Energyist Introduction



Knowledge is a curious enterprise. No one can know everything, and yet that clearly doesn’t stop us from making decisions. We make choices every day without really knowing what we’re doing. I find that curious, and I enjoy noticing how people go about making choices in the dark. Can we ever be completely sure that we know enough to make a decision? With just a little more information, we might end up changing our minds. If we discover that there is a bomb behind the door, we might not choose to open it, after all, unless we receive still further information that the bomb has been defused. Yet there are many occasions when we can be pretty sure of what we’re doing. If we’re riding in an airplane, we don’t worry that its designers are going to suddenly say, “Oops, we don’t know how to make an airplane anymore.” We don’t fear that just a little more knowledge will make us discover that our airplane will stop flying. And why is that? Of course, we might worry that it will crash for some other reason, but we don’t fear that the plane’s design and the laws of physics are going to suddenly stop working. My point is that we can get to a position, about some situations, of feeling reasonably sure of what we’ve done—a plane’s design will fly reliably—and that’s in contrast with other situations, about which we cannot be that confident. And I want to investigate what it is about the world that makes the difference. Isn’t that the miracle, that we can sometimes think we know an answer “for sure”?

We’re taught to believe that the laws of science are only tentative, and that would seem to make it even more likely that the laws of physics are going to suddenly stop working while we’re flying in an airplane. But we don’t worry about that, and in the following, I am going to attempt to explain why that is. Actually, it’s only certain philosophers, following David Hume, who claim that the laws of science are tentative. Their agenda is to imply that those laws work in the same manner as their rules of logic, by induction and deduction. But I don’t think that that’s how science works. Induction is indeed tentative, but in science we don’t go around saying, “Well, the sun has come up every morning so far, so I guess it will come up again tomorrow.” That’s tentative all right, but it’s not how we do it.

So what is this other way? I’m going to suggest that we can learn from science a different approach than Hume’s, one based on the habits of energy rather than just of matter—but equally scientific—so that we can be “energyists” rather than “materialists.” And what will that entail? First and foremost, it will mean seeing the physical Universe in terms of “biasing.”

Biasing, as the word is used in this book, means to set the circumstances which enable another action to happen. And importantly, even random events can be biasing. For instance, consider how the grains of sand on a beach are lying randomly—they aren’t lined up as in following a rule—and yet they still make possible the formation of footprints. This book explores how it is surprisingly easy to see the physical world writ large as an organization of biasing circumstances.

I want you to think about a gismo which has been around for quite some while, called a diode. We use it to convert alternating current into direct current, but it only works for certain voltages. So what do you think we do? We use it only for those voltages. So it’s another example of biasing. (I’ll compare this usage of “biasing” with other definitions later in the book). But here I’m using the word in a special way to mean “to set the circumstances which enable a job to be done.” The diode can only perform its task of converting AC to DC when it is provided with the circumstances of certain voltages.

Now, in a plane, a diode is only one small component of a very complicated arrangement, but all of the rest of the plane works in a similar manner, with one part biased for another part, to build up an architecture of circumstances in which one component is rigged to produce the conditions under which other ones can do their jobs. Classically, we would say that the plane flies because it is following the laws of science. But I want to start a discussion about energy, and about how energy works, by seeing the plane as an organization of circumstances.

More than that, it is an organization of biasing circumstances, where one situation sets up what the others need to do their jobs. And we’ll see that that can be considered a mechanism for building complexity in the world and that, indeed, it is nature’s way. We’ll see that it is by such organization that the random actions of energy can assemble into complexity. From the systems and subsystems of engineering to how the parts of a cell work together, the physical Universe is an organization of biasing circumstances and so an organization of the jobs which they enable.

Also, we’ll see how that fits well with Lagrangian mechanics (which is based on energy) rather than Newtonian mechanics (premised on forces), and we’ll explore how that sets up a new worldview, or epistemology, to go with this novel style of complexity-forming. The Lagrangian approach works by treating the current action (the kinetics) in terms of a larger picture (the potential) rather than seeing the world merely as a succession of actual events with one event “causing” the next one. We might see the difference with an analogy to pouring cereal into a bowl. In the materialist approach, we count up the pieces to see what we have. But in the Lagrangian approach we eyeball the cereal and see what we have as a proportion of how full the bowl is. In other words, we see the cereal in terms of a wider picture of how it fits with others rather than crediting as real just the physical existence of the cereal.

