More science-dissing from two scientists and a philosopher

I was going to write a critique of the article below from Aeon; its authors are Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, Marcelo Gleiser, a professor of natural philosophy and professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, and Evan Thompson, a professor of philosophy and a scholar at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. (Click on the screenshot.)

But as I read it for the second time, and the familiar science-dissing arguments arose before my eyes, I became dispirited. Science can’t give us an objective view of reality, the authors claim, because “reality” is always filtered through our consciousness (and, by the way, good luck, Science, with explaining consciousness!). The view that we perceive an objective reality is, Frank et al. argue, “more theological than scientific.” (But theology can’t make verifiable predictions, and science can!). Science changes, too, as our experience of “how things are” changes (viz., quantum mechanics). Thus we don’t have a handle on Reality.

And as I mentally prepared my arguments, I became almost physically ill. Of course we don’t know for sure if there’s an external reality independent of our experience, but if there isn’t then our predictions are remarkably successful. And animals perceive physical things that comport with what we perceive (i.e., a mallard hen gets alarmed when she sees a Great Blue Heron near her chicks; when water freezes for us, it freezes for ducks; and so on). Doesn’t that mean that there’s something out there that we see and that other species see, all with very different consciousnesses?

If you’re going to diss science because it’s filtered through our consciousness, then every notion of the word “truth” goes out the window. How do I know you ate a cheeseburger today, even though I saw you scarf it down? After all, although what I saw looked like a cheeseburger, it was filtered through my consciousness, so the idea of a Cheeseburger Independently Existing in the Cosmos is garbage.

And then there’s this paragraph, which begins the piece:

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

First of all, we don’t know if there is a first cause; you can plausibly argue that the Universe in one form or another has proceeded from other universes and that it’s simply universes all the way down.  Physicists tell us that the notion of a time before the present Universe began makes no sense since the beginning of time is coincident with the beginning of space-time. And if a First Cause is scientifically unintelligible, which it appears to be, then why is it a criticism of science to say that we can’t pin down a “First Cause” (which, by the way, is NOT equivalent to an “initial condition”)?

And then I realized that I have remunerative and enjoyable work to do, and why should I waste my time rehashing the same old arguments?

If you want to see how scientists and philosophers combine forces to show that Science Isn’t Everything (something with which we mostly agree), have at it yourself. But it’s one thing to say that science is different from music, and that we’ll never know why some people like Stockhausen while others despise him (actually, some day science might be able to answer that!); but it’s another thing to say that science is fundamentally theological in nature.  Yes, science can be wrong, and all we can do is to make models that conform better and better to how we perceive the universe, and that predict things we can observe. Yet one thing is for sure: it would be remarkable if Einstein’s perception of the Universe corresponded with the bending of light by the sun, but that actually there may not be light or a Sun, and it’s all some kind of Matrix.

Oh, and another thing is for sure: theology isn’t even CLOSE to science in understanding “reality”, whatever that might be, because different theologians—unlike different scientists—have huge differences in what they say reality consists of, and there’s no way to judge who is right. On the other hand, we know there isn’t an ether and that we can test whether matter bends light. When theologians find a way to tell us whether there’s a god, and whether that god is one or many (as Hindus maintain), and what the nature of that god is, and that we can test their claims, then I’ll start saying that theology is scientific in nature.

The only purpose of pieces like this, it seems to me, is to do down science. You tell me why, as I don’t know. Perhaps people are upset that science continues to advance and push woo further into the corners, and that other areas of human endeavor have had no such successes.

At any rate, I’m done for the day. I’m tired of these kinds of arguments. I’ve attacked them before and need not do so again, and I’ll move on to more interesting pursuits. I wonder why Messrs. Frank, Thompson and Gleiser are going after science rather than theology.


UPDATE: Over at the site Spirituality is No Excuse, writer Yakaru does a good job deconstructing the Aeon piece in a post called “Three academics launch a vague attack on science and propose a vague solution of some kind.”



