More dreadful accommodationism at HuffPo

December 23, 2012 • 10:44 am

This is one of the worst arguments for science/faith compatibility I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of dreadful arguments. It’s by Dave Pruett, described as “a former NASA researcher, is an acclaimed computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU)”.  (Note that James Madison is also the academic home of Jason Rosenhouse, and I wonder what Jason thinks of his colleague.) Pruett is also author of a new accommodationist book, Reason and Wonder; checking the contents, I find that I can’t bear to read it. Life is short.

Here is Pruett’s argument for the upcoming Grand Unification of Science and Faith. Note that it appears in the “Science” section!

1. We don’t understand consciousness, ergo Jesus.

The central challenge facing 21st-century science is understanding the human mind. That science finds itself confronting the question of consciousness comes unexpectedly. First, mind appears to be resolutely immaterial; science can’t poke it with a metaphorical finger as Erin intuited. Second, mind as a domain of inquiry has been off-limits to science since Descartes.

There are in actuality two problems of consciousness: the “easy” problem and the “hard” one. The first concerns how sensory perception correlates with neural activity. Twenty-first century imaging techniques allow modern Magellans — cartographers of the neural realm — to map brain function at a submicron level of resolution. Progress is rapid, and it is virtually certain that the “easy” problem will be fully resolved.

The “hard” problem is altogether something else. In a nutshell: “Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world.” How do physical stimuli generate subjective experience? Humans perceive light at a wavelength of 700 nanometers as red; we haven’t a clue why red. The mind is not a tabula rasa, the titan of philosophy Immanuel Kant concluded. Uninterpreted sensory input is useless, “less than a dream,” said Kant. In today’s lingo, uninterpreted sensation is noise devoid of music, pixels devoid of image or caresses devoid of care. Mind and brain are not synonyms.

Cats are almost certainly conscious too—does that imply God?

Just because a problem is hard doesn’t mean that it’s insoluble using naturalistic methods, and certainly doesn’t mean that God is the default solution.  Everything we’re learning about the brain and mind show that the mind is an emanation of the brain; to paraphrase an old adage, the brain secretes mind the way glands secrete hormones. They may not be synonymous, but our ignorance of how consciousness arises, both mechanistically and evolutionarily, does not by any means imply that God exists.  One could have said the same thing about any number of old scientific problems that are now solved.

2. Quantum mechanics is weird, ergo Jesus.

Lured into the study of consciousness by the Trojan horse of physics — quantum mechanics — science has entered no-man’s land. The quantum (subatomic) world is so bizarre that each of its pioneers felt that he had created a Frankenstein. In disgust at the probabilistic behavior of electrons jumping from one orbital to another, Einstein — a strict determinist — grumbled, “I would rather be a cobbler … than a physicist.”

At the quantum level, the world turns topsy-turvy. Matter looks like Swiss cheese, mostly holes, to Rutherford’s surprise. Worse, matter has an alter ego: energy. Matter, it seems, is congealed energy; energy is liberated matter. Moreover, there is the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy, revealed by “double-slit” experiments with light or electrons. Electrons, for example, manifest sometimes as particles — which are localized in space — and sometimes as waves — which are distributed — but never as both simultaneously. What, then, is an electron when it behaves as a wave? Physicists now concede that an electron’s wavelike nature expresses its tendency to exist when observed. The dissolution of the material world at the hands of science has provoked one respected physicist to quip, “Whatever matter is, it isn’t made of matter.”

. . . The uncertainty principle collapses the Cartesian partition. “The very act of observing,” articulated Heisenberg, “alters the object being observed.” Subject and object interact. Mind and matter are not disjoint, as Descartes presumed. “It would be most satisfactory of all,” envisioned Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli, “if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”

Again, how this enables God is beyond me.  And you don’t have to have a human observer—a psyche—to collapse a wave function. No mind need be involved.  The conjunction of physics and psyche is a myth.

