A Krauss concession


Lawrence Krauss annoyed quite a few people with his jokes about the uselessness of philosophy in recent talks. He has now published an apology — he actually has a qualified dislike of certain kinds of philosophy, that which ignores empirical evidence, but otherwise appreciates the views of many other philosophers.

So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.

Comments

  1. New England Bob says

    I don’t think that will satisfy all the philosophers, even the empirically based ones.

  2. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    It fucking should. His position is entirely reasonable, if excessively polite to the fairy-fappers.

  3. says

    I don’t think he had anything to apologize for at all. Even Dan Dennett said “No, we don’t need anymore philosophers!”

    Going by the philosophowankers we get here, I agree with him.

  4. busterggi says

    Philosphers are just wannabe employees of the Argument Clinic who couldn’t make the grade.

  5. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    It couldn’t hurt scientists to have a better understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of their method.

  6. janiceintoronto says

    It couldn’t hurt philosophers to have a better understanding of the scientific underpinnings of their method.

  7. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Philosphers are just wannabe employees of the Argument Clinic who couldn’t make the grade.

    Oh. Sure. David Hume, Betrand Russell, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Elliot Sober…Hacks! amirite?

  8. says

    I love philosophy, minored in it while college and it is a hobby now. However, I think the key thing is the last sentence by Krauss, “Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”—apply that to whatever group you want–including, but not limited to philosophers and theologians. Anyone who stands in the way of knowledge is part of the problem…I don’t find it necessary to delve into which branches of philosophy (or anything else for that matter) that may be offended by that position.

  9. says

    AE:

    Oh. Sure. David Hume, Betrand Russell, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Elliot Sober…Hacks! amirite?

    No, however, you’re not addressing the current crop of philosophers (with the exception of Sober), most of whom contribute nothing except noise.

  10. jjgdenisrobert says

    100% with Krauss. Most philosophy today is useless intellectual masturbation. Where it is useful, it’s usually only in defining terms. I can usually classify philosophy into two camps: less precise and less useful formulations of things already discussed more usefully in mathematics (so called analytic philosophy), and less precise and less useful formulations of personal prejudice (most of continental philosophy for the last century). There are a few exceptions, and luckily those exceptions seem to be ascendant in the field now. Certainly, the generations-long fascination with post-modernism can safely be called dead now. But philosophy (like economics) is still far too prone to political wrangling to be beyond suspicion.

  11. Frank Asshole says

    In my field (mainly neuroscience of consciousness) most of brainboiling arguments and artificial obstacles are concieved by philosophers. I share the feeling with Krauss. Those who don’t apply to their reasoning empirical facts are just producing claptrap not knowledge.
    I don’t propose total anihilation of philosophy, but most of texts i’ve read (mainly about ethics), i found just overthinked justification of ones opinions. Not facts. I find this field useless as a mean of getting knowleddge, but very helpful as a training in analytical and critical thinking.

  12. Chuck says

    I majored in Philosophy as an undergrad, and I think Krauss and Hawking are probably right about philosophy in its current state: it’s been gutted by the sciences and is relevant now mostly in conversations about ethics and aesthetics. These too might be taken over by science sometime in the near future.

    We shouldn’t forget the contributions of philosophers past — they’re responsible for logic, reason, and science as we know tem today — but the future of philosophy as an independent field and not just as a “helpful adjunct to the sciences” is grim.

  13. etienne says

    Philosophy: the least understood academic profession, especially by those theists who believe that simply asking questions which they believe are profound or regurgitating centuries old debates out of their historical context gives their ideas the privilege of modern respect. Krauss is right to rail against theologians and philosophers who believe the last 250 years of maturing empiricism and the scientific method don’t exist, whose philosophical “heroes” are the likes of George Berkeley and Thomas Aquinas. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever had a discussion with a theologian who didn’t bring up Aquinas in some way; and my first response is and always will be: where the hell have you been? We’re not scholists anymore. We’re not categorizing medieval knowledge. These academics are not philosophers, merely historians of old, dead philosophical debates.

  14. grumpy1942 says

    just overthinked justification of ones opinions

    I found Dennett to be guilty of this in his “Freedom Evolves”. He just had to conclude that free will exists in a determined universe, because that’s what he already believed and wanted to believe.

  15. Brony says

    I have always had a problem with philosophy and it took a long time for me to articulate what it was.

    It’s all outdated software. Codes of behavior thinking designed for certain peoples at certain times. The hard part is stripping out the worthwhile pieces that apply at all (most?) places and times and finding a way to relate those with each other. I don’t even know where most of the philosophy I like comes from. If I see a thought or structure that I like, I adopt it until one that fits better comes along.

    Of course all of that is results based so your desired results may vary…

  16. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    No, however, you’re not addressing the current crop of philosophers (with the exception of Sober), most of whom contribute nothing except noise.

    What I haven’t addressed is the crop of philosophers who are contributing to a general discussion of inferences, and how we make them.
    The ones that I am most acquainted with are those who have written about evolutionary inferences, many along the same lines as Elliot Sober, but not nearly so famous. More importantly, many scientists also write philosophical works that make a difference with regard to what we actually do in a laboratory. In my own field, there has been rapid progress* in how we use data to infer phylogeny. Much of the push for change has been motivated by differences in philosophy**. The pages of Systematic Biology and especially Cladistics are full of these discussions.
    Increasingly, scientists must choose between frequentist and Bayesian*** methods to evaluate hypotheses. These methods have radically different philosophical underpinnings. Certainly an understanding of these differences should be a factor in making such a decision. Again, the literature is replete with philosophical debate regarding these methods. Many scientists take these arguments seriously.

    *or depending on your POV, change
    **Not to ignore technological and computational innovation
    ***Just inductive, IMHO

  17. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Chuck, #13: I’ll concede that you are probably right. Nonetheless, scientists who ignore philosophy as it applies to their field will be worse for it. IMHO.

    [why I have an axe to grind on this]
    I train undergraduates and graduates to do research. The most difficult part of this is not teaching technique, but annihilating sloppy thinking. Sloppy thinking is a time-suck and sets money on fire.
    [/why I have an axe to grin on this]

  18. Chuck says

    @ Antiochus: I’ll buy that. Critical thinking is definitely a learned trait, and in general the sciences don’t do a good job of teaching it. I am a doctor by trade, and I can say that all of the critical thinking skills I learned as an undergrad I learned in philosophy, not biology or chemistry or physics. Some of the sloppiest thinkers I’ve met have had an MD behind their name. That lack of critical thinking ability combined with the confidence in one’s own opinions and beliefs instilled by years of scientific training is a recipe for disaster. It’s probably why doctors are such suckers for scams: they think they’re too smart to be fooled.

    The same is probably true for other fields as well. The sciences need to do a much better job instructing basic critical thinking skills, and nothing teaches that like philosophy.

  19. unclefrogy says

    I personally prefer the concrete measurement and the data obtained from close observation of reality found by science in understanding what is and what is not to the arguments of metaphor, analogy and logic divorced from what is known of reality that I hear form “philosophy”
    I think I am most repelled by what I hear as the arrogance of “MY thoughts are more real than the observed facts” from philosophy
    In science what I hear is “LOOK what i found” where the observer is secondary
    to the data
    uncle frogy

  20. scholz says

    I am always astounded at the rancor directed at philosophers. I don’t know who you’ve encountered, but the descriptions I’ve heard do not match my experience. Confession, I teach philosophy, and I see my job primarily as doing two things:
    1. Helping students learn to think critically and skeptically.
    2. Getting students to question their assumptions.
    Perhaps, where you live these are routine and commonplace, hence rendering philosophers superfluous, but my experience is that both those things are dramatically lacking.
    Far from being a critic of science, I find myself its champion. Most of my general education students have little understanding of what science (one recently imagined a sort of board like the MPAA or the council of Cardinals, meeting in secret, and passing on what they believe.)
    We’ve been criticized since Aristophanes for not focusing enough on practical (bread baking) endeavors. You are not the first to do so. Despite this, I think most philosophers are strong proponents of science, critical thinkers, and skeptics. The “argument sketch” mentality (debating for the sake of debating) might be present in some of the more visible philosophers, but they are not universally hailed in philosophical circles. And I would hasten to add, such behavior is not the exclusive domain of philosophers.

    Still, because of the great wrongs we’ve done to you, I wish to apologize on behalf of all Philosophers. If you’ve ever be forced in college to engage in pointless debate, if you’ve ever had medieval metaphysics foisted on you as the gospel truth, or that you’ve ever had to engage in (unsatisfying) mental masturbation.

  21. Chuck says

    Chuck wt philosophy background? That’s not Irreligiosophy Chuck is it?

    Yep, that’s me. Howdy!

  22. says

    Philosophy is bullshit except for certain philosophers I happen to like! And if I knew more about philosophy I might question the fact that I like those philosophers and their conclusions more than others! Which, btw, is bullshit!

  23. says

    Scholz:

    I don’t know who you’ve encountered

    You obviously don’t hang around here too much. We seem to attract philosophy wankers with no point other than to wank endlessly like a black hole.

  24. says

    “All philosophers are useless timewasters. I’ll have nothing to do with them.”

    “Okay, what about Daniel Dennett?”

    “He’s not really a philosopher. More of a cognitive scientist.”

    “What about Elliott Sober?”

    “He’s really more of an honourary biologist.”

    “What about Robert Pennock?”

    “Well, uh, uh, he’s something that isn’t a philosopher. I’m sure of it.”

    “What about Michael Ruse?”

    “Oh, he’s gone crazy. Definitely a philosopher.”

    It’s like an academic version of no true Scotsman.

  25. 'Tis Himself says

    I am always astounded at the rancor directed at philosophers. I don’t know who you’ve encountered, but the descriptions I’ve heard do not match my experience.

    There’s Alvin Plantinga–the master of equivocation, special pleading, and basic ignorance of biology–who tries to disprove a caricature of evolution. There’s Massimo Pigliucci, who really hates gnu atheists because we don’t pay enough attention to him. There’s Jerry Fodor, who shows his dislike of evolutionary psychology by attacking evolution rather than psychology. Plus we see amateur post-modernists all the time.

  26. Amphiox says

    The problem with philosophy is simple:

    GIGO.

    Philosophy is very good at amplifying the O (and retains some value for this), but very inefficient at filtering the G.

  27. imthegenieicandoanything says

    I’ll give my honest, if harsh, opiion about this. And, there need be no doubt, THIS thread is and wull be nothing but an opinion shit-throwing festival, so I’ll be getting the fuck out before any more gets on me:

    You know who most scientists sound like when they talk about philosophers?

    They sound like engineers talking about scientists.

    Now, Krauss’ main points I don’t think I disagree with, but as with the “acomodationists” ever beating off their wrath at atheists instead of working for good science education, his article disappoints me in that it simply will not lead to anything worthwhile, just posing and misunderstanding.

  28. 'Tis Himself says

    sc_464e899903585c7352443eb59651c742 #28

    It’s like an academic version of no true Scotsman.

    Actually we’re more likely to see the flip side of that. “Alvin Plantinga isn’t representative of philosophers.” “Richard Rorty is widely read but not well regarded.” “Jacques Derrida is a dadaist, not a philosopher.” “The Sokal Hoax was an aberration.” Incidentally, these are all quotes from a couple of threads on philosophy and philosophers in the SB version of Pharyngula.

  29. 'Tis Himself says

    imthegenieicandoanything #32

    Your concern is noted. Don’t forget to stick the flounce for this thread.

  30. busterggi says

    Antiochus – “Oh. Sure. David Hume, Betrand Russell, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Elliot Sober…Hacks! amirite?”

    I never said they couldn’t be eloquent but its still largely semantics & mental masturbation imo.

    Philosophically speaking I say you are wrong.

    Now its your turn to say you’re right.

    And we’ll be back at the Argument Clinic.

  31. KG says

    To adapt J.M. Keynes:

    Practical men scientists, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual philosophical influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist Karl Popper.

  32. says

    Antiochus @ 19#

    [why I have an axe to grind on this]
    I train undergraduates and graduates to do research. The most difficult part of this is not teaching technique, but annihilating sloppy thinking. Sloppy thinking is a time-suck and sets money on fire.
    [/why I have an axe to grin on this]

    That is part of the problem. Like others, I learned very little of the philosophy of science in science classes. The first I heard of logic, logical arguments, and fallacies was in English 1A. I really should have had that class before even high school. IMO critical thinking should be in every class in some form or another from pre-school on up.

    The one class in college that I did take in philosophy (Philosophy 1A) was terrible. I didn’t understand a bit of it and dropped it after the first second quiz (about three weeks.)

  33. says

    (I am sc_464e899903585c7352443eb59651c742, damn Facebook login.)

    ‘Tis Himself (#33):

    Alvin Plantinga isn’t representative of philosophers.

    I won’t pull that move. Plantinga is an important and interesting philosopher. His work in epistemology is impressive and has moved the field onwards. He just happens to have this Jesus thing which makes him embrace some really dumb arguments. He is also very inconsistent methodologically. But the approach most people take is to set aside his mad stuff and try and focus on answering the occasional useful things he has to say about, say, epistemology or modal logic.

    I shall say this in defence of philosophers: look at the PhilPapers.org survey. 75% of academic philosophers are scientific realists, 49.8% are metaphilosophical naturalists (that is to say they think philosophical contemplation ought to be strongly influenced by the findings of science*), 72.8% are atheists, 81.6% accept non-skeptical realism about the external world — take PZ or Jerry Coyne and sit ‘em across the table from a randomly selected philosopher from a US or European university and have them rage on about the wrongs of religion and pseudoscience, and you’ll more than likely get strong agreement.

    * I’d say the lower number here is probably due to the fact that the term ‘naturalism’ is often conflated in philosophical circles. Given the many ways it is used beyond just the methodological/metaphysical split we see in arguing against creationists, there’s a few other uses: the survey was asking about metaphilosophical naturalism which is kind of a weird issue that I won’t bore people with. That said, given the contested nature of the various varieties of philosophical naturalism, I’d say getting 49.8% to sign up to declare themselves a naturalist is pretty good.

  34. KG says

    His work in epistemology is impressive and has moved the field onwards. – Tom Morris

    Srsly? His “reformed epistemology” is just a licence to believe whatever you want by declaring it “a properly basic belief”, his so-called modal ontological argument works a transparent switch on the meaning of “Possibly”, and his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is surely a strong contender for the stupidest argument advanced by a professional philosopher in the past century.

  35. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Chuck:

    Critical thinking is definitely a learned trait, and in general the sciences don’t do a good job of teaching it.

    I agree. We need to do a much better job. I would like all students to take critical thinking classes starting very early. It is every bit as important as learning how to add and subtract. In teaching science, we need to stress that it is a program…a way of thinking and a behavior that is firmly rooted in logic. If students haven’t been introduced to logic, the method reduces to a fucking recipe, and we end up with an electorate that knows the words “hypothesis” and “theory” but doesn’t know what those words mean.
    Similarly, David Utidjian:

    Like others, I learned very little of the philosophy of science in science classes.

    This needs to be fixed.
    KG
    Maybe things are different in the UK, but I know many scientists who are unacquainted with Popper at all. I see a lot of research seminars, and am amazed by how often not a single hypothesis is presented.

    busterggi

    I never said they couldn’t be eloquent but its still largely semantics & mental masturbation imo.

    I highly doubt then that you read or understand any of the works of these authors. Or maybe anything that isn’t microwave directions for a HotPocket™ is mental masturbation in your book. Buy an economy-sized clue.

    Philosophically speaking I say you are wrong. Now its your turn to say you’re right. And we’ll be back at the Argument Clinic.

    That wouldn’t be an argument but a series of contradictions. Here’s my argument. Science isn’t the opposite of philosophy, but is derived from philosophy. Those who don’t understand the method or its logical underpinnings are likely to do it wrong. That’s bad.
    Here’s my suggestion. Go fuck yourself.

  36. says

    KG: I was referring to Plantinga’s work in Warrant: The Current Debate. I don’t agree with it. I think it’s wrong and inconsistent, but it’s still a useful critique of most existing theories in epistemology.

    I come not to praise Plantinga but to acknowledge that he has a few useful things to say. I don’t defend his views, I defend simply the idea that he has said some useful things in defending his views.

  37. consciousness razor says

    I shall say this in defence of philosophers: look at the PhilPapers.org survey.

    I like philosophy and think it’s important, but that isn’t very encouraging to me.

    81.6% accept non-skeptical realism about the external world

    Meaning 18.4% are idealists, skeptics or “other”! If you picked random people on the street you’d find more reasonable people.

    A few more…

    -Only 12.2% say there’s no free will, and 59.1% are compatibilists.

    -Empiricism 35.0%, Rationalism 27.8%, Other 37.2%.

    -Zombies: Conceivable not possible 35.6%, possible 23.3%, inconceivable 16.0%, other 25.1%

  38. madscientist says

    See – harrassment *does* work! If you’re loud enough people will concede defeat in vain hopes you’ll get off their back. It’s the religious strategy.

  39. madscientist says

    @Frank#12: I agree with you. In fact I’ve said many times in the past that even the Philosophy of Science is nothing more than post-hoc rationalization and is entirely immaterial to science. However, questioning the value of philosophy is like questioning the existence of allah. And yet, despite all the protest from philosophers, they fail to define philosophy in a non-trivial way and they fail to demonstrate its value.

    As for ethics, Jerry Coyne seems to defer to philosophers on that subject but my view is that 2400 years on, philosophy has utterly failed to make any significant progress on the questions of ethics.

  40. 'Tis Himself says

    I admit I’m unfamiliar with Plantinga’s work on epistemology. I have read a couple of his papers on evolution and naturalism. Three years ago on the SB site there was a thread entitled Alvin Plantinga gives philosophy a bad name. Plantinga was quoted:

    So consider any particular belief on the part of one of those creatures: what is the probability that it is true? Well, what we know is that the belief in question was produced by adaptive neurophysiology, neurophysiology that produces adaptive behavior. But as we’ve seen, that gives us no reason to think the belief true (and none to think it false). We must suppose, therefore, that the belief in question is about as likely to be false as to be true; the probability of any particular belief’s being true is in the neighborhood of 1/2. But then it is massively unlikely that the cognitive faculties of these creatures produce the preponderance of true beliefs over false required by reliability. If I have 1,000 independent beliefs, for example, and the probability of any particular belief’s being true is 1/2, then the probability that 3/4 or more of these beliefs are true (certainly a modest enough requirement for reliability) will be less than 10(to the power -58). And even if I am running a modest epistemic establishment of only 100 beliefs, the probability that 3/4 of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is 1/2, is very low, something like .000001.[7] So the chances that these creatures’ true beliefs substantially outnumber their false beliefs (even in a particular area) are small. The conclusion to be drawn is that it is exceedingly unlikely that their cognitive faculties are reliable.

    Plantinga doesn’t understand probability (footnote 7 is acknowledgement that someone else worked the statistics for him and did it wrong). In his discussion of this quote, PZ gives the example of asking people “is fire hot?” There is not a 50/50 chance of anyone over the age of two saying “no.” We gain experience with the real world, we learn from others, and we make reasonable inferences based on experience and logic. If you’re invited to go skateboarding on a freeway during rush hour, there’s not a 50/50 chance you’ll be grabbing your board.

    So please excuse me if I’m less than impressed by Plantinga as a philosopher.

  41. says

    In fact I’ve said many times in the past that even the Philosophy of Science is nothing more than post-hoc rationalization and is entirely immaterial to science.

    Really? Popper is “entirely immaterial” to science? Even if you happen to hold that falsificationism isn’t the end all and be all of science (as do I), where do you go? Bayes? Well that guy was full of all kinds of theological and philosophical shit. I mean, St. Sagan totally came up with this “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” stuff in a vacuum.

    PS. You make me puke.

  42. says

    David Deutsch’s book The Fabric Of Reality is a very compelling case from a physicist as to why Karl Popper should be taken seriously.

