So who would come out on top in this contest? Might as well put it on pay per view, for more dramatic effect. Brains vs. the Universe – ultimate smackdown!
My bet is on the universe. It's a lot bigger.
And, when you think about it, smarter than brains. Because brains are part of the universe, and the universe is the whole deal (that's why it's called a universe).
I got to pondering this in the course of leafing through a book I'd already read, "Creation Revisited" by Peter Atkins.
Atkins is a chemistry professor at Oxford University. So his take on a scientific explanation of the universe is pleasingly different from that of physicists who write Big Picture books like this one.
But that really isn't my point here.
I was inserting post-it notes by passages that I might summarize in a future blog post, when I came across a thought that stood out so much for its stimulating provocativeness, I honored the page's post-it with an asterisk.
Previous to that page, Atkins was pondering why mathematics is so successful in describing physical reality. Does mathematics merely mirror physical reality? Or are they actually the same?
By weak deep structuralism I shall mean that mathematics and physical reality merely share the same logical structure and mathematics is a mirror that can be held up to nature. By strong deep structuralism I shall mean that mathematics and physical reality do not merely share the same logical structure but are actually the same. In other words, according to the hypothesis of strong deep structuralism, physical reality is mathematics and mathematics is physical reality.
Now, readers who are deep into spirituality should keep in mind that Atkins keeps referring to "physical reality." True, his overall thesis is that God or any other supernatural force isn't necessary to explain the universe.
I just want us to focus on an evident reality: you and I are physical beings in a physical world. We may be something more than that also. Maybe.
What isn't to be doubted is that, crudely speaking, brains are made of meat. And brains are what we think with – about God, spirituality, the universe, what brains are made of, and lots of other stuff.
Getting to my asterisked, post-it noted page, Atkins observes that we (meaning mathematicians, not me) "can write down the Pythagoras theorem for a space of 1000 spatial dimensions."
But as we do not appear to live in a space of 1000 spatial dimensions, this expression does not seem to have a counterpart in reality…So at first sight it looks as though strong deep structuralism cannot work.
Here's where things got most interesting for me.
Because just as people can envision mathematical propositions that make some sense, but have no apparent counterpart in really real reality, so can they envision religious or spiritual beliefs of the same sort.
Ideas that are self-consistent. Just not consistent with how the universe seems to be.
Atkins suggests one way of reviving deep structuralism: by weakening it.
We could resort to weak deep structuralism, assume that mathematics can throw up a froth of many classes of object, and then accept that only some of those objects have their physical counterparts. That is weak-weak deep structuralism.
He presses on, coming up with another alternative that produced an intuitive oh yeah! in me. Not because I totally understand what Atkins is saying, or what he's saying is right.
Just that it merits an oh yeah! since it's got a ring of rightness to me.
We may have to distinguish between the universe, which must presumably be self-consistent globally, and a local entity, a brain, which can generate mathematical structures free of the constraint that they need to be consistent with the structure of every electron and the motion of every planet.
The mathematical structure we call the universe may have to be simultaneously, globally, and perhaps nonlocally self-consistent. Our mathematics, the statements we make on paper, need in some sense be only locally self-consistent.
Yeah, I know. This sounds so scientist'ish, so intellectual. But really, what Atkins is saying is deeply mystical and Taoist.
What you can say about the universe, that isn't It. The universe has its Way, and then there's our way. The two are linked, obviously, because we're part and parcel of the universe.
However, all of our theorizing, our hypothesizing, our speaking to ourselves and others, our theologies, our metaphysical systems, our mathematics – all that only has to be consistent with our limited view of the universe to win a stamp of approval.
Meanwhile, I picture the Universe As A Whole sitting in its corner (not that it has a corner, because it's everything, including my imaginary smackdown), smiling.
Sort of how, when I go to the dog park, I see a Mastiff looking at a big bad Chihuahua when it runs up to the much larger animal with a Woof, Woof, I can kick your butt!
Brains aren't the universe. We've got to reminding ourselves of that. That way lies humility. And a reverence for mystery, rather than premature explanation.