A short piece by Tim Maudlin. Good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go deep enough. Maudlin rightly opposes the "reigning attitude":
The reigning attitude in physics has been “shut up and calculate”: solve the equations, and do not ask questions about what they mean. But putting computation ahead of conceptual clarity can lead to confusion.
He has some other useful things to say about philosophy's role in conceptual clarification. But there is no mention of what ought to strike one as a major task: an explanation of how recherché physical theories relate to the world we actually live in, the world in its human involvement, what Edmund Husserl called die Lebenswelt, the life-world. This is a task that falls to philosophy, but not to contemporary analytic philosophy with its woeful ignorance of the phenomenological tradition. On the other hand, judging by the philosophical scribblings of physicists, they would make a mess of it too.
A related task of philosophy is to debunk and expose the bad philosophy churned out by physicists in their spare time when they need to turn a buck and play the public intellectual. Understandable: doing physics is hard while writing bad philosophy is easy. Think Lawrence Krauss for a recent prime offender. And then there is the awful Hawking-Mlodinow book mentioned by Maudlin, entitled The Grand Design.
Five years ago I began a series on it. But the first chapters were so bad, I didn't bother to proceed beyond my first entry. Having just re-read that post, it stands up well.
One more point about Maudlin. He (mis)uses 'mystical' as a pejorative, thereby betraying his ignorance of the subject of mysticism. That's an Ayn Rand-y type of blunder.
My posting of the graphic to the left indicates that I am a skeptic about global warming (GW). To be precise, I am skeptical about some, not all, of the claims made by the GW activists. See below for some necessary distinctions. Skepticism is good. Doubt is the engine of inquiry and a key partner in the pursuit of truth.
A skeptic is a doubter, not a denier. To doubt or inquire or question whether such-and-such is the case is not to deny that it is the case. It is a cheap rhetorical trick of GW alarmists when they speak of GW denial and posture as if it is in the ball park of Holocaust denial.
What can a philosopher say about global warming? The first thing he can and ought to say is that, although not all questions are empirical, at the heart of the global warming debate are a set of empirical questions. These are not questions for philosophers qua philosophers, let alone for political ideologues. For the resolution of these questions we must turn to reputable climatologists whose roster does not sport such names as 'Al Gore,' 'Barbra Streisand,' or 'Ann Coulter.' Unfortunately, the global warming question is one that is readily 'ideologized' and the ideological gas bags of both the Right and the Left have a lot to answer for in this regard.
I have not investigated the matter with any thoroughness, and I have no firm opinion. It is difficult to form an opinion because it is difficult to know whom to trust: reputable scientists have their ideological biases too, and if they work in universities, the leftish climate in these hotbeds of political correctness is some reason to be skeptical of anything they say.
For example, let's say scientist X teaches at Cal Berkeley and is a registered Democrat. One would have some reason to question his credibility. He may well tilt toward socialism and away from capitalism and be tempted to beat down capitalism with the cudgel of global warming. Equally, a climatologist on the payroll of the American Enterprise Institute would be suspect. I am not suggesting that objectivity is impossible to attain; I am making the simple point that it is difficult to attain and that scientists have worldview biases like everyone else. And like everyone else, they are swayed by such less-than-noble motives as the desire to advance their careers and be accepted by their peers. And who funds global warming research? What are their biases? And who gets the grants? And what conclusions do you need to aim at to get funded? It can't be a bad idea to "follow the money" as the saying goes.
Off the top of my head I think we ought to distinguish among the following questions:
1. Is global warming (GW) occurring?
2. If yes to (1), is it naturally irreversible, or is it likely to reverse itself on its own?
3. If GW is occurring, and will not reverse itself on its own, to what extent is it anthropogenic, i.e., caused by human activity?
(3) is the crucial empirical question. It is obviously distinct from (1) and (2). If there is naturally irreversible global warming, this is not to say that it is caused by human activity. It may or may not be. One has to be aware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Suppose there is a close correlation between global warming and man-made carbon emissions. It doesn't straightaway follow that the the human activity causes the warming. But again, this is not a question that can be settled a priori; it is a question for climatologists.
4. If anthropogenic, is global warming caused by humans to a degree that warrants action, assuming that action can be taken to stop it?
5. If GW is caused by humans to an extent that it warrants action, what sorts of action would be needed to stop the warming process?
6. How much curtailment of economic growth would we be willing to accept to stop global warming?
The first three of these six questions are empirical and are reserved for climatologists. They are very difficult questions to answer. And it is worth pointing out that climatology, while an empirical science, falls short of truly strict science. This useful article lists the following five characteristics of science in the strict and eminent sense:
1. Clearly defined terminology. 2. Quantifiability. 3. Highly controlled conditions. "A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. The experiment is then performed with such precision that any other person in the world, using identical materials and methods, should achieve the exact same result." 4. Reproducibility. "A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result over and over again. Multiple researchers on different continents, cities, or even planets should find the exact same results if they precisely duplicated the experimental conditions." 5. Predictability and Testability. "A rigorous science is able to make testable predictions."
These characteristics set the bar for strict science very high, and rightly so. Is climate science science according to these criteria? No, it falls short on #s 3 and 4. At the hardest hard core of the hard sciences lies the physics of meso-phenomena. Climatology does not come close to this level of 'hardness.' So don't be bamboozled: don't imagine that the prestige of physics transfers undiminished onto climatology. It is pretty speculative stuff and much of it is ideologically infected.
Our first three questions are empirical.But the last three are not, being questions of public policy. So although the core issues are empirical, philosophers have some role to play: they can help in the formulation and clarification of the various questions; they can help with the normative questions that arise in conjunction with (4)-(5), and they can examine the cogency of the arguments given on either side. Last but not least, they can drive home the importance of being clear about the distinction between empirical and conceptual questions.
We humans naturally philosophize. But we don't naturally philosophize well. So when science journalists and scientists try their hands at it they often make a mess of it. (See my Scientism category for plenty of examples.) This is why there is need of the institutionalized discipline of philosophy one of whose chief offices is the exposure and debunking of bad philosophy and pseudo-philosophy of the sort exhibited in so many 'scientific' articles. Although it would be a grave mistake to think that the value of philosophy resides in its social utility, philosophy does earn its social keep in its critical and debunking function. But now on to the topic.
Is there extraterrestrial life?
To answer this question, one would have to have at least a rough idea of what counts as living and what counts as nonliving. For example, "A working definition lately used by NASA is that 'life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution.'"
In a recent Scientific American article, Why Life Does not Really Exist, problems with the NASA definition are pointed out. I won't try to evaluate the putative counterexamples the author adduces, but simply assume that the NASA definition is not adequate. Indeed, I will assume something even stronger, namely, that no adequate definition is available, no razor-sharp definition, no set of properties that all and only living things possess, no set of properties that cleanly demarcates the animate from the inanimate, and is impervious to counterexample.
Supposing that is so, what could explain it? According to the Scientific American article (emphasis added) what explains the difficulty of defining life is that life does not really exist! It can't be defined because it is not there to be defined. You heard right, boys and girls:
Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.
This startling passage provokes a couple of questions.
The first is whether the author's conclusion, which we may take to be the conjunction of the bolded sentences, follows from the difficulty or even the impossibility of finding an adequate definition of life. The answer is: obviously not! One cannot conclude that nothing is living from the fact, if it is a fact, that it is difficult or even impossible to say what exactly all and only living things have in common that makes them living as opposed to nonliving. That would be like arguing that nothing is a game (to invoke Wittgenstein's overworked example) because there is nothing that all and only games have in common that distinguishes them from non-games. There are games and there are non-games and this is so whether or not one can say exactly what distinguishes them.
Not all concepts are such that necessary and sufficient conditions for their correct application can be specified. There are vague concepts, family-resemblance concepts, open-textured concepts. The concept bald, the concept game, the concept art. Their being vague, etc., does not prevent them from having clear instances and clear non-instances. A man with no hair on his head is bald. Your humble and hirsute correspondent is most definitely not bald. The fact that we don't know what to say about Donald 'Comb-Over' Trump does not change the fact that some of us assuredly are and some of assuredly not.
The second question is whether the author's conclusion, namely, that life is a concept that we have invented is even coherent. It isn't. I'll give two arguments. I beg the indulgence of those readers who will feel that I am wasting my time and yours with the dialectical equivalent of rolling a drunk or beating up a cripple. I agree that in general there is something faintly absurd about responding to a position whose preposterousness renders it beneath refutation.