  1. alexander
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I started reading the piece, and the first paragraph was as far as I got, feeling it would be waste of my time continuing.

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 7:40 pm | Permalink


      • mikeb
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        One tires.

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink


  3. Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Resorting to woo in the face of persistent unknowns seems to be a common ailment that even hits real scientists. I agree that this article is not worth much thought. However, I didn’t become physically ill while reading it and did jot down a few thoughts.

    “Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals.”

    While it is true that everything we know comes through our senses, we do measurements multiple ways and they all come up with the same answer. Although we have to use our vision to read a number from a digital readout (a voltage, say), we look for a consistency in that result to tell us that our models are correct. We explicitly do not leave it to our fallible senses.

    When I read articles like this, it reminds me that a huge revelation it will be when we finally understand how the brain works. Consciousness and experience will be much less the mystery they are now. Except perhaps for first contact with aliens, I can’t imagine a more earth-shaking event. Our position in the universe will change forever.

    • Christopher
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      This event, if it happens, will probably lead to religious violence. After all, what are the chances that the aliens have the same bible (or torah, koran, vedas…) as we do?

      • Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps they have been studying all our religious books for centuries. They will announce, in Trump style: “No one knows more about religions than we do.”

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Resorting to woo in the face of persistent unknowns seems to be a common ailment that even hits real scientists.

      LOL. It’s Woo of the Gaps!

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Yes! I like that! Let’s use that phrase for these situation from now on. With your permission and attribution, of course.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    there’s got to be a bin for things like:

    blind spot : ergo God
    Godel incompleteness theorem : ergo God
    Chaos theory : ergo God
    consciousness : ergo God
    bananas fit my hand : ergo God

  5. Christopher
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the authors feel ill at ease for science/scientists not knowing everything and admitting this ignorance and find comfort in the theological confidence of god being and knowing everything. They said several things in the first few paragraphs in particular that lead me to this supposition. It is as if they are uncomfortable with the problem, the observations, and the parameters as well as being disturbed by the possibility of the open-ended question.

    This leads me to wonder why they became scientists of philosophers, if they struggle so much with questions that we may not yet, if ever, be able to answer. Of course, this issue still occurs in theology (the old “who created god” canard) but for some reason people are more comfortable with setting the parameters within god as a construct rather than without or beyond.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      It is as if some philosophers still sit in an empty theater and wonder what the movie was about, long after everyone else has absorbed the story, appreciated The Ending and had moved on.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        Good analogy.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Read the linked article. Strikes me as an academically gussied-up version of the handwritten letter Issac Asimov discussed receiving from an English Lit major in “The Relativity of Wrong.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I very much like Asimov’s take.

      (Particularly, since it fits my cynical view of things, the note that the earth is actually ‘pear-shaped’ 😉


    • JezGrove
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just read that brilliantly lucid Asimov article and have realized, to my eternal shame, that I’ve never read his nonfiction writings before. I see from Wikipedia that his books were “published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification”, which is simply awesome.

      • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        One of the best arguments against the existence of heaven is that if there was one, there would also be an Isaac Asimov’s Guide to it.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Shakespeare *and* boron chemistry. Amazing!

      • Posted January 29, 2019 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        Try “The Tragedy of the Moon” (the collection, not just the title essay).

