John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, Continue reading “John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins”

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism. Continue reading “What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.”

Empiricism, Materialism, Physicalism avoiding Solipsism

Great post on Reductionism over at Emil’s blog.

I wanted to respond to comments there by Peter and Brendan, and give my perspective on their points about solipsism, materialism, science, and how it all fits together for me. Turned out to be a long comment, so I thought I’d better post it here rather than intrude too much and go too far off-topic on Emil’s post. I’ve covered most of this before – links included below.

Peter asks, “How can anyone be sure that what they are experiencing, … In other words, what reason is there for me to refrain from becoming a committed solipsist?”

I’d say nothing is stopping you. I agree with Emil’s take on solipsism and other rationalist philosophies. But my personal perspective is that it boils down to a rational choice. Considering just solipsism v materialism, to some extent the choice is arbitrary. You could ask what the consequences would be in each case, comparing what is the case with what you think is the case:

1) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in solipsism. I’m not sure what I learn from this. It seems that I imagine the world, including you and this conversation. I acknowledge that it might be you that’s imagining me as part of your solipsistic experience, so that I’m a figment of your imagination. What I feel is me thinking is actually you thinking the thoughts in some subset of your solipsist consciousness. How do we tell which is which? Do we have any control over this? Instead of being a mind that imagines being a material life form on an imagined material earth, can I choose to switch arbitrarily to become a life form on the surface of the sun? I seem to be limited to imagine only the earthly being I appear to be. What if I walk in front of a bus. It’s only imagined, so will I simply continue as if I hadn’t? Our (mine or yours) solipsist experience seems to be limited by what seems like a material reality.

2) Solipsism holds, and I choose to believe in materialism. I can’t distinguish what actually happens here from (1), except perhaps I suffer less anguish over whether I am a constrained mind. Though I am a solipsist mind, I go along with the material illusion. Consequences?

3) Materialism holds, I believe in solipsism. Again, I’m not sure what the outcome might be. I could conceivably die trying to test my solipsist existence by attempting to defy gravity; or maybe I pick a fight in a dark alley somewhere. I’m not sure how I’d distinguish my mental experience here from being absorbed in a gaming system as some avatar. The physical reality might soon make itself known to my mental experience.

4) Materialism holds, I believe in materialism. No problem. Business as usual trying to figure out how all this works.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you choose solipsism. You have to do an awful lot of work to get anywhere it seems with solipsism other rationalisms, idealism, transcendence or theism. Lots of inner contemplation, meditation and maybe praying. But it seems you still need to eat. It is sometimes claimed by theists that there are no atheists in foxholes. This is clearly untrue. I’m much more convinced that there are no solipsists at lunch time.

I don’t know any committed solipsists. If I did it might be worth a charge of assault to punch one on the nose. Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus”, while not an actual logical refutation, I do find his kicking a rock is still pretty convincing. Peter, if you’re visiting this post, do you actually know any committed solipsists yourself? Are you personally persuaded? Your answers might in part answer your own original question.

My route from Cartesian doubt to empiricism, avoiding solipsism, is here and here. The material world is so persistently in-your-face. It seems more productive to try to understand it rather than persist too much with deep scepticism about it. If it turns out that I’m wrong and that I am a solipsist mind then I just hope it comes out in the wash. In the meantime I’ll enjoy that lunch.

Once you choose to accept materialism a lot of consequences follow.

Science (evolution, biology, etc.) tells us we are physical systems no different from the rest of the material world. We are just made up of stuff in some complex way, as Emil describes well as reductionism. From evolution and biology we learn we evolved from animals with much less capable brains, and even from animals with no brain at all.

Our ancestors were very clearly interacting with the rest of the world, of which they were simply components. This interaction was physical, chemical, electromagnetic: when microbes touch there is a greater or lesser degree of chemical interaction as their outer cells come into contact, with electromagnetic interaction of the individual atoms and molecules (the machinary of chemistry). This in turn caused physical and chemical reactions within the bodies, to greater or lesser extent: the touching body is an obstacle, food, or predator.

Neurons and simple nervous systems that don’t fit our loose definition of consciousness are owned by animals that interact with the environment with a greater degree of autonomous control. Memory becomes possible. See Kandel on Aplesia and other sources. More complex brains do more complex stuff, have more complex memories, can predict more about the environment, even if not consciously: a cheetah tracking prey that is trying to evade it.

Sadly we don’t have access to our ancestors in the process of becoming conscious as we are. But it’s not too much of a stretch to infer the following.

The lighting up of human consciousness may have been quick or slow, in terms of evolution, and in terms of generations – we don’t have the details. The species distinction doesn’t really matter here: in the trail back through our ancestors there is no point, we think, where a daughter is not of the same species as the mother; and yet, if these various ancestors could be brought together, they would be classed as one or more species different from us and each other.

As an analogy for the onset of human consciousness and self-awareness take an infant. It’s not clear that a new born has much of a conscious cognitive life. It can certainly respond with basic consciousness, as much as some animals can, but less than some adult animals. Do you remember your early infancy, your birth? Conscious self-awareness seems to creep up on us; and more advanced cognition comes from the physical experiencing development of the brain: learning. It’s hard to look back as an individual, and as a species, to see and acknowledge how conscious self-awareness emerged. There is a gap, and we have had the tendency to fill it with a soul of one sort or another. I feel this gap contributes to our special respect for our conscious mind, and our deification of it – at least to the extent that we think it a spark provided by a deity.

Then there is the physical sensibility of the brain, or lack of it. Though the brain can sense the outside world and something of the inner body, through sight, hearing, touch and the other senses, the brain can’t actually feel itself in the same way. There is no sense in which the brain ‘feels’ its neurons working away, as it can feel an arm moving or touching something. Introspection seems to stop at the mushy level of concepts, thoughts, internal images and sounds – but it can’t locate them. Do you feel neurons flashing in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s as you form and interpret speech? Can you feel in your brain where the concept, the thought, the conjured image of your grandmother is located? No, but neuroscientists can detect at least some of the neurons that are associated with that sort of perception (a summary article, a particular article, recent paper from Quiroga himself).

Our working brain, our conscious selves that are self-aware are only remotely self-aware. Our introspective brains build a vague concept of self the way they build vague concepts of anything else. Our brains even build a concept of mind. And it’s a detached mind, it appears, because of these limitations on our introspective capabilities. This is the nature of the illusion of consciousness. Yes we have consciousness, we experience it. The illusion is that the conscious self is a mind detached from the physical brain: dualism.

Emil said, “Dualism may represent the majority of the population, but certainly not the majority among scientists or philosophers.” I would be more inclined to say the among scientists or philosophers most are non-dualists, intellectually, but, as with visual illusions, none of us can overcome the mental illusion as we go about our daily lives – we feel like free-thinking minds somehow embodied yet not quite part of the furniture. We feel like dualists.

On top of this there is a massive cultural history from philosophy and theology that has constructed quite a different story; one in which the mind does exist as a separate special non-material entity, a soul in some stories. These are excusable stories from an excusably ignorant past. The excuse is wearing thin.

This ancient perspective, which still exists, mainly with theologians, but also with philosophers, particularly those that don’t follow neuroscience, biology generally, or evolution, is what I refer to as the problem of The Primacy of Thought – where they feel that our primary source of knowledge is our conscious mind. I agree that we perceive the world through our minds, but the evolutionary evidence is that we are primarily experiential animals with a brain upgrade that enables us to reason (an interesting process in itself). We and our world are physical, and even though our mental experience of that world goes on in the mind, that mind itself is actually the busy active dynamic brain.

We can infer all this empirically from what we know from science. We can’t prove it logically to the satisfaction of pernickety philosophers, but it’s a more fitting explanation that any fanciful philosophical ideas. All the evidence is not in yet. The hard problem of consciousness remains in the mind (brains) of many philosophers, and particularly theologians who desperately want there to be a soul. It’s not a complete story by any means.

It’s even a bit of a just-so story, though one that is consistent with all existing evidence. I’m sure philosophers that don’t like it would be quick to point that out. But it’s a damned site better than any other on offer, better than any theology or any of the non-materialist philosophies.

And of course, being an empirical perspective on materialism it not only all holds together, it is also open to adaptation in the face of new evidence. Even while waiting for more concrete evidence of physicalist accounts of consciousness all we would need to drop the idea would be some counter evidence. I don’t see any. Not a bit.

Personally I think the evidence is overwhelming already. As Emil puts it, “If you pay attention to the history of neuroscience, you would understand why physicalism has conclusively won the argument … “. Really, start looking at the evidence. Look at all the examples of how changes to the brain, drug induced or physical, including intercranial (open skull) probe sensing, and stimulation, show a direct cause and effect relationship between the physical brain and conscious experience.

Ways of Knowing – There’s Only One, That We Know Of

That there are ‘other ways of knowing’ seems to be doing the rounds again, often along with the charge of ‘scientism’. A specific charge made against many scientists is that they are wrong in claiming that science is the only way of knowing. History and Art are often offered as contrasting ways of knowing, but without any real explanation as to why we should think they are different in kind, rather than the one way of knowing approached in different ways for different purposes.

It’s also curious that the ones making bold claims for other ways of knowing often also assert that scientists claim science knows everything, and at the same time also claim, very specifically, that science will never be able to ‘know’ certain things. It’s hard to fathom out how some minds work.

I feel the correct view, and one I’ve seen many scientists portray, including Dawkins and Coyne as examples (they are often picked out as culprits of scientism), is that humans have only one way of knowing (a single epistemology of varying reliability) and that is modern empiricism: the view that we have only the senses and reason, where reason is a process of the physical brain, and the senses are physical systems that are part of the physical world that interact with other parts of it. Science then is merely a subset of all variations on the use of empiricism, a subset developed by humans as a means of compensating for the natural limitations and fallibilities of the senses and reason. Science is merely a more rigorous approach to our one way of knowing.

One of the key features of science is the application of its developed methods (its methodologies) to build as consistent and reliable an understanding of the world that is thought to be ‘out there’ (outside our minds), and subsequently, thanks to evolution, neuroscience, psychology, a more reliable understanding of how human brains work in this very act of developing an epistemology.

History, art, religion are also variations on this one way of knowing, varying in the degree to which they require and are able to develop the same consistency of understanding, and varying in the extent to which they apply various methodologies (and here I include using free wheeling intuition as a methodology for sparking new ideas).