  43. machintelligence says

    As an undergraduate (40+ years ago) I took a few courses in formal logic and one in Philosophy of Science. The subtitle should have been Philosophy for Physicists. I had the temerity to ask what we were supposed to do with fuzzy data sets (from studying furry critters). The answer was (as I recall) “take a course in statistics.”. It proved to be good advice, but somewhat philosophically unsatisfying.

    Lately I have been reading about ethics, but I find descriptive ethics more interesting than prescriptive ethics. I guess it’s just the biologist in me. Dan Dennett is my favorite philosopher.

  44. Rip Steakface says

    Interestingly enough, I’ve been receiving critical thinking classes since middle school and I’m in western Washington state. Maybe it’s getting better in some areas?

  45. afoxintime says

    Romana: Where are we going?
    The Doctor: Are you speaking philosophically or geographically?
    Romana: Philosophically.
    The Doctor: Then we’re going to lunch.

  46. echidna says

    Krauss’s apology makes mention of a review by a philosopher. From the comments in the linked article, it seems that it refers to a review by David Albert, a philosopher/physicist.

    It was vitriolic.:

    And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.

    I’m not sure if it provides context, or if it is just a symptom of a wider war between physicists and theologically-inclined philosophers. After all, Hawking was amused about being told by the pope not to investigate the beginnings of the universe, just prior to a talk he gave about exactly that.

  47. jamesevans says

    As Frank Asshole pointed out, philosophy still has its uses, such as puzzling through dense ethical dilemmas, but we’ve all been cornered at parties by that one relentless loudmouth who insists on droning on and on forever about the ontological argument, or solipsism, or Ayn Rand and objectivism, or whatever other frustrating philosophical/pseudo-philosophical crap, and it can be argued that for this reason alone people like Krauss who have had enough and are tired of using kind words need not apologize.

    EVER.

  48. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Scientists claiming that they have no need for philosophy are like air-traffic controllers claiming that they have no need of the transistor.

  49. says

    it can be argued that for this reason alone people like Krauss who have had enough and are tired of using kind words need not apologize.
    EVER.”

    But that would have to be a philosophical argument now, wouldn’t it? Unless you plan to make it an empirical argument, which would have to be justified philosophically… oh fuck it.

  50. 'Tis Himself says

    Philosophy has its uses. However, all too much philosophy is bullshit wrapped in jargon. Consider the post-modernists. Richard Rorty said, more than once, that the truth of beliefs does not consist in their correspondence with reality, but in their efficacy. Here’s a supposéd first rate philosopher specifically rejecting reality.

  51. madscientist says

    @mattisironen#47: Yes, even your idol Popper is *entirely* immaterial to science. You never addressed the issue: how *is* Popper’s philosophy even remotely relevant to science and not merely a post-facto rationalization as I say? As I see it, the only value of the Philosophy of Science is to defend science in front of other philosophers – something science never demanded nor something science needs. It strikes me as peculiar that many have this delusion that philosophy is relevant to science and yet have no substantial evidence. Not even one example of even a testimonial by a scientist saying “if I never read Popper/Hume/etc I would never have discovered this!” I see many philosophers wishing to place an unwarranted claim on their essential contribution to science – but I see religions making the same false claims and the philosophers have just as much evidence. Science isn’t ‘nice’, is it?

  52. says

    You never addressed the issue: how *is* Popper’s philosophy even remotely relevant to science and not merely a post-facto rationalization as I say?

    Check out David Deutsch’s book The Fabric Of Reality for a defence of Karl Popper’s ideas in terms of how they relate to science.

  53. joed says

    Carl Sagan was big on the idea that if there is no way to prove something false then it is not a scientific idea. Karl Popper invented the idea of “falsification” He said something to the effect that what distinguishes genuine scientific hypotheses from pseudoscientific ones is that the former are falsifiable.
    Popper had his place in the past.
    See, How To Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick Jr. and Lewis Vaughn.
    And of course, The Demon Haunted World by carl Sagan
    The philosophy of philosophy can be a rewarding study.
    If you are able to overcome the cultural crap you learned as a child/young adult you can transcend those biases. Philosophical thinking/scientific thinking will lead to the reasonable life and you can consider your self a citizen of the Earth. But it is not easy to give up the idea of american/British/french/etc exclusiveness.

  54. says

    My father, an engineer, took philosophy throughout his undergrad studies. He used to say “Every year the questions on the philosophy exam were the same. They just changed the answers”.

  55. tcsf says

    It’s silly to include ‘philosophers’ as some kind of bogeyman group. People who value reason and evidence need to quit pissing all over each other. Aren’t there enough creationists to keep us busy?

  56. concernedjoe says

    Philosophy, or more properly philosophical thinking (reasoned formulation of abstract concepts), can give a framework, indeed an impetus, to science and technology.

    Yet I am a poo-pooer of philosophy in general with a few exceptions, because I just end up feeling it is just trying to upend questions asked and answered by science, empiricism, and/or utility.

    But the exceptions are there and they are profound.

    To put it another way, there sometimes needs to be a philosophical foundation for the question to have legs in the more empirical disciplines.

    What questions do psychologists and physiologists answer, what is the motivation, when they study and explore epistemology empirically?

    What is the scientific goal of space technology and projects?

    Unlike religion and theology, secular “scientific” philosophy has an important place! Questions, motivations, frameworks, and lay-understanding is not all test tubes.

    And thus the test tubes clang for a philosophical reason. And even if you reduce it to the quest to discovery of “all” that is in nature, that reduces it to a philosophical premise in the saying!

    And to give a mundane example, one cannot make the political and economic decision of $$ for research about the cosmos verses research $$ to cure spina bifida rationally without sound philosophical foundations to frame the discussion.

    I hate useless unsatisfying wanking – and feel most of philosophy is just that – but there are good philosophers and good philosophy opens the mind and helps people understand questions and priorities that the empirical processes must address.

    I’ve evolved this appreciation through the years. But perhaps my old age is messing with me – I’m being less hardline :-).

  57. tcsf says

    @concernedjoe.
    “And thus the test tubes clang for a philosophical reason.”
    I have to take strong issue with this. I would say that test tubes click, or perhaps clack, or sometimes even tinkle, but hardly ever clang. Cordially, –TC in SF

  58. DLC says

    I think Krauss’ statement was dead-on. We do not need philosophers who refuse to work within the framework of reality as we know it.

  59. localnebula says

    Scientists claiming that they have no need for philosophy are like air-traffic controllers claiming that they have no need of the transistor.

    They could use vacuum tubes. :-þ

    @concernedjoe:

    Why you gotta be all reasonable and shit?

    There’s a lot of philosophy I don’t like. A lot. As far as I could tell in college, no one in the entire department had advanced beyond scholasticism as an epistemology. The most bone-stupid ideas of (for example) Aristotle were perfectly valid lines of argument, and the fact that, you know, Aristotle, meant their validity was beyond question. (They apparently also taught the undergrads that Cartesian dualism is absolutely true because Descartes.) A good portion of philosophy is exactly this kind of wankery along with mental contortions to rationalize the conclusions you want or rationalize away plain reality. And educationally, it’s more about memorizing which arguments are right (because they’re right) and who made those arguments than how to figure out if an argument is right or wrong.

    However, I also can recognize that this is not the entirety of philosophy. Science can inform ethical decision making, but it’s inherently incapable of deciding your value judgements. Additionally, science is not some immutable thing out there, it is a human endeavour created using (wait for it…) philosophy. How do you answer the question of “what is good science?” Sorry, have to resort to dread philosophy for that. Plus, sometimes scientists need a good slap upside the head to tell them to check their damn assumptions and not use circular reasoning.

    And on that note, I’m going to leave this here: Cosmology, Time’s Arrow, and That Old Double Standard

  60. KG says

    Antiochus Epiphanes, Kel,

    I’m not saying Popper is irrelevant or unimportant, but as AE implies, few scientists actually follow his prescriptions; what they do often do is parrot the claims that falsifiability is the be-all and end-all of scientific method, and that science never proves anything. Popper, IIRC (it’s a long time since I read Logic of Scientific Discovery), thinks the important bits of science are all universal generalisations – where his ideas about falsifiability and not proving anything make sense. But that’s a relatively small part of science, at least outside fundamental physics. Science most certainly does prove things, in much the same sense of “prove” as is used in law, in history, and in everyday life, although not in the sense of showing their negation to be self-contradictory, as in mathematics and logic. It has proved that the earth is billions of years old, that DNA carries hereditary information from generation to generation, that there are lakes on Titan and planets orbiting stars other than the sun, that eukaryotes arose symbiotically…

  61. says

    It has proved that the earth is billions of years old, that DNA carries hereditary information from generation to generation, that there are lakes on Titan and planets orbiting stars other than the sun, that eukaryotes arose symbiotically…

    They are the best models we currently have, at least. ;)

  62. says

    (If you’re solving puzzles by making those puzzles an attempt at reflecting reality, then sometimes you’d expect the solutions to those puzzles to be a reflection of reality.)

  63. KG says

    Kel,

    No – this is exactly the kind of Popper-parroting I object to. By any standard outside logic and mathematics, those things have been proved, except possibly the last. For science to be wrong about any of the others, there would have to be something systematically distorting our perceptions or reasoning – and if that is the case, then none of our conclusions, including those in logic and mathematics, can be relied on.

  64. KG says

    To say a little more: if any of the well-established facts I listed were to be shown not to be true, it would simultaneously have been shown that science doesn’t work. Now that’s not conceptually impossible: maybe God, Satan, or some intelligent natural agency is indeed systematically deceiving us; but none of the scientific revolutions of the past several centuries have overturned such well-established specific facts, as opposed to universal generalisations. Thus relativity, quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution, and plate tectonics all extended science into new areas and/or showed previous findings to be approximations that worked well on the spatio-temporal scale at which they had been established.

  65. says

    By any standard outside logic and mathematics, those things have been proved, except possibly the last.

    Agreed. But are those standards sufficient to forever abandon any notion to revisit, and perhaps revise, current explanations?

    For science to be wrong about any of the others, there would have to be something systematically distorting our perceptions or reasoning – and if that is the case, then none of our conclusions, including those in logic and mathematics, can be relied on.

    I think that’s being a little over-dramatic. How would 19th century physicists react to Newtonian gravitation being overturned as it was by Einstein?

  66. says

    To say a little more: if any of the well-established facts I listed were to be shown not to be true, it would simultaneously have been shown that science doesn’t work.

    I think, here, there’s somewhat of a conflation between the process and the outcome of the process. After all, we didn’t start with any of those being well-established facts. It was investigation, creating models, testing, revising, discarding explanations that didn’t work, etc. that all led to what we say now are well established facts. And on that, isn’t there something to what Popper is saying? David Deutsch, for example, while praising and expanding upon the Popperian approach to epistemology has claimed that we have a solution to why stars shine and have since the 1930s.

  67. concernedjoe says

    tcsf #67 I have sufficiently wiped my coffee from the laptop to respond to you, of course philosophically.

    Now if a scientist’s test tubes only click, or perhaps clack, or sometimes even tinkle and that’s all there is to it, are the interests of mankind served?

    But at what decibel is the collective a shot heard round the World?

    But then if Creationists are the only ones to hear the sound is it even made, or a best be relegated to a micro-tinkle?

    Which by the way is what certain things are being reduced to at my age I am afraid.

    Ponder that or not. Yours cordially ;-) CJ.

  68. KG says

    How would 19th century physicists react to Newtonian gravitation being overturned as it was by Einstein? – Kel

    “Newtonian gravitation” was not a specific fact; it was, precisely, a universal generalisation! Moreover it fits exactly into what I’ve been saying: it continues to be an excellent approximation at the spatio-temporal scales at which it was established.

    I think, here, there’s somewhat of a conflation between the process and the outcome of the process. After all, we didn’t start with any of those being well-established facts. It was investigation, creating models, testing, revising, discarding explanations that didn’t work, etc. that all led to what we say now are well established facts.

    No, I’m not conflating the two at all! I’m pointing out how different they are, and that the advance of science does not overturn well-establish specific facts. Nor am I saying that there is nothing in what Popper was saying. I’m saying his view ignores a lot of what science is about, which is, precisely, establishing specific facts.

  69. says

    Moreover it fits exactly into what I’ve been saying: it continues to be an excellent approximation at the spatio-temporal scales at which it was established.

    An excellent approximation, but it’s a good example of how a model can give a good approximation while being utterly wrong in its explanation.

    I’m pointing out how different they are, and that the advance of science does not overturn well-establish specific facts.

    Point taken. A point of clarification: when you say “well-establish(ed) specific facts”, are you referring to observations, theories that are well attested, or conclusions born from the application of theories and observation? (or a combination of them)

  70. KG says

    Kel,

    An excellent approximation, but it’s a good example of how a model can give a good approximation while being utterly wrong in its explanation.

    It wasn’t “utterly wrong”: object do attract each other, this explains both why apples fall to earth and why the earth orbits the sun, and the formula Newton gave for the strength of this attraction is a very good approximation, and explains why the earth’s orbit is an ellipse. But in any case, Newton’s theory is, as I said, a universal generalisation, where Popper’s ideas do make sense.

    By “specific fact” I mean something like “the earth is smaller than the sun”, “There are lakes on Titan”, “Human beings and chimpanzees have a common ancestor”, “Eukaryotes arose thorugh endosymbiosis”, “Marsupials once lived in Antarctica”. I can’t think of a term to use that is any clearer than “specific fact”. In logical terms, specific facts are facts expressed by true statements about particulars (as opposed to universals), but I don’t suppose that helps.

  71. says

    I can’t think of a term to use that is any clearer than “specific fact”.

    Fair enough. There were a couple of things I wanted to explore, one being if certain “specific facts” are largely dependent on theory (such as the earth orbiting the sun, or that the earth is billions of years old), how those specific facts could be taken as being perverse to deny (my personal inkling of what you meant) while at the same time being open to the possible theoretical revision. The question being, if Popper’s ideas make sense when it comes to explanations and our attempts to understand them, how much does that undercut what is established through our current explanations?

    At this stage, I’m not really trying to defend Popper, more that I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from. After all, these questions of epistemology and epistemic justification often come up with those who seek to reject entire portions of scientific knowledge that would otherwise be perverse to deny with such rhetoric. Indeed, over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, I’ve been having a conversation to that effect.

  72. consciousness razor says

    But are those standards sufficient to forever abandon any notion to revisit, and perhaps revise, current explanations?

    I may not be reading KG correctly and I’m not familiar with much of the philosophy behind this, but I didn’t see him saying anything about forever abandoning such a possibility of revision. Rather, he said it’s not impossible, because there may be some systematic reason why we’re wrong. Other than a supernatural entity, the universe could be a simulation, or the physical laws as we know them may change, or there may be lots of other possibilities.

    But ruling all of that out is an absurdly high standard to meet, merely to justify saying we know for a fact (or have “proven” it in a non-mathematical sense) that the earth is billions of years old, etc., when so much of science supports it and depends on that fact. It’s not like a kind of mathematical proof; but our degree of certainty ought to be greater for something that well-established, as compared to others for which we have less convincing evidence, more likely alternatives, or which don’t have such broad implications for the rest of science.

  73. joed says

    philosophy is NOT any specific subjects.
    philosophy is a particular way to approach a subject. in principle, philosophical thinking is exactly the same as scientific thinking.
    to overcome cultural prejudices is the hard part of being rational scientifically and philosophically. the goal is the same for both.

  74. KG says

    Kel,

    Interesting point. At a general level, I would say that the theories those specific specific facts depend on are so multiply connected with everything else we know, that they could only turn out to be wrong enough to make a difference to the specific facts you mention, in a case where showing them to be so wrong would also show that science doesn’t work, or has ceased to work. Let’s consider each of them:

    1) That the earth orbits the sun. Well I suppose since general relativity says there’s no preferred frame of reference, you could insist that’s not a fact, or not a fact in the way Newton (who believed in such a frame) would have understood; but nevertheless, the observations on the basis of which we say the earth orbits the sun (the sun’s gravitational pull on the earth being much greater than vice versa) don’t seem to me to be dependent on Newton’s theory being any more than a good approximation – even though it’s strictly false. That it is a very good approximation is shown by the multiple ways it is used, both in science itself and in technology, without coming unstuck – and that we know where it isn’t a good enough approximation, and why.
    2) That the earth is billions of years old. This depends on our dating methods, and in particular on the agreement between different dating methods where we can apply more than one. As far as I know, there are now no anomalies that suggest a very different age for the earth: rather, the past century and a half have shown all possible ways of calculating the earth moving into closer and closer agreement. If they are all misleading us, again I would say this is sufficient to show that science doesn’t work. In effect, that’s what creationists claim, when they present supposed anomalies that give wildly different ages for the earth. It’s also noteworthy that they often espouse a kind of “vulgar Popperism”, under which a single apparent anomaly can bring down the whole of evolutionary biology. (Popper says somewhere that he’s a strict falsificationalist in principle, but allows for a lot of caveats in practice, so one apparent falsifying observation doesn’t necessarily falsify a theory.)

    Maybe my overall viewpoint can be expressed by saying that science really is cumulative: we can rely on the giants whose shoulders we stand on not to collapse under the weight of new observations.

  75. says

    Maybe my overall viewpoint can be expressed by saying that science really is cumulative: we can rely on the giants whose shoulders we stand on not to collapse under the weight of new observations.

    One analogy I hear philosophers use a lot is Quine’s notion of a web of belief.

    From SEP: “A mismatch between what the web as a whole leads us to expect and the sensory experiences we actually receive will occasion some revision in our beliefs, but which revision we should make to bring the web as a whole back into conformity with our experiences is radically underdetermined by those experiences themselves. If we find our belief that there are brick houses on Elm Street to be in conflict with our immediate sense experience, we might revise our beliefs about the houses on Elm Street, but we might equally well modify instead our beliefs about the appearance of brick, or about our present location, or innumerable other beliefs constituting the interconnected web—in a pinch we might even decide that our present sensory experiences are simply hallucinations! Quine’s point was not that any of these are particularly likely responses to recalcitrant experiences (indeed, an important part of his account is the explanation of why they are not), but instead that they would serve equally well to bring the web of belief as a whole in line with our experience. And if the belief that there are brick houses on Elm Street were sufficiently important to us, Quine insisted, it would be possible for us to preserve it “come what may” (in the way of empirical evidence), by making sufficiently radical adjustments elsewhere in the web of belief. It is in principle open to us, Quine argued, to revise even beliefs about logic, mathematics, or the meanings of our terms in response to recalcitrant experience; it might seem a tempting solution to certain persistent difficulties in quantum mechanics, for example, to reject classical logic’s law of the excluded middle (allowing physical particles to both have and not have some determinate classical physical property like position or momentum at a given time). The only test of a belief, Quine argued, is whether it fits into a web of connected beliefs that accords well with our experience on the whole. And because this leaves any and all beliefs in that web at least potentially subject to revision on the basis of our ongoing sense experience or empirical evidence, he insisted, there simply are no beliefs that are analytic in the originally supposed sense of immune to revision in light of experience or true no matter what the world is like.

  76. joed says

    @84
    there are a few things we would be fools to bet against.
    The sun will rise tomorrow morn. don’t bet against that.
    there are few things we can say we know 100% positive for sure absolutely no doubt. We could be mistaken about everything! but don’t bet against the sun rise.

  77. says

    I’ll try to comment on the particular examples as well as my own take on it*, KG, after I get some sleep.

    *for what my opinion is worth as a layperson

  78. KG says

    Kel,

    I don’t know Quine’s work at all well, and I’m not sure his idea of the “web of belief” works – because if he’s right, then whether or not belief X fits with the rest of the web is itself subject to revision, and the simplest “mend” to the web might always be to revise our belief that the new observation doesn’t accord with our observations as a whole. But as your extract says he explains why some amendments are unlikely, he may well have an adequate response to that.