What Pruett is banging on about is simply the same tired old God-of-the-gaps argument.  We don’t know yet the answer to some problems, so the solution must be God.  As Anthony Grayling might say, it could just as easily be Fred.  I’m convinced that one day we will understand consciousness, both “easy” and “hard” forms, but to say that “mind is off-limits to science” is precisely the danger that woo-meisters like Pruett pose. They are science-stoppers. The good thing is that they won’t succeed, because scientists are infinitely curious.

In the end, Pruett channels Chopra:

But a new, holistic and healing story is now emerging through the unfolding of a third “Copernican” revolution. In the new physics, the veil between science and mysticism seems precariously thin, and the universe begins to take on a numinous glow. To hard-boiled positivists, this signals a disastrous turn of events. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Well, I’m sorry that Dr. Pruett is weary of science pushing back the frontiers of faith (and woo), but that’s the way it is.  He can have his “numinous glow,” while the rest of us can proceed with finding the answers—and we don’t need the God hypothesis to do so.


UPDATE: I’ve just seen that, over at EvolutionBlog, Jason has analyzed Pruett’s post and is reading his book. He’s being very kind, as Pruett is his friend and colleague, but if you read beneath the niceties you’ll see that Jason thinks that Pruett’s argument is unconvincing.

62 thoughts on “More dreadful accommodationism at HuffPo

  1. *le sigh* Quantum mysticism. I’m not sure whether I hate that or metaphorical holy book interpretations more, in terms of religion and science accomodationism.

    The whole ‘observer’ effect thing? Do they know where that comes from? For all the weirdness of quantum effects, this isn’t one of them. To observe something, you must interact with it. On macroscopic objects, the effect is negligable. Photons enough to allow you to look at an object are not going to make any meaningful change. But when looking at quantum scale objects, then it’s impossible to interact with those things without drastically influencing them.

    Qunatum mechanics is very complex and confusing, but the observer effect is a relatively simple thing to understand. To talk about it as some excuse for woo means you haven’t actually read up on it.

    Perhaps they’re talking more about wave-function collapsing and uncertainty, which do allow for the possibility of woo, but ignore the fact that, say, all of the molecules in someones undergarments jumping to the left never happens for precisely the same reason miracles don’t. They try to apply quantum effects to the macroscopic world, which simply doesn’t work. There’s a reason Newtons theories lasted 300 years and are still considered incredibly useful, even in their original form!

    Ugh. I’m not a physicist, but I do have a BS in it, and perhaps this is how biologists feel whenever creationists talk. You know what they say is idiotic, but the more you know about it, the more idiotic it sounds.

    1. On the bright side, this sort of “quantum woo” is the sort of meme that weans many people of religion… which can be a step towards rationalism. I now point out that scientists expect real things to be distinguishable from illusions and the like when scientifically tested.

    2. Just to clarify. To observe means to interact. In other words, it is the interaction that “collapses the wave function” not the consciousness of the observer doing the interacting.

      In the double slit experiments, for example, the “observer” is the sensor placed at the slits. If the sensor is turned on the wave function collapses. Nothing to do with consciousness. The experiment could be put on delay and the scientist die before the experiment is completed and the result will be the same.

    1. I think it’s very hard so long as faith is a seen as a “salvation-worthy virtue” and lack of faith is seen as the “root of all evil”. It’s hard to let go of these memes if one has even the slightest fear that they (or their loved ones) might suffer for all eternity for lack of faith– consequently there’s this need to find reasons to believe and push “faith in faith” upon others.

      I think if people stopped believing in souls, they’d lose this idea that it’s important to believe in some god. They need to understand that if there was real evidence for immaterial souls, scientsts would be dashing to find out more like they did with the Higgs Boson.

    2. This is as succinct an expression of a very worthy goal as I have seen; well put.

      Has someone come up with a REALLY short argument–in other words a sound-byte or two, something that one could print on something as small as a business card, that expresses the point?

      From dreary discussions with Xians, I have developed the understanding that the main problem is that they treat the bible as self-authenticating. Of course they don’t understand that this is what they are doing; most don’t understand the concept. And asking them to explain why the bible is any more self-authenticating than a Harry Potter book won’t get them there.

