Sabine Hossenfelder on free will and “superdeterminism” of quantum mechanics

December 23, 2021 • 9:30 am

I had a bit of a hard time fully understanding this absorbing 20-minute video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, but I think I get most of it. The main problem I had was understanding the notion of “superdeterminism” in quantum mechanics (QM) and what it really means for things like the famous double-slit experiment.  But, like reader Darrell, who sent it to me, I think you need to listen. She might convince you that quantum mechanics isn’t really indeterministic!

Hossenfelder is intrigued by the notion of libertarian free will (which she rejects) and maintains that a belief in this sort of dualism was held by many physicists working on QM. As you probably know, interpretations of quantum mechanics have differed historically, with some having maintained that QM is truly indeterministic. (Hossenfelder defines “determinism” as the system in which “everything that happens is a result of what happens before”.) Most advocates of QM think that it is not deterministic, but inherently indeterministic. Einstein never believed that, rejecting that idea with his famous assertion that God doesn’t play dice with the universe.

As far as I knew, “Bell’s theorem” and subsequent tests of it completely rejected any determinism of quantum mechanics and verified it as inherently indeterministic. But, as Hossenfelder argues in this video, this is not so.  She argues that a sort of “superdeterminism” holds in quantum mechanics, so that, in the end, everything in the universe is deterministic according to the known laws of physics.

I’m not quite sure what “superdeterminism” means is on the level of particles, but it appears to be something like this: “What a quantum particle does depends on what measurement will take place.” And once the measurement system is specified, somehow a quantum particle is determined to behave in a certain way. That’s what I don’t get.

But my inability to understand it may be because the idea of superdeterminism is inherently mathematical (she gives a simply equation for “superdeterminism of quantum physics”). Like in QM itself, everyday interpretations of superdeterminism might not make sense. Any reader who understands the concept is invited to explain it below. (Briefly, if possible!)

At any rate, Hossenfelder agrees with Einstein: there is no dice-playing, and quantum mechanics is deterministic. But she still rejects libertarian free will (see here, here, and here).

But the part that especially interested me beyond superdeterminism is that many physicists rejected such deterministic interpretations of QM simply from their own emotional commitment to dualistic free will. For if determinism be true everywhere, say some physicists, then free will cannot be true. Indeed, Bell himself believed in libertarian, you-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will, while Einstein, a hardnosed determinist, didn’t. As I’ve reported before, physicist, atheist, and Nobbel Laureate Steve Weinberg also believed in libertarian free will. He sat next to me at the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting in Stockbridge, MA several years ago, and after I gave my spiel on the nonexistence of libertarian free will, Weinberg told me that he didn’t accept that his behaviors were determined by the laws of physics.

What I find fascinating is that physicists were conditioning their ideas and research directions on a philosophical belief that humans must have libertarian free will. Perhaps that impeded the ideas of “superdeterminism”.

I have no dog in the indeterminism vs. superdeterminism interpretation of QM; I don’t know enough.  That’s my fault, and it’s probably my fault that I don’t fully understand Hossenfelder’s explanation of superdeterminism in the video. She is a great communicator of science, and except for that puzzling bit, I greatly enjoyed her clear explanation.  (A transcript of her video is here.)

So I’m with Hossenfelder in our rejection of libertarian free will, which is the most common view of free will. I don’t give a hoot about compatibilism, which I see as a matter of semantics that is far less relevant than accepting the implications that pure naturalism—including any quantum indeterminism—has for society and for human behavior.

Weigh in below, but watch the video first. It’s excellent, especially in how it interweaves science with an a priori personal commitment to libertarian free will.

And if “superdeterminism” of QM is now widely accepted, let me know.

h/t: Darrell

Duck beaks, Umwelt and Kantian a prioris

February 20, 2019 • 8:30 am

by Matthew Cobb

This article from the scientific journal Cell Reports, by Eve Schneider and colleagues from Yale, popped into my inbox this evening. I could see that it was about ducks and evolution, so I thought it would interest Jerry. It turns out to be pretty fascinating, and it tells us something important about how the sensory worlds of different species are shaped by evolution, as I’ll explain below. It’s open access, so anyone can read it. Click on the image below if you want to read the PDF.

One of the nice features about this article is that it has a “graphical abstract”. Several of the journals from the Cell stable use these abstracts, and I must admit this is the first one I have actually found useful. You can see why: it RHYMES:The study looked at seven different species of duck (including the mallard) which have different food preferences – some of them dive, some dabble (Pekin ducks [domesticated mallards], it appears, forage solely in darkness). Here they are, in a figure from the paper:

The hypothesis was that all these species, which rely particularly on the sense of touch, would have more cells capable of detecting touch (“mechanoreceptors”, in the jargon) in the trigeminal nerve that innervates the beak. Touch works through a particular gene called Piezo2, which codes for what is called an ion channel—these are the tiny pores in nerve cells that enable them to work.

They found that all these species have more of the Piezo2 neurons than do chickens, which do not seem to rely so much on tactile stimulation. There were also differences between the ducks: the Pekin duck, which forages solely in darkness, had the highest proportion of these neurons, while the wood duck, with its narrow bill, had the smallest number.

This expansion of touch neurons in ducks has not come free of charge, however: the ducks seem to have lost corresponding numbers of neurons that, in chickens, detect pain and temperature. In other words, there is an evolutionary trade-off. You don’t seem to be able to have lots of every kind of receptor. What the downsides are of not being able to feel pain or temperature so intensely if you are a duck is not clear. Whatever they are, they are presumably less significant than the advantage of being able to sense your prey more accurately as you dabble or dive.

This is not only a nice bit of evolutionary biology (and a cute graphical abstract), it is also a great example of how the sensory worlds of different animals provide completely different insights into the world. In the 1920s, the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll described what in German was called the Umwelt or inner sensory world of each species, which was rooted in its ecology. This concept is now a fundamental starting point of modern sensory ecology and helps us understand how natural selection has shaped brains and nervous systems, and, when it comes to other animals, how we think of what it is like to be, say, a duck.

The significance of the idea goes far deeper, as Uexküll acknowledged. He saw a link with an idea developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1787, Kant argued that some features of how we perceive are given a priori, that is, without experience.

Although Kant was primarily interested in things such as space, time and moral judgements, and ended up placing a profound divide between perception and the material world, he put his finger on a key feature of what is happening when we —or ducks—interact with the world. Our senses are not open valves that simply allow all stimuli into our brain; instead we perceive only certain parts of our environment.

Many scientists have subsequently referred to what are called in the jargon ‘the Kantian synthetic a prioris’: nervous systems involve an innate cognitive and neurobiological framework that filters and processes raw sensory stimuli to turn them into a picture of the world. And that picture differs from species to species.

I’m not sure Kant would have been impressed that his idea had been validated in ducks, but that is what Eve Schneider and her colleagues have done.


