2022 Templeton Prize goes to Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek

May 13, 2022 • 8:00 am

The Templeton Prize, now worth $1.3 million, was initiated by the hedge-fund magnate Sir John Templeton (1912-2008) to award accomplished people of faith.  As its Wikipedia entry notes, the prize originally went solely to religionists like Mother Teresa (now a saint) and Billy Graham, but has recently morphed more and more into a prize given to those who unite spirituality and religion with science (Sir John’s view was that the more we learn about science, the closer we get to God—not to some apophatic and abstruse deity like “love” or “nature”, but to a real personal-type god.) Here’s a bit about the annual prize from Wikipedia:

The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimation of the judges, “whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” It was established, funded and administered by John Templeton starting in 1972. It is now co-funded by the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and Templeton World Charity Foundation, and administered by the John Templeton Foundation.[1]

The prize was originally awarded to people working in the field of religion (Mother Teresa was the first winner), but in the 1980s the scope broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. Until 2001, the name of the prize was “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”, and from 2002 to 2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities”. Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims have been on the panel of judges and have been recipients of the prize.

The monetary value of the prize is adjusted so that it exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes; Templeton felt, according to The Economist, that “spirituality was ignored” in the Nobel Prizes. As of 2019, it is £1.1 million. It has typically been presented by Prince Philip in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

The list of prizes at the Wikipedia site shows this morphing, and the latest recipient: theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, continues the trend (last year’s recipient was Jane Goodall). As far as I can see, Wilczek is basically an agnostic who pays lip service to “God” as meaning “everything in the world.” Wikipedia notes, “Wilczek was raised Catholic but later ‘lost faith in conventional religion’. He claims no religious tradition, and has been described as an agnostic but tweeted in 2013 that ‘pantheist’ is ‘closer to the mark’.”  In other words, he’s a “none.”

Well, that’s good enough for me so long as he isn’t engaged in promulgating any kind of faith (belief without evidence), which he isn’t (see below for more).

Wilczek was born in 1951 and is listed as “The Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Founding Director of T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at the Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), distinguished professor at Arizona State University (ASU) and full professor at Stockholm University.. That’s a lot of positions! But the big deal is that he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004 for work on the strong nuclear force, but he also has distinguished accomplishments in other areas of physics. He’s somewhat of a physics polymath.

You can see a collection of videos about Wilczek and the Templeton Prize on the JTF site. They don’t show any visible strain of religiosity, conventional or otherwise, and a Scientific American interview with him, though playing up the “God” angle in its title, has nothing to say about a deity (click to read).

I’ll give just two Q&A’s  from the interview here:

Congratulations on receiving the Templeton Prize. What does this award represent for you?

My exploratory, science-based efforts to address questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious are resonating. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ve started to think about what it all means.

One kind of “spiritual” awakening for me has been experiencing how a dialogue with nature is possible—in which nature “talks back” and sometimes surprises you and sometimes confirms what you imagined. Vague hopes and concepts that were originally scribbles on paper become experimental proposals and sometimes successful descriptions of the world.

Well, when you read on, those “questions that are often thought to be philosophical or religious” turn out to be questions about science. The rest of his answer says nothing about a god, but defines Wilczek’s spirituality as the feeling he gets when his squiggles on paper that turn out to be correct representations of reality. But in that sense many theoretical physicists, like Dirac, Schrödinger, and Einstein, were “spiritual” too. The word is emptied here of any of its numinous significance.

One more.

You don’t now identify with any particular religious tradition, but in your 2021 book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, you wrote, “In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is.” What did you mean by that?

The use of the word “God” in common culture is very loose. People can mean entirely different things by it. For me, the unifying thread is thinking big: thinking about how the world works, what it is, how it came to be and what all that means for what we should do.

I chose to study this partly to fill the void that was left when I realized I could no longer accept the dogmas of the Catholic Church that had meant a lot to me as a teenager. Those dogmas include claims about how things happen that are particularly difficult to reconcile with science. But more importantly, the world is a bigger, older and more alien place than the tribalistic account in the Bible. There are some claims about ethics and attitudes about community that I do find valuable, but they cannot be taken as pronouncements from “on high.” I think I have now gathered enough wisdom and life experience that I can revisit all this with real insight.

If “God” means “thinking about how the world works and how that conditions our actions”, then we’re pretty much all religious.! I can live with that definition. His second paragraph not only disses the Bible, but touts a form of humanism as well as downgrading Earth, much less humans, as a special locus of God’s concern and action.

The rest of the interview is about Wilczek’s science, and is by far the most interesting bit.

 

Another black hole visualized, this one at the heart of our own galaxy

May 12, 2022 • 10:45 am

I had no idea that there was a big black hole at the center of the Milky Way, but that is indeed the case, though it seems to have been discovered not that long ago and photographed just now, as documented in the Event Horizon site below (click on screenshot).

The hole, called Sagittarius A* (or SgrA*) was discovered when several stars were orbiting around an invisible spot in the galaxy. Although black holes are themselves invisible, they can be visualized because they’re surrounded by a ring of glowing gas. The website Event Horizon Telescope (which is the group that visualized it and the first black hole) describes the finding and shows the photos, which are, after all, what we want to see. Producing them was itself a remarkable feat, as described below.  Click on the screenshot below to read:

From the site:

Although we cannot see the black hole itself, because it is completely dark, glowing gas around it reveals a telltale signature: a dark central region (called a “shadow”) surrounded by a bright ring-like structure. The new view captures light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is four million times more massive than our Sun.

