Philosophy of the gaps?

Humanist, poet, ex-scientist, ex-physician, philosopher, prolific writer —the list goes on—Raymond Tallis is the only person I’ve seen whose profession is described as “polymath” on Wikipedia.  But being a polymath doesn’t always guarantee you’re right.  In his column at the Guardian yesterday, “Philosophy isn’t dead yet, Tallis claims that philosophy—metaphysical philosophy—is the only way physics will get itself out of its current mess.  What’s the problem?

But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

Well, yes, physics doesn’t understand everything, but I wasn’t aware that string theory had bogged down because its adherents don’t understand it.  I thought it had bogged down because it’s early days for that theory, because there are a gazillion forms of it, and because physicists hadn’t found ways to test any of them. Likewise, the measurement problem seems, at least to a tyro like me, as some deep nonintuitive fact about reality, not something that demands a philosophical solution.  In neither case can I see how philosophy—at least formal academic philosophy—is going to help physicists make progress.

Yes, I’m aware that people like Heisenberg and Bohr engaged in a bit of philosophizing about what quantum mechanics really means, but I’m not sure how far recent discoveries in physics have been motivated (rather than explained to the public) by formal academic philosophy as practiced not by philosophers, but by those trained in physics.

I suppose it is “philosophy” when David Albert takes Lawrence Krauss to task for not being explicit about what “nothing” means, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to see that. And the bizarre fact of nonlocality was discovered not by philosophers, who as far as I can see had little input into that solution, but by scientists. It’s been explained by philosophers to the public, but scientists who are writers can also do that, and often do a better job since they really understand the nuances. Yes, you can say that scientists engage in philosophy when they interpret what they find, but all scientists who ponder the meaning of their discoveries can be said to practice philosophy. That doesn’t constitute an endorsement of professional academic philosophy. The thing is, the “philosophy” practices of scientists doesn’t require the kind of professional training that philosophers demand when they accuse scientists of being “philosophically naive.” That accusation has always seemed to me a self-serving claim for the importance of one’s bit of turf.

According to Tallis, philosophy will solve difficult problems not only in other areas of physics, but also biology. What areas need philosophical input?

  • Time.  Tallis notes:

The physicist Lee Smolin’s recent book, Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time. Physics is predisposed to lose time because its mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the difference between a remembered or regretted past and an anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive. This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he mourned the fact that the present tense, “now”, lay “just outside of the realm of science”.

This is above my pay grade; perhaps writers can enlighten me about how philosophy will help straighten out the mess of time. I’d prefer to hear from Sean Carroll (not a philosopher) on this.

  • A universe from nothing. 

Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent need for a radical re-examination of the invisible frameworks within which scientific investigations are conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take much that is taken for granted.

This comes close to replacing “philosophy” with “God.” “Free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings?”  Really? Where did that “gift” come from?  And we’re not at all sure that the “laws of nature” (which aren’t given by anyone, but are a description of how matter behaves), are the same in every universe—if there is more than one universe. And were they really “waiting in the wings” for the moment of creation? (“Creation”?). I’m not sure physicists would say that the “laws of nature” antedate the Big Bang.

Why the laws of physics are as they are, and whether they differ in other universes, or whether there are other universes, are questions that fall squarely in the bailiwick of physics. I can’t see how philosophers are going to render significant help here.

  • Understanding consciousness.   As he says,

Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

Well, perhaps philosophy can lend a wee hand here—after all Dan Dennett wrote a book trying to clear up some of the conceptual mess about consciousness, but how many scientists working on the problem have read it, or need to? That book, I thought, was aimed largely at other philosophers as well as the general public.  Can philosophers really help us understand how self-awareness arises, both neurologically and through the aeons of evolution? I doubt it. Tallis ends by adding to philosopher’s jobs that of explaining physics to the public:

Perhaps even more important, we should reflect on how a scientific image of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that have neither identity nor location, connects with our everyday experience. This should open up larger questions, such as the extent to which mathematical portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we mean by “reality”. The dismissive “Just shut up and calculate!” to those who are dissatisfied with the incomprehensibility of the physicists’ picture of the universe is simply inadequate. “It is time” physicist Neil Turok has said, “to connect our science to our humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both”. This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.

Are philosophers really necessary for such an endeavor? As far as I know, relaying the discoveries of physics—and their meaning—have been done primarily (and done well) by physicists who are also popular writers, like Brian Greene, Sean Carroll, Lisa Randall, and so on. The really popular books on recent advances in physics have come not from philosophers, but from scientists.

As I’ve said many times before, I don’t dismiss all philosophy as worthless. I’m particularly fond of ethics, where philosophers like John Rawls, Peter Singer, and Dan Dennett have helped us think more clearly about the nature of the good and moral  (I think Sam Harris, writer and neuroscientist, has contributed here as well). Philosophers are trained to see logical flaws and think precisely, and those skills often provide protective hip boots for wading through a mire of mushy thought.  Another endeavor that I admire is secular philosophy’s attacks on theology, such as those of Walter Kaufmann and Herman Philipse (do read his God in the Age of Science). Their clear thinking has shown theology for what it is: mere post facto rationalization of what people want to believe in the first place.

But helping physicists advance their field, or explaining those advances to the public? Here I see no advantages of philosophers over smart science journalists or scientists who are good are writing for the public.

h/t: Michael

170 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Tallis is just plain silly, and he sounds like a creationist, even if he isn’t one.

  2. Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    The most relevant field of philosophy is ethical or moral philosophy. This because this field is normative rather than descriptive.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      But fasten your seat belts, because science is chipping away at that magisterium as well. Morality isn’t outside of nature.

      • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Well, there’s something called “Hume’s Law”: we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”.

        Science can explain why people believe certain moral dispositions or where morality came from. But it cannot tells what morals we should have.

        • Bruce S. Springsteen
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          So says Hume’s Law. But reality is beginning to tell us otherwise. Morality is like culinary skill — part science, part art, but not really philosophy.

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

            “part science, part art, but not really philosophy.”

            I tend to agree with you on that.

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            Hi Bruce,

            Would you elaborate? I’ve never seen a violation of Hume’s Law.

            Here’s an example. Suppose you wanted to argue that enslaving people because of their race is morally wrong. (I don’t know any argument against the reality of moral truths that has premises as plausible as ‘enslaving people because of their race is morally wrong.’)

            So we have some hypothetical argument:
            1. [...]
            2. [...]
            n. Therefore, enslaving people because of their race is wrong.

            The conclusion is normative. Does anyone have any idea how to fill in 1, 2, etc. with purely descriptive premises, in order to get a logically valid deductive argument?

            • Vaal
              Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

              Tom,

              I’ve never liked the term “Hume’s Law” myself because I don’t think Hume promoted it as such. As I remember, Hume only pointed out that anyone trying to move from their “is” to “their “ought” statement owes us and explanation for how he gets there.

              While he seemed unable to give a firm answer himself, he at least hinted at the way, pointing to goals or “the passions” as a basis. And it seems to me not a few people have come to think that is indeed the underpinning of morality – the rational connection of our actions to our desires.

              The version I favor identifies desires as providing the only reasons for intentional action that exist, so what one “ought” to do will have to do with fulfilling desires. That is, the relationship between desires and states of affairs that would fulfill those desires. “X is good” equates to “X is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”

              And morality is simply a category of “is” – the category of desires that we have reasons (due to our other desires) to promote among one another. For instance, slavery. While you may have a personal desire to enslave me, you will not have the desire to be enslaved yourself. So you will have reasons to discourage in me the desire to enslave you, and reasons to encourage in me a desire to respect your autonomy and freedom.

              And I’ll have essentially the same reasons to discourage your desire to enslave me, and encourage your desire to respect my autonomy.

              And any claim about which desires we have reason to promote will be factual, descriptive “is” statements. It is a fact that my other desires give me reason to discourage your desire to enslave me, and visa versa.

              There is no magical realm of “ought” to get to, there is no is/ought divide, only a divide between is/is not.

              Vaal

        • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

          It can HELP tell us what morals we should have if one is in any sense a consequentialist and moral judgments depends on facts. But I agree that that all morality involves extrascientific considerations as well.

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

            Exactly!

            • ageofreasonxxi
              Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:44 am | Permalink

              Getting an “ought” from an “is”, or getting from facts to values, is quite simple really:

              1. Drug abuse is not conducive to good healthy. (a fact)
              2. I want to be in good health. (a fact)
              3. Therefore, I ought not abuse drugs.

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                2 is better restated as “I value my being in good health”, and so you have:

                1 – a fact.
                2 – a value.
                3 – a normative conclusion drawn from facts and values.

        • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

          Hume’s Law is entirely irrelevant to morality and completely misses the point.

          What you can do, and trivially, is derive “should” from “want.” And that’s what morality really is all about.

          For it is the case that, for virtually any desires one might have, those desires can most effectively be met with the cooperative help of other people. Fundamental to all desires, of course, is survival — you can’t do anything at all if you’re dead. And survival is much easier if you can spread out the workload of gathering food and building shelter and making iPhones and what-not. No matter what, you very quickly wind up tied to the hip of cooperative peaceful society, or else you wind up a naked and dead hermit alone in the wilderness.

          And everything that we commonly think of that falls under the rubric of “morality” is nothing more than an optimum strategy for forming and being successful within an healthy cooperative peaceful society.

          Murdering, cheating, stealing? Even in cases where they gain you some short-term advantage, they’re bad ways to throw the dice in aggregate. And, personal odds aside, societies in which such activities are common don’t thrive as well as those in which they’re rare, again giving (in the aggregate) advantages to the individuals who live in societies not plagued by such ills.

          Really, morality is nothing more than the role of the individual in the evolution of societies. And any who leap from that to Nazi-style “social Darwinism” doesn’t understand Evolution in the first place — it’s not the biggest of the baddest that are the most fit, but the ones that have the most successful great-great-great-grandchildren. And that doesn’t mean sheer fecundity, either, especially when fecundity results in resource exhaustion.

          It’s only when one is hung up on philosophical oversimplifications and Humean tautologies and worship of Platonic “first principles” that there’s any sort of “philosophical” problem with morality. Once you get out of the Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment, it should be obvious that morality is every bit as empirical a matter as anything else.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

            This an entirely descriptive account of how morality operates in practise and how it came into existence.

            However, that people and other beings have a desire to survive, does not prove that they should desire to survive.

            • steve oberski
              Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

              But you can only have a conversation about morality with people who want to survive.

              Sam Harris uses a analogy to health, not everybody should be expected to value health but you can only have a meaningful conversation about it with those who do.

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

                But is morality not supposed to be universal? If so, then morality should also apply to those who wants to reject morality or the foundation of morality.

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

                Mordanicus, morality in social species is as universal as the desire for survival. And those who lack the desire or ability to be moral are as relevant to studies of ethics as those who lack the desire or ability to survive are to the study of evolution.

                It can provide for interesting areas of study, but, when discussing the sorts of things that philosophers get hung up on (“first principles” and the like), it’s really just not relevant — especially at evolutionary timescales. It’s the sociological equivalent of worrying why people in Australia, if the Earth really isn’t flat, don’t fall up into the sky.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

              Seems to me like you’re arguing that philosophy is the art of determining what constitutes moral activity for those who wish no activity whatsoever. May I suggest? The best place for doing that sort of thing is, once again, north of the North Pole.

              I’ll also note that, while a philosopher is stuck mumbling about in Plato’s Cave looking for ways to help justify the existential angst of the suicidal, it is the clinical psychologists who’ll actually help the suicidal get treatment for their depression. Count me amongst those who see this as yet another example of the empiricists contributing substantially much more to society than the philosophers.

              A final note: the full title of Darwin’s masterpiece originally was, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” I do believe that title quite nicely captures the essence of why I’m not really worried about the profundities of philosophers who lay awake at night wondering if life even has any meaning in the first place. Or you might further contemplate Doug Adams’s Puddle.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

                Seems to me like you’re arguing that philosophy is the art of determining what constitutes moral activity for those who wish no activity whatsoever

                I have never intended to give such impression. It’s however my impression that you are confusing descriptive ethics with normative ethics.

                In so far your discussion of morality is descriptive, I fully agree with you. Unlike creationism, evolution is able to explain what the purpose of morality is. There is no doubt that moral behaviour has definite evolutionary advantages.

                However, we cannot moral dispositions from this, we can only explain through this why social animals has the moral dispositions they have. Of course, this is an important result, but it does not tell which moral disposition we should choose.

                And for good order, I want to state that I am an empiricist and a sceptic, especially in regard to ethics.

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                I hope you’ll forgive me if your distinction between “normative” and “descriptive” is as meaningless to me as the theologian’s distinction between “how” and “why.”

                Questions of “why” in this type of context inevitably devolve into John Haught telling his wife to set the kettle on the stove because where’s his tea, damnit, woman?

                If you’re looking for a reason why people wish to survive and therefore why it’s in their best interest to form an healthy cooperative peaceful society in order to do so, you’ve gone as far off the deep end as those asking why there’s something rather than nothing, what’s north of the North pole, and whom the bachelor is married to. Those question and concerns not only don’t make sense in the first place, they spectacularly miss the point.

                Worse, they miss the point in a manner that entirely disrupts all further attempts to have a serious discussion on the matter, the same way as a legislator demanding why the Coast Guard isn’t prepared to single-handedly repel a Martian invasion derails a military appropriation bill’s debate.

                That’s especially the case with this discussion on morality, where we’re supposed to find our way north of the North Pole before we’re even permitted to get back to discussing the merits of various radio frequencies for the upgraded satellite navigation system. Why are we still hung up on this nonsense, and why are we still wasting our time on it?

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Old Rasputin
              Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              What other account of reality would you expect? Saying that gravity appears to operate strictly according to the familiar inverse square law is descriptive. But /should/ massive objects behave this way? Is there any point in speculating about “objective” moral truths that may deem interaction between matter “good” or “bad”? I’ve never understood this.

              You can derive subjective “oughts” from “is”s all day, but Hume’s law holds stubbornly for the objective variety (which seem like square circles to me anyway).

              I say if you can’t derive it from “is”, it probably isn’t.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

                Bingo!

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                We are closer to each other than you might think. The point is that gravity is a phenomenon we can observe, so we can reasonably assume there is gravity. Moral dispositions are no facts, since they do not have a truth value; i.e. you cannot prove or disprove them.

                So from Hume’s law, I ultimately conclude that moral dispositions in fact do not exist. Pursuing self interest is in my eyes not necessarily wrong, but it does not constitutes what is normally called “morality”.

                So good and bad are subjective terms, which has only meaning in respective to some particular subject (whether it be a human being or an immortal gene).

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                Mordanicus, I have no clue where you get this bizarre notion that it’s impossible to make empirical observations about morality.

