Time, free will, and the first person perspective, Part III

We emphasize again that the conflict is not between science and religion or between competing philosophical schools. All global viewpoints–scientific, religious, philosophical–clash with what I’ve called “the first person perspective”. This can and has been used to argue that the latter is simply false. Indeed, I myself have claimed that certain conceptualizations of personal experience, when carried over as objective statements about the world, are false, or rather meaningless. However, it does not follow that the manifest picture of the world, our lived experience with it, is simply invalid.

The assumption is that our partial viewpoints can be contrasted with some global omniscient viewpoint, and that the latter would then be the ultimate standard of truth. However, there might not be any such global view from nowhere. Or, equivalently, the global perspective might just be the union of all partial perspectives.

An example of how this would work is Carlo Rovelli’s relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which assigns a distinct state vector/wavefunction to every system relative to every other system.  Such theories would recognize states of systems relative to various other systems, but no perspectiveless “true” state. This is a more radical form of something we have already learned to live with from the theory of relativity.  Even in Galilean kinematics, each observer has his own standard of rest, and it is meaningless to ask which is truly at rest.  Clocks on the ground run slightly slower than clocks in orbit.  Which is right?  Both:  they both correctly measure proper time along their worldlines. One must settle for answers to such questions, because that’s all there is.  Could it be possible that all physical processes–including those in our brains–are slowing down at an equal rate so that we would never notice?  No, because ideal clocks are defined to keep uniform time.  As Aristotle said long ago, time just is the measurement of change, one thing relative to another.

In physics we have learned to live with perspectival relativism without it leading to incoherence or pure subjectivism.  One notices that physics has been quite a bit more successful with this than continental philosophy.  Post-modernism promises to deliver us from the tyranny of metanarratives but immediately imposes its own obnoxiously tyrannical metanarrative.

How did physics avoid the fate of postmodernism? First, abstract truths (mathematics) as well as the contingent laws of physics are taken to be universally valid. Second, partial truths become absolute truths when the necessary indexicals are attached. Other observers may see things differently than observer A, but they all agree on what it is that observer A observes. Third, every observer can explain every other observer’s observations from its own perspective and the same universal laws of physics. Fourth, the framework explaining how different observers/frames/system perspectives relate does not surreptitiously adopt one particular perspective the way postmodernism, contrary to its own principles, adopts the metanarrative of oppression as universal and absolute truth.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a global, all-encompassing “view from nowhere” which presumably would not involve features such as a flow of time or libertarian free will. Would that be a problem? Well, one could presumably reconstruct any and all of the partial views from the global view, while no single partial view could recover the global view. Does that not mean that the global view would be more true?

The situation is analogous to the case of emergence. Macroscopic substances are made of atoms. From the configurations of all the atoms, one could infer the state of the macroscopic object, but since that state is a course grained description, the reverse is not true. Does that mean that atoms are more real than the things they compose? This seems to be a common philosophical belief. However, in this time of anti-metaphysical skepticism, the idea of one existing thing being “more real” or “ontologically prior” to another existing thing should be treated with more suspicion than it usually gets. What does it really mean? An object either “really” exists or it doesn’t. Wholes can’t exist without their parts, but parts can’t exist without forming some sort of whole.

Similarly, we should question whether a perspective that is more complete is therefore more true. If a global perspective exists, it may be true that partial perspectives can only exist given its framework, but it is certainly true that there could be no global perspective without there also being partial perspectives (because each constituent of the universe globally conceived is a particular perspective, cf. Leibniz again). If anything, it is the partial perspectives that here are in the role of atoms. Of course, just as in the case of emergence we compared existing atoms to existing composites, we are here comparing the global viewpoint (if there is such a thing) to valid first-person perspectives. False beliefs held in the first person perspective are not equal in truth to a correct global perspective, or for that matter to a correct partial perspective. I am assuming there is a correct apprehension of the world from my point of view.

But wait a minute. Don’t we know that there is a global perspective? Isn’t that God’s perspective?

To be continued

One Response

  1. You are barking up the wrong tree. It’s an ancient tree but no better for that.

    You are getting the epistemological and philosophical cart before the horse. tl;dr: you are completely wasting your time, just as Catholic theology has wasted its time for at least the last 800 years. Your first step out the door is in the wrong direction. I can lead you to water, but…

    Fr. Keefe is at pains to point out over and again that ‘ex nihilo’ not only means ‘out of nothing’, but also ‘out of no prior possibility’ (compare [CCC 295], the world “is not the product of any necessity whatever.”).

    There is one (and only one) alternative to relativism and deductivism, to the jungle and the cage: the New Covenant. Just as there is no prior possibility for bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of the Lord in our history, there is no prior possibility of ‘free will’. ‘Free will’ is a transubstantiation of our fallen nature, not in any way an implication of it.

    A covenantal theology stakes the *intellectual* understanding of the possibility of ‘free will’ on the possibility of bread and wine really becoming the Body and Blood of our Lord — and nowhere else.


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