  7. Ty Gardner
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Sure, we can’t know if absolute Truth exists. Who cares.
    For me it boils down to realism vs instrumentalism. Realism may be too big of a leap and viewed as theological. We don’t know if there is an underlying, True, reality, nor can we know. Instrumentalism though, that our science works as a tool but doesn’t reflect an underlying reality seems a bit silly given the success of our understanding and the apparent universality of experience. I can accept the critical realist’s view that we can’t be certain about realism but that our experience suggests it is the more likely state as compared to there being no underlying reality for the data we’ve collected and hypotheses we’ve failed to reject.
    I don’t want to understate the value of philosophy, as it has helped to guide science to the hypothetic-deductive approach, but I sometimes think philosophers just want to talk to remind us they are still here.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I think this ages old, never to die issue mostly comes down to humans’ (heck, life in general) evolved yearning for security, to be safe. Which requires certainty about what is going on. Unfortunately a key aspect of our reality that science, broadly construed, has shown us is that perfect certainty is not a real thing. In our reality varying probabilities are the best that is possible. We’ve got to learn to be okay with that. These three authors apparently are not. I think this is the kernel that drives the religious / wooist mind-set. A yearning for unalterable truths driven ultimately by the evolved “instincts” to stay alive.

  8. Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:47 pm | Permalink


  9. Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think they’re saying that “science is fundamentally theological in nature” but rather drawing attention to what Hawking and Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design called “model dependent realism”. That is, reality is only known in terms of a model, which seems to me pretty uncontroversial.

    Frank et al. are reminding us that we can’t step outside of our representations (conscious experience, concepts, numbers, propositions, and theories) in characterizing the world. They rightly point out that “objectivism and physicalism are *philosophical* ideas, not scientific ones – even if some scientists espouse them” (my emphasis). But of course model dependent realism is also a philosophical idea. It’s just that, they are arguing, it’s more true to our actual situation since it recognizes the ineliminable role of representation in a way that naive brands of physicalism sometimes do not. But I don’t think the article suggests that they think science has a rival when it comes to representing reality.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      I never said that they thought science was fundamentally theological in nature. What I said is in the post: “The view that we perceive an objective reality is, Frank et al. argue, ‘more theological than scientific.’”

      • Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        “If you want to see how scientists and philosophers combine forces to show that Science Isn’t Everything (something with which we mostly agree), have at it yourself. But it’s one thing to say that science is different from music, and that we’ll never know why some people like Stockhausen while others despise him (actually, some day science might be able to answer that!); but it’s another thing to say that science is fundamentally theological in nature.”

        Sorry if I misconstrued this!

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      I like this comment and I do agree with pretty much everything of it.
      I think it was Paul Watzlawik who once said that there is no right to not be misunderstood. It’s quite easy game to misunderstand this article – if one wants to.

      • Rosmarie Maran
        Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        I did refer to Tom Clark, of course.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:48 am | Permalink

      @Tom : Then why can’t they say so as succinctly as you?!


      Sent from my iPhone


    • mikeb
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      Your second paragraph goes *blah blah*. Why I don’t dig flossify.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      There are two interpretations of this view, though. The truistic, and the controversial. The truisistic is that our concepts are used to understand the world. The controversial, and IMO false, is that we thereby cannot step outside them. We can, however, invent new concepts, thereby stepping outside.

      We can, also, show that our concepts (when they are) not anthropomorphic. For example, if I say: “hydrogen and oxygen react at 200 degrees C and 1 atmosphere of pressure to form water”, this is true (to whatever degree) independent of us. This is *not* altered by the fact that units are conventional and the concepts of hydrogen, oxygen, temperature, etc. are our own inventions.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        (Inventions which are meant to capture the way the world is, and do do to some degree.)

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Bingo. Equivocation is a huge danger in philosophical reasoning, even if one is being careful. Which these authors decidedly are not.

  10. Brad
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    It is not necessarily true that the French phrase “Reculer pour mieux sauter” is valid in the least. Scientific knowledge is constantly changing, especially our understanding about consciousness as is so aptly discussed in Eric R. Kandel’s “The Disordered Mind.” Nevertheless, Issac Asimov’s response to the English Lit’s note may have really hit the proverbial nail on the head.

  11. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a professor of anything so this is all suppose to be way over my head. It seems they are attempting to portray a struggle between the known and unknown and get upset over the unknown. They want the answers to questions that are not there. So they are doing what many others have done and throw the unknown to g*d?

