God and Man at Cambridge

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The Old Faithful of H&R argument starters: religion vs. rationality. Freeman Dyson, legendary physicist, futurist, and developer of the Dyson Sphere, gives a believer's charitable dissent from Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon:

Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe. To understand religion, it is necessary to explore it from the inside, as William James explored it in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The testimony of saints and mystics, including the young lady at Sergiev Posad, is the raw material out of which a deeper understanding of religion may grow.

The sacred writings, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran and the Bible, tell us more about the essence of religion than any scientific study of religious organizations. The research that Dennett advocates, using only the scientific tool kit that was designed for a different purpose, will always miss the goal. We can all agree that religion is a natural phenomenon, but nature may include many more things than we can grasp with the methods of science.

So fight over that, yuh misshapen things!

Virginia Postrel interviews Esther Dyson, a chip off the old sphere.

Ron Bailey interviews Daniel Dennett.

A cool java applet catches a Type 1 Dyson Sphere (or "swarm") on the wing.

Special guest star James Doohan rides along as the Next Generations crew explores a Type 2 Dyson Sphere, and does disappointingly little with the concept.

Original tripmaster Ken Kesey believed scientists would never comprehend acid either unless they tried it themselves.

NEXT: At Least They Knocked

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  1. I’ll give kesey a point on that one.

  2. Well, James Dyson didn’t write much about theoretical constructs, but he did create a nifty vacuum cleaner.

  3. The testimony of saints and mystics, including the young lady at Sergiev Posad, is the raw material out of which a deeper understanding of religion may grow.

    Or they are the ravings of people with mental problems.

    Anyway, what is there to fight over exactly? Religious issues are ultimately beyond what I would call a “solveable debate.” That’s why religious beliefs generally boil down to emotional arguments, etc.

  4. Religious issues are ultimately beyond what I would call a “solveable debate.”

    How ya figure?

    If I told you there’s a man in the moon and there are Whos living in a spec of dust in your back yard, is that also beyond “solvable debate”? In other words, reason is incapacitated if only the claims I assert are wild enough.

    Or on second thought,

    …religious beliefs generally boil down to emotional arguments

    maybe that’s not what you meant. Reason and emotion are incapable of unseating one and other, so why bother trying.

    So does that end this thread, or what?

  5. I gota get more into this later cuz I wanna crash now. But Kudos to you, Tim for so intriguingly laying out the issues. Also, the swarm simulation is way captivating. The intro to this thread is an example of why Reason is so well thought of and receives the accolades that it does.

    I definitely find John Searle’s arguments the more compelling in the Searle-Dennett dialog on the nature of the mind and on what we can say about the nature of consciousness. But I’m anxious to get into the subject matter at hand and what Dyson and Dennett have to say.

    Off Topic-John Searle is my fave philosopher right now but I’m just starting to get into the works of Ian Hacking. Anyone else into him? OK, really wanna crash now.

    Smash the state.
    Capitalism is freedom.

    (Right now, that seems a swell way to end my every post. I might change my mind under morning’s revealing glow.)

  6. Oh yeah BTW, Reason has done stuff on John Searle.

    Smash the state
    Capitalism is freedom

  7. I think the conflict is false because there are so many places in the physical world that are unobservable.

    At the facile level there are unexplored places like the inside of black holes. Although I don’t particularly believe this, it is not hard to imagine Yahweh living in the Black Hole remotely charming the monkey to lie on a particular rock so that a particular ray will mutate a particular sperm cell in a particular way.

    At a slightly more abstract level there are all those extra dimensions string theory deposits. Science admits it doesn’t know how many. Last I heard it was 17 dimensions. That can’t be correct, tho because 17 is the least mystical number. Howevermany there are, we have no direct perception of these dimensions themselves and no idea of the mechanisms by which they interact with the dimensions we do see/hear/touch/taste/feel. There could be all kinds of soft control and/or teleology coming out of these unseen dimensions. Look at it this way: I have never even heard a convincing explanation of whether humans have any direct sense of the passage of time – and time is one of the observable dimensions. If we don’t even know this, how would we know whether the Koran or the Talmud is tapping into dimensions 6 to x or not.

    Then there is the problem of memory, which is huge in a moral sense. I don’t see how there can even be morality at all absent memory. Growing up, I always expected to hear a chemical or nuclear explanation of memory, something akin to the way DNA explains heredity or temperature sensitive molecular lattices explain the formation of ice. It never happened. Since science does not have any real understanding of the physics of memory, a likely place for God to live. I say likely because while we do not understand the physics of memory, we do know that some prety counterintuitive things happen (ie, we remember stuf) there.

    For both science and religion, it seems to me that the central problem is free will.

  8. should be:

    –posits–

    –5 to x–

  9. Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe.

    For give me for being the heartless, atheist, materialist, killjoy here, but what evidence exists that there is ANYTHING “spiritual” at all beyond tall tales spun in holy books, anecdotal arguments by the ignorant (e.g. “The Power Of Prayer,” and “The God Of The Gaps”), and out right fraud by the holy rollers of all faiths?

    …and “I just have a feeling that there is something greater than us out there,” or “there has to be some intelligent agency behind this ordered universe” doesn’t count. You can “feel” and “believe” until you’re blue in the face and that doesn’t change the fact that your devotions to a nonexistent entity are time and thought wasted.