A. If life does not exist, but is a mere concept we have invented, then a fortiori consciousness does not exist and is a mere concept we have invented. For if the difficulties in defining life are a reason for thinking there is no life, then the difficulties in defining consciousness are a reason to deny that there is consciousness. For example, there appears to be something very much like intentionality below the level of conscious mentality in the phenomena of potentiality and dispositionality. (See Intentionality, Potentiality, and Dispositionality: Some Points of Analogy.) This causes trouble for Brentano's claim that intentionality is the mark of the consciously mental. But it would surely be absurd to deny the existence of consciousness on the ground that defining it is not easy. There is a second point. Those of a naturalist bent are highly likely to maintain, with John Searle, that either conscousness is a biological phenomenon or at least cannot exist except in living organisms. So if there is no life, then there is no consciousness either.
But only conscious beings wield concepts. Only conscious beings classify and subsume and judge. So if there is no life, there are no concepts either, and thus no concept of life. Therefore, life cannot be a concept. It is incoherent to suppose that a lifeless material object could classify some other objects in its environment as living and others as nonliving.
Moreover, if consciousness does not exist, but is a mere concept we conscious beings have invented, then obviously consciousness is not a mere concept we have invented but rather the presupposition of there being any concepts at all. The notion that consciousness is a mere concept is self-refuting.
B. The author tell us that "What differentiates molecules of water, rocks, and silverware from cats, people and other living things is not 'life,' but complexity.
Note how the author takes back with his left hand what he has proferred with his right. He appeals to the difference between the nonliving and the living only to imply that there is no difference, the only difference being one of material complexity. But a difference between what and what? Now if he were maintaining that life emerges at a certain level of material complexity he would be maintaining something that, though not unproblematic, would at least not be incoherent. For then he would not be denying that life exists but affirming that it is an emergent phenomenon. But he is plainly not an emergentist, but an eliminativist. He is saying that life simply does not exist.
If the difference between the nonliving and the living is the difference between the less complex and the more complex, then actually infinite sets in mathematics are alive. For they are 'infinitely' complex. If you say that only material systems can be alive,, but no abstracta, what grounds your assertion? If life is a concept we impose, why can't we impose it on anything we like, including actually infinite sets of abstracta? Presumably we cannot do this because of the nature of sets and the nature of life where these natures are logically antecedent to us and our conceptual impositions. Sets by their very nature are nonliving. But then appeal is being made to what lies beyond the reach of conceptual decision, which is to say: life exists and is what it is independently of us, our language, and our conceptualizations. One cannot argue from our poor understanding of what life is to its nonexistence.
The fallacy underlying this very bad Scientific American piece could be called the eliminativist fallacy. An eliminativist is one who, faced with a problem he cannot solve -- in this case the problem of crafting an adequate definition of life -- simply denies one or more of the data that give rise to the problem. Thus, in this case, the author simply denies that life exists. But then he denies the very datum that got him thinking about this topic in the first place.
I will first state in general why I consider the article of low quality, and then quote a large chunk of it and intersperse some comments (bolded). This is Part One. Part Two to follow if I have the time and energy, and if I can convince myself that continuing is worth my time and energy.
In the meat of his article, Pinker puts forth a number of mostly silly straw-man definitions of 'scientism' which he then has no trouble dismissing. For example, he suggests that on one understanding of scientism, it is the claim that "all current scientific hypotheses are true." Is Pinker joking? No reputable writer has ever said that or defined scientism in terms of it.
After he is done with his straw-man exercise, Pinker proffers his own definition, which, as best as I can make out, comes to the following. Scientism consists in the espousal of two ideals operative in science and which "scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life." "The first is that the world is intelligible." "The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard."
So Pinker's definition is essentially this. Scientism is the view that all of our intellectual life ought to be governed by two ideals, the ideal that the world is intelligible and the ideal that knowledge-acquisition is difficult.
Now that is a pretty sorry excuse for a definition of scientism. First of all, the intelligibility of the world is not an ideal of inquiry, but a presupposition of inquiry. Inquirers do not aim at or strive after intelligibility; they presuppose it. What they strive after is knowledge and understanding, a striving that presupposes that their subject matter is understandable, and is indeed, at least in part, understandable by us. Second, that acquiring knowledge is hard is not an ideal either; it is a fact. Third, Pinker's definition is vacuous and trivial. Apart from a few radical skeptics, who would maintain that we ought not presuppose that the world is intelligible or maintain that knowledge acquisition is easy? Even those who maintain that there are limits to what we can understand presuppose that it is intelligible that there should be such limits.
Fourth, and most importantly, Pinker's definition is just a piece of self-serving rhetoric that has nothing to do with scientism as it is actually discussed by competent scholars. What competent scholars discuss is something rather more specific than Pinker's nebulosities and pious platitudes. There are a number of different types of scientism, but the following will give you some idea of how the term is actually used by people who know what they are talking about:
Eric Voegelin, "The Origins of Scientism," Social Research, Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 1948), pp. 462-494. Voegelin speaks of
. . . the scientistic creed which is characterized by three principal dogmas: (1) the assumption that the mathematized science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform; (2) that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena; and (3) that all reality which is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary.
Compare Hilary Putnam, Mathematics, Matter and Method (Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. xiii (emphasis added):
. . . I regard science as an important part of man's knowledge of reality; but there is a tradition with which I would not wish to be identified, which would say that scientific knowledge is all of man's knowledge. I do not believe that ethical statements are expressions of scientific knowledge; but neither do I agree that they are not knowledge at all. The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion . . .
Putnam does not need the MavPhil's imprimatur and nihil obstat, but he gets them anyway, at least with respect to the above quotation. The italicized sentence is vitally important. In particular, you will be waiting a long time if you expect evolutionary biology to provide any clarification of the crucial concepts mentioned. See in particular, Putnam's "Does Evolution Explain Representation?" in Reviewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992).
Here is my characterization of scientism:
Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science. The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that natural-scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the 'gold standard' when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary. Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.
I will now quote and comment on some of Pinker's text:
The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.
Pinker gets off to a rocky start with these straw-man definitions. Who ever defined 'scientism' as the view that "science is all that matters" or that "scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems"? Furthermore, there is no such "definitional vacuum" as Pinker alleges. The man has simply not done his homework. If he had studied the literature on the subject, he would have encountered a number of specific, precise definitions, such as the one from Voegelin above.
Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble.
Who ever said it was?
On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science.
Stop the straw-manning! Who would ever get it into his head to think that all current scientific hypotheses are true? And who ever maintained that this is what scientism means?
It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.
Nice rhetoric, but what does it mean concretely? And to say that scientism is not imperialistic and expansionist simply flies in the face of what major proponents of it maintain. According to Edmund O. Wilson, "It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology to be included in the Modern Synthesis." (On Human Nature, Harvard UP, 1978, p. 90; quoted in Mikael Stenmark, "What is Scientism?" Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, March 1997, p. 16) If the humanities are branches of biology, then that counts as an "occupation" of the territory of the humanities by a natural science.
If the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge, then the only genuine knowledge of the mind is via neuroscience and behavioral psychology; and if reality is all and only what is accessible to natural-scientific knowledge, then not only is phenomenological and introspective knowledge bogus, but the mind as we actually experience it is illusory. To fail to see a threat to the humanities here is to be willfully blind.
And it [scientism] is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.
I am afraid that Pinker hasn't thought his position through very well. I am glad to hear that he thinks that there are truths and values in addition to "physical stuff." What I'd like him to tell us is which natural science is equipped to elucidate truth, falsity, explanation, inference, normativity, rationality, understanding, and all the rest. Biology perhaps?
This is better referred to as a presupposition of scientific inquiry rather than as an ideal of such inquiry, but let's not quibble. It is certainly the case that all inquiry, scientific or not, presupposes the intelligibility of its subject-matter, not to mention the power of our minds to access at least part of this intelligibility. But pointing this out does nothing to support scientism in any nonvacuous sense.
The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.
What Pinker seem not to understand is that opponents of scientism are not opposed to natural-scientific inquiry. He continues to waste his breath against a straw man.
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism.
An awful sentence. Let me rewrite it so that it makes some sense. Demonizers of natural science (not scientism) often make the mistake of thinking that the quest for scientific understanding, which often takes the form of reducing X to Y, is somehow mistaken. For example, these people think that if lightning is explained as an atmspheric electrical discharge, then this reductive explanation does not generate genuiine understanding. But of course it does.
