John Horgan: a proud agnostic

August 21, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Here’s a new Scientific American column by science writer John Horgan who, unlike many of his fellow op-ed writers on the magazine, at least has the decency to stick to science and not foist social justice dogma on the  science-minded readers. (There a dreadful Sci. Am. column this week on that issue, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.)

In this new piece, Horgan declares himself an agnostic about three matters noted in the title: God, quantum mechanics, and consciousness. What they have in common is simply that Horgan is agnostic about them.  And he does seem “agnostic” about God, though the difference here between agnosticism and atheism is a matter of degree rather than kind. As for quantum mechanics and consciousness, Horgan seems to evince no doubt that they work; rather, he’s agnostic about the explanations that people offer about why they work.  I have a different take on Horgan’s thoughts in each area, so I’ll divide them up below. Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.

GOD:  Horgan is more of an agnostic than, say, Dawkins or I, because he seems to find some positive evidence that there might be a God (I know of none). Therefore, on the “believer scale”, he’d put himself closer to 1 (firm believer) than Richard or I on Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability.” (In that scale, 1 represents no doubt that God exists, while 7 represents strong atheism, that is, “I know that God doesn’t exist”). Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.

The question is this: what difference is there between an agnostic and an atheist? I’m not going to argue about this at length, but simply give my view. An atheist, to me, is someone who simply doesn’t entertain a belief in gods, which would mean 4 and above on that scale. But an agnostic who says, “I just don’t know about God don’t see the evidence, so I profess no belief in gods”, could also be seen as an atheist. As many have pointed out, agnosticism could be considered atheism.

But Horgan’s agnosticism isn’t really atheism as many of us hold it, since he seems to see some evidence that God exists. To wit:

Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health. He is a devout Christian, who believes that Jesus performed miracles, died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, Collins calls agnosticism a “cop-out.” When I interviewed him, I told him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out.”

Collins apologized. “That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer,” he said. “I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” [JAC: Seriously? I’ve seen frozen waterfalls and I’m still not convinced.] I have examined the evidence for Christianity, and I find it unconvincing. I’m not convinced by any scientific creation stories, either, such as those that depict our cosmos as a bubble in an oceanic “multiverse.”

Well, yes, we should be an agnostic about the “multiverse” since there’s no evidence for it. But not all “scientific creation stories” warrant agnosticism. Evolution is one, with the Ur-organism forming via naturalistic processes. I assume Horgan accepts that, though I don’t know. And I also presume he doesn’t doubt the big bang, which is the “scientific creation story of our Universe.” He may doubt what made the Big Bang happen, but that’s a different kind of agnosticism. Maybe Horgan is agnostic about only those creation stories for which there’s no evidence.

And there’s this. Horgan avers that evil poses a problem for most Abrahamic theists, and the “free will” explanation for moral evil isn’t convincing (and there’s no good explanation for the existence of physical evil, though Horgan mentions “free will of cancer cells). But then he comes out with this:

On the other hand, life isn’t always hellish. We experience love, friendship, adventure and heartbreaking beauty. Could all this really come from random collisions of particles? Even Weinberg concedes that life sometimes seems “more beautiful than strictly necessary.” If the problem of evil prevents me from believing in a loving God, then the problem of beauty keeps me from being an atheist like Weinberg. Hence, agnosticism.

I’m not sure there is a problem of beauty. First of all, it has to have something to do with evolution, because to a planarian or a lizard, I doubt that the world “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” In other words, the more complex your nervous system, the more beauty you can experience, which to me points not to god, but to beauty as either an evolved perception—one Ed Wilson suggests in Biophilia or, alternatively, the perception of human beauty connected with reproductive fitness—or an epiphenomenon of our nervous system (music could be such a reaction, playing on aural tropes that somehow affect emotion). But at any rate, I don’t see this problem of “excess beauty”, and therefore I don’t see it as any kind of evidence for God. One could just as well argue that for virtually all organisms, there is excess pain, danger, and unpleasantness.

And there are good evolutionary explanations for friendship and love: bonding to a mate or to members of small, cohesive groups. Also, there’s reciprocal altruism. . .

