Wolfram Science Group
Phoenix, AZ USA
Registered: Aug 2003
Taking the actual questions severally -
"does quantum mechanics involve a Cartesian dualism"
It need not. There is no subjectivist, mentalistic, or mind-ish component of actual quantum mechanics. It merely restricts its predictions about natural phenomena to statistical statements about class averages. Some external commentators with their own axes to grind have read that restriction in a subjectivist-idealist way, but it is those commentators and not quantum mechanics saying such. There is no "mind" in quantum mechanics, it does not occur as a category or term anywhere within its formalism.
"Does Wolfram’s system replace Cartesian dualism with a unity of Platonic idealism based upon a Platonic idealist finite machine?"
In one sense yes this is fair, in that he sees all intelligences as embodied calculative entities within a single developing rule that is a formalist or mathematical structure only. In another respect it goes too far and begs too many questions - Wolfram nowhere says anything about said formalism being "idealist". Idealist is in this context an ambiguous term. If it means the basic ontological "stuff" is mathlike or formal, then it applies; if it means it is thoughtlike or occurs in a mind, then it need not. Formalism is not equivalent to idealism, in other words. My own position - I call it "formal realism" - is formalist but anti-idealist.
In Plato's Parmenides, when the young Socrates is asked how the ideas exist, he gives two answers. Once he says "as thoughts" and the other time "as patterns in things". The latter is the formal realist position. But then the ideas are an attempt to formulate a theory not of being but of intelligibility, precisely by positing an equivalence (not necessarily an identity, but an equals sign) between those two answers. That inevitably means any claim that one or the other side is more basic can be questioned by the alternative reading that regards the other side of the equation as more basic.
On infinities in Wolfram and QM models, it makes sense to call Wolfram's position more finite, but computational universality gives itself one countable infinity. The history of the universe in Wolfram's position is "as yet" finite, but potentially open-ended in the forward time dimension.
"If we believe in ultimate scientific reductionism"
Reductionism is a separable issue from Wolfram's computational view of the universe, and there are strong and weak forms of it. Universality can arise at any level of analysis, just as one can build a practical computer from many different sorts of components and on any physical scale. It is a property of an arrangement, and arrangements as such are indifferent to the details of the bricks from which they are composed. Universality says the hardware really doesn't matter, to speak tech. Or, once you have a universal hardware what it will do depends no longer on hardware issues but on the specific details of its history, aka the program it is running right now.
"should we believe that knowing, willing, feeling, spirituality, empathy, and consciousness reduce to molecular cellular"
Um, why does the manner in which any such subjective analytics of human experience or behavior gains an effective independence of underlying biology, need to differ from the way software gains effective independence of underlying hardware? Sure there are underlying instruction sets and beneath them some wetware to implement those instructions, but the interleaving of the instructions does all of the work in producing the system's great range of unpredictable behaviors, its ability in principle to achieve isomorphism to any computable sequence of formal states, etc. What's "reductive" about software? Does anybody try to predict what a (platform independent) java program will do by analyzing a printed circuit board, without knowing anything about the programming language or any specific program?
Half the point of universality is that all the answers aren't at the bottom. Knowing that you are dealing with a universal system is already enough to tell you the details of the history are controlling. Nobody is going to try to calculate, say, where a storm will veer next week from the bottom up using a fundamental theory of physics. We can believe that everything that happens in that system is obeying physical laws we know, and we may be able to learn various things about it from those laws. But if you try to place every subatomic particle and calculate where each will go next, forget it. You couldn't compute the next five seconds in the lifetime of the universe with all existing computers doing nothing else. You couldn't set it up. All practical computation starts at the level of analysis native to the behavior one is attempting to model, or very close below it.
Wolfram never posits one in the first place. It is a possible addition, but he presents a single-instance, single-history view of the universe as a definite instantiation of a process of sample size one.
"contains Cartesian dualism"
First a meta-point about Cartesian dualism, at the risk of descending into academic controversy. Descartes did not consider himself a Cartesian dualist, or a dualist of any kind. Descartes' own standard of ontology is very clear and simple - to be is to be thinkable. It is the wide variety of readings given to his philosophy - which in fact turned it into half a dozen other-people's philosophies - that gave rise to the notion that Descartes left a dualistic problem. This is most explicit in Spinoza where it simply becomes two "modes" of existence. Everyone else sees that tension and most take a side in trying to resolve it. Hobbes and Locke then went one way with it (two, actually - empiricism is distinct from materialism) and Leibniz and Berkeley another (or two, the minds their idealisms reside within, differ). Then Kant motivates his own noumenal-phenomenal dualism with Descartes mind-body one.
In Descartes himself, body is simply that to which the category of extension applies, which is not divorced from thought but is precisely what is thinkable in a specific aspect. While anything thinkable, is - every real attribute adheres in some real existent. Again there is the issue with equations and their having two sides, but what Descartes specifically intends is an equals sign between "to be" and "to be intelligible". It is other men who "hear" something realist-objective in the first of those, and idealist-subjective in the second. He is equating them.
That is the fate of any theory of correct understanding that readers do not accept. It must equate a mental thing with a real one or it isn't a theory of how they can correspond, and if the reader doesn't accept it he will always still see two things and a mystery between them. It was easy (in Aristotle) to criticize that aspect of Plato's ideas, but it is (nearly) impossible to evade that criticism without shirking the task of explaining intelligibility. (Contemporary skeptical philosophers deal with this by pretending there isn't any, which is false empirically).
"value of NKS a framework for thinking of new techniques"
No, though it has such value I wouldn't say it is the main one, at least in Wolfram's own stated terms. (Anyone else is free to value it for whatever they like, or not do so). He thinks it provides the theoretical ground for understanding natural complexity. Hence the title, which is not "my discrete model of physics". The main claim of the book is that extending the formalisms we use to model the world from traditional mathematics to simple computer programs is necessary and sufficient to capture the specific phenomena of complexity in natural and artificial systems.
"model conscious beings as symbiotic collections"
There are no models of consciousness in the NKS book. There are reflections on aspects of thinking as themselves program-like, and of our techniques of perception and analysis as achieving the complexity and sophistication of simple programs but not exceeding them in either respect. Wolfram claims this explains why complexity strikes us as complex - it matches the sophistication of our methods of analyzing it, so we can't run ahead of and "crush" it. Wolfram presents universality as a requirement for intelligence, and somewhat playfully suggests it may be sufficient as well. This is a deliberate re-defining of the domain of intelligence; "the weather has a mind of its own".
To Wolfram, this is another Copernican point about human beings being less special than they have pretended in the past. It isn't worshipping the weather, but a downgrade to the awe previously felt for human intelligence. Yes it is special, but in a specific and knowable way that lots of other systems reach. We are universal computers, which is as good as it gets. So are lots of other things. If we want to feel more special about something, it will have to reside in the specific computations we actual perform, the details of our history, and not in a bare capacity we possess. Because the bare capacity isn't very impressive, it is lying around all over the place.
I hope this is interesting...
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