    I have a hard time understanding everyday reality here in the visible world but usually figure it out. Such as we just had a partial shut down of the govt. and failed to pay 800,000 folks for a month and this was to get money for some piece of wall. G*d must have been in on this one too.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      For some reason your comment reminds me of the old tagline –

      … I have a firm grip on reality. Now I can strangle it.



  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    People who hear or read about the scientific “blind spot” described in the linked Aeon piece and think it creates space for the supernatural and, thus, for their own rarefied religious beliefs, remind me of this:

    • Christopher
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Not just a space for the supernatural, but a space for that beloved post-modern leftist space, the “lived experience”! Or, as the authors stated in the text:

      “In the blind spot sits EXPERIENCE: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.”

      I shudder to think what this means.

  13. Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know of anyone in the scientific community who claims science has absolute knowledge. Not of anything.

  14. Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    The article also failed to give any hint as to how we should alter our behavior going forward. Even if we recognize their “Blind Spot”, and I do not, what are we supposed to do with it? How should science incorporate their new philosophical idea? Although I think philosophy is important in general, this seems like it belongs in the “angels on a pinhead” bin.

    • Posted February 1, 2019 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      This is very much like religionists’ objections that God is not amenable to scientific investigation because he is somehow “beyond” the real world. Yet they also claim that he can interned in the real world. #havingyourcakeandeatingit


  15. Mike Anderson
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    That article sure has the smell of creationism about it. Chock full of strawmen and outright errors:

    We erect a false idol of science as something that bestows absolute knowledge – False. “Absolute knowledge” is pretty much the opposite of scientific thinking.

    The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific – Strawman. Science homes in on “objective ‘reality'” fully aware of possible imperfections.

    The time of the physicist depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time – False. Relativistic spacetime throws our “lived experience of time” out the window.

    And this is just a start. Although the authors are credentialed, they don’t seem to have a strong grasp of science.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Technically, “absolute” is the opposite of “relative”.

      So “the electron has a charge of [however many columbs]” is an absolute statement, and it is more or less true depending on how one fills in the [].

      What *is* better to say is that science (and indeed factual knowledge generally) is rarely *total*, or “full” (as opposed to partial).

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        >> Technically, “absolute” is the opposite of “relative”.

        Good point. It looks like I might have misunderstood what “absolute knowledge” means. If so I still disagree with their claim, but in a different way (agreeing with you, I think), e.g. we do absolutely know heliocentrism is true.

  16. JezGrove
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading many years ago about an experiment in which rodents were brought up exposed to either Stockhausen or Mozart. Given the choice, the animals entered an area in which the music they were familiar with was playing. I can’t cite the references, but I’ll bet another reader is sufficiently knowledgeable to.

  17. Jackson
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    To me this article is a version of the God of the Gaps fallacy. The authors choose to focus not on what science does well (medicine, technology) but look for some fuzzy area where things arent so clear and call it a blind spot.

    Notion of blind spot seems a little circular in reasoning.

  18. rickflick
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    If you take their proposition seriously doesn’t it result in solipsism? So, Messrs. Frank, Thompson and Gleiser are mere figments of my imagination, as are my keyboard and tea.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I am now sitting in Starbucks sipping a coffee. Satisfaction of the wasteful materialist.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 27, 2019 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        I doubt that you are sitting in a Starbucks. You only manifest as a line of text on the screen of my consciousness. 😎

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      ‘Reality is that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn’t go away.’

      (No idea who said that.)


      • JezGrove
        Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        It’s from Philip K Dick’s “How to Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. (But “stop believing in it”, not “stop thinking about it”.)

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      No no, they’re real and their argument is objectively right. It’s only scientific knowledge that’s an illusion.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 27, 2019 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        So that’s it.

  19. Barney
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    They write “the ‘life-world’ of human experience is the ‘grounding soil’ of science, and the existential and spiritual crisis of modern scientific culture – what we are calling the Blind Spot – comes from forgetting its primacy.”