History tries to apply more of the thorough scientific methods where it can (e.g. dating artefacts), but has to rely heavily on inference from limited patterns of data seen in the collection of information it has available. The problem for history, and for many of the ‘soft’ sciences, is that it is difficult to draw solid conclusions, and many theories can be constructed to model the same data. For example, it’s easy for the social sciences to be lead astray to Never Never Land, as pointed out by Sokal and Bricmont in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. To be fair, it’s not all hot air (as Sokal and Bricmont point out in their book, they aren’t attacking the soft sciences generally, just the bullshit); the stuff being examined (human brains and human behaviour) is a really tough nut to crack.

Art has a far freer requirement for matching the senses and reason, in that it values imaginative representations of what we sense, or imagines things we cannot sense. Artists may talk of ‘truth’ and other such ideas, but in the context of art this really is more representative of the emotional content and the extent to which a piece might trigger emotions. The more spiritual artists may of course want to believe that this ‘truth’ has something of the sense of being real in the actual world that science discovers, but as with all spiritual imaginings there is never any evidence of such a connection. Any connection that does exist between artistic flights of fancy and the real world are likely to exist as physical states of the brain of the artist. Various transcendentalist ideas, and related ideas such as out of body experiences have never been shown to correspond to any reality other than the activity in the brains of those experiencing the phenomena.

Then we have religion. This is the wildest and least constrained of all applications of our ‘one way of knowing’ in that it is almost entirely Rationalist imagination at work. As with any pure Rationalism that doesn’t require consistency with sensed data, the religious can make up pretty much any damned story they like and claim it to be ‘true’. The use of faith is in direct opposition to science in this respect. Faith is the process by which the desired ‘truth’ comes first, and then any amount of rationalisation, as necessary, to account for all and every reasoned logical argument that refutes the religious case, and to account for any counter evidence or lack of evidence that might challenge the religious case. So certain is the application of faith in the hands of many theists they see it as total justification for the control of others.

All this of course is an epistemological problem – how can we be sure that what we know is ‘true’. I find much epistemology to be hopeless. The Justified True Belief model, along with its objections and counter models, are all stuck in a Rationalist mind set. It’s the Primacy of Thought problem that I’ve covered before. Ultimately, if you follow Rationalist thinking where it leads you can’t really escape Solipsism. It’s the only rational conclusion, and is in itself a dead end.

Thankfully our senses seem to be so persistently nagging at our inner mental lives that we feel sure that they represent something real, that there is a real physical world out there. The metaphysics, the detailed ontology of that world, is a separate debate. But whatever the ‘ultimate’ reality turns out to be there is never a shortage of adherents to the empiricism that we all live by. Even most religions don’t deny the senses and the existence of the natural world to any serious degree, and some rely on it, as a house of sin and as departure lounge to some other promised realm. For all that we are currently enclosed in our own heads, our own ‘minds’, we don’t generally limit ourselves to the dead end of pure Rationalism, but try balance our sense and reason experiences.

But really, we have nothing better than empiricism; and science is the best of our empiricism. So much so that as the human sciences improve and we discover more and more we can look on with incredulous scepticism at claims for ‘other ways of knowing’, such as sensus divinitatis of Alvin Plantinga. Without evidence to the contrary we can only put this mysticism of other ways of knowing down to mistaken beliefs, fantasy, faith. That the religious ‘value’ their beliefs is not in question. That the religious believe in the content of their beliefs is not in question. What is in question is the actual content of those beliefs.

We have only one way of knowing, as far as we can tell. Claims to ‘other ways of knowing’ amount to red herrings, which are no more than variations on our one way of knowing, or are claims to something else for which no one has ever provided any evidence.

So when scientists make statements such as ‘science is the only way of knowing’ they are really expressing their understanding that it is the best of our one way of knowing. Scientism is simply a pejorative label used by those that don’t get this. The charge of scientism is often made as an objection to a false perception that scientists believe they can acquire certain knowledge.

No one (least of all scientists) is claiming science has access to all knowledge, or expecting that it should have it. But I do think that we cannot say that some things are beyond science, which is quite a different point. This is because a claim that something is beyond science is already a claim to the knowledge that it is beyond science, so is in itself a specific claim to knowledge. We cannot know what we cannot know, for to know what we cannot know is to know something of what we cannot know. I can’t even claim that I am certain in thinking this, because it too would be a claim to knowledge that I can’t be certain of.

The contingency of human knowledge seems inescapable, and it seems to be contingent on how we come by it. So far there is only the one way that seems remotely reliable: comparing sense and experience, empiricism, performed as rigorously as we fallible humans are capable of, through science.

Supernatural v Natural

The notion that the Supernatural itself ‘exists’ is unsupported – equally unsupported no matter what the Supernatural metaphysics may be: gods, ghosts, fairies, wizards, …. But let’s go with the fantasy.

The question of the interaction between the Supernatural and the Natural raises its head occasionally, and it has been doing the rounds again, and specifically the question of whether the Supernatural is beyond the reach of science. So, supposing for now that there is a Supernatural, what can we know about it?

If the supernatural (S) is distinct from the natural (N), and they do not overlap at all, then what are all the religious claims based on? By this definition of non-interaction Natural human religious entities (theists) cannot experience the Supernatural; and since there are no interactions from S to N we don’t get any miracles to reveal the Supernatural either.

The only way the Natural human religious entities could experience the Supernatural is if there is some interaction between S and N.

So, one interaction might be that the human Natural entities have some Supernatural component that interacts with (witnesses) the Supernatural (e.g. the soul).

Another interaction is one whereby the Supernatural entities (e.g. God) have the capacity to act on the natural world. This is presumed to be the case, since He is supposed to have created the Natural in the first place.

But all interactions we know of in the Natural world are two-way. Cause and effect are mutually connected. So, for the soul to witness Supernatural experiences and transmit them to the conscious mind it must alter the conscious mind. It is the conscious mind of the theist that is making the claim of having an experience.

Both types of interaction are open to investigation by science.

Theists having religious experiences, being ‘in-touch’ with the divine, must be able to be tested. And the results of those tests must rule out (to some reasonable degree) any alternative natural cause for those experiences. All known religious experiences can be explained in terms of known psychological effects that are, at the very least, as feasible as a Supernatural explanation. Given how many alternative Supernatural or otherwise mystical explanations are offered by a multitude of cranks and variations on the religious you’d think the religious, wanting to be certain they are right, would be very concerned by these competing claims – but that’s where faith is required: belief’s cocoon of denial.

Theists claiming Supernatural effects on the Natural also clearly have some explaining to do. All modern claims are testable, and many have been tested and found wanting: faith healing, intercessionary prayer. Nothing. And any historical claims to miracles are sufficiently suspect by virtue of the period of ignorance in which they were made. Any theist who gives credibility to the resurrection must give equal credibility to fairies, imps, goblins, demi-gods, dog-head people, sea monsters (the least incredible), vampires, … Theists have no more grounds for believing in miracles than they do in any other crazy story. But, then again, faith (in one’s own beliefs) comes to the rescue of the reality deniers: no number of suspect mystical entities is sufficient to cause one to suspect one’s own.

So, either S and N interact, and those interactions are testable. Or they don’t, and all theism is just made up crap by Natural entities that have no access to the Supernatural in either direction. I mean to say, if the Supernatural is inaccessible to science, then it’s damned well inaccessible to a few fruit cakes who like to recite chants to their Supernatural Superheroes. So, theists, take your pick. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

Just to throw a spanner into the works, have a closer look at the Venn diagrams above. What’s all that empty space around the Supernatural and the Natural? Should the diagram be more like this?

Well, why should it? If theists can lay claim to the Supernatural without evidence, then I think I’ll go for the Hypernatural (H). You know, home of Hypernatural Thingymabob, that all encompassing thing that created all Supernatural creators of universes, the Thing that created God and gave Him the power to create the Natural.

How far does this stuff go on? Does the Hypernatural interact with the Natural, or just the Supernatural? Is there a Superhypernatural?

Is this getting silly? It already got silly, a few thousand years ago. And as we become more rational and sceptical, and are able to see the Emperor’s clothes for what they are, the whole religious show becomes an obvious invention of imaginative minds.

It’s one thing to hypothesise about the metaphysics of the origins of the universe, or maybe to make guesses about what is required to form an intelligent entity, and whether some such thing caused specific universes to come and go. But that’s all it is, guess work.

Far easier to let everything lie under one roof. It’s Natural all the way. Even the stuff that seems mysterious now will either one day be explained by Natural means, or will remain mysterious – but only in the sense of remaining unknown. Whatever the origins of our universe and any other, when or if they become known to us, they will be investigated, theorised about, and will take their place in our expanding field of Natural knowledge.

The strong nuclear force is something we discovered, or invented, or modelled, however you want to put it. It is now used to explain the interaction between particles in the nucleus of atoms. It was not once Supernatural and then suddenly Natural. Rather, it was once an unknown Natural phenomenon and is now a known Natural phenomenon.

The Rescue of Philosophy of/in Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I obviously don’t mix in the right internet circles. For some time I’ve been seriously disappointed by what I’ve seen of modern philosophy. It’s so exasperating, and I’ve come across so many examples, that I’ve not had chance to blog about them – while I’m contemplating one, up pops another to get my goat, and in the end they pass me by.

I’ve managed to make some points, here: Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science, here: Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science, here: Thought v Experience.

But there are plenty more examples out there, of how philosophy isn’t keeping up with science in the interesting stuff of metaphysics. It’s too much to expect of any fallible human, which accounts for all humans, that those of us who are philosophers should be perfect thinkers, just because thinking is their speciality. So we do have to cut them some slack.

Well, it’s not all bad. This piece, What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology, tells us how philosophers are doing their bit. It starts with this, which carries the sentiments of may scientists:

Last May, Stephen Hawking gave a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in which he declared philosophy to be dead. In his book The Grand Design, Hawking went even further. “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Traditionally these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” Hawking wrote. “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” [my emphasis]

Ross Andersen tells us about groups of philosophers in the US and UK who are staking a claim for philosophy, which is good news. There’s a real place for philosophy in both pushing the boundaries of thought, in going where science is yet unable to, and for scrutinizing science itself, and scientists that do science, to make sure their critical thinking skills are on the ball.

Ross talks to Tim Maudlin, at NYU, who puts Hawkins in his place.

Tim doesn’t reveal anything here that I’ve not already heard from scientists. Some scientists are pretty good at the philosophy associated with their subject. Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins, Sean Carroll, Neil deGrasse Tyson, …, there are a ton of popular scientists who tell it like it is, or how it seems it might be, without wondering off into the realms of fancy that many philosophers tend to do.

But the project seems like a good idea, so I’ll have to dig deeper and keep an eye on them.