QUANTUM MECHANICS: There’s no doubt that quantum mechanics is a good theory because it predicts everything that we see, down to the umpteenth decimal place. The controversy about it is not whether it works, but what it means. Does it involve an observer, as some have evoked for the “double slit” experiment, does it involve wave functions that don’t need observers, and could it involve multiverses? We don’t know. And it’s above my pay grade to adjudicate explanations like the “Copenhagen Interpretation” against its rivals.  It may be that there will never be any explanation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to us for we’re evolved creatures with limited comprehension.

That’s summarized in biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote, “The world is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Quantum mechanics may be one of those things that evade supposition. Because of that, Horgan is agnostic not about quantum mechanics as a workable (or “true”, if you will) theory, but about how we can make sense of it on a human scale. And we might never be able to. I’m not agnostic about it, though: I’m ignorant about it.

CONSCIOUSNESS: Horgan is also hung up about explanations of consciousness, in particular the “hard problem”. How do neural impulses and their interpretation by the brain lead to “qualia”—subjective sensations like that of redness, or sadness, or pain. He seems to need a “theory” of consciousness that he can understand, as opposed to my view, which is if you have parts A, B, C, D, and so on, then you get consciousness—as either a phenomenon or epiphenomenon. To me, that is the only “explanation” or “theory” that we need, though of course one requires some kind of self-report or assessment to see if something really is consciousness that has the requisite parts connected in the requisit way.

In his search for the solution, Horgan is agnostic, but flails about to the extent that he might want Buddhism in his theory, or even panpsychism!

Gradually, this consensus collapsed, as empirical evidence for neural theories of consciousness failed to materialize. As I point out in my recent book Mind-Body Problems, there are now a dizzying variety of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains. This theory suffers from the same problems as information-based theories of quantum mechanics. Theorists such as Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, have conjectured that quantum effects underpin consciousness, but this theory is even more lacking in evidence than integrated information theory.

Researchers cannot even agree on what form a theory of consciousness should take. Should it be a philosophical treatise? A purely mathematical model? A gigantic algorithm, perhaps based on Bayesian computation? Should it borrow concepts from Buddhism, such as anatta, the doctrine of no self? All of the above? None of the above? Consensus seems farther away than ever. And that’s a good thing. We should be open-minded about our minds.

Indeed, but the idea that we’re actually falling behind in our efforts to understand consciousness is wrong: we already know how to assess it, and which parts of the brain are necessary to show it. We know how to fool it and how to take it away, and then how to restore it (removing anesthesia). Consensus is not farther away than ever.

As for integrated information theory, well, it’s intimately connected with a theory that Horgan has called “self-evidently foolish”: panpsychism, which, as he notes above, “holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains.” IIT is one way that panpsychists say you can combine dimly conscious things like molecules into deeply conscious things like human brains.  But panpsychism isn’t even a scientific theory. For one thing, it can’t be tested, and second, the “combination” problem is finessed with fancy language that explains nothing. There is no there there.

Horgan is right that we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, either mechanistically or evolutionarily. So yes, he’s right to be agnostic about how it comes about. But I’m confident that we will understand it one day, and not through Buddhism or panpsychism. We have to keep plugging away, and using not religion or Buddhism or panpsychism, but straight old laboratory and experimental naturalism.

As for God, well, if Horgan thinks that an “excess of beauty” constitutes a tick on the God side of the ledger, let him. I don’t buy it. And as for quantum mechanics, well, the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and while we may know the laws, they may never make “common” sense to our evolved brains.

Horgan ends his piece by saying this:

I’m definitely a skeptic. I doubt we’ll ever know whether God exists, what quantum mechanics means, how matter makes mind. These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things. But one of the pleasures of agnosticism—perhaps the greatest pleasure—is that I can keep looking for answers and hoping that a revelation awaits just over the horizon.

I don’t know why he sees these three diverse issues as part of a single mystery, as they’re not very related. Their only commonality is that we are ignorant about some aspects of these phenomena. Is Horgan’s “single, impenetrable mystery” a divine one? Why does he think they’re even connected?

But, just sticking with God for the moment, what kind of “revelation” would convince Horgan that there is no God? If the Nazis and kids getting leukemia won’t do it, what would? I can’t imagine how he’d answer.

69 thoughts on “John Horgan: a proud agnostic

  1. In addition to God, quantum mechanics, and consciousness, Mr. Horgan has forgotten the fourth impenetrable mystery of life: whether the little light stays on after you close the refrigerator door.

