousnesses arise from particular configurations of physical matter, then the Bundle Theory has logical appeal. If any specific configuration of matter can be duplicated, and if “you” are a result of the configuration of matter that is your brain, then “you” can be duplicated. Would the duplicate be “really you”? It would be identical to you. So which one is “really you”? The Bundle Theory explains that there is no “you.” There is a bundle of thoughts and emotions that appear to be you, but there is nothing unique about this “you,” nothing about this “you” that cannot be duplicated. Further, as Derek Parfit has reported of neuro-psychological observations, it appears that “you” can be dismantled into your component pieces (component perceptions, component memories, component thoughts). If “you” can be dismantled, then where did “you” go? The Bundle Theory explains that “you” were never there in the first place. (Incidental to this discussion, if and how consciousness might arise from physical matter are concerns that become more relevant as human technology moves toward the creation of non-organic brains. David Chalmers has written in this area.)

The writer and the final interviewee quoted in the article seem to be using “reincarnation” with a sort of spiritual understanding, as if a future duplication of the arrangement of physical matter that once accounted for your consciousness would create a consciousness possessing some kind of supernatural connection to your previous self: here they seem to be betraying a belief in a unique “soul” or “spirit.” Rationally, there is no need for a spiritual or supernatural connection between any two consciousnesses arising from identical configurations of matter. The Bundle Theory, again, accounts for this by logically denying any connection between your current consciousness and any other consciousness, including your consciousness of ten years ago, a year ago, a thousand years ago, a multitude of universes ago, a moment ago, tomorrow, twenty years from now, a moment from now, or a multitude of universes from now.

The final sentence of the text in the graphic is flawed: if existence is a Boltzmann brain, then there is no “we” or “our past” -- if existence is a Boltzmann brain, then this universe is a perception/creation of only one consciousness. . .

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