      Any ideas for the shortest, easiest pocket-argument on this point?

  2. “Moreover, there is the immensely troubling duality of matter/energy, revealed by “double-slit” experiments with light or electrons.”

    It’s not troubling, it’s absolutely fascinating!!


    1. So what about high-temperature superconductors? The mechanism is not yet understood, so it is woo? Dark energy and dark matter are still looking for explanations, so they are woo? Is the main subject of scientific research (i.e. the search for understanding phenomena), woo?

      You don’t seem to have a notion what science is.

      1. You have (inadvertently) touched on what is so irritating about this version of the Fallacy of the Argument from Ignorance: the science we teach high school students (“science” as the general public understands it) is all about what we do know, while scientific research (science as scientists understand it) is by definition about what we don’t know. There will always be a border between the known and the unknown where findings are ambiguous or unavailable and hence not well understood. For wooists to point to that border as if it were some kind of anomaly is as tedious as it will be endless.

  3. My overwhelming impression from reading those passages is that Dave Pruett is not a good writer. Usually the quoted pieces are more engaging and more intellectually tempting, but I found nothing appealing in Pruett’s text. Instead of finding myself engaging with his argument I found myself thinking ‘this is stupid’ with each sentence instead of reserving my rejection of his thesis for the total of the presented writing. A good writer can present a stupid idea in an interesting way. Pruett fails to present his ideas in an interesting way.

    1. Yeah, I agree. I really couldn’t discern the main point he was trying to make–or at least the novel point he was trying to make. Much of his musings sound like a re-hash of “The Tao of Physics” and “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”–very late 70’s-ish stuff, and not terribly illuminating. If we are truly in the “third” Copernican revolution, it would have been better for Pruett to make this his opening paragraph (and then elaborate) rather than his last. Perhaps his book will explain more…

  4. If there were any evidence that consciousness of any sort could exist absent a brain, then scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that data for their own benefit. I’m sure that scientists like Stephen Hawking would relish existing in some healthy state after death, but wanting things to be true, doesn’t make them so!

    To imagine that someone can “know” about something as poorly defined as souls or gods or any other purported disembodied consciousness when science cannot is goofy.

    Wonder, awe, and ingorance are not valid aguement for gods — much less a god that “wants” to be “believed in”.

    If one thinks that something like a demon, god, or soul can be conscious without a brain, then why not assume a carrot is conscious or a rock? Consciousness absent a brain makes no sense. Consciousness evolved in organisms that survive and reproduce better with that particular kind of consciousness– not because some being made of nothing who is magically conscious poofed more conscious beings into existence to believe in and worship “him”!

    1. “Wonder, awe, and ingorance are not valid aguement for gods — much less a god that “wants” to be “believed in”.”

      Even worse for theists, the ‘argument from wonder’ can be easily turned around against faith, because, as it turns out, the world is far more awesome and wonderful (and in some cases, terrible) than the primitive superstitions of faith can convey. This is one of the primary reasons I’ve settled on wonderism as a personal philosophy, and I love to poke at theism’s last-gasp god-of-all-gaps with my own version of the Argument from Wonder (Against Faith):

  5. Looks like Dr. Pruett should’ve listened to some episodes of of “The Brain Science Podcast” because Dr. Ginger Campbell has interviewed many neuroscientists (e.g., Panksepp, Damasio, Koch,etc.) all of whom apparently weren’t aware that studying the mind was “off limits”. Awesome ‘cast for anyone interested in the topic.

  6. The fact that there is a problem which is hard and has not been solved means that it’s a proof of God’s existence? Well, a huge gap in that argument is that any other “hard” problem which has been solved by science, served as a proof of god’s existence right up to the point when it was solved.

    1. Could be that there are/were more than one god. For example, the god that fed the elephants and the turtle lost his job when the earth was found to be round so he stopped existing.

    2. I can well remember in my high school days that the way life functioned was so mysterious that it was used as proof for the existence of God. Now that we have so much more biochemistry, we don’t hear that nearly so often.