                Compare Somalia and its warlords or Afghanistan and the Taliban with any civilized nation, and there’s your empirical example of the effects of different approaches to morality in action.

                Your inability to see this, your refusal to acknowledge its existence, is as incomprehensibly bizarre as the flat-Earth intelligent falling idiots you yourself ridicule.

                Again: why are we even wasting time “debating” this sort of thing? Can you really not understand how bizarre it is to hear somebody insist that something so integral to human life as morality, something that’s as ever-present as gravity or air, is somehow etherically specially privileged as having formed from Zeus’s thighbone?

                I really do see this philosophical argument against morality because there’s no philosophical justification for it as pointless as theological arguments against Darwinian evolution because we still don’t have a conclusive accounting of the origins of life on Earth. What bearing, precisely, does either even theoretically have on reality?

                b&

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                Mordanicus:

                Ha, actually, I went into my comment thinking our positions were pretty close. Now they appear identical.

                Ben:

                As far as I can tell, Mordanicus is talking about objective ought’s and should’s that are defined independently of the values and desires of a single mind, later concluding via Hume that such things do not (and presumably, could not) exist.

                Above M states, “Science can explain why people believe certain moral dispositions or where morality came from. But it cannot tells what morals we should have.”

                I take this to mean that science can’t tell us this because nothing could possibly tell us what morals we “should” (in an objective sense) have; the very idea of such “should”ness is incoherent. (Have I got that right?)

                You, on the other hand are talking about the only sort of morality that actually does (or could) exist, but I think M’s merely objecting that this sort of morality is not and will never be consistent with many people’s folk-philosophy notions of morality, which tend to be bound to the idea of absolute, objective right and wrong.
                Unless I’m mistaken, Mordanicus’ position, yours, my own, and Jerry’s do not really differ here. The only people worth debating are those philosophers who want to claim that objectively true moral facts really do exist, which is what Tom seems to be hinting at somewhere up-thread.

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                Old Rasputin, I’m not getting your characterization of Mordanicus’s position from re-reading his words. But, if your re-telling of it is accurate, I’ll agree that that’s a reasonable position and one that I agree with.

                I am still a bit puzzled, though, why we need spend much time with befuddled popular misconceptions on the subject of morality. We don’t get too hung up about parallel misconceptions about biology or cosmology or what-not, except when actually conversing with proponents of said misconceptions. And, more often than not, when one actually does get caught up in such misconceptions with somebody who at first appears to be a rationalist, said person actually really is advocating the superstitious position, just in a variation that mostly cloaks itself in the raiment of reason.

                b&

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                Ben, yes, I hope I haven’t mischaracterized his position. His reply to me (“We are closer to each other…”) seemed pretty clear cut to me, but philosophy is not really my field and I may well have botched it.

                The thing is that some befuddled popular misconceptions are just really hard to shake, and manage to worm their way into academic circles where serious people have serious discussions about them. And when you have professional scientists or philosophers advocating outdated, naive concepts of things like nothing, morality, free will, etc, then it’s worth having the debate. I feel society would be better off if it were willing to update its ideas about these things.

              • Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

                Dear Old raspustin,

                Unless I’m mistaken, Mordanicus’ position, yours, my own, and Jerry’s do not really differ here. The only people worth debating are those philosophers who want to claim that objectively true moral facts really do exist, which is what Tom seems to be hinting at somewhere up-thread.

                You have clarified my position properly. Thanx.

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

            Hi Ben,

            As Mordanicus pointed out, you seem to be describing a sort of sociology, history, biology, game theory, and psychology of moral beliefs. Those are all really important fields, but they don’t obviously answer the normative questions.

            We can’t logically derive ‘should’ from ‘want,’ because, e.g., many people want to deny atheists legal rights, but that doesn’t mean that they should. There have been nations in which most people wanted x, but attempting to bring about x was morally wrong.

            • Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

              Everybody has multiple wants, and those wants are often in competition. You might not want to get out of bed to use the restroom in the middle of the night, but your want to not have to sleep in and clean up a soiled bed is generally stronger.

              Those who might want to deny atheists legal rights also generally don’t want to live in the type of totalitarian state that would make it possible to fulfill that want. Even those who think they actually do want to live in such a state have other even more significant desires not compatible with totalitarianism.

              So, just as they should suppress their wants to wet their beds in the middle of the night and go ahead and get up to use the restroom, they should also suppress their wants to strip atheists of legal rights and instead grow up and learn how to be positively-contriubting members of society.

              Perhaps the philosophers here can offer some insight: why is it so hard for all y’all to grasp such simple concepts? Why is it that the moment somebody suggests that morality is a way of achieving one’s goals you instantly counter with the most infantile and short-sighted examples? I’m guessing that y’all don’t wet your beds at night, so why does the reasoning work for you in the middle of the night but not in philosophical treatises?

              I’m really, truly, sincerely puzzled by this. It’s a most predictable reaction from those of a philosophical bent, and I have no clue where it comes from — especially since it only manifests itself in the arguments made by the philosophers, and not something y’all actually act upon in your everyday lives.

              What is it about philosophy that instantly makes people so short-sighted, so blind, so childishly naive and unsophisticated (in an un-charming way), as if a switch is being flipped?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Vaal
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

                Ben,

                “What is it about philosophy that instantly makes people so short-sighted, so blind, so childishly naive and unsophisticated (in an un-charming way), as if a switch is being flipped?”

                Ben…in your explanation of morality you are doing philosophy.
                Has being philosophical made you more blind, or is your doing philosophy been necessary for clarifying concepts, and disabusing others of error?

                It would seem the latter, so your own actions suggest philosophy must be of use.

                Vaal

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

                Yeah, and I’m doing theology every time I wonder why Jesus doesn’t call 9-1-1. And every time a NASA engineer plots an orbit, she’s doing astrology, and the folks down the road at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station are doing alchemy.

                Philosophers who attempt to give philosophy credit for the grand sum total of human thought are the most arrogant blowhards imaginable — right up there with the Christians who claim that all science is ultimately the study of the glory of Christ’s creation.

                You can make such claims all you want, but all you’re doing is laying bare the pathetic self-aggrandizing insecurity that plagues charlatans of all stripes.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

                Yeah, and I’m doing theology every time I wonder why Jesus doesn’t call 9-1-1. And every time a NASA engineer plots an orbit, she’s doing astrology, and the folks down the road at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station are doing alchemy.

                Philosophers who attempt to give philosophy credit for the grand sum total of human thought are the most arrogant blowhards imaginable — right up there with the Christians who claim that all science is ultimately the study of the glory of Christ’s creation.

                You can make such claims all you want, but all you’re doing is laying bare the pathetic self-aggrandizing insecurity that plagues charlatans of all stripes.

                Cheers,

                b&

                In case anyone missed that.

            • Vaal
              Posted May 28, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

              Ben,

              If, for instance, you want to say that science is “better” than theology we’d want to know “better…how?” A better way of knowing things? Great.

              But if you want to make that case (and of course I would make it as well) to what criteria will you appeal? From the standpoint of science itself? In which case I’d ask, are you aware of the problem in begging the question? You can’t simply ASSUME what you would want to prove through argument, otherwise the theologian can just say “Theology is a better way of knowing than science, and I know this by the criteria of theology.”

              Right?

              So you must have some outside or more fundamental, underlying criteria by which you could compare the two. When you are using that criteria, you are doing philosophy, which has as one of it’s realms the analysis of arguments – what makes a good, sound argument, what is “reasonable,” “rational” etc. As well as epistemology, the theory of what counts as knowledge and why.

              So you’ve claimed “morality is a way of achieving one’s goals.” The theist may claim “no, morality is that which God commands. (Or that which mirror’s God’s nature, or whatever).

              Now, on what grounds is the theist to accept your claim? On the grounds that it’s scientific? Put aside that you provide no scientific basis for that claim. If you are going to say “well, because it’s scientifically correct to say morality is a way of achieving one’s goals” as if the scientific criteria IS the criteria for morality, then you are just begging the question against the theist who claims otherwise. The theist is right to reject your begging the question in exactly the same way you’d be right to reject the theist claiming “morality is God’s will” ought to be accepted because the criteria for morality is theism.

              You need to be appealing to some other, deeper standards to not beg the question against one another.

              So whenever you are saying “science is better…” you are philosophizing…or just begging the question.

              (As it happens I think you are generally on the right track about the nature of morality. It’s just that I wish to recognize when my claims are strictly scientific vs when I’ve had to delve into deeper assumptions that become philosophical in nature).

              As to the rest of your reply concerning self-aggrandizement and philosophy, since it bears no relationship to anything I wrote or have claimed, I assume it was meant for someone else (?).

              Vaal

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

                So you must have some outside or more fundamental, underlying criteria by which you could compare the two.

                There is. It’s called, “reality,” as observed by — you know? — observation.

                That’s what differentiates science from religion and philosophy both.

                Philosophers and theologians imagine the way they’d wish the world should work, and then declare that that therefore must be the way the world actually does work.

                A scientist looks at the world and says, well, this is the way the world is working.

                If you think there’s something more fundamental than reality by which we should measure descriptions of reality, then, whatever you’re doing, it’s neither science nor connected with reality. By definition.

                And, empirically, the chances of it producing anything that actually usefully comports with reality are nil.

                If you think that science is therefore begging some sort of question by making observations, and that this form of question-begging is problematic, I refer you to the words made famous by Randal Munroe and Richard Dawkins and many others by now: Science. It works, bitches.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Vaal
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                “It’s called, “reality,” as observed by — you know? — observation.”

                Which, again, is just begging the question.
                You can’t just throw out a term “reality.”
                That word isn’t an argument. It’s a theory-laden that term (it has to be to have any context in which to ascertain you are saying anything of relevance). hence you are just smuggling in what you are supposed to argue for. These are exactly the question-begging moves you recognize as bad when a theist makes them.

                What is real and how can we know it? That is ontology/epistemology, the realm of looking at the coherence of our assumptions and reasoning, a type of philosophy.

                As for observation, the theist will say “I’ve observed prayer working. I prayed for X and it happened!” I’ve also observed the work of God – all this creation – hence the reality of God is obvious and directly apprehended by me.

                And I can also know by how I feel when I pray that God is real. I apprehend the divine reality in this and many ways.

                So you throwing out the claim that “reality” and observation is the arbiter does nothing to resolve this problem, to validate the knowledge of reality you speak of vs the theists knowledge of reality.

                You are riding along on this intuition that, well, these things are just OBVIOUS. But, Ben, that’s not good enough. All sorts of intuitions have been perfectly “obvious” to any number of human beings. To most of humanity it has been perfectly obvious that
                the world required a God to create it, that morality requires a Law Giving God, and in other areas that it’s “obvious” some races were meant for slavery, or races were never meant to be mixed, etc. We can’t fall back on mere “obviousness” which only works when preaching to the choir. We have to have better, deeper justifications.

                So to justify how the scientific approach ought to deciding what is real ought to be preferred over the theistic approach, you’ll have to make deeper level justifications, so you aren’t begging the question. Your response at least implies that the type of justification you are appealing to is the necessity of certain virtues native to the scientific approach in making sense of the world most consistently. That would be fine.
                It’s basically how I’d approach comparing the two.

                But when reaching for such justifications we are going to be investigating and comparing the assumptions involved…which IS to enter into the realm of philosophy.

                So you can either make claims like “morality is a way of achieving one’s goals” and “reality” is determined by observation and just leave them hanging unjustified. Or you can justify those claims. And when you do, it’s a queer spectacle to see you refuse to admit you are philosophizing, like watching someone in a marathon saying “who, me, running? I’d never do such a thing!”

                Vaal

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                As for observation, the theist will say “I’ve observed prayer working. I prayed for X and it happened!”

                …which is why I do, indeed, frequently observe that religion actually is science: it makes testable claims based on observations.

                It’s just that it’s bad science. The observations fall apart on closer scrutiny, and the claims do not follow from the observations.

                How do I know that no further philosophical justification is necessary?

                Simple. Let’s make an observation — let’s see how much scientific and technological advancement is predicated upon some philosophical mumbo-jumbo about first principles.

                Oh, wait — none of it is.

                All that we get from all this philosophizing is incoherent philosobabble from professors whose tenure should have expired long before the Luminiferous Aether did. The philosophers do nothing but keep insisting that scientists need their help, that they can’t possibly justify anything they’re doing without the blessings of the philosophers, and that scientists are really doing the bidding of philosophers in the first place.

                Which is exactly what we get from all other forms of pseudoscience, all other forms of charlatanry. If only those scientists would pay attention to my brilliance and do what I tell them to, just imagine all the great things they could finally accomplish!

                There are all sorts of suitable responses to such grandiosity, only a very few of them polite — and those generally aren’t appropriately suitable.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                This is becoming amusing (and I mean no offense to anyone by saying that). How many scientific advances can philosophy be credited with? Well, none, because philosophy and science do different things, and that, I think is the point — they both have roles to play. Of course, were we to go back in time, we would find that Isaac Newton and other such giants would have thought of themselves as “Natural Philosophers.” Philosophy gave birth to science. Most professional philosophers today are not metaphysicians. Many of them focus on ethics, social and political philosophy, and various “philosophies of,” including philosophy of science and philosophy of religion. I can understand why certain philosophers would drive scientists nuts. Paul Feyerabend comes to mind immediately. But the thing is, he drives most philosophers nuts as well. In any case, I just do not think it is the case that mainstream academic philosophers are claiming they can sit in their armchairs and a priori figure out the mysteries of the universe. That is a straw man. It might have been the case with some past philosophers, but it is not where we are now. On the other hand, what are we to say when physicists and cosmologists get way out in front of the experimental curve? If something is testable in principle but not testable in fact (or at least not yet) is it a philosophical claim until it is in fact tested empirically? I just don’t know.

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

                If, for instance, you want to say that science is “better” than theology we’d want to know “better…how?” A better way of knowing things? Great.

                But if you want to make that case (and of course I would make it as well) to what criteria will you appeal?

                How about each side lists its tangible contributions to human life? OK, which list is longer?

              • Vaal
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                Diane G.,

                “How about each side lists its tangible contributions to human life? OK, which list is longer?”

                Sure you could use that as a possible criteria. (Although that is a very nebulous criteria which could easily fall into dispute – but leaving that for now…)

                But the point is if you are arguing from some criteria to establish the superiority of science, it won’t be a strictly *scientific* criteria. You will be setting up some outside criteria by which to judge the two. You’d immediately recognize the problem if the Theist says “Science fails in comparison to Theism…Theism being the criteria by which I’m evaluating science.”

                You’d immediately recognize the viscous circularity and question-begging there, since the Theist has ASSUMED the very criteria he is supposed to argue for and of course the competing criteria (science) will fail by the lights of science.