Schneider, E. R. et al. 2019. A Cross-Species Analysis Reveals a General Role for Piezo2 in Mechanosensory Specialization of Trigeminal Ganglia from Tactile Specialist Birds. Cell Reports Volume 26: 1979-1987.,

The University of Edinburgh and the John Templeton Foundation royally screw up evolution and science (and tell arrant lies) in an online course

March 25, 2018 • 9:00 am

Reader Simon sent me this video, which is a short (8-minute) lecture that’s apparently part of an online Coursera course on Science and Philosophy sponsored by the University of Edinburgh, the EIDYN Research Center run by Edinburgh’s Department of Philosophy, and the John Templeton Foundation. The presenter of this talk on creationism and evolutionary biology, S. Orestis Palermos, is a lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University (also identified as a “research explorer” at Edinburgh).

If you had any pretense that Templeton is in favor of rigorous science, it will be dispelled by this video, which argues that science, like religion, is based on faith, and that evolution is merely an ad hoc rationalization of observations that is not science because it can’t make predictions. It’s also ineffably sad that the University of Edinburgh is sponsoring this nonsense.

I’ve put a transcript of the video below (also prepared by Simon), with the really bad parts in bold; and I’ve added some comments. What we see here is the pernicious influence of postmodernism on science: a claim that science gives us no objective truth because it’s based on faith. This is rotten philosophy and is also either clueless or deliberately duplicitous. Palermos doesn’t deserve the monicker of “philosopher”—not if that monicker requires one to be rational. In this video Palermos acts like Ray Comfort with a Ph.D.: a distorter and outright liar in service not of Jesus, but of postmodernism and perhaps faitheism.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the short lecture, and be prepared to gnash your teeth!

Simon’s transcript (indented; my own comments are flush left):

The final lecture of the free online course science and philosophy is dedicated to the topic, evolutionary biology and creationism science or pseudoscience. This lecture focuses on the same scientific status of evolutionary biology and genetics.

Within western society, there is a tendency to raise science to a special epistemic status. Science is always taken to be better than fairy tales, myths, and of course, religion. If a claim is supposed to be scientific, then it is supposed to constitute some kind of absolute truth that will always be true and which is impossible to deny. So for example, many times, in order to support a claim, we say that this is a fact that is scientifically proven.

No scientist would make the claim that science gives us “absolute truth”; and we use the word “proven” not in the sense of “absolute unchanging truth” but, “supported by evidence so strong that you could bet your house on it.” For Palermos to make his claim means that he has no understanding of how science is done or how we should regard scientific “truth.” That disqualifies him from the outset to give this lecture.  But let’s proceed:

But is this attitude towards science correct? What if science is not the kind of secure, absolute knowledge that scientists make it out to be, and which most of us accept unreflectively? And if science can be questioned, then how does it compare with other predictive and explanatory devices like myths and religion?

A particularly, interesting case in point is whether creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary biology as part of the standard curriculum in the schools in the United States of America.

The standard approach to this long-standing debate is to claim that evolutionary biology as opposed to creationism is scientific. Therefore, we have a good reason to teach the one but not the latter. Evolutionary biology is science, creationism is pseudoscience, and obviously we should always prefer disciplines that are scientific.

However, upon further reflection it is not quite obvious whether this claim is actually valid. For the second half of the 20th century, the best philosophers of science, philosophers like Sir Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, attempted to explain what science consists in and how it differs from myths and religion. And no matter how hard they tried, eventually, the debate died out their realization that science, much like religion, requires faith.  To choose one scientific theory over another, is simply a matter of aesthetics in the hope that this theory and all to the other is going to work out.

Here we have another lie. I’m not that familiar with Lakatos or Feyerabend’s views, but I doubt that any of them would equate the epistemic status of science with that of religion. Popper, for sure, saw evolution as a historical science, and one that produced the best understanding we have of the natural world. He also rejected creationism, although he did see natural selection—only one aspect of evolutionary theory—as hard to test). See here for a refutation of Palermos’s distortions about Popper. And if Kuhn put creationism on an equal footing with religion, with the choice simply “a matter of aesthetics”, I’m not aware of it. Readers with philosophical expertise might weigh in here.

But clearly it’s not “aesthetics” to regard evolution as a much better explanation of the data than creationism. We have reliable ways of dating the Earth and its fossils, and we have observations that comport fully with evolutionary theory but not with creationism (biogeography, dead genes in the genome, vestigial organs, and so on). And yes, evolutionary theory makes predictions. One, that marsupial fossils would be found in Antarctica, since the group crossed that continent when it still linked South America to Antarctica, was verified within the last two decades. We’ve predicted that transitional forms existed—transitions between fish and amphibians, reptiles and mammals, and reptiles and birds—that were later found. Even Darwin predicted in The Descent of Man that humans evolved in Africa, and from other apes. That prediction didn’t begin to be verified until the early 20th century, long after Darwin had passed away. Much real-time evidence, as well as historical evidence and both predictions and “retrodictions” (observations that, in retrospect, make sense in light of evolution but not creationism) are detailed in my book Why Evolution is True. 

To reject the historical evidence of fossils, vestigial organs, and biogeography, as not constituting “real” evidence is another misunderstanding of science. Much of physics, and nearly all of cosmology, rests on historical observation and reconstruction. So is human history itself! Is it an “aesthetic preference” to think that Julius Caesar really lived when all we have left are traces of his existence—his writings, those of his contemporaries, statues, coins, and so on? The notion that history can’t buttress empirical theories is a fantasy promulgated by the likes of Ray Comfort. It shouldn’t be shoved down the throats of students by a misguided professor of philosophy. But on with this dreadful “lecture”:

But there is no way to disprove or prove in theory. And since there is no way to prove it or disprove it, then there is no point where it becomes irrational for a scientist to stay with a failing theory.

It’s just a lie to say that we cannot adjudicate the likelihood of evolution versus creationism from data (I reject the term “prove”) as a way of getting better and better explanations for our universe. Yes, there is a point where it’s irrational for a scientist to stay with a failing theory like creationism. And that is when the data are so strong against it that you’d be a fool (or a religious believer) to maintain what is palpably false.

But wait! There’s more!

So, the best example of this is the case of heliocentricism. Heliocentricism was first put forward about 2,000 years ago. And for about 1,600 years, it was a failing theory. However, at some point, Kepler and Galileo decided to take it up. And even though it was failing for 1,600 years, they managed to convert it in a very successful theory. The choice, however, to do so, was not because the theory was a good one—since obviously it was failing for a long time—but simply because they liked it and for some reason they had faith in it. So scientists choose to stay, we the few, simply because they have faith in it. So both science and religion seem to require faith, which means that it is not so easy to distinguish between creationism and evolutionary biology.

Kepler and Galileo “converted” heliocentrism to a good explanation because of OBSERVATIONS, you moron! It was not because they had “faith” that the Sun was the locus of the solar system.

Instead of writing a lot here, just read my essay in Slate, “No faith in science“, which dispels the canard that science requires some religious-like “faith.”