In Newtonian mechanics, about action and reaction, we solve problems in terms of what actually happens from moment to moment, with the events of one instant leading to the next. But in Lagrangian mechanics we get the same answer by seeing the logical relationships amongst objects, even when those objects exist in different times and places. For instance, we describe a planet in terms of it having an orbit, even though most of an orbit lies “beyond” what materially exists in any instantaneous Newtonian interaction. In the Lagrangian view, the orbit really exists but as a logic, or potential, of what can happen given the larger setup of the planet being in the solar system.

Both approaches work. But why should the Lagrangian method be successful if it’s about things such as orbits that aren’t even physically real? What is missing is a philosophical account by which to make sense of the Lagrangian methodology, and this book will show how biasing can provide such a philosophical account. It will present a comprehensive story of energy, about how the random actions of energy can, via biasing, turn into the complex pictures described in energy-based Lagrangian mechanics. Then the book will explore further what it means to live in such a world. What other philosophical implications can we derive from the success of the Lagrangian approach?

We’ll see how we can act without needing to know every detail of a situation if we can nevertheless know how the random actions are collectively creating biasing. In an airplane, we don’t need to know exactly how every molecule of gasoline is moving in order to know how altogether they explode and how that fits with the rest of the plane’s organization to produce flight. The individual variation is beside the point of what the exploding molecules accomplish altogether.

We can also notice that that is a different way of dealing with random events from the usual approaches. Instead of employing statistical methods to find the odds of an individual event happening, with biasing it’s about how the random actions in aggregate become assembled to do a job. Examples are the random movements of exploding gasoline molecules doing the job of propulsion, and, the random movement of air molecules beneath the wing doing the job of lift. (They are arranged with still other random movements doing jobs to perform the overall job of flight). It works because of how the random activities are organized together by the arrangement of biasing circumstances. Thus the alternative way of treating randomness is to see how we can build assemblies out of randomness collectively. It’s to see that random events can, as a group, become organized with other such groupings to create complexity. (And recall how Lagrangian mechanics likewise sees the world in terms of how situations are built-up, to have a logic in how they are organized, which is how biasing and Lagrangian methods are compatible and how, indeed, the former can undergird the latter).

This way that groups of random activity can become organized also amounts to a different means of creating complexity compared with other explanations. Most accounts of how the Universe goes from simple particles to complicated structures entail some form of causal interactions. But instead of seeing one event leading to another and another to build complexity, we’ll see how groups of random actions can be organized with other such groups to make that complexity. Instead of being about one individual bumping into the next one, to cause it, or instead of finding the odds of an event, it’s about how random actions can in aggregate be assembled with other random actions to make the features of the world. And then we’ll see how it’s these higher order features that can act causally or have other Newtonian qualities. Once we have an airplane assembled, we can drive it places in a Newtonian fashion with cause-and-effect.

So instead of seeing the world by starting with matter and laws that are carried out, we’ll see it by starting with the random actions of energy and how they become organized into complexity. And we’ll see how that can create a new worldview, or epistemology. Altogether, we’ll see how biasing constitutes a third way of understanding the physical Universe and humanity’s relation to it, compared with other approaches based on law-following or statistics/probability. We’ll see how biasing, or the setup of circumstances, creates potential, not just action. It creates the logic of how things fit together, not just one action causing the next one. And it’s seeing this logic which enables us to describe events in terms of logical relationships in Lagrangian mechanics. (So this logic, or potential, isn’t just an invention of our minds. It exists really in the physical Universe because of how biasing circumstances fit together logically to do a job).

When a boulder rolls down a mountainside, the physicists can add up the forces working on it as it rolls to describe the impact when it hits the bottom. But they can also get the same answer by simply subtracting the energy of the boulder before and after the fall. There is a correlate in philosophy to the approach utilizing forces, and that correlate is “causation” since as the boulder is pushed along by forces we can see it as a succession of causes. But is there any philosophical correlate to the approach using energy? And why should describing the boulder with energy work at all? What is it about energy that lets us solve problems without bringing in causation?

That is the subject of this book. We are going to explore how to see the world and think in terms of energy.