Here’s one bit where, for me, Tim gets it dead right:

Now, one can first be a little puzzled by what you mean by “how likely” or “probable” something like that is. You can ask how likely it is that I’ll roll double sixes when I throw dice, but we understand the way you get a handle on the use of probabilities in that instance. It’s not as clear how you even make judgments like that about the likelihood of the various constants of nature (an so on) that are usually referred to in the fine tuning argument.

This is a point I’ve tried to make to a few fine tuning enthusiasts. We don’t have the first clue as to what’s required in the universe manufacturing process. We don’t know a damn about the probabilities involved.

And this:

Now let me say one more thing about fine tuning. I talk to physicists a lot, and none of the physicists I talk to want to rely on the fine tuning argument to argue for a cosmology that has lots of bubble universes, or lots of worlds. What they want to argue is that this arises naturally from an analysis of the fundamental physics, that the fundamental physics, quite apart from any cosmological considerations, will give you a mechanism by which these worlds will be produced, and a mechanism by which different worlds will have different constants, or different laws, and so on. If that’s true, then if there are enough of these worlds, it will be likely that some of them have the right combination of constants to permit life. But their arguments tend not to be “we have to believe in these many worlds to solve the fine tuning problem,” they tend to be “these many worlds are generated by physics we have other reasons for believing in.”

“I talk to physicists a lot” – Wow! This is what we want to hear. That can’t be said of many philosophers, and even less for many theologians.

Tim finish with this:

I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you’re familiar with — they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you’ll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven’t seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It’s not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that’s not true. Obviously it doesn’t matter that much if you’re a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there’s a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don’t know.

Yes! A philosopher gets the insignificance of human intelligence on both evolutionary and cosmological scales! This is so promising.

Still, I can’t let him get off with a free pass. There’s the minor quibble that maybe, once intelligence emerges, that either there’s only really room for one intelligent species, because they wipe out the others (along with all the non-intelligent species they wipe out too); or, that there’s just one remaining intelligent species on this planet is down to just plain evolutionary bad luck – the others happened not to be fit for survival at the time they arose.

There’s the distinct possibility that, given enough evolutionary time, other species could evolve to become intelligent examples. Given that we are here, that doesn’t seem likely at the moment. But an asteroid, or human action, could cause the extinction of human and much mammalian life on this planet. Then, left to its own devices, who’s to say earth wouldn’t see the rise of intelligence again, from a completely different branch of the tree of life. We can speculate, philosophically, but we don’t have the data to be sure of or to rule out these very plausible outcomes.

As I said, I minor quibble. I’m looking forward to finding out more about these philosophers.

Ontological Determinism, Epistemological Indeterminism, Laplace’s Demon

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

What follows is putting aside any quantum stuff for the purposes of this point about the difference between ontological determinism and epistemological indeterminism. Adding ontological indeterminism, through quantum indeterminacy or some other means, doesn’t really alter the points made. It also ignores relativistic effects.

This is purely about classical determinism and how, if that were the case in our universe, we still have problems of indeterminism. It’s also about the implications for our view of free-will.

But it begins with a response to some fears of determinism.

In Sean Carroll’s post on Determinism (in the context of Free will) a comment by Katherine included two quotes. One was from Stephen Hawking:

The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern the universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?

Well, “Yes” to the last two questions, and “It needn’t” to the first of the last three.

Katherine also quotes Conway and Kochen in a similar mood:

It is hard to take science seriously in a universe that in fact controls all the choices experimenters think they make. Nature could be in an insidious conspiracy to ‘confirm’ laws by denying us the freedom to make the tests that would refute them. Physical induction, the primary tool of science, disappears if we are denied access to random samples.

Well, so what. To paraphrase Lawrence Krauss, science tells us how the universe is, not how we want it to be. If we learn from science that the universe is deterministic, and it happens to be that way, then yes, that determinism determined that that is what we would find. And if we conclude it isn’t deterministic and yet it actually is, then determinism has determined that we make that mistake. We’re stuck with that. Does that make you, the budding Nobel Physicist just embarking on your studies give up and throw in the towel? Well, that was determined too. It’s no good denying determinism because we don’t like it. We should only deny it if we figure out that it isn’t the case (and accept we may have been determined to make that mistake).

If the universe is totally deterministic then that is what it is. If we do eventually observe that this is the case, then this is what we observe, no matter how much it messes with our minds (which too would be determined, obviously). It could be that the determined universe does determine evolution and that our current interpretation of evolution is describing how we see it so far. Natural selection would then simply be the determined outcome of prior states and processes.

A different deterministic universe might have determined no evolution and no entities with self-awareness that could observe the universe the way we do. It’s laws may have had room for evolution, but it simply might not have occurred given the a different starting state.

The Conway and Kochen paper was intent on saving free-will, which seems to be necessary for some people. But why the desire to save free-will? Now, I don’t think we have free-will, that is real free-will beloved of dualists and theists. I do actually think, for now, that we are effectively mechanistic systems. What I’m not clear about is the extent to which determinism holds (given that there are possibilities that allow for quantum mechanics being deterministic – the jury is still out). But I don’t think that has any consequences for any physicalist version of free-will that matters.

So, whether we like it or not, no matter what the implications are for free-will, what if the universe is actually deterministic?

Thinking for the moment about entities within the universe, I don’t see how determinism precludes there being such entities that observe and alter the universe (i.e. ones that do science). It just means that the altered states are just more bits of the determined outcome.

There’s a significant difference between a deterministic system and the capacity for some entity to determine (calculate) its states – the capacity to actually do the math to predict some total state in the future. That a system is deterministic does not require that the system, or any bit in it (e.g. us) actually has to do any predicting of any sort. It just plays out, as determined by its laws (as those laws are, not necessarily as we currently understand them).

Determinism rarely requires that perfect prediction be practically possible – only prediction in theory. – Wiki on Determinism.

To actually determine any one complete state from the starting state you must be an outside observer. The problem for an observer inside the system being observed is that they are part of the system. The observer needs the capacity (e.g. memory + processing system) in order to contain every little detail of the system. But then that capacity (memory + processing system) is also part of the observed system, and so you need more capacity to store data about the state of that sub-system, … This is part of the point of Laplace’s demon, that requires ‘arbitrary’ capacity to do the maths. Perhaps it should be phrased as ‘adequate’ capacity, and it should be made clear that the demon can’t be part of the system.

So, even if the universe is ontologically deterministic, it must be epistemologically indeterminate to internal entities.

Whether it is epistemologically deterministic to external entities is another matter – e.g. Leplace’s demon, God or some other deity, or some other non-intelligent entity like a universe-computer.

But I don’t see reason to suppose that a deterministic universe requires either an observer, or a creator. We have a dataset of 1, as Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out. We haven’t the slightest clue as to what’s required in the business of universe creation (active agent) or coming into being (passive mechanistic systems).

The only practical matter for now, to us, is that the universe is practicably indeterminate, because we’re in it. Quantum effects only add to that indeterminacy. In this sense, whether ontological determinism actually holds or not isn’t important.

But as a convenient model determinism is helpful because it should make us think twice about attributing mysterious explanations (like dualist free-will, or the soul) to indeterminate events, or attributing agency where we have no reason to. If we can overcome the fear of determinism and its threat to our hubris of being human and special and immune to the discoveries of science, and just be prepared to face up to what science exposes of the universe to us, or about us, then maybe we can move on from some of the ancient myths that still hold us back.

See also: Re-running The Universe: Determinism, Indeterminism, Quantum Stuff

McGrath on Science and Religion

The Alister McGrath piece was brought to my attention by the Jerry Coyne blog post. As usual with pieces like McGrath’s there’s so much to go at that a simple comment on another blog that’s critical of it isn’t enough. Nearly every paragraph is hopelessly vague, when not outright wrong. The religious bullshit language isn’t as heavy from McGrath as from some other theologians, but it’s bad enough.

On with my rant then…

“Why talk of Christmas when any idea of God is misguided?” – Christmas and God are only related by the name given to a festival by one particular religion. As an atheist I’m quite comfortable with Christmas – even with the mythical stories about Jesus, just as I am with the ones about Santa. Christmas fairy tales.

“Science, we are confidently told, has buried God. But has it?” – If there was no God to bury, then this misses the point. What it specifically hasn’t buried is belief in God. Quite different issues. What it has buried is the intellectual case for belief in God (in terms of most religions, though it does not refute the many god hypotheses).

McGrath turns to what he thinks are questions for religion rather than science…

“Where did everything come from?” – Still a science question.

“What’s it all about?” – A very vague question that summarises our inquisitiveness and our desire to find our place in the universe. Still basically a science question, though put within some human emotional context.

“What’s the point of life?” – Whatever we make it, apparently. Other than that there’s no indication from anything we know that there need be any ‘cosmic’ point.

“Its [science’s] interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional.” – Yes. But then all our reports are provisional. Simply inventing religious stories and sticking to them (as much as that is the case, since even religions change) doesn’t give them any more lasting credability or make them any less provisional; and since religious stories are pure invention they don’t even warrant the adjective ‘provisional’.

“Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.” – Well, not really. They ridicule them because their God cannot be evidenced. There are no observations. The objection to ‘proofs’ of God are only raised in response to claims for proof, not because there was ever any credibility to the proofs of God’s existence.

“Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.” – Again, the mistaken presumption that (logical) ‘proof’ is significant.

“We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.” – So, with no proof on hand, and no evidence, what has religion got going for it? Why believe?

“Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).” – Oh yes it is (about refusing to think). The point here is that many different ‘theories’ or explanations can fit the same data. The problem with religion is that it is pure fantasy invented precisely to explain as much as possible, but without any requirement that it account for anomolies. Declare that prayer works, but ignore cases that don’t fit this hypothesis and proclaim the success of prayer when any instance happens to fit.

“For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.” – And how exactly does that discovery proceed? What methodologies does it use, other than the employment of ‘feel good’ imaginative assertions.

“You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.” – Well, taking the metaphor literally, you can do that by measuring the incident and reflective light, measuring the frequency distribution of the light source (sodium street light, for example, doesn’t illuminate too well). And, you’re illuminating what’s in shadow (that which was not illuminated), not the shadow itself. This metaphor is a prime example of the vague and incoherent nature of religious language. Most religious language puts into shadow that which would otherwise be illuminated. The shadow of mystery is highly prized ignorance, in religion.

“If Christ is indeed the ‘light of the world'” – But he isn’t. There’s no reason to think he fits this metaphor. As a humanist he perhaps contributed to some enlightenment. If indeed any of his words were in fact his – which isn’t at all clear. His actual words, instead, remain in the shadow of history and evolving religious doctrine. Religious invention is bright in its imaginitave power, but casts a shadow over historical truth.