We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity,” said EHT Project Scientist Geoffrey Bower from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica, Taipei. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very centre of our galaxy, and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.” The EHT team’s results are being published today in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters..

Because the black hole is about 27,000 light-years away from Earth, it appears to us to have about the same size in the sky as a donut on the Moon. To image it, the team created the powerful EHT, which linked together eight existing radio observatories across the planet to form a single “Earth-sized” virtual telescope [1]. The EHT observed Sgr A* on multiple nights, collecting data for many hours in a row, similar to using a long exposure time on a camera.

Here you go. The site also shows, visually, how different images were averaged and combined to create this “definitive” photo (click photos to enlarge them):

Caption from website: This is the first image of Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. It’s the first direct visual evidence of the presence of this black hole. It was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an array which linked together eight existing radio observatories across the planet to form a single “Earth-sized” virtual telescope. The telescope is named after the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole beyond which no light can escape.   Although we cannot see the event horizon itself, because it cannot emit light, glowing gas orbiting around the black hole reveals a telltale signature: a dark central region (called a shadow) surrounded by a bright ring-like structure. The new view captures light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is four million times more massive than our Sun. The image of the Sgr A* black hole is an average of the different images the EHT Collaboration has extracted from its 2017 observations.  In addition to other facilities, the EHT network of radio observatories that made this image possible includes the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment (APEX) in the Atacama Desert in Chile, co-owned and co-operated by ESO is a partner on behalf of its member states in Europe.

You may remember that 3 years ago first image of a black hole, M87*, was released. That one, called M87*, sits at the centre of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy, and is a much larger hole—a thousand times the size of SgrA*. Here’s a picture of that “first” black hole from the NYT, with the newly added visualization of polarized light.

More from the site:

The two black holes look remarkably similar, even though our galaxy’s black hole is more than a thousand times smaller and less massive than M87* [2]. “We have two completely different types of galaxies and two very different black hole masses, but close to the edge of these black holes they look amazingly similar,” says Sera Markoff, Co-Chair of the EHT Science Council and a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “This tells us that General Relativity governs these objects up close, and any differences we see further away must be due to differences in the material that surrounds the black holes.”

. . . . The effort was made possible through the ingenuity of more than 300 researchers from 80 institutes around the world that together make up the EHT Collaboration. In addition to developing complex tools to overcome the challenges of imaging Sgr A*, the team worked rigorously for five years, using supercomputers to combine and analyse their data, all while compiling an unprecedented library of simulated black holes to compare with the observations.

Scientists are particularly excited to finally have images of two black holes of very different sizes, which offers the opportunity to understand how they compare and contrast. They have also begun to use the new data to test theories and models of how gas behaves around supermassive black holes. This process is not yet fully understood but is thought to play a key role in shaping the formation and evolution of galaxies.

So there you go. I consider the prediction and then verification that these bizarre entities exist to be of the triumphs of the human mind. The theory began as an outgrowth of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and required the work of many people. Ultimately, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose gave the definitive proof that black holes were a natural result of Einstein’s theory. Then they were “photographed” using radioastronomy. For his theoretical work, Penrose won half of the 2020 Physics Prize, but Hawking was dead by then or almost surely would have shared the Prize.

Here’s a happy man:

h/t: Matthew

Science “studies” helping bring down science

April 12, 2022 • 10:00 am

Those of us who want our science free of ideology can only stand by helplessly as we watch physics, chemistry, and biology crumble from within as the termites of Wokeism nibble away. I once thought that scientists, whom I presumed would be less concerned than humanities professors with ideological pollution (after all, we do have some objective facts to argue about), would be largely immune to Wokeism.

I was wrong, of course. It turns out that scientists are human beings after all, and with that goes the desire for the approbation of one’s peers and of society.  And you don’t get that if you’re deemed a racist. You can even be criticized from holding yourself away from the fray, preferring to do science than engage in social engineering. (Remember, Kendi-an doctrine says that if you’re not an actively working anti-racist, you’re a racist.)

There’s no clearer sign of science’s ideological pollution than the institution of required DEI statements for getting an academic job or getting promoted, along with the elimination of standardized tests for students going into graduate study in STEM. The DEI statements violate “viewpoint neutrality” and turn science into a form of social engineering, with the engineering supposed to go in a preferred direction. But as Stanley Fish said (a book title): “Save the World on Your Own Time.”

And everybody knows, though few dare to say it, that what’s happening is the erosion of the meritocratic aspects of science, replacing them with standards of social justice determined by a small group of “progressive” people on the Left. Further, the less that merit is considered and used as a fundamental tenet of science, the slower science will progress. But I suppose the proponents of injecting Wokeism into science would say “merit is an outdated criterion; what we really need is equity.” Perhaps, but the effort is all directed at calling present science riddled with “structural racism.” And that’s not true.

But I digress. What I didn’t realize until I revisited this article—the centerpiece of a short post by Lawrence Krauss on his Substack site—is that science is being undermined not just by woke scientists, but by those in “science studies,” like the authors of the paper at hand. I had read it a while back, and intended to post on it, but decided that I can’t spend all my time calling out ludicrous Woke articles. Well, I’m glad Krauss did mention this one. First, read his short post by clicking on the screenshot below:

One of Krauss’s colleagues sent him the paper. He reproduces the title and abstract, and I will, too, but my screenshot links to the paper, which has a free pdf you can download here. Krauss notes that the paper comes from The Physics Review, but it’s actually from Physical Review Physics Education Research. It’s not a physics journal per se, but a journal about physics education.