    1. An eighty-five year old man visits the doctor for his annual physical. The doctor asks him how he’s doing, and the elderly gentleman replies, “Never felt better because God and I are tight. We’re so tight that God even turns on the light for me when I use the toilet in the middle of the night.” This confuses the doctor, so he goes into the waiting room to ask the man’s daughter who brought him if she could explain the comment about him being so tight with God that God even turned on the light for him when he used the toilet in the middle of the night. The daughter replies, “Well that explains who’s been peeing in the refrigerator,”

  2. Ha! I tested that the other day with my new fridge. I closed the door very slowly in the dark, and just before it closed, the little light went off. But you can find the switch to do that in every fridge, so that one is solved. No God required!

    1. Clearly you have been led astray by your commitment to philosophical naturalism. Just because you found a switch doesn’t mean that the real control of the light doesn’t lie with transcendent refrigerator fae who only turn off the light when you’re looking.

  3. The question is this: what difference is there between an agnostic and an atheist?

    Since we’ve been discussing Huxley, and since he invented the word, in Huxley’s original coinage “agnosticism” was more a process.

    Agnosticism was contrasted with gnosticism, the claim (put to Huxley by contemporaries) that they knew that God existed because God had revealed himself to them. Huxley’s agnosticism was the stance that, lacking any such revelation, he himself could only evaluate the matter based on the evidence adduced by the natural world around him.

    Thus the process of agnosticism (evaluate the matter on evidence, recognising ones limitations and the provisional nature of the outcome) is entirely compatible with an atheistic conclusion that the evidence for God is lacking.

    1. And Huxley did not limit the term agnosticism to the divine.

      Also the scientific process could be said to be agnostic, in that any truth that may be found is provisional.

  4. “These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things.”

    A lot of the theories that Horgan mentions in this piece are the result of muddled thoughts similar to Horgan’s own statement. They seem to arise from a mental heuristic that I suspect we all share to some extent: when presented with multiple unknowns, assume they have a common cause. This may have worked well for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. If we came out of the cave in the morning and saw several carcasses strewn about, we should assume there’s a new predator in the area. When trees have fallen and the creek has risen, perhaps last night’s big storm was the common cause. I don’t think this heuristic has much use in the modern scientific world. For the kinds of questions Horgan lumps together, we have a lot more to think about.

    I’ve never had much respect for Horgan since his book, “The End of Science”, came out in which he claimed (Wikipedia):

    Pure science, defined as “the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it,” may be coming to an end.

    1. Berkeley’s Professor Gunther Stent—a superb writer on science, whose molecular genetics texts were among the very best—fell through the “end of Science” trapdoor toward the end of his career.
      He published “The coming of the Golden Age; a view of the end of progress” in 1969—just before the advent of recombinant DNA and DNA sequencing revolutionized Biology.

      1. I guess it just sounds better to them than “My faculties are going and I have no new ideas.” On the other hand, I am old enough to know where they are coming from. I like to think I handle it better by becoming more of a spectator than someone who expects to play a big role, hoping that some of the inevitable breakthroughs occur before I die.

    2. Yes indeed, Horgan wants there to be “a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things.” You could say that an agnostic is an atheist that hopes there is a god.

  5. Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.

    Okay, I bite again. This makes no sense. If a godlike creature exists, that is, we somehow learn about it in the future, you can simply change your mind. It’s a very strange habitus to treat convictions as if set in stone, whilst casting them for enternity with a cover-all-bases attitude. This doesn‘t show bravery in the face of evidence, but is rather a defensive lawyering attitude common among “skeptics”. Be brave. There is no evidence at all for godlike creatures. We know how religious myths arose and changed. Ergo, gods are no feature of the natural world, period. We know this.

    Further, it’s not knowledge to guess something. It’s as important to show how you arrived at your conviction as it is that it’s the correct one. Nobody can rightfully triumph and stick it to the atheists if an extraterrestial godlike creature shows up. Believers would not be right all along (though no doubt that won’t stop them from pretending they were).

    The problem here is one of the correct referent. Their beliefs must mean that precise entity. That‘s already a problem now, as without anything to point at, all believers only have their scriptures, and since they don’t stick to them, essentially everyone has their own god. All these individual gods are held together by a category of “godlike entities inspired by scripture” and that’s what is called “God”. But it’s really category, not a thing. So the god in question must an entity which “inspired” those texts at the very least.