    Please science, stay out of religion. Stay out of it before it takes us back to the days when humans thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, that the Earth is 6000 years old, and that if a woman weighs the same as a duck she’s made of wood and is therefore…

    (Wait for it…)

  10. if a woman weighs the same as a duck

    Why should I care about this woman, Akira? She is unemployed and likely to remain a drain on social services. There are plenty of other women. Even her genetic material is not that desirable or valuable. It only makes sense to kill her. Doing so would raise aggregate utility after all. Now you might argue that we should kill her in a painless way, but that costs more and from a materialist perspective it just doesn’t matter.

  11. What’s the debate? Some people aren’t particularly suited for the tools of science and some aren’t particularly suited for religion.

    It’s not about which tools are superior, it’s about some of us thinking we should choose what tools best suit others in the quest for meaning.

    A worldview created in our own (self) image…

  12. Imagine how many Starbucks you could fit on the inner surface of a Dyson Sphere…

  13. Thank you:

    All you have posited – however elegantly – are unexplained phenomenon. You have not shown them to be unexplainable. Science and reason will get around to them eventually.

    As for the supernatural, I’ve chosen Casper as deity, after all he is the friendliest ghost.

  14. Imagine how many Starbucks you could fit on the inner surface of a Dyson Sphere…

    And every single one of those Starbucks could have another Starbucks in the bathroom!

    And since the filter isn’t working, I should say that a lot of us physicists don’t consider string theory to be science, at least not yet. String theory shows the potential to some day be science, but it isn’t there yet and may never reach that stage. Hence some of us wonder why the hell string theorists get to call themselves physicists.

    I’m sure this is all my fault somehow.

  15. you have to take a tryptamine experience to understand what religion is.
    basically, religion is the exploration of altered states of consciousness that define reality above and beyond consensus waking consciousness.

  16. I think we’re talking something on the order of a hundred trillion Starbucks:

    The surface area of a sphere of radius r is 4(pi)r^2. The area of a circle of radius r is (pi)r^2. The interior surface area of a Dyson sphere with a radius of 150 million km (the Earth-Sun distance) is 4 x 3.14 x (150 x 10^6)^2 or 2.83 x 10^17 km^2 (283,000 trillion km^2). The cross-sectional area of a sphere the size of Earth (equatorial radius 6,378 km) is 3.14 x (6.38 x 10^3)^2 or 1.28 x 10^8 km^2 (128 million km^2). Hence, the amount of solar radiation captured is greater in the case of the Dyson sphere by a factor of (2.83 x 10^17)/(1.28 x 10^8) or 2.2 billion. The interior surface area of the Dyson sphere exceeds the total surface area of Earth by a factor of just over half a billion.

    –From The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight.

    Do I have to stop reading Reason if I say I’m not a big Esther Dyson fan? I like the old man, but he came up with Dyson spheres. That’s just too cool. I’m building one right now, in fact.

  17. “The sacred writings, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran and the Bible, tell us more about the essence of religion than any scientific study of religious organizations.”

    Good books…those. But I’m trying to understand something. Why the fuck should anyone not be able to throw out three random titles and say something like “These three books gave me enough insight into the human condition to sustain me yadayada…”

    Maybe I just need my morning coffee, but religion should be smacked down to the size of any other sort of tick or hobby. I am in total agreement with PL. Most of the records of “visions” that have come down to us were those of people who were raving and afflicted in some way.

    We indulge the religious far too much in this day and age. I’m not denying that there are patterns, concidences, energies, or mysteries that no one can explain, but enough on the whole Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita crap. Give me Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll get by just fine.

  18. You have not shown them to be unexplainable. Science and reason will get around to them eventually.

    I agree with this. I don’t think it contradicts anything in my post. I think there is a false dichotomy between science and religion.

    Another false dichotomy is the one we draw between things that might be inside of black holes or the 11th dimension and things that are “supernatural.” When most people use the word “supernatural” they would logically be using the word in a way broad enough to include the putative Yahweh of the black hole. When the science side of the debate counters that the putative Yahweh inside the black hole would be physical and not technically be “supernatural” they are making an observation that is more jesuitical than helpful.

  19. And since the filter isn’t working, I should say that a lot of us physicists don’t consider string theory to be science, at least not yet. String theory shows the potential to some day be science, but it isn’t there yet and may never reach that stage. Hence some of us wonder why the hell string theorists get to call themselves physicists.

    1. Does that help with the filter? Wasn’t trying to evade that, honest injun.

    2. Good point, but just because string theory may be wrong doesn’t mean that all those extra unperceivable dimensions don’t exist. For present purrposes it is those putative unperceivable definitions that are the thing, not the mechanism of the strings. As long as the ultimate nature of matter is unexplained, there is a posibility, strong as not I’d think, that those dimensions are out there.

  20. If there is an interventionist God, the problem of how do you share someone else’s religious experience remains. God may really come down and speak to me, but whether you believe me or not when I tell you about it is another thing altogether. Let’s say I’m just this really honest, rational guy, and you and ten million screaming, scantily clad twenty-something girls decide that I really did speak to God and am delivering his message, well, what about people who don’t know me? What about 100 years after I’m gone?