    I don’t see they’ve established there is an existential crisis. Let alone a “spiritual crisis”, which would need extensive definition and justification before it’s worth saying anything more about why there could be such a thing.

    They seem hung up on “experience” as something that science ignores. I can’t understand what they’re saying. Is it just that they don’t explain themselves very well, or are they waffling without actually having a proper argument behind it?

    • Sastra
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      I so often think that many of these meta criticisms would benefit from concrete examples. For example, what would be an example of “Modern Scientific Culture forgetting that science is grounded in human experience?”

      A.) Believing that scientific conclusions are not open to revision given new evidence.

      B.) Ignoring people’s personal stories about how homeopathy cured them because chemistry says homeopathy can’t work.

      C.) Analyzing mystical experiences in terms of brain states instead of listening, really listening, and caring about how they change people’s lives.

      D.) Analyzing mystical experiences using science instead of taking them as perfectly reasonable reports of another realm.

      E.) Other (please give example.)

    • rickflick
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Two scientists in a lab growing bug resistant vegetables…

      S1 – “This little guy is struggling. Hand me a little of that ‘life-world’. Let’s see if we can give the stinker a kick in the pants.”

      S2 – “If we’re going to save the planet from starvation, we’ve got to pull out all the stops. Throw in some ‘grounding soil’ as well. I know it’s never been tried, and it’s not in our ‘experience’, but, what have we got to lose?”

      S1 – “Well, if you you feel it in your bones. OK.”

  20. Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why Messrs. Frank, Thompson and Gleiser are going after science rather than theology.

    I’m sure this is rhetorical, but the clue to this are the words “Published in association with The Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth an Aeon Partner”.

    “ICE is housed at Dartmouth College, a leading educational and research institution, and receives generous funding from the John Templeton Foundation.”

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Aha!!! That fact provides a nice scientific explanation for the existence of this silly article.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Just to add to this, I don’t blame Messrs Frank, Thompson and Gleiser for their opinions – they have far more brilliant minds than me and no doubt have greater insights into the world than I – but I do object to the relentless attacks on science that this is just one tiny part of.

      Templeton have a strong hand in doing this, and anyone who has read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s brilliant Merchants of Doubt will appreciate that this has been a decades long tactic championed by free market fundamentalists in defence of right wing dogma. john Templeton was both right wing and religious, so his foundation’s dissing of science serves two masters.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Yeah – so true! ICE has these interdisciplinary conferences with the likes of physicist Paul Davies who scored $1,000,000 from Templeton back in ’95.

        He was a student of Fred Hoyle, he thinks life will be uncovered through information theory rather than chemistry, microbes might have minds & a few years back cocked up with some premature & wrong commentary on arsenic in organic molecules, while proudly proclaiming his chemistry knowledge was basic.

        He’s done very well financially & professionally by being ‘edgy’ in his views – on subjects that aren’t his turf of course.

        • rickflick
          Posted January 27, 2019 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          Sounds like a successful, if fraudulent, means of making a living.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      I thought PCC(e) mentioned that Aeon is Templeton-funded?

  21. Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s a straw man of an article, see here …

    The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this [scientific] method gives us access to unvarnished reality.

    Well, who says that? Citation needed. See Wikipedia on Embodied Cognition, for starters.

  22. YF
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    All of these skeptical philosophical arguments become irrelevant in the real world, where it would be idiotic, and suicidal, to question whether there is really a speeding car heading towards me- or whether I should consider the advice of a witch doctor over that of a science and evidence-based medical professional.

  23. A C Harper
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help thinking that one of the deepest problems with the article is the assumption that human ‘experience’ is somehow separate from the rest of nature (or the physical).

    Had the authors studied some of the Eastern philosophies/religions, such as Taoism, then the separation of humans from nature would have far more difficult to justify philosophically.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure what to make of their belief “that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.”