  79. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    It’s also noteworthy that they often espouse a kind of “vulgar Popperism”, under which a single apparent anomaly can bring down the whole of evolutionary biology. (Popper says somewhere that he’s a strict falsificationalist in principle, but allows for a lot of caveats in practice, so one apparent falsifying observation doesn’t necessarily falsify a theory.)

    This is an excellent point. To be less dramatic than Quine, if we make an observation that seems to falsify a fundamental theory, we must admit the possibility that the observation is in error, and investigate. Falsification isn’t nearly as absolute as Popper insisted.

  80. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Incidentally, after Popper, I have read very little general philosophy, so much as that which applies to my field of study. Falsification by degree has been a continuous topic of discussion in evolutionary biology* and especially phylogenetics. Some of the foundational work in phylogenetics, especially from the 1980s, is indistinguishable from philosophy, even though it was written by scholars who were ostensibly scientists.

    *Popper originally claimed that evolutionary theory was unfalsifiable, but later revised that opinion.

  81. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Also, KG and Kel: Whenever you two are involved in discussion, you minimally have an enthusiastic readership of one…though I suspect more.

  82. consciousness razor says

    I don’t know Quine’s work at all well, and I’m not sure his idea of the “web of belief” works – because if he’s right, then whether or not belief X fits with the rest of the web is itself subject to revision, and the simplest “mend” to the web might always be to revise our belief that the new observation doesn’t accord with our observations as a whole. But as your extract says he explains why some amendments are unlikely, he may well have an adequate response to that.

    I think his general response was basically that you have to weigh different “mending” options according to what else they buy you in terms of their consistency and explanatory power, which may not be what you mean by simplicity. So if you took his example of quantum physics appearing to conflict with the law of the excluded middle, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t say we should drop the law of the excluded middle. That still holds; the costs of working without it would be horrific. Instead, we should drop some assumptions about our observations in quantum physics: modifying concepts like “particle,” or dropping them altogether if they can’t be salvaged and if they’re unnecessary. Those sorts of concepts aren’t as useful or as foundational to the rest of science like the laws of logic are.

  83. says

    While empirical science should be used to determine the truth of facts about the universe, there may be some domains where it is insufficient. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of blogging recently about why I disagree with The Moral Landscape on the application of pure science to the domain of ethics.

    I’m unsatisfied with Krauss’s and Hawking’s argument that we should be ever accept an ultimate explanation of existence derived from natural laws such as quantum theory or M-theory. It’s as bad as “God did it?” – where did these natural laws come from? Maybe they are based on other, more fundamental laws, but that’s like arguing that God was created by a Supergod. It’s turtles all the way down.

    I think that the biggest contribution yet to be made by philosophy and/or mathematics is therefore an answer to this question: why there should be something (i.e. fundamental physical laws) rather than nothing. I think I have figured out one such explanation, and others have been suggested such as this one by Richard Carrier.

  84. says

    and his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is surely a strong contender for the stupidest argument advanced by a professional philosopher in the past century

    And here I go, then other philosophers take Plantinga seriously because they think that “it is hard to spot where he makes mistakes.” Those “serious” philosophers who think that Plantinga’s obvious bullshit offers anything are the ones who convince me that philosophy is mostly mental masturbation. Plantinga is just some asshole.

  85. Matt Penfold says

    The problem with Plantinga is that he thinks you can do science without looking out the window.

  86. says

    The Moral Landscape on the application of pure science to the domain of ethics.

    WHich only goes to show that you mistook the purpose of that book: “science has something to say about ethics,” with “pure science can take over ethics.”

    These are quite different. I know, I know, I might have misunderstood your phrasing, but your next one confirms that you might be fond of this kind of “mistakes”:

    I’m unsatisfied with Krauss’s and Hawking’s argument that we should be ever accept an ultimate explanation of existence derived from natural laws such as quantum theory or M-theory

    So would I be, but they are far from pretending that we should accept M- and quantum theory as the ultimate explanation for existence. I am pretty sure that they talk as “most plausible” if anything, and I doubt that any of them says “should accept,” or “explanation for existence.” But I bet I am wasting my time.

    What next? “Scientists would have us believe that …” is another typical way of starting a mistaken, perhaps purposely deformed, issue. Why didn’t you start any sentence with that?

  87. says

    The problem with Plantinga is that he thinks you can do science without looking out the window.

    Nope, the problem with Plantinga is that the guy is an asshole, and proud of it.

  88. says


    I might have misunderstood your phrasing

    I think inelegant phrasing is to blame. I’m trying to be succinct rather than spending too much time elaborating on precisely what I’m trying to say, especially when it’s off-topic.

    My fundamental disagreement with The Moral Landscape is the contention that science can provide a truly objective basis for morality. I agree with more or less everything else in there, and especially with the point that science has something to say about morality and can help to achieve moral goals.


    I doubt that any of them says “should accept,” or “explanation for existence.”

    Ok, I’m wrong to put those words in their mouths, but Krauss and Hawking both wrote books (A Universe from Nothing and The Grand Design) purporting to explain how the universe can arise from nothing, and especially how we don’t need to invoke God. I found myself disappointed because they didn’t ultimately provide that explanation. It all boils down to quantum theory or M-theory.

  89. Erista (aka Eris) says

    I don’t know. I still don’t seem to be over Krauss’s defense of Jeffrey Epstein in the whole underage-sex-worker thing. Most of the time when someone I admire says something stupid, I just shrug it off. But not this time, apparently.

  90. says

    I thought of philosophy as a kind of intellectual cotton-candy, especially after being introduced to the Christian kind that slips “the universe needs a creator” into its premises; however on reading more about it, it does seem to have some value for thinking about life, the universe, and thinking. Carry on!

  91. unclefrogy says

    How is Philosophy not Magic Thighs and
    Broom Fondle?

    Well reasoned and logical it may be but personal opinion none the less and at the root sounds like arguments from personal authority to me. at the most after the fact rationalizations.

    uncle frogy

  92. says

    I think mathematics is a form of philosophy, in that it is a rigorous form of thought and analysis that in principle can be done from an armchair without experiment.

    The utility of mathematics illustrates the utility of philosophy in general. At its best, it is rigorous and logical, and its conclusions can reveal real fundamental truths.

    It may be that we don’t often see it at its best, however.

  93. jand says

    An authority that shouldn’t be overlooked in this matter is Ernesto Sabato. As a scientist turned philosopher turned novelist, he did more harm than good with some of his antiscientific rants, turning many young minds away form science and rational thinking. However, having said this, his discussions of the relationship between metaphysics and science (although he was “on the side” of metaphysics) have more or less mapped the territory.

    Relevant Sabato quote (I’m quoting from memory and translating on the wing): “If scientists turn their backs on metaphysics, they will still be doing metaphysics, it will merely be bad and uninformed metaphysics.”

  94. consciousness razor says

    How is Philosophy not Magic Thighs and
    Broom Fondle?

    Well reasoned and logical it may be but personal opinion none the less and at the root sounds like arguments from personal authority to me. at the most after the fact rationalizations.

    You often write interesting comments, often not entirely comprehensible, but even then they can sometimes be interesting. This is not one of them. Read some modern philosophy before you tell us what it is. Pick any subject you like. I do not mean you should read theology, ancient or medieval philosophy, continental or post-modernist philosophy, or the kind of shit you’ll regularly find in the comments here from random sophists who have an ideological axe to grind. After disposing of all of those, if you can’t find any philosophy left which is worth reading, then you haven’t looked or you don’t know what philosophy is.

    I hesitate to add that PZ routinely engages in philosophical arguments, which aren’t opinions or fallacious. Also, atheists in general should have no qualms with philosophy, since we use it all the time. It’s unavoidable for scientists as well. Pick any popular science book (including Krauss’, which I haven’t even read), find parts where it’s not telling stories or sharing opinions, and I guaran-fucking-tee that the remainder contains heaps and heaps of philosophy. So please try to get a clue or at least try to be consistent. It’s not going anywhere; but you don’t have to find any of it interesting either, if you’re really that incurious or uninterested in critical thinking.

  95. KG says

    I think his general response was basically that you have to weigh different “mending” options according to what else they buy you in terms of their consistency and explanatory power – consciousness razor

    But then, why not just change our beliefs about what counts as consistency and explanatory power?

    Disagreeable Me,
    Your link to Carrier is borked. And can you summarise your solution to “Why is there something rather than nothing?”?

  96. consciousness razor says

    But then, why not just change our beliefs about what counts as consistency and explanatory power?

    I’d love to ask Quine, but he’s dead. More seriously, I’m sure he would’ve had a much better response than I gave. I don’t have good ideas about what counts as an explanation or why that shouldn’t be changed, but I know it’s a complicated subject. (Perhaps it should be sometimes?) Consistency seems fairly straightforward to me, and I don’t understand why we’d prefer that to be changed. Could you give an example? Obviously, many things can only be measured to a certain precision, or we can only find statistical relationships, so in that sense, I guess what counts as consistent depends on the mathematics involved. Is that the sort of thing you had in mind?

    Disagreeable Me,
    Your link to Carrier is borked. And can you summarise your solution to “Why is there something rather than nothing?”?

    I’m fairly sure it’s this. It doesn’t really answer that particular question but aims to show something could come from nothing.

  97. says

    I’m fairly sure it’s this. It doesn’t really answer that particular question but aims to show something could come from nothing.

    Yeah, that’s the one. Sorry about my messed up link.

    And can you summarise your solution to “Why is there something rather than nothing?”?

    I’d prefer not to derail the conversation too much, and I’d also like to give the idea room to express it properly. I’ll be writing about it on my blog shortly, and when I’ll do I’ll post a link on TET or something.

    I disagree with Richard Carrier’s argument by the way, but it’s not a million miles away from mine in a lot of ways. You could almost boil it down to “There must be infinite universes because there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be”, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

    Let’s not go off-topic and start discussing the merits of that as an argument now though, eh?

  98. unclefrogy says

    I am not sure how reading all or any modern philosophy would change it into something other than opinion after the fact.
    I do not think it is all either or, back or white and there is a wide spectrum to everything like they say it has fuzzy edges. Once philosophy was the primary way we understood what was real and still it may have some use and people do like it. It does seem to have been superseded by scientific measurement and testing. I like speculation too though I seemed to like it more when I was younger and knew less about what was known. I have grown tired of unending arguments between people and discussions of what some guy said and what he meant. Unlike discussions of things esthetic like art, music, drama or poetry which can be interesting and are outside of the purely technical are about personal taste, philosophy has this aura of importance and profundity but still are mostly personal taste and are trumped by good objective facts.

    Sure when I read or even listen to scientists I will hear things that are philosophy but I know and they know that all of that will change in a New York minute with more data. That is not to be confused with the expression of the love and appreciation of the beauty of nature.

    uncle frogy

  99. consciousness razor says

    I am not sure how reading all or any modern philosophy would change it into something other than opinion after the fact.

    You assume it’s “opinion after the fact,” whatever that means, because you haven’t bothered to read it to cure your obvious cluelessness. Reading it could change your assumptions, not the thing itself which you are making assumptions about. You don’t have to read philosophy or care about any philosophical issue. However, if you’re opposed to bullshit, sloppy thinking, and pretending ignorant opinions are facts, then stop doing it yourself.

  100. sawells says

    I think we should separate the value of philosophy, which can be very great, from the value of the output of most of the people who call themselves philosophers, which is usually nil.

  101. unclefrogy says

    I do not intend to tell anyone else how to think or what to think about you are free to do what you want.
    I guess I am more accustomed to the ideas about “art”. I would prefer to look at facts and follow where they lead when I think of nature and what is known it is a personal inclination and it I admit is an emotional reaction on my part which I have little control of. The facts discovered by science are not a mater of what any one scientist says they are or limited to how they should be understood.
    Does not philosophy start with what is known of the world then what does it do or what do philosophers do?
    (I would include in the world how the human mind works, neuroscience)

    Its like this, discussions of Abstract Expressionism and the artists that practiced it is one thing but it is nothing compared to the works themselves. It may even help or extend the appreciation of them but it is secondary to the works themselves.

  102. says

    @KG

    And can you summarise your solution to “Why is there something rather than nothing?”?

    You’ve prompted me to get moving and start talking about cosmology on my blog so I can get this idea out there. I’ve started already with what I think is a novel rebuttal of the Kalam cosmological argument (at least it wasn’t mentioned in Wikipedia), and the core idea here is at the center of the philosophical argument I was alluding to.

    By the way guys, as a new poster to freethoughblogs, I wonder if it’s considered bad form to promote my blog like this?

  103. madscientist says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes#66:

    “madscientist: you are clearly an imbecile.”

    Your philosophical prowess is amazing. You have utterly convinced me that philosophy is worthwhile.

  104. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Disagreeable,

    By the way guys, as a new poster to freethoughblogs, I wonder if it’s considered bad form to promote my blog like this?

    No, since it’s topical (if incidental).

  105. says

    KG,

    At a general level, I would say that the theories those specific specific facts depend on are so multiply connected with everything else we know, that they could only turn out to be wrong enough to make a difference to the specific facts you mention, in a case where showing them to be so wrong would also show that science doesn’t work, or has ceased to work.

    I think that’s the key point, and why I would contend that scientific knowledge isn’t so easy to discard as opponents of prevailing theories suggest. And I think that’s the insight lost by looking at philosophers such as Popper and Kuhn without seeing how they work in the context of scientific inquiry; talking of paradigm shifts and falsification often neglects the sheer amount of information that present theories can and do explain well. Anomaly-hunting makes very little sense in the normal practice of science in terms of sweeping changes to theories (though they can occasionally do that), but they make sense that pseudoscientists spurred on by philosophers of science will gladly take those anomalies as being the ultimate theory killers.

    1) That the earth orbits the sun.

    In this case, it would be really hard to see how a theory could possibly replace what we currently have simply because the model has put a robot on Mars. If there is any shift, would have to account for how scientists could put a robot on a distant stellar body that is at its bare minimum 50 million kilometers away. That it’s beyond picking the position of light sources in the sky over time (although that’s impressive too), and sending chunks of metal hundred of millions of kilometers to see the precise bodies is about as definitive a demonstration of the success of the model as one could hope for.

    2) That the earth is billions of years old.

    I think those creationists who try to find rationalisations as to why their beliefs about the age of the earth are wrong aren’t doing science. In any sense that they’re trying to fit current data in with their proposed model, they add ad hoc rationalisation after ad hoc rationalisation, each time making assumptions that are unaccounted for in order to deny that the preponderance of data falsifies their assertion of a young earth. Multiple lines of evidence all converging on the same answer – that’s the sign of a good understanding.

    It’s also noteworthy that they often espouse a kind of “vulgar Popperism”, under which a single apparent anomaly can bring down the whole of evolutionary biology.

    I got into a discussion with someone misapplying Popper in this way recently, taking finding C14 in the supposed dinosaur soft tissue to falsify that it’s a fossil millions of years old. I pointed out to him that by the same logic, that the fossil is young is falsified by the dating of the rocks it was found in – so that strict falsification cuts both ways. Either we don’t know anything about anything, or that perhaps the way in which he is applying Popper doesn’t add up. It is a lot more messy than such interpretations demand, but that’s the fault of those using Popper in such a way rather than of what Popper said.

  106. loverofwisdom says

    I think many have missed the purpose of philosophy–to make you think. For example Krauss simply wants you to verify by empirical evidence. But you doesn’t seem to want to query what “empirical” or “evidence” means. Simple correspondence theory of our concept of an object and the object cannot be compared. We do not have a “god’s eye” view to compare the two. That’s why philosophers have investigated what it is we are really after. Our optical sense is already conditioned to “see” in specific ways. And many a time, we see what we expect and simply don’t see what we’re not expecting. Observation is theory-laden and inseparable. Take also creativity. Einstein’s theory explained Newton’s antinomies, but could not explain at that time as much as Newton’s did, but Einstein’s theory nevertheless attracted the scientists b/c of its creativity. Theories may well be like dinosaurs in that they die out when the last adherent dies. Sort of like a Darwin’s theory of evolution applied to theories. It’s the seeking, the questioning, the creative way of approaching a problem that is a life worth living. But simply say answers are what count ends this process. Like Picasso said of computers, they are useless as they only give us answers.

  107. loverofwisdom says

    As for whether a theory is falsifiable, Lakatos, a student of Popper, showed that Popper’s falsifiable notion was subject to the same problems as what Popper found in trying to verify a theory–there are ad hoc adjustments that can always be made. That’s why Lakatos opted for the best theory as the one that could explain the most. But, as I already said above, Einstein’s theory, when it first come out, attracted the scientists even tho it did not explain as much as Newtons. But is was creative.

    And for Quine, I’ve had discussions with him. He would say that you can change your observation sentences by changing other parts of your theory–he took theories to have a coherence of truths. He was a pragmatist after all. The same held that you could change the core of your theory. And he had no problem with a large circular argument–indeed, for him it was necessary as his Epistemology Naturalized shows. My problem with Quine, tho, is that theories are always in the process of development. We do not have a complete and consistent theory (yes he did have responses to problems of Godel’s and decision algorithms). What he have are theories we try to connect that contain contradictions etc. and it’s the quest of a way to “see” how this could be done. That’s what attracts the best scientists–the creative ones. If anything, the development of theories is better explained by Hegel’s dialectic than analytic philosophy or even Quine’s version of pragmatism. But that’s another post.

  108. loverofwisdom says

    Well Mr. Morales, that was a thoughtful response. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in it that makes sense or can be responded to.

  109. salahhesali says

    Just remember that philosophy is composed of embryos for scientific facts. They may look like sterile thought, just like human embryos look like worms.
    Also, to the guy who said poetry is more useful: fuck you.

  110. says

    As for whether a theory is falsifiable, Lakatos, a student of Popper, showed that Popper’s falsifiable notion was subject to the same problems as what Popper found in trying to verify a theory–there are ad hoc adjustments that can always be made.

    How ad hoc is ad hoc in this case? I couldn’t imagine just any adjustment could be made on an arbitrary basis, especially not without changing at least something as to how a model works.

  111. loverofwisdom says

    Get to the point–the creativity. The ad hoc is as good as the one coming up with it.

  112. says

    Get to the point–the creativity. The ad hoc is as good as the one coming up with it.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at with this, sorry. Could you give a couple of examples from the history of science that illustrate this principle? Because at the moment, I’ve got the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian gravitation in my head and in the examples leading up to the overthrow of Newtonian gravitation it seemed anything but ad hoc in the way that the disagreement between experiment and theory was dealt with.

  113. KG says

    Why is it that people who adopt self-praising or everyone-else-denigrating names never have anything interesting or useful to say?

  114. loverofwisdom says

    You are confusing the development I was speaking of. It was Lakatos that questioned falsifiability and proposed, in its stead, that the best scientific theory is the one that explains the most. Ad hoc was Lakatos’ example to show that there’s always a way to “save” a theory. For Lakatos, it wasn’t falsifiability that counted, but explanatory power. The Einstein example is from Feyerabend and his criticism of Lakatos. The actual history of science, as he showed, is not one of the advancement of the theory that explains the most. The actual history is more like Einstein’s initial theory (theories) were his theory was able to explain the antinomies that cropped up in Newton theory, but Newton’s theory was still the one that explained more. It wasn’t the comprehensiveness of the theory that attracted scientists to Einstein’s theory (as it sould be the case for Lakastos, it was the creativity of Einstein’s theory that attracted them. And, as Cohen and Agassi argued, what really appears to determine when one theory is finished and another takes the field is more like a dinosaur–the theory that dies is the one where the last adherent dies. It could well be that some creative scientist could have come up with a saving grace for the theory, but none came forth. Thus, it’s the most creative theory that survives. If you’re interested, a classic text of these issues is “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge ed. by Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave. Kuhn’s theory was the topic (and he contributed the lead essay) with critiques by Popper, Toulmin, Lakatos, Feyerabend and others.

  115. says

    You are confusing the development I was speaking of.