“So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? … This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.” – Yes, as any fantasy story does. That’s the point of imaginative fiction, novels, the movies. They extend our imaginative experience beyond our real experience. But it’s still finction.

“…science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.” – Science is also used to put them back together again, which then allows all humans, not just the religious, to impart meaning in the human context. Religion is really superfluous here; or, at best, just one more fantasy interpretation of our experienced life.

“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning.” – Again, religion is not the only way of imparting human contextual meaning; and for many of us it’s not only far from the best, it’s one of the worst.

“…religion [helps us] to see, however dimly, the ‘big picture’ of which they are part.” – But only in the way that Star Wars helps us to see another possible big picture of human potential. Fantasy.

“God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations.” – My emphasis. It’s odd, that for one who is supposed to be ineffable, most religious people are quite content to tell us what God is. This statement is just plain old religious language abuse.

“Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all.” – Who do? Christians? It was, after all, part of the paragraph telling us what Christians think. But I guess he really intended this second statement to mean atheists? I’m not sure who it really applies to, if anyone. As an atheist I’m not assuming there is a purpose, so I’m not particularly looking for one, endlessly or otherwise. I might choose (in as much as I can) to give my life a purpose, or maybe many purposes that come and go as the feelin suits me. At one point I had the purpose of raising a family: job done. At another time I had the purpose of achieving specific educational goals: job done. I have other purposes now. Should some natural disaster strike my neighborhood, no doubt I’ll have a temporary change of purpose which might be, basically, staying alive. Of course the religious don’t like to be too specific, because that allows them to be pinned down. Far batter the vague wishy-washy ‘purpose’, as in ‘the meaning of life and everything’.

“The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.” – The Christian fantasy; until supportive evidence is available.

Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga.

His post really picks up a theme from one of his earlier ones: philosophy v science. Here are some additional links that provide further examples of the futility of pure philosophy(and of course theology) – a debate between philosopher Stephen Law and Alvin Plantinga:

1) Stephen Law’s post tackling Plantinga

2) Plantinga’s paper.

3) Stephen Law’s response.

This whole debate goes to the heart of why philosophy alone (i.e. without linking it to empirical observation) is closer to theism than it is to science.

I referenced Jerry Coyne’s earlier post in this one of mine.

As another example, try my take on Stephen Law v Peter Atkins, here.

Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

This gap in the understanding of what science is and what mere mortal humans can expect to achieve with their brains is underscored in the comment by Michael on Jerry Coyne’s post.

He attack’s Coyne’s “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – But this merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) the point is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof. They then attack science as having no ultimate logical proof. But that’s the point! None of us do. All our knowledge is empirically acquired, inductively argued and contingent. Scientists know this. Theologians and some philosophers seem to think otherwise.

What we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands, and brains. In our very human, very biological, very evolved hands and brains.

For philosophers and theologians to have any chance of convincing science proponents to any other way of knowing they should not only give us good reason to accept their take on how the universe works, but they need to do it in such a substantial way that it refutes all of known physics, chemistry, biology, evolution – which is a pretty big ask. Instead, they resort to the supposed logic of characters like Plantinga, with his fantastic grasp of the application of conditional probabilities to the speculatively metaphysical. Pure bollocks.

A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.

This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.
Continue reading “Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science”

A Scientific Free-Will: In Oppostion To Deterministic Free-Will

This is a review of the points covered in this paper:

Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates by Björn Brembs.

Thanks to Bruno for the link.

The paper dismisses the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will of dualism and theism (the soul?), but is more specifically aimed at giving a scientific account of free-will, but one that is not constrained to a completely illusory free-will as suggested by determinism.

It is not as clear as this paper claims that the universe is not deterministic. It might not be, but we as human animals have a specific difficulty in establishing this.

I’m quite happy to say we don’t know what ultimate reality is, if there is an ultimate reality. I’m quite happy to say we can’t be sure that the universe is actually deterministic. But all of science seems to be based on determinism. Well, at least it depends on causality. There is the notion of causality without determinism, but this seems a bit of a cheat. In most respect causation and determinism can be used interchangeably.

This paper seems to be based on the conflation of underlying state of affairs (the universe is deterministic or not) and what humans can deduce from it (to humans the universe is indeterminate).

So throughout I’ll try to distinguish between these:

Determinism, non-determinism – the extent to which fundamentally the universe is deterministic in the sense that any event is caused by one or more other events in a causal chain so that the outcome is determined by prior events. This is really an ontological position, about what the universe is and how it behaves. There are variations.

Determinacy, indeterminacy – the extent to which any one part of a deterministic system can or cannot know all about (and possibly may know nothing about) some other part. This determinacy is essentially an epistemological notion, in human terms, or an informational notion in a more general sense.

2 – The rejection of determinism

I don’t see any reason to suppose that current science demonstrates that the universe is non-deterministic. Section 2 is not very convincing in its rejection of determinism since at least some of the examples specifically do not refute determinism. The ‘chance’ aspects of quantum mechanics are not unanimously agreed to be non-deterministic – though our limited understanding of it may give us the impression it is non-deterministic. Double slit experiments do not speak to determinism or non-determinism – they only imply that our models (wave v particle) are insufficient alone to describe such phenomena.

Even Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does not refute determinism as clearly as some people make out. Determinism isn’t about being able to actually measure what will happen, it’s about what does happen as the result of an event that occurs. There are all sorts of details that are confusing about the ‘measurement’ of a particles position and velocity, to do with what is actually doing the measuring (and lots of nonsense about it being a conscious being, as opposed to mere interaction with anything, including other particles).

The real issues of determinism are not to do with quantum mechanics. There’s the possibility that quantum mechanics phenomena are deterministic. The problem is more fundamental than current science can explain. For example, if this universe is deterministic then was it too ’caused’ or is it just deterministic from the Big Bang onwards. An infinite regress of deterministic universes seems to be unpalatable for some reason, but I can’t figure out why. It’s not as if we have direct experience of anything outside our universe to come to any opinion about whether infinite regress is de rigueur for universal creation systems or not. We’re simply in the dark on all of this.

So, what we are left with is that the universe appears deterministic, and much of our classical science uses that fact – and brain science is classical science down to the level of molecules and the chemistry of the brain. There’s no convincing argument that quantum mechanics is truly non-deterministic, as opposed to simply being indeterminate. Applying quantum ideas to brain science is just as much a shot in the dark as the ‘metaphysical’ free-will it is supposed to avoid. deterministic models are sufficient for brain science, until such time as real evidence to the contrary appears

3. Behavioural variability as an adaptive trait

Some scholars have resorted to quantum uncertainty in the brain as the solution, providing the necessary discontinuity in the causal chain of events. This is not unrealistic, as there is evidence that biological organisms can evolve to take advantage of quantum effects. For instance, plants use quantum coherence when harvesting light in their photosynthetic complexes.

There are forms of indeterminism that are still causal. I’m not sure where this discontinuity in the causal chain might be.

This doesn’t do anything but introduce the above uncertainties in our understanding of physics, but this doesn’t refute determinism at this level. If some quantum event occurs in a plant, and that causes a molecule in the plant to absorb some light with the consequential result of photosynthesis in action, then that quantum event ’caused’, ‘determined’ that the reaction would take place. What quantum uncertainty fails to do in such cases is explain how anything is remotely certain or predictable.

But to attribute this to free-will is no different than talking about sodium ions. Whether one particular sodium ion makes it through a sodium channel in a particular neuron will ‘determine’ whether that neuron fires or not – and if that particular neuron constitutes a tipping point in some micro decision that the brain makes, then that micro-decision will fire or not, and that in turn will contribute to the way a larger decision occurs. Quantum events are so far below the level at which we can analyse human decisions that for any particular decision they are not worth considering. There is sufficient indeterminacy in any classical assessment of the brain without having to look for quantum effects to explain indeterminacy.

Quantum events are a fundamental part of electronics, but you can bet that most proponents of free-will very specifically do not attribute consciousness and free-will to electronic systems – i.e. computers.

Moreover, and more importantly, the pure chance of quantum indeterminism alone is not what anyone would call ‘freedom’. ‘For surely my actions should be caused because I want them to happen for one or more reasons rather that they happen by chance’. This is precisely where the biological mechanisms underlying the generation of behavioural variability can provide a viable concept of free will.

Part of the problem here is that this paper is essentially re-defining free-will in a materialistic scientific sense, and yet still requires a ‘degree’ of freedom to describe personal agency. But on the whole this paper still makes ‘real’ free-will just as illusory as is described by determinism.

Biologists need not resort to quantum mechanics to understand that deterministic behaviour can never be evolutionarily stable. Evolution is a competitive business and predictability is one thing that will make sure that a competitor will be out of business soon. There are many illuminating examples of selection pressures favouring unpredictability…

‘Unpredictable’ to who? To the animals that are in the middle of the evolutionary process. The selection pressures are deterministic pressures that drive individual animals behaviour, but those behaviours can still be adequately indeterminate to other animals, and, to a great extent, to themselves. This is a fine example of conflating non-determinism with the indeterminacy of knowledge (information) to an individual entity.

Escape behaviours are analysed at a macro level of a complex individual, and at best the response of bulk areas of the brain of the a complex individual. The C-start example is illustrating the causal complexity of events – the snake does ’cause’ or ‘determine’ that the fish responds to the snake’s advantage. This is hardly a refutation of determinism.

Note that if the Mauthner cell was to respond to ‘randomness’ then its response would be non-deterministic, and the fish would not respond with the C-start behaviour so predictably – the snake has learned (in the evolutionary sense) to take advantage of that predictable response, the determinacy of the outcome of an action. The whole notion of non-determinism is its own demise, or else nothing would be predictable at all. The unpredictability of behaviour we find in biological systems can be sufficiently described by indeterminacy of complex classical systems.

All the examples in section 3 are examples of how deterministic systems are subject to influences that to those systems are indeterminate; so looked at in isolation it looks like the system has some unpredictability. But that does not mean it isn’t part of some wider system were all the component events are ‘determined’ by prior events.

In evolutionary terms it is put as random mutation and natural selection. But here the ‘random’ mutation is only apparently random to us, because of the vast complexity and the inaccessibility of the DNA that is mutating. But for any DNA molecule that mutates there will be an obvious causal event at the molecular level that caused that molecule to mutate (e.g. chemically driven mutation), or it might result from some atomic decay process, maybe triggered by a passing subatomic particle. Some of these physical events at this level are at the forefront of particle physics, but do not as yet refute a deterministic mutation, and so do not imply that evolution is a non-deterministic process.

The best adapted survive (the natural selection bit) because of causal events in their environment (their environment includes their own bodies; and brains, for entities that have them).