But again, what does this have to do with scientism, properly and narrowly understood?
Many of our cultural institutions cultivate a philistine indifference to science.
Sad but true! But it is also true that our cultural institutions produce hordes of ill-educated scientists who know their specialties but are philistines outside of them.
The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.
No one will deny that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. This is a fact, not an ideal. So far, Pinker has told us that scientism -- in his mouth a 'rah-rah' word as opposed to a 'boo' word -- is the view that two 'ideals should be promoted, namely, the intelligibility of nature and the fact that knowledge-acquisition is hard.
But this definition is quite empty since hardly anyone will oppose scientism so defined. Who denies that inquiry presupposes intelligibility and that knowledge-acquisition is hard?
The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Now the problem is not that Pinker is saying something trivial but that he is saying something false. One source of knowledge is the testimony of experts and authorities and eye witnesses. Indeed much of what we know about the natural world is known on the basis of the say-so of experts whose authority we credit. For example, I know that there is no such thing as the luminiferous ether even though I have not replicated the Michelson-Morley experiement. How do I know it? I know it by reading it in reputable science texts. Besides, how many physicists have replicated the Michaelson-Morley experiment or the experiments or observations that confirm relativity physics? Could one do science at all if one took nothing on authority and tried to work everything out for oneself, including the advanced mathematics without which modern physics is unthinkable? Think about it. So it is simply false to say, as Pinker does, that authority is a "generator of error." Sometimes it is. But mostly it isn't.
Similarly with "conventional wisdom." Sometimes it leads us astray. But mostly it doesn't.
To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.
More platitudes! Who denies this? And what does any of this have to do with scientism?
My first example is here. Read it for context and for some necessary distinctions. Now for a second example. Adam Frank writes,
For Smolin there is no timeless world and there are no timeless laws. Time, he says, is real and nothing can escape it.
Time, of course, seems real to us. We live in and through time. But to physicists, time's fundamental reality is an illusion.
Ever since Newton, physicists have been developing ever-more exact laws describing the behavior of the world. These laws live outside of time because they don't change.
That means these laws are more real than time.
First of all, it can be true both that time is real and that not everything is in time.
Second, if you want to tell us that time is an illusion, just say that, don't say, oxymoronically, that its fundamental reality is an illusion. Obviously, if something has reality, let alone fundamental reality, then it cannot be an illusion.
Third, as I argued earlier, it is impossible to maintain both that time is an illusion and that, e.g., the Big Bang occurred 12-13 billion years ago. If you want to say that temporal becoming or temporal passage is an illusion, then say that; but don't confuse the rejection of temporal becoming with the rejection of time altogether. For it could well be that time is real, but exhausted by the B-series, as I explained in the earlier post. And this, I take it, is what most physicists maintain. They think of time as the fourth dimension of a four-dimensional space-time manifold. That is not a denial of the reality of time; it is a theory of what time is.
Fourth, it is intolerably sloppy to say that "to physicists," time is an illusion when, as is obvious, Smolin is a physicist who denies this!
Fifth, If the laws of physics don't change, how is it supposed to follow or "mean" (!) that "these laws are more real than time." What on earth is this guy getting at? Is he suggesting that time is an illusion because the laws of physics are real? The laws of physics are real and they 'govern' what happens in the changing physical world which is also real.
Frank, I take it, is a physicist. So he must be capable of precise thinking and clear writing. Why then does he write such slop as the above in his off-hours? Why can't he write something clear and coherent that is helpful to the interested layman?
I fear that a lot of our contemporary scientists are hopelessly bereft of general culture. They are brilliant in their specialties but otherwise uneducated. But that does not stop the likes of Dawkins and Krauss and Coyne and Hawking and Mlodinow from spouting off about God and time and the meaning of life . . . . They want to play the philosopher without doing any 'homework.' They think it's easy: you just shoot your mouth off.
Why do we need philosophy? There are several reasons, but one is to expose the confusions and absurdities of scientists and science journalists when they encroach ineptly upon philosophical territory. This from science writer Clara Moskowitz in Controversially, Physicist Argues Time is Real:
NEW YORK — Is time real, or the ultimate illusion?
Most physicists would say the latter, but Lee Smolin challenges this orthodoxy in his new book, "Time Reborn" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2013) . . . .
Time is an illusion? And this is supposed to be orthodoxy? But don't the cosmologists tells us that the universe began in a Big Bang some 12-13 billion years ago? If time is an illusion, then that statement and statements like it cannot be true. For if time is "the ultimate illusion," , then it is never true that event x is earlier than event y, that y is later than x, or that x and y are simultaneous (whether absolutely or relative to a reference-frame). But surely the Big Bang is earlier than my birth, and my blogging is later than my having had breakfast. If time is an illusion, however, then the so-called B-relations (as the philosophers all them) cannot be instantiated. The B-relations are: earlier than, later than, and simultaneous with. Physics cannot do without them. If time is an illusion, then it cannot be true that the speed of light is finite (in a vacuum, approx. 186, 282 mi/sec). But it is true, and because of it, sunlight takes time to arrive at Earth (about 8 min 19 sec). It arrives later (temporal word!) than it started out. Therefore, time cannot be an illusion.
My first point, then, is that the physicists themselves presuppose that time is not an illusion by the very fact that they employ such phrases as 'earlier than,' 'later than,' 'simultaneous with,' and a host of other temporal words and phrases. Suppose two cosmologists are discussing whether the universe began 15 billion years ago or 12 billion years ago. Debating this point, they presuppose that time is precisely not an illusion. The past-tensed 'began' and the little word 'ago' make it clear why. Reading on we come to this:
In a conversation with Duke University neuroscientist Warren Meck, theoretical physicist Smolin, who's based at Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, argued for the controversial idea that time is real. "Time is paramount," he said, "and the experience we all have of reality being in the present moment is not an illusion, but the deepest clue we have to the fundamental nature of reality."
Time is paramount? No doubt! No time, no physics. All of reality is in the present moment? So what happened in the past is not part of reality? When we inquire into what happened, whether as historians or as cosmologists, what then are we inquiring into? Unreality? Mere possibility? Fiction? Do you really want to say that all of reality is in the present moment? There is a deep confusion here (whether it is chargeable to Smolin's account or the science writer's, I don't know): It one thing to affirm the doctrine of presentism according to which only the temporal present and its contents are real; it is quite another to affirm, as Smolin seems to be doing, that time is not exhausted by the B-series, the series of events ordered by the above-mentioned B-relations.
Smolin said he hadn't come to this concept lightly. He started out thinking, as most physicists do, that time is subjective and illusory. According to Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, time is just another dimension in space, traversable in either direction, and our human perception of moments passing steadily and sequentially is all in our heads.
We now see what is really going on here. Smolin is not opposing the claim that time is an illusion, but the claim that time is exhausted by the B-series, where the B-series (this term from McTaggart) is the series of events ordered by the B-relations. Clearly, there is a difference between saying that time is real, but exhausted by the B-series, and saying that time is unreal. There is nothing particularly controversial about maintaining that time is real. What is controversial is to maintain that real time involves not only the instantiation of the B-relations but also the (shifting) instantiation of the irreducible A-properties, pastness, presentness, and futurity.
As we ordinarily think of it, time passes, flows, indeed 'flies.' Tempus fugit! as the Latin saying goes. We think of events approaching us from the future, getting closer and closer until they become present, and then receding into the past becoming ever more past. Thus, as a natural man, I think of my death as approaching, becoming less and less future, and my birth as receding, as becoming more and more past. This belief in the reality of temporal becoming (as some philosophers call it) is part and parcel of our ordinary view of the world. But physics, pace Smolin, needn't concern itself with it.
Now it is not unreasonable to think of temporal passage or temporal becoming as a mind-dependent phenomena such that, in reality, there is no temporal becoming, and no (shifting) exemplification of the A-properties. All there is are events ordered by the B-relations. But this is not to say that time is an illusion but that real time is exhaustively analyzable in terms of the B-relations. Note also that if temporal becoming is mind-dependent, it doesn't follow that it is an illusion. Phenomenal colors are m ind-dependent but not illusory.
There is more, but it doesn't get any better, and I have exposed enough confusions for one day. To sum up:
1. One ought not confuse the claim that time is an illusion with the claim that time is exhausted by the B-series.
2. That time is real is presupposed by both common sense and the practice of physicists.
3. One ought not confuse presentism, the view that only the temporally present exists, with the claim that there is more to time than the B-series.