    I’m still confused now, sorry. When you say: “Ad hoc was Lakatos’ example to show that there’s always a way to “save” a theory.” I’m really not sure how this applies in terms of actual science. Can you show examples where scientists have in the face of conflicting evidence merely gave ad hoc accounts without such accounts representing an underlying change in either the model or the perceived implications?

  116. KG says

    “Creative” is one of those words that sounds as though it means a lot, but actually means very little. Scientists are not attracted to a theory because it’s “creative” – a “creative” theory could just be a bunch of made-up shit. In the late 19th centruy, it was clear that there were findings (such as that of the Michelson-Morley experiment) that could not be accommodated within current theory. Scientists were attracted to Einstein’s theory because it explained some of these findings, and were willing to look at how it could be developed to explain everything Newton’s theory did and more. If it had proved not to be capable of such development, it would have been discarded.

    Sometimes, the scientific consensus can shift very fast, in response to a new empirical finding. Thus plate tectonics became the new scientific consensus within a decade or so of the discovery of magnetic polarization stripes on both sides of the mid-Atlantic ridge. Yes, there were a few holdouts, there may still be for all I know, but they were completely irrelevant within a very short time.

  117. loverofwisdom says

    KG seems to be more interested in conflict than anything else. He calls “creativity” as meaningless but continues on to describe just that creativity that a “new scientific consensus” gravitates towards and describes it as if it wasn’t the attraction of creative ideas. Sorry, but there is no response possible here.

    As for Kel. What can say that I haven’t already said? Be confused as much as it profits you, but ONCE AGAIN, the real history of science was what Feyerabend used to criticize Lakatos. It was Lakatos that used the ad hoc theory analogy. If you have a problem with Lakatos not being true to the history of science then join the club. Other than that I don’t know what to say than to go read Lakatos and see for yourself.

  118. says

    What can say that I haven’t already said?

    What I was hoping for was illustrations of the principles of which you spoke in terms of scientific cases that illustrate the principles you were speaking of. It doesn’t make much sense to conduct a measure on the principles of science by retelling the major players in the philosophy of science.

    Be confused as much as it profits you

    I don’t think it profits me any to be confused, which is why I was asking you to alleviate it through giving illustrations of the concepts of which you were talking about.

    If you have a problem with Lakatos not being true to the history of science then join the club.

    It was this statement that confused me: “Lakatos, a student of Popper, showed that Popper’s falsifiable notion was subject to the same problems as what Popper found in trying to verify a theory–there are ad hoc adjustments that can always be made.” I was sceptical that this could be demonstrated, so I was asking for how what Lakatos “showed” about Popper’s argument was actually descriptively valid.

  119. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    He calls “creativity” as meaningless but continues on to describe just that creativity that a “new scientific consensus” gravitates towards and describes it as if it wasn’t the attraction of creative ideas.

    Why are you hung up on “creativity”. KG is right. Flights of fancy that explain nothing aren’t wanted by the scientific community, but clear explanations that fit the data better are respected. They need not be “creative”, just practical and useful. When I hear “creative”, I tend to think of something that isn’t clear, lucid, or easy to follow.

  120. loverofwisdom says

    Sorry you don’t like the term creative. But Einstein didn’t seem to have your hesitation. But your terms such as “flights of fantasy” or “fit the data” are merely pejorative and far from an the accuracy of what I said that you seem to accuse me of lacking. If truth be known, your critique is far from adhering to a clear explanation but, instead, made to obscure what has been said. Your “critique” is nothing but propaganda.

    Lakatos’ example of an ad hoc theory was a black body that would explain the deviations of a planetary movement.

    Now I’m done. It is obvious to me that you are purposely being obtuse or defensive of outmoded theories that all I can say, you are the last adherents of. Why do people like you insist on wasting people’s time? Answer me that before you continue your diatribes.

  121. says

    Why do people like you insist on wasting people’s time?

    Why do people like you make superficial arguments that do little more than name drop? Seriously, if you’re trying to educate, then surely it helps to actually make an argument and explain your position so that people can see the points you are trying to make…

  122. KG says

    He calls “creativity” as meaningless but continues on to describe just that creativity that a “new scientific consensus” gravitates towards and describes it as if it wasn’t the attraction of creative ideas. Sorry, but there is no response possible here. – pholisopher

    Velikovsky’s ideas were highly creative; the problem was, they were complete crap. Yours, on the other hand, are both derivative and complete crap.

  123. loverofwisdom says

    Kel, in understanding Lakatos, let’s, for instance, imagine that a big radio-star is discovered with a system of radio-star satellites orbiting it. We should like to test some gravitational theory on this planetary system–a matter of considerable interest. Now let us imagine that Jodrell Bank succeeds in providing a set of space-time co-ordinates of the planets which is inconsistent with the theory. We shall take these basic statements as falsifiers. Of course, these basic statements are not ‘observational’ in the usual sense but only “‘observational.'” They describe planets that neither the human eye nor optical instruments can reach. Their truth-value is arrived at by an “experimental technique.” This “experimental technique” is based on the “application” of a well-corroborated theory of radio-optics. Calling these statements “observational’ is no more than a manner of saying that, in the context of his problem, that is, in testing our gravitational theory, the methodological falsificationist uses radio-optics uncritically, as “background knowledge.” The need for decisions to demarcate the theory under test from unproblematic background knowledge is a characteristic feature of this brand of methodological falsificationism. (This situation does not really differ from Galileo’s “observation” of Jupiter’s satellites: moreover, as some of Galileo’s contemporaries rightly pointed out, he relied on a virtually non-existent optical theory–which then was less corroborated, and even less articulated, than present-day radio-optics. On the other hand, calling the reports of our human eye “observational” only indicates that we “rely” on some vague physiological theory of human vision.) This consideration shows the conventional element in granting–in a given context–methodologically “observational” status to a theory. Similarly, there is a considerable conventional element in the decision concerning the actual truth-value of a basic statement which we take after we have decided which “observational theory” to apply. And which one to supply has become a convention that has become institutionalized and endorsed by the scientific community; the list of “accepted” falsifiers is provided by the verdict of the experimental scientists. This is how the methodological falsificationist establishes his “empirical basis.” But, remember, for Popper, we can’t prove a theory correct, but it appears he accepts an uncritical “empirical basis” to judge a theory as falsified.

  124. Matt Penfold says

    Now I’m done. It is obvious to me that you are purposely being obtuse or defensive of outmoded theories that all I can say, you are the last adherents of. Why do people like you insist on wasting people’s time? Answer me that before you continue your diatribes.

    I have read what you have said here, and the person guilty of wasting people’s time is you.

    You have been repeatedly asked for actual examples of how science has worked in the way you claim it does, and you have been unable to offer any. You are no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and we must conclude the reason your for failure to provide examples is that you have none. Making claims you cannot support with evidence is intellectually dishonest.

  125. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Now I’m done. It is obvious to me that you are purposely being obtuse or defensive of outmoded theories that all I can say, you are the last adherents of. Why do people like you insist on wasting people’s time? Answer me that before you continue your diatribes.

    Why are you doing pretentious pseudointellectual mental wanking here, wasting our time with your pompous and self-absorbed fascination with your own “intellect”, and the psuedosuperiority of of being a pure philosopher? Answer that before you post again.

    Lurkers, there’s a reason science is grown the knowledge for mankind and philosophy isn’t. Look at the attitude of the philosophers. Not very humble is it?

  126. Matt Penfold says

    loverofwisdom,

    Who ever told you that writing big long pompous chunks of twaddle without paragraph breaks makes you look intelligent did you no favours.

  127. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Ah, looks like a bit of truth hurt poor little diddums feelings.

  128. Matt Penfold says

    Ah, looks like a bit of truth hurt poor little diddums feelings.

    He also seems to be an odd combination of prudish and aggressive. Aggressive enough to tell us to fuck off, but prudish enough to be unable to write “fuck” in full.

    If he really is a philosopher he is doing his discipline no good at all, unless he is trying to convince those of us who think philosophy has some utility that we are wrong.

  129. KG says

    ONCE AGAIN, the real history of science was what Feyerabend used to criticize Lakatos – pholisopher

    But of course there is no “real history of science”, independent of our theories about how that past comes to be remembered and written, so Feyerabend was as much dependent on background knowledge assumed for the time being to be sound as everyone else.

    Popper was actually well aware of the issues of background knowledge, and of the theory-impregnation of observations. See for example Objective Knowledge, Ch.2, sections 17 and 18. He also discusses ad hoc additions to theories in order to salvage them, for exmple in Ch.1, section 7 of the same book.

  130. says

    I do find it interesting that my entry to the topic was: “David Deutsch’s book The Fabric Of Reality is a very compelling case from a physicist as to why Karl Popper should be taken seriously.” And now it seems that “But, remember, for Popper, we can’t prove a theory correct, but it appears he accepts an uncritical “empirical basis” to judge a theory as falsified.” is somehow the position I’m meant to be defending?

    Thanks for making a case, loverofwisdom. I’ll give it a reread once I get some sleep.

  131. Hurin, Nattering Nabob of Negativism says

    Loverofwisdom

    Sorry you don’t like the term creative. But Einstein didn’t seem to have your hesitation. But your terms such as “flights of fantasy” or “fit the data” are merely pejorative and far from an the accuracy of what I said that you seem to accuse me of lacking.

    I actually don’t think any of us have a problem with using the term “creative” to describe scientific theories, but “creative” is a broadly defined and subjective quality, and thus an inappropriate standard for judging scientific theories. In other words, its not the term, its how you appear to be using the term.

    “Flight of fancy” is not a perjorative term. If you want a concrete example of one happening in science, PZ wrote an article about a very strange “theory” that recently appeared in Life. This theory could reasonably be considered “creative”, but it does not make any predictions, or have any explanatory power. It isn’t even quantitative.

    I’m blown away that you think seem to think Nerd’s emphasis on whether or not a theory fits available data was concocted merely to attack you. If you want an example of data posing a problem for a very carefully constructed and creative theory, then consider the current status of super string theory. Super string theory is largely outside the realm of things we can test empirically, however it is partially built on the idea of supersymmetry, which postulates that supersymmetric analogues of known particles (called “sparticles”) exist and should be measurable. LHC is able to run experiments that are predicted to create sparticles, and the fact that they have run some, and not found sparticles is a problem for supersymmetry. This research is still in its early stages, however physicists are going to eye supersymmetry with growing suspicion, until this problem has ironed itself out.

    Whether a theory fits existing data is extremely important, because a theory is only as useful as its predictions are accurate. The best theories may describe certain aspects of reality very closely, but in order to be useful we need to know whether and under what conditions they will fail. Predictions have largely been absent from this discussion, however theories are sometimes useful for making statements about properties that would be difficult to measure directly, or to rationalize behavior. This is the sort of thing being done by computational chemists, and people conducting climate simulations. In order for that kind of scientific activity to be valid the ability of the underlying theories to match data and possible sources of failure need to be well understood.

  132. Hurin, Nattering Nabob of Negativism says

    loverofwisdom

    On the other hand, calling the reports of our human eye “observational” only indicates that we “rely” on some vague physiological theory of human vision.)

    We rely on no such thing. We had to assume that our sensory inputs were valid to begin the endeavor of science (or anything else for that matter). We aren’t relying on any theory of anything, we are taking that as an axiom.

    Now that we’ve built written descriptive and quantitative languages, optics and neurology on our observations and derived abstractions, we can use them to explain to some extent how our eyes work, but the validity of using our eyes was never contingent on having such an explanation.

    Its ok to have some axioms. Even math has them; we are crippled without them.

  133. says

    Disagreeable Me #93

    why there should be something (i.e. fundamental physical laws) rather than nothing.

    This actually illustrates one of my biggest problems with modern “philosophy”. At it’s worst in theology, of course, but even in this nondescript form.

    Mainly it is the posing of questions that aren’t really questions. They look like questions. They have words like “why” at the front of them and end in question marks. But they are questions that have an implication at their core which is unfounded.

    For someone to ask “why there should be something rather than nothing” supposes that there “should be” some reason. This is pure supposition. There is no necessity for a reason at all.

    There is.

    Some ask, “why is there something rather than nothing”, which is slightly different. Usually this “question” – and again, I see it as a pseudo question – is from theology. The presupposition being that “something” (read; my god, deity, soopernatural big thingy out there beyond space and time) is responsible for it. This “something” caused it.

    But before one can ask this question, one must demonstrate that a reason or a why is even necessary. Unless someone can demonstrate the necessity of a why, the answer, “because it is” pretty much sums up the issue.

    I think most of these type of pseudo questions spring from a category error. People take the idea that most things (and many believe, despite current quantum physics, ALL THINGS) within the universe are effects preceded by a cause. Therefore the universe (or reality or just somethingness in general) must have a cause.

    But this is attributing qualities of what is contained within the universe and the universe itself.

    It is tantamount to saying, “well, every part of this airplane is incapable of self-propelled fight. The gears, the wheels, the windows, the seats, every nut and bolt… none a single part of it is capable of self-propelled flight. Therefore, the airplane cannot fly.”

    Anyhow, questions like, “why are we here?”, “why is there something rather than nothing?”, “what created the universe?” and “what is the point of life?” all presuppose that there is some agency behind it all, directing it, creating it. Some entity that exists “outside” and/or even inside the universe that has some anthropomorphic reason to have “done stuff so that there is now stuff which has some purpose to be stuff and do stuff”. They are all questions that are inherently presuppositional upon some “thing” with “reasons” that “made or caused everything”, and until someone has any evidence what-so-ever for this presupposed “thing” these type of questions are entirely without meaning.

    Because the answers could be – and I would argue until such evidence for this “thing” is provided, are – dismissive and simple.

    What is the purpose of life? There isn’t one. Or, to live until you die.
    Why are we here? Because we are.
    Why is there something rather than nothing? Because there is.

    (Apologies beforehand for any simple grammatical mistakes, much of this screen is broken. I’d blame any possible coherence or intellectual mistakes on the screen as well, but somehow I don’t think anyone would buy it. )

  134. frankensteinmonster says

    today’s philosophy is what is left when you outsource empirical knowledge to science, and deductive a priori inferences to mathematics. There is nothing left but a cloud of empty vague words that do not elucidate anything and serves only as shabby masquerade for various ideologies.

  135. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    Einstein’s theory explained Newton’s antinomies, but could not explain at that time as much as Newton’s did, but Einstein’s theory nevertheless attracted the scientists b/c of its creativity.

    I thought Einstein’s theory was interesting because it explained things Newtonian physics couldn’t.

    Something seems to be wrong with your understanding of scientific models.

    A new theory doesn’t always replace an old one. Sometimes it just expands on it. Or looks at a phenomenon from another point of view. A prime example of that is Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism. There’s not a “wrong” one and a “right” one. Just different ways of looking at the same thing.

  136. says

    #148 tkreacher

    Thanks tkreacher. That was an interesting and well thought-out post, but you’ve just proven my point for me.

    I agree with almost everything you’re saying, and furthermore, I would say that your argument is philosophical in nature.

    This is exactly the kind of philosophical argument that can approach an answer to the pseudo-question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, and this is what I’m driving at when I say that good, rigorous philosophical arguments are all we have left to us to settle the matter for once and for all.

    I don’t think you’ve satisfactorily explained existence here, but I think you’re very much on the right track.

  137. consciousness razor says

    But before one can ask this question, one must demonstrate that a reason or a why is even necessary. Unless someone can demonstrate the necessity of a why, the answer, “because it is” pretty much sums up the issue.

    No, this is confused. Do you think that there could have been nothing rather than something? In other words, is nothingness possible? If so, then the question asks for an explanation of the fact that there is something, since there could have been nothing. That’s it.

    Maybe we’ll never have a satisfactory answer, but we don’t need to presuppose that there necessarily must be one (which can be found). We could accept “because it is” as an answer in the form of a brute fact, but we don’t actually know that’s the best we could say about it. We took the answer to “why is the sky blue?” as a brute fact (“it just is”) until someone started asking more and better questions and found a good way to explain it. Of course that’s a much easier question, but hard questions aren’t all intractable. In any case, throwing up our hands and prematurely claiming to have solved it is hardly a rational approach (though I would accept it as pragmatic, since you probably have other interests). But if a physicist comes along tomorrow or 50 years from now and has a sensible naturalistic answer, would you have any objection?

    I think most of these type of pseudo questions spring from a category error. People take the idea that most things (and many believe, despite current quantum physics, ALL THINGS) within the universe are effects preceded by a cause. Therefore the universe (or reality or just somethingness in general) must have a cause.

    What does the cosmological argument have to do with this?

    Anyhow, questions like, “why are we here?”, “why is there something rather than nothing?”, “what created the universe?” and “what is the point of life?” all presuppose that there is some agency behind it all, directing it, creating it.

    No, they don’t all do that. “Why” just means “what is the reason.” No agents, no teleology. Godbots do that sort of thing, but it’s unnecessary and irrelevant.

  138. says

    I’m both relieved and slightly deflated to find the “Grand Theory of Everything” I was alluding to has already been proposed.

    I have been looking into this stuff for a while but had not come across it until now while researching a blog post on platonic existence.

    The view that I ascribe to is essentially equivalent to The Mathematical Universe as proposed by Max Tegmark. Being a programmer by trade, I was going to call the universe a platonic algorithm, but describing it as a mathematical construct is equivalent.

    I think calling it a hypothesis is selling it short though, I think it can be proven by reasoned argument. Perhaps there are still things to be said about it that have not been said yet, at least in terms of expressing why it must be the ultimate explanation for existence.

    I must do more reading on the subject now that I know what to Google for!

  139. says

    consciousness razor #152

    Do you think that there could have been nothing rather than something? In other words, is nothingness possible? If so, then the question asks for an explanation of the fact that there is something, since there could have been nothing. That’s it.

    Maybe we’ll never have a satisfactory answer, but we don’t need to presuppose that there necessarily must be one (which can be found). We could accept “because it is” as an answer in the form of a brute fact, but we don’t actually know that’s the best we could say about it. We took the answer to “why is the sky blue?” as a brute fact (“it just is”) until someone started asking more and better questions and found a good way to explain it. Of course that’s a much easier question, but hard questions aren’t all intractable. In any case, throwing up our hands and prematurely claiming to have solved it is hardly a rational approach (though I would accept it as pragmatic, since you probably have other interests). But if a physicist comes along tomorrow or 50 years from now and has a sensible naturalistic answer, would you have any objection?

    First, no. I do not think there could have been nothing in the pure philosophical sense. First, no one has ever discovered such a thing. But, more important, how could they? The philosophical “nothing” is incoherent. What does it even describe?

    One must presuppose that this, to my mind, necessarily incoherent and empty concept of “pure nothingness” is even possible before the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is even a relevant question. This is what I was getting at when I say that people imply there is this extra “something” that existed in this “nothing” which “caused” or was the “reason for” things. This implied “reason” smuggles in a “something” to allow “nothingness” to be coherent.

    The sky is blue example is exactly what I meant when I brought up the category error. The sky exists in the universe. Things that are not sky exist in the universe. Colors other than what we call blue exist in the universe. We look for causes as to why this extent thing is the way it is.

    To use this example, which involves subsets in contrast to one another, and breaking down these subsets to further sets, and then applying it to the universe, the set itself seems to me a category error. Further, as I brought up earlier, I see no good reason to think that pure and total nothingness is even possible, let alone a meaningful concept.

    In any case, throwing up our hands and prematurely claiming to have solved it is hardly a rational approach (though I would accept it as pragmatic, since you probably have other interests)

    I don’t see myself as doing this. I just want to know what evidence anyone has ever had that nothingness is even possible, or that some “thing” had some “reason” to make life before I spend any time trying to figure out how something could have come from nothing, or what that reason might be.

    But if a physicist comes along tomorrow or 50 years from now and has a sensible naturalistic answer, would you have any objection?

    No. If someone demonstrates pure nothingness, and that something came from it, and that there was a reason, sweet.

    No, they don’t all do that. “Why” just means “what is the reason.” No agents, no teleology. Godbots do that sort of thing, but it’s unnecessary and irrelevant.

