Metaphysical Foundations (Pt3)

Click here for part one of this series.

Part two of this series was mostly concerned with physicalist assumptions in the free will debate. This third part will return to the wider metaphysical speculation.

Note that the descriptions here are merely the musings of an armchair blogger. They are not beliefs, they are suspicions. With that in mind, if you’re still interested, read on.

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First let’s zoom right out and taking a look at what current scientific understanding might suggest in regards to the metaphysics and ontology of the Universe.

We’ll start with the idea that quantum mechanics suggests a fundamental ontological division: there is that which is physically instantiated and that which is mere potential. Yet at the same time it suggests that in both cases events therein have active roles in the world.

While considering these two parts of reality, it’s important to keep in mind that this division is illusory in respect to location and substance. There is only one Universe (the capital U denoting that I am including any possible multiverse theories under this heading), and the differences I’ll be suggesting are in scale, not in temporospatial location or primitive (i.e. non-emergent) substance.

The first ontological category I want to consider consists of all everyday objects ranging from galaxies, planets, chairs and bacteria, all the way down to molecules, atoms, protons, and quarks. These are all things that are instantiated above the Planck scale in emergent spacetime and are therefore measurable and interpreted as objectively “real” in a physical sense. For that reason I’m going to refer to this macroworld as the Intantiat. It also consists of things that are less familiar as we move downward in scale toward that boundary, like briefly-instantiated virtual particles.

Within the Instantiat, both upward (reductive) processes, and downward (non-reductive) processes determine the unfolding of events, and that unfolding is probabilistic in accordance with most interpretations quantum mechanics. Therefore I am very much holding that ultimately determinism is false. the Universe is fundamentally indeterministic in nature. What we observe in the macroworld is a faux-determinism; the observed averaging-out of the enormous amount of interactions involved in macro events.

The second category consists of that which is not instantiated: potential counterfactuals, or – from the point of view of the Instantiat – things that might have been or might be. This realm I’ll refer to as the Potentiat. This is the Universe as considered at the sub-Plankian scale, and is best visualized holistically, each component of the whole a node in a single object: the all-possibilities-present block Universe.

The Potentiat has neither spatial nor temporal position. In physics terms it is background independent. Its “properties” are only its internal topological & geometric relations. This is in accordance with certain approaches to quantum gravity, like Loop Quantum Gravity. Both space and time emerge from the Potentiat in the same way that other fields and their particles do.

Now imagine looking down at this sub-Planckian microworld from the macroworld above with a bird’s eye view. From this high vantage point one can visualize the Potentiat below as a fuzzy sea of possibilities. The surface of the sea is an overlaid surface of fundamental physical fields at their zero point energy level, and thus fizzing with quantum fluctuations. It appears as a foam. And towering from this foamy surface are the soaring spines of the instantiated macroworld excitations in the fields that we call point particles. And indeed from our bird’s eye view, the peak of each wave excitation does indeed appear as a dimensionless point. Collections of these spiny structures swarm as they interact with each other, forming the skeletal structure of the things we perceive as macro objects.

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The Potentiat is also where objects like photons and electrons seemingly “disappear to” when they are not interacting with each other. So when we say that a photon takes “every path” from emitter to detector in the famous double-slit experiment, it is in the Potentiat that all those paths consist. In terms of the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the Potentiat is modeled by the imaginary axis on the complex number plane (see here for my brief attempt at an explanation).

If one now imagines moving down to the nodes of sub-Planckian microworld, and then outwards to an external god’s eye view, one can now imagine the related geometric nodes of the Potentiat allowing for potential shapes that the Potentiat as a whole could obtain.

So the Instantiat can be seen as a single obtained state from the myriad possible Potentiat states. Its state is no more “real” than the Potentiat states, but it differs in that it has super-Planckian scale and the emergent spaciotemporal physicality that comes with that status.

Each possible shape that the Instantiat could take maps to a bitmap snapshot of a potential physical Universe state. In quantum mechanical terms each shape is a possible Universal Wavefunction. the Instantiat is the measurable universe we experience, and the Potentiat consists of all the counterfactual universes of a Many-Worlds-like Interpretation of quantum mechanics (MWI is normally considered a deterministic theory, but I will come to that later).