Moreover, even by the most rigorous standards for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience, what is known as Imre Lakatos’s sophisticated falsification, it was seen that evolutionary biology in creationism and actually, on a path. So, creationism may not be scientific but then again, neither is evolutionary biology, which  appears unable to predict anything but only provides an explanation for the phenomena after the fact have taken place. Parenthetically, this is what is known within philosophy as an ad hoc hypothesis. To introduce an explanation in a hypothesis, only in order to explain something that is already known. And not to provide an explanation or a prediction for something new. And most philosophers of sciences agree that introducing such ad hoc hypotheses within science should always be avoided because it turns a scientific theory into pseudoscience.

This is again a twofold lie: the claim that historical data cannot constitute support for a theory, or help us distinguish between theories, as well as the claim that “evolutionary biology is unable to predict anything.” I’d add here that although creationism has been falsified by many lines of evidence, evolution could have been falsified by observations like 400-million-year-old mammal fossils, an absence of genetic variation in species, or adaptations in one species which are useful only for a different species. But the falsifying observations haven’t been made. As I say in WEIT, “Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That’s as close as we can get to a scientific truth.”

Let’s get to the end of this pack of Palermos’s lies and distortions:

However, both evolutionary biology and creationism are guilty of introducing side ad hoc hypothesis. And so it would seem that neither is scientific.

Now, add to this the fact that genetics, which is a special discipline of evolutionary biology, is facing a number of anomalies. Like any other discipline in the past, in any other scientific field, [it] is most likely to change in the future. It becomes even less obvious why evolutionary biology and genetics should be taught in schools as scientifically proven theories but reject creationism as being pseudo-scientific.

Ah, now we hear that Palermos also claims that genetics isn’t really science. I’m not sure what “anomalies” he’s talking about (Epigenetic modification of DNA? Horizontal movement of genes?), but if genetics weren’t science, we have a lot of valuable and useful data that suddenly acquire the epistemic status of Mormonism. That’s just garbage—and it’s lying to the students of this course.

So this lecture delivered by professor of philosophy and theology Cornel Carnihim from the University of Nottingham, will go over some of themes in an accessible and captivating way.

The lecture purposely avoids to put forward any conclusion but it raises a number of interesting questions. Does the epistemic polity between creationism and evolutionary biology mean that neither of them should be taught as part of the standard curriculum? Or should we teach both, but with intellectually honest attitude that neither is quite scientific? And then, does this mean that we trust and pursue both to the same extent? Or should we invest our efforts to develop the most plausible hypothesis in a way that will finally make it stand out from religion?

Isn’t it better to be honest about the status of our best scientific theories, such that future students can know their limits and attempt to improve them, rather than dogmatically believing that they amount to proven knowledge when in fact, they’re far from it?

Isn’t it better to be intellectually honest about why virtually all scientists rejection creationism and accept evolution—a stand based on evidence—than to push postmodernism on a credulous group of students by equating religious faith with scientific confidence?

Shame on the John Templeton Foundation, and shame on the University of Edinburgh, for presenting these lies and distortions in a lecture on evolutionary biology! And Templeton, if you’re listening, how dare you fund a program that fundamentally misrepresents the nature of science? If you claim you’re promoting science in your program funding, you’re also undercutting the claim with junk lectures like this. And that is why no scientist should be taking money from the John Templeton Foundation.

As for the University of Edinburgh, they’ve got some housecleaning to do.

Aeon: A physicist claims that materialism is dead because it can’t explain consciousness

March 14, 2017 • 10:00 am

Quantum mechanics is deeply weird, and I can’t grasp it in the sense of trying to understand how it works using my own experience as a reference. But of course that’s true for physicists as well, and I think it’s what Feynman meant when he said “Nobody understands quantum mechanics” (see the short video below):

That is, quantum mechanics gives us a mathematical representation of how the Universe works (one that is remarkably good at making verified predictions), but understanding concepts like entanglement, the collapse of the wave function and so on—all this is beyond our ability to grasp using our everyday experience. (This has led to truly bizarre theories like the “many worlds” hypothesis, which defies comprehension but might in fact be true.) Trying to “understand” quantum mechanics in that way eludes the ability of physicists, too, as recounted in a new article in Aeon by Adam Frank, a professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester, a computational astrophysicist, an author, and co-founder of the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and CultureWhile physicists agree on the mathematics and its usefulness in understanding the universe, trying to envision the reality described by the equations has divided the field:

At a 2011 quantum theory meeting, three researchers conducted just such a poll, asking participants: ‘What is your favourite interpretation of quantum mechanics?’ (Six different models got votes, along with some preferences for ‘other’ and ‘no preference’.) As useful as this exercise might be for gauging researchers’ inclinations, holding a referendum for which interpretation should become ‘official’ at the next meeting of the American Physical Society (or the American Philosophical Society) won’t get us any closer to the answers we seek. Nor will stomping our feet, making loud proclamations, or name-dropping our favourite Nobel-prizewinning physicists.

The weirdness of quantum mechanics, and its ability to defy intuitive understanding, has of course led to its appropriation by both woo-meisters and postmodernists, who use it to justify all sorts of numinous and spiritual (as well as literary) principles, and to espouse the “observer effect” that falsely implies that the presence of an observer somehow affects the behavior of nature. As far as I know, it doesn’t: it just limits what we can learn about nature. Deepak Chopra, for instance—the apogee of quantum quackery—has said that when we’re not looking at the Moon, it doesn’t exist. Well, we know that’s not true because there’s evidence of the Moon’s existence before any conscious beings existed on Earth.

Yet even Dr. Frank himself seems to have succumbed to a soupçon of woo, and you can see that in the title and subtitle of his Aeon piece, “Minding matter: The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” (The title on the tab is “Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness.”)

It’s a longish piece and I won’t reprise it in detail (some of it’s above my pay grade), but Frank’s premise is stated in the titles: materialism cannot explain consciousness or mind. Something “more” may be involved. What that “more” is Frank never explains, but of course the Aeon site has a Templeton-like penchant for uniting science and faith, and the riddle of consciousness has been a lever to release the teleology of all manner of creationists, as well as anti-scientific philosophers like Tom Nagel. Because we don’t yet understand how consciousness works or how it evolved, say these folks, there has to be something in nature beyond the laws of physics and blind evolution.  I won’t go into the fallacies of this claim except to say that similar claims have been made throughout the last few centuries for epilepsy, contagious disease, lightning, magnetism, and all manner of phenomena that eventually yielded to science. What Frank is making here is simply a sophisticated God of the Gaps argument, except that he uses the word “something more than materialism” rather than “God.”

Now Frank talks about the insufficiency of “materialism”, but I think he means “naturalism”, because materialism is simply the claim that there’s nothing more to the Universe than matter, and we may find some natural phenomena that don’t involve matter as we know it. I’ll use both terms interchangeably, though I prefer “naturalism.”