4. Brains are in control of variability

These observations suggest that there must be mechanisms by which brains control the variability they inject into their motor output. Some components of these mechanisms have been studied. For instance, tethered flies can be trained to reduce the range of the variability in their turning manoeuvres.

Well, then the training has causally determined that their behaviour should change, by mechanisms relating to how all animals with brains learn (see Eric Kandel and others on memory, learning, conditioning).

Variability is not shown to be non-deterministic by this section. In fact it gives some good examples to support the deterministic world view – even though the determinism is many levels removed, to the extent that most animal behaviour patterns are statistical outcomes of extremely complex causal systems.

5. What are the neural mechanisms generating behavioural variability?

Instead, a nonlinear signature was found, suggesting that fly brains operate at critically, meaning that they are mathematically unstable, which, in turn, implies an evolved mechanism rendering brains highly susceptible to the smallest differences in initial conditions and amplifying them exponentially [63]. Put differently, fly brains have evolved to generate unpredictable turning manoeuvres.

Instability is not non-determinism. It just means that a particular system or part of a system is finely tuned to respond (be caused to change) by small changes to its inputs (its environment). It is still a deterministic system, just less predictable to other systems nearby, particularly those trying to predict the outcome based on immediate stimulus alone. Of course there are all the precursor developments that put the system into that unstable state. The various learning and conditioning examples given by Eric Kandel illustrate the variability of neuronal systems depending on the frequency and type of stimulus. This does not mean that within these neurons the processes are not deterministic.

6. Determinism versus indeterminism is a false dichotomy

Together with Hume, most would probably subscribe to the notion that ’tis impossible to admit of any medium betwixt chance and an absolute necessity’ [75]. For example, Steven Pinker (1997, p. 54) concurs that ‘A random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility’ [76].


However, to consider chance and lawfulness as the two mutually exclusive sides of our reality is only one way to look at the issue.

The problem here is that this paper is confusing ‘determinism’, the underlying mechanism that ‘drives’ events, with ‘indeterminacy’, the inability of any system (including but not restricted to humans) to ‘determine’ or predict what a particular outcome will be.

The unstable nonlinearity, which makes brains exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations, may be the behavioural correlate of amplification mechanisms such as those described for the barrel cortex [74].


This nonlinear signature eliminates the two alternatives, which both would run counter to free will, namely complete (or quantum) randomness and pure, Laplacian determinism.

No it does not! The stability or instability of particular mechanisms only relates to how sensitive a system is to being ‘determined’ to change by deterministic precursors, it’s stimulus inputs, and its current state in detail. This has been a problem for psychology – the treatment of the brain as a black box. Various stimuli can illicit the same bahaviour, and the same stimuli can illicit different behaviour – even in the same subject – because there is insufficient knowledge about what’s going on inside.

These represent opposite and extreme endpoints in discussions of brain functioning, which hamper the scientific discussion of free will.

They only hamper the science in that many philosophers and theists want there to be some magical ‘real’ free-will that is outside the causal reach of a deterministic universe, and those philosophers and theists are in some cases getting involved in the debate (Bill Klemm being an example of a theist scientist who lets his theism dictate his view in this regard). So this issue of the nature of free-will at a more fundamental level is important, and ongoing.

Instead, much like evolution itself, a scientific concept of free will comes to lie between chance and necessity, with mechanisms incorporating both randomness and lawfulness.

Here the term ‘chance’ can just mean trivial ‘inditerminacy’, but it does not refute philosophical determinism upon which all science is based.

The Humean dichotomy of chance and necessity is invalid for complex processes such as evolution or brain functioning.

In the sense that the distinction is unimportant once the general notion of determinism is accepted and the science moves on, regardless of what some philosophers and theists want to be the case. Brain science can proceed with a deterministic model – it can hardly be said that this model has been exhausted.

Such phenomena incorporate multiple components that are both lawful and indeterminate.

This seems more correct, using the term: ‘indeterminate’. It can be said that it is all lawful (obeying physical laws) and as such any part of it, and the interaction of that part with any other, produces a determinate outcome; but we cannot determine that outcome, primarily because of the complexity.

This breakdown of the determinism/indeterminism dichotomy …

The dichotomy is not determinism/indeterminacy, but determinism/non-determinism. It’s perfectly reasonable in a deterministic universe for it to have parts that are indeterminate to other parts – i.e. one part cannot ‘know’ about another part until such time as the second part impacts on (‘determines’ change in) the first part.

Stochasticity is not a nuisance, or a side effect of our reality. Evolution has shaped our brains to implement ‘stochasticity’ in a controlled way, injecting variability ‘at will’. Without such an implementation, we would not exist.

Yes, fine – if ‘stochastic just means unpredictably variable to us. This is not refuting determinism.

A scientific concept of free will cannot be a qualitative concept. The question is not any more ‘do we have free will?’; the questions is now: ‘how much free will do we have?’; ‘how much does this or that animal have?’. Free will becomes a quantitative trait.

This is really about the extent to which an animal (or any system) is autonomous, in the sense of the extent to which complex processes inside it (mostly its brain, for an animal) ‘determine’ its behaviour. For a more autonomous system it is less immediately dependent on its environment for its behaviour than is a less autonomous one. But both are completely deterministic in that all the processes on the inside and outside are governed by deterministic physical laws – always depending of course on the extent to which low level determinism actually does prevail.

7. Initiating activity: actions versus responses

This is more about the extent to which systems are indeterminate, not about the underlying determinism.

8. Freedom of choice

For instance, isolated leech nervous systems chose either a swimming motor programme or a crawling motor programme to an invariant electrical stimulus [78–80]. Every time the stimulus is applied, a set of neurons in the leech ganglia goes through a so far poorly understood process of decision-making to arrive either at a swimming or at a crawling behaviour. The stimulus situation could not be more perfectly controlled than in an isolated nervous system, excluding any possible spurious stimuli reaching sensory receptors unnoticed by the experimenter. In fact, even hypothetical ‘internal stimuli’, generated somehow by the animal must in this case be coming from the nervous system itself, rendering the concept of ‘stimulus’ in this respect rather useless.

This is expressing only how difficult it is to account for actions within neurons. The inner action of a neuron, with all its internal processes controlling the expression of neurotransmitters, the migration of triggers up and down the inner pathways, such as those determining gene expression and inhibition, all the outside details of what allows the action potential to fire, the stimuli that determine how and when it grows synapses in the local learning memory process, etc. A neuron is already a complex system. It doesn’t matter how precise an external stimulus may be, the subsequent outcomes will be variable. But that does not mean that the countless molecular events going on inside and around the neuron are not deterministic.

Yet, under these ‘carefully controlled experimental circumstances, the animal behaves as it damned well pleases’ (Harvard Law of Animal Behaviour) [34].

This itself is just an expression of the indeterminacy of the measured system, not that it actually does have ‘real’ free-will, or that the underlying physics is non-determinate.

Seymour Benzer, one of the founders of Neurogenetics, captured this phenomenon in the description of his first phototaxis experiments in 1967: ‘ … if you put flies at one end of a tube and a light at the other end, the flies will run to the light. But I noticed that not every fly will run every time. If you separate the ones that ran or did not run and test them again, you find, again, the same percentage will run. But an individual fly will make its own decision’.

Distinguish ‘real’ free-will from indeterminacy. That each fly ‘will make its own decision’ is an expression of this indeterminacy, not only in the minds of the experimenters, but also to the fly. The fly does not ‘know’ or decide of its own ‘real’ free-will – it simply ‘behaves’ in accordance to the multitude of complex deterministic operations that are going on inside its tiny little brain, and within that brain’s 100,000 neurons. One hundred thousand neurons in a fruit fly! How the hell is a simple light box experiment supposed to expose the determinism or non-determinism of the underlying countless number of molecules within each of those neurons to an extent that would make the fly behaviour ‘non-determinate’? The behaviour is only ‘indeterminate’ due to this complexity.

All these experiments are bulk property statistical experiments, at least on some scale. When trying to measure the behaviour of flies with a light box the outcome is bound to be a statistical measure of the indeterminate behaviour of countless deterministic events at the scale of the neuron, and below that at the molecule, and below that of the atomic and subatomic activity.

John Searle has described free will as the belief ‘that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did’ [92]. Taylor & Dennett cite the maxim ‘I could have done otherwise’ [93]. Clearly, leeches and flies could and can behave differently in identical environments.

But the crucial point here is that they could not know that they could have done otherwise, or that they would have done.

In some cases we may loose nearly all our autonomy. A man falls off a cliff and smashes on the rocks below. I say, “Wow, once he started falling, did he have to die?” and John Searle says, “He could have done otherwise.” – What? he could have used his free-will to fly back up to the cliff? We acknowledge some obvious restrictions to our free-will.

In other cases what’s going on when a bunch of neurons spark around in our heads and ‘decide’ to raise our left hand or right hand, the notion that we ‘could have done otherwise’ doesn’t really capture the internal complexity of that event, and certainly doesn’t demonstrate ‘real’ free-will, and certainly doesn’t refute determinism.

While some argue that unpredictable (or random) choice does not qualify for their definition of free will [2], it is precisely the freedom from the chains of causality that most scholars see as a crucial prerequisite for free will.

This confuses indeterminacy, chance (whatever that is) and ‘real’ free-will – unless of course we re-define free-will just to mean outcomes of complex deterministic yet indeterminate systems.

9. Consciousness and freedom

It thus is no coincidence that we all feel that we possess a certain degree of freedom of choice.

Because we cannot determine all the micro-deterministic events that drive our internal decision making processes. It’s quite plausible, and consistent with classical deterministic physics, that a system that is limited-self-aware (has some data about itself, but cannot monitor most of itself, particularly its central control system) that it has some representation of itself as spontaneously making decisions.

It makes sense that depriving humans of such freedom is frequently used as punishment and the deprived do invariably perceive this limited freedom as undesirable.

We only feel this is the case because we have innate (determined by evolution and development) physiological drives that emerge as emotional desires to have freedom of motion. One feature that distinguishes most animals from plants is that they must move to survive – to hunt and to avoid being hunted. It seems a good evolutionary adaptation to make restriction of movement an undesirable situation that the whole body fights against – again expressed in some animals, particular humans, as an emotional discomfort in having freedom of movement restricted. But again, not refuting determinism

The concept that we can decide to behave differently even under identical circumstances underlies not only our justice systems.

The circumstances are never the same! Every time an organism responds to some stimulus it changes the organism, which, in whatever minor degree it may be, has the potential to change the response next time the stimulus is applied. And all the time, time is ticking by and the environment is changing.