4. One ought not confuse the claim that temporal becoming is mind-dependent with the claim that temporal becoming is an illusion.
5. One ought not confuse the claim that temporal becoming is an illusion with the claim that time is an illusion, or the claim that time is real with the claim that temporal becoming is real.
The answer depends on what counts as science. The so-called 'hard' sciences set the standard. This useful article lists the following five characteristics of science in the strict and eminent sense:
1. Clearly defined terminology. 2. Quantifiability. 3. Highly controlled conditions. "A scientifically rigorous study maintains direct control over as many of the factors that influence the outcome as possible. The experiment is then performed with such precision that any other person in the world, using identical materials and methods, should achieve the exact same result." 4. Reproducibility. "A rigorous science is able to reproduce the same result over and over again. Multiple researchers on different continents, cities, or even planets should find the exact same results if they precisely duplicated the experimental conditions." 5. Predictability and Testability. "A rigorous science is able to make testable predictions."
These characteristics set the bar for strict science very high. For example, is climate science science according to these criteria? I'll leave you to ponder that question. There are branches of physics that cannot satisfy all five criteria. But most of physics and chemistry meets the standard.
Am I suggesting that the only real knowledge is rigorously scientific knowledge? Of course not. Consider the knowledge we find in the first article to which I linked. There is no doubt in my mind that each of the five criteria the author mentions is a criterion of science in the strictest sense. (I leave open the question whether there are other criteria). Now how do we know that? By performing repeatable experiments in highly controlled conditions? No. By making testable predictions? No.
We know that (1)-(5) are criteria of genuine science by reflecting on scientific practice and isolating its characteristics. When we do that we engage in the philosophy of science. Since some of the philosophy of science gives us genuine knowledge about natural science, knowledge that it not itself scientific knowledge, it cannot be the case that all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge.
That all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge is the thesis of (strong) scientism. Therefore, (strong) scientism is false.
• People ascribe a stereotype to everybody in the subject group. "All Germans are efficient." "All English people have bad teeth." In fact, these researchers were not able to locate anybody who believes that a stereotype is true of all members of the stereotyped group. Stereotypes are probabilistic tools, and even the most dull-witted human beings seem to know this. People who believe that Mexicans are lazy or that the French don't wash, understand perfectly well that there are lots of industrious Mexicans and fragrant Frenchmen.
• Stereotypes exaggerate group characteristics. No, they don't. Much more often, the opposite is true. For example, the racial stereotypes that white Americans hold of black Americans are generally accurate; and where they are inaccurate, they always under-estimate a negative characteristic. The percentage of black American families headed by a female, for example, was 21 at the time of one survey (1978): the whites whose stereotypes were being investigated offered estimates of from 8 to 12 per cent. It is not true that stereotypes generally exaggerate group differences. As in this example, they are much more likely to downplay them.
• Stereotypes blind us to individual characteristics. Nope. It is not the case that when we pass from a situation where we have nothing to go on but a stereotype (cab driver being hailed by young black male) to one where a person's individuality comes into play (interviewing a black job applicant), our stereotypes blind us to "individuating traits." On the contrary, researchers have found that the individuating traits are seized on for attention, and stereotypes discarded, with rather more enthusiasm than the accuracy of stereotypes would justify. Teachers' judgments about their students, for example, rest almost entirely on student differences in performance, hardly at all on race, class or gender stereotypes. This is as one would wish, but not as one would expect if the denigrators of stereotyping were to be believed.
• The real function of stereotypes is to bolster our own self-esteem. Wrong again. This is not a factor in most stereotyping. The scientific evidence is that the primary function of stereotypes is what researchers very prettily call "the reality function." That is, stereotypes are useful tools for dealing with the world. Confronted with a snake or a faun, our immediate behavior is determined by generalized beliefs — stereotypes — about snakes and fauns. Stereotypes are, in fact, merely one aspect of the mind's ability to make generalizations, without which science and mathematics, not to mention much of everyday life, would be impossible. Researcher Clark R. McCauley:
Standing next to the bus driver, we are more likely to ask about traffic patterns than about the latest foreign film. On the highway, we try to squeeze into the exit lane in front of the man driving a 10-year-old station wagon rather than trying to pull in on the man driving a new Corvette. Looking for the school janitor, we are more likely to approach a young man in overalls than a young woman in overalls. This kind of discrimination on the basis of group differences can go wrong, but most of us probably feel that we are doing ourselves and others a favor when we respond to whatever cues and regularities our social environment affords us.
Hawking is a brilliant man, but he's not an expert in what's going on in philosophy, evidently. Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes. I think he just doesn't know what he's talking about. I mean there's no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I'm sure it's very difficult for him to do. But I think he's just . . . uninformed.
This became evident to me in October of 2010 when I sat down to study Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design. I soon discovered it was rubbish. Here are my notes on Chapter One. After studying Chapter Two I decide the trash-to-treasure ratio was so unfavorable as not to justify further discussion. I mean, it's work writing these posts!
This Atlantic piece is well worth attention. It is free of sort of nonsense I have criticized in Krauss and Coyne and Hawking and others.
I now have Alvin Plantinga's new book in my hands. Here are some notes on the preface. Since I agree with almost everything in the preface, the following batch of notes will be interpretive but not critical. Words and phrases enclosed in double quotation marks are Plantinga's ipsissima verba.
1. Plantinga is concerned with the relations among monotheistic religion, natural science, and naturalism. His main thesis is that there is "superficial conflict but deep concord" between natural science and monotheistic religion but "superficial concord but deep conflict" between science and naturalism.
2. The great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) affirm the existence of "such a person as God." Naturalism is a worldview that entails the nonexistence of such a person. "Naturalism is stronger than atheism." (p. ix) Naturalism entails atheism, but atheism does not entail naturalism. One can be an atheist without being a naturalist. John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart is an example. (My example, not Plantinga's.) But one cannot be a naturalist without being an atheist. This is perhaps obvious, which is why Plantinga doesn't explain it. Roughly, a naturalist holds that the whole of reality (or perhaps only the whole of concrete reality) is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents. No one who holds this can hold that there is such a person as God, God being a purely spiritual agent.
To put it my own way, theistic religion and naturalism could not both be true, but they could both be false. This makes them logical contraries, not contradictories. Their being the former suffices to put them in real conflict. For many of us this is what the ultimate worldview choice comes down to.
3. Plantinga rightly points out that while naturalism is not a religion, it is a worldview that is like a religion. So it can be properly called a quasi-religion. (p. x) This is because it plays many of the same roles that a religion plays. It provides answers to the Big Questions: Does God exist? Can we survive our bodily deaths? How should we live?
I would add that there are religious worldviews and anti-religious worldviews, but that natural science is not a worldview. Science is not in the business of supplying worldview needs: needs for meaning, purpose, guidance, norms and values. Science cannot put religion out of business, as I argue here, though perhaps in some ways that Plantinga would not endorse.
4. Given that naturalism is a quasi-religion, there is a sense in which there is a genuine science vs. religion conflict, namely, a conflict between science and the quasi-religion, naturalism. Very clever!
5. Plantinga's claim that "there is no serious conflict between science and religion" puts him at odds with what I call the Dawkins Gang and what Plantinga calls the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Plantinga, who never fails us when it comes to wit and style, suggests that the atheism of these four "is adolescent rebellion carried on by other means" (p. xi) that doesn't rise to the level of the the old atheism of Bertrand Russell and John Mackie. "We may perhaps hope that the new atheism is but a temporary blemish on the face of serious conversation in this crucial area." That is indeed the hope of all right-thinking and serious people, whether theists or atheists.
6. Plantinga fully appreciates that modern natural science is a magnficent thing, "the most striking and impressive intellectual phenomenon of the last half millenium." (p. xi) This has led some to the mistake of thinking that science is the ultimate court of appeal when it comes to the fixation of belief. But this can't be right for two reasons. First, science gives us no help in the areas where we most need enlightenment: religion, politics, and morals, for example. (p. xii) There are worldview needs, after all, and science cannot supply them. "Second, science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time." (p. xii) Indeed it does. But no one, least of all Plantinga, takes that as an argument against science as open-ended inquiry. A question to ruminate on: Should not religion also be thought of as open-ended and subject to correction?