Beyond the view that consciousness defies materialist understanding, Frank appears to have bought into the view that the “observer effect” is real—real in the sense that, as he surmises, the laws of physics depend on the presence of mind, which must perforce become part of physics itself (my emphasis in all the statements below):

A particularly cogent new version of the psi-epistemological position, called Quantum Bayesianism or QBism, raises this perspective to a higher level of specificity by taking the probabilities in quantum mechanics at face value. According to Fuchs, the leading proponent of QBism, the irreducible probabilities in quantum mechanics tell us that it’s really a theory about making bets on the world’s behaviour (via our measurements) and then updating our knowledge after those measurements are done. In this way, QBism points explicitly to our failure to include the observing subject that lies at the root of quantum weirdness. As Mermin wrote in the journal Nature: ‘QBism attributes the muddle at the foundations of quantum mechanics to our unacknowledged removal of the scientist from the science.’

Putting the perceiving subject back into physics would seem to undermine the whole materialist perspective. A theory of mind that depends on matter that depends on mind could not yield the solid ground so many materialists yearn for.

Now put alongside that notion the idea, espoused by Frank, that consciousness eludes a “materialistic” explanation—with the implication that this will always be so. Here are a few quotes (my emphasis):

Albert Einstein and Max Planck introduced the idea of the quantum at the beginning of the 20th century, sweeping away the old classical view of reality. We have never managed to come up with a definitive new reality to take its place. The interpretation of quantum physics remains as up for grabs as ever. As a mathematical description of solar cells and digital circuits, quantum mechanics works just fine. But if one wants to apply the materialist position to a concept as subtle and profound as consciousness, something more must clearly be asked for. The closer you look, the more it appears that the materialist (or ‘physicalist’) position is not the safe harbor of metaphysical sobriety that many desire.


But those ascribing to psi-ontology – sometimes called wave function realism – must now navigate a labyrinth of challenges in holding their views. The Wave Function (2013), edited by the philosophers Alyssa Ney and David Z Albert, describes many of these options, which can get pretty weird. Reading through the dense analyses quickly dispels any hope that materialism offers a simple, concrete reference point for the problem of consciousness.

And this:

It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?

Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.

You see the conundrum. If mind is a fundamental aspect of physics but cannot be reducible to, or even an emergent property of, physics, then we are stuck in an endless feedback loop. The world cannot then be explained fully in materialistic (or naturalistic terms). We have to somehow add consciousness to the Standard Theory of physics before we can even begin to explain it! This is what Frank means when he says this:

Putting the perceiving subject back into physics would seem to undermine the whole materialist perspective. A theory of mind that depends on matter that depends on mind could not yield the solid ground so many materialists yearn for.

I suspect that most physicists would take issue with Franks’s claim that the laws of physics depend on mind, and that mind and consciousness cannot be reducible to the laws of physics (which of course underlie chemistry, biology, and evolution). No, I believe Frank is calling for something numinous or even supernatural—the “something more” mentioned in the paragraph above.

I’m sure Frank would deny he means God, but if he means “something more than naturalism and materialism,” then he’s surely treading in the realms of the supernatural. In fact, “something more than naturalism” is by definition “supernaturalism.” And of course Aeon would love this view: remember that the site published the dubious theory of “panpsychism” I discussed the other day.

Why did Frank write this piece? I don’t know, but it seems to emanate from two issues: the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics in terms of everyday experience, and the fact that science hasn’t yet understood the evolution or operation of consciousness. Yet there is every indication that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when evolution has shepherded organisms to a certain level of complexity, and that it’s also a physical phenomenon whose existence and operation depend on physical factors. (For one thing, you can remove and bring back consciousness with chemicals like ketamine.) And no, Dr. Goff, rocks and electrons aren’t conscious, and don’t have minds.

As I said, I’m not a physicist, so some of Frank’s musings are beyond my ability to judge. But I’ve heard plenty of respected physicists—most recently Lawrence Krauss in his new book—argue that the so-called “observer effect” isn’t what we think it is, and isn’t itself part of the laws of physics. I am not at all convinced at all that explaining consciousness requires “something more” than naturalism.

But read the article yourself and see if I’m distorting what Frank says. I aver again that Frank doesn’t mention God, and may well be an atheist, but what is “something more than naturalism” if it be not supernaturalism?

Is falsifiability essential to science?

December 20, 2015 • 9:30 am

The two articles I want to discuss today are fascinating, for they raise a problem that’s now vexing many scientists (especially physicists)—the problem of testability. (Thanks to reader Mark H. for calling my attention to them.)

It all goes back to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994). Popper’s views about what made a theory “scientific” were immensely influential. They’re summed up in the Wikipedia piece on him:

A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. If the outcome of an experiment contradicts the theory, one should refrain from ad hoc manoeuvres that evade the contradiction merely by making it less falsifiable.

In other words, a theory that can’t in principle be shown to be wrong isn’t a scientific theory. But I disagree with that characterization, and the one from Wikipedia, in two ways.  First, a theory might appear at present to not be “falsifiable”, but it can still be considered “scientific” in that it explains a variety of phenomena and, more important, someday we might find a way to test it. Without supercolliders, we had no way to test the prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson, for existence. When we managed to build that machine, we could look for its existence, and we found it. That, more or less, is the current position of string theory and multiverse theory in physics. They are elegant, can explain some phenomena (the unification of the four forces for the former; the vaunted “fine tuning” of the constants of physics in our universe for the latter),  but neither can yet be tested. But I still see them as scientific theories.

Second, a theory can be “patched up” and still retain its integrity, so some ad hoc-ing is acceptable. For example, we now know that some environmentally induced changes in the DNA can be inherited for one or a few generations, which appears to contradict an important tenet of neo-Darwinism. But all we need to do is realize that these changes are temporary and haven’t contributed to organismal adaptation in the long term. So “epigenetics” in this sense simply broadens a theory that initially maintained that no environmental modification could be passed on. But it doesn’t destroy that theory. It’s only when the patches on a theory become seriously pervasive that the theory must be abandoned. That is what happened to cold fusion, or the theory that vaccines caused autism. Both of those went away because they were falsified by data.

The way I construe falsifiability is like this: A theory for which there are no conceivable observations that could show it to be wrong is not a theory in which you can place much confidence (i.e., regard it as provisionally “true”). 

I know I’m treading on dangerous ground here, as philosophers will circle that sentence like orcas around a wounded seal, but in fact that is the way that science really works. String theory is elegant, a lot of people are working on it, and someday we may find a way to “test” it, but for the present it’s not regarded as a “true” theory—not in the way that the Standard Model of physics is, a theory that has predictions that could be have been falsified, but haven’t been.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of Popper-dissing going around. I’ve already taken issue with two of his points, but I firmly adhere to the way I’ve construed falsifiability (in italics) above. Scientists still behave as if they don’t accept something as “true” unless it’s passed tests that could have shown it to be false.

As expected, most of the Popper-dissing comes from physics, which now has theories that are so hard to test—as they involve things occurring on scales too small to observe—like the “strings” of string theory—that they are resorting to other ways to confirm such theories. One is “beauty”: a theory which is explanatory and beautiful, like string theory, can provisionally be seen to be correct. I disagree. Einstein’s general theory of relativity was a beautiful theory, and Einstein seemed to regard it as correct on that count alone, but the physics community didn’t take it as true until it made predictions that could be tested, and were verified. These included the bending of light by celestial bodies (as in Eddington’s experiment) and the precise quantification of the advance of Mercury’s perihelion. Since then, other tests have amply confirmed both the general and special theories.