But be careful, because this link to justice is part of the problem – our illusion that we have ‘real’ free-will can lead to injustice by attributing all responsibility only to the individual. Thankfully there is at least some consideration of extenuating circumstances in many cases – at least in sentencing if not in judgement of guilt.

Electoral systems, our educational systems, parenting and basically all other social systems also presuppose behavioural variability and at least a certain degree of freedom of choice.

This tends to our desire for freedom in that it allows our complex brains a psychological freedom. Many people do question the extent to which democracy implies real freedom (and even question the notion of freedom). It may be that its greatest importance is that it makes us feel free, so satisfying our psychological and physiological desire for freedom of movement – which translated into more abstract terms used by humans means political freedom.

The data reviewed above make clear that the special property of our brain that provides us with this freedom surely is independent of consciousness. Consciousness is not a necessary prerequisite for a scientific concept of free will.

This is a good point – but note that ‘free-will’ here is the re-defined free-will, which from my perspective is still subject to deterministic physical mechanisms. But I agree they are distinct. A system can be autonomous (free) to some degree without being conscious. A tossed stone is free to fly through the air and fall to the ground – but of course this then begs the question of what the ‘free’ in free-will really means. Can a system lack all autonomy (not sure that can be the case) and still be conscious? Not so sure about that one.

We sometimes have to work extremely hard to constrain our behavioural variability in order to behave as predictably as possible.

Yes. Which shows that our will is not as free as we would like it to be. Which begs the question, for the religious, that if God wanted to give us free-will, why is it so un-free from deterministic constraints?

Therefore, the famous experiments of Benjamin Libet and others since then [2,4,5,98–100] only serve to cement the rejection of the metaphysical concept of free will and are not relevant for the concept proposed here.

Here the ‘metaphysical concept of free-will’ is referring to what I’ve been calling ‘real’ free-will. But Libet’s experiments do not cement the rejection of ‘real’ free-will, and I’d have thought they were of interest to this re-defined ‘scientific’ free-will, in that they refer to the timing of brain events and choices made, and the conscious awareness of those choices.

Conscious reflection, meditation or discussion may help with difficult decisions, but this is not even necessarily the case. The degree to which our conscious efforts can affect our decisions is therefore central to any discussion about the degree of responsibility our freedom entails, but not to the freedom itself.

This is the interesting point when it comes to responsibility and the autonomy of an individual. If two men are walking towards me and one attacks me and the other then defends me, then I can attribute immediate causation (identify the most significant entities in the causal chain of events). I can say that the action of one and not the other determined that I had a nose bleed. But there may be many prior causes that determined why I was struck by the first man, and this is where responsibility and determinisms and the extent of autonomy come into play.

10. The Self and Agency

In contrast to consciousness, an important part of a scientific concept of free will is the concept of ‘self’. It is important to realize that the organism generates an action itself, spontaneously. In chemistry, spontaneous reactions occur when there is a chemical imbalance. The system is said to be far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Biological organisms are constantly held far from equilibrium, they are considered open thermodynamic systems. However, in contrast to physical or chemical open systems, some of the spontaneous actions initiated by biological organisms help keep the organism away from equilibrium. Every action that promotes survival or acquires energy sustains the energy flow through the open system, prompting Georg Litsche to define biological organisms as a separate class of open systems (i.e. ‘subjects’; [101]). Because of this constant supply of energy, it should not be surprising to scientists that actions can be initiated spontaneously and need not be released by external stimuli. In controlled situations where there cannot be sufficient causes outside the organism to make the organism release the particular action, the brain initiates behaviour from within, potentially using a two-stage process as described above. The boy ceases to play and jumps up. This sort of impulsivity is a characteristic of children every parent can attest to. We do not describe the boy’s action with ‘some hidden stimuli made him jump’—he jumped of his own accord. The jump has all the qualities of a beginning. The inference of agency in ourselves, others and even inanimate objects is a central component of how we think. Assigning agency requires a concept of self. How does a brain know what is self?

This paragraph describes the illusion of self and free-will quite well. That the processes that initiate action are sometimes predominantly, and on a small time scale maybe wholly, attributable to internal processes, is the cause of our illusion. Those internal processes are still deterministic at the lower levels, with various collections of internal events coming together to trigger an externally visible behaviour. It’s the fact that we the observers, and sometimes the subject that is performing the behaviour, are not aware of the precursor internal causes that it looks so spontaneous to us – and this is the root of attribution of the concept of free-will. Free-will seems more like a psychological perception than a reality.

One striking characteristic of actions is that an animal normally does not respond to the sensory stimuli it causes by its own actions. The best examples are that it is difficult to tickle oneself…

This is still a comparison of outcomes from deterministic sequences of events. It relates to the complexity of the system and the availability of internal feedback that makes tickling oneself different than being tickled by someone else. If you doubt this distinction then look up Dead Hand (definition 1).

Thus, in order to understand actions, it is necessary to introduce the term self. The concept of self necessarily follows from the insight that animals and humans initiate behaviour by themselves.

As a general convenience in many circumstances I’d agree that this is a good model for such complex systems as humans with the degree of complex indeterminate autonomous behaviour we exhibit.

It would make no sense to assign a behaviour to an organism if any behavioural activity could, in principle, be traced back by a chain of causations to the origin of the universe.

I would agree with this to some extent. In the mugger example I gave above I don’t have to trace causes back to the Big Bang to determine that the most predominant immediate cause of my pain was the mugger, not my defender. This is simple cause and effect, nothing to do with agency in the free-will sense.

In my house the circuit breaker keeps tripping. I discover that unplugging my fridge prevents this, but unplugging all other appliances doesn’t. I blame the fridge and replace it. The problem persists with the new fridge. On further investigation I find the fault is with the wall socket behind the fridge – plug anything there and the breaker trips. This illustrates the problem with the simplistic notion of free-will and personal responsibility. Sometimes we do have to look further than the immediate agent for the behaviour we witness. It might save hanging the wrong man – or in my case replacing a working fridge.

An animal or human being is the agent causing a behaviour, as long as no sufficient causes for this activity to occur are coming from outside the organism.

And here lies the tricky bit. Sometimes those apparent spontaneous and ‘freely-willed’ actions of animals and people are pre-determined by circumstances that conspire to form the decision making process we are witnessing in the present. We could blame a drug user for ‘choosing’ to do drugs – but if such a person is from an abusive drug-taking family then what would we expect them to do? That a man born and raised in Iran is a strident Muslim need be no surprise to us in the West – though Christians don’t necessarily see their route to Christianity being so conformal to prior causes. That a child spontaneously leaps around or shouts odd words might be an indication he has Tourette syndrome, whereas some observers might think him rude. Many human undesirable behaviours previously attributed to free-will have subsequently been attributed to specific conditions beyond the control of the subject. The free-will model – particularly the religious one associated with sinning – isn’t that helpful a model.

Agency is assigned to entities who initiate actions themselves. Agency is crucial for moral responsibility. Behaviour can have good or bad consequences. It is the agent for whom the consequences matter the most and who can be held responsible for them.

And so it is believed by Libertarians, and fundamentalist theists alike. There are no limits to how this simplistic view of our animal nature can be used to limit our freedoms, in the very act of declaring them free.

11. Why still use the term free-will today?

By providing empirical data from invertebrate model systems supporting a materialistic model of free will, I hope to at least start a thought process that abandoning the metaphysical concept of free will does not automatically entail that we are slaves of our genes and our environment, forced to always choose the same option when faced with the same situation.

I do think the ‘materialistic model of free will’ shows the ‘real’ (metaphysical) free-will model to be illusory – or at least illustrates it not to be so straight forward we can go on attributing blame and dishing out punishment willy-nilly. But I do think we can accept quite easily that we are slaves to our genes and environment – but to an indeterminate extent that makes this particular piece of knowledge non-constraining psychologically. As put earlier in the article, but not quite expressed in this sense, it’s the indeterminate nature of games that make them interesting. Flipping a double headed coin is not as interesting a game as flipping a normal coin – and in the case of the latter it makes no difference how deterministic the outcome is from a point of view of the physical laws of the universe, because to us it’s indeterminate. So, we cannot say we are always ‘forced to always choose the same option’, because we are not – the options are determined, but indeterminate to us: psychologically this is free-will. We may be constrained by determinism to make a specific choice on a specific occasion, but the same determinism, effected by other subsequent states, may result in a different choice next time. This time based indeterminacy makes arguments that ‘I could have chosen otherwise’ quite meaningless.

In fact, I am confident I have argued successfully that we would not exist if our brains were not able to make a different choice even in the face of identical circumstances and history.

We have not the slightest clue about rerunning history, but if determinism pertains then history cannot be rerun, but if it could then we’d end up with the same outcome. Only if the universe is truly non-deterministic could it be said that running the universe again would result in different outcomes – but doing so would result in a different universe altogether, at least one in which the person wanting to try this would not exists, and probably the earth would not exist either. If quantum indeterminacy was at work then even with the same starting state we would end up with quite a different universe. The only sense in which this notion of rerunning history and making different decisions makes sense is in fact if ‘real’ free-will was something above and beyond and independent of the otherwise deterministic material reality of the universe.

In this article, I suggest re-defining the familiar free will in scientific terms rather than giving it up, only because of the historical baggage all its connotations carry with them. One may argue that ‘volition’ would be a more suitable term, less fraught with baggage. However, the current connotations of volition as ‘willpower’ or the forceful, conscious decision to behave against certain motivations render it less useful and less general a term than free will.

Fair points. Deciding what to call it is tricky, given the baggage.

Finally, there may be a societal value in retaining free will as a valid concept, since encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating [103]

But this is a misconception about what is implied by it, as illustrated by Jesus and Mo. And if determinism is the case, and free-will is illusory, then is it really scientifically sound to deny this because some people will entertain this misconception and think they can cheat?

Look at it this way. If I decide to save a drowning man then I was driven to it, deterministically, by all be genetic, developmental, personal societal history and the current state of my brain as I weigh up the danger to myself and the pleas of the drowning man – my action is determined in that sense. But if I say, ah well, what does it matter, I cannot help leaving him to drown – then it’s determined that I do say that, and yes, this then is the determined outcome. Whichever action I take is the determined action. And it may well be that initially the acquisition of determinism as a philosophy of the mind does lead to the outcome that the man drowns. But then so could the ‘real’ free-will model, in that it can be used as an excuse too: he shouldn’t have been messing about near dangerous water, it’s his fault he’s drowning. And in all this either excuse may be a psychological mask for a fear that is preventing me saving the drowning man – my brain deterministically invented excuses either way.