7. I would say that if there is demonstrable conflict between a religious belief and a well-established finding of current natural science, then the religious belief must give way. Plantinga commits himself to something rather less ringing: if there were such a conflict, then "initially, at least, it would cast doubt on those religious beliefs inconsistent with current science."(p. xii). But he doesn't think there is any conflict between "Christian belief and science, while there is conflict between naturalism and science."
8. One apparent conflict is between evolution and religion, another between miracles and science. Plantinga will argue that these conflicts are merely apparent. Theistic religion does not conflict with evolution but with a "philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific theory of evolution: the claim that it is undirected . . . ." (p. xii) As for miracles, Plantinga says he will show that they do not violate the causal closure of the physical domain and the various conservation laws that govern it. "Any system in which a divine miracle occurs . . . would not be causally closed; hence such a system is not addressed by those laws." (p. xiii) That sounds a bit fishy, but we shall have to see how Plantinga develops the argument.
9. As for the "deep concord" between theistic thinking and science, it is rooted in the imago Dei. If God has created us in his image, then he has created us with the power to understand ourselves and our world. This implies that he he has created us and our world "in such a way that there is a match between our cognitive powers and the world." (p. xiv) I would put it like this: both the intelligibility of the world and our intelligence have a common ground in God. This common ground or source secures both the objectivity of truth and the possibility of our knowing some of it, and thereby the possibility of successful science.
10. But when it comes to naturalism and science, there is "deep and serious conflict." Naturalism entails materialism about the human mind. It entails that we are just complex physical systems. If so, then Plantinga will argue that "it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable." If this can be shown, then the conjunction of naturalism and evolution is not rationally acceptable. "Hence naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can't rationally accept them both." (p. xiv)
The publication of Alvin Plantinga's latest book has been noted in the NYT (HT: Dave Lull):
In “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism,” published last week by Oxford University Press, he unleashes a blitz of densely reasoned argument against “the touchdown twins of current academic atheism,” the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, spiced up with some trash talk of his own.
Mr. Dawkins? “Dancing on the lunatic fringe,” Mr. Plantinga declares. Mr. Dennett? A reverse fundamentalist who proceeds by “inane ridicule and burlesque” rather than by careful philosophical argument.
On the telephone Mr. Plantinga was milder in tone but no less direct. “It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism,” he said. “I think it’s a complete mistake and ought to be pointed out.”
Exactly right. The notion that science supports the philosophical position, naturalism, is an error no less grotesque for being widespread. My categories Naturalism and Scientism may contain some helpful material.
If science can eventually provide what religion promises, then science will eventually put religion out of business. But can science provide what religion promises? I will argue that it cannot. My argument will not assume that any religion, or any combination of religions, is true, wholly or in part. Perhaps no actual or possible religion makes contact with reality at any point. Perhaps every actual or possible religion is nothing but an elaborate expression of human neediness, of human wishes, dreams, hopes, and fears. Still, there remains the fact of these fears and hopes, and the question whether anything can assuage the former and fulfill the latter. I will begin by listing the main types of problem that religion addresses, and then ask whether current or future science, or rather, a technology that implements current or future science, can supply the needs that religions cater to.
The Problems Religion Addresses
1. The first category of problems includes the facts that shook young prince Siddartha to his core, moved him to forsake the royal compound with its impressive perquisites and blandishments and set him on the austere path to becoming Buddha, the supremely enlightened one who saw to the bottom of our predicament and saw the way out (as his followers believe), and went on to found Buddhism. What shook Siddartha and shocked him deeply were sickness, old age, death, and everything connected with them, everything that causes them and everything they bring in their train. We can lump all this under the rubric of natural evil: suffering and misery in all its forms that arises from natural causes. For Buddha the fundamental fact and the fundamental problem was that of suffering, which is why the First Noble Truth, which is not only first in the order of presentation but also first in the order of importance, is "All is suffering," sarvam dukkham.
2. The second category is that of moral evil. These are the problems that come into the world via the exercise of free will, from the merest unkindness on up to the horrors of rape, torture, slavery, mass murder, abuse of power by governments and their agents, as well as by private individuals, and all the crimes that fill the history books and the pages of every newspaper in every corner of the globe every day. Here belong all the ills that derive not just from weakness of will, but even more from perversity of will.
3. The third category is that of moral and intellectual blindness, ignorance, and delusion, for example, the delusional thinking of someone who believes that happiness will be his if he succeeds in murdering his wife, collecting on a life insurance policy, and getting away with the crime.
4. Under the fourth rubric I collect all the problems associated with the ontological deficiency of the world of our ordinary experience. All of the deeper heads in the East, the Near East and the West from Buddha and Ecclesiastes to Plato and Plotinus to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have been struck and shocked by the vanity of existence and the transitoriness of life. "I am aggrieved by the transitoriness of things," wrote Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck. A homo religiosus with the bladed intellect of a skeptic, Nietzsche couldn't bring himself to accept any traditional religion. And yet the religious need was alive in him, and it was that need that gave rise to his peculiar scheme of Redemption in the form of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.
Connected with the vanity of existence and the transience of life is the apparent meaninglessness of our lives. Albert Camus famously argued in the The Myth of Sisyphus that the one and only serious philosophical problem is that of suicide. Does the Absurd demand suicide as the only appropriate response? That was his question. He characterized the Absurd as the disproportion between the human craving for meaning and the universe's apparent meaninglessness. What we want it cannot provide. It is not that the universe is indifferent to us -- indifference, after all, is a human attitude which presupposes concern and is a privation thereof -- but beyond indifference and interestedness. The silence of ther universe is not a privation of speech, but something deeper -- and worse.
We suffer from a lack of existential meaning, a meaning that we cannot supply from our own resources since any subjective acts of meaning-positing are themselves (objectively) meaningless. Connected with this is our deep existential insecurity which erupts into consciousness from time to time in the form of the anxiety, anguish, dread, Angst that Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre described. This is not an anxiety about this or that; its intentional object is global, our very Being-in-the-world in Heideggerian jargon. This is experienced as unheimlich. Anxiety reveals that we are not at home in the world. We feel desolation. I feel fear for an intramundane being, ein innerweltliches Seiende; I feel Angst for my very In-der-Welt-sein, which is precarious desolate and lived in the face of das Nichts. (The connection between original sin and dread/anxiety is explored by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Dread.)
I don't claim that the above catalog is complete or even very well constructed: #4 bleeds back into #1 especially if suffering is taken in the radical Buddhist sense in which all-pervasive dukkha (suffering, ill, unsatisfactoriness) is undepinned by anatta (selflessness, insubstantiality) and anicca (radical, Heraclitean impermanence). For the Buddhist, suffering goes deep, rooted as it is in the very ontological structure of the world of our ordinary experience.
But I have said enough to make clear what sorts of problems religion addresses. It follows that the salvation religion promises is not to be understood in some crass physical sense the way the typical superficial and benighted atheist-materialist would take it but as salvation from meaninglessness, anomie, spiritual desolation, Unheimlichkeit, existential insecurity, Angst, ignorance and delusion, false value-prioritizations, moral corruption irremediable by any human effort, failure to live up to ideals, the vanity and transience of our lives, meaningless sufferings and cravings and attachments, the ultimate pointlessness of all efforts at moral and intellectual improvement in the face of death . . . .
I should add that anyone who doesn't feel these problems to be genuine problems will have no understanding of religion at all. And I remind the reader that I do not assume that any religion can deliver on its promises of salvation from the above litany of problems. My point is that natural science and its resulting technologies are powerless to solve these problems.
This ought to be self-evident to anyone who appreciates the problems. Consider #1. If suffering is rooted as deeply as the Buddhists think, in the very ontological structure of this changeful world, then obviously no mere manipulation of matter will solve the problem of suffering. You can drug people into a stupor, but being rendered insensate is no solution to the problems of sentient suffering. Suppose you don't think suffering is as deeply rooted as the Buddhists think. Sickness, old age, and death remain inevitable despite the welcome alleviations and life-extensions that modern science makes possible.
As for the rest of my categories, it is self-evident that there are no technological solutions to moral evil, moral ignorance, and the apparent absurdity of life. Is a longer life a morally better life? Can mere longevity confer meaning?
The notion that present or future science can solve the problems that religion addresses is utterly chimerical.
Here's how I think science will eventually put religion out of business. Soon medical science is going to be able to offer serious life extension, not pie-in-the-sky soul survival or re-incarnation, but real life extension with possible rejuvenation. When science can offer and DELIVER what religion can only promise, religion is done.