                So you can’t place yourself in the same position and say “In deciding whether science or theism is a more valid criteria for knowledge, I’ve evaluated this from the standpoint of scientific criteria.” That’s assuming what you are supposed to be proving.
                So every time Ben makes this move, he’s not offering a real argument.

                I thoroughly AGREE with the direction I can see Ben is moving when he is defending science. I’ve argued (like many here) that the scientific approach, or that is the epistemological moves and virtues underlying science, are fundamental to the very quest of knowledge about reality.

                This will be an argument appealing to the underlying necessity of some moves and assumptions (for instance, the necessity of coming up with a way of dealing with various possible explanations or causes for any phenomenon we experience). But this appeal to necessity and coherence of fundamental assumptions IS to step into the realm of philosophy. There is the method of science, and then there is the WHY is the method of science what it is, and WHY ought we adopt this method? If you are going to justify the answers to those questions, you can’t do it by begging the question, viscous circularity…bad arguments.

                (And, again, I see Ben actually from my perspective making moves in the right direction, it’s just that he’s so allergic to Philosophy it seems he’ll refuse to notice when he’s philosophizing).

                And NOWHERE, btw, do I make the type of straw man grandiose claims for philosophy that Ben keeps attacking.

                Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

                Whoops, one paragraph was supposed to read:

                …the Theist has ASSUMED the very criteria he is supposed to argue for and of course the competing criteria (science) will fail by the lights of THEOLOGY.

                Vaal.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

            “And that doesn’t mean sheer fecundity, either, especially when fecundity results in resource exhaustion.”

            Differential reproduction, not reproduction differential, sure. But, nitpicking, it seems more complicated than that.

            One leading (I think) hypothesis why H sapiens sapiens became first locally successful and then globally dominant is that it simply out-bred the other local variants with shorter periods between pregnancies.

            And today we see that this basal fecundity is modulated. It is modulated with individual balances of good living in, yes, a cooperative society. And to the degree that the global population will peak within the current generation (~ 30 years).

            That is, well before any non-replaceable resources are catastrophically exhausted.

            Some claim that the dominant global problem within a century will not be over-population or lack of resources but the tending towards under-population. The rewards of having the replacement level of children isn’t enough of an incentive in an otherwise functional society. It is another discussion, but it seems it is time to change mental gears here.

            • Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

              The population isn’t growing so fast, yes, but our energy consumption is still on a very steady ~3% exponential growth curve. No matter how you look at it, that curve is going to have to flatten sooner rather than later.

              Even if we covered all the land surface of the globe with solar photovoltaics, we’ll need more energy than we can gather in under three centuries at our current growth rate. About a century after that, even covering the whole surface of the planet in solar panels won’t be enough. A Dyson Sphere would be inadequate in about 1400 years, and a whole-galaxy Dyson Sphere equivalent would fail us in about 2500 years.

              But there are even more pressing thermodynamic limits. Never mind the greenhouse effect; even with some magic energy source (cold fusion / antimatter / whatever), with our 3% growth rate, the surface of the Earth will become unlivable due to waste heat in a couple centuries; water will boil on the surface in a few centuries; and it’ll be hotter than the surface of the Sun in under a millennium.

              So it’s good that the population isn’t growing quite as fast. But, realistically, we probably need a few centuries of not only negative population growth but negative economic growth if we’re to avert an existential crisis, and I just don’t know how that’s going to work out (short of a lot of misery).

              Of course, if we do make that transition, the resulting society will be a paradise indeed, with abundant resources for all. There just won’t be that many who have to compete for said resources, is all. There can’t be…for the simple reason that there aren’t enough resources to permit sustained competition.

              Cheers,

              b&

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

            Bravo!

        • Thanny
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          Not only can you derive an “ought” from an “is”, you have no other choice. There’s nowhere else for it to come from.

          So Hume was wrong, both on first principles and on the logic.

          On the former, the only place the very concept of “ought” exists is inside brains. Brains are physical objects. Brains are. They calculate “ought” from their current physical state (“is”) many times every day without breaking a sweat.

          As for logic, Hume was right about the fact that it’s trivial to derive an “ought” when you have a specific goal in mind. He was wrong to think that the concept of “ought” is coherent without a specific goal. We always have a goal, even when it’s unstated. When discussing morality, the “ought” is always attached to the goal “in order to be seen as moral”. And what’s moral? That’s an empirical fact to be discovered by examining what people value, and figuring out what behaviors realize those values.

          • Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

            Therefore moral dispositions are subjective, since they depend on whatever state your brains has. However, if moral dispositions or oughts are subjective they have no objective existence.

            Deriving an “ought” from a particular goal, does not change this, because our goals are fundamentally subjective. Even if our goals are the product of our evolution (which is a fact on we agree), then still we have no reason why we should blindly follow our mental hard-wiring.

            All this does not, in fact, refutes Hume’s law, it only proves that a free will is an illusion.

            • Vaal
              Posted May 28, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

              Mordanicus,

              In your objection you are seizing on only one element (subjectivity of a goal or desire) of the suggested moral concept, and judging it on that element. That is like the creationists who point to the fact that evolution theory contains an element of randomness (mutations with respect to fitness) and who then say “See, evolution theory entails results that would be entirely random. The theory fails.”

              What they ignore of course is that evolution is not ONLY random mutation – it is the combination of random mutation with other non-random elements, e.g. natural selection, the combination of which is non-random.

              It’s the same with the suggestion of morality having goals or desires as an element. The suggestion is that a moral statement equates to a claim that “If you desire X then doing Y will fulfill that desire.” (Which is why Thanny points out any ought must be in relation to a goal…or desire).

              It’s the RELATIONSHIP between a goal/desire and the claim about a state of affairs or action that would fulfill the desire that keeps such claims in the real, empirical world of objective truth claims. Relational claims are truth claims.

              So only emphasizing one element – the subjectivity of goals or desires – to dismiss the entire theory as “subjective” is no more valid than emphasizing one element of evolution theory, random mutations, to conclude evolution is therefore “random.”

              Cheers,

              Vaal

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

                Vaal,

                I am not dismissing the entire theory as subjective, that would be a wrong interpretation of my words.

                You are right about your statement about relations between desires and means. Yes, if you have a certain aim, there are certain (objective) means to achieve your aim. Evolutionary ethics does an excellent job, in explaining this type of relationships within human morality.

                However, we cannot establish what aims we should have through science. Science does, again, a good job in explaining why we has certain desires. From the perspective of Natural Selection, these aims are indeed objective because they serve a certain purpose within the theory.

                On the other hand, we cannot say that it is “morally wrong” to ignore our inherited desires. Except from an evolutionary framework, there is no way to establish that there are objective desires we should have. In this sense are our desires subject.

                Cheers

              • Vaal
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

                Hi again Mordanicus,

                “On the other hand, we cannot say that it is “morally wrong” to ignore our inherited desires. Except from an evolutionary framework, there is no way to establish that there are objective desires we should have. In this sense are our desires subject.”

                That does not necessarily seem the case. If
                the logic of goal/desire based moral theory is correct, then we can make empirical claims not only about what desires we have and perhaps why we have them; we can also make empirical claims about which desires we OUGHT to have. Or another way of putting it, morality concerns those desires we have reasons to promote or discourage among one another (e.g. in a society). Either the reasons exist for promoting/discouraging those desires (and the reasons come from our other desires) or they do not, and in principle such empirical questions can be answered by science.

                Another way of looking at it is that a moral desire is one that has the characteristic of being universalized and is “good” insofar as it is true it has the tendency to fulfill other many and stronger desires in general.
                (The only valuation of what “good” could be is “does it fulfill the desire(s) in question” and what one ought to do is always on the basis of determining what will likely fulfill desires in question.

                “Rape is wrong” equates to the fact we all have reasons, in the form of other desires, to discourage other people from raping us – rape is a desire that is inherently desire-thwarting and hence “bad.” These are objective empirical claims – either it’s true that rape has the tendency of thwarting
                desires and will increase desire thwarting the more widely that desire takes hold in a society…or it is not true. And in principle this is a question we can investigate scientifically and hence science actually CAN tell us which desires we ought to have (ought to promote…or discourage).

                Vaal.

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

                However, we cannot establish what aims we should have through science.

                Only an intelligent and authoritative personal agent can, even in principle, determine what aims one should have. Unless you’re going to suggest that the universe is intelligent or that there’s some other type of overlord making decisions for us or whom we should be obeying (and why should we?), that only leaves us to decide our own goals for ourselves.

                You might then be tempted to turn to science to help you decide what you should want, but you’ve just fallen right back into the anthropomorphization trap.

                What you can do is rationally and analytically examine your goals and decide if they’re really all you think they’re cracked up to be. You can also use a similar type of analysis to help you determine a course of action to achieve those goals.

                But it’s up to you to decide what those goals are in the first place, using whatever means you have at your disposal.

                Even if you just accept somebody else’s goals for you wholesale, your base goal is to do what that other person tells you, and nobody but you can decide if that’s a goal you really should have.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Hi Vaal,

                “So only emphasizing one element – the subjectivity of goals or desires – to dismiss the entire theory as “subjective” is no more valid than emphasizing one element of evolution theory, random mutations, to conclude evolution is therefore “random.”

                My only complaint here is that, if you can get away with calling something /objectively/ morally right/wrong despite its being based on subjective judgements, then you can call almost anything objectively right/wrong. Drinking coffee is morally wrong (given a desire to reduce caffeine consumption). Voting Republican is morally wrong… oh wait, that actually… nevermind – you see where I’m headed.

                I just worry that people are too eager to press highly emotionally charged words like “moral” and “wrong” into the service of ultimately subjective causes (even if they’re causes we can all agree on, like “suffering is bad”) in order to cheaply access the authority that such words carry with people. The problem being, that this authority was earned based on /incoherent/ conceptions of these words that are actually at odds with your usage of the terminology.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 28, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Old Rasputin,

                I know what you are getting at insofar as one can derive objective truth statements from any existing relationships one chooses
                to observe.

                But that complaint doesn’t take in the whole project. First, one has to break the intuition that if something contains a subjective element it must be through and through “subjective.” Similarly, disabuse the assumption that if one is talking about relative states of affairs then “it’s all relative and not objective.” Which, again, is not the case since there are empirically, objectively true statements to be made about relationships (e.g. whether you are taller than I am, or in this theory, whether X will be such as to fulfill a desire in question).

                But it is not merely arbitrary to assign some set of our “ought” claims to the category of “morality.” A value theory (like this one) attempts to answer the question of whether value exists, and if so how does it arise? It’s not so much “this is the value system we ought to adopt.” It’s “what COULD any of our ought statements plausibly and coherently mean?” And if value exists, what explains how it works in human experience?

                In this sense the explanation the value theory gives is either right or wrong, since it is attempting to explain and make sense of existing phenomena – value and ought statements, especially the type of ought statements typically ascribed to morality.

                So it’s not arbitrary at all – it’s about morality and it’s right or wrong.

                The value theory first asks is anything of value and if so how does it arise? It identifies desire fulfillment as the phenomena wherein value arises (something is valuable to us insofar as it fulfills some desire – it is neither coherent, nor does it make sense of why humans value things – to say something is “valuable” if there were no desires at all that it would fulfill).

                It also looks at the logic of ought statements, notes they are prescriptions for action. It asks “ok, do reasons for actions actually exist, and if so where do we get these reasons?” The answer: Desires exist and desires provide our reasons for action. Hence desires are an integral element of any ought statement. Etc.

                We can not dismiss these as arbitrary claims – we have to dispute it’s plausibility or truth in explaining how value arises, the logic of our prescriptions, etc.

                Vaal

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                Vaal,

                *long-ish comment warning* (hey, they always look longer when nested this deep):)

                Let me just say that I agree with you (and Sam Harris) that the kinds of systems you’re talking about for describing and clarifying how we think about ethics and values are very useful and important for us as a society, and I’m all for it. I’m just not eager to conflate it with the genuinely objective notion of morality that most people (citation needed) have in mind when they use the word.

                I would have thought that my examples concerning coffee, voting Republican, and gay marriage (below) would be more than ample to demonstrate the absurdity of calling something objectively true despite its foundation on even a single subjective element, but I’ll elaborate a bit.

                X is bad. Why? Well, because X causes suffering and suffering is bad, so transitively, X is bad. Yes, but why is suffering bad? (Of course you could simply re-define “bad” to mean “a property of suffering”, but that defeats the purpose.) If you’re trying to establish an account of morality based on consequences (X is bad because Y, which is bad because Z, etc), sooner or later you’ve got to bite the bullet and say “Z is just bad/good” and take that as axiomatic. And it’s this step, no matter how many empirically verifiable steps you tack onto either end of the chain of reasoning, that defines a conclusion as subjective or objective. Otherwise, as I’ve shown, the definition of “objective” becomes meaningless and the word can be applied to almost anything.

                “Suffering is bad” or “fulfilling desires is good” is not an empirical fact about the universe. There is no way for an outside observer to look at the universe and come to this conclusion. To decide that suffering (or any similar axiom) is bad, you have experience it from the point of view of a subject. Without subjectivity, such an observer will see nothing more than matter interacting according to physical laws. How could atoms knocking around be “bad”? Surely it only makes sense to say that experiences are bad, and for that you need an experiencer – a subject. Assigning moral values to clumps of matter interacting is just silly unless some of the matter experiences the interaction /as a subject/. (Of course there is always the other dubious option of appealing to some authority “outside the system” which is what the religious do).

                I’ll also point out that Christians can follow a 100% rational, empirically grounded chain of reasoning to produce such statements as “gay marriage is morally wrong”… if you’re willing to allow them one tiny assumption in that chain of reasoning that is not objectively true (or at least has not been shown to be provisionally true by science).

                Many many people would love to be able to blur this line between subjective and objective, conflating /purely/ empirically derived truth claims with those that allow for just a whiff of subjective input. The religious would love to be able to say, “my beliefs are TRUE” in a serious conversation among adults and have that carry weight. “Sure, it’s not empirically demonstrable,” they’ll admit, “but that’s not an essential quality of knowledge – it’s subjectively true, and that’s just as important, right?” Nope.

                And subjective moral truths are all well and fine, but I’m just not comfortable calling them “true” (or “right” or “wrong”) without providing a giant asterisk indicating their distinction from the popularly held idea of objective moral truths, which I’m claiming do not and could not exist. Not making this distinction explicitly opens the doors for equivocation to anyone with an ideological axe to grind.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                I wonder what you might think about grounding objective moral values in a Rawlsian/Kantian sort of contract theory. Shelly Kagan made such an argument in his debate with William Lane Craig, which can be viewed here:

              • Vaal
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

                Old Rasputin,

                Though I don’t think we’re actually far apart, I still found quite a number of statements I’d want to contest in your post. For now I’ll respond to this:

                “sooner or later you’ve got to bite the bullet and say “Z is just bad/good” and take that as axiomatic.”