Voilà:

First author Amy Robertson is a physicist whose job is apparently curricular development and testing; as her page at Seattle Pacific University notes,

Dr. Robertson is PI of the federally funded grant, “Collaborative Research: University Student Conceptual Resources for Understanding Physics.” This project seeks to identify student resources for understanding forces and mechanical waves in the context of introductory physics instruction and to develop and test curricular materials that build on student resources. She is co-PI of two additional grants, one that studies elementary teacher learning about energy, and one that identifies best-practices for creating inclusive physics learning environments.

Your tax dollars at work.

Hairston’s c.v. shows him to be engaged in many things—mostly in the equity business—but not in physics research:

A noted speaker, consultant, researcher, minister, and lecturer, Tali’s capacity for multi-sector work is most realized in the variety of organizations and projects that seek his involvement. His expertise is in the work of organizational culture, equity-inclusive learning, and the intersections of public policy and community development. As a researcher, Hairston is contracted to do university physics and equity research work under several National Science Foundation grants. He travels nationally and internationally advising community development and social change work.

And I cannot emphasize enough how bad the paper is. Have a butcher’s. First, read the abstract above, and then have a look here.

The first paragraph sets the tone:

Critical Race Theory names that racism and white supremacy are endemic to all aspects of U.S. society, from employment to schooling to the law [1–7]. We see the outcomes of this in, for example, differential incarceration rates, rates of infection and death in the era of COVID, and police brutality. We also see the outcomes of this in physics.

And in the short incident analyzed at great length in this paper. The entire paper is, in fact, a lengthy and tendentious exegesis of six minutes of observing a presentation by three physics students, seen as “a case of whiteness”:

In this paper, we analyze a case of whiteness as social organization from an introductory physics course at a large public institution in the Western United States. We use the analytic markers from Sec. II to illustrate how whiteness shows up in this context, and we identify and discuss a number of mechanisms of control that co-produce whiteness in the six-minute episode of classroom interaction. We draw on tools of interaction analysis [59], including discourse, gesture, and gaze analysis, to unpack how whiteness is being constituted locally or interactionally. Our hope is that illustrating whiteness as social organization can contribute to readers’ awareness of and vision for disrupting and transforming this social organization in their own contexts [56,60] and support other researchers who want to do similar analyses.

Gaze analysis!

Three pseudonymous students, who self-identify as white (Gail), Hispanic (Paris), and Middle Eastern (Drake), are given a task to work together to present a physics problem to a class:

In this episode, Paris, Drake, and Gail have been tasked with constructing an answer to a series of questions about heat capacity. In particular, they have been asked to construct an energy interaction diagram (see Fig. 2) for measuring the heat capacity of a big bucket of water. They are then asked to use their energy interaction diagram and the definition of heat capacity to develop an algebraic relationship relating the change in thermal energy to the change in temperature and the heat capacity.

In the episode, Paris, Drake, and Gail work together as a small group in an introductory physics course at a large public institution in the Western U.S. The course draws extensively on physics-education research-based methods, and course meetings often alternate between small- and whole-group discussion, with students collaboratively constructing answers to questions .  in their groups and then sharing out to the whole class. Whiteboards feature prominently in the course; what is represented on the group’s whiteboard is often what gets oriented to in the large-group share-out.

There’s a footnote:

4 Middle Eastern is considered white according to U.S. federally mandated race categories [71], but middle Eastern people in the U.S. are subjected to and oppressed by white supremacy and Islamophobia [72]

Then the students interact, and it seems that Drake makes himself (and is seen by the teacher) as the center of attention. This is the six-minute “centering of whiteness”:

We argue that it is whiteness as social organization that makes Paris, Gail, Drake, and Iris’ behavior sensible. Within whiteness as social organization, there is a center that has been ascribed transcendent value; all else is, in effect, marginal. In this context, it makes sense that the EID, standing in for correctness and/or physics, will capture the attention of the actors, and it also makes sense that the person closest to it (by consensus or by force) would also receive the most attention. Activity that is not seen as productive toward these ends would also be seen as less valuable, highlighting ways in which whiteness and capitalism intersect. Whiteness makes “normal” this interactional unfolding, prompting questions like, “What else could have been done?” Importantly, here, whiteness masks that: there are many ways (not just Drake’s or even the prescribed, endorsed way) to construct the EID, many representations for the energy dynamics of this scenario, many ways to understand the heating of water (including those outside of traditional physics), etc. The point is not that Drake’s EID has no value; the point is that the space has been organized such that the EID and those closest to it have value at the exclusion of all else.

When I reread the paper (it’s been a long time), I thought to myself, “No, they’re not going to use whiteboards as an example of white supremacy!” But they did (my emphasis

3. Whiteboards

Entangled with the above is the use of whiteboards as a primary pedagogical tool. Though whiteboards have been shown to have a number of affordances when they are used as a collaborative tool that all members have access to [88], in this episode, they also play a role in reconstituting whiteness as social organization. In particular, whiteboards display written information for public consumption; they draw attention to themselves and in this case support the centering of an abstract representation and the person standing next to it, presenting. They collaborate with white organizational culture [89], where ideas and experiences gain value (become more central) when written down.’

I wonder what the authors would have said had the presentation been on a blackboard.