    I agree the Godbot versions are vacuous, and I don’t mean to imply that the questions are equally poor or without content depending on the specific structure of the question.

    I don’t mean to imply that any question that begins with what is the reason is empty of meaning, obviously.

    I mean that there is a difference between the question what is the reason [something in the universe] is or does whatever… and the question what is the reason something “outside” of the universe did, or caused, or provided meaning for or became. And especially what is the reason [anything involving pure nothingness].

    No, this is confused

    I warn you now: this could only get worse. I was relatively sober on the first post.

  140. consciousness razor says

    First, no. I do not think there could have been nothing in the pure philosophical sense. First, no one has ever discovered such a thing. But, more important, how could they? The philosophical “nothing” is incoherent. What does it even describe?

    Not an argument. You assume that someone needs to exist in order to discover nothing (including their own nonexistence) so that they could claim its logical possibility. This is not how it works, unless “it” is circular reasoning. What do you assume is impossible nothing existing? So you have nothing, and somehow that’s inconsistent — with what? Itself? All that nonexistent stuff just can’t get along together for some reason? How did you come up with that rule?

    The sky is blue example is exactly what I meant when I brought up the category error. The sky exists in the universe. Things that are not sky exist in the universe. Colors other than what we call blue exist in the universe. We look for causes as to why this extent thing is the way it is.

    You seem to be mistaking categories. There may be a physical “cause” or there may be a logical reason why something must exist. You seem to be assuming the answer has to come in some particular form, but I don’t see any argument, just assertions.

    I just want to know what evidence anyone has ever had that nothingness is even possible, or that some “thing” had some “reason” to make life before I spend any time trying to figure out how something could have come from nothing, or what that reason might be.

    You’re anthropomorphizing this needlessly. There’s no point in claiming there could be some extra “thing” which had a reason, as if it were a reasoner with a capacity for reasoning, which you also add has some kind plan to make life. It would just be an explanation: an entirely non-personal, logical or scientific reason of the existence of the universe, which doesn’t depend on some transcendent thing giving us the explanation or having it and keeping it for itself. That’s just preposterous, and it’s a strawman. I understand where you’re coming from, since theologians plant it into everyone’s heads, but there’s really no basis for that kind of conceptual leap.

  141. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    this is what I’m driving at when I say that good, rigorous philosophical arguments are all we have left to us to settle the matter for once and for all.

    And what hallucinogen are you on? If you don’t have a check against reality like science does, you can’t determine if you have reached a final answer, just presuppose you have. Which is why, at the end of the day, science will get there, and philosophy won’t.

    think it can be proven by reasoned argument.

    Nothing can be proven by reasoned argument if it describes reality. Too subject to presuppositions, and no way of showing you reached the right conclusion. Good halluciogen you have.

  142. Dhorvath, OM says

    I warn you now: this could only get worse. I was relatively sober on the first post.

    Fair warning. I too have just started to drink and stepped into this conversation. Maybe I can follow it.

  143. unclefrogy says

    Nerd of Redhead said, “And what hallucinogen are you on? If you don’t have a check against reality like science does, you can’t determine if you have reached a final answer, just presuppose you have. Which is why, at the end of the day, science will get there, and philosophy won’t.”

    thanks for saying what I was trying to say up above some where.
    reality came first then thought.
    I do not like the why questions much they seem endless, circular and leave out or imply too much. The only answer is because. Better to ask questions that do have answers like what or when or maybe how. You might even find an explanation that would shed light on a why if you could figure out what “something” is.

    The East has thought about that something vs nothing and point out that it is part of the duality of things black and white, yin and yang that everything is in comparison to something else. Are our thoughts conditioned by our language and it’s limitations like our senses? Are thoughts limited by how our brain functions?

    uncle frogy

  144. Owlmirror says

    I try to point out to Godbots that the answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” cannot possibly be “God”, because “God” is not the same thing as “nothing”.

    They may well whine that “God has always existed”, but that still doesn’t answer the question that they’re inventing God to answer.

    And as noted above, the question implicitly suggests that “complete nothingness” is possible, and that a transition between “complete nothingness” and something that isn’t “complete nothingness” occurred.

    I suppose the alternative is that there has always being something fundamental but simple that does indeed exist eternally — but that something, as noted by others, may well be space-time and the way that space-time acts. Which doesn’t answer the question, but the point is that the question may not be answerable.

    ======

    Getting back to Einstein, and “creativity” — I’m no physicist, but I understood that relativity reconciled mechanics and electromagentism; two subdivisions of physics that had been hitherto at fundamental odds with each other.

    This was not just “creative”; it was an extension of explanatory power in and of itself, which also made testable predictions.

    Yes? No?

  145. Dhorvath, OM says

    Einstein was clever, no doubt, but he didn’t come up with ideas from a vacuum. There were trending ideas that closely tailed special relativity, he just combined them first, and even general relativity took longer to develop mathematically than conceptually. Creation is a normal term to use, but really it was largely syncretic.

  146. pacal says

    Lawrence Krauss was being unfair to philosophy however in his defence there has been some rather bad philosophy. Kant’s bit of nonsense that it is always wrong to lie even to a murderer looking for victims is a case in point. There are still people who think that Kant’s position is intellectually defenceable.

    I am reminded of Nietzche’s statement, here paraphrased, “That philosophy is coming up with bad reasons to believe what we believe by instinct”.

  147. says

    #156 Nerd of Redhead

    And what hallucinogen are you on? If you don’t have a check against reality like science does, you can’t determine if you have reached a final answer, just presuppose you have. Which is why, at the end of the day, science will get there, and philosophy won’t.

    It is almost certainly the case that there is no empirical check that you could ever perform that would confirm or disprove a hypothesis like Tegmark’s mathematical universe. It is almost certainly untestable, and so it is unscientific.

    That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. And that doesn’t mean that a very convincing case (perhaps even ironclad case) could be made for its veracity, nor does it mean that it could not be attacked on logical grounds.

    We can’t perform a physical check of Fermat’s last theorem, and yet we can be absolutely sure that it is true by a priori reasoning. It may be that there are some things we can tell about the universe this way without ever having the possibility to check. Physicists do it all the time. Hawking said that if you converted a mass the size of Jupiter to energy, you’d have enough to create a stable wormhole. I don’t think anybody’s ever going to be able to check that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t some day believe it to be true based on everything else we know.

    As Einstein was brought up, I’m going to make up the claim that he came up with relativity largely by thought experiment, i.e. a priori reasoning. Fortunately, we were able to verify his results years later.

    The point I’m making is that as I understand it, his explanation was not trying to explain some weird observations that didn’t fit with the science of the time, it’s more that they were motivated by the intuitions such as that Newtonian physics presupposed a privileged frame of reference because the speed of light in a vacuum was limited. By thinking about stuff like what it would be like to travel on a train travelling at 99.9999999% near the speed of light, and then to throw a stone forward, he was able to intuitively understand concepts like time dilation etc.

    Now, what if we never had the technology or imagination to devise ways to test Einstein’s predictions? Would that make his ideas worthless?

  148. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    [1] It is almost certainly the case that there is no empirical check that you could ever perform that would confirm or disprove a hypothesis like Tegmark’s mathematical universe. It is almost certainly untestable, and so it is unscientific.

    [2] That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. [3] And that doesn’t mean that a very convincing case (perhaps even ironclad case) could be made for its veracity, nor does it mean that it could not be attacked on logical grounds.

    1. What utility does that conjecture supposedly provide, then?

    2. So? Same applies to an infinitude of other untestable conjectures, many of them very silly.

    3. Go to 1.

  149. says

    Sorry all (especially CR), was pulled away for the long haul tonight.

    Just wanted to pop in to say I don’t mean to leave the conversation hanging – but I’m not sure I’ll have anything intelligible or meaningful to add to a highfalutin philosophical discussion even when I haven’t slammed, with the force and consistency of the sea’s waves, alcohol into my face.

    Barring a self-induced coma, I’ll be back tomorrow.

  150. says

    1. It offers an explanation other than God did it.
    2. I would argue it is more defensible than any other such conjecture. I also think that it can be proved correct by reasoning, although I don’t think many will accept such arguments because they are unintuitive.

  151. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    No reality check equals mental masturbation. That was my point, which you missed, as you can’t comprehend your own limitations. Otherwise, all you have is overpowering egotism.

  152. says

    No, I get your point.

    I just disagree with it.

    Reality checks are to be preferred. Science beats philosophy in every argument where it can.

    I just don’t think that science can ever provide an ultimate answer. It’s limited to describing what is, not why it shouldn’t be otherwise.

    And I prefer attempts to answer such questions anyway to being defeatist about it.

  153. John Morales says

    Disagreeable, reifying mathematics is no more explanatory than reifying agency; might as well claim reality is art made manifest.

    Also, at best you can claim is that it’s neither incoherent nor does it contradict scientific knowledge.

    When some conjecture is exactly as explanatory as ‘it just is that way’, it becomes otiose.

  154. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    I just don’t think that science can ever provide an ultimate answer.

    Um, perhaps we should first build a computer powerful enough to work out the ultimate question?

  155. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I just disagree with it.

    Well, I disagree with you. Now what? Or will your ego allow for folks not to bow down to mentally masturbating sophist philosophers?

  156. says

    I disagree with you, I think that reifying mathematics makes absolute sense.

    I’ll try to sketch out the argument, but I’ll have to get off this thread for a while because I need to work!

    The universe appears to be described perfectly by laws which are entirely mathematical in nature.

    The universe could in principle be simulated by an infinitely powerful computer that implemented these laws as an algorithm.

    Suppose for a moment that this is the case, and that the laws of the universe are deterministic (ignore QM, or if you can’t, assume that all probabilistic events are determined using a pseudorandom number generator). The universe wouldn’t have any physical reality, and yet it would subjectively appear real to its inhabitants.

    Now suppose that we turn off this computer. What does it mean for the inhabitants of the universe? Do they cease to exist? No, I don’t think so. Their futures, their stories are already all mapped out by the algorithm. If we had two such computers running the same algorithm, the stories would be exactly the same. The me on computer A is the same as the me on computer B in absolutely every way.

    So I think that such an algorithmic universe has a kind of existence even without such an infinite computer. A platonic existence. It exists in exactly the same way as the list of prime numbers, or the fibonacci sequence, or the concept of a perfect circle, and in exactly the way that a real square root of minus one doesn’t.

    The word existence has two meanings. 1) something that is present in the universe. 2) something that has a platonic existence, e.g. the number 5.

    Meaning 1) clearly can’t apply to the universe. It can’t exist within itself. Meaning 2) does however apply to the universe, in that the concept of this particular universe is well-defined and in principle could be conceived of by a mind.

    So, if this universe platonically exists, then its inhabitants platonically exist. And those inhabitants would experience the universe as real. Similarly, all other conceivable universes platonically exist, and the reality of those universes is just as real to their inhabitants as ours is to us.

    This is the only kind of existence that makes any sense for a universe. And this universe manifestly does exist in that sense (at least). Arguing that this universe is somehow more real than that must depend on some non-materialistic notion such as Cartesian duality (arguing that consciousness cannot be the result of physical processes).

    You might say that “Yeah, we could simulate a universe of conscious beings, but that doesn’t mean they really are conscious or that that universe really exists”. I disagree with that, but that’s harder to prove. I think a strict materialist would have to agree that if they appear conscious based on every test we can imagine then they really are conscious. And if those beings really are conscious, then they have some kind of existence (“They think therefore they are”).

    And if conscious beings who exist perceive a universe to exist, then in some sense that universe does exist, or at least we have no reason to believe that our universe is any more real than theirs.

    You might not agree with the argument, but I think it’s more coherent than “reality is art made manifest”.

  157. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    The universe appears to be described perfectly by laws which are entirely mathematical in nature.

    The universe could in principle be simulated by an infinitely powerful computer that implemented these laws as an algorithm.

    A simulation of something is not that something; you could use a computer to simulate a clockwork timepiece powered by a pendulum and a spring, but you’d still not have a clockwork timepiece — and such a computer is much more complex than a clockwork timepiece.

    I put it to you that the null hypothesis is that anything sufficiently complex to simulate the universe would be more complicated than the universe itself.

    Suppose for a moment that this is the case, and that the laws of the universe are deterministic (ignore QM, or if you can’t, assume that all probabilistic events are determined using a pseudorandom number generator). The universe wouldn’t have any physical reality, and yet it would subjectively appear real to its inhabitants.

    Its non-physically real simulated inhabitants.

    Now suppose that we turn off this computer. What does it mean for the inhabitants of the universe? Do they cease to exist? No, I don’t think so. Their futures, their stories are already all mapped out by the algorithm. If we had two such computers running the same algorithm, the stories would be exactly the same. The me on computer A is the same as the me on computer B in absolutely every way.

    This computer that is much, much more complex than the universe is your explanation for the universe?

    (But it must perforce reside in its own universe, no?

    So, now you’ve added a whole new level of metacomplexity and still have a universe to explain! ;) )

  158. says

    Nerd of Redhead:

    Well, I disagree with you. Now what? Or will your ego allow for folks not to bow down to mentally masturbating sophist philosophers?

    No, disagree to your heart’s content. No problem. If you want to justify your disagreement, even better. If you want to just leave it at that that’s absolutely fine too.

    Yawn, tl;dr sophistry and egotism.

    If you’re not interested in discussing why the universe might exist then nobody’s forcing you to. If I’m being sophistic, then there must be a flaw in my argument, which you are not attempting to detect. Perhaps I’m being egotistic, but I think I’m just trying to share what I think with others who are interested in having this discussion. I’m open to criticism and in fact welcome it. I love to discover that I’m wrong about something – it means I’m learning.

  159. says

    Gah, got to stop checking this thread!

    John Morales, thanks for engaging with the argument in the spirit it’s intended. I appreciate it.

    Anyway, about the computer, I’m not postulating that such a computer exists. I’m postulating that it could exist in principle, which is different. I then make the point that the computer doesn’t have to exist for the algorithm it’s running to have a platonic existence.

    The computer is just an aid to explaining what is meant by a mathematical construct by using the most familiar way we have of visualising mathematical constructs: running simulations on a computer.

    As for its non-physically real simulated inhabitants, I’m making the point that the concept of physical reality is subjective. They are not physically real to us because they are not present in our universe. We are not physically real to them because we are not present in their universe.

  160. John Morales says

    Disagreeable,

    Anyway, about the computer, I’m not postulating that such a computer exists. I’m postulating that it could exist in principle, which is different. I then make the point that the computer doesn’t have to exist for the algorithm it’s running to have a platonic existence.

    Permutation City, eh?

    Point is, speculation is speculation, no more.

    (Come up with an actual hypothesis, you have something)

  161. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Also, Stross imagined a timing channel attack to determine if the universe were a simulation in Accelerando, IIRC.

    (Hardly an innovative concept in SF, I seem to recall Jack Chalker doing it too — Well World series. Others, too.)

  162. says

    From glancing over your arguments, Despicable Me, my concern with the approach is how much such an approach has been used in the past without success. Granted that in the past, the lack of mathematics might have led ultimately to an unbridgeable lack of conceptual clarity, but such elaborate undertakings haven’t really showed much promise in terms of what it can say about our world. Empiricism, for all its limitations and caveats, has really been the driving force towards gaining a meaningful description of the world. So I could understand why sophistry is being levelled against what you’re putting forward; how could we know its the case if there weren’t a meaningful way to test it? When I’ve heard Brian Greene talk about string theory, for example, he’s quite open about the eventual need for confirmation through observation and states that string theory shouldn’t be believed until such time.

  163. says

    I am also an empiricist. The goal of empirical science is to get to the bedrock foundational laws that drive the universe. If achieved that, we would have “completed” empirical science.

    But then the theist can claim that God must have created those foundational laws. And without an alternative explanation, we’re left with a fundamental gap in our knowledge.

    I guess my justification for stepping outside the realm of empiricism is that I’m not really making empirical claims about the universe. What I’m actually doing is rebutting the philosophical argument that the universe had to have a cause.

    What I’m attempting to do is to robustly analyse the intuitive philosophical concept of existence and explaining how the everyday sense cannot apply to the universe, and furthermore why there does not have to be a cause (indeed there cannot be a cause) for existence itself.

  164. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    What I’m actually doing is rebutting the philosophical argument that the universe had to have a cause.

    Unnecessary endeavour — that claim is an instance of the fallacy of composition.

    (Our sample of universes is 1)

  165. says

    I’m also claiming that the universe logically has to exist, and that every conceivable universe has to exist. To answer “why is there something rather than nothing”, I’d say “nothing” is just one possible universe, and so it does exist. Along with everything else!

    This explains the cosmological argument, fine tuning, why anything exists at all, whether simulated beings exist, etc etc etc. It ties all of these questions up with a big bow, while making very few assumptions.

    As far as I can tell, the only controversial assumption built into it is that consciousness is a result of physical processes. The idea of physical reality being subjective is highly unintuitive and I expect most people to rebel against it, but it’s hard for me to see a logical refutation. Is the burden of proof on me? Why not you? If you’re going to say that physical reality means something other than the appearance of reality to a conscious entity, then what do you mean exactly and how would you justify it?

  166. says

    But then the theist can claim that God must have created those foundational laws. And without an alternative explanation, we’re left with a fundamental gap in our knowledge.

    That a theist can claim that since we don’t know how life originated it must have been God who brought life from non-life, it doesn’t make me think we need to address the problem in order to counter that theistic intrusion.

    What I’m actually doing is rebutting the philosophical argument that the universe had to have a cause.

    Can’t you just analyse what is meant by cause?

  167. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    The idea of physical reality being subjective is highly unintuitive and I expect most people to rebel against it, but it’s hard for me to see a logical refutation. Is the burden of proof on me? Why not you?

    Burden of proof.

  168. says

    The burden of proof is on the party making extraordinary claims. I don’t think I’m the one making extraordinary claims about physical reality though, I think you are.

    Define it.

    Existence in a universe? Agrees with my argument.

    Perceivable by conscious entities? Agrees with my argument.

    Existence in this particular universe only? Seems like a needlessly subjective definition. If you could have an argument with a conscious simulated entity in a computer simulation, how could you justify your position that your definition of physical reality is real and his/hers is not? It could even be set up so that your opponent believes that he/she is on the outside of the simulation and you are on the inside.

    Has some ineffable mystical quality that defies definition and yet is true? doesn’t agree with my argument, yet seems like an extraordinary claim.

  169. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    The burden of proof is on the party making extraordinary claims.

    The burden of proof is on the party making extraordinary claims.

    FTFY.

    Define it.

    But I’m not making any claim; you are.

    (Define what it is you wish me to define)

  170. says

    In fact, I don’t think I’m really making any claim about physical reality at all, I’m just taking the usual definition and then showing how it’s not really objective (from the point of view of a hypothetical mind outside the universe).

    In recognising that it is unintuitive, I understand that most people won’t accept this. But I don’t think I’m really making any claim about physical reality that isn’t already implicit in the definition.

  171. says

    You were right to cross out extraordinary, I’m kind of combining it with Occam’s razor here. I’m claiming that physical reality is subjective to people within a platonically existing universe, my opponents would claim that it is something more.

    We’re each claiming something, so we each have a burden of proof. I think the burden shifts to the person making the more extraordinary claim, and I’ve tried to explain why I think mine is the less extraordinary.

    By define it, I’m asking you to define the concept of physical reality or existence in a way which disagrees with my argument.

  172. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    By define it, I’m asking you to define the concept of physical reality or existence in a way which disagrees with my argument [mental masturbation].

    FIFY

    And the burden of evidence is upon those making the claims, ie, you to sho they are right with solid and conclusive physical evidence.

  173. John Morales says

    Disagreeable, how can one disagree with an untestable conjecture? ;)

    (I’m not disagreeing, I’m stating it’s pointless speculation)

    Reality is what exists, physical reality is that which exists and not an abstractum.