      I’d really like to hear them run down the properties that distinguish the “physical” from the “experiential”, but I’m guessing their response will be along the lines of ‘read moar Sophisticated Philosophy’.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      There’s even a chapter in Mario Bunge’s _Finding Philosophy in Social Science_ called “The Objective Study of Subjectivity”, which while very cursory is at least an introduction to what people (like the authors of the article) claim to be impossible!

  24. Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I read the article and did not find science-dissing in it. I think there is some sort of misunderstanding. This is basic epistemology and not likely to be relevant to the conduct of science, but there is nothing wrong, wooish or anti-science about it. IMO, this is a respectable and somewhat interesting article.

    PS Gleiser”s book The Island of Knowledge is quite good.

    • wendell read
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I agree entirely with what you say, but clearly we constitute a very small minority.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I am glad to know, at least, that I am not a minority of one. 😀

  25. Ray Little
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    The Stockhausen question isn’t hard to settle. We have only to imagine the origins of music in communal singing, drumming and dancing – what was it like for those who practiced it, what was it for? The answer seems to be, roughly, group solidarity. How many listeners and participants go beyond that to the more sophisticated experience of music as a thing in itself, or as a component of the human drama, rather than as a ritual of belonging? The percentage of listeners who prefer Bach fugues (absolute music) or Wagner’s Ring cycle (music-drama) is small, perhaps (guess) 10% or less. But even for these sophisticates, music still retains some recognition of the communal will to order and control raw experience. At a guess, this covers 99.99% of all those who listen to music at all. Stockhausen is the antithesis of this, an anti-communal, anti-solidarity sonic experience, subverting what music does for nearly the whole human race. Some people don’t like this? What a surprise! It is the aural equivalent of bamboo-splinters under the fingernails. Sparingly used, it might be tolerable and effective as the sound-track of a particularly bleak horror-movie, but otherwise it goes against the grain of all that music evolved for.
    BTW, I had to look up Stockhausen (Youtube). Thirty seconds was enough.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Everyone hates Wagner, even those who like Wagner.

      • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        That’s a version of what Mark Twain said about Wagner: that his music is better than it sounds. What this really means is that he doesnt understand it but he actually did enjoy some of it. G.B Shaw wrote The Perfect Wagnerite and loved the music. I adore it. I grew up without any prejudices but with wide exposure to classical music at home, at concerts and in recordings. Most people don’t know how to listen to Wagner actually. Also, he is long, complex, and needs attention to be absorbed. The German language doesnt help. Here are some hints: 1)Listen to the orchestra. 2) Pretend it is in another language. 3)Compare to German lieder (Schubert but especially Schumann, who influenced Wagner considerably in
        Schumann’s vocal works such as Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, and Paradise and the Peri, truly beautiful and complex masterpieces. I dare anyone to sit throug Die Walkure and not cry during Wotan’s Farewell or the Magic Fire Music.Or to not be transfixed by every moment of Die Meistersinger.

        • Posted January 27, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          4) Generously apply Rossini as ear-bleach.

  26. Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Their arguments are different in Sophistication© but not in kind with “deep debates” I would have in the college dorm room with my roommate. All while both of us were in an altered state of mind if you get my drift.
    I grew up.

  27. Roo
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I think the conclusions (not really stated in the article) are important. I don’t necessarily disagree with what they’re proposing – time may be something of an illusion; divisions between ‘things’ may, at the quantum level, be more or less conceptual; it may be impossible to objectively study, firsthand, consciousness with consciousness (as ‘objective’ implies a subject and an object, and if consciousness is ‘that which observes’, there can be no observed/observer split within it), and so on. I’m just not sure where they’re going with this idea. It could be anything from “Stop and feel a sense of wonder at what we don’t know – hey, maybe you’re even a brain in a vat!” to facepalm-worthy post modern schtick to proposing a new methodology for specific experiments to endorsing Buddhist philosophy for positive psychology (This last one would be my guess – a lot of Buddhist practice centers around the idea that “right view” of things, usually focused on emptiness and interdependence, leads to positive mental qualities while ‘ignorance’ leads to negative things. That’s the vibe I got from the article, but since they didn’t specify, it’s hard to know what they meant.)

