Challenging anthropomorphic physics

Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?

In “A computer cosmos will never explain quantum physics” (New Scientist, Feb. 15th), Ken Wharton questions “the assumption that the universe solves problems in the same way that we do – that the universe works like a computer.”

Humans are always trying to compute the future. Given that all of our experience is of the past, there is really only one way we can do this: take information about the past, manipulate it using some rules, and then use the result to forecast the future. Mechanical computers process data in the same fashion.

Wharton writes that it is “not surprising” that Newton used a similar “schema” in his physics: “{1) Map present reality onto some mathematical state; 2) Input that state into some dynamical equation; 3) Map the equation’s output back onto a future reality.”

The universe, we almost can’t help but imagine, is some cosmic computer that generates the future from the past via some master “software” (the laws of physics) and some special initial input (the big bang). Note that this is very different from the claim that the universe is a computer simulation.

Wharton writes that “Newton’s schema naturally arose from our human experience of time,” that  “the notion of the cosmic computer is itself an anthropocentric bias.”

Wharton argues: “This is not irrelevant metaphysics. Our assumptions frame our best models in physics, and for quantum physics in particular, the models have deep problems.”

In other words, perhaps it’s this natural human bias that lies behind some of the as yet intractable conceptualization problems we have with quantum physics, with probability fields collapsing into finality at the moment of observation and all the other esoterica that led Richard Feynman to claim (with little or no dissent) that no one understands quantum physics.

What if our universe is not a computer after all? What if our software-input-calculation-output model is wrong? We don’t know if it is, but Wharton’s suggestion that it might be deserves serious consideration.

Of course, what Wharton’s claims might mean for our understanding of the quantum world is not at all clear, but if his objection has merit, a similar set of biases may need to be more closely examined in the study of the human brain, of what it means to be conscious, and how consciousness (not to mention our sense of self) is acquired and maintained.

So far, computational theories of consciousness have met considerable resistance from scientists and philosophers who argue that reducible mechanical processes similar to those we build into our computers are inadequate to explain the workings of our brains, much less the creation of our minds.

Even such a leading computational champion as Daniel Dennett lately has been speculating about an understanding of human thought as something “non-reducible” and maximally complex, as I summarized in a recent posting (here). That’s not to say that our brains don’t compute, but most computational models insist that computing is all that they do. Is that right, or is it a bias?

If Wharton’s cautions about computational models prove accurate, we may have to wait for an insight as profound as the reversals of the Copernican Revolution before we have an accurate model of the universe — and of the process of human thought that seeks to understand it.


One thought on “Challenging anthropomorphic physics

  1. I agree with Wharton. The main reason is that we do not understand how the human mind works, specifically how consciousness comes about. As an intellectual Jack of All Trades, I am coming to the conclusion that the problem is vastly more complex than what those who are even aware of it, suspect. Since reality is anthropogenic, almost all of it is anthropomorphic. Since there is no alternative to this, the quest to rise above our human limitations is useless. Thanks for the post.

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