The Doomsday Device

There is a branch of philosophy called Idealism. We think of that word to mean having noble thoughts and ambitions, but that is not quite what it means when a philosopher uses it, though it can include those things. In philosophy, it means the school of thought that considers reality to be in the mind rather than in matter or things. Idealism is thus the opposite of Materialism.

The Idealists are concerned with how information reaches us from the outside world. They maintain that the only way we can know anything at all is through the medium of the five senses - sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Anything that is in your mind apart from these sense-data, say the Idealists, must have its origin in your mind and not outside it. They say that a person who was born without any of the five senses would have no knowledge of the world at all.

One of the most famous Idealists of the past was George Berkeley, who was from Ireland. He said that nothing existed in our minds except what had already come into them in the form of sense experiences. The concepts we have in our thoughts, come from our experience. So we can only have the concept "cat" because we have seen a cat. Now, Berkeley went further, and said that the sense-data are all that you can ever know. So when you look at a table, you have the sense-data of the table but that's all. You can't know anything about what it really is, apart from what your senses tell you. This led Berkeley to say that to all intents and purposes, matter does not exist. The only existence it can have is in the mind of the observer.

So someone might ask, "What if I close my eyes, so I can't see the table? Does the table cease to exist?" A complete Idealist would say, yes it ceases to exist. But obviously this is a problem! The way Berkeley solved it was by believing in God, so when you shut your eyes, the table continues to exist, because God is observing it. In this way, the universe as described by Berkeley consists of God and the observer, who receives the sense impressions given by God.

This philosophy is what gives rise to speculations like: "If all that I can know about the world is through sense-data, how do I know that the information coming in is correct?"

Or: "How do we know we're not living in a virtual reality, like in the film, The Matrix?"

Or: "If a tree falls to the ground in a deserted forest, and no-one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?"

In space, there is no sound, because there is no air to carry the sound waves. But even when there is air, the movements caused by the falling tree only become sound when they reach an ear. So if there's no-one there, how can the tree make a sound? We think of the world as something outside and independent of us, but in fact, so much of "reality" depends on the observer.

This idea comes into the "thought experiment" called Schrodinger's Cat. Imagine an air-tight box with a lid, and inside the box is a cat. The box also contains a device which can release a deadly poison. (Sorry if you like cats, but this is only a THOUGHT experiment). The device has a random generator so it has an even chance of going off as not going off. Is the cat dead or alive? You can't know. The cat's existence is in a "probability-state" at the moment. The only way to find out is to open the box. Then the probability state ends and the status of the cat is determined, dead or alive. So it is the observer who has made this happen, before that the cat was in a state of probability. It's only by the process of observation that the cat is now dead (or alive).

A similar thought experiment is The Doomsday Device. This was in the writings of an astronomer, but I can't remember his name, so if anyone knows, please leave a comment? Imagine a Doomsday Device hovering above Planet Earth. If it goes off, it destroys everything on the planet, including humans and all life, with nothing surviving. If it doesn't go off, we survive. The Device has a random generator, like in Schrodinger's Cat. So we have an even chance of survival or total obliteration. What happens?

The astronomer says that we must survive. Even though it is an even chance, the Doomsday Device can never go off. Because, if it did, there would be no consciousness to observe it happening, and so it could not happen. Like the tree that makes no sound, or the cat which is only dead or alive because it is observed to be so, the Doomsday Device could not go off, because we would never know it had happened.


surjit said...

Really a great thought provoking post.
Thanks Filosofia,the philosopher, for sharing.
God bless.

Sofia said...

Thank you surjit you are very kind.

Priya Joyce said...

this was such a cool thot dear..
the one thing i wud want to say is many people say many things ...we find sum as very good and some very bad ..and follow wat we want...
wat matters is wat we think and not wat others blabber....wat say.

gal this was ur super post...

Sofia said...

Thank you p-j and i was reading your post about eve-teasing and i looked it up on Google search as I've just installed custom search on this blog, and it sounds like it's a really big problem in India. x

peaitlreiecnia said...

i really, really like your blog. i feel like I learn something new every time I read a post but it's not boring.

it reminds me of sophie's world.

which is funny, because your name is sofia


Kat said...

I think this might just be my favorite blog post EVER! I'm adding you to my blogroll immediately :-).

Have you seen "What the Bleep Do We Know?", where they show the double slit experiment with electrons? They actually choose all paths until observed, then they choose just one...