                Following your reasoning then, there would seem to be nothing anyone could ever say that was objectively true, since the justifications would trace back to “biting the bullet” somewhere. Which, unless I’ve read you wrong, you seem to equate to some subjective move.

                Is that really what you want to imply?

                Axioms are not proven, but they are justifiable (usually by what follows from the axiom, or by appealing to it’s necessity). The exception, it seems to me being reason itself. To say we are required to justify reason is an ill-formed premise, given that reason is by definition that which we use for *any possible* justification. (It’s true descriptively – you don’t “justify” reason, you simply identify *when someone is using reason*). But this would not be “biting the bullet” in a way that entails subjectivity. Because to make the case the axioms of reason are subjective you’d have to use reason itself, and if in using reason your conclusions are necessarily subjective you give no reasons for the other party to accept your conclusion, and in fact what you’d be describing isn’t “reasoning” as it’s properly understood. Reason by it’s nature appeals to objectivity and universality. Even if I say “my desire to own a blue car is my reason to act to obtain a blue car” my claim is only *reasonable* insofar as it applies in any other similar situation/other possible worlds, etc. In other words, I automatically endorse this logic for you and your desires. If my claim is reasonable, while my desires may change, the logic does not change and is universalizable and hence objective.

                So we can apply reason to axioms as well as any other claims, to see how coherent the axiom is with the wider set of beliefs. We aren’t just stuck with pure subjectivity at bottom.

                It’s either true or not that we have desires. It’s either true or not that the claim “desires provide our reasons-for-actions” is the most coherent and fruitful understanding for making sense of intentional human actions, the concept of “value,” and what we “ought to do” etc. (How do we evaluate the claim? By applying reason…).
                Not every axiomatic move will survive this scrutiny. A Christian may get to “gay marriage is wrong” from some axiom, even an axiom they chose for it’s emotional appeal. But it will not survive the wider scrutiny of reason – to see how their axiom/conclusion coheres with the wider web of belief justifications.

                As for the objective morality I’m describing not being consonant with some wider understanding of objective morality, I would disagree. Yes, some people (especially theists) believe in some sort of intrinsic value or goodness – that something has value independent of any desire (especially human desire). And they think this intrinsic goodness would reside in God’s nature. But this tends to be their EXPLANATION for how moral claims can have objectivity. It’s the objectivity of moral claims they want, and they think that an intrinsically good God can underwrite their moral claims.

                So the question of “is morality objective” tends to revolve around the more fundamental question of whether we can say moral claims are “true” in the same sense other objective claims are “true.” That is, if I say “rape is bad” and someone else has the opinion “no, rape is good” then if rape is objectively wrong that other person’s opinion is objectively wrong. Rape = wrong is not a mere matter of opinion, and we have an objective standard (the objectivity underwritten by the universality of reason) by which to condemn anyone claiming rape is good.

                Notice that answers exactly what theists demand over and over of atheists: If there is no God then how can you say rape is TRULY objectively wrong and not just your opinion? By what standard can it be true, and not just opinion?

                And if the desire theory (and some other possible moral realism theories) are sound, then we do indeed get to say “Yes, moral claims are objectively true and if you happen to hold a different opinion, you are simply wrong.”

                Vaal

              • Vaal
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                Brian Vroman,

                I love that craig vs shelly kagan debate. It was great to see Craig made to flounder in public.

                It seems to me that the picture of morality has been put together by philosophers looking at it from various angles. When I read different theories, I often think “yes, that does seem to get that part right” though not this other part.

                The Rawlsian/Kantian approach has struck me as quite valuable – generally the appeal to the objective, universalising nature of reason itself seems an important pillar in any argument toward the objectivity of morality.

                Often enough in debate a theist and atheist will grant certain actions are immoral and to be condemned, other actions moral and to be praised. But the theist will challenge: Yes these are moral, but on what grounds can you say they are objectively bad or good?

                The atheist will say something like: “Well, without God we certainly have reasons to act morally toward one another, for instance we all desire well-being and certain rules that allow us to live together and work together will help fulfill our desires for well being.”

                The theist always replies: Ok, but what if I don’t want to play by those rules? What if I just want to steal your things and I benefit by doing so, just getting what I desire? How can you say this is objectively wrong?

                This is where we can’t let the theist off the hook. We have to point out that we are asking if there are REASONS to act morally.
                Of course, anyone can just say “Well, whatever you say in defense of doing X, I’m still going to choose to do Y.” But that’s the case whether you grant theistic morality or not anyway. Someone always can say “Well, I’m not going to listen to your reasons why doing X is bad, I’m going to do them anyway.”

                Anyone can act unreasonably, but here we are only concerned with “if one is to act reasonably, are there reasons to act morally?”

                Yes, there are. Are the better reasons to act morally than immorally? Yes, there are.

                If the theist really thinks his example of being selfish acts as a counter, the the theist has to be able to fill this out: how exactly would he justify his selfish behavior (if it’s not justifiable, he doesn’t get to say he’s offered reasons to reject OUR moral reasons). The thing is the theist will not be able to build very long on this system of selfishness. Because in trying to come up with reasons to be selfish, he runs up against the nature of reason itself, how it is universal and objective. He will run into trouble justifying his treating other people badly while not automatically endorsing the same poor treatment of himself. Which will clash with his other reasons for wanting his own autonomy and well-being respected. It’s just a doomed
                project and any time I call on a theist to
                actually pony up a REASONABLE alternative to moral behavior they can not do so and cut and run.

                Vaal

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                I agree completely.

              • Old Rasputin
                Posted May 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                Vaal,

                (sorry for the delay – I wanted to watch the video Brian posted and still haven’t gotten around to it)

                Thank you for the reply. You addressed something that was bothering me a bit as I wrote the previous comment – something that I perhaps didn’t sufficiently clarify in my own mind, and consequently did a poor job of conveying in text. The axiom bit. (Also, I of course agree completely about the futility of justifying logic.)

                I definitely did not want to claim that something’s status as an axiom makes it subjective or vice versa. As far as I can tell, subjectivity/objectivity is not related to axiomaticity (not a word) in any way. What I did want to show is that when trying to establish an apparently subjective claim like “rape is wrong” or “Bach’s music is beautiful”, you can follow the reasoning wherever you like, but sooner or later you have to end up hitching it to some sort of first principle that is itself a subjective claim just like the thing you’re trying to prove. “’Bad’ is bad because it’s bad” is not very satisfying.

                My suggestion for such an axiom was “suffering is bad” or some similar variant (or set of variants). I think it’s a pretty good one; it can’t claim to be objectively true (I explained my thinking on this in the next paragraph – such statements require an experiencer, a mind, to even be coherent, let alone true), but the only thing it requires to get others behind it is a (subjective) distaste for suffering, which (despite many religious sects having made a virtue of it) is darn near universal. Then, if you can actually do all the heavy lifting to empirically demonstrate the connection between XYZ and suffering, you’ve got a powerful tool for thinking about society. This is tough though, not least because it requires a coherent, non-tautological definition of suffering, but with advances in neuroscience, something like this may be possible. If such a system of morality can be designed so that it appeals to subjective states that are sufficiently universal among human beings, then it can be functionally indistinguishable from an objective morality (from the perspective of humans, anyway). The statement “X is right/wrong” would still carry tremendous authority, not because it’s objectively true, but because it’s based on subjective ideas that are so universal among humans, they might as well be objectively true. This is the kind of morality I’m interested in (and I’m guessing you are too).

                Everything in the paragraph about rape being objectively wrong follows logically from the clause “if rape is objectively wrong, then…”. But the whole question was whether objective moral facts exist (or even could exist), so “if they exist, then…” statements aren’t really relevant. I would hope that the motivation behind a statement like “rape is wrong” would be rooted in subjective states. If it’s not rooted in some form of “rape is wrong because people don’t like to be raped” then I don’t know what it could even mean. If you take away the whole people-not-liking-it part, it doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I guess you could make “people-not-liking-it” part of the definition of rape, but that just builds the subjectivity into the definition.

                Anyway, there’s something bothering me about this whole thing – subjectivity/objectivity, I mean – and, I could probably take several paragraphs and articulate my uncertainties, but I’ve run on too long as it is.

                I will ask one more question: is it possible for a moral fact to exist which no human being would want to be true? Ordinary objective facts of this sort exist in abundance. People’s wishing it false is no obstacle for an objective reality. But surely only conscious beings with subjective experience get to decide what’s moral? If moral truths were brute facts, surely some of them would be subjectively unpleasant?

              • Vaal
                Posted May 30, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                Old Rasputin,

                “I will ask one more question: is it possible for a moral fact to exist which no human being would want to be true?.”

                That’s an interesting question from the standpoint of the goal/desire-based theory of morality.

                Off the top of my head, I can’t see that it is possible. (If we for sake of argument take only human beings in the equation). On this moral realism theory: moral desires “X is a moral desire” are the ones we have reasons to promote among one another. The reasons to promote X desire come from how other people having X desire would tend to fulfill other of our desires. So a moral desire tends to fulfill desires more generally, and we only have reason to promote IF it would tend to satisfy our other desires.

                Therefore, I can not see how there could be a moral fact that no one would wish were true.

                This btw is one of the appeals of such a theory, the way it is desire-based, not strictly action based. As soon as most people hear that morality would be about fulfilling desires they think not only that it would be entirely subjective, but that they are therefore placed at risk when the majority of desires contradict their own. But that’s not quite the case.

                Imagine a room with a single woman, surrounded by 14 axe-murders. She desires her well-being, but all of them desire to murder her. If morality were merely act-based – which act would fulfill the most desires – then yes, the number of axe-murder desires vs the one woman would suggest they should murder her.

                But if we ask “which desire, if promoted among everyone there, would have the greatest desire-fulfilling tendency?” then it’s a different outcome.
                First, if you go with the desire to kill the woman, then you’d get 14 desires fulfilled, possibly, one desire (woman) thwarted. But what if we replace that axe-murdering desire with everyone having the desire for each other’s well being? Well, then you don’t have any axe-murdering desires thwarted nor any victim’s desires thwarted. It’s an inherently more desire-fulfilling desire.

                And, again, logically, everyone in the room will have reasons to promote this desire in the other people, since no one desires to be the victim.
                Which, again, suggests to me there couldn’t be a moral fact – at least in terms of good/bad desires – that EVERYONE would wish isn’t true.

                I think there certainly could be moral facts that individuals, or groups of individuals (within a larger society) could wish weren’t true. Someone truly selfish may not wish it were true he ought to care about others, for instance. And certainly it will follow that some moral actions would be subjectively unpleasant (e.g. altruistic sacrifice of your own well being for someone else
                is entirely consistent in this theory).

                If I think about it harder I may find I’m wrong. But there it is…

                Cheers,

                Vaal

          • Old Rasputin
            Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

            “He was wrong to think that the concept of “ought” is coherent without a specific goal.”

            To me it seems that this is exactly equivalent to saying “you can’t derive an “ought” (moral absolute) form an “is”. I thought that Hume is usually understood to be saying that such “ought’s” /are/ incoherent.

            Subjective “ought’s” are trivially obtainable from “is’s”. I know this. You know this. And Hume knew this. But the concept of ought that Hume is addressing is another animal. And though it may be apparent to you and I that such an objective, contextless, absolute, non-empirical “ought” is incoherent, many philosophers have spent a lot of time and ink pondering just such a creature. And most non-philosophers are still walking around today with strange, incoherent ideas about morality (ditto on contra-causal free will).

            “And what’s moral? That’s an empirical fact to be discovered by examining what people value, and figuring out what behaviors realize those values.”

            To you and me, yes. But I suspect that such an enlightened consequentialist notion of morality is comparatively recent, and historically, most people have not viewed morality this way. Ideas like Hume’s Law and Hume’s Fork were really quite novel in claiming (like you) that moral absolutes are incoherent.

  3. Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the “nothing” that philosophers are caught up in worrying over in regards to universal origins is exactly as incoherent as the region of the Earth that’s north of the North Pole.

    A scientist might get excited about the origins and development of the planet. A philosopher will get hung up on wondering why everything’s south of the North Pole, and what happened to the part of the Earth that started out or later went north of it.

    And then the philosophers will insist that, until scientists can offer an explanation for such eternal problems, the scientists must acknowledge the intellectual superiority of philosophy and its endeavors to answer such Great Questions.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • eric
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I fully agree. I think the problem here is a questionable philosophical notion of nothing, not any questionable notion in QM.

      One can start with a concept of ‘nothing’ that is governed by rules, or not. If not, then something can come from that because there is no conservation rule to prevent it. OTOH, if one starts with a concept of nothing that is rule-governed, then the most rational approach is to assume its governed by the rules best supported by empirical evidence. Which is QM.

      Philosophy’s argument against starting with a QM-ruled nothing consists of (i) claiming they have a more fundamental concept of nothing that does not contain or is not governed by any pre-existing rules, but also (ii) something cannot come from this nothing. Sorry guys, that’s trying to have ones’ cake and eat it too. “Something can’t come from nothing” is a rule. You don’t get to claim your conservation rule isn’t a rule, it is.

      In fact its a relatively simplistic, qualitative, pre-20th century rule based on human-scale observations and human intuitions. Its a rule stuck in the 1800s. Don’t be upset with its passing. Think of it like Newtonian Mechanics: It was a great approximation of the truth given the instrumental limitations we had back then. It had a good run. Like NM, its still a good approximation for a wide variety of systems, mostly at the human scale. But at a more fundamental scale it appears to be wrongity wrong wrong. So get over it.

      • Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        One can start with a concept of ‘nothing’ that is governed by rules, or not. If not, then something can come from that because there is no conservation rule to prevent it. OTOH, if one starts with a concept of nothing that is rule-governed, then the most rational approach is to assume its governed by the rules best supported by empirical evidence. Which is QM.

        Like. Will steal. Thanks!

        b&

        • Old Rasputin
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          Also like. Excellently summed up.

      • Posted May 28, 2013 at 5:04 am | Permalink

        eric,

        I’ve seen you posit this one a few times, but it doesn’t work because it misunderstands the philosophical argument. The assumption here is that the philosophical argument depends on an argument of the sort: Something cannot come from nothing because there exists a rule whose nature prevents something from coming into existence. The problem is that the philosophical argument doesn’t rely on that at all. Instead, it does a conceptual analysis of what is meant by nothing, which has meant complete non-existence, which would include all rules. If we start from complete non-existence, then there cannot exist any mechanism for producing things that exist; all such mechanisms would have to exist first, and none can by definition. This would include any rules that you might wish to use to do anything. So they don’t need there to be a rule that prevents it; instead, they derive their conclusion descriptively simply by saying that if you start from the state described by that concept then logically you cannot ever get something.