    Again, I don’t know that many scientists would even be particularly opposed to what the article says (agnostic, maybe, but not staunchly opposed), it’s more, why are they saying it? It could be anything from “Don’t trust science, we make our own Truth!” to “We need new ways of thinking in order to make sense of findings in quantum physics” to “Walking around with a sense of sharp dualism is bad for mental health.”

  28. Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing new or shocking in this article. It’s not a bad critique of ‘naive realism’ and there is nothing in there that a second-year student in philosophy doesn’t know. However, it doesn’t even begin to consider scientific realism or structural realism as defensible forms of realism. In fact, much of the article is attacking the straw man view that scientists and philosophers of science think they are pursuing “absolute knowledge”. Of course we know the external world via our mental models, a point laboured endlessly by the authors.

    Much of the article labours the other truism that all of the scientific enterprise is underpinned by scientists’ experiences. But that does not entail that we are somehow trapped within our own private mental worlds. The authors’ simplistic description of “scientific “objectivity'” even presumes the mind-independent reality that they say is beyond our grasp. As they put it: “‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools.”

    Sure, but this notion of science that they posit presumes exactly what they are saying we can’t get a mind-independent handle on. This community of investigators and scientific tools exist outside of the authors’ personal worlds of experience, don’t they? Unless they want to say that communities of people and tools only exist in their mental imaginings and we can say nothing about them as mind-independent entities. If it really is the latter, then why should the rest of us give any credence to these imaginings of theirs about the nature of science and scientific communities?

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      I’d say their ‘naive realism’ is a strawman erected to contrast with their touchy-feely-experiency woo.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Exactly so. It seems to me they are not sure what they are actually saying, or trying to say. They probably thought they were saying something profound or at least attention getting. Solipsism is the 800 pound gorilla, and nobody’s buying that.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      The problem with straw men is that there is always some idiotic flesh man who will endorse the crazy view that an author wants to criticize. Although, the fact that these authors can’t be bothered to find a real flesh and blood person, who endorses the “naive realism”, says a lot about their level of scholarship.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Frank’s and Gleiser’s agnostic mysticism (or is it mystic agnosticism?) is the very reason why I stopped reading the NPR site – which site I gather was a sensible site once. Those two are to science popularization what mold is to bread.

    That said, they can have Aeon: they fit its religious agenda.

  30. Posted January 27, 2019 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Both science professors are astronomers. How do you think, does astronomy has a niche for such people and if so, why? (I remember also Fred Hoyle.)

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      Three individuals does not a pattern make.

      Engineers, however… Hooo boy.


  31. Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    FYI, the authors have been made aware of this post, and Adam Frank has tweeted:

    1) It means he can’t help but see everything in terms of the atheism vs religion debate a’la the early 2000s when that topic made news. I am an atheist (and I think both my co-authors of that piece would consider themselves ones too) so that’s not the point.

    2) We’re obviously not “diss-ing science” (as a practicing/passionate scientist why would I do that?). We are calling out those who mistakenly identify their metaphysical biases about science TO BE science. The point of the article was to articulate the form of those biases.

    No, being an atheist is not the point, cuz unfortunately, plenty of atheists hold semi-mystical views on consciousness.