    1. I think the notion that it is strange to cast convictions as set in stone is why Dawkins (and PCC(E)) put themselves at 6.9 ish, because of the way the scale was described, with 1 and 7 being states of having one’s convictions absolutely “set in stone for eternity with a cover-all-bases attitude”. No sane person could REALLY come to such points, it would be like dividing by zero. But one can approach the limit asymptotically, I guess. That’s how I take it, anyway. It’s certainly a higher, stricter, more rigorous standard than, say, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which I think is a verdict we can honestly pronounce on the non-existence of “any godlike creatures”. It’s also, probably, a way of avoiding letting others claim that one’s atheism is a “faith” just like that of religious believers.

    2. I have no idea what you’re talking about, but yes, it makes perfect sense to me. I’m just roughly estimating where I sit on the scale, and there is NO implication that that calibration is set in stone.

      Have you been to the doctor who asked you “on a scale of 1 to 10, how much pain are you in?” I guess you gave that doctor a talking to!

      I go into point 1 in detail in Faith versus Fact.

      I won’t comment on your statement, “I bite again.”

    3. You seem to be saying that it is OK to sometimes be wrong where one hasn’t been in doubt. I agree. Changing one’s mind is not a terrible fate; keeping track of a probability for each first-order thought or belief is a terrible fate.

  6. Surely a newly discovered valley filled with wildflowers is one of the prettiest sights a honeybee has ever seen. It’s neurotransmitters start cranking up and it starts getting excited and upon returning to the hive will start dancing enthusiastically.

  7. Regarding g*d I don’t see agnostic as a real solution. Either you believe or you don’t. Agnostic is a fence sitter, a cop out. If you have any evidence you must be in. I have none and know of none so I’m out. The other two on his list are theory or possibility for further study. Like black holes or life on other planets. We have had more than 2000 years of looking for g*d and yet the evidence isn’t there. The fact that some believe it is real is just imagination and that runs all over the place depending on the latest story and who your parents are.

    1. Depends if you are approaching this philosophically or not. Personally I would not describe Bertrand Russell as a fence sitter.

    2. “An agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”
      — Studs Terkel

      That might be a bit harsh, given the baggage sometimes associated with the term atheism, but I support it at least on alternate Tuesdays.

      More generally, I find the description of the theist-atheist dimension being orthogonal to the gnostic-agnostic dimension most useful. I lack belief in gods, which makes me an atheist. I do not claim to be able to demonstrate knowledge that no gods exist anywhere in the cosmos, which makes me agnostic. All four combinations are, of course, logically possible.

      I know some people shy away from describing themselves as atheists for various, usually social, reasons. If they prefer a different word, I try to figure out how their terminology maps to the two dimensions I use. Thus far, I haven’t found a better set of descriptors that address all possible variants.

      1. Two things … agnostics cowardly atheists? I will quite happily meet him behind the bicycle sheds.

        Secondly, there are two broad definitions of atheist or atheism. One is a positive belief (ie gods don’t exist) and the other a negative belief ie lacking a belief in god.

        I could (but won’t) argue that weak atheists are too cowardly to admit being strong atheists. This line of accusation is of limited benefit.

        You will find older dictionaries will tend to side with the strong version of atheist. The weak definition is a relatively a recent shift. But to be fair both concepts have been in play for some time. And there are those that fight for the high semantic ground.

  8. I think the spectrum of atheistic probability there should be a number associated with the “Santa Claus proposition.” That is, if 7 on the scale is that “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one,” then there should be something equivalent to “I know there is no God, with the same conviction that I know there is no Santa Claus.” I wonder if that should be an 8….?

  9. I used to consider myself an atheist, even a militant one, but that was mostly a reaction to being gay in a country that had a lot of religiously based opposition to my rights. But the truth is that I was never able to square my atheism with Godel’s incompleteness theorems, so I consider myself an agnostic now.

    1. I get what you are saying. I like the concept of ignostcism, where we define what we might mean by god so we can have a meaningful debate. For example pantheism … where the universe/existence is god seems fair enough. For Dawkins it is sexed up atheism.

      On the other hand I can actively disbelieve in Roman, Greek, Norse and Abrahamic gods, even though I understand: inductively I cannot provide an absolute proof. For example, I gather there is no analytical solution to the three body problem, but that does not mean we cannot make accurate predictions to the orbits of the moon, sun and Earth.