And the obligatory conclusion to the paper, flaunting virtue and mentioning the obligatory “harm” that can be caused by the observed six-minute interaction. And believe me, there are many sources of harm:

As we dream, and as we wait for whiteness as social organization to be dismantled, we can work to reduce harm in the spaces we move and work. Harm reduction, as a framework, acknowledges that white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, fatmisia, transmisia, ableism, xenophobia, and myriad other systems of oppression infuse space and structures and are a part of our socialization. Paired with real-time repair, harm reduction provides support and accountability in the midst of this reality, inviting us to be humans in process and in community and offering space and support to see and respond to harm [100]. Harm reduction, then, lives in the interstitial space between not yet, without giving up on what could be.

But Drake isn’t white: he identifies as “Middle Eastern”! It’s Gail who “presents as white.”  In fact, the whole six-minute scenario, analyzed in tedious Critical Theory detail over pages and pages, is simply a post facto confirmation of the authors’ CRT biases. It is not a piece of science, for there is no hypothesis to be tested. There are only confirmation of the authors’ biases.  It is tendentious, tedious, and offensive. In fact, the authors even include long statement of their “positionalities” showing their ideologies and backgrounds—and, perhaps unwittingly, devaluing any objectivity to the paper. I’ve put the entire positionality statement below the fold, but here’s the first bit of Robertson’s “positionality”:

Authors’ positionalities.—Robertson is a chronically ill and disabled, physics-Ph.D.-holding, thin wealthy white woman. Her analysis and writing were shaped by these identities, including her “insider” status in physics: because of her socialization in the discipline, she is able to name and make sense of physics values, representations, and practices.

Can’t we judge the “research”—although this isn’t research, but post facto justification—from the description of the work alone? Do we need the authors to give us their bona fides at length in the paper?

But enough. This is the second time I’ve gone through the paper, and it’s even worse than the first time. Note that although one author has physics training, this is not a physics paper but a physics study paper. Yet it’s in a physics-related journal, and could influence others who teach physics. It’s this kind of nonsense that explains why science itself, nibbled around the edges by termites, is going downhill.

Here’s a bit of what Krauss says:

That this got published in a peer-reviewed physics journal is what makes this so surprising.  It means there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, and it isn’t systemic racism.  It is sheer stupidity combined with lethargy.

The natural tendency of academics, and scientists in particular, is to ignore this kind of nonsense and focus on their own work.   But once the bar gets this low, and the flood waters are rising, you can be certain a lot of nasty effluence will be flowing out as well.    And with the pressing need for better physics education at all levels (that is, better ways to actually teach physics), this garbage filling up journals and taking away precious research resources means that there is less room for the good stuff.

The standards of a field are determined by the practitioners in the field.  That means it is about time that physicists started doing something about it.

Well, besides the fact that this is not a physics journal but a physics education journal, Krauss is right. He doesn’t pull any punches, and I agree that this kind of craziness leads to the displacement of good stuff— including ideology-free physics teaching.

But this doesn’t just displace the good stuff, it replaces the good stuff, turning regular physics into social engineering. And it’s not just in physics: we have plenty of examples in chemistry and biology. I’ve written about some of these, but don’t want to overload this website with this kind of stuff. Still, if you’re not in the sciences yourself, you do need to know what’s going on.

Click “read more” to see the authors’ “positionalities”:

Continue reading “Science “studies” helping bring down science”

Scientific American: What we can learn about abortion from quantum mechanics

March 28, 2022 • 9:45 am

Scientific American continues to publish dreck, and I’m not sure why anybody who’s enthusiastic about science would want to continue subscribing.

This latest op-ed, to which I shouldn’t devote any attention (but the laws of physics dictate otherwise) is a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy. By looking at quantum mechanics, says author Cara Heuser, we can realize that one can hold two seemingly opposite views in one’s head at the same time. To wit: light can sometimes act as a particle, and sometimes as a wave, depending on the nature of the observation. Similarly, one can care for and about children and yet still be pro-choice.  The author, in fact, holds both views of medical care, and simultaneously saves children’s lives and provides abortion care. As the author’s bio notes:

Cara C. Heuser is a maternal-fetal medicine physician. She provides full-spectrum reproductive care, including prenatal care for high-risk pregnancies and abortion care, in Salt Lake City.

It’s not that I object to Heuser’s views, for I agree with her completely. But I do object to extrapolating from quantum physics to one’s views on abortion. This is the naturalistic fallacy, and a fallacy that could be applied (or rather, misapplied) to other real or apparent instances of cognitive dissonance. (That terms is usually reserved for a conflict of views that causes mental distress, but here I’ll just refer to having two seemingly or actually opposite views). There’s simply no lesson to be learned by extrapolating from how particles behave to how humans behave—or should behave.

Click on the screenshot to read.

My own views on abortion pretty much jibe with Roe v. Wade, but go even further. For example, I think that perhaps the threshold of abortion legality should be the onset of sentience—the ability to actually feel sufferingrather than viability. (One should also realize that if viability outside the womb is the criterion for prohibitng abortion, then this criterion will eventually be pushed back all the way to conception, as eventually we’ll have the ability to rear humans from fertilization to time of normal birth—all in vitro. The onset of sentience, on the other hand, does not change with technological innovation.) But I haven’t settled on my “threshhold” yet, though I still believe with Peter Singer that if a child is born with a defect or disease that will kill them very soon, is incurable, and causes suffering, it should be legal to euthanize them with the agreement of doctors and the parents).