        So, one way around this issue is to say that you don’t start from that sort of nothing, and that we therefore have something that has fundamental existence; it exists just because it exists, and so we never actually have nothing. If you take that tack, you then have to prove what that thing is. One possibility is indeed QM particles or a QM “soup”. Krauss was not wrong to posit that, but he was wrong to a) insist that that is what “nothing” is in the philosophical problem, since it is a something and b) to use QM popping in and out of existence as an argument, because he’d have to posit that as a mechanism and it is unclear how that would work by his own terms.

        To highlight the issue, Hawking has a problem with rules because he posits that if there is a law like the law of gravity then “nothing” is unstable. If the law of gravity is meant to be descriptive, then you need the mechanisms it describes in order for it to work, and so don’t start from nothing. Alternatively, he can argue that the law of gravity itself is a thing that has existence … but then you still wouldn’t have “nothing”. For your argument, philosophers can take the first option and claim that rules like “Something cannot come from nothing” are merely descriptive of what would happen in that state, and so never have existence and never interact, and so asking if they would have to exist to prevent it is treating descriptiions invalidly as realy entities.

        • Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

          The problem is that the philosophical argument doesn’t rely on that at all. Instead, it does a conceptual analysis of what is meant by nothing, which has meant complete non-existence, which would include all rules. If we start from complete non-existence, then there cannot exist any mechanism for producing things that exist; all such mechanisms would have to exist first, and none can by definition.

          These two sentences contradict each other.

          In the first one, you posit no rules. In the second, you posit that there actually is a rule that there can be no other rules.

          If there truly are no rules, then that means that there’s no rule against spontaneous generation — of anything, rules, spacetime, whatever.

          So, as it turns out, something from nothing is trivial. No explanation is necessary, because there’s nothing that says it can’t happen.

          And even this is granting that the philosopher’s “nothing” is itself a coherent concept, that it’s not just the space north of the North Pole where all the married bachelors get drunk with the teetotalers.

          Once you have something, everything else proceeds apace. And we can even examine our current state to get a better grasp on what earlier conditions may have been like. We’ve done an excellent job at pushing that back a baker’s dozen billion years ago, which I think is quite remarkable. We have ideas of how to push that back farther still, which is more than a bit mind-boggling.

          Is there anything even beyond that horizon? Can we even in principle figure out what it is? Who knows? But we can have fun trying to have a look behind the curtain….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

            In the first one, you posit no rules. In the second, you posit that there actually is a rule that there can be no other rules.

            But it’s not a rule, but simply a noting of the logical consequences of being in that state, as most of my comment was trying to demonstrate. Philosophers are not positing a rule as a thing with actual existence that interacts with the world to prevent things from happening, but simply describing what logically follows from having absolute non-existence. So, no, we don’t posit that at all; that is the mistake that I said eric was making.

            And even this is granting that the philosopher’s “nothing” is itself a coherent concept, that it’s not just the space north of the North Pole where all the married bachelors get drunk with the teetotalers.

            If you think that sort of nothing is, in fact, conceptually incoherent, you can feel free to attack it conceptually, but note that you absolutely would be doing philosophy there. While philosophers welcome that if you do it reasonably, this may cause you some problems.

            Once you have something, everything else proceeds apace. And we can even examine our current state to get a better grasp on what earlier conditions may have been like. We’ve done an excellent job at pushing that back a baker’s dozen billion years ago, which I think is quite remarkable. We have ideas of how to push that back farther still, which is more than a bit mind-boggling.

            Why do you think this is some kind of issue? I flat-out stated that one way around this problem is to say that we don’t start with that kind of nothing. If you can prove what that something is, philosophy will be all ears. Where the problem comes in is when you insist that you’ve solved the problem simply by positing that maybe we don’t start with nothing. Yeah, philosophy figured that out ages ago, so what’s new?

            • Posted May 28, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

              But it’s not a rule, but simply a noting of the logical consequences of being in that state, as most of my comment was trying to demonstrate.

              Woah — stop right there.

              I thought we were discussing nothingness, right?

              So, where’d the logic come from?

              You want to get rid of everything, so let’s do so. No pussyfooting around — everything must go.

              Including logic.

              So, now, that we’re truly left with really the type of nothing that philosophers are obsessing over, what’s left to prevent something from spontaneously arising from it? After all, we’ve just conceded that there’s no logical reason it can’t happen, for the simple reason that there aren’t any logical reasons, period. Not even non-contradiction.

              …and people wonder why I call philosophy atheistic theology. Nothing but arguments from incoherent a priori conclusions and an utter unwillingness to fully see their propositions all the way through.

              I mean, you do realize, don’t you, that your argument against “something from nothing” IS EXACTLY the classic Christian “First Cause” argument, don’t you, just without giving a name to the first cause? And that it’s exactly as incoherent for the exact same reasons?

              b&

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                I thought we were discussing nothingness, right?

                So, where’d the logic come from?

                Again, we are not arguing that there must be something like logic or rules in the “nothingness” that stops it from happening. We are saying that if you have absolutely nothing — which would include no logic — there is no possible mechanism for something to be created. I’m not sure why you keep harping on that. We don’t need the rules of logic to be actually existent things to draw the conclusion that something would be logically impossible. In fact, a more materialistic philosophy would insist that they don’t really exist in the world RIGHT NOW, and yet no one thnks that that means that we don’t have logical impossibilities.

                I mean, you do realize, don’t you, that your argument against “something from nothing” IS EXACTLY the classic Christian “First Cause” argument, don’t you, just without giving a name to the first cause? And that it’s exactly as incoherent for the exact same reasons?

                Yes, it is the same argument, but note that, again, I agreed with your solution, as you yourself stated: We don’t start from nothing. The “First Cause” argument insists that it must be God, but both take the same structure: if it is not possible to get something from nothing, and we have something, then we must start with some kind of something that exists just because it exists, and so exists necessarily. Simply asserting that you can have an infinite chain of causes — the normal reply — doesn’t quite work, but certainly doesn’t work for something from nothing; you can debate whether all effects need a cause, but not that if nothing exists nothing can result from nothing.

              • Posted May 28, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                We are saying that if you have absolutely nothing — which would include no logic — there is no possible mechanism for something to be created.

                But that’s just the point. It’s logic that, you claim, demands there be a mechanism for creation.

                If you don’t even have logic, then you no longer have the requirement for a mechanism.

                In the truest sense of the meaning of the phrase, when you have absolutely nothing, not even logic, absolutely anything is possible. There are no laws of probability even, so the most unimaginably improbable is entirely possible. After all, what’s to stop it? And who says it has to be logical or probable when we have neither logic nor probability to get in our way?

                If you still have objections, then those objections, too, constitute something that’s not nothing. Get rid of them. Still more objections? Get rid of them, too. Keep going until you have no more objections, and you’re left with something resembling the logical conclusion of the philosophical nothing, a state from which something most reasonably may spontaneously appear from.

                And if you still have objections, then you still haven’t truly gotten rid of everything.

                b&

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 2:29 am | Permalink

                Well, let me refute your view using your own logic.

                Your claim rests on this presupposition: if there are no rules preventing something from happening, then anything can happen at any time. But this is, itself, a rule, and so if the rule “Something cannot come from nothing” doesn’t exist, which means to you that anything can happen spontaneously, then your rule doesn’t exist EITHER, and so since it doesn’t exist your claim that things can just happen in the “philosophical nothing” is unsupported: without that rule, you can’t say what would happen in that sort of nothing.

                Or we can do the smarter thing and not think of rules as things that have causal impact on the world — ie they make things happen or prevent them from happening — and see them as merely descriptive rules, what must be true if you have the situation described, by definition. In that case, the “Something comes from nothing” rule works because all it says is that if you have absolute non-existence there is no possible mechanism for things to come into existence, and so things cannot come into existence. Descriptively, it works, and doesn’t rely on anything existing to make that work. Now, if we look at YOUR rule, we can see that it doesn’t work in that way, because while it could be a descriptive rule it relies on other rules not being simply descriptive, which you can’t just do. Additionally, you have no reason to claim that as a descriptive rule because you don’t have either real examples or logic to give it; yours is unjustified while mine is analytically true.

                Given all of this, it’s also clear that your supposition here is absolutely and necessarily mysterian; if you deny that we can use any sort of logic or rules or descriptions about this state, then you have no idea and can have no idea what sort of mechanism could be happening to produce things, nor what things were first. And no way to get that; even empirical examination won’t do it because it relies on rules that you deny existed then. If you criticize the answer of “God” as being mysterian, then this is even more so.

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

                and see them as merely descriptive rules

                In which case, we have no observations of the philosophical nothing and no way to even hypothetically observe it.

                But we do have many observations of the quantum vacuum, the closest we get to it. And, gollygeewhillakerswhaddyaknow, it’s nothing but a fertile ground for spontaneous generation — of the exact same flavor as the Big Bang itself, no less.

                …yet again demonstrating the profound incoherence and theological nature of the philosophical perspective on the matter….

                b&

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

                Forgive me for interjecting, but what is the basis for saying there is a “theological nature of the philosophical perspective on the matter?” Nothing that was said, as far as I can tell, leads to the invocation of a deity. And even if there were a deity, he/she/it would not be able to produce something from nothing anymore than he/she/it would be able to square the circle. To say that the quantum vacuum is “as close as we can get” seems to concede the point. It might be “close” to nothing, but it is not nothing. Thus empirical observations relating to the quantum vacuum have, no pun intended, nothing to do with nothing.

                If I can make one more point, it is important to qet terms right for a variety of reasons. But here’s one specific reason: the misuse of the term “nothing” plays into the hands of apologists like William Lane Craig, who is able to mock atheists who make such claims and make them look rather silly. It the “nothing” we are talking about is the quantum vacuum, then why not refer to it as the quantum vacuum instead of insisting it is nothing?

                All the best,

                BV

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

                Ben, I have no idea why you claim that your being able to point to an observed quantum vacuum in any way demonstrates anything about philosophy. You are, as Brian pointed out, talking about a something. One of the long held solutions to the “Something from nothing” problem is indeed to deny that there ever was a nothing in the philosophical sense, and then trying to figure out what that is. The QV could be that, but you need to prove that it is, not just posit it. To do that, you can’t just point to something that you can see and say “That’s it!”, but demonstrate that it has necessary existence, meaning that it exists without ever having had to depend on anything else for its existence And that you can’t prove by looking really, really hard at something; that’s a conceptual property, not an instance property.

                But thank you for demonstrating precisely why philosophers often get so frustrated at non-philosophers who try to address these questions: they start with a potentially broad and intresting take that ends up being untenable when we look at what the concepts are, but then when we look at what they say that IS tenable it’s a variant of what philosophers have talked about for ages, even as they protest that somehow this is something that philosophy just plain missed.

              • Robert
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                I understand the problem with the nothing of a quantum vacuum being dismissable by those who prey on ignorance, like William Lane Craig. However for all the refuting that’s been done of this coherent concept of “nothing”, no one has actually defined an opposing concept of nothing. It’s a concept, much like God, that people think they understand, take for granted they understand, but when pressed to define, reveal that it’s entirely made-up. Why should we even be talking about it?

                We might as well say that something can’t come from uiojnrlu. Or that before the big bang there was reiatrabum. It’s enirely incoherent and contributes nothing to actually understanding things. It’s hand-waving.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted May 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

                To suggest that the concept of “nothing” is incoherent is “nothing” new. But this is all the more reason to not equate it with a quantum vacuum state or any other state of existence. If “nothing” is incoherent, is the statement that the universe came from “nothing” coherent? I would like to suggest that referring to a quantum vacuum state as “nothing” is actually a “science stopper,” because it gives up too soon.

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

                The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is very closely related to Einstein’s question: “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the World.” By which he meant (nothing to do with God of course): Why is the universe like it is and not some other way? Does the universe necessarily need to be the way that it is? Why do the laws of physics take the form that they do?

                Every schoolboy knows that the teleological argument for the existence of god is nonsense, since if the universe was created by a god then who created god? This problem doesn’t go away if you substitute god with a quantum vacuum. We still need to answer the question why that particular state of affairs and not some other. If it turns out that the question is unanswerable even in principle (please show your workings) and the universe is just a brute fact then that has the very odd consequence that it *could* have been any way at all.

                I find it baffling that Krauss imagines that he has solved these problems, or at least that he didn’t anticipate the very obvious criticisms made by David Albert in his review of “A universe From Nothing”. His only answer that I’ve seen so far appears to be the suggestion that philosophers are “morons”, which doesn’t address the objections and sounds like sour grapes.

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

                **Woops, muddling up my Aquinas Should be ” Every schoolboy knows that the argument from first cause is nonsense” (and probably the teleological argument too :)).

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

                Ben, I have no idea why you claim that your being able to point to an observed quantum vacuum in any way demonstrates anything about philosophy.

                I don’t think you’ve been following along.

                I’ve been repeatedly demonstrating the utter incoherence of the philosophical notion of nothingness, and I’ve offered the quantum vacuum as a real-world coherent example of what the only kind of nothingness that’s real actually is like.

                b&

              • Posted May 29, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                His only answer that I’ve seen so far appears to be the suggestion that philosophers are “morons”, which doesn’t address the objections and sounds like sour grapes.

                I’m sure I’ve heard him address that, and that his answer to the question of why the universe is the way it actually is is a combination of the multiverse and cosmic evolution with a dash of the anthropic principle.

                That is, there may well be many other universes in the cosmos. Only those stable enough of supporting life will have intelligent agents pondering its existence in it, so we shouldn’t at all be surprised to find ourselves in one such universe.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted May 30, 2013 at 1:05 am | Permalink

                @Ben

                Yes, anthropic ideas stemming from multiverse theories quite neatly account for the fine tuning of some constants (although they are still highly speculative in the absence of being empirically testable). For instance, Andre Linde’s theory sees the value of the cosmological constant as a scalar field varying across multiverses. But, that doesn’t address Einstein’s question about whether the laws of physics are necessarily what they are.

                Your viewpoint (and perhaps Krauss’s), that the concept of nothing is incoherent (meaning nothing as the absence of anything at all including quantum rules), is equivalent to answering Einstein’s question by saying that in fact god didn’t have a choice in how he made the universe, because the fundamental substance out of which the universe originated (i.e. “nothing”) must include the laws of quantum mechanics in order to be consistent. Maybe this is true, but it isn’t demonstrably true – Some physicists (and philosophers) such as for instance Sean Carroll think that there can be no way even in principle that you can make this kind of assertion.

