Gary Drescher’s Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics (2006) is a tour-de-force of metaphysical naturalism. Reading it gave me shivers.
Stripped of any intellectual pretension, philosophy just grapples with the ancient, heartfelt questions What the fuck is going on here? and What the fuck am I doing here? – what is the nature of reality, and what is the nature and purpose (if any) of our place in it? We all strive to answer such questions somehow or other. Here goes one more try.1
Drescher notes that the accumulation of empirical data has “pointed increasingly toward a mechanical universe.”2 But if the universe really is a machine, this seems to leave us with several problems concerning the things that matter most to us:
- The problem of consciousness: How can mechanical parts give rise to awareness and feeling?
- The problem of ethics: How can a mechanical system that just is give rise to what should be?
- The problem of choice: If the future is determined, then aren’t all our choices futile?
- The problem of time: If physics says there is no “flow” of time, why does it feel like it flows?
- The problematic asymmetry of time: Physical laws are time symmetric, and yet our universe is time asymmetric: we remember the past but not the future, we cause things in the future but not the past, etc.
- The problem of existence: Why does the universe have the laws it does? Why does anything exist at all?
- The problem of quantum-mechanical uncertainty: According to physics, an unobserved particle has no definite state, but is in a superposition of many possible states. But when we observe it, the particle always shows a single, definite states, apparently chosen at random from the superposed possibilities. But how can a mechanical particle play hide-and-seek like that?3
Drescher’s plan is to solve all these fundamental problems in a single book. And yet his book does not feel presumptuous – besides, each of these fundamental matters intertwines with the others, so it makes sense to tackle them in one book.
Here is its outline:
- Chapter 2 explores how inanimate, mechanical matter could be conscious, just by virtue of being organized to perform the right kind of computation.
- Chapter 3 explains why conscious beings would experience an apparent inexorable forward flow of time, even in a universe who physical principles are time-symmetric and have no such flow, with everything sitting statically in spacetime.
- Chapter 4, following [Hugh] Everett, looks closely at the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, showing how some theorists came to conclude – mistakenly, I argue – that consciousness is part of the story of quantum phenomena, or vice versa. Chapter 4 also shows how quantum phenomena are consistent with determinism (even though so-called hidden-variable theories of quantum determinism are provably wrong).
- Chapter 5 examines in detail how it can be that we make genuine choices in in a mechanical, deterministic universe.
- Chapter 6 analyzes Newcomb’s Problem, a startling paradox that elicits some counterintuitive conclusions about choice and causality.
- Chapter 7 considers how our choices can have a moral component – that is, how even a mechanical, deterministic universe can provide a basis for distinguishing right from wrong.
- Chapter 8 wraps up the presentation and touches briefly on some concluding metaphysical questions.4
I will be blogging my way through Drescher’s book, just as I am with Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. Here is an index of the posts in this series on Drescher’s Good and Real so far:
- Introduction (this post)
- Dust to Lust: How Groups of Atoms Can Think and Feel
- The Mental Origins of Purpose and Value
- Drescher’s Account of Consciousness
- The Frozen Stream of Time