I also bridle when people try to shut down the abortion debate by asserting a simple “right” to abortion. Where does this “right” come from? Granted, there is a Constitutional right to privacy, but instead of seeing abortion as some kind of inherent “right”, or as “moral on the face of it”,  I think abortions should be legal on grounds of pragmatism: society is better off allowing them rather than prohibiting them. (In matters of ethics, I tend to be a consequentialist.)

Indeed, the author, while several times asserting the “right” to an abortion, also argues for the procedure largely on practical grounds:

Perhaps we even have a moral compass that pushes us to provide this care. Perhaps we also value life. Many rights proponents argue that we must speak up because we value life: thousands of women have died from unsafe abortions before they were legal; multiple studies demonstrate that restrictions result in significant harm and confirm that abortion is safe; the oft-cited concern that having an abortion is detrimental to mental health has been demonstrated as false and, in fact, the opposite is truedenial of abortion care has resulted in extreme trauma to families and individuals.’

Here Heuser is arguing for “choice”, not from some abstract “right” or “morality”, but from its practical benefits. And I largely agree with that view. Unfortunately, courts would rather judge abortion from the Constitution, which says nothing relevant—and yet will probably repeal Roe v. Wade on Constitutional grounds—than from what is best for society. Courts are not ethical pragmatists.

But I digress. The author seems to think that for many, being in favor of abortion conflicts with being an ethical person. She realized this when she donated part of her liver to save the life of a sick child, and one of her colleagues was surprised, since this donation showed she cared for the life of children, while at the same time she was providing abortion care.

I don’t see this altruistic act as a fundamental conflict between ethics and a pro-choice view. In fact, I see no hypocrisy in caring for children and favoring abortion at the same time. In deed, in many cases, the best thing for a fetus that’s unwanted may be to abort it. But of course religionists do see a conflict, since they regard a fetus as the equivalent of a sentient human being.

So far so good. But then the author extrapolates the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics to the issue of abortion. Just like that, she says, so one can be a moral person who cares for children and yet someone who can countenance abortion as well. She is, she says, one of these. Of course she is, and only a Pecksniff would call her out for hypocrisy. Yet one did:

In August of 2020, I had major surgery to donate a part of my liver to a child unrelated to me and whom I had never met. (Did you know you can do that? Find a center and/or register to be a deceased donor at www.unos.org). One month later, I petitioned our state medical society to oppose abortion restrictions, describing the harm these laws pose to patients under my care. I had no reason to think that my liver donation and my opposition to abortion restrictions were related until a colleague expressed his astonishment that I was “so pro-abortion but also donated an organ to a kid.”

Learning that I had undertaken an act that many people view as altruistic (a description that causes me discomfort, but I will at least allow it demonstrates a respect for life) presented a direct challenge to his view of abortion providers as morally bereft. My colleague found these two empirical truths difficult to reconcile. In his mind, one cannot be both an abortion provider and an ethical and thoughtful human. Pick one, says this belief system, team particle or team wave.

This is not a good example of hypocrisy; one can, on grounds of societal good as a whole both allow reproductive choice and allow (and applaud) someone who donates part of an organ to save a life. Her colleague is simply muddled.

This apparent conflict still bothers Heuser, however, but she should simply forget about that colleague. And she needn’t try to satisfy “pro-life” religionists, who will never be convinced that abortion can be the right thing to do.

But, apparently, she turns to quantum mechanics—the wave/particle duality—as a way to find solace—or to convince doubters:

Instead of either/or, imagine both/and. We recognize the value placed on a desired and loved pregnancy by families and understand that ending a pregnancy is the right decision for some people some of the time. Individuals may have ethical objections to abortion and recognize that anti-choice laws can harm people. We can value human life and recognize the complexities of reproductive decision making. Attending thousands of births has been a great joy in my career and has cemented my belief that forcing a person to give birth against their will is a fundamental violation of their human rights.

Given that one quarter of women in the U.S. have an abortion, many Americans have benefitted directly or indirectly from abortion care. I implore readers to emulate previous generations of scientists who changed our understanding of the universe by their willingness to consider seemingly opposite empirical truths:

Particle and wave, abortion providers and ethical physicians, pro-life and pro-choice.

Nope, that last sentence is meaningless with those first three words.

You can see the problem here. Any kind of hypocrisy or doublethink or conflicting tendencies can be rationalized via this fallacy, and not all those tendencies are pretty. Think of a celibate priest who is also a pedophile, someone who crusades against alcoholism while drinking on the sly, a diehard atheist who thinks religion is good for others (the “little people” argument) or even, to evoke Godwin’s Law, of Hitler who was a Christian and loved his dogs.

But there’s not even any hypocrisy in Heuser’s view—at least none that I can see. Ergo she doesn’t need to grope for explanations beyond consequentialist ethnics. By trying to do so, she gives people a rationale for all sorts of bad arguments about reconciling opposite or apparently opposite views.

I admire Dr. Heuser, but Scientific American really should not have published her specious analogy.

John Horgan on free will and superdeterminism

March 11, 2022 • 12:00 pm

John Horgan’s opinion piece on the physics theory of “superdeterminism” (which we’ve encountered before in a video by Sabine Hossenfelder), and its relevance to free will, appeared in the latest Scientific American. Click to read the short piece:

Although I had (and still have) trouble understanding superdeterminism, it is, as Horgan and Sabine explain, a way that quantum mechanics becomes deterministic rather than fundamentally indeterministic. To use the jargon of Bell’s Theorem, superdeterminism is a theory of “local hidden variables”, so that factors we don’t yet understand actually determine absolutely how particles behave. As Horgan notes:

A conjecture called superdeterminism, outlined decades ago, is a response to several peculiarities of quantum mechanics: the apparent randomness of quantum events; their apparent dependence on human observation, or measurement; and the apparent ability of a measurement in one place to determine, instantly, the outcome of a measurement elsewhere, an effect called nonlocality.