  4. couchloc
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today—and even professional scientists—seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”(Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/

  5. krzysztof1
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    That physicists have been working on the unification of the two theories for a long time should be a reason physics is in crisis–that’s a bad argument. Some problems are harder to solve than others. My tiny understanding about the status of string theory is that some physicists (like Smolin) are concerned about the lack of experimental confirmation of the mathematics. Greene and others apparently don’t see that as a problem. There is no reason that math and experimentation have to proceed at the same rate.

    • Trophy
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Actually, as far as I know, string theory is in *big* trouble. It’s pretty much almost refuted: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/15/the-rise-and-fall-of-supersymmetry/

      • krzysztof1
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the link. It may take me a while to digest all that!

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        Which is why I linked to particle physicist Strassler’s rant, that points out that supersymmetry can’t be ruled out [before Planck levels, his other articles shows]. Or rather, not even then, but if string theory applies Planck levels is the latest energy level that is compatible with it.

        So, a) supersymmetry is *not* in big trouble, and b) string theory is *not* in big trouble.

        But the idea of force unification is, because a non-finetuned theory needs supersymmetry to show up around energies that LHC can probe. Or in other words, unless you want to accept the ghastly idea of eternal inflation as per Planck, you are scared now.

        Here is my response to Siegler’s article:

        Since the article is using one of Strassler’s images, I think it is pertinent to point out that Strassler, a former LHC particle physicist, disagrees with that SUSY should have been detected or that LHC has ruled it out:

        “Among the many goals of the LHC is to find or rule out supersymmetry at the TeV scale. (It cannot hope to rule out supersymmetry altogether; that would presumably require a vastly more powerful collider that won’t likely be built for centuries, if ever.) It’s not enough to rule out the CMSSM, or the NUMH1, or even the MSSM. Similar statements apply for other speculative ideas that propose as yet unknown particles and forces; it’s not enough for the LHC to rule out just the simplest variants of these ideas.”

        If LHC does rule out TeV scale SUSY and it won’t solve the hiearchy problem, there is evidently a natural candidate that allows string theory and its landscape to produce inflation:

        “A rather different possibility, which has been around for a long time and which Arkani-Hamed likes (and I used to not be very fond of, but the Higgs mass measurement forces me to pay it more attention), is that supersymmetry does not entirely solve the hierarchy problem, but solves it part-way, with the remainder explained by a lucky accident or though a selection bias (such as the “anthropic” or “structure” principle, whereby the reason our part of the universe looks unusual is that (a) the universe is much more immense and diverse than we realize, (b) most regions are uninhabitable, and (c) only in rare regions with very unusual properties can there be anything like stars, planets, and evolution.)

        This is the notion of “split supersymmetry”, whereby the fermion superpartners of the photon and the W, Z and Higgs particles remain relatively light and LHC-accessible, while the boson superpartners of the matter fermions are heavier by about a factor of 100 or more. (This kind of splitting arises very easily in theories of supersymmetry breaking, and in fact one typically has to work to avoid it.) A complete solution to the hierarchy problem is abandoned, but it turns out this idea has some nice features too, which I’ll skip (but see Figure 1).”

        [My bold; the "nice features" is that SUSY gives DM and unification, while it avoids the problems of standard particle and string theory.]

        So it’s not natural in the TOE sense of O(1) parameter values, but it is natural in the “no finetuning” sense – the finetuning is what inflation gives. In fact, freezing out first the SUSY DM sector and then the standard particle sector is just what Susskind’s tree models of eternal inflation ordered.

        In fact, I think split supersymmetry & inflation predicts pretty much everything except matter/antimatter broken symmetry in the layman sense, I’m pretty sure there are remaining problems.

      • josh
        Posted May 28, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Just echoing Torbjorn here (sorry, don’t know how to do the umlauts).

        1) String theory is not ruled out. It is less popular than it once was because it’s not clear how to proceed due to the difficulty of the math or of finding experimental signatures. Still an important idea though.

        2) SUSY in the general sense is not ruled out and won’t be ruled out in the foreseeable future.

        3)Weak scale SUSY (current collider energy regime) is not ruled out. It is currently being probed with no obvious signs so far. The easiest scenarios we could have seen are ruled out, but nature is under no obligations to make things convenient for us. :)

  6. ladyatheist
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Invoking Heisenberg is a kind of Godwin’s law for the humanities.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      If in a conversation with a philosopher Heisenberg is invoked, I would immediately stop all progress and say…

      “OK. What does Heisenberg say?”

      I’ll bet the concept of “position” and “vector/momentum” will not be in the definition given.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        Speaking of….this joke is funny: http://wrfrbeameup.blogspot.ca/2013/01/of-heisenber-n-schrodinger.html

        • Kevin
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          LOL.

      • eric
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Yes. Actually one should do that for any invocation of the uncertainty principle AND any law of thermodynamics: “Stop. Before we continue, please write down the relevant equation. Tell me the value and units of each constant, and what quantity each of the variables refers to.”

        Mathematicians may also want to use a similar ‘stop and explain’ check at any philosophical mention of Godel’s incompleteness theorems.

    • josh
      Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle isn’t even a foundational principle per se in modern field theory. It is a consequence of the wave structure of quantum mechanics. Physicists aren’t still confused about wave/particle duality. But the general populace probably is.

  7. Kevin
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Just so happens that I’m reading Krauss right now.

    I think that everyone who has criticized his “something from nothing” proposition has not read him, or at least not carefully.

    The problem is that people are used to reading at a certain level of educational attainment and Krauss can’t do that here. So, people either have to catch up or miss the point.

    I think some highly capable people have missed the point because they’re not used to reading something with the purpose in mind of thinking it through. In addition, there are those who deliberately miss the point because the implications make baby Jesus wet his diaper.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I downloaded it to my Kindle the other day. I’ve watched his video a few times and it hurts my brain. Not being a scientist, I need the details and background spelled out.

      BTW, the Kindle edition has a new preface, in which he explains why the Higgs boson was such a big deal, and his enthusiasm for it is inspiring.

      • Kevin
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        It’s not a “quick read”. You’ll have to stop, go back, re-read, think about it, go back again to “get” what he’s trying to say.

        I have the new preface as well. Fascinating stuff, really.

        The only problem with the e-reader version is that the graphics are usually quite crappy compared with the dead-tree version.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

          I liked the audio version better. I think this is because I learn better when people tell me things. :)

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      Considering that all of philosophy is about reading things with the purpose of thinking it through — it’s all we do — that clearly wouldn’t describe the philosophers who criticized it …

  8. couchloc
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    1. It is worth noting that the physicist Lee Smolin’s new book on physics and time quotes the philosopher Charles Pierce as a forerunner to his view.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/05/02/180037757/is-time-real?ft=1&f=114424647

    2. On contributions to the notion of “time” by philosophers you can look here:

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/time/

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Smolin is fringe, which is presumably why Tallis is using him and why most won’t bother with him.

      • Posted May 27, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        All theories at the leading edge of cosmology & physics are “fringe”. It’s not an area that anyone knows enough about to come to definite conclusions. And it won’t be “most” people who come up with a solution to these difficulties. Likely enough there are some deep fundamental theories that we don’t yet know, similar to the situation at the beginning of the 20th century, before Planck.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I find it vexing when philosophers insert themselves into the world of physics in this way because I think it confuses the public and encourages woo thinking exemplified in the likes of Deepak Chopra.

    Tallis advises that philosophers should not “surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists.” Just because physicists have not yet united quantum mechanics with gravity, this doesn’t automatically relegate this area of physics to the realm of the metaphysical. The invocation of the Uncertainty Principle is evidence of this (oh no things work weirdly on the quantum level – must be a weird metaphysical phenomenon…oh wait we have quantum mechanics to explain that).

    This makes philosophy look bad at least to those that see through this sort of thing…others will just be led to believe that there is a deep mysticism at the quantum level that needs to be solved. This is a shame as it means more exploitation by Deepakesque charlatans.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Seriously! How close are philosophers to uniting quantum mechanics with gravity?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        About as close as to figure out how many angels can dance on a pinhead.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and I think the basics of philosophy of philosophy is the study of meta-serious questions.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      First, things don’t “work weirdly” at the quantum level. Things work the way they work at the quantum level – maybe not intuitively, but they don’t things don’t just fly around willy-nilly. In fact, they’re highly predictable and quantifiable. Hence the term “quantum”.

      Second, the Uncertainty Principle doesn’t mean “anything goes”. Simplistically, it states that you can either know the location of a particle (within a standard deviation) or the momentum (vector) of a particle (within a standard deviation) with certainty; but not both. And the more certain you are about one, the less certain you can be about the other (position or momentum).

      That most definitely is not an “anything goes” statement.

      If I had a time machine, I would tell Heisenberg to ban the word “uncertainty” from his principle. After I went back and strangled Aristotle in his cradle.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure if you’re agreeing with me or not but I was parodying the stance that the Deepakesque tend to see quantum physics as mystical when I described it as “weirdly” because things work in a non classical way.

        Also, I didn’t say the Uncertainty Principle means anything goes – or are you attributing that to philosophers? Even they don’t think anything goes but at least Tallis seems to attribute it misguidedly to the realm of the metaphysical.

  10. Posted May 27, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    “The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not.”
    ____

    Is he stating a muscle neuron is the same anatomically as a brain neuron, though their function is different? If so, and I have to doubt that he saying this, neurons are differentiated in their receptors among other aspects, so neuroscience is not saying just a simple nerve impulse is responsible for a person having consciousness. What am I missing here? Help!

    • Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      What I think you’re missing is the “…soul, ergo Jesus” bit.

      Or maybe not Jesus himself, but definitely one of his super-friends, even if it’s one of the mysterious, unnamed, and vaguely ill-defined ones so many philosophers (and theologians — but I repeat myself) are so fond of. You know? The Great Quantum Cosmorgasmic Consciousness?

      b&

  11. darrelle
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    “The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, . . .”

    That is really bizarre. This is so wrong it smacks of the conviction held by many neoconservatives that “we can create a reality, and while you sit on your thumb studying that reality, we will create another reality.”

    Two things. One, no, science has not utterly failed at this. It has in fact made discernible progress. Is Tallis attempting to rewrite recent history, or did he just not bother to look before giving his opinion?

    Two, could we maybe have a little more time to work on this problem? We have just fairly recently begun to seriously study this and get results, and you want to call the game now? Doesn’t it seem a bit premature to dismiss this as an utter failure when we do not yet have a good understanding of how the brain functions? Could we please wait till then before making the call?

    It seems to me that Tallis is predisposed to accept that there is a ghost in the machine.

  12. neil
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    OT, perhaps, but in the interests of accuracy.

    First, there are not a gazillion forms of string theory (M-theory actually). Rather, within the theory, the strings (membranes) have a gazillion ways of being compactified (corresponding to vacuum states of the universe). As a result, almost any physics is consistent with string theory (singular). This leads to the multiverse, which some accept, but others do not because it is untestable.

    The most important reason string theory is bogging down is that the main way to connect it with our universe through experiment is being shut down. The testable specifications of string theory ARE being tested and they are being rejected–most importantly regarding supersymmetry (SUSY). The LHC has failed to find SUSY at 8 TeV. If it does not find it at 13 TeV, its design maximum energy, SUSY (and string theory which requires it for internal consistency) will be rejected at the energy scales we are capable of attaining, and will be for some time.

    None of this means philosophy will be useful of course.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      It was my understanding that string theory was pretty much dead as a doornail.

      But that quantum field theory is ‘the shizz’, as all the kids say.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Oh my – don’t tell that to Brian Greene & the many working on string theory and its variations. They just haven’t been able to test their theories even though they built a whole new math for it (which is kinda cool anyway).

        I work near a big institution for physics & sometimes I joke about driving by and yelling taunts like “your theories haven’t been tested and it’s been 40 years….no I kid, I kid, I’m a big fan! You’re doing great work”. LOL

        String theory is still a big draw I believe.

      • neil
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        It is still “wiggling”, but I’m not sure how much longer.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      This leads to the multiverse, which some accept, but others do not because it is untestable.

      Careful. It is claimed, for no good reasons, to be untestable.

      If an eternal inflation string theory multiverse is at hand, it was first tested already 1987 with Weinberg’s cosmological constant construction which he got right according to WMAP.

      And WMAP and Planck has tested the inflation potential, Planck nearly excluding everything but eternal inflation so a multiverse. Again, testing the multiverse and some of its parameters successfully.

      As for the erroneous claim on SUSY vs string theory, I have already responded at length to Trophy above. It is TOE naturalness, ironically the exact reverse of what landscape string theory implies, which is in dire straits.

      As far as I know string theory & SUSY can’t be excluded until Planck energies.

      • neil
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        I am sure this is not the place to debate cosmology findings, but your information is wrong.

        First, the latest (April 2013) Planck results rule out the Kashlinski peculiar movements I assume you are refering to, which means rejecting the evidence of other universes.

        http://arxiv.org/abs/1303.5090

        Second, while Weinberg’s argument is based on the anthropic principle, that is not evidence of other universes. And the analysis of the CMB does not say he “got it right”. The evidence from the CMB and the supernova studies simply confirms the hypothesis that the CC is not changing over time, which is an assumption made by Weinberg in deriving his result.

        Third, if SUSY cannot be excluded at any energy level less the Planck scale, that is pretty much equivalent to saying SUSY cannot be tested as a scientific hypothesis.

        • josh
          Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Well, SUSY at the 1 TeV scale can and is being tested. SUSY at the Planck scale not so much. SUSY in between? If we don’t find SUSY with the LHC it’s a fair question if we think it is just around the corner or if the hierarchy problem just isn’t, but it’s a bit premature to pronounce SUSY or String theory dead.

  13. Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Drooling at the advent of the preternatural and then inserting a metaphysical cork to keep the drool from breaching the levee should not be considered academically meritorious.

  14. Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    So, this goes back to Rutherford, then? It’s all physics or stamp collecting. Maybe in principle, but I doubt psychology will ever be practically reduced to neurology and neurology subsequently to biochemistry (results are dismal so far, with some ‘in principle’ issues at the heart of the failures). I think this is more than a technicality, it is cautionary.
    Besides, isn’t string theory stamp collecting by Rutherford’s definition – something derivative which doesn’t produce its own data or testable predictions? Maybe everybody is doomed to a bit of stamp collecting in the end. Amor fati guys.