Other ways to “confirm” theories include Bayesian approaches that are said to give greater or lesser confirmation to a theory. I’m not familiar with how Bayes’ Theorem is used in this way, but I know that many physicists think that this isn’t a proper way to test something like string theory.

In 2014, a mathematician and physicist, George Ellis and Joe Silk, went after the increasing tendency of physicists to validate theories without any empirical observation. In their article, “Defend the integrity of physics,” they said this, concentrating on string theory and multiverse theory (all bolding in this post is mine):

This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.

Chief among the ‘elegance will suffice’ advocates are some string theorists. Because string theory is supposedly the ‘only game in town’ capable of unifying the four fundamental forces, they believe that it must contain a grain of truth even though it relies on extra dimensions that we can never observe. Some cosmologists, too, are seeking to abandon experimental verification of grand hypotheses that invoke imperceptible domains such as the kaleidoscopic multiverse (comprising myriad universes), the ‘many worlds’ version of quantum reality (in which observations spawn parallel branches of reality) and pre-Big Bang concepts.

These unprovable hypotheses are quite different from those that relate directly to the real world and that are testable through observations — such as the standard model of particle physics and the existence of dark matter and dark energy. As we see it, theoretical physics risks becoming a no-man’s-land between mathematics, physics and philosophy that does not truly meet the requirements of any.

Ellis and Silk name Richard Dawid and our Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll among those asking to weaken the “testability” criterion for theories of physics. Ellis and Silk’s piece, which is easily readable by non-specialists, ends like this:

What to do about it? Physicists, philosophers and other scientists should hammer out a new narrative for the scientific method that can deal with the scope of modern physics. In our view, the issue boils down to clarifying one question: what potential observational or experimental evidence is there that would persuade you that the theory is wrong and lead you to abandoning it? If there is none, it is not a scientific theory.

Such a case must be made in formal philosophical terms. A conference should be convened next year to take the first steps. People from both sides of the testability debate must be involved.

In the meantime, journal editors and publishers could assign speculative work to other research categories — such as mathematical rather than physical cosmology — according to its potential testability. And the domination of some physics departments and institutes by such activities could be rethought.

The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable. Only then can we defend science from attack.

I’m in nearly complete agreement with this, except that I’d still award the imprimatur of “science” to string and multiverse theories. They are scientific theories—just not ones that we can have any confidence in. They’re not even close to being as “true” as, say, Einstein’s theories of relativity or the theory of evolution.

At any rate, the conference called for by Ellis and Silk has taken place this month—at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. It’s described in Natalie Wolchover’s article in Quanta, “A fight for the soul of science“:

Once again there was the customary Popper-bashing:

But, as many in Munich were surprised to learn, falsificationism is no longer the reigning philosophy of science. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, pointed out that falsifiability is woefully inadequate as a separator of science and nonscience, as Popper himself recognized. Astrology, for instance, is falsifiable — indeed, it has been falsified ad nauseam — and yet it isn’t science. Physicists’ preoccupation with Popper “is really something that needs to stop,” Pigliucci said. “We need to talk about current philosophy of science. We don’t talk about something that was current 50 years ago.”

I have to disagree with Pigliucci here; I haven’t yet seen a theory accepted as true that hasn’t survived a test that could show it to be wrong. And yes, I do think that at one time astrology was a scientific theory: a theory claiming that one’s personality could be affected by one’s time of birth, connected with the configuration of stars and planets at that time. Astrology, like creationism, was once a scientific theory, but now it’s a falsified scientific theory, and can’t be accepted as true. It isn’t science any more, but it once was. To say that the falsification of astrology completely refutes the value of falsificationism or Popperianism seems to me a circular argument. At any rate, I will agree with Massimo that if a reasonable theory can’t yet be falsified, it can still be seen as “scientific”; but as the years pass and one can’t find a way to test that theory, it eventually passes into the hinterlands of “nonscientific.” What Pigliucci appears to be doing here (and I’ll grant that I haven’t seen his paper) is conflating what we regard as “scientific theories” with what regard as “true scientific theories.”

I won’t recount the to-and-fros that occurred at this meeting, as you can read Wolchover’s piece for yourself, but it does give three alternatives to falsification, at least for string theory. Here are the first two: 1. no other theory that explains “everything” has yet been found; and 2. string theory came from the Standard Model, which for a long time itself had no alternatives, buttressing the possibility that a “no-alternatives” theory could be right on that ground alone.

I find neither of these arguments convincing, if for no other reason than a good alternative theory might some day surface. How can we have so much hubris that we think that no human will ever devise an alternative to string theory? And, of course, by now the Standard Model has been tested many times, and passed the tests. It wasn’t taken to be true until these confirmations. Why, then, do we behave differently with string theory? Only because it’s much harder to test.

Finally, string theory is said to have provided explanations for previously inexplicable phenomena, like the entropy of black holes. To me that is something worth considering, but not enough to confirm the theory. Explaining phenomena is one way to validate a theory (after all, that’s what Darwin did when using evolution to explain the peculiar distribution of species on oceanic islands), but you must be able to devise tests that could show a theory is wrong before you accept it as correct. To disprove neo-Darwinism, for instance, you might find a lack of genetic variation in species, fossils in the wrong places, one species with adaptations that increase the fitness only of a second species and not itself, and so on. These are potential falsifiers, but none of them have been seen. We have no similar falsifiers for string theory.

As for Bayesian ways of getting greater confidence in theories, I haven’t read anything about them, and so can’t weigh in here, but I have to say that I’m dubious.

If you have any interest in the history and philosophy of science, I’d recommend reading both the Nature and Quanta articles, as the debate is not only fascinating, but goes to the very heart of science: how we decide what is provisionally true, and how much confidence to apportion to our beliefs. I would add that we should be wary of those like Pigliucci who, on weak grounds, claim that “Popperism is dead.” It’s telling that the Quanta piece describes the outcome of the Munich conference like this (my emphasis):

The Munich proceedings will be compiled and published, probably as a book, in 2017. As for what was accomplished, one important outcome, according to Ellis, was an acknowledgment by participating string theorists that the theory is not “confirmed” in the sense of being verified. “David Gross made his position clear: Dawid’s criteria are good for justifying working on the theory, not for saying the theory is validated in a non-empirical way,” Ellis wrote in an email. “That seems to me a good position — and explicitly stating that is progress.”

In considering how theorists should proceed, many attendees expressed the view that work on string theory and other as-yet-untestable ideas should continue. “Keep speculating,” Achinstein [Peter Achenstein, a historian and philosopher of science] wrote in an email after the workshop, but “give your motivation for speculating, give your explanations, but admit that they are only possible explanations.”

