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.