  15. Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I just finished Smolin’s earlier book, _Three Roads to Quantum Gravity_, and it does show that there is no clear dividing line between philosophy (space and time, causation, ontological matters like event, etc.) and physics. Smolin even says so. And yes, this is in a way philosophy of the gaps – *but*, as has happened, new science also creates new gaps, as knowledge progresses. For example, arguably, all the stuff about consciousness is not quite the old mind-body problem. What *is* exasperating are the philosophers who deny these connections (Jaegwon Kim, for example, said somewhere he thinks neuroscience is irrelevant to philosophy of mind, which for me is just an appalling thing to say).

    • couchloc
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Smolin also notes in his recent book on physics and time that philosophy has been helpful to him. You can see the link I provided above at #8. This is not surprising to those of us who know their history since there have been strong connections between philosophy and physics going back to the period of Leibniz, Descartes, Newton, and Galileo.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Smolin is fringe, which is presumably why Tallis is using him and why most won’t bother with him.

  16. gijswijs
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I would indeed like to hear Sean Carroll on this because a) His book on time (from eternity to here) is brilliant, go read it and b) he takes a philosophical stance at some points throughout is book, which examplifies Jerry’s point that the physicists are quite capable of doing their own philosophy
    Which doesn’t make philosophy useless, but it does urge philosophy to rethink its position in society.

  17. muggleinconverse
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed Krauss’ ‘A Universe from Nothing’. I’m very much so a laywoman though. Any suggestions for books with alternate ideas?

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Since Coyne has eminently identified where Tallis lives and Shallit has positively shredded Tallis’s credibility, I can only mop up some of the remaining pieces in the cracks.

    Before I do that I should note that Krauss has answered David Albert’s rant on his book “A Universe From Nothing”. Among other things Krauss has a discussion of philosophy:

    “There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. … And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that’s generated in other areas.”

    So even ethics as used in legislation et cetera may be under science subsumption.

    Tallis’s are the usual gap questions:

    – Reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics.

    They are already reconciled as far as cosmology goes, in a semiclassical physics with gravity waves but field quanta.

    But I gather the problem is that if we don’t quantize gravity there is a problem of conservation of energy as regards interactions with quantum field theory particles. (If it still applies, it was a work of Bohr already.)

    Apparently it is easy to quantize gravity when approximated as a force at low energies, but problems surface at energies on the order of astrophysical phenomena (curved space). Hence string theory.

    – Measurement problem.

    Many solutions seem to exist, but many world theory is among the more natural I believe. Maybe that is why it is preferred by Carroll among other physicists.

    That MWT isn’t parsimonious to boot is an error, I believe. If you look at the axioms and hence the number of relevant parameters, it uses 1-2 axioms less. (IIRC Tegmark, another physicist, has a description on his website.)

    According to Tallis we should look at the pre-science version parsimony of “multiplication of entities” among products of theories, instead of looking at “multiplication of parameters” parsimony for theories. Tallis should then reject quantum field theories as incoherent, with the quantum fields and the quantum field vacuum which multiplies virtual particle entities like crazy.

    – Time.

    If eternal inflation is correct, and Planck’s results makes it hard to think otherwise, the arrow of time isn’t a property of unique universes or they would statistically result in the multiverse being timeless.

    Susskind has a simple (aka “tree level”) theory where he shows how terminal vacuums, universes with the lowest possible vacuum energy, acts as sinks for an emergent arrow of time over the whole structure.

    – Gravity as negative energy.

    A classical newtonian field approximation of gravity has a negative potential energy since gravity is attractive.

    What of it? What is taken “for granted”?

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Here is Susskind’s inflation theory of time: http://arxiv.org/abs/1203.6440 .

  20. Mark Joseph
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Time, cosmogony, consciousness–these are hard problems. Science is working hard to understand and explain them. To say that philosophy is needed is analogous to saying that it was needed in the days before physicists explained lightning or magnetism, embryologists explained conception, chemists explained metabolism, or astronomers explained the structure and stability of the visible universe.

    Philosophy (and its bastard child, theology) are what hindered these discoveries (“planets must move in circular orbits, because the circle is the most perfect shape”). There is no reason to think that they will supply anything useful for the resolution of the current hard scientific questions; as ladyatheist asked, “How close are philosophers to uniting quantum mechanics with gravity?”

    Hence Jerry’s title, “Philosophy of the Gaps?” is exactly to the point.

  21. eric
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years.

    40 years is peanuts (and its probably more like 90 years; QM was developed by the 1930s while GR was developed before that). Let’s contrast that to:

    – ~230 years for science to solve the problems with NM.

    – ~3,000 years of philosophy didn’t come up with NM, QM, or GR.

  22. eduardoblasina
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you have a little error at the end, you post scientists who are good are writing and you may mean scientist who are good at writing.
    I enjoy a lot your work, thanks a lot.
    Kind regards from Montevideo, Uruguay

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Well, what do you know, I just found out that Carroll do bother with Smolin and his notions of time (or actually the arrow of time, notes Carroll).

    But he hasn’t much good to say. And I would say that it substantiates my claim of Smolin as being fringe (but I would say that, wouldn’t I):

    “I have two worries. One is that Smolin seems to be pushing hard against a door that is standing wide open. With the (undeniably important) exceptions of the initial-conditions problem and quantum gravity, our understanding of time is quite good. But he doesn’t cast his work as an attempt to (merely) understand the early universe, but as a dramatic response to a crisis in physics. It comes across as a bit of overkill.

    The other worry is the frequent appearance of statements like “it seems to me a necessary hypothesis.” Smolin seems quite content to draw sweeping conclusions from essentially philosophical arguments, which is not how science traditionally works. There are no necessary hypotheses; there are only those that work, and those that fail. Maybe laws change with time, maybe they don’t. Maybe time is fundamental, maybe it’s emergent. Maybe the universe is eternal, maybe it had a beginning. We’ll make progress by considering all the hypotheses, and working hard to bring them into confrontation with the data. Use philosophical considerations all you want to inspire you to come up with new and better ideas; but it’s reality that ultimately judges them.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Oops. Carroll says the good things, such as they are, before that. (Ending that part with: “It’s always a good idea to push against the boundaries, try something different, and see what happens.”)

      The quote is the end.

      • couchloc
        Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        So it appears there is agreement that philosophy can have input into certain problems that concern Smolin and Carroll. This isn’t to say Smolin has everything right, or that philosophy has solved the problem on its own, but that there is a positive contribution by philosophy relevant here in to trying to think through the problems. As I mentioned above (see #15) Smolin provides one example in reply to Jerry’s original post. This isn’t that surprising if one knows anything about the history of physics and philosophy over the years, which as a philosopher I know soemthing about.

        • Posted May 28, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          Right – Smolin can be right about the arbitrary dividing line but not right about what specifically has to be worked on. For example, is he still arguing for topos theory and intuitionistic logic? (This is, to put it mildly, utopian.)

  24. Brian Vroman
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I have never heard of Tallis before, but if I understood correctly the portion of his article regarding a universe from nothing that Jerry included in his post, it sounds like Tallis is criticizing the notion of the laws of nature as a “free gift.” It seems, to me at least, that it is Lawrence Krauss who invokes natural law in this way. He was questioned about this at the recent Asimov discussion by another panelist and by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Krauss said something to the effect that a system and its laws can emerge simulataneously, to which Tyson replied that the laws in question cannot then be used as an explanation as to why the system emerged in the first place.

    As Jerry might say, much of this is “beyond my pay grade,” but the Asimov discussion (this is the one that David Albert was disinvited from) can be easily found via a google search.

  25. Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    eric addresses this above.

    Either the initial state (if there was such a thing) had some sort of laws or it didn’t.

    If it had some sort of laws, then either they’re the laws we’re already familiar with or they’re something more fundamental that gives rise to the laws we’re familiar with.

    If there weren’t any laws in the first place, then there wasn’t anything to prevent the spontaneous emergence of such a set of laws. For, if there was a law preventing such spontaneous emergence, then right there is a law — and where did this “no spontaneous emergence” law come from?

    The whole thing is nothing more than the philosophical equivalent of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, and yet another exercise in demonstrating that the whole kerfuffle is nothing more than a futile attempt to determine the precise geographic coordinates of Santa’s workshop north of the North Pole.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted May 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      …that was supposed to be a reply to Brian Vroman at #24….

      b&

    • Brian Vroman
      Posted May 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Forgive me for being naive — I am not a physicist, though I have recently developed a layman’s interest. Is it not the case that when we talk about natural laws, we are essentially describing “how stuff works?” And if this is the case, don’t we have to have “stuff” (energy, matter, fields, whatever) first (or at least “simultaneous with”)? If physical laws could pop into existence prior to the existence of anything to describe, would they not be prescriptive rather than descriptive (in which case they begin to sound like “god”)? Or am I misunderstanding something?

      I appreciate any insight Mr. Goren or anyone else can give me.

      • Posted May 27, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        There’re two approaches to answer your question.

        The first one, and the only one that has any hope of actually helping you understand the universe as it actually is, is the scientific one. And, for that, I would refer you to Lawrence Krauss. You’ll be interested either in his book, A Universe from Nothing, or any of his many lectures and debates on the topic which you can find on YouTube. I won’t try to do it justice, as he explains it much better than I possibly could.

        The other approach is to take the philosophical approach, in which case you’ll get all caught up in the difference between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” with respect to the laws of nature…and thereby completely miss the point that the distinction doesn’t really make sense in the first place outside of an essentially theological context. For it’s really no different from the whole “how v why” matter at the heart of the “overlapping magisteria” that, again, circles right around to John Haught demanding a cup of tea from his wife right this very instant. There’s endless philosophical debate on such things because the question itself is incoherent and founded upon incoherent presuppositions.

        When you can tell us how sad chartreuse is, then you might be able to tell us why the universe decided to exist or what a one-handed clap or a lonely falling tree sounds like. Until then….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • couchloc
          Posted May 27, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          Forgive me for interjecting, but I would disagree with this opinion. Ben Goren clearly has an ax to grind against philosophical accounts of the issue and is not describing the issues in a balanced way. An honest scientific approach would not try to pre-judge the whole issue and decide which theories are true or false based on ideological grounds. Calling an approach you don’t like “philosophical” and dismissing it is not very helpful I think since it doesn’t really explain anything. To get a sense of the conclusions being reached here and why they are problematic, it is worth noting that the main critique of Krauss’s account was raised in the New York Times by the physicist David Albert (who works in a philosophy department). He has a PhD in physics and thinks Krauss’s account won’t work for various sensible reasons. (Google: David Albert on Krauss for his article) I’m pretty sure Albert is an atheist and not a theologian or anything like that. I don’t know why philosophy has to be associated with theology in anyone’s view. It seems unhelpful considering that some of the greatest atheists in history (Nietzsche, Hume, Marx, Russell) were all philosophers.

          • Brian Vroman
            Posted May 27, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

            Thanks to everyone for the input. I certainly agree that it is silly to associate philosophy with theology. To be sure, there are theistic philosophers, but they are in the minority (as is the case with theistic scientists), especially at the “elite” level. In any case, I will delve more deeply into the disagreement between Krauss and Albert.

          • Brian Vroman
            Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

            By the way — and this will be my last comment on this topic, because I don’t believe in overloading someone else’s blog with my thoughts/opinions — here is what Jerry had to say about Krauss’s book just over a year ago:

            David Albert pans Lawrence Krauss’s new book
            I have a confession. I was not keen on Lawrence Krauss’s new book on the origin of the universe, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather Than Nothing. I couldn’t share the chorus of approbation and acclaim for the book, and wondered if I, as opposed to everyone else, was blind to its merits. (Let me hasten to add that I am a big fan of Krauss’s public lectures, and also that I haven’t read any of his other books.)

            I found A Universe from Nothing awkwardly written and poorly explained; indeed, in places I felt completely at sea, and had to reread bits of it several times to figure out what he was trying to say. Even then some of it baffled me, and since I have a Ph.D. and have read a fair amount of popular physics literature, I figured this must have been a case of unclear writing rather than simple ignorance on my part.

            Further, I felt to some degree cheated: much of the book was not about the origin of the universe, but dealt with other matters, like dark energy and the like, that had already been covered in other popular works on physics. Indeed, much of Krauss’s book felt like a bait-and-switch. It also seemed to me that Krauss came to grips with the real problem—how do you get matter from an initial condition of nothing?—only in the last 40 pages of the book. The whole argument could have been written more concisely, and clearly, in a smallish book the size of Sam Harris’s Free Will.

            Further, Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum,” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe. Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum? And so on to more turtles. . .

            The padding and poor writing made me peevish, but so too did Richard Dawkins’s afterword, which claimed that Krauss’s book would do for physics and cosmology what The Origin of Species did for biology: dispel the last evidence for God as seen in natural “design” or the idea of ex nihilo creation. I saw virtually nothing in the book that hadn’t already been said by Sean Carroll (see his post on the same question here) or, especially, Victor Stenger, and so couldn’t understand Richard’s over-the-top encomiums. I didn’t feel, after having digested the book, that it was anywhere close to Darwin in the thoroughness of its treatment or in its final disposal of the design-from-materialism problem.

            But I didn’t say anything about this. Chalk it up to cowardice. Better, I thought, to say nothing, or even offer insincere praise, for a book by a fellow atheist and a friend-of-friends, than risk making enemies of someone with whom I’m allied in many ways. But I was uncomfortable with this, for it’s intellectually dishonest to critique those books by religious people, or people whom I don’t know, and then give a pass to a book that I didn’t like just because it was penned by a fellow atheist. So now I’ll speak out: I didn’t like A Universe from Nothing, and I think that there are other things to read that do the same job better. It wasn’t a horrible book, just a mediocre one, and has all the earmarks of being written hastily and not edited properly.
            What emboldens me,I suppose, is David Albert’s scathing review of the book in yesterday’s New York Times. Albert, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University with a Ph.D. in physics, seems pretty well qualified to review this book. (He’s written his own popular books on quantum mechanics and, like Krauss, is a terrific public speaker [see here, for instance].)

            I agree with much but not all of Albert’s take. He starts by deconstructing Dawkins’s comparison of Krauss’s book to Darwin’s:

            Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explain something, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

            Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.” And what if he did know of some productive work in that regard? What if he were in a position to announce, for instance, that the truth of the quantum-mechanical laws can be traced back to the fact that the world has some other, deeper property X? Wouldn’t we still be in a position to ask why X rather than Y? And is there a last such question? Is there some point at which the possibility of asking any further such questions somehow definitively comes to an end? How would that work? What would that be like?