“Maybe someday things will change,” Achinstein added, “and the speculations will become testable; and maybe not, maybe never.” We may never know for sure the way the universe works at all distances and all times, “but perhaps you can narrow the live possibilities to just a few,” he said. “I think that would be some progress.”

What I’ve put in bold is a tacit admission that string theory has not been verified in the way that the Standard Model, or the theory of evolution, has. Yes, string theory is still a scientific theory, and maybe we’ll find a way to test it. I certainly don’t think physicists should stop working on it just because they haven’t yet found a way to falsify it. That would be premature. But until they do find a way to test it, I don’t see it as a scientific theory in which we should place a lot of confidence; i.e., I don’t see it as “true.” Neither, apparently, do the participants in that conference! Karl Popper’s ideas are regularly declared dead, but they refuse to lie down.

I feel the pain of these physicists, for their theories are now so elegant and abstruse that it may be impossible to test them properly. They involve strings that are impossibly tiny, and theories with so many parameters that the notion of testability is elusive. In other words, their success has painted them into a corner. By changing the rules of science, they’re trying to make a virtue of necessity. But the way out of their corner isn’t to change the rules—the way we establish things as true. If physicists can’t find a way to falsify their theories, in that corner they shall stay. After all, every scientist admits that there are some things about the Universe that we simply will never know.

Karl Popper

Accommodationism from a physicist

August 23, 2014 • 12:44 pm

On his Scientific American website Cross-Check, John Horgan interviews Carlo Rovelli, a physicist well known for his work on quantum gravity. They cover a number of topics, including whether there will soon be a “theory of everything” (Rovelli says no), the role of philosophy in physics, and the compatibility of science and religion.  You can read the whole thing for yourself, but I want to highlight Rovelli’s answers in three areas.

On philosophy and physics:

Horgan: What’s your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this.   I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong.  Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly.  You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the “true” philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.

Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories.  This is the physics of the “why not?”  Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe?    Science has never advanced in this manner in the past.  Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories.  Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this.  But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort.  Why?  Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.

Like Rovelli, Sean Carroll, and (I’m forced to admit) Massimo Pigliucci, I agree that dissing philosophy in general is dumb, and that philosophy has a lot to offer science, most importantly in enforcing the rigor of our thinking. Philosophers are experts in picking out bad arguments and logical flaws, and we’d be silly not to benefit from that. They’re also good at clarifying problems. On the other hand, many things can be construed as philosophy, including lucubrations like the back-and-forth Gedankenexperiments that Einstein and Bohr had about quantum mechanics.  At its boundaries, the disciplines are continuous, though philosophy by itself cannot tell us what’s true about the universe.

What I’m not sure about is whether, as Rovelli seems to hold, formal academic philosophy is crucial to physics. He certainly doesn’t give an example of that. Give me a little time, and I could construe almost any form of science, including evolutionary biology, as depending critically on philosophy, but you have to stretch the definition of “philosophy” to maintain that.

This is not, of course, to denigrate the real contributions that philosophy has made in non-scientific areas, particularly in thinking about morality. But it’s not clear to me how Hawkin’s black-hole radiation is deeply dependent on philosophy. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me. All I know is that most scientists, including those in biology, never read formal philosophy.

On teleology.

Horgan: Do you agree with philosopher Thomas Nagel that science needs a new paradigm to account for the emergence of life and consciousness in the cosmos?

Rovelli: No.  When we do not understand something, people are tempted to think that “some new paradigm” is needed, or a “great mystery” is there.   Then we understand it, and all fog dissolves.

That’s a great answer. Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False—a book that provided great succor to creationists and woo-lovers—was simply dreadful: a claim that something was clearly missing from evolutionary biology, and that “something” was an unspecified teleological element (see my post on three devastating reviews of that book).  There’s a lot that we don’t understand about evolution (i.e., what form of sexual selection explains sexual dimorphism in birds?), but, contra Rovelli, there’s nothing to suggest that major elements are missing evolutionary biology that have us all flummoxed.

On the existence of God:

Horgan: Do you believe in God?

Rovelli: No.  But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what “to believe in God” means. The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me.  I do not understand them.  I suppose this means that I “do not believe in God”. If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.

If the question is whether I believe that “God” is a powerful something in the people, which causes a lot of disasters but also a lot of good, then of course I believe it.   In fact, I am extremely curious about religion. I think that we should study what is religion much more than what is done. There is a sort of taboo in this, a sort of respect towards people who “believe in God”, which makes it difficult to understand better.

I think that viewing the “belief in God” just as a bunch of silly superstitions is wrong. The “belief in God” is one form of human religious attitude, and human religious attitude is something very general and universal about our functioning. Something which is important for man, and we have not yet understood.

This seems a bit disingenuous. It’s pretty clear what Horgan’s question meant: did Rovelli believe that some supernatural being existed, one who probably interacted with the universe? Rovelli says that he doesn’t understand what “to believe in God means,” but then he answer the question with a definitive “no.” He then moves the goalposts and says that it’s still an interesting question why people are religious.  Here he conflates “belief in God” with “understanding why people are religious.” The former is indeed a bunch of silly superstitions; the latter is a perfectly valid historical and psychological endeavor.  To imply that nonbelievers see the phenomenon and practice of religion as unimportant, or not worth studying as a psychological and historical curiosity, is simply misguided.

On the compatibility of science and faith:

Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?

Rovelli: Of course yes: you can be great in solving Maxwell’s equations and pray to God in the evening.  But there is an unavoidable clash between science and certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity and Islam, those that pretend to be repositories of “absolute Truths.”  The problem is not that scientists think they know everything. It is the opposite: scientists know that there are things we simply do not know, and naturally question those who pretend to know.   Many religious people are disturbed by this, and have difficulty in coping with it.  The religious person says, “I know that God has created light saying, ‘Fiat Lux.’”  The scientist does not believe the story. The religious people feel threatened.  And here the clash develops.  But not all religions are like that. Many forms of Buddhism, for instance, have no difficulty with the continual critical attitude of science. Monotheistic religions, and in particular Islam and Christianity, are sometimes less intelligent.

I have an idea about the source of the conflict: there is beautiful research by anthropologists in Australia which shows that religious beliefs are often considered a-temporal but in reality change continuously and adapt to new conditions, new knowledge and so on.  This was discovered by comparing religious beliefs held by native Australians studied by anthropologists in the thirties and, much later, in the seventies.  So, in a natural situation, religious beliefs adapt to the change in man’s culture and knowledge.  The problem with Islam and Christianity is that many centuries ago somebody had the idea of writing down beliefs. So now some religious people are stuck with the culture and knowledge of centuries ago. They are fish trapped in a pond of old water.

Well, if you see compatibility as the ability of human minds to do science and believe in fairy tales, then Rovelli’s right. But in those lights, science and creationism are compatible, because you can find some scientists (engineers, chemists, and so on) who are creationists. Further, the incompatibilites extend deeper than just “provisional vs. absolute” truth. Religion has no way to find truth: no way to check whether its claims, as opposed to those of other faiths, are right or wrong.