  10. I consider myself agnostic since I don’t know for certain that god doesn’t exist and I consider Gnosticism about knowledge. I freely admit that it is used by many, maybe most, to be a state between theism and atheism. I consider myself an atheist because what I do know appears to be incompatible with any god hypothesis I have ever heard. That plus the lack of any credible evidence justifies my conclusion (at least to me) that no god exists. This is a belief on my part and one that I try to hold loosely so that I can change my belief if the evidence warrants it. So far it seems pretty secure.

  11. Bertrand Russell: As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

  12. Many of these “great problems” seem to depend on the eye of the beholder. “Beauty” may be one of these. To me, beauty is a subjective experience constructed by the functioning of neurons and neurotransmitters in my brain. If there’s a “problem” to be solved it’s one of filling in the details. Yes, beauty is a beautiful thing. But it’s not a mystical thing. The “hard problem” of consciousness may be another. To me, consciousness (meaning “awareness”) is an epiphenomenon of the functioning of my brain. Yes. Consciousness is remarkable, but I don’t feel the need to invoke miracles to explain it. In neither case do I claim to have an adequate mechanistic understanding of these things, but I have read enough to think that we have a good, general handle on these phenomena: they arise from physico-chemical processes that take place in the brain.

    Like so many other such “problems” of the past, these, too, will eventually be explained in fuller detail—without needing to invoke a deity. So many seemingly intractable “problems” of the past have been solved one by one by scientific means that I have good reason to expect that these, too, will eventually be solved in the same way. Will some problems remain unsolved even far into the future? Probably. But, again, there’s no need to invoke a deity simply to explain the unsolved. (And don’t even get me started on how to solve the unsolved problem of where the deity came from.)

  13. As for God, well, if Horgan thinks that an “excess of beauty” constitutes a tick on the God side of the ledger, let him. I don’t buy it.

    Maybe it’s mushy thinking like this that made his buddy Gallagher so prickly.

  14. The agnostic position has no merit, in my opinion. If we define God as the Christian God or similar, I for one don’t quite see why I shouldn’t position myself at 7 on Dawkins’s scale. That type of God is no different from Santa Claus. Would it make sense for a scientist (or any adult) to put himself at 6.9 as regards his belief in the latter? Granted, in both cases it would still be warranted never to go higher than 6.999… But I see that as splitting hairs. We don’t typically feel the need to make such concessions concerning other things of which we’re certain, yet in strict principle we should—without exception. Hence, in practical terms, I consider myself a decided atheist, and not an agnostic.

    I understand that one cannot prove a negative, and thus one can’t affirm with absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist (hence the 6.9). Yet we can aver without reservations that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and again I see God (as defined above) as no different.

    So I guess I can go with 6.999…, which is practically the same as 7.

    1. (Trigger Warning: SHOUTING)

      So I guess I can go with 6.999…, which is practically the same as 7.

      No, it isn’t; it is EXACTLY the same value as 7.

      Your view is not uncommon, which is probably why my inner mathematician gets so FRUSTRATED about this misconception.

      1. I’m no mathematician, so I don’t quite follow. I suppose there must be a proof somewhere that shows that 6.999… is identical to 7. Yet my first reaction was, naturally, that if that is so, then 6.888… would be identical to 6.999…, from which it must follow that 6.888… (and 6.777…, etc.) must also be identical to 7. But of course that wouldn’t make sense.

        1. Well, yeah, the proof basically shows that there are no numbers between 6.999… and 7, so they must be identical. I won’t bother you with the details, just challenge you to show me a number between 6.999… and 7.

          And likewise 6.8999… is identical to 6.9 and 6.7999… is identical to 6.8; your analogy isn’t the right analogy. As you correctly say, it wouldn’t make sense. As you can see there are numbers between 6.888… and 6.999…, for example 6.9, so they aren’t identical.

        2. 6.999… is only identical to 7 if the … means there’s an infinite number of nines. It doesn’t work that way on a real-life computer because most arithmetic is not done with infinite precision. 6.888… isn’t identical to 7 at all.

          1. errr no: 0.333… . Multiply by 3 we get 0.999… . So 0.333… is not a third? While this is not a formal proof it is a nice intuitive demonstration of an infinite series.