Einstein, who derided nonlocality as “spooky action at a distance,” insisted that quantum mechanics must be incomplete; there must be hidden variables that the theory overlooks. Superdeterminism is a radical hidden-variables theory proposed by physicist John Bell. He is renowned for a 1964 theorem, now named after him, that dramatically exposes the nonlocality of quantum mechanics.

As I wrote in response to Hossenfelder’s video:

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.

And Horgan seems as puzzled as I am, even though Hossenfelder says that superdeterminism may be empirically testable. Back to Horgan:

I’m nonetheless baffled by superdeterminism, whether explicated by Hossenfelder or another prominent proponent, Nobel laureate Gerard t’Hooft. When I read their arguments, I feel like I’m missing something. The arguments seem circular: the world is deterministic, hence quantum mechanics must be deterministic. Superdeterminism doesn’t specify what the hidden variables of quantum mechanics are; it just decrees that they exist, and that they specify everything that happens, including my decision to write these words and your decision to read them.

Hossenfelder and I argued about free will in a conversation last summer. [JAC: this discussion is on YouTube and I can’t watch it from down here.] I pointed out that we both made the choice to speak to each other; our choices stem from “higher-level” psychological factors, such as our values and desires, which are underpinned by but not reducible to physics. Physics can’t account for choices and hence free will. So I said.

And now, what about the effect of superdeterminism on free will? Horgan says that the relevance of physics itself to the phenomenon of free will, much less the effect of superdeterminism, is irrelevant. That’s because, or so it seems from his piece, that he does believe in a form of libertarian (“you-could-have-done-otherwise”) free will.

But as most of us know, even if there are fundamental indeterminacies lurking in quantum physics, and while deterministic physics rules macro-level phenomena, there is still no such thing as libertarian free will. Whether or not an electron jumps in an indeterminate way, and that makes you decide to do one thing or another—this does not mean you have libertarian free will. To enable that, your conscious will must have made that electron jump and, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, that itself violates what we know about the laws of physics. So long as the laws of physics are obeyed, be they deterministic or indeterministic, we cannot have libertarian free will. Yet Horgan seems to think that that kind of free will can exist; we just don’t understand enough about nature to know how and why.

The analogy here is to our current lack of current understanding abut how neurobiology leads to the phenomenon of consciousness. This lack of understanding is taken by some, like Philip Goff, to mean that we’re missing something beyond current laws of physics: the ability of electrons, atoms, and so on, to have a form of consciousness (this idea is called “panpsychism,” and I consider it both foolish and untestable).

Likewise, the fact that we have emotions and consciousness and feelings that can alter the world (again, this is a fact regardless of the truth of superdeterminism) leads Horgan to the idea that there may be libertarian free will. He thinks that we just don’t understand enough physics yet:

. . . To my mind, the debate over whether physics rules out or enables free will is moot. It’s like citing quantum theory in a debate over whether the Beatles are the best rock band ever (which they clearly are). Philosophers speak of an “explanatory gap” between physical theories about consciousness and consciousness itself. First of all, the gap is so vast that you might call it a chasm. Second, the chasm applies not just to consciousness but to the entire realm of human affairs.

Physics, which tracks changes in matter and energy, has nothing to say about love, desire, fear, hatred, justice, beauty, morality, meaning. All these things, viewed in the light of physics, could be described as “logically incoherent nonsense,” as Hossenfelder puts it. But they have consequences; they alter the world.

Physics as a whole, not just quantum mechanics, is obviously incomplete. As philosopher Christian List told me recently, humans are “not just heaps of interacting particles.” We are “intentional agents, with psychological features and mental states” and the capacity to make choices.  Physicists have acknowledged the limits of their discipline. Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate, contends in his 1972 essay “More Is Different” that as phenomena become more complicated, they require new modes of explanation; not even chemistry is reducible to physics, let alone psychology.

This, and the paragraph below, are truly begging the question of naturalism and free will: assuming the existence of a phenomenon we want to prove—libertarian free will. We are “intentional agents” with “the capacity to make choices”, What Horgan is ignoring here is whether or not those choices are determined by the laws of physics. They may look like true choices that could have been made otherwise via conscious will, but that’s an illusion.

And the last paragraph seems to show that Horgan truly is afflicted with confirmation bias.  To Horgan, the known and unknown laws of physics, and their relevance to free will, is a non-issue. Our wills must truly be free—and not deterministic—because  because the implications are just too depressing. Horgan:

. . . Why does the debate over free will and superdeterminism matter? Because ideas matter. At this time in human history, many of us already feel helpless, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The last thing we need is a theory that reinforces our fatalism.

What we need is the truth, not a view of science that buttresses our emotional desires.

In the end, the debate between superdeterminism or quantum mechanics is irrelevant here. All that’s relevant is whether the known laws of physics apply to all matter. There is no evidence that they don’t, and some evidence (viz., Sean Carroll’s arguments) that they do, at least to “everyday life.”