    The various religions have one thing going for them. At some point, someone either had or made up a religious experience. There’s something that all of this faith is being based on, even if it’s just a fiction. So believing in Jesus or Mohammad isn’t necessarily the same as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I know that the latter was made up. I can only suspect that the other two were.

    Personally, I think theists are on the safest ground when they talk about creation and purely metaphysical matters. Getting into specifics about reality–especially without proof or with ideas that run counter to observable facts–is a real problem. I, on the other hand, really did just speak to God, and he said that I am entitled to twenty million screaming, scantily clad twenty-something girls. Ah, the rewards of clean living. . . .

  21. The Old Faithful of H&R argument starters: religion vs. rationality.

    It’s always nice to see the argument kicked off with a pejorative phrasing.

  22. D.A. Ridgely,

    But what happens when we don’t perform like Pavlovian dogs? ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. Let’s say I’m just this really honest, rational guy, and you and ten million screaming, scantily clad twenty-something girls decide that I really did speak to God and am delivering his message, well, what about people who don’t know me? What about 100 years after I’m gone?

    That is why religion is organized and institutional.

    It seems nice to have a loosey-goosey individualistic spirituality in that you can disclaim the hypocritical things organized religions have done thruout the ages. Problem is that that throws out the baby with the bathwater.

  24. Dave W.,

    It seems to me that the utility of a religion should be left up to the individual, and that a one size fits all approach has consistently broken down over time.

  25. Pro Libertate,

    What about 100 years after I’m gone?

    You know, Paul, who supposedly had a direct connection with God, emphasized (when he was writing letters to his contemporaries) that God was returning soon. By the time that Augustine became a Christian he realized that such eschatological musings hadn’t come to pass and that Christianity needed a way of living in the world over the long term. And thus we have his work on the topic. Anyway, its a common problem across religions.

  26. Although it may be a great catalyst for conversation and debate, the question of “religion vs. rationality” is meaningless unless you’re taking a poll on which of these two people happen to prefer. The question only becomes meaningful and useful when it is put in some sort of context. For example, “Is religion or rationality better for curing disease?” or ” Religion or rationality: which is better as a fundamental guding principle for living?”

    Merely putting up “religion vs. Rationality” out there as a topic for discussion only provokes Pavlovian, knee jerk responses that essentially boil down to “I’m right and you’re stupid.” No, I’m right and YOU’RE stupid.”

    How enlightening….

  27. Phileleutherus Lipsiensis,

    Precisely. It’s no coincidence that the Protestant Reformation came about at the same time as the humanism of the Renaissance was morphing into the rationalism and pro-individualism of the Enlightenment. People rejected the mediated access to God in favor of direct access. Which makes a whole lot more sense, even if you are a hardcore Christian. Even if Christ was truly some divine being, the idea that the Church had preserved and was promoting his basic message is laughable. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention fish on Fridays, for instance. Or killing people in his name.

  28. It seems to me that the utility of a religion should be left up to the individual, and that a one size fits all approach has consistently broken down over time.

    well, individual choice versus no individual choice is another one of those false dichotomies. The original PL mentioned religion with complete and comprehensive individual choice, and this would be a pole on the spectrum of possible religions. There are quite a few people who follow this route. It is subject to the potential problems that the original PL mentioned.

    At the other poll, there is the religion of a Catholic monk, one of those monks where every single aspect of life is controlled by the religion, so much so that the monk doesn’t even speak. That is pretty extreme, but there are people who displace individual choice with organized religion to this extent.

    Most of us fall somewhere in between. There are religions that fall near the individual choice poll like Unitarians — they, from what I understand, don’t try to make too many of your choices about god(s), but they do try to encourage people to get together and be spiritual together from time to time. that is an institutional value, but not a real rigorous one.

    On the other end of the spectrum there are Mormons. That religion makes a lot of choices for you, but you still get to decide which city in Utah you want to settle in after you get back from Japan.

    Most religions are somewhere in between. Even as a practicing Catholic I get to choose who I vote for, where I live, and (most importantly to me) the extent to which I think government should intrude on our private lives. I also get to choose how evangelical I want to be, and the form my evangelism might take. As you can see from this thread, my particular brand of evangelism is curbing the excesses of science, rather than dragging them to High Mass. Still, if I see someone chowing down on a dog, I call’em on it. That is my religion talking and it is pretty firm on some issues. It is important to note that these choices I retain and excercise within the theological framework of my Catholicism allows me to feel a distance from egregious Church hypocrises, most especially those that occurred many generations before I was bo…, err conceived.

  29. that these choices I retain and excercise

    because I believe that what happens in this world is important and relevant to what happens in the afterlife, I don’t think I could ever buy into any conception of religion that makes too many choices for you. If you are not making the choices, then how is it fair that your everlasting fate hinges upon them?

    This sometimes puts me at odds with other Catholics, such as certain Catholics in my family.

  30. Dave W.,

    Nothing you wrote undermines what I wrote.

  31. Nothing you wrote undermines what I wrote.

    In fact the part I wrote about the importance of choice vis a vis how long you spend in Purgatory strongly supports what you said.

    Without bad religous choices remaining open and practical, there would be only athiests in Hell. The Devil don’t want that!