    2. Might as well have a round figure, such as 1 chance in a million that god exists, whatever that means. So 6.999993 out of 7 is a good approximation. Why was it /7 ?

      Assuming that CdeL actually meant a never ending sequence of 9s, I think one explanation of Barb’s irritation is that people have a hard time accepting that a number can have two distinct names until you point out that is what’s bothering them. Another name could be
      9-2 or 3×3 – 2. But those are different types of names. Or say use base 7, so that it’s 10.00 as well as 6.66666666… forever. That’s sort of a different type of name, sort of not that different. Or \pi + 7 -\pi .

  15. Here’s what I think makes sense about agnosticism:

    Some people believe in a god. Call them theists.

    What do we call everyone else, the negation of the set of theists? Use the negation prefix, “a-,” so we call everyone else – **everyone else** – atheists.

    So atheists include those who say

    • they can demonstrate there are no gods,

    • no one else has demonstrated that there is a god

    • those who can’t make up their minds (the casual meaning of “agnostic”)

    and any other reason for not being a theist.

    So one can be an agnostic and an atheist.

    1. Does non-theist mean the same as atheist? I suppose ‘almost-but-not-quite-atheist’ is discussible too, but not by me.

      1. I”m not sure about the empirical usage of “non-theist,” but just logically it would seem to be the same as atheist. But usage might imply some difference, I don’t know.

  16. >Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.

    Well, if that’s the case, we should just use our probabilities of theism being true and be done with it.

    >In his search for the solution, Horgan is agnostic, but flails about to the extent that he might want Buddhism in his theory, or even panpsychism!

    Panpsychism has been ruled out, as a new paper of Sean Carroll’s shows. I’m particularly fond of it because I have been making a much cruder version of the argument for a couple years now. His paper:

    The main problem with IIT is it’s vague, but it did provide enough details to rule itself out, as Scott Aaronson showed quite a few years back:
    The analogy he used is that IIT is a thermometer that shows ice is hotter than steam, and liquid water is hotter than both of them.

    As for Penrose, he seems to misunderstand the hard problem, and ignores the neuroscience of consciousness. “It’s all microtubules!” he says, but that does not provide any usable knowledge.

  17. Surely you can not entertain a bayesian posterior of 50 % on existence of magic – agnosticism is befuddled. And Horgan more than most.

    Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind

    That doesn’t pass the smell test:

    Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that the world is 5 kyrs old and you’d have to change your mind.

    It is the difference between a small probability and a probability that is so small that we can conclude something beyond reasonable doubt. If we are not assessing reasonable conclusions, what are we then doing? Taking something “on faith”!?

    This is part of the reason why I stopped calling myself “atheist”, labeling myself on a theological scale.

    Well, yes, we should be an agnostic about the “multiverse” since there’s no evidence for it.

    The slow roll inflation that the Plack collaboration found, beyond reasonable doubt, in 2018 must be exceedingly finetuned to not result in multiverses.

    And that seem to support Weinberg’s well tested evidence for a multiverse:

    Why is this vacuum energy, or “cosmological constant,” so small? In 1987, Weinberg proposed a radical approach to this problem using a minimal version of the “anthropic principle.” He reasoned that perhaps the vacuum energy could take on different values, and that if it were bigger than a specific minute size, an accelerated expansion of the universe would rip apart galaxies before they had a chance to form, leading to a structureless, empty universe — one devoid of people wondering about the size of the cosmological constant. Weinberg argued that this predicted a tiny but nonzero size for the vacuum energy. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, with the simplest explanation being the presence of vacuum energy at just about the size suggested by Weinberg’s argument. Weinberg largely avoided the many boring diatribes surrounding the anthropic principle that followed, contenting himself with having pragmatically used anthropic reasoning to make a correct prediction about nature.

    My years of transcribing Weinberg had an interesting side effect: To this day, when I think of some fundamental aspect of field theory, I see the words from his books in my mind’s eye and hear his voice in my head. I also vividly remember reading his paper on the anthropic explanation for the cosmological constant, which had me walking around in a daze for a month. It took me many years to come to terms with this point of view, and eventually even to embrace it in my own research.

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    1. Thanks for the Weinberg part of your comment.

      I disagree with this:
      “Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that the world is 5 kyrs old and you’d have to change your mind”
      I don’t think its a correct analogy.