Most of the rest of the first paragraph is good; it’s useful to realize that religious people dislike science because it forces us to live with doubt, and many believers aren’t comfortable with that.  (Richard Feynman particularly emphasized that difference, as in the video below) HOWEVER, although some forms of Buddhism don’t believe in a god, even some liberal sects accept the supernatural. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is always cited as being down with science, and he says in one of his books that if science disproved a tenet of Buddhism, Buddhism would have to give up that tenet. Yet Gyatso himself accepts not only reincarnation but also the “law of karma,” both of which are instances of pure, supernatural woo. And surely some polytheistic religions, like Hinduism, are just as ridden with superstition and false certainty as the monotheistic ones.

As for the continual change of some religions, that’s fine, and I didn’t know about that work in Australia. But one must realize that if religions change in such a way as to accept the findings of science, eventually they will no longer be religions, but will morph into secular humanism.  Rovelli’s point about scripture forcing people to adhere to changing dogma is, however, a good one.

If you haven’t watched this wonderful clip of Feynman, one of my favorites, do so immediately:


Pigliucci pwns Neil deGrasse Tyson; SMBC teases Pigliucci

May 20, 2014 • 9:03 am

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has criticized philosophy quite a bit recently, and so has Lawrence Krauss, though Krauss apologized for some of his more egregious statements. Tyson, however, remains obdurately anti-philosophy, and that has angered Massimo Pigliucci. Over at his new website Scientia Salon, Pigliucci takes out after Tyson in a post called “Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy”. I think it’s a pretty good defense of the value of some philosophy, and includes stuff like the following (it takes the form of an open letter to Tyson):

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately. There are two answers here: first, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does, occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise. And philosophy is not the only discipline that engages in studying the workings of science: so do history and sociology of science, and yet I never heard you dismiss those fields on the grounds that they haven’t discovered the Higgs boson. Second, I suggest you actually look up some technical papers in philosophy of science [12] to see how a number of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians actually do collaborate to elucidate the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research on everything from evolutionary theory and species concepts to interpretations of quantum mechanics and the structure of superstring theory. Those papers, I maintain, do constitute a positive contribution of philosophy to the progress of science — at least if by science you mean an enterprise deeply rooted in the articulation of theory and its relationship with empirical evidence.

and this:

A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.

I have to agree with Massimo here: it’s simply stupid to dismiss all philosophy as valueless. While I think that some of it is (the discussions of “the meaning of meaning”, for instance, leave me cold), philosophy has been of substantial value in areas like ethics. What is the Euthyphro argument, for instance, except philosophy? And that argument, often used by atheists, shows pretty definitively that morality cannot come directly from God.  Further, Massimo notes that philosophy does progress in the sense that it explores conceptual space over time, and nowhere has it done this more effectively than ethics.  The work of Peter Singer, for instance, builds on a lot of previous ethics, and has been valuable in helping us clarify how to deal with strangers, how to treat animals, and so on. Over time, fallacious arguments get weeded out, and philosophy helps collate our scattered ideas into coherence.

Further, philosophy helps scientists be rigorous, for the discipline teaches the logical tools that can help clarify scientific thinking. I, for one, have benefitted from reading the lucubrations of Dan Dennett about consciousness and about evolution, even if I don’t always agree with him. So on this count I think Tyson needed to be schooled. Massimo’s rebuke is kindly and not ascerbic, but Pigliucci reports that, in an email reply, Tyson simply won’t be budged. As Massimo noted:

As for a possible reply from Neil, I have, of course, invited him to submit one. Here is his reply, verbatim: “I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”

That’s neither cool nor polite, Dr. Tyson, and it bespeaks an unwillingness to learn.

As a footnote, though, the strip SMBC took it upon itself to tease Massimo with this cartoon. I vaguely remember Massimo making the “same river” point, but I can’t recall where. Perhaps a reader can help.

Yes, that’s clearly Dr. Pigliucci, but the artist forgot the black diamond earring. . .


h/t: Mark


What is “science”?

February 23, 2014 • 9:56 am

I’m not sure who writes the website The Barefoot Bum (he appears to be named “Larry” in his website cartoon), but I’m sorry I didn’t run across it a while back, for he’s written two great posts in a row (the other one, which I may discuss later, is on the dreadful dialogue between Gary Gutting and Alvin Plantinga that recently appeared in The New York Times).

The Bum’s first piece, “The limits of science,” is a critique of a paper I’ve written about—attack on New Atheism published by Massimo Pigliucci.

Pigliucci’s paper, which appeared in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, is called “New Atheism and the scientistic turn in the atheism movement” (free download), and it reprises the author’s familiar gripes about New Atheism: people like Dawkins and Harris are philosophically unsophisticated and haven’t grappled with the best arguments for and against theism by philosophers (Pigliucci even claims that “it seems clear to me that most of the New Atheists [except for the professional philosophers among them] pontificate about philosophy very likely without having read a single professional paper in that field”); and that we define science unduly broadly, especially when seeing religious claims as empirical hypotheses open to examination by reason and observation (and to dismissal if they can’t be so adjuciated).  By broadening the definition of science to something like “investigating any claims about reality using reason, observation, testing, and the attitude of doubt and falsifiability,” Pigliucci claims that we’re engaging in the Deadly Sin of Scientism. (Pigliucci’s own definition of science is the activities engaged in by professional scientists, while I—and apparently Larry—see “science” as a method of finding things out that can in principle be used by anyone.)

At any rate, The Barefoot Bum’s critique is both better reasoned and more temperate than mine, and I’d recommend your reading his whole piece.   As I’m still preoccupied with other stuff (I finished the first draft of my book and have begun revising it), I’ll just post some of what “Larry” says for you to ponder. As you might suspect, I agree with much of it:

Pigliucci’s definition [of science] is too narrow in that we can easily conceive of science being done without many of the institutional characteristics he lists. How general must a theory be to be “scientific”? Is, for example, forensic science really a science? Forensic science seeks to discover what actually happened at a particular point in time, almost the exact opposite of the construction of a general theory about the world. If forensic science is not a science, what is it? Do we need systematic peer review — in something other than the trivial, over-broad sense that all communication is received and modified by listeners — for an endeavor to be scientific? Must we have public or private funding, again in other than the trivial sense that everything is in some sense economic? For decades, science was self-financed, pursued by people with their own income from other sources. Pigliucci’s definition of “science” is as absurd as defining “dining” as something being done in a restaurant using food, which would include eating at McDonalds and exclude my friend, who is an excellent amateur cook, preparing dinner at home.