            Although this may resemble the ontological argument (and perhaps the proper answer to “where do quantum-mechanical laws come from?” might be “they just are“), it’s still proper to ask, “Is our idea of ‘nothing’ really a quantum vacuum”? And here I think Albert gets at the major flaw of Krauss’s book: the failure to explain how he decides what “nothing” is. I’ll quote in extenso:

            The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

            He goes on to explain the meaning of Krauss’s solution better than Krauss did:

            What on earth, then, can Krauss have been thinking? Well, there is, as it happens, an interesting difference between relativistic quantum field theories and every previous serious candidate for a fundamental physical theory of the world. Every previous such theory counted material particles among the concrete, fundamental, eternally persisting elementary physical stuff of the world — and relativistic quantum field theories, interestingly and emphatically and unprecedentedly, do not. According to relativistic quantum field theories, particles are to be understood, rather, as specific arrangements of the fields. Certain ­arrangements of the fields, for instance, correspond to there being 14 particles in the universe, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being 276 particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all. And those last arrangements are referred to, in the jargon of quantum field theories, for obvious reasons, as “vacuum” states. Krauss seems to be thinking that these vacuum states amount to the relativistic-­quantum-field-theoretical version of there not being any physical stuff at all. And he has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

            But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-­theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields — what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

            With respect to Krauss’s complaint that now that a quantum vacuum might explain the origin of the universe, religious people have moved the goalposts and rejected his definition of “nothing,” Albert responds:

            We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.

            Where I part company with Albert is in how he deals with Krauss’s critique of religion that imbues the book. Formerly somewhat of an accommodationist, Krauss (perhaps because of his association with Dawkins) is now a much more vociferous atheist. If you’ve read A Universe from Nothing, you’ll know that it’s larded with critiques of religion and an overweening satisfaction that at last physics has explained the final redoubt of religion: the origin of the universe from empty space. The atheism seemed a bit over the top to me, but I also thought it was directly relevant to the book’s goals. But Albert thinks otherwise:

            . . . the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.

            Now I’m not sure whether Albert is religious, but he’s totally off the mark here, and he should know it. For religion rests on beliefs that are assumed to be true, and if you erode those beliefs you erode religion—and with it many of its inimical effects. Albert knows this because in his youth one of the critiques of faith was that it was a “lie.” Well, that’s pretty much what both Darwin and (to some degree) Krauss have shown. If you can explain what is considered strong evidence for God as the result of a purely materialistic process, then that does a lot more than simply show that “religion is dumb.” It is showing that the buttresses of faith are weak or nonexistent. That is no small accomplishment. If religion really is as bad as the critics of Albert’s youth really thought, then one of the best ways to dispel that evil is to show that the evidence for God just isn’t there.

            Perhaps Albert’s critique was sharpened by his dislike of Krauss’s attacks on faith, but nevertheless I think that his criticism of the book’s substance is largely on the mark. I remain baffled at the praise that A Universe from Nothing garnered when, after all, it says pretty much the same thing that Victor Stenger has published in several books, but more lucidly.

            • peterr
              Posted May 28, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

              Most readers find it very helpful if you make it a habit to put quotation marks around the passages which you are quoting.

  26. kelskye
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I think the idea of philosophy being able to solve the problem of consciousness is the uniting of two seemingly at-odds phenomena – the physical and the mental. It’s hard to see what one could mean by the mental arising from the physical without clearing up some of the conceptual confusion surrounding just what that means. Which is to take nothing away from the importance of neuroscience to this task, but as Dennett has said: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

  27. Posted May 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the person who solves the impasse in physics won’t be either a scientist or a philosopher, but something else. A patent clerk, perhaps.

  28. Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Tallis has an unusual understanding of the quantum measurement problem:

    “A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible.

    The more usual explanation of the measurement problem is described in the Wikipedia article where no mention is made of the uncertainty principle:

    “The measurement problem in quantum mechanics is the unresolved problem of how (or if) wavefunction collapse occurs. The inability to observe this process directly has given rise to different interpretations of quantum mechanics, and poses a key set of questions that each interpretation must answer. The wavefunction in quantum mechanics evolves deterministically according to the Schrödinger equation as a linear superposition of different states, but actual measurements always find the physical system in a definite state. Any future evolution is based on the state the system was discovered to be in when the measurement was made, meaning that the measurement “did something” to the process under examination. Whatever that “something” may be does not appear to be explained by the basic theory.

    To express matters differently (to paraphrase Steven Weinberg [1][2]), the Schrödinger wave equation determines the wavefunction at any later time. If observers and their measuring apparatus are themselves described by a deterministic wave function, why can we not predict precise results for measurements, but only probabilities? As a general question: How can one establish a correspondence between quantum and classical reality?[3]”

    Tallis’s description of the problem as invalidating both quantum measurements and quantum theory seems but a deceptively manufactured crisis from which philosophy is presumably prepared to rescue us.
    In any case the actual measurement problem, which has puzzled scientist since Einstein, recently appears to have been largely resolved by scientists with little if any assistance from philosophers. A succinct way of viewing the measurement problem is to consider the usual 5 axioms of quantum theory:

    1) All information concerning a quantum system is contained in a state vector evolving within Hilbert space
    2) The state vector evolves via the Schrodinger equation.
    3) An immediate repeat of a measurement will produce the same result.
    4) Measurement results will correspond to eigenvectors and eigenvalues of the measurement operator.
    5)The probability of a particular eigenvalue measurement result is given by Born’s rule.

    The last two axioms are generally considered to compose the measurement problem; the first three describe the quantum system as deterministic and continuous, the last two describe the system ‘collapse’ to a seemingly arbitrary mathematical formalism involving probabilities.

    Wojciech Zurek of the Los Alamos national laboratory, has shown how the last two axioms may be derived from the first three (http://arxiv.org/pdf/0903.5082.pdf). The measurement axioms are implied by the first three axioms and are thus fully compatible with them. Thus the ‘measurement problem’ is resolved; it is a paradox no longer.

    Perhaps of interest to this forum Zurek, describes information transfer between quantum and classical reality, noted by Wikipedia, as the crux of the measurement problem, as a selection mechanism he has named quantum Darwinism. Only a tiny portion of quantum information can survive the transfer from the quantum system to its environment and proliferate there.

    Zurek’s theory describes this selection mechanism as a Darwinian process and thus provides a means of viewing quantum theory within the same naturalistic context used to view biology.

  29. Brian Vroman
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Ok, I lied — one more comment. I find Ben Goren’s comment that the assertion that nothning could come from nothing is itself a conservation law, and thus is at odds with the concept of “nothing” to be very interesting. But here’s what I wonder: at one time, in analytic philosophy, there was a great emphasis placed on the distinction between “analtytic” and “synthetic” truths. The former were true by definition; the latter a matter of empirical observation. Now, it seems that analytic truths, such as “a circle cannot be a square,” require no justification (though I am open to the possibility that I am wrong), whle of course synthetic truths rely on evidence. So the question as I see it is this: is the idea that nothing comes from nothing analytic or synthetic? If the former, no justifying law is needed — it is simply a brute fact. It needs no more explanation than to say a circe is not a square. If, on the other hand, it is a synthetic statement, it is inductive in nature and subject to revision.

    So if we are to say that it is not the case that something can come from nothing (or in other words that nothing can come from nothing), which sort of statement are we making? Is it a matter of definitions,or of empirical observations?

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      It’s analytic.

    • couchloc
      Posted May 28, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      I agree.

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      The former were true by definition; the latter a matter of empirical observation.

      Everything is ultimately empirical.

      Science and logic / math both rest on two principles, one each: conservation in the one and non-contradiction in the other. Violate either and everything else crumbles.

      But it’s entirely an empirical observation that those two principles actually hold. If, tomorrow, we were able to credibly and empirically observe a violation of either, it’d be back to the drawing board for all of human knowledge.

      At the same time, I have no problem simply assuming that both truly are inviolate, even if, in principle, there’s a possibility they’re not. There’s nothing that could convince me of a violation of either; I’d first assume that I was being fooled, and I’d then conclude that I was crazy. If I was subsequently convinced, that entity would no longer sufficiently resemble me to be called me, so that’s not my problem.

      But we do have one overwhelmingly important empirical observation on the subject: we exist. And, therefore, we know that one of two options hold: either the philosophical “nothing” is as incoherent as the town barber, or it permits spontaneous generation. Whatever problems philosophers have with the fact that existence exists are theirs and theirs alone.

      Cheers,

      b&

  30. Dominic
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    I would refer readers to Tallis’s book “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity” to see where he is coming from –

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/07/aping-mankind-raymond-tallis-review

  31. Myron
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    “[P]erhaps writers can enlighten me about how philosophy will help straighten out the mess of time.” – J. Coyne

    Take a look at:

    * Callender, Craig, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199298204.do

  32. Myron
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    “The thing is, the ‘philosophy’ practices of scientists doesn’t require the kind of professional training that philosophers demand when they accuse scientists of being ‘philosophically naive’. That accusation has always seemed to me a self-serving claim for the importance of one’s bit of turf.” – J. Coyne

    The thing is that there is such a thing as philosophical, particularly metaphysical and ontological expertise that most scientists lack, because they’ve had no special academic training in philosophy, particularly in metaphysics and ontology.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 28, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Would you please define “metaphysics?”

  33. Myron
    Posted May 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Metaphysics is the speculative, interpretative, and integrative transempirical (not anti-empirical!) inquiry into the nature and structure of reality. It is a rational, intellectual enterprise that doesn’t ignore or reject experiential data but looks through and behind the “surface of appearance”, venturing forth into what is undetermined, underdetermined, or undeterminable by the perceptually (observationally or experimentally) given, the evidence of the senses.

    • Posted May 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Okay. I’ll play.

      First, and most important, by what means does one judge the validity of metaphysical hypotheses and / or conclusions?

      Next, what tools does one use to probe this region beyond that which is available to empirical inquiry? How does one know that those tools are providing information consistent with reality? And why are these tools not already being used in empirical analysis by rationalists?

      If you can give coherent answers to those questions, metaphysics might have something to it. But my money is still squarely on the “bullshit / con / woo” marker.

      b&

      • Brian Vroman
        Posted May 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        One more thought comes to mind. In past controversies regarding whether creationism or its gussied-up cousin “intelligent design” should be taught in the classroom, philosophers such as Michael Ruse (and yes I know he is an accomodationist now, but he has done some good things in the past) with respect to creationism and Barbara Forrest with respect to ID were of great assistance in helping scientists defend science. Robert Pennock also come to mind. The value of such philosophers is that they can help working scientists articulate exactly what it is they do and what the lines of demarcation are between science, non-science, and bad science.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      LOL! Is there a technical term for unintentional parody? Was this actually written by Sokal?

      • couchloc
        Posted May 28, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        Sokal was not opposed to philosophy in fact. His hoax was not a hoax of philosophy but postmodern intellectuals in English and Sociology type departments. So your reference here misses the mark unfortunately.

        • John Campbell
          Posted May 28, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps of interest to this forum, when it is not consumed with philosophical matters, is Smolin’s on-going research into Darwinian processes within physics.

          In his 1997 book ‘Life of the Cosmos’ he introduced his theory of Cosmological Natural Selection which describes the evolution of the universe via a Darwinian process.

          He developed this theory in a some further papers including ‘Scientific alternatives to the anthropic principle’ ( http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0407213.pdf). He also described his general evolutionary approach to physics in the paper: A perspective on the landscape problem (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1202.3373.pdf) In this video he describes his current evolutionary thinking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3y5IQ3kqMt8

          Together with Zurek’s theory of quantum Darwinism I find it suggestive that the problems Tallis points to within physics may be resolved by viewing them from the perspective of Darwinian processes.

          On Tue, May 28, 2013 at 8:57 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

          > ** > couchloc commented: “Sokal was not opposed to philosophy in fact. His > hoax was not a hoax of philosophy but postmodern intellectuals in English > and Sociology type departments. So your reference here misses the mark > unfortunately.” >

        • Diane G.
          Posted May 28, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          Dunno about that. “Transempirical,” “experiential data,” “surface of appearance,” ” by the perceptually (observationally or experimentally) given,”–all sound exactly like pomo gobbledygook to me, and that’s the language that allowed Sokal to pull off his hoax.

        • couchloc
          Posted May 29, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

          Sokal’s article was not an attack on philosophy but an attack on postmodernism in cultural studies, which is different. The journal Social Text has nothing to do with the field of philosophy but concerns literary criticism and sociology. So you are missing the mark here. As for Sokal’s actual views about philosophy, you might look at some of his more recent comments. Here he says that philosophy can be helpful to physicists and that there’s often little difference between them at the very theoretical level.

          He writes that he has “a philosophically-oriented approach to physics” and that “physicists, when they do philosophy, often do it badly. They’re often confused about the conceptual foundations of their own physics, because sometimes you can compute and get the right results even if you don’t understand conceptually very well what you’re doing. That’s a criticism that not only philosophers but also mathematicians make of physics. Because I’m half a mathematician I respect that criticism too. So it’s absolutely true that physicists often make a botch of the conceptual foundations of physics….” (This was for an interview he did in The Philosophers Magazine.)

          http://philosophypress.co.uk/?p=802

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

            And I did not say that Sokal’s article was an attack on philosophy. I said that the language Myron used to define metaphysics resembles the nebulous word salad that allowed Sokal to get away with his hoax. (And, I might add, that he routinely decries.)

  34. Posted May 29, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    (V late to the party.)

    Why does something have to come from nothing?

    Why can’t there “always” have been something?

    /@

    • Posted May 29, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      This is indeed one of the ways out of the problem as suggested by philosophy, likely thousands of years ago. It’s fine, as far as it goes, but leaves open the problem of what that something actually is.

      • Posted May 29, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        Well, yes.

        But what is the justification for thinking that there was “once” nothing? All our experience is that “nothing” doesn’t exist.

        /@

        • Posted May 29, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          Well, all of our experience also tells us that things need to be caused to come into existence, and that there is nothing that exists without a cause or reason. So if you take the “Then there must be something” tack, then you have to accept that something can exist just because it does, which is problematic, If you reject that tack, then you have to explain how to get existence from non-existence, which is also problematic.

          I’m someone who thinks that the “There must be something” tack is obviously correct, but concede that finding something that could meet the requirements of that something isn’t easy.

          • Posted May 29, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

            But in our experience, nothing is never the cause or reason for anything!

            I guess we’re stuck with determining which is the lesser of two philosophical evils.

            /@

          • Posted May 29, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

            Well, all of our experience also tells us that things need to be caused to come into existence, and that there is nothing that exists without a cause or reason.

            That’s only true in a naïve and outdated sense at human scales.

            All of quantum mechanics — and you wouldn’t be able to read these words on a computer if our understanding of quantum mechanics was significantly worng — tells us that causality as humans commonly understand it is meaningless at quantum scales.

            And the Big Bang was a quantum-scale phenomenon….

            b&

            • Brian Vroman
              Posted May 29, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

              Hume would certainly have agreed that our notion of causation is suspect.


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