  32. thoreau,

    One day, when we finally observe a cosmic string floating daintily through space, you’ll be proved wrong. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    As a member of the physics-based community, you can probably gauge better than I the degree to which string theory predominates in such circles. But I suspect that Brian Greene’s popularizations of string theory — which are always front and center at my local B&N — are a big part of the reason it has legs in the wider culture.

  33. L’enfer c’est les autres.

  34. Pro Libertate,

    Sometimes I wonder if people realize the true ramifications of the Reformation and the flowering of religious diversity that sprang from it and the false starts that came before it.

  35. The Reformation is over? ๐Ÿ™‚

  36. crimethink-

    I don’t know that there’s a strong contingent of physicists willing to kick string theorists out of the department. That would never fly. And the issue that they work on, quantum gravity, is certainly the sort of issue that can fit quite nicely into physics. The problem is that some of the solutions now being floated seem to be far far far from physics. So if you get some people alone and put a few beers into them you can get them to admit to having doubts about string theory.

    There are 2 reasons why string theory might not be real physics:

    1) The so-so reason: How the hell will this ever be tested? It seems very difficult to test. Of course, there’s a big difference between something that is almost impossible in practice and something that is truly impossible even in principle. The former category can remain in science, although the people in the field had damn well better come up with something clever that makes their theory more testable.

    2) The good reason: Some of them are starting to throw up their hands and surrender any illusion of testability. I only read the articles suited for physicists who aren’t string theorists (i.e. they write it in my language, which is simpler than their language but still more mathematical than ordinary English), but the basic idea seems to be that there are “too many” versions of string theory. So rather than try to find a way to do an experiment, they are predicting that there are actually many different universes, each following a slightly different version of string theory. In the beginning these universes were all joined, and then they flew apart. And the universes can no longer exchange matter, energy, or information.

    Pretty trippy, huh? These ideas are called “The Landscape”, and I don’t know how popular they are among string theorists, but a few of the more famous ones whose articles are accepted by major scientific publications seem to like it. It’s probably a little more scientific than I made it out to be, but as far as I can tell that’s the gist of it.

    The people working on that idea seem to spend their time trying to figure out the properties of this collection of distinct universes, rather than trying to figure out how quantum gravity works in this particular universe. They say that our universe is the way it is simply by chance: Out of this huge collection of universes, one of them would have these properties.

    OK, that’s great, but what are the properties of this universe? How does gravity behave on short length and time scales? As far as I can tell, some of them are giving up on that question because it can’t be easily deduced from any simple requirements about conservation laws or symmetry. In principle, of course, it could be answered with a really good experiment, but we’re nowhere near that.

    So, as far as I can tell, there’s a community of string theorists who recognize that they have no data, so they’re giving up on anything that could be constrained by data.

    I don’t know enough to say that they speak for all string theorists, but some of the leaders in the field (or at least the ones on friendly terms with journal editors) seem to be embarking on that weird path. I’m sure that there are lots of other string theorists trying to make predictions that are (at least in principle) testable. I don’t want to impugn the entire field, but it would be good if some of them publicly denounced the “Landscape” guys. Their ideas are ultimately a surrender, and not the good kind of surrender where you find a different problem to work on.

  37. crimethink-

    I don’t know that there’s a strong contingent of physicists willing to kick string theorists out of the department. That would never fly. And the issue that they work on, quantum gravity, is certainly the sort of issue that can fit quite nicely into physics. The problem is that some of the solutions now being floated seem to be far far far from physics. So if you get some people alone and put a few beers into them you can get them to admit to having doubts about string theory.

    There are 2 reasons why string theory might not be real physics:

    1) The so-so reason: How the hell will this ever be tested? It seems very difficult to test. Of course, there’s a big difference between something that is almost impossible in practice and something that is truly impossible even in principle. The former category can remain in science, although the people in the field had damn well better come up with something clever that makes their theory more testable.

    2) The good reason: Some of them are starting to throw up their hands and surrender any illusion of testability. I only read the articles suited for physicists who aren’t string theorists (i.e. they write it in my language, which is simpler than their language but still more mathematical than ordinary English), but the basic idea seems to be that there are “too many” versions of string theory. So rather than try to find a way to do an experiment, they are predicting that there are actually many different universes, each following a slightly different version of string theory. In the beginning these universes were all joined, and then they flew apart. And the universes can no longer exchange matter, energy, or information.

    Pretty trippy, huh? These ideas are called “The Landscape”, and I don’t know how popular they are among string theorists, but a few of the more famous ones whose articles are accepted by major scientific publications seem to like it. It’s probably a little more scientific than I made it out to be, but as far as I can tell that’s the gist of it.

    The people working on that idea seem to spend their time trying to figure out the properties of this collection of distinct universes, rather than trying to figure out how quantum gravity works in this particular universe. They say that our universe is the way it is simply by chance: Out of this huge collection of universes, one of them would have these properties.

    OK, that’s great, but what are the properties of this universe? How does gravity behave on short length and time scales? As far as I can tell, some of them are giving up on that question because it can’t be easily deduced from any simple requirements about conservation laws or symmetry. In principle, of course, it could be answered with a really good experiment, but we’re nowhere near that.

    So, as far as I can tell, there’s a community of string theorists who recognize that they have no data, so they’re giving up on anything that could be constrained by data.