  7. Mind and brain are not synonyms.

    A real deepity. Muscle and movement are also not synonyms. Vocal cord and voice are not synonyms. Air and flight are not synonyms. Energy and matter are not synonyms. Information and bits are not synonyms. And information and software are not synonyms. But all these things are related in ways that can be understood, just as are mind and brain.

    So typical of the religious mind to see a mystery, and then rather than working to figure it out, labeling it “God”.

  8. But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air.

    The big mistake here is the confused notion that somehow having scientific understanding of things requires denying the “heart”, by which we can assume he means emotion, awe, wonder, joy, and reverence. These things don’t require religion any more than being a moral human being requires religion or a religious viewpoint.

    Mr. Pruett seems to be imprisoned by classical stereotypes, and unable to think or feel his way out.

    1. I can’t seem to make blockquotes work; testing…

      But for many of us, weary of denying either head or heart, it’s a breath of fresh air.

      That was supposed to be a Pruett blockquote.

  9. Another example of attempting to nail down a fourteen-foot long rug in a twelve-foot long room:

    Regardless as to the number of nails employed, or the pattern in which one hammers those nails in, the end result is a visual disaster as well as providing negative utility.

    Why was this done, again??

  10. One of reasons I’m sorry I’m mortal is that I probably won’t be around when consciousness and apparent free will is finally grokked in fullness.

    A friend who also reads WEIT and I were discussing the free will thing the other day and the more we talked the more confused we became, partly because the terms we were using weren’t clearly defined and partly because the problem is an enormously hairy affair.

    Is consciousness a hairball horked up some kind of über-Kitty God-oid?

    1. Free will in a nutshell:

      If freewill is real there must be a mechanism for it. But, if there is a mechanism for it, it can’t be freewill.

      In other words, freewill is an incoherent concept.

      Of course freewill is often re-defined and then all bets are off. You can make anything real according to your revised definition.

  11. In a nutshell, my comment at HuffPo:

    I am reminded of yet another quip, one that I’ve heard attributed to spectroscopist E. B. Wilson, “No one understands quantum mechanics, you just get used to it.” The question that provokes is, “What makes us think we understood classical physics?” The answer, in my opinion, is that we’re “used to it”. But quantum mechanics IS “understood” in the only sense that matters: it is a powerful theory that provides incredibly accurate predictions. To be sure, aspects of classical physics that failed to account for phenomena in the macroscopic world were rejected.

    The sop to faith/mysticism at the end of his piece is a complete non sequitur. Faith is NEVER expected to meet any test of empirical reality. In fact, faith is often said to be stronger in spite of its lack of any grounding in reality and mysticism repudiates science while offering nothing, zero, zilch!

    1. On the other hand, these are those who actively misunderstand quantum physics and never get used to the fact they have misunderstood it.

  12. Dr. Pruett is responding to comments to his article at Huffington Post under user name “reasonandwonder”. Or was earlier, at any rate.

  13. Pruett: “Mind and brain are not synonyms.”

    Yes. Just as ‘walking’ and ‘legs’ are not synonyms. And walking, according to Pruett, must then be metaphysical, immaterial.

    Pruett has yet to appreciate and understand that the mind is what the brain does, just as walking is what legs do. There is no teleological mystery here, Mr Pruett, just your asinine attempt to apologetically sequester the mind from the brain.

  14. How on earth can you spend a career researching for NASA and come out thinking that discovery is boring but woo is wonderful? It shows a terrible blinkering of the mind going on somehow, religion presumably has broken this man’s awe circuits. It is a tragedy to waste the joy of research on intransigent blindness such as Pruett’s.

  15. Pruett is all ququ – qualia and quantum woo.

    As for the QM, my rushed take:

    – Misinterpreting Einstein’s letter to Born is legion. Einstein was well aware of what quantum physics meant, and he was instrumental in building it.