In the end we just do what we do. The psychological approach we have towards it is itself determined. The point is that it is indeterminate to us, so we go on appearing to make choices, and apparently sometimes rationalising those choices later, and that rationalisation is itself a deterministic process going on in the brain.

So the extent to which this entity, me, is autonomous and can make decisions, seems to be down to influences that drive me one way of another. That I will change is inevitable – until my component parts dies and distribute so that there is no longer any value in the concept of ‘me’. That I will change in a way that suits my biological drives is not under my control, beyond this degree of autonomy. I cannot help, it seems, but view the world this way, and go on making the case for determinism this way. Unless this entity, me, is persuaded to some other point of view – entirely deterministically though as yet indeterminate to me.

I no longer agree that ‘ ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’ ‘ [96]. The scientific understanding of common concepts enrich our lives, they do not impoverish them, as some have argued [100]. This is why scientists have and will continue to try and understand these concepts scientifically or at least see where and how far such attempts will lead them. It is not uncommon in science to use common terms and later realize that the familiar, intuitive understanding of these terms may not be all that accurate. Initially, we thought atoms were indivisible. Today we do not know how far we can divide matter. Initially, we thought species were groups of organisms that could be distinguished from each other by anatomical traits. Today, biologists use a wide variety of species definitions. Initially, we thought free will was a metaphysical entity. Today, I am joining a growing list of colleagues who are suggesting it is a quantitative, biological trait, a natural product of physical laws and biological evolution, a function of brains, maybe their most important one.

Yep. That’s more like it. The trouble is Björn, you can’t help it. You are driven to this point of view by the deterministic causal universe.

Heavenly Science

I’m sometimes asked if I’m spiritual. Of course I’m not spiritual in the theistic sense, being an atheist, but there are atheists who consider themselves spiritual beings: Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, for example. I don’t think I am, but I do have a sense of wonder and awe about the world, whether it’s about our cosmological origins, or the new ideas in earthly sciences.

I guess this is the closest I’d come to heaven – being surrounded by fascinating people figuring out what makes the world go round, and how to make it go round better. Their enthusiasm is palpable.

For all Christians go on about what their God gives them it just seems pretty lame compared to discovering new stuff about the universe, or creating fascinating new content that solves very human problems.

Science Foo Camp 2009: by Nature Video.

I guess this un-conference format doesn’t make for easy video, and it’s by invite only. But I’d love to be a fly on the wall. Maybe that’s something that could come out of this type of event. We need a really cool new method of experiencing these events as if we were there.


Some scientists and mathematicians can have experiences that can be considered revelations:

Violence with Violence

Talk about selective reading. This is a joke. It’s a bit of religious promotion based on some scientific studies that are confirming common sense. And for some it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

“You can’t fight violence with violence” doesn’t require detailed science, or God. It’s common sense that some members of most societies have figured out is a good general rule, and that goes back well before Jesus. So, it’s hardly as if it was a new idea – but fair enough, Jesus and some of his followers have made a significant contribution to the popularisation of that view and are to be congratulated on that.

And it’s not as if science was around to figure this stuff out. As a science psychology is still relatively new, has many methodological problems, and the detailed thorough science is difficult to do. So, no surprise that science is late in the game.

But hold on, who is it that creates wars, and on what basis do wars begin? It’s usually based on ignorance about differences and dogma, and religion has had a great input here (as have non-religious dogmas). It’s religious politicians, like Bush and Blair that have wanted war on terror; it’s religiously motivated political divisions that have caused conflict, from the Christian crusades to Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, to the continuing tribal, racial and religious divisions in Africa.

It certainly isn’t to religion’s credit that it has not sorted these problems out so far, and it is to religions discredit that it has contributed so much to the problems. Perhaps the question should be why has it taken science to step in and provide rational reasons to explain the complexities? It’s because ignorant politics and religion have failed, and reason and science have had to come to the rescue to provide a less biased view that can be taken on board whatever one’s politics or religion (dogma permitting). Science is for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Muslim or Jew or Christian, Roman Catholic or Anglican – there are no divisions in science, and no dogma (except when fallible humans screw it up and become dogmatic about the science).

Thorough science isn’t easy. The scientific method is used to overcome the foibles of the human mind, by trying to account for biases, such as those that religion and politics is likely to enforce. It’s thanks to sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the engineering sciences and technologies like print, radio, TV and satellite that have provided a greater understanding of the natural variety of human nature and culture and education, and the dissemination of that knowledge, that has led to slow but positive progress in lifting the veil of ignorance of a non-scientific view.

But “You can’t fight violence with violence” is a general rule. We are not that good at science yet; or more specifically we are not that good at listening to science yet. We still get ourselves into some serious fixes, through political gaffs, intolerance of the religious and non-religious alike, through ignorance. And sometimes we are left with no choice but to defend ourselves, even if it’s our own fault that got us into the mess.

We are dumb apes – which is what science tells us, and helps explain quite a lot, but which many religious deny. This denial, and the ignorant notion that we of some particular religion or other are chosen in some way fuels the ignorance.

Science fails often, in the hands of fallible humans, despite attempts to develop a scientific method to overcome our fallibilities in seeking truth. Religion fails far more. So, less of the back slapping, a little more humility, and get on with promoting the views of Jesus the peace loving mortal man, and less of the religious dogma.

The Kneeler’s post is typical of the selective reading that the religious have to develop as second nature if they are to make any sense of the Bible. And of course they always apply it to science. Science is great when it’s curing ills – though it hasn’t been beyond the religious to thank God for those cures. But where are most of the religious on evolution? Still in the dark ages. It’s also typical of the religious to claim prior credit for scientific discoveries – though Muslims seem particularly good at this as they often claim the Koran said it first, no matter how vague the reference, and no matter that they got it from the Greeks. No, it only requires the holy book to come up with some common sense notion, like ‘thou shalt not kill’, which anyone can now see is an evolutionarily driven survival strategy, for the religious to claim with self righteous indignation that it’s God’s law, and
they, by association, are the righteous ones.

The Bible is just a book, written by men. Genesis has as much scientific validity and truth as The Flintstones – sure there were dinosaurs, but not at the same time as man (tell that to the curator of the Creationist Museum); see the similarity (talking snake?). The whole Bible is an invention of minds that today would be considered uneducated – not in language, not unintelligent, just ignorant of very basic science and the methods of science and critical thinking that would have debunked many of their ideas in their own day had those methods been available. So there’s no shadow of disgrace on them – they were working with what they had.

The Bible bashers of today have no excuse. It doesn’t take much to pick holes in most of the theological crap. We don’t know how our particular universe started, so we remain ignorant of many things. We have no idea whether there is some ultimate intelligent agency behind it all, or if it is really all soulless fluctuations in nothingness – the metaphysics is beyond our data, just not beyond our imagination. But it’s foolish to build whole systems of belief on that one speculative imaginary idea about the metaphysical inaccessible, and to pile theological bunk on theological bunk on top of ancient books that have to be deciphered in ever more obscure ways to make the theology fit reality (or not).

Science is the best we can do, for now. Ridicule it viciously when it’s wrong, by all means – that’s what it needs, that’s part of the very method itself. We must be challenging our knowledge all the time, because we are not capable of being certain. We don’t have the equipment, whether it’s equipment we’ve invented or that which has evolved between our ears. But for God’s sake don’t rely on religion to tell us anything useful – and I mean ‘for God’s sake’, for if there really is a God, he’s going to be very disappointed in his own creation, if he’s endowed us with brains, and we refuse to use them, to paraphrase Galileo.

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa

Thanks to Alan’s comments for this link, where he say’s “Just found this story with which I agree.”:

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa, by Francisco J. Ayala

Well, though I agree with some points, there are many specific ones with which I don’t agree, and I don’t agree with the general notion that Ayala makes.

Let’s start with this:

“On the other side, some people of faith believe that science conveys a materialistic view of the world that denies the existence of any reality outside the material world. Science, they think, is incompatible with their religious faith.”

and within that, this:

“denies the existence of any reality outside the material world.

First, that’s false. Many don’t deny it. They say there’s no evidence to show it. Why? Because we are material creatures. We have senses that detect the material world. We have a material brain that operates in the material realm. How the heck are we supposed to detect or otherwise see something that is non-material? Do the religious magically have access to a realm that all of science, including religious scientists, has been unable to detect in any way. Our instruments are designed especially to extend the scale of human experience – but nowhere, never, has there been evidence of supernatural forces. Everything that has been discovered has fallen within the bounds of natural laws.

“If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters.” – Only to the extent that the religious want this to be the case, along with the odd atheist exception, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who just wanted to let us all get on.

“The scope of science is the world of nature: the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations about the natural world, explanations that are accepted or rejected by observation and experiment.” – This bit is right.

“Outside the world of nature, however, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another.” – This bit is right too. But what the religious don’t get is that it applies to them too! Science uses reason and the senses – exactly the same faculties available to the religious. There is nothing the religious can get at that scientists can’t. In fact it’s the other way round. Science has given us access to the brain – albeit we’re still in the early stages – so that there are many examples of the brain doing weird things that one particular example, experiencing God, is really no big deal. We have no examples of anything that confirms that an experience of God is actually that and not some trick of the brain.

“Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic or moral” – Simply not true. Science has plenty to say about all these.

“…nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose.” – Simply not true. Results of science suggest that there is no purpose or meaning in the sense that religion would like there to be.

“Science has nothing to say, either, about religious beliefs, except…” – No exceptions. Science can say quite a lot about beliefs, and I’m sure will be saying more and more as the various branches of brain science expose more.

“People of faith need not be troubled that science is materialistic.” – Only if they want to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t have anything to say. Wishful thinking will not make science go away.

“The methods and scope of science remain within the world of matter.” – True. Same applies to you.

“It [science] cannot make assertions beyond that world.” – And neither can you or anyone religious. Well, not quite true. You can make the assertions – and often do, but based on nothing at all.

“Science transcends cultural, political and religious beliefs because it has nothing to say about these subjects.” – Warning! Pseudo-intellectual postmodern claim! What the hell does it mean by ‘transcends’ in this statement? The word is usually the reserve of the religious, to say what they know of is above or beyond, bigger and better (e.g. Lesley’s Rollins video). The word is sometimes used to mean ‘encompasses’, as in Venn diagrams when one encompasses another: the outer includes all that’s in the inner but ‘transcends’ it by encompassing more than is in the inner.

“That science is not constrained by cultural or religious differences is one of its great virtues.” – True. It can address anything the human mind and senses can address, because it is an instrument that expands the human mind and senses. If science can’t get at it then we can’t.