Along the way we are going to encounter phenomena such as “noncausality” and “non-immediacy” (which as the names imply are not about forces pushing things along). Noncausality is when events are related in ways other than with one action occurring prior to another to cause it—such as when actions happen simultaneously—and we’ll see that such actions can have logical relationships other than just the relationship of causation. It is by describing these other logical relationships that we can solve problems, and we’ll even see that the laws of science are themselves noncausal (despite vociferous insistence by modern philosophers that they’re causal). But we’ll see that the laws describe the way that one feature changes “as” another feature does, so that they change at the same time, not with one happening before another to cause it.

And non-immediacy is when a feature cannot exist in its entirety within a single instant. It’s like how “rolling” cannot exist in a freeze-frame moment the way that “roundness” can—the latter is “all there now” in any instant the way that the former is not—and yet features such as rolling are still real. It’s just that they don’t exist with the “immediacy” that a feature such as roundness has. It is traditionally held in materialism that what is real is only what can exist fully from moment to moment. But the way that rolling exists suggests that there are ways of being real other than the way that matter does it via continuously being fully present. Instead of that, non-immediate features have a logic or potential to them, because of how a situation is set up (think of rolling), and we can discover that logic—we can even describe it mathematically—and use it to solve problems.

We’ll see how Lagrangian mechanics is a way of doing that, compared with Newtonian mechanics wherein it’s assumed that all that is real is what’s in one moment causing the next. In the Lagrangian approach, we solve problems in terms of a bigger more complex picture wherein rolling exists rather than crediting as real only events that exist with immediacy.

And then we’ll examine the implications of all of the above for philosophy. We’ll come to see a different kind of causality than that described by Aristotle or Hume. It will be a causality that occurs in complex pictures with non-immediacy. And we’ll see how “history” is important to what “actually” happens in ways other than just having history in the form of the immediately prior event causing the next. (This history, too, resides in the complex pictures where rolling exists). And we’ll come to see learning (including machine learning), signalling, and information in this same way, as occurring in complex pictures. Also, we’ll apply that to some traditional controversies in philosophy, such as teleology, incommensurability, and mind/brain substance dualism.

Perhaps some people will not want to admit that there exists these complex pictures wherein we solve problems in terms of energy, and they will want to see, instead, only forces acting with immediacy. But then we have to ask them to explain how, for instance, waves exist over time rather than with immediacy. A wave is not “all there now” in any given instant—instead, it is traced out over time—so at any instant it exists complexly; it’s not all there with immediacy. But do these critics really want to claim that, say, sound waves aren’t genuinely real?

Complexity is real (it isn’t just our minds making it up) because how things fit together, logically, is as real as is the physical aspect of a situation, and incorporating that logic into what a situation “is” makes it complex (it makes it about more than is materially present). That’s how Lagrangian mechanics works. The demonstrated success of the Lagrangian approach shows the world to be complex in this sense of having logical relationships, not just causation. (The way that Lagrangian mechanics incorporates the logic of how things fit together into its accounts of motion is by including potential energy in its equations, and potential energy is derived from how situations are organized. We need only realize as much).

And once we see that what an object even “is” includes how it fits with others, we see how such objects are not the same as the traditional objects of philosophy which exist on their own, regardless of anything else, such as Absolutes, “natural kinds,” Platonic Forms, Universals, essences, or as just plain “categories.”

And we’ll see how it’s important to study how such complex objects are formed. Evolution is not just about creating new physical objects but also about how to create the logic of how things fit together. If we are going to understand complexity-making, we are going to have to look for how to build logical relationships as an aspect of making novelties. But that, too, is different from the usual causal approaches to explaining complexity-formation. Have we been trying to describe a world full of features such as rolling using a methodology that insists on only crediting as real features such as roundness?

But we can see how biasing provides an explanation for how logics, or potential, are created in the physical Universe. It’s not just that a set of biasing circumstances can enable the creation of features that exist with immediacy (such as roundness) but also that they can go together in a way that sets up having non-immediate features (such as rolling), thereby creating complexity.

And I want to reiterate what that means. This book is about how to build complexity. It’s about how to build complicated arrangements out of the random actions of energy, via biasing. And then it’s to take note of how such a world, once made, acts in a Lagrangian (energy-based) manner.