    “Bohr’s opinion of radiation interests me very much. But I don’t want to let myself be driven to a renunciation of strict causality before there has been a much stronger resistance against it than up to now. I cannot bear the thought that an electron exposed to a ray should by its own free decision choose the moment and the direction in which it wants to jump away. If so, I’d rather be a cobbler or even an employee in a gambling house than a physicist. It is true that my attempts to give the quanta palpable shape have failed again and again, but I’m not going to give up hope for a long time yet.” [Wikipedia]

    This was before quantum mechanics ushered in state causality, that states are under causality constraints. Einstein was, I take it, more concerned with realism (“palpable shape”) than specific constraints on causality.

    – Wave/particle duality is pre-quantum field theory. Particles are quantum excitations of the particle field, so the field is the system.

    – Decoherence, not minds as already noted, makes the apparent collapse.

    1. Also interesting that Pruett had to quotemine as creationists do, he cut away the “gambling” part. It collided with his “oh noes, probability!” interpretation.

  16. Issac Asimov was an incredible individual. Time, and time again, this single quote addresses & discredits 90% of the crap I read from anyone accommodating or defending religion. The quote is concise and inclusive.

    “To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”
    Isaac Asimov

    1. Neat, but I think not true. A ring current in a superconductor is a perpetual motion machine in that sense.

      Also, how would you apply the 2nd law? If it’s disembodied it has no parts, hence no way of calculating entropy.

  17. In my experience mathematicians are particularly prone to this style of thinking because most of them (including some atheist mathematicians) are Platonists. The same problem bleeds over into theoretical physics, where for some the usefulness of mathematics as the best language for their models somehow indicates a “mathematical reality” independent of materical existence.

    Once you admit the existence of “ideal forms”, you’ve nailed your flag to the mast of idealism, and hosts of non-material explanations flock to your banner.

    As Marx explained, this fundamental division in philosophy — and human thinking — underwrites virtually all intellectual controversy in Western thinking and is unlikely to ever be eliminated. Pruett is a typical example of a fully educated human being who simply cannot accept that conciousness arises from the material world, rather than the reverse.

  18. True, mind and brain are not synonyms. The mind is what the brain does. And that doesn’t need a god. Python (Monty) put it best: “silly person”.

  19. His Biography contains the following info:

    “During his years at JMU, Dr. Pruett has helped to establish an interdisciplinary, NSF-sponsored undergraduate program in computational science, and he has developed and taught two innovative Honors courses: From Black Elk to Black Holes–Shaping a Myth for a New Millennium (HON200D, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, HON210, 2009), which received a “Science-Religion” course award in 2001 from the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (affiliated with the Templeton Foundation), and “Great Questions: Questions That Have Changed the World” (HON200E, 2005).”

  20. This sort of thing gets bad when “faith” a synonym for “speculation”, and there is a sudden leap from “mystery” to specifically the Christian God.

    However, it isn’t clear from this post that Pruett is a Christian. In a different article he quotes both the New Age thinker Richard Tarnas and the eccentric (and poor science practitioner) Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. Pruett seems to me to be a sort of generic one-size-fits-all mystic that will embrace whatever wildly stimulates his sense of wonder that comes down the pike.

    I prefer the more fact-grounded sense-of-wonder spirituality of someone like Chet Raymo whose books I’ve seen sold at Mike Shermer’s Skeptic conventions, or Dawkins “Magic of Reality” for that matter.

    However, Jerry Coyne seems to be mistaken that he ever implied “ergo Jesus”, unless he’s read some other piece by Pruett other than the one here where DP comes out as Christian.

  21. Science has a self-proven flaw, it is the uncertainty of measure, dice.
    Nature is not a dice game as science measures it to be.
    Beyond their game of chance, is.
    Is is absolute.
    Philosophy will show science a true Way someday,
    But they will have to find themselves first.
    This Way


    1. LOL. philosophy knows the true way, but just isn’t telling, eh? Right. This is the usual mode of pretentious crap, to take refuge in a shroud of vague mystery, pretending it is profound and for unknown reasons beyond the reach of all but the pretentious liar.

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