      The probability that the universe is 5 kyrs old, or that the first male human was formed out of putty in one day, is essentially nil and certainly much, much smaller than the probability that the universe was brought into being by some force that humans might call God.
      We know close to nothing about the greater scheme of things outside of the time line of our universe, but we know lots of things about earth, evolution, and human myth-making. As PCC says, it all depends on the definition of God. If it’s a very vague one, one cannot confidently and beyond reasonable doubt rule out something that is outside one’s sphere of knowledge.

      1. If modern cosmology is a fact, then we do, and it is very well established.

        Weinberg’s test is weaker, but if we are considering empirical likelihoods we do know there are no religious magic.

  18. I am not an agnostic, nor am I an atheist. I am an apatheist — that means that I don’t care whether gods exist or not. (I invented the word back in the 1980’s to describe myself and now I see it has its own Wikipedia page, but no doubt I’m not the only inventor.)

    There are those who think that I should care, that it’s an important question which should be answered. Well, fine, when there’s an answer I’m sure I’ll hear about it but I’m not interested in searching for that answer myself. There’s already lots of people out there doing that searching and the answers they have are pretty unconvincing so far.

      1. I suppose so. For example I believe that there are sushi restaurants in the city where I live, but I don’t care. Jerry seems to be in that category too, he’s more of a barbecue guy.

  19. All this angels-on-a-pinhead stuff reminds me of the insomniac, agnostic dyslexic who stayed up all night worrying whether or not there is a dog.

  20. Here’s an experiment anyone can perform. When approaching an intersection with a green light in your direction, quickly say either an Our Father or a Hail Mary prayer. Calculate the frequency of times the light stays green for you compared to the negative control – no prayer. My daughter and I have noted that the light does indeed stay green long enough to pass through the intersection more often than with no prayer, but only if the prayer is … (I won’t say.) And not only that, the light will turn red more often than the control if the incorrect prayer is recited!. Of course, people of all faiths can perform this experiment with their own prayers or incantations.

    1. If you say it (the efficacious prayer) backwards, does a yellow light turn back to green? That would persuade me to become a Catholic again.

    2. Have you tried a version of your experiment on something that is more significant than traffic lights? Say, at your local hospital?

      1. My understanding from scientific literature is that prayers work for ill people, but only if they are aware of it.

          1. Sorry, no. I cannot provide references. I read what I believe to be responsible writings – like Why Evolution is True – and the effectiveness of prayers came up a few time over the decades. I do remember that one article was dismissive of prayers and the other stated that praying for ill people works only if the recipient is aware of the prayers. This apparently gives them a greater will to live.

              1. The authors just stated the results of the study, nothing more. And I was not interested enough to pursue the subject further. But the power the brain has over the wellness of the body is pretty well known.

              2. “The power of the brain” would mean that it’s not the prayer doing the work, it’s the person who thinks/knows that they are being prayed for that’s doing the work. That’s a crucial distinction.

  21. I think from my perspective the whole atheist/agnostic dilemma is a mute point. It only matters if you choose to look at the world and universe through a theistic lens. I simply give no harbor to the idea of the supernatural. I prefer to view the universe through the lens of the scientific method. Carefully studying everything we are capable of perceiving through scientific inquiry leads us to understanding the natural world. By definition in the world of physics there is no supernatural, only that which we can see or describe in the natural universe.
    To steal from Aneris: “it’s not knowledge to guess something. It’s as important to show how you arrived at your conviction as it is that it’s the correct one.”

    Theism started from people just guessing, trying to explain the world they lived in without having to show proof of anything. As Hitchens famously postulated: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

    Stop viewing the world through the old worn out theistic lens.

  22. As a kid, raised in a (moderately) Protestant environment, I could not avoid believing in God and, consequently, in Santa Claus..But when I was 16 or so, I started to doubt the existence of a supernatural being, Later on, when I learned to appreciate science, I made the following reasoning:
    I have tried, without success, to understand (1) the unconvincing narrative of believers in a supernatural being; and (2) the equally unconvincing explanation of the first self-replicating molecule; and I suspect that most probably, neither will I find (3) the explanation of a third concept acceptable,
    So I stopped trying to find out. What is wrong with not knowing? I love what Richard Feynman said on this subject:
    “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong. … I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”.

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