Then once we see the world as complex, we can use that to look at other issues such as consciousness. Is it full of complex (non-immediate) features? And if so, how did they get that way if not via the usual mechanistic theories based on causation?

In addition to exploring such issues, we’ll see here in this book an extensive example of how to use an energy-based approach in daily life—an approach based on complexity—by elaborating on it in the example of ethics. The features of morality, such as fairness, are also complex. So we will learn how to see ethical dilemmas in terms of non-immediate features and the logical relationships amongst them, rather than via rule-following and the carrying out of moral “laws.”

Finally, because science is traditionally described in Newtonian materialist terms, we’ll look at how the nitty-gritty practices of science can be better and more coherently described in terms of this energy-based approach. We’ll see how all of the above fit with the habits of energy as we currently understand energy in science.

It all sets up discussing one last phenomenon which I’ll call “orienteering.” Orienteering is the principle that objects don’t just move from here to there; they move as per being “oriented” with what else is with them in a situation. Another way of saying it is that objects move as per how they have potential to move, not just as per passively being pushed along by laws or by the immediately prior (causal) event. The potential is derived from the arrangement of the setup—how it fits together creates what can logically happen—so the logic of how situations come together is incorporated into what it means to move at all. (That’s another major theme of this book—one which we’ll see in application after application—and it amounts to an interpretation of Lagrangian mechanics). It’s to understand that things move as per what else is in a situation with them.

The details of orienteering are sufficiently complicated that I will leave them for the text. But basically it is that we can make our way in the world—navigate it—by seeing the logics in it and acting accordingly. That is how we can solve problems, such as regarding a rolling boulder, without resorting to forces; that’s how we can skip all the steps of causation. It is by keying in on the logic of how situations are fitting together so as to see how the motion is occurring according to that logic.

And for emphasis let me state that that is a really big deal, to explain why we can find answers in terms of energy rather than forces. It’s because things move as per the logic of how they fit together in complex scenarios. If a person is standing on a ladder, that creates the logic of moving so as to reach high places or moving as in falling off. It’s about having motion in a more complex way than just one event pushing along another; it’s to have motion that includes the logical relationships which the moving object has with its surrounding circumstances. So we can key in on how a motion has a logic to it, which is inherent in the setup of the situation, to solve problems. We can see the motion as occurring in complex pictures rather than as a succession of immediate ones.

And we can already see where we are going with this: The world isn’t absolute, and the world isn’t relative; it’s complex. It’s complex in this sense that I’ve been talking about, where the world is full of the logics of how situations fit together and how those logics are incorporated into the way that objects move. When the logic of how things fit together is merged into what a thing even “is”—and when it moves accordingly—that makes the thing complex; that makes it about more than it physically is. Even the theory of relativity can be re-envisioned as being about motion as per a logic.

So we’ll compare being absolute, being relative, and being complex (that’s complex in this manner described above). And we’ll see that even truth is neither absolute nor relative, but complex. It’s about the logic of how situations are fitting together as much as about physical structures or about what is pushed along causally. So instead of seeking causal explanations, we can seek out complex ones. And instead of arguing whether one person’s truth is as good as any other’s, we can see truth as existing as a logic in complex pictures.

And what creates situations that are full of logic is how biasing circumstances fit together in a way that sets up what is logically possible. The biasing circumstances can go together to create both immediate (Newtonian) and non-immediate (complex) scenarios.

So it is by understanding biasing that we see why we can solve problems in terms of energy rather than forces. Biasing circumstances make logical possibilities which become an aspect of what is happening actually and which we can then “read.” (For that matter, we might ask those of a Newtonian outlook, wherein the world consists only of events that are “really happening,” one after another, to account for the existence of possibilities existing really in the Universe).

So let’s get started in looking at the world created by energy by beginning with describing biasing. We’ll discover a world that’s about “energy becoming organized,” to make a world that is full of logical relationships, rather than a world about “rules being carried out” or about “finding the statistical odds.” All of the descriptions of energy in this book will be as we already describe energy in science, with the addition of biasing. (So we will not be talking of energy, for instance, in the demi-mystical sense of things “having a strange energy” or as “how to energize” our spirits). Rather, we will look closer at what science is already telling us about energy.

And into that picture we can now see biasing.