    (Conjectures are abstracta)

  174. says

    A conjecture is something that may or may not be true. “It will rain tomorrow”. You disagree with it by maintaining that it is more likely not to be true.

    I disagree that my position is a conjecture. I think it is a logical argument. If I am wrong you should be able to point out which assumptions I am making that you think are conjectural.

    “Men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal” is not a conjecture. It follows with logical necessity if you accept the premises, although the premises may be conjectural.

    If you can point out which assumption I’m making that you disagree with, you have provided a logical basis for your disagreement.

    “Reality is that which exists” is a circular definition. If I asked what does it mean to exist, you’d probably say “That which is real”.

  175. John Morales says

    Disagreeable:

    I disagree that my position is a conjecture. I think it is a logical argument.

    A logical argument only shows what is entailed by its premises.

    (GIGO)

    [1] Also, defining physical as “that which is not abstract” is also circular. [2] What’s abstract? That which is not physical?

    1. Nope; it splits the possibilities into two mutually-exclusive categories.

    2. Very good. I think you have it. :)

  176. says

    So, my logical argument only shows what is entailed by its premises.

    My premises are:

    1) Consciousness is a result of physical (and ultimately mathematical processes).

    I’m not aware of any other premise I’m making, but there may be other premises implied that I’m missing.

    About physical/abstract, if you’re just splitting into mutually exclusive categories, you have not provided a definition. How do you decide what’s physical and what’s abstract?

  177. says

    Oh, another premise:

    The laws of nature can be modelled by mathematics. That is, there is no “disembodied mind” such as God’s interfering with stuff arbitrarily in a way which cannot be captured by mathematics.

  178. John Morales says

    My premises are:

    1) Consciousness is a result of physical (and ultimately mathematical processes).

    ⇒ mathematics is the basis of physicality.

    (That is indeed circular)

    About physical/abstract, if you’re just splitting into mutually exclusive categories, you have not provided a definition. How do you decide what’s physical and what’s abstract?

    I rely on sense-impressions and life experience, and avoid solipsism. :)

    The laws of nature can be modelled by mathematics.

    More like the laws of nature allow mathematics to model it.

    (You think the map is the territory?)

  179. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    More like the laws of nature allow mathematics to model it.

    Maybe more accurately, if it isn’t mathematically coherent it isn’t a law.

  180. says

    My premises are:

    1) Consciousness is a result of physical (and ultimately mathematical processes).

    ⇒ mathematics is the basis of physicality.

    (That is indeed circular)

    Nope, I can break it down as follows

    1) Consciousness depends on physical processes
    2) Physical processes are mathematical in nature.
    Therefore:
    Consciousness depends on mathematics

    It’s not circular because I don’t define mathematics in terms of consciousness.

    I rely on sense-impressions and life experience, and avoid solipsism. :)

    Fallacy of intuition, the same reasoning could cause you to doubt QM or relativity or that man descended from apes or that consciousness is a result of physical processes.

    I’m not a solipsist. I believe every other mind is just as real as my own. In fact, I’d go farther: every other conceivable mind is just as real as my own.

    (You think the map is the territory?)

    You say that to mock me, but actually yeah, in this particular case. The difference between maps and territories is that maps leave out a lot of detail. If you made a map that accurately represented the earth, down to the last atom, then what you would have created would be identical to the earth. The earth would just as much be a map of it as it would be of the earth.

  181. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Maybe more accurately, if it isn’t mathematically coherent it isn’t a law.

    That was clear as mud. What I mean to say is that if two sets of phenomena are uncorrelated, no-one thinks to create a law explaining correlation*. Very little of the universe is freely amenable to mathematical modeling simply because most phenomena are not related in a way in which the correlation is obvious. For that reason, I am not convinced that there is an underlying mathematical harmony that explains much of what we see.

    *astrology aside
    **This why a unified field theory wouldn’t be all that helpful in diagnosing disease, or choosing a summer camp for your kid.

  182. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    1) Consciousness depends on physical processes
    2) Physical processes are mathematical in nature.
    Therefore:
    Consciousness depends on mathematics

    Yeah, no. Physical processes are often delimited as such because they are mathematically tractable*. This is a particularly useful kind of confirmation bias. Physcial processes happen whether they are mathematically tractable or not.

    *Example: There is no math to explain the probability of my reading lightbulb going out that is a function of the position of Jupiter in the sky. These phenomena are uncorrelated and don’t jointly get called a “process**” precisely because they defy mathematical modeling. Or at least do so in any way that is useful or predictive.

    **I think you seem to mean either physical events or laws…kind of vague.

  183. says

    I rely on sense-impressions and life experience, and avoid solipsism. :)

    Fallacy of intuition, the same reasoning could cause you to doubt QM or relativity or that man descended from apes or that consciousness is a result of physical processes.

    I wasn’t fair here. You weren’t making this fallacy: you would be if you were maintaining that this is how you know that your physical reality is “realler” than that of a simulated being.

    What I should have said is that then your implicit definition is “Reality is that which can be perceived by conscious beings”. Which is one of the definitions I suggested earlier and which agrees with my argument 100%.

  184. says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes

    All I’m saying is that given infinite time and resources, and infinite information about the state of the universe, mathematics could be used to model the evolution of that state. That is, the universe is deterministic (QM needs further discussion).

    So, physical stuff that happens in the universe can be modelled mathematically.

    Consciousness depends on physical stuff, so consciousness can be modelled mathematically even if it means we have to model all the atoms in a brain and its environment.

    That’s all I’m saying.

    If it turns out that there are physical processes which cannot be modelled and predicted mathematically, then my premise is wrong.

    Your lightbulb going out is not a function of the position of jupiter, but the position of jupiter and your lightbulb going out are both functions of the state of the universe and the mathematics that governs the evolution of this state.

  185. says

    Incidentally, I suppose that my two premises hint that my argument could actually be testable in principle.

    If we could ever show that machines could not be conscious, it would be falsified.

    If we could every discover some natural properties of the universe that defy mathematical modelling (e.g. an omniscient omnipotent deity turns up), then it would be falsified.

  186. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Disagreeable Me: That isn’t a statement about the reality of universe, as much as a statement that anything could be modeled with sufficient liberty to create free paramters. You could model any conceivable universe if you invoke a sufficiently complex model. Our universe is not special in this regard.

    Further, with no knowledge of physical law, one could model the universe by assigning every entity in the universe its own parameter. Such a model is so imprecise to be vacuous. The ability to apply math to an entity is trivial, and does not allow us to make conclusions about that entity by itself.

    *Or, like, set of parameters

  187. johnscanlon says

    Kel/KG, the discussion of ‘specific facts': I think the words you guys needed were ‘historically contingent facts’. Fits?

    Antiochus Epiphanes: can you point me to a good recent discussion of the Bayesian-frequentist controversy in phylogenetics? (OK I could google, but I can also ask a fellow professional, yeah?)

    ‘loverofwisdom’ seems to have read the ca. 1978 edition of Chalmers’ ‘What is this thing called Science?’. But maybe nothing else.

    A lot of philosophers seem to be in the same place as most social scientists, as described by Luk Van Langenhove in this week’s Nature (doi:10.1038/484442a): “Today, the social sciences are largely focused on disciplinary problems and internal scholarly debates, rather than on topics with external impact.”

    tkreacher: “should” is there as a marker of the subjunctive, which is extinct in many versions of English. It’s actually a question about is’, not ‘ought’, or at least that’s how I read it.

    Anyone for a discussion of Saunt Orolo’s conjecture, based on a Deutsch-like many-worlds view, that mental models are redundant? It reminds me of one of the implications of Sheldrake’s morphic resonance: DNA doesn’t have to actually code for anything, because the genome is just an antenna.

    Better have a drink now.

  188. says

    Predictions of my argument:
    1) God does not exist
    2) Strong AI is possible in principle
    3) All natural behaviour can be modelled mathematically
    4) We will never have a non-anthropic explanation for fine tuning.

  189. says

    Antiochus Epiphanes;

    You’re absolutely right, and that’s why I think that all conceivable universes do, in fact, exist, even if you have such an extravagant model that it devolves to scripting everything that happens.

    So there could be a hypothesis that this universe is such a universe. Such a hypothesis would make a prediction that the universe should immediately disintegrate into random chaos. If everything is scripted with no rules to the script, then that would be what you would expect to see happen, with probability of 0.999999999999999999…

    Since we don’t observe this to happen, it’s more reasonable to assume that this universe is governed by more basic, fundamental laws. It doesn’t mean that those other universes don’t exist though. It’s just that such universes which appear superficially to have order that is not actually there are infinitely less probable (and thus numerous) than those universes that actually are based on simple laws.

  190. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    You’re absolutely right, and that’s why I think that all conceivable universes do, in fact, exist, even if you have such an extravagant model that it devolves to scripting everything that happens.

    This does not follow. On could model anything real or imaginary. I could create a model to describe the quantity of gold in leprechaun’s cauldrons. Or in this instance an explicit model of vampire demographics has been created. I hope you don’t take this as evidence of the actual existence of vampires.

    If you want to define reality as that which is mathematically tractable, you have a vacuous model of reality indeed.

  191. says

    Vampires of some kind do exist in other universes. They must even exist in this universe if the universe is infinite in space as it very well may be, as long as you could model their behaviour in terms of the laws of this universe. If there is infinite space, then there must be infinite planets with intelligent life, and there must be every conceivable form of intelligent life, including vampires and just about everything else you can imagine.

    However, in addition to modelling their demographics, you’d have to account for how they can survive gunshots, transform into bats, etc. If you’re assuming they exist in a universe with laws much like ours, you’d have to model how they could turn into bats etc. That may be harder to do.

    If it boils down simply to a natural law stating “Vampires turn into bats” then I would argue that’s not reducible to maths. For example, what mathematical principle determines what arrangement of matter counts as a vampire? What physical process triggers this transformation? If it’s not possible to give an account for all this stuff in terms of non-scripted mathematical laws, then such an entity is not conceivable in the sense that I’m talking about, and that’s why it doesn’t exist.

    People sometimes get annoyed at nerds who ask “rules” questions like these about movies and stories. If they don’t follow consistent rules, then the universes they describe are not mathematically consistent, and so they cannot be said to exist. Otherwise, they do.

    Can you propose an alternative less-vacuous definition of reality?

  192. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    johnscanlon:

    Most of these were written ~5-10 years ago, but have been cited in further discussions. These may be a good place to start.

    Alfaro, M. E., Holder, M. T., 2006. The posterior and the prior in Bayesian phylogentics. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37: 19-42.
    Brandley, M. C., Leaché, A. D., Warren, D. L., McGuire, J. A., 2006. Are unequal priors problematic in Bayesian phylogenetics? Systematic Biology 55: 138-146.
    Douady, C. J., Delsuc, F., Boucher, Y., Doolittle, W. F., Douzery, E. J. P., 2003. Comparison of Bayesian and maximum likelihood bootstrap measures of phylogenetic reliability. Molec. Biol. Evol. 20, 248–254.Huelsenbeck, J.P., B. Larget, and F. Ronquist. 2008. A Bayesian perspective on a non-parsimonious parsimony model. Systematic Biology 57(3): 406–419.
    Huelsenbeck, J.P. and B. Rannala. 2004. Frequentist properties of Bayesian posterior probabilities of phylogenetic trees under simple and complex substitution models. Systematic Biology 53(6): 904–913.
    Kolaczkowski, B. and J.W. Thornton. 2004. Performance of maximum parsimony and likelihood phylogenetics when evolution is heterogeneous. Nature 431: 980-984.
    Pickett, K. M. and C.P. Randle. 2005. Strange Bayes indeed: uniform topological priors imply non-uniform clade priors. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 34: 203-211.
    Rannala, B. 2002. Identifiability of parameters in MCMC Bayesian inference. Systematic Biology 51(5):754–760.
    Steel, M. and K.M. Pickett. 2007. On the impossibility of uniform priors on clades. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 39: 585–586.
    Svennblad, B., P. Erixon, B. Oxelman, and T. Britton. 2006. Fundamental differences between the methods of Maximum Likelihood and Maximum Posterior Probability in phylogenetics. Systematic Biology 55(1):116–121.
    Wheeler, W.C. and K.M. Pickett. 2008. Topology-Bayes versus clade-Bayes in phylogenetic analysis. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25(2):447–453.
    Yang, Z. and B. Rannala. 2005. Branch-length prior influences Bayesian posterior probability of phylogeny. Systematic Biology 54(3): 455–470.
    Zwickl, D.J. and M.T. Holder. 2004. Model parameterization, prior distributions, and the General Time-Reversible Model in Bayesian phylogenetics. Systematic Biology 53(6): 877-888.

  193. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    However, in addition to modelling their demographics, you’d have to account for how they can survive gunshots, transform into bats, etc. If you’re assuming they exist in a universe with laws much like ours, you’d have to model how they could turn into bats etc.

    You really wouldn’t have to model that unless it was a parameter that you were interested in estimating. I think this demonstrates that you haven’t a very well-defined idea of how mathematical models are constructed or used. Models are hypotheses that have mathematically delimited parameters, and are therefore are explanations. That’s it. A model doesn’t have to have any more complexity than is required to explain a set of observations. As George Box said, “Essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

    People sometimes get annoyed at nerds who ask “rules” questions like these about movies and stories. If they don’t follow consistent rules, then the universes they describe are not mathematically consistent, and so they cannot be said to exist.

    …Further*, models that are internally consistent may be especially wrong if they predict what we should observe poorly. Consistency and accuracy are not correlated indices. However, I think this defines your position: anything to which an internally consistent model can be applied must be real. Of course, two internally consistent models can make contradictory predictions—and that is precisely the value of models in scientific inference. At least one of them must be wrong.

    But all you have done is provide what I think is a vacuous redefinition of what is real, and this forces you to presume that spaces and other universes are infinitely variable. They may well be, but this is rather ad hoc.

    Can you propose an alternative less-vacuous definition of reality?

    Sure. Reality is the set of things that can be observed. This may seem stultified to you, in that I am limited to explaining reality of the known universe. That’s still a lot of work.

    *I can hoist the nerd banner as high as anyone. It would be unwise to get into a nerd-off in this particular community.

  194. says

    I have to say, Antiochus and John Morales, I’m really enjoying our exchange (too much, as I have to work).

    More than anyone else I think you’re really trying to engage me with my logic and refute my arguments, which I welcome. As I’ve said, I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

    This is way too addictive and stimulating. I need to work.

    I’m afraid that this thread might die out though as it’s a bit old at this stage. I’d like to get in contact with you if so to continue the discussion, maybe even over skype or something.

    To you or anybody else who would be interested in doing so, please contact me through my blog which is linked in my username.

    Will be back later to answer these arguments anyway.

  195. KG says

    Kel/KG, the discussion of ‘specific facts’: I think the words you guys needed were ‘historically contingent facts’. Fits? – johnscanlon

    Yes, that captures what I meant – thanks!

  196. KG says

    We had to assume that our sensory inputs were valid to begin the endeavor of science (or anything else for that matter). We aren’t relying on any theory of anything, we are taking that as an axiom. – Hurin

    No, this is wrong, because in many cases our sensory inputs are not valid. We started, perhaps, with the commonsense, informal theory that they are, but it was necessary to realise that this is an over-simplification.

    Popper argues, in Objective Knowledge, that evolutionary processes have, in effect, encoded implicit theories about the world into our sensory apparatus.

  197. says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes

    You really wouldn’t have to model that unless it was a parameter that you were interested in estimating. I think this demonstrates that you haven’t a very well-defined idea of how mathematical models are constructed or used. Models are hypotheses that have mathematically delimited parameters, and are therefore are explanations. That’s it. A model doesn’t have to have any more complexity than is required to explain a set of observations. As George Box said, “Essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

    If we’re pondering existence we need a complete model, down to the fundamental laws of physics for whatever universe you’re hypothesizing. Of course demographics is not enough.

    You have to account for everything, because the set of “observations” you’re seeking to explain is not demographics but the conceivability of the very existence of the vampire.

    If you’re interested in demographics, by all means have a simplified model. It could be very useful for estimating demographics.

    But why doesn’t this simplified model “exist” while a complex model does? Why don’t other mathematical constructs such as the Fibonacci sequence “exist”?

    Well, in a sense, they do. The demographics link you gave proved that. But why don’t they physically exist? Well, by your definition they don’t physically exist because they can’t (or couldn’t even conceivably) be observed. I’m perfectly happy with that definition, and so I’m perfectly happy with the conclusion that they doesn’t physically exist.

    But a complete mathematical model of an actual individual vampire down to the atom could actually be observed, for instance by that vampire itself, or by other conscious entities in its “universe” if we extended the model to include the vampire’s environment.

    In short, I understand what a mathematical model is, I understand what it’s used for, and I understand that it is generally a simplification for something more complex.

    But if we found a theory of everything, it wouldn’t be a simplification. It would by definition be completely accurate.

    However, I think this defines your position: anything to which an internally consistent model can be applied must be real. Of course, two internally consistent models can make contradictory predictions—and that is precisely the value of models in scientific inference. At least one of them must be wrong.

    Your characterisation of my position is pretty close, but I’d have to put it differently to account for your definition of reality. For your definition of “real”, an internally consistent model is only real if it is complex enough and fine tuned enough to host conscious observers within it.

    If two such contradictory self-consistent models are found, they are both real. This is not a paradox because they represent separate realities in an infinite multiverse.

    Reality is the set of things that can be observed. This may seem stultified to you, in that I am limited to explaining reality of the known universe. That’s still a lot of work.

    I accept this definition of reality as perfectly valid.

    As you may have gathered by now, I don’t see this as a problem because I maintain that it is possible for mathematical constructs to host conscious observers (as you must admit if you allow that consciousness depends on physics and physics can be modelled mathematically, so that if we simulated a human brain and its environment on a computer, that brain would be conscious).

    Anything those conscious observers can observe is real (to them). It’s just not the reality you observe, so it’s not real to you. But then you’re not real to them either. This is why I’m maintaining that reality is subjective.

  198. consciousness razor says

    As you may have gathered by now, I don’t see this as a problem because I maintain that it is possible for mathematical constructs to host conscious observers (as you must admit if you allow that consciousness depends on physics and physics can be modelled mathematically, so that if we simulated a human brain and its environment on a computer, that brain would be conscious).

    A model is a representation of a thing, not the thing. If physics can be modeled mathematically, that means we can use mathematical patterns to represent patterns of physical events. It does not follow that physical events are made of mathematics, or that all mathematical structures are physical structures.

    I will grant that a simulation of consciousness is consciousness. We are simulating our cognitive processes and perceptions of the rest of reality, and that’s what being conscious is. Simulating a simulation does however need to shift it to a different scheme, for example: a computer simulating a person’s brain activity with its hardware, instead of their brain doing it with its own. Another example: the calculator in your computer’s operating system is a simulation of a physical calculator, and it really does calculate, but it does not have any of the physical features of the kind of calculator it’s simulating (except probably its general appearance, so we’ll be comfortable using it).

    Anything those conscious observers can observe is real (to them). It’s just not the reality you observe, so it’s not real to you. But then you’re not real to them either. This is why I’m maintaining that reality is subjective.

    There’s only one reality. Within it are subjects who do not know or understand what reality is. It’s a real phenomenon that they make mistakes, but their mistakes are not the truth. I guess that takes all the mystery out of it, but at least it makes sense.

  199. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Disagreeable Me:
    You’ve lost me. I think what you’re saying harkens back to what has already been discussed regarding map vs. territory. The disagreement boils down to your assertion that the model is the reality and my assertion that it certainly isn’t. If you accept that any self-consistent model could in fact be a reality in some other universe that we don’t have access to, you have defined yourself out of any but trivial problems of ontology ontology. Which seems not-so-useful, in that empiricism is not a useful tool for assessing models.

  200. says

    @consciousness razor

    A model is a representation of a thing, not the thing.

    Granted, with one exception.

    A model that captures every single detail of something is that thing. We don’t typically have models that capture every detail of a thing. That’s unintuitive and I don’t expect you to accept it right away.