He claims as well that Pigliucci is being philosophically inconsistent by insisting on a narrow definition of “science” while taking a very broad and loose view of the term “fact”:

Pigliucci argues that the word “fact” connotes “too heterogeneous a category” for science to encompass. Pigliucci asserts a broad definition of “facts,” which includes all statements that one cannot successfully deny; Pigliucci asserts, for example, that one cannot, for example, deny that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle (on a plane) add up to 180° (150). But this argument can be read as simply the tendency of speakers of natural languages to apply the same word to different categories. Pigliucci’s example is telling: Euclidean geometry is not a fact even in the loosest empirical sense of a fact as a true statement about the world. Instead, Euclidean geometry is a mathematical formalism; to determine whether or not Euclidean geometry accurately describes the real world, we need to actually observe and measure angles. And we find that often, Euclidean geometry does not accurate describe the world, as when we draw triangles on a sphere or the Reimann surfaces near a large mass. We can take the amorphous mass of meanings that constitute the lexicographical content of “fact” and easily divide them into distinct* categories: common observation, deductive certainty, settled scientific theories, social totems, and confident assertions. There is no need to hold that broadening the definition of “science” requires that the broader definition include every lexicographical denotation of “fact.”

I’ve thought a lot about mathematics and am coming around to the view that it doesn’t reveal truths about the world, but simply the inevitable consequences, worked out by logic of a set of axioms. That is why we speak of “proof” in mathematics but not in science. Fermat’s Last Theorem was “proven,” but nobody says “We’ve proved evolution,” for something could always surface that showed evolution to be wrong. (I don’t, by the way, anticipate that!)

Finally, “Larry,” constructs his own definition of science, which I like quite a bit. Go over to his site to see it, but in summary it incorporates investigations limited to the real world, the formation of theories about phenomena, the insistence that those theories be falsifiable through general agreement by rational people, and the idea theories should be parsimonious, invoking no more assumptions or entities than necessary to explain the observations. This definition of “science,” of course, includes plumbing and car mechanics (“my hypothesis is that there’s a bad fuse in the electrical system”). To me it’s not so important what the dictionary says as that there is methodology held in common by plumbers and molecular biologists.

In the end, The Barefoot Bum applies his definition to religion, showing that it is in principle “scientific” because it makes empirical claims about the world, but then doesn’t follow the scientific method to examine those claims. His paragraph on this is a marvel of concision:

This definition seems to exclude a lot of religious thought as either unscientific or scientifically false. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins proposes the “God Hypothesis.” Dawkins asks: what happens when we try to construct religious thought as science, broadly conceived? Applying the criteria, we hypothesize that God is real, with real properties. Second, we make a logically connected theory that includes God and His properties. Third, we make this theory falsifiable, it entails logically possible facts which would disprove the theory. Fourth, we demand commonly observable facts that would disprove the theory. If we do so, then we find that either a real God has properties that are entirely different than the properties we normally ascribe to persons; a theory of God compatible with the commonly observable facts requires a God who is, unlike ordinary human persons, not only mechanical and sphexish. Reject any of the criteria, and you concede the argument by contradiction, absurdity, or vacuity. If God is not real, you’re already an atheist. If you cannot make a logically connected theory, you are just babbling. If your theory cannot be falsified, then there’s no way of telling if it’s true or false. If your theory is not falsifiable by commonly observable facts, you are unjustifiably claiming private knowledge. And if your theory is observationally identical to a universe with no personal God, then you’re again already an atheist; a God who makes no difference is no God at all. The only remaining question is whether some people would find this analysis useful, and I know many people who, applying this analysis, have abandoned their religion.

I suspect Pigliucci won’t be happy with Larry’s conclusion: that all empirical claims are ultimately totally within the purview of science. That is, there are no “ways of knowing” other than through science, though there are ways of understanding that fall outside science’s bailiwick:

Does this definition include or exclude anything obviously objectionable? We seem to admit lawyering, but lawyers are not obviously unscientific. This definition excludes pure mathematics (even if a lot of mathematicians are Platonists), but I suspect most mathematicians would not object to being placed outside the boundaries of science. This definition definitely excludes philosophy; I do not know, however, whether Pigliucci would be encouraged or enraged by such exclusion.

Finally, the question remains: does this definition of science “encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding”? It certainly does not encompass all aspects of human understanding (even if the definition of “understanding” is so broad as to render the term meaningless). As noted above, it does not include mathematics, literature, or even philosophy, which are uncontroversially parts of human understanding. Perhaps, however, it does encompass all knowledge; it is perhaps the case that anything that legitimately deserves the name “knowledge” really must be scientific, in the sense described above. But I need not answer this question to dispose of Pigliucci’s case; it is enough to find that this broad definition of science is useful and largely unproblematic.

The hallmark of New Atheism is its insistence on two things: seeing religious dogma as comprising real claims about what is true in the universe—as hypotheses—and regarding “faith” as exactly the wrong way to assess those claims. In contrast, the hallmark of New Theology is to desperately elude that New Atheist stance by rendering religious claims immune to empirical examination and reason. Plantinga, as Larry shows in his other article, gets around New Atheism by insisting that the Christian God is simply obvious to anyone who looks.

Philosophy of the gaps?

May 27, 2013 • 6:51 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Time.  Tallis notes:

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

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

  • A universe from nothing. 

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

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

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

  • Understanding consciousness.   As he says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Michael

A few words in favor of philosophy

May 5, 2013 • 6:14 pm

by Greg Mayer

Having just read of Jerry’s lamentable indisposition (get well!), I thought I’d write something brief that at least might get discussion going among WEIT readers till he can post again. (And in passing I note that perhaps encountering the greatness of salamanders in the wild for the first time caused a sensory overload which upset Jerry’s homeostatic equilibrium.)  So here goes.

Unlike some readers, I have no great qualms about philosophy as an academic discipline or realm of human endeavor. In fact, quite the opposite. For a considerable part of last academic year I was even the chairman of my university’s philosophy department (a fact still attested to at this time, due to the slowness with which webpages are updated; an unusual set of circumstances, mostly revolving around the fate of small departments at small universities, led to my being chair, but these need not detain us).

I think philosophy has much to offer us, and Jerry has remarked often upon the long traditions of the philosophy of ethics as the basis of secular ethics and a counterweight to faith-based ethics. But I’ll mention two things here that relate to philosophy of science in particular.

First, there’s conceptual clarification. Some ideas in science are difficult and complex, and philosophers have often contributed to the elucidation of the implications and assumptions underlying our ideas. Philosophers, qua philosophers, do not contribute empirical data, but by helping to clarify our ideas they help us think more clearly about our data and the world. Work by the late David Hull on species, and by Elliott Sober on the nature of selection are two examples that spring immediately to mind.

Second, understanding scientific methodology, and how/why it works, is a branch of epistemology– the study of how we know things. I found reflection on scientific methods, and what they imply about the nature of science, indispensable in my own development as a scientist (something I began thinking about in grad school). The understandings I achieved then, and their development over time, have been at the core of my nearly twenty years of teaching general education students about the nature of science, how we can evaluate claims about the world, and what claims can be said to be more or less reliable. It has also been very important in my teaching of statistics, for statistics is just a specific instantiation of the general problem of scientific inference. In this area, I think immediately of Philip Kitcher‘s contributions to a general understanding of the progress of scientific inquiry, and Elliott Sober and Malcolm Forster‘s contributions to statistical epistemology in particular.

I could go on, but I promised to be brief. Have at it.