Sofia said...

To peaitlreiecnia: You are so very, VERY kind. Yes I have tried to make the post interesting, and I'm glad if I succeeded a little bit! BTW my name isn't sofia, it's Aimee, but I chose sofia as a pen name because of filosofia. x

To kat: You are equally kind, and very gracious not to notice the flaws in my writing... I haven't seen that film, but maybe I should! Also I found out that the astronomer I was thinking of in the post is Fred Hoyle. x

Clarisse Teagen said...

You have made me really think about idealism.
I have many idealistic views of how humans should be... Now, i need some thinking to be done.

Kat said...

Sofia! I have tried several times to add you to my "must read blogs" list... blogger is acting crazy and will not let me add new blogs...

I will persevere, lol!

Jason The Bald Guy said...

I would say that the astronomer is incorrect in his assumption that the device cannot go off. his assumption has two major flaws,

* that we are the only ones observing
* that our five senses are the only method of observing

if we are not the only observers then the device could go off

the possibility of spiritual perception (a perception akin to the sight of NEO in the matrix after his "death" )

I believe that our ability to perceive things spiritually is absolutely a fact and is the only sense that overrides all others with absolute truth. As we choose more often to deal with perception than absolute truth, spiritual perception takes a back seat, until absolutely necessary. i.e. death, through doomsday device or otherwise.

anyways, very cool blog!

Sofia said...

To Kat: I'm sorry to hear you cannot add my little blog to your "must read" :( I think the RSS feed is working OK from here, but I'm glad you keep trying lulz x

Sofia said...

To clarisse teagen: I think the philosopher's idealism is different thing from the idealism of you... You have high ideals to make a better world. I love your kind of idealist. Your kind believes in something that does not yet exist, and you can and will bring it into reality by following your dream of idealism. x

Sofia said...

To jason: yes yes yes yes YES, you have spotted the potential flaw in the astronomer's idea! (I wondered if anyone would. lol) BUT it is not a real flaw. The aliens who are watching from outer space could indeed witness the Doomsday Device go off. It could go off for THEM, but it can NEVER go off for us, due to the essential paradox. (I mean the awareness of non-awareness.)

But in any case, to talk of the Device going off for the aliens is only really a play on words, since it can't go off for them either. Why? Because we could then never be aware that they knew it had gone off! And further, we can never ever EVER know what they are experiencing, because we can never be inside their heads.

Your speculation of a "spiritual awareness" as distinct from an awareness in human form is an interesting speculation, but is still necessarily only that and no more. (It may well be true however, but it does not contradict the astronomer's thought experiment, since a spiritual existence apart from a material body can be considered as life, not death.)

The supposed distinction between mind and matter has puzzled and challenged the greatest philosophers, but it is all bunk. The notion that a human is a sluggish material vehicle piloted by a little controller sitting in a cockpit just behind the eyes is an illusion that has caused a great deal of trouble in the past (and continues to do so in the present.)

Thank you for posting your excellent comment. x

Anadroid said...

wow this is really interesting. you know I think that when humans are extinct other life, plants and animals will go on living...just because we won't be there to see it does'nt mean the other creatures will cease to exist and also before people evolved i'm sure the universe still existed...I don't really know i'm not exactly good at putting my thoughts into words. Although these ideas are obviously well thought out and I admire the philosophers who thought them up they do seem a little self centred like without us nothing exists. if a tree fell and there was no one there but a deaf person I think the tree would make a sound and I believe it would be the same if there was no one there at all.Just my opinions on this
btw I love love love this blog I told my friends to bookmark it :)
P.S. have you heard the saying that Totalitarianism is when Idealism meets Power?

Sofia said...

To anadroid: Yes the philosophers do seem a lil bit self-centred, a bit human-centric. But the philosopher is asking the question, "How do we know what we know?" and to answer that you first have to ask, "What do we actually know?"

It may be that the animals will still be around when we're extinct, but you and I would never know about that. We can imagine it, and we can imagine what it's like to be a fox or a dinosaur, but that's not the same as KNOWING what it's like.

We can never have their experience as our own.

The Idealist philosopher says all we can ever actually know is what we know from our experience, in other words, the sum total of all the data we receive through the five senses.

Sofia said...

To anadroid: Thank you for the lovely things you said in your comment. :) x