    But consider a model of a mathematical construct that is identical to what it is modelling. I would argue that it is that construct. Perhaps the word “model” is used unadvisedly in this context. A physical map that represents a physical territory in every detail down to the very atom is that territory. This is impossible though as it would have to occupy the same space. I guess it would be equivalent to say that the earth is its own map in addition to being itself. Perhaps the word “map” is used unadvisedly.

    I’m arguing that the universe is, at its base, a mathematical construct. If this is the case, then a mathematical model which captures it completely accurately is the universe. Perhaps in this context, the word model would be just as inapplicable. If we get to a fundamental theory of everything, describing the universe completely accurately in terms of mathematics, we would not have discovered a model, we would have discovered the universe itself.

    Maybe it would help if we threw out all the references to the word “model” and focused on “mathematical construct” instead.

    If a simulation of consciousness is consciousness, why not allow that a simulation of reality might not be some kind of reality? If we define reality as that which is observable, and we have a simulation of conscious beings in a simulated reality, would they not observe that reality? Why should your observations be more objectively real than theirs?

    There’s only one reality.

    That’s a bold assertion! If you mean there are no other universes, then you’ll have a hard time explaining fine tuning without a designer. Even if there is some mathematical reason why the constants could not have values other than what they have, we should count ourselves tremendously fortunate that these necessary values allow life.

    If you allow the existence of a multiverse within your reality, but think there are physical laws such as quantum mechanics or M-theory physically generating universes, then we still have to deal with tuning of those laws. If the laws were different, then perhaps nothing would exist, or perhaps only one universe would, or perhaps there would only be uninteresting universes devoid of life.

    But perhaps I agree that there is only one reality. In doing so, I include all conceivable universes in it.

  201. says

    @Antiochus Epiphanes

    You’ve lost me. I think what you’re saying harkens back to what has already been discussed regarding map vs. territory. The disagreement boils down to your assertion that the model is the reality and my assertion that it certainly isn’t. If you accept that any self-consistent model could in fact be a reality in some other universe that we don’t have access to, you have defined yourself out of any but trivial problems of ontology ontology. Which seems not-so-useful, in that empiricism is not a useful tool for assessing models.

    I’m dismayed to have lost you :(

    I hope you don’t give up trying to reason with me. I’m not deliberately trying to be obtuse or defining myself out of an argument, though it may seem like it.

    Let me clarify again that I’m only asserting that a model of something is that thing if the model represents it absolutely accurately, not making a single unnecessary abstraction. If that means it’s not really a model, then maybe I shouldn’t use the word model. I’ll endeavour not to in future.

    empiricism is not a useful tool for assessing models

    There are two classes of mathematical construct (see, not using model any more!) that we can assess empirically.

    1) Our universe (in my argument)
    2) Mathematical models we can simulate on computer. For example, we can empirically measure qualities of models such as Conway’s Life, or Langton’s Ant or the various classes of cellular automata introduced by Stephen Wolfram by running them and seeing what happens.

  202. says

    I think I need to take it back to why I think the universe is a mathematical construct in the first place.

    Quite simply, it’s because we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if it wasn’t. I can’t even conceive of a rigorous definition of physical reality that makes a distinction. I’m not saying the universe is not real, I’m saying the distinction between reality and mathematics is illusory and artificial, because there is no objective way of distinguishing between them.

    It’s basically the same reason we suppose that simulated consciousness would actually be consciousness: there is no objective way of distinguishing between them.

    Thought experiment.

    Let’s run Conway’s Life on a grid of 10^1000 cells by 10^1000 cells, randomly initialised with a specified pseudorandom number generator seeded with the number “42”.

    Let’s run the simulation for 10^1000 generations on lots of different computers. Hell, let’s run it with pen and paper. In every case, the patterns we see on the grid will turn out the same way.

    In fact, as soon as you have defined the problem, the future of the simulation is already decided, even though it may not be possible to know what it is without running it. That future “exists”, even if you never actually run the simulation.

    Now, as you may know, all sorts of interesting patterns and structures have been observed in Conway’s life.

    Let’s make the unsupported conjecture that it may be possible for some of those patterns to replicate, but that the randomness of their environment means that sometimes they mutate. In short, lets assume it’s possible for patterns to evolve.

    Over time, imagine these patterns become conscious.

    The simulation will feel completely real to those beings. They will not believe that they exist within a simulation. Well, maybe some nutjobs will propose that they do, but they will be shouted down by others who argue that a mathematical construct cannot be reality.

    These arguments and emotions would exist in some sense even if the simulation had never been run. Running the simulation only allows us to glimpse what happens within the mathematical construct, it doesn’t cause it to exist.

    Furthermore, their universe needed no creator. Their universe is a mathematical construct that has a platonic existence all of its own even if no human had ever discovered it.

    I believe that this is the nature of reality for us too. The reason I believe this is that there is no distinction between this description and what we see around us. Even if physical reality did mean something more, and it’s not clear to me what this meaning could be, then the mathematical construct representing the basic theory of everything at the foundation of the universe would still exist, and furthermore, it would still host conscious creatures with minds identical to ours who are under the illusion that they really exist.

    So, if the concept of physical reality really does have objective meaning, what makes you think that you are the real you instead of your counterpart inside the mathematical construct?

    I think you are both. I think the two are identical. I think the distinction between reality and mathematics is an illusion.

  203. consciousness razor says

    A model that captures every single detail of something is that thing.

    No, it isn’t. There is the thing, and there is another thing which is the model of the thing. They are not one and the same thing. This is why you are wrong.

    A physical map that represents a physical territory in every detail down to the very atom is that territory.

    What is the map made of? Paper? Dirt? These are the kinds of questions you are either not asking yourself, or are confused about, or are being dishonest about.

    I’m arguing that the universe is, at its base, a mathematical construct. […] Maybe it would help if we threw out all the references to the word “model” and focused on “mathematical construct” instead.

    Yes, you keep repeating it, but don’t respond to any arguments against this idea.

    If a simulation of consciousness is consciousness, why not allow that a simulation of reality might not be some kind of reality?

    Because there’s no reason to think the definition of reality involves “simulation,” though you do seem to assume that. We are real entities which are conscious by having brains which simulate their own processes to themselves. That is how we are conscious (though even that is arguable; I’m sure many disagree). Reality is not real by simulating its own processes to itself. There is no reason whatsoever to think that is how it obtains realness.

    That’s a bold assertion!

    You said it yourself: “reality is subjective.” Note your use of the singular. You didn’t say “realities are,” because you’re making a claim about all perspectives of all subjects, which requires that you consider all of these under a single banner, which you called “reality.”

    If you mean there are no other universes, then you’ll have a hard time explaining fine tuning without a designer.

    I didn’t say there were no other universes. If there are, then reality is the multiverse, which is a single thing. If there are multiple muliverses, then that meta-multiverse containing them is reality. And on and on. Furthermore, I certainly don’t need to invoke multiverses just to deal with fine tuning arguments. There are so many assumptions and so many holes in them I could do it blindfolded with both hands tied. And if anyone ever did have a good argument for fine tuning, a designer would still not explain it. So don’t give me that shit.

    But perhaps I agree that there is only one reality.

    Then perhaps that’s your problem. You can’t or won’t be consistent.

    In doing so, I include all conceivable universes in it.

    It’s bad enough to think all possible universes are real, but believing in all conceivable universes is … well … inconceivably silly.

  204. johnscanlon says

    Antiochus –

    Excellent, Cheers!

    ——————

    But if we found a theory of everything, it wouldn’t be a simplification. It would by definition be completely accurate. (Disagreeable Me)

    Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. A completely accurate TOE is a paintbox and canvas, not the frickin’ Mona Lisa. You’ve got to distinguish the model (program and parameter set) from the output or (if we’re talking about the universe or multiverse) the whole run, or infinite number of runs.

  205. David Marjanović says

    Interesting. I spend all day reading this thread, which was still active when I came, and then it doesn’t progress any further…

    @ Antiochus: I’ll buy that. Critical thinking is definitely a learned trait, and in general the sciences don’t do a good job of teaching it.

    This isn’t about the sciences, it’s about specific professors and specific curricula.

    I had a voluntary course on how to do science, including basic science theory, near the end of highschool, and a short course on science theory included in a larger course in the 2nd half of the 2nd year of molecular biology.

    I am a doctor by trade, and I can say that all of the critical thinking skills I learned as an undergrad I learned in philosophy, not biology or chemistry or physics. Some of the sloppiest thinkers I’ve met have had an MD behind their name.

    Doing science helps a lot with critical thinking. MDs don’t usually do much science, they only apply it – which means taking it as given.

    I agree, however, that science theory should be taught much more systematically and much earlier. It should be taught to everyone.

    I won’t pull that move. Plantinga is an important and interesting philosopher. His work in epistemology is impressive and has moved the field onwards. He just happens to have this Jesus thing which makes him embrace some really dumb arguments. He is also very inconsistent methodologically. But the approach most people take is to set aside his mad stuff and try and focus on answering the occasional useful things he has to say about, say, epistemology or modal logic.

    Epistemology of all things???

    Plantinga keeps demonstrating that he has never heard of evolutionary epistemology (which is explained in comment 216). Most of what anyone can say about epistemology without knowing evolutionary epistemology is pretty much useless at best.

    Yes, even your idol Popper is *entirely* immaterial to science. […] Not even one example of even a testimonial by a scientist saying “if I never read Popper/Hume/etc I would never have discovered this!”

    But then, you never see this about Darwin either. The history of science isn’t important for science itself.

    And to give a mundane example, one cannot make the political and economic decision of $$ for research about the cosmos verses research $$ to cure spina bifida rationally without sound philosophical foundations to frame the discussion.

    Bad example. There’s plenty enough money for both as long as you can keep the politicians from pouring it all on the military.

    Science most certainly does prove things, in much the same sense of “prove” as is used in law, in history, and in everyday life

    But Popper explicitly didn’t mean that, did he?

    By “specific fact” I mean something like “the earth is smaller than the sun”, “There are lakes on Titan”, “Human beings and chimpanzees have a common ancestor”, “Eukaryotes arose thorugh endosymbiosis”, “Marsupials once lived in Antarctica”.

    The first two of these are, given spacecraft, simple, observable facts. The last requires more theory: you have to figure out how to recognize a marsupial, you have to infer marsupial monophyly, and you have to rule out other explanations of how the bones of a marsupial could end up in rock that is now in Antarctica. (For instance, there are fossils in Germany of animals that probably lived in Sweden; the rocks containing them were pushed south by glaciers. That clearly did not happen to the marsupials found in Antarctica, but you need plenty of geology to really understand that.)

    1) That the earth orbits the sun. Well I suppose since general relativity says there’s no preferred frame of reference, you could insist that’s not a fact, or not a fact in the way Newton (who believed in such a frame) would have understood;

    That’s a common mistake. Uniform movement is relative. Acceleration, which means any change of the velocity vector, is not! If the sun orbited the Earth, most or all other stars would be moving faster than light, and the very same theory of relativity says they’re not.

    it might seem a tempting solution to certain persistent difficulties in quantum mechanics, for example, to reject classical logic’s law of the excluded middle (allowing physical particles to both have and not have some determinate classical physical property like position or momentum at a given time).

    The concept of superposition of states looks a lot like that. It strictly speaking isn’t, but I doubt any philosopher would have imagined it.

    The only test of a belief, Quine argued, is whether it fits into a web of connected beliefs that accords well with our experience on the whole. And because this leaves any and all beliefs in that web at least potentially subject to revision on the basis of our ongoing sense experience or empirical evidence, he insisted, there simply are no beliefs that are analytic in the originally supposed sense of immune to revision in light of experience or true no matter what the world is like.“

    Sounds good to me. Just make parsimony more explicit.

    Relevant Sabato quote (I’m quoting from memory and translating on the wing): “If scientists turn their backs on metaphysics, they will still be doing metaphysics, it will merely be bad and uninformed metaphysics.”

    Obligatory link to the Wikipedia article on metametaphysics.

    Though the quote in that article is wrong in one respect: whether every event has a cause isn’t a question of metametaphysics, it isn’t a question of philosophy at all, it’s a question of plain old science. I’ll get back to it below.



    KG seems to be more interested in conflict than anything else. He calls “creativity” as meaningless but continues on to describe just that creativity that a “new scientific consensus” gravitates towards and describes it as if it wasn’t the attraction of creative ideas. Sorry, but there is no response possible here.

    Interested in conflict? You seem to be interested in harmony more than in reality. Scientists have trained long and hard to call a spade a spade – if that creates a conflict with your need of harmony, nobody can do anything about it.

    Lakatos’ example of an ad hoc theory was a black body that would explain the deviations of a planetary movement.

    That was quite an ignorant example.

    First of all, it had been proposed for decades if not centuries that the perihelion precession of Mercury was explained by an undiscovered planet that orbited closer to the sun than Mercury. This hypothetical planet even got a name: Vulcan. Yet, Vulcan has never been found. At the time when Einstein came up with relativity, it was quite clear that Vulcan simply wasn’t there; that’s why the whole phenomenon was considered such a problem of physics!

    So Lakatos proposed that this was no ordinary planet made of ordinary rock, but a black body, a body that absorbs all light that falls on it. That’s a massively unparsimonious assumption. If you explain a mystery by assuming another mystery, you haven’t decreased the number of mysteries at all, you’ve just moved the fucking goalposts.

    What is more, Lakatos was inconsistent: a black body would still have a temperature. It would still emit some radiation. When did infrared astronomy begin, and when did Lakatos make his claim?

    To be scrupulously fair, there’s a way around that problem: to assume a black hole. OK, that whole concept is younger than the entire discussion, but a black hole wouldn’t emit such radiation.

    Except… it would. A black hole with a mass as tiny as that calculated for Vulcan would emit lots and lots of Hawking radiation. So much, in fact, that it probably wouldn’t survive 5 billion years… how a black hole could enter, let alone form in, a solar system is another bunch of good questions…

    So: what Lakatos suggests is testable, and (at least today) falsified; and it was rather too unparsimonious to be taken seriously.

    today’s philosophy is what is left when you outsource empirical knowledge to science, and deductive a priori inferences to mathematics. There is nothing left but a cloud of empty vague words that do not elucidate anything and serves only as shabby masquerade for various ideologies.

    That’s not far off.

    I just don’t think that science can ever provide an ultimate answer. It’s limited to describing what is, not why it shouldn’t be otherwise.

    Big fat misunderstanding. Pure description is not science. If you’re not testing any hypotheses, or at least presenting any hypotheses, you’re not doing science.

    The universe could in principle be simulated by an infinitely powerful computer that implemented these laws as an algorithm.

    Suppose for a moment that this is the case, and that the laws of the universe are deterministic (ignore QM, or if you can’t, assume that all probabilistic events are determined using a pseudorandom number generator).

    No.

    Hiding the problem in a parenthesis does not make it go away.

    Either QM is massively wrong, or there is true random, not just pseudorandom.

    I put it to you that the null hypothesis is that anything sufficiently complex to simulate the universe would be more complicated than the universe itself.

    Good point.

    The goal of empirical science is to get to the bedrock foundational laws that drive the universe. If achieved that, we would have “completed” empirical science.

    That’s a rather small part of physics, actually.

    I’m a phylogeneticist. Evolution is understood. What I’m doing is trying to find out what happened, not how it happened or why it was able to happen.

    What I’m actually doing is rebutting the philosophical argument that the universe had to have a cause.

    Why would you do that, when Werner Heisenberg did your work for you in 1927?

    Uncaused causes happen all the time. Look up quantum fluctuations, radioactive decay and the Casimir effect (Wikipedia is a good start for all of them).

    That’s what the Uncertainty Relation means!

    The laws of nature can be modelled by mathematics.

    More like the laws of nature allow mathematics to model it.

    How about mathematics being a set of abstractions and generalizations on how reality behaves?

    (Similarly, logic has been called a set of abstractions and generalizations on how mathematical “objects” behave.)

    Predictions of my argument:
    […]
    4) We will never have a non-anthropic explanation for fine tuning.

    Too late. Victor Stenger showed that, if you vary only one parameter of the Standard Model at once, you end up with lots of uninhabitable universes as you already knew – but if you vary two parameters at the same time, no less than 21 % of the simulated universes are habitable.

    If you mean there are no other universes, then you’ll have a hard time explaining fine tuning without a designer. Even if there is some mathematical reason why the constants could not have values other than what they have,

    (False dichotomy, see above.)

    we should count ourselves tremendously fortunate that these necessary values allow life.

    Why? We’re just an outcome of the universe, a byproduct like everything else. Our universe happens to make us possible, so we were able to happen. :-| That’s circular, but it’s all there is to say about it.

    Perhaps I need to put it this way: if we were impossible, we wouldn’t be unfortunate, we simply wouldn’t exist in the first place.

  206. says

    @consciousness razor
    I’m going to have to ‘fess up that it’s true I am not being consistent or particularly rigorous. This is the first time I have expressed these ideas publicly and I’m making some mistakes in doing so. I have gone down too many rabbit holes in attempting to answer specific points that I’ve kind of lost sight of what I was attempting to argue in the first place

    Forget maps and territories.

    I take back everything I said about models being that which they model except in one specific case:

    If a model is modelling a mathematical object, and the model captures that mathematical object exactly, then that model is identical to the mathematical object. If any two mathematical objects are identical (even if expressed differently), then they are the same thing. My number 5 is the same as your number 5. “2+1″ is the same as “1+2. “2(x+y)=0″ is the same as “2x=-2y”. If you disagree then we just have different concepts of sameness.

    If you think a precise model of the universe is not the universe, that is consistent with your view that the universe is not a mathematical construct, however my view is also consistent. I don’t think I am relying on the assumption that they are the same thing to prove my point; I’m arguing that they are the same thing as a conclusion of my overall argument, best summarised in #223.

    Because there’s no reason to think the definition of reality involves “simulation,” though you do seem to assume that. We are real entities which are conscious by having brains which simulate their own processes to themselves. That is how we are conscious (though even that is arguable; I’m sure many disagree). Reality is not real by simulating its own processes to itself. There is no reason whatsoever to think that is how it obtains realness.

    I don’t think I’m assuming that the definition of reality involves simulation, I’m attempting to show how it could, and then argue that it does (see #223). Others on this thread have defined reality as “that which can be observed”. If a simulated consciousness can observe a universe, then by this particular definition, that simulated universe must also be real. For other definitions of reality, it may not be.

    Then perhaps that’s your problem. You can’t or won’t be consistent.

    You’re absolutely right, I can’t promise to be consistent with definitions of reality, because I don’t think it’s a well-defined concept at all when you apply it to existential discussions about universes. Language fails us.

    “Reality is that which can be observed” implies that simulated universes are real if they contain conscious observers. Furthermore, it implies that universes which cannot support life and are unobservable from other universes are not real, which seems somehow unsatisfactory to me. Reality should not be contingent on ability to support life.

    “Reality is that which exists in our universe” implies that no other universes are real, which makes anthropic arguments for fine-tuning difficult to express sensibly. It also arguably implies that our own universe is not real because it doesn’t exist within itself.

    “Reality is that which physically exists” is basically positing some ill-defined property called physical existence which somehow distinguishes it from “virtual existence”. In the closing paragraphs of #223, I am explaining why this mystical property of physical existence is superfluous to explaining our conscious experience, and so we can safely do away with it by Occam’s razor.

    In the same way, you’re not going to find me being consistent with referring to The One Reality or many realities, as they’re all just different ways of looking at the same thing, and different people have different concepts of what reality includes.

    You said it yourself: “reality is subjective.” Note your use of the singular. You didn’t say “realities are,” because you’re making a claim about all perspectives of all subjects, which requires that you consider all of these under a single banner, which you called “reality.”

    That’s not a fair argument though. If I said “consciousness is subjective”, would you assume I believed there was only one mind? “Beauty is subjective” means there is only one ideal of beauty? I don’t think my statement implies any particular opinion about the cardinality of reality.