1. Religion is in the transcendence business. The type of transcendence offered depends on the particular religion. The highly sophisticated form of Christianity expounded by Thomas Aquinas offers the visio beata, the Beatific Vision. In the BV -- you will forgive the abbreviation -- the soul does not lose its identity. It maintains its identity, though in a transformed mode, while participating in the divine life. Hinduism and Buddhism offer even more rarefied forms of transcendence in which the individual self is either absorbed into the eternal Atman, thereby losing its individual identity, or extinguished altogether by entry into Nirvana. And there are cruder forms of transcendence, in popular forms of Christianity, in Islam, and in other faiths, in which the individual continues to exist after death but with little or no transformation to enjoy delights that are commensurable with the ones enjoyed here below. The crudest form, no doubt, is the popular Islamic notion of paradise as an endless sporting with 72 black-eyed virgins. So on the one end of the spectrum: transcendence as something difficult to distinguish from utter extinction; on the other end, immortality mit Haut und Haar (to borrow a delightful phrase from Schopenhauer), "with skin and hair" in a realm of sensuous delights but without the usual negatives such as heart burn and erectile dysfunction.
I think we can safely say that a religion that offers no form of transcendence, whether Here or Hereafter, is no religion at all. Religion, then, is in the business of offering transcendence.
2. I agree with my correspondent that if science can provide what religion promises, then science will put religion out of business. But as my crude little sketch above shows, different religions promise different things. Now the crudest form of transcendence is physical immortality, immortality "with skin and hair." Is it reasonable to hope that future science will give rise to a technology that will make us, or some of us, physically immortal? I don't think so. That would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics according to which the entropy of an irreversible process in an isolated system increases leading in the case of the universe (which is both isolated and irreversible) to the heat death of the universe and the end of all life. Granted, that is way off in the future. But that is irrelevant if the claim is that physical immortality is possible by purely physical means. And if that is not the claim, then the use of the phrase 'physical immortality' is out of place. In a serious discussion like this word games are strictly verboten.
3. Physical immortality is nomologically impossible, impossible given the laws of nature. Of course, a certain amount of life extension has been achieved and it is reasonable to expect that more will be achieved. So suppose the average life expectancy of people like us gets cranked up to 130 years. To underscore the obvious, to live to 130 is not to live forever. Suppose you have made it to 130 and are now on your death bed. If you have any spiritual depth at all, your lament is likely to be similar to that of Jacob's: "The length of my pilgrimage has been one hundred and thirty years; short and wretched has been my life, nor does it compare with the years my fathers lived during their pilgrimage." (Genesis 47:9)
The important point here is that once a period of time is over, it makes no difference how long it has lasted. It is over and done with and accessible only in the flickering and dim light of intermittent and fallible memory. The past 'telescopes' and 'scrunches up,' the years melt into one another; the past cannot be relived. What was distinctly lived is now all a blur. And now death looms before you. What does it matter that you lived 130 or 260 years? You are going to die all the same, and be forgotten, and all your works with you. After a while it will be as if you never existed.
The problem is not that our lives are short; the problem is that we are in time at all. No matter how long a life extends it is still a life in time, a life in which the past is no longer, the future not yet, and the present a passing away. This problem, the problem of the transitoriness of life, cannot be solved by life extension even if, per impossibile, physical immortality were possible. This problem of the transitoriness and vanity of life is one that religion addresses.
So my first conclusion is this. Even if we take religion in its crudest form, as promising physical immortality, "with skin and hair," science cannot put such a crude religion out of business. For, first of all, physical immortality is physically impossible, and second, mere life extension, even unto the age of a Methuselah, does not solve the problem of the transitoriness of life.
4. But I have just begun to scratch the surface of the absurdities of transhumanism. No higher religion is about providing natural goodies by supernatural means, goodies that cannot be had by natural means. Talk of pie-in-the-sky is but a cartoonish misrepresentation by those materialists who can only think in material terms and only believe in what they can hold in their hands. A religion such as Christianity promises a way out of the unsatisfactory predicament we find ourselves in in this life. What makes our situation unsatisfactory is not merely our physical and mental weakness and the shortness of our lives. It is primarily our moral defects that make our lives in this world miserable. We lie and slander, steal and cheat, rape and murder. We are ungrateful for what we have and filled with inordinate desire for what we don't have and wouldn't satisfy us even if we had it. We are avaricious, gluttonous, proud, boastful and self-deceived. It is not just that our wills are weak; our wills are perverse. It is not just that are hearts are cold; our hearts are foul. You say none of this applies to you? Very well, you will end up the victim of those to whom these predicates do apply. And then your misery will be, not the misery of the evil-doer, but the misery of the victim and the slave. You may find yourself forlorn and forsaken in a concentration camp. Suffering you can bear, but not meaningless suffering, not injustice and absurdity.
Whether or not the higher religions can deliver what they promise, what they promise first and foremost is deliverance from ignorance and delusion, salvation from meaninglessness and moral evil. So my correspondent couldn't be more wrong. No physical technology can do what religion tries to do. Suppose a technology is developed that actually reverses the processes of aging and keeps us all alive indefinitely. This is pure fantasy, of course, given the manifold contingencies of the world (nuclear and biological warfare, terrorism, natural disasters, etc.); but just suppose. Our spiritual and moral predicament would remain as deeply fouled-up as it has always been and religion would remain in business.
5. If, like my correspondent, you accept naturalism and scientism, then you ought to face what you take to be reality, namely, that we are all just clever animals slated to perish utterly in a few years, and not seek transcendence where it cannot be found. Accept no substitutes! Transhumanism is an ersatz religion.
It could be like this. All religions are false; none can deliver what they promise. Naturalism is true: reality is exhausted by the space-time system. You are not unreasonable if you believe this. But I say you are unreasonable if you think that technologies derived from the sciences of nature can deliver what religions have promised.
As long as there are human beings there will be religion. The only way I can imagine religion withering away is if humanity allows itself to be gradually replaced by soulless robots. But in that case it will not be that the promises of religion are fulfilled by science; it would be that no one would be around having religious needs.
An excellent analogy. (HT: Ron Brinegar) But every analogy limps. There is no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy would be an identity, and one cannot (usefully) compare a thing to itself. So, after enjoying Feynman's fine analogy, you should ask yourself what the points of disanalogy are.
Many thanks to reader David Parker for sending me a copy of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010). Not a book worth buying, but graciously accepted gratis! When physicists need money, they scribble books for popular consumption. But who can blame them: doing physics is hard while writing bad philosophy is easy.
Numbers in parentheses are page references.
The first chapter, "The Mystery of Being," gets off to a rocky start with a curious bit of anthropomorphism: the universe is described as "by turns kind and cruel," (5) when it is obviously neither. Imputing human attitudes to nature is unscientific last time I checked. And then there is the chapter's title. I would have thought that the purpose of science is to dispel mystery. But let that pass. The authors remind us that we humans ask Big Questions about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe, e.g., "Did the universe need a creator?" (5) True, but the past tense of that question betrays a curious bias, as if a creator is a mere cosmic starter-upper as opposed to a being ongoingly involved in the existence of the world at each instant. It is the latter that sophisticated theists maintain.
The Big Questions traditionally belong to philosophy, but we are told that "philosophy is dead." (5) Unfortunately for the authors, "Philosophy always buries its undertakers," as Etienne Gilson famously observed in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1937, p. 306) He calls this the first law of philosophical experience. Memorize it, and have it at the ready the next time someone says something silly like "philosophy is dead." As a codicil to the Gilsonian dictum, I suggest "and presides over their oblivion."
Philosophy is dead, the authors opine, because she "has not kept up with modern developments in the sciences, particularly physics." (5) To get answers to such questions as Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other? we must turn to physics. (These three questions are listed on p. 10) It will be very surprising if physics -- physics alone without any smuggled-in philosophical additions -- can answer the first and third questions. But it will never answer the second question. For we are conscious and self-conscious moral agents, and no purely physical explanation of consciousness, self-consciousness and all it entails can be derived from physics alone.
What I expect the authors to do is to smuggle in various philosophical theses along with their physics. But if they do so -- if they stray the least bit from pure physics -- then they prove that philosophy is alive after all, in their musings. What they will then be doing is not opposing philosophy as such, but urging their philosophy on us, all the while hiding from us the fact that it is indeed philosophy.