“Some scientists deny that there can be valid knowledge about values or about the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life.” – This is true, but curiously this isn’t the point he then goes on to describe with regard to Dawkins. He’s confusing the point about what we have access to, what we can know, which this statement is about, with some things that we actually do have ideas about: the denying of purpose (in the religious sense) (not values – Dawkins isn’t denying that)

“There is a monumental contradiction in these assertions. If its commitment to naturalism does not allow science to derive values, meaning or purposes from scientific knowledge, it surely does not allow it, either, to deny their existence.” – This totally misunderstands the point. The point is that science shows there is no inherent purpose in the universe, not even the characteristics that give rise to us (essentially issues regarding Entropy – it all just happens as the universe ‘winds down’, to give a simple expression). This in no way prevents us, as organisms with brains that evaluate our surroundings and our selves (echoes of the free will issues here), and to derive values and purpose for ourselves, based on non-teleological evolutionary directives.

“In its publication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences emphatically asserts that religion and science answer different questions about the world…” – And this is supposed to tell us what? With all the kerfuffle in the US about religion, evolution, ID’s ‘teach the controversy’, etc., this is just a conciliatory nod to the religious that evolution won’t step on their toes if they don’t step on science’s. other than that, the specific issue of evolution doesn’t cross swords with liberal religion, since liberal religion accepts evolution and evolution doesn’t address ultimate origins; but it does very specifically deny Creationism’s young Earth claims.

“People of faith should stand in awe of the wondrous achievements of science. But they should not be troubled that science may deny their religious beliefs.” – Of course they should. Science, like any common sense approach to life, demands that we have evidence for what we are being told – otherwise you will be conned all to easily, by email scammers for one. The fact that these scams succeed is a testament to the gullibility of the human brain when left to it’s own devices. Belief in religion is another.

“Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and human life” – for all it tries to do that, for all it makes claims, it has nothing to back that up. basically, even when you dress up liberal religion in postmodern ‘opinion’ truths, it says nothing more than, “What’s our purpose? Go is our purpose, or gives us our purpose, or demands our purpose, or loves us so we have the purpose to be loved, …”, and on and on with all sorts of unsubstantiated drivel that basically means they don’t know either, but they’ll have damned good fun making something up.

“[Religion concerns] the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other” – Whoa! Hold on. “The proper relation of the people to the creator” – More postmodern bollocks. Without any evidence of a creator, or without the capacity to access the creator in order to establish there is a relation (remember, we are material beings. We don’t have access to the supernatural) Note how this grammatically reasonable but nonsensical sentence is given some semblance of meaning, “make sure we include something human, our relation to each other, just to give this nonsense some grounding in reality.”

“[Religion concerns] the moral values that inspire and govern their lives.” – Only because the religious make that claim, and then espouse morality as if they are the only ones with access to it.

“Science, on the other hand, concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and function of organisms.” – And, one of these concerns is the workings of the human brain: neuroscience and evolution and anthropology suggest that internal personal ‘religious experiences’ are just brain anomalies, even if within normal bounds of variation; psychology and sociology and anthropology and evolution all suggest that external religious experiences and organisations are cultural memes that satisfied some requirement in the past.

“Religion has nothing definitive to say about …” – Well, about anything really. Religion is made-up stuff.

“According to Augustine, the great theologian of the early Christian church…” – And therein lies another problem. Augustine and other theologians concerned themselves with explaining what pertains once a belief in God is given. This puts anything else they have to say into doubt.

“Successful as it is, however, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete.” – Incomplete, yes, of course. It’s work in progress. Humans first appeared about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago – and this might be the point when we really began to use our brains, but the details are unclear. The first human markings on pottery go back about 5500 years. What we call science now had it’s base in Greek thought, but really took off just over a thousand years ago – about 1% – 2% of human existence? So, yes, we are still in our scientific infancy. We have no real conception of what science will be telling us about the brain, about religious belief, in another thousand years.

Because religion has been around for a while and science is so young, the religious seem to have the conceited view that theology has and continues to have access to great insights into the makings of the universe. But given that most of our current religious systems are not much different that those of two thousand years ago, give or take a bit of theological jiggery-pokery in the middle ages, I don’t see that religion has had anything to offer.

“Scientific knowledge may enrich aesthetic and moral perceptions and illuminate the significance of life and the world, but these matters are outside the realm of science.”No they are not, because that would put them outside the realm of human beings, when it’s human beings that create both science (the process) and these perceptions (in our brains).

Ayala made some similar statements at the Buckingham Palace reception where he received his Templeton Foundation prize. Probably is best statement was this:

“Properly they cannot be in contradiction because they deal in different subjects. They are like two windows through which we look at the world; the world is one and the same, but what we see is different,…”

My response to that is that they could be. If religion stuck to it’s organisational and pastoral care roles then it has a lot to contribute to human affairs. It differs from science in this respect in that science is best at finding things out, telling us how the world is – even though through understanding the brain and human social issues it can contribute data to be used by religious organisations. This also seems in accord with what Alan has said on his blog – he sees the pragmatic value in religion, what it can do for us.

But if religion wants to tell us how or who created the universe, what interaction the personal brain is having with as yet unknown agents (i.e. God), then these are real questions of science. Cosmology and particle physics tells us much more about how the universe actually is, and as much as we can yet know about how it began, and no amount of theological navel gazing is going to improve on that. The branches of brain science are examining how the brain works, and how it doesn’t, how it fools itself, how gullible it is, and no amount of theological navel gazing and introspection is going to tell us anything better.

The religious need to move on. I haven’t read anything by some of the more liberally religious, such as Richard Holloway, recommended to me by Lesley. Though science can’t yet answer many of our questions about our origins and our interactions with internal agents, neither can religion, and science is in the best position to get those answers, eventually.

Good Books and Pervasive Ideas

I watched Michael Mosley’s BBC Story Of Science (Episode 5) yesterday (get it while you can).

There were two messages I took from the programme, mainly because of the debates I’ve been having over on the blogs of Lesley and Alan. Those messages are:

  • The fallibility of the good books

  • The power and pervasiveness of science

Good/Bad Books

The story starts with Galen, the Roman physician and philosopher who mad remarkable progress in understanding the human body, its structure and it’s processes. He created what became the ‘good book’ of anatomy and physiology. This work was revered and studied for over a thousand years and became the ‘Bible’ of medicine.

The analogy with the Bible I want to draw out is the conviction with which its anatomy was held to be a true representation of the human body. The flaw lay in the fact that it was based on animal dissections. So despite it’s value it contained many inaccuracies that were propagated from teacher to student for centuries. But because of the authority of Galen’s book, and that of the teachers, the mistakes were believed to be truths.

Galen wasn’t challenged and further significant progress wasn’t made until Andreas Vesalius at University of Padua. Because the university wasn’t affiliated with the church the dissections of the human body, of criminals, as opposed to animal, at last began to give up its detailed secrets. Another break with tradition was that Vesalius got stuck in and found out for himself – where traditionally the teacher would have guided the demonstrator to do the dissecting by reading from Galen, describing, prescribing, what would be found, rather than what was found by the demonstrator, and all the students would nod and agree, they would bow to the authorities of the teacher and Galen’s good book.

Only when traditional boundaries and authorities were challenged would the good book’s flaws be exposed, and only when reality was dissected was the truth discovered. This should be a lesson for the religious. But sadly, for many, the old authority still rules. Even for the liberal Christian the Bible holds sway and influences their interpretations of what are personal experiences. That’s why there is no reasonable response to the charge that one good book, the Bible, is no better, no more true, that any other good book, such as the Quran. It’s all a matter of faith.

The Pervasive View of Science

The other message from the programme is one I’ve been trying to express in several ways. That is that science is not a completely different way of looking at the world.

It isn’t a new World View against which traditional Holy views must be rallied. It’s the same view we’ve always had. Science is, if anything, just a process of looking at the world more rigorously, in more detail and with finer precision, and with greater reliability.

Science does no more than account for and compensate for our own limitations, which it does through its methods for devising experiments and observational techniques, which are repeated by different people at different times in different places to rule out any local or biased influences, using instruments that extend the range of our natural senses.

This isn’t a magic against which we should be fighting. It isn’t telling us anything that is unbelievable. In fact quite the opposite, because it raises our confidence that what it’s telling us is true, increasing our trust in what it is showing us. We trust science every time we go under the surgeon’s knife and the anaesthetist gases; every time we take a trip in a plane; every time we type a blog post; every time we use a phone. We know science is the best use of the only tools we have of accessing knowledge: our reason and senses.

There is no other World View to be had that isn’t make-believe. If we can’t reason about it and sense it then we don’t know much about it – effectively nothing at all. If we can’t apply science to it, from our basic reason and senses to any of the specific methods that make up the scientific method, then what can we know about it? We have nothing else! Everything else that we make up just in our minds is fantasy. Our ideas, concepts, our nightmares, dreams, our monsters, goblins, unicorns, witches and gods – they are all fantasy; unless we can back them up, corroborate them, with our reason and senses. And the more strange our ideas the more confirmation we need before we should believe them.

If you believe you communicate with God; if there is an inner experience that is so convincing that you really believe it, if you have faith in it, I can’t offer more than say that the human brain sees and hears plenty of things that aren’t there, and we all know that this is the case. If you can’t review these examples and see that this might apply to you in some way, then what more can I do? If you think the vague paradoxical nonsensical irrational mystique of religious language is offering you an explanation for what you can’t otherwise demonstrate to be true, if you are prepared to be bamboozled into your faith, then I think you’re stuck with that.

Only the sceptical application of our reason and senses, most rigorously at work in science, will be able to set you free from the strangle hold of tradition. This isn’t some other way of knowing; there is no other way of knowing.

Irrational Science Denial

TED Video: The danger of science denial:

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.

There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.

Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it. Everyone take their vitamins this morning? Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. I know you did because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn’t matter how often we find out that they’re useless. The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.

Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. … So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo. … But, you know, it’s really a serious thing because this stuff is crap…

And you know what? When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS.

Watch for more.

Thin Blue Line

Are you worried you know nothing at all about our environmental problems? Do terms like Greenhouse Gas, Climate Change and the like have you concerned, but you simply don’t understand how basic atmospheres work and how important they are to life? Then check this programme out while you can.

Thin Blue Line, Brian Cox, BBC iPlayer

This is probably one of the best popular explanation of why we need an atmosphere that’s appropriate for life, and how fragile atmospheres can be. There’s no doom mongering, just pure unadulterated enthusiasm for how our planet’s atmosphere works. In the context of other planets and moons you get a real feel for how special our planet is, and why we should consider, at the very least, what we are doing to it.