    It’s bad enough to think all possible universes are real, but believing in all conceivable universes is … well … inconceivably silly.

    Probably me being imprecise with language again. In future I will refer to possible universes, as this is what I mean.

    However, out of curiosity, could you conceive of a universe which is not possible? Just to get a feel for what you mean. I can’t conceive of an impossible universe, by definition. Perhaps what I mean is that I can’t conceive that such a universe could exist, even if a dim way you could vaguely sort of describe them. For example, I can’t conceive of universes where the laws of logic or arithmetic are different, is this an example of what you consider conceivable but impossible?

    That’s a digression though. Probably shouldn’t spend too much time on it. Just assume I meant possible.

  207. says

    However, out of curiosity, could you conceive of a universe which is not possible? Just to get a feel for what you mean. I can’t conceive of an impossible universe, by definition. Perhaps what I mean is that I can’t conceive that such a universe could exist, even if a dim way you could vaguely sort of describe them. For example, I can’t conceive of universes where the laws of logic or arithmetic are different, is this an example of what you consider conceivable but impossible?

    You can’t imagine one where arithmetic is different? So you can’t imagine a base 60 system rather than base 10? Or you can’t imagine one with a different curvature that changes the total angles in a triangle?

    Maybe you just suck at imagining things.

  208. johndeer says

    This is unrelated to the post:

    Why does Google show ads for “The Final Generation” by Mike Evans on this site?!

  209. says

    @johnscanlon

    Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. A completely accurate TOE is a paintbox and canvas, not the frickin’ Mona Lisa. You’ve got to distinguish the model (program and parameter set) from the output or (if we’re talking about the universe or multiverse) the whole run, or infinite number of runs.

    That’s a strong argument, one of the strongest that has been levied against me yet on this thread, in my opinion. Well expressed too, by the way.

    Again, my response would be that I’m being imprecise about language. My assumed TOE would have to include the initial state, either implicitly or explicitly. Actually, #223 kind of implies this by defining the proposed Conway’s Life universe as being initialised with a specified pseudorandom number generator initialised with the seed 42, providing the initial state.

    A completely accurate ToE for the Mona Lisa specifically (as a painting) would have to include the painter, as otherwise there are no rules that would derive the Mona Lisa from the paintbox and canvas.

    Incidentally, a completely accurate ToE for pictures (of high but finite detail) in general could describe the space of all possible pictures of 10000×10000 pixels, each with 32 bits of colour (including alpha). This is a tremendous number of pictures, (2^(32+10000×10000) unless I’m mistaken, don’t want to think too hard right now), but it is finite, and the Mona Lisa will be faithfully represented many times over in that space.

    The ToE could easily imply the initial state if it allows for space to be infinite, as it may well do. This, combined with the randomness of QM, basically means that all possible initial states will be found somewhere.

    As for whether it’s one run or infinite runs, I’m not really talking about simulation, I’m talking about a mathematical construct. When I talk about a simulation, I’m talking about a way to visualise a given mathematical construct. It’s easier to imagine a consciousness living in a simulated universe than it is a consciousness living in a disembodied universe, although I argue the two are equivalent. As such, thinking of “runs” is slightly inaccurate. If you assume a deterministic universe for the sake of argument, then each run will be the same, and I would argue each run is only allowing us to explore the same basic “virtual” reality. They are not truly separate instances of that “virtuality”.

    So, to distinguish the program from the output.

    The program is the physical laws that govern the universe, the ToE (as well as its initial state). This program defines the universe, and in that sense the universe is this program, the way a computer program is an algorithm expressed in code.

    The output of the program is all the stuff that happens within that universe, including the subjective experience of the reality of that universe for conscious creatures within it. In that sense, the universe is that output, the way a computer program is a tool we use to accomplish a task.

    Language is too imprecise again. I can’t be 100% consistent with stuff so unintuitive because there’s too many ways of interpreting the meaning of words. I hope you can understand what I’m trying to say anyway, and I also hope that I don’t give the impression that I’m simply playing word games to win an argument by equivocation.

  210. consciousness razor says

    I take back everything I said about models being that which they model except in one specific case:

    If a model is modelling a mathematical object, and the model captures that mathematical object exactly, then that model is identical to the mathematical object. If any two mathematical objects are identical (even if expressed differently), then they are the same thing. My number 5 is the same as your number 5. “2+1″ is the same as “1+2. “2(x+y)=0″ is the same as “2x=-2y”. If you disagree then we just have different concepts of sameness.

    Those are equal, but I don’t know why you call one a “model” and the other a “mathematical object.” They’re the same mathematical object expressed in different ways. So what? It’s still just math = math, which is nowhere near math = universe, or subjectivity = math = universe, or whatever the fuck you’re trying say.

    And if you want to even stand a chance of being consistent, don’t shift words around unnecessarily. Use whatever most unambiguously expresses what you actually mean.

    If a simulated consciousness can observe a universe, then by this particular definition, that simulated universe must also be real. For other definitions of reality, it may not be.

    You go from a “simulated consciousness” to a “simulated universe” for no apparent reason. How did you get to the point where you have a “simulated universe,” when all you had before was a plain old universe? I read #223 again and nothing in it is relevant. This makes Plato very sad.

    “Reality is that which physically exists” is basically positing some ill-defined property called physical existence which somehow distinguishes it from “virtual existence”. In the closing paragraphs of #223, I am explaining why this mystical property of physical existence is superfluous to explaining our conscious experience, and so we can safely do away with it by Occam’s razor.

    Something is physical or natural if everything mental about it reduces to non-mental things. If it’s supposed to exist and be non-physical or supernatural, then some mental property or component of it does not reduce to non-mental stuff. “Reduction” here is an explanation which you can’t simply wave away as if it means nothing. So conscious experiences can be explained physically with physical sciences, quite adequately and without your Platonic simulated universes nonsense. Why you think parsimony is on your side is really just beyond me.

    That’s not a fair argument though. If I said “consciousness is subjective”, would you assume I believed there was only one mind?

    No, but I would assume you’re talking about consciousness as a class of phenomena, not all sorts of different things which are unrelated to each other.

  211. says

    @David Marjanovic

    Big fat misunderstanding. Pure description is not science. If you’re not testing any hypotheses, or at least presenting any hypotheses, you’re not doing science.

    The goal is still to describe reality. The hypotheses are possible descriptions of reality and experiments are ways of finding which descriptions fit. I did not mean to suggest that science is a process of “pure description”. The point was that science is still ultimately limited to describing reality, not finding out why it is the way it is (ultimately).

    Man, this would be easier if people didn’t just assume I was a moron.

    Hiding the problem in a parenthesis does not make it go away.

    Either QM is massively wrong, or there is true random, not just pseudorandom.

    You’re right, QM needs explaining. And maybe QM cannot be accommodated (I think it can), but I’m not going to argue it now, if that’s all right with you.

    It’s hard enough to get people to accept my argument even in a deterministic or pseudorandom universe. I’d rather not waste time attempting to accommodate QM until this becomes the sticking point. As long as people are hung up on the overall concept of how it could be that the universe could be mathematical at all, I’d prefer to direct my attention to that. Maybe once all other arguments have died down, or there’s an impasse.

    I put it to you that the null hypothesis is that anything sufficiently complex to simulate the universe would be more complicated than the universe itself.

    Good point.

    Not really, I’ve addressed this. I’m quite clear in that I’m not positing a computer that can simulate the universe. I’m positing that it is possible in principle. Nowhere do I claim that any such machine does exist — although to be precise since I claim that all possible universes exist then such a machine must also exist, however this is a conclusion of my argument, not an assumption of my argument. It’s entirely tangential to the issue at hand.

    The goal of empirical science is to get to the bedrock foundational laws that drive the universe. If achieved that, we would have “completed” empirical science.

    That’s a rather small part of physics, actually.

    I’m a phylogeneticist. Evolution is understood. What I’m doing is trying to find out what happened, not how it happened or why it was able to happen.

    Point taken. I should have said theoretical physics. I think I said this in relation to some point about empiricism, so I used the term inadvisedly.

    What I’m actually doing is rebutting the philosophical argument that the universe had to have a cause.

    Why would you do that, when Werner Heisenberg did your work for you in 1927?

    Quantum events are apparently uncaused, true, however you could make the case that they are caused by the laws of QM. In that, in answer to the question “Why?” you could say something about a quantum wavefunction. Bell’s theorem notwithstanding, there could be some underlying logic going on that is in principle impossible for us to perceive, but that’s just uninformed conjecture and not vital to my argument.

    4) We will never have a non-anthropic explanation for fine tuning.

    Too late. Victor Stenger showed that, if you vary only one parameter of the Standard Model at once, you end up with lots of uninhabitable universes as you already knew – but if you vary two parameters at the same time, no less than 21 % of the simulated universes are habitable.

    That’s really interesting… do you have a link I can read? However I understand that the cosmological constant seems to be incredibly fine tuned, but maybe there’s a good argument against that too.

    In any case, this is not falsifying the prediction. It’s not providing an explanation for fine tuning per se, it’s arguing that fine tuning is an illusion, which is different. The prediction makes the assumption that most possible universes would not support life.

    But, as I’ve said before, even if you explain the fine tuning of the constants you still need to explain why the fundamental physical laws incorporating these constants should be such that conscious life is possible and not some other laws that lead to less interesting universes.

    Why? We’re just an outcome of the universe, a byproduct like everything else. Our universe happens to make us possible, so we were able to happen. :-| That’s circular, but it’s all there is to say about it.

    Perhaps I need to put it this way: if we were impossible, we wouldn’t be unfortunate, we simply wouldn’t exist in the first place.

    This argument is either anthropic (the circular bit) or its merely criticising me for choosing the word “unfortunate” rather than “unlikely”, I’m not sure which. Neither addresses my point that if the constants are necessary in some fundamental way (could not be otherwise), then it seems suprisingly fortuitous, serendipitous, or simply improbable, that those necessary constants are those which support life. It’s not really an explanation for fine tuning.

  212. consciousness razor says

    However, out of curiosity, could you conceive of a universe which is not possible? Just to get a feel for what you mean. I can’t conceive of an impossible universe, by definition.

    Yes, because I’m not perfectly consistent. (You aren’t either, by the way.) I could dream up all sorts of things which seem consistent, but turn out not to be upon closer inspection. Problem is, even when I do think harder I could still not realize why it’s impossible. That’s why we need evidence for existence claims, not just imaginative arguments, and that’s why rationalism is dead.

    Anselm thought he could conceive of the greatest possible being, therefore he argued it must exist or it wouldn’t be the greatest. Turns out he was thoroughly and utterly wrong. This is not so different from your pulling simulated universes out of your ass.

  213. says

    @ing

    What? No that’s just epically wrong. Do you fear that cameras steal your soul by any chance?

    No, and maybe it’s wrong, but you should see what I was driving at in #231

    You can’t imagine one where arithmetic is different? So you can’t imagine a base 60 system rather than base 10? Or you can’t imagine one with a different curvature that changes the total angles in a triangle?

    Maybe you just suck at imagining things.

    Base 60 is not a different arithmetic, it’s a different way of representing arithmetic. Base 60 is valid in this universe too, so it has nothing to do with conceiving universes.

    Same for hyperbolic geometry or what have you. We can do the math in this universe too. It doesn’t matter if it does or does not describe what we perceive as physical space.

  214. says

    Those are equal, but I don’t know why you call one a “model” and the other a “mathematical object.” They’re the same mathematical object expressed in different ways. So what? It’s still just math = math, which is nowhere near math = universe, or subjectivity = math = universe, or whatever the fuck you’re trying say.

    Ok, here’s why you might call one a model and one a mathematical object.

    Imagine you have a black box system and you’re trying to model it. Over time your model might get better and better. For example, you might be trying to reverse engineer an algorithm in some software. The hidden algorithm might take two parameters and return 2x+3y+2x^5+3y^7.

    You might reverse engineer it by passing it parameters and plotting the return values, and then try to produce a model that gets similar results. You might have a model that’s very close but not quite right, or you might get it spot on. If you get it spot on, you’ve discovered the algorithm itself.

    Since I’m arguing that the universe is such a mathematical construct, I was just saying that if you found a precise theory of everything, that mathematical model would be identical to the universe it is modelling.

    I don’t think this point is too important so we can leave it rest if you like.

    And if you want to even stand a chance of being consistent, don’t shift words around unnecessarily. Use whatever most unambiguously expresses what you actually mean.

    Trying to, however as I explained earlier I don’t have a working definition of reality or existence that everyone seems happy with so it’s hard.

    If a simulated consciousness can observe a universe, then by this particular definition, that simulated universe must also be real. For other definitions of reality, it may not be.

    You go from a “simulated consciousness” to a “simulated universe” for no apparent reason. How did you get to the point where you have a “simulated universe,” when all you had before was a plain old universe?

    Yeah, my bad. That should have read “if a simulated consciousness can observe a simulated universe (its environment)…”

    I read #223 again and nothing in it is relevant. This makes Plato very sad.

    How is it not relevant? It’s my argument as to why the universe must be a mathematical construct (or at the very least, is most likely a mathematical construct). Instead of dismissing it as irrelevant, point out the bits of the argument that don’t follow. I suppose it’s not a formal argument really though, just trying to explain in natural language why this is what I believe. So maybe you can point out where I’m mistaken anyway.

    Something is physical or natural if everything mental about it reduces to non-mental things. If it’s supposed to exist and be non-physical or supernatural, then some mental property or component of it does not reduce to non-mental stuff. “Reduction” here is an explanation which you can’t simply wave away as if it means nothing.

    Interesting definition. So are mathematical constructs mental things? Does a mathematical concept spring into existence the first time a conscious mind conceives of it? I’d argue that it doesn’t, and thus I’d argue that it isn’t a mental thing. And so by your definition, it must be “physical or natural”, which is kind of my point. I suspect this means that you need to find another definition rather than that I’ve persuaded you.

    Why you think parsimony is on your side is really just beyond me.

    Ok, I’ll break it down.

    1. If there is a mathematical ToE which is completely analogous to a physical universe, then that is a mathematical construct which hosts consciousnesses that are just as real as the consciousnesses in the physical universes that it models.
    2. We could observe these people in principle if we had a computer powerful enough to run a simulation of the mathematical construct. Every time we ran such a simulation (if it was framed deterministically) we would see the same life stories play out, therefore I argue that a physical simulation of the construct is not necessary for these consciousnesses to exist.
    3. Each of us has an exact analogous virtual counterpart within the construct.
    4. The universe appears just as real to those counterparts as it does to us.
    5. It is therefore impossible to know whether you are the physical you or the virtual counterpart.
    6. Like any other purely mathematical object, the existence of the mathematical construct is not contingent on the existence of the physical universe or anything within it.
    7. The mathematical construct analogous to the universe would exist even if the hypothesis that there is an objective physical reality is false.
    8. You and I would “virtually exist” even if the objective physical universe hypothesis was false.
    9. As nobody can in principle tell the difference between virtual existence and physical existence, there is no evidence whatsoever supporting the physical universe hypothesis.
    10. Parsimony suggests we should reject the physical universe hypothesis. There is only math.

    Supporting observations (suggestive evidence rather than proof):
    1) It’s hard to define physical reality satisfactorily in a way that fits with both our intuitions and reasoned argument, as I have shown. This leads me to suppose that the concept of physical reality is a useful evolved intuition/abstraction that is impossible for most people to escape from, like the intuition that objects are solid or that particles can’t be both waves and particles at the same time, or that particles can’t be in more than one place at a time etc.
    2) The universe appears to be entirely mathematical in its behaviour.
    3) There is no (good) evidence for a designer or God, or anything supernatural for that matter.
    4) Fine tuning of constants seems to suggest that there are multiple universes, perhaps with infinite variations of the constants. However, the fact that the laws themselves are capable of producing life also demands an explanation. This suggests that perhaps there are universes corresponding to every set of possible laws. In other words, it suggests that there is a “universe” for every mathematical construct. The term universe is applied loosely here and should probably only be used for mathematical constructs that allow a great deal of complexity to emerge naturally. Conway’s life might be considered a universe in this sense.
    5) The universe manifestly exists, and this demands an explanation of some kind, and this argument does so nicely.
    6) Human intuitions are notoriously incapable of dealing with concepts outside their everyday experience. It’s hardly surprising that an ultimate explanation of existence should be unintuitive, denying our most basic assumptions.
    7) There are multiple interpretations of QM, none of which are satisfactory to everyone. Feynman’s attitude (to paraphrase) was “just shut up and do the math!”. I think he might have been onto something. In my argument, as long as something is mathematically tractable, there need be no further interpretation.

    Need to go to bed. Sorry to those responses I haven’t got to yet. More tomorrow!

  215. says

    Yes, because I’m not perfectly consistent. (You aren’t either, by the way.) I could dream up all sorts of things which seem consistent, but turn out not to be upon closer inspection. Problem is, even when I do think harder I could still not realize why it’s impossible. That’s why we need evidence for existence claims, not just imaginative arguments, and that’s why rationalism is dead.

    Thanks for the indirect compliment (imaginative argument).

    I accept your definition for “conceivable universe” as perfectly valid and in fact more useful than the one I had in mind. I had a different concept of conception! I should use possible universe.

    I’m evidently not consistent, especially in the use of language. I also recognise that it’s perfectly possible I’m missing some mistake in my argument, however it hasn’t been pointed out to me yet.

    However, given the evidence (we appear to exist, the universe appears to be entirely mathematical in behaviour, there appears to be fine tuning – Victor Stenger notwithstanding), there seems to be more reason to believe my argument than the null hypothesis (that there is an ill-defined physical universe for which there is no evidence whatsoever except for our intuitions, and for which there is currently no more plausible explanation of its existence save by the act of God).

    Anselm thought he could conceive of the greatest possible being, therefore he argued it must exist or it wouldn’t be the greatest. Turns out he was thoroughly and utterly wrong. This is not so different from your pulling simulated universes out of your ass.

    It’s different if I happen to be right.

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m pulling it out of my ass. I have an argument. Even you seem to be having difficulty pointing out what’s wrong with it. Even if it is wrong, it’s not some arbitrary conjecture like “The universe is the reification of art” as somebody compared it to upthread. There are reasons to believe it is true, even if those reasons turn out to be mistaken.

  216. says

    I understood it, it’s just obviously wrong.

    I know, it does look like it doesn’t it! If only somebody could tell me why!

    It certainly took me a long time to accept it. It took time to get used to the idea, or else to brainwash myself, depending on your perspective.

    It’s obviously wrong that the earth is round.
    It’s obviously wrong that the earth is turning.
    It’s obviously wrong that we descended from animals, or that we could have been designed by a natural principle rather than a mind.
    It’s obviously wrong that my table is made of insubstantial wave/particles — it’s solid!
    It’s obviously wrong that a particle can be in two places at once.
    It’s obviously wrong that there is a speed limit to the universe.
    It’s obviously wrong that time had a beginning.
    It’s obviously wrong that the universe could exist without a cause.

    Almost all of these (the last two excepted) have hard physical evidence for them, and my hypothesis has only reason. It’s obviously wrong, but human intuition is just as obviously a poor substitute for reason.

    Please help me out. Save me from my delusion by giving me a reason to reject it.

  217. says

    I just don’t see any argument I haven’t dealt with satisfactorily apart from the quantum mechanical one, which I am deliberately avoiding because it’s needlessly technical when the argument is not accepted even for a deterministic one.

    All opposing arguments have all either:
    1) Asserted that I am wrong
    2) Insulted me
    3) Misinterpreted me (my own fault a lot of the time)
    4) Criticised my phrasing
    5) Focused on irrelevant nitpicks of language or detail
    6) Been shown to be wrong

    Which arguments remain which you think I should accept?

  218. says

    Anyway, I’m glad in a way this conversation seems to be over. I’ve been a bit obsessed with it! It’s gotten so out of hand that I have to quickly hide my browser so my wife doesn’t catch me doing philosophy on the internet.