That's a pretty shabby tactic, if you want my opinion. (And there you have it, even if you don't want it.) You posture as if you are opposing all philosophy which you claim is "dead," which presumably means 'cognitively worthless,' and then you go on to make blatantly philosophical assertions which are neither properly clarified as to their sense, nor supported by anything that could count as rigorous argumentation. For example, in Chapter 2, the authors opine that "free will is just an illusion." (32) The sloppy 'reasoning' laden with rhetorical questions that leads up to this obviously philosophical assertion is nothing that could be justified by pure physics. I will come back to this when I discuss Chapter 2.
Quantum theory is brought up and the suggestion is floated that "the universe itself has no single history, nor even an independent existence." (6) It has "every possible history." A little later we are introduced to M-theory:
. . . M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather,these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. (8-9)
The writing here is quite inept. If the authors want to say that these universes came into being out of nothing, they should say that, and not say that they were created out of nothing. Creation, whether out of nothing or out of something, implies a creator. It is also inept to speak of 'intervention.' If God creates a universe, he does not intervene in it; he causes it to exist in the first place. One can intervene only in what already exists. Such sloppy writing does not inspire confidence, and suggests that the thinking behind the writing is equally sloppy. But even ignoring these infelicities of expression, it is a plain contradiciton to say that these universes comes into being out of nothing and that they arise naturally from physical law. Whatever physical law is, it is not nothing! That's clear, I hope. So why don't our physicists say what they mean, namely that these multiple universes came into being , not from nothing, but from physical law. That would be noncontradictory although it would prompt the question as to the nature and existence of physical law or laws.
Another apparent contradiction worth noting: After mentioning quantum theory in the Chapter 1, the authjors assure us in Chpater 2 that "scientific determinism" is "the basis of all modern science." (30) How this is supposed to jive, I have no idea. But hey, when the idea is to make a fast buck, who cares about such niceties as logical consistency?
Not only did many universes come into existence out of physical law (or is it out of nothing?), but "Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is at times like the present . . . ." (9) Most of these states are unsuitable for the existence of any form of life. It is our presence that "selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible with our existence." (9) That's a neat trick given that universes "have no independent existence." (6) If so, then we have no independent existence and cannot function as the "lords of creation" (9) who select among the vast array of universes.
But I want to be fair. Perhaps later chapters will remove some of the murk. There is also this consideration: Even bad books are good if they stimulate thought. But don't buy it. Borrow it from a library.
As I always say, "Never buy a book you haven't read."
(People have been asking me to comment on Stephen Hawking's new book. As a sort of warm-up, I have decided to repost the following entry from the old site.)
I am all for natural science and I have studied my fair share of it. I attended a demanding technical high school where I studied electronics and I was an electrical engineering major in college with all the mathematics and science that that entails. But I strongly oppose scientism and the pseudo-scientific blather that too many contemporary physicists engage in. Case in point: Lawrence M Krauss's recent comment quoted in the pages of the New York Times that “We’re just a bit of pollution,” . . . “If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would be largely the same. We’re completely irrelevant.”
The context of Krauss's remarks is the theory of 'dark matter' and 'dark energy' where 'dark' signifies presently unknown and possibly forever unknown. The idea is that the universe ". . . is made of only 4 percent of the kind of matter we have always assumed it to be — the material that makes up you and me and this magazine and all the planets and stars in our galaxy and in all 125 billion galaxies beyond. The rest — 96 percent of the universe" is composed of dark matter.
So far, so good. I have no objection to cosmological theorizing, no matter how outlandish, though I am curious about what sorts of experimental data could be taken as confirmatory of the dark matter hypothesis. When physicists talk physics, I humbly listen; I do not presume to know better than they how they should proceed with their work.
But when they or popular expositors draw crazy philosophical inferences from physical theories then I feel entitled to speak out. To quote from the NYT piece:
If so [i.e., if 96% of the matter in the universe is 'dark'], such a development would presumably not be without philosophical consequences of the civilization-altering variety. Cosmologists often refer to this possibility as “the ultimate Copernican revolution”: not only are we not at the center of anything; we’re not even made of the same stuff as most of the rest of everything. “We’re just a bit of pollution,” Lawrence M. Krauss, a theorist at Case Western Reserve, said not long ago at a public panel on cosmology in Chicago. “If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would be largely the same. We’re completely irrelevant.”
The thesis being presented is that we human beings are "completely irrelevant," insignificant, and of no value in that "We're just a bit of pollution." Is this supposed to follow from the fact, if it is a fact, that we are not made of the same stuff as most of the rest of everything? To think so would be to embrace a breathtaking non sequitur.
If you can think clearly, you should be able to see that our relevance, significance and value have nothing to do with where our bodies are in space, or how big our bodies are, or what stuff we are made of, or whether the kind of stuff we are made of is small or large in quantity relative to the kind of stuff the rest of the universe is made of.
To see the absurdity of Krauss's reasoning, ask yourself whether our 'relevance' would be greater if dark matter were only 10% or 4% or 0% of the total matter in the universe instead of 96%. Would we become more relevant, and less of a 'pollutant' if all of the matter was like the matter our bodies are composed of? Obviously not. The very notion is absurd.
Similarly, if the universe had a center and we moved closer to or farther away from that center, would our significance and relevance wax and wane accordingly? Again this is absurd. Whatever significance we have cannot vary with our position in space or with the relative magnitude of the star which is our sun, and like facts. The upshot of the Copernican revolution, roughly, was that the earth went around the sun and not vice versa. True, but so what? How could that possibly diminish our status? And if the 'ultimate Copernican revolution' show us to be made of an underrepresented sort of stuff, how is that relevant to our status and worth?
Much is sometimes made of how tiny we are in the cosmos. Well, suppose we got bigger and bigger and bigger until we filled the entire cosmos. Does getting bigger elevate one's significance? Are fat people more significant and less irrelevant than thin people? Can I increase my moral stature by putting on weight or by being stretched on the rack? Again, this is simply absurd. Size does not matter when it comes to significance.
And the same goes for time. An individual human life is vanishingly small on a cosmic scale, and the same goes for the life of homo sapiens. We are a flash in the pan, so to speak. But would our significance be greater if we existed at every time? Is the temporal length of an individual huamn life a measure of its value? In the words of an old cigarette commercial, "It is not how long you make it but how you make it long." Plainly put, length does not matter; quality of life matters. And quality of life is not something physical.
Let me be painfully clear about what I am saying. I am assuming arguendo that
1. The kind of matter of which human beings are composed is only 4% of the total matter in the universe.
Whether or not (1) is true is a question for physicists, not philosophers. As a philosopher I am concerned with the inference from (1) to
2. Humans beings are "completely irrelevant," "a bit of pollution."
My claim is that this inference is obviously invalid. (2) does not follow from (1) and (1) offers no support for (2). (1) does not even offer inductive support for (2). Furthermore, the words and phrases in (2) are evaluative which makes (2) an evaluative claim whereas (1) is a factual and thus non-evaluative claim. So one can tax the inference with the fallacy of deriving a value judgment from a factual judgment.
But it is not just that 'irrelevant' and 'pollution' are evaluative terms. It is worse than that. Relevance and irrelevance are mind-involving notions. No physical thing qua physical can be relevant or irrelevant to any other physical thing. Relevance and irrelevance are like indifference and the opposite. The universe cannot be indifferent to us; it is neither indifferent nor caring. Your not caring about me or what I think is a conscious stance you occupy vis-a-vis me. But the universe does not occupy any conscious stance towards human beings. Thus it makes no sense to describe us as irrelevant to the universe, or it as indifferent to us.
We are obviously relevant to ourselves. So if Krauss is saying that we are irrelevant to the universe, then he is just talking nonsense.
I hope I have convinced you that the quotation from Krauss is a non sequitur and scientistic blather. But it is not just blather but something more ominous in that it is indicative of nihilism.
What is really at the bottom of this scientistic nonsense is an attempt to discredit the Judeo-Christian notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Of course, this image and likeness is a spiritual image and likeness as I explain elsewhere. The message of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we human beings are of great worth, at least potentially, in that we are candidates for participation in the divine life, not as animals of course, but as spiritual beings. The message of Krauss and company is the nihilistic denial of this: man is nothing, of no value, a pollutant. Well, if he is a pollutant, then 'the environment' needs to be protected from him. Better then that he not sully the face of mindless matter.
Now the Judeo-Christian view may be false, but it cannot be dislodged by the sort of shabby 'reasoning' we have just examined.