    • Roo
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      That’s an interesting response, I just wish they would give a concrete example of what they’re talking about. In the soft sciences, I can think of examples wherein the fact that the conscious mind doing the experiment is also the conscious mind recording the results may have an unalterable effect. The placebo effect, for example – it’s hard to say what the impact of simply bringing a problem to one’s attention and focusing on it does for that problem (Now we have added sham treatment groups to double blind groups, but, it would be very difficult to add an ‘inattentive’ group to that mix. It’s like asking someone if they’re asleep – you can’t really ask someone if they’re inattentive to a given problem, because obviously this is self-refuting.) And the more the placebo effect is studied, the more it seems to have very real, very significant impacts. Another example would be illnesses that appear in one era and essentially disappear in another, like dancing mania. If (and I say if, because I don’t know the cause for sure,) there is at least some level of suggestibility / awareness of said illness involved in catching it (along with other factors,) then that awareness cannot be factored out when studying it. I’m sure there are examples in the hard sciences too with quantum physics. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples that I would either disagree with or consider wildly speculative. So I think they need more guideposts to outline what specifically they’re thinking.

      • Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I think their vagueness is a feature not a bug. Some people experience runaway wonderment that leads to rapture and wallowing in ‘Mystery’. It’s not uncommon among the religious, but in atheists is usually found among Sophisticated Philosophizers.

  32. Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the weakness of the article is at least partly due to it having three authors. It’s not hard to imagine early drafts containing stronger points that got removed later because all agreement wasn’t unanimous.

    That some of what scientists believe, and what science is based on, is actually not science but philosophy is a pretty weak observation, IMHO. It would be stranger if that were NOT true.

    • Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      The biggest weakness is those three authors would fit right in at Esalen.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 27, 2019 at 8:24 pm | Permalink


  33. Posted January 27, 2019 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    After reading “the Blind spot” i offer this,
    your experienced reality is not my experienced reality but if a door is closed, being polite, i will open it for you, cause like me, you sure as hell can’t walk through a closed one.
    That much of experience shared reality exists for both of us.
    Why we can’t walk through a closed door we can understand and talk about and science can explain it. We just don’t need to change the definition of science TO explain it.
    However, the experience of passing through that open door might have a completely different meaning (therefore subjective experience) for you as opposed to me.

  34. FB
    Posted January 27, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that the word “reason” is not used in the article. A useful omission if you are going to say things like “the contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific”.

  35. Rasmo Carenna
    Posted January 28, 2019 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    So, because we don’t know everything and we can never know absolutely everything through science, science is no better than any other thing through which we will never and can never know a thing.

  36. Posted January 28, 2019 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    It reminds me in a lot of ways of the medical woo practitioner’s on “Big pharma”.

    We know that “Big Pharma” has engaged in fraud before, we know it is untrustworthy, which is exactly why every nation on Earth has some from of drug regulation.

    And we know that the regulators aren’t perfect, that corruption happens and that they can’t redo every study that was written up by a PR person rather than the scientist named at its author.

    We know these are real problems.

    And the response from the woo merchants is – well bin the whole thing and go back to taking snake oil.

    Because if you’ve got the potential for error, you don’t do what you can to minimise the error, you declare the whole thing ‘theology’.

    • Posted January 28, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Which now has a good answer from the SBM folks:

      Flaws in aeronautical engineering does not entail that magic carpets will work!

  37. Posted January 28, 2019 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    If you’re going to diss science because it’s filtered through our consciousness, then every notion of the word “truth” goes out the window.

    This is an example what philosopher Stephen Law calls “going nuclear“.

    If you can’t trust what scientists tell you because it is filtered through your conscious, why stop there? It means you can’t trust any of your experiences including your religious and spiritual ones.

    If somebody makes that point, the argument is over because, while they have destroyed your position, they have also laid waste to their own.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 9:52 am | Permalink


  38. Posted February 1, 2019 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I frankly don’t remember hearing any scientists (at least, physicists) talking about First Causes — not eve first causes. Initial conditions, yes, but that’s different. As for the notion of time in physics, read Carlo Rovelli’s fascinating and challenging book The order of time. It seems that the basic equation of loop quantum gravity gives no special place to time. It’s just one more variable.

    • Posted February 1, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes! “First Cause” is unscientific. It’s a clear signature for the “cosmological argument” for the existence of God.

      And yes, re Rovelli. Although I was somewhat put off by the poetical style; I think I need to read it again to properly appreciate it.


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