We will start this magisterial explanation of everything with the time-honored approach of the philosopher, beginning with the things we know beyond doubt and then reasoning from them to suitably astonishing truths. As we know, Descartes began by saying, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think therefore I am.” (Ambrose Bierce, a more profound thinker, said, “Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. Cogito.” Butthis way lies madness.) So with what certain knowledge can we begin our quest?
Our only certain knowledge is that we don’t have any. Acceptance of this condition will diminish the world’s output of philosophy, or so we may hope, but this column faces reality with a brave front. We may now list our certainties:
We don’t know where we came from, where we are, why, what if anything we should do while we are here, and where if anywhere we go when we die.
On this bedrock we shall construct our philosophy of everything. However, before we begin thinking about these profound matters, we need to take into account one more certainty:
Thinking is impossible.
I will explain. But what it comes to is that while we know nothing about which to think, it doesn’t matter because we couldn’t think about it if we did know something.
Why? Consider the brain. It is an electrochemical mechanism, blindly obeying the laws of physics and chemistry (chemistry being the physics of the interactions of atoms). For example, consider a nerve impulse propagating along a neural fiber, depolarizing, sodium in, potassium out. Pure chemistry and physics. When the impulse comes to a synapse, a neurotransmitter diffuses across the gap, pure chemistry and physics. It can’t do anything else. Even chemicals with long, imposing names cannot make choices. The neurotransmitter then binds to receptor sites, because it has to. Textbooks of neurophysiology state it thus: “A brain has less free will than a wind-up clock.” Or at least if it were so stated, it would be. This is close enough for philosophy.
Putting it precisely, the state of a physical system is determined entirely by its previous state. This establishes beyond doubt that we have no free will, and that what we think are thoughts were determined at the time of the Big Bang, if any.
Now, no philosophical essay can be held in repute unless it contains words ending “ism.” The reigning creed today is materialism, the philosophy of the wantonly inattentive. Many who believe in materialism are of high intelligence, and so can only be sufficiently inattentive by great effort.
Anyway, a materialist believes than nothing exists but space, time, matter, and energy, however hyphenated. That is, physics. As the physicist Joe Friday said.
“The physics, ma’am, just the physics, and nothing but the physics.”
This means that the Big Bang, if any, was set up, or I suppose I should say, set itself up, like one of those billiard-table trick shots. You know the kind: The balls seem randomly placed on the table but bounce around a lot before miraculously running into the pockets like birds returning to their nests. In the Bang, if any, all those subatomic whatsamajigggers erupted forth at exactly the right angles and velocities so that, billions of years later, they formed Elvis, San Francisco, and Hillary. (This had to be by chance, since no one in his right mind would form Hillary on purpose. QED.)
Next, consider plane geometry as taught in high school. (You may wonder why we have to consider it. Well, we just do.) Plane geometry deals with planes, lines, points, angles, and nothing else. It is useful and interesting, but it cannot explain a cheeseburger, Formula One race, or political hysteria. Why? Because cheeseburgers exist in three dimensions, which plane geometry doesn’t have. Formula One races involve matter, energy, and motion, which plane geometry also doesn’t have. Hysteria is an emotional state associated with liberal co-eds in pricey northern colleges who, thank God, do not exist in mathematics.
What it comes to is that a logical system is defined by its premises, and all downstream results are mere elaboration. (Of course, as established in the beginning of this luminous essay, we have no premises except the lack of premises, but philosophy readily overlooks such minor hindrances.) Plane geometry is not wrong. It is just incomplete.
To state it in mathematical terms, you cannot flatten a cheeseburger enough to fit into a plane.
Physics, the foundation of the current official story of everything, also depends on its premises. Physics is just mathematical materialism. From its equations one may derive all manner of fascinating and useful things, such as planetary motion, npn transistors, smartphones, nerve gas, and hydrogen bombs. (Some of these may be more useful than others.)
But, just as you cannot get strawberry milkshakes from plane geometry, because they are not implicit in it, there are things you cannot derive from the equations of physics: Consciousness, free will, beauty, morality, or curiosity–the whiches there just ain’t in physics. This would not worry a rational thinker. He (or, assuredly, she) would simply state the obvious: Physics is not wrong, but incomplete. It does what it does, and doesn’t do what it can’t. Not too mysterious, that.
However, the true-believing physics-is-all Neo-Darwinian matter-monger cannot admit that anything–anything at all–exists outside of physics. Since some things obviously do, the only-physics enthusiasts have to resort to contorted logic. I think of kite string in a ceiling fan. Or simple denial.
For example, sometimes they say that consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon.” Oh. And what does that mean? Nothing. (Actually it means, “I don’t know, but if I use a polysyllabic Greek word, maybe nobody will notice.”) Epiphenomenon of what?
Sometimes they will say, “Well, consciousness is just a by-product of complexity.” But if consciousness is a byproduct what is the primary product? A computer is somewhat complex, so is it somewhat conscious? Is a mouse less conscious than a human or just, in some cases, less intelligent?
A materialist ignoring consciousness is exactly equivalent to a geometer ignoring cheeseburgers.
We will now examine the question, where did we come from? The answer is ready to hand: We don’t have a clue. We make up stories. The physics-only folk say, see, there was the Big Bang and all these electrons and protons and things flew out and just by chance formed Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company in the most motingator a-stonishing pool-table trick shot ever set up. Just by accident. Damn! Who would have thought it?
Of course any sane person, to include materialists when they are thinking of something else, would say that TSMC was designed by hordes of Chinese engineers. But of course designing anything requires mind and intelligence (or a computer designed to simulate these things), But Mind cannot be derived from the equations of physics. Therefore we are all mindless. In general human behavior supports this.
Of course other stories exist. Yahweh created the world, or maybe Shiva, or Allah, and I think some remote tribes believe that it just appeared on the back of a giant turtle. I have no information on the matter, though frankly I incline to the turtle story, but will let the reader know the instant I find out.
The weakness of creation myths from Bang to Turtle is the question of the five-year-old, “But Mommy, where did God come from?” or “Who made God?” Fifteen years later in dorm-room bull sessions he will phrase it differently, “Well, what came before the Big Bang?” Same question.
A sort of second-echelon creation myth now in vogue is Darwinian evolution, also a subset of physics and therefore completely determined. Mutations are chemical events following the laws of chemistry. Thus trilobites had no choice but to form, and so they did. Metabolism is physical from the level of ATP to animals eating each other.
There is of course no such thing as a sex drive, teenagers notwithstanding, since no sort of drive can be derived from physics. (This will no doubt devastate Pornhub.) From this the inevitable conclusion, proven by physics, A that we cannot reproduce. Therefore we either have always existed or do not exist at all.
To give oneself an aura of overwelling wisdom, one may say things like ontology, epistemology, entelechy, and teleology, but these do not detract from mankind’s underlying and perfect ignorance.
It’s all a trick shot, I tell you