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As the Instantiat shifts from state to state, each shift is a quantized moment of emergent Planck-time mapping to a different Universal wavefunction.

One can also imagine an overall shape for the Potentiat, which is an overlaid combination of all its possible shapes.

The relationship between the Potentiat, Instantiat and an evolving worldline might be illustrated with an analogy. Imagine a computer monitor. The Instantiat is a still image on the screen: a contingent configuration space of active and inactive pixels.

A worldline is an ordered sequence of these Instantiat pixel maps evolving according to a set of laws determined by the geometry of the Instantiat within the Potentiat (i.e. how individual shapes can and cannot transform within the Potentiat shape viewed as a whole). So in the analogy a worldline is a like a movie playing out on the screen.

The Potentiat on the other hand is a non-contingent configuration space of each and every possible configuration of pixels that could be displayed on the screen, all displayed simultaneously: a white noise.

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So how does experiential consciousness and libertarian free will fit into this picture? Firstly let’s define libertarian free will in the context I’ve given:

“Libertarian free will consists in the possibility of non-random interventions in the otherwise faux-deterministic unfolding of the Instantiat

As previously suggested, a possible mechanism for free will may be something like a class of mainstream theorized phenomena that occur at the Planck scale boundary and result in seemingly ex nihilo particle creation. Under the picture described here, that boundary is the interface between the Potentiat and the Instantiat.

Is it possible that such a phenomenon might be exploited by the brain to tip the balance of probabilities against faux-determinism? We already know that evolutionary processes exploit Planck-scale quantum effects  for their own ends, and I’d argue that it would be surprising if a system as complex as the brain does not do the same to some extent or other. For the purpose of speculation, let’s assume here that such a phenomenon exists and can be exploited by the brain.

Opponents might say that such physical effects are too small in scope to make a difference to events at the macro scale. This worry might be addressed by positing some process of amplification in the brain, much like the amplification of macro systems seen in the butterfly effect (although it would have to also be directed rather than chaotic).

2013 08 03 Comma in the Back Garden

There is a more worrisome problem still. While the unfolding of events in the Instantiat is completely determined, the influence that the Potentiat has on that unfolding via particle creation is by contrast completely random, and a random influence is not sufficient for free will.

However, note that we have not said the the Potentiat itself is random in its nature, only that the direct (i.e. non-emergent) influence it has on the Instantiat is random. Of the intrinsic nature of the Potentiat itself we know little or nothing.

So if free will consists in the directed and amplified ex-nihilo creation of matter with source Potentiat and destination Instantiat, then perhaps experiential consciousness consists either at the border between the Instantiat and Potentiat, or in the Potentiat itself.


If so, and if conscious deliberation is an aspect of experiential consciousness, then it would be the workings of the Potentiat itself that afford the definitions “free” (non-random and non-determined) and “will” (interventions) as defined above.

Of course, the definition is “non-random and non-determined” is a tricky one. Are the two concepts not a binary affair with an excluded middle? Again, locating the experiential consciousness and its free will in (or partially within) the Potentiat may help here. Although the Potential’s nature remains a completely open question, if we look at its effects like superposition, along with its nature as painted here, there is a suggestion that some logical principles like the excluded middle may not apply in the way that we are familiar with when observing the world at the scale of the Instantiat. Perhaps the dichotomy of determinacy and indeterminacy is – for a Potentiat-based will – a false one.

As for experiential consciousness itself, here we might turn to theories of consciousness outside the scientific mainstream but still metaphysically conceivable. Traditions like Panpsychism and the related Panprotoexperientialism (or Panprotopsychism) become attractive.

These theories place abstractions and imagination not only at the heart of conscious experience, but also at the foundational level of reality, although there are also formidable issues to overcome, like the combination or binding problem.

Next time I’ll turn to speculation on consciousness and the workings of the Potentiat in more detail.

For Part 4 Click Here.