In other words, Horgan wants there to be libertarian free will, and so he thinks that we’re simply missing the physics that allow this to be true. I happen to disagree, and I think that most physicists and philosophers will agree with me. Even compatibilist philosophers, after all, still think that libertarian free will is wrong, and our “choices” are absolutely determined by the laws of physics. They just conceive of free will in a manner that is compatible with the laws of physics.

h/t: Matthew

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Why we can never reach absolute zero

January 30, 2022 • 1:45 pm

Here from Star Talk, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why we can never attain the temperature of absolute zero (−273.15 °C or −459.67 °F). It’s the theoretical temperature in which an ideal gas at constant pressure reaches a volume of zero.

His first explanation, while delivered with enthusiasm, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, for it’s along the lines of “we need to put something a bit colder than the ambient temperature at the place where we want to obtain absolute zero so that it will suck away the heat (molecular motion) of the target.  But as we approach absolute zero, we can’t GET anything whose temperature is just a tad above absolute zero to suck away that last bit of heat.  But this seems to me begging the question, for it assumes what you’re trying to prove: there’s a low temperature that we can’t obtain because it becomes impossible to get anything just a wee bit warmer than that temperature.

His second explanation, is that there is always quantum vibration, that this vibration cannot be prevented completely, and therefore we cannot go below the temperature where the quantum energy is the only energy we have. That is, quantum mechanics gives us the limit of the lowest amount of kinetic energy possible. (I wonder if the magnitude of absolute zero can be predicted from quantum mechanics alone.)

The third explanation, based on the theory of the canceled physicist Erwin S———r, explains the phenomenon as somehow connected to the Bose-Einstein condensate, but doesn’t tell me, at least, why absolute zero is unattainable (the Wikipedia article explains why this is basically the same thing as the second explanation).

So we have an entertaining video that gives three explanations for why zero degrees Kelvin is unattainable, but only the second makes a lot of sense to me. On the other hand, I’m not a physicist. But on the third hand, this video isn’t intended for physicists, but for folks like me.

More than half of Americans oppose the use of Arabic numerals!

December 29, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Just a bit of fun, but the headline below is true. The survey on which it’s based is reported in this article in from the Independent, which you can see by clicking on the screenshot:(you can register for free with email and a password if it’s blocked; there’s no paywall)

So, here are some results given in the article:

More than half of Americans believe “Arabic numerals” – the standard symbols used across much of the world to denote numbers – should not be taught in school, according to a survey.

Fifty-six per cent of people say the numerals should not be part of the curriculum for US pupils, according to research designed to explore the bias and prejudice of poll respondents.

The digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are referred to as Arabic numerals. The system was first developed by Indian mathematicians before spreading through the Arab world to Europe and becoming popularised around the globe.

A survey by Civic Science, an American market research company, asked 3,624 respondents: “Should schools in America teach Arabic numerals as part of their curriculum?” The poll did not explain what the term “Arabic numerals” meant.

Some 2,020 people answered “no”. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents said the numerals should be taught in US schools, and 15 per cent had no opinion.

John Dick, who happens to be the head of Civic Science, issued this tweet with the data in graphic form, which I’ve put below as well:

Now Dick thinks this is an example of bigotry—”Islamophobia,” I suppose. I’m not so sure. Although I am sure that many of us know that Arabic numerals are the numerals we use every day, some people don’t, and, this being America, it’s possible that nobody has told children that they are learning “Arabic numerals.” The 56% figure could thus represent ignorance rather than bigotry, although both could play a role.  But Dick seems wedded to the latter explanation. Regardless, if it is ignorance, it’s pretty appalling. After all, everyone knows what Roman numerals are!

But wait! There’s more. There was so much doubt about this survey’s results that Snopes had to investigate it.

In its headline Snopes says “It’s difficult to answer survey questions if you don’t fully understand the meaning.” I’m pretty sure, from following them, that Snopes is woke,but their assumption that there’s no anti-Arabic bigotry involved is just a guess.

You can read their analysis, in which they reluctantly admit that the claim is true, by clicking on the screenshot below.

But wait! There’s still more! You get this special grapefruit-cutting knife if you read on—for free!

Snopes:

Those were the results of a real survey question posed by the polling company Civic Science. John Dick, the Twitter user who originally posted a screenshot of the survey question, is the CEO of Civic Science.

The full survey doesn’t appear to be available at this time (we reached out to Civic Science for more information), but Dick has posted a few other questions from the poll, as well as some information regarding the purpose of the survey.

Dick, who said that the “goal in this experiment was to tease out prejudice among those who didn’t understand the question,” shared another survey question about what should or shouldn’t be taught in American schools. This time, the survey found that 53% of respondents (and 73% of Democrats) thought that schools in America shouldn’t teach the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre” as part of their science curriculum. Here are the results:

33% of Republicans, a whopping 73% of Democrats, and 52% of independents thought that Lemaître’s theory should NOT be taught.

Now this question is more unfair, because, really, how many Americans know what the “creation theory of Georges Lemaître” was? If you read about science and religion, or have followed this site for a while, you’ll know that, although he was a Catholic priest, Lemaître held pretty much the modern theory of the Big Bang and the expanding Universe. As Wikipedia notes:

Lemaître was the first to theorize that the recession of nearby galaxies can be explained by an expanding universe, which was observationally confirmed soon afterwards by Edwin Hubble. He first derived “Hubble’s law”, now called the Hubble–Lemaître law by the IAU, and published the first estimation of the Hubble constant in 1927, two years before Hubble’s article. Lemaître also proposed the “Big Bang theory” of the origin of the universe, calling it the “hypothesis of the primeval atom”, and later calling it “the beginning of the world”.