    I don’t know enough to say that they speak for all string theorists, but some of the leaders in the field (or at least the ones on friendly terms with journal editors) seem to be embarking on that weird path. I’m sure that there are lots of other string theorists trying to make predictions that are (at least in principle) testable. I don’t want to impugn the entire field, but it would be good if some of them publicly denounced the “Landscape” guys. Their ideas are ultimately a surrender, and not the good kind of surrender where you find a different problem to work on.

  38. It’s funny, thoreau, about halfway through The Elegant Universe I started thinking, “Wow, this is really cool, but is it falsifiable*?” A more rigorous scientist would probably have thought that on page 1, but chances are — given the appalling scientific illiteracy prevalent today — that most people would never have the thought cross their minds. Aesthetic appeal is a powerful thing — it is what enables New Age ideas (as well as ID) to masquerade as science.

    * To his credit, Greene deals with this problem in the later chapters, but presents only means by which string theory could be verified, not falsified.

  39. The Dyson Sphere is pretty neat, but I was forced to read some of Dyson’s crazier futurist musings in a Philosophy of Science class once and that really put me off. I forget which book it was, but the whole “genetically engineer trees to make fuel and then we can live among the trees in some sort of hippie commune” thing really put me off.

  40. If a student came to me and said that he or she wanted to study quantum gravity, I would have one piece of advice:

    Loop Quantum Gravity.

    It suffers the same defect as string theory in that it’s very hard to test, but as far as I know it hasn’t ventured off into the territory of “Well, what if this whole universe is, like, one of a whole bunch of universes, but you don’t know they’re there, but they are man, and they like used to be joined and now we’re just in this one because it was guaranteed that one of them would be like this? Far out, man!”

    Maybe it’s because their theory is already marginalized, so that forces them to stay honest if they ever want to get any R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

    Then again, maybe they do have their wackos, but the community is so tiny that the wackos get little attention.

  41. crimethink-

    There is some reason to believe that certain versions of the Landscape scenario could be verified. Maybe before the universes were sundered there was some event that left its signature, and you can find it buried amidst the cosmic microwave background or whatever.

    But falsified? I doubt it.

    As to string theory in a narrower sense, i.e. the laws governing the interaction of subatomic particles on short length scales, in principle it is very falsifiable. Do an experiment that collides particles at very high energies and see what comes out. If the data doesn’t match the predictions of string theory then string theory is wrong.

    Good luck getting to those energies, of course. Still, at least the narrower sense of string theory is falsifiable, and I wish the people in that field the best of luck.

  42. Pro Libertate,

    It probably depends on which scholar you talk to. ๐Ÿ™‚

  43. Falsification is totally overrated, don’t you know that Popper is dead, thoreau? Science is just a social construct, ask Thomas Khun!

  44. Timothy-

    Falsification is the crux of science. If I can’t go to a fellow geek and say “No! You’re wrong!” then what’s the point?

  45. I agree with you, thoreau, but tell that to the Philosophers of Science getting all Khun on people’s asses.

  46. Timothy,

    You are trading more on some of the potential implications of Kuhn’s work than on what Kuhn actually wrote.

  47. A spectre is haunting Science – the spectre of Positivism.

  48. Timothy-

    So, what you’re saying is that those philosophers of science have the same geeky personality as scientists. They want to be able to go up to a scientist and say “No! You’re wrong!” Only they want to say it every time a scientist says “Yes! I’m right!” whereas I only want to do it when a guy in my field says something that contradicts my work.

    Sounds to me like they’re even more into falsification than the scientists.

  49. If string theory stumbles into a useful means of dealing with quantum gravity, then I’m all for it. But I think a more elegant solution is out there, without all of the convoluted math.

    String theory is becoming almost the metaphysics of physics (forgive my butchery of English), with too little connection to the real world to make it useful. It’s almost like science is returning to its philosophical roots–string theory is positively Platonic in some respects. Still, it ain’t science if it isn’t falsifiable, doesn’t make predictions, or isn’t even friggin’ useful. To be fair, though, the theory is still relatively young, so maybe we’ll get to the stage where experiments can be used to test predictions made by the theory.

    If we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich. If we had some bread.

  50. Phil L: Yes, that’s the fun of hyperbole. Khun did say that he wasn’t all that impressed with Khunians.

  51. they are predicting that there are actually many different universes, each following a slightly different version of string theory. In the beginning these universes were all joined, and then they flew apart. And the universes can no longer exchange matter, energy, or information.

    I’m not sure if it’s the same version of the theory, but in the Nova special on TEU, there was speculation that our universe can be thought of as a membrane, which is stacked with other universes in a structure resembling a sliced loaf of bread. Then, they posited that Big Bang-type events could be caused by membranes bumping into each other, and if this were true, it would explain the beginning of the universe via string theory.

    Aside from the fact that such a theory is pretty far out there, it also doesn’t explain where the loaf of bread came from, where our slice came from, or why the membranes are moving. Ultimately, I think any purely scientific theory that attempts to explain the beginning is going to run aground on the same problem, the First Cause problem that Aquinas recognized before the dawn of modern science.

    And yes, I know that David Hume demonstrated that causality is not as solid and coherent an idea as we would like, but if we applied that argument in practice, it would undercut the very basis of science as well — without causation there can be no science. Essentially, science cannot co-exist with a universe capable of being explained purely by science.