What follows is a guest post by a long-standing card-carrying member of the MavPhil commentariat, William the Nominalist. He is eager to hear any thoughtful and pertinent comments you may have.
The distinction between reductionism and eliminativism is widely recognised in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science. It also seems to be very clear. Here it is, as explained by William Ramsey.
Ontologically conservative theory change occurs when the entities and posits of the replaced theory are relocated, often with some degree of revision, in the replacing theory. For example, as our theory of light was gradually replaced by our understanding of electro-magnetic radiation, our conception of light was dramatically transformed as we recognized ways in which our old conception was mistaken or incomplete. Nevertheless, at no point did we come to say that there is really no such thing as light. Rather, light was eventually identified with a form of electro-magnetic radiation.
By contrast, our notion of demons did not come to find a new home in contemporary theories of mental disorder. There is nothing in the theories of schizophrenia, Tourette's Syndrome, neuro-pathology or any of the other modern explanations for bizarre behavior, that we can sensibly identify with malevolent spirits with supernatural powers. The notion of a demon is just too far removed from anything we now posit to explain behavior that was once explained by demonology. Consequently, the transition from demonology to modern accounts of this behavior was ontologically radical. We dropped demons from our current ontology, and came to realize that the notion is empty — it refers to nothing real.
But after a moment's reflection, I find it is not very clear at all. Why?
Nice poston the LNC. That topic is a real quagmire, isn't it?
I’ve lost the link to the Science Daily report of the Cleland experiment, so the details of how he confirmed the superposition are lost to me, but I’m really struck by the fact that you are defending LNC as a transcendental, not transcendent, principle. Kant doesn’t take this route in the First Critique, does he? LNC is not some form of sensibility, is it?
That's right, I am defending LNC as a transcendental, not a transcendent principle, and for two reasons. First, I believe that LNC is well-nigh unassailable if presented as a transcendental a priori condition of the possibility of (i) meaningful discourse and (ii) experience of the objects of Sellar's manifest image or of Kant's phenomenal world, with (i) being more unassailable than (ii). Second, the transcendental defense is all I need to turn aside what I take to be your conclusion from the Cleland experiment, namely, that there are macro-objects of direct perceptual acquaintance that serve as counterexamples to LNC. To show that LNC applies beyond our thought and beyond our experience to whatever lies beyond our thought and experience, if anything, is not so easy. One cannot just dogmatically assume that a law of thought is automatically a law of reality, especially since this has been denied by any number of philosophers.
Aristotle in Metaphysics Gamma, 3, 4, attempts a proof by retortion of LNC, but as far as I can see, all he establishes is that LNC is a necessary condition of meaningful thinking and speaking, not that its validity extends beyond thought and speech and their objects to things in themselves.
I would also urge in passing against certain dogmatic Thomists that the Critical Problem -- the problem of showing how a priori conditions of thinking apply to things external to us -- is already present in nuce in Aristotle. But that's another long series of posts.
LNC is surely not a form of sensibility for Kant, but it is a form of understanding. Since there is for Kant no experience (Erfahrung) without a 'marriage' of sensibility (Sinnlichkeit) and understanding (Verstand), it seems reasonable to impute to Kant the view that no macro-object of experience can violate LNC.
One thing I think Cleland would say is that observing the paddle in the normal sense, i.e, bombarding it with lots of photons, disturbs the superposition and collapses the ambivalent quantum state into a moving or a not moving state. So he would seem to agree with you as far “seeing” in the ordinary sense goes. We don’t see something moving & not moving—and one could add: our eyes and brains are just not designed to experience such objects even if we could do so without disturbing them. But, seeing is not the same as sensing, and presumably the paddle in its quantum state has effects (on us) that are unambiguously different from its effects in states where the superposition has collapsed. So, as you say, no naked eye observations of superposition, but perhaps that’s too narrow a focus and we should admit that we might experience a superposition is some other unique way.
You seem to be assuming the Copenhagen interpretation of QM. But as you know, it is not the only game in town. Bill Hill, a U.K. immunologist, e-mailed me the following, which is very helpful:
There are two main interpretations of quantum mechanics which are popular in the physics community (there are a few others, but they are mostly propounded by eccentrics). The first is the "Copenhagen" interpretation, in which quantum events really do exist in multiple incompatible states at the same time, but only when there is no outside observer looking at them. I am not making this up, though I should add that by "observer", they do not just mean conscious beings but any information-carrying system (such as a sensor) which can report data about the quantum event. Though it is implausible at first glance, this interpretation does in fact solve the boundary problem that so vexes many scientists. Because sub-atomic particles are too small for us to see, they are free to exhibit this behaviour. But people, planets and so on are so large that they are always under observation in some sense, they cannot behave in this way. Hence, when the little bit of metal in the article is observed, it will either appear moving or not moving to the person looking at it, but when nobody is looking it is in fact doing both. This raises enormous questions about perception and causality, and many people are very unhappy with it as a result. The important point is that your suggestion that there cannot be an empirical counterexample to the Law of Non-Contradiction remains intact under the Copenhagen interpretation.
The most popular alternative to Copenhagen is the "Many-Worlds" interpretation, in which the universe splits into two duplicates every time a quantum event occurs. So when the little bit of metal in the article is put into its quantum state, in one universe it is moving, and in the other it is not. Of course, it is impossible for us to tell which one we are in. Many people (rightly, in my opinion) think that this is just silly, and embrace Copenhagen on grounds of parsimony. However, it is consistent with the data, and also with the Law of Non-Contradiction, since two incompatible states cannot exist in the same universe under Many-Worlds.
So as far as I can tell from my limited experience, you are correct and neither the Copenhagen nor the Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics offer an empirical counterexample to the Law of Non-Contradiction, whatever other fascinating philosophical questions they may raise in their own right.
The salient point is that, on the 'many worlds' interpretation of QM there is no violation of LNC not even on the micro-level let alone on the macro-level. Given that there is no one settled interpretation of QM accepted by all physicists, the case against LNC at either level is bound to be weak.
This is very tricky stuff, but I think it is the paddle, a macro object that we can directly observe under other conditions, that is now in the superposition state of moving and not moving. We in fact have put it into this state. The paddle is not some ding an sich, but an ordinary object that can transition from existing “normally” in one state or its opposite to existing at once in both contradictory states. In principle any macro-object could be reduced to such a quantum ground state but we just can’t physically do so.
I am afraid that you are not making sense. You have already granted that the paddle that we see with the naked eye cannot be seen by the naked eye to be both moving and not moving, But now you are saying that that very visible paddle -- and not some invisible micro-constituents of it -- has been put by the experimental apparatus into a state in which it is both moving and not moving. This implies that one and the same visible paddle is both (moving & not moving) and not (moving & not moving). Which is is higher -order contradiction.
Are you saying that there are two paddles? Then they can't both be visible.
Furthermore, if you say, as you do above, following the Copenhagen interpretation, that observation of the paddle forces it into one state or the other, then cannot also say that that very same visible paddle is in both states.
I am afraid that the science journalist's report on the Cleland experiment has delivered us into a realm of rank gibberish.
Your second point that LNC is also a “form of intelligibilty” is surely right, and it just invites incomprehension to say that the paddle is both moving and not moving. I guess we need to learn the jargon of the physicists here. I’m not sure exactly what they say but something like the paddle in its quantum ground state is in a superposition of motion and no motion.That I get, and it says something remarkable about the really weird universe we apparently live in. I’m saving up my money and moving to a good old Newtonian universe at the first opportunity!
But now you are sounding like certain Trinitarian theologians who say that we should just repeat the creedal formulae without worrying whether or how they make any bloody sense. It is curious that defenders of the coherence of the Trinity often bring up QM. You of course grant no authority to the Bible or the Church. Why then do you genuflect before the authority of scientists when they spout gibberish? I am being intentionally provocative. ComBox is open if you care to counterrespond.
An excerpt from the speech without which, arguably, there would have been no moon landing on this date in 1969.
How pusillanimous and shortsighted are those who balk at space exploration. Have they stopped to consider what ‘satellite TV’ means? Are they aware of how those communication satellites were placed in their geosynchronous orbits? Do they think that money spent on a Mars expedition would be wasted and better spent on terrestrial needs? That’s an illusory way of thinking.
Had all the time and money spent on pure research and exploration over the centuries been spent on alleviating immediate needs we would have none of the technological wherewithal with which we most marvelously and most efficiently -- alleviate our immediate needs.