Yes, and Lemaitre did other science, including analyzing cosmology using Einstein’s theories of relativity. He was a smart dude, and should have gone into physics instead of the priesthood. There’s a photo of him with Einstein below.

Why did so many people answer that Lemaître’s theory, which is, as I said, is pretty much the current theory of the Universe’s origin, NOT be taught? Surely it’s because the question identified Lemaître as a “Catholic priest”. That means that people probably thought his “theory” was the one expounded in Genesis chapters 1 and 2—God’s creation. So they didn’t want a religious theory taught in school.

Two points: most Republicans didn’t mind as much as Democrats of Independents, and that may be because more Republicans are creationists than are Democrats. But why did so many Democrats not want Lemaître’s theory taught? Are they that much less creationist than are Republicans? Perhaps that’s one answer. Another is that they are more anti-Catholic, but that seems less likely. But underlying these data—as perhaps underlying much of the data about Arabic numerals—is simple ignorance. I, for one, wouldn’t expect the average Joe or Jill (oops!) to know what Lemaître said.

One final remark: Accommodationists sometimes use the fact that Lemaître got it right as evidence that there’s no conflict between science and religion. I’m not sure if Lemaître thought God created the Universe, but if he did, he might have thought that the Big Bang was God’s way of doing it. (He was surely NOT a Biblical literalist). So yes, religious people can and have made big contributions to science. But that doesn’t mean that religion and science are compatible—any more than Francis Collins’s biological work shows that science and Evangelical Christianity are compatible. I’ve explained what I mean by “compatible” before, and it’s NOT that religious people can’t do science.

In the case of Lemaître, Francis Collins, or other religious scientists, they are victims of a form of unconscious cognitive dissonance: accepting some truth statements based on the toolkit of science, and other truth statements based on the inferior “way of knowing” of faith. And that is the true incompatibility: the different ways that we determine scientific truth as opposed to religious “truth.”

But I digress, and so shall stop.

George Lemaître (1894-1966), photo taken in 1930:

From Wikipedia:

(From Wikipedia): Millikan, Lemaître and Einstein after Lemaître’s lecture at the California Institute of Technology in January 1933.

h/t: Phil D.

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

Do electrons behave differently when they’re in brains? Sean Carroll takes Philip Goff apart on panpsychism

November 12, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve written a fair amount on this site about panpsychism,, the view that everything in the Universe, including electrons, rocks, and organisms, have a form of consciousness. The “conscious” molecules and atoms are supposed to combine, under certain unspecified and mysterious rules, into brains that have a higher-level consciousness.  Voilà: the “hard problem” of consciousness explained!  Philip Goff, one of the three discussants in the video below, is the primary exponent of this theory.

Panpsychism is, I think, pure bunk, and you can read my earlier posts to see why. One of those posts highlights a paper by Sean M. Carroll that, in my view, demolishes the idea of panpsychism because it grossly violates the laws of physics—of the “complete” description of the world that “the core theory of physics” presents. In the very long video below (3 hours 14 minutes!), there’s a mano a mano verbal exchange in which Sean, in his usual polite but firm way, tells Goff that he’s simply wrong about panpsychism and that Goff is too stubborn to admit it.

This is a lot more fun than reading the paper, especially watching Goff as he sees his whole theory crumble under the relentless onslaught of Carroll’s physics. Sean’s views are similar to those given in his paper, but I like seeing the exchange between a physicist and a panpsychist (Goff is the person most closely associated with this crazy theory.)

Also in the discussion is Keith Frankish, a British philosopher of mind. Wikipedia notes of him: “[Frankish] holds that the conscious mind is a virtual system, a trick of the biological mind. In other words, phenomenality is an introspective illusion. This position is in opposition to dualist theories, reductive realist theories, and panpsychism.”

Now, you don’t have to watch the entire 3-hour video to see the exchange about the value of panpsychism as an explanation of consciousness. If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the YouTube video starting 6 minutes in, when Sean gives his view of consciousness as an epiphenomenon of evolution rather that will eventually be explained. (This is also my view, though I’m neither philosopher nor physicist.)

There’s then a philosophical digression, and the discussion of consciousness begins again at 7:50.  This discussion and its putative explanation by panpsychism ramps up gradually with detours into lucubrations about emergence and related matters.

In my view, the discussion starts reaching its apogee starting at about 1 hour and 25 minutes in, when Goff says that the “core theory’s” success doesn’t lay a hand on panpsychism, which requires a different or supplemental theory of physics. (You may want to start the video here.) Carroll disagrees strongly and is “blunt” about telling Goff he’s just dead wrong. Goff tries to impute his views to a colleague rather than himself, but that’s not correct. He’s using another panpsychist like a ventriloquist uses a puppet.

At 1 hour 30 minutes in, things get a bit heated, and it’s time to get out the popcorn. Goff even floats the idea that the laws of physics differ between electrons in the brain and electrons everywhere else! (This is part of his view that panpsychism cannot be accommodated by the core theory.) Frankish is on Carroll’s side, but doesn’t speak as much as the other two.

I watched only until an hour and 45 minutes in, so I can’t tell you what happens in the rest of the discussion. But if you watch up to that point, and listen to Sean’s eloquent and patient explanations, and see the sweating panpsychist professor try to prop up his crumbling ideas, you will not be any more enamored with panpsychism than you were before. In other words, you’ll see that it’s a theory without substance.

h/t: Paul

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.