  52. Of course it is probably the case that Popper and Kuhn were both right, and both wrong. Of course in some ways they were interested in different things; Popper seems more concerned with how science “ought” to work, whereas Kuhn seems more interested in “how” it works. From my POV, the latter of these is the more interesting question.

  53. thoreau: Heh, that’s what I said. The thing that’s interesting to me about Philosophy of Science is that they spend so much time saying this or that or the other thing about science and claim to have “proven” this point or the other…but without any quantifiable data. So much mental wanking, so little solving problems. It’s a lot like the internet, only people get tenure for it.

  54. crimethink-

    I think science will probably always fall short on the questions “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why does this something obey the laws that it obeys rather than some other laws?”

    However, science can do an excellent job on trying to figure out what this something (i.e. universe and the matter therein) has been up to for the past 13 billion years or so, and what the rules are that have governed its behavior during those 13 billion years.

    The problem is when they give up on those rather focused questions and assume that the answers are “Um, well, because, there’s, like, this landscape of other universes, and you can’t detect it but it’s there in a parallel dimension and it’s the reason why”. They might as well say “God said so.” It would be just as unscientific, and get us no closer to answering the very empirical questions confronting string theory and cosmology. But it would require far less math to understand, and without the math obfuscating everything it would become obvious that a handful of string theorists have abandoned science.

  55. Like WHOOOOOAAAAAA, man!

  56. Timothy,

    That hasn’t been my general experience with the philosophy of science.

  57. And before known Aquinas-hater Phil Lip chimes in, yes, I agree that Aquinas begged the question a bit when he assumed that the First Cause was God. I’m aiming a lot lower than Aquinas in this case, I merely argue that the First Cause is something unexplainable by science.

    It is strange that Aquinas is noted for his proofs of the existence of God, when he later wrote that the role of the theologian is not to prove that matters of faith are true, but to prove that they are not absurd. It is the latter that I aspire to in my dealings here.

  58. crimethink,

    Aquinas-hater, eh?

    Knocking for him for his views on heretics makes me an Aquinas-hater apparently.

    …I merely argue that the First Cause is something unexplainable by science.

    It is a fairly pointless argument really.

  59. I think science will probably always fall short on the questions “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Why does this something obey the laws that it obeys rather than some other laws?”

    To a large extent I think those are unimportant questions. I can understand why people desire an answer to the first: it’s comforting to feel like one understands the why of the universe. Hence religion, mystics, cults, etc. Call me intellecually uncurious if you want, but I don’t particularly care about the why of the universe because I don’t think there’s a way to answer it. And I think what laws the unviverse follows is much more important than why it follows those laws, but the questions may often be connected.

    Phil L: I can more or less agree with that, although I probably find the “ought” a bit more interesting. I’m willing to accept the “revolutions” framework in terms of majority thinking but I think there is a march toward Truth, which I’m not exactly sure Khun would agree with or thought existed in the first place.

  60. Phil L: Maybe I just got a bad first impression, entirely possible.

  61. Anyway, two of Aquinas’ biggest problems from the standpoint of cosmology was his reliance of Aristotle’s theory of motion and the teleology of his argument from design. If he was trying to avoid absurdities he did a piss poor job of it from the cosmological perspective.

  62. Phil Lip,

    In a previous incarnation, you also accused Aquinas of being a compulsive question-begger.

    I also seem to recall you saying something about his mother, but that might have been someone else. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  63. I don’t think philosophers of science are particularly eager to tell a scientist “No! You’re wrong!” insofar as that scientist is doing science. They are more interested in understanding the conceptual framework underlying the practice of science. That includes asking what science is and what it is good for and what it isn’t and isn’t good for and it therefore raises the sort of issues you were discussing about string theory but it also goes to more general concerns about the intellectual foundation of induction, causality, verification and falsifiability, etc. Though I’m no big fan of Khun, I think it fair to state that his famous “paradigm shift” meme has been misused almost as much as, say, Einstein’s concept of relativity has been.

    By the way, the origin of the term “metaphysics” is interesting. As I recall, it supposedly was coined by Andronicus of Rhodes, the First Century B.C. editor of Aristotle’s collected works. He placed works by Aristotle which Aristotle variously described as “first philosophy” and “the study of being qua being” (and which we may assume Andronicus didn’t understand very well) immediately after Aristotle’s work on Physics. Since “meta” just means “after,” it’s original meaning may simply have been “the book in this collection after the one on physics.”

  64. I think scientists should simply seize power, create a Council of Science, and rule the world with an iron fist. With cool tattoos identifying them.

    Official slogan? “Back off, man, I’m a scientist”, of course.

  65. Timothy,

    I see it as a winding path, full of boulders, false paths, etc. that often comes upon provisional truth, but not always.

  66. crimethink,

    Aquinas was a good synthesizer. He did engage in a lot of question-begging. I don’t know anything about his mother.

    Pro Libertate,

    Is you real name Walter Lippmann? ๐Ÿ™‚

  67. D.A. Ridgely,

    I think some scientists get offended when they become the object of study (as opposed to quasars, fault lines or cells).

  68. D. A. Ridgely-

    Long, long ago I read Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. I no longer remember much of it, but I remember finding it rather unobjectionable. I agreed that sometimes it takes us a hell of a long time to realize that the old idea simply won’t work no matter how much we try to mutate it, and instead we must come up with a new explanation.

    I read this back in the 1990’s, back when many scientists felt that the greatest threat facing our profession came from the Sociology Department on campus. Today, of course, we feel that the greatest threat facing our profession comes from Michael Behe and Bill Dembski. Anyway, back then I kept hearing people say that you simply can’t trust science because it’s all relative, man, and Kuhn proved it. So I read Kuhn and found it rather insightful, interesting, and non-threatening.

    Maybe he followed it up with more radical stuff, but what little I recall of the book I file away under “Good Things to Keep in Mind.”

  69. Freeman Dyson, is a milquetoast English mama’s boy. His greatest contribution to mankind was done in his youth when he played apostle to a far superior mind, one Richard P Feynman. Dyson possesses an exceptionally educated mind, and one with visionary aspirations. Unfortunately, he is also a captive of the mythology he was spoon-fed as a boy, as is expressed in this post. This harness on his mind has kept his original work to rising no higher than “flights of fancy”.

  70. DA Ridgely,

    Once again proving that editors are the spawn of Satan.

    Not including Tim Cavanaugh, of course. Whatever Unborn Angel whispers in my mind in the long watches of the night. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  71. P.L.

    No doubt, and Pope’s famous claim about the proper study of mankind aside. But philosophers of science don’t study scientists, per se. That’s the job of social — dare I say it? — scientists. For that matter, I suspect philosophers get equally offended when scientists offer their, um, philosophical opinions as though training in science alone sufficed to answer decidedly non-scientific questions.

  72. Special guest star James Doohan rides along as the Next Generations crew explores a Type 2 Dyson Sphere, and does disappointingly little with the concept.

    Minghia, it’s a 48-minute long show, what did you expect? Plus, you can’t let a little thing like discovering a Dyson sphere overshadow Scotty’s mid-life crisis.

  73. Still, it ain’t science if it isn’t falsifiable, doesn’t make predictions, or isn’t even friggin’ useful.

    It is intensely useful because it is a constant reminder to scientists that they don’t know everything and probably never will.

    Know and respect what you do not know. Easy to say, hard to live. Go string theorists and quantum gravitationists!

  74. D.A. Ridgely,

    I think it is hard to differentiate what sociologists and philosophers do when they study, etc. science. Thus I don’t do it.

    For that matter, I suspect philosophers get equally offended when scientists offer their, um, philosophical opinions as though training in science alone sufficed to answer decidedly non-scientific questions.

    In some ways it is the worst sort of training available to deal with philosophical issues (though of course, as the career of Kuhn demonstrates, it can also be a very useful background to have.

  75. Dave, we hardly need string theory to tell us that we don’t know everything.

  76. Know and respect what you do not know. Easy to say, hard to live.

    If that’s your philosophy, why do you keep prodding Reason writers about filing FOIA requests?

  77. thoreau:

    I’d say your reading of Kuhn is about right (read: “agrees with mine”). Kuhn’s influence, on the other hand, on a great deal of relativist and postmodern — why mince words? — claptrap is another matter. Still, one can’t blame the man for that.

  78. Kuhn, like most people with an interesting idea, is a victim of fools who want to take the idea ten steps past rationality. I’ve seen his name invoked to support nutty theories, because, you know, nutty theories are always called nutty before that old paradigm shifts. The mere fact of being nutty is all the credibility you need, you see.

    Phileleutherus Lipsiensis,

    Lippmann by way of Asimov, to be honest. I was making a Lucky Starr joke. Though you’re right–Lippmann would’ve been just peachy with my technocratic state.

  79. D.A. Ridgely,

    Is all post-modernism clap-trap (IYHO)? The majority of it? A minority?

  80. thoreau and DA:

    Agree on Kuhn. Kuhn is misapplied to show that, like its all BS, man, in the same way that quantum mechanics has been coopted by idiots trying to prove hindu metaphysics.

    Concerning the philosophy of science and its relationship with science in practice, what bothers me is the smugness with which some in the philosophy of science community dismiss accurate predictions derived from the scientific method.

    Yes, yes, no one can prove that the world in itself functions that way. Yes, yes, induction from experimental cases contains some big assumptions. Just out of curiosity, Mr. Philosopher of Science, on which of your theories would you place the lives of hundreds of thousands of air travellers each year?

    The philosophy of science is important to remind us what the structure of the scientific method implies. I just wish that the philosophy of science were appropriately informed by the phenomenal successes of the methodology. There does seem to be something to induction along these lines, shouldn’t you devote some ink as to why that might be the case instead of pointing it out as a flaw all the time?

  81. Is all post-modernism clap-trap (IYHO)? The majority of it? A minority?

    Well, I haven’t read it all. [smile]

    A bit more seriously: I suspect, if only on the basis of provisional trust in those I respect who have read much more than I have, that there is some good stuff buried under the jargon. That said, I would have to say based on my own exposure to most post-modern writing that I now approach such stuff with a very strong but admittedly rebuttable presumption that it will be claptrap.

  82. I have a pin here as well, and would appreciate it if you reasonable fellows could count all my employees dancing on the tip here…

  83. “Know and respect what you do not know. Easy to say, hard to live.”

    Next time you feel the need to pontificate on anything firearms related, I’m going to rub your nose in that quote.

  84. D.A. Ridgely,

    That said, I would have to say based on my own exposure to most post-modern writing that I now approach such stuff with a very strong but admittedly rebuttable presumption that it will be claptrap.

    Well, first I find the term to be rather problematic partly because it allows both adherants and critics to assume that post-modernism is something new under the sun. That’s not the case (as is obvious from the writings of such classical figures as Carneades, etc.).

    Second, I think people need to differentiate between what say (for example) Foucault has written (and he’d clobber me over the head for associating him with post-modernism, but so be it), and what others have written in the name of Foucault. To be frank, there is a lot of stuff in Foucault’s writings that libertarians should agree with; including his critique of the coercive nature of the state re: “deviant” behavior.

    Third, I think a lot of people confuse the corpus of Derrida with post-modernism, and thus write it off based on such works as Of Grammatology.

  85. D.A. Ridgely,

    And when I write “a lot people” and like phrases I’m not really referring to you individually.

  86. to know god you must know religious ecstacy
    TO KNOW RELIGIOUS ECSTACY, you must experience the TRYPTAMINE RUSH.

  87. Know and respect what you do not know. Easy to say, hard to live.

    If that’s your philosophy, why do you keep prodding Reason writers about filing FOIA requests?

    BTTT

  88. Bump to the top of what?

  89. PL Secundae,

    I think he means Back To The Thread.

  90. but that’s the thing

  91. You are all so dead.

  92. The One True God,

    No, that can’t be right. “You are all so dead” spells YAASD. That doesn’t even share one letter with BTTT. Jeez, don’t you know anything?

  93. Comment by: The One True God at June 21, 2006 02:08 PM

    Richard Feynman walks among us!

  94. thoreau, did you ever see that Matthew Broderick movie on Feynman? I saw a bit of it, but I never caught the whole thing. I got the impression it focused more on Los Alamos and his first wife (who died of TB) than on his later, ahem, exploits. An interesting and brilliant guy. I’ve got a few of his books.

  95. Yep, it’s mostly about Los Alamos and his first wife. Nothing about his nude paintings.

    I once went to a lecture by a scientist who supposedly posed nude for him. I didn’t dare ask, however.

  96. He was quite a character. I liked his safecracking stories. Impressive, but Feynman was too intellectually honest to leave people with the impression that he wasn’t cheating somehow.

    I think, other than working your butt off, the one real secret to genius is a lust for knowledge. Not to downplay natural smarts, but I think the love of learning is a big part of the puzzle. Feynman had that in spades and was willing to learn about almost anything.

  97. Why should I care about this woman, Akira? She is unemployed and likely to remain a drain on social services. There are plenty of other women. Even her genetic material is not that desirable or valuable. It only makes sense to kill her. Doing so would raise aggregate utility after all. Now you might argue that we should kill her in a painless way, but that costs more and from a materialist perspective it just doesn’t matter.

    Again with the the “you-need-a-God-to-be-morality-or-to-give-life -‘meaning'” strawman, huh Dave? It’s so nice to know that you hold human beings in such small regard that you need a imaginary, celestial, tyrant, to keep everyone in line. It’s obvious that we Homo sapiens are far too stupid and beastly to come up with a system of morality and ethics on our own. Of course, as believers, you and your ilk are far better suited to guide humanity in the instruction of “right” and “wrong.” Of course, it we don’t obey… well, you can always bring back thumbscrew and the Rack, right?

    Who’s the REAL moral cripple here? The atheist who can figure out what’s best for themselves on their own, or the believer who thinks we all need divine supervision?

  98. I think trying to slip the nihilist loop around the neck of atheists is rather bizarre.

  99. You have not shown them to be unexplainable. Science and reason will get around to them eventually.

    Ah, I love the smell of hubris in the morning.

    And we know who your god is, made in your image.

  100. The research that Dennett advocates, using only the scientific tool kit that was designed for a different purpose, will always miss the goal.

    How many comments have I read about whether religion is desirable? To a believer, this is like asking a scientist whether the laws of physics are desirable. …a question that would seem to miss the point–the point being what the laws of physics are.

  101. there is but one god
    and he is the sun god

    RA!
    RA!
    RA!

  102. I think trying to slip the nihilist loop around the neck of atheists is rather bizarre.

    I don’t know. What religion was Mao? He wracked up the highest bodycount, if that is any indication.

    Or were you referring to something else — thd not clear.

  103. Dave W.,

    A body count does not make one a nihilist by default. If anything, Mao was an ardent believer in set of moral beliefs (e.g., those associated with communism). Similarly the Nazis were ardent believers in a set of moral beliefs. Heck, even though Lenin was partly inspired by Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (a tract which was part of the Russian nihilist movement) doesn’t mean that he was a nihilist; he too had a definite moral system. In fact, why would a nihilist care about creating a “perfect” society in the first place? Of course we find the values of Mao, Nazism to be repugnant, etc., but that doesn’t mean that they were based on a nihilistic viewpoint. Indeed, all of these were based on moral systems and viewpoints which can be easily identified (as well as criticized). Of course it might make their activities easier to swallow if we view them as nihilists, but they clearly did embrace a particular moral system – which is the exact opposite of nihilism.

    See:

    Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience

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